CHAPTER TWO

ALEXANDER RIBSwas sleeping in a large tyre hanging from a tree. He always slept curled up - it kept his body supple and made it easier for him to twist and contort when he was performing. Normally he kept the tyre on a special stand in his caravan, but occasionally he'd drag it outside and sleep in the open. It was a cold night for sleeping outdoors - the middle of a wintry November - but he had a thick, fur-lined body-bag to keep the chill out.

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As Alexander snored musically a young boy crept towards him, a cockroach in his right hand, with the intention of dropping it into Alexanders mouth. Behind him, his older brother and younger sister looked on with impish glee, urging him forward with harsh hand gestures whenever he paused nervously.

As the boy neared the tyre and held up the cockroach, his mother - always alert to mischief - stuck her head out of a nearby tent, ripped her left ear off and threw it at him. It spun through the air like a boomerang and knocked the cockroach from the boy's pudgy fingers. Yelping, he raced back to his brother and sister, while Alexander slept on, unaware of his narrow escape.

"Urcha!" Merla snapped, catching her ear as it circled back, then reattaching it to her head. "If I catch you bothering Alexander again, I'll lock you in with the Wolf Man until morning!"

"Shancus made me do it!" Urcha whined, receiving a dig in the ribs from his older brother.

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"I don't doubt he put you up to it," Merla growled, "but you're old enough to know better. Don't do it again. Shancus!" she added. The snake-boy looked at his mother innocently. "If Urcha or Lilia get into trouble tonight, I'll hold you responsible."

"I didn't do anything!" Shancus shouted. "They're always?"

"Enough!" Merla cut him short. She started towards her children, then saw me sitting in the shadow of the tree next to the one Alexander Ribs was hanging from. Her expression softened. "Hello, Darren," she said. "What are you doing?"

"Looking for cockroaches," I said, managing a short smile. Merla and her husband, Evra Von - a snake-man and one of my oldest friends - had been very kind to me since I'd arrived a couple of weeks earlier. Though I found it hard to respond to their kindness in my miserable mood, I made as much of an effort as I could.

"It's cold," Merla noted. "Shall I fetch you a blanket?"

I shook my head. "It takes more than a slight frost to chill a half-vampire."

"Well, would you mind keeping an eye on these three as long as you're outside?" she asked. "Evra's snake is moulting. If you can keep the kids out of the way, it'd be a real help."

"No problem," I said, rising and dusting myself down as she went back inside the tent. I walked over to the three Von children. They gazed up at me uncertainly. I'd been unusually solemn since returning to the Cirque Du Freak, and they weren't quite sure what to make of me. "What would you like to do?" I asked.

"Cockroach!" Lilia squealed. She was only three years old, but looked five or six because of her rough, coloured scales. Like Shancus, Lilia was half-human, half-snake. Urcha was an ordinary, human, though he wished he could be like the other two, and sometimes glued painted scraps of tinfoil to his body, driving his mother wild with exasperation.

"No more cockroaches," I said. "Anything else?"

"Show us how you drink blood," Urcha said, and Shancus hissed at him angrily.

"What's wrong?" I asked Shancus, who'd been named in my honour.

"He's not supposed to say that," Shancus said, slicking back his yellow-green hair. "Mum told us not to say anything about vampires - it might upset you."

I smiled. "Mums worry about silly things. Don't worry - you can say whatever you like. I don't mind."

"Can you show us how you drink then?" Urcha asked again.

"Sure," I said, then spread my arms, pulled a scary face, and made a deep groaning noise. The children shrieked with delight and ran away. I plodded after them, threatening to rip their stomachs open and drink all their blood.

Although I was able to put on a merry display for the kids, inside I felt as empty as ever. I still hadn't come to terms with Mr Crepsley's death. I was sleeping very little, no more than an hour or two most nights, and I'd lost my appetite. I hadn't drunk blood since leaving the city. Nor had I washed, changed out of my clothes, cut my nails - they grew quicker than a human's - or cried. I felt hollow and lost, and nothing in the world seemed worthwhile.

When I'd arrived at the Cirque, Mr Tall had spent the day locked in his trailer with Evanna. They emerged late that night and Evanna took off without a word. Mr Tall checked that Harkat and I were OK, then set us up with a tent, hammocks and anything else we required. Since then he'd spent a lot of time talking with me, recounting tales of Mr Crepsley and what the pair of them had got up to in the past. He kept asking me to chip in with my own recollections, but I could only smile faintly and shake my head. I found it impossible to mention the dead vampire's name without my stomach tightening and my head pulsing with pain.

I hadn't said much to Harkat lately. He wanted to discuss our friend's death but I couldn't talk about it, and kept turning him away, which upset him. I was being selfish, but I couldn't help it. My sorrow was all consuming and endless, cutting me off from those who cared and wished to help.

Ahead, the Von children stopped, grabbed twigs and pebbles, and threw them at me. I stooped to grab a stick, but as I did, my thoughts flashed back to that underground cavern and Mr Crepsley's face as he let go of Steve and crashed upon the fiery stakes. Sighing mournfully, I sat down in the middle of the clearing, taking no notice as the Vons covered me with moss and dirt and prodded me curiously. They thought this was part of the game. I hadn't the heart to tell them otherwise, so I just sat still until they grew bored and wandered away. Then I remained there, filthy and alone, as the night darkened and grew colder around me.

As another week dragged by, I withdrew further and further inside myself. I no longer answered people when they asked a question, only grunted like an animal. Harkat had tried talking me out of my mood three days earlier, but I swore at him and told him to leave me alone. He lost his temper and took a swipe at me. I could have ducked out of the way of his chunky grey fist, but I let him knock me to the ground. When he bent to help me up, I swatted his hand away. He hadn't spoken to me since.

Life went on as usual around me. The Cirque folk were excited. Truska - a lady who could grow a beard at will, then suck the hairs back into her face - had returned after an absence of several months. A big party was held after that nights performance to celebrate her return. There was much cheering and singing. I didn't attend. I sat by myself at the edge of camp, stony-faced and dry-eyed, thinking - as usual - about Mr Crepsley.

Late in the night, there was a tap on my shoulder. Glancing up, I saw Truska, smiling, holding out a slice of cake. "I know you feeling low, but I'm thinking you might like this," she said. Truska was still learning to speak English and often mangled her words.

"Thanks, but I'm not hungry," I said. "Good to see you again. How have you been?" Truska didn't answer. She stared at me a moment - then thrust the slice of cake into my face! "What the hell!" I roared, leaping to my feet.

"That what you get for being big moody-guts," Truska laughed. "I know you sad, Darren, but you can't sit round like grumpy bear all time."

"You don't know anything about it," I snapped. "You don't know what I'm feeling. Nobody does!"

She looked at me archly. "You think you the only one to lose somebody close? I had husband and daughter. They get killed by evil fishermen."

I blinked stupidly. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"Nobody here does." She sat beside me, brushed her long hair out of her eyes and gazed up at the sky. "That why I left home and joined with Cirque Du Freak. I hurted terrible inside and had to get away. My daughter was less than two years old when she die."

I wanted to say something but my throat felt as though there was a rope tied tight around it.

"The death of somebody you love is the second worst thing in world," Truska said softly. "Worst thing is letting it hurt you so much that you die too - inside. Larten's dead and I am sad for him, but if you go on as you are being, I will be sadder for you, because you will be dead too, even though your body lives."

"I can't help it," I sighed. "He was like a father to me, but I didn't cry when he died. I still haven't. I can't."

Truska studied me silently, then nodded. "It hard to live with sadness if you can't get it out with tears. Don't worry - you'll cry in end. Maybe you feel better when you do." Standing, she offered me a hand. "You is dirty and smelly. Let me help clean you up. It might help."

"I doubt it," I said, but followed her into the tent that Mr Tall had prepared for her. I wiped the traces of cake from around my face, undressed and wrapped a towel around myself while Truska filled a tub with hot water and layered it with scented oils. She left me to get in. I felt foolish stepping into the sweet-smelling water, but it was wonderful once I lay down. I stayed there for almost an hour.

Truska came in when I'd stepped out of the tub and dried myself. She'd taken my dirty clothes, so I had to keep a towel wrapped around my middle. She made me sit in a low chair and set about my nails with a pair of scissors and a file. I told her they wouldn't be any good - vampires have extra-tough nails - but she smiled and clipped the top of the nail off my right big toe. "These super-sharp scissors. I know all about vampire nails - I sometimes cut Vancha's!"

When Truska was done with my nails, she trimmed my hair, then shaved me and finished off with a quick massage. When she stopped, I stood and asked where my clothes were. "Fire," she smirked. "They was rotten. I chucked them away."

"So what do you suggest I wear?" I grumbled.

"I have surprise," she said. Going to a wardrobe, she plucked forth brightly coloured clothes and draped them across the foot of her bed. I instantly recognized the bright green shirt, purple trousers and blue-gold jacket - the pirate costume I used to wear when I lived at the Cirque Du Freak.

"You kept them," I muttered, smiling foolishly.

"I told you last time you was here that I have them and would fix them so you can wear again, remember?"

It seemed like years since we'd stopped at the Cirque shortly before our first encounter with the Lord of the Vampaneze. Now that I cast my mind back, I recalled Truska promising to adjust my old costume when she had a chance.

"I wait outside," Truska said. "Put them on and call when you ready."

I took a long time getting into the clothes. It felt weird to be pulling them on after all these years. The last time I'd worn them, I'd been a boy, still coming to terms with being a half-vampire, unaware of how hard and unforgiving the world could be. Back then I thought the clothes looked cool, and I loved wearing them. Now they looked childish and silly to me, but since Truska had gone to the trouble of preparing them, I figured I'd better put them on to please her.

I called her when I was ready. She smiled as she entered, then went to a different wardrobe and came back with a brown hat adorned with a long feather. "I not have shoes your size," she said. "We get some later."

Pulling on the hat, I tilted it at an angle and smiled self-consciously at Truska. "How do I look?"

"See for yourself," she replied, and led me to a full-length mirror.

My breath caught in my throat as I came face to face with my reflection. It may have been a trick of the dim light, but in the fresh clothes and hat, with my clean-shaven face, I looked very young, like when Truska first kitted me out in this costume.

"What you think?" Truska asked.

"I look like a child," I whispered.

"That is partly the mirror," she chuckled. "It is made to take off a few years - very kind to women!"

Removing the hat, I ruffled my hair and squinted at myself. I looked older when I squinted - lines sprang up around my eyes, a reminder of the sleepless nights I'd endured since Mr Crepsley's death. "Thanks," I said, turning away from the mirror.

Truska put a firm hand on my head and swivelled me back towards my reflection. "You not finished," she said.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "I've seen all there is to see."

"No," she said. "You haven't." Leaning forward, she tapped the mirror. "Look at your eyes. Look deep in them, and don't turn away until you see."

"See what?" I asked, but she didn't answer. Frowning, I gazed into my eyes, reflected in the mirror, searching for anything strange. They looked the same as ever, a little sadder than usual, but ?

I stopped, realizing what Truska wanted me to see. My eyes didn't just look sad - they were completely empty of life and hope. Even Mr Crepsleys eyes, as he died, hadn't looked that lost. I knew now what Truska meant when she said the living could be dead too.

"Larten not want this," she murmured in my ear as I stared at the hollow eyes in the mirror. "He love life. He want you to love it too. What would he say if he saw this alive-but-dead gaze that will get worse if you not stop?"

"He - he ?" I gulped deeply.

"Empty is no good," Truska said. "You must fill eyes, if not with joy, then with sadness and pain. Even hate is better than empty."

"Mr Crepsley told me I wasn't to waste my life on hate," I said promptly, and realized this was the first time I'd mentioned his name since arriving at the Cirque Du Freak. "Mr Crepsley," I said again, slowly, and the eyes in the mirror wrinkled. "Mr Crepsley," I sighed. "Larten. My friend." My eyelids were trembling now, and tears gathered at the edges. "He's dead," I moaned, turning to face Truska. "Mr Crepsley's dead!"

With that, I threw myself into her embrace, locked my arms around her waist, and wailed, finally finding the tears to express my grief. I wept long and hard, and the sun had risen on a new morning before I cried myself out and slid to the floor, where Truska slipped a pillow under my head and hummed a strange, sad tune as I closed my eyes and slept.

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