Chapter 8: Why Me?
Reach, September 17, 2550
I just stood there in the infirmary for a moment, then decided no. No, I wouldn't let Kim storm away again. That was definitely a character flaw of hers that had to be remedied.
I threw open the door and looked down the hall. Kim was just turning a corner, and I ran to catch up with her. “Kim!” I called. I could practically taste her fury, but she let me catch up.
“What?” she grumbled. Her voice sounded weird. She was staring at the ground, and she was so tense. Anger? It didn't seem like anger to me anymore. I leaned in to get a look at her face, and then I understood. Well, sort of. She was crying.
“Um. You okay?” I asked, sounding completely and utterly lame. Obviously if she was crying, she wasn't okay. Kim dashed the tears away as if she were angry at herself. For letting me see her tears? For showing me that she was human?
“Fine,” she snapped.
“Look, ah . . . I’m sorry about the pills thing. I mean, I was just kind of at a loss for words, and, um . . .” I trailed off, lame again. I felt an embarrassed flush heating up my face, but Kim seemed to appreciate the effort. She gave me a tiny smile, relaxing a little, previous anger already gone. Girls and their mood swings.
“No, I should be the one apologizing,” she admitted. I felt my mouth drop open. “It's not your fault I'm angry.”
That's a first. “Why are you mad?” I asked curiously. Immediately, I felt her shield go up. Her shoulders tensed.
“It's a . . . long story,” Kim sighed, reaching up to twist her hair around her fingers again. Why do girls do that? I found the motion hard to look away from. A nervous habit. Another thing proving she was just as human as the rest of us. I smiled to myself. Humanity. A complicated concept, sometimes horrific, sometimes wondrous. But that's what we are.
“We’ve got the walk back to the barracks, and the thirty minutes till lights-out. That long enough for you?”
She smiled grudgingly. “I suppose.” Then her face settled back into the worry, sadness, and loneliness that she seemed so familiar with, and it occurred to me that perhaps Kim's mask was her anger. It kept everyone from seeing how lonely and broken this girl really was. “Where do I start . . .?”
“The beginning?” I suggested innocently, and she shoved me playfully.
“Alright, smartass. The beginning it is. I was born on Signus IV. Lived there my whole life, until this, obviously. I went to primary school with a few other kids - our planet had dangerous terrain, and few people wanted to settle there. One of those kids was Mark. Another was this guy named James. Then, of course, there were my older brothers, Kendall and Jordan, and my older sister, Molly. They, ah . . . well, I think they loved me, but they never . . . showed it.”
“What?” I asked, bewildered, as we turned a corner. Chris and I'd had our scrapes, of course, but I knew that he was my brother. I'd die for him. And I knew, in my heart, that he'd do the same for me. How could Kim say she thought they loved her?
She swallowed hard, and I knew then that it wasn't just sibling rivalry or something like that. She really didn't know. “Um . . . Let me give you an example,” she decided. “Our parents took us for a hike was I was six. Molly and Jordan were ten. Kendall was fourteen. The mountain we hiked up had really jagged rocks. Seriously, we had to wear thick-soled shoes so that the rocks didn't cut into our feet. When we reached the top, my siblings decided it would be amusing to push me off the mountain.” I felt my face go slack with utter shock and horror.
“Did they?” I could not speak above a whisper.
“Yes, they did. Lots of gashes. One of them required twelve stitches.” Kim pulled back her hair and there, smooth skin was interrupted by a painful-looking scar that followed her hairline, behind her ear, and down her neck. Based on her description of the rocks, she could have died. Without thinking, I touched it with one finger, and Kim flinched almost violently away from me. I had to remember who I was interacting with. A lonely girl who had been abused by her siblings, abused by her boyfriend. My god, I thought. How much pain can she go through before she's broken beyond repair? How strong must she be, living with memories burned into her mind and cut into her body? And yet, Kim didn't strike me as someone who would appreciate pity.
“I'm sorry,” I said with feeling, not just apologizing for touching her scar. I drew away from her. “Go on.”
“My parents cared about me in their own way, but they never listened to me when I complained about my siblings. They always thought I had an accident, or that it wasn’t on purpose. I knew better. Whenever something went wrong, it was always my fault. It just was.” She took several deep breaths, and I watched in awe as she mastered her emotions. “When I was fifteen, Mark asked me out. He was - and is - obviously really attractive, and ‘gentlemanly’ towards me. But it was all an act. When he asked me out for our twentieth date - or something - I told him I couldn’t. I was going for a walk or something with James, who I’d always been friends with. That time, he slapped me. The next time I turned him down, he blacked my eye. It got progressively worse until he gave me a minor concussion by shoving me - I hit a windowsill as I went down. The next day, James asked me what had happened, and I said something lame like, 'I fell down.' He joked about how my hair still looked good, and Mark heard him. My boyfriend broke my best friend's arm. That was when I dumped him, and also when I began training for the Marines. I thought I’d be rid of him, and my family too, but he followed me here. And now my family is dead. I never got to tell them I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I demanded in disbelief, noticing in some small part of my mind that we'd reached the barracks. What could she owe these people she called her family?
“For not being the person they wanted me to be,” Kim answered in a whisper, then she whirled around and fled into her room.
I stood there for a moment before making my way to my own room. I fell into a chair, still pondering Kim's words. What person did they want her to be? Maybe nobody else than she was. Maybe she just thought it was her fault because they told her so. She'd been abused since a very young age, after all. But still . . .
“I wouldn't want her to be anyone else,” I said aloud, staring at the gray ceiling.
First sign of madness, Jason Stark. Talking to yourself about a girl that clearly isn't ready for any sort of relationship. With anyone. A girl you just happen to be crazy about. Why me?
I glared at the ceiling for a while longer before sighing.
Why me isn't the right question. Why her?
* * *
I couldn’t go a few minutes without recalling the talk I had with Kim near the infirmary. I hadn’t realized it then, but that was probably the most revealing thing I’ve ever done with her, or anyone really. Not that way. Damn dirty minds.
I just realized that before then, I had really known nothing about Kim. I had suspected that something had happened to her in the past, something really bad. Just not as bad as it turned out to have been. Shit happens to everyone, no matter who you are or where you are in life. But I can’t help thinking that some people just get too much shit sometimes. Too much too often. Kim was one of those people.
Rod began to notice my unusually quiet and somber demeanor, as did the rest of my squad. Cody even pulled me aside during a training exercise to ask me what has going on. I couldn’t tell him, of course. What Kim had told me was definitely not up for public consumption. It stayed private, something only shared between her and me. I just told Cody that it was nothing serious, and that I would shape up.
“I know, Jason,” he had said. “Just make when you do, you keep it that way. I have no desire to lose to Mark, and if we want to beat him, let alone keep our current position, we all have to shape up.”
Despite his words, I found that I really wasn’t improving. I couldn’t focus during classes, I fell behind while we all ran laps, my aim was off when we were at the shooting range, and I was doing poorly at both the obstacle course and hand-to-hand combat practice.
Which meant that I felt seriously screwed on a certain field day in September, when Mark had to show off his bastardy-ness once again.
“Who do you pick, cadet?”
I snapped out of my daze, expecting to be stared at by the other cadets as O’Malley impatiently waited for my answer to his question. We had all just finished our standard hand-to-hand combat drills when O’Malley had told us to gather around a large circular mat in the center of our training area. He had begun to explain that we would now start practicing fighting each other when I had drifted off, thinking about what had happened with Kim. Then O’Malley started shooting off questions like a machine gun, obviously looking to embarrass me, assuming he had noticed that I wasn’t paying attention.
But he wasn’t actually talking to me, much to my relief. He was talking to Mark, who responded with. “Jason Stark.”
Not much to my relief.
I stood there for a second, not totally sure why Mark had just said my name.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked stupidly. Some of the cadets snickered as O’Malley rolled his eyes. At least he wasn’t yelling at me. He had begun to act a little calmer as time went on. Relatively speaking.
“Mark Tybalt has chosen to fight you, Stark. So get your ass up here and show us if you’ve learned anything over the past weeks.”
Rod patted me on the shoulder. “You got this. Just beat the shit out of him. It shouldn’t be that hard.” I nodded, only somewhat agreeing. Ed smiled reassuringly at me, as if he thought I’d actually do well.
He’s in for a sorry surprise.
The crowd of cadets in front of me parted to let me through, and I started to approach the mat. I saw Kim out of the corner of my eye and shot her a glance, which she held, but only for a little while. Her eyes revealed nothing, and her face was as blank as ever. We hadn’t talked much since the infirmary, but I was sure she’d start acting normal soon. She had yet to really do that.
What does she want me to do? I thought. Does she want me to beat the shit out of him? I kept walking, reaching the mat and looking straight at Mark. He was calm on the outside, but I could tell that he was holding back something terrible. His eyes gave away the fiery rage he really felt; they burned with hate, yet also gleamed with . . . excitement? Joy?
Yep. He’s going to enjoy this.
I stepped onto the mat and removed my boots. Mark and I held eye contact, neither of us flinching or blinking until O’Malley spoke again.
“Ready positions!” I drew my fists up in front of me and bent my knees, right foot back, left forward. Mark mimicked my movements, a mirror image of my stance.
“Steady . . .” O’Malley growled. I felt my heart beat faster and faster with each second that I stood there, waiting for Mark to attack. I had seen him during training, and he was good. Relentless, really.
“Steady . . .” Why did Mark choose me? Was he too afraid to fight Kim after what she said to him in the cafeteria? Would he really be that easily intimidated?
No . . . he just really hates me. But why me? Is it really because of -
Before I could move an inch, Mark attacked. Within a split second he had launched himself across the mat and was right in front of me, shouting, his leg drawn back for a kick.
I barely had time to counter it, ducking beneath the blur of a kick as he tried to go straight for a knockout blow to the head. I tucked and rolled past Mark, coming up behind him. Just as I stood, though, he was on the attack again.
His fist shot out at me like lighting, catching me straight in the chest. I stumbled back with a shout, a burst of pain exploding from my ribs. Not even giving me time to recover, Mark’s leg shot out and hit me in the side, causing me to fall right into another blow, and then another, and another, and another.
I was like his personal human punching bag. Each punch and kick sent me reeling, but he never put enough force behind his blows to knock me over. He didn’t want to beat me. He wanted to beat me. O’Malley had said not to let yourself become so fueled by rage that you become reckless. Well, rage and reckless seem to be working for Mark just fine.
I tried fighting back, but I was too hesitant in my attacks, unsure whether or not I should go all out. What if I just looked like a monster to Kim? What if I seemed no better than Mark? I kept trying to dodge Mark’s blows, but I couldn’t duck and weave forever. He ran straight at me and got me in a headlock, then grabbed my arm and pulled it behind me, like he was going to break it. I gasped as searing stabs of pain shot out from my arm and up my shoulder. I could feel tears forming in my eyes.
“No bone-breaking!” I heard O’Malley yell. Mark let go of me and shoved me forward, waiting until I had regained my balance before raining down blow upon blow.
Come on, Stark! I yelled at myself. This has gone on long enough!
The next time Mark’s fist shot out, I managed to dodge it, sidestepping and spinning around to elbow him in the jaw. He saw it coming, and so I only glanced him. Even so, I could see he was angry that I got a hit in on him. He grabbed my arm and backhanded me across the face, his nails leaving scars across my cheek. I yelled in pain as my sweat dipped into the cuts, making them burn like little incisions of fire. Mark followed up with a punch to the gut, knocking the breath out of me and sending me crumpling to the ground in a heap.
“That’s quite enough!” O’Malley barked. I laid with my face pressed against the mat, now warm with sweat and blood, my eyes screwed shut with pain. I felt Mark kneel down next to me, and his breath felt heavy on my neck as he spoke.
“No bitch to protect you now, Stark,” he mocked. I grimaced as a new, fresh wave of pain and nausea overwhelmed me, still unable to move or speak.
“Do you know what I’ve done here?” Mark asked. “I’ve made you look pathetic. Worthless. First you pass out from the course, and now you get beaten to a shit in front of everyone. I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to break you. I’ll break Kim, too. You just wait and see.” I managed to open my eyes just a little bit and lift my head up enough to see Mark standing victorious over me, arousing cheering and clapping - and not just from Magnus Squad. Mark was only a few feet away, his back to me. O’Malley looked like he was about to say something to him, but he stopped mid-sentence and waited. I could’ve sworn he looked at me.
I tried to look around at the crowd of cadets, but I could barely turn my head. Kim was nowhere in sight. My head fell down as the cheering continued.
I heard Mark yell back to me: “Too bad you didn’t win for your little cunt! She would’ve been too much of a pussy to fight me herself anyways!”
Rage filled me, and I felt myself physically heat up. I couldn’t take this. Not all of it, and not right now.
I realized, right then and there, that it doesn’t matter what Kim thought. I couldn’t dictate every move I made based on what Kim would think of me. Right now, this was me and him. I had to make my own decision, based on what I wanted to do. And right now, I wanted to beat the shit out of Mark.
My arms extended, and I began to push myself up from the mat. My stomach felt like it would burst, my face was dripping with blood, and every part of my body ached in pain. I got on my hands and knees, and I could hear the cheering beginning to die down as everyone around realized what I was doing. Slowly, painfully, I pushed off of the ground, standing up on both feet, back straight, fists clenched. The crowd of cadets was dead silent, and Mark turned to face me. I saw his face go slack as he saw me stand up, pull back my fist and drive it forward into his jaw.
The crowd gasped as he stumbled back, and some began to yell as they saw that Mark’s lip was bleeding. I took a step towards him as he reached up to touch his swollen, cut lip, looking at the blood like it couldn’t exist. He looked up at me, his eyes burning with even more hate than before. He let out a cry, then charged at me with all of his speed.
Then I understood why rage would eventually betray someone, and why recklessness would get them killed. Mark ran at me, with nothing held back, without even stopping to assess the situation. Brute force wouldn’t win this time. This time, I was ready.
Just as Mark reached me, his arm pulled back for a huge punch, I turned my body sideways so that Mark’s fist sailed right past me. I grabbed his outstretched arm, jerking him to a halt, and stuck out my elbow so that his head ran right into it. A sickening crack accompanied his cry of pain, and I shoved him backwards as blood gushed from his nose.
“You son of a bitch!” he yelled in disbelief as he he beheld what I had done to him. “You broke my nose!” Just then I noticed Kim in the crowd, but I wasn’t searching her for emotions.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth -” I whispered just loud enough for Mark to hear. I looked back to him just in time to see him launch a kick at me, trying to catch me off guard. I caught his foot, twisted it, forcing him to flip over onto the mat with a shout. I was on top of him in half a second.
I looked into his eyes, and I now only saw shock. He couldn’t believe what I had done.
“ - a nose for a nose,” I finished in a deadly whisper. Mark said nothing, his mouth clenched tight in a defiant scowl. I stood up and looked at O’Malley, who merely stood there with his arms crossed. I walked off of the mat, the crowd once again parting to make way for me. But this time, it was in respect.
Kim stared at me, and I felt myself shrink back just a little. Sure, I had to make my own decisions now, but that didn’t mean I could immediately resist the instinct I’d been obeying ever since I met her, the instinct that ordered me to make sure that everything I did earned her approval. I met her eyes, but couldn’t read them. She was burning with some emotion, but I wasn’t sure what it was. She just stared.
“So . . . do I get yelled at for beating up your ex?” I asked at last. A small smile graced her face, but she said nothing. I turned away a little, to look at O’Malley, who’d begun choosing the next couple of fighters.
“Hey,” I heard Kim say softly, and she turned my face back towards her with one finger. “He deserved it,” she told me in a whisper. I smiled, making my face bleed even more profusely. Her expression changed to one of worry. “Come on, let’s go visit our old friend the nurse.”
* * *
“You again?” the nurse grumbled as I walked in, half-supported by Kim. Halfway to the infirmary, the adrenaline had worn off and the pain and exhaustion kicked in. I sank onto a cot, and the nurse grabbed some medical supplies. She began cleaning and bandaging the cuts on my face. Once she finished with that, she said, “Alright, let’s a take a look at those bruises. I need to make sure your lungs are okay and your ribs aren’t cracked.”
I looked at her, uncomprehending. “Take off your shirt, for pity’s sake,” she added impatiently. Kim shifted uncomfortably, undoubtedly recalling the last uncomfortable time that had happened. Made uncomfortable mostly by me.
“Uh, yeah, I should go back. O’Malley will be wondering where I am. See ya.” And then she was gone. I allowed myself a tiny smile for a moment, then killed it when I saw the nurse wearing a smirk herself. She began pressing my ribcage, checking for cracked ribs.
“You two together yet?” she asked as she worked.
“Um, no, ma’am.”
“And why not?” I gave her a look that said, That’s private. She tsked at me.
“Young man, I’ve seen it all. Whatever your issue is, I’ve dealt with it before.” The nurse paused, and I hissed in a breath as she pressed on one of my more sensitive bruises. “That being said, I also know that your type will find talking about it easier. You don’t have to take my advice, but I’m old, and I have my share of wisdom.” She paused again. “I’m Tara, by the way. Nurse Tara to you.”
I opened my mouth to say thanks, but no thanks, but instead the whole story came out. Tara listened patiently, never reacting with surprise, as she treated my various bruises and scrapes.
“ . . . and I guess it just boils down to the fact that I don’t really know if she likes me, you know, like that, and even if she does, I don’t know what to do about it.”
“You have got yourself all worked up about it, haven’t you? Neglecting classes, I bet, dragging your squad down?” I nodded sheepishly and she rolled her eyes. “Good lord, next thing I know you’ll be committing suicide. Young man, I can advise you if you want to hear it.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Your Kim is a very unique girl. She’s seen more than her share of pain, but she’s strong enough to have gotten through it. I’ll bet she’s upset sometimes and none of you boys ever notice because she hides it so well.” I nodded thoughtfully. “And you, young man, are unique as well. You’re more observant and caring than most boys your age, and I can tell you care about her. However, you have a crap self-esteem, and so you will never be able to believe she cares about you unless she tells you herself. Well, I will tell you right now, young man, Kim cares about you. But everyone she’s ever loved - her family, her boyfriend - have caused her so much pain, and that’s why she won’t show it. You think she’s fearless? She’s terrified of you, Jason Stark.”
I winced as Nurse Tara applied the last of the bandages, patting me on the cheek.
“Terrified, huh?” I replied, after thinking silently for a moment. “Not exactly what I was going for . . .” Nurse Tara gave me a smile.
“She’s only scared because she doesn’t know you. And that’s what all fears boil down to: the fear of the unknown. She doesn’t know who you really are, but I suspect she’s beginning to understand.”
I gave her a questioning look as she motioned for me to get off of the cot. “Is that a good thing?” She smiled slightly, almost like it was painful, handing me my shirt.“We’ll see.”