I always liked those boxes full of tiny jars of jam. Great present. And Advent calendars with chocolate, yes please. But when the shadow monster coalesced in my backyard, I didn't think of any of that. Why would I? I'd taken my dog Sancho out to pee before bed, and a rustling in the leaves resolved itself into a form of darkness. I only had time to disperse it with swipes of the rake, not contemplate gift subscriptions.
Sancho and I went inside, ate peanut butter cookies, and snuggled each other in a panic. And I thought nothing more of it, except, jeez, that was weird.
Until the next month when I had to whack a lamia with a snow shovel.
That was not my normal Tuesday night. Also I was afraid I'd run out of yard tools if this continued. And it made Sancho very nervous, and he's a nervous pee-er, so it messed with my life beyond smacking things. My favorite quilt was never the same. I was still worrying over it when my cousin Vita called on video chat.
"Do you like your birthday present?"
"Must have gotten lost in the mail, hon," I said absently, scrolling through another page of sprays that promised to wipe out pet odors.
"What? No! The Monster of the Month Club?"
My attention snapped to the chat window. "Vita. You didn't."
"It's supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. You love adventures!"
"I love reading adventures! Sancho is losing his shit!"
"I didn't get it for your dog, Rae."
I had a teacher who taught us square breathing once, and wow, did it come in handy. "They sent a lamia. That is not a present, Vee. That? Is a curse."
She pouted. "Well, I'm sorry, I thought it would be fun."
Another round of square breathing. "Can you cancel it, please?"
"They said no refunds."
"I don't care about your money. I care about the monsters."
That was probably not the best way to motivate Vita. The next month brought me a wraith. After that a banshee. I started keeping a baseball bat with me under the bed, in my car, on walks. I got Sancho a prescription for anxiety meds, poor boy. I put a ring of protective salt around my yard.
The fifth month, I went on vacation. Sancho boarded at the vet, where nobody had ordered monster delivery. It was dark when I got back from vacation, so it was sheer luck that I saw the swamp monster in the taillights before it chased me into my own garage. I threw it in reverse and backed over the damn thing with a squishy crunch. When I got out and looked at it, it smelled brackish. It had slurped right through the salt circle like it was born there.
This had to stop.
I paid for another week of boarding for Sancho and used my epic internet skills to track down the home office of the Monster of the Month Club. It was three hours away. I took my baseball bat, just in case.
The woman at the front desk jumped to her feet, looking panicked. Probably the baseball bat. "Ma'am, this is a private place of business. We do not receive—"
"I want to cancel my subscription," I said.
"We're used to that," she said. "It's called refusing the call."
That sounded dimly familiar from English classes. I wanted no part of it. "Well, your swamp monster didn't call first, so this is not working for me," I said.
Her face cleared. "Are you Rae? Rae Gomez? Oh my God, guys! Rae Gomez is here! Wait, you killed our swamp monster? Shit, what are we going to do for the other month fives?"
Two co-workers appeared from around the corner, looking as interested as if she had announced donuts. "The Rae Gomez?" said the one in the blue polo shirt.
Even my mother doesn't think I warrant a the. "I'm the Rae Gomez who wants you to stop sending me monsters. I don't care if my cousin gets her money back."
The woman at the front desk said earnestly, "You're our only client who doesn't seem to be a revenge target. And you've survived longer than the others. We've—we've been cheering for you."
"Kathy means we've had a betting pool," said the one with spectacles. "I bet you'd make it through the swamp monster. Pay up, Zeke."
Blue polo shirt (Zeke?) scowled, but I was more concerned about what front desk—Kathy—had said. "My cousin Vita bought me a birthday present that's most people's revenge? I guess that explains why anyone would want this, but—God, she's such an idiot. You need to cancel it now, though. It's not funny."
"We can't," explained Zeke. "Payment constitutes a contract. A magically binding contract. You're going to get seven more monsters, one per month. The only way out is if you die."
"That's a shitty way to write a contract, Zeke," I said. I thought I was saying it calmly, but they all scurried back, and I realized that I was waving my trusty baseball bat for emphasis. I deliberately lowered it. I did not set it down. "Let's...look over this contract, shall we?"
They found a conference room. They put the contract documents up on a screen so they could keep a safe distance from the nice lady with the baseball bat and we could read it together. I pounced on a clause. "It says that if you're unable to deliver a satisfactory product, the contract is terminated. I am so very unsatisfied."
Kathy deflated like a tube man hit with a woodchipper. I made a mental note that I should buy a woodchipper if we didn't get this resolved. "But we've lined up the others, there's a Jersey devil straight out of the pine barrens for month seven, and—"
"Probably unsatisfying," I snapped.
"What if we...let you examine the monsters provided?" asked Spectacles.
And that's how I ended up trailing three very nervous office workers through a warehouse full of monster cages. It smelled like mulch, lemon floor cleaner, and the moldy-bloody smell the lamia gave off when I hit it with the shovel.
There were several spare lamias, and they were no more pleased to see me than the first one had been. They had loads of shadow monsters, writhing around each other in a big pen, fewer wraiths, two banshees. I didn't see another swamp monster. When I asked about it, Kathy winced. "No one else has made it this far."
"We're really rooting for you," she said hastily, taking another big step back out of bat range. This brought her closer to the bars of a hydra cage. The heads hissed at her. She staggered away.
I looked at it thoughtfully. I extended the bat, but low and slow. One of the heads twined around it, then another.
"You can send this one," I said.
They eyed me.
"I'll have time to get space ready," I said. And prepare Sancho. I hoped he'd be all right with it. If I let him smell the bat, or maybe something else—my jacket?—that the hydra had touched. That might do. I might be able to get him used to it. The hydra slid closer, and I petted an eager rush of heads each in succession.
"What are you doing?" asked Spectacles.
I glared. Spectacles hastened back again. "I am handling this. My own way. Let's see the next one."
They weren't all as friendly as the hydra. I couldn't expect them to be. I was still going to need that woodchipper. And to check some of the neighborhood restrictions because I might need some special structures. On the other hand...who wants to pick a fight with the neighbor who built a treehouse for her sasquatch pal and has God knows what coming next month? After all, they wouldn't know that the subscription ended after a year.
If things went well with Sancho, maybe I'd even renew it myself. I didn't like the cages. Maybe I'd been awfully hasty with the yard implements.
The Monster of the Month Club administrative staff eyed me as I made for the parking lot, our business completed. Zeke ventured, "Have you considered...hiring yourself out as a monster?"
I recoiled. "I beg your pardon."
He flapped his hands. "I didn't mean it that way! It's just...it's hard to source monsters, and you've shown you're a formidable opponent, fast on your feet. And now you'll have a team. A lot of our clients are nasty characters. It might be cathartic to...."
I shook my head. "I don't think that's my jam. But thanks." As I got back in the car to drive home, though, I wondered. Was it that I didn't want to be a monster? Or was it that I didn't want to be a random monster of the month?
I'd get some quality snuggles in with Sancho and see how it went as the team assembled. Be a monster for them, no. Freelance, on the other hand. Now, that might be an idea.
© 2023 Marissa Lingen