Ruthless Traitor by Heather Long



17 years earlier

"Milo," Mom called, interrupting me from the television. In her pen, Ivy cried, the warbling volume of her voice climbing. Sisters sucked. "Take care of your sister."

Yeah. Yeah.

I pushed off of the sofa and went to where she clung to the sides of the pen. She was on her feet, her face red as big fat tears spilled down her cheeks. The shrieking noise cut off as soon as I reached for her. Trust filled her eyes as she let go of the gate and grabbed for me. Hands hooked under her arms, I lifted her up and over. Her diaper reeked.

Oh, that explained that.

Carrying her over to the sofa, I set her on the cushion and she went to roll off immediately. "No," I told her and put a hand on her belly. She was as flexible as a monkey. That was why the pen. She walked early, did everything early. It used to make Mom happy.

Not so much anymore.

Nothing had made her happy since Dad left.

He went to the store for milk.

He hadn't come back.

I was almost seven. I got it.

Dad wasn't coming back.

Ivy's face screwed up and her mouth opened. Yeah, she was going to scream again, so I stuck my tongue out at her and blew a raspberry. Even though fat tears continued to roll down her cheeks, she burst out laughing.

I hurried over to the box in the corner and dug out a diaper. There were only five left. The box with the wipe things was almost empty and the powder Mom used to use had long since been gone. My stomach growled, but I just went back to where Ivy waited. I couldn't waste time, she wouldn't stay on the sofa. The commercials ended and the show started up again and I tried to watch it while I stripped her out of the diaper.

Poop was so gross.

Like really, really gross.

But if I held my breath and wiped her up real good, it was over and done with fast. I made faces at her the whole time and she giggled. It was easier when she cooperated. The first time I had to do this we'd made a huge mess.

I thought Mom would kill me, but she hadn't said a word.

Once I got her all changed, I set her down on the floor and we both stared at the TV. I liked this show. The guys had powers. They were orphans, but they had powers and they could save themselves from all the bad guys. Ivy held fast to my hand and seemed riveted, so I waited for the next commercial. As soon as it happened, I grabbed the nasty diaper and walked to the trash can in the kitchen. Ivy toddled along with me, almost running on her toes.

She had the funniest way of walking. Her face was all sweaty and damp with tears. Her nose was snotty. Her dark hair smelled funny, but that could be the diaper. I got rid of it and then opened the fridge. I was hungry and Ivy probably was, too. There was some juice in there and I knew how to make her bottles. We also had some applesauce, so I got that out too.

The dishes were stacked in the sink and almost all the bottles were dirty. I climbed up to look in the cupboard. There were none in there either.

Ivy let out a complaint and I sighed. "Yeah, yeah." We were going to miss the show. I shoved the juice back into the fridge and got spoons for the applesauce. There wasn't a lot, just the two small containers. Wait...I had juice boxes in the pantry. I raced over there and pulled it open.

It was pretty empty, but there was a box on the shelf. I dragged it out and then grinned at Ivy. "Let's go..."

She followed me back into the living room and I put our stuff on the table, but she scrabbled up onto the sofa before I could pick her up. Her grin was infectious and so much better than her tears. I climbed up to sit next to her and then opened an applesauce.

The show came back on. Ivy let me feed her. But she had to be even hungrier than me. She ate all of the applesauce and I only got one bite. That was okay. I stuck the straw in the juice box and we split that too. That was harder for her. She wanted a bottle.

I kept waiting for Mom to come and get us and tell me dinner was ready. I was watching shows way later than normal. It had gotten dark outside. Ivy was sleepy and she still smelled funny. I needed my bath, too. I scooped Ivy up and carried her toward Mom's room.

She'd been in there most of the day after she forgot to take me to school. "Mom?"

"Go to bed, Milo."

The rasp of her voice made me sad. Ivy was heavy, but she held on to me tight so that made it easier to carry her.

"But I haven't had my bath..." Or dinner. "I'm hungry."

"You can have a bath tomorrow."

Mom didn't roll over. She was on her side, staring at the other wall. Her room smelled even worse than Ivy. "Mommy?"

"Go to bed, Milo," she repeated, and I sighed.

"What about Ivy?"

"Put her to bed, too."

I stood there for a minute and looked at Ivy again. She had her thumb in her mouth and her head tucked against my shoulder. Little sisters could be kind of cute sometimes, too.

"Go," Mom said with a croak as she rolled over and the light from the hall hit her face. I backed up in a hurry. Mom looked sick. She let out this little sigh. "Sorry baby, just—go to bed. It will be better tomorrow. I promise. You're a good big brother."

"I love you, Mom."

"I love you too, baby."

Shifting Ivy against my shoulder, I carried her toward the back of the house. I liked my bedroom with the race car bed. It was messy, but it was mine. Ivy's room was right next to mine and we shared a bathroom. I carried her into her room and set her in her crib. I had to climb up on the chair to get her in it. She complained but I dug around and found her pacifier. Mom said we had to throw it away, but I hid it.

When we didn't have a bottle, it worked.

She sucked on it and I dragged her dirty shirt off and wiped her face. It wasn't great but I pulled a blanket over her and then headed to the bathroom.

"Night, Ivy," I whispered. I patted my hand over her hair. Mommy used to do that to me. "Sweet dreams. I love you." Then I leaned all the way over to kiss her.

That part was important. Mommy said it made the bad dreams stay away.

I trundled into the bathroom and pushed Ivy's door most of the way closed, but not all the way. It was really dark in there and I wanted her to have some light.

Wanting a bath, I figured out how to fill the tub halfway. It was a little cold, but I washed up. It was harder to get my hair clean, but I managed. After I drained the tub, I toweled off and then brushed my teeth.

I checked on Ivy. She was sound asleep. Relieved, I left one of the lights on in the bathroom and left my door cracked open, too. I didn't need the light anymore. I wasn't a baby. But Ivy did and I wanted to make sure I heard Ivy.

Clambering into the bed, I pulled my blanket up over me and then stared at the closed door to the hall. This was when Mommy would come in. But she hadn't done that in a while. I waited. When my eyelids got heavy, I reached up to smooth back my hair.

"Night, Milo," I whispered, then pressed a kiss to my fingers and touched it to my head. "Sweet dreams. I love you."

It would be better tomorrow.

She promised.