It didn’t snow in Whiskey Creek often, but when it did it took Cheyenne Christensen back to another time and place. Not one filled with picture-perfect memories of warm holidays, gaily-wrapped packages and hot apple cider, like the Christmases her friends typically enjoyed. No, this kind of weather made her sick inside, as if something dark and terrible had happened on just such a night.
She wished she could remember exactly what. For years she’d wracked her brain, trying to make sense of her earliest memories, to conjure up that kind female figure with the smiling face and pretty blonde hair that featured in so many of them. Who was she? An aunt? A teacher? A family friend?
Surely, it wasn’t her mother! Cheyenne already had a mother who insisted there’d been no one in her life bearing such a description.
That didn’t mean it was true, however. Anita had never been particularly reliable—in any regard.
“Chey, where are you? I need my pain meds.”
Real relation or not, the woman who’d raised her was wake. Again. It was getting harder and harder for Anita to rest.
Trying to shake off the stubborn melancholy that had crept over her when the snow began to fall, Cheyenne turned away from the window. The three-bedroom hovel she shared with her mother and sister wasn’t anything to be proud of. She’d put up a Christmas tree and lights, and kept the place clean, but it was easily the most humble abode in Amador County.
Still, it was better than the beater cars and fleabag motel rooms she’d lived in growing up. At least it provided some stability.
“Coming!” She hurried to the cupboard to get the morphine. After more than a decade, her mother’s cancer was back. Cheyenne hated to see anyone suffer. But if Anita hadn’t gotten sick fifteen years ago, they might never have settled down, and coming to Whiskey Creek had been the best thing to ever happened to Cheyenne. As guilty as it made her feel, she would always be grateful for the diagnosis that stopped all the shiftless rambling and finally enabled her and her sister to enroll in school. She just wished the cancer that had started in her ovaries had stayed in remission instead of reappearing in her pancreas.
“What are you doing out there while I’m lying in here, suffering?” her mother demanded as soon as Cheyenne walked into the room. “You don’t really care about me. You never have.”
Fearing there might be some small truth in those words, Chey refused to meet her mother’s gaze. “I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t want what’s best for you,” she said, but even she believed it was duty, not love, that motivated her actions. She held too much against Anita, had longed to escape her for so many years she couldn’t remember when she’d first started feeling that way.
Anita had always preferred her sister, anyway. She’d made that clear all along. Fortunately, Cheyenne didn’t have a problem with it. Presley was older by two years. She came first and would always be number one with Anita.
“I did my best by you,” her mother said, suddenly defensive.
Here we go again. She held a spoonful of morphine to her mother’s lips. “That might be true,” she conceded. But it was also true that Anita’s best fell far short of ideal. Until they came to Whiskey Creek, she and Presley had been dragged through almost every state in the western half of the country. They’d gone hungry and cold and been left alone in cars or with strangers for indefinite periods of time. They’d even been forced to beg on street corners or at the entrance to malls when their mother deemed it necessary.
“You’ll never cut me any slack,” Anita complained, snorting as she attempted to shift positions.
Determined to preserve the peace, Cheyenne changed the subject. “Are you hungry? Would you like a sandwich or some soup?”
Her mother waved in a dismissive fashion. “I can’t eat right now.”
Cheyenne helped her get comfortable and smoothed the bedding. “The meds will make you sick if you don’t get something in your stomach. You know what happened last night.”
“I’m sick anyway. I can hardly keep anything down. And I don’t want to put my dentures in. The damn things don’t fit right anymore. Where’s your sister?”
“You know where Presley is. She works at the casino.”
“She never comes around anymore.”
That had to be the painkiller talking. Not only did Presley live with them, she watched Anita during the day so Cheyenne could work at the Bed & Breakfast owned by her best friend’s family—and as long as Presley didn’t have the money to buy dope, she helped out on weekends, too. “She left just a couple hours ago.” Already it seemed like an eternity. Evidently, Anita felt the same way.
Growing more agitated, her mother shook her head. “No.”
“I haven’t seen her in ages. She’s abandoned me. I’m surprised you’re the one who stayed.”
It wasn’t so unusual that Chey would be the daughter to come through for her in difficult times. She’d always been the most responsible in the family. She almost said so, but what was the point? Her mother would believe what she wanted. “She’ll be here again in the morning.” At which point, she’d crash in her bed…
“Can you call her?”
“I’m here to take care of whatever you need. Why bother her?”
“Because I want to talk to her, that’s why!”
Chey already knew she couldn’t deal with her mother if she was going to be difficult again today. “Calm down, okay?”
“I’m not acting up!” She struggled to sit but couldn’t manage it. “Who the hell do you think you are? Where do you think you’d be without me, anyway?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.” She had a feeling she would’ve been in a better place all along. But that was the suspicion talking. She normally didn’t say such things. Today, the words rushed out before Cheyenne could stop them. Then they hung in the air like a foul stench.
Her mother blinked at her. Her eyes, though rheumy with sickness, could still turn mean. But she’d lost the power she’d once wielded. She could no longer frighten Cheyenne.
Anita must’ve realized it wouldn’t do her any good to rail because she didn’t allow her temper to boil over. Her voice turned whiny. “You can treat me like this when I’m about to die?”
There was nothing more the doctors could do. They’d prescribed liquid morphine for the pain and Atevan to ease the anxiety and released Anita so that she could spend her last weeks at home. The end had to come sooner or later. Pancreatic cancer typically moved fast. But Cheyenne didn’t think Anita had arrived at her final moments quite yet. “Let’s not despair too soon.”
“You won’t shed a tear when I’m gone.”
Hoping to distract her, Cheyenne turned on the TV. “I’ll heat some soup while you watch Jeopardy.”
Anita caught her before she could walk out. “I’ve always loved you, you know. I could’ve abandoned you, but I didn’t. I kept you with me every step of the way, even though it wasn’t always easy to feed and clothe you.”
Cheyenne pivoted to confront her. “Who was the blonde woman? Someone you left me with on a regular basis?”
Anita grimaced. “What blonde woman?”
“I’ve told you about her before. I can remember someone with blue eyes and platinum blonde hair. I was with her, wearing a princess dress, and there were presents all around as if it was my birthday.”
A strange expression claimed Anita’s sallow face, one that led Cheyenne to believe she might at last achieve an explanation. Her mother knew something. But then a hint of the malevolence Anita had just masked sparkled in her eyes. “I don’t know why you keep asking about that stuff. I don’t know what on earth you could be talking about.”
* * *
Presley Christensen sat in the parking lot of the Rain Dance Casino, smoking a cigarette in her 1967 Mustang. It was cold outside, too cold to have the window cracked open, especially when the heater was busted, but if she wanted to smoke she had little choice. It was against California state law to light up in a public building, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to stand outside.
Crossing her ankles beneath the steering wheel, she took a long, calming drag. As a card dealer, she was entitled to a fifteen-minute break every hour, which sounded like a lot but wasn’t, not when she stood all the rest of her shift. She had three hours to go and already her back ached. She wished she could earn a living some other way, but there wasn’t a lot of options available to someone without so much as a high school diploma. She was lucky to have her G.E.D. and a job.
A man rapped on her window, nearly causing her to jump out of her skin. Where had he come from? She hadn’t seen anyone approaching….
She locked the door to be certain he couldn’t get in and spoke to him through the gap in her window. “What do you want?”
Several years ago, a woman had been abducted from a casino northeast of Sacramento. Presley hadn’t heard of anything like that happening where she lived, but it was nearly three in the morning, and she was out in the dark alone with a stranger. One who’d been drinking for all she knew.
He lifted his hands in a calming gesture. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Eugene Crouch, a private investigator.” He used a penlight to illuminate the ID he flashed her. “Are you Presley?”
She wasn’t sure whether to answer him. She feared the P.I. bit was designed to make her lower her guard. Her first name was, after all, sewn onto her blouse. “What if I am?” she asked skeptically.
“I’m looking for someone you might know.”
She nearly dropped her cigarette. As it was, some ash fell into her lap and she had to brush it away before it could burn a hole in her uniform. What did this man want with her mother?
Considering the way Anita had lived her life, he couldn’t have any good reason to be looking for her. As the black sheep of a hard-bitten, broken woman who’d had six kids by as many men, she wasn’t likely to inherit money. And, like her own mother, she’d never been accepted by her extended family, so Presley doubted this man could be here to help some long lost friend or relative reconnect…
Maybe she’d stolen a watch from someone who’d paid her for sex and the police had issued a warrant for her arrest. Or worse. She’d once crashed into a man on a bicycle and driven away from the scene of the accident. She’d been drinking and shouldn’t have been behind the wheel. Presley had always been surprised she’d suffered no repercussions for that. But it’d happened in Arizona and they’d crossed into New Mexico right after.
Presley had purposely shoved that incident into the back of her mind—until now.
This could also be about welfare fraud or tax evasion, she decided. Anita had done anything she could to get by.
“Say that name again?” She took another drag on her cigarette while trying to decide how to answer.
“Anita Christensen. Used to be Karen Bateman. Went by the name of Laura Dumas before that.”
A vague recollection of being told her last name was Bateman—maybe when she was eight or night—came to Presley’s mind. But she’d never heard of Dumas. That one must’ve been before she was old enough to remember. “None of those names are familiar to me.” She’d been trained to protect her mother, to assist in whatever con Anita was running. If she didn’t, they’d go hungry. Or be abandoned. She was too old for those threats to have the same implications, but old habits and loyalties were hard to break.
“You’re sure?” he pressed, obviously disappointed. “You’re listed as a reference on a credit card application from years back, in New Mexico. She claimed you were her daughter.”
She’d only been sixteen when they were in New Mexico last. How had he been able to trace her here?
“I’ve never lived in New Mexico.” Presley felt no remorse for lying, just an odd sense of panic that this might spill over onto her. Right or wrong, she’d done what her mother had taught her to do.
“Christensen might not be an odd name, but Presley is,” he persisted.
“I’m not the only one. Maybe this Anita person liked Elvis as much as my own mother did.”
Presley considered herself a pro when it came to misinformation, but he seemed stubbornly unconvinced.
“She may have assumed yet another identity,” he said. “Would you mind taking a look at her picture?”
“Sorry.” She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray. “My break’s over. I’ve got to get back to work.”
Except she didn’t dare open the door with him standing there, and he wasn’t backing off. She hesitated with her hand on the latch, and that was all the opportunity he needed.
“It’ll only take a second.” He pulled out an old photograph, which he illuminated with the penlight like he had his ID. “She’s the one on the right.”
Presley was too nervous to really look. She knew whom she’d see, but with her mother sick and about to die she figured it didn’t matter too much. Whatever Anita had done wrong, cancer was punishment enough. “Never seen her before in my life,” she said as her eyes flicked over it.
“Do you recognize either of the other two?”
She nearly told him he had to leave or she was going to call the police on her cell phone, but clamped her lips shut. She did recognize a second individual. Chey was in that picture as a very young girl. And something about her struck Presley as odd. Although Anita looked as Presley would’ve expected—significantly younger but still unkempt—Chey didn’t. Her hair was curled into pretty ringlets tied up with a ribbon, and she was wearing a fancy dress with black patent leather shoes.
When had this picture been taken? Presley wondered. And why wasn’t she in it? She couldn’t remember a single time their mother had bothered to curl their hair. They’d been lucky to have a comb with which to straighten out the snarls after several days without a bath.
Not only that, but…who was the third person—the pretty blonde woman?
“Ms. Christensen?” the man prompted.
What did this picture mean?
The possibilities terrified Presley. Anita was about to die. She wouldn’t lose Chey, too. “I don’t recognize them, either.”
* * *
Cheyenne woke to the sound of voices. Her sister was home and, apparently, her mother had survived the night. Chey couldn’t say she was glad; she couldn’t conscionably say she wasn’t, either. It was just another day.
A glance at the digital alarm clock indicated she didn’t have to be up for another hour. She rolled over to go back to sleep, but the wary tone of her mother’s voice roused her curiosity.
“Did he say what his name was?”
“One sec.” Presley. “I got his card.” There was a brief pause. “Eugene Crouch.”
“He’s a private investigator?”
“That’s what he told me, and that’s what’s written here. Do you have any idea what he wanted?”
“Do you think he’ll come back?”
“I guess he could, but I don’t know why he bothered you in the first place.”
Despite Presley lowering her voice, Cheyenne could still hear. “He’s been searching for you a long time, Mom. You have to have some idea.”
“I don’t, unless it’s an unpaid speeding ticket.”
“Do they go to such great lengths to track people down for that?”
“They put out arrest warrants, don’t they? So who knows? Whatever he wants, it’s too late. Feel free to invite him to my funeral.”
“Don’t talk like that. You know it upsets me.”
Chey tightened her grip on the blankets. That was precisely why Anita did it. To get a reaction. To be reassured.
“You and Chey are the only family I have,” Presley said.
“You need to prepare yourself, honey. I won’t last long.”
“I can’t fathom going on without you. I can’t deal with life as it is.” Presley sounded as if she might be crying.
Cheyenne felt bad for her, but she felt even worse that she experienced no grief, that she was merely waiting for release from the responsibilities that imprisoned her.
Was there something wrong with her? Was she as bad, as ungrateful, as her mother claimed?
“Come here,” Anita cooed.
As she pictured Presley falling into their mother’s arms, Chey covered her eyes with her hand. She was glad her mother and sister had each other. Maybe Anita deserved more love than Cheyenne could give her. And, despite myriad differences between her and Presley, Cheyenne cared a great deal for her older sibling. Growing up, Presley had been her only friend, her only ally, especially when Anita went on one of her frightening tirades. For whatever reason, their mother’s anger had always been more focused on Chey. Once or twice, Anita had grown so violent that Presley had been forced to step in.
“So…what should I tell that P.I. if he comes back?” Presley asked at length.
“What you told him already,” Anita responded.
“I don’t know if he’ll accept it a second time. He knows we’re related or he wouldn’t have approached me in the first place. He said you used my name as a reference on a credit card application in New Mexico.” Cheyenne heard Presley go on to say that she’d been working at the Sunny Day Convenience store at that time and had used that as a reference for her next job. She thought that was how this Crouch had been able to trace her. But then she must’ve turned in a different direction or buried her face in the blankets because Cheyenne could no longer make out her words.
Hoping to catch the last of the conversation, she sat up, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear. “Presley?” she called out. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” her sister responded. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Who’s Eugene Crouch?”
“None of your damn business, little Miss Know-It-All,” her mother snapped. “I’m still kickin’, you know.
Until I’m ten feet under, I’ll handle my own affairs!”
Dropping onto her pillow, Cheyenne counted to ten instead of thinking the same old terrible thoughts about her mother. Where was her control? Her pity?
Meanwhile, Presley spoke up, which siphoned off some of the tension. They’d always acted as buffers for each other, especially where Anita was concerned.
“Just some guy I met at work, Chey,” she called.
Her sister had plenty of scary stories about the gamblers who frequented the Indian casino. They could get drunk and far too friendly. Or violent. Presley dated bikers, many of which were ex-cons, so she had more than a few scary stories about them, too. Chey worried about her safety. What they’d endured as children had affected them each so differently. Chey wanted to cling to everything that society deemed normal and admirable. She wanted to forget the past and pretend she was no different from the group of friends who’d provided so much love and support for her since she started high school.
Presley, on the other hand, didn’t resent Anita or how they were raised. She lived fast and loose, a lot like their mother had once lived. The sad part was, Presley was capable of so much more.
“You said it was a private investigator,” Cheyenne piped up.
“So?” Presley responded.
“Why would he be looking for Mom?”
“I figured it was better not to ask.”
She had a point. Whatever this man wanted was sure to involve a fair amount of humiliation. Anita had long been an embarrassment to Cheyenne. And that made her feel even more guilt. What kind of child was so ashamed of her own parent?
Maybe it was better if they didn’t know why that man had come to the casino. Their mother had made far too many mistakes to revisit them now.