Kara wakes with a jump and coughs up some sand, which tells her that passing out in the desert was not a dream. She freezes at the sound of something crackling behind her back and wraps her sore body around her satchel. With her hands near her face, she catches a strange smell on her skin and realizes that she is no longer covered in dirt. The girl’s clothes are the same, but have been cleaned and the holes patched with a rough blue fabric. Finding the courage to roll over, she discovers that she is only a few feet away from a fire and is inside a cave that resembles a large geode. Sitting up, Kara has trouble seeing beyond the flames that give off only a few wisps of smoke. Her legs are too weak for her to stand, so she crawls to the exit with the intention of escaping. Stories of cannibals and monsters run through her mind as she gets closer to what she believes is freedom. She stops when a bellowing roar erupts from the darkness and a crack of lightning shows the silhouette of an enormous beast. The girl cannot bring herself to move another inch and wets herself out of fear before flopping onto her side.
“Addison calls him Tony,” a voice says from the rear of the cavern. The sound of splashing water echoes off the dull crystals, which reveal a hazy form in their facets. “He only comes out on Monday nights, so you can leave in the morning. Although, Bruno may be on the prowl since she never seems to know if she’s supposed to be out on Tuesday mornings or evenings. I’d recommend staying with me for a few days. You were barely alive when I found you in the desert and the Thursday gargantuan is totally blind. That’s the best day to get you to wherever you were going.”
“Are you going to eat me?” Kara asks, the question the only thing on her mind. She is surprised to hear a melodic laugh and a package of apple slices lands near her. “That doesn’t help. My parents told me about cannibals. Fatten up your victims and use them for protein since other meat is so hard to come by. Well, I refuse to eat any of your food unless you promise not to eat me.”
“Kids are so strange these days,” the woman replies with a sigh. Her reflection shows her climbing out of a pool and grabs a towel to wrap around her body. “I have no intention of making a meal out of the first person I’ve seen in years. Meat is rather plentiful in this area if you know where to look and have no standards. I killed a few skunks while you slept. At least, I think they’re skunks. Never know these days, but a meal is a meal. By the way, you were lucky to have that cloak on because it covered you enough to prevent a really bad burn. I’m assuming your parents prepared you for that and didn’t make it across the desert. Seems to happen a lot where kids are the ones to survive because of the sacrifices of their parents. You might want to come further into the cavern to be safe.”
Grabbing the food, the girl crawls back to where she had woken up and sits facing the largest of the reflections. She is unable to see the details of her savior, but she can tell that the image is strangely colored. It takes her a few minutes to realize that the white parts are the woman’s torso and hips while the limbs are a dark tan bordering on a sunburn. Kara yelps and turns away when she thinks her spying has been discovered due to a large pair of hazel eyes appearing on the crystals. A warm smile emerges near the bottom of the glistening stones and fades away to show that its owner is rubbing on a clear lotion. Instead of coming into the open, the woman takes a seat at the edge of the pool and repeatedly scoops up a handful of water to drip onto her shoulders. Curiosity getting the best of her, the girl leans close to one of the clearer reflections and thinks she sees a layer of skin slough off along with the cascading liquid. The nearly burned coloration gradually changes to a simple tan with flecks of red that briefly disappear every time they are patted with a towel.
“It hurts more than you would think,” the woman says before pulling off a thin layer of blistered skin. She tosses the damaged flesh away and the sounds of scurrying mice erupt from behind the walls. “I was in the forest when I spotted you in the desert. Thought I could run out there without a cloak and get you back before the sun did some damage. Must have become hotter than the last time I went. You know how the landscape changes nearly every day. I’d be dead if I didn’t know about this place. Lucky for both of us that Addison believes hot springs can heal anything and aloe erases burns like magic. Funny how the crazier of the two monsters might be the more benevolent. Then again, they might be equal in insanity, but they’re two different flavors. Either way, they aren’t normal. Nope, Addison still refuses to believe there’s any fun in normal. Sorry for rambling. What’s your name and where are you heading? Maybe I can help you out.”
“I’m Kara Stein,” the girl replies while rummaging through her bag. Pulling out a patchwork doll shaped like a large cockroach, she opens a zipper on the belly and pulls out a crayon drawing of her family. “I was with a small group that was hoping to join up with the Grand Caravan. If you’re out here by yourself then you probably haven’t heard of the migration that’s been going on for the last year. There’s a haven that the monsters can’t get into, which everyone is heading towards. All we have to do is travel around the world. It’s possible ever since the oceans disappeared.”
“Another foolish bauble of hope,” the brown-haired woman mutters. Walking out of view of the crystals, she can be heard opening a drawer. “Sorry to be a cynic, but these places keep turning up. Edens, havens, sanctuaries, and every other synonym that fits the concept. In reality, you’re probably playing a game of Addison’s because she got bored with Ian. Many will die and just enough will survive to make sure more humans will be around for the next time she wants to goof off. Still, it’s a better fate than when Ian gets angry and decides to go on a killing spree to drawn Addison out. Those two are such children.”
“Do you know the monsters?”
“We’ve had some encounters over the years.”
“And you survived?”
“Usually through dumb luck.”
“So, you won’t bring me to the Grand Caravan?”
“Well, I can’t live with myself if I let a child wander off alone.”
“I like you. What’s your name?”
Climbing over the wall of crystals that separate the front of the cave from the spring, the woman drops to the ground. Kara can only stare at her muscular limbs, which have been toned from years of surviving in the wilderness. Her boots are covered in scuffmarks and the shorts have a belt with pouches sewn into the waist. The sheath for a large knife is on one hip while a holster for a pistol is on the other, the weapons nowhere to be seen. With her sunburns still sensitive, she can only wear a strapless bra and keeps her black t-shirt delicately draped over her peeling shoulder. Damp and dripping on the floor, her brown hair goes down to her waist. The woman sits with her back to the flames to help her tresses dry, her fingers mindlessly playing with a black scrunchie. There is a warmth to her smile, but a coldness in her eyes that lingers if one meets her gaze for too long. Pulling a carrot stick out of her pocket, she puts it in her mouth like a cigar and slowly eats it without her hands.
“My name is Dawn. Nice to meet you,” the woman says as she extends her callused hand to the girl.