Formicaries

by Greg Girvan

Worms inhabit my brain. I know they’re in there because they give off an odor like the one I remember from going fishing with my father early mornings just before the sun rose.

The worms come and go at night, using my nostrils and ear canals as passageways. Soon after I fall asleep, they depart, sliding out into darkness like top-secret spies, each one on a different mission to collect information on the ants.

“One day, insects will rule the world,” Mr. Niles told our sixth-grade science class.

This was during the week after Easter vacation, and I have been waging war on the ants ever since. Every day after school, I spend my time on the patio using a sharp-pointed stone to drill their heads into the concrete. I pretend the stone is a high-powered rifle to make it interesting. I imagine myself as a sniper and make shooting noises.

Sometimes my mother watches me through the kitchen window as she prepares dinner or washes dishes—debating, no doubt, whether or not to take me back to Dr. Seville, the quack I had to see for six full months after my father died last summer.

My sister thinks I’m whacked, too. She’s a year older than me and relishes in telling her friends how I spend all my free time murdering ants. If she knew how many ants would eventually be crawling all over her every night as she slept, I think she’d view my actions differently.

*

Each morning, no matter how far they venture off, no matter how difficult their nightly journey, the worms return. Some mornings, in shallow sleep, I swear I can feel their reentry, their slithery but gentle wriggle back through Eustachian tubes and sinus cavities. A sensation of growing pressure goes with it, a sort of stuffy-head feeling, like I’m getting plugged-up with a cold. When the worms depart, it feels the opposite; as they slip out of my ears and nostrils, there’s a release, as if they are oozing out of a toothpaste tube or giving birth to themselves, followed by a suction-pop.

Once safely back inside my head, they communicate to my mind whatever ant conspiracies they have discovered during the night. Throughout the remainder of the day, they stay hidden and rest, nestled in the convoluted furrows of my brain.

No one else knows about the worms. After I crashed my bike into Mr. Daugherty’s car last month, not even the X-rays or CT scan I received at the hospital detected them. The doctors found only a mild concussion.

*

Some nights I dream I’m buried deep in dark soil, and the worms pass through me as though I am part of the earth. When I turn my head to either side, I see large formicaries—growing kingdoms, huge underground networks most people don’t even realize exist.

Often the dream continues until it reaches a horrific climax, which happens when the ants discover I’m lying there, defenseless. Then, one-by-one, they close in from all sides and begin to feed on me. As it becomes clear I’m nothing but fodder for the new world order, I usually wake up, sweating and half-screaming.

When I envision my father buried in the ground like that, I pray his casket is completely impenetrable—solid, built to last forever. I often worry it might not be sealed tight enough, that thousands of ants might at this very moment be thriving on him.

*

This morning, after one of those dreams, I am awake before dawn. My heart is racing. I already know I won’t fall back to sleep, which sucks, because after lunch I have study hall and will certainly crash—which means another detention and another hour taken from my mission.

It strikes me then that a surprise predawn attack could prove enormously successful.

I sneak down the hall into the kitchen and quietly open the door to the garage. The cool damp air smells of the cut grass caked inside the lawnmower. Searching in darkness, I find the flashlight on its shelf and locate the spade shovel and a can of Raid.

The eastern sky has begun to glow white. I head across the backyard, toward the huge anthill behind the rhododendrons. I set the flashlight on the dew-soaked grass, aiming the bright beam over the elongated mound. Then I attack. The ants go berserk, darting helter-skelter in every direction as I dig and chop into their kingdom and spray them with Raid.

I don’t realize I’ve been yelling until my mother comes around the rhododendrons in her bathrobe. “William!” she shouts. “What are you doing?”

Startled, I drop the can. My mother picks up the flashlight and shines it on the hole I’ve dug. “My God!” she says.

*

My mother makes me sit at the kitchen table and in a concerned, shaky voice, begins asking me questions about what I was doing and why. I try to explain how ants are conquering the earth. But this only upsets her more.

“Remember when you thought bees were taking over the world?” she asks.

“How you thought honey was poison?”

“This is different,” I say. And that’s when I goof by telling her about the worms.

My mother stares at me, stunned. She tries to say something but stammers. Then her lower lip quivers and her eyes well up. “Oh, William,” she says, all croaky. She hugs me and starts to cry. “Everything will be okay, baby. Mommy’s going to get you help.”

When she blabbers on about how Dr. Seville can destroy the worms, I cringe and my entire body starts to shudder. She doesn’t understand.

“Without the worms we are doomed!” I scream.

My mother hugs me harder. “Calm down,” she says between sobs. “I won’t let the ants get us. I promise!”

Outside, the sun has begun rising over our ant-infested backyard.

I break into a cold sweat.

I can feel the worms squirming inside my head.

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