Bleeding Heart: Chapter 6

Larkins was greatly relieved to learn that Snyder would make a full recovery, but she still couldn’t bring herself to go talk to him. It was as if she was afraid of doing anything that could cause her to even hint at how worried she had been for him.

Porter spent most of the time following their return in her room or in the medbay with Snyder, only coming out to eat. She said nothing to anyone unless asked, and even though Larkins wanted to talk to her, she felt just as helpless to say anything as she did with Snyder.

The remaining trainees continued to push towards Meadow and by the middle of the nineteenth day they were all out of the mountains and into the forest. Ferro, Spunkmeyer, and Sydell were still making good time, but Larkins was becoming more and more confident that Gravis and Connington weren’t going to make it. They were lagging farther and farther behind and Evison told her that at one point he watched them go almost ninety degrees in the wrong direction for over half an hour before they corrected their course. A slight detour around an obstacle was one thing, but a deviation that large could only mean they had made a serious navigational mistake.

As night closed in on the end of the twentieth day, Larkins began to get ready for bed, glad that it would be their last night on LV-542. Other than cryo, the next time she went to sleep would be in her own room back at Lejeune, and she was desperately looking forward to it. She was already expecting that Ferro, Spunkmeyer, and Sydell would arrive the next morning and then she and Evison would have to go out and pick up Gravis and Connington. It was unfortunate for them, but she couldn’t change the rules or lower the standards for them, and she wouldn’t even if she could.

She was just getting ready to settle down when there was a knock on her door. She opened it to see Corporal Kerson, one of the base guards, standing in the hallway. “Larkins, two of your kids just came in. They’re in the medbay now.”

The news was a complete surprise to Larkins and she immediately headed for the medbay, meeting up with Evison on the way; when they arrived, one of the medics had just finished examining Spunkmeyer and Ferro.

 “How are you two doing?” Evison asked.

“In good health and ready to be released,” the medic announced. “Although I’d be willing to bet they’re both looking forward to a shower and a proper meal.”

“Then let’s get them out of here,” Evison said, with a smile. “Thank you, Millam.”

As they left the medbay, Larkins turned to Evison. “You do your coddle-thing with these two if you want. I’ve seen for myself they’re alright, and now I’m going back to bed.”

“Fine,” Evison sighed, sounded defeated.

Larkins turned to Spunkmeyer and Ferro, hesitating for a moment. They had done well and she knew she should say something to congratulate them, but all she managed to force out was, “I expected to have to go out and haul your sorry asses in here within the first week. Instead, you passed. Looks like you might make it after all. Maybe.”

That was awful, Skye. Fucking awful. She felt her cheeks burning as she realized just how terrible the remark sounded and she quickly turned and walked away, trying to hide her embarrassment at her own stupid mouth. At this point all she wanted to do was go to bed and get it all over with.

The relief that Larkins felt when she woke up the next morning and remembered she’d be on her way home in a few hours was almost overwhelming. Then it would only be a few more weeks before she was on the way to the first real vacation she had ever taken. She just hoped she’d actually be able to relax for a little while.

She decided to spend the middle part of the morning going over the Stickland’s UD-4H one last time before their return to the ship, and she was just finishing up when she saw several figures gathering around the main gate and then leaving again after it closed. That probably meant Sydell had made it. It was about the right time.

Larkins finished her inspection and went to find the trainee, but instead she found Evison, who said, “Sydell’s in. Medics just got done with her check-up and I sent her to shower.”

“Great. You ready to go pick up Gravis and Connington?” she asked.

“They still have time,” Evison pointed out. “They might make it if they run.”

“Like that would happen,” Larkins muttered sarcastically, turning away. She knew Sydell habitually took quick showers, even for a Marine, and she would probably be in her assigned room by the time Larkins got there.

She entered the barracks building and went into the hall where the trainee and instructor rooms were. Spunkmeyer was standing outside Ferro’s door as if about to knock, but he came to attention when he saw Larkins approaching. She ignored him and went straight to Sydell’s door and knocked sharply before entering without waiting for a response. Sydell was hunched over on her bed, her face in her hands, and when she looked up at Larkins, the corporal saw her face was streaked with tears. Larkins shut the door and demanded, “What the fuck are the tears for, Private? You passed. You should be celebrating.”

“Fuck you,” Sydell spat, more tears streaming down her face. “Do you have any idea what I’ve been through the past three weeks?”

“Pretty good idea,” Larkins said sharply, deciding to ignore the private’s insubordinate outburst. “In case you’ve forgotten, I went through the same test once.”

“And did you have a partner?” Sydell demanded.

Larkins inclined her head. “Yeah. I did.”

“So, no, you don’t know what I’ve been through. I haven’t seen another person in three fucking weeks. I haven’t said a word in three weeks because there’s been no one for me to say anything to. I haven’t had decent sleep since we got to this piece of shit planet because there’s been no one to take watch for me so I was constantly afraid to even close my eyes. I lost my entire pack except my locator beacon and radio down a crevasse up on the mountains during a windstorm, so I spent the last few nights lying on bare ground with nothing to keep me warm, oh, and by the way, apparently I picked up a nice little bug from drinking straight out of the river since my damn purification equipment was in my pack. Oh, yeah, the medics said not to worry about it since it’ll pass in a few days and they gave me a pretty bottle of pills to help, but my stomach still fucking hurts! So for my post-action mission report, Corporal,” she snarled mockingly, “I’d like to inform you that I’m tired, hungry, thirsty, in a hell of a lot of pain, and about to go crazy from not seeing another living thing apart from dumb fucking animals for three weeks!”

Larkins stared speechlessly at Sydell during her entire rant. She had never heard of a trainee completing the survival course after losing all of their equipment, and she was more impressed than she’d ever let on that Sydell hadn’t given up at that point or in the days after. But she also had a feeling that the isolation of doing the course on her own had affected Sydell more than the young woman was letting on. She took a step farther into the room, making eye contact with Sydell. Maybe now was the time for her to share an important personal lesson.

“You know, you remind me a lot of myself,” she admitted. Sydell laughed harshly as if disbelieving, insulted, or both, but she let Larkins continue. “I know that loner nature. The disgust with the mess that is other people’s lives. I know what it’s like to not want anything to do with people because of how fucking petty and stupid they are. I’ve never had a friend or even someone I was close to. I never let myself because I didn’t want to care. And it always seemed like such a good idea until recently. Lately I’ve been starting to wonder if it really was all worth it.”

This was the most she had ever opened up to anyone before in her entire life. She wasn’t even sure why she was doing it at all, especially with a trainee. But she felt an overwhelming need to protect Sydell from making the same mistakes she had, or the young woman would turn out the same way and put herself through the same hell that Larkins had.

“Don’t screw your life up the way I did, kid,” she advised. “Don’t isolate yourself or hate everyone for the slightest things. I’ve done that for so long I don’t know how to stop even now that I want to, and I’d rather not think about you putting yourself through the same thing. Make something better for yourself than I did. Maybe if you look hard enough, you’ll find the good in people. I’m not sure I can anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for you.”

She ran out of things to say and fell silent, watching Sydell. The trainee was quiet for a moment before she lifted her face from her hands again and leaned her head back against the wall as she began to laugh. She laughed until her entire body shook, and her reaction was so unexpected that Larkins stared wordlessly at her, not sure what to say. Finally, Sydell spoke, still laughing but sounding as if she was on the verge of a hysterical breakdown. “Shut up. Just… shut the fuck up. You don’t get to talk about shit like that after the way you’ve acted for the last fifteen months. After the hell you’ve put all of us through. Don’t even try to pretend you want to care about other people because I already know you don’t. You don’t give a fuck about anyone but yourself. Who are you to tell me how I should treat other people?”

The outburst hit far too close to home for Larkins’ liking and she took another step forward, growling, “I’d watch your fucking mouth if I was you, kid. You haven’t graduated yet. I can still fail you for inappropriate behavior. I don’t care what you think of me or what I’ve done; I’m trying to help you do something better than that. You can either listen or you can fuck yourself over just to try to spite me. It’s your choice.”

She turned and stormed out, knowing the confrontation would only escalate if she didn’t leave. She needed to get away and calm down before she caused more trouble for both of them.

She wandered around the base grounds one last time waiting for 1200 to come. Finally she met up with Evison in the hangar bay and they headed out to pick up Gravis and Connington. The two young men were still over a mile away from the base, but it didn’t take long to get to their location and find a clearing to set down in. Larkins could see the two gesturing at each other and talking angrily, so she told Evison, “You’re dealing with them. If I have to see them both like this I’m going to knock them the fuck out.”

She waited at the controls until Evison had gotten the two strapped in and returned to the cockpit before lifting off again and taking them back to Meadow. When they landed and left the cockpit, Gravis and Connington were silent, and Larkins motioned for them both to follow her. As long as they were done arguing, she would rather get them to the medbay to get checked out as quickly as possible. But they began arguing again the moment they started down the ramp and Larkins lost her patience with them. “Shut your stupid fucking traps! You failed! End of story!”

They fell silent again and none of the three said anything on the way to the medbay. Larkins waited until they had been given their check-ups and approved for the trip home and then led them back to the dropship, where Evison and the other trainees were already in their seats and ready to go. Larkins dropped into the pilot’s seat and took them skywards, breathing a heavy sigh of relief just quietly enough to keep Evison from hearing. She was finally going home.

Only having three remaining trainees for the last few weeks of the course made things much more awkward for Larkins. It meant there was only so long she could go between directly addressing one of the three multiple times, and after Sydell’s temper tantrum on LV-542, Larkins felt extremely tense every time she had to talk to her because she was worried that the young woman would snap again. She wasn’t sure she could deal with that.

Finally, the day for the final flight tests came. Larkins came right out and told Evison she didn’t care if he wanted her to sit second seat for both Spunkmeyer and Ferro, but she was going to make him fly with Sydell regardless. He agreed to take both Spunkmeyer and Sydell, which left her with just Ferro. Ferro was quiet and professional throughout her flight and Larkins wished she had the words to compliment her on how much she had improved in the last sixteen months.

It wasn’t until after all three had passed their final flight tests and she and Evison had each signed off on their respective papers confirming their completion of training that she found the words she was looking for. She knew exactly what she was going to say to tell them how proud she was of them and how impressed she was. It would be the first genuinely kind thing she had ever said to anyone.

Spunkmeyer and Ferro were just coming out of Evison’s office as Larkins left her own room. She opened her mouth to recite the words she had been mentally rehearsing, but to her horror everything came slamming to a halt in her brain and what came out instead was, “I’ve never heard of or seen two RIFT trainees who started out as poorly as you did and still managed to pass. I guess there’s more to both of you than I would have guessed.”

No! That wasn’t what I meant to say at all! Where did that come from? She was sure her face had turned the same shade of crimson as her hair, and she turned and walked away as fast as she could, barely able to believe what had just happened. I wanted to say something nice to them. Why is that so fucking hard?

Spunkmeyer and Ferro had been luckier than Sydell was. There had been an opening for both of them right away, but there had been no word back on a new assignment for Sydell, so she was being transferred to the separations barracks to wait for new orders. Larkins had ordered Sydell to report to her office, but when the young woman failed to show up, Larkins went to her room and found her there, sitting on the edge of the bed staring at the floor. Larkins handed over Sydell’s graduation papers and her transfer orders, saying, “You owe me a ‘thank you’ for the favor I did for you.”

Sydell laughed sharply. “What fucking favor?”

“Try wiping the grit out of your eyes and then take a closer look at that graduation paper,” advised Larkins.

Sydell looked over it again impatiently. “Still don’t see anything worth thanking you for.”

Larkins reached out and angrily jabbed at the paper with a finger. “You’re getting promoted. Right past Lance Corporal to full RIFT Corporal. If you’re capable of remembering anything you’ve learned over the past sixteen months, you’ll know that’s an E-6 paygrade. It takes years for conventional personnel to make E-6. Even graduating RIFT training that high doesn’t happen often. It’s a reward for the best trainees. But I think you’ve earned it, and Evison agrees. You’re welcome. And speaking of favors, you still don’t have a proper callsign, so I gave you one.”

Callsigns didn’t work quite the same way they had a hundred years ago. Even though they could be funny, humorously derogative, sarcastic, or anything equally ridiculous, they were also taken seriously when it came to field and reporting purposes. A pilot’s callsign might as well be their name in certain circumstances and once they had been given one, it wasn’t easy to get it changed. Sydell looked down at the graduation paper yet again, where Larkins had filled in the “callsign” entry. “‘Lonesome’?” she asked disbelievingly, glaring at Larkins. “Fuck you.”

“Your problem, not mine,” Larkins said dismissively, finally ready to be done with Sydell and watch the rookie walk away for the last time. She was tired of being reminded of herself every time she looked in Sydell’s eyes. She turned to leave the room, but as she stepped out into the hallway, Sydell got up and came after her, standing in the doorway with a defiant expression. “You still don’t get it. I’m alone. Not lonely. Big difference there.”

She slammed her door shut, leaving Larkins shaking her head and sighing. “Keep telling yourself that, kid. Keep telling yourself that.”

After so much time spent in close quarters with the trainees and wanting to get away from them for the last two months, Larkins felt it was ironic that she was scheduled to depart Lejeune for her vacation on the same flight that was taking Spunkmeyer and Ferro to their unit. They’d get off in Tampa and she’d switch to a civilian airline for the hop to Miami. She felt like it would be incredibly awkward for them to have to acknowledge each other on the flight, so when she saw them waiting to board the jet she did her best to remain unobtrusive and in the background where they weren’t likely to notice her. But she couldn’t help watching them closely, and she got a strange feeling that there was something different about Ferro. Something new but vaguely familiar. Then Larkins froze, staring in disbelief as she realized what it was. Ferro was wearing a pair of sleek black aviator sunglasses identical to her own and Larkins immediately remembered the day her old pair of sunglasses had gone missing during training.

“Unbelievable,” she muttered to herself. So she hadn’t been crazy after all. She hadn’t misplaced her sunglasses. The little bitch had stolen them and now that there was nothing Larkins could do, she was parading around with them like they were a trophy. It wasn’t worth it to confront her over them. They were a thirty-dollar pair of sunglasses that Larkins had long-since replaced and there was no point causing a scene over it. Besides, maybe Ferro had earned her little trophy. It must have taken one hell of a set of nerves for her to steal from Larkins and not give herself up when the corporal had confronted all of them. Larkins couldn’t help from giving a dry, bitter smirk in the newly-promoted lance corporal’s direction. Let her parade around. She had won this match, but that only meant Larkins had won too. She had done her job and prepared all three of the graduating trainees for field assignments. She hadn’t failed them.

She slept through most of the flight to Tampa and then again to Miami, but even though she felt a bit stiff when she finally got off the plane she was surprised to find she already felt more rested and relaxed than she had in a long time. Maybe this vacation was going to be exactly what she needed.

She got a taxi from the airport to the hotel where she had bought a discount package for a room for the full month. It was expensive, but she had done her research thoroughly before picking a location and while the hotel she was staying at wasn’t exactly first class it was still a nice place. Her room even had a balcony overlooking the beach, which was about a mile away. In fact, it was the nicest place she had ever stayed at before.

It was after 1000 when she arrived at the hotel and she took her time wandering around the room and exploring it, unpacking her clothing and personal items, and enjoying the view from the balcony, which she could already tell was going to be a good place to be in the morning when the sun came up.

After about two hours, she still didn’t feel hungry, so instead of going out and looking for a place to have lunch, she decided to take a shower and relax until she was ready to eat. Even though she was used to getting in and out as fast as possible when showering, she found herself taking her time, running the water as hot as it would go and letting it relax her muscles before gradually adjusting the temperature lower to a refreshing coolness. After she finally got out almost an hour later and got dressed again, she opened both of the room’s windows to let the fresh air in and sat on the edge of the bed, closed her eyes, and breathed in and out as deeply as she could, feeling her body relax even more.

She tried to remember the last time she had felt so peaceful. It had to have been years ago. She sat thinking for several minutes, going over the events of the past few years. There had been nothing like this during the training flight that had just finished, or the one before that. She had spent the month in between the two courses working almost just as hard, and before the first course she had been busy training to be an instructor. Before that was LV-327. It was hard to believe it had been three years since she left. Three years away from Sloan and her collection of pitiful, unfortunate Marines. But then she remembered that LV-327 was also the last place she had felt any kind of relaxed sensation. That last day of leave when Sloan had kicked them all off the base and Larkins had spent the day wandering around Lightford Springs Colony. She had stopped in a quiet little restaurant for lunch and it had been one of the only peaceful experiences she had gotten to enjoy during all the years she spent on the planet. It was ironic that the place in life where she had suffered the most was also one of the only places where she had had any kind of positive experience, and since then things had just continued to go downhill.

“Enough of that, Skye,” she admonished herself out loud. “You’re here and you have so much to be grateful for. Enjoy it while you can.”

Determined to distract herself before she started down that depressing path again, she turned the television on and lounged back on the bed. She watched the news for a while before flipping through and trying to see if there was anything else interesting on. Modern television shows weren’t nearly as bad as some of the so-called “classics” from a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago that she had been unfortunate to come across from time to time, but a lot of them still left much to be desired and she wound up spending over two hours watching three- to five-minute segments of random shows before changing the channel to something else. Finally she turned the TV off entirely and settled back on the bed and closed her eyes, wanting to enjoy the tranquil experience for as long as she could.

She was so calm that she fell asleep without even intending to, and when she woke up she realized the sun was setting. As she looked around the darkening room, she also became aware that she was finally feeling hungry. She could have easily looked up a list of the best restaurants that were nearby, but she decided to take advantage of the convenience of the restaurant on the hotel’s first floor. The dining room was just as nice as the rest of the hotel, lit by soft, yellow lights and filled with delicious smells and the hum of quiet conversation. A waiter led Larkins to a table in one corner of the room where she could see everyone else. Her good mood wavered for a moment when she noticed that like the time she had gone to the diner in Jacksonville, she was the only person there who was sitting by themselves. The loneliness came back for a moment, but she grabbed it roughly and stomped on it, trying to regain control of herself. She wasn’t going to let it ruin her vacation.

Then as she was looking around, she saw the restaurant had a small bar on one side and her heart fluttered. Uh oh. She hadn’t even thought about what she was going to drink and where she was going to get it for the next month, and she realized that she had been subconsciously thinking that she would magically be able to give up alcohol for the entire month. There was no way that would work.

“Two drinks, Skye,” she told herself. “Have dinner and then you can have two drinks. No more.”

She might not be able to resist the urges entirely, but she wasn’t about to turn her vacation into an alcoholic frenzy. Her issues were bad enough without extending them to the one time she had a chance to take a break from all the stress in her life. She forced herself to focus on the menu she had been given and was almost overwhelmed by the wide variety of choices. There were so many options she couldn’t even pick a place to begin so she decided to start with a simple steak meal. She had four weeks left to try as many of the other options as she wanted.

She took her time with her food when it came, and decided that was how she intended to approach everything during the next month: slowly and unhurriedly. She wasn’t going to push herself or cause any unnecessary stress, just enjoy everything while it lasted. When she was finished she went over to the bar and had the two drinks she had promised herself, which was just enough to take the edge off of the desire. After that she went back up her room and out onto the balcony and dropped into the comfortable wicker recliner sitting on one side, watching the skyline darken as the sun went down. After a while she began to feel drowsy and decided she didn’t want to fall asleep and spend the entire night out in the recliner, even as beautiful as the weather was, so she got up and went back inside. She would go to bed early tonight and rest so she could enjoy the coming days as much as she could.

Over the next several days, Larkins found that she was indeed enjoying herself. After sleeping in the first morning at the hotel, she barely spent any time there during the day. Miami had just as much to do as she imagined, and every day meant something different. Sometimes she spent hours walking up and down the beach looking out at the water, and other times she found herself wandering the city and losing herself for several hours to the distraction of one or another of the thousand activities or attractions for tourists. One day she rented a bicycle and spent the entire day riding around the city. Her legs were sore afterward, but the day was worth it.

She made it a point to find somewhere different to eat for every meal, and many of the places and foods she discovered were entirely new adventures in one way or another. She even found herself resisting the urge to drink, for the most part at least. She still allowed herself two drinks at the hotel bar every evening before returning to her room, but that was enough. She was always sober enough to sit out on the balcony and watch as the city grew darker and she never woke up with a pounding headache or the other familiar symptoms of a hangover.

The only bad thing that happened was after she had been there for a week. She didn’t have many pairs of civilian clothes, so she was going to have to do laundry once a week. She had just finished a load and had the clean clothing piled on her bed to fold when she heard Sloan’s voice in her head. “If you want to act like a weak, undisciplined civvie, than I think we can accommodate that. So from now on, you’ve lost your uniform privileges until I say otherwise. When you get up every morning, you can put on your civvie clothes and wear them. Let’s show everyone what a failed Marine looks like walking around in civvie clothes.”

“No,” Larkins muttered to herself, frozen in the middle of folding a shirt. Just because she was wearing and handling something other than a uniform didn’t mean she was a failure. “I’m not going back there. Get out of my head.”

But it wasn’t so easy to push away the memories. She was trapped thinking about everything she had gone through on LV-327, right up to the humiliating end. She could still hear Sloan’s mocking voice as if she was right back with her old unit and the psychopathic sergeant was standing over her. “I’d like to introduce all of you to Miss Larkins here. She’s a civvie who’ll be staying with us for a week or two. She’ll be taking on most of the day-to-day chores around the base while she’s here, so things are going to be a bit easier on all of you. You don’t need to worry about going to extra effort to make sure she feels welcome here. She’ll be polite and address each of you as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. Just make sure she does her job well and if you have any complaints or she doesn’t treat you with complete respect or address you appropriately, come to me. Miss Larkins, do you have anything to say to my Marines?”

“Yeah,” Larkins growled out loud, barely realizing she was saying it. “I’ve got something to say to you. It’s Corporal Larkins, motherfucker.”

She flinched instinctively, thinking for a split second that she was about to be screamed at for talking back, but when nothing happened, she snapped back to reality and remembered where she was. So that happened. Weird.

But she hadn’t lost control. The flashbacks hadn’t gotten the better of her. She had even managed to strike back and say something that she had wanted to say for a long time. It wasn’t the same as getting to say it to Sloan’s face, but it was better than nothing. I’m not your bitch anymore.

In the end even the flashback and her reaction felt like a victory. Maybe this vacation could be the start of a new life for her. Maybe at last she was on the way to putting everything that had happened over the past twelve years behind.

The idea was an incredibly liberating one that induced a sense of unreal euphoria which hung with Larkins for days. It was a completely new feeling for her, but she found she didn’t want it to end. Even when it did fade away, she still felt like she was in a better mood than she had been in a long time. Maybe ever.

As the beginning of her final week in Miami came around, Larkins found herself questioning if the city could be a good place for her to live. She had already signed another ten-year contract with the Marines the year before, but maybe once that was over she would be ready to retire and live a more peaceful life. She might even have the chance to learn how to make friends. At the very least she’d never have to worry about being bored.

When her final day in Miami came, Larkins did her best to fit as many activities into her day as she possibly could, knowing it would be her last chance for a long time. As evening fell, she returned to the hotel and took up her usual place in the recliner, watching until the blue sea turned to black. She stayed out longer than usual and when she finally got up to go back inside, she took one last look at what she could still see of the beautiful view, promising herself, “I’m definitely coming back here someday.”

Chapter 5……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 7

%d bloggers like this: