Chapter 26, Heroes Aren't Brave
[BY BLAKE BOWMEN]
I watch Amber and Xavier kiss and the crowd cheers. I hate it. I hate it so much, because I know it’s the right choice. Amber is with the person she belongs to. I just hate that I’m not that person. God, I’ve always been selfish. It’s in my blood.
“Owen’s calling. You can cut it,” one of the twins say and the one holding the camera stops the video.
Hearing a scuffle coming from the wall to my left, I close the laptop in front of me and glance over with a sad smile.
Jane is standing on top of the wall - her pistol slowly lowering as she realizes the wedding venue is empty. Her eyes land on me and I watch her knuckles turn white as she grips her gun. “Bowmen,” she growls and jumps down the wall - heading over to me. For a moment I really believe this is it. That Jane’s going to kill me, but...
“Jane, hold it!” I hear Kyle say. I lean back to look behind Jane and my brother jumps down the wall as well. He looks around the decorated, but empty wedding venue and sighs as he walks over to me. The rest of the armed group of gang members, scale the wall and look around surprised.
Kyle’s here... He’s actually here...
“What’s going on here, brother?” Kyle asks.
“Bowmen, this better not be what I think it is!” Jane yells at my brother.
I laugh. Without being able to control myself, I start laughing without a care.
“Where are they?” Kyle asks - more impatient this time. He won’t be able to ignore Jane for much longer. The girl is beyond fuming at this point. She starts ordering her men to look around and see if they can find anything or anyone.
“She was right,” I say through laughter. “Amber just knew you too well.”
“I’ve never even met the girl,” Kyle says - clearly getting annoyed with my chaotic laughter. This is no joke to him, but it’s his serious expression that only gets me to laugh harder. The way he swipes his dark hair back in frustration.
“And that’s the beauty of it,” I chuckle, “Amber has never met you, and yet she was so damn right about you!” My stomach starts to hurt from laughter and I wipe away a tear.
Kyle doesn’t seem to think this is funny at all. Since I’m sitting on one of the empty chairs, Kyle has to crouch to be level with me. “Blake... What is going on?” he asks, “Where are they? Tell me what you did.”
Nineteen Hours Earlier.
I’m in the room that Amber said was okay to use. She gave me everything I needed these last three days. I’ve been going down to the study to play the piano every night when everyone was too fast asleep to hear and I did it. I recorded a song just for Amber...
Nervous, I leave my room and head to Amber’s. I pass Owen’s door and peek inside. He’s asleep with that redhead by his side. I’m glad my friend has people that care for him... Nessa will probably be his date for the wedding as well. Though, to be honest, it would make me feel better if we both could show up alone and miserable. After everything we went through with Amber, I find it appropriate if Owen and I went together.
With one last sad smile, I pass Owen’s room and go to knock on Amber’s door.
“Come in,” she says.
I slowly open the door and peek inside. The autumn-themed room is washed in warm colors with the dull yellow light from her nightstand. Amber herself is in cat pajamas it would seem - busy combing her hair while the golden retriever pup is sleeping next to her. It feels weirdly nostalgic to see her like this. I’m reminded of the days before she became an upper gang leader.
“Are you busy?” I ask.
“Not at all,” she says and pats the spot next to her, “Come, I wanted to see you in any way.”
A little sheepishly, I close the door and go to sit next to Amber. The bed is pretty large and she’s made herself comfortable, but I still have shoes on, so I decide to just sit on the edge. “I have something for you,” I say and hand her the USB I’ve been holding.
“What’s this?” Amber asks. She stops combing her hair and takes the USB I hand her before she inspects it.
“I... It’s a song I recorded on the piano... I took the wedding march and just did a slower, more... ‘you’ kind of cover for it. I didn’t have time to get you a wedding gift so I hope this will do,” I explain shyly.
Amber smiles warmly at the USB before she looks at me with those calm, ocean eyes of hers. “Thank you, Blake... This really means a lot to me.”
After all this time, her smile still brings out my own. “I would play it live, but I’m too scared I’d mess it up. My hands shake too much nowadays for me to properly play the piano,” I explain.
Amber nods with a guilty grin and sticks out her hands towards me. They’re trembling. “My hands always shake like this if I’ve been holding a gun for too long,” she confesses, “Even as a kid, after my uncle took me to the gun range, my hands would shake.”
I look up surprised. “Mine’s also caused by shooting,” I say.
Amber sighs and lowers her hands. “This life... it’s not for artists like ourselves. I enjoy painting now, but my hands just won’t stop trembling.”
I go quiet and look down at the bed cover. It’s a rich brown with delicate bronze threads spun through it. I let my trembling hand trace over the delicate fabric. “I can’t believe you’re getting married...” I whisper. It feels like yesterday I was teaching her how to play the piano and slowly falling in love with this golden storm.
“If things weren’t so complicated, I wouldn’t have wanted to get married for another couple of years. I feel like I’m old. I’ve done things girls my age would never have to worry about, but I’m still just nineteen and I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing,” Amber says.
“Nineteen is a ridiculous age to get married,” I scoff with a playful grin, “Then again, being an upper-gang leader at fifteen is probably worse. You know I’ll still make fun of you tomorrow though.”
Amber smiles. “I’m glad you’ll be there.”
It feels wrong to attend Amber’s wedding. And not because I know I’ll only hurt seeing it, but because I don’t belong there. Everyone here is a good person who only wants to see Amber happy. I’m a fraud. I’m selfish because I want to be happy as well. But... whether I’m happy or sad, I will always be loyal to Amber Marigold. She’s done a lot of things wrong, but she’s also saved me more than once. From myself too. And even though I’ve done unspeakable things to her... She has never given up on me. While the world has shunned me, Amber has always believed in me. Even when I couldn’t believe myself.
“So, the wedding really is here tomorrow?” I ask. I know my brother is planning something and it’s up to me to stop him.
Amber looks at me intently for a moment. “Blake... be honest with me... Do you really want to see the wedding?” she asks.
The question takes me back for a second, but I only need a breath to gather my words. “Amber... I know I’ve had trouble with the truth in the past so I’ll be completely honest... It breaks my heart. Even though I know I’m not the one for you, you are still the one for me and it still hurts to know that I can never have you...” I admit.
“I see,” Amber says softly - breaking eye contact as she pats her dog. She lets her hand run across the smooth fur for a few seconds before she says, “You know... Something I’ve learned is that lies can save people too... It’s not always a bad thing to be a liar...” Amber slowly gets out of the bed and walks over to her dresser. “So, if you feel as though you must lie... Whether it’s for your own sake or someone else’s, I understand,” she continues - taking something out of the drawer before she walks back over, “I can only hope I’m on the side that gets protected by your lies,” Amber ends off with as she sits back on the bed and slowly opens her hands to reveal what she brought.
When I look down at what it is she’s got in her hands, I instantly realize it’s my phone. The phone that Kyle gave back to me after he let me go. “Where’d you get that?” I ask. The guards at Isabella’s gate confiscated my phone. I didn’t really expect to get it back either.
Amber gently takes my hands and gives me the phone - looking me straight in the eye through it all. It’s like she can see into my soul. “Do you mind telling me about your brother? What kind of man he is?” Amber asks.
“I... Uh...” I try to say something, but I’m a little lost for words seeing Amber like this. She’s so... tactful. It shouldn’t really be a surprise. She’s always been coming up with clever schemes. The whole fake boyfriend thing two years ago, pretending to be ignorant of the bet... She’s always had this side to her but... being a leader has made her polish that side of herself to the point where I’m honestly afraid.
“I don’t want you to betray your brother...” Amber adds, “I know that would be unbelievably rude of me to-”
“No,” I interrupt Amber. “He might be my family, but he’s not my real family. He made his choice and left. I’m sticking with the family that’s not leaving me. Besides, helping Kyle means hurting Owen and that guy’s been through enough.”
Amber hands me a sad smile. “You don’t understand how relieved that makes me.”
“You believe me?” I ask. Anyone in Amber’s situation would think I’m lying right now.
“Of course I believe you, Blake. I know you’ve made some bad choices but you’ve always had the best intentions. And out of everyone I know, you’ve been the most loyal. I’ll believe you until the very end,” she says.
I don’t think Amber knows how much her words mean... Or maybe she does. Either way, it works, because she makes me want to follow her until the very end. Like Kyle, she has that ability.
I take a deep breath and shift my weight on the bed. “Kyle has always been a great leader,” I start, “but if you ask him, he’d tell you he was an artist before he was anything else. Everyone always thought he meant painting since he was so good at it, but I knew he meant something else. When my brother smiled and told people he was an artist, he meant the world was simply his canvas, people his paints and those close to him would be his brushes. He had a vision and a talent of knowing which colors and which brushes to use to make it happen. Whether it was getting kids to stop making fun of me when we were young or confirming business deals with our father, he always knew what he was doing
“The only time he didn’t know what he was doing was when he met Emma. Emma was... Well... I was young when I met her for the first time. I was only thirteen and Kyle and Emma were both sixteen. I still remember my first impression of her. She was wild... like a fire that would consume the whole world. She had this burning passion inside of her to make a difference in this world. I don’t know all of the details, but she always attended rallies and protested against the corrupt government. She was a part-time photographer for a Tygerwell’s local newspaper and was determined to expose the politicians of this country for allowing gangs to roam free. Of course, when she fell in love with my brother, she had no idea he was the heir to the Western Upper-Gang. If she did, she would’ve hated him.
“I can’t say what exactly happened between them, but somewhere in those two years leading up to his succession, Kyle changed. He’s always been a good person, but he’s never really cared about the world as a whole. Emma changed him. She sparked a fire in him and made him want to be better. One month before my brother became the West’s leader, Emma died. I don’t know how, but I know it wasn’t pretty... his face that day when he got home... I don’t think I ever want to see him wear an expression like that ever again. No matter what he’s done...
“Anyways, after Emma’s death, he became an even better leader. He seemed to let Emma’s death remind him to appreciate everyone. He didn’t let it turn him into a monster. He spent time not only with me but our mother, father and everyone in the gang. He built up unbelievable trust. That’s why... when I thought he died... I was so so lost, Amber... He was perfect for it and then just disappeared,” I say. I scoff at myself before shaking my head. “And yet, he didn’t die. He just went and joined the South. It was so... unlike him. So out of character. I don’t recognize my brother at all.”
Amber blinks slowly - taking in everything she’s heard. Eventually, AMber says, “Maybe that perfect brother was the one that was out of character.” The way she looks at me... it’s like she’s telling me something more. That she’d know being perfect was out of character because at some point we all believed she was perfect.
“Perhaps,” I say.
“Did Kyle ask you to spy on us?” Amber asks.
The question is so blunt, I almost forget to answer. “Yes,” I admit.
“And since the wedding is here, I’ll call Kyle tonight telling him it’s at the decoy location,” I say. It’s been my plan from the start. It’s why I’ve pretended to be friendly with my brother. I’d do as he does and gain his trust. Gain it and then throw it away.
My brother betrayed me a while ago. I owe him the favor.
“Don’t lie to him,” Amber says.
I frown at her words. “What do you mean don’t lie to him? You know he plans to have you and Xavier killed, right? If he knows you’re here, you’re all dead,” I warn.
Amber cocks her head to the side. “He’d believe you if you told him it was at the fake location? Even though everything points to it, in fact, being here at Isabella’s?”
“Yes. He trusts in our quote-unquote brotherly bond. He’ll believe me if I told him it was at the fake location.”
“I’m willing to make a bet,” Amber says. I’m instantly reminded of the bet Owen and I made two years ago. The bet that started all of this. “I’m willing to bet that Kyle isn’t as good as he seems. He doesn’t have blind faith and he’s not going to make decisions based on trust or any of the things he stands for. I bet, he’s just as scheming and ruthless as the rest of us. I bet that mask of his is itching to come off.” Amber looks me dead in the eye - completely serious. “I’m willing to bet my life on it.”
The woman in front of me scares me to my bone.
Not long passes before I leave Amber’s room to go make the call. It feels so wrong to tell kyle the plan and that the wedding is at Isabella’s. If not for the fact that Amber told me to trust her with this, I’d never even think of risking everyone’s lives like this. Amber really is nuts if she thinks this plan is going to work. At this rate, I’m going to be the reason why my brother crashes the wedding. After the call, I go to my room to prepare myself mentally for the next day. Owen is vulnerable. I’ll have to protect him. And even though Amber can defend herself, I’d have to try and convince my brother not to kill her somehow.
I didn’t sleep well at all and the next morning, I grudgingly get into my suit. I straighten my dark navy tie, comb my black hair back and head downstairs with everyone else from the North to get into the decoy vans. There isn’t much room so I sit in front with a driver for the ride.
Everything finally makes sense when we stop by the Northern Mountain Tunnel. Everyone gets out and heads over to the disguised trucks. Everyone but me. “Uh, I think the door is stuck,” I tell the driver and turn to him nervously. I don’t want to break the door or anything.
“It’s locked,” the driver says. I can’t read his expression with those dark sunglasses, but I know he’s being serious.
“Why?” I ask confused and cautious.
The driver turns in his seat. “Miss Marigold sends her regards,” he says before he hands me a big black box that he grabs from behind his seat. “Don’t open it until we get there.”
I’m not attending the wedding, am I?
I’m almost relieved, to be honest. I don’t have to pretend to be happy for Amber, but... I still wanted to be there... Is that weird? Masochistic of me perhaps? I know I’d hate it, but I want to be there all the same for her. Will Owen be okay?
The next seven-hour trip eats at me like nothing ever has. I keep on thinking that Amber is making a mistake, that she’s getting herself killed. She’s taking a gamble that’s not going to work. When we get to the fake location - a manor in the middle of the woods surrounded by a lovely old stone wall, those that tagged along with start to set everything up in a hurry. The wedding company already decorated the place but the Northern guys set up speakers all around until they finish and bring me to where the audience is supposed to be. They make me sit down on one of the empty chairs. My driver just gives me a sorry look before he leaves with the others.
When have I not been the one to get sacrificed?
With the black box still in my hands, I set it down on my lap and open it up. It’s a laptop. I check around me and the speakers are connected to a cable that leads to me... I think I know where this is going... When I open the laptop, there’s only one thing on it. An email app. I open the app and the email account on this laptop only has one message. I open the message. It’s a long letter with one file attachment. It was sent three hours ago... I look up at the sky. The sun is slowly making it’s way to the horizon. It’ll set in an hour or so.
With a heavy breath, I read the letter.
To Blake, my most loyal friend,
I’d like to start off by saying that heroes aren’t brave, Blake, they’re cowards. Because it’s a lot easier to sacrifice yourself than it is to sacrifice someone you love. If circumstances were different... If I didn’t have so many people to protect today, I would never have done this to you. I hope you can believe me, Blake. I really do love you.
Words cannot describe how sorry I am for doing this to you... I’d want nothing more than to have you at my wedding, but... If I want to fool Southern Sterling, I’d have to use you. You’re someone that’s nearly priceless to them. I know your brother loves you. He really does, but... he isn’t going to risk everything for the sake of you. You have a tracker in your phone and I’m willing to bet not only my life but the lives of everyone at this wedding, that he’ll follow that tracker before he follows your word. Even if he claims otherwise.
I don’t blame you if you hate me for this. I’m allowing you to get caught by Southern Sterling right after you got away. And the chances are, I won’t see you again for a while... Last night was most likely the last time we’ll get to talk in a while. So trust me when I say that after today, I won’t blame you if you betray me. I won’t hold it against you if you choose to side with your brother. I’ve brought this upon myself.
All I can ask is one last favor.
You know what to do.
- Amber Marigold Jilten
I open the file that’s attached to the email and it’s a video just over an hour-long... When I press play, I immediately know what it is I’m watching. Amber’s wedding... She’s probably already married by now... I glance at the cables by my feet and realize that I do in fact know what’s needed of me. With a hopeless sigh, I connect the laptop to the cables and the sound of the video echoes around me like the wedding is actually taking place right here.
“And that brings us here,” I tell Kyle - ending my explanation. “Without having met you once, Amber could tell what kind of person you were and she outsmarted you, Brother. She knew you’d think I was protecting her. She knew you’d think she’s too soft-hearted to sacrifice me. And she played you like a fool.” I laugh. “I have to admit, knowing she got you really makes up for the fact that you got me. I honestly did think you were telling the truth when you said you trusted me. If you really were this noble brother you claimed to be, you would’ve shown up at Isabella’s and your plan would’ve worked.”
For a moment, Kyle still looks like the brother I’ve known for years. He looks shocked and hurt - his grey eyes going dull at the realization of what has happened.
“Wow,” Kyle says - looking down. I can’t see his expression, but there’s something off about him all of a sudden. “I really did underestimate that girl.” When Kyle finally looks back up, he’s wearing a smile I’ve never seen on him before. A smile that sends shivers down my spine. “Now things are finally getting interesting,” he says.
This is not the brother I know.