I've always been fascinated by spiders. I used to collect them when I was younger. I'd spend hours rooting through the dusty old shed at the bottom of our garden, hunting the cobwebs for lurking eight-legged predators. When I found one, I'd bring it in and let it loose in my bedroom.
It used to drive my mom crazy!
Usually, the spider would slip away after no more than a day or two, never to be seen again, but sometimes they hung around longer. I had one who made a cobweb above my bed and stood guard for almost a month. Going to sleep, I used to imagine the spider creeping down, crawling into my mouth, sliding down my throat, and laying loads of eggs in my belly. The baby spiders would hatch after a while and eat me alive, from the inside out.
I loved being scared when I was little.
When I was nine, my mom and dad gave me a small tarantula. It wasn't poisonous or very big, but it was the greatest gift I'd ever received. I played with that spider almost every waking hour of the day. Gave it all sorts of treats: flies and cockroaches and tiny worms. Spoiled it rotten.
Then, one day, I did something stupid. I'd been watching a cartoon in which one of the characters was sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. No harm came to him. He squeezed out of the bag, dusty and dirty and mad as hell. It was very funny.
So funny, I tried it myself. With the tarantula.
Needless to say, things didn't happen quite like they did in the cartoon. The spider was ripped to pieces. I cried a lot, but it was too late for tears. My pet was dead, it was my fault, and there was nothing I could do about it.
My parents practically hollered the roof down when they found out what I'd done—the tarantula had cost quite a lot of money. They said I was irresponsible, and from that day on they never again let me have a pet, not even an ordinary garden spider.
I started with that tale from the past for two reasons. One will become obvious as this book unfolds. The other reason is:
This is a true story.
I don't expect you to believe me—I wouldn't believe it myself if I hadn't lived it—but it is. Everything I describe in this book happened, just as I tell it.
The thing about real life is, when you do something stupid, it normally costs you. In books, the heroes can make as many mistakes as they like. It doesn't matter what they do, because everything works out in the end. They'll beat the bad guys and put things right and everything ends up cool.
In real life, vacuum cleaners kill spiders. If you cross a busy road without looking, you get whacked by a car. If you fall out of a tree, you break some bones.
Real life's nasty. It's cruel. It doesn't care about heroes and happy endings and the way things should be. In real life, bad things happen. People die. Fights are lost. Evil often wins.
I just wanted to make that clear before I began.
One more thing: my name isn't really Darren Shan. Everything's true in this book, except for names. I've had to change them because... well, by the time you get to the end, you'll understand.
I haven't used any real names, not mine, my sister's, my friends, or teachers. Nobody's. I'm not even going to tell you the name of my town or country. I don't dare.
Anyway, that's enough of an introduction. If you're ready, let's begin. If this were a made-up story, it would begin at night, with a storm blowing and owls hooting and rattling noises under the bed. But this is a real story, so I have to begin where it really started.
It started in a toilet.
I was in the bathroom at school, sitting down on the toilet, humming a song. I had my pants on. I'd come in near the end of English class, feeling sick. My teacher, Mr. Dalton, is great about things like that. He's smart and knows when you're faking and when you're being serious. He took one look at me when I raised my hand and said I was ill, then nodded his head and told me to go to the bathroom.
"Throw up whatever's making you sick, Darren," he said, "then get your behind back in here."
I wish every teacher was as understanding as Mr. Dalton.
In the end, I didn't get sick, but still felt queasy, so I stayed on the toilet. I heard the bell ring for the end of class and everybody came rushing out on their lunch break. I wanted to join them but knew Mr. Dalton would be angry if he saw me in the yard so soon. He doesn't get mad if you trick him but he goes quiet and won't speak to you for a while, and that's almost worse than being shouted at.
So, there I was, humming, watching my watch, waiting. Then I heard someone calling my name.
"Darren! Hey, Darren! Have you fallen in or what?"
I grinned. It was Steve Leopard, my best friend. Steve's real last name was Leonard, but everyone called him Steve Leopard. And not just because the names sound alike. Steve used to be what my mom calls "a wild child." He raised hell wherever he went, got into fights, stole from stores. One day - he was still in a stroller - he found a sharp stick and prodded passing women with it (no prizes for guessing where he stuck it!).
He was feared and despised everywhere he went. But not by me. I've been his best friend since kindergarten, when we first met. My mom says I was drawn to his wildness, but I just thought he was a great guy to be with. He had a fierce temper and threw scary tantrums when he lost it, but I simply ran away when that happened and came back again once he'd calmed down.
Steve's reputation had softened over the years - his mom took him to see a lot of good counselors who taught him how to control himself - but he was still a minor legend in the schoolyard and not someone you messed with, even if you were bigger and older than him.
"Hey, Steve," I called back. "I'm in here." I hit the door so he'd know which one I was behind.
He hurried over and I opened the door. He smiled when he saw me sitting down with my pants on. "Did you puke?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"Do you think you're gonna?"
"Maybe," I said. Then I leaned forward all of a sudden and made a sick noise. Bluurgh! But Steve Leopard knew me too well to be fooled.
"Give my boots a polish while you're down there," he said, and laughed when I pretended to spit on his shoes and rub them with a sheet of toilet paper.
"Did I miss anything in class?" I asked, sitting up.
"Nah," he said. "The usual crap."
"Did you do your history homework?" I asked.
"It doesn't have to be done until tomorrow, does it?" he asked, getting worried. Steve's always forgetting about homework.
"The day after tomorrow," I told him.
"Oh," he said, relaxing. "Even better. I thought...." He stopped and frowned. "Hold on," he said. "Today's Thursday. The day after tomorrow would be...."
"Got you!" I yelled, punching him on the shoulder.
"Ow!" he shouted. "That hurt." He rubbed his arm but I could tell he wasn't really hurt. "Are you coming out?" he asked then.
"I thought I'd stay in here and admire the view," I said, leaning back on the toilet seat.
"Quit joking," he said. "We were down five-one when I came in. We're probably six or seven down now. We need you." He was talking about soccer. We play a game every lunchtime. My team normally wins but we'd lost a lot of our best players. Dave Morgan broke his leg. Sam White transferred to another school when his family moved. And Danny Curtain had stopped playing soccer in order to spend lunch hanging out with Sheila Leigh, the girl he likes. Idiot!
I'm our best forward. There are better defenders and midfielders, and Tommy Jones is the best goalkeeper in the whole school. But I'm the only one who can stand up front and score four or five times a day without fail.
"Okay," I said, standing. "I'll save you. I've scored a hat trick every day this week. It would be a pity to stop now."
We passed the older guys—smoking around the sinks as usual—and hurried to my locker so I could change into my cleats. I used to have a great pair, which I won in a writing competition. But the laces snapped a few months ago and the rubber along the sides started to fall off. And then my feet grew! The pair I have now are okay, but they're not the same.
We were down eight-three when I got on the field. It wasn't a real field, just a long stretch of grass with painted goalposts at either end. Whoever painted them was a total idiot. He put the crossbar too high at one end and too low at the other!
"Never fear, Hotshot Shan is here!" I shouted as I ran onto the field. A lot of players laughed or groaned, but I could see my teammates picking up and our opponents growing worried.
I made a great start and scored two goals inside a minute. It looked like we might come back to draw or win. But time ran out. If I'd arrived earlier we'd have been okay, but the bell rang just as I was hitting my stride, so we lost nine-seven.
As we were leaving the field, Alan Morris ran toward us, panting and red-faced. They're my three best friends: Steve Leopard, Tommy Jones, and Alan Morris. We must be the weirdest four people in the whole world, because only one of us—Steve—has a nickname.
"Look what I found!" Alan yelled, waving a soggy piece of paper around under our noses.
"What is it?" Tommy asked, trying to grab it.
"It's—," Alan began, but stopped when Mr. Dalton shouted at us.
"You four! Inside!" he roared.
"We're coming, Mr. Dalton!" Steve roared back. Steve is Mr. Dalton's favorite and gets away with stuff that the rest of us couldn't do. Like when he uses swearwords sometimes in his stories. If I put in some of the words Steve has, I'd have been kicked out long ago.
But Mr. Dalton has a soft spot for Steve, because he's special. Sometimes he's brilliant in class and gets everything right, while other times he can't even spell his own name. Mr. Dalton says he's somewhat of an idiot savant, which mean he's a stupid genius!
Anyway, even though he's Mr. Dalton's pet, not even Steve can get away with showing up late for class. So whatever Alan had, it would have to wait. We trudged back to class, sweaty and tired after the game, and began our next lesson.
Little did I know that Alan's mysterious piece of paper was to change my life forever. For the worse!
Copyright © 2001 by Darren Shan
A Living Nightmare: Cirque du Freak, Book #1