Bo Kaier cover art for Is This a PlateEver feel Déjà vu on the road supposedly less traveled? Truth and lies on this week’s Drabblecast, we bring you an original story from Bob McHugh called “Is This a Plate?” Enjoy!

Produced by Adam Pracht

Read by Dominick Rabrun


Beyond this point, two paths lie
One you live, one you die
Ask one question, yes or no
To determine the road to go
But be warned
There’s more still
One is honest
One speaks swill…



Is This a Plate?
by Bob McHugh



You’ve never made an ogre cry before. It feels so much worse than you expected. Oh well, you’re almost there. It will have all been worth it, right?
You don’t have to lie to yourself for long; just ahead are two identical guards and a large oak sign with beautiful calligraphy:

Beyond this point, two paths lie
One you live, one you die
Ask one question, yes or no
To determine the road to go
But be warned
There’s more still
One is honest
One speaks swill


You struggle with some of the forced rhymes, but you get the gist. There are two paths, one good and one bad. You get to ask one question to each guard. One always tells the truth; one always lies.
You consider turning around. You’ve sacrificed companions and neglected loved ones. You’ve endured pain, boredom, and hunger. Locals have shared hushed tales of Zanzibar’s dark magic.

This is the best he could do? What is this riddle supposed to accomplish? If left to chance, you’d have a fifty percent chance of success. That’s not a great defense system. But that’s irrelevant because everyone knows this old chestnut. You don’t need to be clever; you just need to have spent an hour with a drunk troll.

You think about all the effort this alleged mastermind expended to make this happen. He employs at least two guards around the clock, and he trained and onboarded them. You picture him writing the sign, counting the syllables, and struggling to find a rhyme for swill. It makes you want to weep.

You glance again at the paths. It hasn’t rained in weeks. You can see the footprints from previous adventurers down the path on the right. The trail on the left is spotless. You feel embarrassed for everyone involved. You walk down the path on the right, ignoring both guards.

“Wait,” says one of the guards. They’re incredibly attractive. “Were you planning on asking a question?”

“Do you think I’m cute?” you ask.

God, you’re insecure. You sell it like you’re a confident scamp flirting with the enemy, but you worry they can see right through you. The opportunity to seek validation from a stranger is too alluring to resist. You slow your pace to a trudge so you can hear their responses.

“Yes,” says one.

“No,” says the other.

That wasn’t helpful. Either they both think you’re attractive, or neither does. Figuring this out is more critical than saving King Glassius or whatever his name is. You backpedal a few steps.

“Hey, me again. This is clearly the correct path. I’ve solved the puzzle. So can I ask you another question?”

No response. They won’t even look at you. Jerks. You consider standing there until the next traveler comes. It might be hours. You don’t want this to be the story everyone tells about your heroics in Little Dinksville. You reluctantly move on.

The rest of the journey is a bore. You arrive at Zanzibar’s secret hideout to find him alone on an expensive throne. He has probably been waiting all day for you. He makes you sad. He can’t be more than a couple hundred years old—a total baby. His beard isn’t even gray, and it has patches everywhere.

“We aren’t so different, you and I,” he says.

You decide not to wait for him to say anything else before you cut his head off. You begin your journey home, backtracking your steps. Your map pulsates to tell you there is a quicker route, but you don’t care.

You happen to find yourself back at the paths with the two guards—what a coincidence. “Last time I was here, I asked if you thought I was cute. Which one of you said yes?” you ask.

“Me,” says one.

“Me,” says the other.

Darn, you forgot again. “Zanzibar is very dead. You can stop with the routine.” You pull his head out of your knapsack and present it to them. Other heroes think you are weird for doing this, but it is more useful than they realize. You get no response.

“Okay, fine,” you say. “Well, I’m starving. I’m going to eat at the Greasy Gremlin. If free dinner with a possibly attractive hero is your thing, meet me at 7:00.”


You arrive at the Greasy Gremlin at 7:05. You spot one of the guards sitting at a table with a glass of water. The two of you make formal introductions. Their name is Alex.

“Do you drink?” you ask.

“Are you buying?” they respond.

You order a bottle of wine for the table. You hoped it would be on the house because you saved this village from extinction, but they don’t seem to know who you are. You consider showing the waitstaff Zanzibar’s head but decide against it. You’ve already pulled that move once in front of your date. You don’t want them to think it’s your thing.

When the wine arrives, you each down your glasses. This dinner might be alright.

“I have to know: were you the one who always tells the truth?” you ask.

“You’re sure you want to know?”

Did they just answer your question with a question? Is this guard still doing the bit?

“This is probably a stupid question,” you say. “But there was no magic spell or anything, right? That’s just theatre? Zanzibar was paying you or torturing you or whatever to do that yes no stuff?”

“No, Zanzibar was deceptively powerful. He conjured up a spell over my twin, Sam, and me. He was also the only person who could remove it, so thanks for that.”

You didn’t expect that response. If Alex is telling the truth, the spell is still active. Of course, they could be lying. But why are they lying if there isn’t an enchantment? You re-examine their response. It’s possible that Alex is lying in each statement but still telling the truth about the spell. Or they’re messing with you. Or they’re insane. Eh, you can work with any of those. You’ve been in a bit of a dry spell lately.

“Are you messing with me?” you ask. You’ve always been direct.

“No,” they say. That was a stupid question; their answer would only ever be no.

“Look, I want to learn about your mother and your dreams and all that. I do,” you say. “But this is too interesting. Do you mind if we dive into this some more?”

“I don’t mind at all,” Alex says.

“Great. Well, how does one become a riddle guard for an evil wizard?”

“My twin Sam was drinking at our favorite haunt when a guy by the name of Zanzibar hobbles in. They chat, Sam mentions me. Zanzibar tells Sam he has the perfect job for twins. Next thing I know, Sam and I have the easiest gig of our lives.”

“That’s fascinating,” you say. This is a tremendous compliment coming from you; not much has captured your imagination lately. Sometimes you’ll get halfway through a sandwich, realize you haven’t savored a bite, and panic that maybe you don’t enjoy anything anymore.

“Tell me, are you the one who always tells the truth?”

“I am,” Alex says with a wink.

“Wait, you winked. Why did you wink?” you ask. You are eating this up.

“You’re a smart person. By the time this dinner is over, I’m sure you will figure it out. But can I ask you a question? Are you kind of enjoying this? The mystery of it all?”
You are and say as much.

“I can truthfully say that I am. I worked that job for six years, and I never fooled anyone. But without my twin Sam here, I have some mystery.”

“I’m game. I’m going to act under the assumption that you’re the honest one but be warned: I’ll be using my keen powers of deduction to determine if you’re full of it.”

“Ask away!”

“So, how does it work? What happens if you lie? Or if your twin tells the truth? Do you turn into stone or something?”

“I physically can’t say something untrue. If I try to tell a lie, my lips won’t cooperate. Or I’ll automatically qualify it so that it becomes the truth. Same with Sam for lies.”

“What counts as a lie?” you ask. “What if you’re wrong? Is that a lie?”

“I can say all kinds of incorrect things as long as I believe what I say.” They take a sip of their wine. It’s their fourth glass. “I could go on all night, but I imagine I’m boring you.”

“No, I’m not bored at all,” you say. It’s the truth. You’re usually honest with others; you save the lies for yourself.

Alex walks you through the minutiae of honesty. Questions and commands exist outside the binary of truth and are fair game. Expressions and idioms are honest as long as they communicate their intended message. Eventually, this does get boring. You change the subject.

“Can you settle this for me? Is this a plate?” You are holding your plate.

“Wait, are you sincerely trying to trip me up by asking me if that is a plate? Do you want me to answer that?”

Aw, you thought you were being clever. “Avoiding the question?” you say.

“I’ll be honest with you because I have to be. I’m attractive, but I’m not that attractive. You’re an incredible hero who gets bored easily. My fear is the moment I definitively crush this mystery, you will move on, and I don’t want that because I like you.”

That sounds honest, but is it? Alex is a knockout, but it’s plausible that a lowly guard working for an evil wizard doesn’t have the best self-esteem. You agree with their assessment of you, but that doesn’t mean they believe it. You are an incredible hero; that’s a fact. But Alex may think you’re an asshole.

They were working for an evil wizard whom you just decapitated.

“I’m going to put my cards on the table,” you say. “You have me pegged. But I need to get something straight.”

“Go for it,” Alex says.

“I can’t say for sure if you are telling the truth. And we’ve established that we’re both into that. But I need an honest answer to one question.”

Alex nods to indicate they understand where you’re heading. “Well, let me ask, then. Would you like to go back to my place and screw me?” You were going to ask if they want to split dessert, but you like Alex’s question better.

“Check, please.”

You’ve been together for two weeks. You still don’t know. You should probably know by now. It’s weird that you don’t know.

But things are great. Alex tells you you’re the best lover they’ve ever had. Most of your lovers tell you this, and you’ve had a lot of them. Either you are a great lover, or everyone has been lying to you. Deep down, you recognize that both options are plausible.

You’re cuddling on the couch together, as you often do. Neither of you has said anything for a few minutes. You fake a yawn, stretch out your arms, and remove a cup from the table. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” you say. “Is this a plate?”

You do this often. Too often. The question is always the same, but the object changes. You package it as a lighthearted bit, deadpan facial expressions and all, but there’s an underlying tension. You want to know, and you don’t want to know.

“Do you want to know?” Alex asks.

You think you do. Alex tells you that you will get bored if you know the truth. But is that true? Maybe Alex is the one who will get bored. Perhaps this has gone on for too long, and they’re afraid to stop now.

“I guess not,” you say. You don’t know if you’re lying.

It’s been three months. Things are fine. You are sometimes out for a week at a time on a quest. This is a source of conflict in most of your relationships, but Alex doesn’t mind.

You still don’t know. It is insane that you don’t know. It would be so easy for you to find out. You don’t want to find out. But you want to find out.

You still do your plate bit, but it isn’t cute anymore. Maybe it was never cute. The next time you ask if your plate is a plate, Alex only responds with a sigh.

“I think it’s time,” you say. “I need to know.”

“I don’t know about you, but I enjoy what we have together. I’m definitely not staying in this relationship because I’m afraid of being alone.”

That sounded oddly specific. “Are you trying to tell me something?” you ask.

“What?” Alex says with feigned confusion.

“That just sounded…insincere. People only qualify a statement with ‘definitely’ when they mean the opposite.”

“The fact that I can say it should tell you everything that you need to know.” Alex sounds annoyed. “I can’t say it if I don’t mean it.”

“Unless you can only say things you don’t mean,” you correct.

Alex picks up a plate. “Ask me. Just ask me, already.”

You want to ask, but your lips won’t budge. Why are you like this?

You’re at the market picking up ingredients for a romantic plum stew recipe from your time on the Zootoli islands. You love food that sounds wretched but tastes delicious.  Sam is examining some unripe avocados. You like that you can immediately recognize the difference between the twins now. It’s the first time you’ve seen Sam since your quest to save King Glassius or whatever his name was. You should greet them with a clever introduction.

“Hi, Sam,” you say.

“My name’s not Sam,” they say.

“Sam,” you repeat. “It’s me. Dashing hero, dating your twin. Ring a bell?”

“I know who you are, idiot. My name isn’t Sam.”

Interesting, you say to yourself. Very interesting, indeed.

“Honey, I ran into Sam,” you say when you arrive home.

“Oh, did you?” Alex asks.

“Yeah. And they told me their name wasn’t Sam.”

“Oh,” Alex says. They pause for a few seconds. “Oh.”

“This is good news,” you say. “The mystery is over. Sam is the liar. And I’m still invested in this relationship. We can cut the charade. I love you,” you say because that’s what you’ve determined, and that’s how you feel, right?

“You figured it out,” says Alex. “You’ve always been so clever. I’m so relieved. I don’t need to keep this up anymore. I love you too.” They give you a warm hug. “I need to run an errand before dinner, but I’ll be right back.” They pick something up as they head out the door. “By the way, this is not a fucking plate.”

It is the answer you expected.