|MR GAUNT by Gregory Owen|
That afternoon warranted another visit to Liza, but she, of course, didn’t believe him. Hunter was cognizant of the fact that he was causing undue stress on her and her pregnancy, and he understood that he probably sounded completely insane. Who wouldn’t? He still had difficulty comprehending it all himself, so he decided to take her advice at the time, though, just to humour her: to deal with his grief, he just needed to calm down and wait, and concentrate on what he loved about Aubrey.
After two days of trying, Hunter believed he had waited long enough—too long, in fact—and determined that what he loved most about his sister was her being alive and making the Dahl family whole. He knew he had little to go on as evidence of Mr. Gaunt’s identity. He merely had a hunch built around a poem and some theories from legends, but he was intelligent, and this hunch, this stirring feeling down in his bowels, told him that he was on the right track.
Hunter knew that he really needed to take his time, to plot how he was going to go about the final step of his plot, but his desire for vengeance turned to impatience, which in turn became recklessness. He needed to act, to get it all over with—Aubrey had been dead for much too long to him, for nearly a month, and he could wait no longer. Mr. Gaunt would meet his end, and he’d never hurt anyone else. Hunter just hoped he had some luck on his side.
How appropriate that a powerful storm began to brew on the night that Hunter enacted his endgame. Just like a movie, he had thought, looking outside his window, wondering if, just if, Mr. Gaunt was watching him, too. Just like he had done to Aubrey. Just like that night that he murdered her. No one else…never again.
Just after midnight, Hunter grabbed his long tan hunting coat and removed Dad’s shotgun from his bag and loaded it, taking time to look down the sights like Dad taught him to on their past hunting trips, and placed it back inside. He arranged the gun, the ammo, and the knives to be easily grabbed in a pinch if needed, and stepped into the hallway. Looking down to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, he saw no light coming from under their closed door, a definitive sign that they were asleep, or at least trying to get some rest. They rarely talked anymore, either; for both of them, it was just work, home, dinner, and bed. Maybe once they knew that Hunter had ended the threat, they’d return as close to normal as possible. He could only hope.
He turned to head down the hallway to the living room and to the front door, but Hunter paused at Aubrey’s door. It was closed, or at least as closed as it could be, since Dad never replaced the doorknob and the wood was all cracked around where it would have been. The police still had the doorknob as evidence, anyway. Hunter imagined it was again the night of her death—all the blood, the broken glass, the ashes…
That reminded him. In all of his obsession and determination, he had forgotten to remove his own room’s doorknob. He thought momentarily about how stupid that would sound: “I killed a monster with a doorknob.” Indeed, it was odd to think of, but he mainly thought he could use the brass doorknob as a deterrent, especially if it had truly burned the creature’s hand during its…feasting…on Aubrey. It only took a few minutes for Hunter to return to his bedroom, get a screwdriver from his nightstand, and remove the screws holding the doorknob in place; he’d have finished sooner if he weren’t worried about waking Mom and Dad, having learned how to do so from all of those times he had helped his father with repairs around the house. Looking at it as he placed it in his bag alongside the other weapons, he felt that while it might not end up being used to kill Mr. Gaunt, it could be seen as something of a symbolic lucky charm. In that foolish little way, he thought, Aubrey’s spirit could be with him. After all, his lack of imagination had grown into something more accepting of those things in the previous weeks.
On his way out, Hunter made a detour to the garage and took the gas can that Dad used to fuel his lawnmower or in case either he or Mom ran out of gas, which could happen from time to time. Hunter thought that he could use it—maybe to conceal what he was about to do, or maybe to set this thing on fire. After all, fire scared Karloff’s Frankenstein, so maybe it’d work on Mr. Gaunt. It couldn’t hurt, and he’d pay Dad back for whatever gas he used. He also took a pack of matches from Dad’s toolbox on his way out.
Thirty minutes of walking as the storm churned above and Hunter ultimately stood outside of the gates of the Green Oaks Mortuary. He looked about the property through the slender bars of iron, and could see very little thanks to the dim lights on the street. Now or never, he kept thinking, and as he pulled his bag tightly over his shoulder and held the gas can firmly, he climbed up and over and landed on the driveway as the rainfall began, slowly increasing in heaviness as each moment passed. Taking one last look around to make sure he hadn’t been seen, Hunter made his way around the mortuary to the back, finding the back door and noticing Craven’s Chrysler parked nearby. He could’ve been gone; he didn’t need a car to go after prey. He didn’t need his skin, either. But Hunter hoped, prayed, that the monster was inside.
Opening the back door, thankful that it wasn’t locked, he saw that his prayers were answered. But why leave the door unlocked? Could it be that Craven was indeed a man, and not Mr. Gaunt like Hunter thought? Green Oaks was a small town, and strangely not dangerous from crime—not crimes committed by humans, Hunter posed, but still...or maybe Mr. Gaunt was so accustomed to not being found that he had grown arrogant. He was confident he wouldn’t be discovered by anyone. It would be his undoing—Hunter Dahl would see to that.
Luck was on Hunter’s side, though—it was possible that Aubrey was with him in some way, and maybe his doorknob was indeed some form of charm, for Mr. Craven was standing in right in view of Hunter as he stepped through the door, which led into some form of a backroom for supplies and surplus tools. They were all stacked neatly on shelves in neat little rows. Craven stood at a table near the far wall, his lanky silhouette framed by the dimming flicker of lamplight. It appeared he was writing—invoices for more funeral furnishings and tools, Hunter reckoned. It seemed that Mr. Gaunt had to definitely go all in for performances, doing everything to look like the mortician that the town respected, diligent and hardworking, even during late nights sometimes in between slaughters. Hunter figured that was why he was so hard to pinpoint, though not for him. Luck…or fate.
Near him was a collection of coffins, and their handles were a dark metal—not the typical brass, but more like iron. Looking around, all of the metal of the gurneys, the carts, the racks, the shelves, everything was not made of steel, brass, or any other metal aside from iron, just like the gate and fences outside. Even the handle on the back door had been made of the same iron, but in that moment, Hunter had something else in mind.
He wasn’t sure if it was adrenaline or maybe some of that arrogance belonging to Mr. Gaunt had rubbed off on him, but Hunter immediately felt the uncontrollable urge to reveal his presence to the monster within Mr. Craven’s skin. He carefully placed the gas can down on the floor and unzipped his bag, pulled out Dad’s shotgun, and pulled back both hammers, taking aim at the mortician’s back as he did so. He wanted to kill this thing head-on, like a man—like he was well on his way to being.
“I know who you are…what you are,” Hunter declared loudly, moving slowly forward. “And I’m here to put an end to it!”
“Hmm?” Mr. Craven looked around the room for the voice’s source, finally focusing upon Hunter. Even in darkness, he appeared sickly, the skin of his face looser around the cheeks, the hair moist, and his pallor the colour of a gravestone. When he saw the gun aimed at him, he slowly raised his hands, appearing fearful, but Hunter got the hint that it was nothing more than an appearance. “Oh, my…what do you want?”
“You heard me,” Hunter replied, not taking his eyes off of Craven. “I’m puttin’ an end to you tonight.”
Mr. Craven’s head bobbed around, his eyes squinting, trying to ascertain who was training a potential delivery of buckshot on him, until he finally deduced who it was. “Hunter? Hunter…Dahl, correct? Aubrey Dahl’s brother?”
Hunter felt his hands trembling. “Don’t you say her name, you asshole!”
“Look…I am still…deeply sorry for your loss…I cannot begin to—”
“No! You did it! I know you’re not Mr. Craven!” Hunter stepped closer. “How long has he been dead?”
Mr. Craven expressed ignorance, breathing slowly. “I am Donald Craven—”
“Bullshit!” He pulled the butt of the gun deeper into his shoulder. “Bullshit! You’re a monster! You’re Mr. Gaunt, and you killed Aubrey!” That was when he saw it. Mr. Craven’s face didn’t show it, necessarily—in fact, his expression of trying to remain cool didn’t even shift after the accusation. But Hunter could swear that, for just a fraction of a moment, he saw a glint of satisfaction in the mortician’s eyes, though it was gone almost as soon as it appeared. And then, he knew that his assumption was right.
“Aubrey,” Craven muttered, and Hunter saw that the mortician’s hands were lowering.
“Don’t you move!”
Craven smiled. “Fine. I grow weary of this little game, boy...” The act was at an end, and the creature no longer cared about the ruse. “Do you think you’re the first? The first to figure it out? I’ll give you some credit...you found me out pretty quickly. It’s as though most turn a blind eye to what goes on. It’s given me room to manoeuvre. It’s how I’ve been able to stay in this town for so, so long. Fear will do that for you.”
“Don’t move!” Hunter shouted again, and when he realized that Craven’s hands were now at his sides, he squeezed the trigger. The blast sent Hunter back a step and tore a hole through Craven’s shoulder, though the beast moved fast enough to knock the lamp off of the table, sending it to the floor with a shatter and leaving the entire room in the dark. Hunter could hear scampering footsteps as the monster took off running to any of the corners, just barely above his own thumping heartbeat, and could only blindly aim in any direction. God, why hadn’t he packed a flashlight? He couldn’t even see the end of the gun’s barrels in front of him.
Little did he know that his sister’s killer could see very well in this environment, his eyes capable of nocturnal vision. It watched Hunter, breathing heavily, excited by the prospect of another kill, even if the boy had discerned his identity. How had this little shit done so, and so easily?
Mr. Gaunt, throughout his years in Green Oaks, had taken great care to hide information about himself. While in different guises, he’d checked out books randomly from the library that contained detailed information about what he was, and after reading them, they’d be burned or shredded. After a number of years, especially with the invention of the Internet, he became bored with doing this; after all, the Internet only contained passing stories and accounts, few reliable and even fewer from people that weren’t “crackpots.” If he were honest with himself, he enjoyed the recognition. Even that poem, which had been around for nearly as long as he could remember—possibly soon after he came into being, long before he lived in Green Oaks—carried with it a most exquisite renown. He salivated when he heard residents using it as a macabre lullaby or children skipping rope to it in the park.
The monster remembered Aubrey; he remembered watching her at night once he learned of her, knowing that she could see him, too; knowing that she was terrified. This disguise as Donald Craven, the town mortician, had proven to be such an excellent way to blend. He’d have to find another one soon…but he had a more important matter to attend to.
Moving behind Hunter, who had dropped to the floor to hunt through his baseball bag, Craven began convulsing, but with a sense of control, as if practiced through decades of experience. Bones within began to shift and crack, and there were popping tears of cloth and skin, bursting open like an overinflated balloon, and his height began to increase slowly but surely, until he was three feet taller than the teenager. “I suppose I’ll be needing a new one anyway,” the creature gurgled, kicking off the Craven suit like discarded underwear.
The teenager could hear the noise, too, and was bristling with fright at the awareness of what was happening out of his view. He dropped the shotgun and frantically rummaged for one of Mom’s silver knives and plucked it from the bag.
Mr. Gaunt, content that he was able to eliminate his prey, felt it was time to gloat. “I don’t know how you found me out, but I think you just got lucky…lucky me.” He watched as Hunter searched his bag. “I knew you. But when I found out about her, oh…It’s been so long since I’ve tasted such tenacious meat. A little tough and it requires a bit more jaw strength to chew, but it’s satisfying all the same.” The creature hissed and smacked its slimy tongue along its gleaming, jagged teeth, sputtering translucent bile as it spoke. “I look forward to peeling your skin like paper and sucking the tender muscle from your bones! Your squeals will be fine music for my meal just like Aubrey’s...” The creature longed to savour the juicy electricity of the boy’s sticky flesh chunks, able to acutely hear Hunter’s speeding heartbeat as he spoke. “At least we don’t have to worry about anyone interrupting this time…”
With that, Mr. Gaunt broke into a stride and leapt at Hunter, who stood from his bag with both hands clutching items. A stinging sensation sent the monster back, but only briefly, and with a free hand, Mr. Gaunt gripped Hunter’s throat with long, spindly fingers. With the other, he removed what caused the pain: a silver knife. “Silver?” the beast scoffed, examining it, though Hunter could see nothing except pitch darkness. “Should have done more research, boy...though I know I left little for anyone to find…”
A blinding flash of lightning through a nearby window illuminated the room and Hunter could briefly see Mr. Gaunt’s true, ferocious form, and he gasped in terror and from lack of air. The monster’s grip was powerful, nearly enough to crush his larynx to dust, so he said what he felt he needed to say while he still could. “I…thought it was either…that…or brass.” Hunter brandished his bedroom doorknob, held in his other hand. “Copper…or zinc…or any other metals in it…”
In the dark, Hunter couldn’t see Mr. Gaunt’s expression. What was once satisfaction and a desire to taste his human flesh gave way to something the monster hadn’t felt in many, many years: fear. He had learned a long time ago to avoid copper, and anything that had it in its composition, namely brass, because of the terrible pain—it felt white hot when it touched him. He never knew why, but it just was. He remembered the doorknob in Aubrey Dahl’s room, having to grab it to barricade the door, and the agony of the touch; this child was indeed a lucky little shit. With a deafening roar, Mr. Gaunt opened his mouth and prepared to clamp his razor teeth into the morsel that he held before he could cause any damage.
Hunter, this time, was too fast for the monster—luck was on his side. Deducing that the roar was one of a terrified animal and believing, rightly, that it was a precursor to his own bloody end, the teenager forced the doorknob down Mr. Gaunt’s slimy maw as he lunged toward him. Hunter was sure that his arm would leave him, taken by the bite, but all he could feel was warm, gooey ooze soaking his skin and a rapidly swelling tongue, and the grip around his neck relinquished, dropping him to his knees. He tried to regain his breath when his attention was taken by a growing light from the creature. Oily liquid erupted from Mr. Gaunt’s mouth and onto the floor in front of Hunter. The refuse of it coated his clothes in uneven splashes, and when the monster’s blood began exploding into fire, Hunter scampered back to avoid being touched by the vomit splattering all around.
Alternating between screeching moans and vicious coughs, Mr. Gaunt ran aimlessly in a circle in a poor effort to extinguish the flames consuming him, turning him to ash from the inside out as the doorknob’s metal scorched through his being with agonizing fury. Pieces of flesh crackled off in hunks and exposed bone, and from the holes in its skin, tiny sparks of flame burst outward, providing a radiance brighter than anything Heaven could provide, emblazoning the room with pinholes of light. Within seconds, piece by piece, what had been Mr. Gaunt collapsed and disintegrated into nothing but blackened shreds of ash and the monster’s wails became a whisper on the air.
He was unsure of why he did what came next, but Hunter found himself running his fingers through the crackling ashes of Mr. Gaunt’s remains. He moved his fingers from one side to another, almost spellbound as he tried to comprehend and accept his victory, feeling the warmth of a month’s worth of grief and happiness at avenging his sister wash over his cheeks until he felt a large object in the powder and sticky ooze. Thinking that it was what was left of the doorknob, Hunter quickly ascertained that he was holding something emaciated and twisted and nothing metal at all. It was the last truly physical, tangible remnant of Mr. Gaunt: one of his curled, clawed hands, which had somehow survived its owner’s destruction.
Taking the appendage and putting it into his coat pocket, Hunter looked for the doorknob one last time—it must have been destroyed with him. Melted, perhaps turned to ashes, too. So, he then set about the last remaining step of his endeavour, making his way toward the back door and retrieving the gas can. Once he soaked the floors of the backroom, taking care to cover the ashy remains of Mr. Gaunt and the decaying portions of Mr. Craven’s skin in a little extra, he moved into the front part of the mortuary itself and coated the carpets, plush and red and smelling slightly of formaldehyde until soaked with gasoline. With the last little bit of gas, he poured a trail to the back door, and, pulling his baseball bag over his shoulder, Hunter lit a match and started the blaze. And the first on his list of visiting, telling what happened, before anyone else, was his adult friend, Liza.
Once Hunter’s tale concluded, he noticed that Liza was eying the remaining piece of the monster that slaughtered Aubrey with a look that no longer resembled horror, but had shifted to something more puzzling. To his young mind, it appeared to be closer to regret, as though a close family member had passed. He had seen it on both his parents’ faces at Aubrey’s funeral, and was sure his face had looked similar on that day, so he knew what it looked like; still, he passed it off as her being upset about the death of Mr. Craven, and maybe she couldn’t separate the real man from the creature that had murdered him. Liza looked up at Hunter and her typically gentle expression was stonier. He felt icicles form in his bones. “I can’t believe it,” she muttered to herself. Through the kitchen window, the flashing red lights of fire trucks could be seen beyond the dripping rain like the blinking eyes of a waking demon.
“I know it probably sounds crazy,” Hunter said, “but it’s true. I’ve been telling you—I didn’t believe it before, and I still had a hard time with it, but I definitely believe now. There has been some weird shit in Green Oaks…” He looked up and remembered he was in front of an adult. “Sorry…”
“No…I believe you.” She placed her hand on the severed hand on the table. “I just can’t believe…it.”
The teenager eyed Liza, confused, and he was unsure of what to say next. “So, now what? Should we call the police?” he managed.
“No.” She shook her head. “No. They wouldn’t believe it.”
“Hunter, dear, where did you put your bag? You didn’t have it coming in.”
“The dumpster by the Quik Mart on Moore Avenue. Didn’t want to get stopped by cops just in case, and didn’t want to bring a gun into your house…don’t need it anymore, anyway,” he sighed, smiling. “We’re safe, but I’ll get it back on the way home. Since it has Dad’s shotgun, you know.”
Liza nodded. “No one’s ever truly safe. But I’m glad that you’re alright.” She leaned back in her chair. “What of the doorknob?”
“Gone. I couldn’t find it. Definitely turned out to be a lucky charm.”
“Oh, luck is definitely what I’d call it based on what you’ve told me. Luck for me, too…since you’re okay.”
“I got him,” Hunter said proudly, finally smirking, comfortable after the ordeal earlier that night. “I may not have been able to find a lot on him, but I got the son-of-a…well, you know.”
“So, Hunter, since this turned out to be true, have you ever considered that maybe this Mr. Gaunt may not be the only one of his kind?”
Caught off guard by the question’s implications, Hunter leaned forward in his seat. “What-what do you mean?”
Liza could tell by his expression that he had not considered that idea. “There’s another poem, if I remember correctly. I haven’t heard it in a long time, and nowhere near as much as his. All of this, since your sister’s passing and what you’ve told me since…and tonight…it reminded me.”
Closing her eyes, Liza ran a gentle hand over her stomach, trying to soothe the kicking of her unborn. “A companion to Mr. Gaunt’s. How did it go again?
You’ve surely heard of Mr. Gaunt,
But what about the Missus?
Like him, she truly loves to daunt,
She’s meaner, twice as vicious.
It is true the male is cruel,
He’s really quite the beast.
Yet his acts are merely fuel
For all his spouse’s feasts.
Mr. Gaunt loves to hunt,
While she awaits her prey,
She lures them in and strings them up,
And sends them to their graves.
She needs no protection,
Her husband’s quite mistaken,
His belief needs correction,
His fears should be forsaken.
Being the worst of the two,
She’ll take your flesh when it comes due,
The Missus gathers all the food,
All for her and her brood…”
“Brood?” Hunter asked, staring at Liza, dumbfounded by the poem. “What is that?”
“Yes, it means ‘child’ or ‘children.’”
“You never told me before…”
“I didn’t want to add fire to what I thought was some kind of grief-fuelled fever dream, Hunter. But from what you’ve told me…it’s something to consider…”
“Could there be another one? And a child?”
“Oh, I’m sure there is, Hunter. I doubt you can have one creature without at least a spouse. And spouses generally reproduce,” she added morosely.
“I guess…that makes sense...I never heard that rhyme, though.” Hunter’s mind was alight with the implications of this new information. He was lucky when it came to killing the male…but a female? A child, or children? Multiple monsters? Shit.
“It’s not as well-known. She’s not as well-known. Not like him.”
“Must not be…I saw nothing about that in any of the books in the library, or online…some mentions of him, yeah, and that was slim…but there was absolutely nothing about her or anything else related to him, really.”
“So you killed a ghost,” Liza said. “In a manner of speaking. Someone…thing…that won’t be missed.”
“I did,” Hunter affirmed. “He killed Aubrey, and now we’re even. Green Oaks has nothing to be afraid of now…except for this Mrs. Gaunt, if she’s around.”
“Even. And I would hope not, for all our sakes.”
“Right.” Hunter looked about and saw the time on a nearby clock, an old wooden cuckoo clock with a swinging pendulum, and saw the time. It was nearly 4 A.M. “Oh, it’s that late? I’m sorry, Ms. Geller…I’ll go…I’d better get home. I just wanted you to know what happened…that you were okay, now.” He stood from his chair, pulling his coat tight and wiping his moist hair from his brow. “Oh, and I’m sorry about the mud…I can come by after school and clean it up for you…I’ll definitely get a shower before I come by again,” he attempted with humour.
“It’s fine, but you don’t have to leave just yet. Honestly, I wanted to talk to you about something…since we’re confessing things...” Liza looked up from the floor. “Did I ever tell you about the father?” she posed, gesturing to her midsection.
Hunter shook his head, sitting back down slowly. “Well, no, I always figured—”
He nodded. “Or ran off or something. Like Jenny Orr’s dad. She lives at the end of my street.”
“No, we were simply separated. Though he did pass recently…” Liza trailed off for a moment before returning to her thoughts. “He...he was a good provider. Always has been. He definitely believed in the old “hunter-gatherer” role of the man. A bit old-fashioned, but still, he enjoyed it. Kind of like those poems…it’s funny now,” she laughed lightly.
“Yeah…maybe monsters are like people in some ways…I think even Mr. Gaunt was a person at one time…like I told you.”
Liza continued, as though lost in her own fantasies about her mystery man. “But he got a bit careless. Reckless. You know a bit about that yourself. He liked being out in the open, you know. A bit too much. I told him it’d get him in trouble, but he wouldn’t listen. He said I’d be safe as long as I stayed hidden, and let him do his work. He always had to be on the move.”
“Military?” Hunter asked, knowing a few of his classmates who had been new students once and said they ‘moved around a lot.’ Being a teenager with little experience in the world, he could only make basic conclusions on things of that nature.
“No, but we did move around a lot in the beginning…then he’d move off, and I’d follow…move, follow…it was a pattern. It was safer, he would say, to be separate.”
“Did he come to Green Oaks at all? Was he from here?”
Liza jumped, feeling the baby kick. “No, but he was here a while before I came.”
“Oh…well what was his name? Maybe I knew him.”
“I doubt it, Hunter. Few people truly knew him,” she muttered with a grimace. “But his reasoning for leaving in the first place…he underestimated me, since I’m a female, I suppose. It’s what most men do, and he always did it. I’m defenceless because I’m a woman, and with child,” she explained, stroking her hands along her distended belly. “After all, that’s how you and I met, wasn’t it?”
The teenager thought then that perhaps Liza’s hormones were suddenly kicking into overdrive, for her normally calm speech patterns, her reserved and caring demeanour, quickly took a turn. It was as though she were accusing him of a transgression. He didn’t like it. “Ms. Geller—”
“You thought I was helpless,” she continued. “But if you ask me, being an expectant mother...that only makes me more dangerous.”
“Ms. Geller, I don’t think I understand...”
“We can protect ourselves despite the stupid thought that we need protection. He needed protection. He needed it because he got too comfortable. I didn’t. I didn’t need it at all!”
Hunter Dahl, feeling every inflection of her rising voice stab into him like daggers, squirmed in his chair uneasily. What had come over Liza? He had saved her and everyone else in Green Oaks, though now he needed to look into this whole Mrs. Gaunt thing. He still couldn’t understand how it was possible that she was never mentioned. He was, barely, but not her, not at all. He looked about the room in a bid to remove himself from what Liza was saying, and perhaps to think of an excuse to leave. It had to be hormones, even though he wasn’t quite sure what those were—Mom and Dad had signed him up for the sex education class in the spring, so he’d find out then.
“Think of the Black Widow. The Female Mantis. The Lioness. All dangerous, and fully capable, females.”
“Right, Ms. Geller, but what’s your—” Hunter stopped once he realized something that had never occurred to him, not at all during his story, during Liza Geller’s “confession,” before that instant, and for a matter of a second, he wanted to kick himself more than he wanted to run. He wanted to call himself a dumbass, and mentally, he was doing so, questioning how he could be so stupid not to notice, but more than that, his inner voice was telling him to get out quickly but quietly. However, he was finding it hard to mask the horror revealing itself on his face, much less gather the composure to casually utter a plausible excuse and leave without arousing Liza’s suspicion.
“No brass,” he motioned with his mouth, but no voice exited his lungs. There was no brass in the house. Not on the cabinets, the doors, the window latches—nothing. It was all iron. Just like-
“Oh, and Mrs. Gaunt, of course,” Liza concluded with a rigid grin.
Reflex took hold since his inner voice wasn’t succeeding and Hunter rushed in his attempt to grab anything to use as a defensive weapon, but Liza was much too quick, the guise of the nearly helpless, pregnant, single mother gone in an instant. With inhuman power, she stood and easily took the boy’s neck in one hand and hurled him effortlessly against the kitchen cabinet behind him. On impact, Hunter felt the wooden drawers and the countertop splinter inward from the force, and couldn’t help but mentally question how he was still breathing as he collapsed.
The room flickered in and out, everything spinning, but Hunter could make out a low chuckle, and he could see Liza moving toward him, pushing his chair aside. Get up! his mind commanded, but he couldn’t.
“I guess I’m not like those other powerful females, really. I like to toy with my prey. I mean, I draw them in and take my time...a mother-to-be has to have some hobbies. I would’ve killed you in time. I told him that you were my mark once he found out about you coming here…and when he found out you had a little sister, he couldn’t resist. Impulses…young ones do taste very good, and you’re young, yourself.” She sighed. “I just regret thinking you didn’t have the nerve to face my husband. I figured you wouldn’t live up to your threats, so I played them off—we all make mistakes. And if you did, well, I thought he’d have gotten you.
“We’d have argued over him taking my kill, but that’s all. Just an argument. I still loved him, I hate to admit, despite his idiotic belief that he was keeping me safe from the world. Honestly, I came here to Green Oaks to try and entice him back, more so than in those other towns…let him meet our little one.” Liza’s attention briefly left Hunter to her rounded stomach, but quickly returned. “I liked you, Hunter...you seemed so harmless, like a tiny gnat. An insect. But I suppose not. Even an insect can be dangerous. Poisonous. You’re good...pretty smart...but not smart enough. Did you know his name isn’t truly Mr. Gaunt?” Liza mocked.
While she talked, Hunter had barely managed to lift himself from the floor and propped his head against the wall. His neck throbbed with excruciating electricity, and when he tried to move his legs to try and stand, he made a horrible realization: he couldn’t feel them. Oh God, he couldn’t feel them!
“I also thought that maybe your grief over your sister would have stopped you. Again, mistakes. Grief over my husband won’t stop me, either, or my child.” She giggled. “My brood.”
Panic consumed Hunter—there was nothing left of the luck he’d had earlier that night. The doorknob! It was gone…Aubrey’s spirit was gone now! No brass, nothing to use to fight back! He gripped his knees and shook them fiercely, but they provided no response—no means to help him escape.
“If it’s any consolation at all, he shared her with me…he always did share when we were together, and when I’ve been near…she was delectable…”
Rage bubbled from underneath all of the uncontrollable, dreadful fear permeating his every fibre upon hearing Liza share that fact about his deceased sister so coldly made Hunter wish he had a weapon, a means, to kill her slowly—much more slowly than he had even killed Mr. Gaunt, Aubrey’s true murderer. “You…bitch! Aargh!”
“But I told him, over and over, that he would get into trouble, but damn him, he loved the recognition! This kill won’t be his, but I wonder who’ll get the credit!” Stopping just short of standing right on top of his legs, Liza paused, rubbing around her neck, and Hunter could make out the flesh’s movement under her fingers, like an old glove that was too large for its hand, and had been used so often that it was in danger of ripping apart. “This skin has run its course, I think. I could always get them to last a while, longer than he could, but the stress of motherhood…Guess Ms. Geller’s skin wasn’t as strong as I thought…hold on…”
Like her spouse, Liza’s form altered horrifically and quickly, but Hunter bore witness to it all, not protected by the darkness of the mortuary’s back room as before. Serrated claws pierced and tore through the ends of her fingers, forcing the flesh apart into bloody mouths with curved blades as tongues. Smiling crookedly, she reached up to her face with her clawed hands, just below her eyes, and clutched tightly. Like a putrid mask in her grip, Liza’s skin was stretched terribly and began to tear away in a floppy shred, revealing the beastly Mrs. Gaunt within.
Stretching and extending higher and higher as she burst from her confines, she was taller than her spouse, almost touching the ceiling and blocking out much of the overhead light’s brightness with her enormous form. Mrs. Gaunt ripped the last of her nightgown off as the human skin used as her disguise fell to the floor in a heap. What were once her human eyes, at least in appearance, peeled off in round, white strips like contact lenses and glinting black eyes shined in the waning luminosity.
Trying desperately to regain feeling—pain, numbness, something—in his legs, Hunter instead felt hot tears flowing profusely down his chin and his heart pounding like a steam hammer. What he saw next made him want to scream. Just like Aubrey had. On the creature’s waist was something resembling a lumpy tumour. It pulsated and quivered, and then seemed to stir, as though waking from a long sleep. The veiny shape was attached to Mrs. Gaunt’s pelvis and wrapped around her slender body like a veil of gruesome flesh, though the bulk of it bulged from her belly. Hunter thought it to be a parasite of some kind, but the malicious glee in Mrs. Gaunt’s opal eyes expressed otherwise. “Our little boy…”
The ‘head’ came undone from Mrs. Gaunt’s abdomen, its mouth yawning as bubbling, crimson saliva dribbled from the oblong maw. The thing’s spiny teeth clicked together in a quickening rhythm. “Wake up, darling,” the mother cooed. “Wake up…I have something for you…”
From underneath its body, deformed, elongated legs with bony hands and feet uncurled and showed themselves, and the creature, the size of an adult alligator, slithered to the floor and turned to a helpless Hunter. Eyes opened. They were the same eyes as its mother.
“You should’ve done more research, Hunter!” Mrs. Gaunt bellowed. “Luck always runs out!”
The small creature screeched irritably, looking up to its mother, and then to Hunter, its expression curious and probing.
“He killed Daddy!” Mrs. Gaunt confirmed to her child.
“Daaaaa-deeeeeee?” It sputtered, bloody phlegm coating its teeth. Hunter, in all of his terrified frenzy, briefly associated the creature’s teeth with something he had seen in nature: a piranha. But his mouth had enough teeth for four full-grown piranhas. And its eyes, closely resembling its mother’s, twinkled with wetness. It knew its father…and it was in the presence of his killer—the killer of a loved one.
Hunter knew the feeling well, and he knew what could come next.
“Time to eat, my little one!”
“No…No! No! God, nooo!” Hunter managed weakly, trying hopelessly to pull himself backward across the floor, away from the advancing beast. Preparing itself, the child braced its tiny legs and launched itself at Hunter while Mrs. Gaunt looked upon her little one with the satisfaction of a proud mother. She would be fine, and so would her child. She loved and would mourn her husband, but she’d be just fine.
As the little Gaunt chewed into his tender shoulder, tearing cloth and flesh with equal gnashing ferocity, all Hunter Dahl could think of was his little sister, and all he could do was scream.
Three houses down, little Anne Wilkins awoke in her bed, shivering, rocking back and forth. “Daddy!” she cried, again and again.
Luckily for the frightened child, her father was close by, already on his way once he heard the screams, too. He knew damage control was in order. He opened her door and stepped inside. “Honey, I know, I heard it, too.”
Anne reached for her father with outstretched arms, and her grip around his neck was something akin to that of an anaconda’s. “Daddy, I’m scared. What is it? Is someone hurt?”
“Maybe,” he muttered. “Honey, have I ever told you about Mr. Gaunt?”
“No, Daddy...” She released his neck and wiped the beginnings of tears from her eyes. “Who…who is he?”
“Well,” her father began, “he is a monster…been around Green Oaks for a long time. He comes after people at night…sometimes anyone, but especially if they’re naughty or don’t do what they’re supposed to. But we’re okay. We’re both good, right?” His face took on a seriousness despite the tiniest fraction of nervousness in his eyes. It seemed he wasn’t strictly trying to convince his daughter—to a degree, he was also convincing himself.
Anne nodded with vigour. “Yes, I try to be good…hopefully Mr. Gaunt won’t get me,” she said. “Not like…them,” her father added, noticing then that the shrill screams had finally ceased. “Okay, honey, I need you to get some sleep, okay?”
Climbing under the covers of her bed and gripping a large, stuffed unicorn tightly, Anne looked to her father pleadingly. “Tell me more about him, Daddy. So I can be safe.”
He leaned down and kissed her forehead gently, and nodded. “Okay, sweetheart. But then it’s
bedtime.” He inhaled and ran his fingers through her curly blonde hair. “You must avoid Mr. Gaunt, a vile, unearthly spawn...” he began.