Trudging through the snowy hills, the travelers stop at the mouth of a narrow pass and stare at the campsite below. A long line of people in heavy jackets lead to a collection of tents that are surrounded by a white wall. It takes Dawn a minute to realize that the barrier is really a circle of snow-covered wagons, which have been connected to each other by metal plates fitted into two grooves. Bike-powered generators are scattered about and the caravan members take turns maintaining the lights and heaters. Livestock can be heard from far away, but the animals are nowhere to be seen. As they walk down the steep incline leading to the valley, Kara points at a series of barns that look to be collapsible. Guards patrol the top of the wall, each one given a single car to stand atop instead of trying to leap over the gaps. Dawn frowns when a man whistles and shakes his gun in their direction, but the threatening gesture is quickly turned into a silent order to get in the back of the line. Not wanting to cause any trouble, the pair do as they are told and join the huddled figures who are hoping to be accepted.
Hours pass as they trudge along, the warmth of bodies in front and behind them helping to stave off frostbite. Teenagers walk down the line to offer cups of mild tea, the hot drinks a welcomed gift for the desperate masses. Dawn tries to keep herself near the edge of the mob and counts how many people are turned away. She is surprised that only five people are rejected, their vicious outburst and brandished weapons making it clear that they were perceived as a danger. Those with children are let in almost immediately, the three guards on top helping them up the ladders and onto an inflatable slide. Anyone traveling alone is sent through a door to the right while groups of adults go to the left. Dawn catches a quick look at the inside where a doctor and two nurses are waiting with their equipment. The lack of screams helps keep her fear under control, but a voice in the back of her head whispers about caution. The fact that it sounds more like Addison than herself does not help, but she takes Kara by the hand to remind her that getting the girl inside is the only thing that matters.
With only two families ahead of them, Dawn gets a clear look at the desk that has been set up in front of the entry ladders. There is a pile of papers that are kept in place by a long needle jammed through the middle. A cup of pens, a stapler, and an ink pad that goes with a stamp ring are the only other items in view. Judging by the Grand Caravan’s leader immaculate and simple clothing, Dawn assumes they are about to deal with someone who hates complications. The woman’s curly black hair goes down to her shoulders and she has a collection of butterfly clips in the thick tresses. Red gloves cover her hands and the left pinky dangles limp due to not having a digit inside. A pair of reading glasses dangle from the woman’s neck and she randomly puts them on as she goes over the questionnaire for each person. There is a quickness to her words, but her tone is not sharp or aggressive. It is her piercing gaze that causes Dawn and Kara to delay their approach, the guards having to remind them that they are next.
“My name is Melissa Williams and I’m in charge of the Grand Caravan,” the woman says in droning tone. Taking a sip of coffee, she scratches at her neck where a scar runs across her throat. “You’re the thirty-eight mother and daughter pair today. What is happening to the fathers out there? Sorry, but that’s just me noticing a trend. You two don’t look that alike though. Is she really your kid?”
“I can see why you’re in charge,” Dawn answers before pushing Kara forward. She puts her hands up when one of the guards shifts his gun, which causes everyone to stare. “I thought I was in trouble. Sorry about that. This girl lost her parents and the small caravan that she was traveling with. We stumbled into each other in a desert and I promised to bring her here. She’s very smart and wants nothing more than to travel to the haven with you. I don’t have to go along if you think I’m a danger. My only goal was to get Kara here.”
“We’re a package deal!” the girl declares with her arms crossed. She ignores the laughter from the crowd and refuses to change her defiant pose. “Dawn got me through so much that I can’t leave her behind. She might not be my mom, but I don’t want her to miss out on reaching haven. I mean, she is kind of weird and twitchy, but who wouldn’t be if they lived alone in the wilderness for years?”
“Alone in the wilderness,” Melissa mutters as she makes a note. Taking an unsharpened pencil out of her pocket, she puts it in her mouth and chews on the eraser end. “Kara can come in without question since we’d never turn a child away. That’s probably a belief you share with us, Dawn, since you escorted a total stranger. The nearest desert is about fifty miles away, which means you came a long way. I agree that it would be an insult to not give you a chance to earn a way in.”
Still unsure if she wants to join the Grand Caravan, Dawn runs a hand through her brown hair and bites her lip. “Honestly, I didn’t know what I’d do at this point. The idea of a haven strikes me as a pipedream. You aren’t the first group to go hunting for such a place. No offense, but that’s the truth. That isn’t to say I will refuse your offer. Feels wrong to hand Kara to you and walk away. At the very least, I should make sure she gets to where she’s going. I’ll decide if haven is for me when we get there.”
“Have to admit that I’ve never heard that before,” the caravan leader says.
Hearing an outburst in the line, Melissa stands on the desk and whistles at the sight of black clouds on the horizon. Several teams come out of the wall with tents and large beams that end in dirt-caked points. Preparing the structures for those who have not been allowed inside, the workers call for extra hands. A guard cuts into the line and waves for those in front of him to help while those who remain continue waiting to speak with Melissa. Cracks of thunder and an icy breeze stirs all of them into a frenzy that erects the cluster of tents within minutes. The beams take longer to set up with a hooded foreman making sure the dimensions are right before he fires a gun seven times into the air. People are urged to get into the tents where food and sleeping bags are waiting while two groups of guards come running around the wall. Those with large ladders to the lead and put them against the wall and the others stop to unfold the metal rooftop.
“We really should finish this quickly,” Melissa mentions while her people finish putting the structure together. Hearing people whisper about there being on way out, she clears her throat and spits on the ground. “It’s for their own protection. A door would take too long and they can simply pop the roof off if there’s flooding. I have one of my men in there with them. Now, Dawn, what can you bring to the Grand Caravan?”
“I can survive in the wilderness better than anyone,” the brown-haired woman swiftly replies without thinking. Noticing that the leader is not writing anything down, she puts her hands on the desk and leans forward. “As Kara said, I lived alone in the wild. I’ve learned how the monsters operate and know how to identify their traps. You can use me as a scout, a hunter, or a gatherer. I’m not much of a seamstress, but I can help with cooking if given instructions. I can even help with construction like what you did over there. Is that enough to get me inside, Ms. Williams?”
“Very good to know, but I do have a concern,” she admits before waving Kara to go into the door on the left. The girl is hesitant to leave, but a gentle push from Dawn is enough to get her moving. “She’s attached to you, which makes me worry that rejecting you means she’ll be left in the wild. You say that you can identify the traps that our tormentors have created, but I’ve heard that before. It’s by dumb luck and that eventually runs out. Now, you could be telling the truth and you possess an insight that every other human lacks. That’s what I’m concerned about. How could you have done that without seeing others make the mistakes?”
“Most of it was caution and watching animals,” Dawn states, remembering the time a deer blew up after eating some leaves. Catching a flicker of doubt in the other woman’s eyes, she sighs and takes a step back. “The forest I lived in before meeting Kara was a common playground for the monsters. It was where they tested out their traps and I just happened to stumble into it one day. Figured it was the last place they would look for a human and I happened to be right. They never showed up at the same time and would routinely try to sabotage each other, but I observed enough to get an idea of how they operate. Before everything went to hell, I was a behavior psychologist, which came in handy.”
“That’s a hard story to accept.”
“It’s not easy sharing it due to it being so ridiculous.”
“But it’s the truth?”
“As true as my birth.”
“My grandmother used to say it.”
Melissa clicks her tongue a few times before sliding the paper and a pen to Dawn. “Fill out the rest of this while I move the line along. If I like what I see then you can go into the door on the left. Anything suspicious and I’ll turn you away. Keep in mind that the storm will be here in twenty minutes and that form will take about ten if you answer honestly. You won’t be able to find cover around here in the time you have left. Also know that I’ll be keeping an eye on you for the next week. Not sure what it is, but there’s something about you that seems both familiar and unnerving.”
“Unfortunately, I have that kind of face,” Dawn claims with a smirk. Pinching her thigh to prevent an eye twitch, she spins the pen in her fingers and goes about answering the questions with the best lies that she can imagine.