ennyworth Cottage was a dark place of mystery to the townspeople of Heaven’s Door. Behind its lavish, carefully-tended gardens, an unseen phantom lurked. Late at night, passersby could see a flickering shadow in a single lighted window, but no one ever set foot outside or came to the village for a cheery ‘hello’ and coffee at the Lovin’ Cup Cafe. In a town where everyone knew everyone else’s secrets and scandals, they found such an elusive figure unsettling, a source of boundless speculation and curiosity.
Yet no one could accuse the cottage’s owner of disturbing the peace with loud parties, barking dogs, or noisy cars. No, Pennyworth Cottage simply existed, though someone clearly cherished the lush flowers on the front grounds. Old Joe Morris, an expert gardener, once went there to offer his services and expert advice, but was politely turned away by a sad-eyed maid in cap and uniform.
Things might have continued like this indefinitely until one damp, drizzly morning in May that started out like any other day.
Bacon had just begun to sizzle on the grill at the Lovin’ Cup when a figure swathed in a dark cloak and low-brimmed hat pushed slowly through the door, bringing the locals’ chatter to a sudden halt. In the silence, Maggie Hurley’s fork clattered on her plate, making everyone jump.
Pete Anderson, the grill cook, turned and ambled to the counter, wiping his greasy hands on his already-stained apron. “Can I help you?” he asked cheerfully, as if strange hooded folk wandered in every day.
“Maybe,” answered the other in a depleted voice that seemed drained of emotion.
Pete reached for a damp cloth and mopped the counter in lazy circles. “Oh?” Nothing really rattled him, not even a hold-up attempt a few years back by a wild-eyed drug addict packing a Colt .45. Pete had simply knocked the kid flat with the back side of his meaty fist, plucked the gun from the would-be robber’s limp grasp, and sat on him while Maggie Hurley made a frantic dash to the police station. They had to carry the guy out the door and stuff him in the squad car, barely conscious. Word went out among the lowlifes of the town – you didn’t mess with Big Pete.
But nobody quite knew what to make of this almost otherworldly apparition. A couple of farmers who’d been chewing the fat over stock prices got up stealthily and left without paying. Everyone else remained frozen in their seats. The hooded man? woman? child? stood silently, swaying slightly as if barely able to stand.
“Cat got your tongue?” Pete’s gentle patience was beginning to wear thin.
Finally the stranger said, “He’s off his bleedin’ nut, he is.”
“Huh?” Pete blinked confused by the British accent and odd choice of words.
The figure shook its head. “I’ve had enough,” it said, a little louder this time. With trembling hands, the stranger reached up and pulled off the hat. A dark mane of hair tumbled down and revealed a pale, pinched face with large purple bruises on one cheek.
Gasps of horror rippled around the room. Maggie clapped her plump hand to her mouth and retched.
“You’re badly hurt,” said Pete urgently, reaching for the phone on the wall. “Sit down, I’ll have an ambulance here in two minutes tops.”
But the woman shook her head vehemently. “I don’t need a doctor. I just came to — would you hide me?”
“He’s looking for me,” she whispered. “Please, just for today. Then you won’t see me ever again.”
Pete shook his head. “I’ll gladly help you but you really need a doctor for those bruises.”
One of the coffee-swilling locals yelled, “Don’t do it, Pete, you’ll get us all in trouble.”
Pete ignored him and said in a low voice, “Come back here.” He untied his apron and tossed it on the counter. The hooded woman hesitated, and he said impatiently, “Come on now, we haven’t got all day.”
Slowly she edged behind the counter, and everyone could see she was limping badly. Pete shook his head and reached for her arm, supporting her as he led her through the narrow doorway into the kitchen.
A buzz of excitement followed in their wake. People got up, scraping their chairs as if they couldn’t wait to leave. Soon the coffee shop was deserted In the small kitchen, Pete opened the pantry door and gestured. “You can stay in here.”
The woman hesitated, then warily hitched herself into the tiny room, amid buckets of coleslaw and rows of canned vegetables and stew. For the first time, she smiled, revealing several missing teeth. It was a death’s head sort of smile and not at all alluring. Pete gulped, muttered, “You’ll be safe here,” and shut the door behind him.
He leaned against the wall and blew out his breath. As he pondered the bizarre situation, things fell into place. The woman must have come from Pennyworth Cottage, where a cruel husband kept her a virtual prisoner. No wonder nobody recognized her.
Pete decided he needed to call the cops. He went back to the phone and furtively dialed zero. Elsi Frumly’s tinny voice came on at once. “How may I direct your call?”
“Elsie, can you fetch me the cops?
“Oh no! Are you being held up?”
Pete thought, If I did, I sure as hell wouln’t be mumblng into the phone.
“No, there’s a lady here needing to hide from some jerk. She’s pretty beat up. Now hurry!” Without waiting for a reply, he hung up and went back to check on the cloaked damsel in distress.
She was gone. Not a trace of her remained in the crowded pantry. Swearing under his breath, Pete searched the kitchen, opening cupboards as if a full-sized human being could slip inside and hide.
Finally a police siren wailed outside, and two cops burst into the room. They saw the empty seats and exhaled, shaking their heads at each other “Waste of time,” the short one said impatiently. He turned to go.
“Wait! I think I hear someone.” They headed for the back just as Pete emerged, nearly colliding with him.
He shook his head. “Gone.”
“That lady. Came here looking for a place to hide. She was pretty beat up and dressed like Phantom of the Opera.” He felt as if he were slowly coming out of a disjointed dream. “You’d better look for her or next thing you know, there’ll be a body in a ditch.”
“Christ!” said Cleary, the tall cop. They took a few more details from Pete and hastily left, siren screaming.
Alone in the empty cafe, Pete leaned against the counter and put his head in his hands. You didn’t see battered wives in Heaven’s Door – ironic name it seemed now. Or if there were, they were kept under lock and key like this woman. It gave him the shivers now to picture what she was trying to get away from.
The next day it was in the papers, and Pete became a celebrity. It was the last thing he wanted. “I didn’t do a thing,” he kept saying. “She ran away before the cops got here.” Every time he recalled the brief episode, his skin crawled. But people continued to hail him as a hero, even as he tried to rid himself of those haunted dark eyes. The cops hadn’t turned up anyone like her, dead or alive.
radually the fuss died down and everyone but Pete forgot about the incident. Three months passed. One day a couple of kids poking around in the woods stumbled over something that looked like a bundle of rags. They poked at it and a bony hand flopped onto the leaves. Screaming in terror, they ran all the way back to town to report their find.
And Pennyworth Cottage stood vacant, its lush gardens turned to withered twigs and shriveled leaves. No one saw anyone moving out. The empty windows stared out at passersby like hollow eyes, rattling in the March wind like bones.
Pete had started having a shot or two of Jack Daniels when he went home at night. Wracked with guilt over not being able to protect the woman from being murdered, he needed more and more whiskey to drown his pain. People began to notice his glassy eyes and failing memory. He got orders mixed up, serving burnt hamburgers to those who wanted them rare, spaghetti to those who had ordered stew. Business waned, and he felt cursed. He was on the verge of closing up the Lovin’ Cup when one day a plain unmarked envelope appeared in his mailbox. Warily he opened it and found himself looking at an undated check for ten thousand dollars, made out to “Coffee Shop owner” in a shaky hand.
The sudden reversal of fortune left him even more stunned and disorented than the episode with the battered woman. His overtaxed conscience made him feel he would be cashing in on someone else’s misery if he kept the money. Insteady, he gave most of it to the local chapter of the Red Cross. He kept fifteen hundred in a jar for emergencies – what kind, he didn’t know.
Pennyworth Cottage was bought by an older couple named Hartwell. They came from the city looking for a charming, quaint place in which to retire. They knew nothing of the house’s history, and no one was about to tell them. Mrs. Hartwell could be seen toiling in the gardens, and by summer, hints of color and green leaves began to grace the blighted grounds. Mr. Hartwell was an art collecto who enjoyed inviting people in to see his latest Rembrandts and Matisse prints. Gradually, light and laughter filled the once-gloomy halls, and the couple renamed the place “Carpe Diem” – “Seize the Day.” Not being well-versed in Latin, locals tended to call it “Carp House,” to the amusement of the new owners.
Pete could never bring himself to set foot in the rejuvenated place, despite cordial invitations from the Hartwells. He tended to drive two miles out of the way to avoid passing it on the way to work, still seeing those pain-filled eyes that for a fleeting moment had trusted him before fleeing to take their own chances. It was as if Pennyworth Cottage had lodged itself forever in his psyche. He felt possessed by it day and night. Finally he sold the “Lovin’ Cup,” packed up his scant belongings got in his truck and drove away from Heaven’s Door, never to be seen again.He left behind cartons of empty Jack Daniels bottles and a lingering legacy of willingness to help a desperate stranger when no one else would. People hoped that wherever he had gone, he would find the same.
* * * * *
This story is the first in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.