Ferro was adjusting her flight suit in the hangar near the dropship she’d be flying for her final assessment. She’d be flying with Evison in the co-pilot’s seat, so he could see if she really was ready to be sent to her first unit. From the corner of her eye, she saw Spunkmeyer walking up to her.
“Excited?” he asked.
“Nervous,” Ferro replied. “You?”
“Nah-well, a little, but, everyone is.” Spunkmeyer grinned, then looked outside at the cloudless blue sky. “Nice day. Hopefully, that’ll work in your favor.”
“Evison told me it’s a good sign when the sun is out on your final assessment day. That, and he mentioned I should be graduating as a lance corporal.” Ferro smiled back, and then took a breath. “Thanks for helping me, Spunkmeyer. I can’t express how much I appreciate all you’ve done.”
“No problem. Thanks for making me feel like I matter to somebody.”
Ferro gave him a quick hug, then turned to jog to the dropship.
Spunkmeyer turned to leave as well, but then paused, and turned back. “Hey, Ferro!”
Spunkmeyer gave her a thumbs up. “I believe in you. Remember that, okay?” He winked, and walked out of the hangar.
Like boot camp, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare when it came to graduation. Spunkmeyer knew he wasn’t going to experience something like high school or college graduation, but here he was, moving on to the next phase of his life while everyone else his age was still in school.
He wondered if his father was watching him, if he had been there all along for the last fifteen years. He wondered if his father was proud.
Although the only image he had was from a yearbook, Spunkmeyer tried to picture the man standing across from the group of Marine pilots. Tears began rolling down his face, and he struggled to maintain a stoic expression for the ceremony. Next to him, Ferro gently took his hand, squeezed it, then let go.
After the ceremony, Evison began taking Marines into his office and giving them their new unit assignments. It was almost an hour when he finally got to Spunkmeyer and Ferro. “Well, the good news is that I sent your information out last night and got a response this morning. You’re both being assigned to RIFT 1, 9th Regiment. They’re operating out of Fort Patton in Tampa, Florida. You’ll report to either Sergeant Apone or Corporal Henley.”
“Thanks, sir,” Ferro said.
“You’ll be heading out on a regular flight to Fort Patton at 0700 tomorrow morning, so you two will have to be up and at ’em long before then. I’ll start printing up all your necessary documents. Make sure all your personal belongings, medical documents, and identification are with you. I will be checking everything to make sure you don’t leave anything behind. Go get packing, but don’t forget to leave a clean uniform out for tomorrow morning.”
Spunkmeyer didn’t hesitate to pull his folded duffel bag out from one of the drawers in the bed. At least there was less to pack compared to boot camp, and he could fold everything without someone yelling in his ear. Most of his more personal belongings consisted of the information Captain Jesse left about his father, a few books he picked up from stores in Denver, and some gifts from Ferro, including one of his uniform caps, which she scrawled “Grunt Runt” on. It was a little joke about how he had been the youngest in their entire training division. He just hoped other people would assume it meant he was small.
“How’s it coming?” Evison peered in Spunkmeyer’s room. “All set?”
“Yeah. I put all my documents in this big manila folder here.” Spunkmeyer gestured to his bed. “I don’t have to take the sheets and stuff, do I?”
“No. Not unless you bought them.” Evison opened the drawers. “Clean… clean… looking good. Everything is in that one duffel bag?”
“Good. I’m gonna go check on Ferro, and then I’ll see you in the morning.”
Spunkmeyer suddenly felt a dull pang in his heart. I just realized I might not see Evison ever again. He knew he was going to have to let go, emotionally, despite the fact that he had become attached to Evison over the course of the last seven months. He really had become the closest thing Spunkmeyer would ever have to a father, and it was going to hurt not seeing him for a long time. I’m an adult now. I need to move on. He could function, even though he had been deprived of so many things a kid his age should already have, familial love being one of them. He looked at Evison, unsure of what to say.
Sighing, Evison said, “Alright. Come ‘ere, you.” He was grabbed in a hug. “Listen, the vast majority of squad sergeants won’t allow this. Just keep that in mind. I’ll write to you, okay? No tears, buddy. And hey-” Evison leaned in to whisper, “I think you and Ferro are going to have a very long adventure together. Maybe, just a maybe, you might become a bit more than friends.” He winked, and let go of Spunkmeyer. “Okay, buddy, you’ve got to let go. I can’t stay here all night.”
Spunkmeyer remained standing in the doorway, watching as Evison went in to check on Ferro. When the corporal left, Ferro came out and he moved aside to let her into his room. Giving Evison a last look as he walked away, Spunkmeyer closed the door and sighed.
Ferro squeezed his shoulder. “Everything’ll be OK. You’ll see him again. Think about it; we’re going to Florida. It’s going to be warm and sunny and vibrant.”
“New York is vibrant. It’s not always sunny, but it’s vibrant.”
Ferro grinned. “You’ll have to take me someday.”
“I will. I most certainly will. I’ll take you to all the little spots I used to hang out around. There’s a diner on the East River that serves the best pizza outside of a pizzeria. They’ve got Reuben sandwiches and fried chicken sandwiches and a spectacular ice cream bar. It’s got the best view of the river, and if you go at the right time, you see all of Brooklyn light up and the sunset is absolutely beautiful. They’ve got live music on Thursday nights, and the staff are real friendly, and they just love to brag about how many people have fallen in love at this place. I would’ve taken a job there if the Marines didn’t work out for me.”
“Listen, I’m a local. I know there’s a lot more than the tourist stuff, but, hey, if you wanna go to the Statue of Liberty or Broadway or something like that, I’ll gladly show you the way. Don’t hesitate to ask. Also, don’t forget to return the favor and take me to Michigan someday.”
“I think I will.”
Spunkmeyer let out a sigh. “We are so close. We actually are close.”
“Yeah.” Ferro sighed as well. “Tomorrow at this time, we’ll be meeting our new unit.”
“I just hope they don’t look at us funny.”
“We’re their pilots now. We’ll get respect.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Spunkmeyer stared out the window, letting his thoughts wander. He switched his gaze to Ferro, and his mind suddenly turned to their first day training together, to that kiss they shared in the simulator. A small part of him wanted to experience that again, and he wondered if Ferro was thinking the same thing. Then he remembered the gift that he had been keeping for her. “Oh, I got something for you. Been holding onto it for a few months now.” He pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses from their hiding place under the bed, giving them a quick wipe-down with his shirt.
Ferro’s eyes widened. “You stole Larkins’ sunglasses?!” she hissed in disbelief.
“Yep. That day when they went missing during training? I took them when no one was looking. I thought it was kind of payback, and I thought…” Spunkmeyer hesitated before finishing, “I thought they’d look cute on you.”
Ferro blushed. “So, all along, Larkins was right. Somebody did steal her sunglasses. I can’t believe it was you.”
“It sure was.” Spunkmeyer handed her the aviators. “They’re yours now. I didn’t want to give them to you before, because I was afraid she’d find them in your room during inspection or something.”
He watched Ferro put the sunglasses on, and realized they were every bit as cute on her as he had thought they would be. He took a breath, and asked, “When did you wanna go for dinner?”
“It’s only four. We can stay here for another hour or so. Are you hungry?”
“A little, I guess. Plus, it’ll probably be crowded, in an hour. Anyways… I dunno.”
“Is something bugging you?”
“No. No, not at all.”
“You’re trembling, though. Are you getting sick?”
“No.” Spunkmeyer swallowed past a lump in his throat. “OK, I-I’m thinking about… you know, how when we were in the simulator, and afterwards… we had that moment and we… kissed. I’m sorry. I know we kinda agreed not to talk about that again, but-”
Ferro shut him up by kissing him on the lips. Spunkmeyer let his muscles go slack, and then he hugged Ferro tightly, keeping the kiss going until she pulled away.
“Listen, you need to do a better job shutting those feelings out. We can’t have that kind of relationship on the job. It just won’t work. I’m sorry. That won’t change the fact that we’re friends.” Ferro rubbed Spunkmeyer’s shoulders. “I think we’ll eventually get so used to each other that those feelings will go away.”
“Yeah.” Spunkmeyer nodded. “I’ll believe that.” In truth, he wasn’t sure. I really like you. Maybe your thoughts will change. I just have to be patient.
Spunkmeyer was awoken at 0600 by his alarm. Jolting upright, he scrambled to shut the alarm off. Once it was off, he rubbed his face, trying to comprehend where he was and what he was doing. He glanced around frantically, wondering if the last nine months of his life had been a dream. He was going to boot camp. He was nowhere close to freedom. He was never going to get that freedom.
“Spunkmeyer. Spunkmeyer! What happened?” Ferro was shaking him. “You had a bad dream. Come on, we need to get up and get ready to leave.”
“We’re going to Tampa, right?” Spunkmeyer asked.
“Yes.” Ferro began to leave, but paused at the door. “I’ll talk to you during breakfast.”
It took less than ten minutes for the two to be dressed get to the mess hall. Spunkmeyer was still struggling to pull himself out of his nightmare. His heart was pounding against his ribcage, and he felt like he was going to burst into tears.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Spunkmeyer, what’s wrong?” Ferro asked when they sat down.
“Just got confused when I woke up and… thought I was going to Virginia, to boot camp. Not Tampa. You know, I got really far, but then I didn’t. I’m nowhere close to where I wanna be.”
“Hey, it was just a bad dream. We’re going to Florida, not Virginia, I promise. Relax. Enjoy your breakfast.” She smiled at him.
Within the next hour, they were headed to catch their plane. On the plane, Spunkmeyer gazed at the mountains receding away as they flew east. Eventually, he saw nothing but clouds and ice dotting the window. The ice almost immediately disappeared when they began to fly low over the Gulf of Mexico. Spunkmeyer breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the turquoise water below. He knew he had made it. He would never have to be set back again.
When they got off the plane at Fort Patton, they both looked around, not sure where to go. After a minute, they saw a single Marine approaching, holding a rather large ice cream cone.
“You two’re a little early, man,” the Marine said. “You’re the new dropship pilots Apone ordered, right?”
“Yeah. Are you in his unit?” Ferro asked.
“Sure am. Apone sent me to pick you up.” The Marine stuck out his hand. “Private Will Hudson, man. You are…?”
“Ferro, and this is Spunkmeyer.”
“Both fresh outta training?”
“So, you’re greener than the asscrack of a spring apple, man. The guys’re gonna poke some fun at you for sure.” Hudson smirked, and returned his focus to his ice cream. “Don’t worry too much, though. We’re all good guys. Well, I can be a little rough, and fling insults the way a monkey flings his shit, but I’ll always have your back. Oh, and Wierzbowski doesn’t talk much unless you talk to him first. He’s the only quiet one.”
Spunkmeyer anticipated that this unit was going to be full of guys who were bigger, stronger, and a lot older than him. Despite looking like a lovable goofball, Hudson was a little intimidating to him; he could probably beat Spunkmeyer to a pulp and not break a sweat.
Hudson walked them into the base, taking them right to a pair of men who each made Spunkmeyer nervous in their own way. Sergeant Apone greatly reminded him of his drill instructors in boot camp, and Corporal Henley looked more than a bit unfriendly-the opposite of Evison.
“Hudson, wipe your mouth, son,” Henley said, gesturing to the splotches of ice cream on Hudson’s face.
“Sorry, man. Mission accomplished, Sarge. Got your new pilots for you.”
“Good job, Hudson.” Apone’s tone was serious, even a bit sarcastic, but Spunkmeyer was sure he saw a hint of an affectionate glint in the sergeant’s eyes. “You’re dismissed.”
“Thanks, Sarge.” Hudson patted Spunkmeyer and Ferro’s shoulders. “I’ll be in the lounge if you two wanna come meet everybody.
When Hudson left, Apone was shaking his head. “At least he didn’t scare you two off. I figured if you could survive him being the first one you had to put up with, you could make it with all of us. He wasn’t too nutty out there, was he?”
“No, not at all,” Ferro replied. “He seems friendly.”
“Give it a few days. He thinks he’s funny most of the time. He’s not bad, though. Alright, go grab yourselves a room, settle in, meet everyone. Don’t stress yourselves out. We’ll deal with any concerns you might have. Welcome aboard.”
Spunkmeyer didn’t say a word as he trailed Ferro down the hallway. Each room was twice as large as the rooms back at training, with two beds instead of one. The only room with an open spot had a bed that was already taken, and Spunkmeyer noticed the foot locker had Hudson’s name taped on it. There was a strong smell of cheap deodorant, as well as something funky that had gotten stale. At least it wasn’t bad enough to drive Spunkmeyer out, and he didn’t want to make a bad impression by telling someone he didn’t want to room with a slob.
As he transferred his belongings from the duffel bag to his foot locket, Spunkmeyer glanced over his shoulder when he heard someone walking into the room.
“Aw, nice, you’re gonna be my new roommate, man,” Hudson said, kneeling in front of his locker.
Spunkmeyer didn’t reply. All he had left in his bag were his most personal items-namely, the documents on his father, and his father’s baseball cap. He didn’t feel like unveiling those in front of Hudson. He also noticed the inside of Hudson’s locker was covered in pictures of pin-up girls, save for one worn photo of a city skyline.
Spunkmeyer froze when he realized Hudson was standing over him. All he could do was swallow past a lump in his throat, staring up in fear.
“Why do you look like I’m gonna hurt you or something?” Hudson scratched his head.
Spunkmeyer shook his head.
“Well, what’s wrong, man? You haven’t said a word to anybody.”
“Please leave me alone.”
“Oh.” Hudson frowned, and backed away. “Okay. Sorry, man. I’ll leave.”
It’s just culture shock. Spunkmeyer had Evison’s voice in his head. This really was like his arrival in Denver, but this time, he knew the atmosphere was going to be different. He shouldn’t be this nervous.
He also felt bad for pushing Hudson away. The chaplain told me making friends is the best way to deal with the empty feelings in my heart. I just shoved off a chance for part of that emptiness to be dealt with. A choking sensation started up in his throat, and he gripped the brim of his father’s cap tightly as tears began rolling down his face.
“Knew that’s what I went in there for. I’ll be right back out, man.” Hudson re-entered the room, muttering something about forgetting his own cap. He looked at Spunkmeyer, noticing the kid was crying. “Aw, damn it. I made him cry.”
“Made who cry?” someone out in the hall asked. A man with short, brown hair peered in.
“One of the new pilots. Look, just tell everyone I’ll be outside in a couple minutes, Drevis.” Hudson knelt by Spunkmeyer. “Hey, I really am sorry ’bout being pushy, man. There’s no reason to cry.”
Spunkmeyer sobbed. “It’s not your fault! I got scared, and I shouldn’t be, because then I push people away and I shouldn’t do that because I don’t wanna deal with being lonely anymore!”
He found himself being enveloped in a hug. “You don’t have to worry ’bout that here, man,” Hudson said, patting Spunkmeyer’s back. “We’re all brothers and sisters here. If you need something, somebody’ll be there for you.”
That’s all I want. No, I need this. I need a family. I need and want that more than anything. Spunkmeyer hugged Hudson back, tightly.
“Refresh my memory, man, what’s your name again?”
“Okay. Spunkmeyer. I was heading outside to play ball with the other guys. You can join us, if you want.”
Spunkmeyer didn’t hesitate to follow Hudson out to the recreational yard. I’m good at this. This’ll let me prove my worth to everyone. He looked around at the other Marines, and realized Hudson wasn’t the most intimidating guy in the unit; standing by the mound with Drevis was a very tall and well-built man with short, dark hair and brown eyes. Forget Hudson beating Spunkmeyer to a pulp-this guy looked like he could straight-up snap someone in half.
“Hey, ‘Ski!” Hudson called. “We got one more person for our team, man!”
Wierzbowski gave Hudson a thumbs-up, and Spunkmeyer looked at Hudson. “I’ve seen some tough guys in New York, but no one who looked like that.”
“’Ski’s from England, man,” Hudson replied. “He can hold his own in a fight, but he’s really gentle. You’ll like him.” He glanced around the field. “Think you can cover second base and the infield, man?”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “I’ve played before.”
“Good. Maybe you can teach us a thing or two.” Hudson smirked before tossing a beat-up glove to Spunkmeyer.