Chelsea buried her face in Bentley’s neck. “I can do this.” She reveled in the silky fur, letting go of her stress for a moment. She had made the decision, she had planned and thought up contingencies. Now all she had to do was act.
Bentley pinned her against the car’s seat before shuffling and butting her chest with his enormous head.
“Okay, okay, I’m going.” A smile on her lips, she strode across the hot blacktop to the unassuming building settled at the top of the hill.
The trio of receptionists behind their protective glass did nothing for Chelsea’s anxiety. Bile rose in her throat as she smiled. “I’m here to see my uncle, Bob Kestel.”
The nearest woman smiled back. “Of course. One moment.” She tapped at the keyboard. “I’m glad he’s getting guests. Some people don’t.”
Her anxiety from before reared its ugly head. She’d spent entirely too much time in a facility like this one. She hoped none of her feelings showed on her face, as the receptionist got her badge together and called for an orderly to escort her. Chelsea fought to keep her memories of check-in buried deep for the moment.
I can freak out about this later.
Her emotions didn’t settle so much as subside. She could feel the anxiety attack building, but she could hold it off for now. She hoped.
Buzzing lights and soft crying from closed doors barely cracked her mental walls as they headed for the far end of the wing.
The orderly, salt and pepper hair belying his powerful arms and broad back, smiled at her. “Your uncle has been doing well. He’s outside, at the moment. Poor guy has been missing the outdoors.”
Chelsea made an appropriate noise as empathy welled in her. Bob Kestal had seemed at home on the river.
Stop that. You can’t start crying. You won’t stop for a while.
She had to stay calm. Bob Kestal had also tried to feed her a monster. And there was no telling how he’d react to his “niece” showing up.
The hall opened to a large field, lined by tall oaks that blocked the fence she had seen in the parking lot. Several people painted at easels and in the distance a circle of chairs proclaimed group therapy was in session.
The orderly lead her down a path, away from the larger groups. Here and there, people sat in plastic chairs. Some reading, a few writing in journals. The peaceful aura of the place calmed Chelsea a little more. Bob Kestal, whatever damage had been done to his brain by the nix, was in a good place to recover.
The orderly motioned for her to stop as he approached the next occupied chair. Chelsea froze on the path.
He leaned down and spoke quietly. Bob’s dark head whipped around. He met Chelsea’s eyes and swallowed, but he nodded.
The orderly smiled at her before walking a respectful distance away; too far to hear a quiet conversation, but close enough to be on hand.
Knees shaking, Chelsea walked over to the chair. Her former employer’s wide eyes and pale face spoke to his terror. He kept his hands in his lap and his gaze at his feet.
Chelsea hunkered down. “How have you been?”
He shrugged. “Trying to get my head on straight.” Tears fell down his face. “I’m so sorry you got caught up in my delusions.”
Terror closed her throat for a moment, but she swallowed it. “And if I told you it wasn’t a delusion? That a monster that can mess with your mind was in that water.”
Bob suddenly met her eyes. “What?”
Tears wet her face. “A monster messed with your head.”
He closed his eyes and swallowed. “Why are you doing this?”
Chelsea grabbed his tightly clenched fist. “Because I’ve been in places like this before I ever heard of monsters. And you have the right to know what really happened.”
His hands unclenched and grabbed hers. “I- I…”
She held on to his fingers tightly. “It’s okay. Take as much time as you need to deal with this, but know the truth. You aren’t to blame for what happened. And I don’t blame you, either. And nobody here needs to know any of that.”
Bob swallowed and nodded. “Thank you, really, thank you.”
She sucked in a deep breath. “But I have two questions for you now.”
“Anything.” The word was strained.
“Did Amber really not show up for the hunt?” Chelsea held her breath. Looking for her ex-girlfriend was how she ended up on that boat.
Bob sighed. “Assuming I can trust my memories, no, she never showed up.”
Her chest relaxed and she could breathe normally once more. “Thank you. Now, my next question is more of a request. Can I take a boat out?”
Bob answered her with a confused look.
Chelsea tried to smile, but all she knew was that she was showing teeth. “I still have a monster to kill. The one that messed with you.”
“I have a spare set of keys to the business. There’s a safe in the shed. You’ll need bolt cutters to get in, but the combination is easy, well for me, 73-48-81.”
Chelsea smiled for real this time. “The year your basketball team went to states, your jersey number, and the year you opened your business.”
Bob startled, pulling away from her.
“I needed to find out what happened. I did some research.”
He nodded, tears welling up again. “I… I think that’s a good thing.” He clutched at his chest. “I… you really believe it was a monster and not m-me.”
She nodded, giving herself a few moments to settle her own tears. “I do, Bob. But, please, keep that between you and me.”
He settled back in his chair with a nod. “Be careful on the river. Wish you had someone who knows that water.”
“Me too.” She found some hunter’s bravado for the man. “But it won’t matter too much once that nix is dead.” She pulled herself to her feet and leaned towards him. “Your niece is giving you a hug before she heads out because this has been just exhausting for you.”
The hug was stiff and awkward, but the best she and Bob could manage. His shaking hands and red eyes probably made it irrelevant.
The walk back to the building barely registered to Chelsea. She needed to get to the safety of her car and Bentley. The staff talked to her. Meaningless platitudes about well her uncle was doing. She tried to make the right words back, but she wasn’t sure.
She didn’t remember walking to her car, but once there in the front seat, her vision narrowed to a pinpoint of light and her breath came shallowly. She let fear, grief, panic, and relief wash over her in waves.
The days after her parents’ murder were a blur, but her time in the hospital was clear, despite the drugs. She’d wanted to be with them, far more than she’d ever wanted anything else.
Bentley’s familiar weight on her shoulder calmed her, as did his whine. She wrapped her arms around him and found herself able to breathe once more. She didn’t think about anything but breathing and the soft fur on Bentley.
A knock on her window mostly startled her back to the present. Standing by her door was a familiar, if annoyed, cop.
Chelsea scrambled out of the car with Bentley. She didn’t quite feel back to normal, but her feelings rarely got to dictate her reality.
The cop, Julie, glared at her. “I told you sit back and let me handle this. Why am I getting calls from the staff about Bob’s “niece” coming to visit?”
Chelsea sucked in a deep breath, trying to anchor herself. “I have been letting you handle this. You were doing the cop work, dredging the river, looking into finances, whatever. I looked into any supernatural stuff and I found something.”
Julie’s hands curled into fists. “So why are you here, talking to Bob?”
“It’s a nix. That’s what messed up Bob. He deserved to know that… and I need a boat to kill it.”
“A nix…” Julie let out a long breath and studied the clouds. “So, now you have a boat, I assume?”
Chelsea nodded. “Bob is letting me use one of his. I got a location for a den or whatever too.”
“And do you know how to drive a boat?”
Chelsea shook her head.
Julie rolled her eyes. “I thought so. Well, luckily, I grew up on all kinds of boats on this river. I’ll see you Sunday night, eight PM at Bob’s place. Get me all the info on that “den” location.”
“I have the combination to his safe, too.” The unreal feelings still held sway, but Chelsea powered through it. “I think we need a third person.”
Julie sighed. “Well, unless you have someone in mind, it’s just you and me.”
She only knew one hunter in the area. “Let me make some calls.”
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