5 - C O N F L I C T I O N

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"WELCOME TO BRAXTON. A GOING, GROWING TOWN," the wooden sign reads before us in white saloon-style letters. The minimal landscaping surrounding the large sign is pitiful. The once-leafy plants are shriveled up and brown. Flowers are nothing more than black stems.

I can't believe it's really here in front of me. My home town. After days of wandering alone in this horrific world, I've made it back.

My pace slows as the sign grows in front of us. We've done it.

I'm basking in my overwhelming sense of relief when I hear, "What's next?"

Travis's eyes are rimmed and saggy. He bumps Emmie awake and sets her onto her feet before sinking down to the floor. My reflexes cause me to reach for him, initially thinking he is fainting, but my hands never meet his skin. And all he does is sit.

"Are we there?" Emmie moans, her eyes blinking slowly.

Travis glances up at me from the ground, his elbows resting on his knees. Now that we've arrived, I somewhat know my way around, though the virus has definitely taken a toll on the place. The good thing about Braxton though, is that it's not very big. There's the tiny downtown area and then large-land homes and farms spread throughout the rest of it.

"It's...on the other side," I tentatively inform him.

Travis wipes his pale face clean of sweat and built-up grime and sighs. "We'll rest for a couple minutes. But it's almost dark, so not long." He falls backward onto the ground, overcome by exhaustion.

I sit on the curb of the road, the tightness in my joints relaxing. The ache sets in then and I feel it in my back, my feet, and my ankles. Getting up and moving again will be one of the hardest parts about today.

As Travis and I recharge, Emmie is bending her knees and stomping her feet to get her blood flowing again.

Before we have to get up and keep pressing onward,"Are you feeling okay?" I ask.

He squeezes his eyes shut and opens them back up to fix his gaze on me. "Yeah, I'm...I'm fine," he says while blinking repetitively, as if he's trying to convince himself.

"You should eat something," I suggest. "It'll help. You've been hauling a lot of extra weight." A backpack, a sniper rifle, and Emmie.

Travis purses his lips, considering it. He then swings his backpack around and unzips the main pocket. His hand disappears into the bag as he searches for the energy bar and he hurries to tear off its packaging. The aroma of the nutty protein-packed bar instantly spreads through the air when he rips open the package and breaks it into three even pieces. The thing looks more than delectable and has my mouth watering at the sight of it. It has the appearance of a squashed chocolate brownie, and I can't imagine something tastier at this moment.

Travis hands one of the three parts to me. "Here."

I want it badly, but find the will to deny his offer. "You deserve it more than I do," I reason.

His hand remains suspended in the air, clutching the piece. "That's not how I play. Take it."

I pluck the piece from his hand, thank him, and toss it into my mouth. The tiny helping reingivorgates my dormant taste buds as I savor its chocolatey-peanutty goodness until it completely disintegrates on my tongue. Once the bar is gone between the three of us, Travis groans as he gets to his feet and stretches his back out. I already know what he's going to say.

"I'm sure we'll get there before dark if we wait a few more minutes," I tell him. Then I gradually rise to my feet. Ugh, the pain. My legs feel like cooked noodles.

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