Scars & Souvenirs

thirteen

Image


Half of the letters in the box are applications for credit cards that will never be filled out. The rest are for previous tenants despite the fact that the Perillos haven’t lived here in at least five months. Max slides the entire pile through the slot for outgoing post.

The hairs on the back of her neck stick up, a shiver prickling down her spine. Her survival instincts fail her despite being so meticulously crafted - instead of fight or flight, Max freezes. The chilly air that fills the entrance is nothing compared to the ice in her veins. Swallowing against the urge to throw up, she turns to face the danger as the front creaks ominously.

“You’d think I would’ve learnt by now to grab a jacket,” Niall announces with a self-deprecating smile, completely oblivious to the chaos of emotions surging through Max.

Relief. It’s just him. She’s still safe.

Fear. He can’t know, he can’t find out. Can he see the way her heart tries desperately to escape its cage, to leap from her chest? Will he question it?

Anger. She shouldn’t be so terrified.

Mortification. It’s a wonder he wants to speak to her at all after Thursday and her reaction just now - or maybe he’s just being nice after what happened on Thursday.

He shifts his weight between his feet, fingers fidgeting with the strap over his shoulder. Max realises belatedly that he isn’t just saying something out of societal obligation of politeness. He is waiting for an answer. She forces a smile, even as her heart threatens to stop beating.

“I-I haven’t been outside lately, but it is almost December, so I can imagine it’s quite cool out.”

It must be a trick of the lights flickering overhead, the way his face brightens. No one has ever been this happy to see her, to speak to her. But then he’s giving her such a real, warm smile that she can’t find it in her to doubt it.

“Yeah. Any plans for Christmas?”

Max shakes her head. “Haven’t thought that far ahead yet. I, uh, I better go. I still have work to do.”

She locks her box, tucking the key into her pocket, and carefully moves past Niall without getting too near. His footsteps follow her up the stairs; she has to keep up a steady litany of reassurances in her mind. It’s only Niall, he’s safety. Niall, not Gabriel. Niall.

“Hey, Maxine?”

She pauses, closes her eyes against his soft voice speaking the wrong name. Niall chews on his lower lip when she reluctantly turns to face him. The hopefulness in his expression sends a twinge through her chest.

Please don’t.

“I dunno if you noticed, but I usually have the others over on Fridays for dinner. We’d, uh, we would love it if you’d join us.”

The rejection burns on the tip of her tongue. She nearly says no, but then Nikki’s voice whispers: “It’s what friends are for.” So Max chokes on the no, blows out a breath, and meets his eye.

He doesn’t even try to hide his surprise at her tentative acceptance. He blinks once, twice, then smiles that same smile that promised danger just a few months ago. Now, though, she isn’t frightened by it. Max can clearly see that Niall’s smile is vastly different than Gabriel’s ever was.

Even in the beginning, Gabriel’s smile never reached his eyes. It was cold, empty.

Niall’s sings of happiness and warmth.

Before he can say anything else, Max steps into her flat and closes the door. She may trust that he won’t hurt her, but she can’t risk him seeing the wreckage of her past. He can’t see the monster that still haunts her. She has to keep that part of herself hidden away. No matter how amazing he is, she can’t trust him with the truth.

Max lies to herself over the next two days. She tries to convince herself that the only reason she spends nearly every waking moment editing is so she has less - if anything at all - to do on Friday. But for all her efforts, she knows the nonstop working is so she doesn’t overthink the situation.

So she doesn’t follow through on what her survival instincts beg for her to do.

So she doesn’t go across the landing, knock on Niall’s door, and tell him she won’t be attending dinner on Friday night, and please don’t invite her again.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Remember the guy who invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with his friends? He invited me to dinner tonight at his. I’m kind of looking forward to it. I mean, a small part of me fears that this is going to go down the same path I was on with Gabriel, but… most of me feels like it knows he’s different. At the very least, Niall has better friends - Zane (? I don’t know how to spell his name) helped me when I had a panic attack, and Nikki checked up on me. And called me her friend.

I haven’t had one of those in so long.

She doesn’t even know me. None of them do. But still, they seem to care about me. I’m scared, though, that I’m going to ruin their lives as surely as Gabriel has ruined mine. God, I hope he never finds out about them. I wouldn’t forgive myself if he hurt Niall them.


Max waits until she can hear voices on the landing to start getting ready. She should have changed from the baggy sweater and sleep-pants earlier, but there’s been a voice in her head that kept telling her that if she didn’t get dressed, the dinner wasn’t a real plan. That it was all a figment of her imagination, the desperate wish of a lonely woman.

She rushes through brushing her teeth before turning toward the tub. Once the shower is started, she breathes out slowly and reaches a trembling hand toward the light-switch. It’s become a necessary requirement, pitch-black in order to shower. Seeing her body is… too much. It reminds her of how long it’s been since she was her own person.

But she doesn’t need the light to see the scars that mar her skin, Gabriel’s claim to ownership and “rehabilitation”. Max can feel each ridge of healed-over wounds, the fragility of her bones, the ache of punctured lungs repaired in each shaky breath. No bulb, however, can ever illuminate the damage inflicted inside.

The water grows cold before Max is ready, and she fumbles for the taps. She dries off and dresses in the same dark, relying on fingertips to make sure her top is on properly, to button the too-wide waistband of her jeans. Max exhales tremulously and turns on the light.

A flash of his face behind her in the foggy mirror, but she shuts that memory back in its box before it can fully emerge. Tonight isn’t the night for it. Tonight is about pretending, just for a few hours, that she is a normal young woman who came to Santa Barbara for nothing more than a change in scenery.

Nikki stares, wide-eyed, as soon as she pulls the door open. “Oh, my God! You came! Oh, gosh, come in, come in. Niall said you’d agreed to come, but we weren’t sure if you would, and none of us would have been upset if you changed your mind, I promise, but you’re here!”

Max freezes as Nikki embraces her tightly, but then Nikki is bouncing away. Max swallows down the fear that Nikki’s reaction brought about, vowing to keep the truth away from these people - whatever it costs. It would hurt her to lose them when she runs, but it would devastate her in ways she’ll never recover from if they’re disgusted at what they find out about her.

About who she really is.

She should never have given any of them - least of Niall - the time of day. She should have taken one look at him that fateful day and run far away from his smile.

Nikki pushes a glass of water into Max’s hand before dancing across the room to the beanbag chairs that sit on the floor. Louis lets out a soft grunt when she drops into his lap, then wraps his arms around her waist. Though his attention never leaves the television, it is painfully clear how devoted he is to her.

Max wishes she knew how that feels.

Running her thumb over the knotted skin on her hip, she looks away from the couple and at the others gathered here. Liam glances up from the beanbag beside Louis and Nikki, smiling when he catches her eye. She forces a smile back and takes a sip of water. Harry waves a hand in her direction, shifts closer to the arm of the couch.

Max takes it as her cue to sit down instead of remaining rooted to her spot by the door. Zayn doesn’t say much as she sits with Harry to her left, Niall on her right, but he does smile at her. Something in his eyes tells her that he remembers Thanksgiving vividly. Thankfully, he doesn’t mention it.

The ghost of intense examination brushes against the side of her face, and Max turns her head. Niall’s expression clears, but the shadow lingers, living just beneath the surface. His lips quirk, though the smile does nothing to put Max at ease. She can’t read it, and it scares her.

“So Max, I feel like we don’t know you,” Nikki starts, flopping backwards across Louis’s lap so she can stare at Max upside-down. “Tell us about yourself. What do you do? Where do you come from? Do you sleep in your birthday suit? That kinda stuff.”

Max blinks owlishly then averts her gaze to her hands. This is unfamiliar. No one ever cares about her life. Her history. Her job. All anyone has ever given a damn about is whether she can pay the rent and clean the property before she leaves. Swallowing her fear, she shrugs.

“I, uh, I’m an editor. For novels.”

“Oh, that’s so cool! Is it hard?”

“Only if the books are atrocious, which happens far more often than you’d think.” She coughs quietly, squirms under everyone’s scrutiny. “Um, I come from Michigan, so I’m already enjoying the warmth of winter here.”

“Sleep in your birthday suit?”

“Nicole.”

Max shakes her head at Niall’s sharp warning. “It’s-it’s okay. I sleep in whatever I fall asleep in.”

“Sorry, it was a bit personal, yeah?” Nikki smiles sheepishly. “I forget most people have boundaries. Oh!”

Max barely manages to refrain from jumping off the sofa at Nikki’s sudden shout. As it is, there is no hiding the twitch of her entire body; her elbow hits Niall in the process. She whispers an apology, wanting nothing more than to beg for mercy, and he shrugs. His mouth opens, but whatever he is about to say gets lost under Nikki’s call for silence.

“Haz, this is the song I was telling you about,” she announces just before soft piano fills the room.

Max’s breath stutters as the song continues, just as poignant and achingly haunting as the intro. Her eyes close on their own. Whether from emotion or to hide the tears, she doesn’t know. All she knows is if she doesn’t control herself better, she’s going to ruin another night.

Under the ash and the lies,
Something beautiful once here now dies
And the tears burn my eyes…

‘Cause you see the shelter as the storm
Holding wind to keep you warm
You are everything to me, this is why I had to leave
So sleep well, my angel


A hollow cold settles beneath Max’s breastbone, and she struggles to catch her breath, to not let the tears fall. To feel nothing at all. Anything would be better than this. The lyrics repeat in her head, louder and louder than even the screaming that has resided there since Gabriel ever happened.

“It’s okay,” Niall whispers, and Max tenses up at how near he is. When did he get so close? “You’re allowed to cry.”

“I’m fine.”

“Right.”

The same shadow flickers across his face, a palpable weight on her skin, but then it’s gone. He turns to Zayn and asks about - something, Max isn’t sure. She can’t hear anything other than the damned song and the damned memories fighting to break free from their box.

“I’ll be right back,” she mutters before pushing to her feet, hoping that her feet carry her to the correct room.

She closes the bathroom door behind her as quietly as possible then leans against it as the hurricane rips through her. Acidic fear and breathtaking sobs that she tries to stifle, only to fail so fantastically.

What did I do to deserve this?
♠ ♠ ♠
song used: sleep well, my angel by we are the fallen