WE FOUND OURSELVES STANDING in a long, dark, cold corridor. I had my jacket on, but shivered anyway. It was freezing!
"Why is it so cold?" I asked Steve. "It was warm outside."
"Old houses are like that," he told me.
We started to walk. There was a light down by the other end, so the farther in we got, the brighter it became. I was glad for that. I don't think I could have made it otherwise: it would have been too scary!
The walls were scratched and scribbled on, and bits of the ceiling were flaky. It was a creepy place. It would have been bad enough in the middle of the day, but this was ten o'clock, only two hours away from midnight!
"There's a door here," Steve said and stopped. He pushed it ajar and it creaked loudly. I almost turned and ran. It sounded like the lid of a coffin being tugged open!
Steve showed no fear and stuck his head in. He said nothing for a few seconds, while his eyes got used to the dark, then he pulled back. "It's the stairs up to the balcony," he said.
"Where the kid fell from?" I asked.
"Do you think we should go up?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I don't think so. It's dark up there, no sign of any sort of light. We'll try it if we can't find another way in, but I think..."
"Can I help you boys?" somebody said behind us, and we nearly jumped out of our skins!
We turned around quickly and the tallest man in the world was standing there, glaring down on us as if we were a couple of rats. He was so tall, his head almost touched the ceiling. He had huge bony hands and eyes that were so dark, they looked like two black coals stuck in the middle of his face.
"Isn't it rather late for two little boys like yourselves to be out and about?" he asked. His voice was as deep and croaky as a frog's, but his lips hardly seemed to move. He would have made a great ventriloquist.
"We..." Steve began, but had to stop and lick his lips before he could continue. "We're here to see the Cirque Du Freak," he said.
"Are you?" The man nodded slowly. "Do you have tickets?"
"Yes," Steve said, and showed his.
"Very good," the man muttered. Then he turned to me and said: "How about you, Darren? Do you have a ticket?"
"Yes," I said, reaching into my pocket. Then I stopped dead in my tracks. He knew my name! I glanced at Steve and he was shaking in his sneakers.
The tall man smiled. He had black teeth and some were missing, and his tongue was a dirty shade of yellow. "My name is Mr. Tall," he said. "I own the Cirque Du Freak."
"How did you know my friend's name?" Steve asked bravely.
Mr. Tall laughed and bent down, so he was eyeball-to-eyeball with Steve. "I know lots of things," he said softly. I know your names. I know where you live. I know you don't like your mommy or your daddy." He turned to face me and I took a step back. His breath stank to the high heavens. "I know you didn't tell your parents you were coming here. And I know how you won your ticket."
"How?" I asked. My teeth were shaking so much, I wasn't sure if he heard me or not. If he did, he decided not to answer, because next he stood up and turned away from us.
"We must hurry," he said, beginning to walk. I thought he would take giant steps, but he didn't, he took short ones. "The show is about to begin. Everyone else is present and seated. You are late, boys. You're lucky we didn't start without you."
He turned a corner at the end of the corridor. He was only two or three steps in front of us, but when we turned the corner, he was sitting behind a long table covered with a black cloth that reached down to the floor. He was wearing a tall red hat now, and a pair of gloves.
"Tickets, please," he said. He reached out, took them, opened his mouth, put the tickets in, then chewed them to pieces and swallowed!
"Very well," he said. "You may go in now. We normally don't welcome children, but I can see you are two fine, courageous young men. We will make an exception."
There were two blue curtains in front of us, drawn across the end of the hall. Steve and me looked at each other and gulped.
"Do we walk straight on?" Steve asked.
"Of course," Mr. Tall said.
"Isn't there a lady with a flashlight?" I asked.
He laughed. "If you want someone to hold your hand," he said, "you should have brought a babysitter!"
That made me mad and I forgot for a moment how afraid I was. "All right," I snapped, stepping forward, surprising Steve. "If that's the way it is..." I walked forward quickly and pushed past the curtains.
I don't know what those curtains were made of, but they felt like spiderwebs. I stopped once I passed them. I was in a short corridor and another pair of curtains were draped across the walls a few yards in front. There was a sound behind and then Steve was by my side. We could hear noises on the other side of the curtains.
"Do you think it's safe?" I asked.
"I think it's safer to go forward than backward," he answered. "I don't think Mr. Tall would like it if we turned back."
"How do you think he knew all that stuff about us? "I asked.
"He must be able to read minds," Steve replied.
"Oh," I said, and thought about that for a few seconds. "He nearly scared the life out of me," I admitted.
"Me, too," Steve said.
Then we stepped forward.
It was a huge room. The chairs had been ripped out of the theater long ago, but deck chairs had been set up in their place. We looked for empty seats. The entire theater was packed, but we were the only children there. I could feel people watching us and whispering.
The only spaces were in the fourth row from the front. We had to step over lots of legs to get there and people were grumbling. When we sat down, we realized they were good seats, because we were right in the middle and nobody tall was in front of us. We had a perfect view of the stage and could see everything.
"Do you think they sell popcorn?" I asked.
"At a freak show?" Steve snorted. "Get real! They might sell snake eggs and lizard eyes, but I'll bet anything you like they don't sell popcorn!"
The people in the theater were a mixed bunch. Some were dressed stylishly, others in sweatsuits. Some were as old as the hills, others just a few years older than Steve and me. Some chatted confidently to their companions and behaved as though at a soccer game, others sat quietly in their chairs and gazed around nervously.
What everyone shared was a look of excitement.
I could see it in their eyes, the same light that was shining in Steve's and mine. We all somehow knew that we were in for something special, the likes of which we'd never seen before.
Then a bunch of trumpets blew and the whole place went quiet. The trumpets blew for ages and ages, getting louder and louder, and every light went out until the theater was pitch black. I began to get scared again, but it was too late to leave.
All of a sudden, the trumpets stopped and there was silence. My ears were ringing and for a few seconds I felt dizzy. Then I recovered and sat up straight in my seat.
Somewhere high up in the theater, someone switched on a green light and the stage lit up. It looked eerie! For about a minute nothing else happened. Then two men came out, pulling a cage. It was on wheels and covered with what looked like a huge bearskin rug. When they got to the middle of the stage they stopped, dropped the ropes, and ran back into the wings.
For a few seconds more silence. Then the trumpets blew again, three short blasts. The rug came flying off the cage and the first freak was revealed.
That was when the screaming began.