by Blake Johnson
Your brother is missing, and everyone still refuses to hear the obvious—the arrhythmic patter of his quiet footfalls echoing from the house across the street, where the Sound Collector lives. He’s there, right now, sitting on his front steps. Leaning back, fingers laced behind his head, legs stretched out. Portable cassette player resting on his crotch, one earbud dangling like a flaccid appendage, one ear always open, scanning the neighborhood like a sonar.
He cocks his head to the side, ear trained on your driveway, where you and dad prepare for another useless trip around the block, around the town, around the goddamn world, flashing your brother’s photo at strangers, begging for any sign of recognition. You’ve already tried to tell dad what your brother suspected, what you now know is the truth. He had just stared at you for a long moment, then grumbled out something about accusations and evidence. He hadn’t listened. Your heart throbs like a bass drum when you realize someone else probably had.
As you pull out of the driveway, you swear you see the Sound Collector tap his ear, then his chest. You can almost hear the whisper on his lips: soon.
It was your brother who had been the first to notice. The chug and rumble of a garbage truck displaced, only to return come midnight like a mechanical phantom. Posters plastered on telephone poles promising cash for a pet returned. Incessant howling from across the street not a few days later. Chirpless birds, empty nests. Hissing winds, then stillness, deadness, in the air. Quiet suburbia gone silent, save for the invisible imprint of what had once been, sounding off each midnight.
No one was quieter than your brother. He was born for burglary, designed for serenity. He had this way of moving, where he would take a few paces. Stop. Assess every floorboard, plan every step. Then he would take a few more. Who else was better suited to stop the Sound Collector? He even told you this, punctuating the declaration with a demure chuckle, just so you wouldn’t think he was serious and go crying to dad. Or it might’ve been his way of saying goodbye, just in case things went wrong.
The next morning he was gone.
Now there’s only you.
Can you hear it? The barely perceptible patter of feet, tugging you out of bed and across the street, to the Sound Collector’s threshold? You have no plan, only a foolish hope that, somewhere inside, you’ll find the boy the noise belongs to.
You half-expect the door to swing inward on your approach. Hands slick with sweat, you clutch the doorknob. Locked. You let out a breath you didn’t even know you had been holding. Now’s the time to turn back, you tell yourself. But the patter will never leave you alone if you do.
You shut your eyes. Listen the way your brother might have listened. You let the sound guide you around the house, to a window a crack open. Perhaps left open for you—but by who? Clenching your teeth so you won’t grunt, you tug on the window, once, twice—finally, it gives, flying upward with a loud thud.
Shoulders clenched, hugging yourself, you wait for something to happen. An alarm, maybe, or a sudden gout of flame. But there is nothing, only the window, gaping open like a toothless maw, waiting for your entry.
You climb inside. You are struck by a flood of light.
When your vision clears, you just stand there, blinking as if slapped. The details of the room hit you in a staccato barrage. A microphone aimed at you like a cannon. The Sound Collector sitting behind a glass partition, operating a soundboard. Stack upon stack of cassette tapes line the walls, one of which must be your brother.
The Sound Collector’s mouth quirks up in an edged smile as he presses a button. Mounted above the booth, a red-light gleams, backlighting a single word: RECORDING.
A slow whimper escapes your lips. Your bones gyrate as you feel yourself dissolving into something invisible, your whole being reduced to a single sound. You try to slow the process. You clamp your mouth shut, and fade faster, faster. That’s when you realize that silence will not save you, just like it didn’t save your brother.
You stagger forward with what’s left of you, nearly kissing the microphone. You take a final breath and scream.
You scream your brother’s name, and you scream the names of everything the Sound Collector has stolen. You shout for all the lost moments, for futures gone and existences warped. You cry out for yourself in both grief and exultation. Because though you are nearly gone, siphoned away into some strange and terrible new existence, you hear the shattering of glass. The soundboard sparks and crackles. The Sound Collector thumps his ruined equipment with clenched fists. Before you recede, before you, too, are lost, you hear what so many yearn to hear—the sounds of secrets being brought to light.
Blake Johnson can be found at https://bjohnsonauthor.com/ and on Twitter @bjohnsonauthor.