TWILIGHT HUNGER - Free chapter!

Updated: Oct 15

Copyright MS Lewis - All Rights Reserved

CHAPTER ONE


We children were supposed to be asleep....


But we woke, as if in response to some silent summons. We crept to the entrances of our tents and wagons, drawn like moths to the snapping flames of the central fire and the dark, leaping shadows the strange woman cast as she danced.


There was no music. I knew there was none, but it seemed to me that music filled my head all the same as I peered around the painted flap and watched her. She whirled, scarves trailing like colorful ghosts in her wake, her hair, black as the night, yet gleaming blue in the fire’s glow. She arched and twisted and spun round again. And then she stopped still, and her eyes, like shining bits of coal, fixed right on mine. Scarlet lips curved in a terrifying smile, and she crooked a finger at me.


I tried to swallow, but the lump of cold dread in my throat wouldn’t let me. I glanced sideways at the tents and painted wagons of my kin, and saw the other children of our band, peering out at her, just as I was. Some of my cousins were older than I, some younger. Most looked very much like me. Their olive skin smooth, their eyes very round and wide, thickly fringed and lovely beyond words. Their hair was uncut, like mine, but clean and raven black.

We were Rom all, and proud. The dancing woman...she was Rom too, too. I knew that at a glance. She was one of our own.


And crooking her finger at me still.


Dimitri, older than me by three years, gave me a superior look and whispered, “Go to her. I dare you!”


Only to prove myself braver than he, I stiffened my spine and stepped out of my mother’s tent, my bare feet covering the cool ground by mere inches with each hesitant step. As I crept closer, the others, taking courage in mine, began to come out, too. Slowly we gathered round the beautiful stranger like sinners come to worship at the feet of a goddess. And as we did, her smile grew wider. She beckoned us closer, a finger to her lips, and then she sat down on a log near the fire.


“Who is she?” I whispered to Dimitri, for he had joined us now, too, ashamed of himself, I thought, not to have been leading us all from the start.


“Stupid, do you know nothing? She is our aunt.” He shook his head disgustedly at me, then returned his enraptured gaze to the woman. “Her name is Sarafina,” he said. “She comes sometimes...though I suppose you are too young to recall her last visit She’s not supposed to be here, though. When the grown-ups find out there will be trouble.”


“Why?” I too was entranced by the mysterious stranger as she lowered herself to the log, spreading the layers of her colorful skirts around her, opening her arms to welcome the young ones who crowded closer to sit on the ground all around her. I sat closest of all, right at her feet. Never had I seen a woman so beautiful. But there was something else about her, as well. Something...unearthly. Something frightening.


And there was the way her eyes kept meeting mine. There was a secret in her dark gaze—a secret I could not quite see. Something shadowed, hidden.


“Why will there be trouble?” I whispered again.


“Because! She is outcast!”


My brows drew together. I was about to ask why, but then the woman—my Aunt Sarafina, whom I had never seen before in my life—began to speak. And her voice was like a song. Mesmerizing, deep, beguiling.


“Come, little ones. Oh, how I’ve missed you.” Her gaze swept the faces of the children, the look in her eyes almost painful to see, so intense was the emotion there. “But most of you do not remember me at all, do you?” Her smile faltered. “And you, little Dante. You are...how old now?”


“Seven,” I told her, my voice a mere whisper.


“Seven years,” she replied with a heavy sigh. “I was here the day you were born, you know.”

“No. I...didn’t know.”


“No matter. Oh, children, I’ve so much to tell you. But first...” She tugged open a drawstring sack that dangled from the sash round her waist, and from it she began to take glorious things, which she handed around to one and all. Sweets and confections such as we had never tasted, wrapped in brightly colored paper. Shiny baubles on chains, and glittering stones of all kinds, carved into the shapes of animals and birds.


The one she gave to me was a stone of black onyx in the shape of a bat. I shivered when she placed the cold piece into my palm.


When the sack was empty and the children all quiet again, she began to speak. “I have seen so many things, little ones. Things you would not believe. I journeyed to the desert lands, and there I saw buildings as big as mountains—every stone larger than an entire vardo! Perfect and smooth they are, and pointed at the top.” She used her hands to make the shape of these wonders in the air before us. ‘‘No one knows who built them, nor when. They have been there forever, some say. Others say they were built as monuments to ancient kings...and that the bodies of those rulers still rest inside, along with treasures untold!”

When our eyes widened, she nodded hard, making her raven curls dance and her earrings jangle. “I’ve been across the sea...to the land below, where creatures with necks as tall as...as that yew tree there, walk on stilt legs and nibble the young leaves from the tops of the trees. Yellow gold they are, and spotty! With sprouts atop their heads!”


I shook my head in disbelief. Surely she was spinning tales.


‘‘Oh, Dante, it is true,” she said. And her eyes held mine, her words for me alone, I was certain. ‘‘One day you will see these things, too. One day I will show them to you myself.” Reaching down, she stroked a path through my hair and leaned close to me, whispering into my ear. ‘‘You are my very special boy, Dante. You and I share a bond more powerful even than the one you share with your own mother. Remember my words. I’ll come back for you someday. When you need me, I will come.”


I shivered and didn’t know why.


Then I went stiff at the sound of the Grandmother’s squawk. "Outcast!” she yelled, rushing from her tent and jabbing her fingers at Sarafina in the way that was said to ward off evil, the two middle fingers folded, forefinger and little one pointing straight out. She made a hissing sound when she did it, so I thought of a snake with a forked tongue snapping.


The children scattered. Sarafina rose slowly, the picture of grace, and I alone remained before her. Almost without thought, I got to my feet and turned to face the Grandmother, as if I would protect the lovely Sarafina. As if I could. My back was toward the woman now, and as her hands closed on my shoulders, I felt myself grow a full inch taller.


Then the Grandmother glared at me, and I thought I would shrink to the size of a sand flea.

“Can you not tolerate my presence even once every few years or so, Crone?” Sarafina asked. Her voice was no longer loving or soft or kind. It was deep and clear...and menacing.


“You’ve no business here!” tihe Grandmother said.


“But I have,” she replied. “You are my family. And like it or not, I am yours.”


“You are nothing. You are cursed. Be gone!”


Chaos erupted around us as mothers, awakened by the noise, dashed out of their tents and wagons, gathered their children and hurried them back inside. They acted as if a killer wolf had appeared at our campfire, rather than an outcast aunt of rare beauty, bearing exotic gifts and amazing tales.


My mother came, too. As she rushed toward me I tucked the stone bat up into my sleeve. She stopped before she reached me and met Sarafina’s eyes. “Please,” was all she said.

There was a moment of silence as something passed between the two women. Some message, unspoken, that left my mother’s eyes sad and welling with tears.


Sarafina bent down and pressed her cool lips to my cheek. “I’ll see you again, Dante. Never doubt it. But for now, go on. Go to your mamma.” She gave me a gentle shove and let go my shoulders.


I walked to my mother, nearly hating her for making me leave the mysterious Sarafina before I’d had a chance to learn her secrets. She gripped my arm tightly and ran to our tent so fast that she nearly dragged me off my feet. Inside, she closed the flap and cupped my face in her hands, falling to her knees before me. “Did she touch you?” she cried. “Did she mark you?”


“Sarafina would not hurt me, Mamma. She is my aunt. She is kind and beautiful.”

But my mother seemed not to hear my words. She tipped my head to one side and the other, pushing my hair aside and searching my skin. I tired of it soon enough and tugged myself free.


“You are never to go near her again, do you hear me, Dante? If you see her, you must come to me at once. Promise me!”


“But why, Mamma?”


Her hand came across my face so suddenly I would have fallen had she not been gripping my arm with the other. “Do not question me! Promise me, Dante. Swear it on your soul!”

I lowered my head, my cheek stinging, and muttered my agreement. “I promise.” I was ashamed of the tears that burned in my eyes. They came more from shock than pain. My mother’s hand rarely lashed out in anger. I didn’t understand why it had tonight.


She knelt now, her hands on my shoulders, her worn face close to mine. “It’s a promise you must keep, Dante. You endanger your soul if you break it. Mark me well.” She drew a breath, sighed, and kissed the cheek she had so recently wounded. “Now, into bed with you.” She was marginally calmer, her voice nearer its normal pitch.


I was far from calm. Something had stirred my blood tonight. I crawled into my bed, pulled the covers over me and let the tiny, cold stone bat drop from my sleeve into my hand. I held it, rubbed its smooth surface with my thumb, beneath the blanket where my mother could not see.


Mamma watched over me for a long moment, then blew out the lamp, and curled up—not upon her own bed, but on the floor beside mine, a worn blanket her only cushion.


In the silence, I rolled toward the side of the tent and thrust a forefinger through the tiny hole I had made in the fabric, so I could watch the grown-ups round the fire long after they had sent the children to bed. I tugged the hole a little wider in the darkness. And through that tiny hole, I watched and I listened as the Grandmother, the crone of the band, the eldest and most venerated woman of the family, faced off against the most vibrantly beautiful female I had ever seen in my life.


“Why do you torment us by coming back to our midst?” the Grandmother asked, as the dancing flames painted her leathery face in orange and brown, shadows and light.


"Why? You, my own sister, ask me why?”


“Sister, bah!” The Grandmother spat on the ground. “You are no sister to me but a demon. Outcast! Cursed!”


I shook my head in wonder. What could Sarafina mean? Sister? She could no more be the old one’s sister than I could.


“Tell me why you come, demon! It is always the children you seek out when you return. It’s for one of them, isn’t it? Your wretched curse has been passed to one of them! Hasn’t it? Hasn’t it?”


Sarafina smiled very slowly, her face angelic and demonic all at once, and bathed in fire glow. “I come because you are all I have. I will always come back, old woman. Always. Long after you’ve gone to dust. I’ll be coming back, bringing gifts to the little ones. Finding in their eyes and in their smiles the love and acceptance my own sister denies me. And there is nothing you can do to prevent it.”


Before Sarafina turned away, she looked past the Grandmother and right into my eyes. As if she had known all along that I was there, watching her from the other side of that tiny hole in the tent. She could not have seen me. And yet, she must have. Her lips curved ever so slightly at the corners, and her mouth moved. Even though no sound emerged, I knew the word she whispered. Remember.


Then she turned, her skirts flying, and vanished into the night. I saw the trailing colors of her scarves like tails behind her for only an instant. Then the blackness of night closed in where she had been, and I saw her no more.


I lay down on my pillows, and I shivered in inexplicable dread.


It was me. My aunt had come for me. I knew it in my soul. What she wanted of me, I could not guess. How I knew it, this was a mystery. But I was certain to the core of me that she did have a reason for returning in the face of such hatred.


And the reason...was me.


* * *

* * *


Slowly, slowly, the smoke from the Romani band’s campfire thinned. The light thrown by the flames dulled, and the heat—so real she had sworn she could feel it on her face—went cold.

Morgan De Silva blinked out of the fantasy. She was not looking at a campfire through the huge dark eyes of a small boy. She was sitting on the floor of a dusty attic, staring down at the time-yellowed pages of a handwritten journal, bound in leather covers so old they felt buttery-soft against her hands. The vision painted by the words that spiderwebbed across the aging pages had been vivid. It had been...real. As real as if she’d been in that camp in the distant past, instead of on the coast of Maine in the early spring of 1997.


Morgan turned the page slowly, eager to read on....


The ringing of the telephone, floating faintly from no small distance, stopped her. With a resigned sigh, she closed the large volume and returned it carefully to the aged trunk, atop a stack of others just like it. When she closed the trunk’s lid, its hinges groaned and a miniature explosion of dust puffed out at her. Brushing her hands against each other, then her jeans, she blew out the candles that were the only source of light in the room and hurried down the narrow, steep attic stairs.


She hadn’t expected to find a thing up there other than cobwebs and dust. Exploring more of the ramshackle house had been an experiment in procrastination, not an act of curiosity. If her own work had been going anywhere, she never would have bothered poking around this aging, sagging house at all.


And that would have been a crying shame.


She ran through the hallway, between walls of crumbling plaster, the lath beneath it visible in places, to the next set of stairs. These were wider, but not in much better repair than anything else around the place. The third step from the top was missing a board, and she skipped it automatically and trotted the rest of the way down as the phone kept on ringing.

If it were another lawyer or bill collector, she thought breathlessly, she would hunt them down and kill them.


The wide staircase emptied itself into a huge room that must have been glorious once, a century or so ago. Now it was filled with nothing but heartbroken echoes and a tangle of bare wires sticking out of the domed ceiling, where some magnificent chandelier must have once been. Beyond that room, through a pair of double doors, was her room. Her...office. For the moment, at least. But only until she earned back her fortune and returned to L.A. in triumph.


Pretty much the opposite of the way she had left.


Her heart was pounding from exertion by the time she got that far, and she was out of breath, slightly dizzy, and pressing one hand to her chest. Ridiculous for a twenty-year-old woman to tire so easily, but there it was. She had never been healthy, and she knew she wasn't ever going to be. But at least her condition hadn’t begun to worsen yet. It was too soon. She had so many things to do.


Finally Morgan snatched up the telephone, which was as antiquated as the rest of the place. The handset weighed at least two pounds, she guessed, and the rotary dial seemed to mock her high-tech tastes.


If her “hello?” sounded irritated, it was because she was dying to read more of those journals up in the attic, to find out more about their author. She might be on the verge of admitting that she was a talentless hack, but she still knew good writing when she read it, and what she had been reading upstairs was good writing. Painfully good.


“Morgan? What took you so long? I was getting worried.”


Her irritation fled at David Sumner’s familiar voice. Her honorary uncle—a title she’d stopped using long ago—was the only person who hadn’t turned his back on her when she had gone from spoiled rich girl to penniless orphan in a matter of hours. He was the one person she didn’t mind hearing from just now.


“Hey, David,” she said. “I was just...exploring. This place is huge, you know.”


“No, I don’t know, never having laid eyes on it. You sound a little out of breath.”


“Two flights of stairs will do that.” She noticed his hesitation. He tended to worry about her far more than he should.


“How is the place, anyway?” he asked at length.


“It’s a wreck,” she told him, her tone teasing, partly because she was trying to ease his mind and partly because she enjoyed teasing him. “Which serves you right for buying it sight unseen. Who does stuff like that?”


She could almost see his puckered face, the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, his balding head. David had been her best friend for as long as she could remember. “A friend of the family,” her parents had always called him. But it had seemed to Morgan that he’d barely tolerated the family.


Of course, he had known the truth about her parents all along. She had only learned it recently, through tabloid headlines and courtroom vultures.


“I bought it for the location, and you know it,” David told her. “And I trust my real estate guru on such matters. The building is coming down, anyway.”


“Yes, it is,” Morgan said. “As we speak.”


He was quiet for a moment “That bad, huh?”


She could have slapped herself. Sometimes she could be such a self-centered little... “It’s not,” she said quickly. “I was joking.” She looked around her at the room she had chosen to inhabit. It had been somebody’s library or study once upon a time.


She thought of the little boy she had been reading about and wondered if it had ever been his. In his older years, perhaps, when he had decided to write his memoirs.


From the corner of her eye, she saw him—a dark, broad-shouldered silhouette, bent over the desk with a quill pen in his elegant hand. Her heart jumped, and she caught her breath and turned toward him. But there was nothing. No man, no form, no quill pen. Just her computer with its electric blue screen. Whatever she had seen was there and then gone. A vision. A thought form. A little overactivity of her imagination, perhaps.


A shiver worked its way up her spine, but she shook it away.


“Describe it to me,” David was saying.


“What?” she asked, dragging her eyes away from the old desk.


“The house. Describe it to me.”