The front door creaks open and a marionette is launched out to land in the mud a few feet away from Dawn. Standing near the edge of the clean area, she crosses her arms and turns towards the puppet. As the door slams shut, the limp figure’s joints creak even though it remains motionless. Leaning closer, she sees that it is the cashier, but there is a small hole in the back of its head. With its grinning face turning to the sky, the marionette shudders in the muck as its strings worm through the grass. Dawn moves away and draws her knife, but is unsure of where she can effectively stab the animated puppet. Moving faster than expected, an awkward swing of its hand knocks the weapon into the gas-filled area. It cocks its head to the side and stares at the blade, which is tuck in the seat of a rusty bike. The strings erupt from the mud and connect to a small cloud that is in the shape of a slender hand. With a bow to Dawn, the marionette hurries to get her knife and kneels to present it to her like it is a sword.
“Why do you travel with the girl?” the puppet asks in a mechanical voice. It dances away to prevent its strings from being cut, but gets one of its legs tangled. “I mean you no harm, but I am curious. Our job is to help those who come to our store. That includes talking to travelers who are fighting. Your friend did not mean to offend you. She is sad and crying on a cot in the guest shed. Are you angry at her?”
“I can’t believe I’m about to talk to a marionette,” Dawn replies with a nervous laugh. She puts her knife away and rubs her neck, which is feeling stiff from days of exertion. “I’m not angry at Kara. She caught me by surprise with her cold reaction to so many people dying. I didn’t know what to say. For the first time in years, I wondered if the human race was too damaged to continue. Even if the monsters are destroyed and Earth returns to normal, nothing can heal the type of wounds that she’s carrying.”
“Perhaps you do not understand her because you are not a true human,” the marionette suggests. Sensing danger, it gives a sharp tug to its strings and is yanked into the cloud to avoid getting tackled. “That was not to offend, but to point out a difference. You were a part of Dawn Addison and then appeared as an adult. It is something you have admitted to being a problem in terms of understanding others. You are also her sanity and have a more positive view of humanity than either monster. The cold words make you fear that the actions of your other self has erased the defiance and hope that you love about humans.”
Walking over to a folding chair, she takes a seat and sighs when a mojito rises from the plastic arm. “That’s part of it, but I can understand them. I know how horrible this world has become and that death is a daily occurrence. I can’t remember many people mourning while I was with the Grand Caravan. There was rage in the moment and crying from some people, especially very small children and the elderly. Yet, they would move on within hours. At first, I thought it was because it was rare that we’d have a body to bury. Funerals had more emotion and tended to take a day, which made me forget the numbness I witnessed every day. Maybe I ignored what I was seeing in other people until Kara showed the same callousness. Hate to call it that, but I can’t think of a better word.”
“Humans are fragile things.”
“I’ve never known them to break this much.”
“That is your lack of experience talking.”
Dawn stops herself from arguing with the marionette, which sways in the breeze that carries the faint smell of roses. She eyes the puppet and watches for signs of it being more than an animated toy. The mouth changes from a straight line to a smile, which lets its tongue slowly slip out of the splintery lips. Sipping at her drink, the woman leans back for a moment, but rocks forward when she fears that the straps are about to break. With her feet feeling comfortable for the first time in days, she remains in the flimsy chair and stares ahead. Dawn chuckles at how there is a dark tint to the area to mark the boundary between clean and toxic air. She reaches down to grab some pebbles and casually flicks them over the border. After a few minutes of mindless activity, she relaxes enough to talk again, which draws the marionette closer. It hangs a few feet away like a limp body, except for its head rhythmically bobbing from one side to the other.
“You’re right,” Dawn bluntly states. Finishing her drink, she puts the glass down and watches it sink back into the chair. “I don’t have enough experience with this world to understand what Kara has gone through. All I know is what I saw while in Addison’s head and the few encounters I had in my forest. What I’m dealing with now is denial. She’s right about everything. With death being everywhere, you can’t let it grind you into dust. The only way to survive is to harden yourself, which I never had to do. Maybe I can’t become so cold since I’m the opposite of a monster.”
“That is a possibility, but one that is difficult to prove,” the puppet mentions with a nod. It opens its chest to reveal a wooden heart, which beats every few seconds. “We only have a little flesh left to us, but we still feel things. More so than the humans we help because we see them at their lowest. Dying and in search of comfort, it is impossible for us to ignore the suffering and let them die. Yet, my family and I know that we have very little effect on humanity. Those who leave our shop never return. I believe many of them die in the gas since they never find the underground tunnel. Since you are her, I feel comfortable telling you this secret and not fearing reprisals.”
“Not sure I like getting special treatment because of her,” the tired traveler admits. She yawns wide enough for her jaw to pop and slumps in her chair, which is feeling more comfortable by the minute. “I’m sure some of the people you helped have made it out of town and are still alive. Addison can be playfully cruel, but she would have found a few that caught her interest. If Ian was involved then this place wouldn’t be here. Do you mind if we stock up on supplies before we leave?”
The marionette scratches its head, which sends a few splinters falling to the mud. “That is what we are here for. We can prepare packages for both of you while you sleep. In spite of us being restricted to our store, we have been able to learn about the surrounding ten miles. My wife and daughters have already picked out clothes that will fit you perfectly. My sons are salting some meat we recently received to make sure you have the freshest supplies. Please let us help you before we disappear.”
“Why would that happen?” Dawn asks, surprised by the revelation. For a moment, she thinks the wooden face has real eyes, but the change is too fleeting for her to be sure. “I think I get it. Ian and Addison want to end their game because I’m roaming around. Once there is only one left, the entire world will be changed or destroyed. That gives me another reason to avoid the whole mess.”
“Thank you, but the end is inevitable,” the puppet declares with a wave of its hand. Spores float off its skin and drift into Dawn’s, who gradually falls asleep. “The three pieces need to meet and put an end to this insanity. You know this to be true. It is the nightmare that has been waiting for you since your birth. Reserve your strength for you are the weakest of the monsters, but also the one we all wish to win.”