It started with the trick-or-treaters eight months after Eric died. He loved Halloween, loved Christmas even more. She could feel it coming, the days when the house would be empty and dead, like he was, when it should be filled with joy for life, like he had been. She put the house on the market without thinking, hired packers, and got storage space before the thoughts had time to gel. All she knew was that she was driving, driving away from the emptiness, headed north, then west.
When the snow came she didn’t blink. Flipped on the wipers, kept going. The highway got bad, so she took a side road. The snow got worse, spent the night in the car. Anything was better than going back to the empty house. When she woke up the roads felt strange. No cell service, barely any radio. No street signs, no signs at all until the Gingerbread Haus bakery.
It reminded her of Germany, even though the building was a Tudor. Inside the smell of dough and warm yeast made her stomach grumble. How long had she been driving? A man’s voice called from the back while she examined sugar cookies painted like miniature impressionistic pieces. She held a starry night when she saw Eric again.
Before she started breathing again, she knew it wasn’t him, just the same hair, like the sunset on fire.
“I’m Phillip, the baker.”
“Painter is more like it.”
“Sometimes I’m even a prince,” he said with a laugh and a gleam in his eye. His cookies tasted like comfort and home, before long he’d directed her to a place to stay.
The old house was drafty and the town so picturesque it almost hurt. The townspeople felt like a collection of characters from a book: crotchety old men, hunched over old women like witches, and little girls in red coats, a boy named Hans who never took off his silver skates. She walked between them, an outsider, welcomed but not embraced. At night she dreamed of Eric, and during the day she visited Phillip. Eventually the dreams shifted, started with Eric and ended with Phillip.
It didn’t take long for her to make dreams into reality. She expected to confuse the two of them, but once they were in bed, Phillip was most decidedly Phillip. He held her hand during the day, showed her the woods, the town. He knew everyone, and they treated him with an almost reverent respect. With him she felt accepted, at ease. Until one morning on her way to the bakery, she ran into a man with Phillip’s features but coal black hair.
“Don’t you have things to do?” He asked with a cruel smile.
His words brought it all back: call the real estate agent, call her job, go back to the house. Was it Christmas yet? So much to do. Her feet moved to the bakery, get breakfast before she left. How many days had it been?
Phillip called to her, wishing a good morning. Her mouth moved automatically, her head on the responsibilities she’d forgotten.
“Everything all right?”
“I met someone, he reminded me-”
“My brother.” The words were condemnation.
“Maybe, he looked like you but with black hair.”
“We’re twins.” He untied his apron with angry fingers. “There’s a story I need to tell you. Let’s take a walk.”
“I’m not dressed for hiking. Besides, I can’t, I don’t have time.” This was not a day for another jaunt through the woods that circled town.
“You need to know.” He covered her hands with hers, so wonderful but so not like Eric. But there were things to be done. She went anyway.
They walked higher up the mountain than before, the woods growing thicker until the winter sun barely made it through the branches.
“Once upon a time there was a king who had twin sons. He thought his people were getting stale, detached from the world, so he decided that the son who could bring an outsider to stay with him would be king.”
Phillip pulled back a branch, and suddenly woods gave way to a clearing, inside it a castle.
She looked for a long time, then finally closed her mouth to say, “We don’t have kings in America.”
“We’re not in America.”
“Okay, so Canada.” She looked at the castle, a perfect match to the one in every child’s imagination. How turned around had she gotten in the snow storm?
“Not Canada either.”
She turned to him to stare.
“My brother likes the old ways. He wants us to stay apart. I like you.” He blushed a little. “So you can go, or you can come meet my father. I’d like you to stay.”
He held out his hand to her and, for a second, she thought about all things she had to do. Then she smiled and asked, “Would I be princess?”