‘Noah,’ I hear someone whisper. There is a large hand on my shoulder. ‘Noah, it’s eight o’clock.’
I am dead on my pillow as somehow the voice reaches me, but it’s as if I’m floating at the bottom of a sea and someone is talking above the surface. The words melt before they reach my head but I don’t feel like swimming up.
‘Noah, it’s nine thirty now, we’re leaving to get water.’
The voice sounds way too distant and my body feels way too heavy, so I leave my eyes closed, unable to register the words. It’s one of the first times in weeks that I’m sleeping properly, and I don’t want the sleep to end.
I’m stuck to the bottom of the ocean, the steady rising and falling of my chest hypnotizing me, dazing me. I want to swim up now, want to say something, it feels as though there’s something I must do, but my legs are too heavy and my lips are too busy with breathing. Exhaustion pins me down.
‘Never mind him, let’s go,’ I hear another voice say, and then finally: the silence I had dreamed of, the silent lullaby at the bottom of the ocean. It seduces me to endless sleep.
When I wake, the sounds and images around me are suddenly clear. As clear as the truth, I soon realize, when I look around and find that Benny and Merle are gone.
The master of screwing-up has struck again.
I sit in my sleeping bag, baffled and insecure for a while, before very carefully touching the Mr. Andersen’s back with one hand, which is curled away from me so I can’t see his face.
It requires a strong shake before he turns around and looks at me with bloodshot eyes. ‘Noah?’ he croaks, half asleep.
‘I’m sorry to wake you but we might have a problem. Merle and Benny have gone alone to fetch water.’ The rush in my voice surprises me.
He is wide-awake in less than a second and sits up on one elbow in alarm. ‘What? Are they crazy?’ He utters muffled curses.
‘I’m sorry,’ I admit again, knowing I should have stopped them.
He puts one hand to his forehead, the gesture that announces stress. ‘We need to go outside.’
Hastily, I grab my jeans and change out of my sweatpants in my sleeping bag. What have I done?
‘Being inside the tent is like having our backs facing a cliff. It’s a dead end,’ he explains as we put on shoes. ‘We can neither estimate the situation nor run,’ he goes on when I give him a frightened look.
My heartbeat accelerates as I ask myself how this could have happened. Hadn’t I decided not to make this kind of mistake again, when I underestimated situations?
‘Come,’ he tells me, his voice sharp as he unzips the tent. With one hand I manage to grab my ski jacket.
The air outside is fresher and colder than I would have expected. There is no knife-wielding Mr. Miller in sight.
‘We need to be careful. If he is here, if he is watching, he will know that we are alone. If he shows up, run,’ Mr. Andersen sneezes.
I nod and swallow, my eyes scanning the trees for traces of Mr. Miller’s unfortunately-hard-to-spot leather vest, not being able to think of anything but this is all my fault.
‘Look around,’ the teacher commands dryly and takes a few steps forward. My heart jumping up and down in my throat, I begin walking around the tent. Beginning to feel cold in my shirt, I open my jacket and just when I want to slide my first arm into the sleeve, I hear a scurry of feet scratching over ground next to me, directly opposite of the tent’s entrance.
Mr. Andersen whips his head around to see what’s going on and I gasp to see a very wild Mr. Miller leap at us from behind the tent.
My brain stops working for a moment as I tell myself that this is the end of my life. If he shows up, run.
Run! screams my head. Run!
I drop the jacket. The legs that carry me out of the clearing and into the forest don’t feel like mine. The person who is running doesn’t feel like me.
Mr. Andersen is about ten meters in front of me. I catch myself asking why I didn’t run in a different direction.
So close to death.
What feels like ages goes by. I can’t tell if he is gaining although he must be—I’m too afraid to turn around and face him, face the fact that I am the world’s biggest idiot. I can’t tell anything, for my concentration is fixed only on not tripping over roots and avoiding trees.
It is a grip on the hem of my shirt that knocks both of us down and I hit the ground with my head. The pain makes me forget what’s happening.
In an instant, he is pinning my shirt down to the forest floor with one hand, the other hand holding a huge ancient knife with a long curved blade so close to my neck that I forget to breath, let alone think. I can’t do anything but stare at the shining metal, wondering where it came from all of a sudden.
Close to death, close to death, death.
The color of Mr. Miller’s face is dark red as he towers over me, his tangled beard hanging into my face.
This is it.
‘You and your friends will very quickly forget whatever it is that Nico told you in that tent. You will forget everything. If anyone doesn’t, I will kill you,’ his tone is ferocious.
The words swing in my ears, and before they reach my brain, he is already off me and on his feet, dashing after Mr. Andersen.
I can still feel his power vibrating around me, still smell his stench on my skin, still see the sweat glistening on his cheeks.
The first thing I process as I am still lying on the ground, my eyes still locked on the point where his knife had been a moment ago, is: I am not going to die.
The second is: Mr. Andersen is going to die.
The third: For the second time in my life, I fucked up everything, again.
I took the steps two at a time, chasing the xylophone tune that was my ringtone. The melody took me to my room, where I picked up the phone on what seemed like the twentieth ring.
‘Noah Gehrig speaking?’
‘Hi Noah, it’s Merle, from school. We were in the same group yesterday.’
‘Okay,’ I replied awkwardly, wondering why she’d called.
‘I’m sure you know that the teachers are still missing, and Benny and I kind of feel responsible. They got lost in the forest only because we were fooling around. Well, you weren’t, but,’ she was searching for a convenient way to finish the sentence.
‘What I’m saying is,’ she paused. ‘We know it’s not your fault that the teachers are gone but we’re in this together and—,’
I was asking myself what the hell she was talking about until she declared ‘Benny and I want to look for them.’
I remained quiet.
‘We’d never forgive ourselves if anything happened to them,’ she explained. ‘Only over the weekend: I promise we’ll be back for school on Monday.’
‘Okay,’ I said again slowly, reminding myself that she still hadn’t asked me to come along.
‘Like I said, we’re kinda in this together, and…’ apparently she was more nervous than me. ‘We wanted to ask you if maybe you want to come with us?’ I had been waiting for her to say that.
‘Um.’ Now I was lost for words. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Please?’ she asked, making me wonder why she was so eager for me to go with them in the first place.
‘What would we tell our parents?’
‘Well, we could just leave them a note saying that we’re gone over the weekend, telling them who we’re with, not to worry, not to call the police. Writing when we’ll be back…’
‘I don’t have a tent,’ I excused myself, deciding it sounded better than ‘I’m afraid of sleeping in the forest, I’d miss piano class, I don’t even know you guys, my parents will be worried sick and we’ll never find our teachers’.
‘That’s no problem. Benny’s big brother has a pretty big tent. And by the way, you won’t need your phone, since there is no mobile reception in the forest. I’m sure of that.’
I fell silent.
‘There’s only one bus that can bring us to the memorial since it’s well, in the middle of the forest, so we’ll have to change buses. It’s line 33. However, we’re meeting in front of school tomorrow morning at seven and then we can take the bus at five past.’
‘My parents are awake at seven.’
‘My mom is awake at six,’ I clenched my teeth.
‘When does your mom wake up?’
‘Pretty early,’ I confessed, annoyed to be telling her this.
‘And you can’t, like, get out of the house unseen?’
I sighed. Since when was she so stubborn, and how did she not get that I didn’t want to come? ‘That’d be a bit tricky,’ I lied, adding a polite ‘sorry’.
‘So you can’t accompany us?’ she asked, more disappointed than I would have expected her to be.
I wanted to say ‘I fear I can’t’, but the words got stuck in my throat.
‘It’s for our teachers, Noah. We owe them. They could be dead out there in the forest because of us.’
Dead because of us. That stuck. Although Merle was exaggerating, it sounded too much like ‘dead because of you’. She wasn’t allowed that far into my privacy bubble. My head began to throb.
‘I’ll be there at six,’ I told her and angrily hung up the phone, asking myself what I had done.