Scars & Souvenirs

nine

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Sugar is still here when Max wakes late in the night. The entire building is quiet, only outside traffic disrupting the peace, and Max exhales slowly. Her panic attack earlier has sapped away all of her energy.

It also humiliated her in front of her landlady and her neighbour.

“Way to go,” she mutters to herself, only to get a dog’s tongue across her lips. “Thanks, Sugar. That’s not gross or anything. Wanna go home?”

Sugar immediately drops her head back to the couch cushion, stares up at Max with liquid-brown eyes. Everything about her demeanour pleads for Max to let her stay, and who is Max to argue with such adorable begging?

“Fine, you can stay. Just… keep your tongue to yourself, yeah?”

Max can’t fall back asleep, but she doesn’t move from where she’s lying. Her laptop sits on the coffee-table, reminding her of how far behind she is in editing. Hank will understand, a voice whispers. The man may or may not know the entire story, but he’s always been supportive.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I had a panic attack because of the guy who lives across the hall. He’s sweet, I guess. But I don’t know him. I probably never will. We know how this is going to turn out - Gabriel will get bolder and bolder, and I’ll have to run. Again.

It’s pathetic, really, that I can’t remember the name of anybody I’ve lived near. Not since Ann Arbor. I don’t think I’ve ever had more than a 2-minute conversation with anyone else that didn’t involve work.

I miss my friends. I miss my innocence. I miss YOU.

I wish I wasn’t so damn scared - that I didn’t have reason to be…


The sun is barely up over the horizon when a knock sounds at the door. Sugar barks once, hopping off the sofa with her tail waggling wildly enough that her entire body rocks with the motion. Max stares at the door. Her heart thunders in her ribs, each rapid beat singing that this is it.

This is how she dies.

But Sugar isn’t reacting negatively. In fact, she’s downright excited to see whoever is on the other side. The danger is still there, it always will be, but Max forces herself to cross the flat on her tiptoes, silent footsteps long-learnt necessity. Preparing herself for the worst, Max peeks through the peephole.

Niall stands just outside the door. His usual pleasant expression is nowhere to be found. Instead, his eyes are dark over darker half-moons, and his hair sticks up in a tousled mess - as if he has either stuck his finger in an electrical socket, or he tossed and turned all night. A heavy frown tugs at his lips, makes him look older. He shifts his weight between his feet and knocks again.

Max doesn’t want to open the door. She doesn’t want to see him. It just reminds her that he has seen her at her most vulnerable. He can use it against her. He can figure out what Gabriel has done to her.

He could pity her.

Or he could continue her ex-husband’s handiwork.

Max isn’t sure what would be worse.

Sugar whines, shoves her face against Max’s knee. Max remembers to breathe, exhaling sharply, and she wipes the tears from her eyes.

“Back up, Sugar,” she commands softly; the last thing she wants is to lose Dolly’s dog because she’s being careless.

Sugar listens for as long as it takes Max to unlock the door, then she darts out onto the landing to snuffle at Niall’s legs. He blinks slowly as he stares down at the Rottweiler dancing around his feet. Then his gaze his back on Max. His frown grows larger, deeper.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

“After yesterday -”

“I’m fine.” Please don’t go there. Pretend it never happened.

“I’ve just been worried, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s unnecessary.”

“Because you’re fine.”

“Yep.” Max sighs and resist the need to squirm under the weight of his flat expression. “Look. I’m okay. I always am.”

It’s the only way to keep me alive.

Before he can say anything else, she shuts the door in his face. She knows it’s wrong of her to be so cold toward him, especially after yesterday. But she needs that line of separation. The “we’re neighbours and occasionally say hi, but that’s it - I couldn’t even tell you what your name is” kind of relationship.

This isn’t just for her safety. The more people who know she exists, the more likely it is that Gabriel finds her. It’s easy for him to charm strangers into giving him the information he seeks. His charisma is exactly how he convinced Max to marry him in the first place. That, and her stupid refusal to listen to her parents’ warnings.

Max avoids relationships with everyone because she can’t take that risk. Not again. Not after so many years of successfully evading him.

But it’s also to protect those around her. Gabriel may be charming, that’s never in doubt, but he’s incredibly vicious, too. Max lost an amazing friendship with Valery because of him. All Val wanted was to see Max safe and happy, away from Gabriel’s abusive hand, and she ended up in hospital for months because of it.

Max knows intimately that Gabriel has only gotten worse since he was twenty-one; now, he will do so much more damage to anyone who is in his way, and he has the smarts to weasel his way out of trouble. He won’t stop until he gets what he wants, and it doesn’t matter how many people he has to hurt to get to Max.

Sugar whimpers from out on the landing, a plaintive sound that sends an ache through Max. A door opens, Dolly speaks quietly, then all is silent.

Max is left alone.

Exactly what she asked for, but not what she wants.

____________


Max changes her email address twice more over the next few weeks, but still the emails keep coming. What makes it all worse is Gabriel now has her phone number, as well. The nights are broken up by nightmares and calls with nothing but breathing on the other end.

She avoids looking in the mirror, knowing what she’ll see. Her clothes barely fit her any more, and now her hair has begun falling out from the stress and inability to eat. Her body is going to fail her if something doesn’t change soon, but what can she possibly do?

The cops have proved they will not do anything until after she’s dead. She’s lost her parents and any sort of support system. Everything hinges on the wild hope that Gabriel will quit hunting her down like the monster he is, that he’ll get bored and find someone else to terrorise.

Or that he’ll say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and someone will kill him the way Max has wanted to for so long. The way she was too much of a coward to follow through with.

Right on cue, she thinks grimly as her phone starts ringing. Unknown name and number, but she doesn’t need any Caller ID to know. She should shut the phone off, break it into dozens of pieces and burn them. But doing that can only cause him to come here again.

This time, he wouldn’t be so smart as to leave.

So Max answers the call, though everything in her is screaming not to, and Gabriel’s breathing fills her ear. It’s all the same. Nothing changes - he keeps her on the line for a minute or two then abruptly hangs up. She’s aware that he’s using this time to track her, to make sure she is still in the rundown flat, but it also serves a more sadistic purpose: He finds pleasure in torturing her like this.

She stares blankly at her laptop screen. Cold seeps through her veins, her heart pounding. Her hands shake violently, whether from fear or sleep deprivation or starvation, she really isn’t sure. Max swallows down the urge to cry and pulls the blankets more tightly around her.

Hank has put her on temporary paid leave, and Max hates not having something to do. She loathes being stuck with her own thoughts and fears. Editing futuristic romance novels is a load of crap, but at least it gave her some reprieve from the memories that play on a loop in her mind.

“Max? Are you home?”

Max claps a hand over her mouth to muffle the squeak, and her stomach lurches painfully. Eventually, she manages to clamber to her feet, crossing the flat on shaky knees. The gap between the door and frame is just wide enough to see a sliver of Niall’s face; she refuses to open the door any further.

“What?”

He frowns, scratches at his brow. “Er, well, I wanted to see if you’d maybe want to come to a Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow?”

“Uh…”

“It’s just that I’ve noticed that you don’t ever really have any visitors, and you hardly ever leave your flat. And, well, nobody deserves to be alone on a holiday.”

“That isn’t a good idea,” she whispers, and Niall cocks his head.

“If you’re worried that my mates might have issue with it, I can assure you they won’t mind at all. Liam always makes way too much food, and Nikki will love not being the only girl there.”

And god, the gentleness in his voice and the soft hope in his eyes could kill Max. Niall shrugs and tells her the offer is open whenever she has an answer, that he’s leaving around ten tomorrow morning. She watches him walk away, a hollow weight settling in her chest. He has done nothing but try, no matter how often she’s pushed him away.

“I’ll go.”

His answering smile is almost enough to drown out the regret.