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.

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.

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.

Still Got It

This year, the drag show has a mixture of sad, funny, and poignant acts. Marcie goes first, which is astonishing in and of itself – Nate usually opens the show himself. I’ve never really spoken with Marcie outside of our encounter backstage last year, and I am surprised when she announces to the audience that she’s positive. She cleverly pounds that point home with a play on the words: “Some of us are going to get sick: I’m positive. Some of us are going to die: I’m positive.” She launches into a heartbreaking rendition of Amazing Grace. After a few bars, the audience joins in and finishes the song with her. The mood is melancholy when she leaves the stage, but that changes quickly when the Queen of Manhattan comes out (so to speak). She performs beautifully as usual, and is just as sassy as ever. Mary Lou performs again this year, and this time receives a standing ovation. She’s really going places, I think. She’ll be on the radio soon!

Next, in an interesting juxtaposition from Mary Lou’s performance, the sounds of pop music fill the room. Chantelle bounces out from behind the curtain to perform Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” When she starts pulling people from the audience to dance with her, Santiago mutters, “Oh, hell no.” She leans over to me. “If she tries to get me up there, I’m sending you. There is no way I’m getting on that stage.” I laugh. True to her word, when Chantelle takes Santiago’s hand and tries to tug her on stage, she places my hand into Chantelle’s and shrinks away. Laughing, I allow her to pull me onto the stage. I aggressively dance very close to her, dipping her at the end of the song, and dance her off the stage still holding her very close. I wave at the audience as we disappear backstage.

I push Chantelle up against a wall and lean in to kiss her. She kisses me back, but after a moment she pulls away abruptly, looking behind me. I turn around and see a man dressed in a bright orange cut-off tshirt.

“Hey babe. This is Katherine. Katherine, this is Sterling – my husband.” Both Chantelle and Sterling seem unperturbed by the strange situation.

“Hello!” says Sterling.

“Hi there,” I say. I glance back at Chantelle. “So, did you want to continue…?”

She glances at her husband, but I shake my head. “Not him. Just you.”

“I can just watch,” Sterling interrupts. “I mean, if that’s cool with you.” He sounds eager.

I look back at Chantelle, who shrugs. “Okay, sure,” I say. “But let’s go outside, where it’s dark. Everyone else is inside watching the show, so it will be more private.”

They follow me outside via the stage door. I waste no time in pushing Chantelle up against the side of the lodge. I’m feeling aggressive tonight. My left hand holds her there by her throat as my right hand scratches her leg gently, starting at her knee and trailing up her inner thigh. I watch her face as my hand snakes up her skirt, and… oh.

“No panties, huh? You must have been hoping for some action tonight.” She gasps as my fingers make contact with her wetness.

I hear the rustling of clothing behind me. I’d forgotten Sterling was there.

“You love showing off for him, don’t you?” I taunt as I penetrate her. “Teasing him, showing him what he can’t touch?” I remove my hand from her neck and lean forward to nibble  the sensitive skin just behind her ear. She moans. I blow softly into her ear and pinch a nipple through her dress. I can hear wet, slapping sounds behind me. “Your husband is going to cum watching his wife get fingered by a lesbian,” I whisper into her ear.

Music is blaring from the window above us, and I can hear people hooting, “Yeah Reginald, WOOO!” Chantelle’s breath becomes shorter. She’s getting close. I keep fucking her while I play with her clit.

“Oh, fuck,” she gasps. Her hands clench into fists.

I can hear Nate thanking Reginald for his act just as Chantelle starts moaning her orgasm. I guess she’s a screamer. She pounds the window frame as she cums, and I can hear Sterling moaning behind me. “That’s it, straight girl. Cum for me.” I grin to myself. I’ve still got it.

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.

A Test You Can’t Study For

I almost miss the opening ceremonies again. I hurriedly shove my lipstick into my purse leave the bathroom, wading through the crowd to find Charlotte and Santiago. A couple of people do a double-take as I walk past, and I grin. I’m wearing a long-sleeved gold-colored shirt with decorative cut-outs around the collar. The shirt stops just above my midriff, and I’ve matched it with a pair of plain black slacks. It was not my usual style to show so much skin, but I am having fun showing off a little. Besides, I no longer have a job that I need to “look professional” for. What I didn’t tell people was that the shirt had actually been a loan from Kimberly, and this was my way of making sure she attended the party with us, at least in spirit.

This year, Terrence has arranged for HIV testing to take place on-site. Santiago and I decide to head over and get it out of the way at the beginning of the party. There is a long line of folks ahead of us. We’ve both been safe since the debacle last year, but sitting in the waiting room is still nerve-wracking. I am next in line when I see Sinclair rush through the waiting room. He doesn’t even notice us sitting there. A moment or two later I see Nate rush through the room after him. I turn and give Santiago a worried look, opening my mouth to speak.

“The doctor will see you now,” says the nurse.

I stand up, and Santiago also stands. I turn to her. “It’s okay. I can go by myself.”

“I’m coming with you,” she says. Her voice is insistent.

I sigh. “I don’t need–” I stop when I look at her face, seeing the fear behind her eyes. I nod. “Okay.”

The nurse leads us into a room where the doctor is waiting. “Hello. Please have a seat. Can you confirm your name?” His bedside manner is cold, brusque. I pretend that I’m not bothered by it, and cover up my nervousness.

“Katherine Stockton.”

“And why are you here?”

“For the AIDS testing,” I say.

He studies me. “Hmm.” His face is expressionless, but I can’t help feeling judged. “Tell me about your habits.”

I take a deep breath. “Well, I’ve had some unprotected sex over the years, since the outbreak started. Mostly with women, but last year there were a few men…” my voice trails off. I’m still embarrassed about that night, especially with Santiago standing next to me.

“I see,” the doctor says. “And this is your girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been together?” he asks.

“About three years now,” I answer.

“And you’re exclusive?”

“Well, no… but it’s pretty much just women.” The doctor is scribbling in his notebook and nods without looking up.

“We’re going to do a few tests.” He takes a few vials of blood and hands them to his assistant. The assistant leaves the room while the doctor scribbles some notes and Santiago and I wait silently.

A few moments later the assistant returns, handing the doctor a small slip of paper. The doctor reads it and then looks up at me. He is not smiling, and my heart skips a beat. “I have good news,” he says. I breathe a sigh of relief and sag slightly in my chair as he tells me that my results are negative. Santiago squeezes my hand, and I stand to let her take my seat.

The doctor goes through the same questions with Santiago, and takes her blood. I know that I’ve been riskier than her, so I’m pretty sure that she is fine… but I still let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding when the doctor tells her she’s negative.

We walk back through the waiting room into the hallway, giddy with relief. “Let’s wait for Charlotte and Sorrento,” Santiago says, gesturing towards the window that shows who is still waiting.

I nod. “Of course.”

A few moments later, Charlotte walks out. “Negative.”

“Thank goodness!” I hug her. “Santiago is just waiting for Sorrento, and then we can–” I stop when I see Claire over Charlotte’s shoulder. She’s walking slowly, looking dazed.

“Claire?” I ask. She looks up, and her face immediately crumples. Oh, no. I embrace her. “Oh, honey.” I stroke her hair. “It will be okay. We’ll take care of you. We all will.” I step back and Charlotte and Santiago also hug her, trying to sound reassuring.

Charlotte walks Claire back towards the party while I wait with Santiago for Sorrento. When he finally comes out, we look at him expectantly. He starts talking about something else when Santiago interrupts him. “So are you…”

He hesitates for a few seconds. “Oh! Yeah, I’m fine,” he says, shaking his head. “Negative.” I turn away to roll my eyes at his nonchalance.

Sleeping Alone, Again

I head back to my cabin, finally ready for sleep. I’ve just finished changing into my pajamas and brushing my teeth and arranging my blankets when Kimberly comes in. She gathers up her blankets and pillow.

“Where are you going?” I whisper curiously.

“To sleep in the Pillow Room,” she answers. “It’s more comfortable sleeping on the floor than on these horrible bed frames. Besides,” she flashes me a grin, “there are people to snuggle. You should come!”

I pause. “That’s… tempting.” I glance from Kimberly, to my cot, and back to Kimberly again. I yawn and take another step toward my cot.

“Seriously, you should come,” she says again.

“That is very tempting…” I say again. I take one more glance at her, then say, “Okay, fuck it. Wait for me.”

I gather up my blankets and pillow and follow Kimberly across the lawn, barefoot in the darkness. When I arrive, Santiago is there, gathering her things and putting on her shoes. Fernando lay in a corner, Nick massaging his back. Kimberly disappears into the private room.

“Hey, babe.” I greet her with a kiss. “I decided to sleep here. It will be more comfortable than the cots, and there’s so much room to snuggle! You should stay here with me.”

“Hmm, that sounds nice… but I promised Sorrento a quick chat before bed,” she says. Seeing my face fall in disappointment, she quickly says, “but I’ll come back. When I’m done.”

“Okay.” I kiss her again. “Goodnight.” I lay down and close my eyes, knowing full well that Santiago won’t be back tonight. My mind whirls, replaying the events of tonight over and over again in my head. I fall asleep to the sounds of Fernando and Nick whispering in the corner, feeling lonely and wishing that my girlfriend was there with me.