Become a Book Nerd
When you’re not reading books, read our newsletter.
Adelaide started eating the cakes before she even reached the hideout. She could not help herself, her stomach so pained and bones so chilled. Berlin’s spring had been unusually cold this week, blanketing light snow onto everything and anything. The streets were almost frozen but always alive, which meant Adelaide was to be out there. Always patrolling for unwatched food and easily-grabbed money.
Today, the old baker left his shop door open to cool fresh pastries. He was too kind a man, and while not fond of thieves, he usually had a stale loaf or two for Adelaide if she looked hungry enough. She should not have taken the cakes- it was wrong, but how good they had smelled! How pretty their little frosting flowers looked. Home filled her memory in droves, all vanilla and earth and warm furs. She did not come to until she had shuffled the pastries into her apron and made her hasty escape into the street.
Jakob would be angry with her again when he found out she had lost her friendship with the baker. She finished her cake and trudged on, past the east-side factories and workers filing out to end their day. The sugary delight almost made Jakob’s troublesome moods worth it. She turned a street corner and slipped under the ruined boards that marked the entrance of her building: her home. Eggs was guarding the door, and nodded her in.
“You are late, Ada.”
Adelaide jumped at her brother’s voice, full with worry and their familial Hamburg accent.
Candlelight haloed his face, so only Alaric’s round cheeks remained prominent. He stepped out, his shadow stretching across the brick face of the abandoned warehouse. They were twins, but he was taller. However round her brother stayed, he’d started growing taller, as all brothers seemed to do.
Alaric leveled the candle, his nose crinkling. “What have you gotten all over yourself?”
Adelaide looked down on body. Her bunched apron was a rainbow of icing streaks and frosting petals. She bit her lip clear of the incriminating evidence, pressing her skirts to herself. The remaining cakes had been smashed in her rush.
“You got sweets, did you? Jakob already began the tally.” Alaric asked, eyes wide and bright. “Wait ‘till I tell you—”
“Oh, no…” Adelaide hid her face in her hitched apron’s hem; the tears came all the same.
“What’s wrong?” Alaric grabbed both her shoulders, worry filling his voice again. “I thought you had sweets.”
“I ruined it. I ruin everything. Oh no, no, no…” Adelaide freed the cry from her throat and dropped her apron: the ruined pastries splatted to her feet in gobs of cream and cake.
Alaric fell back a step, his thick eyebrows bunching into a fine line. He smeared the cake with the toe of his boot; Adelaide sobbed into her hands the whole time, muttering another “I ruined it” for good measure. She had nothing for the other children now. She had nothing for Jakob.
“Ada, Alaric! Sich beeilen!” Jakob’s voice cut the air into thin, cold slices.
Alaric breathed out and reached after his sister, wiping tears from her cheeks. “You leave him to me and say nothing. I can fix this.”
“But…” Adelaide sniffled.
“Nin, we will be fine,” he insisted, smiling strong. “I have this today.”
It had been several months since Alaric and Adelaide had joined Jakob’s crew, a motley gang without homes- or who might as well be homeless. Papa died in Hamberg, in the chilled grip of 1890’s winter, and Mama was already faded into a beautiful memory of childhood lost. Papa had remarried before his passing though; his new wife was younger and uninterested in managing children. She only wanted Berlin, where everything was centralized, rich, and fast. She wanted Berlin so much, in fact, that she forgot the twins one day in the center of Potsdamer Platz.
But Jakob cared. He was almost a man at the age of sixteen, and managed his household well. He kept everyone fed and gave them beds, at the cost that they helped him steal from Berlin’s streets. And sure- it was never fresh food, and thier lumpy sacks of hay were far cries from a bed, but they stayed warm and dry and away from more dangerous sorts. They just needed to keep Jakob happy, was all. They just needed to pay their keep.
And unfortunately, Jakob impossible to impress. Adelaide recalled that much as she followed her brother into the warehouse’s main room, where the other children gathered with the day’s hauls. Marsha’s hand was still a bundle of tight bandages, hiding the fact that her index finger was gone; a badge earned for pilfering from a wallet and buying bread to hoard for herself. Jakob always found out when the group wasn’t cared for.
But Alaric dragged a sack into their meeting, twice the size of a baby and splotched with stains of pink and green. It already smelled wonderful and hadn’t been opened yet. Their fellow grubby children muttered in hushed awe. Jakob thumbed his suspenders, dark brows hitched under his newsboy cap.
“You got all that then?” he said warily.
“Me and Ada, yep!” Alaric replied.
Adelaide kept very still and very quiet.
Jakob curled his lip her way, making his caterpillar-y mustache more pronounced. “What’s in there then?”
Alaric grinned hard, dimples appearing off his cherub cheeks. He untied the sack with flourish, and out spilled more food than Jakob’s gang had seen in months. Candy, candy, and still more candy. Licorice, chocolate wafers, lemon drops, spiced gumdrops, and peppermints. Bricks of marzipan and slabs of gingerbread. Icing of every color and the shiniest coatings any of them had ever seen.
Adelaide gasped into her hands.The children’s awe turned to squeals of joy. They all dove at the delightful bag at once.
Jakob’s voice grew stormy, driving everyone back at once. Alaric held his ground, but his smile fell a bit. Their leader stomped forward, all heavy boots and a mismatched leisure jacket, something he had made a scene of when he’d stolen it from a well-dressed gentleman.
Jakob screwed up his nose, towering over the mass of sweets. His gaze scanned the candy, then the twins. His dull eyes came to life with rage when he looked at Adelaide, and her dirty, icing-coated clothes. She whimpered, bunching the apron in her arms.
Jakob pivoted to Alaric. “This is good. This is everything you can get then?”
“Er…” Alaric paled; he knew what Jakob had seen his sister’s lost haul. “I can always get more.”
“Very good,” Jakob replied. “We will count everyone else’s share today while we wait for you to recover as much as she ate.”
Alaric gulped, but nodded in agreement.
Alaric kept his sister’s hand in a tight clutch as they navigated city streets. Potsdamer Platz came into view, its foot traffic and busy streets vibrant even at this evening hour. He held the emptied sack over his shoulders.
Adelaide’s throat tightened, and her heels dug to the slush. “Alaric, no. We agreed to never come here. Auntie will see us.”
“No, you’ll see!” he replied, patting her fingers. “If I’d known about it sooner, I’d have returned to Potsdamer every day, Auntie or no.”
“Known what?” Adelaide asked.
Her brother answered with a smile, tugging his sister deeper into the busy block, full to the brim with shoppers and tempting restaurants. Then down, down, down the U-Bahn station steps, the clear, glassy building of Potsdamer’s station swallowing them like a crystal cave. Darkness grew thicker as they ventured into the maze of steps, past walls full of peeling posters and into the station. Parallel train lines appeared on either side, empty and silent at this hour. As was the ticket booth and usual vendors. Still, Alaric led Adelaide to the wall nearest to the train lines, the one marked for maintenance.
And there he stopped.
Adelaide quirked her brow.
With a cherub grin, Alaric raised a hand, rapping his knuckles at the bricks.
Adelaide’s mouth popped open, sadness mangling into her chest. Oh no… my brother is a fool.
She took a step back, in hopes of reaching the crew again before midnight. Even if Jakob denied her food for a day or two, the cakes should tide her over well enough.
“Ah, liebling!” The voice warbled through the tunnels like a trapped songbird. “Come! Come, look and see! Look and see…”
A hand, feminine and as pale as dawn. It reached through the mortar and past the posters, until it was up to a forearm. It phased through the wall, fist curled and no body to call its own.
Alaric leaped with joy, rushing the hand and hugging it at the wrist. “I told you I would be back! And I brought my sister this time.”
He jumped away, pointing to his sister with zeal. She froze.
“A good boy- have a sweet.” The hand unfurled, revealing the most pristine strawberry tart Adelaide had ever seen; her mouth watered and her stomach clinched all at once. Alaric wolfed it down greedily.
The hand closed again slowly, and opened again to reveal another fresh tart. It nudged the pastry toward Adelaide.
“For you, frueline.”
Adelaide shook her head, wide-eyed and edging away fast.
The hand reached further her way. The voice grunted.
“Ada…” Alaric sighed.
“No, we shouldn’t.”
The hand flattened in offering. It grunted again, the sound turning to a squeak.
Adelaide flinched, crossing herself in old church practice.
Alaric gave his sister an empathetic glare before patting the hand’s wrist.“Take it. Don’t be rude.”
Adelaide clinched her teeth. “Alaric, no, We should leave.”
The voice modulated like a busted pipe, warping into an awful, awful screech. An monstrous sound that viced against Adelaide’s ears. The hand wrenched away from Alaric, crushing the tart in the tight squeeze. The walls around the U-Bahn station shuddered, mortar crumbling from the ceiling.
Adelaide and Alaric screamed, scurrying to take shelter underneath an empty metro bench.
“We need to leave! What have you done?” she cried.
“She has food, Ada!” he replied, hands to his ears. “ You need to take the tart. She won’t share anymore if you don’t.”
“Alaric, that’s a… it’s—” But Adelaide struggled on what to call the hand in the wall that offered sweets.
The screaming went on and on, falling and rising into the most inhuman of sounds. The hand was bent against its wall, clawing at the bricks with the tips of its black nails. The entire station shook.
Adelaide grimaced, first at the creature in the wall and then at her brother. She clutched her sticky apron close, stifling a sob into his fabric.
“Hey!” she shouted, standing tall.
The screaming was endless. The station wall lost a chunk of brick.
“Wait, hey!” Adelaide bit her lip tight before speaking again. “I… I’m sorry!”
The scream cut cold, ending without peter or ease. The whole station fell to silence. The hand, too slender and too pale, slowly edged awake and reached from the wall again, un-clutching. A fresh strawberry tart had materialized in its palm.
“Come and see, come and see… Welcome.”
Adelaide did not feel welcome, but took the tart anyway, for her and her brother’s sake.
The wall opened and the hand vanished, a hole suddenly taking its place. Sweets spilled forth before Adelaide could into the strange abyss.
The haul was twice as big as Alaric’s original, now with two more hands to help carry it. Cakes of every kind and frosting beyond imagination. Candies the world had not yet realized. Flavors she’s never even conceived, or so Alaric claimed while eating; she dared not try them herself. The wall endlessly offered, enough to feed Jakob and his gang for the rest of the month, and on into forever.
But even as Adelaide filled her apron pockets with tarts and marzipan, she still couldn’t bring herself to look at the wall or the hand that had gifted them these things. The countryside was full with warnings about old magic, and why it was always best not to trust it.
And my, was this quite a pricey purchase.
“What’s her cost?” Adelaide asked Alaric. “You have told… her that with have no money?”
Alaric’s round face pinched in thought. Adelaide grimaced.
“No payment,” called the female voice in notes both low and high. “No, no. Not yet this week.”
“This week?” Adelaide asked, clutching her apron closer.
“Walpurgis, frueline.” The sound echoed through the U-Bahn’s tunnels, coiling tighter in Adelaide’s mind with each reverberation.
Jakob and his company were already asleep when the twins returned to the hideout. Only Eggs remained on watch, and gave them a wink as they snuck in again. They dropped off most of their candy haul with him, assured it would appease the group in the morning. And morning crept along quite soon, sunlight already sneaking around along their sealed windows. Adelaide knew they’d spent too much time underground, stuffing their faces and pockets on the station bench.
“Jakob won’t tell me what to do no more- you watch!” Alaric said, unable to contain his excitement.Adelaide shushed him, reminding her brother to quiet down until they reached their quarters in the crawlspace beneath the stairs.
“I shall be a big boss now,” Alaric continued, bright and cheerful as ever. “I’ll be the big boss if I bring sweets home everyday! Every single day, Ada! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Adelaide sighed in defeat. “Yes, that would be nice.”
But even as she made up the covers and curled up in bed, she heard the echoed words of the strange hand that lived in the underground. Walpurgis, she thought again. What… is that again?
Alaric snuggled up next to her side, quickly disturbing her thoughts with a warm hug.
“Thanks for coming with me,” he whispered, already half-asleep.
Adelaide smiled back, patting her brother’s fluffy brown hair, so similar to hers. “Alaric, when did you find that strange woman in the U-Bahn?”
“Huh? Uh- a earlier this week. She brought me lots and lots of food, but said I needed to keep it extra secret first,” Alaric muttered. “Said I looked too thin.”
Adelaide had no words for this. Her brother had always been more big-boned than not.
“That’s why she wants to help you too, see?” he said, snuggling into her shoulder. “And all of the other children. I know this will change things for us.I just know it!”
“Let’s hope so, yes?” She still crossed herself and said old prayers before daring to shut her eyes.
In her dreams, Adelaide was troubled by Jakob’s voice. By haunted somethings inside of walls and too much sugar. By her brother stealing the blankets in the middle of the night, and so she grew colder, and wished for days further south. Perhaps out of Germany, and onto the pretty, warm places her papa had once been like Italy and France.
“Walpurgis, frueline.” The words bounced around her mind again.
A shapeless something formed in the blackness of Adelaide’s dream, and she would have preferred to wake up then. No more monsters.
“Do you remember, Ada?” the voice continued, no longer unkind and scratchy. It was now her mother’s, the sound of long-passed memory. “Do you remember what day it is?”
Adelaide shook her head that didn’t exist in this dream. “Mama, is that you?”
“Remember the day, my Ada. Remember, for it is the Walpurgisnacht.” The shapeless something took a more feminine, familiar form, but never quite developed a face. It was her mother though. “Heed it, mind the fires of spring, and save your brother.”
“Mama… Mama, what do you mean? Alaric is right here.”
“The Walpurgisnacht comes, child.”
Adelaide woke again, unable to tell how many hours or minutes were gone. The sun was up, the room was freezing, and Alaric was gone.
At first, she tricked herself into the relief that it might be a nightmare. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d dreamt of a world where she’d woken up without her brother. Oh, but this was real, and she was there, and Alaric was not.
Faster than horses, Adelaide was out of bed. She did not bother checking the rest of the hideout, shuffling into her coat, boats, and other warm things. She passed the central room and saw the sack Alaric had come in with, now emptied save for a few smears of icing. The other children slept around the room in a sugary stupor, as though spellbound. This was odd, since Jakob sent them out so early most days.
But those weren’t normal sweets… She could still feel sweet stickiness all over her apron, sick with herself. The woman in the wall haunted the corners of her mind against the rush- no, this was no woman. There was a name for this monster in the world outside of Berlin. A witch.
Adelaide reached for the doorway with mittened fingers, but a rough hand clamped into her curls. She screamed before Jakob’s second hand covered her mouth.
“And where do you think you’re off to, pastry thief?” he hissed, eying her as cats eye cornered pray. Green smudges of cake dotted his lips.
Adelaide jerked free, sinking her teeth in Jakob’s palm and twisted his hand out of her hair.
“Alaric is missing! Leave me alone and go sleep off your candy,” she said, stomping Jakob’s foot for good measure.
She bolted again, protecting her scarf tails for fear of getting caught, but it didn’t matter with Jakob so much taller and older. He caught up again, hauling her up by the arms violently.
“Well, now… Alaric all gone? After more sweets too, the little piggie,” he said, looking down on her. “I wanted more!”
Adalaide simply glowered, fighting the boy’s grip. “He brought those for everyone.”
“Of course.. And you wouldn’t happen to know where he got them- since you helped him so much yesterday?” Jakob cooed threateningly. He seemed worse than usual.
Adelaide spat and screamed, unable to escape. “Please… please, Jakob, I think he might die! Let go!”
“I shall,” he said, patting her head. His smile came in grease and missing teeth. “And you’re going to lead me to your brother’s new source first. It’s mine now, after all.”
Potsdamer Platz was even stranger in the early grips of morning, pale patches of sunlight creeping along the old silhouetted buildings and closed shops, the streets awaiting the start of Berlin’s day. The snow had melted in the promise of a heatwave, but the air was still cold.
Adelaide didn’t resist as Jakob followed her into the station; whatever got her to Alaric faster. She ignored his tight grip on her shoulder, and led him down, down, down, into the cavernous mouth of the U-Bahn station. Past the torn layers of posters and staggering pillars that held the tunnels high, into the stale air of the underground. The first line was open again, and several patrons waited along the benches with ticket stubs and newspapers.
“Alaric?” she called, trying to not out-pace Jakob. Her voice echoed across the chambers; people stared. Adelaide didn’t care. “Alaric!”
Jakob scoffed, making her halt. “You expect me to believe all that food came from this station? You’re lying to me.”
“I wouldn’t lie!” Adelaide defended, jerking away again. “Alaric and I came here last night. There is a witch that lives in the station’s walls.”
Jakob openly laughed. “Northern superstitious bumpkin, you just don’t want me to take it for the group. You want us to starve.”
Adelaide’s throat tightened with tears, mostly knowing her brother might not have much time. The witch wasn’t here anymore though, and neither was her brother. She failed to heed her mother’s warning.
“Come! Come, look and see! Look and see…”
A familiarly broken voice warbled through the tunnels and echoed from within them.
Adelaide looked into the nearest empty line, the closed one, where the trains had not yet passed. The air grew colder as she stared into the tunnel, full of darkness and promise. She couldn’t tell if Jakob heard the witch or not, but she didn’t particularly care.
“Alaric?” she called, her echo mocking her and repeating her brother’s name into the silence.
“Ada?” Her brother called back, so small and so loud all at once. “Adelaide!”
Her heart skipped a beat. Adelaide had crawled down onto the tracks before she’d stopped to think. She thought she heard Jakob scream after her, she thought she heard her mother reminding her about the date again. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d minded a calender, and she wasn’t sure now why she kept minding Jakob’s bullying.
She knew she needed to find Alaric, and onward she pressed into the darkness of the tunnel.
Her eyes refused to adjust, leaving her blind and stumbling over the metal tracks until a faint glow overtook her path into the underground, making the tunnel’s insides visible with white light. Adelaide almost stopped as the lights filled the tunnel, revealing a trail of sticky crumbs that lined the concrete, on into the tunnel’s depths. Her brother was always a messy eater.
“Mama?” Adelaide asked the ceiling quietly. It now occurred to her that the glow had more of a chance of being the witch’s doing.
But onward Adelaide went, following the crumbs deeper into the train lines, the glow marking her path in helpful silence. She soon heard her brother’s calls for help again, and her ghostly helper met with the new light of a fire.
In the center of the tracks, a large hole had formed in the earth, flames rising from its depths and licking the tunnel in a constant, fearful ways. The hand was no where to be seen, but Alaric was seated on the far side of the flames, full of pastry crumbs and locked in an oversized birdcage.
His eyes grew wide when he saw his sister. “Ada! You’re here- oh, you’re here! No, no, go back!”
Adelaide simply edged around the fire before she raced to her brother, gripping the bars from the outside. “How did you get so far down here? I thought you were gone!”
“Go back home, Adelaide,” Alaric said again. “She’ll eat you too. She promised to if I didn’t go with her. She just needs one person.”
“The witch.” Adelaide said, tugging at the door of the cage. Sealed with magic, it seemed; little hands formed the evil-looking lock. “No, we’ve got to get you out of here. We should’ve never taken those sweets.”
Alaric’s words cut short with a scream.
Adelaide couldn’t turn around before the hand appeared, its stretched form reaching out of the ground like a risen corpse. It wrapped its angled fingers around the girl’s collar, dragging her up onto her toes. Another arm looped around the cage like a snake, clutching its palm toward Adelaide. It unfolded to reveal a pristine tart.
Adelaide grimaced at the sweet thing, disgusted and braver than before. “No.”
The witch’s voice grunted. The hand edged closer, and the tart turned into a sweet-smelling cookie. Then a slice of cake, a golden pie, a red, ripe apple, a pile of jewels, and two train tickets out of Berlin.
“I said no!” Adelaide shoved the hand away violently. The tickets plopped to the ground and lost their form. A black pile of slime splatted to the ground in its place.
The witch’s voice let loose a wretched scream, and the sound shook the tunnel and morphed into a wicked laugh. The arm wrapped itself around Adelaide, forcing her off her feet and over the fire pit. The witch would eat her first, after all.
Alaric screamed her name and fought against the cage, Mother’s ghost was no where to be seen. Adelaide stared into the fiery depths below, and she swore there were eyes that stared back.
“Adelaide! Alaric!” Jakob’s underdeveloped baritone cut the chaos short. Steps echoed on the concrete.
The witch’s arms vanished, leeching back into the shadows. They dropped Adelaide to the floor and relinquished from the cage form, freeing Alaric. The twins dusted themselves and breathed before racing to embrace each other. They knew the witch wasn’t gone, but at least they could hug each other properly before they were eaten.
Jakob stood at the edge of the fire, breathing messily. Blood and cake now stained his lip, as though he’d busted his face open in the darkness. His expensive coat was drenched with sweat, and he’d pulled out his pocket knife. Anger contorted had his face violently.
“You two…” he growled. “You’ve made a fool of me, and ran away, and still won’t give up your haul! I take you in and this is the thanks I get?”
Alaric stepped in front of his sister. “You’re the one foolish enough to come down here, Jakob. And how dare you chase Ada- threaten her, when I am the big boss now!”
Adelaide tried to stop her brother, but then noticed the pile of black slime remained on the ground.
Jakob laughed in a dissociated way, thumbing his weapon. “Oh, you are now, little pig? Heh… we shall see who can bring the most food when I take off those chubby thumbs of yours!”
He lunged. Alaric flinched back.
“Jakob, here! There’s more.” Adelaide stepped up, the slime cupped in both hands.
Jakob froze at the sight, eyes growing wide. All Adelaide saw was the inky pile that now slid through her fingers, but she offered it to the young man all the same.
“If you let us leave, I’ll give it to you. My family was of respected witchcraft. That was our source and it’s magic food,” she lied. “If you ask that fire for more, it will give you all the sweets you can possibly imagine! It might make you the king of thieves if you want.”
Something in Jakob’s eyes said he didn’t believe her, but the pile of magical slime had already charmed him into seeing whatever he wanted. He scoffed and yanked the slime from Adelaide, stuffing it into his mouth with a hard gulp.
“Out of my way,” he said, shoving the twins aside and approaching the pit of fire. He kicked at the ground mockingly. “I want it then! I want to be the king of this town! Have at it, witch.”
The arms crept from the shadows, pale and thin and pretty. Two reached for Jakob from beyond the flames, open-palmed as usual and offering her tart. Many, many more arms now reached down from the ceiling and floor, identical and wriggling against the evil orange glow.
“Come and see, come and see…” said the witch, her voice multiplied and warbling in zeal. “Welcome.”
Adelaide and Alaric backed away at once, but Jakob didn’t seem to notice any danger. His smile grew a bit too wide as he took witch’s offered tart.
The hands all lunged at once, blinding the twins’ view of Jakob and consuming him. His pocket knife clattered to the ground when he tipped into the fire; his scream suddenly breeched the underground tunnels.
When Adelaide and Alaric looked again, the witch’s hands were gone, and so was Jakob. The fire pit closed with the sound of crumbling earth.
The twins said nothing as they held hands, making their way back down the tunnels with mother’s glow returning to protect their long journey. Adelaide didn’t know if her brother could see the ghost lights, but didn’t ask. They breathed a sigh of collective relief when the station’s lights appeared through the tunnel entrance, wondering what to tell the other children when they returned to the hideout.
Adelaide hadn’t quite stepped out into the warmth of Berlin’s spring, when the witch’s hushed voice plucked at her ear.
“Thank you, frueline… a good Walpurgisnacht to you.”