Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-three

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Max closes her eyes at the sharp inhale on the other end of the line. There is a moment of silence, then anger and thunder fill her ear.

“Who the Hell do you think you are? Do you think this is funny? How dare -”

“No, Daddy, it’s… it’s me.”

“Makenzie?”

Her father has cried a few times in her life - when his parents passed, when Max graduated from high school, when he had to deliver the eulogy at his best friend’s funeral - but the tears she hears now are nothing like those. This is the sound of a man whose life has just suddenly been turned upside down, a man hearing the voice of a ghost he reluctantly let go of two and a half years ago.

A man who lost a daughter and got her back.

Max is no better, sobbing along with him. She’d had to forget her parents, to pretend they no longer existed, if only to keep them safe. Now, though… Now she doesn’t have to. She can call them whenever she wants, and no harm can ever come from it. The relief overwhelms the residual terror; what if they’d stopped caring? After all, it is her fault that she ever had to run away in the first place.

“Kenz, oh, my god. Is it - is it really you?”

Max lets out a watery laugh, nodding though her father can’t see her through the phone. “Yeah, it’s really me. It’s over, Daddy. It’s all over.”

“How?” he whispers, voice shaky and unsteady and so damn beautiful to her.

So she explains as best as she can through tears and hiccups and sniffles, tells her father about Gabriel having found her and losing her patience. His attack, the subsequent arrest and imprisonment. She pointedly leaves out the details of the damage caused: That particular information isn’t pleasant, and he doesn’t need to know.

“Daddy, I’m - I’m sorry. I should never have gotten with him, and I am, I’m so sorry.”

“No, baby, it’s okay,” he breathes, and Max wonders if he still pinches the bridge of his nose when he thinks. If his dark eyes, so like her own, are as expressive as she remembers. “I’m just so thankful that you’re okay. I swear, I should have killed him when I had the chance. But you’re okay? You -”

A second voice sounds in the background, another that Max never dreamed she would hear again in her life. “Martin, what are you doing on the phone at four in the morning? Sweetie, what’s wrong? Hello, who is this?”

“Hi, Mom.”

Katherine shrieks before it cuts off, as she’s clamped a hand over her mouth. “Makenzie? Darling, please tell me this isn’t a cruel joke.”

“Dad said the same thing,” Max giggles, but she can’t judge her mother, not when her heart is lighter than it has been in so long. “I’m safe, and he’s gone, Mama.”

All three of them are crying now, no one able to form coherent thoughts, and Max relishes it. She lets the sound of their tears and their joy to flood through her. The noise reminds her she’s very much alive, that she has fought so hard to reach this point, and she’s made it through. Her chest burns, aching from her struggle for breath and the way she hunches over, but it’s a negligible pain in the face of what she’s won.

Nothing can drown out this heady happiness, not even the abrupt appearance of Niall to her left. He sits next to her on the couch, one hand coming up to settle on her spine and the other gently pushing at her shoulders until she sits up straight.

She reaches for his hand without thinking, and Niall obliges, laces their fingers together, with a soft, sleep smile. If anyone deserves to bear witness to the emotional reunion, it’s him. The one who saved her from drowning in her despair.

“Oh, sweetheart, we’ve missed you so much,” her mother murmurs softly, and Max’s throat tightens. “Where are you?”

“I’m, uh, I’m in California.”

Katherine hums low her in throat, the frown evident when she says, “It must be late there. Go on, Kenzie, get some sleep. Call us first thing tomorrow.”

“I will, Mom, I swear. As soon as I wake up. I love you guys so much.”

“We love you, too, darling. It’s so wonderful to hear your voice again. Goodnight, Max.”

Max hangs up after three more minutes of listening to her parents telling her they love her, laughing through their tears, and she lets the phone clatter on the coffee-table. Immediately, Niall opens his arms, offers shelter against the storm that blows into her chest. She rests her head on his shoulder and cries. She has survived the war against her ex-husband, but the cost has always been too high.

She had to give up so much, and now that she has what she’s so deeply wanted since that late August afternoon, the opportunity terrifies her.

Niall’s thumb wipes away a tear, and his lips press to her forehead. “C’mon, you need to rest.”

She lets him lead her back to the bedroom, lets him tuck her in before lying down beside her. It’s easier to relax now, with her parents’ voices echoing in her ears. Her fingers press firmly into Niall’s chest, reminding her that he is right here, and she sighs and closes her eyes. His heart beats steadily under her palm, and his soft humming lulls her to sleep.

Max sits at the dining table the next morning, chin propped up on one hand, and stares down at the cup of coffee in front of her. She’d woken up multiple times through the night; each time, she had to double-check her call logs to make sure it wasn’t a dream. That she really phoned her parents, really got the chance to speak to them.

That this hasn’t all just been something she’s dreamt up to ease the pain of Gabriel’s anger.

The door swings open without warning, hits the wall, and Max’s grip tightens around her mug. Her breathing goes ragged, heart thumping painfully under her ribs. A voice in her head immediately starts counting the weapons in the room, ordinary items she can use to protect herself. She’s just climbed shakily to her feet when Dolly rounds the corner, a bright smile already on the older woman’s face.

“What the -”

Niall skids to a stop, green toothbrush hanging from his mouth. Max registers, in some small corner of her mind, that his button-down hangs open; she has no chance to admire the expanse of skin that’s exposed, not when acid is on her tongue. He removes the toothbrush from his mouth, striding over to the kitchen sink to spit out the foam.

“Morning, Dolly. Knock please.”

“I did!”

Max freezes when two pairs of eyes drift to her. She hadn’t heard a knock, too caught up in her thoughts. Shrugging awkwardly, she lowers herself back into her seat and sips at her coffee. Thankfully, neither Dolly nor Niall seem upset with her.

Niall stuffs his toothbrush into his mouth, scrubbing his teeth as he makes his way to the bathroom once more, and Dolly sits in the chair across the table. Her expression says she has something to say, and Max is uncertain as to whether she is going to like hearing it.

He drops a kiss to Max’s hair and leaves ten minutes later, fully dressed with a thermos of coffee in hand. She blows out a slow breath as the door settles into its frame, the click loud in the quiet. Dolly reaches for Max’s hand, patting gently, then crosses the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee.

“How ya doin’, doll?”

“I’m... okay, I suppose.”

“Okay, so now that we’ve gotten the polite response outta the way, how are you actually doing?” Dolly smiles at the way Max’s face twists up. “Remember, honey, I’ve been where you are.”

“Then you know I’m terrified. It makes no sense.”

“What do you mean?”

Max absentmindedly spins her mug on the tabletop, stares at the coffee that swirls and threatens to spill over the rim. “He’s gone. He’s going to be gone for a long, long time. But there’s-there’s a very vocal part of me that worries this is all a dream and I’ll wake up right back in that goddamn house.”

“I won’t lie to you, baby. It’s gonna be hard to break free from that mindset, but you’ll get there in time.” Dolly swallows a mouthful of coffee and lets out a long sigh, her finger running along the rim of her cup. “‘Member what I told you? To get a good support system?”

Max nods - how could she forget that suggestion? It was the first bit of well-intentioned advice she’s received since she was eighteen and making the biggest mistake of her life. The words have stuck in her head, she thinks, simply because Dolly has never sugarcoated it. She said it would be difficult.

“Well, you did. You got a great support system. I mean, I like to think I’m pretty damn amazing.”

“You are,” Max murmurs, grinning despite herself. “You and Sugar.”

“And you have Niall and his friends, too.” Dolly chuckles and shakes her head. “I honestly that he would kill that man. I didn’t think I’d get him to stop hitting your ex and focus on keeping you alive.”

“He-?”

Her voice fails, words trailing off into nothing. Images float to the surface of her mind, unbidden recollections of blood-stained knuckles and purpling flowers kissing his cheek. Anger sparks to life, burns her inside out. She grew accustomed to Gabriel, to being his human punching bag, but knowing without a doubt that he fought back... That he injured Niall...

Dolly continues, oblivious to Max’s struggle. Her smile has disappeared, and her voice is more awed. “Oh, yeah. That sweet boy disappeared and out came a vengeful angel.” Sighing, Dolly meets Max’s eye. “It’s gonna be a long, difficult road. You’ll be tempted to give up plenty of times. But sweetie, you will never be walking it alone.”

Max swallows down her protests - she can’t expect this group of lovely, warm, welcoming people to repeatedly give up their time and efforts for her - and instead tells Dolly about phoning her parents. Hearing their voices for the first time in years.

The landlady is surprised to hear the news; she admits that she assumed Max’s parents were dead, considering Max hasn’t spoken of them once since she moved in and they have never visited. Dolly concedes that it makes sense. If the Bauers had ever visited, it would have lead danger to her doorstep more quickly than it came.

Max is left alone after another hour, and she double-checks the locks once Dolly has retreated to her own flat. Now that there is no distraction, Max wonders what to do with herself.

The last day of court seems to have been the end of everyone thinking she shouldn’t be on her own. She relishes the isolation. It’s been standard practice for so long, having company was a dreadfully uncomfortable experience.

But as she stands in the middle of the living room, Max finds herself missing the noise.