Under the ever-darkening clouds in the endless sky, happy children ran with Bentley, throwing his ball across the yard towards the high grasses of the prairie. Chelsea Childling stood on the long porch. She debated joining them as much as she did her escape. She and Keegan had shown up at the big farm house just after noon for a briefing on this monster, but so far, the only talk had been about how good the steaks were.
The steaks were good, as were the burgers and the potato salad that sat on the picnic table. The pies and cakes looked tempting as well. But this monster hunting family so far had been very weak on any kind of hunting.
Another cold can of beer pressed into her hand, and Florence smiled. The young bartender had been in full hostess mode the last three hours. Some sixth sense kept plates full, drinks ice cold, and people talking with a smile.
Chelsea opened the can with a sigh. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Florence giggled. “I do school over the internet. I blew through next month’s lectures and assignments, so I can concentrate on this.” A wrinkle around her dark eyes somehow conveyed deep menace, even as her voice and tone stayed light and airy. “And aren’t you sweet for asking?”
Chelsea had grown up among the monied Southern elite. Telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip was a historied art form in that company. Chelsea knew she was seeing a master at work. Her fingers itched to snap a picture.
I might have to bust out the old sketchpad tonight. That expression is amazing.
She couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks for the beer.”
Florence relaxed into her normal sweetness and she seemingly wandered over another hunter. “Oh hun, give me that plate. Didn’t you say you wanted blueberry pie? Come with me before Henry eats it all.”
Mama would have adored her.
Keegan sidled over, dark eyes twinkling. “What are you smiling about?”
“What about her?”
“You brought her up.”
Annoyance bristled. “You asked.”
“And you answered.”
I hate you.
She bit back the words and took a long gulp of beer. Her voice came out with a bit more twang than normal. “My mom was an old school, new-fangled, yaya sister.”
Keegan paused, dark strands of hair blowing in the ever present wind. “I have no idea what that means?”
It took another drink to get the words out. “My mom was from an old Southern family. She had money and a great education and was well-traveled. She did charity balls, but she also marched for social justice and taught female empowerment courses. She was an amazing artist.” Chelsea swallowed and laughed. “And like Scarlett O’Hara, she was a proud Catholic.”
Keegan leaned against the wall, sipping his drink. The open invitation to talk seemed to loosen her tongue as well as her twang.
“She was a lady, always.” Chelsea chuckled, as some of Sister Mary Clarence’s stories flashed. “Well, almost always. Mama lived by the old saying, ‘a lady doesn’t start fights, but she can finish one.’” Chelsea took another drink of beer. “Mama was a lady, but she never expected anybody else to be. And she never let being a lady get in the way of having fun. A lady can get dirty. She just makes sure she cleans up afterwards.”
His eyes wandered over her clothes. “And what a lady have to say about a fringed leather duster, combat boots, ripped jeans, and a Stetson? Not to mention all the piercings?”
“Mama loved my piercings.” She rubbed at the simple hoops. Six in the left year, seven on the right. “Keeping them uneven was her idea. She bought all kinds of posts and studs. She liked color combinations.”
“She knew before I did that high society wasn’t my thing. So instead of ball gowns and sweater sets, she taught me where the best flea markets and secondhand store were. She loved her “bohemian” daughter. She even got a certain amount of chic points for it.”
“What brought up mom?”
“Florence reminds me of her. Mama micro-managed parties without seeming to do so, too. It’s a kind of politeness judo.”
“So you recognize manners, but don’t feel the need to use them?”
Spite bubbled, but suddenly she heard her mother.
Sweetie, I know you are upset, but why be nasty to me? What did I do?
She took another long drink. “Have I been that bad?”
“You spent the last thirty minutes glaring at the kids playing with your dog and rebuffing all conversation.”
Chelsea shrugged. “I just want to get to the hunting part of this.”
“This is the hunting part.”
There weren’t words to express her annoyance with the idea. All she had was a grunt. It burned her throat.
“We’re about to fight something big and nasty.” Keegan crossed his arms over his chest. “That requires trust. That means a modicum of social interaction.”
A mocking tone interrupted her. “Chelsea.” He continued in his normal voice. “I mean it. I don’t want to die. So, you need to walk around and introduce yourself. Learn everybody’s name, at least. You promised, remember?”
She drew in a deep breath.
“You didn’t use to hate people.”
Her anger and disgust dripped out. “I don’t hate people.”
“Then go talk to the people helping us make money.”
“Why do you care so much?”
“I want to live through this fight?”
She took a step away. “Cut the bullshit.”
He rolled his eyes. “What are you fishing for?”
“Before we teamed up out here, we barely knew each other. Why are you trying to heal me, or whatever the hell it is you think you’re doing…”
Keegan paused, a suddenly questioning look on his face. “I don’t… I guess.” He stopped and then belly laughed. “It’s the very fucking thing I’m asking you to do now. We hung out. We hunted together. We bought each other beers and told stupid jokes. Yeah, you weren’t my best friend, but you were my friend. And you don’t do that shit anymore.” He shrugged. “What else do I have to do? I can hunt on my own, but you seem to need some help. I’ll stick around, teach the business, and help you through your shit. It’s still hunting.”
The words chilled and warmed her. “So you aren’t expecting to hang out forever?”
Laughter bubbled out of him. “You are a piece of work.”
“No,” she waved a hand. “Shut up. I just… I don’t understand what we’re doing. Why do you want to stay with me?” She stopped to take a drink. Liquid courage to ask the really hard question “When are you leaving?”
“Oh.” He leaned back against the wall. “I don’t know. When you seem to have a feel for what you’re doing. Maybe before, if you really want. Um. When both of us decide it’s time, basically.”
“Both of us?” She swallowed her the thickness in her throat.
“Yeah, both of us. Like if I want to go somewhere, and you don’t, then… Yeah, we decide to go our separate ways.” He grabbed her shoulder, squeezing for a moment. “It’s not any time soon. And we’ll talk about it before it happens.”
A tremor forced her hands into her pocket. “Just promise me, no notes.”
“Yeah, tell me face-to-face. No notes.” She blinked back tears, willing the memories to remain pin the back of her mind. Flashes came anyway. Her bruised hand shaking the paper. The sound of her scream at Amber bouncing off the car in the parking lot.
“No notes.” He held out his hand. “I promise.”
She gripped his fingers too tightly, but he only held on tighter.
“Now, you ready to meet our new partners?”
She pulled in a deep breath, and found a seat on the fence, near the front of the crowd.
Beau Chang pushed his battered cowboy hat across wispy white hair, sipped his beer, and stared at the endless, cloud-filled sky.
From her seat at the crowded picnic table, Chelsea whipped out her camera, and snapped a few pictures of the man. She was getting good at it. South Dakota made for the most amazing subjects and backdrops.
Keegan snorted from beside. “What caught your eye?”
She shrugged. “The old man.”
“Yeah, he’s something.” Keegan laughed. “So you going for someone older?”
Chelsea giggled and nudged him. “Shut up.”
Beau stood, his layers of shirts an effective wall against the wind. “So here’s the deal. Taku-He has returned. These bastards are fast, and strong. Though bipedal, these are not Bigfoots. Taku-He is as separate as Yeti, with their own rules. We haven’t found a good poison, and pikes and lances take time to teach. Guns work great, and will have their place, but we trap Taku-He.”
He waved towards the fields. Chelsea squinted and barely made out a barn… or maybe two.
“Built to hold Taku-He after the last time, we just have to lure the bastard over here. Been spotted a day away, so it’ll take some doing. Anybody got ideas?”
An older woman, wind and sun hewn, raised her voice. “What about fresh guts? Could a few butchered hogs get its attention?”
General conversation broke out around them. A few people pulled out phones or books. A tiny trill of amusement and utter helplessness came over Chelsea. She had no idea how to help, or even what do to.
Keegan leaned forward, voice low. “This is why you make friends. Some monsters are just too big. This is how you learn.”
“I learned just fine on my own.”
A drink appeared at her elbow with Florence’s chirpy laugh. “Well, yeah, doing is the best way to learn. But this is good, too. Experience is useless if it isn’t shared.” The girl flipped her golden hair over one shoulder. “Listen to my granddad, he’s fought just about every monster there is. He doesn’t hunt himself anymore, but he still remembers everything.”
Chelsea sat up. “You a hunter?”
Florence giggled. “Not in the killing monster sense.” Her smile twitched into a wide grin. “I save lives every night, by keeping a place to gather and helping hunters help each other.” She floated off, refilling drinks.
“She’s great.” Chelsea fought not to laugh. “She never loses her composure even when she’s losing her temper.”
Keegan sighed. “Why are you pushing her?”
“Mostly for fun.” Chelsea shrugged. “I used to do the same thing to the debutantes Mama tutored.”
The laugh that escaped hesitated and skipped as if she had pulled it, unwilling, from her hunting partner. He gasped for breath. “You know the accent gets noticeably thicker whenever you say ‘Mama’?”
“Good.” A warmth spread out in her then. She turned and watched the hunters plan. The large porch and yard of the ancient, sprawling farm house hosted about thirty people. Florence and Beau’s family blended with the other hunters. Everybody seemed scarred and various shades of brown; some created by living in the elements, some that way by genetics. Hair rangef from silver and blonde to purest black. the eyes focused on the old man were just as varied.
The clothes were eclectic, though all were long-wearing. Denim, leather, wool, and flannel abounded. Herself included. The black leather duster she wore looked cool, but it also was warm and stood up to the wind.
It does look cool though.
The only constant was a sense of belligerent purpose. They were a people who knew that they were lucky to be alive, and they intended to press that luck yet again.
Chelsea found a smile on her face. These were her people, without a doubt. A need to move swept over her. “Bentley!”
The huge mutt followed her out to the empty yard. She tossed his ball, enjoying his harrowing speed and sharp eyes. Eventually Keegan and Florence joined her.
Chelsea paused her throw, forcing a whine out of Bentley. “Do we have a plan yet?”
Florence shook her head. “Nope. So why are you out here?”
“Because this is completely outside my experience. I don’t have anything to add, so I’m staying out of the way until it’s time to listen.”
Keegan beamed at her. “That’s not a bad idea.” He held out his hand for Bentley’s ball. “Get from the crowd when you can.”
She stuck her tongue out at him but handed it over. She climbed on an empty picnic table and took in the evening. Far from the fire pit and grill, the chill was much more visceral. Her breath fogged the air as the stars peeked out.
Slowly, the mess behind her seemed to coalesce into two camps. She plucked at Keegan’s arm and nodded towards the fire and the hunters. He nodded, and without another word, Bentley trotting at her side. They headed back the hunt.
“Okay, so there at least three stories of Taku-He attacking hogs.” Beau Chang, small and wrinkled, white hair shining orange with firelight took center stage. “Bill has two to butcher. A few weeks early, but we all do what we gotta.”
Chuckles ran through the crowd.
“So,” Beau tugged on his hat, “we’ll have fresh innards and blood. Hopefully, we can lure Taku-He this way and into our barns. Sharp shooters and harriers followin’ behind, of course.” He turned to a table of hunters, all older and grizzled, with various visible scars. “Shelia and Tanner will plan out our route tonight. So why don’t we take this party inside and warm up while they do that?”
Bentley rushed up the porch steps to sit expectantly by the door and the crowd lost it. Smiling widely, Chelsea staggered inside with the rest.
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