THE SNAKE'S TONGUE FLICKED IN and out of its mouth and it seemed mighty hungry. It wasn't very colorful dark green, with a few flecks of brighter colors here and there but it looked deadly.
The people beneath the balcony ran back toward their seats. They were screaming and dropping stuff as they ran. A few people fainted and some fell and were crushed. Steve and I were lucky to be near the front: we were the smallest people in the theater and would have been trampled to death if we'd been caught in the rush.
The snake was about to slither onto the floor when a strong light fixed itself to the snake's face. The reptile froze and stared into the light without blinking. People stopped running and the panic died down. Those who had fallen pulled themselves back to their feet, and fortunately nobody appeared to be badly hurt.
There was a sound behind us. I turned to look back at the stage. A boy was up there. He was about fourteen or fifteen, very thin, with long yellowy-green hair. His eyes were oddly shaped, narrow like the snake's. He was dressed in a long white robe.
The boy made a hissing noise and raised his arms above his head. The robe fell away and everybody who was watching him let out a loud gasp of surprise. His body was covered in scales!
From head to toe he sparkled, green and gold and yellow and blue. He was wearing a pair of shorts but nothing else. He turned around so we could see his back, and that was the same as the front, except a few shades darker.
When he faced us again, he lay down on his belly and slid off the stage, just like a snake. It was then that I remembered the snake-boy on the flyer and put two and two together.
He stood when he reached the floor and walked toward the back of the theater. I saw, as he passed, that he had strange hands and feet: his fingers and toes were joined to each other by thin sheets of skin. He looked a little like that monster I saw in an old horror film, the one who lived in the black lagoon.
He stopped a few yards away from the pillar and crouched down. The light that had been blinding the snake snapped off and it began to move again, sliding down the last stretch of pole. The boy made another hissing noise and the snake paused. I remembered reading somewhere once that snakes can't hear, but can feel sounds.
The snake-boy shuffled a little bit to his left, then his right. The snake's head followed him but didn't lunge. The boy crept closer to the snake, until he was within its range. I expected it to strike and kill him, and I wanted to scream at him to run.
But the snake-boy knew what he was doing. When he was close enough he reached out and tickled the snake beneath its chin with his weird webbed fingers. Then he bent forward and kissed it on the nose!
The snake wrapped itself around the boy's neck. It coiled about him a couple of times, leaving its tail draped over his shoulder and down his back like a scarf.
The boy stroked the snake and smiled. I thought he was going to walk through the crowd, letting the rest of us rub it, but he didn't. Instead he walked over to the side of the theater, away from the path to the door. He unwrapped the snake and put it down on the floor, then tickled it under its chin once more.
The mouth opened wide this time, and I saw its fangs. The snake-boy lay down on his back a short distance away from the snake, then began wriggling toward it!
"No," I said softly to myself. "Surely he's not going to..."
But yes, he stuck his head in the snake's wide-open mouth!
The snake-boy stayed inside the mouth for a few seconds, then slowly eased out. He wrapped the snake around him once more, then rolled around and around until the snake covered him completely, except for his face. He managed to hop to his feet and grin. He looked like a rolled-up carpet!
"And that, ladies and gentlemen," said Mr. Tall from the stage behind us, "really is the end." He smiled and leaped from the stage, vanishing in midair in a puff of smoke. When it cleared, I saw him by the back of the theater, holding the exit curtains open.
The pretty ladies and mysterious blue-hooded people were standing to his left and right, their arms filled with trays full of goodies. I was sorry I hadn't saved some of my money.
Steve said nothing while we were waiting. I could tell from the serious look on his face that he was still thinking, and from past experience I knew there was no point trying to talk to him. When Steve went into one of his moods, nothing could jolt him out of it.
When the rows behind us had cleared out, we made our way to the back of the theater. I brought the stuff I'd bought with me. I also lugged Steve's gifts, because he was so wrapped up in his thoughts, he would have dropped them or left them behind.
Mr. Tall was standing at the back, holding the curtains open, smiling at everyone. The smile widened when we approached.
"Well, boys," he said, "did you enjoy the show?"
"It was fabulous!" I said.
"You weren't scared?" he asked.
"A little," I admitted, "but no more than anybody else."
He laughed. "You're a tough pair," he said.
There were people behind us, so we hurried on, not wanting to hold them up. Steve looked around when we entered the short corridor between the two sets of curtains, then leaned over and whispered in my ear: "Go back by yourself."
"What?" I asked, stopping. The people who had been behind us were chatting with Mr. Tall, so there was no rush.
"You heard," he said.
"Why should I? "I asked.
"Because I'm not coming," he said. "I'm staying. I don't know how things will turn out, but I have to stay. I'll follow you home later, after I've..." His voice trailed off and he pulled me forward.
We pushed past the second set of curtains and entered the corridor with the table, the one covered by the long black cloth. The people ahead of us had their backs to us. Steve looked over his shoulder, to make sure nobody could see, then dived underneath the table and hid behind the cloth!
"Steve!" I hissed, worried he was going to get us into trouble.
"Go on!" he hissed back.
"But you can't," I began.
"Do what I say!" he snapped. "Go, quick, before we're caught."
I didn't like it but what else could I do? Steve sounded like he'd go crazy if I didn't obey him. I'd seen Steve get into fierce rages before and he wasn't someone you wanted to mess with when he was angry.
I started walking, turned the corner, and began down the long corridor leading to the front door. I was walking slowly, thinking, and the people in front got farther ahead. I glanced over my shoulder and saw there was still nobody behind me.
And then I spotted the door.
It was the one we'd stopped by on our way in, the one leading up to the balcony. I paused when I reached it and checked behind one last time. Nobody there.
"Okay," I said to myself, "I'm staying! I don't know what Steve's up to, but he's my best friend. If he gets into trouble, I want to be there to help him out."
Before I could change my mind, I opened the door, slipped through, shut it quickly behind me, and stood in the dark, my heart beating as fast as a mouse's.
I stood there for a long time, listening while the last of the audience filed out. I could hear their murmurs as they discussed the show in hushed, frightened, but excited tones. Then they were gone and the place was quiet. I thought I'd be able to hear noises from inside the theater, people cleaning up and putting the chairs back in place, but the whole building was as silent as a graveyard.
I climbed the stairs. My eyes had gotten used to the dark and I could see pretty well. The stairs were old and creaky and I was half-afraid they would snap under my feet and send me hurtling to my death, but they held.
When I reached the top I discovered I was standing in the middle of the balcony. It was very dusty and dirty up there, and cold, too. I shivered as I crept down toward the front.
I had a great view of the stage. The lights were still on and I could see everything in perfect detail. Nobody was around, not the freaks, not the pretty ladies, not the blue-hoods not Steve. I sat back and waited.
About five minutes later, I spotted a shadow creeping slowly toward the stage. It pulled itself up, then stood and walked to the center, where it stopped and turned around.
It was Steve.
He started toward the left wing, then stopped and set off toward the right. He stopped again. I could see him chewing on his nails, trying to decide which way to go.
Then a voice came from high above his head. "Are you looking for me?" it asked. A figure swooped down onto the stage, its arms out to its sides, a long red cloak floating behind it like a pair of wings.
Steve almost jumped out of his skin when the figure hit the stage and rolled into a ball. I toppled backward, terrified. When I rose to my knees again, the figure was standing and I was able to make out its red clothes, orange hair, pale skin, and huge scar.
Steve tried speaking, but his teeth were chattering too much.
"I saw you watching me," Mr. Crepsley said. "You gasped aloud when you first saw me. Why?"
"B-b-b-because I kn-kn-know who you a-are," Steve stuttered, finding his voice.
"I am Larten Crepsley," the creepy-looking man said.
"No," Steve replied. "I know who you really are."
"Oh?" Mr. Crepsley smiled, but there was no humor in it. "Tell me, little boy," he sneered, "who am I, really?"
"Your real name is Vur Horston," Steve said, and Mr. Crepsley's jaw dropped in astonishment. And then Steve said something else, and my jaw dropped, too.
"You're a vampire," he said, and the silence that followed was as long as it was terrifying.