Walking cautiously into the three walled lobby, under the sign that read “Clean Clothes for Dirty Children,” Penelope Sea approached the desk across a vast expanse of shiny marble. It was taller than she was, so to get the attention of the clerk behind it Penelope grabbed the edge of the desk and stood up on her tip-toes to stick her nose over the edge. The effect was to make her look, to the clerk, very much like the Kilroy doodles Penelope’s mother had taught her to draw. Penelope didn’t know this, and the clerk may or may not have made the connection, but that is what she looked like.
“Excuse me please,” began Penelope, “How much do clean clothes cost?” This question sounded very odd to Penelope’s ears but she simply couldn’t think of another way to put it.
“What’s that?” squawked the woman behind the desk. She leaned over to get a better look at Penelope, causing her glasses to slide slowly down her long narrow nose and push her nostrils shut, and her hair—which was piled on the top of her head—to lean, wobbly over her forehead. “Who are you?” she continued, “How did you get in here?”
“Um, I’m Penelope,” Penelope said, “I came in through the –,” and, as she was not quite sure what exactly to call the lack of wall where the door should be, she settled on, “front, I came in through the front. Your sign says ‘clean clothes for dirty children’ and I’m quite dirty. How much do clean clothes cost?”
“Oh, oh well then, yes,” said the lady behind the desk in a puffed up kind of way that made it seem like she was chortling like a bird—a very large bird. “Clean clothes cost you your dirty clothes, and you are, indeed very very dirty, I see,” far from chortling now, these last sentences bounced off the walls and the marble floors in a way that made Penelope jump from the volume.
“Come with me,” the clerk ordered, already walking away towards a door to the right of the desk. Or, more specifically to the right of Penelope as she was standing, facing the desk. Penelope followed.
“I am Ms. Emily Spinster; you may call me Miss Emily,” Miss. Emily, also the front desk clerk, informed Penelope.
Through the door to which Miss. Emily had lead the way, was a large expansive closet. If Penelope were to make a guess, she would’ve said that the closet had to be as big as the lobby was. But Penelope was so awed by the racks and racks of clothes that formed isles through the space and covered the walls, that she didn’t have the wits about her to make that guess.
“I’m pretty sure this will fit you,” Miss. Emily said, “you are such a scrawny little thing…Just go in the changing room and try it on—oh, and here, have a handkerchief, you never know when you might need one.”
Penelope followed the instruction and entered a small pink colored cubicle with a mirror on one wall and a small wooden chair in the corner. The dress that Miss. Emily had given her was a very similar pink color to the walls. Penelope did not like pink all that much, but it was clean, so she tried it on. While the dress did fit, and the sweet clean smell of the fabric was pleasant, it reminded Penelope of a ballerina’s costume because the skirt poofed out so much, which, in her opinion, was an even worse attribute of the dress than its color.
Penelope stuck her head out the door of the changing room cubicle to ask Miss. Emily if there was something else she might try on. But Miss. Emily was not in the closet any longer. Not as far as Penelope could see. Venturing further out to the door of the closet and stuffing the handkerchief Miss. Emily had given her into a pocket in the skirt; Penelope spotted that she had returned to her desk in the lobby.
“Well, come on out and let me look at you,” Miss. Emily’s voice boomed across the floor.
As she walked forward, terribly self-conscious in her pink, ballerina dress, Penelope inquired, “might there be another dress I can fit on?”
“What do you need another dress for? That one fits you fine!” Miss Emily Spinster exclaimed, and continued, “Honestly, you are terribly ungrateful aren’t you, you just run along now!”
Penelope had never been told to ‘just run along now’ before, and it took her quite by surprise, “I think I’d rather just keep my own clothes actually, I’ll just change back.”
“Oh, no you will not,” said Miss Emily as she quickly crossed the space from the desk to the closet door, “there are no refunds here, you just go on now, ungrateful little brat….” And she locked the closet door.
Aghast, Penelope stood with her mouth open and looked very much like a large blonde fish. Before she could say much of anything else she was physically turned around by Miss Emily and shoved across the entire lobby until she was once again standing in the street.
Still extremely dumbstruck by the whole episode, Penelope wasn’t actually sure what to do. She took another look back to see Miss Emily Spinster again seated quietly at her desk. Then she glanced forward to where Tom was still waiting with his taxi, and walked ploddingly across the street with her dress bouncing up and down as she stepped.
“You look just fine now,” Tom said approvingly as Penelope tried to slide once again into the backseat—finding in the process that her ballerina skirt was a little hard to manage without exposing more of her back end than she would like to expose while sliding into a backseat, or sitting down for that matter.
No sooner than she shut the door, the taxi moving once again. It didn’t take much time at all for them to leave the crisscrossed streets of the town Penelope had seen from the backyard of the yellow house on the hill. Each rotation of the tires took Penelope further and further away from the spot in Ocean End where she had first arrived. She looked out the back window of the taxi as she realized this. The thought made her more than a little worried. Penelope was very sure her way back had to be tied to her way here. It would just be harder to get back if she lost the location of that house, she thought.
The packed dirt road the taxi traveled now was flanked on either side by green green grass and old-gnarled and majestic looking trees, the leaves of which seemed to move independently from the wind. That is, they always swayed to the left when the grass was swaying right, or danced about when the breeze was still.
Penelope could see, now, that the hill on which her arrival point sat—where the house, that’s replica was in the attic of her new house, sat—was actually the side of a medium sized looking mountain. In front of the taxi now and on the other side, the left side, in the distance, Penelope could see a foot hill. She guessed it was a foothill anyway—it was nowhere near the size of the mountain, but it was still quite sizeable.
Tom was silent as he drove, and Penelope was silent as she rode. The quietness kept up on her as she watched the passing scenery until she realized how tired she had become. Penelope Sea then, promptly fell asleep.
“BLAST!—of all the luck,” Tom exclaimed, jerking Penelope from her nap so abruptly she had to blink a few times before realizing what he had said.
At this point Penelope realized she had been asleep. Then she realized when she swiveled her head that they were now in another town. A town built with the same strange, dollhouse like houses of which the last town had been built but still very different. Then Penelope realized that their way in the taxi was currently being blocked by enormous birds. “They have to be twice the size of turkeys,” Penelope thought. She looked behind the taxi and saw that, as in the front, the birds were pouring out of side streets and slowing to a standstill around the taxi. Then Penelope looked closer. These birds looked a lot like something she had seen before, maybe in a picture.
“Are those,” Penelope began and paused, looking once more, “Are those dodo birds?”
“Should be called roadblocks….walking around town like idiots until they see something new, so friendly that they just have to plop down next to you without even considering whether you want something plopping there.” Tom mumbled, and then, more clearly, “They won’t be moving for a while, especially not while we’re in the car, I’m afraid we’re stuck…..but it’s not so bad, this here’s the town Twibble lives in—the girl I told you about—we could have tea with her while we wait..”
Tom didn’t wait for a reaction or a response from Penelope; he simply got out of the taxi after he had made his suggestion. Penelope didn’t see anything else for her to do but follow, even though she didn’t really want to do anything but find a way home. Tom seemed to know where she needed to go to get home, so she should make sure not to lose him. And after all, he was giving her a free ride.
Tom waited for her amidst the birds outside the taxi. When Penelope opened her door and stepped out to join him she was taken again by the sheer size of the dodo birds around them. Truthfully she was unnerved and a little frightened. Penelope never discounted a bird’s ability to attack and harm. Her mother had once rescued her from a pursuing mob of hungry geese. Geese were scary, but these birds, theses dodo’s had beaks big enough to snap off Penelope’s whole hand. Tom did not seem wary of the birds though, so Penelope put on a brave face and tried to push her way clear of the pressing and jostling group of feathered bodies.
Finally past the birds, it wasn’t a long walk that took Penelope and Tom to Twibble’s cottage. Just as Tom had said before, there were people all around the garden fence, fans, Penelope supposed. Tom had yanked his cap down over his eyes and grabbed Penelope’s hand as he quickly cut through the crowd. No sooner had they reached the gate than he was recognized and Twibble’s adoring fans began to call for and reach for Tom. A few more steps and they were safely inside the front door which had opened for them right when they needed it to.
Immediately Penelope found herself swept to the side while the door was shut and Tom and a young woman, Penelope supposed to be Twibble, hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks and exchanged the types of how do you does and how have you beens that close friends always exchange upon reunion.
Then, as Penelope knew would happen, Twibble asked Tom politely about his guest and turned her pudgy face and bright sparkling eyes in Penelope’s direction.
“This is Penelope……Sea—Sea did you say?” Tom asked and upon receiving a nod of the head from Penelope, continued. “Penelope Sea, she’s lost.”
“Oh well then,” Twibble smiled a nice small sparkly white teeth smile at Penelope, “You’re in the right place aren’t you? Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, please,” Penelope nodded vigorously as she realized that she was very thirsty and quite a bit hungry indeed.
Twibble lead them both into a large kitchen that was dominated by a brick fireplace on one wall. It was large enough to walk into and suspended above the flames was a tea kettle and some sort of metal soup pot. Penelope looked around and noticed that the fire must be the only way to cook things. There was no stove, no oven. But the fire made the kitchen nice and cozy and threw shadows off of a collection of rug beaters that hung off of hooks on almost all the wall surfaces. The shadows softened when they hit Twibble’s face, almost as if she were in soft focus like a leading lady in an old movie. Everything about Twibble seemed a little soft, maybe even fuzzy, except for the flashing sparkles on her eyes and teeth.
They were seated at a small round table in the corner and Penelope eased into a chair whose cushion was just a little too big—with her back to the darkened corner behind her, so she could gaze at the fire while Tom and Twibble talked. They didn’t seem to mind chattering on about everything they could possibly chatter on about without involving Penelope at all, and, though she tried to pay attention to who cut their flower prices, who’s pig had a new litter and so on, she did not feel guilty when her mind began to wander.
Quietly to herself, Penelope wondered aloud if this is how all of Ocean End was.
“Ocean End,” a hushed and unexpected voice behind Penelope said. So unexpected that Penelope jumped and turned away from Tom and Twibble’s conversation to see to whom it belonged. There in the shadow was a skinny smudge of a girl whose hair and clothes were so dark, Penelope could barely tell her from the surrounding dimly lit corner. “Is a land of things that have been discarded,” the dark girl continued, “everything that people decide they don’t want anymore or actively drive out of the world ends up here. I’ve read all about the world, you know, how people there always buy new clothes and new cars and throw away their old ones, how everyone there used to believe the world was flat, but then replaced the idea with a round world—Ocean End is flat you know—there’s a big serpent keeping the sea creatures from falling off the edge—he wraps all the way around.”
“You know about the world I came from?” Penelope whispered—trying hard not to interrupt the conversation that was continuing over the tea table.
“I read all about it,” she said, “I’m Luella, Twibble’s sister.”
“Where did you get books like that?” asked Penelope in an awed voice.
“From Old Egbert, he has books about everything. He writes them too,” said Luella.
“I’m going to go see Old Egbert,” Penelope confided, “Tom’s taking me there to see if he can tell me how to get back home.”
“Nothing that comes to Ocean End goes back again,” said Luella ominously as she sank back into the shadows of the corner.
“What do you mean?” Penelope pressed, “Of course I can go back…”
But there was no answer from the comer where Luella sat. It was almost as if she had vanished. If Penelope squinted she could still make out the odd triangle shape of Luella’s dress and her angular thin face.
“Luella?” Penelope called softly.
“Oh don’t mind her,” Twibble called, “she’s not very sociable. Here dear, have a handkerchief.” Twibble handed Penelope a handkerchief with the expression like the simple favor would take care of all of life’s woes.
Penelope turned back towards the tea table—more than a little upset by what Luella had said. Twibble caught her eye and flashed her big small toothed sparkling smile at her and Penelope just had to smile back. It was like a contagion. But Penelope was still worried and hoped Luella was wrong. After all, there must be a way for her to get home. No one had discarded or lost her. She just came here after being in the attic. Tom seemed to think she could go home. These are the things Penelope was thinking.
But she couldn’t seem to console herself completely. Penelope began to wonder what happened to the children for whom the blue room in the attic of her new house was built. Did they somehow get ‘lost’ in Ocean End too? Were they forgotten about? Was that why Penelope’s parents hadn’t told her about the room? Would they forget her now?