The Countdown

This is a series of short stories, detailing the adventures of Chelsea Childling. You can start with her origin story or pick any story from the index.

***

The air conditioner kicking on startled Chelsea to semi-awakeness. But the dark windows and soft bed soothed her back to almost-sleep. She reached across the bed to snuggle Keegan, but no xylophone ribcage met her questing hand.

Kate must have needed a bottle.

Chelsea sprawled, enjoying a real mattress. She buried her face in the pillows. Keegan’s scent enveloped her, easing her closer to sleep. 

The light snapping on undid all her calm. Chelsea shot up, adrenaline pumping down her spine. She was nearly as startled as the woman standing in the door.

Tall and thin, with wavy dark hair, the stranger didn’t exactly look like Keegan. But the way she stood, all languid long limbs and a certain sense of amusement, screamed Keegan.

This must be the sister.

The woman recovered quicker than Chelsea. Keegan’s familiar smirk graced her face. “So, my big brother isn’t a virgin anymore. Good on you.”

The hair on Chelsea’s neck rose with her temper. “I’m Chelsea.”

The woman eyed her. “Tanya.”

Chelsea met the woman’s study with her own, not bothering to hide her hostility. Keegan hadn’t been enthusiastic about this sister. 

Tanya broke eye contact first to study her nails. “How did you trip him into bed? He doesn’t like to be touched.”

Either she’s never heard of an asexual or she’s a shallow bitch.

Before Chelsea could check her temper or her tongue, Bentley padded into the room. Tanya recoiled, backing away from the huge mutt, face pale.

Chelsea knew it was wrong to take advantage of the woman’s fear, but her instinctive dislike made it hard to care. “Come here, Bent.”

Blue eyes bright and tongue hanging out in a doggy smile, Bentley rushed over. Chelsea rubbed at his thick, shaggy neck, locking eyes on the frightened woman in the hallway. “He loves people. You can pet him.”

Tanya shook her head as she backed up a few more steps. “I need to eat something before I head into work. Any idea where Keegan is?”

Chelsea shrugged, “Probably taking care of Kate.”

Fear slid off Tanya’s face, and resentment followed. “Someone should tell him he can have his own kid. Maybe you.”

A sharp retort shot to her tongue, but Keegan interrupted. “You really want me to move out?”

Kate’s chubby fingers reached for his face as he walked around his sister. His dark eyes shot warnings at Chelsea. 

She bit at the inside of her cheek and let Keegan deal with his sister. A sharp smile slashed at his face as he turned back to the hallway. “I could hit the road again if I’m cramping your style. Yeah… maybe Chelsea and I could move back to her place in Georgia, start a family.”

Chelsea choked on the image. While she had suggested the very thing a few nights ago, she and Keegan knew it would never work. 

Tanya crossed her arms, a pouty frown on her thin face. “Oh, stop it. I was just joking, busting your chops.”

He snorted. “Sure, just like dad.”

His sister rolled her eyes as she turned away with a wave. “You never got dad’s sense of humor either. Lighten up.”

Chelsea waited until Tanya disappeared down the hall. “So I get why you’re here now.”

Keegan pushed Bentley aside and settled on the bed, jostling Kate with his leg. “At least she’s only verbally abusive.”

Chelsea leaned her head on his shoulder. Her parents had adored and pampered her before their death. She’d been the very center of their universe and known it, often to her own detriment.

Better a little spoiled than abused, though.

She swallowed. “We could still do the family thing.”

“And leave Kate?”

Chelsea looked down at the wrinkled, pink face that gazed at Keegan with adoration and regretted the flash of resentment. “Never.”

Keegan kissed the top of her head. “Tanya will be out of here soon. She does work hard and pays all the bills. She’s trying to be a good parent. It’s not like we had outstanding examples.”

A familiar wistfulness rose in Chelsea. As an only child, she’d often seen but never experienced the unconditional annoyance and forgiveness of a sibling. “I’ll take your word for it.”

Keegan lay back, taking Chelsea and the baby with him. He settled Kate between the two of them, rubbing her back as she pushed up with her arms. “She was the only one of us, including mom, who could stand up to dad. She’s tough, and more like him than she’d ever admit because of it.”

Chelsea rested her head against his shoulder, tracing the whorl of hair on the baby’s head. “How’d’you get to be so stable?”

“I ran away when I was fifteen. If you survive the streets, you get real stable and practical.”

She closed her eyes and swallowed at a suddenly thick throat. “You ever change your mind about playing house, call me. I think you’re owed a family.”

His chuckle jostled her lightly. “And Jackson and Amber?”

She sighed as Bentley pulled himself on the foot of the bed. “Not today. Can’t we just have our family today?”

He yawned. “Okay, today is us.”

Despite the overhead light, Chelsea slipped back into sleep. She didn’t know how long she dozed, but Bentley’s stretching woke her. She rubbed at her eyes, yawning. Eventually she pulled herself out of bed and headed for the kitchen and breakfast.

The smell of coffee hit her moments before the sight of Tanya. The other woman smirked as she handed Chelsea a hot mug. “So you exist outside of the bedroom?”

Chelsea almost called for Bentley, but checked her vindictive impulse. “Thanks for letting me crash here for a few days.”

Tanya shrugged. “I give my brother shit, but I couldn’t have kept my job without him. And he’d never let anything hurt my daughter, so you and the dog must be okay.” Tanya flashed a genuine smile. “Besides, I like seeing someone in his life. He’s always been such a loner.”

Sipping her coffee, Chelsea considered what to say. Keegan had rarely talked about his family or his sexuality. “He’s been my rock since I’ve known him, even after we broke up.”

Shock flashed across Tanya’s face. “You two don’t seem very broken up.”

Chelsea shrugged. “I love him, no doubt, but we aren’t together anymore. We’re better friends now, too.”

“And here I was hoping for a cool sister-in-law and cousins for Kate. At least I know he isn’t gay.”

There was no stopping Chelsea’s anger any longer. “And if he was?”

Tanya’s mouth opened, but Keegan answered, “Then she’d bitch that I stole her boyfriends.”

His sister giggled and stuck her tongue out. “Like you could.”

Keegan flashed his smirk at her. “I could now, if I wanted.”

“Like hell.” Tanya’s smile didn’t cover her anger at all. “But I have to head into work.” She stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind her.

Chelsea met Keegan’s eye. “Time for me to move on?”

He laughed. “Oh, hell no. I’m enjoying watching you make her squirm. Besides, the boyfriend thing? You don’t even know how much the last one hit on me. You couldn’t have set me up any better.”

She laughed with him, and tried to relax, but she could practically hear the countdown begin in her head. The road was calling again, and she knew what her answer was.


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