He jogged through the woods, Champ lunging ahead and leaping on and off the trail leading to the Castle.
“Quiet, dummy. You’ll give us away.”
He hadn’t wanted to bring the shepherd, but he’d been halfway through the woods when he’d heard Champ’s collar jingling and the dog had bounded out from the trees. There wasn’t time to turn back. He had to warn the island.
There’d also been no time to change, and he was wearing his Hawaiian robe over his pajamas, clutching the opening at his crotch closed with one hand.
His slippers came off a few times. Sticks and sharp pebbles sliced at the soft meat of his soles. He had to stop where the trail climbed a steep hill, and when he bent over to catch his breath, his stomach convulsed and the ice-cream cake he’d had after dinner splattered on the leaf-covered ground. Champ hopped over and licked at the mess.
He’d been on watch since sundown, glassing the horizon as he sat on the upper balcony of White Eagle, waiting for something, what he wasn’t sure, but he had that feeling in his gut he remembered from many years ago, when he was just a kid pilot hungry for action. Before the accident had labeled him a goddamn cripple and he’d missed the war.
It was that woman’s fault. That self-righteous blonde returning to the island. She’d rattled Veronica at the dinner party last month. He didn’t know what she’d said, but his Nicky hadn’t been the same since. It was like Nicky was on watch too, waiting for the Krauts to show up on their shores. Who did the Marshall girl think she was? Slinking back with her mulatto family so she—she!—could teach a lesson or two to the decorated veterans and devoted engineers who’d sacrificed their lives for Old Ironsides. For the country.
There was no room left for heroes these days. The young people filling the space between their ears with information sucked up from TV and their music discs, turning that shit into opinions and feelings they worshipped like they were the priests of their own cockamamie religion.
They’d survived that peanut farmer’s son and his cowardice. What a nightmare that had been—a naval officer turned nambypamby in the White House. Admiral Marshall had thrown a lavish party the night Reagan was elected and Carter booted— Grudder’s naval production plants safe after fears of closure had loomed over the factory for four long years, turning many a Grudder man’s hair silver, Bob’s included.
He could still taste the brine of the oysters served in the Castle ballroom to celebrate Carter’s return to his peanut farm. Washed down with glass after glass of Veuve Clicquot. Nicky had looked like heaven in a silk gown as red as spilled blood, and Bob had wanted her that night, watched her glide across the Castle ballroom, thought about taking her into the admiral’s study and having her right then and there. His cock had been hard with victory. The White House reclaimed. Reagan spouting insults at the Soviet Union like a petulant schoolboy, and the Grudder boys at the party were giddy, placing bets on how long it would be until that actor with the big mouth started World War III.
The admiral had brought Bob up to the Castle’s bell tower, the highest point on the island, and as they looked out over the glittering sea, Bob felt it his duty to watch over the entire world. The admiral snapped open his lucky lighter and the flame rose to meet their cigars. A storm had been threatening all day and the clouds over the water hung low and heavy. Thunder made the sky tremble, reminding Bob of the F-14 engines as they prepared for takeoff, and he closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the rows of Tomcats preparing to fly the nest—he thought of them as his babies even if he was just VP—destined to intercept Libyan jets over Syria, protect carriers out at sea, dominate dogfights over the Gulf of Sidra. They were his life’s work, his beauties.
He had known the glory days were close again—he’d smelled it like rain in the air. Only a matter of time, before island boys, East and West, started wearing their jean jackets sporting the Tomcat badge—a cocky cartoon cat and the motto “Anytime, Baby”— passed on by the boy’s father or grandfather, who, just like the famous Maverick of Top Gun, had tested the fighter’s legendary swing-wing action.
Then, as the thick cigar smoke rose into his eyes, he’d remembered Grudder’s debt. How the company had almost folded when the navy had refused to pay its bill—Admiral Marshall locking himself in his office overlooking Plant 2 for days, raging about the “crooks at the Pentagon,” taking out full-page ads in the Times and The Washington Post, trying to shame the government into paying, when everyone, even Bob, knew it only made Grudder look like a sore loser. If it hadn’t been for the Defense Department paying off the bill, well, who knew if they’d be standing there watching the sheets of rain approach from miles away.
A moment alone with the admiral was rare, and so he tried, again, to urge the admiral to expand, even if it meant merging.
“Look at Nordrom and McDougal busting into the commercial airplane biz, boss,” he pleaded with the old man. “That’s some nice security.”
The admiral only slapped him on the back and said, “Bobby-o, I like your ambition. But we’re war-makers, not cruise-ship directors. Let the others make planes with cushioned seats and Muzak piped overhead.”
He stopped himself from reminding the admiral what a shitty year it had been. What with Grudder barely surviving a hostile takeover from that slimy Texas conglomerate—who knew who the admiral had paid off in the Court of Appeals to make that fiasco blow away. It had been a close shave.
He tried one more time: “Sir, what about a merger with someone we trust? That way, when a bunch of goons come round threatening to take over, we’ve got some choices.”
The admiral sighed. Bob had heard that sigh before. Last year, when what he’d thought had been a bright idea, breaking into city-bus manufacturing, had produced a bunch of buses with cracked undercarriages and they’d had to pull the whole damn project. Another close shave the admiral had only just forgiven Bob for.
“If survival means marriage,” the admiral said, his eyes sweeping the water like he was searching, “with McDougal or Nordrom, or Dick or Harry, hell, I’d rather go down with the ship.”
“We could talk to NASA again. . . .”
The admiral interrupted him, “You see that spot over there? Between the dunes?” He pointed to the shore, a streak of moonlit silver where the water met sand. “That’s where the spies landed. Dirty Germans.”
“Pastorius? Here?” In his excitement, and after all that Champagne, Bob leaned so far over the balcony he almost fell. The admiral grabbed the collar of his tuxedo jacket and pulled him back. Like a mother cat would a kitten, he would think again and again over the years.
“Watch it, Colonel. I can’t have my best engineer, and my heir apparent, falling to his death.”
And with that, the Colonel was born. In a moment, Bob rose through the ranks. Within the boundaries of Avalon Island, at least.
“They came on shore in the middle of the night,” the admiral said. “Dressed like Americans but with one piece of their Kraut uniform. A hat. A scarf. Those clever bastards.”
“But why? Wouldn’t that give them away?” he asked.
“Because they were cowards! They knew if they got caught wearing their uniform, we couldn’t have shot ’em dead. Or, better, tortured them. Our hands were tied by those Geneva laws.”
In the light of the moon, he saw the old man’s eyes were wet.
“What kind of world are we living in, Bobby? Where the enemy has laws to protect him?”
He decided to try one last time. If there were ever a time, it was this, now, the normally stoic admiral moved to feeling. Vulnerable, he hoped.
“Sir, it is a new world. The rules have changed.” He took a steadying breath. “Which is why I think we need to reconsider—”
The admiral squeezed his shoulder and he felt the bones crunch.
“Bobby-o, don’t fret. We thought we were doomed after the Big One. But then Korea happened. And after that, Nam. This country won’t stop needing us. There’ll always be another war. Another reason to make killing machines. You can count on it. In fact”—he looked out over the sea—“it’s the one goddamn thing we can count on.”
The Castle gate had been left open. A sign from the admiral, he thought as he launched himself up the spiraling stairs leading to the bell tower, his old knees creaking with every step. The sound of Champ running ahead, the dog’s toenails clicking on the stone steps, echoing in the narrow stairwell, urged him on.
There was no stopping now. If he, the island’s watchman, didn’t warn them, who would?
Julia Fierro is the author of the novels The Gypsy Moth Summer, to be published by St. Martin’s Press on June 6th, and Cutting Teeth, published in 2014. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Glamour, The Millions, Poets & Writers, and other publications, and she has been profiled in The Observer and The Economist.
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, which has grown into a creative home to 4,000 writers in NYC, Los Angeles, and Online. SSWW was named “Best Writing Classes” by The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Brooklyn Magazine, the L Magazine; and “Best MFA-Alternative” by Poets & Writers.
Adapted from The Gypsy Moth Summer, by Julia Fierro, Copyright © 2017 by Julia Fierro. With the permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press.