The April sun sliced through the dark curtains and hit Penny square in the face. She scrunched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, which was a bad idea because her face was still swollen. After an inspection the day before, Penny saw that she was sporting two black eyes, a swollen lip, and bruising around the neck. She didn’t know what Reverend Joseph had done with Courtney, but Penny hoped that she had been severely punished.
It was a Saturday, which meant a work day for Penny. She washed and put on a long black dress with a billowing hem, and went downstairs for breakfast.
The kitchen was cloaked in a red gingham light as the sun from outside shone through the curtains. It highlighted the range and made the room look warm and cosy. The Sloan residence screamed ‘country’; it was the type of place that belonged to people who had only known comfort their whole lives; a cottage that disenchanted city-dwellers would dream about whilst they sat holed up in one bedroom flats on the South Circular. Penny pottered around it quietly so as not to wake her parents, and put the oats on the boil.
Staring into space, fiddling with her sleeves and tracing circles on the table with her thumbs did nothing to take her mind off of what had happened yesterday. She had physical reminders of it anyway, and each time she moved it came crashing back to her that she could have been fatally injured. If it wasn’t for Peter McDonald, she dreaded to think where she would be right now.
Courtney’s rampage wasn’t the only thing that was bothering Penny, however. She was annoyed with Reverend Joseph and couldn’t believe all that he had said about her. Possessed by a demon, was she? Even worse, he had passed on his crazy ideas to all the other Lockview kids, which answered a lot of questions; they had always been so horrible to Penny, even before she had started to wear black. It also sounded as though her parents had fallen for the lie, if what they had said to the Ludingtons was anything to go by. Did she really have no friends? The thought filled her with anger more than anything – why should Courtney Cowell be so popular, and she, Penny, completely alone?
Not hungry anymore, she turned off the cooker and poured the oats down the sink.
“What are you doing?”
Penny started and whipped around. Mrs Sloan stood by the doorway, pink dressing gown tied tightly around her skinny body. She had a stern look on her face, and her arms were folded tightly. Penny didn’t say anything; her mother had already seen her throwing the food away, there was no point in lying about it.
Mrs Sloan let out a haggard sigh, marched over to the sink, snatched he pot from Penny’s grasp and slammed it onto the counter.
“Why are you wasting our food, Penelope? Don’t you know that there are people starving all over? Can’t you remember what it was like in the orphanage?”
“…I was three. Years. Old.”
“I will tell you then, how your father and I found you eating what could only be described as gruel!”
“Why is it so noisy in here? What’s going on?”
Mr Sloan stumbled into the kitchen, his eyes bloodshot and baggy with sleep.
“Nothing,” said Penny. “I was just about to leave.”
Mrs Sloan grabbed Penny’s wrist, preventing her from moving.
“I’m not finished yet,” she said. “Do not waste our food, Penelope. You’re not in a position to.”
“Wasting food, was she?” Mr Sloan edged towards the oat-stricken sink as if it was toxic. “It’s never enough for you, is it? You’re already throwing your life away. Do you want to make us starve as well?”
“Sorry,” said Penny, “I’m going to go now.”
“Hold it!” said Mr Sloan. “I have something to tell you.”
Penny turned to face him. Her stomach dropped. Mr Sloan was pinching the bridge of his nose, which only meant one thing: he was about to start a sermon.
“For years, you have polluted this doorstep, this house, with your antics. Constantly reading evil, evil books that ought to be burned and buried and never spoken about again. Your mother and I were once respected members of this community, but you ran our names into the ground. There’s only one thing for it: you’re getting baptised!”
A deafening silence filled the room. For was felt like an age, Penny stared at her parents, and they at her, wondering if the other had gone completely insane.
“Right. Good,” said Penny. “Very good. Baptism. That’s always solved the problems of the world hasn’t it?”
“I … I’ll think about it,” Penny muttered. She turned on her heel and left, but she really had no intention to think about it. As she made her way to the Holy Borders, she felt uneasy. Her father wasn’t going to leave the argument at that – it was almost certain that he would force a definitive answer out of her. And when she gave her answer, no good would come of it.
“My God. What happened to you?”
Alex Whittick, the manager of T. Rex Records, dropped the stack of CDs he had been holding upon seeing Penny’s face. He approached her tentatively and then started prodding her cheeks.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” said Penny. She felt her face grow hot and turned away from him, a part of her dying inside that Alex should see her in such a state. He looked particularly cool today as well: with a newly died pink mohawk and a new piercing across the bridge of his nose.
“I got into some trouble with a girl at the village.”
Alex gave her a dumbfounded expression.
“The Jesus Brigade? Seriously? Never knew they had it in ’em.”
"You'd be surprised."
"What do they have against you anyway?" said Alex.
"I guess they hate goths," said Penny, as she helped him retrieve the CDs from the floor.
"You sure about that?" he said with uncertainty.
Penny paused to watch him. "Why? What are you thinking?" she said.
"You sure it's not a colour thing?" he said, not looking at her.
Penny frowned at him as he hastily gathered the rest of the CDs. She had never given it much thought. Of course, the English countryside was far removed from the diversity of the cities, and when she was much younger, her brown skin had been the focus of much attention and curiosity from the other children, but was used to being the only black person for miles. Even in this town, with Alex and all the passing trade, it was rare to see another person of colour. But she was yet to hear a slur or a disparaging comment made about it, for which she was grateful; she knew other people in her position would not be able to say the same.
"I don't think so," she said finally, as they both got to their feet and began stacking the CDs on the shelf, "it's never come up before I suppose. I mean, I can't rule it out, I'm not stupid."
"Well, be careful anyway," said Alex. He turned to her and smiled before eyeing her injuries approvingly. Penny rolled her eyes and went behind the counter. She watched her boss wistfully as he busied himself about the shop, absently telling her about his crazy Friday night pub crawl. He was a free man, an outsider. He would never know the strains and woes of someone who had lived within the Holy Borders their whole life. She was jealous of him, and wondered what kind of person she would be if she had lived out there, with him. No one would have worried about the books she read, her clothes wouldn’t be a problem. She wouldn’t have been taught to fear everything.
The bell above the shop door rang, and Penny and Alex looked towards it. A familiar platinum blonde cowlick emerged, along with watery eyes that were magnified behind a thick pair of spectacles.
“Peter,” said Penny, edging away from the counter towards him. He winced at her wounds.
“I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “What did you do to her, Penny?”
“What did I to do her?” asked Penny. “You know how Courtney is, Peter...”
She trailed off. He didn’t know. Just like everyone else from Lockview, Peter believed Courtney was an angel.
“Never mind,” she said. “Courtney and I just had a little disagreement, but no one will believe my side of the story.”
“Try me,” said Peter. He leaned against a CD case with genuine sincerity.
“Fine,” said Penny. “I’m the only one who knows this: Courtney’s barking mad. She has anger problems. She’s not who everyone thinks she is, and she’s always mean to me. I mean, okay, yeah, I pick on her too, but she totally deserves it. I wound her up yesterday and she just took it too far. If you hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t have stopped.”
Peter watched Penny intently. With those glasses, it looked slightly scary.
“I believe you,” he said simply. “Courtney’s never been to kind to me, even though I’m two years older than her. I notice her sniggering after me during Sunday school sometimes. I always thought there was something wrong with her. Best tell Rev Joseph.”
“I’m not telling him anything,” said Penny. “The guy hates me. He’s an idiot.”
“Eh! Reverend Joseph is the kindest, most caring person in Lockview – probably the world! Penny, take that back! Take it back now!”
“Bloody hell,” said Alex, who had been watching the pair with mild amusement up to that point, “calm down, mate.”
Peter’s head snapped towards Alex.
“You don’t know Reverend Joseph! He’s the saviour of Lockview! If it wasn’t for him, we’d all be going to hell!”
“And who told you that?” snapped Penny. “Your parents? The elders? What’s Reverend Joseph ever done for you? If you’re just going to parrot everything the adults say I don’t want to hear it.”
Peter staggered back, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I’m on your side,” he said. “Maybe what he says it true, then. No one in their right mind would speak badly of Reverend Joseph.”
“Ha!” said Penny, turning to Alex. “Have you heard, Al? I’m possessed. I’ve got a demon inside me and everything. Watch out, I might just eat the children.”
Alex smirked, but Peter’s face flushed.
“It is not a laughing matter!” he said. “Just watch yourself, Penny. God sees all!”
And with a shake of fury, he burst out of the shop.
Alex doubled over with laughter.
“This is why I love The Jesus Brigade! Always good for a laugh. Geeze, Penny. What on earth are you doing living over there?”
“No idea,” said Penny. She laughed with Alex, but she still felt bad. Peter had, after all, saved her from Courtney’s attack. And who had he beckoned for the rescue? Reverend Joseph. The least she could have done was acted civil, despite his strange feelings for the reverend. It’s not my fault. He asked for it. She thought, and, shaking her head, went back behind the counter to prepare herself for the other customers.
It had been a long day. By the time she walked up the stone path to the back door of the cottage, Penny was sore all over, each step sending a shockwave of pain through her body. Even her swollen face pulsed angrily, and she sighed as she opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. It was very annoying to see her parents sitting there, waiting for her, as if they had been in the same position since the morning. Penny flopped onto the seat opposite them. At last, Mr Sloan’s eyes flickered in her direction.
“Well? Are you getting baptised or not?”
Mr Sloan leapt to his feet and shoved the chair on the floor. Mrs Sloan flinched and covered her ears, looking up at her husband in fear.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said. “I’ve had ENOUGH!”
He starting picking up kitchen utensils at random and throwing them around the room. Pots, pans and knives flew in all directions, leaping to the ceiling as if caught in an explosion.
“ENOUGH! ENOUGH! YEARS OF BEING HUMILIATED, AHSAMED! THIS BEAST, THROWN UPON ME, COMING INTO MY GOD-FEARING HOME WITH … WITH GRIMOIRES AND ENCHANTMENTS AND DEMONS! DEMONS IN MY HOME! I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!”
Penny shot to her feet, breathing so hard even Courtney Cowell would have looked on in admiration.
“You’ve had enough?” she said. “How do you think I feel? You’re my parents; you’re supposed to be on my side! The whole village is looking at me like I’m some sort of freak –”
“You are a freak! It’s your own fault if things happen to you! You’re asking for it! What do you mean by these books, these clothes?”
“Nothing! They’re a part of me now! No one asked you do adopt me anyway. If you can’t be bothered to stick by me then I’m ashamed of both of you as well!”
“You’re ashamed of us are you?” said Mr Sloan, edging towards her. “You say you didn’t ask us to adopt you, Penelope, but that’s only because you can’t remember, you don’t know what a mess that place was. We saved you! We dug deep into our holy hearts and gave you an opportunity at life –”
“Oh please, Richard,” said Penny. “There’s no one else here; you don’t have to sing that stupid song. The only reason why you guys adopted me was because you wanted to put on a show –”
“– stop it.”
“—making yourselves look like great Christians, when really –”
“—you can’t have kids of your own! You’re just a waste of a person! It’s all your fault I’m in this house! I guess God isn’t so great after all—”
He slapped her. Penny staggered back in shock, her eyes wide. She turned her face towards him, to see his eyes brimming with angry tears. Penny had never seen him cry before, and the sight of it had her crashing back down to earth. Had those words really come from her mouth? She touched her fingers to her lips, as if feeling for evidence. After this, she could never think of herself as the victim again.
Mrs Sloan sobbed audibly, but she was the only one making noise. Mr Sloan was still standing with his hand poised outwards, his tears quickly evaporating, and Penny faced him.
Even the colossal din from the door didn’t faze them. The three knocks came again, echoing around the kitchen, and it had to take Mrs Sloan’s flustering towards the door to snap them out of whatever stupor they were in. Mr Sloan straightened up and looked at the door with curiosity, a look which soon turned to absolute relief when he saw who was there. Penny, however, gasped inwardly, her chest vibrating from the force of her heart.
His black hair was out of its usual pony tail and it framed his face like a curtain of snakes. Even in the dim light, the red flash was visible in his eyes, and his cassock wavered in the wind behind him. Reverend Joseph had his hands clasped in front of his chest, as if about to burst into a Christmas carol. His eyes fell on Mrs Sloan, Mr Sloan, and finally rested on Penny, where they flashed again.
“I heard a noise,” he said. “It was disturbing.”
“Oh Reverend Joseph!” said Mrs Sloan. “It’s a nightmare! She’s said such horrible things; we don’t know what to do.”
“I know,” he said, sweeping into the room. “Richard, are you OK?”
“No, I’m not. It’s as you said: she’s not of this world.”
Reverend Joseph tilted his head at Penny and gave a tiny smile.
“Penelope Sloan. You have disturbed the peace of this village. Even Courtney Cowell has been polluted by your … oddities. I do not like disturbance, I do not like fights. This is my village, and Lockview is a place of worship and holiness. You are not holy.”
He was staring at her with such intent that Penny was rendered dumb. It took her quite a while to realise that she was shaking horribly. What could she say to his assessment? Of course she knew she wasn’t holy, but she hadn’t seen much more from her fellow villagers.
“We just had an argument,” she said stiffly. “It has nothing to do with you.”
Mr and Mrs Sloan gasped. It looked as though the latter was ready to faint.
“But it has everything to do with me,” said Reverend Joseph. “As this is my village, I am in charge of all disputes, all conflicts. But isn’t it strange, that we never had any such disturbances until you came into this village? If you stay here any longer, I am afraid Lockview will gain a reputation. You already wander outside the borders; people are probably asking themselves what a person such as yourself is doing with us.” He turned to Mr Sloan. “Richard, I have spoken with God and He is against your decision to keep this child here, but He is willing to forgive. Caroline, God is aware of your suffering and He promises to give you peace of mind.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you, Reverend!”
“What do we do?” said Mr Sloan. He was crouched low, as if ready to get on his knees before the Reverend.
“There is only one thing to do,” he said. “This child has to go back from whence she came.”
“What?” said Penny. “You can’t do this!” she was really shaking now. It was even evident in her voice. “This isn’t your house, you can’t tell me to leave here!”
“He can and he will!” said Mr Sloan. “Penelope! Get out!”
“No!” yelled Penny. She took a step towards him, but Reverend Joseph held out his hand and she stopped instantly.
“I am working on behalf of God, Penelope Sloan. God wants you gone, and I cannot ignore his wishes. London is where you came from, correct? Well, Richard, Caroline, I think this proves my point about cities, about how corrupt they are, about how they are swarming with demons and agents of Satan. This child is proof, proof that we should never associate ourselves with those on the outside.”
“Yes!” whispered Mr and Mrs Sloan.
“Penelope Sloan,” said Reverend Joseph. “Come with me.”
He turned on his heel and left the house. Penny stared after him.
“I’m not going,” she told Mr and Mrs Sloan.
“You are and you will,” said Mr Sloan. “We don’t want you anymore! It was a mistake.”
“… I … I really, really hate you,” by now, tears were streaming down Penny’s face.
“Penelope Sloan …” the Reverend’s voice drifted clear through the dark doorway. Penny took one last scathing look at the Sloans and left.