The spring before it happened, I went upstairs and found my ten-year-old sister Jilly crying. Charlotte’s Web, which we’d been reading together at bedtime all that week, lay splayed broken-backed on the floor where she’d thrown it.
“What’s wrong?” I said, hovering in the doorway. As Jilly kept getting sicker, I tried to offer her the illusion of her own space, but remained ready.
“I was reading ahead because I liked it so much—and Charlotte dies!” she managed to gasp between sobs.
The big brass bed creaked in protest as I sat down beside her. Gathering her into my arms, I rocked her back and forth. It was well past sunset and the full-faced moon washed into the room, spilling across the blue rag rug like milk, and gleaming on the bed knobs so that they looked like balls of icy light, brighter than the dim glow of Jilly’s bedside lamp.
“It’s a book, Jilly, just a book,” I said.
She shook her head, cheeks blotched red and wet with tears. “But, Aaron, Charlotte’s dead!” she choked out again.
I retrieved the book from the middle of the room and set it in front of her. “Look,” I said. “If we open the book up again at the beginning, Charlotte’s alive. She’ll always be alive in the book.”
The sobs quieted to hiccups and she reached for the book, looking dubious. When she opened it to the first chapter, I began to read. “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. ‘Out to the hoghouse,’ replied Mrs. Arable. ‘Some pigs were born last night.'”
Curling against me, she let me read the first two chapters. After she slipped away to sleep, I tucked the blanket around her then went downstairs to cry my own tears.
Rated PG. Contains child mortality. Those sensitive to these themes are advised to take caution.
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