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THIS EDITION IS INTENDED FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. : Stories to Warp Your Brain From award-winner Shusterman, a fourth collection in a series Publishers Weekly hailed as ""notches above the many Twilight Zone knockoffs.
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THE BOB SQUAD
This is highly irregular," said the visitor at the foot of Bobby Hartford's bed. Actually, it was one of seven visitors, standing there peering down at Bobby as if they had nothing better in the world to do but watch him sleep. None of them should have been there at two o'clock in the morning.
Just a moment ago, Bobby had been dreaming of scoring the winning goal for his ice hockey team. Eighth grade beauty Bonnie O'Lox was in the audience blowing him a kiss. It was the finest dream he had ever remembered having--so vivid and real that it hardly seemed a dream at all. Then all at once he found himself back in his bed with seven strangers scrutinizing him.
"What is this, some kind of dream?" he asked, only halfway out of sleep.
"I'm afraid it's no dream, Bobby." The man who spoke was tall and slim, with a shock of cotton-white hair. "I wish it were a dream, but it's not."
Bobby briefly wondered if he were in a hospital ward--after all, these men and women were all in white suits. But this was his room, not a hospital; and besides, these visitors weren't wearing doctor's outfits--these were tailored white business suits. Their shirts and blouses were all midnight blue, and in them, Bobby could swear he saw stars.
"Who are you?" Bobby pulled his knees up under his covers. "Mom!" he called, "Dad!"
A hand clapped gently over his mouth. Startled, he turned to see that the hand belonged to a wise-looking woman, tall and matronly. "You shouldn't speak now," she suggested. "Not until you understand."
"Yes," said the white-haired man. "Don't make this any worse than it already is." Another woman, plump with a grandmotherly smile, pushed the door to his room closed.
Bobby pushed the hand from his mouth. "What are you all doing in my room?"
No one spoke. The visitors just looked to one another, as if no one wanted to be the first to explain. Bobby had to admit this group didn't look very threatening, but anyone who mysteriously appeared in someone's room was highly suspect.
The white-haired man shook his head. "This won't do. This won't do at all."
A short, bespectacled man with a clipboard leaned in close to Bobby, studying him like a specimen in a petri dish. "Perhaps," he said, "he should go back to sleep."
"Quite right!" said the white-haired man. "Go back to sleep, Bobby. Maybe we'll be gone by morning."
"He never listens to anyone!" complained yet another one--this one with dark, spooky eyes.
"Close your eyes immediately!" insisted the white-haired man.
Bobby did as he was told, but opened his eyes only a moment later to find all seven of them still staring at him intently. All but the short one, who was jotting things down on his clipboard.
"Mom!" Bobby screamed. "Dad!!"
The white-haired man motioned to the plump woman. "Could you see that the parents' slumber is undisturbed?" The plump woman smiled and walked through the door. Not out of the door, not around the door, but through it, as if the door was not even there.
Although Bobby Hartford had never been accused of being the brightest kid in the world, he could put two and two together fairly easily. He knew that, odds were, when someone walked through a solid door, something out of the ordinary was going on. Bobby gasped, then groaned, feeling his dinner rising from the unspeakable depths of his gut.
The white-haired man raised an eyebrow, and the bespectacled man shook his head and made more notes on his clipboard.
Then a lithe, dark-skinned woman stepped forward. "I'll ease his way," she said, then produced from behind her a harp--a huge thing much taller than she was, and much too large to ever fit through the door of Bobby's room. He opened his mouth to ask how it had gotten there, but the moment she began to play, Bobby felt his jaw relaxing, along with every other muscle in his body. She played a soothing tune that lulled his concerns, and drew down the lids of his eyes. His mind began to drift, and soon he found himself sailing across the ice again, dreaming of hockey stardom.
* * *
"Rise and shine!"
Bobby's mother snapped open the curtains with a brightness in her voice that made Bobby want to crawl deeper under his covers. There ought to be a law against "morning people," he thought. Especially when that morning person was your mother.
"Upski and outski!" she shrilled. "It's a beautiful day, and you don't want to be late for school."
Bobby opened his eyes. His mother stood by the window. His seven visitors stood around her.
"Aaaah!" screamed Bobby. He suddenly remembered that odd dream--but it hadn't been a dream, had it?
"What's wrong?" asked his mother.
He pointed to the unwelcome guests. "Those people--don't you see them?!"
His mother looked at him, then glanced around the room, then out of the window. "See who?"
The short, bespectacled man shook his head. "This is bad," he said.
"Yes, exceptionally bad," said the white-haired man.
The one in the back with spooky eyes and crazy hair pushed his way to the front. "What a waste of life you are, Bobby," he said, but almost instantly the plump woman came forward.
"Don't listen to him! You're special, Bobby. If you can see us, that proves you're very special."
"There!" said Bobby, turning to his mother. "Don't you hear them?"
He bounded out of bed, grabbed his mother by the shoulders and turned her to look at the seven, who just sighed and folded their arms. "Do you see them now?"
His mother shook her head. "Pleading insanity will not get you excused from school." Then she left to get breakfast ready.
When she was gone, the plump woman closed the door. "It will all be all right, Bobby. You'll see."
"It's the end of the world," announced the spooky-eyed guy.
"It's nothing of the sort," said the white-haired man, taking charge. "Now see here, Bobby--"
"No! You see here!" Bobby yelled. "This is my house, my room, so take all of your ghosts and go haunt somebody else!"
The white-haired man burst out laughing. "Ghosts? You think we're ghosts?" The rest began to chuckle as well.
Bobby frowned, not sure what to think anymore. "Aren't you?"
The white-haired man took a step closer. "Why don't you take a better look?"
And so Bobby did. As far as he could tell, they were still wearing the same white suits from the day before, but then he noticed that their shirts and blouses were no longer midnight blue. Now they were a brisk morning blue, speckled with puffs of gray and white, mimicking the clouds just outside his window. Then as Bobby took in each of their faces, it occurred to him that there was something familiar about each of them. The white-haired man's decisive eyes; the plump woman's soft smile; the shifty stance of the spooky one; the gentle movements of the harp player's hands; the scrutinizing gaze of the bespectacled man; the whispers of the tall woman. Even the pretty, silent girl who sat in the background as if waiting for a time that had not yet come seemed familiar.
"I know you," Bobby said, confused. "All of you…"
"Yes," answered the white-haired man, "and no."
Bobby noticed something odd about the fabric of their suits. It wasn't like anything he'd ever seen before. He reached out and ran his fingers along the white-haired man's sleeve. It was smoother than velvet, and finer than silk. "What is it?" Bobby asked.
"Watch," he said.
All at once their suit coats lifted open, as if from a billowing breeze, and they stretched outward until Bobby could see that they weren't tailored suits at all. They were wings.
Bobby gasped in astonishment.
"Allow me to introduce myself," said the white-haired man. "I am Bartholomew, and we…are your guardian angels."
Bobby heard it, but he was still too dazzled by the spectacle of their open wings to say anything.
"You see," explained Bartholomew, "every human is attended to by a host of seven angels."
"We monitor you," said the bespectacled one.
"We advise you," said the tall woman.
"We caress your moods and emotions," said the harp player.
"We tend your inner fire," said the patient, pretty one.
"We comfort you," said the plump woman.
"We put obstacles in your way to challenge you," said the creepy one, with an even creepier little laugh.
Then Bartholomew gestured to the others and the fluttering of wings ceased. Bobby watched, entranced as the wings folded over them, becoming simple white suits once more. "There are thirty-five billion of us," Bartholomew said, "seven for every human, and we travel unseen within the lives of humankind."
"But…I can see you."
"Yes, you can." Bartholomew thoughtfully rubbed his chin. "Now you understand our problem."
Bobby sat back down on his bed, trying to come to grips with what he had been told. He had always thought--hoped--that there were such things as guardian angels, protecting him, guiding him. But hoping for such things--even believing in them--was very different from seeing them standing in his room taking notes. He suddenly found his bladder several sizes too small.
"I gotta use the bathroom." Bobby slipped out the door, and across the hall to the bathroom, glad to be away from them. But to his horror, he found all seven of them waiting in there for him. The bathroom was small even for one person, but now it held Bobby and seven angels. Three stood in the bathtub, two stood on the toilet tank, one hovered above the sink and another hung from the shower curtain rod.
"Do you mind?" asked Bobby. "Can't I even take a whiz by myself?"
"Not a chance," said the bespectacled man, busy scribbling. "We're with you everywhere. We see every pick of your nose, every scratch of your butt, every cookie you steal from the cookie jar. We always have, and always will."
"And man, you are one gross dude," said the spooky one.
"But we don't mind," said the plump woman. "It's our job."
"Now go ahead and do your business," said Bartholomew, "or we'll be late for school."
* * *
Bobby failed his math test that day, even though math was his best subject. I...
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