“Mama?” She rubbed her eyes as I woke her.
“Shhh, Alcestis.” I put a finger to her lips as I hoisted her to my left hip.
I did not trust her steps. She was bound to wake the snoring monster, still lying in a pool of his own urine. A pity he did not choke on his own vomit, but turned his head at the last minute. He still held the broken bottle of wine to him. My face throbbed harder at the memory. I resisted the urge to pick up one of the shards and slit his throat on the way out. He may pursue if left alive but the soldiers most certainly would if they found him murdered. My lips curled back in a snarl.
Alcestis’ fingers toyed with my hair, a reminder of what I had to live for. I would not waste spit on him and ruin our chance of escape. I waited until he snored loudest before we walked outside into the morning light.
“Where are we going, Mama? The market is that way.” She pointed.
I kissed her cheek. “We’re going to a better place, Alcestis.”
In the light, she frowned as she looked at my face. How purple and swollen it must have been! She touched her fingertips to it before she nodded and smiled, as if to agree she thought it was best.
“Look, Mama, a cloud!” She pointed again. “It’s a really big one!”
“That is wonderful, yes.” I said but I was distracted by how strange it was that there were so many people here in the streets. It made walking so difficult. There were so many men. I cringed at the sight of them, ducking my head low that they would not recognize me and see the beating I had taken. They would think I deserved it and drag me home for more.
But the gods were merciful. They were not looking at me but at the sky, at the cloud. I stole a glance. The earth rumbled. More of the cloud streamed forth. Several people fell to their knees and prayed to their god. Others cried that all the gods were dead–the world was ending.
No. No, this cannot be. I refuse to let it be. I did not suffer in silence for it all to come to this. I did not wait for this moment for it all to end here. All of my plans, my hopes and dreams–! I cared not for myself but for the sake of my daughter, I had to get out of Pompeii.
Clutching her to me tightly, I ran.
The mountain roared like a thousand lions at once. Out of its mouth, liquid fire ran like rivers down its jagged peak. The cloud rained stones and ash.
We ran, a single wave of people heaving over others, pushing and shoving. Despite their efforts, I knew it was all too late. I cursed the gods. Could it not have waited until the morrow? Why today of all days?
With tears in my eyes, I ducked behind a pillar, preferring not to risk my daughter being knocked out of my hands and trampled to death. Alcestis was a good girl. She had tears in her eyes but she said nothing. We looked at each other quietly while listening to the sound of other people’s screams.
I threw my arms around her, never wanting to let go.
“Where are we going, Mama?” There was so much fear in her tiny voice.
“A better place, Alcestis,” I promised, swallowing hard. “Close your eyes.”
The heat rushed towards us.
I clenched tighter. If I could shield her with my body and spare her, let it be so. If I could keep her from seeing what was to come, let it be so. I wrapped myself around her, almost like a womb, where all children belong.
The fire was almost upon us. It was almost over. Almost. In a way, I still kept my promise. A better place…
“Close your eyes.”