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.
Eyes heavy, Chelsea rested her feet on Morgan’s chair.
“Excuse me?” The tone was playful and perky. Like they hadn’t stayed up all night and then spent most of the morning chasing a brain leech.
Chelsea rubbed at her crusty eyes. “Can you drive, cause I’m not sure I can.”
“Are you serious?” Morgan chuckled and shifted Chelsea’s foot. “You’ll let me drive the car?”
“Like you didn’t half panic when I offered to take a shift in Ohio.”
“That’s not exactly true. You were really upset, that’s why I didn’t let you drive.”
“Oh, bullshit.” Morgan snickered. “You had the same look when I picked up that coat.”
Chelsea laughed and shook the fringe on her arms. “Oh, you don’t touch the armor.”
“The coat is sweet.”
They both laughed into the dregs of their beers, and then Chelsea stood and stretched. “I should let Bentley out though, walk off this last beer.”
Morgan nodded. “And yeah, I’m good to drive in a little bit.”
Chelsea paused. “I didn’t think of it, but where are you staying? I have a place here in town.”
“Do you mind? I’m crashing in an abandoned building.”
Chelsea shook her head. “Not at all. And now I wish I had asked a few days ago. But my dog.”
“Yes, walk the dog.”
The Strip was already crowded with shoppers. Chelsea was doubly grateful that Rita had offered her a parking spot out back. Chelsea circled the building, walking down the brick alley. There was something about this city. She was digging the old and the new, the rust and bricks… and the art. She wanted to hit up a few exhibits. Maybe Morgan would dig it too.
Bentley sat up as she approached the car, his tail threatening to dent her steering wheel. “C’mon, Bent. Let’s walk off this beer.”
As she wandered past the delis and restaurants, and clothing shops, the humidity rose with the temperature. Uncomfortably reminded of her Southern childhood, she hoped things wouldn’t get much more extreme. It didn’t stop her from buying an impossibly cozy-looking cardigan from a table.
Well, hopefully you won’t be here much longer. There has to be some way to find Amber.
A sudden heat in her chest twisted her stomach. She dug her phone out of her pocket. She hadn’t called Jackson in a few days. Hadn’t thought of him or Amber since she’d met Morgan.
She hurriedly pulled up his number and found herself holding her breath.
He picked up on the second ring. “Well, hello, my little nun.”
She rolled her eyes, despite the wide smile on her face. “Are you really going to keep calling me that?”
“For as long as you let me.” He paused. “So what’s going on? You’re up late.”
“Just walking off the last beer after a hunt. Been up all night and I think I’m getting a second wind.”
“Yeah, same here.” A yawn eased out of the phone. “We took out a swarm of tree octopuses. You?”
“Tonight, was a brain leech, nothing major. But a few nights ago, I took out a squonk.”
He paused. “Okay, that’s a new one for me.”
Chelsea smiled at nothing and turned Bentley back towards Rita’s. She described the hunt, as well the ugliest magical animal she had ever seen. By the time she finished, she was back at her car.
She opened the door for Bentley, phone tucked in her neck. “Okay, I am done for the night. Gonna grab Morgan, and head to bed.”
“In that order?” Jackson’s voice held nothing but laughter.
Chelsea’s spine iced over, anyway. “Actually… not too sure. It’s…”
“Chelsea, it’s okay. I’m not mad or jealous, or–”
She cut him off. “Good. But that’s not the point. I’m not lying to stroke your ego.”
“Oh. Good.” There was a pause before he stuttered, “W-well, I’ll let you go then.”
“Jack.” She fought to exorcise the irritation from her voice. “I called because I missed you. Okay. No matter where I am, or who I’m with, I miss you. And that hasn’t changed.”
Chelsea swallowed the words, wondering if they were really true.
Jackson cleared his throat. “I know what you mean.”
“Good. Now, go to bed. With whomever, just in case you needed to hear that, too.”
He laughed. “I love you.”
She hesitated. “Take care of yourself.” She hung up on what sounded like more laughter.
Feeling exponentially more confused than when she had left, Chelsea wandered back to Rita’s in search of Morgan. Her current hunting partner still sat alone at the table. Dark eyes filled with relief when they landed on Chelsea. “You ready?”
Chelsea nodded. “You sober?”
The tremor in Morgan’s hands looked more like terror than sobriety to Chelsea. Once more, she rounded the haunt, and couldn’t help but notice how Morgan eyed the crowds of shoppers. Once they were at the car, Chelsea held out her keys. Morgan snatched them, but Chelsea didn’t let go. “So, what’s your problem with people?”
“Who says I have a problem with people,” Morgan scoffed.
Chelsea pointed at herself with her free hand. “A professionally diagnosed general anxiety disorder. I hate crowds. I know what I’m looking at.”
Morgan let go of the keys. “Never been diagnosed, but never been a people person either.”
Chelsea nodded and tossed the keys to her partner. “My dad fought tooth and nail to get me to doctors. Said mental health was as important as physical health. My mom… she loved me, but she had some issues accepting that something was wrong with me for a long time. I was lucky. My dad won that fight. Basically, it’s okay if you hate people. I do too. I just want to know what’s wrong. I can’t have your back if I don’t know what’s up.”
Morgan’s eyes closed, knuckles white on the keyring. “The bar. There were a lot of people. I just want some quiet.”
“Me too.” Chelsea programmed her address into Morgan’s phone. “Get us out of here.”
The ride was silent. Even Bentley seemed subdued as they headed inside. The tiny basement apartment swallowed sound.
Chelsea pulled out the daybed and grabbed extra blankets from the closet. A vague horror washed over Morgan’s face. “Is there only one bed?”
“Yup.” Chelsea swallowed. “Is that a problem?”
“Nope.” Morgan sat on the edge of the bed, face tense. “I… uh, didn’t grab any extra clothes… when I left Ohio. So, excuse my jeans, please.”
Chelsea opened her mouth to tell Morgan to take off whatever layers, but the pain in her partner’s face stopped her. “Of course.” She pulled in a deep breath, unsure of what the tension in the room was, but unable to deny it’s existence. “And we’ll go shopping tonight. Get you some stuff.”
“Sure.” Defeat nearly killed the word.
Chelsea settled on her side of the bed. Worry for her new friend kept sleep at bay for quite a while.