Spunkmeyer knew he should pass on his condolences to Falsson, but after what had been said before, he couldn’t bring himself to. They finished out the day in absolute silence apart from talking when they had to. Spunkmeyer was also distracted and wrapped up with trying to process everything that Falsson and Herschel had said. Which one of them was right? Were they both partly correct?
He also didn’t see Ferro for the rest of the day, not even at dinner or during the flight’s exercise period, so at the end of the day during free time, he decided his next best shot at getting decent advice would be Evison.
The door to Evison’s office was open and the corporal was sitting at his desk working on his computer. He looked over when Spunkmeyer stepped into the doorway.
“You need something?”
“I need to know something, sir.” Spunkmeyer closed the door behind him, and sat in a free chair by Evison’s desk. “Am I… not meant to be here?”
“‘Here’ as in ‘training,’ or-”
“Well, you signed up, you passed boot camp, and you’re here, so, you are meant to be here.”
“Not like that. I mean… just today, I was told that I’m only here so I can escape, that I’m impatient and reckless and-”
“I heard.” Evison turned in his seat to face Spunkmeyer. “Everyone has their own reasons for coming here. Yours are no less valid than mine or Ferro’s or Falsson’s. I don’t think what Falsson said to you was right.”
Spunkmeyer was silent for a moment, struggling to process his thoughts. “But he’s not completely wrong, either. I came here because I wanted to escape, and I’m… selfish. How’s anyone supposed to care about me when I don’t care about them? How am I supposed to succeed here if I don’t make an effort to… actually be a Marine?”
“You’ve made a lot more effort than you think you have. I would hope that if your real parents could see you, they’d be proud of you.”
“What if they wouldn’t even care?”
“Then know that I’m proud of you.”
“I…” That brought Spunkmeyer to a halt. “I thought… I thought you weren’t supposed to have preferences with your trainees.”
“I’m not,” Evison said with a slight smile. “And that’s not the case here. I’m proud of all of the trainees in your flight who’ve made it this far. If I’m being completely honest, yes, you’ve stood out from them to me, but I’m not giving you advantages or favors because of it.”
“Thank you, sir,” Spunkmeyer sighed. “I guess… How am I going to go about working with Falsson again? I don’t know what to say to him.”
“Luckily for you, you won’t have to if you don’t want to. He’s not going to be your partner anymore.”
“Yeah. Guess who finally lost it with her partner as well.”
Spunkmeyer couldn’t stop the grin that spread across his face when he realized what Evison was getting at. “You’re kidding me.”
Evison grinned back at him. “Not at all. Your argument wasn’t the only show in the simulator bay today. You missed the second act, and I have to say it was quite something to see. Ferro completely exploded on Sydell. Absolute, pent-up rage I’ve never seen in any human being I’ve met before.”
Spunkmeyer nodded a little. He could see Ferro becoming completely vengeful if enough buttons were pressed. “I know she and Sydell don’t get along well. She’s told me about it and I’ve seen it more times than I can count.”
“Don’t think too harshly of Sydell. She’s a perfectly competent pilot, but she’s…” Evison thought for a moment, “not the greatest at picking up emotional cues from people. She never really stood up for Ferro when Larkins went off on her, or tried to make her feel better afterward.”
“I know. Anyway, Ferro finally gave Sydell a piece of her mind and it wasn’t pretty. There was a lot of yelling and it got considerably worse when Larkins got involved.” Evison gave a low whistle. “Fucking ugly. Props to Ferro for not breaking down and crying. She still had the energy in her to scream right back at Larkins. The bitch nearly shoved Ferro across the hangar and now even she’s saying she doesn’t want the two of them paired up together.”
Something twisted in Spunkmeyer’s gut at the thought of Larkins almost getting violent with Ferro. “No one got hurt?”
“Not physically. Ferro’s spending the rest of the day in the brig. Larkins is going to bring her back right before lights out. That’s it. She and Sydell are now longer partners and given that you and Falsson have been having some difficulties…” Evison smiled at Spunkmeyer.
The twisting manifested into a ball and a moment later it dropped free. “So Ferro and I can work together?”
Evison nodded. “I’ve already got you two paired up on my list. You’ll start flying together tomorrow.”
A light feeling filled up Spunkmeyer’s chest. It was a happiness he hadn’t felt in a long time. He suddenly felt as though he could conquer the world and spit in the eyes of anyone who told him he meant nothing.
Spunkmeyer didn’t get the chance to talk to Ferro when Larkins brought her back that evening, but he was too excited to sleep. He needed to tell her about his conversation with Evison, so he waited until well after lights out before getting up and creeping out into the dark hallway. He opened the door to his room and peeked out, looking left and right. He hesitated when he saw the door at the end of the hall was closing. That door led to the hall that connected their wing of the barracks to the rest of the building, and the lights were always on in there even at night. The shaft of light coming through grew narrower as the door slowly closed until it shut with a click, cutting off the light entirely. Spunkmeyer waited in the doorway to his room for several minutes, knowing that the only people who were allowed out of their rooms after lights out were Evison and Larkins. He didn’t want to risk them coming back and catching him in the middle of going to Ferro’s room.
When he was sure that whoever it was wasn’t going to be back soon, he closed the door to his room behind himself and snuck across the hallway to the ladder that led up to Ferro’s room. Climbing it as stealthily as he could, he quietly tried turning the handle, hoping it wasn’t locked. Luckily, the handle turned freely and the door opened almost noiselessly. Spunkmeyer swung himself through the doorway and closed the door behind himself. Ferro’s room was along the outer wall of the building and there was just enough light coming in through the window for him to see her lying in bed, a peaceful expression on her face as she breathed deeply. He crossed the room and knelt by her bed, watching her for a moment before gently shaking her shoulder. “Hey. Hey, Ferro, wake up.”
She didn’t respond, so he shook her again. “Psst. Ferro, wake up. It’s me, Spunkmeyer.”
Her eyes slowly opened and she jolted up with a gasp, swinging her fist at him and forcing him to dodge backward. “What the hell are you doing here?! We could get in-”
“Shh. Relax. We’ll get in trouble if you don’t keep your voice down.”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve got good news. You’re not going to have to deal with Sydell anymore, and I won’t have to worry about Falsson.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We got paired up. Evison told me this evening. And we aren’t going to have any problems from Larkins. Apparently even she wanted it after what happened between you and Sydell.”
“Are you serious?”
Ferro was clearly still waking up. She ran her fingers through her short hair and then threw her arms around Spunkmeyer, squeezing him. “You sure you’re ready?”
“I’ve been ready for a long time. I’m so excited I can’t sleep.” Spunkmeyer hugged Ferro back just as tightly. He could still feel the empty space in his heart, but it didn’t ache as badly. Things are getting better.
“You did manage to get some sleep eventually, right?” Ferro asked that afternoon when they finally got put in the simulator together.
Spunkmeyer was strapping himself into the co-pilot’s seat of the simulator. “Yeah. About five hours, I think.”
“That’s not enough. Don’t start falling asleep back there, okay?”
“I’ll be fine.”
Ferro sighed, but she was also smiling. “If you say so. Um, are you all set?”
“Yeah.” Spunkmeyer adjusted his helmet. “You okay?”
Ferro took a deep breath. “Yeah. I trust you.”
“Good. Don’t be so nervous.”
“‘Don’t be so’-Spunkmeyer, are you nuts?”
Ferro gave him a dirty look. “Don’t you dare make me regret this.”
Spunkmeyer grinned at her before dropping the ship.
The first phase of the task was relatively smooth and silent until they started closing in on their destination. “Hey, Ferro? Did the briefing say anything about dealing with hostiles?” Spunkmeyer asked.
“No. Why?” Ferro said, glancing at him.
“We’ve got…” Spunkmeyer waited a moment as the readout appeared on his screen. Anti-aircraft artillery. “Damn it! Triple A up ahead! We’re in range.”
“Fuck!” Ferro spat, clutching at the controls.
“Hey, we’ll be fine if we-” Spunkmeyer was jerked to his left as Ferro tried to dodge incoming fire. “Or we can just do that. You’re lucky we don’t have anyone on board yet.”
“I was just thinking that.” Ferro maintained control of the dropship and successfully maneuvered them through the surprise anti-aircraft battery field to get to the second phase of their task. The landing went much more smoothly, and Spunkmeyer even got the space to say, “Nice flying,” while they waited for the computer to tell them that the wounded Marines had been “loaded” onto their ship.
“Thanks,” Ferro said as they lifted off again. “That went a lot better than I thought it would.”
“Good. You feeling a little more confident now?”
“Honestly, yes. Not by much, but… definitely yes.”
Spunkmeyer allowed himself a small smile but he kept quiet on the matter as they made their return trip. Once they safely landed, he waited until they were given permission to unbuckle their straps. “Nice job, Ferro.”
Ferro looked incredibly pleased by the compliment. “Thanks. I… Sydell never would have said that.”
“I’m not Sydell,” he pointed out. “Things are going to be different for both of us from here on out.”
He found himself staring into Ferro’s eyes, and a moment later she put her arms around him, holding him tightly like she had the previous night. She hung onto him for a few seconds and then kissed his right cheek. Spunkmeyer blushed and looked at Ferro from the corner of his eye. What on Earth could he say to her about that? At the same time, emotions he had never thought he could feel were emerging from their dark corridors in the deepest part of his heart. Unsure of how to hold them back, he hugged her back and then turned his head to kiss her full on the lips. His heart was racing and a feeling of blissful happiness had enveloped him like a blanket. He didn’t want to let her go, but they both had to let go when someone started banging on the side of the machine. “Time to get out of there!” Evison said.
Unfortunately, the happy, blissful feeling didn’t last very long for Spunkmeyer. What did I just do? The warm feeling was replaced with a dizzying sensation that lingered with him for the rest of the day. He couldn’t figure out what it meant at all. He spent the evening sitting alone in his room, trying to understand what happened. I shouldn’t have done that. Everything just came out all at once. He didn’t know what to say or do, but he knew things could get complicated or awkward if he didn’t talk to Ferro soon. I need to tell her I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t something serious. I wasn’t thinking too clearly and my emotions are really stunted. What if that’s not what she wants to hear? What if she’s got feelings for me? No, I have to be honest. I can’t have a relationship with anyone. I’m not ready. I don’t know the first thing about love or anything like that. I’m bound to mess up.
Spunkmeyer waited until he was sure everyone else was in their room for the night before going up and knocking on her door. This was more of a “closed-door” conversation and he didn’t want to get caught. When Ferro opened the door, he asked, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”
Ferro nodded and stepped back for him to climb in off the ladder. This time when he closed the door, she had a look of understanding on her face instead of confusion. “This is about what happened this afternoon, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I-I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kissed you. It was a lot of… you know, things I’ve never felt before, and I don’t think… they really meant anything. I mean, it’s not that I don’t care about you, it’s just… I was so happy and everything hit me all at once and I wasn’t sure how to react or even express them to you. D-Does that make sense?”
Ferro was silent for a moment. “I think so. You’re saying that it was just a rush of emotions that you’ve never felt because you haven’t been given the opportunity to explore them naturally like someone your age should.”
“And you think it doesn’t really mean anything. You don’t want a relationship with me.”
“Not with anyone. At least, not right now. I-I don’t feel ready.”
Ferro nodded again. “Okay.”
“Just for clarification… how come you kissed me first?”
“No specific reason. Just like you.”
Spunkmeyer released his breath. “Well, alright. Glad that’s been cleared up.”
“Yeah.” Ferro glanced at him. “Now what?”
“Now? We… stay friends and don’t make things awkward ever again.”
“Deal. We don’t need to create emotional difficulties that could be bad for our performance.”
“Exactly. I wanna get outta here as badly as you do and I don’t want something stupid to ruin it for either of us.”
It was a few days before the end of January when Spunkmeyer received an unexpected visitor. Breaking through the morning fog that covered the base, Captain Jesse walked briskly towards the trainees as they marched from the mess hall towards the building that housed the simulators. He looked breathless as he approached Evison. “I need to see Private Spunkmeyer. It’s urgent.”
Evison didn’t argue when he saw Jesse’s rank insignia, and he jerked his head at Spunkmeyer. “You two can go back to the barracks and talk and then join us in the simulator room when you’re done. Ferro, go with them to walk Spunkmeyer back.”
Spunkmeyer walked anxiously between Jesse and Ferro, feeling confused and a little frightened. When they reached the barracks, Ferro went up into her room to give Spunkmeyer and Jesse privacy while they talked in Spunkmeyer’s room.
“I’ve got some… some news for you,” Jesse started.
“About what?” Spunkmeyer was staring at him, hazel eyes wide.
“Your biological father.”
Now Spunkmeyer wasn’t sure how to feel. Everything in his chest was tightening all at once. “Good or bad?”
“It… depends.” Jesse opened the envelope. “Over the last several months, I’ve been in contact with a civilian geneticist and I was able to send them a small sample of your blood that was taken when you first arrived at basic. They found a very close match with a Wesley Spunkmeyer. Unfortunately the only picture we could find is this, from his high school yearbook.” Jesse handed Spunkmeyer a photograph of a yearbook page. “The resemblance is uncanny.”
Every emotion swelled and burst inside Spunkmeyer’s chest. The image of the man was identical to himself, save for a thinner face, longer hair, and darker eyes. He took a breath and tried to speak, but instead found himself resisting the urge to sob.
Jesse pulled another set of papers from the envelope. “I did try to contact him, but it turns out he’s been dead for about sixteen years.” He slid a series of newspaper articles in front of Spunkmeyer. “He was planning on fighting a case to gain custody of you. I guess your biological mother was determined not to let that happen.”
Spunkmeyer felt like he was going to throw up. “She murdered him?”
“One hundred percent guilty.”
“Why? Why the hell couldn’t she just divorce him and-”
“It’d be a stain on her if people knew what she did. Who would sympathize with someone who abandoned a newborn in a hospital? It was easier to lie to everyone and say you died at birth. If everyone she knew found out what really happened, it’d be a personal disaster for her. Your father threatened to tell them the truth. He had to be disposed of, and he couldn’t be bribed to keep quiet.”
“Couldn’t be bribed… That means he had honor of some kind, right?”
“I’m the wrong person to ask about that, Spunkmeyer, but I would assume so based on the testimonies given by friends and family and what was said about him in his obituary.” Jesse looked Spunkmeyer in the eye. “I’m sorry you’ll never meet him. I don’t think this is what you want in terms of closure but I had a feeling that if you didn’t find out, you were going to spend your life looking for someone who’d died long before you ever knew the truth. Maybe now you can accept, let go, and try to move forward.”
Spunkmeyer looked down at his lap. Why was he upset despite never knowing this person? He felt like someone had slowly driven a hot knife in the center of his heart. “I have thought about… the day I’d finally get to meet him. Now, it’s never gonna happen. H-How come I’m… I’m sad, even though I never really had an emotional bond with him?”
“He loved you, and he left you that cap to show it. You did have an emotional bond. A somewhat weak one, but it was still there. You were certain there was someone out there who would love you. You were right, but he was gone before you even found out you were adopted.” Jesse glanced at his watch. “I can’t stay here for too long, unfortunately. I knew you needed to hear this in person but I need to get back to base. Would you like me to leave the documents with you?”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “Thank you, sir. I-I feel better, but I also… don’t.”
“That’s understandable. Hey, you’ve got a little bit of time before you get started on your journey in the Marines. You’ve got so much ahead of you, and I think your father would’ve wanted to see you move on and be happy in your career.”
Spunkmeyer remained sitting at his desk after Jesse left, staring blankly at the pile of papers in front of him as he felt the first tears run down his cheeks. Jesse had left the door open when he left, and Ferro knocked on the frame as she looked in. “Are you ready to go back-what’s wrong?” she broke off as he turned to face her, not even trying to hide the tears.
Spunkmeyer wasn’t even sure what was wrong. Or, at least, he didn’t know how to describe it. Everything was raw and painful and he couldn’t believe it. “He’s dead. My father’s dead,” he managed to say. Trembling, Spunkmeyer put his head on the desk, clenching both fists.
“I’m sorry.” Ferro gently put her arms around Spunkmeyer. Nervously, she looked out into the hall. “What do you want me to tell Evison and Larkins?”
Spunkmeyer glared at her, in shock and unable to think rationally. “I don’t fucking care! This isn’t important anymore! And you know what? Fuck Larkins! She doesn’t even know what ‘love’ or ‘family’ mean!”
Ferro gave him a look, slowly pulling away. “You don’t care if you fail out? I thought we were going to do this together.”
“Everything is pointless now. I came here to get away from Kendriss and see if I could find my father on my own. I can’t even do that anymore. I’m never going to get back what I lost. What’s the point of going on?”
Gently rubbing his shoulder, Ferro’s expression switched to one of concern. “I’m going to go get Evison. Stay here.”
Enveloped in silence after Ferro left, Spunkmeyer covered his face. He cursed to himself when he thought back to the eruption of emotions. I can’t lose her! I can’t lose Ferro! He clenched his fists again, sobbing. I can’t handle losing anyone, can I? I don’t wanna lose Ferro and I don’t wanna lose Evison. I can’t do it. Maybe this isn’t the job for me, where it’s easy for people to get killed. I’m never going to be able to handle loss. He struggled to return to even breathing as he stared down at the tear-soaked papers.
Jesse said I have a lot ahead of me, and he said my father would’ve been proud of me. Spunkmeyer managed to get a deep breath in. I can’t quit now.
“Spunkmeyer, what’s going on? Ferro came back alone and said you needed to see me in here.” Evison frowned when he saw Spunkmeyer’s tear-streaked face as he entered his quarters.
After five minutes of silence and attempting to collect his thoughts, Spunkmeyer explained to Evison why Jesse had come to the base. He explained what he found out about his father, nearly every last detail. “Just like Ferro said to me, just like that earlier attempt to trace my dad using the cap… I got so close, and yet I didn’t get close at all. I’ll never get close. He’s… He’s gone.”
For a few seconds, Evison watched Spunkmeyer cry. He looked hesitant about going into the room. Drawing in a breath, Evison stepped inside, closing the door. “What do you want me to do?”
Spunkmeyer wasn’t sure he could even look up at Evison, not when he knew how much trouble they could get into for this little interaction. To be so emotionally detached was no longer an option for Spunkmeyer. It just didn’t feel right. How could someone spend any amount of time feeling nothing? He had already spent so much time feeling nothing, feeling unworthy of being cared for. “I don’t know,” Spunkmeyer said, tears continuing to stream down his face. “I… I want… validation. Fuck the fraternization rules. Fuck them.”
He never felt more childish and emotionally immature in his life. He couldn’t believe this was what he was reduced to. He quickly went from wondering who he was to what he was. Was he grown-up? Or was he still a child? Why did this matter? Why did it hurt?
“I may not fully understand what you’re going through, but I do understand grief,” Evison said.
“How can it be grief when I never even knew him? I know Jesse told me I still have an emotional bond, but… that doesn’t make any fucking sense.”
“Honest question, when have emotions ever made sense?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have them.”
Evison shook his head. “You don’t want that. Then you’d be no better than Larkins. Feeling nothing doesn’t solve anything. It makes you bitter, cold, unapproachable, unable to sympathize with anyone. You won’t be able to grow past this if you let yourself be consumed by numbness. Trust me. I’ve been depressed. Frankly, I still have depression. Being around Larkins all day doesn’t help.”
“How do you keep yourself from wanting to jump off a roof?”
“I focus on my trainees. I see you improving and advancing and it gives me hope that I’m still doing something important for the Marines instead of being a useless burden to them.” Evison gently squeezed Spunkmeyer’s shoulder. “And you certainly aren’t a useless burden, no matter how many times people have made you feel that way over the course of your life. I don’t think so. Larkins and your adoptive parent may have made you feel like you’re meaningless, but that doesn’t mean you actually are. Look at your relationship with Ferro. Focus on her.”
“Don’t focus on me, only because I want you to see me as your friend, not your father.” Evison held out his hand, and Spunkmeyer took it, squeezing tightly and shaking it firmly. “I guess the next best thing for me to say to you is to not let this drag you down. You’ve gotten so far here. You really are close to living your own independent life, and you’re going to live your own independent life. You don’t have to worry about the past anymore. Make your own story.” Evison looked Spunkmeyer in the eye. “You’ve gone from a nervous, wide-eyed recruit to an intelligent and skillful young Marine. I’ve seen you interacting with some of the others here, especially Ferro. You wouldn’t have done that your first day here. I’ve watched you grow, in only a span of seven months. That’s something to be proud of. I know I’m glad I was a part of your training.”
When they let go of each other’s hands, Evison patted Spunkmeyer’s shoulder, smiling at him. “I’m wishing you the best of luck over the next several months. Don’t dwell on this. I mean, not to sound… insensitive, but, there’s no point to you letting this bring your life crashing down around you. It might not feel like the closure you wanted, but it’s what you got. Life isn’t always fair. Take it as a sign; your past is behind you, and it’s never coming back to haunt you or bite you in the ass. Move forward. Don’t let the little things bug you. Don’t hold grudges for too long. Be good to your friends. When your enemies apologize, accept it. Letting things fester inside of you won’t do you any good. Letting go of them will do you a lot of good. Remember that.”
Spunkmeyer nodded slowly. What Evison said made sense. It might take a while and he knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but he was sure he could put it into practice and learn to move on with his life. And even after the crushing news, he was able to focus on the thought that between Evison and Ferro, he wasn’t alone anymore.