Authors: Gordon Korman
For Jay Korman, Sports Mastermind
It's a one-in-a-million shot, and we nail it.
Just not in the way we planned.
I lie against the cool stone of the pool deck and peer into the filter opening. I can make out the tip of the boomerang, but I can't quite jam my hand in deep enough to get a grip on it. “It's stuck.”
“What are the odds?” Randy groans. “You could throw that thing fifty thousand times and never get anywhere near the filter. But one little challenge, and bull's-eye.”
Randy's famous around Serenity for his “challenges,” which usually involve catching something uncatchable while riding a bicycle, jumping on a pogo stick, swinging on a rope, or rolling inside a truck tire. As his best friend, I'm usually the guinea pig for Randy's cockamamie ideas.
Like today's challenge: Randy throws the boomerang out the window of the tree house and I'm supposed to leap off the diving board, snatch it out of midair, and do a cannonball into the pool. Only I miss, the cannonball turns into more of a belly flop, and the boomerang disappears inside the filter.
“Maybe Mr. Amani can get it out,” I suggest. He's the local handyman, whose job includes pool maintenance and just about everything else from plumbing and electrical work to ridding your crawl space of scorpions and baby armadillos.
“And maybe he can't, which means my folks will have to call the pool guys.”
That's a much bigger deal than it sounds like. There's no pool company in Serenity, and the nearest town is eighty miles away. It can take weeks to get anybody to schedule a trip out here, and in the meantime your pool turns to soup. Mr. and Mrs. Hardaway aren't going to be thrilled with thisâalthough they're pretty used to it, having dealt with Randy for thirteen years.
It's definitely a drawback to living in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Every time something like this comes up, though, my dad just points to the newspaper clipping on our fridge:
SERENITY VOTED #1 IN USA FOR
STANDARD OF LIVING
He leads me through the bullet points in the article: no crime, no unemployment, no poverty, and no homelessness. The amazing part isn't so much that we have none of those things, but that other towns do, and they're okay with it. It must be awful. Of course, there are only 185 people in Serenity, so it's not so hard to make sure all of them have someplace to live and work. We've got the Serenity Plastics Works, one of the largest producers of orange traffic cones in the United States. Our school has the highest test scores in New Mexico. We're right on the edge of Carson National Forest, surrounded by canyons, foothills, and woods, and the sun shines practically every day. True, it gets pretty hot sometimes, but we don't bake like they do in those real desert towns. No wonder Dad's so proud. He's the mayor, which sounds like a big deal, but it really isn't. His salary as mayor is one dollar per year, and he always claims he's overpaid.
Our parents constantly remind us how lucky we are, and we always roll our eyes. But you know what? They're right. We
luckyâjust not when the pool filter is busted, and the nearest repair is in Taos.
Randy makes an executive decision. “I'm not going to tell my folks about it. I'll just act ten times as amazed as everybody else when they find the boomerang in there.”
I'm a little uncomfortable. That feels like lying. I know people do it all the time on TV and in books. But here, we're honest no matter what. Even when it's hard to be, or when it could get you in trouble. That might sound a little too good to be true, but I think that's why people here are so happy.
“We could go to
pool,” I suggest, anxious to change the subject. “No boomerang, though.” My dad is twenty times as strict as the Hardaways. He's the school principal as well as the mayor. That
a big a job. There's only one school in town.
“Nah, I'm sick of swimming.”
“We could hang out in the tree house.”
“Boring,” he declares. “Every kid in town has a tree house and none of them are any fun. And don't say video games either. It doesn't matter how good your home theater is when all your games are lame.”
games aren't so lame,” I remind him. Randy and I have figured out a way to tweak the game software to unlock hidden features, like crashing cars and fighting with real weapons. Turns out I've got a knack for that kind
of thing. I can do it with my iPad and computers too. It's strictly hush-hush, because everybody in Serenity is antiviolence. I am, too, but in a video game, I figure where's the harm in it? It's not like it's actually happening.
“Yawn.” Randy gets this way sometimes, where nothing satisfies him. Basically, he's a crab. Believe it or not, it's one of the main reasons I like him. You don't hear much complaining in Serenity. Randy always manages to find something, though. It's almost as if he's daring the universe to do a better job, no matter how great things already are. I think my dad would be happier if I found a different best friend. But let's face it, in a town with only thirty kids, there's not much to choose from. And anyway, you don't
best friends. Best friends just
“So what are we going to do?” I ask him.
“Let's get out of here. Let's
I brighten. “They've built that new high slide at the park.”
He's unimpressed. “Big deal. You climb up so you can come down. Let's do something
“Likeâ” His eyes dance. “Check out the most awesome old sports car you've ever seen.”
“Sports car?” I echo. When you live in a place this
small, not only do you know every car; you could probably recite the license plate numbers by heart. When somebody gets a new vehicle, three-quarters of the town show up to see it. There are plenty of fancy SUVs and sedans, but no sports cars.
“It was the weirdest thing. My dad and I were hiking a few miles out of town and we found an old, abandoned ranchâbusted-up fences and a house that was nothing but a pile of toothpicks. The only thing standing was this rusted Quonset hut. And when we went inside, the car was there. The tires were flat, and the whole thing was buried in dust and spiderwebs, but it was beautiful. My dad said it was Italianâan Alfa Romeo. It had Colorado license plates from 1961.”
“Wow,” I say.
“Yeah,” he enthuses. “Let's go see it.”
Randy shrugs. “What are you waiting forâChristmas? It's not too far. Grab your bike and let's go.”
I hesitate. “I have to ask my dad.”
He looks pained. “Bad idea. I know your old man.”
Poor Dad. Felix Frieden is kind of a joke among the kids in town, with his three-piece suits, and his shined
shoes, and his no-nonsense attitude. They just see his principal side.
Randy has a point, though. “You think he'll say no?”
“Why give him the chance?” Randy insists. “The car's only a few miles away. We'll be there and back before he even knows you're gone. Come on, Eli, live a little.”
“It's justâ” I'm embarrassed to say it, but I have to be honest. “I've never been out of town.”
“Neither have Iânot since we visited my grandma when I was sixâ”
“No,” I interrupt. “I've never been
out of town. Not even where your dad took you hiking.”
“What about that time in science when our class went fossil hunting?” he challenges.
“That was still inside the town limits. Mrs. Laska said so.”
He's amazed. “But haven't you ever passed that stupid signâthe one that says:
Now Leaving SerenityâAmerica's Ideal Community
I shake my head. “I've never even seen it.”
“Well, you're going to see it today,” he decides. “Grab your bike.”
That's another thing about Randy. He won't take no
for an answer. He doesn't exactly bring out the best in me, but we have a great time together, and that counts for a lot. He does the things I daydream about but don't have the guts to try.
Only one road passes through Serenity, a two-lane paved ribbon everybody calls Old County Six. We pedal west along it, riding right down the center over the faded, broken line. There's little fear of meeting traffic in either direction. All decent highways cross New Mexico well to the south. If you hit Serenity, chances are you're lost.
As we bike on, I spot the gully that was the site of the fossil-hunting trip. I am now farther from home than I've ever been in my life. Can it really be this easy? You just jump on a bicycle and ride out of town? It seems like cheating somehow, breaking some overarching Law of the Way Things Are Supposed to Be. Yet here I am, just doing it. It's kind of exhilaratingâat least, I've never been so aware of the beating of my heart and the blood pumping through my veins.
I feel a little strange about not telling Dad. Not that I need his permissionâI'm thirteen years old. Besides, he never specifically said
to ride my bike out past the
town limits. I'm not breaking any rules, but I know he'll be disappointed if he finds out about this. Face it: If I don't need to ask permission for this ride, how come I snuck my bike out of the garage? I try to push the thought from my head as I pedal away.
I glance over my shoulder at Serenityâthe perfect rows of immaculate white homes, the swimming pools positioned on the lots like aquamarine postage stamps, the basketball hoops lined up like sentries, all lovingly set down amid the striking southwestern landscape. In this view I find my answer to the nagging question of how a person could spend thirteen years here without ever once setting foot outside the town proper. Why would I need to? When it comes to fun or comfort, we've got it all. We've got the stuff adults want tooâa great school and great jobs. We've got the three Essential Qualities of Serenity citizensâhonesty, harmony, and contentment. We've heard about the bigger towns andâeven worseâcities. They stink of garbage and everything's crumbling, and crime is so bad that nobody can trust anybody else. People spend their time in fear, hunkered down behind locked doors and alarm systems.
At the same time, it's almost startling how
the town is, even from this distance of barely a mile. If it wasn't for the
factory, you wouldn't notice it unless you knew what to look for. I guess that's the Serenity Miracle our parents are always talking aboutâthat so much quality of life can be held in such a small package.
“How much farther?” I call ahead to Randy.
“Probably another twenty minutes.”
After a bend in the road, a tall butte obscures the town altogether. It completes the feeling of being out there.