/ A TALE OF GHOSTS AND GUARDIANS /
Auld Lang Syne
Minutes to midnight, Kara Reynolds’ sneakers touched down in Times Square for the first time in her life. Witnessing the illuminated ball drop first-hand has been on her Bucket List for nearly half of her seventeen years. The completion of her list has always paled in comparison to the one created by her older brother, and unfortunately for Kara this item would not be crossed off this holiday night.
The high-spirited crowd drank down jubilation in anticipation of the annual custom. Pop music and cheers echoed through the jam-packed streets. Celebrities on scaffolding screamed into cameras. Most didn’t notice the man wrapped in filthy bandages and a letterman jacket as he pursued a seven-hundred-pound stone gargoyle even after they were knocked to the ground.
Kara halted to offer assistance to each fallen person, putting her further behind the chase led by her swathed brother, Hardy.
"Are you hurt?" Kara took the gloved hand of a dazed woman, only a few years older than herself. She marveled at the woman’s high fashion attire. Kara wore an old charcoal colored wool coat that covered her halfway down her jeans, black leather gloves, and a bright blue stocking cap to help her blonde hair keep her head warm.
"I think I may have a concussion. Was I just attacked by a gargoyle and rescued by a burn victim?" The woman wobbled on her thick legs. Kara held on to her until she regained balance.
"Sort of," Kara admitted, lighting her round face with a wry smile. "Fraternity prank. Alpha Kappa Eta rules!"
The woman eyed her, unconvinced.
A dark featured young man slid through the mob. He wore the same Antioch Falcons jacket as the bound hero. Sam Castello, Hardy’s best friend and her own currently off-again boyfriend, squeezed Kara by the meat of her arm, rubbing the wool fibers of her coat against her skin. "What are you doing? Hardy’s halfway to the Park. We’re going to lose it."
Kara turned to the befuddled woman. "It’s a race. Gotta make it to Bethesda Fountain before midnight!"
"Enough, Kara!" Sam yelled over the oblivious crowd. "We’ve got more important things to do than create a cover story."
Sam dragged Kara through the crowd, leaving before the woman could wish her the best of luck. No way in hell would Kara be at Bethesda Fountain by midnight.
Three years ago, Kara walked into the high school in Antioch, Pennsylvania as the sister of a king. Varsity wrestling captain, class president, and member of the National Honor Society, Hardy was an inspiring force to all of the students, but none more than Kara. She excelled at track and volleyball, carving a cozy, proud niche for herself at school and home.
The first week of February, Hardy’s senior year, Kara noticed that her brother began acting unusually. Resignation from student government preceded extremely late nights out, ambivalence to college recruiters, and explosive quarrels with their father. Four months from graduating and Hardy appeared to be giving up.
Giving up was the one thing Hardy had never been able to do.
They rejoined the covered wrestler several blocks north. The gargoyle clung to the side of the Sheraton hotel, its spiked talons cleaved the concrete wall allowing it to scale the building. Massive granite wings, like that of a bat, drooped from its back, slowing the ascent.
"You haven’t killed it yet, old man?" Sam jabbed.
Hardy kept his eyes on the monster. "I didn’t want you kiddies to miss the show."
"If it’s a show you want, let me wrestle it."
"Are you kidding? It would flatten you in a second."
As the gargoyle climbed higher, Hardy retook command. "You two take the elevator to the roof to get ahead of it. I’ll stay on its tail until we corral this thing."
"That’s a long way up," Kara pointed out. Her neck cramped while attempting to spot the roof.
"It is," Hardy confirmed, believing she was commenting on her climb and not his own. He never pretended to know the meaning of difficulty. He double-checked for the collapsible spear hidden in his jacket, then said, "Good luck."
A revolving glass door transported Sam and Kara from the cold New York night to the heated Sheraton lobby. She immediately recognized that sweat had pasted wisps of her golden hair to her red-hot cheeks. She felt smothered by her long coat. Taking her stocking cap in one hand, she brushed her hair back with the other.
The lobby teemed with people going to the bars or back to their floor to cheer for the closing midnight. The duo jumped on the first available elevator to head fifty floors up.
"Nine minutes to midnight!" one of the other riders announced. As slow as the elevator climbed, it would take Kara and Sam that long to get to the top.
"Are you all right?" Sam whispered to her.
Kara found herself double checking for injuries. "I’m fine."
"Really? Because you’re making that face."
"What face?" But in spite of herself, Kara’s lips had turned over and her eyes rolled away from him. Sam called this face The Judge. She couldn’t keep her opinion to herself anymore. "You two need to stop treating this like it’s a game."
"Tell that to Hardy." Sam huffed. "I swear, he is drawing this out for fun. I would love to be back in Times Square right now."
When Sam and Hardy got together, Sam would become a gorilla intent on removing the silverback Hardy from the top of the heap. Hardy faced his challenge happily and always won. When it was just Sam and Kara, his gentleness and empathy would shine forth. At times, she felt like she had won the challenge, but other times she saw only lies and betrayals.
"Then stop encouraging him. People are getting hurt."
Sam did not dispute her. The elevator climbed.
After Hardy started alienating himself Kara enlisted the help of rising wrestling star Sam to uncover Hardy’s self-destructing bug. Their parents assumed Hardy had fallen in with a bad crowd and drugs were causing his behavior, but they could find no evidence. Sam styled himself after Hardy and agreed that something else had gotten under the athlete’s skin.
Tailing Hardy on one of his late night outings, the pair witnessed him stalking and assaulting a woman in their Philadelphia suburb. They rushed to stop him but slowed when the woman morphed into a half-snake creature and Hardy’s entire body covered itself in an armor of bandages. The young man defeated what he later described as a lamia, an ancient creature with an appetite for children.
With his secret revealed, Hardy told of how he woke up on his recent eighteenth birthday ingrained with the memories of a separate, long lost life.
"It felt like one of those dreams when you aren’t sure if it actually happened or not," Hardy explained while cleaning the spear he used to kill the lamia. "Only, instead of one vague memory, it was an entire lifetime as an ancient Egyptian royal guard."
"I tried not to think much of it. That morning I went for my usual ten mile run. I completed it in half my record time. My body never felt so powerful. I ran ten more miles." He spoke with the passion he once had for competitive wrestling. He hadn’t given up. He only entered a new competition. One he had to keep secret until Kara and Sam offered to help share the burden.
"Then there are these bandages. They cover me like a unitard and they’re nearly impenetrable. A vampire tried to bite through them and its teeth snapped off. I got a nasty bruise, but no blood showed. The next day there was no sign I’d even been hurt."
Five minutes had passed by the time they reached the fiftieth floor. The corridors lay before them like a catacomb. Muffled noise escaped from the rooms around them. Following the patterned floor to the door accessing the roof, they were dismayed to also find a bulky hotel guard standing before it.
"Stay back a minute," Sam ordered. "I’ll clear the path."
"Don’t do anything stupid."
Sam looked to her with a wounded expression. His first instinct would be to rush in with guns blazing, a tactic Hardy had used on a number of occasions with success. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Sam was not Hardy.
"Don’t worry. I’ll use my irresistible charm," he said with a wink.
Kara watched Sam stroll up to the guard and greet him. The guard suggested Sam move along to his room. Sam’s smile crooked mischievously and he punched the guard square in the nose. To his great surprise, the guard did not collapse to the floor, instead he reeled quickly and fired a taser into Sam’s chest.
As the guard knelt over the incapacitated boy, Kara came up behind him and knocked him in the back of the head with a fire extinguisher. The guard slumped to the ground unconscious.
"The path is clear."
Kara tried to help the still twitching Sam up.
"My legs feel like jelly."
"You’re lucky you’re not unconscious."
"I can’t be taken down that eas--" His knees buckled and he fell to the floor. "Dammit! Give me a minute."
"You can’t make it up the stairs like this, and I can’t carry you."
"Just one damn minute!"
Kara scowled at Sam for five seconds until:
"Fine. Go on. But you better come back for me."
Climbing the stairs alone, Kara stepped onto the roof and back into the cold night.
Exhaust fans whirred all around her and the wind whipped her hair in multiple directions, but aside from that, the rooftop remained quiet. Kara was too late. Or the gargoyle discovered an escape route. Or the gargoyle turned back halfway up and fought Hardy and they fell and... what? Could Hardy survive a two hundred foot drop?
She had seen her brother perform many amazing feats since she chose to help him seek out and fight monsters. The most impressive so far had been surviving an axe blow by a ghoul. Hardy shrugged off her amazement at his imperviousness as easily as the blow itself. He claimed the real marvel had been her detective work that pointed them at the ghoul as the one responsible for a string of murders.
The three of them had created an efficient team. Kara tracked the monsters, Sam pinpointed their weaknesses, and Hardy did the dirty work. They were guardians, keeping this world of horror under wraps from the people around them. They were even able to repair the breach between Hardy and his parents, which survived the incredible strain of Hardy’s announcement that he would not be attending college that fall.
They worked this way, a well-oiled machine, for nearly three years.
It had been Kara that recognized the pattern in news stories as evidence of a gargoyle loose in New York City. Sam researched the slate creature’s one weakness. Hardy’s job came next.
Kara searched the rooftop, trying to remember which side of the building the gargoyle had been scaling. Checking her watch: two minutes to midnight. They should be up here by now.
The stone claw snatched the collar of her coat before she could react. Kara suddenly found herself in the grasp of the snarling gargoyle. Struggling hard, she could not break free from the stone vice. It exhaled a muggy blast of sulfuric breath into her cringing face.
The gargoyle did not turn to the noise with enough speed and a spear drilled through its shoulder. The arm holding Kara cracked and fell to the rooftop, freeing her. She tripped over herself trying to achieve distance from the monster.
Hardy stepped between her and the gargoyle, twirling the extended spear. "Stay behind me, Kara."
The gargoyle did not turn and run this time. It wanted to put a quick end to the man that took its arm. Hardy would be more than happy to take the other one.
The gargoyle took in a large gulp of oxygen, creating a rumbling glow in its chest. Waves of heat sifted from its fangs. With a fire built up, the gargoyle launched the projectile from its throat. Kara and Hardy dodged the blazing fireball easily, but the intensity of the heat stayed with them. Hardy retaliated with several quick jabs from his spear, providing minimal damage to the beast but keeping it from taking in any more air. Kara recognized Hardy’s signature laugh after each blow.
Snatching the swift spear, the gargoyle lifted its owner high into the air. Another fire grew and Hardy used the spear to swing back, then forward to kick the jaw shut, exploding the fireball inside the gargoyle.
An exhaust fan crumpled like paper after Hardy was thrown into it. Seemingly unhurt by the blow, Hardy flipped out of the cavity, spear in hand. With the man cornered, the gargoyle opened its mouth to launch a final fireball. Hardy hurled his spear directly at the gaping maw intending it to be a killing blow. Spinning to use its wings as a shield, the gargoyle deflected the javelin in another direction.
Kara only felt her breath escape as the spear sliced through her chest. The pain arrived severely and quickly after.
Looking down at the protruding implement, Kara’s knees buckled. Hardy was there to keep her from hitting the ground.
"Kara! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry."
She watched the bandages magically unravel from her brother’s head. With tears in his brown eyes, he looked as handsome as ever. "There you are."
Her tongue felt heavy and she swore she began to drool. Why were her lips sticky?
"Don’t worry. I’ll get you to a hospital."
"That’s an odd taste." Like metal.
She coughed and the agony of pressure in her chest was followed by an even greater agony of lightning. She swore she wouldn’t allow that to happen again, but she coughed nevertheless.
"Kara, stay with me." His fingers brushed the hair from her face. The touch soothed her wrenching chest.
Lights started to blur and the noises around them became one.
"Where ever you go, I’m coming too." She spoke in spite of her flooded mouth. "When did I say that? They feel like my first words. You’ve always been so far ahead of me, but I’ve never let myself lose sight of you. Did you know that? I’ve always been right with you."
Her grip on Hardy’s jacket loosened, though she didn’t remember grabbing it to begin with.
"I know. I know. Stay with me now."
The gargoyle stepped over them. Hardy failed to notice. Its mouth dropped, building another fireball. The warm, radiant chest outshone Kara’s numbing torso.
Hardy called to her again, but sound had vanished. Light faded. All that remained was a round glow and a faint choir singing.
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.