It was a fairly cold day when General Graham arrived for inspection. Spunkmeyer expected to be intimidated by him, but after observing him he determined that Graham was significantly less intimidating than Larkins. No one was more intimidating than she was.
Evison appeared to be relieved to be around Graham. Spunkmeyer was glad to see Evison smiling for once, after so many months of being treated like he had less worth than a piece of dirt. As tempting as it was to smile, Spunkmeyer tried not to in case Larkins looked in his direction. He stared ahead blankly as he had been taught to do.
He anxiously held his breath when Graham inspected each one of the flight members. Much to his surprise, Graham instructed them each to be at ease before asking them about their journey and why they joined the Marines.
He’s treating us like we mean something, Spunkmeyer thought. And yet Spunkmeyer had no clue how he would answer any of those questions. He also found it hard to relax in front of a general. Was he saluting correctly? Was his uniform presentable?
“At ease, Private,” Graham said, returning the salute. “Spunkmeyer, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Spunkmeyer replied, staring straight.
“You can look me in the eye, son, please. Thank you. Now, why are you here?”
“I… I honestly don’t know. I somehow passed the tests. The recruiter in basic thought I had potential. At the moment, I-I just don’t know sometimes. I came here to get away from home.” He stopped, knowing Larkins was listening. At the same time, Evison was listening.
“Frankly, I think ‘I don’t know’ is an acceptable answer. You will find your why in time. We all do. I didn’t think I’d be here when I started training to become an officer after basic. Now look.” Graham smiled a little. “I think your recruiter was right when they said you have potential. You also look like you have a good deal of street smarts.”
“I’m from Manhattan, sir.”
“That explains it, and the prominent accent. I believe such skills will come in handy.”
“Thank you, sir.” Spunkmeyer gave in and smiled.
“Good luck with the rest of your training.” After putting Spunkmeyer back at attention, Graham moved on to the next flight member.
Shortly afterward, Spunkmeyer was walking the barracks hall when he overheard Evison talking with Graham in his quarters. “Based on your reports, I’d say you have a good batch of new RIFT members on your hands,” Graham was saying. “It’s a shame more of them couldn’t pass.”
“We would have less right now if Larkins had her way with them,” Evison said. “I’ve lost count of how many times she’s threatened to fail people out simply for expressing any form of emotion.”
“Her standards are highly exaggerated, far beyond what we expect instructors of any specialization to have.”
“Yes, sir. And I’m not exactly thrilled to wake up every morning and get told I coddle my Marines. I’ve dealt with it for almost two years and I’ve given up any hope on Larkins changing.”
“Son, as far as I know, you haven’t been putting in the effort. She’s not going to change on her own; you need to help out with that.”
“It’s been too long. She’ll resist me at every-”
“You haven’t even tried. Try and then come back to me. If things don’t work out maybe it’d be best you request a transfer.”
Evison was silent for a moment. “I’ll have to think about that, sir. I don’t think I should leave my Marines alone with her. Someone has to protect them from her.”
“As I’ve already stated, you need to start holding up your end of the bargain when it comes to working with Larkins. Don’t be so quick to get angry with her and try to actually communicate with her.”
“How do I do that without putting the physical and mental health of my Marines at risk?”
“Use your common sense. Now, is there anything else I need to know about?”
Spunkmeyer moved closer to the door, praying he hadn’t been noticed.
Evison took a breath and released it. “I need advice for one of my Marines. He… had a tough childhood, and didn’t have anyone to look up to. He’s picked me, in a way, to be that father-figure. I know giving any sort of special treatment is forbidden. Even being friends isn’t an option, not until after he graduates. I want to help but I don’t know how.”
“Did you suggest counseling?”
“Yes, sir. He doesn’t want it.”
“Has this been… affecting his performance at all?”
“No, sir. I didn’t even know what was going on until a few weeks ago.”
Graham was quiet for a moment. “As long as this isn’t negatively affecting his training, I think we should respect his wishes to not be forced into therapy. To an outsider, this place seems like a horrible place to go for someone who hasn’t been loved at all in their life, but I think he will benefit greatly from being in a RIFT. The bonds he’ll build will last for life.”
“I just hope they don’t get ripped away from him. After two years of watching Larkins bully flights and endure her bullying me, I’ve felt alone. It’s hard to tell this Marine that we can’t interact outside of training.”
“You are one of the best trainers we have. I’ve lost count of how many trainees have said they respond positively to you. Ever since you came here, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of members who pass. That’s why I don’t want to let go of you. However, if you want to leave, you can.”
Please don’t, Spunkmeyer thought, struggling not to say it aloud.
“I won’t leave, sir. Not yet,” Evison said. “I just want to help my Marines, and I feel powerless most of the time.”
“I can trust you wouldn’t resort to favoritism or anything of the sort.”
“That’s my problem, sir. I feel like that’s what he needs. It’s not wrong, but this isn’t the place where he can get the individual attention he’s been lacking.”
“Does he have any friends here? His flight partner?”
“I’ve noticed he and his flight partner don’t interact with each other outside of the simulators. He’s close with someone else.”
“Give it some thought. I know Larkins is very rigid in her ways and doesn’t like to swap people around just because they like each other, but if the opportunity arises for this Marine and his friend to work together, don’t let it pass you by.”
Training went on as usual in the days following Graham’s inspection. A few days into December, Spunkmeyer and the rest of his flight were scheduled for an in-depth lesson on the function, inspection, and maintenance of the GAU-113/B, an autocannon mounted on several of the craft types they would be piloting, especially the MD-4L Cheyenne. Evison handed out protective goggles to everyone as Larkins stood next to the weapon, which was resting on a display mount. “Eye protection,” she said loudly. “If I catch one of you little shits within even ten feet of this thing without goggles on, I’ll knock your lights out myself.”
With their goggles on, the group gathered around as Evison and Larkins began the lesson. Spunkmeyer, who was slightly at the back of the group and couldn’t see properly, began to lose focus. He surreptitiously looked around and caught sight of Larkins’ aviators sitting on a crate where she had left them when she put her goggles on. Ferro would look cute with those on, he thought to himself. He gave her a quick glance and smiled to himself. Slowly, so as not to draw attention, he worked his way over, staying behind everyone else but keeping his eyes on Evison and Larkins. They were completely focused on what they were doing and weren’t watching him. Sidling up to the crate, he furtively put his hand over the sunglasses and slid them off, dropping his hand to his side immediately and holding the sunglasses against his leg. When he was sure no one had noticed, he tucked them into his pants pocket before stepping back to his original position.
When the lesson was over, they all started to get lined up to move onto the next class. But before they had even finished forming the line, Larkins’ enraged shout filled the room. “Where the fuck are my sunglasses?!”
Everyone froze, and Evison looked over. “Whoa, whoa, calm down, Larkins. What’s wrong?”
Larkins was glaring around at each of the trainees in turn. “My fucking sunglasses are gone,” she snarled. “I left them right here and now they’re gone!” She slammed her hand down on the crate where the aviators had been. “One of these little fuck-wits took them!”
Spunkmeyer did his best not to look guilty as her glare passed to him and then on to the next person in line.
“Just hold on, Larkins,” Evison said, trying to calm her down. “You don’t know that.”
“I left them right here!” Larkins repeated furiously. “Right fucking here!” She slammed her hand on the crate again, her voice dropping to a menacing growl. “The only reason why they wouldn’t be exactly right where the fuck I left them is because they got fucking stolen!”
Evison opened his mouth to speak, but Larkins took a step in closer to the group, glaring at them. “I’m giving whoever took them exactly three seconds to hand them over.”
No one moved, not even Spunkmeyer. This only enraged Larkins more. “I’m going to get them back if I have to strip search every single one of you fuckers!”
“Larkins!” Evison snapped. Spunkmeyer’s eyes widened and everyone, even Larkins, looked at Evison. Spunkmeyer had never heard him use that tone before. “Enough.”
“Did I ask for your damn opini-” Larkins began, but Evison cut her off. “I think you’ve said enough, Larkins. If no one saw anyone else take them,” and he paused significantly, looking to everyone else and giving them a chance to speak. When he was met with silence, he continued, “The safest assumption is that you forgot where you put them.”
“I don’t forget where I put things,” growled Larkins.
“Considering that it’s obvious no one here knows anything about it, you’re just going to have to look for them again later. You’re not going to harass anyone about it, so let’s just move on.”
“Fine.” Larkins stomped off, not even waiting for any of them.
As they finished forming the line, Spunkmeyer touched the sunglasses through his pocket. He knew stealing was wrong, but he didn’t particularly care after how Larkins behaved. He would hold onto the glasses for a while and give them to Ferro later. His first thought was that they would make a good Christmas present, but it wouldn’t be good if Larkins just so happened to take a closer look around Ferro’s quarters during inspection and find them. It wouldn’t be any better if she caught Spunkmeyer with them, but for one thing, she was probably less likely to take a close look in one of the male trainees’ rooms than she was in one of the females’, and for another, he would rather get in trouble for it than have Ferro be the one in trouble. He would hold onto them and give them to her around graduation time.
This was the first year Spunkmeyer could remember looking forward to Christmas. He and Ferro had already talked about making another attempt at spending the day together after what had happened on Thanksgiving, and he was excited for it. After rarely having something in his life worth feeling excited over, it was a new and unique sensation. It was light and bouncy and definitely not something he could express in front of Larkins. As far as she was concerned, Spunkmeyer hoped her Christmas was miserable.
Ferro changed when they went off-base on Christmas Eve. She was less afraid and less anxious, and seeing color again definitely made her happier, and it made Spunkmeyer happy to see her happy. For those few hours, he was focused on her. Not on training, not on Evison, not on home. Just Ferro.
When they sat down to dinner in one of the local restaurants, Ferro’s expression changed. “Damn it. I forgot to actually get you presents.”
Spunkmeyer shrugged. “That’s fine. I figured this was a good enough gift, so I didn’t buy anything for you. Not like we’d have time to anyway.”
“Good point. Thank you. I guess… I’ll return the favor by paying for dinner.”
“Nah, you don’t have to do that. Just enjoy yourself and relax. You deserve it. I want to see you happy.”
Ferro smiled again. “Thank you, Spunkmeyer.”
For once, they didn’t spend their evening complaining about Larkins. Ferro talked about Christmas at her grandparents’ house in Michigan. Spunkmeyer talked about sneaking into all the malls and department stores to look at the decorations, and a particularly sad story about when he was little, the only thing he wished for one Christmas was that he would figure out what happened to his real parents. Every Christmas in his life had been sad until this one. This was so different. It was hard for Spunkmeyer to express his gratitude when he and Ferro left the restaurant a couple hours later.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as they headed for the bus stop to get a ride back to base.
“I…” he thought for a minute, not wanting to say the wrong thing. “I was thinking about how every Christmas before now has been terrible and then this one was so… so special.”
“Because you’re not stuck in that situation this time?”
“That…” he hesitated, “And because this time I have an actual friend to spend it with.”
“Aww,” she said, turning to hug him. He clung tightly to her, not sure what to say or how to tell her how much her friendship meant to him. He just held her and tried not to think about letting go.
New Year’s came and went with even less fanfare than Christmas had. For the most part, it was just another ordinary day of training and exercise. Spunkmeyer didn’t particularly care. It had never been an important holiday for him anyway. But then again, Christmas never had been either before he met Ferro.
It was a little over a week into January when there came a day when Falsson was absent from training. When Evison told him that he would be on his own for the day and Spunkmeyer asked why, all Evison would tell him was that Falsson had been excused for the day because of personal matters. Even Larkins didn’t mention him once during the entire day, which was unusual compared to how she complained about the absence of anyone else who missed a day of training for any reason. Spunkmeyer didn’t see Falsson until dinner, and even then the older trainee sat apart from everyone else at the far end of the table, which was usually unoccupied in the absence of the flight members who had already been removed from training. He thought about trying to talk to Falsson that evening, but Falsson went straight to his room after they got back to the barracks from dinner, and Spunkmeyer got the feeling that any intrusion would be unwanted.
From that day on, Spunkmeyer noticed a change in Falsson. He was more irritable and quicker-tempered and his performance in training, especially the simulator, was starting to slip. Towards the end of January, during what was otherwise an ordinary day, Spunkmeyer suggested that they try a different approach to the assigned close air support simulation.
“We’re supposed to be following the instructions in the mission briefing,” Falsson said. “You’re proposing we try out an extremely unconventional tactic, and you’re not experienced enough to-”
“And how would you know that?” Spunkmeyer asked. “You’re no farther along than I am. How do you know that it wouldn’t work?”
“Because I’ve learned that you have a tendency to get ahead of yourself and not think everything through clearly.” Falsson gave Spunkmeyer a hard look. “Your impatience could get us killed in the field. Not only that, you could endanger the lives of the Marines we’re supporting.”
“I’ve been patient long enough. We haven’t gotten a lotta bad marks on any of our test flights. Evison says we’re gaining experience.”
“He says that to everyone. Much like how Larkins says we’re all stupid and shouldn’t pass.”
Spunkmeyer took a breath, keeping his anger from boiling to the surface. “You just don’t have any faith in me, do you?”
“I had a lot of faith in you when we were first assigned together, but the more we started to work together, the more I realized exactly who you are. You’ve been rejected by the people around you so many times that you’ve become desperate to please everyone and you think the only way to do that is to impress them and take one step ahead of everyone else. You’re brash, reckless, and the only reason you are here is so you can escape your adoptive parent. That’s all you care about. You have no desire for learning and no passion for your job. The only reason you’re trying to push yourself is so you can get out of here and do whatever the hell it is your simple little heart wants to do. Caring about the people around you is second in your mind, and it’s the first thing the Marines want you to do. That’s the basis around every single one of our jobs: help our fellow Marines as well as the civilians we protect. You don’t have that drive. You’ve been blinded by your life experiences and you shouldn’t be here.”
“Are you saying I’m selfish? You haven’t even bothered to talk to me outside of training. You don’t know anything about me aside from what I told you.”
“Unlike you, I don’t spend my free time doing nothing but flirting with Ferro.”
“Honestly, I can’t believe you’d make all these assumptions after you were so nice when we first got put together. Hell, I wouldn’t have gotten so far if it wasn’t for you.”
Falsson’s calm composure was beginning to falter. “I just told you, you dimwitted fuck-face, that I gave you a chance. I would rather not get stuck with someone like you in the field.”
Spunkmeyer spent the rest of the morning looking forward to seeing Ferro at lunch and was surprised to see she wasn’t there. He thought about asking Sydell but decided he probably wouldn’t get a straight answer from her, so instead he sat across from one of the other members of his flight, a young man named Herschel. Before he could say anything, Herschel held up his hand.
“You know what?” Spunkmeyer asked.
“What happened during training. Your simulator door was still open at that point.”
“You mean with… Falsson and-”
“Yeah. He was gonna explode on you sooner or later.”
Spunkmeyer frowned. “So, you knew about this and you didn’t say a word?”
“What good was it gonna do? He’d just get more pissed.”
“Well, I’m pissed that he had this persona of ‘oh, I’m a nice guy, I’ll help you. I’ll ask if you’re okay every time we get in the fucking simulator.’ He lied to me. I’m so sick of people lying to me. It’s like they think I’m an absolute fucking idiot. Not only did he lie to me, but he thinks I’m here because all I want to do is escape my home life. Part of that is true.” Spunkmeyer sighed, a sudden realization surfacing in his mind. “Maybe all of it is true. This… This wasn’t my first choice. Hell, I didn’t really have any choices. Once I found out I was adopted, I… all I wanted to do was escape.”
“It doesn’t make your path invalid. I’m sure there’re other people who joined the military because they felt it’d be an easy way out of their home life. Besides, I was gonna tell you about… what I heard from Falsson.” Herschel moved closer, leaning over the table so he could whisper to Spunkmeyer. “Remember that day Falsson wasn’t in training? Apparently he got a call from home. His dad got killed in an accident. He was trying to help a neighbor get heavy snow off the roof and he slipped and took a two-story fall and hit his head on the sidewalk. Killed him almost instantly.”
“That’s terrible.” A feeling of pity emerged in the pit of Spunkmeyer’s stomach, and he looked down the table at Falsson. “Why would he take it out on me, though? I didn’t kill his father.”
“That’s what grief does. Plus, you don’t know your parents. You don’t know what it’s like to lose someone after they’ve been in your life so long. He sees you as a perfect target to explode on because you don’t understand it.”
Spunkmeyer swallowed past a lump in his throat. “That’s not fair,” he whispered.
“I know, but I wouldn’t advise trying to argue with someone who’s grieving.”
“Why should I care? He called me a ‘dimwitted fuck-face!’ He told me I shouldn’t be here!”
“No. I’m done trying to care. There’s almost no one here I want to give a damn to anymore. If this is how I’m gonna be treated for the rest of my life, fuck all of you. You’ve done nothing for me.”