Balance Keepers #1: The Fires of Calderon

BOOK: Balance Keepers #1: The Fires of Calderon
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Dedication

To my dad, Don Cummings, who is the reason I write.

And to my bookish dad, Patrick Carman, who is the reason I’m able to keep writing.

CHAPTER 1
The Dead Letter Office

H
erman, Wyoming, was a five-blink town. Albert Flynn knew this because it was the kind of conclusion one could only arrive at based on long hours of exceptional dullness. On his first day in Herman, Albert had taken off at a dead run from one end of town, which was marked by a mailbox shaped like a birdhouse, and arrived at the other side of town without blinking more than five times. Once, he’d done it in only two blinks, a feat that had made his eyes burn as if someone had thrown a handful of flour in his face. By day two, he not only knew about the five blinks, he understood there was a real chance that a normal boy might literally die of boredom before the summer came to an end.

But Albert was no ordinary boy. For starters, he was smart enough to make things interesting for himself, especially in a place like Herman.

And so, being a kid of small size and big imagination, he decided to jump across town, an activity that took under twelve minutes and included exactly 217 jumps, an encounter with a black cat, and a detour through a sprinkler. He decided to crawl back to the other side, a decision he would later regret as he sat on the steps of the post office picking gravel out of his palms.

It was activities like these—blinking, jumping, and crawling—that led Albert to believe that Herman, Wyoming, was possibly more interesting than he’d initially given it credit for. He’d seen and heard some unusual things on those small but important journeys.

Surrounded by a dense ring of evergreen trees, the town was secluded in a way that made it feel set apart from the rest of the world. While he was hopping past the town grocery, he found a cluster of pink, polka-dotted daisies sprouting right out of the cracked concrete. At noon, as Albert crawled on the edge of the circular forest, he could hear music on the wind that swept through the evergreen trees. Houses were brightly painted with purple and blue and yellow, and though most of them looked as if they were about to crumble from their own weight, they’d stood for as long as Herman had been a town, and would for centuries more.

The post office sat in the middle of Herman, Wyoming. It was here that Albert had spent summers before, here where he would spend the summer again. The building was small, thick, and perfectly square, the sort of place where one simply came and went without a lingering glance. Unless one wanted to stop and watch three wrinkled old men playing a game of Tiles on the front porch, one of whom was Albert’s grandpa, who he called Pap.

“How’s that sorting project moving along?” Pap asked from the porch. It was Albert’s third day in town, and the sorting wasn’t
moving
at all. Pap turned a white Tile in his wrinkled hands. His two old buddies shook their heads and smiled.

“I’m plotting strategy,” Albert answered, because he couldn’t tell Pap the truth: that he’d been blinking, jumping, and crawling around town when he should have been working. The dead letter office, which held all the undeliverable mail for the entire county, hadn’t been touched since the previous summer. It was Albert’s job to wrangle it into shape, and having goofed off for about as long as he was likely to get away with, he wandered into the dusty, old post office.

“That’s the spirit,” Pap said as he watched Albert move in the general direction of work needing to be done. “Show those letters who’s boss.”

The post office was where Albert Flynn, a short stick of a boy with mouse-brown hair and three large freckles on his nose, found himself on his first week of summer vacation.

His dad, Bob Flynn, was the mail carrier in Herman, and summer was the only time they saw each other. Unfortunately, his dad’s mail route took him miles outside of town, to all the scattered homesteads in the valley. He was usually gone all day.

To Albert, Herman, Wyoming, was a second home. He spent the rest of the year in New York City, surrounded by the constant blaring of sirens, throngs of people in the streets, and a blended family that threatened to drive him insane. Both of Albert’s half brothers and his half sister were notorious tattletales who constantly conspired to blame every mistake or problem on Albert. He was eleven, they were five or six or seven, depending on the kid, and he was hopelessly out of touch with everything they did. Albert’s mom was often at loose ends, dealing with three high-energy city kids, and while Albert’s stepdad wasn’t altogether mean, he also wasn’t interested in Albert.

Summers in Herman with his real dad were the best part of Albert’s life, not because he was in love with the post office (that part, unfortunately, was boring, just like school was boring to Albert)—it was because he loved the woods, the mountains, the adventure of being way out in the middle of nowhere. He wasn’t just good at jumping and crawling; he was also a strong climber and an avid outdoorsman. Herman, Wyoming, suited him. And even though they weren’t as close as Albert wished, he did prefer living with his dad to the city life.

Albert made the turn down a short hallway and arrived at the door to the dead letter office. Inside it was like a miniature city with its own towers of unmarked envelopes and dust-covered packages stacked to the ceiling. On his first day, Albert had made a tunnel through the unclaimed mail, wiggling his way to the other side, and there he’d sat, doing what he always did: open, read, file, and repeat. That was Albert’s job. By the end of the first hour he was desperate for a promotion out of the dead letter office, and that’s when the blinking, jumping, and crawling had started. He hadn’t been back since.

There was a small, dust-covered radio in the corner of the room that played country music and hourly news updates. A long wad of tinfoil was duct-taped to the radio to improve the static-filled reception. When the afternoon news roundup started, Albert looked up from his work opening, reading, and sorting. They were saying something about New York, and at that very moment, New York was starting to seem slightly more exciting than opening other people’s mail.

“Weather experts are reporting an unusual cloud of volcanic ash over New York City and so far, scientists are scrambling to figure out where it came from. Dr. Moritz Wilhelm of the weather bureau had this to say:

“‘Seismic activity in the gulf region appears to have created an underwater plume of ash powerful enough to break the surface of the ocean. We’re investigating.’

“An underwater volcano? Scientists are debating as we speak. . . .”

Albert went back to the mail, sorting and sorting and sorting, thinking about how cool it would be to watch volcano ash fall like snow back home. Maybe there would be enough to build a snowboarding jump. Maybe he could even see blobs of red lava shooting into the sky.

“Figures,” Albert said, shaking his head. “I leave for five minutes and miss volcano burps. Next it’ll be dinosaurs on Forty-Second Street. Just my luck.”

He opened packages of old holiday presents, such as fruitcakes hard as stones that would never be eaten. (Not that they would have been in the first place. Albert knew a thing or two about bad fruitcakes.) He read letters from mothers to their sons, scolding them about not keeping in touch. He felt a little awkward reading other people’s mail, but that was the job. These were dead letters and packages with no return address that had never found their point of delivery, and it was Albert’s job to examine them like an archaeologist. If he could find a full name or a return address inside, he would send the item back from where it had come. If not, the contents were bound for the incinerator, a fire-breathing hole with a metal door out in the lobby.

Twenty-seven minutes later Albert was really getting into a good rhythm, but he was also feeling that dreaded sense of deep, almost sleepy boredom setting in. Albert wished he had an assistant of some sort. Maybe a boy his age, who would help him build tunnels out of the dead letters, and play Fruitcake Wars with him. Albert had a few acquaintances in school back in the city. But never in all his life had Albert ever had a true best friend.

He wanted that more than anything in the world.

Albert thought of his dad, driving his mail truck around Herman, the cool kind missing a whole door on one side, and wished that was where he was—anywhere but here. He started to nod off, the soft drone of static-filled music in the background, and slammed his forehead on the counter.

That was when the dog walked in.

Its fur was a wiry mess of jet black, but its nose was pink, which struck Albert as a mismatch, like when one of his younger brothers wore swim trunks and a Christmas sweater at the same time. The dog was about the size of a loaf of bread, and shaped like a beagle. Its eyes were the brightest shade of blue Albert had ever seen on an animal.

“Hey, little guy, where’d you come from?”

The dog walked through the back door of the dead letter office like it knew exactly where it was supposed to be. And in its mouth, covered in a dripping glob of dog slobber, was an envelope.

“Are you lost?” Albert asked. “Because if you are, I could sure use the company. I have fruitcake.”

Albert didn’t have a dog of his own in New York, so when he slowly reached down toward the animal, his fingers trembled a little. But the dog placed its head on Albert’s palm, and Albert’s nerves settled down, just like that. The dog’s fur
looked
wiry and stiff, but it was soft on Albert’s fingers in the strangest of ways. Its blue eyes looked right into Albert’s brown ones, and that weird pink nose was sniffing the air. One of the dog’s eyelids moved.

“Did you just wink at me, or do I need a candy-bar break?”

Albert picked up one of the fruitcakes he’d unwrapped and bit into it. It had the consistency of a brick left over from the Civil War era. Albert felt lucky not to have broken a tooth as he looked down and noticed that the dog had set the slobbery envelope on the floor.

“You’re a smart boy, aren’t you?” Albert said to the dog. It cocked its head like it was listening, in the way smart dogs do. “You’re like a carrier pigeon!”

He took the envelope. It was torn at the corner from the dog’s teeth. It was just like any other letter. Rectangular, unmarked, and . . .
wait.
Albert flipped the envelope over. He had to look at it twice to be sure what he was seeing. Scrawled right there, in deep-red cursive, was his very own name.

Albert Flynn.

Had Albert Flynn been any other boy, he might have set the envelope aside and reported the
Case of the Albert Envelope
the moment his father returned from his mail route. But he’d been opening other people’s mail for three days. Well, okay, a total of one hour, twenty-seven minutes out of those three days, but still. The idea of a letter for
him
was too delicious to leave unopened.

“Now this,” Albert said to the dog, “is cool. Don’t you think so?” He hadn’t expected the dog to answer, of course, but he still looked to see if it was listening. When he did, he discovered that the dog had pulled the rock-hard fruitcake out of the trash bin and was gnawing on it happily.

“Go right ahead,” Albert said. “Make yourself at home.”

He focused on the letter. Albert had gotten very good at opening envelopes without tearing the precious contents inside. He picked up a letter opener shaped like a shriveled claw on one end and sliced open the top.

He’d hoped for something strange, because he was very fond of strange things. It would have been a real letdown if he’d discovered a letter from his mom inside, reminding him to brush his teeth and eat his vegetables.

He was not disappointed with what he found.

BOOK: Balance Keepers #1: The Fires of Calderon
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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