The worms are hook shaped, tiny translucent segments with black antennas and bulbous brown eyes, specks floating.
I can see them in the corner of my eyes, wiggling and multiplying.
They have to come out.
The doctor thinks I’m crazy. I tell him about the worms squirming away in my eye, swimming in my tear ducts. I see them, whether my eyes are open or closed. I feel them, the same way I could feel a bug in my ear, a spider in my mouth. The relentless whisper of antenna against my eyelid makes it twitch nonstop.
He looks in my eyes with a light. He puts drops in them, and turns the light off, and uses a fluorescent lamp to examine them. When he’s done, he strips off his gloves one by one and shoots them at the trashcan like a basketball player. They land on the rim, and hang there, deflated, like a half empty condom.
“Carly,” he said, with a sigh. He folds his hand together neatly on his lap. “I don’t see any worms.”
“They’re there,” I tell him. “I can feel them. You’re not looking.” I keep my voice level, matter of fact. I know how people get about these things. Hysterical female, party of one.
“Carly, there aren’t any worms in your eyes. Or bugs, or scratches, or anything at all but your eyeball and the fluid surrounding it.”
Could they be smart enough to hide? Have they gotten behind my eye, waiting for me to leave the place of lights and people so they can come back out?
“My eyelid twitches all the time.” I point at the left lid, twittering away.
“Are you under stress, Carly? Have you had any recent traumatic events in your life?”
I chew my fingernails. I should stop. If they were longer, I could maybe grab one of the worms, pin it down, dissect it. “No more than usual.”
“Is usual stressful for you?”
He has kind eyes, but eyes are mirrors. Anything can hide behind them.
“I don’t want to talk about my life. I’m not here to talk about my life. I just want these worms gone,” I said. “I want my eyelid to stop twitching.”
He leans forward, his white coat falling open. He’s wearing a Mighty Mouse t-shirt underneath, which doesn’t exactly make my confidence in his ability skyrocket. He seems like he wants to say more, but someone sticks their head right by the curtain and tells him there’s an incoming trauma.
He forgets about me and I leave with a prescription for antibiotic drops and Xanax.
“How was your day, dear?” Nana asks me.
She’s in the recliner, like she is most days. She raised me, but she was much too old to do it. The years haven’t been kind to her. Her knees are gnarled and thick, wooden and swollen, stiff as tree trunks. She was a cleaning lady, spent a lot of times scrubbing floors. She gets up less and less, and I make sure I’m home by six, to fix her supper. I fix her breakfast every morning at seven before I leave to work in the animal shelter, poached eggs and toast, make a wrapped cheese sandwich and sliced fruit for lunch. Her teeth aren’t so good anymore either.
“Ok,” I say, and kiss her cheek. It’s as thin as paper. I look for worms in her eyes when I do. I don’t see any.
There’s no one but me to take care of Nana, but I worry I’ll pass the worms on somehow.
“You look tired,” she says.
“Bath day for the dogs,” I tell her. “Biscuits and gravy for supper?”
“Your mother’s favorite,” she says, and her faded blue eyes cloud over.
My heart clutches in my chest, one two three, and I think it’s them, but it isn’t. it’s just a passing memory.
I fry up sausage, add flour, let it bubble and rise while I pop the Pillsbury can. I don’t know how to make biscuits from scratch, and I wouldn’t even if I could. All that moist, yeasty dough clinging to my fingers, a perfect medium for growth. Thinking about it sours my stomach.
I add milk, let the gravy simmer, toss in red pepper flakes, salt, regular pepper.
Nana’s nodded off in her chair, and I have to wake her to get her to eat. She doesn’t eat much, then she dozes in front of the news.
I let her be. I go to the bathroom, and I pull down my eyelid, and watch. It’s a while before I see anything, but then, quick as a flash, one skates across the surface of my eye. I didn’t eat, but I gag anyway and retch up bile, green and stringy.
I put the eyedrops in even though I know they won’t do anything, and I take the two Xanax, and I try to sleep, but its hard with them swimming away in the ocean behind my eyes.
I like the shelter. It’s mainly women who work there, and the animals. Some of them have worms too, birth rubber balls full of them in their kennels. They don’t bother me. They’re easily visible and easily eliminated. I like the animals we’ve rescued the best, the ones who cringe and shiver in the corner of the cages. We have something in common. They always need someone like me, to wait out the fear.
Sit cross legged, keep your mouth closed. Teeth are a sign of aggression. Let them come to you. It might take several days, hours of times with your hips and butt aching from the concrete. Maybe they like bacon. Most do. Maybe they prefer cheese. But eventually they come.
The little terrier I’m working with today is shivering in the corner. She wasn’t abused. But she lived with an old man and never got around other people, from what they said. He died and she was left on her own for a long time shut up in his house, until the gas man came to check the meter and saw a hand through the window. A heart attack or stroke or something like that.
It’s the third day I’ve sat here with her, waiting.
She comes slowly, stops halfway. Retreats. I wait a while longer, but it isn’t our time yet.
I’ve named her Maggie. “Good night, Maggie,” I tell her and toss her a scrap of biscuit soaked in gravy leftover from my lunch.
Grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner. I break Nana’s up in chunks and let it soak in her soup.
She gums it slowly, sharper eyed than normal. Our eyes, blue irises, black pupils, meet and lock on. I’m looking for worms, and I hope she doesn’t see the ones wriggling in mine.
“You thought about college?”
She’s been after me, to apply to the community college. I’m 19, 6 years shy of the age when I will have control of the settlement the state paid me for Mom. They let the man escape who broke into our house, who killed her. It was what you’d call a generous figure, if you weren’t the one whose mother was dead.
“You could do your general classes there, maybe go to on to vet school. You could do a lotta good, the way you are with them.”
“What about you?”
Nana shrugs. “I’ve got plenty here to keep me occupied,” she says. “Why, there’s the news, and my garden, and my friends.”
Nana’s garden is overgrown and she has exactly two friends. Jeannie, who pulls an oxygen tank around her and turns it off to puff on cigarettes every half hour, and Anna, who knits booties and blankets for the great grand children she never sees.
“I don’t know, Nana,” I say. “Maybe I’m not ready yet.”
“Oh, you’re never ready, for anything at all. No one is. That’s life, Carly.”
After dinner, I don’t think about college at all. I watch my eyes in the mirror for near an hour before Nana knocks on it. “Carly, dear, are you all right?”
The worms-they’re multiplying.
“Bad cramps,” I call to her. I run the water, take my drops, my pills.
Maggie falls for the chicken sandwich. It’s from a roasted chicken I froze a while ago, in individual Ziploc bags. I’m good at saving money, making meals last. I pay a good amount of the bills, since Nana’s social security doesn’t cut it. She doesn’t know that, of course. She’d have a stroke if she did.
She comes tail twitching, like it wants to wag, but she can’t quite let it yet, and takes the scrap I’ve tossed about a foot away. She scurries back to the corner, eating curled around herself. One eye on me the whole time.
I toss another scrap, closer this time.
She gets it.
I talk low, trying for soothing. Each time, she’s a little closer. I don’t reach to pet her. That’s the worst thing you can do. Instead, the first time she’s close enough to touch, I don’t release the meat, but wait until she runs up and snatches it from my fingers.
That’s enough for today.
There was a dead deer in the woods once, in third grade. It was about ten minutes into the forest, right behind the creek we messed around in. Baron, a kid with thick bottle glasses,who didn’t care I was the kid whose mom got murdered, wanted to flood it, like in a book he’d read about a bunch of kids called the Losers Club and a clown that was eating kids. In the book, they flooded the whole area around their creek. He wanted to do that.
We tried several different ways, and he’d sit back and chew his cheek, watch for the leaks, try to build it better. Sometimes this kid Scott came too, but everyone called him Boogerman because one day he’d sneezed a tube of green snot and wiped his nose with his sleeve. Everyone saw it.
Scott had gotten bored and wandered off, found the deer. It had been dead a while. It didn’t have eyes anymore, and the skin on its body moved. Scott poked it with a stick, and its fur split open, and a bunch of maggots spilled out, writhing over one another. I know they were supposed to turn into flies, but I don’t see how that’s possible.
I woke up because Baron had cupped his hands in dirty creek water and carried it to me, splashed it on my face. I sat up and screamed. All I could think about was the maggots came eggs, and those eggs could have been in that water. They could have gotten in.
Nana took me to a special doctor, who asked me lots of questions about what I remembered about Mom.
I don’t remember anything.
He told me, that I might start having memories one day, that maybe the deer had triggered some kind of response because of something I’d seen. But it didn’t.
It was his idea, to volunteer at the shelter, which years later turned into an actual job.
But I still don’t remember anything.
Chicken and noodles tonight. I usually make mashed potatoes to go with them, but when I pulled the bag of potatoes from beneath the sink they’d all sprouted tentacles from their eyes, white wormlike protuberances. I threw them in the outside trash and felt the worms stuttering away in my eye.
Nana is quiet tonight, says she’s not feeling well. Her temperature is normal, but her legs are more swollen than usual. I notice she can’t fit her slippers on and that her compression hose is bulging, bursting at the seams.
I spend a long time in the bathroom. It’s getting harder to look away.
Maggie allows me to pet her today, licks my hand clean.
I leave, hardly noticing the worms moving around.
There’s a strange car at the street by our mailbox.
“Look who’s here!” Nana says, when I come home.
Baron doesn’t wear thick glasses anymore. They’re neat, square frames with slender lenses. He’s grown tall, too, and he’s handsome. He comes every once in a while, when he’s home from school on break. He’s studying the kind of science where you figure out ways to make energy from water and wind and things like that. His dam building days might not be over.
When I see him, I feel this gnawing ache inside my chest. I can see he’s going somewhere, that I’ll never go, and he deserves it, but it leaves me hollow inside.
“Carly,” he says, and stands up and hugs me tight.
I let him. He’s the only one I let do that. I don’t say his name, but I press my face into his chest, his scratchy sweater, before I think that the worms might like that sweater. They might climb the rough threads all the way to his ear or mouth or eye and slip in, so I let go.
He keeps his hands on my arms, tight. “Gosh, you look amazing,” he says.
We kissed once, the last time he was home. He took me for coffee and pie, and he told me he thought about me all the time. It was nice, until it wasn’t. Until fear choked me up. I didn’t want him to see the scars from the time he was gone, right after he left, when I was sick.
I’m better now. It was just an idea that got stuck, that there were bugs underneath my skin, crawling around. The doctors all thought I was on meth, Nana said, when they brought me in. Because I’d flayed the skin off my arms, looking for them.
“I told them about what you went through as a kid- “she said and stopped. Paused, torn between revealing and holding the truth back. “Well, anyway, they didn’t believe me until the tests came back.”
I spent two weeks in a psych hospital, until I realized it was just an idea. Just something that had happened. I was just missing Baron, and I couldn’t cope with it.
I’m better now.
“Can I take you for some dinner?” he asks.
“I have to make Nana dinner.” I look down.
I choked up when he put his hand on my stomach, where I’d started. I pushed him away and got as far against the door as I could. He apologized and apologized but I couldn’t tell him it was shame, not that I didn’t want him. I always remembered his worried face, when I woke up from fainting. And how he held my hand when we walked home, and how he fought Scott at school when he made fun of us for that.
Scarlet shame in my cheeks, worms wiggling in my eyes.
“Oh, Baron brought me dinner!” Nana chirps, and I notice he has. Potato soup from the mom and pop deli down the street, her favorite.
“Ok,” I say.
“Are you doing all right?” Baron asks me. His hand lays next to mine. I want to touch it, but I can’t.
“Yes,” I say. “You?”
We pick at our pieces of pie. I can’t stop looking at his sweater, for something just barely visible, or a trail of slime.
“Good,” he says. “About last time, Carly. I’m sorry.”
“No,” I say, but I can’t make any other words come out.
“No, I am, I didn’t know about the hospital.”
My head snaps up, so I can look at his eyes, brown and rich like earth behind his glasses. “She told you?”
“She wanted me to know, so I understood, because I wasn’t going to stay to see you, I thought I’d ruined everything. I told her I’d kissed you and you bolted, but she told me everything.”
“I’m a freak,” I mutter. I can feel tears coming so I bite my tongue. Can’t let the worms fall out here, in front of Baron.
“You’re not,” and he puts his warm hand over mine, no longer a tanned dirty child’s hand, but a man’s hand hair on the knuckles. I want to pick it up and press my cheek against it, but, well, you know.
“I am,” I say.
“I miss you,” he says.
“I miss you too.”
But he doesn’t kiss me goodbye this time. He walks me to the door, and he hugs me, so I can feel how firm his body is beneath his shirt. I want him to stay, but I don’t ask.
Maggie sense my dejection, comes to me with her tail wagging frantically. I feed her my lunch because I’m not hungry. I feel the worms pressing against the side of my eyes, trying to get behind them. I distract myself by thinking about Baron, while I stroke Maggie’s matted fur. The way this is going, I’ll be able to trim and bathe her in a couple weeks without sending her into a major breakdown. She’s licked my fingers clean and I can’t stop thinking about Baron, his big hands and how hair peeked out of the collar of his shirt. How warm he was, how he’d looked at me, how things inside me got warm and my palms sweated.
I imagined our mouths against each other’s. He would break our kiss to tell me how he’d always loved me, how he knew we were meant to be together from the day by the creek. We’d keep kissing, and then what? Then he’d slide my shirt over my head and see my scars.
No. We could never happen. No one can ever see me, and I feel tears coming on, sudden hot burning liquid flaming in my eyes.
Before I can stop it, a live tear, twisting frantically in the air, falls from my eye right onto Maggie’s upturned snout. I mean to grab it, but I have to blink, everything’s gone blurry, and then all I can see is it disappear into her eye.
I shouted or screamed or yelled or something, and Maggie skittered away, back to her corner. She backs against the wall, ears back against her head, eyes wide, and I try to approach, talk to her, but she snarls at me.
I wait for hours but she never comes near me again.
It makes me late for dinner.
I tell Nana I have a headache and warm her up leftover soup.
I find scotch tape and layer it on my eyelashes, pasting them against my skin, holding them open. I use tweezers, my fingertips, even scrub my eye with my toothbrush, to get the little bastards, but they’re slippery, good at hiding. I don’t sleep at all.
Maggie died overnight. They don’t have any answers why.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” Nana asks me.
I can hardly think. They’re worse than ever, squirreling away, tunneling through me.
I don’t think I’ll sleep but I’m so tired and I take Xanax and I start to cry, big fat worms of tears, unfolding and squirming away across my pillow. They leave glistening trails and I need to get up, I need to do something, but my head buzzes and my body is numb and heavy as lead.
They got Nana.
I am sitting by Nana, her body cool, my head against her leg. My eyes burn. They move of their own accord, seizing at the whim of the worms. Even crying doesn’t get them out this time, not a single one. They’re working on their tunnel, carving their way through back to my brain. Slivers of pain zag from the corners of my eyes, to my temples. Icicles in my skull. What will happen when they break through?
“Mrs. Sims? Carly?”
We’re the last people alive to have a real answering machine, I think.
“Carly, I need you to call me.” His voice is steady but I hear the fear. “Call me, as soon as you can. I’m leaving Cincinnati right now, I’ll be there in an hour. Just-call me ok?”
No. NONONONONONONO. I can hardly think, I can feel them now in my sinuses, trying to bore through to my brain. I can’t. I can’t let this happen.
I found Nana’s old knitting needles. I think I can get them out.
The hook at the end is too big. I need something smaller. Grandpa, he used to fish. I know Nana kept his old tackle box, somewhere. I need a hook.
It was right underneath Nana’s old sewing machine.
I have lots of hooks. I didn’t have alcohol so I boiled them.
It’s gone all wrong.
It was working, at first, it was. I kept catching their tails, but they pulled free. The tails were too thin, the membrane just tore when they swam off. I got one in the midsection, pulled it out, dropped it in the Tupperware container and snapped the lid on it.
I got too excited. The next one snagged my eye, and I froze. I meant to pull it out, slow, but then there was a knife in my brain.
They made it through.
I seized with pain, and my eye popped.
I’m not doing so well. I can’t get up. I can move my left arm and leg, a little. But not my right. I am lying on the floor staring at the Tupperware container with the captive worm inside it. It’s sitting up. It’s looking at me.
I am looking back with one eye. My cheek has grown cold against the tile. My breath comes slow.
I hear knocking at the front door.
I croak a warning.
Things are getting dark fast, when the front door rattles open. I hear footsteps, around the house.
I’m dying, I guess.
There are brown shoes in front of my eye. A denim knees. A warm hand on my neck, feeling for a pulse.
“The worms, Baron,” I whisper.
I see one crawling up his hand, disappearing in his sleeve.
The lights go out and the darkness falls.