Mall security guards directed Matt to park all the way up on the top level of the jam-packed parking ramp. After driving around for ten minutes, dodging shoppers loaded down with bags, they finally found an open spot.
“Don’t these people know Christmas is over so they don’t need to shop anymore?” Matt had apparently never shopped on December twenty-sixth.
“They’re here for the after-Christmas sales.”
“You’d think they’d be sick of shopping.”
“You’d think.” Audrey and Matt climbed out of the car and headed in the direction of the ramp elevator. “Brrr. It’s freezing out here. Let’s run.” She sped to the elevator with Matt following close behind and pushed the down button. “What does your mom need from Nordstrom anyway?”
“A sweater.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and read, “Michael Kors chenille sweater.”
“Couldn’t she order it online?”
Matt chuckled. “That’s right, I forgot. You’ve never met my mother.”
“What do you mean?”
“She hates computers and avoids them at all cost. She’s completely challenged by all forms of technology. Let me put it to you this way. She’s never sent an email in her life.”
“Yeah. And she doesn’t own a cell phone. My mother must be the last person on the planet to only use a land line.”
“That’s funny. At least you don’t have to worry about her posting embarrassing pictures of you to her Facebook page. So why didn’t you order the sweater for her? Or why didn’t she call in her order and have it shipped to your house?”
“That would’ve been easier, but she wanted me to check it for flaws.”
Audrey laughed. “You’re making this up.”
The elevator arrived just when Audrey thought her fingers would get frost bite. They stepped in, and she pushed the button for the ground floor.
She looked up at Matt and noticed his rosy cheeks. Although the cold air could’ve been the source, she was sure he was blushing. “You are making this up, aren’t you?” she said, giving him a playful shove.
“Okay, so I offered to pick it up for her, but she really does hate technology, and she really doesn’t own a cell phone, and she really did tell me to check the sweater for flaws.” He gave her a light shove back, knocking her into the poster of Nickelodeon Universe hanging on the wall of the elevator.
“So what’s your real reason for needing a trip to the mall?”
A sheepish grin lifted the corner of his mouth. “The after-Christmas sales.” He winked.
Audrey laughed. So he had really just been looking for an excuse to spend some time with her. She would have to find a way to make it clear that she wanted only to be friends, and she would need to do it soon. It would be cruel to lead him on.
The inside of the mall was bustling with bargain shoppers. Audrey led Matt to Nordstrom, where they asked a sales clerk for help finding the sweater his mom had requested. After carefully inspecting it for flaws, they made the purchase and wandered back out into the mall.
“Your mother has exquisite taste.”
“Yeah, she does. Everybody says so. She always looks like a million bucks.”
“Aw, that’s so sweet.”
“I didn’t say it was a good thing. I mean, sometimes I think she cares too much about what other people think of her. You know what I mean? Sometimes I wish she could relax and be herself. It’s like she thinks she has to be perfect.”
“Mmm, does she put those same expectations on you?”
Matt blushed. “You can read me like a book.”
Audrey said nothing, letting him know she was listening.
“Yeah, it’s been tough living up to her standards, but she’s a great mom.”
“I’m sure she is.”
“I just wish she didn’t put so much pressure on herself. Nobody’s perfect.”
Audrey could sense that he was not only talking about his mother, but also himself. She guessed that would explain why he put so much effort into his grades and even sports. When she really thought about it, she saw the flaw of perfectionism in herself.
They walked side by side, checking out the kiosks on the first floor. Audrey tried on sunglasses and ended up buying a pair. Matt purchased a Twins baseball cap. He put it on and stood back to get Audrey’s opinion. “What do you think?”
“I’m not sure it suits you. Maybe we better head back to Nordstrom to find something more sophisticated.”
He turned it backward, the way Trevor often wore his hat. “How about now?”
A lump formed in Audrey’s throat as she suddenly missed Trevor with every fiber of her body. “It’s totally you.”
She knew she needed to talk to Matt about just being friends. He had pretty much admitted to the fact that today was more of a date than not. She was afraid of losing his friendship, but that was a risk she needed to take. But before she had time to decide how to tell him, he interrupted her thoughts.
“Do you want to catch a movie?” Matt pointed up to the theater, visible on the fourth floor.
That was her cue. She had to say something now. “Um, I don’t think so.”
“I know we just saw one last night. You probably don’t feel like sitting through another one already. I just thought since we were here—”
“No, it isn’t that.” Audrey inhaled, held the air, and then blew out slowly.
“Nah, I get it. You’re in love with Trevor Hayes, aren’t you?”
Audrey shook her head. “That’s not it.” She sighed. Here goes nothing. “I’m not in a position to be dating anyone right now.” Her heart pounded in her chest as she contemplated telling him exactly why. No better time than the present. Soon school would resume and rumors would start to fly. She’d rather that he heard the truth from her.
“C’mere.” She took him by the arm, leading him over to a bench that was out of the way of foot traffic. “I have something I need to tell you. I’ve hardly told a soul, but I can’t keep it a secret forever.”
“It sounds serious.”
“It is.” She rubbed her forehead, dreading the words she knew she had to say. “This is so awkward. Okay, um, well, I went to a party with some high school friends back in August.” She knew even that much would be surprising to Matt. He didn’t drink at all. “It was a really crazy party, and there was a ton of drinking going on.”
“Did you drink?”
Shame flooded through Audrey’s veins. “A little. It was my first time, and I didn’t even want to be there. I was just trying to fit in, as stupid as that sounds. But nobody’s perfect, right?”
Matt didn’t say anything.
So Audrey continued. “To make a long story short … I was raped.”
Matt was speechless except for an audible gasp. He leaned forward on the bench and let his head fall into his hands. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, there’s more. When I was raped, I became pregnant.” There. She said it. She had no idea how Matt would respond, and she sat waiting for his reaction. When there was none, his head still in his hands, she nudged him. “Say something.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m shocked. I guess I thought you were different.”
“What?” His words cut her like a knife, tearing at what was left of her dignity. So he had thought she was different—special. But now what did he think of her? That she was less of a person? “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying I didn’t think you were like those other girls, running around partying. I thought you were more into school and sports and making something of yourself.”
This wasn’t the reaction she had expected. She’d expected him to at least say that he was sorry for her and give her a hug. Show some kind of sympathy. He was acting as if this was her fault. Tears sprang to Audrey’s eyes and poured down her face.
He picked at an invisible piece of lint on his coat and flicked it on the floor, refusing to look at her. The images of shoppers passing by blurred and the sound of their indistinct conversations became eerily muffled. She wished she were anywhere but here—on a bench in a mall. Why had she chosen this public place to tell Matt something so personal? Why she had told him at all?
“Why did you come here with me today?” Anger colored the tone of his words.
“Because you asked me to come. I thought we were friends.” She wiped her wet cheeks with her sleeve, but fresh tears continued to flow.
“You knew I wanted to be more than friends. Everybody else knew it too. And now I look like a fool.”
What a selfish jerk! After that huge confession she gave, he didn’t show any compassion. He only thought of himself. “You look like a fool? For what? For hanging out with a slut like me?”
Matt finally looked up at her, showing a hint of remorse. “I didn’t say that.”
“Think about it, Audrey. You’re in love with Trevor Hayes, you’re knocked up with some other dude’s baby, and now you’re here with me. You have to admit that’s messed up.” Matt stood up and started to walk. “Let’s just go.”
Neither said a word as they made their way back to Matt’s car up on the roof. The biting cold couldn’t even compare to the iciness she felt from him. It was a long, quiet drive home. Audrey could not believe how rude he was acting. She couldn’t believe that he had actually said she made him look like a fool.
“So are you gonna keep going to Bethel?” Matt broke the silence.
Audrey’s defenses rose. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Soon you’re gonna be, you know, bigger, and people will figure out that you’re pregnant.”
“Of course they’ll find out. That’s why I wanted to tell you now—in person—before you heard it through the grapevine.”
He stared ahead at the road, covered with packed down frozen snow. “Thanks.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“You know, I thought you were different too.” She knew she should hold back and not express her next thoughts, but Matt was being so unfair. “Maybe you’re not so unlike your mother, being all concerned with appearances. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
Matt faced her, his angry eyes saying enough to convey his feelings. He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped himself, and fixed his eyes back on the road. Audrey had a feeling that she wouldn’t have liked whatever it was he was going to say. Not another word was uttered until Matt pulled into her driveway where they exchanged a curt goodbye.
Read a chapter a day from Bittersweet Goodbye right here on this blog, beginning September 1st, 2019.