Cara Michaels’ Picture Choice: 2
Title: Urban Jungle
Family got me into the worst sorts of trouble in the worst sorts of places. But I kept driving, ‘cause that’s what you do for family. The rental car’s GPS nattered on, telling me where to go. The computerized female directed me to what she insisted was a parking garage. As I turned in, I traded the afternoon glare of the sun for the murky shadows of tons of concrete overhead.
“Vive la Detroit.” I took a parking validation from an attendant bored with his job, if not all of life, and drove on.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, the details of the garage disconcerted me. I parked and got out of the car, wanting a moment to just stare at the remnants of another world.
Maybe ten cars rested in the cavernous parking garage, some of the engines still warm and ticking. Nothing abnormal there. But the building itself… The tiered ceiling above, covered in fading paint and gilt, better belonged to a grand theatre or casino than this place. The passage of time and economic swings had gutted the building, leaving it haunted by the ghosts of former glory. Leaded windows in arches and domes, tattered hints of red curtain, the remains of a balcony, holes in the ceiling where chandeliers had once rained sparkling light over black tie patrons…
A tall, willowy woman approached. She wore amber colored Capri pants and fitted tank top, both made of some natural looking fiber. The wind caught her waist-length chestnut hair and tossed it about, dislodging—leaves? Autumn reds and browns floated to the asphalt where I noticed her bare feet. I lifted my startled gaze in time to see the pointed ear revealed as her hair shifted.
“Wait.” I pointed, without quite meaning to, in the general direction of her face. “Is this Detroit? Or Rivendell?”
She cocked her head. “Rivendell?”
“Yeah.” My mouth dried up. Her eyes sparkled. Not in the metaphorical, lust-at-first-sight euphoria way, but as though they held glitter. Or fairy dust. “Where the elves live.”
She gave a delicate shrug. “I am unfamiliar with your elves.”
“They aren’t real.” And maybe the parking pass had been laced with some hallucinogenic powder, because this woman couldn’t be real, either.
“Ah, well there you have it.” She seemed pleased to resolve the situation. “I am clearly real.” She beckoned me with a graceful hand, her sun kissed skin covered in pale tattoos. Leaves, flowers, and twisting vines ran along her arm, disappearing beneath her top. “Follow me, please.”
I looked at my arms, where I’d borne similar markings until the death of one sister and the disappearance of another. In less than a year I’d lost my entire family. I’d followed the trail here out of desperation, tracking rumor and hearsay. Living on the useless hope that just maybe…
“I’m just here to find out about my sister, ma’am.” I drew her worn photo from my wallet. “Circe Bryant. Do you know her? Is she—okay?” Stupid, inadequate word for what I needed to hear.
“I am here to escort you.” She smiled and I felt a little lightheaded. “The Summer Queen is eager to see you again.”
“Yes.” She nodded as though my question explained something. “She said you did not know your heritage.”
“My heritage?” I found myself following along as she led me across the garage. We turned a corner I hadn’t even noticed and stopped at a door. A security camera monitored all movement.
“This way,” my non-elf companion said. She pushed the door open, revealing an old staircase. It looked more inclined to collapse than bear any weight, but she climbed to the next level without even a creak of protest from the structure. Water damage had collapsed the ceiling in spots, coating the stairs in a mix of rotting wood remnants, paint, and plaster. The confined area reeked of mildew and decay. “Come. We must be quick now.”
“Hold up.” I reached the landing of what must have once led to the balconies. “A few explanations would not be unwelcome at this point.”
“The Summer Queen will explain all.” She stood just outside a narrow doorway and held her hand out to me. “Take my hand. We must be touching or only one of us will make it through.”
“Whoa, whoa.” I took one firm step backward. Did I stay and keep talking to an insane woman or run like hell? “Make it through what?” Damn you, Circe. What the hell did you get yourself into?
“You wish to see your sister, yes?”
I shook my head. “Not until you tell me what’s going on here.”
Her right eyebrow winged up, the corner of her mouth tilting. “She also said you’d be stubborn.”
“I think we’re going to part ways here.” Ten steps to the garage floor. “You keep your crazy cosplay self right there. I’m leaving.”
“You’re coming with me, Randall Clive Bryant.”
The use of my full name, reserved for Mom’s wrath, had me hesitating. The woman flung her hands out in my moment of uncertainty, as though scattering a handful of dust. Vines burst from her fingertips to snake around me and reel me in.
“What the fuck?” I shouted. I resisted the pull of the vines, knowing in my head I should be able to yank the woman off her feet. But the concrete beneath her cracked, thick roots coming from—her legs?—to stabilize her. “No way. No fucking way.”
She drew me in tight against her body.
“Lady, look.” I tried to pull my voice back to a reasonable volume. We could speak like rational adults. “You seem very nice for the first sentient nonhuman I’ve met, but I’m not really into this whole—interspecies—bondage—thing.” Was the vine crossing my butt moving? “I don’t even know your name.” My voice climbed the scale. “And I don’t have any secret kidnapping fantasies I’m itching to live out, so why don’t you just let me go and—”
She looked amused. Great. With a quick twist of her body, she moved us through the doorway…
And into sunshine filtered through towering trees. Urban Detroit remained only in the smell of my clothes, adding an unpleasant sour note to the fresh air.
“Holy shit.” The words escaped on a choked breath. “This isn’t Detroit.”
“Brother, this isn’t even Earth.”
Twenty feet away, my smirking smartass of a sister rocked back on one heel. She took in the woman wrapped around me like kudzu and chuckled. The woman released me and I stumbled closer to Circe.
Circe, bracketed by armed men and…
“Centaurs.” Easily seven feet tall from head to hoof. “Of course there are centaurs.”
I was going to need so much therapy after this.
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Cara Michaels is the author of the Gaea’s Chosen sci-fi romance series and host of the #MenageMonday flash fiction challenge.