Scars & Souvenirs

forty-two

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Max can’t stop smiling over the next few days. Every time she thinks of the night spent worshiping Niall’s body and the love he gave her, she expects to feel the familiar panic from the goodness. All she feels, however, is the peacefulness and pride at the success. Of being able to make love to him like he wanted—like she wanted and needed.

She’d cried afterward, released the pent-up anxieties and fears in his arms as he held her tightly. He hadn’t asked, and she didn’t tell him. He understood the tears anyway.

She fell asleep with her head on his chest and the warmth of his body so close. She didn’t feel quite so exposed even naked. He saw the most vulnerable parts of her and put the jagged pieces back together.

The desire to do it again flickers in her gut, but she hasn’t quite found the confidence to ask him.

But god, does she want to.

Dolly notices the difference when she sees Max for the first time on Friday night. She waits until they’re in the Jeep before asking what has changed. Max grins and stares down at the floorboard as she admits to what happened. Dolly’s face lights up, and she reaches across the console to squeeze Max’s hand.

“I know it won’t,” Max whispers, “but I wish it could always be like that.”

“Oh, doll, I know. Keep hope. The bad won’t be so bad eventually.”

Max holds the promise close to her heart. Dolly would know, after all she’s gone through. Dolly would never lie to her.

There are more new faces in the group tonight. Some look nervous, others downright terrified at the prospect of having left abusive situations. Max recognises the panic and fear, and she tries to smile the same encouraging smile she received on her first visit. In a mimicry of that night, the circle takes turns to tell their stories. Offer hope. Kindness. Acceptance.

Dan’s gaze keeps flitting toward Max as the others give updates on their lives. Beck speaks of her EMT training, Sasha talks about her foray into the dating world once more. Elizabeth beams when she says she reconnected with her friends from university—people she loved but lost contact with.

“Max? You look like you have something to share.”

Max stares at Dan with wide eyes. She had forgotten how intuitive, observant, he is. She’s reminded of it now. Drawing in a steadying breath, she looks to Dolly for comfort then starts to speak. She tells them of the panic attack she had the first time she’d tried making love to Niall, unable to put into words their relationship.

“And I looked at him the other night and realised... I love him, and he loves me. He’s what I should have had years ago.”

“And?” Kendra asks, gently prodding for what Max is hiding.

Max covers her burning face. “We tried again that night, and he, uh, he let me set the pace. He wouldn’t even touch me until I told him he could. It was... It was amazing and everything I always hoped it would be.”

Everyone explodes into cheers and praise, and Kendra launches herself at Max to hug her tightly. Max melts with the contact, the pride from her friends. Lovely, wonderful, supportive people she’s grown to love through the shared pain.

No one says ‘I told you so’.

Unfortunately, like everything else in her life, Max watches helplessly as her world falls apart.

Her back arches under Niall’s reverent touch, aching for more. His lips burn across her skin, kisses he bestows on her throat and chest, the whispers of love he presses into the swell of her breasts and dip of her collarbone.

Her thighs tighten around his waist as he pushes into her with a slowness that frustrates her. It fans the desire into an inferno that bleeds through her entire being.

His arms tremble next to her head, a cage she never wants to leave, security that he’s here and real and hers. It’s been two weeks and four days since she was brimming with a need like this, and she wants more. She needs more.

The pace he sets is easy. Perfect. Max clings to his biceps with the smooth slide, and he leans down to capture her mouth in a searing kiss. It’s everything she wants.

Until it isn’t.

A memory. Ghosts of beer and agony. Gabriel’s hand squeezes her throat, and he smirks when she starts gasping for breath that won’t come. He fucks her with too much force. He’s angry and punishing her.

He doesn’t care about her. Cold laughter rings in her ears as the tears fill her eyes. The world swims out of focus, her lungs on fire, and her body shears apart when he shoves her knees to her chest.

An intrusion she doesn’t want, but he doesn’t care about her. About the pain and screams that form on her lips. He growls out an order for her to stay still, one hand on her throat and the other covering her face and nose. She screams and screams, but he doesn’t care about her.

“No, no, stop, please—Gabe, stop, it hurts, stop!”

The world swims into focus, and Max gulps in oxygen. She can breathe again. The phantom pain lingers even as she stares at Niall. The way he stands completely still across the room. He stares back, disgust written on his face. Sobs rip from her soul, even when he doesn’t move. She pleads for the pain to stop, for Gabriel to stop and leave her alone. Please, I don’t want this.

She scrambles off of the bed, falling onto her hands and knees when she gets tangled in the comforter. Niall doesn’t move. Crawling her way to the bathroom, Max slams the door behind her and climbs into the tub. Gabriel still touches her here. His nails dig deep into her skin, each half-moon scratching until she bleeds. She brings her knees to her chest and screams. It’s too much.

“Baby, hey, take a breath.” Dolly. Her cigarette-rough voice, her gentle hands spreading a blanket over Max’s naked body. “You’re okay, doll. Shh, it’s okay. You’re safe.”

Sugar’s nails scrape against the porcelain—it’s too much. Max flinches at the agony. Then the dog is curling up on Max’s stomach, breathing steadily against Max’s chest. She can’t breathe as she tries to speak, tries to beg Gabriel to stop. Please stop.

Gabriel screams in her ear, glass shattering against the wall and a hand tangled in her hair. You always ruin everything, you bitch.

Dolly lowers herself to her knees, runs a hand over Max’s hair. Don't touch me. Stop touching me. “You didn’t ruin anything. Honey, you’re okay. Please, take a breath. In and out, you can do it.”

“I-I can’t.”

“I have faith in you.”

Faith. Something Max gave up a long time ago. But then her body reacts, her heartbeat gradually slowing as she matches her breath to Sugar’s. The exaggerated cadence of Dolly’s breathing. She scrubs her face with the quilt and buries her face into the Rottweiler’s neck. She asks where Niall is, though she can’t fathom seeing that disgust on his face again.

Dolly hesitates. “He said he needed to clear his head. He wanted to give you space.”

“He’s angry with me, isn’t he?” Her voice is broken, edged with something even she can’t identify.

“I very much doubt that, doll. C’mon, you look like you could do with some tea.”

“Tea doesn’t fix everything.”

Dolly stays quiet for a long minute, her gaze a heavy weight on Max’s shoulders. Max almost drowns in the guilt. It’s been ages since she snapped at her friend last. Since she’s been so cold toward Dolly.

“No, tea doesn’t fix everything. But it gets you out of that tub.”

Max wipes the tears away and nudges Sugar until the dog climbs off her lap. Standing carefully so she doesn’t trip on the quilt, she wraps herself with the blanket. Dolly’s hands keep her steady Stop touching me, then Max steps out of the bathtub. She moves away from Dolly’s touch.

She can’t bear the thought of disappointing Dolly, so she doesn’t look back as she rushes out of the bathroom. Out of the flat she has lived in for five months. Back to the chill and loneliness across the landing. The isolation that has only devastated her more. It never helped, never healed her.

That was Niall.

And now she’s lost him, just like she lost herself the moment she met Gabriel.

She curls up as tightly as she can on the couch. The lights hurt her eyes, but the darkness is terrifying. Hands claw at her flesh, rip it from her bones, blood and sinew exposed for the world to see.

Her eyes burn, but she doesn’t let them fall. She has cried far too many tears over the last few years. Gabriel deserved none of them.

His face floats in her vision as ugly with rage as ever. The malevolent spectre, a demonic embodiment of the brutality he inflicts on her. Staring blankly at the far wall, Max lets the pain consume her. It’s what she deserves.