Scars & Souvenirs

thirty

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Max sits in the waiting lobby and stares at her shoes instead of the other woman across the room. Her finger picks at the rolled-over lip of the paper cup in her hand as the clock ticks away the seconds. The tea tastes horrible - nothing like what Dolly makes - but Max drinks it anyway. It’s something to do besides count down the minutes.

“Max?”

She closes her eyes at the soft voice, inhales unsteadily, then she stands with more confidence than she feels. The man smiles and turns on his heel, leading her down the narrow corridor. Thomas Milton waves her into a room, and just before she steps inside, Max catches sight of the placard on the wall. The Ocean Room.

The moniker is eerily accurate: Three of the walls are varying shades of blue, all peaceful and bright, and a mural of crashing waves under a sunset has been painted on the final wall. The sofa is a deep navy blue with throw pillows striped with whites and yellows. A thick sand-coloured knitted blanket is draped over the back of the couch, spilling onto the cushion below like the shoreline.

The entire scene would be serene if it weren’t for the fact that Max wants nothing more than to run away.

But she’s so tired of running, and Thomas has already closed the door and asked Max to take a seat. She does, sinking onto the two-seat couch with shaking knees. He smiles as if he knows what she’s thinking. Once he’s settled into the armchair across from her with a notepad and pen, she takes a moment to examine him through her lashes.

His hair, the colour of burnt copper, is slicked back, but a single lock falls forward every time he moves his head. His beard is neatly trimmed, framing his jaw, and his brown eyes are soft behind wire-rimmed glasses. Though he’s taller than she is by at least a foot, nothing about him screams danger. She’s reminded instead of her father.

“Hi, Max. I know you reached out for therapy due to a traumatic past, and I will certainly do my best to help you. Today, though, is going to be about the rules of our sessions, the confidentiality and when I’m allowed to break it, and setting up a plan to move forward in a way that will be most helpful to you. Is that okay?”

He doesn’t raise his voice once. He speaks at such a steady, soothing volume that Max finds herself relaxing subconsciously, bit by bit. The panic, the anxiety, is eating her alive, but it’s quieter now, quieter than even his soft voice. She nods once, curling in on herself, and keeps her gaze on the floor.

Thomas must be accustomed to this, because he doesn’t ask her to look at him. He merely tells her that she cannot come to sessions while under the influence, and he is legally mandated to report to authorities if he feels she is a danger to herself or others. She whispers that she understands.

When he inquires about her goals for therapy, where she wants to be in six months, a year, five years, Max pauses. She hadn’t thought of that. She assumed that this would be something he guided, that he would tell her what she needs to do and she would do it. How is she to know what she wants or how to get there? He’s the expert, after all, while she’s only a fractured husk of who she was.

Thomas sets the notepad aside, leaning forward with his thick hands clasped together. “You don’t have to have an answer right this second, and it doesn’t have to be something grand and convoluted. It could be as simple as ‘say hi to people I pass on the street’ or even ‘brush my teeth everyday’. Progress takes time. The tiniest steps will get you there, but only if you take them.”

“I just want to be fixed,” she says, and her voice wavers in the air before collapsing into nothing.

“There is nothing to fix, Max. You aren’t a plate that’s been dropped on the floor. You are a human whose spirit has been damaged, but you are not broken. “

“I feel like I am.”

“I understand. You aren’t alone in that, believe me. We all feel that way from time to time. Even I do. So I can imagine how large this seems to you. Just remember it won’t always be that way.”

Max nods slowly and pushes her fingers through the blanket, watches the yarn stretch tight around her skin. Thomas stays quiet for a moment, then the chair groans as he shifts in his seat. The scratching of pen against paper fills the room, and she wonders what he’s writing. Is it a judgement against her?

“I think we should meet twice a week for a while,” he says; pain lances down her spine as she tense up much too quickly. “We can change that whenever you feel you’re ready, but for now, I believe it would be most helpful to your progress if we have sessions more regularly.”

Max can’t argue. Thomas knows best. He’s done this for years, according to his biography on the clinic’s website, so he knows how to make the educated calls. She can only trust his professional opinion, no matter how hard her brain tries to tell her it’s a trap.

She leaves the session forty minutes later with another appointment scheduled for Friday afternoon and a headache forming behind her eyes. Thomas hadn’t pressured her into speaking, but he also didn’t try to fill the silence. Max spent the entire time wondering what he was thinking. If he regretted signing her on as a client. His hope of seeing her again at their next session sounded genuine enough.

Max wastes the rest of the day curled up on the couch, listening to the residents move about their lives. Hank is going to be upset with the lack of work done; she just can’t force herself to move. She tries - admittedly not very hard - but her mind seems to have shut down. No input, no output. She can’t even panic when someone slams a door or when a scream echoes through the building. She is too tired to care.

Thursday dawns bright, sunlight streaming through the windows to fill the room with its cheer. Max wants to close the blinds, but she doesn’t want to move. Moving only reminds her of the emptiness inside, the sharp-edged pieces that shift around as if to find a home in the void. There is nothing left, and she regrets ever letting herself hope.

She should have known that Gabriel destroyed her completely. That she would never be whole again.

“Doll, you in there?” Dolly knocks, trying to turn the doorknob. The deadbolt keeps the door in place. “It’s just me, sweetie. Sugar and I miss seeing you. Can you open up?”

Max turns her head lazily to stare at the wall; the world swims and spins, floats suspended in jello. Dolly doesn’t say anything for a minute, but then she heaves a weighted sigh.

“Max, please.”

Dolly shouldn’t sound like that. Dolly shouldn’t be trying to talk to Max. No matter what Thomas said, Max is broken, and she can’t be fixed. She is nothing more than a dark stain in these people’s lives. She aches to be fixed, but it is a desperate wish held out of her reach.

Dolly knocks again. A quiet, high-pitched whine comes next, and Max loses what little control she had.

She can avoid humans - people only ever hurt her - but she can’t avoid Sugar.

Dolly’s face splits into a grin when Max opens the door, her body sagging with relief as Max kneels down to scratch behind the Rottweiler’s ears. “Oh, honey, it’s good to see your face. What happened, sweetheart? You were doing so well, hanging out with Niall and them.”

Something jagged tears apart a bit more in Max’s chest at the mention of Niall. She kisses Sugar’s nose then stands again. Dolly moves to take a step inside, but Max moves more quickly. Her hand on the edge of the door, she blows out a breath and stares at a spot over Dolly’s shoulder. Her voice is cold, too cold to ever be used against Dolly.

“I’m trying to fix myself. Why is that so hard for you people to understand?”

She shuts the door in Dolly’s face and ignores the gasp, the whimpering, the shattering of her heart as she severs the last tie she had to a new life.

Thursday bleeds into Friday. Therapy goes as well as it had last time: Max doesn’t speak, Thomas refrains from pushing her to talk, and the hour comes to an end with nothing more than ‘Hi, how are you doing today?’ being spoken between them. It is a waste of money, of time, but Max still accepts the next appointment.

Dan sends little glances her way that evening, questions and concern in his dark eyes. When Elizabeth finishes her story of running into an ex-girlfriend, he clears his throat. Max knows what he’s going to say before he even opens his mouth. She wants to tell him to keep his inquiry to himself, but he asks anyway.

“Is everything okay, Max? You’ve been quiet tonight.”

She shrinks down in her seat as everyone turns to look at her. “I’m fine.”

Dolly harrumphs next to her, and Max grits her teeth. Letting loose her temper in the middle of a support meeting is the last thing she should do, but Dolly is making it difficult. Between the pointed looks and the landlady-cum-friend’s attempts at dragging out the truth, Max has a fragile hold on her anger. A rage she shouldn’t direct at Dolly. Nikki. Niall. Any of them.

“Did something happen?” Kendra asks, quiet, unassuming, and Max breaks.

“I said I’m fine.” She sighs and stands. “Sorry, I can’t do this tonight.”

She hurries toward the front door, grabbing her jacket off the hook on the way. Someone calls after her, but she doesn’t stop. Doesn’t even slow down. She closes the door behind her before she can turn around. As she hurries down the sidewalk, she and the small voice in her head agree: No going back. Not until she’s fixed.

_____________________


“I think I messed up.”

Thomas’s brows quirk, but he quickly schools his expression into one of polite interest. He settles back into his seat, pen poised over the notepad, and peers at her for a long minute. His bland mask slips, and he frowns as he tilts his head.

“What do you mean?”

She shrugs and picks at a hangnail on her thumb, carefully avoiding eye contact. “I, um, okay. I have a neighbour across the hall - Niall. And my landlady, Dolly. We were all kinda… friends, I guess, and I was even friends with Niall’s friends. Well, Nikki said something a couple weeks ago, and it made me realise that I, I don’t belong in their lives. Y’know? And so I went back to my flat, then Niall and I ended up arguing. I pushed them all away.”

“Okay. So I definitely want to talk about that, but I’m sensing I don’t have the full story. Can you explain what you mean by you went back to your own flat?”

“I mean, I was staying with Niall for a while. A month,” she amends. “I don’t really want to get into the story behind it, please don’t make me.”

“Hey, hey. It’s okay. You can tell me as much or as little as you feel comfortable, all right?” Thomas taps the pen against his knee, plastic against corduroy over and over and over. Max wants him to stop. “Why did you push them away?”

Max stares at the ocean painted on the wall, the waves that roll in against the shore, shadows of fish in the curls beneath misty caps. She struggles to think of a way to explain without coming across as the villain - what she has done is unforgivable, and it’s only a matter of time before Thomas decides she isn’t worth his efforts.

“When I was with them, I… I felt normal, like I could let go of everything I’ve carried with me for the past few years. But I realised I was letting them fix me, when it isn’t their place to make me whole again. They didn’t ask for it, and I have no right to put that on their shoulders.”

“They’re your friends, right?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

The question is out of her mouth before she can stop it, tone sharp but words pleading. She needs him to make this make sense. The ambiguity of this tangent is frightening; she wrings her hands together in her lap, clammy skin sticking to clammy skin, and her heart thunders in her chest. His lips twitch, though he doesn’t let the smile show.

“If your friend is hurting or upset about something, do you tell them ‘hey, work through it yourself, I have my own problems’? Or do you offer a sympathetic ear, advice, and comfort?” He leans forward and finally smiles, a sad thing that hurts her to see. “Max, what you’ve gone through is a lot. You not talking about it tells me it’s an immense burden on you, one you’re not ready to confront.

“And something of that enormity would leave lasting mental and emotional scars on anybody. If these people are your friends, they most likely want to help you heal and be the best you that you can be. I’m assuming they don’t know what’s happened to you?”

“I’ve told Niall,” she mumbles through numb lips. “Some of it, anyway.”

“And he hasn’t run away screaming or treated you any differently?”

“Well, no. But I tried explaining why I needed space, and he got angry with me. It’s why we argued.”

“Angry? Or confused? Often, they look the same, especially when someone is blindsided by information.”

Max slumps - of course she messed up with Niall. Why wouldn’t she, when she can barely have a relationship with herself? She inhales shakily, wiggling her toes to feel anything other than the dread taking over. The remorse of hurting Niall in an ill-conceived attempt at saving him from her. It’s merely more proof that he’s too good for her.

“I don’t know,” she says after a pregnant pause, Thomas’s words tumbling over themselves in her mind. “I haven’t spoken to him since I yelled at him to leave.”

“Maybe it’s time to let him back in,” he murmurs with a gentle smile.

The first thing Max does when she gets home is stand outside Dolly’s door, staring at the metal 2B screwed to the wood. Apologising to Dolly is far less terrifying an idea than confronting Niall. Dolly understands in a way he wouldn’t. Max would have to answer questions in order to beg for his forgiveness. With Dolly, there won’t be need for things Max isn’t ready to say.

Sugar barks from inside the flat, and Max steels her spine as shuffling footsteps approach. The door swings open without her even knocking. Dolly immediately opens her arms, a sheen in her grey-blue eyes that says she was waiting for this moment. Max hesitates, a split second of indecision, then she’s falling forward into Dolly’s tight hold. Max is taller by three inches, but she feels so small in the embrace. Tiny and insignificant.

“I’m so sorry. I - ”

“Oh, it’s okay, honey. I get it. I’m just sorry you felt you had to cut yourself off from everyone who loves you.” Dolly pulls back, reaching up to brush tears from Max’s cheeks. “Have you spoken to Niall?”

“I’m not sure how to say sorry to him. Something tells me I messed it all up and he’ll never forgive me for it.”

“Sweetheart, that boy will absolutely forgive you. He cares too much to not at least hear you out. You just gotta take that first step. Now come on in, baby. You look like you could use some tea and Sugar.”

Max follows Dolly inside and curls up on the dingy yellow couch beneath the watchful gaze of all the angels, symbols of a God’s love she no longer believes in. Dolly bustles about in the kitchen then comes back a few minutes later with two mugs and a bowl of sugar balanced on a plate. She huffs out a laugh at the sight of her dog pressed firmly against Max’s chest, Sugar’s head tucked under Max’s chin.

Sugar is not meant to be a lap-dog, but it certainly doesn’t stop her from trying. Once Max has her mug, Dolly sits in her recliner, puts up the footrest, and takes the television off mute.

Max stares blankly at the screen, Benson and Stabler talking about the serial killer haunting New York. Her mind races as she fights to come up with a reason for her behaviour lately that isn’t ‘I’m a giant mess, and I know you don’t deserve to deal with this, so I’m staying away for your own good’.

Somehow, she knows that won’t be good enough for Niall. He’ll see through it and ask for the truth, and she will give it. She will tell him exactly what he doesn’t want to hear. Then everything really would be destroyed.