'Drood', 'Twilight' Offer Old Horror, New Thrills

'Drood' cover
Drood
By Dan Simmons
Hardcover, 784
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $26.99
'Twilight' cover
Twilight
By Stephenie Meyer
Paperback, 544 pages
Little, Brown Young Readers
List Price: $10.99

All writers are grave robbers, but genre fiction writers are the most brazen of all. Of necessity, to write a romance or mystery or horror story means sticking to the narrow confines of a formulaic plot; exhuming stock character types; and, generally, digging up literary turf that's been worked and reworked to the point of exhaustion. That's why it's a special pleasure to stumble upon two authors — one a literary phenom — who've breathed new life into what must be the creakiest of genres: the tale of terror.

Dan Simmons' fictional filching begins with the title of his thick novel, called Drood. Dickens' last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, has tempted scores of writers into taking a crack at completing what would have been Dickens' first mystery story. Simmons, however, is more interested in the supernatural possibilities lurking in Dickens' skeleton of a plot: In this melodramatic page-turner, Simmons interweaves biographical facts from Dickens' life with appearances by ghosts, zombies, brain-eating bugs and an Egyptian demon, named Drood, who's forcing Dickens to write his unholy memoirs. The novel opens on June 9, 1865, when Dickens, along with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother, actually were passengers on a London bound train that derailed. Here's a description of Dickens comforting a trapped female passenger whose arm is sticking through a window. Workers around him are prying open the window to free her:

[Dickens] squeezed the woman's hand. Her pale fingers squeezed back, the first finger closing, opening, and then curling and closing again around his first fingers much as a newborn baby would instinctively but tentatively grasp its father's hand. ...
"Oh, Christ!" cried someone.
Dickens crawled forward to offer his help and finally saw into the space.
There was no woman. ... Only a bare arm severed just below the shoulder lay in the tiny open circle amidst the debris.

That passage should give you a taste of Simmons' zest for the creepy crawlies. Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan's Labyrinth, has bought the film rights to this novel, and he'll have a blast depicting the maze of catacombs and sewers beneath Victorian London that compose Drood's and Dickens' imagined secret universe.

Drood is a giddy scare fest, but to tell you the truth, around page 600 or so, it became a bit wearying, like listening to someone shriek for hours and hours. Maybe that's why I was receptive to turning to tales about calm, controlled vampires in the rainy Northwest; in other words, I finally decided to investigate what all the fuss is about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Everyone is reading these novels: from all the girls in my daughter's fifth-grade class to most of my college students and their parents. The Twilight series — which is composed of four novels about a 17-year-old human high school student named Bella Swan and her boyfriend, Edward Cullen, who is a vampire — even has been credited, along with the Harry Potter books, by the National Endowment for the Arts for boosting American reading statistics this past year. I've read two of the novels in the series so far and, I confess, I have joined the legions of the bitten and smitten.

If you're familiar with Bram Stoker's Dracula (or seen the katrillion movies made from it), you know that vampires are about sex. The whole "I vant to suck your blood" routine is a cover story to cloak commingling. And therein lies the brilliance of Meyer's revision of the Dracula tale. Because, in the Twilight series, vampires are still a cover story for talking about sex, but this time round the emphasis is on abstinence. Edward, whose character is indebted to 19th-century brooding bad boys like Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester, is a vampire vegan. In other words, he keeps his fangs, uh, "zipped up." Here's Bella suggestively explaining their boundaries in the second novel, New Moon:

"Edward had drawn many careful lines for our physical relationship, with the intent being to keep me alive. Though I respected the need for maintaining a safe distance between my skin and his razor-sharp, venom coated teeth, I tended to forget about trivial things like that when he was kissing me."

A lot has already been made of the fact that Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon and that her series invests Dracula with conservative Christian values, but that take doesn't account for the series' power. Because what the Twilight books gain from this chaste storyline — at least in the first two novels — is a heady, passionate emphasis on yearning. All kinds of yearning. Desire in these novels isn't just tethered to sex; it's free-floating and intense and it particularly emanates from our heroine, Bella, who's gutsy and hungry for release from ordinary girly-girl stuff. Meyer dramatizes — and, for some of us, reawakens — that adolescent feeling of wanting so badly to be lifted out of the high school cafeteria line and transported into some other life that's somehow larger, more vivid. Her vampire adventure tales aren't so much about "I vant to suck your blood," as they are simply about "I want, I want." Both Meyer and Simmons are inventive inheritors of the tale of terror, but Myers is the writer who really proves that the term "the undead" refers not just to vampires, but to the supernatural genre itself.

Excerpt: 'Drood'

Drood
Drood
By Dan Simmons
Hardcover, 784 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List price: $26.99

Chapter One

My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name. Some say that I am a gambling man and those that say so are correct, so my wager with you, Dear Reader, would be that you have neither read nor heard of any of my books or plays. Perhaps you British or American peoples a hundred and twenty-five or so years in my future do not speak English at all. Perhaps you dress like Hottentots, live in gas-lighted caves, travel around in balloons, and communicate by telegraphed thoughts unhindered by any spoken or written language.

Even so, I would wager my current fortune, such as it is, and all future royalties from my plays and novels, such as they may be, on the fact that you do remember the name and books and plays and invented characters of my friend and former collaborator, a certain Charles Dickens.

So this true story shall be about my friend (or at least about the man who was once my friend) Charles Dickens and about the Staplehurst accident that took away his peace of mind, his health, and, some might whisper, his sanity. This true story will be about Charles Dickens's final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man — if man he was — named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called "my Babylon" or "the Great Oven." In this manuscript (which, as I have explained — for legal reasons as well as for reasons of honour — I intend to seal away from all eyes for more than one hundred years after his death and my own), I shall answer the question which perhaps no one else alive in our time knew to ask — "Did the famous and loveable and honourable Charles Dickens plot to murder an innocent person and dissolve away his flesh in a pit of caustic lime and secretly inter what was left of him, mere bones and a skull, in the crypt of an ancient cathedral that was an important part of Dickens's own childhood? And did Dickens then scheme to scatter the poor victim's spectacles, rings, stickpins, shirt studs, and pocket watch in the River Thames? And if so, or even if Dickens only dreamed he did these things, what part did a very real phantom named Drood have in the onset of such madness?"

The date of Dickens's disaster was 9 June, 1865. The locomotive carrying his success, peace of mind, sanity, manuscript, and mistress was — quite literally — heading for a breach in the rails and a terrible fall.

I do not know if you Dear Readers living so many years hence still record or remember history (perhaps you have renounced Herodotus and Thucydides and dwell perpetually in the Year Zero), but if any sense of history remains in your time, you must know well the important events of the year we called Anno Domini 1865. Some events, such as the end of the fraternal conflagration in the United States, were considered of some drama and considerable interest by many in England, although not by Charles Dickens. Despite his great interest in America — having travelled there already and written books about it, not altogether flattering books one must add, and after having struggled so fiercely to receive some recompense for the piracy of his works in that copyright-flaunting chaos of former colonies — Dickens had little interest in a war between some distant North and more-distant South. But in 1865, the year of his Staplehurst disaster, Charles Dickens had reason to be very satisfied indeed with his own personal history.

He was the most popular novelist in England, perhaps in the world. Many people in England and America considered my friend to be — outside of Shakespeare and perhaps Chaucer and Keats — the greatest writer who had ever lived.

Of course, I knew this to be nonsense, but popularity, as they say (or as I have said), breeds more popularity. I had seen Charles Dickens stuck in a rural, doorless privy with his trousers down around his ankles, bleating like a lost sheep for some paper to wipe his arse, and you will have to forgive me if that image remains more true to me than "the greatest writer who ever lived."

But on this June day in 1865, Dickens had many reasons to be smug.

Seven years earlier, the writer had separated from his wife, Catherine, who obviously had offended him in their twenty-two years of marriage by uncomplainingly bearing him ten children and suffering several miscarriages, all the while generally putting up with his every complaint and catering to his every whim. This endeared his wife to him to the point that in 1857, during a walking trip we were taking in the countryside during which we had sampled several bottles of local wine, Dickens chose to describe his beloved Catherine to me as "Very dear to me, Wilkie, very dear. But, on the whole, more bovine than entrancing, more ponderous than feminine . . . an alchemist's dull brew of vague-mindedness, constant incompetence, shuffling sluggishness, and self-indulgent idleness, a thick gruel stirred only by the paddle of her frequent self-pity."

I doubt if my friend remembered telling me this, but I have not forgotten.

Actually, it was a complaint that did Catherine in, domestically speaking. It seems (actually, it does not "seem" at all — I was there when he purchased the blasted thing) that Dickens had bought the actress Ellen Ternan an expensive bracelet after our production of The Frozen Deep, and the idiot jeweller had delivered the thing to the Dickenses' home in London, Tavistock House, not to Miss Ternan's flat. As a result of this mis-delivery, Catherine had given forth several weeks' worth of bovine mewlings, refusing to believe that it was merely her husband's token offering of innocent esteem to the actress who had done such a wonderful (actually, I would say barely competent) job as the hero's beloved, Clara Burnham, in our . . . no, my . . . play about unrequited love in the Arctic.

It is true, as Dickens continued to explain to his deeply hurt wife in 1858, that the author had the habit of showering generous gifts on his fellow players and participants in his various amateur theatricals. After The Frozen Deep he had already distributed bracelets and pendants, a watch, and one set of three shirt studs in blue enamel to others in the production.

But, then, he wasn't in love with these others. And he was in love with young Ellen Ternan. I knew that. Catherine Dickens knew that. No one can be sure if Charles Dickens knew that. The man was such a convincing fictionalist, not to mention one of the most self-righteous fellows ever to have trod the Earth, that I doubt if he ever confronted and acknowledged his own deeper motivations, except when they were as pure as springwater.

In this case, it was Dickens who flew into a rage, shouting and roaring at the soon-cowed Catherine — I apologise for any inadvertent bovine connotation there — that his wife's accusations were a slur on the pure and luminously perfect person of Ellen Ternan. Dickens's emotional, romantic, and, dare I say it, erotic fantasies always revolved around sanctified, chivalric devotion to some hypothetical young and innocent goddess whose purity was eternally beyond reproach. But Dickens may have forgotten that the hapless and now domestically doomed Catherine had watched Uncle John, the farce that we had put on (it was the tradition in our century, you see, always to present a farce along with a serious drama) after The Frozen Deep. In Uncle John, Dickens (age forty-six) played the elderly gentleman and Ellen Ternan (eighteen) played his ward. Naturally, Uncle John falls madly in love with the girl less than half his age. Catherine must have also known that while I had written the bulk of the drama, The Frozen Deep, about the search for the lost Franklin Expedition, it was her husband who had written and cast the romantic farce, after he had met Ellen Ternan.

Not only does Uncle John fall in love with the young girl he should be protecting, but he showers her with, and I quote from the play's stage directions, "wonderful presents — a pearl necklace, diamond ear-rings."

So it is little wonder that when the expensive bracelet, meant for Ellen, showed up at Tavistock House, Catherine, between pregnancies, roused herself from her vague-minded shuffling sluggishness and bellowed like a milk cow with a Welsh dairyman's prod between her withers.

Dickens responded as any guilty husband would. But only if that husband happened to be the most popular writer in all of England and the English-speaking world and perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived.

First, he insisted that Catherine make a social call on Ellen Ternan and Ellen's mother, showing everyone that there could be no hint of suspicion or jealousy on his wife's part. In essence, Dickens was demanding that his wife publicly apologise to his mistress — or at least to the woman he would soon choose to be his mistress when he worked up the courage to make the arrangements. Weeping, miserable, Catherine did as she was bid. She humiliated herself by making a social call on Ellen and Mrs. Ternan.

It was not enough to assuage Dickens's fury. He cast the mother of his ten children out.

He sent Charley, his eldest son, to live with Catherine. He kept the rest of the children to live with him at Tavistock House and eventually at Gad's Hill Place. (It was always my observation that Dickens enjoyed his children until they began to think and act for themselves in any way . . . in other words, when they ceased behaving like Little Nell or Paul Dombey or one of his other fictional constructs . . . and then he quickly grew very bored with them.)

There was more to this scandal, of course — protests by Catherine's parents, public retractions of those protests forced by Dickens and his solicitors, bullying and misleading public statements by the author, legal manoeuvrings, much terrible publicity, and a final and irrevocable legal separation forced on his wife. He eventually refused to communicate with her at all, even about the well-being of their children.

All this from the man who epitomised, not just for England but for the world, the image of "the happy home." Of course Dickens still needed a woman in his house. He had many servants. He had nine children at home with whom he did not wish to be bothered except when he was in the mood to play with them or dangle them on his knee for photographs. He had social obligations. There were menus and shopping lists and florists' orders to prepare. There was much cleaning and organising to oversee. Charles Dickens needed to be freed from all these details. He was, you must understand, the world's greatest writer.

Dickens did the obvious thing, although it might not have seemed so obvious to you or to me. (Perhaps in this distant twentieth or twenty-first century to which I consign this memoir, it is the obvious thing. Or perhaps you have, if you are smart, abandoned the quaint and idiotic institution of marriage altogether. As you will see, I avoided matrimony in my time, choosing to live with one woman while having children with another, and some in my time, to my great pleasure, called me a scoundrel and a cad. But I digress.)

So Dickens did the obvious thing. He elevated Catherine's spinster sister Georgina to the role of surrogate wife, mistress of his household, and discipline-mistress of his children, hostess at his many parties and dinners, not to mention Sergeant Major to the cook and servants.

When the inevitable rumours began — centred on Georgina rather than on Ellen Ternan, who had receded, one might say, from the gaslights to the shadows — Dickens ordered a doctor to Tavistock House. The doctor was told to examine Georgina and then was ordered to publish a statement, which he did, declaring to all and sundry that Miss Georgina Hogarth was virgo intacta.

And that, Charles Dickens assumed, would be that.

His younger daughter would later say to me, or at least say within my hearing, "My father was like a madman. This affair brought out all that was the worst — and all that was the weakest — in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home."

If Dickens was aware of their unhappiness, or if it mattered to him if he was indeed aware, he did not show it. Not to me, nor to his newer and ultimately closer friends.

And he was correct in his assumption that the crisis would pass without his readers' abandoning him. If they knew of his domestic irregularities at all, they had obviously forgiven him. He was, after all, the English prophet of the happy home and the world's greatest writer. Allowances must be made.

Our male literary peers and friends also forgave and forgot — with the exception of Thackeray, but that is another story — and I must admit that some of them, some of us, tacitly or privately, applauded Charles's freeing himself of his domestic obligations to such an unattractive and perpetually dragging sea anchor. The break gave a glimmer of hope to the bleakest of married men and amused us bachelors with the thought that perhaps one could come back from that undiscovered matrimonial country from which it was said that no man could ever return.

But, I pray you, Dear Reader, remember that we are speaking of the man who, sometime earlier, shortly before his acquaintance with Ellen Ternan, as he and I cruised the theatres for what we called "the special little periwinkles" — those very young and very pretty actresses we found to our mutual aesthetic satisfaction — had said to me, "Wilkie, if you can think of any tremendous way of passing the night, in the meantime, do. I don't care what it is. I give, for this night only, restraint to the Winds! If the mind can devise anything sufficiently in the style of Sybarite Rome in the days of its culminating voluptuousness, I am your man."

And for such sport, I was his.

I have not forgotten 9 June, 1865, the true beginning of this cascade of incredible events.

Dickens, explaining to friends that he was suffering from overwork and what he had been calling his " frost-bitten foot" since mid-winter, had taken a week off from his work of finishing Our Mutual Friend to enjoy a holiday in Paris. I do not know if Ellen Ternan and her mother went with him. I do know they returned with him.

A lady whom I have never met nor much wish to, a certain Mrs. William Clara Pitt Byrne (a friend, I am told, of Charles Waterton — the naturalist and explorer who reported his bold adventures all over the world but who had died from a silly fall at his estate of Walton Hall just eleven days before the Staplehurst accident, his ghost later reported to be haunting the place in the form of a great grey heron), loved to send little bits of malicious gossip to the Times. This malevolent morsel, reporting the sighting of our friend on the ferry from Boulogne to Folkestone that day of the ninth of June, appeared some months after Dickens's accident:

Travelling with him was a lady not his wife, nor his sister- in- law, yet he strutted about the deck with the air of a man bristling with self- importance, every line of his face and every gesture of his limbs seemed haughtily to say — "Look at me; make the most of your chance. I am the great, I am theonly Charles Dickens; whatever I may choose to do is justified by that fact."

I am told that Mrs. Byrne is known primarily for a book she published some years ago titled Flemish Interiors. In my modest opinion, she should have reserved her vitriolic pen for scribbling about divans and wallpaper. Human beings are clearly beyond her narrow scope.

After disembarking at Folkestone, Dickens, Ellen, and Mrs. Ternan took the 2.38 tidal train to London. As they approached Staplehurst, they were the only passengers in their coach, one of seven first-class carriages in the tidal train that day.

The engineer was going full speed — about fifty miles per hour — as they passed Headcorn at eleven minutes after three in the afternoon. They were now approaching the railroad viaduct near Staplehurst, although " viaduct" — the name given the structure in the official railways guide — may be too fancy a word for the web of girders supporting the heavy wood beams spanning the shallow river Beult.

Labourers were carrying out a routine replacement of old timbers on that span. Later investigation — and I have read the reports — showed that the foreman had consulted the wrong timetable and did not expect the tidal train for another two hours. (It seems that we travellers are not the only ones to be confounded by British railway timetables with their infinite holiday and weekend and high-tide-time asterisks and confounding parentheses.)

A flagman was required by railway policy and English law to be stationed 1,000 yards up the rails from such work — two of the rails had already been lifted off at the bridge and set alongside the track — but for some reason this man with his red flag was only 550 yards from the gap. This did not give a train travelling at the speed of the Folkestone– London tidal express any chance of stopping in time.

The engineer, upon seeing the red flag so tardily waved and — a much more soul-riveting sight, I am sure — upon seeing the gap in rails and beams in the bridge ahead, did his best. Perhaps in your day, Dear Reader, all trains have brakes that can be applied by the engineer. Not so in our day of 1865. Each carriage must be braked individually and then only upon instructions from the engineer. He madly whistled for the guards along the length of the train to apply their brakes. It did little good.

According to the report, the train was still doing almost thirty miles per hour when it reached the broken line. Incredibly, the engine jumped the forty-two-foot gap and leaped off the track on the other side of the chasm. Of the seven first-class carriages, all but one flew free and plummeted to their destruction in the swampy riverbed below.

The surviving coach was the one carrying Dickens, his mistress, and her mother.

The guards' van immediately behind the engine was flung to the other track, dragging the next coach — a second-class carriage — with it. Immediately behind this second-class carriage was Dickens's coach and it jolted partially over the bridge as the other six first-class carriages flew by and crashed below. Dickens's carriage finally ended up dangling over the side of the bridge, now being kept from falling only by its single coupling to another second-class carriage. Only the very rear of the train remained on the rails. The other first-class carriages had plummeted and crashed and rolled and buckled and generally been smashed to matchwood and splinters on the marshy ground below.

Dickens later wrote about these moments, in letters to friends, but always with discretion, taking care never to mention, except to a few intimates, the names or identities of his two fellow travellers. I am certain that I am the only person to whom he ever told the complete story. "Suddenly," he wrote in his more widely disseminated epistolary version of events, "we were off the rail, and beating the ground as the car of a halfemptied balloon might do. The old lady . . ." [We must read "Mrs. Ternan" here] ". . . cried out, 'My God!' The young lady travelling with her [this is Ellen Ternan, of course] screamed.

"I caught hold of them both . . . and said: 'We can't help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don't cry out!'

"The old lady immediately answered: 'Thank you. Rely on me. Upon my soul I will be quiet.' We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped."

The carriage was indeed tilted steeply down and to the left. All baggage and loose objects had fallen down and to the left. For the rest of his life, Charles Dickens would suffer repeated spells of feeling as if "everything, all of my body, is tilted and falling down and to the left."

Dickens continues his narrative:

"I said to the two women, 'You may be sure that nothing worse can happen. Our danger must be over. Will you remain here, without stirring, while I get out the window?' "

Dickens, still lithe enough then at the age of fifty-three, despite his " frost-bitten foot" (as a long-time sufferer of gout, which has required me to partake of laudanum for many years, I know gout when I hear its symptoms, and Dickens's "frostbite" was almost certainly gout), then clambered out, made the tricky jump from the carriage step to the railbed above the bridge, and reported seeing two guards running up and down in apparent confusion.

Dickens writes that he grabbed and stopped one of them, demanding of the man, "Look at me! Do stop an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don't know me."

"We know you very well, Mr. Dickens," he reports the guard replied at once.

"Then, my good fellow," cried Dickens, almost cheerily (at being recognised at such a time, a petty soul such as Clara Pitt Byrne might have interjected), "for God's sake give me your key, and send one of those labourers here, and I'll empty this carriage."

And then, in Dickens's letters to his friends, the guards did as they were bid, labourers laying down planks to the carriage, and then the author clambered back into the tilted coach and crawled down its length to retrieve his top hat and his fl ask of brandy.

I should interrupt our mutual friend's description here just long enough to say that, using the names listed in the official railway report as my guide, I later tracked down the very guard that Dickens reports stopping and galvanising into such useful action. The guard — a certain Lester Smyth — had a somewhat different recollection of those moments.

"We were trying to get down to 'elp the injured and dying when this toff who'd climbed out of the teetering first-class coach runs up to Paddy 26:05 PM Beale and me, all wild-eyed and pale, and keeps shouting at us, 'Do you know me, man!? Do you know me!? Do you know who I am?? '

"I admit that I replied, 'I don't care if you're Prince Albert, mate. Get out of my bleedin' way.' It was not the usual way I'd speak to a gentleman, but that wasn't no usual day."

At any rate, Dickens did commandeer the work of some labourers to help extricate Ellen and Mrs. Ternan, he did crawl back into the carriage to retrieve his fl ask and top hat, he did fill his top hat with water before clambering down the steep bank, and all witnesses agree that Dickens went immediately to work down among the dying and the dead.

In his five remaining years after Staplehurst, Dickens would only say about what he saw in that riverbed — "It was unimaginable" — and of what he heard there — "Unintelligible." This from the man generally agreed to have the greatest imagination, after Sir Walter Scott, of any English writer. And from a man whose stories were, if nothing else, always eminently intelligible.

Perhaps the unimaginable began when he was clambering down the steep embankment. Suddenly appearing next to him was a tall, thin man wearing a heavy black cape far more appropriate for a night at the opera than an afternoon's voyage to London on the tidal train. Both men were carrying their top hats in one hand while grabbing at the embankment for balance with their free hands. This figure, as Dickens later described to me in a throaty whisper during the days after the accident when his voice "was no longer my own," was cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale, and stared at the writer from dark-shadowed eyes set deep under a pale, high brow that melded into a pale, bald scalp. A few strands of greying hair leapt out from the sides of this skull-like visage. Dickens's impression of a skull was reinforced, he said later, by the man's foreshortened nose — "mere black slits opening into the grub-white face than a proper proboscis" was how Dickens described it — and by small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart, set into gums so pale that they were whiter than the teeth themselves.

The author also noticed that the man had two fingers missing — or almost missing — on his right hand, the little finger and the ring finger next to it, as well as a missing middle finger on his left hand. What especially caught Dickens's attention was the fact that the fingers had not been cut off at the joint, as is so often the case in an accident to the hand or subsequent surgery, but appeared to have been severed halfway through the bone between the joints. "Like tapers of white wax that had been partially melted," he told me later.

Dickens was nonplussed as he and this strange black-caped figure slowly worked their way down the steep embankment, both using shrubs and rocks as handholds.

"I am Charles Dickens," gasped my friend.

"Yesss," said the pale face, the sibilants sliding out through the tiny teeth. "I know."

This nonplussed Dickens all the more. "Your name, sir?" he asked as they slid down the embankment of loose stones together.

"Drood," said the man. At least Dickens thought this is what the man said. The pale figure's voice was slurred and tinged with what may have been a foreign accent. The word came out sounding most like "Dread."

"You were on the train going to London?" asked Dickens as they approached the bottom of the steep hill. "To Limehousse," hissed the ungainly form in the dark cape. "Whitechapel. Ratcliff Crossss. Gin Alley. Three Foxesss Court. Butcher Row and Commercial Road. The Mint and other rookeriessss."

Dickens glanced up sharply at this strange recital, since their train had been going to the station in central London, not to these dark alleys in East London. "Rookeries" was a slang term for the worst of the tenement slums in the city. But now they had reached the bottom of the hill, and without another word, this "Drood" turned away and seemed to glide into the shadows under the railway bridge. In a few seconds the man's black cape blended with the darkness there.

"You must understand," Dickens was to whisper to me later, "I never for a second thought that this strange apparition was Death come to claim his own. Nor any other personification of the tragedy that was even then unfolding. This would have been too trite even for far lesser fiction than that which I create. But I do admit, Wilkie," he said, "that I wondered at the time if Drood might have been an undertaker come from Staplehurst or some other nearby hamlet."

Alone now, Dickens turned his attention to the carnage. The train carriages in the riverbed and adjoining swampy banks were no longer recognisable as railway coaches. Except for iron axles and wheels protruding here and there at impossible angles from the water, it was as if a series of wooden bungalows had been flung out of the sky, perhaps dropped from some American cyclone and smashed to bits. And then the bits looked to have been dropped and smashed yet again.

It seemed to Dickens as if no one could have survived such impact, such destruction, but screams of living sufferers — for in truth the injured far outnumbered the dead — began to fill the river valley. These were not, he thought at the time, human sounds. They were somehow infinitely worse than the moans and cries he had heard when touring overcrowded hospitals, such as the East London Children's Hospital at Ratcliff Cross — which Drood had just mentioned — where the indigent and unclaimed went to die. No, these screams seemed more as if someone had opened a portal to the pit of Hell itself and allowed the damned there to cry out one last time to the mortal world.

Dickens watched a man stagger towards him, arms outstretched as if for a welcoming hug. The top of the man's skull had been torn off rather the way one would crack an eggshell with a spoon in preparation for breakfast. Dickens could clearly see the grey-and-pink pulp glistening within the concave bowl of splintered skull. The fellow's face was covered with blood, his eyes white orbs staring out through crimson rivulets.

Dickens could think of nothing to do but offer the man some brandy from his flask. The mouth of the fl ask came away red from the man's lips. Dickens helped him lie on the grass and then used the water in his top hat to clean the man's face. "What is your name, sir?" asked Dickens.

The man said only, "I am gone," and died, the white eyes continuing to stare up at the sky from their bloody pools.

A shadow passed over them. Dickens whirled, sure — he told me later — that it would be Drood, the apparition's black cape widening like a raven's wings. But it was only a cloud passing between the sun and the river valley.

Dickens refilled his top hat from the river and came upon a lady, who also had blood streaming down over her lead-coloured face. She was almost naked, her clothes reduced to a few token strips of bloody cloth dangling like old bandages from her torn flesh. Her left breast was missing. She refused to pause for the writer's ministrations and did not seem to hear his urgings that she sit down and wait for help. She walked past Dickens in a brisk manner and disappeared into the few trees that grew along the bank.

He helped two stunned guards extricate the crushed body of another woman from a flattened carriage and lay the body gently on the bank. A man was wading downstream, screaming, "My wife! My wife!" Dickens led him to the corpse. The man screamed, threw his arms above his head, and ran wildly into the swampy field near the river, crashing and thrashing about, all the while emitting sounds that Dickens later said "were like the hisses and death grunts of a boar pierced through the lungs by several large calibre bullets." Then the man fainted, dropping into the marsh more like someone shot through the heart than through the lungs.

Dickens went back towards the carriages and found a woman propped against a tree. Except for a little blood on her face, perhaps from a slight scalp wound, she seemed uninjured.

"I shall bring you some water, madam," he said.

"That would be very kind of you, sir," she replied. She smiled and Dickens flinched. She had lost all of her teeth.

He went to the stream and looked back to see a figure he took to be Drood — presumably no one else was foolishly dressed in a heavy opera cape on that warm June day — solicitously bent over the woman. When Dickens returned a few seconds later with his top hat filled with river water, the man in black was gone and the woman was dead but still showing her ragged, bloodied gums in a parody of a final smile.

He went back to the smashed carriages. Amidst the rubble of one coach, a young man moaned feebly. More rescuers were sliding down the slope. Dickens ran to get several strong guards to help extricate the fellow from the broken glass, torn red velvet, heavy iron, and col- lapsed wooden floor of the compartment. While the guards grunted and lifted the heavy window frames and shattered flooring that had now become a fallen roof, Dickens squeezed the young man's hand and said, "I shall see you to safety, my son."

"Thank you," gasped the injured young gentleman, obviously an occupant of one of the first-class carriages. "You are most kind."

"What is your name?" asked our novelist as they carried the young man to the bank.

"Dickenson," said the young fellow.

Charles Dickens made sure that Master Dickenson was carried up to the railway line where more rescuers had arrived, then he turned back to the carnage. He rushed from injured person to injured person, lifting, consoling, assuaging thirst, reassuring, sometimes covering their nakedness with any rag he could find, all while checking other scattered forms to confirm that they were no longer amongst the living.

A few rescuers and fellow passengers seemed as focused as our author, but many — Dickens told me later — could only stand there in shock and stare. The two figures doing the most that terrible afternoon amidst the wreckage and groans were Dickens and the bizarre form who called himself Drood, although the black-caped man seemed always to be just out of earshot, always on the verge of vanishing from sight again, and always appearing to glide rather than walk from wrecked carriage to wrecked carriage.

Dickens came upon a large woman, the peasant cloth and design of her dress showing that she had come from one of the lower-class carriages. She was face-down in the swamp, her arms under her body. He rolled her over to be certain that she was no longer among the living, when suddenly her eyes popped open in her mud-covered face. "I saved her!" she gasped. "I saved her from him! "

It took a moment before Dickens noticed the infant clasped fiercely between the fat woman's heavy arms, the small white face pressed deep against the woman's pendulous bosoms. The baby was dead — either drowned in the shallow swamp or asphyxiated by its mother's weight.

Dickens heard a hissing call, saw Drood's pale form waving to him from the web of shadows under the broken bridge and walked towards him, but came first to a collapsed, upside-down carriage where a young woman's bare but shapely arm protruded from what was left of a window. Her fingers moved, seeming to beckon Dickens closer. Dickens crouched and took the soft fingers in his own two hands. "I am here, my dear," he said to the darkness inside the small aperture that had been a window only fifteen minutes earlier. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed his back, as if in gratitude for her deliverance.

Dickens crouched but could see nothing but torn upholstery, dark shapes, and deep shadows within the tiny, triangular cave of wreckage. There was not enough room for him to squeeze in even his shoulders. The top frame of the window was pressing down almost to the marshy ground. He could only just hear the rapid, terrified breathing of the injured woman above the gurgle of the river running by. Without thinking of the possible impropriety of it, he stroked her bare arm as far as he could reach it in the collapsed wreckage. There were very fine reddish hairs along her pale forearm and they glowed coppery in the afternoon light.

"I see the guards and possibly a doctor coming," Dickens said into the tiny aperture, squeezing her arm and hand all the while. He did not know for sure if the approaching gentleman in the brown suit who carried a leather bag was indeed a doctor, but he fervently hoped so. The four guards, carrying axes and iron pry rods, were jogging ahead, the gentleman in the formal suit puffing to keep up.

"Over here!" Dickens cried to them. He squeezed the woman's hand. Her pale fingers squeezed back, the first finger closing, opening, and then curling and closing again around his first fingers much as a newborn baby would instinctively but tentatively grasp its father's hand. She said nothing, but Dickens heard her sigh from the shadows. It seemed almost a contented sound. He held her hand in both of his and prayed that she was not seriously injured.

"Here, for God's sake, hurry!" cried Dickens. The men gathered around. The heavy, suited man introduced himself — he was a physician by the name of Morris — and Dickens refused to relinquish either his place by the wrecked window or the young lady's hand as the four guards began levering the window frame and smashed wood and iron upward and to the side, enlarging the tiny space that had somehow been the woman's shelter and salvation.

"Careful now!" shouted Dickens to the guards. "With great care, by all means! Allow nothing to fall. Careful with the bars there!" Crouching lower to speak into the dark space, Dickens fiercely gripped her hand and whispered, "We almost have you, my dear. Another minute. Be brave!" There came a last, answering squeeze. Dickens could feel the gratitude in it. "You'll have to get back a minute, sir," said Dr Morris. "Back just a moment while the boys heave and lift here and I lean in to see if she is too injured to move yet or not. Just for a moment, sir. That's a good gentleman." Dickens patted the young lady's palm, his fingers reluctant to release her, feeling the final, parting pressure from her thin, pale, perfectly manicured fingers in return. His mind pushed away the very real but totally inappropriate sense of there being something physically exciting in such intimate contact with a woman whose acquaintance he had not yet made and whose face he had not yet seen. He said, "You'll be out of all of this and safe with us in a moment, my dear" and surrendered her hand. Then he crawled backwards on all fours, clearing the way for the workmen and feeling the marsh moistness seeping up through the knees of his trousers.

"Now!" cried the doctor, kneeling where Dickens had been a moment before. "Put your backs into it, boys!"

The four burly guards literally put their backs into it, first lifting with their pry bars and then setting their backs against the ragged wall of collapsed flooring that now became a heavy pyramid of wood. The cone of darkness widened a bit beneath them. Sunlight illuminated the wreckage. They gasped as they strained to hold the debris up and then one of the men gasped again.

"Oh, Christ!" cried someone.

The doctor seemed to leap back as if he had touched an electrified wire. Dickens crawled forward to offer his help and finally saw into the space. There was no woman, no girl. Only a bare arm severed just below the shoulder lay in the tiny open circle amidst the debris. The knob of bone looked very white in the filtered afternoon light.

Everyone shouted. More men arrived. Instructions were repeated. The guards used their axes and iron bars to pry open the wreckage, carefully at first and then with a terrible, almost wilfully destructive abandon. The rest of the young woman's body simply was not there. There were no complete bodies anywhere in this pile of wreckage, only mismatched tatters of torn clothing and random bits of flesh and gouged bone. There was not so much as an identifiable scrap of her dress left behind. There was only the pale arm ending in the bloodless and tightly curled and now motionless fingers.

Without another word, Dr Morris turned and walked away, joining other rescuers milling around other victims.

Dickens got to his feet, blinked, licked his lips, and reached for his flask of brandy. It tasted of copper. He realised that it was empty and that he was tasting only the blood left on it from some of the victims to whom he had offered it. He looked around and around for his top hat and then saw that he was wearing it. River water from it had soaked his hair and dripped down his collar.

More rescuers and onlookers were arriving. Dickens judged that he could be of little further help there. Slowly, awkwardly, he climbed the steep riverbank up to the railbed where the intact carriages now sat empty.

Ellen and Mrs Ternan were sitting in the shade on some stacked rail ties, calmly drinking water from teacups someone had brought them. Dickens started to reach for Ellen's gloved hand and then did not complete the motion. Instead, he said, "How are you, my dear?"

Ellen smiled, but there were tears in her eyes. She touched her left arm and an area just below her shoulder and above her left breast. "A bit bruised, I believe, but otherwise well. Thank you, Mr. Dickens."

The novelist nodded almost absently, his eyes focused elsewhere. Then he turned, walked to the edge of the broken bridge, jumped with the easy agility of the distracted to the step of the dangling first-class carriage, crawled through a shattered window as easily as if it were a doorway, and clambered down through rows of seats that had become rungs on the now-vertical wall of the coach floor. The entire carriage, still dangling precariously high above the valley floor and connected by only one coupling to the second-class carriage on the rails above, swayed slightly like a vibrating pendulum in a broken hallway clock.

Earlier, even before rescuing Ellen and Mrs. Ternan, he had carried out his leather bag carrying most of the manuscript of the sixteenth number of Our Mutual Friend, which he had been working on in France, but now he had remembered that the last two chapters were in his overcoat, which still lay folded in the overhead above their former seats. Standing on the backs of this last row of seats in the swaying, creaking coach, the river thirty feet below reflecting darts of dancing light through the shattered windows, he retrieved the overcoat, pulled the manuscript out to make sure that all the pages were there — it had been slightly soiled but was otherwise intact — and then, still balancing on the seats, he tucked the papers back into his overcoat.

Dickens then happened to look straight down, down through the shattered glass of the door at the end of the carriage. Far below, directly beneath the train car, some trick of the light making him appear to be standing on the river rather than in it, apparently totally unconcerned by so many tons of wood and iron swaying above him, the person who called himself Drood was tilting his head far back to stare straight up at Dickens. The man's pale eyes in their sunken sockets seemed to have no eyelids.

The figure's lips parted, its mouth opened and moved, the fleshy tongue flickered out from behind and between the tiny teeth, and hissing sounds emerged, but Dickens could make out no distinct words over the metallic groaning of the dangling carriage and the continuous cries of the injured in the valley below. "Unintelligible," murmured Dickens. "Unintelligible."

The first-class carriage suddenly swayed and sagged as if preparing to drop. Dickens casually caught the overhead with one hand to keep his balance. When the swaying ceased and he looked down again, Drood was gone. The writer tossed the coat with his manuscript in it over his shoulder and clambered up and out into the light.

Excerpt: 'Twilight'

Twilight
Twilight
By Stephenie Meyer
Paperback, 544 pages
Little, Brown Young Readers
List Price: $10.99

Chapter One

Forks High School had a frightening total of only three hundred and fifty-seven - now fifty-eight - students; there were more than seven hundred people in my junior class alone back home. All of the kids here had grown up together-their grandparents had been toddlers together. I would be the new girl from the big city, a curiosity, a freak.

Maybe, if I looked like a girl from Phoenix should, I could work this to my advantage. But physically, I'd never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond - a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps - all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun.

Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete; I didn't have the necessary hand-eye coordination to play sports without humiliating myself - and harming both myself and anyone else who stood too close.

When I finished putting my clothes in the old pine dresser, I took my bag of bathroom necessities and went to the communal bathroom to clean myself up after the day of travel. I looked at my face in the mirror as I brushed through my tangled, damp hair. Maybe it was the light, but already I looked sallower, unhealthy. My skin could be pretty - it was very clear, almost translucent- looking - but it all depended on color. I had no color here.

Facing my pallid reflection in the mirror, I was forced to admit that I was lying to myself. It wasn't just physically that I'd never fit in. And if I couldn't find a niche in a school with three thousand people, what were my chances here?

I didn't relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn't relate well to people, period. Even my mother, who I was closer to than anyone else on the planet, was never in harmony with me, never on exactly the same page. Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that the rest of the world was seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain. But the cause didn't matter. All that mattered was the effect. And tomorrow would be just the beginning.

I didn't sleep well that night, even after I was done crying. The constant whooshing of the rain and wind across the roof wouldn't fade into the background. I pulled the faded old quilt over my head, and later added the pillow, too. But I couldn't fall asleep until after midnight, when the rain finally settled into a quieter drizzle.

Thick fog was all I could see out my window in the morning, and I could feel the claustrophobia creeping up on me. You could never see the sky here; it was like a cage.

Breakfast with Charlie was a quiet event. He wished me good luck at school. I thanked him, knowing his hope was wasted. Good luck tended to avoid me. Charlie left first, off to the police station that was his wife and family. After he left, I sat at the old square oak table in one of the three unmatching chairs and examined his small kitchen, with its dark paneled walls, bright yellow cabinets, and white linoleum floor. Nothing was changed. My mother had painted the cabinets eighteen years ago in an attempt to bring some sunshine into the house. Over the small fireplace in the adjoining handkerchief-sized family room was a row of pictures. First a wedding picture of Charlie and my mom in Las Vegas, then one of the three of us in the hospital after I was born, taken by a helpful nurse, followed by the procession of my school pictures up to last year's. Those were embarrassing to look at - I would have to see what I could do to get Charlie to put them somewhere else, at least while I was living here.

It was impossible, being in this house, not to realize that Charlie had never gotten over my mom. It made me uncomfortable.

I didn't want to be too early to school, but I couldn't stay in the house anymore. I donned my jacket - which had the feel of a biohazard suit - and headed out into the rain.

It was just drizzling still, not enough to soak me through immediately as I reached for the house key that was always hidden under the eaves by the door, and locked up. The sloshing of my new waterproof boots was unnerving. I missed the normal crunch of gravel as I walked. I couldn't pause and admire my truck again as I wanted; I was in a hurry to get out of the misty wet that swirled around my head and clung to my hair under my hood.

Inside the truck, it was nice and dry. Either Billy or Charlie had obviously cleaned it up, but the tan upholstered seats still smelled faintly of tobacco, gasoline, and peppermint. The engine started quickly, to my relief, but loudly, roaring to life and then idling at top volume. Well, a truck this old was bound to have a flaw. The antique radio worked, a plus that I hadn't expected.

Finding the school wasn't difficult, though I'd never been there before. The school was, like most other things, just off the highway. It was not obvious that it was a school; only the sign, which declared it to be the Forks High School, made me stop. It looked like a collection of matching houses, built with maroon-colored bricks. There were so many trees and shrubs I couldn't see its size at first. Where was the feel of the institution? I wondered nostalgically. Where were the chain-link fences, the metal detectors?

I parked in front of the first building, which had a small sign over the door reading FRONT OFFICE. No one else was parked there, so I was sure it was off limits, but I decided I would get directions inside instead of circling around in the rain like an idiot. I stepped unwillingly out of the toasty truck cab and walked down a little stone path lined with dark hedges. I took a deep breath before opening the door.

Inside, it was brightly lit, and warmer than I'd hoped. The office was small; a little waiting area with padded folding chairs, orange-flecked commercial carpet, notices and awards cluttering the walls, a big clock ticking loudly. Plants grew everywhere in large plastic pots, as if there wasn't enough greenery outside. The room was cut in half by a long counter, cluttered with wire baskets full of papers and brightly colored flyers taped to its front. There were three desks behind the counter, one of which was manned by a large, red-haired woman wearing glasses. She was wearing a purple t-shirt, which immediately made me feel overdressed.

The red-haired woman looked up. "Can I help you?"

"I'm Isabella Swan," I informed her, and saw the immediate awareness light her eyes. I was expected, a topic of gossip no doubt. Daughter of the Chief's flighty ex-wife, come home at last.

"Of course," she said. She dug through a precariously stacked pile of documents on her desk till she found the ones she was looking for. "I have your schedule right here, and a map of the school." She brought several sheets to the counter to show me.

She went through my classes for me, highlighting the best route to each on the map, and gave me a slip to have each teacher sign, which I was to bring back at the end of the day. She smiled at me and hoped, like Charlie, that I would like it here in Forks. I smiled back as convincingly as I could.

When I went back out to my truck, other students were starting to arrive. I drove around the school, following the line of traffic. I was glad to see that most of the cars were older like mine, nothing flashy. At home I'd lived in one of the few lower-income neighborhoods that were included in the Paradise Valley District. It was a common thing to see a new Mercedes or Porsche in the student lot. The nicest car here was a shiny Volvo, and it stood out. Still, I cut the engine as soon as I was in a spot, so that the thunderous volume wouldn't draw attention to me. I looked at the map in the truck, trying to memorize it now; hopefully I wouldn't have to walk around with it stuck in front of my nose all day. I stuffed everything in my bag, slung the strap over my shoulder, and sucked in a huge breath. I can do this, I lied to myself feebly. No one was going to bite me. I finally exhaled and stepped out of the truck.

I kept my face pulled back into my hood as I walked to the sidewalk, crowded with teenagers. My plain black jacket didn't stand out, I noticed with relief.

Once I got around the cafeteria, building three was easy to spot. A large black "3" was painted on a white square on the east corner. I felt my breathing gradually creeping toward hyperventilation as I approached the door. I tried holding my breath as I followed two unisex raincoats through the door.

The classroom was small. The people in front of me stopped just inside the door to hang up their coats on a long row of hooks. I copied them. They were two girls, one a porcelain-colored blonde, the other also pale, with light brown hair. At least my skin wouldn't be a standout here.

I took the slip up to the teacher, a tall, balding man whose desk had a nameplate identifying him as Mr. Mason. He gawked at me when he saw my name - not an encouraging response - and of course I flushed tomato red. But at least he sent me to an empty desk at the back without introducing me to the class. It was harder for my new classmates to stare at me in the back, but somehow, they managed. I kept my eyes down on the reading list the teacher had given me. It was fairly basic: Bront?, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner. I'd already read everything. That was comforting ... and boring. I wondered if my mom would send me my folder of old essays, or if she would think that was cheating. I went through different arguments with her in my head while the teacher droned on.

When the bell rang, a nasal buzzing sound, a gangly boy with skin problems and hair black as an oil slick leaned across the aisle to talk to me.

"You're Isabella Swan, aren't you?" He looked like the overly helpful, chess club type.

"Bella," I corrected. Everyone within a three-seat radius turned to look at me.

"Where's your next class?" he asked.

I had to check in my bag. "Um, Government, with Jefferson, in building six."

There was nowhere to look without meeting curious eyes.

"I'm headed toward building four, I could show you the way...." Definitely over-helpful. "I'm Eric," he added. I smiled tentatively. "Thanks."

We got our jackets and headed out into the rain, which had picked up. I could have sworn several people behind us were walking close enough to eavesdrop. I hoped I wasn't getting paranoid.

"So, this is a lot different than Phoenix, huh?" he asked.

"Very."

"It doesn't rain much there, does it?"

"Three or four times a year."

"Wow, what must that be like?" he wondered.

"Sunny," I told him.

"You don't look very tan."

"My mother is part albino."

He studied my face apprehensively, and I sighed. It looked like clouds and a sense of humor didn't mix. A few months of this and I'd forget how to use sarcasm.

We walked back around the cafeteria, to the south buildings by the gym. Eric walked me right to the door, though it was clearly marked.

"Well, good luck," he said as I touched the handle. "Maybe we'll have some other classes together." He sounded hopeful.

I smiled at him vaguely and went inside. The rest of the morning passed in about the same fashion. My Trigonometry teacher, Mr. Varner, who I would have hated anyway just because of the subject he taught, was the only one who made me stand in front of the class and introduce myself. I stammered, blushed, and tripped over my own boots on the way to my seat.

After two classes, I started to recognize several of the faces in each class. There was always someone braver than the others who would introduce themselves and ask me questions about how I was liking Forks. I tried to be diplomatic, but mostly I just lied a lot. At least I never needed the map.

One girl sat next to me in both Trig and Spanish, and she walked with me to the cafeteria for lunch. She was tiny, several inches shorter than my five feet four inches, but her wildly curly dark hair made up a lot of the difference between our heights. I couldn't remember her name, so I smiled and nodded as she prattled about teachers and classes. I didn't try to keep up.

We sat at the end of a full table with several of her friends, who she introduced to me. I forgot all their names as soon as she spoke them. They seemed impressed by her bravery in speaking to me. The boy from English, Eric, waved at me from across the room. It was there, sitting in the lunchroom, trying to make conversation with seven curious strangers, that I first saw them.

They were sitting in the corner of the cafeteria, as far away from where I sat as possible in the long room. There were five of them. They weren't talking, and they weren't eating, though they each had a tray of untouched food in front of them. They weren't gawking at me, unlike most of the other students, so it was safe to stare at them without fear of meeting an excessively interested pair of eyes. But it was none of these things that caught, and held, my attention.

They didn't look anything alike. Of the three boys, one was big - muscled like a serious weight lifter, with dark, curly hair. Another was taller, leaner, but still muscular, and honey blond. The last was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others, who looked like they could be in college, or even teachers here rather than students.

The girls were opposites. The tall one was statuesque. She had a beautiful figure, the kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that made every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in the same room. Her hair was golden, gently waving to the middle of her back. The short girl was pixielike, thin in the extreme, with small features. Her hair was a deep black, cropped short and pointing in every direction. And yet, they were all exactly alike. Every one of them was chalky pale, the palest of all the students living in this sunless town. Paler than me, the albino. They all had very dark eyes despite the range in hair tones. They also had dark shadows under those eyes - purplish, bruiselike shadows. As if they were all suffering from a sleepless night, or almost done recovering from a broken nose. Though their noses, all their features, were straight, perfect, angular.

But all this is not why I couldn't look away. I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel. It was hard to decide who was the most beautiful - maybe the perfect blond girl, or the bronze-haired boy.

They were all looking away - away from each other, away from the other students, away from anything in particular as far as I could tell. As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray - unopened soda, unbitten apple - and walked away with a quick, graceful lope that belonged on a runway. I watched, amazed at her lithe dancer's step, till she dumped her tray and glided through the back door, faster than I would have thought possible. My eyes darted back to the others, who sat unchanging.

"Who are they?" I asked the girl from my Spanish class, whose name I'd forgotten.

As she looked up to see who I meant - though already knowing, probably, from my tone - suddenly he looked at her, the thinner one, the boyish one, the youngest, perhaps. He looked at my neighbor for just a fraction of a second, and then his dark eyes flickered to mine.

He looked away quickly, more quickly than I could, though in a flush of embarrassment I dropped my eyes at once. In that brief flash of a glance, his face held nothing of interest - it was as if she had called his name, and he'd looked up in involuntary response, already having decided not to answer.

My neighbor giggled in embarrassment, looking at the table like I did. "That's Edward and Emmett Cullen, and Rosalie and Jasper Hale. The one who left was Alice Cullen; they all live together with Dr. Cullen and his wife." She said this under her breath.

I glanced sideways at the beautiful boy, who was looking at his tray now, picking a bagel to pieces with long, pale fingers. His mouth was moving very quickly, his perfect lips barely opening. The other three still looked away, and yet I felt he was speaking quietly to them.

Strange, unpopular names, I thought. The kinds of names grandparents had. But maybe that was in vogue here - small town names? I finally remembered that my neighbor was called Jessica, a perfectly common name. There were two girls named Jessica in my History class back home.

"They are ... very nice-looking." I struggled with the conspicuous understatement.

"Yes!" Jessica agreed with another giggle. "They're all together though - Emmett and Rosalie, and Jasper and Alice, I mean. And they live together." Her voice held all the shock and condemnation of the small town, I thought critically. But, if I was being honest, I had to admit that even in Phoenix, it would cause gossip.

Excerpted from Twilight by Stephanie Meyer Copyright © 2005 by Stephenie Meyer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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