In the late afternoon sun, we head away from the car parked alone in the dirt lot, quickly reaching the shade provided by the rock face. Caleb walks toward the nearest cliff, glancing behind him. “You sure you’re ready for this?”
I nod, peering beyond him for a hidden crevice or cave I might have missed. Having grown up just miles from here, in a town walking distance from the foothills, I’ve explored this very place, even jokingly tried climbing the rocks once or twice. When my sister and I were kids, our parents drove us through the mountains that I know are beyond this rock face, and should I ever be brave enough to acquire appropriate climbing gear and reached the top of it, only the great expanse of peaks, valleys, trees, and sky would be in sight.
I would have noticed a place where someone lives, right?
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I say. “But where are we going? You said we were going to your house.”
Caleb continues on, taking large steps up the slope while covering his head with his hoodie. “It will be easier to show you.”
“I didn’t know we would be hiking.” I struggle to balance on the rocky incline in my ballet flats, appropriate footwear for a late-summer day spent at our high school, but not this.
Caleb hustles to me, reaching out to help me up, then moves ahead again. All I see before us is more rocks, more dirt and grass, and of course, the looming granite wall. I freeze in place. He can’t live around here. So where is he taking me? And why?
My hand goes for my pocket, where I’ve placed my key fob.
He stops, looking back. “What? Are you okay?”
“What are we doing, Caleb?”
Again, he hurries back to me, removing his hood and putting his hand on my shoulder. “Sydney, do you trust me?” He offers a gentle smile, something I’ve never seen on him at school.
My eyes narrow. He’s…happy? But it’s more than that. A blissful energy radiates from him, something I can’t put my finger on. There’s a warmth deeper than the surface.
Any thought I had of escaping is gone. “Yes. I trust you.”
His grin widens, as does the energy. “Okay, then. We’re almost there.”
I follow him up the gentler slope to the vertical rock face, where he runs his fingers along the surface as he moves alongside it. When he reaches the edge, where I know the cliff continues around a blind corner and borders more forest and a valley, he stops and reaches out. “Take my hand. This is a lot the first time.”
“A lot?” I scowl but catch up to him. I grasp his hand, and together, we round the corner. Looking down into the valley, again, I freeze.
Bordered by the rock face and embraced by the forest and beyond that, more rocky cliffs, is a town. A dozen or so streets—or walkways, rather, as there are no cars—of small, identical beige houses with flat roofs branch out in a spoke pattern from a town center, where a statue of a huge, bat-like creature sits. At the far end of each street is a larger building, each of those as boxy and plain as the houses.
But more surprising than a town where I know there isn’t a town is what covers the ground and falls from the sky: snow. It’s August, but this place looks like January. Flakes land on the tops of my feet and bare arms.
I remember Caleb is holding my hand when he squeezes it. “Come on. I’ll show you around.”
“Wait, where are we?”
With a head tilt, he gazes into my eyes, filling me with his warmth again, though this time it scares me. I squeeze my eyes closed.
With a shaking breath, I open my eyes and look behind me. The sunny forest we left is gone. All that’s there is snowy wilderness.
“Sydney, I’ll take you back if you want. But trust me. You’re safe.”
I swallow and stare at him. “You have to tell me what the hell this is.”
“I will. I promise. Are you hungry?” He drops my hand and quickly starts down a skinny path that leads from the cliff to the valley in a few switchbacks, as if he’s excited to get there.
After another glance behind me, I follow.
In minutes we’re facing the first larger building, which Caleb enters then beckons me inside. Small and lit by a few windows and lamps on counters, the space looks like an old-west drugstore. Display cases against the walls house a variety of generic-looking packages without labels. I look for a store owner to greet us, but we’re alone.
As I’m scanning the space, the only thing with color that I’ve seen since the town appeared catches my eye. Above the counter on the far end of the store, between two windows, is a painting, a green image of a man standing in an elaborate yet mostly destroyed archway. Around him are what look like gravestones, though nothing is written on them. Curious, I approach for a better look.
“That’s the guardian,” Caleb says from behind me.
I turn. “The what?”
He reaches into a display case and removes two boxes, handing me one. He opens his and pulls out a sandwich. “Ooh. Nice.” He takes a bite.
I open my box, expecting a sandwich, but instead find a banana.
Panic races through me. I shove the box and banana at Caleb, and he clutches them against his chest. I throw my hands in the air. “What the hell is going on? Did you drug me?”
Caleb laughs, his contentment still oozing off of him. It wants to grip me, reminding me of my mom’s efforts to cheer me up when I wanted to be in a bad mood. I fight its pull, certain that if I don’t escape this place now, I won’t be able to.
I rush past Caleb and out the door. Without looking back, I hurry to the path leading to the cliff.
“Sydney, wait. Please. I have to take you back in an hour no matter what. Visitors aren’t allowed to stay after dark.”
I let his warmth touch me for a second before putting my guard back up. “Stay where? What is this place? And who’s the guardian?”
He reaches me and in true teenage-boy fashion, he finishes his sandwich in two bites then puts the banana back into my hand. “We don’t have much time. Let me show you.”
That was my response to Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge. He gave us five AI-generated art pieces, and our task was to craft a story using one as inspiration.
I must confess, however: my piece isn’t technically a flash piece. It’s an excerpt of a larger idea I’ve been playing with, which, if it behaves, may become a larger YA urban fantasy book. I basically dropped you in the middle of the story. The image I used just happened to fit nicely. What do you think? Is there potential?