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Camp Connection: An Intimacy Ritual Horror Story

Leigh Alexander (author)
Published 28 Dec 2023


min read
Illustration by Alice Guerin

For a long time now, Maye had been fantasizing about escaping to a remote island. Someplace where the pines whisper, thick with the smell of sap, about how to be present and original. Where stars and silence could teach her to reconnect with her body’s natural voice, whatever the fuck that was.

From the deck of a lake boat, Maye saw the island drawing closer, dotted with conifers. She could smell churning silt as the boat gently rocked, and when Maye looked at her device, it announced NO SIGNAL like a prophecy.

Something had been getting in the way of Maye’s intimacy with others, but she did not know what it was. In the week ahead, she intended to confront and repair it, once and for all. That was the promise of Camp Connection, a retreat for people suffering from extreme loneliness.

Annoyingly, there were at least twenty other people on the boat, rustling their plastic ponchos and talking and talking. As Maye stood at the rail, she caught pieces of their conversations: Mostly pointless things, like where they had come from, what they did for jobs, how they’d been selected for the Camp. Two women sitting near Maye were already loudly discussing their traumas. Some people with extreme loneliness just dumped on each other relentlessly, while others withdrew.

Maye kept her back to everyone, their noise stiffening her shoulders. If it was so easy for them to talk to each other, then what did they need Camp Connection for? It cost a five-digit sum to attend. Maye, a pharmacy technician, had spent her entire savings on raffle entries to ensure she’d win her place. She felt there had been no other choice. This was her last chance.

Maye had been obsessively following Kevin Commitment for over a year, after finding out about his work from someone in her court-ordered sensitivity class. Kevin Commitment was a leading Intimacy Influencer who specialized in promoting healthful and authentic connections among people. When he announced Camp Connection on his channel, he promised to love each Camper until they reached their goal of Ultimate Connection, and Maye was impressed that a total stranger would make such a commitment to her. After seeing his smooth, shiny face and hearing his voice every day, Maye couldn’t wait to meet Kevin Commitment in real life. He could turn out to be her Ultimate Connection, and then all the saving and struggling would be worth it.

On the other side of the lake boat, a tall woman was standing alone at the rail in hiking clothes, her long frame making a brushstroke on the air. Maye noticed how closely-cropped the woman’s short, dark-dyed hair was at her nape, and as she often did, slipped easily into fantasy: What would it be like to be the hairdresser who leaned in close to the back of that long, elegant neck and buzzed all the tiny trimmings away? What was the tall woman wearing beneath the hairdresser’s big black cape? Did she look at herself in the mirror, or did she read her device while the hairdresser made that clipper hum against such a vulnerable place? Lucky her, Maye reflected with a sigh, and then stopped herself. She was doing it again.

Camp Connection was held on the site of what used to be an overnight camp for teens. Maye had watched the promotional video on Kevin Commitment’s channel probably a thousand times. Refurbished wooden bunkhouses nestled deep among the pines in a horseshoe shape, with rustic gravel fire pits and old tires tied to ropes. Red kayaks bobbed along the shore, and people spent an hour every morning and evening sitting in a circle just breathing with the trees and listening to the birds.

The part that scared Maye most were the clips of long-haired weirdos holding hands and whispering in each other’s ears, doing trust falls into one another’s arms. But Kevin Commitment always said that vulnerability is uncomfortable by nature, and that people had to push through their fears to find healing.

The Campers disembarked from the boat and clomped along a metal pier to a welcome area staffed by counselors in baby-blue T-shirts that said RADICAL VULNERABILITY on the front and ULTIMATE CONNECTION on the back. Maye was disappointed to see that Kevin Commitment was not among them, and also that she did not end up in the registration line behind the tall woman. For some reason, Maye imagined the woman would have a sweet smell, and in a program like this one, she might actually get to find out. Her heart quickened.

“Just need to collect your device, now,” a counselor told Maye after she had finalized her registration. On a picnic table was a large lucite box with a padlock on it, and inside was a pile of lozenges and rectangles and screens that gave her chills. It was like looking at a box of medical waste, and in her hand Maye’s own device suddenly felt as heavy as a live organ and just as visceral. As the counselor reached out to take it from her, Maye just stared at their hand.

“Don’t be afraid,” the counselor said softly, placing their hand over Maye’s. No one had touched her hand on purpose in as long as she could remember. “You have to trust the process.”

Maye wanted to trust the process, she really did, but she was already sweating in the mild sunlight. “What if I have an emergency,” she said, her own voice sounding small. “Can I get it back then?”

“You won’t,” the counselor. “We have full security and medical staff on site. Uncle Kevin’s got your back.”

Uncle Kevin. Maye liked the sound of that. It felt warm and trustworthy in a therapeutic setting, she thought, and at last the counselor was able to pry her fingers from the device and put it in the box with the others.

“Is Kevin here?” Maye asked hopefully. The counselor nodded, and pointed Maye toward the dappled, swaying shadows of the deeper woods.

Maye walked with the group down a gravel path through the pines, passing under a wooden arch that announced the threshold of CAMP CONNECTION. The two women who’d sat near her on the boat were really getting into it. One of them had the kind of visibly pebbled lips that only come from the calcification of old-school hyaluronic injections, giving away her age despite the unnatural tightness of her face. Maye overheard how she’d been traumatized after getting married on a reality show, which, honestly, sounded like asking for it. The other woman was older, with gray hair in frizzy twists, and she kept talking about something called “video game streaming,” which did not even sound like a real problem to get sick from.

As soon as the Campers entered the bunkhouse clearing, Maye saw the Kevin Commitment, existing for real in the physical world. It was surreal to see him in person, his eyes such a deep brown that it was hard to tell where the black pupils began and ended. He was shorter than Maye expected, and his face was oddly smooth, plump and shiny in places and lean and sunken in others, so that it was impossible to determine his age. The kind of face that was built to be looked at through a screen, but he had great hair, dark glistening waves he kept pushing back with his articulate hands, a self-caress.

Kevin was wearing one of the baby blue T-shirts too, except his said ULTIMATE CONNECTION on the front, or maybe he was just wearing it backwards. Either way, Maye thought it could be a sign. “I never take this off,” he announced. “I wear it every day, and I don’t wash it, either. The first connection our senses make is with ourselves.”

Maye started clapping, and everyone joined in. She hoped Kevin would notice that she started the applause and smile at her, but for some reason, he did not, even though he was supposed to have her back. She wondered, somewhat guiltily, if he smelled as shiny as he looked, especially in his unwashed T-shirt. The tall woman was not clapping either, which stung, too. Maye pushed her discomfort down. She really wasn’t supposed to be starting this type of thing already. She needed to trust the process.

“You are all here because you have lost the ability to truly connect,” Kevin began, clasping his hands and addressing the group. Before him was another picnic table, laid with dozens of little paper cups that had a shot of something yellow inside.

“My name is Kevin Commitment, and I am here to help you find it again, through my proven system of five ‘R’s,” he went on. “At Camp Connection, you will Recover from our modern condition, Restore your senses, Rediscover your natural vulnerability, and Reactivate your organic neuroplasticity. And we will do that by practicing the fifth ‘R’: Ritual.”

“I have before me here a Trust Drink that I squeezed with my own two hands.” Kevin made  a sweeping gesture to indicate all the little paper cups. “There are skin cells from the entropy of my palms in every cup, and for the first ritual, we will all drink in your trust in me together, transmuting our fear of intimacy. By the end of this week, we will all be closer than skin to each other.”

All the Campers eagerly surged toward the table to take a paper cup, and Maye took one, too. The yellowish liquid was warm, and there was a little film on its surface that made Maye want to shudder, an urge she obediently transmuted for the sake of the process.

“You may even form the Ultimate Connection: True Love,” Kevin said. “Will you drink to that?”

The Campers all looked around at one another, each obviously wondering if their Ultimate Connection was among the gathered, each awaiting one another for permission to drink. For the first time, though, Kevin Commitment was looking directly at Maye. His dark gaze felt pointed, and it made her uncomfortable, but that was how vulnerability was supposed to feel. Maye raised the Trust Drink to her lips.

It was apple juice. At least, Maye was pretty sure that’s what it was. She hadn’t tasted apple juice since she was a child.

  • **

After the Truth Drink ritual, there was a Pair Bonding announcement. Every Camper was going to be assigned a bunkmate, although the counselors made it very clear that your bunkmate might not be your Ultimate Connection, and you had to be open to vulnerability with everyone. Maye was one of the last to receive her assignment, but when at last it was read out that she would be bunking with Janice, the tall woman with the neat buzz cut at her long nape, she felt it had to be another sign.

The bunkhouse’s interior smelled like old wood, with the lingering odor of something sweet, maybe the apple juice. Maye watched Janice unpack a duffel bag that was full of nothing but hiking clothes. She noticed Janice’s hunter-green crop fleece, and imagined Janice shopping for it at an aspirational retail location online. An AI chat window would have popped up to ask Janice if she needed any help, and Janice, self-sufficient, would have just ignored it. If Maye had been with her, she would have helped. If she found herself shopping with Janice, she would know her sizes intimately.

“So what are you looking for here,” Maye asked Janice.

“Just want to feel better,” Janice shrugged, without turning her back, laying a pile of tightly-folded camouflage waterproofs out onto her cot. There were two cots across the room from each other, and Maye wondered if they needed to be so far apart in sleep if they were really going to be vulnerable with each other.

“Me too,” Maye replied. Janice simply went on unpacking her utilitarian clothing, and Maye felt an uncomfortable sensation under her skin, like a stone in her sock.

The first day of Camp was already growing hot by the time everyone was settled in. Counselors blew whistles to summon all the Campers to the fire pit, where Janice stood a good distance away from Maye, which was probably good. Besides, Maye couldn’t take her eyes off Kevin Commitment. He was just so tight and shiny.

“All of you have come here to relearn radical vulnerability, and to search for the Ultimate Connection,” Kevin Commitment told the group.

Privately, Maye felt this was slightly off-message. She had come to Camp Connection for the five Rs, particularly the “recover” one, and if she thought too much about the Ultimate Connection part, there was the risk of slipping back into her old ways. It must simply be that the other campers, who were not as big fans of Kevin as Maye was, needed him to distill his complex methods into accessible takeaways. That had to explain it.

“Today, you’ll engage in ritual challenges that I designed to help you break down the barriers to your vulnerability,” Kevin Commitment said. “I would just like to remind you all that as part of your registration process, you each provided your consent to be filmed for my channel. This is so we can share the message of Camp Connection with as many people as possible, and also to build your vulnerability tolerance.”

Maye did not remember providing any consent to appear on Kevin Commitment’s channel, and in fact she had not seen any visible cameras. She fully understood the need to build her vulnerability tolerance, but the idea of appearing before millions of people also seemed off-message. Millions of Mayes, interpreted by millions of viewers.

Maye raised her hand, and felt a thrill of fear when Kevin whirled and jabbed his finger in her direction and shouted, “Maye! More than anyone else here, you need to trust the process.

The others all stared at her, a murmur of inaudible judgment animating their every gesture. Video Games even leaned into Pebble Lips and whispered. Maye found herself thrust into a vivid fantasy: Video Games definitely lived in a sad condominium, where a hairbrush full of gray wiry hairs probably just lay openly on the bathroom counter. The kitchen would be stacked with canned spaghetti. There had to be a dirty home office desk stacked with anime action figures, bookshelves lined with dingy plush toys. Maye could break in through a window, snap the head off one of the toys, and leave it on the floor like a cat’s trophy.

Kevin was right. It was urgent for Maye to trust the process.

So you’re okay with being filmed, Maye?” Kevin said. Maye nodded, and then everyone clapped. Maybe once millions of people saw her on Kevin Commitment’s channel, they would say: of course. Maye and Kevin have formed the Ultimate Connection.

The sun began to climb, and Kevin introduced the first vulnerability ritual of the day, a game called Device Whispers. As the Campers sat with Kevin in a circle around the firepit, he explained that all each person had to do was whisper something in the ear of the person sitting to their right. You could choose to repeat what was whispered to you, or you could say something new, but the only requirement was that it was something true.

“You can pass on a fellow Camper’s truth to the circle, or you can add your own,” Kevin said. “The goal is to feel the breath of your neighbor, and to breathe the truth onward.”

Still shaken by being pointed at by Kevin and whispered about by the others, Maye was horrified to find herself to the right of Video Games, meaning Video Games would have to whisper in her ear. To her own right was the man in harem pants, whose name might be Ricardo. From the window of her bunkhouse, she’d seen him solemnly doing movement exercises by himself, had already rifled through all the odors and caresses of his life in her imagination.

“As you perform this ritual, you may experience sensations, and that’s normal. I’ll start us off,” Kevin Commitment said, and he leaned to his right to whisper into Janice’s ear. Maye felt a sensation, all right:  She imagined the temperature of Kevin’s wet breath and the clean taste of Janice’s shell-like earlobe at the same time.

A whisper began to susurrate around the circle. Maye’s scalp crawled, but it was not unpleasant. Then Video Games leaned in close, smelling like sad condominium: “I just want to kill everyone,” she whispered, and Maye felt her hot, baited giggle brush the fine hairs of her cheek, as if Video Games were confessing something embarrassing.

The back of Maye’s neck prickled up. She wondered if this was Video Games’ truth, or someone else’s, or everyone else’s, and looked around the circle. Everyone else had the relaxed body language of people who fully trusted the process, and as Maye stalled, Kevin looked at her sharply again.

“I just want to kill everyone,” Maye whispered to Harem Pants. It did feel like a radically vulnerable thing to say, but it also did not feel true, and she wondered if this would ruin the ritual somehow. The more they whispered around the circle, the wetter Maye’s temple felt. It felt like her skin would wrinkle like damp crepe paper and peel off like an apple skin, starting at the high corner of her eye and then curling a strip along her cheekbone.

“How did that feel!” Kevin asked the group at last, but it seemed to be another rhetorical question. He pointed at Pebble Lips: “What was the last thing you heard?”

“I just want to feel everyone,” Pebble Lips replied dutifully, and everyone in the circle clapped. Harem Pants said, “wow, that’s powerful.”

“Yes!” Kevin shouted. “The truth is powerful. But can anybody tell me whose truth Kendra just spoke?”

The group looked around at each other nervously. Maye looked at each face, but there were no clues. It must have been Kevin Commitment himself, she thought, planting the first whisper in the circle. His super-dark eyes did have an uncanny eagerness to them, although Maye knew she was not a good reader of others. She always got it wrong, and that was a big part of why she was here.

“That’s right,” Kevin Commitment said, although nobody had said anything. “We can never really know each other through second-hand information. Do you understand?”

“In our original state as human beings, trust was established through first-hand experiences. We connected with others through the eyes, and developed knowledge of each other based on how we experienced one another in person,” he went on. “Those experiences formed memories, and by forming memories, we also form trust, right?”

“Yes,” said Pebble Lips and Video Games in unison, and Maye also said “yes.” Eventually more people started saying “yes,” too, and Kevin Commitment smiled proudly at them, like they were all doing so well already.

In today’s society, we experience each other only as data, in mediated spaces,” Kevin went on. “Instead of connecting with our hearts and minds, we project information-driven versions of ourselves, and engage selectively with the information others provide, with no way of knowing what is true. We no longer need to remember each other, because our devices act as external organs that store these disjointed, performative images in place of shared memories. How can we know a person based only on external information? How can we be truly vulnerable, how can we form genuine sense memories, in a world where everything is as distorted as whispers?”

“We can’t,” shouted a man wearing harem pants. “We can’t,” Maye echoed, and Kevin Commitment pumped his fist and said, “Yes!”

“When we displace the act of connection onto devices, we ourselves become displaced,” Kevin Commitment said. He paused for effect, clasping his hands. “This creates a condition I call Online Dissociative Disorder. The loneliness you have come here to heal is not your fault. It is your ODD, and Camp Connection is the cure.”

Maye wanted to cry. She had ODD, and it was not her fault, and there was a cure. All the money she spent would have been worth it just for this truth alone.

Someone’s hand went up. “So you’re diagnosing us all with an internet disease?”  It was Janice, and she sounded dark and skeptical.

“Online Dissociative Disorder, Janice,” Kevin Commitment said patiently. “When we name it, we can cure it. Why grieve our suffering when we can celebrate solutions?”

Janice did not look convinced.”Trust the process,” Kevin told her, pointing his finger.

After a Trust Ritual that involved pretending to wash each other with the breath of the trees, the group trooped through the woods on their daily afternoon Trust Hike. Maye had been excited about the Trust Hikes and their potential to return her to an original state. But it was hot, and Maye could smell everyone else’s sweat below the sweetness of the pines. Her legs were already beginning to ache from all the Trust, and as she watched Kevin’s unwashed back (RADICAL VULNERABILITY), she felt a sneaking suspicion that he might not be her Ultimate Connection after all.

“This is what we call the Honesty Box,” Kevin Commitment announced, as they passed a turquoise portable toilet at the bend in the path. Although nobody laughed, Maye appreciated Kevin’s use of humor, or she assumed that’s what it was.

Carefully and quietly, Maye fell into step behind Janice, who was walking alone. Despite the heat, she wore her hiking waterproofs, which swished with every efficient step. There was definitely a fruity smell to Janice, and Maye imagined tenderly wiping the grimy trickle of sweat from the back of Janice’s freshly buzzed neck.

“How are you feeling about the diagnosis,” Maye asked Janice.

“Like everyone’s covered in skin,” Janice replied, without turning around.

“Me too,” Maye replied automatically. Maybe her Ultimate Connection was Janice. She imagined Janice was the kind of person who easily put wines into sauces, and who would leave their shared bathroom pleasantly humid and smelling like fresh cologne. She looked forward to the Unstructured Time they had scheduled before their barbecue dinner, but when she came back to the bunkhouse, Janice for some reason never appeared, and Maye fell asleep without realizing. It had been a tiring day of Trust Rituals.

Dinner was delayed, too. Kevin Commitment had promised that the campers would take turns feeding barbecue chicken wings to one another by hand, but when at last they were all summoned to the fire pit, it was dark, and there was no smell of food. Maye noticed that Pebble Lips and Video Games were nowhere to be found. Someone said they had been missing since the Trust Hike earlier, and people started to murmur.

Harem Pants was freaking out and pacing around: “Did anyone check the Honesty Box,” he kept asking. “I think they went in the Honesty Box together.”

They must have found the Ultimate Connection,” Kevin Commitment said solemnly, framed by the glow of a flickering bonfire. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

But instead of the hand-fed barbecue Trust Dinner that was on the schedule, the campers ended up being fed plain cheese sandwiches on plastic-wrapped paper plates as security staff searched for Pebble Lips and Video Games. Maye sat on the porch of her bunkhouse with Janice, watching red and blue lights weave among the distant pines. She heard crickets chirping, and the occasional staticky cry of a radio.

“How did you come down with ODD,” Maye asked Janice.

“I was a content moderator,” Janice replied, chewing calmly, staring into the woods like a coyote. Maye found herself wondering if Janice was good with children, or at putting up holiday decorations.

“Do you think those two are really in the Honesty Box,” Maye tried, with a nervous giggle. “Or, like, is Kevin Commitment going to kill us off one by one?”

For long moments, Janice only went on eating her cheese sandwich, and so Maye did, too. The food seemed to taste only of apple juice, and flies kept landing on her styrofoam plate. Finally Janice stood up, her body a long, dark column pulled upright.

“Let’s see what happens if we trust the process,” Janice said. Then she went into the bunkhouse, leaving Maye by herself.

  • **

In the morning all the campers drifted out of their bunkhouses wearing the RADICAL VULNERABILITY T-shirts provided to them by Camp Connection. Kevin Commitment was standing at the cold firepit, and beside him were two security guards with guns on their hips.

“There has been… an elimination,” Kevin told the group, clasping his hands. There were heavy shadows below his eyes as if he hadn’t slept, he was shinier than before, and his shirt still proclaimed ULTIMATE CONNECTION. “Davina and Kendra are unfortunately no longer with us.”

A murmur went up through the group. “What does that mean,” Harem Pants shouted.

Kevin Commitment interrupted, pointing his finger. “Do not let your ODD win, Ricardo,” he declared, a tremor in his voice. “Our dedicated onsite team will deal with any problems that arise, so for your safety, Campers, do not attempt to leave the island. Uncle Kevin has got your back!”

There was a scattering of uncertain applause, but Maye did not clap. Camp Connection was her last chance, and maybe it was the same for all the others, but being told she should not leave cast a pall.

“Vulnerability is uncomfortable by its nature, and we have to push through fear to find healing,” Kevin said. “Think of this as a surprise invitation to become vulnerable in the most radical way there is: By sharing our fear.”

Maye did see how this made a sort of sense, even if she hoped she and Kevin had different definitions of elimination. Returning to her old life was not an outcome Maye could accept. Ricardo with the harem pants must have ODD just as bad as hers, because he pulled his guitar into his lap and began playing a song without being asked, looking around meaningfully at the group. One by one, the campers started reaching for each other’s hands.

Maye found herself taking Janice’s smooth, warm hand, again noticing Janice’s strange, sweet smell. If Kevin Commitment really did intend to eliminate the campers one by one, maybe she could make Janice her Ultimate Connection before the end.

“Maybe… you’re gonna be the one that saves me,” Ricardo sang with a pained expression, while Kevin strode around the campers’ circle, pumping his fists and intermittently shouting, “Yes!”

After the song, they were handed more fly-spotted styrofoam plates of cheese sandwiches to eat for breakfast. The Camp Connection stories on Kevin Commitment’s channel had promised three Trust Meals a day, hand fed by fellow campers, but nobody complained. Investigating the elimination of Video Games and Pebble Lips must have thrown the schedule off.

After they ate, Kevin asked for a show of hands to see if the campers were willing to continue with the schedule despite the surprise elimination. “All will be explained,” he promised. Maye looked around and saw everyone raising their hands. Kevin gave her one of those shiny, pointed looks, his eyes narrowed so that their super-dark centers seemed to take up all the space. Maye raised her hand, too.

Kevin Commitment explained to the campers that they were going to perform a ritual called Killer. One secretly selected camper would be the killer, and as the campers walked around exchanging eye contact, the killer would wink at them and they would have to lie down, dead. The other campers would have to accuse the right killer before they all died.

“Now I’m going to ask you to close your eyes,” Kevin Commitment said. “The person whose shoulder I touch is the killer.”

Maye closed her eyes and began to feel uncomfortable. Somewhere near her, Ricardo was breathing very loud. She tried to smell Janice, but the charcoal scent of the firepit was stronger. She had the nagging worry that it was very insensitive to do a ritual called Killer while real people were suspiciously missing. But then again, if she knew anything about sensitivity, she would not be here.

She imagined that Kevin Commitment could hear her critical thoughts, her mistrust of the process, and sure enough, she felt a tap on her shoulder, a whiff of unwashed cotton in its wake. Maye felt a wave of anxiety. She did not want to be the Killer. All the other campers would have expectations of her, and she would have to look each one in the eyes, which was already a lot of pressure without all the winking and killing without being caught.

“Now you’re going to open your eyes,” Kevin Commitment said. “There is a Killer among you. Be vulnerable, and be observant. I’ll be right back.” Then he turned and jogged up the path that led through the woods to the security bungalow, leaving the campers alone.

The campers seemed unsure if they were meant to seek eye contact, or to try to avoid it. Several people looked at Maye, including Ricardo, whom she did want to kill, mostly because of the guitar, but it felt like everyone was watching her and it would be unsafe to wink. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Janice heading for the tree line, and felt a dark flush of frustration. What point was Kevin Commitment trying to make in assigning her the role of the Killer? And how large was this playing field supposed to be? Everyone seemed to be wandering in whatever direction they felt like. Maye thought she might have a better chance of killing people among the trees, at least.

Janice was the one she wanted to kill the most. She would look right into Janice’s beautiful brown eyes, wink, and Janice would fall to the pine carpet with a swish of her hiking waterproofs, the surrender of true love. They would tell friends the cute story of how they met – well, she killed me! – on the front porch of the farmhouse she felt sure Janice had. Maye started walking with long strides into the woods, in the direction she’d seen Janice vanish in her camouflage.

Maye walked the path, listening for any sign of Janice’s purposeful footfalls. There was none, but for some reason, she saw Ricardo’s guitar just lying in the underbrush. The sound of a man’s shout echoed from somewhere deep in the woods, and then another one. She couldn’t tell if the person was hurt, or if they were just playing more games, but all that mattered to her was that it wasn’t Janice.

Through the trees nearby, Maye caught a flash of bright turquoise and heard an eerie thumping: The Honesty Box.

She crept closer, and heard a voice inside cursing and struggling with the door. Then it banged open, and a very tight, very shiny Kevin Commitment stumbled out, sleek hair clinging to his grimy brow. He looked distressed, wiping his hands on his ULTIMATE CONNECTION T-shirt, and Maye suddenly felt like there was something very wrong.

“Maye, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be the Killer,” His dark eyes narrowed, and then he stepped back. “You’re not the real killer, are you?”

“What do you mean, real?” Maye said, a cold feeling creeping in despite the hot sun. She suddenly wondered how far away the security bungalow was.

“Right now I’m trying to manage what could potentially be a huge issue for my content brand,” Kevin said, rubbing his hands together and then running them through his hair. “So would you please go back to the group and be the Killer?”

“Are you serious,” Maye said. “Those people were actually killed? I thought it was some stupid game for your channel.”

“This is going to ruin everything for the channel. I thought you were a fan,” Kevin said. “We almost thought it might be unethical to take that much raffle money from an obsessive type like you.”

“Of course we looked into all the campers’ backgrounds, Maye, if that’s your real name. How many profiles have you made to get around all those court orders? Stalking and harassment?” Kevin was looking so tight and shiny he could burst. “I thought I could help you, but you have a real attachment disorder, Maye, not just an online one. Right now, you’re at the top of my list of suspects.”

“I think I’d like to leave,” Maye whispered, feeling unplugged and far away from herself and strangely light, like there was an organ missing in her body.

No one’s getting off this island right now,” Kevin Commitment said, wiping his face on his shirt before turning back up the path toward the security bungalow. “This is real life. I have to deal with this emergency, so go just back to the group and be the Killer, Maye. Try to trust the process, for once.”

Even if people were dying, Kevin Commitment could not make Maye play the Killer. There was no way he could keep her on this island against her will. She decided to get her things from the bunkhouse and demand that the counselor get her device back out of that medical waste box. She had failed to find any connections, and Kevin Commitment hated her. She’d blown her last chance. As she practically jogged down the pine needle-strewn dirt path back toward the bunkhouses, she saw a blood-soaked RADICAL VULNERABILITY shirt trodden into the dirt with a boot print, but felt nothing.

Inside the bunkhouse she shared with Janice, the humming of flies was louder than before. That sweet apple juice smell seemed thick in the air, too, so humid that Maye could almost taste it. When she went to get her case from under her cot, she saw the cloud of shiny flies that seemed to beckon her across the room from Janice’s things.

Maye crawled across the wooden floorboards and pulled out Janice’s suitcase from underneath the cot. The smell grew sweeter and the flies louder, but still Maye lifted up Janice’s hunter green crop fleece to her chest and embraced it, breathed it in.

Under the fleece was a cigar box that was crawling with flies. Longing to be closer, Maye opened it up and found the source of the smell. The box was full of wet strips of red, which appeared at first to be fresh apple peels. But when she touched a piece, she realized it was human skin. There was even a neat spiral of pebbled lip.

Maye imagined that right at this moment, Janice was silently following Kevin Commitment away from the Honesty Box, preparing to peel his tight shiny cheek like an apple, in her honor. They could treasure the pieces together, and then Janice could peel her, too: The Ultimate Connection. True love, wet and red.

As night fell, Maye ran through the woods, pine branches tearing at her clothes, calling Janice’s name, hoping to find her before anyone else did.

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