True Love Ways
By Rowena Zahnrei
Kurt Wagner straightened out of the drowsy slouch he had fallen into several miles back, the life slowly returning to his muzzy brain. He squinted through the deep-forest shadows to the sunlight-dappled roof up ahead. The brownish-russet shingles were all he could see of the little, wooden cottage across the lake.
"Hey Dad," he called out from the back seat of the tiny rental car, "is that it?"
"That's it," his father said, and grinned. "Opa's summer cottage. Despite its small size, it really is a remarkable structure. For example, did you know that no mortar was used in constructing the chimney? The stones were cut so that the keystone-"
"What your father is trying to say," Kurt's mother broke in with a tolerant smile, cutting off the oncoming architectural lecture before it could begin, "is that you are going to have a fantastic time here, honey. Opa told me that lake over there is simply teeming with fish, and the mountains-"
"Yeah, I know," Kurt interrupted, surprised by an unexpected rush of anxiety as he suddenly realized how close they actually were to the end of their journey. "Opa told me over the holonet before we left New York. Dad?"
"Yes, Kurt?" his father asked, furrowing his brow slightly at the odd tension in the boy's tone. "Is something wrong?"
Kurt let out a helpless sigh.
"No. I don't know. It's just, I feel so nervous all of a sudden."
"Nervous?" his mother repeated, somewhat confused. "But you've been looking forward to this trip for months!"
"I know," Kurt said. "And I want to stay with Opa. I really do! It's always so great when he comes to visit. But even so… I'm just scared! And I don't know why!"
His father shot him a glance over his shoulder, his hazel eyes warm with sympathy as the rented car jostled and jolted its cautious way down the curving dirt road.
"I think I understand," he said gently. "This place is so different from our house, and you're going to have to spend a whole month here without your mother and me around. It'll be just you and Opa."
"Yeah," Kurt said slowly, "that's sort of it. But why am I scared now? I've been wanting to come to Germany all year!"
His father smiled sadly.
"Maybe," he said, "it's because you've just realized how much your mother and I are going to miss you."
Kurt looked over at his father, trying to imagine what it was going to be like watching him and his mother drive away without him, then lowered his head as a lump started to rise in his throat.
"Yeah," he said softly. "Yeah, that's got to be it."
"But cheer up!" his father said, reaching back to clap the boy on the shoulder, giving him an affectionate little shake. "Sure we'll miss each other for a while, but it'll only be for a while. Before you know it, your mum and I will be here to pick you up-but by that time you'll be having so much fun you're going to beg us to let you stay!"
Kurt found he was smiling despite himself, but it wasn't entirely because of his father's words. Leaning against his seatbelt, the nine-year-old rested his forehead against the back of his mother's seat, riding out the bumps and jolts of the uneven road as they pulled up beside the pretty little cottage. The front door opened a moment later, and a familiar figure stepped out onto the porch. The instant Kurt set eyes on him, the boy forgot all about his melancholy fears.
"OPA!" he cried excitedly, fighting his way out of his seatbelt and the car, then barreling up the steps and straight into his grandfather.
"Ooff!" the old man grunted with a smile, wrapping his slender, though still well-toned arms around the boy. Although he held a cane, it seemed more a fashion statement than a necessary aide, for the elderly German gave off an aura of vitality that belied his years. His posture was straight and his golden eyes were clear and sharp, and as he hugged his grandson his broad smile brightened his thin, shadowy face like a sunrise.
"Why, hallo Kurti!" he said, crouching down to lift the boy into his fuzzy, indigo arms. "My goodness, you're getting heavy! One more growth spurt and I doubt I'll be able to lift you!"
"Are you sure you should be lifting him now?" his son's concerned voice called from the yard. Its clear tenor was almost an exact match to the older man's, except that it was tinted with a well-educated London accent while his father's spoken English carried the distinct flavor of rural southern Germany. "You know what the doctor said about straining yourself…"
Opa shared a look with his grandson then turned it on the tall, pale-blue man who had spoken.
"After more than sixty years as an X-Man," he said, carrying Kurt down the wooden stairs with apparent ease, his long, spaded tail swaying behind him, "I think I should know my own limits, mein Sohn. I don't need some upstart young Doktor to tell me what I can and cannot do. Besides..." He grinned, cheekily displaying his long, white fangs. "Haven't you ever heard of the rejuvenating properties of fresh, Alpine air?"
"Dad, you know you should take more care-"
"Speaking of which," Opa went on, as if he hadn't heard the interruption. "You look like you could use some fresh air yourself. Tell me, Edmund, how long has it been since you took a real vacation from that architecture business of yours?"
"I took a few days off for Christmas," he said. "You know that; you were there!"
"Six months ago," Opa observed, nodding slowly. "That's half a year, you know. And now you're going off on a new job." He smiled, turning to face his daughter-in-law as he continued. "At least you get to work with your lovely wife on this one, ja? And how are you, Anthea?"
"I'm fine, Opa Kurt. And you?" the dark-haired American asked, her brown eyes concerned. "How are you holding up?"
Opa's smile faded, and for a brief moment the old man actually looked his age. Edmund opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything the moment had passed and his father's smile had fixed itself back in place. But it seemed forced now…unnatural.
"I get by," the old man said, lowering little Kurt to the ground and tightening his grip on his cane. "One day at a time, right? But what kind of a host am I being, making you all stand around out here in the buggy heat? Won't you come in and have some lunch?"
"Sorry, Dad," Edmund said, "but Anthea and I have to get going. Our plane for Paris leaves in two hours, and we have a long drive ahead of us. We're just here to drop off Kurt."
"You're going so soon?" Opa said, trying to hide his surprise-though his lashing tail was a clear indicator of his disappointment. "I thought for sure we were going to have time to talk…" He shook his head, shrugging off his regret with a small laugh. "But no, I understand. You're both very busy and I know how demanding your schedules are."
Edmund and Anthea shared uncomfortable looks.
"Well," Edmund said, his own pale-blue tail twitching awkwardly behind him, "I suppose we could take a later flight… We didn't really think-"
"Nein, nein!" Opa insisted, heading towards the car. "Really, it's all right. We'll have a proper visit when you come back, ja? When you aren't so pressed for time. And by then young Kurti and I will have had plenty of adventures to tell you about-right Kurti?"
"Right." Kurt nodded with a smile, jumping up to sit on the little luggage pile his father had unloaded from the trunk. Opa returned his smile, then opened his arms to his son.
"Come here," he said, briefly closing his eyes as the taller man stepped into his enfolding embrace. They stood that way for a long moment, dark indigo and powder blue, their long tails wrapped tightly around each others' waist. When they finally broke apart, they were both blinking away tears they didn't want the other to see.
"I'm proud of you, Eddie," Opa said, clearing his throat and stepping back a few paces to address both Edmund and Anthea. "Just be sure you find the time to have some fun in Paris," he ordered, his golden eyes sharp. "Don't you two let your work consume all your time together. You got that?"
Anthea chuckled, coming forward to give the old man a hug of her own.
"Got it, Opa," she promised, pecking his fuzzy cheek with a quick kiss.
Opa nodded, apparently satisfied.
"Good," he said. "Then I'll leave you in charge of that. You hear that, Edmund? When your wife tells you it's time to put down the blueprints go out, you go, understand? No arguments."
"Yes, sir!" Edmund smiled and gave his father a mock salute.
"All right then," Opa said. "As long as that's understood. Now you two had better get going. Kurti and I have a lot to do, you know. We can't just stand around here all day chatting."
"Of course not..." Edmund smirked.
"Kurt," Anthea called out, gesturing the boy over. "Come down here and say good-bye."
Kurt sighed and jumped down from his luggage, shuffling slowly over to his mother with his eyes lowered. Anthea crouched down to his eye-level, placing a warm hand on his narrow shoulder.
"Don't look so glum, kiddo," she said, tapping his chin with her finger. "We'll only be gone for a few weeks."
"I know," Kurt mumbled, leaning forward until his forehead pressed against her shoulder. Anthea smiled and smoothed his short, dark hair back behind his ears.
"You'll have a great time, sweetie," she assured him, taking his hand and rising back to her feet. "Now come on and give your father a hug and we'll all say good-bye, OK?"
"No," Kurt frowned, pulling his hand away from his mother's and standing stubbornly straight. "I don't want to say good-bye."
"But, Kurti…" Opa started, but Kurt shook his head.
"No!" he insisted. "I don't like saying good-bye. I want to say see you later."
Something like relief passed over Opa's face, and he grinned broadly at his grandson.
"A marvelous idea, mein Junge," he said.
"See you later, Kurt," he said, giving his son a brief squeeze. "Be good for your Opa, now, OK?"
"Yep." Kurt nodded, watching as his parents climbed into the rental car and started the engine. "See ya!" he called, running down the road and waving madly as the car pulled away and disappeared around a curve. Then he sighed, trudging back up the rocky slope to where his Opa was standing with his cane, his golden eyes fixed on the shadowy forest ahead.
"You know something, Opa?" he said.
Opa looked down, tilting his head slightly as he regarded his grandson.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm really going to miss them."
Opa blinked, then nodded.
"Ja," he agreed. "Ja, so will I. But there's no need to worry. They'll be back."
"Yeah..." Kurt sighed.
Opa smiled, reaching out with his tail to tickle his grandson's side. Kurt tried to slap the spade away, but only ended up tangled in the tail's strong, fuzzy length, helpless with giggles as the two of them tumbled to the ground.
"Hey," Opa said, uncoiling his tail and turning over on his side to face his grinning grandson. "At least we have each other now, right?"
"Right," Kurt nodded firmly, standing up and holding out a hand to help his grandfather to his feet. Opa smiled, gratefully accepting the assistance.
"Come on," he said, clapping a three-fingered hand on Kurt's shoulder. "Let's go inside and have some lunch."
"What about my bags and stuff?" Kurt asked.
"First we eat," Opa insisted. "Then we'll see about the bags. Just wait until you see what I have for you. Roast beef and Swiss cheese, fresh peaches and strawberries and plums…!"
"Plums?" Kurt repeated, his eyes bright.
"And chocolates, too," Opa added. "Did I mention the chocolates?"
"Oh, wow, what are we waiting for!" the boy exclaimed, jumping in place in his excitement. "Let's eat!"
"I'll race you," Opa smiled, a sly gleam in his golden eyes.
Kurt shot a dubious glance at the old man's cane, and Opa's smile turned into a grin.
"No, seriously," he said. "And just to make it more interesting, last one in the house has to carry the bags."
Kurt still looked uncertain, but he nodded.
"OK, Opa," he said. "But what about what Dad said about the doctor?"
Opa rolled his yellow eyes.
"Oh, please," he said. "Come on now, are you ready or not?"
"Ready!" Kurt called out.
"Then at the count of drei, OK? Eins….zwei….drei!"
Kurt leaned forward, but before he could even take a step, his grandfather had already vanished in a loud BAMF of sulfurous smoke. Kurt stopped in his tracks, his mouth hanging open.
"Oh, man!" he exclaimed. "I should have seen that coming!"
Opa's muffled laughter echoed through the house, followed a moment later by the creak of the front door opening.
"Hurry up and grab those bags, Kurti," the old man called. "The ice cream's already starting to melt."
"ICE CREAM!" Kurt cried out, dashing over to grab his backpack and two little wheeled suitcases before barreling up the stairs and through the open door. "Oh, man, I knew I was going to love this place!"
Smiling cheerfully to himself, Opa followed his exuberant grandson into the cottage, closing the front door behind him.
To Be Continued...