Josie first noticed it as she drove back to college after Thanksgiving break. A few bars of some haunting new melody
relentlessly repeated in her head. She thought maybe it was a hymn, or some Muzak
from the funeral home. She docked her iPod and sang her way back to school,
forgetting the earworm, trying to forget the way her aunt had looked when she
found her. Josie only had to make it through a few more weeks. It wouldn’t be
long until she’d take her finals and go home for Christmas.
Later that night, Josie awoke to the sound of what she thought was someone
playing the song. It was faint enough to remind her of the funeral, but she
couldn’t hear it well enough to decipher it entirely. As she tossed and turned,
she tried to muffle the noise with her pillow.
Around two, she wandered out of her room and down the dorm’s corridor to
find the source, but the farther she walked, the less she heard it. Back in her
room, she turned on her radio for distraction. When the morning news jockey
started talking about the weather, she realized she hadn’t slept and gave up. She took a shower with the song, blow-dried
her hair with the song, dressed to the song, and left to eat breakfast with the
The dining hall was crowded and loud, and Josie could only hear the faint bass
of the earworm in her head. All day, when she was with people, she didn’t
notice it. In the quiet of the library, or the privacy of the restroom, the
song grew louder.
By the end of the week, Josie’s song was a running joke in her circle. She’d asked everyone if they heard it. No one
had. She told them it was driving her crazy. When she confided in her friends,
one girl told her the dorm might be haunted, maybe spirits were contacting her,
so she held a séance in Josie’s room, but nothing changed. Another friend
suggested a muse had come to call, and Josie should pay attention, in case she
had the next big hit in her head. Each sleepless night, the music grew louder
and louder, but Josie couldn’t pinpoint the melody beyond a few notes and the
lyrics remained unintelligible.
Over Christmas break, Josie went to her doctor who evaluated her and then
referred her to a psychiatrist for auditory hallucinations. Josie protested
against the idea that she was mentally ill, despite her doctor reminding her
that her aunt was hospitalized at her age. “Aren’t there supposed to be voices?
I thought the voices told her to do things. I don’t hear voices, I hear music.
I’m perfectly sane, I just hear music. You can’t tell me that everyone who gets
an earworm is having auditory hallucinations!”
The doctor mentioned that perhaps the stress of her aunt’s recent death had
triggered an auditory response, and lack of sleep only added to it. She
prescribed a sleep aid. The sleeping pill knocked Josie out, but when she woke,
always the elusive song returned.
Josie tried to tune it out by playing her own music louder and louder. She
tried headphones. The louder the music played, the louder her internal song
raged. She’d push pause, hoping to catch a moment of the song screaming in her
ears, but she only grew exhausted and took more sleeping pills.
Within a month, the few waking hours she had, she hummed and tapped the same
few bars of music constantly. Neither the rhythm nor the tune pleased anyone’s
ears, and it alienated people. Josie hated the way strangers looked at her with
pity and kept their distance, she hated the whispers, the sideways glances and
avoidance of her friends, but they didn’t understand, she was doing the best
she could to cope.
The earworm became her only companion.
As her condition worsened, her doctor prescribed new medications and urged her
to see a psychiatrist. Under threat of hospitalization, Josie agreed to fill
her prescriptions, but she wouldn’t take them. Instead, she cut classes and lingered
in the hallways of the music building and on weekends, she hung out at the
funeral home, in hopes of hearing the song again.
One Saturday in January, Josie attended a funeral for a young woman who’d
committed suicide. As one man commented
that the deceased was finally at peace, another mentioned what a relief it was
to see the deceased without her tinfoil hat. Immediately, Josie thought of her
aunt. She remembered how the green
colored pencil shot out from her ear like the trunk of a young tree, while the
blood caked beneath her aunt’s tinfoil hat. Only then did she recognize her own
madness. Only then did she find a use for all those pills.
At Josie’s funeral, her ears were clear. Everything was clear. She heard her
loved ones, and even people she barely knew, say kind things about her. They
all agreed it was such a shame. She’d been a wonderful girl, an excellent
student, with such a bright future. They lamented that they hadn’t been able to
help, they hadn’t known the extent of Josie’s illness, the weight of her
suffering. Those who loved her leaned over her body, kissed her, stroked her
hair, took her hand, told her they loved her and they missed her. She wished
she could tell them how much she loved them, too.
When Josie’s doctor leaned over her casket, Josie could see she was truly pained
by the loss. Her nose was red, and tears collected at the corners of her eyes. Her
doctor slid her hand across Josie’s cheek and tucked a stray hair behind the
ear that once belonged to her. Josie wanted to tell her not to feel guilty. She
wanted to tell her there was nothing she could have done.
Josie watched as her doctor retracted her fingers from the ear that had once
been hers, and inadvertently placed the earworm to her own quivering lips. She
covered her mouth with a handkerchief and sobbed gently, sucking the earworm
in. There was no stopping it now; she’d been infected.
Jolene Mottern studied English Ed at Ball State University, so yes, she has eyes on the back of her head, but she still can’t find her glasses. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband, the last half of her kids, and a lot of pet hair. She’s into words, nature, food, feelings, and sleep. You can read her predictably unpredictable blog at jolenemottern.com
or follow her inconsistent thoughts on Twitter.