The cooty-catcher had been circling for about an hour when I first realized it was doing the trick. All the goaty kids were reading it and passing it along and whispering back and forth. At first I gave it to Zook, well I dropped it on his desk in algebra when he wasn’t looking. Robert Zooker was the goatiest goat around. He was the sort of kid that thought it was funny to wear underpants on your head for the baby picture section of the yearbook. He said things like “smashing” and “dandy”. He’d been getting beaten up and pushed around so long it didn’t even hurt anymore. I liked him. Zook was all right. He liked me a lot too. He liked to call me Johnny because of the comedian and late night comedy show host Johnny Carson. Zook thought this nickname was just about the funniest thing ever.  I figured Zook would have to pass the cooty-catcher around to get attention, he loved attention, but I was wrong. I was the first person he showed it to, because of the part about Sam. Zook worried what would happen to Sam if it got around. He wanted the cooty-catcher destroyed. I told him I would get rid of it, but first I wanted to see if I could figure out who had made it. Zook gave it to me along with a real funny look, almost like he knew it was me, but he didn’t say anything.

Next I put the cooty-catcher into Michael Stremmer’s hands. Stremmer hated everyone, so he enjoyed passing it around.  It took until the end of day one to come to a head. I watched from the corner of the art room as Denise Maura set it on fire with her lighter. Mr. Gustavo came over to see what was going on.

“No unsupervised implements of flame are allowed Miss Maura, please hand over the lighter.”

She practically slammed the lighter into his hand and took off out of the classroom, down the hall, crying.

“What is going on?” Mr. Gustavo asked. “Does anyone know?”

Everyone put their heads down.

the key

After school I took a walk through the village. I even dared to go into RT alone. I had no friends and I knew it, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I convinced myself I liked it. It felt like picking at a sore and I couldn’t stop myself. I was a friendless horrible freak who hated everyone. I was a female Stremmer. I was loathsome. I felt like Medea must have felt before she killed her kids.

I went up to the counter at RT and ordered a coke. I walked to the back to the juke box to look for the Velvet Underground, which of course were nowhere to be found on it. I stood at the juke box sipping the coke and feeling everyone’s eyes on me. Sam and Sharon were at our former back table. Sam had taken up smoking again. They said nothing to me.  I played Dancing Queen by Abba and reveled in it. I know longer cared that liking Abba was the uncoolest thing ever in the world, next to liking the Carpenters. I danced to it, then, I put down my coke on Sam and Sharon’s table and walked out.

I went looking for Judy. She wasn’t at the record store. She wasn’t at any of the usual places. I took Bart into the city and Muni to the big house. I watched people as I went. I observed them, happy and in couples, or friends, or mothers with their kids. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t care. They seemed curious was all. Just strange people, who felt connected to other people, not like me. Not a loner like me. Not at all like me.

I walked up the street to the house. A little boy’s ball was rolling down the street and I stopped it with my foot. I bent down to pick it up to hand it back to him, just like a reflex, but then I remembered I was loathsome, not a regular person, and I let it go. I didn’t even look at him as I walked by. His mother mumbled something under her breath, but I didn’t hear. I needed to get inside that house.

I knocked on the door. A woman answered. She looked like not the lady of the house, but also not like the help. Maybe a relative.

“My name is Carson,” I said. I’m looking for Judy, your house-sitter.”

“House-sitter?” she said. “I don’t know what you mean. I’m sorry she can’t receive visitors right now. I cannot let you in. Please go home.” And she shut the door.

I waited an hour outside and then I broke in. Well, not really, because I had the fancy old fashioned key Judy had given me as a necklace that first day we were here, but sort of, because I shouldn’t have used it. I heard voices in the parlor talking about something in hushed voices, but I had no time to listen, I quickly snuck by toward the back staircase. I snuck up the back staircase to the top floor, to the widow’s walk; no one was there. I was alone. I walked to the end of the room and looked out of the telescope at San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz. I closed my eyes and spun the globe. My finger landed on San Francisco. I was already there. I curled up on the sofa and went to sleep.

Timbuktu or bust