Scars & Souvenirs

three

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Max takes the keys from the salesman, murmuring a quick thanks, and gathers up her purse. The small sedan isn’t what she planned on purchasing, but it’s the best she can afford right now. Even going to a used car lot is more expensive than she really spare. If the thought of public transportation didn’t frighten her so much, she would have been content with taking the bus.

She can’t deny the sense of satisfaction when she slides into the driver’s seat of the Accord, and Max smiles to herself as she runs a hand over the dashboard. The cost has cut into her budget quite substantially, but... it’s a nice enough car. No reported accidents, some minor dings and scratches, a deep maroon colour that gleams in the early-afternoon sunlight. And it’s hers. She can drive anywhere. She can keep herself out of danger.

The market is surprisingly empty, only a few shoppers doing their shopping. Max avoids any looks thrown her direction as she grabs a trolley and brings up her Notes app. With a sigh, she makes her way through the aisles, grabbing various items off the shelving as she goes. Splurging on the car means she has to pay closer attention to the prices on the tags, though, so Max plans for this trip to take longer than usual. Normally, she’d be able to grab, check, go. Now, she has to compare products and prioritise what she can’t live without and what she can leave behind.

It takes almost an hour before she’s done categorising the items in her trolley, another twenty to go through the check-out lane, but then Max is loading up her car and starting the engine. She opens the Maps app and types in her new address. The radio doesn’t work quite right, but that’s fine. She doesn’t need music. Music can only distract her from keeping watch.

“Want some help?”

Max jumps, slamming her head against the trunk lid. She swallows thickly and peeks around the lid, heart hammering at the still-unfamiliar voice. Dolly gives her a sheepish smile, coming closer, though Max sees the woman tightening her grip on the leash in her hand. The Rottweiler sniffs excitedly at Max’s legs.

“Don’t mind Sugar, she loves new people.”

“She’s beautiful.”

Dolly’s face lights up at the compliment, and Max wonders how many people have run from the dog simply because of her breed. “‘Course she is. Good thing you got here when you did. Dubenich tries to take up as many spaces as possible every time he comes over.”

“Dubenich?”

“Nasty work, I’m tellin’ ya. Great father to his kiddos, won’t lay a finger on ‘em, but quick temper.” Dolly must read something on Max’s face; she smiles and shakes her head. “Don’t worry, doll, he only likes to yell at me and his ex-wife. You probably won’t ever see him for more than it takes to pass him on the stairwell.”

“That’s... good.”

“Need any help carrying your groceries up?”

“Uh, I think I can get it. Thanks, though.”

“Okay, well, if you change your mind, you know where I am. Oh, Niall’s home now, so you can ask him, and he’d be glad to help, too.”

Dolly and Sugar walk away before Max can reply, and she stares after them. Niall? Forcing the thoughts from her mind, Max loads her arms up with as many bags as she can carry and heads toward the door. It isn’t until she reaches the steps that she realises she won’t be able to get inside: She has no free hands.

Thankfully - or, rather, unfortunately - a fuzzy outline appears on the other side of the glass, and the door swings inward. The man who lives across the landing smiles brightly, stepping to the side so Max can pass. She turns at the bottom of the stairs, watches him through the window as he makes his way to her car, then turns and goes to her flat. Something tells her that any protesting or arguing will go unheeded.

Thankfully, the man doesn’t try to come in with the rest of her groceries. He just passes them off to Max as she sets them on the floor just inside the door, and she stands there, awkward and uncomfortable, for a moment. She blows out a breath and stares at a spot just over his shoulder.

“Um, thanks. You didn’t have to do that.”

He shrugs, lips quirking. “Not a problem. Dolly said you might need help, and I had time.”

Nodding slowly, Max wraps her fingers around the doorknob. Would it be rude to end this stilted conversation now? Or should she try to make small talk? He seems to pick up on her internal debate. He assures her again that he’s glad to have helped and waves a goodbye before crossing the landing to his own flat. One last smile, then he shuts his door and disappears inside.

Putting away the food takes very little time. She finds herself with nothing to do within twenty minutes. The silence presses down on her from every direction, and she wonders where all the sounds from the night went. With a sigh, she makes her way to the bedroom to change out of her jeans into a pair of stretchy shorts. She might as well be productive with getting furniture moved into place instead of just being wherever it got dragged to.

Max pushes and pulls the couch across the living room until it rests against the wall opposite the window. The television stand TV go in front of the window, a buffer between her and the world. Safety. Goosebumps ripple across her skin as sweat slides down her spine as she finally drops her mattress to the floor in front of the closet; she has never been more thankful for having a small of amount of clothes. The chest of drawers - one that she’s had since she first left, five homes ago - takes more effort, more time, but Max manages to get it situated in front of the window in her bedroom. Another layer of protection.

Over the next couple of weeks, Max settles into the apartment as much as she can. She spends her hours locked inside, listening to her neighbours as they move around and live their lives, and pours all of her attention into her job. Working as an editor for a publishing company has been a blessing - - it’s allowed her to have an income without any in-person interaction with people. Sure, she has to deal with the occasional video-chat for meetings, but for the most part, Max is left to her own devices. It is the best set-up she could have ever asked for, and she knows how lucky she is. Hank only hired her because he was a friend of her parents, and Max is well-aware that he took an enormous chance, considering she didn’t have any sort of higher education or even professional experience.

She just wishes things were different. That she’d had the opportunity to choose her own path. She was forced into this situation, she was pushed into surviving instead of living. All Max wants is to have a normal life. It’s all she dreams about, but that is a dream she won’t ever have. The last two years have proved that quite clearly.

“What’s this?” she mutters quietly to herself, clicking on the email that’s just popped up in her inbox. The sender’s address is unfamiliar to her, but the subject line is innocent enough that she doesn’t fear a virus being attached. She reaches for her mug of coffee and takes a sip while the email loads, only to choke when she reads the short message.

Only two sentences, the words immediately kick her heart into overdrive. She can’t breathe as she stares at her laptop screen, and bile creeps up in her throat. Her world comes crashing down around her, every protection she’s put into place no longer enough. A shiver races down her spine, skin prickling painfully, and she slams the laptop closed and pushes it away.

You look really pretty today. Yellow really does something for you.