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The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 3, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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When Lenny Volpe, former quarterback of the worst professional football team in the nation, leaves his family and disappears, the Chicago Horribles win their first game in a long time. Fans are thrilled. The world seems to go back to normal. Except for the Volpe kids.
Winston throws himself into playing the tuba, and Louise starts secret experiments to find a cure for brain injuries, and they're each fine, just fine, coping in their own way. That is, until the investigation of some eccentric teacher behavior and the discovery of a real live bear paraded as the Horribles' new mascot make it clear that things are very much Not Fine. The siblings may just need each other, after all.
WINSTON AND LOUISE stood together at the fifty-yard line.
The center of the entire galaxy.
It was a weird place to put the center of the galaxy, to be honest. The ground was squishy, the air smelled like armpit, and the crowd roared.
Also, the cheerleaders were on fire.
Winston saw the flames shooting up from the squad, and his only thought was that he needed to protect his little sister, so without giving it another thought, he up and tackled Louise. It was the first thing that had occurred to him, and if he’d waited just long enough for a second thing to occur to him, he probably would have realized it was a bad idea. Pretty much immediately, he knew it was not going over well.
“Winston!” Louise yelled as she hit the ground. A herd of halftime crew stampeded past, and she pushed her brother over onto the spongy turf and stood, shoving her bangs out of her eyes. “Come on, Win.”
Winston glanced back toward the cheerleaders, prepared to try to protect Louise again, but he noticed that they were still cheering. That was unexpected, coming from a bunch of people who were supposedly on fire, but then they spun around and he saw that they were not on fire. Not at all. They were wearing upside-down jet packs or something. It was a stunt.
He stood quickly, taking his place next to Louise. “I thought they were on fire,” he said, trying to explain. “I didn’t want you to see—”
“You have to stop doing that,” Louise said, brushing off her funeral clothes.
Just a few hours ago, she’d yelled at their mom from behind her bedroom door, hollered, It’s not a funeral, before eventually giving up and slouching out in black pants and a gray sweater. Winston decided now was not the time to point out that at least funeral clothes didn’t show grass stains. “I’m only trying to help,” he mumbled.
“I know,” Louise said, rolling her eyes. “But you are not helping. You’re ruining all my pants.”
Winston nodded reluctantly. They both needed tonight to go well.
Here at the center of the galaxy.
Their dad had called it that.
And not just because of the hot dogs, he used to say, winking.
If it had been up to Winston, the center of the galaxy would be more like Stonehenge but bigger, a whole planet full of mysterious and ancient cold rocks that nobody understood. Or else somewhere that burned nonstop, like a sun.
Not here, on Earth, where the stadium lights blazed in his eyes, people kept bumping into him, and the Chicago Horribles were losing by fifty-nine points already even though it was only halftime.
But his dad had called this the center of the galaxy, and so here they were.
The booming chaos of the stadium swirled around them, and Winston hoped no one noticed his freak out. People were everywhere, shouting into walkie-talkies and moving things and waving to other people across the field.
A few feet over, Winston and Louise’s mom was deep in conversation with the police detective, while a man with a headset adjusted a podium in front of them. Since they’d first arrived, escorted through the tunnels and then out under the enormous CHICAGO URSUS ARCTOS HORRIBLES archway, no one paid much attention to them, the two kids of the missing quarterback. Former quarterback. It was obvious that nobody knew what to say to them, that they made people uncomfortable. So they kept to themselves and watched it all happening around them: golf carts zooming, the now-extinguished cheerleaders pouncing and tossing each other in the air, and at one end zone, the stage going up for a band that would play when they were done.
A mic check boomed from somewhere, and the siblings inched closer to each other. Winston was a year older and only barely taller—from the stands they probably looked like the same person, copied and pasted side by side. They both had dark curly hair that they kept short and square chins that they kept set. They had pale skin and freckles that kept them out of the sun. They had their dad’s broad, made-for-football shoulders.
Winston and Louise looked like they were built to stop things.
Except, of course, they hadn’t been able to stop anything. That was what had brought them to the stadium tonight. The complete and total inability to stop their dad from disappearing.
It had been three weeks.
Twenty-one days since he’d just walked away.
And in a minute, they were going to ask for help from everybody watching—the fans in the stadium and the fans on their sofas at home. The incomplete Volpe family would send up a flare, and their dad would find his way back home, either on his own, or because some nice stranger would see him and recognize him and know he should be returned to his family, even if he didn’t remember that himself. It was going to work. It had to work.
So. There Winston stood, at the galactic bull’s-eye of hopefulness. That alone was bound to make a person jumpy, especially around flaming cheerleaders.
He closed his eyes, shutting out the stadium full of people.
When his dad had been quarterback of the Chicago Horribles, he’d stood right here. Right here on this exact same squishy ground. He had felt the pressure of a whole stadium of people looking down on him. He’d told Winston once that when the pressure was too distracting and he needed to be calm inside, he would close his eyes out there and imagine someone gently pouring water on his head. At the time, Winston hadn’t understood how that would work exactly, but he tried it now, and he had the very distinct sensation that he’d been on fire and just didn’t realize it until right this second. Gradually, he felt his insides calm down.
His dad had been right about the water trick.
“Did it help you win games?” Winston had asked him.
And his dad had laughed, a great round laugh. He’d pulled Winston into a hug, the safe, forever kind. “Oh, sweetheart.” His dad chuckled. “I never won. But I had a lot more fun losing.”
Winston wished he could remember seeing his dad play.
A loud groan made him open his eyes. He and Louise turned around at the same time. There was a bear on the ground behind them.
Then Winston’s brain kicked in, and it wasn’t a bear, of course, it was a football player—one of the current Chicago Horribles. They’d gotten new uniforms, with fake bear heads that pulled up and over the helmets.
“Get a cart,” the guy moaned, clutching his shin.
Winston glanced around, realizing that the golf carts weren’t just zipping around the field for fun, they were collecting players too banged up to limp into the tunnels by themselves.
He waved his arms, and it took a few minutes, but eventually one of the carts headed his way. As he turned back, Winston saw that Louise was kneeling beside the guy, with a hand on his forehead.
She was saying something to him.
Winston wanted to join them, but whatever was happening seemed private, so he stayed where he was, awkwardly pointing as if the people driving the cart didn’t know where they were going. When they pulled up, Louise got back to her feet, a strange look on her face. She didn’t tell Winston what she’d talked about with the man, and he didn’t ask.
Just then, a hush fell over the crowd and the JumboTrons lit up with the Volpes’ faces. It was a shock to see the giant, looming version of himself a hundred feet in the air.
“You two ready?” their mom asked.
A wave of nerves crashed over Winston, but he nodded. It was time. He noticed that Louise was still fixed on the cart with that injured player, watching as it disappeared into the shadows of the tunnel.
He nudged her, and she nudged him back, just as a few more people stepped up on the other side of the detective. Behind their little group, a semicircle formed—all the former players they could bring together at such short notice, guys who’d played when Lenny Volpe was quarterback.
Winston tried to see traces of his father in the men, but then, too quickly, he had to turn around and face the cameras.
It was on.
The press conference started with the detective. It was a good choice, whoever decided that, and the crowd fell silent as she painted the picture of a hero lost in time and space, done in by his own broken mind. Her voice boomed into the stands as she asked for information related to the disappearance of Lenny Volpe.
Next up was their mom, telling the story of the day he left. That he kissed them all goodbye and walked out. It was a made-up story, but only Winston and Louise knew that, and it was the sort of story people wanted to hear. Plus, it had already been on TV, in the paper. What made today different was the next speaker. He was the key. He was the one the public would listen to. He was the one Winston’s dad might listen to, if that was possible anymore. He had the specific kind of power that comes with owning an entire football team, even if it is the worst football team in the whole country.
He stepped up to the podium.
The owner of the Chicago Horribles leaned into the microphone.
And then he opened his mouth and made a joke. A joke about how Lenny Volpe must’ve dropped a few marbles to have forgotten how great he had it, and he waved toward Winston and Louise and their mom, but Winston didn’t want to be part of that joke, and all the hope he’d had poured out of him as Louise leapt, like a coiled-up long jumper, straight toward the man, and more specifically, toward his nose, which she headbutted with impressive force.
The man’s nose started bleeding immediately.
The crowd roared their approval.
Winston was so surprised his mouth dropped open, and he watched as the man swore and tried to stop his bloody nose with somebody else’s tie. Around him, the old players muttered under their breath about Louise and that leap, that real stunner of a jump considering how she was a kid.
“Lenny Volpe’s kid, all right…”
“Five bucks says she could sky you…”
“Not taking any chances, thanks…”
The man’s nose spurted even more vigorously, and he yelled about it being broken. The crowd cheered impossibly louder, and Winston felt the sound surge against him like a wave. He might be crushed by all those eyes on him, all that noise. His chest felt tight. It was hard to breathe. This was wrong. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. He was aware of everything all at once, how every person on the field closed in on them by a few feet, of his own embarrassing face, high up and giant on the JumboTron. Next to him, their mom was leaning over Louise, half scolding her, half making sure she was okay.
Louise caught Winston’s eye and gave him a crooked smile.
She’d been right. She didn’t need him to save her. She could do just fine on her own, and he didn’t understand why, but it made him even sadder.
The press conference ended pretty quickly after that.
Incredibly, the Chicago Horribles dominated in the second half. They won by a single point.
A couple of weeks later, Winston was assigned the tuba in band and learned to play Darth Vader’s theme song.
Louise turned her attention to science.
And Lenny Volpe stayed missing.
Two Years Later
WINSTON SAT IN the cafeteria of Subito School, ignoring his bologna sandwich and humming Darth Vader’s theme song.
Yesterday, he’d gotten inspired and composed some words to go along with the melody of “The Imperial March,” so now he was running through it in his head:
HEY, IT’S ME
I’M YOUR DAD
I’M YOUR DAD
HEY, IT’S ME
I’M YOUR DAD
I’M YOUR DAD
To be very clear, though, his love for the song had nothing to do with his own dad or the disappearance or the memory of ever watching Star Wars with his dad or literally anything at all like that. It was because Winston was a tuba player. And “The Imperial March” was like breathing to a tuba player.
That was all it was.
HEY, IT’S ME
I’M YOUR DAD
I’M YOUR DAD
He was still humming to himself when, across the cafeteria, Frenchie LeGume stepped through the door to the hot lunch line and out of sight, and for a second, Winston had the distinct feeling that a black hole had just swallowed a star. Bloop. He blinked after her and then shook it off, feeling his cheeks go hot. It wasn’t like him to be so dramatic about… well… the hot lunch line.
It was like Winston to be dramatic about everything. Everything except Louise, because she didn’t like it and told him so.
But it wasn’t like he tried. Without meaning to, he could imagine the worst thing. Even the most ridiculous worst thing, like the time a bee flew past him on the walk to school, and he thought, What if I swallowed that bee? and then he spent the rest of the day not talking because of the imaginary bee-swallowing incident.
He’d been dramatic about the house. When they had to put the house up for sale, he’d spent entire weekends going from room to room, closing his eyes, and quizzing himself on what it looked like, just to make sure he wouldn’t forget. And when the doorbell rang one afternoon, and he answered to find a nice-looking man rubbing his hands together in the cold, a man who politely inquired after the For Sale by Owner sign taped to the window, Winston yelled, “IT’S MY HOUSE, YOU CAN’T HAVE IT!” and slammed the door in his face.
He felt bad about it later, when the house didn’t sell, and still didn’t sell, and he watched his mom get a wrinkle in the middle of her forehead that never went away anymore. It was probably hard enough being a real estate agent who couldn’t even sell your own house—it was definitely harder when your own kid was sabotaging you.
Winston liked using dramatic words like sabotage.
But he was probably most dramatic about the tuba. From the very first day, he’d felt like the tuba was a long-lost piece of himself that he’d finally found. In fact, he was so dramatic about the tuba that one time in band class while Mr. Manning had been working with the saxophones, Winston’s mind drifted and he thought to himself, This tuba has kept me alive for the last two years, and then almost burst into tears with the truth of it, and if the saxophones had not, at that moment, played a really horrible note all in unison, he might well have. Because really, if it weren’t for the tuba, he might have died of loneliness. Louise had disappeared into after-school activities. His mom had disappeared into being a real estate agent. His dad, of course, had just straight-up disappeared.
So he’d filled the empty house with the sound of the tuba. He’d lug the school loaner home most days of the week, sit in the kitchen, and practice. One of those days, he’d gotten up for some water and then turned at the sink to see his tuba right where he’d left it, sitting in the chair, waiting for him. The light from the window fell across the brass, and it shone there in the middle of the kitchen, alone, and golden, and perfect, and Winston felt his heart expand to the precise size of a tuba.
Somehow, the tuba understood what it meant to be alone.
So he named the tuba the Lonesome (it felt exactly dramatic enough), and that very afternoon he’d accidentally played the first few notes of “The Imperial March.” Then he’d picked out the next few notes, playing and playing and playing, filling the house with the velvety sounds of Vader’s empire until Louise had appeared in the doorway, hours before she was usually home.
She wandered in, leaning against the wall by the oven, absently picking at a singed bit of paint from long ago, and listened to him play.
“You sound like whale farts,” she said when he stopped.
“At least I don’t smell like whale farts,” he said brightly. Then, quickly, so she didn’t misunderstand, he said, “I mean, not that you do. As far as we know. Who even knows what whale farts smell like?”
“Fish, I guess.”
He considered that. “Fish know? Or the farts smell like fish?”
“Where’s Mom?” she asked, and for the billionth time, he wondered why she always felt like the older one.
He pointed toward the middle of the fridge, where the note their mom left had partially slid down. All their magnets were dying. “Scheduling showings for some other agent. Why’re you home so early?”
She opened the fridge door and grabbed some bologna. “Dr. O had a dentist appointment. She sent me home.”
“You’re the only one in Science Club now?”
“No,” she said, exasperated. “But the rest of them didn’t care enough to try to get her to move the appointment. They aren’t actual scientists. They just like setting hair spray on fire.”
“That sounds… kind of fun.”
“Science Club isn’t supposed to be fun,” she said, and without another word, she left, slamming into her room, and he hugged the Lonesome closer, wondering what he’d said wrong. He probably shouldn’t have said anything. Or maybe just stuck to whale farts.
If a whale farted in the ocean and nobody was around to hear it, did it make a noise?
Well, the whale heard it, at least.
He started playing again, quietly, so it wouldn’t bother Louise in her room. Sometimes, playing quietly was just as dramatic as playing loudly. When no one was home, though, which was nearly every day after school until the evening, he played his whole heart out. On the worst days, when the house seemed emptiest, the sound was inarguable proof he was, at the very least, still alive.
If he’d been a whale, this was him, hearing his own farts.
That was what the tuba had given him.
That and Frenchie.
And Frenchie was… also a big part of currently being alive.
Now, in the cafeteria, he watched as she threaded her way over to where he sat. Her high ponytail switched as she dodged someone with a teetering tray of milks. Someone, probably a new kid, stared a little too long as she passed. When Winston had first met her, he thought she’d had birthmarks scattered across her face and arms—later she told him, just once, with the matter-of-factness she might have told him her class schedule, that it was a whole thing, that her skin lost pigment in the sun, here and there, without any pattern or reason. Permanently.
It was one of two things they didn’t talk about. The disappearance was the other.
She slid into the seat next to him, her tray fitting neatly beside his, so that the two of them looked out at the cafeteria in front of them. It was the way they always sat, Frenchie on the left, Winston on the right, a habit they picked up from band, where she was first chair tuba and he was second chair tuba.
Frenchie was the only person who knew he’d named his tuba the Lonesome. He’d told her at this exact table.
She’d dropped a carrot at the news, and it rolled all the way under the table. “You named your tuba?”
“Why not?” he’d said. “People name spaceships all the time. Is a tuba that different?”
“From a spaceship? Yes. But also…” She’d been trying to rescue the carrot with her foot, but now she gave up and turned to him. “But also, you’re right. Tubas deserve names.”
It took her a couple days to come up with a name that felt right, but she nailed it.
“In honor of how it sings,” she announced with a grin, “I’m calling it the Canary.”
Later, for her birthday, he’d gotten the librarian to let him use the laminating machine, and made her a luggage tag with a yellow bird on it. She put it on her case immediately, beaming. “I don’t think it’s really a canary,” he’d said apologetically. “I think it might be a parakeet or something.”
“It’s perfect. And hilarious.”
Winston thought she was hilarious.
Also talented and smart and very pretty, and now he was having dramatic thoughts about her and, frankly, it was very confusing.
Thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice. Instead, she cleared her throat and then said, “I’m going to tell you something, and I need you to act natural.”
She hadn’t even finished the sentence, and he was already sitting on the edge of his seat. “I’ve never acted more natural.”
Frenchie nodded. “Great. Maybe also don’t move your mouth when you talk.”
“Like this?” he said, talking through his teeth and not moving his lips at all. It was harder than it looked.
“Perfect,” she said, doing the same thing. “Now. What do you know about the criminal element?”
He spoke slowly. “Do you mean, do I know any criminals?” Then he pretended to take a bite out of his bologna sandwich, just for an excuse to move his mouth again.
“Sure,” she said.
“Not personally,” he said, talking as he fake-chewed. “But I’ve watched a lot of movies. What sort of criminal are you looking for?”
“I’m not looking for a criminal. I think I’ve found one. Actually, a bunch of them.” She quickly scanned the cafeteria. “There’s a criminal ring here at Subito.”
“A criminal ring?” Winston asked, so surprised that he accidentally didn’t disguise the question in any way.
“It’s the teachers.”
His jaw dropped.
“Look at them.” She was very good at talking without moving her mouth. Winston wondered if she practiced it. “They’ve started wearing all black. Every one of them. That’s weird, right? But okay, you say, maybe it’s just a widespread fashion coincidence. Except also, they’re having secret meetings after school. Almost every day. In the gym. The first time I noticed was by accident, and then I went back four times last week, pretending to wait for someone down the hall, and they go in, two or three at a time, but not casually, not innocently. They look behind them before the door shuts. To make sure they aren’t being watched. They all do it.” She paused.
“That is suspicious.”
“I don’t actually have any other evidence. Yet. So, what do you think?”
Winston took another fake bite of his sandwich while he thought. As he chewed, Frenchie nodded toward the center of the cafeteria. The two of them watched as Mr. DuBard, dressed all in black, slowly walked across the cafeteria, talking to himself. Directly in front of him, the kid who’d had the massive tray of milk cartons smashed one on his forehead, the milk spurting all over, and everyone around him squealing. DuBard walked right past, not even looking down, then spun in a complete circle, threw his hands up, and kept walking.
“He’s brainwashed,” Frenchie said. “That’s a thing in organized crime.”
“You know I want to believe you,” Winston began, “but… I’ve never seen the teachers be organized.”
Frenchie was silent for a minute. “Fair. Just promise me that you’ll pay attention.”
Over the next two periods, Winston watched carefully for signs that the teachers looked like criminals or that they were organized in any way. He watched as Mr. Colvin dropped a stapler and the staples fell out, scattering across the floor. He watched as Ms. Jardine cuddled the class hamster. He watched between classes, as teachers stood in their doorways and chatted happily with students.
And soon it was the last period of the day. Band.
Frenchie got there before him, so this time, he slid into place next to her, depositing the Lonesome carefully next to the Canary.
The band-and-orchestra room was too small for the number of kids crowded into it. The air clanged with the sound of metal music stands. There was a mural on one wall of the room, a giant piece of music, but instead of normal music notes, the round part at the bottom of each note was actually the head of a famous musician. Every note was a different musician, and each one had been painted by a different student from art class.
In the center, there was one extra-large music note, five feet high, made up of the smiling head of Yo-Yo Ma. Just above him was the definitely made-up quote:
When music called, I said, “CELLO!”
Winston loved the mural. He, too, felt that when music called, he had said, “Cello!”
Or more accurately, “Tuba!” but, well, that didn’t make any sense.
* "This tender, wacky, and often humorous story will be enjoyed by all middle grade readers. Librarians looking for books on unique and timely health topics in fiction should consider this title."—School Library Journal, starred review
- "Hand this to the kid that wants something smart and funny with a side order of turmoil for spice."—Betsy Bird
"[T]he Volpe siblings are relatable as they shut each other out; their journey toward reconnecting is well worth the ride. Heider skillfully interweaves seemingly disparate threads into this character-centered, heartfelt story, culminating in a satisfying conclusion."—Publishers Weeklly
* "Readers will be hard put to judge whether which is more entertaining—the plot or the cast—but between the two there’s never a dull moment. A buoyant ending leaves Winston, Louise, and the bear (who even gets a POV turn in one chapter) in better places."—Booklist
"This is a story about teamwork in every sense of the word. It touches on how important it is to work together, support each other, and to ask for help when needed."—School Library Connection
"Offbeat and poignant, this is a healing balm for living in an imperfect galaxy."—Kirkus
Praise for The Mortification of Fovea Munson:
An Indies Introduce middle grade debut pick
A Kids' Indie Next List pick
"Equal parts screwball comedy, coming-of-age story, and tearjerker-I loved, loved, loved it!"—Varian Johnson, author of The Parker Inheritance
- "Hilarious and disgusting in equal measure. In other words, exactly what you've been waiting for."—Adam Gidwitz, Newbery Honor-winning author of The Inquisitor's Tale
- "I absolutely adore this book! The Mortification of Fovea Munson is not only hilariously zany, and clever, it's also full of heart. Mary Winn Heider is a brilliant new voice in kid's books."—Newbery Award winner, Matt de la Peña
- "Fovea is a normal girl existing in a suddenly off-kilter world, and her struggle to help her family and newfound friends is relatable and satisfying."—Publishers Weekly
- "Sure to tickle the most fickle funny bone."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- May 3, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers