Merle stops walking for a moment, tilts her head slightly and gives me an intense look. I can’t help but notice that the glow in her eyes isn’t adrenaline. ‘But aren’t you afraid too?’
I suppress a sigh and hesitate, not being a huge fan of this topic. ‘Not really right now,’ and adding a forced smile ‘it’s okay when I’m with you.’
‘But deep inside of you there must be...’ she stammers for words. ‘I mean, there’s possibly a maniac teacher with a knife outside our tent. He could kill us.’
I can tell these are the words she already wanted to say last night, if we wouldn’t have woken the others. ‘Why would he want to kill us? He’s only after Mr. Andersen.’
She was still staring at me. ‘Maybe he knows that we know that he wants to kill him. If the only reason he wants to kill him is because he could tell on him—and we could tell on him too—then we’re just as much of a threat,’ she sputters in one breath.
‘Hey,’ I put one soothing hand on her shoulder. ‘Merle, you need to talk slowly if you want me to understand what you’re saying. There’s no need to panic right now.’
‘I just wish you’d sometimes behave a little more like a normal person. Normal people have feelings. Like fear.’
We continue walking so we don’t have to look at each other. I furrow my brow. ‘Do you want me to be afraid? Do you enjoy it when I feel weak?’
She stops again to face me. ‘You’re avoiding the point. I don’t want you to be afraid, I just mean you could express it. That wouldn’t mean you’re weak, it only means you’re honest.’
‘Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind,’ I say mildly, not trying to sound ironic but wanting to change the topic.
As it turns out, there is no need for that since we soon reach the clearing. ‘I’m betting you they both fell back asleep,’ I nudge Merle, a lame attempt to lighten the mood.
‘Hmm,’ she grumbles and pulls open the zipper while I bend down to set the full water bottles on the ground and take off my boots.
I stop mid-untying when she gasps ‘Oh my God, Benny!’
Alarmed, I jerk upright to see what she is pointing at in the tent. I half expect to see a dead Mr. Andersen, soaked in his own blood, the knife’s handle sticking out of his chest, but all there is in the tent is…nothing.
‘He got them,’ Merle says decidedly. ‘Mr. Miller ambushed them, I’ll swear.’
‘Maybe one of them had to pee?’ I suggest, regretting the words as soon as they leave my mouth.
She gives me an angry look, but her face is white. ‘This is our entire fault. We should never have left them alone.’
‘It’s going to be okay,’ I say, and for the first time I’m not so sure myself. ‘First of all, even if Mr. Miller ambushed them, it’s two against one. Second, Mr. Andersen is still way younger and faster than Mr. Miller.’
‘First of all,’ she counters, ‘if you take exactly one look at Noah, you’ll see what big of a help he’d be in a face-to-face confrontation. Second, let me ask you how useful being young and fast is when there’s a biology teacher chasing you. Mr. Miller will probably know all kinds of horrid ways to kill someone without a weapon.’
I look down at my left untied boot for a moment, having to acknowledge that she just fired all of my arguments back at me.
‘I don’t want to fight about this, Benny. I’m just scared to death,’ she lets her head fall onto my chest with a very quavered sigh. I close my arms around her and rest my chin on her head.
We stand like this in silence for a while before she frees herself from my hold with the words ‘let’s look around if we can find them anywhere.’
I nod slowly and retie my boot before we start looking around the clearing for any signs of them. ‘You won’t believe this,’ I hear Merle call from behind the tent after a few seconds.
Eagerly, I run up to her, my hopes high. Unfortunately, she hasn’t found our classmate and teacher. Instead, she is holding up Noah’s navy blue ski anorak by the hood.
‘What the—,’ I hear myself mutter, ‘—did this get here?’
Merle is silent. ‘That’s Noah’s, isn’t it?’
‘Maybe he dropped it, or forgot it…’ I can hear my voice trailing off, knowing to what situation I’m leading up.
‘So they did get ambushed,’ Merle’s look is death-stricken.
Although I know better, I shrug.
Merle is close to tears again. ‘Let’s continue searching,’ she blinks several times, making me remember the last night. ‘And let’s agree that they didn’t go outside to pee.’
‘Are you going to take that?’ I ask, gesturing at Noah’s anorak, which she is still holding. She shakes her head quickly, and we lay both it and the three water bottles into the tent. We leave the clearing, walking away from the lake. After a few meters, Merle kneels down to form a twig arrow on the ground that points forward with three large sticks.
We keep walking and for some reason I wish she’d take my hand but she keeps hers firmly in the pockets of her coat, taking them out only occasionally to mark our way.
For a moment I think about taking hers. That wouldn’t mean you’re weak. It’s only means you’re honest, I recollect her saying. After a while I do and squeeze it tightly, but when she gives me a grateful smile, I realize that she thinks I’m only doing it to support her.
Our eyes keep looking around for any hints of Noah and Mr. Andersen for ages. After we have patterned the forest with around thirty arrows and still have found not a trace of them, it’s again Merle who pauses her steps.
‘This is hopeless,’ she angrily brushes a strand of blonde hair that escaped her ponytail behind one ear.
I take her hand once more and squeeze it hard. She squeezes back, which is just what I need not to agree with her.
I don’t get to finish my sentence because it is this second that an ear-piercing bellow erupts the forest. The roar is frighteningly close, disturbingly furious and unfortunately unmistakable for Mr. Miller. ‘I WILL FIND YOU!’ is his warning.
Dennis opened his mouth so wide that his gum almost fell out. ‘I know!’ he declared brightly. ‘We can ask the dude in the entry if he can make an announcement through the loudspeakers. You get what I mean?’ He closed his mouth and continued chewing. ‘They have those in IKEA.’
‘Uh huh,’ I replied sheepishly, impressed at the speed of his voice. ‘Yeah, that’s not a bad idea,’ I added when I registered what he had actually said.
Somehow, this idea managed to spread through the whole class so the poor middle-aged, bald-headed man who sat behind the counter in the front of the museum must have been pretty overwhelmed when suddenly thirty feverish and halfway panicked teenagers stood in front of him, all talking at the same time.
‘What’s going on?’ He put on a puzzled face and stroked his glistening head. ‘You,’ he pointed at Dennis. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘We wanna make an announcement. Do you have loudspeakers?’ The man squinted at him in irritation. ‘Like in IKEA!’ he explained happily.
I couldn’t take this any longer. ‘We’re here on a field trip,’ I intervened. ‘Both of our teachers went missing. We were wondering if you could call them to the entry.’
The man cut me off. ‘Oh, I see.’ The creases on his forehead disappeared but he still seemed annoyed. ‘Their names?’
‘Mr. Andersen and Mr. Miller,’ Dennis said. He had to repeat the names two times until the man understood for the murmuring and chatting behind us was so loud.
‘Everyone be quiet!’ the man shouted effectively, pressed a little button on the counter and leaned over this tiny microphone. His voice now boomed through the whole museum. ‘Mr. Andersen and Mr. Miller, please come to the entry. I repeat: Mr. Andersen and Mr. Miller, please come to the entry of the memorial.’
‘This is exactly like IKEA,’ Dennis whispered excitedly.
‘Just shut your mouth,’ a girl from behind me told him, seemingly annoyed.
The man pressed the same button again and the microphone went off. ‘Thank you, that was cool,’ Dennis squealed, ignoring the girl as the class’s noise level rose again and everyone began to spread out.
Merle and I sat down on the steps where everyone else had eaten lunch and began unpacking our sandwiches. She gave me her pickles, I gave her my goat’s cheese.
‘I hope they show up soon,’ she said after swallowing. ‘I’m starting to have a bad feeling about this.
‘Dennis is such a lamebrain,’ I replied absent-mindedly.
‘Benny, they’re gone because of us,’ her voice is sharp, trying to get my attention.
‘Just don’t worry so much about it. You worry way too much about everything.’ With that, I ate the last of her pickles and she fell silent.
When we were done with lunch, it was twenty to one. At ten to one, a few classmates started calling their parents and it was exactly one o’clock when the bald man from the ticket counter stuck his head out of his little booth and yelled down the stairs, ‘Are your teachers still missing?’
Many people called ‘yes’, others nodded at him.
‘One of you guys should call the police,’ he hollered at us and his head disappeared. Merle and I exchanged a glance.
‘Why am I feeling bad about this?’ she whispered at me with one eyebrow raised, for the class had become quiet.
‘Whaddaya think?’ Dennis asked the class, his eyes glowing with enthusiasm as he pushed his glasses into place. ‘Should we call the police?’
‘He thinks he’s the star of a crime fiction mystery,’ I whispered back at Merle. ‘How can he actually find this cool?’
‘I’ll do it!’ I then exclaimed hastily out loud before Dennis could come up with the idea to call the police himself. They would never take him seriously the way he was thrilled.
‘Aww,’ he moaned, nearly losing his gum again. ‘I wanted to do that! You know I’ve never talked to police before!’
‘This is not a movie, Dennis. It’s reality,’ Merle tells him strictly. ‘Our teachers could have had an accident or have gotten lost. It’s not very funny.’
That seemed to finally shut him up and I secretly gave Merle a thumbs-up sign while dialing 117 with the other hand.
‘Is everyone okay with me calling the police now?’ I broke the silence, my thumb right above the green button.
‘Turn your phone on speaker!’ someone called, so I did.
The ringing on my phone filled the museum as I held it out in front of me and the people around me didn’t make a sound as they leaned in.
‘You have reached the Police Presidium North in Innerthal, my name is Boris Fritz, how can I help you?’ a deep male voice filled the room on the third ring.
‘Hello, my name is Benjamin Fohr and I attend the tenth grade of the Bunsen public school,’ I begin reciting the words I had laid out in my head as calm as I can.
‘My class is in the Holocaust Memorial for a field trip today and the two teachers in charge have both vanished forty-five minutes ago.’
There is a short silence. ‘The museum in the forest, near the lake?’
‘I think there’s a squad car patrolling that area. I’ll call them to come by and take a look, okay?’
‘Okay. Thank you very much.’
We both said ‘bye’ and he hung up.
Three beeps sounded from my phone before I hit the red button and slipped it back into my jeans with a ‘phew’. ‘Nicely done,’ Merle patted my back.
Dennis didn’t say anything but he looked downright delighted that the police were coming by.
It took five minutes until a blue-and-white car pulled up next to the bus stop.
The young guy who walked into the entrance without paying reminded me of my big brother Joshua. He couldn’t have been older than thirty. His hair was dark and slightly curly like mine, but longer—like Josh’s it went up to his ears and nearly hung into his eyes. Unlike Josh’s hair though, his was combed.
‘Are you the kids from the Bunsen school?’ He asked and received approval. ‘Who’s the one who called the presidium?’
I raised a hand. ‘My name is Benjamin.’
‘Can you answer a few questions for me?’ When I nodded he asked me to take a seat, so we sit down on the steps to the entrance, the others sitting down around us to listen.
‘What exactly do these teachers look like?’ was the first thing he asked me. ‘Details can be important.’
‘Mr. Andersen has short black hair…he’s young…tall…’ I shrugged, more casual than I was feeling. ‘He’s wearing a green windbreaker…jeans…’ I tried thinking of everything. ‘And Mr. Miller is maybe around fifty, has a gray-streaked ponytail, a beard, a leather vest…small round glasses.’
The policeman nodded. ‘That windbreaker, is it bright or dark green?’
‘Uh well, it’s, a light color.’
‘And when exactly did they disappear? Did they say where they were going?’ So that’s when I told him everything about Noah, Merle and me being late for lunch, about them claiming to look for us, about the announcement.
He rubbed his stubbly chin. ‘Normally, only one of them would have left to look for you. I mean, you’re not little kids anymore, but still it’s illegitimate to leave a class unattended. Maybe there was some other reason they left.’
He sighed deeply and then faced the class. ‘Is there anyone here who by coincidence heard what they were talking about during lunch?’
Dennis’ hand shot up. Who else? ‘They hardly talked at all. Mr. Andersen is kinda new at the school, they only exchanged a few sentences!’
‘But did you overhear anything at all, like were they talking about a specific person or place? Did they have an argument?’
Dennis’ hand dropped, his voice faltered.
‘Okay, never mind. New question: Are they people who’d get along with each other from your point of view?’
‘Mr. Miller is really strict and Mr. Andersen is a more relaxed person, so their ways of teaching sorta collide,’ Dennis’ gum was this close to falling out of his mouth when he pronounced ‘collide’ with a long ‘I’. ‘But there’s no reason they’d fight.’
The policeman cleared his throat. So, there are two things I can do: The teacher’s phone numbers are listed in the school’s register, so we can try tracking their phones,’ he explained. ‘That’s the first thing. The second thing I can do is drive around the area and see if I can spot them anywhere.’ He took a card from the pouch on his belt. ‘In case they show up, please call me,’ he handed me the card.
‘Should we go home or wait here for them?’ I asked.
‘You guys are free to go home. Call your parents, take the bus, whatever.’ He stood up to leave. ‘Does anyone have questions?’
To my surprise, even Dennis remained silent. The man shook my hand and left, taking the steps two at a time.
‘Can I have the card, please?’ he asked me as soon as he was gone. I was afraid that the chewing gum really would fall out of his mouth if he continued begging, so I handed it over to him, disgusted.
Merle didn’t want to take the next bus, which would be filled with noisy students anyway, so she called her mom to pick us up. We went outside and stood by the curb, on the other side of the street from everyone else, who was waiting for the bus.
‘I can’t believe he’s our age,’ I told her as we watched Dennis holding up the card across the street.
Merle nodded, but I could tell she didn’t care. ‘And I can’t believe that our teachers have been missing for over an hour because we lost track of time.’
I rolled my eyes at her. ‘Give it a rest, will you? Stop worrying about it.’
‘I’m being normal. You on the other hand are acting as if it doesn’t affect you at all,’ she zips up her coat to the top.
‘That’s because feeling bad about ourselves doesn’t make our teachers reappear. It doesn’t help, you know? If you keep telling yourself that everything is your fault, you’ll start believing that at some point. In the end, you’ll become a very unhappy person.’
‘The only reason I’d ever become an unhappy person is due to the fact that arguing with you is so utterly hopeless.’
‘So stop it,’ I said plainly with a smile.
‘But, Benny, seriously: Don’t you have the slightest feeling of guilt, or even anxiety, about what happened today?’
‘Maybe I do, but I don’t go around whining about it. Bad enough that it’s my problem, so I don’t need to make it someone else’s too.’
‘That’s mean,’ she looked away from me.
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s really mean.’
I stepped behind her and started massaging her shoulders. ‘Merle, I exaggerated. You know that I didn’t mean it in a mean way. I don’t want to hurt you,’ I put my chin on her shoulder, her hair against my cheek.
‘Okay, I forgive you. But get off me before one of them sees us,’ she points her chin at the people standing at the bus stop. ‘Who knows what they’ll think.’
I step away from her and bury my hands in my pockets. That’s mean, I want to say. It’s really mean. Who cares what they thought? I never before had the feeling that Merle was embarrassed by the closeness of our friendship.
‘Who knows what they’ll think?’ I could still hear her last sentence in my head. They’d think that we cared about each other, which was true. Maybe in a different way than other friends did, but nonetheless there was nothing to be ashamed of in my eyes.
Before I could finish interpreting her words, a wine-red Toyota pulled up in front of us and we both crawled into the backseat.