‘Six busts from ancient Rome are the centerpiece of our new exhibit,’ the museum notice read, ‘portraits of a family found embracing under ash in an ancient Roman villa.’
The wayward poster floated into Melissa’s hands as she hurried down the city street with her head bowed into the swirling whirlwind of paper and dead leaves. It might have been any old notice, or an expired coupon that flew into her grasp, but this one spoke of a long-dead family huddled together for eternity, and it tugged at her orphaned heartstrings.
The wind howled, and papers fluttered and scampered around her. She gazed at the tall brick building, with its stately lion statues guarding the entrance to the past, as the icy wind bit her cheeks and snarled in her hair.
Melissa paid the admission; the wind raged outside and its deep rumble coursed through the snobby silence. The wind wailed and echoed through the museum corridor, and rattled against the walls like the Big Bad Wolf trying to blow the house down. Melissa scanned the spooky hall, hoping for comfort and company from the receptionist, but he had vanished.
Goosebumps crawled up her arms as she entered the cold gallery. The six busts sat on their plain pedestals, forming a close semicircle. Melissa’s spine crawled with the intimate details of their facial features. They were so lifelike that their long-forgotten voices murmured in the deep crevices of her mind. The stern father, the kind mother, the happy little girl, and the venerable old grandfather, gazed at her through lifeless eyes, but their lives surrounded Melissa and the love they had for one another tinged the white marble with a golden hue. She paused the longest on the bust of a young man, his face forever set in haughty defiance, and Melissa heard the soft melodious voice whispering brotherly banter in her buzzing brain. The low whirr of the climate control system enveloped her, then hollow laughter and tangled conversations wafted through the gallery across time and space. Melissa smiled at the marble young man, then turned her attention to the final bust.
Oomph, and the breath escaped her skin as soon as her gaze met the stone eyes of the young woman with curly hair and a sweet expression. Punched in the gut, Melissa bent forward, gasping for air under the blank gaze of the statue with her own features. Hewn from marble and forever smooth and young, Melissa wheezed for air as she stared at her own visage, the same eyes she saw in the mirror, the same sweet expression which had helped her navigate a cruel and lonely, family-less world. Tears choked Melissa’s throat and stung her eyes.
The howling wind came whooshing down the corridor and enveloped her in dark smoke and ash. The ground shook, and the sky exploded, and people screamed and wailed. Smoke singed her hair, and the heat choked her, but powerful arms embraced her burning skin, and through the fiery smoke she gazed into her brother’s eyes. Her little sister grasped her waist, her mother and father and grandfather huddled around them, protecting their young, their future, as the wrathful Vesuvius incinerated their flesh.
Melissa gasped and coughed and choked, and clean and cool air filled her lungs. She stood alone in the silent gallery, surrounded by the white marble gazes from which spectral tendrils emanated, swirling and swaddling her in their ghostly and welcoming embrace.