Trevor worked the problem over and over, but it never came out right. Physics was one of his favorite subjects. He loved the satisfaction of solving a difficult problem, but tonight he was stumped. Such had been the story of his life lately, with Audrey being the source of his puzzlement.
He hadn’t been able to get in touch with her in weeks. She hadn’t even answered her phone the last few Sunday nights at their sacred phone time. She was obviously avoiding him. But he wouldn’t give up. They hadn’t had a fight or even so much as a disagreement. He couldn’t think of anything he could have said or done to make her quit speaking to him. He dialed her dorm room number for at least the hundredth time that week. Please, Audrey. Please pick up.
“Hello?” It was her roommate.
“Is Audrey there?”
“Hey, Matt. She’s not here. I thought she was with you.”
“Um, this is Trevor,” he said, annoyed.
“Oh … sorry, Trevor. That was awkward.” She cleared her throat. “Audrey is at the library with her study group. They have a psych exam tomorrow. She probably has her cell turned off in the library.”
“I’ll just try again later.”
“Okay. I’ll let her know you called.”
Trevor ended the call.
He shook his head as he went over the phone conversation in his head. Hey, Matt … I thought she was with you. Trevor shuddered to think that Audrey could be seeing another guy, even though she had every right to do so. She claimed they were just in a study group together, but Trevor knew what freshmen study sessions were like. They were about twenty-five percent studying, and seventy-five percent goofing off while munching on microwave popcorn and pizza.
An uncharacteristic pang of jealousy coursed through his veins. He threw his phone against the wall of his room and slammed his text book shut. His own studying would have to wait. Right now he had more important things to think about.
He couldn’t get ahead of himself by assuming that Audrey was seeing this guy. It made sense that she would be studying tonight. She worked hard to keep her grades up. Matt really was in her study group, along with a few other kids. He knew that much for a fact.
The thing that really bothered him was that she was clearly avoiding him. She hadn’t so much as sent him a text in weeks. Then there was the night he drove to her dorm to see her. He was sure it was her peering from behind the curtain as he called her room and finally drove away. Why would she do that?
Maybe this is what people are talking about when they say women like to play games with your head. Maybe this was some kind of hard-to-get maneuver. “Forget it,” he said aloud. “I’m not playing any games.”
He went out to the kitchen where his buddies were playing cards. “Hayes, grab a beer and come join us. You’ve studied enough for all of us.”
Trevor opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water. “No thanks, guys. I’m turning in early tonight.”
“Suit yourself, Hayes. I can read your poker face like a book anyway. You’re probably better off just going to bed.”
Being known for rising to a challenge, Trevor turned on his heel. “We’ll see about that.” He marched over to the table and pulled up a chair, consciously deciding to dismiss all thoughts about Audrey. She was going on with her life; he could too. Christmas break was just around the corner, and they’d have a couple weeks to work things out. Living next door, it would be impossible for her to avoid him.
Audrey pulled the Toyota Camry into her parents’ driveway. It was good to be home. She couldn’t wait to be under the safety of her Mom and Dad’s roof, to sleep in her childhood bedroom. At the same time, she was tempted to back out of the driveway and run away. She could drive aimlessly through the night. It didn’t matter where she’d end up. As long as she wouldn’t have to face her parents and tell them what had happened. In reality, it was impossible to outrun her problems. They would follow her wherever she went. Eventually, her parents would find out.
She looked over at the neighboring driveway. At the sight of Trevor’s parked car, butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Flashbacks of all the times she sat next to him in that car ran through her mind. Forget about him, she told herself. He’s no longer a part of my life. Just let him go. Nausea chased the butterflies away.
It was time to stuff thoughts of Trevor deep into the recesses of her mind and concentrate on facing her family. She could only hide what had happened to her that awful night for so long. Audrey was sure her mom knew something was wrong. Her mom had been calling just to check in, just to see how she was doing several times a week. Each time, Audrey promised her mom that she was fine, school was good, and she was looking forward to Christmas. But the lies tasted bitter on her tongue. Up until now, she’d always been truthful with her mom. Until something so gross and horrifying happened that the truth would break her mom’s heart, shattering her mom’s image of her innocent little girl. She’d simply have to put the ugliness out of her mind and put on a merry smile.
Summoning courage, she closed her eyes and dropped her head back against the head rest. She drew in a deep breath, and then let it out slowly. God, please be with me.
A rapping noise on the window made Audrey’s heart leap into her throat. Darcy was jumping up and down with excitement outside the car. She opened the door and nearly pulled Audrey out, enveloping her in a tight hug. “I’ve missed you so much, big sis.”
Audrey returned the hug, feeling just as happy to see Darcy. “I’ve missed you too.” Audrey drew back slightly so she could get a good look at her sister. Darcy’s eyes sparkled with childlike joy. Her skin shone with the vibrant glow of youth, with rosy cheeks and a porcelain complexion. Not long ago, Audrey had that same vibrancy, but she’d lost it when her innocence was stolen away. She shivered. “It’s freezing out here. Help me carry some stuff in?”
Darcy lugged a basket of dirty laundry out of the car while Audrey grabbed a suitcase and a backpack, stuffed with text books, that was nearly bursting at the seams. The front door, adorned with an evergreen wreath and red velvet bow, opened just as they stepped onto the front porch. Audrey’s dad greeted her with a warm smile and a tousle of her hair. The aroma of freshly baked sugar and spice cookies wafted out the door. It was like a living Norman Rockwell painting. And she was a smudge—an imperfection that, once discovered, would mar the entire work of art.
“Merry Christmas, Audrey.” Her dad slid the backpack off her shoulder. “Wow, this thing is heavy. So this is where all my money has been going.” He placed the backpack in the coat closet and then hugged Audrey and kissed her cheek. “We’re so happy you’re home.”
Her mom appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her homemade gingerbread-print apron. Audrey hugged her, savoring the warmth and softness of her embrace. Would her mom be so eager to hug her once she found out what had happened?
Stupid! It was so stupid of her to get in that predicament. Her parents were spending so much money to send her to a private Christian school, and she threw it all away. Her grades had slipped from A’s to B’s, and she hadn’t qualified for Nationals in cross-country. It seemed the harder she tried to put the assault behind her, the more it haunted her and interfered with her life.
The only thing to keep her sane was running. The only time she felt free, almost invincible, was while running. Indoor track season would be starting after Christmas break. She couldn’t wait to pound out all her frustrations on the track. That is, if she would be able to run.
Her mom drew back slightly from the embrace and studied Audrey’s face. Audrey avoided eye contact, feeling as if her mom would somehow see the truth in her eyes. “Come sit down and have cookies. They’re still warm from the oven.” Her mom smiled as she spoke, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Audrey looked down at her shoes, avoiding her mom’s probing gaze. She almost wished her mom would come out and ask what was wrong instead of pretending it was a merry Christmas, just like any other. She would tell her mom every detail, and cry in her arms. Her mom would hold her, and tell her that it wasn’t her fault and that everything would be okay. But her mom didn’t ask, and Audrey didn’t offer the information. Instead, she slipped off her shoes and coat, and then sat down to eat cookies.
The family sat around the white round dining table, creating small talk about the weather and school. When there were nothing but crumbs on the plates, Audrey excused herself. “I think I’ll turn in early tonight. I’m exhausted from finals week.”
Her mom looked at her dad, hinting that he needed to say something, to keep her up talking a while longer. He held out the plate of cookies. “Want another cookie?” He was so awkward that it was cute.
Her mom stood from the table and protested, “It’s only eight o’clock, and you just got here. Stay up and visit for a while.” Her moist eyes were pleading.
Audrey’s heart ached for her mother, but she couldn’t possibly sit here making small talk about the latest snowstorm while a storm of her own was consuming her thoughts. “Mom, we’ll have plenty of time to talk.” Audrey kissed her mom, dad, and sister on their cheeks before making a hasty exit to her bedroom.
Closing her bedroom door, she let out a long breath. Scanning the room, she noticed what a child she had been before leaving for college. Stuffed animals and dolls sat propped on her bed. Pink curtains, embroidered with delicate yellow flowers, hung daintily over the windows. Her favorite childhood books filled the bookshelves, intermingling with pre-teen romances and mystery novels. She plopped down on her bed and held one of the teddy bears. Why did she have to grow up? She was so blessed to have a childhood filled with beautiful memories.
It wasn’t so long ago that she fit into this childhood world. It was only a few months ago, in fact. But now her world was turned upside down. It no longer seemed beautiful and happy, full of promise and love. Now it felt ugly and cruel.
Nausea swept over her. She tightened her grip on the bear, squeezing it to her chest as she had done many nights throughout the years after scary dreams would awaken her. But the bear no longer gave her comfort. It wasn’t enough to erase the past, to overturn events of that party. Although she had little memory of what had happened that night, she was still disturbed by it. Somebody had taken advantage of her.
She had always felt in control of her life, believing that she held the key to her own future. She had lived conscientiously; getting good grades, excelling in sports, attending church regularly, and choosing friends wisely. God, are you punishing me for going to that party? Please forgive me, God. Please. She sat quietly, her heart searching for an answer. “Lord, I need to know you’re here. I’m trying to trust in you.”
Her eyes rested on the canoe paddle Pastor Mitchel had given her as a graduation present. She’d lugged it to and from college. She let the scripture etched on the back simmer in her mind. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. What did the verses even mean? So if she acknowledged God, he’d make her paths straight. That probably meant that if she looked to him for guidance, he would show how to do the right thing. Right?
What would God want her to do right now? She stared up at the ceiling, wishing the answer was written across it in bold letters. She could hear her parents’ voices downstairs and clanking dishes. They were probably cleaning up after their little snack. She felt a tug on her heart, wishing she were down there with them. She loved spending time with her family. She especially cherished the late night talks she and Darcy and her mom would share. Now she felt like an outsider, hiding up here in her room.
Audrey gasped. That was it. The answer she was looking for resonated in her heart. The power of God’s response swept through her heart. He wanted her to tell her parents.
Her eyes flooded with tears. “Thank you, God. Thank you,” she cried, rocking back and forth still clinging to the teddy bear. The God of the universe, the Creator of the world was speaking directly to her. And His voice wasn’t punishing, but loving. He knew exactly what had happened that night. He saw it all. He was there when she made the decision to stay at the party. He saw how she was defiled. Yet he still loved her and wanted her to trust him.
Would her parents still love her too? Would they stand by her and help her? Or would they be ashamed of her and angry that she had put herself in a compromising position? Maybe she didn’t need to tell them. She could forget it ever happened and just move on with her life. She didn’t even remember the rape, so what was holding her back? Trust in the Lord. The words rolled through her head.
If God wanted her to tell them, then he would be there to hold her hand through it. She felt empowered by his presence. She made the decision to tell her parents tomorrow. After a good night’s rest. But the nausea still lingered in her stomach. It seemed to be there permanently these days. She cracked her door open and peered into the hallway. The voices of her family drifted up from downstairs. She tiptoed to the bathroom, and turned on the shower to muffle the sounds of her vomiting.
It was still dark outside when Audrey woke the next morning. She tossed off the covers and stretched, contemplating going out for a run before everyone else got up. A chilly draft seeping through the window persuaded her to snuggle back under the covers. Her bed was extra cozy in comparison to the dorm room bunk. She pulled the quilt up to her chin, breathing in the familiar scent of her mom’s fabric softener.
Her stomach turned.
A wave of nausea coiled in her stomach, reminding her of the time at the State Fair when she was on the tilt-a-whirl after pigging out on cheese curds. She’d thrown up all over her new sandals.
Stumbling out of bed, she reached the waste basket just in time. Her body heaved violently again and again as she knelt on the floor, staring into the garbage. Finally, her energy depleted, she was able to rest, curling into a ball on the floor. Was it possible that bottling up this secret was making her physically ill? The nausea was intolerable. She needed to tell her mom soon.
Pulling on her running tights and slipping on her pullover, another thought plagued her. She tried to force it from her mind because it was simply too horrific to consider. She ran her hand along her lower abdomen. For a couple months, she’d felt bloated, although her period never came. That happens to runners though. Too much running and not enough nutrition can make runners stop getting their periods. With all of the nausea and vomiting, she definitely wasn’t getting enough nutrition. But now, beneath her hand, there was a bulge, like a grapefruit was inside her. She stared at her reflection in the full-length mirror that hung on the back of her door. Despite this so-called lack of nutrition, her belly and her breasts were fuller. There was no denying the notion that she was pregnant. Tears filled her eyes.
God, please don’t let me be pregnant.
She wiped her eyes on toilet paper in the bathroom. Crying wouldn’t change anything. Running would make her feel better. She crept down the stairs and laced up her running shoes. As she was about to open the door, she noticed her mom curled up in the living room chair. The electric fireplace gave off a cozy glow. Her mom’s Bible was on the coffee table; she must’ve woken up early to do her daily devotions.
Audrey swallowed. This was her chance to talk to her mom privately. As she approached her mom, she saw that her eyes were closed. To Audrey’s surprise, her mom wasn’t praying; she was sleeping. She tapped her mom’s shoulder.
“Mom, are you awake?”
Her mom strained to open her eyes.
The cat, curled up in her mom’s lap, sprang from the chair and scurried off.
“I am now.” She stretched. “Audrey, is that you? What time is it?”
“Yeah, it’s me. It’s only six o’clock. Dad and Darcy are still sleeping.” She spoke in a whisper, hoping to keep this conversation exclusively between the two of them. She sat on the ottoman next to her mother’s feet. “I was on my way out when I saw you sitting down here. I thought maybe you were doing your morning devotions.” She fell silent for a moment and then looked down at her trembling hands, willing her nerves to settle. She looked up at her mother through glistening eyes. “Why are you down here? Were you having trouble sleeping?”
Her mom sighed. “Yes. I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”
“Is it because of me, Mom?” She stared into the fire, her back to her mom.
Audrey felt the delicate weight of her mom’s hand rest on her shoulder. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She nodded, fixing her gaze on the dancing flames. Her chest was rising and falling, almost unnaturally as she dug deep for courage to relay the horrific account. Her mom’s comforting hand on her shoulder encouraged her to speak. “I made a mistake.” Her voice came out in a faint whisper.
Her mom gulped audibly. “Honey, whatever it is, your dad and I will always love you.” She gripped Audrey’s hand in hers, squeezing her fingers for reassurance. Audrey saw goose bumps raise the delicate hairs on her mom’s wrist. Her mom was worried. Justifiably.
She needed to just say it and get it over with. “I went to a party. There was alcohol there. I knew there was serious partying going on, and I stayed anyway. That was my mistake.” She sniffed. That part wasn’t so hard.
Her mom brushed a loose curl from Audrey’s forehead and tucked it behind her ear. “Honey, of course we don’t want you drinking when you’re underage, but …”
“That’s not all, Mom.” She finally looked her mom in the eye.
Audrey shook her head, “I don’t know…I felt sick, and I passed out.” She hugged her arms to her chest. “I don’t remember—”
Footsteps sounded on the steps; she and her mom looked to the staircase simultaneously. Darcy appeared, rubbing her eyes. “What are you guys talking about?”
Oh great. Conversation over.
Audrey stood up, somewhat relieved that she didn’t have to tell the worst part. “Nothing, Darcy. I was just going out for a run.” She kissed her mom lightly on the cheek. “Thanks, Mom. I feel better now. I won’t do it again.”
Audrey booked it out the door.
Read a chapter a day from Bittersweet Goodbye right here on this blog, beginning September 1st, 2019.