My Life As A Horror Story: The Smell Of Worms

This piece was originally written for submission to the 2020 CBC Non-Fiction Contest. It is about one of my greatest fears. And even as I write this, Mark is texting me to be careful when I leave the house today – the sidewalk near our house is no longer a safe space for me.

I’m terrified.

I walk as fast as I can, keeping my head up and looking off into the distance. Yet I’m still compelled to look at my feet, to watch where I’m stepping, to make sure I don’t step on anything I shouldn’t. I don’t know what is worse for me: looking at them to keep from stepping on them, or stepping on them because I can’t bear to look at them.

I’ve been afraid of many things in life. Most of my fears come from a place of anxiety, but this… This is a pure, paralyzing, irrational fear that makes me uncomfortable in a way I can hardly describe. My whole body tenses up, and my senses are on high alert. I wish I were numbed instead so that I wouldn’t be so hyper aware of their presence.

Worms.

I can’t stand worms. Big worms, small worms, fat worms, thin worms, wriggling worms, dead worms. They all send the same signals of panic into my body and my brain.

They’re the reason that I hate it when it rains.

I do love the rain. I love the sound and I love the ambiance it creates. But the rain brings the worms. It brings fear.

I was in pre-school, and there was a special presentation that day. It’s one of my earliest memories. We were learning about worms. It was fascinating, especially for children so young.

The guest speaker had a big, yellow bucket with them. When they tilted it so we could see inside, it was filled with a shallow layer of dirt. Worms poked their heads and bodies out of the dirt from time to time. We were taught about how helpful and useful worms are. We were taught about what kinds of food scraps were suitable for compost. We were learning to care for nature, and it was wonderful. Necessary.

At the end of the day, we were each given a little plastic camera film container. You don’t see those anymore, but they were everywhere back then. Inside the film container was a worm. We each got to take one home to put in our gardens. When my nanny came to pick me up, she had me put the container in my pocket.

She didn’t have a car, and I lived close enough to the pre-school, so we walked. She held my hand, but all I could think about was the thing inside my pocket. The worm. My little three-year-old mind was petrified that the little plastic lid would come loose on the container and that I would have a worm roaming freely in my pocket. That terrified me. I just wanted to go home and release the worm into the garden, and be done with it.

Looking back, it still feels like that walk home took a lot longer than usual.

Releasing that worm into the garden would have been the end of that fear if I hadn’t been so curious about what my mom was up to only a few weeks later. She had decided to do some gardening, and I wanted to watch her. I regretted it the moment I spotted a big, fat, wriggling worm peeking out from a hole she had dug.

That was it. From then on, worms have filled me with dread.

That’s why I walk so fast when it rains.

I have had the misfortune to live in many areas where I have to walk through a worm-infested area to get to where I’m going. Where I live now, if I want to go to the grocery store, a coffee shop, or if I want catch a bus, I have to walk past a large parking lot. But this parking lot has a stretch of grass between it and the sidewalk. It’s where the worms live.

When it rains, I have to walk down that unbearably long sidewalk to get to the main intersection. I walk fast and look up and away so that I don’t have to look at the worms. At the same time, I’m compelled to watch my feet to make sure I don’t step on them. I can’t bear the thought of touching them, even if it’s through my rainboot. Even if I squish them into a pulp and crush them out of existence. Every stray twig, or blade of grass, or vaguely worm-shaped object makes me jump. I walk down that sidewalk with my heart in my throat.

Even if I somehow manage to avoid looking at them, I still know they’re there. I can smell them.

Petrichor.

It’s such a particular smell. I’m sure some people musty enjoy it. I’m sure I would enjoy it too if it didn’t remind me of my greatest fear. When I’m safe in my home, it can be a lovely smell. But the moment I set foot outside, I hate it. To me, the smell of petrichor is a warning. It tells me that the worms have emerged from the dirt and have littered the sidewalk with their squirming bodies.

I can’t stand the smell.

So, I just keep walking as fast as I can.

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