Welcome, Brigham Vaughn. I was lucky enough to do a beta read on the story she’s telling us about today, and you’re in for a real treat when you pick up your copy. Let’s start off with a summary.
Theater student Caleb Stockwell is ready to leave college behind. Too bad his past isn’t ready to let him go.
With less than a month to go until graduation, Caleb runs into Nathan Rhodes at a house party. Nathan is a star hockey player for Western Michigan University and finally ready to step out of the closet. He’s also the guy who broke Caleb’s heart in high school.
Nathan’s determined to make amends for what he did four years ago, but Caleb isn’t willing to risk getting his heart stomped on again. With only a few weeks left before they go their separate ways, it’ll take all of Nathan’s creativity and help from some interfering friends to convince Caleb to give him a second chance.
Bucking the Expected
When I began writing “Bully & Exit” two years ago, I knew I wanted to write about a hockey player and a theater student. I don’t know if there was one moment where I consciously thought, “I want to do something unexpected,” but the idea of creating nuanced, complex characters who don’t fit into neat little boxes is always somewhere in the back of my head with any story I write.
As the characters slowly took shape for me, I realized I didn’t want to go the traditional route and have Caleb be a nerdy, smart guy. While I love jock/nerd stories, that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
The more I explored ideas for the characters the more I realized Nathan wasn’t your stereotypical jock at all. Nathan is smart. Very smart. Good grades and self-discipline come naturally to him and he loves learning. Caleb isn’t dumb by any means, but he has to work a lot harder than Nathan for good grades. He sees school and grades as something to endure because it’s a means to an end. He loves anything theater related and excels in that, but all other subjects bore him.
Nathan is soft-spoken. Not shy, but not loud or brash either. He’s popular and well-liked, but has few genuine friends. Most of his teammates only see the surface of who he is and he often feels like he has to put up a facade to protect himself. Being gay and forced to stay closeted makes this worse, because he has to keep a huge portion of who he is a secret. In high school, Caleb is the only person Nathan feels like he can open up to. Once he begins college, he and his teammate Brent become friends. When they acknowledge to each other that they’re gay, he’s able to be himself around Brent and they are lovers for several years. Even after they stop having sex, they continue to have a very close friendship.
Caleb is quite a bit different than Nathan. He’s always had a handful of close friends. The rest of their high school sees Caleb as fairly quiet and introverted, but around the drama department, he’s fun and outgoing. In high school, he doesn’t advertise that he’s bisexual, but his good friends know and no one in the drama club bats an eye. In college, he’s completely out, and feels very comfortable with his sexuality. He is sexually active with a number of men and women but never allows any of his lovers to get close. He does have a deep, caring relationship with his roommate Lowell, although they are never intimate and it’s more of a sibling type relationship.
There isn’t a single, specific reason why I chose to make the theater major bisexual and the hockey player gay (although I did like the idea that it was less common, at least in the books I’ve read). The biggest reason I made that choice was probably that Caleb’s story is familiar to me. I was involved in community theater beginning in elementary school and was heavily involved in theater in high school. I was a member of the drama club and took part in productions for the whole four years. I did a little bit of everything: acting, assistant directing, working on sets and costumes, ticket sales, etc. I worked with an incredible group of people and they are part of the reason I was comfortable exploring my bisexuality. Like Caleb, my first kiss was a dare at a cast party with friends. In the space of fifteen minutes, I kissed a girl and a guy and thought, “hmm, that was fun” about both kisses. There was no differentiation between the two and no one ever made a fuss about it. Kissing and fooling around between people of the same sex was treated exactly like it was between couples of the opposite sex. Drama club was an open, safe space to explore my feelings and I think in general, the theater world tends to be that way.
I wanted Caleb to have a similar experience and I would say he is centered on the Kinsey scale and is equally attracted to men or women. Nathan is between a 5 and a 6 on the Kinsey scale, and while he’s kissed a few girls and taken part in some fooling around with them it’s been entirely to keep up appearances and not because he has any serious attraction to women.
Each character’s personality evolved organically as I got to know them and sometimes I can’t pinpoint a single reason why I made a specific decision about a particular aspect of it. Some characteristics were a conscious choice, because I needed it to further the plot of the story, but others are more like when I’m getting to know someone in real life. The more I interacted with the character, the more their personality was revealed to me. I didn’t begin the story knowing everything about my characters, some of it was slowly discovered, and the more I got to know them, the closer I became to them.
As a writer, I feel like I take part in the journey along with the characters. By the time I finish a story, I love the characters deeply.
I hope you will love them too.
Nathan’s voice was soft when he spoke, gentle like it’d always been. “Caleb Stockwell. I’ve been looking for you.”
Caleb cleared his throat and ignored him, tipping the bottle up for another long drink. He licked the spiced rum off his lips as he debated making another run for it. There was a shrub blocking his way in one direction and a hockey player in the other. Even if he hadn’t been drinking, the odds weren’t in his favor. “Nathan Rhodes,” he managed.
“Damn I can’t believe it’s you!” Nathan leaned in and Caleb pulled back, uncomfortable with him being so close.
Caleb laughed bitterly. “It’s me. Now that you’ve satisfied your curiosity, you can run along now.” He motioned with his hand, encouraging Nathan to leave.
“It’s really good to see you,” Nathan said, ignoring him. He took a seat on the pile of discarded construction materials, his knees brushing Caleb’s as he lowered himself down. Caleb pulled away as if scorched.
“Yeah? Too bad I can’t say the same,” he muttered, his head swimming as the alcohol began to hit him. He eyed Nathan’s long, long legs and the way he was pinned in by them, remembering the way they’d felt tangled with his as they came, panting shallowly against each other’s skin. It brought it all back: the scent of Nathan’s cologne, the taste of his skin, the way Caleb’s heart raced in his chest when Nathan held him close. It brought back the memories, the ones he’d worked so hard to run from. The good and the bad. The sharp, intense happiness of falling for Nathan. The aching, crushing hurt that paralyzed Caleb for months after Nathan was no longer in his life. Everything he’d buried four years ago and vowed never to touch again.
He caught the first glimpse of doubt on Nathan’s face. “Are you okay, Caleb?”
“Oh, I’m mother fucking peachy,” he snarked and took another long drink. “I’ve made it through four fucking years trying to ignore the fact we’re on the same campus and with barely a month left in my senior year, I thought maybe I’d managed to pull it off. But no, Lowell had to drag me to this goddamn party, and of course you showed up too. Just my luck.”
He raised the bottle again, but Nathan wrapped a hand around the neck and tugged. He was stronger than Caleb, so Caleb let go, afraid he’d end up getting pulled into Nathan’s lap if he didn’t. Nathan took a drink and passed the bottle back, licking the taste of rum off his lips before he spoke. “You’re so angry at me.”
“Ya think?” Caleb snarled. “Didn’t it ever occur to you I would be? What the hell makes you think you can waltz in here and pretend like all the shit that went down between us didn’t happen?” He tried to stand, but Nathan’s dark denim-clad knees were on either side of his, pinning him in place. The bottle was pried from his suddenly limp fingers and set aside.
“I don’t think that,” Nathan protested. “I was just glad to see you and I… I wanted a chance to apologize. I didn’t… I wanted….”
Caleb’s lips parted in surprise as cool fingers framed his face and for the first time in four long years, Nathan’s lips were pressed to his again. Involuntarily, Caleb’s eyes closed, feeling a rush of heat wash over him, taking him right back to the first time. Before Nathan broke his heart.
Brigham Vaughn has always been a voracious reader with her own stories to tell. After many years of abandoned plots, something finally clicked. Now she’s eating, sleeping, and breathing writing and is excited to have finally figured out what she wants to be when she grows up. In the little time that isn’t spent writing or reading, she loves cooking, yoga, photography, and remodeling her ninety-year-old home. Brigham lives in Michigan with her three cats and an amazing husband who has always been her biggest champion.