By Alex Wolfgang
Warm air wafted through the lab’s open window while San Francisco slumbered. Dr. Lee Miller’s two assistants had already gone, citing early morning lectures—not that he expected them to stay this late anyway. But a yearning kept him late into the evening, one he couldn’t put his finger on, one which could not be easily satisfied. He did his best to ease it by pacing along his freshly-dusted wood shelves, admiring the specimens he’d spent the last year collecting. These fish were now far removed from the alpine lakes of the Sierras, but their new home was a thing of beauty. Here they were a torch in the darkness of human ignorance. Thanks to his work, papers could be concocted, hierarchies discovered, nature understood. He was the architect’s assistant, laying God’s blueprints bare for the brightest minds on Earth to fathom.
Those yet-to-be-named fish fascinated him most. They were outlaws, rebellious through their audacity to exist without human knowledge. They’d waited in their hidden waters, flickering in and out of a kind of half-existence, waiting for the eyes and words that would make them real.
This listless feeling was nothing new. Now that Ursula was gone for good, he could indulge it to his heart’s content. There would be nobody waiting at home to rebuke his lateness. Nobody to tell him fish could never love him back. Here, he could remind himself if it was all worth it. Here, he usually believed it was.
Stanford’s clock tower struck midnight from the courtyard nearby, and Lee bitterly took it as his cue to leave. He had courses to teach in the morning, but afterward, he would return to his sanctuary to continue the work that really mattered.
As he made his way through his lab, shutting off the lights, he spotted dark movement in a corner below a window. He flipped the lights back on and stared at the spot for almost a minute, but nothing moved.
Christ, he thought, shouldn’t stay up this late anymore.
When he reached to shut the light back off, something moved again before he hit the switch. A shadow slid across a wooden desk before settling into another patch of darkness between two cabinets. Lee examined his surroundings carefully, but nothing in the room moved, nor did anything seem capable of movement on its own.
He was ready to call it a hallucination when the shadow emerged again. It settled on the floor before him, an amorphous shape suggesting nothing. Lee staggered backward a step and checked the room’s lights one by one. Nothing was being occulted—the shadow had no source. His stomach churned.
“Is anyone here?” Lee asked, his voice strained.
The shadow taunted him with silence.
Lee jolted as it raced up the side of a wooden cabinet and entered a specimen jar backlit by a table lamp. The water went murky, the fish disappearing from view. Even the name on the label was obscured. Then it moved along to the next one, then the next.
“Who’s there?” Lee asked, trying and failing to muster strength in his voice. “This isn’t funny. You need to leave.”
The shadow slid out of the jars and dashed to the window, where it disappeared.
For several seconds, Lee stood staring. Sweat coated his palms. His fingers shook as he fumbled with switches to fill the room with as much light as possible. A mirror across the lab showed him his own face, and he lurched at the sight of its movement.
While his heart threatened to burst from his chest, he moved to the window and looked at the lone streetlight illuminating the street before his building. The shadow hovered over a crack in the ground, then disappeared inside it. All that remained was the lamp’s sodium yellow glow.
He was losing his mind. He needed his bed, his sleep. More than anything, he needed to leave. The sanctity of his lab felt violated, its white walls teeming with menace.
But something still pulled at him when he moved toward the door. He fought through it. The act of leaving was physically painful, the steps like walking through hot molasses. He imagined the shadow returning after his departure, but what could it do? It was only a shadow. But a shadow must have a source. With what little strength remained, he pushed that thought from his mind and forced himself out into the hall. Through the doorway, he glanced backward at the line of jars one last time. His guts now roiled at the sight.
As he made his way through the empty streets of San Francisco, he tried to escape his dread through familiarity. He took comfort in the signs that identified his surroundings, from the bookstores and classroom buildings of the Stanford campus to the closed-up bars and restaurants that lined the roads of the city proper. He’d taken the route so many times that it was etched deep into his memory. The order of it all helped calm his nerves, but he never relaxed completely. He still jumped at each sound, whether it was the clicking shoes of a fellow nocturnal pedestrian or the distant hum of a gasoline-powered car. But he saw no more strange shadows.
In his apartment, he flipped every light on and paced from room to room. For once, the feeling of being alone was unbearable. Even the presence of Ursula would have been a comfort. He would have spoke of anything she wanted, of her new lover, of the fish she resented, of the starring roles he never saw her in because he was knee deep in some alpine lake—the conversations he refused to have so many times she gave up trying.
His home had never felt more like a cell. Gone were the artworks she’d lined the walls with, the rug that always glowed red in the morning sun. Each room was encased only by white walls and utilitarian furniture. Empty slates for shadows to crawl across and taunt him. Yet the shadows never returned, maybe because they knew they were expected.
Dread followed him to bed and kept him awake until past three o’clock, when desperation and exhaustion finally sucked his consciousness away. When the earthquake began, he thought he was dreaming.
* * *
Screams jolted him awake. By the time he was fully conscious, the shaking had ceased, but more chaos replaced it. Concrete cracked as neighboring buildings crumbled. His building felt weary, strained, the floor slanted. He stumbled to his feet and rushed to the window.
Day had barely begun to break, but in the dim morning twilight, a wasteland had sprung forth. Half the buildings visible had fallen to rubble. Cries of pain and terror came from all directions.
Lee stepped backward, trembling. His dresser had toppled, leaving clothes strewn across the floor. The glass of water he’d left on his bedside table was now a wet pile of shards. He grabbed his clothing and dressed as fast as he could, threw on his shoes, and left the apartment. As he ran, the building groaned under the weight of the chaos.
The banisters had come loose in the stairwell, so he dodged those that lay across the pathways as he dashed down to the street. Some of his neighbors joined his descent, their faces pale with shock. They said nothing, but he no longer craved conversation.
On the street, the screams were louder. Sirens sounded in the distance. Half the buildings on his block were piles of rubble. In a few, lifeless limbs poked out from the wreckage. People rushed through chunks of concrete, picking pieces of debris apart. Others walked the streets in a daze. In the corners of his periphery, more sourceless shadows flitted from one piece of rubble to the next.
The acrid scent of smoke wafted through the air. Through the holes where buildings once were, infernos winked at him in the distance.
He tried to ignore it all. His vision was a tunnel; his legs carried him automatically. His state of hypnosis didn’t end until he was on the Stanford campus, eyeing each pile of rubble in terror.
Along the way, he glimpsed the church steeple, which had fallen forward into its courtyard in an almost unrecognizable mass. Entire sections of the outer cloisters had fallen into the roadway. A man ran out of the engineering building just as a chimney collapsed on him, his scream stifled by instant death.
When he turned the corner to reveal the building that housed his top-floor laboratory, he felt as if his soul was sucked from his body. The structure still stood, but it was engulfed in flames. He fell to his knees, weeping, trying to comprehend the implications of what he saw.
He thought of the alcohol in the jars, erupting and burning what they were meant to preserve. Specimens charred to ash. Labels destroyed. A world plunged deeper into chaos.
On the street, a crew prepared sticks of dynamite to separate the buildings that burned from those that didn’t. Lee ran to them, dodging the other shocked and panicked pedestrians.
He tried to cry out, but his voice disappeared into the din of sirens and cries of terror and pain. He instead rushed past the firefighters, ignoring their shouts of protest, and charged up the remains of the stairs, not caring if he burned, not caring if he plunged through a damaged floor to his death, not caring if sticks of dynamite exploded while he was inside. He already knew what he would find, but he wasn’t in control of his body.
By some miracle he made it to the remains of his lab, only to find his fears confirmed. No fish remained. Many of the jars had fallen and crashed on the floor, but others had remained on the tables, their alcohol burned away, leaving unrecognizable, charred remains. There were no labels in sight.
Legs trembling, he stumbled back down the stairs. A man grabbed his arm and shouted something, but he couldn’t comprehend it. Once back out on the street, a shadow slithered forth and froze before him. It lay silent before creeping over the tops of his shoes and up his pant legs and beyond. It slipped into his skin like a cold wind.
Numbness overwhelmed him. Rationality vacated his brain, leaving room for delirium. The world flashed in and out of existence. He could no longer remember what screams meant, what the faces around him expressed, what the words he heard meant. Thoughts and images stormed through his consciousness, but they moved too quickly to follow. He was a lone animal on an alien planet, driven by instincts he didn’t understand.
Just as quickly as it had come, the shadow slid back down his torso and moved away. A semblance of lucidity returned. He saw terror and confusion, recognized words and expressions, remembered who he was, but coherence lapped at his mind like waves at low tide. He knew only one thing for sure: he needed to leave the city. The desire was so potent that he had no desire to question it, to even think it through.
In a daze, he walked home through the devastation, packed a small bag with food, water, and a few changes of clothes, and started the long walk out of San Francisco.
As he walked past block after nearly unrecognizable block, he looked for street signs that would help him identify where he was in the city, but they were nearly all gone, toppled to the ground and buried under rubble, their words illegible. Buildings and shops that once identified themselves with signs were now faceless, generic piles of destruction. Disoriented, he made so many wrong turns that he questioned how well he’d ever truly known San Francisco—if it could still be called by the same name it had yesterday. He jumped at the sight of their shadows, of any shadows.
Nothing made sense, and nothing seemed interested in trying.
* * *
He walked in a daze for hours before finally reaching the outskirts of the city. Train tracks leading away from the destruction had buckled, leaving engines toppled and abandoned. He followed the tracks to an empty station, then set off into the wilds.
Far from the destruction, his mind began to clear. He had only one way to go: north. His sister lived in a small town about a hundred miles up the coast, and though they hadn’t spoken in three years, the semblance of a destination helped him justify this journey. He had no delusions that what he was doing was rational, but for reasons he couldn’t explain, he didn’t care. This was where he needed to be. The farther he got from San Francisco, the better.
Hours later, Lee stopped to drink and eat and think. What was he condemning himself to? His treks into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest were always meticulously planned, marked by overflowing bags and detailed itineraries. Ursula would always look over his packing list the night before an excursion and tell him what he’d forgotten. He hoped she was still alive.
The weight of his destroyed work fell over him. So many expeditions, so much progress, all gone. His fish had returned to their half-existence, and he mourned their loss. But all he could do was kick aside the pieces and begin again. Was that why he had come out here? He could think of no other reason, but then again, he hadn’t been operating on reason. Deep down, he knew he still wasn’t.
Despite the warm afternoon, a cold wind swept across his arms, raising goosebumps. The sun had emerged from the gloom, so light flooded the surrounding vegetation. When the shadow slid toward him across the forest floor, he only watched it, resigned to its whims. Its presence felt inevitable.
“What are you?” he whispered. “Why are you doing this?”
The shadow moved closer, then ascended the back of a boulder before him. It hovered for a few seconds. He tried to touch it, but there was nothing substantial. Still, it moved with the tenacity of a living thing.
Just as soon as it had appeared, the shadow slipped away toward a pine tree-covered mountain. Before he could think better of the idea, he stood, and began to follow it deeper into the wilderness.
As he trudged through dense trees, thoughts of his own survival came to mind. He wasn’t prepared for an overnight excursion. The food would last a couple days, the jug of water probably just one. Surely he would find civilization tomorrow. There were plenty of settlements north of San Francisco. At the very least, there were roads.
The day was waning. By his estimates, it was about four o’clock, leaving maybe three hours of sunlight. But there was no sense in lamenting his decisions—they had been made. Instead, he followed the path where he’d seen the shadow move.
An hour, two hours passed. To keep himself calm, he tried to recall the names of the trees that he passed and the birds flying overhead.
Pinus Ponderosa. Cornus nuttallii. Junco hyemalis.
But just as soon as they entered his mind, the cold wind picked back up and carried them away. When he tried to remember again, they receded from his memory, like he was looking at their names through glasses smudged with oil. Panic entered his mind, but he suppressed it.
Every few minutes, he glimpsed shadowed movement, but he was never sure if it came from the creatures he sought or from something much more familiar. The waning daylight did nothing to aid him. Shadows elongated further and further until they joined into one darkened mass.
When night had fallen almost entirely, the flora and fauna of northern California were reduced to unrecognizable silhouettes. He finally stopped in a copse of trees and prepared to bunker down until daybreak. There was no sense searching for shadows at night. He drank timid gulps from his dwindling canteen and munched on nuts and dried fruits he wished he’d brought more of.
The moon was new and the sky was cloudy, so the night was soon nearly pitch black. Now that he had no choice but to continue, he allowed himself to realize what a stupid thing he’d done.
He tried to sleep, but it was hopeless. Each time he started to drift off, something would wake him. The cracking of a stick could have been a deer or a bear. A distant shriek could have been a coyote or someone calling out to him. The shadows could be surrounding him, climbing him, invading his body, but there was no way to tell. In the pitch black, all life swirled together into a tapestry of ambiguity. Until he could recognize something, it was everything all at once.
Finally, mercifully, dawn broke. Light swept through the forest, illuminating it in a pink haze. Shadows from the trees were long and spindly, but he could at least see their source. He drank a little more water, ate more of his meager rations, and wondered what to do next. In the distance, barely visible plumes of smoke still rose in the direction of San Francisco. He scanned the horizon for any other nearby cities or settlements. In two other directions, more smoke stacks had risen into the sky. Had the quakes really traveled so far?
As if on cue, the ground beneath him rumbled so suddenly and severely he nearly lost his footing. Just as quickly as it had started, it stopped again.
Aftershocks, he thought, just aftershocks. A shadow scurried by, as if to taunt this conclusion.
He should have headed back to San Francisco. It was the sensible thing to do. Even if it still lay in ruins, he could find a better method for escape. No doubt word had spread to the entire region about the earthquake and the fires by now. Maybe all the neighboring cities had fallen victim to the quakes already anyway.
But something else pulled at him—something he couldn’t resist. The cold wind within him stirred.
The shadows appeared again, several this time, their shapes morphing as they slunk across sticks and grasses. He stood, repacked his bag, and prepared to follow. After a few steps, he hesitated. He imagined heading back and living out the rest of his days, never knowing what he’d seen. And though he hadn’t admitted it to himself until that moment, a stone in his gut told him that if not for those things, San Francisco would likely be standing.
He cut himself a deal: for now he would follow, but he wouldn’t spend another night out here. This lie was all he needed to convince himself he was in control. The wind stirred again, then settled.
He started to follow but stopped. Deep down, he knew where they were going—to other cities, to other places where people had organized their lives. Where there was more to dismantle and plunge into chaos. What he needed to know was where they were coming from. Instead of following them, he headed for their source.
Each time they disappeared for a while and he was left searching in desperation, they’d make quick, shallow movements just ahead, as if coaxing him along. Eventually they led him up a hill. The climb was exhausting, and when he reached the top of the ridge, he stopped to rest and look out.
Before him was a valley, long and bean shaped, with trees lining the slopes and a pond in the center. All around, the shadows slipped between the trees away from the water. He descended after them.
Halfway down the slope, he hesitated. The trees surrounding him became unfamiliar. Gone were the species he recognized on sight, even if in the moment he couldn’t recall their names. These looked as though they’d emerged from an alien landscape. Their thick leaves were almost triangular, the tips curving downward as if pulled by gravity. He ripped one from a branch and pocketed it, but as soon as it touched his pants, it dissolved into nothing.
Above him, birds chirped in languages he’d never heard in all his expeditions, like rushing water heard through radio static. They circled overhead. Their ink-black bodies were like those of crows, but they were more elongated, their necks long and then, their beaks short and flat.
The closer he got, the more foreign his surroundings became. At the bottom of the slope, he was fully immersed in a new world, nothing recognizable in sight. He marveled in terror at the morphing flora and fauna. Despite the day approaching noon, the sky was a haze of pink instead of blue. Tiny insects like ladybugs hovered in the air, but they were striped instead of spotted, long and thin instead of round.
Lee approached the edge of the water and peered inside. The pond’s depths revealed silhouettes of creatures that darted around as if agitated by his presence. Though the bright sun above should have illuminated them in the clear water, their features remained indistinct. Any time he thought he recognized one’s shape, it would change direction and become obscured once more.
A knot formed in Lee’s throat. He staggered backward and sat by the side of the pond. His thoughts raced so quickly he could not follow their course.
The creatures emerged from the water as shadows and moved toward the edges of the valley. Once on land, they took their amorphous shape. Trying desperately to calm his mind, he focused on their forms just as they left the water. He could think of no names for them, not even words to describe their shapes or movements.
Panicking, he tried to think of the names of any fish he did know. Yet he came up with nothing. The pond reached into his mind and scrambled it. He tried to latch onto something, anything.
He could not remember the name of the city he’d just escaped from, nor the one he was heading for. Nor the university he’d taught at for the last fifteen years. The image of a blonde woman’s face appeared in his mind. He knew her well, but he couldn’t remember her name or how they’d met. The thoughts were a soup in his brain.
“What are you?” he said, again and again, knowing the question was useless.
Somewhere in the maelstroms of his mind, his own voice whispered back: what are you?
He opened his mouth, compelled to announce the answer aloud, but the words didn’t come. He was nowhere to be found.
His gut burned with an unbearable need to understand something, anything. But no relief came. The knot in his throat swelled, and he doubled over, tears obscuring his view of the water. The agony of panic without context consumed him.
With shaking fingers, he dipped his hand into the pond. It was neither warm nor cold, but the exact temperature of the air. He could barely tell when he’d penetrated the surface. A creature swam by his fingers, its slimy scales rubbing against his knuckles. He longed to be able to see it and know it.
Without thinking, without even removing his clothes, he slipped into the water. Words like ‘water,’ ‘fish,’ and ‘lake’ began to recede from his brain. He swam outward.
In the center of the lake, the creatures emerged one-by-one from an abyssal hole that stretched to unfathomable depths. He swam down to it, unconcerned by his lack of breath, unconcerned by anything. Death was meaningless. The abyss called to him with the sweet serenades of another existence, one where chaos reigned supreme. Where so much was unknown that it came leaking out. The call was louder than anything he’d ever heard.
There was nothing left to do but answer.
Alex Wolfgang is a horror author from Oklahoma City. You can find his work in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Nocturnal Transmissions Podcast, and anthologies by Grendel Press, Nosetouch Press, Future Dead Collective, and Howl Society Press. When not reading and writing horror, you’ll find him drumming, hiking, playing tennis, and watching movies with his wife. You can follow him on Instagram @alex__wolfgang, on Twitter @alexwolfgang, or visit his website alexwolfgang.wordpress.com