Donald usually went to bed at eight and read until around nine, maybe ten if he was dealing with a page turner. He liked to keep his bedroom window open when he read; the gentle breeze made his home feel more alive, less empty. After fifty-four years of marriage, Don was still getting used to being alone, but Helen was gone and there was nothing he could do about it. He hoped he’d be joining her soon, so there was nothing left for him to do but wait.
The first night Don heard the music, he didn’t think much about it. It sounded like his neighbor’s windows were open and they had a radio on. He got out of bed and closed the window. Like always, he marked the page of his book with an old photo of his wife, then crawled back into bed and turned his reading lamp off.
The next night was much the same, only the music was louder. It sounded like wind chimes and flutes, bells and drums. Don got out of bed and looked outside. Everything was dark. He went out onto the back porch and stared into the night, but there was nothing to see. When the wind blew he could hear it a little better, and he was sure that the music was coming from his fields. His dog, Bernie, sat rigid beside him, ears standing up. Don thought about going to see what was going on, but he was old and the night was cold. He went back inside and took his shotgun out of the closet and leaned it against the wall beside his bed and turned in for the night. He didn’t sleep well; he dreamt of music so loud he couldn’t sleep.
The next morning after coffee, Don and Bernie walked the fields looking for anything unusual. At the end of the farthest field at the base of a wooded hill, it looked like a herd of animals had trampled down some saplings, and the grass lay flat like something big had been resting on it the night before.
Bernie ran in circles with his nose to the ground while Don watched.
That night Don lay in bed staring at his book, not really reading; his mind was somewhere else, and he found himself re-reading the same paragraph over and over. It was freezing cold outside but he kept the window open, waiting for the music. The moment he heard the first note he sprung from his bed and looked outside.
There were lights.
Someone was in his field.
Don put on his boots and coat and grabbed his shotgun. Bernie at his side, Don made his way toward the music, his eyes fixed on the lights in the distance. He could hear the music better the closer he got; it was carnival music, like you might hear at the circus. When he reached the edge of the farthest field, he found himself standing in front of a huge tent, spotlights racing over brightly colored canvas.
He didn’t know what to think. Why would someone set up a circus tent in one of his fields? He stood there catching his breath, unable to look away. A flap flew back and a man stepped out from inside the tent. Bernie barked and Don raised his gun.
“Step right up, step right up,” said the man, the ringmaster. “Free show, tonight only.”
He was dressed in a flashy suit, and was wearing a large tophat.
Don managed to say, “What’re you doin’?”
“Sir, you couldn’t have come at a better time. Tonight is our last night in town, and to show you how much we appreciate you letting us use your property, we wish to invite you to our final show, free of charge.” He tipped his hat, a big smile on his face.
Don slowly lowered his gun.
“I didn’t know nothin’ about this.”
The ringmaster chucked then said, “In any case, you’re still invited to the show.”
“Yes sir, no charge.”
There were a hundred questions floating around inside Don’s head, but he couldn’t decide which one to ask first. He was suddenly worried about having a stroke.
The ringmaster checked his watch and said, “Last chance. It won’t be long until we start.”
Don turned and looked toward his house. He could barely see the lights in the distance. He knew nobody would be waiting on him when he got there. What was he going to do, go home and go to bed? No, there was too much going on. He figured he might as well see the show, rest before the long walk back.
“Excellent, excellent,” the ringmaster said. “And I can hold onto that for you.”
He eyeballed Don’s gun.
“Oh sure,” Don said, and handed it over.
The ringmaster stepped back and held the tent flap open.
Don went in.
Bernie did not follow.
“Come on,” Don said, looking at the dog. Bernie whined but would not come. Don made a noise and said, “Fine, you can stay out there in the cold.”
It was warm inside the tent. And loud. There were at least three-hundred people inside, all sitting on bleachers against one wall. Everyone was talking and laughing, waiting for the show to start.
“We reserved a special seat for you, sir,” an elaborately dressed woman said.
“For me?” Don asked.
Don shambled over to his seat on the front row, convinced that he was dreaming. He sat down and a moment later the ringmaster appeared. The man gave a short speech and the crowd cheered. He told a joke and the crowd laughed. Don still wasn’t sure what was going on, but when the show began all of his worries melted away.
The clowns and animals and tightrope walkers and flame breathers and jugglers put on a performance like Don had never seen, and for a moment, he felt like a child again. A man pushing a food cart handed him a box of popcorn and Don reached for his wallet.
“No charge, sir. It’s on the house.”
Don couldn’t believe how good the popcorn was; it tasted like it did when he used to take his wife to the movies when they were just teenagers.
“Well folks, that’s just about it for our show,” the ringmaster announced, and the crowd sighed.
“But we have one final act, a special performance for tonight only.”
The crowd erupted. Don whistled. A snare drum began to roll. Two women in shiny white outfits stepped out of the wings, each holding a large sheet of fabric, something hidden behind it. The drum roll stopped and the women moved the shields and there stood a woman, young and glowing, more beautiful than any woman Don had ever seen. He couldn’t have looked away if he wanted to.
Music began to play, brass horns and strings, like an old record. The young woman began to sing and Don forgot how to breathe. The music reached a crescendo and the woman paused, one note shy of finishing the song. She looked at Don and smiled. His heart turned a flip then exploded. She motioned for him to come to her. He wasn’t sure his legs would do it, but they did. The tent was quiet except for the sound of Don’s footsteps and labored breathing.
She held out her hand.
Don took it.
The woman said, “Thanks for joining me, good lookin’.” She winked. “I was starting to get lonely up here.”
Don smiled, unsure of what to say.
Then he knew who the woman was.
He had no idea how Helen looked like she did on their wedding day, back when they were just kids, or why she was performing at a circus, but he didn’t care. He did what he had wanted to do everyday since she died: he pulled her in close and hugged her. He wanted to kiss her but he couldn’t let go. After a moment he pulled away and she was smiling, her eyes helping him remember why he had fallen in love with her all those years ago.
“How are…how did…what is…”
The two women in white came back, this time holding a large mirror. They stopped in front of Don so he could see. Reflected in the mirror was a young couple, shiny and new, Helen and—
“Is that me?”
“Who else would it be?” Helen said.
The women carried the mirror away and Don realized the whole audience was watching; they were all on the edge of their seats. Somehow he had become part of the show, and everyone was waiting for the big finale.
“Are you gonna kiss me or not?” Helen asked.
Don’s knees were shaking, and he realized he was holding his breath. He was afraid that he would fall if he moved a single muscle.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” the ringmaster whispered, standing off to the side.
Don still didn’t have a clue what was going on, but like they say, the show must go on.
He adjusted his shirt and said, “Does anyone have a breath mint?”
The crowd laughed. Helen smiled.
“I missed you.”
“I missed you too.”
Don leaned in and their lips met and the music came back, much louder than before.
Still louder was the crowd.
BIO: Stetson Ray lives in Tennessee and spends most of his time writing ghost stories.