It was getting dark now. Finally.
Susan Langenderfer-McMahon had spent most of the flight staring out the window on the right side of the airliner, watching dusk gather on the ground below. The skies were clear; if she put her head right up against the window and looked ahead as far as she could, she could make out the remnants of what had been a pretty good sunset, bringing an end to what had literally been the longest day of her life. Involuntarily, she let out a big yawn.
"Long day?" the woman elbow-to-elbow with her in the next seat asked.
"Ja, Ich eine... " Susan started to reply before realizing that she'd automatically started answering in German. She caught herself, turned from the window and started over in English. "I'm coming from Germany, so that adds another few hours."
The day had started well before dawn in her comfortable room at the Hauner house. It was with real sadness that she got ready for her final morning in Germany. She was going to miss Jens and Ulrike, and was really going to miss Hans and Elke, who had become like a brother and sister to her. More than a brother and sister, in more ways than one. She was closer in age to them than she was to her own brother and sister, who were much older – Tiffany was nearly thirty, and Henry had graduated from college over a year ago. While they were her brother and sister, the age difference meant that she hadn't been very close with them – nothing, nothing like as close as she'd gotten to her German friends who were very hard to leave behind.
"Do you live in Germany?" the woman asked, obviously wondering if the pretty girl with the long blonde hair was German.
"No, I was an exchange student there for a year," Susan replied.
"That's pretty rare, isn't it?" The woman asked, then expanded her thought. "I'm a teacher, and we often see exchange students from other countries, but rarely hear of an American spending a year abroad."
"That's true," Susan nodded. "Only a handful of American kids do it."
"I suppose language skills help a lot," the woman observed understandingly. "Did you have any difficulty with the language?"
"No," Susan smiled. "My grandmother started teaching me German before I was in kindergarten. I speak it about as well as I do English."
"That makes things a little different," the woman nodded with a smile. "You don't find many American kids who are that comfortable in a foreign language."
"Not many," Susan agreed. "It's kind of a shame. But then, I guess I have something of an ear for languages anyway. I speak Spanish and French also, not as well as German, but enough to get along."
"That's really rare," the woman said, obviously impressed. "Your school must have had quite a language program."
"No, my American school has a lousy one," Susan shook her head. "Just French, and pretty basic at that. I was friends with a family who ran a Mexican restaurant, and that's where I started learning Spanish. My Gymnasium... , " she used the German pronunciation, quite a bit different from English, and meaning "high school," " ... in Regensburg offered six languages, including English, so I was able to polish up Spanish and French there quite a bit."
"I guess you do have a talent for languages," the woman said. "My students seem to have enough trouble learning English. Did you have any adventures and a chance to travel around?"
"Not as much travel as I would have liked," Susan shrugged. "Of course, that would have taken more than a year."
The woman smiled. "I take it you want to go back to Europe, then."
Susan had spent over a year living with the Hauners as an exchange student, almost as if she'd been a member of the family. Spearfish Lake had seemed – and had been a distant, far-away memory – a past that somehow had seemed just a little unreal to her. "To tell you the truth," she replied softly, "I wish I'd never left."
Somewhere over lower Michigan the airliner had started its descent. Susan's discussion with the teacher soon fell flat, and she went back to staring out the window. They were out over Lake Michigan now, and getting low – at least, it looked that way when she saw a big lake freighter looking fairly large not far below them. Not much longer now, she thought, squirming a little in her narrow seat to try and work out some of the kinks and stiffness from all the hours she'd spent in uncomfortable airline seats since leaving Regensburg this morning. This was the third airplane she'd been on today, and she figured she'd had enough airliner to hold her for a while – at least until the next time she got on one to go somewhere. That probably wouldn't be soon, not till next summer and maybe not then. It seemed like an eternity.
It would be good to be home in Spearfish Lake, although it was still hours away, good to see her parents again, but somehow it didn't compensate for leaving her friends behind her. Hans and Elke and Freya and Lothar had become about the best friends she'd ever had, better than anyone had ever been back home, and there were some others she would miss just about as much. She was going to miss the beautiful view of the Donau River down the hillside from the Hauner house, the warm, homey atmosphere of a busy house. While home was home, it seemed much less of a home, much less fascinating than the exciting life she'd been leading.
And then, to think that she had another year of high school was just about enough to bore her to tears. The idea of spending her junior year abroad had been one that had held her attention for years, but somehow she'd never really admitted to herself that she would then still have to spend her senior year at Spearfish Lake. Now, here it was – her magic coach was just about to turn back into a pumpkin.
The airliner swept low over the shoreline, made a fairly steep turn and continued to descend. She felt the airplane shudder and slow as the flaps went out, and though she couldn't see the landing gear, she figured that it must be down, too. The ground came closer and closer; then she could see that they were over the airport and getting very low. In a few more seconds, she felt the bump as the plane touched down and heard the engines spool up momentarily as the thrust reversers slowed the plane to taxiing speed. She was blasé, if anything, about the moment – after all, this wasn't the first time she'd done this, not even the first time today. Home again, she thought. Big deal. Well, not home yet; several hours' drive north into the forest country remained, but this would be the end of the adventure as far as she was concerned.
There had once been a time not long before when it was possible for people to meet arriving passengers at the airport gate, but those days were gone with the increase in security after the Twin Towers went down, almost three years before. The terminal was not real confusing, so it only took Susan a few minutes to find her way out and head down an escalator toward the baggage claim area.
As she descended, she looked out over the crowd for her parents, and there they were! Her father, Mike, stood head and shoulders over most of the crowd; he was tall and thin, which made him more recognizable in situations like these. A few steps and they were there. Kirsten threw her arms around Susan and drew her tight in a big hug. "Oh, God, Susan," her mother cried as she drew the hug tight. "It's so good to see you again!"
"It's good to see you again, too," Susan replied, with a little less enthusiasm. It was embarrassing to have her mother so publicly enthusiastic about seeing her, a year gone by or not. Partly it was pure teenager, wanting to put on an appearance of being cool about her parents, but part of it was pure German, after a year of being around people who were not as demonstrative as Americans often were, not as Kirsten's mother was right now.
Still, she wrapped her arms around her mother and hung on tight for a moment, her face lost in her shorter mother's hair, then broke the hug and turned to her father. While Susan was quite a bit taller than her mother, she was still much shorter than her father. "Daddy," she smiled, reaching out for a somewhat less exuberant hug, "it's good to see you. I've missed you a lot."
"Glad to have you back with us," her father replied. "Everything go all right?"
"Alles ist in Ordnung," she smiled as she stepped back, using the German phrase that said "All is in order" but meant "OK" along with a few other things, some of which couldn't really be translated. "Just a lot of time in airliners. I'm glad to be back on the ground again."
"I bet," he nodded with a grin. "I know what too much time on an airliner is all about. That's why I haven't done it in a while." In fact, Susan couldn't remember the last time her father had been on an airplane – she could just vaguely remember when he hadn't been home for Christmas one time when she had been very small. And, she understood why – with his long legs, the spacing of airline seats would be very uncomfortable on a long flight.
"Any trouble?" he asked.
"Not really," she smiled. "There was an American soldier on the Lufthansa flight who acted like he could be all hands, but he left me alone after he finally figured out I didn't speak a word of English."
"That's my girl," he laughed. "Did you ever let on to him?"
"He might have noticed when I went through Customs, I don't know," she shrugged. "I mean, not that I particularly care. He was a dork, anyway. So, is everybody still all right?"
"No change since we talked to you the other day," Mike replied. They had talked about once a week and exchanged e-mails frequently, so it hadn't been as if she'd been out of touch.
The hell of it, Susan thought, was that there often wasn't a lot to talk about. Things tended to stay pretty much the same in Spearfish Lake, and while she had things to report from Germany, like any teenager she'd had a few adventures that she would really rather her parents didn't know about for a while, like maybe twenty years. Thirty might be better. To change the subject she asked, "I take it the big welcome home party is still on?"
"It's not that big a thing," Kirsten explained for maybe the hundredth time. "You have friends and family who've missed you and care about you, and they want to see you again, celebrate your being home."
"I suppose," Susan replied, allowing a little exasperation to slip into her voice. It was clear that it was going to be a big deal whether she liked it or not; her mother had decided it, and that was that, no matter how much she'd tried to protest that she just wanted to slip back into town without anyone really noticing. Her life as the daughter of the editor and publisher of Spearfish Lake's weekly newspaper, the Record-Herald, had made her life a little more of a fishbowl than she really wanted. Her father wasn't entirely without fault; he'd twisted her arm to write a series of articles about her experiences in Germany, keeping everything sweetness and light, of course. That also meant that she had to be careful about what she said there, too. Oh, well, what they don't know won't hurt them. Or maybe, what happens in Regensburg stays in Regensburg...
"It's not going to be all that big a deal," Kirsten protested, knowing her daughter well enough to understand that she'd scored a Pyrrhic victory at best, which wasn't unusual, considering her hardheaded daughter. "You haven't seen any of these people in a year, after all. You can at least be nice for one afternoon."
"Mom, you already talked me into it," Susan sighed. "Look, I'm tired, I'm going to be jet-lagged, and it would have been nice to spend a few quiet days just getting used to being back home first, but I'll do it anyway." She changed the subject abruptly. "I wonder how much longer before I can get my luggage?"
"Hopefully not too long," her father replied, showing a bit of relief at the fact that Susan had changed the subject. When both Kirsten and Susan got hardheaded he often had to step in to make peace. "Maybe we'd better work our way over to the baggage line."
"Good," Susan replied. "I'm exhausted. Don't expect me to stay awake all the way home."
"You didn't get any sleep on the planes?" her father asked.
"No. Well, maybe a little on the plane into Frankfurt, but that was almost an up and down so if I did doze, it wasn't much," Susan yawned. "I had to stay halfway awake on the flight across the Atlantic since I didn't want to give Corporal Hands any big ideas or opportunities. Fortunately I'd picked up a copy of The Da Vinci Code in German at the airport in Frankfurt, so that helped keep me awake."
"I haven't read it," he replied. "Is it any good?"
"Yeah, pretty good. Some of it strikes me as a load of bull, but pretty good."
"Guess I'll have to take a look at it some time." Mike shook his head and glanced at the conveyor. "All right, here we go," he said as he noticed luggage starting to flow down the conveyor belt.
Susan had two big bags along with her carry-on luggage, and at that she'd shipped stuff home. She'd accumulated quite a bit over the course of the year; she'd filled out a little, and her tastes in clothes had changed to some degree, too. In spite of the bags being big, they weren't terribly heavy, so it was no trick for her father to carry both of them as they headed for the passenger pickup area. "We weren't able to find a parking spot real close," he explained. "Why don't the two of you wait here while I go get the car? It should only be a few minutes."
"Fine with me," Susan said. "I could stand the walk to loosen up, but you shouldn't have to carry the bags all the way."
"Works for me," he said as he turned to head for the parking structure.
"Susan," her mother said softly, "I realize that you're not happy about this party tomorrow, but if we didn't do it this way most everybody would be dropping over all day. This way we can keep it down to a couple hours."
"Yeah, you're probably right about that," Susan sighed. "I really wish I'd had a couple days to rest up first and get things in perspective a little. I enjoyed Germany so much that it's going to be hard to adjust to being home."
"I can imagine," Kirsten conceded. "You've been gone a year, you've grown and changed a lot, and probably matured a lot. It's going to be hard to adjust to being back home."
"Yeah, it is," she agreed. "I've probably changed in ways you don't know, and maybe even in ways that I don't know. I'm not the kid I was when I left, and frankly, Mom, you're just going to have to accept it."
"I know you have. I could get some feeling for it from your phone calls. Susan, I've already had two kids grow up and move out, and watching each of them go wasn't easy. Now you're the last, and well, it's going to take me some getting used to. Your father and I have had a year's practice of being empty nesters, and it hasn't been easy. I know that you and I haven't always gotten along as well as we could, so let's both try to leave each other a little space and consideration, OK?"
"I guess," Susan agreed a little reluctantly. "I guess it's going to be like being an exchange student again for a year in some ways. I'm going to have to get used to a strange culture with different rules again."
"It won't be that strange," her mother protested mildly. "It's what you grew up with, after all."
"Believe me Mom, after a year in Germany, it's going to seem pretty strange to me. I've only got, what? A little over a couple weeks till school starts? That's going to take some getting used to right there. I really wish I didn't have to go back to high school."
"Well, it's your senior year, and that'll make it a little special."
"I suppose," Susan sighed. "It's just that I feel like I made the big break and I want to move on. Now I've got to go backward instead."
"I suspected that might happen," Kirsten agreed. "There's bound to be a good side to it somewhere."
Susan was silent for a moment as she searched for a way to change the subject again. There were things she was going to miss from Germany, and miss a lot, but again there was no way she was going to tell her mother about them. Worse, they were things that she wouldn't dare pursue in Spearfish Lake. If she were going away to college, then she might be able to be herself a little more than she dared around home. But that was a year off, and she hadn't even done any really serious thinking about where she wanted to go to college. That was something she was going to have to get busy dealing with in the next few months, and there were other decisions to be made, too.
She glanced up to see a yellow Pontiac Aztek driving toward them. "My God," she said aloud. "Is that the ugliest car I've ever seen, or what? That looks like just about everything that's wrong with American cars all rolled into one package."
"What car?" Kirsten asked, afraid that she knew the answer.
"That hideous yellow thing," Susan shook her head. "Who in their right mind would drive something like that?"
"Your mother would," was the response Susan heard. "That's your dad in my new car."
"Oh, my God!" Susan exclaimed. "Mom, you didn't!"
"It's got all-wheel drive, plenty of room, and we got it essentially new a couple weeks ago for a real good price," Kirsten replied defensively.
"Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it were black or something," Susan conceded a little, but seeing an excellent chance to tease her mother. "But yellow? People will be able to see you coming so they can run the other way!"
"It was a good deal," Kirsten protested. "It's an '03 model that the dealer wanted to get rid of before the '05s came in, so he gave us a real good price."
"So you're telling me it sat around the dealership for a year or more while people turned their noses up at it," Susan shook her head as her father pulled up in front of them and stopped, popping the trunk lid. Susan picked up a bag and began to wrestle it into the back while continuing to needle her mother. "No wonder you got a good price on it, they wanted to get that eyesore out of there. It even looks like a lemon going down the road. At least it'll be dark when we get back to Spearfish Lake so no one will see me in it."
"I kind of think it looks like a lemon too," her father said as Kirsten wrestled the other bag into the cavernous trunk. "But your mother likes it, so what am I supposed to say?"
"That there's no accounting for taste?" Susan grinned.
"You can say it and maybe get away with it," her father laughed. "There's no way I could ever get away with it."
Kirsten was beginning to realize that her leg was getting pulled and she was just going to have to like it. At least partly to deflect the teasing, she asked her daughter, "Susan, would you like to ride up front?"
"No, I'll ride in back," she replied. "I'm probably going to be falling asleep before too long. Besides, I'm not so sure how much I want to have you behind me right now."
"Good thinking, kid," Mike laughed as Susan headed for the left rear door while her mother climbed in front. "Hon, do we want to tell her?"
"Might as well," Kirsten giggled as she closed her door and reached for her seat belt, "or else she's going to be teasing us all the way back to Spearfish Lake."
"Tell me what?" Susan asked as she settled into the back seat. It was considerably more comfortable than the torture devices the airlines used, so that was at least a point in the lemon's favor.
"Like your Mom said, we saved a lot of money on this car. In fact, we saved enough on it to buy you a '98 Chevy Cavalier."
"What?" Susan squealed, coming right up out of her seat. Getting wheels was one issue on her list to bug her parents about before school started. While she'd gotten her driver's license a few days before she'd left for Germany, she hadn't had time to use it much. She'd figured a Beemer or an Audi was way out of reach, but would have been willing to settle for a VW. A Cavalier would be just fine, even if it was an American model.
"Not a bad little car, not a lot of miles on it for its age," her father explained. "It ought to be a good girl's car that probably will get you through college if you take care of it a little."
"Well, son of a gun," Susan replied, a little dazed. "Mom, did I tell you that I think you did a real neat job of buying a new car?"