Interested in Playing?

JaLL has been run twice in Norway, and in Sweden, Denmark, and the US (MN). In 2018, there will be a new run in Finland. You can register for it here.

If you are interested in playing other games, check out some of these gaming conventions:

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Other Characters’ Stories

If you are interested in reading more about the experiences of some of the other characters/players from this run, check out these write-ups written by other players*:

 

* Links published with permission by the authors.

Player Thoughts

This is a collection of some of the thoughts I had about the game while playing:

At the beginning of the game, I was feeling nervous and not quite sure what I wanted to do. I latched on to the suggestion on my character sheet, which was, “A girl like you can’t be at a party like this without deciding on someone to flirt with and maybe hit on for the night. Who will it be? Somebody you know well or some interesting woman you have yet to get to know?” So, the first chance I got, Katherine tried to seduce someone. It worked more quickly and efficiently than I’d expected, so… I tried again. This is what helped build my character in my mind as a sexual huntress, as someone who loves a challenge, and as the lesbian seducer of straight women. As a player, I did not expect Katherine to actually succeed in seducing Evelyn, and I was so psyched when she did! I loved that Katherine developed a reputation amongst her friends that revolved around that. “Katherine always gets the straight girls!” And since she gloated a bunch about it afterwards, some other ladies tried to hit on Evelyn as well, but failed. That really amused me.

The part where Katherine accidentally introduces Sinclair to Nick, the editor of Out magazine, really was a mistake. I wasn’t thinking about it as a player; I was simply looking for ways to interact with more people. I was trying to get into character as a wealthy woman who knows all the “right” people, and completely forgot that Nick worked for Out Magazine. Oooooops.

Ashleigh, the person playing Santiago, had warned me in advance about the big fight she’d planned between her and Pen on the dance floor. We’d agreed prior that Katherine would chase after her, though I’m not sure we planned anything that happened after that. Some other stuff happened that prolonged the scene, though… enough time had passed that I had assumed it just wasn’t going to happen. So when it did happen, Katherine really was completely focused on hooking up with Dawn, and I as a player really was surprised when I heard Santiago shouting across the disco. And really did leave Dawn (played by Emily Care Boss) standing on the dance floor, holding a pink feather (with OOC apologies)!

A lot of the “surprises” in the game were real: when Abner walked in on Katherine and Santiago having sex, that was completely unplanned – as was the comically surprised look on his face! The line between fantasy and reality is fuzzy enough that it makes things like that work really well. Players might discuss certain scenes in advance if they want them to go in a certain direction, but for the most part, I think that most people were thinking on the fly and reacting to what other characters were doing.

I had no idea what the Lottery of Death was going to be like. As I mentioned previously, I’ve played “I Say A Little Prayer” before, so I’d assumed the process would be similar: that we’d know exactly how many people were going to die, and that their names would be pulled from a hat. So when ten names were called, I assumed that all ten of us were going to die. I really was the last name called, and I really was shocked. I remember walking out to the funeral site in silence, and being really upset with myself: I shouldn’t have put my name in three times; I should have only put it in twice like Ashleigh told me to. And then I thought, if Katherine were a real person, she would also be having regrets about the decisions she’d made in her life. Most people don’t get choose when they die, and you can’t change the past: there is only regret, and focusing on the future. I took my regret and the other emotions I was feeling as a player, and turned them into Katherine. Melissa didn’t regret putting her name in the hat three times; Katherine regretted the risky behavior that led to her death. Melissa wasn’t sad because she was enjoying playing this character; Katherine was sad because her life was about to end.

I had no idea that not all ten of us were to going to die. When we approached the funeral site and only saw five coffins, I figured there just weren’t enough for all of us, logistically. But then only five people were told to lay down. After a few moments, three of those five people were told to get back up, and they’d been infected with AIDS but didn’t know it. Katherine was not one of those five names. I still wasn’t completely sure that Katherine was still alive until the rest of the players were led out to the funeral site. (I even had to clarify with an organizer later; being called meant that sometime between July and December of 1982, my character had a near-death experience. It was my decision as a player what that would be.) I remember being in shock, and relieved that I wasn’t dead.

Katherine having a near-death experience gave me the opportunity to have that black box scene where she had pneumonia. This was to help solidify some of the relationships that I was feeling a little lost with; specifically, with Katherine’s little brother Artie. Artie hadn’t been around for Act 1: when Simon and Leon died at the end of Act 1, those players were given new characters to play for the rest of the game. Katherine and Artie were supposed to have been very close growing up – but since he was a brand new character, I was feeling pretty disconnected, and figured this was a good way for Katherine to connect with that character. It was really interesting for me to be there but not really be participating in the scene, and to see how the other characters interacted around me.

Act 2 is what I titled in my head  as “Fuck The Pain Away.” At first I wasn’t sure how Katherine would have acted with the spread of the disease, especially since she wasn’t friends with either of the men who’d died in Act 1. So I decided that she was scared, but didn’t show it, and that she’d become even more reckless than she’d been before just to try and prove how “not scared” she was. This translated into lots of booze, and lots of fucking. Katherine’s three main reality checks in Act 2 were Santiago chastising her after she’d had unprotected sex in the orgy with Kimberly, her conversation with Ruben about printing something in the Times, and Steven’s outburst about the luminaries.

Steven is a character that I didn’t really interact with much outside of that scene with the luminaries. But that scene had a huge impact on Katherine: it was just after Santiago chastises her, and after her promise to Ruben that she’ll do something to help educate people by printing an article in the paper. The wheels of change are starting to turn in her head, and she is just starting to face her fears when Steven has his outburst. It’s a very memorable scene for me as a player.

Here’s a funny thing that stands out to me: During Katherine’s conversation with Ike in Act 2 when Chain is looking for Sinclair, I accidentally said something about Sinclair needing to “text his wife.” It didn’t even dawn on me until the next day when I was describing the scene to another player: it’s 1983; there is no texting! I mentioned it to Rachel later, who played Ike. She said that she’d noticed but didn’t want to call me out on it. I was so into the game play that exactly what I’d said didn’t even dawn on me until it got pointed out to me later, and it still makes me laugh!

When Chain said the line about Ike not being able to defend his boyfriend, that scuffling sound was real – I can imagine Mo, who played Ruben, scrambling off the cot to come out and confront Chain. It was so… real.

The American Flag stickers in Act 3 were real – the organizers had meant to use them but forgot, I guess? Anyway, I asked if I could have some, and when I started giving them out to people, it was just to be silly. There were two kinds: stars, and the shape of the US. When Katherine approached someone who she expected was especially sad, she gave them a “special” sticker to make them feel better. Later, Rachael asked if I was purposely marking people who’d tested positive for AIDS, and I was horrified. No! But much later I realized… yes? Though, not on purpose. Ooops. (Making sure that everyone got a star sort of worked it’s way into the engagement speech after I’d started giving them out, and then I really liked the idea.)

I was surprised at how nervous I was before Katherine’s proposal to Santiago. Ashleigh and I had already talked about it as players, so I already knew that Santiago was going to say yes. It’s not like I have anxiety over being the center of attention; I do the announcements at Friday Night Blues all the time, and I generally don’t have problems with public speaking. But my hands were literally shaking, and I really did get nauseous as soon as I took a bite of my dinner. I guess I was really into the game. Talk about bleed…!

I enjoyed telling Max off later, after Santiago attacked him. It was a spur of the moment plan on my part, but it was effective. At that point, Katherine was already thinking of Saratoga as a sanctuary, and “not here” kept echoing throughout her mind when people broke into fights. It was supposed to be a place of peace and love and, hopefully, of healing. So to ensure no more fighting, she used her words to intimidate Max. His reaction made me feel really powerful. I know that the words Katherine used were really harsh, and there was a bit of a rush in being able to do that, because in real life, I would never speak like that to someone.

In the later part of Act 3, I felt like Katherine’s story was pretty solid, and found myself at a loss for what to do. This is where she became more of a caretaker for her friends, and I think this was somewhat of a mistake. Melissa is a caretaker, not Katherine. I think I allowed a little bit too much of Melissa to bleed into Katherine. It turned out just fine, but in hindsight, I could have played that a lot differently.

The sex foursome in Act 3 was an accident! Very late in the night, just before bed, the players were chatting out of character. I managed to talk people into coming with me to sleep and snuggle in the Pillow Room. We spent the night there out of character, but were awoken by the person playing Fernando, who was in character. At that point, we all shrugged and said, “welp, I guess this really happened, then!” So that whole scene I wrote about with Mr T is a fabrication; I actually hung out and snuggled/chatted with those players all night. Accidental orgy FTW?

Mr T did give me a ring in the morning before the last funeral scene. I was grateful to have it – if Mr T had died, it would have wrecked me even more. I was especially grateful for it during our debrief, because we were each told to remove an item that was given to us in-game, or an article of clothing that made us our character. The ring was the only thing I had to remove!

The third Lottery of Death was really unnerving. I thought I knew what was going to happen, so when things changed, I was confused in addition to being sad and scared. The realization of “I care about so many of these people” was real. And that funeral was just… egads. I’ve never cried so hard in a game before.

Debrief: Post-Game

Every day, we had a chance to talk in smaller groups about what was happening with our characters. Two to three core groups would get together, and an organizer would ask leading questions like, “What was an impactful moment for your character? What is a scene that will stay with you?” The way we started each debrief session was to go around in a circle and re-introduce ourselves to each other: “I was playing Katherine, and now I am Melissa.” At first, I thought it was just so that we could learn each other’s real names. But I realized later that it was two-fold: it allowed us to separate our real selves from our characters. One moment that stand out to me is in the last moment of the game, seconds after Act 3 ended: I heard Luke reassuring himself aloud, “It’s not real. It’s just a game.” followed by, “I was playing Sinclair, and now I am Luke.” I hadn’t realized until that moment just how important that ritual was, to help separate ourselves and our own emotions from the fictitious world in which we’d played.

Another way in which I have separated my character from myself is to stop speaking in the first person when talking about Katherine. It’s difficult when I am speaking to someone and narrating things that I said and did, but at least in my writing, I have been able to switch from saying things like, “So then I went over to the Pillow Room and…” to instead saying, “So then Katherine went over to the Pillow Room and…”

We all did one big debrief activity together. We stood in a circle and, one by one, we removed an item that was either given to us in game, or represented our character in some way. Then we stepped into the center of the circle and symbolically dropped it. At breakfast that morning, Mr T had given me one of his rings, so I was able to remove that. I was grateful, because I hadn’t worn any of my own jewelry to breakfast – the only thing I could have removed would have been my shoes, and that would not have felt as symbolic – especially since they are shoes that I have worn in my “regular” life.

After the game was over, I started carrying my cell phone around with me again. I didn’t have any cell service, but I was using the Notes app to write down little notes of thoughts I was having that I might want to expand on later. (I ended up doing this for about week after I got home as well, before I was ready to sit down and start writing and really processing.) I wrote this down on Friday afternoon: “Processing has been really hard. I started to realize while still in-game how much of Melissa I’d injected into Katherine, but it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized how much Katherine had bled out into Melissa.”

After the group debrief, we had some brief time to ourselves, and then we had some guest speakers. The first was Chris, the person who played Bruce. Chris told us that he is almost 70 years old, gay, and that he lived in NYC during the time period that we had just played. He told us stories about his lovers, his experience in caring for someone with AIDS, and what it was like to be living in NYC during this time. When someone asked how true to the time history we had been in our game, he said that the way our story played out is pretty close to how things really were.

The second speaker was a man from the University of Minnesota Youth and AIDS Project, or YAP. He talked to us about being young, HIV+, and homeless, about how many people think of HIV and AIDS as “past” problem even though it’s still very much prevalent today, and about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

After our guest speakers, we had a few hours of free time before dinner. We were also asked to start packing and helping to break down the camp, as we were going to be headed out pretty early on Saturday morning. I remember walking around in a daze, feeling completely disconnected. One of my notes says, “In the last three days, I have literally lived an entire life.” I’ve felt very alone in my life before, but this was different in a way that I don’t really know how to describe. I felt as though I were with a group of complete strangers – because I was. I was still at the campground with all of the people I’d played with, so I had no anchor to the “real” world. But at the same time, all of the friendships and close-knit relationships that I’d built over the past few days had suddenly dissipated, because those people weren’t real. It was very disorienting, and extremely unpleasant. I didn’t know how to act around anyone anymore. In-game, I knew that almost anything I did would be accepted. Fuck-ups and acting crazy are good, for the good of the game, because they cause Feelings, and that is the reason we’re here – to feel things. But this was real life, and it felt less safe.

One of the strangest feelings for me was not knowing how to self-care. As a person who has struggled with depression for my entire life, I’ve figured out some coping skills that work for me. This is the first time I can remember not knowing what to do to help myself. I can usually figure out if I need to take a walk, or do some writing… to face the feelings head on, or to distract myself somehow. Sometimes I need to just go somewhere private and have a good, long cry. But none of those things felt right. I actually did feel a bit like crying, but it was a strange feeling that I’ve had in the past: feeling like I’m about to burst into tears, but also knowing that if I tried, no tears would actually come. It was a lump in my throat and a pounding heart, without the catharsis of the cry.

After I ate dinner, I had walked over to the stream and sat there for a while, watching the water, and hoping that the anxiety I was feeling would diminish. I figured that after I’d gotten some fresh air and fresh perspective, I could go back inside and start socializing again. I even stood up to go back in, glanced over to the main lodge where everyone else was inside chattering excitedly, and thought, “NOPE.” Everyone seemed to be deep in conversation, and I either didn’t feel totally comfortable with them, or didn’t want to interrupt their conversations. A note that I took in that moment was, “The thought of going back inside the mess hall feels stifling.”

I was wracking my brain, asking myself, “What makes me feel better when I’m anxious?” And then it hit me: cleaning! I’d mentioned earlier to a friend how I’d felt anxious on that first day when we arrived and got off the bus, and how I’d stood off to the side by myself. They confided that they’d felt similar, and that’s why they’d rushed to get their room assignment so quickly – they’d wanted something they could do. I knew that we had to break down the camp anyway, so while the others were still hanging out eating and chatting, I went over to the Dark Room and started untying things from the walls, collecting the sex toys and safer sex supplies into a pile, and removing the posters from the wall. It really did help, too. Having something to do always helps me feel better. (It’s why I often end up helping out with things at parties.) So, thank you, friend. I won’t call you out by name – your anxieties are your business – but I do want you to know that you consoled me without realizing that you were doing so. When a group of people walked in a little while later to clean up, they stopped and looked around in surprise to see that most of it was already done! (Side note: as a D/s submissive, I actually really enjoyed trying to get as much done by myself as I could, because I wanted people to walk in and be surprised when it was all finished!)

I had a lot more bleed from my in-game relationship with Santiago than I’d expected to. I suspect part of that is because we as players did a lot of cuddling and making out, so the relationship felt a lot more real than in any other game I’ve played. I am a very cuddly and clingy person in the real world, and that part of me certainly bled into Katherine. A huge portion of my game play involved Katherine’s “fairytale” romance with Santiago; I’d spent a lot of time with her. So once the game was over and Ashleigh returned to her real-life girlfriend (who was also a player in the game), I felt guilty about being jealous and wanting to spend more time with her. I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was bleed, or an actual crush on her. (I’d felt drawn to her when I first met her, before I even knew that she would be a major character for me.) And I felt awkward about all of the emotions I was having, so I chose not to say anything – at least, not right away. I recognized that bleed is a thing, and that all of my emotions were overwhelming me – especially after having stayed up so late the night before. One of the questions in our official debrief earlier had been, “What is one quality from your character that you wish to keep?” In the moment, I wasn’t sure what to say. But now I know: I wish that I had the confidence to be as open and honest about my feelings as Katherine was.

Later in the evening, when the after party started, I’d thought that I was feeling better. I was hanging out and chatting with people. Someone had brought a bottle of tequila, so I had a small shot before starting on the 3% alcoholic beers. Being a lightweight when it comes to drinking, I actually managed to keep my buzz for a while by drinking several beers in quick succession! I was dancing and having a good time when suddenly, my imposter syndrome came back. I don’t belong here. I felt awkward, lonely, and insecure. While everyone else was at the main lodge for the party, I went back to the cabin so that I could sit by myself in the quiet for a few moments. I decided that I was finished drinking, and that I should go back to the party and drink some water, and try to make the best of it. In the end, I sat by myself outside near the bonfire, just quietly staring into the flames as the people around me conversed and laughed, feeling just as disassociated and lost and lonely as I had earlier. I ended up falling asleep out there, and when I woke a little while later, several other people had also sat near the fire. At that point I knew that I was both mentally and physically exhausted, so I went back to the Pillow Room to snuggle with some folks, and sleep.

I am a romantic. I am also extremely picky when it comes to my partners, so when I do find someone that I like, I tend to latch on to them. I think that is why I refused to give up Katherine and Santiago’s romance. As a player, I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that aspect of the game for me. In Act 3, I asked some friends for help because I was feeling lost. I felt like Katherine’s story was pretty solid, and was at a loss for what she should do next. All of the suggestions were things I could do to throw a wrench into my relationship, and I rejected all of them. They would have been angsty for my character, which probably would have been great – after all, the point of the game is to Feel things – but I refused. I think that is why the third act was not as powerful as it could have been: I refused to give up what I so desperately want in real life, so I wouldn’t allow Katherine to, either.

Once I got home and was still feeling disassociated and disoriented, I got worried about myself. I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, even as a child. In the past, I’ve always done a combination of talk therapy and other natural ways to “cure” depression (exercising, eating more healthy foods, getting better sleep, etc). I’ve struggled though it enough times that I can tell when I’m starting to fall into another hole. This time, at the urging of one of my besties who has been doing incredibly well with their own meds, I decided to try taking antidepressants and see if they worked for me. When I left for JaLL, I’d only been on them for about two weeks, and knew that I was probably not feeling the full effects yet. So when I got home and still felt terrible for a few days, I struggled to recognize whether I was feeling major con-drop mixed with intense bleed, or a true depression. Trying to lift myself out of a depression when I’ve been feeling incredibly lonely, going into a fictitious world where the intensity of emotions is magnified, and then coming out of that world back to reality… it was like riding a roller coaster. (Pro-tip: I don’t like roller coasters.)

When I got home on Saturday, I dropped my suitcase and immediately went to sleep. That is very unlike me; even when I am exhausted I can usually manage to stay away for long enough to unwind a bit. When I woke up, I had a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. This often happens if/when I sleep too much, and when I am really depressed. I cried for a little while. Knowing that keeping busy makes me feel better, I unpacked my suitcase and took a shower. I cried some more in the shower. Even though I was home and back to my regular life, I was still feel disassociated. Nothing felt real. When I asked Facebook for company, an old friend reached out, so I made plans to meet her for lunch. I put on a pretty dress that I know looks good on me, thinking that perhaps if I feel pretty, I’ll start to feel better and more like myself again. But I still felt like I was going to burst into tears at any given moment.

As soon as I left my apartment to go meet my friend, I started having second thoughts about going out. I suddenly did not feel like company at all. But I had already made the plans, and it was too late to cancel. I told myself that I would do some writing when I got home later that night, and try to do some more processing. In the end, I was really glad that I went out. I talked about JaLL a lot, explaining to my friend what it was and what it was like. Eventually, the conversation topics drifted, and we talked about other things. I hadn’t seen this friend in a long time, so it was really nice to catch up. After a few hours of walking in the sunshine and talking, I felt more like myself again. Of course, I couldn’t help jabbering on about JaLL again later – it was all I could think about for at least a few days!

About a week after the game, I was finally feeling more normal. (One of the notes I took was, “Time is the great healer, and all that jazz.”) I started writing this document, which helped a lot. So did reading other people’s stories. Those were almost like drugs, in fact – I wanted to hear everyone’s stories and points of view. It was fascinating to hear about the arcs of other characters and players that I had barely interacted with in the game, as well as the same stories from other people’s points of view! Someone had started a group chat on Facebook for anyone who wanted to join. Having that, being able to reach out and talk to people who were there with me and understood what I had gone through, was incredibly helpful. So was the Facebook group, where people were sharing their stories and their art, and discussing their experiences. Especially helpful was Rachael, one of my best friends, who had played Leon in the game. She was one of the characters that I didn’t cross paths with in my own game, so hearing her story was wonderful – but it was also just a lifesaver to have one of my besties to speak with about our experiences. Being able to converse with other players in the chat was immensely helpful, but it’s a wholly different experience when you can share that with someone you’re close with.

For some reason, I had a note to myself to “talk about your feelings re: saying ‘I love you’ and the intense love-feelings you had after commenting on Nancy’s FB post.” Looking at that now, I have no idea what FB post I was referring to! I do remember feeling intense friend-love feelings toward all of the people I’d played with, though. So, here are my feelings on love: Growing up, my family was not super open with our emotions. Both of my parents are now deceased, and one of my regrets is that I did not say “I love you” more freely to them. I am a lot more emotionally open now, as an adult, and I make sure to tell my nieces and nephew that I love them at least once each time I see them. It’s still hard to say it to my brothers, since we are not very close. But I feel it, and so I try to say it. It’s important to me that the people in my life that I love, hear me say so. I also try not to overdo it. I don’t want to say it so often that it loses its meaning. If I say “I love you” to someone, it’s because I truly do love them. I try not to throw the words around carelessly. Sure, I love chocolate, and I love Netflix, and I love baking. But saying “I love you” to a person is different.

So, there you have it. JaLL has been, hands down, the most intense gaming experience of my life. I loved it so much that I’m applying for the 2018 run in Finland! I’m so happy that I got this chance to play. Thank you to Rachael for talking me into going when I was on the fence, and to the organizers for making it happen.

The End of The Beginning

The Agents of Death are restless and agitated. They demand fifteen names this time, and are shouting at us to finish “quickly, quickly!”

I was pretty safe last year, so I only add my name once. I am sitting, as usual, with Santiago. The dreaded “death music” plays on loop. Instead of choosing names from the hat and reading them immediately, the Agents take the hat and exit the cabin, leaving us to look around at each other, wondering what was happening. At first, I expect them to come back and tell us who they will be taking. But they don’t.

I glance around the room at each person, wondering how I’d feel if they were called. As my eyes rest briefly on each person, I have the sudden realization that there is not one table in the entire room that doesn’t have at least one person I care deeply about sitting there. My chest feels tight, and tears are already cascading down my cheeks. No, I think, I don’t want to lose anyone else. But I know that I can’t stop Death.

I stand up, wanting to hug my friends. I find Charlotte sitting next to Sorrento and lean down to embrace them both, tears running down my face.

When I straighten up, Nate approaches me. He straightens my shirt collar and smooths my hair, murmuring a soft, “There you go,” before moving on to someone else.

The next person I spot is Ike sitting at the table across from Charlotte. I go over and hug him tightly. He hugs me back. When I finally take a step back, he gives me a sad half-smile. I give the same sort of smile back and nod before squeezing his shoulder, speaking without words.

I look around for Artie. We make eye contact and immediately walk towards each other. He envelops me in a bear hug, and I squeeze him back.

I make my way around the room like this, stopping every few feet for a long, tearful hug. Saying goodbye is too much for me to bear thinking about: I’m simply looking to both give and receive comfort.

Nate is staring out the window, pretending to fix his hair as he wipes tears from his cheeks. I can tell that he is trying to be strong for everyone else. I go over and place a comforting hand on his shoulder. When he turns back around, his face is once again calm and composed. He wipes a tear from my cheek with a finger and smooths my hair again, smiling sadly. “There. All better,” he says soothingly, and turns from me to do the same for someone else.

I let him go. I can tell that he’s struggling not to lose it.

Finally, the Agents return. “Follow us,” one of them says. No names are called.

Together, we trudge toward the field where the coffins lay in the sunshine. The beautiful day seems almost mocking. I walk slowly, terrified to see whose names would be in those coffins. We are told to remain in a single file line. People are sobbing ahead of me. Dragging my feet, I take a deep breath and approach.

First, I see Eli and Max. I find no comfort or relief in seeing people I was not close with. Death is death.

The next name I see is Nate’s. Oh, god. Not him. I begin sobbing in earnest.

I keep walking, tears blurring my vision. The next coffin is Steven’s. I feel a small gut-punch upon seeing his name.

And lastly, Nick. Another friend.

I weep into a tissue forlornly, circling the coffins and and making my way back to the grassy field so that others can see who we’ve lost.

I am distracted from my own grief by a loud keening. It’s Sinclair. “NO!” he wails. His face is bright red and crumpled in grief, and he is barely able to stand. He is being held up by Ike and Ruben who stand on either side of him as he reaches out for Nate. I immediately go over to comfort him, but… how does one comfort a friend who has just lost the love of their life? I reach out and hug him, feeling helpless.

Nate finally appears and the two embrace. I step back and leave them to their goodbyes.

When I turn around, Steven is standing there. I throw my arms around him. “You changed my life,” I choke out between sobs.

“And you changed mine,” he replies. I look at him in amazement and gratitude, and my shoulders quake. He turns to allow others to embrace him, saying their own goodbyes.

“It’s time,” says the Angel of Death. Steven, Eli, Nick, and Max head to their coffins and lay down. Sinclair is weeping and clutching at Nate. Nate is attempting to extricate himself, but Sinclair refuses to let him go. “No! NO!” he shrieks, grasping at Nate’s arm.

Nate seems just as calm as he was earlier in the main cabin, though his eyes are shining and wet. He holds Sinclair by the shoulders, looking into his eyes and speaking quietly and earnestly. He closes Sinclair’s fist around something and manages to take a step back. Finally, he turns and walks to his coffin, his head held high like the Queen we all know he is.

Sinclair is inconsolable. “Wait!” His voice cracks as he pleads through his sobs, “Take me! Take me instead!” He has to be physically restrained by Ruben and Ike from throwing himself in Nate’s casket. The Angel of death simply bows their head in sorrow.

The Angel of Death finally speaks. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Eli.” I hear someone sniffling behind me. “We are gathered here to mourn the loss of Max.” The Angel pauses between each name, looking around at the mass of grief. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Steven.” I flash back to Steven’s speech last year. He really did change my life, and I am glad I had the courage to tell him. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Nick.” I blow my nose and hand my packet of tissues to whoever is standing besides me. I don’t even look to see who it is; we all need them. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Nate.” Sinclair cries out in anguish, falling to his knees. I and a few others try to help him up but he is inconsolable, crumpling to the ground in a heap of despair.

The Angel of Death’s voice seems to become even quieter as the final name is announced. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Howard.”

My eyes widen. Howard, the kitchen boy? I’d kissed him once, in jest, simply because I’d been enjoying making him blush. Pepper, Priest and I all had a laugh when he’d backed away in shock and then his junk fell through the leg of his tiny shorts. He’d been mortified. I would smile now at the memory, if I weren’t so miserable.

As the ritualistic sounds of “Just A Little Lovin” reaches my ears, I am crying so hard that I can barely breathe. There is an ache deep in my chest, and I am turning to hug whoever is closest to me. Is this what people mean when they refer to heartache? I wonder. Everyone around me is also seeking out friends and loved ones for solace. I am both comforting others and being comforted in turn. Santiago, Artie, Charlotte, Sinclair, Ike and Ruben, Terrence, Enrique, Claire… everyone I love who is still here: we all mourn together.

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
Beats a cup of coffee
For starting off the day

Just a little lovin’
When the world is yawnin’
Makes you wake up feeling
Good things are coming your way

This old world
Wouldn’t be half as bad
It wouldn’t be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had, yeah

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
That little extra somethin’
To kinda see them through

Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin’
Like a little bit of lovin’
From some lovin’ someone like you

This old world
Wouldn’t be half as bad
It wouldn’t be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
(Just a little lovin’)
(When the world is yawnin’)
Just a little bit of lovin’, ah
Oh, in the morning
Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin’
Make a little bit of lovin’
It’s so good, it’s so good

Ring of Remembrance

I am woken by a voice snarling, “That’s the last time I take care of him!” I open my eyes to see Fernando angrily throwing a blanket at Santiago and Nick before stalking out.

“What was that about?” I ask sleepily.

“Nothing,” Nick mutters. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I yawn and stand up. “Suit yourself. I’m gonna get dressed and head over to breakfast before all the coffee is gone.”

When I arrive at the main cabin, Morgan is snapping pictures. People keep calling her name and posing. They are smiling, but there is a sense of urgency about it. “It’s the last big party for a while,” she explains. “And some of us might not be here for the next one.”

“That’s a great idea,” I say. “Would you actually mind getting a few with me and Santiago? Like… engagement photos?”

“Sure!” she says.

I grab Santiago and pull her over. She rolls her eyes, but agrees to pose for  a few pictures. I also get a few with Artie, Charlotte, and Sinclair.

“Thanks, Morgan!” She gives me a thumbs up and walks off, her camera still making popping sounds.

I start heading back inside to get a plate but pause when I see Terrence sitting on the steps. I sit down next to him. “Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” he says back. He’s twisting one of his rings again. We sit together in silence for a few moments.

“Nice ring,” I say nodding towards it.

He hesitates, then takes it off and hands it to me. “Take it,” he says. “I can’t bring it with me where I’m going, anyway.”

“Terrence–”

“What’s for breakfast?” he interrupts me.

“Terrence. Stop it. You are going to survive this,” I say fiercely.

“No, I’m not, and we both know it. So let’s just stop pretending. I’ve got my affairs in order; I’ve made sure that Morgan and some of the Saratogans are on the lease. I’m making sure that things continue once I’m gone. And besides,” he says, gesturing toward the ring in the palm of my hand, “let’s face it – that’s gonna look a lot better on you.”

I stop arguing – everyone knows that there is no arguing with Mr T. “Fine,” I say. I slip the ring on my middle finger and flip him the bird with it. “Now let’s go get some food.”

T and Me

Once Sinclair has headed back to his cabin, I peek into the Pillow Room. Fernando is there, but it is otherwise empty. “Quiet in here,” I remark.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think everyone else has headed off to bed.”

“Hmm. I’m not ready for bed yet. I’m gonna take a stroll around and see if I can find anyone.”

“I just did that a little while ago. I guess it’s possible, but seems unlikely,” he says.

“Couldn’t hurt,” I say.

I stop in the Darkroom first. The lurid gay porn is still playing, but the cabin is otherwise empty. I’ve never seen it so quiet; it’s almost creepy. I walk back out and head over to the main lodge. The grounds are quiet. I’ve resigned myself to heading back to the Pillow Room and sleeping alone, but stop in the main lodge anyway, just to make sure. I am surprised when I hear voices talking quietly.

“Hello?” I call out.

“Hey, babe,” I hear Santiago’s voice from one of the tables in the back. She is sitting and chatting with Sorrento. I sit down next to her and lay my head on her shoulder as she and Sorrento chat. A few moments later, Nick and Terrence walk in.

“Hey guys,” says Terrence. “What are you doing up?”

“I’m just waiting for my fiance to come to bed,” I answer. “What have you two been up to?” Nick flushes, and I laugh. I stand up. “I’m going to sleep,” I say, kissing Santiago’s forehead. “I can barely keep my eyes open. I’ll be in the Pillow Room, if you want to join me.”

“Is that invitation open to the public?” Terrence teases.

“Sure,” I say, “The Pillow Room is public domain. There’s plenty of room!”

“That sounds like it could be fun,” says Santiago, looking around. “Let’s all go!”

“Yeah, why not?” says Terrence. Nick shrugs.

I raise an eyebrow. “You fags wanna come cuddle with the lesbians tonight?”

“Not me,” says Sorrento. “You guys have fun!”

The four of us traipse off to the Pillow Room, which is empty. I guess Fernando found something else to do after all, I think to myself. I lay down with the pillow and blanket that I’d dropped off earlier. Santiago lays on one side of me, Terrence on the other. Nick lays on the other side of Santiago.

I turn onto my side and snuggle into Santiago, facing Terrence. Nick and Santiago are deep in conversation. I’m tired, but content to stay awake and chat now that I’m finally horizontal.

“So, you and Nick, huh?” I grin.

“Yeah, well. You know me…” he says.

“I sure do!” I answer. “You are the founder of these parties, after all.”

He is quiet for a moment. “Sometimes I wonder if they were a mistake. With all of the sex and everything…” his voice trail off.

No,” I say emphatically. “Terrance, these parties are where so many people have met and developed friendships and relationships. Hell, it’s where Santiago and I finally got together, and it’s where I proposed to her. Did you think that was spur of the moment?”

He smiles. “No, I guess not. Charlotte would never let you do something so big without planning every moment of it.”

“So true!” I pause, then reach out and take his hand. “It’s not your fault, you know, I say softly. “The disease? It would have spread regardless. But your parties brought people together.”

He squeezes my hand briefly. “They brought Kimberly and I together,” he says.

“I know,” I say. “She told me.”

He is twisting one of the rings he always wears, and I am suddenly nervous. Terrence never fidgets. “Terrance?”

“I’m positive,” he blurts out.

I freeze in shock. “What?”

“Yeah. I found out earlier today. I don’t expect to be around much longer, honestly.”

I feel as though the wind has been knocked out of me. Terrance? He’s one of my oldest friends. He’s a condescending know-it-all pain in my ass, but he’s my friend, and I can’t imagine the world without him.

“Don’t cry,” he says. “It will be okay.”

“I’m not–” I blink. Shit. I am. I wipe my eyes furiously. “This sucks.”

“It does,” he agrees.

“We’re gonna find a cure, though. We’re gonna get this place opened up and then–”

“Let’s not worry about the future,” he interrupts me. “Let’s enjoy the here and now.” He leans forward and kisses me.

I’m overwhelmed at the sudden surge of passion and tenderness that flows through my body. I kiss him back, wrapping my arms around him tightly.

“I don’t want to– can we just–” I struggle to find the right words.

“Of course,” he says. Changing the subject, he says, “Hey, did you see the shirt Eli was wearing earlier?”

We talk all night. It starts getting light out before my eyelids become too heavy to keep open anymore, and I succumb to a restless sleep.

Katherine To The Rescue

I am walking back towards the main lodge to see if anyone is still dancing when I spy Sinclair and Chain along the path, and stop to say hello. “Hey, guys!,” I say, smiling. “What’s up?”

“Hey,” says Sinclair flatly. Chain doesn’t answer. Instead, he turns so that his back is toward us and stares off into the distance.

“Hi, Chain,” I try again. “How’s it going?”

Chain stalks off in the direction of the Pillow Room. Sinclair and I exchange a look.

“Uhh… is everything okay?” I ask. “What did I just miss?”

“He says he wants to talk to me,” Sinclair answers.

“Oh. About what?”

“I don’t know!” he says, sounding frustrated. “I tried to ask him and he wouldn’t tell me.”

“Okay, that’s… weird,” I say.

“Yeah.” He’s looking at the ground, and angrily kicks a stone that is laying on the path. “I just don’t know what to think. I don’t know what he could possibly want to say to me. I’m with Nate now.”

“Wait… back up. I think I’m missing something here,” I say.

“I kissed him once, a few years ago. It was stupid, and I shouldn’t have done it. I was fighting with Nate, and I was high, and… ugh,”  he says, shaking his head in annoyance. “It was wrong of me. And apparently it was a big deal to him, because that was two years ago, and he’s still upset.”

He is quiet for a moment before speaking again. “Do you think I should talk to him?” he asks me in a small voice. I follow his gaze to a small clearing beyond the trees; the same clearing where the Saratogans have their ritual or whatever every year. Chain is leaning up against a tree, staring out into the darkness. He looks miserable.

“Well,” I say carefully. “Do you think we should just leave him there?” I don’t know Chain well, and in fact have barely ever exchanged more than a few words with him. Every time I’ve seen him he’s been smiling, laughing, happy-go-lucky. But this year, he’s looked mostly sad and angry. Something about the look of defeat on his face and the way he is staring off into the forest  makes me worried about leaving him there by himself.

“I don’t want to talk to him,” Sinclair says glumly, looking at the ground again.

“Do you want me to talk to him?” I offer. He looks up and seems to be seriously considering the idea. “I mean…” I continue, “I don’t really know him, so I have no idea how he will react, or if he will even speak to me at all.  We’re essentially strangers. But who knows, that might make it easier for him.” I shrug. “I really have no idea.”

Sinclair studies me for a moment, then sighs. “No. I don’t know. I just… I don’t want to be alone with him. I’m not sure what he might do.”

“Do you think he might attack you?” I ask.

“No. I’m afraid he’ll try to kiss me.”

We are both silent for a moment.

“Would you rather I just come with you while you talk to him?” I ask gently.

He looks relieved. “Yes. That’s a good idea. I just need to have someone there, just in case he… you know.”

“I know.”

We start to head over to the clearing. As we get closer, I instinctively slow down. I feel like we are chasing a scared rabbit, and that the rabbit is going to run away any second.

“Maybe I should hang back and just watch. I’ll stay close so I can see what’s happening. But he may not talk with both of us there.” Sinclair nods without looking at me. He continues walking over to Chain as I veer left and hover near the door of the Pillow Room, pretending to be waiting for someone.

Sinclair stops carefully, several feet from Chain. I can’t hear them, but I am watching their body language. Chain is sullen, and shrugs a lot. Sinclair is gesturing and looking frustrated. After a few minutes Sinclair turns and starts walking away, saying, “Fine. If you don’t want to talk, then–”

Chain interrupts him, but I can’t hear what he says. Sinclair stops and goes back. People entering and exiting the Pillow Room give me curious looks, but I just smile and pretend to be looking around for someone.

After about ten minutes, the two of them start walking down the path in the direction of the main lodge. I try to discretely follow behind them. When they stop in the middle of the path and continue talking, I walk casually past them, pretending that I’m just wandering through the campground. A moment or two later Chain passes me, and I turn and make my way back to Sinclair.

“How’d it go?” I ask.

“It was… okay,” he says. “He wanted to talk about what happened, and explain why he was hurt. I apologized, but I explained that I’m with Nate now. He wasn’t too happy about that. But I think he’s accepted it. He seemed more cheerful, anyway.” He turns and hugs me. “Thanks for being here for me. I’m gonna go to bed now.”

“Of course!” I exclaim. “That’s what friends are for, and all that shit, right?”

Maria

Like a literal sex magnet, the group gets larger and larger as we walk over to the Darkroom. All told, we wind up with fourteen people: myself, Santiago, Enrique, Claire, Sam, Pen, Sorrento, Chain, Sinclair, Charlotte, Lawrence, Chantelle, Morgan, and Rain.

When we get there, Enrique empties his pockets and shouts, “Enjoy!” as condoms go flying everywhere. There is a chorus of laughter, and people begin taking over benches and corners. There is a rustling of clothing and the wet sounds of people kissing and licking and sucking each other. At one point, someone calls out, “Who wants to be spit roasted?” and I laugh as Santiago eagerly volunteers. I am gazing at my fiance, enjoying watching her when I hear Lawrence say to Rain, “Don’t ever call me Larry while my fist is in your ass!” Morgan and Chain co-top Claire and Chantelle for a while, and Rain receives one of his infamous “poetry blowjobs,” reciting poetry in between grunts and thrusts. Everyone is enjoying themselves, but it’s not just the sex. There is a camaraderie that permeates the room. A few years ago, this would have felt like a bunch of strangers fucking. It still would have been hot, but this is different. This is a room full of friends and lovers, people who care a great deal about each other, who are not there just to get off. It feels like a community.

Suddenly, a fist grasps my hair and hauls me up from the leather bench I was sitting on. I gasp, a tingle traveling through my body that starts at the hand on my scalp and settles in my loins. Santiago drags me to the center of the room and pushes me down to my knees. “Time to show everyone that you belong to me.” She says something else, but it doesn’t register. It doesn’t matter. I know what she wants.

I grasp her hips and lean forward, purposely letting my hot breath fall against her pussy before I even touch her with my mouth. I kiss her outer lips softly, then open my mouth and lick at them gently. I hear her suck in her breath, and I grin. I love having that effect on her. Parting her lips with my tongue, I begin lapping at her clit. She moans above me and clutches my hair, pushing my face harder between her legs. I tense up the tip of my tongue and swipe it up and down, just the way I know she likes it. After a few moments, I can tell she’s getting close. I slide a finger inside, then another, and fuck her with my hand while she humps my mouth. She convulses around my hand, smothering my face as she cums. I wait until I’m sure she’s finished before removing my fingers.

As soon as she catches her breath, she pulls me up and kisses me passionately. “My turn.” She drops to her knees to return the favor.

“Oh, god,” I cry out as her tongue quickly finds my clit. Hearing her cum has me so turned on already that I’m cumming in less than a minute. “Oh– oh, god– yes, yes– Maria!” I gasp out. “Maria, oh, fuck, yes, please, ahh, god!”  My nails dig into her shoulders as my body shudders. “Maria, Maria, oh, fuck, Ma–Ma–MARIAAAAAA!

I’m leaning against her, still catching my breath, when I dimly hear a voice somewhere in the room ask, “Who the fuck is Maria?”

It’s Not A Party Until…

I am hanging out on the back porch when Enrique, Claire, Pen, Sorrento, Nate, and Sinclair. “Heyyy, Katherine… you busy?” Enrique asks.

I study the group. Claire is watching the exchange and giggling. “Umm… not really. I was just dancing. Why, what’s up?”

“Well, a few of us,” Enrique gestures toward his entourage, “were thinking about going over to the Darkroom.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Okay… so?”

“So, I was wondering if you’d like to come along.” He tilts his pocket toward me, and I see that it’s stuffed full of condoms.

I laugh and I glance over my shoulder at Santiago. “I might be convinced. Is this party invite-only?” Santiago catches my eye and comes over.

“What’s happening over here?” she asks, wrapping an arm around my waist.

“Enrique’s just invited us to a little gathering over in the Darkroom,” I answer, nodding my chin towards the pocket that he is still displaying.

“Oh, fuck yes!” Santiago exclaims.