Israel: December, East Ridge Academy
*smaller time jump, but still a time jump, sorry*
On the first day of Christmas break, Israel’s dad woke him up in the morning, just a little earlier than he usually did for school. “Rise and shine, Israel. It’s a beautiful day to serve the Lord.”
Israel groaned, stretching and biting his tongue, wondering how Dad could be so positive when Israel knew that Dad hated him. While Israel did regret some of the things he had said to his parents in the past week, he definitely didn’t regret coming out to the entire church against his parents’ wishes.
Israel got out of bed and picked up the backpack that he had filled with supplies for his new school, East Ridge Academy. He worried that he was forgetting something important, even though he knew it was unlikely because the school hardly allowed him to bring anything. Once he was dressed and ready, Israel took his backpack downstairs. Mom had made muffins the night before, so both of his parents sat at the kitchen table reading their Bibles and eating muffins.
“Good morning,” Mom said. Israel walked over and hugged her the best he could while she was sitting in the chair before grabbing a muffin for himself. He wasn’t hungry -- it was hard to be when he had so much on his mind -- but he knew he needed to eat.
There was so much that he wanted to say to his parents. He knew that their prejudices against people like him ran deep and they weren’t going to let them go just because Israel begged them to, but it didn’t stop him from trying. Why couldn’t they be like the people at church who had congratulated him after his faith story? After all, Israel wasn’t even related to those people, and he was his parents’ only child. They should have loved him for who he was before people that he only knew from church did.
“Are you ready to go?” Dad asked suddenly, looking up from his Bible.
Israel held up his muffin, which he had only managed to take one bite of. “Can I finish eating?”
Dad looked at his watch, then nodded. “Don’t dally. I told your new headmaster that we would arrive before lunch.”
Israel resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It wasn’t his fault that Dad had set that deadline. But as much as Israel wanted to be mad about it, he also wanted the new headmaster to like him. After all, this school was supposed to be a new start for him and wanted to make the best impression on everyone he met. He would be the awkward, quiet, ignored, shy kid no longer. He refused to let himself be the reason that he didn’t have any friends again. So he finished his muffin, despite the fact that his nervous stomach complained with every bite, then went to the bathroom. When he came back, Mom had his backpack on her lap and was looking through it.
“What are you doing?” Israel asked, stuffing his hands into his pockets so that he didn’t grab it away from her and make her angry.
“I am just making sure that you aren’t bringing anything that you’re not supposed to.” Mom said, zipping up his backpack and handing it back to him.
Israel held his tongue. His parents could be crazy all they wanted to today. After this, he was only going to see them once a month for a whole year, and that would be a lot easier for Israel to handle. Immediately the thought made him feel guilty, but he pushed it down. He shouldn’t feel guilty when his parents were the ones being unreasonable, right?
“You seem ready to go,” Dad said from the kitchen, where he had been taking his vitamins.
Israel shrugged, and Dad headed for the garage. Mom picked up her Bible off the table and hugged it to her chest before following Dad to the garage. Israel followed them out to the car, where Mom got into the backseat and settled next to Israel. After they were both buckled in, she reached for his hand and Israel held it, looking down at their intertwined fingers. Her nails were so much nicer than his -- he assumed that his would look like hers if he stopped biting them because they were the same shape, but he couldn’t stop biting them -- and her skin was darker. Israel wished that he took after her more so that people weren’t always questioning his ethnicity. He didn’t think that he looked white at all, but everyone else seemed to think that he did when Mom wasn’t around to prove that he wasn’t completely white.
At least that was one good thing about his current school. People had stopped asking him “What are you, anyway?” Israel sighed, imagining what the comments would be like at his new school. Though his parents had told him that they had chosen the school because they offered counseling and leadership training to help boost Israel’s self-confidence, Israel had looked up the school for himself and knew that it was primarily a place for boys with behavioral issues. If these boys had trouble respecting adults, he couldn’t imagine the type of racist and homophobic comments that they reserved for their peers.
Oh Lord, Israel thought, squeezing Mom’s hand without thinking about it. I’ll never be able to be out at this new school. They’ll kill me.
“Are you nervous, honey?” Mom asked softly.
Israel nodded, unable to swallow the fear rising in his throat.
“I know it will be hard to be away from me and your dad, and I’m sorry.”
Israel nearly pulled his hand away from hers. No one understood him. No one ever would, so this new start wouldn’t mean anything, no matter how much Israel wanted it to.
“Don’t cry, honey. It will be okay,” Mom said, reaching up to wipe the tears from Israel’s cheek. He let her, despite the fact that he really did not want her pity. It wasn’t like she actually cared about his real feelings -- just the ones that she thought were valid. She had called his feelings a “phase” and she almost always joked about teenage hormones when he wasn’t happy. It made Israel sick. He had been so stupid to come out to his parents, hoping they’d understand that part if him when they couldn’t even understand why having no friends except them, Meemaw, and Dylan bothered him so much.
“A new opportunity is no reason to cry,” Dad said, looking at Israel in the rearview mirror. “You told me that you were looking forward to this, remember? And think of all the lives you’ll change, spreading the word of Christ to the other boys you’ll meet. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, Israel.”
Israel pulled his hand away from Mom’s and stared out the window. Dad was right. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, but not to spread God’s word. It was the best opportunity Israel was ever going to have to do what he wanted in his life and not what his parents wanted.
Israel woke up, his eyes puffy and difficult to open, as their car turned onto a gravel road and began shaking and bumping down the road. He rubbed his eyes, remembering crying and wishing he had some space to himself as his parents had told him that he was going to be fine at his new school once he got past the homesickness. As if that was his only problem.
“We’re about there,” Dad said.
“We’re going to miss you so much, honey,” Mom said, reaching for his hand again. Israel let her, hating himself for it. Hating himself for knowing that he was going to miss them.
At a tall gate, Dad stopped the car and handed a guard the paperwork that Israel had helped him fill out. Once they were through the gate, it seemed like God hit fast-forward on the world. They parked the car and got out. Israel’s mom clung to him as they walked into the building and cried as they waited for the headmaster to come get Israel. His parents told him that they loved him and prayed over him, asking God to help Israel find answers and get back onto the path to Christ. The headmaster came down a hall and led Israel away, explaining a lot of things that went through one of Israel’s ears and out the other. Then Israel was put in a room alone with a tray of food -- a ham sandwich, applesauce, green beans, and milk. Israel didn’t even like milk -- or canned green beans, for that matter -- but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t hungry. He choked down the applesauce and then moved the tray of food to the desk so he could lay down in his bed and cry.
Israel nearly screamed when someone knocked on the door. He wiped his eyes with his shirt, rolled out of bed, and went to answer the door. There, a man wearing khakis and a white polo shirt looked him up and down. “Everything okay?
“Did you eat your lunch?”
Israel shrugged again.
“Well,” the man said, looking at his watch. “I don’t have time to pull answers out of you, kid. Let’s go.”
Israel followed him down the hallway until they got to a room full of laundry machines and other boys. Israel tried not to look at them, afraid that they’d be staring at him, and followed the man in the white shirt down some stairs. The stairs opened into a small warehouse that was full of clothing racks, shelves, and boxes -- all of which seemed to be full.
The man finally told Israel that his name was Mr. Chance as he led him around the warehouse and helped Israel grab bags, school supplies, toiletries, and clothes. Usually Israel enjoyed school shopping, but it was no fun when there was only one option.
Finally, they reached the back of the warehouse where a woman, Linda, chatted with Israel about nothing while she measured him for his uniform, made him try it on, and then tailored it so that it fit him better. Israel regarded himself in the mirror, noting his messed up hair and the dark circles under his eyes. He reached up unconsciously to smooth his hair, but Linda grabbed his wrist and held it by his side.
“I know it’s a long process, but moving will just make it last longer.”
Israel berated himself and sighed through his nose. Speaking of which, the mirror showed that it was definitely too big for his face.
After dinner, which Israel ate in his room alone after Mr. Chance tried to get him to do to the mess hall and Israel resisted, Mr. Chance came back again and said, “Do you want to shower or are you going to refuse to do that, too?”
Israel stood up and grabbed the towel from his new supplies.
“Your workout clothes, too,” Mr. Chance said.
Israel obeyed, then followed him down the hall.
“Tomorrow you’ll be awoken by a bell and you’ll have a few minutes before you need to be dressed and out of your room. Then I’ll show you to your spot in attendance block and take you inside to do some fitness tests, got it?”
Israel nodded. He had read as much in the orientation packet before dinner.
“Then you’ll have a little bit of time to shower and eat breakfast. Since you came on a weekend, you’ll have time to relax after that. But you will have a tour tomorrow -- resisting that is not an option -- so I need you to be in the mess hall at 5 pm. Before dinner. Got it?”
Israel nodded, but Mr. Chance didn’t see it.
“Yeah,” Israel muttered.
“Ah, so he does talk,” Mr. Chance said, smiling.
Israel bit his tongue. So much for not being the shy kid. Not that he had anything to say because the only interactions here seemed to be people ordering him around, so he supposed that he was doomed to be the quiet kid, anyway.
Mr. Chance led Israel outside to a relatively small building on the side of the blacktop and gestured for Israel to go inside. “Be fast,” he advised.
Israel pushed his way through the door. Inside, it smelled slightly like mildew and bleach, but the showers themselves seemed clean, which Israel figured meant that sometimes chores involved cleaning the showers. He went to the back corner of the building and began stripping down. As he pulled his shirt over his head, he realized that his clothes had a very specific smell. He never smelled it at home because — at least, he assumed — it was what his whole house smelled like. Israel took a deep inhale and felt tears pricking at his eyes. He would give anything to be in his own bedroom for one more night.
Israel stepped into the shower and turned the faucet so that water came out. The cold made the prickling sensation in his eyes turn into full on crying, and he was thankful that there were not any other boys in the building with him. Though the water did get slightly warmer, Israel longed for his shower at home and his room with the comforting Bible verses on the wall… Israel sobbed and promised himself that he would keep his faith while he was here, even if he couldn’t hear Dad preach every Sunday or go to youth group on Wednesdays or confirmation on Mondays or celebrate holidays at Margaret Ann Kelly’s house or hold his parents’ hands and pray before meals or before bed… He had never been ashamed of his religion, but he couldn’t help but imagine other boys making fun of him for praying before he ate or before he went to bed at night. He began practicing praying with his eyes open, looking normal without folding his hands, and then imagined himself praying in the dark before he fell asleep.
Israel was so used to having private time to pray to God, and when he didn’t, having his parents to guide him through a prayer and remind him of the things he had to be thankful for and the people who were sick that he should be praying for. After this shower, when was he ever going to get alone time like this again? The thought made him sob again as he reached for the soap dispenser.
The water shut off before Israel stopped crying, so he dressed slowly as he took deep breaths and tried to stop his tears. At least when he moved into a cabin he could start making friends. Or, at least, start trying to make friends. And this time he wouldn’t kiss any of them even if they were acting suspiciously interested in being more than friends. Unless they came out and told him they had feelings for him. Then, Israel thought, smiling a little, there will definitely be kissing.
Stop, he told himself, shutting down his smile. Don’t get all excited for nothing. Sure, it probably would be hard not to make friends with people I’m living with, but it’s me, he thought bitterly. I’d find a way to push them away, just like I did with everyone except Dylan and his parents. And heck, do my parents even count anymore?
When Israel was completely dressed, free of tears, he left the showers and walked back to his room with Mr. Chance. He wanted so badly to be able to make conversation with the guy — maybe it would be good practice for making friends? — but Israel couldn’t come up with anything to say.
Before he knew it, he was alone in his room again. He threw his dirty clothes on the floor and went over to the desk. He opened the drawers, pleased to find stationery and pens. Israel sat down and wrote the date at the top right corner of the paper. Should he write to his parents? Dylan? Ross, even though he hadn’t responded to Israel’s last three letters?
Israel wrote “Dear,” slowly and in his best handwriting, then put the pen down. It wasn’t like anyone would care about anything he had to say at this point. He picked up the pen again and wrote his own name next to “Dear.”
I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe when you read this you will, but that’s just really hard for me to imagine right now because everything is a mess. My own parents can barely look at me sometimes. I mean, I think everyone has moments like that, but my moment is stretching out to be MANY moments. The worst part is, these moments are always when I’m being my true self. That’s when they look away, tearing my heart out as if there’s a string attached to my heart and their eyes. Just constantly tugging, tugging, until my heart is ripped out and, sometimes, put back in. Only to be ripped out again, of course.
All I want is someone, honestly anyone, who understands me for me. I’m supposed to have a counselor soon so even if it’s them, I’d be happy. For a time, maybe.
Why do people have to take the parts of people they like and leave the ones they don’t like? I can’t be my whole self with anyone or even anywhere. Living in pieces isn’t living at all. That’s what I’ve discovered.
I really, really, really hope that you’re happier when you read this. I hope you have people who you can really talk to and who love you for you.
Israel Justus Benton (you) from 2012
Israel wiped his eyes, which were slightly damp, then folded the note carefully. He took and envelope from one of the desk drawers and put the note in. He licked it to seal the envelope, then put the envelope on the desk and wrote “Do not open until December 2013.”
The next day went by in a blur, as if Israel was watching it happen instead of experiencing it himself. In the morning he ran a pacer test while Mr. Chance watched. He only got forty-two but still felt like he was going to keel over afterwards. After breakfast, he sat in his room and wrote a long letter to Dylan about his last day at his old school and everything he had experienced at East Ridge Academy so far, only leaving out the part about writing a letter to himself.
After lunch, Israel took a nap. He woke up an hour and a half before he was supposed to meet Mr. Chance in the dining hall but he was too nervous to go outside his room alone — if he was even allowed to — so he busied himself by writing a letter to his parents. He scrapped two half-hearted attempts before getting up and pacing the room. He had tried to ignore it while he was writing, but the need to pee was growing stronger by the second.
Israel stopped at the door of his room and begged his heart not to jump out of his chest as he placed his hand on the handle. His heart didn’t listen, so Israel turned the handle quickly and stuck his head out into the hallway. He immediately pulled his head back in and closed the door because a man that he didn’t recognize was walking down the hall and had looked at him. As Israel tried to regain his composure, there was a knock on the door and Israel nearly peed his pants right there. After checking to make sure there was no wet spot, he opened the door and the man smiled at him. “Do you need something?”
Israel gulped. “I just — I needed — I really need to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh, I can show you where it is,” the man said, still smiling. “Follow me.”
Israel already knew where the bathroom was because Mr. Chance had showed him, but he followed the man anyway.
“What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Mr. Pinger, the recruitment officer here.”
Israel nodded and attempted a smile, though he was sure that it came off more like a grimace. Mr. Pinger was the man that Dad had talked to in order to sign Israel up for East Ridge Academy, and Israel wasn’t sure if he could be as happy about running into the man as he seemed about running into Israel.
“These halls can definitely be confusing — and I’m saying that after having worked here for a few years,” Mr. Pinger said, laughing. “You know, I remember my first day. Some of my fellow staff members sure can come off as intimidating, as I’m sure you know. But believe me, Israel, when I say that they’re big softies with your best interests in mind.”
Israel nodded half-heartedly and tuned Mr. Pinger out as he talked about the Academy’s goals for its students and how they accomplished their mission statement everyday. Israel nearly interrupted to say that he knew that they had passed the bathroom closest to his room and that he could just go there because he was about to burst, and if Mr. Pinger could walk a little faster that would be really helpful, but he couldn’t bring himself to say any of those things when the man was just trying to be nice.
Finally, they ended up at a different restroom and Mr. Pinger turned to Israel. “It was so nice to meet you, Israel,” he said, reaching out to shake Israel’s hand. Israel took it and managed a smile before Mr. Pinger let go and began walking away. “Sorry I can’t stick around and talk more, I have calls to make. See you around!”
Israel waved and then pushed through the bathroom door, stumbling to a urinal before he exploded. He hoped that he never met Mr. Pinger ever again.
When he was finished and he had washed his hands, Israel left the bathroom, hoping that he remembered how to get back to his room. As it turned out, he didn’t, and he wandered the halls for what seemed like an eternity. He passed many staff members, as well as other boys who seemed lost just like him, were walking with a purpose, or who were being escorted by staff members. No one so much as glanced at Israel, never asking if he was lost or needed help. Despite Israel’s mixed feelings about the man, he began wishing that Mr. Pinger would run into him again.
Finally, Israel recognized the bathroom that he usually used. He stopped and got a drink at the water fountain, then hurried back to his room. There, the clock told him that it was nearly time for his meeting with Mr. Chance.
Even though he felt like crawling into bed again, Israel combed his hair. the best he could without a mirror, and headed to the cafeteria. To his surprise, Mr. Chance wasn’t there yet. Israel had always imagined the man as someone who was chronically early, but it seemed that he had been wrong. He sat down at a table in the corner of the cafeteria and waited.
One minute before five o’clock, Mr. Chance entered the cafeteria from the same hallway that Israel had come from and looked around. He spotted Israel at the table and nodded approvingly. “Your tour guide should be here any minute.”
Israel stayed sitting while Mr. Chance stood next to him, checking his watch every few seconds. At six minutes past five, a tall guy with dark brown hair, broad shoulders, and wispy facial hair walked through the door that led outside. “Hey Mr. Chance.”
“Hello, Tye,” Mr. Chance said. “This is Israel. Bring him back to the newbie table for dinner, all right? On time.”
“Deal,” Tye said, not seeming to notice that Mr. Chance seemed irritated with him for being late to this meeting. He gestured for Israel to follow him and headed for the door. Israel got up quickly and walked as fast as he could until he caught up.
“Cool name, by the way,” Tye said.
“Thanks,” Israel said. “Is Tye short for Tyler?”
“Sure is,” Tye said. “But my dad is Tyler, so no one ever calls me that.”
“Oh, cool,” Israel said.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“Oh, too bad. I have three — my twin brother, Sam, who goes here too, and two little sisters.”
“I always wanted siblings,” Israel admitted as he and Tye stepped off the pavement and into some grass, where cabins spread in front of them almost as far as the eye could see.
“Yeah, they’re generally cool. I sure feel like I have a lot more than three, living here in these cabins with seven other guys.”
Israel smiled to himself. If this guy could feel like his cabinmates were family, surely making a friend was unavoidable.
“I’ll give you a piece of advice, since you’re not used to living with other people besides your parents,” Tye said. “You’re not going to get along with everyone, but you definitely want to get along with the guys you bunk with. That means you gotta be proactive in these next two weeks, testing people out and making sure you find the right ones to bunk with. You hear me?”
Israel nodded, swallowing the rising lump in his throat. Being proactive was not his thing. He had never gotten to know anyone quickly.
“Do you like baseball?” Tye asked.
“I’ve never played,” Israel admitted.
“Oh, so you’re a watcher?”
“No,” Israel admitted again, his cheeks flushing.
“Dude,” Tye said, looking at him like he was an alien. “I’ve seriously never heard something so crazy in my life. Every little boy plays Little League at some point, and even if they quit, most people still like watching. Baseball is America’s sport.”
“Sorry,” Israel said, feeling like he was going to puke. If all the boys here were like this, Israel didn’t stand a chance.”
Tye laughed. “Don’t say ‘sorry,’ man. Your parents should be saying sorry to you. They’re the ones that screwed up. But hey, if you practice a bit, you could probably make the Sluggers next time they have an opening.”
“The lowest team in our league,” Tye explained. “All the guys ages thirteen through sixteen play baseball together. If they make a team, I mean. It’s really kind of a dumb system, you know? It should be by grade, but it’s by age, so people have to switch teams at weird times all the time. But hey, it is what it is.”
Israel nodded, pretending that he had understood — or cared. He knew that he would never play baseball and he thought it was boring, but Tye was so excited about it that Israel didn’t dare shut him down.
“Me and Sam are lucky, though,” Tye continued. “Our birthday is March first, which means it’s the same day as the start of the baseball season here. We’re going out for the Red Socks when tryouts start, ’cause some guys here say we’re the best in our league right now. Might as well go for the top, aye? I mean, I have no idea what I would do if I made it and Sam didn’t, though. Take the opportunity, I guess. He’d just be jealous, which could be fun for me…”
They stopped walking at the baseball fields, where boys of all ages ran around throwing baseballs, hitting baseballs, catching baseballs, and just generally living baseball. Israel wondered if he should just write home to his parents and tell them that he was in the wrong place. He needed to go where everyone liked swimming. But even as he thought it, he knew how ridiculous it was. He couldn’t leave East Ridge Academy because his parents had already signed a year-long contract in his stead.
“Cool, right?” Tye asked, looking at Israel and grinning.
“Yeah,” Israel said with all the enthusiasm he could muster.
“I always come here first on tours because it’s hype, right?” Tye looked away and smiled out at the fields. “Now we can go get you a glove. That sound cool?”
“Yeah,” Israel said, though getting a glove was the last thing he cared about.
If Tye noticed his lack of enthusiasm, he didn’t show it. “And after that we can do all the boring stuff, like going to your school and getting your schedule and walking through it. As if anyone with half a brain couldn’t find the right classroom when they know the number of the room.”
Israel nodded, hoping the fear he felt wasn’t showing in his face. It wasn’t that he couldn’t find the classrooms, it was that he found it hard to push through everyone else to get where he was going. Even if Tye showed him all of his classrooms and Israel remembered exactly how to get there, he doubted that he would be able to get to all of his classes on time on his first day. “We don’t have school until after Christmas break, do we?”
Tye laughed. “Christmas break? Man, I remember those days. Nah, here at East Ridge we get Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s off, but we have school on the days between. If you’re sad about it now, just wait until you hear the teachers complain their asses off. There’s a reason they all get out of here after their first year or two, you know?”
“So we have school tomorrow?” Israel asked, tears threatening to spill down his cheeks. He couldn’t find all his classes tomorrow and make friends. He wasn’t ready.
“Yeah, then our mini break. Sucks for you since you’ll be totally lost, coming in at the very end of the semester. In my classes we’re basically using these next couple days to review before our big tests on the thirtieth and thirty-first.”
“Will they make me test?” Israel asked. It wasn’t fair that he had already done all of those tests at his old school.
Tye shrugged. “Dunno. If they did, I bet your grades wouldn’t matter.” He turned away from the baseball fields and started walking back towards the cabins. “Can’t stand around talking forever if we want to get everything done.”
Israel ran after Tye, feeling sick. It didn’t help that Tye talked his ear off about baseball as they walked, not letting Israel get a word in. A tear slipped out of his eye and he wiped it with his shoulder before Tye could see.
They ended up back in the basement of the visitation center, where Israel had gotten all of his clothes and supplies with Mr. Chance. Tye led him through the maze of racks and shelves until they found Linda hanging up recreational jackets.
“Could you help us get him his first glove?” Tye asked, smiling.
“Sure thing,” Linda said, hanging up one last jacket. “Sam, right?”
“Tye,” Tye said, rolling his eyes at Israel. “Sam doesn’t have a beard.”
“I’d hardly call that a beard, honey,” Linda said, and Israel bit his lip to hide his smile.
After a few minutes, he ended up with a baseball glove in his hand. He followed Tye out of the basement, unsure of how he had gotten to this point. Would Tye notice if he just left the glove on the steps? Probably.
Tye led him to the school, which was one of the buildings next to the visitation center. They stopped at a door inside, where a few papers were taped above the handle. Israel spotted his name on one and pointed to it.
“Don’t just stand there. Take it,” Tye said.
Israel did, and then Tye snatched it from his hand. “Oh, you have the Jackal.”
“Mr. Jackson. Everyone calls him the Jackal behind his back ’cause he’s cut throat. He’ll give you a detention just for yawning. And never ever get up for your next class, even if the bell rings, until he says you can or he’ll give you detention. Man, he made us late to our next classes so many times.”
Israel gulped, for what felt like the millionth time since he had arrived at East Ridge. Why did everything have to be so complicated?
Tye kept Israel’s schedule in his hand and led him around the building. Israel did his best to remember everything, but it was a longshot, especially since he couldn’t look at his schedule to help cement the information. Israel glanced at a digital clock above him that hung from the ceiling and it only read 5:35, which meant that he probably wasn’t getting away from Tye for another twenty five minutes.
“Well,” Tye sighed, “I’m pretty much out of tour stuff, unless you haven’t seen the showers. You’re supposed to go right after dinner when you’re a newbie.”
“I know, Mr. Chance showed me yesterday.”
“Cool,” Tye said, but it sounded more like a question. Before Israel could figure out why Tye seemed confused, he said, “Any questions?”
“Is there a library?” Israel asked, blushing as he asked. But he had to know, and he knew that he had already blown his chance of making friends with Tye by not liking baseball. Besides, Tye was kind of annoyingly obsessed and Israel didn’t think he could take it.
“Oh, yeah,” Tye said enthusiastically. “It’s all locked up ’cause it’s not open on Sundays, but I guess I can show you if you want.”
“Okay,” Israel said.
Tye led him down the hall in the opposite direction that they had come from. “I think it’s open until dinner on Mondays through Thursdays, but on Fridays it closes right after school. But it is open nine-thirty to noon on Saturday in case people need it for homework.”
Israel nodded, allowing himself a small smile. At least he’d have something to do here besides write letters. Besides, he figured that he would have a better chance of meeting people that he actually wanted to be friends with at the library than a baseball field.
Tye stopped abruptly in front of closed double doors. Israel stepped around him to see through the windows. Though he couldn’t actually see anything because it was dark, knowing that there were shelves full of books somewhere in this place made him feel better.
“It’s just books and, like, twenty crappy computers. I swear, they must be the oldest model that can fit on a desk. Really, nothing to see in there.”
Israel disagreed, but he nodded and let Tye lead him out of the building anyway. On the blacktop, Tye finally handed Israel’s schedule back to him. “I’m supposed to bring you to dinner, but it’s too early and you’re not an idiot. Just get food and sit down at that table you were at when I met you, got it? And then haul your ass to the showers.”
Israel nodded, wondering why Tye felt the need to cuss so much.
“Nice meeting you,” Tye said, glancing over his shoulder at some guys playing with a tennis ball. “See you around, I guess. Probably.”
“Thanks, see you,” Israel said, making the schedule into a cylinder in his hands.
Tye ran off to join the guys with the tennis ball and Israel sighed. If he ever saw Tye again, he was definitely going to be ignored. Though he and Israel had nothing in common and Israel didn’t even want to be his friend, he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Everyone just had to be at those dang baseball fields. At a place like East Ridge, Israel was always going to be alone in the library.
The next day, after another fitness test with Mr. Chance, Israel ate breakfast at the newbie table with three other boys — none of whom were fourteen like him. Even though they had introduced themselves at dinner the night before, Israel couldn’t remember any of their names and quite honestly didn’t care to. One of them was always beatboxing or talking way too loud about music and the other two complained about the food every two minutes and already couldn’t shut up about baseball and football. Being around them made Israel want to scream, so he ate as fast as he could, grabbed his uniform, and headed to the showers, where he showered with the other boys for the first time. He couldn’t help but notice that so many of them were so muscular and less of them were quite attractive, so Israel had to keep his eyes down and think about literally anything else. He was not going to be that gay guy again. Not after swim team.
It took Israel longer than he expected to get dressed in his uniform. It had so many more buttons than the clothes he was used to wearing. However, Israel was very grateful for all of the Sundays at church that taught him how to tie a tie, because he couldn’t imagine the embarrassment of walking to class with his tie hanging around his neck, untied.
Even though it had taken him a long time to get dressed, Israel had thirty minutes to spare before his first class of the day. He doubled checked that he had all of his school supplies in his bag, went to the bathroom one last time, pausing to make sure that his uniform looked good, and then headed over to the school. If he went early, he at least wouldn’t risk being late to his first class.
There were hardly any boys in the school when he arrived, and his teacher was the only person in the classroom when he arrived. She smiled at him and walked over to him as he stood in the doorway, not knowing where to sit. “A new face! Israel Benton, right?”
“Good,” she said, beaming. “I’m Mrs. McIntosh, your new English teacher.”
“Nice to meet you,” Israel said.
“Likewise. Well, let me show you to your desk. No one likes the front so we only have one seat open… I don’t usually believe in assigned seating, but in this case I don’t seem to have a choice.” She stopped at a desk in the middle of the front row.
Israel nearly sighed exasperatedly in front of her, knowing that this was not a great start socially, but he wanted Mrs. McIntosh to like him, so he kept it inside. “Thanks, this is perfect.” He set his bag down on the desk.
“I saw your transcript and I just want you to know that I am very excited to have you in my class. It’s not often that we get straight-A students at East Ridge.”
Israel blushed. “Thanks?”
“You’re welcome. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to write today’s assignments on the board.”
Israel nodded and sat down at his desk. He folded his arms over his messenger bag and dropped his chin onto them. He watched Mrs. McIntosh write on the board in big, loopy letters until another boy walked into the room. He went straight to his seat, which was two away from Israel in the front row, and pulled out a notebook and a pencil.
Israel sat up quickly, remembering that none of his pencils were sharpened. He pulled three of them out of his bag and headed to the wall by the door, where there was a hand-cranked pencil sharpener bolted to the wall, next to the light switch.
More boys trickled into the room as Israel sharpened his pencils, all of them glancing at them as they walked in. Israel’s whole face burned so intensely that he felt sweat trickle down his back. When his pencils were sharp, he avoided everyone’s eyes and sat down at his desk. He hoped he hadn’t been walking weird or too fast. Israel risked a glance up, but no one seemed to be looking at him.
By 7:28, right before class was supposed to start, the room was only half full. Israel pulled out one of his new notebooks, as there was a writing prompt on the board and he figured that he would need it. Just as he was about to give in and try not to care what his classmates thought — he had no idea what else to do besides working on the writing prompt — two boys walked in, talking to each other somewhat loudly. They both sat down to Israel’s right, one right next to him and the other behind the first.
“I just wish that Jaylen and Alex weren’t leaving too,” the Asian one said.
“Yeah, sucks for me even more ’cause I’ll be stuck with just you for company,” the white one said. “You’re so annoying.”
“I never said you were annoying,” the Asian guy said, laughing.
Israel reached up slowly and touched his own arm, wondering how they could be so buff. Was Israel going to look like that in a year? Though he didn’t mind seeing other guys being buff at all, he didn’t want to be. He liked not looking like, well, a dude’s dude. Even though he supposed that, in a very gay way, he was a dude’s dude. He smiled to himself.
“He, so you’re new, huh?” the white guys asked, tapping Israel’s shoulder.
Israel jumped and pulled his hand away from his bicep quickly, blushing. Not only did they catch him feeling his own lack of arm muscles, he had jumped just because the guy touched him. Even if this was a school for bad kids, that didn’t mean he needed to be scared of everyone, right? Tye had been nice enough.
“It’s hard being new,” the Asian guy said. “Your parents should’ve transferred you here on New Year’s instead of whenever they did. Would’ve been a lot easier on you to start a new semester with everyone else, huh?”
Israel shrugged uneasily.
“I’m Pax,” the guy said, smiling and holding out his hand.
Israel shook it. “I’m Israel.”
“Deven,” the white guy said, not offering his hand.
“Don’t worry about this class,” Pax assured him. “Even though we’re doing a test over our book — Freak the Mighty — after Christmas, Mrs. McIntosh is for real the nicest person at East Ridge. She won’t make you test or anything.”
Israel nodded and managed a smile.
“Hey, for real though,” Pax said, smiling sympathetically. “Don’t look so worried. You’re not in a cabin yet, are you?”
Israel shook his head.
“Oh, so you’re stuck at the newbie table. Damn. Well, if you’re lonely tonight, come to cabin thirty six, okay? In weather like this, we always have spots on the rug for cards. Okay?”
“Thanks,” Israel said, though he had a hard time imagining himself leaving his room after school and workouts were over, except for dinner and showers.
Just then, the bell rang and Israel jumped again. The bell at East Ridge was just so much more aggressive than the one he was used to. He heard Deven laugh. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Deven cover his mouth and Pax punch him in the shoulder.
After class, Mrs. McIntosh handed Israel a copy of Freak the Mighty. “If you want to read it and participate in the discussions or even take the test on the thirtieth, you’re welcome to. I hear the first week here can be lonely, and there’s no friend like a good book.”
“Thank you,” Israel said sincerely, tears pricking at his eyes. He took the book and put it in his bag, walking away from Mrs. McIntosh and hurrying to his next class before he could cry.
No one except teachers talked to him all day until counseling, where he was assigned on his schedule to see Mr. Philbin at 12:20, fifteen minutes after counseling hour started. Israel camped out in his room and read Freak the Mighty, which was good enough that he forgot to look up at the clock until 12:18. He jumped up, grabbed his school bag, and walked as fast as he could down the halls until he found Mr. Philbin’s office. He knocked, trying to catch his breath.
No one came to the door. His breathing still somewhat labored, Israel took out his schedule and double-checked. 12:20 with Mr. Philbin. Israel looked up. Sure enough, the nameplate next to the door said Phibin, so why —?
The door swung open and a boy Israel’s age nearly slammed into him on his way out of the office.
“Sorry,” the boy said. Israel moved to the side and the boy walked away quickly.
“Hello,” a man said from inside the office.
Israel stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
“For future reference, please refrain from knocking.”
“I’m so sorry, I —”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Philbin said with a smile. “I just thought I’d let you know.”
Israel nodded and sat down in the chair across the desk from Mr. Philbin.
“So, Israel — do you go by Israel?”
“On the first day of counseling, I like to get as close to a full session as possible so that I can assess what’s really going on with you. If needed, because I know that this can be emotional for some, I can excuse you from your next class. Or even your next two classes. Does that sound good to you?”
Israel nodded hesitantly. He wasn’t sure how ready he was to actually open up to someone who wasn’t Ross or Dylan — especially after Ross had ignored him so much — but he knew that he would have to eventually. He didn’t want to feel like he did these days for forever.
“So, for a place to start, what brings you to East Ridge?”
Israel took a deep breath. “This, I guess. The counseling. And just, I don’t know, a new school where I can get a fresh start.”
Mr. Philbin nodded and wrote it down. “You could get a fresh start anywhere. Why East Ridge?”
“I—” Israel said, scratching his head. “Well, I go to church with a lot of people who go to all the schools around where I live. So none of the schools were an actual clean slate like I wanted.”
“And why did you want a clean slate?”
Israel shifted, tucking his hands between his thighs to stop them from shaking. “I guess because everyone knew me as ‘the shy kid’ or the ‘awkward and lonely kid.’ And as the pastor’s kid.”
Mr. Philbin nodded. “Ah. So one of your parents is a pastor at the church you attend?”
“My dad,” Israel said, nodding. “He’s a really good pastor. Everyone likes him.”
“And yet… You don’t want to be known as the pastor’s kid.”
Israel gulped. This was all moving so quickly.
“Is church important to you?”
“Yes, of course,” Israel said, straightening.
Mr. Philbin scribbled something on his notepad. “Do you have a lot of friends at church?”
“Uh, well, no. Not really. Just people that I wish I could be friends with, I guess.”
“Do they want to be friends with you?”
Israel shrugged. “Sometimes I think they do.”
“But not always?”
Israel wiped his hands on his pants, but the material did not help them be any less sweaty. “I guess sometimes they ask me questions and stuff. And then they go off and do their own thing.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Well their questions are always hard ones. And I never feel comfortable enough to answer them. In the right way, anyway.”
“What is ‘the right way?’”
“I don’t know,” Israel said, wiping his hands on his pants again. “I wouldn’t be here if I knew.”
Mr. Philbin nodded, and Israel blushed. “Sorry. That came out mean.”
“I’m not judging you, Israel. It’s okay to be frustrated.”
Israel nodded and took a deep breath. This wasn’t so bad. “They’re just all cousins. The church people that I want to be friends with. So I feel left out anyway.”
“Here’s another way to think of it: Do you think that you leave yourself out because you perceive them as closer to each other than they could ever be to you? You said they ask you questions, try to get to know you.”
“I don’t try to leave myself out,” Israel said defensively. “I want friends. I just don’t know how.”
“Do you have friends at school?”
Israel shook his head.
“Do you play sports? Have any friends there?”
“I was on a swim team, but everyone was mean to me. I went to a team party once and they drew on my face while I was asleep and they put my clean underwear in the freezer after they soaked it in water so that it was impossible to wear the next day.”
Mr. Philbin nodded, tapping his pencil on his notepad. “I want you to understand that I think it is valid to feel upset about something like that, but my friends and I used to draw on each other’s faces while we slept. It may not have been ill-intentioned.”
“They wrote, um, eff me — except the real word — on my forehead and drew… they drew, um, a penis on my cheek.” Israel blushed and stared at his shoes. “Then, in the morning, no one told me about it until the mom at the house started coming down to the basement and everyone made me hide in the bathroom so that she couldn’t see what they had done.”
“Ah,” Mr. Philbin said. “I’m very sorry to hear that, Israel.”
Israel sighed. This was not helping. He never wanted to think about that morning again. “I quit the team.”
“Did you tell your parents about what happened?”
“I had no choice,” Israel said, louder than he meant to. “I washed most of the marker off, but you could still see it in good lighting. Or up close, and my mom did both. Then when I quit the team my dad lectured me about not being a quitter and about facing challenges with grace so that I can help everyone else see that I live in Christ and Christ in me. He said that if I was just kind to them despite everything, then they’d love me. As if I hadn’t already tried that.”
“Sometimes life isn’t as ideal as we want it to be.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Did the boys on the swim team go to your school?”
“A couple. But others were from other public schools.”
“Besides these things, is there anything else about your home life that you feel you should let me know so that I can get an idea of the big picture here?”
Israel shrugged. “We moved from Arizona when I was little. I had two friends there, Ross and Dylan, and now we’re pen pals who meet up for a week every summer. Except that Ross didn’t come last summer.”
“Because,” Israel said, trying to think of a reason besides the real one. He bit his cheek. Why did he feel the need to lie so much all the sudden? One Sunday without church and he was already losing his values. “Because I told them that I’m gay.” He kept his eyes down, not wanting to see Mr. Philbin’s reaction.
“Is that possibly a reason why you didn’t want to be known as the pastor’s kid?”
Israel nodded and took a shaky breath, promising himself that he wouldn’t cry. “When I told my parents they got really upset. They wanted me to keep it a secret. I mean, they never said it quite that way, but I knew what they meant. I went and told the whole church anyway, so a lot more people were mad. But some of them were actually nice.”
“But you wanted your parents to be supportive and they weren’t, which made the other people not matter so much?”
“Of course,” Israel agreed. “You know the cousins I wanted to be friends with that I talked about before? No one in their family ever said anything to me one way or another but I really, really need to know what they think. It keeps me awake at night if I think about it at the wrong time.”
“That must be a very difficult situation to be in,” Mr. Philbin said sympathetically. “I’m sorry that the people you love don’t support you, Israel.”
“It’s okay,” he mumbled.
“You will find people that do love you for who you are,” Mr. Philbin assured him. “Do you believe that, or does it all feel hopeless?”
Israel shrugged. “Depends on the day and how much I think about it, I guess.”
“Would you say that you think about it a lot most days?”
“This hopeless feeling — does it ever make you want to stay in bed all day?”
“Does it ever make you want to do something that you would regret? To yourself or others?”
“Like yelling at my parents?”
“No, like physical harm.”
“No.” Israel said, scoffing.
“Good to hear,” Mr. Philbin said, smiling slightly. “If it ever does make you feel that way, find me or another staff member immediately and we will help you, okay?”
Israel nodded, sure that he would never need to do that.
“I’m sorry, but our time for today is just about up,” Mr. Philbin said. “Do you need me to excuse you from class or are you okay?”
“Then I’ll see you on Saturday? at ____, okay?”
“Okay,” Israel agreed. He grabbed his school bag and stood up. Mr. Philbin got up and opened the door for him. As soon as it closed, Israel pulled his schedule out of his pocket and walked to his sixth class, wondering how counseling really helped anyone.
After school and workouts were over, Israel hurried back to his room, where he found that a letter from his parents had been slipped under his door. He wondered how it had gotten there so fast until he opened it and saw the date at the top, December twentieth. His mom had written it while he was still at home, so it was just a bunch of falsely positive crap about Israel finding his way out of the “funk” he was in and getting back onto the path that God had laid out for him. He crumpled the letter and threw it in the trash, dropped his school bag, and lay down to take a nap.
Since the next day was Christmas Eve, there was no alarm in the morning and Israel accidentally slept through breakfast. However, he found that he wasn’t hungry, anyway. Since he didn’t want to even think about his mom’s letter and didn’t feel like writing a letter to anyone, he decided to brave taking a walk around East Ridge.
He got dressed and headed outside, where everyone around him seemed to know exactly what they were doing. Guys of all ages played games with baseballs and baseball gloves and tennis balls on the blacktop. On the grass between the cabins, even more people walked or ran by Israel, usually in groups, and almost always talking or shouting about something. Israel tried to imagine what they could possibly have to do — especially since it was so cold that Israel was wearing two pairs of pants, a shirt, and two jackets just to be only slightly chilly — but he supposed that having friends, or even a friend, made it easier to have something to do.
Israel planned to walk down to the baseball fields, then loop around and walk back to the visitation center, where he could finish reading Freak the Mighty before lunch. However, at the baseball fields, he spotted Pax and Deven and remembered Pax’s invitation to play cards. Still not sure if he wanted to take it, Israel slowly got close enough to them and their friends to hear what they were saying. He didn’t have to get very close to realize that not all of the guys around them were their friends and that there was a very tense conversation going on.
“I just don’t know why you feel the need to call me out in front of everyone like that when you wouldn’t even know the perfect pitch if it flew right under your nose,” Deven said.
“Bullshit,” a guy who Israel didn’t recognize spat. “You should look in a mirror.”
“You should look in a mirror, idiot. But apparently you’re too blind to see anything there, so.”
“He’s right, Justin,” Pax said, crossing his arms and smirking. “It’s evident to anyone who watches you play that you, in fact, do not know what a good pitch looks like.”
“Oooh,” Deven and the guys behind him and Pax said, laughing.
“Just get lost, man,” Deven said. “I didn’t come here looking for an argument.”
You told me that my batting form is shit!” the angry guy, Justin, yelled.
“Right after you walked by a scrimmage that you weren’t even a part of and made fun of me for not hitting a bad pitch because you thought it was a strike, like the idiot you are. C’mon, man. Just recognize that you started this and get lost.”
Deven turned away, and the guy lunged at him, pushing him from behind. Deven didn’t miss a beat as his friends caught him to stop him from tripping. He turned around and slugged Justin in the gut.
“Idiot,” one of Deven’s friends yelled, pushing him a little. They all sprinted away from Justin and towards Israel, some of them laughing and some of them looking over their shoulders fearfully.
Israel tried to hide behind the bleachers, but Pax spotted him as he ran by and waved. “Hey man,” he called, turning to run backwards. “Come by in a bit, cabin thirty six!” He turned back around and sprinted to catch up with his friends.
Israel panicked and turned away, leaning against the bleachers. There was one guy his age in this whole place that was nice to him, and he was friends with a guy like Deven, who punched people? Israel glanced back at Justin, who stood in the same spot Deven had left him with his hands on his knees, puking onto the ground.
Shit, Israel thought to himself, running away from the baseball fields. I mean ‘shoot.’ I swear, if I start cussing because of the other guys around here… He shook his head as he ran back to the visitation center. It was better to stay where he was safe from people like Deven and Justin.
By dinner time, Israel had finished reading Freak the Mighty and re-read it another time. And, embarrassingly, he had sat in his bed and pretended to discuss the questions in the back of the book with his parents, who he knew would not be happy that he had read this book because of some of the things that were said and done. Israel couldn’t help but wonder if kids in public school always read books that were this scandalous.
In the dining hall, Israel kept his head down as he ate his chicken noodle soup, peanut butter crackers, and steamed broccoli, still refusing to join in the conversations that the other three newbies kept going at all times. It wasn’t like he wanted to talk to them, anyway. They were annoying.
When he finished eating, Israel stood up to put his tray away, thinking that going back to his room and crying out of boredom, among other things, was sounding pretty good. Just as he was setting his tray down at the window, Pax called his name.
“You never came by earlier,” he said, seeming hurt.
Israel shrugged, avoiding his eyes.
“You must’ve seen Deven punch Justin, huh?”
Israel nodded, unsure of what to say.
“Well,” Pax said. Israel snuck a glance at his face and saw that he was smiling. “If you come with me now, I promise I’ll protect you from Big Bad Deven.” He laughed. “You’ve gotta be bored, right? Besides, no one deserves to spend Christmas Eve alone.”
“Okay,” Israel agreed, not having any other excuses left. Besides, Pax had been really nice to him and Deven hadn’t seemed all that bad in the classroom. He had no reason to hurt Israel, and Pax definitely looked like he could take Deven in a fight, if it came to that.
Pax grinned and headed for the door that led outside. Israel followed, walking slightly behind him. Pax held the doors for him and then changed pace to walk right next to Israel. “We invited a couple of our friends over tonight. Hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t know anyone,” Israel said, scuffing his feet and sending a couple rocks skittering across the blacktop.
“Well you’ll know seven people after tonight,” Pax said. “It’ll be lots of fun. Promise.”
Seven? Israel thought to himself, fear rising in his throat. He couldn’t get to know seven strangers at once. He could barely muster a couple sentences when he was talking to Pax alone. Not to mention that he didn’t know what type of people these guys were. Were they all the type that punched guys and ran off like it was no big deal?
“To the right,” Pax said as they stepped onto the grass.
Israel let him take the lead all the way to cabin thirty six, which seemed to be in better shape than many of the cabins Israel had seen so far.
“Home sweet home,” Pax said, smiling and opening the door. He pushed it so hard that it swung quickly and banged against something inside.
“Fuck, man, you’ve gotta stop doing that,” someone said from inside.
Pax stepped into the cabin and Israel followed him.
“Yeah, don’t you think our furniture has been through enough?” Deven asked from a top bunk on the other side of the cabin.
“If you stopped doing that someone could actually sleep in those beds,” the first guy said from the desk right across the room from Pax and Israel.
“It doesn’t even hit the bed,” Pax said, turning to close the door. Then he turned back and touched the corner of the dresser. “See, this is where the marks are.”
“If it’s leaving marks, stop fucking doing it,” the guy at the desk said, pressing his fingers to his temples.
You’re the only one who makes a big deal about it and you’re moving out in a week, so I’m good,” Pax said, smiling.
The desk guy, who was pale with white blond hair, rolled his eyes at Israel. “See what we deal with? How’d he get you here?”
Israel managed a shy smile.
“I’m Alex, by the way.”
“Israel,” he said, glancing at Pax.
“He’s in me and Dev’s English class,” Pax explained. He pointed at Deven and sat down on the bottom bunk next to the door, which didn’t have any sheets on it. “And he saw you punch Justin this morning, so you’re just lucky that he’s cool and not one of the tattle tales.”
“Shit, really?” Deven asked, leaning against the railing on his bunk. “I don’t usually do that kind of stuff, believe me, but the guy had it coming. You saw him push me, right?”
Israel nodded hesitantly, Deven’s intensity making him nervous. Just as Deven was about to say something else, the door opened and Israel jumped back between the bed that Pax sat on and the dresser to avoid getting hit.
“Hey Jaylen,” Pax said cheerfully. “And Seth, welcome back, man!”
The door closed and Israel eyed the new guys warily, guessing that the thicker white guy was Seth and the lanky black guy was Jaylen.
“I literally moved out on Sunday,” Seth said, snorting.
“But we’ve gone crazy without you, we missed you so, so much,” Alex said, but he couldn’t maintain his straight face all the way through, so Jaylen, Seth, Pax, and Deven laughed.
Jaylen turned, spotted Israel, and pointed at him. “You’re new.”
“That’s Israel, a friend of mine,” Pax said.
Israel glanced at Pax, and he seemed sincere. Israel wasn’t so sure that they were friends, but he wasn’t an expert in this area, so he kept his mouth shut.
“Nice to meet you,” Jaylen said. “I’m Jaylen, this is Seth,” he said, gesturing to Seth.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Israel managed to say.
“Two more of Pax’s buddies are coming to play cards, too,” Jaylen said. “If you didn’t already know. He kinda sucks at the whole ‘communicating’ thing.”
Israel smiled, unsure of what to say, and Jaylen turned to climb up onto the top bunk of the bed on the other side of the door. It didn’t have any sheets on it, either. “Should I scare ’em when they come in?”
“Don’t do that to Amoni,” Pax begged.
“Just ’cause he’s in a little bit of extra counseling doesn’t mean we have to baby him,” Jaylen said, rolling his eyes as Seth sat down on the bunk beneath him.
“Yeah, Pax, he probably hates being babied,” Deven agreed.
Pax put his hands up in surrender. “Whatever.” Then he glanced at Israel, scooted over, and patted the bed next to him. “Sit. Chill out.”
Israel sat down hesitantly. He had never sat on a bed that wasn’t his or his parents’ and something about it felt weirdly personal, even if this bed didn’t have any sheets on it and no one probably slept there.
The other guys in the cabin chatted mindlessly as Israel looked around the cabin, looking for clues about the type of people that they were. Besides some dirty clothes on the floor and school books piled on the desks, it seemed pretty clean. Because of the clothes, Israel figured that if bunk checks weren’t a thing, the cabin would have been much dirtier. That was one thing that Israel had learned about straight guys, thanks to Ross, Dylan, and the swim team: they were slobs.
Just as Israel was getting a little more comfortable and tuning into the other guys’ conversation even if he had no clue how to take part, the door opened. Jaylen took a flying leap off of the top bunk, shouting, and the red-haired guy who had been walking through the door fell backwards while the black kid scrambled inside, landing on his knees as Jaylen landed on his feet right next to him.
“Mother of fucking God,” the black kid said, kicking at Jaylen’s ankles as he laughed. “Your faces! Oh God, I wish I could relive that moment just over and over, ha ha!”
“That was not cool,” the red-head yelled from outside. He stepped in and Israel watched as he dusted off his shirt — a non-East Ridge polo. “You could’ve killed us. Both of us.”
“Nah, man,” Jaylen said, still laughing.
“Killed you, maybe,” the black kid said, getting up off the floor.
The red-head harrumphed. “If his foot would’ve landed on either of our necks —”
“Yeah, yeah, Em. Whatever. We’re both fine.”
“This is Amoni,” Pax told Israel, gesturing to the black kid as Jaylen pulled him in and gave him a noogie. Pax pointed to the ginger. “And that’s Ember.”
Israel smiled to himself, unable to resist the thought that Ember was perfectly named.
“So are we playing cards or what?” Alex asked.
“Are you sure you guys don’t want to try a wrestling tournament?” Jaylen asked, letting go of Amoni. Amoni took his opportunity and kicked Jaylen in the butt, hard enough that Israel winced sympathetically.
“Dude,” Jaylen said, holding his butt with one hand and trying to grab Amoni with the other. Amoni climbed up to the top bunk that Jaylen had jumped from so quickly that Israel did a double take.
“Are we going to play Golf?” Alex yelled over Amoni and Jaylen’s raucous laughter. He grabbed two decks of cards off of the desk he sat at and stood up.
“Poker,” Deven begged. “We never play.”
“No poker,” Seth insisted, dodging Jaylen and getting off his own bed to meet Alex in the middle of the room.
“No poker,” Ember agreed.
Israel found himself agreeing. He had no idea what Golf was when it came to card games, but poker definitely sounded worse.
After a few minutes, Jaylen and Amoni calmed down and all eight of them sat down in a rough circle in the middle of the cabin. Pax taught Israel how to play Golf with a little help from the others, and Israel actually found himself having a good time until after a few games of Golf when they switched to a game called President.
“I don’t know this game,” Israel admitted as Jaylen dealt cards. “But, uh, can I use your bathroom before we start?”
“Sure thing,” Seth said, pointing to the corner of the cabin, where a skinny wooden door was closed.
Israel got up and walked over. There was no knob on the door and he thought about pushing before he spotted a small, circular indent. He put his finger into it and pulled, the door sliding into the wall. Israel closed himself into the bathroom quickly. It was so small that his butt nearly touched the sink as he peed. The toilet itself didn’t even have a lid on top of the tank, and when Israel went to wash his hands, he realized that there wasn’t a mirror either. If none of the bathrooms in the cabins had mirrors, his hair was going to look like a mess for an entire year.
He dried his hands on his pants — there was no towel — and opened the door. He walked around to his spot in the circle and Amoni said, “It’s a five star bathroom, don’t you think?”
Israel laughed. “Maybe in prison.” The other guys went silent and looked at him. For a second he was afraid that he had said something wrong, but then they busted out laughing.
“Hey, you’re all right, kid,” Seth said, nudging him.
“Do you know why they don’t have a mirror or a toilet lid?” Ember asked.
Israel shook his head.
“It’s because if anyone in the cabin has a history of violence in the past six months — including before they actually got to East Ridge because our parents are required to report that stuff — they try to minimize the number of things in cabins that can be used for violence.”
“It’s a dumbass system,” Alex said, and everyone except Israel nodded in agreement.
“It would be just as easy to hit someone with a chair or a dresser drawer or a wood plank from the beds,” Deven said.
Israel winced. Had he taken the time to think about that kind of stuff? Or maybe he had actually hit someone over the head with a chair before.
“Those slats under the mattresses aren’t actually that easy to get out,” Pax said.
“Yeah, and my cabin has a toilet tank lid,” Ember said. “They’re not even the good, heavy porcelain kind, they’re just the lame plastic ones.”
Israel looked around the circle in disbelief. Why had they all thought so much about this? Even Ember, who had seemed more or less normal, knew things that Israel didn’t think he should know.
“Hey, but it’s not my fault that our cabin doesn’t have nice stuff,” Alex said, staring at Jaylen pointedly.
“It’s not my fault,” Jaylen insisted. “Not anymore.”
“It’s because of Pax and Deven,” Seth agreed.
“Hey, don’t point fingers at me,” Deven said. “I haven’t laid a hand on anyone, except I guess on the football field and the wrestling mat before I came here.”
“You literally punched Justin today,” Alex said, holding his stomach and laughing.
“But I didn’t get caught,” Deven said, his voice higher in pitch as he glanced at Israel.
“It’s not my fault either,” Pax said,” just for the record. You have to be violence free for six months, right? Last time I was in a fight was, like, May, and we still don’t have a mirror.”
Israel scratched his neck. If even Pax, who had seemed so nice, had been in fights, then he really didn’t belong here with these guys.
“Well,” Amoni said, “my six months of violence has come and gone, so maybe we’ll all have a mirror and a tank lid when me and Em move in.”
“But you said you were on suicide watch,” Ember said.
Amoni glared at him, his jaw clenched. “I said one time that I wanted to die in therapy and they took away everything. It makes no fucking sense, so don’t even come at me with that. I’d be way better off in a cabin with friends than all alone in a fucking cell in the visitation center. I have to wait another week or so before my counselor will even consider declaring me stable.”
“You live in the visitation center?” Israel blurted before he could stop himself.
“Yeah,” Amoni said, his face twisted in pain. “Room two. You should come by sometime and hang out.”
“O-Okay,” Israel said, not sure if he wanted to visit someone — alone — that had a history of violence. Sure, he was in a whole cabin full of scary guys at the moment, but he hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? He wouldn’t be a target if a fight broke out, would he?
“Ah, fuck, we’ve freaked you out haven’t we?’ Pax asked, rubbing his face with his hands.
“Freaking people out is my specialty,” Amoni said, smiling slightly, but Israel couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.
“It’s okay,” Israel said, his voice shaking slightly. “I’m just, I don’t know, new to this?”
“It’s okay,” Ember said, “you’ll get used to it. You can figure out who’s actually someone you should stay away from by how they treat guys like me and you when no teachers are around.”
“Yeah, see, Em knows we’re cool,” Jaylen said.
Israel smiled uneasily.
They played cards until eight thirty, which was shower time. Israel slipped away without saying goodbye as the guys who lived in cabin thirty six gathered their towels and clothes. On the walk back to the visitation center, Israel took deep breaths. He had survived. Seth had even said that he was “all right,” which he was pretty sure was a good thing. But did it mean that Israel had friends?
Almost, he decided. Maybe Mr. Phibin had been right. People had tried to get to know him, and before this he just hadn’t let them. It was time to let some people in, even if they weren’t exactly the type of friends that Israel had envisioned.
Israel woke up to a knock on his door. He squinted at the clock, the light coming through the window too harsh for his eyes. Even though he didn’t feel like he had gotten near enough sleep, at least he had woken up in time for breakfast. Israel rolled out of bed and went to the door where, to his surprise, there was no one there. However, there was a box on the ground with his mom’s handwriting on the label.
Israel pulled the box into his room and shut the door. He sat down on the floor and worked on pulling off the tape, wishing that he had scissors to make the whole process a lot quicker. When he finally got the box open, he was pleased to find candy canes — the fruity ones, of course — ten dollars in cash, a chocolate Santa Claus, and a card from his parents. He opened it to discover that there was nothing personal in it, just a simple Christmas message about remembering what this time of year was really about. Despite that, the simple gesture of his parents sending him a gift for Christmas day when they had celebrated Christmas before he left made him tear up.
After eating the head off of the chocolate Santa, Israel got up and got dressed in his weekend clothes, which they were allowed to wear on holidays. He grabbed two of the candy canes and left his room, searching for room 2. If he was going to make friends, he thought that offering Amoni a Christmas gift was a good start. After all, it sounded like he was just as lonely as Israel these days.
When he found room number 2, Israel smoothed his hair and knocked, wishing that he would have thought to comb his hair and brush his teeth before coming here. After a few seconds, the door opened.
“Hey,” Amoni said, smiling. “It’s kinda early to head to breakfast.”
Israel held out the candy canes. “I just, uh, Merry Christmas.”
Amoni looked at the candy canes, then back up at Israel. Before Israel could apologize — this had clearly been a bad idea — Amoni hugged him.
“Oh,” Israel said unintentionally. He clamped his teeth together to keep anything else from coming out.
Amoni pulled away and looked down at his feet. “I — Well, uh, sorry.”
“Totally okay,” Israel said, offering him the candy canes again.
“Come on in,” Amoni said, stepping to the side and gesturing for Israel to come into his room.
Israel let the candy canes fall to his side again and followed Amoni into the room, which was even more barren than Israel’s own. “How come you don’t have anything in here?”
Amoni sighed. “It’s the whole ‘suicide watch’ thing. They took my sheets so I can’t, like, make a noose or something? Then they took my bed frame so I couldn’t bash my own head in, and they took my desk just for fun, I think…” He sat down on his mattress, which was on the floor, and patted the bed next to him.
Israel sat down, trying not to look as uncomfortable as he felt. “Don’t you get cold at night? I know I do in my room.”
Amoni shrugged. “I sleep in my sweats. It’s not too bad, but once they turn the lights out, they lock me in here until the alarm goes off in the morning. I’ve lost literal hours of sleep just from having to pee so bad.”
Israel laughed and Amoni joined. “Sorry,” Israel said. “That sounds like it really sucks.”
“Well, it’s good to laugh at the bad stuff, as I’ve learned,” Amoni said, shrugging. “So, about those candy canes?”
Israel held them out to Amoni once again, and he took one. As he unwrapped it, he said, “This is the first Christmas gift I’ve gotten in a couple years.”
“I-I’m sorry,” Israel said, unwrapping the candy cane that Amoni hadn’t taken.
“It’s fine,” Amoni said, smiling, “It’s not like I didn’t know that my uncle didn’t give a shit about me before the first Christmas with him came around. And my friends didn’t have the money for sappy stuff.”
“I have more candy canes,” Israel offered. “You can have them.”
Amoni shook his head, the candy cane sticking out of his mouth. “They’re yours, man. Keep ’em.”
Israel nodded slightly and they sucked on the candy in silence for a minute. “Where are you from?”
“Kansas City,” Amoni said.
“Really? I’m from Lee’s Summit.”
“Small world,” Amoni said, laughing a little. “How much you wanna bet that we never wouldda met if we hadn’t come here?”
“Oh, I’d bet a lot,” Israel said, laughing.
Even though Israel knew he wasn’t supposed to sit at the normal tables until he was officially in a cabin with other people, Amoni and Pax convinced him to sit with them and the group he had played cards with at breakfast. Israel listened to their conversation, reacting in ways that seemed appropriate, even if he never had anything to add. Pax, Amoni, Jaylen, and Alex were especially funny, and Deven made people laugh and yell by slipping spoonfuls of his oatmeal into people’s drinks when they weren’t looking. Since some of the guys had milk it was okay for them, but when Deven put a spoonful into Israel’s water, he just had to decide not to drink his water anymore. If Deven was looking for some exaggerated reaction out of Israel, he wasn’t going to get it. Putting stuff in people’s drinks was the type of thing that the swim team had done when they were all, like, eleven or twelve. Though Amoni and Ember were twelve — which was the only reason that they weren’t officially bunking in cabin 36 yet, Deven was definitely older and sometimes Israel wished that he would act his age.
After breakfast was over, a bunch of Israel’s new group went down to the baseball fields to play some game with a tennis ball. Israel could tell that Pax wanted to go, but he stayed at the table with Israel and Ember as the rest of the group walked away.
“You guys have any plans?” he asked.
“I was going to go read,” Ember said.
“Then by all means,” Pax said, making a shooing motion with one of his hands. Ember got up, taking his, Pax’s, and Israel’s empty trays with him.
“What do you want to do?” Pax asked, turning to Israel.
Israel shifted uncomfortably, looking anywhere but Pax’s eyes. “I don’t know. I never know what to do here.”
Pax shrugged. “Yeah, I get that. You get used to it, though. Want to do laundry?”
“Okay,” Israel agreed. His clothes were all dirty at this point.
“Cool. I’ll meet you in the laundry room in, like, five minutes.” Pax stood up and left the mess hall.
Israel followed his example and went back to his own room to gather his clothes. He stuffed them into the duffel bag, leaving his uniform on its hanger so that it didn’t get too wrinkled. He wondered if he should bring Freak the Mighty for entertainment. Laundry took a long time, he knew, and he couldn’t imagine himself keeping a conversation going with Pax for that long. But, he figured, Pax would make fun of him for bringing the book, so he left it behind.
He beat Pax to the laundry room and found that nearly all of the machines were open, so he threw all of his non-white clothes into one washer and his whites in another. He hesitated before starting the machine, figuring that it would be better if he waited for Pax so they could put their laundry in the same machines and save some water.
Pax showed up a few minutes later, eyeing Israel questioningly.
“I thought we could combine our laundry?” Israel said, blushing.
“Oh yeah, sure,” Pax said. “I mean, I usually just throw everything in together, but I guess when your colors are this new it probably is a good idea to wash them separate from the whites.”
Israel nodded and Pax went to work separating his clothes into the two machines. “Wait,” he said after he had already put most of his clothes in, “what sizes do you wear?”
“Um, small? For shirts, at least? I’m not sure about the other stuff.”
Pax shrugged. “Well, at least we’ll know how to tell our shirts apart. I guess we’ll figure the rest out when it’s all dry.”
Israel nodded and put soap in one machine while Pax did the other. When they were both going, Pax pulled a pack of cards out of his pocket. “Want to play Trash?”
“I don’t know that game,” Israel admitted.
“It’s cool. I’ll teach you,” Pax said, leading him to a table.
They played cards for nearly two hours, only stopping to switch their clothes to the dryer. Sometimes Pax made small talk, but Israel didn’t feel like talking so it never got very far. When their laundry was done, they meticulously sorted everything and ironed their uniforms. Once that was done, Pax walked Israel back to his room.
“I think I might take a nap,” Israel said as he put his bag of clean clothes down and Pax leaned against his door frame.
“But it’s almost lunch time,” Pax said, looking at the clock on the wall.
Israel shrugged. “Not hungry.”
Pax looked him over, his eyebrows furrowed. “All right. Have a good nap, then. See you later?”
“Yeah, see you,” Israel said half-heartedly. Pax closed the door and left Israel to get under his covers and close his eyes. He was so tired of trying to make friends that he couldn’t imagine sitting through another meal with his new group. He wasn’t even sure that they were friends or that they even liked him in the first place because he was so boring. He should’ve indulged Pax and had conversations with him. Now he was never going to try to talk to him again.
Israel slept through lunch and sat at the newbie table for dinner, where he could at least ignore the conversation without feeling bad. He was still hungry after dinner so he ended up finishing his chocolate Santa while he read Freak the Mighty again.
Part of him felt really guilty for avoiding Pax and his friends, but Israel knew that he needed time alone. His working theory was that since he hadn’t had friends for a couple years and was only used to hanging around people for limited amounts of time, he just had to get used to being around people again before he would be good at having friends. If that wasn’t his problem, he didn’t know what was.
At school the next day, Israel was incredibly thankful when Pax and Deven greeted him with smiles when they walked into English.
“I honestly can’t believe we have to be in this hellhole today,” Deven said.
“That’s a bit dramatic,” Pax said, dropping his bag on the ground next to his desk and sitting down. “This is only Mrs. McIntosh.”
“I meant school in general, dipshit,” Deven said. “We even have to do workouts the day after Christmas? Like, c’mon, give us a real break, right Israel?”
“Yeah,” Israel agreed. He never enjoyed his one on one sessions with Mr. Chance and he had no idea what real workouts were like.
“How’s learning to use the equipment going?” Pax asked.
“He wouldn’t be on that yet,” Deven said, and Pax nodded. “Oh yeah. But at least we’ll probably just watch movies today, even if it is dumb that we can’t just… watch movies and not have to switch classes every however minutes.”
Israel nodded, hoping that they were allowed to watch different movies besides the G rated ones that they always watched in school.
The bell rang and Mrs. McIntosh came to the front of the room and said, “Good morning, everyone. We’ll be going to the library today, so grab your things and line up.”
Israel smiled to himself before he could think about it. Now everyone who had seen him smile at the news knew that he wasn’t ‘cool,’ but it was what it was. As everyone stood up, Pax clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re a book man like Ember, huh?”
Israel shrugged, blushing.
“Hey, it’s better to be a book addict than a drug addict,” Deven said, shouldering his bag.
Israel smiled to himself and followed them to the back of the line, which Mrs. McIntosh began leading to the library. Ember had been right. You could tell the good guys from the bad guys by how they treated guys like Israel.