Scars & Souvenirs

nineteen

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The house is quiet by the time Max drags herself to consciousness. Fatigue grasps at her, begs for her to stay. She’d woken again in the middle of the night - then once more at the first touch of dawn on the horizon - caught in the unrelenting grips of a nightmare and screaming for help.

Nikki had been there both times, her hazel eyes drowned dark with worry. Even as Max allowed Nikki to comfort her, she could see the exhaustion in the tightness around the other woman’s full lips, the yawns Nikki tried and failed to stifle, the hazy edges to her murmurs.

Grey skies outside the windows, the steady pattering of rain against glass, the slow rolls of thunder… It would be a peaceful setting - if it weren’t for the man sprawled across the couch, laptop balanced precariously on his stomach. His elbows stick out to the side as he types.

Max struggles to control her breathing as she stares at Harry. He looks at ease here, which makes sense: He probably spends a portion of his time in this house. His curly dark hair is pushed back from his face with a rainbow bandanna, his plump bottom lip caught between straight teeth while he considers whatever is on his screen. Every few seconds, his toes wiggle in the plain black socks that cover his feet. He scratches absentmindedly at his chest and curses quietly.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, his gaze strays from his computer, landing on Max almost immediately - as if he was checking on her. The frustration fades from his green eyes, and he grins brightly. A soft click as he closes his laptop, then he sets it aside.

“Good morning.”

Max exhales sharply, forces a smile in response. “Where’s Nikki?”

“Ah. She, uh, she had to go to work, so she asked me to keep you company today. Hope you don’t mind.”

“It’s fine.”

What else can she say? ‘I’m uncomfortable with your presence’ would be rude. Honest, sure, but rude. Besides, he has done nothing wrong. It isn’t his fault that she’s so broken by her past. So she fights for control over herself, to act as if she doesn’t wish the ground would swallow her whole.

Max watches him with distrusting eyes as he ambles into the kitchen. Glass clinks together, the sound bright and terrifying, dredging up memories of bottles disappearing one by one and anger mounting. Beeping then a low humming, the air vibrating with a buzzing so quiet that she wonders if she imagines it. She takes this momentary isolation to shift, to sit upright, and a hiss bursts free when the movement jars her ribs.

Harry reappears after a few minutes. In one hand is a blue plastic bowl with steam spiralling from the top as gently as a spring breeze. In the other is a short white bottle. He sets the antibiotics on the coffee-table and passes her the bowl.

She frowns but accepts the spoon he plucks from his pocket, as if he’d remembered it at the last moment but had no hands to carry it with. He seems completely oblivious to her internal struggle: Pretend she isn’t hungry, or trust that he hasn’t tainted the oatmeal.

Even after he’s sat back on the couch, Harry doesn’t look at her. Max belatedly realises that he’s trying to give her some semblance of privacy whilst simultaneously keeping an eye on her. Throat tightening - whether from fear or gratitude, she isn’t sure - she decides to risk possible poisoning, if only to pay him back for this kindness.

The spiced sweetness of apple-cinnamon explodes on her tongue, and her body fills with the warmth of cold December mornings and “coffee” with her father before school. She never knew then how much those hours would mean to her as an adult, but she knows now.

Max forces down as much of the oatmeal as she can, which turns out to be less than half of the bowl. Harry gives her a smile that seems off, somehow, before she recognises the unfamiliarity of it: Pride. He’s proud that she’s eaten. Something so trivial, an action that billions of people do every single day without someone who’s nearly a stranger grinning so brightly at them. And yet here she is, here Harry is, sharing this completely ludicrous moment.

“Should I go back to mine?” she asks on a whisper when Harry has come back from washing her dishes. She oddly hopes that the glass of water in his hand is for her. It is.

He pauses with the pill bottle tilted over one palm, and she sees the minute twitch in the fingers of his other hand. His eyes dart from her face to the pills, lips tugging down into a frown. “Is that what you want?”

“I… I don’t know,” she admits lowly. “I just know that you lot have done so much to help me, and it isn’t fair on you to sacrifice -”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” he interjects firmly, and Max immediately falls silent - is he angry with her? Has she made a fatal mistake? “Not one of us would be helping you if we didn’t want to.”

Her voice cracks as she protests, “But you don’t even know me.”

Harry sighs, handing her the pill, then perches on the coffee-table. “That’s true, I suppose, but… Max, we all carry around our own baggage. Some may have a backpack, others an entire Gucci luggage set. No matter the size, no one is empty-handed. Why wouldn’t we want to help ease your load a little?”

Max can’t meet his eye. There is too much earnestness on his face, too much pleading in his eyes for her to understand. To accept what he is saying. She can’t, though. He might be telling her the truth, but she isn’t worthy. She doesn’t deserve their help. She breaks everything she touches. Marrying Gabriel had been meant to start a fairy-tale life of love.

Instead, it ended with her life on the line and no escape.

“You’re not burdening us, okay?”

When she doesn’t say anything, Harry’s lips quirk into a small smile, and he nods and stands. As he crosses the room to the couch, Max places the antibiotic on her tongue, swallows it down with a mouthful of water. A large part of her wants to argue with what Harry has told her, but an even bigger voice tells her that irritating him is a poor way of showing her gratitude. So instead, she runs her fingertip along the rim of her glass and asks what he’s working on.

“Hmm? Oh, a mock case deposition.” Harry glances up from his laptop with a slight frown on his lips. He must read the puzzlement on her face clearly because his expression clears. “I’m in school to become a lawyer. Gotta fight the good fight, right?”

Lawyer. The only experience she’s had with lawyers have been negative. One too many turned her away when she reached out for help, begged for any course of action that could stop Gabriel from what he’s done to her. There wasn’t ‘enough evidence’. Max can only hope that Harry is better, that he’s more willing to listen to potential clients.

Even with him just across the room, Max manages to doze off. It isn’t for long, judging by the fact he hasn’t moved by the time she jolts to awareness, but it still surprises her. Though she doesn’t quite fear Harry ever hurting her, there is still a severe lack of trust on her part.

She can’t deny, however, that it is peaceful to listen to the keys clacking, his steady breathing, and the gentle rain on the windows. It’s easy enough to pretend that she’s only stayed home from work to enjoy the rainy weather, the laziness that comes with a day free of responsibilities.

Nikki and Niall are just stepping through the front door when she wakes for the fifth time, and something settles in her chest at the sight of him. It makes no sense, really. He isn’t much to her - except her saviour. The one who rescued her from Gabriel’s wrath. The one who sat with her in the hospital. The one who evidently claimed to be her fiance in order to stick by her side.

He isn’t nothing. He’s just something she is petrified to put a name to.

“Hey, I, um, I brought you some clothes,” he announces when he sees her awake, holding up a plastic shopping bag.

Max’s lips tremble, but she doesn’t let the tears fall. She doesn’t let herself jerk away from his outstretched hands, the warmth and gentleness as he eases her to her feet, the way his fingers feel like a promise of protection as they wrap around hers. Nikki leads them to a bedroom - hers, if Max can trust that Liam doesn’t decorate with fuzzy neon-coloured pillows and painted walls the shade of lemons. Niall makes sure that Max is okay, then he leaves the room, pulls the door closed behind him.

Neither woman speaks as Nikki carefully pulls Max’s shirt off, whispering apologies each time Max bites back a whimper of pain. Cold rushes over her bare skin, goosebumps prickling to life, and Max shivers as she waits for Nikki to dig the clothes out of the bag. Nikki doesn’t move.

Instead, she stares at Max’s chest with wide eyes, a strangled noise escaping as her gaze roams over the skin. Max closes her eye when Nikki moves around her. Nikki’s breathing grows ragged, and her fingers brush a lock of hair from Max’s face.

“Who did this to you? Give me a name, and I swear I will kill them.”

“Please,” Max whispers tremulously; she can’t bear the thought of voicing Gabriel’s name aloud, of admitting that this is all her fault.

“Right. Helping you, then committing murder.”

A reluctant giggle slips from Max as Nikki nods determinedly and reaches for the bag. She’s gentle, her touch tender, but Max still grits her teeth against the cry that bursts from her lungs. Fire pulsates through her chest, and she struggles to breathe steadily while Nikki deftly does up the buttons on the pyjama top.

“Want a minute?”

Max shakes her head. “Get it over with.”

“Zee, you look like you’re about to pass out.”

“I trust you to catch me if I do.”

It’s mostly a joke, said on a breathless laugh, but Max is struck speechless at how true the words are. Thankfully, Nikki only smiles in response, promising to at least try to not let Max hit the floor, instead of commenting - or judging. The amusement fades rapidly, her expression growing darker when she kneels down to help Max step into the matching pyjama bottoms. The position gives her a clear view of the knotted skin and pink-silver circles that blemish Max’s thighs.

Tendrils of pain snake up and down her legs, ghosts of cigarettes tattooing raw skin beneath their red lips, and Max can smell the burning flesh and hear her screams. A chill runs through her at the echo of Gabriel’s laugh. Lacking any warmth, it’s the laugh of a man not human.

She should have heard the truth before she lived it. There had to have been a sign, a clue to the reality Max was signing up for as she scrawled her name along the dotted line.

The haunting sadness in Janet Ferriman’s eyes had warned Max to run, but Max had been too hopeful - too naive - to recognise it. She’d had no idea that the tears weren’t of happiness, but of regret. Janet was just as much a victim as Max would become in four short months, and Max sees it all so clearly now.

Staring down at the pyjamas, Max can’t help but frown. Her gaze drags from the unfamiliar pattern of smiley faces to the price tags on the bed, up to Nikki’s face.

“These aren’t mine.”

Nikki shrugs awkwardly, scooping up the tags to toss them in the bin by the nightstand. “Walmart was on our way here.”

She wants to argue, to strip down to her underwear and beg for Nikki to return the outfit, but Max’s head is swimming too much to think properly. The words float to the surface and dart away, little minnows fleeing from anything that dare disturbs the water. Nikki cocks her head, questions in her eyes - questions that Max can’t answer. So she draws in a shaky, steadying breath then takes careful steps toward the door.

By the time Niall and Harry ease her down onto the couch, Max is completely drained; it might be the pain in her face and chest, or it might be the lack of restful sleep over the last two and a half days. It might be both. She isn’t certain. All she knows is she does not want to move again for the next fifty years. Nikki’s quiet voice comes from the other couch, but Max doesn’t listen to what her friend is saying.

She is far too distracted by the fatigue and the warmth of Niall’s body so near. The lingering fears, the doubts of whether she’s worthy of Niall and his friends, even the homesickness… It all fades away as she leans heavily into the arm of the couch, shifting slightly to get more comfortable.

Niall tucks the blanket around her bare feet, and Max shivers at the soft contact of his skin against hers. Between the abrupt lack of turbulence in her mind and the exhaustion she’s carried in her bones for years, she finds herself dozing off more quickly than she expected, feeling like - for once - she won’t be punished for this sign of imperfection. The weakness of needing someone else. She is enshrouded by the safety that she’s not found in so long.