The Haunting Interview

A Short Story by Donnie Stevens


In the two-hour drive from Richmond, Virginia, Rita Haack cruised her sporty, 2002 baby blue, convertible Porsche along the winding two-lane, Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway Road. Driving through Floyd County this early October afternoon, she glanced at her clock, 2:37. Already late and not having Bluetooth, she picked up her phone and instructed Siri to speed dial the lady scheduled to give her a tour of the Quesenberry house built in 1890 in Meadows of Dan, a suburb of Patrick County. Siri not responding, she glanced at her phone. No bars.

With a frustrated sigh and seeing no traffic behind her and with a clear stretch of highway ahead as far as she could see, she pressed the pedal to speed up. Sixty, seventy, eighty-five. Suddenly two fawns started across the lanes. She pumped the brakes, immediately sending the Porsche into a sideways spin. Jerking the steering wheel back and forth to regain control, she finally eased to the side of the road, her heart pounding, and her hands and knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel. After taking a couple minutes to regain her composure and quit shaking, she pulled back on the road.

Thirty minutes later, Rita, dressed in a dark blue, Brigitte Brianna swing dress, pushed the rusting, black wrought iron gate open. Glad she’d worn her sneakers, she strolled down the narrow-graveled driveway, lined with dogwoods and blooming crepe myrtles growing alongside a crumbling split rail fence. A short distance, after rounding the overgrown hollies, her eyes widened at the huge two-story, white weather boarded house with its large front porch extending the entire structure. The weather beaten, plank porch encased with white railing between the four columns, towered to the second-story roof line.

Rita surmised that the lady she’d planned to meet must’ve come and left when she didn’t arrive on time. Letting go a disappointing huff, she decided to make the best of the situation and have a look around to gather as much information as she could on her own. The history of this 136-year-old house or her questions could be dealt with over a telephone call easy enough. After all, it wasn’t only the Quesenberry estate history or its historic contribution to Patrick County that interested her. It was another opportunity to spin yet, another yarn about this old house in Meadows of Dan being haunted for her monthly news column.

Out of college three years ago with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Rita set out on her own to write a newsworthy column about haunted houses and mansions in Virginia. Never believing in such tales, she’d read about or seen enough “Walking Dead” or “Zombie” movies as a teenager to know what she had to write to perk a reader’s attention. And what better place than Virginia with its history surrounding hundreds of houses built over three centuries. Some now well-preserved museums, bed and breakfast inns, business dwellings or landmarks, and many forgotten and slowly crumbling from lack of upkeep or resources to preserve them, as was the case of the Quesenberry estate. Her column successful, and now in syndication with multiple newspapers and web sites, she traveled this great Commonwealth, searching for myths and mysteries, and hauntings of old houses to appease her ghost-seeking readers.

Since most homes were available for research through archived records, conversations with family relatives, or tales from local elders, she concocted a haunted house story easy enough. But this Quesenberry estate captivating her interest recently, was especially intriguing. A sudden cool breeze lifted strands of her strawberry blonde hair as she strolled the path of gray, flat river rocks, lying between overgrown boxwoods laden with spider webs, and up a flight of cemented flat rocks ending to the big house. The plank porch squeaking under her weight, she marveled at the 19th century sculpture on the porch railing encasing the two large pane windows and twin, wooden door entrances. A flurry of sadness engulfed her inwards knowing this 200-acre estate was doomed because no family or kin were able to come forward to preserve it.

She walked over to peek in the windows, but with the inside curtains drawn, she couldn’t see. Then she walked over to the door to see if it was open, and out of habit, she knocked.

“May I help you?”

“Oh!” Startled, Rita spun around, clutching her hands to her chest. A tall, lanky, gray-haired man stood, clutching a large brim gray hat, black trousers held up by suspenders, and wearing an out-of-date pencil striped, gray vest over his white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His eyes squinting from a face exposed from too much sun, stared up from the sidewalk.

She caught her breath and spoke “I’m sorry. You startled me.”

“Didn’t mean to Ma’am.” He nodded. “Thought maybe you might be one of those vagabonds passing through. I see em’ around these parts occasionally.”

“Oh.no.” She waved her hand out. “I was supposed to meet someone here earlier to get a tour and the history of this estate for my monthly news column. I arrived late, so I must’ve missed her. I thought it would be no harm in taking a peek inside if the door was unlocked.”

“I’ve been here all day, Ma’am. Haven’t seen a soul. Maybe she’s a mite late too.”

“Then I’ll just wait for her.” She started to walk off the porch.

The elderly man reached up and pinched his stubby beard. “News lady, huh.” He waved his hand. “No need for that, Ma’am. We’ve been expecting you to find your way here eventually. If you’d like to take a look inside, I’ll let you in. The Mrs. won’t mind, I reckon.

As he slowly made his way up the steps and onto the porch past her, something about his timeworn, antiquated appearance unnerved her. She uttered. “I don’t want to put you out.” When he opened the unlocked door, the creaking hinges reminded her of a scene from a horror movie. But the man looking harmless enough, at least eighty to ninety years old, she trusted her instinct and walked inside. He followed.

A room of bright colors opened to her. A huge floral upholstered sofa with two wing-back burgundy chairs sat on a carpet of flowering colors of reds, yellows, and blues, accentuated with an indigo, red border. Flowering curtains of similar colors hung from banisters above the window to the floor. A large rock fireplace filled the right sidewall with a half log mantle over the hearth. Two large flowering vases sat on each side of the mantle beside a large, centered picture covered with a white sheet. Antique cabinets, servers, and lamp stands filled the room. Enthralled at the beauty trapped inside these walls, Rita finally spoke.

“Someone must’ve really loved flowers.”

When the elder didn’t answer, she turned. He was nowhere to be seen but hearing footsteps on the porch, she waited. A middle-aged lady wearing an ankle length, V-neck, blue, floral print dress entered the open door. She extended her hand and spoke.

“Hi, I’m Heather. I’m sorry to be late, but I wrote our appointment down for till three o’clock.”

Rita nodded. “I had two ‘clock down, but no problem. An elderly gentleman let me inside.”

“Hmm. I wonder who that might be? I know I locked the door behind me this morning when I came over to remove the sheets from the furniture.”

“He stepped out just before you arrived as I was saying to him that someone who lived in this house really loved flowers.”

She smiled. “Yes, Daisy loved her flowers. Indoors and out. During spring and summer, her children said she kept the lawn lit with colors as well.”

“I can only imagine.” Her fingers intertwined in front of her, Rita whirled around. “I can’t wait to see the rest of this house.”

“Yes, but before I forget it, can I take a picture with you for our local newspaper? It’s not often we get a famous columnist from Richmond to come down and write a story about something happening in Meadows of Dan. Especially a legendary, ghost writer, I hear.” She giggled.

Rita laughed. “I don’t know about famous or legendary, but sure. Where do you want to take it?”

“By the rock fireplace. I’ll put my phone on timer and step over.”

After taking a few pictures, they made their way down a narrow hallway to the kitchen. The wooden floor covered by yet another flowering carpet runner and a wall of metallic tan and cream wallpaper with purple flowers scattered on green leafed branches where blue birds perched. In the kitchen, a cast iron wood stove sat on a pedestal of curved legs, and in the center a large oven door for baking and two smaller doors to the far right. Three white doors for storage or warming lined the top over the cast iron cooking irons. And to the right, in an open-hearth fireplace embedded in a rock wall, hung a round, black iron pot on an iron rod held by two forked iron rods. The kitchen walls were a pale yellow with two white trimmed windows over a sink and brownish, marble counter-tops laden with dust.

For the next hour while Heather enlightened her guest with stories about the Quesenberry family, Rita toured every room of the house, its magnificent upstairs bedrooms, the quaint, bright washrooms, and finally the dark cellar beneath the house, lit only by a ground-level window, filtering scattered sunlight through dense cobwebs.

Heather’s eyes dilating in the dim light, turned to Rita. “This cellar was used to store their crops they canned as well as potatoes, turnips, apples from the orchards, and other foods needing a dry, cool room.” Her gaze followed Rita staring at something on top of a rock wall.

Rita pointed at it and spoke. “What’s in that metal box up there?”

Heather stepped closer, squinting to see. “Why, I don’t know. I’ve only been down here a couple times and never noticed it before. Same for the family, I’m sure.”

Rita glanced around and seeing a footstool, pulled it in front of the rock wall. “I think I can reach it if I stand on this stool.” She stepped on it and reached for the box.

Rita’s light blue sneakers caught Heather’s gaze. Not exactly a match with the blue dress she wore, but comfortable.

A voice called out from upstairs. “Hello! Is anyone here!”

“Yes!” Heather yelled out. “We’re in the cellar!” When no one answered her call, she glanced at Rita. “I need to run up to see who walked in. Be careful.”

“I’ll be right up as soon as I get this box.”

Heather hastily made her way up the narrow steps and down the hallway where she walked upon a young lady, her long, brunette hair in a ponytail and wearing a black, long sleeve blazer over blue jeans and a gray V-neck pullover.

The lady jumped when Heather walked up behind her.

“I’m sorry.” Heather grimaced. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I thought you heard me when I yelled from downstairs.”

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t. I just drove up and seeing the door open, I knocked, and walked inside hoping I wouldn’t run into any haunts.”

Heather giggled. “This must be a day for the gathering of the spirits. Do you believe in ghost and haunted houses, too?”

The young lady laughed. “Oh, no, I don’t believe in such tales. I’m more of a history buff. I mostly write about century old homeplaces and the families that lived in them.”

“So you’re a writer too…hmm. Then you might know the lady here with me now doing an interview for her news column about old homes and estates.”

The young lady’s smile curved a frown. “I didn’t know you had another interview planned today. If so, I would’ve scheduled another time.”

“Oh, no, I only had this one appointment scheduled today. And that’s with Missy Blankenship at three o’clock. I left her in the cellar to come up when you called.”

The lady’s eyes drew together, then she glanced at her phone. “It’s five till… and I’m Missy Blankenship.”

Her hands on her hips, Heather cocked her head. “Then who is the lady I left in the cellar?”

“Did she say her name and purpose for being here?”

Heather blinked. “Well, no she didn’t… but I never asked her. I just assumed she was you when I found her standing in the house when I drove up.”

“Maybe you ought to go see who that lady is and what she’s up to.”

“Yes, indeed.” She cringed. “But would you mind walking down to the cellar with me? I would feel better.”

“No, not at all. I would like to know this lady’s intent as well.”

Together they walked down the hallway. Before continuing down the steps, Heather called out. “Miss, are you still in the cellar? I need you to come up, please!” Receiving no response, they crept down the creaking staircase together, anxiety building with every step.

They didn’t find anyone in the cellar. Heather confused, turned full circle.

Missy watched her. “Did she leave?”

“No, she couldn’t have without leaving through the front door. The back door is pad-locked, and all the ground-level windows are boarded except the front two on the porch.”

Missy, suspicious that Heather may be concocting a haunting story for her, pointed at a rusting metal box on a stool. “What’s that?”

Heather’s eyes squinted to focus. “It’s the box the lady climbed to get when I ran up to answer your call.”

Missy tapping her finger to her chin, decided to play along. “Hmm. I do believe you have a mystery to solve.”

“Yes.” She grasped the box. “It certainly looks that way. Let’s go upstairs where we’ll have more light and can talk. This cellar gives me the creeps.”

On the way up the stairs and down the hallway, Missy complimented how well kept the house appeared. Heather explained.

“The Quesenberry siblings have kept sheets draped over the furniture ever since their grandfather died twenty-four years ago. That and they take turns coming in to clean and dust and keep the inside up. This was their grandfather and Grandma Daisy’s homeplace for most of their lives after his ma and pa died. The Quesenberry children had hoped one of their children or grandkids would’ve taken a liking to this house, fixed it up, and made it their home. The homeplace being in the family since 1889, they just couldn’t bear the thought of auctioning off the possessions and shutting the place down for good.” She shrugged. “But time caught up with them. With the outside needing a major renovation, and the Quesenberry children now in their senior years, they no longer have the resources to keep it up.”

Missy frowned. “Would they keep it up if financially able?”

Heather, laying a hand to her heart, shook her head. “Oh, without a doubt. When they talked about the pending auction, there wasn’t a dry eye amongst them. I know their decision to liquidate the furnishings and sell the real estate against their parent’s wishes will burden them the rest of their lives. I’m sure if they had the money, they would’ve converted this homeplace into something useful for Meadows of Dan. It saddens me to talk about it.” Her lips pinched.

Heather sounding so convincing brought a tear to Missy. She wiped her eyes. “It definitely had potential.”

Heather, drawing a breath, flattened her hands against her thighs. “Well, now that we’re over the emotional drama and our scare from the disappearing lady, are you ready for a tour and some tall tales about the homeplace?”

Missy nodded toward the rusting box. “Right now, I’m more curious about what you might find in that box.”

“Oh.” Her gaze fell on it. “I was going to give it to the Quesenberry children to let them open it, but…” her eyebrows rose, “I reckon us taking a peek inside won’t do any harm.”

Pulling the box to her lap, she pried and pried the box until the lid popped, scattering rust flakes in the air. She brushed them from her dress. Then reaching inside, she grasped a bundle of yellowed envelopes tied together with a thin, leather strap. Holding the bundle in her lap, she untied the strap and picked up one of the discolored envelopes and pulled out an aged, yellow paper crackling under her touch. She stared at the faded brown paper, a picture of Woodrow Wilson on the left side, 200 printed on the top corners and a red E on the left bottom and red serial numbers printed on the right bottom.

Curiosity getting the best of her, Missy couldn’t wait. “What is it?”

Heather met her gaze, moisture filling her eyes. “Why, it’s a World War Two War Bond. This one is for 200 dollars.” She picked up the bundle. There must be fifty of these here.”

“How much are they worth now?”

“With interest for seventy-five years, they would be worth a small fortune.”

Missy exhaled a pent-up breath. “Maybe this will help the family save their homeplace.”

“Oh, I can’t wait to tell them.” Her face glowed and eyes sparkled.

“You said the lady here earlier found them?”

“Actually, she pointed out the box on the rock wall in the cellar. Now that you mentioned it, let me pull up her picture on my phone I took with her. Maybe you’ll recognize her.”

Missy slid closer, anxious to see this elusive, disappearing lady.

Heather pulled the photos up, but looking befuddled, her eyes narrowing, and brow furrowing, she looked at another and another, back and forth.

Patience not her virtue, Missy blurted out, “Do you have her picture?”

Heather held the phone out for her to see. “Here are the pictures, but only I’m in the photos. I don’t understand. I looked at them right after I’d taken them. She was in the photos with me.”

Seeing no one in the photos but Heather, Missy sat back, contemplating if maybe all of today’s happening was a preplanned stunt. An impostor showing up, a disappearing woman, and finding treasure in an old mansion would make for good publicity. Curious to get to the bottom of this charade, she questioned Heather.

“You said the lady who came in here earlier was about my age. Can you describe her for me?”

“How could I ever forget? Disappearing the way she did will haunt me.”

Missy listened.

“She was petite, maybe five foot two, had shoulder length strawberry, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a small birthmark on her left cheek.” She pointed. “She wore a dark blue dress, but what I noticed odd about her were her blue sneakers.

Missy cocked her head. “Blue sneakers?”

“Yes, tennis shoes.”

Perplexed at the similar description of a friend Missy once knew well and worked for, even down to wearing blue sneakers, she dug through her purse and pulled her phone out. Thumbing through her photo folder, finally she held her phone out. “Did the woman look anything like this lady?”

Heather drew a breath along with a hand to her chest. “Oh, my know, yes! That’s her! The blue dress, sneakers, and all.

A knot swelled Missy’s chest. She felt faint.

Heather touched her arm. “Missy, you’ve turned pale. Are you okay?”

Missy swallowed hard. “I think so. The woman in this photo I showed you is Rita Haack, the lady who started writing this column four years ago. I was her friend and first employee. She was driving down to interview one of the Quesenberry siblings exactly a year ago today but had an accident on the Parkway and died. To honor her, I contacted you and was going to write your story with a tribute to Rita, my mentor, for inspiring me to write historic news columns.”

Heather sat back. “Wow! This is unimaginable. Why do you think she or her spirit showed up here today?”

Missy paused, her hand to her heart. “I don’t know…unless it was to save this homeplace. As Rita traveled the state writing her stories, she’d always come back to the office telling me the real story behind her abandoned house interviews. I could tell they always disheartened her knowing the neglected homes were being demolished.”

Heather sighed. “Do you still want to write an article about the Quesenberry Estate? And what should your story be about?”

Her eyelids flittering, Missy sighed. “The only one it can be. A real ghost story.”

~~~

Years later, tourists from all over the world driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway stopped at Meadows of Dan, Virginia, to visit the Quesenberry Estate and to hear tales of how a ghost saved the family farm. And to sample and purchase wines, fermented from grapes grown by the Quesenberry heirs on their 200 acre farm.

 

The End

Dedicate to my friend Karen M.You know who you are.

 

And a special thanks to Joyce at Warwick Publishing for editing this story.

And Jimmy Powell, my website manager.

Thank y’all for making me look good!

 


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