Lost Hollow’s only bed and breakfast turned out to be an old Queen Anne-style home with two floors and robin’s egg blue fish scale siding Staff thought looked far too pristine to be original. It was out of place among the red brick and white clapboard siding that dotted the majority of the downtown landscape. He suspected the building’s owners, with whom only Afia had spoken so far, were probably out-of-towners themselves, or they were in the beginning. It was also evident that the little province had no historic preservation society or homeowner’s association looking out for its character because the public square through which they had driven on the way there was also an odd mishmash of old and new. An ancient bicycle shop with vintage signage painted in gold on its fragile picture window stood right beside a much more modern-looking vape shop that had erected a gaudy red, green, and blue glass tube sign in its own window. Diagonally across the square from these two businesses were a lawyer and the town administrator’s office, both of which sported facades of stately red brick, had painted white wooden doors without windows, and advertised their contents by using small black wall-mounted wooden plaques at eye level beside the entrance.
What struck Staff most about the town center, though, was the full story-high obelisk that had been erected in the middle of it all. It was surrounded by a small concrete platform on which one might be able to stand and gaze at it but was otherwise not marked. No signs indicated its reason for being there. There was no historical marker anywhere in the square that reported an event of local significance that it might memorialize. It just stood there, a giant erect penis casting clock-hand shadows along the tiny one-way street that surrounded the square. He glanced sidelong at Afia—looking confident and professional in her crisp autumn-appropriate gold sweater over a white turtleneck, black pants, sensible flats—as she rang the bell at the door of the blue-gabled anachronism that was going to be their home for the weekend.
“Glad to see your time here didn’t influence your taste,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of pictures of a lot of places in a lot of towns in my time. I haven’t seen a mix of styles like this in...well, ever.”
Afia grinned but maintained her focus on the door that still stood closed in front of them, her finger poised to ring the bell again. “You know that old saying, ‘You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy?’”
The door swung open. Within stood a squat older woman with silver hair, into which was tucked the temples of an enormous pair of eyeglasses with thick round black frames. The way the lenses of those glasses magnified the gray eyes behind them made Staff think she looked surprised. She probably always looked that way. He had to stifle a chuckle because the way she had suddenly thrown back the door to greet them only heightened the effect.
“You must be Afia Afton!” She stretched her hand over the threshold and grabbed Afia’s right hand in a queenly way. She jiggled it lightly up and down before allowing the reporter to pull it back. “From Channel 6 News? You look just like you do on TV! Channel 6 is the only news I watch.”
Afia smiled pleasantly. “That’s me. And you are—”
“Patsy. Patsy Blankenship, town administrator, bed and breakfast owner, and soon-to-be Lost Hollow’s first ghost tour guide. At your service.”
Afia nodded and cocked a thumb at Staff. “This is my cameraman Joe Stafford.”
“Everyone just calls me Staff.” He stuck out his own hand, which Patsy pumped twice enthusiastically.
“Charmed.” It came out with a decidedly Georgian lilt, confirming that not only was Patsy not from Lost Hollow, but she was also not a native Tennessean. Her accent was missing the nasal quality of a native. “Well. Let me help you get your stuff settled and then we can sit down and talk about ghosts! There’s so much to tell you. I just know you’re going to love our little town and all its mysteries. Come on in.”
She swept her hand across the threshold and bowed as she bade them entry, the way a butler might do for an unwary traveler in an old monster movie. Afia entered first, followed by Staff, who tried to restrain himself from rubbing his eyes as they met a jarring mixture of decor. The space included modern furniture, colorful art deco paintings above a colonial fireplace in the common area, and a decorative butter churn in the entryway that looked as if it had been pilfered straight from the set of Little House on the Prairie. Beside the fireplace stood a short metal stand supporting a frame that contained a letter-size sign. Printed on the sign in oversized Comic Sans were the words NO SMOKING.
Staff cleared his throat. “How long have you been running this place?”
“Oh, probably about fifteen years now. It was in the most awful mess when I got here. So was the town, honestly. It was pretty much a lot of nothing but old empty buildings and farmland that had been overtaken by scrub bushes. But I’m an entrepreneur, Mr. Staff. Where others see a hopeless mess, I see an opportunity. So I bought this place with some family money I’d wanted to invest and pulled together a few locals to form a town committee. What you see in the square and my place here is only what we’ve done so far. With a little more money, some luck, and some elbow grease, we can turn this place into a real tourist attraction.” She smiled at him. “That’s why it’s so good to have you here. You can make us look good for Halloween.”
Staff glanced at Afia, whose brow furrowed. “Due respect, Ms. Blankenship, but I feel like I should point out that we’re not creating an advertisement for Lost Hollow. We’re doing a feature story. We’ll be asking questions and following leads that we hope will generate a fun spooky Halloween segment for the news. But we won’t be taking orders on what we are and are not allowed to cover. Of course, we’ll let viewers know where they can find you, but we’re not going to pimp you to them. If you want that, you’ll need to reach out to our sales department and buy a local spot with viewership that matches your demographic.” She knitted her fingers together in front of her hips. “I hope you understand.”
Patsy’s cheeks turned pink. “Oh, I know that! I’m just so excited about what’s happening here in our little town. I don’t see any way that you’ll leave here without a wonderful story to tell.” She spun on her heels and motioned them toward a set of stairs. “Off to your rooms we go, then.”
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