East Ridge Academy: Zeke Hallaway

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April

Saturday was visitation day. Earlier in the week, Zeke had received a letter from his mom saying she and Teagan were coming to visit, but his dad wasn’t. He had work.

That was fine by Zeke, because he didn’t want to see his dad anyway. He did want to talk to his mother and sister, though. Maybe he’d even get the courage to apologize for being a jerk.

He headed up to the visitation center early and started a load of clothes in the laundry room. Then he headed to the front desk. Zeke had read in his orientation packet that he was allowed to request a counselor switch. Because sharing his past with his friends had made him feel a little better, he thought that maybe it was time that he opened up in counseling.

“Hello,” the receptionist greeted him.

“Hi. I wanted to switch counselors?”

“Sure thing. Name?”

“Ezekiel Hallaway.”

She typed it into the computer. “Looks like you’ve never switched before, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“It looks like Mrs. Truman can take you.”

Zeke nodded. Anyone was better than Janson.

“You’ll have your last meeting with Mr. Janson tonight, okay?”

“Okay,” Zeke agreed.

“Have a good day.”

“You too.” Zeke smiled to himself as he turned away. His meeting with Janson tonight was just a progress check, where they went over reports from his teachers, records from workouts, and comments from teambuilding. Since Zeke was doing well — at least, the best he had ever done — Janson had no reason to try to get into his head tonight.

In the cafeteria, Zeke made his way over to the wall where room assignments for visitation were posted. He then went back to the laundry room and waited until he could switch his clothes from the washer to the dryer. He avoided his friends at lunch, scarfed down his food, and then hurried to his assigned visitation room. His mom and sister were there when he walked in.

“Zeke!” his mom cried. “Oh, my boy,” she ran over to hug him, and for once Zeke didn’t shy away. After thinking about it for a couple weeks, he wasn’t so mad at her anymore for not standing up to his dad. After all, Zeke never had either. He hadn’t even had the courage to stand up to his friends.

When she let go of him, Zeke pulled Teagan into a hug.

“You’re hurting me,” she protested, laughing.

“It’s good to see you guys,” Zeke said, and he meant it. His family was alive, unlike Amoni’s, and his mom supported him, unlike Israel’s.

“Are you doing okay here?” his mom asked.

Zeke motioned to the chairs, and they sat down. “I’m doing great, Mom.”

“Do they yell at you? Do they feed you well? Do you have friends? Your grades are looking better. You’re not cheating, are you?”

“No, I’m not cheating,” Zeke laughed. “They don’t yell unless you’re being stupid, I have friends, and they feed us pretty well. I mean, I work hard at workouts so I’m usually still hungry after meals, but I tried out for baseball this week and I made it.”

His mom beamed at him. “You’re making me so proud.”

Zeke wondered if she knew about the fight he had been in weeks ago. She probably wouldn’t be smiling if she knew about that.

“You look so muscular already, but being hungry all the time can’t be good for you. Here.” She pulled her wallet out of her purse and handed him a twenty. “It said on their website that you can buy snacks somewhere, so that should help.”

“Thanks so much, Mom,” Zeke said, folding the bill and stuffing it into his pocket.

“So you’re really doing okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Zeke said, laughing.

“I brought you something else.” She reached down and pulled some Twix out of her purse.

“I told her they were your favorite,” Teagan said.

“You were right. Thanks,” Zeke said. He took the candy from his mom, smiling. In the time they had left, he told them all about baseball tryouts and his friends, though he didn’t mention the pranks because he was afraid it would upset them. His mom and sister laughed and asked questions, making Zeke feel like he was back in old times, before everything had gotten complicated.

Unfortunately, just as he was really getting comfortable, visitation time ended.

“See you next month,” Teagan said. She stepped forward and gave him a quick hug.

“Yeah, see you,” Zeke said. He watched them leave, and then he headed to the laundry room to pick up his clothes, ignoring his heavy heart. After ironing his uniform and shining his shoes, he headed back to his cabin and tried to do his homework. There was no use in focusing on all the bad things, anyway.

◊ ◊ ◊

According to the orientation packet, East Ridge had twenty-five counselors. And according to Israel, that meant they got approximately six minutes with each 13-18 boy on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and nine minutes on Saturdays and Sundays. But because Zeke had spent more than six minutes with Janson every time he had counseling since his first week at East Ridge, Zeke knew the schedule was flexible. Plus, he remembered that Headmaster Dawson had told him that East Ridge wasn’t actually at capacity, so the counselors weren’t as full as Israel’s calculations suggested.

At his assigned time for the evening, which was posted in the cafeteria, Zeke trudged into Janson’s office.

“Ezekiel, it’s good to see you. Sit.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Zeke said, sitting. “You hate me, and you’ve seen that I’m changing counselors. You’re glad to get rid of me.”

“You would be better off in life if you had a filter.”

“You know nothing about my life. You don’t even know why I’m here.”

“I hope Mrs. Truman can help you more than I have.”

“Yeah, well me too.” And with that, Zeke left Janson’s office. He didn’t care about his progress check. He just couldn’t wait until Tuesday to meet his new counselor, where the extra time he spent with her would actually be worth it.

◊ ◊ ◊

Because Meric didn’t believe in practicing on the weekends, Zeke was free to do whatever he pleased all day Sunday, except for the morning run and the bunk check.

“Let’s play a prank for bunk check,” Deven suggested. “My brother brought me some gummy bugs yesterday. We could put them underneath the bunks.”

“Classic,” Ember said.

There were bunk checks scheduled every day, but during the week it was mostly just to make sure everyone was up and going to school, nothing else. On Saturdays no one ever came, but Sundays were serious. If the cabin wasn’t clean, everyone in it got detention.

“I wish Pax wouldn’t leave his socks everywhere,” Ember said, plugging his nose as he picked one up. Pax rolled his eyes, and Ember threw the sock at him.

Zeke made his own bed, then moved onto Israel’s, because Israel was busy sweeping the room. He was the least messy of all of them, so it was really no big deal for Zeke to help him out a little. The only thing in Israel’s bed was a letter from his parents. Zeke put it in Israel’s school bag, ignoring the temptation to read it.

When the room was clean, Deven handed everyone some gummy bugs. They put them all over the room in places that wouldn’t be spotted right away. When the last one was placed, there was a knock on the door. Kelsey opened it and let Mr. Lakes in. He was almost always the one who inspected their room. “It smells bad in here. Like sweaty adolescents.”

“That’s us,” Amoni said. The Snickerdudels laughed, but Mr. Lakes did not.

“Beds nicely made, floor swept. I need to check under your bunks.”

Zeke gestured to his and Israel’s. Mr. Lakes got down on his hands and knees and looked under. “Oh!” he yelled, jumping back.

“What?” Gray asked.

“There’s a large centipede under there. Where’s the broom?”

“Gray, behind you on the wall!” Amoni shouted. Gray turned around and screamed, pointing. The Snickerdudels ran to the opposite corner, where another bug was hiding. They all screamed and ran again.

Mr. Lakes backed into the desk, knocking a gummy cricket onto the ground. He stomped on it, then looked at the boys suspiciously. “Really?”

Ember laughed. “Really really.”

“Funny,” Mr. Lakes said, without the slightest bit of humor in his voice. “Don’t do it again.”

He left, and Zeke and his friends laughed.

“’Don’t do it again,” Deven mocked, sending them into laughter again.

“And the way he jumped up from the floor?” Gray said. “I didn’t know he could move so fast.”

Amoni reenacted it, and Zeke held his stomach, trying to catch his breath. He hadn’t laughed this hard in a long time.

When they all finally managed to stop laughing, they picked up all the gummies and threw them away.

“Anyone want to go up to the blacktop and play monkey in the middle?” Pax asked.

“Sure,” Zeke, Amoni, and Deven said.

“I’ll come too,” Israel said.

“Oh?” Amoni laughed. “Guys, we’re getting to him!”

“Nooo,” Ember howled before breaking off laughing.

Israel blushed. “I don’t have anything else to do. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“We’re gonna go watch baseball,” Gray said, waving as he and Kelsey walked out the door.

“And I’m going to get my laundry done,” Ember announced, grabbing his uniform and his duffel bag. “Have fun working out or whatever, even though it’s supposed to be our time off.”

Pax grabbed his tennis ball from his duffel bag, and Zeke and the rest of his friends followed Ember out of the cabin and made their way to an open area on the blacktop. Amoni easily dominated monkey in the middle, so they switched to playing 500.

“Four hundred, alive,” Zeke called, throwing the ball high and far enough away that nobody would get it unless they were faster than humanly possible. But Israel went for it, trying to run so fast that his legs got tangled and he fell on the pavement.

“Israel, dude, you’re crazy today,” Amoni said, laughing. Deven went over to help him up.

“I thought you were smart enough not to go for that one,” Zeke teased, walking over to them.

“I guess not,” Israel mumbled. “Want to come to the clinic to get me bandaged up?”

Zeke shrugged and looked at Deven, Pax, and Amoni. “We’ll be back I guess.”

“Don’t drip blood all over the floors, or one of us will have to mop it up later,” Deven said.

When Zeke and Israel were inside, Zeke said, “Really though, what’s up with you today? You’re acting so different.”

Israel looked down and shrugged, holding his elbow. “I just didn’t want to watch baseball or sit in the cabin by myself. I had nothing else to do. I don’t get why you’re all being weird about it.”

“I’m not saying I’m not glad you’re here, but you could’ve done your laundry with Em. Or wrote back to your parents.”

Israel’s eyes flashed. “How—?”

“Sorry, sorry,” Zeke said, holding his hands up in surrender. “I saw the letter on your bed when we were cleaning up this morning.”

Israel nodded. “They didn’t come to visitation day because they were visiting Meemaw. She’s sick.”

“Sorry to hear it.”

“It’s okay. I’m not sure I even wanted to see them anyway.”

“Why?”

Israel avoided Zeke’s eyes. “Just forget I said that. I love my parents. I do. It’s just… ”

“Just?”

Israel shrugged.

Zeke saw the door to the nurse’s office ahead of them, so he dropped the subject and ran to hold the door for Israel, who walked in and told the nurse what had happened. She used antiseptic wipes to get the blood off of Israel’s elbow and knee, then put bandaids on the scrapes. “Be careful now,” she told him. “Sometimes you boys like to act like bandaids mean you’re healed, and that’s not the case.”

Israel promised that he would be careful, and he and Zeke headed back outside. Zeke ran his hand along the wall absentmindedly until Israel cleared his throat. “You know, the other night when I made us sit down and listen to each other as a group… I’m sorry for that. I think it made you uncomfortable.”

Zeke didn’t look at him, his ears burning. “It’s okay. It made me realize some things for myself, which was good. And, I mean, I was just scared you guys would hate me or something.”

“Never,” Israel promised. “I just felt like we needed to do it. Probably because my only friends have been my pen pals for years and we’re just used to telling each other everything. I guess it’s easier to say deep stuff when they’re so far away.”

“Yeah probably,” Zeke said, pushing his way through the door and back outside.

“Hey, the dripper and his sidekick are back,” Amoni joked. “Ready for more 500?”

“I think I’m going to go back to the cabin,” Israel said.

“Aw, Izzy. Don’t tell me you’ll never play again ’cause we teased you,” Pax said.

Israel smiled. “My knee just hurts. Sorry.”

He left, leaving Zeke to wonder what he had said wrong.

◊ ◊ ◊

The next day, Zeke was assigned a thirty minute time slot to get to know his new counselor, Mrs. Truman. Amoni’s counseling session, with his own counselor, was scheduled at the same time, so Zeke walked with him to the visitation center.

“Do you spend a lot of time with your counselor?” Zeke asked.

“Not really. Not anymore,” Amoni said. “I was pretty messed up when I came here since, well, you know, but I’m generally okay now. It helps, not seeing my uncle.”

“I think I’m still pretty messed up,” Zeke said, his ears burning.

Amoni smiled a little. “I don’t think anyone comes here in great mental shape, but you’ll get there. Maybe not seeing your dad will help.”

Zeke smiled. “If we were in great mental shape, why else would we be here, right?”

“Right,” Amoni said, laughing.

In the hallways past the cafeteria, they went their separate ways. Zeke followed the room numbers until he found the one he was looking for. The nameplate read “Georgia Truman,” so Zeke sighed and knocked on the door.

“Zeke?” the woman who answered the door said. She wore half-moon glasses and stood a few inches taller than him.

“Yeah,” Zeke said.

“Come in, come in.”

Zeke stepped into her office as she went around to the other side of her desk and sat down. He closed the door behind himself and hid a smile. The office smelled really nice, but he couldn’t place the smell.

“Feel free to sit. Or stand, if you want.”

Zeke sat down in the soft red armchair. Mrs. Truman’s desk was shoved into a corner, allowing her to fit two armchairs, the other being blue, in front of her desk. Her own chair was brown, and she pulled out a notepad and a pen from a drawer in her desk. She smiled. “Would you like to start by introducing yourself?”

Zeke shrugged, his stomach flipping. He knew that he shouldn’t be nervous since she was there to help and she was already proving to be better than Janson, but he couldn’t help it.

“Well, I can go first, then. My name is Georgia Truman, and even though I would prefer if you called me ‘Mrs. Truman,’ it’s okay if you want to call me Georgia to make our relationship feel, oh, less clinical, I suppose. I’m a licensed psychologist, and this is my third year at East Ridge. I’m married, and my husband and I have two children, a boy and a girl, who are both in high school. We also have a cat named Mittens who keep us all on our toes.”

Zeke wished he had a cat or a dog to pet at any point at East Ridge. Petting animals always helped him feel better.

“I think that makes it your turn,” Mrs. Truman said, smiling warmly.

“Um, okay,” Zeke said, shifting in his chair. “I’m Zeke Hallaway. I have a little sister at home, and a mom and dad, of course. We’ve never had a pet, though, unless you count the fish I had for, like, three days when I was little.”

“What are your interests? Or your hobbies?”

“I really like baseball, and I’m on the Tigers now.”

“Very nice,” Mrs. Truman said, writing something on her notepad. “This is just so I remember,” she explained. “I have a lot of boys come in and out of here.”

Zeke nodded slightly, waiting for her to speak again, but instead both of them were silent for a minute.

Finally, she took a deep breath. “I think a common misconception about therapy is that we have to talk about something deep and emotional or meaningful all the time. But as far as I’m concerned, we can talk about baseball, if you’d like. Or a funny dream you had, or school. Whatever you want.”

“I… I just don’t know,” Zeke said sheepishly.

“Then, may I ask, what were you looking to change when you switched counselors?”

“I just wanted someone who… Someone I didn’t… Well, someone I could actually talk to, I guess.”

“Why didn’t you feel like you could talk to your last counselor?”

Zeke shrugged, and Mrs. Truman said nothing. “I just felt like he was trying to get into my head, I guess. But he didn’t actually care about how I felt at all. Or, I don’t know. Something like that.”

Mrs. Truman nodded empathetically. “Zeke, there’s nothing I can do to make you believe that I truly care how you feel, and I’m sorry that, sometimes, to help you, I will have to ask a lot of questions that you may not enjoy answering. But I promise that I do care about your well-being, in and out of my office, and my goal is to help you feel the best that you possibly can. I want you to be confident and I want you to feel comfortable expressing your emotions and being yourself. I promise that I will never ask questions just to torture you or to laugh at your answers, all right?”

“Okay,” Zeke said. She was definitely better than Janson already.

“How long have you been at East Ridge?”

“Just since February, but it’s felt like longer.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Zeke shrugged. “My first cabin mates weren’t very nice.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. East Ridge’s policies against hazing and bullying are very strict, and I am a mandated reporter. If you’d like to tell me who they were and what they did to you, I could make sure that they aren’t allowed to host new boys anymore without ever mentioning your name.”

Zeke shifted in his chair again. As much as he wouldn’t wish Chuck and his goons on anyone, he didn’t want to get beat up for being a snitch. Surely they would know that it was either him or Kelsey who turned them in, and the possibility of Kelsey getting hurt was even worse. Chuck and his friends would be moving up to the next age group soon anyway, wouldn’t they? So it wasn’t like they’d be on top for much longer.

When Zeke didn’t say anything, Mrs. Truman asked, “Do you have any goals for therapy?”

To figure out how not to be a jerk, Zeke thought. To figure out how to stay out of fights. But he said, “I wish I wasn’t so angry all the time.”

“Why are you angry?”

“Because,” Zeke said, fiddling with a string on the armchair. “I don’t know. I don’t like who I am, I guess. And my dad hates me.”

“Why do you think your dad hates you?”

“He just always has,” Zeke said, his fingers trembling. He closed his hands into fists to get them to stop. “I don’t think I turned out the way he wanted.”

“And why is that?” Zeke shrugged, not knowing what to say. There were some things he couldn’t put into words. “He thinks me and my friends did some really bad stuff.”

“Your friends from home?”

“Yeah.”

“What are their names?”

“Jacoryn, Isaiah, and Leo. And Brendan, Jed, and Kaleb,” Zeke said, tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. He missed them so much.

“How long have you known them?”

“A long time,” Zeke said, blinking the tears away.

“What is it that your dad thinks you did?”

Zeke stared at his hands, which were still in fists. “Jed left. He just ran off on his own and no one knows where he went. And Brendan and Kaleb…” Zeke’s voice stopped working for a second. “They died.”

“I am so sorry to hear that,” Mrs. Truman said, setting down her pen and looking at Zeke, her eyes sympathetic.

“My dad thinks we killed them,” Zeke mumbled, looking away from her.

“And that makes you feel?”

Zeke looked up, tears threatening to spill down his cheeks. “Terrible. How else?”

She nodded. “If I may, what did happen to Kaleb and Brendan?”

Zeke wiped his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He hadn’t even liked Kaleb, and he had been mean to him. He had been mean to Jed, too. “Kaleb fell. We were at this old abandoned house, which was really creepy, so I… Well, I got scared and left,” he admitted, his ears and cheeks burning. “Because Kaleb went upstairs and the ceiling fell. Just part of it. But when I ran out, I didn’t realize he had fallen with it. I thought he was fine. But the next day Isaiah and Brendan, who stayed after I ran, told the rest of us that they had found Kaleb’s body. He fell with the ceiling and… and died.”

“Did your dad know that you were there?”

Zeke shrugged. “Not really. Not for sure, anyway. I lied and told him that I was sleeping over at someone’s house, and he later found out that I lied.”

“So that’s why—?”

Zeke shrugged. “I lied a lot and got into a lot of fights. And other stuff, too. I wasn’t very nice to my sister or my mom sometimes, either.”

Mrs. Truman thought for a little bit. “Do you think what you just said still describes yourself? Lying, fighting, other things along those lines?”

“No,” Zeke said without thinking. “Or, I mean, I don’t want it to. I don’t think I’ve lied since I’ve gotten here. I did get into one fight, though, but it wasn’t really my fault…”

“So maybe we just found your first goals. To tell the truth and stay out of fights.”

“Okay,” Zeke said, nodding. He could do that.

“I’m sorry, but I think our time is up,” Mrs. Truman said, closing her notepad. “It was very nice to meet you, Zeke. I think it would be best to continue with our half-hour sessions, don’t you think?”

Zeke nodded, his heart heavy. Just half an hour after meeting him, she knew he needed a lot of help. He really couldn’t deny it anymore.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Monday, Zeke had his first real practice with the Tigers. Horn and Kerr refused to say a word to him, but everyone else was cool. On Tuesday, Zeke had his first game after dinner. They were playing the Jets, who were ranked fourth, but rising closer to the Wolves in standings.

“This is not a blow-off game,” Meric reminded them. “The Jets have continued to get better, especially under Newt’s captainship. We have to take this game seriously.”

The team nodded in agreement.

Warm-ups went well. Zeke could hear his cabin mates cheering for him and Pax, which gave him confidence. He thanked his lucky stars that he wasn’t as nervous for this as he had been for the scrimmage, because he wasn’t sure if he could perform that well with that type of nerves again.

The game started out well for the Tigers, but it started slipping in the second inning. For three innings after that, the Jets stayed ahead by one run, until Zoren hit a homerun when the bases were loaded. The Tigers finished the game out strong and won 10-6.

Zeke was happy with his team’s result, but not so happy with his own performance. With a good pitcher like Newt, who was better than anyone he had batted at East Ridge, if not at home, Zeke didn’t bat so well. He knew that it was something he needed to work on.

“Decent first game, Zeke,” Meric said to him in the dugout. “But I expect better against the Pirates Thursday. You think you can bring it?”

“Definitely,” Zeke promised.

Meric smiled and clapped him on the back. “I believe you. Let’s see it at practice tomorrow.”

When Meric walked away, Jordan Hayes said, “Meric don’t let no one slack. He turns slackers into the best.”

Zeke and Pax agreed and left the dugout to go meet their friends. Israel hugged Zeke again, which surprised Zeke so much that he nearly fell backwards. “I didn’t play that well, but thanks,” he said, his ears burning.

“The Jets are gonna beat us next week, you just watch,” Deven said, sighing.

“If the Wolves win no games, the Jets only have to win three to move ahead in rankings.” Amoni said.

“Well we’re gonna beat the Sluggers again Thursday, so make that four.”

“At least you have confidence in something,” Zeke teased.

◊ ◊ ◊

Zeke worked his butt off in practice Wednesday, and so did the rest of the team. Everyone wanted to beat the Pirates.

“If we worked like that all the time, we’d be number one in the league already,” Meric said.

The team laughed.

“I’m only half kidding. Get back to your cabins and rest up, all right? And go easy during workouts tomorrow. I don’t need a tired team.”

On Thursday, the game was all Zeke could think about. He couldn’t focus in school, all he could talk about in counseling was baseball, and he nearly smashed his finger with a weight during workouts, he was so distracted.

After dinner, Zeke and Pax met the rest of the Tigers down at the diamonds for warm ups.

“You guys know what needs to be done, so let’s do it,” Meric said.

The team nodded solemnly.

Warm ups went smoothly, the team operating like a well-oiled machine. Grinning, Meric called them together before the game started. “We’re batting first. Chavez is a great pitcher, but I have a team that’s great at batting.”

The Tigers cheered.

“Just remember, whatever you do, don’t hit towards the shortstop.”

“Hausmann,” someone whispered with a hint of reverence. He was almost unanimously agreed upon to be the best player in the league.

“We got this,” Meric said.

The team put their hands in and yelled so loud that the Pirates looked over. A shiver ran down Zeke’s spine. They were in for an amazing game.

The Tigers scored first, then the Pirates surpassed them, then the Tigers almost caught up but not quite, and the pattern stayed. No matter how hard Zeke’s team worked, they couldn’t pull ahead. In the end, the Pirates won 9-8.

Though the Tigers were upset with the result, Meric kept smiling. “That’s the best we’ve ever played,” he gushed. “Now that I’ve seen where our real level of play is, I can’t wait to build on it and push us even harder. Congrats, guys. What a great game.”

Israel hugged Zeke when he came out of the dugout, which seemed to be becoming some sort of tradition. “Sorry you didn’t win,” he said.

“We’ll get ’em next time,” Zeke promised.

“If we keep playing like that, we’ll eventually wear them down,” Pax said, smiling.

“You guys looked amazing out there,” Deven admitted. “I wish we could play like that.”

“Zeke,” Gray said, butting in front of Deven. “You’re practically famous!”

“Antonio Cervantes and some of his teammates came to watch, and they talked about you.” Amoni said. “They’re all big players in their league, like Trevor McCrorey and the Scherich brothers.”

Zeke couldn’t hide his smile. “Too bad I’m not staying long enough to play with them.”

For the first time, Zeke realized that he would be sad to leave East Ridge.

◊ ◊ ◊

After an entire week with no games, the Tigers beat the Manticores easily.

On Friday, the day after the game, Zeke’s body hurt from the week of workouts and intense practices, so he stayed behind at the cabin with Israel instead of going to play 500 or watch baseball.

Zeke tried to nap, but his brain wouldn’t shut up. He kept opening his eyes to look at Israel, who was stretched out on the floor reading a book for English. Once, Zeke caught Israel looking at him. How many times had he looked at Zeke when his eyes were closed?

Zeke climbed down from his bunk and sat on Israel’s bed.

Israel looked up. “Have you read this yet?” he asked, pointing at the book.

Zeke shook his head.

“It’s not bad. And it would help you, you know, not fail the quiz tomorrow.”

“Nothing helps me pass those quizzes.”

Israel closed the book and sat up. “I’d help you if you wanted.”

“Why don’t you like girls?” Zeke blurted. The question had been burning in his mind ever since Israel said he was gay.

Israel shrugged, not seeming surprised by the question. “I don’t know. I just know I don’t. They’re… I mean, some of them are pretty, but I’d never date one, you know?”

“Yeah, I get it.”

Israel narrowed his eyes. “You ‘get it’ like you understand or like you feel the same way?”

“What?” Zeke said, putting his hands up in front of his chest. “No… No. Just because I said that you think I’m gay? No freaking way.” He got up and left the cabin, slamming the door behind him. Stupid gay Israel thinking everyone else was gay. Zeke wasn’t like that. He wasn’t some kind of wannabe-woman, no matter what his dad — and Israel — thought. He just hadn’t found the right girl yet… Right?

Zeke found himself at the baseball diamonds, where practices and scrimmages were in full swing. He watched two older teams scrimmage, observing the second basemen and thinking of ways they could’ve handled the plays better.

Focusing on baseball helped him calm down. Why had he gotten so worked up over one little comment, anyway? All he had to do was tell Israel that he had meant he understood what he said, not that he felt the same way.

But what had Israel been saying? That he wouldn’t date girls, even though he found some of them pretty? There were plenty of girls that Zeke’s friends thought were attractive, but Zeke never agreed. Sure, they were pretty, but Zeke never managed to think of them romantically. There was probably a girl Zeke just hadn’t met yet that was perfect for him, and he’d fall in love then.

But unlike the gay guys Zeke had always imagined, Israel really didn’t look gay or act gay. The only difference was that he found guys attractive, which made Zeke think of Brendan, his late friend from home. He had had a great smile.

Wait a second, Zeke thought. Did I find Brendan attractive?

He shook his head and went back to thinking about baseball. All of his thinking about Israel must have just been putting thoughts in his head.

◊ ◊ ◊

Over the next couple days, Zeke avoided Israel. However, not even avoiding him could stop Zeke from thinking about him or the conversation that he ran away from.

Months ago, Zeke’s dad had freaked out about Zeke spending time in the kitchen and blamed Zeke’s mom for making him act like a woman. He called Zeke a pussy and a wannabe-woman, and Zeke couldn’t forget the incident, no matter how hard he tried.

He knew that, if he didn’t like girls, he’d never be accepted. His friends would make fun of him, his dad would probably disown him, and his dad would blame it all on Zeke’s mom. But it wasn’t her fault that Zeke didn’t like girls. And it definitely wasn’t her fault that Zeke liked Israel, and not just as a friend.

That’s why his hugs made me feel weird, Zeke thought. Because I was trying to deny that I liked him.

Was he crazy?

After baseball practice one night, Zeke remembered that Zoren was gay. He was a nice guy, and Zeke knew that he would probably give Zeke advice if he asked.

“Hey Zoren,” Zeke said, walking over to him in the corner of the dugout. Their teammates were packing up and leaving, so no one would overhear what Zeke had to say if he was quiet enough. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Zoren said.

“This is going to sound really weird, but… how do you know you’re gay?”

Zoren scratched his neck and looked down at the bench.

“Sorry,” Zeke said quickly. “Forget this ever happened.” He turned away, but Zoren grabbed his arm. “It’s okay. You obviously asked for a reason.”

Zeke shrugged, and he and Zoren sat down on the bench. “To answer your question in the simplest way possible, I just find men attractive.”

“And you don’t like girls?”

“No. Believe me, I tried.”

Before Zeke could stop it, he started tearing up.

“Hey, hey. It’s okay, Zeke. It really is.”

Tears ran down his cheeks. “My dad’s going to hate me. My mom’s going to hate me.” He had never felt so horrible in his life. Telling someone the truth hurt more than he had expected. Hell, telling himself the truth had hurt. “I always tried to tell myself I was normal. Why can’t I be normal?”

“I tried, too.” Zoren said softly, looking over his shoulder. “You know why I’m here? Because I tried too hard. There was a gay kid at my school. Everyone knew he was gay because he was proud of it. He was open about it. I tried to hide my feelings by teasing him. I was awful to that kid. I told him that his life wasn’t worth it. I told him that nobody would ever love him. But truthfully, the only reason I said those things to him is because I hated that I was gay. I told him everything I thought about myself and everything that I thought people thought about me.”

Zeke nodded and wiped his eyes.

“I didn’t come out until I got here. And when I told my counselor, he said something I’ll never forget. ‘Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.’ Don’t let anyone stop you from being you. If they try to stop you, then they’re disposable, you know?”

“This is embarrassing.” Zeke said, wiping his eyes again.

Zoren laughed. “No one’s watching, and I won’t tell. I promise. If you ever need to talk, you know where to find me, right?”

“Thanks.” Zeke said. They stood up and shook hands. Zeke grabbed his glove and headed back to the cabin to grab his towel and his cleaner pair of workout clothes.

“Hey Zeke,” Ember said from his bed.

“Hey, Em. How’s it going?”

“It’s going. You sound stuffed up. Don’t get me sick.”

“I’m not sick.” Zeke promised. He grabbed his towel and workout clothes and headed to the showers. When he had showered and dressed, he ran into Pax, and they headed back to the cabin together.

“What were you talking to Zoren about?”

“Nothing important,” Zeke said.

Pax studied him. “Are you doing okay?”

“I’m fine, why?”

“I haven’t seen you and Israel talk at all for a week, and he’s acting weird too. What happened?”

“I don’t know. Nothing that I know of.”

“I’m not dumb, Zeke,” Pax said. “Something happened, because you guys were close. You should talk to him. Or make up with him. Whatever.”

“Don’t let it stop you guys from having a good time.”

“It’s not us that matters. Just talk to him, okay?”

◊ ◊ ◊

Zeke had no clue how to talk to Israel. He wasn’t confident in who he was. He hadn’t even been able to tell his counselor.But the worst thing by far was that he didn’t know if Israel would forgive him for being a jerk.

Since Zeke could hardly sleep and he couldn’t ask Israel to help with his work, his grades slipped. On Wednesday, he fell asleep in one of his classes that none of the Snickerdudels were in and the teacher caught him. “I’ll be seeing you in detention tomorrow before dinner,” she told him.

“Please,” Zeke begged. “Can it wait until Friday? I have baseball tomorrow, and it’s an important game.” The Tigers were playing the Wolves, and it was an extremely important game to win if they wanted to keep climbing closer to the Pirates in standings.

“You should’ve thought about that before you fell asleep in my class. Detention times are non-negotiable.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Before workouts, Zeke pulled Pax outside the Snickerdudels’ cabin to tell him about the detention where Israel couldn’t hear.

“You’re kidding,” Pax said, crossing his arms.

“I’m not. What am I going to tell Meric?”

“I don’t know, Zeke. That’s a hole you dug yourself.”

“Thanks a lot. You’re a big help.”

“I did what I could,” Pax said, uncrossing his arms and throwing his hands in the air. “I told you to talk to Israel, and you didn’t. That is why this happened, isn’t it?” Zeke nodded reluctantly.

“Then may Meric have mercy on your soul.”

◊ ◊ ◊

At the beginning of practice, Zeke approached Meric, wringing his hands, while the team warmed up their arms. “Meric, I’m so sorry, but I got detention tomorrow during our game. I tried to get it moved but I couldn’t. I’m really sorry. I’ll do anything to make this up to you.”

Meric just stared at him, then crossed his arms and looked out at the team warming up. Zeke shifted uncomfortably, and Meric took a deep breath. “I thought you were better than this.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I—”

“Don’t waste your apologies on me. It’s the team you need to apologize to.”

Zeke nodded, his stomach churning.

“We need you out there, Hallaway. You can’t be doing this.”

“I know, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“Why’d it happen in the first place?”

Zeke shook his head and shrugged.

“No, you owe me an explanation.”

“I really can’t explain.”

“I really can’t have you missing this game, but here we are.” Meric said, tapping his foot.

Zeke sighed. He told Meric about Israel and his conversation with Zoren and how he realized that he was gay, but he wasn’t ready to come out yet and it was ruining everything. Meric’s face stayed unreadable the whole time Zeke talked.

“Not what I was expecting,” he admitted when Zeke was done. “You know what? You’re a good kid, Zeke. I really respect your honesty. I’ll even let you play the second game after dinner tomorrow, all right? I seriously wasn’t going to.”

Zeke smiled slightly. They didn’t need him for that game, but he was always happy to play, even if the Tigers could beat the Sluggers with only half the team on the field.

“And I do want you to know that it doesn’t matter to me whether you’re gay, straight, bisexual, whatever. Just get this thing resolved and don’t get another detention, okay?”

“And you won’t tell anyone?”

“I won’t say a thing until you do.”

“Deal.”

Meric slapped him on the back and led him out to apologize to the team. When Zeke told them there was a lot of grumbling, but Horn and Kerr couldn’t hide their smiles.

Meric made Zeke run laps for most of practice, but Zeke didn’t mind. It gave him a chance to plan what to say to Israel on Friday.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Tigers beat the Wolves more easily than expected, even without Zeke, and they whooped the Sluggers, as expected, with Zeke.

Friday after dinner, Zeke had Pax make sure everyone was out of the cabin except Zeke and Israel. Zeke sat at one of the desks, pretending to do homework, and Israel sat at the other, probably actually doing homework.

You can do this, Zeke told himself, then took a deep breath. “Hey Israel,” he said. “Let’s talk.”

Israel nodded and put his pencil down, and they met in the middle of the room.

Zeke looked at him and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for everything. For being rude to you when you just asked a simple question, and for ignoring you, and for every crappy thing I’ve ever done to you.”

“It’s okay,” Israel said. “I shouldn’t have assumed—”

“No, listen. After I freaked out, I couldn’t stop thinking about your question. You were right to assume. You were totally right. I just had a really hard time finally admitting it to myself.”

Israel smiled and looked down.

“I just hope you don’t hate me.”

“Of course not.”

Zeke smiled and cleared his throat. “I’m glad, because, uh… I mean, I really like you, Israel. I wish I could’ve realized it sooner.”

Israel glanced at Zeke and then smiled down at his feet.

“Will you go out with me?” Zeke said, the words spilling out quicker than he had meant them to.

“Yes,” Israel said, grinning and pulling Zeke into a hug.

For the first time, Zeke let himself hug Israel back, and when they let go, Zeke couldn’t stop smiling. “What do I tell our friends?” “Surprise, I’m gay.”

Zeke laughed. “I guess that works as well as anything.” His heart hammered against his ribs, and his legs suddenly felt like spaghetti. Zeke sat down and put his head in his hands.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Israel said, sitting down next to him and putting his hand on Zeke’s back.

Zeke wanted to believe him. All those times he had wondered why he couldn’t join in his friends’ conversations about girls finally made sense. All those weird thoughts about cute waiters and that feeling when Brendan smiled at him finally made sense. But having this secret that his father could never know filled Zeke with dread. His dad would disown him if he knew. He’d take it out on Zeke’s mom.

What if she and Teagan hated Zeke, too? And what about his friends at home? He had joined them in making fun of gay kids behind their backs.

“Zeke?” Israel asked, touching his arm. “You’re practically hyperventilating.”

Zeke shook his head, tears falling from his eyes. “What am I going to tell them?” he sobbed. He tried to catch his breath, but he couldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Israel said. “Coming out is really hard at first. It’s kind of like… getting new shoes. When you find the shoes that fit and look right on you, they’re still kind of uncomfortable because they haven’t been broken in yet. And when you wear them around, people always ask about your new shoes, and maybe they like them and maybe they don’t. But eventually you get more comfortable in the shoes and people stop asking about them because they’re not new anymore. You know?”

Zeke nodded, tears falling off his face. He reached up to wipe them.

After a couple seconds, Israel wrapped his arms around Zeke’s shoulders tentatively. Zeke took his hands off his face and held onto Israel’s arms. It felt so right. Zeke couldn’t keep this a secret.

He would tell his dad. If he disowned him, then oh well. It wasn’t like Zeke liked his dad much, anyway. As for his mom, she had always stood by him. And if his friends back home didn’t accept him, the Snickerdudels would. That was good enough for Zeke.

◊ ◊ ◊

Israel’s arm was still around Zeke’s shoulders when Pax poked his head in.

“Come in,” Zeke said. Though Israel had gotten him laughing, his nose was still stuffed up from crying and he imagined that his eyes were still red.

“Is everything okay?” Pax asked.

Zeke glanced at Israel, who smiled, and then nodded.

“Just me or everyone else?”

“Everyone,” Zeke said. “I have something to tell you guys.”

Pax’s eyes narrowed for a second. Then he chuckled, and Zeke knew he had figured it out. Israel took his arm away and smiled at Zeke.

“This is great,” Pax said, then opened the door. He beckoned behind him, and the rest of the Snickerdudels poured in. Israel leaned close to Zeke and whispered, “You got this.”

Zeke gulped.

“What’s up?” Amoni asked.

Zeke stood up, his legs shaking. “Surprise. I’m gay.”

Israel joined him in standing. “And?”

“We’re dating.”

Their friends erupted into cheers, shocking Zeke into nervous stammering. “I thought… I don’t… Did you—?”

“We didn’t know,” Ember said, “If that’s what you’re attempting to say, Stuttering Bill.”

Pax laughed. “Em, how have we never talked about Stephen King?”

Pax and Ember broke off, and Deven punched Zeke’s shoulder. “Geez Zeke,” he teased, “I thought the big time for honesty was initiation. I can’t believe you held out on us!”

Israel smacked his arm, and Deven laughed.

“This is great,” Amoni assured them. “As long as there’s no ICDA—in cabin display of affection.”

“I’m sure there will be plenty when we’re not around!” Ember called from across the cabin.

“Hey, no cross-conversations,” Gray said with a smile. Ember had created the concept and told Gray not to do it multiple times.

“Just not in my bed, okay?” Amoni said, and Israel punched him in the shoulder. Zeke laughed, though his stomach churned. What had he really gotten himself into?

◊ ◊ ◊

Zeke spent every moment of the weekend that he could with Israel. They mostly stayed in the cabin and talked, but they occasionally went for walks just for a change of scenery.

“I wish I could tan like you,” Zeke said, leaning into Israel, who was reading. “You’re just so pretty, with your perfect hair and your tanned, muscled legs…”

“You’re way too white to tan like me,” Israel said, smiling.

“You say that like you’re not white.”

Israel looked at Zeke and put his book down. “My dad is white, but my mom is Pakistani. That’s where I get my skin, hair, and eyes from.”

“But you’re blond,” Zeke said.

“I’m really not,” Israel insisted. “My hair is brown, but since we’re out in the sun so much, I get natural highlights. A gift from my dad, I guess.”

“That’s crazy,” Zeke said, reaching up and touching Israel’s hair. “I really thought you were just dirty blond. And really tan.”

“I think a lot of people think that until they see me during the winter.”

Just a few minutes later their conversation got deeper, and Zeke found himself feeling strangely comfortable talking about his personal life.

“This whole thing — being gay and everything — is just difficult for me because of my dad,” Zeke said.

“I totally get it,” Israel promised. “My dad was probably my best friend. At least, after my Papa died. But when I came out, he got really distant. I knew he believed that God doesn’t approve of gay people because he had me believing it for half my life. But he finally reasoned that Jesus ate dinner with sinners ‘who committed worse crimes’ than being gay, even though being gay obviously isn’t even a crime. So even though I have this ‘sin,’ he decided that he could still love me and be seen in public with me. But he never wanted me to tell anyone in our community that I was gay, so that shows how proud he really was.”

“I’m really sorry,” Zeke said, touching Israel’s arm. “At least you’re not members of the Westboro Baptist Church or something. They’re even crazier, right?”

Israel sighed and shrugged. “You haven’t told your family, have you?”

“Considering that the last time I saw them I didn’t know myself, no.”

“Do you want my advice?”

“It’s not going to help. My dad will kill me.”

“Do you want it or not?”

Zeke bit his tongue. “Yeah. I do.”

“Write a letter,” Israel said, looking him in the eye. “Today. Because then it will get to them before visitation day and they’ll have time to filter out some of the things people say before they think and regret later when they’ve gotten used to the idea.”

“That’s a really good idea. Thank you.”

“You’re lucky you get the chance.” Israel said.

“At least your dad doesn’t hate you.”

“You have no idea what it’s like to have your best friend disapprove of a huge part of your identity.”

“You know what?” Zeke said, clenching his fists. “You’re right. Because I’ve never had a best friend, so I wouldn’t know.” At least Israel’s dad hadn’t disowned him or blamed his mom. At least his dad didn’t believe that he was a murderer. Those were real problems.

Israel looked away, and Zeke’s stomach tied itself in a knot. Why did he have to be such a jerk? Israel had known nothing but a chummy, loving father before he came out, so the distance had to be killing him. Zeke should have thought of that before he had said such stupid things.

Zeke moved closer to him so that their arms were touching. “I need to work on thinking before I talk sometimes.”

“I need to stop wallowing in self-pity.” Israel whispered.

“It’s not easy for either of us. We deserve a pity party every once in a while, don’t you think?”

Israel squeezed Zeke’s arm, then let go and stood up. “You have a letter to write, and I have laundry to do. See you later?”

Zeke nodded, his arm tingling where Israel had touched him. Israel picked up his laundry bag and left Zeke alone.

After a few minutes, he climbed up onto his own bed and pulled some notebook paper out of his school bag.

Dear Mom, Dad, and Teagan,

There’s no easy way to tell you this but I’m gay. I have a boyfriend now and I really like him even though it hasn’t been very long. Don’t think that you made me this way or that me being like this is wrong. Please. I’m the same me I’ve always been.

Love, Zeke

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