Larkins couldn’t help feeling sad on the way back to Camp Lejeune. It felt as if one of the best parts of her life had come to an end just after it began. But at least now she had a chance of approaching life with a new, more positive outlook. She might even be able to get along with Evison now. That would make her job bearable.
She checked in with the other corporal when she made it back to the barracks and he confirmed that everything was ready for the incoming trainees, who would be arriving the next day. He was obviously surprised by her good mood, but he didn’t say anything, probably not wanting to risk ruining it. Larkins went to bed that night looking forward to seeing the new flight the next day.
When the trucks with the new trainees arrived late the next afternoon, Larkins and Evison were ready and waiting.
“Alright, kids, off the fucking trucks and into two nice, pretty lines,” Larkins ordered loudly, surprised she was able to keep her voice firm but free of anger. She felt calmer than she had the last two times she had done this and she could feel Evison staring at in her shock as she waited patiently for the new trainees to form up. When they had, she turned to him. “They’re all yours, Evison.”
He gaped blankly at her for a moment before turning back to the trainees and beginning his introductory spiel. Larkins stood by watching casually until he had finished before calling out, “Okay, meet-and-greet is over! Let’s get you little fucks inside and introduce you to the hellhole some of you are going to get to call home for a full sixteen months!”
“What’s gotten into you?” Evison hissed quietly as he walked past her, leading the trainees inside. Larkins smirked in amusement but didn’t say anything in case one of the others heard. Evison would figure it out eventually.
Larkins realized she liked her own new attitude towards the trainees. She could still do her job. Maybe it was time to try to find a way to still be her firm, forceful self to them but be nicer about it. So far, she felt less stressed than she had with either of the last two classes despite the fact that the first few days were usually when she felt the most like her blood pressure was going to rise to fatal levels.
“This feels fucking good!” she whispered to herself after they had shown the trainees to the barracks hall and assigned rooms to each of them. “I could get used to this.”
She was disappointed to find she hadn’t made quite as much progress as she had hoped when dinnertime came and she hesitated to join in the conversations among the new flight members, but she wasn’t going to let that ruin anything. She was ready to let go of the past and start a new chapter in life.
The feeling of casual contentedness stuck with Larkins for the next two weeks and she lost count of how many times she saw Evison watching her in disbelief at the way she treated the trainees. She felt like she owed him an explanation but she wasn’t sure he would understand. He probably didn’t know what it was like to drop to such incredible, indescribable low points in life as she had, so how would he know what it felt like to rise so high afterward?
She sat at the foot of their assigned table one evening watching the trainees eating and talking with each other, and she started to feel ready to join in. They were polite and respectful to her and not nearly as afraid of her as she had made the last two classes, and she was starting to see openings where she could jump in while still maintaining professionalism. Maybe lunch or dinner tomorrow would be a good time to start.
When she had finished eating, she got up to dump her tray and go stand by the doorway to wait for everyone else to finish so they could go back to the barracks. Her good mood wavered for a moment when she saw Corporal Heath approaching, but she tried not to glare at the other woman as she sidled up. Her voice was smooth and confidential as she said, “Hey, Larkins, there’s a little story making the rounds that you might like to know about.”
“And what would that be, Heath?” Larkins asked coolly. Just because she was trying to treat people differently didn’t meant she was going to be friendly with the repulsive woman.
“Your old sergeant, Sloan. She’s dead.”
“What?!” Larkins couldn’t maintain her cool attitude at that bombshell. She looked over at Heath in shock, her voice urgent. “Tell me what the fuck happened.”
Heath grinned conspiratorially, clearly enjoying passing on the news. “She got fragged. Word is one of her own people, Mathias or something like that, completely snapped on her. Put her gun right up to Sloan’s head and pow!” Heath mimed putting a gun to her head and firing it before laughing darkly. “Bet that made a pretty mess. Kid who did it’s gonna have herself a long, cozy stay in Leavenworth or some equally nice place.”
It felt as if every bit of progress Larkins had made in the last month and a half had all been ripped away in an instant. It was like someone had found that spark of hope in her heart and ruthlessly extinguished it with a single, powerful stomp. The light inside her went out and the darkness came rushing back so quickly she felt herself sway and almost pass out. Through the dim haze of half-consciousness, she realized that Heath was still grinning stupidly at her and the younger woman asked, “So how about it, Larkins? That worth something to you? Maybe you knew that kid and knew why she’d do something like that. Care to share? Lot of people would love to hear it.”
Feeling as if she was floating inside herself and only half in control of her own actions, Larkins shoved Heath aside, hissing breathlessly, “Get the fuck out of here, Heath. Go find a mud puddle to wallow around in or something equally disgusting.”
She forgot all about waiting for Evison and their trainees and went back to the barracks as fast as she could, feeling a bubbling hurricane of emotions swelling up inside her far too quickly and violently for her to even attempt to process or control. Her only conscious thought was to get back to her room as fast as possible. She barely managed to hold herself together long enough to get into her room and shut the door before she broke down. She collapsed onto her knees, tears pouring down her face as she began sobbing and wailing in agony. She knew perfectly well what must have happened, and the explanation was so horrific she couldn’t even emotionally process it. Mathis must have taken her place after she was removed from the unit. The focal point of Sloan’s mistreatment and abuse had shifted to her ex-copilot, driving her farther and farther down the same road Larkins had been on until she finally snapped and retaliated in the only way she knew how. She had killed Sloan and earned herself the majority of the good part of her adult life in prison as a result. Mathis had completely destroyed her own life because Larkins hadn’t been there to shield her from Sloan.
Still sobbing and too weak to stand up, Larkins dragged herself over to her bed and crawled up onto it, curling up and continuing to cry. “Mathis,” she groaned heartbrokenly. “Oh, Mathis, I’m so fucking sorry! I wasn’t there for you.”
She had promised herself that no matter how much she disliked her teammates, she would always stand up for them and watch out for them when she was able to. She thought she had broken that promise when she got removed from the unit because of her own mistakes, but this was far worse. If she had been stronger and better able to control herself, she wouldn’t have been removed. She would have remained Sloan’s primary target and Mathis wouldn’t have been pushed as far as she was. Her own weakness was directly responsible for her former copilot’s ultimate fate. She didn’t care at all about Sloan being dead, but the guilt she felt at knowing the rest of Mathis’ life had been ruined because of her shortcomings was crushing.
“I’m a total failure,” she sobbed. “I broke the most important promise I ever made.”
The pain in her chest was so powerful she was sure she was having a heart attack. She started to get up, wondering if she needed to get help, but the moment her feet hit the floor, the grief and pain flashed to rage. The closest thing in front of her was her desk chair and she grabbed it and hurled it sideways across the room. Before it had even slammed to the floor, she had already swept her desk clear of everything on it with a series of crashes and bangs and from there the next few minutes were nothing but a haze of fury and destruction with no thought for what might happen if someone heard the chaos.
When the rage finally gave out, Larkins collapsed on her bed, which had miraculously remained upright. She was breathing heavily and still shaking violently as she came back to her senses. Then she became aware of a warm, wet sensation on her hands. She looked down and gasped when she saw she was clutching her pocket knife and her hands were covered in blood. The dark red liquid was seeping rapidly from two jagged slashes in her arms, one on each wrist, and pulsing down all over her palms and fingers. She dropped the knife and ran for the bathroom, panting weakly as the pain and shock began to set in. Trembling, she yanked open the medical kit from under the sink and began tearing bandages out of their protective wrapping. She took one end of a long bandage roll and wrapped it around her left wrist, pulling savagely tight in an attempt to stop the bleeding. The effort made her right wrist bleed even more profusely, and she was beginning to feel dizzy by the time she was able to start wrapping it as well.
When she had finished, she sat down on the edge of the tub, still crying and shaking as she held her arms out in front of herself, wrists up so she could watch for more bleeding. She was in such a panic that the thought of going for proper help never occurred to her. She watched as small red patches appeared through the white bandages and gradually began to spread, but just as she began to worry she hadn’t been able to stop the bleeding and was about to bleed out, she noticed that the patches had stopped spreading. Her wrists hurt terribly, but she was starting to understand that she must not have cut herself as deeply as she thought she had. She would have already been dead if she had really done that.
“Wha… why?” she moaned, staring at her arms. “What happened to me?”
She couldn’t believe she had almost killed herself. Just half an hour ago she had been in a good mood and ready to start willingly socializing with other people for the first time in her life. It had all been taken away so fast she was in as much shock as if she was in the middle of a combat drop and the dropship disappeared around her.
It had all been for nothing. The peace and contentedness of the time she had spent on vacation, the feeling that she could start over and treat people better, and the hope that she might actually be able to talk to people and make friends. It was all gone, and she knew that it had just been an illusion of something she was never meant to have. Her own atrocious behavior for the first part of her life had earned her a curse that condemned her to suffer for whatever time she had left. Her situation was hopeless.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” she whimpered softly. She got up and stumbled weakly back to her bed, slipping and almost falling in the slick blood pooled on the floor next to the bed. She collapsed onto the bed, holding her arms up to try to keep from jarring them and triggering more bleeding. The combination of blood loss and devastating emotions had left her weaker and dizzier than she had ever felt before, and she was barely able to curl up and hold her arms away from her body as she cried and begged for the darkness to take her until she finally felt her senses slip away into what might have been sleep, a faint, or total unconsciousness.
When Larkins woke up the next morning, the only sensation she was aware of was a simultaneous feeling of agonizing pain and total emptiness in her chest. It was so overpowering that she lay staring at the ceiling for a long time before she even had the strength to turn her head to check her arms. It didn’t seem like her wrists had started bleeding again. Accepting that she wasn’t going to die in the next few minutes, Larkins shifted her head back into its original position, unable to form a single conscious thought out of her grief and pain.
After what seemed like years, there was a knock on her door. She felt like she had no strength, but she knew she had to get up and answer it or whoever was knocking would start worrying. She couldn’t let them see what she had done to her room or herself. She slowly dragged herself out of bed and walked numbly over to the door, opening it just enough to look out. Evison was standing there, a concerned look on his face. “You alright, Larkins? It’s time to go.”
“I’m not feeling well,” Larkins mumbled, doing her best to keep a straight face and hoping he didn’t see the tear stains on her cheeks. “I think I’m going to take the day off. Sorry, Evison.”
“Okay…” Evison said hesitantly. “I hope you feel better. Maybe you should take a walk down to the infirmary and see if they can help.”
“I’ll be okay. Just a migraine,” lied Larkins. “I’ll be on my feet again tomorrow.”
She shut the door without waiting for an answer and turned back to shuffle over to her bed again, her shoulders drooping. She sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to breathe and process everything going on in her head. It was a hopeless attempt. It was as if her entire brain had short-circuited and now there was no controlling or understanding it. She wasn’t just back where she had been a few months before, she was far worse off. All in one night.
She knew she should clean up the room, especially the dried splatters and pools of blood on the floor, but she didn’t have the strength or motivation. She turned to swing her legs up onto the bed and lie down, closing her eyes and letting the feeling of weakness wrap around her like a cold blanket. It was all she had left.
“Weak,” she whispered softly to the empty room. “Pathetic. Worthless. Hopeless. Useless. No good for anything. Not even good enough to live.”
Time lost all significance for Larkins and she lay motionless on the bed, trapped in a combination of memories and imagination as she thought about all of the suffering she had endured on LV-327, what Mathis must have gone through after her departure, and what the young woman must have been thinking and feeling to be so desperate that killing Sloan seemed like her only way out.
She should have been there to make things different. She had despised Mathis, but the kid had still deserved better than to be put in the situation she had been. She was too young, too innocent, and too impressionable. She was nothing more than a product of Sloan’s psychopathy and Larkins’ rage. It was their fault. I’m just as bad as Sloan. I don’t deserve to live.
Her weakness was the only thing saving Larkins from ripping the bandages off her arms and forcing the blood to start flowing again until she bled out. She wanted to end everything but didn’t have the strength to do it. She didn’t even have the strength to mentally fight with herself. She simply accepted the defeat.
After an incredibly long, painfully empty period of time, Larkins forced herself to sit up. She looked around the room again and realized she needed to clean it up. If she couldn’t kill herself, she had to do her best to hide what she was going through. She didn’t want to think about the consequences if she was found out. Still feeling numb and clumsy, she began picking up everything she had thrown or knocked over the night before, discarding several papers from her desk that had blood on them. She left the blood on the floor for last, and once she had finished cleaning up the bedroom and bathroom, she cautiously peeled the blood-soaked bandages off of her wrists and rewrapped them. Luckily the cuts were low down on her wrists close to her hands and she could hide the bandages with gloves. She would just have to be careful for a little while so they didn’t open up again. She still couldn’t go to the medbay because the medics would have to report her injuries and that would lead to endless amounts of trouble, but she could stitch the wounds up herself if she had to.
Still feeling as if she was floating inside herself, Larkins walked back to her bed and flopped down on it, reaching into her nightstand for the closest bottle. She opened it and began drinking without paying any attention to what it was. She was still faint from blood loss and she was vaguely aware of either falling asleep or passing out and waking up several times over the course of the next several hours.
Other than her own labored breathing and the occasionally swish of liquid in the bottle when she was awake enough to drink, the next sound she heard was Evison bringing the flight back into the barracks hall outside, and she realized the entire day had gone by. It felt like just a few minutes. The sounds of the trainees walking around and talking as they got ready to go to their own rooms and showers quickly became an annoyance, and Larkins got up, slamming the bottle back into the nightstand. Storming out into the hallway, she yelled, “Shut the fuck up, every single one of you stupid fuckwits! Get your lazy asses down here and in one fucking line right this second!”
Every trainee still in the hallway stopped dead, staring at her in disbelief, which only infuriated her more. “Move your fucking asses!” she screamed.
There was a mad scramble to form up as the trainees who had already gone into their rooms rushed out, some of the ones in the upper rooms jumping straight down to the floor. They all had identical looks of shock and terror on their faces as they lined up. Evison came out of his room, demanding, “Larkins! What the hell is going on here?!”
“You shut your fucking mouth!” Larkins roared at him before whirling back to the trainees. “I’ve given you all an easy day off without me and now you’re gonna fucking feel it! Form that line up tighter, damn it!”
She saw one unfortunate young woman, whose name she suddenly couldn’t even remember, struggling to hold back tears of fright and she stomped over, demanding, “Do you want to be failed out this instant, Private?!”
“N-n-no, Corporal!” the private sniffled, trembling.
It took all of Larkins’ strength to stop herself from grabbing the trainee by the front of her uniform. “You address me as ‘ma’am’ and only ‘ma’am’! Do you understand me, Private?!”
“I’ve been soft on all of you so far!” Larkins snarled at the line of trainees, ignoring Evison, who was standing helplessly in his doorway and clearly too shocked to interfere. “But no fucking more! We’re going to start showing you what training here is really like! I’ll be damned if you’re going to spend the next sixteen months lounging around and fucking off on Marine Corps time! Now get the fuck out of my sight! All of you! Double time, damn you!”
There was a second rush as the trainees broke the line and threw themselves at the doors and ladders to their rooms, desperate to get away from her. Without even looking at Evison, Larkins stormed back into her room and slammed the door, snarling to herself. The monster deep inside her heart that she thought she had finally gotten the better of had come back stronger than ever before and she and everyone around her was going to suffer because of it.
The weeks that followed were possibly the darkest and hardest of Larkins’ entire life. Every moment was a constant battle to hold down a boiling rage that threatened to break free and lash out at any time. She felt like she was barely restraining and disguising it well enough to keep from being sent in for a psych evaluation. The yearly evaluations were difficult enough to lie her way through; there was no way she could hide the truth if she was forced to do another one.
She also noticed that she was beginning to have problems remembering things. There was an increasing number of blank spaces in her memory that could span from several hours to an entire day, and she began to depend on a datapad to take notes reminding her of important information. As time went on she started to rely on it more and more heavily. She wasn’t sure if the memory loss was caused by drinking, constantly high stress levels, or both.
Evison was also beginning to pay attention to her behavior more closely, and that concerned her. Her entire career was over if he found out what she was going through, which only made her fight that much harder to control the anger. She found herself putting an increasing amount of energy into forcing her emotions into a tight little ball in her chest and then trying to forget they existed. The effort caused her to become more and more distracted during training, which was also likely contributing to her memory issues.
It was also becoming more and more difficult not to take her rage out on the trainees too much. There wasn’t a single evening when the sound of at least one of the young Marines crying in their room didn’t reach out to the hallway. She was worried that Evison would finally reach a point where he had enough and went to Graham about her behavior, but he just grew more and more silent and frustrated. He also started getting quick-tempered and irritable with the trainees, but the more Larkins saw that, the more she disliked it despite all the time she had spent wishing that he would learn to treat them more like she did.
She was also afraid that she would get caught up in the fallout from Sloan’s death. She didn’t hear any more details connected to what had happened, but she knew that if the investigation went deep enough and the full details of the sergeant’s behavior over the years came out, she could find herself being asked a lot of uncomfortable questions that she didn’t want to have to answer. It took several months before she finally started to see that whatever happened, it wasn’t going to come back on her.
The year ended and dragged into 2172. Her thirty-second birthday in April came and went completely unnoticed. She was slowly becoming aware of a tortured, agonized voice inside her head that was begging for mercy and relief. She was afraid of that voice. She knew it was the pleading of her weaker side, the part of her that wanted to give in and fail, but she couldn’t let it rule her. She had to stay in control and continue to fight for herself. The only thing she was more afraid of than the constant suffering was the alternative of failure.
Even sleep brought less and less relief as she began to have nightmares more frequently. Most of them were about Hanstad dying, seeing herself watching Mathis kill Sloan, or about having all of her secrets exposed and being forced out of the Marines, and it became common for her to wake up crying, soaked in sweat, or both.
Then one night, Larkins fell asleep and found herself back on LV-327, standing in front of her entire unit and sobbing brokenly as Sloan looked on and laughed at her. “Come on, Skye,” the sergeant sneered mockingly. “Don’t stop your wailing yet. Give me some more fucking tears.”
“Why are you doing this?!” Larkins begged for an answer, barely able to see Sloan through her tears.
The sergeant laughed again. “Because I can.”
She took a step forward and grabbed as much of Larkins’ short hair in her hand as she could and began to yank hard, making Larkins howl in pain as she continued, “Because you’re a fucking drunk and the most pitiful excuse for a Marine that I’ve ever seen. Because I like watching you bawl and make a pathetic bitch out of yourself in front of all of these other stupid motherfuckers. You might be stupid, Skye, but one thing I’ll give you credit for is that you’re at least smarter than the rest of them. You know why I’m doing this. You know you’re all my pretty little fucking playthings and I’m going to do whatever I want with you. You’re mine.”
She shook Larkins roughly by her hair, making the corporal cry out again as more tears poured from her eyes. “Say it, you worthless piece of shit! Say you belong to me!”
“No!” Larkins protested, trying to pull herself free from Sloan’s grip. Behind Sloan, she suddenly saw that her entire team was gone. They weren’t standing in formation where they had been. The base grounds were empty and it was just her and Sloan.
Still holding onto Larkins’ hair, Sloan pulled back her free hand, punched the corporal hard in the face, and let go of her, dropping her to the ground. Larkins sprawled on her back and Sloan put her foot on the redhead’s chest, beginning to push down harder and harder. Larkins squirmed under the pressure, unable to get away as the crushing weight of the sergeant’s foot made it more and more difficult to breathe.
“I didn’t give you permission to say ‘no’ to me, Skye,” Sloan snarled down at her. “Now let’s try this again. Tell me that everyone in this entire unit belongs to me and I can do whatever I want with them.”
“W-w-w…” Larkins stammered weakly, her vision beginning to blur as she offered submissively, “We belong to-”
She was cut off by the crack of a gunshot and the mocking, victorious expression on Sloan’s face was replaced with one of shock as her body jerked and she fell forward onto Larkins. The corporal screamed and shoved the body away to find herself staring up at Mathis, who was still holding her gun.
“Well, look who it is,” Mathis laughed. “Sloan’s favorite pet. Or rather, what used to be Sloan’s favorite pet. You shoved that title onto me by getting yourself dragged out of here.”
“Mathis, I’m sorry,” Larkins tried to say, still lying on the ground. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
“Yes, you are fucking sorry,” Mathis said, standing over her. “And you’re going to be even sorrier by the time I’m done having fun with you!”
She lifted one foot and stomped brutally on Larkins’ stomach. The corporal doubled up with a loud gasp, the pain almost blinding her, but Mathis wasn’t done yet. She knelt on top of Larkins and began punching her in the face repeatedly, yelling, “Remember this, Larkins?! Remember when you thought it would be fun to beat the shit out of me just for asking you for help?! Now it’s my turn!”
Larkins heard herself crying out as Mathis’ fists slammed into her face again and again. She heard and felt her nose break as one of the PFC’s blows struck it directly, and blood began pouring down her face. Then the blows stopped just long enough for Larkins to gaze weakly at Mathis’ enraged face before she felt herself being rolled over onto her stomach. Mathis knelt on her back and began pushing Larkins’ face into the dry, dusty ground. Larkins choked and gagged as the dust filled her mouth and nostrils, suffocating her. She kicked and flailed helplessly at the ground as she fought for breath, but Mathis was too strong for her.
“Stop squirming,” the dropship crew chief growled at her. “Just fucking take it! Die already, damn it!”
Larkins continued coughing and struggling even as she felt herself getting weaker. She didn’t want to die. Not like this. With the last breath left in her lungs, she let out a final wail as Mathis ground her face even harder into the dusty earth.
Larkins woke up thrashing desperately, feeling as if she was still being pinned down and suffocated. In her panic, she threw herself upwards and rolled onto her back as she got one of her arms free from whatever was holding her. The panic slowly faded as she realized what was going on. She had gotten tangled in her blanket and rolled over onto her face, almost suffocating herself in her sleep. The blanket was wrapped around her so tightly that she hadn’t been able to fight it.
“Okay,” she panted heavily, staring up at the ceiling and trying to catch her breath and calm down. “That happened. Okay.”
Something has to change here, Skye. You can’t keep doing this. She was getting tired of running in the same circle over and over again like a hamster trapped on a wheel that never slowed down. It was time to do something before she crossed a line she couldn’t return over.
She forced herself to make it through the next several nights until she had a chance to go to a pharmacy and pick up a bottle of sleep aid pills. The over-the-counter medication didn’t require a prescription, so there were no difficult questions to answer or lies to tell about why she wanted it. She had limited hopes for how well the pills would work, but she took one that night and was surprised when she woke up the next morning and realized she had slept for a full seven hours without any dreams at all. She began taking the pills more frequently, although they didn’t help with the alcohol cravings and she knew better than to mix the two, so she began alternating between them each night. One way or another, she always wound up passed out or asleep by 2300.
But even when she felt more rested, it did little to lower her stress levels during the day. In fact, those issues were growing more and more severe, especially the memory loss. The gaps in her memory began to grow in size from hours to spans of several days or even weeks. She completely gave up on trying to remember the names of the trainees in her flight and resorted to addressing to them either with insults or by waiting until she could see the names on their uniforms.
As caught up in her own anger and pain as she was, she wasn’t so blind that she missed the effect her behavior had on Evison and the trainees. Evison was becoming more and more withdrawn and he rarely engaged with the trainees outside of the day’s lessons and tests. The young Marines were also clearly suffering and not a month went by without another trainee quitting. As the end of the year approached, they had already dropped down to six trainees left, and the remaining ones rarely even spoke to each other. There was no friendly conversation during downtime anymore. Larkins knew she was to blame for all of it and the knowledge only made her angrier at herself, but she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how to change it all. She was trapped and drowning, and she was dragging them all down with her.