Scars & Souvenirs

eleven

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To her surprise, no one comments on how much food is on Max’s plate by the time she takes a seat at the table in the living room. Nikki smiles encouragingly but remains deep in conversation with Harry - something about a film they saw a few weeks ago and have opposing viewpoints on. Their arguments are sound, but neither will cede.

Max doesn’t try to join in; the last thing she’d seen in a theatre was Paranormal Activity 4, and she’d hated it. It was Gabriel’s choice, though. So she’d been forced to sit through the entire film, no matter how many times she covered her eyes or focused on anything but the screen.

That should have been the first red flag, the signal that screamed for her to get out. They had already been married for a month, but she should have run.

She did run - too little, too late.

And it will never be enough.

A foot taps against hers under the table, and Max looks away from the mashed potatoes under a sea of brown gravy. Nikki cocks her head, frowning; there’s too much in her grey eyes, they ask questions Max is ill-prepared to answer. So Max does what she always does: She fakes happiness, peace, just until she can remove the mask.

Unfortunately, it seems to be tradition for this group to finish eating, clean the mess from the dinner, then gather as many beers as possible up into their arms. Max hesitates then reluctantly follows them out the back door. She stands on the rickety porch, barely held together with rusted nails and peeling paint, and watches the friends fall into their tasks.

None of them seem bothered by the fact she hasn’t come down the steps. They’re all too engrossed in what they’re doing. Max hunches in on herself as a cool breeze whispers across her skin. Echoing in her mind are voices long lost to time; the words are obscured by the haze of fear, but the warmth still fights to break through.

She aches to let them in. To do so would mean tearing down the walls that have protected her, kept her alive for so long. Max knows that it isn’t a risk worth taking. There is very little that justifies chancing her safety.

“You gonna join?” Nikki calls from her chair by a fire that’s crackling to life. “It’s warmer over here.”

Max hesitates then descends the steps. Louis moves to sit on Nikki’s other side, between her and Zayn, which leaves for Max the only empty place left - beside Niall.

Nikki was right. Even the feeble flames give off a pleasant heat, and it can only get hotter once the fire catches. Max tucks her hands between her thighs and shivers as the warmth washes over her. She’s been so cold since this recurring nightmare with Gabriel began again.

As if she didn’t struggle enough to eat even when he hasn’t found her. Fear and years of forcibly-disordered eating had obliterated her appetite. No amount of thick sweaters, blankets, or jackets can take away the constant chill brought on by being so dangerously underweight.

Conversation swells around her, and Max tries to pay attention. She really does. But the panic of being so exposed keep screaming in the back of her mind, drowning out the laughter and easy chatter. Bottles clink together, and hard, cold eyes flash across her vision.

A face twisted with so much fury, blind rage, as hellfire rains down. Pain… Breathless, soundless cries… Silent pleas for refuge… Everything he ripped from her with no hope of rescue.

Max blinks, exhales shakily, and she’s back in the here and now. The house is in the past. Far from Ann Arbor. No more bloodstained tiles that even ammonia can’t clean. No more screams imprisoned within the walls. No more.

But the ghosts still haunt her.

“Oh, y’know what we should do?” Nikki doesn’t give anybody a chance to reply before she continues, “We should get a photo of all of us, celebrate our new friend’s first Turkey Day with us!”

Six pairs of eyes land on her, and Max can’t breathe. There’s too much attention on her, too much hope on Nikki’s face, too much, too much. Please look away. But against her better judgement, she is nodding and willing the mashed potatoes to stay in her stomach as they all circle around where she and Nikki sit.

The hand is too heavy on her shoulder, bodies too close. Max forces a tremulous smile while Nikki lines up the shot. Niall grins widely with crossed eyes behind her, and Harry is poking Liam’s cheek while Louis kisses Nikki’s cheek. Her nose is scrunched up, a laugh frozen on her tongue and the screen. Only Zayn is smiling normally, happy yet not put upon.

Max wonders if they can see how fragile she is.

“What’s your name on FaceBook?” Nikki asks as she brings up the app in question, tapping the search button.

“Uh, I… I don’t have FaceBook.”

Nikki’s head whips around, and she stares slack-jawed at Max. “How have you made it this long without a FaceBook?”

“I dunno, I guess I just never really fell into the trap of social media. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t even have a LinkedIn.”

“That’s - that’s not any better. Okay, well, do you want one? I can help you set it up.”

“No!”

Nikki frowns, eyes widening, as Max struggles to catch her breath, to tamp down on the buzzing panic flowing through her bloodstream. No, no, not now, not here. Someone reaches out for her, but the proffered comfort has the opposite effect: Max jerks as if she’s been scalded.

Her head swims, vision swirling and blurring, and the chill that overtakes her has little to do with the temperature or amount of fat clinging to her bones.

“In, all the way to your belly - I know, it’s hard, but you can do it.” Zayn nods encouragingly in front of her; his hand rests, a loose fist, against his abdomen. “Good. Once more. In to the belly, two, three, four, and out, two three four. In… Out…”

Max’s body reacts on instinct. The steady, firm cadence of his voice reaches her through the veil of her terror, yanking her from its grip and onto solid ground. Gradually, her heartbeat slows, and she can drag in oxygen laced with smoke and -

Safety.

That’s what she feels under the panic. The lifeline out of the storm, given in the form of Zayn’s voice and knowing eyes and a smile so gentle, Max can’t fear it.

“Oh, God. I’m, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m - Please, I’m sorry, I’m —”

“Hey, hey. No need to apologise, love. You okay now?”

Max nods shakily then seeks out Niall amongst the shocked faces. “Can… can you take me home?”

“Of course.”

Zayn helps her to her feet, carefully keeping her steady on her feet, and she pulls away once her balance is regained. Niall says a quick goodbye to his friends while Max rushes through the house. She trips over an errant shoe in the hallway, landing hard on her hands and knees, and a sob tears through her.

“Get up! Get on your damn feet, now. Don’t you hear me? Up! This is why I punish you, don’t you see that? Get up!”

Max scrambles to her feet, the echo of a hand tangling in her hair. It’s instinct, it’s survival, to do as he orders, as he screams and threatens and promises. It’s the only way to lessen the hurt. It’s the only way she can make it through until the next time.

But there’s nothing here. No one looming over her with hatred etched in every line, every sharp angle, every taut muscle that trembles with desire of inflicting pain. Max gulps down air and continues outside, toward the car that waits to take her to her latest prison.

At least this one, Gabriel hasn’t saturated with memories. Yet.