If I didn’t hurry up soon, I wouldn’t be able to enter the science contest in time. Fifth grade is when you are allowed to enter. In fourth grade, I was totally psyched about it, and when I realized I couldn’t do it, I was pretty bummed.
Mrs. Albeck almost decided I could enter in fourth grade, since I was doing 7th grade math AND English, but in the end she decided I probably wouldn’t make it against the sixth graders. I wanted to crush her perfect pale face underneath my heavy-duty working boots that Father had gotten me for Christmas. They had the thickest soles you could find, and the toes were as hard as steel.
But anyway, fifth grade was the year you could enter, and I was bursting with excitement. I had been working on my project for months and was almost positive I would win. My science teacher had just barely told the class about it, so I was also pretty sure that no one would enter. No one stood a chance against me… at least I thought.
It was the night of the contest. Mother had me stand next to her holly bushes outside in the freezing cold while she took a million pictures of me with my project. She kept on saying that this was the big night, and I was so lucky to have this opportunity, and blah blah blah. I was way too excited to care for any of her mom nonsense.
We had to take Father’s big red truck because my project was too big to fit inside the car. We had to strap it onto the roof of the truck. I pictured other cars going by and wondering why the heck there was a time machine on the top of the truck, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t wait to see Ms. Dunfee’s face when she saw my project.
For extra safety, I kept my hands on the straps just in case it unbuckled. This was the one day of my entire life when I would show how awesome my brain could really work, and how cool I really was. I couldn’t wait to show it to everyone, but I was a wee bit nervous about it actually working. I didn’t want anyone to get electrocuted or anything.
We were practically neighbors with the school, so we were there in no time. Mrs. Albeck was wearing a green jumpsuit and waving in the kids with their projects.
As I walked in, Mrs. Albeck took a step back and gave me a nervous smile as if she were afraid I was going to blow her up with a bomb. I did actually have a few of those at home for more science projects.
We carried my big time machine into the building. Kids kept giving me weird glances. Since the time machine was all tied up in sheets and dog towels, no one knew what it was, and kept looking at me like I was a nerd. I’m not gonna lie. I kind of am--just not in a bad way.
We carried it into the cafeteria where all the other projects were set up. There were fake volcanoes, models, and explosions! When we pulled the sheets off of my project it didn’t seem so exciting anymore. It just looked like a chunk of metal with cords sticking out of it and red buttons everywhere. If they were judging the projects by their looks, I wasn’t going to win.
Mr. Y, the principal, was in charge of the contest. He was a stern old man with a bushy black beard and a thick mustache. He came out into the middle of the cafeteria and made all of us shut up so he could start talking.
“Welcome, boys and girls! Today we are hosting the science contest of 2020!” He boomed. The parents clapped and cheered, but I didn’t know why because we all knew it was science contest. I wanted to get to the winners. “We will be judging the projects for different reasons! One prize goes to how they look, and another goes to how they work! These prizes can go to different students!”
“Who wins?” a little boy called out from the back of the cafeteria. His mother had to give him a little talking-to.
Mr. Y laughed. “Me and my friends here have to see them all first.”
His “friends” were three blonde women in white suits and clear helmets, just in case something blew up. Then, the four of them started walking around. I held my breath and crossed my fingers tightly.
One of the blonde women came over to my project and pressed a button carelessly. If she continued to act like that, then maybe her helmet would come in handy.
She ignored my project and moved on to the next: a boy with a fake volcano. He looked to be in about sixth grade, and behind his back his fingers were crossed double. Then, the blonde lady’s face lit up when she saw the clay volcano spew out fake lava, and she jotted something down on her clipboard. I felt my stomach flip.
After a few minutes, Mr. Y went to the center of the cafeteria again and clapped his hands. “Alright, we have our winners.”
The blonde ladies whispered things into his hairy ears. After some adult mumbling, he turned back to us with a smile on his face. “For appearance… Roberto Salle with his clay model of the solar system!” everyone cheered. “For functionality… Joshua Willis and his fake volcano!”
The face of the boy beside me turned all pale and his crossed fingers got all sweaty. He walked up into the center with Mr. Y, everyone cheered again, and then it was over. I felt tears prickle into my eyes. While Father stayed with the time machine, Mother rushed me out of the cafeteria before I started crying.
“Shhh, honey! It’s ok! It was a really good project!” she whispered in my ear, hugging me. My cheeks turned a bright red as Joshuwa walked by with his fake volcano and golden medal pinned to his shirt.
“I should’ve won that!” I shouted after him. Mother said it was time to go. We rode back home in silence, and I didn’t bother checking that the straps on my time machine were buckled. It had failed me.
When we got home, I didn’t eat any dinner, and I went straight to my bedroom. I didn’t let Father bring the time machine in my room, and I told him he should just use my new boots to break it into pieces.
“They just have different opinions than us! It’s a good project!” he tried to explain, but I didn’t listen. I was too busy thinking about that shining medal pinned to Joshuwa, and how happy his face was. I might have wanted to crush his face even more than Mrs. Albeck’s.
Father insisted that he was not going to break the time machine, so he just set it down in the hallway.
That night, I stayed awake thinking of different bad things I could do to Joshuwa if I ever saw him again. The harshest thing was to explode a bomb in front of his feet. Even if it was really mean, it was also really tempting.
I went downstairs to get some water at some point, and that’s when I spotted the time machine sitting there. I could see the oily smudge on the red button where the blonde lady had pressed it. After I drank a glass of water, I walked into it.
For some reason, I didn’t feel like it was so bad anymore. From the minute I started making that time machine, I just knew that it would work. Maybe Father was right. Maybe I didn’t win because they hadn’t even looked at it really. I wanted to know what would happen if I pressed go, so out of curiosity, I pressed it.
The walls turned a flashing neon blue, my head pounded like crazy, and everything was strobing. Seconds later, everything stopped spinning and the time machine came to a stop. I stayed frozen inside it.
If it really had worked, what would I find if I opened that door? I relaxed a little, waited until my head stopped hurting, and swung open the folding doors. I had no idea where I was, but I knew I wasn’t home.
Large trees sat everywhere, coating the whole landscape. I was very curious what was out there, so I zipped up my fleece and walked out into the woods.
I hadn’t been walking for too long, when I began to hear conversation! Human beings! I ran towards their voices.
The sound led me to a large stone cave, and inside it the smell of warm food and the noise of laughter filled the air. I walked into the cave to see four men and a little girl about my age all talking and eating piles of red meat.
When the girl spotted me there in the grass with my teeth chattering and my cheeks pink with the cold, she began to whisper to the others. The biggest man, with a deerskin coat and matted black hair that fell down to his shoulders, stood up from his spot and walked over to me.
He inspected me up and down, smelling me with deep inhales. When he was done, he took a step back and smiled.
“Welk!” he boomed. He didn’t speak English in the same way that I did, but I could still tell that “welk” meant “welcome.” I was still a little afraid of these big hairy men and stern little girl, but the smell of that delicious, smoked red meat pulled me in. I crouched next to the big fire they had built, and felt the cold start to melt off of me.
The big man that had sniffed me dropped a pile of raw bloody meat in front of me, and pointed to the fire. “Cook.” he grumbled. The little girl shot me a glare.
I picked up a thin piece of the bloody meat in disgust and held it over the fire. It cooked very quickly. At first I was scared that they might have poisoned the meat or something, but then I remembered that poison hadn’t been invented yet, and ate happily.
“We are gateful tor this meal we KILL!” the big man chuckled, the rest of the men banging their fists on the stone ground and bobbing their heads up and down. Then they all started laughing all over again, and they started to eat.
I carried my now cooked meat over to the floor and sat with them.
We talked and ate for hours, until the baby blue sky turned a thick charcoal black, and I had to go home. I said goodbye to the cavemen, and tried to ignore the eyes burning into my back as I walked back through the woods.
The time machine was right where I left it. I said goodbye to the thick forest of trees, climbed into the machine, and braced myself for a minute of bright blue strobing.
I climbed out, rushed up the stairs, and toppled into my bed from exhaustion.
. . . . .
The next morning, the sun was high and bright, and I could hear Mother scampering around downstairs. I changed from my icy cold pajamas into a pair of warm floral pants and bumped down the staircase.
“Well good morning! You slept until 3:00!” Mother laughed. The long oak dining table was covered with a silk white tablecloth and several golden platters of food.
“Thanksgiving is today?” I yawned sleepily.
“Of course! Why wouldn’t it be?” Father laughed, checking the turkey to see if it was golden enough. The metal platters and processed food were very different from the piles of red meat I had eaten with the cavemen. They didn’t even have a table! Much less an oak one!
I took a seat at our leather couch and turned on the big TV. I wondered how far in the past I had been put and how long it had taken the cavemen to get TV’s?
After a little while, Grandma, Aunt Josie, and Uncle Marley started to arrive. We all took our seats around the table and filled our china plates with all sorts of food. I wanted to tell everyone about my time machine, but I didn’t think that they’d believe me. I thought about the different ways I could explain it, but nothing seemed quite right.
In the end I decided that this would be a secret that I kept to myself. Well… myself and the cavemen, that is.