I see lights. Do you see them? They’re out there in the field. Look to your right. Do you see the lights? I see them, driving home on the long, dark farm roads. They’re where no roads go, and the flat darkness makes them seem to move. Or do they move? Do you see them? They look much closer tonight. The lights. If I wasn’t so tired I would try to find the source of the lights. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps.
I see lights again. Can you see them? Thick, yellow lights entwine with the fog that layers the fields in a sickening yellow-gray. They still look close tonight. Can you see the lights? But there is no road to the lights. The curiosity is really getting to me. Can you see them? Jaundice-colored lights in the right field. They look even closer. But there is no road. Where are those lights coming from?
The lights are closer. Do you see them? I can gauge their distance between the road and the mountains. The lights are moving closer to the road. Do you see the lights? There has to be a road. The lights have to be coming from something. Are the lights coming from the fog? No, the lights are above the fog. But the fog is so dense where the lights are. And the lights are getting closer.
There are no lights during the day. The fields to the right are normal, flat spans from the road to the mountain. I can’t tell where the lights are at night. Can you tell? I think the fields look different in some spots. Are they sick? Is it from the lights? There is a dirt path. Do you see it? It leads into the fields. Will you go with me? I wonder if the lights will be even closer tonight.
I see the lights. The sickly, sticky fog is yellow with the lights. The path is dark. The lights do not illuminate the path. You can’t tell, because you didn’t come. The lights are not normal lights. They do not illuminate the path, or the fields, only the fog. The lights are ill. The fog is infected with the lights. The fields under the lights are sparse. I’m almost inside the lights. I’m scared. They’re pulsing. The lights are a contamination.
I’m in the lights. They are bright, but they don’t shed light on anything. There is an electrical taste in the air. The lights are like an illness. They are not coming from any visible source. The sick, yellow lights mingle with the gray fog and that somehow sustains them. The lights are ill. I’m not so scared now, but I think there is something wrong. The lights are a contamination.
The lights are still out there. Have you seen them? I don’t go down that road anymore. I have not seen them. But I can feel them. The lights are a contamination. I can feel their sickly, yellow glow inside of me. Can you see the lights? The lights are not ill, they are an infection. I can feel them inside of me. I’m scared. Do you see the lights? I don’t see them, but I feel them, spreading. The lights. The lights are a contamination.
Gregg pounds on Mary Walter’s front door. The brittle wood rattles on the hinges, a few paint chips float down to the porch. He glances at his watch. Twenty minutes he’s been waiting. Goddammit. His wife is going to kill him if he’s late for dinner.
He bangs on the door again.
“Mary, you in there?” he says. “It’s Gregg Sharpe.”
Gregg leans over the porch railing, tries to look in the window. It’s impossible to see inside. Like all the others around the house, the front window is entirely blocked off by piles of useless shit. Empty boxes. Busted furniture. Mountains of moldy clothes.
Couple years back, during the last court mandated cleanup of Mary’s house, some city shrinks had tried explaining this behavior to Gregg. They went on and on about how Mary barricades her windows because she’s afraid. She’s been trying to isolate herself, avoiding the outside world for nearly thirty years. She’s suffered some great losses, they’d told him. Her husband had killed himself in the woods out behind their house. Took a shotgun out back with him and just ended it. Mary’d been living alone in that house ever since.
Gregg remembers thinking that Mary’s story was sad and all, but he never came around to believing what those stuffy psychologists had told him. In his mind, the fact remained that losing people didn’t make you go crazy—giving up did. On his second tour in Iraq, Gregg lost two of his best friends in Fallujah. Didn’t turn him into no compulsive hoarder. Their sacrifice only made him stronger, more committed to the job.
He never bothered defending himself to those stuffy psych department bitches. Didn’t have to. Gregg knew why Mary covered her windows—to hide from city officials like him. All their hippie bullshit did was give Mary every excuse she needed to keep on breaking the law.
Gregg bangs on the door again.
“C’mon, Mary! Enough is enough. Open up now, you hear me?”
Now she’s making him late.
This hide and seek game is nothing new to him. Happens every time he comes for a scheduled visit. That’s why he didn’t make an appointment today, why he’d shown up after scheduled hours. Gregg had hoped that by coming unannounced, he’d be able to avoid the charade, but this had been the longest she’d made him wait. Gregg hopes that it’s because she’s got some kind of hoarder ESP and she saw him coming—living up to the local witch-lady reputation everyone in town had pinned on her. Otherwise, the reason she’s taking so long could turn out to be something serious, something known to happen in severe hoarder cases like Mary’s.
A thought enters Gregg’s mind, a momentary picture: Mary lying dead in a pile of slimy garbage, thrift store clutter piled up on top of her crumpled, stiff body.
Leaning over, his ear almost touching the crusty door, he listens for signs of life. The house is silent for a moment, but then Gregg hears some mumbling, followed by a long muffled groan. Adrenaline grabs him and he reaches up to pound on the door. This time though, instead of slamming on the wood, his fist comes straight down on a rusted nail sticking out of the door. The crooked spike slips effortlessly into the side of his hand, poking out of the front of his palm. He snatches his hand away, as if recoiling from an open flame.
Looking down, Gregg sees the puncture wound, deep, already turning blue around the edges of the tiny hole. There’s no blood for a moment, just a cold sensation, like he’s squeezing an ice cube in his fist. Then the blood comes, thick, like syrup. Dark red, almost black. The pain starts up too, the icy numbness in his palm replaced by a hot poker, glowing angry red.
Words explode from his mouth without consent.
“Well,” a voice says from behind the door. “That’s no way to say hello.”
Gregg looks up, sees Mary’s wrinkled face behind the partially opened door. The chain on the sliding lock dangles in front of her eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she says. “You’re not supposed to come for another week.”
“Mary, please. I stuck myself on this nail.” Gregg, pressing his hands together in a bloody prayer, gestures at the nail sticking out of the door. “Can you let me in?”
“You didn’t answer my question. You said I had another week to clean up.”
“I just came to check in—goddammit—please, Mary, help me out?”
“Long as you don’t use His name in my house.”
“Godda—okay. Gosh, Mary. I’m real sorry about that.”
Mary slams the door in Gregg’s face. For a moment he thinks that she’s leaving him out there, pissed off by his poorly veiled sarcasm. He hears her slide off the chain lock. She yanks the door, but can’t get it all the way open on account of all the crap piled up in the entryway behind it. Last time Gregg had been there, she’d told him she’d be sure to clean out the foyer.
Gregg steps into Mary’s house.
The smell, goddammit. Almost sends him right back out the door.
The reek of Mary’s house somehow always surprises him, chokes him. The smell reminds Gregg of pulling shit burning detail back in Iraq, the acrid fumes burning their way up his nostrils. Somehow though, the stench of Mary’s house is even worse than those burning buckets of crap. A lingering mildew sours the air, like clothes left in the washer overnight. Gregg sucks in a breath and holds it— fucking tasting the air—takes a few more steps into the house. Mary spins around with a scowl, as if she’d heard him gasp. The look on her face is twisted between embarrassment and disdain.
“You all right, Mary?”
“Seemed like it took you a long time to answer the door, is all. And I thought I heard you moaning, thought maybe you’d hurt yourself or something.”
“I’m fine,” she says, glancing away.
Mary always looks away when she’s lying. That’s her tell.
“Okay. If you say so.” Gregg waits a beat. “You sure?”
“Just stay there,” she says. “I’ll go find something to put on that. Then you can leave.”
“All right,” he says, grinning. “And thank you.”
“Don’t you try to be sweet with me, you snake. And don’t go touching nothin neither.”
Mary turns around, shuffles down the narrow path she’s constructed between the walls of trash and debris. The way her body cranes over as she walks reminds Gregg of a diseased bird, hollow and brittle, like a vulture destined to become its own prey. Her delicate frame bounces off the crap piled up on either side of her. A cascade of shoes tumbles to the floor. She kicks them to the side of the path and continues shoving her way towards the kitchen.
Looking around Mary’s living room—though it’s hard to imagine much living going on there—Gregg wonders why he’d thought coming in would help. He suddenly realizes that anything Mary plans on wrapping his wound with will most likely cause infection.
On a nearby table he sees a bundle of tomatoes growing grey hair. Next to them, some bread loaves lay squished beneath a pile of swollen canned goods, the bread all speckled green and white. There’s a bunch of splintered end tables stacked up like a work of modern art in front of the fireplace. Coat hangers are hooked to anything that can support the weight of a thousand thrift store sweaters, every color of the spectrum, many with cartoon cats airbrushed on the front.
Over the fireplace he spots the crowning jewel of the room, the centerpiece of Mary’s dysfunction. A giant cross, the symbol of her forgotten faith, hangs upside-down by a solitary nail. Looks like it’s been that way for years. Above the dangling cross, there’s a faint black outline on the wall, traced in soot on the wallpaper. A ghostly imprint, like a carbon copy revealing a time when the cross had been hung correctly.
Gregg feels a stab of pain in the center of his palm. He grips his injury with both hands. Glancing down, he sees blood spilling out between his fingers, streaming down both forearms.
“Unbelievable,” he mutters. “Fucking redneck bullshit. Rusted ass nail, just sticking—“
Gregg hears the moaning noise again, the one he’d heard outside the front door.
To his left there’s a blue tarp laid out in the middle of the living room, big concrete cinderblocks lining the edge. The tarp is smoothed out, stretched, cinderblocks carefully placed along the edges. Gregg notices that the hoard has been cleared away from the tarp, giving the space a look of importance amidst all the surrounding clutter.
The moaning again, this time blending into a high-pitched wail.
As he gets closer, Gregg realizes the sound is coming from beneath the tarp.
The wailing reminds him of the sound cats make right before they launch into a fight. Approaching the plastic sheet, Gregg recalls the time that the city had seized over twenty cats from Mary’s home. Fear starts playing with his head again—implanting the image of a hundred feral cats all huddled up beneath the tarp, ready to pounce on him, ripping him to pieces as soon as he lifts the corner.
The wail grows louder as he nears, now a choir of alley cats reaching crescendo.
Gregg swallows the terror in his throat, tries to steady his heartbeat by telling himself he’s being ridiculous. It’s a fucking cat, man, or at worst, a litter. All the more reason to condemn this fucking hellhole. Semper fi, you pussy.
He glances down the pathway, hears Mary shuffling around in the kitchen, clanging pots and pans, still looking for whatever Ebola rag she’s going to try and wrap around his hand.
Another wail, still louder this time, brings his attention back to the tarp.
Gregg squats down, slides one of the cinderblocks off with his good hand. The concrete grinds across the floor, leaving deep gouges in the hardwood. Momentarily seized by guilt, Gregg reminds himself that there’s no way Mary will ever notice the damage to the floorboards. Hell, he remembers, the demolition crew is coming next week.
Pinching the corner of the tarp, he pulls on the plastic. It doesn’t budge. The tarp is glued to the floor. Gregg prays that this happened intentionally somehow, shuttering at the thought of what kind of slime could bond with the water-resistant tarp. He grabs the corner again, getting a good grip this time, and tugs hard. The plastic makes a tearing sound, like ripping off a strip of duct tape. He stumbles back from the sudden release, falling against a pile of damp clothes.
The wailing suddenly stops.
Gregg drops the plastic sheet, pushes himself up to see what’s under the tarp.
There is a massive circular hole cut through the hardwood of Mary’s living room floor, straight down to the basement below. A hot wave of putrid stench billows up in Gregg’s face.
“Mother of God,” he says, lifting his forearm up to cover his mouth and nose.
“What are you doing!”
Gregg stumbles forward, almost falling in the hole. He hadn’t noticed Mary sneaking back from the kitchen, his mind too busy trying to reconcile with the insanely dangerous hole Mary had cut into the floor. Spinning around, he sees that her little body is shaking with anger. She’s clutching a bottle of rubbing alcohol and an old mechanic’s rag.
“What the hell is this?” Gregg says, pointing at the hole.
At least six or eight feet across, the lining of the hole is masked off with glued down newspaper, like some paper mâché project from Hell. The smell of warm shit wafting up from the hole overwhelms the moldiness that normally possesses her house, making it seem as though the walls had been bathed in black water. The light of the living room shines down on a mess of brown sludge stirring in the basement.
A septic leak, Gregg assumes.
“That’s it, I’ve seen enough. We’re through here. I’m calling APS right now and getting you the hell out of this place. Your house is finished.”
“Finished?” The red drains from her face in an instant, her eyes become glossy.
“There’s no way to fix this, Mary. Just look at it down there!”
The wailing starts up again, sounds more like a cartoon train whistle this time. Without the tarp muffling the noise, the screeching becomes clearer, piercing his skull.
“How long has that been going on?” Gregg asked. “How can you stand that sound?”
“What sound?” Mary wiped the tears from her eyes, looking away from Gregg.
“Don’t lie to me, I know you can hear that.” Gregg takes a step towards the hole, the smell keeping him from getting too close. “Your pipes must’ve burst down there. You really can’t hear that?”
“Oh, the pipes,” Mary says, looking away again. “The pipes are always wailing.”
Mary stares at the hole, her eyes vacant, the blackness of her pupils expanding.
“Whatever, Mary. I’m done with all of your bullshit. It’s over. You can’t live like this anymore. I can’t let you. I came here tonight to tell you that the city has decided to tear down your house. You missed the hearing, so I came here on my own accord, off the record. I wanted to tell you myself. The demolition crew is coming out next week, Mary. I’m sorry.”
Mary’s eyes stay fixed on the hole. Her hands tremble, her grip tightening around the bottle and rag. Redness starts filling her face again.
“You’re going to do what?” she says. “You’re going to tear down my house!”
She takes a step towards him.
Gregg holds up his hand out of instinct, wincing against the pain.
“Stop right there, Mary. Stop.”
“You can’t do that. You don’t understand!”
“What are you talking about? What don’t I understand?”
She takes another step forward. Her eyes become even more distant, black and empty.
“This is my purpose,” she says. “My terrible burden. I made a deal—”
“A deal? Mary, what the fuck’re you—hey, now—stop right there!”
“—in exchange for his soul. He can never really come back, not fully—”
“Don’t make me hurt you.” Gregg makes a fist with his good hand.
“—but if I keep feeding the filth, keep serving his sorrow—I get to keep his soul.”
Mary lifts the bottle of rubbing alcohol at Gregg, squeezes with both hands. Liquid shoots out of a hole notched in the cap, the geyser spraying him right in the face.
Gregg stumbles. His eyes feel like they’re on fire. The puncture in his hand stings from the alcohol, as if a knife has driven into his palm.
He steps back, trips on one of the cinderblocks and falls.
The anticipation of slamming down on the hardwood is replaced by a few seconds of weightlessness, sending his stomach lurching into his chest. He lands with a soft squish, halfway submerged in what feels like thick mud. Acrid fumes of sewage fill his lungs, the noxious air of human waste. He coughs, gets sick on himself. Tears stream down his cheeks. Blinking the alcohol from his eyes, Gregg can see the faint outline of the living room hole above him. He hears the crinkle of the plastic tarp overhead.
The light begins to fade.
“Mary! What the fuck are you doing! Get me out of here!”
The crinkling continues. He can barely see the light through his burning tears.
“You crazy bitch! I’m gonna have your ass for this!”
Gregg digs his good hand beneath the sludge, roots around in search of his pocket. He slips his hand in, grabs his phone. There’s a wet sucking sound when he pulls his hand back out of the muck. Gregg presses the button, but the screen doesn’t light up. He presses again. Using the clean part of his sleeve, he wipes away the shit caked up on the front of his cell, pressing the button frantically. Nothing. The slime must’ve killed his phone.
Wiping his eyes against his shoulder, he tries looking up again. The hole is completely covered now, the light gone. Gregg hears Mary sliding the cinderblocks back in place.
Then he hears the wailing again—this time, just behind his left ear.
“What the fuck!”
Gregg throws his weight forward, but his body is stuck. Struggling against the suction, he feels himself sinking deeper. He claws at the cesspool with both hands, fully aware of the fact that he’s most likely just contracted some kind of Hepatitis. He starts imagining the bacteria seeping into the hole in his hand, infecting him. Luckily, desperation drowns out those thoughts.
The wailing cry lifts up over his head, as if floating, shadowing his frantic movements.
“Mary!” he screams. “What the fuck is going on!”
Mary doesn’t respond, just keeps sliding the concrete blocks on the tarp.
The screaming moves closer, descending on him, nearing his face.
“For the love of God–help me!”
The sound stops.
There’s no more noise upstairs, either. Mary’s done securing the tarp.
Mustering up his most sympathetic voice, Gregg pleads for his life. He aims for her heart.
“Mary, please. I have a family. Please, don’t leave me in here. Don’t put my wife through the same pain you’ve held inside you all these years. She needs me.”
“And I need him,” Mary says. Gregg hears her footsteps across the hardwood above him, slowly moving away from the hole, leaving him in the silence of the basement.
The alcohol now cleared from his eyes, he sees a dim light coming from the corner of the room. There’s a plywood table across from him, built into the concrete wall. Rows and rows of candles are lined up on top, burnt down to their dying glow, streams of hardened wax covering the entire surface of the wood. On the wall, Gregg can see crudely drawn symbols etched in charcoal—stars and circles, elaborate figures he doesn’t recognize. Squinting his eyes, he makes out some words written in shit across the wall:
With weeping and with wailing, accursed spirit, do thou remain, for I know thee although thou art all filthy.
“What the fu—” Gregg’s last words are never heard. Something rises up in front of him, blocking the dim glow of the candles. The wailing begins again, the creature’s hot breath blowing right into his face. What seemed to Gregg like bony fingers wrap around the collar of his shirt, squeezing, pulling him beneath the surface of the murky river of shit. Gregg struggles to pull off the phantom hands, the black water filling his mouth, forcing itself up his nostrils.
Photo by Harmony Hertzog
It happened again. Not exactly the same as before, and this incident is even harder to believe than the first, but it happened. You probably won’t believe me, again, but I’ll tell you anyway.
We’re urban explorers. We seek out abandoned cities, places, and landmarks of the past and explore them, taking photo documentation of the decay of manmade structures and the reclamation of the land by nature. Our hobby is dangerous; condemned, unstable structures, trespassing, potential conflicts with vagrants who may inhabit the abandoned places…and things people won’t believe, like California City being inhabited by people who live completely in darkness; generations of people who haven’t seen the light of day in over 60 years. Most of us take these dangers in stride, I mean, don’t most hobbies involving physical activity have risks? But sometimes the dangers aren’t tangible, thought to be outside the realm of possibility, and therefore aren’t taken into account. We found that out when we decided to explore Rock-A-Hoola, the abandoned waterpark on the I-15 in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
We heard the stories of Rock-A-Hoola, the area’s first and only waterpark: Built in the 1950s, it was doomed from the start. The man behind the waterpark, Thomas Newberry, thought Rock-A-Hoola would be a great pit-stop for those on their way to or from Los Angeles and Las Vegas and began building the waterpark in the vicinity of Lake Dolores, which was named after his wife. The actual construction of the waterpark went smoothly, but Lake Dolores was not an adequate source of water to sustain the park. With no feasible water source, Newberry had to build a reservoir, which put them way over budget. When he was finally able to open Rock-A-Hoola in 1953, two years later than planned, the opening day was met with catastrophe. There were only a few dozen people there for Rock-A-Hoola’s grand opening, Newberry’s wife and children included. With a less than spectacular turnout, Newberry and his family proceeded to enjoy their waterpark. While on one of the slides, Dolores Newberry somehow drowned, her lifeless body floating in the catch pool in front of the meager clientele. Thomas Newberry closed the park indefinitely, depressed over the loss of his wife and life savings.
Rock-A-Hoola was revitalized in the 1960s; the waterpark had a much better reception this time around, whether from advertising or from people wanting to see where Dolores Newberry died is unknown. Either way, Rock-A-Hoola was a success for the time being. Seven years after the reopening, Rock-A-Hoola was struck by lightning in a desert storm, common for that area. Almost all the patrons were electrocuted and killed. Rock-A-Hoola closed again, this time the slides and anything else of value were removed and sold off, leaving skeletal towers and stairways to nowhere throughout the waterpark.
Since the 1970s, few people have expressed interest in buying and reopening the park, the most recent in 2013. Only one of these ventures panned out for a short period in the late 90s, so it still stands abandoned to this day. Rock-A-Hoola has been ravaged by vandals, animals, and years of desert weather, but it still stands. We, recovered from our terrible trip to California City, decided to go document the remains of Rock-A-Hoola. We decided to take more people this time, perhaps due to the old adage of safety in numbers, but we would never admit we were scared. Rock-A-Hoola had a well-documented history; it’s outdoors, and, yes, in the middle of nowhere, but at least shouting distance from a major Interstate highway.
If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d miss it. The easiest way to get to Rock-A-Hoola is to pass it, backtracking about a mile on the ill-maintained frontage road off the Minnetonka exit. Great skeletal palm trees and a giant faded statue of a Coke cup mark the entrance to the waterpark parking lot. We park close to the front gates and get out, marveling at the decay. An old billboard welcomes us to Rock-A-Hoola, the bottom half of the poster marred with graffiti. We walk through the abandoned turnstiles, photographing what we find interesting. I think I notice the smell first. It’s a combination of things—animals alive and dead, long ago fires, aerosol paint—that form a miasma within the waterpark. I’m immediately mad at myself for getting spooked so quickly. This place was nothing like California City; what could I possibly be afraid of? The worst things out here were rattlesnakes and coyotes, and the former were unlikely in the colder winter weather. I shake my feeling of unease off and forge on, entering what appeared to have been an administration building.
I ‘m greeted with typical brainless graffiti: swastikas, poorly rendered penises, pentagrams. But there were some works of art, and some pieces that weren’t greatly executed, but got credit for creativity. I photograph what I like, which includes a literal rendition of The Lonely Hearts Club, an extremely well done Felix the Cat, a Banksy-esque portrait of a girl, and a crude but creative rendering of the word “TITS” in psychedelic colors and swirls. As I wander through the building I relax, forgetting my earlier feelings of foreboding as my sense of adventure took over. I photograph everything I can: animal tracks, graffiti, decay, shots of the surrounding desert through doorless entryways and paneless windows. I surprise a coyote who made his home in an overturned desk in one of the rooms, and I laugh at his expression, even more startled than my own, as I snap his picture. I wander outside to what had once been a garden walk filled with lush, tropical flowers and wholesome billboards, reminding you to enjoy a Coke, wear Coppertone, and buy Chevrolet. The flowers were long dead and nothing but gravel piles remained, while someone had masterfully repainted the billboards, the Chevy ad now warning us that the future is blight as the young couple in the Bel-Air look upon a city in turmoil, background painted in atomic blast orange. I snap several shots of the billboards and grounds before returning to the actual waterpark.
I take several shots of the Rock-A-Hoola entrance signs, some nearly illegible, sun-bleached and rotting. I glance around the park, getting an eye on my friends. I couldn’t see them all, but I didn’t think anything of it; there were several buildings around and I wasn’t at the best vantage point anyway. Speaking of vantage points, I really want to get some shots of the entire park from the stairs to nowhere. As I made my way across the waterpark, I was suddenly aware of how cold it was. You don’t normally associate the desert with cold; but those winds in early December will get you. I zip my jacket up and make my way up the stairs. As I finally get to the top, cheeks pink, nose running, and sucking in sharp breaths of frigid air, I freeze. Rock-A-Hoola is full of people in bathing suits, lounging in the sun, playing in the water, and waiting in line for slides. I do a double-take, and they were all gone. I grasp the railing and lean out, looking around wildly. What had I just seen? You didn’t see anything, I chide myself, you’re lightheaded from climbing all those stairs in the thin, cold air. One of my friends waves and shouts something I can’t hear over the wind. I wave back and start taking aerial photographs of the park, zooming in on the pools now filled with desert debris and dead palm fronds. Satisfied, I start making my way back down the stairs. It’s starting to get darker; it looks like a storm may be moving in. I see distant flashes of lightning, but they’re so far away I can’t yet hear any thunder. At a riser, I hear laughter. I’m still too far away from my friends to hear any of them laughing, and this laughter was like that of a child. I pause and listen hard, hearing nothing but the wind and the steady drone of semi-trucks from the Interstate. As soon as I continue my descent, I hear it again, laughter, and splashing. I whip around, looking up frantically at where the slide these stairs led to used to be, where I could hear a child squealing with excitement, zipping down one of these long sides into the pool below. Of course there was nothing there, but I hurry back to my friends anyway. Most of them are gathered near the main pool, huddling around one of the cameras. The looks on their faces make my insides freeze like no winter wind ever could.
They hand me the camera wordlessly. The image on the screen is surreal: imposed on top of the abandoned pool filled with debris was a filmy, translucent image of people enjoying the waterpark in its salad days. Children laughing and splashing in the pool, mothers and teenagers lounging in the sun, dads taking pictures for the family albums, all in ghostly relief on this tiny preview screen. My friends are looking at me for explanation, like my encounters in California City make me an expert on creepy weirdness. We all know Rock-A-Hoola’s history, but even then it’s hard to imagine a haunted waterpark suspended in time in some ghostly dimension. I hand the camera back and pull mine out, looking around the waterpark through the lens. I see nothing; no kids, no water, nothing at all extraordinary. I turn back to my friends, shaking my head, but I stop cold: behind my friends was an advancing crowd of translucent, ghostly people. I scream and nearly drop my camera, and as soon as I’m not looking through the lens the apparitions disappear. I’m backing away wildly, fumbling with my camera in order to see if the apparitions are still approaching, but I can’t get my trembling hands to cooperate. One of my friends looks through their camera lens, trying to see what had me so terrified while I continue to back away and gibber incoherently. They must see something, because they start shouting at the rest of us to run. One of my friends grabs me and we sprint for the cars. We get around the pool, past the abandoned shops and buildings, to the gates. They’re locked.
The gates are locked. We shake the bars and scream and yell, frantically trying to find a way out. I look around, realizing we aren’t all there. Two of my friends are missing, still somewhere in Rock-A-Hoola. There is no way they can’t hear us yelling and screaming even if they are in the buildings, but there were no replies or any signs of them. I start flipping through my photos, looking for the images of the entrances, because something’s wrong. I already think I know what’s wrong, but I need to see it. I find the images and see what I was hoping couldn’t be true: there had been no gates when we first came in; most of them were flat-out missing, the surviving few lying mangled and rusted on the concrete. I look back at the gates of Rock-A-Hoola and realize something even stranger: these gates look brand new. Freshly painted bars, well-oiled hinges, and nice, shiny chains and locks. I bang my hands on the gates in frustration. How could this be real? Ghosts? A possessed waterpark? Impossible! My fear subsides as my anger rises. I show the images to my friends, trying to get everyone to calm down. Others realize two of us are missing as we look back through our photos, trying to make sense of our situation. We know we have to find our friends and find a way out, and being calm and logical is the only way to do so.
We make our way back into the park, calling for our friends. As we come upon the abandoned buildings, we stop in our tracks. All the buildings look fresh and new: bright paint, shiny windows, merchandise on the shelves. They didn’t look just new, they look occupied. As we gawk at the transformations, we notice things that are more than shadows, but less than solid, moving around amongst the shelves and racks. Shopping. The apparitions are shopping. A loud, ripping burst of thunder startled us back to our mission. I look up, realizing the storm arrived, and we were going to be caught in it. I didn’t want to seek shelter in the buildings with the apparitions, and I can tell my friends shared the feeling. We head past the buildings, into the actual waterpark, and took shelter under some of the rotting canvases that still clung to long-forgotten cabanas. As we huddle together, trying to figure out our next move, another burst of thunder and lightning illuminates Rock-A-Hoola in a fiercely bright light for just a moment, but it is all we need. The entire park was changing before our eyes: graffiti and debris are disappearing, colorful signs and paint appearing; the pools are filling with bluish chlorinated water; slides are appearing from the platforms that led nowhere only minutes ago. We all stand, in shock, watching the transformation. Another burst of thunder: the storm was moving closer. The closer the storm gets, the more rapidly Rock-A-Hoola changes from an abandoned, decaying waterpark to its former glory.
Another scream broke our trance. We wheel around to find the source of the scream, only to see a man trying to drag one of my friends from our now plush cabana. He’s wearing flowered board shorts, but they’re out of style: very short, with contrast piping on the sides. As we grab onto our friend to keep them in the cabana, we inadvertently pulled the man closer, and we are able to tell his entire appearance is dated: permed hair, caterpillar-like moustache, thick gold chain, and gold framed sunglasses despite the impending storm. I’ll never know who figures it out first, but we all understand with a clarity sharper than the approaching lighting: This man is a victim of the lightning storm and subsequent electrocution that happened in the early 70s. For some reason, the storm is restoring Rock-A-Hoola to its former appearance, and the ghosts of the victims are manifesting and trying to capture us. But why? Do they think we’ll be able to take them away from here? Do they want more people in their eternal waterpark limbo? We can never know. We just know we need to get out.
We jerk our friend out of the man’s grasp and sprint through the rain that’s starting to fall, passing the manifestations lounging around the pools: some start to make moves toward us, some watch us impassively, and some don’t seem to notice us at all. We scream for our missing friends as we run through the rain filling the restored waterpark, heading for the gates. We’ll jump them if we have to; we just need to get out. Some of the ghosts come out of the shops to watch, a few join the man in his pursuit, but even more just don’t notice us. We keep screaming for our friends, and one bursts out of the administration building, joining our run to the exit. We hit the gates and start climbing, all of us scared, soaked, and terrified. We all make it to the top, climb onto the cement stand that holds the now brilliant marquee, proclaiming “Welcome to Rock-A-Hoola,” and jump down onto the concrete below. We continue to run for the cars, but the sense of urgency seems to be dissipating, like the rain is washing it away. Some of us turn to look at the gates, and we realize we’re no longer being pursued: several ghosts stand at the gates, looking at us almost sadly, the way your dog looks at you when you leave for work in the morning. There is no malice in any of the spirits, just sadness. Because they’re stuck here? Because we got away? I snap photos without even realizing I’m snapping photos. One of my friends tugs me into the nearest car as we roar away, heading back to the safety of Los Angeles.
We left one of our friends. We all know it, but none of us can talk about it. We know they are gone. Gone: not lost, not missing, but gone; stuck in Rock-A-Hoola with all the other people who were just gone, who could only appear during desert storms. I flip through the images on my camera, looking at the surreal scenes: in some photos, a mere abandoned waterpark, the next, what looks like a photograph that has been double-exposed, showing both the abandoned and the flourishing waterpark, fighting to be the image. Shadows of Rock-A-Hoola patrons long dead, blurry captures of what look like tangible, substantial people dressed for a day at the waterpark. Decay. Rock-A-Hoola in 1973. Ghosts. Nothing but decay. The images scroll by, mesmerizing, disorienting. There is even more proof this time; even more people, even more cameras. Regardless, no one would believe me, us, again. As we near the Los Angeles county line, I come across the final image on my camera: standing amongst the ghosts at the gate is our friend, somewhere between shadow and substance. They are waving what appears to be goodbye, but I know better. They are waving us back, beckoning us to join them at Rock-A-Hoola.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.