I can't remember a time when there wasn't a worm.
The colorful picture books they showed us in preschool depicted a friendly, cherubic worm - huge in stature and size - orbiting vivid planets and grinning from what we guessed were his ears.
"This is the space worm!" the teacher, our mother, our father, would say. "His name is Fafnir, and he's a very helpful worm!"
We grew worms in the dirt outside, watched them grow and develop and wriggle out their little lives. We vivisected them, drew them, made stuffed ones from our fathers' tube socks.
"See how he lives up in space?" here they would gesture to the ceiling, to the sky, to the telescope. "He is like a biiiiiiiig bus that will move us from planet to planet! But he is not big enough yet, he is still growing. Science made him so that he will grow up big and strong! And then one day there will be all kinds of space worms!"
We drew orbits on construction paper with glitter glue, in the playground sand with sticks, in the steamy warmth of our soup bowls with our spoons.
"This is an orbit, and this is what Fafnir uses as his race track. See how things move in this big ol' smooshed circle all on their own?" (we'd trace the elliptical orbit shape dutifully in the air with our index fingers, following along). "That's an orbit, and there are lots and lots of them! He uses this orbit right now, around and around the sun, but someday we might have more worms like Fafnir, and they'll go all around the galaxy!"
I was told that one day, a long time ago, people did not believe in Science, but gods and deities.
"What's that, mom?" I asked one day in my parents' bedroom, sitting at the foot of their bed and eating pretzel sticks while my mother brushed my hair out of my face and struggled to bind it in a ponytail. On the television, there was a man kneeling in front of a big wooden T, and he seemed really upset about it. I felt concerned, and dropped my pretzel back into its bowl. "Why is that man so sad at that letter T?"
My father grunted a laugh and stood up from the bed, shuffling into the bathroom and stretching, his bones creaking their familiar dad-symphony. I felt my mother hiss in a short breath, her hands stilling in my hair ever so briefly before she resumed brushing it.
"Well, one time, many years ago, people didn't think Science was real. They thought that once upon a time, there was an old, old man called God who created everything we have here on Earth, and then he went away. He came back as a baby named Jesus, and Jesus lived for a long time before the people who did not like him very much killed him. A lot of people thought that Jesus was a god-"
"Like Science?" My brow wrinkled, and my mother smoothed it out with the side of her hand.
"Yes, like Science. They worshiped Jesus because they thought that Jesus was a god, and when the people killed him, they stuck him to this big ol' cross - sort of like a T, you're right."
"Like a cork board?" That was a funny picture. I bit my pretzel stick.
"Yes, Reagan, like a cork board. So for a long, long time after he died, people would carry around these big crosses, and they made them into jewelry and clothing and sometimes they all got together in a big building that was dedicated to Jesus and to crosses, and they would sing songs and worship him."
"But mom, that doesn't help him. What helps Science is research and math and exploring!"
"I know, baby, but they didn't know that then. Look how far we've come now!" she pointed at the magazine on the side table, the worm Fafnir being prepared for orbit on the front cover. "Soon we'll be able to go wherever we want to go because of Science and because of great worms like Fafnir. Just you wait."
So we waited.
And one day, suddenly, Fafnir was not such a cute cartoon image any more.
"He could come out of the toilet and eat your ass!" exclaimed Thomas Duvall in tenth grade math class one day. Brittany Welsh squealed in protest and threw her pen at him, and I continued to covertly draw an image of Fafnir on my desk with a pencil (pencils were banned - there were no mistakes in Science, so there was no reason to erase anything), but they were the best instruments to use to draw, and I loved to draw. I was going to go to college to be an engineer, I'd decided years before, so I needed all the practice I could get. But drawing was not Science - it had rounded edges and gentle slopes, it was not sharp and edgy like Science, not at all. So I continued to draw in silence, biding my time until graduation.
"He cannot do that, Mr. Duvall," Dr. Fern chided from the front of the room where he was writing trigonometry equations out. "He is too large now, remember? No matter how unstable Fafnir has gotten, he is far too large to fit in your - or anyone's - toilet." A slew of giggles flew through the room at the word "toilet," and it was quickly silenced by a stern glance from Dr. Fern. "What we need to do, class, is help Science to discover a way to tame Fafnir, not make everyone afraid of him."
"I thought we were going to train him," Brittany Welsh said to her lap, her fingers twined together, teeth clamped down on her lip with anxiety. "I thought he was going to be trained and then he'd do what we wanted."
"Well, Ms. Welsh," said Dr. Fern slowly. "sometimes Science is overeager, but Science is never wrong. Don't you imply that, do you understand?"
Badmouthing Science was a fate worse than death, and Brittany seemed to understand that as she nodded grimly and went back to picking at her cuticles.
One day, they couldn't find Fafnir any more. He wasn't where he was supposed to be, wasn't circling the earth and eating space debris. He had to be somewhere, people cried - we can't just lose a giant space worm. But it looks like he outgrew even Science's plans for him, and once they found him again, they couldn't keep him there. Nothing, not even our orbit, could contain Fafnir.
He could be anywhere now, I realize, sitting at my drafting table and picking pieces of pretzel out of the bag beside me. I squinted out my window into the inky night sky, as if I could see the silhouette of a massive, angry worm cross my path.
We dissuade our children from pursuing space travel now, we caution them against ever wanting to go into orbit or be an astronaut. Because Fafnir the worm is still out there, and he is unhappy. But we can't find him, and we can't stop him. I bow my head as I remember my mother, who was sent to capture Fafnir years ago. She never came home. I still remember that warm summer night sitting on her bed, talking about how wonderful Fafnir was, how he would save us all. Maybe he didn't - maybe he did, in a weird way. There's more of a sense of community now than ever before.
I rub out a spot on my schematics with my pencil eraser, still hiding it in my lap as if it's contraband, a secret treasure. Maybe Fafnir was not right at all - a great, wonderful, terrible worm in space doesn't seem very natural. But it had to be right, because it was created by Science.
And Science is never, ever wrong.