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Homo neanderthalensis, more commonly referred to as the caveman, has been extinct for forty thousand years. There are several theories explaining the hows and whys. They evolved into Homo sapiens. They were killed by Homo sapiens. They were abducted by aliens, experimented on, and transformed into Homo sapiens. They all clubbed each other to death. Regardless of the hypotheses, one caveman has miraculously managed to survive. His name is Eddie Figley, and he is currently grinding his heel into TJ Beaumont’s temple.
I wish he were extinct, thought TJ. I’d go back in time right now and tie mastodon steaks around his great-great-great cave-grandfather’s neck and set a sabre-tooth tiger loose on him if it meant Eddie Figley would have never existed.
Eddie’s lip twitched with a smile, making his wispy starter mustache dance.
His mustache! Yeesh! He’s thirteen! Maybe he really is a caveman.
“What’s in the box, dweeber?”
One of Eddie’s goons, Carson, tapped the large cardboard box with his toe.
TJ groaned, his pounding headache building thanks to the stench of Eddie’s ancient sneaker. He swore he could feel Eddie’s festering toe squiggling around inside, poking at his face. “Kinda hard to hear you over the sound of my skull breaking, but did you just say you’re a Belieber?”
Eddie stepped off, but the sudden relief on TJ’s brain was short lived. Eddie yanked him up by the collar and shoved him hard against a tree, knocking the breath from TJ’s lungs.
TJ mocked between gasps. “It’s okay, Eddie. I belieb too.”
Eddie cocked back his arm, half a second away from driving his fist into TJ’s stomach with all his mustache-powered strength, when someone yelled, “Drop the nerd!”
Eddie and his goon squad turned on their heels.
Samantha Redfield, TJ’s best friend and frequent knight (er, knightess) in shining armor, zeroed her best death stare in on Eddie.
I wonder if cavemen are immune to death stares, TJ thought, as his shirt slipped from Eddie’s grip. A bead of sweat formed on Eddie’s slightly hairy lip. Probably not, TJ chuckled to himself. Maybe that’s why they’re extinct.
“This ain’t none of your business,” Eddie grunted, sounding very caveman-like.
Sam pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a long, pained sigh. “Not only are you pummeling my best friend, but you’re also pummeling the English language? This is even worse than I thought.”
Eddie stepped toward Sam, his shadow falling over her. She didn’t so much as flinch. Sam never flinches. “Lucky for you, I don’t hit girls.”
“No, lucky for you. Because unlike other girls, I hit back.” Sam slid her foot back, preparing to kick, taking aim at a particularly vulnerable area between Eddie’s legs.
Eddie sneered at TJ. “You gonna let a girl fight your battles, butt-munch?”
TJ lifted his chin proudly. “I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity. Besides, have you ever seen her punt a football?” He shook his head. “Yowza.”
Sam dug her feet into the ground and flexed the muscles in her legs. Her mouth curled into a snarl. “Eddie, last chance. If you don’t leave TJ alone, you’re going to become very uncomfortable in your masculinity.”
Eddie winced, obviously not relishing the thought, but quickly puffed out his chest and brushed it off. “You’re not gonna do nothin’. Waste of my time.” He nodded at Carson and goon number two, Lyle, and they all walked off, grunting to each other in a language only their underdeveloped caveman brains could understand.
Sam shook her head and sighed that same pained sigh again. “Double negatives.” She picked up the box at TJ’s feet and handed it to him.
TJ accepted the box in silence.
Sam raised her eyebrow, waiting on an acknowledgment of her rescue efforts. When none came… “I think the words your big brain is searching for are thank you.”
“You called me a nerd,” TJ said instead, his face scrunched.
“Yes, I did. I also stopped Eddie from kicking your butt. Again.” She eyed the box. “What’s that, dweeber?” she asked with a grin.
TJ jiggled the box like a Christmas present, listening to the metal inside clink and clank. The Technology teacher, Mrs. Lewis, had given it to him after last period. She always set aside spare or broken parts and gave them to TJ whenever the box was full. She knew how TJ loved to tinker. “Just some junk,” he said with a shrug. His bubbling enthusiasm for his new junk box was almost enough to make him forget his plight. Almost. “You called me a nerd.”
Sam snorted and sucked in a laugh. “We went over this already.”
“Yeah, you saved my butt, I get it. But sometimes words can hurt just as much as hands or feet you know.” A moment later he added, “Or more.”
Sam rolled her eyes and punched TJ in the arm.
“Ouch,” TJ yelped, rubbing his puny biceps. “Okay, maybe not in your case.”
The two laughed most of the way home, the threat of present-day Neanderthals fading into the distant past. TJ and Sam had known each other since they were five and had been friends since they were six, though there had been an incident on the story time rug in Kindergarten that had taken them a while to move past. Names were called, glue sticks were thrown, Transformers were ruthlessly broken. Optimus Prime never saw it coming. They didn’t like to talk about it. But now, at ten years of age, they were practically inseparable. Siamese Twins couldn’t have been closer—except for the shared skin and organs and all that.
Sam didn’t miss a skip as she turned down her sidewalk and called to TJ over her shoulder. “See you at the hike tomorrow.” Her dog, Hank, ran around the family’s yard, chasing the ball being tossed by her father and brothers. Sam timed her leap perfectly, snatched the ball out of the air, then screeched with joy as Hank chased her.
TJ stood at the edge of the yard and watched, like a child staring through a store window during the holidays longing for all the wonderful things on the other side of the glass. Mr. Redfield spotted him and waved him over. TJ waved back and shook his head, no.
“Sorry, Mr. Redfield,” he said politely. “I gotta get home, otherwise my mom will think I’ve been abducted by aliens.”
Mr. Redfield laughed and held up his hand, fingers spread, making the sign of Spock. “Live long and prosper.”
It was TJ’s turn to laugh as he headed off. After a few strides he turned and looked back at the big, happy Redfield family playing together. His smile quickly disappeared.
TJ cut through the woods and side yards of the small town of Greenmarsh, Florida, heading for home. Everyone in Greenmarsh knew their neighbors—and everyone else for that matter. Here, you couldn’t go to the grocery store without seeing someone who was on your T-ball team or in your Cub Scout troop, or bumping into that weird kid who ate cotton balls in the back of your Kindergarten class. It’s that kind of small. But it also borders Everglades National Park. Swamps that you could easily get lost in forever, teeming with mosquitoes that could carry off a poodle—one of those big ones—and alligators that could swallow a cow whole. It’s that kind of huge. But of course, all that excitement stopped at the border of the park. Nothing really exciting ever happened in Greenmarsh.
TJ arrived home within minutes. Unlike the Redfield yard, his yard had no father and brothers throwing balls, and no dog to chase them. All it had was some un-mowed grass and weeds. Mostly weeds.
“Mom, I’m home,” TJ called.
No answer. TJ expected as much. His mom worked a couple jobs to make ends meet, so she’d never really know if he were to actually get abducted by aliens for real. He found her handwritten note in the typical spot on the kitchen counter.
I picked up an extra shift at work. Be home late. Leftovers in the fridge for dinner. I’ll bring home some of Lulu’s famous cherry pie. If you manage to stay out of trouble, I might even let you eat some of it.
TJ made himself a dill pickle peanut butter and ham sandwich with almost enough mustard to paint a car yellow—the only way he’d take it—and then ran upstairs to his room. He flipped a switch (otherwise known as a plastic army man) and his homemade lock—a series of pulleys and counterweights created from all sorts of odds and ends such as a bowling pin, a yo-yo, a bag of marbles, a bicycle pedal, a fishing reel, and a few things he didn’t know the names of—swung into action, securing his bedroom against aliens, zombies, swamp mutants, yetis, and any other home invader you could think of.
He dumped the contents of his new junk box onto his bed and began sorting through his new treasures. He took a piece of lettuce from his sandwich, licked off the mustard, and dropped it into the terrarium on his desk. “Dinner is served, Spike.” The yellow and black box turtle slogged over to the lettuce and began munching away.
TJ sorted the junk into piles. It didn’t take him long. Hinges. Pulleys. Bolts and screws. Same stuff as usual. He let out a sigh.
He went to the window and looked out at his empty, lonely yard. “Another Friday night of just you and me, Spike.”
A long shadow suddenly fell across the yard. TJ looked up at the sky with the faint expectation of seeing something amazing…only it was just a bunch of fat, black clouds rolling in.
Maybe getting abducted by aliens wouldn’t be so bad.
Something exciting for a change.
Middle grade novel
By Cody B. Stewart, Mark Rogers, and Adam Rocke
e-book C $8.99