Anyone who knows me, or visits this blog on more than one occasion, (hopefully) knows about this work in progress story that I’ve been working on-and-off for two years now. It’s going to be a coming of age story starring six young adults as they traverse through their years at a small, midwestern college, and slowly but surely become their own kind of chosen family.
I want the story to show themes of acceptance, finding yourself, personal growth, mental health, love in many forms (friendship, romantic, self, etc.), and consequences of the choices we make. It’s loosely based off my years at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which have been the most influential and memorable years of my short life so far. I think it’s a story worth telling, and hopefully it can help someone who needs a story like this to land in their hands one day!
As I’m working away on my next draft of this project in both writing and editing, I thought I’d share a sneak peak of my story by sharing the first six chapters that introduce my six main characters: Matt, Eden, Jared, Madison, Luke, and Heather. By no means are these chapters I’m releasing fully completed, and they are subject to change as time moves forward, but why not share a little tidbit of what I’ve been working on to anyone interested in reading?
Be sure to check out my page dedicated to the development of this passion project of mine: you can find it on the top menu of my blog under WHEN IN DOUBT (WIP BOOK SERIES), or just click the link HERE! You can meet my main characters, listen to the Spotify playlist, follow the Pinterest board, and read about the process of this project so far and see how it’s developed over the last couple of years! Meanwhile, below is my current Chapter 1, which follows my character: Matt Anderson
Hope you enjoy!
Chapter 1: Matt
“Look honey, there’s the sign!”
Nineteen-year old Matt Anderson glanced up from his iPhone at his mother’s words and glanced out his window from the backseat of the family SUV. His dark eyes caught a blue highway sign that read “UW-Stout: Exit 41,” and his gut twisted and it became to breathe. His heartbeat accelerated like he’d just downed two cans of Redbull back-to-back.
Matt was moments away from officially beginning his Freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Matt’s mother turned in her seat until she faced him with that scrunched eyebrow look almost every parent has for their child. “Have you talked to your roommate about what you’re all bringing? He knows you’re bringing the futon, right? When was the last time you two talked anyways? Are you sure you grabbed everything you’ll need?”
Holding in a groan from the rapid-fire questioning with a deep yawn, Matt ran his hands down his face and flashed a sheepish smile while removing one of his earbuds. “Mom, I’m pretty sure asking me if I have everything isn’t going to make a difference when we’re literally driving up the exit, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“I know, but I’ve never sent a child off to college before.” Her voice went thick with the warning of falling tears. “Well, at least there’s a Walmart in case you think of anything later on….Oh! What about a fan?”
Matt hung his head in mock defeat. “Yes, mom…you were literally right next to as I bought one at Target last week.”
Matt’s dad chuckled as his mom rolled her eyes, once again faced forward.
“Okay Mr. On Top Of It All, I guess you’ve got it all figured out,” she replied. “Take it easy on me, this day is going to be hard for me. I’ve never sent my child off to college before.”
Matt grimaced and leaned back in his seat, guilt now seeping in along with every emotion he was already feeling. He knew his mom has been all over the place helping him in all the prep work over the summer with packing, finalizing tuition payment plans, dorm assignments, and orientation. She’s always been a helicopter parent merely because she just cared so much, and Matt had to remind himself to lay off every now and then; it wasn’t a bad thing to have a parent that cared.
Amongst his own jumble of nerves mixed with excitement over starting college, he sometimes forgot that he’d also be saying goodbye to his parents while he was “leaving the nest” as his grandpa put it, and would truly be on his own for the first time in his life. It both exhilarated and terrified him.
Back home, Matt felt like he’d never fully fit in anywhere or with anyone amongst his graduating class. It didn’t help how he was in the largest class to ever roll through Eagan High School with 753 students at his graduation ceremony; there were people sitting next to him whom he’d never even seen before until that moment. Either way, they’d grabbed their diplomas all the same as he did, ready to move onto the next chapter of their lives.
He’d had some friends to grab half-off appetizers at Applebees with after the Friday night football games, or to even just sit with in the cafeteria every day during his lunch period, but always felt like he’d never been fully integrated into any clique or group. He always felt like that loner always on the outside looking in, the character always hanging out in the back of everyone else’s center-stage life in the spotlight.
College was more than just that for him; it was an opportunity that he’d been patiently waiting for. He was no longer going to be the background character, he was going to start over and become a different version of himself, an enhanced version of himself. He was going to be more outspoken, he was going to make friends, he was going to go to parties and get drunk for the first time, he was going to make amazing memories and maybe—just maybe—feel like he belonged somewhere for once. Those were the goals he’d set for himself, but whether he could actually pull it off while getting over his searing anxiety about not knowing anyone else in an entirely new setting was another story. With the opportunity of a fresh start, he was also completely alone with no support system and absolutely no familiarity to help him along the way.
As quietly as he could so his parents wouldn’t notice, Matt took a deep breath to attempt rid himself of the sudden tightness in his chest and the pounding of his heartbeat that made it difficult to breathe. Freaking out before he even stepped out of the car wasn’t going to help with any of his aspirations.
Getting off the exit off I-94 East, the three of them arrived in the small town of Menomonie, which was going to be Matt’s official new home for the next ten months. Right off the exit was a large handful of the usual fast-food joints like McDonalds, Wendys, and Arby’s, along with several gas stations, motels, car repair shops, and a large Marketplace grocery store. It was all along one main road, and Matt watched as they drove down a hill towards a large body of water amongst the trees.
Next was large bridge overlooking a large lake that was actually reservoir on the Red Cedar River, with the small town of Menomonie wrapping along the shore off in the distance.
The UW-Stout campus also immediately appeared on the other side with several red-brick buildings that made up the northern end of the campus that smoothly transitioned into the downtown with plenty of small shops, restaurants, and cafés. There were of course a large amount of bars that were surely to be filled to the brim every weekend.
The UW-Stout clocktower dominated the skyline, and Matt glimpsed the feather at the peak with the sun beaming almost directly behind, giving the whole tower an angelic, ethereal glow. It was what was showcased on all the fliers, pamphlets, and even the website; it was like this town’s version of the St. Louis arch, the Golden Gate Bridge, or even the Empire State Building.
There was a line of cars forming down Broadway Street, and they followed until they reached the southern end of campus, where it seemed all the newly incoming freshman and their families were being directed into the massive parking lot of the Johnson Fieldhouse, the campus athletic facility.
Color-coded cones were everywhere, and they directed cars where to go, along with numerous groups of young people with matching colored shirts and wide smiles helping guide everyone along.
After about twenty minutes, Matt and his parents pulled up to the first station with a welcoming committee of overly-cheerful girls in front of enormous cork-boards that had sets of keys next to a bunch of numbers. They asked Matt what dorm he was in and what room he was in, gave him his room keys along with a gift bag before before instructing his dad to specifically follow the green cones over towards the freshman dorms.
“Wow, I must say I’m impressed with how organized this all is,” Matt’s mom commented afterwards as his dad drove forward. She turned down the country radio station, and Matt inwardly had to scoff; why did people have to turn down the radio when they were close to their destination? Like somehow it was going to help them understand the directions better.
Matt leans forward between his parents to look out the windshield. “Yeah, it’s almost like they’ve done this sort of thing before.”
His mother turns to him with a smarmy grin. “You know, I didn’t see a single Chipotle anywhere around here. Are you sure you’re going to be able to survive here without your daily fix?”
Matt now made sure to scoff out loud. “Yeah, asking me as we’re literally about to move into my dorm is some great timing there, mom, but I think I’ll be fine. If not, I’ll just be sure to make friends with someone who has a car.”
“Smart thinking,” Matt’s father said as he caught a group of students with matching green shirts all waving them over towards a specific parking spot.
As soon as the SUV parked, Matt and his parents got out and were greeted by the students while they all offered to help gather up all of his large bins of belongings, his suitcases full of clothes, the futon folded up in the trunk. Much to him and his parent’s relief, they would assist them in helping carry it all up to his room on the third floor.
Matt gazed up at the red-brick dormitory with the landscaped concrete walkway leading up towards glass doors of the main lobby. It was named HKMC for the four halls it was comprised of: Keith, Hansen, Milnes, and his specific hall: Chinnock. It branched off to the right of the main lobby and was paired with Milnes, which was specifically a girl’s dorm.
Matt’s mother immediately made herself comfortable and carried just a bedside lamp while walking alongside the students carrying Matt’s heavier items.
“I can’t tell you how relieved we are that you guys are all here to help out! I don’t know how these two would’ve done it all by themselves.” His mom laughed like she’d just told the world’s funniest joke while gesturing back towards Matt and his father, who were both highly unamused as they both carried something in their hands. She turned to the closest student. “How was this all organized anyways?”
A tall, athletic girl with a high ponytail flashed Matt’s mom a polite smile over the suitcase in her arms. “We’re the Track and Field team. Stout has it set up that all the athletic teams arrive here a few days early to help out with freshman move-in day.”
She nodded towards the next dorm down the street with more student-athletes in different shirts were helping other families. “Each team is assigned a dorm and helps everyone move in. It’s supposed to be a part of the ‘Freshman Experience.’”
Matt’s mom’s face lit up. “What a great idea! Matt, you should think about joining a team while you’re here. It’ll help keep you in good shape.”
Matt buried himself behind his suitcase in response. He pointedly ignored the several pairs of eyes now on him, especially the older guys with cutoff workout tanks, charming smiles, facial hair, and shredded arms. He cursed himself under his breath at how much his face burned.
The inside of HKMC certainly didn’t help cool things down either. There was no central air-conditioning, so after just one trip up the stairwell to the third floor, everyone broke out in a sweat. Matt had at least remembered to bring two fans with him, but maybe he should’ve urged his parents to splurge on the window AC-unit the university offered for an extra hundred dollars. He wondered if it was worth bringing it up as he wiped his forehead with his free arm.
The group stopped in front of Chinnock 316, Matt’s assigned room, and he fumbled with his keys as once again all eyes landed on him. He made sure to not pay attention to a particularly attractive guy lift up his shirt to wipe the sweat off his brow, and finally opened the door to an empty dorm room, the shades pulled tight to darken the room in shadows.
“Looks like we beat your roommate here,” Matt’s mother commented while everyone piled in.
While the members of the track team unloaded everything, Matt wanted to snap some snarky remark like “no shit, mom,” but instead responded with a low grunt as he set down his backpack.
Back during his orientation in the spring, Matt check-marked the box to let the UW-Stout Housing Department match him with a random roommate, which is never a good gamble, but what choice did he really have? Once July came, they’d emailed him saying he was paired with someone named “Thomas Thornfield.”
Immediately logging onto Facebook and scrolling through his profile, Matt had deducted that they wouldn’t become friends based off how little they seemingly had in common. Thomas was a total gamer (not that there was anything wrong with that), but Matt always preferred to read a book or catch up on whatever wrestling show he missed that week. Nonetheless, Matt had started a message thread so they could introduce each other and figure out who’d bring what when it came time to move into their dorm together. They’d be living in an eleven-by-fifteen foot room together for the next ten months, they might as well try to get along with each other.
Once everything was inside the cramped space, the track athletes all said their goodbyes as they walked out the door to go back and help out the next family moving in. Matt’s mom immediately sprang into her house-cleaning mode.
“Alright honey, I will put away your clothes if you and your father want to adjust the bed and move the futon,” Matt’s mother said. The air in the room was warm and stuffy, so she pulled the shades and opened the window to try and get some airflow inside, then all three began the arduous task of unpacking everything he brought.
Not even five minutes passed when Matt’s mother sat down at his desk chair and pulled a bottled water out of her purse while him and his father attempted to lower the lofted bed down a peg or two. They weren’t sure if the bars were completely back inside the slots, so Matt tested it out by climbing up top, and it’d seemed secure enough at the time. It was a little bit wobbly, but who knew how old the bed frames were anyways?
“So, how do you feel, college man?” His mother asked while she remained seated. “Has it hit you quite yet?”
Matt pinched his shirt and aired himself out. “I feel winded to be completely honest, but that just might be because, you know, I’m actually putting stuff away.”
His mother’s smile dropped. “Watch your step, son.”
Matt raised his hands in surrender and apologized. “I guess I’m just nervous since I literally don’t know anyone here or have any idea what’s going to happen, you know?”
Some warmth returned to his mother’s expression. “I know, and it’s completely normal to feel that way, but remember how you’ve been saying how you’ve been ready for this?”
“Yeah, that’s because I just needed to get the hell—,” Matt mumbled another quick apology “,—heck out of Eagan, because it sucked for me back there.”
“Well, and I could tell you were miserable, but now you’re here, and can finally start over. You can have a fresh start like I bet you’ve always wanted.”
It was freaky how sometimes it felt like his mother could read his mind, because that’s exactly what he’s been been excited for since he’d started applying for schools about a year ago. Sure, the thought of having to meet an entirely new group of people was also terrifying, but it couldn’t have been worse than how he’d had it back home where someone’s reputation was pretty much set ever since elementary school.
Before he knew it, Matt was all moved in. His half of the dorm room was already feeling like his cramped and tiny new home. He stood with his parents in the middle of the room as they all took it in.
His mom’s eyes started to well up with tears. “Well, it looks like this is it…I can’t believe my son is about to begin his college career!”
Matt’s mom embraced him with her shoulders shaking, and he moaned despite everything. If someone else cried around him, it’d only mean he’d start crying too, and he couldn’t be known as the guy on his floor who cried while hugging his mom as soon as he moved in.
His father chuckled off to the side. “You’re fine, he’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”
His mom gasped. “But that’s so far away, what will I do with myself until then?”
Matt struggled to disentangle himself from her surprisingly firm embrace. “You know you have another child, right? His name is Bryce?”
His mother scoffed even while her eyes welled up. “Oh please, we all know he’d rather be out smoking god knows what with his friends.” They all laughed at that as she let him go.
“You could always just come home with another random dog like you did before,” Matt suggested.
His father hmmpthd. “Yeah, that’s not happening ever again.”
His mother laughed. “Agreed, that was a onetime deal.” She turned back to Matt with a sad smile. “But can you at least call every now and then so I can hear your voice, please?”
Matt slowly grinned down at his mom with a warmth in his chest, an ache he hadn’t expected started to . “Of course I will, you know I will.”
His mother’s shoulder’s sagged in relief. “Alright, well we promised your grandparents we’d meet them for lunch back in the cities afterwards, so we better get going before traffic becomes a total nightmare.”
Matt shifted his weight with his hands in his pockets. “Okay, I can probably finish off the rest of the unpacking and see what else is going around campus.”
“We love you, my son,” his mother’s eyes started to well up with tears again. “We are so proud of you, and we know you’ll have the time of your life while you’re here.”
Matt felt pressure behind his eyes and had to look away, so he turned toward his dad, who wore a cheeky little grin.
His dad patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t only call when you need money, okay?”
Matt snorted but retuned his smile. “I’ll do my best.”
His parents said their final goodbyes, and once they walked out that doorway and disappeared down the hallway was when it finally hit Matt square in the chest so hard that it was like the wind got knocked out from him.
He was truly on his own for the first time ever. He wouldn’t come home to a home cooked meal almost every night, he’d have to finally figure out how to do his own laundry, and he’d have to remind himself to finish his homework and set his alarm for the next morning.
Before, he’d always complained about wanting to move out and not have to deal with constant nagging, but now he questioned whether he was truly ready for it all.
~ ~ ~
The sun by now was high in the sky and the weather couldn’t be more perfect on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. The UW-Stout campus was alive with all the other newly incoming freshman moving into their dorms while saying goodbye to their loved ones; the mixed feelings of anxiousness, uncertainty, but mostly excitement was absolutely contagious and practically hummed in the air.
Matt decided to put in his earbuds to add some rhythm to his step while he took a stroll through the lively campus to soak it all in. It sure beat twiddling his thumbs while sitting alone in his room. The final straw was how he’d actually considered walking around the floor and introducing himself to the other guys while they moved in to try and get over his shyness, but that immediately drew a big, fat NOPE from his inner voice of reason.
He’d never admitted it to anyone before, but he secretly enjoyed making playlists for just about everything: his favorite books, or even just for sleep, relaxing and rainy days, when he was down and depressed, and even upbeat and happy. He’d even made one for this day.
As he walked across the quad between the dorms and the nearby dining hall, he had some rhythm to his step with bands like Yellowcard, Third Eye Blind, and Hot Chelle Rae.
As he passed by North Hall, Matt noticed the football team was out front helping others move in. All of the athletes wore their navy-blue and black Blue Devils jerseys, and Matt wondered if he’d ever make it to a game at some point during the season. It’d feel weird since instead of being under the Friday night lights, their games would be at noon the next morning.
One particularly handsome player with a perfect smile and hair said something to a group of his teammates, causing them all to bust out in laughter. One shared some intricate handshake with him while a couple of girls smiled in appreciation before whispering to each other, the sway of their hips in short, cutoff denim even more noticeable than before.
Matt watched it all unfold before he regarded himself and dejectedly noted his un-styled short brown hair, t-shirt, worn out sneakers, and cargo shorts combo. That, along with his semi husky figure, convinced him that he was probably never going to be like Mr. Alpha over there anytime soon if ever.
Half an hour later, he returned back to his room to find his roommate, Thomas, was already moved into his side of the room. He was seated at his desk with noise cancelling headphones over his ears with an attached mouthpiece, and he was playing some shooting game on his laptop. He slammed his hands on the desk causing Matt to jump.
Thomas repeated himself to whomever he was playing with while continuously pounding away at his keyboard. “C’mon man! You gotta look behind you, or that asshole will just keep fucking us up!”
After standing there for about five minutes or five years, Matt feigned a cough and exaggerated his movements, to which Thomas finally glanced up and noticed him for the first time. His thick spectacles caught a flash of light coming from the window. “Oh, hey man! I just gotta finish this level real quick, then I’ll be done.”
Matt nodded, but Thomas was already back to his game before he could even respond. With a deep sigh, Matt slumped down onto his futon underneath his bed. In between more cussing and pounding keys, he heard Thomas mutter, “Nah man, my roommate just walked in, so we gotta chat for a sec.”
Well, this is off to a great start, Matt thought to himself.
While he continued to wait, he silently took in the other side of the room his new roommate took over. Back in their Facebook messages, Thomas had insisted he’d bring his own TV and PlayStation, both of which were already set up on a cheap looking stand most likely from some old relative underneath his own lofted bed. Shoved up against it were enormous semi-clear storage bins full of wrinkled clothes, tangled cords, and multiple wireless controllers with another filled with snacks like instant ramen, hot chocolate packets, protein bars, Cheetos, Capri Sun juice boxes, and double-stuffed Oreos.
Physically, Thomas was a bigger guy sort of similar to Matt’s body type, but he seemed more like someone who put personal hygiene pretty low on his list of priorities: his black hair stood up in random spots, there was some odd odor that definitely hadn’t been there before he’d moved in, and his fingernails desperately needed to be trimmed. A chill ran down Matt’s spine as he imagined the sound of something scraping across a chalkboard.
Were they going to have to talk about these issues, or should Matt just stay silent and let it all slide? He had absolutely no idea.
Somehow, he didn’t imagine his freshman year starting of quite like this…
Thanks for Reading!
— Nick Goodsell