Penny stepped off the bus, already wondering if there was anywhere else she could go. Somewhere other than home. Across the street was a shopping center. Even without money, she could spend a few hours there, walking around, looking at things. But not with her backpack unless she wanted to be followed around by security guards everywhere she went. And she had homework to do.
She'd have to go home.
Her bus had gone and the city bus screeched to a stop before she'd made up her mind, so she waited for this new group to debark, blocked in on three sides by passengers, bus, and bench. Even knowing where she was going, she wasn't in any hurry to get there so waiting was fine. Waiting was good even.
Suddenly a bundle slammed into her chest, knocking her backward a step.
"Don't just stand there, help me with this."
Penny caught at it automatically, recognizing the paper shopping bag as her arms closed around it. The woman who'd shoved it into her stood a little more than five feet tall, and dressed in layers and layers of color. The long skirt was four colors all on its own. Wrinkles were etched deeply enough into her cheeks that Penny had trouble imagining she'd ever been young. A skeletal hand was visible, holding together the edges of her jacket. Her spine was curved as she turned away and trudged past the still arguing couple on the sidewalk.
Penny grabbed the edges of the bag and held it out, wordlessly offering it back. I don't know you, she thought, but the woman didn't turn. Didn't even look back for her groceries to see if Penny had tossed them to the ground and left. Some people would. Or they'd take them home. That one was tempting. Were there fresh vegetables in the bag? Carrots? Penny didn't look.
The lady had asked for help. Sort of. And she looked so frail. The wind picked up, flaring her overly bright skirt as she crossed the small road toward a duplex on the corner and it made sense. The fortune-teller. The psychic on the corner. Also known as the crazy lady. Well, no one had ever accused her of being dangerous and Penny had to go by there to get home anyway.
The fortune-teller was almost inside by the time Penny ducked around the couple, making up now, and hurried after her clutching the groceries to her chest. Even hurrying, the fortune-teller had disappeared inside before Penny even made it to the driveway. She hesitated.
It was one thing to deliver groceries, but to step into someone else's home? Wouldn't that be odd? Her footsteps dragged as she approached the open door until she realized how much cold must be getting inside. How much the electricity must cost for these few groceries. She ran the first few steps, but she couldn't see anyone. The kitchen was empty.
The counter had space for the bags and would only take Penny two steps through the door. All she had to do was drop the groceries there, and she'd be done. Free and clear. Ready to go home. Or at least done with this unusual encounter. One thing at a time. One worry at a time.
Penny stepped in, groceries extended. One step might be enough. No, not quite. She took another step, pushing the groceries ahead of her. They were on the counter and she was backing toward the door when the fortune-teller appeared again. Her jacket was gone, and the headwrap, but she still looked ancient and frail.
"There's you groceries," Penny began, bumping into the door that had swung closed behind her. She reached behind her back for the handle.
"You're too skinny."
You're one to talk, Penny thought with a frown. The woman was nothing but wrinkles on bones.
"I was going to cook some spaghetti today, but maybe if you shared a pizza with me, not so much would go to waste. Think you can handle that?"
"I.... Uh...." Penny had trouble thinking of a response. This had to be the oddest dinner invitation ever. Only tempting because there wouldn't be anything at home. Her last paycheck had barely covered rent and Mom hadn't found a job yet. And she drank most of her meals, trusting Penny to take care of herself.
The woman was on the phone, ordering, before Penny got any words out. It would be so easy just to follow along. Ordered pizza should be safe, right? There was no way to get anything dangerous into something someone else had made. Right? A chair was offered at the small kitchen table with a push and a wave. Instead of arguing, or trying to talk Penny into it, the woman sat in the other chair shuffling a deck of cards.
Maybe she was just lonely. Wanting someone to talk to. Someone small and non-threatening, like Penny. That made sense. If she had to choose a stranger to try to make friends with she might have chosen someone small and non-threatening too. Like the old lady.
Penny pulled the door the rest of the way closed and stepped hesitantly toward the table. "I'm Penny."
The house was quiet and peaceful, free of drunks and loud music. Maybe she could stay long enough to do homework -- or was that too much to ask of someone she'd just met. She had carried the groceries though. Maybe that would help. A favor for a favor -- and space at the table for an hour wasn't a lot, was it?
"They call me Mama Card." The woman offered gently. "You can too."