By John Thomas Tuft

Janey and Peanut snuck down the darkened street, taking care not to step on any cracks lest their mothers suffer irreparable harm to their backs. When you are ten you still don’t want to take any chances on the suspected vagaries of superstition or bring harm to the person who is going to go crazy getting through your looming teenage years. Everyone in town knew their destination as the Castle, a large house made of imported brick with third floor gables and an actual turret in English Tudor style. The imposing structure sat on a lonely corner with large oak trees as a wind break against the stiff breezes off the Ohio River. Janey and Peanut were making this treacherous journey on a dare, as many a childhood adventure has begun.

Word on the street in their neighborhood was that the Patterson family, especially Old Lady Pats, as she was called, kept a gruesome secret somewhere in the Castle: a jar filled with human hearts. Speculation as to how she came to possess this macabre trophy ranged from secret rituals with children who disappeared in the night to robbing graves to hanging out at the hospital in some ghoulish fantasy about telling patients they needed heart transplants and instead keeping them for her collection in the Castle. Word on the street also had it on good authority that at night, if you got real close under the windows of the Castle you could hear the hearts still beating…kathump…kathump…kathump.

Janey and Peanut stopped their nervous chatter as they reached the corner. There it was, now even more imposing in the failing light of the day. “Do you think they keep the hearts up there?” she pointed to the towering turret, a round surface in front of all sharp angles. Peanut scratched his armpits. “Don’t know. Maybe there’s a secret room, somewhere she can carve on her victims, and nobody can hear!” That sent a shiver down both their spines. The wind off the river made the branches of the old oaks scratch against the eaves, setting off a chilling clatter high overhead. The two exchanged looks that were a debate about running, but in the end they both took deep breaths and crouched low. They dodged from tree to tree, keeping one eye on the windows of the turret, while creeping around the porch toward a small door at ground level.

A loud thump above them made them freeze in place. They looked up in time to see the silhouette of Old Lady Pats passing in front of the window, holding what looked like a very large jar. “The hearts!” They shouted in unison. The shadow froze. Both swore they could hear their own hearts pounding. Finally, the shadow moved again, and the intrepid duo turned the doorknob and slipped inside. Slowly they felt their way along the hallway. They froze in place when a crack of light appeared under a door. Just as they started to move again, they heard it. “Kathump, kathump, kathump…” They found each other’s hands in the dark and held on.

As they held their breath, footsteps sounded, approaching the door. They squeezed their hands tighter. The doorknob turned and the hinges creaked as it slowly opened. “Are you here for the hearts?” asked…a sweet voice. Janey and Peanut gasped. They were trapped in Heart Castle! Old Lady Pats stepped into the light and smiled at them. “I’d love to show them to you. I don’t get many visitors.” They looked at each other, back to her, to each other. Shrugged. Too late to go back now. Janey and Peanut went through the door.

Mrs. Patterson led them into her formal sitting room. There were pink cushions on dark wood furniture. A fireplace. Four cats. A pot of tea and fine chinaware.  After they were settled, she said, “Mr. Patterson built this house for me. We were going to have lots of children. They would each have their own rooms. Christmas would be a fine, merry time. A big tree here in the corner. I’d see them off to school. Three girls and three boys, that’s what I wanted.” Janey and Peanut looked around. No toys, old or new. No pictures from school. “We loved each other so much,” she continued, her voice barely a whisper. “But the Good Lord didn’t see fit to bless us with children.”

“We were both disappointed of course, but we still had each other.” She took out a small linen hanky and dabbed at her eyes. “We put our hearts into making this a special place. And every Christmas Mr. Patterson gave me a heart.” She reached around back and pulled out a large jar. Filled with hearts. Of all colors. Small plush hearts. “But what about the sound?” asked Janey. “Yeah, we heard a heart,” said Peanut. Mrs. Patterson reached again and pulled out a small wooden box. She opened the lid. “Kathump, kathump, kathump…” filled the room. “I wanted to keep Mr. Patterson close. Before he passed, I made a recording of his heart. You must think I’m strange. But here in this big old house, it makes me feel like he’s still right here with me. It’s all I have.”

Janey and Peanut didn’t understand, not completely, but they knew now what made Heart Castle so special…and not scary at all.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.