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Charlie, just 5, deals with death

Charlie Akers shifts his mother's rosary between his hands as if it were a Slinky, scrunches his face and explains death in terms of feathers.

"She was laying down like an angel and we didn't see her wings, but we saw a feather and it looked like a wing," he says, digging through a box of his mother's things until he finds the white dove feather. "Like this."

Mere hours after he saw the box beside his mother's casket at Monday's funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, he sat on the floor of his aunt's house and talked about death.

Charlie understands things by way of feathers and wings because of his age. He is 5. He discusses death because he is too familiar with it. More than he will ever want to know he has learned in kindergarten.

How well can a small boy understand? Listen:

"My mom died, and her name's Andrea, and she fell down and something went down her throat," he says, threading the rosary around his hand. "Now she's an angel. She's dead and I miss her and stuff."

In the rapid-fire manner of children, the words jump off his tongue, and he twists from one topic to another.

He talks about his mother, Andrea Regal, who died Friday after an epileptic seizure and was cremated Monday.

He talks about his dog, which bit him in the face three weeks ago when he was playing a little too rough. The dog was put to sleep.

"I had a dog and his name was Blackie," he says, looking up at the ceiling of his aunt's house. His hand absently touches the scar on his left cheek where he just had the 15 stitches removed.

The Azalea Elementary kindergartener has not had an easy life. His biological father left Regal when Charlie was born and pops in sporadically to see him. Charlie's mother briefly married a few years ago _ the source of Charlie's surname _ but he was not in the picture long.

Charlie's mom _ whom friends and relatives describe as "slow" but big-hearted _ did what she could for him with her series of minimum-wage jobs, most recently as a cook at a Steak 'n Shake restaurant. Regal's live-in boyfriend, Dan Harrison, wanted to adopt Charlie, but money was always too tight for the potentially thousands of dollars in legal bills.

Friends of the family worry that the normal life Charlie's mother tried to carve for him _ riding bikes with him, signing him up for T-ball _ could be shattered.

"Charlie's got a lot going on, all of a sudden," says Virginia Oliva, a neighbor. "It's coming into spring and baseball and things you're supposed to be looking forward to."

His aunt, Genevieve Cozze, has taken care of him since his mother first went to the hospital last Tuesday, through her death on Friday and funeral Monday. Cozze has tried to divert Charlie's attention by having him play hide-and-seek and basketball with his cousins, but he seems distracted as he runs through the yard at her home at 4310 Sixth Ave. N.

Charlie has not returned to his home at 7931 24th Ave. N, which is quiet but for his two pet cockatiels squawking in their cage on the front porch.

Relatives and neighbors worry that the loss will hit him when he goes home and sees the myriad signs of his mother.

The signs begin on the front porch, where a threadbare lawn chair has tipped on its side.

When the mailman found Regal last week, she had collapsed over the lawn chair with Albertsons shopping bags in her hand, her face blue from a lack of oxygen after she had swallowed her tongue.

"As long as I'm here in this house, I'm going to see her in that window," says Barbara Brown, a next-door-neighbor and close friend of Regal. She shakes her head.

"I can't imagine what it'll be like for a 5-year-old little boy."

Now, whether Charlie will return to the home at all is in question. Cozze, his aunt, will try to become his legal guardian, but she does not know if he will live with her family or in the old house with Regal's boyfriend, or if Charlie's biological father will try to gain custody.

Adding to the turmoil, the house itself is heavily mortgaged, and Cozze says there is no guarantee that the family can afford to keep it.

"Right now, Charlie's not eating quite right. Must be the stress of it all," she says. "And now, it's all up in the air."

Charlie's neighbors are doing what they can to help the boy. So far, they have collected $100 for a savings bond.

Stephanie Hopkins, a 10-year-old neighbor who goes to Charlie's school, got involved even before his mother died. After Blackie was euthanized, Hopkins passed fliers around at Azalea and collected three big boxes of toys and food for Charlie _ all on her own initiative.

At his aunt's house, Charlie alternates between running through the house, fidgeting and trying to sort through the surrounding confusion. He may be too young to comprehend mortgage payments and custody questions, but he understands that his mom has died and that nothing is quite right.

"I can't hear her _ she'd have to holler from way up there," he points up at the air. "But she'll always know me. And that's all."

That's all. For now, he seems content with this and goes outside to dribble his cousin's basketball. It is a little one, just the right size for a child's grasp.