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Mothers examined fruits to buy. Children shrieked and giggled, running away from one another in their games. Young women swarmed around various vendors to select an appropriate tunic. Palace guards roamed the streets to ensure that all was well in the city of Pompeii. Overall, it was a beautiful day in the city.
Lelia was among the gaggle of girls hunting for the perfect dress. It was August 24, Festival of Mania, and it was the first time that she could finally attend. Previous years, she was too young and always was sent to bed early so her parents could participate in the festival. But now that she was seventeen, she was officially a lady and she could celebrate with her fellow citizens.
Interrupting her excited thoughts, someone bumped rather harshly against her, sending her face first into the rack of clothes. Several of the girls chuckled but she didn’t hear them. Something else caught her attention. Tenderly, she picked up the tunic that she had knocked into and held up into the sunlight. Golden beads twinkled and the dark, lush scarlet of the tunic stood out from the rest of the clothing. Simply looking at it, she knew that this was the one for her. She scurried to the owner of the vendor with the dress in her arms.
“Pardon, madam, pardon!” Lelia called out. “How much for this?”
The owner, a large plump woman, eyed Lelia and scoffed, “Twenty gold pieces.”
The surrounding women gossiped in hushed tones and Lelia could see fingers being pointed in her direction. True, Lelia knew that she didn’t appear to have twenty gold pieces on hand with her weather-worn beige tunic and her dark tresses woven into a natty braid, but that was beside the point. She had saved all of her money for this day and swiftly, she pulled out her moccasin pouch. Pouring out the money into the owner’s hand, Lelia felt a part of her heart ache in loss. That was hard earned gold only to be spent on a dress for one night. It was worth it though, Lelia reminded herself. She would finally be seen, finally capture the attention of Pericles, the handsomest man she had ever laid eyes on. He was only a year older than her and she was determined to look her best.
After purchasing the tunic, Lelia rushed home. Her mother stood in the front room, explaining the festival to Lelia’s brothers. She passed by them quietly and slipped into her room. Shedding her tattered tunic, she dipped into the tub to cleanse herself. The water was sudsy and lukewarm but she ignored the discomfort she felt. It certainly was a rare occasion when she could even get the water to be this nice. Quickly washing and drying herself, Lelia tugged the scarlet tunic over her head and smoothed out the wrinkles. The tunic fell to her feet and hugged her figure perfectly. No way would Pericles be able to resist her.
There was a knock at her door and her mother’s face appeared. A smile spread across her mother’s face as she took in the sight of her daughter.
“You look gorgeous, my dear,” she sighed. “Who are you getting all prettied up for?”
There was no sense in lying to her mother. “Pericles, Mother. I want him to notice me tonight.”
“He certainly will, darling. Here, let me help you with your hair,” her mother offered.
Accepting the offer, Lelia knelt down on the floor as her mother strode towards her. Lelia closed her eyes as her mother pulled at her hair and twisted it about. Time passed slowly and it seemed like forever for her mother to finish. A moment of silence passed by before her mother spoke.
“Lelia…” she trailed off. “You look like… a goddess.”
“Really?” Lelia opened her eyes and turned toward the only mirror in the house. The girl she saw in the mirror was definitely not her. The girl in the mirror wore the long scarlet tunic with her hair half up, half down with gold beads and flowers threaded into her hair. She looked confident, rich. Not at all like Lelia, the daughter of the poorest merchant in Pompeii. She grinned and embraced her mother.
“Thank you,” Lelia whispered. “I couldn’t have pictured myself more beautiful than this.”
“This is your first time coming,” her mother reminded. “I want only the best for my eldest daughter.”
Lelia stepped away from her mother and excused herself. Picking up her best sandals, she laced them up past her ankles and tied them tightly. She was ready.
“Mother, can I leave early?” she wondered.
“Of course. Go charm that Pericles,” her mother encouraged.
Bowing in gratitude, Lelia dashed out the door and entered the mass of people on their way to the festival grounds. Excited chatter filled the air with a buzz. Speculations reached her ears on who would be returning to earth to walk amongst the living. Not helping herself, she joined in on the wondering but only mentally. Festival of Mania held Mundus open, allowing the spirits of the deceased to roam the world and visit those they left behind. Perhaps her Granpapa would come and tell her the old Grecian tales of the gods and their demigod children. A tap on the shoulder interrupted her thoughts. Turning, she saw Pericles, to her great surprise. He wore a short royal blue tunic that made his sky colored eyes seem brighter than ever and his blond hair was tousled across his forehead carelessly.
“Lelia,” he greeted. “You look… absolutely stunning.”
She nearly fainted. Was he honestly speaking to her? And calling her stunning? This was certainly a day that would be remembered forever in her mind.
“Pericles, you speak too kindly,” she reprimanded.
“No, even the gods and goddesses are jealous of you tonight,” he continued.
“Hush!” she gasped, glancing up at the heavens. “You’ll upset them. You know they don’t like being compared to mortals.”
He grinned, flashing his white, perfect teeth. “I don’t care. It’s true.” He held out his arm. “Mind to accompany me to the festival?”
“Of course,” she said.
They walked together, her hand resting on his muscular arm. This wasn’t the first time they had spoken but it was the first time in a while. They chatted about their lives, exchanging family stories. Joyful music reached their ears and they knew that they were close to the festival. Anticipation won over patience and Lelia tugged Pericles to the festival grounds. It felt like she was trudging through mud as she neared the grounds until abruptly, they were in the middle of the dancing area. Instantly, Pericles twirled her around and joined in with the dancing. Song after song made the time fly by and before she knew it, it was nearly dusk. The time was almost at hand for Mundus to be opened.
Pericles suddenly pulled her away from the crowd. Stumbling over her own feet, Lelia collapsed into his arms. Hearts racing, they gazed at each other for a moment. Pericles began to lean towards her, obviously going in for a kiss. Lelia rose to her tip-toes to lessen the distance. They were about to kiss when the ground rumbled violently beneath them. Thrust to the ground, Pericles caught Lelia before she collided with the dusty ground.
“What was that?” she choked out.
“Perhaps Mundus opening?” Pericles suggested.
She shook her head. “No, it can’t be. It’s never happened before on the other Festivals of Mania.”
Pericles assisted her to stand only for both to be knocked to the ground again. Screams arose from the crowd of the festival and footsteps pounded away, back towards the city.
“What’s going on?” Lelia demanded, fear dripping into her voice.
“I don’t know, but it’s not good. Let’s get out of here,” Pericles said.
He stood and pulled her up. For a moment, Lelia thought he was going to try to kiss her again. Instead, he grabbed her hand and ran. Everybody was already gone from the festival grounds and was almost back into the city. As Pericles and Lelia reached the streets, she saw families huddled together and loners pointing to the opposite direction that they were running from. Curious, she looked over her shoulder and was met with a terrifying sight.
“Pericles, we must find shelter!” she shrieked. “Vesuvius… it’s exploding! We’ll die if we stay out here!”
Nodding, Pericles continued to run only stopping to determine where to hide. He pointed to an abandoned house and they burst inside, crouching down together in a corner farthest away from the entrance. Lelia sobbed openly in front of him. Normally, she would lock tears from any one seeing her weak but she didn’t care right now. She was terrified and she wondered where her family was, if they were safe.
“Shh,” Pericles comforted. “Shh, it’s alright. It’s going to be alright. You’re father is a merchant, right?”
Clearing the tears from her face, she nodded. “Yes. But what’s that got to do with any thing?”
“He has a ship, does he not? You and your family live close to the port, right? They are probably far away from here by now.”
Ice crawled into her heart. “But… I’m still here… I need to get to them!” She stood, offering her hand. “Come, Pericles, we can still catch them. We can be safe, truly safe.”
The earth pitched forward once more, throwing her into Pericles lap. She blushed and attempted to move away. Pericles, however, wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Their foreheads touched lightly, slightly blurring his face.
“Lelia, it’s too late. If we go out there, we might not make it,” he said.
“Shh.” He laid a finger on her lips. “Shh.”
Faintly, she could hear people screeching in agony as the lava and ashes fell upon them. She knew that chances of her and Pericles living were slim.
“Kiss me,” she whispered.
He smiled and took her face into his hands. Goosebumps skittered up her arms from pleasure and anticipation. He was going to be the last thing she saw, felt, tasted before she died. Their lips barely brushed each other when another tremble and tossed them back. Pericles hit his head against the wall and passed out, slumping to the floor. Lelia cried out and lay down beside him.
Immense heat washed over her, sucking the air out of her lungs. She gasped and struggled to breath. Resting her head on Pericles chest, she whispered, “I’ve always loved you, Pericles, ever since the day I first saw you. I’m sorry it had to end this way.”
Hot ash licked at her bare skin and soon blanketed them both. Any efforts to keep the ash away were wasted. Succumbing to her death, Lelia held onto Pericles and watched as her world faded black.