Sylvie Todderman, Private Ear

Sylvie had moved up in the world.

I call myself a private ear, because people hire me to listen to them, usually -- but not always -- in private. I'm good at listening. Listening isn't just, you know, listening. You gotta ask the right questions, too, y'know?

Listening's something I've always been pretty good at. I'm the last of five girls in my family, and except for me, all the Todderman women are big talkers. I don't know, I guess I take after my father and my brother. My father was famous for his patient listening, mostly to indignant people complaining. He was a clerk down at the county courthouse; took money for their filings, hooked them up with lawyers and such. My brother tends bar so he listens to people for a living too. But I'm not like them in so many other ways.

One thing: I got training. I went to St. Joseph's Academy after high school; the only one in my family to go to college. They gave me a scholarship after I took first place in a forensics competition. I never even heard of forensics, didn't know what it was, until a teacher told me about it. I'm naturally competitive, so it appealed to me. I knew from the beginning that I'd win at my own school but never expected to win all the way to State. St. Joe's is also where I first heard about the ideas of Sigmund Freud and a whole lot of others that made even more sense, and that's when I found out you could be paid big money to listen to people talk about their troubles.

After I graduated St. Joe's with a degree in Psychology, I got a job at the State Hospital. I didn't do much listening there, I can tell you! The state doesn't really want to pay for therapy, so I was just a caretaker who gave out meds and kept an eye on the suicidal. I had plenty of time to work on my certification. Two years later I was ready to hang up my own shingle, but I stayed on at State for a few years more. The economy wasn’t so good down there, at that time. There weren’t a lot of people banging down my door, you know? You gotta eat, after all.

The patients at State were divided into two wards. The first were women who were crazy enough to kill you. When I was assigned to work on that ward, the women didn’t seem that crazy to me, but I learned. The reason they don't seem crazy is because they're on medication. The medication stops the voices in their heads, voices that maybe told them to go drown their babies or drive knives into their fathers' chests and just might, if they didn’t continue to eat those little pink pills, instruct them to lie in wait with a pilfered tourniquet for an unsuspecting hospital employee or a fellow patient. The medication sets up a cloud around their brain. Things that happen to them, the stuff of their daily jostlings by staff and each other, there on the ward, don't set off the voices or sound the delusional alarms because that cloud takes the brunt off the insult or hides the threat or numbs the injury. Unfortunately, not much else penetrates those clouds, either, so they spend most of their time watching television, waking each morning with no memory of the previous day’s events, oblivious to the passage of time, like the living dead. They give you the creeps.

The hospital also ran an outpatient program for people who needed mental health maintenance. This group also included people who were delusional. Their delusions were less murderous only due to whatever random combination of genes brought personality together with pathology to produce a harmless loony. Without their medication they had loud, disruptive and sometimes frightening conversations with people that emerged from their own flawed brains to visit them regularly. As long as they stayed on their medication, kept their evaluation appointments every week, and signed hold-harmless waivers, they could be outpatients. Otherwise, they had to stay in ward three. They also wore clouds, but when they were newly re-stabilized on their meds, they tended to leave. Their dosages were lower, too, which meant some of them still managed to carry on quiet, discreet relationships with their voices. But if their families could tolerate them, they left as soon as possible. As a result there was, overall, a much less hopeless atmosphere in the ward, for the few patients who had no family to go to, and for those temporary in-patients that cycled in and out, bringing stimulation and change with them like a trailing cloud of scent.

The difference was night and day.

Anyway, I digress, because I promised to tell you about the Listener, the private ear, and how I came to be here.

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