Larkins didn’t say anything to Evison about what had happened to Ferro until later that evening, although she knew he heard about it. To her regret, her restraint failed in front of everyone else before that. Evison had gone into his room after everyone got back to the barracks at the end of the day and the trainees were dispersing to their rooms when she decided to warn them that they were in for more of the same experience the next day. That was when her mouth got away from her and she blurted out, “Or maybe you’ll be like a certain member of this flight who fucking fainted!” She stood over Ferro, glaring at her, and the other trainees watched speechless as she continued, unable to stop herself, “Not just blacked out. I could understand that, but fucking fainted! I’ve never had a rook faint in a fucking simulator before. You should have seen what we had to go through to wake this weak fucker up. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. Normally we don’t fail people on the first day, but under the circumstances I’m considering making an exception.”
Something dropped out of her stomach as she finished speaking, and she had a sudden feeling that she had crossed a line. Why? She had no issue with humiliating the trainees in front of each other on a regular basis to keep them humble and to make sure they recognized each other’s faults as well as their own, so why did it feel like she shouldn’t have said anything? Stop. Don’t overthink yourself. You said it and you can’t take it back now. Just walk away. She turned and walked away, heading for Evison’s room. She needed to tell him that Ferro had to go. He wasn’t going to like it, but it had to be done. She couldn’t risk lives by passing someone who had a tendency to faint in the middle of a drop. For a brief moment she allowed herself to think about what it would feel like if she was told that a trainee she allowed to pass had fainted in the middle of a drop and died as a result, and she found herself choking back a sob as the imagined feeling grew a bit too real.
“I’m not going to let that happen,” she whispered, knocking sharply on Evison’s door and trying to compose herself.
Evison looked tired when he opened the door. “What do you want, Larkins?”
Larkins swallowed, hesitating for a moment as she questioned if she really was making the right decision. “I wanted to let you know I’m going to type up Ferro’s removal papers. I want her out of the flight after what happened today. She’s not good enough to make it.”
“You’re joking,” Evison said in disbelief.
“When the fuck have I ever done that?” demanded Larkins, glaring at him.
“You can’t do that! It was her first day in the simulators!”
“Yes, I can,” Larkins insisted. “There’s no regulation against failing a trainee at any time. I can do it and I’m going to.”
“She could do better tomorrow,” Evison protested.
“You don’t know that,” snapped Larkins. “You also don’t know that this isn’t some physical problem she has that she won’t get over because she physically can’t. Do you want it on your head if she passes training, faints on an actual drop, and people get killed because of it?”
“And you don’t know any of that is going to happen.”
Larkins nodded, determined to make him see her point. “No, you’re right. I don’t know that’s going to happen. But I know there’s a risk, and unlike you, I’m not willing to put lives at risk just to make someone happy. She’s out.”
“Fine.” Evison gave her a resigned look. “I swear, sometimes I don’t know how you look at yourself in the mirror, Larkins.”
He closed the door before she could reply, leaving her standing speechless. “I… I don’t know either,” she admitted quietly to the closed door. I guess because this is all part of my job, and my job means making people unhappy sometimes. Even hurting them if that’s what it takes to save them.
She stood thinking about that for several minutes until her attention was caught by someone calling out cautiously, “M-ma’am?”
Caught off-guard and in the middle of a vulnerable moment, Larkins turned to see Spunkmeyer standing at the base of the ladder into Ferro’s room. She had noticed that the two privates were unusually close for not being training partners and she always made it a point to keep a close eye on them for any signs of inappropriate behavior. She glared at him in annoyance, asking sharply, “And what the fuck do you want, Private?”
“Umm, I…” Spunkmeyer hesitated, and Larkins impatiently walked up to him. He took a step back away from her, but she didn’t stop until she was inches away from his face. “If you have something to say, Private, I suggest you say it before I lose my patience with you,” she snarled.
“Umm, it’s about Ferro. I wanted to ask you to please not fail her yet. She hasn’t even had a real chance.”
Larkins was so shocked she was sure it must be visible on her face, but she quickly got control again and forced her expression into a glare again, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice as she asked, “And why do you think I would listen to you? Let me tell you something, Private, after what I saw today, Ferro is scraping along as close to failure as she possibly could be without actually failing, and I might just give her the boot anyway to be sure.”
“I think she could improve, ma’am,” Spunkmeyer said.
Larkins could see he was shaking, but that didn’t make her lower her voice. “Do you not understand what the fuck this place is?! Let me explain something to you, rat turd! This isn’t a place where people come to get chance after chance after chance until they pass! We don’t give breaks to people and we don’t make things easier on them just so they can have their pretty, perfect career in the Corps! That gets people killed, kid! You have no idea what it’s like out there, actually being in combat! You don’t know the first part of what it really takes to survive, so who the absolute fuck do you think you are to tell me who I should and shouldn’t fail?! You can’t even begin to understand how important this is, so don’t you dare try to tell me how to do my job!”
She realized she was shaking with rage and the urge to punch something was becoming overwhelming. She had to get out of there before she did something irrational. “Get your stupid ass into your room and out of my fucking sight, and don’t you ever come to me talking like that again. Do you understand me?!”
She barely waited for Spunkmeyer to babble, “Y-Yes, ma’am,” before turning and stomping back to her room. She powered on her laptop and angrily began filling out the forms to terminate Ferro’s involvement in the training program. But as she worked, Spunkmeyer’s words kept playing on repeat in her head. Why had he stuck his neck out for her? Was it just because they were friends? Or was he right? Was she being unfair and looking for an excuse to justify a subconscious desire to fail Ferro because of how much the young woman reminded her of Mathis? Could Ferro do better if she had a second chance?
“Don’t let him get in your head,” Larkins scolded herself as she finished the forms. “He doesn’t understand.” But what if he’s standing up for her because he genuinely does think she could do better and not just because they like each other? What if he’s right? When the question repeated itself in her head yet again, Larkins hesitated as she was about to click on the button to submit the completed forms. “For fuck’s sake!” she groaned exasperatedly, giving in to the nagging voice. Instead of submitting the forms, she closed the program without saving them. Ferro would get another chance. Larkins was going to do this the right way. It was just as unfair to fail someone too soon as it was to let them pass undeservingly. “I just hope I don’t live to regret this one,” she muttered anxiously to herself.
October came and went quietly. In the end, Atkinson, Kirchner, Pace, and Benbow didn’t earn passing grades on the drop tests and had to be failed out, and Obando quit after Pace, his training partner, was gone. Larkins felt a moment of guilt over that when Evison told her. Obando had been one of the more skilled members of the flight and she would have bet money on him passing if he had stayed in. But if he was going to allow an emotional attachment to hold him back then he wasn’t fit to pass after all.
The only other noteworthy event in October was the day Spunkmeyer and Falsson tried to get into their simulator before Larkins gave them permission the day of their first real flight training. Exhausted and hungover from yet another night of heavy drinking, Larkins lost control of her anger when she saw Spunkmeyer going into the simulator without permission and she yanked him off the ladder, demanding, “Just what the fuck are you doing, rat turd?! Who told you to go in there, huh?! Who?!”
“No one gave you the order to go in your simulator! Get on the ground, in push-up position!” Larkins put her boot on Spunkmeyer’s back. She was about to tell him to start doing push-ups while she held him down, but suddenly she stopped dead as she remembered being in the exact same position almost two years ago. She could practically feel Sloan’s boot on her back, forcing her into the ground as the heavy heat and burning sun of LV-327 wrapped around her in a smothering embrace. She remembered the pain of Sloan slamming her face into the concrete pad and the smell of iron as blood poured from her nose.
Oh, fuck, what am I doing?! She asked herself, horrified. I’m becoming just like Sloan! She realized that she had frozen in position holding Spunkmeyer down, and she tried her best to maintain her composure and keep an angry tone of voice as she said, “You’re gonna stay there until I say ‘get up’.”
“Ma’am,” Falsson spoke up, leaning out of the simulator, “I told him we should get in so you didn’t have to wait. I’m sorry.”
Larkins removed her boot from Spunkmeyer’s back as she roared up at Falsson, “Get down from there, you piece of shit! You move when I say and not before!”
Evison quickly stepped in to defuse the situation, but all he really did was get Spunkmeyer and Falsson away from Larkins and leave her feeling more frustrated than ever with him. She didn’t know how much longer she could stand to work with him.
The frustration of not having anyone to confide her troubles in was also starting to weigh on her more than she liked to admit. After spending so many years avoiding people and keeping to herself, she didn’t want to admit that she wanted someone who would listen to her, but she couldn’t keep denying it. The conversations among the trainees at meal times made things worse because they showed her exactly what she was missing out on. But I wouldn’t know how to interact with someone that way, so why am I even thinking about it? There’s no point when it can never happen.
Eventually, it reached a point where she couldn’t bear the feeling any longer. She talked with Evison and told him she was going to take the evening off, and took a bus into Jacksonville intending to spend some time alone. She quickly began to feel hungry and found a pleasant-looking restaurant in the middle of its dinner rush. It wasn’t too brightly lit or too loud and it smelled wonderful inside. A waitress came up to lead her to a table and give her a menu, but after several minutes of trying to decide what she wanted, Larkins’ attention was drawn by the other customers. She could see the entire seating area from where she was, and as she looked over at all of the other tables and booths she suddenly realized that she was the only person there alone. There were families with young or teenaged children, couples of various ages, and some groups of men and women that looked like friends getting together for a night out. None of them looked sad or like they lacked companionship.
The realization of just how alone she was slammed into Larkins like a falling bomb and she felt a prickling wave of nausea rush down her body, making her shudder as her eyes teared up and her vision blurred. “Why?” she whispered softly, barely able to choke down a sob. “Why everyone but me?”
Where were the people who cared about her? There were none. She had driven almost everyone away and the only people she hadn’t, her family, had disowned her. They wanted nothing to do with her. No one wanted to be around her. No one cared about her.
Her hunger disappeared, replaced with a sick, gnawing sensation, and she got up and walked as quickly as she could for the exit, almost knocking over the confused waitress on the way. She immediately headed back for the bus stop to go back to the base, digging her nails into her palms the whole way to hold back the tears that were trying to force their way out. She held them back until she was back in the barracks and in her own room, and then she couldn’t stop them any longer. She didn’t even make it to her chair or bed, and instead fell to her knees just inside the door and began sobbing. She hunched over, covering her face with her hands as the pain and hurt took control of her.
“Why?” she whimpered again between sobs. “Why can’t I have people who care about me? Why can’t I care about other people? What’s wrong with me?”
She eventually managed to drag herself into bed and curled up miserably, still crying. “I just want… someone. Anyone. I don’t want to be alone.”
The grief and pain were so overwhelming she couldn’t even think clearly and she found herself half-stammering and half-whimpering nonsensical syllables and word fragments as she tried to put a coherent thought together. Her sobs grew stronger and she started having difficulty breathing until suddenly a sharp pain stabbed through her chest and she felt every muscle in her body lock up. She was frozen, completely helpless for several moments until the pain disappeared and left the grief behind. She didn’t even know how long she lay in bed, crying and whimpering as her heart forced out all of the emotions she had been trying to hold back for the last several months.
After what seemed like hours, the sobs ended and she stopped crying. She lay numbly in bed for a long time until she realized how thirsty she was. She needed to replace the fluids she had lost from crying. Picking her wallet up off her nightstand, she stumbled weakly towards the door. The thought that someone might see her in the state she was in didn’t occur to her until she was already out in the hallway, but before she could even consider going back into her room to wash her face first, she found herself coming face-to-face with Private Ferro. Ferro froze in shock, staring at Larkins speechlessly, and Larkins realized with horror there was no way Ferro had missed her red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Her mind immediately switched from pain to anger as she tried to cover for herself by yelling, “What the fuck are you doing out here, Private? Get your lazy ass in the shower! Now!”
Ferro quickly turned away and dashed for the ladder up to her room, clearly intent on avoiding Larkins’ wrath. Larkins could only hope that she had scared the private enough to make her forget what she had seen.
She went out into the common area that all the barracks halls led into and bought a bottle of iced tea from one of the vending machines before returning to her room. The drink made her feel better, but it didn’t completely take away the pain. “Not again,” she moaned softly, not really wanting to drink tonight but knowing there was no way she could sleep without it. “Don’t do this, Skye.”
But she couldn’t stop it. She was helpless against the pain, and she only knew one way to subdue it. Slumping down on the edge of her bed, Larkins reached down into her nightstand and fumbled around for the first bottle she could reach.
The year before, Larkins had allowed herself the small pleasure of going off the base for Thanksgiving Day, but this time she decided it was better not to after what had happened when she tried doing that a few weeks before. She stayed on base and spent the entire day in her room reading through books that she barely paid any attention to. When lunchtime came, she went down to the mess hall, got her food, and sat at her assigned table alone. Everyone else had gone off base for the day, or so she thought. She hadn’t been there very long when Private Spunkmeyer came over and sat down at the far end of the table, greeting her politely. She gave a noncommittal reply, eyeing him with surprise. She was sure he would have spent the day strolling around town holding hands with Private Ferro or something equally stupid, and she could swear she remembered Evison mentioning something about giving passes to both of them at the same time. It was hard to be certain because she had been hungover at the time and more focused on pretending to be fine, but she thought she remembered him saying that.
She picked disinterestedly at her food, not really feeling hungry. The lonely feeling was returning, and it took all her focus just to fight it. She clenched one hand into a fist under the table, trying as hard as she could not to give in. She couldn’t keep doing this. She couldn’t possibly continue training her flight if she was going to let her emotions influence her so powerfully. She was going to let all of them down. I can’t do that. Ultimately she was only able to choke down a few bites of food before giving up and going back to her room.
That evening Evison told her that General Graham, the base commander, was going to do an inspection of all the units in training.
“Of fucking course he is,” Larkins sighed exasperatedly, “Because of course he is. Great. Well, if it doesn’t go well, I’m pointing my finger at you. I’ve done my damnedest to pull this flight together and make them a presentable unit but I’ve gotten nothing but pushback and interference from you. I get that you want to make everyone happy, but that’s not our job.”
Evison said nothing and merely turned and walked away. She had a feeling he was starting to give up on her. Maybe that meant he would become more open to seeing her point of view. She could only hope that was the case.
The evening before the inspection, Larkins decided to make one final check of the trainees and their uniforms without Evison. He had gone back to the classroom to do some late-night work, so she walked up and down the hall banging on everyone’s doors and telling them to get ready for a uniform check. Once they were all lined up, she began walking up and down the line, checking each of them carefully. They had done impressively well and it was starting to look like there was nothing to correct, but Larkins decided to make one last walk of the line and look even closer than before. That was when she saw it. Private Beyer was standing near the middle of the line, her short blonde hair combed to impeccable neatness and her uniform in perfect condition. Almost perfect condition, at least. When Larkins looked closer, she saw a thread sticking out of Beyer’s collar. That was no good. It would look terrible if Graham noticed that tomorrow.
“Private Beyer, would you care to explain this?” she demanded, grabbing at Beyer’s collar. Beyer looked down. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ll get it fixed right away.”
“Yes, you will,” Larkins said sternly. “When Graham comes through tomorrow you’re going to look like you’ve actually learned to respect this uniform or I swear-”
“Tell me, Corporal, do I need to be concerned? Have you really learned to respect this uniform, or are you just pretending?” The memory of Sloan’s words cut sharply into Larkins’ thoughts, and she froze in horror as the memories of that morning came back. That was the day Sloan had broken her. The day she had humiliated herself in front of her entire unit by crying uncontrollably in front of them. The day she had attacked Mathis and ensured her own downfall. Who was she to criticize Beyer for her uniform when she had made the same mistakes and worse herself?
“Get it fixed, Private. Now.” Forgetting to even dismiss the assembled trainees, Larkins spun on her heel and hurried towards her room, not sure exactly what reaction was going to force its way out of her. She slammed the door behind herself and stood breathing heavily.
“Marines don’t act like you do, do they, Larkins? Do Marines party hard and get drunk on a regular basis? Do they disrespect their superiors and think they can get away with it? You’re not fit to wear the uniform. Hell, you’re not fit to polish a Marine’s boots with your tongue.”
That had been the time Sloan kept Larkins standing in her office the whole day without food or water as punishment for drinking. The day Sloan decided to humiliate her by forcing her to dress and act like a civilian for over a week. Completely unable to stop herself, Larkins whispered, “I respect the uniform, ma’am.”
It felt as if Sloan was actually standing over her, her cruel smirk and oppressive behavior mocking Larkins, and she remembered the punishment that she had been on the receiving end of most frequently. “Down on your stomach and give me push-ups until I’m satisfied, grunt.”
Larkins involuntarily dropped to the ground, hardly aware of what she was doing as she began doing push-ups, firmly locked in a dozen flashbacks at once. “I do respect the uniform,” she repeated out loud. “I swear I do. I’m a Marine, ma’am, not a civvie. I honor the oath I took to respect this uniform and the honor and the ideals of the Corps it represents.”
She was barely even aware of what was real and what was a flashback as she continued the push-ups, not feeling as her arms began to ache and then go numb. She was far beyond counting how many repetitions she had done, lost in the flashbacks that looped over and over again.
Something slammed into her face, and the pain slowly drew her out of the flashbacks to realize that her arms had given out and she had fallen to the floor. “What the fuck was that?”
She rolled over and sat up, her arms dangling limply at her sides, the muscles so tired that they were completely unresponsive. She stood up and then dropped down onto her bed, trying to understand what had happened. She couldn’t believe she had had another flashback. She thought she was over those. She hadn’t even had a flashback to Hanstad’s death since the end of the last flight’s training. Clearly some of what she had gone through on LV-327 still haunted her more than she realized.
“So what does that say about my mental state?” she asked herself weakly. Could she even trust her own mind anymore? Was she going insane? “Could I even get more mentally fucked up than I already am?”
The question of her own sanity hovered over Larkins for the next several days and she was just starting to feel stupid for thinking about it when something happened that brought back all of her doubts. She and Evison were teaching a hands-on lesson on the GAU-113/B, the autocannon used on the MD-4L and AD-4M Cheyenne dropships. When they had finished, Larkins took off her goggles and went to retrieve her sunglasses, but they weren’t on the crate where she had left them. Looking around, she quickly came to the conclusion that someone must have taken them and as the realization struck her, she couldn’t stop the infuriated yell that burst out. “Where the fuck are my sunglasses?!”
Everyone froze, and Evison looked over. “Whoa, whoa, calm down, Larkins. What’s wrong?”
Larkins glared 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!”
“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 gave any signs of cooperation, which only made her angrier. “I’m going to get them back if I have to strip search every single one of you fuckers!”
“Larkins!” Evison snapped. Larkins stopped dead and stared at him. She had never heard him use that sharp tone with anyone. The other corporal continued, “Enough.”
“Did I ask for your damn opini-” Larkins began indignantly, ready to push her case, 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 before finishing, “The safest assumption is that you forgot where you put them.”
“I don’t forget where I put things,” growled Larkins. She was positive she had left her sunglasses on the crate. She remembered it as clearly as she possibly could.
“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 without waiting for any of the flight members or even looking back.
That evening, when training was done, she went back to the hangar bay where they had held the lesson and looked for her sunglasses again. She looked on and around the crates, toolboxes, and in the box of goggles. There was no sign of her sunglasses.
What if I never actually brought them with me today? What if I only thought I did? She didn’t want to think about the idea, but she had to test it. She hurried back to her room to look around, but after a thorough search came up empty.
“What happened to them?” she asked, sitting down on the edge of her bed in confusion. What if you didn’t leave them where you think you did? What if that memory is completely false? What if you don’t even know the truth because you’re already insane and you just can’t see it?
“No,” she said softly. “That’s not possible. I’m not crazy. I had them today and now they’re gone. But… but what if I didn’t? Can I even trust myself? Am I fit to continue doing my job?”
What if all that alcohol was finally affecting her brain and causing more serious damage than she realized? How long could she continue like this? “But I don’t know how to change,” she admitted sadly. “I don’t know.”
She couldn’t accept the idea that she was crazy. There was too much she was responsible for. She had to hold herself together for her flight. They needed her. She would have to do her best to force everything down deep inside like she always did and deprive it of strength by keeping it in the darkness.