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 quiet hum of hunters gearing up for the night calmed Chelsea as she carried a beer back to her hunting partner. The melon-heads of Ohio had been an easy fight and a decent payday. Mostly because poor Morgan had fought them before and thinned their numbers.
It was a story Chelsea had inferred from the previous night, and for some reason it bugged the hell out of her. A lot of hunters had a story and few actually wanted to tell it. Herself included. But Morgan’s silence was an itch on her brain.
So she’d promised the hunter a beer. Morgan needed one, same as last night. Chelsea settled the red-and-black labeled bottle on the table. Morgan reached for it, eyes listless.
Chelsea snorted her annoyance. “You’re welcome.”
“What?” Morgan shook out messy brown curls. “Sorry. Thanks.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
Defensive suspicion covered Morgan’s round face. “Talk about what?”
“The fight with the Melon-Heads. And not the one last night.”
Morgan sighed, brown eyes averted. “No, not really.”
“Fine.” Chelsea crossed arms. “I guess you don’t want to hunt together again. Which is a shame, ‘cause I heard the old guy at the bar arranging something.”
Beer bottle frozen halfway to a drink, Morgan looked cornered. “Why wouldn’t I want to hunt with you?”
“Because partners talk about shit like this.” Keegan would be laughing if he was here. But he’d been right to make her talk. “If you want to work with me, I deserve to know what I’m dealing with.”
“Melon-Heads jumped me and my… partner. We took out a few but… we were too far from any hedge doctors…” Morgan stared sightlessly at the ceiling for a long moment, before chugging most of the bottle.
Hunting partners weren’t always lovers, but Chelsea had a feeling that this time they had been. “I’m so sorry. We sent the little fuckers to hell, though.”
Wiping at watering eyes, Morgan forced a chuckle. “Fuck yeah we did.”
“So the old guy at the bar is gonna hunt something called a squonk.”
“Seriously?” This time Morgan’s chuckle was real.
Chelsea joined in. “Yup. Not really dangerous, but apparently worth money to the right people.”
“I could use some money.”
“You and me both.”
Forty minutes later, they found themselves on the road, two old hunters, Bart and George, in Chelsea’s backseat, Bentley buckled in between them. Bart’s accent marked him as backcountry, and he seemed to be in charge. He gave them co-ordinates deep in the forest outside the city.
The black night swallowed the road as they traveled deeper and deeper into the trees. Eventually, they met up with the computer. Chelsea sighed at the deep black of the forest. She’s camped out the evergreen forest of the Pacific Northwest for weeks and was enjoying civilization. She also didn’t relish wandering through unknown woods at night. She’d learned that lesson the hard way and had the scars to prove it.
George and Bart seemed undisturbed as they pulled their bags out of the trunk. They walked into the forest, relaxed, flashlights scanning the branches overhead as much as the ground in front. They set up camp quickly, leaving Chelsea and Morgan to exchange slightly helpless smiles as they stood around. Two hammocks and a small fire later and the copse of trees seemed almost cozy.
Bart squatted by the fire, greasy grey hair tucked behind his ears. “The squonk should be sleeping now, but it’ll be up in a few hours. It ain’t afraid of people or smoke, so we won’t bother it none. They eat hemlock though, and this grove is the biggest in the area.”
Chelsea nodded. “Bentley will let us know when it gets close.”
“That so?” Bart patted his leg and Bentley rushed over, tail wagging. “Ain’t seen a hunter with a dog in what, George? Fifteen years?”
The other man nodded. “About that. Betty used to have a hound that tracked for her.”
Morgan laughed, moving closer to the fire. “Bentley here took out a melon-head.”
Bart’s eye went wide. “No shit?”
Chelsea sighed. “Unfortunately. I’ve tried to keep him away, but he broke my windows and my trunk getting to me, so I just accepted it.”
Fingers locked in Bentley’s soft fur, Bart laughed. “So what has this beast fought?”
“Ooof.” Chelsea took a long drink of water. “A mind leech, scatterers, ocean fairies, the Two-Faced Woman… Taku-He.”
George dropped his water bottle. “You fought Taku-He? You knew Beau Chang then?”
Swallowing her tight throat, Chelsea nodded. “Beau was good people. We lost a friend.”
To her delight, George and Bart both had been out to South Dakota. She wasn’t sure how accurate their stories of hunting with Beau were, but they were funny and well-told.
Slowly, black night faded to gray, cold dawn. The two older hunters snored away, eyes closed. Chelsea poked at the fire. The sparks flew past Morgan’s pensive face.
The other hunter had an arm slung around Bentley. “Thanks.”
Chelsea chuckled. “For what?”
“For making me talk about… what happened to… my partner. I know I didn’t say much, but it felt good.”
“I’m glad.” Chelsea poked at the fire again. “I’m gonna be in the area for a while. I could use a partner while I’m here.”
Morgan’s brown eyes brightened with unshed tears. “Works for me.”
Bentley’s fur stood on end and he stalked, growling, towards the trees. The noise woke George and Bart. Chelsea helped Morgan stand, then they followed the other hunters into the woods.
Not too far from camp, a creature nearly the size of Bentley stood on its hind legs, nibbling on the needles of the dark green hemlocks. Drooping pinkish skin hung in folds with odd growths and lumps.
Morgan hissed. “Is it safe to touch?”
George and Bart exchanged looks and shrugs. Bart glanced over his shoulder. “It’ll take off yer fingers it gets a hold of ‘em, but the skin is safe to touch. Head around, we’ll charge it when you’re in position.”
Chelsea and Morgan eased their way around the clearing with Bentley at their heels. The squonk never looked up and had no idea what was happening until the four of them fell on it.
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