Chelsea pulled her car up to the tourist trap with a smile. This one was her favorite. Hot, cheap coffee and some decent restaurants. When meeting clients she liked to suggest it. The fake frontier town stood alone on the prairie. A blip of civilization on the endless ocean of grass.
Her hunting partner laughed. “Again? You really are a sightseer at heart, huh?”
She shrugged. “I never got the fascination with Old West until I came out here. But damn, do I get it now.”
“You buy boots and this is over. The coat is forgivable, but not boots.”
She scratched at her dog’s ears, the fringe of her leather duster dancing. She missed having Bentley up front, but Keegan liked the passenger seat and paid for gas.
The thick fur under her finger was softer than velvet. “What about a Stetson? Will that send you running?”
Keegan’s forehead wrinkled in thought. “Maybe. I’ll have to see the hat.” He winked, and she laughed as they got out of the car.
She opened the back door for Bentley and grabbed his leash and a laminated piece of paper on a string. He plodded at her heels without a command, taking a small detour to piss on a clump of weeds, fur ruffling in the frigid, ever-blowing wind.
Once they were outside the restaurant, she looped the leash around the faux-wood horse hitch and hung his sign around his neck. It read, “I’m waiting for my owner and love pets.” Bentley’s mouth opened in a smile as kids squealed and headed over.
The restaurant was all tall hats, spurs, and buffalo. Chelsea and Keegan wandered to their usual booth. The waitress wasn’t familiar, but the menu was. They ordered their steaks and waited for their drinks.
Chelsea leaned back. “It’s getting really cold out. I might need some winter clothes.”
Keegan grimaced. “Nah, we should head South.”
“Not me.” She pushed down her pain. “I’m not ready to head home.”
The waitress brought their soda, cutting off further conversation. As she walked away, Keegan lifted his drink. “To being one of the lost boys.”
Chelsea clinked her glass against his, but blew red hair out of her eyes before drinking. “What is it with me and kid’s movies?”
Keegan shot a questioning look.
“An old friend used to call me Little Mermaid.” Dink, I still miss you.
He settled back in his seat. “You are the princess of monster hunters.” He didn’t quite smile, but a certain amount of smug self-satisfaction crept across his face. “And by that I mean you are beautiful, rich, and have dead parents.”
She choked on her soda, laughing. “I can’t believe you said that.”
He touched her hand, a quick there and gone gesture. “You know I said it with all love and respect.”
Her throat closed, but she swallowed it. “Don’t start.”
“I would never.”
“Where is our employer?” She looked around, uncomfortable with the direction of this conversation. She had no doubts that he meant what he said. But the very thought of being beholden to anyone, even on an emotional level brought a twitch to her step.
Her previous hunting partners had coddled her. Jackson more obviously than Amber. He had been loath to teach her to fight, let alone let her take on a monster. Amber let her fight, but only when and where she decided.
Keegan, though, treated her like a real partner. She had arranged several of their hunts. Once or twice Keegan had renegotiated prices, but never rebuked her for it. He also didn’t claim final decision on where they went, yet he wasn’t afraid to offer suggestions or argue for his preference.
He had also suggested certain camping gear. If they got caught between towns, they could reasonably live out of the car now. All in all, it felt good to have a partner, even when it didn’t.
Leg shaking under the table, she glanced around again. “I’m going to check on Bentley.” She rushed outside, fighting to breathe.
No, no, no. No panic attacks.
As soon as she dashed out the door, Bentley pushed away from his admirers. His bright blue eyes locked on her, he sat upright. She patted him, rubbing at his ears. After a few minutes, her heart settled down and her breath came more easily. Bentley rested his chin on her shoulder.
She scratched his neck. “Thanks.” She patted his neck before heading back into the restaurant. Keegan still sat alone
He studied her for a long moment, before running a hand through his hair. “So, I know you had some issues, mentally. How’s that going for you?”
Her fork had the strangest knot work along the edge. She rubbed at it. “I’m fine. I have anti-anxiety meds still. I don’t really need them as much.”
He nodded. “What was your diagnosis?”
“None of your fucking business.”
“It actually is my fucking business. Partner. Remember?”
She scratched at the black stain between the stamped metal strands. “General anxiety disorder. Depression. I spent some time in a mental hospital after my parents died.”
“Some time?” His voice ease across the table, gentle and curious. No condemnation.
“Two weeks. For observation. I was suicidal.”
He covered her hands with one of his. “I don’t know a hunter who hasn’t been at one time, me included. You were lucky you had help.”
She nodded, squeezing his hand. “It made hunting hard for me though. Like, I knew people would think I was literally crazy. And…”
Keegan snorted a laugh. “Oh fuck, I never even thought of that. That would… ooof.”
“What about you?” She cocked her head to one side. “You know the lingo.”
“Not me. My brother. Social disorder, but you run in the same circles as other people. I went to all his meetings and therapies. You pick up on stuff.”
She felt the smile. It lifted her lips and stretched her cheeks. “Therapy helped, but only up a point. Like meds. They helped, so, so much. But it wasn’t until I started hunting that I felt right again. I know I’m still off, but I feel better.”
Keegan shifted, resting a foot on her chair. His long legs often cramped in the car, and he stretched like this when they rested. “Do you? Feel better?”
She nodded. “I have Bentley and monsters to kill. When I feel like drawing or painting, I do. Though I’ve been far more into photography lately.”
A chuckle skinned out of his long nose. “I miss the drawing pad. I really do.”
“I don’t.” She shrugged at his incredulous look. “The pad let me escape where I was. The camera… I’m more in the moment than I ever was with the notebook. I’m not… divorcing myself from stuff.”
He leaned forward. “Are you saying that this is the real you, and the sweet, dreamy artist was depressed you?”
She studied the ceiling. “No. It’s more that I want to engage now, and the camera is about capturing the moment I’m in, right then. I want connection, I just want it on my terms. And I’m not shying away from saying what those terms are.”
“Oh no, you are not shy about your boundaries anymore.”
She opened her to mouth to remind the pot that it too was black, when the waitress appeared with their food. The steaks cut like butter, the potatoes came with cheese and broccoli, and the bacon-wrapped Brussels sprouts were heavenly.
She and Keegan ate in silence, each enjoying a meal that didn’t come from a vending machine. Once her stomach started to weigh on her belt buckle, realization kicked in. “Our employer must not be coming.”
Keegan snickered. “You need to pay more attention.” He pulled a piece of paper from under his plate. “The waitress gave us our ‘bill’ way too early.”
“No wonder she didn’t mind meeting us here.”
Keegan handed over the paper. Handwritten directions and a description of a monster met Chelsea. “We head out after we’re done.”
“Agreed.” Keegan cut off another piece of steak. “Do you think we should leave a tip? She is our employer.”
Chelsea glared over her plate. “You always tip the waitstaff.”
This isn’t so bad. This is kind of good.
Keep the Adventure going!
Any donations would be appreciated!