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Negative Assets is a student-produced literary magazine based out of southern California.

"California City," by Harmony Hertzog

"California City," by Harmony Hertzog

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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

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

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

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