Camryn was sitting on the couch, arms crossed over her chest and eyebrows raised expectantly as she waited for her grandmother to begin. She had no idea what had happened that day in her youth but she knew it had to have been bad; Niecey Keller was not a woman who regularly felt guilt, so the fact that Camryn could feel it rolling off of her in waves now spoke volumes.
Niecey took a few more deep breaths from the oxygen mask and then set it down on her lap so that she could access it quickly. She seemed to nod once to herself, sat up a bit straighter, and then looked over to Camryn.
"I only did what was best for you, Renee." When Camryn glared at her, Niecey quickly corrected, "What I thought was best for you. I'd been taking care of you for so many years at that point. When your mother Jane left, I was pissed at her. Just taking off like that with her guy of the month, leaving you with me without a second thought." Niecey got a far away look in her eyes and she shook her head sadly. "It'd been so long since I'd raised a kid, and judging by how well I did with Janie, well . . . I didn't think I was fit, but I didn't exactly have a choice."
"And somewhere in the world, someone is playing a violin for you," Camryn said sarcastically. "What does this have to do with the day of my recital?"
"I'm getting to it! Jeez. I'm trying to set up a story here. Give an old lady a break."
"Well you better speed it up, Bernice, because I don't think there's enough oxygen in that tank to last through one of your stories."
Niecey narrowed her eyes after hearing her full name used – something her granddaughter did only when she was upset with her for some reason – but let it go for the moment. She took another mouthful of oxygen from the mask and continued.
"What I'm trying to get to, Renee, is that I did the best that I could with you. I didn't have the money to buy you the nicest clothes or the best toys, but we weren't exactly left wanting. You loved dancing and I signed you up for those ballet and tap classes. You were smart and outgoing and fun and . . . and I thought that had something to do with me. That had Janie stayed, you would have ended up like us: working in casinos for mobsters who liked to take advantage of our . . . abilities."
"My mother left because she wanted to get away from all of that," Camryn said, trying hard not to clench her jaw in anger as she spoke.
Even after all this time it still bothered her that her mother had abandoned her. Rather than feel anger for her long-gone mother, instead she felt only love and maybe pity. Jane's life had never exactly been easy. A single mother at twenty years old and working in casinos reading the customers for the mobsters so she could afford to live; it was no wonder she'd left. She had to try to make her life better!
"She left because she didn't want to turn into you!" Camryn accused.
"Your mother left because she was hooked on drink and pills," Niecey replied angrily, "and because the man she was getting them from – her boyfriend of the month, that dirty creep – had to leave Vegas because he was in trouble with the loansharks. She loved you, Renee, but she loved her booze and drugs more. They were her sickness. That was why she left. You can be angry at me all you want, babygirl, I can hack it, but you can't be mad at me for that because it was none of my doing."
A tense silence filled the room and Camryn didn't even realize she was crying until she felt a tear land on her hand. She quickly swiped the tears away and opened her mouth to speak but found that her voice didn't want to work. Clearing her throat quietly, she tried again.
"Why didn't you ever tell me that?"
"Because you didn't need to know the dirty truth," Niecey explained quietly, shaking her head with regret. "You love her; you always have. I didn't want that to go away."
Camryn understood and she nodded, looking down at her lap as she fiddled with her hands. She felt bad for being so accusatory and when she looked up to her grandmother to apologize, Niecey had one hand up, stopping her.
"Wait. Don't . . . don't say you're sorry. This story ain't over yet." She picked up the oxygen mask from her lap and took several breaths, seemingly trying to prepare herself for what was to come. Almost a minute later she set it back down and looked over to Camryn. "You were doing so good, Nay Nay, getting good grades and dancing and impressing everyone; you were making me so damn proud. I knew how your life could have turned out – how it probably woulda turned out – and I was just so happy that things were going good for you. That I finally got something right."
Camryn managed to smile a little bit at that. She could still remember feeling how proud she used to make her grandmother. How much she thrived on that feeling.
How she hadn't felt that from her in almost four years now.
"I'll never forget seeing you up on the stage that night," Niecey continued. "Oh babygirl, you were beautiful up there, like a little porcelain ballerina in a music box. Everyone was in awe. The talent scouts were so impressed; dancing only four years and already better than every girl up on that stage! A natural talent, that's what they called you." She smiled fondly, her breath catching in her throat. "And then I felt it. I felt her and . . . I was terrified. I was terrified for you."
Camryn suddenly stiffened up. "You felt who?" she asked carefully.
"Four years and I still knew it was her," Niecey said as she stared off into the distance, shaking her head in wonder.
"Her who?" Camryn asked louder, her jaw clenched once again.
She already knew the answer; she could feel the guilt and regret again, so powerfully that it made her head swim. For some reason, she just needed to hear her grandmother say it. Needed the words spoken aloud so that she could swallow them like a bitter pill.
Niecey's gaze refocused and she glanced over at Camryn, her eyes now filled with tears and worry.
"Your mother," she replied.
And it was like all of the air was sucked out of the room. Camryn gasped quietly and then put her fingertips over her trembling lips, trying to hold back her emotions. Niecey had the oxygen mask over her mouth but it was apparent how emotional she was; her hand was shaking as it held the mask up and her breath was coming in quick, hard pants.
"My mother came back," Camryn began, her words taking effort to get out evenly. "She came back and you . . . you . . ."
"I told her to get out," Niecey answered timidly. The air seemed to rush back into the room and she jumped in surprise when Camryn stood up, her fists clenched at her sides.
"Seventeen years," Camryn said angrily. "Seventeen years she's been gone and you NEVER told me that she came back! Do you know how that feels, to think that you've been abandoned by the one person who is biologically programmed to love you? And now to know that she did come back?"
Camryn began to pace and Niecey sat forward, trying to catch her attention.
"She said she was clean and that she wanted you back. That she wanted to take you away from Vegas so that you could live with her and Holden, that bastard that got her hooked in the first place. They had a trailer home in some little hole town a hundred miles from here and she was gonna take you away," Niecey said hurriedly.
Camryn spun and faced her, her eyes wild and voice loud.
"She was my mother! She had every right to!"
"But she wasn't being truthful!" Niecey yelled back, not angrily – she was simply hoping that Camryn was able to hear over her own anger. "She wasn't sober and neither was Holden. I wouldn't let them take you from here when you had so much opportunity ahead of you; a chance at a real future!"
Camryn was shaking with emotion and anger and she began pacing again, tears rolling down her cheeks which she swiped away angrily. Her makeup was ruined but she didn't care; she couldn't bring herself to care about anything but the fact that she'd been lied to for so very long.
"How?" she asked, spinning again to face her grandmother. "How did you keep it a secret? How did I not feel it over all of these years?"
"I built a wall around it," Niecey replied as calmly as possible. "I built a wall around it and I kept it far from my thoughts. I only ever tried to remember that I was doing everything I could for you. That everything I'd done was justified because it was all for you. But these new meds the doc has me on – they make my head all fuzzy. I got hit with a wave of emotion from you and . . . the wall was down. I couldn't keep it up. I'm not strong enough anymore. I'm old and I'm dy-"
"Oh, do not play the 'I'm old and dying' game with me right now, Grams. You've used that excuse for so long; it doesn't work anymore! It doesn't work for this!"
"I did what I could to ensure that you had a future. A bright and wonderful future!" Niecey replied emotionally. "I worked my ass off so we could afford your lessons and your outfits and your school . . ."
"And what good did it do?" Camryn asked angrily. "I'm still a stripper! I take off my clothes for money, Grams. Now you tell me, is that a step up or a step down from what you and my mother did working in those casinos?"
Niecey pulled the mask down from her face and rested her head against the back of her recliner. "I never told you to do that, babygirl. You were in dance school and you were doing so well . . ."
"And then I found out that you'd paid my tuition with a loan from a mobster and that you hadn't paid him back because – instead of using your money from the casino on bills and loan repayment – you were using it to gamble! And taking out even more loans to fund your gambling habit!"
Niecey looked suddenly small and ashamed and she averted her gaze.
"It's a sickness. I couldn't control it."
"Right," Camryn said angrily as she made her way to the kitchen to finish putting the groceries away. She opened and slammed cupboards closed as she spoke, making Niecey wince with every slam. "So the mobsters came after you for money and when you couldn't pay it back, I had to. I used the tuition money I had saved by teaching dance lessons at The Flamingo and paid them back, but that was only the tip of the iceberg, wasn't it."
"I never asked you to pay them back!" Niecey lamely defended.
"Of course you didn't," Camryn said sarcastically. "I was supposed to just let the mob off the one person I had left in my life – or so I thought you were, anyway."
She laughed bitterly and pulled a wad or rubberbanded cash from her pocket, depositing it in a cow-shaped cookie jar on the kitchen table. Closing the ceramic top with a loud clink, she walked back into the living room and took a deep breath before facing her grandmother.
"And so I gave up the wonderful future that you were so sure you could give me and started stripping so I could pay off your debt. Hey Grams, I have a question for you. Did you ever stop to wonder what would have happened if I would've went with my mom that day?"
"All the time," Niecey answered sadly.
"She could have continued my lessons. Could have encouraged me just like you did. I could have been a dancer . . . you know, the kind that actually wears clothes and tours the world and has her name written in lights." Camryn paused and shook her head, laughing a little. "Well, my name's in lights for sure. It just says Camryn instead of Renee Keller."
"Nay Nay, baby, I'm sorry. I never meant . . ."
Camryn leaned forward and kissed her grandmother on the forehead, then bent lower so that they were face to face.
"I love you, Grams, and I always will. I'll never leave you alone because you never left me alone." Niecey started to say something but Camryn stopped her. "But I will never forget what you did . . . and I will never forgive it either."
She made her way into the kitchen and grabbed her purse, then let herself out of the familiar apartment. Neighbors looked at her as she passed by and she used the fingers of her right hand to wipe over her cheeks, hoping to remove any evidence of tears or runny makeup. Her high-heeled shoes clacked loudly on the steps as she headed down to the first floor, trying her best to keep her emotions in check.
This wasn't her; she didn't do emotional outbursts.
Laughing quietly at herself, she wiped away the last of her smudged mascara just as she reached the front lobby. She looked up just in time to stop herself from running into a man who was standing just in front of the steps as if he'd been waiting for her.
When she saw his face and recognized who it was, she realized that he had been waiting for her, just like he had been on that night four years ago in a building across town.
The two girls stumbled quietly into the apartment, trying to keep their giggles in as they crashed against the kitchen table and the house keys clattered to the floor with a loud jingle. The fruit bowl atop the table was jostled by the collision and a lone banana fell over the rim of the bowl, landing on the table with a dull thud.
The girls giggled even more, trying to hide the noise between their feverish kisses. It was their last week of summer vacation before their second year of dance school started and they'd been out drinking and having fun, living up their last week of freedom. At nineteen, they weren't exactly legal to drink in Las Vegas but that didn't stop them. With their carefully altered ID in hand, they'd gotten into every bar they'd gone to without hassle.
At some point during the night, their party of twelve had turned into a party of eight, then four, and then eventually just two. But instead of deterring their partying, it only spurned Renee and Holly on further. They drank until they could barely stand, and that was when the real fun started.
Even in her drunken state, Renee could feel the emotions coming off of Holly, namely intrigue and lust. While she'd only ever been with men before, she couldn't deny the fact that she'd always been interested in women as well. She'd just never had the opportunity to act on that attraction.
But boy oh boy was opportunity presenting itself!
Between the booze and the music and the bedroom eyes that Holly kept giving her, Renee had a feeling that she knew where the night was headed. Holly was cute – tall, long dark hair, dancer's body, the prettiest lips she'd ever seen - and Renee figured that if the girl was up for it, she was up for it too.
Standing at the bar and waiting for their drinks to be delivered, she leaned in and whispered something in Holly's ear, something barely audible over the loud music, but Holly had obviously heard it because she pulled back and smiled the sexiest smile Renee had ever seen on a man or woman.
Holly nodded, then hooked her index finger over the top of Renee's skirt and yanked her over, bringing their lips immediately together as their bodies collided. A bunch of people around the bar began hooting and whistling, making both girls smile against each others lips. Forgetting their drinks, Renee grabbed Holly's hand and led her out of the loud club so that they could go someplace quieter.
'Someplace quieter' turned out to be the apartment Renee shared with her grandmother who was currently busy working a double shift, or at least that's what she said she was doing.
Renee reached over to hit the light switch to illuminate the otherwise dark apartment but Holly grabbed her and pinned her against the table, sending an apple out of the fruit bowl this time and onto the floor. They didn't giggle this time though; they were too wrapped up in each other, trying to undo buttons and push clothing back to reveal warm skin.
Renee's butt was resting on the table but her legs were long and her toes were still touching the floor. Her skirt was bunched up around her thighs and Holly was trying to step between them, using her knee to push them apart. Her hands glided up Renee's inner thighs and Renee gasped softly, always ticklish even when she shouldn't be.
"So soft," Holly mumbled against her lips, then pulled back to look at her, her voice a whisper as she asked, "Are you wet?"
Renee couldn't answer; she simply nodded and pulled Holly back to her, their lips crashing together once again.
"Well I don't know about her, but I'm feeling a bit moist," came a voice from somewhere in the room and the girls jumped up, huddling together near the door.
Renee reached out and hit the light switch, then sighed as both she and Holly tried to fix their rumbled clothes when she realized who the voice belonged to.
"Jesus, Carlo, what the hell are you doing in my apartment?"
"Last I checked, it was your grandmother's apartment, which I guess means it's kinda my apartment now, seeing as that she hasn't been paying her loan," he said as he made his way over, the cheap material of his imitation-designer suit making weird sounds as he moved. His hair was slicked back and he looked like he hadn't showered in three or four days.
"The loan she used to pay your tuition last year."
He stopped beside them and reached down to investigate the material of her skirt. She slapped his arm away and he held both hands up in mock surrender, a dirty smile on his face.
"There's no loan. She used money she's been saving since I was a kid to pay my tuition," Renee said.
Carlo laughed and moved over to the table, resting back against it and grabbing an apple from the bowl. He crunched loudly into it and then spoke around a mouthful of the red fruit.
"Oh, there's a loan. Several, in fact. Turns out Niecey has a bit of a gambling problem. She's supposed to be working doubles to pay me back but she hasn't showed up to work in the last week. That puts her behind; even more behind than she already was."
He pushed off of the table and began slowly walking again.
"Of course she's been working. She's only ever home to sleep," Renee said.
"She's down on Freemont Street at the tables, going through money like water. My boys saw her but she ran away. Figured I'd come and wait for her, but . . ." he let out a long, low whistle, ". . . what I stumbled on here is even better. You wanna work off some of your Grandmother's debt?"
"Dream on!" Renee said, slapping his hand away again as he passed by them. "How much does she owe? I have some money saved for tuition this semester; I might be able to . . ."
Renee smiled. "Ninety dollars? I've got that in my purse, no problem."
"Ninety grand, sunshine. Plus interest. Shall I get your purse?"
Renee's smile fell and her eyes widened. She couldn't believe it. It was too . . . no, she just couldn't believe it! Her grandmother would never be that irresponsible; her grandmother, who had taken care of her since she was six and had given her every opportunity to make her dream of being a dancer come true. Where were they going to get that kind of money from?
How were they going to live?
How was she going to pursue her dream of being a dancer?
The answer was simple: she wasn't going to be able to.
Sighing with defeat, she gestured for Carlo to wait there and she made her way to her bedroom, pulling Holly along with her. Once they were inside, she closed the door behind her and Holly instantly ran over to the window. She opened it up and looked down to the ground, then looked over to Renee.
"Come on, we can jump down to the neighbor's patio and climb to the street from there."
"I can't run," Renee said evenly, kneeling down next to her bed. She pulled a small locked box from under it and lifted it up on the mattress. "They'll kill her if she can't pay them back."
"So what do you think you can do about it?" Holly asked in a harsh whisper.
"I can start by giving him this," Renee said as she opened up the box with a key from her purse and pulled out an envelope full of money. There was just over six thousand dollars tucked inside and Holly's eyes bulged when she saw it.
"Renee . . . that's your tuition for this semester."
"God, Holly, I know! What else am I supposed to do? She's basically my mom. I wouldn't have even gotten into the school if it hadn't been for her pushing me every step of the way."
"Then she would want you to go to school and not worry about her neverending debt."
And as much as Renee knew that was true, she just couldn't hand that money over to her school while her grandmother was on the run from the mob. No, she couldn't live with herself. She had to do the right thing.
Sighing, she moved over to the window and pulled Holly to her, kissing her long and deep. Holly moaned into her mouth and tried to protest when Renee pulled away to rest her forehead against hers.
"It's been great knowing you, Holls. Kick some butt this year. Make sure they give you your solo."
Without waiting for a response, Renee walked across the room and to the door. She took a moment to collect herself before opening it, sparing a quick glance back to the window to find that Holly was already gone. With a wry chuckle, she left her room and went back to the kitchen, pushing the money against Carlo's chest. He grabbed it with one hand, then gave it a quick inspection.
"It's not ninety grand, I know," she said. "It's six grand, and that's better than nothing. I'll talk to my grams; we'll work something out."
"You better," he said, seemingly appeased by the offering. "Six grand, less interest, that's four grand toward her balance. I'll be back same time next week for the next installment."
He moved to walk to the door but Renee jumped in front of him, her eyes wide with disbelief.
"A week? Carlo, it took me most of the summer to earn that six grand!"
"Then you better look for a new job, sweetcheeks. You know," he paused and tilted his head to the side, "you could always come to work for me. I can use another reader in the casino. It's an easy job; you tell me who's riding emotional highs and lows and my boys and I tend to their needs."
"I can't," Renee said quietly, feeling awkward talking about her ability with someone who didn't share it. "Grams won't let me use my ability like that. She forbade it."
"Well then, babe, you're gonna have to use those other god-given talents of yours to get me my money. Six grand. One week. See ya real soon, kid."
He moved past her and out the door but stopped when she followed him out into the hallway and asked,
"What talents? All I can do is dance."
Carlo turned back to her and grinned, looking her up and down.
"You've got half of the equation right there, and the other half is in looking good, which ya also got. Where else can a hot piece of ass who can dance up a storm like none other get a job in Vegas and make six grand in a week?"
Realization dawned over Renee then and she took a shuddery breath before mumbling, "Strip clubs."
Carlo gave her one last lascivious grin before turning and walking to the elevator, leaving her all alone in an empty apartment with no money and more stress than any nineteen year old girl should have to deal with.
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