Zeke couldn’t remember how he had gotten to the principal’s office, but he definitely knew why he was there. He had gotten into another fight — his third one this year — and even though the other guy had totally been asking for it, Zeke was still the one sitting in the principal’s office as the secretary called his parents.
As soon as Dad arrived, he asked Zeke, “Why were you fighting this time?”
“Don’t know,” Zeke said, looking at the floor. Derek Manning had made fun of him for changing into his gym clothes in a bathroom stall instead of out in the locker room like everyone else. Usually Zeke could take it just fine, but this time Derek had gone and called him a pussy, which made Zeke see red. But he couldn’t tell Dad that, because that word just so happened to be Dad’s go-to insult when he was mad at Zeke.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Dad asked.
When Zeke just shrugged, Dad grabbed the top of Zeke’s head and turned it towards him. “If you’re going to start fights at school and make me miss work to come get you, you better tell me why.”
“Because someone made fun of me and I got really mad and I just started hitting him without thinking,” Zeke said quickly, looking anywhere but Dad’s face.
Dad let go of his head. “Where’d you hit him?”
Zeke glanced at the principal, who quickly averted his eyes. “In the face.”
“And did you give him the chance to hit you?”
“No, but he kinda kicked me before people pulled us apart.”
The principal cleared his throat. “Now that you’re all caught up, Mr. Hallaway, why don’t we talk about the consequences?”
Dad nodded and Zeke shoved his hands into his hoodie pocket, trying not to irritate his swollen knuckles.
“Since this is Zeke’s third fight this year, our ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy kicks in. This means that, right now, I’ll be suspending Zeke for ten days. But our plan is to take the necessary steps to suspend him for the rest of the school year.”
Zeke wanted to protest, but he knew better than to do so around Dad. Suspended for the rest of the school year? How was he going to finish eighth grade? It wasn’t like Mom and Dad could homeschool him; they had to work. Dad was going to blow his top.
Only he didn’t. He just smiled and said, “That won’t be necessary.”
The principal seemed almost as shocked as Zeke. “I assure you that —”
“My wife and I have been exploring other options for Zeke’s education,” Dad interrupted. “We won’t be bothering you anymore after this.”
“Oh, I see,” the principal said, shuffling some papers on his desk. “Regardless, I have to explain why we plan to suspend Zeke for the rest of the school year, just in case your other plans fall through and you end up wanting him to finish the semester here.”
Zeke’s mind raced as he tried to figure out what “other options” Dad could be talking about. Was it military school, like on TV? Or was it some sort of online homeschool, where Zeke would have to go to Dad’s work with him so that Dad could make sure he was doing his classwork? Honestly, Zeke wasn’t sure which one was worse.
As the principal listed off everything Zeke had ever gotten detention, in-school suspension, and out-of-school suspension for while he was in middle school, guilt washed over Zeke. He had never meant to end up like this. He had never wanted to beat anyone up, much less three guys in one school year. People just kept forcing his hand.
“Now that you’ve heard the evidence against you,” the principal continued, “I’d like to discuss options for next year, when Zeke is a freshman. As you know, we have an alternative high school that allows for a more individualized education plan, as well as —”
“If all goes well, Zeke won’t be coming back to the district for high school,” Dad said.
Zeke gaped at his dad. What did he mean that Zeke wouldn’t be coming back to the district? Were they moving? Or maybe his “other option” for school really was military school, and Zeke was going to be stuck there until he graduated. He nearly shivered at the thought.
“Well,” the principal said, “if he does come back, then we recommend that he attends the alternative high school. If your other option works out, then that’s great as well.”
Dad nodded and slapped the arms of his chair. “If we’re done here, Zeke and I will get out of your hair.”
“We are. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a word with Zeke before you leave. Just the two of us, if you’ll allow it.”
Dad grunted and got up. Once he was out of the principal’s office and the door was closed, the principal looked at Zeke. “Is there anything going on at home that I should know about?”
“What? No,” Zeke said, his ears burning with embarrassment. He wasn’t about to tell the principal that Dad was a lunatic with anger issues.
The principal sighed. “Zeke, nearly all of your teachers have nothing but good things to say about you. They say that you’re quiet and respectful and kind to your peers, so I have a strong suspicion that something must be going on at home that’s making you act out. I’m sorry that I — that we — couldn’t do a better job of helping you through whatever it is, and I’m truly sorry to see you leave our school. You do understand why we have to let you go, right?”
Zeke nodded, shame rising in his chest.
The principal smiled wanly. “I wish you nothing but the best, Zeke. Truly.”
Zeke thanked him before leaving the office. Then he took one last look down the hall of his school before heading out to the car with his dad.
“You’re a right piece of work, you know that?” Dad said once they were outside.
“I don’t know what went wrong with you or when, but your mom and I could not be more ashamed. You know that?”
Zeke nodded again, not daring to look at him.
“You’re getting home on your own two feet, do you understand?”
Zeke bit his tongue to keep from protesting.
“I said, do you understand?”
“Yes,” Zeke spat.
“I’m going to get in my car to drive back to work so I can make up for all the time I lost pulling your sorry ass out of school. When I get there I’m going to check my phone, and if my Find My Friends app says you’re not at home, you’re going to get the ass whooping of your life tonight, got it?”
“Yes,” Zeke said, his voice shaking.
“Then you better start running.”
He didn’t have to tell Zeke twice.
◊ ◊ ◊
Zeke just about keeled over when he got home, but he had made it in seven minutes. According to Google, Dad’s work was eleven minutes away from the school, so unless he had sped the whole way, Zeke had made it home in time. Just to double check, Zeke opened Find My Friends and checked to see where Dad was, but he had his location turned off. Why did he always have to have his location turned off?
Once he caught his breath, Zeke headed upstairs to take a shower and wash the blood from Derek’s nose off of his knuckles. When he got out, he checked his phone to find that he had multiple texts waiting for him in “Troublemakers” — the group chat he had with his friends.
Dude Z we heard u punched Derek Manning
Is that y ur not at lunch
Did ur dad kill u
Zeke put his phone down and sighed. His friends had only known that his dad was genuinely crazy for about a month now. They had always known him as the strictest of any of the boys’ parents, but Zeke had never told them just how bad he was until he hadn’t been able to hide it anymore.
The past few months had been the wildest of Zeke’s life. He had lost three friends, and not just because they had argued or moved away. Two of them — Brendan and Kaleb — had died in freak accidents, and the third one — Jed — had run away from home with no intentions to keep in contact with anyone, least of all Zeke and his remaining friends. As if dealing with all of that hadn’t been hard enough, Dad had come up with a theory that Zeke, Jacoryn, Isaiah, and Leo had killed their former friends, and he had presented his theory to all of their parents, putting the full reality of his lunacy on display.
Zeke picked up his phone again, knowing that his friends wouldn’t stop texting until he answered.
Ya I punched Derek. And I got suspended 4 the rest of 8th grade but dad said he already has a new school 4 me
DUDE I can’t believe they practically expelled u for 1 fight!
They suspended me bc of all my fights
And all the other stuff I’ve done like the food fight
Ig we better be on our toes cuz if any of us get in trouble again we might get expelled too lmao
Zeke dropped his phone onto his bed, hopped up, and grabbed a baseball from the basket on his shelf. It hurt his swollen hand a little bit to hold the ball, but there was too much going on in his head for him to keep sitting around. He needed to do something fun. Especially before Dad got home and made his life hell.
◊ ◊ ◊
Out in the backyard, Zeke drilled the baseball into his pitch back over and over again until the back door opened. He jumped, letting the baseball bounce off the pitch back and fly past him. Then he realized that it was only his little sister, Teagan, at the door. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
She frowned. “I didn’t sneak —”
“What do you want?”
Teagan pulled at her dress. “Do you want to play Mario Kart with me until Mom and Dad get home?”
“No,” Zeke said, turning away from her and grabbing his baseball from where it had landed in the grass. “But if Dad gets home, knock on the window so I know he’s here.”
“Why?” Teagan asked, her eyebrows creasing. “Are you in trouble again?”
“Just knock on the window, okay?”
“Okay,” Teagan agreed.
Zeke threw the ball at the pitch back, caught it, and then looked back at Teagan, who hadn’t moved from the door frame. “What?”
“Did you make Dad mad?”
“He’s mad all the time, it’s not my fault,” Zeke snapped. “Leave me alone.”
Teagan closed the door, and Zeke threw the ball again, just hoping that Teagan would actually remember to warn him when Dad got home.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next time the back door opened, Zeke’s mom said, “Come inside and talk to me. Please.”
Zeke punched the baseball into his glove and trudged inside.
“Upstairs,” Mom said, her hands on her hips.
Zeke headed up to his room, Mom following close behind. He knew that she’d have a million questions for him, but he couldn’t decide how much to tell her. She’d probably repeat everything to Dad, and if he heard why Zeke had actually punched Derek, then he was dead meat.
“Sit,” Mom said when they got to Zeke’s room.
Zeke sat down on his bed, and Mom sat down next to him.
“Do you want to tell me why you got suspended?”
“Because I got in another fight.”
“Zeke,” she sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “What did your dad say when he picked you up?”
Zeke rolled the baseball around in his glove. “He said that I was a real piece of work and that you’re both ashamed of me.”
Mom pulled the glove off of Zeke’s hand and hugged him. “We’re not ashamed of you. You know that, right?”
Zeke stiffened and squeezed his eyes shut. “Yep.”
Mom let go of him. “Why were you fighting?”
“Was someone making fun of you again?”
Zeke nodded slightly. “I didn’t want to punch him, it just happened.”
“Well that’s the problem, isn’t it?”
Zeke nodded again.
“Dad and I have been talking about putting you in therapy.”
“What?” Zeke sputtered. “Therapy’s for crazy people. If anything, Dad needs therapy.”
“Therapy is for anyone who wants therapy. And —”
“Well, then it’s definitely not for me. I don’t want it.”
“As I was saying, it’s also for people who have been through some very difficult times in their lives.”
Zeke grimaced. Sure, two of his friends had died and Dad was a piece of shit, but that didn’t mean he needed to talk to some shrink.
“I think it would help you. Because whether you want to admit it or not, honey, you haven’t been dealing with things very well recently.”
“I —” Zeke started, before both he and his mom jumped at the sound of the garage door opening.
“Your dad and I will be up to talk to you soon,” Mom said quickly, kissing his forehead before hurrying out of his room.
“Yeah, and you’ll pretend that none of this just happened,” Zeke muttered to himself, flopping back onto his bed as a wave of fear washed over his body.
◊ ◊ ◊
A few minutes later, Zeke was sitting up at the head of his bed when Dad barged into his room with Mom a couple feel behind him. He sat down on the end of Zeke’s bed and Mom sat down next to him, looking down at her hands.
“I told your mother what you did today, and neither of us are happy with you,” Dad said.
Zeke nodded, keeping his eyes on his bed and biting the inside of his cheek.
“You will look at me when I talk to you, Ezekiel.”
Zeke looked up at Dad, whose face was already red.
“Do you know what I did when I got back to work?”
Zeke shook his head, his breath catching in his throat. Had he not gotten home fast enough?
“I finalized a contract with your new school.”
Mom looked up, her eyes big, and Zeke began to panic. If Mom hadn’t even known about it, it had to be a military school. She would never actually let him go to a military school, would she?
“It’s a boot camp mixed with a boarding school,” Dad said proudly. “Kind of like a military school that costs less. They’re very big on discipline and accountability, so if you even toe the line, they’re not afraid to punish you.”
“Which school?” Mom asked in a very small voice.
“East Ridge Academy,” Dad said. “If anybody can whip you into shape, Zeke, it’s these people. They’re not going to tolerate your behavior for one second.”
“This school offers counseling,” Mom said. “They’ll be able to help —”
“It’s a sleep away school,” Dad interrupted. “We’ll only have to see you once a month.”
“But it will only be for a year,” Mom added.
“Unless their methods work,” Dad said, shooting her a look, “and then you’ll be there until you graduate high school.”
Mom looked at Zeke’s dad with her mouth open as if she was going to say something, but as soon as he met her gaze, she just closed her mouth and nodded.
The fear that had built up in Zeke’s chest made it hard to breathe. He had gone to the same school since second grade, and he hadn’t made any new friends since then. How was he going to survive at a new school that was designed to punish him for every little thing if he didn’t even have any friends?
Dad slapped Zeke’s leg, making him jump. “Monday is your first day of boot camp, so enjoy your time at home while it lasts. Has Mom taken your phone and your laptop yet?”
Zeke grabbed his phone and his laptop from the floor and handed it over to Dad, who then got up and left the room. Mom followed him, not even looking back at Zeke.
Once he was sure that they were downstairs, Zeke got up and closed his door. Then he jumped onto his bed and pulled out his messenger — a cellphone-like device that all of Zeke’s friends used for texting when they were grounded, because none of their parents knew that the devices existed.
Dad is sending me to some sleep away school called east ridge academy for an entire YEAR or more. I’m grounded 2 so I won’t be seeing u guys 4 a long time — Z
Do u know anything about this place?? — Cory
Nope he took my laptop and phone rite after he told me — Z
We can all sneak out tonite and I’ll let you look it up on my phone — Leo
Ya does midnight work? Meet at the regular spot — Iz
I’ll try to b there — Z
TRY???? U will b there — Cory
Or what I’ll b on probation? — Z
Just b there — Iz
Zeke dropped his messenger onto his bed and rubbed his eyes, wondering why he even bothered with his friends anymore. They had been hard to get along with for years, calling themselves “the Troublemakers” and threatening to kick anyone who didn’t do exactly what Jacoryn and Isaiah wanted out of the friend group. Even now, when Zeke just needed support, all they knew how to do was boss him around. It wasn’t even worth trying to sneak out if they were just going to be jerks about it.
Maybe going to this new school was actually going to be a good thing.
◊ ◊ ◊
When Mom called Zeke down to dinner, he dragged himself out of his bed and trudged downstairs. Teagan beat him to the table, but Dad was nowhere to be seen.
“Is it true that you’re going to a boarding school now?” Teagan asked, tracing a finger on the table.
“I guess,” Zeke mumbled.
“Is it true that you punched someone again today?”
“Why do you care?”
Teagan shrugged. “I was just wondering.”
“Zeke, there’s no need to snap at her for asking a question,” Mom said from the kitchen.
Just as Zeke was about to respond, someone grabbed a fistful of his hair from behind and touched something cold to his head. Then Zeke heard the buzzing noise and felt the hair fall off his head.
“What the hell?” He cried, touching the new nearly-bald stripe on his head.
“Language,” Dad growled, slapping Zeke in the back of the head. “Now sit still so I can finish.”
Zeke started getting out of his chair, anger coursing through his entire body, but Dad’s hand clamped onto his shoulder and pushed him back down into his seat. “I said, sit fucking still so I can finish.”
“I never said you could shave my head,” Zeke protested as Dad ran the razor over his head again.
“It’s required for your new school. You’ll have to get used to it.”
Zeke bit the inside of his cheeks, trying to hold back the tears that were welling up in his eyes. Dad had no right to just sneak up and cut his hair like that. Dad had no right to sign him up for some freak show boarding school either, even if Zeke had gotten suspended.
Tears dropped down onto Zeke’s cheeks, and he wiped them away before Dad could see them. As Dad finished shaving his head, Zeke curled his hands into fists, wondering why neither Mom nor Teagan had warned him that Dad was sneaking up behind him. Had they been in on the plan? Had Dad asked Teagan to distract Zeke with all of her stupid questions? Probably. After all, both of them always did whatever Dad wanted, and neither of them seemed to care if Zeke suffered as a result.
◊ ◊ ◊
After barely eating dinner and taking a long, hot shower so that he could cry in private, Zeke examined his new haircut in the mirror. With his blond hair shorter than it had ever been, his head seemed lumpy and much too small for his body. He looked away from the mirror, noting the fact that his blue eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed, which meant that he couldn’t let Dad see him for awhile. He headed back to his bedroom, where he flopped onto his bed and fell asleep. Hours later, he woke up to the buzz of his messenger under his pillow.
Guess u couldn’t get out then — Cory
Nope dad has me very locked in — Z
That sucks man. Maybe we’ll try to come by and see u tomorrow — Iz
Probably won’t work and if u try he might actually kill u — Z
Hm ok well think about it — Cory
I can still give u the info about east ridge — Leo
Please — Z
Good or medium or bad news first? — Leo
Doesn’t matter. All of it — Z
Leo went on to tell Zeke that East Ridge Academy was an all boys school, which didn’t surprise Zeke at all. They didn’t allow anyone to bring much with them when they started at the school, especially not a cell phone or any other electronic devices. Zeke was allowed a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, a baseball hat, sunglasses, a pair of tennis shoes, at least a week’s worth of socks and underwear, and two sets of clothing for weekends — one set for cold weather and one for warm weather. During the week, the students were only allowed to wear clothing that was provided by East Ridge Academy. From what Leo could tell from the pictures on the website, there was a school uniform that was very dressy, a different uniform that was more casual, and workout clothes. The only other things that East Ridge seemed to provide for the students were showers, toiletries, three meals a day, and school supplies.
The good news was that East Ridge was big on baseball, and anyone could try out for a team. Zeke hadn’t played on an actual baseball team for nearly a year now, since the one he had played on with Leo and Brendan had broken up, so he worried that he wouldn’t be good enough anymore to get onto a team at East Ridge. However, he knew that he had to try, because he wasn’t going to miss out on the one potentially fun thing at the entire school.
Once Leo stopped texting him, Zeke put his messenger back under his pillow and tried to go to sleep. Unfortunately, his brain had other ideas. Zeke knew that most of the things that Leo had told him should have made East Ridge seem like a nightmare, but they didn’t. Sure, Zeke would miss playing video games and hanging out with his friends, but he definitely wouldn’t miss his dad or his annoying sister, or trying to figure out how to get away from his friends when they were bent on making other people’s lives hell.
Zeke squeezed his eyes shut, wondering for the thousandth time why he had gone along with his friends when they were bullying people, stealing things, and destroying other people’s property. He had always told himself that he didn’t have a choice, because if he didn’t go along with their plans, they wouldn’t be his friends anymore. And maybe it was stupid to be friends with them since they could be complete assholes, but they were all Zeke had. They were the only ones who truly understood the grief he was going through from losing Brendan and Kaleb, and they were the only ones who ever offered to let him sleep over when Dad was being particularly nasty.
None of that really mattered now, since he was being forced to leave them, but every time Zeke thought about losing his friends, fresh tears welled up in his eyes. He wasn’t even sure he knew how to make new friends anymore, and he had clearly never known how to make very good ones.
◊ ◊ ◊
Zeke spent the rest of his weekend in his bedroom, only leaving to go to the bathroom and to eat. At first he had expected Dad to come up with a whole list of chores for him to do before he left for his new school, but he soon discovered that Dad had no plans to even talk to him. That suited Zeke just fine, because he didn’t want to talk to him, either.
In his room, Zeke spent his time reading his old graphic novels, laying on his bed and throwing his baseball in the air, and overthinking all the clothes that he planned to bring to East Ridge. He didn’t want to bring anything that would get him laughed at, so the sunglasses he chose to bring were plain black — not too big and not too small. He chose his favorite Adidas tennis shoes, a plain blue t-shirt, and a black jacket for when it was colder, as well as a pair of black athletic shorts, a pair of black sweatpants, and a week’s worth of boxers and black ankle socks. Everything was neutral except his shoes, but he could handle the Nike versus Adidas debate.
For his baseball hat, Zeke had a lot of choices, since he had been obsessed with baseball for his whole life. Ultimately, he decided on the hat that meant the most to him: his Timbers hat. The Timbers were the baseball team that he had played on for years with Brendan and Leo, until the team had broken up in seventh grade. Every time he looked at the hat, fond memories of his friendship with Brendan popped into his head and made Zeke smile, which was a welcome respite from all the crying he had been doing since Brendan’s death.
Brendan had been the closest thing that Zeke had ever had to a true best friend. He had been funny, smart, and kind — at least, when he hadn’t been participating in all of the troublemaking that Jacoryn and Isaiah thought up. Zeke had often felt that he and Brendan were the only normal ones in the group, because Brendan had been the only one that Zeke could talk to without feeling like he had to walk on eggshells.
One thing that was always easy to talk about was baseball, so Zeke thought that, if he made it onto a team, he might actually be able to make a few friends at East Ridge. If he was lucky, they’d all be better friends than his current ones, and maybe one of them would even be a better friend than Brendan had been. It was pretty unlikely, but a guy could dream.
On Sunday evening, when Mom called Zeke down to dinner, he felt a wave of sadness wash over him. This was his last dinner at home before he left for East Ridge, and maybe his last dinner at home until he graduated from high school. Maybe this time Dad wouldn’t act like he didn’t exist. Maybe this time Mom would talk to him the way she used to, before she started deferring to Dad for everything.
Zeke rolled off his bed and walked downstairs, rubbing his face and hoping that no one would be able to tell how much he had cried today. He sat down in his usual spot at the table next to Teagan, keeping his head down.
“Are you all packed up?” She asked.
Zeke glared at her. “Somebody seems excited to send me away.”
Teagan looked down at her empty bowl. “I was just asking, since you leave tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you’ve just been counting down the days.”
Mom brought the food over to the table and, as Zeke ladled some cheeseburger soup into his bowl, the sadness he had been carrying around all day became anger. Mom hadn’t even fixed his favorite food for his last dinner at home. She knew his favorite meal was chicken parmesan, and she had cooked something totally different. She didn’t even love him, did she? She was just as happy to see him go as Dad was. Probably because Zeke embarrassed her all the time by causing so much trouble.
Zeke ate quickly, finishing his soup before Dad even bothered to come downstairs for dinner. Then he ran back up to his room, unable to stop the tears flooding down his cheeks as he realized that he must’ve been a truly awful person for his own family to hate him this much.
◊ ◊ ◊