The Snickerdudels

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Israel: April, ERA

Israel finally received a letter from his parents just two days before visitation day.

Dear Israel,

We have some bad news to share, and we are not exactly sure how to say it in a letter because we very much wish that we could tell you in person. Meemaw is not doing very well. She called us today (but, when you receive this letter, it will have been a few days ago) to tell us that she went to the doctor for what she thought was a bad cold and ended up getting diagnosed with pneumonia and sent to the hospital because she was having such a hard time breathing. She says that she and the doctors have high hopes for her recovery, but just in case, Dad and I are going to go visit her. We fly out right after church on Sunday and Dad is so busy preparing for missing five days of work that we will not be able to make it to your visitation day. We are so sorry, Israel, but we know that you are in good health, and we have to take care of those who are not. We know you will understand and that you will keep Meemaw in your prayers. Remember to “Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

We love you, Israel. We always will. We’re very sorry to miss your visitation day, but we look forward to seeing you more than ever in May.

Love,

Mom and Dad

Israel put the letter down on his bed, feeling sick to his stomach. He shouldn’t have read it right before workouts. He shouldn’t have read it at all.

“Yo Zeke, heads up,” Amoni shouted, throwing his tennis ball in Israel’s direction, but higher. Instead of its usual smack against the wall, Israel heard the ball hit Zeke’s hand, and then watched it fly back at Amoni, who dodged it and laughed.

“Maybe we should start chucking things on you to work on your reflexes,” Zeke said, laughing.

“My reflexes are usually fine,” Amoni said as he retrieved the ball from the floor.

“Yeah, right,” Ember said from his bed.

“Why would you know?”

“Hey,” Zeke said, and Israel looked up to see Zeke’s head hanging down from his bed. “Could you help me with math tonight? I know you helped me in class, but I really just don’t get what we’re doing right now.”

“Of course,” Israel said, ignoring his still churning stomach. “I’m free all night.”

Zeke smiled, his face getting redder by the second. “You rock, Iz. I can buy you some candy to repay you whenever I get some money.”

“That’s okay,” Israel said, warmth spreading through his chest. The time with Zeke made it worth it all on its own, but he couldn’t say that.

“Just let me know what you like.” Zeke pulled his head back up to his bunk, and Israel smiled to himself until he saw the letter again. He grabbed it and shoved it under his pillow. His parents were not going to ruin this day.

Zeke didn’t hang around the cabin after workouts, instead leaving with Pax and Deven to go to the baseball fields. Israel tried not to be jealous, but part of him was. He wondered if he should walk down to the fields and hang out with his friends, but he was tired from workouts and really didn’t want to get up off his bed.

“Want to go do laundry?” Gray asked him, Kelsey, and Ember as he and Amoni shoved their clothes into their pillow cases.

“Oh, sure,” Israel said. He pulled his pillow case off his pillow and pretended not to see his parents’ letter underneath. He gathered all of his dirty clothes and then turned back to his friends. Ember still sat at his desk and Kelsey was gathering clothes, but Amoni and Gray were ready to go.

“We’re bringing cards,” Amoni said cheerfully. “And I saw Jaylen earlier today, so he should be there too.”

“Oh good,” Israel said, smiling. “I haven’t seen him, Alex, or Seth in ages.”

“Probably because Seth went home.”

“What?” Israel asked incredulously. No one had told him that Seth was leaving.

“Yeah, his Mom died,” Amoni said quietly. “So his dad terminated his contract. It costs way less to do that if there’s a big emergency reason, Jaylen said. I really feel bad for Seth, though.”

“Me too,” Israel said, his eyes welling up unexpectedly, thinking of Papa — and now maybe even Meemaw.

“They’ll be okay,” Amoni assured him, reaching out a hand to Israel’s shoulder. Israel stepped forward and hugged him, and Amoni hugged him back fiercely. “We know how that kind of thing feels, huh?” Amoni said softly.

Israel let him go and wiped his eyes, glancing at Gray, who had distracted himself by helping Kelsey sort his dirty clothes from his clean clothes.

“You good?” Amoni asked. “Sorry to hit you with that news like that.”

“It’s okay,” Israel said, offering a weak smile. “I just, I recently got news that my Meemaw is really sick.”

“I’m sorry, man, I wouldn’t have told you about Seth if I knew that.”

“It’s okay,” Israel promised. “I’m glad you told me so I wasn’t in the dark anymore.”

Amoni nodded and Kelsey said, “Okay, I’m ready.”

“Let’s go,” Israel said, and he led the way up to the visitation center.

Seeing Jaylen was a great distraction from all of the things Israel didn’t want to think about, but by the time their laundry was done Israel just needed a nap. He excused himself from his friends, who were still content to play cards in the laundry room, and went back to the cabin, where Ember didn’t even greet him when he walked in. Israel kicked off his shoes and slumped onto his bed, closing his eyes.

The next thing he remembered was Pax shaking his shoulder. “Hey Izzy, it’s dinner time. Wanna come with us?”

Israel opened his eyes and realized that Zeke and Pax were staring at him while their other bunkmates talked loudly outside the open cabin door. “Yeah,” Israel said, his voice catching in his throat. He coughed and sat up, holding his head.

“Are you sick?” Zeke asked. “That didn’t sound so good.”

“I’m okay,” Israel said, standing up and looking for his shoes through his bleary eyes. “Just thirsty.”

Zeke stepped past Israel and kicked Israel’s shoes closer to him. “You’ll feel better after dinner.”

Israel nodded and put his shoes on, then followed his friends out of the cabin. Zeke walked alongside him. “Hopefully they have good food tonight so it’ll help you get your energy up.”

“Yeah, I hope,” Israel agreed. He hoped that Meemaw’s hospital food was better than the food here.

“So what’d you do today after school? Besides napping, I mean.”

“Oh, I uh…” Israel scratched his head, trying to focus on his conversation with Zeke and not on Meemaw or Seth or Papa or how Amoni had cried when talking about his home life. “I did laundry with Amoni. And an old friend.”

“Oh nice, that’s always fun,” Zeke said. “I mean, not laundry, really. But friends. I was going to see if anyone wanted to do laundry with me tomorrow before visitation, but sounds like I’ll be going alone.”

“Sorry,” Israel said. If he would have known that Zeke wanted someone to do laundry with, he would have declined Gray’s invitation. Stupid, stupid. “We can still do math tonight, though.”

“Only if you feel better,” Zeke said, smiling. “No one wants to pile math on top of an already bad day.”

Israel smiled at him. Israel was absolutely willing to pile Zeke time on this roller coaster of an evening. “I’ll be fine, but it sounds like I’m going to have to drag you back to the cabin after dinner.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Zeke said, laughing. “Good luck with that one.”

Zeke stuck himself to Israel’s side all through dinner, and Israel swore that Zeke was looking at him much more often than normal. A warm feeling made itself at home in Israel’s chest.

At the end of dinner, Zeke began walking out of the mess hall with the baseball crowd, but Israel grabbed his arm and Zeke turned to him, laughing. “I hoped you’d forget. The math, I mean.”

Israel smiled. “Sorry to be the bad cop, but neither of us want you to fail this next test.”

“You’re right,” Zeke said, leaning into Israel’s shoulder and pushing him away. “Math cop, bad cop, though.”

“Which makes you the good cop?” Israel asked, his whole side buzzing from Zeke’s touch.

“Of course,” Zeke said, grinning. “Anti-math cop is always a good cop.”

“Yeah, okay,” Israel said, laughing. He led the way back to the cabin, brushing his shoulder against Zeke’s a couple times as they watched. Zeke never made any effort to walk farther apart, and the warm feeling in Israel’s chest spread.

When they got to the cabin, Zeke ran up to the door and pushed inside. “Em’s not here yet. Think he’s coming back soon?”

I hope not, Israel thought, but he said, “Maybe. I don’t know what his plans were.”

“Did he do laundry with you earlier?”

“No,” Israel said, hope rising in his chest. Maybe Ember would do his laundry tonight, and Israel would have Zeke all to himself.

Zeke grabbed his school bag off the post of their bunk bed and sat down on the rug in the middle of the room. Israel grabbed his as well. He hadn’t done most of his math homework yet, either. He joined Zeke on the rug, sitting across from him.

“Just know that this is going to take forever,” Zeke sighed.

“I’m okay with forever,” Israel assured him, pulling out his math notebook. He kept his homework within the pages, almost like the notebook was a folder.

Zeke pulled out his homework and his notes, which were mainly scribbles. Israel knew that he had trouble taking notes when he didn’t understand what was going on, so Israel prided himself even more in taking good notes for Zeke to look at later.

“I’m not ready for this,” Zeke said, glancing at Israel’s notes and scratching his neck.

“I’ll make it as painless as possible. Promise.”

Zeke smiled at him.

Ember came in and out to get his laundry, but otherwise Zeke and Israel’s time together doing math and taking the occasional break to talk about whatever Zeke came up with to steer them off topic went uninterrupted for over an hour and a half. Israel could not have been happier, even when his bunkmates came back to gather their stuff for showers and Kelsey said, “I could use some of that tutoring.”

“Kelsey, I’m your tutor. I thought we established that,” Ember said.

“But you always say you’re busy,” Kelsey whined.

“Not always, just a lot of times. We can work out a schedule.”

“Fine,” Kelsey said, slinging his towel over his shoulder.

Israel packed up his school work, which Zeke had already done, and began gathering his shower things. Just as Israel was grabbing clothes from his pillow case — he hadn’t had a chance to fold them and put them back in his drawer yet, which meant that his uniform was going to be wrinkled — Zeke jumped down from his bunk right next to Israel. Israel nearly jumped out of his socks.

“Gotcha,” Zeke teased, pushing Israel a little before waltzing away to join Deven and Amoni waiting in the middle of the cabin.

Israel grinned to himself as he dug out his workout shorts and decided that he would try to go to the laundry room with Zeke in the morning since he now had the excuse of needing to iron his uniform.

After breakfast the next day, Israel and his friends headed back to the cabin to grab their stuff for showers and headed to the showers together. Zeke was very quiet the whole morning and Israel couldn’t get up the courage to bring up going to the laundry room together before showers, so he promised himself that he would on the walk back to the cabin. Israel hummed his way through his shower, looking forward to finding ways to brush shoulders with Zeke or touch his hand. He got dressed alongside Gray, and then they waited on the benches for their other bunkmates — besides Zeke, who always met them outside — to get done.

“Aight, let’s go,” Pax said when they were all together. Israel followed them out of the building, intentionally hanging back so he could catch Zeke, but when they got outside, Zeke was nowhere to be seen.

“Think he’s back at the cabin?” Deven asked. “He always showers faster than us.”

“Yeah, I bet he is,” Kelsey said. Pax nodded in agreement, and they all headed back to the cabin.

Israel tried not to let his heart sink too far because he knew he’d have another chance at the cabin to ask, but it was unlike Zeke to leave without them, and it probably meant that he wasn’t in a good mood.

Back at the cabin, Israel held his breath in anticipation, only to deflate when they all realized that Zeke wasn’t at the cabin anymore, either.

“His pillow case is gone,” Ember observed. “So he probably went to do laundry.”

“That tracks,” Pax said, dropping his dirty workout clothes on the floor.

“Really, man?” Amoni sighed. “Bunk checks are tomorrow.”

“So I’ll pick it up tomorrow,” Pax said, rolling his eyes.

“No one wants to walk through your dirty clothes,” Deven said, kicking them under the bed.

“Hey,” Pax protested.

“Better there than out here where we have to see them,” Ember said.

Israel sat on his bunk and stared at his pillowcase full of clothes. He didn’t want to put them away, and he didn’t want to go iron his uniform. Zeke clearly didn’t want his company.

Why was Zeke so back and forth? Why couldn’t he just make it clear how he felt about Israel instead of playing with his heart like this? It just wasn’t fair. Israel lay down on his bed and rediscovered his parents’ letter under his pillow. Against his better judgement, he took it out and read it again.

Surprise, surprise, he thought to himself, still no real response to the letter I sent. Why was it that everyone in his life that he cared about was so hot and cold when it came to caring about Israel? What was he even supposed to do all day now that he wasn’t going to do laundry with Zeke or even have a visitation? It wasn’t fair.

By Sunday, Israel had read his parents’ letter at least twenty times and it rubbed him the wrong way more and more every time. He had ranted to Mr. Philbin at his counseling appointment and he hardly remembered anything Mr. Philbin had said to console him. Worst of all, Zeke hadn’t shown up to eat lunch with their cabinmates and he hadn’t come back to the cabin hardly at all until bedtime, leaving Israel to read and do homework and bitterly refuse to play cards with his friends all day. All he wanted was to spend time with one person, and that one person was clearly avoiding him for no discernible reason.

Even Sunday morning, despite the fact that one of his cabinmates had cleaned up Israel’s bunk for him while he swept the floors and despite the prank they had pulled on Mr. Lakes had been very funny, Israel couldn’t conjure a good mood.

“Anyone want to go up to the blacktop and play monkey in the middle?” Pax asked.

“Sure,” Zeke, Amoni, and Deven said.

“I’ll come too,” Israel said without thinking. Maybe he was just ready to stop moping. It wasn’t like Zeke was going to invite him anywhere, so he may as well invite himself.

“Oh?” Amoni asked, laughing. “Guys, we’re getting to him!”

“Nooo,” Ember howled before breaking off laughing.

Israel blushed, more out of irritation than embarrassment. Why did his friends think he couldn’t play sports, too? He had proved that he could enjoy it when he had played catch with Pax and Zeke. “I don’t have anything else to do. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“We’re gonna go watch baseball,” Gray said, waving as he and Kelsey walked out the door.

“And I’m going to stay here and read,” Ember announced, grabbing his book from the desk. “Have fun working out or whatever, even though it’s supposed to be our time off.”

Pax grabbed his tennis ball from his duffel bag, and Israel followed Zeke, Deven, and Amoni out to the blacktop, where they found a free space near the younger boys’ showers. They began by playing monkey in the middle, during which Israel got stuck on the opposite side of Zeke or in the middle for most of the game, and they quickly switched to playing 500 because Amoni was winning monkey in the middle too easily. They let Zeke be the person who threw the ball in 500 first.

“Four hundred, alive,” Zeke called, throwing the ball high and hard.

Israel watched it for a second and neither Pax, Deven, or Amoni seemed to be moving for the throw, so Israel figured that this was his chance to actually get some points instead of sitting at zero, as he had for the past few throws. As he ran, it became evident that he had misjudged just how hard Zeke had thrown the ball, but there was no going back. He poured on speed until he managed to trip himself and he went sprawling onto the pavement. For a few seconds he hardly felt any pain except his own hate for himself — only an idiot would have tried to go for that ball — but then his knee exploded in pain.

“Israel, dude, you’re crazy today,” Amoni said, laughing. Deven came over and offered his hands. Israel took them, noticing that one of his own hands was scraped from the fall, and Deven pulled him up. “Are you okay or do you need support?”

Israel waved him off.

“I thought you were smart enough not to go for that one,” Zeke teased, walking over to them.

“I guess not,” Israel mumbled, wanting to smack himself. “Want to come to the clinic to get me bandaged up?”

Zeke shrugged and looked at Deven, Pax, and Amoni. “We’ll be back I guess.”

“Don’t drip blood all over the floors, or one of us will have to mop it up later,” Deven teased.

Zeke walked close to Israel, though they didn’t touch, and held the door into the visitation center open for him.

“Really though,” Zeke said as the door closed behind him, his brow furrowed in concern. “What’s up with you today? You’re acting so different.”

Israel looked down and shrugged, touching his right elbow with his left hand as it throbbed to see if it was bleeding. “I just didn’t want to watch baseball or sit in the cabin by myself. I had nothing else to do. I don’t get why you’re all being weird about it.”

“I’m not saying I’m not glad you’re here, but you could’ve hung out with Em. Or wrote back to your parents.”

Israel glared at him. Who was he to be so distant, then so nice, and then so nosy? “How—?”

“Sorry, sorry,” Zeke said, holding his hands up in surrender. “I saw the letter on your bed when we were cleaning up this morning.”

Israel nodded. So it had been Zeke who had cleaned up his bunk for him. Maybe he hadn’t been avoiding him after all. “They didn’t come to visitation day because they were visiting Meemaw. She’s sick.”

“Sorry to hear it.” Zeke said. Israel glanced at him, and he seemed genuine. “It’s okay. I’m not sure I even wanted to see them anyway.”

“Why?”

Israel avoided Zeke’s eyes, biting his tongue. “Just forget I said that. I love my parents. I do. It’s just… ”

“Just?”

Israel shrugged. He shouldn’t have been spilling to Zeke.

Zeke ran ahead of Israel and opened the door to the nurse’s office for him. Israel walked in and explained to the nurse what had happened, and she told him to sit down on her table. Israel climbed up, and she pulled out antiseptic wipes and warned him that it was going to sting.

Israel bit his cheeks as she wiped the scrapes on his knees and his elbow, not seeming to notice the one on his hand. She then bandaged his elbow and the knee that had bled more. “Be careful now,” she told him. “Sometimes you boys like to act like bandaids mean you’re healed, and that’s not the case.”

“I’ll be careful,” Israel promised. He looked over at Zeke as he hopped off the table, and Zeke smiled at him before leading the way back outside.

As they walked, Zeke stayed silent and ran his hand along the wall.

Israel cleared his throat, feeling the need to apologize for a lot of things. However, he wasn’t sure how many of the apologies he would be able to get through without crying. “You know, the other night when I made us sit down and listen to each other as a group… I’m sorry for that. I think it made you uncomfortable.”

Zeke didn’t look at him, but Israel watched his ears turn red. “It’s okay. It made me realize some things for myself, which was good. And, I mean, I was just scared you guys would hate me or something.”

“Never,” Israel promised quickly, trying not to read into what Zeke meant by realizing things for himself. Maybe Israel coming out had made him realize his own sexuality? Israel pushed the thought away. “I just felt like we needed to do it. Probably because my only friends have been my pen pals for years and we’re just used to telling each other everything. I guess it’s easier to say deep stuff when they’re so far away.”

“Yeah probably,” Zeke said, pushing his way through the door and back outside. Israel followed him, wanting to ask him not to blow off this conversation when Israel was far from done saying what he wanted to say.

“Hey, the dripper and his sidekick are back,” Amoni joked, squinting and putting his hand over his eyes to watch them. “Ready for more 500?”

“I think I’m going to go back to the cabin,” Israel said. He wanted to take his promise to the nurse seriously, and it was pointless staying here with Zeke if Zeke wasn’t going to have more real conversations with him.

“Aw, Izzy. Don’t tell me you’ll never play again ’cause we teased you,” Pax said.

Israel smiled, not wanting Pax to think he had done anything wrong. “My knee just hurts. Sorry.” Israel walked past his friends and headed back to the cabin. He needed a break.

Israel hardly saw Zeke outside of school, meals, and bedtime on Monday and Tuesday, but he made a point to go watch Zeke and Pax play in their game on Tuesday evening. Even though the game was more boring than the scrimmage because the stakes felt a lot lower to Israel, he enjoyed watching Zeke — well, mostly Zeke’s butt — as he played. After the game, Israel saw an opportunity to hug Zeke again, so he jumped on it. Once again, Zeke didn’t hug him back, and once again, Zeke’s ears turned bright red. “I didn’t play that well, but thanks.”

Israel just smiled at him, unable to get over the way he could make Zeke blush like no one else.

Zeke had another game the next day, and Israel wished that he could show up at the ends of the games just to hug Zeke, but there was no way that his friends were going to let him get away with that.

“You’re one of us now,” Amoni said, ushering Israel out the door to head down to the fields for the beginning of the game.

“One of us, one of us,” Gray began chanting, and Kelsey and Amoni joined in.

“All right, all right,” Israel said, laughing. The games really weren’t that bad when he listened to his friends’ commentary.

“Why’d you start coming to games, anyway?” Gray asked, bouncing alongside Israel happily.

“I dunno,” Israel said, begging himself not to blush.

“Zeke likes it when you come,” Kelsey said kindly, putting his hands on Gray’s shoulders. “Jesus, bro, calm down.”

“Don’t try to calm my good mood,” Gray said playfully, twisting out from underneath Kelsey’s arms and tackling Amoni from behind. Amoni stumbled, laughing, and gave Gray a noogie when they landed on the ground before springing up and shouting, “Catch me if you can!”

Gray and Kelsey rocketed after Amoni, but Israel just watched them, in awe of the amount of energy they could have after all their workouts. He supposed that baseball players had to have even more energy than that, and his admiration for Pax, Zeke, and Deven grew even more. They had to sprint every time they ran the bases and baseball games were long.

Amoni, Gray, and Kelsey circled back around to Israel when they got to the fields so that they could find spots in the bleachers together. Israel spotted Deven in the grass between the fields with his own team, who didn’t have a game tonight, and considered waving but decided against it because he doubted that Deven would see him.

“This is a super important game for the Tigers,” Amoni said as they sat down in the bleachers.

“How so?” Israel asked.

“They’re playing the Pirates,” Amoni said, as if that cleared things up.

“The top team in the league. Tigers are second,” Gray said, smiling at Israel.

“Oh,” Israel said, locking his eyes onto Zeke as he warmed up. “Do you think they’ll win?”

“I’d say the odds are against them,” Amoni said, weighing his hands back and forth. “But we collected a record number of bets in their favor.”

“Did you bet that they’d win, then?”

Amoni smiled and Gray shifted uncomfortably.

“I see,” Israel teased.

“We’re still good friends if you don’t tell Pax or Zeke,” Gray said defensively.

“I won’t tell,” Israel promised, laughing to himself.

Zeke and Pax’s team didn’t win, but Israel figured that that gave him even more reason to hug Zeke at the end of the game.

“Sorry you didn’t win,” he said as he hugged Zeke. Zeke didn’t hug him back, but when Israel pulled away, Zeke smiled at him and said, “We’ll get ’em next time.”

“If we keep playing like that, we’ll eventually wear them down,” Pax said, smiling.

“You guys looked amazing out there,” Deven admitted. “I wish we could play like that.”

“Zeke,” Gray said, butting in front of Deven. “You’re practically famous!”

Israel looked at Gray quizzically, but Amoni jumped in to explain. “Antonio Cervantes and some of his teammates came to watch, and they talked about you. They’re all big players in their league, like Trevor McCrorey and the Scherich brothers.”

Even though Israel had no idea who any of those people were, Zeke practically glowed. “Too bad I’m not staying long enough to play with them.”

Israel smiled at him and he looked away and sighed.

Despite the fact that Zeke only had one game the whole time, Israel hardly got to spend any time with him alone except for the two times he asked for help with school work. Even then, the second time, their bunkmates kept interrupting and Israel hadn’t felt nearly as good afterwards as he had hoped.

Finally, on Friday, Zeke lay down on his bunk while the rest of their friends went out to have some fun. Israel stretched out on the rug with his book for English and kept an eye on Zeke, hoping to play cards with him or something if he stopped napping. Then Zeke caught Israel looking at him, and Israel nearly dropped his book. He thought that Zeke had been sleeping.

Zeke sat up and climbed down to sit on Israel’s bed, and Israel’s heart nearly pounded out of his chest. This was when Zeke was going to ask him to leave him alone, to stop looking at him, to stop hugging him after games. He’d say, “I’m going to do my homework with Ember now.”

But Zeke didn’t say anything, so Israel swallowed the lump in his throat and asked, “Have you read this yet?”

Zeke shook his head.

“It’s not bad. And it would help you, you know, not fail the quiz tomorrow.”

“Nothing helps me pass those quizzes.” Zeke sighed, rubbing his cheek with his hand.

Israel closed his book and sat up, ready to make Zeke feel better, whatever it took. “I’d help you if you wanted.”

“Why don’t you like girls?” Zeke asked suddenly. Israel stared at him in shock as Zeke looked anywhere but at Israel.

“I don’t know,” Israel started, unsure of what to say. He wasn’t about to tell Zeke about Sebastian. “I just know I don’t. They’re… I mean, some of them are pretty, but I’d never date one, you know?”

“Yeah, I get it.”

Israel looked at him, hope rising in his chest. “You ‘get it’ like you understand or like you feel the same way?”

“What?” Zeke said, putting his hands up in front of his chest. “No… No. Just because I said that you think I’m gay? No freaking way.” He got up off of Israel’s bed and fled, slamming the door behind him.

“Why do I even talk to you?” Israel said miserably, pushing his book away and pulling his knees to his chest. What had he done for Zeke to react like that? All he did was ask for clarity from Zeke’s own words. He was so fucking stupid to keep chasing after Zeke when Zeke clearly didn’t even know what was going on in his own head. Did Israel even want to try to figure him out?

Yes. He did.

Israel moved to his bed so that he could hide a little better if one of his bunkmates happened to come in and let the dam in his chest burst.

Israel was still crying, just not quite as hard, when Pax walked into the cabin. He was halfway to the bathroom and Israel thought he had kept his crying secret until Pax turned around. Israel quickly turned towards the wall, but he heard Pax cross the floor and felt him sit down on Israel’s bed. “Did you get another letter from your parents?”

Israel shook his head, not trusting his voice.

“Just having a rough day?”

Israel shrugged and turned towards Pax. “I’ve just had a lot of ups and downs recently.”

“How so?” Pax asked.

“Just…” Israel sighed. Might as well say it. “With Zeke.”

Pax smiled knowingly. “You’ve got it bad for him, don’t you?”

Israel laughed a little and wiped his nose. “I guess you could say that.”

“Well,” Pax said, picking at a callus on his hand. “This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but all I can say is that you’ll never know unless you go for it.”

“I can’t go for it,” Israel said, letting his head sink into the pillow farther.

“Why not?”

“Because…” he said, struggling to find a real reason besides the fact that he was way too scared to go for it, especially after today.

“He does get kind of embarrassed when you’re around, doesn’t he?” Pax asked, grinning.

“Stop,” Israel said, pushing him with one hand and laughing.

“Okay,” Pax said, laughing and standing up. “Should I go to the bathroom now or should I continue helping you overanalyze?”

“Go,” Israel said, laughing and wiping his face with his hand. Had Pax really noticed the things about Zeke that Israel had noticed?

“You guys would be cute,” Pax said in a sing-song voice as he closed the door to the bathroom.

“Pax,” Israel groaned, laughing and hiding his head under his pillow.

Israel avoided Zeke that night and the next morning, figuring that he needed distance, at least for a little bit, before he would be ready to accept an apology from Israel or even give one to Israel.

However, when Zeke ignored him at school, Israel barely held in the tears. He spent most of math watching Zeke struggle, but he couldn’t make himself reach out like he usually would. Instead, he prayed and prayed for Zeke to ask him for help, but it never came.

At lunch, Pax took Zeke’s usual spot next to Israel after Zeke sat down as far away from Israel as possible while still sitting with their cabinmates. Israel could hardly eat and wouldn’t have eaten more than a bite or two if Pax hadn’t been next to him saying, “Keep eating, Izzy. You need it to get through the day here, you know that. Just eat some of the bread. And now your broccoli.”

After school, Zeke even broke off from their cabin mates during workouts. Israel did everything halfheartedly, not even caring when one of the staff members walked by and encouraged him to do his push ups faster and his squats deeper. Nothing mattered when Zeke was going to such lengths to avoid Israel. Why couldn’t he just apologize? Why couldn’t Israel find it in himself to apologize?

The next couple days went the same way, with Zeke avoiding Israel and Israel beginning to avoid Zeke before Zeke could avoid him. Israel tried to dive into his school work, ignoring anything baseball related or Zeke related. At night, he lay awake staring at Zeke’s bed, wishing that he knew how to mend the rift between them. Even if Zeke wasn’t gay or bi or pan or whatever, they could still be friends. Israel needed Zeke in his life.

Then, one morning after a particularly bad night of sleep that included dreams where Zeke told Israel how much he hated him and Israel’s parents disowned him and Meemaw died, Pax pulled Israel to the back of the group on their way out to block.

“I’m not sure if I should tell you this because I actually don’t really know what’s going on, but I think I have good news?”

“Lay it on me,” Israel said, not feeling any of the hope he had expected to feel.

“So yesterday after practice, Zeke stayed behind to talk to this guy on our team named Zoren. You know him?”

Israel shook his head.

“Well, I mean, he’s gay. So I kinda thought, this is interesting, because Zeke always leaves practice with me or Meric, you know? So I kinda watched, and Zeke started crying while he was talking to him, I think.”

“So?” Israel asked, trying to act disinterested to crush the warm feeling in his chest. He couldn’t get his hopes up again. He couldn’t. Zeke was just going to ignore him until Israel left in December. Just eight more months of misery.

“So,” Pax said, “I don’t know, seems suspicious, does it not?”

Israel shrugged, watching his feet as they walked.

“All right,” Pax said. “I’m sorry. I know you’re having a hard time, so I probably shouldn’t have told you, huh?”

Israel didn’t respond. He didn’t know.

“Sorry,” Pax said, and then he went silent.

Israel had chewed on the information that Pax had given him for hours before he walked into math and Zeke looked up at him as he came into the room. Israel’s heart nearly stopped. Zeke hadn’t looked at him for days. At least, not that Israel had seen.

Zeke looked back down quickly, but he couldn’t hide his bright red ears from Israel. Maybe, he thought, just maybe, Pax was onto something. Maybe something did change.

As class went on, Zeke still didn’t say a word to Israel, but this time it didn’t hurt quite so badly.

Over the next few days, Pax was extra nice to Israel, but he didn’t give him any more updates on anything that was going on with Zeke. Israel lost hope slowly as he still couldn’t figure out what to say to Zeke and Zeke refused to talk to him. The only thing that kept him going was catching Zeke looking at him, which now happened multiple times a day. Those looks meant something, Israel just didn’t know what.

On Friday after dinner, Israel settled back at the cabin to do homework. To his surprise, Zeke stuck around the cabin while the rest of their friends went out to find something to do. He sat at the desk that Israel wasn’t at, doing his homework alone. Israel thought about offering his help, but Zeke didn’t seem to be doing math, because he was moving through whatever worksheet it was pretty quickly.

“Hey Israel,” Zeke said after about ten minutes of silence. “Let’s talk.”

Israel nodded and put his pencil down, his hands shaking. He stood up as his stomach churned and walked a few steps to meet Zeke in the middle of the rug.

Zeke looked at him, his eyes piercing into Israel’s in the way that Israel had missed so much over the past week, and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for everything. For being rude to you when you just asked a simple question, and for ignoring you, and for every crappy thing I’ve ever done to you.”

“It’s okay,” Israel said, relief bursting in his chest. He didn’t know what he would have done if Zeke hadn’t apologized for their little fight. “I shouldn’t have assumed—”

“No, listen. After I freaked out, I couldn’t stop thinking about your question,” he said, his voice shaking slightly, and Israel’s heart skipped a beat. “You were right to assume. You were totally right. I just had a really hard time finally admitting it to myself.”

Israel smiled and looked away from Zeke, trying to keep his composure. Was this really happening? Someone needed to pinch him.

“I just hope you don’t hate me.”

Israel looked back up at him, suddenly realizing just how close their faces were. “Of course not.”

Zeke smiled and cleared his throat, moving back a couple inches. “I’m glad, because, uh… I mean, I really like you, Israel. I wish I could’ve realized it sooner.”

Israel looked him in the eyes, thinking he was going to see that Zeke was just messing with him, but all he saw was sincerity. Israel looked away again, trying not to jump up and down — or yell, or sing, or something big.

“Will you go out with me?” Zeke asked, his words blurring together.

“Yes,” Israel said, smiling and pulling Zeke into a hug. He squeezed him harder than ever, channeling all of his excitement into his arms. Zeke hugged him back, and Israel thought he could cry.

Zeke let go far too soon for Israel’s taste, but his smile made up for it. “What do I tell our friends?” “Surprise, I’m gay.” Israel said without thinking.

Thankfully, Zeke laughed. “I guess that works as well as anything.” Then the smile dropped off his face and he practically crumpled to the floor.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Israel said, sitting down next to him and putting his hand on Zeke’s back, afraid that he wasn’t breathing or that he was having a heart attack or something.

Zeke was definitely breathing, but way too fast and way too shallow. Israel kept his hand on his back, his heart pounding hard against his ribs. What had happened? Happiness, and then this terrifying… what? “Zeke?” Israel asked, touching his arm. “You’re practically hyperventilating.”

Zeke shook his head, and Israel noticed the tears tracing paths down his cheeks. “What am I going to tell them?” Zeke asked, his voice much more strained than usual. His breathing didn’t slow down.

“I’m sorry,” Israel said, trying not to cry. “I’m sorry, Zeke. It’ll be okay, though. Coming out is really hard at first. It’s kind of like… getting new shoes. When you find the shoes that fit and look right on you, they’re still kind of uncomfortable because they haven’t been broken in yet. And when you wear them around, people always ask about your new shoes, and maybe they like them and maybe they don’t. But eventually you get more comfortable in the shoes and people stop asking about them because they’re not new anymore. You know?”

Zeke nodded, tears still coming out of his eyes rapidly. Israel nearly reached up to wipe Zeke’s cheeks with his thumb, but Zeke beat him to it. Not knowing what else to do, Israel hugged Zeke. It was an awkward angle, but Zeke wrapped his arms around Israel’s arms, and Israel vowed not to let go until Zeke did.

Israel grew uncomfortable in the position that he was in to hug Zeke very quickly, but he busied his brain by trying to think of something to say. Zeke’s breathing leveled out slowly, allowing Israel to let out a breath that he didn’t realize he had been holding.

“You think that it’ll be okay with our friends?” Zeke asked

“What, us being together?”

“Yeah, and me being… Being gay.”

“Of course,” Israel said, smiling and leaning into Zeke for a second so that his nose touched Zeke’s hair. “You’re much more popular with everyone than me and they still accepted me.”

“Am not.”

“Are too, Mr. Baseball Star.” Israel peeked around to see Zeke smile. “I’m not a star.”

“Are too,” Israel said, smiling. “You’re ‘practically famous,’ remember?”

Zeke laughed a little. “That was so weird. I don’t know in what world that some guys at East Ridge talking about me makes me famous.”

“Gray and Amoni treat all the baseball players like celebrities.”

“All the players that they like. You’ve heard the type of things that they do to my old cabin mates.”

Israel laughed. “All right, that’s fair. Since you’re so good, though, I bet you could get them to do your laundry without even threatening them.”

“Yeah, right,” Zeke said, laughing. “I’d never ask them to do that, and if I did, Amoni would just laugh at me.”

“What about Gray?”

“Well,” Zeke said, laughing again, “maybe he’d do my laundry.”

Israel laughed, and the door to their cabin opened. Israel looked up, nearly pulling his arms away from Zeke, but it was just Pax at the door.

“Come in,” Zeke said.

Israel pulled away from him reluctantly.

“Is everything okay?” Pax asked.

Zeke glanced at Israel, who smiled and nodded, though he wasn’t sure how okay Zeke actually was.

“Just me or everyone else?”

“Everyone,” Zeke said. “I have something to tell you guys.”

Pax’s eyes narrowed for a second. Then he chuckled, and Israel nearly laughed out loud. Pax was such a faker, acting like he hadn’t known exactly what was going on if he walked in and Israel and Zeke were hugging each other. Zeke looked at Israel, and Israel smiled at him reassuringly.

“This is great,” Pax said, then opened the door. He beckoned behind him, and the rest of the Snickerdudels poured in.

Israel leaned close to Zeke and whispered, “You got this.”

Zeke said nothing, but Israel thought that he still looked like he wasn’t feeling very good.

“What’s up?” Amoni asked cheerfully.

Zeke stood up. “Surprise. I’m gay.”

Israel joined him in standing, not wanting to be the one to make the announcement. “And?”

Zeke didn’t hesitate. “We’re dating.”

Their friends cheered, making Israel briefly cover his ears.

“I thought… I don’t… Did you—?” Zeke said, looking back and forth between their friends.

“We didn’t know,” Ember said, “If that’s what you’re attempting to say, Stuttering Bill.”

Pax laughed. “Em, how have we never talked about Stephen King?”

Pax and Ember began talking about something else, only furthering Israel’s theory that he had known exactly what had been happening in the cabin before coming in.

“Geez Zeke,” Deven said to Zeke, pulling Israel’s attention away from Pax. “I thought the big time for honesty was initiation. I can’t believe you held out on us!”

Israel smacked his arm, and Deven laughed.

“This is great,” Amoni said. “As long as there’s no ICDA—in cabin display of affection.”

“I’m sure there will be plenty when we’re not around!” Ember called from across the cabin.

“Hey, no cross-conversations,” Gray said, jumping at the opportunity to get Ember back for all the times he had told Gray the exact same thing.

“Just not in my bed, okay?” Amoni said, and Israel punched him in the shoulder, blushing. He should have known that his cabin mates would be vulgar about this whole thing. Thankfully, it didn’t seem to make Zeke as uncomfortable as Israel, because he laughed. Israel watched him, smiling and knowing that he had really hit the jackpot with Zeke.

Starting from the moment they began dating, Israel noticed a huge effort change in their relationship from Zeke. Not only did he strike up more conversations, walk closer to Israel when they went places, and make more eye contact, but he clearly put a lot of effort into spending time with Israel.

On Saturday, Israel expected Zeke to excuse himself at any moment to go watch baseball. Every time they took a walk together just to get out of the cabin, Zeke watched the baseball fields as soon as they came into sight and until they went out of sight.

“We could go watch a game,” Israel told him earnestly. He hadn’t watched a game with Zeke since he had saved Amoni, and he figured that it would be a lot of fun now that they were together.

“It’s okay,” Zeke assured him each time. “I want to do something that we both like.”

The things that they both liked ended up being mostly sitting in the cabin on Israel’s bed, their shoulders touching as they talked about whatever came up. Sometimes they even lapsed into silence, Zeke leaning against him, seemingly lost in thought while Israel enjoyed the cuddles — at least, what passed as cuddles at this point in their relationship — and read his book.

As the weekend went on, Zeke even began touching Israel’s hair, or his ears, or his hands, giving Israel the confidence to do the same to Zeke. They never held hands and they never touched each other’s faces, but to Israel, the touching was everything. It never got old, and it never felt awkward. Everything just fell into place. Until Sunday afternoon.

They had ended up talking about their home lives, recounting the good parts, until Zeke said, “This whole thing — being gay and everything — is just difficult for me because of my dad.”

“I totally get it,” Israel promised, wanting Zeke to know that they really weren’t facing such different problems. “My dad was probably my best friend. At least, after my Papa died. But when I came out, he got really distant. I knew he believed that God doesn’t approve of gay people because he had me believing it for half my life. But he finally reasoned that Jesus ate dinner with sinners ‘who committed worse crimes’ than being gay, even though being gay obviously isn’t even a crime. So even though I have this ‘sin,’ he decided that he could still love me and be seen in public with me. But he never wanted me to tell anyone in our community that I was gay, so that shows how proud he really was.”

“I’m really sorry,” Zeke said, reaching out to touch his arm lightly and sending chills down Israel’s spine. “At least you’re not members of the Westboro Baptist Church or something. They’re even crazier, right?”

Israel sighed. Everyone always had to bring them up when it came to homophobia. “You haven’t told your family, have you?”

“Considering that the last time I saw them I didn’t know myself, no.” Zeke said, looking down at the bed and playing with the tag on the end of the sheet.

“Do you want my advice?”

“It’s not going to help,” Zeke said bitterly. “My dad will kill me.”

Israel grimaced. Zeke sure had a way of turning innocent sentences into malicious ones. “Do you want it or not?”

Zeke hesitated. “Yeah. I do.”

“Write a letter,” Israel said, looking into those blue eyes. “Today. Because then it will get to them before visitation day and they’ll have time to filter out some of the things people say before they think and regret later when they’ve gotten used to the idea.”

“That’s a really good idea. Thank you.”

“You’re lucky you get the chance.” Israel said, wishing that he hadn’t come out to his parents the way that he did.

“At least your dad doesn’t hate you.”

“You have no idea what it’s like to have your best friend disapprove of a huge part of your identity,” Israel spat before he could stop himself.

“You know what?” Zeke said, clenching his fists. “You’re right. Because I’ve never had a best friend, so I wouldn’t know.”

Israel’s heart sank, and he couldn’t look at Zeke. Would it always be like this, even now that they were dating and they were supposed to be on the same side? He knew that Zeke’s father had created a lot of difficult times for Zeke and was probably going to create more, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t also validate the fact that Israel’s parents were also giving him a hard time.

Zeke moved closer to him, pressing his arm into Israel’s. “I need to work on thinking before I talk sometimes.”

“I need to stop wallowing in self-pity.” Israel whispered, knowing that he couldn’t always compare his situation to Zeke’s.

“It’s not easy for either of us. We deserve a pity party every once in a while, don’t you think?”

Israel smiled a little and squeezed Zeke’s arm. As much as he wanted to stay and cuddle some more, he knew that he had to get other things done before school tomorrow. “You have a letter to write, and I have laundry to do. See you later?”

Zeke nodded, and Israel pulled his pillow case, which he had stuffed with his dirty clothes and some stationery earlier that morning, off the floor and headed to the visitation center.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know you ignored pretty much everything that I said in my last letter, but I mentioned this boy that I really liked here, right? Well, he and I had a bumpy week or so, but then he apologized for some things he had said and asked me out! So I have a boyfriend now!

I know you don’t think it’s great. I can practically see the disappointment on your faces, and I haven’t seen either of you for nearly two months. And you haven’t told me a single thing about Meemaw? If you come to visitation day and tell me that she died and you never even wrote me a letter about it or figured out how to contact me some other way, it will be very hard for me to forgive you. I love her just as much as you guys, and I feel like I deserve to be updated.

But anyway, my boyfriend! I know you probably won’t let me get in many words about him when you’re here since you’re homophobes, but I would like to tell you about him now. His name is Zeke Hallaway, and we met in math class. He’s not very good at math, but I tutor him and he always figures it out well enough eventually! He’s in a few of my other classes, but we’re also really good friends with a bunch of the same people, so I get to see him a lot. I’m also finding myself relating to him a lot because he’s just now coming out, like I did to you awhile ago, and he’s afraid that his parents won’t accept him, either. If they don’t, I know I’ll be able to help him since I know what it’s like. (It sucks big time.)

East Ridge has a huge baseball fan base and they have teams here, which I know you know, and Zeke plays on the second best team along with our friend Pax, who is a really nice guy. I wish you guys could meet my friends so you could see how cool they all are. But anyway, Zeke. He’s blond and has these amazing blue eyes that are nothing like I’ve ever seen. I mean, they’re practically electric. We always find ways to make each other laugh, which is a really important thing here, and he always makes me run faster at workouts (not on purpose, he’s just way faster than me and I try to keep up with him for as long as I can).

There’s so much more that I like about him, like the way he shows me that he cares about me since we’ve started dating, but if you’re even still reading at this point, I know these words mean nothing to you. So read again, and maybe they will! See you on Saturday, I hope.

Israel

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