Penelope held her breath as she moved the little flat stones that served as checkers pieces. The turtle creature grunted and hummed through his own moves, his fingers wiggling spastically over the stones before plucking them up and laying them down in their new positions. Penelope thought her heart would stop with every white stone he removed from the board. Penelope was playing the white stones. The turtle creature was playing the black ones. Memories of checker games with her Dad and then with her grandmother kept flashing through her brain even though she was trying so hard to keep her mind on the game. It was just like how they say your life flashes before your eyes when you experience a near death situation.
“You are not from Chartertown up the river,” the creature said, “you have blonde hair. You do not smell of cucumbers,” he took a deep breath through his nostrils. “No.”
Penelope haltingly replied, “no, I’m not from up the river. Chartertown?”
“No,” he breathed again, “ and you are not from down the river, you are not from Isslip. Those from Isslip do not come here.”
“Don’t they?” Penelope ventured, finally capturing another of his checker pieces.
“Why is that?” Penelope suddenly felt as though maintaining the conversation would help her not be eaten somehow. “Do people in Isslip not like people from Chartertown?”
The creature looked sideways at her with slitted eyes and something that might have been a grin, but seemed far too menacing. “They do not come because I will eat them.” He then promptly took advantage of a careless move on Penelope’s part and gathered up two of her pieces.
Penelope’s stomach sank to the ground. She had allowed herself to become distracted from the game and now it seemed as though the creature was winning. She hiccoughed, and frowned hard at the clay-earth checkerboard.
He started to chuckle. The fear it inspired in Penelope clashed against her concentration until all that was left was an angry sort of determination. She wondered if there was any way she could turn the tables.
“How do you know I’m not from Isslip?” she asked, forcing her voice to sound light and friendly.
“People from Isslip do not come here, and they do not look like you,” the creature croaked.
“How do you know I don’t look like someone from Isslip, if they do not come here? You would not have seen them,” Penelope countered, hopping one of her checker pieces over one of his and gathering his from the board.
“You are taunting me. Silly girl. I know everything there is to know about Ocean End,” the creature shook his head as he spoke, and then followed his words with a very bad move indeed.
Penelope told her face to be calm and blank. She heard her breath catch with fear as he chided her and then again with excitement at his mistake. “Like what?” she ventured, “what do you know?”
He grinned his menacing slit eyed grin at her again, “I know, I know, I know,” he chanted, “I know the people from Chartertown smell like cucumbers and send vegetables down the river for me to eat instead of their children, I know the loch ness monster bellows a tune called ‘Come Josephine, in My Flying Machine,’ I know the resting place of every librarian in Ocean End, I know the great serpent’s name is Bill, I know, I know, I know, I know where the pirates make their anchor, I know the mermaids hide their treasure in Abraham’s mouth, I know that Tom the Taxi driver was not always a Taxi driver, I know, I know, I know, I know the source of the great well on top of Cap Mountain, I know what it is that holds this world up, I know the direction it is taking us, I know the name of everyone in Ocean End-”
“But not my name,” Penelope interrupted, making her final move, “nor where I come from.” She picked up his final checker piece. “I won. I must get across the river.”
He looked down, surprised, as if he didn’t realize that through his entire chant, he’d been playing checkers at the same time. He’d been playing checkers very very poorly. “You have won,” the creature said, “I didn’t expect you to. A deal is a deal. We must get you across the river now.”
Penelope nodded gravely, dizzy from her triumph but still feeling the weight of impending death hovering over her. The plan to get her over the river was simply holding on to the creature’s back as he swam across. The idea of grabbing onto a creature that had been intent on eating her gave Penelope more pause than playing checkers with it, but she screwed up her courage and did as she was instructed. The trip across was quick and no sooner, it seemed, did Penelope wrap her fingers around the scaly edge of the turtle like shell than she could almost touch the dry land of the bank on the other side.
“I am hungry,” said the creature as he slowed down.
Penelope felt the jolt of panic shoot through her body, “a deal is a deal.”
“I am taking you across the river. When I am done, I will eat you there,” the creature hissed over the top of the water.
Penelope began to shake in fear and anticipation, looking quickly around her for something or anything she could do to get out of the situation. The water was quickly become shallower – which meant that she could make the rest of the way herself without being swept away. But the creature was so fast, she was sure that swimming would be as fruitless as running had seemed before they began their game of checkers. She could feel heat rise to her face and water push from behind her eyes as she thought that she would die soon in this strange place without ever seeing her parents again. Just then she saw two cucumbers floating towards them on the current. She let go of the scaley edge of the turtle shell and lunged towards them, grabbing in each hand just as the creature’s fingers wrapped tightly in her hair and pulled back.
She turned quickly and shoved one cucumber into the creature’s now open beak. He let go, seemingly surprised and distracted by the food that he immediately started chewing greedily. Penelope floundered up onto the bank and turned to see him finish off the last bit of cucumber and open his beak as if to say something. Before he could, she threw the other cucumber at him. He grabbed for it and hastily began eating. She made a quick and shallow bow to the creature, turned, and ran as fast as she could away.
When her breath burnt in her lungs and she could no longer hear the movement of the water, or see the river at her back, she slowed to a determined walk. She was heading steadily uphill again and the field around her had given way, first to scattered trees that rustled as she passed them, and then to a thicker forest. Just like earlier that day when she had walked down to the town down the hill from the yellow house, she felt as though there were things moving around her and eyes watching her. There was nothing ever there when she turned to look.
Now that she was struggling through varying thicknesses of underbrush and close set trees, the world looked so much darker than it had on the open plain. If she allowed herself to think about it much, Penelope would wholeheartedly admit that she was quite spooked. But she had a mission now: to get home as fast as she could, and she was placing all of her hope in her very special house key. So fixed was she on this idea that she didn’t even realize that the rustling keeping pace with her now was a very real body just about ten feet to her right.
What did startle her out of her reverie was the addition of another very real body rustling the undergrowth that moved in front of her. Their skin was kind of grayish dark brown, they had very large eyes, sharp features, and messy coarse looking black hair. They were slender and were about Penelope’s height, if not a little shorter. They didn’t look as though they came from any world that Penelope was familiar with, and Penelope desperately didn’t want another repeat of her life and death game with the turtle-monkey creature. Should she speak or no? Though they didn’t have any kind of weird characteristic that humans didn’t have, Penelope wasn’t going to assume that talking to them would do her any good. Maybe she was just jumping to conclusions because of her recent experience and the stories of strange creatures she had heard of on this island. She would feel really stupid if she were being rude by not saying something. Although, they weren’t saying anything either.
While Penelope was lost in this train of thought the dark pointy looking boy like thing on her right had advanced until he was close enough to tug on her hair–which he did. “Oww, why’d you do that?” Penelope yowled, quickly paying attention to the situation once more. But the boy-thing didn’t answer and proceeded to take a good close look at Penelope’s hair while he tugged at it more and more. “It doesn’t come off!” Penelope tried her best to push her attacker away, but he seemed so strong. At least, he seemed so strong until she stepped down hard on his foot. Then he leapt away, yelping unintelligibly to his companion. Once they stood side by side they both started picking up and throwing small rocks at Penelope. She tried to shield herself and began running back the way she had come. She didn’t run for long before she felt a rock connect with somewhere on the back of her head and everything went black.