ZEKE HALLAWAY’s last days at home were awful. After the day that he told his closest friends that he was being sent to a boot camp, he hadn’t been allowed out of the house. His father had shaved Zeke’s head even though Zeke knew it wasn’t required for the boot camp, and now his blond hair was shorter than it had ever been. Every time he looked in the mirror, all he could see was that his head was lumpy and looked too small for his body.
The boot camp, which was called East Ridge Academy, didn’t allow him to bring much. A toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, a baseball hat or two, 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 boys who attended the boot camp were only allowed to wear identical clothing that was provided by East Ridge Academy. From what Zeke could tell from the pictures on their 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 provided for the boys were toiletries, food, and school supplies. They didn’t allow any cell phones or any other electronic devices, and as far as Zeke could tell, the only computers at the whole camp were in the ancient ones in the school building.
Zeke chose the clothes he was allowed to bring carefully. He didn’t want to bring anything that would get him laughed at, so his sunglasses were plain black, not too big and not too small. He chose his favorite Adidas tennis shoes that he had hardly worn in, a blue t-shirt, and a black jacket for when it was colder, as well as a pair of black athletic shorts and a pair of black sweatpants. Everything was neutral — except his shoes, but he could handle the Nike versus Adidas debate.
For his baseball hat, Zeke had a large selection — he had been obsessed with baseball since he was a little kid — but he decided on the only hat that meant anything to him: his Timbers hat. The Timbers were the baseball team that Zeke had begun playing on in second grade, where he had played with his friends Brendan and Leo until seventh grade, when the team broke up. According to their website, East Ridge Academy was big on baseball, and anyone who wanted to could try out to play on a team. Zeke definitely didn’t want to be left out of the one thing that might be fun at the boot camp, so he was glad he could at least say he had a background in baseball. However, he hadn’t played on a team for nearly a year now, and he worried that he wouldn’t be good enough anymore to get onto a team at East Ridge Academy.
In the miserable couple days before he left for boot camp, Zeke tried to only leave his bedroom to go to the bathroom and to eat. He couldn’t stand being around 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 his friend group, who had called themselves “the Troublemakers.” He struggled to find a reason for why they had been so mean to other people and for why Zeke had so willingly participated in making other people’s lives hell. Maybe it would have been different if he could have stood up to Jacoryn and Isaiah — the leaders of the group — and told them that they were being jerks. Maybe everything would have come to an end before they went too far.
Even though Zeke desperately wanted to get away from the troublemaking itself, he didn’t want to lose his friends. Sure, they were jerks — mostly to people outside of their group — but they were all he had. Unfortunately, he was losing his friends for a whole year, regardless of what Zeke wanted. He tried not to think about everything that had happened. The things that made him cry himself to sleep, gave him nightmares, and made his dad blame him for something so terrible that Zeke could hardly fathom it.
He definitely tried not to think about it.
“Dinner,” his mom called from downstairs, snapping Zeke out of his thoughts and then causing another wave of sadness to wash over him. This was his last dinner at home before he left for boot camp. The last time he would hear his mom call him down to dinner for a whole year. The last time he would scowl at his sister or call her names for the next three hundred and sixty-five days.
Maybe this time his dad wouldn’t act like he didn’t exist. Maybe this time his mom would talk to him like she used to before everything happened.
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. How much he had stared at the screen of his laptop, trying to pay attention to the YouTube video that was playing but failing. He sat down in his usual spot at the table, keeping his head down. His dad wasn’t at the table yet, and Zeke found himself relieved for the time being.
His younger sister, Teagan, ran down the stairs and sat down at the table across from him. “You all packed?”
Zeke glared at her. “Somebody seems excited to send me away.”
Teagan looked down at her empty bowl. “I was just asking.”
Zeke couldn’t help but think that it had been Teagan who had planted the idea in their dad’s head to send Zeke away. From the moment she had been born, she had gladly taken all of their parents’ attention whenever she could. Zeke wished he could tell her that she could have their attention whenever she wanted. He was tired of having his parents’ eyes on him all the time, tired of getting yelled at by his dad, blamed for things he hadn’t done, and tired of his mom inviting him to play board games with her — but only when Zeke’s dad was at work. She hardly so much as looked at him when his dad was around these days.
His 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. She hadn’t even fixed his favorite food for his last dinner at home for a whole year. 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 going to be just as happy to see him go as his dad was.
Maybe she had been the one who suggested sending Zeke away. Maybe this whole time, she had been the mastermind and had let Zeke’s dad do all the yelling because she knew that he had always scared Zeke more. Much, much more.
Zeke ate quickly, finishing his soup before his dad even bothered to come downstairs for dinner, and ran back up to his room, unable to stop the tears flooding down his cheeks. He dove onto his bed and punched the living daylights out of his pillow. He pretended that the pillow was his mom, then his dad, and then even Teagan. None of them would miss him. None of them had ever or would ever love him. It was obvious now that his friends, who he had wished to get away from, were the only ones who would really miss him.
Zeke must’ve been a truly awful person for his own family to hate him this 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, his arms hurt, and all of his blankets were on the floor in piles against the wall, where he had thrown them. Zeke checked his knuckles to make sure that they weren’t bleeding and then got out of bed. It was time to go to East Ridge Academy.
Zeke put on the cold weather outfit he had picked out and grabbed his hat, sunglasses, toothbrush, toothpaste, underwear, socks, and shorts. He went downstairs, expecting his mom and sister to be there for a final goodbye, but they were nowhere to be seen.
They really weren’t going to miss him.
Zeke put his belongings in a plastic grocery bag and grabbed a protein bar from the pantry for breakfast. As he unwrapped it, his dad stomped in from the garage. “I’m still waiting, Ezekiel,” he said. Then he turned around and went back out to the garage, slamming the door behind him.
Zeke rolled his eyes and followed his dad out to the car, ignoring the fear rising in his throat and making his stomach churn. A long car ride with his dad was the last thing he needed right now. Zeke didn’t want to sit next to his dad, so he climbed into 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. Choking down the protein bar had made his mouth dry and somewhat gritty, and Zeke wished for some water. The dehydration only added to his instability. He still felt like he was going to puke, dreading the things that his dad might say to him as he drove, but also hating the silence between them. As they sped down the highway, Zeke could visualize himself punching his dad over and over, telling him exactly what he thought of him and the lousy job he had done as a parent. Telling him that, maybe if he hadn’t been such a jerk, maybe Zeke wouldn’t be a jerk either. And then none of this wouldn’t happen.
After a few minutes, Zeke let the vision go, taking deep breaths and clenching and unclenching his fists. Even after getting in fight after fight at school, often coming out on top, he couldn’t take his dad. Zeke knew that all his dad would have to do was laugh at him and say his punch was weak for Zeke to crumble and take whatever punishment his dad saw fit, and he hated himself for it.
“Almost there,” his dad said, making Zeke jump. The realization opened the floodgate for the worries Zeke had been holding back for days. What if the other boys at the camp were all jerks like him? What if they were better fighters than him or figured out what to say to him to make him crumble? What if there were a bunch of rules he’d have to learn to follow and the punishment for breaking them was getting whipped or paddled? Zeke’s dad had hit him with a belt before, and he was not keen to relive that.
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.
Surely, he thought, this couldn’t be the right place. It looked like a prison.
Zeke’s heart rate climbed, making him feel like his chest was going to explode. He fidgeted, pulling his seat belt away from his chest. Zeke’s dad braked softly and the car slowed. Before them, two guards stood in front of a gate. Zeke’s dad rolled down the window and one of the guards approached, holding out his hand. “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.” He gave the papers back to Zeke’s dad, who rolled up the window.
The first guard signaled to the other, and they pulled the gate open to let the car through. Zeke turned to watch the gate closing behind him. He was trapped for sure now, and there was no way he was ever getting out for another year.
The car bounced along the gravel road for a few minutes before the road widened into a parking lot that was adjacent to a brick building labeled, in white letters, East Ridge Academy Visitation Center. A fence started on either side of the building and extended practically as far as Zeke could see around the back of two other unlabeled brick buildings. Trees skirted the gravel parking lot, and Zeke figured that the only place to hide — if he could even figure out a way to scale the fence and get over the barbed wire — was in those trees. Then maybe he could get out of here.
His father parked the car quickly, next to a dusty old SUV. “Let’s go. Now,” he said, getting out of the car. Zeke grabbed the grocery bag that contained his belongings and followed his dad into the Visitation Center.
What were the other two buildings? Zeke wondered. One had to be a school, but the other one could be anything. What if it was actually a prison for those who misbehaved? They definitely wouldn’t have put pictures of that on their website, so Zeke’s imagination took off, creating images for itself.
Zeke’s dad didn’t even bother to hold the door for Zeke as he rushed into the Visitation Center, so Zeke caught the door with his foot and followed behind his dad slowly. It was warm, which was a stark contrast from the cold wind outside, but it looked sterile, like a doctor’s office, with gray couches and chairs and magazines on the end tables.
“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. It was the first time Zeke had seen him smile in days, and it unnerved him. His dad handed the lady the paperwork he had shown the guard and looked at it before typing something into her computer. “Ezekiel Hallaway, fourteen years old, contracted to stay here for a year, correct?”
“I go by Zeke,” Zeke mumbled, glancing at his dad. He didn’t react.
“My bad,” she said, smiling. “I’ll buzz the headmaster and he’ll come right up to give you your orientation packet and fill you in on what we’re all about here at East Ridge.”
Zeke’s dad suddenly moved towards him and clapped him on the back as Zeke flinched. “See you on visitation day,” he said, then he turned and walked out the door.
Zeke stared at the door as it closed behind him. Of course his dad didn’t even care whether or not the headmaster was a nice guy. For all Zeke knew, they had already exchanged emails where his dad had told the headmaster all about the things that Zeke was trying to get away from.
“Ah, Master Hallaway,” a man’s voice said. Zeke turned away from the door to see a tall, balding, middle-aged man coming towards him with his hand extended. Zeke shook his hand weakly and looked down at the ground.
“I’m Headmaster Dawson,” the man said, letting go of Zeke’s hand. “What’s your first impression of East Ridge, Zeke?”
Zeke wanted to say, “It seems like a prison,” but he managed to say, “It’s nice.” He didn’t need to make an enemy of the headmaster, especially if he really had exchanged emails with Zeke’s dad already.
“You haven’t even seen the best of it,” Headmaster Dawson said cheerfully. “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 through sixteens, and seventeens through eighteens. Sixteens are the top of your age group, so they’re 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. Of course, back when he had played baseball competitively, he had played up so that he had competed against older boys, but thirteen and sixteen seemed like a huge difference. Zeke had never known any eighth graders who hung out with sophomores in high school unless they were related. “Do we ever have to do stuff with the seventeens and eighteens?”
“Mostly only morning runs, which you’ll learn about later. It’s in your orientation packet.”
Zeke nearly groaned out loud. He hated running. He had always hated running, unless it was around the bases. Plus, since he hadn’t played competitive sports for nearly a year, he knew that he was out of shape. He didn’t need the other boys — especially the older boys — seeing him struggle. It would just make him more of a target.
Headmaster Dawson stopped at a door and unlocked it, motioning for Zeke to come in and sit in one of the chairs in front of his desk. Zeke did, and the headmaster sat across from him on the other side of the desk in a big, black, leather chair. “Here’s everything you need to know about East Ridge,” he said, holding out a packet of papers.
Zeke took the papers from him, surprised at how heavy the packet was. There was no way that Zeke would ever read the whole thing.
“On top there’s a map. Not that East Ridge is hard to navigate.” The headmaster chuckled to himself. “There’s information on baseball, school, work outs, team building, counseling, and weekend and weekday schedules. Plenty of other stuff that I always forget, too. But don’t worry, it’ll all be familiar before you know it.”
Zeke flipped the packet open to a random page, read a little, and then looked back up at Headmaster Dawson. “I’m going to have bunkmates?” He had always imagined that the cabins, which were pictured on the website only from the outside and with nothing to provide scale, were for one boy each so that they would have nothing else to do besides their homework.
“Eventually, yes,” Headmaster Dawson said, smiling. “For your first week you’ll have your own room here in the Visitation Center. Some of our staff will introduce you and the other newbies — that is, new students — to things slowly. Then, if all goes according to plan, you’ll spend the second week in a cabin with some older boys so they can teach you the ropes of day-to-day life and give you some advice on how to balance all the activities. We are fully aware that we, as staff, don’t live the ‘East Ridge experience’ that you boys do, so I think you will find that having older boys to mentor you will come in handy.”
Zeke gulped. All of the high schoolers he had met were much taller than him — though that wasn’t saying a lot, since Zeke was short for his age — and since they worked out so much here, he was sure that they’d be bigger than him too. Even if Zeke did consider himself pretty adept at fighting, there was no way he would be able to hold his own against older, taller, and stronger guys.
“After that, unless you’ve made some friends with boys who have an open bunk and they tell me they want you to bunk with them, you’ll be put in a random cabin with kids your age. You don’t get to move unless there is a serious problem, so I suggest you try to 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 because there hadn’t been any reason to. Everyone could spot an awkward friendless kid, and Zeke could practically feel the target on his back growing.
The headmaster kept talking, but Zeke’s worries drowned out his words. Before he knew it, he was being led down the hall to meet his counselor, Mr. Janson. The guy, who was shaped like a pear and had a neck beard, made a poor first impression on Zeke. He was very condescending as he explained how counseling worked, he never gave Zeke a chance to ask any questions, and when he was done with his monologue, he sent Zeke out in the hall to sit on the floor and wait for Headmaster Dawson. There was no way Zeke was about to sit down every week and spill his guts to that guy.
After what seemed like an eternity, Headmaster Dawson came back and took Zeke down some more hallways, pointing out the bathrooms, before leaving Zeke alone in a small room. The walls were blindingly white and the sheets on the bed had once been white but were now yellowed. The only other things in the room were a desk — where Zeke set down his bag of belongings and his orientation packet — and a window.
After staring out the window for a few minutes, not even sure what he was thinking about, Zeke took his sunglasses and hat out of his plastic grocery bag and left them on the desk, then threw the bag with the clothes and toothbrush still in it on the floor. He sat down in the desk chair and flipped through the orientation packet. He saw nothing about getting whipped or paddled and discovered that both unlabeled brick buildings that he had seen from the parking lot were schools. Zeke was pleasantly surprised to find that the schedule included three meals a day and that there was a small spirit and snack store in one of the schools. Even if some things about the place still sounded terrible — like the fact that they had to get up at five in the morning and run two miles before they got to eat anything — some of Zeke’s fears were put to rest.
The part of the orientation packet that worried Zeke the most was not the regular bunk checks, school, chores, or even the workouts. It was the required teambuilding activities, counseling, and weekly ‘inspiring’ lectures, all of which sounded like a bunch of propaganda. The last thing he needed was more voices in his head telling him who to be.
There was a knock on the door and Zeke threw down the packet on instinct. He didn’t need to get caught reading it like some sort of nerd. “Come 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, because he didn’t know how many more flavorless or worse, nasty bites he could drown out with milk. He barely even liked milk in the first place.
After giving himself a couple seconds to make sure that the food wasn’t going to come back up, Zeke took the tray with him and headed out to the hallway, where the man who had brought the food was waiting with two younger boys. “Leave the tray,” he said, gesturing to a cart that had two other trays on top of it already. Zeke did as he said.
The man introduced himself as Mr. Lakes, and Zeke and the other boys followed him down the halls until they got to one that Zeke had never seen. Mr. Lakes opened a door and gestured for them to go in.
“What is this, a gas chamber?” the youngest boy asked.
Zeke raised his eyebrows, regarding the kid. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old, so he definitely had no business making jokes like that.
“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, wondering if this kid was actually thinking ahead or if he was just trying to be annoying. He had been that annoying kid trying to waste a teacher’s time before, and this sure sounded like the type of stuff he had said.
The kid didn’t say anything else, and Zeke looked up to find Mr. Lakes frowning at him. “Did you think that was a dumb question?”
Zeke shrugged, opening his mouth to explain. Before he could, Mr. Lakes asked, “Would you have known what to do if something broke?”
Zeke shrugged again and looked at the wall.
Mr. Lakes led them down the stairs to the store room and gave them lists for their grade. He let each of the boys take what they needed from the boxes and shelves while he stood with his arms crossed, looking around the room.
Zeke found the navy-blue messenger bags first, and once the other two boys had them, Mr. Lakes gave them a permanent marker to write their names on the tag so that another boy wouldn’t accidentally take a bag that wasn’t theirs. Then they found the pencils, pens, folders, and notebooks that were on their lists, stuffing them into their bags as they went. When they were done, Mr. Lakes led them further into the store room. They chose toothbrushes, which Zeke took even though he had brought one, combs, toothpaste, a shower towel, and deodorant, then moved further into the room. The boxes and shelves of school supplies and toiletries turned into racks of clothing.
Zeke looked up at a mannequin that was modeling what looked like the formal uniform he had seen in pictures on the website. It consisted of navy blue pants, shiny black shoes, a white 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 with the same logo. Just thinking about putting it on made Zeke’s skin itch.
“Linda,” Mr. Lakes called.
“Coming,” an unseen voice responded. Zeke hadn’t even known that anyone else was down here.
“Are we just getting that uniform?” the other boy, who was also younger than Zeke but hadn’t talked yet, asked.
“And your work out and recreation clothing.” Mr. Lakes answered.
“I thought we wore this for recreation,” Zeke said, gesturing to the clothes he was wearing.
“That’s only for weekends. You get —”
Suddenly the mannequin clattered to the ground. The smallest boy giggled from where he had pushed it, then wrenched the mannequin’s arm out of the socket and pulled it out of the shirt.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Lakes yelled, lunging towards the boy, who danced away, waving the arm.
Zeke laughed, admiring the kid’s courage. Then he stopped himself. This kid was a troublemaker, which was exactly what Zeke had been trying to get away from. He couldn’t start allying himself with the same people all over again if he wanted things to get better.
“Come and get me,” the kid called, laughing. Mr. Lakes chased him, and Zeke glanced at the boy next to him, who seemed to be frozen with fear. Zeke looked back at Mr. Lakes and the laughing boy and figured that if he didn’t want to be a troublemaker anymore, he should help catch this ornery kid, right? That was what the opposite of a troublemaker would do.
The little boy, still waving the mannequin arm, ran closer to Zeke, Mr. Lakes not far behind. Zeke reached out and grabbed the mannequin 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, you can just put that arm down on the floor. Find work out and recreational clothes that fit you. Two pairs of everything except the sweatshirt and sweatpants,” she said, pointing to four different racks as she spoke.
Zeke followed her directions as she led Luke away. The workout clothes were white t-shirts and black shorts with the East Ridge Academy logo on the right leg, along with a gray, logoed sweatshirt and sweatpants for when it was cold, like now. The recreational clothes were a gray polo with the logo, a navy-blue zip-up 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. He felt like a dog on a leash.
“You wear your uniform to school, lunch, and teambuilding, counseling, or lecture time during the week. On the weekend you don’t have to wear it at all. Isn’t that great?”
“Sure,” Zeke mumbled. His definition of great was not having to wear a uniform at all.
“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 roll call and inspection the staff takes note of the condition of your uniform. The worse your uniform, the worse your chores.”
Linda let him take off his uniform and change back into the clothes he had arrived in. They set off together to find Luke, and then Linda took both of them to the laundry room to make sure they knew how to use the machines and 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, determined to keep it in good condition. After hanging up his uniform on the hook by the door and dropping his bags on the floor, Zeke collapsed on his bed.
A knock on his door woke him. He answered, feeling groggy and slightly dizzy — probably for the same reason that his throat felt like a desert. Mr. Lakes looked him up and down disapprovingly before leading Zeke, Luke, and the troublemaking boy to the mess hall where they sat at the smallest table. It was in the corner, and apparently reserved for newbies.
No one at the newbie table attempted to talk over the din of the boys at the big tables. The youngest boy seemed to have lost his rebellious spirit — at least for today — and Zeke found that he didn’t miss it. However, part of him did wish that Luke would talk so that Zeke wouldn’t be stuck with his own thoughts.
He looked over his shoulder at the other boys, who took up most of the gigantic mess hall. Zeke had read in his orientation packet that there were spots for five hundred boys to attend East Ridge, and four hundred of those spots, give or take a few, were usually filled. As Zeke scanned the other tables, he realized that four hundred was a lot. He wasn’t even sure that all of the boys were in the room, because he didn’t see anyone much younger than him at the regular tables. He kept expecting the other boys to look over at him, but they paid no attention to the newbie table. Didn’t they want to size up the new guys?
“Stop staring,” Luke whispered, getting close to Zeke’s ear so that he could hear him over the noise in the room.
“None of them even look over here,” Zeke said defensively, turning back to his tray of gloopy food.
“Notice all the cameras?”
Zeke hadn’t, but he looked up to where Luke was looking. The cameras were mounted on the walls in all the corners and in some other points where the wall met the ceiling, looking everywhere. “Think anyone here has ever killed someone?”
“It’s not a juvie center,” Luke said, his voice wavering. “I mean, it’s not. Is it? My parents call East Ridge an ‘alternative school.’”
“It’s not technically juvie,” Zeke said, though the barbed wire on the fences could have fooled him.
After dinner, Mr. Lakes told Zeke, Luke, and the other boy to wait for everyone else to clear out of the mess hall. A muscular 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 catch. According to the map in the orientation packet, the buildings on either side of the Visitation Center were the 3rd-7th grade school and the 8th-12th grade school. Inside the schools was also some work out equipment, just in case the weather was so bad they couldn’t be outside. The smaller buildings in front of the schools, on the edge of the blacktop were the showers. Zeke shivered at the thought of being naked in front of other boys, but he was thankful that, according to the orientation packet, there was a bathroom with a door in each cabin. If East Ridge had bathrooms without doors, Zeke would start to think that it really was a prison.
Beyond the blacktop was a grassy area where the cabins seemed to lay on a perfect grid. Zeke could barely make out flashes of color blowing in the wind in front of each one, so he turned to Mr. Lakes. “What are the flags in front of the cabins?”
“It’s in your orientation packet.”
Zeke sighed and turned away, going back to squinting at the cabins.
“Green means nines and tens, blue elevens and twelves, red thirteens through sixteens, and orange seventeens and eighteens. Any flags with a black stripe in the middle means a long term student lives there.”
“Two years or more.”
Zeke sucked air through his teeth. He pitied anyone who had to be here for more than a year. Hell, he pitied anyone who had to be here at all.
“Finally, you’re late,” Mr. Lakes called to a tall boy with brown hair who was running towards them. Under his breath, he added, “This is what we get for letting a fifteen year-old lead tours.”
“Sorry, sir.” The boy shifted his gaze from Mr. Lakes to Zeke. “Hey dude, I’m Meric Wochner. Welcome to East Ridge.”
“I’m Zeke Hallaway.”
“All right Zeke, we’re going to have a good time. I give great tours.” Meric flashed a grin at Mr. Lakes, then turned to the left and started walking.
Zeke followed him across the blacktop, not looking back to see if Mr. Lakes was still watching.
“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. Meric followed him, taking a few quick steps to pull ahead once again. “We’re gonna grab your schedule, and then I’ll show you where your classes are.”
“How do they know what classes to put me in?”
“In the registration process, your parents had to send your current schedule from your school back at home. So don’t worry, you won’t get thrown into a totally new class mid-term. Except maybe if you were taking some elective that East Ridge doesn’t offer, which happens pretty often.”
“Do we do school in the summer?” Zeke asked. He thought he had seen the words “summer classes” mentioned at one point in his orientation packet, but he had accidentally flipped past it and then gotten distracted reading something else.
“It’s different, but kind of.” Meric turned to a closed door and looked at some papers that were taped up before pulling one down and handing it to Zeke.
Zeke took the paper and glanced at it, seeing his name at the top and a list of classes, room numbers, and teachers below. Meric looked over his shoulder and led Zeke around the school, pointing out his math classroom, English, science, art, and others that Zeke was going to forget as soon as they left the school.
“The classes are pretty easy,” Meric said. “We go slow, and it’s almost more about discipline than it is grades. Just turn in your work and be respectful. That’s all you gotta do to pass, really.”
Zeke nodded, though he doubted that it was true. Some people said that about his school back home, but Zeke had never found that to be the case. How could it be when his own homework scores were terrible?
Meric showed Zeke all of the exercise equipment they had in the school,as well as the ‘track’ that went around the perimeter of the gym. Instead of being flat and round, it was almost square and included four staircases, meaning that to run around it Zeke would have to run up a staircase twice and down a staircase twice. He couldn’t decide which was worse — the thought of running laps on that track or the fact that all of the exercise equipment looked alien to Zeke. Besides playing baseball — and soccer when he was younger — he had never worked out a day in his life. How would he ever figure out how to use the equipment without the other boys laughing at him?
“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 smiled back before leading him out of the school, across the blacktop, and into 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 electric 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 few kids started making weapons out of the blades.”
“That’s disgusting,” Zeke said.
Meric laughed a little and nodded. “You get five 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 smiled. “You like baseball?”
“Yeah,” Zeke said.
Meric clapped him on the shoulder. “Then let’s go watch some.”
They walked out of the showers and across the blacktop, then through the grass between the cabins. Zeke told Meric about how he had played competitive baseball, wanting Meric to make sure that he wasn’t clueless.
“That’s awesome,” Meric said. “We’re big on baseball here. The season doesn’t technically start until March first, but just about everyone scrimmages before to test out their new team. I’m actually captain of the second-best team in our league, the Tigers. We’re really trying to push for first this year, but Headmaster Dawson’s system makes it practically impossible. The Pirates have a big lead on us.”
“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, so I bet you could make a team if you wanted.”
“I dunno,” Zeke said, grimacing. “I’m not that great. I haven’t played for nearly a year.”
“Oh c’mon,” Meric said, smiling. “Most of us live for baseball while we’re here. It’s all we’ve got. If you watch enough and throw a ball around enough, you’ll be fine. Plus 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.”
Just thinking about feeling a baseball smack into his glove or how it felt to hit a home run made Zeke itch. He missed it so badly, but he still didn’t believe that he could make a team. These boys played baseball all the time, and Zeke was rusty. There was no way he could compete.
Meric showed him the two fields, the East Diamond and the West Diamond. There was a grass expanse in the middle where Meric said that practices were held when the diamonds were busy. As Zeke looked around, he was surprised at how many of the boys seemed to be in the bleachers, watching a scrimmage. The bleachers were full, forcing some boys to stand off to the sides, and it got loud as a player hit the ball into the outfield and began running the bases.
“It’s Monday, so the 9-12s are playing. That’s why I’m free to show you around,” Meric said. They stood next to the bleachers and watched part of the game. Meric pointed out players to Zeke, seeming to know everything about them. “These games are only five innings,” he explained. “Everyone else plays seven, but it’s hard to keep the little kids focused that long.”
The very small boy at bat hit a home run, and 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 so he could get done before the other boys showed up.
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 that Zeke felt like he kind of had a friend already.
Maybe, he thought, Meric would even let Zeke bunk with him. Zeke had a feeling though, that to be liked by Meric, he would have to stay out of any kind of trouble. And, as far as he could tell, that was going to be a good thing for him.
New place, new Zeke.
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