Evison allowed the Marines to grab breakfast and coffee before boarding the bus, much to Larkins’s dismay and disapproval. The two compromised; the young Marines could get food, but they only had an hour.
Drinking coffee was a completely new experience for Spunkmeyer, and he felt like he needed to do it to look like an adult. It had a very delicious smell, and a welcome one after twelve weeks of things that certainly didn’t smell delicious. It was a slightly bitter drink, aided by the cream and sugar and hazelnut flavor.
It was still dark, and Spunkmeyer’s exhaustion and jet lag weren’t helping his basic concentration, nor was it helping pull him out of the boot camp mindset.
“You’ll all be able to get a little more rest when we get there,” Evison said, noting how tired many of the group looked. “Don’t panic or worry. Trust me, this is a different environment. You’ll learn what you need to learn, and when the day is over, that time is yours. Weekends are yours, too. We want you prepared for your job, but we also want to make sure you have time to focus on yourself, make friends. Hell, pilots and co-pilots have to get to know each other so they can function in a dropship together.” He wandered among the Marines when everyone was sitting in a café together, answering questions and giving a basic rundown of what their training would be like. “You will work with multiple people until you find someone you work extraordinarily well with. After that, you’ll both be put in the same unit. Best part is you won’t have complete separation from the females. Only rule we have is that when it’s lights-out, you’re in your own rooms. We don’t want any funny business.”
“So, does that mean… people can date?” someone asked, earning snickers from the others. Except Spunkmeyer. He stole a look at the girl he noticed earlier, and hoped she hadn’t noticed him. Yet.
Evison shrugged, not finding the question strange at all. “We generally frown upon that. I personally don’t care as long as it’s not interfering with your duties, so, if you have problems, just come to me. I won’t tell a soul.”
A lot of the people there are going to be over eighteen, which means I can’t date any of them. Fuck it, I’m not interested right now anyways. Spunkmeyer took another sip of his coffee, and decided to be included in the conversation. “What else is different?”
“Well, with permission, you can leave base and visit the city. There are lots of places on base where you can go grab some real food, but most people prefer going into Denver. When you get your room, you really do have your own room, but there’s one shower for the boys and one shower for the girls. Definitely, absolutely, positively do not get caught underdressed in the hallway. The females could see you, me or Larkins could see you, or an officer could see you. You will get in serious trouble. Underdressed means no shirt, no pants, no shoes, or all of the above. With medical, we have great medtechs who won’t rush you and they’ll always listen to you. Corporal Byrd is there most of the day, and he’s excellent. Don’t be afraid to go to him if you got even just a headache.”
Larkins glared at Evison. “Alright, fucking Q-and-A’s over. Get these people on the damn bus.”
Spunkmeyer’s nervousness returned as he got in line again, looking down when Larkins walked by him.
“Eyes straight, fucker,” she snarled, turning to look at him.
Spunkmeyer looked straight, and saw he was standing behind the girl. There was a sweet scent about her, and he liked it. The girl glanced at the Marine standing next to her, letting Spunkmeyer see more of her face up close. Then she noticed him.
“Hi,” she said.
“Um… uh… h-hi,” Spunkmeyer stuttered. He swallowed hard, looking down again.
“You look nervous.”
“Well, yeah, I’m nervous.” Spunkmeyer checked to make sure Larkins wasn’t paying any attention to them. “She’s nuts.”
“Certainly seems it. Evison seems really nice, though.”
Spunkmeyer nodded, feeling slightly more comfortable. “I’m Spunkmeyer. Uh… Daniel Spunkmeyer.”
“Colette Ferro. Nice to meet you.”
A small smile crossed Spunkmeyer’s face, but then he heard someone storming up next to him and Ferro.
Larkins grabbed Ferro’s shoulder. “Did you receive permission to talk? Did you?!”
Stunned, Ferro tried to respond, but no words came out.
“Yes or no, Private?!”
“N-No, ma’am.” Ferro tried not to sob.
Something wrenched in Spunkmeyer’s chest. He wanted to help, but he was overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness.
“Your number one rule here is to never step outta line,” Larkins snarled. “I catch you disobeying the simplest rule again, and you’re getting a one-way ticket back to wherever the fuck you came from, is that clear?”
“Answer me, damn you!”
“Yes, ma’am!” Ferro sobbed.
“Now, stop crying, and get on that fucking bus.”
No one said a word to each other as they rode to the training base. Spunkmeyer was embarrassed over what happened at the airport. He felt guilty. After all, he was the one looking at Ferro. He was the one who prompted her to talk to him. He got her in trouble. Maybe it’s best I just don’t talk to anyone until I get outta here.
When they arrived, Evison gave them the tour of the barracks. The rooms for each Marine were small, but much better than a rack with an outdated and dirty mattress. There was a lot more space for storage, as well as spots for personal items, like books or care packages from family.
Spunkmeyer closed the door after Evison left everyone alone to sort their stuff, and began emptying his duffel bag. He hung up his dress uniforms in the closet, and put his foldable clothing in the drawers under the bed. His hygiene stuff was placed on a dresser across from the bed, and everything else was placed inside the dresser.
The last thing in his duffel bag was his father’s cap.
Spunkmeyer sat on his bed, turning the cap over in his hands. He sighed, tears rolling down his face. The chaplain had gotten so close, but couldn’t get any answers because of things beyond his control.
He emerged from his thoughts when he heard the rest of the division heading to their rooms, and someone knocked on the door.
“Spunkmeyer,” Evison called, “everyone’s getting ready to go to breakfast. You’ll be able to get your things organized a little later.”
“Yes, sir. Hey, ah… can I use the head?”
“You may. Just down the hall here. I’ll wait for you.”
Putting the cap in a drawer with a lock, Spunkmeyer tucked the key in his shirt before opening the door. He looked down at the floor as he passed by Evison, hoping the corporal didn’t remember him making eye contact with him at the airport. As he ducked into the restroom, Spunkmeyer breathed a sigh of relief. This was the closest he had gotten to privacy in a long time.
He was in there for some time, allowing his body to take its time and relax. He was used to being alone whenever he did his really personal stuff; after all, Miss Kendriss was rarely home, granting him all the privacy in the world. It made him anxious whenever someone was close by while he was doing his business, and he could never explain the reason.
After finishing his business, Spunkmeyer looked into the hallway. Evison was leaning against the wall with his hands behind his back, looking off into space. He turned to face Spunkmeyer when he heard the door open. “All finished?”
“Y-Yeah. Sir.” Spunkmeyer kept his head down. “Sorry it took so long.”
“You’re not the first. Won’t be the last. Don’t worry about it.” Evison gestured for Spunkmeyer to follow him, and Spunkmeyer noticed for the first time that Evison was missing his pinky finger on his right hand. He tried not to stare, but Evison caught him anyway.
“And that would be why I’m here, and not out in combat,” the corporal explained.
“What happened?” Spunkmeyer asked softly, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
“My FB-26 took a hit on a bombing run. Flak fragment tore my finger right off. You never think about how much you use your pinky fingers until you can’t use them. I can still hold onto things and fly well enough to be an instructor, but the Corps isn’t willing to risk getting someone killed because a missing finger kept me from being able to do my job properly. It’s not really that big of a deal, though. I love being an instructor, and it’s also not like I’m the only instructor who’s injured. Most instructors for RIFT-specific assignments were RIFT members who lost their combat statuses because of an injury. Hell, that’s why most of us aren’t even officers. RIFT units are mostly enlisted personnel, as I’m sure you’ve been told.”
“So what about Larkins?”
Evison hesitated. “That’s not exactly my story to tell, son. She… I don’t even know all of the details myself.”
The hall was silent aside from a voice over the PA system. It was easy for Spunkmeyer to avoid making eye contact with Evison; the walls were covered in photographs and medals and writing detailing the history of aircrews in the USCM, starting at the very beginning in 2101. There was almost a museum-like feel in that hall. A part of Spunkmeyer doubted he would ever be depicted on these walls. Especially not if they find out what I did to get here.
After passing photos of the Marines’ current chain of command, Evison looked at Spunkmeyer from the corner of his eye. “So, where are you from?”
The question caught Spunkmeyer off-guard. He had hoped he wouldn’t have to talk to Evison then. “Um… New York. District, not the state.”
“Which borough? I’ve visited a few times. Never been stationed there, though.”
“Manhattan. Just a block or two north of Little Italy. Decent area.”
“Anyone you’re missing back home? Friends?” Evison gave Spunkmeyer a small smile. “Girlfriend?”
Spunkmeyer wanted to disappear. Sink into the floor. Curl into a ball and hide. Yet he didn’t want to lie. He didn’t want to tell the truth, either. “Not… exactly. There’s no one back home.”
“That can’t be possible. Not even one?”
“No. If I tell you what’s going on, can you promise not to tell anyone?”
“Sure. Spill it.”
“I really don’t have a family. Y’know, they didn’t… want me, at birth, and the nurse took pity on me, but that was it. She felt bad, but didn’t realize kids are a lot of work, so, all along, she didn’t want me, either. My real dad apparently left a baseball cap with me, and I had it taken away as soon as I got to training and the chaplain was nice enough to pick it up and… he tried to trace the cap’s seller, hoping that it would lead to my dad, and he got pretty far, but the store doesn’t keep old receipts, so there’s no more trail. We followed it as far as it’ll go. It’s not reasonable to try to keep searching, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, I don’t know if that’s the only trail you can cover, but I do know that you will find people here who’ll become your family. Your unit will become your family. It’s not going to fill that space in your heart, but it will lessen the pain. You have value to someone. Don’t ever convince yourself that because you were rejected by your biological parents and your adoptive mother, you will never make something of yourself. Someone out there-could be a friend, a future girlfriend-will love you. No one is ever put here to be unloved.”
Spunkmeyer nodded, taking a breath. “Alright. Thanks for… for just listening.”
Spunkmeyer followed Evison into the mess hall. Like the rest of the base, the mess hall was larger and nicer than the one at boot camp, and it looked like there were a lot more options in terms of food. Plus, everything looked fresh.
“You don’t have to get in line. Go where you want to go,” Evison said. “You feeling okay?” He tilted his head, giving Spunkmeyer a sympathetic look. “Still need to talk?”
“No. Thank you.” Spunkmeyer looked up at Evison, trying not to appear as though he wanted to talk more. He took a tray and wandered around the mess hall, picking and choosing what he wanted to eat. He noticed Ferro sitting at the other end of the table with some of the other females, appearing bored with their conversation, but also trying not to show it.
A part of Spunkmeyer felt like talking to her, but he resisted that urge.
The guys at the table Spunkmeyer wound up sitting at asked the simple questions first, like where he was from and whatnot, just like Evison. Spunkmeyer decided to be upfront and honest about his situation, without informing them that he was well under the legal age for a Marine.
The topic of being adopted didn’t last very long, which Spunkmeyer appreciated. What followed were the country boys asking what New York District was like, and vice versa. At least the one thing the majority of them had in common was some kind of baseball experience when they were kids.
They were all nice enough, but Spunkmeyer wasn’t sure if any of them would be the person to go to if something was wrong. Of course, it’s too soon to tell. Give it time. You’re not gonna make friends overnight.
The rest of the day went by rather slowly. Spunkmeyer was able to walk around and visit the lounge while everyone else was in the hangar with training. He was the only person there until a man with dark ginger hair strolled in, and smiled when he saw him.
“You’re Private Spunkmeyer, right?” the man asked. “I’m Corporal Byrd, head corpsman. Can you come with me for a minute?”
Spunkmeyer stood up, following Byrd down to sick bay.
“You’re not in trouble. Sometimes, they do a sloppy job of sending all your files up from recruit training. I just want to make sure all this information is intact and correct. Have a seat.” Byrd closed the door to his office. “You are… Private Daniel Spunkmeyer, age seventeen… Social Security number… military ID… male sex… no outstanding medical history.” He glanced at Spunkmeyer. “You have had no sexual relationships, partners, encounters, and the like?”
“Good. No abnormalities in your urine. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to provide a sample now. Eyesight is phenomenal. Hearing, good.” Byrd skimmed through another paper. “No wisdom teeth?”
“They haven’t come in yet.”
“Okay. Blood type, AB-positive. Everything else looks good.” Byrd smiled. “Anything bothering you right now?”
Spunkmeyer shook his head.
“Good. I don’t overreact. I use my common sense and don’t jump to the absolute worst conclusion. So, that’s all I needed. Thank you.”
“Really? That’s it?”
Byrd nodded. “Be advised, we do have random urine tests from time to time. Keep that in mind.”
He didn’t seem at all suspicious that Spunkmeyer was lying about something.
The entire base was immediately cloaked with silence after all the lights went out. Spunkmeyer lay awake, staring up at the ceiling. Again, the silence was unbearable. It was soon broken by the hum of a generator, but it wasn’t enough to lull him off to sleep. He felt like crying; homesickness crept up on him. Despite everything that had happened, he still considered New York to be home. The familiarity of everything had been stripped away. He had taken it away from himself. If he had just held out for two more years, he would’ve gotten himself a job and stayed in the city.
It just seemed so easy to quit, but he didn’t want to back out on this. He had barely gotten started, and he did pass boot camp; surely, that was a sign that he was meant to do this and continue onward.
Eventually, Spunkmeyer drifted into a dreamless sleep. He was jolted awake at six in the morning by someone knocking on the door.
“Time to get up! Rise and shine!” Evison called. “Get dressed, come on down for breakfast!”
People moved along at their own pace in the mess hall. Just like the day before, Spunkmeyer sat with some of the guys, and kept glancing at Ferro, who was now by herself. For a second, Spunkmeyer looked down at his food, and felt like someone was staring at him. He switched his gaze upward, and saw Ferro looking at him from the corner of his eye. This time, he moved his head in order to get full eye contact with her.
Shyly, he waved, and she shyly waved back.
Go talk to her, you dork. She waved back, that means you can initiate a conversation with her, right? Spunkmeyer held back, going back to his breakfast. He noticed he didn’t have much of an appetite anymore.
Spunkmeyer kept thinking about that little wave while getting fitted for his new uniform. He kept thinking about it for most of the day, as he got started with training. Everything began with safety, and correctly wearing your flight harness. Didn’t matter what you were flying, you wore a helmet and harness.
Larkins passed training guides out to the Marines seated in the classroom. “I expect you all to be studying these in your free time. You get way too much of that here, so why don’t you use it productively? Tests are given regularly, and if I don’t see passing marks on all of them, I don’t want to see you fucking flying. The first section is on safety and what to do in a training accident. Read it and study it. We will be going over it tomorrow. Dismissed.”
Today was much slower than yesterday. Spunkmeyer was glad his mind was a little more occupied, but it would be some time before he got into the swing of his new routine.
Every day would end with a fifteen-minute exercise session. While most people immediately went to shower afterward, Spunkmeyer isolated himself to study the training guide. He lay flat on his stomach, on his bed, with the book open in front of him. He figured he would read, and then shower when the crowd thinned out.
He paused when he heard someone crying, and got up to open his door and see Ferro slamming the door shut to her own room. An awful feeling starting up in his gut, Spunkmeyer stepped out in the hallway, taking a deep breath before knocking on Ferro’s door.