Spunkmeyer was woken by his alarm at 0600 the next morning. Within an hour, he had dressed, gotten breakfast with Ferro, and they were waiting for their plane. Once they had boarded and it lifted off, Spunkmeyer looked down at the ground seeming to grow farther and farther away as they flew higher, heading south. He breathed a sigh of relief, finally able to accept that he had made it.
When they got off the plane at Fort Patton, they both looked around, unsure where to go. After a minute they saw a single Marine approaching, holding a rather large ice cream cone.
“You two’re a little early, man,” the Marine said. “You’re the new dropship pilots Viano sent out a request for, right?”
“Yeah. Are you in his unit?” Ferro asked.
“Her unit,” the Marine corrected, sticking out his free hand. “PFC Will Hudson, man. You are…?”
“Ferro, and this is Spunkmeyer.”
“Both fresh outta training?”
“Oh, the guys’re gonna poke some fun at you for sure for that.” Hudson smirked and returned his focus to his ice cream. “Don’t worry too much, though. We’re all good guys. Well, I can be a little rough and fling insults the way a monkey flings his shit, but I’ll always have your back. Oh, and Wierzbowski doesn’t talk much unless you talk to him first. He’s the only quiet one.”
Spunkmeyer anticipated that this unit was going to be full of guys who were bigger, stronger, and a lot older than him. Despite looking like a lovable goofball, Hudson was a little intimidating to him; he could probably beat Spunkmeyer to a pulp and not break a sweat.
Hudson walked them into the base, and led them to a relatively quiet wing of one building. “This section is reserved for the regiment’s RIFT platoon. We each get our own room and bathroom, plus a lounge area and mess hall. I’ll take you to Viano’s office.”
He led them down one of the hallways to a door with a nameplate that read “Lieutenant Commander Corinne Viano” and knocked firmly. “Come in,” a woman’s voice came through the door.
Hudson opened it and they followed him inside, saluting the woman behind the desk. “Mission accomplished, Commander. Got your new pilots for you.”
She smiled faintly. “Hudson, are you eating that ice cream cone or wearing it?”
“Oops, sorry,” Hudson replied, wiping at the splotches of ice cream on his face. A man in his mid-thirties was sitting in the chair across from Viano’s desk and he shook his head at Hudson as if in disapproval, but he too was smirking around the unlit cigar in his mouth.
“I’m Lieutenant Commander Viano, commander of the 9th Regiment’s RIFT platoon,” the woman said to Spunkmeyer and Ferro. “You’re Ferro and Spunkmeyer, right?
“Yes, ma’am,” they replied together.
Viano gestured to the man sitting in the chair. “This is Staff Sergeant Apone, RIFT 1’s sergeant. He’s the one who you’ll answer directly to most of the time.”
“Welcome aboard,” Apone greeted them with a friendly smile.
“Thank you, Hudson,” Viano said to Hudson. “You’re dismissed.”
“Thanks, Commander.” Hudson patted Spunkmeyer and Ferro’s shoulders. “I’ll be in the lounge if you two wanna come meet everybody.”
When Hudson left, Apone shook his head again. “At least he didn’t scare you two off. I figured if you could survive him being the first one you had to put up with, you could make it with all of us. He wasn’t too nutty out there, was he?”
“No, not at all,” Ferro replied. “He seems friendly.”
Viano gave her a wry look. “Give it a few days. He thinks he’s funny most of the time. He’s not bad, though. Alright, go grab yourselves a room and settle in. Our platoon took heavy casualties on a previous mission several months ago and your team’s been on stand-down since then waiting for replacement personnel. I’m actually a new replacement here myself; I got this assignment just a few months ago. You two are the last personnel needed to bring RIFT 1 back up to combat-ready status, but it’ll take at least a few days before they actually start giving us assignments again, so you’ve got time to relax and get to meet everyone, and there’s nothing specific you need to worry about as far as assigned duties go for now.”
Spunkmeyer didn’t say a word as he trailed Ferro down the hallway. He saw that the bedrooms were a good bit larger than at basic, but still only meant for one person, as Hudson had said. Two of the rooms were unoccupied, probably originally used by the RIFT’s previous pilots, and Spunkmeyer found himself trying not to think about what had likely happened to them. He picked one and began unpacking, transferring his belongings from the duffel bag to the standing locker and foot locker.
“How’s it going?”
Spunkmeyer froze when he realized Hudson was standing over him. All he could do was swallow past a lump in his throat, staring up in fear.
“Why do you look like I’m gonna hurt you or something?” Hudson scratched his head.
Spunkmeyer shook his head.
“Well, what’s wrong, man?”
“Please leave me alone.”
“Oh.” Hudson frowned, and backed away. “Okay. Sorry, man. I’ll leave.”
It’s just culture shock. Spunkmeyer had Evison’s voice in his head. This really was like his arrival in Lejeune, but this time, he knew the atmosphere was going to be different. He shouldn’t be this nervous.
He also felt bad for pushing Hudson away. The chaplain told me making friends is the best way to deal with the empty feelings in my heart. I just shoved off a chance for part of that emptiness to be dealt with. A choking sensation started up in his throat, and he gripped the brim of his father’s cap tightly as tears began rolling down his face.
Hudson hadn’t fully left the room, and he looked at Spunkmeyer. “Aw, damn it. I made him cry.”
“Made who cry?” someone out in the hall asked, and a man with short brown hair peered in.
“One of the new pilots. Look, just tell everyone I’ll be outside in a couple minutes, Drevis.” Hudson knelt by Spunkmeyer. “Hey, I really am sorry ‘bout being pushy, man. There’s no reason to cry.”
Spunkmeyer sobbed. “It’s not your fault! I got scared, and I shouldn’t be, because then I push people away and I shouldn’t do that because I don’t wanna deal with being lonely anymore!”
He found himself being enveloped in a hug. “You don’t have to worry about that here, man,” Hudson said, patting Spunkmeyer’s back. “We’re all brothers and sisters here. If you need something, somebody’ll be there for you.”
That’s all I want. No, I need this. I need a family. I need and want that more than anything. Spunkmeyer hugged Hudson back, tightly.
“Refresh my memory, man, what’s your name again?”
“Okay, Spunkmeyer. I was heading outside to play ball with the other guys. You can join us if you want.”
Spunkmeyer didn’t hesitate to follow Hudson out to the recreational yard. I’m good at this. This’ll let me prove my worth to everyone. He looked around at the other Marines, and realized Hudson wasn’t the most intimidating guy in the unit; standing by the mound with Drevis was a very tall and well-built man with short dark hair and brown eyes. Forget Hudson beating Spunkmeyer to a pulp-this guy looked like he could straight-up snap someone in half.
“Hey, ‘Ski!” Hudson called. “We got one more person for our team, man!”
Wierzbowski gave Hudson a thumbs-up, and Spunkmeyer looked at Hudson. “I’ve seen some tough guys in New York, but no one who looked like that.”
“‘Ski’s from England, man,” Hudson replied. “He can hold his own in a fight, but he’s really gentle. You’ll like him.” He glanced around the field. “Think you can cover second base and the infield, man?”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “I’ve played before.”
“Good. Maybe you can teach us a thing or two.” Hudson smirked before tossing a beat-up glove to Spunkmeyer.
Spunkmeyer did his best to treat his new comrades like his old friends back in New York despite not knowing them very well. The little game of unorganized baseball brought back memories. He missed the long summer days in the park behind the middle school. He knew he had sacrificed that when he enlisted. It felt good to be playing again, even though it was with a different crew.
In several ways, the rest of the unit was how Spunkmeyer thought they were going to be: crude, rude, and extremely loyal. He’d learned a ton of swear words from his drill instructors in boot camp and even more from Larkins, and some particularly good ones from Hudson and his gang. With the recruits in basic and even the RIFT trainees, it was expected that everyone would generally be polite and treat everyone else with respect, but Spunkmeyer realized quickly that with his new unit, greeting each other with a hard slap to the shoulder and a rough bear-hug was normal. They called each other names and made fun of each other and it was no big deal.
Spunkmeyer still felt like he had been left at a party full of strange adults, and he was certain the rest of the unit would pick up that he was younger than he said he was. Maybe if you stopped being so anxious about it you wouldn’t give off this fucking aura that something’s not right with you.
Tired of trying to get along with everyone, Spunkmeyer found peace and quiet in the cockpit of the team’s dropship in the base hangar. He put his feet up on his console, pushed his cap forward over his eyes, and dozed off for a while. The sound of someone walking into the cockpit jolted him up, and he turned to see Ferro standing in the doorway.
“Just me,” she whispered. “I figured you were around here somewhere.” She was quiet for a moment before asking, “Why’ve you been so awkward to everyone? People are trying to be nice to you and you’re pushing them away.”
“I dunno,” Spunkmeyer sighed. “Just, I’m starting to not feel ready for this. I’m an eighteen year-old who everyone thinks is actually nineteen, and I’m surrounded by guys in their early twenties and I don’t know how to behave. This is so much less rigid than boot camp and flight training. I don’t know what to do.”
“Maybe if you actually talk to them, they’ll understand how you feel. You don’t have to tell them that you’re underage, but I think they’ll get the awkwardness of being in a new place.” Ferro reached over to squeeze Spunkmeyer’s shoulder.
“You don’t think I’ve made a bad first impression?”
“No. Hudson still wants you around. He was asking where you were, actually.”
“I dunno. I guess he wants to talk to you about something. You seem like you want to be alone, though.”
“I do. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. If you need to be alone, be alone.”
“Yeah. You can stay with me, though. I’ll go see Hudson a little later.”
“Well, thanks.” Ferro looked out the windshield at the dim hangar, and Spunkmeyer did the same, appreciating the companionable silence.
Hudson had decided the best way to fix things with Spunkmeyer was to take him out of the base. After each getting a three-hour pass from Viano, they rode a bus out to the bay and strolled down a boardwalk. “It’s just the two of us, man,” Hudson said. “We can talk about anything you want.”
Spunkmeyer gazed out at the glittering blue water, unsure of what to start with in terms of conversation. He looked at Hudson from the corner of his eye. “You won’t repeat anything to anyone?”
“No. Is that what you’re worried about?” Hudson smirked. “You got some juicy secrets?”
Spunkmeyer glared at him. “Just… secrets.”
“Hey, relax, man. I’m just messing with you. It’s okay.” When they came across a small diner, Hudson sat at a table next to the boardwalk railing. “Alright, whatcha got for me, man?”
What do I start with? I don’t feel ready to talk about anything yet with you. I really should, though. It’s the only way I’m going to avoid being lonely. ”Well… I’m…” Spunkmeyer rubbed his face, and shivered.
“You’re clearly not good at talking to people, man.”
Spunkmeyer felt like he would cry, and he covered his face.
“I’m not saying that to be mean or anything. It’s just something I’m observing. I get it.”
Spunkmeyer lowered his hands. “Really?”
“Yeah. Well, not in the sense you’re thinking of. I’ve never had a problem talking to people, but I do have a problem when talking to shy people.” Hudson shrugged. “I gotta keep telling myself to just back off, man. They’ll come to me eventually.” He looked down at his menu and glanced up when he heard Spunkmeyer’s stomach growling. “If you want something, just say so, man. I’m taking care of the bill.”
“I can’t do that to you.”
“Oh? Well, do you have any money?”
“N-No. I haven’t had a chance to go to a bank.”
“Exactly. I’m not letting you go hungry, man. Don’t need you fainting on the boardwalk.” Hudson snorted. “Happened to me once.”
Spunkmeyer nodded. I believe it.
When someone came around to take their drink orders, Spunkmeyer was a little surprised when Hudson ordered a glass of iced coffee. He seems like the type who sits and drinks beer all day long. ”No alcohol for you?”
“Nah. I save that for hanging out at bars in the evening.” He took a sip of his drink. “I gotta ask, man, are you from New York?”
“Yeah. Why do you ask?”
“Because yous were tawkin’ like this during the game today.”
Spunkmeyer smirked. “That’s what tipped you off, huh? Not the Yankees T-shirt in my trunk?”
“Yea, pretty much, man. Anyway, I’d think that you being from the city and all would make you a little more adept at conversation. I mean, you saw a lot of people every single day, right?”
“I saw a lot of people every single day, but that doesn’t mean I talked to a lot of people every day. My social skills are… I guess ‘stunted’ is the right word.”
Hudson’s smile quickly faded. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, I was adopted by someone who… didn’t realize kids are a major responsibility. She didn’t do anything for me that most other parents would do for their children. I never went to a daycare. I was never really exposed to other children until I was five. I didn’t really figure out how to make friends or talk to people until later on. I mean, I figured it out eventually, but like a lot of things, I had to learn on my own. I was left alone for most of the day while she worked. All I was left with were basic rules on what I could and couldn’t touch. The rest was up to me.”
“So, your own parents didn’t want you and this person that took you in didn’t want you either? That’s really messed up, man. Hell, you’re lucky to be alive, for crying out loud.”
Luck, or fate. Whichever you choose to believe. Spunkmeyer nodded. “My dad wanted me, but he was murdered before he could do anything about it. He left me his cap in the hospital and that’s pretty much the only thing of his I’ll ever have or get to see.”
“How come your mother didn’t want you?”
“I don’t know, but she just abandoned me in a bassinet and then realized that she was going to be looked down upon for the rest of her life because my father threatened to fight a custody case and tell everyone what happened. So she killed him.”
“Son of a…” Hudson whispered. “That’s so fucked up, man. You were really alone your whole life, huh.”
“In a way, yeah. I got used to it, though. I felt… lonely, but I accepted it.”
“So, you weren’t just nervous when I found you crying about loneliness yesterday. You were really scared to death you weren’t ever gonna have people that love you in your life.”
Again, Spunkmeyer nodded.
“And you had no siblings at all?”
“Well, the rest of your unit’s gonna be your family. No doubt about it.” Hudson gave a broad smile. “I’ll be happy to be your big brother.” As he picked up his sandwich to take a bite, a seagull spotted an opportunity and promptly snatched the sandwich out of Hudson’s hands. “Hey! Give that back, man!” Hudson stood up, leaning over the railing as he swore at the escaping bird.
Spunkmeyer roared with laughter, shaking and clutching at his sides as his muscles spasmed.
Hudson glared at him. “Oh, you think that’s funny? I’m starving too, man! Gimme your fries or something.”
“No. You can order something else.”
“I hope they give out free replacements for food that gets stolen by fucking birds, man.”
When they had finished eating, they headed back towards the base. Spunkmeyer was starting to feel more comfortable with Hudson, and he also felt like maybe he would be able to fit in with everyone else after all. He just had to give them a chance. At least he would always have Ferro regardless of whether or not the others accepted him. Even though he might never have the romantic relationship with her that he frequently found himself fantasizing about, nothing could ever change the bond of friendship they shared, and Spunkmeyer was grateful for that.