There are plenty of legends about the founding of Lockview Village. Some say that God reserved the place for worthy followers, putting them through trials and only allowing the elite to stay. Others say that the Lockviewians simply appeared, springing up from the ground like burst water mains. A few more tell of a more plausible story: a group of devout worshippers toured the country for a place to settle. The group went to the cities first, but the were horrified by the revelry, so they fled to the countryside in fear and shame. They eventually locked themselves away in the fells of Cumbria, founding Lockview Village, aptly named due of their act of self-exile, and decided never to venture to the outside world again. The modern-day Lockviewians maintained their piety and made sure to keep outside associations to a minimum, waiting for the day when they would be taken to the clouds. Outsiders called Lockview ‘Jesus Village’ and the Lockviewians were fondly named The Bible Brigade, The Holy Rollers, or, more crudely, The Deluded Bunch.
It was home to the saints. The pristine houses, neat lawns and clipped shrubs were testimony to the old adage ‘cleanliness is godliness’. The Lockview Church stood proud at the centre, its spire towering over the rooftops, shining like a beacon for all pilgrims to see. An oak tree border – nicknamed the Holy Borders to outsiders – surrounded it, locking out all the darkness and evil elements of the world. The villagers wore pretty, plain clothes and tread the earth in plimsolls and pumps. Hairstyles were usually well kept and styled with several pins to keep quiffs and buns in place.
They didn’t take well to those who went against the tide, to black sheep, to detractors – which meant they didn’t like Penny Dido Sloan.
She walked down the cobbled street with a dark cloud trailing in her wake. Penny Sloan decked herself in black, from the velvet beret that crowned her head, to her shocking stiletto nails, to the platform New Rock boots on her feet. Her room was black and all her horror novels were encased in black leather. She was an embarrassment to Richard and Caroline Sloan, who had adopted her when she was three years old and living in a decrepit and almost abandoned orphanage in London, but they prayed and hoped that she would change one day.
As she was so immersed in her tenth reading of Dracula, she didn’t see Courtney Cowell until it was too late, by which time she was on her bottom in a puddle, her school bag dropping beside her with a loud thud. Penny narrowed her eyes at the six-foot menace and grabbed her bag before getting to her feet.
“Oops,” said Courtney. “Didn’t see you there.”
“That’s all right,” said Penny. “It’s understandable, really, what with you being so fat and all.”
The smirk slipped from Courtney’s face like water.
“You know, I’m surprised you’re able to joke like that. You weren’t so brave yesterday. Yeah, I saw you,” she added, at Penny’s frown, “running in here from the tree border, cradling all those spell books.”
“They’re not spell books.”
“Sure. We all know you’re just a little witch who was abandoned. You’re such a loser. I’m surprised your parents haven’t taken you back; got a refund. I know I would have.”
She turned on her heel and went back the way she came, walking haughtily along the path towards the bleak schoolhouse. Penny scowled after her. She had been buying more horror novels from the other side of the Holy Borders, and had had to hide them because her parents had forbidden her to read them. She didn’t understand why; they had all been bought with her earnings, ever since her parents had stopped her pocket money a year ago. She now worked at T. Rex Records in the town and was very proud of her independence.
After staring at Courtney’s back for a long time, during which she wished that she really was a witch and knew an incantation to turn Courtney into a toad, she finally made her way to the schoolhouse and slumped into her seat at the back. Her anger started to boil when she saw that Courtney had turfed Gabriel from his seat. Gabriel was Penny’s seating partner.
“Get up,” she said to Courtney, her hands splayed on the desk.
Penny sighed, slammed her bag on the floor and flopped into the seat next to her. There was no where else to sit. She scanned the classroom for a way to get Courtney out of her chair and frowned. There wasn’t much to look at, really. It was a dank and dark room, with cobwebs hanging like vines from the ceiling and gold banners around the walls emblazoned with famous Bible texts. The only saving grace was the window beside her, which presented the view of the village in its entirety. It was a mass of blues and greens; the grass rippled whenever the breeze blew, the purple fells in the distance rose to the sky like slumbering giants and the trees hung low against the windows, spraying passers-by with pollen and silk.
Mrs Cherrie walked into the room with a wide grin, greeted the class, and wrote the date on the wall.
“All rise,” she said.
They rose to their feet and started the morning pledge that all year elevens had to recite: the Beatitudes from Matthew chapter five.
“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs in the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted...’”
Penny stifled a yawn. Her mind went back to happier days, when she liked school and enjoyed Lockview life. Things changed. Maybe it was after she had found out that there was a world outside the Holy Borders? The memories of that day flooded her: she remembered hearing the shouts from the other side of the bushes and trees, seeing the lights and noise of a party. The neighbouring town had been having a festival to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Penny had watched, awe-struck and frightened, to see other children, wearing clothes of all colours of the rainbow and people from different walks of life. It had looked like so much fun that she had crashed through the Borders and disappeared into the town. When she returned to Lockview, she had felt betrayed. Her parents hadn’t told her about this world, about parties. She had barely celebrated her birthday at that point.
After that, she went outside daily, and discovered her love for books. As she got older, her tastes became more refined and she only withdrew the best of horror from the library. That was four years ago. Now, she was an outcast.
“‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth...’”
She noticed that her fellow pupils looked awfully happy to be reciting the pledge this morning. It was Parents’ Evening soon. Good reports meant great references from the teachers, which would be passed onto Reverend Joseph, the leader of the Lockview Church, and the person who most people felt represented God in the village. He visited the school on a regular basis, so the teachers always had ‘emergency cakes’ sitting in a fridge in the staff room for him. Everyone always looked so awestruck whenever he entered a room, but to Penny he was creepy. Maybe it was the horror books that made her feel this way, but she couldn’t help but think that Rev Joseph had a terrifying secret. His face was pale and gaunt. Sometimes, a red flash could be seen in his eyes when the sun hit them, and the way his cassock fanned out behind him as he walked made it look as if a ghost was trailing in his wake. She shuddered at the thought.
“‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled...’”
Penny cleared her throat. She had done it quietly, but the acoustics of the room made it sound as though she had just hacked out a lung. The noise reverberated off the four dark walls and several people turned to glare at her for disturbing the pledge. She made it just in time for:
“‘Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy...’”
The clock seemed to tick-tick-tick in slow motion. Penny didn’t realise she had been slouching, slowly receding into herself until she took a glance at Anna on the other desk beside her, who stood pencil-straight, her chin high pointed towards the ceiling. Penny frowned, observing her classmates once more. Their eyes were wide and shiny, invoking those weird alien children from The Village of the Damned, an old horror film she had watched with her boss at T. Rex Records in town. Their faces remained forward and their bodies still, even Courtney’s usual smirk was gone to be replaced with a maniacal grin.
“‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God...’”
Her legs started to go numb so she shifted from foot to foot to get her circulation going again. She accidentally leaned too far to the left, and ended up brushing against Courtney. In a spark of madness, Penny looked at her to apologise, but soon bit her tongue when she saw the look of pure malice on Courtney’s face, who must have been annoyed at being snapped out of her trance. Penny gave her the middle finger and turned to the front of the class, grinning inwardly at the resounding gasp.
“‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”
Courtney was breathing heavily now. Penny’s heart leapt. Maybe, finally, this would be it? Would this be the day Courtney snapped in front of a notable adult, her reputation forever tainted? And what great timing this would be: two weeks before the great Parents’ Evening. Penny was the only one – apart from Mr and Mrs Cowell – who knew about Courtney’s anger problem. Penny had first seen this when she was six and had been playing in the park. The Cowell parents and Penny’s parents had been immersed in deep conversation, which left Penny and Courtney together. Something happened that had culminated in an argument, in which Courtney yelled so menacingly the Cowells had to run home, dragging their daughter behind them. Mr and Mrs Sloan hadn’t been troubled, but the outburst had astonished Penny to such a degree that she spent the following weeks observing the Cowells, bearing witness to her adversary's red-faced tirades, hearing the shrill, harpy-like screams of obscenities and the ominous twitching that would overcome her body. Afterwards, Mr Cowell would lock his daughter in the attic. Whenever Courtney was absent from school, Penny knew what it meant.
Penny continued leaning leftward, a sneer creeping onto her face in response to Courtney’s panting, haggard breaths. She saw the brute clench her hands into fists, and gave one almighty push towards her.
“‘Blessed are ye, when men persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in –’”
“STOP LEANING ON ME, YOU FREAK!”
The class halted. They all looked at the duo in utter bewilderment. Mrs Cherrie’s lip quivered and she cleared her throat.
Penny beamed. It had happened. She wished she could have taken a picture of the class’s faces.
“Courtney ... outside. Outside now. Cool off,” said Mrs Cherrie.
“Oh, you’ll be sorry,” said Courtney under her breath. Her face was already flushed. Penny looked at the blackboard and acted as if no one had spoken.
“Erm, okay!” said Mrs Cherrie, obviously confused and flustered. “Let’s start again, shall we?”
There was a stifled moan from the congregation before they started the pledge again.
When the bell sounded for the end of the school day, Penny grabbed her bag and walked briskly out of the building. Her adventurous feelings had now subsided, making way for nerves. She had been silly to get Courtney angry. Despite the outburst, the Cowells had a reputation in the village and no one would ever believe that Courtney was a bad kid. If anything, the anger shown earlier had made her more endearing to the rest of the class, who had previously believed that their idol was emotionless. They seemed to think that Penny deserved everything that was thrown at her, and had started to shoot her ugly looks during the day, believing that she must have done something ghastly to make Courtney shout like that.
She went to the only place that gave her peace: the overturned oak tree in the park. Penny squeezed between the two largest roots and sat with her knees tucked into her chest. The day was overcast now. A chill swept across the park, and the grass shuddered ominously. She waited there for a long time, waiting for the silence that meant that everyone had gone home. At last, Penny got to her feet and looked around quickly before making her way home. She had reached the gate when the world turned upside-down. Stars flashed before her eyes and a red angry star bloomed in her peripheral vision. Penny pressed her hand against the side of her head, checking for blood. Luckily, her hand came up dry, but that did little to console her. Turning over onto her bottom, her stomach plummeted upon seeing the livid Courtney Cowell, fists clenched, shoulders hunched.
Penny didn’t have time to escape. Courtney had grabbed her by the collar and started shaking her like a rag doll, until the world started to spin in an ugly green mess. She was punched, kicked, scratched and spat at before being flung onto the floor once again. Penny had never been beaten up before, but she hoped this would be her one and only time. She made attempts to fight back, and managed to throw some heavy punches, but these only made Courtney angrier. When she lifted her head from the grass, she caught sight of something gold in the distance. At first Penny thought it was the sun, and was worried that she had started to hallucinate, but then the object became clear.
A skinny bespectacled boy with platinum blonde hair was staring at her from a tree at the edge of the park. His tartan coat was far too big for him, as evidenced by the long, handless sleeves that flapped miserably at his sides. His eyes were magnified by his glasses, which made him look like a frightened praying mantis. His name was Peter McDonald, and he was the only Lockviewian that approached Penny on a regular basis, even though it was mainly to bring bad messages from her parents. Penny shot him a significant look and he turned on his heel and fled into the bushes. Then Penny closed her eyes.
The kicks stopped abruptly, and Penny heard a squeal from above. She raised her head once again to see the red vanish from Courtney’s cheeks, as if a large vacuum had sucked it away. Penny followed Courtney’s gaze, emitting a whimper once she saw who was there.
Reverend Joseph seemed to float towards them several inches from the ground. His cassock billowed out all around him, as if caught in a gale-force wind. Penny saw the red flash in his eyes again, and his skin looked ten times paler than before. When he was beside them, he peered down his long nose at Penny and gave her an incomprehensible look. Then he turned to Courtney.
“What is this, Courtney Cowell?” he said, his voice cold and mited.
“R-Reverend ... Sir, I didn’t mean...”
Courtney shot Penny a hateful glance. Courtney knew there was nothing to excuse this: she had been caught red handed beating up a defenceless girl who was much smaller than she was.
“She’s a demon, Sir!” she spat, angry tears streaming down her face. “She’s possessed me! That’s what everyone thinks about her, isn’t it? Even you told us once in church school, didn’t you? That Penny Sloan’s possessed by a demon! That she’s evil and practices witchcraft! I was doing everyone a favour – a favour, Sir!”
Reverend Joseph lifted his arms and Courtney flinched. He clutched the sides of her face and stared deep into her eyes.
“You mustn’t fight, Courtney Cowell,” he said. “It displeases me. I cannot have people in Lockview Village acting this way. The air feels cold now. You’ve disturbed God’s presence.”
“I didn’t mean...” Courtney whispered frantically, her eyes as big as saucers.
The Reverend dropped his arms and beckoned for Courtney to follow him out of the park. He didn’t glance in Penny’s direction. It was as if she didn’t exist.
Penny felt hollow. Yes, her body was searing with pain, but there was something else disturbing her. The way Reverend Joseph had looked at her, as if she was something not of this world, and the things that he had said about her to the other young people made her feel so insignificant. She shakily got to her feet and started limping towards the gate. And then the flash of gold appeared again. Penny looked at Peter McDonald, still cowering by the tree. She mouthed thanks at him. He nodded and ran away.
It was a conscious effort on Penny’s part to go through the back door of the cottage; she didn’t want to bump into her parents. It proved useless, however, as she found them around the kitchen table with Mr and Mrs Ludington from next door. They had been in conversation, which stopped abruptly upon her entrance. Everyone exmined her battered and bloody frame.
“Oh dear,” said Mrs Ludington.
“Penelope,” said Mr Sloan, rising from his chair, “what on earth...?”
“I got beat up,” said Penny. She tried to put on a brave face, but it was so puffy she doubted she was convincing anyone.
“You’re a complete menace,” said Mr Sloan. “Can’t you behave yourself? Must you embarrass us further? Look at poor Mary!” he gestured wildly to Mrs Ludington, “she’s put off her scone!”
To emphasize, Mrs Ludington picked the buttered scone up with two fingers and dropped it back onto her plate. It made a tunk sound, as if it was stale – Penny doubted her role in Mrs Ludington’s plight, but she said nothing more about it.
“If you’re going to moan at me, I’ll go,” she said through grated teeth, and burst out of the room. When she was on the other side of the door, she waited and listened for the inevitable rant.
“...I don’t know what we’re going to do with her,” said Mr Sloan. “It looks as though a demon’s been ripped from her body, that’s what it looks like!”
“You don’t think?” said Mrs Sloan fearfully.
“Of course not,” he said. “It will take an age for Penny’s demons to leave her. She keeps rejecting the exorcisms, of course. I suppose she just got into a fight.”
“Well I think it’s appalling,” said Mrs Ludington. “You have done so much for her, Richard – you both have.”
“Exactly!” said Mr Sloan. “We played our religious duties, yet God continues to punish us!”
“He doesn’t punish us,” said Mrs Sloan. “That’s what the devil wants us to think.”
“Yes, I agree,” said Mrs Ludington. “And about that: Richard, I have decided to back you for the village governor. As I look around at the school, the church, I cannot help but think that Lockview is waning to the ways of the world. We need a real holy man guiding us back to Eden. I’m sure Reverend Joseph will back you.”
Mr Ludington coughed his agreement.
As the conversation steered onto politics, and who Mr Sloan’s rivals would be (they all decided Alistair Cowell would be the one to watch), Penny remained still behind the door. It took everything in her being not to march back into the kitchen and smash everything in it, but she was too battered to move around. Instead, she stalked up to her room and buried her head in her pillow. Her eyes fell upon her mountain of fantasy and horror books and she sighed wistfully. Penny finally opened Dracula from her bag and was lost in the pages, allowing herself to escape Lockview once again.