East Ridge Academy: Zeke Hallaway

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March - 3

Before he knew it, Zeke was out at the East Diamond for Tigers tryouts. Amoni, Gray, Kelsey, and even Israel had offered to come support him, but he turned them away. He didn’t want them to be there when he embarrassed himself.

Zeke’s stomach fluttered as he gathered around Meric at the pitcher’s mound. Meric spotted him and grinned, and Zeke felt a spark of confidence. He had been invited to try out, unlike all the other boys there who weren’t already on the team.

“All right, listen up,” Meric said. Everyone except two guys to Zeke’s left stopped talking. Meric and Wyatt eyed them, and the older boy shushed the younger boy. Meric cleared his throat. “We’re going to start by spreading out a little and introducing ourselves.”

Everybody backed up and formed a wobbly circle.

“I’m Meric Wochner, I’m sixteen, and I’m your team captain and shortstop.”

Zeke sized up everyone in the circle. It was easy to tell who was already on the team, because they were all wearing Tigers hats. Zeke’s competition was seven boys: Kolby Hicks, sixteen, and Justin Craig, fourteen, had been the boys talking when everyone else was quiet. Then there was Anthony Lodger, thirteen, Logan Jones, fourteen, Camden Barnes, thirteen, Andrew Smith, thirteen, and Hugh Lee, fifteen. When introductions were over, Meric pulled the new guys to the side while the actual team warmed up their arms.

“We’re going to start you out separate,” Meric said. “I wanted to make it clear that it’s possible there’s not just one opening. Cervantes may be the only one who left, but if you’re better than one of my players, I’ll take you over them.”

Kolby Hicks clapped his hands together, looking confident.

“Is it possible that we’ll get stuck as a back-up player?” Anthony Lodger asked.

Meric nodded. “That’s a possibility on any team you try out for.”

Anthony groaned, and the muscle in Meric’s jaw bulged.

While Wyatt and Spencer took care of the team, Meric ran the new guys through sprints, which Hugh Lee was clearly the best at. Camden Barnes, on the other hand, couldn’t stop tripping over his own feet.

They moved on to playing catch. Zeke partnered with Kolby, who had no aim and yet somehow remained extremely cocky. “I would be trying out for the Pirates, but they don’t have an opening. I guess I’ll have to settle for second best.”

Meric was close enough to hear, so Zeke held back his retort. Kolby was just digging his own grave, and Zeke was determined not to give anyone a reason to start digging his own.

They moved on to fielding, where Meric hit grounders and pop flies at them. The boys cycled through a line, taking turns trying to get them back to Meric as fast as they could. Kolby, Hugh, Camden, and Anthony struggled. Zeke was doing at least as well as Andrew Smith, but maybe a little worse than Logan Jones.

“Dive for that, Zeke!” Meric said as Zeke missed a ball to his left. He had always found it difficult to get the ones on the side that his glove wasn’t.

They moved onto batting, where Zeke unquestionably outshined Logan Jones. Even though Justin and Anthony were doing well, Zeke’s concern was Andrew. Every ball Zeke hit, Andrew hit just a little bit better.

After a bit they merged with the actual team, and Zeke realized that he couldn’t remember anyone’s name that he hadn’t known before tryouts. Meric gathered everyone by the dugout. “We’re going to take turns batting and fielding so I can test some people in different spots. Corey, get on the mound. Spencer, get your gear on. I’ll be observing. Pax, first base. Lyon, left field.”

Zeke started worrying as the other guys started running out to the field. Meric was putting all of his normal players out. Was he just going to make the alternates and newbies bat?

“Dom, shortstop. Wyatt, right field. Andrew Smith, center field. Hallaway, second base. Winship, third.”

Zeke’s head spun as he jogged to second base. He knew Andrew was his main competition, but Zeke was the one being put in Cervantes’s old spot. Wasn’t that a good sign?

As the night went on, Zeke realized he had been reading too far into things. Meric rotated people in a way that seemed random. Anthony Lodger started complaining about how he was tired and that Meric was being unfair, so Meric kicked him out, saying, “I don’t need anyone bringing a bad attitude to my team.”

Zeke started out well, and so did Andrew, but it became clear that Andrew had more endurance than him. Zeke started making mistakes while Andrew remained golden. By the end of the night, Zeke just hoped that by some stroke of luck, Meric would choose him and not Andrew.

“Hey Hallaway,” a voice called when the tryout was over and Zeke was drinking some water in the dugout. He turned around to find Dom Horn, Cervantes’s back-up second baseman, pushing his way over to Zeke.

“Hey Horn.”

“Quit showing me up out there,” he said, giving Zeke a push. “Don’t think you’re just gonna show up outta nowhere and take my spot.”

“Hey, it’s Andrew Smith you have to worry about, not me.” Zeke said. He knew that he hadn’t even done that well most of the time he was fielding, so Dom really had nothing to worry about from him.

Horn shook his head. “You’re an idiot Hallaway. Smith hasn’t been taking my position, he’s been taking outfield and third base. I know what you’re doing. You’re just trying to get me kicked off so I can have no team and a bunch of people laughing at me ’cause I got beat out by a kid who’s never played baseball.”

It took everything Zeke had not to punch him. What did this guy even know about him? Couldn’t he tell that Zeke had played before, or was he ignoring the obvious and just trying to insult him? Zeke was standing close enough that he had the perfect opportunity for a surprise uppercut… But he knew that Meric would hear about it, and he wouldn’t like it.

Zeke crumpled his cup. “Maybe you should just work harder instead of coming to me and whining about it.” He walked away before Horn could say anything more.

Once he was out of the dugout, Zeke headed over to the bleachers where Pax was talking to Meric, Zoren, and Jordan Hayes.

“Hey, there’s the guy I’ve been looking for,” Meric greeted him. The other guys smiled at him.

“You did a great job out there,” Meric said. “Surprised me, actually.”

Zeke’s cheeks flushed. “Thanks.”

“Can’t wait to see you in action at the scrimmage.” Meric said. Then he and Zoren peeled off to join Spencer and Wyatt as they walked away from the diamonds.

“Zeke, this is Jordan, if you didn’t know,” Pax told him.

Zeke shook Jordan’s hand. “Pax, he bunked with my big brother. Then we got lucky and ended up on the same team.”

“Nice,” Zeke said. “By the way, you’re a great batter.”

Jordan made a shooing motion. “I’m nothing.”

Pax slapped Jordan on the back. “Me and Zeke better go catch some Zs. See you later.”

“Later.”

Back at the cabin, Pax told the Snickerdudels that Zeke was a great baseball player and wouldn’t stop talking about tryouts.

“He’s exaggerating,” Zeke promised. “I’m mediocre at best.”

Pax laughed, and Deven looked at Zeke. “You still coming to Wolves tryouts tomorrow?”

Zeke nodded grudgingly.

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite Pax and Deven’s attempts to be positive, Wolves tryouts were awful. Alan and Orlando weren’t nearly as organized as Meric. Zeke hardly knew anyone’s name and there were a lot more newbies there trying out, which made everything feel chaotic. Even some players from lower teams showed up, but Alan and Orlando told them to go away.

Zeke was a nervous wreck from the beginning, because he knew by the hungry way Alan and Orlando looked at him that they were looking for a reason to get rid of him.

Zeke kept glancing at them as they whispered and couldn’t do anything right. Deven tried to get him focused, and Zeke wanted to focus, but he couldn’t. He was too shaky. Orlando called him out and ridiculed him whenever he could, and finally, after Zeke dropped a pop fly, Alan kicked him out. Zeke breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped off the field and headed over to where some of the Tigers were watching a game at the other diamond.

“Tryouts done already?” Jordan asked when Zeke sat down next to him.

Zeke shook his head and laughed. “I got kicked out.”

“Alan and Orlando, they awful.”

“Sure are.”

Zeke enjoyed watching the rest of the game with Pax, Jordan, and Allen Runcorn. The Tigers were friendly, and they made him feel at home. Now that he had no hope of making the Wolves, Zeke really hoped he could make the Tigers.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Wednesday, Zeke couldn’t think about anything but the scrimmage. He not only wanted to prove to Meric that he deserved a spot with the Tigers, but he also wanted to show the Wolves that they had messed up by kicking him out.

Gray, Amoni, and Kelsey insisted on coming to watch, which was all right by Zeke because he knew they would lighten the mood by cat-calling the Wolves. But when Israel said he was coming, it made Zeke’s stomach flutter. Why he was nervous for Israel to come, he wasn’t really sure. Maybe it was because he knew Israel wouldn’t be looking for people to tease, so his eyes would be on Zeke, Pax, or Deven the whole time. Israel would catch all of his mistakes.

Zeke went through the motions at workouts, not going as hard as he normally did. Afterwards, back at the cabin, he couldn’t relax, so he paced around the cabin while he waited for Pax and Deven to get ready.

“Zeke,” Israel said from his bed, “You’re going to be fine.”

“How do you know?”

“Because Pax wouldn’t say all those good things about you if they weren’t true.”

“He’s right,” Pax said from his own bed, where he was pulling on his socks.

“Too bad Alan and Orlando were too busy making fun of you to notice the good things you were doing.”

“They didn’t notice because I did nothing good at those tryouts,” Zeke said.

“I wish I was cool enough to play baseball,” Kelsey said longingly.

“Nah man, we claimed you.” Amoni said. “You belong with us, as pretty little cheerleaders.”

When Pax and Deven were finally ready to go, Zeke led the charge to the baseball diamonds.

“Slow down, man. We got plenty of time.” Pax said.

Zeke forced himself to fall back into a relaxed walk with his friends. “I feel like my blood is caffeine. I’m all jittery.”

“Well, put those jitters to good use.”

The calm, focused atmosphere of the Tigers’ warm up helped Zeke calm down. As they jogged, stretched, and warmed up their arms, Zeke didn’t feel tired or sluggish at all. He felt good. Really good.

The Tigers were batting first, and Zeke was pleased to hear that he was sixth up to bat, right behind Andrew Smith.

“Remember, Sharp’s nothing special. He’s got a fastball, and that’s it. Nothing tricky,” Meric reminded the team. “And if you hit in the air, don’t hit too far, because the outfield’s their strong point, especially Ruben. Hit low and hard and we’ll be safe. No pun intended.”

Zeke and some of the other boys laughed. With that, Meric had them put their hands in.

“Le’s go, pussies!” Alan called from the Wolves’ dugout. His teammates joined in. “Pussies, pussies!”

Zeke could hear Amoni and Gray yelling from the stands, and he and Pax grinned at each other as Meric said, “One, two three —”

“Tigers!” The team yelled.

The scrimmage started well. Spencer was first to bat, and he hit a double on the first pitch. Corey Ryan was up next, and he was down two strikes until Sharp nailed him in the side and he walked to first, holding his side. Kaden Smith hit a single, and then Runcorn tripped walking up to bat. Zeke and the other newbies chuckled.

“Every time,” Winship said, shaking his head.

Runcorn smacked the second pitch into the outfield, low, just as Meric instructed. The Wolves’ centerfield player dived for it and missed. While Deven was chasing the ball, Spencer scored the first run of the game. Corey Ryan slid into home seconds before the ball smacked into the catcher’s glove.

Orlando’s face grew redder and redder as he yelled at his outfield for being slow and sloppy.

Finally, it was Andrew Smith’s turn to bat. Zeke grabbed one of the two bats he liked and walked out of the dugout. He swung the bat a couple times, feeling great. To his surprise, as he watched, Andrew Smith struck out. And it wasn’t because Sharp was pitching well. Andrew swung early on all three pitches, including two that were easily outside the strike zone.

“Boo!” the crowd yelled. Red-faced, Andrew returned to the dugout. Zeke knew that it was always kind of embarrassing to get the first out of the game, but Andrew had done it in the worst way possible.

Zeke took a deep breath and walked up to bat. All he had to do was do better than Andrew to show Meric he deserved a spot, and Andrew had made that pretty easy. Zeke tapped the plate with his bat and raised his eyes to Sharp. The first pitch came faster than he expected, so he didn’t even swing at it.

“Strike!” the ump yelled from behind him.

“Newbie,” the catcher said, chuckling. Zeke rolled his eyes and focused in on Sharp.

This time, he was ready when the ball came. He swung, and hit the ball hard. It was a line drive to third base. Zeke dropped the bat and pumped his arms and legs as fast as he could. He saw Runcorn arrive safely at second as he touched first base without a second to spare. Zeke took a deep breath and looked around. With Kaden Smith on third and Runcorn on second, the next batter just needed to hit the ball out of the diamond for the Tigers to be up by a couple runs.

Winship stepped up to bat. He hit the first pitch, but did exactly what Meric said not to do. Deven caught the pop fly easily, but didn’t get it to the catcher before Kaden Smith tagged up on third and slid into home. Zeke and Runcorn stayed planted on first and second base.

Evan Lyon was next, and he bunted the third pitch. Zeke sprinted to second as Sharp and the Wolves’ catcher both ran to the ball. The catcher got there first and threw the ball to first base, but Lyon made it safely. Zeke was glad Runcorn was smart enough not to try and make it to home base, and he gave him a thumbs up as they both stood with their hands on their hips, catching their breath.

Meric walked up to bat confidently. He didn’t swing at the first pitch, and the second pitch was so far off that Sharp’s catcher couldn’t even snag it so he didn’t swing at that one, either. On the third pitch, Meric hit the ball low and hard right at second base, but Zeke was a few feet away by the time it got there. He ran as fast as he could, but the ball whistled over his head and the third baseman reached up to catch it. Zeke wasn’t close enough to slide, and the third baseman caught the ball with a smug look on his face.

Zeke clenched his teeth. He was out number three. Behind him, he heard Orlando yelling at Alan for not throwing home first, because Runcorn made it home and scored a run so that the Tigers were up 4-0.

“Sorry about that hit,” Meric said to Zeke and Corey Ryan as they jogged to the dugout. “You guys were doing great and I screwed it up.”

Zeke grinned to himself. He was doing so much better than Andrew Smith.

Meric quickly told everyone where to go on the field, and to Zeke’s disappointment, Horn was put on second base while the newbies, along with Jordan, Runcorn, Zoren, and Kerr were left on the bench.

“Meric, he givin’ Horn a chance he don’t deserve,” Jordan promised Zeke. “You should be out there.”

“If anyone should be out there, it’s me,” Kerr said angrily. “I’ve been on this team just as long as Dom and I’m better than him. I’m better than you, Hallaway.”

Zeke held his tongue and shrugged, letting Jordan argue with Kerr while he turned back to the game.

Deven got the first hit for his team after someone Zeke didn’t recognize struck out. He made it to first base easily. Horn fumbled the next hit that could’ve been a double play that ended the inning, but instead only got Deven out. The Wolves scored before the third out, making the score 4-1.

“Starting batting where we left off,” Meric told them.

That meant Hugh Lee was up first. He got walked, then Camden Barnes struck out. Pax hit a home run, which got the Tigers fans up and cheering. Alan and Orlando began yelling again, and Alan continued yelling at the outfield while Logan Jones struck out. Kerr barely made it to first base, then Wyatt got walked.

Zeke prepared himself for the third out as Kolby Hicks, the cocky newbie, strode up to bat. He swung and missed at the first pitch, but managed to clip the second one. He barely avoided tripping over his own bat as it rolled down the first baseline, but he made it to first base safely.

With the bases loaded, Horn stepped up to bat. And after two awful pitches by Sharp, he hit an out-of-the-park home run. The score was now 10-1, and the Wolves were falling apart. Sharp’s pitching grew worse the angrier he got, but Justin Craig still managed to strike out.

“Same as last time, but with Kerr on second,” Meric told them. Kerr grumbled something about not being a second baseman when Meric was out of earshot, and Horn stomped over to the bench and sat down.

“Nice home run,” Zeke said.

“Get the hell outta here, Hallaway.”

Zeke put his hands up and went to the other end of the bench. He didn’t want Horn to hate him, but it was starting to seem like that was inevitable.

When the score was 11-3 and it was the Tigers’ turn to field again, Meric finally said what Zeke had been waiting for. “Hallaway on second. Andrew Smith, take Wyatt’s spot in right field.”

This was his chance to not only show Meric what he could do in a game, but show him that he could do better than Andrew, and not just at batting.

The rest of the game flew by, and Zeke played second base the whole time. He had five more hits and made three outs when he was fielding. The scrimmage ended 19-9 after the Wolves switched pitchers for the better, but it was still a strong win from the Tigers.

“Gather up Tigers,” Meric called when the game was over. They jogged over to him where he was waiting in front of the dugout.

“Nice game, Meric,” Horn said.

Zeke rolled his eyes.

Meric took a deep breath. “I’d like to thank everyone for trying out, but newbies, I’m afraid that there’s only one of you that I’d like to have on my team.”

The Tigers grinned at each other, knowing their spots were secure, while the newbies, including Zeke, shifted uncomfortably.

“Again, thank you for playing with us. I had a great time, and I hope you did too. But the one person I’d like to welcome to the team will be playing second base. Zeke Hallaway.”

Most of the boys cheered, and Zeke’s ears burned. Pax, Jordan, and Runcorn patted him on the back and shook his shoulders.

“You made it, man,” Jordan said with a grin.

Meric smiled at Zeke and gave him a thumbs up.

Even though Horn and Kerr were scowling, Zeke already felt welcome to be a part of the team.

Meric stepped forward and shook his hand as the guys who hadn’t made the team left. “Congrats Zeke, you earned it. We do have a little tradition here so, when you’re ready, go on down the line. Glad to have you.”

Zeke turned around to see that the rest of his new team had formed a line. He walked down it, giving a high five or a handshake to all of them as they congratulated him. At the end, Spencer shook his hand, and with his other hand he put a hat on Zeke’s head. “Welcome to the Tigers, kid.”

“You did really awesome,” Pax told him as the team dispersed to go back to their cabins. They grabbed their mitts out of the dugout and left the diamond.

“Zeke, you did it man!” Amoni shouted, running up to him with Gray, Kelsey, and Israel not far behind. Zeke gave Amoni, Kelsey, and Gray high fives, but Israel hugged him instead. As Israel let him go, Zeke couldn’t stop smiling.

“Hey Hallaway,” someone said from behind him. Zeke turned around to see Andrew Smith standing there alone. “Congrats. You deserved it. I really stunk it up tonight.”

Zeke reached out and shook his hand. “Thanks Andrew. Better luck next time.”

“Thanks,” he said sheepishly. “I’ll be cheering for you guys.”

Zeke, Pax, Amoni, Gray, and Israel headed to the dining hall. Deven got there just before them and waited at the door.

“Really nice job Zeke,” he said. “You surprised the heck out of us.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean, seriously, man. Where’d you learn to play like that?”

Zeke laughed and shrugged.

During dinner and showers, Zeke was the happiest he ever remembered being. It was like he was walking on air. He felt like everyone at East Ridge knew what he had accomplished and was happy for him, even though logically he knew that it was far from true.

Back at the cabin, Pax made his smile go away. “Let’s finish initiation tonight. It won’t be bad, I promise. It’s not even a prank or anything. Israel said you just have to tell us what you guys did that made your parents send you here.”

Zeke froze. He didn’t want to think about the things he had done. The pain he had caused. What if he cried in front of them? Even worse, what if his new friends thought he was a jerk? Zeke didn’t think he could take it. He was getting too attached to them. “Only if you guys tell me and Kelsey why you’re here too,” he said defensively.

“Yeah, I barely know you guys,” Kelsey agreed.

Deven, Pax, and Israel shrugged at each other. “Fair enough.”

They sat down in a circle on the rug in the middle of the cabin and looked at each other.

“Well,” Ember said, “I’m not starting.”

“I guess I will,” Deven said. “It’s not that bad for me anyway. I’m from Columbia. I got just in October, so I definitely remember what it’s like to be new in this cabin.”

Pax laughed. “Hey, at least we were nice.”

Deven smiled. “Anyway, my dad was in the air force, so he wanted me and my siblings to do it, too. He tried to get all of us to follow in his footsteps, but my sister Emily had the easy excuse of ‘I’m a girl, I have to be a homemaker’ or whatever she always says. And when my brother George likes art and photography and hated all the sports my dad made him try, so all my dad had left was me. His strong wrestler and football-playing son.

“But, if I’m being honest, the military scares me. Guns scare me. And I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to try it. But as soon as I mentioned maybe, just maybe, doing junior ROTC in high school, my dad went all crazy and said he was going to help me get my career started. He said that sending me here would help me get used to what it feels like to be away from home for a long time, and not having a woman around to ‘get friendly with,’ as he put it. And, you know, boot camp would get me in shape or whatever. So here I am, for a whole year of my life.”

Zeke shivered involuntarily. Deven’s story was so innocent compared to his own.

“Gray, go ahead,” Deven said.

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “I’m from Maryville, and I have a bunch of brothers and sisters. But mostly sisters. And my parents would get mad at me sometimes for not watching them after school, because I knew they were fine playing without me, but my parents didn’t get it. And me and my awesome friends really liked being outside and taking pictures and playing Pokémon and stuff, anyway. But my parents were always mad at me for something, like bad grades. They said I was irresponsible.” Gray took a deep breath, and he wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Gray, you can stop if you want,” Pax said.

“They kept telling me to be more like Weston or Lisa or Mary, because they’re so perfect,” he spat. “But I’m not Wes or Lisa or Mary. I’m me. And I liked me and I was happy. But when they sent me here, away from my friends and from my little brothers, it was really hard to be happy. It was hard to ‘get better,’ like they want me to. Until I made friends.”

Amoni leaned over and hugged Gray. “I love you, buddy.”

Nobody could help but smile.

“I’ll go next,” Amoni said. “I’ve been here a long time, and I still have a long time to go.”

“Two years, just like me and Em,” Pax said, sighing.

“Yeah. I’m from Kansas City. Yeah the ghetto part, since I know y’all was assuming.” Amoni eyed Zeke and Kelsey then laughed. “See, my daddy was a police officer. But then he got shot and died when I was little. My momma couldn’t carry us on her own, so we had to move in with her brother Charles, who’s an alcoholic. He’s also a chain smoker, and he’s real mean if he’s drunk and even meaner if he can’t afford cigarettes. Sometimes he beat me and my momma, but we couldn’t leave. We had nowhere to go. I got held back in school because I was always worrying about other things, so I had no friends in my grade. Then my momma—” Amoni’s voice broke. Tears leaked from his eyes. “My momma got lung cancer, and she died too.”

Everyone went silent. Gray and Pax patted Amoni on the back until he wiped his eyes and kept talking. “I had to live with Charles alone. It’s awful — I still get nightmares and I’m not even with him — so I spent a lot of time outside the house. I made some friends in my neighborhood and we made some bad choices. I got in a lot of fights ’cause I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.”

“Imagine Amoni not being able to keep his mouth shut,” Ember said sarcastically, but Pax shushed him.

“When Charles heard about the fights, he’d beat me even when he wasn’t drunk. He beat me so bad sometimes I almost needed to go to the hospital, so he’d make me skip school so that those foster care people wouldn’t come and take me. Then somehow he got promoted at work, and he got more money. He started looking for places to send me, and his friend’s brother told him about his time at East Ridge. But back then East Ridge was bad. It mean, like, really bad and really corrupt. My uncle told me some awful stories because he loved seeing the fear in my eyes and knowing he was going to send me there. But now I’m here, and it’s not so bad. It’s better than getting beat and getting in fights with guys five times bigger than me. East Ridge has really been pretty good to me, all things considered.”

“Sorry about your parents,” Zeke said.

The other boys agreed, and Amoni shrugged. “Just something I have to live with.”

“I suppose I’ll go now,” Ember said. “But my story isn’t as emotionally touching as Gray and Amoni’s. My father is rich, because he is very good at finding ways to make money without doing much himself. So he and my mom travel a lot, which is why I was born in Germany.”

“That’s so cool,” Gray said.

“I have two older siblings, Robert and Myra. Robert’s my dad’s carbon copy and now he’s getting rich the exact way my dad did. But my parents didn’t want me. That’s why Robert and Myra are a lot older than me.

“Since I was an accident, my sister and the maids took care of me when I was little. We spent most of our time living in Overland Park, because it was in the middle of the country on land where my mother could have the horses she always wanted. I spent a lot of my time at boarding school. I learned a lot about computers and now I’m a pretty good hacker. I liked to mess with my classmates by changing their grades and getting into their accounts and stuff like that.

“When my parents found out, they were appalled. So they sent me here so I could learn ‘integrity,’ and because our computer usage is limited and monitored.” Ember smiled and looked around, waiting for someone else to talk.

Pax cleared his throat and looked at Israel. “It’s me or you.”

Israel nodded. “I was born in Arizona. We lived by my Meemaw and Papa. My Papa was my favorite person ever. When I was six, my dad got a pastor job offer in Lee’s Summit, which he decided he couldn’t turn down. So we moved.

“Even though my Meemaw and Papa visited once a month and I kept contact with my friends from Arizona, I was lonely because I didn’t really have any friends in Lee’s Summit. Then my Papa died, and it emotionally wrecked me. I couldn’t have fun. I didn’t want to go to school, and I couldn’t make friends because everyone thought I was boring or weird. I tried out for a swim team when I started to feel better, but the coach and the other kids were really mean. They just made me even more insecure than I already was. And I wasn’t just insecure because I couldn’t make friends or I think I’m ugly or whatever. It was because… Um, well, Pax, Ember, and Amoni know this, but… I’m gay.” Israel looked down at his lap.

Zeke froze. Israel was what?

“That’s okay,” Gray said, breaking the silence. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“If it’s not for the rest of you, you can fuck off.” Pax said, scanning Kelsey, Zeke, and Deven’s faces. Zeke felt like he was being called out, but he kept his face neutral.

“Of course it’s okay,” Deven said. “Be proud of being yourself, Israel. Not everyone has the courage to do that.”

Israel looked up. “My dad, since he’s a pastor, has a really hard time with it. My mom too, since she’s just as religious as him.”

“If you want, I’ll beat them up,” Pax offered jokingly, squeezing Israel’s shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll come around, though.”

Zeke was still shocked, staring at the floor. He always thought deep down that Israel didn’t really seem normal. Or, at least, not like any of the other guys that Zeke knew. Zeke felt like that meant something, but he didn’t know what.

“Since I was so lonely and insecure, my parents sent me here,” Israel continued. “They thought the counseling and the new start would help me. And it did, mostly. I mean, no one here knew to make fun of me at first, so I found you guys. And I think you all accept me for who I am, which is something I’ve never really had before.”

“It’s really sad that everyone can’t just accept you,” Pax said. “You’re just a normal guy trying to live life like everyone else.”

“Well, according to some people, my normal is a sin,” Israel said, smiling. “The devil is possessing me, so you guys better watch out.”

Everyone laughed except Zeke.

“I guess it’s my turn,” Pax said. “I’m from Albany. Not in New York. It’s an absolute shit town, so I was an absolute shit kid. I mean, I shouldn’t blame my bad choices on the town, but it didn’t help that I was surrounded by weak adults who just had no idea what was really going on.

“My parents came to America from Vietnam when they were young, and it was really rough for them. But they both made it to college against all odds, and that’s where they met. I was their miracle child, after they struggled to have one for years, but I haven’t yet been the blessing they were looking forward to. Like I said, I’m shit, and I know it.”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” Israel said. Zeke nodded, though he still felt as if his voice wouldn’t work if he tried to use it. Israel was gay?

“Our town has a lot of problems. I ended up hanging out with older kids who were drug dealers, so I skipped school even back in elementary school, got into fights, smoked weed, drank, and vandalized buildings. I even got expelled from school and my mom had to get me into another one, but that’s a long story. Basically, though, my parents and all the other adults in my town were scared of their kids. Me and my friends, especially. The gang. We had no respect, because none of the adults were respectable, you know? So I got sent here, to learn respect. I wanted to get kicked out, but whatever I tried, they never sent me away.

“One day when I was down by the baseball diamonds, I met Meric. And you guys know, he’s such a great guy. He channeled all my energy into baseball, which I’m sure took more patience than I’ll ever have. But because of Meric, I started liking it here. My parents sent me here to learn to respect authority. And by authority, I’m sure they meant teachers and all the other adults. But I didn’t learn to respect authority because some person yelled at me. I learned it because Meric Wochner gave me someone to look up to. He was patient, he explained things to me, and he gave me a chance to be a decent person. I’d never really had that before. And now I realize that the whole time my parents were respectable. What they and their parents sacrificed to make a better life for us in America is unbelievable. I just can’t wait to go home and make them proud and get them out of that awful town so we can be happy.”

“That was touching,” Deven said, nodding. “Important question, though. Would you be gay for Meric?”

Everyone laughed, even Zeke though he didn’t find it particularly funny.

“Now for the stories we’ve been waiting for,” Amoni said dramatically, looking expectantly between Kelsey and Zeke.

“I mean, I don’t really have a story,” Kelsey said. “I mean, I live in Chesterfield. My dad was a marine and he wanted me to be one, kinda like Deven’s dad, but I just like video games, not sports. I actually wanted to be in band with my friends, so my dad got mad and sent me here even though I told him someday I could be in the marine band. He signed me up for three years, but my mom changed it to six months behind his back. I don’t know if he knows yet.”

Zeke laughed. “Six months is a whole lot easier than three years.”

“But I’m barely going to last six months.”

“You’ll be fine, Kels. You got us,” Amoni promised.

“Last but not least,” Pax said, looking at Zeke.

“Who’s least?” Ember asked. Deven and Amoni laughed, but Pax just rolled his eyes.

Zeke sighed and told them about the trouble he had gotten into with his friends back home and how his dad went crazy and blamed them for murder. He almost cried talking about Brendan, and Deven squeezed his shoulder to comfort him. Zeke told them how he was just trying to be a good person and prank for fun, not to hurt people, which was why he had had a hard time with initiation at first.

“We got you,” Amoni promised. “We’ll teach you how to prank right.”

“Really, though,” Israel said. “You were really strong to share that with us. I mean, even though you guys are my friends, I just didn’t feel like I knew all of you as well as I would like. And I know it was even harder for you and Kelsey, since you just got here.”

“It was cool, though” Pax said. “It really was a good idea, Iz.”

“And you guys didn’t even laugh at me for crying,” Amoni said. “I already knew you were cool, but damn.”

Gray smiled pointed around the circle. “Now we all know the true way of the Snickerdudels. Welcome to the club, Zeke and Kelsey.”

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