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Pompeii

Before the sun rises, the earth itself heaves out a long, moaning shudder. Mother’s bronze goblet clatters to the table, sending crystal droplets of water spraying across the wooden surface.  The dented plates and tarnished silverware slide a few inches across the table, a few overturning and falling down to the floor. Stale bread crumbs scatter across the wooden planks. I feel my chair slide forward slightly, and I reach out and grab the edge of the table. For a fraction of a second, it trembles as well, but as quickly as the tremor comes, it disappears. I look down and see that my hands are clenched around the edge of the table, my knuckles white. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then look around. Mother sits frozen at the table, her face pale and ghostly, her hands gripping the fabric of her skirt. Father stands in the corner, frowning, the palm of his hand pressed against the cold stone wall, his fist clenched by his side. I stare at him for a second. He senses me watching, and our eyes meet. His gaze softens.

“That’s the second one this week.”

Caecilia begins to wail from the corner. Mother rises from her seat and hurries over to the cradle, and just like that, life begins again.

I sit on the rough, worn wood of the circular stool and stare down at the lopsided pot before me. My eyes narrow in concentration and I bite my lip, reaching out and attempting to mold the clay into the right shape. The simple rounded structure of the vase collapses in on itself the second I touch it. I hear Father calling out my name.

“Julius.”

I look up from the wheel, relieved to get away from the pottery. He stands in the doorway to the shop, leaning against the frame of the door.

“I’ve got a chore for you.”

“What?” 

“Graffiti.”

Though most shops and buildings in Pompeii are covered in graffiti, my father insists on removing every bit of the writing that appears on our walls. Erasing the painted scribbles is the only task I hate more than making pots. I drag my feet over to the corner of the room and grab a rag and a bucket of water. Then, with one last glance at Father’s retreating back, I step outside. 

The sky is a clear blue, misted over with streaks of pale gray. The air is luke-warm, relaxed, and a faint breeze tickles the back of my neck. The sun hangs halfway between the horizon and its highest point, causing gentle shadows to flit in between buildings and under towering trees. It illuminates the hasty red scrawl spreading across the side of our shop, standing out against the rough stone. I walk over to the words and dunk the rag into the bucket. 

Before I can begin scrubbing, the earth shakes again. The bucket of water clatters onto its side, the spilling liquid quickly absorbed by the paved ground. I drop the rag and press my palm into the wall for stability, but the wall itself is shuddering. The earth seems to shift under my feet, and I swallow and squeeze my eyes shut. I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. My breath comes out in short, sudden bursts. My eyes stay closed, my palm continues to press against the trembling wall. Then, after a few seconds, it is over. I hesitantly open my eyes and pick up the rag, turning the bucket right side up. I wet the rag with what little water remains and quickly wipe away the inscription, my heart still caught in my throat. When I am done, I turn around and race back into the shop, not caring that the faint pink traces linger on the stone.

It is midday and every street corner, every alleyway, should be filled with life and light.  There certainly shouldn’t be a dark mass of clouds reaching out with long fingers, spreading like galloping black horses across the horizon. The city should not be shrouded in darkness, the sun should not be a faint, almost invisible glow from behind the wall of black, the mountain should not be emitting streams of deep, dark smoke. There should not be a faint rumbling erupting from the earth itself, a deep, low growl like the first murmurs of thunder before a raging storm. And yet, there is.

I turn away from the window, swallowing. Mother stands behind me, her hand cupped around the flame of a flickering candle, the soft light illuminating the lines of worry on her face. She stares out of the window for a second longer, then turns to Father.

“We’re leaving the city for a while.”

“No!” Father shouts. “This has gone far enough, we’re not going anywhere!” 

Mother glares at him, and I feel dread building in my stomach. When they start arguing, they can go on for hours.

“The mountain is smoking. There were two tremors this morning. Two, in one day!  The sky is dark, like it’s night, but it’s only midday! The…”

Father bangs his fist on the table. “Enough! The gods do not punish those who have committed no crime. We have made the proper sacrifices, broken no laws.”

“I know.” Mother suddenly looks tired. “Believe me, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is happening. If we don’t leave, all of Pompeii will fall, including us.” Mother is still calm. Her face in mostly expressionless, but I can see a trace of fear flickering in and out of her eyes with the light of the candle.

Father grits his teeth. “And leave the shop?  Our customers?”

Mother stares back at him. “Your customers are likely halfway out their doors by now.  We will be the only ones left in this city!”

Father glares at her. “No. We are not leaving.”

A tense silence fills the room.

Finally, after an eternity, Mother speaks.

“Julius.  Come.”  She carefully lifts Caecilia out of her cradle and moves toward the door. 

Avoiding Father’s gaze, I follow her.

Father takes a step forward.  “We’re not going anywhere-” 

Mother whirls around, her jaw set.  “No, you don’t have to leave, you don’t have to, but am going to make sure that my children survive this!” 

She meets Father’s eyes, and without another word, turns and steps out the door, into the darkness. I follow her without looking back, and as soon as the door closes, Caecilia bursts into tears.

It’s been a while since we left.  The sun should be well into the west by now, casting shimmering streaks of pale pink across the deep blue evening. Would be, if it weren’t for the huge wall of pure black that spans across the horizon, spreading out slowly, steadily, casting its looming shadow on the world. The crowd surges around us. As far as I can see stretch faces, people, some pushing ahead of others, some lagging behind. Blond hair, brown hair, white hair, dark eyes, it all blurs together until the faces stop being faces at all. Every so often I think I see someone that I recognize, but when I look again, they’ve turned away, vanished into the crowd, and I tell myself that it was just my imagination. 

I don’t remember when I offered to take Caecilia from Mother, or when it started feeling like I was holding a sack of bricks instead of a child. I pull my sister closer to me and continue to walk forward, trailing Mother’s dancing shadow, cast in the darkness by the vague flicker of a candle instead of the ever-burning sun. Mother glances at the sky, swallows, and increases her pace, pushing through the crowd. We keep walking.

I’ve stopped keeping track of the sun, the sky, the time, of anything but the mountain and the distance to the dock. The smell of smoke hangs in the air, seeming to get stronger and stronger with each second, each step I take. The crowd has lessened. Most people have gone south, to the larger dock, the one with more boats. Mother and I turned North, to the closer, smaller dock. 

My legs ache from the long walk, my arms feel like lead from carrying Caecilia. I want to stop, but I know we can’t. Mother pushes ahead, never seeming to tire, holding the candle out in front of her. Caecilia is asleep in my arms, soft and warm, breathing lightly. With each step I take, she feels ten times heavier. My joints seem to be made of stone, hard to move, more difficult to pick up with every step.  I don’t think I can keep it up much longer.

I stop to catch my breath and look over my shoulder. I can see the mountain looming in the distance, a huge dark mound of pure black rock, coated in a layer of ash. It spits out stream after stream of what looks like liquid flame, erupting out of the rock along with huge chunks of debris and hardened ash. More smoke rises up from the mountain, joining the swirling mass of dark clouds and scattered ash clustered around it, the mass that seems to spread out as far as the eye can see.  The surrounding countryside is shrouded in never-ending blackness, dark as night itself.  Then the first stream of liquid fire rolls onto the land, glowing with reds and oranges and yellows, and the ground is alight with crackling flames, golden, dancing in the night, spreading outward from the looming mountain. Something like a whimper escapes my throat.

Father,  I think.

Mother grips my arm and pulls me forward “Only a bit farther. Just under a mile to the dock.”

I try to reply, but as soon as I open my mouth, I begin to cough uncontrollably. My lungs seem to constrict inside of my chest, and I can’t bring myself to take another breath. I fall to my knees and Mother crouches down beside me, her eyes panicked. 

“Julius!” she shouts, but the sound seems to come from far away, blurry, faint, echoing in my ears. I’m vaguely aware of the crowd swerving around us, too, of a sharp, cold voice snapping at Mother to get off of the path, of her hissed response.

I feel her hands taking my sister from my arms, feel her fist pounding on my back, and finally air rushes into my lungs, smoke filled and dense, but air all the same.

I gasp, relieved, and we stay there for a few minutes until I regain my breath, Mother’s arms around me. When I’ve finally recovered, Mother glances up at the sky warily and stands up, the worry lines on her face more prominent than I’ve ever seen them before.

“Come on. We have to make it before the boats leave.” I swallow. We’ve lost precious minutes, and the wind seems stronger than ever. As I struggle to get up, our candle gutters out, plunging us into almost complete darkness. There is a moment of silence. Then Mother drops the unlit candle and takes my hand. 

“Come on. We have to go.” I nod and swallow.

We begin to walk again.

The sky is black when we reach the beach. Not the black of night, soft and dark as ink, bathed in dancing starlight. No, this black is closer to gray than the sky should be, rolling outward in a way the sky never does and never should. And it’s all coming from the mountain. The boats sit on the dock, almost invisible in the darkness, but not quite, some already halfway out to sea, a few lit candles bobbing up and down from each, shining beacons against the shadow of the clouds. 

The sand jitters under my feet, shifting with the rumbling of the earth. I take a step forward, carefully. The tangy scent of sea salt carried on the ocean breeze mingles with the acrid stench of thick, dark smoke, creating a pungent odor that fills my lungs and my mouth, making me want to gag. The ground shifts again and I lose my balance, falling into the sand. It cushions me, but when I scramble up, there are small grains plastered to my cheek, my elbows, and knees. The taste of wet sand fills my mouth, and I spit onto the ground trying to get rid of it. 

I feel a hand on my arm. Mother. Together, we make our way to the wood of the dock, closer and closer to the boats. Finally, we’re piled onto a craft, along with nine others. It’s a simple, wooden vessel called The Spirit. The boat barely seats all of us with two crammed into each seat meant for one. And as the oars begin to turn, as the boat gently kisses the rippling waterfront goodbye, the mountain towers over us, watching. And laughing.

The boat ride is long, seemingly endless, the water underneath the craft dark and devoid of any life, shimmering with the reflections of gentle, flickering candlelight. Mother and I huddle in the corner of the boat, Mother gripping Caecilia, the ever-present shadow of the mountain still hanging above us. Beside us, a girl, no older than seven, leans into her mother, who clutches her younger brother, not five years of age, to her chest. 

The oars reach into the inky water and sweep back out, over and over and over again. They lift up droplets, shimmering beads of saltwater that spray across us every few moments, showering down from above like drizzling rain, the mountain’s rumbling so much like distant thunder. 

Caecilia feels warm, soft, gentle in my arms. A bead of water lands on her forehead, and I wipe it away.  It’s strangely calm, almost peaceful, the only sounds the gentle dropping of the oars and the heavy breathing of the passengers.  The men who move the oars stare straight, straight ahead at the endless expanse of water before them, or at the smoldering mountain behind them.  The oars dip into the water and pull back out, over and over, forcing the boat forward.  The water laps lightly at the sides of the boat, the gentle slapping of water against wood becoming repetitive, persistent.  We’ve left the bay by now, the edge of the coast only a faint, thin line in the distance.  The craft cuts through the water cleanly.  The ocean is smooth and dark, like rippling folds of velvet.  And always, there’s that unrelenting tension hanging over us, threatening to strangle us all. 

And finally, listening to the oars, the breathing, the lapping water, I begin to cry.  I let the tears come, let them fall onto the wooden planks, and somehow, after they’ve been absorbed by the boat, I feel lighter.  Not better, not safer, but lighter.  Maybe this craft is called The Spirit for a reason.  I look up at the layer of dark clouds above us with my red-rimmed eyes, at the endless shadow it casts.  It spreads over Pompeii, over the dock, over us.  But there, near the horizon… 

A trace of light.   

A star.

Hope.

When The Spirit pulls into the harbor hours later, the sky is filled with shimmering stars, almost fading with the coming of day, crafted by the gods and placed in the sky to light up the night until the break of dawn.  I can see each one shining, bright and clear.  The sun hangs just under the horizon, setting the heavens on fire with woven clouds of rose and gold.  The sky shines through from underneath, the faded color of a nesting bluebird’s wing.  I can see the sun.  I can see the sky.  No veil of darkness flows in front of them.

But I can also see the mountain, no longer pouring liquid flames onto the distant land, but still emitting wisps of thick, gray smoke.  The cloud is no longer expanding but still hangs over the city.  That’s my city.  No, not just my city.  My world.  My father, my friends…the list is endless.  Are any of them still alive?       

I shudder, ropes of terror wrapping around my heart, spreading through my veins, each one stronger than the last.  They close in on me, squeezing my heart, tighter and tighter and tighter, until I can’t breathe.  I swallow and push down the feeling, and the ropes loosen, but they don’t disappear.  I step out of the craft, onto land.  The sand is firm and stable under my feet in comparison to the constant shaking of the boat.  I gulp in the fresh salty air, and something fills me, something that I haven’t felt in a long time. Relief.  Not full, overwhelming relief, but more like a muddled mixture of relief and guilt.  But I let it take over.  I know I shouldn’t feel it, and I know it’s wrong, but I do feel it, I do. I’m relieved that I’m out of Pompeii, away from the ash, the smoke, the mountain.

And so I run all the way to the edge of the beach, the wet sand clinging to the soles of my feet, run out onto the dry powder that the salt-tipped brush of the ocean has yet to paint, the fine, white grains spraying up to meet the air where my feet touch, coming to rest in the sandal-shaped indentations I leave in the ground. I turn around to Mother.  There is sorrow on her face, and for the smallest fraction of a second, I can’t figure out why. 

Then I remember, Father.

A bird pecks away at the sand behind me.  The birds belong here, and the sand and the sea and the boat and the fish, but I don’t.  I belong in Pompeii. But home does not exist anymore. 

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Prisha Mehta is a student at Millburn High School in New Jersey, and she is very passionate about her writing. She aspires to be a successful author one day, and she has won many writing awards. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in many places including Asymmetry, Ginosko, Blue Marble Review, Riggwelter, Gravel, Kairos, Five on Fifth, and Deracine. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or, of course, reading.  You can find out more about her at prishamehta.com.

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