“What do you think your friend’s reactions will be when you come out?” Israel asked as he and Zeke lay in his bed two nights before they were supposed to leave East Ridge.
Zeke’s eyes searched the bottom of his own mattress. “I really don’t know. We used to make fun of gay kids, so I don’t think they would have any idea that any of us could be gay.”
“It will probably be fine,” Israel said. “They’ll feel differently when it’s someone they care about, I think.”
“What about your friends? Do they know?” “Zeke, you know I had no friends.”
“I guess your dad doesn’t count.”
“Well, I mean, there’s Dylan, my friend from Arizona that I write letters to.”
“Like a nerd,” Zeke teased.
“How else were we supposed to keep in touch?”
“I don’t know, the internet?”
“My parents are strict, remember?”
Zeke laughed. “Do you even have a cellphone?”
Israel joined his laughter.
“No wonder you had no friends.”
“I told Ross and Dylan about me in letters. Ross stopped writing me back, so it just ended up being me and Dylan who reunited every summer.”
“Well, you have us now.”
“Izzy, I’m not gonna write you letters.”
Israel turned and looked at Zeke with a smile. “Believe me, I know.”
“Can you get a Facebook? Or at least an email?”
“It’s about time you rebelled.”
“I guess so. If I’m going to be so friendly with Satan anyway, I might as well stop honoring my parents like a good Christian boy.”
Zeke grinned and squeezed Israel’s hand.
“Real question, Zekiel.”
Zeke turned over and looked him in the eyes.
“Do you believe in God?”
Zeke looked away and shifted uncomfortably. “Is this a deal breaker?”
“I don’t know, Zeke. I just want your honest answer.”
“I mean, I think there’s probably a God. I prayed once.”
“It’s a start,” Israel said. “You know what I believe. I just want to know that you’ll be saved, you know?”
“I guess. Don’t expect me to be an easy convert.”
“Nothing’s ever easy with you, Hallaway.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The day before Zeke and Israel left East Ridge, they got up and went to school as usual. After workouts, their cabin mates did their chores for them while Zeke and Israel walked around East Ridge, talking and taking in the place one last time. Zeke looked at each cabin, wondering how he had never noticed some of them before. For example, someone had stolen paint from the school and painted a big red volcano with smoke coming out of it on one of the cabins. Some cabins had broken windows covered with trash bags and duct tape, and some mailboxes had been torn from the wall and rested on the ground in front of the cabin.
“Wonder how that happens,” Zeke said.
Israel followed his gaze. “Fights. Playing baseball in the cabin.”
Zeke laughed. “You’re lucky we never did that.”
“I would think you all got enough of it outside the cabin.”
Zeke shrugged. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of baseball.”
“I hope you don’t. I like watching you play.”
“I always just hoped you weren’t bored.”
“Watching you wiggle your cute little butt when you go up to bat? Never.”
Zeke blushed and looked down at his feet.
“You going to miss it?” Zeke nodded. “If you would’ve told me I’d miss this place in my first two weeks, I never would’ve believed you.”
“It took me way longer than that to get used to it here,” Israel said, dropping the corners of his mouth.
“Well at least you did eventually. I’m glad we all met.”
“Me too, obviously. I just… What if we don’t get to see each other very much after this?”
Zeke took his hand. “Not gonna happen, Benton. I’ll stalk you if I have to.”
Israel smiled. “Not if I stalk you first.”
♢ ♢ ♢
After everyone was done with their chores and Brock left the cabin, Gray presented Zeke and Israel with cards signed by the remaining Snickerdudels. Zeke wished that Kelsey and Deven had been able to sign it, even though he had their contact information and could ask them to sign something and send it to him anytime he wanted.
“Thank you so much, guys,” Israel said, leaning into Pax. Pax put his arm around Israel and pulled him into a hug. “I’m gonna miss you, man.”
Amoni and Gray came forward and hugged Zeke, and Ember joined in. Then they switched with Pax and hugged Israel. Pax squeezed Zeke’s arms and looked him in the eye. “Not to be cheesy, but I’m really proud of you, Zeke.”
Zeke blushed. “Thanks, man.”
“You really came in here and surprised the hell out of me. I’m really glad I get to call you a best friend.”
“Me too,” Zeke said, tearing up against his will.
“Oh come here, ya big baby,” Pax said, squeezing him. Zeke hugged him back, and Pax sobbed twice next to his ear before pulling away and wiping at his eyes angrily. “Promise me you’ll keep in touch?”
“Of course,” Zeke said, wiping his face.
“You have to invite me to come watch you play sometime, okay? And let me know if anyone causes you or Izzy any problems so I can beat them up.”
“You’ll be the first to know,” Zeke promised, laughing.
The remaining Snicerdudels gathered in a group hug, Zeke’s arms around Gray and Amoni, whose comedic relief he would greatly miss. He’d miss Ember’s random interjections of facts and help with homework. He’d miss Pax’s sense of humor and he’d miss playing on the same field as him, hearing his encouragement from a base away. But most of all, he’d miss the closeness that they’d never have in quite the same way ever again.
◊ ◊ ◊
A little after nine o’clock the next morning, Zeke got a slip of paper telling him to go to reception. He grabbed his bag, left the classroom, and hurried down the hall. He caught Israel right as he was coming out of his own classroom. Zeke grabbed his hand and kissed him on the cheek. “Ready?”
Israel blushed. “Ready.”
They walked out of the school, across the asphalt, and into the visitation center. As they made their way down the hall to reception, Zeke wasn’t sure if his hand was sweating, Israel’s hand was sweating, or both.
Israel was finally meeting Zeke’s family, and Zeke was meeting his. What if his parents hated Zeke? Israel was impossible not to like, but Zeke had a record of coming off as a troublemaker.
They turned the corner. Zeke saw a dark-haired and dark-skinned woman in a white and pink coat standing in front of reception. “My mom,” Israel whispered.
The woman looked down the hall. “Israel!”
Zeke let go of Israel’s hand and ran to hug his mom.
“Zeke?” he heard Teagan say. She rushed around the corner and jumped into his arms.
“Good to see you,” Zeke said, laughing.
Their mom came and put her arms around both of them. “His parents are nice,” his mom whispered. She backed up and Teagan let go.
Zeke looked over to where Israel was hugging a balding man with blond hair.
“You must be Zeke,” Israel’s mother said with a slight accent that Zeke didn’t recognize. It must have come from her parents, who Israel had said were raised in Pakistan.
“You’re Mrs. Benton?” Zeke said.
She stepped forward and stuck out her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. We’ve heard much about you.”
Zeke’s ears burned. “Good things, I hope.”
Israel moved around them and introduced himself to Zeke’s mom.
“So, you’re Israel’s age?” Mrs. Benton asked.
“Fifteen, yeah. I’m just a little short.”
“You are in ninth grade?” Had Israel told them that Zeke struggled in school? “Yes.”
“Dad,” Israel said. “Have you met Zeke and his family?”
Mr. Benton looked at Zeke. “You’re Zeke.”
“I have,” he told Israel.
“We should go to our cabin and grab our stuff,” Zeke suggested. He couldn’t stand Mr. Benton staring at him anymore.
“Yeah,” Israel said, looking at the ground. “Let’s go.”
Zeke reached out and took Israel’s hand. He smiled, but Zeke knew he was hurting because of his dad. Zeke couldn’t help but be relieved that his own father wasn’t here, while also feeling guilty for having the thought. It wasn’t like his dad had a choice this time around.
Teagan took Zeke’s other hand as they walked and filled the silence by talking about how excited Zeke’s friends were to see him and how Zeke could get his driver’s permit and how Ellie and Leo were begging their parents for a dog.
Zeke used to hate the way Teagan talked and talked, but now he was thankful for it. He squeezed her hand and they smiled at each other.
Once they got to the cabin, it didn’t take very long for Zeke and Israel to gather their things.
“How many others sleep in this cabin?” Mr. Benton asked.
“Currently, five,” Israel answered.
Zeke and Israel rolled their eyes at each other.
“We better get going,” Mrs. Benton said.
“Us too,” Zeke’s mom said. She smiled at Israel. “It was so nice to meet you.”
Israel put down his bag and pulled Zeke into a hug. Zeke closed his eyes so that the moment wasn’t spoiled by Mr. Benton’s reaction. Who knew if he would let Israel see Zeke again?
Israel pulled back and pecked Zeke on the cheek. Then he grabbed his bag quickly and led his parents out the door.
Teagan grabbed Zeke’s arm and made a little squeaking noise. “I love him already.”
“That was so awkward,” Zeke sighed, forcing a laugh.
“Very,” his mom agreed. “We should wait a couple minutes so we don’t accidentally run into them in the parking lot.”
They stood in silence for a couple minutes. Zeke looked around. He really was going to miss this place.
“Zeke?” his mom said.
“I really do like him.”
Zeke’s ears burned, and Teagan grabbed his arm again. “You guys are the cutest.”
◊ ◊ ◊
When he got home, Zeke immediately found his phone and plugged it in. He went down to the kitchen where the laptop was charging and logged into his email. He already had a message waiting.
I’m home. My parents talked my ear off about reconsidering our relationship and how God created Adam and Eve for a reason and blah, blah, blah. My mom may have appeared nice, but she was just hiding her judgement. She does it all the time, and it’s almost worse than my dad being so openly against me.
Your mom and sister are great. Your sister is adorable, and I love the way you so clearly love her :) I’m glad they support us.
Hopefully I can see you after Christmas. You think you can get your permit by then so we can sneak out? (I’m kidding, of course.) Love you.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next morning, Zeke woke up at six-thirty ready to go. Despite his attempts to fall back asleep after being up until midnight emailing Israel, he got out of bed before seven.
He tiptoed downstairs to get some breakfast. A little after seven, his mom came downstairs.
“Good morning,” she said through a yawn.
“Morning,” Zeke said. “Do you have work?”
“Today and tomorrow. Not on Christmas Eve, Christmas, or New Years. Got lucky.”
“Tomorrow is our Christmas party, though, so I won’t be home until late. I think Teagan is going to a sleepover, so you’ll be free to do whatever.”
“And by the way, I already got you enrolled at school for next semester, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
Zeke laughed. “Oh, I wasn’t worried.”
◊ ◊ ◊
By eleven o’clock, Zeke was on his way to Jacoryn’s house to play video games with Jacoryn, Isaiah, and Leo. And maybe to tell them that he was gay.
Zeke shivered involuntarily. This wasn’t going to be easy, but it had to be done. He couldn’t just hide it, especially when Israel started coming around.
Zeke also had to consider the possibility that his friends were still complete jerks. If they were, and Zeke was strong enough, he would have to say goodbye to them for good, and then it wouldn’t matter what they thought about him being gay, anyway.
He ran up the stairs and knocked on Jacoryn’s door. Before he could even take a deep breath, the door swung open.
“Hey, Zeke,” Jacoryn said, his smile taking over his face. Zeke stepped inside and Jacoryn pulled him into a hug. Isaiah and Leo came over from the kitchen and gave him hugs, too.
“How was boot camp?” Isaiah asked.
“Pretty good,” Zeke said.
“You’re ripped, man.” Leo said, feeling Zeke’s arm muscles.
“Compared to you.”
They all laughed.
“Make any friends cooler than us?” Jacoryn asked.
Zeke shrugged. “They could compete.”
“Too bad you’ll never see them again.”
“I think I will, actually.”
“Really?” Leo asked.
“They all live sort of close. At least, when they get out of East Ridge.”
“You’ll have to introduce us,” Isaiah said.
Only if you’re not still jerks, Zeke thought.
“Wanna go play video games?” Jacoryn asked.
Zeke nodded, and they headed to the living room.
After a few rounds of Zombie Destroyers 3, in which Zeke failed miserably, he had the courage built up to tell his friends what was on his mind.
“Hey Zeke, maybe try not to die before we even see a zombie this time,” Leo teased.
Zeke forced a smile even though his stomach was churning. “Can I tell you guys something?” “Go for it,” Jacoryn said.
“Well, at East Ridge, a lot of things happened. Some of them were good, and some were honestly really bad. But the biggest thing was… well, I, um. I met this guy. His name is Israel. And I realized that… I’m gay.”
“What?” Jacoryn and Leo exclaimed.
“Are you dating the guy? Israel?” Isaiah asked.
Jacoryn and Leo seemed to be in shock.
“Good for you, man.” Isaiah said.
“Thanks, Isaiah,” Zeke said, desperately wishing that Jacoryn and Leo would say something.
“Are you sure? That you’re… gay?” Leo asked.
“I never thought you’d be into that. You’re into that?” “But girls are so great,” Jacoryn said. “You really don’t like girls?” Zeke shook his head.
“That’s so weird.” Leo said.
Zeke bit his lip, his ears burning.
“Hey,” Isaiah said sternly. “Just let Zeke be Zeke. What’s the problem?” “Were you ever into one of us?” Jacoryn asked.
Zeke cringed. Why did he have to assume that? “No.”
Jacoryn sighed in relief. “That would have been awkward.”
Leo nodded, his eyes big.
“Do we get to meet your boyfriend?” Isaiah asked.
“Of course,” Zeke said.
“Do you guys…” Leo started. “Do you guys, like, kiss and stuff?”
Zeke blushed. “We haven’t kissed yet, but I’m sure we will someday.”
“This is so weird.”
Isaiah hit his controller against his leg. “Stop saying that! It’s not any different than if one of us had a girlfriend.”
Zeke smiled at him gratefully.
“How is it not different?” Jacoryn asked. “It’s totally different. It doesn’t work. There aren’t the right holes and stuff. That’s not how it works.”
“It’s not different,” Isaiah insisted. “When you’re in love, you’re in love. So what if you have the same parts?”
“What, are you gay too?”
“No, but if I was, I wouldn’t want you freaking out like this. Look at Zeke, for God’s sake.”
Leo and Jacoryn looked at him.
Zeke stood up, his legs shaking. “I should go.”
“No, Zeke. It’s just—” Leo said.
“Weird. I know it is.” Zeke spat. He turned and ran out of the living room, only hesitating at the front door. Would things be better if he tried to stay and help them understand?
No, he decided. It was best to give them time.
He left Jacoryn’s house. His stomach hurt. His heart hurt. Loneliness creeped in.
No, Zeke told himself. Even if Jacoryn and Leo never talk to me again, I have my family and Isaiah and the Snickerdudels and Meric. Everything will be okay.
◊ ◊ ◊
Later that night, still feeling pretty terrible, Zeke checked his messenger.
Sorry I freaked -Cory
Me 2 -Leo
Its ok -Z
Its not. I rlly am sorry -Cory
Itll take som getting used 2 -Leo
Were still ur frinds Z -Iz
See, Zeke told himself, even if it’s not perfect, everything will be okay.