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.

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Casual Cruelty

After the ceremony, the kitchen staff brings out a tray of the Saratogan’s infamous Green Drink. Kohana calls out to those gathered. “The color green holds the energy of life and growth.”

Kim, standing by his side, continues for him as the tray gets passed around. “We are survivors and in this green and growing place, we take health and life into our bodies.”

Kohana speaks again. “Drink and become vital, become vibrant.”

They speak the last word together: “Live!”

I haven’t tried it before, but when the tray comes around, I shrug and take a cup. I take a swig and almost gag. God, that’s foul. I set the cup down gingerly and look around.

“Where’s Sinclair?” I say aloud, to no one in particular. I haven’t seen him in a while, which strikes me as unusual.

Francis, Artie’s best friend who happens to be standing nearby, answers me. “He got pretty high and wandered off somewhere.”

“What? Shit.” I take off down the path to find him.

Sinclair has not been doing well recently: he’s been fighting more and more often with his wife Mary, who keeps demanding that he spend less time campaigning and more time at home with her and their children. She doesn’t know that at least half the time he’s “campaigning,” he’s actually been at Club Diamond with Nate. And he’s been getting pushes from several of our friends to come out publicly, which he is not quite ready for. I know that he’s been feeling pulled in a hundred different directions, and lately he’s been turning to drugs to escape. I’ve been asking him to slow down, to no avail.

At this point I’m feeling pretty sober, though the Green Drink does seem to be having the effect of heightening my emotions. I’m worried about the article I’ve promised Ruben I’ll write, I’m worried about the spreading disease, and I’m worried about the friends who will inevitably get sick. But right now, I’m focused on worrying about Sinclair.

I peek into the Darkroom, but he’s not there. I head for the Pillow Room. I don’t bother taking my shoes off; I simply peek inside. He’s not there, either. I turn to check the private room that’s in the same cabin as the Pillow Room, and find myself face to face with Ike.

“Hey, Ike. Have you seen Sinclair?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Ike says.

“Where is he? I’ve been looking all over for him. I heard that he was… not in a good place.”

Ike glances over his shoulder, then back at me. “He’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” I realize that Ike is not just casually hanging out – he’s guarding the door.

I eye him suspiciously. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. He’s with Ruben. They’re talking,” he says.

I relax. “Oh, okay. Good.” I trust Ruben. “Well, just… make sure he calls his wife, okay? She gets pretty upset when he’s out late and doesn’t call to tell the kids goodnight.” Ike nods, and I turn to go.

Just then, Chain walks in and marches straight up to Ike. “Where’s Sinclair? I need to talk to him.”

“He’s busy,” Ike says, firmly planting himself in front of the doorknob.

“Oh, come on,” Chain says. “I just want to talk to him.”

The door to the Pillow Room opens yet again. “Where is he?” Nate demands. Ike steps aside and lets Nate into the room he’d been guarding, then stands in front of it again, blocking Chain from following.

“What?” cries Chain. “Are you kidding me? Why does Nate get to go in?”

Ike sighs. “Because he’s Nate. Nate does what he wants.”

“What, does Sinclair need protecting? From you? You couldn’t even protect your own boyfriend from getting attacked,” Chain spits angrily.

Last New Year’s Eve, Ike and Ruben had ducked into an alley for a quick kiss. Unfortunately, they were spotted and attacked by some thugs who decided to “teach those fags a lesson.” In his fury and in trying to protect Ike, Ruben had ended up getting beaten so badly that he’d been airlifted to the hospital. He’d needed emergency surgery, and it was weeks before he could even speak. Even today, he still sometimes gets stuck on words or loses his balance.

I gasp at Chain’s callousness. I don’t know Chain well, but his words seem uncharacteristically cruel.

Ike shrugs, seemingly unperturbed by Chain’s comment. I hear a scramble behind the door, and Ruben bursts from the room. He advances on Chain, fists clenched. “What the FUCK did you just say to him?” he snarls. He’s standing so close that I can see bits of spittle land on Chain’s face.

“Ruben,” I say softly, laying my hands on his fists and gently pushing his arms back down to his side. He ignores me.

“How fucking dare you. Don’t you ever speak to him like that. EVER,” Ruben growls. His fists raise back up to his sides, and I push them down again before placing a hand on his shoulder. He is shaking with fury.

“Ruben,” I say again, gently. “Come on. You don’t want to do this.”

Thankfully, Chain seems to come to his senses. “You’re right. I should not have said that.” He turns to Ike.” I was very upset, but that’s not your fault. I’m very sorry.” He turns back to Ruben. “That was unfair of me. I apologize.”

Ruben scowls at Chain down for another moment without speaking, then turns and goes back into the room, pausing only to stroke Ike’s cheek briefly.

Winds of Change

I’m outside watching the bonfire when I see Ruben coming toward me, looking agitated. “What’s up?” I ask.

“It’s just– we need to– People need to do something!” he says angrily. He’s waving his arms around emphatically. “We can’t just ignore it anymore. People are out here partying, and–” His voice trails off.

I shrug, holding my palms up. “I don’t–”

He cuts me off. “No. We can’t just sit around anymore. People are dying.

His words shatter the walls I’ve had up all night. “Well, what do you want me to do?” I ask angrily.

“You know what,” he says. He looks at me intently, his eyes boring into me.

I study him for a long moment before I answer, looking at his earnest face. I’ve known Ruben for a long time, and I’ve never seen him like this before. I nod slowly. “Okay.”

“Okay?” he echoes.

“Yeah. Okay.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “What do you want me to do?” I ask again, gently.

“For starters, you could print that interview with Sinclair,” he says.

I hesitate. Sinclair will kill me. “I’ll think about it.” Ruben opens his mouth to argue. “I’ll print something,” I say quickly. “I’ll make it happen.”

He looks relieved, and hugs me. “Thank you.”

Just then, Terrence walks by. Ruben grabs his shoulder, launching into a similar pitch as the one he just gave me. Terrence shrugs Ruben off. “No. We’re here to party. Can’t I just enjoy my own party?” Ruben begins shouting at him. I roll my eyes. I can’t really blame Ruben for being frustrated, as this has been an ongoing theme for a long time: Ruben wants to talk, and Terrence is only interested in having fun. Not wanting to get in the middle of yet another argument between the two of them, I leave them to it and go back to the bar.

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.