Party at Pinehurst

For the first time in three generations, Pinehurst Mansion felt vibrant and alive. The annual interfraternity council Halloween party packed the place with more students than a Psych 101 lecture hall. Sexy police officers danced with black and white striped prisoners. Vampires necked with mobsters, their plastic tommy guns forgotten in dark corners. A neon green liquid flowed liberally from a punch bowl bigger than a laundry basket.

I swam drunkeningly through the ballroom floor, tripping over my own feet, hoping to find a bathroom or at the very least a rough equivalent. I had hoped that tonight I would finally profess my infatuation to Keri Wilson.  Elegantly, of course, with poetry, song, or one of the other sickenly sweet romantic devices that I had concocted. Instead, I got drunk and put it off for another day–the right day–I told myself. Some day when I didn’t need to find a place to puke.

Demons and monsters danced around me as I twirled and stumbled towards a dark hallway. The corridor seemed to spin like a Ferris wheel. I fell hard against a wood paneled wall, knocking black and white pictures of stuffy-looking men and women off their hooks. I crawled on my hands and knees to a corner where the sickly sweet green stuff made a desperate escape from my stomach.

I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my black cultist robe and leaned back on the wall for support. The hallway was dark. The mansion had electricity, but neither the wiring nor the fixtures had been maintained. The council had brought in just enough lighting for the ballroom, large halogen lamps powered by diesel-fed generators. A thick white candle sat in a holder bolted to the brown wall, a resident from an earlier time. I retrieved my plastic lighter from my pants pocket and lit the candle. A soft, warm glow washed over my face and I became embarrassed. The drunkenness, the vomit, my aborted attempts at flirtation–take your pick. I felt a desperate need to be away from it all.

I may not have noticed the seam in the wall if it hadn’t been for the candle. Something about the angle of the light exposed the crack. The flame flickered slightly, taunted by a secret breeze. I pulled on the candle holder like a door handle, and the wall opened.

I stood at the top of a dark stairwell. Grungy concrete steps, trimmed in dirt and mildew, descended into the shadows. A light chill caressed my face as I gazed down a set of stairs that had probably not been used in generations.

An oil lamp hung on the gray concrete wall. I lit it and was somewhat surprised with the amount of light that it provided. Behind me, the party was still going. Thudding bass notes rattled the mansions crumbling foundation. Keri was somewhere out there in the noise and the light, stuck in what perpetually seemed like the wrong time. Below mystery awaited, but at least it was a quiet, solitary one.

I stepped slowly down the stairs, finding another lamp at the bottom and lighting it as well. Washed clean by warm light, the stairwell seemed warm and inviting. I blew out my original candle and shut the secret door behind me. The room that I entered might be called a basement. The walls were the same concrete as the stairwell. Oil lamps were bolted to each of the four walls. I struggled to light them all in my drunkeness. The wicks seemed to move on their own, fleeing from the tiny flame of my Bic.

Once they were lit, the room warmed substantially. I worried about the smoke, that I might suffocate in this basement, but still I felt the breeze on my face. There was ventilation somewhere.

I don’t know what I had expected to find. Pinehurst Mansion was built by the lumber baron who founded the nearby town. In its glory days, Pinehaven had been a hub of industry. When the river was declared to be too inefficient for a surging logging business, the Pinehurst’s had lost their fortune and Pinehaven lost its shine.

Pinehurst Mansion had been empty for as long as anyone could remember, a forgotten relic nestled within the tall trees of a bowl-shaped valley between hills that seemed to swallow the estate whole. Still, the family had been rich. They and their high society friends had disappeared without notice. I expected something to be left behind.

It was then that I saw the painting, tucked in to a corner, covered in cobwebs and dust. The dirt and grime camouflaged the canvas, which sat facing the wall, its image hidden from my view. I picked it up, batting off the cobwebs and coughing in the plume of dust that clouded the room before being vacuumed away by the unseen breeze.

The canvas held an incredible likeness of the ballroom itself. Despite the dirt on the back of the painting the image itself was remarkably clean. Vibrant colors radiated off the surface, popping my drunken vision so brightly that my eyes hurt. A numbing pain began to radiate from the center of my brain. The scene was not all that different than the Greek Halloween party upstairs. Instead of zombies and pop stars, they dressed like the gentlemen and ladies of their day with elegant suits and hats decorated with floral bouquets. The amazing color of the painting seemed at odds with this drab, dull place. I could almost hear the string orchestra playing in the background as men with waxed mustaches courted women in elaborate dresses.

Then, I realized that I could actually hear music. There was a small tear in the middle of the painting, in the center of the ballroom floor, so minute that at first glance it could be played off as a a well-drawn floorboard. The tiny whisper of music floated from the tear. I lowered my ear to the tear. The string quartet’s beautiful song teased my ear, along with a slight flow of air, that same breeze that I had felt since the moment when I had found the passageway.

I set the painting down and took one of the oil lamps down. I went wall to wall, checking every inch, examining every corner for some sort of rat hole or crack, something that would explain the source of the draft. I felt with my fingers and clawed moss from the walls with my fingernails, searching for a hidden crevice. I found nothing.

I picked up the painting and moved around the room, always the breeze went with me. Placing my finger to the tear, I felt a slight suction, a pull on the flesh, not uncomfortable, but like a gentle kiss. When I pulled back my finger, there were traces of wet paint. A thin rainbow of coagulating colors.

I examined the painting for the damage that my thumb had caused. The surface remained flawless, but there, in the center, I saw something strange. The characters had changed. The figures in the painting had taken on familiar faces. Kevin, the Delta chapter president, stood in the background wooing Jenny, who’s bleached blonde hair had been elaborately bundled elegantly on top of her head. My roommate Jackson stood in the middle of a circle of chairs telling stories to an enthralled audience. Beautiful Keri, who I had adored since freshman orientation, stood in the center of the ballroom, her skirt scaffolded by petticoats. Her white-gloved hand stretched out to a dapper man in an expensive suit with a red silk sash tied around his shoulder.

Everyone was there except me. I felt a sudden surge of drunken jealousy. As usual, I was out of place. Forgotten. In a rage, I drove my hand through the tear in the canvas and ripped it apart. The tiny breeze was replaced with a violent gale as the painting became the center of tornado. No longer a whisper, the music pounded around me, not the fluidity of the string orchestra, but the constant thud of Halloween party bass. The DJ’s pulse no longer shook the foundation of the house, but the frame of the painting in my hands, resonating up my shoulders and through my heart.

I tried to piece it altogether, to push the flaps of torn canvas back into place and stop the collapse of things. I lay the painting on the floor and pushed down with my palms, trying to stop the bleeding. Paint of every color flowed through my fingers like blood from a critical wound. My palms slipped, sliding around the surface, spreading the gore.

I pulled my paint-covered hands back. On the canvas, the elegant dancers of the past had been replaced by costumed college students. Keri, dressed as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, stood front and center. The lumber baron who held her hand, still wearing his red sash, seemed to smile.

The tempest around me stopped. In the silence, my ears rang, trying to hear things that were no longer there–to see things that didn’t exist. I left the painting in the center of the floor and ascended the passage’s concrete steps. I stepped through the doorway into a silent hallway.

I walked slowly out to a vacant ballroom, the halogen lights still blazing, and then ran out the front door of the mansion to find a hundred cars adorned with Greek letters parked in the grass. I returned to the hall, screaming for help along the way. I jogged to the hallway and searched for the passage, but I couldn’t even find a crack. I ripped the candleholder off the wall trying to open the place where I had found the door. I felt desperately for a breeze in the still air.

In the corner of the hallway, a black and white photograph of the lumber baron sat in a pool of neon green vomit. He wore a familiar smile and a red silk sash.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

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