Sam lived about a mile away, with his mom and dad, two younger brothers and a baby sister, three dogs, five cats, a turtle, and a tank full of tropical fish.
"It's like living in Noah's ark,"he said. "I try to stay out of the house as much as possible. Mom and Dad don't mind. They think children should be free to express their individuality. As long as I come home for bed at night, they're happy. They don't even care if I miss school every once in a while. They think school's a despotic system of indoctrination, designed to crush the spirit and stamp out creativity."
Sam talked like that all the time. He was younger than me, but you wouldn't have known it by listening to him speak.
"So, you two guys are with the show?"he asked, rolling a piece of pickled onion around his mouth - he loved pickled onions and carried a small plastic jar of them with him. We'd returned to the spot at the edge of the clearing. Evra was lying in the grass, I was sitting on a low-hanging branch, and Sam was climbing the tree above me.
"What sort of a show is it?"he asked, before we could answer his first question. "There are no signs on your vans. At first I thought you were tourists. Then, after observing for a while, I decided you must be performers of some kind."
"We're masters of the macabre,"Evra said. "Agents of mutations. Lords of the surreal."He was speaking like that to show he could match Sam's big vocabulary. I wish I could have spouted a few smarty-pants sentences, but I'd never been good with words.
"It's a magic show?"Sam asked excitedly.
"It's a freak show,"I said.
"A freak show?"His jaw dropped open and a piece of pickled onion fell out. I had to move quickly to dodge it. "Two-headed men and weirdos like that?"
"Sort of,"I said, "but our performers are magical, wonderful artists, not just people who look different."
"Cool!"He glanced at Evra. "Of course, I could see from the start that you were dermatologically challenged,"- he was talking about Evra's skin (I looked the word up in a dictionary later) - "but I had no idea there might be other members like you among your company."
He looked over toward the camp, eyes bright with curiosity. "This is most fascinating."He sighed. "What other bizarre examples of the human form do your numbers include?"
"If you mean, 'What other sort of performers are there? the answer is tons,"I told him. "We have a bearded lady, of course."
"A wolf-man,"Evra said.
"A man with two bellies,"I added.
We went through the entire list, Evra mentioning some I'd never seen. The lineup of the Cirque Du Freak often changed. Performers came and went, depending on where the show was playing.
Sam was very impressed and, for the first time since we'd met, had nothing to say. He listened silently, eyes wide, sucking on one of his pickled onions, shaking his head once in a while as though he couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"It's so cool,"he said when we finished. "You must be the luckiest guys on the planet. Living with real circus freaks, traveling the world, privy to solemn and magnificent secrets. I'd do anything to trade places with you..."
I smiled to myself. I don't think he would have liked to trade places with me , not if he knew the full story.
"Hey!"he said. "Could you help me join? I'm a hard worker and I'm really smart. I'd be an asset. Could I join? As an assistant? Please?"
Evra and me smiled at each other.
"I don't think so, Sam,"Evra said. "We don't take on many guys our age. If you were older, or if your parents wanted to join, that would be different."
"But they wouldn't mind,"Sam insisted. "They'd be delighted for me. They're always saying travel broadens the mind. They'd love the idea of me going around the world, having adventures, seeing marvelous, mystical sights."
Evra shook his head. "Sorry. Maybe when you're older."
Sam pouted and kicked some leaves off a nearby branch. They floated down over me and a few stuck in my hair.
"It's not fair,"he grumbled. "People always say 'when you're older. Where would the world be if Alexander the Great had waited until he was older? And how about Joan of Arc? If she'd waited until she was older, the English might have conquered and colonized France. Who decides when someone's old enough to make decisions for himself? It should come down to the individual."
He ranted on for a while longer, complaining about adults and the "corrupt frigging system"and about the time being ripe for a young people's revolution. It was like listening to a crazy politician on TV.
"If a kid wants to open a candy factory, let him open one,"Sam stormed. "If he wants to become a football star, fine. If he wants to be an explorer and set off for strange, cannibal-populated islands, okay! We're the slaves of the modern generation. We're -"
"Sam,"Evra interrupted. "Do you want to come see my snake?"
Sam broke out into a smile. "Do I?"he yelled. "I thought you'd never ask. C'mon, let's go."Leaping down out of the tree, he ran for the campsite as fast as he could, speeches forgotten. We followed slowly, laughing, feeling a whole lot older and wiser than we were.