“We’ll handle it right away,” Melissa declares before leaving the tent.
Startled by the sudden change of scenery, Dawn looks in every direction and touches her body to find that she is fully healed. Hearing voices outside, she reaches out to touch the dark green wall and press it enough to convince herself that she is not dreaming. The tent shakes when a breeze strikes it and the flap opens to briefly reveal a vast camp sitting among the ruins of a small town. The smell of the ocean hits the woman’s nose, which twitches at the memory of being chased across the bridge. A pile of damp hand towels are next to her cot and she wipes away beads of sweat from her forehead. Within seconds, Kara is out of her sleeping bag and putting a wet cloth on Dawn’s face. Having not noticed the girl until now, she is overcome with relief and joy that she is unable to control. She gives her friend a tight hug and is thankful that the embrace is returned. Warm tears fall on both of their shoulders and they are unsure which ones belong to who.
“I remember being nothing,” Kara whispers as she sits on the cot. She continues using the cloth until it is too warm to be of help. “Everyone else was dead and now they’re back, so they don’t know anything happened. With me, I got separated from you in the water and placed in darkness. I had no body or mind, which was fine at the time. Now, I just have a strange sense of being part of a void. Makes it hard to sleep, but the doctors made a medicine to help. Do you still have a fever? It hit you four days ago near the end of an influenza outbreak. We lost one hundred people before it was controlled. You know how the monsters enjoy causing outbreaks since they refuse to cross the border.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Dawn admits in a daze. Getting to her feet, she sees that she is wearing a soft gown of satin that is embroidered with a crimson heart. “You remember what happened, but are talking like this is reality. Addison must have done something, but I don’t know what. There are so many questions that I have and my brain isn’t able to focus on any of them. Maybe I just need something to eat.”
“I made a bison stew from the last hunt,” the girl mentions while she gets a bowl. Putting the food in a microwave, she hops onto a bike and pedals to power the machine. “I can’t tell you about what happened after we were separated because I didn’t exist. All I know is that I came back as your adopted daughter and you’re the haven. After a year of being in your forest, you ventured out and gathered as many humans as you could find. Melissa is your second-in-command and the two of you made the Grand Caravan that led us to this town. It’s been three years since we arrived and made it a home. It’s still hard living because the winters are bad and food isn’t always available, but it’s better than the old world.”
“You remember how the world used to be?”
“The two of us are the only ones who do.”
“Addison said she made me the haven because it would be fun.”
“She does enjoy poking at the camp.”
“Then, what’s stopping Ian?”
“Your other self, which we all know about, fends him off once a month.”
Still confused and worried, Dawn opens a nearby dresser and hunts for clothes that would be comfortable to travel in. Finding a t-shirt and jeans that are identical to what she wore in her forest, she changes in time to receive the stew. She blows on the hot food that smells so good that her mind settles into the present instead of running through hundreds of scenarios. She follows Kara back to the cot and silently eats the meal while listening to the noise outside. The voices are lacking the spark of despair and anger that she had noticed in most of the humans she has met over the years. Children run by laughing, their silhouettes briefly shown on the tent until the shadow of a passing truck covers them.
Finishing the stew, Dawn is about to look for a place to put the bowl when she suddenly remembers that there is a basin of soapy water. The abrupt realization causes her to sweat again and she puts up a hand to stop Kara from putting another cool towel on her forehead. More memories of the unfamiliar world creep into her mind, the flow quickly turning into a flood of thoughts. The pain causes her to clenches her fists and tense her arms, which creates enough pressure to break the bowl in half. The sensation continues for several minutes and she begins to see images that do not match the others. Even though she knows they are her own and take place on Earth, Dawn sees differences in the landscape and events. A quick flurry of visions batter her mind and show her leading an army of humans, which is promptly wiped out by a wave of boiling water. The horrific site is replaced by one of her living alone on a mountain for years until she eventually throws herself from the cliff. With a snap that pops her ears, the barrage of memories stops and she is left gasping for air.
“It’s like I remember the lives of hundreds of people,” she says in a strained voice. Feeling a warmth on the side of her head, she touches her neck to find that her ear is bleeding. “I gave myself flesh out of frustration with Addison and she made me a source of hope. We’ve been playing this game for . . . centuries? Always restarting when things get boring or I’ve been eliminated. Something is different this time, but I can’t figure out what it is. Oh my god, how many times have people like Melissa been killed and revived just because I decided to be free of Addison? Maybe this is my fault.”
“But that’s silly talk,” Kara points out as she takes the broken bowl away. Coming back with a rag, she wipes the stew off her friend’s lap and does her best to smile. “You wanted to help us and have done so many times. I don’t know about all of these other lives, but I know you gave me hope for the one I had. What if you look at the old memories and figure out what you did wrong? There might be a way to stop this that you missed.”
“That’s possible,” Dawn admits with a smirk. Feeling more comfortable with the situation, she is about to close her eyes and concentrate when a shiver runs up her spine. “I definitely sense that something is different this time. The whole thing is strange. Ian is almost an afterthought in my memories. He’s there and a danger, but he’s nothing more than a destroyer to Addison’s twisted creations. I remember Gemma being whole and on my side for a few adventures until she was split . . . again. There’s just too much to sort through in one day. How about you show me around the camp and I can get my mind off things?”
“But it sounds like we have a lot to talk about,” the girl argues even though she grabs her satchel. Noticing that it feels oddly heavy, she turns it upside down and watches as several rocks fall out of the bag. “Why did I have all of these? Looks like there’s some blood on it too, but I could have forgotten about the stain. Addison might not put things back exactly as they were in order to avoid boredom. Please let me know if you begin feeling sick or tired. We can rest at one of the mobile home restaurants until you’re better. Nobody minds you hanging around even if you don’t buy anything. Oh, money isn’t a thing, but people do trade. We’re surrounded by abandoned towns and cities, so every adult does a weekly venture into those to find things they can trade for necessities. Nobody goes starving, but sometimes you want a little extra or something fun like a toy.”
“Sounds rather convoluted,” the woman mutters. Spotting a book hidden under a table, she picks it up to find that it is a collection of fairytales. “I need to relax because I’m jumping at anything that could be a clue. Last thing I want is to fall for a trick. At least my headache has gone away.”
With Kara holding her hand, Dawn steps out of the tent and is about to greet those who are nearby. The words get caught in her throat when she sees that everyone is standing still and staring at the sky. Following their gaze, she quickly covers Kara’s eyes when she sees that the sun is a vibrant purple. The color changes to red, which acts as a switch and causes the humans to explode into activity. Violence breaks out in several directions while packs of foam-spewing people rush into tents to rob those inside. Naked figures dart through the chaos that flows through the camp like a virus. Within minutes, the entire place has succumbed to the insanity and the sun has returned to its normal hue. Nobody pays any attention to Dawn or Kara until they take a single step. As if sharing the same mind, the thousands of humans freeze and look in towards the two unaffected people. Their eyes turn bright crimson and many begin to make faint cawing sounds without opening their mouths. Refusing to wait until the mob attacks, Dawn picks Kara up and sprints towards a nearby ATV. The instant the motor roars to life, the humans rush forward and those approaching from the front are killed by the unnaturally fast vehicle.
“And I’m forced to run again,” Dawn angrily growls.