Another shiver of cold, hunger, guilt, frustration and fear hushes down my spine. Once more I spin around in a circle, scrutinizing the trees for any signs of the tent.
We will make sure that nothing happens to you. The promise now sounds ridiculous.
The low shout that had filled the forest must already be an hour ago. It had been too far away for me to hear the words, but the voice was low and angry, therefore it belonged either to Mr. Miller or to Benny.
I keep walking, my strides faster, and close my fists around my frozen thumbs. After a while I start massaging my throbbing right eyebrow again, where I had been knocked to the ground.
When the pain doesn’t cease, I form a bowl with my icy hands and breathe warm air into my palms, but all my fingers become is moist. Again, I have to sneeze.
‘Noah!’ I suddenly hear someone gasp, just before I can give up hope entirely.
Bewildered and relieved, I spin around. The voice was too high to be Mr. Miller’s or Benny’s. But there is no one behind me. I turn to all directions, but the voice has become a phantom.
‘Merle?’ I guess into the forest.
‘Noah, up here!’ the sharp voice whispers.
Confused, I lay my head back and look up to the tree crowns. Directly above me, I soon manage to spot a pair of feet dangling from a branch. The shoes belong to—
I can see more and more of his legs until he is hanging from the branch with his hands. ‘Noah! I knew you were alive! What a blessing that I found you.’ He lets go and painfully lands on the side of his foot.
I am lost for words, almost laughing. ‘You’re not dead?’
‘So glad I found you. So, so glad I found you.’ His smile is broad, but he winces as he moves his foot up and down in the air. ‘You forgot that Mr. Miller is twenty-one darn years older than me,’ I’m not used to his swearing.
‘But I thought…’ I suddenly feel very light-headed.
‘What did he do to you? Did he hit you?’ He stares at my forehead.
‘No, he just pulled me to the ground and told me to forget everything you told us. He said otherwise he’d kill me.’
‘He’s crazy,’ Mr. Andersen snorts.
‘How did you…get away from him?’ I stammer. ‘I really believed he killed you.’
‘No, he didn’t kill me,’ he begins rubbing his ankle. ‘You gave me a head start. That probably saved me. I immediately went up this tree, he didn’t notice and ran in a different direction. It’s quite unbelievable.’
‘So…you were here the whole time. But…that means I walked around in a perfect circle.’
‘You didn’t find your way back?’
I shake my head.
‘You look frozen to death. It’s not much but let me give you my windbreaker,’ I am just about to protest when I see that he is wearing a fleece sweater underneath. He hands the windbreaker to me and I put it on, the sleeves literally hanging down to my knees.
‘Thanks. I…I really thought he killed you and well, I believed it was my fault.’
‘What the hell?’
‘You know, I should have stopped Merle and Benny from going to get water alone.’ I take the crumpled tissue from my jeans and blow my nose again.
‘If we’re honest, that’s kind of their fault. They should have just woken both of us and we’d have gone together. But you know what,’ he lifts both eyebrows. ‘It’s my fault that the three of you are mixed up in this at all, that Merle had to cry herself to sleep last night and that you have a big, fat, fucking purple bruise on your head.’
‘That’s not your fault,’ I stutter, still not used to the swearing version of our teacher. ‘It’s Mr. Miller’s. He’s the one who told the class that you went looking for us. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.’
‘See? So you’re the least blameworthy person.’ He starts walking—actually its limping—and I follow, nearly tripping.
‘Why are you so afraid of doing things wrong?’ he asks.
Touchy topic alert, touchy topic alert! My breathing suddenly doesn’t work as well as before. I remind myself that I can lie. I can always lie.
‘You don’t have to answer that. I’m sorry,’ Mr. Andersen soon notices that he’s struck me in my weakest point and that my warning signs are up.
I take a deep breath. ‘I made a huge mistake once.’
‘And you don’t want to be responsible for something bad again,’ he guesses. I nod, feeling the top of my throat tighten.
‘How old were you, if I may ask?’ his voice is kind.
‘Eighth birthday,’ I say, my memory burning with pain.
‘Eight year olds aren’t capable of having fault,’ he proclaims simply, giving me an intense look.
‘Well, I was,’ I retort, not meeting his eyes.
‘Did you make the mistake you made on purpose?’
I hesitate. ‘No.’
‘You know, sometimes things happen without anyone being responsible.’
‘I know what an accident is.’
He sighs and smiles weakly. ‘I’m sorry if I went too far.’ For a while we continue walking in silence. ‘Let me tell you something, Noah,’ he eventually starts again, stopping and turning to look at me. ‘There’s a person we both know who did many wrong things. Even on purpose.’
‘Now here’s the point,’ he puts one hand on my shoulder. ‘If he’d felt miserable about it for the past twenty years, regretting his evil deeds and begging me for forgiveness, I would have probably eventually forgiven him. I would have had mercy on that asshole.’
I nod gravely, just about being able to imagine whom he’s talking about.
‘Latest when I’d have forgiven him, he’d have forgiven himself,’ he states, and I can tell he has thought this over many times before.
‘Did you forgive him?’
‘No, I didn’t. But he thought I did. He actually thought that I didn’t care, or that I was…fine with it.’ He shakes his head. ‘And he might be a self-centered psycho, but he’s living a relatively content life for all I can tell.’
I think about his words for a moment. After a while, I blow air in through my nose, take all my courage together and ask ‘how can I be sure that I’m forgiven—,’ I take a moment to breathe. ‘When the other person is…dead?’
I expect him to stop walking, look at me and say ‘seriously, Noah, you killed someone?’ but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even say ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ or ‘oh’.
He even keeps walking, and for a moment I think he hasn’t heard me, but then he says. ‘There’s always God who forgives you.’
‘Why?’ I guess I had wanted a more empathic reaction.
‘Because you feel guilty.’
‘Are you my preacher’, I want to ask, but instead I ask ‘does God forgive Mr. Miller?’
‘No,’ he replies coldly. ‘Mr. Miller never regretted—,’ he pauses mid-sentence, his lips thin, ‘—what he did.’
‘We can’t know that.’
He stares at me, and as our gloomy expressions meet, I can see something in his eyes soften.
We keep walking then, trudging through the forest, and I still don’t know where we’re going or what we’re looking for.
The hike takes hours, and we talk about other things that don’t cost too much concentration. It is hours later that he comes back to something very serious.
I can tell because his eyes are all of a sudden cast down to his feet and he is wringing his hands behind his back. His expression is tired but his look is almost hating.
‘Every normal person would have regretted what Mr. Miller did.’ He looks like he’s about to start swearing, but then his expression calms down as he informs me, ‘I was only ten.’
I know I should say something. ‘That’s terrible.’
‘I never resisted and I never told on him. But, I mean, is that a reason to think that I didn’t care? That I didn’t mind?’
A short silence follows his words.
‘He knows that I won’t keep my mouth shut again like I did as a child,’ Mr. Andersen continues grimly before I can say anything wrong. ‘If I were as obedient and as passive now as I was twenty years ago, we wouldn’t be lost in the forest and he wouldn’t be after me, but to quote you: I don’t want to make the same mistake again, since his power over me is unjust.’
‘It’s good that you stood up against him.’
‘Maybe. But not during the field trip.’
I wish I could reassure him, but I can’t, so I just cross my arms against the cold, tangling the long sleeves.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘I think you’re right. Maybe God does forgive Mr. Miller.’
I hesitate. ‘The same way that maybe I’m forgiven,’ I add, swallowing the foul taste in my mouth.
I close my eyes, knowing I’ve gone too far to rear back now. I take a moment to breathe freely and deeply. ‘By my sister.’
‘My sister.’ For the first time, the words don’t seem to bind me. Above us, a small bird darts from one tree to another and the long branch that it leaves swings over our heads.
Mr. Andersen’s look is warm and gentle, somehow he seems to be the opposite of the cursing and frantic teacher he was when we met him yesterday. ‘I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you comfortable talking about it?’
I can’t help myself wonder why he considers the question now, after trying to advise me about the philosophical aspects of fault and forgiveness earlier, when I was clearly not comfortable talking about my past.
But now, my heart isn’t chasing away, and somehow I feel calmer and safer than the entire last three days. ‘Well, I never really talked about all this…to anyone. I always feared the conversation would rip me apart, reopen the scar, but actually it’s okay, I think.’
At first, Mr. Andersen is silent, but then he seems to notice my new confidence, and a weak smile crosses his lips. ‘So…this accident…it happened on your eighth birthday?’
A pinecone tumbles from a tree to our far left, and I don’t know why, but it makes me smile the tiniest smile. ‘Actually, it was the day after my birthday. And exceptionally, we got to drink coke when I turned eight, so of course we drank tons and then stayed up late. It was past midnight.’
‘That must have been dreadful.’
I nod. ‘It changed everything.’
‘Talking about all of this must cost you a lot of courage.’
‘For you too, Mr. Andersen.’
‘Noah, these things are getting very personal…’ He runs one hand through his buzz cut.
I presume he’s attempting to change the subject, but then he says, ‘Based on the incredible events of this morning, on the fact that your existence possibly saved my life and that we trust each other, it feels inappropriate that you’re still calling me Mr. Andersen.’ I wait for him to go on. ‘If you want…you can call me Nicolas.’
Whatever it is Nico told you in that tent, I remember Mr. Miller’s warning. Nicolas Andersen.
‘Okay,’ I smile at him faintly, appreciating his faith in me. ‘Does your foot still hurt?’
‘It’s better,’ Nicolas says, but when I pay close attention, his walk is still uneven. We cross a clearing. ‘I keep forgetting that I’m not the only one with problems,’ he confesses.
‘Everyone feels like that from time to time.’
‘No, like, sometimes I’m jealous of people that seem carefree. Whatever I do, the past never lets go entirely; it’s always there.’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘But carefree is a cliché. It doesn’t happen to anyone. Other people’s pasts may not be as extreme, but carefree doesn’t exist.’
‘I suppose so,’ I mumble.
‘Even for Mr. Miller?’ His voice is almost scared.
I turn to look at him, surprised. ‘Well,’ I don’t know what to say. ‘Just like we are, he’s someone who has to live with his past, as dark as it is. I don’t imagine it’s easy being a monster.’
Nicolas’ look is downcast. ‘The point is, he still is as psychotic and as aggressive as he was back then, you of all people know what I mean. If he knew of his own madness, he would know better than to…chase after me.’
I bite my lip. ‘I don’t think it’s that easy. Recognizing you at the field trip must have made him very angry, not just because of you but rather because you symbolize the past for him. If he is afraid of the past, because he knows it’s wrong, and he fears that your presence could make the past reality again, then it would make sense that recognizing you brought a side of the young Mr. Miller back to life.’ My own words surprise me.
‘You mean all this was an affect and that he’s normally different?’
‘I have no clue what Mr. Miller is like normally, I hardly know him. All I’m saying is that just because he’s crazy doesn’t mean he has an easy life.’
‘I’m pretty sure he knows that what he did back then was wrong and that what he’s doing now is wrong too,’ I go on when Nicolas doesn’t reply. ‘That doesn’t mean he can always control himself.’
‘But does he really feel guilty?’
‘Does he feel sorry for what he did?’
‘I don’t know. You said he forgave himself.’
‘That’s what I assumed. There was no other way I could explain his behavior on Thursday. I just guessed that he never cared about me, that he was indifferent. That all he cared about was saving himself, from things I didn’t even threaten him with. The encounter showed me that he didn’t change over the past twenty years, that he’s still the same fucking criminal as then.’
‘Well, apparently there’s still something wrong with him, but maybe his dark side was increased because he wants to run away from the truth, from the fact that he did…things wrong. So maybe he is guilty, just in an indirect way,’ I say.
‘I hope he is.’
I wait for him to say more.
‘I hope he is aware of what he did.’
‘Well, often these people have made bad experiences in their own childhood, and they take in all the pain and let it out later, on someone who has nothing to do with it. In that case, he’ll know very well what it feels like to be mistreated.’
‘I hope he does,’ Nicolas mumbles, but I’m hardly listening.
‘See that?’ I point to the tall, dark something that stands far away to our left.
His eyes follow my finger but he claims not to see anything, so we change our direction to get a better look.
‘I see it now,’ he announces after a while.
‘I think it’s wood,’ is my suggestion.
Nicolas squints. ‘Holy crap, you know what that is?’ His tone is serious. Then he begins laughing so loud that I feel awkward. ‘That’s a perch! We’re saved!’
‘What’s so great about a perch?’ I ask sheepishly, feeling like I have missed something.
‘Don’t you get it?’ His face is red and his eyes sparkle with jubilation. ‘There’s only one in this area. It’s behind the cemetery next to the sewage plant! In Innerthal!’
The door opened a crack softly and I pressed my eyes shut tight, feeling Rosa’s warm breath on my shoulder.
When I heard a click and knew Mom had left, I shot open my eyes, sharing a secretive laugh with Rosa. With one hand, she turned the mushroom-shaped night lamp back on.
‘You were speaking too loud,’ I reminded her and hit her on the back of her head with my pillow.
‘Hey!’ she protested, returning the blow. ‘I was not.’
I laughed and shielded my face against the things she threw at me, which was basically everything soft she found in reach.
When I struggled, still laughing, Rosa grabbed my covers and entirely covered me underneath. I could feel her thin elbows pinning down the fabric on either side of my head. ‘I was not speaking too loud.’
Loud steps sounded from the hallway and immediately the pressure on the covers disappeared. I pushed them away and gasped for fresh air just as she turned the light off.
Exactly one second too late. ‘Do you guys even know what time it is?’ Mom’s voice echoes through the darkness. ‘It’s twelve thirty in five minutes! That means it’s past midnight!’
For another moment we didn’t move, but then Rosa reached for the light and illuminated the little room. I glanced shyly up to Mom, who was standing in the doorway with her hands at her hips.
‘We were just going to bed,’ I told her.
‘Uh huh,’ she nodded sarcastically, ‘I suppose that’s why you took the room apart,’ her look swept over the blankets, pillows and stuffed animals that were strewn across the floor. ‘Just brush your teeth and go to bed.’
We nodded obediently, waiting for her to leave.
‘I mean right now!’ She shouted, having lost her humor. We scrambled to our feet and fled to the bathroom.
Three minutes later, we lay in our bunks. She kissed us and grumbled ‘good night’, turning off the light as she left.
I closed my eyes in the following silence, almost disappointed that the fun was over. But as I lay in my bed, hearing the hypnotizing ticks of the Mickey Mouse clock, did I first notice how tired I was.
When I had almost fallen asleep, a huge kangaroo stuffie that was filled with cherry stones landed on my stomach with a thump. Somehow I knew it hadn’t fell from the top bunk by accident.
‘You will regret this,’ I mumbled at her. ‘Tomorrow.’
Another something fell on me, this time hitting my face. ‘Okay, that’s it,’ I fumbled for the switch to turn on the night lamp, the brightness burning against my closed eyelids.
When I managed to open them, I saw Rosa leaning over her bunk’s railing with a grin, a pillow raised in one hand. I just had the time to duck before it sailed over my head.
‘I said that’s it!’ I yelled, sounding frighteningly similar to Mom. With a leap, I climbed up the ladder and pressed a pillow onto her face, which she escaped easily, although she was a year younger.
Rosa sat down on me and I pushed at her to get off, but her delicate body was stronger than it looked, unlike mine, and she stayed on me promptly.
After a while I stopped wrestling her and played dead, letting my tongue hang out of my mouth. I could hear her laugh and she got off me. I used this moment and counter-attacked her.
She yelped as I pushed the pillow down on her, but even as she fought me, I could hear her muffled laughs through the textile.
‘Not this time, Rosa,’ I promised her, grinning.
‘I cannot believe you are still awake!’ A thundering voice booms through the room and I jerk away, Rosa sitting up on one elbow in surprise.
‘Noah, get down in your bed,’ Mom ordered, ‘I’m losing my patience here, guys.’
Without a word, I climbed down the ladder and lay down, throwing the kangaroo off my mattress and picking up my pillow from the floor.
‘If I come in here again in ten minutes and this doesn’t work out, Noah is sleeping on the living room couch.’
‘Why me?’ I whined.
‘Because I just said so. Have I made myself clear?’ despite the hardness in her expression, something soft shone in her eyes. ‘Tomorrow is another day, okay?’
We nodded, she tucked us in and then walked out the room, leaving the door open a small crack.
‘I’m not tired,’ I soon heard a whisper from directly above.
I sighed. ‘We have to sleep, Rosa.’
‘Because it’s late. And because Mom will kill us.’
She grunted. ‘But it’s your birthday. Basically.’
Silence followed, until I heard her bare feet climbing down to me. ‘Rosa, go to bed.’ Annoyed, I turned against the wall, pulling the cover up to my ears.
‘You’re boring,’ she said, and soon I was bombarded with pillows, which I ignored with a mumbled ‘not so loud’.
‘Get. Up.’ Again she threw the painfully heavy kangaroo.
At this provocation, my mood shifted and I swung my feet over the bunk’s edge, rising from the mattress like a zombie. ‘Revenge,’ I breathed.
With a yelp, she jumped up and gently closed the door. My arms outstretched, I patted the bedside table for the lamp’s switch in the darkness. But before I reached it, something soft was thrown over my head and Rosa pulled me to the ground with a giggle.
‘Mmpf,’ I groaned, half-laughing and tackled her. She shrieked slightly and I told her to be quiet.
‘I’m coming,’ I warned in a deep voice and threw something that felt like a t-shirt at her. I could hear her gasping for breath between laughs. Before she could know what was happening, I grabbed a nearby cushion and pressed it down on her, feeling her fight me from underneath.
Under my left palm, some of her hair was pressed to the floor. She uttered muffled sounds that I mistook for laughter and I felt a knee against my leg.
After quite some struggling, her resistance stopped and the fight ended, but I remembered how I had played dead in her bunk. ‘I already know that trick,’ I reminded her and continued pushing the pillow down.
But instead of leaping back at me, she did nothing. Nothing happened. I let go after some time and called her name. ‘It’s not funny anymore; you can come back to life now. Rosa!’
I fumbled for the light and turned it on. I shook her unmoving shoulder, her mouth vaguely open. Something like panic rose in my chest.
‘Rosa!’ My throat felt hot with tears. ‘Rosa!’
What had I done? ‘Wake up,’ I pleaded. Where was Mom?
‘Mommy!’ I wailed between sobs. ‘Mommy!’ I ran to the door, ripped it open and bolted down the dark stairs, nearly falling. I continued crying her name as I turned into the hallway.
Not a light was on downstairs, but I saw enough from the street lantern’s dim light that fell in through the windows. I dashed into the kitchen, which was silent besides the fridge’s constant buzzing. ‘Mom-my!’
She was neither in the living room nor in the guest room.
‘Baby!’ I heard her frantic voice calling me from upstairs. ‘Baby, what’s wrong?’
Panicked, I sprinted the stairs back up, meeting Mom halfway. ‘What happened?’ Her warm eyes were traced with worry.
‘I killed Rosa,’ I cried so hard that she couldn’t hear me. Snot bubbles blew from my nostrils.
‘What did you say?’
‘I choked her with a pillow,’ I whimpered, sniffing, more clearly this time. ‘She’s dead,’ my chin trembled as I spoke.
‘She’s probably just unconscious, Noah. Choking someone is a long process.’ Despite her own words, she hurries up the stairs and steps into our room, turning the light on.
I stood closely behind her, clutching her jeans, half of my face pressed against her blouse and soaking it with tears.
With one eye, I could see Rosa lying on the floor, on her stomach, which was not the way I had left her.
‘Stay here,’ Mom ordered and I was forced to let go of her. ‘I’m calling an ambulance.’
I heard her frenzied steps echoing down the hall and stood rooted to the spot, deciding not to touch Rosa. My stare fixed on the kangaroo that lay on my bed. Although it was smiling, I knew it was just as sad and as scared as me.
Eventually I did sit down next to her and carefully brushed some of her blond hair out of the way to touch her cheek, which was warm. Vomit was dribbling out of her open mouth, forming a tiny earthly-yellow pool on the carpet with the streets.
‘Mommy!’ I called anxiously and licked the rivulets of snot away from above my lips. She soon ran back into the room, a stressed expression dominant on her face. ‘Rosa threw up!’
‘What?’ she gasped and kneeled down next to me, gently rolling her limp body onto the shoulder that I had shaken earlier.
When she saw the puke, her hand immediately went to Rosa’s pulse. She gently stroked the side of my sister’s cheek and leaned down and rested her head on her breast. She waited, and I saw her lips shake. Over and over, she caressed Rosa’s head. ‘Noah,’ she whispered, and silent tears creeping down her cheeks. ‘Noah, she suffocated.’
Mom was gripping her wrist tightly and all I could do was stare at her closed eyes, wondering what she was seeing right now and if she could hear us.
I had never seen Mom cry, and watching her bend her head towards Rosa’s face and close her own eyes against the tears, touching my sister’s forehead with hers, my world collapsed.
Seeing Mom suffer was a lot worse than seeing Rosa dead. It was actual, in my understanding, and direct.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t cry anymore, and I couldn’t speak.
I didn’t make sense of much at the time, but there was one thing I knew straight away as I saw Mom’s chin buckle, her lips pressed tightly together.
It was my fault.