The next five days flew by, and Zeke discovered that waking up at five in the morning was even more difficult than he had expected. On his first day in school, he got detention for falling asleep in history class. Detention that day was what he had feared: cleaning the bathrooms.
Showering with other boys was disturbing. The only place Zeke ever dared to look was at the wall and at the soap dispensers. He learned to avoid the sinks, because they were only for guys who had already grown facial hair and needed to use the razors. Anyone else who dared to get close was likely to get ridiculed, and maybe beat up. Zeke couldn’t help but wonder what he was going to do if he needed to shave, because he couldn’t see himself pushing his way to one of the sinks and avoiding jabs and kicks from the older boys as he tried to focus on not cutting his face.
A few days after Zeke had arrived at East Ridge, another fourteen named Kelsey showed up. He was husky and had brown hair and acne across his forehead. Kelsey was always nervous about everything, and not just on the inside like Zeke. Zeke hadn’t seen him when he wasn’t sweating or shaking in fear.
As a newbie, workouts were easy. Instead of doing the morning runs and afternoon workouts with everyone else, they learned how to use the equipment and took baseline fitness tests. Though Zeke didn’t perform especially well on some of the tests, the man testing them didn’t ridicule him as much as he ridiculed Kelsey.
Teambuilding wasn’t as bad as Zeke had feared, because most of it was a bunch of games, kind of like the ones they had played on track and field day at Zeke’s elementary school. The lectures were boring and the staff must have known it, because they were constantly looking for people who were falling asleep to give them extra chores.
Even with that, counseling was the one thing that was truly awful. Mr. Janson was constantly trying to get into Zeke’s head and find out what his ‘goals for the future’ were, or how he felt about anything and everything. Zeke refused to talk until Headmaster Dawson was called in to tell him that Mr. Janson was just there to help him, and that it was in his contract that he had to see him until Mr. Janson said otherwise, so he might as well talk.
As far as Zeke was concerned, he hadn’t signed any contract. His dad had done that for him. So he gave Janson non-committal, one or two word answers that frustrated him, but kept him out of Zeke’s private thoughts.
Because Zeke had arrived late in February, he didn’t have a normal first visitation day. According to the orientation packet, most boys were assigned a time and an empty room in the visitation center to see their family. For newbies living in the visitation center, their visitors would come directly to their room and could stay the whole time, if they wanted. However, Zeke had gotten a letter from his parents telling him how sorry they were that they wouldn’t be showing up for visitation day this month, which he had mixed feelings about. He was glad he wouldn’t have to deal with his sister or his parents asking him questions, but he was also hurt. They could only see him once a month and they had something else to do? What inconsiderate jerks.
Zeke longed for a familiar face. He had no real friends — at least, not yet. Zeke wanted out of this place, but he didn’t want to go home to his father. He just wanted to start over somewhere nice.
He lay back on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Then, there was a knock on the door. Zeke sat up quickly, surprised. “Come in.”
A staff member in uniform swung open the door. Zeke grinned as Jacoryn, Isaiah, and Leo walked in. Knowing they couldn’t cause trouble here, Zeke was overjoyed to see them. He ran over to his three friends and pulled them all into a hug.
“Good to see you, Hallaway,” Jacoryn said.
“Looks like this place turned you into a big softie,” Isaiah said, laughing and pulling out of the hug.
“Dude, your hair is short,” Leo exclaimed, rubbing Zeke’s head.
“My dad forced me to cut it before I came.” Zeke said, looking nervously at the staff member standing in the doorway.
“Hey, will he leave?” Jacoryn whispered, following Zeke’s eyes.
Jacoryn’s mom stepped into the room, thanking the staff member for showing them the way. “I’ve been told you boys have until two o’clock. I’ll be in the lobby. Have fun. Good to see you, Zeke.” She smiled and waved at him, then left.
“See ya,” Jacoryn said. The boys watched the door close behind the staff member, then turned back to each other.
Isaiah’s eyes lit up. “Guess what Uncle Izzy brought.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The couple hours they had together were totally worth it. It was the most fun Zeke had had in awhile. By the time they had to leave, the boys had eaten a majority of the candy that Isaiah brought and had a firecracker war.
As Zeke and his friends picked up all of their trash, he felt a surge of gratitude. “Thanks guys. I had a great time.”
“No problemo, Zeke-O.” Leo said, his smile wavering. “I just wish we didn’t have to wait another month to see you.”
“Yeah,” Jacoryn agreed. “C’mon, though. We won’t let this stupid boot camp tear us apart.”
“Cory’s right,” Isaiah said firmly. “We’ll see you sooner than you know it, Zeke.”
Zeke nodded, and the door opened. A staff member was there to lead his friends away.
“Stay strong, Z.” Leo whispered. Jacoryn and Isaiah waved and the door closed.
Zeke sat down on his bed, looking at the candy wrapper in his hand and wishing his friends didn’t have to go.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next day, Sunday, Zeke was called to Headmaster Dawson’s office. His week as a newbie in the visitation center was over. It was time to bunk with older boys for a week. He picked up his uniform and his bags and crossed his fingers, praying that he would get to bunk with Meric. When he entered the office, his heart sank. There were six boys, all bigger than Zeke, with mean faces. None of them were Meric.
“Hello, Zeke,” Headmaster Dawson said cheerfully. “Meet your new bunkmates.” He pointed at a tall, black guy with small ears and a hard face. “This is Charles Thurman.”
The guy smiled at Zeke, but Zeke saw no friendliness in his eyes. “You can call me Chuck.”
“And these guys are Bryan Sanchez, Alan Kerwood, Orlando Hendricks, Kanton Spriggs, and William Count,” Headmaster Dawson said.
“Liam,” the only white guy said. His teeth were egg yolk yellow, and Zeke nearly gagged imagining what his breath smelled like.
“I expect you boys to show Zeke everything he needs to know in the next week, understand?”
“Yes sir,” Chuck said, grinning at Zeke. Malice danced in his eyes and Zeke gulped.
Zeke followed them out of Headmaster Dawson’s office and to their cabin. They made dirty jokes and shoved each other into other boys, laughing loudly. Their cabin had a Pirates flag, a Wolves flag, a Manticores flag, and a red flag with a black stripe. Zeke also noticed a black trash bag covering the window and thought, if one of them punched it, they really must have issues.
Chuck ushered Zeke into the cabin, then the other guys pushed through the door and surrounded him.
“Here’s how it’s gonna be,” Chuck said as Liam shut the door. “You’re gonna do what we say, and when you’re not doing stuff for us, you stay out of our way.”
Zeke nodded, trying not to look as scared as he was.
“Now drop and give me fifty!” Chuck yelled.
Zeke put his bags and his uniform on the ground, then dropped and started doing push-ups.
“Faster,” the boys jeered. “Look at him shake, look at those noodle arms.”
Zeke’s face flushed and red-hot anger took over his vision as they tried to swipe his hands out from under him, still laughing. Thankfully, the rush of adrenaline helped Zeke finish his push-ups. He stood, not hiding his hatred for them. One of the other black guys, Kanton, grabbed him by his shirt collar and pulled Zeke close to his face. “We don’t wanna see you again until lunch when we have to sit with you, ya hear?”
“Yes,” Zeke spat. Kanton dropped him and kicked his bags and his previously spotless unifrom towards an empty bunk. Zeke grabbed his duffel bag and his uniform and left the cabin to go wash his clothes. He wanted to cry, but he didn’t have a place where he could be alone anymore. There would be no more crying. How was he going to survive a week with those jerks?
The visitation center seemed empty until Zeke entered the laundry room. There weren’t any open machines, so he asked a small kid, probably an eleven, if he could use the machine after he was done. The kid nodded, and Zeke sat down on a bench and watched the clothes swirl around and around.
“Hey Zeke,” a shaky voice said. Zeke looked up, and Kelsey was standing next to him. “Can I sit?”
Kelsey sat down heavily. “You got moved to a cabin with… big kids, didn’t you?”
Zeke nodded. He was too upset to make fun of Kelsey’s use of the phrase ‘big kids.’
“I’m scared of them.”
“You should be.”
“What’d they do to you?”
Zeke told Kelsey about the boys in his cabin and how they treated him.
“I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die when I have to bunk with them. What am I gonna do?” Kelsey asked, scrunching up his face.
Zeke wondered if he was about to cry. Maybe it had been mean to tell him the truth so bluntly when he clearly wasn’t ready for it. “Nah Kelsey, I’ll help you out.”
Zeke shrugged. Being nice was not his area of expertise.
Kelsey left Zeke to find a machine, and the younger kid Zeke had been waiting for waved at him as he pulled his clothes out of the washer.
Once Zeke’s clothes were done, he shoved them back in the bag and put his uniform on the hanger. He figured he should iron the pants, but the other boys were rushing to lunch, so Zeke ran back to his cabin and put his clothes on his bunk. Then he ran back to the mess hall, grabbed food, and looked around for Chuck and his gang.
“Hey loser,” Liam called. Zeke trudged over to where they were sitting and sat down. Kanton and Orlando were arm wrestling, reminding Zeke of Thanksgiving at his friend Leo’s house, where his life had started to go downhill. Liam reached over and took Zeke’s apple, but after that, his bunkmates ignored him.
Zeke looked around, noticing that there was a crowd gathering around the end of one of the 13-16 tables. Most of the crowd was laughing or chanting, and Zeke wanted to know what was going on, but he was too scared of what would happen if he got up. He hoped that it wasn’t a fight. It had only been a week, but he had seen a lot of fighting already.
When the buzzer that signaled the end of lunch rang out, Zeke lost his bunkmates in the crowd and headed out to the baseball fields. The 17-18s played on the weekend, so Zeke figured that Meric would be there watching. After looking around for a bit, Zeke found him at the East Diamond. He tapped Meric on the shoulder and he turned towards Zeke, a smile spreading across his face, “Zeke, good to see you. We both got here too late to find a spot on the bleachers.”
Zeke laughed and nodded, glancing at the overflowing bleachers.
“Guys, this is my friend Zeke Hallaway,” Meric said to the boys on the other side of him. “Zeke, these are a couple of my bunkmates.”
“I’m Spencer,” the short blond guy said. He wore a tank top that allowed his huge biceps to show. Zeke wondered how he wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too bad out, but it definitely wasn’t tank top weather. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Zeke said quickly.
“I’m Zoren,” a slightly chubby Latino guy said.
“He’s practically too gay to function,” Spencer said. Zoren rolled his eyes and punched Spencer’s arm. “Seriously, I told you to stop saying that.” He looked back at Zeke and smiled apologetically. “I’m the perfectly functional gay friend.”
“I’m Wyatt,” the tallest boy, who had his brown hair buzzed short, said. “We all play for the Tigers. You gonna play baseball?’
“The Tigers are the best. Don’t you forget it.”
Zeke smiled. “I won’t.”
“You know who’s playing?” Zoren asked.
Zeke shook his head.
“These are the best seventeen and eighteen teams, the Red Socks and the Legends. The Legends are winning by a run, but it’s only the second inning. The Red Socks have time.”
“Either that or we’re looking at a huge upset. The Socks were undefeated for three months straight last season.” Meric said.
They watched in silence for a bit, then Zeke asked, “Are there any fourteens on your team?”
“We have four. Davangelo, Hayes, Runcorn, and Winship. All but Runcorn are great. They play more than Zoren.”
“I’m not that great,” Zoren said. “I never played before I came here.”
“Yeah, but our captain, Antonio, saw promise when you tried out,” Spencer said, “And he was right, as far as batting goes.”
They laughed. “I swear Zoren,” Wyatt said, “you couldn’t catch a ball if your glove was as big as the mess hall.”
“Who are your bunkmates?” Meric asked Zeke.
“For now, Chuck Thurman and company.” Zeke said.
Meric groaned. “Those guys are jerks. There’s a reason their cabin isn’t full. They’re good at acting all goody-two-shoes in front of the teachers, but otherwise they’re awful. You should see them when they’re out on the diamond.”
“But aren’t there cameras everywhere?” Zeke asked.
“They don’t pay that close attention.”
“Plus, Chuck and his friends, they not that smart.” Spencer said, crossing his eyes and putting out his front teeth. Everyone laughed.
“Hey, it’s one o’clock.” Wyatt said.
Meric shrugged. “Sorry Zeke, we gotta go meet up with some people to do projects for school. See you later?” Zeke nodded, “See ya.”
Meric and his friends left, leaving Zeke feeling lonelier than ever. Without them to talk to, the game hardly seemed interesting anymore. Zeke headed over to the West Diamond to see who was playing. There he noticed a group of boys his age in the middle of the bleachers making catcalls, laughing, and seeming to be having a better time than everyone else.
“Hey Moss, why don’t you go soak up your teammates’ tears? Their loser tears,” one of the boys called. The others laughed at him.
“What is that supposed to mean?” one of the boys, a white guy with short dark hair asked, laughing so hard that his face turned red.
“Shake that booty,” another guy yelled to the guy at the batter’s plate. The batter turned around and flipped him off.
“Gettin’ saucy, are we?”
Zeke couldn’t help but laugh.
The same kid, a skinny black guy, stood up and started waving his arms and shaking his hips. The Asian kid behind him laughed with his muscular arms crossed. “I dance the jungle dance for the Jaguars,” the black kid said, raising his arms to the sky and shaking his whole body, then collapsing down. “I call on the pussy gods, erm, excuse me, the almighty cat gods and ask that the Jaguars hold their amazing record of last place!”
Everyone in the bleachers burst out laughing, but the boys in the dugout closest to him, who Zeke figured were the Jaguars, ran out towards him, yelling and waving their arms. The crowd pushed them back, and the Asian guy pulled the black kid into a seat.
Zeke smiled to himself. Those boys seemed like people he could be friends with.
◊ ◊ ◊
On Wednesday, Kelsey was moved to the cabin with Zeke, Chuck, and his gang. As Zeke had expected, the torture got worse because Chuck and his buddies loved it when Kelsey whimpered and cried.
Even though the boys were meaner, having Kelsey by his side somehow made it easier for Zeke to get through it all. Zeke grew closer with Kelsey and spent less time seeking out Meric and his friends, who could be hard to find, anyway.
In school, Zeke struggled to keep up, even though the classes went slower than they did at home. The problem was, he had relied on copying his friend Jed’s homework for years, and now he had no clue what was going on. He had to work very hard to keep his grades — but mostly his math grade — at a C, because if it slipped to a D or F Zeke would be forced to spend his rec time before dinner in a study hall. Unfortunately, the only real friend Zeke had in his grade was Kelsey, and he was no help. He struggled with all of his classes even more than Zeke.
There was one other boy, who was in four of Zeke’s seven classes, who was always nice to him and woke him up before the teacher noticed when he fell asleep. He had dirty blond hair — or was it brown hair with highlights? — brown eyes, and very dark tan skin. Zeke learned that his name was Israel, and Israel was super smart. He could even tell when Zeke was struggling in math without him having to say it, and he’d stop working on his own paper and help Zeke. Zeke had never seen him talk to anyone else, but Zeke started wishing that Israel talked to him more.
After Israel started helping him, Zeke spent a lot of time trying to pass on the help to Kelsey. It didn’t matter what subject it was, the kid was always about to cry. Zeke tried to be nice, but Kelsey was so slow and frustrating that Zeke found himself snapping and occasionally telling Kelsey how hopeless he was. Zeke always felt awful after he said it, but he couldn’t bring himself to apologize except by just giving Kelsey the answer.
Zeke decided that teambuilding was his favorite part of East Ridge, besides the baseball, of course. His favorite activity was called ‘The Wall,’ where the group of boys had to get everyone over a ten-foot wall. The trick was, each boy could only lift or pull someone up so many times, so there had to be at least one person who got over the wall by themselves. Something about the challenges and the way most of the boys banded together and genuinely tried to solve them just made Zeke happy.
With Kelsey, the lectures were tolerable. They sat in the back, and Zeke made snarky comments about whatever character trait was being spotlighted to Kelsey, who would try to come up with his own, and they’d resist laughing the best they could. Once they laughed so loudly that they got detention, and Zeke found himself doing endless sprints across the blacktop. Even though he nearly puked, he figured that it was better than repeatedly gagging like he had when he cleaned the bathroom.
On Sunday, Zeke’s last day in the cabin with Chuck and his goons, he headed down to the diamonds, kicking at the grass. He had no friends that could let him bunk in their cabin, so he was going to get thrown in with another random lot of boys. He just hoped they were nicer than Chuck’s gang.
At the East Diamond, Zeke spotted Israel sitting in the middle of the bleachers alone. There were sweatshirts spread out around him to save spots, but as far as Zeke knew, Israel didn’t have any friends. He took a deep breath and approached him.
“Hey, can I sit here?”
Israel looked up, his eyes big. “Hi, yeah, you can.” He moved a sweatshirt away from him and Zeke sat down. “A little cold, huh?”
Israel nodded. “I’m wearing my rec jacket under my sweatshirt.”
Zeke laughed and watched as Israel’s carefully combed hair blew in the wind. Israel put a hand up to flatten it. “I don’t really like baseball.”
“I thought everyone here was hooked.”
“Almost everyone,” Israel said, the corner of his mouth twitching into a smile. “Not me and Ember. But sometimes we can be convinced to come to games.”
“One of my bunkmates. The other guys like baseball a lot, so they convince us to come sometimes.”
“Oh.” Zeke adjusted his Timbers hat and looked up at the scoreboard. “The Ravens are beating the Legends? Never thought I’d see that.” Meric had told him that the Legends were way better than that.
“Neither did I, since I don’t care to watch them,” Israel said, chuckling. Zeke smiled at him.
“Hey,” a voice said loudly. Zeke and Israel looked up. A group of boys, including the Asian kid and the black kid Zeke had seen at other games, were approaching.
“Those are my bunkmates,” Israel said. Zeke raised his eyebrows. He never would’ve guessed that Israel — quiet Israel — would bunk with these guys.
“You got Izzy talking?” the Asian kid asked, grinning. Zeke winced at Izzy. It reminded him of Isaiah and of home, which was not something he needed to think about. “Who are you, man?” He picked up the sweatshirt next to Zeke and sat down.
“I’m Zeke Hallaway.”
He regarded Zeke for a second, then said, “I’m Pax.”
“Izzy, how come you talk to him more than you talk to me?” A boy with a round, childish face and long, dirty blond hair said.
Israel shrugged and smiled. The boy with long hair sat down in front of them, along with the skinny black kid, a ginger, and the white kid with dark hair.
“So, who are the rest of them?” Zeke whispered to Israel, who tapped Pax and pointed to the boys.
“That’s Amoni,” he said, pointing to the black kid, “Gray,” the kid with long hair, “Ember,” the red-head, “and Deven,” the white guy with dark hair.
Zeke nodded and turned his head back to the scoreboard. The Ravens were barely winning now. The game continued on slowly and uneventfully, and Gray began getting restless.
“Yo Gray,” Amoni said, elbowing him playfully. “Why are there no Mexicans in hell?”
“Because they all jumped the border.”
Gray giggled, and everyone who had heard the joke was laughing, except Zeke. He had heard the same joke from Leo and Isaiah many times over.
“Hey,” a gruff voice said from behind Zeke. He turned around to see a huge Hispanic guy glaring daggers at Amoni, who mouthed “Oh shit, oh shit.” “You didn’t happen to find that offensive, did you?” he asked.
“I happened to find it very offensive.” The guy, who Zeke assumed was Mexican American, said. He began cracking his knuckles.
Thinking quickly, Zeke turned to Israel. “I didn’t even know Mexicans could get that fat. Aren’t they supposed to be able to jump really high? I’m not sure he could get off—”
The Mexican grabbed Zeke by his collar and lifted him nearly off the bleachers. “Care to say that again?”
Zeke’s hands curled into a fist. All his anger and frustration from the past weeks surged forward. “I didn’t know Mexicans got that fat.”
The guy dropped him. Before he could do anything else, Zeke popped up and punched him in the face. It felt so good to get his hands dirty. The Mexican guy’s leg came up from nowhere and connected with Zeke’s crotch. He fell to the bleachers, and the kid stomped and kicked again and again. The last thing Zeke saw was Pax and Deven above him, pushing at Zeke’s attacker.
◊ ◊ ◊
Zeke lay in bed that night, angrier than ever. This time mostly at himself. He had been doing so well not getting into trouble, but then he had gone and let his anger control him. Not only had he been assigned extra counseling time for a week, but Headmaster Dawson had been very upset with him and Zeke still had no friends to bunk with. Instead, he had made an enemy. The headmaster would probably choose the worst boys for him to bunk with now.
The small possibility that he would get decent bunkmates was the only hope Zeke had for tomorrow, and the rest of his time at East Ridge. He worried about Kelsey spending the next couple days alone in the torture cabin and where he would end up afterwards. There were just so many bad possibilities.
When the alarm went off in the morning, Zeke hurried out of the cabin to avoid the other boys and got to his spot in the attendance block a few minutes early.
Zeke looked up to see Israel standing next to him. He scratched his head, grimacing. “Look… Sorry about yesterday.”
Israel laughed. “You saved Amoni and you’re sorry? Why, because you’re all bruised?”
Zeke smiled. “Yeah. They do hurt a lot, you know.” He hadn’t thought of his fight as saving Amoni. All he had been able to focus on was the fact that he let his anger get away from him.
“I asked Pax to tell Headmaster Dawson that you can bunk with us.”
“What?” Zeke asked, but the whistle blew and Israel was gone. Zeke stood up straight and stared at the boy in front of him as staff members walked by with clipboards, a smile creeping onto his face. Never in a million years had he expected to bunk with people he actually liked.
◊ ◊ ◊
At lunch, Israel led Zeke to the corner of the table Zeke had seen a crowd gathering around multiple times.
“Hey, it’s the dude who saved my butt,” Amoni called, pointing at Zeke. Israel sat down, and Zeke followed his lead.
“Maybe next time you’ll check to see who’s around you before you make a joke like that,” Deven said to Amoni, who rolled his eyes.
“Do you have bruises?” Gray asked, his eyes wide. The plate in front of him was already empty. “Do they hurt? I can get you some ice.”
Zeke shook his head. “They don’t hurt that bad. I don’t need ice.”
Gray reached across the table and poked Zeke in the sides, making Zeke gasp with pain.
“Ooh, which side was it? I guessed the right area. I think they really do hurt. Are you sure you don’t want some ice?”
“They only hurt if you touch them,” Zeke said through clenched teeth.
“He’s very hyperactive,” Ember said, pushing his glasses up his nose like a classic nerd. “He claims he’s never been diagnosed, but I just know he has ADHD.”
Israel laughed silently behind his hand.
“What’s so funny?” Ember demanded. Israel shrugged, still grinning.
“Hey Gray, you got the money from yesterday?” Amoni asked.
“Yep,” Gray said. He pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket. Zeke raised his eyebrows. How the heck had they gotten so much money?
“Hey,” Pax said, dropping his tray next to Zeke and sitting down. “Israel told you?”
“Where were you, man?” Deven asked.
Pax shook his head. “Talking to someone.”
Zeke went back to eating, trying not to feel overwhelmed. There was so much that he didn’t know about these people.
“You know,” Pax said, picking at his food, “there’s something about you, Zeke.”
“Like… what?” Zeke asked. All of his new cabinmates stared at him and he could feel his ears burning.
“Well, I mean, for one, Izzy talks to you. You saved Amoni from getting his ass kicked, and you don’t even know him. He actually probably even deserved it.”
“Hey,” Amoni said, laughing.
“Plus,” Deven said, “Ember hasn’t barfed on you, so that’s a good sign.”
The other boys laughed.
Zeke shifted uncomfortably, feeling out of place. “Look, you don’t have to let me bunk with you just because I got beat up for Amoni or whatever. That was no big deal.”
“That was a big deal, and we aren’t asking you to bunk with us just because of that.” Pax said. Zeke looked over and saw a crowd gathering around Amoni and Gray on the other side of the table.
“What’s going on?” Zeke asked.
“They took bets on the outcome of the game yesterday,” Deven said. “They’re gonna make a lot of money. No one expected the Ravens to win.”
At that moment, Zeke realized that Pax and Deven were wearing baseball uniforms. He felt dumb for not noticing before, but it was early and he always felt foggy before the sugar from breakfast actually started giving him energy. They must have been fast runners to have time to shower and change before breakfast. Deven was a Wolf, and Pax was a Tiger. “You’re on Meric’s team?” Zeke asked Pax.
“You know Meric?” Pax said.
“Yeah, he was the one who gave me the tour. Him and his friends are nice.”
“Meric’s a great guy.”
“You bunked with Alan, Orlando, and Kanton, right?” Deven asked.
“Unfortunately,” Zeke said.
Deven nodded. “I’m on their team. Also unfortunate.”
“You should hear them yell at games,” Pax said. “They get angry- competitive. Like, to the point that they’ve beat up their own teammates. The three of them have to take turns being captain because usually one or two of them at a time are suspended for bad sportsmanship.”
Zeke shook his head and kept eating. He turned around, searching the cafeteria, then spotted poor Kelsey eating with Chuck and his goons. Zeke turned back to his future cabin mates and counted heads. Including himself, there were seven of them, and eight boys fit in a cabin. “You guys really want me to bunk with you?”
Pax, Deven, Israel, and Ember nodded. Amoni and Gray were too distracted collecting money.
Zeke smiled. “Then I will. On one condition.”
◊ ◊ ◊
After seventh period, Zeke was called down to Headmaster Dawson’s office. He knew it was just to make his bunking plans official, but his heart still raced as he walked down the hall. He didn’t want to talk about the fight again.
Before heading to the office, Zeke decided to run to Chuck’s cabin to grab his bags. Kelsey was there lying on his bed, his tie loosened but still around his neck.
“Meet me outside the mess hall in like, five minutes.” Zeke said.
“What, why?” Kelsey asked, but Zeke was already out the door.
He ran across the grass, then across the blacktop, and then he hurried through the halls of the visitation center. In front of Headmaster Dawson’s office, Zeke stopped and took a deep breath.Then he knocked on the door.
Zeke opened the door. Inside, his new bunkmates grinned at him.
“You’re late,” the headmaster said.
“Sorry sir, I—”
“I don’t want to hear your excuse.”
Zeke clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to ball his fists.
“I expect you’ve already met, since Mr. Davangelo asked to bunk with you.”
Zeke and Pax nodded.
The headmaster reminded them of the importance of working together to keep the cabin clean and to make sure everyone got to workouts and to bed on time, then he sent them off to get ready for afternoon workouts.
“Hey,” Zeke said, catching up to Pax as they left the office. “I hope you don’t mind, but I told Kelsey to meet me outside the mess hall so he could meet you guys.”
“Great, that’s good thinking.”
“What does he look like?” Gray asked. “Because what if there’s more than one guy standing there? What if we greet an impostor?”
“Shut up, man,” Deven said, smiling and giving Gray a small shove.
“It’ll be fine,” Zeke promised.
“Hey Gray, knock knock,” Amoni said.
“Who’s there?” Gray asked.
Amoni reached out and slapped him. “KGB! Ve vill be asking the questions.”
Gray held his cheek where Amoni hit him, stunned. “Hey…”
Amoni made a goofy face at him, then turned around and almost ran into the wall. They turned down another hallway, and Gray let go of his cheek and started laughing.
“Did you get the joke?” Amoni asked hopefully.
“No,” he giggled, “But it was fun-nee.”
Zeke laughed along with the others. “How is it funny if you didn’t get it?”
“Gray laughs at just about anything, but mostly things he doesn’t understand,” Amoni explained.
“That’s why he laughs at his homework all the time,” Ember said.
They walked through the mess hall and Zeke spotted Kelsey standing outside.
“What kind of name is Kelsey for a guy?” Amoni asked.
“What kind of name is Amoni in general?” Deven said.
“Says the guy named ‘Pax.’”
Pax led them out the door, and Zeke made his way through the group to stand by Kelsey, who looked terrified. “These are gonna be your bunkmates,” Zeke told him.
“How do you know?” Kelsey asked.
“Because I got them to ask for you. Say thanks.”
“You mean we’re bunking with… baseball players?” Kelsey said in disbelief. The other boys laughed and introduced themselves before hurrying off to their cabin because they didn’t have much time to change before workouts.
“This one up here,” Ember said, pointing to a cabin with a red flag with a black stripe, a Wolves flag, and a Tigers flag.
“What’s that on the door?” Zeke asked.
“We told Gray that we didn’t need one, because no one would understand,” Deven said.
“And no one does.”
“But he made it anyway,” Pax finished.
“Isn’t it great?” Gray exclaimed, running up to the door.
Zeke was still confused. “A sign for what?”
“For us.” Israel said. “The Snickerdudels.”
“It’s kinda what we call ourselves. We’ll explain later,” Pax said.
They went inside and changed quickly. Before they left, Israel tapped Zeke on the shoulder and pointed to the bunk above his own.
Zeke looked up at it, where there were some fresh sheets folded on top of a pillow. “You want me to—”
Israel nodded. Zeke smiled at him and put his bags on the bed. “Thanks.”
They made it to the blacktop just in time for workouts to start.
“Listen up,” a staff member said through a bullhorn. “Workouts for the nine through twelves are inside today. Thirteen through sixteens, head over to the east running path, seventeens and eighteens to the west. Today we’ll be opening the path to a five mile run.”
“Last time we did this I almost died,” Amoni said.
“Because you tried to sprint the whole way,” Ember said condescendingly.
“Isn’t the east path the one the nine through twelves normally use for morning runs?” Zeke asked as the crowd began pushing them away from the blacktop.
“Yeah,” Pax said. “There’s a gate that opens up where we normally loop around.”
Zeke had seen it before, and he had always wondered why it was there. “This better be the only thing we’re doing for workouts.”
“Oh, it is. It’s leg day, boys,” Amoni said, jumping on Gray.
“I don’t know if I can make it five miles.” Zeke said, his stomach getting that fluttery nervous feeling. “I always feel awful after the morning runs.”
“Dude, your two-mile time is in the top fifty. You’re up there with the Pax-man,” Amoni said.
Zeke had never checked the rankings, which were posted outside the showers every morning, but he still didn’t believe Amoni.
“That’s why you feel like crap,” Pax said. “When most people come here, they start way down low. Not you. You’ve been pushing hard since the beginning.”
“Yeah Zeke, you’re doing great. You’re no slow poke like me,” Deven said.
“I hate exercise, so I choose not to try.” Ember said.
Deven rolled his eyes and whispered, “He just says that to excuse his lousy ranking.”
“If Amoni and Gray cared, they could be in the top fifty, too,” Pax told Zeke. “A lot of kids are scared to be in the top fifty because some of the older kids are more likely to hate you and maybe beat you up once they find out who you are. The guys who have been here for years either treat the rankings like the end of the world or they never look at them, so you never know what you might get.”
“And, because of your ranking, you’re also likely to get recruited to play baseball. Amoni and Gray love making jokes at the games, but neither of them have any desire to play, so being in the top fifty isn’t that important to them.”
“I don’t have good coordination,” Gray said. “One time I tried to catch a ball and I gave myself a bloody nose.”
“Because the ball hit you?” Zeke asked.
“No, because I punched myself trying to catch it.”
“Did you know there are only sixteen people ages thirteen to fifteen in our top fifty?” Ember said. “Zeke, Pax, Justus Hausmann, and some other baseball guys.”
“You really should go out for baseball, Zeke,” Pax said as they reached the first gate, where the runs always began. A lot of boys were already lined up at the front of the broad path.
Zeke’s heart raced as they lined up in the back. They were some of the last boys to get there, which would probably make it more difficult to get a good ranking in the first place, but he still didn’t believe that he could run five whole miles.
“You should probably stay with Israel this time,” Ember advised. “Pax will be too fast, Gray and Amoni too goofy, and Deven and I too slow.”
“Thanks.” Zeke said. He nodded at Israel, who smiled.
“Remember boys,” a staff member said over a bull horn, “this is about doing your personal best. It’s not about beating anyone, and it’s not about friendship. Getting a good time for yourself is what will lead to the most satisfaction for you and your personal fitness. With that in mind, go!”
Zeke stayed next to Israel as everyone began running. Just about everyone was in front of them, including Gray, Amoni, Pax, and Deven.
“They’re starting too fast,” Israel said. Zeke’s footsteps fell into rhythm with Israel’s, and it wasn’t long until they started passing people.
At the one-mile mark, where the boys would turn around during morning runs, they passed through a gate onto a less beaten, shadier path. Soon, Zeke and Israel were running next to Gray and Amoni.
“Pax,” Amoni said, breathing heavily, “is pretty far up… with Meric and Spencer.”
Not long after, Gray and Amoni fell behind Zeke and Israel. Just past the three-mile marker, Zeke got a stitch in his side. His breathing got heavier.
“Think about something else,” Israel said. “A song or something.”
The only one coming to Zeke’s mind was Old MacDonald, but it would have to do.
Neither of them talked for the rest of the run, and before Zeke knew it, they were back where they had started. Zeke whooped and jumped on Israel’s back, making him stagger and nearly fall before Zeke slid off. They moved to the side, out of the way of everyone finishing the run, to wait for Amoni and Gray to show up.
Zeke and Israel both jumped and turned around to see Pax, who was laughing. They both reached out to push him, and he almost fell over. Then it was Zeke and Israel’s turn to laugh.
“There’s Gray and Ammo,” Pax said. He waved, and they hurried over to him.
“We were messing with Bryan Sanchez, trying to slow him down,” Amoni said, laughing and leaning over to catch his breath.
“He tripped over me, and that’s how we got away.” Gray said. “We could hear him wasting his breath to yell at us the rest of the run.”
“You guys are gonna get killed,” Pax said.
“It was worth it,” Amoni said, high-fiving Gray. They started dancing around, and Zeke couldn’t help but laugh.
By the time Deven and Ember showed up, Gray and Amoni were laying on the ground pointing at clouds.
“Kelsey’s not far behind,” Deven said, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. His shirt was soaked.
“Does Kelsey always cry so much?” Ember whispered to Zeke as they saw Kelsey coming over to them.
“I hope they aren’t mean to me when we get back to the cabin,” Kelsey said, his lip trembling. “I can barely walk. My legs feel like spaghetti.”
“Well don’t let them hear you say that,” Zeke said.
“Sit down and stretch with me,” Pax said, and Kelsey did, wiping his eyes.
Back at Zeke’s new cabin, everyone except Pax and Deven, who put on their baseball uniforms, changed into their rec clothes. Before Pax and Deven left, they tidied their bunks and did some of their homework.
“I’ll grab the chore assignments,” Ember said when they were gone. He went over and leaned out the door to grab them from the mailbox.
“So, with baseball, Pax and Deven have less chores, don’t they?” Zeke asked.
Ember nodded and gave everyone their assignments. Zeke was assigned to sweep the mess hall. He groaned. Playing baseball was sounding pretty good.
“What’s your job?” Amoni asked.
“I have to sweep the mess hall.”
“That’s not bad.”
“Don’t pretend like you don’t complain about it,” Ember said.
Israel handed Zeke his paper, which assigned him to sweeping the mess hall as well. “Nice. Now it won’t be so bad, right?”
“It’s usually a two-person job.” Ember said. “And two other people follow you with mops so you always feel rushed.”
“Great.” Zeke and Israel headed out the door on their shaky five-mile legs. “The mess hall is huge. I think it’s probably like more of a four-person job.”
Israel shrugged. “You have to think about it. There are a lot of guys playing baseball, lots of guys in study hall, more in detention, and probably a lot of jobs to be done.”
Zeke heard a lawn mower start up in the distance.
“An eighteen always does that job.” Israel said. “They line the baseball fields, too. Supposedly they’re the most trustworthy.”
“I wouldn’t trust Chuck Thurman or any of his friends to do that when they’re eighteen.”
“Me neither. From what I’ve heard though, one of them is leaving soon.”
“Their contract was for four years and it’s about to expire.”
Zeke let out a low whistle. “I can’t even imagine being here for a year.”
“I can’t either. I’m signed up for a year, and that already seems like a long time.”
“Same, I think.”
“So I’ll be gone before you.”
Zeke frowned. He hadn’t thought about that. “Will any of you guys be here until my time is up?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
“Who’s been here the longest?”
“All I know is that Ember, Pax, and Amoni were already here when I showed up. They had three other bunkmates when I started bunking with them, but they’re either home or with the seventeens and eighteens now.”
“I just can’t imagine how much your parents would have to hate you to send you here for more than a year. Mine already hate me so much.”
“If you love someone, let them go.”
“That’s some straight bullshit.”
Israel didn’t say anything else before they got to the mess hall. Zeke jumped ahead of him and blocked the doors. “All right, what’d I say?”
Israel shook his head and tried to push past him.
“Really dude, c’mon.” Zeke begged. “Just tell me.”
“My parents didn’t send me here because they hate me, and neither did yours.”
“Maybe yours didn’t, but mine did. My dad framed me and my friends for murder. He wants nothing to do with me.”
Israel’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, I still think he was just trying to do what’s best for you.”
“What’s best for me is not some goddamn boot camp.” Zeke said, pushing through the doors and into the mess hall. He grabbed a broom that was leaning against the wall and started sweeping. The boys in charge of mopping were nowhere to be seen.
“Maybe it’s not what you think is best, but it’s what your dad thought was best.” Israel said, coming up next to Zeke with his own broom.
“Well it’s my life to live, not his.” Zeke snapped.
Israel didn’t say anything else, and neither did Zeke. He was too busy fuming. They were halfway done before the mopping boys showed up, and they finished their job before the moppers were halfway across the floor.
As they were leaning their brooms up against the wall, Zeke realized that he had calmed down. In reality, he hadn’t been angry with Israel at all, like he had initially thought. He had really been angry with his family and his friends from home and himself. “Sorry I snapped,” Zeke said as he and Israel headed for the door.
Israel hesitated. “It’s okay. I think a lot of us had some bad things happen before we came here.”
Zeke nodded and scratched his neck. “You got any homework?” “No, you?”
“Nope.” He stopped and shook out his legs. “Race you.”
Israel smiled. “Oh, it’s on.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Amoni and Gray had saved them spots on the bleachers. The Wolves and the Tigers were playing each other, so they could watch Pax, Deven, Meric, Zoren, Spencer, and Wyatt all play in one place.
The game was a lot of fun, and not just because the Tigers were barely winning, which made Kanton, Alan, and Orlando very angry, but because of Gray and Amoni.
“Yoohoo, Alan Boy,” Amoni called in a scary falsetto after Alan had struck out inning after inning. “Yo momma’s callin’, and she’s telling you to actually try to hit the ball this time!”
Orlando and Kanton told the ump to get Amoni to shut up, and when he wouldn’t, they told him that he was the reason the Wolves were losing.
“Didn’t know I could not play and still have so much influence,” Amoni said, laughing and leaning back contentedly.
In the seventh inning, Zoren and Jordan Hayes both hit home runs, bringing the Tigers’ lead up from one run to three. By that time, Alan, Orlando, and Kanton were more focused on yelling at the ump than playing. Just before the game ended, Alan got kicked out. Deven, who was playing right field, caught the last out of the game, sparing his team further embarrassment.
“Nice job, Dev,” Amoni yelled, clapping his hands. He turned back to Zeke and the others and stood up. “Let’s get off these bleachers.”
Zeke and his bunkmates followed Amoni over to the Tigers’ dugout, where they waited for Pax to stop talking to people and come out to head to dinner with them.
“Thanks for coming to watch, guys,” Meric said to Zeke, Israel, Ember, Amoni, and Gray when he emerged from the dugout.
“I only came because both Deven and Pax were playing.” Ember said, sniffing. “Otherwise I would be doing something that actually benefits me.”
Meric laughed and pulled Zeke aside. “Hey,” he said, looking to make sure the others were distracted. “So no one—and I mean no one—knows this, but our captain is about to move up to the seventeen and eighteens. That opens a spot, and since he’s been letting me transition into being captain, I’m inviting you to try out.”
Zeke raised his eyebrows. “You sure?”
“Just think about it,” Meric said, grinning. Spencer called his name, and Meric turned and walked away.
Zeke went back to his friends, where Pax and Deven had joined them, and they headed to dinner. He thought about Meric’s offer, not ready to decide one way or another.
“You had a good game,” Pax said to Deven.
“I had a crap game,” Deven spat.
“Nah man, the rest of your team had a crap game,” Amoni said.
“Well, my crap team has another game after dinner. You guys don’t need to come see us embarrass ourselves again.”
“We’ll be there,” Gray said happily.
“I’ll be in bed.” Ember mumbled.
“Sorry Deven, but me and Zeke have business to take care of,” Pax said.
Deven nodded, and Israel looked questioningly at Zeke, who shrugged. He had no idea what Pax wanted, but he was learning to go with the flow.
After eating and joking around at dinner, Deven was in a better mood. “We are only playing the Sluggers, anyway. We should be able to beat the last place team.”
They all laughed.
“The only decent player the Sluggers have is that thirteen Tommy Arkwright,” Pax assured him. “It’ll be an easy game.”
“Yeah, and he only went to them because the Jets took José Perez over him.” Gray said.
“Who’s José Perez?” Zeke asked.
“No one special,” Amoni said, chuckling. “The Jets should’ve taken Tommy.”
“Zeke, you done eating?” Pax asked, putting his fork down on his tray.
“Yeah,” Zeke said, glancing at his creamed corn. He was still hungry, but the stuff made him feel like he was going to barf.
“Then let’s go. Wanna come, Izzy?”
Israel got up and followed Zeke and Pax out of the mess hall and into the laundry room.
“Where’re we going?” Zeke asked.
“Store room,” Pax said. “We gotta get you a baseball glove.”
“They have those there?”
“Of course. How do you think we play baseball? Your first one is free. After that you gotta buy ’em.” Pax opened the door that led down to the storage room and held it for Zeke and Israel.
“How am I supposed to buy one?” Zeke asked, following Israel down the stairs.
Zeke laughed. “Where am I supposed to get that?”
“Your parents. Or betting. But betting without money is a good way to get beat up.”
“By Amoni and Gray?”
Pax and Israel laughed.
Linda emerged from the maze of clothing to help them. After Zeke found a glove that worked, Pax and Israel retrieved theirs from the cabin and they played catch outside in the grass to break in Zeke’s glove. When Deven, Amoni, and Gray got back from the game, which the Wolves had won easily, they retrieved Ember, their work out clothes, and towels and headed to the showers.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next day, after school and workouts, Deven and Pax had baseball practice. Amoni and Gray went to watch 9-12 games, Ember hunkered down in the cabin to do some extra credit for school, and Israel and Zeke set out to find Kelsey. They searched everywhere, short of knocking on the door of his cabin, but he was nowhere to be seen.
“How come you don’t play baseball?” Zeke asked Israel on the way back to their cabin.
“There’s no way you’d ever get me out there.”
“The only team I could maybe make is the Sluggers.”
“Yeah right. You have a decent arm and you can catch. You’re just scared.”
“Maybe I am.”
“I don’t like baseball. Plus, no one wants me on their team.”
“They think I’m too quiet or assume I’m bad at running or something.”
“Then talk more.”
“I don’t want to talk about baseball.”
“Then talk about something else.”
“There aren’t a lot of people I want to talk to.”
“Why do you want to talk to me?”
Israel shrugged. “You don’t talk in school either.”
That was true. Zeke had no reason to talk. He didn’t need everyone to know that he was lost and confused, and before he met his bunkmates he hadn’t had any friends besides Kelsey, anyway. “That didn’t really answer my question.”
“People who talk less are less intimidating, you know? You looked like you were struggling in math one day, and then you didn’t call me names or make a big deal out of it when I helped you. I figured that you seemed like a good person to talk to.”
“But even now, you talk to me more than the rest of our bunkmates even though you’ve known them longer. Or that’s what it seems like, anyway.”
Israel shrugged again.
“I’ll figure you out sometime.” Zeke promised, laughing. Israel smiled, and Zeke thought that maybe he was even blushing a little. “Where does Snickerdudels come from anyway?” Zeke asked. He still didn’t know why the sign on the front of their cabin door said ‘Welcome to the realm of the Snickerdudels,’ and he really wanted to.
“I’m not the one to explain it.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Just wait until dinner.”
“Do I really have to?”
◊ ◊ ◊
“All right,” Zeke said as soon as everyone, including Kelsey, who had snuck away from Chuck, sat down at dinner. “Time to tell where the name Snickerdudels came from.”
Kelsey already looked confused. Pax took a bite of his lasagna and pointed at Amoni.
“Honored,” Amoni said, sitting up straighter and clearing his throat. “Once upon a time, me and Gray made a bet that we couldn’t get either Bryan Sanchez or Liam Count to laugh.”
“It was for fifteen bucks,” Gray put in. “And I didn’t think we could do it because they never laugh unless they just hurt someone, and I said that getting hurt to make them laugh was against the rules.”
“Yeah, so we went up to Liam before workouts, and I told him one of my favorite violent anti-jokes.”
“When we got done with workouts and were back at the cabin, we all wanted to know if Liam had laughed or not,” Pax said.
“And so I told them what happened,” Amoni continued. “I told Liam the anti-joke, and he snickered.”
“‘Snickered?’” Zeke asked, laughing.
Amoni threw his arms up in the air. “What’s so funny about that word?” “It makes me think of the candy bar,” Kelsey said.
“We all had the same reaction as Zeke,” Ember said.
“We teased Amoni and just kept saying snicker over and over until it sounded all weird,” Pax said, smiling at the memory.
“Somehow, Amoni convinced us that we make people snicker all the time,” Deven said. “Because we tell dumb jokes and pull little pranks.”
An alarm bell went off in Zeke’s head. He couldn’t hang around people who pulled pranks. Not again.
“And so Gray says—”
“‘We’re Snickerdudes!’” Gray exclaimed.
“And that just sounded wrong, even though we are dudes who make people snicker.”
“So Israel talked for once,” Ember said, laughing and looking at Israel, who smiled.
“And he said we could be snickerdoodles, like the cookie.” Pax said. “We changed the spelling, and here we are.”
“Snickerdudels rule!” Gray shouted.
Zeke forced a smile, unable to get past the pranking comment. “So if me and Kelsey bunk with you, are we Snickerdudels?”
Pax looked at the rest of the boys, who shook their heads.
“What? Why not?” Kelsey asked.
“You guys haven’t pranked with us.” Amoni said. “We’ll come up with an initiation though, right Pax?”
“Whoa,” Zeke said. “I don’t prank.”
“Why not?” Amoni and Gray asked.
“Because all it does is hurt people.”
“If your pranks are hurting people, you’re not pranking right.” Pax said. “All we do is make people laugh. Sometimes it may be embarrassing, but it’s all pretty much harmless. I promise.”
Zeke nodded slowly. There was no creepy, rotting haunted house here. There was no pond for anyone to fall into. No Leo to break windows, no Dad to accuse him of murder. “Okay,” he sighed. “I’m in.”
“Initiation’s gonna have lots of parts,” Amoni said.
“We’ll see,” Pax said, smiling. “Zeke and Kelsey, you should hang out at the diamonds tonight so we can get this figured out.”
Zeke nodded and started eating. He promised himself that if the pranks got carried away, this time he’d stop his friends. He couldn’t — he wouldn’t — go through loss like that again.
◊ ◊ ◊