Hurrying to get the chicken out of the frying pan before it burns, Dawn winces at the feeling of hot oil hitting her knuckles. She ignores the pain and wipes her hands on the small apron that has faded letters on the front. Using one hand to stir sauce on the small stove and another to check a pot of pasta, she watches Melissa in the reflection of a polished teakettle. The invitation to dinner had been suspicious from the beginning, but the demand that Dawn cook the meal makes her feel like there is more to this meeting than a friendly chat. A sputter of sparks from the electric stove forces her to turn the burners down, which is a relief since the tent is feeling like an out of control sauna. Figuring that she has sweated enough for one day, she scoops out enough pasta for two plates and drowns the food in sauce. Joining Melissa at the table, she half expects to be waved into a corner, but is directed to a chair by a nod of the woman’s head. A loud pop is followed by the smell of wine, which the caravan leader pulls from under the table. Not seeing any cups, Dawn is about to ask how they are going to drink when her host takes a long sip and passes the bottle.
“I don’t feel like having you clean my good glasses,” Melissa states before taking a bite of pasta. Her teeth crunch down on an uncooked patch while the rest of the strand is mush. “Looks like my punishment for playing games with you will be food poisoning. Grab the blowtorch over there in case the chicken is black on the outside and pink at the core. How did you survive with such horrible cooking skills?”
“My caves and treehouses didn’t have a stove,” Dawn replies with a smile. Her tongue darts out like a lizard, but she turns the unexpected twitch into a licking of her lips. “Ate a lot of fruits and vegetables too. Eating meat meant hunting and that always came with a risk, especially on Sundays. The area I was in had seven giant monsters with each one coming out during a specific day of the week. Thanks to them, I might be one of the few humans on Earth who have any sense of the old calendar. So, what did you want to find out by having me cook? I’m assuming this is a test because you were watching me like a hawk.”
“Well, I wasn’t trying to be subtle,” the caravan leader admits as she pulls a tape recorder out of her pocket. She plays a little of Dawn’s argument with Addison, but it sounds like she is yelling at herself. “I warned you that I would be keeping an eye on you. So, I’m concerned when I overhear you arguing with someone who isn’t there. The cooking was to see if it would happen again if you were put under stress. Since that didn’t happen, I can only assume drugs. Either you’re already addicted to something or the laundry was tainted. Considering how quickly you recovered, I’m going with the first one.”
“I’m not-” the other woman begins to say. She stops when she realizes that the truth could get her and Kara kicked out of the caravan. “It’s not what you think. There are drugs involved, but they’re necessary. You see, I had an encounter with one of the monsters long ago and I barely got away. The incident left me mentally scarred, which comes out as me arguing with people who aren’t there. You probably heard me call myself the sane one, which is a bizarre proclamation during these times. The episodes pass, but there are an assortment of herbs I can chew to keep the problem at bay.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“It’s why I spent so many years alone.”
“And you can use any herbs.”
“Only the ones that have a slight hallucinogenic effect.”
“Wouldn’t that make it worse?”
“You would think, but nothing in this world makes sense anymore.”
Dawn goes back to her meal while Melissa leans back and takes a few more sips from the wine bottle. The women remain quiet for several minutes, the caravan leader eyeing her curious guest. Shouts from outside make them think that the dinner is about to end, but the voices quickly turn into laughter. As darkness falls, the light of bonfires can be seen against the tent walls that quiver in the sudden breeze. Feeling uncomfortable, Dawn finishes her food and gets up to put her dishes in a basin of soapy water. Keeping her back to Melissa, she goes about cleaning everything and whistling the first song that comes to her mind. It takes her a minute to realize the tune is the repetitive theme of an old cartoon, so she stops and focuses on getting through with her chores. The hope that she will be asked to leave is dashed when the caravan leader walks over to take a seat on a nearby stool.
“You are an enigma and I don’t like that,” Melissa states, her words a little slurred. She puts the empty bottle on the floor and leans forward to get a close look at the other woman’s eyes. “I see a strange spark in there. Reminds me of a lost wolf I ran into years ago. It was injured and abandoned by its pack, but defiant. I never figured out what it wanted before I had to kill it in self-defense. Maybe I can get the answer out of you. What is it that you want? Where are you going?”
“If only the answers to such questions were so simple,” Dawn replies as she takes off the apron. Grabbing a spatula, she casually spins the slightly charred tool in her hand. “Right now, I want to get Kara to this haven, so that’s where I’m going. After that, I’ll see if I like the place and maybe I’ll stay. I’ve really stopped wanting anything more than freedom, which means I go wherever I think it will be. Wandering this crazy world feels more natural to me than settling into one place.”
The caravan leader cocks her head to the side at the final statement and seems to abruptly sober up. “I don’t get it. You feel like you should be a nomad, but you spent years in the same forest. Those two things don’t go together. I think you’re hiding something from me. Be thankful that I won’t punish Kara for anything you do.”
“I assume you’re trying to bait me into revealing a secret,” the brown-haired woman says with a tired sigh. Flinging the spatula into the water basin, she walks by her host to grab a handful of hard candies. “You aren’t doing this to anyone else, which means there’s something about me that earned your attention. Spit it out, Ms. Williams, or I leave here thinking I have to be extra careful around you. Keeping me on edge won’t make the journey easier, especially if the voices get angry. Not saying I’ll become violent, but you really don’t want me to have a public meltdown. Pretty sure I’d be blaming you for it.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Melissa casually admits. Taking her guest by the wrists, she leans in close again and stares at her right eye. “Was it this one or the other one? I saw one of the monsters long ago too. The woman who had a golden patch over one of her eyes. You look a lot like her. Nothing exact, but enough to make me suspicious. Doubt you’re her because she wouldn’t bother with this kind of game. We all know both monsters love to make things loud and chaotic. Twin sister? Distant relative? I’ll get to the bottom of you quickly because I refuse to let you ruin humanity’s last chance at survival. We will reach the haven and be safe from this living nightmare.”
“I wish you only the best,” Dawn hisses, the temptation to lick the other woman’s nose causing her tongue to slip out. Instead, she bites the inside of her cheek and heads for the zippered flap. “I’ve heard all of that before, which is another reason I stayed away from other people. Makes me think the monsters did something to me, so either I look like one of them or everyone sees me as the female. All I know is that I never had this problem when the chaos started. Do what you want with me, but you better not turn on Kara. Swear to me that she won’t be-”
A low snore slips from Melissa’s mouth, her eyes still open even though she has fallen asleep on the stool. Dawn is about to leave, but she quickly imagines getting in trouble if the woman slips and hits her head on the stove. Heading back, she hoists the mumbling caravan leader onto her shoulders and fireman carries her to a nearby bed. She unceremoniously dumps Melissa onto the pile of pillows and blankets, which causes her to snort and flail for a few seconds. Leaving a jug of soapy water on a nearby table, Dawn takes the rest of the hard candies and claims an unopened box of cookies before heading into a violent snowstorm that makes no noise.