Penelope Sea stood like a statue on the strange porch that was supposed to be the upstairs hallway in her new home. It was not. In fact, it was not the upstairs hallway in her new house so much that Penelope doubted her sanity. She thought she must be dreaming, so she turned back to the attic door and attempted to shatter this dream landscape by going in the attic and then coming back out again. For surely, she thought, if she came back out again, she would see the upstairs hallway of her new house. But when Penelope turned the knob of the door with the pretty green and blue stained glass picture of a dragonfly, it wouldn’t budge. The door was locked.
Panic quickly gripped Penelope by the shoulders and began to shake her ever so slightly. She turned slowly back to the porch and looked around at the night again. She shut her eyes tightly and opened them, but the porch was still there. She shut her eyes again, pinched her arm as hard as she could and then opened them again, but nothing had changed. Penelope was stuck on this strange porch with nothing but crickets and blackness beyond.
It wasn’t until after a few long moments of being terrified that Penelope even remembered her silver colored flashlight. She pulled it out from under her arm and turned it on. As she waved it about in a circle around herself she saw the porch was the entire length of the front wall of a very light and faded yellow house. Down the stairs of the porch, directly in front of Penelope was an overgrown stepping stone walk-way. It lead out into the darkness where the flashlight’s beam of light could not penetrate.
Although Penelope had never fancied herself afraid of the dark, the shock of her new environment kept her from moving very far from the spot where she had first realized she was not where she was supposed to be. Specifically, she was not in the upstairs hallway of her new house. Penelope inched her way over to the rocking chair, and eased herself down into it. She cradled her flashlight in her lap and after a little consideration, she turned it off. Penelope figured that she shouldn’t run down the batteries in case she needed it—there was no telling if, in a place where upstairs hallways could turn into front porches, the darkness of night could last forever. She didn’t really fancy giving away her location to creatures out in the dark from whom she could hide, either. So she sat in the dark, as still as she could, listening to the world around her and waiting for some clue as to how to proceed.
When no sounds but those of crickets and cicadas greeted her ears, Penelope was lulled into a kind of doze. This place sounded just like home. In no time at all, maybe partly because of Penelope’s nodding off, the sky began to lighten and the misty shapes of trees and bushes could be discerned from the darkness. As morning shed more and more light on her surroundings Penelope ventured out of the rocking chair.
Emboldened by the ability to see her surroundings, Penelope Sea almost ran to one end of the porch—the end that had been on her right when she was sitting in the rocking chair staring out into the night. There were trees and if Penelope leaned over the rail and craned her head around the corner she could see the end of the block that was the house. There was a narrow bed of yellowy wildflowers and a grass trail. And at the very farthest point Penelope saw something that looked suspiciously like ocean, or sea, or lake. She couldn’t really be sure.
Then Penelope ran down to the other end of the porch—the side that had been on her left when she was sitting on the rocking chair, waiting for the dark to fade away. On this end, the trees were a little more broken up and a lot further from the house. At the edge of a brilliant, even, blanket of lawn. Again, if Penelope leaned over the rail and craned her neck—she could make out something that looked even more like water than what she had seen on the other side of the house.
Enveloped by the contented, deserted calm of the quiet house and the grey sky, Penelope walked down the porch steps onto the overgrown stone path. She turned to look at the house as she walked backwards down the path until she was far enough away to see the house all the way up to the angles of the roof. There she stopped. It looked exactly like the playhouse that had been in the corner of the blue walled room in the attic of her new house. Right down to the pale yellow shingles that covered it, and the rocking chair on the porch. The one she had dozed in when she was waiting for the dark to fade.
“I wonder,” thought Penelope, “I wonder if I’ve gone all catatonic like those people in psychology books—and I’m really sitting on the attic steps or in bed. Maybe I’m crazy and all this is in my head.” This is what Penelope was thinking. But it was really only a passing thought, as Penelope Sea didn’t really believe that she could possibly go crazy.
Leaving the thought and the overgrown path behind her, Penelope headed toward the glowing green blanket of lawn that wrapped around the other side of the house and continued to the back, where, on the horizon, Penelope could swear she could see the sea, or ocean or lake, she couldn’t quite tell what. Couldn’t quite tell, that is, until she had reached the back of the house and found the ground sloped gently but steadily down through what looked to be a small village, toy-like in the distance, to what definitely looked like an ocean.
She took a slow spin around, again taking in the house and the lawn. Speaking aloud, she said, “I suppose if I want to find out where I am—I should go to a place where there are people to ask.” And so, with a little sigh, Penelope headed down the hill, to the village that looked so small in the distance.
While she walked she had the distinct feeling that she was being watched and that there were things moving along in the grass or behind that tree or that bush. These things seemed to move with Penelope as she negotiated the slope on her way to the village. But when she looked, nothing except the grass hid in the grass, and nothing but the breeze rustled the few trees on her path.
“It must be my imagination,” Penelope thought. Her imagination sometimes made things move at the corners of her eyes. Penelope was sure that this current rustling and moving must be the same. And so she walked on.
As she got closer to the town Penelope noticed that the toy like appearance of the buildings didn’t change as they got closer. When she was up on the hill she had been sure that the distance between her and the brightly colored and perfectly sized and placed buildings of the town caused their dollhouse appearance. But no, even up close the buildings looked like doll-houses, just people-sized, or maybe a little bit smaller. Penelope found it hard to put her finger on exactly what it was that made her think they looked like dollhouses. Maybe it was because, like in a dollhouse, everything was just a little off-sized. For example, the building closest to Penelope, and getting closer with every step, had a chair on the porch that looked just a little too small for a grown-up, and the cushion on it was just a little too big for the chair. The moldings around the windows were just a little too thick and the doors on the buildings were just a little too short.
Quiet enveloped the outer streets where Penelope walked. This discouraged Penelope—how was she supposed to ask where she was if there were no people around to answer? Just as that thought worked its way up to Penelope’s lips and fell off in a low mutter, she noticed some commotion a few narrow, dirt-paved streets over, and further into the town.
No sooner had Penelope made her way down the last narrow dirt paved street before she could see what was going on, she was thrown back into the alley by a passing yellow taxi. Landing squarely on her behind with an “Oof!” Penelope took the second to compose herself that most people need to take when they are stunned, or surprised to the point of temporarily doubting what just happened really just happened. After that second, she picked herself up and brushed in vain at the dark spots of dirt that had just been applied to her clothes.
Cautiously she moved toward the street intersection again. And again she was pushed back. This time by a twittering group of mostly girls rushing in the direction the taxi had just gone. Penelope didn’t need a second to compose herself this time. She was not stunned. Instead she was very near to angry. Penelope didn’t like being dirty and now, after her second dive into the dirt, she was very thoroughly dirty.
She picked herself up again, brushed vigorously and futilely at her clothes and took a deep breath, eyeing the intersection she had been ejected from twice. But before she could attempt another look, the taxi pulled up at the opposite end of the street, the end from which Penelope had come, and beeped as if to get her attention.
Penelope warily walked towards it. As she approached, the driver rolled down his window and beckoned her. “Need a ride?” he asked.
“I don’t know…..I…” Penelope tried to formulate the right way to ask where she was but before she could say anything more coherent he interrupted: “Well, I’ll give you a ride anyway, and you can figure out if you need one while we’re going.”
“But I don’t have any money,” Penelope interjected.
“No matter,” he mumbled as he looked over his shoulder.
The twittering, mostly female, crowd that had run Penelope over had rounded a corner a few blocks away, and were heading jauntily in the direction of Penelope and the yellow taxi.
“But I don’t know you. It’s not right to get in cars with strangers,” Penelope said as if repeating something she’d memorized.
“Do you know all the taxi drivers who have given you a ride?” asked the driver.
“Well,” Penelope thought, “no.”
“Exactly. Now, come on and get in the cab before my fans get here,” urged the taxi driver, while motioning to the twittering, mostly female, crowd that had bowled Penelope over the second time.
“Can I see your taxi driver’s license?”
“Yes, yes,” the driver cut her off and fumbled with papers in his glove compartment. At last he handed a squarish piece of paper, which Penelope took and read.
It said that Tom Parker, and there was a photo, was driver number 85202 and that passengers should take note of the number in case of complaints.
“Good? Now, get in girl!” the driver urged.
Penelope responded immediately to the urgency if only to save herself from being knocked over by the approaching mob again. She hopped in and shut the door as quickly as she could. No sooner had the door shut; the taxi took off, leaving what the taxi-driver called his fans enveloped in a bluish cloud of road dust and exhaust.
“Are they really your fans? Are you famous?” Penelope asked after she had had time to straighten herself in the back seat. She leaned forward to return the license.
“Of course I’m famous! Name’s Tom Parker, the best taxi driver around.” Said the taxi driver.
“It’s very nice to meet you, my name is Penelope Sea. Umm, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you famous for?”
“What do you mean, what am I famous for? I told you!” Tom said, lifting both his square pleasant looking hands off of the wheel to gesture wildly for a moment in an effort to add punctuation, Penelope supposed, to his words. “I am the best taxi driver around.”
“You can’t be famous for being a taxi driver.” Penelope said as though she was very certain of this fact. “Famous people are actors and singers and such.”
“Actors! I say,” exclaimed Tom—this time only using one hand to gesture as he talked, “It’s not very respectable being an actor now is it? Though there is a girl over in Elmsville name Twibble that’s famous for her singing. Her fans won’t let her out of her front door they love her so much; she does most of her singing from her attic window. Me and she have tea together once and awhile. Famous people ought to stick together and all….I ask you, if you’re the best at something why shouldn’t you be famous for it? Though I don’t know what it is you have against taxi driving. Each to his own I guess.”
“I didn’t mean to insult you, honestly,” Penelope said.
“Don’ worry about it miss. But, you know, if I were you, I’d keep my opinions to myself before you know who it is yer talking to. Spoutin off like that’s bound to get you in trouble around here.” Tom warned.
“I’m sure you’re very right,” she said apologetically. “I am very sorry. But, could you tell me where is ‘round here, exactly?”
“Don’t you know here you are?” Tom asked.
“No, I don’t.” Penelope admitted.
“Well, this here’s Ocean End.”
“What’s an Ocean End,” Penelope wondered aloud.
“Here is what it is, ‘s where every path ends in the Ocean.”
“So this is an island.” Penelope figured.
“Of course not!” Tom Parker squawked. “To be an island you’ve got to have something bigger to compare yourself to.”
“Isn’t there though,” Penelope asked, “Something bigger? I didn’t come from here.”
“I suspect you didn’t. But there’s nothing bigger, at least nothing close enough to worry about. We’ve had people—discontents and new folk—try and set out for something they thought was there. Months would go by and eventually they’d just wash up on Ocean End again.” Tom continued, “This here’s where everything that’s been lost ends up.”
“What, like matching socks and car keys and puppies?” Penelope asked.
“No, no. That kind of stuff is being looked for. As long as someone is looking for it, it can’t really be lost. Ocean End’s for all that stuff that people don’t think about. The stuff that people decide they don’t need any more or forget about how to use. When people stop paying attention to it, it ends up here.”
“Like what kind of stuff then?” Penelope asked.
“All the stuff that’s around here,” Tom looked about for an example, “like uh, telegraphs and carrier pigeons. Ah, well you know, everything here’s been lost. It’s only remarkable when there’s a new arrival. Here! The loch ness monster showed up in a lake up the valley and drove the centaur’s out of their clearing. Was a real big upset.
“The loch ness monster isn’t real! And what did you say? There’re centaurs too?.” Penelope said.
“Of course it is girl, real as you and me… you have an awfully bad habit of not believing anything you’re told, you know,” Tom scolded, gently of course.
“O.k., well, then, how do the things that have been lost everywhere else keep from getting lost here?” Penelope asked.
“It’s Ocean End! –kind of hard to get lost when there’s only one place you can end up,” he exclaimed. “Oh, by the way,” Tom continued, “here,” and waved about a handkerchief in Penelope’s face, “you’re a bit mussed, have a handkerchief.”
Tom paused for a moment while he negotiated a very tight turn causing Penelope to slide ungracefully across the back seat.
“Now that all the pleasantries are over…” Tom began again, “Where would you like to go?”
“That’s the problem,” Penelope said as she returned her feet to the floor and her self to the seat of the taxi, “I want to go home, but I don’t know exactly how I got here from there, so I don’t know how to get back—or where to go to start getting back.”
“How is it that you don’t know how you got here?” Tom asked.
In response Penelope related the whole story, how she had been exploring the blue room in the attic and how it turned out to be a nursery with a really remarkable dollhouse. She told him how, when she tried to return to the upstairs hallway in her new house through the door with the blue and green stained glass dragonfly she ended up on a porch and not in the hallway. She related how she had curled up in the rocking chair all night and found, in the morning that the porch belonged to a house that looked just like the remarkable dollhouse in the blue walled nursery in the attic of her new house. Then she told him about walking down the hill and getting to the town and running into only a little after he almost ran into her.
“That’s how,” said Penelope. And Tom Parker let out a low long whistle while he absorbed all that Penelope had told him. He almost looked like he was going to say something, but he remained silent after all. While Tom was remaining silent for the moment some more, Penelope realized that they were stopped. She wasn’t sure when Tom had stopped the taxi; she had been too wrapped up in her story to notice. Now that she did notice, she noticed some very strange things indeed.
To the right of the taxi was a very large official building, with many stone steps up the front and a tall porch roof supported by pillars. There was a shop partway down the street in front of them, painted all in purple with a large billowy purple awning. In front of the shop was an old woman who appeared to be arguing with a fat orange tabby cat.
“Well, I’m pretty sure I need to take you to Old Egbert.”
“Who is old Egbert?” said Penelope.
“Egbert Supranont, the librarian at Ocean End,” Tom said finally, “he knows all there is to know about things here, and quite a bit about things that aren’t.”
“I’ve always had very good relationships with librarians. I’m sure a librarian could at least tell me something about where and why I am here. Shall we go then?” Penelope said while she glanced nervously back to see that the old woman and the tabby cat were progressing closer and closer to the taxi.
“Well, not yet,” Tom said, and gestured to the left side of the cab, “I thought you might want to freshen up.”
And Penelope looked towards where Tom Parker had indicated. There she saw a building that looked like a hotel lobby, but with the front wall and all the doors cut off. It was a large shiny, marble floored place with a desk and pretty pictures on the walls and a lounging area, and no front wall. Penelope could see right into it from the street. It reminded her of dollhouses again—how you can remove the front part of a dollhouse and see into everything. It was just like that, and hanging from the ceiling, about where the front door should be, was an old wood sign that read: CLEAN CLOTHES FOR DIRTY CHILDREN.
“Oh!” Penelope exclaimed as she took a look down at her dirty clothes and blushed. Looking back at Tom she said, “Yes, I suppose I need that.”
So Penelope got out of the taxi and started across the street, having been assured by Tom that he would wait for her and take her to get some answers when she was done changing.