East Ridge Academy: Zeke Hallaway

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May - 2

After the Tigers and the Wolves played each other once again, and once again, the Tigers won, Zeke and his bunkmates grabbed their towels and workout clothes and headed to the showers. Deven grumbled about the close score, 7-5, the whole way to the shower house.

“You guys didn’t allow near as many runs as usual,” Pax said. “Justin must be getting his bearings as a captain.”

“Whatever, we still lost,” Deven said. “I just wish we could beat someone besides the Sluggers and the Manticores.”

When they got to the showers, Zeke separated from the group. Showering next to his friends still felt wrong. He headed to the back corner, as always. Then he hung his towel on a locker, took off his clothes, and jumped under a shower head.

After he used the soap in the dispenser to wash his hair and his body, he shut off the shower head. He stepped out of the shower and looked up to grab his towel, only to see Dom Horn standing there holding it. Behind him were a few scary-looking guys that Zeke didn’t know, and each of them were holding some of his clothing. One showed off his missing front tooth as he grinned. Their own towels were wrapped around their waists.

“Give me back my towel, Horn.” Zeke said. Horn just laughed and dangled it in front of him.

Zeke refused to embarrass himself by grabbing for it. “Give it back.”

Horn shook his head. “It’s payback time, Hallaway.”

“For what? Punching you? Big deal.”

“For stealing my spot and then getting me kicked off the team. You convinced Meric to do that, didn’t you? How’d you do it? By sleeping with him?”

Horn and his goons laughed.

Zeke’s ears burned. “He came to that decision on his own.”

“Oh really?” Horn put Zeke’s towel over his shoulder. “Then how’d he know about me and Daniel messing with you? You’re a nark.”

“Am not,” Zeke said.

“A queer, a jerk, a nark… What’s next, Hallaway?”

“Man-whore,” one of the goons suggested.

Horn and his friends laughed. Zeke clenched his jaw. As much as he wanted to punch Horn, he couldn’t. He had promised Meric not to get in any more trouble.

“At least I can actually play baseball,” Zeke said.

The smile left Horn’s face. “You can’t play either, fag. You were only on the field because Meric chooses favorites.”

“Well, then at least Meric doesn’t hate me. He told me that he never liked you.”

Horn’s face turned red. He turned over his shoulder. “Hey, listen up!”

Zeke watched boys in the other showers look towards them. He instinctively reached to cover himself, and one of Horn’s goons took his towel from around his waist and snapped it at Zeke’s arms repeatedly. “Can’t be shy undressing in front of guys.”

Zeke fought back tears as red stripes appeared on his arms.

“See this ugly naked kid here?” Horn yelled. “He’s gay. He’s probably checking you all out every time you come in here.”

Horn’s friends pointed and laughed. Zeke’s whole face burned. His throat hurt from holding back sobs.

“He’s a ho-mo-sexual,” Horn said, laughing. Some of the guys in the other showers laughed, and some looked disgusted, but some of them just went back to minding their own business.

Zeke wanted to call for help, but he couldn’t. The number of people who had laughed at him was too high for him to have any kind of chance.

“No girl would ever like a nasty guy like you, anyway,” one of Horn’s friends said.

“Yeah,” another chimed in. “I heard if your dick’s under two inches you have to be gay.”

Zeke clenched his fists. He had to stand up for himself, and words had failed him.

“You want your towel, faggot?” Horn asked, dangling it in front of Zeke.

Zeke took a deep breath, unclenching his fists. He had promised Meric.

“He’s too queer to fight back,” one of the goons said. He took off his towel again and snapped Zeke with it. One of the others followed his example, and Zeke knew that he had no choice.

Just as he brought his fists up, Pax came out of nowhere and tackled Horn to the ground. Daniel Kerr yanked the towels out of the snappers’ hands and wielded them himself. Horn’s goons ran, dropping Zeke’s clothes on the floor. The snappers pulled their towels back from Daniel, who smiled sheepishly at Zeke. He reached down and grabbed Zeke’s towel from where Pax had Horn pinned to the ground. Zeke took his towel and wrapped it around his waist.

“Listen up, Dom,” Pax hissed. “Just because you’re a weak, pathetic coward who can’t face the fact that his best friend hates him and he’s bad at baseball doesn’t mean that you get to torture the guy that showed you up.”

Dom spat in Pax’s face, but Pax didn’t let go. “Go back to Asia.”

“Go back to Europe,” Pax said, rolling his eyes. Dom tried to free his arms, but Pax kept his grip. “Daniel, can you go find one of the guards or something?”

Kerr nodded, then looked at Zeke. “Can’t believe I was ever friends with that guy.”

Zeke was too numb to say anything back. As Daniel ran off, Zeke slumped to the ground.

“You okay?” Pax asked, his face contorted as he fought Horn’s struggling.

Zeke closed his eyes, and tears ran down his cheeks.

◊ ◊ ◊

Somehow, Zeke ended up back in his bed with his workout clothes on. His friends sat around his bed, and Israel stroked his hair. “You okay?”

“Everyone knows,” Zeke whispered.

“Hardly anyone was in there,” Pax said.

“Enough to make me feel awful.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t come sooner. You played a great game tonight.”

“I don’t care about the game,” Zeke said. It came out like a sob.

“Sorry,” Pax said. “Just trying to help.”

“Well you’re doing a crappy job.”

Deven squeezed Pax’s shoulder, and Israel put his hand on Zeke’s cheek.

“I’m sorry,” Zeke whispered. “Can we not talk about this anymore?”

His bunkmates got up and went to their own beds. Israel lingered longest, but Zeke shook his head. He needed to be alone.

“Turning out the lights,” Kelsey said. No one said anything, even when Zeke started crying. They knew him too well.

◊ ◊ ◊

When Zeke woke up, his eyes were swollen, his throat burned, and his nose was stuffy. No one said anything to him through morning workouts, but he felt them watching him.

By breakfast, it was clear that everything his friends were doing revolved around him. Israel’s leg pressed against his under the table, Deven didn’t attempt to put anything weird in his drink, and Gray and Amoni told their best jokes in an attempt to make him laugh.

“Don’t let me dampen the mood,” Zeke mumbled.

“We have to get revenge on that jerk.” Deven said.

“Yeah,” Kelsey agreed. “He deserves it.”

“I’m sorry,” Israel said. “I should have been there with you.”

Zeke leaned his leg into Israel’s. “I’m glad you weren’t. I never want you to go through that.”

“Why can’t they just let you be yourself?” Gray said, pounding the table. “You’re human just like them.”

“Because they’re close-minded,” Ember said.

“Thanks guys. Really,” Zeke said. “But can we not talk about this right now?”

Everyone went back to eating. When they were done, they went back to the cabin to grab their shower stuff. Deven and Pax flanked Zeke and Israel.

“Just in case,” Pax said.

Even though Zeke was terrified of what might happen if he was alone, he didn’t want to strip down in front of his friends.

At the shower house, Deven and Israel went one way while Pax led Zeke to the back corner. Zeke smiled at him. At least he wouldn’t have to shower next to Israel.

“I got you, Zeke. I promise.”

Zeke’s ears burned as he stripped down next to Pax, but Pax wasn’t paying attention.

When they were done showering, Deven and Pax walked Zeke and Israel through the school.

“It’s okay guys, really.” Israel said.

“Just for a few days,” Pax said. “We worry about you guys, especially now.”

“Thanks,” Zeke said, even though it frustrated him. He could protect Israel if he needed to.

“This is weird,” Israel whispered.

“It sucks, but… I never want anything like that to happen to you.”

Israel took his hand, then let go. “Maybe we shouldn’t do that in public.”

Zeke’s heart panged. “I guess not.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There were no problems all day, but at practice, Meric called Zeke over to talk privately.

“Hey, man. I heard about what happened last night.”

“Pax?”

“Lyon, actually. He heard a rumor and I heard him spread it to anyone on the team who hadn’t heard. Word always gets around and gets distorted, you know?”

Zeke shrugged. “It’s fine.”

“It’s not,” Meric said. “And if you’re not, you can tell me.”

“Thanks, but I’m okay.”

“Zeke… I know this can’t be easy for you. This is me talking as a friend, not as a captain, okay? Everyone on the team knows you’re gay now, if they didn’t before. And it probably didn’t happen the way you imagined or the way you wanted. But none of them would ever do what Horn did. We’re on your side, okay? We’re your family. We’re here for you.”

Zeke’s stomach churned. He knew the team was on his side, but the fact that they knew and he hadn’t been the one to tell them did bother him. “Thanks, Meric.”

Meric pulled him into a hug. Zeke hugged him back, gratitude surging through his chest. It was good to have a friend like Meric.

Meric let go after a few seconds and pushed him away. “Go warm up and show ’em who’s boss.”

◊ ◊ ◊On Saturday, Amoni, Gray, and Israel came over to Zeke at one of the desks in the cabin, where he was working on writing a letter home.

Zeke looked up, and they were all grinning. “This doesn’t seem good.”

Amoni laughed. “Not for Dom Horn.”

“You ready to prank him?” Israel asked. “We’re gonna get back that ten dollars he owes you from the food bet.”

Zeke smiled. “What’s the plan?”

They filled him in, and Zeke couldn’t help but smile, despite the fact that he didn’t want to see Dom’s face ever again. “Are you sure it’ll work?”

“Would we fail you?” Amoni asked.

“I saved the mashed potatoes from yesterday just for this,” Gray said, running over to his bed. He came back with what looked like a ball of papers and opened it to reveal the yellowish-white potatoes.

“Ew, are you sure that didn’t attract ants?” Israel asked.

“It’s fine,” Amoni said. “This’ll be great, right Gray?”

“Right!”

Zeke got up to follow his friends out of the cabin. Israel walked next to him. “I swear, if we have ants in here now…”

Zeke grinned and shrugged.

They found Pax, Deven, and Kelsey down at the baseball diamonds watching a 17-18s game. Amoni and Gray ran up the bleachers, pointing and gesturing. Pax looked down at Zeke and Israel, smiled, and then pointed over to the field in the middle of the baseball diamonds. Zeke spotted Dom standing in the field, his arms crossed, talking to Gavin Jones and Justin White, the new captains of the Wolves.

Zeke and Israel looked at each other, smiled, then headed over to the field. There were baseball gloves and bats all over where guys had thrown them down to play 500 with tennis balls or talk to their friends. Zeke was about to investigate the gloves along the outskirts of the fence near Dom, but Amoni and Gray ran up behind Zeke and Israel, panting. “No way we’re letting you guys go over there.” Amoni said.

“Stop babying me,” Zeke said, walking towards the field. Gray followed him. “I’ll distract him if he sees you.”

“Thanks Gray,” Zeke said. He walked quickly to the fence and bent down to examine the tags inside each glove. GF, LK, OR, TG… Everyone with a brain wrote their initials on the tag, so Zeke supposed it was possible Dom hadn’t initialed his.

Gray walked warily next to Zeke, staying between him and Dom. If Dom came over, Zeke could just say he was looking for his glove, no big deal.

After checking at least 20 gloves, Zeke picked one up to hold the tag to the sun. Sure enough, a very faded DH was written in small letters. “Gray, I think I got it.”

“Really?” Gray asked, kneeling. He pulled the ball of papers out from under his sweatshirt.

“Gross, man.” Zeke said. Gray laughed and did his best to transfer the mashed potatoes into Dom’s glove.

Zeke looked over his shoulder compulsively, but Dom was so busy trying to keep Justin and Gavin’s attention that he stayed turned away from Zeke and Gray.

“We’re good,” Gray said, stuffing the papers under his shirt again. Zeke gave him a fist bump, and they got up and walked back over to Israel and Amoni, who were pretending to watch the game.

“The deed is done,” Zeke said. Gray grinned, and Amoni high fived them. “Now we wait.”

Israel bumped his shoulder against Zeke’s and they smiled at each other. They headed over to the bleachers. Amoni got Pax, Deven, and Kelsey’s attention, and they came down and stood with them, taking turns glancing at the field where Dom was still talking to Justin and Gavin.

“You really think he’ll go get a new one immediately?” Israel asked.

Pax shrugged. “If not, we still put mashed potatoes in his glove. I’d call that revenge any day.”

“Where’s Ember?” Kelsey asked, looking around.

Everyone shrugged and looked at each other.

“We told him what we were doing today,” Deven said. “If he doesn’t show, that’s his deal.”

“Probably in the library,” Israel said. “They finally got a book he really wanted to read.”

“Sounds like him,” Amoni said.

“He’s probably having more fun there, anyway.” Zeke said. “No baseballs in sight.”

They all laughed and agreed.

“He’s moving,” Pax said. They all turned to watch. “Not all at once,” Pax hissed.

Zeke grinned and squinted. He could barely see Horn as he walked towards the fence with Gavin and Justin. They all reached down to put their gloves on, and Horn dropped his almost immediately. He gestured to Gavin and Justin, then they all looked inside Horn’s glove. Gavin seemed to be laughing as Horn threw his glove down and stomped towards the cabins.

“Run!” Gray said. The Snickerdudels took off for the visitation center at full speed, running between the outermost row of cabins and the fence.

“Remember,” Pax said as they ran, “Amoni is going to pretend he got detention and he’s filling in for Linda while we distract her.”

“Are you sure Dom will believe it?” Israel asked. “That’s nothing I’ve ever heard of.”

“Not the time to question the plan, Iz.” Deven said. “Amoni can come up with something.”

“You bet!” Amoni said from behind Zeke.

Zeke got to the visitation center first and ushered all of his friends in. They hurried down to the basement, panting and sweating.

“I don’t know how much time we have,” Pax said, trying to catch his breath.

“You know the plan,” Amoni said. “Find Linda.”

“LINDA!” Gray yelled, making Israel jump. Zeke couldn’t help but laugh along with Deven, who laughed so hard that he nearly fell over.

“Is someone here for me?” A voice called from behind the maze of clothing racks.

“Yes ma’am,” Pax yelled. “We’ll come meet you back there.”

“Watch your step,” Linda said.

Zeke and his friends raised their eyebrows at each other.

“Did she put up booby traps or something?” Kelsey asked.

“I guess we’ll find out,” Deven said.

Zeke and Pax led the way to the clothes racks just as they heard the door into the basement open.

“Dom,” Gray said. They all jumped behind the clothes racks and crouched down, slowly making their way to Linda.

“Is this a needle?” Gray asked, picking up a little shiny thing off the floor.

Pax squinted at it. “Looks like it. Maybe she dropped some.”

“I think it’s probably safe to stand now,” Israel whispered, looking behind them.

Pax shrugged and they all stood and hurried back to Linda.

“Boys, is that you?” Linda called.

“Coming,” Gray said.

Zeke heard Amoni’s voice coming from behind them, then Dom Horn’s voice. He hoped Amoni could convince him that he was filling in for Linda and get the ten dollars that Dom owed Zeke. Zeke had already blown all of his money on snacks, and ten more dollars could really help him out.

They walked around a rack of very small East Ridge jackets, probably for the nine year-olds, and nearly ran into Linda.

“Oh,” she said, backing up. They smiled sheepishly.

“I thought you must have been lost,” she said.

“It’s a long walk,” Kelsey said.

“None of you happened to step on any needles, did you?”

They shook their heads, and Gray held out the one he picked up. “I found this, though.”

“Thank you,” Linda said, taking it from him. She pulled out a pincushion from her sweatshirt pocket and stuck it in. “I got a brand new box of them and spilled them everywhere, I’m afraid.”

The boys all murmured their apologies.

“So what brings you here?” Linda asked, turning and beckoning them to follow her. They walked around the last row of clothing racks to the platform and the mirrors where Linda fit boys for their uniforms.

Zeke looked at Israel, who looked at Deven. Deven nudged Israel. “Uh, well, some of us are going home soon, and we wondered if we keep the clothes or if there was a way that we could, uh, donate them back.”

Linda smiled. “An excellent question.” She gestured to a mannequin wearing only a white button up. “That one was donated in beautiful condition. The day you leave, you can come down here and I can assess the condition of your clothes and take the ones that are acceptable to re-sell.”

“Oh okay,” Israel said. “Thanks. We’ve always wondered.”

Zeke could still hear Amoni’s voice talking quite loud. He needed more time. Israel looked back at him for help, but Zeke didn’t know what to say.

“My shirt has a hole in it,” Kelsey said. Zeke grinned at him.

“Well I could fix that for you, honey, but not if you don’t bring it to me.” Linda said, picking something off of the shirt on the mannequin. “All you have to do is come down to the scary basement, I know. It would be nice if people visited me more.”

Pax stuck out his lip at Zeke. “You must get a lot of people who come in a rush.”

“I do,” Linda said, smiling at him. “They all have to get to workouts or baseball or something or other. Did anyone ever teach you boys manners or time management?”

Kelsey shifted uncomfortably, and Deven shrugged. “We have time to talk.”

“Well isn’t that refreshing,” Linda said. “It’s all right, though. I get to go home early on Saturdays, so it’s not so bad today. Run along now. I’m sure you have trouble to get into.”

“No ma’am,” Deven said, and Pax laughed. “But we can get out of your hair.”

Linda smiled. “It was nice of you to drop by. I’m sure I’ll see you again before you leave for good.”

“Thanks for your help,” Zeke said. The others thanked her, and they walked back through the labyrinth of clothes. Zeke could no longer hear Amoni or Dom’s voice.

“Think we’re safe to go out there?” Israel whispered as they got closer to the front.”

“For sure,” Deven said.

“That you guys?” Amoni asked. He poked his head through a rack of white shirts. Gray patted his cheek. “Did you get the money?”

Amoni’s hand, holding a ten dollar bill, joined his head where the boys could see it. “Here ya go, Zeke. It took forever to convince that jerk that the gloves had been repriced, but he finally got tired of arguing.”

“It sure is a good thing you’re stubborn,” Zeke said, taking the money. “Thanks for this, guys.”

Israel hugged him, and Deven patted his shoulder. “For the record, if I would’ve been there when you punched that creep, you would’ve had this ten bucks a long time ago.”

♢ ♢ ♢

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