Brittany Campbell turns 9 today. Her mom's going to bake her a devil's food cake. It's the birthday girl's favorite.
When they light the candles on that cake, Brittany's going to make a wish.
Everybody around the kitchen table, her mom and dad, her brother and Grandma Nola, hopes her wish comes true. Brittany wants her big sister, Alecia, to come home. Tonight.
Alecia Campbell is tall for her age. The 14-year-old, eighth-grade girl has dreamed of playing basketball someday for the University of Kentucky.
Two weeks ago tonight, Alecia tossed that dream aside. While her mom slept and her dad watched a rerun of Coach, she climbed onto Brittany's bed in the room the sisters share.
Alecia hopped out a window and into the waiting car of Keith Luecke, her lover and church youth-group leader, her singing partner at Sunday services and the stepfather of her first steady boyfriend.
Her mother - awakened by Brittany - ran out to stop Alecia.
''I was screaming my head off: 'Alecia, please don't do this,' '' the mom says. She instantly recalls that night as she looks out that same bedroom window. On Tuesday afternoon, rain splatters against the pane as tears well up in her eyes.
Alecia never looked back. She just drove off in Keith Luecke's car.
So far, they've vanished without a trace. She hasn't called her family or friends. He's been charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and child stealing, and indicted on five counts of corrupting a minor and two counts of sexual imposition.
Keith Luecke is a 33-year-old-man. A telephone installer by day, and honored foster parent to five children.
Debbie Campbell calls him ''that heathen.'' Grandma Nola calls him ''Satan.'' Both women say he is evil and has brain-washed Alecia.
I don't know if Keith Luecke is in league with the devil. That's up to a higher court. I do know his actions - and those to a lesser extent of Alecia, because she's the child and he's the adult - are putting two Clermont County families, his and the Campbells, through hell.
''If there is a hell on earth, I don't know how it could be any worse than this,'' mutters Jerry Campbell. ''I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.''
He hangs his head at the kitchen table and stares at a photo of Keith Luecke.
''This not knowing,'' Jerry adds, ''is making us zombies.''
Debbie and Jerry walk the walk and talk the talk of zombies.
He can't sleep. ''I take two-hour cat naps, but I never rest.'' Fatigue has put red bags under his eyes and slurred his speech. He repeats himself. He can't say the name, ''Alecia,'' without adding, ''she's the one who ran away.''
Debbie doesn't walk. She shuffles. Her feet scuff across the floor and she says, ''I don't know what keeps us going.''
They've gone from hate to hurt. ''I don't want to kill him anymore,'' Jerry says. ''I just want my girl back. He can just go away.''
They've stopped asking ''Why me?'' and blaming themselves.
''There's a reason for everything,'' Debbie says. ''I'm just afraid I won't find the reason for this until I get to heaven.''
They're surviving on coffee, cigarettes and hope.
''We burned out one coffee maker last week,'' Jerry says.
''Since this happened,'' Debbie notes as she lights up a cigarette, ''we bought enough packs to buy a new car.''
After taking a drag, she claims she's ''given up hope Alecia's going to call us.'' Then, the phone rings. Her hands shake. Her eyes light up. Her eyebrows raise as she asks: ''Is it her?''
It's a wrong number.
Putting out her just-lit cigarette, she shuffles back into her girls' bedroom.
She sits on Alecia's bed and sobs.
''She's a good kid.''
Next to her, a teddy bear rests on Alecia's pillow.
At his fuzzy feet, sits a gift. It's wrapped in yellow paper with glowing red hearts. A hand-printed tag bears a greeting from a hopeful birthday girl:
''To Alecia Campbell from your loving sister.
''I'm glad you're home.''
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.