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My sister, Becky, was the star of our town. Mind you, it wasn’t a particularly big town, so being the star of it might not seem that impressive. Even so, everybody loved her and that was enough for my little sister. She worked at the diner in town, but she wanted to be an actress on Broadway. She had the talent for it, too. The only problem was getting to New York. Of course, she didn’t let that stop her. She saved what money she could and was sure she’d make it there after she turned eighteen.
For my part, I was perfectly happy to stay in our sleepy town forever. I’d gotten a job as a farmhand a few summers back and was sure I’d be working it until I was too old to handle the work. Becky joked about me marrying a farmer, but I never had any interest in that. All in all, we were both quite content with our life plans and we would never complain about our lots. Our problems began (as most problems do) with a man.
Well, technically, our problems began when the circus came to town.
It was the summer of 1944. We knew a war raged on the rest of the world. Our father and most of the men in our town were off fighting it. Even so, the whole thing felt distant to me. It had been going on for so long that most of the people I knew had grown numb to it. Only the occasional letter about a recent death ever brought it close to home, but those grew ever less common. For the most part, we went about business as usual.
The summer was hot and the sun beat down as we pulled weeds in the garden. Around midday, Harry Jones, the man who owned the farm told us to take a break. It was too hot and he didn’t want us getting sick, so we were to come back in a few hours, once the worst had passed. I knew my sister was working, so I figured I’d visit the diner and see how she was doing.
“You’re sunburned,” she noted as she came to take my order.
I glanced at my pink arms. “Barely. It’ll fade in a couple days.”
“Not if you stay out in the sun and make it worse. You should use that sunscreen Mr. Perry got at the convenience store.”
“Nobody likes that stuff. It makes everything greasy. It’s too hard to work with greasy palms.”
“Right. Well, you’re going to get wrinkles if your face gets burnt.”
“Not my biggest concern,” I replied. “Besides, I wear a hat at work to protect my face. I’ll be fine.”
“If you say so…”
“You got my order?”
“You eat the same sandwich every time you come in.”
“I know what I like. Grilled cheese is the only sandwich for me.”
“How are you going to keep working so hard if that’s all you eat?”
“You know I eat better at home.”
“Not much. What would mom say?”
“She’s get me a grilled cheese.”
Becky smiled and wrote it down. “You better eat something good for dinner.”
“I’ll do my best.”
She headed back to give the cook my order and I smiled as I watched her go. Becky worried about me and I worried about her. That was our job. Our mom had died the year before. It was hard. The whole town had come together to help us, though. It was that kind of place. Our dad still sent money home and we had our jobs, so we weren’t so bad off. Besides, we knew our lives would improve once he got home. We had plans for bright futures and nothing was going to mess them up.
“Did you see the train that came in earlier?” Jimmy Peterson asked, coming to sit in front of me. Jimmy was a good friend. We’d known each other since we were kids. His family owned the bakery and he always intended to take over it. He was as rooted to the town as I was.
“Was it delivering something interesting?”
He nodded, enthusiastically. “It was a big, black train with silver letters.” He held his hands up, as if painting a picture for me. “Nightingale Circus.”
I raised my eyebrows. “A circus?”
“What circus?” Becky asked, having returned and set my sandwich in front of me.
“There’s a circus in town,” Jimmy announced. “They came in a few hours ago. It looks like they’re going to set it up around here.”
“You’re sure they’re not just passing through?” I asked.
“I saw them unpacking. They’re definitely going to set up near town.”
“Can we go?” Becky asked.
I took a bite of my sandwich as I considered it. “It depends on how much tickets are. We can’t be wasting much money, after all.”
“But it’s the circus! We’ve never been before!”
That was true enough. “Let’s just wait and see how much it is before making a decision, okay?”