Everything was terrible today, but what set him over the edge wasn’t the heat, or the constant repetition, or the know-it-all juniors and seniors. No, he held it together, right up until the popsicle slid off its stick and plopped onto the bleacher below him, melting immediately into a red puddle, oozing like fresh blood.
He stared at it for a moment, and then, without a word, he stood up and stormed off, his stomps echoing loudly on the metal bleachers. He didn’t see it, but all the girls giggled, and all the boys made faces. All except one.
Zeke kept on stomping until he reached the track, and then he slowed down a bit. He knew he shouldn’t make a scene, especially not on the first day, but how could he not? His summer was ruined, and the worst part was that he’d been so sure it was going to be the best summer ever.
At the end of eighth grade, when his band teacher recommended joining the high school marching band, Zeke was thrilled. He bounced on his seat during the bus ride, ran all the way home from the bus stop, and breathlessly held out the sign-up form to his mother. She lifted an eyebrow in the direction of his father, who lifted his hands in an I’m staying out of this gesture. They’d lost the battle four years ago when Zeke had come home in a similar fashion, declaring that he would play the trumpet for the rest of his days.
For the first time ever, summer couldn’t go by fast enough. Every morning, Zeke woke up and crossed off another day on his calendar, counting down the days until August 14. The first day of band camp. The first day of his life, as far as he was concerned.
The sheet music came in the mail a week in advance, and Zeke spent more time practicing than he did playing video games. His parents made him practice in the basement, but he didn’t mind. By the time band camp started, he wanted to have his music memorized. He was going to be the best freshman in the band, maybe even the best trumpet player. It was his destiny—he was sure of it.
The day finally arrived, and Zeke was up at 6:45 AM, busy in the kitchen making his own lunch and filling all the water bottles he could find. His mother came downstairs at 7:30 to find him waiting by the front door, rocking back and forth on his heels, weighed down with a backpack and his trumpet. He wore a bright yellow “Trumpets Do It Best” shirt and a pair of shiny green aviator glasses, and she was kind enough or tired enough not to tell him how ridiculous he looked. She drove him there in her slippers, barely listening as he chattered about the music, proper marching techniques, and how excited he was to meet the older kids.
It started off well enough. Zeke was the third to arrive, just behind the drum major and a tall, gangly tuba player. The drum major, a senior named Bella, talked to him while they waited for the director to arrive and unlock the doors. She smiled at him and asked him all kinds of questions about his summer and his favorite music. After just five minutes, Zeke knew he was in love.
Everyone gathered in the band room for announcements. The director, a jovial looking man named Mr. Saxon, explained the structure of the day and handed out a stack of papers for each student to put in their binders.
Zeke had done his research, and he knew that the students lovingly referred to Mr. Saxon as “The Saxophone” and “Mr. Sax Man.” The teachers in middle school didn’t have cool nicknames, and if they did, they certainly weren’t okay with them, but Mr. Saxon smiled when a senior greeted him with a, “Hey, Mr. Sax Man!” Zeke wondered how long it would be before he could do that. Maybe once he showed Mr. Saxon how he’d memorized the music in just one week.
Bella got up after Mr. Saxon, and Zeke hung on her every word. She shared her own experience in marching band and said she couldn’t wait to share that with everyone, especially the new members. Zeke swore she looked right at him when she said it. His heart swelled with his newfound love for Bella as well as his excitement for the coming journey. If Bella was to be believed (and why wouldn’t she be?), Zeke was about to find a new family. He would share inside jokes and have people to pal around with in the hallways.
After a rough run-through of the music, which was a compilation of hits from recent movies, they went outside. Bella arranged them in a marching formation, and Zeke put all his concentration into keeping his feet in time. He felt alive.
Once they got down to the parking lot where they would practice, though, things went downhill quickly. Another senior named Gary told everyone to put down their instruments and gather around for morning exercise. That was news to Zeke, whose only form of exercise most days was jumping on the trampoline in his backyard. Adam led them in a jog that was only two minutes long but felt like a marathon in the soupy air. He brought them back into the circle and called out jumping jacks, squats, toe touches, and arm circles. By the time they were done, Zeke was drenched in sweat, and it was only 10 AM. The sun was getting higher and hotter.
Zeke hoped that it was time to do some real marching, but Mr. Saxon got up on a platform with a megaphone and instructed everyone to grab their binder. Zeke had nearly forgotten about the binder, filled with pages and pages of letters and numbers in random shapes.
Mr. Saxon handed the megaphone to Bella, who called out the letter assignments. Zeke was K. He squinted at the first page. K was all the way in a corner, squished up against J and L. As Bella instructed, he wandered around until he found his spot. J and L were, respectively, Penny Wood, a sophomore clarinetist and Xavier Ramirez, another freshman trumpeter. Zeke didn’t know Penny, but she looked nice enough. He did know Xavier, and he absolutely hated him.
Xavier played his trumpet as if it were an opponent, an enemy he needed to vanquish. Every note was a squawk, but because he was confident and vaguely charming, the teachers always loved him and gave him solos. “Heyo, Zekester!” he said as Zeke approached, clapping him on the back. Xavier was always saying dumb stuff like that. Zeke mumbled a hello and stared at his binder.
The next hour was grueling, as they slowly counted the steps between each set, marked them with chalk, and walked them countless times. Without music. With music. Counting out loud. Counting in their head. Not counting at all. Singing their part. They had to hold the binders up like pretend instruments, and Zeke was certain his arms would fall off.
When Mr. Saxon finally announced a break, Zeke sat down on the hot black top, his legs too tired to carry him to the shady grass. The older kids dropped their binders in place and rushed over to line up by a car that had just pulled in. A short woman with blond hair stepped out and retrieved a cooler from the trunk.
“What’s going on?” Zeke asked a passing junior.
The junior said excitedly, “Popsicle break!” and kept on jogging.
Finally, Zeke thought, Something good. He joined the back of the line. On either side of him, people were engaged in conversations, and he edged closer to one group, hoping to be included. They shifted further away, and he tried again with the other group. They didn’t move, but they also didn’t acknowledge him.
So, when he sat down on the bleachers with his popsicle, all alone, Zeke had just about had it. He hadn’t talked to anyone aside from Bella and Xavier today. Bella was with the other seniors, leaning flirtatiously against a boy (a drummer), and Zeke had no interest in talking to Xavier. He’d hoped that some of his friends from middle school would be here, but it seemed that they hadn’t joined, after all. The only other freshmen were people Zeke didn’t know well.
And then – the popsicle on the bleachers, the pool of sticky red syrup, the stomping. Now, Zeke was inside, standing in the hallway, too annoyed to even enjoy the air conditioning. Zeke had no idea how long a popsicle break was, but he planned to stay here until someone came looking for him.
He didn’t have to wait long. After a few minutes, when he was starting to cool down, the door opened and brought in a rush of the hot summer air. There was no time to duck inside the bathroom and hide, so he leaned against the wall and hoped he looked like he belonged there.
“Hey,” a voice said, and Zeke looked up to see the boy who’d followed him. He’d already forgotten his name, but he played the saxophone, Zeke was pretty sure. “Can I hang out here with you?” Zeke nodded. “Too hot out there,” Saxophone Boy said.
“Yeah,” Zeke agreed.
“You okay? Sorry, I saw you kinda, um, storm off.”
“Dropped my popsicle.”
Zeke looked at the boy out of the corner of his eye. Tall, skinny, wearing a band shirt from last year’s show, and a pair of basketball shorts that looked too small, like he hadn’t gone school shopping yet. Tan lines around his eyes from sunglasses, or maybe swim goggles, sun-bleached hair that hadn’t seen a back-to-school haircut yet. He wasn’t looking at Zeke, wasn’t sizing him up or anything, like Xavier might have done.
“It gets better,” he said, when Zeke didn’t say anything. “Band camp. The first day is rough. I almost quit last year.”
The boy turned to him now. “Yeah. I went home and I cried, and my mom told me that I made a commitment, and Gabriel Brooks you are not quitting on the first day, blah blah blah.” Right, Gabriel. Now he remembered. “You know the speech.”
Zeke did know that speech, though he’d never heard it about band. Last time he’d gotten the speech had been when he tried to quit karate classes. Apparently being absolutely awful at karate wasn’t a good enough excuse.
“Point is,” Gabriel went on, “It’s super fun. Like, not all the time. Sometimes it really sucks. But I literally wouldn’t have any friends if it weren’t for band, so you should give it a chance. Anyway, break is almost over, so we should get back. You coming?”
Zeke took a deep breath, enjoying the cool air for one last moment. He put his sunglasses back on. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
“Sit with me at lunch, okay?” Gabriel said as they walked back.
“Yeah,” Zeke said casually, but inside he was buzzing with the excitement he’d thought was long gone. He wasn’t sure how, but he’d made a friend.
“Oh, and a pro tip for next time – the blue popsicles don’t melt as quickly. I don’t know why, but it’s true.” Gabriel winked. “That’s top-secret info.”
“Noted,” Zeke said, and this time he couldn’t help but smile.