For four years I’d driven by that old house. It was high on a hill, hidden by the ancient trees around it. You could occasionally glimpse one of the four towering chimneys through a break in the foliage, but even in winter I could barely make out the silhouette of the building.

It was only a few hundred yards off the interstate. Twice, my curiosity had gotten the better of me, and I’d tried to get closer to it. The sheer cliff where they’d cut through for the highway, made any approach from the west impossible, so I searched for adjacent roads. After a few hours of wasted effort, it was clear there was no avenue up to the house proper. Studying the latest street maps, I could find nothing that got me anywhere near the hilltop.

I didn’t know why I was so drawn to the place, but it was always on my mind, a compulsion. I studied surveying maps and asked around the nearest town, several miles away, but couldn’t find out any more about it. I researched properties for sale and old tax records, all to no avail.

There was a history to the house, and old records, but everything seemed to end around the 1930’s. I ran into a blank at every turn. The more of a challenge it proved, the more stubborn I became. My obstinance was both a blessing and a curse.

The place was well off the beaten path, in backwoods Virginia, and I was only out in the area every couple of months or so, when working with a rural customer. More often than not I just drove past, staring up at the mystery. Straining to see just a little more, something to assuage my curiosity.

Finally my patience surrendered to my obsession. I planned a day excursion, and one fine morning I parked my car at what I thought was the nearest and most likely access point, sprayed on an extra helping of Deep Woods Off, and started hiking in. It was hard going, no trail to speak of, which surprised me. Places like this were always targets for neighborhood kids to hang out and get in trouble. Perhaps the scarcity of local population, combined with the difficulty of access discouraged it.

The route couldn’t have been much more than half a mile at best, and yet the thick undergrowth and vicious thorns kept me at bay for nearly 2 hours. I fought through, determined, clingy vines grasping at my legs, immense deadfalls abruptly blocking my route, hidden thorny branches shredding my skin, unsurpassable thickets forcing me deeper into the woods. After a few hundred yards I was exhausted, silently cursing the dark foreboding woods that sought to deny me my goal. The woods opened up to larger, more sedate forest giants that silently observed my implacable progress, before closing in again as I reached the top of the hill. When I finally broke free into the open, the manse stood before me, magnificent and sad at the same time.

It was huge, beyond my expectations. Three full stories, with 2 large chimneys on each end of the house, maybe 15 feet apart. The building was stone, five window openings on the end facing me, stacked 2-2-1, now just gaping holes in the side of the building.

The front was impressive, with a wide double doorway in the center, bracketed by two window openings on each side. On the second and third floors there had been five windows each. Now just dark smudges on the ancient façade.

The original porch was long gone, but with some effort I climbed up the front into the entrance. I was holding my breath, eager to view the interior for the first time, my mind adrift in the contemplation of the wonders ahead of me. The first sight was a punch in the gut.

Decrepit ruin and rot, devastating in its completeness, that was my reward. It was well lit, the light from the window openings flooding it, and daylight streaming down from above. Looking up, I could see the sky through the three intervening ceilings and the roof. Portions of the floors were still intact, as were many of the joists, pillars and beams. I carefully maneuvered my way along the walls, to see some of what lay hidden from view. Each step was an adventure, the soft rotted wood eager to pitch me into the darkness below, if I strayed from the safety of the joists.

Soot blackened walls, and charred beams told me a fire must have destroyed the place. From the look of things it was the worst on the third floor and attic, with the ground floor somehow surviving with the least ruin. Significant damage, but not the hollowed out shell the top floors had become.

I made it most of the way up the stairs to the second floor before the creaking of the rotted wood underfoot had my heart racing too fast to continue. When a board disintegrated underfoot, compulsion yielded to common sense, and I gave it up as too dangerous. I had peeked over the top into the floor space above, but it was difficult to tell where rooms had been. In a few places, hints remained of what might have been walls, but fallen detritus from the floor above made even that a guess at best. The devastation was near complete. Carefully working my way back down, legs trembling, I retreated from the house, my curiosity only further inflamed.

From the outside the place was majestic. The stone looked perfect, the proportions ideal. The outline of the steeply pitched roof and those 4 fantastic chimneys against the sky were breathtaking. I walked around the building, still at a loss for how the exterior walls could look so solid, with so little inside to hold them up.

There was a 30 yard area surrounding the house, where the trees had not yet dared to trespass. The grass and clover intermixed, on the peak of the hill, where the decrepit mansion now stood. I could only imagine what it must have looked like in its glory.

I wondered if it was possible to restore it to that glory.

I knew I wanted to try.

* * *

It took me six months of effort to track down the ownership of the property. It was considered unimproved, the House not even showing up on paperwork. Fifty year old businesses exchanged land ownership, their actions hidden behind the corporate veil.

Actually contacting the owner proved almost as difficult. The House had become my hobby, taking over much of my free time, occupying my thoughts. I made countless phone calls, mailing in public information requests, spending hours and hours at the local courthouse and records room.

Eventually my stubbornness won out. I found myself in a senior home halfway across the country, nervous to finally meet the person who I believed was the actual owner. I glanced around the room, dizzied by the combination of opulence and decay. The furniture, wallpaper, artwork, were so different from the nursing homes I was familiar with. Nothing modular or modern, it spoke of a different age, and a different class of clientele. At the same time my senses were assaulted with a variety of smells conflicting with each other. Bleach, mildew, urine, dust, and an overall mustiness that was depressing. The curtains were inexplicably closed blocking out the sunlight, leaving vague shadows in its place.

One of the assistants wheeled out an elderly woman in a wheelchair. She looked like she might have been around at the turn of the previous century. Her gray hair, or what was left of it, was carefully combed back. She had makeup on, an elegant dress, and jewelry. She had clearly made herself up for my visit.

“Mrs. Madison? I’m Jack Thompson. I hope you don’t mind my coming to speak to you.”

She giggled. The sound seemed out-of-place, coming from her. “Mind? Of course not. It’s not every day that a lady has such a handsome young man come to call. Would you like some tea? Ralph would be happy to get us some.”

“That would be very nice. Please.”

“I’m so glad you’ve come by. I don’t get many visitors these days.”

“I’m very happy to be here. You’re not an easy woman to find, Mrs. Madison.”

“Beverly, please. Mrs. Madison sounds like my mother-in-law. I shouldn’t be that hard to find. I’m afraid I’ve been cooped up in here for nearly 20 years now.”

Cooped up? I could understand that feeling. I would want out of that environment, given any chance. “Would you like to go outside? It’s a beautiful day out.”

“Do you think we could?”

“I don’t see why not, Beverly. Why don’t we have our tea out on the lawn?” I’d seen several tables outside, and thought it would be pleasant to be outdoors. Far more pleasant than where I stood.

“That would be divine.”

I guided her wheelchair out the door, taking the ramp out to the spacious front lawn, and steered her to an open table with some shade. I parked her there, briefly wondering why more people weren’t outside on such a gorgeous day.

“I’ll be right back with our tea,” I told her.

“Thank you, Jack.”

Ralph was looking around for us, with a serving tray in his hands.

“Sorry, Ralph. Mrs. Madison and I will be having our tea outside at one of the tables. I hope that’s not a problem.”

He didn’t seem concerned, and passed me the tray. I returned to Beverly, and set one of the cups before her. She lifted the lid off a matching small bowl, and using silver tongs, she added two sugar cubes to her cup. I’d never seen a sugar cube before. I was fascinated with her slow precise movements. Everything about her whispered grace and elegance.

“I love the spring, don’t you?” she asked, sipping daintily from her old-fashioned china tea cup.

“Absolutely. Spring and fall are my favorite seasons by far.”

“I’m afraid my spring and fall have passed me by. I’m well into winter by now.”

“A very lovely winter it is,” I told her, smiling. I was surprised at my own mild flirting. Something about her set me at ease.

“You’re sweet to say so. It is lonely.”

“I’m surprised. I’d expect half the men in the house to be courting you.”

“Oh, there still are a few, but mostly silly old fools.”

“I’d say the ones who aren’t are the fools.”

She smiled. “I’d agree with you, but that would be awfully brazen of me, wouldn’t it?”

Beverly seemed to have her wits about her, and was quite easy to talk to. We chatted about the weather, and I found out she was a baseball fan, and we argued a little about the American League East.

She pushed her cup away, and raised her head to the sun, basking in it. “I’m sure you didn’t come out here just to flirt with an old woman.”

I blushed. “Beverly, do you own a piece of property in Virginia? A hillside burned out home on a piece of rural land, not too far from the Chesapeake?”

She thought about it. “I own a few properties. Most of them leased out. In Virginia you say?”

“Yes. The House looks very old. Not much left on the inside, but the outside is still impressive.”

“I believe that was my Uncle Donald’s place. A very sad story. His young wife and infant daughter perished in the fire. He couldn’t stand to live there and moved west. He left me the property in his will. That must have been over 40 years ago.”

“I’ve been fascinated by the old house on the property, and would like to try to restore it. Would you consider selling the place?”

“You’re not from around here? You live out that way?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You’ve come a long distance to discuss this, haven’t you?”

“I’ve been working for almost a year to find out who owned it, and to try to buy it.” I confessed.

“Why would you want to rebuild it?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. It’s been on my mind since I caught my first glimpse of it, nagging me incessantly. When I finally hiked my way in to see it, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like in its hay-day, and would love to see it restored to its previous glory. I have an image in my kind of what it should look like, and I’d like to take my time rebuilding it, and live there.”

“Quite a fascination you’ve developed.”

“Yes it is. It consumes me. I’m not rich, but I think I could give you a fair price for the place.”

She looked at me long and hard. She didn’t speak for a couple of minutes. I didn’t pressure her to. “Perhaps we could come to an agreement,” she said.

“I hope we can.”

“The truth is, I don’t need a lot of money. I’m fairly well off, and as you might imagine, my needs are simple, and I don’t have a lot of expenses.”

Before I could answer she continued.

“I have a confession, Jack. I’m lonely. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time we’ve spent together.”

“As have I, Beverly.” As have I?

“Could you do something for me? Keep me involved in your project. Talk to me. Call me regularly. Maybe send me pictures of your progress. I have no family, and the days get longer and longer. I’d love to see what you can do with the old place.”

“If we can come to terms, I’d love to have you involved. I’d be happy to call you as often as you wish, and send you weekly pictures of my progress, if any. Videos of the place. Whatever I could do.”

“When it’s done, could you take me out there, to see it? Please?” She reached out with her small, cold hands, and placed them over mine.

How lonely she must be. “Ma’am, I’ll fly you out there whenever you want, at my expense. There’s no access currently, but once I’ve cleared a road to the house, I’d love to have you come out to view it as it is now, and to see what I can make of it.”

Her eyes glistened as she looked off into the distance. “You won’t forget me once I’ve signed it over, will you?”

“We could guarantee I wouldn’t in the contract.”

“I just need your word.”

“Beverly, you have my solemn word. Like you, I have no family. I never knew my parents. I have no wife, no girlfriend, no children. I’m quite alone in this world, and can’t think of anybody I’d rather share this adventure with.”

Her eyes welled up, and tears started to slowly trickle down her cheek. “Jack, I’m rather tired. I’d like to go in now.”

“Of course.” Disappointed, I rolled her away from the table and wheeled her back into the building. At the threshold she stopped me.

“Are you returning east immediately?”

“My schedule’s open,” I assured her.

“I’ll have my lawyer stop by tomorrow. If you could come by for dinner, perhaps we can conclude our deal.”

“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away. Thank you.”

* * *

Back in my room I was nervous. We hadn’t agreed on the price, and once the lawyers got involved who knew what would happen? I was so close. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night.

In the morning I felt much calmer. I believed Beverly. I was convinced she wanted this as much as I did. I went out and did a little shopping, prepared to show her how serious I was about keeping her involved.

I stopped by the home at 4:30, not certain what time dinner was. I appeared to have guessed correctly. She and a distinguished older gentleman were seated at a table, waiting for me.

Beverly beamed. “Jack! I have to tell you, I haven’t been this excited in ages. I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Jerome.”

Jerome stood and shook my hand. He had a determined gaze, and a firm handshake. “Convince me I should approve this.”

“Now Jerome…” Beverly chided.

“No, Beverly, he’s right. He has your best interests in mind. Allow me, if I may.”

Once again, I explained in detail, how I’d first seen the place, and come to be enthralled by it. I reviewed my research, my desire, and my place in the world. He was quiet, letting me go on.

I opened my briefcase, and pulled out the gift. “Beverly, this picture frame can show a variety of photos.” I turned it on, and she saw the digital images of the house in its current state. “I can hook this up to the internet, and put it in your room. Then whenever I have new pictures, I can remotely put them on your picture frame for you to see, that same day.”

She seemed excited by the idea. She was watching the picture frame, and I showed her how she could move the pictures back and forth in order, pause at any one, or leave them in slide-show mode.

I held up my smartphone. “This phone took the photos I just showed you. I’ll keep it with me at all times on the property, and I promise I’ll take plenty of pictures every step of the way. I’ll upload them as soon as I have internet access.”

Finally, I pulled out another cell-phone. “This is for you. I’ve programmed my number into it. The bill will come directly to me. You can call me anytime, and I will try to call you every day. I don’t want to commit to every day, since I’m not sure I can keep that promise. But I will do my best.”

Beverly looked over at her lawyer, with a big smirk on her face. “Jerome?”

He sighed. “Damn it. Alright, I’m convinced. Sign here.”

He pushed a paper toward me.

“We haven’t agreed on the price yet,” I said, hesitating.

“I’m sure you can afford it.” He flipped the contract back to the first page and pointed. The sales price was $1.00.

I was flabbergasted. “Beverly, that’s not fair.”

“Jack, it’s just an expense for me. I pay taxes every year on a piece of land I never see and make no money off of. You’ll be doing me a favor. Please agree to this.”

I could feel the tears welling in my eyes. My dream was coming true. “I… I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes and sign the paper. Save your money for the repairs. I suspect they will not be cheap.”

I looked over at Jerome, who shrugged. “She wants to do this. Trust me, there’s no stopping it now. And financially, it won’t hurt her in the least. Sign the contract.”

I signed the paper, and went around the table and asked if it was Ok if I hugged her. She struggled to her feet, leaning heavily on my arm, and let me embrace her. I held her a long time, until I could control my emotions. My shoulder was wet when I finally eased her back into her chair.

As I took my seat she thanked me.

“I’m the one who should be thanking you. You’ve made it possible for my 5 year dream to come true.”

“Jack, this is the happiest and most fun I’ve had in longer than I care to admit. Follow your dream. Just don’t forget me.”

“Never. I swear.”

Jerome interrupted. “That’s done. How about we have dinner? It’s getting late.”

* * *

It was a daunting task ahead of me. I tried to make sure that my work didn’t suffer, but I spent every weekend working on my project. My holidays and vacation time were spent laboring on the House. Every day I called Beverly, in the morning, reviewing my progress, if any, the day before, and discussing my future plans. Over time our discussions moved away from the House, and encompassed our lives. We talked about my job, my project, and my Spartan life away from the two.

“Jack, why don’t you date?”

“I don’t have the time, right now. I’m rather focused on my work and the House, and it doesn’t make me very sociable.”

“BS. You’re a handsome young man. You should have a girl.”

“I’d like that very much. And someday I hope I will. But that’s in the future.”

“But you dated in the past?”

“I have. That didn’t work out so well. I think I’m too intense for most of the women I meet. The same fixation I have on the House, I tend to have on whatever I’m working on.”

“Go out tonight and relax. Chat up a girl. Buy her a drink.”

I laughed. “Ok, Mom, I’ll see if I can’t go out for a beer tonight. No promises about the girl.”