My leather vest is covered in mud from the clearing I slept in.
My watch stopped during the night, and my phone is out of battery, but I guess the time to be around six. Fog clings to the trees and it is still dark, but even at this early hour, the forest is filled with all kinds of sounds.
A woodpecker is drumming against a nearby pine and several red-crested pochards are flitting through the canopy overhead.
I have woken up just in time to witness the rush hour.
As the fog begins to lift, I first notice the clovers and the daisies that appear to be growing in the clearing.
I had never thought that being a biology teacher could save my life one day, but while stuffing myself with the wild plants growing in the clearing, I start feeling pretty smug about it.
After licking the morning dew off the non-toxic leaves and refilled my plastic Tupper box with all the daisies left and as many clover-leaves as would fit, I start out, still a bit tired.
The hike takes me down one hill and up another.
A few hours later, when the fog has vanished and the sky is light, I see something green between the trees up ahead.
Although the shape is far away and not moving, I instinctively fall into a crouch.
Have I finally found him? Have I spotted his windbreaker?
My mouth breaks into a grin and sweat begins to pearl on my forehead. Regardless of my excitement, I need to be careful—Nico is fast.
Slowly, I reach into my pocket and close my fist around the knife. I won’t let him get away this time.
Luckily, the color of my leather vest matches that of the ground and I can inch closer unnoticed.
It is when I am only twenty meters away from the green object that I notice it isn’t him. Disappointed, I realize the green shape I had approached isn’t a man in a green windbreaker after all, but a small tent. ‘What the hell,’ I mutter out loud, confused.
For a moment I feel foolish, before I seem to understand what chances the situation brings me.
The person camping in the tent was likely to have food.
Food. The word makes my heart beat faster.
And he or she probably has a map or knows the way back to Innerthal, back home.
Home. My heart whoops. I am saved.
Enthusiastic and gleeful, I scramble to my feet and draw nearer to the tent. A few feet from the entrance, I pause.
No sounds come from inside. Suddenly I feel unsure and timid. What if the camper was still sleeping? Would he be rejecting and uncooperative if I woke him?
While I stand and gaze at the silent tent, I begin having second thoughts about there being anyone inside at all.
Very cautiously, I take the zipper in my clammy fingers, and trying to be as careful as I can, pull the entrance open a few centimeters.
I lean closer and look through the gap.
To my surprise, what I see is three sleeping teenagers, curled up in their sleeping bags so I can’t see their faces.
One of them shoots open his eyes and sits up to look at me.
I feel regret immediately for having woken him up. But instead of being scared, surprised, or angry in any way, the boy appears overjoyed.
‘Mr. Miller!’ he exclaims and shoots up in his sleeping bag like a jack-in-the-box.
I need to think fast. Apparently he knows me.
Only I have no clue who he is.
‘What are you guys doing out here?’ I say with the most enthusiasm and the biggest smile I can manage, trying to sound surprised. If they were students, then they would never let me go again. Why couldn’t they be strangers? I suppress a groan.
At the same time, I’m desperately trying to remember his name. The longer I stare, the more I think that he does look a bit familiar.
‘How are you? Are you okay? We thought something happened to you!’
‘I’m fine,’ I mumble, ‘but how did you even get here?’
‘After you and Mr. Andersen went looking for us outside of the museum and you never came back, we were really worried.’ His eyes shine with excitement, and I begin to understand.
‘The police couldn’t find you, but we were certain that something else had happened. Thank goodness you’re alive! What happened to your phone?’
I don’t have much time to hesitate. ‘My phone? Uh, the case must have been loose. When I wanted to turn on my GFS, the sim card was gone. Did anyone find it?’
‘Yeah, the police.’
‘Wait, so you went back into the forest just to look for us?’ I try sounding grateful, before I notice what their presence means. ‘What you did is very dangerous,’ I put on my scolding face. ‘Venturing out into the forest on your own!’
‘Well, it was sort of our responsibility. After all, it was our fault you got lost.’
‘But…’ I furrow my brow, ‘this is madness! Finding us is the police’s job, not yours! You could have relied on them to find us.’
By now, the other two, a skinny girl and a small boy with blond hair, have woken up. Now that I know they are students from Nico’s history class, I do recognize them, though I still can’t grasp their names.
‘Can I sit down,’ I ask absent-mindedly, and when they all nod eagerly, I take off my boots and settle on the girl’s sleeping mat. Curiously, the kids clamber to sit around me in circle.
‘Please excuse my pants, they’re pretty dirty,’ I say with a smile to win thinking-time. I need to register their version of the story.
Apparently, the class had believed my lie when I followed Nico outside. Nervous as I had been, I told them that we were looking for the three missing students.
What I hadn’t wanted was them to think they were responsible for our disappearance and go searching for us, though it may have been sweet. Now, with the kids in the forest, it’s nearly impossible to end the unfinished business between Nico and me.
‘Where’s Mr. Andersen?’ the blond boy with the cute face asks me, so quietly I hardly hear him. It is almost like he suspects I had done something with him.
I need to think faster.
‘When we were back at the memorial, Mr. Andersen persuaded me to search the forest with him. He told me he was afraid that you had been kidnapped or something. I tried telling him that you were probably just fooling around, but he didn’t think so,’ I take a deep breath, trying to invent a reason why we could have been separated.
‘So eventually, I let him persuade me and we went into the forest, calling your names. He kept on telling me that he knew the way back and that we wouldn’t get lost.’
‘But then what happened?’ the other boy with wavy brown hair urges, his brow knitted in suspense. He is taller than the other two, his features are rougher, his chin square.
I need to be very careful with the question, as I can’t afford to hesitate for too long or reply something illogical.
‘After a while, we spread out to look for you in different directions. Then I got lost, and I couldn’t find my way back to the meeting place.’
‘So you haven’t seen him again since the day of the field trip?’ The boy keeps on pushing me.
‘I thought he had gone back to the memorial, after all he had told me over and over again that he knew the way back.’
‘But he never did return,’ the girl mumbles. ‘Benny called the police and we went home. Nobody saw a trace of him for days. That’s why we were so concerned.’
‘Really? Maybe he continued looking for you guys so long until he was lost himself,’ I suggest, knowing very well that wasn’t the case. ‘Oh dear, I had hoped Mr. Andersen would be safe and sound back in civilization by now… After all he was so convinced that he knew the way back.’
They shake their heads solemnly, mixed expressions of helplessness and frustration on their faces.
The girl looks down at the ground in front of her, her eyes fixed bitterly on one spot. ‘To think that the two of you were wandering the forest for days, without water, without food, without orientation…’ her expression darkens and a tight frown spreads across her face as she continues. ‘Just because we weren’t back by the entrance at twelve.’
Of course, they have absolutely nothing to do with our situation, but I can’t tell them that. Instead, I try to find some comforting words to say.
‘Hey, everything’s going to be fine. You did nothing wrong, okay? If we hadn’t gotten lost back at the memorial, you guys wouldn’t even be out here, risking so much.’
And as a matter of fact, I really am beginning to feel a bit guilty. ‘You guys do know the way back?’ I inquire quietly after a long silence.
All three of them raise their heads to look at me with the same shameful glance. I heave a deep sigh as my last hope vanishes. My whole body suddenly feels heavier and exhausted.
Another short silence follows before the girl asks me if I’m hungry. The thought of food, which had been so alluring at first, now leaves me indifferent, although I know proper food is vital. ‘Yes please,’ I say sincerely.
The girl grabs a large plastic bag that lies in one corner of the tent and hands me a few slices of raisin bread. I try nibbling it slowly to savor the taste, but my eating becomes faster and faster with greed until I am wolfing down the last piece.
The three of them share the rest. ‘God, we packed way too little food,’ the girl notices. ‘This is it, now we’re foodless.’
The blond boy may be shy and somewhat suspicious, but also thoughtful and generous, for he hands me his water bottle the second I have finished.
A not-so-large puddle of water sits at the bottom of the bottle. Apparently, this is the last. Gratefully, I take what I can get and drink, for what seems the first time since I had refilled my own bottle at a small spring about a day ago.
In the meantime, the questions and the nagging thoughts haven’t let me go. Despite the kids’ warm-heartedness, they present an obstacle to my original plan, and I’m not yet sure what to do or think about them.
I can’t ditch them, not after they have offered me food and given me the last of their water to drink. After all, I know it’s exceptional that students care so much about their teachers as they do, and I know I should be more appreciative of their commitment.
Nonetheless, I can’t help being angry. Is the achievement of their goal to be the failure of mine? With the kids at my side, I will never find the opportunity to finish what I had come here for. Can I really give up, with so much there is to be clarified?
I try pushing the nagging thought out of my mind, that I abandoned the class, hiked the forest for days, and endangered these three kids, possibly for nothing. That seems impossible to me.
After all, Nico is the reason we ended up in the woods.
As I think about it, I feel anger brewing in my chest again. A twirl of emotions forms in me like storm clouds drawing in the sky. Will he really destroy me; shatter my whole future if he gets back to civilization before I do?
What he can’t know is that I have become a just, rightful person over the years, that I am living a lawful, compassionate life. I never was the bad guy, and I’m not the bad guy now.
It’s the boy with the dark hair who breaks my thoughts. ‘So you’re coming with us to find Mr. Andersen?’
I am so distracted that it takes me a moment to realize what he’s asking. I sigh, hesitating. ‘The forest is huge,’ I finally say. ‘Do you really think we have a chance of finding him? Besides, the police might have rescued him days ago.’
‘So you’re suggesting that we terminate the search for our other teacher?’ The dark-haired boy gawks at me, disbelief in his eyes.
I heave another sigh. ‘I’m just saying, the chances that he’s still out here are pretty small, and the chances that we will find him are even smaller.’
‘So do you want us to sit here and wait?’ He urges angrily.
I’m starting to get annoyed myself. ‘More or less. The police will find him, if they haven’t found him already, and they will find us too.’
‘Benny, I think Mr. Miller knows what he’s talking about,’ the girl intervenes gently, although her eyes are filled with anxiety.
For a moment I think about how unsuitable the name is, Benny, it sounds too compliant and too soft, like something you might call your teddy bear.
‘We came here on a mission,’ the boy called Benny continues, ‘I am not going to back down from it,’ he snaps his head around to face her completely. ‘If we were just relying on the police to find him, we could have stayed home in the first place. Remember why we came here, Merle—it was because the police didn’t find him. You said yourself it is our responsibility.’
‘Fine,’ I tell him strictly when the girl doesn’t reply, my lips tight. ‘Go out there and look for him all you like, but you won’t find him.’
The stillness that now lies between us is electrifying. The blond boy, whom I had nearly forgotten entirely, observes us curiously. His seemingly neutral expression gives me the shivers.
Benny closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. ‘Maybe I will,’ he returns plainly, having calmed down.
‘Benny…’ the girl cautions sharply.
‘Do you really want to keep looking?’ I say it more like a statement than a question, knowing I couldn’t talk him out of it anyway.
‘Yes,’ he confirms, not a trace of uncertainty in his voice. ‘I feel it is my duty, as long as there is no proof for his safety.’
‘You do know that reason could be more life-saving than heroism right now?’ the girl—Merle—asks.
‘I’m not trying to be a hero, but I do believe in a few virtues. Bravery isn’t even one of them, however persistence is. And if I may remind you, we’re in this together. We had a goal.’
The girl isn’t as gentle now as she had been a few minutes ago. ‘Oh for goodness sake, Benny. The only goal you ever had was to be brave. That’s all it has ever been about. What Mr. Andersen—,’
‘Stop!’ I nearly scream to make myself heard. ‘Both of you stop!’ My last hope inflates as I realize that I really am stuck with the kids. There is nothing more I can say to make Benny change his mind and no other way I can get rid of them.
I clear my throat. ‘Obviously nobody can dissuade you of your decision,’ I tell the boy, signs of mild exasperation to be heard in my voice. ‘You said you wanted to continue looking for Mr. Andersen, so that’s what we’re going to do, before the two of you bite each other’s heads off.’
‘Thanks so much, Benny,’ the girl mutters under her breath, glaring.
It is now that a light bulb goes on in my head. Maybe there is one last hope left after all.
‘We’re going to get organized,’ I continue, ignoring her. ‘Okay? We’re going to be a team,’ my warning look falls first on him and then on her. ‘We’re going to make one fixed base as to avoid losing time with putting up the tent every night and packing it up again every morning. We’ll camp near a lake so water won’t be a constant problem anymore. Starting from there, we can split up to look for Mr. Andersen in different directions.’
Maybe this way there is a chance of catching Nico alone.
‘How will we find our way back to the tent?’ Benny inquires, and although he doesn’t want it to show, I can see new motivation glistening in his eyes.
I shrug. ‘We can think of some symbol—where’s the problem?’ Fortunately, I sound more casual than I am. So much can be dependent on whether they agree on my plan or not.
‘Sounds efficient,’ Benny eventually admits with the smallest smile. ‘I read a book about a couple who marked their way by forming arrows on the ground with twigs.’
Of course, I could suggest carving something onto the trees, but I didn’t want them to know of my knife, so I remained silent.
The blond boy nods his approval, hope in his eyes too.
The girl says nothing, probably because she is still angry with Benny, or at least she tries to.
‘Are you also okay with the idea?’ I ask her carefully although I know her opinion won’t matter as long as Benny is on my side.
I wiped my sweaty palms on the sides of my pants before I turned the doorknob and walked into the office.
It was clearly colder in the room than in the hall, as the small fan on the principal’s desk was turned on.
The principal, a plump, white haired man, gestured for me to take a seat and folded his hands on the desk. ‘You might be able to imagine the reason I have summoned you to my office, Mr. Miller.’
His smile was friendly, his eyes sorry.
The fan let goose bumps rise on my bare arms. ‘Yes, I know of the rumors.’
‘This situation must not be easy for you. Nonetheless, I must ask you if any of this is true.’
I shook my head. ‘No, I am not a criminal.’
‘Do you have any idea why people are thinking this?’
Again I shook my head. ‘I guess I’m not that popular, but I didn’t think they’d go this far.’
He nods briefly and takes a deep breath. ‘I’m sure that you aren’t an evil person, Mr. Miller, but you know what happened to this school’s reputation. St. Petrus can’t take anymore risks.’
There was a silence. I breathed slowly against the acceleration of my heartbeat.The principal closed his eyes for moment. ‘What I’m advising is, it might be sensible for you to look for a different position, at another school. I'm sorry, Mr. Miller.'