The Carayas Worm
by Austin Stollhaus
-winner of The Anthem‘s Halloween contest-
“Do you know what the Carayas Worm is?”
The doctor doesn’t look at you as he asks that question. He scratches at the beard on his chin and turns the MRI printout over in his hands. He won’t make eye contact with you. You shiver in your flimsy hospital gown. You hear the tone in his voice and wonder if this is how you know you’re already dead. You just haven’t been diagnosed yet.
“The Carayas Worm is native to Malaysia,” he tells you. “Have you been outside the country recently?” he asks. You lie.
There’s a parasite, he tells you, that gets into an ant’s body. It crawls into the ant’s brain and takes over. The ant walks to the tip of a tall piece of grass and waits, night after night. Until, eventually, a grazing cow comes along and eats it, all so that the parasite can reach the cow’s digestive system and lay its eggs. The ant doesn’t know it’s being controlled. It simply feels compelled to go where it’s told. It doesn’t even try to escape from its death.
He tells you this as disaffectedly as though it were nothing more than an interesting episode of Animal Planet. Fun fact at the doctor’s office. He clears his throat and looks down at the MRI.
The Carayas Worm, he goes on, can only survive inside human hosts. It’s perfectly adapted to us. But its eggs can live almost anywhere. They can be found in uncooked meat. Salad greens. They can live in fresh and salt water, even in poisonous brine pools. They can be transmitted through sex. The doctor lists these things off to you one by one, as though trying to work a confession out of you. Only once the eggs are in a human, he continues, do they hatch.
Once the worm is inside the body, it carefully lays its eggs on the brain stem. Then it works its way into the brain. It settles between the membranes. It takes over. Everything you do, everything you think, are just products of chemicals and electrical impulses. The worm is intuitive to these things. It quickly learns how to operate your body, which nerves pull what strings. It learns to make you do what it wants.
But the worm doesn’t want your body. It wants you. All your memories, all your mannerisms, are just neurochemical triggers in your brain. The worm learns these too. It responds to your memories. It thinks your thoughts. It unconsciously does all the things you unconsciously do. After a while, the worm believes it is you. It has complete control of who you are.
Every night, when you close your eyes, the worm reaches the end of its life cycle and dies. And every night, another one of its eggs hatches, and a new worm crawls out to take its place.
Every night, when you fall asleep, you die. And every morning, a new creature wakes up in your body. Even you won’t know the difference.
You can feel something horrible crawling in the pit of your stomach. A sickening feeling. You don’t want to hear what he’s saying. The doctor holds up the picture of the MRI and asks if you can see anything wrong with it.
No, you tell him, feeling relieved. It just looks like a picture of a normal human brain to you. No worm. The doctor shakes his head.
Your eyes, he tells you, are just sending signals down your nerves. It’s your brain that decides what you see, not your eyes. And your brain only sees what the worm wants. Everyone else can see the thin white strand, like a single long piece of spaghetti, crawling over and over itself inside your skull. Everyone else but you.
He’s lying. He must be lying. You’re not sick, you tell him. He nods in agreement.
No, he says, you’re not. The worm doesn’t want you sick. It needs your body to survive. It won’t do anything to jeopardize its host. It’s the perfect parasite. It will keep you alive, walking around, pretending to be normal, for as long as it possibly can. It will try to keep the truth from you, to stop you from trying to destroy it. In theory, your body can live a long, healthy life. And no one, not your friends or your family or your lovers, need ever know the difference.
But the worm can’t be removed. Once it settles into position in your brain, only it and its offspring will ever live inside your head ever again. You will die. Whatever part animates you – your will, your soul, your spirit – the worm kills it. Once the parasite takes over, the person you were will quietly slip away one night. And the next morning, the worm will open your eyes, and everything will be normal again. It will be painless. You won’t even notice yourself dying.
You don’t know what to say to that. What can you say? Finally, with a dry throat and a scratchy voice, you ask the doctor how long it will be. How long do you have to do something before the worm kills you?
The doctor looks at you. There’s pity in his eyes, and sympathy, but also revulsion. Disgust. As though he weren’t looking at a patient. As though he’s looking at a horrible, alien creature behind your eyes.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” he says.