This story is by Janice Rider and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The melody played again – a lilting, upbeat, “summer is here” kind of tune that filled her with dread. It wove its way deep into the crevices and crevasses of Adele’s brain. “Surely,” she thought to herself, “I will go mad.”
Having finished her third year in psychology, Adele had struggled to find a summer job and wound up signing on as the driver of a mobile retail outlet for various frozen treats. It seemed like a great job at the time – easy and mindless, a chance to drive slowly through residential areas getting a feel for various neighborhoods. Initially, Adele had enjoyed it. The lit-up faces of the children who came running in her direction filled her with a sense of fond melancholy as she remembered how easy it was for children to live in the moment. Adele was able to get a feel for family dynamics, too. Parents sometimes tried to impose their own choices on their kids. Other parents let their children freely choose whatever they wanted to eat. Some bellowed at their children from a distance, yelling things like, “You’ve had enough sweets lately. No more!” Others insisted that the ice cream truck had run out of treats and wanted Adele to corroborate this – awkward! It was quite fascinating, really, especially for someone interested in human psychology.
As the driver of an ice cream truck, you got to choose your own special treat each day. Adele loved to indulge in sweets, but invariably felt guilty afterwards. It was difficult to resist temptation when it was right under your nose all the time. The creamsicles were coated in a tangy orange sherbet that activated the tongue’s taste buds in delightful explosions, paving the way for the smooth, comforting flavor of vanilla. Ice cream sandwiches with their soft, warm, chocolatey outsides could be enjoyed even on cooler days. Ice pops and push up pops provided diverse berry adventures. Sundae ice cream cups reminded her of lazy days at the lake when she was a kid. As late spring wound into summer, Adele’s guilt grew and so did her waist line.
Adele could have tolerated her guilt, though, had it not been compounded by the incessant melodic theme played out on the loudspeaker of the truck. How was it these trucks couldn’t play other tunes? She tried stuffing tissues in her ears, then purchased some foam ear plugs. These solutions helped muffle the melody, but didn’t eradicate it. Next, Adele tried to compete with the melody by using her headphones. The tricky truck tune began swimming amongst whatever other composition she happened to be listening to, and her brain began to pick out elements of the tune in other songs. Fortunately, at the end of each day, she got a reprieve from the tinny, tacky, repetitive jingle. Adele enjoyed coming home to a quiet apartment, her cat, a hot cup of tea, and a good book.
Then, one day, after coming home, while reclining on her sofa, she heard the familiar strain of the ice cream truck. Physically starting from her seat, Adele unceremoniously dislodged her cat from her lap and ran to the nearest window. The cat complained loudly as she gazed down into the street below, scanning for an ice cream truck. No matter how hard she concentrated, she saw no sign of a truck of any sort, and yet, Adele still heard the tune. That night, she slept poorly as the music continued inside her head and ice cream trucks invaded her dreams.
In the morning, prior to her shift driving the truck, Adele did some research. She discovered that, occasionally, music soundscapes become what are popularly known as brainworms. Generally, these compositions are catchy, designed to be readily remembered, and they can be “sticky” or hard to dissociate from. When connected to something positive, like ice cream, they are difficult to ignore, encouraging a certain outcome, like buying frozen treats; however, in some instances, the tunes virtually possess the listener over time, becoming hard to eradicate. Adele had watched movies about possession, but they had never had anything to do with memorable jingles. For most people, these brainworms didn’t last indefinitely, gradually phasing out over a period of time. It occurred to Adele that once her university courses resumed in the fall, her brain would be so absorbed with fresh content that the worm would simply fall away.
Adele’s fall university program began after the long Labor Day weekend in September. As she was launching into her final year, most of her courses were chosen instead of dictated. She was particularly looking forward to a course in neurological disorders. Adele was still plagued by the ice cream truck’s jingle; however, it was not as persistent or as loud as it had been during the summer. This made her feel confident that, eventually, it would stop altogether.
In the fifth week of her semester, Adele’s professor for neurological disorders brought in a guest speaker. The speaker’s name was Dr. Brian Worm. He specialized in music therapy. Dr. Worm stood at the front of the room, tall and lean, his rounded shoulders making him look like a question mark as he gazed out at his audience through thick lenses surrounded by dark frames. “Now,” he said, “to begin, I’m going to play a little tune which I’m sure will be familiar to most of you.” With that, he started up the ice cream truck jingle. Adele’s heart beat faster and she could hear the blood pounding in her ears. To her intense consternation, one of her feet began tapping to the beat as if it had a mind of its own. Next, she snapped her fingers in time to the rhythm, her head bobbing.
Dr. Worm beamed at her. “You, young lady, clearly have delicious childhood memories associated with this simple melody,” he said. Adele attempted to shake her head, but it refused to cooperate and continued to bob. What a fool she was making of herself! Her humiliation was acute.
“This is proof of the positive power of music to drive physiological and emotional changes in the body!” Dr. Worm exclaimed, finally turning the music off.
Adele’s body stopped its uncontrolled movements as the jingle continued to dance and gyrate in her brain. Shaking, she slid her iPad into her backpack and departed. Once outside, she headed for her vehicle. Inside the confines of her car, Adele put her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes, attempting to breathe steadily. The passenger door opened. Dr. Brian Worm climbed in beside her. “Let me reassure you,” he said, “that it’s okay to allow your body to respond to the music you love. There’s no need for embarrassment. Please return to class.”
“I hate that jingle! I drove an ice cream truck all spring and summer. Now I am plagued by its ridiculous, silly tune! Get out of my car!”
“Oh! I understand! You are being haunted by a brain worm! Not to worry. Brian Worm will see that it is eradicated.” He chuckled.
“You can stop this incessant noise in my brain?”
“Brain worms can be frightened into seeking a home elsewhere! The simpler and sillier the worm, the easier it is to scare it away. With Halloween just around the corner, we have the perfect opportunity for a grand scare!”
Adele was desperate. Even though Dr. Worm’s eyes gleamed in an unsettling way, she decided that she would try his cure. “What do I need to do?”
“That’s the best part. I will handle everything. You can continue on with your daily routines, confident that I will see to your cure.”
Halloween Monday arrived. Adele came to her neurological disorders class with dark bags under her eyes, unable to focus on any course content. Suddenly, the lights in the lecture theater went out. A buzz of excited chatter erupted from the students. There was a curious scooching sound ascending the stairs in her direction. The buzz of excitement became an anxious hush of expectation. Inside her head, Adele heard the jingle slow and soften, then fall away. “Come with me,” a voice beside her left ear coaxed. The voice reminded her of Dr. Worm’s – eager, convincing, and disconcerting. Briefly, the ice cream truck jingle tumbled around in her brain as if seeking asylum in a place no longer safe, and then she felt it bleed out of her ear as her mind relaxed. Without the disruptive melody in her head, Adele felt that she could think in straight lines once more. She dug into her purse for her car flashlight and swung it towards the stairs where she could hear the descent of that scooching sound. In the light of its bright beam, she saw an enormous tapeworm wearing a familiar pair of dark glasses with thick lenses. It seemed to Adele that it stopped briefly to flash her a smile before continuing its descent.