++ YEAR: 2023 ++
Twenty-two-year-old Amber Black, a recent college graduate, threw the last of her possessions into her suitcase and sealed it tight, zipping the sides together before straightening. Then, with both hands, she gripped the briefcase by the handle, settled it against the dense floor of the hospital room, and turned to look at the empty bed one last time with its monotonous white linen sheets and comforter.
A knock at the door interrupted Amber, still lost in her own world.
“Are you ready?” It was Aunt Mariam with a toddler in her arms.
“Just about,” Amber answered, smiling at the toddler’s failed attempt to wrap its arms around Mariam’s neck. “Let me do a final walkthrough. In case I miss anything.”
“Sounds good.” Mariam nodded before lowering her lips to kiss the chubby cheek next to hers. She swayed back and forth softly in place to keep the bundle asleep. “We’ll meet you downstairs by the lobby then.”
“Could you close the door behind you?” Amber asked, waiting. Once the footsteps faded, Amber turned to survey the room anew.
One last look.
In the past six months, this had been her home while recovering from her injuries. Injuries Amber sustained while rescuing her parents from the flames of their now burned house. Wounds that were both internal and external, leaving scars for the rest of her existence.
Amber glanced down at her palms to examine the burned marks, long healed. The faint, red lines embedded in her palms, one on each side, were two inches in diameter and ran diagonally from her pinkies to between the crevice of the forefingers and thumbs. The scars no longer hurt, but it was a constant admonition of all she’d suffered. Now and then, they would sting—as if Amber were holding onto those ropes again.
Immersed in thoughts, Amber hauled her bag along, touring the cramped compartment. It was the size of her bedroom—especially after the fire—with bleak, solid floors and walls painted in a hideous yellow glaze. The racket created as the suitcase’s wheels trod across the paneled floor sounded deafening even to Amber’s ears.
There, in the corner, was the sofa where Aunt Mariam often slept during Amber’s first few months. However, she had no recollection of it, hit with a horrible fever, stuck between dream and reality. Even the staff feared the worse, advising her aunt to prepare for another funeral.
Amber’s heart twisted even as her vision blurred.
She had been so close to death. At one point, she saw her parents beaming and talking with her. Amber couldn’t remember much of what they said. She did, however, recall them directing her to come back. It wasn’t her turn yet. She needed to return to live out her life and find her own happiness.
Amber breathed deeply and blinked back the tears threatening to slip. Her parents weren’t the only voices she heard—someone else kept calling out, interrupting their conversation.
She never saw him, but she knew the voice.
Continually, he called out until, belatedly, Amber answered.
The words he spoke... Amber remembered them precisely, telling her—no, ordering her—to live because he refused to grant her death.
Not without me. When the time’s right, we’ll go together.
Not anymore. They wouldn’t be able to go together now, and she wouldn’t let him on this path of hers, anyway.
A path she must stagger on… alone.
Besides, no matter how much she needed him, he wouldn’t stay with her now. Amber made sure of it.
She broke his heart, deluded him like no other, and only had herself to blame.
Realizing how tightly knotted every part of her was, Amber took a deep, long breath before exhaling, forcing her body to decompress. Her gaze combed the room once more, darkening as they came upon a vase of stagnant flowers resting by the windowsill. The petals beyond wilted and dried, frozen in place.
Shattered if touched.
Amber deliberately allowed them to deteriorate because they came from her fiancé.
Ex-fiancé, she corrected, unable to believe she almost married the bastard. Luckily, he showed his true colors before their wedding day, along with those greedy parents of his. Now, she would rather die than marry a scum such as him.
Her fingers clenched at her sides. Amber would perish first before joining a family of murderers who caused the death of her parents.
Amber’s parents had been too gentle—too naïve—like her. They place their trust in their friends because it’s what friends—best friends—do. Who would have expected this betrayal? Everything her parents worked for... destroyed. In the blink of an eye.
All because of gluttony.
Were human hearts so trivial to ignore loyalty and friends just for a bit of wealth? And for something so intangible, especially after death?
“I’ll make you pay,” she whispered to the vase. Her voice was flat and aloof, devoid of warmth. There was only scorn. Mindless, unthinkable rage and disgust. “I’ll make you and your family pay for all the pain and suffering you’ve caused.”
Of course, it was merely a vase—a gift given to her to restore their relationship and continue with their wedding. Not for Amber, however. She had accepted it for a different, darker reason: a reminder of the path she was now going down.
One that led to nothing but darkness, pain, and suffering.
One of revenge.
Amber had already prepared herself—steeled herself against all odds. There was no room for anything else now in this life.
Yes, there is, the intimate voice echoed.
Amber shut her eyes, remembering vivid green eyes that could see right into her soul. Minutes later, she lifted her head up at the ceiling with a few shaky breaths before opening her eyes and blinking away tears.
You don’t have to walk this path alone. I’ll be your strength—if you’ll only let me….
This time Amber couldn’t stop the few droplets from forming at the corners of her eyes.
Tell me what’s going on, Amber. Either way, I’ll support you. Standing next to you or hiding in the shadows. I won’t leave. Just let me in.
But.. Amber couldn’t.
How could she?
With her parents’ transgression and the downfall of her name, they were of two worlds now. Her family reputation was in shambles, broken. Once held in such high esteem, the family name now whispered only among the shadows and behind closed doors.
It was embezzlement; they said. Amber’s parents stole from their own company and cheated shareholders out of their money. A company Amber stood to inherit. Her parents would have gone to jail—if they were still alive—instead, they took the coward’s path. Rather than fight on, they left this cold, harsh world.
They left not just her, but a young baby daughter. Amber’s younger sister.
Amber rejected the claims despite the stack of evidence against her parents.
Everything was up to her now.
Why do you always do this? Why are you pushing me away when you rattled me first? You should have gone on with your business back then. Instead, you force yourself into my life, and now that I’m this way, we’re this way, you won’t have anything to do with me?
An inhuman cry reverberated in the quiet room. One of grief and bitterness. Of hopelessness and desperation. Amber brought her left arm up to cover her eyes as her shoulders trembled uncontrollably.
Is this you?
Is this your true color?
Did you ever… love me?
“Yes! Yes, I did—I still do!” Amber admitted, barely above a whisper.
Only to herself.
The one she should have told would never know… will never know.
Quiet, harsh sobs escaped her lips while Amber fought to restrain her body and emotions, which she somehow lost control of. No surprise there. It always did when her thoughts veered toward him.
Her first and her last.
The one and only weakness of her life…
Amber didn’t expect to feel this way about anyone, to cherish someone so deeply, and give oneself so completely that it felt empty without him.
It’s not too late.
Oh, but it is too late.
Amber started the breathing technique she had taught him so long ago when they were both trapped inside the elevator. A surprised, acrimonious laugh escaped. To a bystander, though, the sounds were more desperate than merriment. But what can one do? No matter how much Amber tried to forget, he surfaced, ingrained in every action, every thought!
It’s not too late, Amber. Just tell me what’s going on, and we can beat this together. You know my family; you know my background. You know me! I would never abandon you.
Amber shook her head at no one in particular. The few tears that slipped collected at the base of her chin, and she wiped them away with an arm.
Is this your decision? His words resounded loud and sharp in her head. Is this the choice you’ve made?
“Yes.” Amber exhaled, reciting what she had told him in this very place not so long ago. Her tone grew louder with each syllable. “This is my decision!” There is no room for you—for anyone else!
His declaration, replaying that scene periodically, Amber opened her mouth and confessed, but only to a room full of ghosts. “That’s why I can’t involve you, Hunter. I am on the road to revenge, and it’s not as sweet as everyone expects. It’s a vicious path of no return, one I don’t plan to come back from. Revenge is a cruel, unsympathetic world; now, it’s the only world I live in.”
We’re not done. Hunter’s empty eyes bore into hers. They were distant, calculating, and perhaps even unforgivable. There had been a change in him that day after she broke his heart. If you think we are, think again. We’re a long way from being finished. If you assume I’m going to let this slide, you’re mistaken. I’ll come back and get my revenge. You’ll pay for making a fool out of me.
A small, sad smile wavered around her lips. A final tremor racked her body before a massive wave of relief fell over her. It was funny how similar their minds were—their plans were. Probably why they made such a great team—throughout college until graduation.
Sadly, for him, his revenge ended before it even began. It died when the hospital announced Amber’s death a few days ago.
Not that Amber was dead. Mistakes happen all the time. However, Amber would take advantage of the news and disappear. At least for a while, until a strategy was in place.
Even if their paths were to cross, there was still her benefactor to contend with.
She choked back a laugh. This was just the start of her journey toward her demise. The way she figured, there was nowhere else to fall because she was already at her lowest.
She could only climb. And climb, she would.
For the sake of her parents.
For Hope’s future.
There was no turning back.
Amber dragged her suitcase toward the bathroom and left it standing by the entrance while she washed her face. The cool fresh water felt gratifying against her skin, and she patted some under and around her neck. Then, after grabbing a nearby towel to dry her face, Amber straightened, looking into the mirror.
Her hair was the same color as her last name: black. Long and straight, she left it down where it framed her face. Amber bleached it once in high school and colored it purple, but decided it had been too much work to maintain. Since then, it has remained forever black. As for her eyes, they were equally dark and solemn. Onyx eyes. Her best features, or so Hunter once claimed.
Amber’s eyes trailed to her cheeks, where she had lost weight. Her nose was small and delicate, nothing too special or noticeable. No prominent beauty here, but somehow, she captured the hearts of two males whose family’s net worth was worth more than a million dollars.
A cynical grin formed. Life had been kind, but no longer.
Once upon a time, Amber’s family’s net worth also surpassed more than a million, and one of the two men also captured her heart.
But oh, how the mighty has fallen.
Looking back, it was bittersweet. Her innocent outlook on life. The only worry back then was getting along with everybody, passing her exams, and graduating. It was all planned out. Amber would get married after college and enter the corporate business as the primary heir.
In the end, the only doubt was if she was marrying the right guy. Even now, no longer chained, Amber still couldn’t be with her soulmate.
Amber spun from the mirror to the exit, unable to look at herself anymore. She seized the suitcase handle on her way out of the tiny bathroom and, without a second glance, exited the hospital room, which had been her residence ever since that fateful day.