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'THE PENNY TREE': CHAPTER FIVE

NeXt was happy to print this five-chapter Breakfast Serial story by popular children's author Jack Gantos. The first chapter ran Sept. 29; this is the last chapter.

Everything went downhill fast from there. And the more broke I became, the happier everyone else was.

First, I had to sneak out in the middle of the night and change the pennies to nickels. And of course Pete was thrilled. When he saw them he danced a little dance around the yard as if he had just scored a hat trick. Then he announced that he would wait for them to become dimes.

Once again, I dug into my piggy bank and got dimes and later sneaked out and put them on the tree. The following morning Pete went nuts. He did somersaults across the yard and drooled all over himself.

Then he decided to hold out for quarters. That night, I changed the dimes to quarters. The next day Pete went screaming wildly around the back yard until he was so dizzy he fell over and announced he would wait for 50-cent pieces.

That night I did the changeover. The next day he was bonkers. I tried to get him to pluck the half dollars off the tree, but no, he was holding out for the dollar bills. That night, I taped 10 single dollar bills all over the tree, and when I finished I said to myself, "OK, this madness has got to stop. I started it, so I'll finish it."

I removed a small pair of scissors and cut off all the leaves from the tree and left them scattered under the tiny branches. That should do it, I thought to myself.

The next morning, when Pete's alarm clock rang out, we both got up to water the tree. On the way out of the house he said, "Maybe after the single dollar bills there will be five-dollar bills, then tens, then twenties, then hundreds ..."

I stopped him. "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," I warned him. When we arrived at the tree Pete gasped and dropped to his knees and gathered up the fallen leaves. "It died!" he shouted. "All its leaves fell off."

He began to cry. "But dollar bills are still left on the bare branches," I pointed out. "Why'd it die?" he blubbered. "I loved this tree."

"It's not dead," I said, putting my arm around his shoulders. "It's just that winter is coming. The penny tree has a short growing season. You know, like apples and oranges."

Pete wiped his eyes on his sleeve. Then he thought about what I said. He thought about it if for so long that I knew I was in trouble. "You mean it will return next summer?" he asked. "Yes," I said. "Of course it will."

"That is so cool!" he shouted and threw the leaves into the air. "I'll be rich all over again." He was ripping the dollar bills off the tree as I stood up and slowly walked back to my room. I shook my piggy bank. It was empty.

I better start saving now, I thought, that kid's "generous imagination" is going to cost me every red cent I can get my hands on.

THE END

Jack Gantos, a National Book Award finalist and Newbery Medal honoree, is the author of more than 30 books for children, including the Rotten Ralph picture books, the Joey Pigza books and five "Jack" books. The above story is from "Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of Fifth Grade" published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc. Text copyright 1999 by Jack Gantos. All rights reserved. Check out www.jackgantos.com for more book info.

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