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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Max’s Mistake

I am sitting on chair on the back steps with a white paper bag and a marker, writing a letter to Kimberly on my luminary when sudden shouting jars me from my thoughts.

“HOW FUCKING DARE YOU!” I look up to see what the commotion is. Santiago has climbed on top of one of the picnic tables, and her fists are flying.

Without thinking, I scramble over and physically pull her off of whoever she’s pummeling. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Several others have also run over to pull the two apart. As Sorrento, Enrique and I pull Santiago down from the table, Joani and some other Saratogans have appeared to help Max.

“You stay the fuck away from me! How dare you! You’re the reason she’s dead!” Santiago is yelling. I place myself physically in front of her to keep her from jumping on top of him again. “He asked me where Kimberly was,” she says loudly to the rest of us, still glaring at him. “It’s his fault she isn’t here! He’s the one who claimed he used a condom and then didn’t!” She’s shouting again.

Max is escorted away by his friends to another table as Sorrento and I lead Santiago a few feet away onto the wet grass. “What the hell was that?” I ask.

“I told you,” she says angrily. “He asked where Kimberly is. It’s his fucking fault she’s not here. Everyone knows how he told her he was wearing a condom and then didn’t. And she’s dead, and he has the fucking gall to ask where she is?”

I sigh. “Okay. I understand.” I stand there quietly for a few moments as her anger subsides and the chatter around us resumes. I quietly sneak away back towards the bonfire as Santiago and Sorrento are engrossed in conversation, my eyes scanning the partygoers. My eyes finally rest on Max, who is sitting across on the other side of the fire.

“Hey, Max?” I say casually as I stroll over. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”

He blinks up at me, looking surprised. “Yeah, sure.”

I raise an eyebrow when he doesn’t move. “Alone?”

“Oh! Umm, sure.” He stands up from the table.

I look around for a quiet place to chat, and settle on walking a few feet into the dark by the trees, just out of earshot. I turn to face him. He looks at me expectantly. I take a step closer to him and poke my right index finger into his chest as I speak. “Look. I don’t know what the fuck you were thinking, but you’re lucky that all she did was punch you,” I spit. “You have some fucking nerve, asking her about Kimberly like that.”

He pales. “I’m sorry,” he says, shrinking away from me.

“I don’t care if you’re sorry. You stay the hell away from her. Because next time, I won’t stop her.” My anger is cold and controlled, surprising even myself.

“I–I’m s-s-sorry,” he stutters again. He cowers a little.

“Sorry doesn’t bring Kimberly back from the dead,” I hiss. He recoils as if I’ve slapped him. I am still poking at his chest for emphasis. “It’s your fault she died.” Max is quiet, cowering wide-eyed in front of me.

“Stay the fuck away from me, and my family.” I glare at him again for another second before I turn on my heel and stalk away without a backwards glance, leaving him in the shadows.

I head back to Santiago, who is still chatting with Sorrento over on the grass where I’d left her. “Max won’t be a problem anymore,” I tell her.

“What? What do you mean?” she asks.

“I took care of him. He won’t be bothering us again.” I shrug at the suspicious look she gives me. “I just told him to stay away from you, is all. I’m gonna go finish my luminary.” I go back to my abandoned paper bag and pick up my marker to finish the letter I am writing to Kimberly.

No Escape From Death

I honestly don’t remember a lot about the morning after of 1983. It’s pretty hazy. I remember the ominous music, and I remember the Agents of Death demanding thirteen names instead of ten this time. I remember giving them three tickets again, especially since I’d been unprotected not only with women, but with men. I remember holding my breath as I listened to Pepper calling out people’s names. More than half of them were people that I knew and had recently interacted with in some way: Evelyn, Pen, Enrique, Mr T, Steven, Ruben, Abner, Trevor, Nick, Walter, Claire, Max… and Kimberly.

I remember my shock when I hear Kimberly’s name called, and my denial. There’s no way she’s going to die, I thought. She’s part of my group, one of my girls. I’m going to go down to the funeral field and she’s going to be fine. I think I really believed that, too… right up until I saw her laying in her coffin.

I remember waiting as the music continued playing, the only sounds in the room sobs and people shuffling about as they hugged and consoled each other. I remember the feeling of suspense as I wait for the Agents to come back and escort us down to the field where we would learn who passed. I remember the feeling of dread as I pause to peek into each coffin. The first one I stop at is Abner’s. I barely knew him, but he was a friend of Santiago’s, and I’d recently chatted with him about the possibility of including one of his poems in the Times alongside Sinclair’s interview.

I fling a flower onto his chest angrily. “Fuck you, Abner. And I’m still going to print your–” my voice cracks, “–stupid poem.”

I know before I even get there. Kimberly is nowhere to be found… she’s in one of these other caskets. I find her just behind Abner’s and look down for a moment, sobbing. I place a flower gently on her unmoving chest. “You fucking moron!” I gasp out between sobs. “I told you to be careful!” I am crying so hard that I can barely get the words out. But… it doesn’t matter.

The Agents call us back to begin the funeral. The Angel of Death stands before us once again. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Trevor.” It’s the same as last year: people hugging and sobbing. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Abner.” Grief, fear, determination, anger, sadness… all are present. “And we are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Kimberly.” As tears stream down my face, all of my emotions war for dominance.

I wonder which one is going to win.

Close Call

NOTE: This post contains spoilers related to the Lottery of Death.

As a player, I’m not entirely sure where in the timeline the Lottery of Death happens. I think that’s probably unclear on purpose; since it’s not the way things “really” happen (well, as far as we living people know, anyway).

People are in good spirits until the bell rings, signaling that the Lottery is about to begin. The room goes silent as ominous music fills the room. I sit close to Santiago, my left arm linked through her right. Nate already has a tear sliding down his face. I smile at him, slightly bemused. “Already?”

Santiago gives me a Look. “Well, yeah. This is scary,” she says. I immediately wipe the smile off my face and nod somberly. She’s right.

One of the two Agents of Death passes out small pieces of paper to write our names on: one for the least risky behavior over the past year, up to five for very risky. Everyone must throw their name in at least once. The second Agent collects the names in a hat from which they will pull the names of the unfortunate. I am unsure whether to put my name in two times or three, but in the end decide to go with my original instinct and put in three. Death announces that they need ten names. Ten? I think, looking around. steps There were roughly forty people. That’s a lot.

Death asks Pepper to pull the names. Pepper steps out of the kitchen and comes to stand at the front of the room. He reaches into the hat and begins reading off the names, not pausing for more than a second or two between each. “Sam. Tomasz. Max.” As each name is called, that person stands up and goes to the front of the room to wait.

“Simon. Leon. Ruben. Trevor.” The room is silent save for the music and Pepper’s solemn voice.

“Joani.” Gasps all around the room, and one high-pitched voice lets out a horrified wail of, “What!?” I am slightly shaken, myself. I knew Joani. Not well, but I knew her. She was a bit of a quack, but she was kind and she had a good heart.

“Dawn.” I hear a choked sob, and look over to see Charlotte’s shoulders shaking. I am sad for her, but feel surprisingly calm: lots of people were more risky than me and my friends. I become more and more relieved as names are called and none are people I am close with.

“…and Katherine.”

Santiago and I look at each other in shock. I hesitate, then realize they are waiting for me. I stand up to join the crowd of names that had been pulled, my eyes wide. This isn’t real. This isn’t happening. Santiago lets out a primal scream of grief that sounds almost inhuman. I jump, and look over numbly. Her face is buried in her arms.

“Please follow us outside. The rest of you, wait here.”

I fall into line in a daze as we follow of the Agents of Death dressed in black. As we march outside single file, I am filled with regret. “I made stupid choices,” I thought. “I should not have been so careless.” One anguished thought rises above the others: “I’m not ready to die!”

They lead us outside to a field behind the cabins. “Wait here. Do not speak.” We are left with the Angel of Death. I am standing amongst nine other people, and yet I have never felt so alone in my life. Tears stream down my face. We wait for what feels like forever before we are told to advance down the field. I can hear the distant strains of the same sad music from inside wafting down the field.

I see coffins in the distance. Only five? I squint in confusion. We are stopped about ten feet from the coffins. “Those of you who see your names in the coffins, lay down in them. If you are covered with a shroud, then you have passed on. The others who see your names in a coffin have contracted the virus, but you may not know it yet. The rest of you have had a near-death experience sometime later this year, but you survive.” My stomach drops as I advance, skimming the names in search of my own.

It isn’t there.

It takes a moment for the news to sink in. I’m not dead? I back away from the coffins and see the rest of the crowd starting to approach. Santiago rushes at me and envelops me in a bear hug. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again!” I find Charlotte and Kimberly and hug them, too. I look around at the crowd, which is a mixture of people embracing and sobbing. There are two bodies still in the coffins. I don’t remember who.

The music slowly dies down, and the Angel of Death faces us solemnly. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Leon.” The former disco star. I hear more gasping sobs from the people around me. The Angel of Death looks around sadly. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Simon.” The rock star? He was part of Urban Renaissance.

As the opening notes of Just A Little Lovin’ trickle from the speakers, there are no words. The vastly different cliques mingle, embracing both friends and strangers, united in their grief.

Empty Bed, Empty Heart

We are still enjoying the afterglow, lying wrapped in each other’s arms, when Abner walks in. He freezes mid-stride when he sees us. I grin widely and make a peace sign with my fingers, “‘Sup, Abner?” while Santiago bursts into laughter at the shocked look on his face.

He stammers, “I’m sorry… I can come back later, when you’ve finished… commencing.” He turns and is halfway to the door in the amount of time it takes me to open my mouth to speak.

“No, it’s okay,” I assure him, “we’re done.”

“But you’re lesbians. Can’t you… commence… several times?”

“Who says we haven’t?” Santiago challenges him, and then it’s my turn to dissolve into laughter. Abner sits on his cot, seemingly unsure what else to do.

“So, uhhh. You two, huh?” he says awkwardly.

“Yup!” I smile brightly. “So, what’s going on out there?”

We make small talk for a few minutes, Santiago and I snuggled up against each other under a blanket.

Just then, Kimberly bursts in. “What are you guys doing?! Charlotte is crying.”

What?” I exclaim. Both Santiago and I sit up and make a mad scramble for our clothing.

“What happened?” I demand, fastening my bra.

“She ran off,” Kimberly says evasively.

I sigh, slipping my feet into my shoes. Before we leave the cabin, Santiago grabs me and kisses me again. I relax against her, the entire world melting away.

“You guys! Your friend is crying! This is no time for making out!” We break apart guiltily and rush from the cabin to look for Charlotte.

We split up to look. First I check the main lodge, which is almost completely empty. I walk around just to make sure she isn’t hiding in a corner somewhere. Next, I check the bathrooms. “Kimberly?” I call out. It’s silent. No one there, either.

When I peek into the Darkroom I find Kimberly topless–well, “topless” at least in terms of clothing. She’s laying on the floor with Sam straddling her, pinching one nipple while slapping the other breast. I pause in shock. Her words from just a little while ago echo in my head: Your friend is crying! This is no time for making out! Well, this explains why Charlotte is upset. Kimberly catches my eye and grins at me. I shake my head in exasperation and turn around, walking silently back outside to continue my search for Charlotte.

I’m about to head toward the Pillow Room when I spot her across the path, walking with Dawn and… Max, I think his name was? Santiago spies her from across the field as well, and we arrive at the same time.

“Charlotte!” I call out.

She stops and looks at me. “Hey,” she says glumly.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “I heard you were… upset.” I choose my words carefully, glancing at Dawn and Max.

“I’m fine,” she says calmly. A bit too calmly.

“Are you sure?” I press.

“Yes. These two lovely people were about to show me a good time.”

I am taken aback: casual sex is not usually Charlotte’s style. And what the fuck  happened with Kimberly? I exchange a Look with Santiago. “Oh. Umm… okay. You’re sure you’re okay?” She nods. “Okay, well… have a good time, then.” I watch her skeptically as she disappears into her cabin the with two strangers.

I sigh softly. “I hope she’s okay.”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Santiago says. “She’s probably just blowing off some steam. Lord knows, she could use it.”

“Yeah. Well… I’m going to bed. Are you coming?”

“I’m going to stay up a little while longer,” Santiago says. Oh. My face falls. I know what that means.

“Okay… have fun,” I say, trying to sound cheerful.

“Thanks. See you later,” she says, heading back across the lawn.

I head back to the cabin, feeling strangely empty. The last thing I see before I fall asleep is Santiago’s empty bed.