Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-eight

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Nikki shows up at the door bright and early the next day. Max is still in her pyjamas and working through her first cup of coffee, while Nikki is all but bouncing off the walls. Thankfully, she is patient enough to wait for Max to finish drinking her coffee. Then she’s rushing Max toward the bedroom, arms windmilling as she chants “Move move move”.

“You know, this isn’t how I expected my Sunday morning to go, right?” Max asks, though she can’t fight her giggles. Nikki’s good mood is infectious, and Max wants to be as happy, especially after all the thinking she did last night.

“Yeah, well, this is the risk you run when you’re one of my best friends. Now hurry up.”

Max laughs and shakes her head even as she steps into the bedroom. Niall is still asleep, snoring lightly, and early morning sunlight falls golden on his skin. The dips and ridges along his back casts a shadow, accentuates the smoothness of his flesh and the small cluster of freckles along his shoulders. One of his hands reaches out for her side of the bed.

Her side.

She doesn’t know when the distinction happened - or why. This is his home, his bed. She is nothing more than an interloper.

She blows out a breath and crosses the room to the dresser, digs through the bottom drawer. Coming up with one of her T-shirts and striped socks, she grabs a pair of her jeans from the closet then, after some deliberation, one of his hooded sweatshirts. A quick glance tells her the noise hasn’t woken Niall, so she tiptoes from the room, toward the bathroom to change her clothes.

Once she’s stripped to her underwear, she hesitates then meets her reflection’s eye in the mirror. Niall was right: The bruising didn’t last forever. Her skin is as pale as ever, unmarked by swelling or discolouration. The scars from the blade aren’t so angry-looking now; the red has faded to a brilliant, deep pink. Each pucker of healed flesh, every silvery patch, it all looks the same. Max loathes that this is so normal to her.

But she doesn’t recognise the woman she sees. Ghosts still reside behind her brown eyes, threaten to haunt her if only she would let them. They seem so far away, though. Pushed out of focus by a light she has never seen before. The peace that’s settled in her chest terrifies her. All she’s known for so long is panic, uncertainty, and pain. Nothing like this, where she can breathe easily and know she will be all right.

“Zee? Didja fall in the toilet?”

“Uh, no. That’d be gross.” Max swallows thickly and reaches for her jeans. “I’ll be out in a minute. Gotta brush my teeth first.”

Ten minutes later, she and Nikki are stepping out into the chill of the morning, and Max shivers as she huddles in on herself. Her thoughts race, twisting around themselves. You’re going to ruin everything, like you always do. The voice isn’t a drunken snarl. It isn’t a scream amongst fire.

It’s her own voice, the one that learnt the painful lessons and refuses to let them go. A voice she can’t ignore - it’s too much a part of her.

As it turns out, the reason for Nikki’s rush is the fact that Valentine’s Day is coming up. She is ill-prepared for it, so today is all about finding the right outfit to ‘set the mood’. Max, on the other hand, had completely forgotten that normal couples celebrate the romantic holiday. Does Niall have expectations? Hell, what even is she to him? Things she should have asked him before now, but hadn’t been able to find the words. Or the courage.

What if he’d realised she was nothing, that she deserved nothing, and turned her away?

The boutique is sharply lit, racks and racks of lingerie in every direction. Fake rose petals lie scattered along the display counters, and Max nearly recoils at all the pinks and reds and whites everywhere. Floral perfume hangs heavy in the air, too powerful in such an enclosed space. Tastefully done, it wouldn’t look as discombobulating, but in here, amongst the faux haut couture setting, it is nothing short of gaudy.

Max takes a seat in the chair outside of the fitting rooms, trying her best to ignore the looks from the staff. She knows pity when she sees it. They’re all thinking ‘Poor girl, doesn’t have any plans for Valentine’s Day, it must be terrible to be so obviously single.’ At least, that’s what she assumes.

“So how are things?” Nikki asks through the curtain. “We’ve missed you at dinner.”

“Things are okay. Dolly’s been taking me to a support group. It seems like it can help, so I’m hopeful, I guess.”

“That’s awesome! I’m glad to hear it. What about with Niall?”

Max sighs, picks at a thread in the seam of the hoodie. “I have no idea. But, um, I think I might move back into my own flat.”

A painful-sounding thud comes from behind the partition, Nikki swearing loudly and extensively enough that it draws the attention of the nearest sales associate. Max forces an apologetic smile in response to the glare, teeming with criticism, and the other woman turns away pointedly. The curtain stops shaking after a few seconds.

“Why?” Nikki asks suddenly, the word sharp as it cuts through the elegant music over the speakers.

Max sinks further into her seat, but she knows she can’t hide from this. It’s what must be done. Please don’t do this. You’re ruining everything. Shut up. “Because it’s been nice, y’know, not being alone. But I’m relying on him too much.”

Nikki sighs, a long, slow exhalation that screams of trying to withhold her frustration - or judgement. “Okay, you’re gonna have to explain like I’m five, because I don’t quite understand what you mean.”

“I’ve basically lived with him for the past month without his explicit permission. He deserves his space. He doesn’t need me intruding in his home, especially not with all of my shit.”

“You help around the flat, right?” Nikki lets out a soft grunt, muttering under her breath before going quiet again.

“I cook and clean, yeah. He hasn’t said anything about me paying for stuff. Wait.” Max sits upright, and her heart races in her chest. “Did he say something to you?”

“No, no, no, I promise. Just my own morbid curiosity. Hey, think Louis will like this?”

Max looks up as the curtain rings rattle on the rod. Nikki places her hands on her hips, posing for approval. Even with too-bright lighting washing the colour from her flesh, she looks stunning. The blood-red teddy contrasts perfectly with the rosy tone to her skin, the honey-gold in her hair. Black lace trim accentuates the curves of her breasts and the deep plunge of the neckline. The sheer material hides nothing of her figure, the slope of her hips, the slight softness of her belly.

She might as well be wearing nothing.

“I think I’ve just seen more of your boobs than I ever wanted to, but yes, Louis is going to lose his mind.”

Nikki’s face scrunches up, a grin stretching at her full lips, and she turns toward the mirror. “He is, isn’t he? I mean, obviously it’ll look better when I’m not wearing jeans, but… yeah. This is the one.”

Max plays with the ends of her hair as Nikki disappears back into the cubicle to change. This outing hasn’t been awful - dirty look from the staff member notwithstanding - but she can’t relax. Not fully. Her thoughts are chaotic, and the lights are too bright. There are countless places to hide. Blind spots for a monster to lie in wait. Danger could be around every corner, and she would never know until it’s too late.

Just like that January evening.

Thankfully, Nikki emerges only a moment later, dressed in her fuzzy sweater and jeans. Max shakes off the lingering chill of her thoughts. Gabriel is in prison. Even if he wasn’t, there are more potential witnesses than he’d have liked. She’s safe. He cannot touch her here - or anywhere.

Nikki tosses her purchase into the backseat of her Kia then starts the car. Cool air blasts from the vents, shuddering and groaning before finally warming. Max shivers and wraps her arms over her belly, hunches in on herself. Nikki grimaces while she slaps at the dashboard.

“Sorry. She’s old.” Sighing, she stares out the window, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. “Look, Zee, Niall doesn’t care about money. He knows Dolly will work with him if he can’t pay rent, and his parents and brother will help with other bills. All Niall cares about is that you’re safe.”

Snorting, Max taps a fingertip against the lock button on her door panel. “I don’t think safety is going to be a problem anymore with Gabriel out of the picture. I just… I feel like living with Niall is giving him the impression that I want more. We sleep in the same bed, for fuck’s sake, and - ”

“I swear, if you say you don’t wanna lead him on, I won’t buy you a hot chocolate.” Nikki sighs, pushing her hair from her pink-tinted cheeks. A storm brews in her hazel eyes, indecipherable and torrential. “He doesn’t care about that, Max. I’d know if you were sending him mixed signals, because he’d be bitching to me and Louis.”

“Are you sure?” whispers Max. She desperately hopes Nikki is telling the truth. If she isn’t… Max dreads finding out the consequences.

When Nikki speaks again, her voice is softer, more unsure. As if what she is about to say will change everything, and she isn’t certain she should be the one to throw the curveball. Max’s skin prickles with something unrelated to the cold as her friend’s words settle, weighted with meaning, in the air between them:

“You may be using him, whatever, but he’s using you, too.”

Nikki puts the car in gear, reverses out of the parking spot, before Max can even formulate a response. With impeccable timing - right as Max opens her mouth to ask what Nikki meant - she reaches over to turn on the stereo, and Max’s words are drowned out by the gentle strumming of a guitar, a soft voice singing of souvenirs on a trip and nights spent with cool guys.

The drive back to the apartment building is quiet, only Dashboard Confessional to break up the awkward silence. Max tries, over and over again, to demand answers from Nikki, but each time, she merely closes her mouth with nothing spoken. The words are frozen in her throat, and she can’t change that. No matter how hard she struggles, she can’t force the question off her tongue.

“Zee?”

Nikki’s hesitation frightens Max. Nikki has not once shown herself to be reserved, to hang back, to have anxieties about anything. Max inhales unsteadily and turns to face her friend. Nikki’s lips twitch, then she drops her gaze to her hands on the steering wheel.

“Ask him about Ciara. That’s all I’ll say. Just, just ask him, okay?”

“Okay.”

Ciara. Max doesn’t know what Ciara has to do with Niall, nor does she really want to find out. What if Ciara is Niall’s greatest lost love, and he still yearns for her? If that’s the case, then reminding him of her will only serve to ruin what Max has with him, undefinable as it is. She is far too selfish for that. Selfish like always, Makenzie. You should have learnt by now.

Gabriel isn’t wrong. After so long, Max really should know better than to be selfish.

She forces a smile and steps out of the car, closing the door carefully behind her. Nikki waves then is gone. Max watches her go before turning toward the building. Niall’s blinds are open, but all she can see from here is the corner of the collage on the wall. A black triangle against beige.

She wonders if Ciara is in any of the pictures.

“Ask him about Ciara.” What if Nikki is wrong? Max blows out a breath and steels her spine. She might as well wait until after Valentine’s Day to bring that conversation up. She has enough uncertainty to deal with right now, and Ciara’s potential connection to Niall isn’t on the list.

_____________________


4:30…5:00…5:30…

Max frowns and double-checks the time. Niall is usually home by now. He’s always made a point of texting if he’s going to be late. She hates those messages. Not only because they mean she has to wait longer to see him, but because they are nothing more than “gbl”. Three letters. She can handle a lot of the usual acronyms in text messages, but something that isn’t even standard text-speak? No, thanks.

She wishes she had one now.

Unless -

Nikki has spoken to him. He now knows about Max’s decision to move back to her own apartment. He knows and is… what? Angry? Or relieved but doesn’t want to show it? That has to be it. Niall is too sweet, too kind, to ever let on just how horribly she has inconvenienced his life. He is probably hoping that she’s gone by the time he comes home, and the later it is, the more likely it is that he will have his life back to himself.

Without thinking, Max gathers up her belongings scattered about the living room and scurries across the hall to her own flat. She steps back into his for one thing: to drop his key onto his counter with a note that says Sorry. It isn’t much, that one word, and it will never convey her regret for ever intruding on his life like she has. But it’s all she has.

Pulling the door closed behind her feels incredibly similar to when she drove away, watched her parents disappear in the rear-view.

The box of instant noodles is from December. She’d purchased them when food was the last thing on her mind. When caloric intake was all that mattered, not nutritional value, if only to survive another day. They aren’t healthy by anyone’s standards, but they were enough.

Max cracks the noodle square in half and dumps them into a bowl, adding just enough water to cover the top. Her appetite has all but vanished. She knows she has to eat something, though, and twenty-cent-a-pack noodles count as that ‘something’. She thinks.

The microwave runs for less than ten seconds before it lets out an awful fizzing sound, followed by a pop. Max watches the interior light dim, flicker, then go out. The display goes black, and the distorted beep echoes her own sadness.

As she stares at the appliance, now dead with her dinner in its belly, her thoughts go wild. What if Niall is out on a date with someone else? Someone who isn’t so messed up. Someone who can love him truly, properly. The question is valid. Logical, even. It would make sense, given that it’s Valentine’s Day. The question only comes at a poor time. Her stomach churns, skin washing cold then hot.

Max abandons the prospect of dinner, leaving the bowl of noodles in the microwave. Quickly locking the door, she turns off the lights and makes her way through the dark to the couch. Sleeping alone in her bed will only remind her of what she has given up, lost because she couldn’t give Niall what he needs. Deserves. That certainly isn’t her.

A knock on the door comes around eight. The perfect time for a date to come to an end. She closes her eyes as Niall calls for her through the wood, but she doesn’t respond. It’s the best thing for him - forgetting her, forgetting she ever came into his life. Her phone vibrates on the floor, display lighting up. A picture of Niall fills the screen.

Taken while he cooked dinner for them, he hadn’t seen the camera angled in his direction. He was smiling to himself, a funny thought or recollection of an amusing conversation. Max wasn’t privy to whatever made him smile like that. She never will be again.

Another call, this time from Nikki. A text. A second, third, sixth text. The last one is only a string of question marks. Max stares at the notifications for a long minute then turns her phone face-down. She doesn’t put the device on silent mode. An overwhelmingly large part of her tells her she deserves to be tortured by every time the phone vibrates with incoming calls and messages.

She deserves to be punished for using these people so much only to abandon them like this.