an excerpt of “All for Beauty and Youth”
by Kelly A. Harmon
From Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine, funding now on Kickstarter.
“Come on, Gret, run faster!” Hansel said. He grabbed her hand and pulled her down the cobblestone street toward the rail station. She’d long ago lost her hair clips, and her long, blond curls tumbled down her back, tangling in the wind.
“You go,” she said, trying to shake off his hand. “I’m only slowing you down. You can catch the train without me.” Her voice was ragged as her lungs sought air. Large clouds of breath swept past her as she ran, visible in the damp winter evening. Her carpetbag beat heavily against her thigh at every step. “Send for me when you get established.”
She heard the shrill whistle of the train two blocks away, and even from this distance, the sound of exploding steam as the conductor freed the brakes. They wouldn’t make it.
“I can’t leave without you,” Hansel said. “There’s no telling what she’ll do.”
“I can’t run any farther,” Gretel said. Fog twisted the shadows into monstrous spectators, frightening her. For just a moment, she squeezed her eyes shut. She stumbled.
Hansel tightened his grip and pulled her to her feet, almost losing his grip on his own small suitcase. “We’re almost there, Gretel. You can do it. Come on.” He tugged her a bit faster down the foggy side street. She had to hurry, he thought. Everything depended on their making it onto this train.
They turned the corner and the Bahnhof Hamburg came into view. Gas lamps enveloped the platform in an orange glow where Vapourer moths and mosquitoes danced in the wan light. Only a few remaining passengers boarded, lifting their valises and carpet bags to porters, then mounting the steps to the car.
The teens arrived in a flurry, scaring off a dozen clockwork birds pecking at metal shards cast from the train wheels.
Hansel reached for the gleaming brass handlebar of the last car coupled to the train just as the conductor blew the shrill whistle once more. He abandoned the effort when a figure stepped out of the shadow of the train station, the point of her black-frilled parasol brushing against the leather toe of her lace-up ankle boots.
“Going somewhere?” She grabbed Gretel’s free arm and pulled her away from the steps.
“Stepmother,” breathed Gretel, under her breath. Her carpetbag fell limply out of her hand onto the platform.
Their father stepped out of the shadows behind her, the brass buttons on his Hussers’ uniform gleaming in the orange glow of the gas lights. He twisted his hat in his hands.
“Yes, Franziska,” Hansel said. “Since you ever complain of having to feed and clothe us on a military man’s salary, we thought we would make our way back to relatives in the Old Country.”
Shunk. A blast of steam powered the escapement and forced the train wheels a quarter turn forward.
“Step-mama,” she corrected through gritted teeth, her smile turning to a grimace. “But you’re children,” she said, lightening her tone. “You can’t be allowed to travel so far alone.”
Shunk. Another blast of steam, another quarter turn of the wheels.
A crowd, having seen their relatives off, began to stand around them, interested in the family squabble.
“Come home with us,” she said. “Now. We have a carriage waiting.”
Hansel gripped Gretel’s hand more tightly and looked to his sire.
“Father?” he said. “We—”
“Do as your step-mama says, Hansel. She knows best.”
“Not another word,” their stepmother hissed from behind clenched teeth. She bent forward, reaching for Gretel, then grasped her fragile wrist in leather-gloved hands and gave it a quick twist.”
Still in a low voice, their stepmother said, “Come with me this instant without causing a scene or there will be worse for you when we reach home.”
Gretel nodded and picked up her bag.
Shunk-shunk. Shunk-shunk. The steam came faster, building up momentum, and the train slowly pulled out of the station, its steel wheels screaming atop the rails that would have carried them to their freedom.
Hansel knew he could still make it aboard, but he watched it slowly depart from view before following his family. He couldn’t leave Gretel alone with that witch.
Kelly A. Harmon used to write truthful, honest stories about authors and thespians, senators and statesmen, movie stars and murderers. Now she writes lies, which is infinitely more satisfying, but lacks the convenience of doorstep delivery. She is an award-winning journalist and author, and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. A Baltimore native, she writes the Charm City Darkness series, which includes the novels Stoned in Charm City, A Favor for a Fiend, and the soon to be published, A Blue Collar Proposition. Her science fiction and fantasy stories can be found in Triangulation: Dark Glass, Hellebore and Rue, andDeep Cuts: Mayhem, Menace and Misery.
Ms. Harmon is a former newspaper reporter and editor, and now edits for Pole to Pole Publishing, a small Baltimore publisher. She is co-editor of Hides the Dark Tower along with Vonnie Winslow Crist.