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Putting the final river rock in place, he studied his work with a tilt to his head, and wiggled his Lego man around until it stood straight, then nodded in approval. The track he had created—with two stick ramps, a field of dirt bumps, a large lake/puddle from the garden hose, and the garage he made from an old shoebox—was better than his last.
With a grin, he plucked up the bestest present ever.
“Bbrroom, vroom…” Pushing his neon-blue racer with the bright yellow flames on the sides around the first loop, he was excited to launch it over a hump and watch it fly.
“Hey there, Caleb!”
Tipping his head to glance up, he stopped playing, saying, “Hi,” as his brow crinkled in confusion. “How did you get here?”
“Magic.” Mrs. Albright smiled down at him.
Eyes rounding, he asked, “Really?”
She winked. “I’m just teasing. I drove over, but you weren’t out here when I arrived.”
“Oh.” His shoulders fell.
“Did you get a new car?”
“Uh-huh. Mommy sent it to me for my birthday.” Caleb hoisted his hand and spread his fingers. “I’m five now!”
“I know”—she patted the top of his head when he stood—“I brought Kasey to your birthday party last month in the park. Remember?”
He pictured the green smeared on her face and hands, and those random globs spiking her hair and giggled. “She got frosting all over.”
“She did indeed.”
Squinting, he asked as he glanced around, “Where is she?”
“Inside with Jade and your brother, but she’s been a bit fussy today, so I hope her bad mood doesn’t make Jacob fussy too.”
Caleb pursed his lips. “Why? Is she sick?”
“Just tired because she didn’t take a nap, but Jade’s going to try and put her down for a few minutes.”
“I don’t take naps no more,” he said, swinging his arms.
Her dangly earring caught in the sun and sparkled when she tucked a piece of dark hair behind her ear. “You’re getting so big.”
“Not as big as Daddy.”
She chuckled. “Not quite yet, but one day soon.”
“I’m going to start Kindergarten already.”
“Yes. You’ll be in Ms. Shelby’s class. I think you will like her.”
He shrugged. Ms. Shelby seemed nice, but then Jade had too when he first met her, tricking him.
“Well, Sweetie, I’ve got to go. I don’t want to be late for my appointment.” She tugged the sunglasses from the top of her head and popped them on her face, covering her kind brown eyes. “Don’t stay out here too long; it’s pretty hot today.”
“Won’t,” he said, wishing she was his step-mommy instead of Jade, watching her stride down the rock walkway in her fancy shoes. Once she was gone, he swiped sweat from his upper lip, went to the back of the house, and stopped. He had to be sneaky, so he made sure to pull the cape no one could see around him and slipped inside.
Mrs. Albright had said Kasey was fussy, so he needed to check on her, make sure she was okay. But he had to wait to go upstairs, hiding in the family room until Jade was distracted, and the coast was clear, just in case his cloak of invisibility didn’t work.
Peeking around the corner, he saw the back of Gloria, their housekeeper, who was mopping the hallway tiles—Jade walking into the kitchen with the cordless phone in her hand.
“Yes!” he whispered enthusiastically, fist shooting up. This was Caleb’s chance, so he made a run for it, taking the stairs as fast as he could until he came to the top landing, where he slowed to suck in a breath.
The chimes of the big clock drifting up from the foyer let him know it was three in the afternoon, which meant Jade would soon be busy with the man who came to boss her around, making her stretch, jump, and hop like a frog. Jade called the guy a personal trainer, but Caleb didn’t really know what that meant other than he told her what to do while he was there.
With the sun shining down from the skylights, making a checkered path on the cream carpet, Caleb focused and made his way into Jacob’s bedroom, where he let his superhero cape drop.
It was quiet, with nothing but the low buzz of cool air coming from the vents as he carefully crossed the floor, stopping when he saw them.
Rubbing his itchy nose with the back of his wrist while looking into the crib, Caleb stared at Kasey. Messy black hair framed rosy cheeks, and her long lashes curled at the ends. Her mommy said she was a little miracle—an angel. Caleb didn’t know any angels, but he had seen pictures of them in books, and he thought Mrs. Albright was probably right—a baby angel, only she didn’t have shimmering wings.
He was wondering when she might grow those wings when she turned her head and smiled at him, showing off her tiny white teeth while wiggling next to his sleeping baby brother. Jade didn’t know it, but he watched over Jacob. Daddy told him it was his job as a good big brother, and he was going to be the best big brother ever, so he’d always watch over Kasey ’cause she was his, too.
She poked a little hand through the slats of the crib that Daddy said wasn’t needed anymore since Jacob was two years old, but Jade argued with him over it. She thought the big boy bed could wait.
“’Leb,” Kasey cooed. She couldn’t really say his name yet, but that was all right.
“Shh…” He placed a finger to his lips and whispered, “Don’t wake up Jacob.”
She laughed as if he was the funniest thing, hitting her hand on one of the bars.
Stretching his arm out, hoping to stop her before she hurt herself, he froze, hearing, “Have you been playing in the dirt again, Caleb?”
It took him a moment before he turned to see Jade just inside the open door, her forehead wrinkled, hand on her hip.
She was mad at him. She was always mad at him.
“I was just playing with my Hot Wheels,” he said.
“Those planters are not your personal playground, nor are they a place for your stupid toy cars.”
Lips pressed together, Caleb glanced at his sneakers. He didn’t like Daddy’s wife.
“Are you listening to me?” Jade snapped her fingers.
“Go wash your grubby hands.”
Frowning, he studied his palms. They were a little dirty, but they didn’t look that bad.
“And don’t forget to use soap. You’re not mentally challenged as far as I know, so I shouldn’t have to remind you how to wash properly.”
“But, I need to help Kasey.” Caleb made his way to tucking her hand back through the slats.
“No.” Jade came to him. “You’ll hurt her.”
Why was she saying that? He would never hurt Kasey.
He scrunched up his nose. “I won’t.”
“Don’t argue with me.”
With narrowed death ray eyes, he set his chin.
“And don’t give me attitude either.”
Caleb started to reach for Kasey’s hand once more, but Jade slapped him away. “Don’t touch her!”
Jacob startled awake, and Kasey started crying.
“Now see what you did?” Jade picked her up. “It’s okay, Honey,” she soothed while patting Jacob’s chest with her free hand before turning to look at him with the ugly face. For some reason, she only hated him. “Go away and wash up before you get germs on everything!”
He wanted to kick her in the shins like he’d done when she pinched him, but if he did, Daddy would spank him again for being bad. Daddy never saw how mean Jade was to him and didn’t believe him that time he told on her for twisting his arm because he’d made a mess with the baby powder when he tried to be helpful and change Jacob’s diaper.
“Go, Caleb.” Her command came through gritted teeth.
Giving one last look at Kasey perched on Jade’s hip, who was watching him with watery tears glittering in her pretty eyes, he hunched his shoulders and lumbered out the bedroom door.
Maybe I’ll try running away again, he thought. But this time, he’d go farther than the treehouse. I’ll have to hide some food somewhere. Last time, I got real hungry. Besides, he would take his little brother and Kasey with him, so he couldn’t let them starve.
With visions of sneaking into the pantry later, his pillowcase as a shopping bag in hand, his plans started to swirl into full vivid color. He’d take some peanut butter crackers, chips, a few juice boxes ’cause they had straws, a package of Oreo cookies, and some Pop-Tarts, too. The ones with rainbow sprinkles. Kasey will like those.
Stepping up on the footstool positioned at the bathroom sink, Caleb grinned.