“Don’t pull that one,” Dawn says as she catches Kara by the wrist. Moving the girl’s hand to another tuft of vegetation, she draws her knife and stabs into the ground. “The ones with a gold vein in the middle are regular plants. Anything else becomes either a beast or a trap once it’s pulled out. The trick is to dig it up along with two inches of surrounding soil. This only works for carrots, radishes, and beets. Don’t try it with potatoes since Ian is the one behind those and he isn’t consistent with his clues. Honestly, I tend to use an explosive and gather up the chunks just to be safe.”
“Where do you find explosives?” the girl asks after she nervously pulls up a carrot. She puts it in her satchel instead of the basket, which only has three apples and a plucked duck. “You know a lot about how to survive out here. More than any other person that I’ve met. Did you grow up on a caravan and learn from other people dying? That’s how I figured out what to do like knocking apples down with rocks.”
“You’re actually the first person I’ve traveled with in . . . I don’t remember ever traveling with anyone,” the woman admits with a smirk. A twitch of her eyebrow causes her to cough and she shakes her head clear of a mental fog. “Sorry about that. I get a headache if I think too much about my past. Bad things happened and I’d prefer to forget. Seems the only things I can really remember are the signs that those monsters left behind. Just enough to stay alive, but I still have to stay on my toes. Let’s go this way because there’s a valley with some small pigs that we can grab. They’re no bigger than my fist, so you can catch and cook those suckers to make tiny bacon balls.”
“I never had bacon before.”
“Guess it would be hard to come by these days.”
“What’s over there?”
“Not sure, but I’d rather avoid it.”
“But it looks delicious.”
Tugging Dawn by the hand, Kara leads her towards a hill that is topped with a white powder. The girl suddenly stops when she remembers a friend running into a patch of cold that flash froze the boy. She picks one of her apples to throw at the falling flakes and watches as it lands with an echoing plop. With the fruit remaining intact, she continues on and takes comfort from her companion’s silence. Looking over her shoulder, Kara can see that Dawn is checking the sky more than the ground. The woman’s eyes repeatedly dart back to a single cloud that looks no different than the others. Feeling foolish for her childish excitement, the girl slows down until she comes to a stop at the edge of the white circle. They are still too far away to see over the hill, but the pair can see brown mushrooms peeking out from beneath the layer of strange powder. A gentle breeze brings the smell of brownies to their noses, which causes them to take a few steps back.
Kara is about to ask a question when Dawn covers her mouth and nods to their right, her tongue quickly darting in and out. They carefully make their way around the cascade of powdered sugar and stop once they get a clear view of the other side. As if they have passed through an invisible wall, the pair are struck by a chorus of laughter and screams. Shouts are indecipherable due to the noise that rises from all of the people running around a roofless factory. Ranging from children to the elderly, everyone is gleefully indulging in the pastries that are being created along the maze of conveyor belts and ovens. Suspended in midair, containers filled with nuts, sprinkles, and cream filling randomly spurt into the mixing bowls that violently spin below. At the far end of the building sits a truck that is being filled with food, the patient driver sunning himself on top as cloaked figures do the heavy lifting.
Taking a step forward, Dawn and Kara freeze when they see an old woman pursue a wedding cake into an oven. The six-tiered dessert comes out with a red tint and a fiery skull on top, which is knocked off by a pack of kids that pounce on the food. After seeing one death, the pair begin to notice others casually sacrificing themselves for even a taste of the pastries. A family of five dive into one of the mixing bowls and laugh until they have been thoroughly mixed into the dough. A young girl races her friend toward a shower of chocolate, which hardens as soon as they are out of the cascade. The sound of grinding gears draws their attention to one of the conveyor belts, which is gradually expelling a pulverized body that is brought into the oven alongside trays of cookies. Nothing slows the production down and the cloaked workers never react to the carnage that is surrounding them. Overcome by a sudden bout of curiosity, Kara starts to ask about the figures when a gust of wind reveals a robotic head that possesses a human nose. She is on the verge of rushing back down the hill when Dawn steps in her way and catches her by the shoulders.
“Don’t make any sudden moves,” the woman whispers, her eyes searching the sky. Not seeing the cloud that had caught her attention earlier, she slowly leads the girl away from the factory. “Hard to tell which one is behind this place. Addison could have let her sweet tooth take over, but she does have a limit when it comes to cannibalism. There’s a callousness to the whole thing too, which makes me think Ian. Either way, we really should get out of here before one of them shows up.”
“Wait, have you seen the monsters?” Kara asks in surprise. An explosion from the factory causes her to jump and the fear helps her focus on moving slowly. “I saw one of them from far away when I was six. They were created a tornado and sending it after a farmer who used to give me milk. I don’t know where he landed, but his cows were turned into steaks. The monster went to the south after that, so the caravan I was with traveled north. At least that’s what the adults said we did.”
Barely listening to the story, the woman skids to a stop at the sight of a strange line in the dirt. “We have a fifty-fifty shot here. Going forward could mean we’re safe, but it could trigger something bad. It never kills a person right away, so crossing the line still gives us a chance at survival. Although, I’ve only done that alone. Having two people could change how things operate. Dammit, I don’t want to make a mistake here. Maybe we should go back and walk around that factory. It isn’t the exact path that we need to take, but it must be safer than the unknown.”
Kara happens to look up in time to see a cloud sprout legs and start walking towards the ground. Calmly poking Dawn in the side, she watches as pale arms emerge from the dark gray fluff. The woman tackles the girl to the ground when she sees the weaving hands tear away the disguise to reveal Ian’s face. Instead of showing his entire body, he stretches his neck to get his head free of the cloud. He spits lightning down at the factory, which emits a droning hum and grows three stories tall. More trucks appear on the far end with ramps leading down from the higher levels. Electricity crackles around the concrete and brick, the energy waiting for the machines inside to sputter a call for more power. Brown smoke rings explode from the roofless building and gather to create an ephemeral chain that goes into the upper atmosphere. Another blast of lightning flies across the sky and splits into four parts. Each one hits a corner of the factory and creates a cake-shaped sign that spins.
Ian pulls himself entirely free of the cloud when the entire area rumbles and the trees sink into the earth. Fearing that they are about to be exposed to the monster, Dawn picks up Kara and jumps over the line. Instantly, the hill and factory disappear from sight and are replaced by a placid lake. Standing on the shore, neither of them are sure if they should take another step. The girl grunts and nods at the sight of a body floating to the surface in the center of the lake, which is sprouting lily pads. The corpse is of a man, whose has obviously drowned and has his lips stuck in a kissing position. His chest has an ugly bruise on each side, the middle of them showing the faint outline of thigh bones. A flock of ravens appear on the opposite coast, but the birds are facing in the opposite direction of the travelers. Fearing that they are about to be discovered, Kara backs away while Dawn remains locked in place, the sight stirring a memory in the woman’s head.
The scene is shattered by an explosion from the factory, which is fully in view now that the hill has been split in half. Ian stands amid the wispy remains of the smoke rings, which are dripping boiling liquid on the screaming people below. Showing no concern for them, he watches as a large foot in a stiletto heel swings out of the clouds. The disembodied limb puts a hole in the building’s side and shoves it half a mile away, which causes the entire landscape to stretch in that direction. With a sigh, Ian claps his hands to fix the earth by having it snap back into place. Several of the people on the top floor are sent flying out of the windows, their flailing bodies bouncing into the distance. As the chaos beings to reach a fevered pitch, the reality-bender grows to the size of a skyscraper and shoves the factory underground. Lacking a target, the feminine leg angrily taps its foot as it fades away and leaves only the narrow heel of its crimson pump behind.
“I think he’s going to leave, so just don’t move,” Dawn says through clenched teeth. She watches as Ian shrinks back to his normal size, her legs poised to run if he shows any sign of turning around. “If we’re lucky, this was a plan to trap Addison and it failed. That means he’s focused on his own thoughts, so he’ll wander off without noticing us. Come on, Connors. Go away and leave us alone.”
“The ground feels funny,” Kara whispers as her foot sinks into the dirt.
Not hearing the girl, Dawn watches as Ian starts to face them, his movements sluggish and jerky. His body repeatedly returns to its original position in the blink of an eye, the effect similar to a video getting stuck in a loop. Punching through the clouds, the crimson sun covers the reality-bender in a beam of yellow light that stops his physical stuttering. Before Ian can see Dawn and Kara, four gloved hands slip out from below and grab the frozen travelers by the ankles. Neither of them scream as they are yanked beneath the surface, which is abruptly paved over by a thick layer of fresh asphalt.