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

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It’s About Time

After the drag show, I am sitting at one of the tables outside when Artie appears next to me, beaming, and trailed by Francis.

“What’s up?” I ask. “You look happy.”

“Well,” he says, “umm… “ He blushes slightly and glances at Francis, who is smiling shyly.

I look from Artie to Francis and back to Artie again, a smile spreading across my face. “You know… it’s about time! I always knew you two were meant to be together. I’m just glad you finally figured it out.” I laugh at the stunned look on his face. I hug him and kiss his cheek, then turn to Francis. “You’re good for him,” I say, sticking out my hand to shake. “Besides… it’s good to have someone to distract him and keep him out of my hair!”

“Hey!” Artie protests, laughing.

Francis accepts my handshake. “Thank you.”

I narrow my eyes slightly. “You’d better be good for him,” I warn, but my eyes twinkle when I say it, and he laughs.

A Happy Beginning

As the dinner bell rings and everyone files in, I keep checking my pocket obsessively, feeling for the ring. I grab a burger and sit with Charlotte.

“Are you sure the speech is okay?” I ask nervously.

“It’s fine. You’re gonna be fine,” Charlotte says, patting my shoulder.

“Should I do it now? Everyone’s here. But they’re not sitting.”

“No, you should wait until people are sitting and eating,” says Charlotte, looking around.

I take a bite of my burger and immediately feel nauseous. I can’t eat. I’m too nervous. God, my hands are shaking. What if she hates it? What if she says no? Santiago catches my eye from the table where she’s sitting with her Literary Circle friends and smiles at me. Oh my god. I can’t do this.

I look around. “Now?” I ask Charlotte.

She glances around the room. “Yes. Now.”

I take a deep breath, stand up, and stand on a chair. “Excuse me! May I have everyone’s attention, please?” A few people have glanced up and begin hushing each other. “Could we turn the music off for a few minutes, please?” I call over to Tony. He complies.

I take another deep breath and begin to speak. “As you all know, it’s been a rough couple of years. We’ve all lost people who are dear to us: Simon, Leon, Trevor, Abner, and of course, Kimberly.” I pause. You could hear a pin drop.

“But with tragedy comes change,” I continue, “and rebellion, and friendship… and love.” I look around the room at the familiar faces, of friends I’ve known for years and years. “I’ve given each of you a sticker to remind you that we are not friends.” I pause for emphasis. “We’re family.”

I rush into my next line, sensing applause and not wanting to lose my flow. “Speaking of family… Artie and Charlotte have been my rocks for as long as I can remember.” I smile at each of them in turn, holding a hand over my heart. “But I couldn’t have gotten through the last year without Santiago.” My voice shakes slightly as I let my eyes finally land on her. “Can you come up here, please?” I watch her expression change from one of pride, to surprise.

I hop down from the chair as she stands up and makes her way over to me. “Katherine, what are you–” she whispers. I step backwards before she can finish, reaching into my pocket.

“I love you,” I say clearly, my voice surprisingly steady and confident. “And I can’t imagine life without you.” All traces of doubt gone now that Santiago is finally in front of me, I get down on one knee. “Will you marry me?”

Her eyes widen and her hands fly to her mouth as the crowd erupts into chaos. I can’t make anything out; all I hear is noise and the rush of blood in my ears.

She says something, but I don’t hear her over the sound of my own heart pumping. I look at her blankly. She steps forward and pulls me to my feet. “Yes! Katherine, yes!” She pulls my face to hers, and I wrap my arms around her. I’m dimly aware of people hooting and hollering around us as our lips meet. When she finally pulls away, I take her hand and slip the ring onto her finger.

Katherine’s Plan

“You’re a star,” I tell Joani, putting a sticker on her collar.

“You’re a star!” I tell Steven, putting one on his leather vest.

Artie watches, bemused, as I tell Francis, “You’re a star!” and press a sticker to the front of each his shirt. I turn to Artie and and smile back at him. “And you,” I say, putting a sticker on his shirt, “are my world.” I kiss his cheek.

“Awww, Katherine,” he says, hugging me.

“Oh! By the way… I wanted to show you this.” I look around to make sure no one else is watching, and pull a jewelry box from my pocket. “What do you think?”

He peers inside to see a gold band and a large “M” glittering with diamonds. “Oh, Katherine! It’s beautiful!”

Francis’ eyes widen. He comes closer and whispers, “Is that what I think it is?” I nod. “Wow! Congratulations!” He shakes my hand.

“Thanks,” I say, smiling from ear to ear. “I haven’t asked her yet, but… tonight. At dinner.”

Steven’s Outburst

I am uncharacteristically quiet as I sit near the bar. I’ve long ago switched to beer, and there are several empty cans on the table in front of me. I’m normally a happy, horny drunk, but after everything that’s happened tonight, my thoughts have finally caught up to me.

I’ve been hiding from the fact that I’m scared. People are dying, and sooner or later it’s going to be someone I care about. I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it by spending all of my time drinking and/or fucking, but it’s not working. Thinking about my conversation with Ruben, I wonder how I’m going to follow through on my promise without getting fired. But at least I’m doing something, I think. That’s the important thing.

“Katherine? I… oh, my god,” says Artie, noticing the empty beer cans on the table. “Are you okay? What are you doing?”

I’m fine,” I answer, staring out into the room. I don’t want to tell him what I’m thinking, especially not tonight, when we should all be having fun. I don’t want to ruin his party.

He puts a hand on my shoulder and bends down, studying my face. “No, you’re not. And this,” he gestures to the empty cans, “is unlike you. I’m worried about you.”

I smile up at him, squeezing his shoulder. “Seriously, I’m fine. These aren’t even all mine,” I lie. He looks dubious. “I’m gonna go check out the fire.” I kiss his cheek. “I love you, little brother. Go have fun. Get laid, or something.”

I step outside and walk over to the bonfire. Fire has always had a calming effect on me, and soon I am entranced by the flames. There are sounds of laughter and merrymaking all around me.

“WHAT THE FUCK!!”

I almost jump out of my skin as a very loud, very angry voice shouts through the din. I look up to see who is shouting. It’s Steven. He shouts again.

“What. The. FUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!! People have stopped speaking, and every eye is on him. “WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT IS HAPPENING AROUND YOU?” The party has gone completely silent. “Simon was my friend, my brother, AND I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT INSTRUMENT HE PLAYED!” Steven pauses, his stare icy as he looks around. “No one told his brothers he was dying because they DIDN’T KNOW WE EXISTED. We live in too many fucking closets. People are passing out on stage and you just ignore it. The show must go on. It is all we have. Put it in a FUCKING CLOSET.” He glares at us, chest heaving. “We all promised we were going to make luminaries to honor our friends at midnight. Well, that’s in ten minutes, and no one has made a single one. Because we just PUT IT IN THE FUCKING CLOSET and go PARTY. Well, this is not all we have. WE ARE MORE THAN JUST A PARTY. So come out of your closets, do your fucking job and HONOR YOUR FRIENDS.” Steven turns on his heel and walks back inside. After a moment of shocked silence, several people follow him inside. There are soft murmurs through the rest of the crowd.

All at once, the emotions I’ve been trying to stifle catch up with me: fear of getting sick and dying, fear of my friends dying, shame at forgetting about the luminaries, guilt at not having done anything to help with the growing crisis. I barely knew Leon or Simon – with the exception of a few fleeting moments when Nate and I laughingly tried to convince Simon to dress in drag for last year’s Urban Renaissance performance – but Steven is right: they were part of our family. I decide to join the people who’d gathered inside and create a luminary.

There is a small group of party-goers sitting at one of the tables which has white paper bags, tea light candles, and markers strewn all over. They almost look like children at summer camp doing arts and crafts, were it not for the somber looks on their faces. I spot Steven sitting at the head of the table. He is speaking with a few people in hushed tones, and I feel a sudden overwhelming urge to hug him. So, I do. I stride over and touch his shoulder to get his attention. He barely has a chance to look up and see who is in front of him before I reach down and embrace him. Tears fill my eyes and spill over, and I squeeze him tightly for a long moment. When I step back, I look into his eyes and say, “Thank you.”

He looks startled but also grateful. “Thank you.

I wipe my eyes and take a seat at the table. “Pass me that marker, will ya?”

What If It’s…

This is slightly out of order in terms of when it happened for the players, but makes sense to be discussed here in terms of Katherine’s timeline: I wanted a Black Box scene to show how Katherine’s friends and family would react to her near-death experience.

I lay in bed, coughing uncontrollably. Santiago, Charlotte, my little brother Artie, and Sinclair are gathered in my bedroom. Artie is holding a cool washcloth to my fevered brow.

“So cold,” I mumble. “Why is it so cold in here?”

Artie calls to the others, “Can we get some extra blankets?” Santiago gently lays another comforter over me.

After a moment, I throw them off. “Too hot.” A moment later, I start shivering again.

Artie covers me with the blankets again and takes a step away from the bed. “She’s burning up,” he murmurs. “Cold sweats. We have to do something.”

I can hear Sinclair on the phone, giving a list of my symptoms. He sounds tense. “That’s right. Swollen lymph nodes, fever, cold sweats, and she can’t keep anything down. … No, no rash or lesions. ” His voice quickly gets louder and turns angry. “What do you mean, you can’t see her? Don’t you know who I am?!” he yells into the phone. This is the third or fourth hospital he’s called.

Charlotte yanks the receiver from his hand. “You can’t do this! You have to treat her! This is discrimination!” She launches into a tirade of legalese and then stops abruptly. “They hung up,” she says quietly. I hear a chorus of sighs.

Artie mops my brow again. His image becomes fuzzy. All of a sudden, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am dying. “Daddy?” I whisper weakly. He hovers over me, looking concerned. I reach out to clutch his hand and see a female figure just to his left. “Mommy?” My mother backs away from the bed as I reach for her. I look at my father, confused, and his face morphs back into Artie’s. I glance up and see Charlotte staring at me, horrified. I convulse as another coughing fit takes wracks my body.

“Isn’t there anyone else we can call?” Charlotte says desperately. Santiago sighs heavily, and the others turn to look at her.

“What?” Sinclair asks her.

“…Enrique” she answers. “He’s a med student. He might be able to help.” Sinclair hands her the phone without another word. She takes the phone and dials a number.