The Veil of Smoke

Washington State, 1959

Brendan grasped at consciousness, dragging his eyelids open like a pair of heavy drapes, and blinking at the light beyond them. Bringing his surroundings into focus proved equally challenging. Murky light filtered through dismal avocado green fabric that hung floor to ceiling at his left and at the foot of his bed. To his right, a radiant white figure came into partial focus.
Sleep’s magnetic embrace lured him, but he struggled against it. He had a visitor. Brendan wanted little more than to be able to rub the fogginess from his eyes, but his leaden hands would not cooperate. Although the figure next to his bed glowed with angelic warmth, he knew this couldn’t be heaven. He was too worn out. Heaven, he believed, would deliver him from the prison of his polio-ridden body. Here, behind the drab green partition, his wasted form still trapped him. Following a surgery to improve mobility, he now appeared to be in worse condition than before. He couldn’t even summon the strength to lift a finger. He did not have the body of a typical sixteen-year-old.

The woman in white leaned close and whispered in his ear. “Brendan?”

Her voice penetrated the fuzzy edges of lingering sleepiness, yet he couldn’t quite escape the desire to close his eyes.

He tried moving his legs, but a wave of pain engulfed his body, sharpening his unwilling senses. He heard a moan—probably his own, but his body and mind seemed to have disconnected to some degree, and he was currently incapable of bridging the gaps. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to any longer.

“I am going to give you something for the pain. It will help you sleep.” A cool hand swept over his brow. Oh, the happy promise of those words. Warmth drifted up his arm and spread throughout his body. He sunk back into the deep pleasures of blissful oblivion.
The woman’s gentle voice inspired unquestioning trust. She smelled faintly of eucalyptus and hospital soap. “Come with me…” Her voice tugged him deeper into the warm comforts of sleep, and this time, he didn’t fight it.


Hooves clattered against stone, jarring Brendan’s mind awake. Upon opening his eyes, he immediately discerned two things: he was traveling in a rustic closed carriage and even upon waking, his brain was more alert than it had been in days—if not weeks. Vague images from interrupted dreams hovered like ghosts at the edges of his consciousness, but his senses were on rapid fire and he seemed to be processing all the information they provided with equal speed.

He stretched, and a robed arm extended from his body draped in layers of heavy, white wool—not the faded hospital robes he had grown accustomed to. His hand was large and strong with a bulky, iron signet ring on the index finger. Alarm jolted his mind as he realized that the hand—although it obeyed his bidding—did not appear to be his own. Odd. His body was solid and muscular—athletic even. He raised a hand to his cheek. Stubble.

He didn’t care where he was as long as he was no longer confined to a hospital bed or lying captive in an iron lung at Rancho Los Amigos. Whether this was a dream or not didn’t matter to him much in this moment. He simply savored the details. His body was strong and healthy. That could certainly be considered heavenly, compared to what he had endured over the past several years. A smile crept over his lips as he examined his white robe closer. Surely this could not be a garment of the afterlife. Heaven would certainly be beyond his wildest imaginings, offering much more than the clichéd white robe—and only a dingy white one at that. Besides, it itched.

Next to him, a veiled woman kept vigil over a curtained window at the opposite door of the carriage. He leaned forward quietly, so as not to disturb her, and drew back the curtain on his side of the carriage.

Softly rolling countryside extended to a large cone of a mountain he could not identify. Rows of neatly trellised grape vines disappeared over the hill closest to the road, interrupted only by a small cluster of cypress trees. The carriage rattled past a cluster of robed travelers, already grimy from foot travel, now dustier by far from the cloud of dust their wheels churned up.

“Did I wake you?” The woman next to him interrupted his thoughts with a mischievous smile. She pushed back her veil and examined his face. “You look much better now. Just look at that vigorous color. Do you feel well?”

When he didn’t answer immediately, she bit her lip. Her long, delicate fingers fluttered to her hair. They found one of the curly brown tresses that had escaped her elaborate hair arrangement and wound their way into the corkscrew curl as if soothed by the mindless action.

“We rode through the night,” she said turning back to gaze out the window. “We must be nearly there by now.”

She pulled a small bronze mirror from a purse at her waist and examined her face with a satisfied smile. Her delicate fingertips patted the skin at the corners of her eyes and he half expected her to complain about the dust. “Amazing,” she said with a giggle. Although the words reeked of ego, she seemed more amused than smug about her appearance, which he had to admit was breathtaking.

He turned back to the endless miles of vineyards outside the window and tried to gather his thoughts. He wasn’t ready to show vulnerability or admit ignorance just yet. If his memory served him correctly, he had last drifted off to sleep in a dismal hospital room in Seattle—far enough from his hometown that his father and brothers had only been able to visit a couple times a week. Yet it was obvious from the palm trees and sunny skies that he was no longer in Washington. Given the primitive nature of the carriage, it had to be much earlier than the summer of 1959 as well. A walled city grew on the horizon. Buildings spilled out across the hillside surrounding it, as if it had burst at the seams.

“You really aren’t going to question me about it?” The corners of her mouth twitched and her eyes hinted at a smile. Apprehension tugged at him, but he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing she had the upper hand. He would keep silent and alert until he knew what was going on.

“Very well, I’ll explain it all when we get there,” she promised the back of his head when he refused to respond.

He searched his mind for a detail that seemed just beyond his grasp. Her voice rang with an odd lilt that he vaguely recalled but couldn’t quite place—and those nervous fingers of hers. His memory sparked, wrenching his stomach. No—it couldn’t be her—not after nearly two years of trying to convince himself it had all been nothing more than a dream. If it was her, then she was years older than she had been when they last met, but then so was he.
The carriage clattered to a stop at a narrow gate in the city’s high outer wall. The road continued beyond it, flanked on either side by high-curbed walkways.

“This is as far as I can take you,” The driver announced hopping down from his seat. “Carriages cannot enter the city at this hour.” He extended his hand to help the woman step out.

“You might arrange for a lectica, but it is just a short walk to the estate of Julia Felix. Just past the vineyard, you will find the entrance to her thermopolium and beyond that her baths and the main entrance to her residence. If walking is acceptable, you may send a servant back to collect your things. I will water the horses and wait here.”

A man seated on a bench outside the gate strode over. “The well is bone dry today, you must go further on down the road, past the necropolis, where they will bring in water from a cistern.”
Their driver threw his hands toward the sky. “Ah—of course, welcome to Pompeii.”
Brendan latched onto his traveling companion’s elbow. She turned slightly, eyebrows raised in an unspoken question.


“You should call me Annthea here, Brendanus,” her graceful lips curved into an amused smile. She was a little too proud of this kidnapping triumph.

Her eyes held his for a moment and she smiled. “I thought you might figure it out if I gave you enough time. I’ll explain it all as soon as we have a moment alone,” she whispered before turning back to offer the driver her hand. She gathered her gown neatly around her ankles and stepped gracefully from the carriage.

Brendan fumbled with his own awkward garment before stepping out. The scratchy fabric hung heavily on his shoulders. A leather strap from his sandal caught in the tight doorway as he maneuvered out of the carriage and he landed heavily on the cobbled walk.

“He just woke,” Anna said to the carriage driver with a shrug.

The driver grunted his indifference.

“We’ll manage on foot,” she added, taking Brendan’s elbow and steering him toward the pedestrian gate. “I’ll send a porter.”

“Pompeii? Anna, what on earth were you thinking bringing us here? I studied this in school last year. It doesn’t end well.”

“Keep your voice down,” Anna whispered, looping his arm in her own. “We do not want to draw attention to ourselves as outsiders.”

Outsiders. They had defied the laws of time before, and he knew without a doubt that coming here would not only make them obvious outsiders, it would put their lives at risk. Then again, he had little left to lose.