4 - T H E / T R E K

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I don't dare glimpse at the dead man who spent the night in the middle of the dirt road. I refuse to look at the blood that drained from his head, his muddied shirt, jacket, pants, or his sharp-nailed hands.

The red-headed vultures do a decent job of covering him up.

Travis McCormack curses to himself at the sight of the three large, black-feathered birds a couple yards away and tugs Emmie onward before she has a chance to comprehend what's happening. We all remain silent as we pass.

We tread along the road for a good twenty minutes before any sign of town life appears—or what used to be life. The dirt road transitions to paved asphalt and concrete sidewalks start up on both sides of it. Local shops trickle in, each of them with their doors busted open and spaces inside destroyed. All sorts of wrappers and papers scatter along the ground just as they had yesterday. People rummaged through every store they could before the virus caught up to them. Now it's a ghost town, and the only sound is our feet scuffing against the ground.

As we hike through it, Emmie and Travis crush the silence by chatting away with one another, talking about all sorts of things ranging from the changing colors of the leaves to Emmie's trips to the park with her mom. Travis responds with smiles and encouragement, but I know it's only to distract her from the surroundings. He looks too unfocused to be really listening.

As they babble away, I examine more of the wreckage surrounding us. A few cars line up on the double-laned road, all empty. Immediately, I begin to think of each car's backstory. What happened to the people inside? Did any of them survive? The more I wrack my brain, the more I wonder about Emmie and Travis's history. How have they managed to evade the virus this long?

They couldn't be immune...could they?

Common road signs signal an approaching highway, so I mention that we'll need to "exit" when it arrives. I remember spending a solid amount of time on the highways. There were far less dead, and the lack of resource availability kept survivors away, too.

"The dolly used to be my mommy's. I named her Maddie. She had red hair like hers." I turn to see Emmie pointing at my head. She's currently raving about a time when she had a tea party with her dolls. "She was my favorite. She always wore a white dress," she explains.

A Raggedy Anne doll?

I don't bother engaging in the conversation; Travis has made it clear he doesn't want me included. I'm only half-listening anyway; finding my sense of direction is enough to tune some of her words out.

Eventually, we arrive at the exit. A few abandoned vehicles are sprawled about and my body rips at itself, wishing to drive one of them, even for just a few miles. However, as we pass them down the ramp, I notice their crushed fronts and sides, leaving all of my hope to dissipate. Once we reach the bone-straight road, stretching on for miles in the distance, I swallow hard. From here on, I'll be lost with only the hope that I receive a few pointers from the highway signs as to where to go from here. A map would be useful. For now, onward we go.

A fraction of me knew when we reached the first green sign, there'd be no indication of Braxton whatsoever. I should have prepared myself for the disappointment, but I didn't, and as I repeatedly scan the list of nearby cities and the mileage it takes to get to them, I keep thinking Braxton will suddenly show up.

"What's the town called again?" Travis asks, sweat dotting his face as he stares up at the sign.

"Braxton," I reply, and veer my eyes away from his. "Let's keep going."

After another few miles down the road, Emmie starts to complain to Travis about her aching feet. It takes me back for a second, and I have to remind myself that she's just a child. She's lost her parents and has been following around a man she met only a couple weeks ago. There's no way she understands one bit of what's truly going on around her. So as much as her whiny voice gets on my nerves, it's not her fault. A five-year-old has the right to complain after walking at least six miles in this heat. I guess I should be surprised she's made it this far.

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