Wind shook the camper. Chelsea sat up, chest heaving, panic screaming in her brain. Beside her, Jackson Hawk lay snoring. And that picture of naked relaxation did nothing to calm her.
Oh, this was a such a bad idea.
She scrambled out of bed, eying the hunter. Jackson, for all his bubbly attitude and zen-like lack of fucks, did not sleep well usually. However, he didn’t stir as Chelsea hurried into her clothes. The medicine she had delivered might play a part in that.
Thanking hedge doctors for finally helping in her some tangible way, she rushed towards the door. As she approached the kitchen, her dog, Bentley rose to his feet.
She glared at him. “I’m really starting to doubt your judgment.”
His tail thumped into the table, rattling the cell phones and beer bottles. She picked up hers and sighed. Biting her lip, she grabbed Jackson’s phone. She pulled up his contacts and added her name and number.
It was more than I got from him when he left.
“C’mon, Bent.” She hurried out the door, dog on her heels. A part of her debated pushing her car down the road a ways before starting it, but just hitting the road was the safer plan. The further, the faster, the better.
Only once did she look back. She thought a light might be on in the black behind her, but she resolutely put her eyes forward. She had no plan. Just a direction: away.
The signs pointed her back to the ocean and evergreen forest. She headed for it without thinking, a destination picked if not chosen.
As dawn crawled over the mountains, her eyes drooped. One of the numerous national parks appeared, common as that rain that fell that morning. She pulled into the parking lot, paid the day fee, and crawled into the backseat. She woke up to a growling stomach and a whining dog.
Once Bentley had emptied his bladder and filled his stomach, she went in search of food for her. A roadside stand, selling tacos to tourists got her money. She sat, legs shaking, eyes alternating between Bentley and her phone. She wasn’t at all sure that she wanted Jackson to call. But his lack of communication kept her on edge.
Once her tacos were finished, she and Bentley continued towards the coast. But the ocean no longer pulled at her as it had the first time she came over the mountains. Without questioning her decision, she turned south. The trees and rolling green hills went with her until well after the following dawn.
From there the trees thinned, and the hills stretched upwards again. She kept going until the desert claimed them. Only then she did look for the local haunt, a small bar, dirty and empty, the name forgotten as soon as she read it. The bartender had no jobs for her, so she risked her cell phone once again.
The lack of any kind of message or voice mail from Jackson had her hands shaking, but she couldn’t tell if it was relief or anger.
The message board hosted a job near her, only a short four hours east. She headed into the desert.
The trees finally abandoned her and sage took over. Whole flat fields of sage ran right up to the mountains. The slight resemblance to South Dakota brought a smile to her face, as did the reappearance of the oldies on her radio. She and Bentley sang in harmony to Motown standards as she followed her GPS to a dirt road.
The road ran parallel to the highway for a ways before veering off into the sage wilderness. Chelsea followed, stomach churning and hands shaking. When she hit the last sighting of the monster, she couldn’t quite find the focus to open her door.
Bentley’s whine pulled her out of her own head. “What’s up, Bent?”
He laid his chin on her shoulder, bright blue eyes on her face.
“Okay, yeah, I freaked out, but I left him my number. And yeah, I’m upset that he hasn’t called. And maybe I don’t deserve a call after running, but even Keegan—”
Bentley sat up with a yip and a thumping tail.
Chelsea stared at the dog. “What? Since when you do want to see Keegan?”
Bentley wiggled and yipped again, his tail threatening to put a dent in the seat.
“We aren’t calling him. We don’t have any idea where he might be.”
Bentley sighed and curled up on his seat.
Rolling her eyes, Chelsea exited the car. She let the dog out with only a twinge of annoyance. “This is your fault. You’re the one who encouraged me to hook up with Jackson again.”
He ignored her and put his nose to the ground. She adjusted her ax on her belt. The chill of night washed over her as the sun headed for the horizon. In front of her was a strange collection of buildings. Seemingly built of whatever scraps of material the desert had provided, sun-baked clay and oxidizing sheet of metal met at odd corners and weird angles. Wiring with headless dolls and pieces of broken glass dangled from the eaves.
“What the fuck is this place, Bent?”
The dog didn’t react, his eyes were forward and his pointy ears upwards. Chelsea pulled her ax, peering into the unusual shadows the buildings threw.
From the darkness, the ground shifted and turned. Claws came through the dirt, moments before the tufted snout appeared. Pink and slimy, it glistened in the twilight. The wide shoulders and muscular arms seemed to pull the creature down as it lumbered forward, whiskers twitching her direction. A patterned armor, the same color as its skin, pale, sickly yellow, protected its neck and back. Just like the description on the message board.
Bentley’s growl forced Chelsea forward. She aimed for the creature’s eye. It stumbled backwards, growling and snarling, swiping at where she had been with dirty claws.
She hacked at the outstretched arms, her ax sliding into muscle. The creature screamed in pain. Bentley snarled and launched himself at the monster, teeth sinking into the unprotected snout.
The monster and Bentley slammed into the hard ground. Chelsea rushed over and shoved the dog with her knee. Bentley released the monster, so Chelsea decapitated it.
She stood up, breath heavy in her chest. “Good job, Bent.”
A strong tail whipped her legs.
She pulled out her phone, taking pictures of the dead monster. “We still aren’t going to see Keegan.”
Bentley barked before spinning around in circles. Chelsea heaved a sigh. She had mentioned Keegan before, even called him, and Bentley hadn’t been so vocal or excited. But the dog had uncommonly good instincts, a nearly human understanding of language, and loved her completely.
“It’s your fault. You encouraged me to hook up with Jackson.”
Bentley loped over to a sage bush and lifted his leg.
“Fine. We’ll go see Keegan.”
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