Corey wondered if she had made yet another terrible mistake.
The cadet met her on the steps of Hamilton Hall not far from where she and Kyle, two weeks ago, watched the Corps of Cadets pass in review for their drill. It was easy enough to find the Academy’s Public Affairs Officer online and explain why she wanted access. Hell, she had been proud of herself—normally this was something Lou would have arranged for her—but now that she was actually here she felt foolish, like a fraud.
Who was she to show up here?
It’s not like she was a journalist or a novelist. She was a musician, a singer. How to explain she wanted to immerse herself here as one might move to another country to immerse oneself in a foreign language? To dig in and do the work, to not half-ass it? In her condo, in her decongestant haze with her half-finished song, it sounded like the most natural thing in the world. But when she saw the female cadet striding toward her, her back straight, she was suddenly aware how insane the idea was.
The cadet thrust out her hand.
“Cadet First Class Gemma Vargas,” she said. She had the bearing of a younger Cold Max. “At your service, ma’am.”
“Hi. Corey Lyondell. And no one has ever called me ‘ma’am.’ Like, ever. Do you have to do that?”
“Force of habit, ma’am.”
“Just Corey. I beg you.”
“I’ll be your cadet liaison while you’re here, Corey. What would you like to do first?”
“Do? I, um, I haven’t really thought of that.” She scratched her neck, and she felt her cheeks redden. Gone was her normal cockiness. “I thought I would just be here and…”
“Yes! Exactly. Shadow you. So do whatever it was you were going to do. As you were.” Corey laughed, and when Vargas didn’t, she cleared her throat. “As it were.”
“How about we stow your bag and then we can chart our course from there.” It was a question, technically, but there was no lilt to it, no upspeak. It was delivered more like an order. Not unfriendly, just straightforward. Declarative. Confident.
What have I gotten myself into? thought Corey.
“Lead the way,” she said.
Vargas led Corey into Hamilton hall, where officers and cadets passed by. Just inside the main entrance was a bronze bust and engraved on the floor was Who Lives Here Reveres Honor, Honors Duty. Heavy, thought Corey.
Around the corner, in the next corridor, they walked into a spartan room, everything ninety-degree angles and dust free. The beds were made so tightly that the crisp sheets looked like they were folded paper. Corey ran her finger over one corner, half expecting it to draw blood.
“Hospital corners,” said Vargas.
“This is your room?”
“Our room. For tonight anyway.”
“This is everything.” The woman was so deadpan that Corey didn’t know if she was being corrected or the butt of a joke. A bugle call sounded then and Corey heard the bustle of the cadets outside the door.
“What’s going on?”
Vargas offered a sly smile, her first. “Lunch.”
Cadets were now filing down the corridor. A line of them flowed down the very center of the corridor, braced at attention, but marching. On either side, a tumult of loose-limbed cadets strolled, garrison covers either positioned on their heads, resembling sails to Corey, or tucked into their belts. She startled with she heard shouting beside her.
“There are now three minutes to go UNTIL lunch formation! For lunch this afternoon, the menu is chicken nuggets, jasmine rice, California blend vegetables, caesar salad, and blondies. On Saturday, the football team is playing WESLEYAN and Women’s Basketball is playing Mount Holyoke—Go Bears! There are now two minutes and thirty seconds to go until lunch formation…”
Corey stared at the cadet, who stood at attention in front of a wall clock.
“Clock orderly,” said Vargas without breaking stride. “They let us know how much time is left.”
“Left for what?”
Vargas paused at the door and smiled. “This.”
The cadet pushed open the door to a quadrangle and Corey was met with a cacophony. She had played on stages and festivals across the world and was no stranger to all manner of acoustics, but this was different. It was pandemonium. Screaming from all directions at once, which rebounded off the brick walls of the quad and assaulted her ears.
Did you polish your shoes with a Snickers bar?
Keep your head and eyes in the boat!
What’s the mission?
Never had order seemed so disorienting. It was like the homecoming drill’s hellish cousin. Her head swirled with the sights and the sounds of cadets running to find their places. As the cadets began to form up, she could discern that they were falling into four large columns.
“Lunch,” said Vargas matter-of-factly. When she saw that Corey was still staring wide-eyed, she continued. “Each column is a company. In each company, there are three platoons. In every platoon, there are squads.”
She watched as cadets prowled up and down the ranks, inspecting the uniforms of what she assumed were the freshmen and bawling them out if something was found amiss. This appeared to be the source of the most screaming.
“You do this everyday?”
Vargas grunted. “Three times a day.”
“Where do you fit in?” asked Corey.
“At the top. I’m Alfa Company Commander. Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
Corey watched from the rear of the quad as things immediately quieted down and everyone fell into place. Each squad reported their status with an “All present and accounted for!” to their platoon leader. Platoon commanders in turn reported their status to Vargas at the head of the column with a crisp salute, which Vargas returned with equal crispness. After report, she yelled “Fall out and gather ‘round!”
The hundred or so cadets in Alfa Company crowded around her and she addressed the company from a stair, going over the daily events and making administrative announcements.
“FINALLY,” Vargas shouted, gesturing to Corey, who hung back and tried to blend into the brick wall behind her, which was easy considering her crimson face, “THIS IS MS. LYONDELL!”
Please don’t introduce me.
One hundred heads snapped in unison in her direction. She could practically hear the whistling of their blue garrison covers slicing through the air. They had reminded her of sails moments ago, but now they reminded her of shark fins, and an entire school of them just fixed their collective gaze upon her.
Corey swallowed hard.
“MS. LYONDELL IS A GRAMMY-WINNING RECORDING ARTIST WHOSE SEMINAL RECORD DAMSEL UNDERDRESSED OFFERED A CANDID EXPLORATION OF FEMININITY AND SEXUAL POLITICS AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY AND YOU WILL SHOW HER RESPECT DO YOU COPY ALFA?”
Kill me now, thought Corey.