Chromeheart XIV
Deus Ex Machina
(an excerpt from a work in progress)


I was just wondering, Alistair says, why, as long as I’ve known you, I never knew you to go on a single date.

I pull a face. You don’t date, either.

Alistair sips his tea. I can smell it from where I am. Cherry flavored green tea, or something like that.

He picks up a pencil off the table and points it at me. I have a legitimate excuse: I do not wish to get shot at again, he says. In fact, I still have the scars from the last time. But you, on the other hand...

What about me? I ask. I make a subtle point of not inquiring about his having been shot at remark. I look down at the table and realize that Alistair has made a cup of the same tea for me as well. I never used to drink tea; I’d always been more of a coffee person. Maybe my new acquired taste is a step toward change.

Maybe not.

Alistair’s dark eyes search my face, his own face alight with the bright sunlight streaming in through leaded, stained glass windows that had apparently come with the house. I wonder how old this house really is, as it seems as ageless as Alistair, whose eyes in this light appear faintly iridescent like the wings of a dragonfly. He changes position, tilting his head the other way so that his hair casts softer shadows against his angular features, and the eye-glimmer vanishes again. A trick of the light. Has to be.

He taps his forehead a few times with the eraser end of the pencil, then puts it back down and pushes it away from him. Alistair hates to be caught in the act of fidgeting, I’ve noticed.

Alistair takes another sip, cradling the mug in his hands. It must still be reasonably warm. The radiator is on the fritz again, and as it is a radiator and not an old analog television, kicking it does not usually improve the situation. I’ve tried numerous times. It did not work once.

You are not unattractive, Elissa, Alistair says cautiously. He teepees his hands on the table for about two seconds and a half, then puts them in his lap, determined to leave them there. You don’t have any obvious flaws, or a mental disorder to speak of. He pauses. And, you can even be rather charming when you’re not taking great care to be a pain in my ass.

I pull a circus peanut out of the bag that I’d left open on the counter earlier this morning and throw it at Alistair. My aim is true. It bounces off his smooth cheek and lands in his tea with a wet plunk.

I cannot help but giggle at the way he scrutinizes the peanut, squinting at it as if it were some kind of an insect spread apart beneath the fisheye lenses of a dissecting scope. He plucks the circus peanut out of the tea with his thumb and index finger. Then he sniffs the mushy thing and pulls a face.

Is this supposed to be edible? he asks me, brandishing the soggy lump of stuff that used to be artificial marshmallow.

In response, I grab two more out of the bag and stuff them in my mouth. You should try one, I mumble.

No, thank you. You’re avoiding my question.

I chew. Chew some more. Swallow. Have a sip of tea to get rid of the aftertaste. Good tea. I make a mental note to tell him so later. And your point?

Alistair gets up from the table. He comes over to me and leans against the counter, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops partially to do something with his hands and partially to keep his pants from falling off as he stands there. He doesn’t think I’ve noticed the weight he’s lost, and I get the feeling he doesn’t want me to.

All he needs to do is look at me. If eyes really are windows to the soul, I wonder what kind of a soul I have that he seems to want to spend so much time looking at it.

It is all that he ever needs to do.

I avert my eyes, twisting another circus peanut in my hands until it breaks. I notice that a good amount of my absinthe green nail polish has chipped off. Maybe I’ll fix it later. Maybe I won’t. I rub the marshmallow pieces between my fingers, then I realize what I am doing and how silly it probably looks and put the mangled candy on the granite countertop for the time being. Now I find myself staring at it. Orange-white goop sitting against a beautifully gray slab of stone that sparkles with various-sized chips of mica.

People are funny, I say slowly. I don’t think they’re worth the things I’d have to sacrifice to let them get to know me that well. Except for you, I want to say, although I do not consider Alistair to be any kind of a sacrifice and he doesn't deserve to be thought of as such. But other people...

In my mind, a vivid picture erupts of Leroy, my ex. For someone who thought he was in love with me, he sure didn’t seem to care very much what I wanted.

I force myself to think about something else, but it is too late. Alistair is looking at me funny, having probably sensed the alteration in my thought patterns, in that uncanny way of his.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not wish away the past.

I become aware of a quiet, simmering anger in my companion, but the realization that he is angry at my ex for making me into this kind of a person, and not at me for being the way I am, is slow to dawn. Because he already somehow knows that I was a very different sort of person before Leroy came into my life.

Alistair looks at me for a long time, his expression melting slowly from protective rage to the tranquil softness I have grown so accustomed to, tinged with hints of deep anguish that, as much as I hate to admit it, I have also grown accustomed to seeing in him.

Sometimes he cannot help it, as I can’t help but be an irredeemable wise-ass sometimes, but other times I almost feel as if he is showing that part of himself to me on purpose.

I look down at my hands and see that I’ve dug my fingernails into my palms in the absence of a circus peanut to twist and maim. I hide them in my pants pockets.

Let’s make a bargain, Alistair says.

I do not trust my rebellious mouth, so I only nod.

Good girl, he says affectionately, and I do not smack him this time because he isn’t being condescending. His kind face swims before me, the kindest face I have ever known, and I am suddenly overtaken by the fear that I might someday lose him.

I won’t let another man hurt you again and you’ll keep your past where it belongs — in the past.

I nod again.

Alistair shakes his head, more at himself than at me. Elissa, I need you sane, he says, looking more vulnerable, more disarmed, than I have ever seen him. Mental illness is almost hereditary in my family. I can’t let that happen to anybody else who doesn’t deserve it, much less someone I... he bites his lip. Do you understand?

I nod, feeling guilty for no nameable reason. He is my light. I cannot darken him.

I gaze upon Alistair and a small part of my inexplicable mind wishes that I really was the sister to him that I almost felt like I should have been. I wonder to myself how one person can mean so much to another person, and both of them be insignificant?