Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-seven

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A chill runs down Max’s spine as she crosses the threshold. Silence presses down on her. Even the shrieking of the Dubenich kids seems muted. She catalogues the plain beige walls, the discounted couch and quilt that hangs off the cushion. They are exactly the same as they were only a month ago, but they seem so different now.

Or maybe it’s Max that is too different to see them the same.

Someone has replaced the carpet. The television stand is gone, as are the scraps of her old coffee-table. The coffeemaker gleams in the sunlight, empty and waiting to be used. Her throat tightens, and she swallows harshly at the consideration Dolly has shown.

Toeing off her shoes, Max takes one tentative step, followed by another. Her bare feet sink into the plush carpeting. She wiggles her toes, giggles when the grey fibres tickle at her skin.

The freedom is uncomfortable, but god, does she want to cherish it. She wants to feel everything she has missed. She aches to make mistakes and learn and grow. To be consumed by joy and peace from something so trivial as carpet beneath her feet.

Someone missed a spot while cleaning up. She stares, heart in her throat and hands trembling violently, at the splatter of copper-brown on the quilt’s hem. Before the fear can grow too unmanageable, she uses her foot to flip the edge over itself.

The blood is still there, she knows it is; her nose is filled with the metallic tang that was once part of her daily existence. She scoops the blanket into her arms and drops it on the kitchen floor by the bin.

She drags in a rattling breath as she drops onto the couch. So much has happened within these walls—good, bad, everything in between. Fragments of that day come and go, ebbing like the tide playing peekaboo.

The agony of fists and boots to her ribs, a voice drowning in sober rage. No liquor to stain his breath as he listed everything she has done wrong since he was arrested for drunk driving and she ran. The words are echoes imprinted on her mind, hazy and distorted. A monster’s voice for a monster of a man.

An unfamiliar voice asking “What is your relationship?” and Dolly stating in a voice dripping with ice, “He’s her fiance.” Niall not arguing even as the paramedics gingerly shifted her body onto the board. The fire that ate away at her inside as they carried her down the stairs. Blessed darkness as the ambulance sped toward the nearest hospital.

So much has happened within these walls.

The emails that stirred up her fears, wakened the haunting terror from its slumber until she could scarcely remember what breathing felt like. The phone calls that dredged up the panic of being yanked back into Hell. The screeching of a knife against a window-frame, thudding of a bureau against the floor, the acid on her tongue as she ran headlong toward safety.

Toward Niall. The strength she has stolen from him, the hope of one day loving him the way he deserves, even if she isn’t worthy.

She will never be worthy of him.

So much has happened within these walls, and Max has to accept all of it.

Time slips past. She has no clue exactly how many minutes have ticked away; the patch of sunlight on the carpet is her only evidence of the world still turning. Energy thrums in her veins, twitching and dancing through her muscles. It begs her to flee, to get away from the nightmare of her memories. So long has she spent running that sitting still within the recollections is terrifying. She can hardly breathe.

The door squeals as it swings open. Body tightening, Max turns her gaze away from the wall as Niall bursts into the flat. His usual sweet smile is gone. In its place is a clenched jaw, and his wide eyes are dark with worry, a frantic jerky fashion to his movements. He stumbles to a stop. His mouth moves without words.

“I’m tired of being scared.”

Her admission reverberates in the quiet, a sudden explosion of sound between them, that brings him up short. Niall blinks owlishly for a moment then closes the door behind him. Max watches him cross the room, sit beside her, stare at her. He makes no move to speak, so she does.

“I’m tired of protecting myself by avoiding anything that might trigger me.” Her breath comes out in a juddering gust as she meets his eyes and confesses like a sinner before God, “I’m tired and scared and so damn done with holding everything in.”

His hand is warm around hers. She concentrates on the contact as he whispers, “Then let it go, love. I’m right here.”

Her throat tightens, fills with the venomous burn of bile, but she tells him everything. Almost everything. She doesn’t burden him with the knowledge of Gabriel and his friends taking what they wanted, or the babies who never had a chance.

But she tells him about the agony she endured, no matter what Gabriel’s mood was. All the mistakes she made trying fruitlessly to please him. She admits to all the hours wasted, praying for it to end.

The torture, the terror. Her life. It didn’t matter. She just wanted it to stop, to get some sort of peace.

A tear slides down his cheek as she tells him, voice shaking and cracking in the earthquake of emotions, about learning how to stitch up her own wounds—hospitals were banned for anything Gabriel couldn’t explain away with “What can I say, she’s a clumsy woman” and a charming smile.

Niall’s grip on her hand should be terrifying. It’s too tight, unyielding, painful. It would have petrified her before. Before. Max leeches comfort from it and clings back just as tightly. It’s what she needs right now, and she will take what he offers.

He listens to her detailing just how she has been torn apart piece by piece and shoved carelessly back together. Most of all, though, he doesn’t leave her side as she finally lets herself cry. Mourn the woman she never got to be, all the broken bits that have become her foundation.

He holds her securely to his chest as she says goodbye to who she should have been.

When she calms once more, Niall wipes her cheeks dry and smiles gently, though it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Thank you for telling me. It can’t have been easy, and I am so honoured that you trust me with this.”

She’s exhausted, and her voice has disappeared. Nodding, she leans forward to rest her forehead against his shoulder. Telling him was the right thing to do. She knows this. However, she can’t drown out the voice in her head warning her that she should have kept it to herself. A self-preservation tactic formed through necessity, it has served her well since she was eighteen. Since she left Gabriel. But she has no need for it right now.

Niall links their fingers together and guides her out of the flat. Locking the door behind them has never felt so freeing. Stepping into his feels a lot like coming home. They work together in silence to put away the groceries that sit on the counters; Max bites back an apology. Niall had left to go shopping, and when he came back, it was to find Max nowhere. In his panic, he had forgotten about the groceries.

She steps into his space, wrapping her arms around his waist, and murmurs, “Thank you.”

Max has fallen into the habit of phoning her parents in the afternoons, so she dials their number on Sunday. Every conversation is precious, something Max wants to cherish for the rest of her life. Easy conversations, the topics rarely approach anything serious.

When Katherine tells her of the old woman who steals all of the bank’s cream pods whenever she comes in, Max cracks a poor joke that someone should tell the woman she’s won a lifetime supply of creamer. The line goes quiet before her mother clears her throat wetly.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard you be witty, baby. I’ve missed it.”

“Me, too.”

And Max has missed it—the freedom to crack one-liners like this without repercussion. As much as it terrifies her, as hard as it is to ignore her survival instincts, she decides to let herself find who she is. Gabriel has changed her. There is no denying that, but he can’t control her any longer. Max is Max whoever she is. No one can take that away from her.

She spends the days texting Nikki randomly and catching up on work. Every evening, she helps grade assignments, and they cook dinner together. The domesticity is foreign yet comforting. Max learns quickly how to move without being in his way.

He teaches her the recipes for meals his mother used to make for him and his older brother. He doesn’t even get upset when she burns the baked chicken, only chuckles and offers to order Chinese while she dumps the scorched, but somehow still raw, breasts into the bin.

By the time Friday afternoon arrives, she has found a sense of stability she’s not known in years. Fragile though it is, it offers hope. Reluctant hope in the future. This can all go away at any time, she knows this. She prays it won’t. Relying on Niall, being here with him, keeps her safe from herself.

It’s wrong. It’s selfish. She doesn’t know how to stop.

Max barely gets through the door when Kendra spots her. She extricates herself from the conversation she is in then weaves her way through the people until she comes to a stop in front of Max. Her arms spread, and an inquisitive look floods over her face. Max deliberates for a moment then nods. Kendra beams and embraces Max tightly.

“I’m so glad you came. We hoped you would.”

“You did?”

Kendra frowns but doesn’t question the shock in Max’s voice. “Of course. You’re part of our family now. Oh, looks like Sasha brought mochi ice cream tonight. Want some?”

“Um, what’s mochi?”

Kendra merely smiles and leads Max toward the kitchen. A woman—Sasha, judging by the low moan of “Moooochiiii” that Kendra lets out—smiles and steps away from the frost-covered foil pan on the island counter. Kendra grabs a spoon from the drawer by the refrigerator while Sasha leans against the wall with her arms crossed over her mauve V-neck. Once she has a bowl, Kendra scoops an orange ball from the pan then dances over to Max.

“Try it.”

Max does as ordered, with no small reluctance. Delicate mango coats her tongue, sweet and crisp, but the treat is like nothing she has ever had before. It’s chewy, almost elastic, instead of melting on her tongue like ice cream should. It takes all of her willpower to not gag at the texture. She can’t stop her face from screwing up, however. Sasha chuckles, her nose scrunching, and Max tenses in preparation.

“Mochi isn’t for everyone.”

“It tastes good,” Max says in hopes of not offending the other woman.

Shaking her head, Sasha sweeps her silken black hair into a low ponytail. “Don’t worry, I’m not upset. Kendra and I are the only one who really enjoy mochi, and I’ve come to terms with that. I wouldn’t have brought it at all if it wasn’t tradition.”

Max cocks her head, frowning slightly. Sasha explains that she spends all of November through January in Toyohashi with her family. Mochi ice cream is her way of coming back to the group every year, and Kendra is the reason for it. Grinning hard enough that her brown eyes go narrow, Kendra fills her bowl to overflowing and bounds toward the living room. Her blonde curls bounce against her shoulders as she goes.

“Everything okay?”

Max nods hastily at Sasha’s question. “Yeah. Just, uh, just thinking.”

“Well, grab a snack. Meeting is about to start.”

As Sasha regales the group with stories of her time in Japan—including her mother asking, again, why Sasha broke up with her boyfriend—Max thinks back on the past week. The friendship with Nikki that has grown stronger, the steadiness she has found in Niall. The poor joke she made without punishment. Everything has changed since Gabriel was arrested.

Even now, Max is fumbling through the dark to pick up the pieces of herself. The fragments may no longer fit perfectly, but there’s hope yet.

“Max, you’re awfully far away over there,” says Dan; the soft smile on his face encourages her to speak, to say what’s on her mind.

So she does. “I’m tired of doing this on my own,” she admits, brows furrowing when the words don’t sound quite right. “I mean, I’m not on my own. I have… I have people. I have you, this group. But I think I need more.”

Beck hurries to swallow her mouthful of pretzel, waves a hand in the air. “Therapy. I highly recommend therapy.”

“Therapy has been so amazing for me,” Sasha adds, nodding along. “I can give you the name of my therapist if you’d like?”

This seems to open the floodgates. Almost at once, the others are offering names and contact information. Max shrinks in on herself at the crash of noise, and Dolly pats her knee with a knowing gleam in her eye.

Everyone falls blessedly silent a moment later; Max clears her throat and promises to consider it. She doesn’t tell them she would prefer someone without connection to the group—the confidentiality rules apply, but she can’t trust that a therapist won’t break them.

“We’re proud of you, Max,” Kendra murmurs. “Much like AA, NA, and all the others As, you can’t really heal properly, recover from the trauma, until you admit something is wrong. That going alone is harming more than helping. And you’re taking that step. That’s fucking huge.”

Max blinks rapidly, but the tears slip free anyway. She swallows past the lump in her throat, ducking her head, and lets the voices wash over her. She has made no one proud in a long time. Now her parents, her support group, the friends she never thought she would have… It’s overwhelming in the best of ways.

“I’m in a support group.”

Her father trails off, voice fading into oblivion, then he coughs quietly. “You are?”

She nods, though he can’t see her through the line. A pan clatters on the stove, and Niall curses before calling out an apology through the bar-window for interrupting. Max can only smile. Once upon a time, the cacophony would have sent her running, but right now, it can’t scare her.

“Yeah. Yesterday was my second meeting. It’s for domestic violence survivors. That’s what I am,” she says, voice firm in a way it usually isn’t. “I’m a survivor.”

“Yes, you are, sweetheart. You’re a fighter, and I’m damn glad you got that from your mom.”

“A little bit from you, too, Dad.” She exhales slowly and picks at the edge of her fingernail. “Do you know what happened to Val?”

He sighs. “Yeah, she’s fine. She made a full recovery.”

“Have you talked to her recently?”

“Kenz…”

“Dad, I need to know. Please.”

“No.” His voice is thicker, ragged, when he says, “After she got out of the hospital, she and her parents avoided us. Refused to even look at us.”

“I’m so sorry.”

He sniffles, breath crackling along the line. “It’s not your fault, sweetie. None of this is your fault. You were an innocent victim. So was she.”

“But they were your friends.” Max wipes the tears from her cheek and gasps in a breath. “They were your friends, because of me and Val, and you lost their friendship because of me.”

“Makenzie, listen to me, please. Gabriel did this. Not you. What happened with Val? You are not to blame. Okay?”

Max lets out a shuddering breath and bites back the desire to argue more. To appoint guilt to herself. After all, if she had listened to Valery from the beginning, Gabriel would never have had such a hold on her. Val would never have ended up in a hospital bed at nineteen-years-old.

None of this would have happened if Max had only used her brain, if she’d heeded the warnings. If she hadn’t turned a blind eye to every red flag screaming danger.

Her father may say that Max is innocent, but she knows better. She’s just as much to blame as Gabriel is.

Saying goodnight—not goodbye, never goodbye—is nearly impossible, but Max knows she should. She has to. Niall’s made dinner, and it is late in Ann Arbor. Before she hangs up, she has one more question:

“Why did you never change your number?”

“In case you ever called.”

It’s such an easy answer, but it holds the weight of the universe.