Worm King

Reading Time: 5 minutes


Dill’s pa owned HANK’S LIVE BAIT, “Home of the Panhandle’s Most Fidgety Earthworms!” Dill recalled when folks visited the shop to meet Hank the Worm Charmer, even local celebrities whose dusty headshots shared a wall with bobbers and sinkers.

Business was slower nowadays. Worse with the hurricane coming.

(Image created by Kris from Pixabay)

Hank and Dill looked up hopefully when the front bell tinkled. A city fellow walked in, wearing a floppy hat adorned with hooks and lures. He peered at some worms and wrinkled his nose.

“Your nightcrawlers look tired,” he complained. “I thought this place was known for lively worms.”

“Worms are nocturnal,” Hank said. “They’re resting right now.”

“I don’t fish at night.”

Hank turned to Dill. “Go out back and catch some fresh worms,” he said in a voice of quiet command. “Use the thumper.”

Hank loved a weird old science fiction book about giant worms. Dune by Frank Herbert. People summoned them with “thumpers” pounding on desert sand. Real life earthworms also respond to such vibrations.

Dill went to the grassless yard behind the shop and moistened the ground with a garden hose. Then he pushed a steel railroad spike into the soft ground and began striking it with a hammer, grunting with each swing, finding the rhythm Hank taught him.

Worms soon appeared on the damp soil. Dill plucked them gently. They wriggled in his fingers, then went limp as they landed in the pail with their kin.

“Don’t be scared,” he told each worm. “Pa says the hook don’t hurt much.”

Dill ran inside with the pail, but the customer was gone.

Hank wasn’t angry. “Worms can’t be hurried.”


Hurricane Michael bore down on the Panhandle. Dill helped Hank board up the bait shop as rain lashed the windows. Sheets of water coursed down the street. A neighbor’s palm tree bowed before the storm.

They changed into dry clothes. Dill made popcorn and they sat upstairs, listening to the wind keen and moan. Hank seemed lost in thought. Dill could guess why. Worms were scarce, business was slow. And now a hurricane.

“Could I be a worm charmer?” Dill asked.

Hank blinked. “You already are. Anyone who can coax earthworms from the soil is a worm charmer.”

“Yeah, but I mean a famous one like you.”

Hank smiled. Dill assumed he was famous.

“There’s better charmers than me,” Hank said modestly. He liked talking about worms. “The largest earthworm ever recorded officially was sixteen inches, and I’ve heard tell of eighteen and a half. My personal best is only thirteen.”

“That’s plenty big.”

“African worms can grow over twenty feet.”

Dill pictured himself riding a mighty worm through the African desert. “I never catch anything big.”

“The big ones are hard to snag ‘cuz they live so deep. Some burrow more than six feet underground.”

“How do they hear the thumper? Do worms have ears?”

“No ears or eyes. They feel vibrations through the earth.”

Lightning flashed as a rain squall rattled the windows.

“Tell me about the Worm King.”

“Harder to catch than Moby Dick,” Hand said. “He’s down there somewhere.”

“You’ve never seen him?”

“No one’s seen the Worm King lately. But Seminoles summoned him to chase away the Conquistadors.” Hank laughed. “I bet those poor Spaniards peed their pantaloons.”

Wind bayed like a wounded wolf. Plywood tore loose from one of the windows downstairs. They could hear it banging against the frame. Then it stopped.

Hank hurried downstairs, Dill close behind. Plywood was missing from a window. Glass rattled. Hank grabbed a raincoat. “Wait here!”

Dill watched from the window as Hank retrieved the wayward plywood in some bushes. Rain lashed Hank’s face, so he held up the plywood as a shield.

A gust of wind ripped the board from Hank’s hands. It struck his head, whirled to the street, and raced away in the rushing water. Hank lost his balance and fell.


Hank woke on the floor of the shop. He tried to sit up. He touched his forehead and felt a bandage.


Dill rushed over. “You’re awake!”

“How’d I get here?”

“I pulled you inside. Your head was bleeding. I wrapped it with stuff from the first aid kit.”

Hank looked around the shop and moaned. Glass and debris littered the wet floor.

“We have to clean this up.”

“There’s worse outside,” Dill said.

Hank struggled to his feet and opened the door. The entrance was blocked by a cottonwood tree that had fallen against the building, snapping a power line.

Hank stared. “I don’t have insurance.”

“What’s that mean?”

“We could lose the shop.”


Hank was on the phone talking to the bank. It sounded like it wasn’t going well. Didn’t the bank know his dad was the best worm charmer in the Panhandle?

Dill went out back and found the hammer. Tears stung his eyes. He pounded the spike, falling naturally into the worm charmer’s rhythm, striking the steel over and over. He began to feel better.

The ground swelled. Something struggled up from the earth, shedding cascades of dirt. Dill jumped aside as the ground disgorged a great worm in a shower of dirt and stones. Its eyeless head rolled from side to side, open mouth gulping air in spicy gusts.

The worm glistened in the morning sun like a beached whale. It quivered and made a thrumming noise.

“Hang on,” Dill said. He fetched tarps from the garage and draped them over the worm to shelter it from the sun. The creature seemed to relax. Dill touched its snout gently, getting sticky goo on his fingers.

“Don’t be scared.”

Dill moistened the worm with the garden hose. Then he stroked its wet skin, fascinated by the ridges and vents.

“Why’d you come up? Was it the hurricane? Do you want to go back home?”

Dill had an idea. He fetched a long rope, tied one end around his ankle, and the other to the railroad spike. Slowly, he eased himself onto the worm’s back. The creature trembled.

Dill hugged the worm tightly, remembering what Hank always said: Fear is the mind killer.

Dill pinched the worm’s slimy skin. “Dive!”

A ripple ran through the beast, then it plunged headfirst into the earth. Dill clung to the worm as they dove into wet darkness. Dill shut his eyes tight, but dirt got in his nose.

The worm slowed. Dill opened his eyes. Faint sunlight filtered down the fresh tunnel. Earthworms wriggled from the surrounding walls to greet their returning king.

They entered an open cavern, illuminated by bioluminescent mushrooms and glow worms. Crystals glittered in a stony heaven. Thousands of earthworms emerged.

Dill addressed the worms. “I brought your king. But my dad needs your help.”

The worms trembled. Or was it the earth?

An avalanche of infalling dirt filled the cavern. Dill tried to yell as mud filled his mouth.


Hank went out back to look for Dill. He found a gaping hole in the yard.


He looked into the hole and saw only shadows. A rope led down into it. Hank tugged on it but felt no slack.



Hank climbed into the hole, using his phone as a flashlight. He kept his other hand on the rope, following it deep into cool darkness, hearing only the squishing of his boots.

The tunnel ended in a wall of mud. The rope disappeared into the damp earth. Hank tugged on the rope but it wouldn’t budge.


Hank started digging frantically with his hands. When he was in the mud past his elbows, he felt something solid. He grabbed on and started pulling.

Dill popped out of the mud, knocking Hank backward. The rope was still tied to Dill’s ankle. His face was gray. He wasn’t breathing.

Hank dragged Dill to the surface. He laid the boy’s body in the sunshine, cleared debris from his mouth, and began CPR.

After three chest compressions, Dill’s eyes opened. He coughed, spraying dirt. Color returned to his face.

Dill blinked in the sunshine.

“Are you okay?” Hank asked.

Dill nodded. His eyes grew wide. “Look.”

Worms carpeted every square foot of the yard, wriggling, squirming, dancing.

Hank was astounded. “Did you do this?”

Dill nodded shyly.

“I’ve never seen worm charming like this,” Hank said. “We’ll be famous again. You may have saved HANK & SON LIVE BAIT.”

“Son?” Dill stammered.

Hank laughed. “My son the Worm King.”


This story previously appeared in Aphelion.
Edited by Erik Homberger

Micháel McCormick's patronus is an owl. Mike's work in more than eighty magazines and anthologies has earned Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations and other awards. Connect with Mike at @mikemccormickauthor on Facebook or at his website Mike McCormick.