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.
For a second I felt paper blowing by my hands. I was going to grab at it but something told me it wasn't time. Then, a second later, a voice inside me yelled, "NOW!"
I closed my hands really fast.
The wind died down and the pieces of paper drifted to the ground. I opened my eyes and saw Alan and Tommy down on their knees, searching for the ticket.
"It's not here!" Tommy said.
"I can't find it anywhere!" Alan shouted.
They stopped searching and looked up at me. I hadn't moved. I was standing stills my hands closed tight.
"What's in your hands, Darren?" Steve asked softly.
I stared at him, unable to answer. It was like I was in a dream, where I couldn't move or speak.
"He doesn't have it," Tommy said. "He can't have. He had his eyes shut."
"Maybe so," Steve said, "but there's something in those fists of his."
"Open them," Alan said, giving me a shove. "Let's see what you're hiding."
I looked at Alan, then Tommy, then Steve. And then, very slowly, I opened my right fist.
There was nothing there.
My heart and stomach dropped. Alan smiled and Tommy started looking down at the ground again, trying to find the missing ticket.
"What about the other hand?" Steve asked.
I gazed down at my left fist. I'd almost forgotten about that one! Slowly, even slower than the first time, I opened it.
There was a piece of green paper smack-dab in the middle of my hand, but it was lying facedown, and since there was nothing on its back, I had to turn it over, just to be sure. And there it was, in red and blue letters, the magical name:
CIRQUE DU FREAK.
I had it. The ticket was mine. I was going to the freak show with Steve. "YEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!" I screamed, and punched the air with my fist. I'd won!