Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe


By Preston Norton

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A “funny and sweetly oddball” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) novel about an odd-couple friendship formed by a mission to make their high school to suck less, for readers “seeking doors to the universe” (Booklist, starred review) and a razor sharp, moving, and outrageously funny read.
Cliff Hubbard is a huge loser. Literally. His nickname at Happy Valley High School is Neanderthal because he’s so enormous—6’6” and 250 pounds to be exact. He has nobody at school, and life in his trailer-park home has gone from bad to worse ever since his older brother’s suicide. And there’s no one Cliff hates more than the nauseatingly cool quarterback Aaron Zimmerman, who after a near-death experience claims God gave him a list of things to do to make Happy Valley High suck less. And God said there’s only one person who can help: Neanderthal.To his own surprise, Cliff says he’s in. As he and Aaron make their way through the List, which involves a vindictive English teacher, a mysterious computer hacker, a decidedly unchristian cult of Jesus Teens, the local drug dealers, and the meanest bully at HVHS, Cliff feels like he’s part of something for the first time since losing his brother. But fixing a broken school isn’t as simple as it seems, and just when Cliff thinks they’ve completed the List, he realizes their mission hits closer to home than he ever imagined.


Copyright © 2018 by Preston Norton

Cover design by Phil Caminiti
Cover art © Elizabeth Casal

All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.

ISBN: 978-1-4847-9839-3


To Shannon
who I’ve never met
but who I know so dearly through the hearts of others

There are three rules to high school irrevocably inscribed within the interstellar fabric of the universe.

Rule number one: It’s all bullshit.

Now before you go thinking I’m some angsty little teenage shit, you should know that I’m not little. In fact, I’m a behemoth. Sixteen years old and somehow miraculously shattering the 250-pound barrier. Holy crap, you say. Get the hell out of town, you say. You think that’s nuts? Let me rephrase it for you:

I’m a quarter of a thousand pounds.

Sometimes not sucking at math is a curse all its own.

It’s not that I was completely fat; I was just big in general. Six foot six, to be exact. I was like this semi-evolved humanoid porpoise standing as a solemn warning of Darwinism gone wrong. I was like the immaculately conceived Force child of Jabba the Hutt and Chewbacca. Someone like me didn’t need to look for the bullshit; it found me like a lard-seeking homing missile. Here were just a few shining examples:

“Hey, Cliff!” said Kyle Dunston on September 17 of last year, after I dropped my pencil in Mr. Gunther’s Algebra 2 class. “Did you know that when you bend over, your butt crack is big enough to put the Grand Canyon out of business?”

“Easy, Neanderthal,” said Lacey Hildebrandt on December 2, while I was making my way to the lunch line. “I’m pretty sure the cafeteria is all out of Twinkies and small children.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Hubbard,” said the aforementioned Mr. Gunther last month after school—March 23—while he was looking over my make-up assignment on polynomials. “Could you try not to sound like a jetliner when you breathe? I can’t hear myself think.”

That was me, Clifford Hubbard—the Grand Canyon–assed, Twinkie-and-small-children-eating jetliner-breather. Known more commonly by the Happy Valley High School population as Neanderthal.

This was all very pertinent to the second rule of high school:

People suck.

And not just the students, as Mr. Gunther so abundantly demonstrated. Everyone. Such as:

1. Vice Principal Swagley, who always eyed me like I was an escaped convict masquerading as a minor. Surely I just hid my orange jumpsuit in the woods, close to where I buried all the bodies.

2. My guidance counselor, Mr. Gubler, who suggested the possibility of a career in sanitary engineering. Now, stereotypes aside (sanitary engineer = garbageman), sanitary engineering is actually a respectable engineering field, a career with a decent salary and a crucial emphasis on environmental safety not to be scoffed at. Unfortunately, my dad was an actual garbageman—before his career in professional unemployment, anyway—and Mr. Gubler knew it. Which therefore made him the Grand Vizier of Douchebags.

3. The lunch lady, Miss Prudy, who glared at me like she was wondering what I was doing in her lunch line and not that other one at the local Satanist compound that served Twinkies and small children.

The list went on and on. And that brought me to Aaron Zimmerman.

The Aaron Zimmerman.

It wasn’t that he was more or less douchey than anyone else. Really, his level of douchebaggery was rather average. He was simply the most popular douchebag at Happy Valley.

I mean, let’s face it. He was cool.

How cool? Imagine that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was based on the real-life story of Aaron Zimmerman—this human being whose will the universe miraculously obeyed. Except instead of Matthew Broderick, Aaron would be played by this genetically engineered teenage clone hybrid of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Quarterback? Check. Four-point-oh GPA? Check. I hadn’t seen the guy’s ding-dong, but I imagine it was the size of a small nuclear warhead. I mean, why not? Everything else in the world was conclusively in his favor.

But before the List happened—more on the List later—I’d only had one real encounter with Aaron Zimmerman. Why would anyone as popular as him have had any reason to even acknowledge my existence?

Why, if my head intercepted his football, of course.

April 12 (12:50 p.m., if you wanna get specific).

I was wearing my “lucky hoodie”—plain black with a four-leaf clover printed on the front—which was really more of an ironic name because bad things always happened to me while I was wearing it. My older brother, Shane, gave it to me for my birthday, although I was pretty sure he bought it from some kind of witch doctor, because it was definitely jinxed as fuck. There was a hole in the inner fabric of the front pocket that I liked to stick my right thumb in—ripping it just a little bit bigger each time. I couldn’t help myself. A nervous tic, I suppose, when you’re essentially wearing a kismet time bomb.

Meanwhile, Aaron was chucking said football across the crowded hall to his crony, Kyle Dunston—yes, of “Grand Canyon–assed” fame—the trajectory of which was well over everyone else’s heads.

Unfortunately, my head was also well over everyone else’s heads. The football connected with my face. Two hundred and fifty pounds or not, that football nearly sent me flying into last Tuesday. But instead of shattering the space-time continuum, I merely collided into the nearest locker, leaving a perfect, Neanderthal-shaped fossil imprint. For about five discombobulating seconds, I had no idea what happened. My mental processing was going something like this:




I was still prying myself out of the locker crater when Aaron Mosesed his way through the crowded hall like it was the Red Sea. He extended a helping hand. I took it.

“Whoa, are you okay?” he said, half laughing, half sounding like something resembling genuineness. “You really did a number on that locker.”

I was still struggling to operate the English language, so I just kept blinking, failing to grasp that ever-elusive thing we call reality. Aaron was smiling as he eyed the crushed locker, and in my befuddled state, it could have passed as a real smile.

“Man, what do you eat for breakfast? Twinkies and small children?”

I know I was big, and in the world we lived in, big usually equaled stupid. But I wasn’t stupid. I had three realizations instantaneously:

1. That line was a Lacey Hildebrandt original.

2. Aaron Zimmerman had dated Lacey Hildebrandt. (This might have seemed like a grand coincidence, but really, it wasn’t. Aaron was like James Bond—always got the girl; never the STD. Or maybe he had all the STDs! Who knew?)

3. During that brief relationship, the two of them had obviously had a great big laugh at Neanderthal, the Twinkie-and-small-children eater.

And that brings me to High School Rule Number Three: Fists speak louder than words.

My fist was a wrecking ball, and it was swinging to excavate Aaron’s genetically engineered Brad Cruise clone-ass face.

That’s when I learned that I had made a dire miscalculation. He wasn’t just a Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise clone. There was also Bruce Lee in there somewhere because he limboed backward, narrowly missing my blow. And then he popped right back up like a jack-in-the-box, guided by his fist, which nailed me right in the jaw.

Now I was obviously a big guy, bordering on Brobdingnagian…

…but damn!

I staggered backward, nearly into my Cliff-shaped crater, but caught myself with my hands. Aaron held his ground. His good friend, Kyle Kiss-Ass Dunston, however, was under the impression that Aaron was the president of the United States, and he was a member of the Secret Service, and this was suddenly a matter of national security. Kyle flew in, limbs flailing, with all the killer moves of an inebriated octopus.

I was smiling on the inside. I’d been waiting for this since September 17 of last year.

Grand Canyon, my ass.

My fist was a battering ram, straight and true, right into the word-spouting orifice of Kyle’s face. You know that scene in The Matrix Revolutions when Neo punches Agent Smith in the head, and his whole face just kind of ripples?

Yeah. I was pretty sure that just happened.

Kyle went all Raggedy Ann across the hall—right into the circle of human vultures flapping in to feed on the action.

I lurched, veering my heavy momentum toward my remaining opponent. Aaron took off like a jet toward me. We crashed into each other—two raging, stormy tides of human fury. I may have had the body mass of a baby whale, but Aaron’s reflexes were lightning. His left uppercut caught me on the other side of my jaw—THWACK!

At least my face would be proportionately fucked.

Fortunately for me, gravity was a cruel mistress. I was already on top of him, only slightly derailed by his blow. We rolled across the hall like some swollen, lopsided ball, roughly the size of a Prius. I had my hands around his throat, but Aaron decided to play prison rules and grabbed me by the nipples. Not that they were hard to find. I reckon I was a solid B cup, preparing to enter the solid realm of C if those Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts didn’t stop being so damn delicious.

Aaron was gurgling, and I was screaming. We let go simultaneously. At this point, I just wanted to curl into the fetal position and cry.

We both staggered upright, groaning and drunk on pain like a pair of zombies straight out of a Romero film.

“Son of…a bitch,” said Aaron between breaths. He sounded as exhausted as I felt. “You fight pretty good…for a beached whale.”

“Thanks,” I said. “You too…for a narcissistic…pantywaist…little ass-taxi.”

Aaron actually laughed at this. “Wow…the Neanderthal knows…words and shit.”

“Please…the English language…is my bitch…you gaping cockmuppet.”

And that’s when my spidey-sense activated, and I sensed a terrible disturbance in the Force. Or maybe it was just the droves of students scattering like trouble was swiftly approaching.



This exclamation came from the only woman at HVHS wearing a power suit. Her hands were on her hips, never a good sign. Ever. Her hair fell in straightened curtains of black over her face, contorted into the Scowl of Death.

Principal McCaffrey was pissed.

Note that McCaffrey didn’t yell Aaron’s name. Just mine. Do you know why that was?

Remember High School Rule Number One? Remember Rule Number Two?

Still, that didn’t exclude Aaron from being escorted with me to McCaffrey’s interrogation chamber. Kyle would have joined us, too, if his borderline-comatose ass wasn’t being examined in the nurse’s office.

“Take a seat, you two,” said McCaffrey.

Aaron sat politely. I sort of collapsed into this flimsy plastic piece of shit masquerading as a sitting apparatus. It released a long, drawn-out squeal. I imagined it desperately reciting the Lord’s Prayer before it died under my ass.

To the untrained eye, Principal McCaffrey’s office glowed of cheerful professionalism. But I wasn’t fooled by the wall of award plaques or the bookshelves lined with inspirational bullshit titles like CHILDREN ARE THE FUTURE or LEARNING WITH LOVE. And don’t even get me started on the mug:


I had been waiting years for McCaffrey to take her hawk-eyes off me for one goddamn second so I could puke in that thing.

McCaffrey sat down behind her desk and pretzeled her arms and legs together into a fierce knot.

“What happened?” she said.

The words were already springboarding out of Aaron’s mouth. “Well, you see, Principal McCaffrey, Kyle and I were just joking around, and I guess something we said must have offended Cliff ’cause he—”

McCaffrey was already shaking her head, eyes closed, one hand on her temple so as to prevent her Bullshit-O-Meter from sending her migraine into nuclear-meltdown mode. The other hand rose, slicing off Aaron’s words.

“Okay, stop,” said McCaffrey. When her eyes opened, they were firing on me. “Cliff, I want you to tell me what happened.”

All the muscles in Aaron’s face seemed to atrophy instantly. I wanted to take a picture and save it as the background screen on my iPhone. Except I didn’t have an iPhone. Or any variation of smartphone. Or even a stupid phone for that matter. My family was the special sort of poor that couldn’t afford a phone for their kid if the dude at T-Mobile gave us a brick with buttons for free because, according to my dad, talking to people costs money, too.

But back to Aaron’s face…

Ah, screw it. The fact of the matter was that I didn’t want to talk to McCaffrey, I wouldn’t, I refused to, and she couldn’t make me, and that was that.

But boy, could I stare.

McCaffrey and I glared laser beams at each other for a solid minute. Her stare demanded subservience. My gaze was like, Oh yeah, woman? I can fall asleep with my eyes open. For all you know, I’m already unconscious.

Aaron’s eyeballs ping-ponged between the two of us, unsure what to make of the spectacle.

“Aaron, could you excuse us for a moment?” said McCaffrey.

“Uh…” said Aaron. “Sure. Should I just wait outside in the…?”

McCaffrey’s brow scrunched impatiently.

“Yeah, I’ll just wait outside,” said Aaron. He stood up all-too-eagerly and started for the door.

But not before flipping me off.

His arm and erect middle finger were tucked close to his chest—completely out of McCaffrey’s view, the sneaky bastard. He walked slowly and held it for a long, tense moment until he opened the door and exited.

Before he closed the door, he winked.

Something ignited inside of me. It flashed and burned and billowed—filling me up—and suddenly, I had a purpose.

The next time I saw Aaron Zimmerman, I was going to beat the figurative and literal shit out of him. I was going to kill him with my bare hands.

But that was later. Right now there was only McCaffrey, me, and the metaphorical elephant.

“You know,” said McCaffrey, shattering the silence like a sheet of glass, “I’m really sick and tired of this shit. You not talking to me? What’s that supposed to accomplish? Just who the hell do you think you’re helping by giving me the silent treatment? Because it’s not you, that’s for damn sure.”

I actually kind of liked it when McCaffrey swore at me. At least I knew she was being real. None of that “Children Are the Future/Learning with Love” nonsense. No, deep down beneath the plaques and WORLDS GREATEST PRINCIPAL mugs, Joan McCaffrey was a hard-ass chick who liked coffee and weekends and speaking her mind, and she hated kids like me. I could respect that. If I was her, I’d hate me, too.

Hell, I was me, and I still hated myself.

“Is this about Shane?” said McCaffrey.

My desire to be a part of this conversation plummeted from zero to negative eleventeen gazillion.

“I know it’s been hard on you, Cliff,” said McCaffrey. “But it’s been almost a year. I think your brother would want you to move on. Do you think this—?” She pointed at me. “Whatever the hell this is—do you think that’s the person he wanted you to be?”

Shane probably spent more school hours in McCaffrey’s office than outside of it. She knew Shane Hubbard—the pot-smoking, hell-raising juvenile delinquent.

But she didn’t know shit about the only real friend I ever had.

I leaned forward in my chair, and the words clawed out of my teeth. “Go. To. Hell.”

I was suspended from school for a week. This might have been a big deal if I gave a shit about anything. But I didn’t. Not one single shit. If it was possible for me to give negative shits, I’d distribute those like a six-year-old flower girl at a wedding.

Negative shits! Negative shits for everyone!

No, there were only two things I gave a shit about right now:

1. kicking Aaron’s ass, and

2. Shane.

I would always give a shit about Shane.

I left school, but I didn’t go home. I had a very important detour to make.

The Shannondale Cemetery wasn’t the prettiest thing on God’s green earth. I mean, it wasn’t even really green, and it certainly didn’t look like God had any part in its making. It was this brown-patchy, weed-ridden field of trailer-trash blah, because apparently people like my family had to bury their dead somewhere, too. Tombstones stuck out of the rain-drenched earth every which way like a mouthful of broken, crooked teeth.

Shane’s headstone was a tooth that hadn’t grown in yet; a tooth that would never grow in. It was a horizontal slab of cheap marble with the fewest words possible chiseled into its empty surface, because words apparently cost money, too:


Beneath this were tiny, almost invisible dates that were way too close together. Sixteen years and one month.

Today—April 12—was his birthday.

He should have been seventeen today. But he wasn’t. He never would be. He was frozen—a permanent, chronological fixture in the annals of time.

I was now older than Shane by weeks.

There was something deeply unsettling about becoming older than your older brother. Like you were disturbing the natural order of things.

It had stopped raining a while ago, but I could feel the storm inside of me. Not a raging thunderstorm or anything like that. Just this endless downpour. Filling me up. Drowning me.

“Hey, bro,” I said.

Shane didn’t respond. Because he was dead, obviously.

Shane had always had the answer to everything. Even when he didn’t really know. It was the confidence behind the answer. I would have followed that confidence to the end of the world.

Unfortunately, the end of the world was sooner for Shane, and here I was, left with nothing but this gaping hole. Nothing but rain and drowning and slowly dying, but never death, because that would just be too damn easy.

“So I don’t know if you’re in heaven or hell or some sort of weird purgatory-limbo-thingy,” I said, “but it sure as hell has to be better than here.”

Shane didn’t say anything.

“Is there anything there? I mean, I know this stupid rock says ‘In God’s Care,’ but headstones are supposed to say shit like that to make people feel better. But, like…is he there?”


“Even if there isn’t a God or a heaven or anything,” I said, “if you could just, like, haunt me or do some of that freaky ghost shit and scare the crap out of me every once in a while, I’d totally be okay with that.”

Shane gave the obvious response.

“Think it over,” I said. “Maybe I’ll steal a Ouija board.”

I left Shane in the crooked, broken mouth of the Shannondale Cemetery. Somehow, I felt a little less alive leaving this home for the dead.

I lived in Arcadia Park, which was, in fact, not a park at all. It was a trailer park. The funny thing about trailer parks is that all the stereotypes—that trailer parks are low-class, trashy, cockroach-infested little shithole excuses for homes…

They’re all true.

I walked in the door—this sad, rectangular thing barely hanging by its hinges. The first thing people usually noticed was the cat-piss smell, which, fortunately, I’d gotten used to years ago. We didn’t have any cats. The second thing people usually noticed was the nicotine stains on the walls—this ghastly yellow splotchiness that looked like cat piss. None of us smoked. My dad quit smoking ten years ago, but I had a theory that it was only so he could afford his drinking problem.

And boy, did he drink.

He was the third thing people usually noticed—sitting in the recliner wearing a mustache, a camouflage trucker hat, and a bottle of Bud Light in his hand, hooked to the football game on TV like it was his iron lung. It was his way of vicariously reliving his own football glory days that ended after his own stint at HVHS. He wasn’t as big as me, but what he lacked in size, he more than made up for in dangerous levels of drunk-ass mean.

The bad news beat me home. Principal McCaffrey called about my suspension.

Normally, my mom picked up the phone. God gave my dad two hands—one for the TV remote and one for his Bud Light. He didn’t have a third pick-up-the-phone hand. And even if he did, there was still the issue of getting his lethargic ass off the recliner.

Every time my mom got the bad news, she scolded me in private. She never told my dad, because she preferred me alive rather than dead. I listened, mostly because I cared about her, and I told her I’d never do it again, even though I had no such intention. I didn’t want to break her heart, but at the same time, remember High School Rule Number One? Remember Number Two?

Remember High School Rule Number Three? Something has to speak louder than words. Words didn’t do shit.

But all this was aside from the point. The point was that my mom wasn’t home. And naturally, my dad didn’t pick up the phone. But Principal McCaffrey did leave a message on the answering machine—this ancient, telephonic mechanism used by poor people to record messages and dodge calls from debt collectors.

My dad heard that, all right. And he’d had plenty of time to get copiously drunk and stew over it.

“You know what pisses me off the most?” he said.

This wasn’t a rhetorical question. My dad didn’t ask rhetorical questions. And if you waited long enough to figure that out on your own, it’d probably be through an ancient Chinese martial art known as zui quan, or “drunken fist.”

Okay, not really.

But really.

“What pisses you off the most?” I asked. My tone was flat—undisturbed—but there was a cloud of dread wafting beneath the surface.

“No,” said my dad. He raised a dangerous finger, pointed it at me. “I want you to tell me what pisses me off the most. You’re a smart kid, Cliff,” he said. “You inherited my vast intellect, after all. Tell me: What pisses me off the most?”

He didn’t ask rhetorical questions, but he sure as hell liked to play mind games.

“Having to see my ugly face every morning for the next week?” I said. (Sometimes, self-deprecating humor worked in my favor.)

“Hey, hey, hey!” he snapped. “You inherited half that face from me, you ungrateful shit. If you’ve got a problem with your face, take it up with your mom.”

Despite appearances, my dad was actually a razor-tongued smart-ass. I suppose I inherited that from him. However, most smart-asses use sarcasm as a weapon because it’s universally understood that the alternative—violence—is morally wrong.

For my dad, it was merely foreshadowing.

“I called your principal back,” he said. “Asked how the Zimmerman kid looked. You know what she said? She said not to worry, he doesn’t have a scratch on him.”


“A scratch! How the hell does a kid your size get suspended for a week, and not even lay a scratch


  • Accolades

    ALA 2019 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults
    YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults List
    2018 Cybils Award, young Adult Fiction Nominee
    Teenreads' Teen Choice Book Award 2019, Nominee
    Geek Mom: Upcoming Reads for Kids Summer Reading Fun (selection, 2018)
    Hypable: Start summer off right with these June 2018 YA book releases! (selection)
    Houston Family Magazine: Summer Reading Picks (selection, 2018)
  • "Preston Norton brings an exciting, sharp voice to YA. NEANDERTHAL is both heartbreaking and hopeful."—Goldy Moldavsky, bestselling author of Kill the Boy Band

  • *"The book... cogently explores large issues that plague and perplex teens... Will appeal to teens who are, themselves, seeking doors to the universe."—Booklist (starred review)

  • *"Preston Norton's.... characters speak with a whip-smart, profanity-laced snark that belies the fragility lurking in even the biggest brutes. Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is a book for any teen, teeming with despair, hope and transcendence."—Shelf Awareness (starred review)

  • *"Funny and sweetly oddball book... At the story's core is an unsentimental treatment of a bullied kid and his one-time bully discovering their commonalities. That Norton accomplishes this without moralizing and in inventively rhythmic and pop-culture-saturated language only adds to the fun."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • "Touching, funny, and utterly unforgettable."—Robyn Schneider, author of The Beginning of Everything

  • "Cliff... is intelligent and vulgar in equal measure in this story about belief both transcendental and intimate... With a number of references any cinephile would appreciate, the cleverly plotted novel attests that discovering meaning anywhere or with anyone is invaluable."—BCCB

  • "Laugh-out-loud. Funny, well-plotted and sneakily thought-provoking."—School Library Journal

On Sale
Jun 5, 2018
Page Count
416 pages

Preston Norton

About the Author

Preston Norton is bisexual, slightly genderqueer, and married. His partner, Erin, is trying to put him on a diet, and he's revolting (both contexts apply). He has taught seventh grade and ninth grade English, mentored drug addicts, and mowed lawns (in no particular order). He is obsessed with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino.

Learn more about this author