She was laughing, her bright green eyes scintillating with pure joy, her orange pigtails bobbing this way and that as she ran across the backyard, trying to catch up with the boys. She was small, looked like a two-and-a-half year old at the most, but her third birthday had passed some weeks ago. Her light blue dress had a big pocket on the front, where she had stored her little treasures of the day: a black, glossy pebble she picked up near the southernmost side of the hedge; a dead fly she “rescued” from the cat; an ice cream stick; and a dark red bead she found under the sofa in the living room. All of this clattered inside the pocket as she sped through the lawn in white tights and navy blue bar shoes, tripping and swaying a bit as the ground proved tricky for her little feet. All of her clothes were already dirty from the repeated falling over.
The two boys were older, already long past the awkward toddler phase. Their running was swift and intentional, as they pretended to be a policeman chasing a gangster. The little girl tried – unsuccessfully – to keep up with them, never really understanding the purpose. One of the boys, the chaser, was taller and leaner than the other one, his hair and eyes both almost the same shade of dark brown. He was wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt that read “Smells like teen spirit.” The other boy, the chasee, was smaller but rounder, especially on the cheeks. He had the same shade of orange hair as the girl, but his eyes were grey, not green. He was wearing dark green shorts and a grey T-shirt with an outline of a hawk on it. They both carried plastic guns and pretended to shoot at each other, every so often feigning a fatal shot and dropping to the ground dramatically, arms and legs spread out every which way. The little girl would then finally be able to catch up, and would stoop over the boy currently on the ground and pretend to shoot him with her two fingers, mirroring their game without understanding what it meant. The boys would laugh at her with a mixture of annoyance and kindness, a combination known perhaps only to children, and she’d join them, not knowing why. Their pure voices carried across the backyard to the verandah, where the adults sat, drinking cool drinks in tall crystal glasses and observing the children with warmth in their eyes. The boys had met at school and quickly became fast friends, bringing the two families together for the first time on this sunny, warm Saturday in late September.
Her bike was blue, with multicolored ribbons hanging from the handles. She pedaled hard, trying to keep up with the boys already way ahead of her, as they sped up along the street. There were three of them now, the orange-haired boy, the brown-haired and another one, a bulky black-haired and hazel-eyed twelve-year-old, leading the pack. He was a year older than the other two, and automatically and naturally assumed the position of the boss of their little group. He didn’t like having a snotnose girl following them around at all times, but it was just impossible to get rid of her, especially that her brother was rather protective of the annoying tot.
They halted briefly as they arrived at the entrance to the park, panting like dogs. The girl just managed to catch up with them as they started off again, riding their bikes in a slalom between the trees. At last they came to their destination, a small skatepark, now deserted as it was already getting dark and there were no lamps. The boys hooted wildly and started to brag about who would pull the most impressive stunt.
“I don’t think you should do that now,” ventured the girl when she finally regained some breath, after catching up with them again. “It’s dark and you can’t really see the ramp.”
“Shut up, tootsie,” the older boy told her with an angry expression on his face. “We can do whatever we want. We’re grown up and you’re just a child!”
This sentence was welcomed by the other two with another burst of hoots, but they didn’t sound just as wild as before.
“Well I think it’s stupid to risk broken bones like that!” She said, crossing her arms and looking at him challengingly. “You can do whatever you want, but Aaron and Jake won’t be so stupid to follow you!”
The boy stuck out his tongue at her, got back on his bike and rode out onto the ramp, yelling “Child! You’re just a small child!” all the way there. The other boys looked at each other uncertainly, but eventually followed their leader. The girl screwed up her face and sat down on the ground by her bike, her arms still crossed, throwing furious glances at the boys who seemed to be having the time of their life. That is, until one of them misjudged the length of the ramp in the growing darkness and fell rather spectacularly, with one wheel of his bike lopsided and twisted. The girl was on her feet instantly and ran to him, as the other boys stopped in their tracks and watched wide-eyed as their friend’s forearm bent in a weird way. Immediately, the brown-haired boy started crying.
The girl rushed to his side, pushed the bike off him and kneeled down. He tried to scramble up, but she put her hand firmly on his chest, making him lie on the ground.
“Don’t move, Aaron,” she said in a quivering voice, trying not to look at his weirdly positioned hand. “I think you should stay down. And don’t move your hand! I’ll get help, but don’t move your hand!” She turned her head around to look at her brother. “Jake, you stay here and make sure he’s not moving, okay?”
The ginger boy nodded his head frantically, finally breaking the spell, getting off his bike and coming to sit by his crying friend. The girl leaped up to her feet, jumped on her blue bike with ribbons at the handles, and more flew than rode away, as the twelve-year-old leader of the group stood and gaped in horror.
After that day they were banned from seeing the black-haired boy again by their parents. They didn’t mind. Aaron had to wear a cast for a few weeks, and he let his friends draw pictures on it with sharpies. The eight-year-old heroine drew him a huge red heart and a smiley cat-face.
There was a large couch in Aaron’s basement, two old, ragged armchairs, and a tiny coffee table. A single exposed light bulb was emitting strong, yellow light, too bright for them, so they covered it with a dark red piece of cloth, bathing the room in a bloody shade. There was a narrow window on the wall, high up, which they always kept open. It was the only reason why they did not suffocate there, five sixteen year old boys and one thirteen year old girl, as much time as they spent in the cramped room.
They had changed. Aaron’s hair and eyes were still dark brown, and he was still tall and lean, but he looked more gangly, as if he had too many limbs and not enough coordination. There was a shadow of facial hair on his chin too, proudly worn. Jake’s orange hair was neatly trimmed and it darkened to a deep maroon, almost auburn, although his eyes remained light grey, with spots of pale blue. He got taller and bulkier, with broad shoulders and sturdy frame; there was not a faint memory of his previous chubbiness in him. His sister was still smaller than usually girls her age, skinny and flat, more a child than a teenager yet. Her orange-coppery hair was pulled in a ponytail, and her green eyes were bright as always, though barely visible in the dimmed light of the room.
The three other boys were Aaron and Jake’s age, their classmates and close friends. Two of them were blonde, and one had light brown hair; all three of them had blue eyes. Aaron and Jake were sitting on the couch with guitars in hands, one of the blonde boys sat in one armchair with a bass guitar; the other armchair was occupied by the light-brown haired boy, a small keyboard sitting across his lap. The fifth teenager sat on a stool behind a drum set in the back of the room. There was a lot of laughing and joking around, interloped with music they were trying to learn. The only girl in the room sat cross-legged on the floor with her back to the wall, a book in her hand, as she tried to split her attention between the text and the playful rehearsal in front of her. She was failing.
Finally, she sighed, put down the book and glanced at the boys with a smile. They weren’t looking at her, the irreverent and dirty jokes flowing between them as if they were in male-only environment. They grew so used to her, they hardly ever noticed that she was, in fact, a girl. She rose to her feet and quietly exited the room, never knowing that both Jake and Aaron took notice of her leaving, thinking she didn’t really belong, but at the same time not minding the feeling of inadequacy. It wasn’t the only place where she felt like an outsider.
The light of the day was growing dim, a slight chill permeating the air. Evening was drawing near. Seconds ticked by as they stood on the verandah, leaning against the railing, quiet, watchful, waiting. Jake’s hair was even shorter than before, and his sister was finally starting to look less like a child and more like a teenager.
Suddenly from inside the house came a ringing, a shrill sound that cut through the silence like a knife. They both shuddered, but didn’t move from their spot. The ringing ended, and a muffled voice reached them through the open door, though they couldn’t recognize the words. Then silence returned for a moment, before they heard the footsteps coming. Their mother appeared in the doorway. They turned around to look at her. Her grey-blue eyes were full of tears. She didn’t have to say anything. They jumped up to her and embraced each other, and cried together, each drawing strength from the others’ presence, even at this dark, dark hour.
Away back, at the far side of their backyard, where there was a small gate in the fence, stood Aaron, motionless, half-hidden behind the hedge. He just watched them, not wanting to interrupt, not wanting to interfere, but determined to be there for them, even if they would never know. But just as they were entering the house again, the girl turned around and glimpsed the silhouette of their best friend. He saw her looking at him and waved his hand tentatively. He then placed it on his heart and lowered his head. She disappeared inside with her brother and mother, but he was sure she knew what he meant.
And she did.
The three of them were standing on a viewing platform, overlooking the city, rays of sunshine penetrating the clouds and illuminating entire districts. A thick, though barely perceptible layer of smog was floating above. Patches of green down below indicated parks enclosed by the suburbia, and farther along the horizon higher buildings rose like towers of an enormous castle. It was a warm afternoon in early June.
“Our last summer together,” Jake broke the silence. “I can’t believe it’s over.”
“It’s not over,” Aaron resisted to the idea. “We’re still gonna see each other.”
“Yeah, but how much?” The young man shook his auburn head. “It’s gonna be hard to keep in touch when we’re in three different parts of the country.”
“We will try, though, won’t we?” The coppery-orange haired teenager said in a small voice, resonating with hope. “And we’ll see each other every time we get back here.”
“Sure, Allie.” Aaron smiled at her warmly. “That’s a given.”
She returned his smile. Jake, standing in the middle, extended his arms and hugged them both to his sides.
“A new path awaits each of us,” he said in a serious tone. “But we shall never forget the miles we’ve already walked together.”
“Well said, bro.” Aaron nodded his head appreciatively. “Promise me you’ll both write a lot of letters! I will be insatiable for news from San Diego and Pasadena.”
“And us, from New York!” Added Jake, squeezing his friend a bit closer. “At least me and Allie are staying on the same coast. You’re really going far away!”
“Same coast for now.” Aaron raised his eyebrow. “You never know where you’ll end up after Sand Diego!”
“True,” Jake acquiesced. “Well, friends… real life is awaiting, full of work and tough choices. But for now, let’s enjoy this last summer of freedom! Let’s be reckless and inconsiderate and let’s have all the fun we can!”
The other two hooted agreement, but as they were turning back from the cityscape, each of them shot one last longing glance to where their childhood had passed in relative happiness and peace.
Like it or not, they were growing up.
The recruiter sized her up and down and smiled somewhat ironically, as if right from the start he didn’t believe she would make a good candidate.
“So you’d like to join the Air Force,” he said. It wasn’t a question, so she didn’t respond, instead maintaining eye contact. “What’s your name, miss?”
“Alice Boyd,” she answered calmly, though inside she was trembling, intimidated by the man in the uniform who had the power to determine her entire future at that moment. “I want to be a pilot.”
“Of course you do. Who doesn’t?” His smirk wouldn’t go away. “How old are you?”
The recruiter’s eyebrows went up.
“You don’t look nineteen.”
“I get that a lot.” Alice smiled mildly. “I’ve always been small for my age, sir.”
“Uh-huh. So you want to be a pilot… Are you in college already, or would you like to apply to the Air Force Academy?”
“Neither, sir. I’ve completed my higher education already. I’d like to attend the Officer Training School.”
The Technical Sergeant raised his eyebrows even higher.
“Impossible. You just told me you’re nineteen. That would make you fifteen when you graduated high school.”
“Yes, sir, that’s when I went to college. I have a BS from California Institute of Technology, with double Major in Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics and a minor in Computer Science.”
The recruiters eyebrows went down and his smirk disappeared, replaced by an expression of shock and disbelief.
“You’re some kind of genius child or what?”
Alice smiled politely, shaking her head.
“I believe the term you were looking for is wonder child, sir, but yes, basically I am. I was admitted to CalTech at the age of 15. I was one of the few early entrants on the campus, but not the only one, sir.”
He kept staring at her for a few more seconds. Then he shook his head, as if resurfacing from water after deep plunge.
“Right,” he said curtly. “Before we go any further, I would like to stress that it is very important for you to be completely honest with me. If you lie or hide the truth, we will find out about it sooner or later, and you’ll be disqualified from the recruitment process.”
“Understood, sir.” Alice nodded, finally moving her eyes off him and taking a look around the office. It was very cluttered, though clean, creating an ambiance of diligent busyness.
“I will give you a questionnaire that you will fill in, there’ll be some detailed questions about your family and medical history, your education and work experience, if any, criminal record, that sort of stuff, but for now I need you to answer me a few general questions.”
She looked up at him expectantly, not interrupting with any unnecessary “yes, sirs.”
“First of all, do you have any medical conditions that might preclude you from service in the Air Force?”
“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”
“Good. Have you ever taken any prescription drugs recreationally?”
She raised her eyebrow.
“No, sir, I’ve never taken any prescription drugs outside of the method and frequency prescribed by a doctor.”
“Any soft drugs? Meth? Let me remind you to be honest. Recreational soft drug use in the past will not necessarily disqualify you.”
“No, sir, I’ve never done any drugs, soft or hard, and I’ve never used methamphetamine. I did get a few morphine shots after an accident a few years ago, but that was prescribed and controlled by my doctor.”
She smiled fondly at the memory, which may have been an odd thing to do when talking about an accident.
“I fell from a ladder, sir, and broke a few ribs pretty nastily. They all healed up well, though.”
“No lingering pains?” The recruiter was serious, leaning in a little bit, as if that was a truly important question, though Alice could not conceive why.
“Good. What about mental health? Have you ever seen a psychiatrist or a therapist in the past?”
“Yes, sir, I’ve had a few appointments with a therapist a few years ago, after my dad died. My mother insisted on it for both me and my brother.”
“How did your father die?” The Sergeant apparently didn’t feel the need to say anything so polite as “I’m sorry for your loss” or something. It rubbed her the wrong way.
“He crashed his plane into a flight deck of a Navy carrier,” Alice replied a bit too harshly. She closed her eyes for just a moment and took a deep breath to control herself. “He was a Navy pilot, there were some pretty bad weather conditions. They were in the middle of the ocean and he was running low on fuel. He tried to land in that storm, but… well, he crashed. He was still alive when they got him out of the cockpit, but despite all their efforts, he died after two days in a coma.” A flow of emotions colored her voice as she recounted the event. The recruiter’s eyes grew a bit softer.
“Well, that’s unfortunate. But if your father was in the Navy… didn’t you want to follow in his footsteps?”
“I am. I want to be a fighter pilot, sir, and I have more chance to achieve that in the Air Force than in the Navy. Plus, my family is scattered all over the other branches of the military, the Air Force is the only one we don’t have a representation in yet.”
“You have other family members in the service?”
“Yes, sir. My uncle, that is my father’s brother, is in the Army. My own brother is in the Marine Corps. I even have a second cousin in the Coast Guard. So you see, it’s a family business.” Alice smiled at the recruiter and he had to return the smile. He was warming up to her pretty fast.
“What does your mother do?”
“She’s a graphic artist here in LA.” She made an indeterminate gesture with her hand, encompassing the city around them.
The Sergeant nodded and smiled.
“Just one more question. But a serious one. Do you have any criminal record, or a juvenile record?”
Alice shook her head.
“No, sir. Regrettably, my life has been pretty dull so far. I haven’t even gotten any speeding tickets.”
“Well, that’s good. Okay, I’ll give you a break now. Here,” he took a binder with a couple sheets of paper from his desk and handed it to her. “This is a questionnaire I told you about before. Please fill it out with as many details as possible. Then we will review it, make some preliminary calls to check the info out, and schedule a longer meeting when we can chat about other stuff. This entire process will take some time,” he warned her. “But don’t be put off by that. That’s always the case. Nothing to worry about.”
“Thank you, sir. Would you like me to fill this in now?”
“Yes, if you can. There’s a desk… well, a chair with a folding desk, really, outside, in the hall. I have another meeting now, but it shouldn’t take long and you should be finished before it’s over.”
“Ok, thank you, sir.” Alice smiled politely again, took the binder and left the office. As she sat down in the chair he spoke of, she let out a long breath. Well, it wasn’t as bad as she thought it would. People could be really prejudiced against her. A small redheaded girl, so easily dismissible, it was all too easy to look down at her and patronize her, but the moment they found out just how well-educated and, frankly, how smart she was, they felt like they’ve been cheated, which led them to dislike her, most of the time. But maybe she was a bit too quick to judge, too; that recruiter seemed at first like a pompous ass, but turned out to be quite nice in the end.
It was so hard for her to read people. Not for the first time, she hesitated. Being in the service meant dealing with other people, focusing on teamwork. Could she do this? She’d always been a loner and an outsider. But then again, that was a challenge, and she never backed out of a challenge before in her life. She wasn’t going to start now.