Three tenth-graders

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Chapter 4

Evening light drips through the leaves like golden syrup, the trees casting long amber shadows over the ground. Above me, an occasional chirping is to be heard as the last birds fly home to their nests.

My eyes are glued to the forest floor as I make my way to the next lopsided twig-arrow. It snaps under my boots. Although I hate to admit it, Benny’s idea was pretty good. The series of arrows is perfect for retracing the way. Nonetheless, I need to hurry, as the shadows are stretching and the sun is sinking.

I pause to peek at my watch. 19:44 the green digitals glow at me. Fifteen more minutes to find my way back to camp. Pulling my hat over my ears and stuffing my frozen fists into my pockets, I quicken my strides to the next symbol.

The entire way back takes less time than expected—when I reach our tent and the small pond nearby, my watch reads 19:53.

Inside the tent, I take off boots, hat, windbreaker and filthy jeans before snuggling into my sleeping bag to warm up. As I wait for the others to return, I read a little.

When I hear Benny’s excited voice outside, I quickly slip the love story back into my bag and pull my jeans back on, just as he tugs the zipper open.

‘You’re already back,’ he greets me, out of breath. The glow in his eyes and the grin on his face let me know that there is more he wants to say, yet he holds the tension for a few more seconds.

Just when my cheeks are starting to feel hot with impatience—and excitement—he continues. ‘You won’t believe who I found.’

For a moment I hesitate, although I know he’s not kidding. The thought just seems too impossible, too fantastic. ‘You didn’t,’ I hear myself say.

‘See for yourself,’ Benny steps aside and I see Mr. Andersen, who is standing a meter behind him.

‘Hi, Merle,’ our teacher says with an exhausted smile.’

‘Oh my God oh my God oh my God.’

‘We actually did it,’ Benny gives me a short but firm hug through the entrance of the tent, and for a moment I can feel his racing heart against mine.

Relief sweeps over me like a wave, washing away all the worst-case-scenarios I had made up in my head. ‘Where did you find each other?’

‘He had found my arrow trail and he was tracing it away from camp while I was going back to camp. Our paths collided.’

‘So your arrow idea really did it.’

‘He said we wouldn’t find him.’

For a moment I want to retort something like that he can’t blame Mr. Miller because the chances really were small, but all I do is laugh at the miracle. Although my instincts want to deny it, there is nothing I can say against the statement: Mr. Miller was completely wrong and Benny’s arrow-trick completely brilliant.

‘Your idea was good. Well done,’ I admit.

The look of justified pride vanishes completely from his eyes. For a moment it seems as if he has forgotten his success, for the edges of his face become softer and a gentle smile replaces his grin. He seems thoroughly surprised.

Was some recognition really all it took for that smile? Was praise really the key to unlock the ever-so-tough Benny?

‘Listen,’ Mr. Andersen says. ‘I am touched by your dedication, I really am. Nonetheless, if you know the way back, take me to the school immediately.’

Benny and I exchange a nervous glance. Not again.

‘You’re lost?’ Mr. Andersen accuses us harshly.

We nod. He ruffles his short, wet black hair and covers his face, leaning forward. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ he breathes, something I wouldn’t have expected, despite the circumstances. With one aggressive yank, he lets go of his head and straightens, closing his eyes for a moment.

Benny throws me a concerned look. Blowing air out of his mouth, Mr. Andersen runs his hands through his almost-buzz cut in the following silence. ‘Let’s go inside,’ he eventually sighs.

Wordlessly, they take off their shoes and join me inside the tent, Mr. Andersen taking off a very dirty Adidas backpack. ‘This is very bad,’ our homeroom teacher tells us, staring at his hands. ‘Very bad.’

‘Well, at least you and Mr. Miller are still alive,’ Benny suggests, for once not sounding convinced.

Mr. Andersen suddenly jerks up his head, staring at us with a mix of confusion and dread in his eyes. ‘Mr. Miller?’ He asks, as if he has just heard the name for the first time.

Again Benny shoots me a look for support.

‘You guys saw Mr. Miller?’ The teacher’s voice shakes.

Instead of seeming glad that his colleague is safe, he seems terrified.

‘Well yes, we found him this morning. It was his idea to split up to find you,’ I stammer.

‘Oh no,’ Mr. Andersen replies so quietly we hardly hear him.

‘What’s wrong?’ Benny dares to ask.

Not looking at us, I can see his cheeks getting red as he thinks. Again and again, he strokes his chin in anxious movements. ‘Nothing,’ he finally answers.

I almost laugh. Benny does too. ‘Nothing?’ he repeats.

‘I don’t want to endanger you,’ Mr. Andersen chooses his words carefully.

Endanger us? I think. What on earth is he talking about? ‘Please tell us the truth.’ I say when he doesn’t continue.

‘I’m sorry, Merle, but I can’t,’ he speaks plainly, as if that would reassure us.

‘Merle, Noah and I have been roaming the forest for days, fearing you could have died. But honestly, you don’t seem too happy to have been found,’ Benny starts. I have been waiting for this outburst to come. ‘We have finally found both our teachers—alive after three days, and you seem horrified. Just tell us what we did wrong, and don’t say it’s nothing.’

‘You did nothing wrong. The truth is,’ Mr. Andersen’s voice trails off. ‘The truth is that I’m afraid…that Mr. Miller is trying to kill me.’

Time stands still, my life a CD stuck on one track. For a moment I can only muster his face: the dark rings under his eyes, the tightness of his lips, the furrow of his brow.

The fear.

No, he isn’t kidding. But did he really just say ‘is trying to kill me’? The silence almost makes me feel that I misunderstood.

Not that I really knew Mr. Miller, the wannabee rocker, the slightly crazed biologist we once had as a substitute, but a murderer?

It seems impossible. Mr. Andersen’s face on the other hand makes the statement more than possible.

Don’t cry, I beg, pinching my finger. This is still your normal, teenage life, nothing has happened and nothing will change. The words echo through my head over and over. I have never been so close to fantasy, to the fear of death, to death itself.

All of a sudden, time seems to continue, lurching forward faster than before.

‘What?’ Benny squints. ‘That’s not what Mr. Miller told us!’

‘Why?’ I blurt out, gulping down the tears in my throat.

‘He must never find out that you know this. If you are smart, you will not confront him with what I have told you.’

‘Wait,’ Benny shouts. ‘Mr. Miller said the two of you got lost after looking for us.’

‘That’s not true. We never—,’ Mr. Andersen starts.

‘How can we trust you?’ Benny goes on, and for the first time, I realize that if Mr. Miller had lied, he could be lying too. It pained me to think that my history teacher could be the bad guy himself. If he wanted to kill Mr. Miller, he’d invent something like this—he’d turn the story around.

It is at this that we hear the startling sound of a zipper opening. The entrance is being pulled open.

Only now do I become aware that Mr. Miller could have been listening to our conversation outside the tent all this time. If he did really want to kill Mr. Andersen, he could kill us all.

For a mere second my breathing is confused, before I see Noah’s surprised face, whose existence I had once again totally forgotten.

‘Mr. Andersen,’ he beams, but quickly drops his smile when he sees our faces. ‘What happened?’ he says quietly, having noticed the tension in the air.

The silence is deafening. Unconsciously, I begin counting the seconds that tick by. Tick, tick, tick, tick… They seem to fill the whole tent and I wonder from who’s watch they’re coming. Mine doesn’t tick.

‘Come inside,’ Mr. Andersen orders, his look strident.

While Noah kicks off his boots, pulls the zipper shut and sits down cross-legged next to me, I can see the gears clicking in our teacher’s head.

He sits up a bit straighter and I can see him fighting a frown. ‘I was just telling the others that Mr. Miller is trying to kill me.’ His voice is monotone, digitalized.

Is trying to kill me. Again he has uttered those somehow distant but way-too-present words. I feel my head becoming heavy.

I turn to Noah. He stares at each of us in turn, his face gray. ‘Why?’

Mr. Andersen closes his eyes for a moment, his face dark red, his teeth obviously clenched. ‘Mr. Miller and I have a rather… unpleasant past together.’ He pauses, again rubbing his chin in the tense search for words. ‘I could tell on him for certain things, and then he’d go to prison. For a long time.’

‘How can we know that you’re saying the truth?’ I force myself to ask. ‘Maybe Mr. Miller was right and you’re the crazy one.’

‘I know there’s no proof of my innocence and of his motive.’ His sigh is quavered. ‘You need to trust me.’

I look him up and down dubiously, before sharing a glance with the boys. Fear glistens in their eyes.

There is silence. A heavy, gloomy silence. ‘Are you blackmailing him?’ Benny asks. ‘For money?’

Mr. Andersen shakes his head. ‘I never did anything. He’s just afraid I could.’

‘You are a passive threat,’ Benny states. Our teacher nods.

Unwillingly, I begin to understand. ‘You recognized each other during the field trip?’

Once more, he nods solemnly.

‘Is this the reason the two of you disappeared into the forest in the first place?’

Again, nodding.

‘Mr. Miller told the class that the two of you were looking for us, since we were late for lunch. That’s why we felt responsible. We thought all this is our fault,’ I explain, remembering what he had said just that morning: I let him convince me and we went back into the forest, calling your names.

Mr. Andersen shakes his head with a half-hearted scoff. ‘I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.’

I lower my head. It made too much sense, after all Mr. Miller could hardly tell the class ‘Excuse me, I need to kill Mr. Andersen, I’ll be back in a moment.’ Nonetheless, I had a queasy feeling at the back of my throat.

I glance over at Noah, who is shaking slightly, his head so low that I can’t see if there are tears in his eyes. I take a moment to breathe. What was happening?

‘So the reason Mr. Miller wanted to spread out this morning was to seize you alone,’ Benny asked, avoiding the k-word.

‘He’s a self-convinced psycho,’ is all our teacher replies. ‘You need to trust me.’ His look is desperate.

Again I turn to Benny. If Mr. Andersen really was being hunted down, there was no way we could abandon him. Besides, we knew him better than Mr. Miller, even if this was only his third month at the school.

‘To be honest, I’d feel safer trusting Mr. Andersen than believing Mr. Miller’s words. Can you remember how nervous he was?’ Benny asks me as if reading my thoughts.

Noah looks up from the ground and nods.

‘Okay, we have confidence in you,’ I eventually admit. Our teacher’s eyes spell relief, his sigh obliged.

‘What are you going to do?’ Benny asks.

He shakes his head. ‘I don’t know. I hardly think he would attack me with the three of you around. We just need to stay together until we’re rescued. Lucky thing I found you.’ For the first time, there is something friendly in his voice. ‘What exactly happened this morning and where exactly is Mr. Miller now?’

‘Well, he saw the tent this morning and we let him inside,’ Benny explains. ‘After telling us the story of you splitting up to find us, he tried convincing us not to continue looking for you, but I was convinced of finishing what we had started so he came up with a different idea: He said we’d need to be a team and that we’d have to set up a base camp somewhere, if possible, close to a source of water. He suggested looking for you in different directions so we decided on marking the ground with arrows. We packed up the tent and set out together, looking for a lake. We found one eventually, but the trees were too dense for camping, so we had to keep walking until we found this clearing here, where we could set up the tent and start looking for you.’

‘So Mr. Miller could have been back for ages,’ I push up my sleeve to check the time. ‘It’s twenty past eight already, and it’s dark.’

On cue, Benny snatches his flashlight from underneath his pillow, ties its cord to one of the tent poles over our heads and switches it on.

‘Hmm,’ Mr. Andersen murmurs. ‘So it’s alright if I stay here for the night?’

‘Of course,’ Benny nods. ‘You can have my sleeping bag. I’ll sleep with two hoodies. You must have been frozen for days.’

‘No, no, you better keep warm, I’ll be just fine with my windbreaker.’

‘I’m sorry that we’re out of food,’ I confess, biting my left thumbnail. We gave it to Mr. Miller, I keep myself from saying.

I half expected him to swear again, but he remains silent, his expression deadpanned.

‘What is it that happened so long ago between you and Mr. Miller?’ Benny eventually dares to ask.

The rings under our teacher’s eyes seem darker than before, his lips tight and his knuckles white. He opens his mouth slightly but only takes a few deep breaths. ‘I can’t talk about it.’

I shoot Benny a look that forbids him to ask further questions. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder myself. Judging that Mr. Andersen is around thirty and Mr. Miller around fifty-five, they would have been ten and thirty-five twenty years ago.

Fantasies spin through my head of what could have happened to Mr. Andersen as a child. Kidnapped, raped, his parents murdered… Instinctively, I assume the worst. By now, I have nearly bitten all the fingernails on my left hand down to the point where they start bleeding.

He’d go to prison. For a long time. I can’t talk about it. I can’t seem to get his words out of my head.

‘We’ll make sure that nothing happens to you,’ Noah breaks my train of imagination. Although I am surprised at his words, they seem to have an effect, for our teacher smiles. The first time, I think.

‘It’s nice of you to say that.’ And for the first time today, he appears to be breathing normally. There is a short silence. ‘How long have you guys been out here?’

‘Since Saturday morning.’

‘Is today Sunday? I’ve lost track of time.’

‘Yes. It’s our second and your fourth day,’ Benny declares seriously. Fourth day, I think. That means Mr. Andersen has probably been out of food for three days. Involuntarily, I look him up and down. His short hair is greasy-looking, but it is hard to tell how dirty it is since he stuck his head underwater. His nails are plenty dirty and so are his jeans. He doesn’t look thinner though, not that I ever paid much attention to that. I check for torn clothing, like wildered people appear in movies, but there is nothing except for a tiny hole in his backpack.

‘But we’re fine,’ Benny continues, ‘we had food until this morning.’ Again guilt wells up in my throat.

‘But why hasn’t anyone found you yet? I mean, three kids, after two days?’

Noah throws me a nervous look. ‘Well,’ I begin. ‘We wrote our families notes that we’d be gone the weekend. They wouldn’t have missed us before late evening today. I mean, we didn’t really plan to stay longer than that anyway.’

‘We guess they’ll inform the police this evening and start searching tomorrow morning,’ Benny adds. ‘And it takes more than a day to search the whole forest.’

‘The police have helicopters with thermal cameras that spot life. And these cameras can differentiate between a deer and a human.’

Now it’s Benny who tilts his head at me. Silence. ‘Isn’t it a good thing that we’re still here in the forest though? For you?’

Our teacher gives a sad chuckle. ‘For me, your existence can be lifesaving I suppose. The negative aspect is that you are all mixed up in this now, which is something that no tenth-grader should have to experience.’ He sighs. ‘As much as I hate saying this, you are in danger. We are all in danger, and not just because the food is out.’

The following quiet is paralyzing. I imagine horrifying scene of Mr. Miller crouching in the bushes outside our tent, waiting until we fall asleep.

I pull the nail of my right index finger from between my teeth. Noah stares at the tent’s entrance darkly. Saying something would make it worse, so we remain silent.

Mr. Miller in the darkness ten feet from us. I try pushing the image away, unfortunately to no avail. The thought had burned itself into my head and I know it is there to stay.

Waiting for us to turn the flashlight off, ready to pounce, unseen in the undergrowth. The vision is unbearable.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Mr. Andersen covers his face. ‘I should never have tormented you with these things,’ he mutters, as if seeing what’s going on in my brain.

As I watch our teacher wring his hands, wishing he could make his own words unsaid, regret forms in my chest, for I know how horrid the last days must have been for him; he had enough problems already, and they needed to be expressed somewhere, I guess. Still, saying ‘no problem’ would be a lie.

The depressing silence goes on for what feels like an eternity. Mr. Andersen breaks the silence when my watch reads exactly 20:35. ‘I’m pretty tired. Maybe it’s for the best if we stay here now and keep going tomorrow.’

Waiting for the light to go off.

The silence restarts until Benny speaks mildly at 20:37. ‘Let’s go to sleep then.’

When the rummaging of sleeping bags and pillows ceases and everyone is more or less fixed for the night, it’s 20:40.

This is when—still 20:40—the moment arrives where Noah—the last one standing—unties the green-blue, manually-powered Decathlon flashlight from the tent pole, lies down, and presses his right thumb down on the round, rubbery surface of the power button. I can hear the click through the dark and the horror movie in my head begins.

Waiting two minutes. Then soundlessly rising from the brambles. One step, a second—

‘Merle,’ a careful whisper, startlingly close.

‘Benny,’ I breathe back in his direction, very grateful for his conscious presence and for his eyes, which blink brightly next to me, not more than a foot away.

One step, a second step. With the other hand he slowly reaches; reaches for the zipper…

We blink at each other. 20:51, 20:52, 20:53. Just his blinking makes us being in a tent in a forest with a possible murderer outside sustainable.

I am not alone. His eyelids are those that boys didn’t care about and girls could kill for.

But then the blinking stops. Benny’s eyes have fallen shut. Again I count the ticks that still fill the air, waiting, begging for him to reopen his eyes. He can’t actually be asleep at nine pm!

Me alone, he opening the zipper, entering the tent, nobody hearing, watching or helping. They all sleep. I can’t really imagine Noah being asleep, but a) he lies on the other side of the tent and b) I’d rather risk waking Benny than him.

So that’s why I shake Benny’s shoulder and nearly choke on my own tears. ‘I’m afraid,’ I burst out as quietly as I can, my lungs rattling with every fast breath.

There is no reply, but I feel his hand on mine. He squeezes it hard and pulls me over to him until my sobbing face is just ten centimeters from his. ‘I’m afraid,’ I snivel again.

He puts his other hand on the small of my back and wordlessly pulls me closer yet. I rest my shaking head next to him on my pillow and our noses touch. I can smell his smell. ‘I’m afraid,’ I whimper one last time as he holds me firmly, staring into his blinking eyes, and already it’s only half-true.

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