Katherine had no difficulty persuading her teachers to allow her to graduate early, although each said they hated to see her go and meant it. Even the basketball coach—Katherine’s geography teacher—who had mourned the tall redhead’s quitting the team, swallowed the disappointment and wrote Katherine a glowing recommendation. The coach, like her colleagues, assumed Katherine’s decision to leave school and work full-time stemmed from her brother Sandy’s death two months earlier—which, in a way, it did.

Eileen attended Sandy’s funeral, although she knew none of the grieving family. Katherine, caught up in mourning for her closest sibling, barely noticed the slight, dark-haired girl, she had occasionally seen at school. The next day at lunchtime, Katherine sought out the younger girl, found her at a favorite smokers’ hangout near the campus, and thanked her for coming to their ceremony. Paying more attention than she had at the memorial, Katherine recognized that Eileen came from “the wrong side of the tracks” and lacked self-confidence, but Katherine’s kindness eventually overcame the smaller girl’s distrust.

Katherine soon also noticed that Eileen was pregnant, which inspired the older girl to treat her new friend like an adopted daughter or a dependent younger sister (all three of Katherine’s sisters were older). Katherine brought lunch to school for Eileen every day and shielded her in school and out as much as possible. Katherine also took the younger girl home for meals and frequent homework sessions after school—once or twice a week at first, later almost daily.

Katherine’s teachers had encouraged her college plans and desire to become a science teacher or maybe even a scientist. She had assumed she would meet someone, at college or afterward, and begin a family as her sisters had. Meeting Eileen gave Katherine a vocation, at least temporarily. Eileen’s pregnancy left Katherine wanting to adopt Sandy’s girlfriend into their family. What would Mom and Dad think of that idea? Katherine wondered, as she helped the younger girl with her homework at the family’s long kitchen table.

The small house had sheltered nine for so long that six or seven wouldn’t seem crowded. Mickey had finally returned to sleeping in the room he had shared with Sandy. Jack, Katherine’s youngest brother, had staked his claim on the room Rosetta had shared with Doreen. Katherine had luxuriated in having to herself the room she had shared with Jean, but wouldn’t mind sharing it with Eileen. All but Jack had lived with the sounds of an infant so would adjust to a baby in the house.

Katherine’s friends knew without being told that she had befriended Eileen in an effort to recoup a little of Sandy for the family, but a few of their fellow students suggested Katherine and Eileen had a different sort of special relationship. Katherine hadn’t dated much in high school—she found most of the boys too immature or simply uninteresting or both—and that, coupled with her reputation as a jock, generated rumors.

Oddly, Katherine had several times felt aroused by certain men’s voices, even when she had no idea what the men looked like. She had felt excited about one of the doctors at the hospital, who had ‘phoned the kitchen to discuss a special diet for a patient. Upon meeting him, she found him young, tall, handsome, but somehow not sexually appealing. Both Randy Travis and Merle Haggard left her weak in the knees, until she watched video clips of them and found them completely unexciting—although she still liked their music. Katherine had never noticed any sort of pattern, just that some male voices turned her on.

Eileen had stayed overnight at Katherine’s house a few times, after marathon study sessions or on especially cold or wet nights, and neither of Katherine’s parents had complained. One evening, when Eileen had returned to her own parents’ home and Katherine helped her mother prepare dinner—and even before Eileen’s belly had begun to swell visibly—Katherine’s mother remarked, “That girl’s carryin’ a baby.” If she had any thoughts about the identity of the baby’s father, however, she kept them to herself.

Katherine wanted to say something to her mom, to discuss the baby, to talk about restoring a part of Sandy to their home, to ask if they could absorb Eileen into the family. Feeling unsure what to say, Katherine said nothing.

As things turned out, it didn’t matter: with Katherine’s active encouragement and her mother’s tacit support, Eileen spent more and more time in the little house and became a member of the family by default. As Eileen’s swelling abdomen became increasingly obvious, Katherine’s parents treated Eileen as if she and her baby were already part of their family. By mid-July, with the the baby due in less than a month, they treated Eileen like another daughter. At the same time, Katherine and Eileen had grown as close as the tall redhead had felt with her biological sisters.

The rhythm, teamwork, and friendship Katherine found in her job pleased her, but standing for eight hours on the hospital’s concrete floor did not. The other women in the kitchen, the youngest a decade older than Katherine but all friends, urged her to find a more genteel job or a husband or both. Although she didn’t like the thought of leaving her friends, breaking up a team—again!—Katherine had begun exploring jobs with a night shift. She wanted Eileen to continue at the high school in September and planned to stay home and take care of Sandy’s baby through the school day.

Conflict assailed Katherine, because she wanted both to look after the baby and Eileen and to get on with her own life. She wanted the baby as if it grew in her own womb, but she also wanted her own career or her own family and home or both—or all three. How long will I put my own life on hold? she sometimes wondered—then a glimpse of Eileen’s belly returned Katherine’s focus to finding a job for the next year or two. She had found three jobs and prepared applications, when late July brought the county fair.

Remembering previous years, Katherine urged her whole family—by then including Eileen—to attend, and all concurred. The family arrived at the fairgrounds late Friday morning, joined Katherine’s sisters Rosetta and Doreen and their families, then dispersed. Katherine’s father, brothers-in-law, and brothers headed toward the extensive displays of farm implements and machinery; her mother and sisters, toward the quilts and preserves and baked goods; while Katherine and the massively pregnant Eileen cruised the midway for distraction from their quotidian concerns.

The Greenwood County Fair board, pleased to obtain the services of an entertainer who had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry, had decided this year to begin their live musical entertainment earlier in the day. The board had collaborated with a neighboring county to persuade Derek Remington to present middle-of-the-day and evening shows at the Greenwood County Fair and a single early-evening show the next day at Butler County’s fair, for a price the two fairs could afford. Their negotiations resulted in Katherine and Eileen arriving in front of the stage just as Derek Remington and the Riflemen began their first set.

That voice! thought Katherine, as she said, “Omigod!” to Eileen.

“What is it, Kath?” Eileen asked.

“Listen!” Katherine replied. “Have you ever heard anything more beautiful?”

Eileen, who didn’t share Katherine’s unusual relationship with male voices but had an ear for music, said only, “He’s good, alright. His phrasing is super, and his tone, too. You don’t often get both in one singer.”

Katherine didn’t ordinarily think about singing in such analytical terms but grasped the essence—and the truth—of what Eileen said. Impressed by her friend’s analysis, the older girl felt embarrassed at not having previously appreciated—or even noticed—this aspect of Eileen. Katherine could hardly think about that, though, because she felt enveloped in the singer’s voice. Derek Remington’s voice was the air and she was a swallow diving and soaring in it.

Two middle-aged farmers noticed Eileen’s condition and offered her and Katherine their chairs. Eileen thanked the men with manners she had learned from Katherine, who seemed unable to muster more than a polite “Thank you”—although both rewarded the farmers with beaming smiles. In the afternoon heat of the Kansas sun, Katherine floated on a luxurious vocal cloud.

“Are you alright?” Eileen asked.

In a dreamy voice with her eyes half closed, Katherine said, “Yes. Shhhhh!”

When the song ended and the small crowd applauded, Eileen said, “Is this, like, what you told me about? I mean, the voice thing?”

Katherine, her eyes wide open and fixed on Derek Remington, nodded and said in a half-whisper, “Yes. Doesn’t his voice just give you goose bumps?”

“Kat,” Eileen began—she was the only person who called Katherine “Kat”, and that had become part of their sisterly bond, “he’s old enough to be your father.”

Katherine nodded again and whispered, “Grandfather, probably. Now, listen,” as the singer looked straight at her and began “Hey, hey, good lookin’, Whatcha got cookin’? …”

Eileen tactfully remained silent until the song ended, then she stage-whispered over the scattered applause, “You sure you’re OK?”

“Yes! Oh, yes! I’m fine,” Katherine replied, while she thought, I’ve never felt this good before in my whole life.

Despite Eileen’s worried look, Katherine just wanted to sit and listen to the tall grey-bearded singer. She wished that he would just go on singing forever and felt something like panic when he removed his guitar and set it on a stand behind him. To her surprise and relief, he played the fiddle to introduce a slower song—beautiful but with sad lyrics about a faded love. After a song called “Dance with Who Brung Ya”, the singer fiddled a hoedown.

Katherine enjoyed the lively fiddle tune but wanted another vocal. I wonder if Sandy would like that, Katherine thought as she tapped her foot to the hoedown. She realized with a start that she hadn’t thought of Sandy since Derek Remington began singing—the first time she hadn’t thought of her brother since that awful night she had been called off the court in the middle of a basketball game. Before Katherine could wonder whether she should feel guilty, the singer grabbed his guitar and her heart with his next song.

Three more songs kept Katherine enraptured, until Derek Remington said, “We just have time for one more, but we’ll be back with another show this evening.” He set his guitar on the stand as he spoke and kicked off “Y’all Come” on the fiddle. Katherine’s heart took flight, but she remained grounded enough to feel impressed when he switched back to the guitar while singing and again by a stunning guitar break. He sang the third chorus then finished with a flashy ending in harmony with the other guitar player.

The crowd had grown in the course of the last few songs and applauded long and loud, as Derek Remington tipped his Cattleman’s hat and said, “Thank you so much. I hope we’ll see you back here tonight.” He waved to the crowd, as he lifted his guitar off its stand and packed it in its case then did the same with the fiddle. Katherine and Eileen stood, as Derek Remington carried his cases down steps at the back of the flatbed trailer serving as a stage.

The two teenagers looked around and spotted the farmers chatting at the back of the now-dispersing crowd. The young ladies hurried over to the men, and Katherine thanked them effusively for giving up their chairs. The four exchanged pleasantries, before Eileen and Katherine walked off to explore the midway.

“That was weird,” Eileen said.

“Those guys? They’re just farmers.”

“No, I mean you. You were, like, in a trance.”

“No, not a trance. It’s like I told you,” Katherine replied. “I just wanted to focus on his voice. It made me feel all excited and peaceful at the same time.”

“He’s older than your dad.”

“So?”

“So you have the hots for a guy older than your dad?”

“No, I—” Katherine began. “Yeah, OK, I guess I do, but so what. I wasn’t planning to do anything about it. He has a nice smile, though, doesn’t he.”

Eileen shook her head, then said with a half-grin, “Yeah, he does.”

They walked the length and breadth of the fair’s carnival section and greeted a dozen of Katherine’s friends from school and the hospital. Looking out for Katherine’s mother and sisters, the two were walking back past the carnival booths, when they discovered Derek Remington at one of them. He stood in front of the booth, casually throwing a baseball and knocking down stacks of metal milk bottles.

Another throw cleared a stack of bottles, and the carnie running the booth handed the singer an enormous teddy bear. As he took the bear from the man, Derek Remington turned and saw Katherine and Eileen. “Hi,” he said. “Thanks for coming to my show. It was nice having you two right down front.”

Katherine could feel her cheeks reddening and saw Eileen blushing, too. Eileen gave the singer a shy smile, and Katherine, usually so composed and in control, heard herself saying, “Gawd, you have an amazing voice.”

“Why, thank you,” he said, as his smile grew even brighter.

Eileen rescued her flustered protector by saying, “I’m Eileen, and this is my friend Katherine.”

“I’m Derek, but I guess you knew that.”

Both girls giggled and nodded. Katherine felt she needed to say something, so she didn’t look foolish, but couldn’t think of what. The singer spoke first. Addressing Eileen, he said, “You look like you might have a use for this soon,” as he handed the teddy bear to her.

Eileen blushed again and started to say “thank you”, but Derek said, “Oh, I hope that didn’t sound rude or anything. I didn’t mean any—”

Both of the teenagers hurried to reassure him that they weren’t offended, and Eileen expressed her thanks and said he was very sweet to give her the bear.

“Well, I’m a sweet guy,” he said with a grin. “But wait!” He turned back to the carnie and paid for another set of baseballs.

The carnie took the money and said, “You can’t do that again.”

“Maybe not,” the singer replied as he flung the first ball dead center into a stack of bottles and sent them flying.

When Derek had again cleared a stack with each ball, the carnie handed him another huge teddy bear and said, “I’m glad you’re the only one today who’s done that.”

“OK, I’ll go bother somebody else,” Derek said, as he turned and handed the second teddy bear to Katherine.

“Oh, thank you!” she said. “You are so sweet.”

“Well, like I said …”

Katherine giggled. She surprised herself by saying, “But you’re not supposed to tell people. You’re supposed to let them figure it out for themselves,” with a grin to show she didn’t mean her remark as a criticism.

“But you already have. You said so yourselves.”

All three laughed together like old friends.

Eileen said, “I’m going to need to sit down pretty soon.”

“Omigosh!” Derek said, “How rude of me, to keep you standing here.”

Katherine felt she should say something but maintained her focus entirely on listening to Derek Remington’s voice and looking at his smile and his sparkling eyes. Before she could pull herself together to speak, her young friend said, “Now that’s just silly. You haven’t been one bit rude.”

Before Derek could reply, Katherine said to Eileen, “Can you make it back to the car? We’ll want to take these bears out there.”

“I’m not that fragile. I just don’t want to be standing around for another half hour.”

“Shall I walk you out there?” Derek offered, “Or it that presumptuous?”

The other two assured him it wasn’t, and they started toward the jam-packed parking lot. As they walked along, he said, “Are you both from around here?” That led to a conversation about their backgrounds and his that took them all the way to Katherine’s parents’ car.

She and Derek stood beside the car and chatted with each other and Eileen, who sat in the car with all the doors open. The teenagers were full of questions—where had he been playing, had he been on the road long, did he like travelling?

“We played the Grant County Fair yesterday and Norton County Fair the night before that. We’ve been on tour eight weeks so far this trip. … county fairs, couple of music festivals, one dance hall, and a couple of concerts.” He paused and looked around. Looking sheepish, he said, “Don’t repeat this, OK?” Both girls nodded, and Derek Remington continued, “No, I don’t like being on the road. I sing Willie’s song, but I don’t really like being on the road. I like the work, the music. I like meeting nice people like you, but I don’t like travelling. If somebody would pay me to sit at home and play music in my living room, I’d prob’ly never go anywhere.”

Eileen looked shocked. Katherine had been too caught up in the sound of his voice to register immediately what he was saying. When the words finally penetrated, she felt surprised but then said, “Yeah, I get it. I like the people I work with and the work’s OK, but I’ve come to hate standing on that concrete floor all day.”

Derek nodded and said, “Yeah, like that. But aren’t you still in school?”

“Well, it’s summer vacation,” Katherine said. She went on to explain her early graduation, which led to her telling him about Sandy. She didn’t tell him about the connection with Eileen but did say she’d put her college plans on hold in order to look after Eileen’s baby.

“That’s awful,” the singer said. “I wish I could help.” He went on to ask a few gentle questions about them and about Sandy in that voice that soothed Katherine as it excited her.

In answering one of the questions, the tall redhead stumbled over a landmine—or felt like it. She’d begun telling her new friend about attending the Fair with Sandy last year, when the bomb went off in her heart. Katherine had been strong—amazingly strong, people said—for nearly eight months. She had been a tower of strength in public and even in the privacy of her own room had never let herself break down. All at once, in the heat and dust of the fairgrounds parking lot, she couldn’t hold back the tears.

Eileen saw her benefactor’s eyes begin to leak and hurried to her side.

“Oh, gee! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” Derek Remington began, as he wrapped his arms around both girls. “I didn’t mean to upset y—”

Even filled with concern, that voice lifted Katherine out of her grief and let her fly. She hugged both Eileen and Derek and said, “No, no! It’s OK. Really! I’m OK.” She wanted to hear Derek say more, anything, but mostly she didn’t want to worry him—or Eileen, she thought belatedly.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Sure you’re OK?” He went on with other questions in that vein, and Katherine’s heart flew on the magic carpet of his voice.

Katherine remembered a time two years earlier, when a red-eyed vireo had flown in a door one of the boys—probably Sandy—had propped open to carry something in from the garage. The little bird had flown into the kitchen and then panicked when Katherine walked in, hurling itself against one window and then another in its desperation to get out. After failing to catch the bird with her bare hands, Katherine had fetched a towel and cornered the frightened creature with that. She carried the little vireo outside. Standing in the back yard, Katherine used her underarm foul shot technique and threw the vireo as high as she could and watched it fly away.

She had wondered what that little vireo felt, when it found itself free and high in the air. Now, she thought she knew. Derek Remington’s voice had flung her heart back into the sky and let it soar. And his arm felt good around her shoulders, too. She wondered if his other arm felt as good to Eileen and then worried about that.

“Thank you,” Katherine said, feeling unexpectedly happy. She wanted to tell Eileen and Derek about the bird and laughed at herself for feeling a need to tell them.

“For upsetting you?” Derek said in a puzzled tone.

“No, for … ummmm … for helping me deal with my grief and … and … I don’t know … making me feel OK again.” She struggled to explain more and then told her friends the story about the vireo.

“I’m glad I’m not the only person who does that,” Derek said.

“Makes me feel OK?”

“No, takes birds outside and throws them up into the air.”

“Have you done that, too?” Eileen asked.

“Yeah, three or four times—although not since I made screens for my windows.”

The girls asked the singer about his home, and he described building it with the help of a carpenter friend. “I didn’t know much about building,” he said, “but I learned.”

“But you’re a big star,” Eileen said. “Why didn’t you just hire somebody to build it.?”

Derek hugged Eileen’s shoulders and said, “Oh, thank you! But I’m not really a star—I’m a journeyman: I make a decent living from my music, but I’m no star.”

To me you are, Katherine thought, but said nothing. Derek continued, “I could’ve hired a contractor, but … I dunno … I’d depleted my savings buying the land—I didn’t want a mortgage hanging over my head—and … I guess I just wanted to know I’d built it myself.” He paused and then said, “And it isn’t the kind of house a contractor would want to build.”

“Cool!” Eileen said with a big smile, as she sat back down in the car.

Katherine nodded and smiled at the singer, and he smiled back. Usually so articulate, Katherine wanted to ask a dozen questions but felt at a loss for words.

Again, Eileen filled the void. “I suppose you fix your own car and all that sort of thing, too. Did you do all your own wiring and plumbing?”

“No—I mean yes, I—” Derek replied, looking embarrassed. “Wiring is easy—I’ve put in two independent systems, one for 110 volts and one for 12 volts, but I’m not hooked up to the grid, so I only use the 12 volt system.” He paused, but both girls waited for him to say more, so he continued, “I haven’t done any plumbing—I mean, I’ve done some for friends, and that was pretty easy—but I haven’t put any plumbing inside my place yet. I bought a stainless half-horse AMT pump at the factory, when we were in Pennsylvania, so I’ll do some serious plumbing when I get home. I have a sink outside now, but I’ve made up a kitchen counter and cabinets and ordered a big stainless double sink. I’m hoping to plumb that and have it working my first week back. After that, I guess I can say I’ve done my own plumbing.”

Omigosh, thought Katherine, this man is amazing. She found herself wondering what it would be like to live in a house with twelve-volt electricity and no plumbing, then blushed at the implications of that thought.

Eileen must have seen something, because she asked her friend, “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Katherine replied and laughed. “I was just thinking what an amazing man Derek is,” she said, smiling and looking into his eyes.

“You’re too kind,” he said, smiling back. “And, yeah, I used to do almost all my own automotive work. I still do, on my old van and pickup that I use around home, but I mostly get real mechanics to work on my bus.”

“Your bus?” Eileen asked, as Katherine asked, “Is that for touring?”

“Yes and yes,” Derek replied, and told them about the diesel bus he’d bought second-hand eight years ago and now used for touring with his band. He said, “It’s parked behind the stage,” and offered to show it to them.

On their way to the bus, they encountered the rest of Katherine’s family. She proudly introduced each of them to her new friend, while her brothers took turns blasting away with an air rifle trying to knock down little duck cut-outs moving past at the back of a midway booth. When the boys finally tired or gave up, Derek paid the man and picked up the gun. Katherine’s brothers were good marksmen, but neither of them ever knocked down all the ducks. Her new friend proceeded to knock down one duck after another to the carnie’s dismay. When Derek had won seven prizes, he gave one to each of the boys and one each to Eileen, Katherine, and Katherine’s mother and sisters. Derek expanded his invitation to include the rest of Katherine’s family, who all trooped over to his bus.

After checking that none of his band members was in dishabille or some other compromising situation, the singer invited the company into the bus. Even in the middle of this hot Kansas afternoon, the temperature inside felt cooler than any of them had expected. The Riflemen’s bass player, Mike, endured a flurry of introductions with a casual geniality before leaving for a late lunch.

“How do you keep it so cool without the motor running?” Kathleen’s dad wanted to know.

“A long extension cord,” their host replied with a chuckle, “I plugged it into one of the fair’s outlets.”

The boys took turns checking out the driver’s seat, with Doreen’s husband taking a turn, too, while the rest of the family occupied most of the available seats and peppered Derek with questions. Before answering, he asked if anyone wanted a glass of chilled water, and most did. He handed out glasses of cold water, then stood and answered questions and pointing out features of his home away from home

No, it hadn’t been that expensive, he told them, many of them probably drove cars that cost more than he’d paid for the bus. He’d spent as much again, though, outfitting it. It would have cost more, he explained, if he hadn’t done a lot of the work himself.

“Like what?” Rosetta’s husband asked. “Did you put in those bunks?”

“No, I paid a friend to do it. I helped him, though, and I learned a lot.”

“Where do you think you saved the most?” Katherine’s father asked.

Their host deferred his reply and, turning toward the driver’s seat, said, “Remember, Jack, we look with our eyes, not our fingers.” Mickey snatched Jack’s hand away from an array of switches. Derek said, “Thank you, Mickey,” and turned back toward the adults. “Having friends with skills sure helped,” he said, “but I guess I prob’ly saved the most by doing all the wiring myself—and I had a big stash of cable I’d collected for years.”

Katherine stared at Derek Remington with something like awe, as she realized he had remembered both her brothers’ names. He probably remembers Sandy’s too, she thought and began to feel weepy again. Eileen started to ask something, and her voice brought Katherine back to the present. At the same moment, Doreen’s husband pointed to something mounted behind the driver’s seat and asked, “What’s that?”

“Ham radio transceivers. Sometimes, on a long stretch, I’ll fire ’em up and chat with friends—if whoever’s driving doesn’t mind.”

“That like CB?”

“Sort of,” Derek replied, as Eileen tried again.

“Do you ever drive it yourself?”

Something in Eileen’s voice made Katherine turn to look at her friend. She doesn’t look sick exactly, Katherine thought, but she looks tired.

“Yeah. I don’t like to drive, especially on gig days, but if I’m the one who’s least tired I’ll drive as much as necessary.” Derek’s voice brought Katherine’s focus back to him, but she continued to worry about Eileen. He must’ve noticed something, too, because he said to Eileen, “Would you like to lie down?”

Eileen said, “No, I’m fi—actually, yes, could I?”

The bunks looked comfortable, but they were unmade and looked slept-in, but Derek walked right past them and opened a door at the back of the little passage to reveal what looked like a queen-size bed. He asked Eileen if she needed a drink or a bite to eat or anything, but she said she didn’t and would just rest and listen to the conversation from the bed. As Derek returned to the front, both Katherine and her mom stepped into the little bedroom to reassure themselves about Eileen’s condition.

Despite her many siblings, Katherine had rarely felt resentment, and never directed toward Eileen. Seeing Eileen lying on what was obviously Derek’s bed produced an uncomfortable, unfamiliar feeling in Katherine. She wondered what lying there would feel like and hoped nobody noticed her blush when she imagined waking up there. What right do I have to begrudge Eileen her little bit of comfort, Katherine thought and then blushed even more to find herself thinking, And he isn’t even lying next to her.

That voice brought her attention back to Derek, who was answering a question from Doreen’s husband. “V-6, 330 horsepower, 552 cubes.”

“Where’s the gearshift?”

“Doesn’t need one.”

“Huh?”

“I was surprised, too, when I started bus-hunting. Turns out they haven’t made highway coaches with stick shifts since the seventies. This automatic’s an Allison 5-speed.”

Although Katherine understood Derek’s explanation, the topic didn’t interest her. Instead, she soared on the sound of his voice, as he answered a few more questions about his bus. Katherine’s father interrupted her reverie by rising from the luxurious seat by the door, thanking their host for his hospitality, and pleading a dinner commitment. “We’ll be back for your evening show,” he said, “and bring Gary and Joan if we can.”

Katherine went to check on Eileen, as boys and parents descended the steps into the late July heat. Eileen looked comfortable, but Katherine still asked, “How’re you feeling?”

“Fine—no, great. This is the most comfortable bed I’ve ever seen.” She moved to one side and said, “Check it out.”

Katherine looked past the little galley and the bunks and saw Rosetta and her husband taking their leave. Rosetta glanced into the little bedroom, and they waved to each other as Rosetta carried her sleeping infant down the bus’s steps. Doreen’s husband immediately bombarded Derek with more questions about the bus, which Derek graciously and thoroughly answered. Even floating through the bus’s narrow passageway, that voice lifted Katherine’s spirits. Seeing her host occupied, she quickly lay down beside Eileen and soon said, “I see what you mean.”

Doreen began thanking the singer and saying farewells, so Katherine jumped up and hurried out to give her sister a perfunctory hug. “You coming to his evening show?” Doreen asked.

“You kidding? I wouldn’t miss it for a million bucks.”

“Take the million,” the singer interjected. “I’ll be doing thousands more shows. Come to one of them. Better yet, come to all of ’em.”

Doreen and Katherine laughed, and Katherine said, “I’ll be there.”

“OK, see you there,” said Doreen and, with her family, disappeared down the steps.

Derek had gone to the bedroom to check on Eileen.

“I was just being lazy and enjoying this comfortable bed,” Eileen was saying as Katherine joined them. “I feel great. Really.” She smiled at Katherine.

“You two must be hungry, and I’ll need to eat something before the show,” Derek said. Katherine had begun to hear his content as well as his magical voice, so she nodded as she tore her gaze away from him to glance at Eileen. “If there’s a decent restaurant in town, I could take you out to dinner.”

This time, Katherine found her tongue. “Goodness! You don’t have to do that. You’ve already given us most of your day—and the teddy bears and things.”

“Of course I don’t have to, but I want to. I’ve been enjoying your company, and I’d like to keep on enjoying your company.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Eileen said.

Derek looked at her and smiled. He said only, “OK.” Still smiling, he looked from one to the other.

Katherine wondered if she had missed something and if they had some chemistry that would exclude her. She felt better to see Derek’s eyes fixed on her own, when he said, “So, can I take you to dinner?”

She thought about places to eat and said, “Unfortunately, the only decent restaurant in town has a rock band tonight. U—”

“Who?” Eileen asked.

“Linoleum Chicken.”

“Any good?” Derek asked.

“Ugh!” the two teenagers said in unison.

“Do you like rock music?” Katherine asked in surprise.

“Not really, but some bands are better than others.”

“These guys are the best in the area,” Eileen said, filling a gap in Katherine’s knowledge, “but they’re still awful.”

“They don’t usually have music—maybe a country band once or twice a year—but they knew you’d pull all the country fans away tonight,” Katherine explained.

“Hmmmm … OK, I could make us some grilled cheese sandwiches—white or whole grain, your choice—and I think I have enough greens and stuff in the ‘fridge to make us a salad. What d’you think?” Derek asked, again looking from one to the other.

Eileen said, “I think I need to go out and pee.”

“No need to go out,” Derek said, opening the door to a small toilet cubicle.

Eileen stepped into the tiny space and pulled the door shut. Derek turned to Katherine and said, “So …”

Katherine smiled and said, “Yes, please. Grilled cheese on wholewheat sounds just fine,” then surprised herself by saying, “I’m enjoying your company, too—and not just because you’re a star.”

Their host pretended to be grumpy but couldn’t keep himself from grinning as he said, “I told you out in the parking lot, I’m not a star. I’m a full-time professional entertainer—and a good one, I like to think—but not a star. My style is too old-fashioned for the star-makers, and I’d rather play music I like than make more money than I need.”

“Don’t you get frustrated sometimes?” Eileen asked as she returned to the edge of the bed, her question echoing Katherine’s thoughts.

“Yeah, of course—everyone does, but I don’t let it eat away at me like some guys. I mean, cryin’ out loud, I have a nice—if unconventional—house, thirty-six acres of fertile land, a van, a truck, and this bus, a truckload of quality instruments, three beautiful horses, and—”

“Horses!?” both girls said together.

“Well, a mare and her two daughters. They’re probably my biggest single expense, maybe after the bus,” Derek said, as he took the first two sandwiches out of the sandwich maker.

“Were they really expensive?” Eileen asked.

“No, I got Teazel for a pretty good price—cheap at the time, although prices have dropped some since then. I meant the ongoing expenses.”

“Like what?” Eileen persisted.

“Well, there’s vet bills—although fortunately I haven’t had many of those—and feed and worm medicine, hay in the winter, and paying someone to take care of them while I’m away is a big one.”

“But if you have thirty-six acres of good land, why do you need to buy feed?” Eileen asked.

“Well, they’d do OK on the grass, but they’re sort of my babies, y’know?, so I pamper them.”

“And that’s why you pay someone to take care of them,” Katherine said.

“Exactly. I mean, for a day or two I can just leave them, and when I go away for a week or less I can get one of the neighbors to check that they’re OK and give ’em some feed every couple of days, but when I’m gone for three months I feel better knowing they’re well cared for.”

“Sounds like heaven,” Katherine said.

“Yeah, I’d say that—if I believed in such things.”

Katherine let a giggle escape. She nodded and said, “Yes, I should’ve said that.”

“Ooh! That makes you even more attractive,” Derek said, then continued, “So, yeah, house, land, vehicles, instruments, horses, friends—what more do I need?”

Me, me! You need me, Katherine thought but said nothing.

“I could do things their way. Do what the A & R man wants, sing songs I don’t like, hire a drummer—”

Surprised, Katherine realized she hadn’t noticed Derek’s band had no drummer. She thought maybe that was one reason they sounded better than a lot of groups.

“—do the kind of arrangements the producers want, and sell a lot more records and get bigger fees for my shows. I think I have the skills to do that. But why? I wouldn’t enjoy the music as much, and why play music if you don’t enjoy it.” Derek removed two more sandwiches and handed plates with sandwiches and salad to each of his guests.

“That makes a lot of sense,” Katherine said.

Eileen nodded but asked, “Would you make a lot more?”

“Probably ten times what I’m making now. But, hey, I make plenty. I’m putting money in the bank, don’t owe anybody anything. I guess if I made ten times as much, I’d make enough in three or four years to retire comfortably—but I’d need to. I enjoy the music I do now and don’t feel any desire to stop. I mean, it sure beats sitting in an office or standing on a factory floor.”

“Except you don’t like the travelling,” Katherine observed.

“True. But a couple of stars have picked up some of my songs. If those sell, I’ll get royalties. If I can make enough off my songwriting, I won’t have to spend as much time on the road.”

“That would be wonderful,” Eileen said.

“It would,” Derek agreed.

They ate in silence for a few moments. Katherine wanted to ask about his family, to ask if he had a family, or a wife or a girlfriend but didn’t want to sound too eager. They talked a little more about political, musical, and environmental topics, until Derek said, “It’s nearly seven. The fellas’ll be here any minute. I guess I’ll have to throw you out, while we get changed and ready for the show.” Turning to Eileen, he asked, “Will you be OK, Eileen?”

She assured him she would. When Al, the steel guitar player, opened the door, Derek introduced them, before the teenagers left to cruise the midway again for half an hour that stretched into an hour as they kept running into friends.

A few minutes before eight, Katherine and Eileen made their way to the area in front of the makeshift stage and found a sea of people and chairs. Katherine’s mom and dad both stood and waved, and the girls made their way to them. In the chairs the adults had saved for them, they listened politely to a local band called the Country Cousins, chatting between songs, until the emcee announced Derek Remington and the Riflemen.

Katherine watched Derek, dressed in a sparkly outfit, carry two instrument cases onto the stage as soon as the Country Cousins had finished. Her eyes riveted to the tall grey-bearded singer, Katherine watched him hang his fiddle on his microphone stand and strap on his guitar, while the announcer finished. As soon as the man ended his introduction and turned toward the band, Derek and Mike began singing “Well, my heart skips a beat, when we walk down the street …” in harmony.

Her heart flew as high as it had earlier, but Katherine had developed new abilities in the hours since the afternoon show. She still flew on the wings Derek Remington’s voice provided, but she remained aware of his playing and the rest of the band and the people surrounding her. She retained her substantial capacity for ratiocination, which seemed earlier to have completely abandoned her.

While Derek’s voice kept her soaring above the fairgrounds, she thought about him and about the feelings she had experienced in his bus that afternoon. Why did I resent Eileen’s innocently resting on his bed? she wondered. The answer didn’t take long to arrive. It isn’t just his voice, he’s a very nice, very special man, she thought, I want him. I want him in my life, and I want to be in his life. She contemplated these thoughts and feelings, even as she listened to him singing “Nobody knows I’m hurtin’, nobody cares.”

I care, Derek, I do, she called silently. She was still calling out to him silently, when he took off his guitar and set it on the stand, picked up his fiddle, and, after a pretty introduction, looked straight at her as he sang

I thought I had seen pretty girls in my time,

but that was before I met you.

I never saw one that I wanted for mine,

but that was before I met you.

 

Katherine’s already soaring heart moved to a higher orbit, and she wondered, Is he doing that on purpose? Does he mean it? Does any of this mean anything at all?

Derek’s rendition of “Stay All Night”, with two flashy fiddle breaks and Al’s tasteful steel guitar break, brought the crowd to its feet. Throughout the song and the ovation and the following six songs, Katherine pondered her feelings and his intentions. She wondered if he liked Eileen better than her, then felt ashamed to consider her young friend a rival. She thought about Derek and Eileen and herself and relationships and possibilities, until she heard him say, “Thank you so much, folks. We only have time for one more.”

That was the closest Katherine ever came to experiencing a panic attack. No! she wanted to scream, Keep singing! She needn’t have worried—the crowd wouldn’t let him stop. He sang “Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy,” and the crowd went wild. He said, “I meant to sing this one earlier but got distracted and forgot,” and did “Working Man’s Blues.” The crowd again roared for more. Derek said, “We’d be happy to pick’n’sing for ya all night, but we have some drivin’ to do ’cause we have another show tomorrow over in El Dorado. We’ll wind up with one from Willie.”

With his eyes roving back and forth across the cheering crowd, Derek began, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.” At the conclusion, the crowd yelled for “One more!”

“OK,” Derek finally said, “We’ll do one more—and thank you all very much for your support. There’s a guy I always thought deserved more credit as a country singer—he’s a great one. We’ll end—we really do have to go, folks—we’ll end with one from Jerry Lee.”

Katherine listened, and soared on the wings Derek’s voice gave her, but at the same time she thought, No, please! Don’t stop.

He sang, “Another Place, Another Time,” and again finished to a standing ovation, while Katherine wished he would keep singing forever. No, she thought, not singing forever—talking, too, talking to me.

The local disc jockey emcee returned to the stage and said only, “Derek Remington,” to thunderous applause, as Derek and his band cased their instruments and left the stage. Katherine hurried to the back of the stage, then thought of Eileen and turned to find her young friend right beside her. Surrounded by two dozen fans, mostly girls and women Katherine knew from school or the hospital, Derek signed autographs on fair programs and CD inserts and in autograph books and thanked each admirer for coming to the show.

Once the autograph hunters had drifted away, Derek greeted Katherine and Eileen warmly and greeted Katherine’s parents and brothers by name. She hadn’t realized they were behind her and now worried that the boys needed to go home to bed. She asked Derek, “Will you be in town for a day or two?” then turned to her parents and said, “He could park his bus at our place, couldn’t he?”

Her mother and father both said, “Yes, of course.”

Derek, however, said, “No, I can’t. I have to play tomorrow evening in El Dorado at the Butler County Fair.”

“That’s just up the road.”

“Yeah, that’s why I could make ’em a good deal—but how long does it take to drive there?”

“’bout half an hour,” Katherine’s dad said.

“Oh, holy cow! I had no idea it was that close. Hey, fellas!” Derek called, turning toward the band members carrying equipment to the bus, “You wanna stay over here tonight and drive to Butler tomorrow?”

The band members’ surprise told Katherine they were used to moving on right after their gigs. To her delight, none of them objected. Al asked, “Does that mean we get to have real showers?”

Derek seemed to be trying to look offended but burst out laughing. Katherine’s mother said, “Of course it does, and a real home-cooked breakfast, too.”

Katherine had maneuvered herself into a spot beside Derek, and he hugged her shoulders as he thanked and praised her mother. He ended with, “Is she great, or what?” and then said, “We’d better get everything packed and follow you on over there, then, ’cause you’ll be needin’ to get those boys to bed.”

That voice and the arm around her shoulders made Katherine feel as if she could melt into a puddle of pure happiness.  The singer’s concern for her brothers engendered feelings she had never before experienced and made her think, He’s the only man I’ve ever met who’s as thoughtful as Dad.  Turning to her parents, she said, “You go on home. I’ll ride the bus and give them directions.”

Jack and Mickey made such a clamor of “Me, too,” that Katherine barely heard Eileen say, “I’ll go with you.”

Katherine felt no surprise, when Derek told her brothers, “Only if you sit quietly and behave like perfect gentlemen.” He turned to her parents and asked, “Is that alright? We have seatbelts.”

Katherine’s father said, “That’s fine,” and instructed the boys to behave for Mr. Remington, who picked Jack up and, with much wriggling and giggling, carried him to the bus.  He seated Mickey in the first passenger seat on the left and Jack across the aisle in the matching one on the right beside Eileen.  Katherine’s parents headed for their car, while Derek verified that the band members had loaded and stowed everything correctly.  He seated Katherine in the big, comfortable seat just behind the door and made sure her seat belt was fastened, then slid behind the wheel, did something on the dashboard, waited a moment, and started the motor.

When they arrived at home, Derek complimented the boys on their good behavior before their mother sent them off to bed. In the meantime, Katherine’s father dug out a long extension cord and snaked it out of the garage to the bus. Katherine somehow followed everything without taking her eyes off Derek.

She positioned herself beside Derek but accommodated Eileen close behind, as everyone trooped inside. Katherine’s mom had baked a cake the day before and offered coffee and cake to Derek and his band. All but Derek attacked both with gusto, while he explained he didn’t like to eat late at night the way most musicians seemed to. He, Mike, and Katherine’s father discussed national politics and world affairs, and soon Derek’s second guitar player thanked their hosts and walked out to the bus. A few minutes later, Katherine’s parents pled morning commitments and excused themselves.

Mike and Al soon followed their bandmate, and Eileen headed upstairs to bed.  That left Derek and Katherine deep in a conversation about the government’s inadequate response to global warming.  Alone with Derek, Katherine asked him about his plans for the next few weeks.  He told her about four concerts in Missouri plus the Anderson County Fair back in Kansas, then he added he’d like to return west via Greenwood to see her. “If that would be OK,” he said.

Katherine said, “Of course,” but didn’t think he would.  Thinking she might never see him again emboldened her, and she asked, “Are you grooming me to be your groupie?”

Derek had stood and begun moving toward the door but stopped abruptly.  He looked startled and sad.  “No,” he said, “I don’t think I’m grooming you to be anything.”  Still looking sad, he paused a moment and then said, “I’m not exactly sure of the difference between grooming and courting.”  Another brief pause, and then, “I mean, if you’re asking would I like to have sex with you, yes, of course I would.  But I don’t just want to have sex with you. I mean, we’ve been sharing a lot today, and I’d like to continue that.  I want to share sex with you, but I want to share everything else, too—at least I’d like to see what all we can share.”  He looked discouraged as he added, “I guess you prob’ly think I’m too old.”

“No!” Katherine said. “I don’t think you’re too old at all.  I think you’re amazing. I—”  She paused and then said, “I want to get to know you better.”

His smile made her feel better.  His arms around her made her feel better yet.  “Yes, exactly,” he said.  “That’s what I want, too.”

She said she would walk him to the bus, but he said, “No, ’cause then I’d have to walk you to your door and you’d walk me back to the bus and we’d be walking back and forth all night.”

She giggled, and he bent to place a gentle kiss on her lips.  As Katherine climbed the stairs to her room, she wondered how such a chaste kiss could leave her feeling so aroused.

The heat of the day had ebbed, but the night remained warm, as Katherine slipped between her sheets.  Thinking she was the only one awake, Katherine started when Eileen whispered, “Don’t you go sneaking down to that comfortable bed.”

“I didn’t plan to,” Katherine whispered back, wondering if that were true and blushing in the dark, “but why not?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Never mind.  He wants you anyway.”

“He what!?”

The focus of Katherine’s thoughts had indeed been Derek Remington and, she blushed again to admit it to herself, his comfortable bed, but the sound of Eileen’s quiet weeping brought that focus back to the little bedroom they shared.  “What is it, Eileen?” the older girl asked her friend. “What’s wrong?”

Sniffling back her tears, Eileen said, “Kat, it’s been nine months since I’ve had Sandy’s arms around me—since I’ve had anybody’s arms around me, except when you put your arm around my shoulder—and I miss him and I still love him.  Can I say that? I mean, I love his memory—no, I love him, the him that I knew.”

“Yeah, I get it. Me, too.”

“Yeah, I should remember that.”

Katherine had moved to the side of Eileen’s bed and knelt there, holding Eileen like a mother comforting a child awakened by a bad dream.  “Don’t worry.  You’re doing amazingly well.”

“The thing is …” Eileen began, “… will you think I’m awful, if I tell you this?”  She paused long enough for her friend to begin speaking but continued over Katherine’s reassurances, “If I didn’t have this big belly, I would be down in that bed myself. Please don’t be mad!”

Eileen’s revelation didn’t surprise Katherine, and she couldn’t bring herself to resent her young friend’s desires.  Instead, she hugged Eileen tighter and said, “I’m not mad at you. Don’t worry.  I can understand your wanting him.  He—”

“But you want him, too, prob’ly as much as I do—and you two would be perfect for each other.”  Eileen sobbed and continued, “But I still want him.”

Yes, I do, Katherine thought.

“I know. It’s all over you. It’s—”

“Did I say that out loud?” Katherine asked.

“Yes, but I already knew.  You look like I feel.”

“Holy cow! I was just sort of facing my feelings. I didn’t mean to say it out loud.”

“Yeah, I know.  You’re all dazzled, like a deer in the headlights.  Maybe worse than me.”

“Uh huh, but what are we going to do?” Katherine said, louder than she intended.

“Shhhh!  I don’t know either.  Well, I guess I know what I’m going to do.  I’m going to have Sandy’s baby and be the best mother I can.  I’ll never get to be with Derek Remington, but I’ll just have to live with that.”

“But I think he likes you.”

“I think so, too, but I think he has his eye on you.”

Katherine shivered with pleasure at the thought but said nothing.

“Are you a virgin,” Eileen whispered, “or are those stories about you and Charlie Richland true?”

“He promised he would never tell anyone,” Katherine replied, quietly but not hiding her vexation and distress.

“I think he kept his promise,” Eileen whispered back, “but he decked Leroy Banks, when Leroy said you were a lesbian.”

“Holy cow! How come I never knew about that?”

“I guess even the girls who wouldn’t usually care felt bad about dumping more on you after … you know.”

Katherine said, “Oh,” very softly.

“Yeah,” Eileen said, hugging her benefactor.  “Kat, don’t worry about me.  You just go on down to that bus and enjoy yourself.  You deserve it.”

Katherine hugged her younger friend and whispered, “No, not tonight.  I’m not going to be a groupie.  I don’t want another fling.”  A moment later, she said, “Can you sleep OK?”

“Yeah, I’m really tired.”

Returning to her own bed, Katherine just said, “OK, good-night,” as she slipped back between her sheets.  An image of her and Derek walking hand-in-hand carried her off to sleep.

She woke early, as usual, slipped quietly downstairs, and found her mother already preparing a big breakfast.  “Your Mr. Remington just walked down the driveway,” her mother said.

“Oh, thanks.  I’ll just run out and ask him if he’d like a cup of coffee.”

Katherine sprinted out the door and down the drive.  Reaching the sidewalk, she saw Derek about forty yards away.  He must have heard her, because he turned and smiled and waved and called, “Good morning, Katherine.”

She had slowed to a more decorous walk and called back, “Good morning, Derek.  Would you like some company?”

He walked back toward her, and his smile broadened as he replied, “Not some company, but I’d like your company.”

“Good. Where’re you headed?”

“Don’t know.  I just like to walk.  I need the exercise, and it’s a nice way to get to know a place.”

They had walked about a mile, gradually increasing their pace until they both felt comfortable, when Derek asked, “Is it OK for you to be seen with me like this?  I know how tongues start wagging in small towns.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t care what they say, and I like being with you.”

“Good. I like being with you.”

They walked and talked for an hour before their circuitous route returned them to Katherine’s home.  Eileen and the boys and Katherine’s father were already up.  Derek said the rest of the band would probably sleep for another hour, so he joined Katherine’s family for breakfast.  Katherine used the time to persuade her parents to go to El Dorado for Derek’s show.  “They could just come back here after the show and stay tonight.”

She worried that her parents might object, but her mom said she’d love to have Mr. Remington spend another night as their guest and her dad said, “We’d be honored.”

Derek then suggested the whole family ride over to the Butler County Fair in his bus, which won Katherine’s parents’ approval and got the boys excited.  Katherine worried that Derek might have more company than he wanted, when her mom ‘phoned Doreen and Rosetta to ask if they wanted to come along, but he applauded the idea.  The rest of Saturday seemed like a replay of Friday, complete with the singer’s winning fourteen toys and trinkets on the midway and distributing them among Katherine’s brothers and the five women.  The Riflemen’s shows drew even larger crowds than the previous day, including many who had driven from Greenwood County to hear Derek Remington again.  Except for a few requests late in the show, he sang an entirely different selection of songs but without changing the style at all.  Katherine soared above the fair on the wings his voice gave her.

After the show, Derek drove the bus back to Katherine’s parents’ home.  While he drove, Katherine sat in the comfortable chair by the steps with her parents on her left and Eileen opposite them.  Using a lull in the cheerful conversation, Katherine asked, “Didn’t you say your next show is on Tuesday?”

“Yes,” Derek replied, as he drove past East 25th Road.  Knowing that Charlie Richland’s parents lived down that road, Katherine took her eyes off Derek to glance across at Eileen, whose gaze never left the back of Derek’s head. “In Rolla,”

“So you could stay with us two nights and drive to Rolla on Monday and still get there the night before your show,” Katherine said.

“I think we’ve imposed on your parents’ hospitality enough, don’t you?”

Before the driver finished his sentence, both of Katherine’s parents objected.  “No!” Katherine’s mother said, “Not at all! You aren’t imposing.  We’ve enjoyed having you with us and would enjoy another couple of days, if it fits your plans.”  Katherine’s father said something similar, and eventually Derek accepted their invitation for him and the band to spend two more nights as their guests.

Katherine and Derek were again the last ones sitting and talking, after everyone else had gone to bed.  Derek gave Eileen a lingering hug as the younger girl headed upstairs to her bed, and Katherine wondered if the hug meant anything.  Katherine enjoyed her rambling conversation with her new friend and also enjoyed the lingering hug he gave her and his chaste but unsettling parting kiss.  This time, she expected Eileen to be awake and wasn’t surprised.

“Are you still not on your way out to the bus?”

“Not yet.”

“What’s the matter with you? Did you at least kiss him good-night?”

“You don’t really want to know.  Now, go to sleep.”

“You did, then.  That’s a relief.  I was beginning to worry about you.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m supposed to worry about you.”

“We both worry to much.  I’ll be OK.”  Before Katherine could say anything, Eileen continued, “Thank you for being my friend.”

Katherine felt tears welling but said only, “Thank you, too.”

Sunday morning, Katherine hurried downstairs to find her mother again beginning breakfast preparations.  “Has Derek gone out?”

“I haven’t seen him.”

Looking out the kitchen window, Katherine saw the bus door swing open and hurried out with as much decorum as possible.  They enjoyed each other’s company for another hour, their pace slower than power walking but faster than strolling, before returning for a hearty family breakfast.  On the way, Derek asked if she had a cellphone.  She admitted she didn’t.  He surprised her by saying, “I’d like to get you one.”

“But why?”

“I’d like to be able to keep sharing with you, while I’m running around Missouri.  Or is that too pushy?”

She laughed, then said, “No, it isn’t pushy. It’s just funny, ’cause most of the girls at school have cellphones and they’re always texting each other.  I wouldn’t ever spend the money on one, ’cause it just seemed silly.”

“But would it be OK now?”

“Yes, of course, although it seems a little extravagant.”

“They don’t cost that much—”

“Some of the girls have ‘phones that cost hundreds of dollars.”

“Oh, yeah, fancy little computers, really, but you don’t need that—I mean, unless you’d like one of those. I can afford it.”

“I would be happy to have a simple, basic ‘phone that will let me hear your voice when you aren’t here.  I certainly don’t need a—what do they call ’em—smartphone.”

“Driving the bus to the nearest shopping mall will probably cost more than the ‘phone,” Derek said with a chuckle, “but it isn’t a big deal.”

“Hey, wait! I think Rosetta’s going to the city today. We could ride with them.”

“Kansas City? That’s a long way.”

“No, Wichita. Takes about an hour.”

Katherine called Rosetta, while Derek looked in the bus to see if anyone else was awake.  Over breakfast, Katherine explained to her parents that she and Derek would catch a ride to Towne East Square shopping center with Rosetta and her husband and asked Eileen if she wanted to go along.  Eileen said she thought she’d better not get that far away and didn’t want to sit in a car for that long anyway.  Katherine’s mom began preparing a second breakfast and asked Katherine to pick up a few things, so the dutiful daughter made a list then ran upstairs to change.

Rosetta’s husband and Derek walked into the kitchen as Katherine came from the stairs.  “Wow!” Derek said. “Do I need to get dressed up?  I don’t know the local customs.”

“No, silly, I just didn’t want you to be embarrassed to be seen with me.”

“I can’t imagine ever being embarrassed to be seen with you, but you might be embarrassed to be seen with me.”

“No chance.”

By some unspoken agreement, they avoided serious topics and mostly chatted with Rosetta and her husband all the way to Wichita.  At a store called Cellular Center, they bought a not-quite-basic cellphone and calling plan for Katherine and then a second for Eileen and another for Katherine’s mom.  As they shopped for the items on Katherine’s list, she noticed clusters of female twenty-somethings pointing at Derek and whispering.  Nudging his elbow, she inclined her head toward a pair and said, “I’m not the only one who thinks you’re a star.”

Derek smiled at her, looked toward where she indicated, and replied, “No, I guess not, but you’re the one who really matters.”

Katherine could scarcely contain her joy and didn’t mind at all when, later, a woman left her two friends and walked up to speak to Derek.  The woman asked if it would be OK to get a photograph with him, and Katherine volunteered to take the picture—actually four, two with all three women gathered around Derek.  The women thanked Katherine and turned to leave.  The one who had approached him first said over her shoulder, “You’re a lucky girl.”

“Thank you,” Katherine called back, then turned to Derek and asked, “Do you know her?”

“No, but I’ve met a few like her, I think.”

“She’s right.  I’m very lucky to be the one who’s walking and talking with you.  How come you’re single?”

“I think that’ll take more time than we have here, but maybe we can continue this evening or on the ‘phone.  Would that be OK?”

“Of course.  I just can’t believe someone as wonderful as you hasn’t been caught by some gorgeous woman before now.”

Derek explained that he had been in four long-term relationships, including one marriage, but “two of them were city girls who didn’t want to live in the country,” and one found him “too intellectual.”  Katherine laughed out loud to think of some bimbo preferring a dumb redneck.  Katherine, on the contrary, had taken great delight in discovering on that morning’s walk that he had a degree in physics.

“Still, there must be millions of women who would want to be your partner.”

“Actually, I think the number is surprisingly small.”

“There would’ve been hundreds in El Dorado last night, and hundreds in Eureka the night before, and we’re the little places.”

“Yes, but if you subtract all the Christians—”

Katherine gasped.  “Yes,” she said, “I didn’t think of that.  Was that the fourth—”

“Yes, and several shorter attempts.  Not just Christians, of course, religious believers of any kind—”

“That’s more than half the population.”

“Quite a bit more than half here, I’d guess, maybe a little less than half in the cities.  So, yes, that cuts the pool in half.  Then, if you take out the smokers …”

“Yeah, ugh! Another half?”

“Not sure.  Not as many as twenty years ago, but still a lot,” Derek said.  “And, of course, more than half are already married or in a relationship.”

“Yeah, OK.  So, now we’re down from millions to a few hundred thousand.  That’s still a lot of women craving your company.”

“At least half of whom detest country music.  And don’t forget the issue of rural versus urban.”

“OK, so what are we down to?  A couple hundred thousand potential mates?  That’s still quite a few.”

“Ye-e-s-ss,” Derek said, “so then I guess it’s down to my being persnickety.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I tend to find beautiful women more attractive than those who aren’t beautiful.  And before you tell me I’m a male chauvinist pig—”

“You aren’t.”

“—I want to acknowledge that beauty does not define a person’s worth.  I know that but admit that I appreciate beauty and limit my choices accordingly.”

“I think we all do, according to our own tastes.  That isn’t picky, it’s just sort of ordinary.  What else, or is that it?”

“No, there’s more.”

Katherine said nothing, and Derek continued, “Beauty isn’t the only important trait—it isn’t even the most important.  I want someone who is beautiful and intelligent and a nice person.  That’s rare.”

“Mmmmm … OK.”

“Which is what makes you such a treasure.  But there’s more.”  He paused, and, before Katherine could speak, said, “But here comes Rosetta, so we’ll have to continue later, if you want.”

She did want, so, when everyone else had retired after a convivial evening, she said, “You said there’s more?”

“This may sound weird, but let me phrase it as a question: could you live happily without television?”

“Television! How could that ever be a problem?”

“You’d be surprised,” Derek replied.  “I’ve had three or four relationships founder on that specific issue.”

“No!”

“Yep.”

“That’s crazy. How could television be more important than a relationship?”

“Well, like I said, some people say I’m too picky.”

“Yeah, but television?”

“A long time ago—”

“In a land far away?” Katherine asked with a giggle.

“In a faraway corner of this land,” Derek continued with a twinkle in his eye and a grin at the corners of his mouth, “I decided I would not have a television in my life.”

“Sensible.”

“Mmmmmm … yes, but not everyone thinks so. I learned—the hard way—that I can’t live with a Christian and I can’t live with a smoker.  Similarly, I learned that I can’t—or won’t—live with a television.  I’ve never owned one.  I won’t have a television in my home.  I’m not inflexible on many topics, but on that one, I am.”

“I enjoy conversations with you more than any TV show I’ve ever seen.”

“Katherine, dear, I am delighted to hear that, and I hope you’ll always feel that way.  Not everyone does, I can tell you from bitter experience—and even some who said it wouldn’t matter felt deprived later.”

“I don’t watch TV much anyway.  I’d always rather read a book or do something outside or … almost anything else.”  She paused a moment and said, “But even if I loved watching TV every night, I can’t imagine letting it destroy a relationship.  Any woman who would do that is crazy.”

“Or man?”

“Huh!?”

“I did that.  I was just as responsible for those relationships ending as the women were.”

“Oh, yeah,” Katherine said softly.

Derek sat, mute, looking into Katherine’s eyes, and she continued, “For me, TV would never be an issue. It just isn’t important.”

“I’m glad.  Also a little tired.  How ’bout you?”

“Yeah, and you have to drive tomorrow.”

They parted as they had the two previous evenings, with a longer hug, enjoyed a vigorous walk and another family breakfast the next morning, a pleasant conversation with Katherine’s mother and Eileen, then another walk before lunch.  After lunch, the Riflemen all thanked Katherine’s mother before Derek hugged all three women, together and separately.  After kissing Katherine’s forehead, he climbed into the driver’s seat and backed out of the driveway.

Two hours later, Katherine’s new cellphone emitted an electronic melody.  She answered by reflex and glowed with pleasure to hear Derek’s voice.  He told her he’d stopped in Fort Scott to buy food and stretch everyone’s legs, then retired to his quarters.  He also said he would probably have cell coverage for an hour.  “I want to call Eileen quickly,” he added, “so she doesn’t feel left out.  I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

Expecting the sound, Katherine heard Eileen’s ‘phone first and ran upstairs to get it.  She handed it to Eileen and smiled to see the pleasure on her younger friend’s face.  While they talked, Katherine picked up her own ‘phone and her book and climbed back up the stairs.  She had been reading for several minutes, when Derek rang back, but happily put her book down to enjoy forty-five minutes of sharing with him.  When the signal began breaking up, she managed to understand he’d call once he reached Rolla.

She continued reading in the living room, when Eileen went up to bed, and enjoyed a rambling and affectionate talk with Derek before retiring.  Except that Katherine mostly walked by herself, albeit a few times while talking on her new cellphone, and didn’t get to see Derek perform, most of the next week seemed much like the week just past.  She revelled in her conversations with Derek, with calls from Rolla, Columbia, Harrisonville, Bowling Green, St. Louis, and between.  She thought several times of the job applications she still hadn’t submitted, but each time a call from Derek set her wondering if she wanted any of those jobs.  His voice still made her heart soar, and the contents increasingly did the same.

The household’s serenity vanished abruptly on Monday afternoon, August 4th, when Eileen went into labor.  Katherine’s mom attended to Eileen and complimented her on how strong she was, while Katherine ‘phoned Dr. Hutchinson.  Pete Hutchinson was a Family Practice physician, not an obstetrician, but he had delivered more than a thousand babies and had been their family doctor for twenty-three years.  He asked Katherine how far apart the contractions were and waited while she timed them.  He said they could bring Eileen to the hospital whenever they wanted to but that he didn’t expect the baby to arrive until after dark.  Finally, Dr. Hutchinson told Katherine to call him back and get Eileen to the hospital if the contractions occurred less than four minutes apart or lasted longer than a minute each.

About six, the contractions began occurring just under four minutes apart and were lasting just over a minute.  Like a battlefield officer, Katherine ordered her parents to get Eileen into the car and take her to the hospital.  “You go on. I’ll walk,” she said, as she dialled Dr. Hutchinson’s number.  The doctor said he thought it would be another hour but would head on over, just in case.  Twenty minutes later both she and Dr. Hutchinson stood beside Eileen’s bed, and an hour after that Eileen pushed little Alexander out into the hot August evening.

As she walked into her empty bedroom that night, Katherine realized she hadn’t been alone since she had moved Eileen in half a year ago.  The tall redhead didn’t mind the feeling but didn’t exult in it either.  As she undressed for bed, her thoughts flew to another bed and she wished for Derek’s arms around her.  Feeling slightly apprehensive, she worried about him and wondered why he hadn’t replied to her text message.  Maybe he has some girlfriend along the way, Katherine thought; then, I hope he’s alright.

Her new cellphone interrupted her reverie with one of his songs she’d managed to download as a ringtone.  Derek’s voice greeted her “hello” with, “Sorry, Katherine, I just got your text.  I’ve been driving.  I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

“You didn’t, but it would’ve been OK if you had.”

“Exciting news. Did you just get back from the hospital?”

“Nahh, they threw us out an hour ago, but I sat downstairs and chatted with Mom when we got home.”

“Everybody OK?”

Katherine assured her singer friend that Eileen and baby Alexander were the picture of health and the rest of the family was fine, too.  “Did you drive all the way from St. Louis?” she asked him.  “You must be tired.”

“A little tired, but, no, I only drove from the Midway truckstop outside Columbia.  How about you?  How are you feeling?”

“I was worried about you, but I’m fine now.”

Derek expressed his dismay at having worried Katherine, and they spent a few minutes soothing each other.  When they resumed their normal conversation, he told her he’d bought a new pair of Arial boots and a new Bailey hat next door to the truckstop then said, “The boys and I will want to get something nice for Eileen.  What will she need?  What’s the best thing to get?”

He mentioned a few useful items and they discussed them, then Katherine said, “Everybody’s getting her things for the baby, practical things, y’know?  And that’s good, but I don’t think she’s ever owned any really nice clothes, and she’s been wearing these baggy maternity clothes for the past few months, and …”

“She might like a nice dress.”

“Yes. That’s what I was thinking.”

“OK, but you’ll have to educate me.  I know nothing about women’s clothing.  And what size does she wear?  Or is it not that simple?”

Katherine proceeded to tell Derek everything he needed to know to buy a nice dress for Eileen, after which they talked about other topics for an hour.  When Derek said he wanted to make an early start and she needed a good night’s sleep, they exchanged endearments before he said, “Good night, dear Katherine.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!? But you’re heading to Stockton.”

“Yeah, but we don’t play ’til Wednesday.  We’ll come by Eureka to deliver Eileen’s presents, and I’ll get to see you sooner.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure I want to see you?  You bet.”

“That’s neat,” Katherine replied with a giggle.  “I want to see you tomorrow.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t say this right now, ’cause I’m lying in bed, but I wish I had you in my arms right this minute.”

“I do, too.”

After she had set her ‘phone on the nightstand, she lay awake for several minutes imagining Derek’s arms around her in his bed.

She arrived at the hospital before visiting hours the next morning, but everyone knew her from when she’d worked there.  Eileen was the only patient in the four-bed room and had already had a call from Derek.  The nurses let Katherine in to see her, once they’d checked that their patient was awake.  The new mother was nursing her baby and fairly glowing with pride and happiness.  “Isn’t this awesome?” she said.  “I can provide everything he needs, at least for now.  I’ve even changed his diapers this morning.”

Katherine had seen her mother nurse the three boys but had never paid much attention.  Now, she did and had to agree.  “Yes, it is awesome.  You’re awesome.”

Eileen smiled and said, “He’s awesome.  Isn’t he just the sweetest baby you’ve ever seen.”

Katherine agreed again then sat with her friend for twenty minutes with the companionable silence broken only by the sucking sounds from Alexander’s tiny mouth.  When he finally slept, Eileen said, “Do you want to hold him?”  Katherine did and was still holding him, when her mother walked in an hour later.

The look on her mother’s face puzzled and worried Katherine, who asked, “Are you alright?”

Her mother stood, staring, and finally said, “God in heaven, Katherine!  He looks exactly like Sandy did as a baby.”

Eileen had dozed off but woke to hear that.  Katherine marshalled her strength and gently rocked Alexander, while the other two embraced in tears for several minutes.  When he woke feeling hungry, Katherine wished she could nurse him but handed him back to his mother.

Doreen and Rosetta dropped by separately to congratulate Eileen and see the baby.  Katherine’s mother went home for two hours.  While mother and son slept, Katherine slipped downstairs to the kitchen for a visit with her former workmates.  She was back upstairs again holding Alexander and talking with her mother and Eileen, when Derek and his band trooped in about two.  Derek stood, transfixed, speechless in the doorway, the band waiting behind him as he gazed at Katherine.  The look on his face made her heart soar in the same way his voice did.

When he recovered his senses enough to unblock the doorway, he walked over beside Katherine and carefully slipped an arm around her shoulders.  Feeling some indescribable combination of joy, relief, and excitement, she merely rested her head on his shoulder and continued swaying to keep Alexander content.  After the Riflemen had given Eileen their gifts and a crystal vase to Katherine’s mother, Derek left Katherine’s side long enough to give her mother a gold necklace and Eileen two beautiful dresses of real silk.  The commotion woke Alexander, so Derek unwound his arm and Katherine handed the baby back to Eileen.  Once the baby was safely back with his mother, the Riflemen trooped out and Derek enveloped Katherine in his arms in the hug she had craved since he arrived.

When they relaxed their embrace, he reached down and picked up a package he had set on an unoccupied chair.  “I had to get you something, of course,” he said, handing it to her.

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did, because I want so much to do things to make you happy.”

She smiled and carefully removed the ribbon, tape, and wrapping paper.

Derek laughed. “Just like me.”

Katherine opened the box and lifted out an emerald green dress in the most luxurious silk she had ever seen.  She leaned forward and kissed Derek lightly on the cheek then ran out the door and a few doors down to the restroom.  Feeling self-conscious but happy, she returned to the ward and asked, “How did you get one that fits so perfectly?”

“I just told the saleslady I needed a special dress for a special woman who’s this tall,” he said, holding his hand horizontal just above the bridge of his nose, “and slender and unimaginably beautiful.”

She collapsed into his arms, and they held each other in a tight embrace for several minutes, while Alexander’s mother and grandmother chatted.  When Katherine returned to the ladies’ room to change back into her frock, her mother told Derek, “I’ve fixed a big lunch for you and the boys, so we’d better get on over to the house and get you fed.”  Turning to Eileen, she said, “You’ll be alright here, won’t you, missy?”

Eileen squeezed her benefactor’s hand and said, “Yes, thanks, Mom. I think we could both use a nap.”

Katherine felt a warm glow inside, when she saw how her mom’s face softened when Eileen called her “Mom”.  The glow didn’t falter, when Derek hugged Eileen and kissed her forehead, and it grew warmer and bigger when he turned toward the door, held out his hand, and said, “May I take you home, Miss?”

The bus and its passengers were soon gone, but a ‘phone call from near Salina and three from Stockton kept Katherine’s spirits high.  She and her father brought Eileen home, after the band had departed.  Katherine’s insistence, and perhaps gratitude for the necklace and the vase, convinced her mom to take the family—minus Dad, who was working—to Emporia to surprise Derek at the Lyon County Fair.  Her mom fretted over whether the trip would be too much for Eileen, but Eileen said, “Hey, I don’t have to worry about going into labor.  If I get tired or Alexander needs a break, I’ll lie down in Derek’s bus.”

Derek’s obvious surprise and pleasure delighted Katherine.  His voice still lent her heart wings, and the whole family enjoyed his show.  Even her brothers behaved well and listened politely.  She drove home, so her mom could fuss over Alexander while Eileen and the boys slept.  They arrived home at midnight, and Eileen was already nursing Alexander when Katherine woke.  Two ‘phone calls from Overbrook made Katherine’s week even better.

Derek called Saturday morning to tell her he was going in the opposite direction to drop his band at the Kansas City airport.  She felt better when he said he’d be at her place between two and three, and the hug she got at two-thirty was worth the wait.

Except for sexual frustration, the next four days were bliss.  If Katherine hadn’t worried about upsetting her parents, she would have spent every night in Derek’s bus.  Instead, she lay upstairs thinking about him, sometimes talking with Eileen about him, and wishing.  But she walked with him, worked in the garden with him, and they talked for hours.

She knew he had a gig at the Grizzly Rose in Denver on Friday, she knew he needed to drive to Denver on Thursday, but she wanted to believe he would always be there with her.  Everything they talked about brought them closer together.  Every day she desired him more.  She had even talked to Eileen about taking her place in the family.  By Thursday morning, Katherine knew she wanted to go with him, would go with him if he asked.  Alone with her mom in the kitchen, she asked, “Mom, would you be OK with taking care of Eileen and Alexander?”

“When you go with Derek, you mean?”

If I go with Derek.  Do you think that would be OK?  Would Dad be angry?”

“No, dear, nobody’s going to be angry with you.  You take care of you, and we’ll take care of Eileen and Alexander.”

Katherine’s mother had never been especially demonstrative, but she closed the gap between them and hugged her daughter, saying, “My little girl’s a grown woman.”

The redheaded teenager and her new friend stood outside the bus’s open door in a desperate embrace for ten full minutes.  When Derek dropped his arms, he took her hands in his, looked into her eyes, and said, “I have to say something or I’ll never forgive myself.”

Katherine steeled herself for some dramatic farewell or revelation of some unmentioned obstacle—but, no, she knew he didn’t hide things from her.

Derek finally spoke.  That voice, hushed but as beautiful as ever, said, “I want you with me.  More than anything in the world, I want us to be together.  Please, will you come with me?”