It felt strange being in a city. The noise and smell almost drove me crazy the first couple of days: with my heightened senses it was like being in the middle of a whirring blender. I lay in bed during the daytime, covering my head with the thickest pillow I could find. But by the end of the week I'd grown used to the supersharp sounds and scents and learned to ignore them.
We stayed at a hotel located in the corner of a quiet city square. In the evenings, when traffic was slow, neighborhood kids gathered outside for a game of soccer. I would have loved to join in but didn't dare - with my extra strength, I might accidentally end up breaking somebody's bones, or worse.
By the start of our second week, we'd fallen into a comfortable routine. Evra and me woke up every morning - Mr. Crepsley went off by himself at night without telling us where - and ate a big breakfast. After that we'd head out and explore the city, which was big and old and full of interesting stuff. We'd get back to the hotel at nightfall, in case Mr. Crepsley wanted us, then watch some TV or play computer games. We usually got to bed between eleven and twelve.
After a year with the Cirque Du Freak, it was a thrill to live like a normal human again. I loved being able to sleep late in the morning, not having to worry about finding food for the Little People; it was great not to be rushing around, running errands for the performers; and sitting back at night, stuffing my face with candy and pickled onions and watching TV - that was the best!
Evra was enjoying himself, too. He'd never known a life like this. He'd been part of the circus world for as long as he could remember, first with a nasty sideshow owner, then with Mr. Tall. He liked the Cirque - I did, too - and was looking forward to returning, but he had to admit it was nice to have a break.
"I never realized TV could be so addictive," he said one night, after we'd watched five shows in a row.
"My mom and dad never let me watch too much," I told him, "but I knew guys in school who watched five or six hours of it every night of the week!"
"I wouldn't take it that far," Evra mused, "but it's fun in small doses. Maybe I'll buy a portable TV when we get back to the Cirque Du Freak."
"I never thought of getting a TV since I joined," I said. "So much else was going on, it was the last thing on my mind. But you're right - it would be nice to have a TV, even if we could only watch reruns of The Simpsons." That was our favorite show.
I wondered sometimes what Mr. Crepsley was up to - he'd always been mysterious, but never this secretive - but in truth I wasn't overly bothered: it was nice to have him out of my hair.
Evra had to wrap up in layers of clothes whenever we went out. Not because of the cold - though it was chilly: the first snow had fallen a couple of days after our arrival - but because of how he looked. Although he didn't mind people staring at him - he was used to it - it was easier to get around if he was able to pass for a normal human. That way he didn't have to stop every five or ten minutes to explain to a curious stranger who and what he was.
Covering his body, legs, and arms was easy - pants, a sweatshirt, and gloves - but his face was tricky: it wasn't as heavily scaled or colored as the rest of him, but it wasn't the face of an ordinary human. A big baseball hat took care of his long yellow-green hair, and dark glasses shaded a lot of the upper half of his face. But as for the lower half...
We experimented with bandages and flesh-colored paints before hitting on the answer: a fake beard! We bought it in a joke shop, and although it looked silly - nobody would mistake it for a real one - it did the job.
"We must look like quite a pair," Evra said with a giggle one day as we strolled around a zoo. "You in your pirate costume, me in this getup. People probably think we're a couple of escaped crazies."
"The people at the hotel definitely do." I giggled. "I've heard the bellboys and maids talking about us - they think Mr. Crepsley is a mad doctor and we're two of his patients."
"Yeah?" Evra laughed. "Imagine if they knew the truth - that you're a couple of vampires and I'm a snake-boy!"
"I don't think it would matter," I said. Mr. Crepsley tips well, and that's the important thing. 'Money buys privacy, as I heard one of the managers say when a maid was complaining about a guy who'd been walking around naked in the corridors."
"I saw him!" Evra exclaimed. "I thought he locked himself out of his room."
"Nope," I smiled. "Apparently he's been walking around like that for four or five days. According to the manager, he comes every year for a couple of weeks and spends the entire time roaming around naked as a baby."
"They let him?" Evra asked in awe.
" 'Money buys privacy, " I repeated.
"And I thought the Cirque Du Freak was a strange place to live," Evra muttered wryly. "Humans are even weirder than us!"
As the days passed, the city became more and more Christmasy as people geared themselves up for the twenty-fifth of December. Christmas trees appeared; lights and decorations lit up the streets and windows each night; Father Christmas touched down and took orders; toys of every shape and size filled store shelves from floor to ceiling.
I was looking forward to Christmas: last year's had passed unnoticed, since Christmas was something hardly anyone associated with the Cirque Du Freak bothered celebrating.
Evra couldn't understand what the fuss was about.
"What's the point of it?" he kept asking. "People spend a bunch of money buying each other presents they don't really need; they drive themselves half-crazy getting a big dinner ready; trees and turkey are bred and slaughtered in huge numbers. It's ridiculous!"
I tried telling him that it was a day of peace and goodwill, when families come together and rejoice, but he wouldn't listen. As far as he was concerned, it was a crazy money-making racket.
Mr. Crepsley, of course, only snorted whenever the subject was brought up. "A silly human custom," was how he put it. He didn't want anything to do with the festival.
It would be a lonely Christmas without my family - I missed them more at this time of the year than ever, especially Annie - but at the same time, I was looking forward to it. The hotel staff were throwing a big party for the guests. There'd be turkey and ham and Christmas cake and cookies. I was determined to make Evra get some Christmas spirit: I was sure he'd change his opinion when he experienced Christmas firsthand.
"Want to come shopping?" I asked one frosty afternoon, wrapping a scarf around my neck (I didn't need it - my vampire blood kept me warm - or the thick coat or heavy sweatshirt, but I'd draw attention if I went out without them).
Evra glanced out the window. It had been snowing earlier and the world outside was frosty-white.
"Nah," he said. "I don't feel like getting into heavy clothes again." We'd been out that morning, throwing snowballs at each other.
"Okay," I said, glad he wasn't coming: I wanted to look over a few presents for him. "I won't be more than an hour or two."
"Will you be back before dark?" Evra asked.
"Maybe," I said.
"You'd better be." He nodded toward the room where Mr. Crepsley lay sleeping. "You know how it goes: the one night you aren't here when he wakes will be the one night he wants you."
I laughed. "I'll risk it. Want me to bring you back anything?" Evra shook his head. "Okay. See you soon."
I walked through the snow, whistling to myself. I liked snow: it covered up most of the smells and muffled a lot of the noise. Some of the kids who lived in the square were out building a snowman. I stopped to watch them but moved on before they could ask me to join in: it was easier not to get involved with humans.
As I stood outside a large department store, studying the window display, wondering what to buy Evra, a girl walked over and stood beside me. She was dark-skinned, with long black hair. She looked about my age and was a little shorter than me.
"Ahoy, cap'n," she said, saluting.
"Excuse me?" I replied, startled.
"The costume," she grinned, tugging my coat open. "I think it's cool, you look like a pirate. You going in or just looking?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm looking for a present for my brother, but I'm not sure what to get him." That was our story - that Evra and me were brothers, and Mr. Crepsley was our father.
"Oh." She nodded. "How old is he?"
"A year older than me," I said.
"Aftershave," she said firmly.
I shook my head. "He hasn't started shaving yet." And never would: hairs wouldn't grow on Evra's scales.
"Okay," she said. "How about a CD?"
"He doesn't listen to much music," I said. "Although if I got him a CD player, he might start."
"Those are expensive," the girl said.
"He's my only brother," I said. "He's worth it."
"Then go for it." She held out a hand. She wasn't wearing gloves, despite the cold. "My name's Debbie."
I shook her hand - mine looked very white compared with her dark skin - and told her my name.
"Darren and Debbie." She smiled. "That sounds good, like Bonnie and Clyde."
"Do you always talk to strangers like this?" I asked.
"No," she said. "But we're not strangers."
"We're not?" I frowned.
"I've seen you around," she said. "I live in the square, a few doors up from the hotel. That's how I knew about the pirate costume. You hang out with that funny guy in glasses and a fake beard."
"Evra. He's the one I'm buying the present for." I tried placing her face but couldn't remember seeing her with the other kids. "I haven't noticed you around," I said.
"I haven't been out much," she replied. "I've been in bed with a cold. That's why I spotted you - I've been spending my days staring out the window, studying the square. Life gets really boring when you're stuck in bed."
Debbie blew into her hands and rubbed them together.
"You should be wearing gloves," I told her.
"Look who's talking." She sniffed. I'd forgotten to put on a pair before leaving. "Anyway, that's what I'm here for - I lost my gloves earlier and I've been roaming around from store to store trying to find an identical pair. I don't want my parents to find out I lost them on only my second day out of bed."
"What were they like?" I asked.
"Red, with fake fur around the wrists," she said. "My uncle gave them to me a few months ago but didn't say where he got them."
"Have you tried this place yet?" I asked.
"Uh-uh," she said. "I was on my way in when I spotted you."
"Want to come in with me?" I asked.
"Sure," she said. "I hate shopping by myself. I'll help you choose a CD player if you want. I know a lot about them."
"Okay," I said, then pushed the door open and held it for her.
"Why, Darren," she said with a laugh, "people will think you have a crush on me."
I felt myself blushing and tried to think of an okay response - but couldn't. Debbie giggled, walked in, and left me to trail along behind her.