The Sound Thief

by Aimee Bender

It took years for the sound thief to master his craft. It was not easy, of course, but he had time on his hands. He wasn’t particularly friendly, and his weekends were empty, and he’d already burned through a drug period, a painting period, a meditation phase. The thing that had caught his attention best was this—making an absence where there had once been a sound, an immobilizing of the waves that slide into our ears. That, it turned out, was his gift. “My gift!” he had crowed, dancing in front of the mirror, one room down from the speaker he had auditorily erased so his roommate could no longer play music on it, ever. The roommate, unaware, stood in front of the speaker, telling it to play. “Hi, speaker. Play!,” which was the command that worked for this particular brand. The speaker was silent. The sound thief, now locked in the bathroom, stuffed his fist into his mouth and garbled the sounds of rejoicing.

It was quite a complicated act of physics, involving knitting a molecular barrier above the item, which would then descend and form a bubble around it, exempting everything inside from our usual hearing cues.

The sound thief went about that day trembling with pride. It was a Saturday, and he had no plans. The roommate packed up the speaker and took it to a repair shop, where, he reported later, they said it was just broken, and they were not sure why, as all the mechanics were in place. “It’s fine?” said the roommate once he was home, shaking his head. (The speaker had cost quite a bit of money.) The sound thief performed his best understanding nod. But he was laughing inside! Such laughing!

Things settled back to normal, and everyone went about their routines, but when the sound thief opened the refrigerator a day or so later and lifted the lid on his yogurt, this escaped: .

Startled, he dropped the yogurt, white globs flowing onto the floor. “Hard to wipe up,” he muttered to himself, kneeling with a paper towel. “Extra difficult, aren’t you,” he said. The sound stopped after about a minute, but surely no one had ever heard something like that emerge from yogurt before. How could this have happened? It hadn’t been a trick by the roommate; the roommate was at his girlfriend’s, and studied business, and would never, ever have the sense of humor needed to conceive of such a prank. Plus, the roommate did not suspect that the sound thief had been involved in the malfunction of his speakers. He still figured it had a faulty wiring system.

The sound thief scraped the yogurt off the paper towel and back into his bowl, which he then ate from thoughtfully, swirling his spoon, wondering about sound, doing physics equations in his head. But after a few minutes, he forgot all about what he’d heard, and was already planning his next capture. He worked in an office building doing a job he despised, and his cubicle was positioned just above a large dumpster in the alley outside. Over the course of the next week, with a lot of effort during his breaks and beyond, he erased the sound around and above the dumpster. He stayed up late, went to his office in the middle of the night, and stood in the darkness, the workstations and plexiglass casting boxy shadows that made him irritable. But with his skills, he was able to take out the sound so completely that later, when a family of rats moved into the dumpster, they lived for weeks before any complaints were raised. Well, that was good for the rats, and it was good for the sound thief, who was no longer bothered on Thursdays, trash day, which had been so loud and clanky that he’d had to stick his head under the desk, but one Friday afternoon, as he was walking home, one foot in front of the other, passing the alley, listening carefully to the taps of his soles on the pavement, watching the sky darkening, as it was soon to rain, a car drove by. He turned his head to look. Someone rolled down the window and out from the car poured .

He watched in amazement as the car drove to the corner and turned. It was as if the driver had aimed that at him, wasn’t it? Like he’d been pushed over with that sound. Wasn’t it a message? What was the message? Wasn’t it an aggression? What was being aggressed? He walked faster to avoid the coming rain, and he did not link what he’d heard to the lost sound of the trash bin, not yet; only later, at home, rain pitter-pattering outside, sitting at his kitchen table, sipping a coffee, luxuriating in the quiet of the non-speaker, did he think of the yogurt and the speaker, and the car and the dumpster, and consider that these mismatched sounds had arrived in his life only after the erasures. It was a little splash of Newton, wasn’t it! Some actions and reactions, of course. Plus a touch of Lavoisier’s ideas on matter never being destroyed? Stunning! He sipped the coffee. The roommate wandered the rooms, a bit listless without his personal soundtrack. The sound thief closed his eyes, and behind the rain he imagined the yogurt sound again, and what had come out of the car, and instead of being filled with horror, he suddenly felt an almost overwhelming wash of freedom. By divorcing sound from source, he could sow the exact kind of chaos in the world that matched what it was like to be him in it. So there, then! So, fine!

His roommate took the speaker to another repair shop, and while he was gone, the sound thief slipped over to the roommate’s guitar and erased its strings—well, this was a challenge! One string wouldn’t submit to the bubble! The spell stuck to all but the low E, and when the roommate returned and tried to pluck it, it played just one note. There weren’t any Pink Floyd riffs in one note, were there? No more trying to be Led Zeppelin with that awful look on his face. Was this the true stairway to heaven? The roommate yelled at the guitar, and the sound thief tiptoed around the apartment, on the alert now for what he was calling “the revenge sound.” He opened items cautiously, fearful, excited, and only when he was nearly asleep, lifting up his comforter to balloon it out and let the air beneath fill and softly fall, did the sound enter the room and wake him right up.

He did it again: .

He was awake for hours. He spread his comforter again, again, but the sound visited only those two times and then was gone, like an auditory firework.

He erased the sound of the neighbor’s toy drone. The reply showed up when he headed out to work and pressed his thumb on the silver crossing button on the sidewalk: .

He erased his roommate’s girlfriend’s foot. One foot of hers could no longer impact the sonic world. She did not notice but he sure did; he stared as she walked, heard one footstep and then silence. He had to leave the room for the overtake of giggles, and then, in the middle of his giggles, as he turned on the kitchen faucet to cover the sound: . Oh, it was disturbing, but he did not mind. He turned the faucet on and off, on and off, until it stopped.

It was the middle of the night again. The roommate was weeping quietly over his lost talent on the guitar, and his busted speaker, and probably some other things too. The sound thief didn’t want to listen to that, so he crept outside and returned to the alley behind his office, where he could see the rats silently climbing around the dumpster. This dumpster piece was his favorite, though he couldn’t say why. Something about the rat factor. He wondered if the rats heard one another. Likely no, right? He thought. Their ears are like our ears; they perceive sound like we do. He stood there in the alley. It was dark; the city was asleep. In fact, the city had given up a little. Those who were awake were not roaming. They were huddled in doorsteps and tents, and there was a stillness, one whose origin would later be attributed to the movement thief, but that’s another story.

Or maybe it’s exactly this story. The sound thief stood in the alley and felt himself rooted to the spot, watching the silent dumpster, thinking of his next project, something to do with his overly talky boss. The movement thief had been doing her work across town, but she was taking a walk now, a long walk, and was passing by, drawn, just like the sound thief, to the dumpster, its quiet, looming presence. She did her own trick of physics and spread the stillness. It’s not like everything froze; the world nearby just stopped moving as quickly. People standing in doorways, people at sinks. The sound thief felt something drift over him, something blanketlike in the air, and found himself wanting to sit. He sank onto a stoop in front of the alley, watching the rats settle into little warm piles. The movement thief strode off. This is not a romance, no. She peered back at the alley, the rats, the man sitting, the cars parking, felt the power of it trembling in her fingertips, this fast world, this too-fast world. She had to deal with revenge movements too: that swarm of bees that had walked over her feet, those falling-up leaf storms. But mostly it was still. Huddled by his best dumpster, the sound thief began to nod off to sleep, and over in the distance a few dogs flew through the sky and settled on a roof to begin their howling into the sunrise.

Aimee Bender is the author of six books of fiction, including The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and, most recently, The Butterfly Lampshade. Her short fiction has been widely anthologized and published in places such as Granta, Harper’s Magazine, and the Paris Review. She lives in Los Angeles.