She tried to tell herself she hadn’t heard him. He’d been standing by the side of Hennepin Avenue, and he’d called her name: Sonya, Sonya... And yet she had just kept walking. Earbuds in, eyes straight ahead. She’d actually sped up a bit as she boarded the bus, breathing a small sigh of relief as she disappeared in the dense sea of bodies.
Not that Sonya relished her morning commute. Squeezing in between a middle-aged man with a glabrous head and a young woman wearing a bright fuchsia dress and a sunhat, it occurred to her that there was little more she detested than city buses. Still, today it provided an escape of sorts, and for that she was grateful.
It took mere seconds, however, for her to realize that something was off. An eerie quiet hung about the bus, and her fellow commuters, who on most mornings were glued to their cellphones, were all giving the bus TV their rapt attention. Eager to divert her mind, Sonya followed suit.
It was the 8AM News Update with Velma Green. Sonya was momentarily taken aback. As far as she knew, no one under 45 still watched the 8AM news, and Velma Green had been hosting it for as long as Sonya could remember. But as she watched, she began to understand. "...Breaking news from the White House press briefing," Velma was saying in her characteristic saccharine tone. "The motives of the terrorist group calling itself ‘Tinnitus’ are slowly coming to light. After a Mass Decibel-Cancellation Bomb hit downtown San Diego just last week, leaving thousands of people in sixty minutes of excruciating silence, White House officials have been working closely with the FBI to determine the forces driving the group to use such brutal and preposterous forms of weaponry. The White House Press Secretary announced last night that all evidence points to Tinnitus being a Neo-Marxist group, leveling its highest critiques at “the safeguarded solipsism of American city life.” Officials are scrambling to make sense of the event that occurred in San Diego last week and the consequences of this new form of warfare on the future of international relations. Footage from the wake of the disaster showed people yelling soundlessly into their their smartphone cameras, frightened beyond belief, trying to talk to each other and failing. One particularly distressing video depicted a woman in an inner city apartment not unlike Sonya’s, so tortured by the silence that she was holding a pistol up to her head in agony. Thankfully, sound returned halfway through the video, and the woman broke down weeping for joy.
Sonya got off the bus six minutes later and walked down the busy One-Way street toward the nacreous glass skyscraper of NARCIS Industries, said a perfunctory “Hello” to Janice Waterman as Janice’s path converged with her own at the revolving door, checked in at the front desk, asking Samantha Richards, the frazzled office secretary, very briefly and in a low whisper how her son was recovering from his aural surgery — he had last week, for reasons unknown to anyone, used a high-power ear vac to suck out every internal organ of his right ear, an act which had rendered him half deaf and left him in monstrous pain — to which Samantha had shrugged and, smiling as disingenuously as Sonya thought it possible for anyone to smile, replied that he was “pulling through.” Sonya then took a particularly claustrophobic elevator ride to the seventh floor, again finding herself squished between other people with briefcases for an uncomfortable, muzak-enriched seventeen seconds, over which she had the incredibly mundane thought that she was perhaps overdue for getting her period, and having reached the seventh floor, strode quickly down the gray, fluorescent-lit hallway till she reached her cubicle.
She was running slightly late for a meeting, so she gathered the several papers she needed off her desk, stuffed them in her briefcase haphazardly, and power-walked to the meeting room at the end of the hallway. She arrived just as her boss was about to shut the door. “Right on time, as usual,” he said to her, directing her into the room and winking conspicuously. Sonya disliked her boss. Larry Burns was the very embodiment of a mid-thirties frat boy, characterized by slicked back hair, an obvious use of Fake Bake Tanning Solutions, and a profound inability to see his female employees as, well, employees. Sonya went to great extents to avoid one-on-one meetings with him. Year-end employee evals were incredibly uncomfortable for her, and every year she tried her hardest not to let them sour her holiday season. The way Larry Burns looked at and spoke to her made her feel somehow dirty and shameful. No matter how many times she told herself that she had done nothing and therefore had nothing to be ashamed of, still his looks permeated the outer layer of her carefully constructed self, threatening with chaos the ordered ecosystem of her life.
Sonya sat in the empty chair next to her coworker Dinah and mouthed the word “Hey” to her just as Larry started up the projector. Across the table sat Dinah’s boyfriend Steven, who was chatting with the new intern Lily.
“Thank you all for being prompt,” began Larry in his usual textbook-douche way, leveling a teasing look at Sonya, at which she pathetically attempted a smile to pretend she wasn’t angered by his singling her out. “But in light of the news, especially,” Larry continued, “I think you can probably understand why I called this meeting.” He looked carefully at every face in the room to make sure his point was well understood.
“We here at NARCIS,” he continued, “value our strong commitment to keeping communities noisy and bustling with a lust for life.” Dinah rolled her eyes at Sonya and mouthed the words “Here we go again,” to which Sonya grinned back in reply. “Without NARCIS,” Larry’s voice went on, “where would the US be?” He looked at his audience of bored white-collar associates with passionate entreaty, attempting desperately to instill within them the same love for NARCIS Industries’ mission that he evidently had, or at least feigned to have. “For years, we’ve provided effective solutions to the problem that so plagues the urban lifestyle: the problem of silence.” He paused for dramatic effect.
“I’m sure that none of you are strangers to our company’s proud history, but nonetheless I will speak about it here.” Larry paused to look at the buses, taxis and cars in the street outside the meeting room’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows. His back to the room of employees and his hands folded behind him, he looked not unlike King Nebuchadnezzar, overseeing a proud kingdom of chaos. “It all began with my father,” Larry continued, now pacing back and forth before the windows. “He was a visionary. He saw that our carefully constructed urban livelihoods could not function without NOIS, a convenient acronym standing for, let’s say it together, folks!” The unenthused voices of the employees merged with Larry’s over-enthused voice: “Necessitated Ontological Ignorance Stimuli.”
“That’s right! Without NOIS, my father found that people simply couldn’t function. The human brain needs constant stimulation, or the consequences,” he turned to his audience with a theatrical flair, “would be disastrous.”
At 5pm, Sonya packed her things into her briefcase, took another nauseatingly cramped elevator ride down to the first floor, left through the same revolving door through which she had entered hours earlier, power-walked across the windy crosswalk (not bothering to wait for a walk sign), and caught the 5:07 bus headed east on Hennepin. The inside of the bus was just as cramped as it had been this morning. Sonya found herself sandwiched between a lanky, bean pole-reminiscent mid-twenties businessman wearing shades who was barking into his smartphone at a woman, who Sonya desperately hoped was not his partner, and the same young woman in the fuchsia dress she had observed beside her on her morning commute.
Sonya looked up at the television as the city glided by outside the bus window. Velma Green was on again for the 5pm news: “In the wake of the terrorist attack that hit San Diego last week, officials are still reeling from the death count. For though the MDCB, as this new weapon is now being abbreviated, did not do any physical damage to the city or to its people, the excruciating silence it caused drove 47, at last count, to suicide, and many, many more to self-harm.”
She felt a nudge from her right. Startled, Sonya looked to her left to find the young woman in the fuchsia dress and sunhat who had stood next to her on her morning commute. She was holding up a small notebook in which she had written: Incredibly sad, isn’t it? in blue pen. Sonya didn’t know how to respond. In the end she just nodded slowly.
After getting off several minutes later, barraged by grating city noises, she put in her earbuds and scrolled through her playlists on her smartphone, but couldn’t find a single one to her liking. She could not shake from her mind the strange interaction she had had with the lady on the bus. She hadn’t even asked the peculiar woman’s name. So Sonya made her way sans-earbuds through the eastward-stretching shadows of needle-like skyscrapers toward her apartment building.
That was when she heard the voice again, calling her name from across the busy street. She froze. She couldn’t pretend this time. She would have to face him. So she turned around slowly, peered across the double line of cars. It was him all right. Her brother Dylan, in a stained t-shirt that had once been white. He waved to her, and with dread she waited for him to cross the street.
“Sonya!” he greeted her. He grinned, revealing teeth that, like his t-shirt, were not quite white. “I’ve been looking around for you —”
“Dylan, the answer is no.”
He looked at her blankly. “Well, hey now, you don’t need to be so cold to me. I’m just looking around for a place to stay for a few nights —”
“And the answer is no, Dylan. Pull yourself together. My apartment isn’t a rehab facility.”
Immediately, she knew she had gone too far. Dylan’s eyes widened, and the color drained from his face. He looked stunned for a moment, then apologized in a voice barely audible and walked away. She watched him recede for a moment, feeling sick to her stomach, before walking in the direction of her apartment building.
Once home, she heated up leftovers for dinner, scraped a pile of mail off her coffee table onto the floor with her feet, and switched on her TV. She navigated over to her favorite streaming service and watched a show half-heartedly while she scrolled through her Instagram and caught up on some online shopping.
After ten minutes of this, she clutched her stomach, ran down the hall to her bathroom, and vomited in the toilet. She felt numb. She took a shower and then went back to watching TV till she fell asleep on the couch.
The news the next morning hit Sonya like a slap in the face. Standing between the same two people on her morning commute, she again watched Velma Green relay the headlines: “Government officials issued a nationwide state of emergency early this morning, upon receiving a message allegedly from the terrorist group calling itself ‘Tinnitus’ that they are planning to strike again, this time against cities all over the US. State officials have been scrambling to find the necessary precautions in this new era of what many scientists are calling ‘sonic warfare.’”
Sonya shook her head. She felt a nudge from the lady in the sunhat. Sonya eyed her with her peripheral vision. Today she wore a floral-patterned dress and dress shoes. Sonya turned reluctantly to see that the woman was holding up the same notebook as yesterday. Makes you think, doesn’t it, the notebook page read, the fact that silence is what we’re most afraid of. Sonya didn’t respond, just stared. You don’t interact with people on buses, was Sonya’s thought. In fact, you don’t even acknowledge them. That’s an unspoken rule, isn’t it?
As Sonya got off the bus and walked into work a minute later, as she said her perfunctory greetings to her coworkers, her mind stayed on the bus with that woman. She had noted what everyone had to be thinking: Why silence? Why should a complete elimination of noise be the most effective act of warfare against a sprawling metropolis?
On lunch break, Sonya went to the Starbucks on the bottom level of NARCIS Industries where she met Dinah, Dinah’s boyfriend Steven, and Lily, the new company intern.
“So how are you enjoying your first few days here?” Dinah asked Lily casually.
“Oh, don’t put her on the spot like that,” said Steven, jabbing Lily gently. Lily stuck her tongue out at him playfully, and then returned to her normal composure. But Sonya could tell that this small interaction had not gone unnoticed by Dinah, just as it hadn’t by Sonya. The flirtatiousness between Steven and this attractive new intern was evident, and it clearly and justifiably made Dinah very uncomfortable.
“To be honest,” Lily began, “I’m loving it so far.”
Dinah smiled and said “I’m glad.” Only Sonya herself saw how forced that smile was, how difficult it was for her to say those words.
“Yeah,” Lily continued, “this just seems like such an important and growing field, you know? I mean where would we be without noise, right? It’s only thanks to Mr. Burns that we have our livelihoods. I mean these noise patrols are genius, and a huge advancement, especially for the suburbs. The idea of hiring people to walk the streets carrying soundboards with amps strapped to their backs playing the noises of urban industry...it’s so dumb it’s smart. You know that suicide rates have fallen like 18% in suburbs where noise patrols have been implemented? I mean it’s nuts!” Lily spoke like a car speeding up on the interstate, getting steadily more and more excited about whatever the topic was as she went on.
Dinah nodded. “Larry’s ideas are great,” she replied. “Too bad he’s a total douche.”
Lily appeared to visibly take offense at this, but whether hers was genuine or feigned shock, Sonya could not tell. “I find him…” Lily said, “very kind.”
Dinah laughed cynically. “Listen,” she said, “You don’t have to pretend around us, okay? The guy’s a jerk. Maybe a genius, but a total jerk, and you don’t have to bother pretending otherwise.”
There was an awkward silence, and no one knew what to say for a moment. Steven cleared his throat: “So...What do you guys think about this terrorist crisis?” It was times like this that Sonya could see the tension between Steven and Dinah, as if she could read in Dinah’s eyes the words: “What kind of a stupid question is that?”
“Honestly, I’m really scared,” replied Lily. Steven nodded. Dinah was looking at her nails, obviously wanting the conversation to end.
But Sonya spoke up. “Why are you scared, though, Lily?” she asked casually. Dinah gave Sonya an approving look.
Lily looked like a cornered rabbit. She fumbled for words for a moment, clearly not expecting to be questioned on what she believed was a universal, indisputable statement. “Well, I guess, I mean, I think it’s just that silence is kinda creepy, right? Like I don’t think there’s anything deeper there really...It’s just eerie.”
Later that evening, Sonya got a call from Dinah asking her to come over if she could. There was something wavering and defeated in Dinah’s voice that worried Sonya, and so she rushed down to the apartment parking garage, started up her Mini Cooper, and sped down Nicollet Avenue toward the house that Steven and Dinah shared.
It was the time of night when the Sound Patrolmen walked the quieter streets of Minneapolis: men and women in neon yellow vests with massive speakers strapped to their chests. They played pre-recorded city sounds — cars honking, bus hydraulics, an occasional yell — and they stood at each intersection, motionless as statues. When Sonya was a kid, she’d lie awake listening to the Sound Patrol till the sound looped. She’d discovered that the pre-recorded tracks were only about 40 minutes long, and if you listened closely and were patient, you would eventually hear the same sounds again and again.
Sonya pulled up to the house. The absence of Steven’s Lexus in the cobbled driveway confirmed her worst fears. Dinah answered the door in her pajamas, her eyes red and puffy, but her expression otherwise devoid of emotion. Sonya embraced her friend, and the two sat on the couch half-watching Netflix and half-talking for an hour or so, an open bag of Nestle chocolate chips sitting between them. So Steven had been cheating. Dinah had confirmed it at long last, getting a glance of a text message that she hadn’t wanted to see. Of course, the truth had been a long time coming. She’d known it deep down for weeks.
“I can’t decide if I’m glad or incredibly devastated that we never got married,” Dinah said evenly, the undersea glare of the television screen lighting up her glazed over face. “Like...maybe marriage would have tied him down more, you know? Maybe he would’ve been more responsible...more likely to stick around? I don’t know…” Dinah looked so spent, Sonya thought, that she couldn’t imagine her friend shedding another tear.
“You know,” Dinah continued, her voice wavering slightly, as it had on the phone, “The scariest part was the way he looked at me.”
Sonya looked at Dinah inquisitively. Dinah was always the strong one, the one who never cried, who prided herself on her ability to hold back her emotions, and yet here she was on the brink of emotional collapse.”What do you mean?” Sonya asked. She moved the now-empty bowl of chocolate chips to the floor and scooted closer to Dinah on the couch, wrapping her arm around her friend’s shoulders.
“It was more like he was looking past me. Ignoring me. Every time I tried to talk to him in the last few weeks, he’d just phase out. In his mind, I realize now, I had never existed independent of him. He never asked about work or how my day had been. I was there when he got home, and to him that was the only place I existed. We weren’t in a relationship. It was like he was,” Dinah scrambled madly for the right word, “hiring me. Casting me in a role. This house,” she hit the wall with her fist, “was a TV set for his life. To him I was just — just a part of the background noise. And when he got bored with me,” her voice fell to a whisper, “he just tuned me out.”
The Netflix show ended and the room went dark as the credits rolled. Outside Sonya could hear the Sound Patrols making their rounds. Only by a dim glow could Sonya see her friend’s face. Dinah was becoming someone different before Sonya’s very eyes. She was like a satellite slowly drifting off into space, drifting out of Sonya’s atmosphere and into a void that encompassed all of the known world. It was as if Dinah had torn the sheet off the body of the rustling world to find nothing but a pale cadaver beneath.
Dinah slept on the futon in Sonya’s apartment that night.
Sonya woke to a sharp ringing in her ears and the flashing of red lights on the dark street outside her window. Dinah was tapping her on the shoulder urgently. Her mouth was open wide, her hands held to her face like Edvard Munch’s screaming man, but in the flashing red light of the apartment bedroom, there was no sound, save the ringing in Sonya’s ears.
So it’s happened at last, Sonya thought. She turned to the window and looked down at the street outside. The sun was just coming up on a world without sound, and the streets were lined with police cars. Down the street, every digital billboard read the phrase: DO NOT PANIC. OFFICIALS ARE WORKING TO FIX THIS PROBLEM. GO ABOUT AS NORMAL. On the street below, it appeared that no one was heeding this advice. The sidewalks were in chaos. Some young men had gotten in a violent fist fight that others had quickly joined, and the police were tossing tear gas grenades into the middle of the hullabaloo. Those who weren’t caught in the fist fight were clutching their heads, either crouched on the cement in the fetal position, or kneeling, heads uplifted as if screaming to the sky. Looking out the window was like watching an old silent film in color.
Suddenly, she felt Dinah’s hand clutch her own. This contact brought her out of the moment. Sonya looked to Dinah and smiled graciously. In Dinah’s hand was a small notebook in which she had written the phrase: What now? Sonya took the notebook and scrawled out an answer: Work as usual? Dinah nodded in reply.
Dinah borrowed some of Sonya’s clothes, and once they had both dressed, they headed into Sonya’s kitchen where Sonya made waffles for the two of them. She made the mistake of turning on the television. On the screen, words were flashing by, and it took Sonya and Dinah only a shared glance between themselves to know that it was the work of Tinnitus. THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE HIDING FROM, AMERICA, the TV screen read. WHY CAN’T YOU EMBRACE THE SILENCE? Sonya turned off the television immediately. A little much, isn’t it?, she wrote on the little notepad, passing it across the kitchen table to Dinah.
Wading through the mob on the sidewalk, Sonya and Dinah were confronted with the true brutality of the silence. At one point, they held one another tight as a man jumped from the window of his 12th-floor apartment, his body careening down, hitting the concrete silently and yet with a force that Sonya could almost hear, could almost feel in every part of her body.
At long last, they turned the corner to the bus stop. What Sonya saw made her stop in her tracks. Twenty feet away, on the bus bench, sat the woman in the sunhat. But it was who sat beside her that bewildered her.
It was Dylan. He looked worse than he had a few days ago. Dark rings hung from his eyes, and he looked paler than he had. He was wearing the same clothes, now dirtier than they had been. He looked, Sonya thought with guilt, like he’d slept outside. Dinah nudged her, searching for an explanation, but Sonya shook her head and kept watching.
A moment passed, and then the woman in the sunhat embraced Dylan, smiling sympathetically. She pulled her wallet out of her pocket, put a bill from it into Dylan’s hand, and closed his hand around the bill. Dylan rose and turned to leave.
But when he turned, he locked eyes with Sonya. Fear seemed to rise in them, and for a moment, Sonya saw him as a small animal: a rabbit, perhaps, shrinking away from her, cornered in the back of his cage. He seemed to cower there for a moment, frozen where he stood, and then he turned and ran off in the opposite direction, disappearing into the unruly crowd that flooded the street behind him.
Sonya watched him go and made no motion to stop him. She made no motion at all, in fact. She stood, statue-like, and watched him shoot away from her. It was like he was a meteor sailing through space, or a tangent line extending away from her. He didn’t feel the weight of gravity. He just sailed on ahead, past buildings, past people, aimless.
Maybe seconds passed, then, or maybe minutes. In a world without sound, every moment held the timeless quality of solitude. But after a while, Sonya realized that the woman on the bench was beckoning her, smiling just slightly. Sonya felt her body walk towards the bus bench, and like a ghost, Dinah followed as well. Sonya felt anger rising up in her. Her instincts kicked in, and she felt defensive.
The woman held up the notebook. He respects you deeply, Sonya, it read. Above it on the page were scrawled sentences. Sonya couldn’t tell their content from her distance, but she could just recognize the angular quality of her little brother’s handwriting — it hadn’t really changed since grade school.
And it was the sight of that handwriting that did it. The knowledge that this nameless woman had been a stand-in for Sonya herself, and so she started to yell. Knowing that no one present could hear her voice, that they could only watch her face flare up and her eyes bulge, she began to yell what she believed were words: “Stay away from my brother!” she was shouting soundlessly, “You don’t know him, and you never will!” Dinah began to look frightened, but the woman in the sunhat just kept smiling and nodding like she was hearing every word.
And then all at once, sound returned to the world. Sirens echoed down the streets, people were screaming, and Sonya herself was shouting, her voice for a split second something foreign to her, a roar that prompted her to drop abruptly into silence, mid-sentence.
Dinah was clutching her ears. The roar of the mob fell gradually, decrescendoing into a new kind of quiet, and people began looking up, eyes wide, like sleepers awaking from one collective dream.
A moment passed. Sonya couldn’t feel anger any longer. She had spent it all. The woman on the bench made no motion. She continued to smile, to stare at Sonya, perceptively, like someone who was not simply looking but seeing. In the streets, people began to whisper. The city began crescendoing hesitantly into its old self: bustling, hissing, honking. Unsure of what to say, Sonya asked the woman her name. She surprised herself by how apathetic she sounded. How drained of emotion.
Echo, the woman wrote on the notebook page.
“You can’t hear, can you?” Sonya asked.
It was a non sequitur. In another context, it probably would have sounded tactless or rude, but somehow the woman seemed to invite the question. Somehow, without saying any words, she seemed to dare Sonya to ask.
And in response, the woman only allowed her smile to widen. You know the answer to that, she seemed to be saying to Sonya, as the hiss of bus hydraulics filled the street.