Klaus shuffles to the table that he, Rolf, and Heidi normally sit at, still feeling a little awkward about actually having people to sit with. In his youth, he had always sat alone and never talked to anyone around him as he ate his mom’s packed lunch or whatever was provided. He hadn’t minded being alone at the time, and even now, although he had come to enjoy Rolf’s company, it seemed weird to actually sit with others.
Heidi is already seated at the table, holding a roll in cupped hands and nibbling at it like a hamster, the dim fluorescent lighting making her hair look an even stranger color of light brown than usual. Klaus slides in beside her wordlessly, and waits for Rolf to arrive while picking at his noodles absentmindedly. He never did care for the food. Finally Rolf comes trotting over with his tray and sits down beside Klaus.
“Sorry! One of my tasks took a little longer to finish than I thought...” he says, a little out of breath.
“U-um... yeah...” Klaus responds, not really sure what to say to that. The three eat for a little bit, the silence only being broken by Heidi asking if she could please have Klaus’ roll since he’s not even eating it (denied) and Rolf briefly recounting how while he was putting boxes away the bottom one collapsed and they all fell over, which had caused his truancy to lunch. By this point, Klaus has choked down most of his noodles and nearly finished the carrots and potatoes in the top left corner of the blue tray, generally reserved for sides.
“Hey Klaus, have you been into the woods yet?” Rolf pipes up suddenly.
“...The woods? Isn’t it dangerous there? I thought we weren’t even allowed to go in,” Klaus says between a forkful of potato.
“I haven’t gotten into trouble for being there. Actually, I don’t think it’s forbidden to go in there or anything... just discouraged, I guess. Besides, I don’t really care about if things are dangerous or not...” Rolf replies.
“Wait, you’ve been in there?” This takes Klaus by surprise. That Rolf, who ordinarily seems so soft and has such an air of fragility about him, could have been into a place that had been repeatedly told to house things like lepers, snake-like black dogs larger than bears, and things beyond all logical explanation seems implausible at best.
“I go in there a lot. It’s sort of a way for me to get away from the world for a while...”
“B-but what about lepers? And if not lepers, aren't there animals or something??” Klaus is leaning forward now, looking somewhat like a middle-aged woman out to dinner hearing some particularly juicy gossip. Heidi also seems to be listening; she stares down at her tray, unmoving. Rolf raises a finger to his mouth in thought.
“Actually, I don’t think I’ve seen or heard any animals at all.”
“Nothing at all? That’s ...weird.” Klaus mutters. Rolf smiles at him.
“Well did you want to try checking it out? Actually, Utz had buried some of the guns around there before we talked to the government people and I managed to find one, so even if we did come across something, at least we’d be armed.” After a moment’s pause, Rolf adds, “I haven’t had any problems though.”
Klaus looks down at his own tray now. On the one hand, it sounds like it could be a thrilling adventure, but on the other...
“M ...maybe just a little ways in. I don’t want to get lost...”
“Okay! But if you wanna try going deeper later on, I found something really cool!” Rolf says with a note of excitement in his voice, while picking up his tray to throw his food out.
“W-Wait... What is it?”
Rolf puts a finger to his lips and smiles mischievously.
“It’s a secret.”
The three finish up their lunch and go to finish the rest of their shifts. Throughout his shift though, Klaus can’t stop thinking about the woods. Despite his best efforts to focus on his job, his mind inevitably wanders back to the black void of the tree line he often sees from a distance while walking to the stairs leading into the Intestines. Every once in a while, he would see a flash of movement, or something standing in that area. It was always too far to make out what it was, but sometimes it would sway unnaturally or be moving back and forth, weaving through the trees. He never thought much of it before, thinking it was just some forest patrol guards or maybe some machinery but now his mind races with possibilities.
He thinks about what could possibly be in there as he spends the afternoon helping Heidi change lightbulbs in the halls and various rooms of the Intestines. Klaus remembers the presentations they watched when they first arrived showing several gruesome illustrations of lepers: caved in skulls, multiple skeletal arms, rotting cavities where eyes or mouths should have been, leaking green and yellow pus... Just the memory was enough to make Klaus shiver. The leper he had seen in that little leper house the second day he had arrived in hell was nothing compared to those. If I ever saw something like that, I’d probably just drop dead from the fear, Klaus thinks whilst holding the ladder steady for Heidi in a small mostly empty room vaguely labeled “Projector”.
After their shift is over, the three head back to Klaus and Heidi’s concrete abode in the Blocks. Rolf had gathered a few things from his room beforehand, now in a pink and red backpack adorned with hearts and little bunnies, strapped to Rolf’s back. Klaus tries to hold his tongue about the tastelessly cute thing as he turns the key into the lock of their home to finish gathering supplies. Once they’re in the slightly depressing living room/bedroom/kitchen combo, Heidi heads into the bathroom for her after-shift pee.
“Klaus... do you know if Heidi’s coming too...?” Rolf whispers once Heidi’s closed the door behind her. He’s staring at the threshold she just closed with trepidation.
“What? I don’t know. Why don’t you ask?” Klaus responds, filling up his water bottle at the sink sandwiched between the fridge and wall of their little house. Rolf blushes and fiddles with his bag, unspeaking. His face looks troubled, almost as if he’s about to cry. The boy had always seemed skittish around girls in general, and Heidi proved no exception.
“Well, I don’t know... Probably. I guess I’ll ask her once she’s out.” Klaus says, screwing shut the bottle. He also grabs a pocket knife, some crackers, (wait, this wouldn’t attract bears, would it? He ponders) and a book in case he gets bored. He packs these in a brown leather messenger bag. When Heidi leaves the bathroom, toilet running behind her, Klaus notices she has a strange plush yellow hood on, shaped like a star.
“....What is that?” Klaus asks, raising his eyebrows.
“I heard it’s good to be in disguise in the woods...” she says, not elaborating. Klaus looks over to Rolf in disbelief, but Rolf nods.
“Yeah. You can also use a uniform too. It’s supposed to ward away demons or something. That’s why I changed into my HJ uniform.” Rolf holds out his arms to accentuate his statement. He also sports a white scarf or something similar around his neck. Klaus sighs and rifles through his drawers, looking for his own uniform. He still doesn’t really get what they’re talking about but if Rolf’s in on it too, he might as well play along. As he enters the bathroom to change, he realizes that Heidi’s words earlier confirm that she’s going with them after all. This irritates him a little. ...Still, he figures it would be harder to shake her off than just let her come with. Once he’s changed, he comes out to see that Heidi’s packed chocolate, a small sewing kit, and a kitchen knife.
“...What’s the knife for?” Klaus asks.
“...Okay... Pack a water bottle too.” Heidi does as Klaus says. Klaus really doesn’t want her to come; she always tends to make things awkward between the three. Once everyone is all ready, they head out of the dimly lit room and into the blackness of the Blocks outside. Rolf starts heading into the direction of the government square, the opposite direction of the woods.
“Wait... wouldn’t it be faster to just cut through the Blocks?” Klaus asks.
“Oh... well I always go through the neighborhood past the government buildings. I kinda know my way around that part of the woods a bit— plus, that’s where I left the gun.”
“Oh... okay...” Klaus blushes. They all walk through the Blocks, chatting idly, pavement thudding underneath their feet. The other identical priestess houses run parallel on either side of them, like fat grey soldiers at guard. Eventually, they make it to the low concrete fence that walls off the Blocks from the rest of Gorid.
“Okay... now just follow me I guess.” Rolf says as he takes the lead. Now that Rolf’s in front of him, Klaus notices that the scarf around his neck is actually a hood, and two nubs are on the part where the top of his head would be. Bunny ears...? Klaus thinks, but he says nothing, not wanting to offend Rolf. Over his time in this place, he’d grown fond of the boy; he was the only person Klaus had ever met that would give him his undivided attention even on the dullest of Klaus’s admittedly obscure interests. The government square is to the right of them, populated by the city hall building and various other office buildings. To their left are assorted candy-colored shops. One of them is a gaudy ice cream parlor entitled “Krazy 8’s Kream”. Heidi tugs on Klaus’s shirtsleeve as she sees this.
Klaus shoos her away, but he’s also taking in his surroundings. Reading the shop names, he realizes he’s never been to this part of town before. The three had done all their shopping downtown, where brick buildings loomed and were illuminated by towering neon signs of red, orange, and yellow. Judging by the cracks and ominous brown dots on these shops’ walls though, it seems he wasn’t missing much. As they pass the square to their right, the neighborhood Rolf was talking about earlier takes its place, although a cherry-wood colored fence semi-obscures it. Once the square is out of view, Rolf turns down a street that leads into the neighborhood.
Now the three are silent. Their footsteps echo far too much for any of their liking, especially since it’s the only sound besides the occasional faint barking of a dog somewhere. Klaus can’t tell whether the wideness of the road is comforting or intimidating. The suburban houses here look old and worn, separated by fences of chain-link or splintery wood. On the porches of a few, darkened figures sit idly, identities hidden by the black sky.
“We just keep walking down this road until we get there.” Rolf whispers, looking watchful but sure. As they move along, the pavement becomes more cracked and weed-ridden. At one point, an unknown critter skitters about 30 feet in front of the three, startling Klaus and soliciting a gasp from Rolf. As they start moving again, momentarily halted by the encounter, Klaus looks ahead and sees that the woods are much closer than he would have thought based on how long they walked. The trees are all but hidden, only set aglow by a few street lamps and porch lights from neighboring houses.
At the tree line, the paving turns into a simple dirt road, partially bordered by a few faded white wood slats on either side. The path winds into the woods like a long tongue. Eventually, the forest extends into a mountain, but here and for many miles beyond here, it is relatively flat. The woods are even darker than the street, thanks to a lack of streetlights.
“Oh shoot— I didn’t even think to bring a flashlight.” Klaus slaps his forehead, disbelieving his lack of foresight.
“It’s okay, I brought a few,” Rolf says, digging in his backpack. He hands both Klaus and Heidi one and brings out another for himself. He starts heading into the woods, pulling up his bunny hood as he moves in. Heidi goes next. Klaus hesitates, but not wanting to be by himself trots in after them. The other two have already turned on their lights, and Klaus fumbles to get his on as well.
“You might hear some shuffling and stuff around. Usually if you ignore it, whatever’s there will ignore you too though...” Rolf says.
“Usually...?” Klaus grips his flashlight tighter, eyes darting around.
“Well... just try not to make a lot of noise and it’ll prolly be fine...”
Although Rolf’s words have done nothing to reassure Klaus, he is still intrigued by the mysterious woods. They walk a little ways in. The shadows of their flashlights make Klaus jump more than once, and the place feels strangely claustrophobic. Bushes tightly close in on the path, and the trees loom over them like large thin people draped in black cloaks. Klaus is suddenly grateful to Rolf for remembering to bring flashlights, because although some moonlight cuts through the tree branches, it’s scant and reveals nothing of note. The air is as stuffy as always but it seems even warmer here under the blanket of the trees.
Rolf stops suddenly.
“So, what do you think?”
“What?” Klaus responds, with a little more than a bit of paranoia coating his speech.
“...Do you wanna try going to that place I mentioned earlier?” Rolf turns back to the other two.
“Uhh... W-well, how far is it?” Klaus asks. Rolf cocks his head a little and puts a finger to his mouth, thinking.
“Not too far. It’s off the path though.”
“Off the...! Going into the woods is bad enough, but off the path!? What if we got lost!? We may as well just kill ourselves!” Klaus barks, turning red when he realizes how loud he had spoken.
“I wanna go...” Heidi says slowly.
“Um... well, I’ve been off the path before and I’m fine,” Rolf remarks. “Also, I know the way to the place, so we shouldn’t get lost.” With that, he begins to climb over the bushes and off of the path. Klaus gulps and glances toward Heidi, but she’s looking at Rolf. After he’s through, she makes her away across as well, with a little more difficulty thanks to her skirt. More jumpy than before, Klaus remains close to her back, wincing at every unknown noise. When she’s on the other side, he stumbles quickly across, marking his pale legs with scattered red scratches.
The trio keep walking, although the bushes are thicker here, snagging on clothes or scraping on skin. Klaus is also certain that he hears more shuffling around them now, but does his best to follow Rolf’s advice, clenching his flashlight tightly with both hands. Once his gaze is averted from Rolf’s back in front of him, and to a scuffling to his right. In the few seconds he had peeked, he thought he saw something. Specifically, something large and lumpy, probably around six feet tall if he had to guess. It had seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. His breath catches in his throat and he stops short. He can’t bear to glance back to confirm what he saw but his instincts are telling him not to ignore it. Rolf notices that Klaus has stopped and looks back at him. His expression is blank, almost a little bored looking.
Something grabs his arm.
Klaus flinches violently and quickly turns his head to the source, wide eyed. Heidi is pulling him forward by the arm. Klaus glares at her, still trying to calm the thumping of his heart. He’s shaking all over and he clings to Heidi’s arm like a small child. He wants to leave more than anything but can’t bring himself to speak. Either way, he doesn’t want to encounter whatever it was that he got a glimpse of, so he reasons it might end up being better to keep going and wait for that thing to clear the area. They keep walking through the pitch black forests. Their flashlights slice a beam of light through the inky shrubbery and they can hear bushes being disturbed in the distance but other than that, the only sound is their footsteps and the sound of snagging branches. Rolf puts his hand out to the side, and bends down. With a swift movement, he grabs a rifle in a shallow hole underneath a tree and slings it over his back. He turns to his two companions.
“This next part is a little bit dangerous, but if you follow my movements you’ll be okay.” He explains, and moves through some foliage and into a small clearing. The other two follow him, and immediately understand what he meant. Littered all over the clearing are steel bear traps, all open like the skulls of mechanical beasts face up on the dirt floor. Their razor-sharp teeth glisten under the three’s lights.
“It’s easier to go through the clearing, ‘cus the traps are in the rest of the forest too.” Rolf mutters, before walking into the clearing as if he were on an afternoon stroll. Klaus grips Heidi’s arm tighter, but she shrugs him off. Pulling her two long braids around her neck like a scarf, she goes in too, taking just a little bit more care than Rolf. Klaus shuffles into the clearing a little more, resisting the urge to look behind him. He looks across the clearing. His beam is the only one that illuminates it fully, although it is quivering from Klaus’s unsteady hold on it.
By this point Rolf is almost across. Heidi’s taking her time more now. Evidently, she wants to keep both legs for today. Rolf stops and looks back at the two, blinding Klaus when he shines his light on the blond. Klaus takes this as initiative to get a start on. He steps over the first trap in his way, gingerly bringing his other foot forward to meet the first. There’s not a lot of space between the traps to navigate, but Klaus continues forth. The second noticeable gap is a little bit farther of a distance, and Klaus wobbles a bit as he advances toward it. He repeats the movement he did in the first step. He notices he’s holding his breath, and forces himself to exhale.
He hears a snap.
“...Whoops.” Klaus glances up to the source of the noise. Heidi is in a rather precarious position. She’s made a wide step forward and almost appears to be attempting the splits. Her skirt has been bitten into by one of the traps, and it swings slightly, chain jingling. Klaus puts a hand to his mouth, body tense. He’s forgotten to let himself breathe once again. Heidi shuffles either leg slightly, not wanting to set off any other traps. Rolf is on the other side by this point, but moves back into the clearing some, face filled with concern.
“D-do you need help...?” He asks, but receives no response. Heidi puts her flashlight in her mouth and bends over. She quests a bit for a place to put her free hand, as her other keeps her red purse from dangling into the jaws of a trap. She settles on a good spot and rests her hand there, balancing herself out a bit. She’s in the spotlight of both Rolf and Klaus’s flashlights, and under the harsh white light it looks like some sort of morbid interpretative dance performance. Klaus decides to get his journey across the sea of bear traps over with, and continues stepping forward, making a wide arc around Heidi.
Losing patience, Heidi throws the flashlight from her mouth at Rolf’s feet, causing him to jump a little, and replaces it with the strap of her purse. Her other hand freed, she begins to tug at the trap enclosed on her skirt. She tries prying the mouth open, but it doesn’t seem it will budge. Luckily for her, the twin braids around her neck have barely come loose, lowering the risk of yet another part of her being ensnared. Giving up on removing the metal weapon, Heidi lifts her skirt up until her underwear is nearly showing and wraps the chain around her waist. She tucks the end of it into her skirt to keep it from falling back down. Then she tucks the bottom of her skirt into the upper part as well.
With that taken care of, Heidi places her free hand onto another free space. Rolf keeps his flashlight on her, his soft lips slightly parted as he watches the scene unfold. Heidi looks under her to seek a good place to put the leg that’s stuck out behind her. Once she finds a satisfactory place, much closer to her other leg, she regains enough balance to stand up again. Once she’s up, she and Klaus finish the rest of the clearing off with all limbs still attached.
“What the hell!?” Klaus can’t resist shouting after he clears the last trap. Rolf mutters an apology that falls on deaf ears. “Isn’t there anywhere better you could have taken us?? Anywhere safer!?”
Heidi is now finished as well, and Klaus turns his attention towards her.
“This is why you shouldn’t have come! You could have killed yourself!” He yells, more frustrated at the situation than her.
“Sorry! I’m sorry!” Rolf interjects. “I should have told you earlier! It’s my fault... b-but if I did tell you, you might not have wanted to see the treehouse up ahead...”
“...Treehouse?” Heidi queries, her close encounter with amputation out of her mind.
“O-oops!” Rolf covers his mouth. “Well... it’s not too far ahead of here... and there’s no more dangerous stuff, I promise!” He smiles innocently, but at this point Klaus is wondering how benign Rolf really is.
Once the three have gathered their bearings, they examine the trap stuck to Heidi’s skirt. With some effort, they figure out how to get it open. Klaus flings it back into the clearing, not thinking about the ramifications of his actions until several other traps snap up, clattering loudly and causing the three to wince. Heidi pats at the frayed fabric of her ruined skirt, brows furrowed very slightly.
They move through the forest once more. The encounter with the bear traps has steeled them somewhat, and Klaus feels a little less jittery than before. In fact, he’s exhausted, although it hasn’t been a super long walk. After about fifteen minutes or so of walking, Rolf has stopped again, and Klaus ends up bumping into him.
“What is it this time?” Klaus huffs. This outing was beginning to be a bit much for him. Thankfully, tomorrow is the start of the weekend, so he can sleep in as much as he wants. The thought of being in bed makes Klaus’s body ache with longing.
“We’re here.” Rolf replies, shining his light up the tree in front of him. This tree is different from the others, not with pristine posture like the pines around it but with splayed and winding branches with leaves draped across them, looking like a drunken flapper. Seated squarely in the middle of the tree is a large wooden structure with a massive black cloth covering the front. There looks to be a large middle room and two small rooms to either side of it. On the massive trunk of the tree are some wooden slats, a makeshift ladder. Rolf slings his rifle further back onto his shoulder so as not to impede him, and starts climbing. Not wanting to be the last one up this time, Klaus pushes past Heidi and climbs up after Rolf. Rolf disappears under the black cloth and Klaus follows suit.
He pushes himself into the treehouse, mildly taken aback by the intricate purple carpeting laid across the floor. In the middle of the room is Rolf, waving his arm to blow out a match that Klaus assumes was used to light up a gas lamp next to the brown-haired boy. Klaus takes in his surroundings. The room is about twenty feet both ways across and the concave roof is high enough that one can crouch throughout most of the room and stand up straight in the middle. There are a few other items along the walls: a few bags of snacks, a stack of three books, a butter knife. All stuff Rolf brought.
There are also two curtains of thick black cloth held up by a couple nails onto the walls. One of them is to Klaus’s left and the other is on the right side of the back wall. Klaus assumes these lead into the rooms observed from the outside. Heidi’s ridiculous hood crests above the floor by the entrance, and as she comes in the combined harsh white light of their three flashlights gives the room an achromatic look. Rolf turns his off and Klaus does the same. The former hooks the gas lamp he lit earlier into a metal curve on the roof and sits down Indian-style in beneath it. The other two sit near him expectantly. Klaus tells Heidi to turn off her flashlight as well, which she does after a beat too long. Now the only light is coming from the gas lamp, and the flame casts strange shadows across the corners of the room. Klaus looks up and notices that where the perpendicular roof walls meet, there is a slit crossed by small wooden planks at even intervals, probably for ventilation.
“So...” Rolf cuts the silence. “What do you think?”
There’s a moment before either of them reply.
“Comfy...” Heidi mumbles, rubbing her hand along the carpet.
“Could use some pillows to sit on. A table might be good.” Klaus suggests. Heidi isn’t wrong though. Despite the strange atmosphere of the place, the room does feel safe somehow.
“It’s... not bad though,” he continues. “It could be like a secret hideout or something.”
“Yeah” Rolf agrees. He’s smiling again. Every time Klaus sees him grin like that, he can’t help but feel warmth in his chest. All the anger and exhaustion seems to have melted away, and now the three are content to just sit for a while and let the hours pass. They do just that, sitting and talking or reading or eating or just enjoying each other’s company. The monotony of work feels miles away, but the love the trio feel for each other brushes against them with warm fingers.