“You do it.”
“No, you do it.”
“You big baby.”
“That’s mean! You’re always trying to scare me!”
Allie and Michael lay on their bellies, staring into the damp, moldy crawlspace under their red brick ranch-style house. They’d explored every other inch of the place, starting with the attic, over the course of the last week.
“It’s not my fault you’re a big fraidy-cat,” Allie said. She scooted forward along the bright green grass until her head and shoulders had disappeared into the dark. “There’s nothing under here except dirt and spiders.”
“I hate spiders,” said Michael, and shuddered. He sat up and brushed off his Yankees T-shirt. “I want to go home.”
“This is our home.” Allie emerged from the crawlspace with smudges of brown grime under her chin. “Dad got a new job, remember? We live here now.”
Michael’s bottom lip began to quiver. Allie put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “It’ll be okay,” she told him. “Don’t cry, dummy” she said, and stood up. “Let’s go have lunch.”
Allie and Michael grew up in the city. They’d lived in a cramped fourth floor walk-up above a bodega all their lives, and this new house in the country, with lots of windows and a wide-open yard, frightened them both just a little. It excited them, too. They’d never had their own rooms, and sometimes, at night when the unfamiliar noises got to be too much, Michael would climb into Allie’s bed, and they’d huddle together imagining car horns and sirens. Their mother had died in December, and their father had decided they all needed a change of scenery and some fresh air. Now, in May, a little more than a week after moving in, all three of them secretly missed traffic and crowds and hustle.
Their house sat on a dead-end, gravel road in a valley, surrounded by old-growth forest six miles away from a one-grocery-store town. Allie and Michael hadn’t quite worked up the courage to explore the woods, but they had spent time walking up and down the road, waving to the few neighbors they had and making up stories about them.
“Mrs. Roberson has an army of rats in her basement!” Michael didn’t like Mrs. Roberson. She had a cloudy left eye and a hunch in her back. She’d dropped off a broccoli and rice casserole for them, though, the first night they’d spent in their new home. Michael didn’t like that either. He hated broccoli.
“Heather Fields hit a boy with her car once, and she didn’t even stop!” Allie, who at eleven was all knees and elbows, and showing the first signs of acne on her cheeks, was just a little jealous of the beautiful, sophisticated sixteen-year-old Heather. She drove a red sports car and had offered to take Allie to the mall three towns over once school was out.
After they’d eaten, just past the high heat of the day, and with nothing left to uncover in their house and all of their toys still tucked away in boxes, Allie and Michael went for a walk.
Michael noticed the narrow dirt trail first.
“Where do you think that goes?” he asked, pointing into a dark canopy of tree limbs and thick vines, down a path barely wide enough for two people. “I never saw it before.”
“‘I’ve never seen it.’ Talk right, Michael.” Allie peered down the path herself. “Let’s go look.”
Allie dragged Michael along at first, keeping a tight grip on his sweaty hand, but he got excited and broke her hold when they found a long wooden bridge. It spanned about a hundred feet, over a slow-flowing creek and above a field full of yellow buttercups. Michael ran to the middle and looked down.
“There’s lots of dead trees down there,” he yelled back to Allie. “And there’s a snake in the water!”
“Don’t go down there,” Allie called to him, and quickened her own pace, careful not to step too hard on the old boards. “This thing’s really old, Michael. It’s not safe,” she said, once she reached him. “Let’s just keep going.”
The trail seemed darker as they walked on, the tree canopy closer, and all the leaves brittle and lifeless.
“Do you hear that?” Allie asked Michael.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said.
“Exactly,” she answered.
“Stop trying to scare me!”
“I’m not! I just think it’s weird.” Allie grabbed for Michael’s hand again and pulled him closer to her as they kept walking.
Ten minutes later, the canopy opened up to reveal a fork in the trail, and at its center, a stone farmhouse, tucked away behind two of the biggest sycamore trees Allie and Michael had ever seen. The house’s shutters were ragged, bright white that had gone gray, and its metal roof looked close to collapsing. On its rickety front porch, a gray-haired old man in faded denim overalls sat in a rocking chair. He stood when he noticed them.
“You two lost?” he asked.
“No sir,” Michael answered.
“We were just walking,” Allie added.
“Only people ever come see me are lost,” the old man said. He beckoned them forward with a paper-thin arm. “Sit with me a while? I just made some strawberry ice cream. Seems a good day for it.”
Allie and Michael looked at each other, and then up at the man, and walked up the front porch steps side by side. Allie sat on a whitewashed porch swing off to the right, and Michael on the top step.
“I’m Amos,” the old man told them.
“Allie Daniels,” Allie replied.
“I’m Michael,” said Michael.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Amos,” Allie added.
“Nice to meet you two, as well,” Mr. Amos said. “I’ll just step inside a minute and be back with some of that ice cream.” The screen door creaked close behind him.
“Is this okay?” Michael chewed at the nail of his pinky finger.
“I guess so,” said Allie.
“Dad always tells us not to bother grownups.”
“He invited us,” Allie reasoned.
Mr. Amos returned holding three ceramic mugs overflowing with ice cream, each scoop studded with bright red strawberries. He presented one to Allie and one to Michael, and sat back in his chair with his own.
“I always did love strawberry ice cream best,” he said. “You’re lucky you stopped by while they’re in season.”
“What’s that mean?” asked Michael.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
Allie explained that they’d just moved from the city, and that they hadn’t even started school yet, and that Michael wouldn’t know a fresh strawberry from a spaghetti noodle. “And mom always did the grocery shopping before.”
“Before what?” Mr. Amos asked.
“Our mom died,” said Michael.
Mr. Amos sat his empty mug down on the window ledge behind him. He shook his head and tucked his knuckles under his chin. “I’m real sorry,” he said. “My wife died about three years ago.”
“Do you live here alone?” Allie felt bad asking the question right after it came out of her mouth. “Sorry. It just looks like really a big house for one person.”
“I’ve been here a while,” he said, and got an odd sort of foggy look on his face. “Things never really were the same after she went. Seems like I used to live totally different.”
They all sat silent for a moment. Allie picked at a hole in the seam of her pink tank top. “Everything’s different now for us, too,” she finally said.
Michael, from his perch on the top step, slurped the rest of his ice cream down in one bug gulp, and said, “I don’t like it here. It’s too quiet and there’s nothing to do.”
“Well, now we got each other, don’t we?” Mr. Amos got up and clapped his wrinkled hands together.
“Really?” Michael’s eyes grew to the size of saucers.
“We could come back tomorrow,” Allie said. “We could bring some books and games and stuff. Have you ever played Crazy Eights?”
“I don’t reckon I have,” Mr. Amos said. He came around to collect their mugs. “But I still got room in this old brain for some new stuff.”
Allie glanced at Michael, and the two of them stood up in unison.
“We should get back home and stop bugging you for now,” Michael said.
“You’re not bugging me at all,” Mr. Amos said. He nudged the screen door open with his bare foot and stepped inside, clutching the mugs to his chest. “Y’all wait just one more minute before you leave.”
When he came back this time, he handed Michael an intricately carved little wooden fox. “I carved that when I was about your age,” he said, “from a sycamore tree in my back yard. Looked just like one of those before it fell down in a storm.” He pointed to the trees in front of the house.
“Can I keep it?” Michael stared down at the fox in his palm, and wondered just how long it took Mr. Amos to make it.
“I think you should have it,” Mr. Amos answered. “It’s meant for a boy, not for an old man. It feels like it’s been sitting here waiting for you.”
“Thank you,” Michael said. He looked at the fox one more time before stuffing it, as gently as he could, into the pocket of his khaki shorts. “Can you teach me how to make one?”
“I sure can,” Mr. Amos said. “Y’all come back and see me whenever you want.” He smiled at them.
“Thanks,” said Michael, and smiled back. Allie realized it was the first time he’d smiled since they moved.
“Thank you for the ice cream,” said Allie. “We’ll come back tomorrow, before lunch.” She paused. “If that’s okay,” she added.
“I look forward to it,” Mr. Amos said. “It’s been a long time since I had company. I think I’ll sleep real good tonight, now I’ve got two new friends to see in the morning.”
Allie and Michael stepped off of Mr. Amos’s porch and out toward the path. They turned around once, just before they reached the sycamore trees, and waved. The old man waved back, and, as they walked away, Allie and Michael never heard the creak of his screen door.
They went back the next day, carrying a cardboard box full of sandwiches, chips, sodas, and books for Mr. Amos, and a deck of cards, so they could to teach him to play Crazy Eights. They found the dirt trail, and crossed the bridge, but found no house at the fork in the path, and no sign that the house behind the sycamore trees, or the old man who lived there, had ever existed in the first place. In his pocket, Michael felt the solid weight of the little wooden fox.
The following May, as the school year wound to a close and Allie and Michael began to dream about summer and all of its promise and possibilities, they decided to look for the house at the fork one more time. They had to do it in the morning, because Allie had a sleepover later that day, and Michael wanted to meet some of his friends to practice for football. He’d be old enough to play in the fall, in the youth league in town.
They didn’t expect to find anything, and couldn’t explain how they’d ever found anything in the first place. None of their neighbors knew of a man called Amos, and all of them insisted there had never been a trail off of the road, or a bridge, or a stone farmhouse. The whole neighborhood, they said, had been carved out of the woods only twenty years ago. But Allie and Michael wanted to go back and see, for themselves, just in case, and so on a humid, overcast day, they set out looking for the trail. They found it, and the bridge, and the fork and the giant sycamore trees. Only now, instead of Mr. Amos’s stone farmhouse, there was a log cabin, and on its porch, a young man with dark hair in a plaid shirt rested in a red Adirondack chair. He stood up when he noticed them coming.
“You kids lost?”
Allie and Michael looked at the young man, and then at each other, and walked up the front porch steps.