“So when did you become Florence Nightingale?”
It was obvious from her expression that the question clearly took Josie by surprise.
Sarah had been getting a tour of the facility from her best friend, when they were interrupted yet again by someone needing to speak with Josie. The high school gymnasium, where they were located, was impressively packed with roughly 400 or so cots, along with enough evacuees to occupy nearly all of them. The substantial din of numerous conversations going on at once, along with other assorted noises, unfortunately made hearing someone else speak rather difficult. But it didn’t stop a succession of three families and two volunteers from approaching Josie.
Sarah couldn’t help but laugh after the third interruption. Ever since they were kids, it was like Josie had a sign tattooed on her forehead that said: “Please, talk to me!” And it was pretty evident, from the line of folks waiting to talk to her, that some things never change.
What was different, however, was how engaged the girl was with all of it now. Oh, she had always been kind and caring to anyone who wanted to talk, but there was something more to it now. Sarah struggled to pinpoint it, but Josie seemed to have a greater sense of compassion than she’d ever shown before – which was partly why she’d asked the question. The other was a genuine curiosity as to her and Rennie’s change of plans, and she said as much.
“You two were only going to stick around to help on Thursday and yet, here we are on Saturday, and y’all are still here. What gives, Twink?” She asked as they drew closer, finally, to the double doors that exited into the hall.
Sarah could see Josie’s eyes flash a bit at her continued use of that nickname.
“First of all,” she began, one eyebrow lifted in disbelief, “I am hardly a Florence Nightingale. I’m just helping out the best I can.”
“And secondly,” she continued, the hints of a smile belying the feisty brunette’s hard tone and waving finger, “if I even get a hint that a certain story has been shared with a certain someone regarding a certain cream-filled snack cake...”
With as innocent a look as she could muster, Sarah raised her hands in submission.
Josie gave her friend a mock fierce stare for a few moments but couldn’t hold it, her face dissolving into a huge grin after a little while.
Truthfully, Sarah had no intention of retelling that story to anyone, but for a different reason than most might guess. Basically, it was because she liked that she was the only one who got to call her friend “Twinkie.” And it was a privilege she had no intention of ever sharing with anyone. Besides, she had plenty of other stories to embarrass her with anyway, should the need arise. Sarah smiled inwardly at the thought.
“As for your question, though,” Josie finally responded, looking around at the numerous people milling about. “You’re right. Rennie and I were all set to take off for Nashville early yesterday morning. But then Sheriff Frohm stopped by and personally asked Rennie to stay and help for a few more days.” Her smile gone, Sarah’s friend turned and gave her a somber look. “And after everything we’d seen by that point, he couldn’t say no and neither could I.”
“Wait a minute,” Sarah interjected. “What’s so special about Rennie?”
The moment the words left her lips, a huge smile blanketed Josie’s face and the blonde quickly realized her error. “Let me rephrase that,” Sarah added hastily with a grin of her own and more than a few giggles. “Why did this sheriff guy single out Rennie to stay and help? He didn’t ask you, just Rennie, right?”
“Yeah, it wasn’t that my help wasn’t wanted,” Josie replied, gesturing at all the folks gathered there in the gym. “Just that Rennie’s was desperately needed.”
“Why? Because he was a pastor?” Sarah wondered out loud.
Josie shook her head ‘no’ but then stopped. “Well, not really, but then again, sort of ... yes.” She put up her hands to forestall any more questions; instead gesturing they exit out into the hall.
Once through the double doors and into the much quieter space of the corridor, she continued. “Turns out they’re really short-handed here right now. Many of the local responders are currently over helping with all the recent flooding along the Ohio River. On top of that, there was Hurricane Isaac slamming into the Carolinas last week, not to mention all the forest fires out west. So folks like Rennie are currently in real short supply around here.”
She paused as two teenage girls came through the doors from the gym, briefly smiled, waved at her, and then headed quickly down the hall to the left.
Looking back over at Sarah, Josie picked up where she left off. “Rennie’s has a lot ... and I mean A LOT ... of disaster relief experience, from flooding and tornadoes, to even a hurricane. And since much of it has come since he’s been a pastor, that’s why I waffled a bit with my answer.”
She shrugged a bit apologetically. “But while he’s certified to do counseling and stuff like that, it’s all the additional training he’s had with the Red Cross and various government agencies like FEMA and Homeland Security that makes him so valuable right now.” The pride in Josie’s voice was palpable.
“So presently they’ve got him pretty busy shuttling between here and the other two shelters,” she added with a nod back toward the gymnasium, “doing all kinds of stuff, while I mostly play receptionist here. Though, now that the Red Cross has finally got a team in to run the shelters, it looks like they may be shifting Rennie over to something else.”
A question was forming in Sarah’s mind but surprisingly Josie answered it before she could ask it. It pretty much confirmed what she’d been thinking, though.
“I stayed because Rennie stayed.” She glanced up at Sarah, a wistful expression on her face. “Rennie was going to drop me off at your place and then come back, but I wouldn’t let him.” She sighed, thrusting her hands into her jeans pockets. “I could say that I’m staying for all the right reasons, but I’d be lying.”
Josie shrugged again, her hands raised apologetically. “Oh, I really like what I’m doing and I love helping these people but...”
At that moment, her voice was nearly overcome by the single strum of an amplified acoustic guitar, cranked way up, as it echoed down the corridor toward them. Sarah and Josie looked at one another with amusement and curiosity, especially when the laughter of numerous voices followed soon after.
“What’s that?” Sarah asked, spying a glimmer of recognition in her friend’s eyes.
Josie glanced down the hallway and then back at Sarah. “I think that’s the music class Rennie’s doing with Megan.” With a gesture, she invited her friend to walk with her down the hallway.
“Megan?” Sarah asked rather quickly as they began to walk.
“Yeah, she’s the O’Malley girl I told you about yesterday,” replied Josie, with a sideways glance. “She’s studying to be a teacher, so Rennie drafted her to help keep the kids occupied while they’re here. Anyway, with his background, she turned right around and roped him in to helping her with a music class and some tutoring.”
“Oh, right ... isn’t she’s the pretty former babysitter who still has a crush on your boyfriend?” Sarah asked, rather surprised by Josie’s nonchalant attitude. “And you’re okay with this?”
The normally feisty brunette nodded, smiling somewhat bashfully at her friend. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“With your trust issues? Most definitely.” Sarah grinned broadly. “But this new confidence suits you,” she added with a friendly nudge of the girl’s shoulder as they walked along.
As they drew nearer to the classroom, the murmur of voices died down and the sound of the acoustic guitar returned, quite a bit softer this time. Josie recognized the innovative strumming as the opening bars of Taylor Swift’s early crossover hit, “You Belong With Me.” Enjoying the sound, Josie was bobbing her head to the rhythm when both she and Sarah were totally taken by surprise with what they heard next.
You’re on the phone, your girlfriend, she’s upset. She’s going off about something that you said. She doesn’t get your humor like ... I do.
Josie stopped suddenly, her hand leaping to her mouth – partially in shock, partially to cover an impending fit of giggles. That was definitely not Ms. Swift! She and Sarah shared a look of disbelief.
“Is that... ?” The leggy blonde queried amid her own giggles.
Josie could only nod, for it was clearly Rennie belting out the lyrics, singing in a comedic falsetto. And the way he lilted and drew out the phrase “like ... I ... do” was absolutely hilarious. Josie could barely maintain control the first time he did it. By the second, later in the first verse, she – along with just about everyone within earshot, by the sound of it – pretty much lost it.
Wiping tears from her eyes, Josie, with Sarah not too far behind her, made it to the doorway just in time to see Rennie crank into the chorus. The classroom wasn’t too different from her choir room back in high school. Gazing in, Josie could see a closed grand piano directly in front of her, with several stools and a couple microphones on stands nearby, and a series of empty choir risers with a few more microphones along the far wall.
As she stepped into the doorway, she could see all the kids gathered off to the right, seated on chairs where the floor rose in what were kind of like built in, carpeted risers. And there, in front of the gathered class of easily seventy or eighty people, mostly kids, was Rennie ... singing into a microphone ... wearing a long blonde wig ... that swished from side to side ... as he danced ... strumming his guitar.
She wears high heels, I wear sneakers. She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers...
Soon Josie could barely breathe. Her cheek muscles burned from laughter, her eyes watering so bad she could barely see.
If you could see that I’m the one who understands you, been here all along, so why can’t you see, you belong with me, you belong with me...
Holding her aching sides, she propped herself up against the doorframe, trying to catch her breath. Sarah was not doing much better, leaning against the wall just behind her, wheezing and puffing. Amid her own calming internal chant of “breathe, breathe,” Josie noticed the guitar fall silent as Rennie brought the song to a premature close after the second time through the chorus.
With the last strummed chord reverberating throughout the room and down the hallway, Rennie removed the wig with a flourish and an exaggerated bow. He was greeted with enthusiastic applause, peppered with whistles and laughter.
“So,” he questioned his audience, “did I win the challenge? Did I prove I knew the song?”
“Yes!” came the unanimous reply.
“Because if I didn’t,” he jokingly threatened, raising his voice back into the earlier falsetto, “Miss Swift can come back and sing it some more.”
A wave of mild chuckling and laughter ensued, as some of the kids called out “No!” while a few others added their own good-natured boos.
Turning to go back to his stool, his eyes alighted on Josie by the doorway and his grin grew even larger. She couldn’t help but smile back. Gesturing to her, he motioned for the two of them to come in and find a seat, as he reclaimed his own in the middle of the room. Swiveling back to the class, Rennie pointed up to one particular teenage girl. “Alright, Shannon, you owe me a song,” he called out with a smile and then crooked his finger, beckoning her to come down.
Josie and Sarah made their way across the room, past the now fiercely blushing young lady as she took a seat on the stool next to Rennie. Looking up, Josie saw Megan in the back row and was very surprised to see a certain perky blonde seated next to her. The two women were motioning vigorously for her and Sarah to come up and sit by them. Rennie, for his part, was still busy recruiting another girl to help the first one, and three more to sing backup, as they made their way up to their seats.
Lila was practically gushing as the two sat down. “He is so good with these kids! And he is so talented! Megan told me I had to see and hear it to believe it, and she was right.” Her expression changed, though, as her lower lip thrust out in a bit of a pout. “I’m kind of disappointed, though. I asked if Rennie had any younger brothers and she said no.”
Josie laughed. “Nope, no brothers, just an older sister—and some cousins on his mom’s side back in Italy, as I recall.”
She glanced over and noticed that Rennie was still working with the girls. From this distance and with all the background chatter, she couldn’t make out what he was saying but could see that the five girls were listening to him intently. It was fun watching him talk, mostly because he was so expressive with his hands. “A bit of his Mediterranean heritage, perhaps?” Josie wondered to herself.
Taking them over to the piano, it quickly became evident he was working the girls through different parts. Unfortunately, because of all the activity in the room, it was practically impossible to tell what song they were actually working on. “Well, not quite impossible,” Josie murmured quietly to herself, as she thought she caught some of the lyrics on his lips.
Totally engrossed in who she was watching, Josie suddenly became aware of a whole other conversation flowing around her.
“So what happens if he loses a challenge?” She heard Sarah ask.
“The challenger gets cash. Though how much they get depends mostly on how old the song is.” Lila tried to explain.
Megan nodded in agreement. “Anyone could stump him with a song that just came out, so those aren’t worth as much. Basically the rule is: The older, the better.”
“So, what, they can just throw any song at all at him?” Josie interrupted. “And if he can’t sing it, they win? That doesn’t seem fair.”
Sarah chortled next to her. “Welcome back, space cadet.”
“Yeah, nice that you could finally join us,” Lila added with a playful nudge and a nod toward the one who had clearly been the object of her attention.
Josie blushed at the teasing. “Sorry, I guess I was a little distracted.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Megan waved it off with a bit of a laugh before continuing. “Anyway, as I said before, when it comes to the songs the kids choose, they must be top 40 radio singles of any era from either the pop, country or rock charts.” She paused momentarily and shook her head. “Though, even with those restrictions, it still doesn’t seem to be all that fair.”
“That’s what I mean,” Josie interjected with more than a little concern. “There’s no way that setup is fair for Rennie. Who thought up this game, anyway?”
“He did, actually,” Megan answered with a knowing smile. “And as for it being unfair, I meant that it’s unfair for the kids.”
All three of the women couldn’t help but laugh at the confused look on Josie’s face.
“Girl, it turns out your man over there must be a monster at trivial pursuit, at least when it comes to music,” Sarah explained. “These kids never had a chance. Over two days, he’s smoked them so far ... what?... 21 to 4?” she added, looking over for confirmation.
Megan nodded her head.
“How is that possible?” Josie asked incredulously, her eyes darting back and forth between the other three women.
“See for yourself,” the redhead replied, handing her the handwritten list of challenge songs used so far.
Josie scanned down through the songs and was amazed at what she saw. Taking note of the four losses, she was very impressed at the musical diversity Rennie was seemingly able to handle. A couple of the songs were easy ones but, looking over the list, Josie had to admit that even she would have been hard pressed to accurately sing more than ten or eleven of them from memory. And not only was he singing them, he was playing them, as well. Still, there was one thing she still didn’t get.
“So, what, exactly, is the point of this game?” she finally asked, looking over at Megan. “Is it just to keep the kids occupied?”
Before the redhead could say anything, however, Rennie called for quiet from the floor.
Megan just smiled. “I think he’ll answer your question a lot better than I can,” she answered in a low whisper.
The five girls looked more than a little nervous as Rennie picked up his Martin six string – which, by the way, had definitely seen better days – and slung the strap over his neck and shoulder. After a quick sound check, he shot a grin back at the girls and then turned to address the audience. In a matter of moments, he had everyone’s full attention as he taught them about rhythm and its role in music.
That wasn’t exactly how he put it, though. Instead, he simply asked for their help with the upcoming song the girls were going to sing and then explained what he needed. Pretty soon he had the entire class clapping and testing out various beats, until he supposedly found the “right one.”
Josie, however, knew immediately which rhythm he was seeking, and wasn’t surprised when he finally began to strum the syncopated intro to the most recent of Taylor Swift’s pop hits. She couldn’t help but marvel at her guy’s cleverness. He was teaching them all about music and they had no idea. And it was at that very moment she realized she had the answer to her earlier question.
The two girls singing lead did an admirable job, she noticed, even if they did start out rather quietly. With Rennie coaxing them, however, they soon let go and were singing the multi-platinum hit with gusto. The three over on the risers providing the backing vocals did a nice job, too – especially considering how little warm up and practice time they all had before they started. Fortunately it was a song they all knew well. But, then again, maybe ‘fortunate’ was the wrong word, as she gazed over at the winsome guitarist who was turning out to be far more than just the “pretty decent” he’d told her.
With the song over, the room filled with warm applause and a few whistles of appreciation. The girls, as a thank you, stopped and gave Rennie a group hug before they returned to their seats.
“So,” Rennie began, as he turned back to the audience, “who else has a song for me?”