Papa Doc was flying with her again tonight, and he was driving her nuts. There was nothing to do on plane guard but keep the bird in the air and fly in endless D-loops, yet he was on her constantly, fussing and micromanaging as if this were her first time in a cockpit. By the end of the three hours, Monica’s nerves were shot.
As they set down on the ship’s port side, toward the stern, Monica noticed the SEAL on the catwalk. It was downright disquieting how he popped up everywhere, silently watching, observing everything as if he were doing some kind of inventory. No, not just observing. Like he was memorizing everything.
Marsupials. She’d looked it up. Born underdeveloped, with features that never quite caught up. The marsupial family included koalas, possums, and Tasmanian devils. Which, she wondered, was he?
When she stepped out of the Knighthawk and looked over toward the edge of the deck, he was gone.
Ten minutes later she was in her stateroom, undressed and lying back in her rack, talking quietly back and forth with Kris, her best friend, in the bunk below. It was past midnight and their roommate Anne lay fast asleep on the other bottom bunk a few yards away. The empty fourth rack above Anne’s had belonged to Micaela, the copilot on the helo that went down. It was the loudest thing in the cabin.
“So how was Papa Doc?” Kris’s hushed voice drifted up from below. It was Kris who’d coined the nickname, and she was the only soul on board who dared voice it out loud.
Monica replied with a groan.
“That good, huh?”
“Gracious as ever.”
“Why does he push my buttons?” Monica wondered aloud, not for the first time. “Um, I don’t know,” replied Kristine, “maybe because the man is your classic male chauvinist as well as a fucking racist and unreconstructed homophobe asshole?”
“Jesus, Kris! Keep your voice down!” Slanderous words spoken of a superior officer could be held as insubordination and earn grave punishment. Court-martial, even. “I tell you I caught him staring at me a few nights ago at midrats?”
“Ugh. You’re kidding.”
“And not in an arrogant-CO way, either, more like a pervy peeper way. Like when a guy’s trying to look down your blouse without looking like he’s doing it?” “Eww. What did you do?”
“Walked over and asked him if he needed help finding anything. Like his dignity. Or his dick.”
“Okay, not really. I did what any Tennessee girl would, stared back at him and batted my eyelashes till he turned red and looked away.”
“Seriously? Jesus, Kris, why would you do that?!”
“Because fuck him, that’s why.”
Kris was a natural target for men’s attention, but she typically had no problem handling herself. Last few days, though, she’d been acting distracted. Jumpy. She hid it well. The rest of the squadron saw only the top gun swagger and Tennessee ballsiness,
and they loved her for it. (A girl so gutsy she went by the call sign “Biker”!) Only Monica understood how fragile she was. She’d tried to bring it up a few times, but even as close as the two were, Kris sometimes held her feelings awfully close to her vest. She’d even skipped breakfast that morning, which for her was practically unheard of.
In the silence, she felt the presence of Micaela’s empty rack. Remembering how harshly Papa Doc had treated her, how she and Kris had found her weeping in her rack on more than one occasion after an especially brutal tongue-lashing.
“Quite a show you gave out there tonight,” said Monica to change the subject. Kris had made one of her signature night landings, smacking the deck like a meteor strike. Monica had flown more than a hundred missions and there’d been a few tense moments—but nothing in the Knighthawk came close to the experience of flying solo in an F/A-18, let alone landing the freaking thing. “Like setting a bucking bronco down on a postage stamp floating in a shark-infested pool … at night” was how her brother had described it. How they managed it without crashing the damn things was beyond Monica.
“It’s not the idea of crashing,” said Kris. “I mean what the hell, we’re all gonna crash and burn at some point, right? But ejecting and ending up in the water? Ugh. I don’t know if I’d make it.”
This was something the two shared: an unmitigated aversion to the open water. Monica grew up around horses and ranches, Kris around motorcycles and urban blight. Naturally, as part of their pilot training, they’d both learned to swim at an expert level.
But only Monica knew how terrified her friend was of ending up alone in the ocean. “Course you’d make it,” said Monica. “You’d just float and let your strobe flash. We’d be on you in minutes.” But she knew what Kris meant.
They went quiet again, both thinking about the downed helo crew. Ever since flight 204 went down their stateroom had felt haunted, though neither of them had breathed that thought out loud.
It was Kris who broke the silence. “Do you feel … safe here?”
To be continued….
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