Truth or Dare
by Liane Gabora
Part 1 appears in this issue.
“Sure,” Raj said. “Move right in. Trash the place. The landlord couldn’t hate us any more than he does already.”
Stella cringed. “The landlord hates us? Really?”
“Screw him!” Raj said. “I’ve already found an apartment to move into in case we’re kicked out. We all should, probably.”
“I don’t think it’s safe for you to sleep down here, Bruno,” Alyzia said.
“Safer than sleeping upstairs if a tree crashed through the neighbor’s roof,” Stella observed.
“Actually,” Bruno said, “just in case a tree crashes through the roof of this house, Seung Gong should sleep on the chesterfield, one of you ladies should sleep with Raj in his first floor bedroom, and the other should sleep down here with me.”
Stella and Alyzia exchanged glances.
“Or I sleep with the ladies and you sleep on the chesterfield,” Seung Gong said, grinning.
“Seung Gong: truth or dare?” Alyzia said.
“Truth,” Seung Gong said.
“Let’s see. Say you’re in bed with—”
“Buddha,” Raj suggested.
“An artichoke,” Bruno suggested.
“A logical fallacy,” Raj suggested.
“A vat of pig bile,” Bruno suggested.
Seung Gong looked perplexed.
“I’m going to change my question,” Alyzia said. “Seung Gong, have you ever had an erotic fantasy about anyone in this room?”
“Sorry... have I what?”
“An erotic fantasy. About someone in this room.”
“What is an eroddy fantasy?”
“It’s when you imagine that you’re doing something sexual with someone. But you’re not.”
“I am imagining but not imagining?”
“Explain it in mime,” Bruno suggested.
“It’s when you think about someone passionately,” Alyzia said. “Romantically.”
“Someone in this room.”
“Someone in this room?” Seung Gong repeated incredulously.
“I am not sure,” he answered, looking puzzled.
“That was a tad anticlimactic,” Bruno said. “Hey, while we’re on the subject, has anyone in this room had a romantic fantasy about anyone in this room?”
“Seung Gong, it’s your turn to ask truth or dare,” Stella said.
“Alyzia: truth or dare.”
“I cannot think of a question,” Seung Gong complained. “Okay, I have one. What is your most elephantasy sex position?”
Alyzia laughed. “You mean erotic? Or unusual?”
“The most unusual sexual position Al’s ever been in is when they turned around and did it with their feet at the pillow end,” Bruno said, chuckling.
Stella noticed that Alyzia’s pupils were darting around, and wondered if Alyzia was seeing what she was seeing. She now had a better handle on the new way of seeing in the parallel realm where people’s inner selves appear as structures of light. She was starting to be able to move about in that realm, and control her point of view.
To her amazement, she was looking down upon the souls — if that’s what they were — of everyone in the room represented as dazzling beings of lights, herself included! Now all the concave surfaces she’d glimpsed earlier made sense, for the beings were spherical, and spheres are the ultimate in concave surfaces.
Or, more accurately, they appeared to be hyperspheres: spheres in more than three dimensions. Or perhaps, nested hyperspheres, one inside the other like the layers of an onion.
Alyzia’s theramin music was shifting into something more turbulent and mysterious. “We could be using this as an opportunity to really get to know each other,” she said. “Instead we’re asking crap.”
“I don’t give a damn what animal someone wants to be,” Bruno said.
“Let’s ask meaningful questions,” Alyzia said earnestly. “Like: what do you most want to accomplish before you die?”
In Stella’s parallel realm, the outermost onionskin layers of everyone’s spheres of light became more translucent. For an instant, she thought she’d seen ethereal bonfires and cascading fractal fountains of light blazing deep in their cores. It had wavered in and out of her field of vision so quickly she wasn’t sure if she’d really seen it.
“Stella, truth or dare,” Bruno said.
“What is your earliest memory?”
“Good question. Let’s see.”
In physical space, Stella glanced over at an old glass jug on a shelf above the dishwasher, but in the otherworldly yet strangely familiar hyperspace at the periphery of her awareness, she was peering into the light of her own soul. Descending into the light, she realized that she was able to propel herself through this abstract space, and as she did so, memories from different points of her life hovered in and out of awareness.
A small defect — a light-blocking bubble that deflected any passing beams — piqued both curiosity and dread. She recalled “seeing” Alyzia bend the truth with a defect at the surface of her hypersphere, and wondered if, just like a surface defect can distort communication between people, a defect within the hypersphere can distort a person’s own thinking, their train of free-association or internal dialogue. What could this bubble be? Her ego? A repressed memory? A belief that was inconsistent with other beliefs?
She focused her attention on the bubble. Suddenly she was inside it, re-experiencing an event from her distant past, one she’d long forgotten about. She had broken a family heirloom, a fragile jug that her uncle said was inhabited by a genie. Her parents were shockingly angry. It was the first time she’d ever felt like a bad person, and she was reliving it over and over from the perspective of a toddler-sized version of herself that could not yet express anything in words. The realization that she could not speak English, or any language, made her panic.
She tried to escape but she was trapped. Her conscious self had lost its physical form; she was reduced to a speck of energy bombarding itself against the walls of the bubble, again and again, from every angle, in a futile effort to break free. Terror overcame her.
Off in the distance she sensed a warm, loving light. It felt like... Alyzia! Though that made no sense; it would be two decades before she would meet Alyzia.
The light, whoever or whatever it was, penetrated the bubble, just faintly, and suggested to Stella, without words, that she forgive herself for breaking the jug.
But I deserve to feel bad, she thought to herself; I did break it. Then: No, I do forgive myself. Waves of forgiveness washed through her. The bubble slowly melted away, revealing a vast, misty purplish landscape strewn with other bubbles and irregularly shaped crevices that glittered enticingly like portals to mysterious places. But her friends were waiting.
She was free. She was her adult human self. She could speak.
“I think this just might be my very earliest memory. Stella shuddered involuntarily. She pulled her legs up against her chest, and curled her arms around them. “I was about two years old. My parents had a huge heirloom jug with a big round bottom and skinny top. I used to pretend it had a genie living in it. One day it broke. I broke it. I remember watching it shatter and being horrified that the genie had no home.”
“How could you remember something from when you were only two years old?” Bruno asked.
“I think it’s appropriate that she re-members what she dis-membered,” Alyzia said.
“Did you re-collect the pieces?” Bruno asked.
“My parents put it back together, but I could always tell where it had been cracked.”
“That must have been a shattering experience,” Bruno said.
“Yeah, I really came apart at the seams.”
“Did the genie come back?” Alyzia asked.
“I don’t know,” Stella said wistfully.
Alyzia looked contemplative.
“Bruno,” Stella said, “truth or dare.”
“Truth,” Bruno said.
“Okay,” she said. She paused. “Do you ever tell a joke because you fear silence or because you fear that the conversation will become serious and you will end up revealing too much of yourself?”
“Hm,” Bruno said. “Do you think I joke around too much?”
“You’re funny. But sometimes...”
Bruno looked sad. “I guess I do sometimes fear silence. I don’t know about revealing too much of myself. I’d have to think about it. Seung Gong, truth or dare.”
“Tell us a goal,” Bruno said slowly. “Something you’d like to accomplish while you’re in Canada other than your degree.”
“My goal is to understand when I laugh. To have my English so good that, when everyone laughs, I laugh because I understand the joke. Not just join the laughing.”
“I like that answer,” Alyzia said.
“Raj, truth or dare,” Seung Gong said.
“What is your greatest fear?”
“That climate change is destroying this planet and every living thing on it. And even if some kind of algae or grub manages to survive climate change, it’ll die when nuclear reactors go off because humans aren’t around to keep them submerged in water. And anyways, the sun is slowly burning itself out, and the universe is mostly empty space, and spacetime is just blindly playing itself without any plan or purpose, and existence is meaningless.”
“That is a good fear,” Seung Gong said, “But like Alyzia said, something more personal.”
Stella noticed they were not alone. Other hyperspherical beings had appeared, that did not represent anyone present physically. They were whimsical and colourful. With gleeful enthusiasm, they started showing Stella things made of light that were more dazzling than diamonds, more intricately beautiful than the most stunning glass sculptures.
Stella was intrigued, but puzzled. One came up to her and explained, not in words, but with beams of light, the meaning of which she somehow understood: they were there to share with Stella a tangible, visual way of understanding the inner workings of the human mind: how people think, and act, and interact.
It occurred to Stella how many words there are that have one meaning related to light and another related to mental states: creative spark, beam with enthusiasm, moment of illumination, brilliant idea, her face lit up, show me the light...
“Okay, more personal,” Raj said. He paused. “One thing I’ve been fearing is... I had a sort of romantic involvement with a male friend, and I felt bad that I never invited him here. Not even on Thanksgiving. I didn’t invite him because I didn’t want to deal with... everything.”
All eyes were on Raj. Directly above and slightly behind his physical body, a volcanic eruption was taking place. Blood-red light was spurting out in all directions and then coalescing into fantastical forms.
“I wasn’t planning on coming out to you guys like this.”
“Invite him here some time, Raj,” Seung Gong said, hands outstretched.
“It ended,” Raj said. “He met someone else that night who was spending Thanksgiving alone.”
Alyzia went over to Raj and put her arm around him. Everyone was smiling at him with acceptance and understanding in their eyes.
He smiled back. “Wish it could be this easy to tell my parents.”
The basement door suddenly banged shut, and the shaft of light on the stairwell was gone. The candles flickered. In the darkened room, the fusion of their cedar scent with the unique musty basement odor suddenly seemed overbearing.
“Does anyone see those lights?” Seung Gong asked softly, pointing to the far side of the basement.
“Yes!” Stella said. “I thought maybe I was imagining it. But now that it’s so dark it’s pretty obvious there’s something there, isn’t it?”
“I was assuming it was due to my headache,” Raj said. “Like an enchanted forest lit up by a web of little round lanterns. But they seem... alive.”
“I see them too,” Alyzia said quietly. “I think they’re people’s souls. Maybe the souls of people who lived here before us.”
“Indra’s Net!” Raj said.
“What’s that?” Alyzia asked.
“It’s a Buddhist allegory that says humanity is a web made of strands of light stretching horizontally through space and vertically through time. At every intersection dwells an individual, and in every individual dwells a bead of light.”
Bruno snorted. He walked over to the lights and pointed his flashlight at them. “It’s little light-emitting bugs living on some kind of funky fungus. Cool. They probably use the light to attract even littler bugs for breakfast.” He grimaced. “Ugh, they stink!”
Seung Gong got up and joined Bruno, shining his own flashlight. The unnatural light of the cellphones seemed incompatible with the kind of light they’d been tuned into in the darkness. The beings dimmed, then disappeared altogether.
The normal human experience suddenly felt bland to Stella. Watered down. She turned to Alyzia, but all she saw was Alyzia’s bodily form, her vessel. And despite Alyzia’s Nordic beauty, compared to her sphere of light, the vessel was dull, a remote and indirect pointer to the true essence of who she was. Like trying to know someone by examining their fingernail clippings.
She noticed tears in Alyzia’s eyes, like droplets of liquid crystal light, distillations of the other realm.
“What do you think they were?” Raj said.
“I think it’s a case of — on top of the basic pandemic paranoia and mega-storm mayhem — everyone getting stoned on the smorgasbord of slime molds that birthed these mutant bugs,” Bruno said.
“Maybe,” Stella said. “But who knows. It’s a strange universe.” She walked over to the washing machine and picked up the glass jug. “Maybe, the lights were us. Our bodies and minds are vessels, like this jug.” She filled the jug with water. “The light is the soul, like the water in the jug.”
“I wonder what happens when you die,” Raj said.
Stella let go of the pitcher, and it shattered into a hundred splintered pieces. Water splashed everywhere.
“That’s what happens,” she said.
“A less dramatic explanation would have sufficed,” Bruno said.
“Why did you do that?” Alyzia asked. “Your leg is bleeding. And you’re soaked!”
Stella looked surprised. “I don’t know why I did it.” She paused. “Or, maybe I do.” She hung her head such that her sleek black hair partially obscured her face. “My pitcher of water stays held together because of you guys. I’m terrified we’ll all go our separate ways.”
Alyzia gave an understanding smile. “Aw, shucks,” she said. “Well, we’re stuck here together for now, for who knows how long.” She got up and sat next to Stella on the chesterfield. “Hey, wanna know something weird? Guess what I’ve been making for you down here out of papier mâché?”
Stella’s pulse quickened slightly as she recalled the very first otherworldly vision she’d had that evening: Alyzia not being straight with her.
“A spherical lampshade,” Alyzia said. “With little holes for the light to shine out.”
Stella knotted her brows. Then smiled. “Al, could you make it big enough for a genie?”
“Sure,” Alyzia said. “I’ll make a set of them. One for each of us.”
Copyright © 2020 by Liane Gabora