Sidney Carmichael died in June, on a Tuesday morning when the Kentucky roads was still slick from last night’s rain and an army of frog babies had got confused and mistook Old Yellerback Road for the river over the bend. It’d be nice to say Sidney died trying to save those frog babies, but the truth is that early that morning, Sidney was on his pea green bicycle on Old Yellerback Road doing his damnedest to squash every one of them frogs before they could get out of his way.
He was so hell bent on destruction that Sidney never saw Jeffy Anderson in his daddy’s dump truck with Kenny Chesney playing loud, headed to the gravel pit up toward Columbia with his first load of gravel of the day. Jeffy saw Sidney’s bike too late, and he stomped his boot down on the brake so hard that smoke come up from the tires while he slid fifty feet across the wet pavement. When he hit, I couldn’t tell between Sidney Carmichael’s screams and the screech of that old dump truck squashing his pea green bicycle. I heard metal on metal and Sidney crying for maybe a minute, maybe two, before he didn’t make no more sounds, and smoke and early-morning steam mixed up together and drifted up from the ground. I saw that and I blinked a couple times, thinking maybe I was seeing Sidney Carmichael’s spirit rising up off of the earth like you read about.
But it was just smoke and steam.
A whole slew of neighbors come running, and Jeffy Anderson stood off to the side while the ambulance crew tried to pull Sidney Carmichael free. It was no use, though – he was mixed up forever with his old bike and the undercarriage of the truck and all those frog babies… All of them tangled up together, so that when everybody left later that day there was still a twenty-foot long streak of blood and rubber, laid down on the pavement for all the world to see.
Nobody noticed I was there. The only one that ever noticed I was anywhere was Sidney Carmichael, and I knew he’d never notice nobody again. I stayed off in the trees, up by Foster’s Hill, and I watched the whole day while people come and cried and Sidney’s mama come to the side of the road and laid herself down on the rubber and the blood and bawled and ground her teeth together and hollered to Jesus to bring back her baby boy.
People come and brung flowers – mostly people who never could stand Sidney, but now they cried and carried on, broken-hearted, like Sidney Carmichael was some saint taken away from the Green River Valley too soon.
I waited ‘til they was all gone, and then I went down to the road where it happened. The sun was setting, bright orange down low over a hillside of black trees, like all the color’d been sucked out of the world and nothing was left but that blinding ball of fire sinking lower and lower.
I didn’t cry. I don’t really do that. Sidney Carmichael used to say to me, “You one scary girl, Tadpole – you don’t smile and you don’t cry and you don’t laugh. It’s like nobody lives behind them pretty eyes.”
My name is Hannah Jane, but Sidney Carmichael always called me Tadpole. He was the only one who ever told me I was pretty. The first time I ever let him kiss me on the mouth, I was six years old. Sidney was ten. He tasted like cigarettes and chewing gum, and he bit my lip and made it bleed. He said, “Girls like bitin’ – it’s the way we do.” But I didn’t like it so much.
It wasn’t ‘til late that night after he got hit that I decided on bringing Sidney back to life. I’d been playing around with the idea my whole life – cutting worms into two pieces and watching them wriggle on both ends like a magic trick God come up with just for me. I’d watched movies about it, and read books, too. When my mama and daddy died, I was too little to try – in the books, you always gotta have a fresh body for it to work. Even worms gotta be fresh – I tried cutting up dried out worms I found on the sidewalk, but all I got was two dried out wormy bodies, ‘stead of one.
But Sidney Carmichael would be fresh. My Aunt Lydia weren’t home from her factory job just yet, so that night I got on my bicycle and I pedaled all the way to the next town of Hartsville, Kentucky. It was night by then. I hadn’t ate since that morning. Sidney Carmichael used to bring me bologna sandwiches up on Foster’s Hill, and I remembered that and got a funny sick feeling at the bottom of my gut.
“I never met nobody who had to get reminded to eat,” he’d say to me. “You must be dumb as a stump, not to remember to eat.”
He always put extra mustard on the white bread, on account of it was how I liked it, and he would let me have the sandwich for free if I let him put his hand down my shorts or under my shirt.
“You don’t hardly have nothin’ down there anyhow,” he said to me. “It’s only bad if you got somethin’ to touch. You only got mosquito bumps and peach fuzz under there, though.”
So I ate my bologna sandwiches while Sidney Carmichael felt around under my clothes. That was how we spent most of our summers, from the time I was six years old.
This summer was the first time Sidney told me to touch on him. I was ten years old – old enough so’s I ought to learn what a boy liked, Sidney said. The first time, he brung me a bologna and mustard sandwich in the middle of May, one day when the air was swampy and mosquitoes was sucking on my wet skin.
“You just put your hand on it,” he said. He looked scared, like he thought I might get mad. I didn’t mind, though. It got bigger under his shorts when I touched him there, and he closed his eyes and groaned a little.
“It don’t hurt when I do that?” I asked him.
“It feels real good when you do that,” he said. “You do like that and someday maybe I’ll marry you. I can make you bologna sandwiches and we’ll build us our own house up here on Foster’s Hill.”
That night after he died, I pedaled a long ways, ‘til I got to the old funeral home where they laid out my mama and daddy when I was just a baby. It was a white house with big white pillars and a sign out front with baby angels flying ‘round words that said, “Rest in Peace Mortuary.” It was hot and I’d sweated through my t-shirt and my ripped up shorts, and I was hungry and I was tired. The front door to the funeral home was locked up tight, and so was all the windows and the back door.
I sat on the front lawn, resting in the light of the sign with the baby angels, and I closed my eyes.
I thought about Sidney Carmichael and the ciggy taste of his mouth and what it would’ve been like if he built me a house up on Foster’s Hill. I thought about his bologna sandwiches and his pea green bicycle, and his red hair and all the freckles on his big meaty hands, and how those freckles got darker when he’d wrap his fist ‘round my wrist to keep me still.
In the movies whenever they brung anybody back to life, they never come back the same.
I wondered what kind of zombie Sidney’d make.
I brushed my stringy hair back from my eyes, and my hand come away wet.
Sidney Carmichael was fourteen years old when he died. He had red hair that always needed a cut, and a round face and round eyes and a slopey mouth that I liked to kiss, sometimes, when nobody was looking.
I got up off the ground and brushed my hand across my eyes one more time. The grass and the pavement and the air was wet, the way it always is summers in Kentucky. Two frog babies hopped right in front of me once I got on my bicycle and headed out. I stopped pedaling and watched ‘til they jumped out of my way. I waited a long time, watching them go, and I didn’t start out again ‘til I knew everybody was safe.
I left Sidney Carmichael behind, and went on home.