Elissa Russell

Lava Lamp

     I flicked on my purple lava lamp, radiating a warm haze over my meticulously staged bedroom. My Beanie Babies displayed prominently on my wicker shelf, I had just completed the arduous task of pushing my dresser to the opposite wall. The seafoam-green carpet showed heavy imprints from where the furniture had stood for several years, and a dark green track in the carpet delineated the path it had taken to its new home.

     Pizza’s here! My mom shouted from the living room. It was my job to present the check to the Pizza Man so she wouldn’t have to interact with any more people. I was surprised to catch my reflection from the dresser mirror’s new location. My panda pajamas were sure to be a hit, as was the crown of butterfly clips I had carefully mounted in my untamed curls.

     The Little Tikes table had to go, there was no doubt about it. The kind of plastic furniture normally found in preschools, it had long been a centerpiece in my bedroom. White-topped with blue legs and a border of cartoon crayons lining the edges, this was where I’d eaten the majority of my meals in my 9 years. I’d lean back in the tiny yellow chair I’d outgrown long ago, watching Nickelodeon for hours on end as I gobbled down thousands of mustard-doused chicken nuggets. But it couldn’t be here tonight. Sara could not know that I still ate at a toddler table. I hoisted it into the dining room, jamming it behind my parents’ unused exercise bike.

     What is that doing in here? No. No, take it back.

     I don’t want it in my room! I protested.

     Where else will y’all eat? On the floor? Absolutely not. Back in your room.

     But it doesn’t go. Please let us eat on the floor. We won’t spill.

     My mother came within a couple of inches of my face, exhaling hotly: If we can’t sell this house because you ruined that carpet, there’ll be hell to pay.

     Yes ma’am.

     The carpet had been ruined years ago, of course. A flower-shaped rug now covered the massive stain where I’d spilled an every-flavor Slurpee at age 4. A long-sleeved sweatshirt worn in the West Texas heat had covered my corresponding bruises, the amorphous purple-brown hues a mirroring representation of my misdeeds.

     I raced to the front door, sliding on my socks, and presented the Pizza Man (probably actually a teenager) with a fresh check. Tip’s included, I told him, as instructed. Thanks, he muttered, eyeing the total and heading back to his jalopy, which he’d left running and blaring music in the driveway.

     Cheese and pepper! my mother shouted from the adjacent room.

     Oh! Sorry. Can we get some cheese and pepper? I called to the Pizza Teenager.

     Gotta ask for it when you call. Sorry. He creaked his car door open and skidded away.

     Bastard, my mom snapped as I carried the pizzas and 3-Liter Dr. Pepper inside, checking to see that the kiddy table wasn’t noticeable from the entryway.

     My mother almost never permitted other children into our home. Any guests always failed her tests: they were too loud, too messy, too disrespectful. Too childlike. Today was special: Sara Robertson was not only coming over, she was spending the night. Sara Robertson was a cheerleader, one of the most popular girls in 5th grade. Sara Robertson definitely did not take her meals at a plastic toddler table.

     Thanks so much for having her, Sara’s mom said to mine when she arrived, smiling and setting her duffel bag inside.

     It’s no problem at alllllll, my mother lied warmly. Over the past week she had logged hours complaining about the inconvenience this would cause her.

     Sara and I raced to my bedroom, where we lay on the floor gorging pizza and watching a tape from Hollywood Video.

     I can’t believe your mom won’t let you watch PG-13, Sara sneered. My sister and I watch them all the time. Have you seen the Austin Powers movies? They’re SO funny. One of the characters is called (she leaned in for emphasis, tittering) Fat BASTARD!

     I didn’t know that word could be a joke. I’d only really heard it when mom was mad at the Pizza Kid, or when she talked about my real dad.

     Get in mah bellyyyyyy! Sara growled in what was truly a horrible impression, if I’d had any standard for comparison.

     Sara told me about her 16-year-old sister who drove her to school in an old Mustang. Her name was Alexa, but she went by Alex. Alex had a new boyfriend who she made out with all the time.

     Do you know what it’s like to make out? Sara asked.

     No, I blushed. I mean, I think I know what it’s like. But I haven’t.

     She ate a pepperoni from my plate, her dark eyes alight. Let's play a game.

     Relieved to change the subject, I scooted over to my closet to find a game. Yeah! Ok there’s Hungry Hungry Hippos, but one of the hippos broke. Or Don’t Wake Daddy, or--

     What about Truth or Dare?

     I wasn’t a total stranger to this slumber-party staple, but had only seen it played on sitcoms. Usually at loud parties with more than just two people.

     Um, ok, sure. Do you want to go first?

     I’ll ask you. She stared first at me then her eyes traveled in an absentminded arc, scanning my ceiling and landing in the corner closest to my door. I followed her line of sight to see, to my great dismay, the Little Tikes chair.

     Oh my god! She cried.

     I was mortified. Oh, that’s just for my--

     This is PERFECT. She retrieved it, placing it atop the flower rug. The yellow chair now stood directly in the yellow center of the flower, a crass center-stage spotlight. Ok, now sit here. I reluctantly sat. Now. Truth...or Dare?

     Um. Truth.

     A pointed sigh. Mmmmmm. Okay. Truth. Who do you have a crush on?

     My face flushed. Promise you won’t tell?

     Sara laughed. That’s the rules! If it’s Truth, I CAN’T tell. That’s how the game works, duh. So, who?

     Um. I guess...Andy, I gulped.

     Her agonizing laughter quickly revealed that lying was a viable --and perhaps the more sustainable-- option in this game.

     Andy was not, by 5th grade standards, “cute”. He was chubby, clumsy, and a poor student. But he was also kind, and sweet, and had given me my gentle first kiss last year on the soccer field. Sometimes we listened to each other breathe on the phone while playing Neopets together.

     You like Andy!? Oh my goddddd, she cackled. Wait until Lizzy hears--

     But you just said you wouldn’t tell! You said that was the rules.

     Ugh, fiiiine. Whatever. You ask me now. She stood up, indicating that I should switch her spots.

     Truth or Dare? I took my place on the floor.

     Dare! She’d hardly even considered the question; how could she be so fearless?

     From what I’d seen on TV, there were no good dares to be had, no other people with whom to interact and risk embarrassment.

     I dare you to… make the weirdest noise you can make.

     Rolling her eyes aggressively, she drew in a deep breath, then bellowed out a sound vaguely resembling a walrus.

     We exploded into giggles until we were interrupted by a knock at my door. Mom’s face was already hovering in the doorframe by the time I stopped laughing and looked up.

     What? I asked through my teeth, closing the distance between us so Sara couldn’t hear.

     What do you mean what? I don’t appreciate the attitude. What are you girls doing in here?

     We’re playing games, I whispered, my eyes begging. Just hanging out.

     She looked through me at Sara, who was inspecting one of my dolls, holding her by the foot. Keep it down. Some of us have work in the morning, she hissed, jerking the door closed.

     I splayed back onto the floor, Bambi-legged.

     Did you get in trouble? Sara smirked.

     I shrugged, then shook my head no.

     Good. Then it’s your turn. She gestured to the plastic chair, my throne to ascend. Truth or Dare?

     I picked at the skin of my thumb, wincing at the thought of the stinging orange iodine my stepdad would surely pour on it tomorrow. Truth.

     She groaned. You picked Truth last time!! You can’t pick Truth again!

     I can’t?

     This seriously can’t be the first time you’ve played this game?

     It was. No. But why ask if--

     Look, you can’t just pick Truth the whole time or else it would just be Truth or Truth.

     I blinked.

     So Dare, Sara commanded.

     Dare, I conceded.

     I dare you tooooooo… turn out all the lights.

     Relieved at this result, I obeyed before she could change her mind. I turned out the big light, then the lamp on my nightstand. My lava lamp, now bubbling gloriously, cast a carousel of molten lava-shadows over the room. This one too?

     Mmm. Leave it on. Your turn, Sara barked.

     I just went.

     No, to ask me, dumbass.

     Oh. Right. I worried my mom would come back and ask about the lights. Uh, Truth or Dare?


     Oh. Uh...I dare you to… my eyes searched the room... lick the bottom of my shoe.

     Oh my god! You’re disgusting, eww!

     I mean it’s a dare, right? It’s supposed to be kind of weird or gross or something?

     You’re sick. I guess so. Look, I’ll do it, but you have to swear not to tell anyone.

     I swear.

     Do you pinky swear?

     Yeah, of course. It's the rules.

     Our pinkies embraced, sealing our pact.

     Which one? She sighed.

     You can pick.

     I folded my closet doors open, revealing her choices: green Skechers, jelly shoes, flip-flops, too-small soccer cleats.

     She let out a sharp sigh, and in one fluid motion grabbed a Skecher, squinted her eyes shut, and touched the very tip of her tongue to the bottom of the shoe. No sooner had her tongue made contact with the rubber sole than she retracted it, exclaimed DID IT! then made a show of fake-spitting and coughing. She raced to the dresser and snatched her plastic cup of Dr. Pepper from atop a coaster.

     After a loud exhale and an actual spit onto the carpet, she regained her composure and asked, Truth or Dare?

     Truth, I attempted, my eyes locked on the spit bubble beside her.

     You already did that!

     I already did both.

     Come on, aren’t you BORED? Truth or Dare?

     I’m not bored. Much like I knew my next answer should be, this was a lie. Truth.

     I just licked your disgusting shoe! Do you want to play or not? Or are you too scared?

     If there was anything worse than being boring, it was being too scared to play the game at all. Fine. Dare.

     Dare. Good. I DARE you to turn out the lava lamp.

     And sit in the dark?

     Turn it off.

     Stumbling over the leg of the dresser, whose new location was difficult to account for in the blackness, I switched the lava lamp off.

     Truth or Dare? I asked in Sara’s general direction, crawling to find my spot on the floor.

     I’m not even in the chair, hold on. She scooted around, groping the air, grabbing my leg by accident. The thin blonde hairs that covered my legs bristled.

     It’s here. I grabbed her hand with mine, guiding it onto the cold plastic of the chair.

     Ok. Now I’m ready. Truth, I guess.

     Ok. Truth. Who is your best friend?

     I’m sorry, what? She guffawed.

     Who is your best friend.

     But you can’t just ask that.


     Like, I have a sister. And I know you don’t so maybe it’s a Sister Thing so you don’t get it. But you’re saying to choose between my sister, who is my best friend, and Lizzy, who you know is my other best friend at school.

     Yeah. But that’s the question. Who would you choose?

     Oh my god!


     That’s just so, like…


     Fucked UP, she rasped.

     Oh. Oh! I’m sorry, no. I just meant--

     We were talking over one another now, our volume edging past my level of comfort.

     You’re like asking me to pick best friends--

     No, I’m--

     And it’s embarrassing. And it’s not--

     Ok, we don’t have to, we don’t even have to play anymore, that’s not what I was trying to do.

     The room went thick with silence for a moment, before Sara said flatly: Lizzy has been my best friend since the Pre-K Cottage. Maybe even before that, ok?

     I know, I agreed, even though I moved here in 1st grade and had no way of knowing this.

     Everyone knows she’s my best friend. And my sister is my sister, you know?

     I know, I agreed, even though I did not have a sister but longed for one. I would’ve accepted a brother too, any confidante would have been a godsend, but oh, how I longed for a sister.

     So do you wanna keep going? Sara ventured, interrupting our silence.

     Truth or Dare? We said in unison, giggling with delight. Jinx! You owe me a coke, she exclaimed, pinching me a bit too hard. It’s your turn.

     Though she hadn’t technically answered her question, I didn’t want to push it. I also wasn’t sure she’d let me get away with another Truth.

     Dare, I whispered.

     Take off your shirt.

     What!? I screeched.

     Your shirt. Take it off.


     Doesn’t matter why. It’s a dare, so you have to do it.

     I remembered a few days ago at recess when Sara and some of her cheerleader friends had gone around to every girl in our class, finding an excuse to rub our backs and feel for a bra, mocking anyone still underdeveloped enough not to need one. Bra! They’d report, yelling across the playground to one another, forever securing the social status of the girl in question. I’d been lucky enough to have been reading under a tree that day, far from the action, my braless back unexamined. I’d been spared the dreadful cry of No bra! and its accompanying ridicule.

     Sara, I--

     Are you scared again?

     I’m not scared. I’m just...not wearing anything under my shirt. I...forgot to wear my bra today.

     Yeah, well you’re in your pajamas.

     Her tone did little to clarify her meaning. Did women not wear a bra with their pajamas? I wondered.

     I still dare you. Sit in the chair and take your shirt off. C’mon, it’s dark anyways.

     She had a point. I’d be half-naked, but she wouldn’t be able to see me. I unbuttoned my shirt, gracious for what felt like a free pass. Ok, it’s off, I announced, tossing the silken shirt onto the floor. Truth or Dare?

     Well you have to PROVE it, she giggled.

     I exhaled sharply, startled by her cold touch on my back. Her hand moved up each vertebra of my spine just as it had to the other girls on the playground.

     No shirt, she approved. How about whoever comes up with a Truth or a Dare first just gets to ask it? This was more statement than question. Besides, I just thought of one.

     She rose from the carpet, stumbled across the room, and flicked the lava lamp back on. I blinked and squinted, adjusting to the sudden brightness. I remembered that I was sitting topless and center stage, a recurring nightmare brought to life. I crossed my arms over my chest, but not before Sara had gotten a look. My ears grew hot.

     Don’t be such a baby about it! Alex and I change in front of each other all the time. Boobs are boobs, my mom always says.

     I pictured Sara’s mother’s warm smile at the door and tried to imagine her saying Boobs are boobs. Maybe it was true. I had seen my own mother naked a handful of times. I could recall as a young child sharing her spacious master shower, her scrubbing my scalp with White Rain as I shivered, eye-level with her foreign, wiry body hair.

     Besides, there’s nothing there to even see, Sara reasoned.

     While meant as an insult, I found this morsel oddly comforting. If I didn’t have breasts yet, then we weren’t doing anything wrong. There was literally nothing there to be ashamed of. I uncrossed my arms.

     Good point, I wanted badly to show her how carefree I could be.

     Truth or Dare?

     Emboldened by my partial nudity, I chose Dare.

     Let me touch them, she tested. In response to my bewildered expression she added, I want to see if they feel like mine.

     There’s nothing there to touch anyway, I reminded myself.

     As though someone were manipulating my head on a marionette string, I nodded.

     Sara crawled onto her knees and looked up at me, asking silently for permission to proceed. My body tensed. As her tongue had done with my shoe, her hand darted quickly to my nipple and drew right back, hardly leaving time to register her touch. I began to exhale, but her hand returned, cutting my breath short. The heel of her hand explored the flat, hollow plains of my chest. My nipples hardened as they did when my bath ran cold. She flicked and squeezed at them with clumsy fingers; a small ow escaped me. As though in apology, she drew her face closer to my chest, slowly extending her tongue. This time there was no hurry to retract as she cupped her mouth around me and sucked gently. Her gaze never broke from mine as she sloppily licked and groped. My heartbeat reverberated in my chest-- echoing throughout the whole house, I worried-- doing little to drown out her greedy slurps.

     I sat motionless, underwater, until she sat back on her heels, asking Truth or Dare? as though nothing were amiss.

     Paralyzed but curious, my mouth formed the soundless shape: Dare.

     Make out with me, she commanded, advancing forward.

     She was on my body before my mind could process it. Her aimless tongue slipped haphazardly against mine, a search party in my mouth and throat. She pressed her mouth against my own with such force that I had to push back hard to retain my center of gravity. She touched my chest again, my nipples warming to the sensation. My tongue lapped up against hers in a strange but increasingly welcome dance.

     I pushed back against Sara harder still; she lost her balance, bringing us both tumbling onto the floor, my body landing on top of hers. In a move that fell somewhere between wrestling and choreography, Sara hoisted herself on top of me, pinning my shoulders to the ground. Her lips formed a smile; mine could not help but follow. I cautiously lifted my eyelashes and took in the hazy shape of her frame over mine. Her eyes were closed tight in earnestness, in truth. I let my eyelids fall closed again and tried to kiss her the way I had seen adults do in movies, the way I had never seen my mom and Jim do. My brain was an explosion of color, shooting off like a chain of fireworks.

     A thunking noise outside my room broke us apart. Sara’s eyes glowed in the ambient light as we grinned sheepishly at one another. I had landed on top of my discarded shirt. Needing to ease the silence, I began putting it back on. I’d only fastened the bottom button when my mother’s disembodied head burst into the room again.

     Come here. Now, it demanded.

     Sara’s eyes were saucers.

     Uh, just a minute, I said to both Sara and my mother, clearing my throat as I stood.

     Light crept toward me from the left side of the hallway. My body was reflected in a distorted shadow on the opposite wall. I buttoned the top button on my shirt, assuring myself that there was no way she knew.

     In the corner of the house sat Jim’s bedroom, illuminated only by his bedside lamp. Married for four years now, my mother and stepdad hadn’t shared a bedroom for the past two. This was because he was a loud snorer and, as a nurse, had to wake up at four AM daily. That was the response I had been coached on in case anyone asked, anyway.

     My mother’s silhouette loomed at the foot of Jim’s twin-sized bed, where he lay shirtless and sleep-deprived beneath the covers. The room was staged to appear as a guest room, with a floral bedspread and feminine decor.

     My shadow betrayed my presence a moment too soon. My mom shifted round sharply, barking What the hell was going on in there?

     The question was far heavier than when she’d posed it earlier.

     Playing a game, I attempted, my eyes glued to the immaculate seafoam-green carpet, now bathed in the lamp’s golden hues.

     Playing a game, she repeated tonelessly. Well your little game, honey, is wrong. We don’t play “games” like that. Ever.

     What do you mean? I risked. It was just Truth or Dare.

     And what kind of “dares” were you doing?

     I stared at my stepdad who was lying limp in his bed as if asleep, though his eyes were open and fixated on the ceiling.

     Don’t look at him. He shouldn’t even be awake right now, he has to go to work tomorrow.

     Sorry, Jim, I mumbled at the floor.

     Answer the question.

     Just...stuff. I don’t know. She asked me who I had a crush on. Stuff like that.

     Why was it dark? I could tell from the hall.

     She dared me to turn the lights off.

     And what else did she dare you to do?

     To kiss her, I whispered almost soundlessly. Jim let out a heavy sigh.

     I knew I didn’t trust that family, my mother said with an eerie calmness, her eyes dark. The mother has always been a bitch. Figures they have a little lesbian running around.

     A hot tear streamed down my cheek and pooled at the bottom of my chin.

     Is that all she made you do?

     More tears chased each other down the wet path drawn by the first, dribbling down my chin and neck, dancing along my collarbone and into the vee of my shirt.

     Yes, I lied.

     You swear?


     Do you swear on my life?

     Candace, Jim reprimanded, propping himself up on his elbows now. She dismissed him with a wave of the hand.

     Tell the truth, she pressed.

     Yes. That’s all that happened. It was the only way forward.

     She is never invited back into this house, do you hear me? Disgusting.

     Yes ma’am, I choked.

     A beautiful girl like you, she probably planned it all along. I’m glad I came in when I did.

     I’m sorry.

     Apologize to God, not to me. What she forced you to do in there is a sin. You hear me? A man shall not lie with another man. Girls too. It’s in the Bible.

     I’m sorry, I wailed louder, not sure Sara had “forced” me into anything.

     Lesbians can be really nice, sweetheart, they can. A couple of them from work actually threw me your baby shower. But it’s wrong.

     That word again. I didn’t know what it meant, and I dare not ask. I only knew it was something I could never be.

     I don’t want to see or hear from you again tonight. You go back in there and tell her I said go to sleep. Make sure your sleeping bag isn’t too close to hers, Lord knows what else she’ll try. Leave the door open.

     My heart still pounding in my temples, I ran to my mother and hugged her tight, hoping to mend this new hole in my heart. She pushed me away from her. Was a Lesbian something she could see from looking at me?

     Go back to your room. Now. And ask for forgiveness. Feeling worse now, I turned to go.

     Shut the door, she demanded. The door dragged on the carpet as it clicked to a close. I heard the distorted sounds of Jim mumbling, my mom talking over him.

     I stopped in the bathroom first, breaking the rules to lock the door behind me. A splotchy red version of myself returned my glassy-eyed gaze in the mirror. Please, God, forgive me, I whispered to the ceiling.

     I wondered if He would.

     I liked it when Andy kissed me on the soccer field, but I liked it when Sara kissed me, too.

     What did it mean to swear on another person’s life?

     What if you were lying?

      I wiped my face, spreading my tears from the crook of my elbow down to the back of my hand. Leaving the sounds of my mom and Jim’s argument hanging in the air behind me, I floated, trancelike, back down the hallway.

     The wan glow of the lava lamp still provided the room’s only light. Sara lay on the floor in her sleeping bag, her back towards me. I reached for something to say as I drew closer to her. I crashed into the plastic yellow chair, clutching my shin in pain. Sara responded only with the deep exhalation of sleep.

     On Monday afternoon I had reclaimed the shade of my reading tree at recess. I was several chapters into my newest Babysitter’s Club book when the ground crunched around me. I looked up to see Sara and Lizzy, hands on their hips, mirror images of one another. Her, Sara commanded as my eyes grew wide.

     Lizzy pulled me up by my wrist, my book crashing onto the grass. She dragged both hands up and down my back, laughing as she did. No bra! she reported delightedly to Sara. That’s what I thought, Sara smirked, not looking me in the eye. Lizzy and Sara skipped hand in hand across the soccer field, screaming their gleeful report to the other cheerleaders.

Elissa Russell (she/her) is a theatre educator and administrator who currently resides in Colorado. Her writing has also been published in Qu and Shambles literary magazines.