In the Heart of Terror
Words by Jordyn Brown / Illustration by Miro Merrill
There is something strange that happens to the human body when there is a sense something is about to go terribly wrong. You can wake up one morning feeling completely normal, and the next with a knot in your stomach, and an unsettled feeling moving beneath your skin for a reason you can’t quite place. Regardless, there is a whispering in the back of your mind that something is not right.
This is not the feeling you want to get while in the middle of Germany with your only lifeline being your best friend sitting next to you, feeling just as helpless.
On the night of July 22, 2016 a shooter opened fire at a mall in Munich, killing nine people and injuring up to 16 others, including children, before being shot by police.
We had everything planned for our final day in Munich. My best friend Brooke and I had got up extra early to repack our large backpacks that held all of the belongings we had to our name on our three week independent journey across Europe. We left and got breakfast like any other day, and made our way to the train station to catch the subway to our first destination.
To this day, I still believe there were some workings of fate, or God, or whatever you may believe that kept us from getting there on time. We had to buy tickets which meant we had to break our E20; I desperately needed to use the bathroom; The first machine we chose wouldn’t work. These simple delays frustrated us; we were on a tight schedule.
When we finally got our tickets, as we approached the subway, we were shoved back by Munich police officers who began to tape off all entrances. Confused and nervous, Brooke and I politely asked an officer the reason. “Unattended baggage,” he said simply.
And there it was again, the feeling that something was off resting in my chest. So we left and took a much longer detour, determined to make it to our destination.
When we finally made it to Dachau Concentration Camp, Brooke and I fell into silence. We quietly walked in disbelief through the camp, listening and reading stories of both survivors and those lost to the cruelty of man.
We stepped solemnly through the series of rooms where people were forced to disrobe, shed their identities for a number, and even stood in the dark silence of the chamber. My heart was gripped with sorrow.
At the end Brooke and I stood mute in front of the crematoriums. We stood haunted when we realized they were just the size of an adult body, when we saw someone turn to stand in front of the set of them, posing for a picture. It was perfectly clear to me in that moment that some are so lost in their pursuit for ‘memories’ that they are unable to take a moment to think about where it stops. We walked toward the exit through the seemingly-endless rows where barracks once stood, both humbled and sick to our stomachs thinking of how easily we allow darkness to hide in this world.
Because of the detour and delays earlier, we were forced to ditch the rest of our day plans. Everything had been messed up. We were already past check out time, and our overnight train to Rome left in three hours. So, Brooke and I swung our large packs on and set out to find somewhere close by to have one last authentic German meal before leaving.
We came upon a quaint-looking restaurant called Gasthaus Isarthor. We made our way inside and found a table.
“Those are some big bags you’ve got.” We looked up to find two men who looked about 30 years old at the table next to us. Brooke and I laughed and nodded, as we had gotten that remark a lot so far. “Here,” said one, who we learned was named Robin, in a thick german accent while holding out his glass. “Try some, they have the best beer.” While we insisted on not doing so because it was a little strange, we were eventually convinced. While this would be weird in the United States, Germany so far had been all about sharing and hospitality and interacting with strangers. So when they asked us to talk about our trip and share dinner with them, Brooke and I just thought, ‘what the hell?” and went for it. It would be a fun story for later, we figured, after our unsettling day.
So we dined on german food and beer Robin ordered for all of us, as his friend was just visiting Germany too and none of us spoke the language. Toward the end of dinner Brooke and I were preparing to leave to get to our train early, but they convinced us to split one more beer, ‘on them,” after persistence and promise of more stories about their lives and Germany. So it is ordered, and we are laughing and talking, sharing stories of culture and travels.
Suddenly a shrill noise cuts through the laughter as a large group of about eight people burst into the restaurant. There is a girl in the front who looks about 16 years old, sobbing hysterically. An elderly man in the front of the restaurant begins to scold them in German when a tall man in the back of the group gets in his face and yells back. A feeling in the air changes and we look to Robin, the only german native. His face is pale, his eyes stone cold with panic.
“Get up. Get up now, we have to get up,” he says low under his breath, frantic. Brooke and I reach for our packs when he stops us. “No, leave the stuff, leave the stuff!” For some reason I grab my bag of souvenirs. Why, I don’t know, but my brain told me to just grab something I owned.
Brooke and I grasp each other’s hands, moving quickly to the back of the restaurant. We make our way to the back near the bar, and I can feel both of our hands sweating and shaking. After a moment, Brooke asks Robin what’s going on. He takes a deep breath and calmly and a little drunkenly says, “They say there has been a shooting.”
My stomach falls because the rest of my day has finally caught up with my body. I squeeze Brooke’s hand just to know she is there, and look around the restaurant seeking a back exit or a sturdy lock on the bathroom door to hide in. We expect people to panic, to lock up, to be afraid, but after a few minutes of standing rigid in the back, there is no change. So Brooke and I tentatively follow Robin back to our table. All is as it was before – only there are people still sobbing in the booth across from us and I am still shaking and watching everyone who goes in and out of the restaurant critically. A man comes in clutching his bag, and both Brooke and I confess we later thought, “What’s in the bag?” and smiled at him when he looked our way just in case, hoping he would spare us.
My stepmom had seen the news first and wept when she heard my voice after the call went through, thinking when I hadn’t picked up at first that I was surely dead. We try to sift through the breaking news and tweets, our only information coming from jumbled misinformation from american news of where it happened, how many shooters, and if it is still unsafe.
We are in the heart of Munich, and completely in the dark.
Reports of all transit being shut down came shortly after Brooke’s first phone call out, marked 7:37 p.m. We are stranded with nowhere to stay besides this restaurant with its doors quite literally wide open. Robin drinks, a lot. We watch as he recruits more people to drink, and runs up a hefty bill in vodka shots and beer, all the while mumbling how “this never happens here.” The last half of our beer sits on the table, but I cannot even think about drinking.
As sirens wail past the main square we are in, my thoughts are racing trying to account for being in complete flight mode. I notice we’re sitting beneath a window and tell Brooke to scoot down in her chair a bit. My mind automatically imagines an unerasable image of a bullet shattering through the glass and hitting one of Robin’s new friends, a teenager named Bob, who sits right in front of us. To my horror, in my mind it hits right between his eyes, like you see in sniper movies. The image morphs and this time it is me, and then Brooke. There is blood everywhere. The image changes to Brooke and I hiding beneath the table, clutching each other trying to remain quiet and hide. I see her crying in my mind; Brooke never cries. The images keep rolling, an unrelenting reel that keeps me tucked tightly between wanting to break down and keep calm for Brooke. I close my eyes and try to get rid them, but even now I can still see them, immediate fear having burned the reel of potential tragedy into my brain.
We are working out a plan of where to go to leave, when one of Robin’s new friends insists on of all things, a selfie. I am suddenly brought back to the disgust and frustration I felt in Dachau just hours before, because I know that there is no room for feigned happiness where there is also death. He holds up his camera and when I smile it doesn’t reach my eyes, because instead I feel like I may throw up.
Brooke and I finally decide it’s safe to leave the restaurant, sure we can make it the block and a half to the hotel we have just booked the last room in. We haul on our backpacks and power walk to our hotel. We later admit we hoped if we had been shot in the back during that walk that our packs would be thick enough to slow it down. Time has moved so slowly, and yet I feel I have been stuck in this mess of anxiety and uncertainty for days.
When we reach the hotel room, we lock the door and breathe for just a moment. We find out the shooting took place at the mall we had passed through on our detour today; the restaurant wasn’t even five miles away.
I slide down the wall and sit on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. I press my hands together in attempts to stop the shaking, and will myself to cry – but I feel nothing. I try to feel, to react, but my body is numb to the core, because the images are still burning when I close my eyes and the taste of stale beer and spätzle is still on my tongue, and despite all the moments of gut-wrenching anxiety, we are safe somehow.
So, Brooke and I don’t talk about it. We crawl into bed, and make plans for rescheduling our train tomorrow instead, because if we feel this moment and allow what has happened to us to creep into our hearts, we will surely rip apart at the seams. As I lay in bed that night, curled up with the sound of more sirens screaming through the dark city of Munich, I think, “Help this world. Please, help this world,” and fall asleep with the words echoing in my head.