Isabelle couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Jonathan. The crowd was thick and growing by the hour. There had been a blur of people as she and Jonathan danced, before she had turned around and found herself alone. Or as alone as one can be when pressed on all sides by countless naked others.
The central space of the room was large and circular, tiled with an intricate mosaic, the complete pattern of which Isabelle couldn’t discern between all the bare feet.
The lighting had changed since she first arrived; a glimmering ball of multi-hued glass, like a spherical rose window lit from within, had descended from the ceiling to cast dappled rainbows chaotically about the room.
People of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicity surrounded her. Previously clothed in flowing, colourful gowns, they had seemed to Isabelle like rainbow fish. Now, divested of attire but for the occasional splash of luminescence, they appeared as creatures of an ethereal realm. Beautiful. More than human.
Isabelle supposed she must seem the same, her long hair glowing with ribbons of light.
Isabelle didn’t mind being left on her own. It had been one of her greatest anxieties before arriving, but now that she was here she no longer felt intimidated; she felt liberated in a way she had never before experienced. She laughed, she twirled, she stomped her feet, sharing precious, fleeting moments of kindred joy with those who danced about her. Occasionally she collided with her neighbours; the accidental brush with elbows, hair, hands, breasts, created a sensual atmosphere of connection. She could truly feel those around her, and they could feel her.
Isabelle felt a hand on her elbow and spun to find Jonathan grinning down at her. “Where have you been?” Isabelle yelled above the music, grinning back. Jonathan didn’t answer but beckoned for her to follow him. Then he turned and pushed through the moving crowd. Isabelle followed, like a small bird in his slipstream. Soon they were past the crush of people.
Circular tables laden with food and various drinks were set around the perimeter of the dance floor. Behind them, wall fountains added the lyrical harmony of running water to the deeper beat of dance music.
Eight doorways divided the fountains. One of which Isabelle and Jonathan had entered several hours previous. The other seven Isabelle had yet to explore, preferring the allure of dance and drink. She could feel the effects of a particularly sweet wine coursing through her, heightening her sense of surreal euphoria as she continued to bounce to the music.
Jonathan led her towards a door with a large Roman ‘I’ painted on it. To its left stood a door with a lion’s face carved in the centre. Jonathan pointed to the lion. “That’s the one we came through.” He indicated to the door with the Roman numeral. “This is where the experience truly starts.”
There was something strange in Jonathan’s voice, but Isabelle didn’t have time to question it before he knocked on the door. It quickly opened to reveal another black-garbed Gatekeeper, who bade him enter. Jonathan shook his head and pointed to a bemused Isabelle. “For her,” Jonathan yelled over the music. The Gatekeeper nodded and ushered her in.
“Aren’t you coming, too?” Isabelle called to Jonathan. He shook his head again. “I’ve had my turn.” With a final half-smile, he turned and strode away towards the dance floor.
Curiosity piqued, Isabelle entered the room. It was completely dim, darker even than the main room had been on her first arrival. She couldn’t tell how big the room was, but she felt as though the walls were close. There was a single light shining from the ceiling, illuminating a small table standing a few steps away in what Isabelle guessed was the center of the room. As the door was shut behind her, the music became a muffled throb, like an audible heartbeat. Isabelle sensed the Gatekeeper behind her. Cautiously, Isabelle approached the table.
On it was a single card which read, “Why are you here?” Isabelle said the words aloud to herself, and jumped as the Gatekeeper spoke.
“Answer honestly and you may move to the next room.”
“I’m here because my friend invited me,” Isabelle shrugged.
“Why are you really here?”
Isabelle frowned. “He invited me and I was curious, so I said I’d come with him?”
The Gatekeeper remained silent, waiting.
“I wanted to see what it was like. A sex party. I was afraid of being too, I don’t know, ‘vanilla’ or something. It feels like this kind of thing is becoming more mainstream and I thought I was missing out on something. It’s kind of silly, I know, but that’s it. That’s why I came.”
“Follow me.” The Gatekeeper opened a door Isabelle hadn’t noticed on the right side of the room. Stepping to the side, the Gatekeeper bade her continue through. Feeling slightly frazzled, Isabelle crossed the threshold.
The second room was dazzlingly bright. This time Isabelle noticed a door on her right with the numeral II painted on it. She guessed it must lead back out to the main dance hall, and that she was working her way through a ring of outer rooms. A Gatekeeper stood by a door on the opposite side of the room to where Isabelle had entered, which Isabelle supposed lead to room III.
Some kind of game? Isabelle thought.
The room was devoid of furniture but for another table in the centre, painted white to match the walls, with gold trimmings to match the ceiling. Isabelle approached and picked up the card that lay atop it.
“What do you most cherish?”
Isabelle shuffled her feet while thinking. The cool tiles felt soothing on her dance-worn feet.
“My family. My friends. The people I love who love me back.”
The Gatekeeper opened the door and allowed Isabelle to pass through. “That was easy,” Isabelle murmured, walking towards a third table.
“What do you most fear? That’s… less easy.” Isabelle sighed and crossed her arms. It was much colder in this room; her breath misted about her, and her nipples grew hard. A damp fog swirled across the floor, obscuring her feet from the ankles down. Isabelle felt strangely weightless as she watched, momentarily hypnotised by the roiling sea of mist.
“Right now I fear death by hypothermia,” Isabelle quipped. The Gatekeeper remained motionless. “I guess that won’t cut it.” Isabelle began rubbing her arms vigorously, impatient to leave the biting cold. “I don’t know! Death? Existential insignificance? What do people usually fear the most?”
The Gatekeeper didn’t move. Isabelle noticed that their robes were much thicker than the others. “Arsehole,” she muttered, as she stood naked and shivering. She was becoming increasingly frustrated with this exercise. How could they know if she was telling the truth or not? What did they want from her? There was no Gatekeeper at the door marked III. She supposed she could just leave if she wanted to. As tempted as she was by this idea, curiosity kept her from leaving. Isabelle thought seriously. What did she fear most?
She thought of the times in her life that had been the most painful. She recalled that time she had broken her ankle a few years ago. She remembered it so vividly. The pain. Not of the break, but of the isolation. The days she had spent alone, cocooned inside her flat while it healed enough for her to hobble outdoors.
“Loneliness,” Isabelle whispered. “Loneliness is the worst kind of pain.”
The Gatekeeper stood aside and Isabelle rushed through it, grateful to find the next room was heated by a large fire set into the wall to her left. Again, a Gatekeeper stood opposite her, while a door marked IV was on her right.
Isabelle marched to the table in the centre, eager to get the game over with, and read out another card.
“What do you most desire? That one’s easy. Freedom.” Isabelle placed the card down on the table and strode confidently towards the Gatekeeper, who didn’t budge.
“C’mon, that one’s the honest truth!”
The gatekeeper was still.
Isabelle sighed and knitted her brow in deeper thought. “I want the freedom to go the places I want to go, to eat the food I want to eat, to spend time with the people I love most, and the freedom to learn everything I want to learn. There’s just so much pressure. Be a mother, be a wife, be a CEO, and be sexy as hell through it all. I want to be free from all the bullshit everyone says should make you happy but only digs you in deeper when you can’t have it all.” Isabelle drew breath, taken aback by her own vehemence. “I just wanna be me. I want to live on my own terms.”
Isabelle squared her shoulders and looked at the Gatekeeper expectantly. The Gatekeeper opened the door and allowed her to pass through to room V.
This room was far more ornate than the previous ones. Like the others it contained no furniture other than a table—this one surfaced in plush velvet—but the walls and ceiling were painted with intricate, painstaking detail. Rich scenes, figures, and iconography from all the major religions that Isabelle could identify were united by pigment in one immense artwork.
Isabelle spent a while inspecting the room, tracing her hands lightly over patterns of gold leaf, before returning her attention to the central table and its card.
“What do you believe in?”
Isabelle wandered slowly about the room, examining the art some more. “It would be easier to answer what I don’t believe in… I’m not religious at all. I mean, I’m fascinated by all this–” Isabelle gestured at the paintings around her, “art, stories, culture. But I don’t buy into the doctrine. I guess… I believe in people. I believe we can choose to be better than we are. To determine our own sense of purpose in life.”
When the Gatekeeper opened the door, Isabelle was hesitant to step through, wishing she could spend more time inspecting the artwork. Yet the Gatekeeper beckoned her insistently until she sighed wistfully and stepped through into room VI.
The entire room was black—the walls, floor and ceiling all panelled in dark, glossy rectangles. She could briefly see her naked silhouette reflected back at her before the door behind her closed and the darkness was absolute. Isabelle jumped as the panels simultaneously flickered to life, displaying static. Stepping towards the black glass table in the middle of the room, Isabelle struggled to read the card.
“What do you see? Umm…” Even as she turned, looking for anything other than static, the panels began to change, each screen rotating through what seemed to be a series of channels before settling on a snippet of film, like some bizarre, immersive slot machine. Each screen showed a unique clip. It took a moment before Isabelle registered what she was seeing.
Images of total horror. War. Famine. Violence. Grief. Hopeless, hungry, desperate faces. Isabelle was immersed in the sounds of screaming, crying, begging. The deathly whistle of artillery fire resounded, with companion images of their evil accuracy. People of all ages, races, genders, cried out from the screens, as if beseeching Isabelle herself for help, for mercy, for release.
Isabelle clapped her hands over her ears, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Stop it. Stop it! This isn’t funny!” Immediately the screens went blank and silence filled the space. A Gatekeeper approached. “Do you still believe?”
“I believe this is sick! I don’t know what you’re all playing at, but that was seriously fucked up!”
“Do you still believe?”
Isabelle stood naked before the Gatekeeper, feeling vulnerable and foolish. She felt ashamed that only moments earlier she had been twirling carefree on the dance floor while there was so much pain, so many people who needed help.
Isabelle looked towards the door marked VI. She was tempted to flee, to run back to the dance floor, grab Jonathan and demand they get the hell out of this place. But something kept her from bolting. Isabelle thought about the question. Did she? Did she truly believe people could choose to be better? Did she believe there was any point even trying when she could do so little for the world and its suffering?
Isabelle drew a shaky breath. “Yes. Yes, I still believe.” Isabelle wiped at more tears. The Gatekeeper wordlessly opened the door to the final room. Room VII.
Apprehensive and shaken, Isabelle stepped through the door. The whole room was tiled in a vivid, cobalt blue.
Instead of a table, there was a circular, shallow pool in the centre of the room. The pool was lit from beneath, creating a dappled glow across the water’s surface. There were four Gatekeepers, each standing surreptitiously in their own corner of the room. Together, they motioned for her to enter the pool. Isabelle stepped forward and dipped her toe in. The water was warm and smelled like clean ocean.
The blue of the room was having a marked effect on Isabelle’s unsettled emotions; she felt both soothed and deeply raw. It felt as though a great puzzle lay before her, the answer to which was both bigger than herself, yet intimately private. If only she could see past the blue that penetrated and overwhelmed her senses, calming her frazzled nerves seemingly against her will. She wasn’t ready to let go of the previous shock. She didn’t want to feel peace so easily.
Isabelle stepped into the pool and waded to the center. The water came to waist height. The Gatekeepers came forward and knelt by the edge. One held out a glass of wine. Caught off guard, Isabelle accepted it and took a sip before setting it back down on the pool’s edge. Another held out a bowl of fruit, while the third offered perfumed soaps. The fourth held out a white washcloth and bath towel.
Isabelle couldn’t take it. She knelt in the pool and began sobbing. Immediately, the Gatekeeper who had offered the wine shed their black robe. A small woman with close-cropped hair and kind, brown eyes stood naked amidst the puddle of fabric. Isabelle looked up as the woman climbed into the pool and waded towards her. She knelt beside Isabelle and smiled, opening her arms wide, offering an embrace. Isabelle fell into the woman’s arms, clasping her about the neck, weeping. Isabelle could feel the other woman’s small breasts against hers as the woman hugged her close, rubbing Isabelle’s back in soothing circles.
The other three Gatekeepers discarded their robes and waded into the pool to join them. A tall man with silvered hair, a woman with dark skin, large breasts and stomach round with pregnancy, and a young-looking man with a nervous, but friendly, smile.
“What’s going on?” Isabelle asked with a sniff, feeling more and more confused. “What is this place?”
The pregnant woman spoke first. “This event is a celebration of life. All aspects of life. And a solemn remembrance that life includes pain. Includes horror. Includes death.”
The older man continued, “We are the very fortunate ones. We can celebrate here in opulent luxury. That opulence seems obnoxious, perhaps even cruel, in contrast to others’ suffering.”
Isabelle nodded. The small, quiet woman continued to stroke Isabelle’s back as she raised her to stand amidst this small circle of welcoming strangers.
“We don’t show those images just to shock. We show them to remind you that the world isn’t perfect. Between us and those people, there is a whole spectrum of fortunes, of luxury and lack. We all need to remember that if we are to truly celebrate life.”
“But what’s the point? What good does it do for us to party like this if we can’t change the suffering?”
“That’s the question that we are truly posing to you tonight. It’s easy to enjoy your privilege when the contrast you see around you is small. Would you feel bad about owning a new car if your neighbour could only afford one second hand? Would you feel bad eating at an expensive restaurant when you see those eating at a budget buffet? Would you feel worse eating a simple sandwich next to someone who hasn’t eaten for days?”
Isabelle opened her mouth but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Very few tonight have made it this far. Many walked out of the last room. Others lost their faith. We all feel uncomfortable when presented with extreme contrasts in privilege. But it’s important that we remember that we’re all human. To not take for granted our fortune, nor those who have none.”
The younger man cleared his throat before speaking. “You asked what the point is, when we can’t help all those people ourselves.” He paused for a moment, cheeks flushing under Isabelle’s scrutiny. “People are more willing to help others when they perceive their aid as doing genuine good. Making a tangible difference. We too often reduce kindness towards others down to a cost benefit analysis that is more about us than about the ones in need. By remembering the humanity of others, we see their dignity at their lowest point. Which is is important especially while we’re at our highest. Then, where we can help, we do so with empathy unclouded by cynicism.”
Isabelle frowned as she absorbed this, nodding hesitantly.
“We can’t help everyone,” the small woman said. “But don’t you think it’s important that our hearts break anyway? That we don’t dismiss the horror, yet keep faith for the times we can help? It’s a complex question. A very personal question. The fact that you were willing to confront it, to confront yourself, means you’ve earned this.” She waded over to her robes and extracted a leather collar from the folds. Wading back to Isabelle, she held it up in the shimmering light cast from the pool. It was the collar she had given to the Gatekeepers earlier in the evening as she had entered the manse. Only now, it had a golden, lion head pendant clipped to it.
She fastened it around Isabelle’s neck before collecting a bar of the perfumed soap and a small wash cloth from the poolside. She held them up. “May I?”
Isabelle fingered the pendant and nodded. “What’s your name?”
The woman smiled. “Julie.”
The others retreated to the edges of the pool, watching as Julie lathered the cloth in the tepid water of the pool and began to gently wash Isabelle. At first Isabelle felt self-conscious, standing naked in a pool while a woman she didn’t know washed her, with others watching no less. But as the warmed water flowed over her, Isabelle felt her tension drain away. The smell of the salted water, mingled with the gentle perfumes of soap, rinsed her clean of turmoil until she felt comfortably empty. Julie sponged down her neck and shoulders, over her breasts, down each of her arms, massaging her hands with the soapy cloth. Julie bade Isabelle turn around so she could reach her back. As she did, Isabelle found herself facing the young man. He was seated on the pool’s tiled rim, smiling at her with shy appreciation. His long penis grew erect as she returned his attentive curiosity. He seemed bashful, but held her gaze.
Isabelle felt Julie reach her lower back, then run the cloth run over her buttocks beneath the water’s surface. Julie then reached the cloth around her front, embracing her from behind as she scrubbed the cloth over her stomach, slowly down to her pubic line. Here she hesitated, waiting. Isabelle nodded and Julie pressed the cloth to Isabelle’s mound, before sliding it further down between her legs.
Julie washed in slow, gentle motions. Isabelle sighed with pleasure. The young man followed the movement with his eyes, his erection growing stiffer with the occasional twitch of excitement.
Isabelle grinned at him before closing her eyes and tilting her head back, allowing her weight to rest against Julie’s body as she continued working the cloth. It wasn’t long before Isabelle heard a small splash as the cloth fell into the water and Julie continued to rub Isabelle with her hand. Isabelle moaned, and Julie cupped her other hand over Isabelle’s breast, massaging the nipple with her thumb.
Even as the pleasure mounted in Isabelle’s lower stomach, her mind churned over the experiences of the past half hour. The rooms, the questions, her answers, all those faces. The blue of this room seemed to infuse her, dissipating her uncertainty, removing her from her own mind and body until she felt she were both a disembodied observer, and encapsulated by the immediacy of sexual need. Isabelle allowed herself to surrender as, with a final stroke from Julie’s hand, her climax peaked. Isabelle moaned loudly as the release of orgasm weakened her knees. Julie moved her hand from Isabelle’s breast, instead clasping her about the waist to prevent her falling.
Isabelle opened her eyes to see the smiling faces of the others. The young man was slowly pulling on the length of his erection, his face flushed with lust. The older man sported his own thick erection, and the pregnant woman was rubbing her clitoris, eyes closed in evident delight. Julie released Isabelle, who adjusted her weight on trembling legs. Julie stepped up and placed a light kiss on Isabelle’s lips.
“It’s time you rejoined the party, my dear.”
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