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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. It wasn't that he didn't know the work, he just couldn't concentrate. How could anyone concentrate with an entourage of seven angels hovering around you, taking notes, looking over your shoulder and constantly telling you what to do?
"Do the easy math problems first," one suggested.
"No, do the hard ones first; get them out of the way," suggested another.
"Don't do any of them, run out the back door."
"Copy the answers from the kid next to you."
They were like a living multiple-choice test. So many voices, so much advice, and not all of it good.
Hockey practice was a crash-and-burn. Although their voices were mostly drowned out by the action around him, they were still there, gliding across the ice around him, making it impossible for him to see the puck through the gaggle of angels. And then the creepy one kept tripping him on purpose!
"Just doing my job," he would say. "What's life without a little challenge?"
His coach wondered why Bobby was so clumsy, his friends couldn't figure out why he kept looking off and mumbling to himself.
But if all that was bad, nothing could compare to what happened on Bobby's first date with Bonnie O'Lox.
It was eight o'clock at the multiplex, and the lights had barely gone down when the angels got to work.
"You really should put your arm around her," whispered the pretty angel in his ear—the first time she had offered any advice on anything at all. So surprised was Bobby that he flinched, flinging popcorn all over Bonnie.
"Is something wrong?" Bonnie asked.
"No. No, nothing. I just slipped, that's all."
"So are you going to put your arm around her or not?" asked the pretty angel.
"He's too much of a wimp," said the creepy one.
"He's a good boy," said the plump one. "He won't do anything too forward."
"Enough!" Bobby grumbled Bonnie turned to him. "Enough of what?"
"Uh…enough coming attractions," he said. "When's the movie going to start?"
The bespectacled angel put a check on his clipboard, and gave Bobby a thumbs-up. "Good recovery."
"Put your arm around her!" insisted the pretty angel. Finally Bobby complied, slipping his arm around her shoulder. Bonnie didn't seem to mind. The angels applauded.
"Can't you leave me alone!"
It had burst out of his mouth before the matronly angel could cup her hand over his lips. Bonnie turned to him, understandably annoyed. "What did you say?"
But now the angel of silence's hand was over his mouth, and he found himself tongue-tied. It took all his will to push her hand away. "I didn't mean you!" he finally said.
"Then who did you mean?"
And that's when the angels began a full scale offensive on his brain.
"Just shut up and pretend it didn't happen," said one.
"Run to the bathroom quick!" said another.
"You're such a loser," said the creepy one.
"Let's all go get some ice cream," suggested the plump one.
So many voices and choices—all so confusing.
"Kiss her!" screeched the pretty angel, and Bobby found himself taking her advice. He leaned forward and planted a popcorn and soda-pop kiss on Bonnie O'Lox's unsuspecting lips.
For a moment at least seven different emotions played on Bonnie's face before she slapped him so hard across the face his retainer flew into the next row.
Bonnie got up and stormed out.
"Smooth move, moron," said the creepy one.
"At least your mother still loves you," said the plump one.
And then Bartholomew pushed his way to the front. Until now he had been content to just orchestrate the others, but now he stepped forward for some decisive action. "Sorry about this Bobby," he said, then he punched Bobby in the stomach. Bobby folded over, the wind knocked out of him. The feeling spread through his body feeling more like a wave of embarrassment and humiliation than a punch to the gut. "Nothing personal," Bartholomew said. "It's just part of the job."
• • •
It was the same for weeks. Seven voices, seven courses of action. Words of comfort and praise, accusations and condemnations. Warm hugs and the occasional punch to the gut. Living with it didn't make it any easier—if anything, Bobby became more frazzled as time went on. In those first few weeks, he was regularly caught talking to himself, but it was just assumed to be a standard variation of eighth-grade weirdness.
"I'm worried about you, Bobby," his mother said one afternoon. That was nothing new—she worried about him even before he was blessed by a plague of angels that no one could see but him. But this time he knew she had reason to worry. These angels were driving him crazy—in fact, the only thing that kept him sane was the knowledge that there was one place they could not go. They could be in his face twenty-four hours a day, but they couldn't be in his head. They couldn't read his mind, and could never truly know what he was thinking.
When he went to the library and pulled down every volume he could find on angels, he told them, "I'm just studying all bout you. If I have to live with you I might as well understand what angels are all about." Since the angels didn't believe it possible for Bobby to keep anything from them, they never suspected the true nature of his studies. Even when he began to research the authors of the darker, stranger books. Even when he found one of those authors living in his town.
"The boy has a healthy interest," Bartholomew told his colleagues.
"I think it's sick," said the creepy one, who found most everything Bobby did to be sick.
The most interesting, weirdest book on angels Bobby found was by a man named Terrence Daktill—who, according to the bio, lived right there in town. From the things Mr. Daktill wrote, it was very clear to Bobby that he was different from the other authors. He knew too much—which meant, perhaps, that he saw his own angels, too.
• • •
Terrence Daktill lived in a mansion in the most exclusive part of town, with a gate so far from the main residence that the house couldn't even be seen from the street. Although the man had only one book to his credit, he appeared rich beyond reckoning.
"Does Mr. Daktill come from a rich family?" Bobby asked the butler who led him toward the morning room.
"No—Mr. Daktill came into his wealth rather recently," said the butler. "Good investments."
As they sat in the morning room, the angels flitted about in their standard orbits around Bobby, some flying, some pacing, some trying to distract him, console him, or challenge him, as they always did
"I don't like this place," Bartholomew commented.
Then Terrence Daktill made his grand entrance. He was a man dressed in a thousand-dollar suit, with a gold watch and a glittering diamond earring. "You've come to speak to me about my book?"
"Yes," said Bobby, introducing himself. Mr. Daktill gestured for him to sit down, with a smooth wave of his hand that seemed more like a magician revealing a secret card. Bobby sat in a plush leather armchair, and got right to the point, ignoring the whispers and comments of his angelic entourage. "You see your angels too, don't you, Mr. Daktill?"
The man didn't seem surprised at all by the question. "Yes, I did see my angels for a time. If we dream too vividly, they become visible to us—but you already know that from my book."
"You don't see them anymore?" Bobby asked.
"No, I don't."
Bartholomew perked up. "Splendid!" he cried. "Get him to tell us how we might become hidden from you again!"
Bobby shushed him, and Daktill smiled knowingly.
Then the butler entered with a pot of tea, pouring two cups, then left.
"Please have some," Daktill offered. "I think you'll find the brew exceptional."
It was exceptional, all right; exceptionally disgusting. It tasted more like mud than tea, but Bobby just smiled, not wanting to be rude. Meanwhile, the angels chattered away, trying to tell him what to do.
"Tell him he's a nutcase."
"No—listen to what he has to say."
"Ask him if he has a daughter your age."
"See if there's anything good for dinner."
Bobby put his hands over his ears. "Shut up!!"
Daktill grinned. "Are they giving you too much advice?"
"All day long," Bobby confessed, "and they're always there, watching me eat and sleep. They won't leave me alone!"
"It's their job, you know," said Daktill. "Now drink your tea—it will ease your mind."
The plump angel took offense to that. "Don't you believe him, Bobby. It's my job to ease your mind!"
Daktill slowly wove the fingers of his right hand into the fingers of his left. "I once saw my angels," he told Bobby. "And then I educated myself. You see, they do have one weakness. They can advise you, they can watch you, but they can't make you do anything—which means they can't stop you from doing anything either.
The angels began to grumble uncomfortably. Bartholomew leaned forward. "Let's leave," he said. "Let's leave right away."
"No," Bobby said, "I want to stay."
"Good for you!" said Daktill. "Exert your free will!"
Bobby smiled. Perhaps he had more power than he realized.
Daktill reached his slender fingers down to a small snuff box that sat on an antique table beside him. "This box dates back six hundred years," he explained. "It's priceless, like most of the things in this house. But it's what's inside that makes it most valuable to you and me." Daktill opened the snuff box to reveal that it was full of straight pins, each about two inches long.
"Select a pin," Daktill instructed.
Bobby pulled out a pin. It was ordinary in every way.
"Now prick your right thumb with it."
All at once the angles erupted into a noisy argument, no longer advising him but fighting with each other as to what they should do. Bobby jabbed the pin into his thumb, and instantly the angels fell eerily silent, watching. Bobby withdrew the pin, and a tiny bead of blood bubbled up on his thumb. Suddenly Daktill grabbed Bobby's hand and thrust his thumb into his cup of tea.
"Hey! That's hot!" But even as he said it Bobby realized that the tea was chilling, as if his thumb were an ice cube cooling the water. In a moment the tea was freezing cold, and the liquid had changed from muddy brown to clear.
"Once you see your angles, they'll never be far from your sight," said Daktill. "Unless you remove them completely."
The angels suddenly cried out, demanding that Bobby leave, trying to turn his will—but he remained steadfast, and they could do nothing against his resolve.
"The removal of one's angels," continued Daktill, "requires a potion consisting of hummingbird wings and manatee tears, boiled in a purée of unicorn horn and the adrenal gland of a Himalayan Yeti. That's what you've been drinking."
Bobby began to feel sick to his stomach, but forced the feeling away.
"The final and most important ingredient was a drop of your blood," said Daktill. "Now only one part of the ritual remains. Do you truly wish to rid yourself of your angels, Bobby Hartford?"
"Yes," said Bobby, "yes, I do."
"Then repeat after me.…"
"Don't do it!" shouted the angels.
"We love you!"
"We hate you!"
"Who will comfort you?"
"Who will frighten you?"
"Who will make you feel?"
"Who will make your sleep?"
"Who will hold your tongue?"
"Who will push you to action?"
"Don't do it, Bobby!"
Daktill held Bobby's hand deep in the tea that was quickly turning into ice. "With this brew," said Daktill.
And Bobby repeated, "With this brew,"
"I thee absolve."
"I thee absolve!"
There came a flutter of wings and kicking up of dust, seven sudden gasps of air…and all the shouts were enveloped by sweet, sweet silence. The angels were gone.
"Where'd they go?" Bobby asked.
"Look at the pin." Daktill handed him back the pin, and a huge magnifying glass. Bobby looked through the lense to see seven tiny angels stuck to the head of the pin.
"This is highly irregular," Bartholomew cried in a faint, high-pitched voice. "Highly irregular indeed!"
"And that's that," said Daktill. Then he took the pin from Bobby and stuck it into a little red pincushion that was already bristling with pins. "I've been collecting them," explained Daktill, "from other unfortunate souls like yourself." He slid the pincushion into a drawer in a roll-top desk.
Bobby didn't know how he could ever thank the man. "I should pay you something," Bobby said. "I don't have much, but—"
Daktill just laughed. "Having your angels is payment enough," he said. "They're good luck, you know." Since I've started collecting them, I've won the lottery and every sweepstakes I enter." Then he handed Bobby five hundred-dollar bills. "This is for you—payment for your angels."
Bobby took the money, wondering if perhaps angels might be worth something more—but in the end, it didn't matter, because they both got what they wanted. Bobby left a very happy boy.
• • •
That night, Bobby slept quietly and contentedly. In his dream he was alone at last on the ice—no one but him and the open goal ahead. There in the stands was Bonnie O'Lox, waving at him, forgiving him for being so strange on their one and only date. It was a dream for the record books, more vivid, more real than any dream he could remember. But then he was awakened by a nasty twist of his big toe.
He opened his eyes to a sea of faces around him. Not just seven, but many, many more.
"You nasty, nasty boy!" said the leader of this tribe of angels, all with silver wings and bodies glowing as bright as the sun.
"No!" shouted Bobby. "I just got rid of my angels. What's going on here? Who are you?"
The lead angel leaned forward menacingly. "Do you think that you humans are the only ones who have guardian angels? Ha! We are the seven squads of archangels who attend to the lives of your angels…but now that you've banished them to the head of a pin, there's not much for us to do, is there? So we've come to you."
Bobby swallowed hard. "You mean—"
"That's right, Bobby. We're your angles now…and we're not happy about it."
Bobby buried himself under his covers, but his blanket was quickly ripped away. "Things are going to change around here," the lead archangel said. "There will be no more whining, no more nose-picking, no more nail-biting or fiddling with your toe jam. You will live by our standards now…because we'll always be watching you, Bobby. All forty-nine of us."
Bobby looked at the crowd of disgruntled faces scowling at him, and suddenly thought he might just wet his bed.
"I…I gotta use the bathroom," he told them.
The lead angel rolled his eyes. "Very well, if you must. Just give us a moment."
Bobby sighed with sad resignation. It was going to be one very crowded bathroom.
Copyright © 2000 by Neal Shusterman
Posted February 15, 2013
No text was provided for this review.