Three years later.
"Amber... Amber. Amber."
I opened my eyes, tearing myself away from the dream of my mother's voice and back into reality. "What? I'm awake," I lied, because I knew it had always been weird for me to fall asleep in hotel rooms. But lately, the stress had been worse than usual – not to mention the fact that tomorrow was the three-year anniversary of what I liked to call the incident.
Well, in my head. Everyone else just called it "the day Amber Johnson's parents died." The thought still sent a shiver through my spine.
"Yeah, sure," Michelle Irvington, the twenty-four year old publicist I'd been assigned a year and a half earlier, scoffed as she pulled the patterned comforter off of me. I hung on to the thin, white sheet, still clinging to sleep.
"Five more minutes," I said childishly.
She rolled her eyes. "Not for you. Come on, Ryan's already in the car."
I groaned. "He's a guy. You can't expect me to get ready as fast as – "
"Too bad. I do." Michelle turned the bedside lamp on, temporarily blinding me. She pulled the last sheet off of my still fully clothed body, reminding me softly, "And so does the rest of the world. Now come on."
I brushed my teeth as fast as I could before stuffing all of my stuff back into my 'suitcase' – really, it was just a bag, but it was big enough to be called a suitcase. I tried not to look at the clock, but a not-so-accidental glance told me it was only 4:30. My brain wanted sleep, my body wanted sleep... I shook my head to keep the weight of my eyelids off.
The hotel phone started ringing, an annoyingly loud tone that made me want to throw it across the room. But instead, I trudged over and answered it. "Yeah?"
Ryan's voice still made me smile, despite the fact that it was four in the morning. Maybe even because of that fact.
"It may be morning, but I wouldn't call it good," I told him as I shoved the last few items in my bag. Michelle was always on my case about not traveling light enough.
He laughed a little, but I could tell he was tired, too. He had to be. "These early mornings are killing me."
I threw my stuff on the bed, finally finished but still too exhausted to leave. Hotels really weren't my favorite, but we'd been to at least ten different ones in the past month.
"Same here." Well, actually, Michelle was killing me. But I wasn't about to start complaining to Ryan about that.
"So, it's... it's been another year, huh?" His words broke a little, and I remembered how he'd always go back home with me to visit the graves. How we would always give Mom and Dad flowers, and I'd sit down in front of them, and Ryan would ask me if I wanted to be alone, and –
And just like that, I was crying.
It was weird, actually. Three years earlier, I would have done anything to keep the tears from showing. But here I was, sitting in a dark, somewhat lonely hotel I couldn't even remember the name of, talking to my guitarist on the cool, black hotel room phone... crying. Actually crying.
"Are you all right?" Ryan asked when I didn't answer him. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that he was hurting, too – tomorrow wasn't just a recurring reminder that my family had been killed, but also that his didn't care enough to want him anymore – and told him I'd meet him downstairs.
"See you in a few," I said, hanging up before he could say anything else.
When I finally got to what Michelle had called 'the car,' actually a sleek black limousine that transported our entire entourage everywhere while also making sure we got enough stares and publicity, I saw that Ryan really was ready and waiting... most of them were. Michelle pursed her lips, tapping her wrist to indicate that we were running late, and gave me a half pissed, half tired look. Well, most looks I got at that moment were half tired, considering the whole 4:30 a.m. thing.
"Way to sleep in," Dave Kellen, lyricist and occasionally an extra publicist, joked when I slid into the limo. The chauffeur started driving right away, and I felt a little guilty about being late.
"Sorry," was all I said.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked over to see Ryan's understanding smile. I could lean into him right then, just lay my head down and let it fit into his neck like I knew it would – but I didn't dare. The paparazzi wasn't around, no fans were around... I had no reason to get too close.
Michelle, Dave, Josie (another lyricist), and Martin (drummer) passed around the beer and soda that they always kept in the limo's cooler, and Greg (bass player), Tanya (backup singer/drummer), Jeremy (dancer), and Ellen (other dancer) – she preferred to be called Melanie, now that I think about it – refused to consume anything, as usual. I could understand why 'Melanie' and Jeremy wanted to maintain their figures, but the others... oh, well. I wasn't really ready to think at the moment.
"What are you doing?" I asked the driver when he turned onto the wrong exit, continuing along the highway when we were supposed to be headed the other way – the way that led home.
He didn't hear me; the glass window separating the passengers from the front seat was closed. I looked to Michelle frantically.
"Tell him to turn around," I said to her. She raised her eyebrows at me.
"What for?" Her fingers flew across the touch-screen on her phone. "We have a show tonight. We can't turn around now, the fans are expecting you."
I shook my head. "You said the last one was the last one."
"I was wrong."
"Will we be back by tomorrow?" I pressed, willing her to just look me in the eye.
She shrugged. "By the weekend, hopefully."
I grabbed her leg, the only part of her I could reach from where I was sitting. "Michelle." She finally looked up at me, seeming a little irritated. "Michelle, I... I have to get home."
Michelle's expression softened. "Honey, we will. We'll get you home." A wave of relief washed over me as I slowly relaxed again. I began to lean back into my seat again when she added, "I'll try for Friday, okay?" I froze.
"Friday?" It was still only Tuesday morning. How could I get back two days late? The thought seemed disgustingly rebellious in my head... what would my parents think of me?
Ryan jumped – for lack of a better word; for God's sake, the sun wasn't even awake enough to jump yet – in. "Michelle, you didn't tell us about this earlier."
She blinked a little too innocently. "Did I forget? Dave, I told you to mention it to these two."
These two. She didn't seem to care that Ryan and I were the only reason we were even on this tour. The only reason Michelle ever got to go on a tour.
"Did everyone else know about this?" I demanded, feeling very awake now.
One look at the guilty/tired faces in the limo gave me my answer.
"Mich, come on," Ryan said, shaking his head and looking about as betrayed as I felt. "Come on."
"Guys, what's the big deal? It's not like – "
"Yes, it is," I snapped, interrupting her. "It is like that; it's exactly like that! It's always been like that." It didn't matter that I had no clue what Michelle had been planning on saying next. I was just upset, and when I was that upset, the words didn't stop. It was another way I'd changed over the years of climbing the tiring rope to 'fame.' "You knew all along that I wanted to get home and see my parents on their death-aversary, and you didn't even care!"
She stared at me for a moment, went back to her phone, then looked up again. "Amber, I'm so sorry... I forgot."
"You forgot," I scoffed, throwing myself back on the seat and crossing my arms like a little kid. Nineteen years old and I still acted like a spoiled toddler. But I had been a spoiled toddler at one point, so at least that made sense.
I closed my eyes adamantly, refusing to acknowledge the things I knew Ryan and Michelle were whispering. Refusing to hear the "Can't we turn back?" and the "I really didn't know" and the "It's too late now."
Refusing to admit to myself that this was just another ending. "The day that Amber Johnson started to forget about her parents."
"Thanks again," a little girl's mother or aunt or whatever said to me with a genuine smile. She had her hand on the kid's shoulder, slowly steering her away. I wondered what that girl was doing awake so late at night, if she had to beg her mom to bring her here, if my mom would have let me come to a concert on a Tuesday night –
I told my brain to shut up.
"No problem." I tried to give them an equally real smile, but I knew it was a pretty sad attempt. But Michelle was standing away in a corner, giving me the evil eye every time I got the least bit snappish or irritated with the – my mind still had to adjust to the word – fans.
Honestly, when Ryan told me three years ago about his plans to get somewhere with his life and take me there with him, I was completely lost in the way he said it. The way his eyes were crystal clear, and how that somehow told me that there was no way he could be lying. And when I looked back at that moment, reliving it over the past few years, I realized that I never really expected him to be right. It was like, sure, he could be telling the truth – but it's never going to happen, right?
When it did happen, I was pretty sure I was dreaming.
I felt myself reaching out to sign another person's CD, smiling and thanking them for what they were saying. This time it was a teenager, another girl, probably a few years younger than me. Her hair was a little messy, but a light blonde with natural looking brown streaks through it. I really liked her hair.
"Oh, um, thank you," she said, blushing a little as she ran a hand through her hair. I hadn't realized that I'd said it out loud.
I went along with it anyway. "I've always wanted natural highlights."
"Really? I think I've gotten bored of them," the girl admitted. "Uh, Vickie."
I blinked. "Huh?"
"My name." She gestured to the CD I was half-signing, half-drawing unintentional lines on with the stupid Sharpie. "It's Vickie. I-E at the end."
"Oh." I wrote some generic message down and handed it to her. "Thanks for coming tonight."
She smiled before walking away. One of the things about meeting people at your concerts is it can be pretty interesting. I mean, all sorts of people were there: people like the little kid and her mom/guardian, ones like the girl I'd just met, and others like the twenty-something year old gangsta guys standing to the side. Wait, they definitely didn't look like they belonged here –
Someone's hand was on my arm. I turned to see Ryan. "Ready to get back to the hotel?" he asked me, standing closer than usual. I knew it was only because of the clear view the public had of us right now, the obvious flashes of cameras all around us... I knew that, but I still fell for the simple gesture. I always did.
"Sure," I said, telling myself the only reason my head was spinning was because of the crowd. Telling myself I was just claustrophobic tonight. I followed him out of the room, smiling and waving at the people who were going through the usual good-bye routine. The group of out-of-place looking men wasn't there anymore. I wondered if I had just imagined them.
Michelle was standing near the back door. "Everyone's in the car. Come on, let's go."
"Wait," I said, hesitating. "Michelle, can we please just go home for one day – "
"We went over that. Let's go, Amber, before they notice you guys are leaving this way."
I frowned, dissatisfied, but got in the limo anyway. The ride back wasn't nearly as quiet as the drive here had been. There was cheering ("We were awesome out there!"), complaining ("Shit, I think I twisted my ankle in that one move..."), and a whole lot of drinking. I just sat back, not really wanting to partake in any of it.
The hotel was big, beige, and very unoriginal compared to all of the others I had stayed in. I missed home.
It was hard to actually get in the doors of this hotel, due to the overwhelming amount of flashes and "Miss Johnson, is it true that..." and "Can we get a picture of you two together?" (Ryan and I, of course) and "Do you think we could ask a few questions?" Finally, two of the hotel's giant security men had to actually come outside and let us in. Kind of embarrassing that we had trouble walking ten feet and opening a door, but oh, well.
Just as I walked into the lobby, though, I heard one last question that had gotten past the 'bodyguards.'
"Miss Johnson, wait – Is it true that this is the first year you're away from your hometown on the anniversary of your parents' death?"
I grimaced as they shut the doors behind us, letting Michelle drag me to the elevators where we all stayed silent. Yes, I wanted to yell. Yes, it's true, and I'm so, so sorry.
I got my own room, as always. It got lonely, but it was okay. I walked in and put my bag/suitcase on the floor beside the wide, clean bed. It was one a.m. The bed looked comfortable enough to just throw yourself on, so I did just that.
I was just falling asleep when I heard a knock on the door. Before I could say or do anything in response, the door opened and Michelle walked in.
"Amber, can we talk?" she asked.
I was too tired. "No."
She sat down anyway. "Look, I'm sorry about all of this. I didn't ever write anything down about you wanting to get home to your parents, so I guess I just... forgot about it. You know how I am. If it's not in my schedule, it's not on my mind."
"It's okay," I said, even though it really didn't feel like it was okay. I sat up. She actually looked pretty distraught.
"I don't want to upset you," she told me.
"No, I feel like the worst – "
"It's okay, Michelle," Ryan said, appearing at my door. I had expected him to be asleep already.
Michelle stood up. "You two can talk," she said, still looking a little sad.
I got up, too, and before I knew it, I was hugging her. "Don't feel bad," I told her. "It's not that big a deal."
She shook her head, walking out of the room.
"Well, good-night," I said to Ryan, feeling a little weird with him in my hotel room.
"Wait," he said. "Let's just... talk."
"About what?" I asked. As far as I knew, we had nothing to talk about. Any of the contact, including conversation, that we had together was only for the rest of the world. I didn't know why that thought hurt a little, but it did. "Are there cameras in here, too?"
He looked confused, then laughed. "No. Come on, Amber. Before all of this, we used to just talk. Now we can't even do that?"
He was right. In the days after we'd just met, we had done nothing but get to know each other. We wandered through unknown places for a while, somehow surviving on our new friendship, or whatever it was we had together.
"I know. I'm sorry." I sighed.
Ryan took a few steps forward. "How are things?"
"Great," I said sarcastically.
"Your parents will forgive you," he said softly, reading my thoughts. "They're already with you wherever you go. They'd be happy for you."
I swallowed. "Yeah."
"What will it take for you to believe me?" he asked, partially teasing. I rolled my eyes.
"I just feel like I'm breaking a... a rule. Tradition," I said. "But it's alright. I have to do what I have to do."
He half smiled, coming even closer. Just a few steps away now. "That's right."
"Hey, Ryan?" I said all of a sudden, my heart pounding painfully in my chest when he smiled.
"Yeah?" Another step. He reached out, his fingertips grazing my cheek. Electricity flew through my entire body as I realized how much I had wanted that.
I stumbled back a little, my knees getting weak. My hand shot backward to rest on the table I knew was just behind me so I could regain my balance – but ended up landing on something surprisingly sharp.
"Ow!" I exclaimed, the sound of the metal and plastic probably snapping us both out of our trance. I turned around to see – "Keys?"
His eyes widened. "Those are mine."
"You don't have a car," I reminded him.
Ryan grabbed the keys off of the table. "I asked them for a rental car," he explained. "Michelle doesn't – Nobody else knows, so just – "
"What do you need a rental car for?" I asked, laughing a little. "We have a limo."
"Yeah, but..." He trailed off, and it hit me.
"Ryan, we could use it to get home," I said excitedly, trying to keep my voice down so no one would hear me. "We could just leave, and they wouldn't even know. They're probably all passed out in their beds right now. Let's go!"
He looked a little unsure. "I don't think we should just ditch them, Amber."
"It wouldn't be like that," I protested. "I mean, we would come back. I just need to get home today. You could see your family again, too, and – "
"Amber, I... No," Ryan said with a tone of finality. "Michelle just begged for your forgiveness, and you're talking about leaving her? About leaving them all?"
I was shocked. "Ryan, I thought we were on the same side."
"There are no sides," he told me. "This isn't a fight."
"It sure feels like one when the people I thought I trusted are trying to keep me away from doing what I think is right!" I said too loudly. I could practically hear the change in Michelle's breathing as she woke up. That is, if she had even been asleep.
"Amber," he started.
"Don't!" I yelled, pushing past him. I suddenly felt suffocated; I had to get out of there. I saw Michelle leaving her room and heard her calling after me as I slammed my own door behind me and ran down the stairs to the lobby. I didn't have time for elevators.
The hotel was as alive as it had been when we'd arrived, despite the fact that it was still only around one in the morning. I could hear music coming from one of the ballrooms as I passed the signs announcing the marriage of 'Leigh Stephens and Enrique Gonzalez!', I could see a birthday party going on in one of the other ballrooms for a 'Jay Marona,' and I could smell the tempting scent of fresh cooked Chinese food coming from a kitchen somewhere. None of it stopped me from running out a side door and continuing down the dead streets of the town.
I don't know how much time passed while I was running away from the hotel (and the people inside it). But I got tired pretty soon, slowing down to catch my breath. That's when I heard the yelling.
It was a dark alley, the kind that you hear about in books and see in movies, the kind that'll give you that strange feeling in the pit of your stomach, as if your body knows you should be steering away from it. But the voice was all too familiar, given that I'd heard it just a little while ago, and I knew I had to do something.
"Get away from me! I'll scream!" she was shouting in the faces of the men. I felt sick with every step forward, but I made sure not to be noticed. I could see it happening just a few feet in front of me.
Vickie – I knew it was her; I recognized the hair – stood against a brick wall at the end of the alleyway, holding a fist out as if she was going to punch them in the face. Them being four guys, clearly intoxicated, ganging up on her. The same guys that were at the backstage part of our concert. I couldn't put it together.
"Baby, don't be that way," one of the guys slurred at her, trying to get closer and touch her. He wasn't capable of walking in a straight line, though, so she was safe.
"Don't call me that, you scum-bag," she snapped, looking about as disgusted as I felt.
Another one of the guys laughed, a big, hollow, drunken sound. "Shut up, whore."
He stepped forward, and I got the sickening realization that he was possibly not as wasted as the rest of his friends. His hands reached out, pulling the sleeve of her sweater down, ripping it. Vickie looked terrified.
"Hey!" I heard myself shout, mentally kicking myself right after when all five of them jumped at the sound of my voice. "Leave her alone!"
"Holy shit, man," one of the guys said. "What's she doin' here?"
"As if I know," the 'main' guy, the one who didn't seem too drunk, the one who had torn Vickie's sweater, said. "You want to join our little party?"
I glared at him, hoping I looked a lot stronger than I was feeling. "Your little party is going to stop right now," I said, not sure where I was going with it. The shocked expression on Vickie's face kept me motivated, though. "Listen to me, you assholes."
They looked at me, probably unsure whether to laugh or wait for whatever it was I had to say. They were going with the second one.
Sure, I didn't have a can of Mace handy at the moment, but I could make something up.
I walked up to them, getting dangerously close. "I have my limo waiting right outside this alley, and my bodyguards are standing ready. I will call the police on you guys unless you want to get out of my sight right this second."
One of the men grabbed the leader's arm. "Dude, c'mon, this slut's not worth it," he said, looking back at Vickie.
"And," I went on, "if you ever lay a finger on her again or so much as think about her in any way less than respectable, I'll know. Don't mess with her, you hear me?"
Their leader blinked. "Are you kidding me? Get out of here, prima donna. This is our problem, not yours."
"Problem? If your way of resolving problems is by resorting to sexual harassment, then you've got a lot of charges coming your way," I said angrily.
"Let me see your bodyguards," the man demanded after a moment.
I panicked. "Okay, but I hope you know they'll beat you up if they see you. The general public doesn't exactly like rapists, especially when they're as drunk as you." I turned around, pretending to get my (fake) bodyguards, when the guys finally gave in.
"Fine," one guy said quickly, buying my lie. "We'll leave your little friend alone."
"For now," the main man said calmly.
"Well?" I said a second later. "Get lost, then."
After they were out of earshot, Vickie walked up to me. "Amber," she said, blinking back tears. "I knew it was you."
I hugged her. "I'm sorry. I kind of lost it there."
She laughed. "You're kidding. God knows what would have happened if you hadn't come along. What are you doing here?"
"I ran away," I said, feeling ashamed. I had run away from all seven of the entourage, plus Michelle and... and Ryan. I remembered our moment, the one right before everything had took a sharp U-turn, and wondered where we'd be now if I hadn't seen those keys. "God, I suck."
"What's wrong?" she asked.
I told her everything. Everything from Ryan being my fake boyfriend for the extra publicity to my finding out he was never really on my side after all. She listened to it all, and in the end, I felt a whole lot lighter.
"He does care about you," she told me, and when I asked how she could possibly know that, she just said, "The world has seen the way he looks at you. If that's just for the publicity, then... well, I'd say he's a pretty good actor."
I blushed, looking away, wishing I hadn't left the hotel at all. Wishing things could just be... 'normal.'
"What did those guys want with you?" I asked her then, wanting to take the attention off of myself and also curious about what he had meant about their problem.
Vickie shook her head. "It's a huge, really stupid misunderstanding. The guy who told you it's 'our problem,'" – their leader – "that's DJ. His brother is my boyfriend's landlord. Adam, my boyfriend, proposed to me a few weeks ago. Gave me a ring and everything." She smiled brightly. "But the thing is, the ring? It was too expensive. He used up most of his money to buy it, and now he's broke. DJ seems to think that I'm the one who lives in Adam's apartment, because the first time he went there, I was there alone. So now DJ's trying to get me to pay the rent, since Adam was stupid enough to buy a two-thousand dollar engagement ring and not pay the rent for two months."
"So he's been following you around to get you to pay up?" I asked. "Why don't you just tell him to find your boyfriend?"
"He wouldn't believe me. He'd say I'm just trying to pass on the blame." She rolled her eyes. "And besides, I'm not going to rat him out. I love him. It's not like I'm going to take some stranger's side against him."
"Ryan, I thought we were on the same side."
I wanted the thought out of my head. "Yeah," I agreed.
"Hey," she said suddenly, but then looked embarrassed.
"Nothing. I... I had an idea, but it would be stupid. And inconsiderate." She looked at me. "Unless I could do something in return."
I was confused. "What?" I said again.
"Do you think..." Vickie cleared her throat. "Do you think you could, like, give me the money?" She immediately blushed and apologized for having ever thought of that. But she needed it...
My hands searched my pockets. I did have my wallet, and it did have the money in it.
"Is there anything you need?" she asked me. "I would be more than happy to help, if you would help me get those idiots off my back for good."
I said the first thing that came to my mind. "Actually, I was trying to get home."
Vickie looked surprised. "You need a ride?"
"Sort of." I pulled out my wallet. "I have enough money for your... your dilemma."
"Well." She gave me a satisfied expression. "Well."
"Do you think you could – ?"
"I have a car," she said, the words tumbling out. "I've been trying to get rid of it. I really don't need a car, especially since I'm off to college in less than a year. My boyfriend – well, fiancé now, I guess – has his own, anyway. Would you like to buy my car?"
I couldn't believe my luck.
Sure, I had a lighter wallet and I had just driven alone along the interstate for over an hour, but I was home.
Vickie's – no, my car's built-in digital clock told me it was three-thirteen a.m. as I pulled into the parking lot at the local cemetery. I let the radio play softly in the background as I sat there for a minute, kind of afraid to set food in the graveyard when it was this dark outside. But when the host of the radio station announced "Up next, Amber Johnson!" I turned it off and sat in silence.
Michelle had tried to call me an hour ago, leaving a message about how much trouble I was in and that everyone was worried about where I'd gone. She asked if I had really taken off in an old red car, like some cameraman had apparently reported.
I opened the door and got out, running my hand along the red exterior before locking the doors and making my way to the entrance.
The cemetery hadn't changed much over the year. I still recognized some of the names carved into tombstones along the pathway. Some of the flowers were wilted and dried up; others were fresh and – well, happy looking. I realized a moment too late that I had forgotten flowers.
When I reached their graves, I felt the familiar ache flooding my body. Just seeing this, seeing their names written across the stone, seeing the flowers from last year somehow still there, made me want to die.
"I'm here," I whispered to them, kneeling down. "I'm home."
I didn't cry. Not until I felt the breeze all around me and heard the train passing in the distance. That's when I cried.
The tears were flowing for a good fifteen minutes, probably. The train was long gone by then, but they – the tears – kept coming. I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop wanting them back, wishing it didn't have to be this way. But when I finally did manage to calm myself down, I looked down at my empty hands again.
"I'm sorry," I said, getting a hold of myself at last. "I forgot the flowers. I'm sorry."
I put my head in my hands, and when I opened my eyes a moment later, I was shocked to see a bouquet of black roses in front of my face. I looked up to see Ryan standing behind me.
"Ryan?" I said incredulously, staring at the roses as I stood up.
He handed me the flowers. He knew how much I loved black roses. "Amber."
I shook my head. "What are you doing here?"
"I knew you would be here," he said simply. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have – "
"No, don't apologize," I interrupted. "It isn't your fault. I overreacted, Ryan. I'm sorry. I can't believe you came all the way here."
He took two roses out of the bouquet now in my hands and set one each by my parents' graves. "We barely made it," he said to them.
I just stared as he stood up straight and looked over at me, his eyes as clear as they were the day we had met and discussed all our plans for the rest of our lives. The day I knew he was serious about it all.
He wrapped his fingers around my hand, the one that was holding the flowers, and drew me closer.
"Where'd you get the car?" he asked, smirking, his breath flying across my face and making me dizzy with desire.
I smiled. "Long, long, long story."
"I have time," Ryan told me, his other hand tracing my cheekbone. "We have time."
"I know," I whispered.
He stared right into my eyes then, mesmerizing me with his own.
"I love you," I said, the words sounding crisp and clear and right and wrong and perfect and far from it.
Ryan seemed caught off guard, as I'd probably expected. "Do you?"
"Yes." I smiled, remembering his words from earlier. "What will it take for you to believe me?"
He grinned, as genuine a smile as the ones I'd gotten from the little girl's mother and Vickie, too. But his was real, it was in the moment, and it was seeing me for who I was – nothing more, nothing less. He knew me, and I loved it.
And I loved the surge of electricity and desire and happiness I felt everywhere when he leaned forward and kissed me, nothing to separate us but the beautiful black roses.
This is so incredibly cheesy...just something I wrote when I was stuck on all of my other stories. :)