Please, Somebody Make It Stop

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Photo by Bill Adler

Please, Somebody Make It Stop originally appeared in Blood Moon Rising magazine. We all get a song stuck in our head now and then. But what happens if everyone in the world has the same earworm at the same time?

Gilbert Mattingly usually tuned his car radio to NPR during his morning drive. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition was a balanced mix of hard news and light stories — good for catching up with yesterday’s world and for hearing slice-of-life stories. But the day before, Rae had given him a shower radio for his birthday. On this morning, Gil had heard enough of the show, which repeated every hour between 6 AM and 10 AM, during his shower. He didn’t want to listen to Morning Edition again. After all, nobody hoped to hear a story on the songbirds of Madagascar more than once.

Gil decided that if he was going to listen to an alternative morning drive show with too much inane chatter and too many pop hits, it might as well be a station all the way at the other end of the radio dial, so he tuned in to Kiss 108 for his morning commute from Medford to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The radio played “The Star” and Gil sang along. Mary Anne Loving’s new song was number one for good reason: “The Star” spoke to the heart of anyone who’d ever been in love or wanted to be in love. The lyrics were a flawless diamond. The melody was textured, vibrant, and energized. The song was like the best meal you’ve ever had, flavored flashbacks reopening the door to that meal long after the food was gone. Mary Ann Loving probably wasn’t the singer’s real name, and she may not even have penned the lyrics, but who cared? It was an enchanting, enriching song.

Do you know that star?
Do you know that sky?
Have you thanked that star?
Have you kissed your guy?
Tonight you’ll sleep, the star shining on you both
Tonight you’ll sleep, taking a solemn oath
Warmed by the starry night
Feeling alright.

Gil still had “The Star” in his head as he walked into the office of Mattingly & Spring Architects at 8:30 AM.

“Song’s stuck in your head, too?” asked Aiko Maki, one of the six architects in Gil’s firm.

Gil thought that he had been singing it silently to himself, but he’d apparently been crooning to anyone who was within five feet of his lips.

Oh my God,” Gil said as his cheeks became beets. “I didn’t know that I was singing it out loud.” He blushed harder. “Sorry about that.”

“Hey, no problem,” Aiko replied. “It’s been stuck in my head all morning long, too. For as long as this morning’s been so far, that is.” She smiled at Gil. “I just hope that I haven’t been singing it out loud without knowing it, too. It’s a great song, but I have a frog’s voice.”

As Gil waited for the Keurig machine to brew his cup of vanilla cream coffee, “The Star” echoed in his head. This is one hell of an earworm, he thought.

Gil carried his coffee into the conference room. Hovering over blueprints for a new dormitory at Harvard, he asked his team of architects — all six, as well as two consulting engineers who were assembled — if the walls could be made thinner to enable two more dorm rooms to fit on each hall. “Harvard’s not getting any smaller,” he said. “The more rooms, the better. They asked for a design with forty rooms per hall. I want to give them forty-two. Can do?”

David Apple, one of the consulting engineers, was the first to reply. “It’s going to diminish the soundproofness of the rooms, that’s a given. But we need to find a way to reroute the pipes that are adjacent to the bathrooms if we make the walls thinner. They won’t fit if we reduce the wall thickness to…um…to…” Apple paused for a moment and looked down at his iPad. “Three inches between rooms.”

“I know,” Gil said. “Can we do this if we add pressure pumps and use the new plastic pipes from your guy?” Seven puzzled faces stared at Gil, who then recognized his blunder. “I mean from Indiana Plastic Works?” Gil shook his head slowly, mystified and embarrassed by his mistake. Damn song, he thought. It’s still stuck in my head.

Hiro pointed to the bathroom on the blueprint, which was located at the center of the hall, and asked, “What if we move the bathrooms to the ends? We could have two smaller ones, instead of one starry night. We might even eke out forty-three rooms per floor.” She paused and then said, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I said ‘starry night.’ I meant ‘bathroom.’”

“I think we all have ‘The Star’ stuck in our heads,” Gil said.

“And it’s getting stronger,” Amy Spring, Gil’s partner, added.

“Yes,” said a voice on the other side of the table. Karen Sands, fresh from Yale’s architecture school and the firm’s most recent hire, nodded as she continued. “Not louder, but stronger, like Amy said. It’s as if the song is muscling its way into my head and pushing out all other thoughts. It’s like a gangster.”

“Or the Burmese python forcing out the native species in South…” said Tony Levitan. “In…in…the south somewhere.”

“Florida,” David Apple helped.

Just then, everyone abruptly turned to the music coming from the other side of the room. Hamilton Parker was slumped in one of the Aeron Miller chairs, eyes closed and hands resting on his lap. As Parker sat and sang, “Do you know that star? Do you know that sky? Have you thanked that star? Have you kissed your guy?” half the room joined in chorus, following in unison with, “Tonight you’ll sleep, the star shining on you both. Tonight you’ll sleep, taking a solemn oath. Warmed by the starry night, feeling alright.”

A few seconds later, Loving’s song began to spill from everyone’s lips. The conference room became an ensemble of eager, off-key melodies. The wooden sculptures of antelopes and giraffes that were on the bookcase vibrated in concert, as if animated by the song’s spirit.

Do you know that star?
Do you know that sky?
Have you thanked that star?
Have you kissed your guy?

And again. And another time. Nobody was keeping track of how many times they sang “The Star.” It could have been three and it could have been thirty.

Suddenly, the sound of an explosion of metal and glass filled the room. The shockwave nearly knocked Gil and everyone else off their feet; they wobbled like drinking glasses in an earthquake. Gil and his colleagues stopped singing and dashed to the second-story window, where they saw that a Mercedes had nearly sliced an MBTA bus in half. The sight of all that blood and those body parts, the sound of all those caterwaul cries, turned Gil’s stomach into acid. Gil picked up the phone at the end of the conference table and dialed 911.

“911. Where is your emergency?” is what Gil remembered from movies and television. “Do you know that star? Do you know that sky?…” is what came through his telephone’s earpiece.

“Tonight you’ll sleep, the star shining on you both. Tonight you’ll sleep, taking a solemn oath,” Gil sang back as he swayed on his feet.

“Gil!” Amy shouted, the teak table reverberating against her pounding fist.

Gil’s upper body jerked. “Pay attention!” he scolded the nameless operator at the other end of the wire. “There’s been a horrific crash between a car and bus at 301 Grace Place, Cambridge.”

“Yes. This is 911. Where is your emergency?”

“301 Grace Place, Cambridge. A car crash. People are dead. Send ambulances. Hurry.” He put down the phone.

More screaming from the street below pulled Gil to the window once more. And then another car ran into the bus, more metal trying to reshape other metal, sparks shooting out from where the two vehicles intersected. While the architects and engineers pressed their noses to the window, mouths opened wide in horror, Gil called 911 again. “There’s been another accident,” he said. “Another car crashed into the same bus in front of 301 Grace Place in Cambridge. Across the street from the Lange Theater.” Gil hoped that the name of one of Massachusetts’ most famous landmarks would help the ambulance navigate more quickly.

“We’ll send an ambulance,” the dispatcher said.

“Send several fast,” Gil implored.

“Sir, there are accidents throughout Boston. Over two hundred calls have come in. We’re working as fast as we can. If you or anyone has first aid training, please render assistance in the meanwhile.” The operator cut the line abruptly. Probably another emergency call coming in, Gil thought, though he also thought he heard the 911 operator’s voice chanting, “Do you know that star?” as she terminated the call.

One of the architects in the conference room had already begun to hum the song again. Now a second, Aiko, was singing, and then almost immediately another of Gil’s staff was mouthing the lyrics. Gil knew that he had only seconds, if that. He picked up an unopened Perrier bottle and hurled it toward the window. The window didn’t break, but the bottle did, shattering green glass, water, and the song that was now coming out of almost everyone’s mouths.

“Gil!” Amy roared. She blinked several times, shook her head like a dog drying after a bath, and asked, “What did you do?”

“We have a problem. Nobody say anything. Nobody talk,” Gil said. He squeezed his pointer finger hard against his lips.

Gil tapped a key on the conference room’s laptop to wake up the computer. With fast-flying fingers, he keyed in a few commands and, most consciously, muted the laptop. Gil typed CNN in the search bar. A jumble of bad grammar and incomplete thoughts projected on the conference room’s screen.

whole world song stuck. President national emergency. Loud noises frights may minutes cure. FCC order all AMFM stations shut. russia radio playing national amfum. England France lost contact. 27 known jet crashes. if ou dont yet hear the star push sharp pencil in ears. Kill Ears. kill Ears.Turn off radio tv internet sound. Dont call 911 singers.

An uneasy quiet filled the conference room. Gil read the words once, twice, and a third time. That was all. That was all that CNN had on its website. It was 9:45 AM.

The screams outside faded. And then something else came. Karen, the youngest person in the room with the best hearing, was the first to notice it floating up from the street. Initially, it was indistinct, but quickly the unmistakable chorale of dozens and dozens of men and women, boys and girls enveloped them: “Do you know that star? Do you know that sky?” Karen took a deep breath, opened her mouth, and sang, too. Gil joined Karen’s singing. And then so did everybody else.

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