I was sixteen when I felt the world shift for the first time. They all say I’m crazy but I know what I felt. I know what happened… or at least that something did happen. I have the picture to prove it.
I was asleep. It was late. It was that time of night that’s so dark when you wake you can’t quite tell where you are and only the small familiar creases in your mattress bring you back to reality. Was it a dream? No. It was a shake. Not just me and not just my bed, but my room, my building. It was a huge shift, a jump almost. I woke right up. And the fear of being alone in that moment is something I’ll never forget.
I’d felt heartbreak and fear at that point. I’d lost parents and siblings and friends. I’d been stirred by their voices and felt the cold vacancy of mourning in waking sweats. This wasn’t that.
I used to have this picture frame on my nightstand. It was solid oak, thick enough to stand on its own and weighed about five pounds. It held my grandparents wedding photo. It fell off the nightstand that night. My bed moved. My school, the world… moved. And I jumped from deep sleep to panic.
What the fuck was that?!
No one else in the room stirred. I marveled at how soundly they all slept.
How are they not jumping? Didn’t they hear it?
No one so much as rolled over. So, I shook it off and attempted to fall asleep counting down the sounds, one by one, to silence.
Ten – the old boiler and steam pipe system. Nine – the dust tapping against my window. Eight – the snores and squeaking mattresses surrounding me. Seven – the echoes through the halls. Six… They must’ve heard it. Why aren’t they awake?
I couldn’t get over it. And the next morning, at breakfast, when they asked why I looked so tired, they didn’t believe me. Not that time. Nor the next night or the one after that. Nor for the next seven months. And by the time they did, it was just too late.
After the third night, I’d stopped really sleeping but instead would lie and wait. I needed to figure out what it was. The fifth night was when I really felt it – start to finish.
My head began to burn, step one. Right at the top. Then my body got heavier, like the world was pulling me to its center. I fought the pain and climbed out of bed, struggling to stand. The vibration was next – the whole world vibrating. I screamed for everyone to move but they were asleep and my voice wouldn’t travel. Then the pulse. It was bright, like everything, every molecule and particle in the world shifted slightly for a moment, then jumped back, but not quite in place. Like trying to glue together a broken plate. Night after night, more and more, I felt the world shift, unable to do anything. And day after day, no one believed me.
Until, one night, it knocked half of them to the floor and then it didn’t stop. It pulsed but kept shaking. The walls began to crack and crumble. The ceiling folded, and I ran. I ran as fast as I could, running past all my classmates I wanted to help, their eyes and bodies struggling to adjust to the pain and vibration.
“RUN!” I tried to shout to them. Another pulse. Bigger. Stronger.
The room and everyone in it was gone. And I just ran. Continuing down the large stone hallway, the floor weakening with each step as the vibrating continued.
Just make it to the fucking stairs. Need to get lower. Need to get to the East Wing.
I ran passed the screams and the crumbling, the cracking, the breaking and pounding that drown out any clarity or room for breath. A burst of dust hit my face, blurring my vision. All that existed was fog and pain and fear. But my legs still climbed and hands clawed, fighting to reach the east stair.
And then the glass of the stairwell’s window tore at my arms as I fell, hitting ground sooner than expected. The noise was unbearable. I could hardly hear my thoughts.
Cover your head and stay still. Just STAY STILL.
Pieces of concrete, plaster and steel pounded the ground around me. My fear screamed at me to curl up and wait, but I knew I had to run. If I was near the East Wing, I could make it to the woods. I pushed my legs down, the world still vibrating, and I forced myself to my feet. Using pieces of the building as shield and brace, I stumbled and marched until I was safely behind the tree-line. When the final pulse hit, it nearly shattered the trunk of the giant Oak I was cowering under. And I felt myself tear apart.
It could’ve been a second or an hour. I exhaled, and with my eyes still closed, made sure my body was still there. Somehow it was. My hands ran up my legs and arms, chest, neck, it was all there. My face felt like it always had, just filthy, bleeding, most likely a bit bruised. I couldn’t hear anything. I suddenly got over my body being okay and opened my eyes. Only shadow and rubble.
Should get moving. See if anyone else survived. See if anything still exists.
I stood up, still feeling my body to make sure it was all there. It was but it was different. I just felt… off.
I walked out of the woods and looked at the remains of our school. It was still dark with dawn nearing. The dust was thick and the small fires and remaining lights cast strong shadows across the ruins.
“Hello-“ I tried to shout, but the air was so thick and dry. The dust was everywhere. I stumbled over a broken water pipe, flowing like a fountain and took advantage, washing my face and tearing off a piece of my night shirt to soak and breathe through. There was a pile of pots and pans next to the water line.
This must be the kitchen.
I filled a large jug and tied it around my shoulders to carry with me as I searched. Also grabbed two steel frying pans, clanging them together in hopes someone was out there and could hear me. But no response came. Not as I made my way through the wreckage and the sun rose. Not as the dust began to settle in the daylight. And not as dusk fell and I decided heading south towards the water and the city would be my best bet.
I’d found clothes and proper boots. Then, before setting out, the next morning, scoured the kitchen for any food I could carry in a simple backpack.
Roads, cars, bridges, houses, farms, everything was decimated.
Am I the only one that made it?
I don’t know if it was hope or fear that kept me going. I walked all day. And it didn’t hit me until I saw a house that hadn’t fallen. It was just perfectly perched on top of a small hill in the middle of a clearing, like something out of a story-book. I ran in, thinking maybe there was someone there. I shouted and looked into every room. At the school, everyone was buried, I thought. Lost in the rubble. But then I thought about all the cars along the freeway, along the roads, each of the farms and the fields I’d walked passed, where cows and horses used to be. I hadn’t seen a single living creature since I woke up. But I hadn’t seen any bodies either.
The house was empty. Food still in the cabinets and even a half-smoked cigar and a whiskey sitting on the coffee table.
I staggered out and sat on the porch, watching the sun set, afraid and alone, unsure and lost. I went to count the sounds down to fall asleep. But there weren’t any. A soft rustling of leaves and branches swaying against each other in the wind. Otherwise, nothing. And as the tears streamed down my cheeks, I drifted into sleep.
In the morning, I fixed myself breakfast and looked around the house.
How did you manage to stay standing? My school was ten times stronger… the trees and the road out front… Why you?
There was nothing particularly special about it. A simple home. They had placemats on the dining room table and pictures lining the hallways. I’d never known a home like that. I got sent off to school when I was seven. Then my folks died.
The chair next to the coffee table had a deep imprint in the cushion. Someone large sat there. A lot. I sat down and picked up the cigar, sipping the whiskey, wondering what this life would’ve been like. For a moment, I almost forgot where I was and why.
Should get moving to make it to the city by dark.
I filled my bag with what I could and what I thought I might need – a hunting knife, some more canned food, a map, a couple flashlights and a picture that reminded me of the one I’d had on my nightstand. I don’t know why. I didn’t know who the people were. But, it made me feel better at the time.
The more I walked, the more I felt the emptiness. I’d walked to be avoided before. I’d walked in the middle of the woods and felt true solitude. When I was eleven, I ran away from school and spent a week walking up the coastline, hiding and being free. But nothing like this. No matter how deep in the woods I’d ever gone, I’d known there was an edge and after that edge, there were people. Walking up the cracked and shattered freeway, cars split in half, woods and forests eviscerated, blank spaces where people had just been, it was so completely empty.
Some of the car’s seats had outlines where the people would’ve been when the cars crashed.
I suppose I could’ve tried to get in one of the cars and drive. But the roads, and the ground itself was so broken, it never occurred to me. And it only worsened as I neared the city.
Along with most of the buildings, the pulse had destroyed the seawall, the reservoir and the damn. I had found the train tracks I could’ve followed right to South Station but the water was up to my knees before I was within a mile of city limits. I pushed as far as I could, but it was clear I’d never make it.
I was stuck and it felt like rain was coming, so headed up the new coastline, looking for the nearest shelter I could find. Ended up finding a decent size and mostly functional boat that still had some gas in the tank.
I made my way quickly into the downtown area. What wasn’t under water was crumbling and falling and soon would be. A slight drizzle started and the gas was running out, so I pulled up to the sixth floor of a high-rise that looked as sturdy as I could hope for and climbed in through a broken window.
Each of the apartments was empty, soaking wet, dripping with ocean spray, rain and filth from the broken pipes. People seemed to have been there one moment and gone the next. But why was I still there? Why had I felt it before anyone else? Was I really alone?
I found a few other flashlights and a role of duct tape as I climbed from one apartment to the next, searching for someplace dry I could sleep. I gave up on dryness on the ninth floor and taped all the flashlights together, shining them out into the falling night, hoping someone near-by might see it, might still be alive, might still be here. I pulled out the wedding photo I’d taken from the house and stared at it, imagining my grandparent’s picture, wondering if I’d ever see anyone again.
Night sounds were louder by the water. More to count down. I closed my eyes.
Ten – the water crashing against the building. Nine – the drips hitting the wet carpet. Eight – the echoes wind. Seven – the pattering of rain…
I fell asleep before it started. Two nights without and then, my head started burning and I felt that pull making it hard to move or stand. My eyes shot to open and then to the window, where I’d perched the lights. I looked out and as the vibration started, I saw a light shining back towards me, bright and blue, moving rapidly towards me from impossibly far away. As it moved, the world, existence itself, folded around it and the vibration increased. I was engulfed in sound and my body was frozen in pain, more than I’d ever felt it before. And then – the pulse – and everything tore apart.
Where am I? What is this?
It wasn’t here. It wasn’t anywhere. And I wasn’t anything. It was simply light. And I was a part of it and yet still me. I tried to speak but there was nothing to speak through. Only thoughts.
Hello? What is this? WHERE AM I?
And then I was back. I was me, whole again. In that apartment on the ninth floor of that downtown high-rise. I was beyond confused as my wet hair and backpack dripped onto the floor.
But the apartment had changed. I was dripping onto freshly cleaned carpet, looking out through unbroken windows at the seawall, secure and strong, as though nothing had ever happened. The smell of bacon and roast peppers engulfed me. And a very frightened family of four screamed, because a soaking wet sixteen year old had just suddenly appeared in the middle of their living room holding a collection of flashlights and a wedding photo of a couple he’d never met.
That was my first shift. Like I said, everyone thinks I’m crazy. But I know what I felt. And that family knows what they saw. As do the six hundred twenty-seven others that experienced the shift as I have… so many times.