The neighborhood was clean. Fresh paint and shining brass were everywhere despite the old bricks. Chelsea felt incredibly conspicuous in her multi-colored car and clothes she picked up on the road, though really her clothes were no more outlandish than some of the fashion she saw on the street. New York City rendered her fringed duster, hand-woven beanie, tourist trap t-shirt, and copper jewelry to almost ordinary.
A whimper came moments before Bentley rested his huge head on her shoulder. Bright blue eyes gazed soulfully into hers.
“Okay Bent, we’ll go for a walk. Her shift isn’t over yet.”
Bentley huffed in her ear before shuffling to his door with an expectant look.
Chelsea shrugged. “I don’t care what Andy says. Going into her job is nearly as bad as showing up at her apartment. I don’t even like hanging out waiting for her shift to end. It feels like an ambush.”
Bentley sighed and flopped on his seat.
“Okay, I’ll stop repeating myself.” Chelsea grabbed his leash and tried to ignore the demanding beat of her heart. Amber Neill was merely feet away, finally, and Chelsea had no idea what to say to her. Waiting for her shift to be over wasn’t helping Chelsea’s anxiety or her creativity.
Walking Bentley helped, at least. He pranced and sniffed, got pets and coos from strangers, and, as he always did, soothed Chelsea. Something about the huge mutt’s antics thawed the ice in her chest and let her breath.
All too soon, they had gone around the block and ended up back at the car. Chelsea scurried to her seat, eyes on the huge windows of the restaurant.
Amber was obvious, even from here. Tall and heavily built, she towered over the other servers, her thick black hair drinking in the light above her dark uniform. Chelsea couldn’t see her face and hadn’t dared get close enough to do so, but she could not imagine Amber with a service industry smile. Amber smiled, but the woman just wasn’t pleasant.
What kind of strings did Andy have to pull to get her this job?
Autumn’s chill moved in as the sun headed for the horizon. The white paper wrapper of some food, grease stains glowing like stained glass in the waning light, tumbled in the air outside her car. Its circling dance reminded her of the chupacabra hunt last fall.
Eventually, several people dressed in black uniforms like Amber and the other servers trickled in. Chelsea’s heart skipped a beat, and she sat up.
Minutes ticked by, each an endless eternity of torture. The first server dragged herself out of the restaurant, back bowed and head bent. The next person looked just as tired.
Chelsea scrambled out of her car, pulling off her beanie. It had been well over a year since she’d seen Amber, but it felt like a lifetime. She wasn’t sure she was recognizable as the person Amber knew, the failed debutante turned artist, but her bright red hair was freshly dyed.
The rest of the servers walked out in a clump, Amber a few steps behind, her eyes on her feet, take out boxes in hand. They chatted as they lit cigarettes and headed for a mutual car. Amber didn’t join them. She started to shuffle down the street, but she froze.
Her head turned until she met Chelsea’s eye. For a moment, the stooped shoulders squared and look of belligerence washed over the familiar round face. Despite the ridiculously over-sized white lace collar and high ponytail, Amber was a monster hunter and for a brief moment, there was no hiding it.
The moment passed between one heartbeat and the next. Amber turned her eyes back to her shoes, her shoulders hunched, but she crossed the street, heading right for Chelsea. She swallowed the lump in her throat as her fingers clutched the hilt of her knife.
Amber leaned against the car beside her. “Some cop is gonna get pissy about that knife. You’re better off with brass knuckles and pepper spray in the city.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Her voice was strained, barely understandable. Damp palms and a heaving stomach didn’t help her nerves at all.
Amber sighed. “So Jackson finally introduced you and Andy, huh?”
“Yeah.” Chelsea shrugged, guilt rising in her. She’d always known Amber was a little jealous of her and Jackson, but the full story left her sick to her stomach. “It’s not what you think—”
“That motherfucker.” The epithet didn’t have nearly enough heat. “He told you everything.”
Words tumbled out of Chelsea’s mouth, the only explanation a hunter would accept. “I helped him with molepeople.”
Amber’s eyes narrowed. “It’s not the season for molepeople.”
“So Andy said, but I know what I killed. He owed me.”
Amber shook her head and looked at the sky. “It’s supposed to rain tonight. You mind giving me a ride? I’ve got dinner covered.” She gestured to Chelsea with the takeout boxes.
“Hop in.” She wished she could say more, but what she didn’t know. So she focused on the next thing, getting Amber home. She opened the passenger door. “Backseat time, buddy.”
Bentley stared at her, not moving.
“Look Bent, you don’t pay for gas, food, or shelter. And while you do help hunt, mostly, you ride for free. The front seat is for people with money.”
The dog sighed before hopping to the backseat.
Chelsea found herself rolling her eyes as she looked to Amber. “There’s dog hair everywhere. Do you need a blanket?”
Wide eyes and a confused grin met her question. “Thanks, but it’s okay.”
“Good. The blanket probably has dog hair on it, too.”
Amber chuckled as she got in the car. The sound closed Chelsea’s throat again and she wrestled back the tears. The strained air in the car wasn’t relieved by the drive. Amber’s quiet instructions evaporated in the silence. Even Bentley kept his thoughts to himself in the back seat.
The parking garage was expensive but better than the street, and the continued silence was just as suffocating. They didn’t break it until they were seated on Amber’s stiff, threadbare couch surrounded by patched walls.
Amber kicked off her shoes. “So, why are you here?”
Chelsea sighed. “I don’t know. I mean, I thought I knew, but then Andy and I talked—”
“That motherfucker.” Oddly, Amber seemed more amused than angry. “He needs to mind his own business.”
Chelsea shrugged. “Probably, but now…”
“Well, what did you think before the motherfucker talked?”
Her heart didn’t want to beat. “I thought was in love with both you and Jackson.”
Amber’s skin paled to sickly. “That’s a fucking shame as well as completely hilarious.” She rubbed at her temples. “And now?”
Chelsea pushed down her urge to snap at the other woman. “And now, I probably should have taken a day or two to process, but I wanted to see you.”
Amber closed her eyes and settled on the couch, her voice defeated. “Why?”
Bentley whined from their feet and pushed his way onto the couch between them. He licked Chelsea’s cheek before resting his giant head on Amber’s shoulder.
Chelsea waited, trusting the big dog’s instincts. Amber slipped her fingers through the mutt’s fur staring into his eyes. Eventually, big tears formed and slid down her cheeks. She buried her face in Bentley’s neck and sobbed.
Chelsea let the last few hours wash over her. Tears of empathy rose in her. Rock bottom sucked for everyone. She leaned against the big dog and wrapped her arms around both of them. Eventually, Amber quieted, though she made no attempt to move away.
Chelsea took that as a good sign and fumbled for an innocuous topic. “I’m crashing at And—”
“You can stay here.” The sentence was pushed together so fast it was nearly a single word, made more unintelligible since Amber kept her face buried in Bentley’s neck.
Hope and doom rose and fell in her stomach, but she knew her answer. “Thanks.”