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The Power of Labels by Haven Francis

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In the spirit of Riding with Brighton, I’ve decided to revisit some of the more life-changing moments that Jay and Brighton managed to flirt and laugh their way through. Stop 2 is Spring Valley High (aka, where Jay’s mind is blown… for the first time).

My oldest kid just survived her first year of middle school. Which is a thing- middle school is something you have to survive. I was prepared for this; I had been through middle school myself a long, long time ago. What I wasn’t prepared for was the Divergent-like way in which the kids were immediately sorted into their factions. Which might sound dramatic, but the truth is that sometimes real-life is worse than the movies. At least in Distopian Chicago the kids got to choose where they belonged. In middle school, others choose for you.

With a roll of her eyes, my daughter tells me people think she’s “weird”.  A few days later, while performing a dance in the middle of my kitchen, her friend says she’s been declared, “stylish”. By the end of the week I had a third child sitting at my counter telling me, with joy that was aching to explode out of her face, that, “people tell me I’m ‘popular’”. Week one. And I wasn’t asking, I didn’t say, “So, what are people calling you these days?”. Their labels were something they felt compelled to declare. It’s strange and scary and I couldn’t help but wonder… are they right? Can they really describe how an entire body of people view them with one word? One word?

Nineteen eighties teen movies would tell us, yes: “In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions, you see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal.” Even thirty plus years ago when The Breakfast Club was made, these tropes were already worn out. This isn’t a new concept – high school and labels go together like squirrels and nuts. In Riding with Brighton, Jay Hall is the athlete. He’s the most popular kid at his school. He’s totally jocktastic. And what’s wrong with that? Calling an athletic kid a jock, or a well-liked kid popular is accurate and seems flattering. But as I’ve seen repeatedly this year, labels are powerful and dangerous.

From the moment these kids accepted their new identifiers I could see a change in them. For the “popular” girl, her label came with a sense of entitlement. A felling of, I’m better than other people. And her actions quickly adhered to this new mentality. Which is what labels do- they pigeonhole, limit and trap us. They define who we are and, I am now realizing… who we’re about to become. They let us know how to treat others, how to speak, what to wear and how to think.  People tend to become their labels and in turn give up the right to change.

This is the trap Jay Hall is stuck in when we first meet him in Riding with Brighton. He literally can’t see himself as anything more than popular jock. Which, to him means he’s one dimensional and has nothing significant or interesting to offer the world. There have been several times this year when I’ve wondered if this trap is unavoidable.  But then I look at the Brighton’s in my daughter’s life.

Brighton’s always understood that people are more than their labels or the group they belong to. He doesn’t comply with the high school rules of hierarchy and refuses to be placed. It’s the reason Jay is attracted to him and the reason why he, eventually, finds the strength to evolve past the words that define him. In the end, Jay and Brighton find a simple way to free their entire school from labels. Which gives me hope that real life has the potential to be better than fiction. Because no matter how lost we become while trying to fit in, somewhere along the way out we usually end up finding ourselves on the way out.


In the small town of Spring Valley, molds weren’t made to be broken, and high school senior Jay Hall’s been living comfortably in his popular jock one since adolescence. If it weren’t for the colorful, outspoken artistic anomaly Brighton Bello-Adler, he might have been willing to remain there. Unnaturally drawn to Brighton, Jay knows he needs something from him, but is he ready to find out what that something is?

Temporarily ditching his old life, Jay climbs into Brighton’s Bronco and finds himself on a whirlwind road trip through parts of his small town he didn’t know existed. When the excursion takes an unexpected turn, Jay is cracked wide open, and the person who’s revealed does strange things to Brighton’s heart.

But just when it appears they could be headed toward their own shared piece of paradise, the road takes a sharp right turn into Jay’s life—where the real trip is about to begin.

In an unconventional love story that defies labels, two young men embark on a journey toward growing up, coming out, and finding their place in the world. It’s a trip that ranges from heartbreaking to uplifting, funny to sweet, but always unique and personal.



When I woke up Friday morning, I knew it was going to be the day I would finally change my life.

Which, in retrospect, seems like a totally unattainable goal for the day. I mean, who can really change their life in a single day? Just to be clear, I’m talking about for the better. Fucking up your entire life in one day—that’s totally doable. Really, all it would take is 140 characters exposing your dirty black soul on Twitter. You wouldn’t even have to leave your bed.

Realistically, fucking it up would have been the more likely outcome considering the exact changes I needed to make. Again, I’m only realizing this in retrospect, which I’m suddenly starting to despise. Why the delayed reaction, common sense? Seriously.

In my defense, I was blinded by an epiphany. I shit you not. It’s the only explanation for the clarity that pushed out all the regular crap that usually occupies my brain.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever opened your eyes and immediately cringed because suddenly the exact depth of suck-ass your life has reached is slapping you repeatedly in the face? Trust me, it sucks. I mean, you go to bed in a comfortable state of denial thinking life’s great. In my case my girlfriend had watched me hit the game-winning double, and afterward my teammates and I had knocked back a few beers before heading home to our McMansions in Folsom Hills. Life is dandy. You sleep like a damn baby—that’s how comfortable you are in your warm shit pile of a life.

And then—ka, fucking, boom—you wake up and… oh hell no, how the hell did this happen? Someone bring me a fallout shelter because I need a safe place to escape from my life for the rest of eternity.

But no fallout shelter comes, and eventually you’re forced to see that your entire life must be destroyed and then resurrected. And all you can think is thank God this mayhem came in the form of an epiphany, because you’re definitely gonna need some divine powers to help you out.

It was all a mess, but the thing that was really screwing with my head was why it all had to change. I mean, I knew why. Deep down I’d always known why, but I had managed to live in the safety of denial for years.

Not anymore. The veil of delusion was lifted and suddenly, everything was blindingly clear.

And what was clear to me that morning was that I had forfeited the life that should have been mine. In fact I had veered as far as I possibly could from my should-have-been life. The path I’d chosen was definitely not the one less traveled. I took the path that had been tromped over a million times. It was a sharp right turn, backward a good mile and a half, around corners, down hills, through a forest, and across the universe from where I’d really wanted to go.

But suddenly I was forced to go there. The maze I would have to navigate in order to backtrack be damned.

Once the shock and terror passed, I felt inspired. I was all knowing and all-powerful and anything was possible. Reality could suck me, because I wasn’t taking its crap anymore.

That Rambo bullshit lasted for a good hour. And then I walked into school.

I could feel my confidence crack as soon as the big metal door closed behind me. But a crack wasn’t going to stop me from doing what had to be done because, dammit; I had an epiphany. I was working alongside higher powers, and it was now or never.

But hell, I mean I couldn’t just change everything immediately. So I wrapped my arm around Sadie and walked to my literal circle of friends who were huddled in the middle of the commons like they were every morning. At first I looked at them with my brand-new superior eyes and thought, I’m better than this. I have more to offer the world than my exceptional athletic ability, good looks, and diligent study habits. I have nothing in common with these people. My should-have-been-life is so much better than this.

While thinking these thoughts, I was midsentence—talking to Jones about the party he was having on Saturday—when Mack slapped me on the chest. He started insulting my performance from the night before, which was obviously bullshit because I always kill it on the field. I insulted him back. This was the banter we were comfortable in. Friendly digs were thrown around for a minute, and then he brought Sadie into it, telling me she needed to do a better job of “warming me up” before our next game. I didn’t defend my virginal girlfriend, but instead told him I was always plenty warmed up (wink wink). Which probably should have been the first, or now that I’m thinking about it, at least the third (seriously retrospect, damn you) sign that my life was not, in fact, on the fast track to change. But really I didn’t see it until I began to turn my head back to Sadie.

That’s when my world went into some weird stop-start motion of clarity:

Jesus, all these guys are wearing the same damn outfits: basketball shoes, perfectly distressed jeans, and brand-name T-shirts under their letterman jackets.

Holy shit, almost all of them have their arms wrapped around popular, beautiful cheerleaders.

And, for fuck’s sake, they’re all talking about last night’s game or Jones’s party.

It freaked me the hell out because—God, this is just too sad—they were clones. They could have all been the same damn person. It was eerie as hell. And at first it felt like more proof that I deserved better.

But then, when I finally looked at Sadie, I saw my arm: my letterman jacketed arm was wrapped around a popular, beautiful cheerleader, and it all hit me again without warning—because that’s how theses god-awful epiphanies work.

I woke up that morning convinced I was different, that I deserved more. And yet, I put on the exact same jeans, T-shirt, and basketball shoes as all these guys. Then I automatically walked into that circle, wrapping an arm around Sadie and dragging her with me because she was the piece that completed my jocktastic ensemble. And then I spewed out the exact same words all these guys were spewing out.

And that’s what got me.

I had nothing else to talk about. Sports, parties, and girls—that was pretty much the extent of my vocabulary. There wasn’t actually a unique and interesting person locked in some weird chamber inside of me trying to claw his way out. I was Jay Hall: quintessential popular jock asshole. Despite the fact that I knew there was one thing that separated me from these guys, it didn’t make me different from them. I had no right to even consider that I deserved to be anyone else.

Mind. Blown.

As the day went on, I couldn’t deny the fact that I was trapped, cocooned by a mass of kids living the exact same life as me. The roadblocks were clean-cut, attractive, and popular, and they were as deep as childhood and adolescence combined. And the road I was trying to go down was narrow, muddy, and filled with potholes anyway. So why did I even give a shit?

By third period I had given up the dream. And I was feeling claustrophobic.

When I woke up on Friday morning, I knew it was going to be the day I would finally change my life. I thought I’d had an epiphany. I thought I needed a divine, unexplainable act to finally give me the courage to do something.

But in the end it wasn’t divinity at all.

It was a simple piece of paper with a few numbers scratched on it. A piece of paper that ended up turning my life upside down and cracking me open in the process.

On Friday morning if you had told me that a damn piece of paper would, within twenty-four hours, cause my entire world to implode, I would have told you to shove it up your ass. Paper schmaper, I was working with a goddamn epiphany.


An escapist filled with wanderlust, writing is Haven’s responsible adult version of getting in the car and driving without aim. Reading and music are close seconds.  She and her husband can often be found checking out their favorite bands locally or hundreds of miles away via road trips. Reading is something they don’t have in common, but he tolerates her dimly lit late-night habit.

Haven graduated with a BA, double majoring in English literature and fine arts. She made a living writing about trends in interior design but thoroughly enjoys that fact that people, unlike furniture, can fall in love. She especially loves when they fall desperately and into a forbidden kind of love. She has a slightly embarrassing fascination with the period of life that sits awkwardly between childhood and adulthood; the years when nothing is certain, lots of mistakes are made, falling in love is inevitable, and finding yourself is a struggle. For her it’s a fun place to escape to and she hopes her readers agree.

To date, Haven has published five New Adult romance novels, two of which have been Amazon best sellers. She also works as a graphic designer but considers Mom her most important title.



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