The forest floor seems to fly beneath my feet.
‘Nico!’ His furious bellow is far away, but I force myself not to stop. Eventually, I do stop and press my sweated palms against my thighs as I try to catch my breath and stop my head from reeling.
Again, I twist my head to look over my shoulder, but all I can see is the evening light seeping through the trees and all I can hear is my own wheezing. I bring myself to keep running, although my legs feel like jelly and my chest throbs with pain.
He’s gone, I tell myself over and over again, but the panic doesn’t leave and my chest doesn’t stop rattling.
I listen out with terror, waiting for him to burst from the undergrowth. I try holding my breath in order to hear better but that is nearly impossible as my lungs are still on fire.
So is my throat. I spin around in slow circles as my eyes scan the distance for any trace of water. There is nothing, to my despair.
For a moment I simply stand, feeling my breathing return slowly to normal, and try to plot.
When I eventually push my unwilling legs to keep going straight, through the thicket I had run into, I notice that the sun is sinking fast, just as my hope is.
I make my way up the hill that lies in front of me at a sluggish pace since I have to untangle my foot from every bramble or shrub I step foot on.
My whole body is still shaking not only with exhaustion but fear. Again and again I turn to check my surroundings to make sure I’m safe. Despite the silence, I know he can’t be far.
What seems like a literal hunt for me has been going on since the morning, when he first tracked me down. I know he won’t give up before he finds me. I have too much power.
The more often I swallow the sticky saliva in my mouth, the more disgusting it gets. I feel I could kill for the contents of a puddle.
Eventually, I decide to find a tree for sleeping earlier than I usually do, knowing that’s where I’m best hidden. I force myself to walk me to the next coniferous tree and swing myself onto the lowest branch with the last of my energy.
Clenching my teeth together, I settle down one of the thicker branches that won’t allow further climbing. I am around two meters off the ground and relatively well hidden by the evergreen twigs that this pine has engulfed me in. Again, I could strangle myself for forgetting my phone at home.
My arms wrap around my legs, locking the backpack between chest and knees. One last time, I swallow, looking over the forest, before the memories catch up with me.
‘There are enough seats for everyone! Anybody who causes chaos sits next to me,’ Mr. Miller yells in his singsong voice over the shoving and laughing as the students piled on the bus. ‘Have I made myself clear?’
It was the first time that I saw him up close. I wanted to see if he really was the rather strange but trustful teacher he was often described as. Judging by his gray-streaked ponytail, his beard, his round glasses, the turtleneck sweater and his Harley Davidson motorcycle vest, I could only confirm the impression that he was a rocker from the nineteen sixties.
It took minutes until everybody seemed to have found a seat.
I drummed my fingers on my clipboard as I walked down the aisle of the bus and counted the students in twos, who were still too distracted to even notice.
One boy in the last row was squishing another one out of his seat. They were both laughing hysterically until Mr. Miller grabbed one of them by the arm and pulled him to the front of the bus, where he was to be his new seatmate.
At that, the students seemed to settle a bit and order fortunately returned to the bus.
‘If I have to put up with more of this silly behavior, I secure you to personally make sure that the troublemaker walks the rest of the way,’ Mr. Miller reassured the class with a dubious smile.
The boy from the last row had to sit at the window, with Mr. Miller closely next to him. They sat right behind the driver, leaving me to sit by myself near the back door. I spent most of the bus ride reading an article on Russian gas imports and looking out the window from time to time.
The highway had taken us out of town and into a forest. Watching the pines zip by the window made me feel giddy after a while so I returned to my magazine.
At least the kids weren’t bored, I told myself as I heard two girls shrieking and arguing as they leaned over a phone. Someone in the back row had put on music, and to my surprise, Mr. Miller didn’t mind.
It was then that the boy who sat next to him became car sick and had to throw up in his garbage bag.
Therefore I was more than relieved when the bus finally pulled up in the parking lot of the Holocaust memorial.
I open my backpack, wanting to take out my phone and check the time, but I soon notice that I don’t have it with me.
‘Whoever leaves the slightest bit of litter behind can feel free to spend the afternoon helping the bus driver clean up. I’m sure he’d be delighted,’ he pushed his glasses into place.
As everyone was occupied with socializing and not forgetting anything, the bus doors slowly sucked open. The students buzzed out of the bus like a swarm of bees, leaving Mr. Miller, the sick boy, and me to get off the bus at a normal speed.
Once we had advanced into the main museum and I had paid the group entrance ticket, everyone proceeded into the exhibition hall.
‘Just to make this clear again for everyone,’ I said after silencing the class in the most soothe voice I could manage, ‘we are now in a building which requires every one of you to show a certain level of serious behavior. The historical events that this memorial reminds us of are to be treated respectfully. Now, I think I don’t need to remind you not to run around or have hysterical fits in these buildings.’
Mr. Miller eyed the students, calm as ever, but I could just about imagine the punishments he was laying out in his head.
‘And so nobody get’s bored, there’s of course some work for class that you will complete today,’ I continued as a wave of groaning went through the class.
‘In groups of three, you will walk around the museum and make chronological notes on Hitler’s regime. Every group will be assigned with one of nine topics that you will collect information on. Next Friday, in eight days, every group will share their results with the class, along with your own opinions.’
Two hands went up. ‘How long does the presentation have to be?’ asked the girl who stood closer to me when I nodded at her.
‘I will be expecting around five to ten minutes from every unit of three,’ I told her after thinking for a moment.
I gestured at the other girl whose hand was raised and she asked what I’d been waiting for. ‘Can we pick groups?’
‘I hardly think so,’ Mr. Miller intervened and straightened a bit. ‘If Mr. Andersen doesn’t object, I suggest you work in the order of your last names, say, we go by the class list.’
At these words, another groan hushed through the class.
Mr. Miller turned his head at me for approval and I gave a helpless nod. ‘Why not?’ I agreed, and took the clipboard from my backpack.
‘Before you all spread out now, I want you to be back here at the entrance by twelve for lunch. Is that understood?’ I asked before reading the names on my list, three at a time, and assigning the topics.
After I made sure that every group had a watch, the students strewed around the exhibition while Mr. Miller had gone outside to get some fresh air with the boy who was still feeling queasy from the bus ride.
The museum was huge; many rows of halls and galleries featured pictures and texts. Several dolls from a concentration camp were displayed in a glass case across from me.
I stood in front of the case for quite a while, imagining who their owners were.
The time flew by and it was twelve before I had even seen half of the exhibition.
Group by group, the students reassembled by the entrance. At twelve fifteen, all the students had reunited except for one group.
‘Should I look for them?’ Mr. Miller asked me.
I blew air through my lips in hesitation, producing an inflating sound. ‘I don’t know, maybe they just got too wound up with their work…’
He gave a cold laugh. ‘Sure.’ But after a moment, he added ‘Okay, let’s give them ten more minutes. Maybe they’re just fooling around, but in case they have gotten lost, I’m looking for them.’
With those words, he turned to the class and declared that it was time for lunch.
So I took the gouda sandwich from my bag and joined the students, who had settled on the steps that lead outside. I sat down on the first step, next to my colleague.
For a while, we sat in silence. I was having my sandwich and he was peeling an apple with a medieval looking bowie knife. It looked like a real weapon with it’s curved spine and the long leather hilt and somehow I couldn’t take my eyes off it. ‘These freaks exist, you know,’ I reminded myself. ‘They carry knifes around because it makes them feel safer or something.’ But although I had heard of them before, my eyes just couldn’t leave the sharp, polished blade. It was at least fifteen centimeters long.
Mr. Miller himself kept glancing at the students, who seemed to be multi-talented at talking high-speed and eating at the same time.
When I was finished with my sandwich, I took the magazine out of my bag and reread the article I had started on the bus.
‘You’re pretty new at the school, aren’t you, if I may ask?’ Mr. Miller turned to me after he had finished peeling.
I nodded, closing my magazine. ‘Relatively,’ I told him after swallowing. ‘It’s been three months.’
‘Really? I haven’t seen you around much,’ he remarked while taking the first bite from his apple.
There was something hesitant about the way he said it, as if he was deep in thought. He stroked his beard and I waited for him to say more but all he did was look at me.
‘Hmm,’ I agreed, beginning to feel slightly awkward. ‘You’ve been at the school for many years, I heard?’
‘Yes, since 2005. My subjects are biology and physics,’ he said mildly and took another bite of his apple.
‘Biology and physics were my worst subjects when I was young,’ I returned with a chuckle, trying to ease the tension between us. ‘When I was a student, all I knew was that I did not want to be a teacher.’
He didn’t look at me, and he didn’t laugh.
‘Mr. Miller, is everything alright?’
Slowly, he then turned his head and I saw his eyes.
My smile dropped and I felt like being punched in the face. I stared at him; at the look he gave me. All I could do was stare. Stare, stare, stare.
I tried erasing the beard and the glasses in my mind, tried to picture him with short, brown hair.
Bit by bit, I was confirmed by the assumption I had dreaded. The picture in my mind made too much sense.
As I was rearranging his profile, I felt as if my stomach was being grinded through a mincing machine.
My head was flooded with memories as I recalled when I had seen that look the last time.
My breath was suddenly so raspy that I feared I might choke. I blinked several times and a flash of goose bumps spread on my forearms.
I needed fresh air. I needed space. I needed to think.
Slowly, I took my magazine and shouldered my bag. I thought of something to say, some excuse, but no words came out of my mouth.
I couldn’t speak to him.
Wordlessly and numbly, I walked up the stairs and through the double doors that led outside.
The air wasn’t as warm as I had remembered it being, piercing my face with refreshing cold.
I focused on calming down and released a misty cloud of carbon dioxide into the air as I exhaled.
Gathering my thoughts was nearly impossible, as the images and names that I had successfully suppressed for twenty years began causing a riot in me.
I had hoped never to encounter that part of my past again, and yet here he was, a teacher at my school, a colleague. I shuddered to think that we might have become friends.
‘Nico,’ his voice interrupted my thoughts and I turned around, not having heard that nickname for a long time.
There he was, standing in front of the museum, and I noticed for the first time how familiar his voice sounded.
He had left the class unattended and I wondered what he had told them. But my head was still spinning.
Shaking, I tried to read his temper.
His eyes were still thoughtful, but something disturbing was raging in them. Something I couldn’t quite determine.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ I finally told him with all the courage I could bring up, my voice cracked.
It was then that I understood the fear that was flickering in his eyes. I immediately knew I had made a mistake.
I had noticed his vulnerability.
And this made him angry.
‘You should be careful,’ he said, furrowing his brow.
I could feel cold sweat running down my neck and my heartbeat was a mess as I tried to predict what he would do next.
This was when I noticed something shiny flashing my way. He was holding it underneath his sleeve.
He took one step towards me.
As he grew closer, I could recognize the curvy edge of a knife that he was clenching in his fist.
My mind stopped working. I was rooted to the spot.
‘You are crazy,’ I spluttered at him, my aggression hardly audible over the terror in my voice.
I became aware that my life could end. Right there, in front of the museum. I tried snapping out of it. If he had built up an all-new-life here, at the school, he would hardly ruin it again by—
By blackmailing me? Killing me? I didn’t have a clue what he was about to do. He was impossible to predict.
As he took a second step forward, I brought myself to avert my look from his knife and look him in the eyes. I needed to connect to him, make him aware that he was losing his mind.
Luckily, he didn’t seem very confident.
I could actually see the gears clicking in his mind, although his expression was dark and direct.
At least he was thinking, I tried to reassure myself.
For a moment, I started thinking myself, recovering from the first shock. And my fear made room for anger.
I had never done him any harm. I had always obeyed him and protected the secrets he wanted me to keep. Why was he all of a sudden afraid that I wouldn’t keep them any longer?
If I had wanted publicity to know about the things that had happened so long ago, I would have already had the chance to get some.
‘Why don’t you trust me?’ I asked him, trying not to sound provocative.
A short, cold laugh sprang from his lips, and he gave me the same look he had given me too many times before.
It was a combination of ‘Seriously?’ and ‘You are nothing but a dumb little boy’.
‘Have you already forgotten, Nico?’ He asked, taking another step towards me.
Anger vanished and fear was back as I realized he wasn’t kidding.
I was too much of a threat for him. I could ruin his entire life too easily.
My twisting stomach seemed to have pushed my heart into my throat, as my Adam’s apple was pounding and oxygen was short.
I willed myself to think, although it seemed impossible. I tried estimating my chances of winning a fight. Despite the age difference, I wouldn’t have a chance.
And he might be old, but he wasn’t stupid, and trying to relieve him of the knife was no option either.
Nonetheless, there needed to be something I could do. I didn’t want to die yet, but killing me seemed to be what he had in mind.
He took a final step in my direction, his fingers flexing around the knife’s hilt. One step too much.
This was the moment I made the mistake.
The moment I lost control over the clear thinking part of my brain and my instincts took over.
I turned, and without ever looking back, I dashed through the forest, running for my life.