Summer at East Ridge was one of the best summers Zeke could remember. Normal classes, teambuilding, and lectures ended May 31st. Thanks to Israel, Zeke managed not to get any D’s or F’s, so he didn’t have to take any remedial classes. Plus, Zeke was doing well enough that Mrs. Truman agreed to let him take the summer off of counseling unless he had an emergency.
Everyone at East Ridge was required to take two summer classes, but they only met three times a week, and the boys weren’t even required to wear their uniforms, just their recreational clothes. Zeke took Outdoor Skills, which was taught by a local Boy Scout Troop leader, and Career Aptitude and Interview Skills. Zeke learned more in those classes than he had all year in normal school, and he had a lot more fun.
With less classes, baseball teams could practice more. Meric required two practice sessions a week, but he also scheduled extra pick-up games and batting practices for anyone who wanted to come. Zeke attended almost every single one, only missing when he, Deven, and Kelsey had strep for a week. Zeke also attended a few one-on-one sessions where Meric nitpicked him until he was exhausted and couldn’t take criticism any longer.
Because of the extra practices, Zeke not only got better at baseball, but he and his teammates got to know each other a lot better. The Tigers loved the other Snickerdudels, so they ended up eating dinner together most nights.
Every moment that Zeke had outside of class, workouts, and baseball he spent with the Snickerdudels, but most importantly, Israel. Despite the fact that Israel was gushing over his Shakespeare class the whole summer, Zeke discovered that he didn’t have to be good in school to have cool conversations with his extremely smart boyfriend. They talked about the possibilities of how the universe was created and the unexplored depths of the ocean, about movies they both loved and about what they would do together when they got home. As far as Zeke was concerned, those conversations were better than the debates Ember and Israel had any day.
When normal school started again on August 1st, Zeke found himself wishing that summer would come back. Even by September, the feeling still hadn’t gone away.
After breakfast one weekend, Zeke sat on the bleachers with Pax and Deven watching 17-18 games.
“How’s it going with Israel?” Deven asked.
“Uh, fine.” Zeke said, taken aback by the question.
“No, but really.”
“Yeah,” Pax said. “We’re with you guys a lot and you look happy then, but you know. Things can be different when you’re alone.”
Zeke shook his head and laughed. “You guys are really nosy.”
“Come on,” Deven protested. “We’re some of your best friends, right? It’s not nosy if we genuinely care. And it’s not like you’re going to bring it up. All you ever talk to me about is baseball.”
“Ditto,” Pax said. “Most of the time, anyway.”
Zeke rolled his eyes. “Fine. Make me talk about real stuff. Everything with Israel is really great. You guys know him. He’s funny and smart and a really good listener. We get along really well, and we also happen to find each other attractive. There’s not much more to say.”
“You must be quite the romantic,” Pax teased.
Deven laughed and shook his head.
“Deven thought Israel kind of pressured you into the whole thing. Like, you know, since you didn’t know you were gay until you met him and he kind of started coming on to you.”
“He didn’t ‘come on to me,’” Zeke said, his ears burning. “It was little things.”
“With Izzy, little things are big things,” Deven said. “With all that hugging after games, he practically came onto you.”
“Sorry if that’s weird, but I just didn’t know for sure. Like I said, all we talk about is baseball.”
“That’s fair, I guess.”
“Cough it up, Ruben,” Pax said, putting his hand out.
“My money’s back at the cabin.”
Zeke laughed. “Wait, you guys bet on this?”
Pax smiled. “It’s just what we do.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“Tomorrow is Kelsey’s last day,” Pax told Zeke in math class weeks later.
“I know, we talked about it last night. I’m excited for him. He can’t wait to get home and not have to work out every day.”
“Have any ideas for something special to do for him tonight?”
Zeke tapped his cheek with his pencil. “He really liked it when we played Charades that one time.”
“Oh yeah, that was fun.”
“We could make him a goodbye card that looks like the Snickerdudels sign.”
Pax smiled. “You know what? I’m glad I asked you for ideas.”
Zeke laughed. “Compliment accepted.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The card was done before dinner. Everyone signed it and wrote Kelsey little notes, including their contact information, on the back. Pax told the others about Charades, and they found Kelsey at dinner in good spirits.
“What time are your parents coming tomorrow, Kels?” Deven asked.
“In their letter it said ‘morning,’” Kelsey said.
“Man, that means we have barely any time left with you.” Amoni said.
“I’m kind of excited to get home,” Kelsey said sheepishly.
“You’ll be able to play video games,” Gray said. “I miss video games.”
“We’ll miss you, though,” Zeke said. The others agreed.
“I’ll miss you guys too,” Kelsey said. “Especially when my dad starts getting onto me about being a ‘real man’ again.”
“He’s going to have to accept that you make your own decisions sooner or later,” Pax told him.
“How’d he react to your mom shortening your time here without him knowing?” Zeke asked.
Kelsey smiled. “He didn’t like it, but he also said he thought East Ridge was too soft. On visitation days, he’d tell me that the only change he noticed in me was in my muscle mass.”
“I think you’re much more confident than when you first got here,” Zeke said. Others agreed, and Israel squeezed his arm.
“Their program is aimed towards troubled kids,” Ember pointed out. “So it doesn’t really have the effect on us that it can on them.”
“It mostly just helps us in the friends and survival skills department,” Amoni said. “Not that I can say I wasn’t a ‘troubled kid.’”
They all laughed.
◊ ◊ ◊
After baseball, the Snickerdudels met at the cabin and played Charades for an hour before giving Kelsey his card and climbing into bed.
In the morning, they had their last breakfast as a group. Zeke couldn’t help but smile, thinking about how close they had gotten since those first weeks.
Kelsey left in fourth period, meaning only Amoni and Deven, who had the class with him, got to say a final goodbye.
“It’ll be weird without him,” Israel said.
“Yeah,” Zeke agreed. “Someone else will have to turn out the lights, and we won’t have anyone to tease so easily now,” he joked.
“You lost one of your cheerleaders.”
“And my first real friend here.”
“I hope he keeps in touch.”
“Do you think we’ll all really be able to keep in touch when we leave?” Zeke asked. “It’ll be absolutely nothing like living here together.” Israel looked down. “We better. You guys are pretty much the only real friends I’ve had since I moved from Arizona.”
“I promise that I’ll make my best effort to keep in touch with you.”
“You better,” Israel said, leaning into his shoulder, “or I’ll have to break your heart.”
“Not if I break yours first,” Zeke teased, pushing back.
Israel grinned at him. “You’re my favorite.”
◊ ◊ ◊