Chapters introducing Carson and Krystal Krot in Return of the Vinslings
They say your life flashes before your eyes before you die. I used to wonder if, in all that I would see, there would be something worthwhile, something people would remember me by. I used to think, and sometimes hope, that the answer was no, that I would simply live out a normal life.
I was wrong.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
I jerked awake to the sound of my alarm clock. Cold sweat ran down my face, my breathing loud and heavy. The night terror was quickly fading from my memory, but I could still remember a few, key, vivid details: the heat of flames, a crushing weight falling atop me, and the pale, dead face of my mother. The same as it always was.
Gradually, my breathing slowed. Realizing my alarm clock was still on, I reached over and switched it off. The time read 7:30; I was already running late. Krystal was going to kill me.
Sliding out of bed, I headed to the shower, my hands still shaking as I jumped in. Most of the time, the major details of a dream fade from one’s mind only minutes after waking up. But this one always seemed to linger in my mind for days.
The thing was, though I’d always associated that dream with the night of the house fire, where my parents had died, the details my adopted father had given me of that didn’t match. I was in the house for almost no time at all before getting out. I wouldn’t have seen my parents die. And I definitely wouldn’t have felt myself trapped underneath the rubble, screaming for help.
With those thoughts still in the back of my mind, I turned off the shower, got dressed, and headed up for breakfast. My father was waiting for me, sipping a cup of coffee. Behind him was Krystal, arms folded.
“You’re late,” Krystal said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it, if I’m late again, Ms. Zaidi’s going to give me a U for attendance…”
“Krystal, Ms. Zaidi doesn’t have an attendance policy,” my father said. “I read the syllabus, I’m not stupid. Please don’t bug your brother over the fact that you want to sluff.”
Krystal turned red, huffed and walked away. I sat down and began eating breakfast, but found that my hands were shaking too badly to feed myself.
“Are you alright?” my father asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.
“Are you sure? You were screaming in your sleep again.”
“I’m fine. I just… had the nightmare again.”
“Ah. I see.”
We were silent for a few minutes as I ate breakfast, though my father continued to look quite concerned.
“Dad?” I finally asked. “Can I ask a question?”
“That, of course, depends on the question, but generally, yes.”
“Did you know my parents? You know, before the fire?”
My father paused. “Yes. Yes, I did.”
“What were they like?”
“They were good people, I suppose. Your father was a good friend of mine, he was kind, empathetic, had a good sense of humor. And your mother was one of the bravest people I have ever met.”
“What happened to me that night? The night of the house fire?”
“Your mother got you and Krystal out of the house. Then she went back in to get your father. Neither of them ever came out.”
“But... in my dreams, I always remember being crushed underneath the rubble, crying for help, no one coming. Always. Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“Yes. End of story,” Dad said, suddenly apprehensive. “Now let’s get you to school. You’ve got a long day ahead of you, after all.”
I opened my mouth to continue pressing the matter, then shut it. I’d learned that when my dad chose to be quiet about something, it meant he wasn’t going to share no matter how I tried to persuade him. And so we loaded into the car and drove to school. I sat in front, silent, unable to think of anything besides the dream. Krystal sat in back, playing on her phone. After a few minutes of awkward silence, she looked up.
“Carson’s quiet today,” she said. “Rather strange, don’t you think?”
I cleared my throat. “Anyone got any tests today?” I asked, trying to start a conversation. I instantly realized afterward that I already knew the answer to the question- no one did.
“Hey, I didn’t say I was opposed,” Krystal said. “The longer you keep that mouth shut, the farther I get on BTD6.”
“Krystal,” my father interjected sternly.
“It’s fine,” I said.
We pulled up the school just as the bell rang. “Crap,” I said. “We’re late.” We quickly snatched up our bags and hopped out of the car.
“Have a good day,” my father called out as we walked off.
“I will,” I said confidently back.
I didn’t know how wrong I was.
I steadied my breathing.
Normal looking clothing? Check.
Calm demeanor? Well… I needed to work on that. Though my anxiety level had mostly gone down, my hands still trembled slightly from this morning. Not an excellent image for this.
“Stop it,” I muttered, shaking them under the desk. Needless to say, that did not work. I bit my lip. This was not what I needed today.
I’d been putting it off for a good week now. We’d talked plenty, and it shouldn’t have scared me, but for some reason it did. But I’d resolved to ask the girl I liked out today during lunch. No ifs ands or buts about it.
The lunch bell rang, and I packed my things and headed for the lunchroom. On the way, Krystal swung in beside me.
“You ready for the lunch D&D session?” she asked. “We still have to resolve you falling down that giant corn stock.”
I sighed. Recently Krystal had become obsessed with the game Dungeons and Dragons, and consequently I’d been spending my lunch playing as Liam Tarik, heir to the lost kingdom, just so she’d have someone to game master for.
“Not today, Krystal,” I said. “I’m sitting with my friends today.”
“We were just getting to the good part!”
“Tomorrow. But not today.”
Krystal sighed. “You know that means I have no one to sit with again.”
“I told you you can sit with us,” I said. “Offer still stands.”
“I’m good,” Krystal said, breaking off. I frowned. One of these days Krystal would find the right group of friends. Unfortunately, it hadn’t happened yet.
I sat down at our usual table.
“Carsoooone!” my friend Houston said. “Welcome back! You done playing that nerd game yet?”
I smiled nervously. “Not yet. But I’m taking a break today.”
At that moment, she sat down in front of me- Ashley Armstrong, captain of the gymnastics team, straight-A student, and, if you ask me, beauty extraordinaire. “Hey Carson,” she said.
“Hey,” I said.
“How’d the tennis tournament go?”
“It went alright,” I said. “We lost, but not badly.”
We spent the rest of lunch chatting aimlessly until the lunch bell rang again. Ashley sprung to her feet, threw away her lunch tray, and headed for class. I ran after her.
“Wait,” I said. She turned around. “Hey, me and Houston were doing a group date this week? You know, going to see the new Star Wars? And I was wondering if you wanted to go with me?”
She hesitated. “I think I’m busy this weekend…”
“We can do it another weekend, this weekend was just the first weekend we were both available.”
She sighed. “I think I’m good, Carson.”
“Oh,” I said. I honestly hadn’t expected this. “Well, maybe next time, then.”
She shook her head. “Carson, I’m going to be frank here… I just… I just don’t like you that way ok? So please don’t ask me out again. I’m not going to say yes.”
My shoulders slumped. “Ok. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “It’s just… I mean….”
I turned and walked away, not wanting to hear anymore. I spent the rest of the school day staring vacantly at the wall, putting in as little effort as I could.
I should have just played D&D.
I thought I was alone. That I was the only one who had magic.
Because when I willed it, the water listened. And though it was amazing, even euphoric, it was also terrifying.
I was wrong. I wasn’t alone. Not even close.
But being alone can be a good thing sometimes.
“Krystal Krot,” Principal Jane’s voice was airy and annoyed as I walked into her office and sat down calmly, picking at my nails. “This is the third time you’ve been sent here this month.”
I smiled. The unlucky kid behind me in the hall had made a particularly nasty remark about how I’d been sitting alone at lunch again. So I’d tripped him and shoved him to the ground. Poor thing had started crying. It had actually been mildly entertaining.
“It’s also the third time someone called me an antisocial psychopath this month. Means I’m three for three. I consider that a win.”
The principal looked at me, raised her eyebrows, then switched subjects. “You still haven’t hung your banner for college choosing day. You made a choice yet? Or at least close?”
“Nope.” Truth to be told, I didn’t really have a plan for after I turned eighteen. College was where everybody suggested going, but the idea of going to school for four more painful years just didn’t appeal to me. What else I would do, I didn’t know, but not that.
The principal raised her eyebrows further. “Do you want to be stuck flipping hamburgers for the rest of your life?”
“Not really,” I said. “But honestly, nothing sounds much more appealing.”
“Nothing? Not being a doctor.”
Principal Jane threw her hands in the air. “Well, when you finally decide to do something worthwhile with your life, you’ll realize that your behavior and grades in school do matter. One last time, I’m going to give you some leeway, Krot. Don’t disappoint me. Now off with you.”
I rose and exited without another word. Man, I hated school. Too much memorization, homework, and testing for me. Not to mention having to pretend that you liked your fellow students. I couldn’t wait until I graduated.
The bell rang. I sighed. Another awful day.
“How was your day?” my father asked as we loaded in the car right after school.
“Eh,” Krystal said.
“Pretty good,” I said, even though it was a lie. We closed the doors and Dad began driving toward work. It was a relatively short drive; we arrived within the next few minutes. I was about to hop out of the car when a loud shriek pierced the sky. Both I and my father glanced out the window. A strange plane roared through the sky at an incredible speed, leaving no contrail but a red light behind it.
“Larsh,” my father whispered.
“That’s an odd plane,” I said.
“That’s no plane,” my father said. “That’s a fighter. Get out of the car, both of you.”
We both hesitated. It wasn’t like my father to give such a sudden command.
“Now,” my father said emphatically. “You both need to stay as low as
“What do you mean stay low?” Krystal asked incredulously.
“Like I said, that’s no normal plane, that’s danger incarnate. Blend in as much as you can. If anyone looks out of place, avoid them. Assuming I’m still alive, I’ll meet you after you’re done with work.”
My father started the engine back up. I grabbed his shoulder.
“Assuming you’re still alive? Where do you think you’re going?”
“Someplace you should not follow,” my father said. “Please get out of the car.”
“Dad, what’s going on?” Panic began to rise in my chest.
“I wish I could tell you. But I worry that if I do, something even worse than what happened to your parents will happen to you. Last time: get out of the car, or I’ll make you.”
Dazed, I unbuckled my seatbelt and hopped out. Krystal followed. My father sped off.
“What was that all about?” Krystal asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that, once again, things were crumbling to rubble around me….
“One hamburger, no cheese, no onion, no pickle, no ketchup, no mayo, no mustard, just bun and meat, coming right up. Please don’t tell me you want fries with that,” I said, handing the last customer in line his cup and calling out the order back to the cooks. Finally, a pause in the nonstop stream of people.
“You sure you don’t want to switch places?” I yelled back to Carson.
“I already told you, no. I’ve got homework to do. And we still need to get through to Dad.”
I shook my head. Despite the fact that nothing had happened to us the whole day, Carson had still been trying to contact Dad-the whole day. Part of me wondered if the spectacle this morning had all just been a clever ruse in order to hog the drive-thru.
Just as I managed to slip my phone out of my pocket and get it out of sight of the manager, a man got out of his seat. Obese and balding, it was almost painful to glance at him; I mean, I don’t like to judge but this guy legitimately looked like a cross between a whale and a human. I knew him, though, all too well. Every worker here did. He complained about something or another every time he came here- he didn’t get enough french fries, his chicken tasted more like turkey, why did I get charged for cheese- you name it, this guy could complain about it. And the worst part? Despite his constant whining, this guy still came in here every single day.
The man walked up to the counter. Here we go again, I thought.
“Yes, “ I asked, restraining myself from making a comment about his size and the inadvisability of having seconds because of it.
“I want my money back,” he stated in a high pitched voice.
“I found a black hair in my food.”
I looked up at his greasy, thin black hair. “None of our employees have black hair, and you do, so I’m going to assume that hair is yours. Have a nice day.”
“I want my money back,” he repeated.
“Well, sorry, but all the evidence points to..”
“I found a hair in my food. I want my money back.”
“You’ve said that twice already!” I snapped.
The man turned beet red. “Now, you see here,” he began to rant. “You need to learn to respect your superiors.”
At this point, all the eyes in the store were on us. But that didn’t stop me from leaning right into the man’s face, his hot breath blowing against my face.
“Stupid people are stupid no matter how old they are. Now get out.”
The man scowled and left, slamming the door behind him. I sat back in my chair, a satisfied grin on my face.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see my manager, Jason, looking down at me.
Most towns have a mall or a super grocer. Lewisville has Town Square. A block of solid cement surrounded by a single circular street, stores, and restaurants of all sorts lined its perimeters, and people bustled through the middle. In the center of the square was a fountain, complete with a statue of Meriwether Lewis, water spewing from his bronze sword.
I stood near the edge of the square, playing with a glowing ball of ice in my hand, but when I saw Carson I quickly extinguished it. I couldn’t let Carson know about my powers- not him, not anybody.
“It’s about time you got here,” I said to Carson. It had been an hour since Jason had kicked me out of the restaurant.
“Dad’s going to be pissed,” Carson said.
“I know,” I replied vaguely, not looking him in the eye.
“You think you’re going to get another job soon? I mean, to pay for college?”
“Maybe. Is the sun really setting already?”
“Yeah. It’s cool, isn’t it?” Carson replied. We started to walk away from the fountain and towards the car.
Not really, I thought. All those colors really just hide something darker- another day gone. Another day wasted.
Truth is, Lewisville had never felt like home for me. I mean, my father’s fantastic. And my brother… well he’s a good person too, but he’s also a reminder of everything I’m not.
Carson has friends. I sit alone at lunch. Carson’s teachers and bosses love him. Mine, to say the least, do not. Carson goes on dates. There’s a running joke at my school that “it’s suicide to ask out Krystal Krot”.
We walked along aimlessly, silent. Then, suddenly a crack split the air behind us. Carson jumped.
“What was that?” he said, turning around to look behind us.
“Probably just nothing,” I said.
Then two more cracks rang out. And two more after that. I saw Carson freeze in my peripheral. “Oh, no.”
I whipped around. The sharp cracks continued to ring out, but I couldn’t spot the source.
Carson pointed.”There,” he whispered, finger shaking.
I followed his finger to see two men in black jackets. Their hair was shaved, in its place, a shining symbol covered their scalps like two swastikas placed one on top of the other.
And in their hands were two blazing guns.
For a moment everything seemed to hold still. Then screams and shouts filled the air.
I started to bolt away, then turned back around. Carson was just standing there, still frozen in shock.
“C’mon you dolt!” I yelled, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him along.
Behind us, I could still hear gunshots splitting the air. Smoke began to fill my lungs, and the people ahead of us started to fall. Their earsplitting shrieks filled me with dread.
At the sight of death, Carson shook away and stumbled into a run beside me.
“We’ve got to get behind cover,” he said, voice trembling.
“I know!” I snapped. “Head to the fountain!”
Carson nodded and we dived behind the statue of Meriwether Lewis, still spitting out water as if nothing were happening. My heart pounded as the blaze continued, shot after shot ringing in a cruel rat a tat tat rhythm. We sat there for what felt like ages, Carson hyperventilating, me trying to slow my own breath.
Then the shooting stopped.
“Do you think?” Carson said hesitantly.
But at that moment the two men rounded the corner, pointing their guns directly at our chests.