Despite feeling cramped and disoriented after spending more than half the day inside the simulator, Spunkmeyer was overjoyed at the fact that he was moving forward in his training. He left the machine, expecting Evison to tell him that he did well for his first try, but the corporal was elsewhere, assisting someone else. Even when Evison looked in Spunkmeyer’s direction, he did nothing, simply returning to his duties.
Spunkmeyer forced himself not to care. That was too easy to do, but he did it anyway. There was no pressuring someone not interested in the first place to give a crap. It didn’t stop the feeling of another claw digging into his heart and tearing part of it out, though. He was pretty sure that, soon, there’d be nothing left for it to rip out.
“You alright? You seem a bit lost.” Falsson tossed his harness back into the simulator. “You did alright today. I’m impressed. I knew Larkins was probably wrong about you being slow, but I wasn’t expecting you to be so… collected, I guess.”
Why do I feel like bawling my eyes out right now? Spunkmeyer felt a sudden urge to run away, and be left alone. Disappearing altogether sounded good, too.
“Spunkmeyer? Hey, are you in there?”
“No. Just leave me alone.” Spunkmeyer stormed out of the chamber, unable to hold back the torrent of emotions anymore. He jogged to his quarters, and slammed the door behind him. The tears flowed freely; he sobbed without caring if someone was going to hear him outside. He thought back to his encounter with Ferro after she nearly crashed on the runway. “How could I get so far, and yet not go anywhere at all?”
It was obvious Evison had made a mistake by being kind to him when they first met. Or maybe Spunkmeyer made a mistake by not telling him right off the bat what was wrong. What’s done was done, though. These feelings had to stop before they got out of hand. That meant someone had to know, in order to help him. That someone was Ferro.
Sometime before lights-out, Spunkmeyer knocked on Ferro’s door. “You still up? I need to talk to you.”
Ferro opened the door. “No, I’m fast asleep and can’t hear you. What is it?”
“In private.” Spunkmeyer walked in, closing the door behind him. “I need help.”
“Today, I got to fly with Falsson, and after getting out, I… I expected Evison to say something to me. Everything just… I felt kinda like you did after you had that bad landing a few months ago. I know I shouldn’t have any kind of emotional attachment to a superior, period, but, with Evison, he feels like the father I didn’t have.”
Ferro thought for a moment. “I get it, because you didn’t have any supportive adult figures in your life at all. The first person to show you kindness just happened to be your commanding officer. You do realize that no matter the excuse, you and Evison could get in a lot of trouble. Didn’t he tell you that he shouldn’t be giving you anything?”
“Well, there’s your solution. Don’t let that feeling overwhelm you. Keep telling yourself that he’s your superior, and you need to maintain a professional relationship. Imagine if Larkins found out. You’d be screwed. She’d probably paint her bedroom wall with both your guts and Evison’s.”
Spunkmeyer nodded, knowing Ferro had a point. “So, act like he’s no different than Kendriss.”
“If it works, yeah.”
“I can do that.” In truth, Spunkmeyer didn’t know if he could. Evison was too kind. There was no way he could pretend Evison was Kendriss.
That tactic seemed to work over the next several days, since Evison didn’t really talk to Spunkmeyer following his first simulator flight. As training progressed, Spunkmeyer found himself busy with learning various flight techniques, landing, what to do in an emergency, evacuating wounded, and the list went on. The only time Evison spoke to him was during training. The more Spunkmeyer pretended, the more it hurt. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. He wanted so badly for someone to notice, to care, anything. He wanted to scream that he didn’t care that Evison was his superior.
This feels so childish, Spunkmeyer thought.
On the first day of the second week after beginning simulator training, they were up for something new: Larkins and Evison were going to show them how to perform maintenance on a working model of the GAU-113/B, the autocannon used on several of the craft they would be piloting. 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 not 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, 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, given how Larkins had behaved. He would hold onto the glasses for a while and give them to Ferro later. Maybe around graduation time. It wouldn’t be good if Larkins just so happened to catch Ferro with them, even in her quarters. It wouldn’t be any better if she caught Spunkmeyer with them, but she was a lot less likely to come into his quarters and look around than Ferro’s.
The transition to December was quickly followed by training beginning to slow down again. On one of the slowest days, General Graham, the training facility commander, came by to personally inspect the trainees. Spunkmeyer had heard a good bit about the general and had seen him quite a few times from a distance, but never up close. It was obvious, however, that he had a lot of faith in Evison; he was seen walking alongside him, but never with Larkins. He was tall, muscular, and had the appearance of a fairly young grandfather instead of an officer.
When he left the mess hall after dinner, Spunkmeyer overheard Evison talking with Graham in one of the classrooms. “Based on your reports, I’d say you have a good batch of new Marines on your hands,” Graham was saying.
“Larkins has the majority of their records, sir. If you want, I can bring them to you,” Evison said.
“I know it seems unprofessional for me to say this, but I don’t trust her reporting. Her standards are highly exaggerated, way beyond what we expect instructors of any specialization to have.”
“Please, sir, explain to me why she hasn’t been transferred.”
“You know enough about her background and what happened to land her here, Evison. This was her choice. She’s been a pilot from enlistment. There’s nothing else that she could smoothly transition to. I know you don’t think of her as having feelings, but to force her to start training in something else, where she’d be surrounded by people far younger than her, and be continually talked down to by someone of her own rank, would be crushing. There’s nothing I can do.”
“I’m not exactly thrilled to wake up every morning and be told I coddle my Marines. I’ve dealt with it long enough, 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 far 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 feel like leaving all my Marines behind, though.”
“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?”
“No, sir-well, actually, there is one thing.” Evison lowered his voice. “What can I do for someone who… needs some help, emotionally? Please, don’t mistake this for something terrible. It’s-”
“What kind of problem are we talking about here?”
“Giving somebody the recognition and attention they didn’t get when they were younger. I completely understand that giving any Marine extra attention that doesn’t involve training is against the rules, and it is my fault. I felt sorry for him.”
“Don’t be ashamed of the fact that you feel sorry for him. It’s a normal, human thing to feel.”
“A good commanding officer should be seen as a father figure to his Marines. You obviously projected that image to this Marine in particular. For that, you should be proud.”
Again, Evison became silent.
“That doesn’t mean dote on him or give him things you would never give someone else under your command, but you should still be there if he needs someone on his side.”
Hearing that conversation gave Spunkmeyer a small sense of relief. He wasn’t crazy or desperate and he wasn’t breaking any rules. He let the whole thing go, and was able to put more focus into his training as a result. It just didn’t seem worth dwelling on anymore. Life went on.
Christmas and New Year’s passed. Spunkmeyer missed about two weeks of training due to a bad cold, but at least Ferro was with him for most of that time. He didn’t recall his training partner ever making the effort to see if he was okay outside of when they were actually working together. A little interaction outside the simulator would go a long way, and Spunkmeyer wasn’t seeing it. He was also working to push himself further, and that didn’t sit well with Falsson.
“We’re supposed to be following the instructions in the manual,” Falsson said. “You’re proposing we try out an extremely dangerous evasive tactic, and you are not experienced enough to-”
“When am I gonna be experienced enough in your mind?” Spunkmeyer asked. “I dunno how many times you’ve said that to me. We’ve been working together for almost five months, and you never once said I have ‘enough experience’ to much of anything.”
“That is what I have observed with you.” Falsson gave Spunkmeyer a hard look. “In the field, your impatience could get us killed. Not only that, you could endanger the lives of the Marines we’re in change of transporting. That is why I keep saying you don’t have enough experience.”
“I’ve been patient long enough. We haven’t gotten a lotta bad marks on any of our test flights. Evison says I’m 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. As we grew to know each other, I saw exactly what you are. Having been rejected by the people around you so many times, you’ve become desperate to please everyone, and you think the only way to do that is to impress them, take one step ahead of everyone else. You are 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. You have no passion for your job. The only reason you are 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-helping our fellow Marines, as well as the civilians we protect. You don’t have that drive. You’ve been blinded by your life experiences. 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 hours flirting with Private Ferro.”
“Honestly, I cannot believe you’d make all these assumptions after you were so nice to me back in November. 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.”
Since he couldn’t find Ferro in the mess hall during lunch, Spunkmeyer sat across from one of the male pilots he had gotten to know over the last several months, a young man named Herschel. Before he could say anything, Herschel held up his hand.
“You know what?” Spunkmeyer asked.
“What happened during training.”
“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 am 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. “He went home over the holidays and found out his dad had been killed in an accident. Helping a neighbor get heavy snow off the roof, and a big chunk of ice fell down and took him out almost instantly.”
A feeling of pity emerged in the pit of Spunkmeyer’s stomach. “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.”
Of course, Spunkmeyer didn’t mean those words when he left the mess hall. Tears streaming down his face, he headed to Evison’s office, hoping and praying he could get some form of help. He was done hiding from Evison. I need to be honest about how I’m feeling. It’s the only way I’ll be able to solve anything.
The door was wide open, and he could see Evison scrolling through some important documents on his computer. He glanced over when he saw Spunkmeyer approaching. “You need something?”
“I need to know something, sir.” Spunkmeyer closed the door behind him, and sat in a chair in front of Evison’s desk. He tried to get his words out, but began sobbing instead. “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. Most everyone on base heard. It’s not a secret.” 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 it’s right what Falsson said to you. Even Larkins agreed it wasn’t right.”
Spunkmeyer was silent for a moment, struggling to process his thoughts. “He is right, though. 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 don’t even care?”
“Know that I’m proud of you.”
“I thought you-”
“Having pride in you isn’t against the rules. I’m not giving you advantages or favors because of it.” Evison gave a slight smile. “Duly noted, we should keep that between us.”
“Am I still going to have to work with Falsson tomorrow?”
“No. Guess who finally lost it with her partner as well.”