Scars & Souvenirs

fifteen

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She never tells him ‘no.’

Max spends all weekend trying, desperately searching for the words, but they never materialise. So she finds herself following Niall into his flat late Monday afternoon, wondering what she has gotten herself into.

He drops his messenger bag onto the coffee-table and stretches his arms over his head. Yawning widely, he disappears into the kitchen; Max isn’t sure if she’s meant to go with him, so she sits on one of the enormous beanbag chairs instead.

“So I kept what you said about Ellis in mind,” he announces as he re-enters the living room, and she takes the cup of water he passes to her. “I watched him today, and I think you’re right. So I have a meeting set up with his parents for tomorrow.”

“Think it’s that thing that’s like dyslexia but with numbers?” she asks quietly.

“Dyscalculia. And maybe. He’s a very clever kid, so I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed the discrepancy between his maths scores and other subjects.”

Max shrugs and runs a finger along the rim of her cup; does he notice she won’t meet his eye? “Like you said, sometimes it helps to get an outside perspective.”

She understands that belief intimately. If it hadn’t been for Valery, she might have allowed Gabriel to drown out the voice that knew his actions were wrong. She may never have learnt to listen to it - even if it was too little, too late - and she might be dead now.

A chill runs down her spine at the thought.

Thankfully, she’s pulled from the macabre thoughts by the sound of buckles unsnapping. Max sets her cup aside as Niall hands her a blue pen followed by a small stack of papers.

Crooked letters forming a name. Uneven pressure, as if Brett was distracted. A small doodle in the bottom corner - a T-rex holding a heart-shaped balloon with a triceratops roaring next to it. Max huffs out a laugh at the necklace around the T-rex’s neck.

Her mind travels back sixteen years. A little boy, missing his two front teeth, mud splattered on his cheek. A little girl with her dark pigtails bouncing around her face as she squeals and runs away from the lizard in his outstretched hand. Sneaking a kiss to his cheek by the water fountain before dashing away.

As they work, neither Niall nor Max speak much. She makes comments about his students’ work, and he tells her about the kids. Ellis has a wild imagination, the stories he writes for English/Language Arts leaps and bounds ahead of his peers’. Brett blushes every time he’s near May, and she’s upfront about the crush she has on him. Lindsey and Cleo aren’t quite “mean girl” status, but they’re getting there if they don’t learn how to quit being so cruel.

“So what were you like in school?” he asks quietly as they finish up the first batch of assignments, and Max stills.

“I, uh, I was average, I guess. I read a lot.”

He stares at her for a moment, assessing whatever is on her face. “Reading is good. Wish I had more time for it.”

“What made you want to be a teacher?”

He doesn’t answer immediately, but his face lights up, as if he’s pleased she asked. Or spoke at all. He clears his throat, shuffles the papers in front of him, and tells her about a teacher he had who discouraged him from following his dreams.

“Said I’d never make it in life if I didn’t apply myself to my studies instead of focusing on music.” Niall sighs. “I stupidly believed him but made it my life’s goal to never shatter a kid’s hopes like that. So I got my degree and now I do my best to send the younger generation out into the world, ready to take it by storm. It’s actually how I met Nikki.”

They were both student-teachers, learning the ropes in classrooms next door to each other. They relied on each other, sought advice from one another. By the end of the first term, Nikki had become a mainstay at his flat, bringing along her new boyfriend Louis.

“She’d met him years before through her older sister’s tutoring. They kept in touch after graduation then started dating a few years ago. With him came Liam, and Harry, we quite literally picked up in a pub.”

“And Zayn?”

“I can’t remember,” he admits after a pregnant pause, laughing quietly. “What about you?”

Do you have any friends? The question hangs thick in the air. She doesn’t. She hasn’t since she was seventeen.

So she slowly talks about Valery, about how kind and brave and beautiful she was. Max can’t admit the real reason the friendship ended, so she lies. She avoids Niall’s gaze and says they grew apart after graduating.

Seeing Val in the hospital bed had been a wake-up call for Max. She couldn’t have friends. She couldn’t care about anyone, or this would be their fate. She’d pressed a kiss to Valery’s forehead, whispered a broken apology, and then slipped from the room like a ghost. All she left behind was her memory.

Niall doesn’t ask any more questions, and Max is overwhelmingly grateful for that. If he’d brought up her parents, she would have fallen apart. They’re a forbidden topic - just like Gabriel, for decidedly different reasons. She only thinks about them while writing the letters to no one.

The routine keeps up through the next two weeks: She spends the day editing and the evenings helping Niall mark papers and plan lessons. She keeps her past as far from him as possible, but she finds it easier to talk to him about anything else. Even Gabriel’s voice shuts up whenever Niall is around.

“Happy early Christmas, Zee!”

Max blinks slowly at Nikki’s enthusiastic greeting. “Zee?”

“Yeah, short for ‘Maxine’. That’s what Nialler said your full name is, and I just like making up nicknames for people.”

“Okay, well, I suppose I’ll take it.”

Max follows Nikki over the threshold, warmth diffusing through her chest - she hasn’t had a nickname given by someone else in so long. Nikki ducks into the kitchen, promising that the jello-shots will be done soon, and Max continues on to the living room.

Harry and Zayn are sprawled across the beanbag chairs, a brightly-coloured video game on the screen. Max sits on the floor beside Harry to watch as the pair race along a rainbow stripe; she frowns when a banana peel suddenly appears on the road, and Zayn’s character spins out of control.

“Hey, you made it.”

She looks away from the screen as Zayn launches himself at Harry. Niall helps her to her feet, out of the way of danger, while Liam swoops in to pick up Harry’s controller. She laughs and follows Niall to the couch, dropping onto it with a heavy sigh.

“I did.” She pauses then gestures toward the wrestling men. “How much have they had to drink today?”

Niall chuckles and shakes his head. “They’re surprisingly sober right now. Nikki wouldn’t let anyone touch any alcohol until you got here.”

“But I don’t drink.”

“We know. She just didn’t want to start the festivities without you.”

Max doesn’t bother questioning it. It’ll only serve to confuse her more. Over the last few years, the holidays have been bleak, impossible to get through. This is the first time she’s spending any amount of time with someone else this close to Christmas. Hell, she hasn’t actually celebrated the day since she married Gabriel.

Presents cost money, Makenzie, money I work hard to earn while you do nothing. Why should I waste a dime on you?

This, though - being here, with the people who have managed to put a crack in her walls… this feels right.

“Wanna know what I think?” Nikki takes a sip of her cider then continues, not giving Max a chance to reply, “I think you and Niall would make a super-cute couple.”

Max immediately seeks out the man in question, currently playing the video game and telling Liam to piss off, he’s saving the red shells for a reason. She doesn’t see it, whatever Nikki is talking about. Because Niall is so much better than Max could ever dream of being. He shines more brightly, his heart is pure.

Max is too haunted to ever allow herself to think of him in any way, especially not as more than friends. She has no right to taint his life like that.

She lets out an awkward laugh, shaking her head. “He and I, uh, we’re just friends. That’s all.”

I don’t deserve him.

Nikki pouts but lets the subject drop. Max exhales as slowly as possible, struggles to control the ache of her heart. It’s the truth - she and Niall can never be more - so she isn’t allowed to hurt so much.

She pushes the thoughts from her mind and tries unsuccessfully to focus on anything but Niall. There’s a tightness to his shoulders, a stiffness in his movements, and he doesn’t react even when his green dinosaur characters falls off the rainbow road. He just passes the controller to Louis and stares at the television.

It’s late, almost ten, when Max heads into the kitchen. Niall stands at the counter, tapping at the screen of his phone; his lips are pulled down into a deep frown. She skirts around him to refill her glass from the sink then hesitates.

She should ask, right? It’s only fair that she checks on him like he and his friends have done for her. Especially when he’s so clearly bothered by something.

“Hey, you okay?”

Jubilant music comes from the other room, groaning and jeering in equal turns. Beeping, chatter. But nothing from Niall, though his jaw tics.

“Niall?”

What, Max?”

The sound of shattering glass is deafening. Louder still are the alarms in her head, echoes of screams when she couldn’t bite them back any longer. The terror spreads through her veins, freezes her from the inside out.

Her knees hit tile. Pain blooms scarlet in her palms, her fingertips. The air is nonexistent as she sobs; her vision wobbles and blurs and sends light refracting like starbursts on the bloody shards of glass in her hands.

“I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry, it-it was an accident, I swear I didn’t mean to, it won’t happen again. Please d-don’t be mad, Gabe, I’m sorry.”

Her past self joins in, the pleas colliding in her ears until they no longer make sense. Max can’t stop. Even when her hands tremble violently, her body tense in anticipation. Bile creeps up the back of her throat.

You can’t do anything right. Why do you always fuck things up? When will you just learn?

“Stop, it’s fine. I’m, I’m not angry.” Niall’s voice sounds so far away. A beautiful trap under Gabriel’s shouting. “Max, stop! You’re hurting yourself!”

Strong fingers wrap around her wrist, holding her immobile when she reaches for more glass. No! She yanks her hand away, warm cheek against her knuckles. A sharp gasp breaks through the frightful haze.

Niall stares at her with wide eyes and dropped jaw. Pink is already spreading along the side of his face. Max ducks her head; her breath rattles in the sudden stillness.

Jubilant music and a sea of blood cradled in her hands. Light shining, gleaming off glass as broken as she is.

Scrambling to her feet, Max dumps the mess into the bin and runs toward the door, swerving when Nikki reaches for her. Zayn is there, pushes a dishtowel into her hands as he twists the doorknob. Niall’s voice follows her, her name sounding like poison on his tongue.

She manages to get inside her flat before he catches up. He opens his mouth to speak. Max slams the door in his face. The slide and scrape of the locks sound like safety.

For herself, from him.

For him, from herself.
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please please let me know how you're liking this story! i, personally, feel awful for torturing max like this but... what can ya do.