Scars & Souvenirs

sixteen

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Minutes tick past, each one marking off another sixty seconds since Max made a fool of herself - again. Another holiday ruined because she couldn’t control herself. Because Gabriel still controls her.

Another bout of knocking echoes in the otherwise deafening silence of the flat. Max closes her eyes as Nikki calls for her. How can Max ever face any of them again? They’ve all been so kind, letting her into their lives without hesitation, and all she’s done is drag them down. They can’t even enjoy one simple night free from her baggage.

An hour after it began, it ends. Max listens as goodnights are exchanged outside her door, footsteps fading with distance. She blows out a shaky breath and scrubs at her cheeks with the bloody dishtowel. She tells herself this is for the best, that they’re all better off without her. They can continue on with their lives now.

“Max?”

She twitches at the voice, shoving the towel over her mouth to muffle her squeak. Niall’s knock vibrates the wood behind her back, and she says a silent plea for him to just go away. Leave her behind and forget about her.

“Max, please open the door. Please. I-I want to say I’m sorry. I am. I’m sorry. C’mon, don’t… Are you okay?”

He waits, but there won’t be a response. Max just needs him to go away. She needs so much more than what she has. He needs to pretend he never met her.

He’ll be safe then.

A cold sort of pain slithers up her spine, spreading through her body as she sits on the floor. The discomfort keeps her grounded. If she focuses on the pain, she can’t get lost in her thoughts, her memories. She can’t hear the sound of her heart breaking at the crack in Niall’s voice when he pleads for her to open the door.

She loses track of time as he knocks and begs, over and over and over again. Each word sends pain and regret through her chest. If she’d never said a word to him the day they met, this wouldn’t be happening. He could have gone about his day - his life - and she could have continued pretending not to exist.

She squeezes her eyes closed to stem the tears when his voice breaks again. He sounds so fragile, as if her refusing to answer him is a physical wound to himself. She isn’t worth it. She’s not worth anything he thinks he wants to give her. He deserves more.

She wishes she could turn back time. Not only to undo Gabriel and have her parents back, but to take the memory of her from Niall’s mind. So he never has to have met her. So she couldn’t have ever let him down.

It’s what she wants, but Max still sobs when he finally gives up. His footsteps are loud in the silence of the landing. His door shuts with a click that reminds Max of all that she’s giving up. She has made her choice, and now, she has lost not one but six potential friendships.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Happy Christmas. God, I wish I could say this to your face. It’s been 5 years. And I’m angry. I’m so damn angry - all the time. I should never have had to say goodbye to you.

Do you remember what you said to me on the last Christmas I spent with you guys, Dad? That no matter what, I’d always have a place to come home to? And I laughed and said I’d see you for New Years?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot today. I should have told you then that I wanted out. Of my marriage. Of the awful relationship. Of Gabriel’s possessive grip. I knew, I think, that that would be the last time I ever saw you two.

Because it was no surprise when he told me we’d be spending the 31st with his parents. When he kept putting off a visit with you. When he looked angry that I stopped asking - the bruises, the pain, the nights I cried myself to sleep weren’t worth it any more.

I made friends. Then I lost them. Rather, the fact I’m so messed up pushed them away. I lost control of myself. It’s okay, though. I didn’t deserve them anyway. Any of them.

I think you would’ve liked them, especially Nikki. She’s a lot like Val was - genuine and loving and so funny. Niall… I think he’s the kind of guy you’d hoped Gabriel would have been before we were all proved so horribly wrong.

So… another year down. Let’s hope there aren’t too many more.

Love, Max


She tucks the letter into the folder with the rest before shutting the safe. The music reaches its end then begins again, smooth and soft and dredging up memories - nights spent curled up between her parents as their wedding video played, watching them fall in love on-screen and live their love in real life. She knew, even then, that her parents had exactly what all the songs spoke of. They had the endless type of love, one without an expiry date.

She only wished she had it, herself.

Max drops to sit on the sofa, reaching for a throw pillow, and clutches it tightly to her chest. This isn’t how she wanted to spend today. Or the last five years of her life. She had hopes and dreams for her future; constantly running from her ex-husband wasn’t one of them.

The song starts again. Max has lost count of how many times she’s listened to Diana Ross and Lionel Richie today, but each repetition is as beautiful and painful as the one before. She closes her eyes against the tears and pretends.

Pretends that she’s still the same six-year-old who begged to see the video of her mommy dressed like a princess and her daddy promising to love her until death.

Pretends that she’s the nine-year-old girl with pigtails sneaking a kiss to Peter Johnson’s cheek.

Pretends that she’s the sixteen-year-old girl who didn’t know what love wasn’t.

Max lets herself remember all the Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings, ordinary days she spent with her family. Those times are long past, buried in her history to never happen again, but there is nothing to say she isn’t allowed to open the mental box of recollections. After all, they are all she has left.

Voices filter through the door, interrupting the music coming from her laptop. She sits up straighter and sets the pillow aside; the pounding of her heart drowns out all other noise. The knife is heavy, solid, in her hand by the time she recognises the voices.

She can’t understand what Dolly or Niall are saying, but she knows their voices. Her head grows quiet, safety smothering fear, and she waits until she hears the sound of their doors closing before she moves.

Hanging from her doorknob is a peppermint-striped cellophane bag, gleaming in the overhead lighting. The bow is lopsided but jolly in its flaws. A piece of paper is stapled to the bag, and spidery letters spell out her name. An envelope is taped to the door.

Max carefully removes the gifts and stares between Niall and Dolly’s doors. She hasn’t seen either of them since the night he raised his voice. She couldn’t handle the thought of seeing the anger or pity on their faces. Yet here they are, wasting their time to leave her little goodies to - what? Convince her they care?

She closes her door and slides the chain into place. The song still plays from the living room, but Max focuses on the gifts in her hands. She almost doesn’t want to open them; if she doesn’t, she can continue pretending she doesn’t care what they think of her. But if she does… then she has to live with the struggle of knowing they care about her.

Dolly’s note is simple - My door is always open, sugarplum - and Max’s hand trembles as she pulls a Christmas tree-shaped cookie from the bag. Her stomach rumbles with the aroma of spices and sugar, but all she can focus on is the appearance of the treat.

The bright green frosting is almost comical in its vividness, dotted with yellow and blue M&Ms for ornaments and strands of red licorice for garland. Max breathes out a wavering laugh even as she sniffles: It’s only a cookie, but it means so much more to her for it.

She draws in a steadying breath and raises the cookie to her lips, nibbling at the tip of the tree. Sweet explodes across her tongue, reminding her of the innocence of childhood. A warmth blooms in her chest, and the ghost of laughter flows across her mind like a summer breeze.

Wiping the crumbs from the collar of her shirt, Max reaches for the envelope. She stares blankly down at the loops and swirls that form three simple letters: Max. The handwriting is foreign to her, but it exudes a cheerfulness, an easygoing personality, a smile that could light up the darkest recesses of her soul with ease.

It screams of Niall.

I don’t know what went wrong the other night, but I am so sorry that I scared you. I never meant to. I had a lot going on in my head, and I took it out on you. You didn’t deserve it. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me? And let me know you’re all right? We’re worried about you. I’m worried about you.

Here’s a key to my place for if you ever need to come over and I’m not home - or even in the middle of the night.

Happy Christmas, Max.
xx


Z!! Whenever you need a break from your place (or if Niall is bothering you too much - don’t try to deny it. He’s a pest), you’re more than welcome to come over. No questions asked. Love you! - Nikki

At the bottom of the letter are two keys taped to the paper. One is silver, the other bronze-coloured like hers. Max peels them from the page, cradles them in the palm of her hand. They are such simple, ordinary objects, but they carry the weight of the world.

They are a sign of trust, of acceptance she doesn’t deserve. Despite the fact that none of them really know her - and the fact she’s put an abrupt end to two different hang-outs - these people still want her around. Max doesn’t know what to do with that knowledge. She can’t give them what they deserve, and she deserves a lot less than their friendship.

Before she can think too much on it, Max adds the keys to her keyring.

She also tucks the letter into her safe, wanting to treasure the stick-figure drawing of the group done in crayon on the back of the paper. She wonders if Nikki intentionally put Max’s figure so close to Niall’s, or if it was a happy accident.

Dolly grins widely and ushers Max in without hesitation. Three hours had gone by before Max had gathered up the courage to come over; she changed her mind, back and forth, then finally decided that if she couldn’t do this one simple thing after she’s been shown so much kindness, then she really does deserve to be alone. So here she is, stepping into her landlady’s flat and being jumped on by an exuberant Rottweiler.

Max has never seen the interior of Dolly’s place, but somehow, she isn’t surprised by the dozens of photos hanging on the beige walls or the fluffy purple rug spread across the floor. The angel figurines, however, are unexpected; they stare down at her from the floating shelves, as if keeping guard over the human who resides here. The closest experience Max has had with a celestial being is her ex-husband — only in name, because Gabriel the monster has few similarities to Gabriel the archangel.

She shakes away the thoughts and gingerly sits down on the couch, sinking almost instantly into the cushions. A small puff of dog furs floats in the air before settling back down on the dingy yellow fabric, and Max huffs out a laugh when Sugar climbs up onto her lap. The dog sniffs at her hands, her shirt, before dragging her tongue along Max’s jaw. Dolly smiles then settles into her recliner, exhaling heavily as she brings the footrest up.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she says idly with a gesture toward the television. “I always watch my Pat Sajak.”

Max swallows against the racing of her heart, the tightness in her throat. “I don’t. I mean, this is fine. I haven’t watched Wheel of Fortune in a long time, so this is okay.”

Sugar lets out a low groan when Max buries her fingers into the soft fur, scratching without thinking, and Dolly glances over and grins. Max pretends she doesn’t see; she just keeps her attention on the game show.

“I was glad to see you were getting out more and hanging out with Niall and his friends,” Dolly remarks once the show has gone to break, and Max can scarcely breathe as the other woman shuffles into the kitchen. “What happened with that?”

“I, uh… my ex-husband wasn’t a nice guy,” she admits slowly. “And I’ve been dealing with that for, for a very long time. And the other night, Niall kinda raised his voice at me. It just…”

Dolly comes back into the room. Max stares at the pink bunny slippers on her landlady’s feet instead of the pity she fears will be on Dolly’s face. She can’t handle pity. She does take a cookie from the plate that Dolly holds out.

“Lemme guess. It took you back to that time, even though you’re pretty much absolutely certain Niall would never put his hands on you.”

“Exactly.”

Dolly nods knowingly, sets the plate on the coffee-table with a warning to Sugar not to touch, then heads back to her chair. “Yeah, I’ve been there, baby, so lemme give you some advice, okay? It’s gonna be one helluva hard road, but get your feet beneath you and get you a good support system, and you’ll make it through.”

Max sniffles and blinks to get rid of the tears, but they come anyway. There is no stopping them. A fire burns in her throat, and Dolly looks away as Max wipes at her cheeks. Sugar whimpers, leans up to lick away the dampness on Max’s cheeks. Thankfully, Dolly doesn’t say anything else, just pays attention as Vanna White comes back on the screen.

“Thank you,” Max whispers, and Dolly’s answering smile is painted with sad edges, explaining more than words ever could.