A law professor gets a family and a bookstore owner offers advice.
Jefferson Thomas glanced up When he heard the ding.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the flight attendant said over the PA system, "as we prepare for landing, we would like to remind you to make sure your seatbelts are buckled and your seatbacks and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions. Flight attendants will do a final check of the cabin. If you have anything you wish to dispose of, this is the time to do so. We thank you for choosing Delta Airlines and welcome you to Berlin."
Jefferson sighed and ignored the flight attendant as she or a colleague repeated the announcement in German. He would give anything to be on the ground, but back in the United States. This was a trip he never wanted to take.
Things were already bad when he had to make the reservations. They didn't improve when he had to try to get the airline to make an exception to their rule about receiving paperwork for his guide dog forty-eight hours in advance.
"I can't wait forty-eight hours," he'd protested. "I need to get to Germany as soon as possible."
True, he could have left Presley home. Plenty of his colleagues were capable and would be thrilled to watch her. But, he didn't want to rely on stranger after stranger to navigate this foreign country. Plus, he had to admit he needed the innate comfort the dog exuded. This trip wouldn't be long or easy.
Thankfully, the State Department stepped in to impress the urgency of the situation and Delta relented upon receiving Presley's paperwork. The dog, not concerned about the grim cause of this sudden adventure nor the complicated logistics surrounding it, was currently curled up by Jefferson's legs. her butt was tucked underneath the seat in front of them while her head snuggled against his foot. She could afford to be content.
* * *
Delta Airlines flight 46 landed at the Berlin Tegel Airport at 10:30 in the morning. passengers were soon allowed to unbuckle their seatbelts and the usual scramble for stowed carry-on luggage ensued. This was followed by the traditional jostling and impatience to deplane.
Keeping a curious Presley in check, Jefferson rose and made his way out of his row of seats. His only blessing on this flight had been that the couple seated next to him were too self-absorbed in their iPads to suck him into a lengthy conversation. They now merged into the stream of deplaning passengers with just a quick good-bye, meant more for Presley than Jefferson.
"She's so cute," the woman remarked for the twentieth time as she disappeared.
Jefferson too joined the line of passengers heading towards the plane's door. Forced to stay behind him due to how narrow the aisle was, Presley nonetheless peeked around his legs whenever possible to see if there was a way for her to take the lead again.
In the jet bridge, Jefferson was stopped by a woman.
"I believe I'm to escort you," she said.
Having flown enough times to get to conferences and similar affairs, Jefferson figured she was a Delta customer service representative. He had requested an escort when he checked in at JFK.
"Guess I'm the one you're looking for," he said.
"What would be the best way for me to help you?" the woman asked.
"Mind if I take your elbow?"
Sure, Presley was capable of following someone on command, but Jefferson's limited flying experiences were frequent enough for him to know airports were crowded. Presley was just as skilled at navigating crowds, but her line of sight was people's knees. There was a fair chance she'd lose whoever she was supposed to follow and she might then start following a different person by mistake.
"Sure," the woman said. "I've got my arm out for you here. Where are you heading?"
* * *
Even though Jefferson brought everything he'd need in an overnight bag he carried onto the plane alongside his briefcase, he directed the customer service representative to take him to the baggage claim belts. It wasn't long before he heard his name.
"Mr. Thomas! Mr. Thomas!"
He and the customer service representative stopped. Presley looked around, seeming curious about who was calling out like this.
"Hello," another woman said, approaching the group. "Jefferson Thomas?"
"Yes," Jefferson replied.
"Hello. I'm Cassandra Kingman with the U.S. Embassy here in Berlin. I'm the one who will guide you through everything that needs to happen."
"Nice to meet you," Jefferson said, not caring that his hands were full. "This is Presley."
The dog, who had been staring at something on the carpet only she seemed to see, looked up at Cassandra, her tail wagging while the tension Jefferson felt in her harness lessoned as she straightened out.
"Nice to meet you," Cassandra said. "I'm sorry it's under these circumstances."
"Do you need any further assistance?" the customer service representative inquired.
"Oh, sorry," Jefferson said, releasing the woman's elbow. "Yeah, I'm fine here. Thank you."
The customer service representative gave him back his briefcase, which she'd been carrying, and left.
"Are you all set?" Cassandra asked. "I'm not parked far away."
"Let's go then," Jefferson insisted.
* * *
"Oh," Cassandra said as they walked in the parking garage. "I've got a Gulf. It's small ..."
Jefferson knew where this was headed. He'd had this conversation many times.
"I guess she could ride on the backseat," Cassandra suggested.
"Don't worry," Jefferson said with a wave of his briefcase-holding hand. "Presley can ride in the front passenger wheel well."
"It's something they train the dogs to do. Makes it easy to take them into just about any car. Do you mind if I stick my stuff in the trunk? Like you said, it's a small car."
Cassandra obliged with silence that suggested bewilderment.
"Here we are," she finally said, fumbling with her keys. "It's to the left."
She opened the Gulf's trunk and Jefferson put his briefcase and overnight bag inside.
"Hey," he admonished as Presley moved forward to sniff the trunk space. "You're not riding in there, so get your nose out."
He and the dog had been matched up four years ago. Their partnership was so strong, he no longer needed to strictly adhere to the commands she'd learned. The tone in his voice made the meaning of his comments clear. Presley stepped back from the trunk and Cassandra closed it.
Jefferson trailed the side of the Gulf with his fingers and found the passenger door. He got in, keeping one leg outside as he unbuckled and removed Presley's guide dog harness.
"Inside," he encouraged. "Inside."
Presley moved forward and sniffed the wheel well. Before Jefferson needed to remind her, she stepped into the car and curled up in the space, her head leaning against his knee. Jefferson brought his other leg in, double-checked that Presley's tail was tucked in, and shut his door as Cassandra entered behind the wheel.
"She's compact," she remarked.
Jefferson managed a slight chuckle as Presley rummaged on the floor, trying to arrange herself to lie just right.
* * *
They drove in silence for a few minutes while the airport fell behind them in the distance.
"We're going to the embassy, right?" Jefferson finally asked, staring out the window and imagining the buildings going by. Thinking of what there might be to see made doing all this a little easier, if that was possible.
"Yes," Cassandra replied.
"Are the kids going to be there?" Jefferson queried, feeling anxious now. He turned to look in Cassandra's direction, inadvertently moving his foot. Presley, who had again been using the appendage as a pillow, groaned in protest.
"No," Cassandra said. "They're at my house. We'll see them later."
Jefferson leaned back in his seat, both glad and frustrated that he wouldn't see the kids yet.
* * *
The ride lasted roughly another fifteen minutes before Cassandra pulled up to the front gate of a reinforced fence which enclosed the American Embassy. She gave her ID to the guard on duty and, after a quick sweep of the car was conducted by another guard, was granted access. She parked and led the way into the building.
"It's been tough on all of us here," she said. "We never saw it coming. They were good people."
"That's good to hear," Jefferson said, managing a slight smile. He could still be proud of his brother.
* * *
In her office, Cassandra's desk was almost buried with the many forms Jefferson now needed to fill out and sign.
"I'm not much of a legal mind," she admitted as they sat. "Someone from the legal department should be here soon to help us."
Jefferson nodded as Presley selected a portion of the carpet that seemed to meet her standards ... for what, no one could be sure. She settled down on it and was soon asleep.
The lawyer arrived ten minutes later and they set to work. Despite being a lawyer himself, Jefferson felt overwhelmed by the complexity before him. There were forms for the funeral home in Berlin, paperwork for what would be done with his brother's property and affects, arrangements for transporting the bodies, establishing temporary guardianship of the kids so he could get them back to New York without being charged with kidnapping and related felonies ... the paperwork never seemed to shrink. Jefferson had a friend back in New York who specialized in Family Law, but Eric's briefing the day before only covered a fraction of what he now had to organize.
At some point, someone dropped off lunch consisting of multiple containers from a local restaurant. Jefferson selected the egg noodles and pork strips, soon forgetting the German name Cassandra and the lawyer had called the dish.
"You and my brother worked together?" he asked as they took a break and ate.
"We were Foreign Service construction engineers," she explained. "We don't actually build anything. We oversee bids and contracts related to construction and renovation of U.S. properties throughout Germany. I majored in Architecture at Boston University and learned about this job through a friend. My first station was in Muscat in Oman, then Lima in Peru and Santiago in Chile, and now I'm here."
The lawyer was sitting in the corner, eating his food without a word.
"Did you know Stan and Maggie before you were posted here?" Jefferson asked.
"No, but I wish I did," Cassandra said. "I didn't know them long enough."
Jefferson realized he too had not had enough time with his brother and his family.
* * *
Around 4:00 in the afternoon, the enormous task was completed. The lawyer headed back to his office after offering his condolences.
Cassandra finished packing the remaining forms in a cardboard box to be shipped to Jefferson's home in Manhattan. Most of them had already been faxed to the people, departments, and agencies who needed them, but a few had to be submitted by Jefferson himself when he was back in the United States. Having been made aware of this ahead of time, he was already able to recruit Eric to help file the paperwork with the courts.
For now, they were in a manila folder that was held shut by two rubber bands and placed in Jefferson's briefcase.
"Okay," Cassandra said, taping the box shut and pasting a shipping label on it. "Now for the hard part."
* * *
The room was quiet to the point of feeling eerie. the florescent lights above were only adding to the spooky ambiance. Various instruments lined the walls and a few gurneys were standing around.
Cassandra and Jefferson were standing by two gurneys in the center of the room, looking down at the bodies. Cassandra was describing everything in a soft voice that felt anything but comforting.
On the right was a woman with red hair who was wearing a simple blue dress. Her hair had been washed and styled and fresh make-up was applied to her face. She was wearing a pair of sandals that matched her dress and simple gold earrings that matched the necklace around her neck.
On the left was a man whose features somewhat resembled Jefferson's, including the dark brown hair. He was dressed in a suit, complete with a tie and dress shoes. His hair had also been neatly groomed and there was minimal make-up on his face.
Both bodies had their eyelids sewn shut and their arms crossed over their chests, their wedding bands visible on their fingers.
Though he couldn't see them, Jefferson stared down at the bodies of his brother, Stanley Thomas, and his sister-in-law, Margret Bailer-Thomas. Presley was lying by his feet, looking up at the gurneys. She seemed to sense something was amiss, but she'd have no clue about what her role here was. Even Jefferson didn't know what exactly she ought to do in a moment like this. He did appreciate the warmth of her leaning against his shin.
According to Cassandra's description, the bodies showed no signs of the accident. The funeral home seemed to have made sure of that. Another co-worker of Stanley's made the official identification a few days earlier.
"What happened?" Jefferson asked in a shaky voice. "I've only heard snippets about it."
Cassandra took a deep breath and sniffled.
"Three days ago, Stan and Maggie went out to dinner with some friends of theirs," she explained, her voice also shaking. "They were driving home when they came on the intersection ... the light was green, but then, out of nowhere, this other car smashed into them ... The police said the driver was drunk ... The coroner determined they were both killed instantly. Not even the airbags helped,"
Jefferson nodded. He couldn't think of anything to say. His brother and sister-in-law were dead because of some random moron. What could he possibly say about that?
"Did they catch the guy?" he asked, his tone taking on a bitter edge.
"Yes," Cassandra said, wiping her eyes. "He's in jail, awaiting his trial. They're not going easy on him because of the alcohol. It was a 19 year old kid. He took a bump to the head and some scratches and cuts to his arms, but he walked away from it ..."
She looked at the two bodies, unable to finish the sentence. She didn't have to though. Jefferson had heard all he needed to hear for a lifetime.
A man with graying hair stepped into the room. He motioned to Cassandra. As he began speaking, Jefferson wasn't sure if he couldn't understand because the guy was speaking German or just mumbling.
Cassandra turned back to Jefferson.
"He wants to know if you'd like a minute alone before they seal the caskets," she explained.
Jefferson nodded. Cassandra and the man quietly left the room. Alone, he looked back at the bodies, unsure of what to say. Finally, he took a deep breath.
"I'll take good care of them," he promised, his voice shaking as a few tears ran down his cheeks.
* * *
As Cassandra explained earlier, the kids had been staying at her house for the past few days. Right now, her teenaged daughter was babysitting them.
"Taylor's been taking it pretty hard," Cassandra described as she drove through the suburbs outside Berlin. "She had a really close bond with Maggie. Abigail ... well, let's just say there are times when she's there and then when she isn't. As for Matthew, I'm not sure how much of all this he is understanding right now. He's just very quiet."
Jefferson nodded, thinking. Though he made frequent phone calls and always sent cards for Christmas and birthdays, he hadn't seen his brother and the family in about five years. It wasn't really that surprising, despite them having grown up together on Staten Island and both attending Columbia University. Stanley was working for the State Department as a foreign service officer and therefore moved around a lot. Jefferson was a professor at New York University School of Law and therefore stayed put in Manhattan for most of his life. He hadn't seen his nieces since they were two and he never even had a face-to-face meeting with his nephew. In fact, Margret found out she was pregnant a few weeks after the last time they saw each other.
Now, Jefferson was taking these kids back to the United States to live with him, all because some idiot decided to get drunk and then drove on the streets anyway, killing two people in the process. The whole thing made no sense.
* * *
They pulled into the driveway of Cassandra's home and got out. As she led the way to the front door, Cassandra commented that her husband was already home from work.
"He hasn't been staying late," she added. "Not now."
"What does he do anyway?" Jefferson asked, trying to sound casual.
"He's a computer technician. It's somewhat difficult for him to keep a job because we move every few years when I get reassigned, so he works freelance. Right now, he's working with the local schools."
They entered the house and were met by Cassandra's husband, Darren. Cassandra introduced Jefferson and asked about the kids.
"The girls are watching television," Darren replied. "I think Matthew's upstairs."
With that, he went to find the little boy.
Jefferson paused to consider how real this suddenly became. He was now in the same house as the kids. When he'd leave tomorrow, they'd be going with him. That was less than twenty-four hours from now.
Cassandra led Jefferson through the house, introducing him to her sixteen-year-old daughter, Tiffany, along the way. They came into the living room, where a pair of identical twin seven-year-old girls were sitting on the couch, watching some sort of cartoon. Jefferson could hear the cacophony of weird sounds which seemed to be standard for such shows.
The girls had red hair and blue eyes which matched their mother's. Their skin was fair like their father's. Margaret had once told Jefferson that, hard as she tried, she never found a physical characteristic to distinguish the girls.
"They're both perfect," the proud mother had declared.
The twins looked over at the newcomers as Cassandra announced herself.
"Hi, girls," she said. "This is your uncle Jefferson. Do you remember him at all?"
"Hey girls," Jefferson added, nudging the couch they were sitting on with his foot to get a sense of where they were. They had yet to speak. The noise from the television was helping a little bit, but it didn't quite pinpoint their positions.
"Hello," Abigail said, but her sister, Taylor, remained silent.
At least one of them spoke, Jefferson thought, feeling certain the other twin wasn't far from the source of the voice. He was also fairly certain both girls recognized his voice from their many telephone conversations over the years, but the sight of him was probably strange to them. What a way to start.
"Your uncle came to pick you up," Cassandra continued. "Remember what we talked about? You're going to go and live with him in New York."
Abigail nodded but Taylor seemed to be choosing not to respond. Jefferson stood there, waiting for his next cue.
"Are we leaving now?" Abigail asked, unsure about if she should run upstairs to get her things.
"No," Cassandra said. "You're going to spend one more night here and then you all will fly back to New York tomorrow."
This time, neither of the girls responded. Jefferson figured Abigail had just switched to acting like her sister, as Cassandra had described earlier.
"Found him," Darren announced, coming up behind the group with a four-year-old boy in tow.
Matthew Thomas looked a lot like his father and uncle and had the dark brown hair and eyes to prove it.
"Matthew," Cassandra said, turning to face him as she crouched down to his height, "this is your uncle Jefferson."
"Hey there, little man," Jefferson said, holding out his hand. "How are you?"
Matthew reached up and shook the hand, but he didn't say anything. Figuring they weren't needed anymore, the girls turned their attention back to their cartoon.
"How long until dinner's ready?" Matthew asked, looking up at Darren.
"About ten minutes," Darren replied. "We'll call you."
With that, Matthew hurried off to some other part of the house.
"Give them time," Cassandra advised.
Jefferson nodded. This wasn't much easier on his end.
"Hey," Darren interjected. "How about you and I have a beer before dinner?"
"Sure," Jefferson replied, thinking a beer or six would do him good right now. "Thank you."
* * *
At Cassandra and Darren's insistence, Jefferson stayed to have dinner with the temporarily extended family. It was a simple meal, consisting of macaroni and cheese. The Kingmans had not been sure of what Abigail, Taylor, and Matthew liked to eat and, as Cassandra privately told Jefferson, Abigail was notorious for her picky eating habits.
"She's got a list," Cassandra elaborated. "Believe me. She's got a list."
So, for the time being, macaroni and cheese was deemed a safe bet. Abigail didn't voice any objections.
During the meal, Jefferson told the kids what they could expect about their new lives in Manhattan, trying to put a somewhat positive spin on the situation. But only Abigail showed some interest. Matthew seemed to be too shy and Taylor just wasn't talking. Eventually, Jefferson switched his approach and tried to get them to tell him about themselves, but again, only Abigail participated.
After dinner and another beer with Darren, Jefferson was driven to a nearby hotel by Cassandra, where he and Presley would sleep for a few hours before his second and last hectic day in Germany began.
Despite his long flight and the long day which followed, Jefferson couldn't sleep. He soon gave up and opened his laptop, logging onto the Wi-Fi, charging twenty-four hours of access time to his room. He'd swallow the otherwise outrageous price, which converted to around ten dollars.
He opened his e-mail and scrolled through his new messages. Word was trickling through the law school and he saw many condolences from colleagues and students. He found nothing important and switched to Google.
But, he didn't know what he wanted to search for. Should he research how death affected children? Should he look up something about being a parent? He didn't know where to start and he didn't have much time.