Chelsea Lends a Hand

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.
***
In honor of returning to one of my favorite story settings, I want to introduce readers to my main source of Steel City inspiration, Dave Dicello. Dave takes amazing photographs and has been hit hard by the pandemic. He had to close his gallery this spring. However, his prints are available online for purchase. I’ll be adding them to story-links for this chapter.
Now, here’s your story.

***

The basement apartment was essentially a single room with a bathroom, but painted white and comfortably furnished, it felt like a luxury suite. Chelsea stretched on the daybed, lounging on a mattress that didn’t need an air pump.

Bentley’s whine finally got her on her feet. She threw on some clothes and grabbed a few bags. She had to double back for his leash. The huge mutt didn’t need one, but there were laws in the city.

They wandered the neighborhood. It seems composed of beautiful old homes converted into apartments. A lot of college students and young professionals. The food was excellent, but Chelsea’s time in Seattle had ruined coffee for her. She stuck to water. 

When they got back to their building, Mike, the doorman from the local haunt was waiting for them, take out boxes straining at the bags he held out. “Hey, Nana sent me with some food.”

Chelsea felt her eyebrows rise. “Nana?” He could only mean the owner of the haunt, Rita Green. So terrifying a woman shouldn’t be called ‘Nana.’

He flashed a wide smile. “She wasn’t sure if this was enough.”

Chelsea chuckled as she unlocked the door. “When she said someone would be by with food, I assumed she meant groceries.”

“She did, but there was an emergency, so she sent me over with food when my shift was over.” He started unpacking the takeout boxes. Bentley sat at his feet, bright blue eyes wide, and let out a pathetic whine. “Oh shit, I forgot about the dog. Does he need food?”

Chelsea snorted and shoved at the big mutt. “Don’t believe him. He eats plenty.” She opened a box to find sauce drenched chicken wings. “Is this all bar food?”

Mike shrugged. “We own a bar. But don’t worry.” He picked a long, flat box. “Strawberry hotcakes. Best in the city.”

The next box held a still warm hamburger and fries. Chelsea gave in to temptation. The meat melted in her mouth and the tomatoes were juicy. “This is amazing.”

“Yup.” Mike’s smirk was entirely redundant.

Chelsea waved a hand. “Eat up. Please.”

He plucked a few fries and munched as he put the boxes in the fridge. “No thanks, I’m beat. I need some sleep.” He headed for the door, then spun around. “Shit, almost forgot. Your partner will be in tonight at seven.”

“Cool. Any idea what the job is?”

Mike shrugged. “Nana’s got a bug up her butt about it, and it has something to do with our family in Ohio.”

“Okay.” Chelsea walked him to the door, then settled in with her burger. That finished, she napped again. She’d been on the road, aimless for a few weeks, traveling long days with no focus. While it felt nice to have a plan, it also felt amazing to truly relax, even for a few hours.

She snacked on chicken wings before taking Bentley for another walk. Since he couldn’t go into the bar, she left him in the apartment, a knot forming in her stomach. She hated not having him with her.

Rita’s was quiet in the early evening. Hunters didn’t drink before fighting monsters. A calm focus hung over the gleaming bar as people made plans and formed teams. Chelsea weaved through the crowd. She didn’t miss the eyes that followed her.

Her time out West had marked her fashion sense. And even the early summer heat couldn’t get her to give up her fringed leather duster. The hand-woven black beanie and black combat boots only blended into the coat, making her copper jewelry and bright red hair stand out even more.

Rita pulled her long silver braid over one shoulder. “Here ya are, girlie. Yer new partner, Morgan, is over there.”

‘Over there’ was a table tucked back from the rest in the furthest corner. Thankful for the slight respite from the crowd, Chelsea headed over.

Someone sat there already, a figure buried beneath flannel and baggy jeans. Messy brown hair mostly covered features that seemed round and brown.

Chelsea pulled out a chair. “Morgan?”

“Chelsea?”

“So what are we hunting?”

Morgan sighed as big brown eyes studied the table. “Melon-heads.”

Chelsea stopped and blinked. “You serious?”

Another sigh started the answer. “Yes. They come out of the woods every ten years or so and they’re back now.”

“So what are they, exactly?”

Morgan waved a callused hand. “Not sure, really. They’re small and not very strong. Mostly human-looking. But they run in packs. Three or more. And they’re vicious as hell.”

Chelsea leaned back. “So this is gonna be a bloody mess.”

“Pretty much.” Morgan ran strong fingers through messy curls. The hair shifted right back into place. “They’ve already killed two people though.”

“Gotcha.” Chelsea took a deep breath. “I can drive us. Got any gas money?” She didn’t need money, but hunters lived on debts and favors, and not one would accept a free ride anywhere.

A fifty slid across the table. “There and back. And snacks.”

“Fair.” Chelsea smiled. “It also gets you the front seat. My friend will pout but he never pays.”

“Friend?” Morgan tensed, tongue licking at chapped lips.

“Do you like dogs?”

Morgan sat up, pushing curls out of widening eyes. “You have a dog?”

“Yup, and despite my best efforts, he’s on this hunt too.”

Morgan stiffened again, brown skin paling. “He hunts?”

“I’ve tried to stop him, but well… you’ll see when you meet him.” Chelsea leaned back. “So when we headed out?”

“Whenever you’re ready?”

Chelsea shrugged. “So now?”

“Now is good.” 

The night had a touch of chill as they found the car. Chelsea was glad for her duster. They swung by her place and grabbed Bentley before heading west. Ohio was a short four-hour drive away. They were in town not much past midnight, early for hunters.

Morgan seemed to know the area well and called ahead for a hotel. Chelsea accepted more cash as she put the room on her card. They settled in quickly and napped while they waited.

Not much after three a.m., Chelsea found herself in a train yard, all rust and long-empty buildings. Morgan beside her, a small hatchet held steady. Bentley stalked stiff-legged between them.

The abandoned train cars rusted on the rails as flashlights ran in front of them. The melon-heads had attacked people here three times, according to Morgan. They walked the length of the silent, empty yard twice before Bentley growled. Scuffling from behind them came moments later. 

The mutt darted into the darkness and blind panic had Chelsea on his heels. Morgan yelled something, but Chelsea didn’t care.

Her jagged moving flashlight found Bentley and the two kid-sized things attacking him. Their gigantic heads did almost feel impossible, but Chelsea didn’t let her sense of proportion stop her ax. She aimed it at the melon-head climbing on Bentley’s back.

Morgan was there nearly as quickly. One strong leg buried itself in the other Melon-head’s stomach, before Morgan’s ax blade cleaved into the skull.

Chelsea’s opponent screamed, her ax in its back. It wrenched away, taking her weapon with it. Clawed hands reached for her as it spun around.

Bentley snarled and launched himself. Weighing perhaps more than the monster, he tackled it easily. His powerful jaws latched on its throat, crushing it. Chelsea whistled, thin with her lack of breath. Bentley released the monster and hurried over to her, tail wagging.

She ran a hand along his sides and legs. He seemed fine. She ruffled the fur at his thick neck, before climbing to her feet.

Morgan stood over the other melon-head, ax in hand, but body too stiff. Chelsea’s hands turned to fists. Something bad was about to happen. For a long, tense moment, Morgan did nothing at all. Then a high-pitching keening rose into the night, along with the hunter’s ax.

The blade struck the melon-head three more times before Morgan slipped to the ground. Chelsea walked up silent, letting Bentley take point. But the big mutt only whined from Chelsea’s feet.

She hunkered down beside the other hunter. “We need to get rid of the bodies.”

Morgan nodded. “There’s a gravel pit up the road. No cameras.” 

Chelsea waited a few more moments, but Morgan didn’t move. She cleared her throat. “This fight… they seemed slow, and not too many of them.”

Morgan nodded, eyes fixed on the dead monster. “Guess we did hurt them.”

There was obviously a story here. This wasn’t the right place, though. Chelsea forced herself to her feet. “Let me buy you a beer.”

Morgan looked away from the monster. “Where at? Bars are closed.”

“Well, Rita’s, obviously. We need to get some sleep, first. And that means clean up.”

“Right.”

Chelsea held out a hand. Morgan took it.

***

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