The Worm

The Worm by Jeff Frawley

There’s someone been living in my house since Bev died—I hear thuds and clanks and whispers all coming from the backrooms. I’m certain it ain’t the neighbors, a young couple on one side and some rich guy on the other, his restored historic adobe the place where, rumor has it, a semi-famous outlaw once blew out his brains. 

Back then, a century ago, pecans were planted up and down the street, making shade for generations to come. Nowadays honeysuckle and trumpet-vine run wild, smothering houses and fences and even old pickups up on blocks, everything tangled and bursting with blossoms. 

Bev used to collect those flowers in jam jars and cans, trying to pretty up the junk she hoarded inside our little cinderblock house. Now, my wife gone six months, there’s two people living here again: me and this someone banging around while I’m sleeping or watching TV. I drink root beer these days, homemade stuff from a guy who sells jugs in the plaza like it’s moonshine. It gets me through the day, as does local access TV, shows filmed by weirdos who emerge from the desert to give their thoughts on aliens and fishing and immigration and God. 


The sounds, you might be wondering, are like someone snapping branches or striking matches, but also sometimes reading softly to themselves, particularly midday when the heat’s thick as grease. Then, suddenly, clang, they’ll hammer the rusted-out swamp cooler vent. At least with the clanging I can shout Shut up or Piss off or Stop it with that awful shit this goddamn instant. It’s the softer sounds that spook me, that person back there hiding amidst Bev’s stuff: all those boxes and bins up to the ceiling, piles of old papers, knickknacks, musty clothes. One room, a guest bedroom we once envisioned for grandchildren, is impenetrable—that’s where the person’s camped out, waiting for the right time to emerge. 

Friends used to call me ‘Worm’ upon seeing our house, asking how Bev and I could stand tunneling room to room, how we ate amidst the smell and dust. Yet they didn’t complain when my wife carted food to the backyard, where in the shade of a tall mesquite we’d drink and feast on her home-fried tostadas with chile con carne, her ground beef tortas, her—my favorite—deviled eggs. Nevertheless, the nickname stuck: they just called me Worm, back when we still got together, before some crust scabbed over everything and made you realize, startling awake one day in front of the TV, that everyone’s old and slipping off this earth. 


The last time I saw those boys was six months ago, Bev’s memorial, everyone slapping my back and straightening my tie and asking, rather loudly for a funeral: What’s the Worm gonna do, alone in that house? Is the Worm gonna clear out all that junk? Gonna take it to the dump? Won’t it feel good, the Worm cleaning up? 

Laughing and shaking their heads, they said, The Worm, the Worm, the Worm… 

They’d rumbled up in old Cadillacs and Pintos to the Hollywood Hills reception hall, a big open-air shed overlooking town, where wild garage-rock bands used to play in our days. Hondo, pulling up, whooped out his Pinto just like it was old times. Christ, those boys looked old! I asked my daughter, Lara, Do I look that old? 

Ancient, interjected my son, Julian. 

Soon the boys were dancing to War and ZZ Top and Creedence Clearwater Revival, slurping beer and crushing cans. Julian and Lara must have seen me rise from my chair and shuffle towards the dancefloor, for they grabbed me and shouted, Pops, you out of root beer? Julian opened a cooler, tugged out a jug, guided me to my seat and kept me company until the rental hall manager blew a whistle and cut the music, bellowing it was time to close up. 


Sometimes, to the person in my house, I’ll shout, You’re the worm, that’s what I’ll name you, Worm, hiding like you think I can’t hear you—there’s never been a more deserving recipient, you worm!

From time to time Julian calls, or maybe it’s Lara (my son has a high, pipsqueaky voice, whereas my daughter, when she’s angry, can bark like a man), and whoever it is says my voice sounds raw, they can barely hear me over the scratchy connection. 

I’ll pick up some Throat Coat at Shorty’s Market, I say. No, Pops, Lara or Julian replies, Throat Coat’s got alcohol in it. They say they’ve got special Chinese lozenges, a ten-pound bag ordered off the internet—I’ll mail some, Pops, so you don’t gotta wait for the next time we drive down from the city. Really, you sound awful. 

The package arrives and I suck down foil-wrapped nuggets, all two or three pounds in just a few days. When Bev died, I relied on gummies to get me through: Shorty’s has an entire shelf stocked with bright German bears, with sour straws and snakes and novelty octopus big as your hand. I ate my weight in gummies those first two weeks, until Lara and her kids drove down for a check-in and she burst into tears and said I’d kill myself just as fast this way, all that sugar. This got her kids crying too, those towheaded squirts afraid to come inside. That night the phone rang and Julian, who must’ve spoken with his sister, said, Pops, eat the gummies if you want. 

Nowadays I keep it to two packs a week—Shorty’s has these new strawberry squids—plus root beer, and if the person in back is being particularly noisy, I’ll go for a walk through the plaza to the old-school soda shop and order a float or a malt or, if the whispering and snapping has me really worked up, a lime rickey like Bev and I used to love come summer, though of course now sans gin. Back home I’ll slurp and laze in the recliner, shouting, You’re stinking up the place, Worm, but that’s your prerogative—you aren’t welcome here, you won’t scare me! 


For a brief time, behind my back, Julian arranged a Meals-on-Wheels lady to come by once a week. That first time she invited herself in, defiant with cheer, squinting and sniffing around, making faces, using a pencil to lift back the blankets tacked over windows. She said, Your son told me about your recent sad news. I tried to tell her about the person in back tunneling through rubbish. Mister, she said, it’s none of my business, but I can recommend a few services… Then she left some chicken and rice, plus a Meals-on-Wheels calendar filled with grinning geriatrics. 

When she left I phoned Julian. Pops, he said, it was just a thought, I knew you’d say no if I asked. Damn right, I replied. (The Worm, just then, was tittering behind a pile of musty Navajo blankets that Bev, for years, said she was going to sell at the farmer’s market.) Softening my tone, I told my son that cooking for myself was a point of pride, a way to stay busy—how many men my age do you know who cook twice a day, without supervision of their wife?                   


When Julian answers the phone I ask, Was it you that sent the Chinese lozenges? 

Chinese? he replies. 

I hang up, dial Lara. I need more, I say. 

Pops, Lara says, those things’ll blow a hole in your gut. But you do sound better. She hesitates, says, I was thinking of coming down alone, leaving the kids at home. I’ll help clean.

Not enough time’s passed, I reply, I can’t bring myself to throw it all out. 

She sighs. It’s been half a year. You’re disappearing in that house, Pops.

I tell her I’ve decided to pass it along. The Worm. 

What worm? 

The Worm, my name. I’ve never much liked it. 

She sighs again. I’ll stay a few days, get a room at that motel, the Creosote Inn. I don’t mind paying. 

Not necessary, I reply. I’ve got my public access, my root beer, my Church Basement. 

The fact you still call it that tells me you’re not going at this one-hundred percent serious. 

Oh, Church Basement is very serious, I say, especially that Misses Lerma.

I want you going twice a week, Lara says and I reply, Fine, though truth is most weeks it’s just once and sometimes not at all. It was easier when Bev was alive, when she’d pick me up around back of Christ Presbyterian and we’d go to Blake’s Café for enchiladas, as though celebrating. So that evening, to satisfy Lara, I go to Church Basement, where Misses Lerma, when she sees me limping downstairs to join the group, grins and says, Well, if it isn’t Mister Comes-and-Goes, Mister Tough-Guy, Mister Goes-It-Alone. People reach out to shake my hand, welcome me back. Then Misses Lerma, jewelry jangling, looking tough in her patched-up denim jacket, crosses the circle and leans forward to touch my cheek. I say my daughter harangued me about keeping up with Church Basement. Misses Lerma makes a face, says, You know how I feel about you calling it that, Mister Tough-Guy. Then she sort of grabs my hair. 

Afterwards I walk home, taking roads through dark pecan groves, a bloody sunset, everything buzzing and hot, giant empires of clouds towering in the sky, threatening rain. I cross the plaza, where families eat takeout and shout at maniac children; men on benches sip cans of beer, trying to look cowboy-dapper in Stetsons and calfskin Tecovas and pearl-snap flannels tucked into Wranglers, hoping to catch the eye of a woman with kids but no husband. (I remember those days, those beers, those hats rimmed with piss-yellow sweat.)

Back home, in the dark, I flick on the set in time for my favorite program, shouting for quiet when the Worm clangs the cooler vent. Desert Dark is hosted by two men and a woman who highlight nocturnal oddities, profiling strangers who skulk about our town like possums: a crew of night-shift garbage collectors; the undertaker at O’Dell Mortuary; men and women in masks performing seances with the dead; the historic Old Town Cinema showing foreign horror films every Friday; a group of retired farmers who hunt javelina from trucks; the tattoo parlor in the backroom of the Bent Nail Saloon, run by a semi-pro basketball player who blew out his knees. The show’s music sounds like that chintzy stuff played in the mall food court, but slowed down and warped, like things used to feel after too many gin rickeys. There was an episode on the Night Seeds, who for decades banged out demented surf rock at the Hollywood Hills, four bloated old guys no longer young, snarling and spitting in black leather vests and bolo ties made from bird skulls. And an episode on an insomniac orchid enthusiast with HIV at the old folks’ home. And one on the janitor who lives in an RV behind the high school soccer field. A recent episode followed several teenage punks with pantyhosed faces who broke into the defunct water tower at night, the camera trained upwards at darkness as wild whooping rained down. (The boys and I, back in the day, used to climb that same ladder, until Hondo slipped and shattered his ankle, nearly taking me down with him.)

The episodes, over time, have grown darker, more disturbing—were Bev alive, she’d make me turn it off. Small-town murders now preoccupy the hosts: tonight, it’s a stretch of desert an hour north of our town, way off the interstate, where bodies of women from the Apache reservation have been found inside mineshafts. The hosts interview a detective assigned to the case, an overweight, exhausted-looking man who paws his face as he talks, describing states of decay, some deaths dating back five years, others just months, six in total, with no indication that the killer or killers will stop anytime soon. Any leads? asks one host and the detective, pawing his face, says, It’s not about leads, it’s about knowing where to begin

I phone Julian, describe the episode, ask if he’s heard of such a thing: women disappearing, mineshafts, the detective’s response about leads. What’s the difference, I ask, between leads and where to begin

My son sighs like the detective, the earpiece filling with the storm of his breath. He asks: What’s this really about, Pops? Do you have a hold of yourself? Why watch that crap? You know Mom hated it—you’re not dwelling, are you, Pops? 

It’s what’s really out there, I tell him. 

Where? he replies. You sound like a scared old white guy. 

It’s the old white guys, I reply, who are doing this shit. 

The next week, it’s an episode on three disappearances over the past five years at Camel Butte Lake, two witnessed by fishermen, a masked man and his victims gone by the time the fishermen motored to shore. 


What do you hear when you’re alone in the world, left with your thoughts? Misses Lerma asks the group. Where do you go? What’s in front of you? What’s behind? What’s way out ahead? 

One guy comes to Church Basement even less than me, a shaky old Hispanic hippie who always rambles about a time at his absolute rock-bottom, when he was lured into an underground bunker, he swears, by knee-high orange men. When he raises his hand in response to Misses Lerma’s questions, everyone groans. Let him speak! I hear myself shout, and everyone jumps. The guy begins crying. Misses Lerma seems impressed.


Mornings before I switch on TV, I sit in my recliner and listen to wind: if it finally dies down, ceases whistling through windows, and if that person, the new Worm, isn’t whispering in his backroom or scratching at boxes—that is, if it’s one of those rare-as-a-puma dead-still days in our desert town—I’ll hear a great sloshing in the earth, oil or water in some faraway basin. The cilia in my ears prickle and twitch, itching the lobes—in another century, I’d be a rich diviner. 

Though Bev didn’t like it when she was alive, I sometimes pack a sack with tuna fish sandwiches and strike out for the desert, passing through Old Town en route to the arroyo, where I ascend into the dunes, everything maze-like with brush. Here, the sloshing sounds like it’s coming from a few dunes over, the big blue sky buzzing with sunlight. I grow dizzy, find some mesquite, sit in the shade and eat tuna fish. Then I press onwards, happy to be out of the house, wandering and wondering whether that Worm has emerged from his warren. I reach a good dune with clear view of the flattop Banjo Mountains. In the distance a crew works to erect new powerlines; they’ve been at it for months, linking miles of desert with humming wires. I imagine the people in those dilapidated trailers way out on the west mesa, huddled in darkness, faces purple with scabs, trailers stinking of propane leaking from appliances, desperate for TV and phonelines and safe electrical heaters. Desert Dark did a feature on this ramshackle settlement: buckled trailers spewing pink insulation, old school buses creaking in the heat, the inhabitants of these makeshift homes looking as though they’d gazed too long at the face of some god. Two trailers burned to the ground years ago; now the community takes turns keeping watch at night. 

Eating another sandwich, I encourage the telephone-pole men: Hurry, I whisper, you must get them electricity! I discover a ziplock of gummie candies in my bag, plus a wineskin of root beer made from soft elk-hide, gifted by Hondo years ago, the one thing Bev allowed me to keep, approved by Misses Lerma, who claimed a reminder of the depths one reached can be a good thing. By the time I finish the third sandwich the sun is scorching, the insects ratcheting. The heat causes my legs to swell. I must return home in time for Town Talk: pacing myself up and over dunes, I suck Chinese lozenges, the ginger and menthol soothing my throat. 

There’s a hole somewhere out here, this patch of desert, where the boys and I used to go years ago, around the time Hondo gave me the wineskin. It’s a widemouthed dugout bored into the sand that, one evening, we dared each other to crawl into: I went first, spooked but not afraid, just like with that Worm; Hondo followed, whispering reassurances or insults he thought would keep me going. Behind Hondo must’ve been Lucas, and behind him, Big Gordon. At first we figured it an animal’s burrow, yet it didn’t dead-end in a fur-strewn den but continued deeper and deeper into the earth, a good twenty yards, at which point it sloped downwards, opening wide. Someone behind me hissed to stop, another to turn back, but we kept crawling until we reached the edge of a little reservoir or puddle or maybe the mouth to a gigantic subterranean lake, only this liquid was dark and oily and, when Hondo shined his keychain flashlight, grainy and rusty-red, like blood mixed with dirt or sugar or salt. What is this shit? he gasped. You could smell us in that tiny, stale-air space, the stink of four boys up to no good in the desert. Then Lucas said whatever it was wasn’t anything good and we ought to get out. Strangest of all, the puddle was completely still, the red liquid didn’t ripple or bubble; I leaned forward and blew and before the boys yanked me backwards the stuff barely jiggled, thickly viscous. And that’s it, there’s nothing more to say about that pit with its strange reservoir: we left it alone, backed out of that tunnel and never returned, though still today I could lead you right to it, that place where the dune dips down and sage hides the hole’s mouth. 

The night of Bev’s memorial, I tried to bring it up with the boys as they slurped beers and bobbed to the rhythm of a tecnobanda song. I tapped Hondo on the shoulder; he saw the wineskin in my hands and his eyes got big and he grinned, showing missing teeth through his black mustache. You back in the mix again, Worm? he asked, slapping my back and calling to the others. It’s just root beer, I tried to say, but they were whooping and clapping and everything felt nice. I shouted that I thought that stuff down in the hole in the desert—that black-red stuff, that goo—was what caused everything to turn bad. Big Gordon, doing a sloppy cumbia, shouted over the music: Whatchou mean, Worm, everything bad? To which I shouted back: All this death, all our people getting sick, me and you and the boys never getting together anymore. 

One of them shouted, We’re old now, Worm! 

Another: We ain’t dead yet! 

Another: You don’t come around, Worm, but we’re still at it! 

Hondo squeezed my cheeks. Listen, Worm, getting back in the mix might just help pull you through the tough times ahead—it did when my old lady kicked the bucket. 

What about that hole? I asked. What if it’s messing us up—or this town

Shit, Worm, Hondo said, no ooze is gonna mess this place up more than it already is. 

What about Bev dying? I asked. What about your poor Martha? 

Shit, he said again, only he said Sheee-it like he always did. Listen, Worm: cancer got Martha, and Bev’s ticker gave out—what’s that got to do with goo? 

It shouldn’t have been there, I said. That hole, that place—it’s some sort of entrance, to God knows what! 

Hondo squinted and leaned in, as though to sniff my face. Then he said: I couldn’t even begin to speculate on that, and I reckon you shouldn’t either, Worm. Sheee-it.                     


Lara, as promised, drives down from the city without her kids, gets a room at the motel. She comes over, finds me in my recliner, begins poking around stacks of Bev’s old magazines while pinching her nose. 

How can you watch this crap, Pops? she asks, meaning the homemade public access horror movie, a couple redneck-looking guys in trucker hats with long hair, the word Maggot repeatedly flashing in bright red letters mid-scene. Mostly it’s shots from the point of view of a killer stalking outside Ladero High School off Route Thirty-Two, kids playing in the distance—how, Lara asks, did they get permission to film there? Next, a man with what looks like peanut butter smeared across his face is burying one of the rednecks alive. 

Lara flicks off the set. It isn’t good for your nerves, she says. I tell her these local programs help stave off loneliness. God, she gasps, inspecting the moldering magazines, why did you and Mom ever move into this place—what was wrong with the old house on Espina? Julian and I have a mind to move you up north, to keep better tabs on you. 

Peeling back a magazine, she says: Sometimes I wonder if this junk was already here when you moved in, if the two of you just kept adding to it. When the kids and I moved into our townhouse, we found an old litter box in the bedroom closet, still filled with litter. Rather than throw it out, which is what I should’ve done, the kids got it in their heads we needed a cat. So we took in one from a neighbor, which led to a second cat the kids found in the alleyway, which of course we didn’t think to spay, and now the house is full of cats and litter boxes and scratch-posts and tumbleweeds of fur. I’d bring you one, Pops, but this junk would probably crush it and you’d just let it rot—God knows the smell wouldn’t bother you. 

It’s no place for a cat, I concur, thinking about that person back there, the new Worm. Which, when I say this to my daughter—It’s no place for a cat, not with that person back there—she drops the magazine and glares. I flick the set back on to grainy footage of people howling in the desert. This is madness! Lara cries. 

When she leaves two days later, having barely made a dent in Bev’s stuff, she says she’ll return in two weeks, with her brother. You can forget it if you plan to keep living in this filth, she says. And Pops, we’re not done talking about this imaginary friend of yours either.


Then one morning I’m watching public access when, just like that, I stand from the recliner and grab my wallet and walk to Shorty’s where, as though there’s some string looped around my waist, I drift to the back shelves and grab a bottle of brandy with a latticework of golden wax. I spit the lozenge in my mouth onto the rug. Misses Monte, running the register, shouts, You piece of old shit! Yet she rings up the brandy, even though she’s never seen me buy liquor. (That’s how it is in our town nowadays, people hardly looking out for one another.) When she asks if I’d like the receipt, I snort. She bares her teeth and gummed between them is a dark plaque that could be from that hole. I try to tell her Lara’s story—about the litter box, all those cats, the shit-smothered cat-stuff accumulating in her house—but Misses Monte rolls her eyes. I lose my train of thought and, hot with frustration, tromp over to the lozenge, stomp it into the rug. Misses Monte chases me out, shaking her fist. 

For several days everything’s golden and my insides only hurt a little each morning before I make everything golden again. Misses Monte, if she remembers me, doesn’t scold me when I return. I eat Shorty’s burritos. I fall in love over and over with people on public access. I only vomit once, one queasy morning, and afterwards I wipe the rim of the toilet with a rag and, for the first time in some while, I disrobe and climb into the shower, still littered with Bev’s tupperwares. The miracle of hot water scouring the skin! The phone rings and I’m certain I have several in-depth conversations. Once it’s Church Basement, Misses Lerma, and I tell her Lara’s story about the cats. 

I might’ve continued this beautiful secret routine for weeks. But one morning I’m watching public access when, out of nowhere, a man enters the room and sits on a chair in the corner. He’s slender and tall and covered in some sort of ash; it’s difficult to see his features exactly, but he’s there. When he scratches his head, ash falls from his hair. He sits and stares. My heart thuds; something churns in my stomach. Brandy rushes up and I belch a bit of bile. The man just stares, ash-gray, erect; his eyes aren’t exactly white but they aren’t yellow either. He points at the brandy bottle on the floor and stands, disappears into a room. I hear rummaging. He returns with a box of beer, sits on the chair, pops open a can. At last he speaks: It’s better than brandy, he says. His voice is papery, like two people whispering at once. He smiles, his teeth bad. He passes me a can, which is somehow very cold. 

The man, in his strange slippery voice, says, Call me Mark.

I kind of laugh. You’re not going to like this, I say, but I’ve been calling you ‘Worm.’

Clenching his teeth, he lets out a papery belch, like breeze through honeysuckle or gas from the throat of roadkill. He says, You’re the Worm—I am Mark. He opens more beer. Better than brandy, he says again, then, The goal is to stretch it out as long as possible.

Days pass, more calls I barely remember, though twice it’s my daughter, Lara, who says, Pops, what’s happening? Outside, the heat blistering, I totter to the mailbox where I find bills and letters and junkmail all still addressed to Bev. My heart slips and I throw up on the sidewalk, then I hurry inside hoping it’s all been some daydream and Bev’s in her chair, needlepointing. But I only find that ash-grey man, Mark, who yanks the mail from my hands and tosses it amidst the junk.

One day, late afternoon, he stands from his chair and turns down the television. As though on cue, I stand too. He gestures and I follow him into a cluttered backroom, where he kneels and crawls underneath a teetering pile of rubbish. I get down on my knees, which pop with pain; I cry out, but Mark’s far inside the mess. I hear wriggling, the pile slightly shifting. I catch my breath and inch inside, smelling mold or mildew, the rubbish pressing in and threatening to topple. Before long, through a gap in the boxes and newspapers and stuffed animals and old chairs and lamps, I emerge in a cleared-out space against a wall. 

What room is this? I ask, gasping for air. 

Mark says, This is where I’m from. With long, ash-grey fingers, the tips of which look black-red with old blood, he peels back a two-foot-tall access panel in the wall, then stoops and invites me to peer inside: it’s lightless and littered with wires and jousts and insulation, a cool breeze streaming out, smelling of cellar. Mark replaces the panel. Now that you know, he says—the two tones in his voice are very high and very low, and flecks of something keep falling from his hair—now that I’ve shown you where I’m from, will you follow me? 

After a moment I reply, Yes, and Mark, smiling, reaches into the pockets of his baggy corduroy pants and withdraws two cans of beer. We drink them in that cleared-out space in silence, I sitting on some sort of palette. Suddenly I snap to, having drifted off. Mark smiles. You were out for some time, he whispers, it’s nighttime now. He blinks and looks around. Do you like nighttime? he asks, and I reply, It’s good. 

Yes, he says, it’s nighttime now. Do you know where your family is? 

Bev? I ask, trying to sit up. The grimy tiles are sticky with spilled beer. 

Eyeing me, he says, Your children.

I think a moment and say, They’re on their way here. 

Good, Mark replies. 

It’s a long drive, I say, three-and-a-half hours. 

Good, Mark says again. Then he says, It’s nighttime, do you understand? 

Yes, I reply. 

It takes considerable time to crawl back through the trash; when we emerge in the living room I see the blue glow of public access, the volume still down. Let me sit, I tell Mark but he, in the darkness, says, Do you know where your family is? 

We have two-and-a-half hours now.


He creaks open the front door, gestures outside, guiding me into the warm night. We walk through darkness until we’re in the empty plaza. There’s someone across the square, beside the cantina. Mark calls out, though his voice sounds like wasps vibrating in their hive. The person ducks inside the cantina and we follow. Inside, the place smells of open pipes and old beer and ancient water no one can quite soak up. It’s nearly empty, save for some sad guys strewn about, accordion music playing softly on the radio. The bartender has a bit of makeup on his face. He takes my order. I’m with Mark, I tell him and he taps the rouge on his cheeks and tugs his ear twice, as though giving a baseball signal. I turn and head for the hallway across the dance floor, down which I’m certain Mark has disappeared. It’s a long and dark hallway and the tiles, laid a century ago, are disjointed and jagged, slowing my progress. I keep one hand on the wall, patched with old posters for amateur wrestling matches and concerts. My other clutches a sloshing mug of beer. I pause to gulp; belching feels good. My eyes itch. 

Before long I’m shuffling forward in absolute darkness. My hand gropes a wall. I pause to sip, press onward. Soon there’s no wall but a light up ahead. I inch forward until reaching an arched brick doorway, no door on the hinges, and when I step through I’m out in some dusty side-street offering a view of the plaza gazebo. A figure—tall and slender, oddly stiff—grips the gazebo railing, staring across the plaza. It’s Mark. He steps down and waves me onward. Moving quickly, he calls, Do you know where your family is? I attempt to answer but it’s no use. I try to keep up. Somehow, we’re past the plaza on a long rural road. I finish the last flat swigs in my glass, then drop it into a bush. Mark is up ahead, where pecans drape over the road, blocking the moonlight. I squint and watch as, off in the trees, he climbs a wooden ladder leaned against what seems to be a big irrigation tankard. I call his name as, at the summit of the ladder, he swings a leg over the tankard’s lip and descends.

Would you believe when I say I also managed to make my way up that ladder and, seeing another leaned against the inside, swung my leg over the rim and began my descent? It was nerve-wracking, and I cried out embarrassing things, teetering and banging my ribs. But slowly, miraculously, I climbed down into the tank, calling to Mark: his shenanigans, his little midnight operation were sapping my last reserves of strength, which I needed for my family’s arrival. And yes, I called out, I know where they are, no need to keep asking, they’re half an hour away!

I descended one rung at a time for what felt like an eternity, talking to Mark to soothe my nerves. But when, at long last, I touched ground, I turned and found I was alone. I saw in the moonlight that the tankard, long dry, was littered with pecan husks and leaves and cigarette butts. Someone, mercifully, had left a half-finished bottle of something in the corner, maybe the pecan-pickers’ secret lunch-break stash, and so, waiting for Mark’s instructions on how to proceed, I sat and leaned against the cool curved metal and, whistling a bit, unscrewed the lid. Salúd, I said and tipped back a sip. The pecan branches hanging above the tankard shivered. I waited a while, whistling, taking more sips. At some point, stars blared through the black fabric stretched across the sky, little fires flaring until they were one big burning world. I drifted off, woke up, drifted off again. Each time I snapped to, I whistled and tried to imagine Lara and Julian combing my street, peering behind all the honeysuckle and trumpet-vine overtaking the neighborhood. It was good for the time being, to be down in this tankard, and at some point I woke and saw that morning had risen, that the ladder was gone, or that there’d never been any ladder. Instead of blue sky, a milky silk had fogged over everything, and when I woke again and cried out, hungry and cold and quaking uncontrollably, I knew this new day was already giving way to night, which I feared passing alone, so I screamed and begged for the Worm to come back.                              

Jeff Frawley's short fiction has appeared in a wide range of literary publications, including The Gettysburg Review, Faultline, The Portland Review, South Dakota Review, and Storm Cellar. He lives in the mountains of southern New Mexico, where he serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Fine Arts at Eastern New Mexico University-Ruidoso.