Worm Problem

By Jason Palmer

Artwork by Jose Baetas.

The fat grey worm was three feet long and half as wide. It had segments like inner tubes and no visible eyes or mouth.

"It's one of them," said Josh.

"Gross," said Dina.

It just sat there, on a mat of rotting leaves. Josh started looking for a twig.

"Is it dead?" said Dina.

"They're all dead. Nobody's found one alive. Well, there was that one they found that wasn't quite dead yet, but it didn't do anything except crawl a few inches and die."

"I don't like this." She looked around as if the air had changed. "It's really weird. Where'd they come from?"

Another couple stopped along the trail and watched. The man didn't have to restrain his German shepherd; the dog didn't seem to care about the worm. "There's another one the other side of the pond."

"They're here," the woman agreed. She pulled a scarf up over the lower half of her face.

Josh hadn't found a twig and touched the worm with the tip of his shoe. "Where'd so many of them came from, so fast?"

"They must have come up from underground," the man said.

When Josh went to nudge it again, Dina pulled him back with an impatient sound.

"Well," said the man, politely, and they went on with their hike.

2 months later

"I liked them better when they were all dead and grey," said Dina. She opened each cabinet in the kitchen, looking for something.

"Yeah, pink and crawley really creeps me out."

"I saw the Stephenson kids playing with one, sitting on it. The baby was trying to bury it with sand. I mean, they seem harmless."

Josh sat in the couch with one work boot resting on his opposite knee, watching tv. Worms were going over a cliff in ones, twos, and threes someplace up north. "Sure. They sure are dumb. Even for worms."

"Just be careful driving. There's a rattle ever since you went over one last week. We need to get that looked at."

"Somehow it'll end up costing a thousand dollars. 'It's a twisted flozzle rod.' Let it rattle."

Outside, the teenage hoodlum's mother shouted, "Put that thing down! You don't know where it's been!"

"Look, ma! One arm! Whoops!"

6 months later

"Stay off the highway when you leave, radio says it's jammed." That now-familiar unease was in Dina's voice. She was listening to the radio and watching a group of young kids waving a cat at a fat worm in the parking lot.

Josh's voice from the living room said, "The highway, now? What are they doing on the highway?"

"Same as always, just crawling around. But there's that horrible wreck."

"We should get out of here, move to Rose Hill."

"They've got them there, too."

"Yeah, but it doesn't cause so many problems. More open space."

The cat tolerated being waved around until the kid holding it dropped it directly in front of the worm. At first the cat didn't react. Then the worm inched forward, and the cat's back arched.

Dina sighed and closed the kitchen blinds. She stood beside Josh in front of the tv. "What's this?" At first she only saw a desert country and people dressed in colorful rags. Then she put her hand over her mouth. "Is that-?"

"Well, they're starving. They're calling it a miracle."

"How can they?"

"They're starving."

"I just couldn't ever."

"I'm sure it tastes like chicken. I'm sure it's the biggest barbeque they've ever had."

She couldn't take her eyes from the screen. "I can't wait until they get rid of them, here. What's taking so long?"

He shrugged. "It's just like a heavy snow. They'll catch up."

4 months later

"I can't take it anymore," Dina said. "Let's get out of here."

"You said yourself, other towns have them, too. Where we going to go?"

For a moment, she looked five years older. "I don't like being trapped."

Josh parted the blinds with two fingers. He saw a twitching field of fat pink bodies rippling in the parking lot. "They're still here. They'll move on soon, though."

Dina took his place at the window. "They're under the car." As she watched, one of the worms caught itself on something in the car's undercarriage. It continued crawling with the effect of unzipping its thick skin, exposing a shining red mass streaked with yellow. It left its skin behind like a blown tire.

Josh went to the door and tried to open it.


"Don't worry." But then he could only get the door open a few inches. "They're in front of the door."

"We should go out the window."


"Well we can't get out that way!"

He stood there dumb for a moment, then said, "It's okay. We're fine, here. We just wait a few hours, they'll be gone."

1 month later

"The plows aren't keeping up."

"Of course they're not," Dina said. "What happens when ambulances and fire trucks can't get through?"

They drove past a semi that appeared abandoned on the side of the road. Josh was weaving his way slowly through a litter of dead worms and abandoned vehicles. "Maybe they're not. That fire, it's been burning for two days."

He leaned forward in order to look past Dina at a column of grey smoke.

"How do you know?"

"I could smell it."

She glanced into the back seat, at their bags. "The store was half empty."

"It was not half empty. And it's just a cycle. Tomorrow or the next day they'll be stuffed. Everything will be on sale."

"It better be. We can't keep paying seven dollars for a box of cereal. When do they re-open the shop?"

He waited before answering. "I don't know. I haven't heard."

She also waited before talking again. "I though it was just a busted machine."

"It was."

The air thickened in the car. Then Josh had to slow nearly to a stop as they passed a Ford Focus going the opposite direction in the road's single cleared lane. The people in both cars looked at each other like it was a one-way street, but no one could quite remember which way.

Then Josh asked, "What about classes?"

"We're on break, anyway. I don't know."

2 weeks later

"Everyone's leaving," Dina said. "We need to leave, too, before the roads are totally clogged."

Josh's voice came from the hallway. "That's exactly why we need to stay. None of them has a clue where to go. Everything I've read says in a crisis, you bug in before you bug out. We know the lay of the land, here."

The television grabbed Dina as she passed by. Her eyes widened. "Oh my God, look at this."

Josh came out of the second bedroom, where he'd laid out their old camping and hiking gear in patterns on the floor. "Where is that, Missouri?"

"They're piling them up like sandbags to hold the water back."

"Look at those flatbeds. They're trucking them in. They don't have enough."

Dina turned to him. "Josh. What's happening? I mean what's really happening, now?"

For a moment he watched aerial shots of flooded farmland and long lines of trucks. Then his brow dropped and his jaw set. "We should get to the store. Get what we can."

"There's no more money."

"I know."

4 months later

"How do you feel?" asked Josh. He didn't look too good, himself.

"Like I'm going to throw up."

Her voice had a faint echo from the toilet basin. He held her hair back in case she threw up, and he rubbed her arm, tenderly. "Better to get used to it."

"I don't know if I can."

He smiled. "Me, either. The good news is, just one of them will last us a month. Hell, if we wanted to, we could cut a slice off one and throw it away every time, and we'd still have plenty."

"The people on tv." She had to pause and take several deep breaths. "Who've been eating it. They don't look good." Breathe. "Pale and bloated."

"But alive."

Other than their breathing, there wasn't a sound in the world.

1 week later

"You can't do this," Josh said. "You can't go crazy. Do you hear me?"

They held each other. Dina's hair was stuck to her face. She looked dirty, cold, and miserable. They'd had to abandon the bikes in the road, and the herd had thickened up around them even more as they cut cross-country. Worms throve all around them, blindly crawling.

"I can't stay here," she said. "Not overnight." The sun's lower rim had touched the horizon in the west and was bleeding like a pricked egg yolk.

"I know. But we have to. We can't move through this. We have to wait."

She looked around. The worms blanketed everything in all directions for at least a mile. After stepping over them for a quarter of that distance, they were completely exhausted. They'd already been tired because the worm meat didn't provide much energy. At the underpasses and drains the worms were stacked eight and ten deep, choking everything. With her eyes blurred by tears, they looked like a pink tide.

Eventually the exhaustion overwhelmed them, and they had to sit. When they couldn't even do that anymore, they sat back to back and leaned against each other. All night long the worms - cool to the touch, like a dog's nose - brushed and bumped them harmlessly. Once an hour or so Josh or Dina would stagger upright screaming, and sit back down again, exhausted.

Toward morning, Josh whispered: "We're going to find where everyone went, and it's going to be a place without worms. We're going to go there and get back to normal."

Then they both quietly began to cry.

2 days later

"There's no heat. We have to go south."

"We'd never make it," Dina said. "It's too far, and it's already winter."

"Then we'll need wood." He said it like something impossible. Neither of them moved, just stood in the middle of the living room, red nosed and wearing winter coats. They'd spent the night gripping each other beneath every blanket, towel, and tablecloth they could find.

"They've eaten everything. All the grass and trees from the parks are gone." She trailed off. "I don't think it's very good for them because they slow down and a lot of them die."

He gave a dry, humorless laugh. "Kind of like they are for us."

"And now they're eating the buildings." She pointed to a patched hole where a worm had chewed most of the way through their bedroom wall. "They must be starving."

Josh only looked around at the frozen objects in their apartment as if they'd lost all meaning. His stiff arms pushed his hands deep into his coat pockets, and he had no neck from shrugging against the cold.

Dina said, "Listen, I've learned a lot from this radio show out of Hutchinson." She was too animated. The dark smudges beneath her eyes were shiny, and she'd lost weight in her face from never eating more than she had to. "If you puncture the live ones and pack them in water, they'll dry almost as hard as concrete. They're great insulation. We can use them to seal this place up. And the other worms won't eat it."

He considered. "Then we can go in the spring."

5 months later

"We must be close," Josh said.

The roads were mostly clear, here, although there were signs that large worm herds had been through. The vegetation was flattened or eaten. Another panel truck rattled by. The trucks were camo-green and didn't stop, but at least they weren't hostile.

After several more miles of barren road picked almost clean of worms, they saw the first signs that they were getting close to Tulsa. They passed a shack at the side of the road that had been turned to Swiss cheese by worms, and a barn that had toppled. But there were no more worms in sight.

Josh looked at Dina with a smile. "No more worms."

She smiled back. Both sets of teeth had yellowed. Both faces were sallow and thin, and what little flesh there was sagged as if with age.

Then they began to walk along live corn and wheat fields, the tender young shoots green and shining, which made them hug each other. They began a game:

"A salad."

"A shower."

"A latte."

"Chinese food."

With the crown of the city in sight, a panel truck stopped in front of them, and two sick-looking men with pistols and blue armbands got out. Josh and Dina told their story and then gratefully rode toward town in the back of the truck.

As they arrived at the outskirts of the city, they stood up in the truckbed and looked open-mouthed at what they saw. Then they each moved to the opposite side to do the same thing again, passing each other without recognition. Dina shook the truck's side panels and stomped her feet until Josh came and encircled her. Despite his starved face, his bloated belly overflowed his belt and pressed into her lower back.

The buildings made from packed worms reached several stories in height. They way they were packed made individual worms indistinguishable, except here and there a single complete worm was clearly visible by chance, perhaps just flattened on one side. There were gutters and sluices alongside the road where the creatures' red blood collected and flowed, and open tents with long butcher's tables and spits, and tanneries with piled hides that reeked of bleach and formaldehyde.

The town was orderly, and there were no worms crawling around at random.

When the truck stopped, Josh and Dina were led to a small square command post. A man introduced himself as the town's supply chief. His hair was oily and a missing front tooth left a gaping hole, but it was still reassuring to talk to someone with authority. "From Wichita," he said, "That right?"

"Yes," said Dina.

"How is it, that way?"

"Like everywhere, I guess."

He showed them a map while several others stood eagerly watching. "Where are they thickest?"

They showed him. Then, feeling like they'd been helpful, Josh said, "Look, what we'd really like is some real food. All we've been getting is...you know." He was looking at Dina and thinking he could fit a penny between the white of her eye and the skin beneath.

"Meat's what we've got."

Dina said, "But the fields. All that wheat and corn."

"It's for them. We get them here, we've got to have something to feed them. People would rather have meat, anyway."

They blanched. "What about beef?"

"Had to slaughter the last cattle months ago. Price of meat's too low, and they cost too much to keep up."

Seeing this got them down, he offered, "We get enough to start shipping out, maybe then we can trade in for something else. A few years, we could be an even bigger operation than Oklahoma City. Then, who knows?"

"I think we'll be moving on," Josh said.

"To where? This is the game now, kids. To get something else, you've got a long walk ahead, and you'll find one place is pretty much the same as the next."

"Can't we take a car?"

"Won't get more than a few miles. That's as far as we've cleared the roads. Why don't you stick around? There are plenty of good folks around here."

Dina seemed to come back from some grey place far away. She said, "Can we get a regular house, in town? We could see some from the road."

"Those are feed houses, now. But you can get a big new place for very little. You can get three bedrooms, dirt cheap. Some folks-" he made it clear that these were right-thinking people, in his opinion -"really appreciate that."

In a dead voice, Josh said, "What about work?"

"Start up your own herd in no time. Seems like you know where to find them. It's what we do, around here."