This story is by Nychelle and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Matt came here alone. From across the seas.
They planned to go together. That was before the argument this morning. She preferred a day exploring the Amalfi coastline. She loved the light and energy of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Better than the depressive vibes of the ruins of an ancient civilization crouching in the shadow of Vesuvius.
It seemed an appropriate analogy to mark the end of their seven year relationship. Over time they had simply grown apart.
The room is bland and instantly restrictive. Narrow doorway, beige walls that hold their secrets close. Save for one faded fresco lurking at back of a historic wall. Surviving Pompeii. Two small marble benches sit on opposite sides. His work as graphic designer prompted him to come and find inspiration to build his artistic repertoire. When he entered the room, he noticed the stranger, the old Italian propped uneasily against the corner wall. He chose to ignore him, as irrelevant. The stranger’s eyes followed as he moved about, absorbing the culture, the faint musky smell of ancient times.
Inexplicably, he felt his breath shorten, beads of sweat on his cheeks, as he thrust his hands deeply into his pockets. A distinct feeling of nausea persisted and he moved awkwardly to the bench to regain his balance. The stranger watched emotionless.
It seems irrational. He is young, fit and can keep up with the best of them. He laughs, suddenly, breaking the silence. There is no response from the corner. Recovering, he reaches for his camera and adjusts the lenses. He moves towards the fresco, and gazes upwards. It pales in comparison to others seen that day, yet there is something compelling that inextricably excites him.
The stranger noisily changes position. He is watching Matt closely. He feels unreasonable antipathy towards the Italian. His space has been invaded. Why is this person even here? It makes no sense. Eventually the stranger averts his gaze.
Matt steps self consciously closer to the fresco and zooms the lens to the best angle. In the sudden glow of flashlight, he notices the fresco has appeared to lengthen, and extend across the wall to his right. The extension appears on the walls in vivid colour. He carefully touches the edges and recoils, as though receiving an electrical shock. He discovers the fresco is more than he first assumed. Watching in disbelief, the images sway and morph, until they depict a recurring young dark haired woman seated on a marble bench. That marble bench.
Long buried memories are revived. He was a lowly caste servant with artistic talent. Sponsored by a wealthy merchant to create the rich man’s frescos. Of his young and beautiful wife. His heart skips a beat. She seemed to be about his age.
He remembers. She sat quietly and he used his skill to recreate her loveliness to impress his benefactor and others of the class.
History replayed within the confines of the room. The original piece remained indistinct and blurred, while the continuance resembled a modern timeline. The expressions changed as the fresco continued. At first she appeared withdrawn, even a little sulky. As his hand gently traced the wall, he noticed the vague hint of a coquettish smile. Her robes resembled a Greek stola of the times and she clasped a lightly textured palla about her shoulders. Her eyes dark and foreboding. He stared fixedly at the wall for quite some time, trying to absorb the technique. His right hand traced the mural, feeling the subtle texture of smooth and slightly conflicted. He learned somewhere that murals were executed upon freshly laid or wet lime plaster, and that water was used as the vehicle for the dry powder pigment to merge with the plaster, and the setting of the plaster.
He stared in wonder at the miracle of how the painting had become an integral part of the wall, yet his gaze kept returning to that smile, those eyes, the way she inclined her head. Teasing. Shaking his head, he stopped at the end frame. She was there, as if it was yesterday. Her smile confident now, assured, the look of a woman in love. Blissfully unaware of the menacing figure in the background. Large male hands rose aggressively. He remembered creating her story in the fresco.
He has completely forgotten the stranger. The camera whirrs eagerly, capturing every nuance.
Like an actor on stage, he felt the texture of his knee length tunic. It hung loosely, the ancient garb of an artist. In this room, he transcended through time back to Pompeii. He felt the inescapable bond throughout the ages. And he knew without doubt. The fresco was his own work, telling their story. Their love.
The merchant had returned unexpectedly and witnessed his betrayal in that small room. It was embarrassing to his stature and reputation. His wife by her actions was now decidedly a whore, preferring a simpleton to him. The lovers would need to die to avenge his humiliation.
His attention returned to the final frame, and in the changing afternoon light, he is distracted by sudden movement. The stranger rises, darkens the space, and replicates the menacing figure in the fresco. Matt blinks and struggles to comprehend what he is seeing. The form resembles the stranger, but the Italian is now replete in the rich brocade of an ancient wealthy merchant.
His mind returned to the past. She was fearful and sobbed. He comforted her, promising protection.
The merchant barricaded the adjoining doorway in his rage, so escape was impossible. But not for that reason would this day be etched in historical horror.
It happened so quickly.
The air became thick and intense. A mountain of ash flowed from the heavens like a suffocating river, overwhelming everything in its path.
In those brief moments, death was inevitable.
The merchant disappeared in seconds before the mountain of ash filled the orifice that was the room. Matt held his lover close, trying desperately to shield her from the horror. The roar and darkness simultaneously overcame them, and they remained entwined through eternity in stone.
It was over.
Now Matt sits quietly on the marble bench. His head aches. He feels exhausted and checks his watch. It is August 24, and he recalls reading one of the tour flyers that remind it is the anniversary of the eruption.
He rubs his forehead and places his palms on his knees. He’s wearing the loafers he bought in Rome two days ago. What just happened?
Was it a dream or a seizure?
Something about the woman, her mannerisms. The way she tosses her hair, and teases him with her dark eyes. How she inclines her head slightly before the camera. He remembers. They were here together back then. His fresco became his legacy to her.
A love that could transcend tragedy and time. He feels the old familiar surge of desire as he tries to process it all. How could such a love die an ordinary death?
He senses movement from the single opening and realizes it is raining.
The stranger stands stiffly inside the entrance. He is dressed in jeans and designer tee. He wears a badge denoting his status as a maintenance volunteer. He extends an umbrella towards Matt. For the first time, he speaks. He sounds annoyed.
“You have to leave now. I can’t be responsible for your safety if you try to stay in this weather.”
“That’s a change for you,” Matt returns, as he gathers his phone and stands. For some reason, a huge weight has lifted from his shoulders. He misses Anika, has so much to tell her. Then impulsively,
“Wait,” he addresses the Italian, “I have some photos to show you. There is so much to this fresco. It tells an amazing story.”
Sighing, the Italian moves closer in a last attempt to placate and dispatch him.
“Here,” Matt says proudly. He flips desperately through a dozen vacant concrete images. Nothing. Confused, he points to the walls.
“They were here.”
He remembers how carefully he had chosen the angles. .
The Italian smiles for the first time.
“Ok, time to go. We’re done.” Matt nervously accepts the umbrella.
“Yes. Thank you” his voice is heavy with emotion.
Under his breath, the Italian murmurs, “Bloody crazy tourists.”