Truth or Dare
by Liane Gabora
There was an ear-splitting pop followed by a sizzle, and then just the howling of wind like rabid wolves. For early evening it was eerily dark, like a solar eclipse that kept going. Starting before the pandemic, Stella had been so immersed in physics it was disorienting to be flung back to the world of macro-scale entities like weather. And people. Her housemates had stayed pretty cooped up in their own separate realities when it was just the pandemic, but they’d been emerging from their bedrooms more often since the storm took the internet down.
“It might be safer in the basement,” Stella said.
Ice pellets clattered against the window.
Alyzia’s large hazel eyes gleamed with a hint of fear. “Something strange happened down there a few nights ago,” she whispered, winding a finger through her luminous blonde hair.
“Why are you whispering? I can barely hear you.”
“Because it’s about Raj,” Alyzia said, glancing toward his adjacent bedroom. “He was coming down the basement stairs, and he didn’t know I was there. And — you’ll think this is crazy — but there was a glow around him, and something floating above his head.
Stella gave a skeptical but good-natured smile. “A halo, I suppose?” she said teasingly.
“Stella, I think it was his soul!” Alyzia whispered. “It was blazing with light, positively radiant. That should interest you; your Ph.D. thesis is on light.”
Stella threw a pillow at her, and then slipped off the paisley sofa and nestled next to her on the beanbag chair. It was huge and salmon-colored, made of corduroy, and easily held two lithe women. Stella felt like a prepubescent boy next to Alyzia’s lush sinuosity, but it felt nice to be enveloped in the warmth of her best friend. Everyone wanted to be friends with Alyzia. If it wasn’t for them living together, Stella might never have had the opportunity to get close to her. She had never known anyone so different from her yet so similar to her; they were like two complex waveforms with the same fundamental frequency.
“Have you ever heard of Terence McKenna?” Alyzia asked. “It was like those self-transforming, Fabergé-egg shaped elves he saw when he took DMT.”
“Al, you didn’t tell me you were high.”
“I wasn’t. But it was so intense it felt like I was.”
Stella gulped. Was Alyzia sick with COVID? Suddenly Stella wished she were anywhere but right next to her. But Alyzia wasn’t coughing or sneezing. She didn’t look sick. Stella pulled away from her a little, but Alyzia didn’t notice. She seemed lost in thought.
“Since it happened, I’ve been reading everything that’s ever been written about ‘inner light’. Inuit shamen called it qaumaneq. Vedanta Hinduists call it Atma. The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls it the clear light of Buddha-nature. And the metaphor between physical light and inner light has been around since the dawn of civilization.” Alyzia shivered involuntarily and looked down. “I thought you were open-minded.”
“So... what happened next?” Stella asked. “After your encounter with Raj?”
“He went upstairs.”
“His physical body went up the stairs? Or his soul?”
There was a tremendous crash as if a tree had fallen through the roof. Stella gave a little scream. Alyzia clutched her. They stared at each other, grateful not to be alone.
“There’s a bird in the house,” Alyzia said.
“That’s impossible,” Stella said. “Every window was shut before the storm.”
Another thunderous crash. They shrieked. Seung Gong appeared at the bottom of the stairway, wide-eyed and shaken.
“A tree fell through the roof next door!” he said.
“Oh my God!” Stella said. She rose and gave him a friendly embrace.
Raj emerged from his first-floor bedroom looking agitated.
There was a loud knock.
“That can’t be someone at the door!” Stella said.
When Raj opened the front door just a crack, the contents of the living room shifted and clattered as if infused with life.
“Bruno!” Raj shouted. “What the hell are you doing out there?!”
A scruffy, sopping Bruno pulled himself in, clinging to the doorframe, and collapsed in the doorway. Raj struggled to shut the door. Still on the floor, Bruno curled himself around the door and pushed. It took all their weight to shut it. Raj closed the latch, and exhaled deeply.
“Just happened to be in the neighborhood,” Bruno said, grinning.
“Bruno, let alone the lockdown, this is the storm of the century,” Alyzia said. “You shouldn’t be out.”
She threw Bruno the afghan she’d been curled up in. His freckled face was rosy, but his fingers were eerily white. As he rubbed his head with the afghan, his red curls began to spring back to life.
“It was that or starve. I was on the verge of finishing my thesis, but I ran out of food.”
“We would offer you something hot to eat and drink, but we have no power,” Seung Gong said.
“No generator?” Bruno said. “No battery-operated hot plate? Nothing?”
“I’m eating birdseed-like crackers with artichoke paste,” Raj said, mouth full. “Want one?”
Bruno raised an eyebrow.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Raj said. “In fact, we shouldn’t let you in. Everyone’s supposed to be on lockdown.”
“I’ve been holed up programming, and I literally haven’t seen a soul in days. Weeks, probably. There’s no way in hell I have coronavirus.”
“There’s that bird again!” Alyzia said.
“I was hearing that upstairs,” Seung Gong said, looking puzzled. “But this time it seemed to come from downstairs.”
“Two birds?” Raj said.
“Maybe it’s the same one flying around in a panic,” Alyzia said.
“That wasn’t a bird,” Bruno said. “That’s the sound a fire alarm makes when the battery is about to go.”
“The fire alarms are flirting with each other,” Stella said with a grin. “That’s their mating call.”
“Where are your fire alarm batteries?” Bruno asked.
Stella shrugged her shoulders. No one else seemed to know either.
“You guys are useless,” Bruno said. “You need someone like me around here. A mensch with a wrench.”
“I don’t think we’ll be here much longer,” Raj said.
A chill fell over Stella. No one else treasured the camaraderie of their home as she did. Raj had had a falling-out with the landlord. Alyzia had a million other options. Seung Gong would be happier living with people who spoke Chinese. Sure, the place was a bit of a dive, but she loved its unexpected nooks and crannies, and the wavy-paned windows that created interesting distortions. And even though she’d never thought of herself as a social person, what she loved most of all was the camaraderie. She’d never been so happy.
There was another earsplitting crash.
“Let’s go downstairs!” Raj said.
They clamored down the roughly hewn staircase into the damp, darkness of the basement, followed by Glimmer, the white cat, and Inkling, the black cat. Stella, behind Bruno, noticed how laboriously his burly frame descended the stairs, his right hand clutching the two-by-four handrail. He had always seemed so invincible. The pandemic and storm had taken a toll on him.
Alyzia set cedar-scented beeswax candles around the room and lit them. “My theramin!” she exclaimed, pulling a theramin out from behind an abandoned chesterfield. “I’ve been wondering where it was.” Somewhat absentmindedly, she began distilling music from the air with her fingers.
“Wow!” Bruno said. “I thought the living room was musty.” He plunked down on a once-elegant tasseled cushion and leaned back against the wall, legs crossed.
Stella nestled into the chesterfield. “I never come down here except to throw my clothes in the washing machine. What were you doing here the other day?” she asked Alyzia.
Alyzia’s eyes widened ever so slightly. She turned from Stella and glanced at the washing machine. “Just washing clothes.”
Stella had the strange experience of seeing Alyzia avert her gaze, while sensing — visually, but not with her eyes — that Alyzia was not quite telling her the truth.
This “bending of the truth,” as it were, appeared to her as a beam of light that bent, or refracted, as it passed from one medium to another. She could see this “bending” of Alyzia’s message as clearly as she saw the physical world, but it was a different way of seeing. Could this be what people meant by “seeing with the mind’s eye”?
Raj paced the dimly lit basement. “At least you can barely hear the storm down here,” he said. “Damn! Alyzia, I stepped on the papier mâché thing you’re making for Stella. I’m so sorry, Al.”
“No worries,” Alyzia said. “It’s easily fixed.”
“A papier mâché thing? For me?” Stella said.
“Yikes, sorry again, Al!” Raj said. He sat down next to Alyzia on the Turkish rug, and leaned his head on her shoulder. “I seem to have let the cat out of the bag.”
“Did you know that the Spanish translation for ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ is ‘to discover the cake’?” Bruno commented.
“What I’d give for a nice chocolate-frosted devil’s food cake,” Raj said.
“Or to go to a concert,” Alyzia said.
“Or hockey game!” Seung Gong said.
“Let’s play a game,” Raj said.
“How about Truth or Dare?” Bruno said.
“I haven’t played that since I was a kid,” Raj said. “But I’m game.”
Stella still had the sensation of experiencing a new kind of “sight,” in an elusive, tip-of-the-tongue kind of way, like something in your peripheral vision that disappears when you look at it directly. She was sensing, for each person present, a source of light with its own colour spectrum unique to that individual.
Staring into Raj’s light, she was mesmerized; it was a mythic kingdom of Mandelbrot madness. Each individual’s light also seemed to have its own labyrinthine structure that alternately shielded the light, or funneled it down little canalized pathways, or scattered it like a prism.
She tried to get a handle on the overall shape of what she was seeing, but could not escape the feeling of getting lost in details, unable to control her point of view. She could feel her brain devoting a certain kind of mental energy to nudging this new way of seeing into focus. But part of her — the part associated with raw, animal survival — was resisting it, as if there were a trade-off between this new mode of perception and her usual mode. This “third eye” way of seeing, if that’s what it was, felt dangerously incompatible with the usual way.
“Who goes first?” Bruno asked. “Alyzia?”
“I’ll watch,” Alyzia said. Glimmer curled himself up next to her.
“Like hell you will,” Bruno said. “You can’t sit here and listen to everybody else’s deep dark secrets without letting them ask you yours.”
“We’ll start out with innocuous questions,” Stella said. “Raj, if you could be any animal, what animal would you choose to be?”
“Hmmm,” Raj said. “Oh, I know. That’s easy.”
“Yeah,” said Bruno, “A piece of cat.” He turned to Stella. “Incidentally mi amiga, the way I remember it, starting off innocuously meant asking something like what’s the strangest sexual position you’ve ever been in.”
“Raj,” Stella said, “what animal would you be?”
“Hymenoptera,” Raj said. “Nice music by the way, Al.”
“Thanks!” Alyzia said.
“What is hymenoptera?” Seung Gong said.
“They’re microscopic bugs with seven different sexes,” Raj said. “So, if I were a hymenoptera, sex would never be the same old thing. I guess it’s my turn now. Bruno: truth or dare.”
“Mineral. Oops... sorry. Truth. Hey by the way, whad’ya call it when one elephant dreams about making love to another elephant?”
“Let’s see,” said Raj contemplatively. “Have you ever had a sexual dream involving Jesus Christ?”
Bruno opened his mouth as if to speak, but all that came out was a blurted sound of confusion.
Stella blinked in surprise. She’d seen Bruno’s inability to articulate his thoughts represented in her mind’s eye as the divergence of a diffuse beam of light as it passes through a concave surface. As Bruno recovered his composure, the beam faded.
“What the hell kind of question is that?” Bruno asked.
“Or Buddha, or any other such person,” Raj added.
Stella saw Bruno reflect on how he would answer the question, and it “looked like” a beam of light reflecting off concave surfaces. As he bounced the idea around in his head, viewing it from different perspectives, the beam of light came into focus.
Mesmerized, Stella tried to etch into her brain what it felt like to see in this new way, fearing that if she forgot she might never get it back.
“I’d have to say no, I’ve never dreamed about fornicating with Jesus Christ or Buddha,” Bruno said. “But that Indian goddess with all the arms could be interesting. Okay. Alyzia, are you playing?”
“I guess so.”
“Truth or dare. And hey, doesn’t anyone wanna know what it’s called when one elephant dreams of making love to another?”
“No, it’s called an elephantasy. Oh, truth! Are you sure? Okay, I’ll give you an easy one. What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever had sex?”
“Hmmm,” Alyzia said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had sex in a particularly unusual place. Does it have to be... sex?”
“Penetration not crucial.”
“On the floor, I guess.”
“Wow,” Bruno said sarcastically. “That got me excited. Pass the hot oil this way.”
“Was it the floor of something interesting at least?” Raj asked. “A barn? An elevator?”
“I never noticed before there’s a bed down here,” Bruno said. “Don’t suppose I could crash in it tonight?”
Copyright © 2020 by Liane Gabora