Ashley Griggs squinted against the noon-day sun as she pulled into the unpaved road that branched off Highway 51
south of Winona. Thick, green vines and giant kudzu covered the trees that lined the ditch. She reached for the map
and then tossed it aside.
“This place is off the map,” she muttered to herself, looking for a familiar landmark along the fields of cotton and
soybeans in neat rows along the road.
She was about to back out to the highway when she noticed the faded sign creaking in the wind. “Red worms $1.00,” it
read in crooked red letters that were painted long ago.
“This is my turn, then,” she thought, heading down the bumpy road, not even a country road, she thought.
She let her foot slip off the gas pedal to avoid the deep ruts that were left from the last big rain. Hot Mississippi
sunlight and shadow played on her car for nearly a mile before the rambling Victorian house rose before her.
Collin was waiting on the wraparound porch, leaning against a column to help support his injured leg. He waved,
smiling broadly under his shock dark, wavy hair.
“Come in, come in,” he motioned to her. “We’re just sitting down to lunch.”
Ashley hesitated before she slid out of the car. Collin limped as he made his way inside, rubbing the side of the thigh
injured in a motorcycle accident when they were in high school. His khakis were worn and frayed at the cuffs and his
old school t-shirt had a hole in the back. He tripped on a loose board on the porch, cursing softly as he recovered his
A cold feeling of misgiving covered Ashley as she tried to hide her shock at seeing the shabby situation of her
childhood friend. Collin cast her a furtive, side-long glance as she regained her composure. Ashley bit her lip. He
noticed, she thought, grimacing involuntarily as she walked in behind her host.
Shelby was in the kitchen sloshing mayonnaise on white bread for a pile of ham sandwiches. She put down the butter
knife, wiped her hands on her apron and reached for Ashley’s neck.
“Let me give you a hug,” she cooed, stepping back to size up her friend.
Shelby was rather tall, stout, but not overweight, with a pleasant, round and ruddy face surrounded by a mass of
dusty, blonde curls. She and Collin were cousins, forced to live together after a series of tragedies took their families
and their wealth. Although they were family, they were an unlikely pair of house mates, both in the way they looked
and in the way they lived.
Collin was bitter and reserved, unforgiving for the accident that destroyed his popularity and swarthy good looks that
attracted so many women in his youth. Shelby was nervous and outgoing and never stopped talking. She stayed busy
in the kitchen, making snacks and sandwiches for a steady crowd of fishermen who came along the road on their way
to cast their nets for catfish in the Big Black River that made its way through hidden swamps and wooded areas swollen
by the recent rains. Shelby sold sandwiches to the men who often spent the day on the murky water.
Collin spent most of his time behind the house at a six-foot long freezer filled with loamy, red clay where he raised the
worms. Each day, he put the food scraps in the ancient freezer that was now used only for the worms. They grew and
reproduced easily, so there always was a supply to place in a small, white carton for the fishermen.
Collin reached for the sandwich scraps that Shelby left on the counter. He was at the door with them when a truck’s
horn called him outside. On his way out, Ashley felt his gaze pause at the purse she left on the table. She resisted an
urge to snatch it from his reach, but turned instead to help Shelby with the food. As Collin shuffled by, Ashley felt as
though a dark cloud was between them.
“I’m so glad you’re going to spend the night,” prattled Shelby, stacking neat wedges of meat and bread on a large
platter. “You can have Aunt Ellie’s Room. It’s the one with the antique bed and the feather mattress. You might feel
like you’re sinking away, but it’ll stop in a minute,” Shelby giggled. “I remember how we tried to jump on it and all the
feathers came loose and Aunt Ellie was furious,” she giggled again. “And did you hear about Sandra Fitts and her
husband? They say he drowned by accident, but I think she had something to do with it. And then she got all that
insurance money and went to the Bahamas,” Shelby reached for pickle slices from an open jar, returning the opened
jar distractedly to the refrigerator.
“And her ex-lover, you know, was Henry Albertson and his two sons wouldn’t have anything to do with their daddy or
that woman,” Shelby placed another plate on the counter as she began counting out ham slices.
“That may be too much,” she suggested. “I’ve already eaten and the sandwiches won’t keep.”
But Shelby kept working, ignoring her friend and not waiting for any reaction to her gossip.
“It gets so quiet around here,” she whined. “Collin won’t talk to me and the only people who come are here for worms.
He had the phone taken out yesterday because I spent too much time talking...”
Shelby paused in mid-sentence, thinking wistfully of the hour-long conversations she had in the past.
Ashley was startled. Why would Collin have the phone taken out the day before she came? He knew she needed to be
in touch with her office and as a journalist, might need to make a call in a hurry. She tried to recall whether the cell
phone tucked in her purse still had enough battery to call out if she needed to.
Shelby stopped talking and was staring at her.
“What do you hear from our Sunday School crowd?” she asked, feigning interest in their former companions.
Unable to quell an opportunity to rant against the friends who now chose to ignore her, Shelby launched into a tirade
of complaints against the faults of everyone in the class. Ashley let her ramble on so she could take a survey of her
surroundings without being noticed.
She was on assignment for her magazine in Memphis, researching abandoned farms and homesteads along the
highways to the coast. Notebooks with remarks about long-forgotten places filled her trunk and digital photos were
ready to go on the laptop. But the research took so much time in dozens of county courthouses and the weather report
of an approaching hurricane kept her from making the trip back home.
The local paper ran an ad for Collin’s red worms, so Ashley tried the number.
“I can’t make it back to Memphis,” she told her friend, “can I possibly spend the night?”
There was a long pause before Collin began a garrulous invitation.
“Of course, of course! What are friends for? Now, you just get in your car and come on down before night falls. It’s not
the best road around here, that’s for sure,” he chuckled.
Ashley clicked off the cell phone. She sighed with relief at the invitation, warmed by the expansive gesture of the most
popular boy in their class. How much time had passed since they had seen each other was not important. Ashley heard
rumors about Collin that she chose to ignore. He had a nasty temper. Shelby and he were involved with check-cashing
fraud, but nothing was proven. Collin stopped visiting friends after his accident. He was fired from the clothing store
in town when the owner found money missing from the register.
But Ashley knew rumors could be unreliable. In the seventh grade, she remembered Collin running after her to return
a quarter she had dropped in the lunchroom. And how he borrowed five dollars to buy a present for his mother then
paid it back a week later after doing yard work for an elderly woman in town.
Seeing him today though, revealed a man worn by hardship. The soft contours of his face had a hardness that was not
present in the past. His once penetrating gaze shifted away from direct contact with her eyes. And the glances he cast
at her and her possessions had a predatory edge to them.
Shelby had a wild imagination that colored her judgment. For her, the local gossip of the day was the only important
thing in her life. Collin supplied whatever funds they had and she rarely asked where they came from. Although she
tried to impress Ashley with a hearty lunch, Ashley saw only a few soft drinks and a tub of margarine in the
refrigerator when Shelby put back the pickles.
“Do you need me to go back to town and get some groceries?” she asked.
“We have enough.”
The voice was hard, but not harsh. Collin was back. Shelby rushed from the room, wiping a furtive tear from her face.
“How’s the worm business?” Ashley asked, anxious to move the subject from the unhappy woman who left the room.
“Today, it’s good,” Collin gushed. “Fishing is always good when there’s a storm coming,” he suggested, grasping a
handful of dollar bills he had stuffed in the pocket of his threadbare plaid blazer. “Fishing will be good tonight.”
“Tonight?” Ashley turned, her piquant face puzzled. “I thought we might have a storm.”
Collin held his ground. “Oh, yes. Tonight will be good.” He sought out Shelby with his eyes. “For all of us.”
Ashley’s smile was wan. They both laughed together.
After clearing the table and washing the few dishes from lunch, Ashley brushed aside her early morning doubts. When
Collin invited her to visit the “worm farm,” she quickly followed him down the path. The afternoon sun belied any
threat of bad weather or ill feelings.
Collin once again was the boy she grew up with—racing with her, limping and laughing at his own clumsiness,
reminding her that she was an ‘older woman’ in his life, by all of three months.
The long, white freezer was hidden from the path by a moss covered cypress tree.
“You grow worms in there?” she asked incredulously.
“Of course. We put in lots of dirt and let the worms eat our table scraps.”
He lifted the lid for her to see and tossed in the bread crusts and bits of uneaten ham left from lunch.
“I don’t see anything,” Ashley complained.
Collin laughed, probing the dirt with his fingers until a few fleshy red worms poked out of the soil. After reaching for a
small paper carton, Collin began to retrieve the worms for a customer who was coming down the path.
While the fisherman was chatting with Collin, Ashley began taking pictures of the freezer, the vine covered path and
the feet of the travelers who came in boots and weatherproof shoes on their way to the river. She looked up to see
Collin posing proudly at the freezer’s end.
“How’s this?” he joked, tossing his head to reveal a majestic profile.
“Perfect!” Ashley shot back, capturing his face from all angles to include in her profile of rural America.
He snapped the lid shut suddenly.
“We don’t have a lock on it,” he explained. “Safety, you know.”
As she stood in the filtered, afternoon sun, Ashley felt a sudden chill. The freezer, once part of a rural store, was
nearly seven feet long.
“Someone could put a body in that,” she muttered.
Collin held his head back to let a deep laugh roar out of his throat.
“You watch too many CSI shows,” he said. “Besides, it would take three people to get me in that thing.”
Ashley laughed with him, but still felt a tension and mistrust growing once again. They returned to the house in silence.
Shelby’s smile was contagious as she ushered them into a sitting room where a pitcher of iced tea and a plate of sugar
cookies awaited them. Old school yearbooks were on a side table. A notebook of clippings of their classmates was
pasted neatly in a scrapbook.
Ashley pushed her purse under the sofa after she caught Collin eyeing the opening where her wallet showed through.
He seemed nervous, she thought. Life here must not be going as well as he pretended.
Shelby however, apparently recovered from her moment of sadness. Now she presented a cheery monologue of her
trips to town, the most recent activities of nearly every resident in the town and a hopeful argument how, “Things will
get better…they always do.”
Another car skidded on the gravel outside, signaling Collin to help still another fisherman get some worms.
The two women made a tour of the house while Collin waited on the visitor. They edged down the back steps to the
small garden in back where Shelby tended roses and lilies gathered from her mother’s house.
“It’s like having her here,” she said with a sigh. “Collin is all I have now and he’s not a lot of help.”
Ashley stiffened at the comment against Shelby’s cousin.
“He doesn’t like to work, really; just the worms. And he’s hard to care for.”
“But, he does get a check, doesn’t he?” Ashley ventured, afraid to offend her friend with a reference to their pinched
Shelby straightened the front of her printed house dress.
“Oh, yes,” she answered softly. An awkward silence followed her answer. “Before it gets dark, let’s take a walk by the
Ashley wasn’t ready for the rough road. Her casual flats caught on the gravel. Once she tripped on a vine edging the
ditch. The women had to stand aside as a file of cars made their way to the shore for an afternoon of fishing before the
storm moved in. At the end of the road though, a small dock gave them a quiet place to dangle their bare feet in the
water and share stories about the years since their last visit.
“No camera this time?” asked Shelby.
“I’d rather talk,” Ashley replied.
A twisted smile played at the corners of Shelby’s lips.
“Good,” she muttered, more to herself than to Ashley, who turned to Shelby with a puzzled expression.
But Shelby already turned to the two men who shared a row boat near the shore. She waved a friendly greeting. The
two men nodded politely, as they let their fishing poles dangle in the ripples of brackish water.
What are they waiting for? thought Ashley, who tried to shake off the dark feeling about the strangers. Why don’t they
Too many CSI flicks, she admonished herself, slapping Shelby on the back and scrambling up the shore as dark clouds
passed over with large drops of rain that plopped on the pier.
Shelby stopped her friend with a vivacious smile.
“I’m SO glad to see you! It’s so lonely out here. Even Collin complains he has no one to talk to.”
“Hard to believe,” argued Ashley. “Women never could resist your cousin!”
“For sure,” laughed Shelby, who was quick to race her friend back to the house.
The two women spread a checkered cloth on a small table on the back porch. Shelby set out plates of sliced ham,
chilled watermelon, tall glasses of iced tea and a plate of homemade sugar cookies. They listened as thunder
announced the approaching storm and watched lightning strike in jagged lines across the darkened sky.
“You didn’t set a plate for Collin,” noted Ashley.
“He can get his own food,” laughed Shelby. “This kind of weather is his busiest time. I’m sure he’s still down at the
The table was cleared, the dishes washed and still Collin did not come. Shelby hummed to herself as she worked.
Ashley wiped plates, set them in their cabinets and then retreated to her room. The day had been a long one and she
hoped to leave for Memphis at daybreak.
She lay in the soft bed, but sleep would not come.
It’s the quiet, she thought, listening intently for any sound at all.
The world seemed to stand still. Darkness too, was overwhelming. Storm clouds blotted out the moon or any passing
cloud. Once she sensed a footstep beneath her window, but passed off the soft pounding on the earth as late evening
Shelby slipped in front of the bedroom door to wait for Ashley to drift to sleep. She was very still, watching her friend
through the half-open door. Finally, the young woman’s head settled deeply in the pillow and her breathing became
slow and soft.
“Sweet dreams,” she whispered, as she furtively entered the room to snatch the handbag on the nightstand.
Her hand slid inside to grasp the wallet. Standing over the bed, Shelby silently pulled out a wad of bills before placing
the wallet back in the purse. She shoved the bills inside the pocket of her jeans, which she wore under the chenille
Back in the hallway, she removed the housecoat, tossed it on a chair then shuffled quickly and silently to the door.
Once outside, she needed a few minutes to get used to the dark. As she stepped cautiously down the path to the
freezer, two thin shadows passed on either side of her. She nodded to the men, who began the short trek to the house.
“Money, money, money,” she sang as her fingers found the bills in her pocket. “Come to Mama….” she cooed.
She fumbled in the darkness for the lantern by the freezer. Her fingers found the wick, which she lit. An eerie yellow
lighted played on the freezer’s lid. She raised the lid, letting it stay open then placed the light over the freezer.
“Stuffy night, isn’t it?” she asked, leaning over the freezer’s edge. “Thought you could use a bit of air.”
Collin lay inside the freezer, hands and feet bound with rope and duct tape over his mouth. At the sight of his cousin,
he struggled against the restraints, his cheeks puffed out in an effort to speak.
Shelby stared directly in Collin’s dark eyes, opened wide in panic and disbelief.
“There’s no other way, cousin,” she said coldly. “You know this place was meant to be mine, but your family managed
to contest the will to keep us from having it all. I know the plan was to get Ashley to contribute to our cause, but you
are the real treasure!”
Collin continued to squirm in the loamy soil as a few hungry red worms worked their way to the top of the soil.
“Ummmph….ummmph…..” he twisted his mouth against the tape in a vain effort to scream.
“What’s the matter, handsome?” Shelby whispered in a dominatrix tone. “You say you need someone to talk to?”
Tossing her blonde curls in a triumphant gesture, Shelby turned to find the two men making their way back down the
“You have company, Cousin,” she told him soothingly. “Your house guest is here for you.”
Nodding once again to the two men, she stood aside as they unrolled a white sheet from Ashley’s stiff body then placed
it carefully next to Collin. The last sound Collin heard was Shelby’s shrill laughter as she snapped shut the lid of the