There weren't many places that afforded a better view of the camp site than the burnt-out ruins of the creepy old factory. Rumor had it the place was haunted, which meant that kids occasionally went there on a dare, but you had to be pretty dumb to hang around after dark.
If you climbed up to the upper level of the gutted main building and looked out through one of the glass-less windows, it was possible to see not just the large red and white striped circus tent, but also several smaller tents in less gaudy colors, and a host of wagons, trailers, and trucks. There was also a pretty impressive looking fence that encircled the entire camp site, warning trespassers away.
The setting sun cast a David Hamilton kind of glow on the site, bathing it in a warm, washed out pink.
Two boys sat inside one of the concrete window frames, their legs dangling outside the building about ten yards above the ground. Both were blond, one lanky and pale, the other more muscular and outdoorsy looking, and sporting a fading black eye. The pale one was dressed in black pants and a sleeveless band T-shirt, the other boy wore grimy jeans and, in spite of the heat, a white, long-sleeved T-shirt.
An open bag of Doritos sat between them. They were taking turns watching the camp site through army binoculars, when the sound of glass crunching on concrete made them turn.
Two boys, slightly younger looking, were picking their way through the rubble. From their looks they could have been brothers, twins even. Same size, dark hair, brown eyes. But that's where the similarities ended. One wore cargo pants and a striped shirt patterned like fifties wallpaper. He was carrying a skateboard. The slimmer one was dressed in jeans and Lakers t-shirt - not quite cool enough to cancel out the devastating shirt of his friend, but fashionable enough to deflect unwanted attention.
"Hey," the pale boy in the window said, his tone friendly.
With a yelp the boy with the skateboard jumped back a whole yard, while the other froze dead in his tracks. Squinting in the near darkness, it took a moment until the skateboarder spotted the speaker and categorized him as not-a-ghost and probably-not-a-bully either.
"And a cordial yet restrained hey to you too," he babbled nervously, then added: "Are you here for the circus?"
The boy with the binoculars snorted. "Course not. We're birdwatchers, looking for dodos, nimrod."
"This is Jack. If he annoys you, ignore him. It helps," the pale boy said evenly, referring to his sarcastic companion. "I'm Daniel."
"Danny Osborne, I know," the second newcomer said. "I've seen you guys around. Eighth grade, right? I'm Jesse, and this clumsy oaf here is Alexander the Great. Xander, when dealing with lesser mortals." He laughed and dodged a retaliatory smack from his grinning companion.
Jack passed the binoculars to his friend and picked up his black biker jacket from the floor. It yielded a pack of Marlboros and a lighter.
Jesse and Xander gaped openly as Jack lit up. It looked really cool, the way he cupped the lighter's flame with his palm to protect it from the slight breeze.
Daniel, on the other hand, was unimpressed. "Yo," he said to Xander and Jesse, offering the binoculars. "Wanna take a look?"
"Cool. I mean, sure." Xander grinned and propped up his battered skateboard.
Taking turns, and trying hard not to cough when the smoke of Jack's cigarette billowed into their eyes and mouths, Xander and Jesse watched the circus people milling around in their encampment. Outside the fence, in front of the ticket office, a queue was slowly forming.
Xander sighed. He probably should have saved more money for stuff like this, but somehow his allowance never lasted long, not with a standing order for fourteen different comic books every month, and a yen for Twinkies and Oreos.
"So, how do we get in?" Jack asked.
"What?" Xander started, hit the window frame with his shoulder and nearly lost his balance. Daniel unobtrusively grabbed the hem of the shirt, saving both Xander and the binoculars from a ten yard plunge.
"See that tree over there? It's close enough to the fence. I say that's how." Jack answered his own question, pointing at the camp.
"Hey, that's a good one," Xander quipped nervously. "I mean, you're not serious, are you? We can't go in there!" What if they ran into clowns? Xander hated clowns, was scared of them ever since his mom had hired one for his sixth birthday party. Just picturing their red noses and big shoes and their pasty white faces was enough to make him break out in a sweat, and how embarrassing was that? He ignored his friend Jesse, who was elbowing him furiously. "What if we get caught? If I get carted home in a squad car, my dad's gonna kill me."
Oozing disdain, Jack took another drag from his cigarette, blew the smoke in Xander's direction and dropped the glowing cigarette butt to slowly crush it underneath his heel. "Danny? Are you still in?" he asked.
"We're in, Jack. You can count on us," Jesse spoke up eagerly, even as he was dragging Xander aside. "Are you nuts?" he whispered. "Of course we're going. When the coolest guy from our school asks you to come along, you don't go 'What if we get caught?' Think about it. Monday morning the entire school will know we've been hanging out with Jack Cale."
Only half convinced, Xander craned his neck to see what Daniel was doing. He seemed like an okay guy, cool even. If Daniel was coming along….
Apparently, he was. Daniel was stuffing his binoculars and a dog-eared paperback into an olive army bag.
"Come on, Xand-man, where's your sense of adventure?" Jesse urged, trying to evoke images of cloak and dagger sword-fights, and duels at the crack of dawn. "It'll be fun. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"
"We could all be eaten by tigers," Daniel said with a shrug.
Three stunned faces turned to stare at him. Even Jack looked a little less cool. When Daniel popped a handful of Doritos into his mouth, the crunching noise made everybody jump.
"You asked," Daniel pointed out. "But I think I read somewhere that statistically the likelihood of death by tiger is smaller than the chance of being accidentally stabbed to death with barbecue forks. Unless of course your name is Mowgli and you wear funny red pants. Let's go."
Having delivered this unsettling tid-bit of impromptu probability calculus, Daniel headed for the stairs, never checking whether the others were following him.