Things gradually became repetitive over the next several days. Spunkmeyer picked things up rather quickly, especially what made Larkins tick. She didn’t like being challenged, especially if someone stated that she was in the wrong. And if it turned out that she was right after all, she’d berate the person who challenged her mercilessly. She also didn’t like it when someone did something that wasn’t in any way, shape, or form part of the current task unless they were taking initiative and going above and beyond. Even that was a bit of a risk around Larkins.
On the morning of the fifth day of training, Larkins seemed off to a particularly bad start. Spunkmeyer noticed that as she and Evison went over the day’s lesson, she kept alternating between touching her stomach as if in pain and pinching the bridge of her nose and wincing, while trying to hide it the whole time. She had an electrolyte drink with her, but Spunkmeyer didn’t pay much attention to the fact that her hand shook slightly each time she raised it to take a sip.
It didn’t take five minutes for Spunkmeyer to set her off. She chose him to answer a question and when he got it wrong she promptly asked him what his IQ was.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” Spunkmeyer replied.
“Well, I’ll give you a pretty good guess, rat turd; it’s less than seventy,” Larkins said.
Spunkmeyer swallowed nervously, unsure of what to say.
“You’re supposed to say, ‘Yes ma’am.’“
“Congratulations, rat turd, you’re stupid.”
Larkins finally moved on, leaving Spunkmeyer feeling as though he’d been punched in the stomach.
As the next few days passed and they started the hands-on training, the only thing that was a comfort at all to Spunkmeyer was the knowledge that Larkins was equally harsh with everyone else. But Evison was completely different. He was loud when he needed to be, but he only ever got angry when someone did something potentially dangerous. He cursed as much as Larkins, but never insulted anyone. Spunkmeyer found himself liking Evison more and more. He had never felt that with anyone above him before. It was strange and at times he found himself longing for more of Evison’s individual attention. Sometimes, it became painful. Why, though?
Spunkmeyer’s thoughts also continually turned to Ferro. They were together every day, but he almost never got a chance to talk to her about anything other than the current task or lesson. Even during meals and free time she kept to herself and always radiated such a strong sense of wanting to be alone that Spunkmeyer couldn’t bring himself to approach her. He also noticed that she had a tendency to push people away when they offered help. She wanted to do things on her own, even when she wasn’t sure what to do. Sometimes it seemed to work out for her, but more often it led to her getting in trouble. Spunkmeyer was afraid every day that Larkins would lose what tiny bit of patience she seemed to have and fail Ferro out of the program, but she didn’t. Spunkmeyer could only hope that would last for the rest of the sixteen months.
It had been almost three months since the beginning of training and Spunkmeyer was starting to feel it. They still spent a good part of the day in the classroom, but they were also devoting increasing amounts of time to hands-on work, and the trainees were beginning to learn more and more about flying as well as inspection and maintenance of every aspect of the aircraft types they would be expected to fly. Spunkmeyer found that he had an easier time taking it all in than he had expected. So much of it felt like it came naturally, and even Larkins stopped insulting his intelligence when she saw his results for the tests that she and Evison made them take periodically. Then again, Spunkmeyer slowly stopped caring about what Larkins thought about his intelligence and test scores and only valued Evison’s feedback and encouragement. He just couldn’t express that out loud.
Although the written tests weren’t bad, the physical side of training was beginning to get to him. Evison and Larkins pushed them harder every day, especially when they began learning advanced hand-to-hand combat. Spunkmeyer lost count of how many times he saw Larkins flip someone off their feet, trip them, or body-slam them into the ground in the middle of sparring. It was brutal and he would have been worried that it was more like abuse than actual training if he hadn’t seen Evison do the same thing almost as much. The only difference was that even when Evison did it and then expected the trainee he was working with to recover and keep right on fighting, he was clearly restraining himself slightly, adapting his technique to fit how well they were learning. If they were doing well, he was harder on them, but if he could see they were having a hard time, he would continue to push them, but not quite as far. With Larkins, it made no difference how someone reacted. She would put them down and keep the match right on going no matter how much her opponent was struggling. Spunkmeyer always felt he learned more with Evison as his teacher than Larkins, and to his surprise he soon found his own hand-to-hand skill level to be roughly in the middle of his flight.
When Spunkmeyer was finally paired against other trainees in sparring, he could take down about as many of them as could beat him. It was one of those practice fights that earned him his callsign. He had been paired up against Private Benbow, and when the bigger man flipped him off his feet and pinned him to the ground, Spunkmeyer instinctively turned and bit Benbow’s arm. Benbow released him with a yell of pain, and Spunkmeyer wriggled from underneath the other private and jumped on top of him, twisting his arm behind his back until Benbow gave up.
“What just happened?” Evison asked, having missed Spunkmeyer biting Benbow.
“Little fuck bit me!” Benbow growled as Spunkmeyer released him, and showed a row of tooth marks, some of which were bleeding slightly. “He fights like a damn badger!”
Spunkmeyer was afraid that he was going to get into trouble, but Evison laughed. “If it wins the fight for you, Spunkmeyer, that’s good enough! And I think we just found your callsign! Fights like a badger, huh? I’d say ‘Badger’ is a good fit for you.”
Sparring with Evison wasn’t as easy as the other trainees, though. There were moments where Spunkmeyer couldn’t stand the thought of hurting Evison by accident, and these were usually after he had a bad dream regarding Evison the night before. The dreams started about a month after training started and occurred infrequently, but when they did happen they were nothing short of distressing.
The father-figure he started chasing after in his dreams had gone from being a faceless man to Evison himself, but without someone like Captain Jesse to talk to, Spunkmeyer kept his dreams to himself, and he wasn’t sure that was good. He also didn’t think it was good that his longing for Evison’s attention hadn’t gone away. There was never any time. He didn’t feel comfortable asking for it, especially since Larkins was always nearby. The last thing he needed was her finding out he was broken. That would probably put a new target on his back.
What did he want with Evison’s time, though? Attention? Affection? Simply feeling wanted? It all felt so childish. What do I know about being childish? I was never a child, and yet I feel like I’ve never grown up, Spunkmeyer thought while watching Evison spar with another cadet. That feeling of emptiness in his chest certainly never went away, but he had gotten used to it. His problem now was managing the pain he felt whenever he wanted Evison’s attention.
Hand-to-hand fighting wasn’t the only physical activity they learned. Spunkmeyer found himself in a chaotic, ever-changing schedule of running, jumping, climbing, swimming, lifting, and other physical activities. The exercises changed so frequently and erratically day-to-day that he never had any idea what was coming next, and that alone made him feel like he was struggling to keep up. Evison had explained it was to help keep them off-balance to prepare them mentally for any kind of situation that could arise in the field if they were shot down and had to evade pursuit by hostile forces. That didn’t stop the aches and pains, and Spunkmeyer soon realized exactly what Evison and Larkins had meant when they warned that the trainees would be so sore they couldn’t sleep at night and so tired they couldn’t stay awake during the day. He became increasingly glad to have a bottom room in the hall as he watched the other members of his flight, including Ferro, struggle to get up the ladders into their own quarters every evening.
Overall, surviving training was a battle, but it was one that Spunkmeyer felt he could win. He had to win. As tired and sore as he always was, he also started to notice that he was becoming more physically capable. He could lift more in the gym and run farther and faster without getting worn out. And as they began to work their way through the more advanced small arms training, he realized he was getting better and better on the range.
Unfortunately, some of the other trainees weren’t taking in the material as well. Spunkmeyer noticed some of them had a fairly easy time with the classwork but struggled on the physical side, or vice versa. Some of them had difficulty with everything, and he had a feeling it had less to do with them being stupid or weak than it did with how fast-paced the training was. Although he was somehow able to keep up with it, he could understand how the amount of information they were bombarded with every day could lead to someone not remembering something important, or how the lengths they were constantly pushed to in exercises meant that some of his flight members never had a chance to recover properly from one exercise session before they were thrown into the next day’s workout.
The second to last day of September, Evison and Larkins put Spunkmeyer and the rest of his flight through a particularly hard day of exercise and an exceptionally long written test, and the next day they got everyone into formation outside the barracks building immediately after breakfast, which was unusual. One of Spunkmeyer’s flight members, a young blond man named Tucker, elbowed him in the side and whispered, “What do you think they’re doing this for?”
“Don’t know,” Spunkmeyer muttered back, trying not to move his lips as Evison and Larkins stood in front of them.
“I’d like to congratulate all of you on making it this far,” Evison said. “Corporal Larkins and I have been going over your performance in the classroom and in the hands-on work, and for the most part, you’ve all done very well. Unfortunately, some of you have begun to fall too far behind. I don’t like having to say this and never have, but-”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Evison,” Larkins burst out impatiently. “Don’t make a sob-fest out of this. Harvey, Grover, you’re done. You both failed the physicals and class tests yesterday, and while coddle-boy over here is too sweet to come out and say it, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve found your performance over the last few months to be disgusting. You’re both out.”
Spunkmeyer forced himself to remain silent, but he couldn’t help glancing over as Grover let out a gasp of shock and began to sob. She covered her face as her body shook, and while Harvey didn’t cry, he looked absolutely devastated. Larkins continued coldly, “Return to your rooms, pack your personal belongings, and then stay there. You’ll receive formal written orders within the next few hours directing you to move over to the separations barracks, where you’ll stay until they decide where they’re going to send you.”
“There’s no shame in this,” Evison said, trying to comfort the two distraught privates. “This is what happens to most people who choose to do what you have. Be proud you made it this far. And at least this isn’t the end of your career. You’re not getting kicked out; you’re just going to have to settle for a lesser assignment. In a year or two, if you’ve improved, you have every right to try again.”
Spunkmeyer had already turned to look straight ahead again, not wanting to draw Larkins’ wrath, but he couldn’t help watching her from the corner of his eye, expecting her to interrupt Evison and insult Harvey and Grover, but she said nothing. Then his stomach seemed to flip over on itself when he saw the expression on her face. It was a look of cold, unfeeling satisfaction, like she knew she had won a victory. She wants to see everyone fail. The realization was nauseating. How could he pass training when he was being taught by someone who actively wanted him to fail?
A few days later, in the beginning of October, Evison and Larkins finally announced that the trainees were finally ready for their first experience in the simulators. The first simulations would be just of combat drops to get them used to the experience of dropping from a spaceship in orbit around a planet. As Evison explained, it was the most difficult part of the actual flight training and the single element of training that would eliminate the most recruits. Whoever could make it through the drop simulations was ready to go on to learning to fly. Whoever couldn’t was out.
Evison paired Spunkmeyer up with Falsson, a tall red-haired man who seemed to be a year or two older than the rest of the recruits. “If you two do well together,” he explained as he showed them how to strap themselves in properly, “We might keep you together as training partners.”
Spunkmeyer looked ahead out of the simulator window and saw Larkins leading two of the other members of his flight into another simulator. He paused for a moment when he noticed something odd. Why is she wearing sunglasses inside? The thought only lasted for a moment when he saw Ferro standing behind Larkins with some of the other trainees, waiting to be taken to their own simulator, and he turned his attention back to what Evison had been saying. It would be nice if he could have Ferro as his partner instead, but he wasn’t sure he should or even could say that.
“Alright, gentlemen, when you feel ready to drop, take this joystick-right in front of you, Spunkmeyer-and press the button on top. Buckle yourselves in and wait for my command. The whole thing is pre-programmed, so don’t worry about ‘flying’ it. This is just to see how well you handle a drop.” Evison patted their shoulders and checked their harnesses and helmets. “Good to go. Wait for my signal.” He climbed out of the simulator, slamming the door shut behind him.
Spunkmeyer took a deep breath. He had followed Evison’s advice and eaten a really light lunch, but there were still nervous twinges in his gut. Every sound seemed amplified in his helmet. He could hear his heart beating, blood rushing through his head, and air moving in and out of his lungs. Suddenly, there was static and Evison said, “All systems are go. How’re you feeling?”
“Anxious, Corporal,” Spunkmeyer replied.
“You’ll be alright. If anything goes wrong, I’ll shut the machine off right away. Drop when you’re ready.”
Spunkmeyer kept his gratitude for Evison in his head. He wrapped his gloved hand around the joystick and took in a breath. A second later, he let go of his breath and pressed the button.
It really did feel like the simulator had detached from a larger transport. Spunkmeyer felt like every organ in his torso was shooting up into his throat. His breath was forced from his lungs and he was pushed back in his seat. A second later everything went black.
“Easy now. He’s alright, just let him come around.” Evison was standing over Spunkmeyer, holding his shoulders. “Good morning!” he said when he saw Spunkmeyer’s hazel eyes open.
Confused and unnerved, Spunkmeyer tried to adjust himself in his seat, causing his stomach to protest the slight movement.
“You need the bucket, son?”
“Don’t think so. What happened?”
“You blacked out. Perfectly normal if you haven’t done this before. Same thing happened with Falsson. You’ll get used to it. Unbuckle yourself and go sit for a few minutes.”
Spunkmeyer got out of the simulator unsteadily, gripping the railing tightly. He stumbled over to a bench near the door and sat down. The contents of his stomach were still moving, like waves on a rough patch of ocean. He was certain he’d throw up soon, and he leaned over, gagging.
“Sit up and take a deep breath, rat turd,” Larkins ordered as she walked over to him. “Don’t even think about puking on this floor.”
His anxiety around Larkins just made the nausea worse, though his anxiety was tinged with resentment. He took a breath, trying not to think about Larkins or his nausea. For a moment, his stomach seemed to settle, and he relaxed slightly. Ignore her. Think about something pleasant. Think about Ferro. He thought about how pretty she was, and how charming her smile was. He thought about that first wave they had exchanged and the times they had talked to each other. He wanted to do that again.
Larkins pulled off her sunglasses and Spunkmeyer thought he saw her wince for a split second before she caught his eyes with an infuriated glare. “What the fuck are you thinking about?” She snarled.
“You’re thinking about something good. I can see it in your face. What is it? Tell me before I shake the shit outta you.” She took a step closer and Spunkmeyer gulped nervously.
“Leave him alone, Larkins,” Evison called. “You feeling better, Spunkmeyer?”
“Come over here, then.” As Spunkmeyer approached, Evison whispered, “I’m not putting you back in the machine just yet. I’m just getting you away from her.”
“I can get through this. Put me back in.”
“You’ll be sick as a dog. No.” Evison paused, and sighed after a moment. “Let me give this next pair their test and then you can try again, alright?”
Spunkmeyer sat with Falsson and some of the other trainees as he waited for Evison to call him. He found himself getting nervous again as he sat, and took a few deep breaths. He knew what to expect. Surely this test would go smoother.
Several minutes later, Evison took Spunkmeyer back into the simulator. “You know what to do. Wait for my signal and press the button.”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “Understood, sir.” He took another breath and waited to hear Evison’s voice in his headset.
“When you’re ready, press the button to drop.”
This time, Spunkmeyer didn’t hesitate. He pressed down hard on the button, again being yanked back into his seat and feeling his organs move awkwardly. He blacked out a second time, but came to quicker. As he focused his vision, he tried drawing in a breath, and could feel himself leaving the seat a little. Suddenly, he felt the seat beneath him again and the movement stopped. At least, the simulator stopped moving. His insides didn’t. Stumbling out of the machine, Spunkmeyer groped around for the nearest trash can, hurling his lunch into it.
Evison walked over. “I figured it’d all come up sooner or later. Go have some water, wash out your mouth, and then I want you to buddy up with Porter, Snyder, and Lukeson and go back to the barracks so you can lie down. You’re done simulator training for the day. We’ll pick you up for dinner and then move onto our regular exercise session.”
This time, Spunkmeyer didn’t argue.
Spunkmeyer spent the rest of the afternoon resting alone in his quarters. He wasn’t sure whether or not he should feel like a failure. He wasn’t proud of getting sick in front of some of his other flight members, especially Larkins, but it had only been his first day, after all. He was sure he could get used to the experience of dropping as long as he got a few more chances. He didn’t think they would fail anyone so soon after introducing them to such a difficult part of training, but with Larkins he could never be sure.
It wasn’t until Evison and the rest of their flight came to pick up him and the other three trainees who had been sent back to the barracks that Spunkmeyer stopped worrying about having failed. Someone would have said something.
He tried to get Ferro’s attention throughout dinner, but she sat hunched over her food, acting sullen and upset. Finally he gave up and decided to try to talk to her later.
Evening exercise was the same as always, but it was when they returned to the barracks that Spunkmeyer got his first hint as to what had happened after he was dismissed from simulator training. Evison had gone into his own room, which was at the far end of the hall, and Larkins stalked down the hall, looking around. “We’re going to do this again tomorrow. And maybe, just maybe, one of you will be tough enough to stay awake through the drop. Or maybe you’ll be like a certain member of this flight who fucking fainted!” She stood over Ferro, glaring at her, and Spunkmeyer felt something drop out of his stomach. “Not just blacked out. I could understand that, but fucking fainted!” Larkins continued cruelly. “I’ve never had a rook faint in a fucking simulator before.” She looked around at the other members of the flight as if making sure she had their attention. “You should have seen what we had to go through to wake this weak fucker up. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. Normally we don’t fail people on the first day, but under the circumstances I’m considering making an exception.”
Ferro cringed, looking straight ahead and not daring to speak. Spunkmeyer’s anguish felt like real, physical pain as he watched helplessly until Larkins turned and stalked away and Ferro threw herself at the ladder up to her room. Forgetting his thoughts about a shower, Spunkmeyer went after her, climbing up and knocking firmly on her door.
“What the fuck do you want?” Ferro sobbed.
Spunkmeyer’s words got caught in his throat, and he couldn’t form a proper sentence. When he waited too long, Ferro opened the door and glared at him. She raised her fist to punch him off the ladder but stopped, slowly lowering her hand as she looked Spunkmeyer in the eye.
“Let me talk to you,” Spunkmeyer said. “Please?”
He could see Ferro completely letting her guard down. It came in the form of more tears, making her blue eyes sparkle. She let Spunkmeyer into her room and sat on the bed, hunching in on herself as she sobbed.
“How is it that I got so far and yet didn’t go anywhere at all?” she whispered.
That was definitely a familiar feeling. “It… It happens, I guess,” Spunkmeyer replied. “Not saying that to belittle you. I know that feeling of going really far and not actually going anywhere.”
“Yeah.” If I’m going to trust her, it should be now. She clearly needs a friend. “I’m adopted. I’ve been trying to find my biological father, and the chaplain at boot camp found a pretty good lead but it didn’t… didn’t go anywhere. It was stuff beyond our control and it doesn’t look like there’s anything else I can do to actually find my real dad.”
“Nah, don’t be. Not your fault.”
“Well, I’m also sorry for almost punching you.” Ferro sighed. “I’m hopeless, I know. I shouldn’t be here anymore. But I don’t want to get kicked out. I don’t want to be a failure.”
“You’re not hopeless. I’ve observed you, and I think you try to plow through things a little too hard because you’re so afraid of someone getting pissed off at you.”
“So I was right. You were staring at me all this time.”
“You were staring at me, too. D-Do you like me or something?”
“You’re cute, but I’m not interested in you in that way.”
“Good, ‘cause I’m not interested in you like that either.”
Silence followed, and Spunkmeyer was worried he had made things uncomfortable. There were so many things he just said that he wished he could’ve worded differently. He took a breath, and said, “Y’know, maybe we can… get some coffee on Saturday, and, I dunno, talk more.”
“Let me think about it. I’ll let you know later.”
Spunkmeyer dropped off the ladder onto the hall floor, intending to return to his own room and shower. But then he saw Larkins standing at the end of the hall and he remembered what she had said about making an exception for Ferro and failing her immediately. He knew voluntarily speaking to Larkins was a terrible idea, but he had to do something. “M-ma’am?” he called out nervously, coming to attention as she turned to glare at him. “And what the fuck do you want, Private?”
“Umm, I…” Spunkmeyer hesitated as the words caught in his throat. Larkins stalked towards him, making him take an involuntary step backward as she got right up into his personal space.
“If you have something to say, Private, I suggest you say it before I lose my patience with you,” she snarled.
“Umm, it’s about Ferro. I wanted to ask you to please not fail her yet. She hasn’t even had a real chance.”
Spunkmeyer expected Larkins to start screaming at him and was startled when an expression like surprise flashed across her face before her features settled back into a glare again. “And why do you think I would listen to you? Let me tell you something, Private, after what I saw today, Ferro is scraping along as close to failure as she possibly could be without actually failing, and I might just give her the boot anyway to be sure.”
“I think she could improve, ma’am,” Spunkmeyer said bravely, even though his pulse was racing and he heard himself breathing rapidly.
“Do you not understand what the fuck this place is?!” Larkins demanded, raising her voice. “Let me explain something to you, rat turd! This isn’t a place where people come to get chance after chance after chance until they pass! We don’t give breaks to people and we don’t make things easier on them just so they can have their pretty, perfect career in the Corps! That gets people killed, kid! You have no idea what it’s like out there, actually being in combat! You don’t know the first part of what it really takes to survive, so who the absolute fuck do you think you are to tell me who I should and shouldn’t fail?! You can’t even begin to understand how important this is, so don’t you dare try to tell me how to do my job!”
Larkins was shaking with rage and Spunkmeyer began to genuinely fear she was about to hit him. She stood over him, glaring and breathing heavily for several moments before growling through her teeth, “Get your stupid ass into your room and out of my fucking sight, and don’t you ever come to me talking like that again. Do you understand me?!”
“Y-Yes, ma’am,” Spunkmeyer stammered and bolted for his room, slamming the door shut behind himself. That had been a mistake. He had only drawn Larkins’ anger towards him and probably hadn’t done anything to help Ferro. Worse, what if Larkins decided to retaliate by failing Ferro just to upset him? Had he made things worse?
The fear that he had hurt Ferro more than he had helped stayed with Spunkmeyer as he took his shower and got into bed. It kept him up tossing and turning for hours until he finally fell asleep.
The anxiety didn’t ease up until they were in the mess hall the next morning. Ferro was in line behind him as they selected their food, and she said quietly, “If Larkins doesn’t kick me out in the next few days, the answer is yes. I’ll get coffee with you on Saturday,” she said.
“Alright. I’ll talk to Evison about getting passes and see if he knows anywhere in Jacksonville to go for good coffee.” Spunkmeyer wasn’t sure what else to say but he felt like he needed to take the initiative in this newfound friendship. “So, you ever been to New York?”
“The district or the state?” Ferro asked.
“No. I’m from Michigan. This is the first time I’ve left home.”
“Never even been on vacation?”
“I went to Detroit for one summer but that was it.”
“Ah. That’s fine. This is kinda the first time I’ve really left home as well. But, yeah, I’m from Manhattan.”
“Is that why Larkins calls you ‘rat turd?’“
Spunkmeyer nodded. “She asked me where I’m from, and I said ‘New York.’ She said, ‘You’ve probably seen those giant rats, then.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em,’ and she replies, ‘Well, then your name is now rat turd.’“
“What a bitch,” Ferro sighed. “I don’t know how we’re going to make it through this with her.”
“I’m kinda looking at it as, she’s not gonna be around for the rest of your life. Just the next year, and while that may be hell, it’s not forever.” Spunkmeyer shrugged. “Kendriss was a bitch too but I knew I wasn’t gonna have to deal with her forever. Once you graduate you never have to deal with Larkins again. She’s a fucking flight instructor. She stays here and deals with simulators while you and I get the real deal. She’s the one missing out, not us. And if she wants to be miserable, that’s her problem.”
Ferro gave him a slight grin. “You have an interesting way of looking at things. How is it that you came from a seemingly hopeless situation and yet managed to get out of it with your spirit intact?”
“I just always had some sense of hope.” Spunkmeyer shrugged again and glanced down at the counter. “I mean, it’s not the easiest thing in the world, but I have it. Somehow.”