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Wayne Kovok lives in a world of After. After his uncle in the army was killed overseas. After Wayne and his mother survived a plane crash while coming back from the funeral. After he lost his voice.
Wayne has always used his love of facts to communicate (“Did you know more people die each year from shaking a vending machine than from shark attacks?”). Without his voice, how will he wow the prettiest girl in school? How will he stand up to his drill-sergeant grandfather? And how will he share his hopes with his deadbeat dad? It’s not until Wayne loses his voice completely that he realizes how much he doesn’t say.
Filled with Karen Harrington’s signature heart and humor, Mayday tackles an unforgettable journey of family and friendship.
Table of Contents
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Listen, I didn't want to talk about poinsettias in the first place. But if I recite a fact, it is the fact talking, not me. A fact is like a shield. You can hide behind it. Then you can make a run for it if you need to. Or make someone laugh so that they aren't laughing at you. Or distract your mom if she is sad.
From fourth grade on, I made myself absorb facts the way a sponge absorbs water.
So when I tell you that I really didn't want to talk about poinsettias in front of my uncle right before he deployed for the third time last September, I'm telling you the truth. But a fact had to fill the uncomfortable space. He was staring into his cheeseburger like it was a movie screen. I didn't know what to do.
So I said to my uncle, "Did you know the red poinsettia originated in Mexico and is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico? That's lucky, because what if his last name was Frankenbucket? Then at Christmas everyone would have to say, Here, I brought you this Frankenbuckettia."
He smiled. Uncle Reed was my mom's brother and an army soldier. When he came home, I never really knew what to say to him.
"No, I didn't know that about poinsettias, Wayne," Uncle Reed said. "I bet your brain can fire at will with random facts."
I couldn't be sure, but I thought he meant that as a compliment.
I hoped he meant it as a compliment.
"I meant that as a compliment," he finally said. "So, did you want to talk about poinsettias?"
No, I didn't want to talk about poinsettias.
But I'd had to find a new topic. Another truth? Inserting a quick fact will change the subject. You can go from uncomfortable to learning something new in 5.6 seconds.
Uncle Reed had been talking about Iraq. He said it was hard to come back home to Texas. "I need to be with my buddies. When I'm home, I feel like I should be there. Helping."
I couldn't work out why he didn't prefer being at home.
Uncle Reed got a far-off look in his eyes. "I get a different feeling about myself when I'm there. A useful feeling. A real sense of purpose." That part of what Uncle Reed said made sense. Being useful is important in our family.
I swirled a french fry in my ketchup. "I don't even understand why soldiers still have to keep going back to Iraq," I said. "Why is it taking so long?"
"Your problem, Wayne, is that you always ask why. Some questions can't be answered."
He looked down. "The question why will plague you for your entire life."
I definitely didn't want to be plagued for my entire life. The past month was plaguing enough. Why did Sandy Showalter really go with me to the fall social? Why was my mom suddenly encouraging me to spend more time with my dad?
"I have more questions than answers," I said. "I hate that."
"Join the club," he said, laughing. "One more piece of advice: Never eat at any place ending in the words corral or barn. The food at those establishments is all beige."
He took a drink from his iced tea. The silence hung over us like a rotten smell. So I'd searched my brain for a new topic. Why poinsettias? Because Beatty Middle School's orchestra was in the middle of a fund-raiser. (Pre-order your holiday poinsettia now and help the Beatty Bears get to Colorado for spring break!) Sandy Showalter was in the Beatty Bears orchestra. I ordered four poinsettias.
Uncle Reed drummed his fingers on the table. He didn't look so happy. He didn't want to talk about poinsettias. His mind was someplace else. Maybe with his friends in Iraq. I tried a new topic.
"So your friend Schmidt is pretty brave, then? Four deployments in, right?"
He slapped his hand on the tabletop. "Brave as the first man who ate an oyster."
"Grandpa always says that," I said. "It's lame."
"Well, where do you think I heard it first? Plus, I mean, a slimy oyster. Think about it. That's some brave eating." He was smiling now.
"I bet some eighth grader probably dared him to do it," I said. That made Uncle Reed laugh like crazy.
"Middle school doesn't last forever, Wayne," he said. "You'll make it. You'll be a good soldier one day." He looked at me straight on then. I had to look away.
I couldn't see myself as a soldier. You had to be brave, have courage in your blood. Grandpa said that, too. All Daltons have courage in their blood!
Well, my name is Wayne Kovok. I am half Dalton, half Kovok. Maybe I had only half the courage. The way Grandpa looked at me sometimes made me wonder if he was thinking the same thing. Probably.
"Are you going to eat all your fries?" Uncle Reed asked. "Because I do miss fries. A lot."
"Take them." I pushed my basket of fries across the table.
"Thank you," he said. "In exchange for these delicious fries, I will give you a story. A true story, because I know my nephew likes those best."
It was true. I liked a good true story.
This is what he told me.
In 2010, a guy boarded a twenty-seat prop plane in the Congo with a crocodile hidden in a duffel bag.
The crocodile escaped. The passengers panicked. Nineteen of them rushed toward the cockpit, sending the plane off balance. The sudden weight imbalance caused the pilot to lose control. The plane cartwheeled in the air and then crashed into an empty house.
Nineteen passengers and the pilot died.
There were two survivors. One passenger and the crocodile.
"Wait, what? The crocodile survived?" I asked. This didn't seem like a true story.
"I'm not lying. It really happened. The crocodile survived. Probably because it didn't panic."
"A crocodile doesn't know enough to be panicked." I'd spoken as if this were a fact. I would look it up later to verify. My knowledge of panic and animals was limited.
"Exactly," Reed said. "Panic leads to disaster."
"You do realize you're getting on a plane tomorrow, right?" Sure, I liked a weird story, but even I wouldn't talk about a plane crash before boarding an actual plane. My fact-spewing weirdness has a few boundaries.
"I know, but it reminds me that I have no control over life. Life doesn't care if you're a soldier or a seventh grader or an aquatic reptile. Things happen. Are you going to finish your burger?"
Uncle Reed finished my burger. I think he must have missed burgers when he was far from home, too.
"I sure miss burgers when I'm away from home," he said.
I sat there thinking about the crocodile, the plane cartwheeling in the air, the crash. The whole story was so strange. What would it feel like to be in a plane, falling toward the ground? Would stuff be tossed around inside the fuselage? Would people scream? What did passengers think about right before impact?
I had so many questions. I mean, who wouldn't? Who wouldn't be curious about what it's like inside a doomed plane?
Now you can get the answers by looking them up. That's the easy way. I personally recommend that method. I do not recommend gathering the data by being an actual plane-crash survivor.
That's the hard way. That's the way I did it. I became like the plane-crash-surviving crocodile.
Well, after Uncle Reed went on his next deployment, I went on the biggest trip of my life. I went to sleep in my native land of BEFORE, where I'd lived all twelve and a half years of my life. And then I woke up with no left eyebrow, with stitches down my face, wearing only socks and a backless gown in a country called AFTER. And in this new country, I couldn't talk.
Do you know how awkward it is to be a plane-crash-surviving, fact-collecting seventh grader with no voice to use as a shield?
A lot had to happen before I went on the biggest trip of my life. A lot had to happen before that guy in the Congo had the not-so-bright idea to put a crocodile in his duffel bag and board the plane, right?
Because the number one fact of being a plane-crash survivor is this: You must be on a plane. You needed a reason to fly.
A seventh grader like me didn't have a whole lot of reasons to fly. My family lives in Texas. All of them. My mom is single and we aren't exactly rich. Our idea of taking a vacation was driving down to Galveston or hanging out at Six Flags for the day. That was it.
It was an October Friday in the land of BEFORE. One of those really great days where the air was beginning to cool and you just wanted to take big gulps of it. It would be the day I got my reason to fly.
I was late to the bus. I was late to the bus every day ending in the letter y. I'd eat my cereal at the kitchen table and try to load up on a few new facts so that I'd have something to say to Sandy Showalter. I couldn't risk having nothing to say to her. Better a fact than an awkward silence.
Everyone was pretty crazy on the bus that morning. I got Carl, the bus driver, to yell at me for being late.
"You gonna do this every day, Kovok?" he asked. His eyebrows rose.
"Carl, did you know everyone has a unique tongue print, just like fingerprints?" Carl was usually the beneficiary of my first fact of the day. I liked to try them out on him first.
"It's against company policy to call you weird, Kovok," he said. "Take your seat."
I wouldn't have minded if he called me weird. I considered it a compliment.
So I got to my seat, dodging a few flying erasers and one mystery object. I hoped I hadn't perspired too much during the run. I had precalculated the amount of Axe body spray I needed to use to make me smell acceptable by the time Sandy arrived. Two and a half sprays. That's the right amount. Anything more overpowers the bus. You learn this in sixth grade when a mean eighth-grade girl says, "You smell like you want to be alone."
By the time Sandy, the prettiest girl in seventh grade, boarded the bus, I was breathing steady. Smoothing my hair back. Putting on a brave face.
Did you know the prettiest girl in seventh grade went to the fall social with me, Wayne Kovok, three weeks earlier? Did you know that when I asked her if we were going together, she replied, "Sort of, I guess"?
That was a fact that had the power to distract even me! A fact I enjoyed repeating to myself often.
Sandy. Wayne. Sandy. Wayne. Sandy. Wayne. Sort of together for three weeks and four days.
Not that I was counting the days.
Sandy was a beautiful, blue-eyed, golden-haired true lover of poetry, if you want to know. Sandy was also a hero in my book. My first memory of her was when she handed me a stack of napkins in fifth grade after some jerk squirted ketchup all over my face.
You didn't forget a girl who helped you like that. A girl like that could plague you. In a good way.
That morning, she sat in the row of seats right in front of me.
"Sandy. Hey, Sandy. Sandy," I said.
"What?" Sandy said.
"Did you race to the bus again?" Sandy asked.
"He's going to get mad."
"Whaddya gonna do?" I said.
"Why do you have to run, Wayne?" she asked.
Why do I have to run?
Why? The plaguing question.
I told myself to be quiet. Not to expand on all the running facts I knew. Or thoughts about shoelaces. Sneakers. Foot powder. Or how fast cheetahs can run.
Don't say a chicken fact! Don't say a chicken fact! "Did you know that chickens can run up to nine miles an hour?" I tried to make it sound funny. The look on Sandy's face told me I'd failed in my attempt.
"But don't humans run that fast?" Sandy asked.
"The average human jogs at an average speed of seven miles per hour," I replied, which was true.
"Oh, cool," Sandy said.
She turned around and faced the front. I saw her reflection in the window. She smiled. I tried to remember to breathe.
A chicken fact? Really?
Why didn't I just give her a simple answer?
Well, the real answer to why I ran to the bus had nothing to do with outrunning chickens. The real reason was a secret known only to me, my sneakers, and the pavement we flew over.
My dad had been a medal-winning, trophy-receiving, scholarship-earning high school track star. He dreamed of his son being a medal-winning, trophy-receiving, scholarship-earning high school track star, too. And I wanted to be like him. I really did.
So I ran because he wanted me to.
You think you'll be a track star like me, boy?
Yeah, I hoped I'd be like him.
And then in a snap, I hated running. It was because of that time he did what he did. I was eight. He made me chase his car. You know how embarrassing that is? You couldn't change some facts, even if you wanted to. Those were the facts you tried to forget.
Oh, come on, Wayne, I was just messing with you, he'd said. Let's go get ice cream.
Do you know how miserable it is to eat ice cream when you feel stupid? Pretty miserable. Miserable enough to stay away from ice cream for a long time.
After that, I wanted to run away from him. Sometimes I looked in the mirror and saw a younger version of him: tall, skinny, dark-haired, and blue-eyed.
You couldn't run away from yourself.
So then I ran for myself sometimes. Mostly just to the bus. When I ran, I was free. And if he dared me to run again, I'd be ready.
Was this the kind of information you shared with the prettiest girl in seventh grade, who considered you her sort-of boyfriend? No way.
It was safer to go with a chicken fact.
We filed off the bus into the Beatty Middle School parking lot. I had Spanish on my mind then, not a plane ticket. I ran Spanish phrases across my brain in preparation for my last-period Spanish quiz.
|Dar un paseo||To take a walk|
|Ganar la carrera||To win the race|
Part of the quiz involved reading and translating sentences out loud. Sandy was also in my Spanish class. I risked being a dork in another language.
"Do you want to study at lunch?" Sandy asked me as we headed through the school doors.
"Sí," I said. "Eres muy bonita." I'd thought maybe if I complimented Sandy in another language, it wouldn't be weird.
"What?" she asked, smiling at me.
"Nothing." It was weird. My neck turned hot and red. Even though it was an actual fact that Sandy was very pretty. Maybe I've mentioned this a time or ten.
"Later, Wayne," she said.
At lunch, I scanned the cafeteria for Sandy. She was nowhere to be seen. I figured she'd ditched me. But then I found her at my lunch table, where I sit with the studiers and two girls I know, Mysti and Rama. I shot them a look.
They knew all about Sandy. They had coached me on what to say to her. But I needed their silence now. I put my lunch and books down. They giggled.
"Why did I even sign up for Spanish?" Sandy asked.
"Did you know that Spanish is second only to English as the most spoken language in the world? So you'll know two of the most popular languages."
Sandy smiled. "Bueno."
"See, you're a pro already."
"Okay, first question," Sandy said. She pulled out a neat stack of note cards. "Me permite ir al baño, por favor?"
"'May I go to the bathroom, please?'"
"Okay, your turn. Puedo tener otro taco?"
"'May I have another taco?'"
"Sí," I said. "Do you think Señora Wilson meant that phrase to come before or after the bathroom question?"
"Very funny, Wayne," Sandy said.
It was great. We laughed and practiced until the bell rang. It was getting easier to be around Sandy. Was it possible that I could feel chilled out around her more often? That I wouldn't have to sweat facts every time I saw her? I liked that idea a lot. By the time Spanish class rolled around, I saw myself traveling to Mexico, ordering tacos and asking permission to go to the bathroom.
Señora Wilson called out each student's name as she put a piece of paper on the overhead projector. She unveiled three phrases at a time. Uno, dos, tres.
"Señor Kovok." The teacher called my name.
I stood up and translated my three phrases.
And then it was Sandy's turn. We smiled at each other when it was over. I drew in my notebook and let my thoughts float. I sat back in my chair and thought of the weekend.
"Sí, Señora—?" I looked up.
The school counselor, Ms. Peet, stood in the doorway of my Spanish class. She was flanked by Mom and Grandpa.
You know how your stomach senses bad news before your ears hear it?
"Señora Wilson," the counselor said. "May we please see Mr. Kovok out in the hallway?"
My stomach rumbled.
I turned to look back at the class. Maybe everyone was staring at me. I only looked at Sandy. I caught her smile before I slipped out into the hallway.
"Wayne," Mom said. I could tell she was biting her lip and trying not to tear up. The sad face. Grandpa hugged me to his chest. My grandfather is a retired army drill sergeant. He is not a hugger.
Something was seriously wrong.
Grandpa pushed me away from his chest. He stared me down like I'd done something wrong. Like the hug had been my idea.
"What's wrong?" I asked. "Mom?" I thought of something I could say to change her face.
Did you know that your average tree consumes fifty to one hundred gallons of water per day?
Grandpa read my mind. "Exercise restraint, son."
Grandpa pushed his hands into his pockets. "Your uncle Reed has died in the line of duty."
Grandpa was steady as an oak.
Mom swayed and trembled like a new branch.
"Wait. What? What are you saying?"
"You have an agile mind, son," Grandpa said. "Don't make me repeat the words."
Sometimes bad news doesn't stick in my agile mind. I have to hear it twice. Plus, it was all wrong. Grandpa standing in my school hallway? It was out of context. Right behind him there was a giant bin of deodorants and soaps for the school hygiene drive, along with a poster that read AFRAID OF B.O.? DONATE SOME DEO!
I could have been dreaming.
"Maybe you'd like to come to my office?" Ms. Peet suggested. "Sign Wayne out for the day?"
I'd forgotten she was still standing there with us.
Grandpa said, "Wayne, why don't you be of use and gather your things on the double!"
I gathered my things on the double. It was something to do.
The bad news followed us home. I heard the sad story of how the casualty officers came to Grandpa's house.
"They read the news to me and then handed me the printed paper they'd read from," Grandpa said.
Casualty officers read the news and give you a copy of the sad news, too. They do this so that their message will be clear and they won't have to repeat it.
I'd looked it up later.
Grandpa held a coffee mug in one hand and told Mom and me this story while he looked up at a picture of his own father. RB Dalton, army captain. My great-grandfather's picture hung on the hallway wall.
Did you know my mother bought this house for a wall?
Yep, she did.
When I was eight and my dad wasn't looking, Mom and I moved to this house. It was a neighborhood that wanted to be a forest. At least that was how Mom sold it to me.
"Every street here is named for a tree," she said, a little too excited.
Our house on Cedar Drive was like every other house on the block. Small, brick, and brown. Eight windows and four tiny bedrooms. Chain-link fence. And bonus feature: a hulking white water tower that loomed over our backyard.
"Well, we always said we wanted a view of the water," Mom joked. "Now we've got it! Come inside and see the best part of this house!"
The house was small. You could pretty much stand in the living room and give someone a tour just by looking left to right. Hallway with bedrooms to your left. Kitchen and dining room to your right. Garage to the back.
To her, the best part of the house was the long white wall that ran the length of the hallway.
"Would you just look at this wall?" Mom said. "It's perfect!"
I was fine with the tree-named streets and the "water" view. But when Mom fell in love with a wall, I thought she was nuts.
"I don't get it," I said.
"You will, honey."
So Mom bought the plain brown house in the shadow of a water tower in the wannabe-forest neighborhood for the perfect wall.
Before we'd unpacked a single dish on Cedar Drive, Mom hung a collage of framed photographs on that bright, perfect white wall. The Wall of Honor, she called it. It had been her dream to have all our dead military ancestors gathered in one place. My dad had nixed that idea before. He said it was stupid to hang photos of old dead people on the wall. Mom got the sad face when he said that. Around that time, Mom began referring to my dad as the Flee. (She thought I didn't know. I knew.)
It's been four years now.
But the main thing to know about the house is that Mom still loves that wall. I guess it's grown on me, too. I sometimes lined up my face in the eight-by-ten-inch photo with the shiny glass that featured my great-grandfather. I didn't see any connection between us, even though Mom liked to say I looked a little like him.
I knew one thing for sure: Not a single one of the photos was or ever would be a Kovok like me.
Because you had to have four qualities to be featured on that wall.
Be brave. Be patriotic. Be dead. And carry the last name Dalton. Now Uncle Reed had all four.
My whole life, I never thought the photos on the wall would mean anything to me. They could have been strangers or people in history books. Do you want to know something? It makes a difference when you can look at a picture of someone and remember you'd once shared a cheeseburger and fries. A huge difference.
When our doomed plane made its rapid descent from the sky, I thought about the last conversation I'd had with Uncle Reed. I would have done it differently. Not talked about poinsettias. But I couldn't. You don't get a do-over. And thinking about it will make you feel stupid. Helpless. You have to force yourself to do something else.
So I adjusted the frames on the wall to make them straight. Straighter.
It was now early December in the land of BEFORE. Grandpa worked for weeks to get Uncle Reed a burial at Arlington National Cemetery. There was a waiting list for the honored dead. That might be one of the saddest facts I'd ever heard. So many soldiers needing burial that families had to wait.
While I waited I tried to be—what else?—useful. The opposite of helpless. We all did. We continued our tradition of spaghetti Tuesdays. Those were the days Grandpa came over and gave us a progress report.
"We're moving up on the list," he'd say.
And then we'd all sit around and try to act normal. I admit it was harder for Mom and Grandpa. They wore their grief like gray clothes. Everything reminded them of Reed. I had to choose my topics carefully.
"Did you know that if Cortés hadn't transported tomatoes from Mexico into Europe, we might never have had spaghetti sauce?" I asked.
"No, I didn't know that, Wayne," Mom said.
"Good spaghetti tonight," Grandpa said.
"Your turn to wash dishes," Mom said to me.
"When is the dishwasher getting fixed?" I complained. It had been broken for three months.
"You'll be the first to know," Mom said with a wink. "Now hop to it."
I washed dishes.
"And hey, make yourself useful and get me a cup of coffee," Grandpa said.
I got him coffee.
"Wayne, there's a video on the computer back there in the office," Grandpa said. "I want you to watch it."
"Why must you always ask why?" Grandpa said, irritated. "Just go look at it and you'll understand why."
I watched the video. A video featuring a soldier's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. The funeral itself made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And I didn't even know the deceased soldier. I watched it again. The way the American flag was draped over the casket, then folded to perfection. Folded thirteen times and tucked in before it took the appearance of a cocked hat. That shape is meant to remind us of the soldiers who served under General George Washington.
I'd looked it up.
The next week, I was still thinking about that video. Still considering ways I could be useful to my family. It struck me like a flash. Something for the Wall of Honor. Something for Uncle Reed. And Mom and Grandpa. My contribution. I watched the video of the service at Arlington National Cemetery again. The flag. Something for Uncle Reed's honor flag. So I found out where I could buy a display shelf that would hold an official honor burial flag with the dimensions five feet by nine and a half feet.
Yeah, I'd looked that up, too.
I found it. A triangular display shelf made of cherry wood. We'd all stare at the Wall of Honor together with Uncle Reed's picture and honor flag. It was one small thing. The last thing I could do for Uncle Reed. I didn't know if it would make Mom feel less sad. But it was better than doing nothing.
There was a small waiting list for the flag case, too. I ordered it anyway. In fact, right at the second I clicked on Confirm Your Order, Grandpa hollered at me.
"Wayne, can you come to the kitchen?"
Mom was standing by the stove, rubbing her chin.
"The date is set. Next weekend," Grandpa said. He put both hands palm-down on the table.
Mom went back to washing a dish she'd already washed.
Praise for Mayday:
* "A fine character-driven tale that slowly grows to a crescendo of satisfaction."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
- * "Wayne is an appealing protagonist with a strong voice who develops believably over the difficult months, as do the other characters. A well-done book on all levels."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"The main characters are well depicted and highly appealing.... Thought provoking and touching, Mayday applies to anyone who has ever felt like an outcast and wishes to become someone with a sense of pride."
"Wayne's is an authentic, funny, and sometimes sarcastic teen voice, which comes through clearly, even when he can't speak out loud.... in this sweet tale of survival, heroism, and the search for strength."
—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- May 24, 2016
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers