All he can see in front of him is the road, stretching on and on for as long as his eyes can perceive it, littered with turned-over cars and dirty, grimy bodies. They’re in a beat-up car running on a surprisingly full tank, but it’s a stick-shift and he can only go a certain speed on a certain gear. The radio isn’t working, obviously, but there’s a 00’s Greatest Hits CD in one of the compartments.
“We’re not playing it,” she tells him, her own eyes dead set on the road.
“Why, does the sound of Britney Spears at her peak bother you?” he asks, one corner of his mouth quirked up in a smirk.
She shakes her head. “No, I just like it when it’s quiet.”
As they pass a small speed bump, the sound of their rifles in the backseat clatter against one another; barrel to barrel rubbing against the peeling leather of the car. There is also Dumbo and Poundcake, who both dozed off twenty minutes after they started driving. The girl's head whips back to assess if there is any damage, and when there isn't, she turns back to the road.
“How are we supposed to find our way to… wherever it is they said we were supposed to go without a GPS?” he asks out loud. He’s careful not to drive over the dead bodies — there is nothing as cringe-worthy as hearing rubber tires give out the crunch it needs to crush human bones into powder.
She raises an eyebrow at him. “Maps, Zombie. And road signs. Those are still in use, you know.” She pauses, leaning backwards against the seat. “And we’re supposed to be going to California. That's what Sullivan said.”
The both of them remember the plan more than well. They had to separate; that way it would be harder for the Others to kill all of them at once. California was their chosen rendezvous, even if they had no idea what was going on in that part of the country. But there, they would be far away from Vosch; which would give them at least some time to recuperate and come up with a solid plan of attack.
In one car: Cassie, Evan, and Nugget; and in the other: Ben, Ringer, Dumbo, and Poundcake.
“A trip from Ohio to California is gonna take us at least a day and a half to get there, Ringer. What do you suppose we do for that long of a trip?”
“There should be at least a few rest stops along the way. When we find them, we eat, sleep, shower, do whatever else we can, then get back on the road. If we stick to schedule, we’ll be fine.”
He turns to face her. “And what if we come across one of the Others?”
She turns back briefly, tapping on her rifle. “We take them out.”
They come across a gas station just a little past the state sign, not a sign of life around. His watch reads 19:33 — the sun should be setting now, and they should be moving fast.
He’s been ordered by Ringer to stay in the car until further notice, as she stated that all she and Poundcake will do is grab any necessities and go. Jokingly, he even commented that if he sees any of the Others, he’d attempt to shoot them and drive away.
She didn't find it funny at all.
He's bored, with his fingers drumming on the steering wheel and his head glancing in all directions from time to time. It’s a habit he can't quit — this is what they've made of him: a hypersensitive, paranoid shell of a boy that only relaxes when he goes to sleep.
It feels like Ben Parish has been dead for centuries, and he’d do anything to have even just the tiniest bit of him come back to life again.
“Private Dumbo,” he says, turning to face the boy in the backseat. “How do you feel about the past decade’s greatest hits?”
He looks up, sighing. “Private Ringer’s gonna kill you, sir.”
Ben grins. “Then thank god you’re the one with the guns.” He grabs the CD sleeve from the compartment and turns it on, the radio creating noise the both of them refuse to hear. The boy immediately pulls the disk out of its sleeve and pushes it into the player, exhaling a slow breath as he hears the noise go silent.
A minute later, the radio blasts a Britney Spears song, making him look back at Dumbo with a smirk.
He hears a rap on the door and turns to see Ringer and Poundcake have returned, arms full of paper bags. He unlocks the doors and they slide in, dropping the bags at their feet.
As soon as the doors are closed and the seatbelts are strapped back on, Ben drives on, looking at Ringer from time to time. Her expression is mildly sour as the song changes, which makes him chuckle a little.
“C’mon, Ringer, don't you like Lady Marmalade?” he asks her, smirking.
“Not in this life, no,” she replies, tilting her head back.
He glances at her, raising an eyebrow teasingly. “But would you have? In another life?”
She sighs. “Doesn't matter, Zombie.”
“Voules-vouz cocher avec-moi, ce soir?” he sings, chuckling as he turns to face the road again.
“Zombie, no — ”
“Voules-vouz cocher avec-moi, ce soir?”
Ringer shakes her head at him, rubbing her temple. “No. For both questions.”
“That's a genuine question?” Dumbo asks from the back seat.
She turns around, raising an eyebrow. “Go to sleep, you two. Long drive.”
“You should sleep too, Ringer,” Ben suggests. “I can keep my eyes on the road.”
“Not by a long shot, Zombie. Even if it means having to survive — ” She stops, scowling at the song change. “ — That, I’ll stay up if I want to. You need another pair of eyes.”
He smirks, glancing back at her. “Okay, then. If you say so.”
It turns out the drive is shorter than they think. Three hours later, they manage to find a convenience store connected to a motel, a bright sign flashing in the darkness. It’s surprising to them — but when they manage to enter, the backup generator’s switch is activated. The owner must have kept it up and running before they got hit by the Third Wave.
Like the hotel in Ohio, it smells like death — just not as much.
They explore the store first, rummaging through shelves filled to the brim with food and, strangely enough, clean clothes and underwear all the way at the back of the store. What kind of convenience store serves as a mini-mall? they all think; though it's probably best not to dwell on that and just be thankful there are things they can change into. They grab whatever they need, distribute the canned goods from the gas station for dinner, and eat in silence; just like in Camp Haven. Ben finds it excruciatingly difficult to savor the canned ravioli he was handed — as it turns out, driving for nearly half a day makes you ridiculously hungry.
In between sips of bottled water and large forkfuls of pork and beans, Dumbo wonders out loud how Cassie, Evan, and Nugget are doing, to which Ringer replies, “We’ll know when we get to California.” They finish the rest of their meals quietly under blindingly bright lights, then head to the motel.
Ben steps over the concierge’s body to fish out keys from the back of the desk, tossing them to Ringer and Dumbo, who insists Poundcake share a room with him so they don't get separated. He hooks the key ring through his index finger, nodding at them. “Report back here at zero eight hundred for breakfast. Everyone get some rest — see you all in the morning.”
As everyone nods off and makes their way to their rooms, he stares down at the key he got for himself — Room 92, the closest one to the lobby. He unlocks the door and sets foot inside, and he sees it’s not much; your typical motel room with a TV, two beds, a nightstand, and a small bathroom. It smells vaguely of mothballs, he thinks, and of something else he’s not exactly sure of.
He sets down his things on the bed and explores the bathroom, immediately covering his nose and mouth. This is where the smell is coming from — the drawing back of the shower curtain reveals another body and spilled milk in the bathtub. “Gross,” he mutters, pushing the curtain and picking up his things from the bed, rushing out of the room and to the next.
He barely gets to five raps when Ringer opens the door, a raised eyebrow and her sniper rifle pointing at his chest. “At ease, Private, s’just me,” he says casually, hands raised up in mock surrender.
She lowers the gun. “What do you want?”
“Well,” he starts, “there's a dead body and rotten food in my room, and the place stinks of it and mothballs — I can't stay there, so I was maybe hoping I can share a room with you for the night.” He rocks back and forth on his heels as he speaks, and for a moment he feels like a boy instead of a soldier with a mission; like the person he used to be is slowly crawling back into him. Slowly.
Ringer sighs, and it's a sigh he knows well: the sigh that knows that he's not going to stop until she agrees. Her expression relaxes and she steps aside to let him in. He can see now that she’s left in her undershirt and pants, with her camouflage top somewhere in the room. “Just this once, Zombie, or I’m kicking your diva ass.”
He flashes her his signature Ben Parish smile, even if he knows it doesn't faze her. He steps inside and is relieved that this room doesn't smell like mothballs or dead people; or at least, not as strongly as the first one.
As soon as Ringer closes the door behind him, he enters the small bathroom and locks the door, opening up the faucet and splashing cold water on his face. It’s been a while since he's last been able to clean himself up, and it feels good to finally do so. He picks up the razor and shaving cream from the paper bag, sets it down, and gets to work on mowing out the growing beard on his face — he's both seventeen and a soldier; stubble will not do, much less an actual mustache and beard. He even washes his shirt and hangs it over the curtain, leaving him in his undershirt and pants just like Ringer. One wash of the face and a thorough brushing of his teeth, and he’s finally ready. He steps out feeling like himself again; like the Sergeant Zombie he was meant to be.
“Took you long enough,” Ringer says, already in her bed. She glances at his face and nods slowly. “ Oh, that's why.”
“Admit it, you liked my beard, he tells her, wagging his eyebrows playfully. He puts his bag on the bedside table and slides under the covers, a smirk planted on his face. “You thought it was sexy. I looked hot with a scruffy man beard.”
Her expression turns to disgust, making her shake her head. “First, never say those words again; and second, most people like it so much better when males are clean-shaven. It makes you look younger and you don't have to worry about crap getting stuck in it.”
“Also so it doesn't feel scratchy if someone touches my face, right?”
She raises an eyebrow. “... Sure. Good night.”
He switches off his bedside lamp, letting his head fall back onto his pillow. “Night, Ringer.”
It takes a lot longer for them to get to California than they initially thought. It’s the same routine for almost two whole days — drive, gas up, drive, find a rest stop, sleep, and do it all again; with food at any given time. Ringer has threatened him one too many times about what she’d do to him if he snatched up and downed one more can of ready-to-eat pasta, and he’s countered with taking her rifle away until she needs it.
“Bickering raises blood levels,” Dumbo muttered once to Poundcake. “If they keep at it, they’ll probably explode.”
They’re sitting down at the floor of a convenience store, right next to the drinks, quietly sharing a bag of chips right next to their rifles and bottles of Gatorade.
Ben frowns grimly at his I ❤ AMERICA shirt, huffing at the large chocolate stain at the collar. He hears a snort from Ringer, who’s covering her mouth. “What?”
She shakes her head, showing him the smallest hint of her signature smirk. “You do look like you’ve shit yourself.”
He scowls at her tossing the empty candy bar wrapper at her. “Shut up, Ringer.”
At 2157, Sergeant Zombie is supposed to be asleep.
But there’s something that refuses to let him drift away, something he can't quite put his finger on — is it the sound of raindrops and thunder banging right outside his window, or is it because he's been thinking about Sissy again?
He hasn't thought about Sissy since Camp Haven.
He’s surprised to hear abrupt knocks coming from the other side of the door. Combined with the heavy rain outside, it seems like a horror movie scene happening in real time. He picks up his gun, with a finger on the trigger if it ever needs to be pulled.
But to his surprise, it’s Ringer on the other side, drenched and practically shivering; with only her rifle in her hands.
“Can I come in?” she asks, teeth chattering loudly.
He steps aside for her to do so, closing the door behind him and putting his gun back into its place. “What happened to you?”
She shakes her head. “One of them found me — the Others. He tried to shoot me, but I got to him first.”
“Did he have anyone else with him?”
“No, he seemed to have gone rogue. But he knew me — said he trained alongside us.”
Ben raises an eyebrow. “So he knows we're here?”
She glares back. “He’s dead. We don't need to worry about that anymore.”
As she wipes the sweat off her brow and begins to clean her rifle, he notices the side of her face is spattered with blood, a more prominent pattern on the left side of her shirt. Her bangs cling to her forehead, dirty and matted. He purses his lips, gesturing to her shirt. “Do you need help cleaning yourself up?”
Now it's her turn to raise an eyebrow. “No need, Zombie. I can do things by myself.”
She heads to the bathroom and he hears the doors lock, making him turn to the bed. He didn't expect anyone to be bunking with him for the night, so he chose a room with only one bed. Looking back now, that was probably not the best idea.
A few minutes later, Ringer steps out of the bathroom, back in her plain t-shirt and ACU pants. Her hair is dripping wet, stick-straight as ever. “Bloody clothes are in the trash, if you're wondering. Might as well dispose of them — you should probably do the same with your shirt.”
Ben looks down at his shirt, frowning slightly at the chocolate stain that remained. He then looks up at her, flashing her his famous Ben Parish smile once more. “Of course, Private.”
As he makes his way to the bathroom, he catches her rolling her eyes, and a scoff exiting her lips.
One bright light flickers on, and he sees his M16 at his feet. His instinct tells him to grab it and make sure it's loaded, but a familiar voice freezes his blood before his fingers can even brush against his gun.
“Sergeant Parish,” Vosch says, stepping out of the shadows. “Pick up your weapon, please. I’d like to play a little game with you.”
Hesitantly, Ben crouches down and takes his weapon into his hands, and upon looking down again, sees two bullets right next to it. “The soldier would like to know exactly what game he’s going to engage in, sir,” he says, avoiding those electric blue eyes.
He hears Vosch chuckle, and it's enough for him to literally shiver. “It’s simple, Sergeant. I’ll present to you three people, but you can only save one of them. Use those two bullets to deliver clean shots to the heads of those you will choose not to save. I hope the instructions are clear enough.”
“Good.” He grins, and makes a motion to the darkness. Immediately, three figures step out, and Ben nearly drops his gun.
In front of him is Cassie, Ringer, and his little sister.
“Sissy,” he whispers, eyes wide.
She looks at him with pleading eyes. “Don't shoot me, Bubby. Please.”
“Ben, you have to kill her,” Cassie says. “That's not your little sister.”
He fixes his grip on the rifle, holding it steadily in his hands. “I know my sister when I see her, Cassie.”
“But it's not her! You have to believe me.”
He raises up the M16, aiming it towards Cassie. “If I told you Nugget wasn't your little brother while he was standing right in front of you, would you kill him? Huh?”
Cassie gulps, turning to face Ringer. “Tell him I’m not lying.”
Ringer looks up at him, steely eyes locking on to his. “Sullivan isn't lying, Zombie. That's not human,” she says, pointing to Sissy.
Ben stiffens, turning the gun towards her now. “Don't say that, Ringer. She's my sister.”
“Bubby, please! Don't listen to them,” Sissy pleads. “They don't know what they're talking about.”
“Time’s ticking, soldier,” Vosch interrupts.
“God damn it, Ben!” Cassie screams. “Just kill her already!”
That’s the final straw. “You wouldn't do it if it was Sammy, why should I be any different?” He aims the gun towards her, and pulls the trigger.
The shot is loud and rings in his ears, and Cassie's blood splatters his pants as she drops to the floor.
It's dead quiet for a moment, but Sissy’s voice brings him back. “One more, Bubby. It's me or her.”
He looks at Ringer, and she's hidden any form of terror or fear in her eyes. “I’ve got nothing to lose, Zombie. You can't use anything against me, so I’ll echo Sullivan — that little girl is not your sister. She's a Ted.”
Ben shakes his head, heart rate beginning to quicken. “No, she isn't. She can't be.”
“Are you seriously willing to bet on that? Are you willing to gamble with the possibility that she's not who you think she is just because she looks like your sister?” Ringer shoots back. “Don't be stupid.”
“She's just pushing out nonsense so you’ll kill me!” Sissy exclaims. “It's me, Bubby. You know it.”
Ben presses his lips together, and shakes his head. “I’m not stupid, Ringer. I just know which matters more.” It’s practically routine now: click, click—
Ringer drops to the floor as Cassie did, with a heavy thud and blood leaking from the wound. Ben breathes slowly, feeling his heart pound harder and heavier than it did.
The fact that he's killed two of his friends refuses to sink in. He drops his rifle and rushes to Sissy, wrapping his arms around her tightly. “I’m so glad you're alive, Sissy,” he whispers.
She pulls away, grinning. “Me too, Bubby.” The little girl grabs the rifle next to him and kicks him square in the chest, forcing him to the floor. She prepares the rifle once more and steps over him, foot placed firmly on his chest. “Good night.”
He barely has time to let a word out of his mouth before he hears a bang and feels something shoot straight through his skull, making him jolt awake.
Cold sweat trickles down his forehead and he’s breathing heavily, with his hammering in his chest. Panic starts to settle in, and for a moment he's delirious the world spinning and spinning until everything is a blur.
“Zombie, are you alright?”
He turns his head to see Ringer sitting up, her expression calm with just the slightest hint of concern underneath.
“I-I… I killed you,” he says, rushed and tumbling out of his mouth clumsily. “Cassie too. I killed you because of her.”
Ringer raises an eyebrow. “Who?”
“M-my sister. She was alive. But then she shot me and — you and Cassie told me. And I didn't believe you. She killed me. My own sister killed me.”
She grabs his wrists and fixes her dark eyes onto his, lips pressed into a thin line before speaking. “Ben, it wasn't real. It was only a dream and nothing more, understand? You’re alive, and you're alright. We’re almost to California — which means we're going to have to go to war soon. You cannot be like this, got it? You need to separate what's real and what isn't.” As she speaks, small sobs choke out of him, and God does he wish Ringer didn't have to see him cry. “We need you to be Zombie; the same Zombie that saw us rise to the top of the ranks and be the first class to graduate.”
Ben shakes his head, hands still shaking and eyes red with fear. “I-I can’t be him now. Sissy doesn't know Zombie, she only knows Ben.”
Ringer gently places her hands on top of his, the motion relaxing his hands by just the tiniest bit. “So be both Zombie and Ben. There are some parts of who you were that you can't erase — things that still make you who you are.”
He looks at her, biting his lip. “Are you still who you were before Ringer?”
She shrugs. “A little bit. But it's been easier for me to let go of the past. It's easy for me to let go in general, if I’m being honest.”
“Would you let go of me?”
It’s a question that needs a concise answer in a short amount of time. He watches her eyes, as if they're running a thousand possibilities in her mind back and forth. Finally she says, “I would. But only if you’d want me to.”
Ben. She hasn't called him Ben since their first real mission, when he cut out her tracker and all he could see was green fire through his eyepiece. But she calls him that now, in a soft, calming voice that is very much unlike Ringer.
He doesn't know what else to do. He looks down at their hands, her slightly smaller ones firmly gripping his. Her answer is strange to him — only a few months ago, she would have told him yes; she’d let go of him without a doubt.
He knows her as Ringer, the girl with a heart made of iron and skin made of ice; the girl who views life as a chess game and who thinks every time before she acts — not as the girl who can speak softer than rain on a drizzling day, whose eyes don't seem as dark and angry when it’s just the two of them like this.
He takes a small breath and holds it when he brushes his lips against hers, exhaling when he pulls away. Her lips are cold, but soft; as is her expression when she sees what he’s done.
“Sorry,” he mutters, slowly pulling his hands away. “I shouldn't have done that.”
She grabs his hands, sighing as she studies them, thumbs tracing over the lines of his palms. “That was nothing. That wasn't really you, anyways — that was you trying to kill your panic.”
He raises an eyebrow slightly. He doesn't know why she didn't slap him away or give away a sign of disgust on her face. It’s strange, and at the same time, new. “Ben’s been wanting to do that for a long time.”
“And what about Zombie?”
That surprises him, even more so the chuckle coming out of his mouth. “I can't tell you.”
“Of course you can’t,” she says, rolling her eyes. She lets go of his wrists and sighs again, falling back onto the bed. “Let's just go back to sleep. It’ll be morning soon.”
He nods, sliding back under the covers. “Thanks, Ringer. Good night.”
And it's not like he can totally tell, but she sleeps facing him, and he’s facing her so close that he can feel her breath on his skin.
In the morning, he’s surprised to see Ringer’s face only inches away from his. Ben slowly pushes himself near the middle of his pillow, sure that if she had woken up seeing his face too close to hers, she’d push him away; so he pays her the same courtesy.
Judging from outside, it's much sunnier than usual; which probably means it's time to get up and go. He heads into the bathroom, splashes cold water on his face and pulls on his ACU, with the watch on his wrist reading 0915.
He hasn't woken up this late in days.
By the time he steps out of the bathroom, Ringer is ready, swinging her rifle over her shoulder and grabbing the stack of canned food that he had put on the table last night.
“Morning, Ringer,” he says, clearing his throat.
She doesn't turn to look at him. “Morning.”
He pauses, beginning to check his rifle and the stash of ammo they have left. “Look, about the kiss last night, I — ”
“You already apologized, Zombie,” she says immediately. “And like I said, you knew it wasn't a thing you’d typically do, anyways. It's done. Never happened.”
He opens his mouth to say something, but by the look on her face and the bitingly cold treatment she’s giving him makes him stop. He sighs, rubbing the back of his neck. “Okay. Okay. I’m ready when you are.”
She raises an eyebrow at him, pointing to her rifle. “Let’s go.”
He nods and heads out of the motel room, with Ringer following behind. They meet up with Poundcake and Dumbo at the entrance, tossing each other the last of their food and eating it straight from the can. Poundcake uncovers eight more water bottles in the car’s trunk, and that’s enough to ensure Ben they’ll be fine.
He settles in the driver’s seat again, turning to each one of his remaining squad members, starting with Poundcake.
“We still loaded, man?”
Poundcake only nods, tapping his gun with a smile.
“Good.” Next, Dumbo. “We’re making it in time, right? We’ve got… four more hours on the road, yeah?”
“Three-point-five, but yes,” Dumbo answers. “We’ll make it if we just follow the highway.”
When Ben’s head angles in Ringer’s direction, his mouth suddenly feels dry and his voice refuses to come out. It’s one of those rare times where he wishes his Ben Parish charm would come back up like a reflex, the charm that got him everything he wanted and more with one smile.
But it doesn’t; and all he can think about now is how dumb Ringer thinks he is for just ogling her.
Instead, Ringer stares him dead in the face, a small sigh coming out of her lips. “Fine. Play the damned CD, Zombie.”
He has to shake his head for a little bit, eyebrows creasing in confusion. “Wait, what?”
She purses her lips and turns on the car radio, letting an old hip hop song play through the speakers as she leans back into the seat. She faces him, then the road.
Ben allows himself a little chuckle as he begins to drive, because he swears he can hear Ringer humming the tune very softly next to him.
And that is enough to keep him driving with a smile on his face until they arrive.