I’ll Be Back This Way

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.
***

For the first time in weeks, Chelsea woke up with the only dawn and her dog for company. She and Morgan been on hunter’s hours for a while: up in the afternoon, fighting all night, beers in the morning before bed. 

But today she was leaving Pittsburgh. She showered, hoping to be ready before Morgan got back. Hope was dashed when she exited the bathroom to find her latest hunting partner snuggled up with Bentley on the daybed.

Messy brown curls fell over dark eyes. “You weren’t gonna leave without saying goodbye, right?”

Chelsea sighed. “I respect you too much to lie. I was trying to do that.” She wiped at her sudden tears. “Dammit, I hate goodbyes. And I already told you I was going.”

Morgan stood, wrapping thick arms around her. “I would have forgiven you.”

They stood like that in the basement apartment for a long while, saying nothing. Eventually Chelsea took a deep breath, pulled away, and picked up her bag. She swallowed. “Take care of yourself. I’ll be back this way, and I’ll expect you to be here, happy and healthy.”

Morgan grinned through wet cheeks. “I can’t wait to see you again.”

Chelsea whistled for her dog, and then she and Bentley headed for the car. She knew where she to start looking for Amber, more or less, but she still headed for the Strip before hitting the road though. Rita’s haunt sat full and raucous as hunters looked to drown some sorrows and get a little help sleeping.

Rita herself tended bar as usual. She smiled as Chelsea wandered over. “Didn’t think I’d see ya. Morgan said you was leaving. Glad I get a goodbye.”

Chelsea cocked her head. “I got a lead on Amber. Fairly easily, I might add.”

“Months old.” Rita sniffed. “Didn’t think it was worth telling ya ‘bout it.”

“Bullshit.” Chelsea crossed her arms. “She told you about me, didn’t she?”

“Amber? Talk about her herself?” Rita rolled her eyes. “You sure ya know her all that well?”

“So, if you weren’t protecting Amber…” Chelsea swallowed. “Morgan?”

Rita sighed. “Morgan ain’t quite one a mine. But my grandson…” She sniffed and swallowed hard.

“The teammate that died.”

Rita nodded. “So, I’ll take care of Morgan. And you was good for Morgan. You and that dog a’ yourns.” The old woman shrugged. “And look how little effort it took ya to find the place Amber mighta been. Ya didn’t need me itall. Ya sure you want to find her?”

Chelsea knew a matchmaking line when she heard one. “Honestly? I’m not sure about anything when it comes to Amber. Which is why I have to find her.”

Rita grinned. “Ain’t many hunters like you these days.”

“I don’t know about that. Most seem pretty unstable to me.”

Rita chuckled. “Yer always welcome back.”

“Can I bring Bentley in here?”

“A dog?” Rita sniffed. “Don’t much like dogs.”

Chelsea adjusted her coat. “Then I’m not sure when you’ll see me again.”

Billy the bouncer laughed and Chelsea waved to him and Bart. There was warmth in Mike’s hug as he let her back out. Pittsburgh was a good place for hunters. And it would amazing when she came back. The people drinking might change, but not the ones serving the drinks.

She settled into her car. Bentley shimmied into the front seat, tongue lolling. 

“Yeah, I know. I keep giving people your seat. But they pay for gas and you don’t.”

Bentley looked out the window, utterly unconcerned with her justifications.

Smiling, Chelsea immediately prepped for a long trip. She found the local oldies station weeks ago. Radio ready, she programmed her GPS northward, to the Hudson Valley.

The tunnels and insane lane changes spun her around in circles twice before she cleared the city. Swearing and suddenly glad to be gone, she hit the open road. Bart and a few locals had given her wonderful backwoods directions. She could have shot up to Erie and then over through New York, but the Pennsylvania forests made for great driving, and the restaurants served the best pies. 

Summer meant camping as opposed to hotels. She happily paid the fee and bedded down at the local campgrounds at dusk. She could have pushed on to the Hudson Valley, but maybe Rita had a point. 

By the light of her campfire, Chelsea studied an old sketchbook. Amber had been so much a part of her start at hunting. In many ways, Chelsea had modeled herself after Amber. The other woman might not have a fringed leather duster or a dog, but she hated people nearly as much as Chelsea. She traveled as well, unlike most hunters these days.

A sardonic loner on the road, who found a person or two to connect with for a time before wandering off. Chelsea sighed. Maybe she should drop this. Amber had made it clear that she didn’t want a relationship, was incapable of it in her own words.

Chelsea checked on her hotdog and poured Bentley more water. These trees around her lacked the towering majesty of the Pacific Northwest, but there was something comforting about the green canopy nonetheless. 

I’m hiding again.

Bentley bumped into her, pushing her into the chair. He rested his huge head on her lap. “I’m okay, Bent. I just don’t like thinking I’m a coward, and I feel a little like one at the moment.”

Scratching at his ears, she pulled out her cellphone. It was early for Jackson on the west coast, but he should be awake. 

He picked up on the first ring. “Hello, my little nun.”

She smiled. “Hey, Jack.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Not sure.” The lie sat heavy in her chest. “Just feeling down. Wanted to talk to you.”

“Where you at?”

“Wine country.” She laughed. “Just outside the Hudson River Valley in New York.”

“Oooh. You said you love sightseeing. There’s all kinds of Revolutionary War stuff out there. And Sleepy Hollow.”

Chelsea laughed. “Like the Headless Horseman?”

“Exactly. You’ll love it.”

Did Amber love it? Why was she out here?

Tears slid down her face. “Can’t wait.”

Jackson said nothing for too long. Then came the casual, “Gotta a job?”

“Got something to check out.”

Another long pause. “You okay?”

“No, but I will be.” She hated the quaver in her voice. “I promise, Jack. If I needed you, I would say so. I just… having a bad mental health day.”

“So, where are you staying?”

“Right now, I’m camping. There’s all kinds of campgrounds around here. I carry everything I need to sleep outdoors in my trunk.”

“We really need to hunt together. You travel in style.”

She swallowed more tears. “We will. Some day.”

Jackson paused again. “You ready to tell me what’s really bothering you?”

She stared up at the stars. “Soon. Hopefully. I need to figure it out for myself first.”

“Fair enough. Take care. And pet that good dog of yours.”

“I will.”

“I love you.”

She wished he’d stop saying that. “I know. And… I’ll talk to you soon.”

As usual Jack laughed at her evasion. She found herself laughing with him as they hung up. The sky purpled and some stars peeked. Chelsea clutched at Bentley’s neck. “Tomorrow, Bent. We start looking for Amber for real tomorrow.”

***

You can read more about Rita and her family in Uncommon Animals and the sequels.

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