Scars & Souvenirs

forty-three

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You said you needed time to clear your head. I need the same. This isn’t anything against you, I swear. I just need some time. I could fall in love with you, Niall.

Max sighs and folds the paper, setting it on the counter. It isn’t nearly enough - it will never encompass the thoughts and emotions she has right now. But it’s all she can do. How can she put into words the storm that blows through her mind, her soul? She can barely explain it to herself.

Two nights have passed since the disaster that ruined everything, and Max hasn’t heard from anyone. Dolly has left her alone. Niall knocked on the door and assured Max he’s here for her whenever she’s ready. She will never be ready to face him again. He made a promise. This is him sticking to it, no matter how much he wants to walk away.

Niall is too kind to ever walk away. Even when it makes him miserable. Max will do everything in her power to make him happy though it breaks her heart.

She double-checks the suitcase to make sure she has everything: laptop, charging cables, clothing, and hygiene products. She has no idea where she will end up, but anywhere is better than here with the memories. Finally, there is nothing left to do but walk out the door.

She slides one of the notes under Dolly’s door. That one apologises as well, says she isn’t sure if she will ever come back. Dolly can sell what’s left in the flat. She thanked Dolly for everything the woman has done for her over the last eleven months, but she can’t stay anymore.

After slipping the note to Niall under his door, Max wraps numb fingers around the handle of her suitcase and makes her way down the stairs. The door squeaks closed behind her. It tells her she can never come back. This will never be home again.

She says a silent goodbye before pulling away.

The roads are empty, citizens sleeping the midnight away in bed. The playlist she made with Nikki comes through the speakers, and Max tries not to focus on the shattering in her chest. Her eyes burn with impending tears that break free when that particular song comes on. The one Nikki played for them during Max’s first visit to Niall’s flat for dinner. Max doesn’t remember adding Sleep Well, My Angel to the playlist.

Morning greets her long before she’s ready. She has only stopped twice for fuel and when her sobs got the better of her. Her body aches, familiar pangs of homesickness. Not for Ann Arbor but for Niall. The strength and warmth she found in his arms. The sweet kisses. The nights spent talking into the early hours, the way he’d made love to her as if she was everything he waited for.

The love she never thought she would find.

The bed-and-breakfast looms in front of her. Max stares at the building for a long minute then shakes her head. She never made the decision to stop, but now that she has, she doesn’t want to continue on. She can keep running later.

For now, Hyacinth Inn will do.

The woman behind the desk gives her a cursory glance before launching into the welcome speech. It’s well-practiced, years of saying the same thing to other travelling guests, but Max wonders if the older woman can see the difference. Max isn’t someone on vacation - she’s a brokenhearted fool who lost the only person who matters anymore.

Before she hands over the key, Margaret pauses. “The seaside bluffs are a great place. Whatever questions you have, you’ll find the answers there.”

Max nods and carries her suitcase to room 12. Sparsely decorated, the room is perfect in its simplicity. Pale blue walls, the carpet white and plush. Plain comforter on the bed.

A painting hangs on the wall, gilded frame encompassing a garden bursting with colour and life. A bay window overlooks the street and the slightest glimpse of the ocean beyond. Max inhales the fears, exhales the calm.

This is what she needs: Peace to mend her heart from letting go of the greatest love she’s ever had, and room to breathe.

Though she is exhausted from driving through the night, she takes Margaret’s suggestion to heart. Tourists and town natives alike spill along the pavements, chatter and laughter surrounding Max. She asks a young mother where to find the cliffs, and the mother steers her in the right direction before walking away. The toddler follows close behind.

Max lowers herself in the tall grass and closes her eyes. The sun warms her skin, the grass around her, the darkest parts of soul. She thought she would cling forever to the unknown when she drove away from the home she made. Instead, she finds the worries slipping from her grasp. No one encroaches on her space, and in the quiet she hears the swaying off the grass and the crash of waves against the rocks.

She climbs to her feet once the sun is high in the sky, too hot to sit in the shine any longer. The trek back to Hyacinth Inn is quiet; she’s lost in her thoughts. Margaret was wrong. Max found no answers on the bluffs. Peaceful as it was, it couldn’t give her a response to her most burning question.

How is she meant to get over Niall when he’s so deep in her soul?

Sleep doesn’t come easily that night. Her mind wanders, and her skin prickles with the ghost of Niall’s hands. Tenderness shown in each touch. Feeling his body under hers, rocking with the waves he sent through her. Falling with abandon into the endless universe as he kissed and soothed away the torture. Her heart aches with the loss.

She wants to feel his love again. It can never happen.

She ran to get distance. Now that she has it, she isn’t certain it is what she wants.

Max is back at the bluffs before the sun has fully risen. This time, she has brought her journal, notepad, and pens. She needs to get her thoughts out, and Thomas suggested journaling. He told her not to worry about what she was writing - just put pen to paper and let the ink flow. So she does.

The entry is a rambling mess. Tangents she never finishes, questions she can’t answer. The most important one, she finds, is the hardest of them all: Is what she feels for Niall real, or a byproduct of attaching ‘safety’ to him? The small voice is no help. All it does is repeats the enquiry on a never-ending loop.

How can I go back? Can I handle being with him like that again after the flashback? Will he forgive me? I don’t even know if he still wants to be with me. If he still loves me. He hasn’t called or sent a message, so maybe this really is the end.

She knows it’s for the best, but the thought of not having him anymore is terrifying. He became such an enormous part of her. Losing him is a supernova exploding, ripping away the world and life she built with him. The ground quakes under her feet as she imagines a future without him in it. She was his princess. He could fall in love with her.

She trusted him.

Now she will be nothing to him. He will forever be everything to her.

Max stops in at a pub, hungry for the first time since she made such a mess of things. The barkeep doesn’t bat an eyelash when she orders a soda and burger. Maybe he thinks she will want a stiffer drink once her belly is full. He has no idea she will never drink.

She pulls her sweat-soaked hair into a low ponytail and leans back in the booth. Conversations flow around her as easily as the liquor, coming from all corners of the dim bar. A middle-aged woman chats with her friend over margaritas, a young couple holds hands as they do shot after shot. People of all ages and races enjoy the quiet evening in the quiet village.

The old man at the bar stares at the empty glass in front of him. His grey hair hangs around his grizzled face, brown eyes dark with whatever is on his mind. He motions for another, and the barkeep obliges. No words are spoken. He straightens up long enough to drink in a mouthful of his beer, then he slumps over again. Years of living rest heavily on his square shoulders.

He pays for her meal without speaking to her.

Max repeats the routine over the next few days: Bluffs to pub to Hyacinth Inn. Margaret doesn’t question Max’s early departure and late arrival. She just makes sure the room is clean by the time Max goes to bed.

The fourth night, she hesitates then slips onto the stool beside the old man. He barely looks up from her beer. Her heart hammers in her chest as she thanks him for paying for her meal over the last few days. He nods but doesn’t speak. Max wonders if she’s done something wrong, intruding on his privacy like this, but he turns his head and gives her a tiny smile.

She stays where she is.

When she gets back to Hyacinth Inn, she stares at her reflection in the mirror hanging over the sink. The woman staring back is different - less haunted, fuller cheeks and brighter eyes - and the sun has begun bleaching her hair. Her skin is tanned, darker than when she left Santa Barbara. But still, there is something missing in her smile. Something suspiciously Niall-shaped.

She has to stop thinking about him. He’s probably already moved on, found someone else who can love him without fear. Who will share his bed and time and not worry about messing things up. Who is worthy of his love. Someone who will make love to him whenever he wants, as many times as he wants. Max could barely give him once.

He deserves more.

The old man introduces himself out of nowhere, an hour after she’s sat down. She has sat beside him for the past five evenings and never wanted to know his name. Knowing that makes this real. It reminds her that connections with others have only ever gone wrong for her.

Valery. Niall. Nikki, Louis, Harry, Liam, Zayn, Dolly. All of them, removed from her life. She’s the only common denominator.

“Why do you come here if you don’t drink? I know the food ain’t that good.”

Max shrugs, sighing, and tears at the bun on her burger. It’s long gone cold. Her appetite has disappeared with the growing homesickness. “Bad memories,” she finally says. “Need a distraction, I guess, and where better than a bar full of people I don’t know?”

“That makes sense.” Billy nods as if he understands. Maybe he does. “How you likin’ Mendocino?”

“It’s great. How did you know?”

He chuckles and shakes his head, grey hair swishing with the movement. “What, that you’re not from around here? You got that lost look that usually means you’re trying to find yourself. This place is a pretty good spot for that.”

She frowns - was it really that obvious? Instead of voicing her doubts, she asks Billy about his life, why he comes here every night and pays for a stranger to eat. He talks about his kids and grandchildren. The loving wife who visits friends for rounds of bridge while he plants himself on a barstool. Max giggles despite herself when he leans over and whispers that he hates Helen’s friends.

She tells him stories from her childhood growing up in Ann Arbor. How wonderful her parents were even when she disappointed them so horribly. He cocks his head, sets down his beer, and frowns at the bottles on the shelves.

“I doubt you disappointed them bad enough they don’t want you around.”

“They were supposed to be moving out here to be near me,” she says. Her lips are numb, body nearly vibrating with the topic. She is veering too close to the truth. “But I don’t think they will now.”

“Why’s that?”

“I... I left an amazing guy, so I don’t really have a place to go anymore. I, uh, I love him. I mean, I haven’t told him, but I do.”

“What’s stoppin’ you from going back?”

“I don’t think he’d want me. Besides, he deserves better than me.”

Billy smothers his snort with a mouthful of beer. “Didja cheat on him? Call his mother a piggy bitch?”

“What? No! Who would do that?”

“My sister’s ex-husband did. There’s many reasons she divorced him. That’s just one of the more tame ones. Look, kid, if you didn’t do that, there’s no reason he won’t love you. Not even those bad memories you have.”

“They made a mess of things.”

He shrugs, sips at his drink. “Sure they did. But you gotta clean it up. If this guy is as great as you say, he’s worth the effort, isn’t he? Those bad memories aren’t your future, girlie.”

Max exhales slowly and nods. Her cheeks are damp when she scratches at an itch; she accepts the napkin he passes over, and his words echo in her ears. He’s right. Running from Niall has only hurt her more. No matter what, Niall deserves the truth. He has the right to make his own choices. She can only accept whatever decision he makes.

He may not be able to handle the possibility of her never fully recovering from what Gabriel has done, but she can’t be the one to choose that for him. She can’t try to control him like Gabriel controlled her.

Sniffling once more, Max cocks her head at the old man who’s become a quick friend. “Okay, Billy, what do you suggest for someone who hasn’t drank in over seven years? And keep in mind the last thing I drank was a cheap vodka stolen from my friend’s parents.”

Billy laughs, a rich sound coming from his belly. The barkeep’s head swivels toward the pair quickly enough that Max wonders if he gets a crick in his neck. The shock bleeds from his face as he nears the pair.

Billy orders another beer and a glass of white Zinfandel. While the drinks are being poured, he makes her promise not to drive. Max swears, even crosses her heart, as the wineglass is placed in front of her.

The taste is unfamiliar, but she finds that it isn’t bad. It is definitely better than the vodka she and Valery used to drink. Those nights seem centuries ago - nights where they would tiptoe down the hall to Paul’s study. Val would pick the lock to the glass-fronted cabinet while Max stood watch, then they’d scurry back to Val’s room to hide away with their awful, disgusting treasure.

Billy pays once more. Max leaves behind half of the golden-clear liquid. She may never be a fan of alcohol, too many memories entrenched in her mind, but... She thinks she will be okay with the occasional glass. If only to prove to herself that she is stronger than what has almost killed her ten times over.

The streets are quiet. The only illumination comes from the streetlights. Shops have closed for the night, and people are either at home in bed or in the bars. Billy whistles quietly as he walks next to her. Max turns her face up to the sky. Rich navy dotted with billions of white diamonds, it has never offered such freedom. She has always felt so small beneath the expansive stretch, so insignificant and pathetic.

Now, though, now it feels like another piece of what makes her who she is. She has stardust in her blood, given freely with the vow she will always deserve a heaven. She is part of the universe, and she is just as important as the next person. The galaxy reaches beyond her comprehension. She is made up of her own galaxies. Each one holds together every part of her. Even the broken bits.

“Thank you, Billy. I, I appreciate everything.”

His eyes twinkle in the midnight, and he smiles softly. His face is softer, less stony and more pleasant, when he smiles. Max steps forward and wraps her arms around his neck. He hugs back just as tightly, reminding her she has a future to fight for.

She falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow.
♠ ♠ ♠
reminder: we only have 2 chapters left, and once the final one is posted, there will be a month to catch up/finish reading. then i'll be removing this story from the site.