Chapter 16, A Day to Remember
[BY AMBER MARIGOLD]
Twenty steps. My happiness is only twenty steps away. Golden afternoon sunlight filters through the canopy of trees, trickling past the hanging copper lights and kissing my skin in a tender greeting. A slow breeze brushes past me as I walk towards Xavier on the other side of the aisle. The pathway is covered with yellow marigold flowers and I feel glad that I decided to walk barefoot. If only to feel the soft petals beneath me.
“You’re so tense,” someone says next to me.
I look up and it’s my dad that’s leading me down the aisle. Why am I surprised? Of course, my dad is walking me down the aisle. Why wouldn’t he? I smile up at him sheepishly. “I just want this day to be perfect. I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” I tell him.
“What are you talking about? Nothing could go wrong,” Dad says - reassuring me with his kind green eyes. I melt at the words and hold on tighter to his arm.
What am I talking about? There’s no danger here. This is a wedding.
“I guess, the guests will hate me once I’m unleashed at the buffet tables,” I joke.
Dad chuckles as we slowly make our way down the aisle. “I think you’ve got your work cut out for you, Amber. Your ginger friend was already eyeing the buffet tables when we walked in here,” Dad jokes right back and inclines his head to the left - exposing the silver-grey hairs that adorn his brunet locks.
I look over at the rows of seats. It’s fairly empty as weddings go so it’s easy to spot Calvin grinning at me. I grin right back at my tall friend and wave with my marigold and rose bouquet. “He’s a strawberry blond,” I correct Dad under my breath.
Calvin then leans back so his date can see me as well. Matt is looking lovely as ever with his blond hair styled back. He’s holding Calvin’s hand and the two of them show me a thumbs up. I’m so happy they can be themselves now. I’m so happy they don’t have to hide their feelings for each other. They really do look good together. Even while focussing on me, Matt still licks his thumb to push back one of Calvin’s out of place hairs. The two share a look where they seem to say that they’re next. It’ll be their wedding after this.
I am now ten steps away from my happiness and the warm sunlight continues to dance across my smooth skin as I take my time. The organza fabric of my dress brushes against me each time my leg gets exposed by the slit and I instinctively glance back to see if the lacey train is dragging on the marigold path.
When I look over my shoulder, Lynch is there - carrying my train for me with an infectiously goofy grin. His iconic curly hair is looking better than ever. He’s grown so much. I think he’s turning seventeen soon. I’ll have to give him the talk. There’s no way I’m letting some girl break my precious bean’s heart. I don’t ever want to see tears in those big brown eyes of his.
I look back ahead and smile at everyone that waves at me. Jack is sporting his frosty look as always as he takes out his phone to record everything. Falco is chilling by the side - inclining his head to me as he kicks back in his seat. And even Camila is here to see my wedding with a stunning dress and deep red lipstick that perfectly compliments her black hair and tanned skin. She glares at me first before looking down, smiling to herself, and then glancing back up to give me a sincere smile as she waves at me.
But it’s only once Dad and I stop in front of the copper and wood dais, that I notice who’s sitting in the front row. Uncle Anton is in a ridiculously unmatching suit with a cat patterned bowtie. It’s perfect really. He waves at me and his bright eyes close slightly as he smiles. He drops the hand waving at me to wrap it around the shoulder of the woman sitting next to him.
Mom... Mom is in a pale yellow dress and for a moment, I kind of understand why people say we look alike. We have the same blonde hair and high cheekbones; the pouty lips that tend to smirk. And if you look quickly, it could seem like we have the same blue eyes. Just like her brother, her eyes slightly close when she smiles. I reach up to feel if my eyes do the same but instead feel moistness. Am I crying? Why am I crying?
“Two more steps, Amber. You think you can do it on your own?” Dad asks - bringing my attention back to him.
“I can’t do it alone,” I say - suddenly feeling myself tremble. I have no idea why my heart is racing with fear, but it’s undeniable. I’m scared. I’m beyond scared.
“Of course you can, Amby. You’re the sun, remember,” Lynch says as he lets go of my train.
“But I don’t want to,” I protest.
Dad and Lynch both smile sadly before they look over at something behind me. I follow their gaze and of course, it’s Xavier. He’s in a black suit with a maroon buttoned shirt underneath. His dark hair is slicked back - exposing those promising emerald eyes and a smug grin. “You don’t have to be alone, Marigold,” Xavier says, “I’ll be with you. Whatever happens, I’ll always be with you.”
His words soothe me and I take his hand without a doubt in my mind. This is my happiness. This is the rest of my life. I take the two steps up the dais - letting the train of my dress wrap around the steps like a coiling snake as I stand with Xavier. We stare into each other’s eyes, but feeling like something is missing, I look over to where the priest is supposed to be. Why’s nobody there? Shouldn’t someone be officiating our marriage?
Chasing that feeling, I look over at the guests. I feel like I’m missing someone...
“Is something wrong?” Xavier asks.
I look back at him and a frown sets in. “Is this everyone?” I ask, “Weren’t there others?”
“This is everyone, Marigold. Calvin, Matt, Lynch, Falco, Camila, Jack, your mom, dad and uncle. There’s no one else,” Xavier says cautiously.
No... Someone isn’t here... Leather jackets and fancy coats fill my distant memory...
“Blake... Owen...” I whisper. Feeling the names flood me, I look up at Xavier in panic. “Nessa, Daniel, Paul, Pollock! Jessica, Liam, Aunt Tessa, Ryan, Bryan, Miss Sauvage, Gareth, Nixon, Myra... And Sean! Where’s Sean? Where are all these people?” I ask desperately.
Xavier loses his smile.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “They’ll join us really soon.”
Feeling something warm and sticky at my feet, I look down. A pool of blood has formed beneath us. My eyes slowly follow the trail of blood up and I suddenly realize Xavier wasn’t wearing a maroon shirt. Blood drips from him as I notice the seven bullet holes in his chest.
“Xavier!” I call, but when I look up at his eyes, they’re lifeless.
I turn for help, but the once smiling crowd of guests are all rotting corpses - old bronze blood sticks to their formal wear and flies and maggots crawl from their mouths. The once colorful forest has turned grey as the marigold path bursts into ask - revealing silver bullets beneath.
“No!” I cry and crumble to my knees. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!”
“Amber, wake up,” someone says.
I don’t wake with a gasp or panic. I wake up slowly, my eyes stinging from tears as I blink them away to look up at the person sitting next to me. I feel drained and hollow, but my spirit surprisingly gets lifted almost immediately.
“Jessy?” I ask in disbelief.
“Heyo, Amber,” my cousin smiles sadly.
I sit up - more awake than ever as I literally cannot believe my eyes. It really is Jessy! And she... she looks so mature... Her brunette hair is swept to the side with a delicate clip. Her eyes are warm as always, but there’s something more there. Like she’s learned something valuable and treasures the wisdom. We have the same pouty lips, but hers turns into a soft smile rather than a smirk like when we were younger. She’s wearing a pastel indigo dress with long lacy sleeves and a small golden necklace to crown the look. Jessy’s sitting on the bed with her legs tucked beneath her, but I don’t miss the converse she’s wearing. Of course.
“You’ve gotten fat, Cousin,” I joke.
Jessy smiles a little wider before she gets up onto her knees - revealing her small, but prominent belly beneath her lacy dress.
I’ve had my fair share of food babies over the years, but it pretty quickly becomes apparent that Jessy’s belly isn’t like that because of food... I look up at her - unable to say anything. She... she really is pregnant... No wonder she wanted to stay so far away from gangs and yet... she’s still taking the risk to be with me here today. She’s risking her new family for her old one.
“How far along?” I ask once speech comes back to me.
“Five months,” Jessy answers.
Not knowing how to respond, I go with the idiot route. “Damn. So you had sex,” I say without thinking.
Jessy laughs before she playfully shoves at my shoulder. “Yeah, not all of us are prudes like you, Amber,” she jokes - catching her breath before she smirks at me. “Though I don’t think that will be the case much longer. You’re leaving for the honeymoon tonight aren’t you? The Scottish woman couldn’t shut up about it.”
“Not you too,” I moan and put my hands in front of my face in embarrassment. “Nessa has been haunting me day and night about it.”
Jessy laughs at my reddened state and after a second, I can’t help but laugh as well. I completely forget about the awful dream I had and it just feels so good to have my cousin with me on this day. I know it’s dangerous, but I really needed this. I really needed a part of my old life with me. If only to remind me of the good old days.
“Hey, Amber,” Jessy says once we’ve both caught our breath again.
“Yes?” I ask - looking up.
“I went for my ultrasound last week and it’s a boy,” Jessy smiles.
“Oh thank God. Girls are the worst,” I joke.
“I’m going to name him Anton.”
Jessy looks at me with so much emotion in her eyes and there’s no stopping it. After having my emotions locked up for so long, they start pooling out of me in great waves. Still frozen in place, tears are streaming down my cheeks. I don’t make a sound. I can’t afford to say a word, but within seconds, Jessy joins me. Silently, we rake with tears. I lean forward to hug Jessy and she squeezes me back - her grip shaking. I feel her tears on my shoulder and she probably feels mine on hers as well. I can’t say how long we sit there, crying, but when I finally find comprehensible words to say, I bite my cheek to get myself to make a sound.
“I’m so sorry, Jessy,” I sob on her shoulder, “I’m so very sorry for killing -”
“It’s not your fault, Amber,” Jessy cries. I feel her shake her head and sniff back her tears. “I should’ve never been so angry at you...”
“Of course it’s my fault. If only I never got involved with all this-”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Jessy interrupts. It gets me to hesitate as she pulls me to face her. I look straight into those fierce brown eyes - her tears still there. “You were always meant for this life. It might not be the best way to go, but it’s the path you were born to take. Now, I don’t know when or where that path ends or how many loved ones you lose on the way, but you have to keep going. You can’t ever stop. For the sake of those who gave their lives, you must live yours until death comes dragging you away - kicking and screaming. And you damn well better find your happiness before that time comes, Amber. There would be no point to all this if you couldn’t be happy.”
My cousin’s words unravel me and I break down sobbing in front of her. I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve happiness. I’m not good. I’m not the golden girl that everyone constantly thinks I am. I’m selfish, manipulative, and downright scheming. I’ve sold my soul to the devil to be able to live a little longer with my remaining loved ones. And knowing the cost of this life, I’ll gladly sell my soul over and over if it means protecting everyone.
“I’m so happy you’re here, Jessy... You’re the last of my family that doesn’t want me dead,” I sob.
“Not the last,” someone says.
I look over to where the voice came from and my gaze lands on my bedroom door. There, in the doorframe is the person I’m most afraid of looking in the eye. She’s wearing a blue dress and her dark brown hair has grown since I last saw her - now brought together in a low bun. She’s gotten thinner too - her cheekbones more prominent and those eyes...
“Aunt Tessa...” I whisper.
“Amber dear,” she smiles sadly.
I instinctively look down and cover my face with my hands. I killed her husband. I’m the reason Uncle Anton is dead. I took away the love of her life...
“Amber, it’s okay,” Jessy says as she starts rubbing my back.
“I’m sorry... I’m so so sorry,” I cry over and over.
“I didn’t come here to make your wedding day miserable,” Aunt Tessa says. I hear her walking over and then the bed shifts as she gets on. A second pair of hands is now rubbing my back and I somehow find it incredibly calming. “I came here because my favorite niece is having her wedding and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I forgave you a long time ago and when Jessy called me a few months back, I knew running away wasn’t the right thing to do. I’m an adult and yet I let kids carry the burden all alone. I was so weak and for that, I’m sorry Amber. I failed you as a guardian.”
“I don’t deserve your forgiveness,” I cry.
“Well, you have it regardless. All you can do now is live your life in a way that will make you one day deserve it,” Aunt Tessa soothes.
She’s right... I can’t change the cards I’m dealt with. I want to kick and scream and hide from the world, but I can’t do that. I have to play the game no matter what. Whether it’s with bluffing, cheating, or just luck, I have to play and win with the cards in my hands. Slowly, I look back up. The three of us hug and we don’t let go for a while.
“Oh mah Gawd, ye really went ahead and cried,” Nessa exclaims - grabbing our attention as we look up at her in panic. “She cried, ye baldy! I told ye it was a bad idea to let ye bloomin’ lass in ’ere!” Nessa scolds someone. Unlike Jessy and Aunt Tessa, Nessa is still in casualwear. I mean, she’s wearing six-inch heels, leather pants, and a very revealing white blazer that would make any celebrity jealous, but it’s still casualwear for Nessa.
“I’m not bald!” Liam yells before walking past Nessa and entering the room. “It’s a buzzcut with a slightly receding hairline,” he mumbles to no one in particular. “Hello, Amber,” he greets once his focus is on me. Liam looks good in his classic black suit but I do suspect he’ll be bald pretty soon. What gets my attention though is the ginger cat he’s holding - or at least trying to hold.
“That cat doesn’t seem to like you,” I comment.
The cat is literally clawing Liam while the guy is just casually walking over. “Yes. This is Socks. Socks hates me,” he sighs.
“Give her here,” Jessy says and takes the cat from Liam. She turns to me and I reach out to pet Socks on his fluffy head. The cat starts purring and rubbing his head against my hand. “I’ll probably stay for the night and I don’t want to leave Socks at the apartment. Is there a room where I can keep him?”
“No need to lock him up somewhere. He can join the wedding. Pollock will babysit him,” I suggest.
“Awww where is Pollock? He must have grown so much since when I last dropped him back off at your place,” Jessy gushes.
“Paul probably has him. I can go get him if you want-”
“No way, Amberry!” Nessa interrupts as she struts over. “We need to get ye dressed and ready! The vans are leavin’ in three hours and if we want to fool the South, we can’t even be one minute late.”
Ahh yes, our strategy. It’s crucial that we stick to the plan.
The rest of the morning flew by quickly. I haven’t seen Xavier all day or most of the guests that arrived either. After my little reunion, I took a long scorching bath where Nessa proceeded to groom me. Too much of me if I’m being honest. I’m not sure if it’s for the wedding or the honeymoon. My second in command refused to give me food, but it was okay because Paul sneaked some bread my way. After that, Nessa did my makeup and got me in my dress. Jessy helped too and Aunt Tessa offered to do my hair for me. We were running behind and before I knew it, I was shoved inside a tinted van before I could even check myself in a mirror. Some of the other guests also got in vans and by eleven AM, about a dozen black vans rode out of Isabella’s. It was all part of our plan.
To give credit, Xavier was the one that came up with it. We sent out invitations to everyone with the wedding location listed as Isabella’s - including Southern Sterling. We let spies go that went to Jane and Kyle to confirm that the wedding will be at Isabella’s. Everything is pointing to the estate. Which is why Xavier just sent a simple email to a wedding planning company that booked us a venue that’s ten hours away. He used the same email that has been hacked by the South a while back (courtesy of Camila) - meaning they’ll undoubtedly see it and think we’re trying to fool them in thinking we’re at isabella’s. If everything goes to plan, Southern Sterling will go to that fake venue and the wedding will in fact safely take place at Isabella’s.
As long as nobody betrays us.
I have faith in Xavier’s plan, but... I still went ahead and made sure I had one final card up my sleeve. It will kill me to play it, but... Sacrifices are inevitable. And in the grand scheme of things, trading one life, a life Southern Sterling would kill to have, in exchange for guaranteeing my loved one’s safety, is a fair deal. I’m no stranger to sacrifices, but today will be the hardest sacrifice yet... And when I’m so close to happiness too...
I wish it doesn’t come down to it, but whether it does or doesn’t; whether our plan succeeds or fails; we get married, or we die...
This will be a day to remember.