The Snickerdudels

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Israel: March, ERA

One day Zeke was struggling so much in math that he clawed at his head as if he had once had longer hair that he had pulled at when he was frustrated. What Israel wouldn’t give to see him with longer hair and to run his own fingers through it… Israel took a deep breath and leaned over, saying, “Hey, is number five tripping you up too?”

“Number one is tripping me up,” Zeke whispered back, the tips of his ears turning red. “Do you understand this stuff at all?”

“Yeah, enough,” Israel admitted with a small smile. “Show me what you tried on number one.”

Zeke did, and Israel quickly found what he had done wrong. Israel continued to coach him through three problems before Zeke sighed and said, “I think I’ve got it. Kinda, anyway. Not like you. Thanks a ton, though.”

“No problem,” Israel said, turning back to his own work and leaning his cheek against his hand — Israel wished he would — he hopefully wouldn’t be able to tell that Israel was blushing and internally freaking out.

Israel continued to give Zeke help in math, but Friday came and went without Israel getting up the courage to offer to tutor Zeke in the library after workouts — a plan Israel had come up with as he tried to fall asleep at night but failed because thoughts of Zeke were too loud.

He tried to rationalize his failure by reminding himself that Zeke didn’t strike Israel as the type of guy who often visited libraries and that he would probably laugh at Israel if he suggested meeting there.

Thoughts like those snuck their way into Israel’s mind nearly every waking moment, which made hanging out with his friends over the weekend much less fun than normal. He even found himself wishing that he could go back to school just so that he could get another hard-earned smile from Zeke.

Ember and Israel spent nearly all of Saturday alone in the cabin as their other bunkmates essentially lived at the baseball fields. Israel finished all of his homework, finished his book for English and the one he had checked out from the library, wrote a long letter to Dylan, and played at least twenty games of cards with Ember just to pass the time. By Sunday, he was dying for something new to do.

“There’s a Ravens/Legends game today. Should be a good one,” Pax told Israel at breakfast. “You and Em should come. It’s not good to sit in the cabin all day.”

“As if sitting on the bleachers, freezing our rear ends off, is any better.” Ember said.

“Just say ‘ass,’ man,” Deven said. “You sound like some old man, saying ‘rear end.’”

“I don’t need those type of words to get my point across,” Ember said, holding his chin up.

“You promise it won’t be boring?” Israel asked Pax, ignoring Deven and Ember’s ongoing argument.

“Of course not,” Pax said, smiling. “When is anything ever boring with us?”

Israel rolled his eyes. “I’ll come, I guess.”

“Then who am I going to play cards with?” Ember complained, turning away from Deven.

“You should come too, Em,” Gray said encouragingly. “We can teach you all the players’ names.”

“And all the positions,” Amoni added.

“And you could match the names we teach you with the numbers on the jerseys.”

“And we could teach you what the ump’s signals mean.”

And —”

“If you don’t do any of that, I’ll come,” Ember said.

Gray and Amoni whooped and high-fived each other. Israel smiled into his bland oatmeal.

Once they were done with breakfast, showers, and bunk checks, Israel and his friends headed down to the baseball fields and claimed a spot on the bleachers. It was freakishly cold for March so, despite his precautions, Israel shivered all the way through the top of the first inning.

“I really need to pee,” Ember complained after the Ravens had made two outs in the bottom of the first inning.

“Me too, actually,” Deven sighed.

“I saw Antonio over there,” Pax said, pointing to their left. “I was going to talk to him once this inning is over.”

“Can we come?” Amoni begged. Gray put his hands together as if he was praying and looked at Pax with his puppy eyes.

“Fine,” Pax sighed. “Just don’t fangirl over him like you did when I was talking to Spencer and Trevor. That was fucking embarassing.”

“But it was Trevor McCrorey,” Gray said, his eyes wide.

Israel snorted and looked out at the field as one of the players hit the ball along the third baseline. The third baseman scooped it up easily and got the guy running to third out.

“Let’s go,” Ember said, standing up and spreading his sweatshirt on the bench where he had been sitting, leaving only his jacket from home on to keep him warm. “Hurry up, Dev, it’s cold.”

“Coming, coming,” Deven said, stripping off his sweatshirt and throwing it down on the bench.

“Can you hold down the fort?” Pax asked Israel as he, Gray, and Amoni followed Deven and Ember’s examples.

“Yeah, no problem,” Israel assured him, though he had no idea what he would do if someone came and tried to sit where one of his friends had been sitting. He wasn’t exactly an intimidating person.

“You’re the best, Izzy,” Pax said before bounding down the bleachers behind Gray and Amoni.

Israel sighed and turned to smooth out Deven and Gray’s wadded hoodies. Then he watched the benchwarmers sit in the dugout and drink water as the second inning began and the rest of their team ran out to the field. What was it like to enjoy baseball, anyway?

“Hey, can I sit here?” a familiar voice asked.

Israel looked up to see Zeke standing in front of him. Zeke? In front of him, wearing a baseball hat and looking cuter than ever? Shit. “Hi,” he said, like an idiot. “Yeah, you can.” He reached over and pushed Pax’s sweatshirt away from him.

Zeke sat down next to Israel — very close to Israel, actually, though Israel supposed that he hadn’t pushed Pax’s hoodie over that far and Zeke probably didn’t want to sit on it. Or was it okay to sit on someone else’s hoodie? Was that weird?

“A little cold, huh?” Zeke asked.

Israel nodded, closing his fists in his hoodie pocket and telling himself to calm down. Calm. Down. “I’m wearing my rec jacket under my sweatshirt.” The wind blew aggressively, making Israel’s hair go crazy, and Israel blushed. God, now Zeke was going to think he looked dumb, with his hair looking like mess. Israel reached up to comb his hair back into place with his fingers. Had Zeke said something while Israel had been busy panicking? “I don’t really like baseball,” he blurted.

“I thought everyone here was hooked,” Zeke said, smiling at him like he found Israel amusing. Those blue eyes pierced Israel’s soul.

“Almost everyone,” Israel said, smiling because Zeke was smiling. “Not me and Ember. But sometimes we can be convinced to come to games.”

“Who’s Ember?” Zeke asked, furrowing his brow.

“One of my bunkmates,” Israel said, mentally adding, “Definitely not my boyfriend. I am totally single.” Instead, out loud, he added, “The other guys like baseball a lot, so they convince us to come sometimes.”

“Oh,” Zeke said, looking away and pulling at the brim of his hat. Israel panicked, wondering if Zeke really did think that Ember was more than one of Israel’s friends, but then Zeke said, “The Ravens are beating the Legends? Never thought I’d see that.”

Israel laughed, partially at his own stupidity. Of course Zeke hadn’t been thinking about Ember. He probably couldn’t care less about Ember, because he probably barely cared about Israel outside of the math help he gave him. “Neither did I, since I don’t care to watch them,” Israel said half-heartedly.

Zeke smiled at him, and fireworks went off in Israel’s chest.

“Hey,” Pax said from somewhere in front of Israel. He looked up and spotted his bunkmates coming up the bleachers. He didn’t have time to process how he felt about them coming back before Pax said, “You got Izzy talking? Who are you, man?”

“I’m Zeke Hallaway,” Zeke said, turning his body away from Israel to talk to Pax.

“I’m Pax.”

“Izzy,” Gray asked, sitting back down in front of Israel, “how come you talk to him more than you talk to me?”

Israel wanted to say, “Not now, Gray, please,” because he was pretty sure that, so far, Zeke actually thought that Israel was cool and he didn’t need his friends to ruin that by letting Zeke know just how shy Israel was. But instead of saying that, he just shrugged and smiled.

Israel’s bunkmates settled down quickly and everyone’s eyes returned to the game. Israel stared at the field, not actually seeing what was going on because he was too busy replaying his conversation with Zeke in his head. Those smiles Zeke had given him…

“So, who are the rest of them?” Zeke whispered, his mouth close enough to Israel’s ear to make him blush. Israel blushed even harder as he pulled his sweatshirt down over his lap as far as it would go. What he would have done if he hadn’t been wearing it, he didn’t know. Still blushing, he reached around Zeke and tapped Pax’s shoulder. When Pax looked, he gestured to the rest of their friends, hoping Pax would figure it out.

Luckily Pax did, and while he began introducing their friends to Zeke, Israel thought about everything that he didn’t like. Baseball. Roadkill. Fighting with Mom and Dad. Yes, definitely Mom and Dad. Anything to get Zeke’s smile and his whisper off Israel’s mind.

It worked, and Israel was able to return his hoodie to its normal position. The game dragged on, and Zeke didn’t make any other efforts to make conversation with Israel. Israel couldn’t think of anything cool enough to talk about, so he stayed silent. By the fifth inning, Israel desperately wanted to leave and go back to the cabin where he could thaw out and do something he actually liked. He couldn’t take the silence between him and Zeke anymore. If Zeke was going to sit so close to him, their knees touching when either one of them shifted positions or shivered, he couldn’t just not say anything. It wasn’t fair.

Israel had been ignoring all of his friends’ conversations, but when Amoni elbowed Gray and said, “Yo Gray, why are there no Mexicans in hell?” it caught Israel’s attention just enough for Israel to glance to his right to see if anyone else had heard and for him to wish that Amoni had a filter.

“I dunno,” Gray said.

“Because they all jumped the border,” Amoni said.

Gray laughed, and so did Pax and Deven and the random guy sitting next to Amoni. Israel smiled to himself, relieved, thinking that maybe the game would have been slightly more entertaining if he hadn’t been tuning his friends out the whole time.

“Hey,” a deep voice with an edge of anger said from behind Israel. Israel turned to look at him and felt his bowels turn to water. The guy was huge and looked very, very angry.

“You didn’t happen to find that offensive, did you?” Amoni asked in a very small voice.

“I happened to find it very offensive,” the huge guy said, cracking his knuckles.

“I didn’t even know Mexicans could get that fat,” Zeke said, staring intently at Israel. Israel stared back at him, his mouth hanging open, but Zeke continued. “Aren’t they supposed to be able to jump really high? I’m not sure he could get off —” Zeke’s voice squeaked as the huge guy grabbed him by his sweatshirt collar and lifted him out of his seat.

“Care to say that again?” the huge guy asked, his free hand curling and uncurling into a fist.

Israel squeezed his eyes shut, praying that Zeke would apologize, but instead Zeke said, “I didn’t know Mexicans got that fat.”

The bleachers shook as the huge guy dropped Zeke. Israel shrunk away as Zeke jumped up and slammed his fist into the guy’s face.

“Oh shit!” Amoni yelled as the huge guy kicked Zeke in the balls. Israel winced in sympathy as Zeke stumbled backwards, landing between Amoni and Gray. The huge guy took advantage of the moment and stomped on Zeke’s stomach.

“Stop,” Israel cried as Zeke gasped for air, but the guy ignored him and kicked Zeke again. And again. Israel couldn’t move, but tears streamed down his cheeks as he watched Zeke’s eyes roll back. Then Pax and Deven were on their feet, shoving the huge guy backwards. And the huge guy tumbled back into other guys but managed to get up, aiming a punch at Pax’s head. Pax dodged the punch, moving faster than Israel ever had, and jump-tackled the guy so that they both fell backwards. Deven scrambled past Israel and helped Pax hold the huge guy down as Gray and Amoni waved the umpire over to the stands. He spoke into a walkie talkie as he ran up the stands.

“He’s totally out,” Ember said to Israel, cradling Zeke’s head in his hands and pulling at one of his eyelids. Zeke’s eye stayed rolled back and Israel sobbed.

“We need Shelly, pronto,” the ump said into his walkie talkie. Then, to Gray, Amoni, and Israel, he said, “Hang tight, guys.” The ump stepped past Israel and took over Pax and Deven’s job of subduing the huge guy.

“Is he okay?” Israel finally managed to say, joining Amoni on Zeke’s left side.

“I don’t know,” Amoni admitted, wiping his eyes quickly. “If he’s not, it’s my fault. I never learn to keep my stupid fucking mouth shut.”

Israel put an arm around Amoni and used his other hand to hold Zeke’s limp, but warm, hand. Please be okay, he prayed silently.

The nurse showed up in a golf cart with Mr. Chance and another man a few seconds later. While Mr. Chance and the man who had come with him escorted the huge guy, whose eye was swollen, off the bleachers, the nurse said, “Can you help me carry him to the ground?” Amoni, Gray, and Israel helped her lift Zeke off the bleachers and started the slow descent down the stairs. Pax and Deven joined them after a few steps and they set Zeke down in the grass, where the nurse checked his pulse and put her ear by his mouth to see if he was breathing. Israel held his breath and waited for her to start doing CPR. When she didn’t he felt some relief, figuring that that was a good sign, but Israel’s heart still raced. He threaded his arm through Pax’s without thinking, concentrating all of his energy on trying not to cry more. Pax reached down and squeezed Israel’s hand once before pulling away and crossing his arms over his chest.

The nurse rummaged through the bag that she had brought with her and pulled out a small bottle — Israel couldn’t tell through his watery eyes what it was. She waved it under Zeke’s nose, and Zeke’s eyes fluttered open.

“Thank God,” Amoni sighed, leaning into Gray. Israel bit his nails as the nurse asked Zeke questions and leaned forward to hear his quiet answers. After what seemed like an eternity, the nurse helped Zeke up from the ground and they got into the golf cart and drove off.

Just as Israel was about to say something or start crying — he didn’t know if he could trust himself to speak yet — someone cleared their throat behind him. Israel and his friends turned around to see Mr. Chance watching them. “I’m going to need you boys to follow me.”

Israel and his friends followed Mr. Chance to the visitation center, where he told them to sit down in the hallway outside Headmaster Dawson’s office. One by one, they were called in to tell Headmaster Dawson their version of events. Israel ended up being last, but Pax promised to wait for him in the hall as the rest of their friends went back to their cabin.

“Mr. Benton,” Headmaster Dawson said as Israel walked into his office. “Sit.”

Israel obeyed.

“Tell me what happened out there. You can start wherever you feel like the beginning was.”

Israel cleared his throat as quietly as he could, scratching his neck. “Well, we were watching the game, just being normal and everything, until Amoni told this stupid joke that made the huge guy — I mean, the guy that nearly killed Zeke — really angry.”

“What was the joke?” Headmaster Dawson asked, steepling his fingers.

Israel repeated it and Headmaster Dawson nodded. “Then what happened?”

“Well, I think the guy was going to hurt Amoni. He was staring him down and cracking his knuckles and stuff, so Zeke turned to me and basically made another joke —”

“What was that joke?”

“Something about the guy being too fat to jump high?”

Headmaster Dawson nodded, seeming less satisfied with this answer than Israel’s previous recounting of Amoni’s joke.

“So,” Israel said, not sure if he should continue. Headmaster Dawson nodded encouragingly. “So the guy grabbed Zeke by his clothes and lifted him up off the bleachers. Then he dropped him, which made Zeke punch him, and then the guy kicked Zeke and he fell. That’s when the guy just basically stomped on Zeke over and over until Pax and Deven held him back.”

“And that’s when the umpire was called over?”

Israel nodded.

“Well,” Headmaster Dawson sighed, “that lines up with your friends’ stories. You won’t be punished, but I understand that you live with the boys that restrained the aggressor?”

Israel nodded, pretty sure that the headmaster meant Pax and Deven.

“Well, their version of events was slightly more violent than yours, so we will have to take away the necessary items from your cabin.”

Israel nodded, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He wanted to blame Amoni for getting the mirror taken away, but he couldn’t. He knew Amoni already felt bad enough.

“You can go,” Headmaster Dawson told him, pointing to the door. “Stay out of trouble.”

Israel got up and left his office. Pax came to his side immediately and they started walking back to the cabin. “You okay?”

Israel nodded.

“It was pretty brave, what Zeke did.”

“I guess,” Israel said. He personally didn’t think that antagonizing a huge, angry guy had been a good choice, but he also couldn’t imagine what would have happened to Amoni if Zeke hadn’t stepped in.

“You know him from school, right?” Pax asked.

“Yeah,” Israel sighed. If Zeke was too injured to come to class, tomorrow wasn’t going to be the same. Suddenly, Israel wanted to collapse on the floor and cry some more. He had been waiting all weekend just to hang out with Zeke more and just when he had been given the gift of Zeke’s presence a day early, it had only been to see him get beat up. Israel nearly winced, imagining the pain that Zeke was in at that moment and would probably be in for the next week or so.

“You like him?” Pax asked.

Israel blushed and glanced at Pax. “He’s always nice to me.”

“Meric said that he seemed like a good guy. He invited him to try out for my baseball team.”

Israel nodded and managed a small smile, just glad that Pax hadn’t been asking what Israel had thought he was asking. “You should invite him to bunk with us,” Israel said before he could think about it.

Pax glanced at him, his eyebrows raised. “You sure?”

Israel nodded, biting his lip. There was no turning back now.

“I do really trust your opinion,” Pax said. “Meric’s too. So sure, why the hell not? We can ask the other guys what they think.”

When Pax asked the rest of Israel’s friends, he was met with a resounding “yes.”

“That guy saved my ass,” Amoni said. “It’s the least we can do.”

“‘That guy’ can punch,” Deven said, laughing. “Did you see the bruise he left on that Latino’s face?”

“He likes baseball, but he did save Amoni,” Ember said, moving his hands as if they were the two sides of balancing scales. “So, of course, we know what matters more.”

Israel smiled. Zeke really had saved Amoni. His friends were right. Even if getting in a fight had been pretty stupid, it had also been pretty brave.

The next morning at attendance block, Israel spotted Zeke and ran up behind him to talk to him before the whistle blew. “Hey.”

Zeke looked at him, grimacing. “Look… Sorry about yesterday.” He scratched his head, and Israel inspected his arms and face for bruises, not finding any.

Israel laughed. Zeke was a lucky guy. “You saved Amoni and you’re sorry? Why, ’cause you’re all bruised?”

Zeke smiled. “Yeah. They do hurt a lot, you know.”

Israel smiled back and looked down. “I asked Pax to tell Headmaster Dawson that you can bunk with us.” Just then, the whistle blew and Israel jumped. He sprinted off to his spot in block, hoping that Zeke understood why he hadn’t said goodbye.

In math, when the teacher, Mr. Meng, gave the class time to work on their worksheets, Israel turned to Zeke. “Will you sit with us at lunch?”

Zeke shrugged. “If you want me to, sure.”

Israel smiled as a warm feeling spread through his body. “You know —”

“It should not be this loud in here right now,” Mr. Meng said, standing up behind his desk. Israel blushed and went back to his worksheet. He glanced at Zeke out of the corner of his eye, hoping to catch Zeke’s eye and trade smiles, but Zeke was too busy erasing something to notice.

At lunch, which was right after art, Zeke and Israel walked to the mess hall together. Israel led Zeke through the lunch line and then to the table where Israel and his bunkmates always sat. Everyone except Pax was already there.

“Hey, it’s the dude who saved my butt,” Amoni called, pointing as Zeke and Israel approached. Israel sat down across from Amoni and Zeke sat down next to Israel.

“Maybe next time you’ll check to see who’s around you before you make a joke like that,” Deven said.

Amoni rolled his eyes and poked at his cooked carrots.

“Do you have bruises?” Gray asked Zeke as Israel began eating his sandwich. “Do they hurt? I can get you some ice.”

“They don’t hurt that bad. I don’t need ice.”

Israel smiled to himself, figuring that Zeke was only saying that to be tough. He had never thought that a ‘tough guy’ would be his type, but whatever Zeke was was definitely Israel’s type.

Gray reached across the table and poked Zeke in the sides. Zeke gasped in pain and his hands closed into fists.

“Ooh, which side was it?” Gray asked. “I guessed the right area. I think they really do hurt. Are you sure you don’t want some ice?”

Israel nearly told Gray to chill out, but Zeke said, “They only hurt if you touch them.”

“He’s very hyperactive,” Ember said, pushing his glasses up his nose like a classic nerd. “He claims he’s never been diagnosed, but I just know he has ADHD.”

Israel couldn’t help it. He laughed to himself, putting his hand in front of his mouth in an attempt to hide it. Before Zeke knew it, Ember would be trying to diagnose him with something, too.

“What’s so funny?” Ember asked, turning on him.

Israel shrugged, unable to keep the smile off his face.

“Hey Gray, you got the money from yesterday?” Amoni asked suddenly.

“Yep,” Gray said.

Israel went back to eating. He always worried that Gray and Amoni would get themselves hurt by betting wrong — which was bound to happen sometime — but no one else ever seemed to share his concern.

“Hey,” Pax said, sitting down next to Zeke. “Israel told you?”

Zeke nodded.

“Where were you, man?” Deven asked, his mouth full of food.

Pax shook his head. “Talking to someone.”

Israel expected Deven to ask who, but he didn’t, and that made Israel want to ask who Pax had been talking to.

“You know,” Pax said, picking at his food, “there’s something about you, Zeke.”

Israel looked up, glancing between Pax and Zeke, whose ears had turned red.

“Like… what?” Zeke asked.

“Well, I mean, for one, Izzy talks to you.”

That was Israel’s cue to blush, but Zeke was too busy staring at Pax to notice.

“You saved Amoni from getting his ass kicked, and you don’t even know him. He actually probably even deserved it.”

“Hey,” Amoni said, laughing.

“Plus,” Deven said, “Ember hasn’t barfed on you, so that’s a good sign.”

Israel laughed. He hadn’t been there when Ember had barfed on Alex, but he had heard the story many times.

“Look,” Zeke said, “you don’t have to let me bunk with you just because I got beat up for Amoni or whatever. That was no big deal.”

Israel snorted quietly as Pax said, “That was a big deal, and we aren’t asking you to bunk with us just because of that.” For whatever reason, that comment made Israel blush again, but this time Zeke was too busy watching the crowd gathering around Gray and Amoni to notice. “What’s going on?”

Deven explained, and then Deven, Zeke, and Pax began talking about baseball, leaving Israel feeling dejected. Of course, when he started bunking with them, Zeke was going to bond a lot more with Pax and Deven than with Israel. He obviously liked baseball, and Israel had been stupid to think that asking Zeke to bunk with them would mean that he and Israel would grow clsoer.

“You guys really want me to bunk with you?” Zeke finally said.

Israel nodded eagerly.

“Then I will. On one condition.”

“And what’s that?” Pax asked, seeming amused.

“I have a friend, his name is Kelsey, who’s going to need a cabin in a couple days. Can he bunk with you — us — too?”

“Is he a jerk?” Deven asked.

“Definitely not,” Zeke promised.

“Then sure,” Pax said.

Ember and Israel looked at each other in shock. They didn’t even know this Kelsey guy and Pax was saying yes? What had gotten into their friends?

After school, Israel and his bunkmates were all called to Headmaster Dawson’s office to make their bunking plans with Zeke official. However, Zeke wasn’t there when the Snickerdudels showed up right on time.

“If he doesn’t show, I’ll still send him your way,” Headmaster Dawson assured them.

“He’ll show,” Pax said, glancing at the clock, his arms crossed.

Israel frowned. He had never seen Pax look so nervous.

A minute later, there was a knock at the door. Headmaster Dawson said, “Come in,” and Israel smiled in relief as Zeke slipped into the office.

“You’re late,” Headmaster Dawson said, an irritable edge in his voice.

“Sorry sir, I —”

“I don’t want to hear your excuse. I expect you’ve already met since Mr. Davangelo asked to bunk with you?”

Zeke and Pax nodded, and Headmaster Dawson launched into his usual speech. When he let them go, Zeke walked next to Pax. “Hey, I hope you don’t mind, but I told Kelsey to meet me outside the mess hall so he could meet you guys.”

Pax nodded. “Great, that’s good thinking.”

Israel sighed, not wanting to meet a new guy. He liked their cabin how it was now. As Zeke began joking around with Israel’s friends, Israel shoved his hands in his pockets, wondering if this had been such a good idea. Ever since Zeke had been around them more, Israel felt that his friends talked to him less, despite having known him longer.

At the door that led outside, they met Zeke’s friend Kelsey. To Israel’s surprise, Kelsey wasn’t a jock type. He seemed incredibly nervous and awkward — not that Israel had room to judge — and he really just wasn’t attractive. Not that Zeke had to have attractive friends just because he was attractive. But he could have an attractive boyfriend, and Israel was just glad that Kelsey was clearly not that. Israel introduced himself to Kelsey before he and his friends left Kelsey behind to run to their cabin and change before workouts.

“This one up here,” Ember said, pointing their cabin out to Zeke.

“What’s that on the door?” Zeke asked.

“A sign,” Ember said, stating the obvious.

“We told Gray that we didn’t need one, because no one would understand,” Deven said.

“And no one does.”

“But he made it anyway,” Pax finished.

“Isn’t it great?” Gray exclaimed, running up to the door.

Zeke looked at Israel, seeming confused. “A sign for what?”

“For us.” Israel said, hoping that Zeke wouldn’t laugh. “The Snickerdudels.”

“It’s kinda what we call ourselves. We’ll explain later,” Pax said.

They all hurried into the cabin and Israel began worrying about changing in front of Zeke. However, Zeke took his clothes and changed in the bathroom, so Israel changed out in the cabin like normal, sighing in relief.

When Zeke came out of the bathroom, everyone else was already changed. At that moment, Israel realized that he was going to have to share a bunk with either Zeke or Kelsey, so he needed to choose before Ember made the choice for both of them.

He walked over to Zeke and tapped him on the shoulder. When those blue eyes met Israel’s own, he found himself unable to speak. He pointed at the bunk above his own and Zeke said, “You want me to —?”

Israel smiled and nodded, nearly melting as Zeke returned the smile. “Thanks.” He picked up his bags from where he had dropped them by the door and put them onto the bed above Israel’s.

“We gotta go, guys,” Pax said, walking over and flinging open the door. It hit the dresser and Zeke jumped. Israel smiled to himself and followed his bunkmates out to the blacktop for workouts. They made it just in time for workouts to start.

“Listen up,” a staff member said through a bullhorn. “Workouts for the nine through twelves are inside today. Thirteen through sixteens, head over to the east running path, seventeens and eighteens to the west. Today we’ll be opening the path to a five mile run.”

Israel groaned, looking at Deven, who rolled his eyes. Everyone hated five mile days.

“Last time we did this I almost died,” Amoni said.

“Because you tried to sprint the whole way,” Ember said condescendingly. Though Israel wouldn’t have said it that way, he couldn’t help but agree.

“Isn’t the east path the one the nine through twelves normally use for morning runs?” Zeke asked as the crowd began moving towards the running path.

“Yeah,” Pax said. “There’s a gate that opens up where we normally loop around.”

Zeke nodded. “This better be the only thing we’re doing for workouts.”

“Oh, it is. It’s leg day, boys,” Amoni said, jumping on Gray.

“I don’t know if I can make it five miles.” Zeke said, looking like he usually did in math class when he didn’t understand something. “I always feel awful after the morning runs.”

“Dude, your two-mile time is in the top fifty. You’re up there with the Pax-man,” Amoni said.

Israel stared at Zeke in awe. He had always wondered how Pax managed to run so fast and he was sure that only really good athletes could do something like that.

“That’s why you feel like crap,” Pax said. “When most people come here, they start way down low. Not you. You’ve been pushing hard since the beginning.”

“Yeah Zeke, you’re doing great. You’re no slow poke like me,” Deven said.

“I hate exercise, so I choose not to try.” Ember said.

Israel nearly snorted. If Ember running was anything like Ember doing strength training, he was terrible just because he was terrible.

“If Amoni and Gray cared, they could be in the top fifty, too,” Pax told Zeke. “A lot of kids are scared to be in the top fifty because some of the older kids are more likely to hate you and maybe beat you up once they find out who you are. The guys who have been here for years either treat the rankings like the end of the world or they never look at them, so you never know what you might get. And, because of your ranking, you’re also likely to get recruited to play baseball. Amoni and Gray love making jokes at the games, but neither of them have any desire to play, so being in the top fifty isn’t that important to them.”

Israel wondered if baseball would be more worth watching if someone as cute as Zeke was playing. Or if it would be worth it solely just to have more to talk about with Zeke.

“I don’t have good coordination,” Gray said. “One time I tried to catch a ball and I gave myself a bloody nose.”

“Because the ball hit you?” Zeke asked.

“No, because I punched myself trying to catch it.”

“Did you know there are only sixteen people ages thirteen to fifteen in our top fifty?” Ember said. “Zeke, Pax, Justus Hausmann, and some other baseball guys.”

“You really should go out for baseball, Zeke,” Pax said as they reached the first gate, where the runs always began. Israel wished that they were closer to the front because the smell coming from some of the other guys when they got sweaty made it hard for Israel to breathe as he ran, but he supposed that he had plenty of experience dealing with this issue and so he could survive it again.

“You should probably stay with Israel this time,” Ember advised. “Pax will be too fast, Gray and Amoni too goofy, and Deven and I too slow.”

“Thanks.” Zeke said, nodding at Israel.

Israel smiled and tried to decide whether he should be thanking Ember or punching him. It wasn’t like Israel was going to be attractive during or after a five mile run. Then again, it was a good time for him to learn more about Zeke when no one else was around.

“Remember boys,” a staff member said over a bull horn, “this is about doing your personal best. It’s not about beating anyone, and it’s not about friendship. Getting a good time for yourself is what will lead to the most satisfaction for you and your personal fitness. With that in mind, go!”

Zeke stayed next to Israel as everyone began running. “They’re starting too fast,” Israel said, watching Gray, Amoni, Pax, and Deven disappear into the crowd of boys in front of them. Zeke said nothing, but Israel didn’t mind because he didn’t need Zeke to hear how quickly he got out of breath during runs. Soon after passing the one mile mark, Zeke and Israel ended up next to Gray and Amoni.

“Pax,” Amoni said, breathing heavily, “is pretty far up… with Meric and Spencer.”

Israel nodded and, not long after, Gray and Amoni fell behind Zeke and Israel. Just past the three-mile marker, Zeke began breathing heavier and making small wheezing sounds as he inhaled.

“Think about something else,” Israel said, figuring that Zeke was hitting a wall. “A song or something.”

Zeke said nothing, which Israel hoped meant that he was taking his advice. He stole glances at him for the rest of the run, smiling to himself at Zeke’s scrunched, concentrated expression. Every drop of sweat, the flush of his cheeks, and the determination in his eyes made Israel like him more. He was so damn cute that Israel felt the need to use the word damn. But only in his head.

Neither of them talked for the rest of the run and when they passed the finish line. Zeke whooped and jumped on Israel’s back, making him stagger and nearly fall before Zeke slid off. Despite his wobbly legs and his pleading lungs, Israel couldn’t help but feel a little turned on. They moved to the side, out of the way of everyone finishing the run, to wait for Amoni and Gray to show up.

“Boo!”

Zeke and Israel both jumped and turned around to see Pax, who laughed and laughed. They both reached out to push him and Pax almost fell over, making it Zeke and Israel’s turn to laugh.

“There’s Gray and Ammo,” Pax said. He waved, and Gray and Amoni ran over to them.

“We were messing with Bryan Sanchez, trying to slow him down,” Amoni said, laughing and leaning over to catch his breath.

“He tripped over me, and that’s how we got away.” Gray said. “We could hear him wasting his breath to yell at us the rest of the run.”

“You guys are gonna get killed,” Pax said. Israel nodded in agreement, wishing that Gray and Amoni would just entertain themselves by talking to each other for once.

“It was worth it,” Amoni said, high-fiving Gray. They started dancing around, and Zeke laughed. Israel glanced at him and smiled.

By the time Deven and Ember showed up, Gray and Amoni were laying on the ground pointing at clouds. Israel wanted to join them, but Zeke didn’t, and Israel wanted to stay close to him.

“Kelsey’s not far behind,” Deven said, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. His shirt was soaked. “You guys are all so fast,” Deven said as Ember whispered something to Zeke and Zeke nodded.

“I hope they aren’t mean to me when we get back to the cabin,” Kelsey said when he came up to Israel and his friends, his lip trembling. “I can barely walk. My legs feel like spaghetti.”

“Well don’t let them hear you say that,” Zeke said. Israel admired Zeke’s patience with Kelsey and the way he always seemed ready to help him out.

“Sit down and stretch with me,” Pax said, and Kelsey did, wiping his eyes.

When they were done stretching, Israel and his friends headed back to their cabin and Kelsey peeled off to go to his own. Israel walked next to Zeke in silence, just glad that Zeke didn’t move away from him to talk to Pax or Deven or someone cooler.

Back at the cabin, Israel tried to put Zeke out of his mind as he changed into his rec clothes, reapplied deodorant, and settled on his bed to do his homework. Pax and Deven rushed out to the baseball fields, and then Ember said, “I’ll grab the chore assignments.”

Israel watched him open the door and grab the chore assignments from the mailbox. If he was honest, chores were probably the most annoying part about East Ridge, solely because they had to be done at a certain time and not whenever Israel made time to do them.

“So, with baseball, Pax and Deven have less chores, don’t they?” Zeke asked.

Ember nodded and gave everyone their assignments. Israel was assigned to sweep the mess hall, which really wasn’t so bad. He could be done in fifteen minutes.

“What’s your job?” Amoni asked Zeke.

“I have to sweep the mess hall.”

“That’s not bad.”

“Don’t pretend like you don’t complain about it,” Ember said.

Israel got off his bed and handed Zeke his paper. Zeke looked at it and said, “Nice. Now it won’t be so bad, right?”

Israel smiled, that tingly feeling running down his spine.

“It’s usually a two-person job.” Ember said. “And two other people follow you with mops so you always feel rushed.”

“Great.” Zeke said. He and Israel headed out the door and Zeke said, “The mess hall is huge. I think it’s probably like more of a four-person job.”

Israel shrugged. “You have to think about it. There are a lot of guys playing baseball, lots of guys in study hall, more in detention, and probably a lot of jobs to be done.”

Zeke turned his head quickly as a lawnmower started up in the distance, and Israel smiled to himself. “An eighteen always does that job. They line the baseball fields, too. Supposedly they’re the most trustworthy.”

“I wouldn’t trust Chuck Thurman or any of his friends to do that when they’re eighteen.” Zeke said.

“Me neither,” Israel said, remembering what he had overheard Pax and Deven talking about just the other day. “From what I’ve heard though, one of them is leaving soon.”

“Really?”

“Their contract was for four years and it’s about to expire.”

Zeke let out a low whistle. “I can’t even imagine being here for a year.”

Israel shook his head. “I can’t either. I’m signed up for a year, and that already seems like a long time.”

“Same, I think.”

Israel grimaced, his chest panging. “So I’ll be gone before you.”

“Will any of you guys be here until my time is up?” Zeke asked hopefully.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

“Who’s been here the longest?”

“All I know is that Ember, Pax, Deven, and Amoni were already here when I showed up. Amoni and Ember weren’t even bunking with Pax and Deven at that point since they were still twelve. But Pax and Deven had three other bunkmates who are either home or with the seventeens and eighteens now.”

“I just can’t imagine how much your parents would have to hate you to send you here for more than a year. Mine already hate me so much.”

Israel bit his cheek, then said, “If you love someone, let them go.”

“That’s some straight bullshit.”

Israel clenched his jaw shut and tried to push the tears back. It wasn’t Zeke’s fault. He didn’t know that Israel had been struggling with his relationship with his parents, but somehow someone — especially someone whose opinion that Israel cared about very much — saying out loud that Israel’s parents might hate him made everything worse.

At the doors of the mess hall, Zeke jumped ahead of him and stared him down with those electric blue eyes. “All right, what’d I say?”

Israel shook his head and tried to push past him. He was not going to cry in front of Zeke. Especially when they barely knew each other.

“Really dude, c’mon.” Zeke begged. “Just tell me.”

Israel unclenched his jaw. “My parents didn’t send me here because they hate me, and neither did yours.”

“Maybe yours didn’t, but mine did,” Zeke said, matter-of-factly. “My dad framed me and my friends for murder. He wants nothing to do with me.”

Israel’s eyebrows shot up. What kind of person was Zeke, if his own dad thought he had murdered someone? Was the side of Zeke that Israel had seen when he had provoked the huge guy until they fought the real Zeke? It couldn’t be. “Well, I still think he was just trying to do what’s best for you.”

“What’s best for me is not some goddamn boot camp.” Zeke said, pushing through the doors and into the mess hall. He grabbed a broom that was leaning against the wall and started sweeping.

Israel watched him and grabbed the other broom, dumb founded. How had it gone from Israel being mad to Zeke being the one that was angry so quickly? “Maybe,” Israel said slowly, stepping closer to Zeke, “it’s not what you think is best, but it’s what your dad thought was best.”

“Well it’s my life to live, not his.” Zeke snapped.

Israel bit his cheek and tried not to cry once again. It wasn’t Israel’s fault that Zeke didn’t get along with his dad, and he didn’t understand why Zeke was taking it out on Israel when he was just trying to be nice. He was just trying to shed a positive light on things, that was all. Maybe this was what his parents had been referring to when they had said that hurt people hurt people. However, Israel could hardly find it in himself to be upset with Zeke. He just wanted to know who — besides possibly Zeke’s dad — had hurt him enough to make him so bitter. Israel had already seen Zeke get beat up once, and he didn’t know if he could handle seeing him get hurt again or even hearing about ways he had been hurt in the past. Zeke was too good, too precious, to be hurt.

The finished the job quickly and in silence. As they were leaning their brooms up against the wall, Israel realized that the guys who had been assigned to mop were nearly halfway across the floor and he hadn’t even noticed them come in.

“Sorry I snapped,” Zeke said quietly as he and Israel headed for the door.

Israel hesitated, only because he couldn’t bear thinking that he had hurt Zeke somehow. “It’s okay. I think a lot of us had some bad things happen before we came here.”

Zeke nodded and scratched his neck. “You got any homework?” “No, you?” Israel asked, wondering if this was Zeke’s way of making up with him.

“Nope.” He stopped and shook out his legs. “Race you.”

Israel smiled. This was definitely Zeke’s way of apologizing. “Oh, it’s on.”

Zeke grinned and began sprinting. At first Israel kept up, but then he fell back just to watch Zeke run. He really was cute as hell.

Zeke had run towards the baseball fields, so Israel ended up watching Deven and Pax’s game with all of his bunkmates — even Ember, who Gray and Amoni had managed to convince to attend. Throughout the game, Gray and Amoni were completely hilarious, but Israel’s real joy came from watching Zeke laugh at them and watching Zeke cheer for Deven, Pax, and some of the other Tigers players that he knew. Even though he and Zeke barely talked to each other for the whole game, something about the way he clapped, the way he cupped his hands around his mouth when he yelled, and the way he looked at Israel’s friends as they made their dumb jokes and did their silly dances just made Israel wildly happy.

At the end of the game, Amoni led Israel and his friends down to the Tigers’ dugout, where they waited for Pax to come out. Israel stood close to Zeke, watching Pax talk to his teammates.

“Thanks for coming to watch, guys,” Meric said as he left the dugout.

Israel smiled at him. Meric had always been one of the nicer baseball guys, and even though Israel didn’t know him at all, he seemed like a good guy to be on good terms with around East Ridge.

“I only came because both Pax and Deven were playing,” Ember said, sniffing. “Otherwise I would be doing something that actually benefits me.”

Israel rolled his eyes. Leave it to Ember to ruin everything when it came to anyone liking their group of friends. Thankfully, Meric laughed. Then he pulled Zeke away from them, and Israel frowned. Why was it that everyone seemed to be able to get private conversations with Zeke whenever they wanted? What did Israel have to do to get in on that?

“I bet you that Meric wants Zeke on the team,” Amoni said quietly.

“Yeah, because he runs so fast,” Gray said, nodding vigorously.

“And I think he played baseball before this, which means he’s super good.”

“Why do we need another baseball player in the cabin?” Ember complained. It’s like it’s me and Israel against all the rest of you.”

“We’re not players, Em, or did you not notice?” Gray teased, and Amoni clapped him on the shoulder, laughing. Pax and Deven walked up behind them and Pax put his arms around Amoni and Gray for a second and grinned. “Thanks for coming, guys.”

“Yeah,” Deven echoed, not smiling.

“Yo, Zeke, where were you?” Pax asked, and Israel turned around to see Zeke coming back to them.

“I dunno, Meric just, uh, was telling me stuff about the team.”

“Oh,” Pax said, eyeing him. “Well, are you guys hungry?”

“About damn time,” Amoni teased, and they began walking to the mess hall.

Israel walked next to Zeke, who seemed distracted. Israel wished that he could figure out what was going on with him so that he’d know how to approach a conversation, but at times like this, he felt as if he would never figure Zeke out.

“You had a good game,” Pax said to Deven cheerfully.

“I had a crap game,” Deven spat.

“Nah man, the rest of your team had a crap game,” Amoni said.

“Well, my crap team has another game after dinner. You guys don’t need to come see us embarrass ourselves again.”

“We’ll be there,” Gray said happily.

I’ll be in bed.” Ember mumbled. Israel silently hoped that he could follow Ember without his friends trying to pressure him to come watch more baseball.

“Sorry Deven, but me and Zeke have business to take care of,” Pax said.

Israel looked at Pax, confused, and when he offered no explanation, Israel looked to Zeke, who shrugged.

As they got in the food line in the mess hall, Zeke fell behind Israel so that he stood with Deven. Israel glanced back multiple times, ignoring Gray, Amoni, and Pax goofing off and Ember telling them how immature they could be, but Zeke and Deven never said anything to each other. Israel wished that Zeke would stand silently next to him and at least give Israel a chance to try to make conversation, but it didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

After they had their food and they made their way to the table, Israel sat down across from Pax, Deven, and Ember. He figured that Zeke would sit down next to Pax, but Zeke came around to Israel’s side of the table and dropped his tray on the table next to Israel. His heart soared and he hid his smile by shoveling a spoonful of fruit cup into his mouth. Zeke had chosen to sit by him out of everyone!

“I think the fruit cup is the most consistent quality of food that East Ridge has to offer,” Ember said. Everyone looked at him, then Pax and Israel looked at each other out of the corners of their eyes, and the whole group laughed.

“What? I’m being serious,” Ember said, holding up his fruit cup. “We usually like the mashed potatoes, but sometimes they taste like box, you know? And sometimes they syrup they buy for the French toast sticks is really weird.”

“Yeah, but everytime they serve canned green beans they’re terrible,” Deven said. “That’s consistency.”

“I meant good consistent and you knew it,” Ember said, rolling his eyes. “I don’t even know why I talk to you guys.”

Deven laughed uncontrollably and Israel glanced at Zeke, who seemed to find Deven losing it over pushing Ember’s buttons just as amusing as Israel did. Israel smiled wider.

“I think your whole argument is pretty silly, though, let’s be honest,” Pax said, smiling at Ember.

“You would,” Ember said, rolling his eyes.

“Em, hear me out, you ass,” Pax said, laughing. “The fruit cups are so pre-packaged that to serve them they literally don’t even do anything. Everything else you were talking about is something they have to actually cook, so of course the fruit cups are going to be more consistent than that.”

“They don’t have to do anything to the syrup,” Ember said stubbornly.

“You’ve never heard the rumors that they water it down when they’re getting low?” Deven asked, his face slightly pink from all the laughing he had been doing.

“That’s disgusting,” Ember said, turning up his nose. “With all the money we pay to be here, you’d hope they didn’t actually do that.”

“Pretty sure they do, Em. They don’t give a fuck how much we paid to be here,” Amoni said.

“Well, you don’t have to be so mean about it,” Ember said, sniffing and going back to his food.

“We’re not being mean, Em, just pointing out the obvious,” Deven said. “We’re just having a little fun with you, you know that.”

“Sure,” Ember said, a hint of a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

Israel zoned out as they began talking about baseball, daydreaming about how, now that Zeke lived with them, Israel could tutor him in math and anything else he needed after school. Since Ember wasn’t in their class it wouldn’t make as much sense for him to try to help, and Israel would be free to spend one on one time with Zeke for hours and hours during the week.

“Wanna come Izzy?” Pax asked, looking at Israel expectantly. Israel glanced at his friends, not knowing what Pax was asking, but Pax and Zeke started getting up from the table, so Israel got up and followed them. If Pax was inviting him to spend time with him and Zeke, Israel was never going to say no.

Pax led them to the laundry room, and Zeke asked, “Where’re we going?”

“Store room,” Pax said. “We gotta get you a baseball glove.”

“They have those there?”

“Of course. How do you think we play baseball? Your first one is free. After that you gotta buy ’em.” Pax opened the door that led down to the storage room and held it for Zeke and Israel. Zeke didn’t move to go down the stairs, so Israel went ahead of him.

“How am I supposed to buy one?” Zeke asked. Israel glanced over his shoulder to see Zeke close behind him on the stairs.

“With money,” Pax answered.

Zeke laughed. “Where am I supposed to get that?”

“Your parents. Or betting. But betting without money is a good way to get beat up.”

“By Amoni and Gray?”

Pax and Israel laughed. Gray would definitely never lay a finger on anyone, but Israel figured that Amoni knew how to defend himself.

At the bottom of the stairs, Linda came around one of the racks and asked what they needed. Israel watched Zeke whenever Pax was staring at him as they tried to find a glove that fit Zeke well. It seemed to take forever since Israel thought that Zeke and Pax were being way more picky than they needed to be, but Zeke finally found one that he liked.

“We should go get our gloves, Izzy,” Pax said as they left the basement. Then we can all play catch and help Zeke break his glove in.”

“Oh, okay,” Israel said, wringing his hands. It wasn’t that he couldn’t catch or throw — school PE had made sure that he could — it was just that he was sure that he was going to make a few bad throws or miss a few catches, which would put him on Zeke’s non-cool and non-athletic list, which would make Zeke less likely to want to be around him.

However, after they retrieved Pax and Israel’s gloves, Israel found himself having a good time. He only ever missed one catch that he should have caught, and it had been Zeke’s fault for distracting him by pointing at a plane as Pax threw the ball to Israel. They all had a good laugh about it, and Israel smiled to himself for a long time afterwards, thinking that times like this were the memories that he could bring up later and he and Zeke would still laugh about it.

Before Israel knew it, Pax said, “Hey, we should probably head back to the cabin. I bet the game is over by now.”

“Good point,” Zeke said, taking off his glove and putting the baseball in it. Israel took off his own glove and followed Pax into the grass. Zeke walked beside Israel and Pax fell in on Israel’s other side. “We should do this again sometime.”

“Yeah,” Zeke and Israel agreed.

“I always like being outside when the sun is setting, you know? It just gives me good vibes.”

“You sound like someone who spends too much time on Instagram,” Zeke teased.

“It doesn’t hurt to appreciate the natural wonders of the world,” Israel said.

Zeke smiled at him. “True. Sky appreciation.”

“Sky appreciation,” Israel repeated, unable to stop smiling.

Back at the cabin, they waited for everyone to arrive and grab their clothes and towels to head to the showers. Israel panicked all the way there, thinking that Zeke might end up showering next to him and Israel was not ready for that type of thing, but when they got to the showers, Zeke disappeared and they didn’t see him again until they stepped out of the shower house and found him leaning against the bricks, waiting for them.

The next day, after school and workouts, Israel figured that he was going to hang out in the cabin and read and do school work, but Zeke decided that he didn’t want to go watch baseball with Amoni and Gray, so Israel tried to think of something that he could suggest to do. Just as he was about to ask Zeke if he wanted to go play catch, Zeke said to Ember and Israel, “Hey, do you guys want to go find Kelsey?”

“I’m busy,” Ember said, not even looking up from his work.

“Yeah, sure,” Israel said, getting up off his bed.

“I can always count on you, can’t I?” Zeke said, smiling.

Israel laughed, resisting going over and kissing Zeke right then and there.

“I think we could probably check the baseball fields, since Kelsey gets along with Gray and Amoni.”

“Good idea,” Israel agreed.

They spent at least fifteen minutes walking around East Ridge, looking for Kelsey with no avail.

“I think he’s probably just in his cabin,” Israel said.

“Yeah,” Zeke sighed. “Struggling with homework, probably.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Israel said, admiring Zeke’s empathy.

“Want to go back to our cabin?”

“Okay,” Israel agreed, sighing internally. He would have walked around East Ridge, just him and Zeke, forever if Zeke had allowed it.

“How come you don’t play baseball?” Zeke asked.

“There’s no way you’d ever get me out there.” Israel said, nearly laughing at the thought.

“Why not?”

“The only team I could maybe make is the Sluggers.”

“Yeah right,” Zeke said, his blue eyes focused on Israel. “You have a decent arm and you can catch. You’re just scared.”

Israel balked under his gaze and then sighed. “Maybe I am.”

“Why?”

“I don’t like baseball. Plus, no one wants me on their team.” Israel already knew how people treated him when he was on a team, and he didn’t want to go back to that.

“Why not?”

He couldn’t tell Zeke about the swim team. Not yet. “They think I’m too quiet or assume I’m bad at running or something.”

“Then talk more.”

“I don’t want to talk about baseball.” Israel said, hoping that Zeke would catch a hint and change the subject. He supposed that the hint was too subtle in the context of their conversation, though, and wished that he had the confidence to change the subject himself.

“Then talk about something else.”

There it was. His opening. But Israel couldn’t take it. “There aren’t a lot of people I want to talk to.”

“Why do you want to talk to me?”

Israel shrugged, nearly smiling to himself. If he had changed the subject, they never would have gotten here. “You don’t talk in school either.”

Zeke considered his answer, then smiled slightly. “That didn’t really answer my question.”

“People who talk less are less intimidating, you know?” Unless they were Sebastian, Israel thought. But he pushed that thought away, not wanting to get sad. “You looked like you were struggling in math one day, and then you didn’t call me names or make a big deal out of it when I helped you. I figured that you seemed like a good person to talk to.”

“But even now, you talk to me more than the rest of our bunkmates even though you’ve known them longer. Or that’s what it seems like, anyway.”

Israel shrugged again. He was pretty sure that he only stayed so quiet when Zeke was around.

“I’ll figure you out sometime.” Zeke promised, laughing.

Israel smiled and blushed with no where to hide it, which made him blush more.

“Where does Snickerdudels come from anyway?” Zeke asked.

Israel silently thanked him for changing the subject. “I’m not the one to explain it.”

“Oh, come on.” Zeke said, looking at him expectantly. But Israel knew that he’d butcher the story, and it didn’t feel right of him to tell it without his friends around, anyway. “Just wait until dinner.”

“Do I really have to?”

“Yes,” Israel said, laughing.

“Fine,” Zeke said. “But we can play cards until then, not just sit and do homework or whatever, right?”

Israel smiled. “Sure thing.”

When they got back to the cabin, Israel grabbed a deck of cards from one of the desks and joined Zeke on the rug in the middle of the floor. “Slapjack?”

“I’m going to win if we play that, so play at your own risk,” Zeke said, smiling at Israel as if daring him to contest the statement.

“You’re on,” Israel said, grinning. Even if Zeke did whoop him, at least Israel could touch his hand a few times without it being weird.

They started the game, and Zeke was indeed very good. Israel figured that it was part of his whole athleticism thing, which probably included excellent reflexes, but a few times Israel managed to snag a good pile of cards and every time he did Zeke pretended to try and steal them from Israel so that their hands touched more and more. Friends didn’t do this type of thing, did they? No one else in the cabin had ever acted like this, Israel was sure of it.

When dinner time came around, Ember joined Zeke and Israel to walk to the mess hall, and the flirty energy that Zeke had been putting out disappeared. Israel’s heart sank, and he zoned out, replaying all of the times that Zeke had touched him as they played cards. There was something there. There had to be.

Israel didn’t say a word as they went through the food line, and Zeke and Ember seemed perfectly content with not talking to him, either. By the time they got to the table with the rest of their friends, including Kelsey, Israel was ready to go back to the cabin alone and curl up in his bed. Why did crushes have to be so confusing?

“All right,” Zeke said once everyone had started eating. “Time to tell where the name Snickerdudels came from.”

Pax took a bite of his lasagna and pointed at Amoni.

“Honored,” Amoni said, sitting up straighter and clearing his throat. “Once upon a time, me and Gray made a bet that we couldn’t get either Bryan Sanchez or Liam Count to laugh.”

Israel nearly rolled his eyes. Amoni made it sound like it was such a long time ago, though it had been just last month.

“It was for fifteen bucks,” Gray put in. “And I didn’t think we could do it because they never laugh unless they just hurt someone, and I said that getting hurt to make them laugh was against the rules.”

“Yeah, so we went up to Liam before workouts, and I told him one of my favorite violent anti-jokes.”

“When we got done with workouts and were back at the cabin, we all wanted to know if Liam had laughed or not,” Pax said.

“And so I told them what happened,” Amoni continued. “I told Liam the anti-joke, and he snickered.”

“‘Snickered?’” Zeke asked, laughing. Israel watched, wishing he had been the one to make Zeke laugh.

Amoni threw his arms up in the air. “What’s so funny about that word?” “It makes me think of the candy bar,” Kelsey said.

“We all had the same reaction as Zeke,” Ember said.

“We teased Amoni and just kept saying snicker over and over until it sounded all weird,” Pax said, smiling at the memory. Israel even smiled to himself despite everything he was feeling. The Snickerdudel day had been such a fun one.

“Somehow, Amoni convinced us that we make people snicker all the time,” Deven said. “Because we tell dumb jokes and pull little pranks.”

“And so Gray says—”

“‘We’re Snickerdudes!’” Gray exclaimed.

“And that just sounded wrong, even though we are dudes who make people snicker.”

“So Israel talked for once,” Ember said, laughing and looking at Israel. Israel smiled, hiding his annoyance with his friends’ constant painting of him as some sort of mute.

“And he said we could be snickerdoodles, like the cookie.” Pax said. “We changed the spelling, and here we are.”

“Snickerdudels rule!” Gray shouted.

Zeke smiled, but Israel could see that something was off with him. He had been so into the story just seconds ago, Israel thought. What happened?

“So if me and Kelsey bunk with you, are we Snickerdudels?” Zeke asked.

Pax looked at Israel and his friends, and they all shook their heads.

“What? Why not?” Kelsey asked.

“You guys haven’t pranked with us.” Amoni said. “We’ll come up with an initiation though, right Pax?”

“Whoa,” Zeke said, looking irritated. “I don’t prank.”

“Why not?” Amoni and Gray asked.

“Because all it does is hurt people.”

“If your pranks are hurting people, you’re not pranking right.” Pax said. Israel nodded in agreement, and Pax continued. “All we do is make people laugh. Sometimes it may be embarrassing, but it’s all pretty much harmless. I promise.”

Zeke nodded slowly. “Okay, I’m in.”

“Initiation’s gonna have lots of parts,” Amoni said.

“We’ll see,” Pax said, smiling. “Zeke and Kelsey, you should hang out at the diamonds tonight so we can get this figured out.”

Zeke nodded and went back to eating. Israel watched him, trying to figure out what was going on inside his head. What had Zeke been through with pranks before if he thought they really hurt people, and did it have something to do with the way he felt about his dad?

Zeke and Kelsey obediently headed to the baseball fields after dinner, leaving Israel and his other bunkmates to head back to their cabin.

“Everyone’s still cool with having Kelsey bunk with us, right?” Pax asked as they walked back, looking at Ember.

“You never really asked me in the first place,” Ember said, “but yes. I am okay with Kelsey being my bunkmate.”

“He’s cool,” Amoni said. “He’s a nice guy, like us.”

Deven snorted.

“Zeke seems to have a good eye for friends,” Pax said, smiling at Israel, who smiled back. “Yeah, I like Kelsey,” Israel said, though he hardly knew him at all.

“Let’s talk about the fun part,” Gray said, putting his hands on Amoni and Deven’s shoulders and jumping. “We all get to make an initiation task, right? ’Cause Amoni and me have one already.”

“And it’s awesome,” Amoni said, grinning. “Since we have to do Bryan’s laundry tomorrow for messing with him on the run, you know, as we do, we bought this red shirt to stain all his clothes.”

“No way,” Pax said, laughing.

“Way,” Gray said, smiling smugly. “It was my idea, too.”

“Nice one, man,” Deven said, clapping Gray on the shoulder and laughing.

“How’s that initiation?” Israel asked.

“Because if they don’t want to do it with us or they don’t get what we’re doing when we tell them about it, we’ll know for sure that they aren’t Snickerdudels material,” Amoni said.

“Yeah, that’s a good one,” Deven agreed.

“Is being a Snickerdudel really just about pranking?” Ember asked. “I never thought it was. We barely prank.”

“Not all the initiations have to be pranking,” Pax said. “Of course we’re not just a pranking group. We all know that, but we don’t want to let someone be a Snickerdudel if they’re no fun, do we?”

“No,” they agreed. Israel already knew that Zeke was fun to hang around — slapjack especially had proved that — but he didn’t feel as if he could say it without giving away his crush.

“Well I think we’ll know for sure if they’re fun if they can think up a prank of their own,” Ember said. “They’re not proving much by just following Gray and Amoni’s lead.”

“I think those tasks are proving different thing,” Pax said. “They should definitely both be part of initiation.”

“Can baseball tryouts be part of initiation?” Deven asked. “Zeke is totally interested, right? And we’re having tryouts soon.”

“But Kelsey isn’t interested,” Gray said.

“Kelsey’s ours,” Amoni said, pointing at Deven. “You can’t steal him.”

“So his part of initiation for baseball is just watching, sure,” Pax said. “Zeke can do a couple tryouts.”

“A couple?” Deven asked, eyeing Pax suspiciously. “I meant Wolves.”

“Well,” Pax said, grinning, “I meant ‘a couple.’”

Israel sighed to himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his friends’ love for baseball or pranking — pranking could definitely be fun — but none of these initiations were very deep. He wanted to get to know Zeke better. He wanted to know Kelsey better, even. Hell, he wanted to know all of his friends better, because he had only gathered bits and pieces of who they were outside of East Ridge in the months that they had known each other. “What if we also just had them tell us why they’re at East Ridge?”

Everyone looked at Israel, and his heart skipped a beat. “Just because, um, I would feel like I knew them better then.”

“We all would,” Ember agreed.

“That’s a good idea, Izzy,” Pax said, smiling. “I think it’s good for all of us to get to know each other more, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” the others agreed, and Israel smiled to himself.

Once they had the plans for initiation all set, Pax and Deven went out to find Zeke and Kelsey while Gray and Amoni did homework, Ember read his book, and Israel pretended to read his book. All he could think about was Zeke.

He couldn’t stop thinking about him. He couldn’t stop praying for things to work out, and he couldn’t stop staring at Zeke when he was around. How had nobody noticed, and how was Israel even getting through the day like a functioning person? This was so different from the way that Israel had felt about Sebastian back in sixth grade. At least then he could focus on other things and talk to him easily. With Zeke, despite the fact that he was nothing but nice to Israel, it was hard to talk without overanalyzing. It was hard to think about anything else even when he wasn’t around, because Israel wanted him to be with him so badly. This wasn’t like Sebastian. This was real.

And if he doesn’t feel the same way? Israel asked himself, grimacing. It would be ten times worse than Sebastian. But at least this time he would have other friends to talk to. At least, Israel hoped that would help. He doubted that he could survive heartbreak over Zeke the way he had survived his heartbreak over Sebastian.

It took Pax, Deven, Zeke, and Kelsey so long to get back to the cabin — Israel guessed that they had been watching baseball — that Israel was exhausted just from the emotional turmoil of thinking about Zeke. As soon as they got back, Zeke climbed onto his bed and didn’t come down. Israel grabbed his toothbrush and his workout clothes and went to the bathroom to get ready for bed. On his way back, he glanced up at his top bunk to see Zeke reading his book for English. He sure did like to save things until the last minute.

Israel put away his dirty clothes and his toothbrush and climbed under his covers. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but all could think about was a future where Zeke would cuddle with him while they did homework.

The next day after school and workouts, Zeke and Kelsey ran off with Amoni and Gray to do their part of the initiation. Israel settled at one of the desks and pulled out the stationery from the drawer. He hadn’t written a letter to his parents since the last visitation day disaster and they hadn’t written to him. Israel needed to break the silence.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’ve missed hearing from you. I’m sorry that I got angry with you last time I saw you. I shouldn’t have been so angry and so rude, but I think I meant everything that I said. Everything I remember, I meant.

What really still rubs me the wrong way is you guys thinking that I only “think” that I’m gay. I’m not a baby anymore, you know? I know things about myself, and sometimes they’re going to be things that you don’t know as well as I do. There are even going to be more things you don’t like, I can guarantee it.

One of those things is that I really, really like a boy that I’ve met recently. I know you might think that I’m just saying this to prove a point, but I’m definitely not. I wouldn’t lose as much sleep as I’ve lost over this boy just to prove a point. He’s not the first, either. I don’t know if you remember Sebastian Roque from sixth grade, but I liked him, too. Obviously that didn’t work out, but I’m not afraid to tell you anymore.

I don’t know if things will work out with this new boy, either, which is why I don’t want you to know his name. If we end up being friends for the rest of my time at East Ridge, I don’t want you to hate him. It’s dumb to hate him, anyway. He didn’t do anything to you, or to me to make me like him. Hate me instead, like you already probably do, especially after I yelled last time we saw each other. As you can tell, I do feel guilty. I just don’t think that I was the only one who did something wrong that day.

Love,

Israel

Israel reread the letter when he was done writing, grimacing the entire time. His tone definitely bordered on disrespectful, maybe occasionally stepping over the line. And yet, somehow, he couldn’t imagine writing the letter any differently. His parents needed to know who he really was, even if Israel felt that who he was was changing more the longer he was at East Ridge. Cuss words ran through his head more and more now, and thoughts of his parents less and less. Was that bad? Israel couldn’t be sure, even after Mr. Philbin constantly told him that it was okay to change and figure out who he really was.

After sealing his letter into an envelope, addressing it, and dropping it in the mailbox outside his cabin, Israel did some homework until Ember said, “It’s about time for dinner, isn’t it?”

Israel glanced up at the clock. “Oh, yeah. I’ll get my shoes.” Just as he was getting up, the door opened and Zeke entered, carrying a pillow case. He dropped it on the floor between his and Israel’s bunk bed and the dresser. “You guys want to go to dinner?”

“We were just about to,” Ember said, pulling his shoes on. Israel pulled his own on quickly, ran a hand through his hair, and followed Zeke out the door.

“How’d the prank go?” Israel asked them, walking next to Zeke.

“Perfectly,” Zeke said, not smiling.

“Em and I just did homework and stuff. Pretty boring,” Israel said, wishing he had gone with Zeke’s group to pull the prank but also glad that he had taken the time to write to his parents.

“I need to do homework,” Zeke sighed, staring at his shoes as he walked. “Man, I really need to. I’m never going to get it done before tomorrow.”

“I could help,” Israel offered. “It’ll be okay.”

“Yeah,” Zeke mumbled, not responding to Israel’s offer to help. Part of Israel was hurt, but the other part of him could tell that something was off with Zeke once again, and he felt that he shouldn’t push him.

At dinner, Zeke didn’t even join in the baseball talk when Pax, Deven, Gray, and Amoni arrived. Israel watched him when he could, wondering what had happened to bum Zeke out if the prank had gone so well. Had Amoni or Gray upset him somehow, or had he just had a hard day at school? Israel thought back to the classes he had with Zeke, but Zeke had seemed completely normal all day, only getting slightly more frustrated than the average day in math. It couldn’t be school that was bothering him, could it?

Finally the baseball talk fizzled out and Pax said, “Hey Zeke, just so you know, the rest of initiation will happen when Kelsey is actually in the cabin with us so you guys can do everything together.”

“Why can’t we just get it over with now?” Zeke asked, his voice more broken than Israel had ever heard it. “Why does there have to be initiation anyway?”

“The title of a Snickerdudel is something earned,” Amoni said.

“Besides,” Ember said, “all you have left is my test, Israel’s test, and Pax and Deven’s test.”

“Yeah,” Zeke said, holding back tears, “because that’s nothing.”

Israel wished he could reach out and touch Zeke’s shoulder, wished that he could say the perfect thing to console him, but instead Pax said, harshly, “Stop whining or there won’t be any more tests. Be cool, like I thought you were, and deal with it.”

Zeke climbed out of the bench. Israel reached for his arm, his fingers brushing Zeke’s wrist, but Zeke pulled away and stormed out of the mess hall.

“What’d you say that for?” Israel asked Pax, barely holding his anger back. “He was obviously already upset.”

“He was being stupid,” Pax said, stabbing his half-eaten grilled cheese with his fork. “I didn’t decide that he could bunk with us because I thought he would whine when things got slightly inconvenient.”

“You’re being stupid,” Israel shot back, tears pricking at his eyes. He couldn’t lose Zeke just because Pax was irritated.

“I mean, you kinda are,” Amoni agreed, glancing between Pax and Israel. “Pax, we both know that everyone’s a mess when they get here. Especially me and you, don’t you remember what it was like? We have to cut Zeke some slack.”

“He’s a good guy,” Israel said, trying not to say it in a way that made his feelings for him obvious. “He’s just clearly having a hard time with… with something.”

Pax sighed and pulled his fork out from his sandwich. “All right, all right. I… This is my bad. I’ll figure it out with Zeke, okay? You guys don’t need to worry about it. It was me who was out of line.”

“We all have our moments,” Deven said, nodding at Pax. “Takes the bigger person to realize they were wrong, Pax-man.”

“Yeah,” Gray agreed. “Zeke will understand if you apologize.”

Pax nodded and stood up, taking his tray. “I don’t want to eat any more of this shit.”

Deven and Ember picked up their trays and followed Pax, leaving the rest of them at the table.

“Hey, that was really cool of you,” Amoni said, looking at Gray, “calling Pax out like that.”

Israel shrugged. “I was just mad. I’m glad I didn’t say anything that I would have regretted.”

“Pax would never be mad at you even if you did,” Amoni said with a smile. “I just thought it was super cool of you.”

“Thanks,” Israel said, picking up his tray, not knowing how to take any more compliments. “You guys want to head back to the cabin?”

Gray and Amoni followed him and they arrived back at the cabin not long after Pax, Deven, and Ember. However, Zeke was nowhere to be seen. What if Pax really had pushed him over the edge? What if he asked Headmaster Dawson to switch cabins? Was a little fight a good enough reason for Headmaster Dawson to approve a switch? Israel sat down on his bed heavily, not bothering to take his shoes off. He felt bad for yelling at Pax and he was so worried about Zeke that his chest physically hurt. God, he hoped that Zeke was okay.

Israel’s agony only lasted for another few minutes, until the door opened and Zeke walked into the cabin, his cheeks red.

Pax stood up. “Hey Zeke, about what happened—”

“I’m sorry,” Zeke said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I was just overwhelmed, and I didn’t mean to whine about initiation—”

“Look man, I’m the one who should be sorry,” Pax said. “The first couple weeks here can be rough, even without going through any sort of initiation. We all know that you’re going through some tough shit right now.”

Everyone laughed uncomfortably, and Israel watched as Zeke smiled a little and his shoulders fell a little farther away from his ears.

“And maybe it is dumb,” Pax said, “but you can’t just slip into a club without doing something special, right?”

“Right,” Zeke said, smiling for real this time. Pax moved forward, clapped him on the back, and pulled him into a hug. Israel jumped up to join, relieved when the rest of his friends followed. He got right up next to Zeke and Pax and squeezed them, his friends layering into the hug behind them.

“I’ve never been part of a group hug before.” Ember said. “I’m not sure I like it.”

“Well you’ll have to get used to it,” Israel said, wishing the hug would last forever. A couple seconds later, his friends began to pull away and Israel found himself standing next to Pax as the others went back to their beds. “I’m really so —”

Pax pulled Israel into a quick hug of their own before pulling away and smiling at him. “Thanks for keeping me in line, Israel.”

The next day, Zeke and Kelsey aced Ember’s initiation test by coming up with the idea to trick everyone at East Ridge into thinking that it was Headmaster Dawson’s birthday. It was pretty clear that the prank had really been Zeke’s idea and Israel couldn’t help but be incredibly proud of him, but he couldn’t find the right way or time to tell him so. Instead, though he hated himself for it, he just let everyone else congratulate Zeke and Kelsey and plan how to execute the prank with them.

Israel’s friends managed to print out a bunch of papers announcing that the next day was Headmaster Dawson’s birthday, so after school they met up on the blacktop where Pax said, “Here’s how we’re gonna do it. We’re each gonna take a slip of paper and put one in the mailbox of every cabin.”

Zeke reached into his school bag and pulled out the papers. Israel and his friends reached out to get their share of the papers, and Israel even managed to brush his hand against Zeke’s as he took his pile of the papers.

“Workouts start soon though,” Kelsey protested. “I need to get changed.”

“We all do, Kelsey. That’s why we have to be fast,” Ember said.

Zeke loosened his tie and grinned at Israel and his friends. “Let’s go.”

They ran towards the cabins. Gray and Ember went for the front row, but Pax and Amoni ran straight past it. “Zeke, come with us!” Pax called.

Israel sighed to himself and ran to the middle of the rows of cabins with Deven and Kelsey. Though Kelsey kept running up to mailboxes that Deven and Israel had already put papers in, they finished in just a couple minutes before running back to the cabin to get changed into their workout clothes. Israel left his school uniform strewn on his bed, which he never did, and was so distracted by being fast that he didn’t think about whether or not Zeke had seen him change until after he was in his workout clothes.

“I hope people actually believe it,” Deven said, yawning as they waited for Kelsey and Gray to get their shoes on. “I mean, I’m not sure I would. If it came from the adults it’d be a full sheet of paper like our chore assignments.”

“If we get ten people to go for it, I’ll be happy,” Zeke said. Israel nodded in agreement. Pranks didn’t have to be large scale to be fun. He glanced at the clock, his heart nearly jumping out of his chest. “We should really get to workouts,”

His friends got up and filed out of the cabin, following Israel’s speed walk at various paces. Israel had never been late to anything at East Ridge, and he was not about to get yelled at in front of his friends or anyone else.

The next day, Zeke seemed bummed once again, but this time Israel knew exactly why.

“I haven’t heard so much as a whisper about Headmaster Dawson all day,” Deven said as the boys walked to the gym for the weekly lecture.

“Headmaster Dawson doesn’t usually show his head until lunch. Maybe that’s why,” Ember reasoned.

“But don’t you think you would hear something about the notes?” Zeke asked, and Israel nodded in agreement.

“Maybe no one cares,” Deven said. “He’s not exactly the most liked guy in East Ridge.”

“I know I’d be talking about the notes,” Gray said. “It’s more interesting than school.”

“Let’s get seats in the back,” Pax said. Israel and his friends filed into the gym and claimed a strip of open floor against the wall so that they could lean back before the lecture started.

Israel sat down between Gray and Pax, wishing that he had been able to sit next to Zeke. Gray and Pax talked around him as they waited for the lecture to start, and Israel played with his shoelaces.

The microphone came to life, and Israel jumped. “Everyone say hello to Headmaster Dawson,” the activities coordinator said, beckoning Headmaster Dawson to his side.

“Hi,” Gray said, along with a few other guys.

“A little birdie told me it was his birthday today—”

Israel smiled, looking around Gray to see that Zeke was smiling too.

“—so we’re gonna sing to him!” The activities coordinator started singing, and most boys laughed or ignored him, but Israel and his friends sang along, smiling the entire time, Israel trying not to laugh. He couldn’t believe their luck.

When the singing was over and the laughter died down, Headmaster Dawson took the microphone. “Just for the record, it is not my birthday. But for those of you who laughed or smirked instead of singing for me, imagine if it was my birthday and how that would make me feel. Would you like it if your friends didn’t sing for you?”

“We ain’t your friends,” somebody called from Israel’s left.

Israel smiled to himself while Headmaster Dawson went on and on about building people up instead of knocking them down. This had to be the most legendary prank to ever happen at East Ridge.

Israel expected to get some time with Zeke over the next couple days but, as it turned out, Zeke had agreed to try out for both Deven and Pax’s teams and Pax hogged him every day after school as they prepared for his tryouts.

It wasn’t that Israel was really mad at Pax for hogging Zeke or even that he was mad that Zeke liked baseball and preferred it over spending time with Israel. It was just that Israel couldn’t pretend to care about baseball when they were talking about it or even when they invited him to fetch their balls for them like Amoni and Gray, and now even Kelsey, did.

He spent most of his time in the library reading and in the cabin doing homework and awaiting a letter from his parents. Naturally, Ember had chosen the week that Israel was the most bored to decide that he was too wrapped up in whatever he was doing to play cards very often.

On the day that Zeke had his first tryouts for the Tigers, Israel had decided that he would join Amoni, Gray, and Kelsey in going to watch until Zeke said, “Sorry guys, but I’m not sure how it’ll go and I think it might be best if you didn’t come watch.”

“Are you sure?” Amoni asked. “Nothing clears up nerves like hearing the people you’re competing against be berated.”

Zeke smiled but shook his head. “Maybe next time. Sorry guys.”

“Man,” Gray sighed as Zeke left. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“We could play cards,” Israel suggested, knowing that he was too worried about Zeke’s results at the tryouts to focus on anything real.

“Fine,” Amoni said. “But we’re playing Hearts and no one can complain about it.”

Kelsey groaned and Israel smiled at Amoni as he put his hands on his hips and stared at Kelsey. “What did I say about complaining, bitch?”

It seemed like an eternity of cards before Zeke and Pax returned from Tigers tryouts, Pax all smiles. “Zeke killed it tonight. You guys don’t even know.”

“Really?” Amoni asked, and Israel smiled at Zeke, hoping to show how proud of him he was without saying anything. Zeke smiled back and his ears turned red.

“Seriously,” Pax said. “Everyone on the team was talking about him, sayin’, ‘Damn, that Hallaway kid’s got game’ and shit like that. It was amazing. Zeke, you were so good.”

“He’s exaggerating,” Zeke said, his ears still red. “I’m mediocre at best.”

Pax laughed, and Deven looked at Zeke from where he rested on his bunk. “You still coming to Wolves tryouts tomorrow?”

Zeke nodded, and Israel thought he saw him grimace. If Zeke was as good as Pax said he was — and Israel didn’t doubt it for a minute — he definitely didn’t belong on Deven’s team. Everyone knew that Pax’s team was better by a longshot.

Israel hardly saw Zeke on Tuesday after workouts because he had Wolves tryouts. Israel figured that Zeke was a shoo-in, but when he, Pax, and Deven returned to the cabin, Israel knew that something had gone wrong.

“What happened?” Gray asked.

“Got kicked out of tryouts,” Zeke said, dropping his glove onto the dresser by the door.

“It’s because the Wolves don’t deserve him,” Pax said.

“Hey,” Deven said, swatting at Pax. “Some of the Wolves deserve him, but our idiot team captains can’t allow that.”

Pax laughed. “And you’ll all see tomorrow at the scrimmage just how bad they fucked up.”

“Stop hyping me up so much,” Zeke mumbled. Israel glanced up at him and caught Zeke looking at him, just for a second. Israel looked down right after Zeke looked away, trying not to smile. Zeke had been looking at him. How long had he been looking at him?

The next morning, Amoni, Gray, and Kelsey couldn’t stop talking about the scrimmage that was happening that afternoon after school.

“Does that mean you guys are coming to watch?” Zeke asked them as they walked out to block.

“Of course,” Kelsey said.

“What else is there to do?” Amoni teased.

“It’s cool,” Zeke said, smiling. “You guys can definitely come.”

“I think I’ll come, too,” Israel said before he lost his nerve. He had thought about going and just not mentioning it, but he wanted to see if Zeke cared or not.

Immediately after Israel said it, Zeke’s ears turned red. “Really?”

“Really,” Israel said, his heart exploding. Zeke’s ears hadn’t turned red when their other friends had said they were coming, he knew they hadn’t.

“All right then,” Zeke said, smiling at him. “I hope you aren’t bored.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fun,” Israel said, unable to stop smiling. Maybe there was hope that Zeke liked him back after all.

At the cabin after workouts, Israel watched Zeke pace back and forth in the cabin while Pax and Deven changed into their baseball jerseys. At first it was cute, but then Israel realized that Zeke was really on the verge of freaking out. “Zeke, you’re going to be fine.”

“How do you know?” Zeke asked, adjusting his hat.

“Because Pax wouldn’t say all those good things about you if they weren’t true.”

“He’s right,” Pax said from his bed.

“Too bad the Wolves captains were too busy making fun of you to notice the good things you were doing,” Israel said, hoping that he had understood all of the talk about baseball correctly.

“They didn’t notice because I did nothing good at those tryouts,” Zeke said.

“I wish I was cool enough to play baseball,” Kelsey said longingly.

“Nah man, we claimed you.” Amoni said. “You belong with us, as pretty little cheerleaders.”

Israel smiled into his book and watched Zeke pace until Pax and Deven were ready to go. Zeke rushed out the door as Pax said, “See you guys in a bit.”

“Yeah you will,” Amoni called, throwing his tennis ball at the door as it closed behind Deven and Pax.

“Uncalled for,” Ember said grumpily from his desk.

“Loosen up, Em. You oughta come to the game.”

“In your dreams, Mon.”

“Whatever,” Amoni said, raising his eyebrows at Kelsey. “Are you guys ready to go?”

“Can we wait just a couple more minutes?” Israel asked. “I don’t want to watch them warm up.”

“Fine,” Amoni sighed.

“Could we go and you and Kelsey come later?” Gray begged.

“Go for it,” Israel said, laughing to himself.

Amoni jumped off his bed, retrieved his tennis ball, and chucked it at the wall next to Israel. “You’re the best, man!”

“And you’re a terrible shot,” Israel said, smiling as Gray and Amoni ran out of the cabin.

Israel and Kelsey left the cabin ten minutes later after Israel had read some of his book for real, gone to the bathroom, and put on pants and a jacket. Though it wasn’t near as cold as it had been the week before, he knew that he would get more and more miserable as the sun went down and didn’t want to be caught off-guard.

“I never liked baseball much until I got here,” Kelsey said as they walked down to the fields.

“What made you like it?” Israel asked.

“Friends, I think. Just going to games with people and them teaching me about everything. It was more fun when I finally understood things about the game and the players.”

“Maybe I should try listening to them when they talk, then,” Israel joked.

“It really helps,” Kelsey said earnestly. “I know you don’t like games, but they’d be more fun if you found something you cared to watch.”

Like Zeke, Israel thought, but he pushed it away because he didn’t want to accidentally say it outloud. “I bet you’re right.”

At the fields, they spotted Amoni and Gray in the middle of some of the bleachers, but it seemed like there wasn’t much space next to them for Kelsey and Israel.

“I thought they said they’d save us seats,” Israel grumbled as he and Kelsey began climbing the bleachers.

“What?” Kelsey asked, yelling into Israel’s ear from behind.

Israel waved his hand behind him dismissively, not wanting to yell over the chatter of the crowd. He turned into the row that Gray and Amoni sat in and Gray spotted him and waved him over. “Lots of people came out, that’s how you know it’ll be a good scrimmage.”

“That’s how you know I’ll be slightly miserable all night,” Israel said, squeezing between Gray and a guy he didn’t know. Kelsey sat down between Gray and Amoni.

“The people will keep you warm,” Gray said. Then he pointed out at the field. “And nothing warms you like supporting your friends as they do what they love.”

Israel grinned at Gray and snorted, and Gray laughed and shrugged.

Israel kept his eye on Zeke as he and the rest of the Tigers gathered together to put their hands in and cheer. At least, for now, it would be easy to know which one was Zeke since he was one of the few players in workout clothes and since he had a hat on that no one else had.

When the Tigers lined up on the bench in the order that they batted in, Israel figured that Zeke probably wouldn’t get to bat in this inning, but he was proved wrong quickly. Instead of watching the batter before Zeke, Israel watched Zeke take practice swings. He leaned forward and admired Zeke’s butt, which he imagined felt amazing, until Gray tapped him on the shoulder. “If Sharp — the pitcher, obviously — manages to strike Zeke out it’ll be pretty disappointing.”

“Okay,” Israel said, wondering why Gray had bothered to tell him that. If anyone on the team you were rooting for struck out it was bad, right?

When Zeke got up to bat he did miss the first pitch. Israel glanced at Gray to see if he had anything to say, but he was too busy watching the game, his eyes wide, to say anything. Israel looked back just in time to watch Zeke hit the second pitch and sprint to first. Israel admired the way he held himself as he ran, as if he had been trained to run in the Olympics or something. Israel knew that he himself looked a lot floppier when he ran, which probably meant that he was doing something wrong. But what did he know? He could barely call himself a swimmer, much less a runner.

Zeke made it safely to second when the next player batted, but when Meric hit the ball, Zeke got out right before he got to third base.

“Damn,” Gray said, looking at Israel. “Wasn’t his fault, though.”

“So he’s doing good, right?” Israel asked.

“Oh, yeah. He’s doing good.”

Israel smiled to himself. Zeke was totally good enough to play on Pax’s team. Strangely enough, though, Zeke was left on the bench for the bottom of the first inning.

“Why isn’t he playing?” Israel asked Gray. “If he’s good, he should be playing, right?”

“Meric can’t play everyone,” Gray said. “But look, none of the new guys are playing. Don’t worry about Zeke.”

Israel nodded and watched Zeke talk to one of the real Tigers players before Deven came up to bat and Israel joined Gray, Kelsey, and Amoni in cheering for him.

Zeke didn’t get to bat in the second inning and Israel tried to keep himself distracted by imagining what they were talking about in the dugout. However, the back of Zeke’s head was not very informative and he quickly got bored. When the bottom of the inning began Zeke was stuck on the bench once again, but Israel watched as one of the real Tigers players snapped at him and Zeke put his hands up in surrender and moved away from the player, who was number thirteen. Israel made a mental note to ask Pax about number thirteen sometime, because he didn’t want Zeke to get hurt again.

It seemed to take forever, but Zeke was finally chosen to take the field on second base and he played there for the rest of the game. Israel watched him in awe as he caught and threw way better than Israel ever could have. He even made a few more hits when he was at bat, and Israel cheered with his friends every time. The Tigers ended up winning the game, and after the cheering died down, Gray leaned over to Israel and said, “This is when they decide who made the team.”

All of the people who had played for the Tigers gathered up in a circle. Israel watched the side of Zeke’s face whenever he could see it, trying to discern what was going on in the huddle. After a few seconds, the huddle erupted in cheers and Pax and a couple of the other Tigers players patted Zeke on the shoulders.

“Yes!” Gray said, jumping up. Israel jumped up too, grinning as he saw Kelsey and Amoni hugging each other. Gray grinned at him and they jumped together, only stopping when Gray wrapped his arms around Israel. “He did it, he did it!”

“That’s so cool,” Israel said, letting go of Gray but still smiling. He watched as the Tigers players formed a line and Zeke went down it, getting congratulations from each of them and ending with one of the older players putting a new hat on Zeke’s head.

“Let’s go down,” Gray said, pushing lightly on Israel’s shoulder. Israel turned and made his way down the bleachers, Gray occasionally grabbing the back of his shirt to keep up through the crowd. Israel stopped near the dugout, feeling like he was practically vibrating with happiness.

When Zeke and Pax came out of the dugout, Amoni led the charge towards them, calling, “Zeke, you did it man!”

Zeke gave Amoni, Kelsey, and Gray high fives enthusiastically, and when he turned to Israel, Israel let his instincts and his excitement guide him. He wrapped his arms around Zeke and hugged him the way that he had wanted to hug him for weeks. Zeke made no effort to pull away, but he didn’t wrap his arms around Israel, either. Israel pulled back, disappointment spreading through his chest until he saw Zeke’s smile and his bright red ears.

Israel looked back at his friends, thinking “Is anyone else seeing what I’m seeing?” but they were all too busy watching Zeke talk to someone who had tried out for the Tigers along with him.

After dinner and showers, during which Israel’s bunkmates hogged most of Zeke’s attention, they all headed back to the cabin. Israel looked at Pax expectantly because this was supposed to be the night that they did Israel’s part of the initiation, and Pax said, “Let’s finish initiation tonight.”

Israel grimaced as Zeke’s smile dropped away from his face.

“It won’t be bad, I promise,” Pax said. “It’s not even a prank or anything. Israel said you just have to tell us what you guys did that made your parents send you here.”

Zeke glanced over at Israel, still frowning, and then looked back at Pax. “Only if you guys tell me and Kelsey why you’re here too.”

“Yeah, I barely know you guys,” Kelsey agreed.

Israel looked at Pax and Deven, who looked back at him and shrugged. “Fair enough,” Pax said.

They sat down in a circle on the rug in the middle of the cabin and looked at each other. Israel’s heart pounded faster and faster as no one said anything. He wasn’t even sure what he was going to say when it was his turn, but he did know one thing. This was the time to tell Zeke — and the rest of his friends that didn’t know — that he was gay. Then maybe he’d… what? Take some of Israel’s hints and they’d starting dating? Israel couldn’t help but laugh at himself and at how ridiculous that sounded.

“Well,” Ember finally said. “I’m not starting.”

“I guess I will,” Deven said, glancing at Israel. “It’s not that bad for me anyway. I’m from Columbia. I got here in October, so I definitely remember what it’s like to be new in this cabin.”

Pax laughed. “Hey, at least we were nice.”

Deven smiled. “Anyway, my dad was in the air force, so he wanted me and my siblings to do it, too. He tried to get all of us to follow in his footsteps, but my sister Emily had the easy excuse of ‘I’m a girl, I have to be a homemaker’ or whatever she always says. And when my brother George likes art and photography and hated all the sports my dad made him try, so all my dad had left was me. His strong wrestler and football-playing son.

“But, if I’m being honest, the military scares me. Guns scare me. And I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to try it. But as soon as I mentioned maybe, just maybe, doing junior ROTC in high school, my dad went all crazy and said he was going to help me get my career started. He said that sending me here would help me get used to what it feels like to be away from home for a long time, and not having a woman around to ‘get friendly with,’ as he put it. And, you know, boot camp would get me in shape or whatever. So here I am, for a whole year of my life.”

Israel nodded to himself, unsurprised at Deven’s story. Even though he hadn’t known much of it before, it definitely fit his perception of Deven — a seemingly tough guy who had a soft side.

“Gray, go ahead,” Deven said.

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “I’m from Maryville, and I have a bunch of brothers and sisters. But mostly sisters. And my parents would get mad at me sometimes for not watching them after school, because I knew they were fine playing without me, but my parents didn’t get it. And me and my awesome friends really liked being outside and taking pictures and playing Pokémon and stuff, anyway. But my parents were always mad at me for something, like bad grades. They said I was irresponsible.” Gray took a deep breath, and he wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Gray, you can stop if you want,” Pax said. Israel nodded, guilt building in his chest. If silly, innocent Gray’s story was causing him so much pain, Israel knew that Pax and Amoni, at the least, were going to have stories that caused them pain as well. Maybe there had been many reasons that Israel hadn’t known as much as he wanted about his cabinmates.

“They kept telling me to be more like Weston or Lisa or Mary, because they’re so perfect,” he spat. “But I’m not Wes or Lisa or Mary. I’m me. And I liked me and I was happy. But when they sent me here, away from my friends and from my little brothers, it was really hard to be happy. It was hard to ‘get better,’ like they want me to. Until I made friends.”

Amoni leaned over and hugged Gray. “I love you, buddy.”

Israel smiled and glanced at Zeke, who was smiling too.

“I’ll go next,” Amoni said, letting go of Gray. “I’ve been here a long time, and I still have a long time to go.”

“Two years, just like me and Em,” Pax said, sighing.

“Yeah. I’m from Kansas City. Yeah, the ghetto part, since I know y’all was assuming.” Amoni eyed Zeke and Kelsey then laughed. Israel laughed to himself too, thinking of the “understanding” looks people liked to give him when he said he was originally from southern Arizona.

“See,” Amoni continued, “my daddy was a police officer. But then he got shot and died when I was little. My momma couldn’t carry us on her own, so we had to move in with her brother Charles, who’s an alcoholic. He’s also a chain smoker, and he’s real mean if he’s drunk and even meaner if he can’t afford cigarettes. Sometimes he beat me and my momma, but we couldn’t leave. We had nowhere to go. I nearly got held back in school because I was always worrying about other things, and I had no friends in my grade. Then my momma—” Amoni’s voice broke and he began crying. “My momma got lung cancer, and she died too.”

Gray and Pax patted Amoni on the back and Israel did his best to hold his own tears back. Even though he had pieced together the fact that Amoni lived with his neglectful, if not abusive, uncle long ago, it didn’t make hearing Amoni tell the story in full any easier.

Amoni dried his tears and went on. “I had to live with Charles alone. It’s awful — I still get nightmares and I’m not even with him — so I spent a lot of time outside the house. I made some friends in my neighborhood and we made some bad choices. I got in a lot of fights ’cause I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.”

“Imagine Amoni not being able to keep his mouth shut,” Ember said sarcastically, but Pax shushed him. Sometimes Israel wished that he could put duct tape over some of his friends’ mouths.

“When Charles heard about the fights, he’d beat me even when he wasn’t drunk. He beat me so bad sometimes I almost needed to go to the hospital, so he’d make me skip school so that those foster care people wouldn’t come and take me. Then somehow he got promoted at work, and he got more money. He started looking for places to send me, and his friend’s brother told him about his time at East Ridge. But back then East Ridge was bad. It mean, like, really bad and really corrupt. My uncle told me some awful stories because he loved seeing the fear in my eyes and knowing he was going to send me there. But now I’m here, and it’s not so bad. It’s better than getting beat and getting in fights with guys five times bigger than me. East Ridge has really been pretty good to me, all things considered.”

“Sorry about your parents,” Zeke said softly. Israel nodded in agreement, wishing he could form words and tell Amoni how sorry he was without crying.

Amoni shrugged. “Just something I have to live with.”

“I suppose I’ll go now,” Ember said, ignoring the fact that everyone else in the room was still being emotionally affected by Amoni’s story and was not ready for another one. “But my story isn’t as emotionally touching as Gray and Amoni’s.

Big surprise, Israel thought sarcastically.

“My father is rich, because he is very good at finding ways to make money without doing much himself. So he and my mom travel a lot, which is why I was born in Germany.”

“That’s so cool,” Gray said, looking at Kelsey, who seemed to share his enthusiasm.

“I have two older siblings, Robert and Myra. Robert’s my dad’s carbon copy and now he’s getting rich the exact way my dad did. But my parents didn’t want me. That’s why Robert and Myra are a lot older than me.

“Since I was an accident, my sister and the maids took care of me when I was little. We spent most of our time living in Overland Park, because it was in the middle of the country on land where my mother could have the horses she always wanted. I spent a lot of my time at boarding school. I learned a lot about computers and now I’m a pretty good hacker. I liked to mess with my classmates by changing their grades and getting into their accounts and stuff like that.

“When my parents found out, they were appalled. So they sent me here so I could learn ‘integrity,’ and because our computer usage is limited and monitored.” Ember smiled and looked out at their friends expectantly.

Pax cleared his throat and looked at Israel. “It’s me or you.”

Israel nodded and took a shaky breath. Despite the fact that he felt that he was in no condition to talk about his home life, he expected that he’d be in an even worse place after Pax’s turn to talk. “I was born in Arizona. We lived by my Meemaw and Papa.” He paused, hoping that his voice wouldn’t break. “My Papa was my favorite person ever. When I was six, my dad got a pastor job offer in Lee’s Summit, which he decided he couldn’t turn down. So we moved.

“Even though my Meemaw and Papa visited once a month and I kept contact with my friends from Arizona, I was lonely because I didn’t really have any friends in Lee’s Summit. Then my Papa died, and it emotionally wrecked me.” He took a deep breath, avoiding looking up at his friends. If he saw any pity, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep talking and get to the part that he desperately needed to get off his chest. “I couldn’t have fun. I didn’t want to go to school, and I couldn’t make friends because everyone thought I was boring or weird. I tried out for a swim team when I started to feel better, but the coach and the other kids were really mean. They just made me even more insecure than I already was. And I wasn’t just insecure because I couldn’t make friends or I think I’m ugly or whatever. It was because… Um, well, Pax, Ember, Deven, and Amoni know this, but… I’m gay.” Israel looked down at his hands, which he shoved into his lap so that his friends wouldn’t see them shaking.

“That’s okay,” Gray said when no one else said anything. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“If it’s not for the rest of you, you can fuck off.” Pax said. Israel wished that he wouldn’t have been so blunt about it, then nearly smiled, thinking that it would be nice to have Pax around when his parents were being homophobic.

“Be proud of being yourself, Israel. Not everyone has the courage to do that.” Deven said.

Israel looked up, the tears barely staying in his eyes. “My dad, since he’s a pastor, has a really hard time with it. My mom too, since she’s just as religious as him.”

“If you want, I’ll beat them up,” Pax offered jokingly, squeezing Israel’s shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll come around, though.”

Israel looked over at Zeke, who was looking down instead of meeting anyone’s eyes. “Since I was so lonely and insecure, my parents sent me here. They thought the counseling and the new start would help me. And it did — does — mostly. I mean, no one here knew to make fun of me at first, so I found you guys. And I think you all accept me for who I am, which is something I’ve never really had before.”

“It’s really sad that everyone can’t just accept you,” Pax said. “You’re just a normal guy trying to live life like everyone else.”

“Well, according to some people, my normal is a sin,” Israel said, smiling though his heart wasn’t in it. “The devil is possessing me, so you guys better watch out.”

Everyone laughed except Zeke, and the high that Israel had been riding from Zeke’s reactions to him coming to the scrimmage and the hug dropped off.

“I guess it’s my turn,” Pax said, and Israel almost wanted to ask him to stop. “I’m from Albany. Not in New York. It’s an absolute shit town, so I was an absolute shit kid. I mean, I shouldn’t blame my bad choices on the town, but it didn’t help that I was surrounded by weak adults who just had no idea what was really going on.

“My parents came to America from Vietnam when they were young, and it was really rough for them. But they both made it to college against all odds, and that’s where they met. I was their miracle child, after they struggled to have one for years, but I haven’t yet been the blessing they were looking forward to. Like I said, I’m shit, and I know it.”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” Israel said, his voice cracking. If anyone was shit, it definitely wasn’t Pax.

Pax ignored him and kept talking. “Our town has a lot of problems. I ended up hanging out with older kids who were drug dealers, so I skipped school even back in elementary school, got into fights, smoked weed, drank, and vandalized buildings. I even got expelled from school and my mom had to get me into another one, but that’s a long story. Basically, though, my parents and all the other adults in my town were scared of their kids. Me and my friends, especially. The gang. We had no respect, because none of the adults were respectable, you know? So I got sent here, to learn respect. I wanted to get kicked out, but whatever I tried, they never sent me away.

“One day when I was down by the baseball diamonds, I met Meric. And you guys know, he’s such a great guy. He channeled all my energy into baseball, which I’m sure took more patience than I’ll ever have. But because of Meric, I started liking it here. My parents sent me here to learn to respect authority. And by authority, I’m sure they meant teachers and all the other adults. But I didn’t learn to respect authority because some person yelled at me. I learned it because Meric Wochner gave me someone to look up to. He was patient, he explained things to me, and he gave me a chance to be a decent person. I’d never really had that before. And now I realize that the whole time my parents were respectable. What they and their parents sacrificed to make a better life for us in America is unbelievable. I just can’t wait to go home and make them proud and get them out of that awful town so we can be happy.”

“That was touching,” Deven said, nodding. “Important question, though. Would you be gay for Meric?”

Everyone except Israel laughed, though he made himself smile. He wasn’t in the mood for this anymore. He just wanted to go to bed and stop thinking about all of the bad things that had happened to him and his friends. This wasn’t a good initiation idea, this was torture.

“Now for the stories we’ve been waiting for,” Amoni said dramatically, and Israel looked over at Zeke, whose face was unreadable. Israel wanted to scream. He wanted to know what Zeke was thinking without having to try so hard. He needed to know how Zeke felt about him. He couldn’t take it anymore.

“I mean, I don’t really have a story,” Kelsey said. “I mean, I live in Chesterfield. My dad was a marine and he wanted me to be one, kinda like Deven’s dad, but I just like video games, not sports. I actually wanted to be in band with my friends, so my dad got mad and sent me here even though I told him someday I could be in the marine band. He signed me up for three years, but my mom changed it to six months behind his back. I don’t know if he knows yet.”

Zeke laughed. “Six months is a whole lot easier than three years.”

Israel looked up, glad that Zeke wasn’t busy hyper fixating on how stupid Israel was for having this be an initiation task, or worse, the fact that Israel was some gay weirdo who was hitting on him, a straight guy.

“But I’m barely going to last six months,” Kelsey said.

“You’ll be fine, Kels. You got us,” Amoni promised.

“Last but not least,” Pax said, looking at Zeke.

“Who’s least?” Ember asked. Deven and Amoni laughed, but Pax just rolled his eyes.

Zeke sighed. “I guess I start by saying that I’m from Blue Springs, right? Not far from Kansas City or Lee’s Summit.”

Hope blossomed in Israel’s chest. If he and Zeke managed to really hit it off, platonically or romantically, they could see each other after East Ridge. Israel would have friends at home, and that would make things easier, just like it had been easier for the short time that he had had Sebastian.

“I was born there, but we moved into the neighborhood we live in now when I was in, like, second grade or something. I have a little sister named Teagan who’s kind of okay but I spent a lot of time hating her, for whatever reason. I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of stupid things that I’m trying to make up for. Just like when I stormed out of the mess hall, you know?”

Israel and his friends nodded understandingly and Israel tried to imagine what Zeke’s family would look like.

“So yeah, I live in this neighborhood with a bunch of my friends and we’ve called ourselves ‘the troublemakers’ for a really long time.”

Amoni laughed. “If that ain’t the most white boy gang name ever, I don’t know what is.”

The rest of them laughed, and Israel even joined in without feeling forced, the thoughts of hanging out with Zeke when they got home from East Ridge and meeting Zeke’s family making him feel better. There was nothing like having a good friend to hang out with.

“Well,” Zeke continued, “we really did get ourselves into trouble. Basically my friends Jacoryn and Isaiah led the group and they made up all these rules like getting on probation when you did something wrong. I didn’t get on probation much, but some people did, like this guy named Kaleb who was in the group for a few years. Then just last November he decided to quit the group, but he still wanted to prove himself to Jacoryn and Isaiah because he was just kind of a suck up, you know?”

Israel and his friends nodded. They all knew the type, though Israel had only ever really seen it between teachers or pastors and students.

“Well, when he quit we decided to go to this haunted — I mean, supposedly haunted — house in our neighborhood, and I got really scared and left…” Zeke paused as if waiting for them to laugh at him, but no one did. “And after I left Kaleb fell through the ceiling, ’cause the floorboards were so rotted. That’s what everyone said, anyway.”

“Was he okay?” Gray asked, his eyes big.

Zeke shook his head, and Israel could have sworn that he saw his lip quiver. “He kinda died. The impact or something, I don’t know. But my friends didn’t call the cops that night, they waited until the morning, which was kind of messed up.”

“I’ll say,” Deven said.

Israel frowned. It had always seemed like Zeke had such a good eye for good and bad people until now. How could their Zeke have friends who called themselves troublemakers and didn’t call an ambulance that could have potentially saved their friend’s life?

“Yeah,” Zeke said, rubbing one of his hands over the rug. “I don’t know, the troublemakers’ idea of pranking and everything was just so off. It was almost like we weren’t even that good of friends unless we did what Jacoryn and Isaiah wanted. I was always getting grounded or sneaking out of the house for them, and I just can’t figure out why I kept doing it for as long as I did. They’d seriously just bully kids at school and call it pranking or whatever.”

Israel’s heart rate climbed as Zeke became more and more distressed, his voice cracking more and more and his hand sweeping over the carpet again and again.

“So we were all a little messed up after Kaleb died, and then right after our friend Jed ran away from home without really telling us why. Except Isaiah, I think, but that doesn’t really matter. He was just gone, almost like he had died too. Then later, I wasn’t there, but Isaiah and Leo watched Brendan, our other friend, fall through the ice on this pond near our houses. And he ended up dying too.”

“Oh, no,” Deven whispered.

Israel wiped his eyes quickly. He couldn’t help but imagine finding out that Ross or Dylan or Sebastian, or even any of the swim team guys or his fellow youth group goers, had died. He couldn’t even imagine what Zeke was still going through because of his friends’ deaths. And two in less than a year, too? That was just messed up.

“So,” Zeke said, his voice wavering. He took a few deep breaths before talking again. “So then my dad got the idea that me, Jacoryn, Isaiah, and Leo had killed our friends.” His voice went up in pitch, and he took another long pause. “Even though we never would have done anything like that. We barely ever even fought each other, like, physically. We didn’t like hurting each other. But my dad was so convinced, and he even managed to convince some of our other parents. He was just so wrong.”

“Hey, you don’t have to keep going,” Pax said softly, but Zeke waved him off. “I just want to be better. I didn’t want to be like that anymore. My dad shipped me off to this place because he thought it would reform me, and I guess he was pretty right. I just want to be a good person, you know? I don’t want anyone else I know to get hurt. That’s why initiation and the pranking part was so hard for me.”

“And that’s why you saved Amoni too, huh?” Ember asked, nodding as if he already knew the answer. Zeke didn’t respond.

“We got you,” Amoni promised. “We’ll teach you how to prank right.”

“Really, though,” Israel said, all sorts of emotions pulling at his heartstrings. He still felt guilty for putting his friends through such an emotional roller coaster, but part of him was incredibly glad that they had done it. “You were really strong to share that with us. I mean, even though you guys are my friends, I just didn’t feel like I knew all of you as well as I would like. And I know it was even harder for you and Kelsey, since you just got here.”

“It was cool, though,” Pax said. “It really was a good idea, Iz.”

Israel smiled at him, thankful for the support.

“And you guys didn’t even laugh at me for crying,” Amoni said. “I already knew you were cool, but damn.”

Gray smiled and pointed around the circle. “Now we all know the true way of the Snickerdudels. Welcome to the club, Zeke and Kelsey.”

Everyone smiled and Amoni clapped a few times. No one but Gray joined in, so it died out very quickly.

“I’m exhausted,” Deven announced. Pax and Zeke quickly agreed and the three of them stood up.

Israel stood up as well, lingering as the rest of his friends got up. He had hoped for a hug, if not from the whole group, from someone — anyone — because he really needed one. But his friends all went off to their own beds and began changing clothes. Zeke and Gray crammed into the bathroom to brush their teeth, so Israel sat down on his bed dejectedly and pulled off his shirt. He sighed and got up to grab a new one from the dresser and looked towards the bathroom, wishing that he was the one in there brushing his teeth with Zeke, only to catch Zeke looking at him. He looked away so quickly that Israel almost convinced himself that Zeke hadn’t been looking at him at all, but Israel couldn’t figure out anything else that Zeke could have been looking at. And Israel had been shirtless. Oh God, he thought, pulling on his clean workout shirt quickly. That was the first time he saw me shirtless.

Israel finished changing quickly, watching Zeke out of the corner of his eye to make sure that he wasn’t looking again, then dove into bed and rolled over so that he faced the wall. He could skip brushing his teeth for one night.

After a few more minutes, his bunkmates got quieter and Kelsey said, “Can I turn off the lights?”

“No one’s come to check us in yet,” Deven said. “It’s about fuckin’ time, though.”

“I hate it when they’re late,” Zeke said. “At me and Kelsey’s old cabin, when they were late, the other guys would entertain themselves by trying to make us fight each other or something. It was stupid.”

“Who usually won?” Amoni asked.

“No one,” Zeke said.

“Zeke never hit me,” Kelsey said. “So they’d push him around but leave me alone, mostly.”

“You make it sound like a big deal,” Zeke said, and the bed creaked above Israel. He imagined Zeke lying down so that the others couldn’t look at him anymore, just like Israel did when he faced the wall.

Someone knocked on the door, and Kelsey answered it.

“All here?” a man asked.

“Yes,” Kelsey said.

“And in bed, too. Good for you guys. Sleep well.”

“Thanks.” The door closed and the lights went out.

“Congrats again, Zeke,” Pax said.

“Congrats,” everyone else echoed. Israel only whispered it, wishing he could have told Zeke himself earlier. Maybe he should have said it when he hugged him.

Zeke didn’t respond, and Israel imagined his ears turning red. Then he replayed all of his good moments with Zeke from the day, and a tear leaked out of his eye and onto his pillow.

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