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“Tag! You’re it! Charlotte burst into a fit of giggles as she rushed past me down the path, creating a ruckus and causing the birds picking at crumbs to take to the skies.
“Not for long!” I shouted back, picking up speed until I had caught up to her. “Gotcha!”
I wrapped my arms around her delicate little six-year-old waist and hoisted her into the air. She screeched and flailed erratically, playfully resisting my attack before succumbing and folding into my arms for a hug.
Charlotte was the quintessence of the perfect little girl. Her sinuous red hair cascaded down her back in loose ringlets, and her blue eyes glistened like a sparkling sea. A dusting of freckles was spattered across her cheeks, nose, and forehead, enhancing her air of naïve innocence. She was flamboyant and spontaneous, and often broke out into extemporaneous dances, much to the delight of anyone around to witness her in all her six-year-old glory.
“What’s wrong with you?” Charlotte, always concerned with my “big girl” problems, asked.
“Nothing, Char. Nothing,” I quietly replied.
“Ooh! I know what it is! You like somebody! I bet it’s Kevin!” she teased. “Mia and Kevin, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
“You guessed it!” I lied, concealing the real reason behind my angst.
“Yes!” Charlotte exclaimed, thrusting her tiny fist into the air in triumph.
I had a habit of doing that, keeping secrets from Charlotte. Anything I felt too adult for her was kept locked away, deep inside the catacombs of my mind. I couldn’t expose her to anything that might break her from the innocence she would only possess for so long. I had to keep her sheltered, or I would lose her.
“What about you?” I tenderly tickled her side. “Who do you like?”
“Nobody,” she said, looking at her feet. I could see the color slowly rising to her cheeks. “Except Benji Conrad…”
“Still?” I gasped, feigning shock. “Now, Charlotte, what did I tell you about boys?”
“Boys are icky!” she quoted me verbatim, twisting up her face in mock disgust as she said it. A giggle escaped her lips.
“And don’t you forget it!” I gently poked her nose.
Somehow, I couldn’t imagine Charlotte liking boys, even little Benji Conrad. It seemed impossible for her to develop crushes, go on dates, or get her first kiss. I couldn’t seem to fathom Charlotte ever going to prom, graduating from college, or, scariest of all, getting married. Somehow, I just couldn’t see Charlotte growing up.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” I said excitedly, my voice hushed, almost a whisper. “I got something for you!”
Charlotte clasped her hands to her mouth and let out an ecstatic gasp. If there was one thing she loved most, it was surprises. She would light up at the mention of a gift, and would wiggle and squirm until she opened it. It wasn’t the actual gift that gave Charlotte the greatest joy. It was simply the excitement of not knowing what she was receiving. The mystery of not knowing what lay ahead of her. The joy of the future.
I rummaged around in my bag until I found what I was looking for.
“A teddy bear!” she shrieked and hugged the fluffy white toy. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Welcome!” I smiled down at her. “Look! We’re here!”
“Already? Aw, man!” Charlotte whined, a look of disappointment falling upon her face, which had been animated and bubbly just seconds before.
We passed through the imposing stone gates of the cemetery, winding through the seemingly infinite rows of gravestones. The paradox of the place struck me. The headstones that surrounded me reminded me of two things. Everything was finite, yet everything was eternal. Nobody lived forever. Someday, I would die. But after that, I couldn’t even begin to guess. Would I be reincarnated as a new person with strengths and weaknesses so incredibly foreign from my own? Would I haunt the earth as a ghost? Or would I simply lie there in a coffin, resting in peace? Whatever happened, it was eternal.
Charlotte glanced up at me with an inquisitive look. She knew I was thinking, and she wanted to know what. I just kept silent. Up ahead, I saw our destination. I approached it, growing still and somber.
The bright and bouncy little girl no longer stood at my side. I gazed down at the fluffy white bear clutched between my fingers. Its soft fur tickled my fingers. I gave it a squeeze and knelt to place it on Charlotte’s grave.
A single tear trickled down my cheek as I sat next to the grave of my six-year-old sister. Her life was finite, but her memory was eternal.
“Bye, Char,” I whispered, and rose to leave.