The small store sits among the empty foundations of the buildings that once made up the quaint town. Exposed pipes hiss and fill the air with gas, which has made the area too dangerous for the animals. Charred ground shows that there have been explosions, but there is a circle of lush grass around the store. The hanging sign has faded letters and the patio has rotted until only three planks remain, but the rest of the structure has been untouched by time. An angel-shaped weathervane spins on the roof, the bells on its wings jingling a tune that is soothing to those who enter the protected space. Holy symbols have been drawn on the walls and runes are etched into the roof. A shed in the back has been attached to the main building by a pathway that is made from several canvas tunnels being sewn together. Religious charms dangle from the seams and send dots of light around the area whenever they are struck by the sun. A collection of dead animals are just outside the clean zone, the beasts having been mesmerized by the glinting baubles and drawn into the toxic gas.
Covering their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs, Dawn and Kara rush into the building and gasp for air. The sight of fully stocked shelves is a welcomed sight, but they are too weak from running and inhaling the gas to do more than slump against the front counter. Breathing in the fresh air, the travelers recover enough to stand and nearly scream when a marionette walks out of an aisle. Another puppet stirs behind the register, which causes them to back away and look for weapons. Clicking can be heard from all over the store as more of the life-like figures go about tending to the shelves. It takes Dawn a few minutes to notice that there are grooves in the ceiling, each one connected to an individual marionette. Patting Kara on the shoulder, she gets closer to the puppet manning the register and waves a hand in front of its smiling face. Its mouth opens with a click to reveal a fleshy tongue that is branded with a Star of David. Remaining cautious, she puts a candy bar on the counter and watches the cashier flail against the register, which eventually opens. As soon as the drawer opens, the marionette pushes it closed and turns away to straighten the cigarette boxes behind it.
“I think I know what’s going on here,” Dawn says as she grabs a basket. She jumps back when a puppet emerges from the floor to hand the two customers oxygen tanks. “Addison must have been amused by all of the holy symbols, so she played along. She made this a safe zone while the rest of the town was destroyed. Probably used these people as toys until she got bored and then left them to tend to the store for travelers. The Star of David on their tongue is what she thinks was used to make a golem. I remember her looking at mythology for ideas soon after her resurrection. Guess one of them stuck. Don’t eat or drink anything until we bring it to the counter. I wouldn’t be surprised if these things get violent against shoplifters.”
“Are we going to be allowed to stay here?” Kara asks after spending a few minutes on the breather. Feeling lightheaded, she sits on a stool and nearly topples over when a marionette hands her a sleeping bag. “So . . . What was it that you saw in the lake? You said we could talk once we found a place to rest. Don’t be a liar. It had to be something bad if it scared you so much. Was it another monster? Are there more of you sleeping under there? Was it something naughty?”
“I’m going to take care of this food first,” she replies while holding up the basket. She turns to find one of the puppets blocking her path, its head constantly nodding towards the girl. “These things sure are intrusive. Look, I didn’t want to upset you since we had to keep traveling. From what I could tell, the ice cream valley was where the Grand Caravan made camp. Only it was probably normal when they stopped. Either Ian or Addison wiped them out, which is why we saw tents and trucks under the ice cream piles. All of the people were frozen solid and placed in that popsicle lake. I know it was them because the rack fell on Melissa. Sorry to-”
“Good thing we didn’t stay with them,” the girl interrupts as she gets to her feet. Taking a package of tissues, she puts them in the basket and heads for the drink cooler. “Do you think they have any iced tea here? I haven’t had that since I was five. Hey, they have a sign here that says we’re okay to eat and drink as long as we pay before we leave. That means we don’t have to wait to eat.”
Glancing back at the cashier, Dawn watches it hit the register every time they pick something up. “I know it must be a shock, but you can cry. They must have been killed because the monsters thought we were there. Addison doesn’t always look before she attacks and Ian sometimes destroys things that he thinks are dangerous. You have to be upset since you wanted to travel with them so much. There’s no reason to act strong because keeping things inside will drive you mad.”
“I just had a thought.”
“This means they won’t be hunting us, so we can move quicker.”
“Are you kidding?”
“They’re dead and we’re not, so there’s no reason to dwell.”
Feeling her legs go weak, Dawn falls to her knees and can only stare at Kara, who is searching the cooler. A wooden hand lands on her shoulder, but she does nothing to push the marionette away. It finally leaves when the woman shakes her head and slumps further towards the floor. The only noise she can make is a choked grunt, the words in her head never reaching her tongue. Her exhausted mind struggles to accept that her friend is taking the slaughter so casually, but she repeatedly wonders if she is missing something. Dawn has no idea how many minutes have passed when Kara returns to takes a seat in front of her. The girl opens a package of cookies and stacks them on the floor before taking a drink of chocolate milk. A blue baseball cap is on her bald head, the silver and orange team symbol one that neither traveler is familiar with. Sensing the tension, the marionettes abruptly freeze in place and let the drafts from the ceiling fans move them from side to side.
“Are you going to be okay?” Kara asks while wiping her mouth with her sleeve. She bends forward and puts her face under Dawn’s head in the hopes of getting a reaction. “There’s no reason to be sad for them. People die while others don’t. My parents are gone, but I’m still alive, so I shouldn’t be sad. Crying means I’m not surviving. You probably don’t realize this because you were alone for so long, but not many people mourn these days. It’s a waste of time since you could lose someone else the next day. We’re lucky if we can bury a body since there isn’t always one left.”
“You’re ten,” Dawn whispers in a low voice.
“So were a lot of the kids in the Grand Caravan, but they’re dead now,” the girl bluntly replies. She moves away when her friend stands up and turns away, the basket falling to the floor. “I thought you understood this. You didn’t get upset when those strangers were getting killed. Sure, people can be scared, but you can’t do anything once a person is gone. That’s just how it is. For all you know, I’ll be eaten by a monster tomorrow or you will disappear in your sleep. Whichever one of us survives, the other has to go on. That’s the only way to live in this world. Are you angry at me?”
The question causes all of the marionettes to look towards the woman, who gradually turns around. “I’m not angry. Just surprised by your reaction. I mean, you’re a child talking about death like it’s nothing. We’re tired, so maybe we shouldn’t have this conversation. Eat your fill and then we’ll turn in for the night.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“I never said you did.”
With an angry stamp, Kara grabs her sleeping bag and takes an empty basket from a nearby stack. She is followed by two of the marionettes while Dawn is left standing in the middle of the candy aisle. For a few seconds, she shifts in place and considers following to make sure nothing happens. The thought of continuing the fight gives her pause and she awkwardly bounces from one foot to another. Not wanting to upset the girl any more, the woman heads for the cashier and goes through the motions of purchasing her supplies. As soon as she is done, she leaves the food and toiletries on the counter and heads for the door to get some air.