The Banty House Page 2

“Good God!” Connie gasped. “Don’t you have relatives?”

“No, I just don’t.” Ginger shrugged. “Been in foster care my whole life up until a year ago. The gover’ment don’t pay for kids past eighteen, so I been on my own since then.”

“Where’s your husband, child?” Connie looked over at Ginger’s big belly.

Ginger put her hand on her bulging stomach. “His name was Lucas and he got killed seven months ago, before he ever even knew that I was pregnant.” It felt good to talk to someone, even if the woman reminded her of Marie, the mama from that television show about everyone loving Raymond. Connie even wore bright-red lipstick and had her hair all frizzy like Marie did in the show.

“Where are you from?” Connie asked.

“Kentucky, I guess. That’s where I was born, according to my birth certificate. My mama was in prison at the time, so I went into the system,” she replied with another shrug. “Guess I’d best get on my way now. Nice talkin’ to you.”

“Whoa!” Connie almost dropped her cigarette. “You can’t be hitchhikin’,” she gasped. “Don’t you watch them crime shows on the television? Someone could kidnap you so they could steal that baby when it’s born, and you’d never see it or daylight again. Why did you leave Kentucky?”

“Nothing for me there but bad memories.”

“How far you plannin’ on goin’ to get away from them ugly memories?” Connie asked.

The woman was sure nosy, but then, she was old. Most of the elderly folks who were regulars at the café where Ginger had worked until they’d closed the doors asked lots of questions, too.

“Until I run out of land,” she answered as she stood up. “You have a nice day, now, ma’am.”

Connie shook her head and set her mouth in a firm line. “I just can’t bear to think of you out there travelin’ in your condition. You’re comin’ home with us.”

“Us?” Ginger asked.

“Me and my two sisters, Betsy and Kate. They’ll be out of the beauty shop in a few minutes. I’m calling a rule number one,” Connie said.

“You think you should ask them about that first? And what’s a rule number one?” The woman was crazy for sure. No one took in a complete stranger. Ginger thought of herself as a good person, but for all Connie knew, she could be a serial killer—or for that matter, Connie might be one.

“Come on with me.” Connie put what was left of her cigarette in a bucket beside the bench. Then she got Ginger by the hand and tugged. “We’ll go ask them together, but I’m tellin’ you right now, they’ll say yes. They have to, because of Mama’s rules.”

“Which are?” Ginger stood up, wondering if Mama was the cult leader. Connie seemed to be a little crazy, so maybe it was hereditary.

“The Banty House has rules,” Connie said. “You’ll have to abide by them. Anyone who walks through the doors has to, but don’t worry—they ain’t hard to uphold. I been doin’ it for my whole life, and I’m still alive and kickin’. Rule number one is the one about takin’ in strangers.”

Ginger’s first instinct was to grab her ratty suitcase and run, but then she thought about her situation. Surely one night with three old women wouldn’t hurt anything. She’d probably get to sleep in a real bed and have a real meal. Then tomorrow she’d sneak out and hitch a ride on out West—Texas was a good distance from Kentucky, but it was not far enough. She hadn’t forgotten anything yet.

One of her foster mothers had had a standing appointment on Mondays at a local salon, but Ginger couldn’t remember which town she’d lived in during that short period of time. She’d never been inside a beauty shop in her entire life. She drew her brows down and tried to get a picture of the woman—somehow it seemed very important that she remember. She had spent a birthday—her fourteenth birthday—in that house and was the oldest of the five children in the home. She was pretty much the in-house babysitter for the four smaller kids. The foster mother had been a tall brunette who’d smoked a pack a day. She had been one of the indifferent ones. She wasn’t interested in the kids, but she didn’t fuss at Ginger or punish her for not knowing what the preacher said on Sunday morning. She followed Connie inside the shop and was amazed that it looked exactly like she’d imagined it would from the pictures in the magazines that her various foster mothers had left scattered around the house. Sometimes she had imagined herself sitting in one of the chairs like those in front of a mirror, but she had always known it was just a pipe dream.

“Look what I found sitting on the bench out front,” Connie said. “Her name is Ginger Andrews, and I’ve invited her to come home with us since she ain’t got no place to live.”

Kate looked over at Betsy and raised an eyebrow. “Rule number one?”

“I guess so,” Betsy said. “Well, Miz Ginger, do you have a driver’s license?”

“Yes, ma’am, but it’s from the state of Kentucky,” she answered.

“I don’t reckon that will matter for a few months. Kate”—she nodded toward the tall lady with short dark hair sprinkled with gray—“is the only one of us who’s still got a license. You could earn your keep by drivin’ us and helpin’ me with makin’ my jams and jellies.”

“Hey, now,” Connie protested. “I found her, so she gets to help me with the cleanin’. You know how I’m gettin’ down in my back and all.”

Kate giggled. “Maybe we should ask Ginger about all this before we start arguin’ about who gets her first.”

“Y’all are offerin’ me a job?” Ginger asked. “You don’t know me, and I’m pregnant and not married.” Good Lord! Connie wasn’t the only one in the bunch who was crazy.

“Darlin’, we all make mistakes, but our mama set down the rules, and we’ve abided by them all these years. The rules ain’t never failed us, not one time,” Betsy said. “So soon as we pay our bill in here, you’re welcome to come home with us and help out at the Banty House, at least for the rest of today and tomorrow. Then you can be on your way if you want to.”

Ginger wasn’t sure whether to agree or to run, but the baby kicked hard right then. She took that as a sign that she should go home with them. Besides, it seemed like fate that Connie had chosen the very moment Ginger had gotten off the bus to need a smoke. She started to ask what the Banty House was, but when it came right down to it, she didn’t care if it was a floral shop, a restaurant, or a bakery. They had offered her a job, and even if all she got out of it was room and board, it sure beat sleeping in a park or in an abandoned house.

Chapter Two

Friday was Sloan Baker’s favorite day of the whole week. That was the day he worked for the Carson sisters. Usually he was up and going, trying to keep his mind busy, but that morning, he awoke in a cold sweat from the recurring nightmare that he’d had since he was sent home from the army.

He and his teammates made up the bomb squad, and in the dream, they were going into a tent where there’d been a threat. He went in first, located the bomb, and was about to dismantle it when the timer started clicking off minutes, not seconds. He turned to tell his buddies to run, but he couldn’t open his mouth. He awoke with his hands over his ears, trying to block out the sound of the explosion.

He crawled out of bed and spread the covers out until there wasn’t a single wrinkle. He got dressed in faded camouflage pants, an army-green T-shirt that had seen better days, and his combat boots. The things that he’d brought home when they’d sent him back to the States a little more than two years ago were about to wear out—all but the boots. He figured he could get another five to ten years out of them.

He made a pot of coffee, poured himself a mug, and carried it out to the front-porch swing. “It was just a dream,” he said out loud.

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