At recess on Monday, Israel watched as Ben joined Lauren and McKenna in playing jump rope. Instead of using the smaller jump ropes like they usually did, Lauren and McKenna grabbed a long one and started spinning it for Ben, who jumped for a long time before messing up. Then he switched with McKenna, and McKenna took her turn jumping.
Israel had never done jump rope like that, even though some people at his old school had done it. It looked kind of fun, though, so Israel dragged his feet to slow himself down and then jumped off the swing and ran over to where Ben and the girls were still jump roping.
“Israel,” Mrs. Danzel said as he passed by, “don’t jump off the swings, please.”
“Sorry,” Israel said, not stopping. A few feet later, he stopped next to Ben, who was still spinning the rope for McKenna.
“Hey,” Ben said. “Do you want to jump, too?”
“Yeah,” Israel said.
“Okay, cool.” Ben looked away from McKenna and smiled at him. “You can go after Lauren, just ’cause she’s been waiting.”
Israel nodded. A couple seconds later, McKenna messed up, so she took the rope from Lauren. Ben handed his end of the rope to Israel. “Do you know what to do?”
Israel shrugged, and Ben told him how to hit the rope against Lauren’s ankles and say “One, two, three,” before actually spinning the rope for her to jump. Then, he said, Israel just had to work together with McKenna to make sure one of them wasn’t going faster than the other.
“Ready?” McKenna asked him, and Israel nodded. They started the rope, and to Israel’s delight, he was good at it and didn’t mess Lauren up at all. Eventually, though, she jumped too early, and she came over to take the rope from Israel.
“Is it my turn?’ Israel asked.
“Yep,” Ben said, pushing him towards the middle of the jump rope. “It’s okay if you don’t last very long, since it’s your first time.”
Israel nodded. McKenna and Lauren counted to three, and then Israel started jumping. It was much different when he wasn’t the one controlling the rope for himself, and he tripped on the rope after his third jump.
“You can try one more time before it’s Ben’s turn,” Lauren offered.
Israel nodded and took a deep breath. This time, he did five jumps before getting tripped up, and McKenna, Lauren, and Ben all told him, “Good job.”
Israel played with them until the end of recess. As they ran to line up, Ben said, “Come to my backpack when we get back to the classroom, okay?”
“Okay,” Israel agreed hesitantly. He didn’t want to get in trouble with Mrs. Danzel, who liked them to get seated and get quiet as soon as possible after recess.
When they got inside, though, Israel found himself following Ben to his backpack. Ben looked over his shoulder and then pulled out a folded piece of paper from his backpack. He handed it to Israel and whispered, “Don’t show anyone, okay? Because my mom said I could only invite five friends.”
“I won’t,” Israel promised. Ben went to his desk, but Israel stopped by his own backpack and unfolded the paper. It read, “You are invited to Ben’s seventh birthday party!” Then, underneath, it had the date of the party — August twenty seventh — and the place — Ben’s house, with an address underneath. Then, it said to bring a swimming suit and all the things needed for a sleepover, but absolutely no presents.
Israel grinned to himself. A sleepover! Ross, Dylan, and Meemaw and Papa were the only ones who had ever invited Israel to sleep over at their house before, and they were Israel’s best friends. Did this mean that he and Ben were best friends now? Israel really, really hoped so.
Throughout the rest of the week, Israel learned that Ben had also invited McKenna and Lauren to his party, as well as his neighbors, who Israel didn’t know. Ben told Israel that his parents wouldn’t let McKenna and Lauren sleep over, but they were going to come for swimming and cake and ice cream.
“Why didn’t you invite Thomas and Tim?” Israel asked. Ben was almost always with them at school.
Ben grimaced. “They always make fun of me for playing jump rope and for being friends with McKenna and Lauren. ’Cause Tim thinks girls and jump rope are for sissies and Thomas says I shouldn’t be friends with Avery’s friends, since last year we made a pact not to turn against Thomas and be friends with Avery.”
“It’s a super serious promise. That’s why Thomas is mad, ’cause he says I broke the promise. But McKenna and Lauren hardly play with Avery, so I don’t think it counts.”
Israel nodded in agreement. Avery always played with Valentine and Clara, unless they all decided to swing or play Little House on the Prairie under the monkey bars.
On Saturday afternoon, after a long day of waiting for Israel, Mom and Dad drove him over to Ben’s house.
“I’m so proud of you for making a new friend,” Mom gushed, turning in her seat to pat Israel’s knee. “I know it can be hard when you’re new at school, but I’m just so proud of you.”
Israel’s face got hot and he looked out the window so that he didn’t have to look at Mom. When they finally got to Ben’s house, Israel was the first one out of the car, and he waited for Dad to open the trunk. He finally did, right before he got out of the car, and Israel pushed the trunk lid up and grabbed his backpack out of it. Ben had told him that they first thing they would do was swim, so Israel was already wearing his swimming trunks.
“Look at you, all ready to go,” Dad said, ruffling Israel’s hair. “Did Ben say that we should ring the doorbell or meet them around back?”
“I don’t remember,” Israel said. He couldn’t remember Ben mentioning either, so he and his parents walked up to the front door, where there was a hand written sign with an arrow that said, “We’re in the pool! Go around to the gate.”
Israel followed his parents through the grass and then through the gate into Ben’s backyard, which was mostly taken up by the pool and the concrete around the cool. But the pool wasn’t small, it was big, and there was a diving board and a slide on the far end. It was the coolest pool Israel had ever seen in anyone’s backyard.
“Hi,” Russell called from the other side of the pool, where he stood in his swimming trunks and orange floaties, dripping water onto the ground.
Israel waved back, smiling.
“You must be Israel,” a lady that Israel didn’t know said. She walked over quickly and shook Mom and Dad’s hands. “I’m Sonya Garfield, Ben’s mom.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dad said. “Would you mind if we hung around for a little bit, just to make sure that Israel gets settled?”
“That would be just fine,” Ben’s mom promised, smiling.
Israel looked around for Ben, but the only people in the pool were Russell, John, and a boy that Israel didn’t recognize.
“Ben just ran inside to use the restroom,” Ben’s mom said, as if reading his mind. “Ben told me that you know John and Russell, of course, but that’s our neighbor, Lane.”
Israel nodded, and Ben’s mom led him and his parents over to a round, glass table with chairs around it. She took Israel’s backpack inside for him while Israel took his shirt off and Mom and Dad sat down and Mom held Israel’s life jacket out for him.
“I don’t need it,” Israel insisted. He could swim well enough to get to the edge of the pool when he got tired. He had done it before in the pool they went to sometimes in Arizona.
“Israel, put it on or we go home,” Dad threatened.
Israel stuck his lip out and allowed Mom to help put it on. She was bucking the strap that went between his legs when Ben came out of his house and yelled, “Cowabunga!” As he ran and jumped into the pool. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket or floaties.
“Can I go?’ Israel asked Mom impatiently.
Mom pulled on the strap between his legs and checked that every other buckle was secure and then said, “Go have fun.”
Israel walked over to the edge of the pool and put his feet in as Ben shook his head, water flying off of his hair. “Oh, I didn’t know you were here,” Ben said, grinning and paddling over to the edge of the pool.
“I just got here,” Israel told him. He let go of the edge of the pool and let himself drop down into the water. He wiped the water off of his face and then looked at Ben, who was looking up at the slide. Israel watched as Russell slid down, yelling, “Wheee!” And then splashed into the water.
“We just got the slide this summer,” Ben told Israel. “Pretty cool, right?”
“Yeah,” Israel agreed, smiling.
It didn’t take long for everyone else to show up. Israel met Ben’s neighbors, Lane and Silas, and they and the girls all took turns sliding and jumping off the diving board until Ben’s dad called them over to eat hotdogs, chips, and fruit. As they started eating, Israel’s parents finally left — no one else’s parents had stayed — and Israel felt himself relax.
After they ate dinner, they swam a little bit more, mostly diving for rings. Since Israel’s parents were gone, he took his life jacket off and joined in the fun, and he didn’t even get scared that he was going to drown once. Then they dried off and headed inside, where they ate cake and ice cream.
“Do you guys want to watch a movie?” Ben’s dad asked, but Ben, Lane, and Silas said no. Instead of the movie, Ben led them all down to the basement, where he, Lane, and Silas grabbed video game controllers and started playing a soccer game on the TV.
Israel played hula hoops and bounced a big ball back and forth with Lauren and McKenna until they had to leave. When they were both gone, he settled on the couch next to Ben and tried not to yawn as he watched them play video games.
“Hey, we should give Israel a turn,” Ben said when their game ended.
“Do you even know how to play?” Silas asked.
“No,” Israel admitted.
“Don’t worry,” Ben said, “I’ll show you.”
“Okay,” Israel agreed hesitantly. The game looked boring, so he didn’t even want to learn how to play, but Ben gave him the controller and started telling him how to do things, anyway. Throughout the game, Silas and Lane refused to go easy on Israel, and even with Ben telling Israel what to do and sometimes helping him by pushing a button at the right time, Israel was miserable. He just wanted to do something else. Anything else.
“Boys, I think it’s about bed time,” Ben’s mom called down the stairs.
Hope swelled in Israel’s chest, but Silas and Lane groaned, “Noooo,” and Ben begged, “Thirty more minutes?”
“Fifteen,” his mom said, and when he tried to argue, she said, “Fifteen or nothing,” so Ben agreed.
The fifteen minutes went by extremely slowly, even though Israel handed the controller back to Ben and just watched him, Silas, and Lane play. By the time they were brushing their teeth, Israel’s eyelids were drooping.
“I call the video game couch,” Lane said.
“I call the bean bag,” Silas said.
“Well then I’m going to sleep on my bed,” Ben said. “I don’t want to sleep on the floor.”
Israel looked between all of them, hoping that they’d all agree to go sleep on Ben’s bedroom floor, but Silas and Lane just began talking about how they were going to stay up all night and come stick Ben’s hand in a bowl of warm water to make him pee his pants in his sleep.
“That’s so gross,” Ben said, laughing along with them. “John said it doesn’t even work, though. He tried it on his friend once and his friend just woke up and hit the bowl so that the water got all over John’s pants and made it look like he peed his pants.”
Silas and Lane cracked up laughing, and Israel smiled. He hoped that, if Silas and Lane really did try to make Ben or Israel pee their pants, that the water would get spilled all over them instead.
When Silas and Lane got done brushing their teeth and headed back down to the basement, Ben said, “You could sleep on the couch in the living room, except my Dad gets up super early. So maybe you could sleep on the floor in the basement, or in my room or something?”
“Maybe in your room,” Israel said. “I… I don’t really know Silas and Lane.”
“Yeah, that’s okay,” Ben agreed. “And now I don’t have to be alone at my own birthday party.”
Israel smiled and followed Ben up to his room.
Israel and Ben stayed up late talking about funny things that had happened at school, some of John’s funny stories, and even some of the funny things Israel had done with Ross and Dylan. When Israel woke up the next morning to sunlight streaming through Ben’s window, he pulled his blanket — Ben’s blanket, from his closet — over his head and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Israel, are you awake?” Ben whispered.
“No,” Israel whispered back, and he and Ben laughed.
“Do you smell bacon?”
Israel pulled the blanket off his head and took a deep breath through his nose. “Yeah.”
Ben jumped out of his bed, so Israel forced himself up and followed him out to the kitchen, where Ben’s dad stood at the stove next to plates of bacon, eggs, and pancakes.
“Good morning, boys,” Ben’s dad said cheerfully. “Where are Lane and Silas?”
“In the basement,” Ben said. “They called the couch and the bean bag.”
“I see,” Ben’s dad said. “Are you guys ready to eat?”
Ben and Israel nodded enthusiastically, and Ben’s dad handed them plates.
Israel had two helpings of breakfast, and just as Silas and Lane were getting their first plates of food, the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” John offered. He ran to the front door and came back a few seconds later with Israel’s parents in tow.
“No,” Israel groaned from the couch, where he, Ben, and Russell had been watching cartoons.
“Go grab all of your stuff, Israel,” Mom told him. “Be fast, or else we won’t make it to church on time.”
That got Israel going. He had never, ever missed a church service, and he didn’t plan to miss one now. In just a few minutes, he had stuffed everything into his backpack and said goodbye to Ben, John, and Russell.
“Say bye to the other boys and thank Ben’s dad for having you over.” Mom whispered.
“Bye,” Israel said to Silas and Lane, who said bye back. Then, to Ben’s dad, Israel said, “The breakfast was really good. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” Ben’s dad said, grinning. Then he looked up to Mom. “Great kid you’ve got there. He was so quiet and polite the whole time.”
“Thank you very much,” Mom said, smiling at Ben’s dad and putting her arm over Israel’s shoulder to pat his chest. “And thank you for having him over.”
“Any time,” Ben’s dad said, and as Israel and Mom walked out the door, Ben called, “Bye,” one more time.
Israel expected Ben to play with him more at school the next week, but he didn’t. He barely even jumped rope with McKenna and Lauren, which meant that Israel hardly did, either. He liked the girls, but it wasn’t the same without Ben. Mostly, Ben just played soccer with Tim and Thomas and sometimes Owen or Avery, leaving Israel to swing alone and wish that he liked soccer.
Just when he was feeling the most alone that he had felt since right after Meemaw and Papa went back home to Arizona, Valentine gave him an invitation to her birthday party. She invited the whole class, but Israel still smiled every time he thought about the invitation in his backpack.
“Valentine Short,” Mom said when she read the invitation. “As in Mary and Gabe’s daughter?”
Israel nodded. He knew Mrs. Mary from church, since she always came over and said hi at the beginning of the services.
“Well, how nice of her,” Mom said, hugging Israel to her side. “We’ll have to figure out what she’d like for her birthday. Do you know what she likes?”
Israel shrugged. “She plays Little House on the Prairie at recess.”
Mom nodded. “So maybe a doll or a dress or something. We’ll figure it out.”
By the time Valentine’s party came around, Israel and Mom had gone to the store and purchased a small baby doll and two headbands for Valentine. Her party was at a bowling alley and parents were invited to stay and watch, so Dad took Israel to the bowling alley while Mom was at work.
“Pastor Phineas, it’s so good to see you,” Valentine’s dad, Gabe, said when Dad and Israel walked up to the two lanes that were reserved for Valentine’s party.
While Dad and Gabe talked, Israel spotted the table with the presents on it and went to set his bag next to all the other gifts. Once he was done with that, he spotted Avery and Clara with Valentine and Valentine’s siblings and cousins with their parents at the other table in the second bowling lane.
Israel glanced back at Dad, who was still talking to Gabe, and then headed over to Valentine’s family.
“Well hello there, Israel,” Karla — who was Abe, Allison, Sarah, and Tommy’s mom — said, smiling at him. “Welcome to the party.”
Israel smiled shyly and Mrs. Mary patted the bench next to her. “Come, sit with us. I know Andrew and Abe will be happy that you’re here.”
Israel sat down next to her and squeezed his hands between his thighs. He wasn’t even friends with Abe and Andrew. Usually Abe was just bossy and Andrew spent more time with Allison, Sarah, and Rachel than anyone else, unless he was following Abe around.
“Oh, Israel, I think Laken wants you to hold him,” Rachel’s dad said. Israel couldn’t remember his name. Baby Laken leaned over the table and started crawling towards Israel. His dad kept his hands around the baby’s waist. “Do you want to hold him?”
Israel nodded, his voice catching in his throat. He had never held a baby before, but sometimes during church he liked to watch Laken or baby SJ, Laken’s cousin, as they played and cuddled with their parents.
“All right, I’ll put him on your lap. You just have to hold him under his arms or around his waist so he doesn’t squirm away, okay?”
Israel nodded. Laken’s dad put Laken in Israel’s lap, and Israel wrapped his arms around him. He was surprisingly warm and squishy, and he wiggled until he was looking up at Israel. Then he reached up and touched Israel’s mouth, and Israel couldn’t help but smile.
Israel held Laken until he wanted down, and then he followed him around the bowling alley, sometimes holding his hand and helping him up when he fell down. After awhile, when Israel’s cheeks hurt from smiling so much, Laken’s dad came up and took Laken back.
“It’s about time for him to try and nap,” he explained. He held Laken out to Israel and said, “Say ‘bye, bye’ to Israel, Lakey.”
Laken reached for Israel’s face again, and Israel let him touch his nose. Then Laken’s dad took him away, and Israel didn’t know what to do anymore.
Thankfully, when Israel got back to the bowling lanes for Valentine’s party, almost his whole class was there, including Ben, and Valentine’s parents were entering everyone’s names into the computer.
“Hi,” Israel said, running over to Ben.
“Hi,” Ben said, smiling and offering a high five.
Israel high-fived him and smiled to himself. Now that Ben was here, the party might actually be okay.