East Ridge Academy: Zeke Hallaway

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November

“You guys know that new kid, Brock Butler, who’s bunking with Meric?” Pax asked the remaining Snickerdudels as they sat around the cabin.

“Nice guy,” Zeke said.

Israel nodded.

“We should invite him to bunk with us.” Pax suggested.

Ember groaned, but Zeke and Israel nodded.

“How do we know he’s a prankster?” Amoni asked.

“We don’t,” Israel said. “I think.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I think he’s saying,” Pax said, “and I agree, is that… The Snickerdudels is a closed group.”

“So Brock doesn’t have to be a prankster.” Gray said, fiddling with the letter he had been reading.

“No more initiation?” Amoni whined.

“It will never be as special as it was,” Ember said. “We can’t have the Snickerdudels without Deven and Kelsey.”

Amoni nodded reluctantly. “Then do we even let anyone else in the cabin?” “Me and Israel leave next month,” Zeke reminded him.

“It’s inevitable that someone will be forced on us sooner or later, so why not choose while we can?” Pax said. “Brock is a nice, funny guy. I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine in the time we have left.”

Everyone agreed.

“This is sad.” Gray said.

Israel hugged him. “We’ll all keep in touch. If Kelsey and Deven both wrote us letters already, we can keep in touch no problem.”

“It’ll be okay, Gray,” Pax promised. “I’ll go talk to Headmaster Dawson now.”

“I hope he doesn’t mind us,” Israel said to Zeke.

“If he doesn’t know already, he’s stupid. We were sitting really close when Meric introduced us, and I don’t think he’s ever seen us apart. If he minded, he wouldn’t keep coming around.”

“I think it’s cute,” Gray said.

“Oh great,” Zeke joked, getting up to give Gray a noogie. “We have a little fanboy. Keep your eyes off my boyfriend, kid.”

Gray laughed and pushed his arms away. “I’m not gay. I’ll look at him all I want.”

“Sure sounds gay,” Ember teased.

Gray blew a raspberry and went back to reading letters.

“Who’re your letters from?” Zeke asked.

Gray looked up and shrugged. “Friends. And I guess my uncle writes to me sometimes.”

“Ooh,” Amoni said, coming over. “What kind of friends?” “Just friends,” Gray said. “Tor, Holly, and Akita.”

“Gettin’ all the girls,” Zeke joked.

“Tor isn’t a girl.”

“But he usually sends pretty pictures and he has really nice handwriting.” Amoni said.

“Then maybe he’s gay,” Ember suggested.

“Enough with the stereotyping,” Israel snapped.

“Yeah,” Zeke said. “Israel’s handwriting is terrible.”

Israel blew a raspberry, and everyone laughed.

“Is he a good photographer?” Ember asked.

Gray nodded vigorously. “He’s really good. Me and Holly and my little brothers used to help us all the time.”

“Can you show us some of his pictures?” Israel asked, joining the crowd around Gray’s bed.

Gray put down the letter he was holding and got down on the floor to reach under his bed. He pulled out a stack of photos.

“How have we never seen these before?” Zeke asked.

“You never asked before,” Gray said.

The picture on the top of the pile was of a beautiful girl with a flower tucked over her ear.

“Who’s that?” Amoni breathed.

“Holly,” Gray answered.

“And she writes you letters? Gray, what are you thinking?”

“What?” “Why aren’t you dating her?” Amoni and Zeke asked at the same time. They laughed and slapped each other high fives. Israel rolled his eyes at Zeke, who shrugged.

“We’re just friends,” Gray said.

“Did she friendzone you?” Amoni asked.

“She’s probably too smart to date Gray,” Ember said.

Israel punched his arm, and Gray glared at Ember.

Ember shrugged, a smile twitching in the corner of his mouth.

Gray showed them many more pictures of Holly, of flowers and sunsets, reflections in water, and a couple of other people.

“Who are they?” Israel asked.

“That’s Rocco, Meghan, and Akita.” Gray said. “They’re my other friends.”

“You have way more friends than me.”

“And me,” Ember sighed.

“Ditto,” Amoni said.

“It’s nice of your friends to write,” Zeke said. Jacoryn, Isaiah, and Leo had never bothered to write to him. Then again, he hadn’t written to them either.

Israel took Zeke’s hand, and they smiled at each other.

“I wish my friends wrote to me,” Amoni said. “I wish anyone wrote to me.”

“When we leave, we’ll write to you,” Israel promised, looking at Zeke. He nodded.

“Will you write to me?” Ember asked.

“Of course,” Zeke said. Israel squeezed his hand.

The door of the cabin swung open, and Zeke and Israel dropped each other’s hands on instinct. Pax walked in with Brock, and Gray stashed the photos under his bed.

“Brock, you’ve met us all before, right?” Pax asked.

“That doesn’t mean I remember names,” Brock said, laughing.

Zeke and his friends moved forward to reintroduce themselves.

“Thanks for inviting me to bunk with you guys,” Brock said.

“No problem,” Zeke said.

“I know you don’t move in for another couple days,” Pax told Brock, “but the open beds are below Ember and above me. Just something to think about.”

Brock nodded and rubbed his hands together. “So, um, there’s something you guys need to know.”

“Here we go,” Amoni mumbled to Zeke.

“I have Type 1 diabetes. So it would probably be good for me to be near the bathroom for when I have to get up and manage my blood sugar in the middle of the night. Sorry if that’s inconvenient to your bunks right now—”

“It’s cool,” Pax said. “No worries. My bunk is right by the bathroom, so I guess we’re bunkmates.”

“Awesome,” Brock said, giving Pax a fist bump.

“Do you still have feeling in your feet?” Ember asked.

Zeke snorted and Amoni and Gray laughed. “What kind of question…?”

“I do, actually,” Brock said with a confused smile.

“Have your ketones ever reached dangerous levels?” Ember asked.

“No,” Brock said.

“Do you have a pump?”

Brock lifted his shirt to reveal a little machine clipped to his waistband. “I have to train you guys to stab me.”

“Excuse me?” Amoni asked, grabbing Gray’s shoulder for support.

Brock blushed. “I have a glucose injection in case my blood sugar ever gets so low that I, like, pass out or something. I have to show you guys how to use it.”

“Cool,” Gray said, his eyes big.

“This is serious, Gray,” Israel said.

Brock laughed. “It’s okay, it’s cool. I was diagnosed when I was six. I’ve been dealing with this for about as long as I can remember, so it doesn’t scare me so much anymore. I’m pretty good at regulating it, so you’ll probably never have to use the injection. It’s just an emergency precaution.”

After talking for a bit, Brock left to join Meric and company for dinner. The Snickerdudels headed to dinner a few minutes after he left.

“Brock’s hot,” Israel said to Zeke as they walked at the back of the group.

Zeke raised his eyebrows. “He looks like Kelsey.”

“In hair color, eye color, and skin tone. That’s where the similarities stop.”

“They have the same haircut.”

“Well, it looks really good on Brock.”

Zeke’s stomach twisted. “He’s not hot.”

“I think he is.”

“If I catch you flirting with him, Benton—”

“He’s straight.”

“You thought I was straight.”

“Eh,” Israel said, giving Zeke a teasing smile.

Zeke’s vision blurred. “Seriously, Israel.”

Israel put his hands up. “I’m just messing with you.”

“Well stop it, okay?”

“Hey, calm down.”

Pax looked back at them, and Zeke shook his head. He turned around, and Zeke turned back to Israel. “You calm down. And stop.”

“Stop what? I’m just kidding with you, okay? He’s hot, but we’re dating.”

“So act like it.”

Israel rolled his eyes. “Don’t be like this.”

“Like what?” Zeke clenched his jaw.

“A control freak. I wouldn’t give a crap if you thought someone else was hot.”

“Would you?” Zeke asked.

Israel rolled his eyes again and pushed his way up to talk to Ember.

Zeke’s anger deflated, leaving him feeling empty. Was he not enough for Israel? Zeke didn’t have eyes for anyone but him, so why couldn’t he do the same? Stupid Brock was ruining everything on their seven-month anniversary. Zeke was pretty sure Israel had forgotten because he hadn’t said anything all day, but Zeke hadn’t forgotten.

Israel didn’t talk to Zeke at dinner. Despite Amoni and Gray’s attempts to joke with him and Pax’s worried looks, Zeke stayed locked in his own head, worrying about what he had said and about whether Israel would break up with him or not. Why did Brock have to come into their cabin and ruin everything?

“Zeke,” Pax called after dinner.

Zeke separated himself from the group heading back to the cabin and headed towards the baseball diamonds.

“Zeke, talk to me,” Pax said, running to catch up. He put his hand on Zeke’s shoulder, but Zeke shook it off. “I don’t want to talk.”

“Stop closing yourself off from everyone who tries to help you.”

Zeke turned to face Pax, his fists clenched and his eyes burning. “You don’t know anything about what’s going on.”

“So tell me,” Pax begged. “That’s all I want.”

Zeke unclenched his fists and let the sob escape his throat. Pax moved forward and hugged him. Zeke’s arms stayed limp at his side as he cried, trying to ignore the random guys staring at him as they passed.

“It’s okay,” Pax said.

“I’m so stupid,” Zeke said through tears. “I ruined everything.”

“What happened?”

Zeke pulled away and wiped his eyes. “Can we walk?”

“Of course.”

Zeke and Pax continued walking towards the baseball diamond, and Zeke told him about Israel thinking Brock was hot and how Zeke had been a jerk about it. “It just really hurt when he said he thought someone else was hot,” he explained, rubbing his face. “I don’t know. I guess since I’m new to the whole ‘being gay’ thing, I don’t look at other guys a whole lot because that’s weird to me.”

“Israel didn’t mean it to hurt you,” Pax said. “He wasn’t saying he was going to leave you for him. He wasn’t even saying he was attracted to Brock. Just that he’s an objectively hot guy.”

“But what if he is attracted to him? Or he starts liking him? What if Brock’s a better person than me?”

Pax sighed. “It doesn’t mean Brock is gay. And we know Israel, right? He’s not exactly the outgoing type to have a fling or something. And I’m totally not saying he’s going to, but if he did break up with you, we’re young, you know? It’s unlikely that relationships now will be a forever thing.”

Zeke’s heart flipped. “I want us to be a forever thing.”

Pax smiled. “And I hope you are. This really isn’t something to break up over, you know? It was just a misunderstanding.”

Zeke nodded. “I overreacted big time.”

“So tell him. I can get the guys out of the cabin.”

“Thanks, Pax. You’re the best.”

He laughed. “I know.”

◊ ◊ ◊

When Zeke got back to the cabin, Israel was sitting on his bed writing and no one else was around.

“Hey,” Zeke said.

Israel didn’t look up. “Hey.”

“Looks like we’re alone tonight.”

“Everyone went to do laundry.”

“Good, they stink.”

Israel didn’t laugh.

Zeke bit his lip. “Are you mad at me?”

Israel looked up. “Mad isn’t the right word.”

“Furious?”

“No,” Israel said, giving him a tiny smile. “More like disappointed.”

Zeke’s stomach flipped. “I thought we had already established that I was an idiot.”

“You never had me believing it.”

“Until now?” “Until now. But you’re my idiot.” Israel patted the bed next to him.

Zeke walked over and sat down. “I didn’t mean to get so mad. I shouldn’t have gotten mad at all. It was dumb.”

Israel nodded. “I thought about it, and I think I kind of understand why you reacted the way you did.”

“I’m sorry. I’m working on it, I promise.”

Israel took Zeke’s hand and rubbed his thumb across the back of Zeke’s hand. Zeke’s stomach fluttered.

“This relationship stuff is as new to me as it is to you,” Israel said. “I make mistakes too.”

“This one wasn’t your fault.”

Israel shrugged. “I should have thought about where you were coming from more. At the same time, we both can’t be control freaks. It’s okay to think other people are good looking, right?”

“Yeah,” Zeke said. “Looking at other people isn’t cheating, right?”

“Right. I’m not going to run off with Brock, okay? Even if he is gay.”

Zeke smiled. “You better not be running off with anyone.”

“You better not either.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

Israel smiled and let go of his hand. “You make me really happy, you know that?”

Zeke’s ears burned. He couldn’t stop the smile from taking over his face.

“I’m enjoying getting to know you even more than I ever thought I would, and that’s saying a lot,” Israel said. “From the time we met to now, you’ve grown so much. And everyday I look at you doing great things, and I think, ‘That’s my boyfriend. I can’t believe he’s mine.’

“I get this warm feeling, like I’m at home, when you walk in the room. My whole arm tingles when we hold hands. And I know it’s only been seven months, but I think… I love you.”

Zeke reached over and pulled him into a hug. “I love you, too.”

He held Israel for as long as he dared, then let go. “I thought you forgot our anniversary.”

“I thought you forgot, too.” Israel said, laughing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Zeke sat out by the baseball diamonds reading a book for school. Someone began climbing up the bleachers, and Zeke looked up to see Meric sit down next to him. “I heard you’re leaving next week.”

Zeke nodded and closed his book. “I’m pretty excited. Me and Israel are leaving on the same day, which forces our families to meet. And we only live like twenty minutes away from each other.”

“That’s awesome.”

“When do you leave?”

“February, actually.”

“That’s when I was supposed to leave.”

Meric laughed. “I wish I was leaving earlier. February is when everyone starts talking about baseball and planning tryouts, and I have to miss the next season, so it kind of sucks.”

“I’m glad I got to play under your captainship,” Zeke said.

Meric laughed. “You practically played under my whole captainship. I’m giving the team to Wyatt. He’ll do a good job, don’t you think?” Zeke nodded.

“So it’s a good thing, going home?”

“Yeah,” Zeke said. “I’m definitely going to miss some people here, and I’ll really miss the baseball, but yeah. It will be good to see family and old friends.”

“You have siblings?” “A sister.”

“Me too. She’s three years older, and when I get back she’ll be off at college. I’ll be lucky if I see her before Easter.”

“I’m sorry.”

Meric shrugged. “It’s all right, I guess. We’re not close. Not anymore.”

Zeke bit his tongue, not knowing what to say. He had never seen Meric look so sad.

“You going to keep playing baseball?”

“Definitely,” Zeke said, nodding. “I mean, I liked it a lot when I played before here. But here, where baseball was my life… It just made me realize how much I really do love it.”

Meric smiled. “I hope you go all out and get on one of those really good travel teams.”

“Thanks. I want to.”

“I think I liked being captain more than I liked playing,” he admitted. “And, I mean, I like playing a lot. But what they always say on my teambuilding reports is that I’m a ‘great leader,’ and I kind of took that to heart. I like coming up with drills and helping people get better.”

“You’re good at it,” Zeke said. “You should be a coach.”

Meric grinned. “Maybe I will.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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