Three tenth-graders

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Chapter 8

Benny presses me against his chest and I inhale the softness of his jacket. ‘Maybe he didn’t mean us,’ he says, his mouth directly above my head.

‘Yeah right,’ I tremble, ‘I suppose he was screaming ‘I will find you’ just for fun.’

‘Well, maybe he didn’t find Mr. Andersen and Noah after all,’ he tries. ‘Maybe they really just got lost.’

‘That’s why we found the coat behind the tent,’ I agree sarcastically, in truth feeling bad for being snippy. ‘The only explanation is that Mr. Miller—,’ I paused, trying to find a synonym for kidnapped, threatened, wounded or killed, ‘—Got them, and when he went back to get us, we weren’t there, since we were already looking for them. That’s why he yelled. It’s because we could get back to Innerthal before him, tell on his secret and then he’d be doomed.’

I wait for Benny to argue but instead he just holds me tighter, so I can feel his collarbone against my cheek. ‘What are we going to do?’ I eventually ask.

‘Well, if your version of the story is true, then he’d be smart to wait by the tent. Latest for the night, he’d expect us back there.’

I tilt back my head to look him in the eyes. ‘So where are we going to go?’

‘We can always keep walking,’ he shrugs, ‘that’s the only way we can get home, really. Unless we’re found by the police. I mean, if our parents reported us missing yesterday evening, they’d probably have started looking for us latest by today’s morning. Then it’s just a matter of time. Remember what Mr. Andersen said about the thermal cameras?’

I nod. ‘And where will we sleep, supposing that we don’t find our way home before it’s dark?’

‘I know,’ he says. ‘Remember that cave we saw on the other side of the lake?’ he eventually asks. ‘We could go there.’

‘That so-called cave is like a half a meter high.’

‘But it’s really wide. Wide enough to lie down in.’

‘We have to pass the tent to go there.’

‘Is walking around openly in the forest and having to sleep on a tree a better option?’ he raises his eyebrows and lets go of me.

I shake my head so we begin following the arrows back to the tent. It takes twenty-five minutes until I can see it through the trees.

I nudge Benny. ‘I’m not going through the clearing.’

‘We can take the long way.’ In a radius of what seems like a hundred meters, we silently move around the tent until we cross the arrow trail that leads to the lake.

‘Did you see anything?’ Benny checks, but of course I didn’t.

‘Should we scatter the arrows, so Mr. Miller can’t follow us?’

‘Well, that means we can’t go back to the tent either. Do you need anything, maybe for the night? It could get cold.’

I shake my head. ‘I don’t want to go there, Benny. We have our coats, and honestly, I’d rather freeze a little than get killed.’

Although his look tells me to stop exaggerating, he gives in and I take the first arrow apart with my foot. In turn, we dissipate the series of symbols until we reach the water’s edge another fifteen minutes later.

‘There’s no going back now,’ Benny reminds me.

‘We’re out of food anyway and here we have water,’ I oppose, wondering what he’s so concerned about.

All he does is raise his eyebrows as we kneel down in the weeds to drink. ‘Do you miss home?’ he asks at some point when we have gotten up and begin circling the lake.

The question surprises me and I brush strands of hair from my face. ‘Well, yeah, kind of.’

‘Okay,’ he nods and sighs. ‘Okay. Me too. A bit.’

‘It’s brave of you to say so,’ I acknowledge with a smile, knowing that he likes the word ‘brave’.

He looks like he’s about to say something, but then he just lowers his head with an embarrassed smile and a red face.

‘It’s lower than it looked from over there,’ I point my chin at the long, flat hole in the stone, level to our feet.

He laughs when I kneel down and inch into rock’s opening on my stomach, since it’s not high enough to lie down in normally. He joins me in the gray, cold cave.

We put on our hoods. ‘I can’t see much,’ he observes and lies down on his side next to me, blocking the light so that I have no choice but to agree with him. ‘Do you think someone could see us from the other side of the lake?’

‘Maybe. But from over there, they’ll just see your back and assume it’s a different colored patch of rock.’

‘A black human-shaped patch in a light gray boulder,’ he laughs. ‘Does it reach inward any further? Like, can you scoot back?’

I try moving, but soon find that there is freezing stone not far from my back. ‘Not really.’

He reaches for my hand again and I notice that his fingers are much warmer than mine. ‘When did this happen?’ he asks and rubs my hand in both of his.

‘I’m just tired,’ I say and close my eyes.

‘And I’m scared,’ he returns, making me reopen them instantly. His smile is careful and astonishingly unconfident. ‘I mean, you were right this whole time. My happy-go-lucky attitude really was just a method to deceive myself of the situation—of how serious everything is. Even before Mr. Andersen told us about…you know.’ He waits for me to say something. ‘You said that I didn’t care about our teachers. You said that on Saturday morning, said that I only cared about the thrill of the trip. Well, I guess I only made the trip exciting, made it my personal adventure, because I didn’t want to face the actual purpose of it all; I just invented a new one. I have a good heart, Merle. I just can’t show it sometimes.’ Again he waits for me to agree with him. His voice is now scratchy and almost panicked as he fights for recognition. ‘I’m afraid of being afraid. That’s all, that’s my flaw, but I am capable of caring and of—,’

‘It’s okay,’ I whisper. Although I had waited long for this moment to come, I’m unsure what to make of it. ‘I know who you are, Benny,’ I smile. ‘I’ve known you long enough.’ After a while of silence, I inch closer and press my forehead onto his. Despite the circumstances, I couldn’t feel safer.

Dearest Mom, Papa, Sylvie, and Fleece,

I have left for the weekend with Benny and a boy from my class called Noah Finnie that I’ve made friends with. His home number is 055-579937 in case you want to contact his parents. There is something very important (and legal and safe) that we have to do, so please do not worry and don’t call the police! We promise to do back on Sunday evening for dinner and in case you’re concerned, I have already studied for the math test on Monday.

Love you very much! Grosses Bises!

Merle

I reread the letter and laid it on the kitchen counter with a sigh, drawing a small heart next to my name.

My watch read 05:17, meaning I had approximately thirteen minutes to leave the apartment and catch the bus.

Fleece jumped up at my jeans and stretched, but I brushed his paws away and took two full packages of Organic Oats from the cupboard above the stove, along with an empty water bottle that read ‘Swiss+city Marathon Lucerne 2004’.

I filled it and guiltily took the loaf of raisin bread that Papa had bought yesterday out of the breadbasket. I knew it was a lame excuse for vegetables but nonetheless I grabbed a roll of orange-flavored vitamin grape sugar.

When everything was stowed in a plastic Ziploc bag, I tiptoed the stairs back up, Fleece close behind, and put a tick next to ‘food’ on my checklist.

‘I’m so glad that you’re here with me,’ Benny whispers. ‘I couldn’t imagine what it would be like...alone right now.’

‘It’s a reminder that happiness still exists,’ I feel for his hand and enclose it tightly in mine. ‘We’re taking away the power that the situation has over us.’

He smiles exhaustedly. ‘When have you become so philosophical?’ The smile still on his lips, he closes his eyes.

I close my own and rest my chin in the crook of his neck. ‘Just try forgetting what’s happening outside. For a moment.’

The rubber wiper screeched over the windshield as it cleared the view from the tiny raindrops that the rain had left. The public bus rumbled and swayed as it sloshed through a puddle.

When I got tired of gazing at the wet streets outside, I began mustering the bored, meaty driver through the rearview mirror as he pushed his rimless glasses into place. His eyes caught me staring at him and I looked outside the window quickly. ‘What are you doing at this time of day?’ he inquired with a grunt.

‘Um…just meeting some friends,’ I knew how lame it sounded and he raised an eyebrow.

‘Sure thing, on a Saturday at quarter to six.’ He chuckled and returned his attention to the scarce traffic with a dubious smile. I sighed, having to admit that my excuses weren’t at their best.

When the bus turned into the school’s street, I pushed myself out of my seat and pressed the stop button. In the rearview mirror, the driver was squeezing his lips shut tightly as if stopping himself from laughing. He looked as if he were about to tell me that is wasn’t a weekday, but then he just blinked and turned his head away, probably reminding himself that it was none of his business.

Which it wasn’t.

I shouldered my bag when the tires squealed to a halt and got off the bus, bringing myself to say ‘bye’. I was relieved that Benny and Noah both already stood at the curb, waiting for me, just in case the bus driver decided to coincidently look out his window to coincidently see that I really was meeting friends.

‘Yo,’ Benny greeted me with a stupid knuckle-punch and Noah just nodded at me with an attentive smile.

Before I could say hi, it started raining again. ‘Shit,’ I said, although the drops were so tiny that they didn’t really wet and only pricked the skin.

‘Is that how they greet each other in France nowadays?’ Benny grinned and pulled his hood on.

‘Shut up,’ I didn’t feel like grinning back. ‘And stop discriminating France.’

‘Someone’s tired,’ Benny blew air from between his lips. From the corner of my eye, I could see Noah stifling an amused smile.

‘Yes I am.’ Stupidly, my coat didn’t have a hood, but pulled my scarf up a bit so it covered half of my face and my ears. I wasn’t sure yet if it was the bus driver, the drizzle or Benny that had ruined my mood. By the time that the connecting bus, line 33, arrived, the top of my head was already soaked and cold.

We got inside and this time sat down in the back. I half-expected the driver to give us weird looks, like why three teenagers were driving into the forest to a memorial with huge backpacks at six o’clock, but he left us alone.

Benny flicked his hood off and squiggled his fingers through his hair to stop it from poofing up. ‘Chris was awake for some reason and talking to someone on the phone in the kitchen,’ he said. ‘I think it was Hannah.’

‘Did he see you?’ I wasn’t too alarmed, for I had known Benny’s brother long enough to trust that he wouldn’t tell on us.

‘Well, I kind of did need to go into the kitchen for food, so yeah, I guess he did see me. I basically emptied out the whole fridge but he just kept on chatting like he didn’t notice.’

Noah’s eyes widened slightly in surprise but I remained unimpressed. Benny shrugged. ‘He wouldn’t know where we’re going anyway.’

‘And he doesn’t care?’ Noah wanted to know.

‘Not Chris,’ I told him.

‘And not if he’s talking to Hannah,’ Benny added.

At this the conversation suddenly died because we reached the Holocaust Memorial and had to get off the bus. The rain kept on falling, more heavily now, to my great despair.

‘This is it,’ Benny announced. ‘Here the task begins!’ if he had used the word ‘adventure’, I would have had a reason to scold him for being too enthusiastic, but sadly, I didn’t.

In front of us, the cube shaped museum stood silently in the darkness and just across the street, Mom had picked Benny and me up on Thursday. It was hard to believe that the field trip only lay two days back.

The rain went on falling, but it was becoming a blinding downpour.

I pictured our teachers pacing the sidewalk, turning their heads in all directions as they called our names. I imagined Mr. Andersen eventually proposing to look in the forest and them arguing about it.

‘Merle, are you coming?’ Benny eventually called and for some reason he was standing a meter ahead of me.

‘Uh huh,’ absentmindedly I hurried to follow them and without further discussion, we began walking down the narrow trail that led into the forest just behind the bus stop.

Benny holds me even tighter in his arms. ‘Are you cold?’

I shake my head. ‘Not anymore.’

‘Hungry?’

I nod. ‘It almost hurts.’

‘Well, we’ll see in a moment,’ Benny said just before we entered our homeroom class for the first period of history. Most of the students were already there, talking frantically about the field trip and asking around for new information on our teachers.

‘The police found Mr. Miller’s chip card, it’s confirmed now. Someone probably attacked him,’ a usually-shy girl said.

‘I know. My dad said that he’s sure something bad happened to them,’ Dennis declared.

‘My parents think they went outside for a different reason,’ another boy added.

Benny and I ducked through the chaos to our seats. ‘Did you call Noah?’ he asked me.

‘I’ll do it today, if the teachers don’t show up.’

As if on cue, Mrs. Osfried, our art teacher, walked into the room, shouting for quiet. A disappointed whisper hushed through the class. ‘I’m your substitute for the first two periods,’ she said in her squeaky voice.

‘Do you know anything about Mr. Andersen?’ Dennis interrupted.

‘Raise your hand if you have a question,’ she snapped, and it was obvious that there wasn’t going to be an answer.

His chest falls and sinks in a hypnotizing rhythm, the faint thumping of his heartbeat calm under my head, which passively moves up and down with every breath Benny takes.

I stare at his closed eyes and wish I could fall asleep too.

Mr. Andersen ruffled his short, wet, black hair and covers his face, leaning forward. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ he breathes.

Silence lies in the air apart from Benny’s nasal, heavy wheezing. I can tell that he is far away, but even so his presence is constant under my ear.

‘Bye bye, Fleece,’ I scratched the Labrador retriever’s butter-colored coat behind his ears. He yawned and his fifteen-centimeter-tongue hung out of his mouth for a second, for some reason letting me think of Dennis. I smiled to myself and continued tying the laces of my hiking boots.

When all was set, I shouldered my huge backpack and looking down the hall one last time, closed the door on the dog’s sad face. A muffled bark was to be heard through the glass.

A very shrill bark is to be heard. It is startlingly close and painfully loud. Somehow it fills not only my head and I want it to stop. It hurts.

Another bark, and this time it goes on in a siren-like beat. My whole head throbs and all I think about is turning it off.

For a single second, there is silence as something wet and cold is on my cold, moving over my cheek. I frown, irritated and annoyed and try to push it away. There is a snuffling noise and a stench fills my nose. Then it’s gone and the fierce woofing continues.

Groaning in protest, I open my eyes slowly and see a velvety black muzzle with two huge nostrils hovering over me. The German shepherd that isn’t Fleece wears a black harness and a badge.

Benny shifts under my head with a moan and I squeeze my eyes back shut to get away from the snout.

The barking goes on for minutes, but it has become a melody.

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