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Our old house loomed almost mansion-like while Sheriff Buck led Charlotte and me down the overgrown front path. It struck me as funny, considering how small it had come to feel over the past few years, but I couldn’t quite seem to laugh.
Father opened the door before we even reached the porch. I suppose I should’ve appreciated that, as so few things could pull him away from staring at our Mother’s portrait. And I know the Sheriff appreciated it, as it meant he had no need to knock. He stayed on the path, a good five yards from the front steps, watching as my sister and I slunk past Father back inside.
Charlotte squeezed my hand, hard. For a such a delicate little girl, she was surprisingly strong. I wanted to look over into her big, emerald eyes and promise her that everything would be alright, but somehow I couldn’t manage to lift my head. Father never spoke much anymore, but this silence was different. It seethed.
“Charlotte’s nearly thirteen, and she’s not spoken to a soul besides me and you in almost two years,” I said, more to talk than to explain. I heard my voice rising, though I directed my words squarely toward my feet. “I’m older, and I can still remember what the world is like, but if I don’t introduce her to life outside of this house soon, the world won’t even take her when you finally let us go.”
The silence softened. I could feel right away that Father was getting ready to speak, even though it still took him the better part of a minute. “Home is where the heart is, girls. Like to as you might, you can’t run away from your heart. We can never leave here, makes no difference if the world will take us or not. I hope you understand, Bette, I’ll have to start locking you in at night, too, until I can trust you again.”
He walked back over to his chair and sat down, and my head finally lifted. I made no effort to hide that I was glaring at him, for I knew he wouldn’t notice. He resumed his dull-eyed stare through Mother’s portrait, the portrait he moved down here the day he said she’d gone away. I followed his gaze as far as the painting, which I studied for the first time in years. I suppose it captured aspects of Mother–the Sun’s lingering touch on her skin and hair, the way she still smiled when trying to look serious–but I never saw her in it. It was near life-sized, but far from life-like. But that wasn’t why I hated it.
“Let’s go wash up for dinner, Charlotte,” I said. She squeezed my hand again. I still couldn’t bring myself to look at her, not after I’d promised I’d get her out. I had been so sure if we could just get to Uncle Jack’s house, we’d be free. But when we’d gotten there, it was clear as day that house hadn’t been Uncle Jack’s–or anyone else’s–for quite some time. I should’ve known he wouldn’t have stopped visiting if he still lived but a mile away, even if everyone else did. I should’ve known getting away wasn’t that easy.
“Charlotte,” I whispered as we reached the top of the stairs, “we’re leaving again tonight. This time, though, we’re not the ones the Sheriff will hunt down.”
“Who will he hunt down, then, Bette?” Charlotte asked.
I didn’t reply.
Father locked my bedroom door that night, but not my window. He never fully thought things through anymore, not with his mind always on that portrait. I crept out on the roof, then through the window to Mother’s sewing room, and from there into the hallway. Blind in the dark, I navigated by memory–not a difficult task in a house where nothing could be moved from where Mother used to keep it. I counted my steps until I reached Charlotte’s door. I unlocked it and called her, quiet as I could, to come out.
By the dim light from her window, she looked like a little fawn, rising unsteadily to her sleepy feet. She asked no questions as I led her into the sewing room, and when I told her to come running downstairs if I called to her, all she said was, “I will, Bette.”
I headed back into the hall, shutting the sewing room door behind me and even stopping to re-lock the door to Charlotte’s bedroom. Should Father awaken and wander the halls, all would appear as he thought it should.
I inched my way down the stairs on my backside, careful not to make them creak. Reaching the bottom, I moved to the portrait with a good deal less caution–my nerves were getting the better of me. I forced myself to breathe before I lifted Mother’s still form off the wall, and I was fortunate to have gotten that breathing out of the way. Years of suspicions and nightmares prepared me for the sight of the hole in the wall, but not for the smell of it.
Stepping over to the buffet to light a candle gave me a needed respite, but all too soon I was back before the hole, this time confronted with a sight no nightmare could match. I couldn’t recognize what was left of my Mother, but even in the faint candlelight I knew her yellow dress. And Uncle Jack’s coat.
The candle dropped to the floor, the flame blowing out en route, but I could still see them, even after I made it back upstairs. I couldn’t tell whether my footsteps were quiet, or how long I stood inside that sewing room before I realized Charlotte wasn’t in there. Once I realized it, though, my fear for my sister pushed all other terrors aside. I must’ve made it down the hall to Father’s room faster than the sound of my screams.
I wasn’t fast enough, though.
They were both there, neither one making a noise. Father lay still on the bed, and Charlotte stood beside him, holding Mother’s sewing scissors. The moonlight came in through the window, making her blood-flecked face glow. She smiled up at me, affectionately.
“Are we leaving, now, Bette?”
A boy dropped our groceries on the porch stairs, grabbed the money I’d left out for him, and scampered away down that overgrown path. I thought idly of following him as I brushed Charlotte’s soft hair.
“Turn around, Charlotte,” I said, when I finished. “Let me take a good look at you.”
She obliged, with a smile. I couldn’t help but smile back. She looked so young and innocent, even with her graying hair.
“Where the Heart Is,” by Karl Lykken, was first published on November 12, 2020 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe: Volume 1, Issue 2.
Interview with Karl Lykken, Author of “Where the Heart Is”
What inspired your story?
Most of my stories have male protagonists, and if any sort of relationship plays an important role in the story, that relationship is generally either adversarial or romantic in nature. So, I wanted to change things up and focus on a strong, non-romantic bond between a female protagonist and someone else, which led me to the idea of writing about two sisters. From there, it was just a matter of kicking around ideas until I landed on the premise that became “Where the Heart Is.”
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor. Not only is the writing excellent, making it a worthwhile read from a pure entertainment standpoint, but it is also provides insights that are truly better understood through actually reading the story than by just having the themes and messages explained to you.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a little kid. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at it since then, but my stories probably lost a little something when I stopped switching the color crayon I was using depending on the mood I wanted to convey.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
The danger of having so much of our data collected and analyzed by advertising-focused companies (ie companies seeking to make us buy or do things that we would not otherwise buy or do) is probably my go-to theme (though if you can find any trace of that theme in this particular story, you’re probably reading too far into things).
Do you have a favorite writing space or a place you go to for inspiration?
I try to change things up instead of going to the same place for inspiration. A new and different place breeds new and different ideas.
What are you working on now?
I’ve recently gotten into writing scifaiku (science fiction haiku) as a fun way to practice making every word count.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?