The turning of the calendar from September to October brought colder temperatures and anxiety among some of the Marines about going home for the holidays. Spunkmeyer wasn’t one of them. He was happy where he was, and it wasn’t like he had a family anticipating him anyways.
Snowstorms looming down from the Rockies would trap the Marines inside the base, and shut down any attempts at flight practice. The simulators were full most of the day, which made Larkins even more unbearable than usual, and Spunkmeyer noticed that her headaches and stomach pains seemed to be occurring more often than before, often two or three times a week. Some days she showed up wearing sunglasses even inside, and one day when someone opened a door to the outside and she was caught in the sunlight streaming in, she flinched and let out a string of curses. A tiny part of Spunkmeyer wondered why, but he really didn’t care.
October dragged a little. Spunkmeyer found himself missing the afternoons where he’d wander around Central Park. There’d be no more baseball until spring, so he was alone for the next six months. He remembered how there would be field trips to certain events all over the city, but couldn’t go due to never getting his permission slip signed. He tried going places on his own, and that wasn’t easy. Someone would always say, “Where’re your parents, kid?”
Many of those memories were fairly recent. The void in his heart ached as he thought about them.
He also remembered all the times he ventured out into the city, to be alone with his thoughts, to get away from home. He learned more about life just by observing everything around him, compared to anything Kendriss taught him, which was close to nothing.
On a Saturday morning near the end of the month, Spunkmeyer was up fairly early. Most people chose to sleep in on the weekends, but he couldn’t fall back asleep. There had been a lot of talk of home and family and loved ones among everyone, and every time, it felt like someone was digging in his heart, making that damned hole bigger and more painful. In basic, no one was allowed leave. From what Spunkmeyer had heard, it wasn’t even acknowledged. Specialized training was different, though. Anyone who wanted to go home between Thanksgiving and New Year’s was allowed to. It didn’t make a difference to him, though. He had nowhere to go.
He knew the others weren’t trying to make him sad or angry on purpose, but he couldn’t help feeling jealous and lonely.
The sound of someone knocking on the door jolted him from his thoughts. “Uh, come in,” he said, still pulling himself out of the recesses of his brain.
Ferro peered inside the room. “Good morning.”
Spunkmeyer didn’t respond right away. “’Morning.”
“What’s the matter? You don’t seem very happy to see me.” Ferro closed the door, and sat on the edge of the bed.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be taking my problems out on you.”
“Well, if it’s not me, then what is it?”
Spunkmeyer took a breath, struggling to put his thoughts in words. “You know how everyone’s thinking about going home for the holidays already? I…”
“You wish you had that.”
Ferro nodded. “It’s okay. I get it. I can’t imagine it’s a nice feeling for you.” She touched Spunkmeyer’s shoulder. “You’re not gonna be alone. I promise.”
“Really? You’d do that?”
“Yeah. Look, I don’t want to stay here if Larkins is gonna be the Grinch, but I’ll stay here because I don’t want you feeling lonely.”
A weak smile crossed Spunkmeyer’s face. “Gee, thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Okay, I originally came here to ask if you wanted to get some breakfast, so, would you?”
“Sure. Just let me get dressed.”
Instead of going to the mess hall, Ferro took Spunkmeyer to the recreational part of the base, where they sat down in a tiny diner wedged between the bank and a convenience store. The coffee wasn’t as good as the stuff in Denver, but Spunkmeyer put up with it.
“So, something really weird happened last night,” Ferro began.
“I saw Larkins coming out of her office about an hour before lights out. Her eyes were all red, and her face looked wet. I think she had been crying.”
So, the bitch can cry. Spunkmeyer was surprised, but all he said was, “Huh.”
“I’m not sure if she realized I saw, but she started yelling at me anyway to get in the shower.”
Spunkmeyer nodded, taking another sip of coffee before saying, “I heard that last night. Wondered what it was all about, but I didn’t think it was exactly a good idea to stick my head out when I heard the bitch going off.”
“I can’t help wondering if she really was crying, and why.”
Shrugging, Spunkmeyer asked, “Why should we care?”
Ferro gave him a confused look. She opened her mouth to say something, but paused, as if unsure of her words, so Spunkmeyer continued. “Look, she puts us through hell every day. We don’t deserve the way she treats us, but she does it anyway. Look at how many times she’s made you or one of the others cry. And I can guarantee that this isn’t the first time she’s done this. As far as I’m concerned, whatever the hell’s up with her,” he spat, “It serves her right.”
Ferro was silent for several moments, a thoughtful expression on her face. “Maybe you’re right,” she said finally. “It’s not like we can exactly talk to her about it.”
“Right. So can we change the subject?”
“Okay. So what are we talking about?”
“Um…” Spunkmeyer found himself hesitating.
“Well?” Ferro gave him a playful smirk, and he felt his heart speed up. He had already opened up to her about why he didn’t like the holidays, and she had been nicer to him than anyone else. He thought back to that day out in the city, and it stirred thoughts about telling Ferro the truth about himself. I do trust her. Hopefully, I haven’t waited too long. He swallowed nervously, setting his cup down. I’m going to tell her. “Hey, Ferro, look, there’s… there’s something I wanna tell you. It’s 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. “What?”
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, “…seventeen.”
Ferro frowned, and leaned in to whisper. “You’re not what?”
“I’m not seventeen. There. I said it. I’m sixteen. Listen, it’s a long story. Please, don’t think of me any differently, I-”
“Spunkmeyer, relax. I’m not going to think of you differently, and I won’t tell anyone.”
“No, of course not. You know I don’t like Larkins. You think I want her knowing? I don’t want to see her rip your head off.”
Spunkmeyer breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. I’m so glad I finally got that off my chest.”
“Hey, if it makes you feel better, I was convinced you were seventeen.” Ferro smiled. “Lots of people enlist underage. You hear stories about that all the time. I am curious, though, about why you did it.”
“I needed to leave home. You know, I… it…” 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. She looked down at the table, waiting for Spunkmeyer to keep talking, but then looked at him. “You don’t have to tell me everything. I’ve got a good idea of why. I’m sorry.”
“No, no, don’t be sorry. Just don’t.”
Sighing, Ferro got up to sit next to Spunkmeyer. She put her arms around him, holding him tightly. Rubbing his arm, she whispered, “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, yet it felt necessary. Sure, 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 friend’s head on his shoulder. When they pulled apart, the pain had changed into a slight discomfort from his heart seemingly swelling with emotion. Ferro took a napkin to dry Spunkmeyer’s face. She smiled, but she couldn’t find the right words to say.
They headed to their personal quarters after returning to base. Spunkmeyer was still shaky from telling Ferro his big secret, partly from his relief that it would stay between them and only them.
“It’s almost dinner,” Ferro said. “Hurry so we’re not late.”
“No worries,” Spunkmeyer replied, opening the door to his quarters. “You hurry and don’t hang around trying to catch a glimpse of my skivvies.”
Ferro gave him a look. “I thought we weren’t thinking about dating.”
“It’s a joke. We keep hanging out and some of the others around here might assume we are.”
Ferro nodded, and shrugged. “Fair point.” She turned to head down the hall, looking back to give Spunkmeyer one last smile before he closed the door.
Another few weeks passed. It was a couple days after Halloween when Spunkmeyer and several other new Marine pilots were taken to the simulation chambers for their first test drops. Evison took Spunkmeyer and another pilot into one simulator, and gave them a brief rundown of the controls.
“Alright, gentlemen, when you feel ready to drop, taken this joystick-right in front of you, Spunkmeyer-and press the button on top. Buckle yourselves in, and wait for my command. I’ll be auto-controlling this baby, so don’t worry about ‘flying’ it. This is just to see how well you handle a drop.” Evison patted their shoulders, and checked their harnesses and helmets. “Good to go. Wait for my signal.” He jogged out of the simulator, slamming the doors shut behind him.
Spunkmeyer took a deep breath. He had followed everyone’s advice and eaten a really light lunch, but there were still nervous twinges in his gut. Every sound seemed amplified in his helmet. He could hear his heart beating and blood rushing through his head and air moving in and out of his lungs. Suddenly, there was static, and Evison said, “All systems are a go. How’re you feeling?”
“Anxious, sir,” Spunkmeyer replied.
“You’ll be alright. If anything goes wrong, I’ll shut the machine off ASAP. Drop when you’re ready.”
Spunkmeyer kept his “thanks” for Evison in his head. He wrapped his gloved hand around the joystick, taking in a breath. Then he let go of his breath, and pressed the button.
It really did feel like the simulator had detached from a larger transport. Spunkmeyer felt every organ in his torso shoot up into his throat. His breath was forced from his lungs, and he was pushed back in his seat. A second later, everything went black.
“Easy now. He’s alright, just let him come around.” Evison was standing over Spunkmeyer, holding his shoulders. “Good morning!” he said when he saw Spunkmeyer’s hazel eyes open.
Confused and unnerved, Spunkmeyer tried to adjust himself in his seat. As he did, his stomach protested the slight movement.
“You need the bucket, son?”
“Don’t think so. What happened?”
“You blacked out. Perfectly normal if you haven’t done this before. You’ll get used to it. Unbuckle yourself, and go sit for a few minutes.”
Unsteadily, Spunkmeyer got out of the simulator, gripping the railing tightly. He stumbled over to a bench near the door, and sat down. The contents of his stomach were still moving, like waves on rough seas. He was certain he’d throw up soon, and he leaned over, gagging.
“Sit up and take a deep breath, rat turd,” Larkins ordered when she walked over to him. “Don’t even think about puking on this floor.”
His anxiety around Larkins just made the nausea worse, though his anxiety was tinged with resentment. You get pissed at us for little things, but you cry just the same. Good luck finding anyone who’ll give you sympathy. Spunkmeyer took a breath, trying not to think about Larkins or his nausea. For a moment, his stomach seemed to settle, and he relaxed. Ignore her. Think about something pleasant. Think about Ferro. He thought about her warm hugs and her smile. He thought about the long conversations they’d have early in the morning and late at night, either in his room or her room. They’d talk about everything on their minds. Sometimes, all Ferro needed was a shoulder to cry on, and Spunkmeyer needed someone to listen to him.
Larkins pulled off her sunglasses, the brief wince at the exposure to the brightly lit room quickly turning to an infuriated glare as she caught his eyes. “What the fuck are you thinking about?” She snarled.
“You’re thinking about something good. I can see it in your face. What is it? Tell me before I shake the shit outta you.” She took a step closer, and Spunkmeyer gulped nervously.
“Leave him alone, Larkins,” Evison called. “You feeling better, Spunkmeyer?”
“Come over here, then.” As Spunkmeyer approached, Evison whispered, “I’m not putting you back in the machine just yet. I’m just getting you away from her.”
“I can get through this. Put me back in.”
“You’ll be sick as a dog. No.” Evison then paused, and sighed. “Let me give this next group their test, and then you can try again, alright?”
Spunkmeyer sat with a few other Marines, waiting for Evison to call him. He found himself getting nervous again as he sat, and took a few deep breaths. He knew what to expect. Surely, this test would go smoother.
Several minutes later, Evison took Spunkmeyer back into the simulator. “You know what to do. Wait for my signal, and press the button.”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “Understood, sir.” He took another breath, waiting to hear Evison’s voice in his headset.
“When you’re ready, press the button to drop.”
This time, Spunkmeyer didn’t hesitate. He pressed down hard on the button, again being yanked back into his seat and feeling his organs move awkwardly. He blacked out a second time, but came to quicker. As he focused his vision, he tried drawing in a breath, and could feel himself leaving the seat a little. Suddenly, he felt the seat beneath him again, and the movement stopped.
Well, the simulator stopped moving. His insides didn’t.
Stumbling out of the machine, Spunkmeyer groped around for the nearest trash can. He grabbed the one by the door, hurling his lunch into it.
Evison walked over. “I figured it’d all come up sooner or later. Go have some water, wash out your mouth, and lie down. You’re done for the day.”
This time, Spunkmeyer didn’t argue.