“Hit her?” Penny said it out loud. Her voice went hoarse midway through the last word.
She ran. She ran away from the cracking sound, away from the Really Big Willow, and — most of all — away from the letters carved into the bark. She ran as hard and fast as she could. And it didn’t take all that long before her chest and side really started to hurt.
But Penny wasn’t especially fast, nor particular resilient, so she quickly ran out of energy and had to stop. She had a good idea of where she was when she finally had to stop. She knew she’d run about halfway back to the Yellow House, and she could see morning light coming through the edge of the trees in the distance. Penny bent forward, then squatted, then fell to the ground on her knees, raggedly panting. “I … hate you,” she managed to wheeze, feeling far too exhausted to scream the way she wanted to.
The fingers of her left hand clenched into a fist, and she punched weakly at her left knee twice. Then, still panting, she leaned back until her shoulders touched the ground. As she looked up toward the tops of the trees, she felt the same tingling sensation at the back of her eyes, and her vision was a little blurry. Her world seemed to fade in and out of clarity, and the fact that she was lying down in the dirt couldn’t have mattered less to her in that moment. She just didn’t care. So she just shut her eyes tight, and bit her lip. She felt no better. And she felt like she couldn’t make herself stop breathing fast. Her fingers and toes were also tingling by that point. She was pretty sure she was starting to hyperventilate like the last time. And what bothered her the most in that moment was how little all those feelings bothered her. It hurt, but she felt like she just couldn’t make herself care about the hurt.
And then, she tasted blood. Just a little, but was definitely blood dripping onto her dry tongue. Her lip was bleeding; she could tell. Coppery drops dripped slowly and steadily. She tried to connect the beating of her heart to the droplets of blood, and to the rise and fall of her chest. But the rhythms all seemed different. That bothered Penny. She thought for a moment that maybe that was the secret of what was really wrong with her — that no one part of her kept good time with any other part.
At that thought, Penny couldn’t keep the tears from coming. And she didn’t really want to. So, she started to cry. And that’s when she heard a voice addressing her, from off to her right. “Awww — did Penny hurt herself?”
Penny instantly knew who was talking to her. She opened her eyes and turned her head, confirming the identity of the speaker. It was Gunny Marsh.
Gunny was her age, a chubby boy with a rounded face and pale blue eyes. His white-blond hair was long enough that it hung down to the middle of his back, or sometimes his chest, or sometimes both, like it was at that moment. He was wearing stained, faded blue jeans and an overstretched t-shirt with a picture of a menacing-looking velociraptor skeleton on the front of it. Below that were silver letters spelling the word NEKROZOIK.
“Leave me alone, Gunny,” Penny said, as she lifted herself into an upright position. Gunny was the last person she wanted to talk to at that moment. He had a way of sometimes making her feel kind of uncomfortable around him. And this was one of those times. As Penny sat up, she instinctively crossed her arms over her chest. Sniffling, she rubbed the knuckles of her right hand across her nose to wipe away the snot from when she’d been crying. Then, she tasted another droplet of blood on her tongue and sucked the redness off her lower lip, narrowing her eyes toward Gunny as she did. Her frustration was building. The tingling sensation in her body was fading away by that point, and she felt like she could make the rest of the walk to the Yellow House. To herself, she thought that maybe the crying had helped her stop hyperventilating. She wasn’t sure how all that worked. “Just leave me alone, okay?” she added, for emphasis, after a long silence between the two.
“Nah,” Gunny shoved his hands into the pockets of his grass-stained denim jeans as he took slow, measured steps toward where Penny was sitting on the ground. “Somebody hurt you?” he asked, again sounding utterly bored despite his words.
Gunny was close enough that Penny could smell the filth of Gunny’s blue tennis shoes and their custard-colored laces. She wrinkled her nose and moved to stand, as best she could. Gunny was as close to a neighbor as she had when she stayed at the Yellow House each summer. She was glad, though, that she only ever saw — and smelled — him for three months out of the year. But he wasn’t really all that cruel or nasty to her, or anything.
She actually didn’t mind him, some of the time.
“Nobody hurt me,” Penny assured Gunny.
Gunny waited, making no effort to help her to her feet. “You hurt yourself?” he asked.
“I fell,” Penny said, simply, before spitting onto the ground like she was trying to get dirt out of her mouth. Penny had long ago figured out that the best way to act around Gunny Marsh was to behave as much like a boy as she could manage. So, she forced her arms down to her sides, and then put her own hands into the pockets of her denim skirt, affecting a posture similar to his. She also hoped that the sour face she was making would suggest very strongly to Gunny not to pursue that line of questioning any further, though she knew Gunny wasn’t exactly the most perceptive of boys.
“Yeah,” Gunny said, in bland disbelief. His hands finally withdrew from their pockets. He reached up to pull his hair back behind his shoulders as he considered her. His lip curled into a half-grin, his chin tilting, suddenly looking smug. “Hey — hey – … ” he said, as if trying to get Penny’s attention despite their proximity. “… you didn’t even hear me coming, did you?” His voice became more animated; he was no longer quite so lackadaisical, and it was clear he very much wanted to know the answer to his question. He pointed off toward his left, toward where his muddy old BMX bike was tipped carelessly against a tree. “I got off my bike. Walked it over all slow.” He seemed quite proud of himself. “And you didn’t hear me, did you?”
Penny exhaled through her nose, sucking every so often on her bloody lower lip. She said nothing to him.
Gunny puffed out his chest, gestured with the spread fingers of both hands toward the image on his shirt, the velociraptor skeleton. “I … am a deadly hunter,” he stage-whispered. Then, “Meanwhile, here you are being a stupid girl.”
Somehow, to Penny’s way of thinking, Gunny’s declaration made being a deadly hunter sound as banal as if the boy had told her that he regularly took the house garbage out to the trash can, or that he did the dishes when he was told. “Yeah,” she coughed, trying not to laugh. She was feeling less uncomfortable, mostly because of how ridiculous Gunny sounded to her. She also had to stifle herself because of the way Gunny was puffing out his chest and calling her a stupid girl, because Penny had seen Gunn mistaken for a girl. He was hippy and pudgy and had long hair and his chest kind of stuck out of the saggy t-shirts he always wore. Of course, Penny didn’t hate Gunny, or anything, and she knew it would probably hurt his feelings pretty bad if she said anything about him like that. The thought that she could probably break Gunny down a little if she made fun of him was, on one hand, comforting. But, on the other hand, she knew it wasn’t right to make fun of anyone about being fat or being a boy and looking like a girl.
Nobody spoke for a long moment — and, just like that, Penny was starting to feel uncomfortable again.
Then, “Hey, Penny, uh — you want to go over to the Dirt Clod? I gotta go there and see Mickey and …” He stopped, scuffed his left shoe against the ground. “You wanna come?”
“No.” Penny replied, matter-of-factly.
“Okay,” Gunny said, sounding neither especially relieved nor particularly disappointed. “Whatever, man. That’s okay.” He shrugged, dismissively turning away from Penny. “Girls suck,” he said, shaking his head.
Penny felt a wave of relief wash over her as Gunny began to walk toward his bike. But, just as he got to the tree where it was lying, the relief gave way to a different feeling — a chilly kind of feeling, like the one she had when she was looking out the window that morning. “Hey, Gunny? Did you just find me by accident this morning?”
“What?” he asked, lifting his bike away from the tree and climbing onto the seat. Then he blinked dimly at her a few times before he answered. “No!” He looked as puzzled as Penny was suddenly looking worried. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “I heard you all yelling and everything.”
“You heard me yelling?”
“Yeah.” Gunny shrugged. Then he, too, looked a little puzzled. “But you’re not that hurt,” he observed. “Why were you yelling for help?”