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A Living Nightmare, Page 2

Darren Shan

  "I would," I said.

  "Me, too," Tommy agreed.

  "And me," Alan added.

  "Sure," Steve said, "but we don't have twenty-three bucks to throw away. So it's academic, isn't it?"

  "What does academic mean?" Alan asked.

  "It means we can't afford the tickets, so it doesn't matter if we would buy them or not," Steve explained. "It's easy to say you would buy something if you know you can't."

  "I'd love to go," Tommy said sadly. "It sounds great." He studied the picture again.

  "Mr. Dalton didn't think too much of it," Alan said.

  "That's what I mean," Tommy said. "If Dalton doesn't like it, it must be super. Anything that adults hate is normally awesome."

  "Are we sure we don't have enough?" I asked. "Maybe they have discounts for children."

  "I don't think children are allowed in," Alan said, but he told me how much he had anyway. "Eight-fifty."

  "I've got eighteen dollars exactly," Steve said.

  "I have ten dollars and forty cents," Tommy said.

  "And I have twelve dollars and thirty cents," I told them. "That's more than forty-nine dollars in all," I said, adding it up in my head. "We get our allowance tomorrow. If we pool our "

  "But the tickets are nearly sold out," Alan interrupted. "The first show was yesterday. It finishes Tuesday. If we go, it'll have to be tomorrow night or Saturday, because our parents won't let us out any other night. The guy who gave Tony the flyer said the tickets for both those nights were almost gone. We'd have to buy them tonight."

  "Well, so much for that," I said, putting on a brave face.

  "Maybe not," Steve said. "My mom keeps a wad of money in a jar at home. I could borrow some and put it back when we get our allowance "

  "You mean steal?" I asked.

  "I mean borrow," he snapped. "It's only stealing if you don't put it back. What do you say?"

  "How would we get the tickets?" Tommy asked. "It's a school night. We wouldn't be let out."

  "I can sneak out," Steve said. "I'll buy them."

  "But Mr. Dalton snipped off the address," I reminded him. "How will you know where to go?"

  "I memorized it." He grinned. "Now, are we gonna stand here all night making up excuses, or are we gonna go for it?"

  We looked at each other, then one by one nodded silently.

  "Right," Steve said. "We hurry home, grab our money, and meet back here. Tell your parents you forgot a book or something. We'll lump the money together and I'll add the rest from the pot at home."

  "What if you can't steal I mean, 'borrow,' the money?" I asked.

  He shrugged. "Then the deal's off. But we won't know unless we try. Now hurry!"

  With that, he sprinted away. Moments later, making up our minds, Tommy, Alan, and I ran, too.

  THE FREAK SHOW WAS all I could think about that night. I tried forgetting it but couldn't, not even when I was watching my favorite TV shows. It sounded so weird: a snake-boy, a wolf-man, a performing spider. I was especially excited by the spider.

  Mom and Dad didn't notice anything was up, but Annie did. Annie is my younger sister. She can be sort of annoying but most of the time she's cool. She doesn't run to Mom telling on me if I misbehave, and she knows how to keep a secret.

  "What's wrong with you?" she asked after dinner. We were alone in the kitchen, washing the dishes.

  "Nothing's wrong," I said.

  "Yes there is," she said. "You've been acting weird all night."

  I knew she'd keep asking until she got the truth, so I told her about the freak show.

  "It sounds great," she agreed, "but there's no way you'd get in."

  "Why not? "I asked.

  "I bet they don't let children in. It sounds like a grown-up kind of show."

  "They probably wouldn't let a brat like you in," I said nastily, "but me and the others would be okay." That upset her, so I apologized. "I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean that. I'm just annoyed because you're probably right. Annie, I'd give anything to go!"

  "I've got a makeup kit I could lend you," she said. "You can draw on wrinkles and stuff. It'd make you look older."

  I smiled and gave her a big hug, which is something I don't do very often. "Thanks, sis," I said, "but it's okay. If we get in, we get in. If we don't, we don't."

  We didn't say much after that. We finished drying and hurried into the TV room. Dad got home a few minutes later. He works on building sites all over the place, so he's often late. He's grumpy sometimes but was in a good mood that night and swung Annie around in a circle.

  "Anything exciting happen today?" he asked, after he'd said hello to Mom and given her a kiss.

  "I scored another hat trick at lunch," I told him.

  "Really?" he said. "That's great. Well done."

  We turned the TV down while Dad was eating. He likes peace and quiet when he eats, and often asks us questions or tells us about his day at work.

  Later, Mom went to her room to work on her stamp albums. She's a serious stamp collector. I used to collect, too, when I was younger and more easily amused.

  I popped up fo see if she had any new stamps with exotic animals or spiders on them. She didn't. While I was there, I asked her about freak shows.

  "Mom," I said, "have you ever been to a freak show?"

  "A what?" she asked, concentrating on the stamps.

  "A freak show," I repeated. "With bearded ladies and wolf-men and snake-boys."

  She looked up at me and blinked. "A snake-boy?" she asked. "What on Earth is a snake-boy?"

  "It's a…" I stopped when I realized I didn't know. "Well, that doesn't matter," I said. "Have you ever been to one?"

  She shook her head. "No. They're illegal."

  "If they weren't," I said, "and one came to town, would you go?"

  "No," she said, shivering. "Those sorts of things frighten me. Besides, I don't think it would be fair to the people in the show."

  "What do you mean?" I asked.

  "How would you like it," she said, "if you were stuck in a cage for people to look at?"

  "I'm not a freak!" I said huffily.

  "I know." She laughed and kissed my forehead. "You're my little angel."

  "Mom, don't!" I grumbled, wiping my forehead with my hand.

  "Silly." She smiled. "But imagine you had two heads or four arms, and somebody stuck you on display for people to make fun of. You wouldn't like that, would you?"

  "No," I said, shuffling my feet.

  "Anyway, what's all this about a freak show?" she asked. "Have you been staying up late, watching horror films?"

  "No," I said.

  "Because you know your dad doesn't like you watching "

  "I wasn't staying up late, okay?" I shouted. It's really annoying when parents don't listen.

  "Okay, Mister Grumpy," she said. "No need to shout. If you don't like my company, go downstairs and help your father weed the garden."

  I didn't want to go, but Mom was upset that I'd shouted at her, so I left and went down to the kitchen. Dad was coming in from the back and spotted me.

  "So this is where you've been hiding." He chuckled. "Too busy to help the old man tonight?"

  "I was on my way," I told him.

  "Too late," he said, taking off his workboots. "I'm finished."

  I watched him putting on his slippers. He has huge feet. He wears size twelve shoes! When I was younger, he used to stand me on his feet and walk me around. It was like being on two long skateboards.

  "What are you doing now?" I asked.

  "Writing," he said. My dad has pen pals all over the world, in America, Australia, Russia, and China. He says he likes to keep in touch with his global neighbors, though I think it's just an excuse to go into his study for a nap!

  Annie was playing with dolls and stuff. I asked if she wanted to come to my room for a game of tennis using a sock for a ball and shoes for rackets, but she was too busy arranging her dolls for a pretend picnic.

  I went to my room and
dragged down my comic books. I have a bunch of cool comic books Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and Spawn. Spawn's my favorite. He's a superhero who used to be a demon in hell. Some of the Spawn comics are pretty scary, but that's why I love them.

  I spent the rest of the night reading comic books and putting them in order. I used to swap with Tommy, who has a huge collection, but he kept spilling drinks on the covers and crumbs between the pages, so I stopped.

  Most nights I go to bed by ten, but Mom and Dad forgot about me, and I stayed up until nearly ten-thirty. Then Dad saw the light in my room and came up. He pretended to be angry but he wasn't really. Dad doesn't mind too much if I stay up late. Mom's the one who nags me about that.

  "Bed," he said, "or I'll never be able to wake you in the morning."

  "Just a minute, Dad," I told him, "while I put my comics away and brush my teeth."

  "Okay," he said, "but make it quick."

  I stuck the comics into their box and stuffed it back up on the shelf over my bed.

  I put on my pajamas and went to brush my teeth. I took my time, brushing slowly, and it was almost eleven when I got into bed. I lay back, smiling. I felt very tired and knew I'd fall asleep in a couple of seconds. The last thing I thought about was the Cirque Du Freak. I wondered what a snake-boy looked like, and how long the bearded lady's beard was, and what Hans Hands and Gertha Teeth did. Most of all, I dreamed about the spider.

  THE NEXT MORNING, TOMMY, Alan, and me waited outside the gates for Steve, but there was no sign of him by the time the bell rang for class, so we had to go in.

  "I bet he's hiding," Tommy said. "He couldn't get the tickets and now he doesn't want to face us."

  "Steve's not like that," I said.

  "I hope he brings the flyer back," Alan said. "Even if we can't go, I'd like to have the flyer. I'd stick it up over my bed and "

  "You couldn't stick it up, stupid!" Tommy laughed.

  "Why not? "Alan asked.

  "Because Tony would see it," I told him.

  "Oh yeah," Alan said glumly.

  I was miserable in class. We had geography first, and every time Mrs. Quinn asked me a question, I got it wrong. Normally geography's my best subject, because I know so much about it from when I used to collect stamps.

  "Had a late night, Darren?" she asked when I got my fifth question wrong.

  "No, Mrs. Quinn," I lied.

  "I think you did." She smiled. "There are more bags under your eyes than in the local supermarket!" Everybody laughed at that Mrs. Quinn didn't crack jokes very often and I did, too, even though I was the butt of the joke.

  The morning dragged, the way it does when you feel let down or disappointed. I spent the time imagining the freak show. I made-believe I was one of the freaks, and the owner of the circus was a nasty guy who whipped everybody, even when they got stuff right. All the freaks hated him, but he was so big and mean, nobody said anything. Until one day he whipped me once too often, and I turned into a wolf and bit his head off! Everybody cheered and I was made the new owner.

  It was a pretty good daydream.

  Then, a few minutes before lunch, the door opened and guess who walked in? Steve! His mother was behind him and she said something to Mrs. Quinn, who nodded and smiled. Then Mrs. Leonard left and Steve strolled over to his seat and sat down.

  "Where were you?" I asked in a furious whisper.

  "At the dentist's," he said. "I forgot to tell you I was going."

  "What about "

  "That's enough, Darren," Mrs. Quinn said. I shut up instantly.

  At recess, Tommy, Alan, and I almost smothered Steve. We were shouting and pulling at him at the same time.

  "Did you get the tickets?" I asked.

  "Were you really at the dentist's?" Tommy wanted to know.

  "Where's my flyer?" Alan asked.

  "Patience, boys, patience," Steve said, pushing us away and laughing. "Good things come to those who wait."

  "Come on, Steve, don't mess around with us," I told him. "Did you get them or not?"

  "Yes and no," he said.

  "What does that mean?" Tommy snorted.

  "It means I have some good news, some bad news, and some crazy news," he said. "Which do you want to hear first?"

  "Crazy news?" I asked, puzzled.

  Steve pulled us off to one side of the yard, checked to make sure no one was around, then began speaking in a whisper.

  "I got the money," he said, "and sneaked out at seven o'clock, when Mom was on the phone. I hurried across town to the ticket booth, but do you know who was there when I arrived?"

  "Who?" we asked.

  "Mr. Dalton!" he said. "He was there with a couple of policemen. They were dragging a small guy out of the booth it was only a small shed, really when suddenly there was this huge bang and a big cloud of smoke covered them all. When it cleared, the small guy had disappeared."

  "What did Mr. Dalton and the police do?" Alan asked.

  "Examined the shed, looked around a bit, then left."

  "They didn't see you?" Tommy asked.

  "No," Steve said. "I was well hidden."

  "So you didn't get the tickets," I said sadly.

  "I didn't say that," he contradicted me.

  "You got them?" I gasped.

  "I turned to leave," he said, "and found the small guy behind me. He was tiny, and dressed in a long cloak that covered him from head to toe. He spotted the flyer in my hand, took it, and held out the tickets. I handed over the money and "

  "You got them!" we roared delightedly.

  "Yes," he beamed. Then his face fell. "But there was a catch. I told you there was bad news, remember?"

  "What is it?" I asked, thinking he'd lost them.

  "He only sold me two," Steve said. "I had the money for four, but he wouldn't take it. He didn't say anything, just tapped the part on the flyer about 'some restrictions,' then handed me a card that said the Cirque Du Freak only sold two tickets per flyer. I offered him extra money I had almost a hundred dollars total but he wouldn't accept it."

  "He only sold you two tickets?" Tommy asked, dismayed.

  "But that means…" Alan began.

  "…Only two of us can go," Steve finished. He looked around at us grimly. "Two of us will have to stay at home."

  IT WAS FRIDAY AFTERNOON, the end of the school week, the start of the weekend, and everybody was laughing and running home as quickly as they could, delighted to be free. Except a certain miserable foursome who hung around the schoolyard, looking like the end of the world had arrived. Their names? Steve Leonard, Tommy Jones, Alan Morris, and me, Darren Shan.

  "It's not fair," Alan moaned. "Who ever heard of a circus only letting you buy two tickets? It's stupid!"

  We all agreed with him, but there was nothing we could do about it but stand around kicking the ground with our feet, looking bummed out.

  Finally, Alan asked the question that was on everybody's mind.

  "So, who gets the tickets?"

  We looked at each other and shook our heads uncertainly.

  "Well, Steve has to get one," I said. "He put in more money than the rest of us, and he went to buy them, so he has to get one, agreed?"

  "Agreed," Tommy said.

  "Agreed," Alan said. I think he would have argued about it, except he knew he wouldn't win.

  Steve smiled and took one of the tickets. "Who goes with me?" he asked.

  "I brought in the flyer," Alan said quickly.

  "Forget that!" I told him. "Steve should get to choose."

  "Not on your life!" Tommy laughed. "You're his best friend. If we let him pick, he'll pick you. I say we fight for it. I have boxing gloves at home."

  "No way!" Alan squeaked. He's small and never gets into fights.

  "I don't want to fight either," I said. I'm no coward but I knew I wouldn't stand a chance against Tommy. His dad taught him how to box and they have their own punching bag. He would have floored me in the first round.

  "Let's pick straws for it," I said, but
Tommy didn't want to. He has terrible luck and never wins anything like that.

  We argued about it a bit more, until Steve came up with an idea. "I know what to do," he said, opening his school bag. He tore two sheets of paper out of a notebook and, using his ruler, carefully cut them into small pieces, each one roughly the same size as the ticket. Then he got his empty lunch bag and dumped the paper inside.

  "Here's how it works," he said, holding up the second ticket. "I put this in, squeeze the bag shut, and shake it around, okay?" We nodded. "You stand side by side and I'll throw the pieces of paper over your heads. Whoever gets the ticket wins. Me and the winner will give the other two their money back when we can afford it. Is that fair enough, or does somebody have a better idea?"

  "Sounds good to me," I said.

  "I don't know," Alan grumbled. "I'm the youngest. I can't jump as high as "

  "Quit yapping," Tommy said. "I'm the smallest, and I don't mind. Besides, the ticket might come out on the bottom of the pile, float down low, and be in just the right place for the shortest person.

  "All right," Alan said. "But no shoving."

  "Agreed," I said. "No rough stuff."

  "Agreed." Tommy nodded.

  Steve squeezed the bag and gave it a good long shake. "Get ready," he told us.

  We stood back from Steve and lined up in a row. Tommy and Alan were side by side, but I kept out of the way so I'd have room to swing both arms.

  "Okay," Steve said. "I'll throw everything in the air on the count of three. All set?" We nodded. "One," Steve said, and I saw Alan wiping sweat from around his eyes. "Two," Steve said, and Tommy's fingers twitched. "Three!" Steve yelled, and he jerked open the bag and tossed the paper high up into the air.

  A breeze came along and blew the pieces of paper straight at us. Tommy and Alan started yelling and grabbing wildly. It was impossible to see the ticket in among the scraps of paper.

  I was about to start grabbing, when all of a sudden I got an urge to do something strange. It sounds crazy, but I've always believed in following an urge or a hunch.

  So what I did was, I shut my eyes, stuck out my hands like a blind man, and waited for something magical to happen.

  As I'm sure you know, usually when you try something you've seen in a movie, it doesn't work. Like if you try doing a wheelie with your bike, or making your skateboard jump up in the air. But every once in a while, when you least expect it, something clicks.