/ A TALE OF GHOSTS AND GUARDIANS /
Hardy sat in his mobile home, a dented, green pickup truck, watching a superfluous mansion in the rural town of Karmouth, New York. The huge house rested on a quiet, wooded hill several miles from the center of the town. The red and yellow leaves of the mid-October trees created a ring of fire around the ten acre estate. Despite its queerness, the efficacy of the mansion lay in its mystique to the casual observer.
Hardy Reynolds was everything but a casual observer.
For days Hardy had watched three men roam the grounds disguised as landscapers. Their business did not run out of Karmouth and their attire concealed semi-automatic handguns. The Victorian-style brick home held a young couple and a small staff, all of whom made contact with the landscapers every fifteen minutes. The tactical placement of the security led Hardy to believe the secret he looked for resided within the house.
The Quinlan family bought the land that would grow into Karmouth in the late 1700s. A copper deposit was found and the mining town built around the estate. The mines bore their fruit for nearly a century, providing material for construction in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, all the while fattening the pockets of the Quinlan descendants.
The mines were finally drained, and the Quinlans sold the company they had built in 1929, three weeks before the Stock Market Crash. Karmouth’s fate rested in the hands of the Quinlan’s, and they guided it safely through the Depression. For the last seventy years, the Quinlans were the beating heart that kept Karmouth alive.
And that heart had become a lie.
That ever present voice told him he should take a step back and develop a wise plan of attack. Hardy had never been able to step back, and Kara and Sam had always handled the planning, which left only the attack. Hardy craved the attack. He slipped into his dark gray hoodie and left his cluttered truck behind.
Five weeks prior Sam disappeared from the campus at Penn State. Having been attending the school for two weeks, no questions arose. Sam had developed an erratic reputation from his time spent with Hardy, so his parents, roommates, and teachers did not involve the police. They expected him to return on his own.
Hardy never doubted that Sam would get himself into trouble. It was only a matter of time.
The gargoyle had been destroyed. Hardy held the broken spear tip in his hand after using it to carve through the monster’s throat. For a moment, he thought about gouging out his own heart with the spade.
Making it to the roof in time to witness the final blow, Sam fell hard to his knees next to her cooling body. "What happened? Kara! Kara, babe, wake up!"
Hardy nearly choked as the saliva retreated from his mouth. The spear tip rattled as it hit the rooftop. The sound reverberated in both men’s ears, even over the blasting fireworks.
Sam looked into Hardy’s eyes. Hardy looked back. They both discerned Truth.
"You did this."
Sam wasn’t asking.
The body of the gargoyle began to deteriorate into dust and the wind took it away. Pretty soon there would be nothing left. Nothing but her body.
Hardy gripped the spear handle which still protruded from his sister’s chest, and with one swift tug, pulled it out. Blood splattered over both men.
"What are you doing?" Sam tried to wipe the blood from his jacket, only to smear it around. Hardy suddenly realized his own letterman’s jacket hung in charred threads across his shoulders. He didn’t remember getting hit by the fireball.
"Take this." Hardy thrust the spear handle at his friend. Sam stared at the weapon for a moment before slowly taking it from him. Slipping his arms underneath, Hardy lifted the body. She was heavier than she looked.
"What are you doing?" Sam asked. "Where are you taking her?"
"Away from here." Hardy walked toward the roof exit. "No one can know the truth. There are too many questions and they won’t accept the answers. I shouldn’t have to explain this to you."
If it had been anyone else, Hardy might not have convinced them as easily. Sam snatched the spear tip from where it had fallen and followed Hardy.
Their escape from the hotel proved to be simple. They cleaned themselves up at a housekeeping closet, relying on her dark coat to mask the bloody chest wound. Had anyone been around to question them, they were ready with a tale of drunkenness to cover her appearance, but the hotel was too busy celebrating the New Year. The elevator descended mercifully quick. Hardy held on to his sister the entire trip down.
Sam set off to retrieve the car while Hardy waited in the alley with the body. He stared at her still lips, stained red with blood, and hoped desperately that they would curl upward, she would open her eyes, and the two would laugh together again. Forty long minutes passed before Sam returned, but the smile never appeared.
"I’ve been thinking," Sam said as they loaded her body into the backseat. "We need to make this look... believable. A group of teenagers crossing state lines without parental permission on New Year’s Eve. Maybe we’ve all been drinking a little. Maybe a car driving next to us has been drinking more. We get forced off the road and slam into some trees. You and I survive, but Kara is impaled by a tree limb. The other car is nowhere to be found."
Leave it to Sam to calculate how Kara would die.
Hardy got behind the plan as if it were his own. They drove thirty miles out of the city when Sam pointed out a sufficient location to enact the plan. Once Sam had buckled the body into the front seat Hardy said, "Close the door and step away from the car."
"This is my idea. Maybe I should--"
"Don’t be stupid." Hardy had already covered his entire body in his bandage armor. "Find safe cover. I’ll take it from here."
Hardy drove back two miles and waited for the road to quiet. Her body had slumped against the window, so he straightened it, brushing hair from the face. Her skin had already paled.
"One more time, kid."
The accelerator crashed to the floor under the force of his foot. Inertia pressed him to the seat back, and the engine revved once, twice, then a third time. The car approached ninety when he twisted the steering wheel towards the copse of trees. The contents of the vehicle quaked as it left the road. Hardy aimed at the chosen trunk, steadied the wheel, and braced for impact.
Sam roused him back to consciousness a minute later.
"Are you all right?"
The bandages had disappeared.
"I’m dizzy. No injuries."
He had never passed out in them before. Obviously they protected him as long as he remained conscious. Good information to know.
The car was totaled. Vapors hissed from the engine and fluids poured from underneath. The windshield had completely busted out. Anyone who saw the wreck would find it easy to believe someone had been killed. There was only one last piece needed.
Hardy grasped a large gnarled limb and with great strength, ripped it from the tree. The body sat in the passenger seat bloodied and bruised, its face sunken and soulless. When another wave of tears hit Hardy, he realized that his eyes were more exhausted than any other part of his body. He wished he could close them and never open them again.
He lifted the branch high, picked his target, and launched with his eyes squeezed shut.
Recently purchased security cameras rested at strategic intervals along the towering iron fence enclosing the property. Hardy avoided their sights and scaled the fence with ease, his cracked and worn sneakers slipping only once.
He ducked behind a tree while a landscaper fumbled with getting skeletons of shrubberies into a far too small wheelbarrow. When the landscaper turned his back to pick up a fallen tumbleweed, Hardy dashed across the withering lawn. He made it to cover at the side of the garage when the man masquerading as Tom Quinlan stepped out the front door.
Slow down, the ever present voice buzzed. Mistakes are made when you act without thinking.
He swatted needlessly at the invisible fly hovering by his ear. More secure buildings had failed to detect him in the past. He knew he could break into this house blindfolded. And with both arms tied behind his back. For a long moment, he considered the challenge.
Someone is coming. Pulled back to reality, Hardy slid across the wall to the rear of the mansion. A second landscaper zoomed by on a motorized cart, headed to reconnoiter a far end of the estate.
Five feet to his right and twelve feet up rested a beautiful balcony for him to use as an entrance. Volleying off the inside corner wall with his left sneaker, he took a second powerful bound, twisted in the air, and landed at the balcony railing. The knob turned without protest and he slid through the french doors. He was in the master bedroom. Across from him, wearing gym shorts and a tank top, shaking her hips to music playing through earbuds attached to a device on her arm, was the woman pretending to be Sarah Quinlan. Her back was turned to him, and he briefly considered stepping back outside before she spun around, but the opportunity was squandered. She greeted him with a short scream. They stared at each other, unable to move for fear that the other would counter unpredictably.
Her firearm sat on a dresser nearby, and she finally made a move for it. Hardy reacted faster and disarmed her before she could flip the safety off. He took the time to release the clip and expel the lone bullet in the chamber, allowing her to punch him square in the jaw. His vision sparkled, then he clamped his palm over her mouth, restraining her against the wall. He yanked the earbuds out, and the music continued to play softly between them.
"Don’t do that again," he hissed.
The voice buzzed too many objections which he could not make out with clarity. He shooed it to another part of the mansion.
"You’ve seen I’m fast. You can feel I’m strong," he told the woman, "I’m going to remove my hand. If you choose to scream, you’ll know what else I am."
The woman nodded in understanding. He peeled his hand away, but the print it left on her skin took time to fade.
"Now, let’s talk."
The days after the accident, Hardy and Sam had barely spoken. They were too busy selling the lie to everyone they knew. Hardy dreaded the conversation they would have once the shock wore off. Would Sam blame him? "You did this," he had said. Hardy knew it, too. It was his spear, his careless throw, and his inability to react quickly enough that caused Kara’s death. He thought it would almost be worse if Sam absolved him of his guilt.
Hank Reynolds’ grief took a furious form. He demanded the state police find and arrest the phantom driver that forced his children off the road. Even if they had the time, the police had no evidence to follow up on. Sandra Reynolds spent hours relieving herself of her tears, then she reached out to all of her friends and family to help plan the perfect funeral for her baby daughter. She would make sure it was a large gathering because "everyone loved Kara, and Kara loved everyone so, so much."
Hardy spent his free time locked in his room. He would lay on his bed, wrapping and unwrapping the bandages around his body. They were made to protect him from harm. They were his shield in his fight against demons, but whether the bandages were on or off, the demons of New Year’s Eve hurt him. They ate away at him from the inside.
It hurt. It hurt worse and worse. And it wouldn’t stop.
She was buried in Pinecrest Cemetery twenty-five minutes from their house in Antioch. Close friends and family were invited to their house for lunch. Sandra asked to hear more stories about Kara for she had not heard enough during the wake. She told her own story about their experiences shopping for a Homecoming dress the past Autumn. Kara was a candidate for Homecoming Queen and Sandra wanted to get her something really special. She had been looking forward to searching for a prom dress later that year.
Hardy had wrapped his arms around his stomach to keep it from flipping. He had been voted Homecoming King before he got the bandages. They took that from him. They had taken Kara from him. When his mother began to tear up over the lost prom dress he quietly exited the house.
He strolled to the rope swing that had hung from an oak tree in their backyard since before he could remember. Every summer, as they grew older, he and Kara would challenge each other to climb to the top. He made it all the way during his eleventh year. The next summer, Kara reached the top at age nine. Nearly a decade later, he was still jealous of her accomplishment. He realized, now, that he had set the bar for her. She could have waited two more years and done it just as he had, but that was no longer the challenge.
Where ever you go, I’m coming too. Her last words echoed in his mind.
It didn’t matter where he went now if she couldn’t follow. It didn’t matter what he accomplished if she couldn’t show him how to do it better.
His cheeks boiled tears into his eyes. His knees quivered.
He coiled his trembling fingers around the rope to hold himself up. The familiar fibers were soothing. He raised his head to look at the top. Tugging the rope to test the strength, he hopped up with his feet locking on the bottom knot. The rope tightened, but the branch did not snap under his weight. His muscles screamed at him to let them rest, but he refused to stop. He began a swift ascent, much too easy for him. The simple exercise eased his body and mind. He reached the top in a manner of seconds, then quickly slid back down.
"You’ll get rope burn like that," Sam said, waiting at the bottom as Hardy planted his firm feet back on the ground. "I guess that’s not something you have to worry about anymore."
"When I’ve got bare hands I do." Hardy held up his reddened palms to show that he had not covered his hands in the bandages. The burn became a sting that turned to a throb.
A moment sat awkwardly. Hardy pushed the rope swing toward Sam. "Do you want to--"
"I’m graduating from high school."
Sam seemed to be making a promise to himself. Merely a witness, Hardy steadied the swaying rope. "That’s good."
"I applied to Penn State. Their recruiter said I am a shoo-in for their wrestling scholarship. They should be sending me an acceptance letter in a few weeks. They’ve got an excellent marketing program."
Sam would be good at marketing. The throbbing of Hardy’s palms were overwhelmed by the pangs he felt imagining the life he could not lead.
"Kara had applied there too," Sam continued, "I had hoped maybe we’d get back together for good this time. Dim hope, I know, but it was still hope."
Hope. Could Hardy even recognize the feeling anymore?
He chose not to tell Sam that Kara had her heart set on NYU. She was so enthralled by the city. Her deathbed. It was fitting, really.
Sam would meet someone else. A girl who would find him charming and sweet. They would start a family. He would forget about Kara.
"I can’t do this anymore. Fighting monsters. It’s become too... real. I have always been a little afraid of it, but now I’m scared for my life. I need to walk away." Hardy had lost friends before. Going in two different directions was easy when one had multiple paths towards a normal life and the other only had one path towards battling monsters. But Sam wasn’t like his other friends. They fought side by side and put their safety in each other’s hands. Even if the fighting came to an end, they would remain brothers for the rest of their lives. Hardy could not help but take offense at Sam’s suggestion. "You should walk away too."
"Do you think I have a choice in the matter? I have to do this. Those bandages may look like a bodysuit that I can shed any time I want, but they are who I am. I would love to walk away, but I can’t."
Perhaps in twenty years, Hardy and Sam would meet again. They would remember the good times they had spent together and avoid discussing the bad. Sam would talk about his successful career and brag about his congenial wife and their wonderful children. Hardy would always be a lone soldier fighting a war without end.
"You say that, but it’s not true. You handed over your wrestling uniform easily enough. College fluttered out of your mind in an instant. The world will not end if Hardy Reynolds quits."
"Don’t even joke about that. No one else can do what I do. You’ve seen what destruction those monsters are capable of. I hate that I am the only person who can stop them. I wish every day that this was different. Now more than ever."
"Oh, get over yourself! Stop pretending you’re better than everyone else." Sam kicked a clod of dirt at Hardy. "You don’t hate it at all. You love knowing that no one else can do what you do. If they could, you’d just have to find a higher rope to climb."
"What do you mean by that?"
Sam nearly answered, but kept his thoughts firmly within.
"I’ve got to go. I need to say goodbye to your parents on my way out."
Sam turned to walk away and Hardy almost tackled him to demand an answer.
Stopping, but keeping his back turned, Sam said, "I have seen what those monsters are capable of, but what really scares me, what I only got a glimpse of the other night, is what you are capable of."
Hardy had been tackled. Once Sam had disappeared into the house, he no longer held the tears back. They rushed down his face, and he wiped them away with his sore palms.
He would go on. He would fight the monsters in the world. And he would do it alone, as he was meant to.
Hardy wrapped the rope around his fists and tore it from the tree, the branch cracking all the way to the ground.
Hardy’s brown eyes blazed at the woman pretending to be Sarah Quinlan.
"Approximately sixty college students have gone missing. Spread out over forty universities along the east coast, no one has seen the real clues or asked the right questions. Except me. Several campus CCTV records show an unmarked white van following some of the students that disappeared days later. How am I doing so far?"
The woman blinked her doe eyes. "You tell me. I have no idea what you’re talking about."
"Most of the students were carrying cell phones at the time of their abduction. All cell phones signals are now offline, but the last trackable location of the phones all show them heading in the direction of Karmouth."
"How do you know they’re not heading to New York? Or Canada, even."
"The white van, which has crossed five state lines in the last two months, is currently sitting in the side garage downstairs."
"That’s our landscapers’ van. We allow them to park there. It’s out of the way."
Her answers came too quick. Too easy. They had been rehearsed.
Hardy’s nostrils flared. "If they really were landscapers, they would need their van and their tools accessible at all times. Not locked in a garage. You and they are contracted security. What are you hiding here?"
"My name is Sarah Quinlan. I live here with my husband Tom. We employ a butler, a maid, and three landscapers. We are not abducting college students."
His fist pounded the wall inches from her face. "Stop lying! That is not your name. Dr. Quinlan has never been married. Someone is employing all of you, and they are in the business of kidnapping. Where are the students? Where is Sam Castello?"
"I’m not lying. I don’t know what you’re talking about. My name is Sarah Quinlan and I swear I’m not lying," she pleaded.
"Yes, you are!"
"I’m not. I’m not," she repeated. Then, with an icy breath, "I’m stalling."
His eyes and the bedroom door burst wide open in the same instant. The butler, the maid, and Tom Quinlan stomped into the room with their guns pointed firmly at Hardy. Even though he had covered himself in bandages, he still used the woman as a shield.
"Let her go, freak!" ordered Tom.
"Tell me where Sam Castello is or I’ll snap her neck."
Tom stayed planted in front of the door as the ’butler’ and the ’maid’ flanked Hardy’s sides.
"I’ll put a bullet in your head before you get a chance."
Tom steadied his aim and cocked his gun.
"Don’t do it, Erik!" the woman yelled, "He’s not human. You haven’t seen how fast he moves, and that armor just wrapped around him like a second skin."
A battle raged in Erik’s mind but his aim held steady. The bullet would hit Hardy in the forehead if Erik squeezed the trigger. Hardy had never been shot. He had no idea if the bandages would stop a bullet. He could think of no better time to find out.
The barrel lowered.
"Stand down," Erik commanded. The other guns lowered, but fingers stayed close to the triggers. Erik stepped aside to let Hardy and his hostage pass. The swathed man backed into the hallway holding the woman before him.
"Fool me once," Hardy whispered in her ear. He pushed her forward, holding firm to the earbuds dangling from the device on her arm. The cord snapped out of the device with a pull, but the force was enough to throw her off balance and the others reached out to catch her as she fell. Hardy was already down the hallway before the bullets began to nip at his heels.
He bypassed the stairway that the landscapers were creeping up and headed for the large second story window overlooking the front lawn. Glass shards exploded from the house as he dove through. Landing and rolling on the spongy lawn, he had to get up quickly to avoid the bullets pelting around him.
Over the fence once more, he set down right next to his idling truck. The driver door opened for him and he had his foot on the gas pedal before his ass was in the seat.
"Seatbelt," she reminded him.
"I’ve got it." He also made sure the door latched shut. "Did I buy you enough time? Did you find anything?"
"Are you hurt?"
"Are you sure?"
Hardy had lied to her about being injured before. She had scolded him for days when he let a cut on his arm go untended. He double checked for sharp pain or blood. "I’m fine. What did you learn?"
"Nothing we didn’t already know. Something unnatural is going on in that mansion."
"In, or underneath?"
"Has to be. Now, how do we get around the bullets?"
As they reached the bottom of the hill, Hardy spun the wheel towards the only road out of town. He reached behind the seat into his duffel bag, under the charred, chenille varsity letter A, and plucked out a curling, black address book.
"I’m calling in a favor. And something like this may take the kind of convincing that’s face-to-face."
"Do you handle situations any other way?" asked Kara Reynolds.