The last of the afternoon light was starting its retreat from the school.
“And let’s think about what we have learnt today,” concluded Mr Hunter from the front of the room.
“Hitler and his Nazis did fail. His regime finally buckled under the combined weight of the Allied Forces. Like similar regimes throughout history, there was initial internal resistance, however, that was dealt with through the tacit co-operation of many of its citizens. Hitler’s attempts to change the future through the establishment of the Hitler Youth and the Final Solution never achieved its objectives. Some Jewish people did survive and subsequently emigrated. Many of the youth got bored with the evening meetings until laws were passed to ensure their attendance. And what usually happens once you are forced to do something?”
Michael, who had carried the class, did not volunteer. Flowers put his hand up in the air in a manner that was vaguely familiar to the Nazi salute.
With a sigh of resignation, the teacher acknowledged the input.
“The answer to that is simple. If you are frightened enough, you will do anything. Brutality is what humans understand the most. Any true leader who has a choice between the carrot and the stick will always choose the stick because it works. Very few people like pain and fewer still enjoy watching pain being inflicted on those they love. You, as a teacher of history, know that the German authorities would never immediately punish the individual, at least not on their own. They had a policy of punishing the families and communities as this achieved two excellent outcomes: the perpetrators were dealt with and the chance of encountering revenge attacks was dramatically reduced. On top of that, one has to say, the fear factor kicked in big style. How can you fight something that has no acceptance of good and evil? That’s what it boils down to, not woolly-headed bleeding-heart liberalism.”
There was no triumph in his voice. What came through was a granite determination and conviction. Every face in the room was turned towards the man who had formally been the teacher. For a long while, he was trapped in silence.
Michael wanted to urge him on. Michael wanted him to respond with an argument that would raze Flowers to the level he should be at. Unfortunately, the bell sounded for the end of the class and the school day. Chairs moved quickly and bags were swung onto backs. Nobody spoke as feet quickly made for the exit. Within seconds the room was empty of everyone bar the trio.
“Interesting point there, Liam,” Mr Hunter spoke in hushed tones suggesting he had accepted the logic of his student. “You displayed some excellent skills of explanation and deduction. You would make a fine student of this subject and…”
“Cut the crap, Hunter. I didn’t say that for your benefit. The problem with your type is that you think the world is built on reason. No matter how many wars and atrocities continue to take place, you believe in your flimsy values and ethics. I feel sorry for you. Your time is dead and buried and you don’t even know it. Teacher of History, how apt.”
Turning towards Michael, Flowers smiled.
“You are a little more interesting,” he said getting up. “I’m rather looking forward to having a further talk.”
He walked slowly out of the room and Michael listened to him disappearing along the corridor.
“Michael, I think it’s better that you wait here for a while.”
It had been coming.
Michael knew that something had to happen and that he could no longer be protected by anyone other than himself. Flowers had laid down the gauntlet and Michael had no choice but to pick it up.
“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll be getting the bus with Chris.”
“If you think that’s safe, then you go ahead. Just take care of yourself, young man. I’ve got a feeling that Mr Flowers doesn’t fight fairly.”
When Michael emerged from the classroom, the corridors were deserted. Not even the faintest echo of feet could be heard bouncing around the walls. Each classroom that he passed revealed itself to be vacant. He was struggling to believe that everyone could have left so quickly and so quietly. If fire drills went as smoothly as this then there would be no need for them.
A door behind him flapped shut and he turned to see who had come through it. The door swung to and fro free from assistance. There was nobody there. He heard a chair scratch itself across the floor and he moved on. He increased his pace a little to keep him ahead of the tiny sounds that were emerging from where he had come. A cold breeze ran past him and he broke into a jog. When he finally reached the exit and pushed, he discovered that it had been locked.
Michael stared at the door in disbelief and tried it again. He could not bring himself to believe that the caretaker had locked the main exit so early. He kicked at it in frustration and his slight rebellion made him smile.
He was turning back when he heard a storm of feet charging along the corridor above him. It sounded as if a tempest had conjured itself from the afternoon and was in the process of dashing the ground in cruel satisfaction. As suddenly as it had started, it stopped. No even a footfall fell beyond the others. Not a noise after that. Sweat formed on his skin ran in huge droplets along salty tracks down his face. Pinpricks of anxiety started tingling through his system and shook him out of any complacency he may still have harboured.
Think, think he thought to himself. Where’s the next exit?
He didn’t know the school that well and had been a creature of habit in the few months that he had been there. Now, he cursed himself for his lack of adventure. In that breath of time, it had also crossed his mind that Chris was not there.
Chris was not there waiting for his brother.
They had always been together, through everything. What Michael could not do, Chris could and that was reciprocated. Michael was on his own for the first time outside of his dreams and this was becoming more and more like one of his nightmares as even the flimsiest of the sun’s rays began to falter.
He pressed a light switch and nothing happened. A cacophony of doors slammed in a falling of dominoes and that was enough of a cue for him to launch into full flight. Laughter chased his every step.
He was doubling back upon himself knowing that that was what they would want him to do. He was thinking through his escape and he was trying to see his plight through the eyes of his tormentors. He was putting himself into the shoes of a boy he had only just met. He was using some innate intuition to allow himself an advantage.
The rush of feet came again and this time it was much closer. He listened to the noise until it fell into a distant silence. He moved forward and heard his own shoes signalling his whereabouts. Every step he was taking betrayed him – ringing through the empty school, a radar for his pursuers to follow. He was running in near darkness now and so would his pursuers. He stopped and hooked his thumb into the back of his right shoe and slid it off. He did the same with the other one and pushed them into his bag. He ran barefooted, in silence, until the rush of feet came again.
This time it went on for longer and he could hear the distance between them being eaten up. He had decisions to make. He was being chased into a trap. The feet were the drum beaters that scared the prey. The prey would hear the noise and would flee towards apparent safety. Unfortunately, the beaters were not the most imminent threat. No, the main threat would be waiting around the corner or beyond the next doorway. Somehow, he had to find a way out before he got any further.
He took a chance and tried a classroom door.
He needed to be quick and quiet. It was locked. He moved on and across to try another and this time it opened. He eased himself in and closed it just as another rush of feet gathered speed and crashed along the area he had only recently departed.
He sat crouched with his breath held and waited.
He waited for a sweeper to come along. He had read about sweepers and how they would come along after the main chase. Their job was to ensure that the prey had not deviated from its intended path. He waited and sure enough he heard the stealth of footsteps making its way towards him. He heard the sweeper trying doors and pushed himself hard against his. He dug his shoes into the floor in a vain attempt to stem any surge from beyond. His body tensed against the wood and he was aware of his heartbeat transferring itself through his bones and muscles and further into the wood.
A hand grasped the handle and slowly pushed down.
Michael’s body absorbed the momentum from the other side. It came in a slow inquisitorial fashion. Another deeper examination followed with more weight being placed behind the intruder’s question. Michael again absorbed this and, even though his body was ringing with the sharp volts of adrenaline, he controlled his urge to overexert. The door handle returned to its original position, a few seconds passed like years and the footsteps moved away to another door.
Michael listened intently to the sound of other doors being tested. He had lost track of logical time, but he was sure that the sweeper was spending less on them than the others. Eventually, the sweeper reached the large doors at the end of that stretch of corridor and the sound of them being swung open should have allowed Michael some respite.
His instincts told him to stay where he was.
Minutes gathered like water from a dripping tap. Seconds nudged their way through the slightest of gaps and collected in the vastness of space. Infinitesimal amounts were now forming themselves into a sphere that clung to their source with the reason of irrationality. His enemies would not give up so easily. Michael counted to battle with the gravitas of a mystic. When he reached four, he resumed the count, placing imaginary defensive supports against his door. He was building for survival.
One, two, three, four. One, two three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three…!
A huge force hit. The frame was shaken. Again, something massive hammered against it and this time it seemed to be knocked free of its surroundings. Whatever there was on the other side, it should have broken the defence by now. Michael sat lost in his mantra and was not alone. He pulled forth the faces of his family, each helping him to stack his ramparts.
They would not, they could not pass.
The creature on the other side let out a scream that was joined by a wailing chorus of squeals rising in unison with their combined frustration. After this had died away, a voice that was calmly modulated arose.
“You are quite impressive, Mr Andrews. You have surprised us all. Still, this little display of defiance will only stretch out the end. It will be of little consolation to you now that I tell you that your loving mother has been taken by us. Little Pete, oh so innocent little Pete, is under the watchful eye of a very attentive carer. Yes, she’s one of ours. She was one of the lost children now fully grown. She’ll look after Peter.
“Oh, and I’ve got a special request from another family member. Chris says it’s no use fighting. He’s a strong lad, much stronger than you and I think he’s thrown in the towel. Well, he’s not here to help you is he?
“Finally, one last little snippet of news is that my faithful follower, the venerable Mr Podrall has been given an early Christmas present. I gave him a Luger. It was a special keepsake from the last war. He’s using it now to rid the world of that parasite who you think will save you.
“Have your day, little man. Enjoy the final moments before the end of days.”
A breeze arose and quickly turned into a wind that swept along the corridors and the classrooms. Everything that had been there was sucked into its vacuum, even the premature darkness.
Even the air that Michael breathed was different as he emerged from his stronghold.
One, two, three, four.
They had gone.