Come winter, the city introduces the griefworms. They are designed to vermicompost our grief efficiently. They have been tested in an unnamed lab. “The last few years have been difficult,” the city government website admits, a vague reference to the extreme storms and the illness they say is no longer serious. “We believe our community can heal.”

          They provide each household with a green bin containing twelve wriggling creatures which look like regular earth worms to me, slimy pink bodies half-buried in soil and dead leaves. We are instructed to place the bin somewhere central in the home. I put mine in the kitchen, where I repeatedly bump into it and curse the city though I’m happier here than I’ve been in any other place.
I’ve moved ten times in the last fifteen years, for work, for love, for work again, rinse and repeat. I’m in grief but it’s hard to describe what kind. There’s the break-up last month with my second girlfriend who taught high school band, played me too many videos of her drum solos, gave incredible head. There’s the girlfriend before that who was still in love with her ex-wife, which I recognized at the time but thought I could overcome by being extra available.

          But mostly there’s the film playing in my mind of the decades I tried to be straight, to be cis. The nights blurred with black out sex with straight men, the mornings after full of headaches and soreness and A-line dresses crumpled on the floor. The loneliness I couldn’t name because it had to do with missing myself. How do you mourn the versions of yourself that never got to exist?

          The city explains that between “official losses”—death of an immediate family member or a terminal medical diagnosis—we should feed the griefworms what normal earth worms eat. There is a thick packet explaining what they can and cannot digest. I don’t cook much when I live alone, but I don’t want the worms to starve. And it isn’t awful, making a risotto and thinking how they’ll like the butternut squash peels, the mushroom stems, but not the garlic or lemon because it’s too harsh for their skin. I make this dish and think of the girl who taught me how. The worms seem to rustle, but it might be my imagination.

          We were ice hockey teammates. I liked the echo of her laugh across the dive bar we went to after practice and how she could pull the shyest girl into conversation. She was the youngest of eight siblings in a big Italian family, the only queer, tasked with caring for their elderly father. She loved Madonna. Once, she asked me on a date to a concert, but I was still with my college boyfriend, still trudging through a life that seemed to fit. I dream about her sometimes. How we kissed once at a tournament afterparty. The feel of her small hands brushing across my chest.

          When official losses occur, the city says the griefworms will pick up on the shift of energy and activate. While we sleep, they will crawl out of the holes in their boxes, move through our bodies and out again. They don’t say how this happens, only that we will feel nothing, we won’t even wake. While we dream happier dreams, the worms will transform the grief that is weighing us down, their castings nutrients our bodies can use. Then we’ll have more energy for being in the present, for doing our work. We have been calling in sick too much. We have not been going to the non-required company social events. The gyms echo with our unused memberships.

          In high school, my best friend Kat and I used to go to the Y together. Mostly we wanted to use the sauna and talk music, Tori and Poe, bitch about our parents who wished we had other friends. Sometimes we’d eye each other’s muscled calves and quads sleek with sweat, the sauna air redolent of cedar and burning coals, cold cans of orange soda from the vending machine in our hands.
We’d been inseparable since sixth grade, when we joined the same crummy soccer team. Senior year of high school, she dated a tennis boy, and I took to canceling our plans last minute, my excuses ranging from homework to some movie I needed to watch, horror, the one genre she couldn’t stomach. Eventually we stopped making plans at all. I didn’t have a language for the anger and sadness I felt when I thought of her, why I let our friendship dissolve.

          When I was nervous before a math test, which was every math test, she would come over after school, put on MTV, crack me up with her impressions of the hair metal bands. She wore flannel shirts and pale blue suede sneakers that she kept clean even through springtime when it was always raining, and the streets of our suburb were muddy and full of thick red worms stranded on the pavement or still crawling toward some imagined, better home.

          There is mixed evidence as to whether the griefworms work. There are sleek, powerful people, mostly CEOS and heads of 501-C3s, who report excellent results. They claim to have converted their losses into fresh growth mindsets, new projects and ways of utilizing social media to enhance their brands. Their skin glows. They are blossoming from their enriched interiors. They credit the griefworms for their newfound productivity, their efficiency, their ability to spot redundancies and make the hard yet necessary decisions. Their beige rooms are full of light.

          For my friends who have suffered so-called official losses, it’s hard to tell if the worms are doing anything at all. My friend T, for example, did not drink less cheap beer or play basketball again or feel motivated to sell houses for the real estate company after their older sister died of a heart attack that may or may not have been related to the illness that is no longer serious. Their sister worked an office job but made gemstone jewelry shaped like ghosts and skulls on the side. She took T to the art theatre for classic monster movies growing up, was the first person to tell them they should keep writing stories. When T came out a second time, she gifted them a black silk tie with neon green skulls on it. When she died, T didn’t leave their apartment for a week, stopped answering work emails. Soon after, they were fired. The official reason, approved by HR, was “failure to apply grief treatment.”

          They are staying with me now. They brought their worms along, unsure what else to do with them. We placed the green bins next to each other in the kitchen, wondered if twice the creatures would work better somehow. T slumps through my rooms as if stuck in their own damp dirt. They pick at the sumptuous meals I cook, scroll Twitter while I talk about missing my ex or gush about a story I’m reading.

          When they ask, I make a thick stew and gather our friends for a craft night. Alice wears a dress she’s sewn herself and brings Funfetti cupcakes. Felix brings a playlist he calls “Over It.” Sam, who runs a community garden, brings greens to throw in the stew. While we collage or knit or sew or draw and/or gossip, the worm bins make a sound like radio static. We hypothesize that they are sharing all the heavy, often preventable human grief they’ve eaten, kvetching about the fucked-up-ness of our species.

          “Or they might be having an orgy,” Sam says. “They really like to get down beneath a banana peel.” They tell us how worms experience full body ecstasy within that sweet rot, how they’ll also clump together for protection or to communicate a threat. “Imagine if all the griefworms schemed,” they say, their knitting needles moving faster.

          T moves in and out of presence, disappears into my office midway through the night. “Tell them we love them,” our friends say as they leave.
They haven’t been able to write since their sister died, but what they can do is draw. Before sleep, they show me what they created: an oozing, dripping human heart full of fanged worms in little bow ties. It is both cute and horrific, Richard Scary meets David Cronenberg. It makes me think of our family dog who got heartworms because no one remembered her yearly shots. We were all very productive in those years, my parents and siblings and I, not thinking we’d face grief any time soon, official or otherwise. A week after the dog’s death, my father came home with a new chocolate lab. We gave it the same name as the first.

          “Oh my god. That’s awful,” T says, and I don’t know why but I’m laughing.

          T and I sleep in the same bed. We’ve talked about how we’re attracted to each other but shouldn’t try a relationship now, it wouldn’t be the right time. Grief swirls thick in T’s body, an atmosphere I cannot fully imagine. “Like that neon stuff in a lava lamp,” T tries, “but it’s oily and partly on fire.”
          One night, I wake and feel what might be griefworms coiling in my guts. Or it could be my IBS from the massive about of brie T and I ate while cooking and talking about the art residencies we want to create for us and our friends. T groans and turns in their sleep, clutches their stomach as if an alien baby is trying to bust out.

          Do certain griefs hurt the worms like allium or citrus? Do their fragile skins burn with our many losses? Have they grown teeth? Is the city hiding certain undesired outcomes, and are there people who wake to find themselves not enriched but hollowed, no longer able to eat or shit or circulate blood or fuck? Does this explain the new quiet of our streets, the many disappearances the city cannot or will not account for?

          In the morning, we see it on our phones. Activist scientists and gardeners have secretly reprogrammed the latest batch of griefworms. They have broken out of their bins, out of their individual homes, have found each other. They have multiplied and combined into one massive, pink creature that looks like spaghetti and spans several blocks. There are pictures of the monster wrapping around cop cars, collapsing precincts and banks, blocking the entrance to the court building.

          I feel lighter than I have in months. T laughs and laughs. “My sister would love this. It’s total B movie horror! The blob!”

          Instead of boarding up our windows like the city now instructs, the way we do for the new extreme storms, we step out onto my back patio with our coffee, our bins in tow. It is December but feels like spring used to. A light rain falls. We let our worms out onto the lawn. They seem to bask in the wetness as they weave together. T reaches for my hand; I squeeze it back. More worms rise from the surface of the earth, creatures who were not engineered for grief but must taste it, the slow, unofficial death of our world, our burrowed sorrows emerging, tangled with anger and joy and desire, just under the skin.

Meg Cass

Meg Cass (they/them) is a queer, trans fiction writer and teacher who lives in St. Louis. ActivAmerica, their first book, was selected by Claire Vaye Watkins for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and was published in 2017. Recent stories have appeared in Ecotone, Foglifter, and Passages North. They co-founded Changeling, a queer reading series focused on works-in-progress. They teach at University of Illinois Springfield.