Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
_by_ ISAAC ASIMOV
Red and Slim found the two strange little animals the morning after they heard the thunder sounds. They knew that they could never show their new pets to their parents.
There was a spatter of pebbles against the window and the youngsterstirred in his sleep. Another, and he was awake.
He sat up stiffly in bed. Seconds passed while he interpreted hisstrange surroundings. He wasn't in his own home, of course. This was outin the country. It was colder than it should be and there was green atthe window.
The call was a hoarse, urgent whisper, and the youngster bounded to theopen window.
Slim wasn't his real name, but the new friend he had met the day beforehad needed only one look at his slight figure to say, You're Slim. Headded, I'm Red.
Red wasn't his real name, either, but its appropriateness was obvious.They were friends instantly with the quick unquestioning friendship ofyoung ones not yet quite in adolescence, before even the first stains ofadulthood began to make their appearance.
Slim cried, Hi, Red! and waved cheerfully, still blinking the sleepout of himself.
Red kept to his croaking whisper, Quiet! You want to wake somebody?
Slim noticed all at once that the sun scarcely topped the low hills inthe east, that the shadows were long and soft, and that the grass waswet.
Slim said, more softly, What's the matter?
Red only waved for him to come out.
Slim dressed quickly, gladly confining his morning wash to the momentarysprinkle of a little lukewarm water. He let the air dry the exposedportions of his body as he ran out, while bare skin grew wet against thedewy grass.
Red said, You've got to be quiet. If Mom wakes up or Dad or your Dad oreven any of the hands then it'll be 'Come on in or you'll catch yourdeath of cold.'
He mimicked voice and tone faithfully, so that Slim laughed and thoughtthat there had never been so funny a fellow as Red.
Slim said, eagerly, Do you come out here every day like this, Red? Realearly? It's like the whole world is just yours, isn't it, Red? No oneelse around and all like that. He felt proud at being allowed entranceinto this private world.
Red stared at him sidelong. He said carelessly, I've been up for hours.Didn't you hear it last night?
Was there a thunderstorm? Slim never slept through a thunderstorm.
I guess not. But there was thunder. I heard it, and then I went to thewindow and it wasn't raining. It was all stars and the sky was justgetting sort of almost gray. You know what I mean?
Slim had never seen it so, but he nodded.
So I just thought I'd go out, said Red.
They walked along the grassy side of the concrete road that split thepanorama right down the middle all the way down to where it vanishedamong the hills. It was so old that Red's father couldn't tell Red whenit had been built. It didn't have a crack or a rough spot in it.
Red said, Can you keep a secret?
Sure, Red. What kind of a secret?
Just a secret. Maybe I'll tell you and maybe I won't. I don't knowyet. Red broke a long, supple stem from a fern they passed,methodically stripped it of its leaflets and swung what was leftwhip-fashion. For a moment, he was on a wild charger, which reared andchamped under his iron control. Then he got tired, tossed the whip asideand stowed the charger away in a corner of his imagination for futureuse.
He said, There'll be a circus around.
Slim said, That's no secret. I knew that. My Dad told me even before wecame here--
That's not the secret. Fine secret! Ever see a circus?
Oh, sure. You bet.
Say, there isn't anything I like better.
Red was watching out of the corner of his eyes again. Ever think youwould like to be with a circus? I mean, for good?
Slim considered, I guess not. I think I'll be an astronomer like myDad. I think he wants me to be.
Huh! Astronomer! said Red.
Slim felt the doors of the new, private world closing on him andastronomy became a thing of dead stars and black, empty space.
He said, placatingly, A circus _would_ be more fun.
You're just saying that.
No, I'm not. I mean it.
Red grew argumentative. Suppose you had a chance to join the circusright now. What would you do?
See! Red affected scornful laughter.
Slim was stung. I'd join up.
Red whirled at him, strange and intense. You meant that? You want to goin with me?
What do you mean? Slim stepped back a bit, surprised by the unexpectedchallenge.
I got something that can get us into the circus. Maybe someday we caneven have a circus of our own. We could be the biggest circus-fellows inthe world. That's if you want to go in with me. Otherwise--Well, I guessI can do it on my own. I just thought: Let's give good old Slim achance.
The world was strange and glamorous, and Slim said, Sure thing, Red.I'm in! What is it, huh, Red? Tell me what it is.
Figure it out. What's the most important thing in circuses?
Slim thought desperately. He wanted to give the right answer. Finally,he said, Acrobats?
Holy Smokes! I wouldn't go five steps to look at acrobats.
I don't know then.
Animals, that's what! What's the best side-show? Where are the biggestcrowds? Even in the main rings the best acts are animal acts. There wasno doubt in Red's voice.
Do you think so?
Everyone thinks so. You ask anyone. Anyway, I found animals thismorning. Two of them.
And you've got them?
Sure. That's the secret. Are you telling?
Of course not.
Okay. I've got them in the barn. Do you want to see them?
They were almost at the barn; its huge open door black. Too black. Theyhad been heading there all the time. Slim stopped in his tracks.
He tried to make his words casual. Are they big?
Would I fool with them if they were big? They can't hurt you. They'reonly about so long. I've got them in a cage.
They were in the barn now and Slim saw the large cage suspended from ahook in the roof. It was covered with stiff canvas.
Red said, We used to have some bird there or something. Anyway, theycan't get away from there. Come on, let's go up to the loft.
They clambered up the wooden stairs and Red hooked the cage toward them.
Slim pointed and said, There's sort of a hole in the canvas.
Red frowned. How'd that get there? He lifted the canvas, looked in,and said, with relief, They're still there.
The canvas appeared to be burned, worried Slim.
You want to look, or don't you?
Slim nodded slowly. He wasn't sure he wanted to, after all. They mightbe--
But the canvas had been jerked off and there they were. Two of them, theway Red said. They were small, and sort of disgusting-looking. Theanimals moved quickly as the canvas lifted and were on the side towardthe youngsters. Red poked a cautious finger at them.
Watch out, said Slim, in agony.
They don't hurt you, said Red. Ever see anything like them?
Can't you see how a circus would jump at a chance to have these?
Maybe they're too small for a circus.
Red looked annoyed. He let go the cage which swung back and forthpendulum-fashion. You're just trying to back out, aren't you?
No, I'm not. It's just--
They're not too small, don't worry. Right now, I've only got oneworry.
Well, I've got to keep them till the circus comes, don't I? I've gotto figure out what to feed them meanwhile.
The cage swung and the little trapped creatures clung to its bars,gesturing at the youngsters with queer, quick motions--almost as thoughthey were