MindTwisters: Stories to Shred Your Head

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Overview

Think bungee jumping is a thrill? Meet a kid who skydives down the funnel of a tornado.

Why not visit the shop in the local mall that sells alternate universes in little bottles. It's a lot of fun. Unless, of course, you open the little black bottle labeled "thermonuclear war." Now that could be a real blast.

Hungry? A roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere serves up a soup so delicious you may never ...

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Overview

Think bungee jumping is a thrill? Meet a kid who skydives down the funnel of a tornado.

Why not visit the shop in the local mall that sells alternate universes in little bottles. It's a lot of fun. Unless, of course, you open the little black bottle labeled "thermonuclear war." Now that could be a real blast.

Hungry? A roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere serves up a soup so delicious you may never want to leave. Or can't....

Worried you might be turning people off? Well, how about the boy who must be locked up in a lead cell, otherwise people around him begin to disappear?

Ever wonder what that evil neighbor of yours had got locked up in the attic? How about the entire world....

Welcome to the world of MindTwisters. Hold on tight, you're about to be blown away....

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Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Jennifer Fakolt
With Mindtwisters: Stories to Shred Your Head, Shusterman extends an invitation into the unknown. The stories challenge readers' imaginations, posing scenarios that are rooted in everyday reality but which take a turn into the twilight. One will find in this slim but potent volume, tales of a boy who keeps a tornado in a paper bag; a tormented statue who seeks to have its fortune read; and a roadside restaurant that serves pea soup so delicious those who taste it cannot leave and instead become servants to the soup. Meet a boy who absorbs everyone he gets close to, visit a very hungry bowling lane or the new store in the mall that offers alternate universes in bottles. Each story sweeps the everyday life of a contemporary youth into the weird, the uncanny that is lurking just behind the curtain of reality. The stories range from creepy to poignant. All are decidedly eerie. Shusterman varies third-person narration with first and makes dynamic use of present tense. He skillfully builds both character and suspense within each tight framework. The tales are more than just unnerving, however. Reminiscent of old Night Gallery or Twilight Zone episodes, Shusterman serves up unease with clever wit and conclusions that leave one questioning, speculating. The endings of most of the stories are concrete, yet there is the sense that they continue beyond the page...in readers' minds. In a few brief pages at the end of the collection, Shusterman explains where he got the ideas for the stories, offering an intriguing glimpse into his creative processes. Mindtwisters is a great choice for reluctant readers and a thought-provoking alternative to wean some fans off of Goosebumps. VOYA Codes: 4Q 4P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses, Broad general YA appeal, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8 and Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9).
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9--Eight short stories that deal with the bizarre and the supernatural. Strange things begin to happen at a bowling alley when the ball is not returned, but a white cylinder with no holes comes out of the ball return. Alana can not get close to people, but anyone getting too close to Garrett disappears. Pizza that is delivered to a place down under; a shop that sells "what might have been"; and a restaurant that attracts clients with pea soup that is too good to pass up are some of the topics included in these compelling selections. All of them are sure to capture the interest of those who like Twilight Zone-like weirdness. Notes explain where the author got the inspiration for each story. Quick reading for fans of the genre.--Debbie Feulner, Northwest Middle School, Greensboro, NC
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812551990
  • Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
  • Publication date: 6/28/1997
  • Series: Scary Stories Series , #3
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 128
  • Age range: 11 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.62 (h) x 0.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Neal Shusterman
Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman is the author of many novels for young adults, including Unwind, which was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers, Everlost, and Downsiders, which was nominated for twelve state reading awards.  He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows such as Animorphs and Goosebumps. The father of four children, Neal lives in southern California. Visit him at StoryMan.com.

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Read an Excerpt

DARK ALLEY

A rainy Friday afternoon. My bowling bag pulls down on my arm. If my arms were rubber, my knuckles would be dragging on the ground from all those Friday afternoons lugging my ball to Grimdale Lanes. But it's something I have to do. Something I want to do.

"Do we have to bowl today, Henry?" my sister Greta asks as we get off the bus. "My thumb hurts."

"Maybe it wouldn't hurt if you didn't suck it."

She pulls her thumb out of her mouth, and hands me her bowling bag. "Then you carry my ball," she says. "It's too heavy." Greta's six, although sometimes you'd think she was younger. Usually Mom is home when Greta comes home from school, but she works late on Fridays—the only weekday I get to go bowling after school.

The skies let loose as if the rain has waited for us to get off the bus. My waterproof jacket isn't that waterproof. Greta's bright orange poncho makes her look like a walking traffic cone, but at least she's dry. Finally we reach the double glass doors of the bowling alley, and they slide open automatically to admit us.

Instantly we are hit by the familiar smell of greasy pizza and floor wax. It's a madhouse. The high school has leagues at five, and it's already after four, so most of the lanes are taken up by big kids warming up. We wait in a slow-moving line in front of the counter until we reach the attendant-a fat man with a stubbly beard, and suspicious eyes.

"Size?" snaps the fat man.

"We have our own shoes," I tell him. "We just need a lane." I wonder how many years I have to keep coming here for him to know me by name. But then again, I don't know his name either. To me, he's just "the fat guy who gives out lanes."

"Sorry, all the lanes are full," says the fat guy. "I just gave out the last one."

I take a look down the alleys. Movie theaters and bowling alleys really clean up on days like this…a rainy afternoon can do that. But then I notice that there's a single dark alley, right next to lane 24.

"What about lane 25?" I ask.

"We ain't got no lane 25," says the fat man. "It only goes up to 24."

"But—"

"Look kid, it's been a long day. All right? Why don't you give me a break, huh? You want a lane, come back tomorrow."

Greta twirls her finger in her hair and grins at me. "Oh well, I guess we'll have to go home. Too bad," I say.

But then a high school guy and his girlfriend—the ones who were in front of us and got the last lane—turn to us. "Why don't you bowl with us," offers the girl.

The fat man grabs my money, and we go off with the high school couple. They've been assigned to lane 24.

The high school guy goes first. He sticks his butt out, holds the ball against the tip of his pointy nose, and launches himself himself down the approach for his first throw. Not interested, my eyes wonder to the lane beside us. It should be lane 25, but unlike the other lanes, it has no number, and unlike the others, it doesn't share a ball return with another lane-it has its own ball return. The lane is dark, and its pins are in shadows.

The high school couple have thrown their first frames, and since I'm not paying attention, Greta seizes the opportunity to pull her light-weight pink ball out of her bag, and go ahead of me. She plods up to the foul line, drops the ball with a heavy thud, and it meanders its way down the alley, lazily taking down three pins.

"Yaay!" she cries. On her second shot, she knocks down another one.

The pins are reset, and I step up to the lane carrying my personalized deep green ball. As soon as I'm in place, my mind begins to clear. It's always like that. I forget the rainy day. I forget school, I forget home; I just think of the pins and my ball. My dad was a great bowler. He tried to teach me, but I was too young, and then one night, after a long day at his construction site, he fell asleep at the wheel of his car. I think about him sometimes. I think about how I could have saved his life if I had been there, because I'm always alert in the car. But mostly I think good thoughts about him. Especially when I bowl. I imagine the way he bowled, how his ball never made a sound when it left his hand, and touched the lane, gentle as a kiss. Each time I bowl, I try to do the same.

With the high school couple and Greta behind me, I focus all of my attention to a pinpoint, lean forward, and begin my approach. At the perfect moment, I release the ball…and it clunks down hard on the wood, careens a crooked path toward the pins, and plops into the gutter before it can take down a single pin.

"Guttrrrr Balllll," says Greta, like an baseball umpire would say, "Steeeerrrrike!"

"Tough break, dude," says the high school guy.

I don't look at anyone. I put my hands over the little air blower to keep myself busy until the ball return spits my ball back to me. I take it and go for the second shot.

Again I prepare to imitate my Dad's bowling form. I inherited my dad's big feet, and his bad teeth—you'd figure I might have inherited his bowling skills, too. Right? I throw the ball with all the heart and guts I can spare…and again it rolls diagonally down the alley, this time tapping the ten-pin enough to make it wobble, but not fall down.

I stare at the pins grinning at me—like a full set of mockingly perfect teeth, before the bar comes down, and sweeps them away.

The high school kid snickers, flipping back a lock of tatted hair. "Not very good, are ya?"

His girlfriend raps him in the stomach. "Shut up. You'll hurt his feelings."

But the fact is, he's right. I'm not very good. And how can I get any better if I can only afford to bowl once a week? I look around at the expert bowlers hurling strikes and spares in every frame. Then I turn to look at the dark lane beside us. I know why the attendant wouldn't give me the last lane: he didn't think I deserved it. He might be just "the fat guy who gives out lanes" to me, but to him, I'm probably just "that kid who can't bowl."

Suddenly the lights flicker on, on the mysterious extra lane. I hear the ball return crank into action. I look back to see if the attendant switched it on from behind his counter, but he's not even at his station. And no one is coming this way to claim the lane.

"Thanks," I say to the high school guy. "But we'll bowl over here now. C'mon Greta."

Greta dutifully grabs her ball, and brings it over to the empty ball stand of the numberless lane. I figure someone will eventually kick us off, but until then, I'll bowl all I want to bowl!

As I put my ball down, I begin to feel uneasy, and I don't know why. It seems a degree or two warmer over here in this lane, and yet I feel a chill set in. There's a smell here, too. An earthy, organic smell, like a wet pile of November leaves. And there's a sound—a whooshing, whispering sound. I turn my head from side to side, until I zero in on where the sound is coming from. It's the ball return.

"Can I go first?" asks Greta.

"Shhh!" I get down on my knees, and lean closer to the dark opening of the ball return. Deep within, I can hear the groaning of belts, pulleys, and rollers, but beneath all that noise there's something else; A sound just at the edge of my hearing. I put my ear closer to it, and feel against the side of my face a warm wind flowing out of it. That wet-leaf smell is stronger here, and as I take a breath of it, that air feels strange. It feels thin and…well…unfulfilling—like the air you get when you keep your head under your covers too long.

Then the sound suddenly changes, and the air pressure flowing from the ball return seems to change, too. There's a sudden mechanical rumble, and for an instant I see something large and white eclipsing the dark hole.

Instinctively I launch myself back, away from the ball return—and its a good thing I have fast reflexes, because the second my head is out of the way, a bowling ball blasts out of the ball return, flies down the ball stand, and smashes into Greta's bowling ball with bone-crushing velocity.

"Close one, huh kid?" says the high school guy with a smirk. I ignore him, and look at the ball. It's not my green ball. This one is shiny white—but not just shiny. It's wet, dripping with a clear, slippery slime that puddles on the floor beneath the ball stand.

"Gross!" says Greta. "A bowling-booger."

I approach it, not sure what to make of it…and that's when I notice that the force of its impact has cracked Greta's ball in half.

As soon as Greta notices, tears begin to pool in her eyes. She can't stand bowling, but that doesn't matter right now—all that matters is that something of hers has been broken. That always calls for tears.

"It's okay, Greta. It's all right, we'll get you a new one," I say, even though I'm sure a new bowling ball won't be in the family budget until her birthday, which is a long way off.

I turn to look down the silent, well-waxed lane, just waiting to be bowled on, then I look at the slimy white ball one more time. Suddenly I don't feel like bowling today.

"C'mon, Greta, let's go home."

"Can we play Barbies?" she asks.

"Yeah, sure, whatever, lets just go."

I put my own ball back into the bag, and leave Greta's ruined one where it is. Then I take my sister's hand, and we head out into the rain.

• • •

When we get home, Phil is on the couch, watching the sports channel.

"Hi squirts," he says as we enter. Phil is Mom's current boyfriend. Lately we find him over even when Mom isn't home. Phil eats our food, puffs cigarettes in our air space, and spends Mom's money whenever he can. I'd call him a sponge to his face, if I didn't think he'd punch my head in for it.

"You oughta get your TV fixed, everyone looks purple," he tells me, then blows a big cloud of Camel breath in my face. I cough from the stench of the smoke. He laughs.

"Your lungs are too sensitive, just like the rest of you," he says. "We gotta toughen you up, kiddo!"

"Yeah, sure, toughen me up."

Greta has already slipped off to her room to play, and since I promised I'd play with her, I follow her, prepared to endure whatever girlie nightmare she has planned. Anyway, it's better than being put down by Phil. Since he works a swing shift, he's always gone by five—just long enough to steal a kiss and twenty bucks from Mom, before he saunters out the door.

That night long after he's gone, and Greta's gone off to bed, I sit with Mom over hot chocolate, and ask her something I've been afraid to ask, because I've been afraid of the answer.

"What do you see in Phil, anyway," I ask her. "Do you love him or something?"

She chooses not to answer that question. Instead she says, "He makes me laugh."

"Yeah," I tell her. "So does Bozo the Clown but I don't see you dating him."

Mom chuckles. We're both quiet for a moment, and I can hear the rain lightly hitting the rain gutters. Gutters. It reminds me of my miserable performance today at the bowling alley. And it reminds me of the strange lane with no number, and its mean ball return. I'm about to tell Mom what happened, but think better of it. They grease those ball returns don't they? Sure they do—that's why the ball was so slimy. That's why it shot out so fast. Suddenly I feel mad at myself for giving up a lane that I could have bowled on all afternoon.

Instead I say, "Mom, can I have a couple of dollars to go bowling tomorrow?"

She sees how much I want it, and so she agrees. That night I go to sleep dreaming of perfect strikes down midnight alleys.

• • •

"I'll take lane 25."

"We only got twenty-four lanes, kid," says the fat guy. Here, take lane three."

It's Saturday morning at 8:15. The weekend leagues don't start for two hours, and only a few people are bowling this early. Lane 3 would be just fine, but instead, I head in the other direction, all the way down to the end, to the numberless lane, next to lane 24.

Again it's dark, but then many lanes are dark, because no one is on them yet. As I sit down and put on my shoes, the lane comes on by itself. I can hear the rumbling whisper of the ball return again. Nothing wrong here.

I stand alone on the approach, and hurl my ball down the alley, for once, hitting the head pin exactly the way I meant to hit it. Six pins go down. Not a strike, but not a gutter ball either. Practice makes perfect. I anxiously wait for my ball to come back.

I throw one frame after another, some good some bad, and even manage to get a spare in the ninth frame. The score for my first game: a 74, which is pretty good for me. I mark the final score down, then get ready to bowl a second game, hopefully even better than the first.

The pins reset, and wait for me with a toothy grin. The ball return hums and groans but my ball doesn't come back. I hit the pin-reset button again—sometimes the ball gets stuck back there, and it takes an avalanche of falling pins to jar it free. The bar comes down, sweeps away the pins, new pins descend from above, and as I expected, I hear my ball rolling back toward me underground. I wait for it to shoot out of the ball return. As it does, I reach for it…and my hand gets covered in warm slime. I look down to see a white slimy ball, just like the ball from yesterday. Quickly I pull my hand back and wipe it on my pants. The slimy white ball sits there, alone on the ball stand, and my ball never makes an appearance. Finally I hit the service button.

"What's the problem?" asks the fat guy, as he saunters over. "Aren't you supposed to be on lane three?"

"I liked this one better," I tell him, "but it ate my ball." I don't bother to mention that this is the very lane he insisted didn't exist.

"Lousy stupid machine." He glances back at the counter, where a couple of pretty girls are waiting for a lane. "Why don't you use one of our balls until I can go back there and check it out?" He gestures to a rack against the wall full of balls. "You can even keep it, for all I care."

Usually the racks are filled with scarred black balls, but on the rack behind lane twenty-five, all the balls are white. I go over to examine them. They look exactly like the ball sitting in the ball stand—exactly like the one that shattered Greta's ball yesterday, only these are dry. I touch one. It's smooth, and its surface glistens like a pearl. I roll it over, then roll it over again, and realize something very peculiar about it, and the rest of the balls on the rack.

None of these balls have finger holes.

I tell the fat guy and he throws me a burning glance. "You're a real pain in the neck, you know that, kid?" Then he goes to the walkway alongside the lanes, and disappears through a back door. In a few moments, I can see glimpses of him through the pins, as he pokes around behind the pin-setting mechanism, in search of my ball.

I wait, and watch. Then suddenly, the sweeper bar comes down, and the pins reset themselves.

"Hey, what the—" I hear the fat man grumble, then a jawful of fresh pins comes down. I hear a brief yelp from behind the machine, the pin setter raises leaving ten fresh pins, and I can't see the fat man anymore.

I wait. I wait some more, but he doesn't come back. Soon there's an irritated line of people at the counter. Suddenly I get scared. I mean really scared—like maybe he's had a heart attack or something.

I run to tell the snack bar attendant, who gets the janitor to go look, but he finds nothing. Not a trace.

I don't tell them about my missing ball—suddenly it doesn't seem important. Instead, I decide to take the fat man up on his offer. I go to the rack of hole-less white balls, and shove one into my bowling bag. I can always get holes drilled into it. I leave, but as I stand near the exit, I steal a glance back at lane 25. Its lights go out, leaving it dark again as I leave.

• • •

When I get home, Mom's out somewhere with Greta, but Phil is there, lounging on the couch, and watching reruns of Gilligan's Island. Stale cigarette smoke hangs in the air like dirty layers of floating silk.

"How's life treatin' ya, Hank?" he asks.

"The name's Henry," I remind him. "Like my father."

He takes a swig from his beer, and glances at my bowling bag. "You know bowling's not a real sport," he says. "Throwing a ball down an alley—it's a no-brainer."

"Then you should be real good at it," I tell him.

He glares at me, but doesn't get off the couch. "Some day, kiddo, that wise mouth of yours'll shoot off one too many times, and someone'll clean your clock real good."

I grit my teeth every time he calls me "kiddo", but I let it slide like a bad gutter ball. He's not worth the effort, I tell myself. "Thanks for the advice, Phil," I say, and go down into the basement.

Our basement is a cold, dim place where we put things we'll probably never see again. I find a clean corner for my bowling bag. After today, I don't know when I'll want to bowl again. And that pearly-white bowling ball is too heavy for me anyway—it practically ripped my arm off getting it home. I take a long sorrowful look at my bowling bag, before heading upstairs, and turning off the light.

• • •

The fat man never turns up. People figure he got bored of his job and moved on. I don't have my own theory, because if I tried to come up with one, I know I wouldn't like it. I just go about my business, go about my life, and pretend like it never happened.

The bowling urge doesn't return to me for more than a month, but when it comes back, it comes back in full force. Maybe it's that my arm muscle feels like it needs to be used. Maybe it's that sound of tumbling pins I hear every time I walk past Grimdale Lanes that makes me want to bowl again…or maybe, it's because one of my friends mentioned that there are 27 lanes now and no one can remember the extra ones being built.

It's after school on Friday. Greta's at a friend's house, which means I can bowl by myself, and I can't wait! I race into the house—I've saved enough money to get the new ball drilled, and even it it's too heavy I know I can get used to it. It's 3:30 when I clatter down the rickety basement steps, and turn on the light.

It takes me a few seconds to come to terms with what I see, and it comes to me in stages. First I notice that the floor beneath me isn't concrete, but it's wood. And the smell—it's not dry and musty, but wet, and earthy. Suddenly another light comes on to my right, and I hear the soft groaning of some mechanism. I spin around to see…

…a bowling alley.

It extends through the edge of our basement, out past the foundation of our house. Past that foundation, I can see tree roots, poking through dirt above the alley, and the red, exposed edges of sewer pipes. Someone's dug a tunnel under our street, just to fit a bowling alley in our basement. But who would have done this? And why?

Everything that had filled our basement is now pushed back into the far corner. Suddenly I feel lightheaded, and realize that I'm hyperventilating. I have to sit down, and like any bowling alley, there's a little row of plastic seats behind the scoring table. I sit down to catch my breath, and stare toward the end of the alley, where ten pins wait in silence for a ball to take them down.

A ball!

I get up as quickly as I sat down, and search for the hole-less white ball. I leap over boxes, and other junk in search of my bowling bag, but everything's piled so high now, I have to dig through everything just to find it. When I finally do find it, I realize that the bag's been torn open. I reach inside to get out the pearl bowling ball, but instead I find it cracked in half, its edges jagged and sharp. It's not at all like Greta's broken ball—this one is hollow, with a shell only a quarter-inch thick. I run my fingers along its curved surface inside, which is just as smooth and pearly white as the outside. It reminds me of something, but my mind doesn't make the connection. Not yet.

That's when I hear a voice. A deep, disdainful voice. "What the heck is this?!"

I peer out over the stacks of boxes to see Phil standing beside the ball return, gawking at the underground alley. Quickly I climb over the boxes, trying to keep calm and rational. Trying not to sound as frightened as I really am.

"Hey, Phil," I say. "How's life treatin' ya?"

"Since when do you have a bowling alley down here?"

I wrinkle my eyebrows, and look at him as if there's something wrong with him. "Haven't you ever been in our basement before?"

"No…"

"It's always been here," I lie. "My dad built it years back. Got permits from the city, and everything."

And since Phil knows that my dad was a construction worker, he falls for it, never doubting me. "So how come you always go out to bowl if you got an alley right here?"

"Oh…uh…it's been broken. We just had it fixed."

Phil puffs on his "cancer stick," and blows a cloud of foul smoke into my face. "Waste of money if you ask me. What lame-brained father builds his kid a bowling alley?"

Then he turns to head back upstairs.

I don't know what comes over me then. Or maybe I do know. Maybe suddenly I don't care what Phil does to me, because nobody says things like that about my father.

"You don't deserve my mother, Phil."

Phil hears me, stops dead in his tracks, and does a slow about-face. "What did you say?"

Standing on my new alley, I suddenly feel courage backing up my anger. "You heard what I said. You're a miserable low-life who sponges off our family. You're a turd on a couch, that's all you are."

His fingers begin to pump into fists, and his voice comes out low and gutteral, like a growling pit bull. "You're in deep trouble little man. You're gonna get yourself a lesson now."

"Go ahead, Kiddo, teach me a lesson," I say, figuring maybe after Mom sees the kind of lessons Phil teaches, she'll throw him out of her life for good.

He lunges at me, and I reflexively dodge out of his way. His momentum carries him past the foul line, onto the shiny waxed surface of the alley, and suddenly he loses his balance. His feet fly out from under him and he lands on his butt.

He tries to grab at me, but his momentum is too great, and the alley too slippery. He continues sliding toward the pins, almost seeming to accelerate on his way down the alley. I begin laughing.

Phil is frothing mad. "Why you…I'm gonna get you, you little—" but he never gets to finish. Instead he bowls right into the pins, taking them all down with a wooden crash. I laugh so hard my sides ache.

"A strike, Phil! See, I told you you'd be good at bowling!"

I'd keep on laughing. I could laugh forever…but something happens. Something I could have predicted, if I had had the time to really think things through. If I had the time to figure out that the broken white bowling ball didn't look like a bowling ball at all.

It looked like an egg.

Suddenly the sweeper bar drops in front of Phil, blocking my view, and behind it, the heavy pin setter comes smashing down on him like the jaws of a shark. Phil doesn't have a chance to say another word, and my own words become choked in my throat. I can't see everything, but I see enough to know what's going on. The silver pin setter slams down again, and again, more powerful each time. I can feel the ground shake with the force of it. Then finally the pin setter raises up, and the sweeper bar brushes in, and brushes out, leaving a perfectly clean, pinless lane. Finally the pin setter descends again, gently this time, depositing ten fresh pins, patiently waiting for a bowler. There's no sign of Phil anywhere.

"Phil?" I call, desperately hoping for an answer. "Phil?" But I hear no sound. Only the hollow breathing of the ball return.

I leave the basement in a daze, not ready to think about it, and not really knowing where I'm going until I get there. Finally I find myself in my mom's closet. Way in the corner there are a few sets of men's clothes—my dad's clothes because, after all, there are just some things you can't bear to part with. I get on my knees, and beneath the dangling pairs of pants, I find what I'm looking for. A black leather bag, with the name Henry Waldron stamped on it in gold. That's my name, too. I reach inside, and pull out a marbled gold bowling ball, as shiney and smooth as the day it was made. It's heavy, and my fingers don't quite fit in the holes, but I could get used to it. I gently remove it from the bag, and carry it down into the basement, where the living alley awaits, its pins grinning at me, the way my father grinned at me so many years ago, each time I threw a ball down a lane.

I stand far back, focus my attention on the pins, and with my father's ball I begin my approach. My arm swoops down, and the ball kisses the wood without a sound as I release it. I watch as the ball curves to the right, then just as it begins to curve back to the head pin, I turn my back, and strut to the scoring console, just like my father used to do. I hear the smash of pins and the heavy clatter as they fly in all directions. I don't even have to look to know that it's a strike.

• • •

Two months later. It's a cold, windy day, but that doesn't matter in my basement.

"One seventy-eight," says Greta, reading my final score. "Is that good?"

"Yeah," I tell her, "but it could still be better." My mouth begins to ache, and I try to ignore it.

Greta picks up her new bowling ball from the ball stand. She's had it for several weeks now and likes it even better than her old one. "Can we play another game?"

"Tomorrow," I tell her. "Mom'll be home soon."

"No she won't," says Greta coyly. "Robert's picking her up at work tonight. They're going to the theater."

As we head up the stairs, I have to smile. Mom missed Phil for about three minutes, and she didn't really question where he went. She figured he just moved on. Then she met Robert. I don't mind babysitting Greta when Mom's out with Robert.

"Do you think Robert will give me braces, too, when I'm old enough?"

"You've got Mom's teeth," I tell her. "You probably won't need braces. But, yeah, if you need them, I'm sure he'll give them to you, too."

Greta thinks for a moment. "An orthodontist is a lot like a construction worker, isn't it? she says. A construction worker in the mouth."

I laugh at that. "Yeah, I guess so."

Greta heads off into her room, and I take a few moments to relax in the living room, almost enjoying the ache in my teeth, the way I enjoy the ache in my shoulder after a good day of bowling. We haven't told Mom about the alley yet, but between work, and Robert and us, she doesn't have the time or the need to go down into the basement. It could be many months until she goes down there, and when she does, I'm sure I'll come up with an explanation that she'll believe.

As for the alley—it's behaved far better than that nasty one in Grimdale Lanes. It always returns our balls, and never sends them out of the ball return too fast. Like everything else, you get what you give, and we treat it very, very well. Just last week it started producing eggs, but we know what to do with those. After all, Christmas is coming, and we have lots of friends and relatives who bowl. The only problem is feeding it—but I've got that one solved, too.

The doorbell rings, and I open the door to a grungy-looking, scowling slacker-dude. He's nineteen, maybe twenty. "Yeah, I'm looking for Henry Waldron Jr.," he says, clutching a torn slip of paper in his hand.

"That's me," I say cheerfully.

"You?" he sneers. "You put this ad in the paper?"

"That's right. Do you have the qualifications for the job?"

He looks down at the classified ad in his hands. "Let's see. 'Seeking lazy individual for the job of a lifetime. Must be difficult to work with, be disliked by everyone, and have a bad attitude.' Yeah that's me all right. So what kind of work is it?"

"We have a basement bowling alley," I explain. "We need someone to…uh…service it once a month."

"Sounds like a lot of work, man."

"Naah, It'll only take a few minutes."

"Cool. The job sounds better all the time." He reaches into his pocket. "But if it's bowling alley work, why'd you have it listed under 'Food Service'?"

I offer him a shrug and open the basement door, but just before we go down, he reaches into his pocket to pull something out.

"By the way, I smoke," he says. Then without warning, he lights up, takes a drag, and blows the smoke in my face. "You got a problem with that…kiddo?"

I slowly lead him down the basement stairs. "You know what?" I tell him, and I can't help but smile, "I think this job is right up your alley."

Copyright © 1997 by Neal Shusterman

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