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Worms

 

WORMS  was published in Career World magazine January 1980.

 

THE LAB REEKED. The smell of chemicals made Nancy's eyes water. She reminded herself that this was only the first week of her first semester in college. She had to get used to the smell if she was going to become a veterinarian.

Besides, zoology lab is going to be fun, she had decided. But she hadn't expected a first project like the one before her now. Picking up her scalpel, she hesitated. She looked down at the preserved earthworm pinned to her tray.

There it was, the old fluttering of her heart and the tightness that swept over her whenever she was this close to Terrestrius americanus or any of its kind.

"Miss Hayes, do you have a question?" asked Dr. Lacy, the zoology professor.

"I need some air," she replied, dropping the scalpel. She hurried toward the windows across the room and stood, welcoming the fresh air. She watched the rain pattering steadily down.

 

IT HAD BEEN A DAY very much the same back when she was eight years old, she remembered. The morning had been dark and wet after thundershowers in the night. The air had been heavy, musty with the scent of worms washed from the ground.

"Can't we have a ride?" Nancy had asked her mother, her nose pressed against the window.

"You've had plenty of time to get to school," her mother had said. "And it's stopped raining."

It was useless to argue.

Nancy's friends, Stephanie and Lauren, came to the door at the usual time. They were dressed in raincoats, see-through scarves, and boots. Rainy days never bothered them a bit.

Nancy liked walking to school on other days. But not on days like this. She had gotten as far as the driveway when the first worm appeared. It was stretched upon the wet pavement, probably dead. But she hated it just the same. The skin quivered from the back of her neck down to her toes.

"You're not still afraid of worms?" said Stephanie, making a face.

Nancy said nothing. Stephanie and Lauren laughed and chattered. They didn't seem to care about the hordes of slimy tan monsters. Nancy watched as they slowly spread their spaghetti-like bodies over the street.

Why did the world have such ugliness as these horrible creatures, she wondered. Nancy walked behind her friends, watching the path ahead of her. She wanted to avoid stepping on any of the writhing creatures.

Lauren turned around. "Nancy, come on! It's starting to sprinkle." Little drops were falling here and there, but Nancy couldn't take her eyes off the road.

"She's afraid of worms," giggled Stephanie, glancing back. "Chuck Bishop throws them at her," she explained, laughing.

Lauren didn't seem interested. "Come on, it's raining harder," she said. They quickened their pace.

The heavy drops hit Nancy like stones. It was getting harder to avoid the miserable worms. Hundreds of them were moving in now bigger and longer ones that oozed along, stretching and pulling.

Nancy felt panic well up inside. She couldn't move. Her friends were way ahead.

"Nancy! You're going to be late for school!" they called back, as they began running.

Nancy stared in horror as the worms began surrounding her like a vast army. When she looked up, she saw her friends. They were running off in the downpour.

If I go home, Nancy thought, maybe Mom could still give me a ride. But as she turned, Nancy saw that the worms were blocking her way. One was trying to curl around her boot. She imagined them piling up beside her, then crawling inside the tops of her boots to get dry. She could almost feel the wiggly wetness of them on her cold feet.

All around her the rain pounded. A mixture of rain and tears tasted tart upon her lips. Her socks were soaked and bunched up inside her boots. She felt wet and cold. She began to shiver.

SUDDENLY, A SPEEDING BICYCLE appeared from down the street. Water sprayed from under the wheels as it approached. A boy in yellow rain gear slowed, then stopped in front of Nancy.

"What's wrong?" he asked. He was older and had blond hair and narrow slits for eyes.

Nancy choked back her tears when she realized it was Chuck Bishop.

"What's wrong?" Chuck demanded again. But she couldn't catch her breath to explain. She didn't have to. Staring down at the pavement, he already guessed. "Are you ever weird," he told her.

The words stung as Nancy watched Chuck hop onto his bike and take off in the pouring rain. Something inside of her wanted to run after him and call him something even worse. But instead, she wailed louder. She didn't dare take a step; all those worms were clogging the street.

At that moment she heard a crash of metal upon cement. Chuck had skidded in a puddle. Nancy saw him sprawled motionless on the ground by the road. The back wheel of his fallen bike was still spinning.

WITH COURAGE SHE DIDN'T know she had, Nancy took a careful step forward. Her boot touched a worm. Then she took another step. Her body ached from the terror she felt, but she continued stepping over the worms until she reached the overturned bicycle.

Chuck groaned. Nancy knelt beside him. He opened his eyes and looked at her. "What happened?" he moaned.

"Don't try to move," she told him.

The rain was stopping. Nancy stood up. She was thinking of running to get help when a car pulled up. A woman stepped out of it. By this time, Chuck had managed to sit up. He was holding his arm.

"Looks like we'd better get him to the hospital," said the woman. Together, she and Nancy helped Chuck into the car. Nancy didn't have time to think about the worms. She simply did not look down. It was almost as if they weren't there any more.

 

"COME RIGHT IN," said the nurse in the emergency room. Chuck did not move. He leaned against the wall and stared at the door.

"What's the matter, Chuck?" asked Nancy.

"The doctor wants to see your arm," the nurse said.

"No, I can't!" Chuck wailed, his narrow eyes wide open.

"What's wrong? Do you feel sick?" asked the nurse.

"Don't let him hurt me," croaked Chuck in a voice that wasn't Chuck's at all.

Nancy stared after him as the nurse practically dragged Chuck into the examining room. She found it hard to believe that Chuck tough, strong, worm-throwing Chuck Bishop was bawling like a baby in the doctor's office.

It turned out to be a simple fracture.

"DID IT HURT REALLY BAD?" Nancy had asked him later.

"No," said Church. His teeth were chattering. "It wasn't that."

"Don't worry," said Nancy, "I won't tell anyone."

Then Chuck looked at her in a new way. "You won't? Well, I take back what I said. You're not weird."

 

"MS. HAYES..."

Nancy turned away from the window in the lab to face Dr. Lacy.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Nancy smiled. She returned to her lab table. "I think so," she said. She picked up her scalpel.

 

Copyright © 1980 Ann Carol Ulrich. All Rights Reserved.

 

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