When my broadcasting partner, Screwdriver Dan, drops his jaw, I think he has a dental problem. When the station manager texts me to stop by her office after our show, the thought of a raise flashes through my mind. The first inkling I get that something’s wrong is when our call screener informs us the switchboard is lighting up, and no one wants to talk about home repairs.
The station manager holds up a laminated sheet. “What are these, Mr. Wrench?” Emily always uses my on-air name.
I lean forward and squint: “The station’s Values.”
“Right. And what’s at the top of the list?”
I squint harder to the point of turning my face inside-out.
“You’ve not memorized our Values?”
I close my eyes and scratch my head. Sometimes that teases forgotten things to the surface. This isn’t one of those times.
Emily, without looking, recites the station’s number one value.
“I knew that,” I say.
“Well, I support it. What did I do that was wrong?”
Emily flips a switch and a recording from the morning’s program floods her office like a bright light shining into a suspect’s face. The recording is me describing to our radio audience how I’d messed up installation of hand-made storage cabinets in our basement. I cut the boards to the wrong length. “That’s more than a rookie mistake,” I say. “It’s something a Neanderthal would do.”
Sometimes as soon as you say something, you wish you could reach out, grab it before it flaps into the world and shove it back into your mouth. Like that cartoon cat and bird. I didn’t feel that way about my Neanderthal comment.
Emily looks at me. “Well?”
“You implied — very strongly — that Neanderthals are stupid. That’s inconsistent with our Values.”
“But cave people are … were … dumb compared to humans, right? They weren’t even human, were they? I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I —”
My boss holds up her hand. “You’re digging yourself deeper, Mr. Wrench. I suggest you quit talking.” She suspends me pending a thorough investigation.
As I’m leaving the station, I approach Screwdriver Dan in the hallway. “You won’t believe what just happened.”
Dan raises his hands as if I’ve pulled a gun on him and hurries past.
“Allen, what were you thinking?” my wife, Gloria-Louise says.
“You heard already?”
My wife turns on the TV. “A local radio celebrity known as Allen Wrench has been suspended for a vicious on-air verbal tirade against Neanderthals. Mr. Wrench—” My wife mutes the sound.
“I don’t think I said anything wrong.”
“Tell that to my three patients who cancelled appointments.”
“Probably dentophobes.” As I speak, Screwdriver Dan appears on TV, shaking his head. Some gratitude. Before I took him on as a partner, he didn’t know the difference between Phillips and Torx.
“And Bobby,” Gloria-Louise says — the mention of my son’s name twists my attention back to her — “has been sent home. He apparently got low marks on a test and said he ‘Neanderthalled’ it. Wonder who he got that from? He can’t go back to school till he apologizes. I think you should go upstairs and have a talk with him. I’m going call to my renegade patients.”
I go to my son’s room. He’s looking at his phone. “Dad, people are saying bad things about us. I don’t think we said anything wrong.”
I start to agree till I realize I’d be tossing another shovelful of dirt out of the hole I’m standing in. And now Bobby’s in the hole with me.
I kiss my son on the forehead and tell him that what I said was wrong, and I intend to apologize on-air. Bobby looks at me as he did when we were playing catch, and I had to admit I couldn’t throw a curve.
My son sorries his way back into school. I never get a similar chance. The so-called investigation takes only a few hours, and my suspension becomes indefinite. As in fired, canned, sacked … stabbed in the back. After I cool down, I send a text to Screwdriver Dan and wish him good luck going solo or with his new broadcast partner.
Gloria-Louise continues to lose patients and quits speaking to me. Well, if you don’t count her reply when I try to lighten the mood by telling her she’s looking down in the mouth. I guess dentists have heard that one too many times.
I thought the Neanderthal kerfuffle would blow over pretty quickly, but cable news and social media are keeping it alive. And keeping me from getting another job.
One morning as I leave the house for a run, I notice more traffic than usual around our cul de sac. When I return, our front yard is filled with people holding signs and chanting slogans in support of Neanderthals. Fearing for my safety, I cut through a neighbor’s yard and go into our house through the back door.
Over the next few days, protests spread throughout the city. They’re peaceful, but spark an anti-Neanderthal backlash. The rock-throwing, bashed heads and fires erupt when NoThal and ProThal groups both show up at the same time at the court house plaza.
As with everyone, I’m glued to the news these days.
— Riots flare in cities across the country.
— NoThal and ProThal street fighting intensifies. Casualties mount.
— Violent explosion rocks capitol.
— Brother versus sister versus mother versus father. The tragedy within the tragedy.
— Good Riddance: Wife of original NoThaler kicks him out.
— Shares of body modification startup Look Neanderthal jump 1000%.
A voice says to wake up. Opening my eyes, I see three masked figures in the bedroom of my apartment. When I try to scream, one of them shoves a tennis ball into my mouth. Then the other two jerk me to my feet, bind my wrists behind my back and put a hood over my head.
As I’m marched outside, I wonder if anybody can see me. Most of the parking lot security lights are burnt out at this place. Maybe there’s a bright moon. No sooner does the thought flash through my mind when there’s a rumble of thunder, and I hear rain. I let my legs go limp. A bad decision.
After being dragged on my knees for several seconds, I’m picked up by my armpits and feet and tossed into what I assume is a trunk. A car starts, and off we go. At that moment, my greatest fear is that I may never see Bobby again.
After awhile, I’m rag-dolled in the trunk so much I figure we must be driving through the Quiltpatch Hills outside town. I fight being sick ‘cause I know if I am I’ll choke to death. I can hardly hold on any longer when we skid to a stop.
I hear the trunk lid hiss open, and I’m yanked out. As I’m grabbed by the arms and pushed from behind, my knees warn my legs not to go limp again.
I stumble up a couple steps and have the sensation of being inside. Then I feel a sharp pinch in my neck and float into darkness.
I wake up on the bedroom floor of my apartment. It seems to be about dawn. I put my hand to my face, which is throbbing, and feel bandages. I go into the bathroom and unwind them. I manage to not shriek from the pain, but can’t help crying out when I see what they’ve done to me.
My nose and brow ridge have been enlarged. My jaw protrudes, and the whole front of my face has been extended forward. I’ve been Neanderthaled by body modifiers.
My head spinning, I hurry to the bed. There I find a hand-written note: “Now you’ll see what it’s like to live like those you disparage. Down with NoThals.”
Over the next few months, I acclimate to my new life and new look. I get a job driving for a ride share service. Their motto is “ProThals Welcome, NoThals No Way.” I’m sure the company will fire me if they discover I accept both.
I make enough for essentials. I buy my groceries at a ProThal-only markets. I hate to give them my business, but the NoThal shops won’t let me in the door. The last time I bought milk and eggs, I almost got killed. A bomb destroyed the store as I was driving away. I change apartments after my landlord adopts a NoThals only policy.
One Saturday I go to my house, former house. When Gloria-Louise comes to the door, I ask her if I can see Bobby. She looks at me and slams the door. Does she hate me that much or has she become a NoThal? I’d hate to think she’s raising my son that way.
I return to my place and send her a long email about how we should do what’s best for Bobby. Let him have his father in his life. And don’t drag him into the ProThal / NoThal craziness. After a few days, I receive a restraining order to stay away from my son. I do for about a week.
I play hooky from my new job at a fast-food place and go to Bobby’s school as it’s letting out. I approach my son. “Bobby, Son, I miss you so much.”
I can practically feel his eyes studying my unfamiliar face.
“It’s me.” As I start to explain what happened, I hear Gloria-Louise.
“The police are on their way,” she says, holding up her phone.
She wouldn’t do that to me, would she? I think. Then I hear the sirens. “Don’t forget me, Son,” I say to Bobby. I trace my finger along my brow. “This means nothing. I’m still Dad.” I hurry away and hide from the police in a ProThal demonstration. A peaceful one for a change.
I lie low for about a week as far as trying to see Bobby. Then I realize that, no matter what, I need to be with my son, and he needs to be with his father. I wait outside our house one Saturday. When Bobby leaves with his skateboard, I follow him to the park. My plan is convince him to spend the weekend with me, take him back to his mother Sunday evening, and hope for the best.
It’s easy to have a plan till the police slap a pair of handcuffs on you. Apparently Gloria-Louise had seen me lurking outside the house and set a trap. I can only hope Bobby wasn’t in on it.
My sentence is a sliding scale of fines versus time. As I have little money, I’m sent to jail for a year. A judge with ProThal leanings lets me out on probation after six months. I almost tell him I’m neither ProThal nor NoThal, but these days being honest is stupid more often than not.
While I was in jail, the fast-food place I’d worked at was blown up by NoThal terrorists. Luckily (I can’t believe I’m saying this), my experience gets me hired by a similar joint. I learn through some of Bobby’s friends that come into the restaurant that he’s moved out of town with his mother. Could be the other side of the country or the other side of Quiltpatch Hills. Either no one knows or they’re not willing to tell me.
Time drags by in a blur of burgers, soft drinks, splattering French frier grease and unsuccessful internet searches for my son. I have to move twice due to the shifting boundaries of the NoThal and ProThal zones. That’s a pain in the ass, but the zones seem to have quelled the riots and street-fighting. The same thing is happening across the country and around the world. Maybe things will calm down.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The NoThals and ProThals move their fight from the streets to the ballot box. Within five years, most of the world is controlled by one side or the other. The mistrust and hatred is as strong from country to country as it was from curb to curb. Only now, the two sides have graduated from Molotov cocktails to nuclear weapons. Did this really come to pass because I messed up a measurement? Or did I just unlock a cabinet full of deadly snakes that would’ve been loosed upon the world one way or another no matter what?
Those of us around Quiltpatch Hills were spared. At least temporarily. We weren’t in the blast or fire-storm areas, and the caverns provided shelter from the super-hurricane-force winds that followed.
My cave is near a spring. I’d hoped it might have less radiation than above-ground water sources, but the way I’ve been feeling lately makes me wonder. My supply of canned goods is about gone. When the day is brightest it seems like dusk. It snows most days.
I venture out to find something to eat. I come across a woman kneeling over a body. When she looks up, I see her lips and chin are covered in blood. “Mine,” she says. I glimpse the face of the body. It’s Screwdriver Dan. I raise my arms and roar at the woman to bluff her away, but she’s not having it. Sorry, Dan.
A few minutes later I find berries. Are they poisonous? I’ve got to risk it. As I’m plucking and eating, a youth with a bow and arrow approaches. He has several dead rabbits slung over his shoulders. Is that Bobby? I can’t tell for sure because of his filthy face, scruffy beard and passage of years since I last saw him. Logic tells me that if I just came upon Screwdriver Dan, this can’t be Bobby. Too coincidental. So I decide I didn’t just see Dan. Good to know starvation and radiation poison haven’t dulled my intellect.
“Bobby, it’s me.”
The youth draws back an arrow.
“Bobby, don’t! It’s Dad!”
The arrow whooshes past me and hits with a shriek. He walks close, and we stare at each other. “Son?” I say.
He touches a finger to my brow then reaches behind me, pulls the arrow through the rabbit he just shot and puts the feast around my neck.
“I have a cave,” I say. “Come with me. Where’s your mother?” I probably shouldn’t care about Gloria-Louise, but if there were ever a time for forgiveness, this is it. The person who might be Bobby turns and trudges away through the snow. I’m pretty sure he’s wearing a pair of my old running shoes.
I go back to my cave. Too weak to build a fire, I gnaw on the raw rabbit as much as I can stomach. At least it’s not Screwdriver Dan. I huddle shivering under some scavenged blankets and close my eyes.
I hear “Hi, Dad.” It’s Bobby. Gloria-Louise is with him.
My ex-wife holds up a can. “I have peas.” She stabs a hunting knife into the can and opens it with a twist. She always did have excellent manual dexterity from being a dentist. “Cup your hands,” she says. She gives big helpings to Bobby and me.
A voice comes from the entrance of the cave. “I want in on that,” Screwdriver Dan says.
Gloria-Louise gives Dan a handful of peas.
I tell Dan I thought he was dead. I leave out the cannibalized part.
He tells me not to believe everything I see after eating those berries. Then he tosses a pea into the air and catches it in his mouth.
There’s a loud stomping of feet behind him. A family of four Neanderthals is entering the cave. Real ones, not bod mods like me. Gloria-Louise gives them peas, and the Neanderthals stomp their feet again.
“I have leftover rabbit,” I say and smile at Bobby.
Gloria-Louise holds up the can. “This is way plenty.”
After we’ve all gorged ourselves, Bobby gives the Neanderthal boy and girl a box of crayons, and they start drawing on the wall. I hear Screwdriver Dan trying to make the Neanderthal man understand the difference between Phillips and Torx. Gloria-Louise checks the woman’s teeth. I fight to stay awake.
Screwdriver Dan sees me yawn. “Hey, Allen Wrench, catch.” Dan tosses a pea that, despite my open mouth, plunks me in the nose. I laugh. Everybody laughs. The Neanderthals stand and stomp their feet.
Bobby scoots close to me. “Dad, I want to tell you something.”
“I don’t think you did anything wrong.”
“That means the world to me, Son.”
I look around. It’s wonderful to see everybody getting along. I shout “I love you all” then lie down smiling to the sound of clapping hands and stomping feet.
Uniesert, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons