We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Giano Cromley’s forthcoming novel The Prince of Infinite Space. The novel, a sequel to Cromley’s The Last Good Halloween, follows that novel’s protagonist to the year 1990, when he’s attending military school as the nation prepares to go to war with Iraq. Leland Cheuk describes this novel as a “big-hearted tale that’s full of wit and vulnerability.” Read on for the book’s first chapter…
The peace was uneasy, but the treaty between my demons and me held. It has held.
The Haverford Military Institute Cadet Squad is doing drills on the lacrosse field off in the distance. Fake wooden rifles spin like fan blades. At the apex of each revolution, something shiny on the rifles is catching the light, flashing a metallic strobe directly into my eyes. Which, in turn, is making them water.
This is Debbie’s last goodbye before she heads back to Billings. And the fact that I appear to be crying is, I think, artificially inflating her numbers on the Maternal Success Index. For once, I’m okay with not initiating a market correction, even though a seventeen year old crying before the first day of military school is pretty much begging to get his ass kicked.
Since getting shipped off to Haverford nearly two years ago, I’ve managed to purchase for myself a new, more sustainable, outlook on life. I call this period the Time of Abiding, and it’s allowed me to ditch the emotional freight that had been the cause of some of my more deviant behaviors. Of course, that’s the chief reason a place like Haverford exists in the first place, to bring about the kind of turnaround they like to take credit for, and obliquely refer to in their promotional materials. But I’d like to think I came upon and entered the Time of Abiding in a more organic, self-directed fashion.
Haverford’s school year runs long in the spring and starts up the second week in August, so I only got a month and some change at home before having to trundle back here for senior year. Not that I’m unhappy about that, mind you. There wasn’t a hell of a lot for me to do in Billings. I’m still forbidden to hang out with Julian (his parents’ wishes), and all efforts to get a hold of my former sort-of girlfriend, Izzy, met with abject failure. Which means I have zero friends in Billings. So I basically spent all my time at home.
Debbie’s boyfriend, Harley Doherty, still technically lives there, but he was hardly ever around, always giving vague, work-related excuses for his absences. (For those keeping score, Harley is Debbie’s ninth boyfriend, including Bradley Kellogg, whom she was married to for a while and who was the closest thing I ever had to an actual, legitimate father figure.) On the days Debbie didn’t have work, she’d watch videotaped episodes of The Golden Girls nonstop. I sat through so many of those goddamn things I feel like I know Dorothy Zbornak better than Debbie at this point. I think the dissolution of her relationship with Harley might have finally eroded her last stronghold of hope. She’s realized her fate: to love and lose, to never hold.
The leader of the Cadet Squad barks out an order and the rifles snap to a halt. Their red berets are all tilted at the same twenty degree angle. They look so serious I can’t decide if it’s admirable or terrifying. The irony is that all those flashy maneuvers aren’t even standard military practice. It’s purely for show, something they like parents to see when they drop their kids off because it’s what they imagine military schools should look like. Right now, the Cadet Squad’s working on the routine they’ll do when they march in Bismarck’s Harvest Days Parade. But anyone who knows anything about it knows it’s a complete load of horseshit.
“I’m so proud of the way you’ve adapted, Kirby.” Debbie sniffles once and touches her nose with a wad of kleenex. “You’ve grown so much.” She’s let her hair get long, but it doesn’t look like she’s doing anything with it.
The Cadet Squad is standing at silent attention, like those monuments on Easter Island. Haverford’s campus is situated at the top of a rounded hill just south of Bismarck, North Dakota. It’s the only appreciable elevation for miles around, which, in the pool-table-flat Midwest, means this knoll constitutes a legitimate alpine experience. Personally, I don’t much like living up here. It always leaves me feeling strangely exposed, like the sky might devour us whole at any moment. Which, for the record, is exactly the kind of thing you want to avoid telling your therapist when you’re trying to convince him that your days of aberrant behavior are behind you. I mentioned it to Dr. Byrne this past summer, and he nearly put me on a regimen of Thorazine without a word more. Sanity, I’ve learned, is simply a matter of learning which thoughts you can tell to whom.
“So what do you think?” Debbie asks, and I realize I haven’t been listening to her.
“It’s quite possible,” I say, because it’s a good catch-all response.
“Okay, then,” she says, as if an important matter has just been settled. Then she puts her hands on my shoulders to signify a topic shift. “This is it, kiddo. Your senior year.”
“I don’t think the smart money had me making it this far,” I say.
Debbie winces but lets it go. “Just keep working hard, and I’ll see you at Thanksgiving, yes?”
“About that,” I say. “Once I’m named editor of the Bugle, I’ll probably have to stay here over Turkey Day. To make sure we get the December Issue to press on time.”
Debbie’s eyes go dull. She’s also stopped wearing makeup, another sign that things with Harley are likely kaput.
“I told you this already, didn’t I?” I did. But Debbie’s been so zoned-out this summer it’s hard to know what’s gotten through.
“I don’t think so,” she says, and looks off to the east, where the Missouri River slowly wends past the base of this hill on its way, eventually, to the Gulf of Mexico.
Behind Debbie, a single file of lacrosse players rounds the administration building at a jog, wearing full pads and helmets, sticks held at their sides like lances. They’re snaking their way to the lacrosse field, where they’ll soon displace the Cadet Squad, since lacrosse ranks a couple links higher on the Haverford food chain.
“December’s the most important issue we do,” I say. “It’s the one we enter into competitions, so.”
She turns her tired face towards me again. Her hands feel like cinder blocks weighing down on my shoulders. Then her eyes brighten. “Of course I could come here. It’s not like I have anything keeping me in Billings.”
It sounds so sad when she says it, I don’t even try to shoot it down.
“Now listen,” she says, adopting a more business-like tone, which tells me she’s about to deliver her annual academic psyche-up speech. “Let’s build on this progress. Let’s keep the momentum going. I have a feeling great things are in store for Kirby Russo this year.”
“Tally-ho,” I say with enough enthusiasm that she buys it.
The lacrosse team is winding its way past us, panting and grunting, pungent sweat wafting.
“Now,” Debbie says, “I’m going to get into that car and drive off, and I’m going to be strong and not cry until I’m out of sight.”
“It’s a deal,” I tell her.
“But first, you know what I need, mister.”
She wants her first-day-of-school kiss. On principle and by tradition, I’m committed to resisting this entreaty. Plus, the lacrosse team is right there. But since this is the last first day of school she’s going to see me off to, and because the lacrosse team, to a man, would already love nothing more than to send me down the nearby Missouri in my own personal Viking funeral barge with nary a flaxen-haired maiden to shed a tear, I give in and place an unembarrassed, heartfelt kiss on Debbie’s cheek. Her skin is rough, but warm, and I realize she smells like me — not because we spent the last six hours in the car together, but because, at our cores, we share some similar chemical essence, and our triumphs and our failures will likely always be entwined.
A murmur of jeers rises up amongst the passing lacrosse players, but Debbie is oblivious to it, probably because she’s flummoxed by the fact that I didn’t put up my usual fight.
“Oh,” she says, touching her cheek.
“Give my best to Harley. Tell him I’m still glad Bush beat Dukakis.”
“I will,” she says unenthusiastically.
Then she climbs into her Subaru, which still has the crooked bumper from when I tried to mow down our paperboy — which, if you want to draw a map, was one of those crossroad events that brought my life to this exact circumstance. When she pulls out of the space in front of the barracks, I do a full-arm, side-to-side wave until she’s out of sight.
The lacrosse team has chased the Cadet Squad off the field in a bloodless coup. They’re whipping hard rubber balls between the baskets of their sticks with such speed and precision it seems like magic. No one in Billings has ever even heard of lacrosse.
Now that I’m alone on campus, my ear tips go tingly and a prickly sweat breaks out on my neck.
Three deep breaths, two knuckle-cracks, four tooth taps. (It’s a little ritual Dr. Byrne taught me to help calm myself down if situations threaten to get too big.)
I didn’t mention to Debbie when she delivered her pep talk that this is the first year I’ve actually believed what she said. I am on the verge of greatness. Only one problem though: The more things start to go my way, the more I worry about what’ll happen when they inevitably don’t.