The Monster Next Door

I heard a tip about a werewolf but don’t have time to follow up. You want it?

Marlene chewed on her thumbnail as she stared at the text message. In the four minutes since it had arrived she had written out several different replies, and deleted each. “Do you think I’m ready?” sounded too weak. “Hell yeah!” made her sound like an  overeager psychopath. She hadn’t found a happy medium between the two, and after another minute Silas sent a second text.

If you’re busy, I can check in with another hunter. You’re the closest in the network by 50 miles.

She tapped out her reply — Send me the details. I’ll get right on it. — and cringed as she hit send, wondering if it made her sound like she hadn’t been doing anything since finishing her certification for the monster hunting network. She had tucked her license in the hunters’ lockbox she’s been issued. It sat in a pile with along with a will, the notification details for next of kin, her relevant online passwords and account destruction directives, and an exhaustive list of what she wanted done if she were turned to any number of monsters. With all that put together, she had promptly taken zero cases.

She paced the small circle around her dining room table, her route frequently interrupted by either the pile of books she had forgotten to put away or her cat Smokey, eager to twine between her moving legs. Some of her empty workload was because there hadn’t been a lot of supernatural activity around town; in fact, she’d taken on hunter training headfirst just because she’d been bored working in her grandpa’s tourist-trap curios shop in the mall. But she also hadn’t been scouring the news and network forums like she’d been trained, wary of her new role as Marlene Le Blanc, Monster Hunter. She’d even had cards made for a lark (she said to people when they raised their eyebrow at the white embossed lettering and thick burgundy paper).

Silas’ third text message arrived: Head out to Rusty’s in Little Chute, not far from the mall. I was passing through last night and overheard the bartender telling some girl his neighbor was a werewolf. He might just be trying to impress her, but you never know.

That was their motto: you never know. Her closing shift at her grandpa’s store started in an hour. She packed up her dusty leather backpack with all the supplies she’d need: silver bullets for her handgun, stakes, and a knife with a pure silver blade. Once the shop closed she could head to Little Chute and check it out.


Rusty’s turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall joint in a strip mall, tucked between an all-night laundromat and an “Authentic Indian Market.” The large parking lot’s single street light flickered when she parked. In the far corner of the lot, as far from the building as they could be, a couple made out loudly against their car.

Clutching the silver cross she kept in the pocket of her jacket, Marlene rolled her shoulders and made her way into the bar. It was better lit than the outdoors, with bright lights over the bar but booths cloaked in shadows. Only one other person sat at the bar, an older man with a book and a beer. The bartender was leaned back against the single patch of wall that wasn’t covered in photos, scrolling mindlessly on his phone.

Marlene took a seat at the bar and tried to say, “Gimme a Miller Light,” but her voice squeaked around the word “gimme.” She stopped to clear her throat, and looked down at the bar, embarrassed and certain that the bartender, grizzled and old enough to be her father, could see the flush she felt in her cheeks. “A Miller Light, please.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Can I see your ID?”

“Of course.” She fished a $20 and her ID out of the back pocket of her jeans, the ID bent from two years of being jammed into her back pocket. She still had goth eyeliner and long navy-colored hair in her ID photo, something she had given up a year later when she turned 22. Not that she was much more intimidating with the pixie cut and the glasses, but her hunter mentor had stressed the importance of blending in.

The bartender slid her ID back to her, but she waved him off when he went to return her change. He looked to the bills and then her before shrugging and dropping the lot of it in his tip jar.

Halfway through her beer, after practicing in her head at last a half-dozen times, Marlene finally worked up the nerve to ask, “So, you work last night?”

The bartender nodded but didn’t look up from his phone. “Family business; it’s me or Ma most of the time. You’re not a regular.”

“No, but my friend recommended the place. Said he heard a funny story about your neighbor.”

That got the bartender’s attention. He looked up, his face split into a grin. “Oh, he heard that? Mikey’s gonna kick my ass, I swear. It’s the worst kept secret.”

“It’s true, then? Your neighbor is a — ”

“Yep, a lycanthrope.” The bartender actually chuckled a bit, as though he was telling some big joke rather than announcing that his neighbor was a deadly monster. “He’s a real fun guy.”

“You haven’t had any problems with him? Nothing… weird?”

“Mikey? Nah, he moved here from somewhere down south, Carolina or Iowa or some-such, to avoid some trouble. He doesn’t talk about it much, but I don’t mind. He’s been a model neighbor. Bought the old house after Mrs. Geison’s kids put the place up for sale. He’s just been fixing it up.”

She nodded, sipping her beer and contemplating exactly what sort of grisly trouble would send a werewolf running so far north.

“What’s your interest in Mikey, anyway? You’re not, like, trying to serve him a summons or anything? I don’t want to cause him any grief.” The man’s sudden change in stature — just a little puffed up, just a little bit threatening — clearly told her everything she needed to know about their friendship. Best to steer clear of Rusty’s after she took care of the situation, it seemed.

“Nah, no interest, no summons. I just like monster stories.”


She had endured an hour of the bartender’s favorite urban legends and monster myths  while she did recon on her phone and nursed her rapidly warming beer. The name “Mikey” wasn’t much to go on, but only one home in the area had the previous owner with the last name “Geison,” and it had sold just three months prior. Certain that was her mark, she left the bar and drove the outskirts of town.

The little side-street had a cute, old-timey charm. The houses weren’t too big; it looked like the kind of place where families settled for decades, where neighbors threw block parties. In the bright moonlight she could see tricycles and other lawn toys left out by carefree children. The thought of a werewolf in the same neighborhood as so many families made her blood chill. She tightened her belt over her hips, her handgun holstered on one side and her knife secured on the other.

She made quick work of the lock on the front door; it was an older house, and she’d always gotten top scores in lock-picking during her training. She expected the home to be empty while the werewolf stalked in the night for his dinner. When he returned home, she would strike. It was beautifully crafted, the stalker becoming the stalked.

The problem with that plan became abundantly clear when she realized he was standing in the threshold between the living room and the kitchen, drinking milk from the carton. With his head tilted back he couldn’t see her, and she had time to assess his less-than-intimidating form. He wasn’t particularly broad or muscular — all of the photos she’d seen and monsters the coalition kept on staff had seemed like big scary brutes. This guy was a bit below average height, sort of lanky and just… soft looking.

He sighed with satisfaction and was halfway through wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when he saw her. He looked up and down her stance as though he was trying to come to a conclusion. He seemed to settle on her gun. “Oh. Hello?” Even his voice wasn’t threatening. He seemed practically interchangeable with any of her high school friends. He was even the right age.

She tightened her grip on her gun, even though it was still holstered. It seemed rude, perfunctory even, to just shoot him without saying anything. “I…” She cleared her throat. “Look, I’m sorry about this.”

“Is there a problem with my registration? I updated it when I left Louisiana.”

With her gun pulled free, she said, “I’m not a cop.”

He dropped the milk and turned tail, running through the kitchen. Marlene followed, but slipped in the slick puddle left by the milk and landed on her knees. The jolt took the gun from her hands, and with how fast he moved, she didn’t have the time to get it if she was going to catch him. Instead she left it behind and trailed him through the yard.

He made his way to the treeline, and moved up one of them faster than a human could have. But the tree was a lean, shaky old thing — she could clearly see him in the bright night and the thin branch cover as he sat to catch his breath. “Look, I don’t understand the problem. I’m registered as harmless with your guild! Look, the card is in my wallet!”

Marlene took her knife out and held it tight in her dominant hand, jumping back a touch as his wallet hit the ground. The billfold landed open and she reached down to look at the visible ID.

Michael Allen Dubose, his name read on a Louisiana driver’s license. His picture was a few years old; his hair was much longer and shaggier, his face a bit more filled out in his youth.

“No, behind that,” he called down from the tree, still shifting as though he was trying to make himself smaller on the scant branch.

Hesitating, Marlene slipped card out from behind the driver’s license; the laminated card looked very much like her membership card in the safe at home, which was to say that it looked like something made with a word processor and a home laminator. It had the Human Safety and Guardianship Guild logo and letterhead, as well as a similarly aged photo with the notation “corpus mutante, certified harmless and non-violent.”

“I’ve never seen a card like this,” she said, looking up at him. They exchanged the same blank, confused stare for a few moments. “It says here you’re a shapeshifter,” she added, as though that might make sense of the situation. “So you’re telling a hunter that you’re a werewolf.”

“What? No! Jesus, it just says that I’m a body-changer. Non-violent body-changer, might I add.” He shifted again to pull his feet up. “What do you mean you haven’t seen a registration card? Are you even done training?”

She pointed the knife at him, useless as the gesture was. “This isn’t you interrogating me! Your neighbor told me that you’re a werewolf. This card says you’re a ‘body-changer,’ which a werewolf is. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a — ”

“Wait, Larry? Oh, damn it all to hell, is he telling that fucking joke still?”

“Joke?” She waved the card, still clutched in her right hand, and said, “You just told me you’re a body-changer. That’s not a joke!”

With both of his legs finally up on the branch, he leaned against the tree trunk and sighed. Mumbling under his breath, he finally said, “Look, just — just let me show you.”

The transitory phase was disgusting; bones and cartilage crackled as his body melted into the wood. Marlene barely suppressed her gag reflex, watching a huge patch of light, flaky lichen overtook the area of the tree where Michael Dubose had been sitting. It looked as though it might crumble off if touched, and even thinking about it made Marlene’s skin itch as though it was already on her. She took an involuntary step back.

She waited for an explanation that didn’t come, until it finally dawned on her. “Oh.” She blinked, and exhaled heavily.

To her relief, Michael reformed after a few more seconds of tense silence. Not that his turning was an exact comfort: the process of becoming human-shaped again provided an equal amount of auditory horror as his initial shift. He gasped as he finally settled back into human form; even once he spoke, it sounded as though he was still catching his breath. “Yes. Larry thinks that ‘lichen-thrope’ thing is very, very funny.”

“So, what am I supposed to do with this information?” She looked to the card in her hands, and her knife, and back at the monster sitting in a tree. His hair was mussed from the shape-shifting, and his face was obviously reddened, even in the moonlight. “I’m not supposed to kill you, right?

“I’d much prefer if you didn’t.”

“But how do I know you’re still harmless? Your neighbor made it sound like you got into some trouble before you moved here.”

Michael thumped his head back against the tree-trunk several times. “I didn’t get in trouble — my ex-fiance was getting married, my dad died a year ago, and I decided it was time to leave. The humidity in Louisiana bothered my skin anyway. I found a nice house online, spent my whole inheritance on the down payment, and left.”

“Oh.” She considered the circumstances that had made her a hunter. It’d been a rough few months. Her grandpa’s store wasn’t doing so well. She’d finally found her long-gone mother on Facebook — only to find out the woman was settled down with three young children down in Iowa. Then, on top of everything else, she found herself afoul a ghost in her old apartment, terrorized for weeks before Silas showed up on her doorstep, unbidden, to fix the problem.

Absent that, she might have considered running south to get away from her miserable life. She holstered the knife and sighed. A tension she hadn’t recognized eased from her body. “Fine. You’re right. There’s no reason to kill you.”

“Appreciate that.” He slowly let himself down from the tree, keeping his head turned so he could watch her over his shoulder. Once on the ground he moved slowly away from the tree, scooting sideways as though he intended to walk a wide circle around her to get away. But halfway around, he paused. “Not for nothing, but you seem a bit… naive. Aren’t your sort supposed to have an on-site mentor for a while you’re new? I distinctly remember hunters coming in pairs when my dad had to register us in the database. We did it yearly, and they always made the newbies handle it.”

She shrugged, kicking some dust as she examined the ground intently and hoped it might swallow her whole. Being schooled by a monster on the finer points of hunting — clearly she knew nothing at all. “Job doesn’t pay; not a lot of people can afford that in this economy. We have a forum online, though.”

“Ah.” He continued his semi-circle, until he was between her and the house. “So. I’m just going to go, then. Thanks for, you know. Not shooting me.”

She nodded. “I’ll see myself out. And ask someone about the database.”


The silence grew between them, Marlene desperately wishing he would leave so that she could die of embarrassment alone.

But instead, he made several aborted moves to speak, as though he was looking for the right thing to say. Eventually he must have found it, because he said, “Look, I’m not an expert or anything. It’s just a self-preservation thing. But if you want to get together, we can exchange information. You seem like a local. You can help me learn to pronounce Wisconsin words, and I can tell you what I know about monster hunting. Say, over take-out sometime?”

She huffed a laugh in surprise, her eyebrows raising. Against her better judgment, her mouth turned up into a smile. “Are you asking me on a date?”

“Strictly on a getting-to-know-your-enemy basis, of course. Nothing date-like about it at all.”

There was a certain appeal to his human shape, when she didn’t let herself think too hard about his fungus half. She really would have bought him as a werewolf; his wide eyes, shaggy hair, and general openness of expression gave him the general air of a big dumb dog.

“Okay,” she said, hoping the moonlight didn’t reveal her blush.

“Perfect — how about Friday evening? Ah, but maybe don’t bring the knife?”

She laughed and nodded. “Fine. Friday evening. No knife.” She decided not mention that her gun was still in the house, slowly corroding in a puddle of milk. Maybe they could use the gun’s safe return as the basis for a second not-date.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.


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