I first wore the AirPods to the Stop and Shop.
It was an incredible, other-worldly experience. I listened to the soothing voice of Neil deGrasse Tyson while picking through the broccoli. I learned about quasars while waiting in line for the deli.
Things got weird, though, when I got to the checkout line.
The cashier was one of the annoying ones. The kind that make cute little comments about the items you’re buying, while you stand there in embarrassment.
“Oh, these are good,” he said, as he slid my pack of lemonade iced tea across the scanner. Blip.
I turned the volume up on StarTalk.
“These are so useful. Own a few of them myself,” he said, as he scanned the car phone stand. Blip.
He reached for the truffles. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “More chocolate for your fat ass, huh?”
I stopped dead.
“Excuse me?” I asked, slipping out my AirPods.
“More chocolate for your art class, huh?”
“That’s not what you said.”
“You said…” I trailed off, looking at his pimply, juvenile face. He looked so innocent. “Nevermind.”
I walked out in a huff.
Maybe I did mishear him, I thought, as I charged across the parking lot. After all, I was listening to StarTalk at the same time. Maybe the phonemes got all tangled up in each other.
Or maybe he was just a jerk.
I got home in a bad mood. Opened the box of truffles and inhaled three of them. Just to spite him.
Then my roommate got home.
“Tara! Want to join me?” I said, patting the cushion next to me.
“Nah,” she said, over the low thrum of Kansas coming through the AirPods. “I got to take off my shoes and just smell my feet for a while.”
I stared at her blankly.
“When are you taking your shower?” she asked.
“Not sure, why?”
“I’m going to sneak into your room and stalk your search history, like I do every night.”
“I can’t believe you still stalk Adam on Face —”
I ripped out my AirPods.
“— bok choy with chicken. Do you want some? I can make extra.”
I stared at her. “Are you going to go through my computer when I’m in the shower?”
Then she ran into her bedroom and slammed the door shut.
Did I mishear that too? No. There’s no way.
I packed a few things and left for a friend’s house. When I got there, she was sipping whiskey while watching the evening news.
“The search is still on for MacKenzie Johnson,” the newscaster said. “If you have any information, please call the hotline.”
“Some local woman is missing,” Amanda said.
The film cut to an older man — MacKenzie’s husband. “Please, if you have any information on my wife’s whereabouts, go to the police,” he said, his lip trembling. “I need her back. Please.”
Something stirred inside me. A whim. A realization. I grabbed my bag and reached inside. Pulled out my AirPods.
“Please, if you know anything about my —”
His voice changed as soon as I stuck them in.
My heart stopped.
“It was easy. She’s so weak, so fragile. Just got the rope from the garage and —”
I yanked the AirPods out.
His voice returned to halting sobs. “Please, if you know anything, call the police.”
Oh, I will.
I picked up the phone.
“The husband did it.”
“And how exactly do you know that?” Detective Babanuk asked, with an exasperated sigh.
“Uh… just trust me on this.”
He raised a scraggly white eyebrow. “Trust you? Look, Ms. Hofstetler, we get thousands of bogus tips a day. You know how the system works —”
I grabbed the AirPods out of my bag and shoved them in my ears.
“— when you’re married? You do the dishes like 20 times just for the chance to have sex with your wife. Oh, God, it’s awful. I’m so tired. My back hurts. When I get home I’m going to take a nice, long bath. With one of those lavender bath bombs. Yeah.”
I stared at him. He stared at me.
“You like taking lavender baths?”
His face flushed red. “What?”
“Do you like taking —”
“I think it’s time for you to leave,” he growled, standing up.
“Get the hell out of here!”
I took the AirPods out.
“Get the hell out of here!”
Oh. He’s actually saying that.
I walked out of the station, put my AirPods back in. This time, for their intended purpose — to listen to music as I walked back to my car. The soaring vocals of Bohemian Rhapsody filled my ears. Mama, just killed a man… My heart sunk. I may not have killed a man, but I’m guilty all the same. I know David Johnson killed his wife, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do.
There was a voice. Soft and low, barely audible above the music.
I whipped around.
What? The street was empty. No cars, no passersby — except for the rows of parked cars that flanked the road.
“But it’s broad daylight.”
I stared at the cars. They were utterly still. Statues of metal, silently watching me with their blank, dead headlights.
I broke into a run. My feet slapped on the pavement; my breath came in short bursts. I finally got to my car and dove in. Panting, high on adrenaline, my fingers raced across the screen. After several tries, the address came up.
I swept out of the parking lot.
Knock, knock, knock.
My heart thundered in my chest as I waited in front of the red door. Within a minute, I heard his heavy footsteps on the other side.
“Can I help you?”
“D-david,” I stuttered. “You’re here.”
So it wasn’t him, parked on the street. I laughed, internally. Why did I think it would be? He had no idea I even existed until this moment. God, I’m an idiot.
Well, at least I’m doing the right thing.
I sucked in a deep breath of air and forced the words out. “I’m a friend of your wife’s. An acquaintance. And I need to talk to you.”
His face lit up with fake hope. “You know where she might be?”
“Come on in.”
“Actually, can we talk out here?”
I took a seat on an old, rickety bench on his porch and pulled out the AirPods as discreetly as possible. My hands shook; they nearly slipped from my hands. Try to get as much information as possible. Like where her body is. Or where he killed her. Then submit it anonymously to the police…
I popped them in.
“So what do you know? Come on, tell me. I’m freaking out over here.”
For a second, I thought maybe the AirPods weren’t working. But then, he continued:
“You sneaky little whore.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Who are you? Undercover police or some shit?”
This close, I could tell his lips didn’t match up with the words I was hearing. It was a strange, jarring feeling — like hearing a song played on an out-of-tune piano.
I ignored his words and said: “I saw her the evening she disappeared. A woman was coaxing her into the car. A blonde woman.”
He can’t know that I know he killed her.
“You know that I killed her.”
He reached up to his ear, grinning. With a small tug, he pulled out a tiny, spherical piece of silver metal.
“How do you think I found out about MacKenzie’s affair in the first place?” he asked, his blue eyes gleaming in the light. “These little things are neat. Worth the price, for sure.”
I shot up and scrambled towards the yard. I grabbed my phone, dialed 911 — just as he pulled me back.
“Get away from me!”
“No. I’m going to make sure you don’t tell a single fucking soul.” He grabbed me by the hair and yanked me towards the door. I screamed.
I’m going to die.
“Yeah. You are.”
But he didn’t notice my phone. By a stroke of luck, it’d fallen underneath the bench. Out of sight.
Within minutes, sirens pierced the silence.
After a brief struggle, the police wrestled him to the floor. Even though he might get away with MacKenzie’s murder, he wasn’t getting away with this.
As soon as I got home, I opened my laptop.
I went to eBay — where I’d bought the AirPods in the first place. They had been “gently used” for $89.99, from a seller named listen_tech5.
I shot them a message.
Hi. I was wondering if you could supply more information about the AirPods you sent me.
Then I collapsed on the couch and turned on the TV. An infomercial for some cleaning solution came up.
“I’M JUST GOING TO SHOUT, SO YOU THINK I’M REALLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS STUFF!” the man shouted. “I HAVE NO IDEA IF IT ACTUALLY WORKS OR NOT!”
Click. I changed the channel.
“I really don’t want to be on this herpes commercial,” a blonde woman was saying. “But I’m behind on rent and my Game of Thrones audition didn’t really work out…”
Click. “Oh, yes! Gone with the wind!”
“Darling, move your arm,” Scarlett O’Hara asked, throwing herself at Ashley and fluttering her lashes. “I want them to get my good side.”
“This script is the most abhorrent thing I’ve ever read,” Ashley replied. “I feel like a fool.”
I looked down at my phone.
listen_tech95 sent a message about Apple AirPods
I immediately opened it.
It appears we have sent you the wrong item. Please RETURN YOUR AIRPODS IMMEDIATELY
Do NOT use your AirPods. Using them could be VERY DANGEROUS as they have an electrical malfunction. Simply put them back in their case and send them to ███, Broadland, SD 57350 AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
Appended to the bottom of the message was a single, foreboding sentence:
If we do not receive them in three days, we will find you.
Of course I didn’t send the AirPods back. Those things had the power to uncover every lie in the world. Condemn the guilty. Exonerate the innocent. I wouldn’t part with them for the world.
Maybe that was a mistake. At 2:45 AM, I jolted awake to a clicking sound.
Click, click, click. Reverberating through the little house like metallic, off-beat ticks of a clock.
I extricated myself from the tangle of blankets. I crept over to the window, parted the blinds, and peered outside.
Two figures stood on the doorstep. One stood in the shadows, immensely tall, his eyes hidden in the shadows of a baseball cap. The other hunched in front of the door. Hands deftly working to pick the lock.
“No, no, no,” I whispered. What do I do? Slowly, silently, I grabbed the AirPods.
As soon as I popped them in, I heard the man’s voice.
“Shit. She heard us.”
I jumped out of bed. Backed away. Grabbed a coat hanger from the closet with a grunt. I can poke them in the eye —
“She thinks she can bring us down with a coat hanger, George!”
They’re wearing AirPods too.
They can hear what I’m thinking.
I threw the coat hanger to the floor and grabbed my phone. My fingers raced across the screen. 9-1-1 — “Come on, come on —”
“Don’t do it. Look… we’re just coming to take the AirPods back. You give ’em back and there’s no trouble. If you call 911 — then we’ll have trouble.”
I stood in the darkness, frozen with fear, for several minutes. I didn’t make a sound; neither did they.
Finally, I lifted a trembling hand up to my ears. Popped the AirPods out. Slipped them in my pocket.
And grabbed the second pair I’d bought at the Apple Store earlier that afternoon.
As long as I don’t say anything, they won’t know what I’m thinking. Stay. Absolutely. Silent.
My fingers tightened around the doorknob.
Two men stood on the doorstep. The short one held a lockpicking set. The other loomed over him, holding an axe.
Do not make a sound.
I handed over the dummy pair.
“You’re a smart girl,” the lockpicker said. The other didn’t say anything — he just inclined his head in a half-nod.
Twenty minutes later I was coasting down the highway. Journey’s Only the Young beat through my AirPods, low and soft. Other than that – silence. Either the other cars were too far away from me, or their drivers weren’t speaking.
Those were the two laws the AirPods operated by, I’d figured out. They only worked in a certain range — I couldn’t hear someone’s thoughts more than 10-20 feet away (unless it was a TV or radio broadcast.) And, second, the person had to actually be speaking at the time.
I wasn’t a mind reader.
And that was a good thing.
As I drove, the sky darkened from blue to deep violet. Deciduous trees and shrubs transformed into spiky black pines. The moon rose above the pines, terracotta red.
My parents had a little cottage up in Michigan. A tiny, one-room house with warped windows and no hot water. But it was miles from the nearest neighbor and virtually impossible to find. I would be safe.
At 2 AM, I pulled off the interstate and into a tiny diner. “Coffee and a cheeseburger, please,” I said to the waitress, as I collapsed into the booth.
“Fuck you,” she replied.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
As she hustled away, I noticed someone staring at me. A man, just a few booths away. Greasy hair. Blue eyes. A torn leather jacket.
As soon as my eyes reached his, he broke into a grin.
I immediately gestured to my AirPods — to signal I wasn’t interested in conversation.
He didn’t care. He came over, slid into the booth across from me. Took a big gulp of coffee, smiled, and opened his mouth to speak.
I expected to hear a disgusting proposition. I just want to bend you over this countertop right now. Or, maybe, a confession. I always drink a cup o’ joe after dumping the bodies. Really picks me up.
But I heard something far worse.
Fuzzy and high-pitched, like a mesh of white noise and tinnitus. Throbbing in my ears like a warning siren. It grew louder and louder, reaching a fever pitch that vibrated every cell, every molecule in my body.
I ripped the AirPods out.
His voice faded in. “— and you should try some of their pie. Chocolate chess pie. It’s heaven.”
I popped the AirPods back in. Static.
He talks. But his thoughts… are static? What does that even mean?
Oh, no. Maybe they’re broken.
Maybe Listen Tech found out I gave them the wrong pair – and remotely deactivated mine.
Only one way to find out. I leaned out of the booth and flagged down the waitress. “Excuse me! When will the cheeseburger be done?”
She pursed her lips.
“Go fuck yourself.”
Nope. Still working. I looked back at the man. He opened his mouth, with a large grin; the static filled my ears again.
But this time, I wasn’t listening.
I was staring at the sharp gleam of silver, sticking out his jacket pocket.
I shot up – but I was too late. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards the door. The static screeched in my ears. My hand tingled underneath his grip, as if a thousand needles pricked at my skin.
But all I heard was static.
He dragged me out of the diner. Out of the halo of golden light, into the inky darkness that lay beyond. The gravel bit into my feet. The cold burned at my fingers.
“What are you going to do to me?”
I couldn’t even hear my own voice over the static.
He just grinned, his yellow teeth glinting in the light. One hand latched to my wrist. The other holding the knife. With a jerk, he pulled me against him.
He said something to me. I couldn’t read his lips. I didn’t want to.
The steel pressed against my throat.
Maybe if I…
With my free hand, I reached up. Ripped out the left earbud – and smashed it into his ear. His eyes widened.
Then he crumpled to the ground.
I raced across the gravel, leapt into the car. The engine rumbled under my feet. As I swung towards the main road, I glanced in the rearview mirror.
The man glowed red in the taillights, as if lit by hellfire. Thrashing, writhing, rolling. Blood pouring out of his ear.
Listening to static echoing static.
As I raced down the highway, I called the police. I learned that they caught him; the waitress called the police on him, and no one else had been hurt. “By the way, you might want to keep the AirPod you find in his ear,” I told the officer, with a grin. “I think you’ll find it very useful.”
Then I hung up.
I spent the rest of my trip listening to Journey, feeling the cold breeze whip through my hair, and trying to unravel the mystery of the static.
After several hours in the car, the best theory I came up with was his thoughts were so corrupt, so perverse, they couldn’t be perceived by anyone else. Either that – or a failsafe was built right into the earbud, to block out such evil.
I’ll never know for sure.
A little after 2 PM, I arrived at my parents’ cottage. It was miles from the nearest neighbor. Well out of range of the voices. The thoughts. The static.
I collapsed in the dusty, rotting armchair. I turned on the lights, cranked up the heat, and popped the single AirPod out of my ear.
Then – for the first time in days – I listened to the silence.