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January 30, 2023

Cooties: A Love Story

By Mel Trent

It was too late. No matter what he did or where he tried to hide, Jack Runner had been infected with cooties. The three girls who had cornered him giggled and jeered, sing-songing, "You go - ott cooties!" over and over. Jack was horrified.

He had learned to deal with most of the stranger things in his life even by the time he had started kindergarten, but girls baffled him. Cooties even more so. He couldn't fathom their reasons for wanting to infect him with such a horrible thing. Then the girls had skipped away, a trio of six-year-old harpies, bent on infecting the entire male population of the first grade with cooties. Jack slumped at the base of the tree against which he had tried to hide from them. He didn't know how to get rid of the disease or how to protect himself from further attacks. He was defenseless in the face of the epidemic.

He watched the playground. The three girls who had gotten him were soon joined by other girls, and they spread the menace gleefully. It seemed like every boy would be infected in a matter of minutes, and he couldn't do anything about it. Tears of helplessness pricked his eyes.

"So they got you," said a boy who suddenly appeared out of the tree.

Jack just stared at his companion.

"You should have been more careful."

"I didn't know about it."

"Pay attention."

"To girls? Why?"

The ghost considered this for a minute. "To the things they do. Not them, if you don't want. But you could have heard about this plan before if you'd been paying attention. They talked about it yesterday at lunch."

"I was watching the play."

"What play?"

Jack shrugged. "Something the ghosts in the cafeteria were doing. One of them told me the school was built on top of a theatre that burned down and killed them all."

"Oh. Well. I don't go inside the school. I died out here."

"Of cooties?"

"No. Cooties aren't fatal. I don't think."

"So what do I do?"

"Nothing. I think they go away overnight because the girls will do this again and again and again. Sometimes the boys go after the girls with their cooties. See, look." The ghost pointed to a huddle of boys at the monkey bars. "They're planning to fight back."

"I don't want to help them."

"Why?"

"It's stupid. If it's given by touching, don't we all already have each others' cooties?"

"Probably. You know, I'm not sure cooties are real."

"Then what's the point?"

"Ritualistic gender socialization."

"What?"

The ghost shook his head. "I get the feeling it doesn't apply to you anyway."

The bell rang, and Jack watched for a minute as the other kids stampeded towards the door where the teacher stood. He waited until the line was mostly sorted out before he made his way over and grimly followed them back inside, still infected and still not knowing what to do about it.

* * *

Jack stood under the covered front stoop of the dormitory and watched the other students as they came and went in search of parties. He still didn't quite get the social aspects of schooling. It didn't help that he hadn't been subjected to public education since the incident with the pirate ghost. He wondered, vaguely terrified of the thought, if the Agency would pay for some kind of social etiquette class. So far, they didn't seem terribly interested in helping him fit in. Why, then, he wondered, had they felt it necessary to enroll him in a public college? Well, maybe because he would have to get used to people eventually. He wouldn't be working with ghosts, demons and other psychic freaks all the time.

A group of giggling freshman girls poured out of the dorm and into the silver evening drizzle. One of them, a tall girl with strawberry blonde hair and shy blue eyes, looked at Jack and grinned. He shuddered at the eye contact and had a brief flashback of the cootie attack. He looked away as quickly as he could, but it wasn't quick enough. The girl broke off from her group and came towards him. He lit a cigarette.

"Hi," she said.

Jack glanced up at her and back out of the rain. The group had moved onto the sidewalk, but they were still close enough for him to hear their giggling. They waited to see what would happen.

"I'm Sasha."

"Jack."

"I know. You're in my psychology class."

"Oh. Sorry. I ... I hadn't noticed."

"I know that, too. You seem more interested in studying."

Jack shrugged.

"Don't you ever have any fun?"

"Tons. I'm having a blast right this very moment."

Sasha giggled. "No, seriously. I've never seen you go out or anything."

"I've been practicing my stealth mode. No one's seen me do anything in years."

She laughed even harder at that. Her friends waiting on the sidewalk echoed her with stifled giggles.

Jack gritted his teeth. This wasn't going at all the way he wanted it to. Sasha liked his smart-ass answers.

"So ..." Sasha said.

"I'm not available."

"You're seeing someone?"

"No, not exactly, but I'm ... I'm really busy." Then he had an epiphany. The truth might make Sasha go away. "I'm in training to be a detective with the Agency."

It had the opposite effect. Sasha's eyes got big. "Really? That's so amazing. I've always been fascinated by what they do."

"Look, I'm not your type, really. You don't want anything to do with me. I could be hazardous to your health."

"I'm not afraid of boy cooties."

I'm not either, Jack thought. That truth was sure to get rid of her, but he had no desire out himself to her.

"All right, fine," Sasha said when Jack remained silent. "I guess you've got other things on your mind right now, but maybe some other time. And you can tell me all about the monsters no one is supposed to know about." She grinned and bounced away to join her friends.

Jack took a deep breath and flicked his cigarette away.

* * *

Sleep decided not to visit Jack that night. That was fine with him. His dreams had been harsher than usual after Dr. Tobin had tried to ratchet down the dose of some of the medications, and Jack was happy to avoid them. So he sat out on the stoop, smoking and watching the rain.

It was well after midnight when Sasha came running up the sidewalk. She was drenched and disheveled, and she was bleeding from a wide gash in the palm of her left hand. "Jack!" she yelled.

Jack tossed away his cigarette and went out to Sasha. She clung to him, trembling and sobbing. "What happened?" he asked.

"I don't know," she said. "One minute, everything was fine. The next ... the next everyone was sick or something. They just ... just stopped moving and collapsed. And there was something in there. I couldn't see anything, but I felt something. Jack, there was some kind of monster there. You have to do something."

"How did you get out?"

"I was in the bathroom when it happened. Things got quiet, and when I came out ... when I came out, I saw them ... all the people ... like zombies. Then I ran. I felt something coming after me. It tried to grab me. That's how I cut my hand. Please, Jack, do something."

"I'll call someone at the --"

"No! No, Jack, there isn't time. Please. Please, you have to do something."

"All right. Where?"

Sasha waved her hand vaguely in the direction she and her friends had gone. "I don't know. Big frat house over that way. Delta Pi whatever the hell they are. The big blue house."

"Okay, I'll find it. Go inside and wait."

"No, I'm coming with you. My friends are in there."

Jack couldn't argue with her on that. He would do the same thing. "You're still bleeding."

Sasha looked at the cut on her hand and then back up at Jack. "I don't care."

"It's not safe for you to go back there."

"And it is for you?"

"Well, no, but --"

"I'm going."

Jack was out of protests, and Sasha knew it. "All right," he said. "But --"

"I know. Stay behind you. Nothing I see is real. Blah, blah. Just save my friends, damn it."

* * *

Everything was quiet when Jack and Sasha got to the house. The presence of something inhuman lurking nearby bristled against Jack's hobbled psychic sense. He wished he had some kind of weapon. All he had was his lighter. He had a feeling that it wouldn't do him any good. Whatever was there felt massive.

Sasha stayed close to Jack, looking around the scene with wide, frightened eyes. She had picked up a stick from the front yard and held it back over her shoulder like a baseball bat.

They stepped onto the front porch. Jack peered through the window next to the front door. The sensation of something huge on the site got sharper, and he winced at the hard throb on the left side of his head.

Inside, all the party-goers were sprawled about, most of them unmoving. Some lolled around moaning as if they were in some discomfort -- not in pain or afraid, though. Whatever had attacked them wasn't interested in killing its victims.

"What can you see?" Sasha asked. "Anything?"

"Looks like a bunch of passed out drunk people to me," Jack said.

"Hmm ..."

"What?"

"You see more than that."

Jack said nothing and kept looking, debating whether to just go in or call Sam first. As the drugs in his body began to wane, he caught flickers of movement.

"Please tell me you see more than that," Sasha whispered.

Faintly, like dissipating wisps of smoke, Jack saw tiny creatures swarming over the victims' skins. The creatures on the boys were pink. The ones on the girls were blue.

"What the fuck ..." Jack said.

"So you can see them."

"You didn't tell me you were psychic."

"Used to be, Jack. I'm on the drugs just like you."

"But you aren't tonight. If you're on even half the shit I'm on, you know they don't mix well with booze. You didn't take them."

"What difference does that make?"

"None."

"What now? How are we supposed to save these people? What are those things?"

"I have no idea. Gimme your cell phone."

"Why?"

"Because I left mine in my room."

Sasha sighed and slapped her phone into Jack's hand.

Sam sounded like he'd been asleep when he answered the phone. The word he mumbled may have been hello. Jack wasn't sure.

"Sam, it's Jack."

Sam mumbled again.

"I need help."

"What? What happened? Are you okay? Where are you?"

"I'm fine, but I have a small situation."

"Where are you?"

"Some frat house."

"This isn't your phone number."

"No. Listen, Sam. I'm not really sure what these things are, but they've got everyone laid out like they're sick."

"Can you see them?"

"Sort of. They look like bugs. Some are pink. Some are blue."

There was a pause. Then Sam laughed.

"What? Why's that funny?"

"Cooties."

"You're fucking kidding me."

"No. They're cooties. There should be hives somewhere, one for the girls and one for the boys."

"I don't see anything. I'll have to go inside. How do I kill them?"

"You don't. And you don't go inside either. Where are you?"

Jack gave Sam the address and hung up after Sam forced him to promise he wouldn't go inside the house. He handed Sasha her phone.

"Well?" Sasha asked.

"Cooties," Jack said. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

Sasha laughed. It wasn't a laugh of amusement, though. It was one of incredulity and nervousness. "We're just gonna stand here and wait, then?"

"Until I finish my cigarette. If Sam's not here by then, I'm going inside."

Sasha plucked Jack's cigarette out of his mouth and smashed it out under her foot.

"Guess I'm done." Jack reached for the doorknob.

"Wait." Sasha grabbed his hand and drew two circles and two dots on the back of his hand with her finger. "Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you've got your cootie shot."

"I don't think that's gonna help."

"Well, it's not gonna hurt either."

Jack shrugged and pushed open the door.

Sasha drew on the back of her own hand and followed Jack inside.

* * *

Jack and Sasha picked their way around the immobile forms of the infected partiers. They were careful to avoid touching anyone. They didn't know if the cootie shots would protect them from infection. It was best not to take chances.

"What are we looking for?" Sasha asked.

"Hives," Jack said.

"And then what?"

"I have no idea."

"Great. And here I was thinking you'd know."

"I told you I'm in training. I don't know everything yet. You're the one who wanted me to come out here."

"Well ..."

"I'll figure something out. Don't worry. And if I don't, then I'll at least know where the hives are so when Sam gets here, we won't have to waste a lot of time looking."

"How did the hives get here, though? Is there a queen cootie or something? And a king cootie for the boy cooties, I guess. Hard to believe we used to think this was just some silly little kids' game."

"I never got that."

"Yeah, I know."

Jack didn't look back at Sasha, but he could hear the sly smirk in her voice. He remembered again the terrifying incident on the playground. "You did that to me."

"No. I just suggested it. I wasn't the ringleader. Kara was going to leave you alone. She thought you were too strange, but I insisted. Kara and Leia made fun of me for liking you, but I thought you were cute. I still do. And of course, you're still too wrapped up in whatever goes on in your head to notice."

"It's not that. I notice. I'm just not --"

Before Jack could finish his confession, a girl he had assumed was unconscious rolled over and grabbed his leg. He pulled away from her, but it was too late to save himself from infection. He felt the cooties crawling over him, shuddering against his skin and looking for places to latch onto him. He stumbled back against a wall, suddenly exhausted, and slid down to the floor, waiting to pass out. Then the cooties began to vanish in puffs of neon pink dust. The exhaustion lifted slowly, but Jack remained where he was, trembling.

Sasha knelt beside him, hesitating to touch him. "Jack? Are you okay?" she asked.

"I think so," Jack said. "Either the cootie shot works or ..."

"Or what?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. We still need to find the hives. Let's go."

* * *

They heard the buzzing and clicking as soon as they reached the landing of the second floor. It was coming from the attic. Jack reached up for the cord to pull the attic steps down.

"Wait," Sasha said.

"What now?" Jack asked. He was starting to get irritated with the whole thing. He wanted to get it over with and go back to his room to try to sleep, nightmares notwithstanding.

"How are we supposed to stop them?"

"Tell them to fuck off and hope they don't get too upset."

"Jack, seriously. Maybe we should wait."

"If you're afraid, you can go back out and tell Sam the hives are in the attic when he shows up."

"But I don't want to leave you alone."

"Then suck it up and let's see what's up here. Okay?"

Sasha nodded.

Jack pulled the steps down. He ascended the attic stairs as quietly as he could, but each step creaked under his weight and creaked again as Sasha followed him. The buzzing from the hives was faint. It was likely inaudible to anyone except those afflicted with the psychic disorder, and it certainly wasn't loud enough to cover the complaining of the stairs. Jack tensed, waiting for an attack and hoping it really was the cootie shot that kept the creatures at bay.

The two hives, each about two feet tall, sat on either side of the attic opening. Sitting behind each one was a creature that looked half like a chubby, petulant infant and half like a bug. They stared at the intruders with mean little eyes, their toothless mouths peeled back in mewling snarls. The hives shivered with cooties, and at the command of the king and queen, the hives burst open, sending clouds of cooties towards Jack and Sasha.

There was nowhere to run. Sasha cowered behind Jack, too terrified to scream. Jack heard a car door slam from the front yard and heard Sam call his name. He wondered how much trouble he would be in for not obeying Sam's order to stay out of the house. He wondered if it would matter. The cootie clouds descended on them. Sasha moaned as the cooties skittered over her, looking for a way in, but the cootie shot held them off. They dissipated in puffs of blue. Astonished, she looked up at Jack.

Jack wasn't having the same luck. The cootie shot had worn off after the first attack. The girl cooties swarmed over him, latching on anywhere they could find purchase. He was so tired all the sudden. He tried to fight it, but he was no match for the poison of girl cooties. He pulled himself onto the attic floor and collapsed onto his back. The ceiling was spinning and fading, almost like he was drunk, but there was no pleasant numbness with this spin. He was cold and vaguely aware that he was about to be fed upon by the Queen Cootie herself. He could feel her inching closer to him, stretching her jaw towards him, drooling thin pink saliva in anticipation of the taste of his sweet boy flesh.

"Jack!" Sam shouted.

Jack opened his mouth to answer, but the cooties spilled into him, choking off his voice. He tried to cough and couldn't. Darkness swelled around him.

"In the attic!" Sasha screamed. She scrambled down the steps, tripping on the last few and slamming herself hard into a wall as she fell. The boy cootie hive was buzzing again, the king jealous of the queen's prize. Sasha gathered herself to her feet and bolted for the stairs.

She shrieked when Sam grabbed her on his way up. He flinched at the sound. "Where the fuck is Jack?" he asked.

"In the attic," Sasha said. "The queen ..."

"Get out of the house and stay there."

Sasha nodded and ran.

* * *

Jack woke up in the passenger seat of Sam's car. He had no recollection of anything between the time the cooties had gotten him and waking up. It was all a pink haze and a profound exhaustion that he had only experienced once before -- right after the surgery to place the computer in his brain. He supposed he was lucky that was the only side effect. He didn't want to know what might have happened had the queen actually been able to feed on him.

He looked around the scene. There were Agency vehicles everywhere and detectives talking to dazed groups of half-drunk college kids. An ambulance was waiting with open doors at the end of the drive way, but there were no serious injuries. Jack spotted Sasha near the ambulance, holding her now bandaged hand against her chest. He got out of the car and went over to her.

Her eyes lit up when she saw him. "Jack!" she shouted. She unfolded herself and jerked him into a tight embrace. He hugged her back. "I was so worried about you. Are you okay?"

Jack pulled himself out of her arms and fished for a cigarette. "Yeah, I think so," he said.

"That was really stupid of you."

"You wanted me to help."

"I didn't want you to get hurt. Fuck, Jack, you can't go around sacrificing yourself every time a damsel in distress bats her eyelashes at you."

"It had very little to do with your eyelashes."

"Uh-huh."

Jack shrugged. "It's the monsters. The ghosts, the demons, the things that aren't supposed to be real. They are real, and I can't resist them. I don't want to."

"You're really strange, you know that?"

"I know."

"Stranger than I thought." She paused, watching the activity around the house. "I still like you, though."

Jack studied the cherry of his cigarette.

Sasha looped one arm around Jack's and rested her head on his shoulder. She sighed. "But you have no interest in girls, do you?"

"No."

"I thought so. Can't say I'm not disappointed, but oh well. Friends?"

"Friends."

* * *

Sam drove Jack and Sasha back to campus after the excitement at the frat house was over. He said nothing during the short drive, and Jack knew he was in trouble. When Sam pulled the car up to the curb in front of the dorm, Jack tried to get out of the car as quickly as he could, but Sam grabbed his arm.

"You stay right there," Sam said. "Ms. Killington, you go ahead. And if you decide you're interested in working for the Agency, call the recruitment office. I'll give you a recommendation."

"I will," Sasha said. "Thanks, Detective Winston." She slipped out of the car and dashed up the sidewalk to the dorm.

Sam let go of Jack's arm and sighed. "You really, really need to learn to be more careful, Jack. That could have been a lot worse."

"Yeah, next time, I need to make sure I'm armed."

"Damn it, Jack, you could have been killed. Next time I tell you to stay put, you damn well better listen to me. You've got a brilliant career ahead of you, but not if you get yourself killed before you get through training. I can't stop you from getting into shit on your own, but you can't keep being so fucking reckless."

Jack said nothing. He stared out the window at the dorm. Sam sounded more scared than angry, and Jack wasn't sure what he was supposed to say.

"I don't want you to get hurt, that's all."

"I can take care of myself."

"Not as well as you think."

"Better that I was the one who got attacked than Sasha."

"You like her, don't you?"

"We're friends."

"She's pretty."

"For a girl."

Sam was silent for a moment. Jack wondered if he should take the opportunity to run. He could feel that something was about to happen, and it made his heart leap into a gallop.

"Jack," Sam said softly.

Jack turned his head to look at Sam. Before he could even think of anything to say, Sam kissed him. Shocked as he was, Jack didn't pull away. He closed his eyes and kissed back.

"You should go now," Sam said a moment later.

Jack hesitated. He was sure there was something he was supposed to say, but no words came to him. He wanted to kiss Sam again, but he also desperately wanted to sleep. His head was throbbing, and his body was heavy with exhaustion.

"Go," Sam said. He didn't look at Jack. He stared straight ahead with his hands on the steering wheel.

Jack slipped out of the car and dragged himself up to his room. He didn't dream of monsters out for his blood. He dreamed instead of various ways he could contract Sam's cooties.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-10-20
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