Camryn climbed the many flights of stairs up to the sixth floor of the old brick building, listening to the every day sounds of the tenants as she went. It was the third time in a week that she found an 'out of order' sign on the elevator and she wondered just how many more times she'd have to threaten the landlord before he actually fixed it. It wasn't that the stairs were a problem for her, but there were at least three or four dozen senior citizens that lived in the building that she was sure couldn't be happy with the situation.
When she reached the top of the steps, she pushed open the door that led to the sixth floor apartments and began to make her way down the wide corridor, smiling at the tenants who regularly socialized in the halls as she passed. Several waved and greeted her as she passed, and like always, she was able to tell that some of the smiles she received were forced. They didn't care that she was the one paying her grandmother's bills – they cared only how she was earning the money to do so.
Call it what they would, Camryn still believed that stripping was better any day than what her grandmother had had to do to get by in the casinos all those years ago. After all, look where Niecey Keller was now: in a one-bedroom apartment paid for by her granddaughter with no health insurance to pay for her gradually worsening emphysema and still indebted to loan sharks from the gambling problem she'd developed over the years.
When she reached the door marked 6F, Camryn pulled a keyring from her pocket and shook it until a dull brass-colored key jangled down to the bottom. She maneuvered it with one hand – her other arm holding her purse and a few plastic grocery bags – until she finally managed to slide it into the lock. Using her right knee to push against the door, she managed to turn the handle just enough with her ring and pinky fingers to force the door ajar.
Practically spilling into the apartment, she caught her balance and looked up seeing her grandmother at her usual place: perched in front of the television in her favorite recliner chair, a glass of ice tea on a table alongside her and a cigarette smoking away in a black ashtray that had Golden Nugget Casino printed on its side.
She set herself right and caught the door with her foot, awkwardly pushing it closed behind herself. Shaking her head, she made her way into the small kitchen area, trying her best to hide her disappointment.
"What happened to quitting?" she asked as she set the bags down on the table and began to unload their contents.
"I quit quitting," Niecey answered, her voice thick and raspy. She picked up the cigarette and took another puff on it, then placed it back in the ashtray as she tried to contain her coughing.
Camryn watched her disapprovingly for a few moments but eventually shook her head again and went back to what she was doing. That was one battle she knew she'd never win, and she knew she had to pick and choose her battles carefully with her grandmother. She always had.
"So I stopped by the benefits office," Camryn began casually. "They said the hospital will still consider you for the drug trial but that you have to send in the paperwork I left for you. It was due a week and a half ago but they can still sneak you in because there are still a few openings that haven't been filled yet."
She waited for a response but Niecey kept right on watching the television, seemingly caught up in the world of paternity results revealed on the latest Maury Povich. Sighing, she pulled a Styrofoam container from one of the plastic bags, then grabbed a fork from the drawer next to the sink. She bumped it closed with her hip and then walked into the living room, setting the container and fork down on the small table next to the recliner.
"I got you the number two, just like you like," she said emotionlessly.
"Thanks, babygirl," Niecey replied, finally looking over with an appreciative smile on her face. "That's always been our favorite, huh? Ever since you were a little girl."
Niecey took the Styrofoam container and opened it up, her eyes brightening when she saw the cheeseburger on a sesame seed bun with ketchup and pickles and a side of hand-cut French fries inside. There was a tiny plastic container with a lid inside the carton, filled with potato salad that Niecey just couldn't seem to get enough of. She awkwardly picked up the huge burger and was about to bite into it when Camryn spoke again.
"Why didn't you send in the paperwork?"
Niecey scoffed and dropped the burger back into the container, looking disgusted with the question. When it seemed that she was just going to continue to avoid the question, Camryn stepped in front of her and squatted down so that she was at eye level.
"Gram, why didn't you send in the paperwork? Do you want your emphysema to continue getting so bad that every breath is a chore and you have to be hospitalized?"
"Every breath is already a chore," Niecey replied gruffly. She grabbed her oxygen mask from off to her other side and put it on, taking several gulps of the refreshing air. "There ain't no miracle pill that's gonna fix this, Renee. I'm not sick, I'm dying. Let them poke some other poor sap that might actually get better."
"You could get better," Camryn pleaded.
"And leprechauns could hop outta my ass and do a little jig," Niecey said sarcastically, then changed her tone as she stared into Camryn's face. "I don't wanna be stuck in a hospital. I just wanna eat my number two meal with extra potato salad and watch my shows in peace. Speaking of . . ."
She trailed off and waved her hand around, signaling Camryn to move out of her view of the television. Camryn just stared at her as Niecey tried to look around her at the television, then eventually stood up and stepped off to the side in defeat.
It was just another battle lost; she was used to it by now. It wasn't the first and it certainly wouldn't be the last.
She looked around the small space and noted that it was getting dusty – she'd have to come back and clean tomorrow, the day after that at the very least. Dust was bad for lung patients. Turning around to face her grandmother again, she opened her mouth to try once more to persuade her to join the study when she realized that she was staring back at her but down at her feet.
"What are those?" Niecey asked distastefully.
Camryn looked down at her feet, seeing the tops of her sparkly silver four-inch glass-bottomed high heels peeking out from under the bottom of her long blue jeans.
"Those are shoes, Grams."
"Those are hooker shoes! That Julia Roberts girl with the big teeth had shoes like that in that movie where she was a prostitute! What kind of nice girl wears shoes like those?"
"These are not hooker shoes, these are dancing shoes. I work in them."
"I don't know if you noticed or not, babygirl, but this ain't exactly your place of employment."
"I know that," Camryn said, rolling her eyes. "They're new. I'm trying to break them in for tonight."
Niecey took one more long look at them before shaking her head and looking back at the television.
"Call them what you will but those gaudy atrocities are not dancing shoes. Those are dancing shoes."
Camryn looked up at the shelf where Niecey was pointing and spotted the pair of child-sized pink ballet shoes sitting atop it. They were a bit worse for wear than they had been fresh out of the box but she still remembered the day she wore them and why Niecey had insisted on keeping them as a memento.
The sound of orchestral music sounded throughout the packed playhouse. Ten year old Renee was standing behind a thick curtain of red velvet, looking out into the packed hall, forgetting for a moment that she was supposed to be focused on her fellow dancers on the stage and not on the hundreds of people watching from the audience. She spotted her grandmother out in the crowd and smiled when, like magic, Niecey looked over and spotted her peeking from behind the think curtain.
Niecey gave a small wave and a thumbs up and Renee waved back, unable to keep the nervousness she felt from creeping into her smile. She felt Niecey's stare intensify and then, inexplicably, she felt the nervousness melt away. She was confident; she was strong; she was being yelled at by her instructor.
Renee quickly ran back to where her instructor was standing and looked up at her overly made up face, ready for instruction or scolding or whatever might come from her mouth.
"It's almost time for your solo. Are you okay?"
Renee nodded but didn't speak.
"Are you sure?"
Again, Renee nodded her reply.
"Okay, honey, get ready to go out there. You're on after the next chorus. And try to do your best! There are scouts out there from the best talent agencies and reporters from all of the local newspapers."
Renee nodded and took a deep breath, then took up her spot at the curtain again. She started a steady count in her head, preparing herself for her entry, then began to chasse out onto the stage with a small group of dancers around her. They followed her until she was in the center of the stage where she stood and waited for her next musical cue.
When the violins began their soliloquy, Renee began to dance, remembering her steps exactly as she was taught them. Her limbs were long and graceful and it was evident that the ten year old had a natural talent that far exceeded the other dancers on the stage.
She pivoted and twirled and leapt, earning quiet ooh's and aah's from the audience until her solo was over and the music ended. The entire house stood and applauded and Renee looked out into the crowd, her smile no longer nervous. She could feel the awe from most of the audience and how impressed they were and her smile grew even bigger. She could feel the immense pride from her grandmother who clapped louder than anyone there.
And then she felt an overwhelming feeling of love and adoration pour over her; something that tingled and burned from the top of her head down to the tips of her toes. Her eyes immediately scanned the crowd trying to see where it was coming from but there were so many people and she was still trying to learn to focus her skills.
It was something her grandmother was hesitant to teach her; she wanted Renee to be normal. The ability to read people - to sense feelings and be able to reflect feelings back and influence them – was something that was passed down in their family for hundreds of years, effecting every other generation. Niecey had told her it was like being an empath, but instead of just sensing feelings, they could also influence them as well.
Renee had first thought she was some kind of monster or freak show; she just wanted to be like all of the other little kids! Niecey did a good job of calming her fears though, telling her that they were just like every other human on the planet – just with an extra satellite dish or two.
Feelings of being like a cyborg aside, Renee grew to accept her powers and was now anxious to master them; so anxious, in fact, that Niecey was almost scared to teach her how to do so.
Niecey had never told her that she was scared; Renee could just feel it.
As she ran to the front of the stage with the other dancers and bowed to the audience, she felt another wave of love and pride hit her. She stood up and looked wide-eyed out into the audience, focusing as best as she could. There were too many people and too many emotions though; she couldn't get a clear read. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her grandmother stiffen up, then turn back to look at the back of the playhouse. Suddenly Niecey picked up her purse and stormed off toward the back doors, a look of determination in her eyes.
"Grams!" Renee called out but her voice was lost in the sound of applause and cheers.
As the curtain began to fall and the other dancers rushed off the stage, Renee took one last look towards the back doors and managed to see her grandmother walk out them, her mouth opened as if to yell. Then the curtain was down and her view was completely obscured.
Ignoring the cheers and congratulations from her instructor and the other dancers, Renee ran to the back of the stage and down a long corridor, her ballet slippers slipping on the floor as she tried to go faster. The playhouse was like a second home to her and she knew the ins and outs of it, knowing exactly what turn to take and where to get her to the front lobby.
She spilled out through the side door and looked around the packed lobby, trying to find her grandmother or whoever had felt the extreme feeling of love through the crowd of people trying to make their way out of the row of glass doors at the front. Several people recognized her and patted her shoulder as they passed, eager to congratulate her on her performance. She tried to smile politely but she was too focused on finding out exactly who was there and what had happened.
Finally she saw someone moving across the crowd and she perked up when she saw that it was her grandmother. Niecey looked – and felt – frazzled, but she covered it up with a big smile. She stopped in front of Renee and held out her arms, pulling the young girl into a tight hug.
"I'm so proud of you, babygirl. What are you doin' out here in your new slippers? You're gonna get them all dirty."
Renee pulled back and looked up into her grandmother's eyes.
"Who was here, Gram? I felt it. It was love, and it was for me."
Niecey frowned a little but quickly covered it up with a big smile. "It was just me, Nay-Nay. I was so proud of you and I just love you like a fat kid loves cake. You were beautiful today. Did you see the talent scouts watching you from the front row?"
"I saw them," Renee said but tried to change the subject back. "But Grams, it wasn't you. I felt you, but then I felt someone else. There was so much love . . ."
"It was probably just one of the other girl's parents," Niecey aid dismissively, standing up and looking out into the crowd.
Renee tried as best as she could to read her but Niecey was shielding; she was keeping her feelings in check as best as she could.
"What are you hiding?" Renee asked angrily, her tiny fists balled up at her sides.
Niecey slowly looked down at her, her pupils suddenly large and her eyes narrowing in concentration.
"I'm not hiding anything, babygirl. Now just be calm and smile. One of the talent scouts is coming over."
Renee felt a sudden calm washing over her but as much as she tried to fight it, tried to focus on the confusion and anger she felt, she just couldn't. She smiled as the scout approached them and shook Niecey's hand, then hers, introducing himself as the dean of a private dance academy that would be proud to have her as one of its students.
Niecey clapped and Renee continued smiling but she knew something wasn't right – she just couldn't figure out what.
Pulled from her thoughts by the sound of a babymomma freaking out on her babydaddy from the television set, Camryn shook her head and looked away from the ballet shoes, trying to shake the memory from her head. She turned around to face her grandmother . . . and that was when she felt emotions pouring out of Niecey stronger than she'd felt in years. They weren't the usual pride and love; this was different.
This was sadness. This was regret.
This was guilt.
Realizing that Niecey must have been able to sense the memory she'd had moments before and the feelings it had evoked inside herself, Camryn narrowed her eyes and stared at Niecey until she nervously met her gaze.
"Oh Grams," she began cautiously, knowing this wasn't going to be pretty. "Regret, guilt; so much guilt. What did you do?"
Niecey took a deep breath – as deep as she could get with her emphysema – and pulled her oxygen mask on, holding it to her face with one hand as she waved to the sofa with the other.
"Better have a seat, babygirl. I think you're gonna need it for this one."
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