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The writer learns a valuable lesson after bringing home a pet worm

As I crawled through the lush grass, I could hear the cardinals singing a happy morning song and smell that fresh cut-grass smell that people have tried to bottle but never succeeded. I took a deep inhale to try and consume as much as I could, but ultimately it triggered my hay fever, which made me sneeze loudly. I had recently taken a liking to sneezing as boisterously as I could to scare my family. As I opened my eyes in recovery, I observed something slimy, wiggly, and tan-colored slithering in the soil.

“What’s that? I said inquisitively.

As I leaned in closer, my friend Annabelle screamed, “It’s a worm!” even louder than my sneeze.

Now that would normally gross out the average child and prompt them to scuttle away, but I’d recently realized my life’s potential was to be a jungle explorer, following a family trip to Costa Rica. There I’d had my first taste of termites and lost my heart to a baby sloth. So, I now fancied myself the next Steve Irwin (I was born in Australia after all), and this was as close as I was going to get to the jungle in a Long Island backyard. Surely this miniscule creature needed protecting from the perils of the suburban Northeast. I needed to save this annelid from imminent threat, before a ravenous hawk or vicious adult foot ended my rescue mission prematurely.

This wouldn’t be my first foray into animal rescue. I had been practicing taking care of stuffed animals at home for over five years by this point, running an animal rescue center out of my bedroom. I hadn’t lost a patient yet; a few had lost a limb or an eye, but they were all alive and well (in the bottom of my closet somewhere). I had been accumulating quite the exotic world animal collection over these years, with a kiwi bird from New Zealand, a polar bear from France (an impromptu gift from an airport shop from my Dad), an echidna from Australia, a British bulldog, and a mouse from Orlando, Florida. Surely, I was ready for the big time now. It was time to rescue my first wild animal.

As I approached the worm, I played out the rescue mission in my head: As you can see, the human female is approaching the mysterious creature here in the suburban jungle, I said to myself in the voice of Sir David Attenborough (after all, I am half British). This appears to be a critter of the common earthworm variety.

AboveandBelow
Above and Below

“Hurry up, Billie!” My friend Annabelle interrupted my musings. “I need to pee!”

I snapped out of my head and back into my body. I began to creep up on the worm from behind so that I wouldn’t startle it and miss my chance. Easy does it. Just a few more steps . . .

“Worms don’t have eyes, Billie!” said Annabelle obnoxiously.

I didn’t think she was enjoying this game as much as me, and before I could stop her, she pinched the worm between her thumb and index fingers and pulled it out of the ground. I watched it stretch till its head (or tail, who can really tell), sprang back out of the ground. It wiggled in one last attempt at freedom, but ultimately the stronger species triumphed. She dropped the worm into my hand. It tickled as I cupped it with my other hand and carried it toward the house.

It was time for phase two of the operation: convince my parents to let me keep him as a pet. (I now know that earthworms have both male and female organs, but at this point I’d decided he was a boy.) Annabelle had now ditched me to trade Pokémon cards with my brother, so it was on me to deliver from here.

As I approached the kitchen, I could detect the comforting scent of hot tomato soup bubbling on the stove, combined with the buttery aroma of grilled cheese sizzling on the skillet. My mouth started to salivate, and I almost forgot about what I was there to do, but a wiggle in my hand brought me back to the task. And what better time to present Mom with a worm on my filthy hands than when we’re about to eat?

“Mom, can I please keep this worm that I found in the backyard?” I said,

“Billie, I think worms are meant to stay in the wild, in their natural habitat,” she answered back. “And go wash those grubby hands!”

I wasn’t about to give up that easily, “But he is going to get eaten out there, Mom!” I said gloomily.

“That’s just part of nature’s life cycle,” Mom said very practically, as she often did. But I didn’t want the worm to get eaten—he was now my friend.

“Just one night. Pleeeeease!” I begged.

“Fine. One night only, and then tomorrow you set it free!” She never could bear my whining for too long.

“Okay. Thanks, Mommy,” I said merrily. So, I had kind of accomplished phase two. I might not get to keep him as a pet, but at least he could have a sleepover.

I carried him back outside to find some things in the backyard that would work to make him a home. I grabbed twigs, leaves, rocks, and on a final impulse, some flowers to brighten the aesthetic. Personally, I find brown on brown a little depressing, even for a worm.

Later that night as the worm and I settled down, I sang one verse of “Rockabye Baby” to Worm, as I’d named him, and promptly fell asleep. Jungle exploration had proven to be a tiring business! I had sweet dreams about the fun Worm and I were going to have the next day.

I came to the realization that the only thing that the worm needed rescuing from that day was me.

The next morning, I woke up to the sun filtering through my eyelids. I peeled the covers off, anticipating seeing Worm playing in his new home. Much to my horror, I realized he wasn’t there. I poked around the twigs to see if he was hiding underneath, but I couldn’t see him anywhere! I pulled everything out of drawers, lifted carpets, looked under my bed, to no avail. I started to panic, thinking that he had run away because he didn’t like me, or maybe he had crawled into my ear while I was asleep and was now living in my body. What have I done? Now he is lost, and I will never be able to find him.

I decided that I should look in his enclosure one more time just to make sure he wasn’t there. I moved around all the rocks and twigs. I was starting to lose hope. Finally, in the corner of my eye, I spotted the familiar ringed pattern of his body, right up in the corner. As I squinted to get a closer look, to my confusion, I noticed there was not one, but two worms. Quickly, my hopes that the worm was actually a girl and had given birth overnight were shattered. The two worms were in fact the two halves of the original worm’s delicate little body that had dried up and split in half overnight. In that moment my heart shattered as easily as his fragile little body had from a night of central heating.

After a breakfast of pushing my food around my plate because my stomach felt like I’d swallowed a rock, and the humiliation of the “I told you so’s” I had to endure from my parents, I decided I needed some personal closure. I buried Worm that morning, less than twenty-four hours after we’d met, in a private ceremony. It was a short but moving memorial in which I laid him to rest in the soil I should have just let him be in in the first place. I shed a few tears and promised Worm that I would never take a wild animal from its natural habitat again. It may have only been twenty-four hours, but I felt like I’d matured a few years in that one day. I realized that love and care alone wouldn’t be enough if I didn’t also understand the needs of the animals I wanted to help. I came to the realization that the only thing that the worm needed rescuing from that day was me.

In the years that have passed since, I’ve focused less on “hands-on” research. I have continued learning about animal needs from doing research in books and online, visiting rescue centers, and observing them in their natural habitat instead of trying to bring them into mine. My knowledge grows every year, along with my collection of stuffed wild animal toys. My hope is one day I can include this mini memoir as part of my own full memoir when I achieve my (still current) dream of rescuing animals. I will dedicate that memoir to Worm (2014–2014), who was able to help me vow that from that day forward, I would truly help and never harm another animal again. His life won’t have been in vain, and I aim to help infinitely more animals than I ever harm.

Billie Brown
Billie Brown, 12
New York, NY

Saylor Creswell
Saylor Creswell, 8
New York, NY

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