Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-two

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Max wakes to two phones vibrating on either nightstand, alarms sounding in sync with one another, and a warm hand curled around her wrist. She stares down at Niall’s fingers, breathing out slowly. She has never felt so at peace with someone else in bed with her, not since she was a child and clambered into her parents’ bed in the middle of the night after having a nightmare.

Niall groans, buries his face in his pillow, and she bites her lip to stop the giggle. It’s her fault that he’s exhausted. She knows it is. If she’d not kept him awake last night, asking for a story simply because she was struggling to fall asleep, he would have gotten enough rest for a day of teaching.

She should have just tried harder - or accepted that sleep wasn’t going to come. Instead, she’d seen he was still awake and demanded more of his time. The amusement abruptly spoils to guilt.

Niall peers at her through narrowed eyes, then he scrubs a hand over his face and sits up. His hair points in all directions, and pillow-lines crisscross his cheek. “Morning.”

“Morning. Sleep well?”

“Well enough,” he responds through a wide yawn. “I’ll go make some coffee while you get ready.”

Ready. Court. Right. Max blows out an unsteady breath but carefully climbs out of bed. The T-shirt she wears - one of Niall’s, oversized and worn thin - slips off her shoulder as she heads to the bathroom across the hall.

Nikki had taken her shopping last week for what her friend dubbed ‘courtroom-appropriate attire’, and now, the last of the three outfits hangs on the back of the door. Soft lines meant to accentuate her frailty, somber colours to reflect the devastation Gabriel has caused. Max will never understand how Nikki can say so much in something as trivial as clothing options.

She leaves her hair down today, doesn’t bother with makeup. No matter the outcome, she knows she is going to cry, and it would be a waste of mascara. Max brushes her teeth to the music of mugs scraping against the shelf in the cupboard, the clatter of the coffeepot on the burner, Niall singing quietly to himself. I can do this, she thinks as she stares at herself in the mirror.

Even if she can’t, she has to. This has been a long time coming, and she can’t afford to let this chance for freedom slip through her fingers.

Later, she won’t remember Sugar’s slobbery kiss or the tight embrace and words of encouragement from Niall before they separate at their cars, nor will she recall the drive to the courthouse, going through security, waiting for the case to be called. But she will never forget how horribly she trembles in her seat, the bile that sits in the back of her throat.

The anger and desperation as she’s brought to the stand.

The weight of her salvation resting too heavily on her shoulders.

It’s a nightmare come to life, being asked to list off every vile thing she has endured as if she’s doing nothing more than reading the week’s forecast. To prove beyond the shadows of doubt that the attack on her life wasn’t an impassioned, heat-of-the-moment thing. That her ex-husband has spent years building up to this.

The defence attorney interrupts as a devil does; he casts disbelief on her words and makes Max question her own memories. But then she looks at Gabriel’s face - so unlike the angel he was named after - and everything comes rushing in.

If God Himself were in the courtroom, she would ask Him why He made her suffer this way. Why didn’t He protect her as a father does his child? Why wasn’t she deserving of His love and saving Grace?

But her faith in God was broken long ago with her wrist, sat in a hospital bed for the first time of many for a cast-fitting. It shattered even further with the first, second, fifth time she heard the monotonous, emotionless voice: “There’s no heartbeat.” It vanished from existence the day she realised that if God exists, He’s a damned cruel, sadistic god who picks and chooses who to save. Her belief is better served elsewhere.

In her own strength.

In her courage.

In her heart and soul.

In her desire to live - really live, instead of just surviving.

In herself.

So she recounts every last detail, voice wavering but echoing throughout the room, reaching the stars above. Twelve pairs of eyes from her left, a pair from her right, and too many to count in the gallery. She doesn’t falter even as her tormentor glares from his seat, his attorney desperately trying to overrule and protest and save his client from damnation. Her own smiles encouragingly.

Max tells them everything.

The verdict comes quickly, given with a face painted with disgust and shining eyes, and it’s over. The Hell she has lived in for so long is put to an end. Max is left with numerous, uncountable scars, souvenirs of all that Gabriel has done to her, but she no longer has to live in fear. She can stop looking over her shoulder. She doesn’t have to wonder when he will find her next.

He will never touch her - or anyone else - ever again.

Max shakes Brent’s hand, surprised to see even he’s gone a little emotional from the forewoman’s announcement. He tells her to go home, celebrate her freedom, and figure out what she is going to do with the rest of her life now that it’s wide-open. She hesitates then embraces him tightly.

She never could have done this without his assistance. He’s the one who has sat right beside her throughout the entire proceedings, whispering encouragement and promising that he’s not going anywhere. It has been a lifeline, and she could never thank him enough.

The heat of the day is nothing compared to the fire inside of her chest. She’s free. A month after he turned her life upside down yet again, Gabriel is now a closed chapter in her story. Max can finally start healing from all the torment and torture she’s suffered at his hands.

Cool wind rolls through the open window, whipping her hair around her face as she drives down the Pacific Coast Highway. She hasn’t bothered turning the radio on, attempting to find a station that comes in clearly - there’s no point when the music in her heart is so loud, so beautiful.

She laughs aloud, sticks her arm out of the window to feel the sunshine and the world that she’s missed out on for so long. Her ribs ache, remind her that they are still healing, but she ignores the pain. Nothing can bring her down now. Gravity is a nuisance; all she wants to do is float as high, be as unweighted, as she feels.

It’s a split-second decision, pulling into the car park, and Max stares out at the steel-grey of the ocean. Sunlight dances along the surface, sending dazzling fragments into the air with each wave that crashes. Braver people than she are already surfing, as if the cold doesn’t bother them.

As if they are merely extensions of the sea beneath their boards, they ride each crest and ebb with ease. She feels the same thrum in the air that they do - the freedom that stretches limitlessly, no chains holding them under the tides but lifting them into free-fall. She is without a cage. For once, her wings have room to spread, and they will never again be clipped by her demons.

The minutes slip by, an hour then two melting away from her. By the time she parks in her space in front of the apartment building, she has twenty text messages waiting to be read and seven voicemails to listen to. She grins and shoves her phone into her pocket, locking the doors as she steps out of the car.

The Dubenich kids stare up at her while she passes, the chalk in their hands going neglected. Complimenting the youngest’s scribbles, Max says a quick hello to their mother then makes her way through the front door. Even walking past her door can’t affect her more than a slight shiver down her spine.

She pauses, presses a palm to the wood. Inside lies the memory of that awful day, the day that changed everything. Her fingers tremble, but she doesn’t reach for the doorknob. Walking into her flat will only shatter the peace she’s finally found.

Niall sees her first, rising to his feet as she toes off her heels. The sound of the television fades when she steps further into the living room, and she squirms awkwardly under the sudden scrutiny of her friends as they stare at her.

But Niall steals her attention, comes to a stop in front of her. The question is obvious in his eyes, in the furrow of his brows and the tightness in his jaw.

A silent vow to burn the world down if she only says the word.

“He’s gone,” she whispers, her smile breaking free as her vision blurs. “He’s really gone.”

Niall’s hands come up to cup her cheeks, a soft touch that only exacerbates the contentedness that consumes her. “I am so, so proud of you,” he murmurs before his lips are on hers.

It’s a small thing, just the barest brush, but Max’s breath hitches. She freezes then melts into the contact; the terror is quiet, muted by the utter security that fills every inch of this flat that feels like home. Niall kisses her again then moves away, off to the kitchen. She stares after him for a moment, puzzled but pleased, and meets Nikki eye.

“I have no idea,” mouths Nikki, and while it doesn’t give Max any answers, it does make her feel better in her confusion.

Max heads to the bedroom, unable to fight back her smile. Gabriel is gone, and she has these wonderful friends now. She can grant herself permission to grow closer to them. She is allowed to embrace Nikki’s ever-patient persistence, Louis and his quick smiles, Zayn and Harry’s quiet encouragement. Liam with his sweetness.

And Niall.

Niall and his strong stability, his tender touch and distractions at the ready and the soft kiss that lingers on her lips. She can have all of this - if she lets herself.

A T-shirt is draped across the bed, the smiley face pyjama pants folded neatly under the shirt. Max stares at the clothing. Did Niall do this? She doesn’t remember when she began wearing his clothes to bed, but he evidently doesn’t mind. This is, however, the first time he’s laid anything out for her. Her fingers pick at a scab on the back of her hand, given to her by Sugar on a lazy afternoon spent cuddling on the couch. What does this mean?

Deciding not to think further on it, Max closes the door and strips down to her underwear. Her gaze stays firmly locked on anything other than her body, the silver and pinks that mar her skin. Gabriel may be locked away now, but the scars he gave her remain. She may never be okay with that, but all she can do right now is look forward to what’s ahead. Her future is so much brighter with the day’s results. That’s all she needs to focus on.

Niall’s shirt settles around her, hanging off of her too-thin frame like a tent, and she breathes in the scents that cling to the fabric. It’s a mixture of laundry detergent, deodorant, and body wash - the physical manifestations of her newfound safety. The security that gave her hope and strength to fight for her life. Max wonders if this is how everyone else feels, all the time, this warmth in their chest and dreams in their blood. It is foreign to her, but she finds that it’s rather pleasant, if terrifying.

She wants to keep it.

Once she’s dressed in the pyjamas, Max returns to the living room. Harry stands, holding his arms out with a question on his face, and she hesitates only for a second before stepping into his space. His arms wrap around her, hold her close. It isn’t the same as being held by Niall, but it warm and wonderful nonetheless. It’s an acceptance and admission of pride, a congratulations for her getting through the toughest week of her life.

After Harry come the others: Liam, Zayn, Louis. Nikki doesn’t bother waiting for permission. She hugs Max as tightly as her still-healing ribs will allow, and the pain reminds Max that she’s alive. She’s free. This time was the last time Gabriel will ever ruin her. Nikki pulls back after a moment, and her fingers push a lock of hair behind Max’s ear.

“Maybe someday you can tell me what happened, but for now, I’m just glad you’re still here.”

Max smiles, nodding with tears in her eyes. “So am I.”

Nikki leads her to the couch, and Max drops to sit between her friend and Niall. Someone presses play on the remote; the show resumes, but she can’t concentrate on the office manager making a fool of himself, the employees who placate his childish tantrum. All that runs through Max’s mind is that this is a new beginning. Her life has a fresh start, one in which her ex-husband has no control. She has the freedom to do what she wants, build friendships with whomever she wants. She can be who she wants.

Max blinks the tears away rapidly, blowing out a slow breath as she leans to her right. Her head rests on Niall’s shoulder, and his hand rests on her knee. The touch should scare her - especially after seeing Gabriel, reliving the torment, for hours every day over the past week - but the lack of fear assures her that he’s different. Niall is different and so much better, and her trust is well-placed.

Liam is the first to leave around eight-thirty, claiming an early shift in the morning, and Zayn and Harry say their goodnights an hour later. Louis ends up having to half-carry, half-drag Nikki out the door shortly before eleven, apologising for overstaying their welcome and drinking all the wine.

Niall cleans up the various beer bottles and dirty dishes, while Max locks the door. He’s taken to allowing her to do this portion of the nighttime routine, gifting her the sense of safety of her own making. He doesn’t judge her for needing to lock it multiple times in a row, just so the static in her mind will ease.

Unfortunately, one o’clock finds Max still awake, curled into Niall’s side as he snores lightly. Everything she has fought for, all that she has dreamt of, for so long has finally come to fruition. So why can she not sleep with the serenity that has exuded itself into her very soul?

She stares up at Niall, at his relaxed face and the stubble that dots his jaw, then carefully shifts until her feet are on the floor. He doesn’t stir even as the bedroom door squeaks, as she curses when she stubs her toe on the corner of the wall.

Her phone is still on the coffee-table where she left it before going to bed. Dropping to sit on the couch, Max reaches over to turn on the lamp and stares down at the device. Innocuous, innocent, an everyday item that has become vital to the existence of most of the human race. Yet it mocks her now.

She scoops it up, unlocking it on instinct, and stares down at the wallpaper. Her fingers move on their own, tap against the screen.

“Hello?”

Words get stuck in her throat. Tears spring to her eyes, and Max clamps a hand to stifle the sob. All that she’s felt for the last thirty months surge to the forefront of her mind, overwhelming in the grief and loneliness. A scoff, heavy sigh, then:

“Hello? Look, if you’re not going to answer,I’m hanging up. It’s four in the morning, and I don’t have time for this. All right, I’m -”

“Daddy?”