“Worms” won second place for the 2017 Enterprise Poets Prize for Imagining a Future.
I have little worms in my brain.
Half-dead mommy said.
Her womb a grave.
I shouldn’t be.
To be or not to be?
Hamlet was lucky, he got to pick.
Someone else got to pick.
Pick my brains.
There are worms there.
But I already told you that.
You are probably confused. Mommy always said that I confused her, too, and I lived in her womb, even though it was dead. I was her little wormy-brained girl. The little worms in my brain eat up bits and pieces of my thoughts. They fall out of my mouth like half-digested leaves, my fingers twitching. I can’t help it. I have little worms in my brain.
The worms leave my numbers alone, though. They eat up my feelings and my words but they can’t eat fractals or algorithms or restaurant tabs. They leave those alone so I rely on numbers, mostly. Numbers sustain me. I eat numbers: that’s how I get by.
I have little worms in my brain.
But it isn’t so bad.
I could be dead.
I could not be.
I could be Hamlet, instead of Horatio.
Instead I’m left at the foot of the throne, listening to the silent screams of my brothers and sisters who weren’t so lucky.
I’m a genius.
That’s why I’m Horatio, alive and sad, when most other children with worms in their brains are Hamlet and his father and his mother and Ophelia and Yorick. Alas, poor brothers and sisters. I didn’t know them well at all really.
I’m a genius.
A genius with worms in my brain.
But I’m not laughing.
You probably aren’t either.
I hate that.
I hate it when people say something is something that it isn’t. It makes it harder to understand what they mean, what with the worms eating up all the words in my brain. All I have are numbers, and they’re rubbish at computing feelings. If happiness is defined by x and laughter by y, could we graph a person’s reactions as plainly as we can profits or planetary rotations? The men in pink say they can. They can with a normal brain. But not one like mine. Crawling with funny, little worms.
And so I make do with numbers.
What was I saying?
I am a genius with worms in my brain.
Which isn’t funny.
Wormy-brains are against the rules.
That’s what the men in pink say.
But Mommy didn’t much care for rules. She made her own rules. She didn’t let people tell her what to do. She didn’t listen.
That was what she told the men in pink when they came in their little black car. That she didn’t care what people said. That maternal instinct made her do it. That the men in pink were wrong to do what they did and should be ashamed.
Ashamed is when you are embarrassed that you did something bad.
I hadn’t known that wormy brains were bad.
But even after I did know, I wasn’t ashamed.
What’s a worm got to be ashamed of?
The men in pink didn’t know about me at first. Mommy kept me a secret in a tiny house at the edge of the city. A tiny house with a tiny pond out back. A tiny house I wasn’t allowed to leave. I spent my baby life there, a happy life. Mommy told me I couldn’t go outside because the people there were mean and ruthless and evil. She said if I stayed inside, if I never went beyond the pond I would be super cozy safe. So I stayed inside. I did whatever Mommy said. I did puzzles and read books about dragons and fairies and Danish princes and helped Mommy cook. Sometimes Mommy would make me hot chocolate with whipped cream when it was cold and the pond was frozen. The baby days were very good days.
I was nine years, six months, three days, seven hours, and thirty minutes old. That was the last time I saw Mommy. It was the last time I saw home. The men in pink told me that home is wherever you live and that I would have a new home with them. They took me to a place all white walls, so white they made my head hurt, and with a tiny room with a sink a blue bed just for me. A place with little pills to take every night and doctor’s appointments to go to every week. And equations to solve: my new job. There are others here, like me, they say. I hear them sometimes. Sometimes they cry out, sometimes I see them being escorted through the hallways, twitching, crawling with worms. They are like me, and this is our home. So the men in pink tell me. But home is still home by the little pond with the turtle rock in the middle. Sometimes there would be ducks. And you could hear bullfrogs but never see them. They liked to sing, but never in front of people. Maybe they are ashamed of something.
I know bullfrogs don’t get ashamed.
Sometimes I think silly little things like that.
Sometimes I forget the dreams in my head aren’t real.
It’s the worm’s fault, but no one wants to hear that excuse.
I know it isn’t worms.
I’m not stupid.
Not in that way.
I’m face stupid. I’m feelings stupid. I’m streets stupid, friends stupid.
But I know how brains work.
See, when I was tiny Mommy used to tell me it was worms eating all the good words and feelings. That’s why I say its worms. And most people are too stupid to know how brains really work, anyway, so I tell them it’s worms. I don’t know how smart you are, and I don’t know if you know how brains work. So I’m just telling you all this so you understand what I mean no matter what. Most of the time, people don’t understand what I mean.
I want you to understand what I mean. People can be so stupid, though.
But Marty said I should write this.
Marty said I should try to tell my story.
I didn’t want to.
It’s not really a story, it’s just what happened.
And stories are hard.
Stories are supposed to be made of feelings and words.
I am no good with feelings or words, at least not feelings and words that other people have. I just want to be left alone with my numbers, but no one ever just leaves me alone. It’s all lights and sound and noise.
Interrupting me always.
I hate it.
But Marty said I should try. And I try to make Marty happy. I really do like Marty, that at least I know. My own personal Horatio. You try to make people who you like happy as best you can, I think. Try to be nice to them. I show Marty all my equations when I find something, and he’ll be happy for me and hug me so tight he lifts me off my feet. He’ll even give me extra whipped cream on my hot chocolate. I don’t really like hugs very much, but Marty smells nice, like peppermint. And I like whipped cream.
Whipped cream melts in your mouth.
Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend the rest of the world melted away with it.
Then it would be quiet.
I help Marty with the diner when I need a rest from staring at my equations. It’s one of those places they keep open for the people old enough to remember them. It’s all old colors: black and white checkered squares and red vinyl seats. Just like that one bookshop with the real paper books underneath the hotel in Johnson Square. I like it there. It smells like old people and thinking. Outside the world is fast fast fast. I can barely keep up with all the flashing lights and words and sounds and transport capsules that zip about, carrying people from one place to another. But inside the bookstore, inside the diner, it’s just old people in chairs with saggy skin who just like to sit and think about everything. They can’t keep up with the world no matter how hard they try. They’re like how I am except that my skin isn’t saggy just yet. I have a lot of years before that happens.
In my favorite section are big books with see-through pages, lined up in neat little rows with pretty illustrations of neutrinos and quarks and black holes and genomes and finches pecking at different letters in each line. I love reading their words and numbers and elegant little theories about strings that make up all matter and the beauty and wonder of being tiny little sacks of genes floating willy nilly through the cosmos.
But I wasn’t talking about reading, was I? I was trying to talk about helping Marty in the diner in my last paragraph, wasn’t I? The worms made me do it.
(Which you know is a lie.)
(I already told you the worms don’t make me do anything.)
(They just make everything more difficult.)
(The worms also don’t exist.)
(But you know that, too.)
I wash dishes in the diner. It is one of the jobs Marty’s paid for. That and taking customer’s orders. It is so easy. I love how easy it is to just sit there and run warm water and foamy suds over dirty mugs until they are clean. Then I leave them in a special metal rack to dry. So simple. Once it is done, it is done and I know how to do it each time I come in. Marty likes that I wash the mugs for him, and he tries to pay me for it, but I won’t let him. I don’t need the money and he does. Besides, moving my hands frees my mind up for thinking and sometimes Marty walks into the back room and finds me writing out Fourier transforms in suds on the counter. He never gets mad, though. He knows I’m not getting paid.
Marty thinks I don’t know what real work is.
That writing scribbles on my tablet all day is easy peasy.
Ha. If he only knew.
It is nothing to cart drinks around a diner.
Not compared to battling demons in my head.
It started off being easy. It started off fine and the numbers flowed like water down a river. They got stickier when the men in pink took me away from Mommy. They began to stick and gunk and I struggled and struggled to keep my head above water, above the pills and electricity and noise and white walls. I drowned in numbers. I drowned in misunderstanding. I drowned in sadness.
I drowned in hatred, too. The people here don’t like me. They see me, wearing pink like the men between the white walls and they know about my wormy brain. I am marked. I don’t talk to anyone outside much, except Marty. Marty understands me. Marty tells me I’m special, a genius. Marty takes care of me, makes sure I eat when I’m hungry and drink when I’m thirsty. The men in pink let me visit Marty in the diner because it makes me happy, and then I can solve the equations better. There is a back door that I use, when the men in pink don’t want me to leave. A simple combination lock, I picked it early on. Sometimes I just need to see Marty. Sometimes the men in pink really don’t understand.
Marty keeps the worms at bay a little.
Don’t forget about those worms.
Marty and I don’t battle the worms alone, though.
The men in pink help me with their sparks and wires and the steel helmet.
The helmet looks almost like a crown when they put it on me.
They crown me queen.
All hail the wormy queen of Denmark.
It’s not really a crown, you know.
But that’s what they told me.
(You have to put on this special crown, it will take some of the worms away.)
(This pin-prick of fluids in your arm, too. It will help you manage feelings, help you focus.)
All sorts of people used to walk around with worms in their brains. Some of them used to do bad things. They might rip open their own skin. They might shoot people, set things on fire. They would scream and scream and scream. They would think things were chasing them. They would be one person and then become someone else at the drop of a hat.
(That’s just an expression.)
(No one was dropping hats to measure time, not for real.)
Anyway, the people in charge decided something had to be done. The wormy brains were causing so much pain, so much suffering. But there were scientists who were learning more and more about all the different sorts of wormy brains every day. And they figured out what to do. When a person wasn’t a person yet, when they were very, very tiny, inside their mommy, you could change how they would be when they grew up. That’s called genetics. Tiny proteins, little machines, could get inside the code that made a person who they were and fix them. But they had to do it early, or else it would be too late.
I had a Daddy.
I never met him, but Mommy said she loved him very much and then they had made me.
When Mommy found me growing in her tummy, the doctors told her that she had to have me fixed to take out the genes that would fill my brain with worms. Things were a little off, they said.
But Mommy wouldn’t listen.
Mommy never listened.
She didn’t want to change who I was. She said my wormy brain made me special, it gave me a special brain that no one should be able to take away from me. After the men in pink took me, they told me it made me sick, it made me unable to be a good person. I don’t know what to think anymore. I think maybe both of them could be right, that my wormy brain makes me smart but also stupid. That it can hurt everyone around me when I forget how to feel, but maybe my equations can help them, too. Mostly the worms make me feel lost and lonely. Lostly-lonely.
I can read, I’m not stupid.
I see the things that the people in the dark suits and blue ties write. The ones who made these rules. Some of them say that wormy brain shouldn’t be allowed. Period. They project it on big light up signs, their followers write it on shirts and wear them, gleaming in the streets. They don’t want people like me at all. They don’t want to even think about wormy brains. There are others, though. They are the ones who helped set up the white walls for the men in pink with their wires and crowns and pills. Wormy brains can be managed, they say. They can be helped, they say. There is so much shouting and arguing between the two groups, that I can barely hear myself think.
Marty is reading this over my shoulder as I write it.
Marty just told me I worry too much.
He says he will be my friend no matter what so I don’t have to be lost and lonely, and he will protect me from stupid men in suits with stupid blue ties.
Marty is a good person.
The crown isn’t so bad. I have to wear it just once a week, and make sure I take my pills every night. The pills help my focus, the men in pink say, they help me cope. The crown and sparks hurt, sometimes. I feel strange afterwards. Brains are just big electrical machines, so the sparks are supposed to help rewire them. Calm them down. Makes me feel all fuzzy.
The men and pink changed me a little. It’s easier to think, I don’t have to hide from noise and people and light and anger as much. I guess that’s probably for the best.
Marty read what I wrote and he said that I needed to explain myself.
I told him I didn’t know what he meant by that.
He said that he meant I needed to describe what I was talking about. He said I needed to remember that my readers aren’t inside my head. He said I needed to describe how things came to pass. Describe so people understand.
I asked him how to do that and he said I could make better metaphors.
For instance, he said, he is big like an enormous elephant, and his skin is dark like the night sky.
I answered that he wasn’t as big as an elephant because elephants can weigh thousands of pounds and he’s only about two hundred fifty. And also his skin is more brown like dark chocolate than black like the sky. That made me think of hot chocolate, so I asked Marty if he would make me some with mint and whipped cream.
He rolled his eyes and walked out of the kitchen with a tray of coffees muttering to himself. I didn’t hear what he was muttering.
I can explain my equations to you, the way I explained them to Marty.
I study physics from the men in pink.
There is the physics of very big things, like planets, and they have rules that work one way. There is the physics of very small things, like atoms and quarks, that have different, very strange rules. They have rules of tiny quantum numbers and probability. So far, no one has managed to figure out equations that predict how all things work, big and small. That’s what I’m working on. It is very difficult. I am not at a true academy, I am only at the Headquarters of the men in pink. I have to stay with them and cannot go to a real academy, because of the worms in my brain. Someone needs to keep an eye on me, they say, I can’t leave. The diner and Johnson square books are as far as I can go.
Marty just came back in and told me he meant that I should write about being taken away by the men in pink.
That’s what I told him.
No, I don’t want to.
I glared at my tablet and started typing in a new algorithm I’d thought up that would minimize the distance travelled by someone carrying a tray of coffees to eight different tables in the diner.
Marty put a hand on my shoulder.
I don’t like people touching me.
I told him to stop touching me.
He told me if I was serious about telling my story I would have to start with the men in pink taking me away. He left his hand on my shoulder when he said it.
I told him he had drinks that needed to be poured.
He sighed and turned away.
My head hurts now.
The worms are feasting.
Feasting on pictures of pink men and pink gloves.
Feasting on the sound of a car door closing.
Feasting on a woman’s screams.
They eat and they eat and they eat.
STOP IT WORMS. THOSE ARE MY THOUGHTS.
I know there aren’t any worms.
I know that.
My algorithm says a circular path, counterclockwise is Marty’s best bet for speedy coffee delivery for his next set of orders. I would tell him that, but he would come over and ask me why I’m not writing about the men in pink.
Maybe I should try.
If I get the thoughts out of my head and onto my tablet screen, the worms can’t eat them then.
How did it begin?
With Mommy and me.
We were doing a number puzzle. The kind where you have to put the numbers one through nine in rows and columns and boxes but you can only use one number in each. Mommy was rubbish at number puzzles, but I am very good. The worms eat up all the words, so I can see the numbers clearer than most. I had just finished putting in all the fives when there was a knock at the door.
I should probably say: Mommy and I lived in a very small house. It had light green walls and some black bookcases. There was also a cheap console, two bedrooms with grey-sheeted twins, a bathroom and a kitchen with a refrigerator, a hydrator, and a microwave. I knew that house very well. I stayed inside there the whole time I was with Mommy. I was never allowed to leave, because the people outside hated wormy brains. I had to stay hidden. A little worm in the dirt. The furthest I went was our little fenced in backyard with the duck pond. The bullfrogs wouldn’t try to take me away.
We were sitting cross-legged in the entrance-way when the knock happened. Mommy got very quiet and looked at the wall. People didn’t knock on our door. I could see she was afraid. Normally emotions are hard, but I know when someone looks afraid. I remember wanting to run somewhere very fast. But there was nowhere I could run except the bedroom. So that’s what I did. I skittered into the bedroom like… like… Like a little girl running away from some very bad people, perhaps? That’s not a good simile. That is exactly what it was. I am no good at this. Oh well.
I jumped into bed and pulled the covers up over my head, pulling them down over my ears to make two fleecy earmuffs. (There, that’s a good simile.) I remember I heard low voices and shouting and mommy yelled at them. It hurt my head and I dug the blanket into the little folds in my ears to try to make them be quiet, but I couldn’t get their voices to go away. I felt a big, heavy hand grip my shoulder. I was dragged out of the bed, some heavy fabric pushed over my face. I felt cold metal against my arm, then heard a sharp “shunk!” as something sharp was buried deep in my arm. Scream.
(I would learn later that shunk was just a radio tag.)
(That way the men in pink can keep track of me.)
(So they can help me, for my own good.)
I was sitting in the diner today, trying not to think too much. I had been thinking so hard all day, and the sun was just sinking. The black and white checkered diner with the red vinyl seats was all pink and orange from the light fading. My equations weren’t working.
I felt like I did during my first days in the city. I had been trying to find my way back to the headquarters of the men in pink. I had been hiding at the bookshop all day, surrounded by old, tired people. But then I got lost and had ended up in the diner after wandering around in circles. That’s how I met Marty. He gave me hot chocolate, gave me tissues to wipe away my tears, and showed me the way home.
Anyway, my equations were stuck.
I was lost.
And all of a sudden as I sat, not thinking at all, I realized what I had to do.
There’s a lot of math involved.
I won’t bore you.
Anyway, I solved the equations.
I thought of something no one had ever thought of before.
Checked myself, to make sure the worms weren’t trying to trick me.
I was right.
I grabbed my tablet and scribbled out all the little numbers and symbols in my head as fast as I could.
Then I screamed.
Marty ran over because he thought something was wrong, but I was too busy jumping up on the table and dancing, holding the tablet over my head. I will bring them to the men in pink tonight. Happy, happy, happy. Even the worms are wriggling and giddy.
There is a headline now.
“ONE STEP CLOSER TO UNIFIED FIELD THEORY.”
There is an article.
It is about me.
It is about what I scribbled down on my tablet not so long ago.
Marty was so proud of me.
He made me hot chocolate with extra peppermint and extra whipped cream, so warm and fresh and melt-in-your-mouth.
They’re saying other things too.
The article talks about my wormy brain.
How I was born without a doctor to fix me.
How I’m flawed, but still so smart.
I am happy.
Marty is so proud.
This means, perhaps, I am not so sick and bad after all.
Today there was a big ceremony outside the Headquarters of the men in pink. A ceremony for me. People lined the steps of the big white boxy building of the men in pink and I stood at the highest point. They put a big heavy circle of gold on a ribbon round my neck. Marty was at the front of the crowd. He was crying. I wasn’t sure why, but I think maybe it was only because he was very happy for me. Sometimes people cry when they’re very happy, which is confusing, but also kind of funny. Big old Marty, blubbering like a baby. Hee hee.
A man in a suit was speaking.
(Today marks a monumental step forward in the work done by those at the Mental Realignment Agency. Through intensive, state-of-the-art therapy those children born wrongfully withheld from access to today’s governmental genetic regulation are able to leave their mark on the world, as we see from this young woman here today. We would like to present her…)
(This award also honors the MRA for their…)
A group of people stood off to one side of the crowd with signs. They yelled every time the man on the podium spoke.
THIS IS A LIE, A HOAX, SHE COULDN’T HAVE DONE THIS.
WHY ARE YOU CELEBRATING THAT?
WHY ARE DANGEROUS PEOPLE ALLOWED TO LIVE? PEOPLE LIKE HER HAVE KILLED.
There was more yelling. Pushing and shoving. Faces so angry and red and bulgy they almost didn’t look like faces anymore. The man on the podium stopped talking. Men in black with guns and sticks were pushing the crowd away.
Shouldn’t be outside.
The people hate you, remember?
Shut up, worms.
I wanted to cry.
Why do they not want me when I just did something so good?
Why are they so angry?
The men in pink pulled me inside the white walls again.
I was angry.
I was afraid.
All that mattered was anger, hot, ripping my lungs to shreds.
The fear clawing at my throat.
The men in pink told me to go to my room and stay there.
But the worms were writhing and knocking against the inside of my skull.
I couldn’t just go sit in my room alone.
I tried for several hours, but the tears wouldn’t stop, and my throat hurt, and I couldn’t block out the all the white as much as I scrunched my eyes shut, it was drowning me.
So I took the back door when none of the men in pink were looking.
The one they thought I didn’t know about.
And soon I was walking for the diner.
I needed Marty.
Marty was closing up the diner when I got there. It was dark, and the sun was shining purple and orange like a bruise.
He hugged me.
My face all red and swollen and my throat still hurting and he hugged me.
I didn’t like to be touched.
But it was Marty, and I needed him, so I hugged him back as hard as I could.
He made me hot chocolate and we sat in one of the booths together and drank it.
I closed my eyes and the whipped cream melted away in my mouth.
You shouldn’t listen to them. That’s what Marty told me as I sipped my hot chocolate, my eyes scrunched up tight. You did an amazing thing, you are a good person, a kind person. You have done nothing wrong. You can’t help what your mommy decided.
I am too tired to think about whether or not I am a good, kind person.
Marty is quiet, then.
We sit like that for a long while.
What do you think?
Am I wrong?
Should I not be?
I need help, my brain is on fire. Why, oh why are equations so much simpler than questions of right or wrong? I used to believe Mommy, believe everything she said. She told me I was good and the world was against me, that the world was evil. The world was broken. But the men in pink told me it was not the world, but me that needed to be fixed. I am fixed, I have solved a puzzle that no one has been able to solve, all with the wriggling little worms in my sad little brain. That means I am good, right? Have the men in pink fixed me? I don’t know. I still feel the worms there, always, and I can’t seem to shake off the glares and jibes. They’re always there, feeding the worms their poison. I don’t know what to do to stop the hate. It’s crushing me, squeezing the atmosphere right out of my lungs.
I’m crying again as Marty hands me another hot chocolate. He puts his arm around me and holds me tight. He tells me he will always be here for me. I don’t mind that he’s hugging me now. I need to feel someone close by or I might burst. I don’t know if I am good, or if the men in pink are good, or even if the world is good. But Marty is good. That at least I know for sure. You agree, don’t you? Marty proves he’s good with kindness and peppermint. Perhaps everything that’s evil just needs more kindness and peppermint.
Suddenly, it is no longer quiet.
At the door.
You shouldn’t bang on a door that loud, that fast. Something was wrong.
WE KNOW SHE’S IN THERE.
LET US IN.
Yelling. Yelling. Yelling.
I’m not sitting at the booth anymore, Marty has picked me up, he’s carrying me behind the counter. He drops me and I crumple to the floor. My legs aren’t working. They’re too shaky. I feel sick, so sick.
I hide behind the counter, Marty standing in front, trying to protect me.
THIS WHOLE THING WAS A CONSPIRACY.
WE’RE GOING TO GET RID OF HER.
IF NO ONE ELSE WILL.
Why? Why? Why?
But why didn’t matter anymore.
They were going to do it.
Marty was trying to talk them out of it. I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
GET OUT OF THE WAY OR WE’LL SHOOT YOU, TOO.
They would shoot Marty to get to me.
They might shoot Marty anyway.
The men in pink.
The men in pink had noticed I was gone, I could hear them coming, they knew I was here. I could hear them outside.
But the bad men were counting.
Counting down from ten.
Like children playing hide and seek.
But angry, horrible.
They were going to shoot Marty or me, and they were going to do it now.
I calculated without calculating, and I knew immediately what I didn’t want to know.
The men in pink wouldn’t get here in time.
Marty was still trying to shield me.
Silly Marty with your diner and your hot chocolate with whipped cream and peppermint.
Silly Marty with your hugs and your kind words.
You think you need to save me.
You’ve already saved me.
Just like that I knew what to do.
I was scared.
But I did it anyway.
I had to save my Horatio.
I could save him, I could save him.
I stepped out from behind the counter, and the men aimed at me instead.
The men in pink were bursting through the door, a sliver of a second too late.
I heard Marty scream.
I’m sorry, Marty. I don’t know if I’m a good person, I don’t know if I’m a kind person. But if I do this for you, for someone I love like I loved my Mommy who I couldn’t save, I can’t be that bad, right?
Hamlet, guess what?
I solved the unsolvable riddle:
Not to be.
I love you, Marty, but I have to go now.