Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-six

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“So what exactly is this?” Max asks as she follows Dolly down the stairs the next night, Sugar’s leash heavy in her hands.

“I’m going to guess that you aren’t a fan of surprises.”

“Not particularly, no.”

Dolly sighs, coming to a stop by her old Jeep. She pulls open the door, clicking her tongue, and Sugar jumps up into the cab. When she finally looks at Max, her grey-blue eyes are full of something unreadable. “I’m taking you to a support group meeting for survivors of domestic violence.”

“But I’m - ”

“A survivor of domestic violence, honey.” Dolly’s face softens, and she smiles gently. “Max, you’ve been through Hell. You deserve support from people who understand what you’re dealing with.”

Max stares at the other woman, unable to speak. She knows Dolly means well. That if anyone what the next step should be, it’s the woman who has been an amazing stand-in mother. But is Max ready to speak of the evil perpetrated against her by her ex-husband? She can scarcely admit it to herself, let alone a room full of strangers.

Dolly pats her arm with a tenderness that causes an ache in Max’s chest. “You don’t have to say a word if you aren’t ready. Hell, you don’t even have to go back if you don’t want to. I just wanted you to know what’s waiting for you when you’re ready.”

Max can’t argue with that.

Thankfully, Dolly doesn’t try for conversation during the drive. She merely turns the radio on to a station playing oldies and sings along. Her voice is too rough, off-key and sharp, but Max finds it pleasant enough.

It’s real, something for her to focus on instead of the doubts swirling in her mind. The worries that this is going to be a dead end and she will leave feeling more haunted. The visceral fear that this is something she will never heal from.

Bob Dylan’s voice cuts off abruptly when Dolly pulls the key from the ignition. Max stares at the large house, well-trimmed grass and a garden gnome beaming as it holds a lantern aloft. The scene is drastically different from what she imagined.

She expected a multi-suite building or a church, something impersonal with an empty car park. She never would have thought the meeting would be held in a home that looks like it’s held generations, passed down through the line as more and more love stains its walls. Five cars sit out front - two in the driveway, another two and Dolly’s Jeep against the kerb.

Max is jolted from her thoughts by a wet tongue against her cheek. She huffs out a laugh and reaches back to scratch behind Sugar’s ear. Glancing at Dolly, Max nods succinctly. Better to not put this off any longer. Even though she knows she is doing this for Dolly, to repay the woman for all that she has done, Max hopes it will help.

The man who answers the door greets Dolly enthusiastically, hugging her tightly. Max examines the decor as the other two chat. Photographs line the plain white walls, faces spanning years judging by the tabs on each frame. The group has grown larger, especially between 2014 and 2015, but something seems off about the one from two years ago. She looks closer.

A man, one who has been in every photograph since the second frame, is nowhere to be found. The members still in 2016 aren’t smiling as much; shadows linger on their faces, and Max swallows thickly when she recognises the dark touch of loss. Mourning. A heavy weight settles in her gut as she says a silent prayer for the man killed by his monsters.

“Ah. I see you’ve noticed.”

She glances at the man who steps up beside her. “How’d you know?”

“Everybody wears that same expression when they realise Devon isn’t anywhere after ‘15.” He sighs, his body slumping as he wipes a speck of dust from the frame that holds Devon’s final picture. “Anyway. The meeting is about to begin. Head to the kitchen to grab a snack and drink. We’ll be in the living room when you’re ready.”

Max dips her chin in acknowledgement and watches him walk toward the door. Dolly winks then disappears through an archway where most of the voices seem to have congregated. Max sighs quietly, turns toward the end of the hallway. Two women already stand around the island counter, chatting animatedly, when she steps into the kitchen.

“Oh! Hi there,” the blonde woman chirps, grinning, once she catches sight of Max. “Don’t be shy. Take whatever you want. Did you bring a snack?”

“Was-was I supposed to?”

The other woman sighs and shakes her head. “Of course not, sweetie. Pay no mind to Beck. Dan, Kendra, and Meg usually deal with refreshments. You can bring something if you want, but it’s not a requirement.”

Max tugs the sleeves of her hoodie down over her hands, approaching the counter with no small amount of trepidation. Beck flashes her an encouraging smile, listing off all the snacks that are laid out. Tension grips Max tightly at the variety - the sheer amount of choice. The most she has eaten in the way of sweets was the package of wafer cookies she bought on her first shopping trip. The reward for another refuge without being caught. Does this decision come with repercussions?

“You allergic to anything?” the second woman asks softly, as if she is afraid of scaring Max. As if she understands the uncertainty. When Max shakes her head, the woman grabs a plate and places on it a brownie and a lemon cookie. “Here, hun. You’ll love ‘em.”

Max chokes out a ‘thanks’ and immediately pivots on her heel. The women’s voices follow her out of the room, but she can’t make out what they are saying. She doesn’t care to - all she wants to do is find Dolly and Sugar, soak up the comfort of their familiarity. Or go home. Back to Ann Arbor six years ago, before she ever let Gabriel make such a disaster of her life.

Max scans the living room from the archway, breathing out a sigh of relief when she sees the empty spot next to Dolly on the couch. She has just sat down when Beck and the other woman come into the room. Max keeps her head ducked as they find their own places in the group, and the man from before clears his throat. Conversations fade, leave deafening silence in the wake of their deaths.

“We have a couple fresh faces here with us tonight,” he announces, and Max wonders if he is genuinely as sad as he sounds. “Before we begin, I want to take a moment to welcome you lovely souls to the group. As devastating as it is that you ever need this resource, we are all very thankful you’ve come to us.”

Dolly reaches over and wraps her fingers around Max’s hand, squeezing just tightly enough that Max can breathe again. The man continues. After introducing himself as Dan, he explains the origin of the group: He’d just gotten out of an abusive relationship and had nowhere to turn but internet forums.

He made a post on Reddit eight years ago while drunk, begging for someone to tell him things get better. That he deserves better than to go back to his ex-girlfriend. There were over three hundred replies when he woke the next morning, one of whom was Kendra.

They became fast friends, the kind that only happens with a core commonality. Online conversations shifted to text messages, and they kept each other from ‘relapsing’, as Dan puts it. Without her, he says, he certainly would have rekindled the relationship with his ex. They came up with the idea for this group, instead, and it has only gained members since the beginning.

Kendra smiles once Dan has finished speaking. “We - I think I can speak for Dan when I say we hate that you all have gone through so much to bring you here. Every single one of you deserves to know genuine love, whether it’s platonic or romantic, and someone stole it from you. But you fought to get free. Now you’re here, fighting to find yourself again. If no one else says it, just know that I’m proud of you.”

With that, it seems the meeting comes to order. Kendra starts off first, telling her story in a clear voice. Max wonders idly how often the woman has done this, has repeated her history to complete strangers, that it doesn’t even affect her any longer. Dan goes next, then Beck, then the other woman from in the kitchen. To Max’s surprise, Dolly speaks after Elizabeth.

Maybe it’s because she has grown to love the older woman, or maybe it is the emotion of the evening. Whatever the reason is, Max finds herself unable to blink away the tears as Dolly admits that not only was her first ex-husband a mean sonuvabitch, but so was her second. That she gave her two kids to her sister to protect them. That Jimmy died when she was thirty-eight.

“Thankfully, the coroner said it was the clogged arteries that killed the bastard. Never checked for the radiator fluid.”

Max stares wide-eyed at her shoes. Dolly killed her first husband. Does she ever regret it? How long had she planned it? A niggling starts up in the back of Max’s mind, and slowly, she puts a name to it: complete acceptance that Dolly murdered someone, and being okay with that knowledge. No matter what is in her past, Dolly has been nothing but giving and kind. Max can’t repay that with criticism. Not now. Not ever.

Besides, wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that she was wishing she’d poisoned Gabriel when she had the chance?

Everyone’s gazes land on her, and Max scratches awkwardly at her brow. She wasn’t planning on speaking tonight, giving voice to the past that has haunted her. But how can she say no when they’ve all been so forthcoming themselves? So she draws in a deep breath and, staring at the floor, opens her mouth to speak.

No one interrupts as she tells them about meeting Gabriel at seventeen, marrying him a week after she turned eighteen, and spending the next five years trying to heal from all the damage he’s caused her. There are no pitying looks, no signs of blame or judgement on anyone’s faces while she talks. Not even when her voice breaks into nothingness.

“And now there’s this amazing guy in my life who has helped me so much over the last few months. He deserves the best. And I’m terrified. What if… what if my ex broke me completely?”

Sugar leans heavily against Max’s shins, her head a comfortable weight on Max’s knees, and Max sniffles as she runs a finger along the bridge of the Rottweiler’s nose. The room is quiet, only breathing and the low hum of appliances to break the silence. Dolly pats her shoulder, squeezes comfortingly, and Max releases a shaky exhale. Kendra is the one to speak; her voice is soft, reassuring.

“Lemme tell you something. I was in your shoes. Though my boyfriend is wonderful, there are still periods where the fear and traumatic memories resurface. Therapy helps, but this? This group? It has been the biggest, most important thing I need. My boyfriend understands, thankfully, even though he doesn’t know all the details of what I’ve gone through.”

“My wife knows everything,” adds Dan, shrugging when Max meets his gaze. “The thought of telling her terrified me, so I got blackout drunk and just… spilled the whole grisly story at her feet. And she was still there in the morning. We’d only been dating for a month, but I needed her to know what she was getting into.

“She still stayed. We went to therapy together. We worked through things together. And she still married me. We fight every day to keep our love alive and thriving in the face of what I’ve gone through. Max, it’s gonna be hard, but true, unconditional love will come again.”

“Even when I freak out?” she whispers as she wipes at a tear sliding down her cheek, and Dan nods.

“Even then.”

She swallows down the urge to spill all of her doubts onto the carpet beneath her feet. Someone else starts speaking, but Max can’t pay attention. Her thoughts centre on what Dan and Kendra have said. That she will find genuine love, the kind that doesn’t damage her further. That her scars, both mental and physical, will lose their control over her with time. That life won’t be so terrifying all the time.

The clock on the wall chimes the hour, and Max frowns when she counts the bells. Ten. Time has flown by, the four hours simply melting away while the group talked. She glances at Dolly, who smiles encouragingly. Dan stands, announcing the end of the meeting, and Max blows out a breath. It wasn’t as bad as she expected. Hell, this evening has turned out to be far more helpful than she hoped.

At the door, Dan hesitates, then his hand lands, gentle and unassuming on Max’s shoulder. There are no sirens in head, no voice screaming “danger, danger, run!” She manipulates her lips into the realest semblance of a smile that she can manage. It evidently works, because he grins back, dark eyes lighting up. But then his expression shifts.

“I really hope you find what you’re looking for with us, Max. Thank you for coming.”

She nods and takes Sugar’s leash from Dolly, following the landlady out of the house. Voices fill the air, goodbyes and promises of different snacks next time and even a few “I love you”s. A gust of wind blows by, kissing Max’s cheek with icy lips, but she doesn’t feel the depth of the chill. Warmth flickers to life deep in her soul, reminds her she is alive. Free. She was Gabriel’s victim.

Now she is a survivor.

Once the Jeep is unlocked, Max opens the door for Sugar to jump in, then she slides into the passenger seat. Dolly immediately turns the heater on, shivering and grumbling about the cold. Max bites back a smile and stares through the window at the house. The light pours from the windows, leaving blocks of yellow on the grass, and she closes her eyes to relive the comfort within the walls. Dolly has brought her another port of safety.

“I wanna come back,” she announces after a moment; her voice is tiny but powerful. Confident. Determined.

Dolly doesn’t respond, but on her face is a proud smile. The dashboard lights reflect in her eyes, washing them an orange-white, and she reaches over to squeeze Max’s hand. Max settles back into her seat, embraces the hope that burns hot in her chest. Her mother’s voice rings in her ears, I’m so proud of you, sweetheart. Would Katherine be just as proud of her daughter for this?

The flat is dark and quiet by the time Max walks in. She doesn’t bother with turning on any lights as she crouches to untie her shoelaces, slipping the sneakers off her feet and setting them by the wall, and locks the door behind her. Her stomach rumbles, but she ignores it. She isn’t hungry, not really. She wants nothing more than to go to bed.

Golden light spills onto the carpet from the bedroom, weak illumination from the bedside lamp. Max stands in the doorway and watches Niall sleep. He looks so peaceful, relaxed and comfortable in a way she rarely sees during the day. A book lays open next to his hand - he must have nodded off while reading, waiting for her to get back.

She blinks away the stinging in her eyes, though it’s harder to rid herself of the tightness in her chest. It’s such a simple thing, negligible in the grand scheme of things, but it draws from her a desperate wish that she could have had this long ago.

She hurries to change into a pair of sleep-pants and one of his T-shirts, taking care to move quietly. He doesn’t need to her waking him up. He deserves the rest. After setting the book on his nightstand, Max turns the light off and crawls into bed beside him. He sleeps on, hand twitching minutely between them, and she lets her tears go. There is no point in hiding them, not when she is the only one to witness them.

Niall has been so sweet, caring, and he has given her far more than she will ever deserve. His support has grown so important to her. He could have been everything she ever wanted. He could have been her first love, her greatest love.

Instead, she allowed herself to fall prey to Gabriel, and he destroyed her in ways she never thought possible. Her past has shattered her, and she can never outrun her history. And now Niall is trying to pick up the pieces of who she is, when it isn’t his job. He is worthy of so much more than her.

Her finger runs along the back of his hand, the soft skin mesmerising and intoxicating. His hands have shown her tenderness, and she can feel the ghost of his touch soothing away the demons that linger in her mind, her soul.

He lets out a quiet grunt, face scrunching up, but then his fingers are lacing with hers. Max exhales a breathy giggle and scoots closer into the warmth of his body. He doesn’t wake.

As she drifts off to sleep, she wonders if this is the kind of love that Dan and Kendra were talking about.