P. Keating (K. Keating teaches English at Baldwin Wallace College, Cleveland, Ohio; his work has been widely published in various well renowned literary journals.)
Through the high grass of the fallow field, two boys,
ages nine and ten, marched in step while whistling a
melody they’d heard over and over again on the radio
that summer. The bright quarter notes sailed toward
the sagging roof of an abandoned barn in the distance
and disappeared through a window near the peak. One
shard of glass dangled from the sill like the rotten
tooth of a jack-o-lantern and glimmered in the late
afternoon sun, momentarily blinding the boys whenever
they looked in that direction. Jimmy, the oldest of
the two, cleared a swath of weeds and wildflowers with
a large stick that swoosh-swooshed through the air,
one wide arc after another. Toby, the younger and more
contemplative one, followed close behind, shooing away
the occasional bee and dragonfly, his knees and shins
crisscrossed with angry scratches crusted over with
blood, his fingers stained with dark juices from having
ventured into a thicket of bushes where he’d picked
wild berries and placed them gently, one by one, into
the small wooden box he now cradled in his arms.
Jimmy said, “Do you suppose she’s still there?”
Toby shot him a look. “Sure she is. Why wouldn’t she
“It isn’t safe, that’s why. Floor’s ready to cave in.
She probably found someplace better. Besides, there’s
coyotes roaming around. They got old lady Sharpe’s poodle.
Ate it up. Least that’s what I heard.”
“Well, Penny will be there. You’ll see.”
Jimmy smirked. “You’re in love.”
They paused at a shallow creek that cut a slow, winding
path through the field. Jimmy threw down his stick and
jumped in. His shoes sank slowly in the thick mud, and
when he tried to scoop up a school of minnows with a
little plastic pale, he stumbled and almost fell face
first into the green, stagnant water. The minnows scattered
in every direction.
“Must be a million of ‘em,” he announced with elation.
Toby hopped across some slick stones with great care,
making sure not to ruin the new shoes his mom bought
him only yesterday. “Any luck?” he asked.
“Sure. Got me a dozen or so.” After checking the pale
for possible leaks, Jimmy climbed onto the bank and
pulled long strings of algae from his ankles.
Toby said, “I don’t know what you think she’s gonna
do with those things.”
“Eat ‘em. Or use ‘em as bait. She can catch some wide-mouth
bass with these. Down by the river.” Jimmy threw a handful
of minnows high into the air, and before long a flock
of crows fluttered out of nowhere, hovering overhead.
“Why don’t you cut it out?” Toby complained. “Things’ll
be crapping on our heads.”
Jimmy waved a hand at him and continued toward the barn.
“Reminds me of dive bombers. Look at those wings. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat!”
The birds squawked at the boys, knowing somehow that
it was a game.
“I said cut it out,” Toby cried.
Jimmy stopped in his tracks and lobbed a minnow at Toby’s
face. It slapped against his neck and fell down the
front of his shirt.
The crows descended. Feathers brushed his skin, a beak
grazed his scalp.
Toby let out a high-pitched shriek. He dashed across
the field, pressing the wooden box close to his chest,
and stumbled into the barn where the dust and gloom
offered the only possible protection from the relentless
onslaught of greedy talons. Desperate to wipe away the
slimy residue, he shook his t-shirt, and when the minnow
flopped to the decaying floorboards he reeled away in
disgust. The crows gathered outside the barn door, singing
and dancing as in a ritual, demanding sustenance from
a god, and he kicked the minnow to them with the toe
of one shoe, watching with unease as they fought over
it in a frenzy of black feathers, their beady black
eyes boring into him, their cries of protest filling
the air. He feared that the crows, unsatisfied with
the scant offering, would suddenly storm the barn and
pick over his body until another fish magically fell
from his shirt, but now, perhaps sensing the game was
over, they raised a final cacophonous chorus and then
vanished like a passing summer storm.
Toby caught his breath, tried to act nonchalant, tried
to reassure himself that nothing scary had happened.
He set the box of berries off to the side and walked
deep into the shadows, listening for the sharp creak
“Hello?” he called out.
He heard only the unceasing drone of a million unseen
crickets and grasshoppers chirping in the meadow. Then
Jimmy rushed into the barn, the pale swinging in his
left hand, water splashing everywhere, the doomed minnows
sloshing around their prison, and in a high-pitched
voice he shouted, “Oh, help me, Penny! Help me! The
birds are eating my eyeballs!” He dropped the pale on
the floor and darted from corner to corner, kicking
up a cloud of dust.
“So where is she?” he asked, heading toward the ladder.
Toby shrugged his shoulders.
“She went away,” Jimmy laughed. “I told you so!”
Toby grew sullen. “She’ll be back. Hey!” Jimmy climbed
the first few rungs of the ladder, and Toby grabbed
his ankles. “Penny doesn’t want us up there.”
“Let go!” Jimmy trashed his legs, knocking Toby in the
chin. “I’m gonna see if she’s in the loft.” He scrambled
up the ladder and disappeared through a small opening
at the top.
Toby wouldn’t follow him, not up there. Penny was sure
to be back at any time, and if she caught them in the
loft she would never let them visit her again. She didn’t
trust the boys, thought they might give away her secret,
but Toby would never tell, never, he was not like the
other kids, not like Jimmy at least, he could keep his
mouth shut. When Jimmy stole that cap gun from the corner
store Toby never breathed a word of it to anyone, not
even to the parish priest during confession, and this
made him the worst kind of sinner; and when Jimmy discovered
the tall stack of dirty magazines stashed away in the
back of his dad’s closet Toby didn’t utter a peep; but
sometimes, when they were sure no one was around, the
boys paged through the magazines and studied the strange
pictures, the pink areolas, the dark triangles of hair,
and Toby pondered why Jimmy was so impressed by these
bodies which seemed so strange, so alien, so wildly
distorted. “Do you think Penny looks like this?” Jimmy
asked, his fingers gliding over the naked bodies. “I
bet she used to look like this but now…”
The beams of the old barn creaked and groaned, and Toby
became distraught. He grabbed the box of berries and
climbed the ladder. In the loft the sunlight was more
diffused, and it took a few seconds for his eyes to
adjust. Gradually, like a curtain rising above a stage,
he saw beyond the swirling dust motes and found Jimmy
callously handling the forbidden objects of Penny’s
secret world, digging through a small Styrofoam cooler,
looking behind a cracked mirror, lifting a tarp heavy
with the stink of mildew, overturning the cardboard
box that had so often served as a makeshift table where
the boys sat cross-legged on the floor and ate lunch
with Penny, hotdogs usually but other delicacies too,
salami and baloney and bananas and whatever else they
managed to pilfer from their cupboards and pantries.
Jimmy knocked over her menagerie of stuffed animals—a
panda bear, a giraffe, a golden retriever, a pig in
a bright blue dress—and he dumped a rusty coffee can
where Penny kept matches and candles. He even lifted
the mattress on the floor. Toby wrinkled his nose. The
mattress, stained and yellow, emitted a high, sour smell
and he wondered if Penny really slept on it. Wasn’t
she afraid of spiders and ants crawling under the sheets
in the middle of the night, afraid of field mice burrowing
into the stuffing?
Toby’s voice wavered. “You shouldn’t be up here,”
Jimmy let out a loud sigh of impatience. “Okay, where’d
she put it?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Toby bit his lip. “She hid it. Someplace safe. So you
wouldn’t fool with it again.” But Toby made the mistake
of shifting his eyes ever so slightly and Jimmy ran
to the spot on the floor. He dropped to his knees, lifted
away the loose plank, and reached a hand inside.
Toby’s cheeks burned with rage. “Penny said…”
“Penny, Penny, Penny.” Jimmy stood up, twirled the gun
on an outstretched finger, a 38-caliber revolver. He
waved it above his head, shouted, “Bang, bang, bang!”
Toby backed away. “People have been killed…”
Jimmy pointed the gun at him. “I’m gonna shoot your
new shoes. Dance, varmint. I said dance!”
At that moment, as if on cue, a tall figure came through
the hole in the floor, a looming silhouette, and Toby
knew before he even peered into the darkness that it
could only be Penny because experience had taught him
over and over again that women had an innate ability
to detect mischief and to materialize out of thin air.
It was their duty in life to put an end to the wild
antics of children. Toby lowered his head, the gesture
of a boy who understood the seriousness of his transgression,
but he raised his eyes just enough to see Penny marching
toward them, her long dark hair dripping, her t-shirt
clinging to her belly, and for the briefest moment he
was reminded of those mysterious women in the magazines.
“What’s wrong with you all?” she snapped. “You ain’t
supposed to be up here.” Toby recognized the tone, thought
of his mother.
Jimmy scratched the dust with the heel of one mud-encrusted
shoe and mumbled, “It was his fault.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Penny yanked the gun out of his hand.
“You two sound like a couple of hyenas.”
Jimmy massaged his finger. “You’re the one who sounds
She sneered. “What d’ya mean?”
“You say words different. Different from me and Toby.”
“That’s ‘cause I ain’t from around here.”
“Where you from?”
“You’re nosy, you know that?”
“Where, where, where!”
“I ain’t gonna say. You never heard of it anyway. You
ain’t never been there.”
“Have to! I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to Florida
and South Carolina and Chicago. I’ve been to Kelly’s
Island. That’s in the middle of Lake Erie. Saw a water
snake poke its head out of the waves. A man swimming
nearby never even noticed it. Coulda bit him in the
ass it was so close.”
“Watch your mouth. Didn’t no one teach you manners?”
“How long you gonna stay here?”
“What do you care?”
“I’m just asking. It’s almost September. Cold weather’ll
be here pretty soon. You can’t stay here forever.” He
pointed to the large gaps between the planks of wood.
“It’s gonna be warm for a long time yet,” Penny said.
“Sides, I got me some blankets and a good heavy wool
“I bet you shot and killed someone. That’s why you’re
here. You’re on the run from the law.”
Penny snorted. “I never shot no one.”
“You killed someone!” Toby jeered. “I can see it in
your eyes. You’ve got the eyes of a killer.”
Penny smirked. “You watch too much TV. If I was your
ma, I’d swat you for watchin’ too much TV.”
“What’s wrong with TV?”
“TV makes people stupid. Makes ‘em think and say stupid
things. No one’s got the eyes of a killer. You can’t
tell a killer from a regular person. No one can. That’s
why we got judges and juries. They got to hear the whole
story and think it over.”
“You got the evil eye!” Jimmy cried with delight and
ran in circles.
“Why can’t you be more like your friend…”
“Evil eye! Evil eye!”
“…he’s nice and quiet. Toby, why are you so quiet?”
Jimmy shouted, “He’s in love with you, that’s why!”
“Shut up,” Toby mumbled.
“I said, shut up.”
“…he’s tongue tied. I heard those words on TV. See,
I learn lots of good stuff on TV. He’s head over heels—”
Toby lunged. He grabbed Jimmy by the back of the neck
and wrestled him to the floor. The boys scratched, pinched,
bit each other, and Penny cried, “Stop! Stop! Someone
Jimmy finally wrenched himself free of Toby’s flailing
arms and with tears streaming down his cheeks and blood
dripping from one corner of his mouth he snatched the
gun out of Penny’s hand.
“I’m gonna blow your head off!” he screamed at Toby.
“I’m gonna kill you.” He turned to Penny. “I hate you!
You’re fat. Getting fatter by the day. I’m gonna tell
everyone that you’ve been living up here.” Then he threw
the gun to the floor and clamored down the ladder.
Toby went to the window and watched him race across
the open field to the new subdivision in the distance.
The houses, great brick Tudors and colonials with rooflines
that rose above the few remaining treetops, seemed to
expand and grow in the shimmering August heat and push
their way into the field. From up here Toby could make
out his own house and Jimmy’s next door, could see the
pools and tree houses and swing sets in both yards,
could see the balconies and brick patios and iron fences.
He hoped Jimmy would run through the quiet streets,
wailing and blubbering, at last revealing to the entire
neighborhood what an obnoxious brat he was. A smile
of triumph crossed Toby’s lips. He turned around, half
expecting to see Penny beaming with pride, ready to
hug him and cover him with kisses, her hero, but instead
he found her curled on the mattress, whimpering, sobbing,
and this confused him terribly, so much so that he nearly
burst into tears himself.
He retrieved the wooden box filled with berries and
placed it gently beside the mattress. He couldn’t think
of anything else to do.
“Penny,” he whispered, “I brought these for you.”
She lifted her face from the pillow, her eyes red and
puffy. “What you got there?” Without looking to see
what was inside she plunged her fingers into the box
and crammed a handful of berries into her mouth. She
didn’t even bother to chew, just swallowed them whole.
Then she wiped her lips on the pillowcase, which left
a bright purple smudge, and pointed to a bookshelf in
the far corner crowded with the artifacts of her solitary
existence—salt and pepper and baking soda and lard,
a stainless steel bowl, a wooden spoon, a plastic spatula.
“I got some jars of flour and sugar,” she said, “and
in the cooler I have a little butter. Let’s bake a pie.”
Toby smiled. “Okay!”
They gathered the necessary utensils and ingredients
and went to work. Toby helped knead and roll the dough
and then stirred the berries and sugar together. Penny
placed the dough in the dish, neatly tearing away the
excess crust. Then he poured the heady mixture into
the piecrust and she draped a lumpy sheet of dough on
top. Their concoction, while not exactly picture perfect,
resembled a pie to a certain extent, one that was perhaps
a bit flattened in the middle and oozing from the sides,
but a pie nevertheless, and they took it outside where
he gathered sticks from the field, always keeping a
watchful eye out for crows, and brought the small bundle
back to the makeshift hearth she’d built behind the
barn. The hearth, really not much more than a vaguely
geometric jumble of broken bricks, reminded him of pictures
he’d seen in history class, and as they listened to
the crackle of fire and waited for the pie to bake,
he described these pictures to her, the ruins of ancient
Rome, aqueducts, gladiatorial arenas, the ghostly streets
She looked at him cockeyed. “How come you know that
He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what we learned in
“Teachers fill your head with useless things. What good
does any of it do? How does it help you in this world?”
She folded her arms. “I dropped out last year. I learn
more stuff livin’ on my own.”
“School starts next week,” he told her. “I’ll be in
“Wait till you get to high school. Then you’ll see.
My teachers didn’t give a damn about nothin’ ‘cept collectin’
a paycheck. That’s what I learned, that school is really
just a way for a bunch of stupid adults to make ends
meet because they ain’t smart enough to make a livin’
any other way. You’d think one teacher would have the
guts to say, ‘Kids, let’s face facts. I gotta make a
livin’ and so here I am. Don’t expect much from me and
I won’t expect much from you.’ In the end that’s what
it all comes down to anyway. It’s just that no one ever
tells the truth.”
Toby nodded his head, not exactly sure what she was
talking about, and looked at the high cirrus clouds,
all purple and pink with the soft hues of sunset, and
he knew that his parents would be looking for him, would
be getting worried because his curfew was eight o’clock,
but he wasn’t about to leave now, not with that sweet
smell wafting through the air. When the pie was finished
baking, he followed Penny up to the loft where she lit
some candles and they say around the cardboard box.
The crust was blackened and the berries were syrupy
with sugar, but this did not deter the pair from gorging
themselves on slice after slice.
“It’s good,” he said, his lips purple and coated with
crumbs. “But I think I should go home now.”
“You’re right. Just listen to them crickets.” She glanced
out the window. “But you know…it might be too dark to
leave. What if you got lost? There’s coyotes.”
Toby shifted uncomfortably, ran one finger through the
remnants in the pie dish.
“Maybe you better just stay here tonight,” she suggested.
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“Well…I’d have to ask my mom.”
Penny sniffed. “Your mom? Why, she’s just a…”
He looked at her. “What?”
“Well, I don’t know about your folks. Maybe they’re
different. But I doubt it.” A gentle breeze came through
the open window and the candles flickered. She slid
beside him and squeezed his arm. “Hey, we can stay up
all night tellin’ ghost stories!”
Toby squirmed. “I don’t like ghost stories.”
“Oh, everyone likes scary stories.”
“But I’ll get in trouble.”
“No, you won’t. Believe me.”
As darkness seeped through the cracks of the barn, Toby
and Penny huddled together on the old mattress. Through
the window they could see the moon, a far-flung silver
crescent, as it sailed slowly across the horizon, a
little boat adrift in a purple sea, and Penny remarked,
“The sky looks just like a big pie, huh, a million berries
smeared all over the roof of the world. Too bad the
world ain’t so sweet. Someone’s always stuck with the
burnt crust, forced to eat charcoal every day.”
“Yeah,” said Toby. “The crust was burned pretty bad.”
“You never get used to it, not really, not when you
see that there’s somethin’ better out there, that other
people get a taste of the good stuff. But they keep
it all to themselves, stuff their faces with it. They
don’t know when they’ve had too much, that’s the problem.
It makes ‘em sick, makes the whole society sick.”
Toby nodded his head. He knew exactly what she meant.
The pie was making him sick and he rubbed his belly.
“People want everything. More and more, that’s how they
think. And so they take things from you. You gotta protect
what little you have. That’s why I keep this nearby.”
She reached for the gun beside the mattress and pointed
it toward the ladder. They sat in silence for a moment
and listened to the dissonant music of the barn, the
groan and rattle of warped and rotting planks in the
gentle evening air. “My step dad, he was like that.
Couldn’t stop himself even after he had his fill. Sometimes,
late at night, I can hear him, almost like in a dream,
hear him comin’ through the field and pacin’ back and
forth outside the barn. Then the ladder starts to creak
and he climbs through the hole in the floor and sits
on the edge of the mattress. He never says nothin’,
not a single word, but he looks at me and makes funny
sounds. And then he moves his hand toward me and I can
smell cigarettes on his fingertips, whiskey on his breath.
Toby saw the plaintive, faraway look in her dark eyes,
and suddenly he wanted to escape, to run back home,
to hide under the sheets of his warm bed. “Penny, it’s
getting so late,” he said, a whimper, and she cooed
softly into his ear, said, “Hush now,” stroked his head,
held him tight, said not to worry, mommy is here, mommy
is here, and he knew there was only one thing left to
say, one thing that might make her happy, but even he
sensed the absurdity of the idea, the childishness of
it, knew it for what it was, a cliché, something he’d
heard on TV or in a movie or read in a book, but still
he said it: “Penny, maybe you could come home with me,
live at my house. I have a bunk bed. You can even sleep
on the top bunk, I don’t mind.”
“That’s not how it works, that’s not how the world operates.
It’s a food chain. Ever learn about that in school?
People feed on you. Constantly. Your parents, they’ll
feed on me, too. They already do. I’m the creature that
feeds their fears. They don’t want a parasite in their
house. I’m the slimy thing that’s gotta live beneath
the surface and hide in the shadows or face the consequences.
No one wants to see me.”
“No, Penny, my parents aren’t like that.”
“Sure they are.”
“Of course they are.”
“I’m telling you. They’re not like that.”
“Oh, you’re just a stupid kid.”
“Maybe you’re the stupid one!”
She slapped his face with enough force to knock him
off the mattress. He touched his cheek, felt almost
nauseous, and as he crawled away from her she smiled,
a toothy grin of contempt, a smirk of deep satisfaction.
Toby shuddered, his heart breaking. He scrambled down
the ladder, never looking back, and Penny called out
in a voice that was shrill and derisive, “Go home, go
home to your mommy. But you’ll see, one day you’ll see.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. He wanted to kill her,
he wanted her to die, and as he pushed his way through
the high grass he wished for the flapping of wings and
a million phantom shapes hovering in the poisonous twilight,
a black swirl of crows surrounding the windowpane, unleashing
a torrent of deafening squawks, drowning out Penny’s
cries of alarm. And then, horribly, he wished for the
howl of famished coyotes, a pack of them closing in
on the barn door, tongues dripping, eager to pounce,
to tear her flesh, to crouch on her belly and feast
on her guts all stuffed with delicious wild berries.
When he got home, breathless and quivering, it was nine
o’clock. His mother grabbed him by the shoulders, shook
him, demanded to know where he’d been, but now he pondered
the matter carefully. It would be so easy to say that
he’d been lost, lost in the woods. Because if he revealed
the truth, if he told about the barn and the teenage
girl living there, her hair matted with filth, her belly
swollen, sleeping on a thin mattress infested with creeping
things, his mother would gasp and cringe with detestation
and without even considering the matter she would go
to the phone and make the necessary call, and soon the
police would raid the barn where Penny would be waiting
for them, the gun aimed at the hole in the floor. He
could see it all so vividly; Penny prepared to fight,
refusing to be dragged off in the darkness, never to
be seen again. And although it caused his mother to
shake him more violently, Toby couldn’t suppress the
ominous smile spreading across his face.