worm love


This started when I sliced open my wrist. Self-inflicted, but not attention getting, not suicidal – I just wanted out of class. Class kills me. Sitting in assigned seats seven hours per day, force-fed information in the blandest way possible, I begin to forget who I am. Who I’m supposed to be is everyone else and everyone else is a test score. Even if you test high, when your identity is subjected, that’s what really makes people go crazy.

Biology 102 was the worst. Madison was my lab partner while we were dissecting grasshoppers, Romalea guttata, the eastern lubber grasshopper. Sometimes known as the “graveyard grasshopper,” but the black ones are called “Devil’s horses.” The dead insects in front of us on trays were black with red stripes and we cut apart the heads, separating the mandibles from the hypopharnyx.

I did this before in Boy Scouts, before I got kicked out, but this high school was super dumbed down. I desperately needed a break. So, I took the scalpel and – slice!

“Is that blood?” Marvin, the kid who sits in the very front and has like a 5.0 GPA, pointed to me. “Ms. Wolcott, Gabe is bleeding all over the place!”

Ms. Wolcott looked up from her desk, shuddered and pointed to the door. “Really, Gabe? I thought you were old enough to handle this.”

I shrugged, trying to look like I was really disappointed in myself, but once I was outside class, my mood lifted immediately. Eagerly, I strolled down the hallways, strutting my hall pass, carefully dripping blood everywhere I went. I hoped the janitor that always teases me for being last at lunch enjoyed mopping that up.

Peeked in on other classes, AP history taught by Mrs. Mahon. Sounded like a raven cawing, her long fingernails squeaking against the blackboard when the chalk whittled too close. Boring. Mathematics, taught by Mr. Lisandro, speaking like a computer voice in a made-for-TV sci-fi film. Boring.

The halls were empty. Just mine. I was going to head to the library or maybe sneak by the vending machines in the teacher’s lobby, but I was still bleeding, so I beelined to the nurse’s station.

The nurse’s secretary pointed at a seat, not looking up from a tabloid magazine. There were only three – the far left was taken by a pretty girl, whose dark curls shaded her eyelids. I left a chair between us, taking up the whole thing because, like Mother says, I’m a lardass. I’m around 250 pounds, but the girl probably had to carry weights in her pockets on windy days. I wrapped my hand in paper towels and winced a lot, giving the idea that I was in a lot of pain. Acting.

The girl said, “How’d you do that?”

“Older kids picking on me. I fought back,” I said.

“I know some girls that do that on purpose. You just look like a clumsy idiot.”

I shrugged. I didn’t mind looking stupid – I was out of class, where it doesn’t count.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“Lady time,” the girl said.

“Oh,” I said. I wondered if that meant her period. The lack of sex-ed in this school shows through in euphemism. I tried to think of something else to say. “What’s your name?”

“Angelica.” She paused. “I think I know you. You’re that weird, quiet kid that everyone says is a stalker. Didn’t you really freak out that Swedish girl before she left?”

I didn’t say anything, which was probably the wrong response.

“Sorry, was I not supposed to mention that?” The girl laughed. “Kids can be so mean in school. I blame the teachers. People say I’m weird, too.”

The girl scooted closer to me, closing the chair gap between us. “You did that to yourself. I can tell. I can also tell you like pain a little.”

She started to dig her nails into me. My mouth opened just a bit, but I made no sound. Angelica dug in deeper. I started to groan a little. She said, “You like that?”

I nodded slowly.

“For a sixteen-year-old, you’re way screwed up,” Angelica laughed, retracting her nails, leaving crescent moons of blood coming out my arm. The nurse opened the door and gave Angelica a cup and a pill. She swallowed both and grinned at me while walking out the door. “A spoonful of sugar…” She grinned. I didn’t get it.

“You’re name’s Gabriel, right? You’re in Ms. Wolcott’s class.”

I nodded. “You’re supposed to be in Mr. Lisandro’s.”

“Bye, bye.” She disappeared. The nurse turned, saw me covered in blood and said, “Oh boy…”

Bandaged, I reluctantly returned to class. Madison had the whole grasshopper all dissected and pinned and cut open.

“Since I did all the work,” she scowled, shoving a stack of papers in my hand. “You can write the essay. Yourself.”

I stood there at my desk, all packed up and eager to leave, but Ms. Wolcott had me approach her desk. I hated it when she did this. “Are you OK, Gabe?” She said. “Tell me honestly. I’m your friend. You can tell me.”

I stood there picking at my bandages.


“I’m thinking,” I said.

“Gabe, you’re probably the brightest kid in this class,” Ms. Wolcott said. “Between you and Marvin, maybe this whole school. But you’re struggling. Do you wanna tell me why?”

I looked out the window and sighed. The fastest way to get out of here would be to just make something up.

“How do I get girls to like me?” I asked, electing a problem that was only half fiction.

Ms. Wolcott smiled, adjusting her bra strap. She stood up, walked to the filing cabinet, opened the very bottom drawer and said, “Just try talking to them.”

She was bent down so that her g-string was peeking up from her skirt. It was a fiery red, like an apple. I couldn’t help but stare and Ms. Wolcott turned suddenly, biting her bottom lip.

“Is there something you want to talk to me about?” Ms. Wolcott purred.

My eyes were bulging and I was afraid my jeans might start, too.

“No, that’s good advice, Ms. Wolcott,” I said and bolted for the door.



I walked home with Keith, the only friend I’d managed to maintain through high school. Rumors abounded about me and this Swedish exchange student until she had to leave the school and it cost me all my friends. But not Keith. Walking with him, he asked how I got injured.

Some juniors sped by in a convertible, blaring berserk urban music so loud it made the sidewalk jiggle like jello, but we could still hear them scream, “Fat ass fags!” I liked walking with Keith because he was heavier than me. He weighed probably close to 300 pounds, a real poster child for the teenage obesity epidemic.

Keith asked again, “What’s with all the bandages, my man?

“Do you know Angelica?” I kicked at piles of dead leaves, exposing slugs and snails hiding from the cold.

“The kinda crazy one?” Keith asked. “Oh man, is she your latest obsession?”

“No!” I yelled so loud, a flock of birds flew off. “Shut up, jerkoff.”

“Jeez,” Keith said. “Don’t go psycho on me.”

I felt my face burning up. I stared at the ground and reminded myself Keith was my only friend.

“Don’t think about it too much. Angelica’s super shallow, my man,” Keith sighed, stooping to pick up a twig. He swished it in the air, enunciating his disappointment. “She only dates older guys that wear skinny jeans and smoke pot. She’ll never go out with a guy as tubby as you or me.”

“Ms. Wolcott told me to just talk to girls…”

“What does she know? She’s divorced. You gotta be thin or no girl’s gonna like you.”

I clenched my fists. “Shut up, Keith. You don’t know anything. This isn’t about sex or love or anything. I just want to say something without being scrutinized.”

“Jeez, what are you, gay? Angelica’s one of the hottest girls in school, except she’s like, kind of nuts. You’d still have to be stupid to ignore her, even if she won’t look twice at us.”

I started walking away super fast and soon Keith was far behind me, cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting, “Get over her, my man!”


For my birthday last year, Mother gave me a tear-off calendar with a different invertebrate or insect or creepy crawly on every date. Grotesque black and white images, miniature demons and monsters and underneath, a short factoid starting with “Did You Know?…”

Arriving home from school, I tore off the sheet for Lineus longissimus, the bootlace worm. Did you know this worm has toxic mucus and can grow to be over 50 meters long?

Later in the evening, after a quick microwave dinner, I went out underneath my treehouse. My grandfather planted an apple when this house was built and a tree grew, but it never had apples. It was always just a tree. I tried to think about anything but the girl. It didn’t help.

In the morning, I was still thinking of her as I walked to school. The day seemed like a blur and at lunch, I saw Angelica and I watched her from the Fat Kids Table with Keith and a bunch other obese students. She was talking with her friends and I just hoped she’d look in my direction, but she never did.

That night, I tore off the sheet for Asian forest scorpions, Heterometrus indus; did you know they are one of the largest scorpions in the world, but no one has ever died from their poison?

That evening, I sat under the treehouse again and tried not to think. It became a sullen ritual for me. I tore off the sheet for Dromia personata crabs (did you know they hold sponges as camouflage?) and the slug moth Apoda limacodes (did you know these spiky caterpillars can cause severe pain?)

I thought of bugs and arachnids and crustaceans because then I wouldn’t think of Angelica. I didn’t want to be obsessed, because I knew infatuation will drive people away. Every day I saw the girl in school and every time she looked the other way. She forgot me. The cuts from her nails healed.

Keith got a girlfriend, an overweight girl with really bad acne named Helga. She sat with us at the Fat Kids Table. Keith didn’t have time for me after that. I wrote an essay on dissecting grasshoppers, but I already knew everything about it. I used to dissect things myself in my room, for fun. But then Mother told me she thought it was “disturbing.”

“People,” Mother said, “will think you’re off in the head. Even if you’re just being inquisitive. You might come across as a freak.”

She made me throw away all my dissecting materials; the birds, bugs and frogs I had collected from the backyard and sliced open. As a consolation, Mother got me a calendar for my birthday and said, “Love strange things passively. You can learn about these disgusting things from a distance. And not in my house.” She shuddered.

I tore off the sheet for Scolopendra gigantean, the Amazonian Giant Centipede – did you know it eats lizards, frogs, birds, mice and even bats?

I remembered something Mother said about my father, soon after he left. She tried to explain his absence as “Umwelt,” the German word for environment. It’s used to explain that the mind and the world are hopelessly entangled because the mind illuminates the world. I think this had something to do with how our perception is the only reality we can know.

“Every animal has its own unique Umwelten,” Mother explained. “Dogs don’t see color and ticks don’t have ears, so in a way, they live in completely different worlds, even if it’s the same ecosystem.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know that, Mother. Uexküll’s theory on Umwelt was in that book grandma gave me. What’s your point?”

She shuffled and looked down at her hands. “Some people, like your father, live in their own, separate worlds. And that’s why he didn’t come back.”


In school, Madison grew more and more mad at me because I kept finding ways to sneak out of class. I forced myself to puke and yelled out things and pretended to sleep. Whether I was sent to the nurse’s or the principal’s, I hoped to run into Angelica.

I was failing biology, but I didn’t care. I looked around all the other kids passing notes and making out in hallways and talking about different bases they could get to and every other problem I had faded into a vacuum. I just wanted to be noticed by someone.

Finally, I did meet Angelica again – she was in front of me in the cafeteria line and she looked back. This was the day after I tore off the sheet for the Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) so I had a good feeling all morning. And now she was staring right at me.

“Hey, you again,” she said.

I couldn’t move my mouth. She looked down at my tray, filled with more food than anyone else.

“When’s it due?” Angelica asked.


Her friends giggled.

“Your baby,” Angelica rolled her eyes. “Since you’re obviously eating for two.”

I looked down for a long time and when I glanced up again, she was gone.

After school, I saw Keith and Helga and waved. They didn’t wave back, so I ran up to Keith and said, “Hey.”

“Hey, my man,” Keith sighed, wrapping his arm tighter around Helga’s wide waist – it didn’t look easy. She stared at me like I was a soybean cyst nematode, Heterodera glycines, which, did you know female SCN’s live in the roots of soybeans where they balloon up and produce between 200 and 400 eggs in this sickly yellow gelatinous matrix? Then she dies, her cuticle hardening into a cyst and the eggs hatch inside her.

“What’s new?” Keith said, looking into Helga’s eyes.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Oh,” Keith said.

“Aaaawk ward!” Helga tittered and then she made a face at me.

As the couple walked away, I realized I meant it. Nothing was new. My life was turning into a rotation of repetitive actions and I needed something to break the cycle, lest I become like a cocoon that never emerges from itself. I needed to become imago, the final stage in a worm’s life cycle. Mother used to say that even Papilio zelicaon, the Anise Swallowtail, takes years to emerge from a chrysalis.

I think she means to be patient. But I am. I’m too patient.

Sometimes, I can be so patient it’s like I can feel the rotation of the earth. Like if I was an earthworm, dew worm, nightcrawler, whatever and I lived under the topsoil in winter. I felt like if I could just hibernate, if I could become one with the earth, when spring came around I would emerge again and feel brand new.

Finally, my opportunity arrived in an unlikely form. After class one day, while working on some homework from trigonometry, Ms. Wolcott stepped out. I approached her desk and started reading the biology catalog she left on her desk. I’ve been told it’s strange what you can discover when you’re looking hard enough and it never felt truer than at that moment.

In between pages for ordering thermometers and Bunsen burners was an organic section for ordering preserved specimens. Injected starfish, jellyfish, sea anemones and other such things for cutting up in school laboratories. There were also live mealworms and butterflies and – what surprised me most of all – live tapeworm eggs.

I had read somewhere that racehorse jockeys in the 1930’s swallowed these capsules from China that contained tapeworm eggs. The worms would then mature in the horsemen’s stomachs, devouring whatever food they ate and keep the jockey’s weight down.

I immediately tore out the catalog order form and ran to my desk, scribbling furiously.

“What’s with you?” Madison, my lab partner asked. I didn’t even look up.

I mailed the form. I waited. I tore off the sheet for Haemadipsa zeylanica, the Japanese Mountain Leech, a family of jawed land leeches. Then, the sheet for Olindias formosa, the flower hat jellyfish, which looks like a sprinkled underwater cupcake. The sheet for Archispirostreptus gigas, the giant African millipede which has 256 legs and secretes irritating liquids from its pores. There were two-dozen more sheets I tore off, of spiders, grasshoppers, ants, slugs, silverfish and many, many worms.

Then, my package arrived.

I used a knife from the kitchen, something Mother would have frowned upon, and I tore the packaging from end to end. And I sliced open my wrist – accidentally this time. But I didn’t care, I just kept pulling apart the box, the tape, the envelope. Inside was a vial and it was labeled Taenia solium, a pork cestoda egg. A tapeworm egg.

Bleeding all over the place, I went outside to the apple tree without apples. I sat in the snow and opened the vial and swallowed the egg dry and I bled all over and into the ground. I was filled with weird, frantic thoughts over what I just did. My blood going into the dirt, like a coffin goes into the dirt and eventually becomes one with the dirt and the worms eat the dirt and will eventually eat me and I just ate a live worm that will eat me…

I held my cut and winced a lot, like I was in a lot of pain, like this was a sacrifice. Soon, I would become imago, the final stage, the thin, attractive boy Angelica would notice.

I thought of her naked and what it would be like to kiss her, to kiss someone for the first time. My stomach rumbled and I thought of what it was like to have another creature living inside me. Playing host.

I would be part of a beautiful life cycle, which works like this: cestodas continually lay eggs or segments called proglottids, which are passed through the feces of the host. Sometimes, these proglottids trickle down the thigh, like when you’re walking to class or the bus. Inside each proglottid are thousands of microscopic eggs, so in a way, the host does all the laying. A tapeworm chicken.

If someone or something eats food contaminated by the feces, they can ingest tapeworm eggs. The new host does all the incubating and these eggs hatch into larvae, which migrate out of the intestines and form cysts in other tissues such as the lungs or liver. This is called cysticercosis.

I clamped tighter on my open wound. The bleeding was hardly stopping. It was getting too cold, so I headed back inside.

There are risks to this whole thing, of course, but I didn’t really calculate them until after I tore off the sheet for Taeina sagniata, the beef tapeworm. Did you know, tapeworms can grow over 16 meters long and live inside you up to 20 years?

It’s rare, but sometimes larvae that emerge from the eggs will burrow out of the intestines and into other areas of the body, sometimes up into the brain. This is called neurocysticercosis and it can trigger immune responses like epileptic seizures or death.

But somehow I knew that this would be worth the risk.


Every morning, I weighed myself on Mother’s bathroom scale and for the first two weeks, I weighed the same. I didn’t feel anything growing in my stomach, but I knew she was there. She was my putrid fetus. She needed a name. I decided to call her Joy.

In school, I sat by Madison and we dissected frogs. The things were already dead as we pulled them out of plastic bags, laying them on the dissecting table, ready for their death rites. Slowly, we cut into them, pulling back the skin and revealing their clockwork. We identified the gall bladder versus the spleen versus the pancreas. The heart was easy – everyone knows where the heart is.

“You’ve been acting strange,” Madison said. “Stranger than usual, anyway. And you look sick.”

I put pins for the stomach, pins for the liver, pins for the esophagus.

“I don’t get you sometimes,” my lab partner said. “Sometimes you’re a terrible student, sometimes you’re valedictorian.”

My stomach grumbled and I suddenly felt the urge to defecate.

“Mind your own beeswax,” I said, taking the scalpel and placing it against my wrist. But I paused and instead raised my hand and politely asked to be excused.

“Not now, Gabe,” Ms. Wolcott said.

“I’m gonna shit my pants!” I yelled. Everyone in the class turned to look at me and started laughing.

“Then get out of here, but you’ll have to see me after class,” Ms. Wolcott grumbled.

I raced down the hallway, found the boys room and barely made it to the stall before everything escaped with a horrendous splat. Some of the other common symptoms of cestoda infestation are nausea, abdominal pain, general feelings of illness and diarrhea.

But before I flushed, I notice in my stool a little white sliver floating on top. A proglottid.

It worked.



Ms. Wolcott sat on her desk, facing me. “You can’t keep cutting class like this, Gabe.”

“I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” I mumbled.

“Your grades are starting to suffer.” My teacher pulled out her gradebook. “You’ve slipped to a B minus.”

I stifled a giggle and thought about Joy, wiggling around inside of me. Ms. Wolcott glared.

“What do you want from me?” I snapped.

Ms. Wolcott raised her eyebrows and leaned toward me, her cleavage jutted out to me, inviting. She stroked my face and softly whispered, “I just want to get into your head.”

“Right,” I gulped. The urge to look down her blouse was burning inside me. I pushed her hand away. “I’ll try to help you out, but not now.”

And I ran for the hallway, but not before catching a perfect, momentary glimpse. I swear I saw nipple.



After school, I waited by the school gates until Keith walked by with Helga. Again, like the last several weeks, the couple didn’t acknowledge me, too busy studying each other’s Anatomy 101. I overheard rumors in the hallway that Keith wasn’t a virgin anymore, but he never bothered to tell me.

I waved, but Keith looked away. But then, a soft, celestial voice said, “Hey, weirdo.”

Angelica. I stared, until Ms. Wolcott’s advice came back to me. I’d seen enough movies to know to act cool.

“What’s up, uh, babe,” I croaked.

She laughed. I thought it was a good sign, until she said, “Don’t try to be a tool.” And she walked away.

“Where are you going?”

“Home, idiot. Where do you think?”

“Can I walk with you?”

“Only if you hold my crap and don’t walk too close to me.” Angelica flipped her hair.

I clumsily took her books and slipped her backpack over one shoulder, starting to walk a few yards ahead of her. She ran to me, laughing, taking her stuff back, saying, “You’re too easy.”

It almost hurt the way my face felt so red.

“C’mon,” she said. And we walked together, snow crunching beneath our feet, just the wind and silence. I felt so stupid that I wasn’t saying anything, but I was too concentrated on what I wasn’t doing instead of just doing it.

So, to make conversation, I said, “What’s your favorite color?”

A beat.

“What?” Angelica stared. “Indigo, I guess.”

“Really?” I said.

“No, not really. What is this, third grade?”

“Um, a better question then. Um, where were you born?”

“Here,” the girl said. “I’ve been here my whole life.”

“Me too.” I said. More silence.

“OK, what month were you born?” I asked.


That clicked and I got incredibly excited. “Me too! What day?”

“The 21st. Why?”

“I’m the 29th.”

“Cool. So what?”

“Well, I’m turning seventeen and so are you. And of course you know what happened seventeen years ago.”

Angelica shook her head and gave me a look. I recognized it too well. It was close to the one Mother gave me when she discovered my dissection specimens.

“The cicadas will come back,” I said. “Magicicada septencassini. The nymphs live underground for seventeen years and then they all emerge at once. The last time anyone saw them was the year we were born.”

“Excuse me, did you just say something in Spanish?”



“Yeah, well, it’s a really important life cycle and, well, we correspond to it pretty well, so that’s why I’m …”

“That’s great. Well, listen, this is me.” The girl nodded to a house with dead vines scrambling up the earth-toned brick, wrapping the frame of the residence until the arms withered into fingers and then into nothing. There were rusted, amputated wind chimes hanging like gallows next to a bug zapper hung over dead rose bushes. Her neighborhood was a lot nicer than mine.

“This was fun,” I said, deadpan.

“Yeah, next time act less like you’re into it.” She rolled her eyes and turned to go. I looked at the ground, looked at my stomach and realized how I had got here. The Joy inside me.

“I lost this weight for you,” I called to her.

She turned. “What?”

“Never mind. I just want to know something.”

“Sure, anything, if you’ll just let me go inside.”

“How come you’ve got me so figured out and then you decide to be so mean to me?”

A beat.

“You’re cute when you’re straight forward.”

“Answer me.”

Angelica walked back to me, placing a hand on my shoulder. She sighed, looking at me with so much pity I thought it was choking her.

“Maybe I just act like a girl that’s got it all figured out just because I can screw with other people’s minds. But I don’t know it all. I just want to find someone who knows what they want. That’s all any girl wants.”

I could almost feel Joy twisting inside me, writhing in agitation and she made me blurt out things I wouldn’t otherwise say, like, “Well, I want to kiss you.”

Angelica stared. She looked down and blushed, so I took her hand, and awkwardly made contact with her lips. It was slow to disconnect. I swallowed, I gulped, I tasted her. She might have kissed back, she might not have, but eventually she pushed away and left our breath lingering in the frigid air.

“There, happy?” And she ran inside.

I walked home feeling a vague satisfaction. A consolation prize when I wasn’t sure I even placed. But at the same time, I was reminded of a quote from Kafka in the letter to his father: “It was slightly reminiscent of the worm that, when a foot treads on its tail end, breaks loose with its front part and drags itself aside.”



The next day, I tore off the calendar sheet for the Madagascan sunset moth, chrysiridia rhipheus, a day-flying moth with iridescent red, blue and green wings that were sliced off the insects and used as jewelry in the Victorian Era. Did you know in Malagasy, the word lolo is polysemic for “butterfly” and “soul,” most likely because a chrysalis resembles a wrapped, mummified corpse and the moth emerges from it, much like a soul exiting mortal remains?

And that day, I walked to school like I myself had exited my old body – a new creation. Between 3rd period, when I saw Keith in the hallway, I flipped him the bird and walked quickly to lunch. There, I gorged myself on five slices of greasy pepperoni pizza, three chocolate milks and half a dozen pudding cups. In the bathroom, giving into my nausea for the second time that afternoon, I whispered to Joy and thanked her.

In biology, I handed Madison an essay with both our names on it about frog dissection. “I stayed up most of the night writing this,” I said. “I couldn’t sleep anyway.”

Madison stared at me. “You’re like, bipolar or something.”

“Or something.” I whistled until Marvin yelled at me to knock it off. Ms. Wolcott smiled at me.

“You look cheerful today,” my teacher said, bending over my desk. I nodded and forced myself to stare into her eyes, even as Ms. Wolcott’s cleavage spilled into my peripheral vision. Eventually, she got up and walked away, rolling her eyes at me.



After school, I found Angelica standing by the school gates. She dumped her books into my arms and we walked again. She didn’t look at me.

“So, what’d you learn in school today?” I said it in the voice of Mr. Lisandro.

Angelica turned and laughed. “Nothing. As usual.”

“I would nearly kill myself to get out of school,” I said.

“Don’t be so melodramatic.” Her look hinted at concern. I almost didn’t recognize it.

“I’m not. I was being hyperbolic.”

“Whatever that means. Hey, I did learn something. Did you know that if Barbie, that little plastic doll, were a real woman, her head would be the same size as her waist, meaning she’d only have a few inches of intestines and half a liver?”


“No, the grossest part is she’d have chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition.”

“What class did you learn that in?”

“Some cheerleader girl told me that at lunch.”

“The only class you’ll ever need,” I said.

Angelica laughed and shoved me. I think it was meant to be playful, but I wasn’t sure.

“Did your dad ever let you play with Barbies?”

“No.” She looked straight ahead. “We didn’t have the money. Besides, Barbie gives little girls unrealistic expectations about being a woman.”

“It’s just a doll. It doesn’t have to be proportionate. Baby dolls with the rolling eyes, they aren’t realistic either.”

She didn’t say anything for awhile.

“I like this,” I said.

“Just… don’t say any more weird stuff. About bugs and things.”

I was quiet. Angelica nudged me. “OK?” She said.


Outside her house, she kissed me – just on the cheek – and said, “You’ve lost more weight.”

I nodded, grinning. “My secret is just having Joy inside me.”

“Uh huh, whatever. How much do you think you’ve lost?”

“Forty pounds. Maybe 45. Going to go get new clothes with Mother later today, but it’ll be a waste because my goal is to lose a hundred.”

“Well, you look cute,” Angelica smiled. I smiled. Maybe even Joy smiled.

At home, I tore off the calendar sheet for Bagheera kiplingi, a species of jumping spider named after the panther in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Did you know this arachnid is almost thoroughly herbivorous? Who ever heard of a spider that sucks blood from dandelions instead of mayflies, right?

I needed the calendar less and less, the pages piling up in the trashcan. Now that Angelica was actually talking to me, I didn’t need to distract myself with useless facts about ugly, unappreciated monsters. But did you know the triplewart seadevil, Cryptopsaras couesii, an anglerfish, reproduces when the male fuses with the much larger female, becoming parasitic and doing little more than producing sperm for the rest of its vain, gloomy life?

I asked myself if I would willingly do that, if that was my species’ method of reproduction. I couldn’t answer. My stomach gurgled as Joy wiggled inside me.

Mother came into my room. I tore off the sheet for Hydra vulgaris, a small, freshwater creature that looks like an Allegheny White Fish, Pennsylvania slang for shredded condoms floating downriver. Did you know that hydras have negligible senescence, meaning they never die of old age and can live forever? No end in sight, their existence practically arbitrary.

Mother said, “Are you feeling OK?”

My stomach gurgled again. Joy was moving inside me, swirling in circles in my tubes, I was sure. Earthworms burrow through the dirt and Joy burrows through my veins.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You’ve been losing a lot of weight,” Mother said, rambling nervously. “You look pale. I heard you throwing up this morning. You even look feverish. Are you eating? Do you have anything you want to talk about? Like, maybe an eating disorder? Can boys get those? You would tell me, right?”

I laughed. “Maybe I have myiasis.”

Mother gave me a blank look.

“It’s this parasitic fly larvae infection. Like, if some cheese flies laid eggs in your homemade Swiss chicken cordon bleu and then I ate some. The maggots can pass through my digestive system alive – stomach acids don’t usually kill them. These little buggers can even briefly live in the intestines, causing some serious lesions as they seek to bore through the intestinal walls. Symptoms include nausea, bloody diarrhea, vomiting and of course, finding living or dead maggots in your shit.”

Mother stared, her mouth drooping like that Munch painting The Scream.

I said, “Did you know that fruit fly larvae are the leading cause of myasis? Did you know they’re the insect most commonly found in the intestines?”

“How do you know all this disgusting stuff?”

Smiling weakly, I pointed to the calendar she gave me.

“Do you think you have this mitosis stuff?” Mother looked liked she was either about to puke or cry. Maybe both.

“Myiasis. Mitosis is a type of cell division. And no.” I shook my head, my stomach heaving again. “I’m fine. Probably just some bug passing around school.”

That didn’t help.

“I mean, like a flu bug.”

And she slammed the door.

Immediately, I ran to the trashcan and threw up. “Thank you, Joy,” I whispered.


In school, the moment I heard the rumors, I envied how hydras must feel, trapped in their negligible senescence, their Umwelten, knowing no sense of past, present or future, but simply being.

I didn’t even realize why kids in the hallways were staring at me until biology. Madison didn’t even look at me. Today, we dissected earthworms, Lumbricus terrestris. We distinguished the citellum from the prostomium, then cut down the middle. Identified the gizzard, the dorsal blood vessel, the ventral nerve cord. Did you know that North Americans call this worm a ‘nightcrawler,’ but Canadians call it a ‘dew worm’ and the British call it a ‘lob worm?’

Marvin, that kid in the front who talks about particle physics and wears thick glasses, he came back to my table and whispered, “Is it true about you and Angelica?”

“Is what true?” I stared at him.

Madison interrupted. “Get lost, Marvin. You have to have friends before you can gossip.”

“Fine,” Marvin said. “Why don’t you suck Gabe’s dick too, Madison?”

Still, I think Marvin actually started to cry a little as he walked back to his desk in the front.

“What’s gotten into everyone?” I asked. My stomach rumbled again.

“Just shut up,” Madison growled. “Everyone knows what’s going on between you two. And it makes me more sick than having to cut up these worms.”

“I’ll write the paper on it…” I offered.

“Fuck off.” Madison grabbed the scalpel from me a little too fast and stabbed herself. Her hand flew to her mouth, blood speckling the lab table.

“I’m sorry!” I said. “Do you need to go to the nurse?”

“No,” the girl said. “Unlike you, I can handle a little blood.”

When the last bell rang and I met Angelica at the school gates, she said, “We need to talk.”

I shouldered my backpack and carried her books and groaned. My stomach felt so awful. And now it was about to feel that much worse.

“We’re not dating,” Angelica said. She looked at the ground. “Don’t tell anyone that we are.”

“I didn’t,” I said. My stomach felt like it was eating itself. I don’t know if was courage or stupidity or pure joy, but I said, “But we could.”

I didn’t expect the girl to laugh.

“C’mon,” I said. “I’m not the guy I used to be.”

“Maybe,” Angelica said. “But still.”

“I know I’m not all the way there yet, but give me a chance.”

“I just want a man, not an earthworm,” she said.

Joy had given me terrible diarrhea all day, each bowel movement filled with proglottids. My sphincter was pulsing like a worm on a hook and a murky pressure inside my guts flowed deep through my bowels.

“I’m attracted to you, I’ll admit that,” Angelica said. “But everyone would laugh at me. Wait till college, then maybe. Plus, I’ve heard bits and pieces of what happened to the Swedish girl…”

“Does that mean you won’t even go to the spring dance with me?”

Angelica paused. She took my hand and said sweetly, “Were you really gonna ask me?”

I nodded. My stomach nodded, too. I had no idea which end everything wanted to come out.

“Wouldn’t you rather just fuck?”

My stomach dropped. It felt like it was on fire. I grabbed my side and groaned.

“Right now?” I whispered.

“Of course not now! My father’s home. The spring dance will be fine. We’ll use it as a rouse and then you can have your way with me. Or, rather, I’ll have my way with you.”

I smiled. Angelica smiled even wider.

“Gotta go,” she said and started to run off. Then she turned and shouted back, “Do me a favor! Pretend we’re not interested in each other! I don’t wanna kill my social life, unlike you! Thanks!”

And the minute she was out of sight, I couldn’t hold Joy inside me any longer and shit my pants.



I never walked Angelica home again and she never met my eyes in the hallway, but I knew to be patient if anything were to come of us. That’s what Joy taught me. Good things come to those that wait. I lost another sixteen pounds just by waiting.

Maybe when Angelica and I finally entangled our legs, maybe when I entered her, maybe then she’d love me. It was worth trying. Maybe Angelica just didn’t know what love was and I could teach her. After all, Joy taught me what love was. Love is sacrifice and pain and that butterfly feeling in your guts, but feeling that way all the time.

In dreams, I imagined Joy twisting inside me. I imagined I could feel it as she danced in my guts all night, snarling and writhing. She whispered to me and I whispered back.

She called me home. She was warm and safe and loving to me. I was her entire world. I was her Umwelt, all she’d ever know. I was her negligible senescence, her concept of time unbroken as she simply was inside my bowels. I realized, no feeling was more amazing than knowing that.

Joy and I shared every meal and slept tightly wrapped around one another. Nothing could be more like love than this, except maybe what I had with Angelica.

I know my parasitic relationship was like a slow suicide, but it was also life affirming, a stage in a life cycle. Pregnant. Eating for two.

Perhaps I wanted to destroy something inside me, my weight, my ugliness, my social ineptitude. Joy was eating my fear like a cancer.

Mother cooked me dinner and I spent much of the night in the bathroom, laying Joy’s eggs. I tore off the sheet for Vespa mandarinia, the yak-killer hornet which is known to enter the hives of bees, secrete pheromones attracting other hornets, and then systematically slaughter the entire hive. Most honeybees don’t stand a chance, because the hornets are so heavily armored the bee’s little stingers don’t harm them. But when Japanese honeybees, Apis cerana japonica, detect those distinct hornet pheromones, they’ll swarm all over the intruder until it’s incapacitated. Then the bees will vibrate their flight muscles until they raise the temperature of the hornet to 115 ºF. The bees can withstand temperatures of 122 ºF, but the hornets can’t and cook to death.

Nature has a genius way of dealing with things. Maybe this is too genius to accept as chance.

I kept that in mind the night of the dance. I was wearing my father’s suit, but I barely fit into it because I had lost so much weight. It sagged on me. It smelled like my father, like his aftershave and his favorite brand of cigarillos. I looked in the mirror, my skeletal frame buried in the suit and I began to disillusion myself with the idea that I was my father. Stuck in his umwelt.

If I wore his clothes, read his books, ate his food, maybe I could enter his head. Maybe I could be a parasite to him, looking out at the world. Or, maybe that’s what he saw in me, maybe that’s why he took off.

I found a bent cigarette in one of the pockets, smelling stale with age and I kissed it between my lips. I examined myself in the mirror, trying to look like Humphrey Bogart or James Dean or my Father, but the cigarette almost instantly crumbled.

Mother knocked on the door and startled me back into my own Umwelt. “Are you ready yet?” she said softly.

She was excited for the first dance I’d ever been to and tried to take my picture. The Polaroid flash made my eyes shuffle in and out.

It was raining, so Mother dropped me off. I smiled weakly when I got out the car. Mother didn’t know my plan with Angelica, yet this started to make me guilty. Then Joy churned inside and I knew I couldn’t back out, not now.

I went through the school doors and immediately ran into Keith and Helga. Helga was sitting on the floor crying and Keith looked up at me. I tried to dart into the gym, but my old friend caught up to me.

“This dance is stupid,” Keith said.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I muttered.

“She wanted me to dance with her. But I don’t dance, my man and she should know that. So we broke up.”

I nervously itched my nose. “Um, OK,” I said. “Pardon me.”

“Helga didn’t like you,” he said, grabbing me. “But we’re broken up now, so we can be friends again.” Keith extended his hand.

My stomach rumbled. I felt like Joy was telling me not to take it. So I didn’t. I just shrugged and went inside the gym.

The lights were dimmed and covered with blue, red and pink gels that transformed the room into a B-movie alien planet. I think the theme was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or maybe Star Wars. I couldn’t tell them apart.

The music was at least ten years older than I was, stuff I didn’t really recognize, but knew the teachers chose because it reminded them of their youth. Ms. Wolcott was dancing, shimmying in place next to a stiff Mr. Lisandro. Even Marvin was there, drinking punch and chatting with some of his geeky friends. They all wore thick glasses and were talking about how the decorations weren’t canon to Star Trek or something.

Ms. Wolcott stopped dancing and headed right for me.

“Nice to finally see you at one of these functions, Gabriel,” my teacher sighed. “You look so handsome in a suit. Like a little gentleman. You’ll be a gentleman someday, won’t you?”

“It’s my father’s,” I muttered. “It doesn’t even fit.”

“You’ve lost a ton of weight,” Ms. Wolcott said. “I remember when you barely fit at your desk. Are you looking for a dance partner?”

I shook my head. “I’m gonna get something to eat.”

“Don’t ruin your figure all over again!”

At the punchbowl, I looked around for Angelica, but saw Madison instead. She smiled and walked over to me.

“Hi Gabe,” she said.

I nodded. “Hey Madison.”

“You look nice. I like the suit.”


“Are you enjoying yourself?”


She laughed. “Did you hear about the cicadas coming out of the ground soon? I don’t want to miss that.”

I gave her a strange look. “Yeah, but I thought you hated bugs.”

“I hate cutting them open. It’s cruel. I like observing them.”


“I wish someone would go with me.”

I felt my guts being cut and diced again. It felt like Joy was telling me something, but I didn’t know what this time. Part of me wanted to see the cicadas, to see my own imago, but something was holding me back. My stomach rumbled and I knew why.

A long silence passed. The music was changed and a few people danced. Ms. Wolcott looked over at me across the room, then at Madison, then left the gym and I didn’t see her come back. I turned and saw that Madison was still watching me.

“Um, have you seen Angelica?” I asked.

Madison looked down. “No.” There was a pause. “Um, are you two really dating?”

I gave a knee jerk response, what I’d trained myself to do, “No, no, I don’t like her like that.”

And Madison smiled. “Oh, well, I was just asking. Listen, school’s almost over and I’m sorry for the way I treated you in class. I don’t want to lose you as a friend. And there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you….”

I stopped scanning the crowd and looked at Madison. In her hand was a note, folded a hundred times into some sort of origami creation, resembling a butterfly with hearts colored on the wings. It immediately dawned on me what she was going to say and my guts spun inside out. Then, the doors crashed open and there was Angelica.

“Can it wait?” I said to Madison. My stomach growled again. I felt like Joy wanted me to run. “I’m not sure I can handle it right now.”

Without waiting for a response, I sprinted away, feeling another pang in my stomach, but this one was guilt. I just didn’t want Madison to end up on the floor, crying her eyes out like Helga.

I walked over to a group of jocks I didn’t know and pretended to talk to them until they turned away. Angelica went over to the punch bowl and helped herself, chatting with some of her friends. The music was crappy disco and it was irritating me. I waited, trying hard not to seem like a creep, but I felt like everyone noticed that I noticed the girl. But I couldn’t stick around if I wanted to.

My stomach felt like it was going to rupture. I quickly made an exit, rushing into the bathroom and slamming the stall door behind me. Beneath me there was an explosion and I groaned, my voice echoing off the tiles in the empty room.

To me, this was love. Worm love.

In the mirror, I looked white, but I splashed some water on my face and headed out the door. Back in the hallway, still trying to tuck my shirt back in, I bumped into Angelica.

“There you are! Meet me outside in twenty minutes,” she said, pulling a flask from her purse and tipping it into her punch glass. “You want any of this?”

She poured some in my cup when I didn’t say anything.

Soon, we were in the parking lot holding a bright pink umbrella. The rain was now a full-blown storm and we walked with the parasol held in front like a shield. When we got to her doorstep, we were soaked. The wind snatched the umbrella, tearing it from Angelica’s hands and throwing it down the street. We looked back.

“Forget it,” Angelica said, nodding to her house.

Inside, she led me upstairs to her bedroom, painted in pastels and decorated with stuffed animals. She had a desktop computer plastered in stickers from what I assumed were pop artists and a dresser with makeup spread out on top. Nothing else, not even a bookshelf. It seemed like a perfect room, right out of a catalog. I found myself staring at a couple of butterflies pinned into a scene of pressed flowers, framed and hung on the wall. That’s when Angelica started to undress.

She was down to her bra and panties and I knew I was staring, but I couldn’t resist. “Do you need help?” she asked.

I shook my head and turned around and undid my soaked tuxedo. It didn’t remind me of my father anymore. I was down to just my briefs, apparently naked enough for her as she pulled me to the bed and soon, she was on top of me, her breasts jostling in her bra as she rubbed against me.

I grabbed at her, but I felt like my hands were in all the wrong places. I moved them constantly, unsure where to hold her. She never stopped gyrating on top of me, just our pubic bones knocking into each other, her head tilted back and her eyes closed. She breathed heavy, but she didn’t moan.

I had strange thoughts beneath her. I don’t think they were sexual. At least, they didn’t feel that way. I thought of what I was going to do the next day and homework I had due and then I thought about all the homework I would ever do and what my teachers did between grading it in their free time and what TV shows they watched and wondered what TV shows they’d be watching when summer started and what TV shows they would watch when they retired and what would be the last TV show they’d watch as they sat around in nursing homes waiting to die.

I felt my mind jolt back to Angelica, still rocking back and forth on top of me. She grabbed a fistful of my hair and whispered to me, “Fuck me like you mean it.”

I started rocking with her, but my mind was drifting again. I thought of medical experiments gone wrong, Mengele and Unit 731 and this horrible story Keith told me on the playground about a fat woman that spent her days on the couch and ended up in the hospital for heart problems. She was so massively obese that she couldn’t clean herself, so the nurses started giving her a sponge bath. When they got to her groin, they found roots growing from her vulva. The woman said she’d noticed some pain, but felt fine. The backstory is, she was on the couch when Aunt Flo dropped by and she couldn’t get up for tampons or pads, so she improvised with a potato. Potatoes need only two things – darkness and moisture, so it began to grow until the roots were clawing out the sides of her vagina.

And that made me think of how similar I am to that woman. My gut growled and I almost felt Joy moving inside of me.

“Is something wrong?” Angelica whispered.

I shook my head furiously. My stomach howled again. I felt like I had swallowed battery acid.

“You’re not hard.” Angelica frowned. She got up and sat on the side of the bed. “Are you not even attracted to me?”

I sat up, holding her, saying, “It’s not that at all.”

“Then what?”

I looked down at my gut. So small I could finally see my thighs again.

We sat in silence. I realized I couldn’t tell her about Joy, so I made the excuse that I just wasn’t ready after things that happened with Kira.

“Kira?” Angelica’s voice lowered. “Is there someone else?”

“Oh no no no no no…”

“There is! Have you been fucking playing me this whole time?” Angelica stood up and screamed at the ceiling. “I knew it! I should have known why you agreed to hide this! You lied to me!”

“Wait a sec…”

The girl began to throw things around and yell even more at me.

“I can’t fucking stand you! Who is she anyway?”

“Calm down, OK? Kira was the foreign exchange student, OK?”

“Are you still talking to her?”

“Huh? Hell no.”

“I don’t believe you. Why should I?”

“Because she has a restraining order against me! Haven’t you heard the rumors in school?” I didn’t know if the pain in my guts was from Joy or from admitting this.

“You never tell me anything! Don’t you trust me?” Angelica started to cry so I held her, fully aware we were still half naked and I whispered to her that it would be all right.

“What happened between you two anyway?” Angelica asked.

I sighed. There was just the sound of the rain and thunder with occasional flashes of lightning.

“I liked Kira a lot,” I said. “But she wouldn’t talk to me. How was I gonna get her attention? I liked her more than I’ve liked anyone before. More than I even liked you.”

Angelica sniffed.

“I sat behind her in class,” I said. “One time I took home a piece of paper she’d chewed on a bit and ate it. Sometimes she’d brush her hair, leaving individual strands on my desk, which I often took home with me. I collected enough until I had a full lock. And I’d play with it.”

Angelica gasped. “Wait, sexually?”

I looked away.

“Oh my gosh,” Angelica said, getting up. “Wait. Go on, this is freakishly interesting. I’m sorry for freaking out earlier. Really.”

“Well, that’s not the worst part,” I said. “Last April, around this time of year, I broke into her house when she was out with her parents. I put my fist through the kitchen window, like I’d seen in movies, only it cut me up. My wrist was bleeding all over the place as I went from room to room. I sat on the couch and watched TV. I used her bathroom. And I lay on her bed. Bleeding everywhere.”

“What the fuck,” Angelica said.

I shrugged. “I just so badly wanted to see what it was like to be a part of her life. Have a father that was there. Have a mother that wasn’t always afraid. Have the perfect weight. I couldn’t see any other way to do it. So I collected some of her most personal things and lay with them on the bed, looking through them. Things like her panties, her diary, old photo albums, her used tissues and Q-tips and weird, personal things like that. I got blood everywhere, without meaning to. And Kira’s father saw the broken glass and the cops came in and found me like that.”

Angelica just stared at me, her mouth opened wide.

“So, she had to move and I had a restraining order placed against me,” I said. “It was all one big misunderstanding.”

“One big misunderstanding? My ass,” Angelica said, standing up again. “You’re more of a sick freak than I thought.”

I started to tremble, falling to my knees, either from shame or from Joy inside me. I didn’t even notice the waterworks welling up in my eyes. This started to feel like cysticercosis, when those tapeworm larvae migrate from the intestines and form cysts in other areas of the body and then burst out like little firecrackers. This was cysticercosis of the heart.

But Angelica wouldn’t stop laughing at me.

“You fucking weirdo. This is hilarious. I’m so telling everyone at school.”

That’s when the lights flicked on.

“Daddy!” Angelica said.

A man drenched in rain stood in the doorway. His face was curled up into a murderous grimace. “What in the fuck…”

I didn’t even think of gathering my clothes – I ran to the window, threw it open and dove out. I stood on the roof, the rain blitzing all over me and Angelica’s father stuck his head out after me. “Get back here, you little fucker! I’ll stab you in the fucking throat!”

I slipped, flying from the roof and landing in the rose bushes with nothing but my boxer briefs on. The thorns dug into every side of my body, but I was already leaping over the back fence and into the alley before I realized it.

I ran. Down the street. Back to the school. Past all the kids leaving the dance and through the football field and into the woods nearby. I ran and ran in the dark, jumping over logs and tripping through leaves and then stopping at the river.

Crouching on a giant rock overlooking a small waterfall, I sat and shivered in the rain. Frogs croaked and the wind blew branches that crashed down all around me, but I didn’t move. This was my Umwelt now. Cold, shivering, naked, alone.

And all I had left was Joy.



Hours later, the rain stopped and I heard someone walking through the woods toward me, but I didn’t turn. The footsteps got closer and closer, until I felt a hand touch my shoulder.

“There you are, Gabriel.” The voice, soft. Madison. She sat down next to me on the rock and said, “We’ve all been looking everywhere for you.”

She put her head on my shoulder and kept it there and I shivered. We didn’t say anything for a long time. She was still wearing her dress from the dance.

Light started to pierce through the trees, the sun just getting ready to open up the day. And still we sat in silence, until we heard the faint chirping of an insect.

It grew louder and then more insects began to buzz all around us, filling the trees with entomological sirens. The unmistakable drones of cicadas.

I looked Madison in the eyes. We stared for a long, long time and she put her head back on my shoulder. She placed the note she had written me, folded intricately, on my knee. A little butterfly with hearts on it. The buzzing grew louder. The cicadas were here. Magicicada septencassini. It was a 17-year long wait for this. For my entire life, all they knew was the dark, cool Umwelt underneath the real world. Sharing their lives with worms and spiders and moles and all kinds of living things, yet remaining dormant. Living like this for nearly an eternity of negligible senescence.

And now they were here. Finally here.

I held the note for a second, then the wind took it, tossing it into the creek. Cicadas buzzed all around it and then it disappeared. Madison put her head on me and I took her hand. She squeezed back. We didn’t need to speak.

I thought of Joy again. She wasn’t moving. She was quiet. If I went to the doctor, he could give me a poison to drink to kill Joy but not me. The problem was, was she killing me?

The truth was, I wanted someone like Joy all along. I didn’t want a girl that I couldn’t live without. I wanted a girl that couldn’t live without me. And Joy depended on me in a way that no one ever could. Probably, anyway.

I looked at Madison and we shivered together. I turned behind me and saw through the trees, flashlight beams. They grew closer until I could make out the faces of police officers, teachers, friends, my own mother, everyone I knew, holding flashlights and surrounding us. The cicadas, flying through the beams, swarming the glowing beams, flittering through the shadows like rain and everyone standing there, silently, until Madison stood up. She extended her hand to me. And I took it.