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Short story: Brain worms

"And on some days — the really good ones — I think they're kind of cute."


Short story: Brain worms

"And on some days — the really good ones — I think they're kind of cute."

The worms that live in my brain make themselves known in plenty of ways: My bitten nails, pounding headaches and bad thoughts all go back to the nuisances in my frontal lobe slowly chipping away at my sanity. On good days, they operate as a copilot, a second-in-command. On the bad days, they usurp their leadership. Usually, they manifest as random urges — swerve the wheel, hit your head, breathe faster, faster, faster until you can’t breathe at all. Shake and cry when everything’s okay. Do anything but what you’re supposed to, and drag everyone down while you do it.

For a while, I treated my brain like a beach full of forgotten land mines, carefully sidestepping myself to avoid remembering. I lived carefully and quietly, unwilling to try a new path for fear of striking the land mines littering my insides. I shrank to make room for all these worms planting all these mines, picked up from a lifetime of chaos — until I shrank so much I began to disappear.

One thing about the worms: They’re very good at their job. Twisting middling memories and insignificant images into throat-closing remembrances, crafting perfectly wicked collages of the places in my mind I’d never dare visit. Asking me to keep them a secret, willing me not to tell. All part of their plan.

See, there’s one important thing the worms didn’t share before barging into my brain: The more secret I kept them, the more control they would have over me. Tricky, those worms. Like a supervillain in the final moments of the film, it’s not until they’re sure they’ve won that they’ll reveal their greatest weakness. And last year, the worms were pretty sure they’d won.

The first person I told was David. David told me his worms aren’t worms at all. Instead, he said his brain is run by a drill sergeant. Unforgiving and cruel, the sergeant tells David he hasn’t gotten better. He’s still the same and always will be. People don’t improve, especially not you, the sergeant says. The sergeant doesn’t notice subtleties much. The worms don’t either. As I looked in David’s head and saw the sergeant yelling, I realized I’d heard a lot of it before.

When I told Zander about the worms, he laughed in my face. He told me they were weak. The ideas they planted were ridiculous, self- sabotaging. Their plans had holes, their guns were filled with blanks, and their maps were upside down. He said half of them were blind, and the other half he picked out of my brain himself. Then he showed me his cupped palms filled with the wriggling remains. He was right — they didn’t look so scary outside my head.

I live my life now in a way that would horrify the girl I used to be. I tell anyone who will listen about my worms, hoping to be the person who makes theirs less scary too. I write, and I joke, and sometimes, I even cry. But most importantly, I dance. I dance and dance on a beach full of bombs, hitting each and every one until some days, there’s nothing left — but by all measures, this beats tiptoeing around my own head. 

By no means do I hope to leave the impression that I’m fixed. I no longer slam my head against the wall or pull out my hair, yet the worms remain. Because the truth is, I can’t get rid of them. Brain surgery isn’t very cheap. But I’m learning. And I’m trying. It’s not easy, and some days, I want to give up, but I can say proudly that I’m trying. Sometimes, the worms still take control — but their coups come less frequently nowadays, and they use strategies I’ve seen before. And on some days — the really good ones — I think they’re kind of cute. 

This story is part of The Immunity Issue, which was released on Nov. 29, 2023. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @notevilclaire on X.

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