The end of April brought about Spunkmeyer’s seventeenth birthday—which everyone else thought was his eighteenth. He had a year to go before he was an adult, but he wondered if he’d ever be able to truly open up about himself. A part of him felt that wouldn’t happen until he left the Marines.
Hudson was already seeming like a worthy candidate to keep more of Spunkmeyer’s secrets. He really did try to make Spunkmeyer feel like a member of the family. Hell, he gave more hugs than Spunkmeyer ever received from Kendriss, a lot more.
The feeling of loneliness had lessened significantly, but it was still there. Spunkmeyer was certain that it wouldn’t go away, no matter how many friends he made or love he got. It wouldn’t go away because he was never going to connect with his father the way a normal person should. Whenever he fell into deep thought about it, the aching in his heart got worse. He’d feel like crying. He felt like a child lost in a strange place, calling for his father.
Spunkmeyer made no attempt to hide his frustration that night. Even after being showered with gifts and eighteen punches to the arm by Drevis and Hudson, he felt alone.
“What’s the matter, man?” Hudson asked as he entered the room. He closed the door, and sat on his bed to untie his boots. “You looked like you were having fun earlier.”
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Spunkmeyer replied. “I wish I did, but I don’t.”
Hudson had learned to pick up on certain cues over the last several weeks. He nodded, and whispered, “It’s about your dad, isn’t it?”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “You and everyone else have done a lot for me, but… I don’t think this space in my heart is ever gonna go away. It just hurts at the worst possible times. Like right now.”
Hudson untucked his shirt, and set his ID tags on his foot locker. “Guess you haven’t really learned how to accept it, huh.”
“No, not really.”
“Well, unfortunately, I can’t help you there, man. I mean, I wish I could. I hate seeing you like this.”
Spunkmeyer was quiet for a moment. “Can I tell you something, Hudson?”
“Anything you want, man.”
“Can you promise to keep it between us?”
Hudson made another slashing motion across his chest. “Cross my heart.”
“I didn’t turn eighteen today. I actually turned seventeen.”
Hudson’s jaw dropped. “Wait, so you-” He leaned in to whisper. “You fucking enlisted at sixteen? How? Why?”
“I needed to. Once I really found out that Miss Kendriss didn’t care about me, I wanted out.”
“Geez, man,” Hudson mouthed. “You really are just a kid. I didn’t think so looking at your chest hair, man.”
Spunkmeyer turned red with embarrassment, but he figured Hudson would say something ridiculous as that. “You won’t tell anyone, right?”
“No. Hey, look, a couple of the guys already kinda think you might be younger than you really are. Let them have their fun. I’ll enjoy being the one who knows everything.” Hudson smiled before getting in bed. “Anything else you wanna talk about?”
Spunkmeyer shook his head. “If I think of something, you won’t be pissed if I wake you?”
“Nah.” Hudson yawned. “’Night, man.”
Several weeks passed, and Spunkmeyer didn’t regret telling Hudson everything. In that time, he also tried to better his relationship with Ferro. Repetition and a lack of expectations were the keys to stop nursing that crush. They still confided in each other and trusted each other, but the feelings of wanting a kiss were beginning to fade.
Hudson’s twenty-second birthday rolled around with quite a bit of fanfare. There was going to be drinking, so Spunkmeyer wasn’t invited. He could understand that, but he also hated the feeling of being left out. That afternoon was full of mixed emotions, and Spunkmeyer spent most of his time sitting alone in the cockpit of a plane in the hangar, gathering his thoughts and dozing.
He sat up when he heard someone entered the aircraft, expecting Ferro. When he turned his head, he saw Corporal Henley instead. “Sir,” Spunkmeyer said.
“Private.” Henley leaned against the hatch separating the cockpit from the rest of the plane. “Was wondering where you were until Ferro told me.”
“Do you need something?”
“No. You got a letter from a Corporal Evison.” Henley gave Spunkmeyer an envelope. “I also have a serious question for you: are you okay?”
“Yeah… why do you ask?”
“Hudson told me that you’ve been upset about things in your personal life lately. I wanted to know if maybe you needed a bit more help.”
“No. I’m fine. I don’t need any help.” Why did he say something to Henley? He promised not to say anything! I trusted him! Spunkmeyer waited until Henley left the plane before covering his face. I knew this was too good to be true.
The feeling of his trust being shattered was remarkably painful. It tore away a large part of his heart. He knew life wasn’t fair, but this was ridiculous. He did something wrong, and he was paying for it.
He planned on giving Hudson a piece of his mind when he got back later that night, but that was quickly shot down when Hudson and the others returned-and Hudson was drunk. The blend of alcohol and vomit made for an unpleasant stench that trailed him when he staggered into his room. “Hey there, Spunk,” he slurred. “You missed a great party, man. We’ll have to do the same thing when you turn twenty-one, man.” He rubbed Spunkmeyer’s head. “Why do you look so grumpy, man?” He got in Spunkmeyer’s face, and squeezed his cheeks. “D’you miss me?”
“Bite me, jackass. I’m not happy with you,” Spunkmeyer growled.
Hudson grinned, and gave Spunkmeyer a wet kiss on the cheek before falling backward, laughing as Spunkmeyer frantically wiped his face with his shirt. “You missed me. You wanted to tag along.” He pulled himself into his bed, and patted his stomach. “Something stayed down because I still feel stuffed, man.”
“Good for you, you waste of space.” Spunkmeyer faced the wall, hoping to just fall into a dreamless sleep.
Spunkmeyer awoke to see Hudson wasn’t in the room. Some of his stuff had been neatened up, and there were no clothes on the floor. Despite this improvement, Spunkmeyer was still angry over the fact that Hudson blabbed to Henley about his situation. Snarling, Spunkmeyer opened the drawers on Hudson’s nightstand, dumping their contents on the floor.
“What the hell’re you doing?”
Spunkmeyer turned to see Hudson standing in the doorway, looking shocked. An emotional bubble was starting to swell in his chest.
“No one said you could touch my stuff, man. First, I wake up with a fucking headache, and now I got you throwing my shit everywhere! What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
Spunkmeyer looked at the floor, visibly ashamed. He stared at the mess on the floor. “Everything’s wrong with me, I guess.”
Hudson’s eyes were narrowed to gray slits, but his voice was somewhat soft when he spoke. “This is why I said something to Henley. I know you told me not to tell anybody, man, but, I told you, I don’t know what to do. You are sad and angry all the time over something you got no control over. That’s not good, man.”
“Why didn’t you ask me before saying something?!” Spunkmeyer shouted.
“Were you gonna let me? Probably not.”
“That doesn’t matter. You took my trust, and you destroyed it! Every single fucking time something good comes along for me, it gets taken away, and I’m sick of it!”
“Hey, why don’t you listen to what someone has to say before you assume that nobody cares about you? Believe me, I get that you’re scared and you don’t want to go through the rest of your life alone, but you’re gonna be alone if you don’t let this go. No one wants to be around someone who’s sad all the time, and it’s not because we don’t love you; it’s because we don’t know how to help you. We’ve tried everything-I’ve tried everything to make you feel like you belong here. I don’t want to lose hope on you, man. That’s why I brought it up with the corporal; he can get you professional help if you need it.” Hudson shrugged. “Does it help that I didn’t tell him your real age?”
“Well, good. Alright, now that everything’s cleared up, let’s go back to being friends-”
“Okay. Let’s go back to being brothers, and work a little harder at our communication.”
“Deal.” Spunkmeyer went for a handshake, but was grabbed in a hug instead. Not wanting to get angry, not wanting to worsen the aches in his heart, he accepted the hug.
Since he had never been below the twenty-degrees-north latitude line before, Spunkmeyer wasn’t at all used to the summer heat in Florida. Even Hudson was laying on his bed, fanning his face with a magazine. “That layer of ice we have as northerners is melting, man.”
“Layer of ice, huh,” Spunkmeyer said. “Maybe that’s why we have more hair all over.”
Hudson laughed. “I’ll bet it is.” He glanced at Spunkmeyer. “I don’t think I told you I’m from Minnesota. It’s pretty much sub-Arctic up there year-round.”
“I can imagine.”
“It’s not as bad in the city, but I grew up in the middle of nowhere, man.”
“How’d you end up in the Marines, then? They actually had recruiters there?”
“When I graduated high school, I moved to the city,” Hudson replied. “I wasn’t all that happy with myself, so I enlisted. I was alone, and I didn’t think I was gonna find what I really wanted if I stayed in the same place.”
“And have you found what you wanted yet?”
Hudson shook his head. “Nothing’s really stuck with me, man. Do you know what you wanna do?”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “I’d still like to play pro baseball someday.”
“That’s ambitious, man. Hell, you’d probably need to go to college and play there before the big leagues notice you.”
“They’re gonna know I didn’t graduate high school. I can’t do college, period.”
“What about your fake diploma?”
“Won’t work. They’ll look for my high school transcripts, and I don’t have any past my sophomore year. I’m screwed. I’ll never be able to get into the major league. The most I’ll ever be able to do is get a job with a high school team or little league or something like that. I don’t want that. I want to play.”
“You think that now, but maybe you’ll change your mind in a few years. Maybe something will happen where you can’t play anymore, like an injury or something.” Hudson shrugged. “You are in a line of work where it’s very easy to get hurt, man.”
“I know, but I had to do something. Kendriss sure as hell wouldn’t help me out with college.”
“Yeah, you got a point, there. She just sounds like a really cold-hearted bitch.”
“Well, she adopted me out of impulse. She delivered me. I guess she felt obliged to take me in, and then realized I wasn’t like a doll or something.”
“Any idea why she didn’t hand you over to a foster home?”
“No clue whatsoever. I just know that she did love me at first, and something just… killed it. She hugged me once when I was little, and that was it.”
“That probably explains why you really lean into my hugs, man,” Hudson snorted. “Hey, it’s all over now. You’re on your own. You got a job and money and a family.”
“Thanks, Hudson.” Although Spunkmeyer still didn’t feel better, Hudson’s words helped.
Several days later, the team was performing routine resupply and maintenance work on their assigned transport ship, the USS Sulaco, docked at the Sandoval Shipyard, one of several space stations used as orbital ports for Colonial Marine vessels. Spunkmeyer remembered being surprised in the beginning of flight school when he found out that RIFTs did most of their own work, but there was something comforting about the manual labor.
It didn’t take long for Spunkmeyer to catch sight of Apone operating one of their assigned P-5000 powerloaders, and his breath caught as he remembered reading something in his father’s obituary, that he had been a powerloader operator at a port in New York. As soon as Apone was finished his work, Spunkmeyer approached him. “Sergeant?”
Apone finished unstrapping himself and stepped out of the loader. “What’s going on, Spunkmeyer?”
“Could… Do you think I could learn to run that?” Spunkmeyer pointed at the powerloader. Apone looked surprised as he reached into his pockets for a cigar, but instead of refusing, he said, “I don’t see why not. Walters was our last regular powerloader operator, and I had to take over when his contract was up. But I’ve got a lot of other work to do, so having someone else would take a load off for me. It’s not something I’m allowed to teach you, though. I can train you on the cargo tractors and the forklifts, but powerloader training is something you have to get special instruction for. That means an eight week training program. Luckily for you, they’ve got a training set-up right here on Sandoval. It means staying up here for the full eight weeks, but at least you’ll be up here and ready to go if we get deployed. I’ll put in the paperwork to get it started when we get back down planetside.”
Apone smiled around the cigar at him. “My pleasure. You and Ferro done your check on Flying Shark here?”
Spunkmeyer looked back at the UD-4 dropship that would serve as their primary craft for planetary deployments. “Just finishing up, and then we still have to run regular diagnostics on Bug Stomper,” he said, referring to their second UD-4, which was typically used as a backup or if another small unit was being deployed with them.
“Alright then, hop to it.”
Spunkmeyer smiled to himself as he turned back to the dropship. Even if he could never meet his father, he felt like getting to use the powerloader would be one step closer to him. It was something to hold on to.
Spunkmeyer wasn’t completely anticipating what would be going into the training, however. It was much more difficult than he expected, and the eight weeks felt like a lot longer than they really were. But one of the positives beyond simply getting to operate the powerloader was that it would carry over to the civilian world, giving him more options for things to do when he became a civvie again. I can fly every spacecraft the Marines have in inventory and use a powerloader… but I can’t drive a car. Spunkmeyer figured he was going to have to do that soon; he didn’t want to be in his twenties and not be able to drive. Everyone else his age was getting their permits or passing their road tests. Come on, flying is more impressive. You just put your classmates to shame. At that thought, Spunkmeyer allowed himself to smirk. His bragging rights were going to be well-earned.
He enjoyed using the powerloader, and it was beginning to feel like it was a part of him. Along with using it, he learned how to take care of it, and he felt better about himself when it came to making sure the loader was in working order. He felt like he was capable of responsibility, capable of caring for something, and he wanted to go above and beyond with it.
The loader would never replace human contact, but Spunkmeyer prided himself in knowing he took better care of a piece of machinery than Kendriss ever did for him.
In the months that followed his return from training, Spunkmeyer truly felt like he belonged with this motley group of Marines. They were family. They were what he always wanted, and needed. They provided the happiness he had been starved of for his whole life. He had a best friend in Ferro, and a big brother in Hudson. On missions, he felt like he was respected, needed. They were able to shed the goofiness and get to work. After work, the goofiness came back.
In late November, the entire unit was moved up to New York, where Spunkmeyer showed Ferro around. He couldn’t resist hugging her in the glow of a sunset. Friends could hug. It was a long, warm, and comforting hug.
Spunkmeyer also took advantage of their location to search out his father’s gravestone. He bought a baseball pin from a trinket shop, and laid it next to the headstone. He knelt by it for some time, pondering the heavy feelings in his chest. “I wish you were here,” he whispered. “I wish you could’ve seen me grow up, and change, and become a man. I haven’t lost that cap you gave me. I’ve been good to the people that love me. I’m living my own life. I have a real family now, and I wish you could meet them all.” He swallowed past a lump in his throat. “If you’ve been watching me all this time, you’re doing a good job… Dad. A-And if I ever become a father, I’m gonna love my own kids with all my heart.” Tears began rolling down his face. “I’m gonna hold ’em tight every night, and I’m not gonna let go. I want to be the dad I know you would’ve been for me.”
A cold breeze blew through him, drying the tears and stinging his eyes. Spunkmeyer sobbed, clutching the stone in front of him. He felt like he was pouring out years and years of pain that had festered in his chest. Everything was aching badly when he finished his cry. He let out his breath, hoping that would be the last time he would have to cry so much.
On Christmas Eve, Spunkmeyer went down to the base’s call center to phone Evison and wish him a Merry Christmas. He was expecting Evison’s happy voice and generally positive demeanor, but instead, he got the opposite.
“What is it, Spunkmeyer?” Evison asked, sounding sad and tired.
“I… was calling to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ but… what’s wrong?”
“General Paulson died last night.”
Spunkmeyer stopped dead. Paulson was the commander of the 3rd Division, the 9th Regiment’s parent unit. He couldn’t even begin to imagine if and how that would affect his team. “What happened?”
Evison was silent for a moment. “He… hung himself.”
Spunkmeyer felt something contort in his stomach. “W-why?”
“No one knows. Right now, I… Back when I was with 5th Regiment’s RIFT 2, Paulson was the regiment commander when he was just a colonel. I served under him for several years before I got injured, and then he got promoted and took the 3rd Division right after. This came suddenly, and… I’m sorry, I know this is supposed to be a very happy time of year, and this is your first real Christmas-” Evison couldn’t seem to put a sentence together. “Spunkmeyer, I’m sorry.”
“No. Don’t be sorry. If you need to talk, that’s fine.”
“I’ll call you back when I can talk. I can’t put any of my thoughts into words at the moment.”
Putting the phone back on its hook, Spunkmeyer absentmindedly adjusted his jacket. He could understand how Evison was feeling. Maybe it wasn’t exactly the same, but he knew how it felt to have a piece of your heart torn out. He was putting his back together, but the stitches were uneven and it was fairly obvious that everything had been broken. It would never appear whole, unblemished, again. It was never going to look whole in the first place. A part of him wished he could comfort Evison, but he knew that wasn’t possible right now.
A few days before Christmas, it was announced the Henley was being promoted to sergeant, and would be leaving the unit to command one of his own. Though Henley could be harsh at times, he was by no means a bad person. Hell, he was a kitten compared to Larkins, and he was generally looking out for the best interests of his subordinates, Spunkmeyer included.
The base was quiet up until a few days after New Year’s, when Apone announced at breakfast that the unit would be getting a new corporal in a few weeks. Spunkmeyer wondered if one of them was getting a promotion, but quickly found out that wasn’t the case; Apone was picking from guys that had requested transfers. Cool. I won’t be the new guy anymore.
It was late in February when this new corporal, somebody called Dwayne Hicks, arrived, and he wasn’t at all what Spunkmeyer was expecting. He was a skinny man with messy short hair and bloodshot gray-green eyes. He gave an aura that he had been through something horrendous and awful, and he wasn’t at all quick to interact with everyone when he found everyone in the lounge. Hudson tried to be friendly, offering Hicks to sit with them and have something to snack on. Hicks was hesitant, but he ended up joining the group and talking a little bit.
Spunkmeyer learned the basics about Hicks: he was from Alabama, he joined the Marines right out of high school, and he was planning on staying in for life. Other than that, Hicks didn’t make an effort to talk to anyone. During dinner, he ate his food and kept to himself, not engaging in any conversations, period.
That night, Spunkmeyer was fast asleep when someone entered the room to shake him awake.
“Hey, you’re the one they trained with the powerloader, right?” Hicks whispered.
Slowly, Spunkmeyer sat up, groaning, “What time is it?”
“I don’t care. You’re the one they trained with the powerloader, right?”
“Get out of bed and get your fucking clothes on.” When Spunkmeyer didn’t move fast enough, Hicks shouted, “NOW!”
Hudson sat up in his bunk. “What the hell, man?” He looked down at Hicks. “It’s midnight, man, we’re all sleeping. What’s your problem?”
“I will make you march the hallway if you don’t keep your nose outta this,” Hicks snarled, grabbing Spunkmeyer by the collar. “Move it, in the loading bay! Left, left, right-get in step, dammit.”
Spunkmeyer began wondering if he was having a nightmare. “What’s going on? What do you want?”
“I didn’t give you permission to ask questions.”
Unable to figure out if this was reality, Spunkmeyer screamed. “Hudson! HUDSON! Somebody, help! Help, please!”