Frozen in terror, the boys didn't even dare breathe.
A lion roared in the distance, but its call was drowned out by a mechanical stutter nearby that sounded like someone was trying to start a car.
On the ground, the cigarette butt glowed in the dark like an evil eye, its acrid smoke stinging Xander's eyes.
Da-dum-da-dum, da-dum-da-dum – Xander's heart felt like a frightened animal about to burst out of his chest and skitter into the dark. A bead of sweat trickled down his face. Then the black shoe came down, as the man very deliberately ground out the glowing embers.
"Showtime," the man said, and then he briskly walked away. A moment later the man with the work boots followed.
Xander closed his eyes. He felt light-headed with relief, in spite of the throbbing pain in his head.
"That was close," Daniel whispered, when the two men were long out of earshot.
Xander nodded weakly.
"You almost got us killed," Jesse hissed.
"I almost got burnt by that cigarette," Xander shot back.
"Shut it," Jack snarled. "Both of you." He crawled out from underneath the truck, stood up, and tugged down the sleeves of his jacket, before dusting off his pants. His movements were edgy, and he looked pale. "Did you hear that? There really is a monster. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see it. Come on."
The other boys got up more slowly. They exchanged worried glances.
"What is it?" Jack asked. "Oz?"
"Maybe we should go home," Oz ventured calmly.
"Home?" Jack echoed, grimacing as though he'd bitten into something rotten.
"Home. Four letter word. H-o-m-e," Xander said. "That wonderful place where they have to take you in, where the heart is, where the clean laundry lives."
Jack ignored him, focusing on his friend instead.
"It's getting late," Oz said, holding Jack's gaze. "My folks will be worried." He shrugged apologetically.
"Yeah, mine too," Xander quickly came to Daniel's aid.
Nine nights out of ten, his parents were too busy watching TV, drinking, or fighting – or all three – to care about their son's whereabouts, but only Jesse knew that and he wouldn't tell, would he? Xander shot him a nervous glance. Jesse fidgeted, but he held his tongue.
"But we just got here," Jack snapped. "The show's about to start. We can't go home I now /I ."
Xander wasn't quite ready to admit it openly, but he'd had his fill of high adventure. Not enough swash, and way too much buckle. His knees were wobbly like jell-o. And not just that: his throat was parched, he'd kill for a Twinkie, and he needed to pee. "You're right," he said, "we can't go. We have to stay and get eaten by monsters."
Jack glared at him. "Fine. Go home. Go back to your mommy." He let his gaze wander from boy to boy. They squirmed under his disdain. "You know what? You can all go, for all I care, but I'm staying. I'm here to see the show, monster or no."
He turned on his heel and stalked off, not once checking whether the others were following or not. Jesse was the first to rush off after him. With an impassive shrug that could mean anything between 'one for all and all for one' and 'this is stupid, but I don't care,' Daniel slung his army bag over his shoulder and went after them. Panic rose inside Xander like bile and he scrambled after the other boys as fast as his aching ankle permitted. After all, what else could he do?
They zigzagged quietly from trailer to trailer, and truck to truck. Progress was slower this time. Costumed circus people were milling around everywhere, involved with last minute preparations. Several times the boys had to duck behind crates or double back to avoid being seen. Once, they caught a glimpse of a fake Elvis in a glittering white suit who walked past their hiding place, humming a popular tune – a green-skinned Elvis with red horns protruding from his temples.
"Nice make-up," Daniel whispered, when the man was out of earshot.
"Either that, or he fell into a barrel of radioactive paint," Xander speculated, thinking of the way the X-men and other comic book characters got their powers.
"Oh yeah? What about the horns?" Jesse asked, making it sound like Xander's idea was the dumbest ever.
Xander never got a chance to counter his friend's venom.
"What the—hey, you! How the hell did you get in here?" someone yelled behind them, an angry male voice.
Xander whirled around, heart racing madly, and came face-to-face with the one thing he feared more than anything else.
Green-and-orange checkered pants, a tiny blue hat on false orange curls, a shiny big red plastic nose in a stark white face. It was the clown of all clowns. Or he would have been, if his whitewashed features hadn't creased into a mask of fury. The unlit cigarette that dangled from his bright red lips, fell to the ground unheeded. Cursing, the clown waddled towards them in a ridiculously awkward gait, as fast as his oversized shoes would carry him.
By the time Jack yelled "Run," Xander was already four paces in the lead.
As one, Jack, Jesse, and Daniel turned tail and ran after Xander, who was sprinting heedlessly towards less brightly lit parts of the camp, not even trying to be silent. Speed was all that mattered. Clowns were bad. Clowns were evil. Clowns asked you to touch them in a bad place. Clowns threatened to come back at night and kill your mom if you told anyone.
Clowns were worse than any monster.