This was only Spunkmeyer’s second time having coffee, but he could see why people drank it daily. “There’re coffee places on base, right?”
“Yeah. Why do you ask?” Ferro asked when they sat in a café with their drinks. It was early in the morning and there were only a few people in the café with them, so it was nice and quiet. The sound of traffic filtered in faintly from outside, but it was nowhere near the scale that Spunkmeyer was used to.
“I think I should start having it every day,” he replied.
“You didn’t drink coffee at home?”
“No. I’ve only had it once before, in basic.”
“Well, don’t get too hooked on it. There might be days where you won’t have time and then you’ll get a bad headache because your body’s craving it.”
“Thanks for the advice.” Spunkmeyer grinned. “So, I’m gonna take a guess and say you’re a small-town girl.”
“How’d you know?”
“You said you were from Michigan. People from big cities usually say ‘I’m from this city’ instead of their state.”
“That’s true.” Ferro glanced out the window. “Best part about home was seeing all the leaves change. My dad used to take me on a long drive around the backroads and farms to see these long views of yellow and red and orange. Afterwards, we’d grab fresh apple cider and hot cider donuts. I miss doing that.”
“I wish I got to do stuff like that.”
Ferro gave him a sympathetic look. “That is so sad, and yet you don’t seem really bothered by it.”
“Technically, I am bothered by it but I haven’t… I haven’t let it control me. I had other things to keep my mind occupied and now that I’m on my own, forging my own life, I’m trying to make friends. It’s not gonna fill that empty space, but it’ll keep that pain from overwhelming my life.”
Ferro nodded while listening. “Well, you found your first friend.” She smiled at him.
Spunkmeyer had never spent so much time with only one person before. Ferro was indeed nice when she wasn’t sad or frustrated, and he liked her. He felt comfortable around her and he felt like he’d be able to trust her. The only thing he wasn’t sure about was telling her his real age. Would she be mad? Would she keep it a secret? He needed to keep building that trust so he could tell her without fear. At the same time, he was afraid that if he waited too long, she’d be mad that he didn’t tell her earlier. I need to tell her soon, but not too soon. He had already told her a good portion of his story. She understood why he joined the Marines. Surely telling her that he was underage wouldn’t be an issue. Another part of him was afraid that their relationship was too new and if he told her, she’d follow the rules and turn him in. Just be patient. Give it a few days, but tell her the first chance you get so she knows you trust her.
It was a little past three when they started heading back to the station to catch a bus back to base. They had explored a department store near the café, and had lunch together. It definitely made Spunkmeyer feel more human after months of being somewhat restrained, and years of feeling rejected. It was a feeling he had a difficult time putting to words, but the best way he could describe it was “like getting a soft, warm hug.”
Then again, he had never been hugged before. Today was his first time.
The last time he saw Ferro for the day was right before lights-out when she came to his room after her shower to talk some more. They talked briefly about their day out before moving onto other topics, and he was in the middle of telling a story from a baseball game in middle school before when she finally said “Hey, I really hate to interrupt you, but we gotta go to bed in two minutes.”
“Okay,” Spunkmeyer replied. “Remind me at breakfast tomorrow to finish.” He stopped, feeling like that was a bad way to end the day. “Um… thanks for, you know, hanging out with me today. I know that sounds kinda sappy, but-”
“It’s fine. I was gonna thank you, too.” Ferro smiled again. “Good-night, Spunkmeyer.”
“Good night, Ferro. I-” He was stopped by Ferro quickly putting her arms around him. She held him for a heartbeat, maybe two, and then let go. Something hurt in his chest when she let go. Spunkmeyer swallowed nervously before hugging Ferro tightly.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
“Yeah,” Spunkmeyer replied. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure. He wanted to hold her for the rest of the night. This feeling was… addicting. It was warm and soft and he couldn’t believe he had never felt it before. It got better when Ferro hugged him back. He didn’t want to let go, but they had to when they heard the sound of Larkins approaching to make sure everyone was in bed.
“Good night.” Ferro pulled away and left the room, giving him a last look before she shut the door behind herself. Spunkmeyer found himself blushing, flooded with emotions that had been dormant and undisturbed for almost his whole life.
Spunkmeyer and the rest of his flight spent most of the next two weeks in the simulators being put through drop simulations again and again. Each time, Spunkmeyer felt himself adjusting more and more to the sensation, until it reached the point where it didn’t even upset his stomach. It became normal, routine. He also came to see that Falsson had a calm, imperturbable personality and didn’t seem to be fazed by much. Spunkmeyer could appreciate that, but he also wouldn’t have minded if Falsson was a bit more open and easy to talk to. He found himself thinking more and more often that he would rather be paired with Ferro. Her partner was another young woman, Sydell. Spunkmeyer hadn’t gotten many chances to watch the two closely interact together, but he had noticed that they didn’t seem like they were bonding well. Most of the other flight members who had been paired up made small talk with each other when they got the chance, and tended to stick around each other during meal times. He had never seen Ferro and Sydell have a casual conversation, and they never sat together during meals. When Spunkmeyer thought about that, it also occurred to him that the same thing could be said about his partnership with Falsson. They could be civil to each other and they got their work done when they were in the cockpit together, but they weren’t friends.
The day that Evison announced their initial drop simulation training was over and they would move onto actual flying, Spunkmeyer should have been relieved, but he was nervous instead. He knew from what Evison and Larkins had said that not all of them would pass. He wasn’t worried about himself because he knew he was doing well, but what about Ferro? She said she had improved, and he hadn’t heard Larkins berating her over passing out after that first night, but had she improved enough? Evison had warned them that this was the part of training that would fail the most of them, but how many was that? Five? Ten? Fifteen?
He didn’t get his answer until that evening. After dinner, they were made to form up in front of the barracks again. Spunkmeyer felt an anxious knot forming in his stomach. He knew what was coming and dared to look over his shoulder at Ferro, seeing her face was tense and anxious.
This time, Evison didn’t even try to say anything. He just stood watching as Larkins said loudly, “I’m not going to fuck around with this. You know why we’re here. Atkinson, Kirchner, Pace, and Benbow, pack your shit and be ready to move out to the separations barracks tomorrow morning. The rest of you can consider yourselves lucky you did just well enough to pass.”
Spunkmeyer tried not to sigh with relief. Ferro wasn’t being kicked out yet. He wanted to look over his shoulder at her, but resisted the urge as long as Larkins was watching. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the trainees who had failed, either. He knew what he’d see there. He felt bad for them but there was nothing he could do. At least he and Ferro had made it through. If this really was the hardest part of training, maybe they’d be able to make it to the end. If only they could do that together.
Once the flight was back in the barracks and they were free to do what they wanted until lights out, Spunkmeyer climbed up to knock on Ferro’s door. She gave him a huge smile when she opened the door and saw him hanging there, and helped him swing off the ladder and through the door, pulling him directly into a hug as soon as he was in the room.
“I can’t believe we both made it!” she said excitedly, sounding as if she was about to cry with relief. Spunkmeyer hugged her back, holding on tightly. “Larkins lost this round,” he said quietly, laughing to her. Ferro laughed too and stepped back. She wiped at her eyes and he realized she actually was crying.
“Oh, I thought for sure she was going to fail me just to be that way,” she admitted.
“I did too,” Spunkmeyer agreed. “The way she got on you after that first day really made me think she just outright hates you.”
“I know,” Ferro nodded as she sat down on her bed. “I don’t know how she let me pass. It’s almost like someone stepped in and made her change her mind.”
Spunkmeyer thought of when he had dared to talk to Larkins about giving Ferro a second chance, but he decided not to bring it up. There was no way that had had any effect on Larkins. She had made it very clear that she didn’t care what he said. But it didn’t matter now.
He fidgeted, trying to think of what to say next, and then his happiness was replaced with anxiety as he realized now was an appropriate time to tell her his secret. “Um…” Spunkmeyer found himself hesitating.
“What’s up?” Ferro gave him a playful smirk and he felt his heart speed up. He had already opened up to her about so much, and she had been nicer to him than anyone else. I do trust her. Hopefully, I haven’t waited too long. He swallowed nervously and instinctively turned to shut the door. Ferro frowned. “Hey, you know we’re not supposed to do that, right? If Larkins or Evison catch us-”
“I don’t care,” he interrupted. Whatever punishment would come if they were caught breaking the rules couldn’t be nearly as bad as the punishment if someone overheard this conversation. “I… I don’t want anyone to hear this.”
Ferro’s frown was replaced with a look of confusion. “What’s going on?”
“Well… I…” Spunkmeyer stumbled over his words, and went to sit down on the bed next to her so he could keep his voice low. “This has been on my mind for the longest time, and I just need you to know. And I need you to not tell anyone.”
Ferro tilted her head a little. “Okay.”
I can’t do it. I can’t do it. She’ll start treating me like a child. Just tell her, Danny, it’ll show you trust her. “I’m… not…” he lowered his voice a little, “…eighteen.”
Ferro frowned again and leaned in to whisper. “You’re not what?”
“I’m not eighteen. There. I said it. I’m seventeen. Listen, it’s a long story. Please, don’t think of me any differently, I-”
“You… You’re fucking seventeen?!” Ferro hissed in shock. “How the hell did you get into the Marines?!”
“I faked all of my documents,” Spunkmeyer admitted, worried that he had made a mistake telling her. “I know it was illegal, but I just had to get away from home, and…”
“I can’t believe this,” Ferro said, running her hands through her hair as if trying to calm herself.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” Spunkmeyer repeated desperately. “I don’t want to get taken out of the Marines and I don’t want to go to prison. I was just trying to make things better for myself.”
“I…” Ferro got up and began pacing. “I don’t know what I should do. I know what regulations say I should do, but I don’t know if that’s actually the right thing to do here. Fucking seventeen,” she repeated. “I don’t want to do this but if I let it go…”
“It doesn’t have to change anything,” insisted Spunkmeyer. “I really will be eighteen in April, and then we won’t have to worry about it. I’m still not going to go around bragging about forging the documents I did, but at least I actually will be eighteen and it won’t all be a lie. I just couldn’t go on the way I was… in New York. Life was going nowhere and I wanted to get away from it all.”
Spunkmeyer suddenly felt as though the empty spaces in his heart had been blown wide open. He was tired of talking about this, even though he felt like he needed to explain himself. At the same time, it felt like there was a wound that continuously bled, day in and day out. There were no bandages strong enough to make it stop.
Ferro’s gaze softened, and she put her arms around him, holding him tightly and whispering, “Everything will be fine. You’re on your own. You don’t need to worry about your past anymore.”
Spunkmeyer realized there were tears running down his face. He didn’t want to cry, but it felt necessary. It was making the pain in his chest worse, but he felt like it would go away when he finished.
Ferro’s hug was so warm. It was a feeling he had been denied for a long time. Kendriss never hugged him. Maybe once or twice when he was really young, but that was all. It was probably never out of love, but a façade of love. His stomach hurt just thinking about that. How many other things had Kendriss not given to him?
Hugging Ferro back, Spunkmeyer rested his head on her shoulder. When they pulled apart, the pain had changed into a slight discomfort from his heart seemingly swelling with emotion. He wished he could have gone on hugging her forever. “Thanks,” he whispered.
Spunkmeyer spent the rest of the evening in Ferro’s room with her, just talking. He felt shaky with relief at finally being able to be honest with her, and that she hadn’t taken the news worse than she did. The rest of their conversation was completely normal, like the beginning hadn’t even happened. He knew he could count on her to keep his secret safe.
When it finally came time for him to leave to go back to his room, Ferro pulled him into another tight hug and whispered, “Thanks for trusting me.”
Spunkmeyer hugged her back, replying, “And thanks for keeping the secret.”
“Count on it,” she promised, and turned her head to kiss him on the cheek. Spunkmeyer felt like every drop of blood in his entire body had been instantly pumped to his face as he blushed furiously. He wanted to return the gesture, but he was too surprised and happy to move. It felt like his heart was going to burst with happiness.
Ferro finally pulled away. “You should get going. Larkins or Evison will be going around soon to make sure everyone’s in bed.”
“Yeah, I know,” Spunkmeyer said reluctantly, even though leaving was the last thing he wanted to do. “I… um… good night,” he finished awkwardly, not even knowing what he had wanted to say.
“Good night, Spunkmeyer,” she smiled at him as he opened the door and peeked out to make sure no one was around. When he was sure he was clear, he reached out to grab the ladder, giving Ferro one last smile as he climbed down.
As he dropped to the floor, Spunkmeyer almost slammed directly into someone else walking down the hall.
“Damn it, why can’t you watch where you’re going?!” the young man exclaimed angrily, and Spunkmeyer saw it was Private Obando, one of the other trainees from his flight. Under other circumstances Spunkmeyer might have been annoyed enough by the sharp remark to respond in kind, but after his time with Ferro had put him in such a good mood, he instead found himself saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
Obando stopped dead, sighing as his shoulders sagged. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“Are you okay?” Spunkmeyer asked, again without really sure why he said it.
Obando shrugged. “I’m done,” he said. “I was just talking with Evison and I told him I want out.”
“Why?” Spunkmeyer was confused. “You made it past the drop tests. Why give up now?”
“Pace didn’t,” Obando reminded him. “She was my training partner. She was the one thing getting me through this nightmare.”
“It’s not like you won’t have a partner because of this,” Spunkmeyer pointed out. “Kirchner is getting kicked out too, and that leaves Tucker without a partner. I think everyone likes him. Why wouldn’t you want to be paired up with him?”
Obando shrugged again. “It wouldn’t be the same. I mean, Pace and I are just friends, and that’s it, but she had a… unique way of looking at all this that made me feel better. Now that she’s gone I don’t think I even want to go through with it. Every day’s going to be harder without her ridiculous commentary on everything and her…” he smirked slightly, “deliberately making an ass of herself in the funniest ways you can imagine. No, it’s better this way. I’d rather leave on my terms before I burn out and get failed.”
“Well, it sounds like you’ve got your mind pretty well made up,” Spunkmeyer said finally, deciding there was nothing he could say to change Obando’s mind. “Good luck, I guess.”
“Thanks.” Obando gave him a smile. “Actually I think I should be saying that to you. You’re going to need it. You’re going to have to put up with Larkins for the next year.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Spunkmeyer grumbled.
“Hey, I’ve watched you in training. If anyone has a chance at passing, I think you do.”
“I guess,” Spunkmeyer shrugged, not really sure what to say to that. Had he really been doing well enough for someone he had never really talked to before to notice?
Spunkmeyer continued thinking about what Obando had said after he was back in his own room. He also realized that apart from Ferro, it was the first time he had had an actual conversation with someone in training. He hadn’t gotten the chance to find out how nice Obando was until the other man was getting ready to leave. Maybe he should try getting to know some of the other trainees too. He had wanted to make friends, so why not take the opportunity while he had it? He knew that he probably wouldn’t make another friend as close as Ferro, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t interact with anyone else at all. He would give it a try and see what happened.
There was a clashing blend of excitement and anxiety within Spunkmeyer in the week after the end of drop training. Now they were going to advance to their actual flight training in the simulators and learn how to fly, not just drop from a spaceship. They spent all of that week on final lessons and prep, and when the next Monday came around, the flight was taken down to the simulator room where Evison and Larkins began setting the recruits up in simulators. For this part of the training Evison and Larkins would need to watch over each pair, so only four of the trainees could go at once. Spunkmeyer and Falsson were set to be in the second group, so he found himself sitting on a bench waiting to be called up. He glanced over his shoulder to look at Ferro sitting behind him from time to time, and she smiled at him each time but didn’t say anything.
When the first group had finished their flight, Larkins and Evison pulled them out of the simulators for a quick post-flight debriefing to go over what they had done.
“Let’s take the initiative,” Falsson whispered. “Let’s get in the simulator so they don’t have to wait for us.”
They got up and headed for the closest simulator. Falsson was the first one in, but as Spunkmeyer began climbing the ladder after him, he felt someone grab the back of his jacket and yank him off the ladder.
“Just what the fuck are you doing, rat turd?! Who told you to go in there, huh?! Who?!” Larkins pushed Spunkmeyer against the side of the machine.
“No one gave you the order to go in your simulator! Get on the ground in push-up position!” Larkins put her boot on Spunkmeyer’s back. She drew in a breath as if she was about to continue yelling, but said nothing. Spunkmeyer couldn’t see her face, but her foot was perfectly still on his back as if she was frozen in place. After a moment, her voice was quieter but still loud as she said angrily, “You’re gonna stay there until I say ‘get up.’”
“Ma’am,” Falsson spoke up, leaning out of the simulator, “I told him we should get in so you didn’t have to wait. I’m sorry.”
Larkins removed her boot from Spunkmeyer’s back as she roared up at Falsson, “Get down from there, you piece of shit! You move when I say and not before!”
Evison came striding over, looking as though he was trying to control a boiling anger. “Leave them alone, Larkins.”
Larkins gestured to Spunkmeyer and Falsson. “They went in before anyone gave them permi-”
“From what I saw, all they were doing was getting ready for you! You need to learn when to just let things go!”
“I should report to Graham about how you’re coddling everyone in this damn base.”
“You think he’s gonna take your side? Really? After he’s witnessed you yell at Marines for no reason other than to make yourself appear dominant? After he received a report that you might have been the reason four Marines dropped out of the last flight? Graham’s a fair man but he knows a bitch when he sees one. I don’t coddle people. I want what’s best for everyone in here as much as you do. They graduated boot camp. The next phase is teaching them their job. They had discipline instilled in them. They know the rules. Now, they need to receive their real training and start making a life for themselves. They’re human beings and they can’t deal with this kind of treatment forever.” Evison took a breath. “I’m only saying this once. I’ve worked with you for a while now, and I believe you have the potential to change for the better. You’re really starting to kill that. Now let’s get this fucking course started.”
There was a short period of silence after Falsson and Spunkmeyer got in the simulator. As Spunkmeyer got settled in the co-pilot’s seat, Falsson looked at him over his shoulder. “I think the problem is more about Evison and Larkins not being able to find a solution together. All they do is argue; they don’t actually sit down and talk.”
Spunkmeyer opened his mouth, wanting to defend Evison, but he realized what Falsson said made sense. Another feeling surfaced, though, one that Spunkmeyer knew for damn sure he should never, ever describe to anyone: Evison was the closest thing he had to a father. Calling Evison a friend, or a father figure, could get both of them in trouble. They weren’t supposed to be friends. They had a professional relationship that had to be respected. So he kept quiet.
“Just my opinion, though,” Falsson said. “I’ve noticed you get along fairly well with Evison.”
Spunkmeyer felt sick.
“Most of us do. He’s a very likable Marine. Personally, I think he needs to toughen up a little. Not like Larkins, but enough so people don’t look at him like he coddles us.” Falsson adjusted his helmet, and looked at Spunkmeyer again. “Are you alright? You look like you’re about to be sick.”
“I… must’ve ate something bad for breakfast,” Spunkmeyer replied.
“Ah. Well, if you need to step out, don’t be afraid to say something. Oh, don’t forget you’re the one dropping us.” Falsson smiled, like he was trying to get Spunkmeyer’s mind onto the task at hand.
Ten more minutes passed before Evison inspected their setup. “Answer any questions Spunkmeyer has, alright? Don’t be ashamed of anything. Most people don’t do well their first simulator flight. Now, Falsson, you have the coordinates?”
“Good. Put them in the computer.”
Spunkmeyer glanced at a small screen in front of him, and Falsson’s coordinates appeared a few seconds later.
“Your computer should will guide you along the way and I’ll be on the radio to help. Spunkmeyer, you doing alright?”
“He said he ate something bad at breakfast,” Falsson said. “Wasn’t sure if he should sit this out.”
“I feel better. Just a cramp.” Spunkmeyer glared at Falsson, not appreciating the other private trying to speak for him.
“If it gets worse, say something. If you ever feel sick during a real flight, that can have serious consequences.” Evison patted Spunkmeyer’s shoulder, and gave Falsson’s helmet a friendly slap. “Right. Wait for my signal, gentlemen.”
The doors closed, and the two were alone as the sound of an airlock opening filled the simulator. Falsson glanced at Spunkmeyer again. “You’re sure you’re alright? This is your last chance to say you don’t feel ready.”
“I feel fine, damn it!”
“Drop when ready, Spunkmeyer,” Evison said through their headsets.
Angrily, Spunkmeyer pressed the button on the joystick. Both he and Falsson jolted back in their seats as the dropship “fell” from a troop transport. Falsson cursed as he got a proper grip on his controls, holding them tightly as they shot through the atmosphere of an unnamed planet.
“Turbulence up ahead,” Spunkmeyer said.
“Got it,” Falsson replied. His voice wavered as they were rattled around by the manufactured turbulence. “Any damage to the hull?”
“Good. Going into manual control. Fifty miles until we reach the coordinates.”
Spunkmeyer was quiet as they flew. He was surprised at how smooth this was going, but he had paid close attention during the simulator prep lessons. Apparently Falsson had too.
Evison guided them through the flight, occasionally offering advice and corrections until they reached their destination and set down. “Well done, both of you,” he congratulated them. “You’ve both got a long way to go, but that was one of the smoothest first-time flights I’ve seen as an instructor.”
Falsson unstrapped himself from his seat and turned around. “Nice job, Spunkmeyer.”
“Thanks,” Spunkmeyer said. “Nice job yourself.” He tried to sound genuine, and he was starting to think that maybe he could learn to work better with Falsson, but a large part of him still wished he was with Ferro.