The boy placed his small, thin hand over his sister’s heart, and felt nothing.
The children — he was 7, she was 5 — had been banished to the dark, dank basement inside the rowhouse on Harper Street in Fairmount, starved by a mother addicted to drugs.
But then the sound of someone leaving food at the top of the stairs.
Dante scampered up to get it, expecting Charnae to follow. When he walked back down, she was curled up as if still asleep.
None of Charlene Wise’s eight children were spared, but Charnae and Dante got the worst of it. They were tied up in back rooms, then locked in the basement until the August 1997 day that Charnae died.
His mother told Dante to put a bag over her, and left the girl’s body under the basement stairs.
“It’s our secret,” she told the children. Police found her remains in September, alongside a plastic blue barrette.
More than two decades later, neighbors debated how to replace a fading garden mural bearing her likeness.
But what became of the boy who lived? Even as I wrote a column about the new mural last week, I wondered.
At Charlene Wise’s sentencing, Dante’s adoptive mother described a boy burdened by guilt — that he hadn’t done enough to protect his little sister, that maybe if he’d forgone his share of their only source of water in that basement, the drip from a cracked hot-water heater, she wouldn’t have died.
“Charlene Wise tried to destroy this little boy,” Sybil Hailey said.
The judge, who sentenced the mother to 28 to 56 years behind bars, agreed. “God knows what the future holds for them,” she said of the children left behind.
After reading last week’s column, Dante sent an email. He wanted to talk.
Dante told me how he was fostered and then adopted along with two younger sisters, Shadeara and Larrisha, by a Montgomery County couple, a mother who worked at a chemical company for years, a father who retired in 2016 as a Philadelphia high school principal.
Despite being adopted by a loving family, he spent most of his 20s in and out of prison for robbery and drug dealing. Now, nearly 30, and on parole from a 3½-year stint for gun possession, something felt different, he said, as we talked at his Philadelphia rooming house.
He was surprised that people were still touched by Charnae’s story. It felt as if the universe, and Charnae, were reaching out to him.
He hasn’t talked to his mother since the day the children were removed from the house. She once wrote a letter to all her children. He wrote back, but she never responded.
He saw, first as a child at the mercy of a person on drugs and then as an adult selling them, not only what people do for drugs, but what drugs do to people.
He forgave her. But he won’t forget.
“I’m lucky that people are still talking about us, so I gotta show kids: Now listen, I’m that kid that was in that basement being abused. Yes, I went to the streets and all that, but I’m still here today to show there’s hope. I’m still looking forward. I’m not dead. I’m not doing life in jail. I’m here.”
He is a walking testament that your beginning doesn’t dictate your end, no matter how many setbacks.
At least his adoptive mother hopes that’s so.
When he was released from prison last year, his parents invited him to stay with them in Virginia, where they now live. “This is what family does,” his mother told him.
But he wanted his own place. He takes one subway, one bus, and then walks to his job as a cook at a Glenside country club.
He still wants to make his parents proud. His younger sister is always with him, too, one forearm tattooed with RIP, the other, Charnae. If he has a daughter one day, he will name her Charnae.
The other day he went back to the mural he hadn’t visited since 2010. Longtime neighbor Joyce Hill stopped her car. Realizing who Dante was, she hugged him tight. She’d wondered about him.
The street looked different, he said, walking toward the house. He stopped and stared at the basement window.
He remembered being in there with Charnae and hearing the sound of ice-cream trucks and seeing the shadows of kids playing and laughing outside and wishing they were out there with them.
He is still not where he wants to be.