Chapter 1: February
ZEKE HALLAWAY’s last days at home were awful. After the day that he told his best friends Jacoryn, Isaiah, and Leo that he was being sent to a boot camp, he hadn’t been allowed out of the house. His father shaved his head, even though Zeke knew it wasn’t required for the boot camp. Now his blonde hair was shorter than it had ever been, and his head looked too small and lumpy.
The boot camp, called East Ridge Academy, didn’t allow him to bring much. Baseball hats, sunglasses, a pair of tennis shoes, and two sets of clothing. One for cold weather, and one for warm weather. The website said they were only allowed to wear clothing of their choice on the weekends. A uniform, toiletries, and school supplies were provided. They didn’t allow any cell phones or electronic devices unless you had diabetes or something.
Zeke chose his clothes carefully. Nothing that would get him laughed at. His sunglasses were just plain black. He chose his favorite Adidas tennis shoes, a blue t-shirt and a black jacket for when it was colder, and a pair of black athletic shorts and a pair of jeans. Everything was neutral, except his shoes, but he could handle the Nike versus Adidas debate.
For his baseball hat, Zeke had a limited selection. He decided on the one hat that meant anything to him: his Timbers hat. The Timbers were the baseball team that Zeke, Brendan, and Leo had played on together from third grade to seventh grade, when it broke up. According to the website, East Ridge Academy was big on baseball, and you could even try out to play on a team and compete with the other boys. Zeke didn’t want to be left out, so he was glad he could at least say he had a background in baseball.
Besides for meals, Zeke stayed up in his room. He wanted to stay away from his dad, who wanted to send him away, his mom who was too weak to stop his dad from doing what he wanted, and his annoying sister with her annoying questions. But most of all, he didn’t want anyone to see him in the fragile state he was in.
He constantly replayed memories from his time with the trouble making group. Why had he been so mean to other people? Why had he willingly gone with plans that upset others and made people feel bad about themselves? Would it have been different if he would’ve stood up to his friends and told them they were being jerks? Maybe he shouldn’t be so mad at his mom for not being able to stand up to his dad. Standing up to people was hard.
Even though he wanted to get away from the trouble making, he didn’t want to lose his friends. But that was what was happening, regardless of what Zeke wanted. His dad, on the edge of insanity, blamed Zeke and his friends for the supposed murders of Kaleb, Jed, and Brendan. He was obsessed with finding ‘evidence’ that the boys were guilty. Just thinking about it made Zeke sick. He wondered what would’ve happened if he had different friends, or if he had stood up to them and they had stopped pulling pranks. Maybe Jed wouldn’t had left. Maybe Kaleb and Brendan would still be alive. Zeke wanted that more than anything. He had so much regret.
“Dinner,” his mom called from downstairs, snapping Zeke out of his thoughts. His stomach rumbled. This was his last dinner at home before he left for boot camp. He hopped off his bed and made his way downstairs to his seat at the table.
His ten year-old sister, Teagan, sat across from him. “You all packed?”
Zeke glared at her. “Somebody’s excited to send me away.”
Teagan just looked down at her empty bowl.
She had probably planted the thought in their dad’s mind to send him away. She probably helped him find the worst place possible to send Zeke. Teagan was the worst. He wouldn’t miss her.
His mom brought the food over to the table, and as Zeke ladled some soup into his bowl, he became angrier and angrier. She hadn’t even fixed his favorite food for his last dinner. Did she even love him? She was happy to see him go. Maybe she had agreed with his dad that Zeke was a murderer this whole time.
Zeke ate quickly and ran back upstairs, not able to stop the tears. Were the friends he had wished to get away from the only ones who would really miss him? He must’ve been an awful person for his family to hate him that much.
“Zeke, get up,” his dad shouted from downstairs.
Zeke sat up quickly, his head spinning. He didn’t even remember falling asleep last night, but his eyes felt puffy, and he was wearing the clothes he wore yesterday. It was time to go to East Ridge.
Zeke put on the cold weather outfit he had picked for East Ridge and grabbed his hat, sunglasses, and shorts. He went downstairs, expecting his mom and sister to be there for a final goodbye. They were nowhere to be seen. They really weren’t going to miss him.
Zeke put his shorts, hat, and sunglasses in a plastic grocery bag and grabbed a protein bar for breakfast. As he was unwrapping it, his dad stomped in from the garage. “I’m waiting, Ezekiel,” he huffed.
Zeke rolled his eyes and followed his dad out to the car. He didn’t want to sit next to him, so he climbed in the back seat. His dad didn’t say anything, so apparently he didn’t want to sit by his son in their last moments together, either. Zeke lost track of time on the road, staring out the window as the sun rose. He was thirsty, sad, and angry. He wished he could punch his dad and beat him to a bloody pulp without the car running of the road and crashing. Zeke took a deep breath and wished to go back to simpler times.
“Almost there,” his dad said, making Zeke jump. What if the other boys at the camp were mean? Or dangerous? What if there were a bunch of rules and the punishment for breaking them was getting whipped? Looking out the front windshield, Zeke watched as a chain link fence that must have been at least fifteen feet tall came into view. Barbed wire curled along the top. Was the fence electric?
Zeke’s heart rate was climbing. It felt like he was going to explode. He fidgeted, pulling his seat belt away from his chest. The car slowed. There were four guards standing in front of a gate. Zeke’s dad rolled down the window, and one of the guards approached. “Paperwork?”
Zeke’s dad grabbed some papers from the passenger seat and smiled as he handed them to the guard, who looked them over. “Everything seems to be in order. Bring these to the secretary at the Visitation Center.”
The guard signaled to the others, and they pulled the gate open to let the car through. Zeke turned to watch the gate closing behind him. He was trapped. And there was no way he was ever getting out. The car bounced along the gravel road for a few minutes before arriving at a brick building labeled East Ridge Academy Visitation Center. A fence started on either side of the building and extended as far as Zeke could see around the back of two other brick buildings. Trees skirted the gravel parking lot. That was the only place to hide. If you figured out a way to scale the fence, maybe it was possible to sneak out of here.
“C’mon,” his father said, getting out of the car. Zeke grabbed the grocery bag and followed his dad into the building. What were the other two buildings on either side of the Visitation Center? One had to be a school. The other one could be anything. A torture center?
It was warm inside the Visitation Center, a stark contrast from the cold outside. “Welcome to East Ridge Academy, home of the Sharks,” a cheerful voice said from behind a computer at the reception desk.
“Great,” Zeke’s dad said, grinning. He handed the lady the paperwork he had shown the guard, and she typed something into her computer. “Ezekiel Hallaway, correct?”
“Zeke,” I mumbled.
“My bad,” she smiled. “I’ll buzz the headmaster and he’ll come right up to give you your orientation packet.”
My dad clapped me on the back. “See you on visitation day.”
He didn’t even care to see if the headmaster was a nice guy. Maybe they had already exchanged emails and the headmaster already thought I was a murderer.
“Ah, Master Hallaway,” a man’s voice said. I looked up from the ground to see a middle aged man coming towards me with his hand extended. I shook his hand weakly and looked back down at the ground.
“I’m Headmaster Dawson. What’s your first impression of East Ridge, Zeke?”
Zeke wanted to say, “It looks like a prison,” but he managed to squeak out, “It’s nice.” He didn’t want enemies on his first day. It was already going to be bad enough.
“You haven’t seen the best of it. Follow me to my office. I’ll give you a map, a schedule, set up your first meeting with your counselor, and call up a sixteen to show you around.” He started walking down the hallway he had come from.
Zeke ran to catch up. “A sixteen?”
“Sorry Zeke, I got ahead of myself. Here at East Ridge, we do things by age groups. Nines through twelves, thirteens though sixteens, and seventeens though eighteens. Sixteens are the top of your age group, so they are in charge of helping the younger kids like you get adjusted.”
Zeke wasn’t so sure he liked the idea of being grouped with kids two years older than him. Fourteen and sixteen seemed like such a big difference. “Do we ever have to do stuff with the seventeen and eighteens?”
“Mostly only morning runs, which you’ll learn about later. It’s in your orientation packet.”
Runs? What was the point? Running without a destination was pointless, a waste of time. He was out of shape. He didn’t want older boys watching him struggle.
Headmaster Dawson stopped at a door and unlocked it, motioning for Zeke to sit in a chair in front of his desk. Zeke did, and the headmaster sat across from him. “Here’s everything you need to know about East Ridge,” he said. Zeke took the papers from him. There were so many. No way Zeke would ever read them all.
“On top there is a map, not that East Ridge is hard to navigate. There’s information on baseball, school, work outs, team building, counseling, and weekend and weekday schedules. It’ll all be familiar before you know it.”
Zeke flipped to a random page, then looked back up at Headmaster Dawson. “I’m going to have bunkmates?” For some reason he had always imagined separate jail cells.
“Eventually, yes. For your first week you’ll have your own room here in the Visitation Center. You and the other newbies will be introduced to things slowly. Then you’ll spend some time in a cabin with the older boys so they can teach you the ropes and give you some advice on how to balance all the activities.”
Zeke gulped. He would have to bunk with older boys? What if they bullied him?
“After that, unless you’ve made some friends with open bunks and they tell me they want you to bunk with them, you’ll be put in an empty bunk with kids your age. You don’t get to move unless there is a serious problem, so I suggest you make some friends before you get stuck with boys you don’t like.”
Zeke nodded, his stomach tying itself in knots. He hadn’t made any new friends in years.
The headmaster kept talking, but Zeke’s worries drowned out his words. Before Zeke knew it, he was being led down the hall to meet his counselor, Mr. Janson. The man reminded him of a pear, and there was no way Zeke was about to sit down and spill all his feelings to this guy.
Finally, Zeke was left alone in a decent sized room. The walls were whitewashed and the sheets on the bed were gray and colorless, but there was a desk and a window. So if all else failed Zeke could do his homework and stare out the window at the boys standing around playing catch on the blacktop.
He took his sunglasses and hat out of his bag and put them on the desk, then through the bag with the shorts still in it on the floor. Zeke sat down at the desk and flipped through the orientation packet. He saw nothing about getting whipped, and the schedule included three meals a day, even if they did have to get up at five in the morning and run two miles before they got to eat.
The part that worried Zeke the most was not the regular bunk checks, school, chores, or even the workouts. It was the teambuilding, counseling, and ‘inspiring messages,’ all of which sounded like brainwashing.
There was a knock on the door. Zeke threw down the packet. He didn’t want to get caught reading it like some sort of nerd. “Come in.”
He heard a click. Had he been locked in? The door swung open, and a man brought a tray of food over to him. “Lunch. After you’re done eating, come out to the hall and I’ll escort you and the other newbies to get your supplies.”
Zeke accepted the food, and the man left his room. He nibbled at the bread and regarded the stew, which smelled a little weird. When the bread was gone, he forced himself to eat the stew, washing it down with milk. He hoped all the meals weren’t like this.
He took the tray with him and headed out to the hallway, where the man was waiting with two younger boys. “Leave the tray.”
The man introduced himself as Mr. Lakes, and Zeke and the other boys followed him down a hall Zeke had never seen. He opened a door and gestured for them to go in.
“What is this, a gas chamber?” the youngest boy asked.
“It’s the store room. You need to get supplies,” Mr. Lakes said.
“What if these supplies break?”
“Then you go to reception and they’ll bring you down here to get more.”
Zeke rolled his eyes, and Mr. Lakes raised his eyebrows at him. “Did you think that was a dumb question?”
“Would you have known what to do if something broke?”
Zeke shrugged again and avoided making eye contact.
Mr. Lakes gave them lists for their grade and let the boys take what they needed. They each took a navy blue messenger bag and wrote their names on the tag so another boy wouldn’t accidentally take it. Zeke took pencils, pens, folders, and notebooks, stuffing them in his bag as he went. When they were done, Mr. Lakes led them further into the store room. They chose toothbrushes, combs, toothpaste, and deodorant, then moved further into the room. The boxes of school supplies and toiletries turned into racks of clothing. Zeke looked up at a mannequin that was modeling what looked like a uniform. It consisted of navy blue pants, shiny black shoes, a button up shirt with an East Ridge Academy logo stitched on the left breast, a white and navy blue striped tie, and a navy blue jacket. It looked uncomfortable. Zeke’s skin itched just thinking about it.
“Linda,” Mr. Lakes called.
“Coming,” an unseen voice responded.
“Are we just getting that uniform?” the older boy asked.
“And your work out and recreation clothing.”
“I thought we wore this for recreation,” Zeke said, gesturing to the clothes he was wearing.
“That’s only for weekends.”
Suddenly the mannequin clattered to the ground. The smaller boy giggled from where he had pushed it, then wrenched its arm out of the socket and pulled out of the shirt.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Lakes yelled, lunging towards the boy, who danced away, waving the arm.
Zeke admired the kid’s courage before stopping himself. This kid was a trouble maker. Zeke wasn’t supposed to like that anymore.
“Come and get me,” the kid laughed. Mr. Lakes chased him, and Zeke glanced at the boy next to him, who seemed to be frozen with fear. If Zeke didn’t want to be a trouble maker anymore, he should help stop the other kid, right?
Mr. Lakes chased the boy, who was still waving the mannequin arm, closer to Zeke. Zeke reached out and grabbed the arm from the kid, who cried out and jumped at Zeke, clawing and screaming. It took everything Zeke had not to punch the kid before Mr. Lakes pulled him away. “If you keep acting like this, you’re not gonna have an easy time here, kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” the boy protested as Mr. Lakes dragged him away.
“Quite the scene,” a lady said, appearing from behind a clothing rack. The boy next to Zeke jumped. “Names?”
“Luke,” the other boy whispered.
“Luke, I’ll fit you first. Zeke, find work out and recreational clothes that fit you. Two pairs of each. A towel too,” she said, pointing to two different racks.
Zeke followed her directions. The workout clothes were plain white t-shirts and black shorts with the East Ridge Academy logo on the right leg, along with a logoed gray sweatshirt and sweatpants for when it was cold, like now. The recreational clothes were a gray polo with the logo, a navy blue jacket and navy blue cargo shorts, or pants for when it was cold. Zeke couldn’t help but wonder how he had managed to make the clothes he brought from home the same color as everything he had to wear during the week.
When Linda was done fitting Luke with a uniform, she took Zeke back to a panel of mirrors and gave him a duffel bag to put his clothes in. He set down his bags and stepped onto the podium, letting Linda measure him. After that, she gave him a uniform to change into and then made adjustments. It wasn’t as bad as he expected, but the shoes were stiff and he hated having the tie around his neck.
“You wear your uniform to school, lunch, and teambuilding time during the week. On the weekend you don’t have to wear it at all, isn’t that great?”
“Sure,” Zeke mumbled.
“In your free time you can do your laundry. I tell every boy who comes through here not to do laundry on the weekends because that’s when everybody else does it, but they almost never listen. It’s your job to keep your uniform looking sharp. You have to iron the pants to keep the creases nice and crisp. You need to polish your shoes and make sure your tie is always on straight and your shirt tucked in. During morning role call and inspection the staff takes note of the condition of your uniform. The worse your uniform, the worse your chores,”
Zeke decided to keep his uniform in good shape. He didn’t want to get stuck cleaning bathrooms.
When his uniform fit perfectly, Linda let him change back into the clothes he had arrived in. They found Luke, and Linda took them to the laundry room to make sure they knew how to use the machines, the iron, and how to properly polish their shoes. By the time they were done, Zeke was tired of being on his feet. His bags were heavy on his shoulder as he headed back to his room. He held his uniform on its hanger high off the ground so it didn’t get dirty.
Not long after he got back to his room, a knock on his door woke him. Mr. Lakes led Zeke, Luke, and the trouble making boy to the mess hall where they sat at the smallest table, which was reserved for newbies. No one at the newbie table attempted to talk over the din of the boys at the big tables. Zeke suspected the other boys were lost in their thoughts just like he was.
The mess hall was huge. He had read in his orientation packet that there were spots for five hundred boys to attend East Ridge, and four hundred and fifty, give or take a few, were filled. As Zeke scanned the other tables, he realized that four hundred and fifty was a lot. The other boys paid no attention to the newbie table, which Zeke thought was strange. Didn’t they want to size up the new guys?
“Stop staring,” Luke whispered.
“None of them even look over here.”
“Notice all the cameras?”
Zeke hadn’t. They were mounted on the walls, looking everywhere.
“They were in the storage room too.”
“Think anyone here has ever killed someone?”
“It’s not a juvie center,” Luke said, his voice shaking. It sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
After dinner, Mr. Lakes told Zeke and the two boys to wait for everyone else to clear out of the mess hall. A buff twelve came over and took Luke and the other boy on a tour. Mr. Lakes stared at his watch. “Let’s go outside.”
Zeke followed him, and they stood silently on the blacktop watching some boys talk and play tag or catch. According to the map in the orientation packet, the buildings on either side of the Visitation Center were the 9-12 school and the 13-18 school. Inside the schools was also some work out equipment, in case the weather was so bad they couldn’t be outside. In front of the schools on the edge of the black top were the showers. Zeke shivered at the thought of being naked in front of other boys.
Beyond the blacktop was a grassy area where the cabins were lined in grids. Zeke could barely make out flashes of color blowing in the wind. “What are the flags in front of those cabins?”
“It’s in your orientation packet.”
“ Green means nines and tens, blue elevens and twelves, red thirteens through sixteens, and orange is seventeens and eighteens. Any flags with a black stripe means long term. All of those cabins are in the front.”
“Two years or more.”
Zeke nodded. He pitied anyone who had to be here for more than a year.
“Finally, you’re late,” Mr. Lakes called to a tall boy with brown hair who was running towards them.
“Sorry sir.” The boy shifted his gaze from Mr. Lakes to Zeke. “Hey dude, I’m Meric Wochner. Welcome to East Ridge. What’s your name?”
“All right Zeke, we’re gonna have a fun tour.” Meric turned to the left and started walking. Zeke raised his eyebrows and followed him across the blacktop. “We block up out here every morning for attendance. In our work out clothes of course, because then we do our two mile run.”
Zeke nodded. Meric pulled open the door to the school, and Zeke went in. “We’re gonna grab your schedule, and I’ll show you where your classes are.”
“How do they know what class to put me in?”
“In registration your parents had to send your current schedule. Don’t worry, you won’t get thrown in a totally new class mid-term.”
“Do we do school in the summer?”
“Unfortunately.” Meric turned into an office and went up to the receptionist. “Zeke Hallaway’s schedule please.”
She handed it to him. Meric led Zeke out of the office and around the school, pointing out math, English, science, art, and a bunch of other classrooms that Zeke would never remember. “The classes are easy. We go slow, and it’s more about discipline than it is grades. Just turn in your work and be respectful, that’s all you gotta do.”
Meric showed Zeke all the exercise equipment they had. It all looked alien to Zeke. Besides baseball, he had never worked out a day in his life. How would he figure out how to use the equipment?
“Don’t worry,” Meric said, seeing Zeke’s face. “The newbies are on their own schedule for the first week. You’ll get to come in here and learn how to do everything before you have to do it with the rest of us.”
Zeke forced a small smile, and Meric took him to the showers. Just as Zeke had feared, there were no individual stalls or curtains or anything that could provide privacy. On one wall, there were sinks and mirrors. On the sinks sat razors, which were attached to the wall by thick cables. “We’re not allowed to have our own razors in our cabins because years ago a kid started making weapons out of the blades.”
“That’s disgusting,” Zeke said.
“You get seven minutes of lukewarm water for your shower. The soap is in the dispensers on the wall. Wash quick, and if you have time left, you can get used to the temperature.”
Zeke laughed, and Meric clapped him on the back. “Let’s go watch baseball.”
They walked across the blacktop, then through the cabins. Zeke told Meric about his old team, the Timbers, and he actually seemed to care. “That’s awesome. We’re big on baseball here. I’m on the second best team in the league, though we’re pushing for first. We’re called the Tigers.”
“How many teams are there?”
“Six for each age group. The rule is that there has to be fourteen boys on each team, which is a lot, but if you don’t have fourteen you’re not eligible to compete. Some of the kids on teams never played baseball before they came here. I bet you could make a team, if you wanted.”
“I dunno. I’m not that great.”
“Oh c’mon, most of us live for baseball while we’re here. It’s all we’ve got. You watch enough and throw a ball around enough, you’ll be fine. If you’re on a team, even a bad one, you’re like an idol to the ones that aren’t. It’s all good fun.”
Zeke thought that playing sounded fun, but he still didn’t believe that he could make a team.
Meric showed him the two fields, the East Diamond and the West Diamond. There was a grass expanse in the middle where practices were held when the diamonds were busy. Zeke was surprised at how many of the boys seemed to be at the game. The bleachers were full, and it was suddenly loud as a player hit the ball into the outfield and began running the bases.
“It’s Monday, so the 13-16s are playing. My team didn’t have a game, which is why I’m free to show you around,” Meric said, grinning. They stood and watched part of a game. Meric pointed out players to Zeke, seeming to know everything about them, as far as baseball went. “That right there is Justus Hausmann,” he said, pointing to the boy walking up to bat. “He’s the best player on the best team, which is currently the Pirates. Probably the best player at East Ridge.”
Almost everyone began cheering in unison, “Do us some justice and bring down the house, man!”
Zeke laughed, “He has a good name for cheers.” Meric chuckled and they watched Justus hit a homerun.
Meric whistled. “We should go. Gotta get you showered before this game ends.”
At the Visitation Center, Zeke thanked Meric and he left. After grabbing his towel and his workout clothes, Zeke hurried to the showers. Since the 9-12 showers were separate, he was alone.
As the water gave him chills and he hurried to wash his body and hair before it shut off, Zeke’s thoughts about East Ridge became a little more positive. Meric was such a nice guy, and Zeke felt like he had a friend. Maybe Meric would let him bunk with him. But to be liked by Meric, Zeke had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to slip into his old ways of trouble making. New place, new Zeke.