The picnic was supposed to bring them closer together. It was an earnest effort at bonding and creating family togetherness. Stepfamily togetherness, anyway. But Silvester had to run into the office to fix some urgent email problem at the last minute, and left Magdalena on her own with his kids.
The afternoon had been a never-ending squabble: Hugo pulled Gudrun’s hair, she pinched him, he took the charger for her tablet, she took his headphones, and by the way it was her turn to play music now and Hugo’s ears were ugly.
But Magdalena loved her husband, and so she must love his children. She kept telling herself that. “If you keep arguing like this,” she threatened, “I won’t let you have any lunch.”
“Your lunch is terrible anyway,” Gudrun shot back. She tossed her braids over her shoulders. “Nobody should have to eat that kind of garbage.”
Magdalena regarded the picnic lunch, which consisted of a stack of inoffensive sandwiches and some perfectly acceptable salad greens with a mild vinaigrette. “You can’t talk to me like that!”
It was Hugo’s turn. “Don’t you be mean to my sister,” he said, and never mind that he’d been the one tormenting his sister until that very moment.
“You stay out of it,” snapped Magdalena.
The children both screamed. Magdalena looked around nervously. “Shh, you’re bothering people,” she hissed.
“I don’t care,” Gudrun cried. “I hate you and I hate my father and I wish you would just die.”
Magdalena was, all things considered, very calm about this. “I’m taking away your screens,” she said. She reached toward Gudrun’s tablet, but the girl kicked at her and curled around her precious electronic companion. Magdalena tugged at the corner and pulled it out of Gudrun’s hand.
Hugo pummeled Magdalena in the back of the head with his tiny fists. “Why you little—” she started. She reared up and turned toward them with venom in her eyes.
The children shrieked and fled from her, toward the thick bushes at the fringe of the woods. “Go on and run!” Magdalena shouted. “Try to hide! If you know what’s good for you, you’ll never come back, either!” They didn’t answer.
She collapsed onto the grass, overcome. No sense in chasing them; they’d just run farther away. And anyway, soon enough they’d be hungry. They’d be back.
Gudrun and Hugo crept into the woods, hand in hand, all prior animosity forgiven and forgotten, as is the way of children. “Do you think she’s still mad?” Gudrun asked.
“She’s always mad,” Hugo answered. His lips twisted up. “I wish we had something to eat with us.”
Gudrun turned out her pockets, but all she found was the wrapper for a sweet she’d snuck earlier in the day. “Maybe we can find something in the forest,” she said. “Berries, or . . .” She forged a path through the underbrush. Hugo trailed along behind her.
As they went deeper among the trees, a warm aroma settled upon them, inviting them to go farther still. “Do you smell that?” Gudrun asked, her eyes bright.
Hugo raised his chin and sniffed, then sighed with pleasure. “It’s like honey cookies. Or ginger? Or—”
“I’m finding out what it is.” Gudrun plunged between the trees, and Hugo followed suit.
They emerged onto a narrow trail meandering its lazy way through the trees. A sign read: Hugo and Gudrun, Go This Way. The children looked at each other, wide-eyed, and followed the trail.
The forest grew brighter around them as they walked. Gudrun snapped a twig off a tree and stared at it. It was translucent like glass, and sticky in her hands, like sugar. She stuck her tongue out and tentatively touched the twig to it. It was sweet, like the caramel glass her real mother had made when she was small. Gudrun laughed out loud. “The plants are made of candy,” she said. “Try it!”
Hugo plucked a small white mushroom from the side of the path. It was spongy and dry to the touch. He popped it into his mouth and then lit up like a beacon. “Marshmallow,” he mumbled around the sticky blob.
They followed the trail, sampling leaves of marzipan and chocolate bark as they went. There was a cottage up ahead, not too far away. It was a pretty thing, with lollipop flowers planted all around its walls. But the house itself, though painted bright colors, was ordinary enough. Not anything so ridiculous as gingerbread. A warm glow shone out of the windows, speaking volumes about baking and family and love.
Gudrun stared at it with trepidation. A memory struggled to catch her attention. A story. A warning. Something about being lost in the woods, about candy, about cottages. “Do you think . . .” she started.
Hugo, younger and much less fearful, marched up and tapped on the door. “Hello?” he called. “Is there anybody in there?” He tried the latch. “It’s locked,” he announced. He knocked again. “Anyone home?”
Gudrun tipped her head. “Do you hear that?” she asked. She could almost hear a song in a language she didn’t speak. But she heard it with her bones, not her ears. It was a promise of sweets...