Read an Excerpt
The Worst Christmas Present Ever
I needed an escape route. Now. I could hear thudding footfalls right behind me. And I could practically smell the stinky breath of --
Two hands drove into my back, which was still feeling charbroiled, by the way. And two seconds later, I was eating grass on my front lawn. "I thought we were playing touch. That was more like slam," I muttered.
Brian Conrad dropped to his knees and got right in my face. "Aww, did I hurt poor li'l Joe?" he crooned, blasting me with the odor of Cool Ranch Doritos mixed with extreme halitosis.
"Poor li'l Joe is just fine," I answered. But I couldn't help giving a little grunt of pain as I stood up. Brian grinned. He'd heard my grunt and he'd enjoyed it. Dillweed.
Frank and I got in a huddle with Chet Morton, the other guy on our team. Chet's not exactly what you would call athletic. He's exactly what you would call a couch potato. Usually my brother and I could carry him in a game of touch football. But today, Frank and I were both on the injured list. And our team was getting its behind kicked.
"Okay, here's what we do," Frank said, quarterbacking. "I hike to Joe. Joe, you hand it off to Chet and haul for the goal line. Chet, hang back, keep the ball close, and let everyone go after Joe. Then make your move."
"Got it." I tossed the ball to Frank, then got into position behind him. He leaned over, kind of slowly. Charbroiled bodies don't really like to bend.
"What's wrong? Your pantyhose bunching up on you?" Greg Neemy called out.
I laughed, because, (1) Greg Neemy isn't a jerk like Brian, and (2) stuff like that is pretty much always funny when it's said about your brother and not about you.
Frank hiked the ball to me. I did a slick handoff to Chet and tore down the lawn like my feet were on fire and there was a lake right across the goal line. By the thundering sounds behind me, I'd picked up at least two of the three guys on the other team. Excellent.
Excellent until a foot caught me in the back of my knee. Whomp! And yes, I was eating grass again. I'd eaten more grass during this game than a dog with a stomachache!
"You like my new technique?" asked Brian as I heaved myself to my feet with, yes, a grunt. "Foot-tag football."
"One problem. You foot-tagged the wrong guy," I told him.
Before Brian could get out a word, Chet bounced the football off the driveway and started into his victory dance. You know how when you were little and you had to go to the bathroom but you didn't want to stop playing, so you just kind of squirmed and wiggled around a lot? That's basically Chet's touchdown dance. Sadly, he uses almost the same moves when he attempts to dance with a girl.
"We should head back inside," Frank called. "We don't want to miss any of the real game."
"Yeah, halftime should be almost over," Mark Smallwood, the third guy on Brian's team, agreed. "And I don't want to miss one second of the Seahawks' road to the Super Bowl." He said that "road to the Super Bowl" part in a sports announcer voice, complete with mike reverb.
You have to cut Mark some slack. He grew up in Seattle. All the rain leaked into his ears and made his gray matter moldy. He really isn't able to comprehend that the Jets are now, always will be, always have been, the best football team in existence.
Even if they are already out of the play-offs.
Frank led the way back inside to the living room. "Wimps! Wimps! Wimps!" our parrot, Playback, called from the kitchen as we walked by.
"Smart bird. He knows his owners," Brian commented as he flopped down on the couch.
Why is this guy in my house eating my Doritos? I thought, watching Brian get his snout in the tortilla chips again.
Answer: because Frank and I were friends with Mark. And somehow Mark was friends with Brian. Maybe it was another side effect of the Seattle brain mold.
Frank clicked on the TV. "Good, it hasn't started back up," said Mark. He took a seat on the floor, focusing all his attention on the screen.
I grabbed a piece of floor next to him. I also grabbed the bowl of Doritos off the coffee table. Hey, it was my house. Well, my parents'. And I was getting my share. I jammed as many into my mouth as I could fit. The sharp edges of the triangles cut into my cheeks, and some of the cool ranch felt like it was traveling up my nose instead of down my throat. I kept on chewin'.
"Joe, you're the one who should be in that contest," Chet said.
"Thaa whaa?" I mumbled through the glob of goop in my mouth. I was still working on swallowing.
"The Football Franks Hot Dog Eating Contest on Super Bowl Sunday," Frank explained, nodding toward the screen.
Oh, right. I'd seen the commercial a bunch of times. It had been running during all the play-off games. This new hot dog company was having an eating contest. They were going to pay the winner five hundred dollars an inch for every inch of hot dog they managed to shove down during the halftime of the Super Bowl.
"How much do you think the winner will get?" asked Greg.
"Halftime is how long, you think?" Frank said. I could almost hear the calculator in his head firing up.
"Regular game halftimes are twelve minutes. Superbowl halfs are usually double that," Mark answered.
"We need to take off a little time for start-up and wrap-up. They're going to announce the winner on TV right there at halftime, so they'll need a few minutes to figure that out. Let's say, ballpark, twenty minutes for the contest," said Frank.
"Football stadium," Chet corrected.
"What?" I asked. I could say it clearly, because I'd swallowed all my Doritos.
"Football stadium, not ballpark," Chet exÂplained.
I groaned. At least it wasn't a groan of physical pain this time. Just very bad joke pain.
"And how many hot dogs do you think you can eat in a minute?" Frank continued, not bothering to comment on Chet's comment.
"They're thirteen inches. That's why they're paying by the inch," said Greg. "They want to play up how they're an inch longer than regular hot dogs."
"I bet I could eat seven a minute," Brian told the group.
"Come on," I protested.
"What? That's just a little more than one every ten seconds," Brian shot back.
"I like hot dogs, okay?" I told him. "And I can eat me some hot dogs. I bet I could eat even twelve in a minute. One every five seconds. But not for the whole halftime. Nobody could keep that pace up for twenty minutes straight."
"If you tried it, you'd have to subtract at least some puking minutes," Mark agreed.
"All right. Let's say an average of three hot dogs a minute over the whole twenty," Frank said. "That's sixty hot dogs, so seven hundred eighty inches of hot dog, at five hundred dollars an inch." He closed his eyes for a second, then opened them when he had the answer. "Three hundred and ninety thou."
Greg let out a long whistle.
"That's if you're a loser who can only eat three hot dogs a minute," Brian muttered.
"You can only use the cash for college, though," said Mark. "The contest is just for teenagers, so of course the powers that be want to make sure the money is used responsibly."
"Yeah, and Mark was hoping to buy the Seahawks so he could make them play in his front yard every day," Greg joked.
"The game should be back on any minute," Mark reminded us. "When it starts, I need -- "
"Complete silence," the rest of us answered together. As if you could watch football in silence.
"It's so the Hawks can receive my brainwaves," Mark explained. "They need to feel me cheering them on, even though I'm not there in person. It's a -- "
He was interrupted by the doorbell.
"You better disconnect that," said Greg as I stood up to answer it. "The electrical impulses would probably really mess up Mark's brain waves. Maybe you should shut off the lights, too," he called after me. "And the TV, except then, hey, we wouldn't be able to watch the game at all!"
I opened the front door, the sounds of what Aunt Trudy would call "some silliness" starting up in the living room behind me.
Nobody was there. Weird.
I started to shut the door, when a flash of red and silver caught my eye. A large Christmas present sat at my feet. I picked it up. The "To" part of the tag read "Frank and Joe Hardy." The "From" part of the tag was blank.
Also, also weird? Christmas was almost a month ago.
Which made me think this wasn't a Christmas present at all. I was thinking Joe and I had just gotten another ATAC mission, even though we'd just wrapped up the teen arsonist case for American Teens Against Crime.
I decided to hustle the box upstairs and open it. I didn't want to have to come up with any explanations for Brian and crew. Plus, if it turned out to be an actual present, I'd get first dibs.
I started for the stairs. "Hey, you got a present!" Greg said as he headed for the bathroom. "Open it up. Maybe it's cookies."
"I was just going to stick it in my room for now," I told him. "The game's about to start and everything."
"Hey, you guys. Joe just got a present of probably edible stuff and he's not sharing," Greg announced loudly.
"I'm ashamed of you, Joe Hardy!" Chet called from the living room. "Don't you remember what we learned in first grade about sharing? Get in here."
"Thanks," I muttered to Greg. He grinned at me. "I'm coming, I'm coming!" I yelled back to Chet. It was pointless to try to get the package up to my room now. One of my so-called friends would just tackle me and rip it open. If I kept control of the box, I'd at least keep some control of the situation.
"It's for both of us," I told Frank as I walked back into the living room.
I started to unwrap the present, but Frank wrestled it out of my hands. He carefully pulled up the tape and slid off the paper. Yes, he's one of those. And you thought they were all old ladies, didn't you? It's okay to admit it.
Frank here. Anyone concerned about the environment -- which should be everyone, since the environment is where we live -- recycles wrapping paper by saving it for future gifts.
Get out of here. This is my part. And how old-lady was that? "Since the environment is where we live." Come on. It's true, but come on.
"Are you an old woman or what?" Brian demanded.
I just agreed with Brian Conrad. That is the first sign of the apocalypse. You'd better head for your basement. I hope you have lots of canned food and bottled water.
Frank ignored him. I leaned over his shoulder as he pulled off the lid. He moved the tissue paper covering the contents aside.
I wasn't too worried, because our ATAC missions come on game cartridges, so the guys shouldn't get suspicious if that's who the package was from. Although sometimes cash and other supplies came with the cartridge.
It'll be okay, I told myself. We'll be able to come up with a decent explanation for whatever they see. Copyright © 2008 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.