“California City,” by Harmony Hertzog

They’ll tell you it never happened. They’ll say there is no way people could live and survive in what I’ve described. They’ll say I was terrified, and the terror grossly exaggerated my story. But it all happened. And I will tell you exactly how it happened.

I heard rumors of an abandoned city some 80 miles east of Los Angeles. Rumor had it some eccentric billionaire was obsessed with building a bigger, brighter version of Los Angeles and started to do so in the late 1920s. The city didn’t flourish as planned, but supposedly there was a resort hotel and a couple neighborhoods that had come to completion before the man went bankrupt, mad, whatever. The reasons behind the failure to thrive didn’t concern me, what did concern me was the fact that this city still stood, unfinished, abandoned, and intact, somewhere out in the desert. I was going to find this city.

They’ll say it was obsession. I call it tenacity. With several hours of research and countless Internet searches, I was able to figure out where this city should be, and, with a friend in tow, set out to find it. We were prepared for a three hour car ride: Pandora, coffee, air conditioning, and our cameras for when we arrived. We thought we were so well prepared.

Getting to the city that obsession built was like driving into Las Vegas at night: we round a long desert road, and there it is, all glittery and majestic. Only this glitter came not from billions of neon lights, but from the windows of an enormous hotel, reflecting the desert sun back in our faces. Perhaps the majesty was just me; I was fully prepared for this place to not exist, but it did. And we found it. We are able to drive straight in: there are no road blocks, fences, nothing. It looks like the nuclear testing neighborhood from The Hills Have Eyes. We drive around first, marveling at how intact this place was for having been abandoned for so long. Is it because it’s so far out of the way? Or is it really not as abandoned as we think it is? Surely it’s abandoned. There are no cars, no signs of people, and although everything was pretty intact, it’s very dusty, even for desert standards, and nothing looks less than 60 years old. After we tour the neighborhoods, we drive to the resort hotel with its intact windows shedding an intense light on the entire town.

I don’t know how much, if anything, you know about abandoned buildings, but I will tell you this: the fact that this hotel, or the houses, had any windows left at all, let alone every single one, is remarkable. Especially after at least 60 years of abandonment. The city is clearly abandoned, like I said, the dust and all, and there aren’t even power lines, but this is unreal. I don’t know how long we stand staring at the hotel, marveling at the windows, the size, the once lush grounds, lost in our thoughts, but I finally break my trance and decide to go in. The doors are intact but open. My friend hesitates, but I don’t. Maybe I should have asked what they were thinking, but I didn’t; I was obsessed.

Photo taken by Harmony Hertzog
Photo taken by Harmony Hertzog

Upon entering the hotel, I couldn’t deny it any more: there is no way this city has been abandoned for the last 60 some-odd years. Yes, everything in the hotel was old and showed signs of decay, but it was clearly being cared for. There is no vandalism, no animals, not even desert debris or cobwebs. I probably should have left then, but I was fascinated: who is caring for this hotel? The man who built the city was long dead, if not from insanity or suicide, then just pure old age, and no one lives in the neighborhoods. Could people possibly be living in the hotel? It didn’t seem likely; the town has no power, no running water, no nothing. My friend stands in the doorway, refusing to carry on. I’m fueled by their fear; I would not be scared away! I take the camera and my phone and venture down the hall to the elevator banks and staircases.

Of course the elevators don’t work: no electricity. The staircase in this hotel isn’t an enclosed fire escape type staircase, it’s at the beginning of the elevator banks and it swept upwards, stopping at the end of the hallway at each floor, like a zig-zagging grand staircase. I can’t gauge how many floors there are; there had to be at least 30. I figure I’ll check out the first couple of floors, take some pictures, see how it goes. I’m halfway up the first flight of stairs when I notice something strange: the inside of the hotel was abnormally dark, especially considering the time of day and the amount of windows in the lobby. I peer over the railing into the lobby, and I realize the only light is coming from the open door. There are grand windows, but they are covered by heavy velvet curtains which block all the light. I then look back up the stairs and feel a bit silly; of course it’s dark up here, all the doors are closed! I shake it off and head upward.

Several of the rooms are locked, so I just wander about, taking aerial photos of the lobby, photos of the architecture, trying the doors as I go. I finally come to an unlocked room, 1213, and open the door. The wrongness didn’t register at first. It is an ordinary hotel room: queen bed, dresser, table and chairs, vanity and bathroom. But it smells alive. This window is also covered with thick curtains, so I move to pull them open in order to better see the room. As they open, no light comes in. I’m puzzled at first, but then I finally realize what is really wrong, besides the smell. The windows are covered with tin foil, which explains why the reflections outside seem exceptionally brilliant. But why would someone cover every window in an abandoned hotel with tin foil? It makes no sense. As I start to peel back the foil, I hear a screech like a mutant cat owl come from the bed. I freeze, I have nowhere to go; the bed is between me and the door. I see shadows writhing on the bed, hear something hit the floor, screech again, and then scuttle out the door and slam it shut.  I can hear movement in the hallway, then more doors slamming. I rip the foil off the window and turn to see the room.

Photo taken by Harmony Hertzog
Photo taken by Harmony Hertzog

I can’t understand what I’m seeing. Clearly something is living here, probably multiple somethings, but the room isn’t right. Nothing is faded, suggesting the windows have been covered with velvet curtains and tin foil during daylight hours for a long time. I can’t imagine the noises I  heard had been human, of course my mind went straight to vampire, but I know that isn’t right, either. There are no stereotypical, or even rational, vampire accouterments in the room; no coffin, no elegant tapestries, no dead bodies, animal or otherwise, drained of their blood, no residual sparkle, nothing. It had to have been an animal, I tell myself. An animal that collects Nazi memorabilia? My mind counters, as the wrongness finally registers. The hotel room is heavily decorated with World War II Nazi propaganda, from swastikas to posters to large iron crosses adorned with eagles, as well as uniforms in the closet, which I assume weren’t the ones the Americans wore in the war. The décor doesn’t make sense, not only for a hotel, but for the time period. From what I could find, this hotel had never officially opened, and very few of the houses had been purchased, and even fewer lived in. This city was over before it started, and that was at least ten years before WWII. Why would there be all kinds of Nazi regalia here? Before I could ponder further, I hear doors slamming again, and I know I have to get out of there. I race out the door and down the steps, hearing doors and scuttling and sounds of rustling life behind me, above me, throughout the hotel. I run outside, yelling for my friend. I cannot see them, so I start running around the property, screaming. All I can hear is the reverberation of my voice off of the concrete grounds, walls, and empty pool. I run off the hotel grounds, towards the car. I don’t see them there, either, and I realize they have the keys. Surely they couldn’t have wandered too far, wouldn’t have wandered too far.

As I walk back onto the hotel property, I listen for signs of life. I can’t see anything, but I can feel the presence of other life. I can hear noises coming from inside the hotel, but no humans or animals are coming out. In fact, they seem afraid of the light. It seems that nothing had come into the lobby because of the light that floods in through the open doors. I can hear what sounds like whispering, but it isn’t quite right. It sounds very guttural, clearly not English. German, I thought, they’re speaking German. While I was still trying to wrap my head around what was going on, I start hearing screams echoing from one of the neighborhoods. I take off running towards the screams; these screams were human, they had to be my friend’s screams.

I run into the neighborhood, following the screams. They are echoing in the empty streets, coming from everywhere and nowhere. I slow down, trying to pinpoint their location, but the screams are oddly muffled, like they’re coming from inside, but inside a room that is supposed to be soundproofed and had malfunctioned. I start walking across the dirt yards of the houses, trying to pinpoint which house the screams are coming from. When I think I find the right house, I try the door. It opens with ease; not a hinge squeaked. Clearly the door is used regularly and cared for. The screams are definitely clearer, but still muffled. Are they in a basement? These houses don’t typically have basements. This house doesn’t have velvet and tin foil covered windows like the hotel, but it has the same alive smell. People live here. I cautiously make my way into the kitchen, that being my best guess as to what room may lead to a basement. The screams grow louder, but still muffled. When I enter the kitchen, I don’t find a basement so much as I find a homemade trap door in the floor, leading under the house, into the earth. I search for something I can use to light my path, a lantern, a flashlight, anything. I realize I still have the camera and my phone. Between the camera flash and the phone flashlight I’ll have to make do. The screams are definitely coming from under the house.

I pull back the trap door and the screams hit me flush in the face. They are definitely down there. I hop down onto the earthen floor and hold my breath. Between my friend’s screams and whimpers, I can hear the same scuttling noises I heard in the hotel. Somehow they had gotten my friend while I was exploring the hotel. Maybe it’s the same person I scared out of bed. Vampire, my brain keeps repeating, but I know that’s not accurate. Not exactly, anyway. I edge my way towards the noises, and make a decision. I switch my phone’s flashlight on, keeping the light covered with my hand. With my other hand, I steady the camera and take a flash photo. The flash was only on for a split second, but I will never forget what I saw.

They’ll tell you I was half-insane with fear by this time, that my imagination had run wild and filled my head with fantastical things that could never happen. But I know what I saw. And what I saw was this: my friend, tied to a chair, surrounded by people who seem to be examining them. Not just examining them, but almost breathing them in, like they want their life force. The people are all wearing clothes at least 60 years out of date, 1940s German WWII-era uniforms and clothing. The people are far too young to have been born in the 20s or 30s, or even 50s or 60s, the people look much younger, some even look to be in their late teens. They are all extremely pale, and they can clearly see in the dark. The flash of my camera makes the group of them erupt in inhuman howls, and I hear them scuttling away, some past me, some away from me. I hear my friend sobbing, so I rush to untie them. I use the flashlight on my phone to help me see the knots, which may have saved our lives. I can hear the people in the shadows, snarling and scuttling, not coming into the light. This is more than a basement, it’s a tunnel. It is an underground way around the city, to the hotel, to the houses, so the people don’t have to be in the light. At least three generations of people, apparently unhappy with the way WWII ended, live in this city, staying underground during the day, and keeping the town maint ained in the dark—but why? I don’t have much time to ponder; my friend is loose and we were rushing up, out of the tunnel, through the house, into the neighborhood, out of breath when we reach the car. My friend fumbles with the keys, still sobbing. I take the keys, open the doors, get them in, and get out of there as fast as I can.

I’ve told my story, and I’ve showed them the picture. The pictures I have are blurry, unreliable, they don’t prove anything. But I know. I know what the man meant when he said he was going to build a bigger, brighter Los Angeles. Whiter and brighter often get confused, seeing as they’re synonyms. Somewhere, some 80 miles outside of Los Angeles, there is a city. You may think it’s abandoned, but it’s not. People live there. But you’ll never see them in the light.

Photo by Harmony Hertzog
Photo by Harmony Hertzog

“Big Red Roger,” by Taylor Farner

Artwork by Christina Cavadias.  See more of her work at http://tamurakitty.deviantart.com/gallery/.

Sarah loved the night shift. After scrubbing the sides of the tank for a while, she looked down and saw Roger staring up at her. She instinctively put her hand on the emergency switch to close the metal grate, but it didn’t seem Roger was trying to escape. She looked out over the dark aquarium floor, and didn’t see anything unusual. She held still, trying to listen for the sound again, but didn’t hear anything. A shiver passed through her spine, but she went on with her job.

Roger was the world’s largest giant red octopus, and the only male. When the founder of the Ventura Aquarium first caught Roger, he weighed 125 pounds and stretched out to just over 7 feet. After three months of living in the aquarium, Roger had grown exponentially, possibly because of mating season or something, they were sure.

Just as Sarah started brushing again, a huge weight pushed her to the ground. She screamed and started flailing and managed to hit what had knocked her down.

“Nick! You fucking asshole!” she yelled.

“Jesus babe, you got me right in the nuts,” Nick said.

“Good, you scared the shit out of me.”

Nick pulled Sarah back to her feet. “Sorry babe. I wanted to surprise you,” Nick said, leaning in for a kiss. Sarah brushed him off.

Nick was the kind of guy who got a DUI crashing his dad’s BMW on prom night.  And Sarah loved him.

“I got you these,” Nick said, pulling a plastic wrapped bouquet of roses from his back—price tag still intact.

Sarah sighed. It was hard to stay mad at him sometimes. She pulled the flowers in and gave a whiff.

“Thanks babe. Why’d you sneak in? You know I’m off in like, 20 minutes,” Sarah asked.

“I wanted to surprise you. Tonight’s our 5 months,” Nick said.

Sarah’s face went flush, and she embraced Nick in a slobbery smooch. The brush fell down to the net beneath the metal bridge over Roger’s tank, they started necking pretty hard, and Nick began to undress.

Sarah followed suit, then Nick set her butt down on the cold railing.

“Hey, babe?” Nick said.

“What?” Sarah asked, blushing now that they were both naked, once again, at her work.

“Don’t freak out,” said Nick. And with that, he shoved her off the side. Sarah gave a brief scream before she was caught by the net beneath her.

“Ugh, you dick!” she yelled at Nick, who was jumping down to her side.

The tension on the net made a grinding sound as the two lovers swayed briefly, some ten feet over the water. Sarah looked down, and saw Roger drifting across the bottom of the tank.

Nick started kissing Sarah’s neck. She was mad, but still very excited. He was always a madman when it came to public indecency.

The two rolled around on the net more and more, making it shake and sway. Roger looked up and saw the dangling fruit, tantalizing him from above. He swam near the surface and reached one tentacle up briefly before returning to the cool waters, wading with anticipation.

The tank’s lights shone up through the waters below them. Sarah was hot and sweaty, and endured Nick’s repeated pummeling. Both were breathing heavily. Sarah turned her head and saw Roger below them, staring up. Suddenly everything was drowned in sensory overload. She heard the screeching of the swaying net, felt Nick’s hot breath on her neck as he thrust over and over again. The tension on the net rang louder and louder, like a collar being torn slowly with each movement.

“Nick,” she said. He didn’t seem to notice. He kept working away at her.

“Nick!” she said, firmly this time. She put her palm against his chest, but with each movement he pushed her hand farther away. “I think we should get out, I don’t like this—can we go…”

Nick looked down at her and saw the panic in Sarah’s face. Sarah sat up, and something snapped. She let out a short yelp. Her hand fell through a large hole in the net. She spun around, trying to gain leverage, but a larger hole ripped open, and she fell through, bottom first.

Nick made a grab for her wrist, but missed.

Looking down, Nick yelled after her as she descended into the cold blue water.  Sinking, Sarah looked around, trying to get an eye on Roger, but she couldn’t find him. She swam to the top as quickly as possible.

Sarah swam furiously to the edge of the tank.

“Grab it!” Nick yelled, extending the end of the pole towards Sarah.

Sarah looked up and saw the pole. Nick surveyed the rest of the waters. No sign  of Roger. His heart began to calm as Sarah neared the  pole.

I’ve waited long enough. If I’m going to strike, let it be now.  The girl isn’t expecting it. She is in a frenzy, flailing about. Real quick. One solid motion, and I’ll drag her down the depths of the tank.

Sarah grabbed the pole. Nick struggled to pull her up one-handed while still keeping hold of the net. He managed to get her high enough out of the waters to grab the net. Her skin was shivering and white with fear. Then she felt stuck. She didn’t feel pain at first, but after a moment her dulled nerves screamed as what felt like a whip stung her calf. She was yanked back into the water before she could look down.

“Sarah!” Nick yelled. He looked down, not seeing anything right away except the sloshing water and the black and white contrast of dark hair and pale flesh. Then all he saw was red. Big Red Roger.

Nick froze. He needed to act fast. Instinct told him not to jump in, but if he didn’t, there’d be no chance of saving Sarah. With the pole in hand, he jumped in.

Once beneath the surface, he saw Roger had swum a good twenty or so feet away and was diving farther down. Nick pursued him, his vision blurred by the salty water. He detached the brush from the pole, revealing a semi-sharp attachment.

Roger had set to work on Sarah, engulfing her. She could barely see around one of his giant red tentacles. She flailed hard, but Roger’s tentacles held all but her left leg. All she could see was the darkening insides of the monster, as she felt its strong, warm grasp engulfing  her. The pain felt like her flesh was being fed through a wood chipper.

Nick was close. The monster’s back was to him as Nick thrust the end of his makeshift spear into the monster. The octopus spun around. Looking into its eyes, Nick was certain he saw the eyes of death. Its mad gaze shook him to the bone. With real terror.

Roger extended an arm and grabbed  the pole, ripped it from Nick, and cast it aside. With another arm, Roger reached out and grabbed a hold of Nick’s torso, holding his arm tight to his side.

The pain was tremendous. Nick smashed his fist down over and over again, trying to loosen Roger’s grip. He failed. Nick made a break for the spear again, reaching outwards, kicking his way closer. He peered back down, and saw Roger had focused again on eating his catch–although it didn’t look like he was eating her anymore.

Nick grabbed the end of the spear. When it was lined up with the back of the creature’s head, Nick drove it home. This time the contact was much more solid. It broke through the creature’s flesh, dipping into the back of its head.

Once Nick was certain the spear was well-lodged in the back of Roger’s head, he set to trying to peel off the suckers from his other arm and ribcage. It was a slow process, and incredibly painful. If he drowned, there was no way he’d be able to save Sarah.

Nick began to cough as Roger’s blood bloomed into his face. He managed to peel off the suckers, and started kicking for the top, dragging Roger and Sarah with him. He’d made it. With all his strength, he attempted to push the hulking, slimy, bloody mass of Roger and Sarah up and out of the water.

Turning, Nick started to climb the net with his feet and one hand, the other holding onto Sarah’s leg. He struggled to climb the net, but used Roger’s weight to peel the suckers off Sarah.

It was working. Sarah’s head was revealed. It was relatively unharmed, but was smeared with Roger’s blood. The creature’s inner beak clung onto Sarah’s midsection, just below her abdomen.

The farther out of water Nick pulled, the weaker Roger’s grip on Sarah became. The creature eventually fell back into the water, floating near the top in a bloody cesspool. Nick prayed against all hope that the net held this time. Only a couple more feet, and he’d be able to resuscitate Sarah.

At the top, he swung Sarah over the edge, onto her back. He climbed over the edge himself, and over her pale body. Her midsection was completely ravaged.

He started blowing air into her mouth and pumping her chest. Everything was moving at top speed—he didn’t know what to do, what did it do to her? Oh god, oh god, oh god, please Sarah you can’t die, no, no, no, I’m sorry, this is all my fault, this was so stupid, please no, I love you.

He got up and grabbed his phone, dialed 911, then went back to chest compressions.

“I’m at the Ventura Aquarium, my girlfriend is dying, she was attacked by the octopus here… I… Jesus Christ, I know it sounds stupid, but she needs help, send an—”

Uhh-huuaaack! Sarah spewed out a mouthful of water, and then another. It made the most God-awful puking sound. Nick was so shocked he lifted his head up, sending the phone bouncing from his shoulder to the ground and into Roger’s tank. He backed off of Sarah.

More water came gushing out of her, and she started coughing. It was a horribly sour cough, like a running garbage disposal.

“Oh thank god,” Nick said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Sarah lay on her side. Nick looked her over; the color began to return to her skin. Even some of the wounds from the suckers inflicted only moments ago began to fade. He looked at the wounds on his arm; the swelling flesh was still throbbing and beginning to sting very badly as the adrenaline left his system.

He looked down to find his phone floating in the tank.

“Oh, crap. Well, I hope they’re sending someone,” Nick said, clutching at his arm. “You’re going to be okay—wuhh!” he said, before Sarah pulled him down to meet her face. She embraced him in a deep kiss, and he let his eyelids collapse.

If he’d left them open, he’d have seen the crazed, deep, dark red eyes, the same as Roger’s. The eyes grew larger and larger.

Dazed, Nick submerged his love and passion for the woman in his last eternal kiss.

Then something actually felt wrong. Sarah’s tongue—it was doing something weird. It almost felt like it almost bit him. Nick opened his eyes, and then it sunk in. Something was definitely wrong. Sarah’s eyes were huge, mad, and horrifying. He screamed a noiseless cry. He tried pulling away, but something gripped his tongue, pulling his face in closer and closer. Then, twining up the sides of his face, red tentacles sprouted out from Sarah’s mouth. He cried and screamed, and tried to push her away. It didn’t take long before Nick’s entire face was consumed.

There was a sharp suckling sound, and then Sarah peeled away, taking Nick’s face with her. The aquarium went quiet before Nick’s corpse slumped over, and then fell off the side, into Roger’s tank. His body floated up to the surface, revealing the empty shell of his skull. Chunks of skull and brain floated and bumped into each other as the waters swayed and jerked.

“Prepping Your Fish,” by Taylor Farner

The kids all just stared out, not really seeing anything. Toby was familiar with this face. He’d gotten used to it as a substitute, going over times tables and getting the kids to understand photosynthesis. They didn’t really hear him. They weren’t really in class, but staring outwards, day dreaming about space and wizards or princesses and whatever else they felt was more important than the practical things, the real things.

Slamming the 25-pound catfish onto the long lab table startled them a little. A couple jaws dropped.

“Alright, c’mon guys, wakey wakey,” Toby said. The kids’ attitudes didn’t change much.

The classroom was cold. Outside the windows everything was dark. The lights in the back of the room were off to reveal the work Toby set to work on. Tonight the kids would learn by watching, and then doing. If it worked before, it would work again. It was all about having the right message. If you have good intentions, why would anyone want to stop you? And why would anyone suspect the sub?

“I know you don’t like regular schoolwork, so I came up with a surprise for the lesson plan, but don’t tell Mrs. Miller!” Toby told the kids, lightly shushing them with his gloved fingertip. “I’m going to teach you practical skills, like preparing your food, that way when you’re older and out there on your own, you’ll know how to feed yourselves.”

The kids seemed a little confused.

“Has anyone ever seen their mommy or daddy clean a fish before?” Toby asked.

One of the boys, Gregory Trotus, looked from side to side at the other kids, and raised his hand. Toby pointed the long serrated knife at Gregory.

Gregory slowly put his hand down.

“Mi-mister S,” he mumbled, “Can we please go? It’s cold in here, and scary.”

Crayon fish from Mrs. Miller's class.
Crayon fish from Mrs. Miller’s class.

“Is that how you all feel?” Toby had his feelings hurt like this before, something that stemmed back to when he was their age. It had become a passion of his to impart his knowledge onto children, and teach them to understand what he had to offer. But after months of subbing, the heartlessness of kids taught him that they didn’t care.The other children nodded in anxious agreement.

“Well, you kids have done a number on my heart, you know that? You’re just gonna sit, and watch, and maybe you’ll learn something. You’re all fish that I’m guiding through these dark waters.” Toby gestured to the outer walls of the sealed shed, referring to the outside world. He was obviously angry, and he realized he frightened the kids

even more. He didn’t mean to, but sometimes you had to put a little fear in the kids to make them listen. Toby knew that.

“I’ll run through this quickly to give you an idea of what to do. Make sure you have a clear workspace. You want to have a bowl,” he paused and lifted the bowl on the table so the kids could see.

“Then you take your knife, and cut from the dorsal fin on the back, to the one at the tail end of the fish. Then you grab pliers, and peel back the fish skin, take your knife again, and make a cut from the fish’s butt all the way up to its neck, pull out all the guts, and drop them into the bucket here.” The entrails made a wet flopping sound as they hit the bottom of the bucket. “After that, you just have to rinse the fish off.”

Toby cleaned up the fish, placed it in the bowl, and put it into the cooler behind him.

“I told you guys I had a surprise,” he said, walking
to the other side of the table and turning on a lamp to illuminate a sheet-covered mass atop the table. He grabbed the end of the sheet and yanked it back.

“It’s Mrs. Miller!” the kids shrieked.

Indeed, it was. The naked corpse of the children’s school teacher lay on the table, growing blue and cold. The kids started scrambling up to their feet and pounding on the wall and locked door behind them, deafened by their own screams. They could scream and cry all they wanted, it didn’t make a difference. It never mattered before. No one was on campus anymore. Even the janitor had ended his shift and gone home hours ago.

“With people, it’s really the same process as the fish,” Toby said, unmoved by their continued screams. He proceeded to skin the woman, gut her, and dispose of the scraps. He then lowered her into the large rollaway cooler behind him. The kids gave up on escaping halfway through the routine and instead stood still, watching Toby’s every move.

When Mrs. Miller was in the cooler, Toby turned back to the table and grabbed the knife. The kids shuddered.

“Now, which one of you wants to go first? Melanie, why don’t you go first, you’ve been the closest thing to well-behaved today.” Toby held the knife out to the girl, handle first. “You see, you’re all fish swimming in a pond that’s too small, and there’s just not enough food for all
of you. Someday, this is what it’s going to come down to. Gregory, why don’t you lay down on the table for Melanie? You’re the one who wanted to leave so badly.” He patted the blood-smeared surface of the table for Gregory to lie down.