I’m walking down a dirt road in high summer in Eastern Kentucky. I’m 10, old enough for the various hippy adults to put me and the other 10-year-old, my friend Willow, in charge of the passel of four or five younger kids. We kids spent our time rambling over the Appalachian Mountains, drinking in the Queen Anne’s lace and honeysuckle and tiger lilies that bordered the dirt roads. When we were thirsty, we knew where to find an icy mountain spring with a ladle on a hook. When we were hot, we waded in the creek and caught craw-dads for fun. When we were hungry we wandered home. When I was tired, I climbed on the lap of my mountain of a Dad and felt loved and safe.
On this particular day, on that dirt road in high summer, Willow and I are leading the various tired younger kids home for lunch. The sun is hot and the air is still and maybe we are all testy. On the side of the road Willow and I, at the same time, spot a green-gray toad sunning itself on a flat rock. The toad is fat and squat and ugly as sin. All us kids wander over for a closer look. The frog is too fat and too ugly to move.
Willow picks up another flat rock, so big he has trouble lifting it. I understand what he means to do and I burst into tears, begging him not to, knowing that my protestations are only making him want to do it more. Like a blond, skinny, prepubescent god, Willow holds the rock over the frog, and drops it.
I can’t stop the younger kids from seeing it, I can’t stop Willow, and I can’t save the frog.
A few years later, Willow is arrested for burglary and sent to juvvie. My mom asks me to write him. From my comfortable suburban home in Maryland, with a swimming pool and bedroom decorated in pink florals, I can’t imagine what his view looks like. I write him a chatty letter about my sophomore year and how I’m class secretary and had fun at the homecoming dance. He writes back, asking for a photo. I send my school headshot, feeling dumb.
His second letter is a violent, pornographic treatise on what he’d like to do to me when he gets out. I didn't tell my mom (hi mom!) because I thought I must be to blame somehow. I must have written something that in some way told him that kind of response would be welcomed. Why else would he have done it? My mom asked if I wrote him back and I brushed her off, letting her see me as self-centered rather than someone deserving of a letter like that.
I haven’t had any communication with Willow since then, but I’ve heard his life has been hard. A Google search reveals that in the past five years he’s been charged with contempt of court three times, aggravated assault and attempted murder.
I still feel responsible for the death of that toad.