Scars & Souvenirs

eighteen

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Max stares through the window at the house, at the faded red paint and trim stained grey and green from years in the elements. Niall had pestered her until she agreed to stay with Nikki for the duration of her recovery, and Max already regrets giving in. She’d planned on going back to her flat and staying there until she healed up. Instead, she’s been convinced to take over a bedroom in the house Nikki shares with Harry and Louis, while they stay with Niall.

She breathes in as steadily, as deeply, as possible and grimaces at the sharp stab of pain that lances through her chest. Doctor Bahl had stressed how lucky Max is to not have a pierced lung due to the angle of the broken rib, but that doesn’t mean that breathing doesn’t hurt like Hell right now. She should be used to the pain - after all, this is not the worst she has endured.

Max reaches for the door handle, biting back a soft curse when the motion pulls at her ribs. A gentle hand on her wrist forces her to freeze, stomach churning as her heart kicks into overdrive. Niall immediately releases her; his quiet apology is barely hard over the blood roaring in her ears.

Before either of them can say more, the front door opens, and Zayn rushes down the walk from the house. Max frowns as he pulls open her door, but then she realises - he wants to help. Tears prick at her eyes, and her throat tightens. Help is unfamiliar. Foreign.

The last time she was in a hospital, she’d had to grit her teeth against the agony, find a way home on her own, and cook Gabriel’s dinner without a word.

She should have poisoned him.

They’d had an infestation of roaches - she remembers it clearly, it was the reason she even hobbled herself to the nearest emergency room. The cockroaches were “her fault”. She remembers having to scour the entire house every day and lay down traps, sprinkle pesticide everywhere. Even with four broken ribs, a fractured wrist, and a dislocated jaw, it was her responsibility. There was an abundance of the chemicals in the cupboard.

He knew she would never be stupid enough. Brave enough.

She should have.

Zayn gives her a sympathetic smile. “I’m really sorry.”

Max wants to ask, but she doesn’t get the chance. She barely has time to draw in a breath before he’s sliding one arm behind her back, the other under her thighs, and he gingerly lifts her from the seat and out of the car. Fire erupts throughout her chest, a gasp bursting forth, and he repeatedly apologises even as he shifts her more securely in his arms.

Finally - right as Max begins to believe this pain is all she will ever know - he sets her down on the couch with movements so gentle, it brings tears to her eyes. It’s a far cry from before, the reality she knew for so long. Nikki tucks a blanket securely around Max, a tremulous smile on her heart-shaped face. Her hazel eyes gleam suspiciously brighter, but Nikki doesn’t let the tears fall. She steps back as Niall crouches next to the couch with a white-capped orange bottle in his hand.

“I know Doctor Bahl said you didn’t have to take the pain medication, but will you anyway? Please?”

Max hesitates. She hasn’t been prescribed any painkillers since she was seventeen, having just had surgery to remove her gallbladder. She can hardly recall what it felt like to willingly be under the influence. The morphine in the hospital seems so long ago now. Time seems to have frozen yet simultaneously sped by. Niall sucks his lower lip between his teeth, stares at her with a soft pleading in his eyes.

She’s so tired of being in pain.

Zayn hands her a glass of water, Niall pours a pill into her hand. Nobody watches as she places the pill on her tongue, closes her eyes, and swallows.

“Call me if you need me, okay?” Niall whispers before pushing to his feet.

“You’re leaving?”

“Yeah, I-I still have to talk to the cops about what happened, and you need to rest.” He pauses then cards his fingers through her hair. “I’ll come by later if you want me to.”

Max nods shakily and watches him leave, Zayn close behind. She wants to beg Niall to stay - he made her feel safe while she was in the hospital bed, during all the time she’s spent with him… She doesn’t want him to go. To leave her alone. She wants her angel to stay by her side.

Selfishness is ugly, Makenzie, why do you wanna be ugly?

“Shut up,” she mutters as she presses a hand to her ribs.

Nikki pokes her head around the corner, frowning as she takes in Max alone on the couch. “Did you say something?”

Max shakes her head. What can she even say? ‘Oh, I’m fine after my ex-husband apparently attacked me though I don’t remember anything, but I’m fine’? That will only open the door to questions she can’t answer. It’s horrible enough that Dolly knows the truth and even worse, she understands the fear. The pain.

The last thing Max wants is to drag Nikki even further into this nightmare.

She blinks slowly, and the room is filled with the orange-gold that comes with a sunset. The television plays quietly, but Nikki pays no attention to the show as she sits cross-legged at the coffee-table. She mutters something to herself, scrawls something on the paper in front of her, and scribble something else out.

Haze shrouds itself over Max’s vision, fuzzy and distorted. She blinks again, and darkness presses in against the windows. Lamplight washes the room a soft pink, the sky through the glass black and unending. Nikki is nowhere to be seen, but her voice comes from the other room.

Max can’t understand what her new friend is saying, has no hope of understanding the words. She can only cling to the safety of the knowledge that she isn’t alone. She draws in a steadying breath before carefully pushing herself to sit upright.

Are you still watching “Parks and Recreation”?

There are so many shows that Max has missed out on over the years, but she doubts that she would ever be interested in a documentary about a government branch. The remote sits on the coffee-table beside a stack of papers. Is she allowed -?

“Oh. I gotta go, I’ll call you - Yeah, she - oh, my God, tell Niall she’s fine and he’ll get proof of life soon.” Nikki hangs up with a frustrated groan then smiles brightly. “Hey, Zee, how are you feeling?”

Max pauses, takes stock of her body. Now that Nikki has asked, the gauze around her mind is quickly peeling away, leaving Max exposed to the radiating pain that takes its place. Her muscles have stiffened with fatigue and the awkward position she slept in. Her face hurts, her chest is full of fire, and she can hardly breathe now that the painkiller has worn off.

But she doesn’t want to take any more medication. Not being alert only brings danger. The danger is gone now. Is it? Max picks at a thread poking up from the quilt, chewing on her bottom lip. She doesn’t want to ask, to risk Nikki not knowing or to be told the threat is still here.

But she needs to know.

“What happened?”

Nikki sighs, lowering herself into the armchair. “I’m not really sure. One minute, Niall tells us he’s on his way, then almost two hours later, he’s ringing me to say something’s happened and he’s at the hospital.”

“He didn’t tell you?”

It’s a small comfort when Nikki shakes her head, says that all she knows is Max needs a place to stay and Louis and Harry had to leave. Max blinks away the tears as quickly as she can, but Nikki sees them anyway. Somehow, she knows what they mean.

“Hey, don’t worry. They didn’t mind, I promise. Even without knowing the full story, they were packing a bag and out the door within seconds of us getting the call.”

“I didn’t want to burden anyone,” Max whispers, ducking her head - this isn’t what she wanted.

“Oh, Max.” Nikki moves to sit on the couch, slowly reaches for Max’s hand. “You aren’t burdening anyone. You need help, and we want to help.”

Nikki smiles, a soft sympathetic twist of her lips, and hands Max a tissue. Once Max has carefully wiped the tears from her cheek, she lets out a slow breath and closes her eye against the tentative warmth that settles in her chest. She hardly believes what Nikki is saying, but she’s so tired. Too tired to fight it. So she sniffles and asks Nikki for another pill.

Screams echo off the walls, bitten-back pleas falling from numb and bloody lips. Max wants to tell the voice to shut up - noise only brings harsher punishment, and the tears will just exacerbate Gabriel’s anger. He will find greater deranged pleasure in forcing more cries from her lungs

Why won’t the screaming stop? You’re going to make it worse. The shrill shrieking continues despite her begging, but another voice has joined in. A softer one she isn’t used to, no rage or promises of Hell to lace the words. Please go away before he finds you, too.

Fire erupts in her chest, explodes from her very breastbone to consume her heart and its bone prison, and the screaming dissolves into coughing. Max gasps and chokes on the agony. Her blood is ice in her veins, chilling her through as she struggles to catch her breath.

“Are you okay?”

Max flinches, instinctively bringing her hands up to shield her face, and Nikki apologises quietly. Her fingers are gentle as she tucks the blanket in around Max, her voice soft and sweet as she assures Max that everything is okay, she’s safe here.

The pain slowly fades, though it lingers as a tightness around her ribs, and Max coughs once more then slumps into the couch. Nikki holds out a cup, and Max stares at the lurid lime green plastic for a moment before taking it. The first sip of cool water eases the ache in her throat, and soon enough, she swallows the last of the water.

“It’s been about six hours,” whispers Nikki, as if she’s afraid speaking too loudly will spook Max. “Do you want another painkiller?”

Max shakes her head and shifts awkwardly in her seat. “Uh, where’s the toilet?”

It should be awkward, having Nikki gingerly pull her to feet and guide her down a short hallway, but Max has craved this connection for years. She’s needed something more than four empty walls and the terror that’s haunted her. So she swallows down the unfamiliarity, the panic-laced discomfort, and allows herself to accept the help.

It feels less like pathetic reliance on another person and more like being held afloat by the hands of a saviour.