Without the support of his counselor and his friends, Zeke would have never dreamed of feeling so comfortable with himself. They made him feel welcome and so at home that Zeke couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if he had come to terms with himself anywhere else.
Being with Israel was amazing. Zeke loved it when he looked up to see Israel looking at him. He loved it when Israel caught him staring. He loved the way Israel came to support him at every game and how he listened to all of Zeke’s baseball stories and complaints, even if he himself had no particular love for the sport. Zeke loved holding Israel’s hand, brushing shoulders as they walked, and curling up next to him on his bed while they worked on homework. And despite the Snickerdudels’ occasional teasing, Zeke knew they were happy for them.
Even with all of the good things, Zeke struggled to accept the way some people looked at them now. He hated it when they were walking through the halls or sitting in the stands and people stared at them and whispered. Zeke knew there were rumors and he knew that there were people teasing them behind their backs, but he couldn’t bring himself to confront them. He always felt a lot better when he ignored them than when he thought about it before he fell asleep at night.
Before Zeke knew it, he was sitting in a room at the visitation center waiting for his family. His stomach was in knots, his hands were sweaty, and he couldn’t stop shaking. He needed to know what his family had to say about his letter, but at the same time, he wished that he hadn’t sent it.
Finally, the door opened and Teagan rushed in, followed by their mom. Zeke’s sister slammed into him, throwing her arms around him. “I knew it! I so knew it! What’s his name? What does he look like?”
Zeke laughed in relief and pulled away. “His name is Israel. Israel Benton. He has brown hair and brown eyes and he’s taller than me.”
Teagan’s eyes shone. “What else?”
“He has a great smile.”
Teagan slapped a hand over her mouth. “Zekey, this is too cute. How long have you been dating?”
“Since last Friday. I sent the letter a day after.”
“We’re lucky it got to us before today,” Zeke’s mom said from behind Teagan. He had forgotten that she was there. “We got it yesterday.”
“That’s why Dad’s not here,” Teagan whispered.
“Mom?” Zeke asked, his hands shaking. “You don’t hate me, do you?”
She looked away and put her hand on her chest. She looked out the window, her lip quivering. “I could never hate you, Zeke. It’s just hard for me to understand. I never—” Her voice broke.
“Dad blames her, of course.” Teagan whispered. “He practically destroyed the living room when he read the letter. We haven’t seen him since.”
“Mom,” Zeke said, his hands shaking more. “No matter what Dad said, it’s not your fault. You teaching me how to bake a couple things, or painting my fingernails when I was little because I asked you to, or reading those ‘girly’ animal books to me didn’t make me gay. It’s just how I am. It’s how I’ve always been.”
“I just… I-I always imagined having grandkids,” she sobbed, her hand moving to cover her mouth.
Zeke’s stomach churned. He had always imagined himself having children, too. “That’s what Teagan is for,” he joked half-heartedly.
“Don’t be silly,” Teagan said. “There’s always adoption.”
“Of course,” his mom agreed. “And even if I’m struggling with thoughts like that, Zeke, you have to know that I support you always.” She moved across the room to hug both of them. Zeke’s cheek pressed into her shoulder, and he couldn’t help but be thankful.
◊ ◊ ◊
Zeke found Israel in the hallway when visitation time was over.
“How’d it go?” Israel asked. “I just saw them leave. They looked happy.”
Zeke took his hand and pulled him down the hall. “They are happy, I think. My sister is, at least, and my mom definitely doesn’t hate me.”
“I didn’t see your dad.”
Zeke looked down and watched the tiles pass underneath his feet. “They got the letter yesterday and he left after he read it. After he yelled a lot and destroyed the living room.”
Israel squeezed his hand.
“He blames my mom, according to Teagan. I think it’s why she’s having a hard time. Mostly.”
“It’s not fair,” Israel said. “For your dad to blame your mom. It’s not fair for him to be upset with you. You’re still a great person.”
“I’m not a good person, and I never was.”
“You can’t really think that,” Israel said, squeezing Zeke’s hand tighter. “You told me yourself that you regret all that mean stuff you used to do and that you’re trying to be a better person. That sounds like a good guy to me.”
Zeke shrugged and smiled. “What I’m hearing is you’re into bad boys.”
Israel laughed. “Former bad boys. Really cute former bad boys.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Monday’s practice was incredibly intense because, once again, the Tigers were playing the Pirates. Zeke knew he was ready, and after barely losing to the Pirates about a month ago, the team was confident that they would win.
“Is Israel coming to the game tomorrow?” Meric asked Zeke after practice.
“Yeah, of course.”
“He’s not going to distract you, right?”
Zeke narrowed his eyes and then laughed. “It’s never been a problem before.”
Meric shrugged and smiled. “I’m half teasing. But I really do need you focused tomorrow. You’re a key player on this team, you know?”
Zeke’s ears burned. “Thanks. I’ll be one hundred percent in the game. I promise.”
“I believe you, Zeke.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Zeke woke up on the day of the Tigers and Pirates game feeling strangely calm. He made it through morning workouts, breakfast, school, lunch, and more school as if it were a normal day. But by the time afternoon workouts came around, the nerves had creeped into his system.
“Pax,” he asked as they headed out to the blacktop. “Are you nervous for tonight?”
Pax shrugged. “I don’t think I get the jitters like you do.”
After workouts, in which they had focused on their core muscles, Zeke and his friends went back to their cabin. He, Israel, Kelsey, Ember, and Pax did homework while Amoni, Gray, and Deven did chores. Focusing on math helped Zeke reign in his nerves for a while, but at dinner, his nerves came back.
“Eat,” Pax told him. “Don’t think about it, just do it.”
Zeke forced himself to eat even though his stomach felt unreliable. When he was done, he and Pax left their friends at the table and went to change into their uniforms. Putting on his uniform helped Zeke turn his nerves into excitement. This was the game where they were going to show the Pirates who the best team in the league really was.
“We’re going to have a great game,” Zeke told Pax as they pulled their shoes on. “I can just feel it.”
“Me too,” Pax said, standing and smiling. “Ready to kill it?” he asked, putting out his fist.
Zeke pounded his own fist into Pax’s. “Always.”
They jogged down to the field and met up with their team, most of whom were already there. They joked with each other until Meric called them out to the field and everyone flipped a switch. Zeke smiled to himself. The vibe was perfect.
During warm ups, Zeke was so focused that he never even glanced over to the Pirates to see how their new backup pitcher, who they had taken from the Jets, was looking.
“Bring it in,” Meric called, leading them over to huddle in front of the dugout. When everyone was there, Meric smiled. “I don’t need to give you guys a pep talk. Let’s go out there and kick some ass.”
“Yeah!” the team yelled, and they put their hands in the middle.
Meric took a deep breath. “One, two, three—”
The usual starters ran out to their positions on the field, leaving Runcorn, Hayes, Zoren, Dom, and Kerr on the bench. Zeke punched his left hand into his glove and watched Spencer hunker down behind home plate.
Logan Hart, the Pirates’ backup second baseman, came up to bat first. Zeke remembered the last game, where he had worked with Winship on third base to pickle Logan between their bases, ending in Logan getting out. Zeke smiled at the memory as Corey Ryan shook out his arms on the mound. He looked at the ball and brought it up into his glove. Zeke shifted his weight to his toes in anticipation.
The first pitch hit Spencer’s glove before Logan had a chance to swing. Strike one. On the next pitch, Logan smacked the ball low and hard. Meric moved quickly, scooped up the ball, and threw it to first base, getting Logan out with time to spare. Half the crowd, the Pirates fans, booed, but Zeke could hear Deven whistling.
Kory Cheatham, the Pirates’ right fielder, came up to bat next and hit the first pitch into the outfield. Kaden and Wyatt both ran for it, but neither of them got to it before it hit the ground. Zeke watched as Wyatt, who had the better arm, got to the ball first and threw it to first base. The ball got there a little too late, leaving the Pirates with one runner on base.
The Pirates picked up momentum from there until the top of the inning ended 2-0. Zeke had only touched the ball once the entire time.
The Tigers ran back to their dugout, and Zeke could tell that one or two of the guys, mainly Corey Ryan, were looking a little discouraged.
“Heads up,” Meric said. “This is our time to score more runs than them, right? And then next inning we can allow them less runs.”
“Yeah,” Jordan Hayes agreed enthusiastically. The rest of the team nodded and smiled.
“Remember the new batting order,” Meric reminded them. The strategy he was trying out for this game was to put all of the best batters at the front of the lineup in an attempt to get as many runs as possible before the Pirates could get any of them out. Zeke thought it was a decent idea, considering their usual batting order had never been very effective against the Pirates in the past.
Allen Runcorn was first in the lineup and, as always, he tripped going up to bat. Some people in the stands laughed, but the Tigers were used to it. They all knew that Runcorn wasn’t the strongest batter on the team overall, but he had a knack for hitting low and avoiding pop flies, which came in handy.
Chavez spent some time scuffing around on the mound, making it the way he wanted it to be under his feet, before rubbing his throwing hand on the side of his pants.
“He really sweatin’, ain’t he?” Hayes said, and Meric smiled.
Chavez threw the first pitch, a fast ball, and Runcorn let it whiz right past him and smack into Chapman’s mitt.
“C’mon, Allen,” Meric whispered.
Zeke sat forward. It wasn’t uncommon for Runcorn not to swing at the first pitch, but in a game this important, it had Zeke a little nervous.
The second pitch came, and Runcorn swung and missed.
“Shit,” Meric whispered. “Shit.”
“It’s okay,” Zeke said, not taking his eyes off Runcorn.
Chavez wound up again, and Zeke knew that Runcorn was going to swing, no matter what. It was just how he was.
Sure enough, when the curveball came flying, Runcorn swung, and all of the Tigers in the dugout jumped up, cheering, as his bat connected with the ball. It went right past Justus Hausmann, who dived for it and missed. By the time Rory Alleron in left field got his hand on the ball, Allen was a foot from first base. He was safe, easily.
“Nice job, Allen,” Meric called, and Runcorn flipped him a thumbs up.
Zoren was next in the batting order. He went up to the plate and immediately put his bat up by his shoulder.
“He’s over-gripping again,” Meric muttered.
The first pitch came, and Zoren smacked it right past Chavez’s head and into the second baseman’s glove.
“Zo-ren,” Meric groaned, only loud enough for Zeke and Jordan Hayes to hear it from either side of him.
“Chill, dude,” Jordan said as he grabbed a helmet and got ready to get on deck. “It’s just one out.”
Dom Horn was up to bat next, and on the first pitch, Chavez threw his first ball of the game. He took his time before the second pitch, then delivered a fastball that Dom easily hit into the outfield.
“Yes!” Meric yelled, jumping up. Runcorn and Horn both pumped their arms and legs, running as fast as they could around the bases. As Runcorn went for home, Bryan Sanchez lobbed the ball to James Hart on second base, who pivoted and threw to Chapman on home. Zeke couldn’t tell if Runcorn had touched the base before the ball hit Chapman’s glove, and he bit his cheek as the ump stepped forward and called, “Safe!”
Cheers erupted from the stands, and Meric grabbed Zeke’s shoulder, shaking him. Zeke laughed. “Hayes told you, man. It’ll be okay.”
Runcorn jogged back to the dugout, smiling, as Chapman argued with the ump and Dom stood on third, hands on his hips. Hayes walked up to home plate, and the ump told Chapman to get over it and get back to the game. Chapman pulled his facemask down aggressively and crouched behind the plate once again.
Chavez nearly walked Jordan. After three balls, Jordan managed to hit the fourth pitch into right field, where Cheatham scooped up the ball and threw it to first, easily getting Jordan out. However, Joe Mahmood, the first baseman, clearly wasn’t focused and didn’t throw home immediately, only reacting when his teammates started yelling. Dom touched home before the ball got there and jogged back to the dugout.
“Thanks, Joe!” someone in the crowd yelled.
“Mahmood, where’s your head?” Chuck Thurman screamed from third base.
Meric walked up to the plate, so Zeke grabbed a helmet and his favorite bat and headed out to take some practice swings. He tried not to watch Meric, but he heard the first pitch slap into Chapman’s glove.
“You got this, Meric,” Zeke whispered.
Meric clipped the second pitch, and the ball hit the Pirates’ dugout. They booed, and Meric ignored them, calmly adjusting his hands on the bat. On the third pitch, Chavez threw a ball, which Meric watched hit Chapman’s glove, expressionless.
Zeke took a few more practice swings while Chavez shook out his arms. When he wound up, Zeke stopped to watch, only for the pitch to be called a ball. Zeke smiled to himself. This really was not Chavez’s best game. Normally he was quite intimidating on the mound, but today Zeke wasn’t too nervous to bat against him.
Meric hit the next pitch, making the crowd roar. He dropped his bat and ran as the ball soared into the outfield. Zeke held his breath as Bryan Sanchez ran for it, his head tilted towards the sky. As the ball came down, it became clear that Sanchez had misjudged it. He dived for it, but it was too little too late, and the ball hit the ground.
The Tigers yelled from the dugout as Meric neared second base. Bryan got to his feet and grabbed the ball, throwing it to second base. Meric was already past it by the time the ball hit James’ glove. James threw to Chuck on third, and Meric reversed his run back to second. Zeke was almost positive he could see Chuck’s smile as he threw the ball back to James.
“You got this, Meric!” Pax yelled from the dugout.
Zeke gripped his bat tightly, turning his knuckles white, as Meric and the ball went back and forth between the bases. Finally, Chuck made a slightly lower throw, forcing James to move his glove to his waist to catch it. Meric sprinted for third, and James threw the ball right as Meric hit the ground to slide. Chuck stepped forward with his left foot to catch the ball, and Meric slid into his leg.
Though Chuck had managed to catch the ball, he was no longer touching third, and Meric was. Zeke held his breath, sure that, from his perspective, Chuck hadn’t been touching the base when he had caught the ball.
The umpire seemed to hesitate before sucking in a breath and calling, “Safe!”
“Yes!” Zeke yelled. Chuck tore his hat off and threw it, pulling himself up to charge the umpire. Meric scrambled to his feet and jumped between them. Chuck shoved him, and Meric fell into the ump, who caught him.
Chuck continued shouting as Meric moved aside. The umpire, red in the face, signaled for Chuck to be ejected from the game.
“What?” Chuck and many of the Pirates screamed. Rory ran in from left field to hold Chuck back from charging the ump again, and Chavez ran over to help get Chuck off of the field.
“He deserved it,” Pax said, coming to take Zeke’s spot.
“Yeah,” Zeke said, stifling a laugh. “I couldn’t hear half the stuff he said, but pushing Meric into the ump was a bad move.”
Zeke walked up to the plate as Chavez and Rory managed to get Chuck through the dugout and out among the crowd. Meric watched from third base, wiping his face underneath his helmet.
Zeke tapped the plate with his bat as Chavez and Rory jogged back to their spots on the field and Ben Calvin, the backup third baseman, took over Chuck’s spot. When he stopped on the mound, stretching, Chavez nodded to Chapman. Zeke looked to see if Chapman would give anything away, but he just nodded back at Chavez, expressionless.
When the first pitch came, Zeke was sure that it was a ball, so he didn’t swing.
“Strike,” the ump said.
“What?” Zeke said, turning to face him. Chapman smiled behind his mask. Zeke sighed and refocused, turning back to the plate. The second pitch came low and was called a ball. When the third pitch came, Zeke barely had time to react before it smacked into his side, making him cry out in pain.
“Sorry,” Chavez yelled.
“You okay, kid?” the ump asked.
Zeke held his side and nodded, the pain spreading up and down his body. He threw down his bat and jogged to first base. If he hadn’t been in pain, he probably could have walked faster than he was jogging in that moment. Zeke gritted his teeth and took a couple deep breaths. There was no way that Chavez hadn’t hit him on purpose. The game was tied 2-2 with a runner on third, and everyone knew Zeke could hit. Chavez knew that he had a better chance at striking out Pax, especially when he was pitching poorly, so he had taken care of the situation the best way he could think of.
Pax went up to bat, and the first three pitches were a strike, then a ball, then another strike. On the fourth pitch, Pax hit the ball over Justus Hausmann’s head. Meric ran for home and Zeke ran for second, ignoring the pain in his side the best that he could. Rory managed to get the ball into James’ glove before Zeke touched second, but it was okay because Meric was safe, and the Tigers were heading into the second inning up by one run.
The game continued in the back and forth pattern, just like the last game they had played against each other. Only this time, the Tigers sometimes managed to come out on top at the end of an inning.
In the bottom of the seventh — the last inning for a 13-16 game at East Ridge — the Tigers were down 10-8. Wyatt was up to bat first, which was clearly making Meric nervous. The bench shook as he bounced his leg.
Since Chavez had been struggling on the mound, Brennan Saeugling, the Pirates’ new back-up pitcher, had pitched the second, fourth, and sixth innings. Though he had done pretty well, Chavez came out to pitch in the final inning.
He nearly walked Wyatt but, on the fifth pitch, Wyatt hit the ball down the third baseline and safely made it to first.
“Good play, Wyatt,” Meric called.
Corey Ryan was up to bat next, and Chavez did end up walking him. As Ryan jogged to first and Wyatt to second, Chavez bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“He knows he shouldn’t be pitching,” Meric said to Zeke, who nodded.
“Saeugling sure would be walking less people,” Pax said.
“But possibly giving up more actual runs,” Zeke said.
Meric shrugged. “They picked their poison. We’ll see who it works out for.”
“Us,” Pax said. “It’s going to work out for us.”
After a strike and two balls, Winship managed a hit into left field, allowing the Tigers to load the bases.
“Let’s go, Runcorn!” Dom and Hayes yelled.
Allen swung and missed at the first pitch, and the second pitch nearly hit him. The third pitch went so far to the left that Ethan Memmings, the Pirates’ backup catcher, couldn’t even snag it. As he ran to retrieve the ball, Runcorn leaned on his bat.
“You got this, Al,” Kaden yelled encouragingly.
When Chavez had the ball again, he threw another pitch, which Runcorn didn’t swing at, and it was declared to be a ball. Zeke wondered if Chavez was really about to walk someone when the bases were loaded, but then Allen smacked the next pitch right down the center of the field. It ricocheted off the mound and rolled between first and second, where Winship nearly stepped on it as he ran to second. Joe and James both ran for the ball, but Joe called it and James turned and ran back towards second. As Joe grabbed the ball and straightened up to throw it, Wyatt had already touched home, but Corey was barely past third. Joe threw home, keeping the Pirates in the lead by one run.
Zoren hit a single, loading the bases once again, followed by a pop fly from Dom that Justus Hausmann easily caught, getting the second out.
“This is not a game that I want to end up playing extra innings,” Pax said, glancing at the scoreboard.
Zeke shrugged. “If that’s what it takes to win, we’ll do what we have to do.”
Hayes went up to bat. Chavez had clearly given up on curveballs or anything else that he knew how to do and instead attempted fastball after fastball. Jordan hit the second pitch between center field and left field. Bryan Sanchez was there after one bounce to grab the ball and throw him, but he was still too late. Winship had had a great lead off of third, and he had touched home as the ball had bounced in the outfield.
The crowd cheered, knowing that, with the tied score, the game was about to get even more intense. With the bases loaded once again, all Meric had to do to secure the game was hit away from home and the third baseline to let Runcorn touch home safely.
Two strikes and a ball later, Zeke was leaning against his bat, not caring whether or not he was missing out on practice swings. If Meric struck out now, it wouldn’t matter, anyway.
The fourth pitch was another ball, and Zeke watched as Meric bit his lip while Memmings threw the ball back to the mound. Chavez took his time shaking out his arm, adjusting his glove, and gripping and regripping the ball. Meric didn’t show any signs of impatience, instead watching Chavez’s every move. When Chavez finally got ready to pitch, Meric was ready with his bat hovering in the air. Chavez wound up, and Zeke watched as Meric watched the ball, swung, and smacked it with all the strength he had.
Meric dropped his bat and sprinted for first as the ball soared over everyone’s heads. Bryan Sanchez ran for it, even pulling himself up onto the fence in a last-ditch effort to catch it, but the ball was too far out of his reach. Zeke dropped his bat and ran to homebase to greet the runners as they ran in. His team flooded from the dugout, joining them on the plate, screaming and jumping.
“Ho-ly shiiit!” Hayes yelled, pushing off of Pax’s shoulders and jumping into the air. “Holy shit!”
When Meric got to the plate, the team surrounded him, still yelling in excitement. Meric smiled and yelled with them, then said, “Let’s finish this right by showing good sportsmanship, all right?”
The team retreated back to the dugout, and Zeke grabbed his bat from the ground where he had discarded it. He went up to the plate, ready to bat, but Chavez had clearly given up. He threw a weak pitch, the type you would throw to a kid who was just learning to bat, and Zeke smacked it into the outfield. He made it to second base before stopping as the ball was thrown to James. Pax then hit a single, followed by Spencer’s hit down the first baseline that allowed the Pirates to get the last out, ending the game.
The Tigers fans in the stands roared as the Tigers gathered together to celebrate again. Zeke yelled so much that his throat hurt, but he didn’t care. They had done it. They had finally beat the Pirates.
They got in a line to high five the Pirates, who were less than enthusiastic. Zeke didn’t blame them, but when he was done high fiving them, he gladly huddled up with his team, eagerly anticipating what Meric had to say.
“Good game, huh?’ Meric asked, smiling, his face flushed.
“Yeah!” the Tigers roared, all smiling.
“You guys were great,” Meric said. “Sincerely. You showed so much skill, so much composure, and so much determination. Those of you near me on the bench know that, occasionally, I was less than composed—”
Jordan, Zeke, and Pax smiled at each other.
“—and I really applaud those of you who totally kept your cool. Thank you all so much for working so hard and for playing your hearts out. It’s an honor to be your captain.”
“And thank you, Meric, for winning the game,” Spencer said, slapping him on the back. The team cheered, and Meric blushed, smiling. “Couldn’t have done it if the rest of you hadn’t scored all those runs.”
The team talked some more, everyone in a good mood, before putting their hands in the middle and yelling “Tigers” one more time.
When Zeke and Pax left the dugout, Israel ran up to them and jumped at Zeke, who stumbled backwards, his arms around Israel, barely managing to stay on his feet.
“Congrats,” Israel said, smiling and pulling away.
“Thanks, Benton,” Zeke said, returning the smile. “Glad you were here.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Saturday morning, Israel and Ember were debating something Zeke didn’t understand. He didn’t know where his other cabinmates were, so he decided to head down to the baseball diamonds and see who was playing. He spotted Zoren from a distance and pushed through a group of younger boys to reach his friend.
“Hey Zeke,” Zoren said, turning to face him as he leaned against the fence. “Panthers are winning.”
Zoren nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets, his shoulders inching closer to his ears. “If you don’t mind me asking, I’ve kind of been wondering, well, I’ve seen you with that guy—”
“From my cabin? Israel, yeah.” This was Zoren, Zeke reminded himself. There was no reason to be scared to talk about his boyfriend.
Zoren smiled and clapped Zeke on the shoulder. “Good for you, man.”
“Thanks. He’s honestly really great. What about you?”
“I, uh, well…”
“Sorry,” Zeke said, laughing a little. “Kind of personal.”
“No, it’s okay,” Zoren said, smiling again. “I’m single. Crushing pretty hard on a guy who I’m pretty sure is straight.”
“Oh. Well, sorry. I didn’t mean to, like, rub it in or anything.”
“It’s okay, really. I’m happy for you. You seem to be handling everything really well. You know, coming to terms with yourself and everything.”
Zeke grinned wryly. “Well I’m glad it seems that way. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my counselor.”
“Ugh, I hate my counselor.”
“Who is it?”
“Him? Ew, Zoren, why haven’t you switched?”
Zoren’s eyes widened. “We can switch?”
Zeke laughed. “Yeah. I switched to Mrs. Truman, and she’s great.”
“So much for me being the one that’s supposed to teach kids how this place operates.”
“Well, you know. It’s not a job for everyone.” Zeke teased, and they turned to watch the game.
◊ ◊ ◊
At dinner, the Snickerdudels grouped together at their usual table to eat.
“You guys ready to watch me make some money?” Deven said after they got their food.
“How?” Zeke asked.
“By being disgusting,” Ember said.
“I have people mix a bunch of stuff together and then I eat it. The trick is not doing it too often so that when I do, people bet more money.”
“You still don’t make as much as we do with baseball bets,” Amoni bragged.
“I’m in,” Zeke said. Israel looked up from his tray with his eyebrows scrunched.
“Why not?” Zeke said. “It’s all edible, right?”
Deven clapped him on the back. “Grab your food and come with me.”
Zeke picked up his tray and followed Deven to an empty table. Deven set his food down and put his fingers up to his mouth to whistle. A hundred heads turned, and a couple of guys got up and made their way over.
“Usual rules?” the first asked.
Deven nodded. “Want to bet on my friend Zeke, too?”
Zeke shook his head and turned to Deven. “What are the usual rules?”
“With Rob here, you eat everything he mixes and don’t puke.”
Rob looked Zeke up and down. “Five bucks on you, Dev, and ten on the new guy.”
“If I lose, I owe you ten dollars?” Zeke asked.
Rob nodded. “That’s how it works.”
“Fine.” Zeke said, running his hand through his hair. He didn’t have ten dollars. He had spent all of the money his mom had given him on snacks.
Rob started mashing food on Zeke’s plate, shaking salt and pepper and squirting ketchup all over it. “Wish I had mustard and mayo,” he grumbled to himself.
Zeke could hear Deven talking to other people next to him, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Rob and the plate. There was so much salt and so many mashed peas. Zeke hated peas.
“Why did I do this?” Zeke whispered.
“It’s all edible, remember?” Deven said. “Don’t be a wimp.”
“I don’t have ten bucks.”
“You’re up to seventy now, so…”
“Seventy?” Zeke glanced at the line of people Deven had been talking to and then back down at the plate.
“And if I do?”
“Then you make more bets that you can win until you can pay. Some people charge interest.”
“You could’ve told me all this before I agreed to do it.”
Deven shrugged, grinning. “Takes out the fun.”
“Oh, don’t be so proud of yourself. You knew exactly what you were getting me into.”
“Me, proud? Of myself?”
They both laughed.
“Done,” Rob said. Zeke looked at the reddish-brown mush in front of them. Rob had kindly separated it into two portions, and Zeke could have sworn that his was bigger than Deven’s. “Eat up.”
“Thanks, Chef,” Deven said. He grabbed a spoon and started eating.
Zeke followed his example, and against his stomach’s wishes, took a bite. The salt and pepper was overwhelming, and he knew that if it wasn’t mixed in so well and he could have inhaled it, it would have been over for him. However, he didn’t plan on letting Rob in on that information. He was already having a hard time swallowing, and he had at least five more heaping bites to go. He gagged, but kept the food in his mouth and managed to swallow.
“New kid ain’t gonna make it,” someone said. Zeke clenched his teeth and brought another bite to his mouth. He couldn’t owe anyone money, especially since Deven was almost done with his portion and hadn’t even gagged once.
After Zeke swallowed his second bite, Deven put his spoon down and started collecting his money. Zeke ate faster, hoping there was no unspoken time limit. Every bite was easier than the one before it because his tongue numbed to the salt and pepper.
When he swallowed the last of the mush, he let his spoon clatter down onto his plate. Some of the bettors groaned and pulled out their money. Deven gave him a smile and walked away with his tray.
Zeke collected the money, unable to keep the smile off his face. He knew his stomach would kill him later, but now he had seventy bucks and a small reputation.
“Wait,” he said to himself. He counted the money again. He was short twenty dollars.
“I’m not paying him,” a familiar voice said.
“Me neither,” said another.
Zeke looked up to see Dom Horn and Daniel Kerr glaring at him. “A bet’s a bet.”
“Not with you, faggot.” Horn sneered.
Zeke’s head spun. Was it a coincidence, or did they know?
“What did you call me?’ he asked, clenching his fists and stepping out from behind the table.
“You heard him,” Kerr said.
“We saw you with that other guy. But really, who’s surprised? Being at an all guys school can really make people crazy.”
“Shut up,” Zeke said, his vision going red. “Shut up.”
“Oh don’t be so sensitive.”
Kerr laughed. “Maybe he really is gay, Dom. No wonder he’s so—”
“I said SHUT UP!” Zeke stepped closer to them as they laughed, and then his fist connected with Horn’s face. He went down, holding his jaw, and Kerr backed away, his eyes as big as dinner plates.
“No wonder I’m so what?” Zeke yelled at Kerr. Somebody grabbed Zeke’s shoulders from behind. Zeke tried to get away, but the grip tightened. “Let me at him!”
“We have to get out of here,” Deven said.
Zeke turned to face him, the anger fading. Everyone was looking at him. Staff were heading towards him. “What did I do?” he mumbled miserably.
“Zeke,” Meric shouted, charging over in front of the staff. “What the hell is this?”
“Meric,” Deven said calmly, stepping in front of Zeke.
“Stay out of this, Ruben.”
“Meric,” Zeke said, his arms shaking. He hugged himself. “They called me a—”
“Does it matter?” Meric spat. “You could get kicked off the team for this.”
Zeke’s heart sank. His own arms weren’t enough to hold him together anymore. Meric turned away as Zeke’s vision blurred with tears and one of the guards grabbed him by the upper arms and led him out of the cafeteria.
◊ ◊ ◊
“This is the second fight you’ve been in at East Ridge Academy, Mr. Hallaway.” Headmaster Dawson said, squeezing a foam baseball and leaning over his desk.
Zeke looked at the shelves behind him. “So what?”
“Mr. Hallaway, this is unacceptable. Not only were you fighting, but you were gambling, and—”
“It was a just a stupid bet.”
“Exchanging money is not permitted. I trusted you to read the handbook.”
“I did, but I don’t care.”
Headmaster Dawson sighed. “You were doing so well for so long, Zeke.”
Zeke said nothing.
“Why did you punch Dom Horn?”
“Is cussing permitted?” Zeke asked, mocking his tone.
“Why did you punch him?”
“He called me a faggot.”
Headmaster Dawson put the baseball down and steepled his fingers. “I see.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Where is all this anger coming from?”
“Well, let’s see,” Zeke said, steepling his own fingers. “Oh, I got it. He called me a faggot.”
“I understand that you’ve been spending more time with your counselor recently.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Would you like to go talk to her now?”
“Why, so she can tell you everything I say?”
“Mr. Hallaway, I merely want you to manage your anger in a less violent way.”
Zeke rolled his eyes.
“Me or your counselor?”
Headmaster Dawson pulled out a clipboard and flipped through a list. When he found Zeke’s information, he picked up the phone and dialed. “Georgia? Are you free to talk to Ezekiel Hallaway? Great. We’ll be right down.”
Zeke was out the door before Headmaster Dawson could hang up. He stepped past Horn, Kerr, and a guard in the hall. Horn sported an ice pack, and Zeke couldn’t help but feel some satisfaction. It had been a good punch.
Zeke wondered if he should lie to Mrs. Truman like he had to Headmaster Dawson. He hadn’t only punched Horn because of the name calling, even though that was most of the reason. He punched him as payback for all the crap he gave him in baseball. Mrs. Truman already knew Zeke was gay and probably understood why the name calling bothered him so much. She didn’t know hardly anything about baseball, but Zeke reasoned that she would probably be more understanding of the name calling than petty baseball drama. And really, the payback was something Zeke thought of after the punch. It was the name calling that had made him feel so insecure. It had crossed the line.
Zeke arrived at Mrs. Truman’s office, pushed through the door, and sat down in front of her desk. She looked up at him. “Does this visit have anything to do with the fight in the cafeteria?”
“Everything,” Zeke mumbled.
“Seeing as you look unharmed, I’m guessing you administered the punch?”
“Tell me what happened.”
Zeke told her, unable to read her face. When he was done talking, she sighed. “I’m sorry they said those things, Zeke.”
“It just made me feel… really bad,” Zeke said, wanting to hug himself again. His hands shook. “Really bad.”
“Remember what you told me? ’Those who matter—”
“‘Don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.’ I know. I try to think like that, it just sucks.”
Mrs. Truman nodded and tapped her pencil on her desk. “Did you know the boys?”
“Yeah. Dom Horn and Daniel Kerr. We’re on the same baseball team.”
“Strange that they would say these things if you work together so often.”
“Well, I mean,” Zeke shifted in the chair. “They’re kind of jerks to me all the time.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Horn is my back-up and Kerr is his best friend. When I tried out, Horn was hoping to get the position I ended up getting.”
“I see.” Mrs. Truman said, then she laughed. “Baseball sure can make you boys do funny things.”
Zeke shrugged. “Am I in trouble?”
“You punched another student. There have to be ramifications.”
“I had a real reason, though.”
“Zeke, I know you’re insecure with your sexuality, and I know that other people knowing about your sexuality makes you very uncomfortable, especially when they talk about it in an offensive manner.”
Zeke nodded reluctantly, his ears and cheeks burning.
“But that does not make it okay to turn to violence.”
“I know,” he whispered.
“I think you’re a good boy, Zeke. With your permission, I will tell Headmaster Dawson about your situation, and I believe it might convince him to be less rigid with your punishment.”
Zeke didn’t want Headmaster Dawson to know he was gay, but if it decreased the chances of him getting kicked off the Tigers, he had to be okay with it.
◊ ◊ ◊
It seemed like Zeke waited in the hall with Horn, Kerr, and the security guard for ages while Mrs. Truman talked to Headmaster Dawson. Kerr avoided Zeke’s eyes, but Horn stared him down. The security guard cleared his throat as Headmaster Dawson’s door opened, and Horn looked away.
“Zeke,” Mrs. Truman said. “Come on in.”
Zeke got up and walked into the office. He sat down in the chair facing Headmaster Dawson, who leaned forward as Mrs. Truman closed the door. “I think I now have a better understanding of the events that transpired.”
Zeke looked at Mrs. Truman, who moved to stand behind the desk with the headmaster.
“Mr. Hallaway, I’m here to protect you and all of the students at East Ridge Academy. In some people’s eyes, you have a target on your back. But I hope you know that Mrs. Truman and I are open-minded, and we will make time to talk to you if you ever need us.”
Zeke looked down. “Thanks?”
“What those boys called you is in no way okay. Unfortunately, you let your anger get the best of you, and we do have to punish you.”
Zeke’s heart rate climbed. If he got kicked off the baseball team, Meric and
Pax and everyone would kill him and he’d lose the only thing besides Israel that he truly cared about.
“Mrs. Truman and I have decided that you will be assigned extra chores and you will attend extra counseling sessions to learn some anger management techniques.”
“Will they conflict with baseball?”
“Your extra counseling will take place during teambuilding. According to our instructors, you have performed very well and very consistently. They believe that taking away that time will not negatively affect you.”
“What about the chores?”
Headmaster Dawson smiled. “Give me your baseball schedule, and I’ll work with you.”
Zeke sighed in relief. “Thank you.”
Mrs. Truman went out to the hallway and came back with Horn and Kerr. They pulled up two chairs next to Zeke and sat down.
Headmaster Dawson told them that calling Zeke, or anyone, derogatory names was unacceptable, and that if they let the situation in baseball affect them this much, then they could stop playing.
“It won’t happen again,” Kerr said, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Horn nodded and looked down, but Zeke saw the expression on his face. He wasn’t sorry, and Zeke knew this wasn’t over.
Headmaster Dawson assigned them extra chores and a detention, which was during practice. Zeke fought a smile.
“It’s a tradition here that you shake hands and apologize before leaving my office,” Headmaster Dawson said. “And if I don’t think that you mean it, we can stay here and talk some more.”
Zeke stood up, and so did Kerr. Kerr offered his hand, and Zeke shook it. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. Zeke met his eyes, and Kerr tried to smile, but his eyes stayed sad.
“Thanks,” Zeke said. Kerr wasn’t going to be a problem.
Horn stood up as Kerr left the office. Zeke put out his hand, and Horn crushed it. “I apologize for calling you a—”
“The word is not needed, Mr. Horn,” Headmaster Dawson said.
Zeke tried not to wince as Horn squeezed his hand harder. “I’m sorry for punching you. I hope you feel better soon.”
Horn let go and stormed out of the office. Zeke followed slowly, not wanting anything to happen in the hall, but also not wanting to stay and talk to the headmaster or his counselor.
When he got outside, Zeke jogged to the baseball diamonds, hoping to find Meric so he could apologize. As usual, Meric, Wyatt, Zoren, and Spencer stood at the fences watching a game.
“Meric, can I talk to you?” Zeke asked. They all turned around. Meric raised his eyebrows and sighed. “Sure, Hallaway.”
Zeke led him away from his friends and behind the bleachers. When he stopped, Meric faced him with his arms crossed.
“Look,” Zeke said, “I’m really sorry about what happened in the cafeteria.”
“Do you know how embarrassing it is to have everyone know that guys on your team got in a fight? I mean, come on, Zeke. Only Wolves do that.”
“I know, Meric. I’m sorry. But Horn and Kerr have never been nice to me. Not from the beginning. And I wasn’t going to let it bother me, but then they found out.”
Zeke shifted on his feet. “About, you know. Me. They called me the f-word and made fun of me in front of people, and I just snapped.”
Meric nodded, his face softening. “Zeke, if you would have told me earlier that something was going on, I could have talked to them or did something. What they did isn’t cool, but you left me powerless to help you before it escalated. And when you go getting yourself kicked off the team—”
“I didn’t get kicked off. Neither did they. Neither of my punishments conflict with baseball, but their detention is during practice.”
“You put me in a tough position here.” Meric said, his arms still crossed.
“If you get into any trouble again, I don’t know if I can keep you on my team. Even now knowing the full situation, I’m really disappointed in you. I just need you to know that.”
A lump formed in Zeke’s throat. “Nothing like this will happen again,” he said, hoping it was true. He couldn’t control Horn.
“Horn and Kerr… Heck, Zeke, I’m livid. I really try to like people and get along with everyone, but they’re tough.”
Zeke raised his eyebrows.
“What they said to you… You’re my friend. If I saw Horn and Kerr right now, I’d kick them off the team before they could say a thing. But I can’t let my personal emotions affect who I am as a captain, you know?”
“Sorry, Zeke. I’ll talk to you later,” Meric said, uncrossing his arms and clapping Zeke on the shoulder. “I have to go think this one through.” He walked away from the diamonds, not even bothering to tell his friends he was leaving.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Where have you been?” Israel asked when Zeke stepped into the cabin. Zeke shut the door and went over to sit on his bed. Pax, Ember, Deven, and Israel stared at him.
“Headmaster Dawson’s office.”
“But we saw Dom and Kerr a while ago,” Pax said.
“I talked to Meric.”
“Before us?” Israel asked, seeming hurt. “We don’t even know why you punched that guy. He’s on your team, right?”
“They’re kind of awful, that’s why he did it,” Pax told Israel. He turned back to Zeke. “Did you get kicked off the team?”
Zeke shook his head. “Neither did they.”
“Too bad, I could’ve taken one of your spots,” Deven joked.
Pax glared at him. “You know Dev, we protect each other here. You were there, and you just let this happen?”
Deven turned red, and Zeke spoke up. “It’s not his fault. He walked off before they started causing problems. He came back as soon as he could.”
“We still don’t know why you punched him,” Ember said. Israel nodded.
“He called me a faggot.” Zeke spat the last word. He had never hated it so much.
His friends gasped.
“He did not,” Israel said.
“Dude, if I would have known, I would have kicked him right there while he was laying on the ground.” Deven said. Pax nodded in agreement.
“They just made me feel so awful, and I snapped.”
“Good for you,” Pax said. “You have to stand up for yourself sometimes,” he said, nodding at Israel.
“Do they actually know?” Israel asked. “About us, I mean. I don’t want to hide it, but I don’t want the wrong people to know.”
“I get it,” Zeke said. “Headmaster Dawson told them off, and I think Meric will too. I just don’t know if that will stop Horn from doing anything more.”
“You guys should hear the jabs they make at him every day,” Pax said, looking at the ground. “It may just be baseball, but it would wear anyone down.”
“Yeah,” Deven said. “I’m jealous of you two, but you don’t see me being a jerk about it.”
“You’re also not their backups,” Ember said. Deven shrugged.
“I’m feeling pretty crappy,” Zeke said, his voice threatening to break. “So if you don’t mind…”
“You got it, man,” Pax said. He, Deven, and Ember got up and left the cabin. Israel moved over to his bed, where Zeke sat down, and put his arms around Zeke. “Are you going to be okay?”
Zeke leaned his head on Israel’s shoulder. “Yeah. I just hope they get kicked off the team so I don’t have to be around them so much.”
“You get what I meant about the wrong people knowing about us, right?”
“You’re too great to hide.”
“You know what?” Israel asked, letting go of him.
“We should prank them.”
“You’re no fun,” Israel said, pushing out his bottom lip. “I’ll have to recruit Gray and Amoni.”
Zeke laughed. “If it’s something stupid, I’m in.”
◊ ◊ ◊
At practice Monday, Meric acted as if nothing had happened and didn’t acknowledge the fact that Horn and Kerr were absent. Zeke worked his butt off so that there was no way he could end up on Meric’s bad side.
At the game against the Manticores on Tuesday, neither Horn nor Kerr showed up, so Zeke assumed that Meric had asked them not to.
They came to practice on Wednesday, and Meric pulled them aside while the team warmed up. Zeke glanced over when he could. Horn looked furious, but Kerr’s eyes never left the ground. The next time Zeke looked, they were gone, and Meric was looking at him. Zeke gave him a small smile, and Meric returned it.
◊ ◊ ◊
Tryouts for Horn and Kerr’s spots ended up happening on Friday evening alone. Meric hadn’t managed to find a field open for a scrimmage or a team willing to scrimmage them, so one evening was all they had to choose new teammates.
Neither Zeke nor Pax were worried about losing their spots and becoming a back-up, but it was a different story for Matt Winship.
“You guys know I suck at batting,” he said to Hayes, Pax, and Zeke in the dugout before tryouts started.
“Think about it, Matt,” Hayes said. “They’re lookin’ for back-up third basemen, not someone just to bat. Ain’t no one gonna beat you at playing third base.”
“Yeah, you’ll be fine, Matt,” Zeke said, and Pax nodded in agreement.
When Meric called them out to the diamond, Zeke felt more glad than ever that he was on the team for the tryouts this time around, and not one of the nervous guys meeting everyone for the first time. They formed a circle for introductions, Zeke forcing himself to remember the newbies’ names. There was Hayden Quigg, who was a back-up for the Wolves, Christian Lewis, who was a back-up for the Sluggers, and Lincoln Kimball, the Manticores’ third baseman, who were easy to remember since Zeke already recognized them. He had watched them play enough to know that Hayden and Christian didn’t have a chance against Lincoln.
The other newbies were Andrew Smith, who Zeke was glad to see come back, David Dunn, a tall, dark-haired fifteen, Eddie Long, a fourteen with mousy brown hair, and Vik Kaur, who Zeke knew had tried out for the Wolves and had not made it.
Meric took the newbies away to do drills separately while Spencer and Wyatt took over the team, warming up their arms and making them race to the fence and back. Zeke found himself laughing a lot as the other boys joked around, and by the time Meric came back with the newbies, Zeke was ready to get to work.
Meric started by putting the usual field players in their spots on the field and having everyone else bat. Zeke kept notes in his head as they cycled through batter after batter. Andrew Smith had improved a bit, but Zeke bet that he would still get extremely nervous when it came time to play in front of a crowd. Lincoln Kimball and Eddie Long stood out at batting, and Zeke couldn’t wait to see how their fielding skills were. He had seen Lincoln make some good plays on his current team, but he had also seen him make some pretty bad ones.
The first person Meric put in Zeke’s spot was Vik Kaur. Zeke made sure to high five him when he came out to second base, but it soon became evident that Vik was a terrible second baseman. Meric rotated through more people, but Eddie ended up spending the most time on second and in shortstop, while Lincoln played a lot of first and third base.
By the end of the night, Zeke thought it was clear to everyone that Meric’s choices were Eddie and Lincoln. They stood out above the rest of the newbies, and the only other person that Zeke could imagine working somewhat well on the team was Andrew Smith.
When Meric called them together, Zeke ended up standing between Lincoln and Kaden Smith. Kaden met Zeke’s eyes and nodded discreetly at Lincoln. Zeke smiled and nodded in agreement.
“Thank you all for coming,” Meric said, beaming at them. “I truly had so much fun getting to know you all tonight. However, I have come to a decision on the two players that I want on the team. As our first and third back-up, Lincoln Kimball.”
“Knew it,” Kaden Smith said, clapping, as Zeke and the rest of the team clapped and cheered. Zeke looked at Lincoln, smiling, and Lincoln blushed and rubbed the back of his neck, smiling a little.
“And for our back-up second baseman and shortstop,” Meric said, “I’d like to welcome Eddie Long.”
Zeke cheered and clapped as Eddie pumped his fists. This one had been too easy.
Meric talked some more to the other guys who had tried out while Zeke and the other Tigers scrambled to make a line. Spencer and Wyatt stood at the end with the hats for Lincoln and Eddie, and Zeke ended up standing between Pax and Zoren.
As Lincoln and Eddie came down the line, Zeke tried to decide how to congratulate them. Some guys offered handshakes, some offered fist bumps, and some high-fived. Some guys said something, too, but Zeke didn’t know if he should.
Before he could decide, Eddie was in front of him. Zeke put his hand up for a high five. “Congrats, man.”
“Thanks,” Eddie said, grinning and moving on to high five Zoren.
Zeke did the same for Lincoln. He missed watching Wyatt put Eddie’s hat on his head, but he got to watch as Spencer put Lincoln’s hat on. The team cheered again, making Zeke think back to when he had made the team and how welcome he had felt. He hoped that he had helped make Eddie and Lincoln felt the same way he had.
◊ ◊ ◊