Charlie glanced up from her phone. Alex still sat on the couch with their father, challenging him to yet another round of their video game. Across the room, Tony sat by the computer with Adam, helping him with his homework.
Emma wouldn’t be home from work for another hour or two. Would it really be such a big deal if she slipped away for a while?
Charlie shook her head. I can’t. Movie night…
Charlie had to suppress her laughter as she returned her phone to her pocket. He’s SUCH a guy. She thought to herself, smiling.
Between flirting with Ben, gossiping with her friends, and planning the upcoming class fundraiser with her Vice President, Charlie’s eyes had been glued to her phone all night. It was so easy to get caught up with everything going on with her friends and classmates and forget about what really mattered. Ben’s right. I should spend time with my family. She reminded herself.
Not feeling up to feigning interest in video games, Charlie crossed the room to investigate what Tony and Adam were up to.
“Okay, who’s next?” Tony asked sweetly.
Her little brother appeared thoughtful for a moment as he stared intently at the family tree in front of him. “Let’s see… I got you and Charlie and Alex and Mama and dad and Oma and Opa and gramma and grampa and auntie…” Adam rattled off the names quickly.
Charlie couldn’t help a small pang of sadness at the mention of her father’s family. She missed her grandparents and aunt, half a world away in Willow Creek. At least we’ll see them soon. Elliot, Emma, Adam, and the triplets were heading to the US in just two weeks for Thanksgiving, and had plans to visit Stefan and his family while they were there too. I just wish we could stay longer… Even after all these years, it wasn’t easy having her family separated by an ocean.
“Sounds like you’ve got all the important people.” Charlie said, making her presence known. “It looks great, kiddo.”
“Thanks!” Adam beamed at her. “But it’s not done yet… I wanna do everybody!”
“Yeah! I have you guys on my tree… So I should have your family too!” He cried happily. “Like your Mama! How d’you spell ‘Jocelyne’?”
Tony smiled. “J-O-C-E-L-Y-N-E.”
Adam typed each letter slowly and carefully. “Okay… I need Onkel Auggy too! He’s your Mama’s Bruder, right?”
“Yup.” This time, Charlie was the one who answered. “We call him Onkel Gus, but… Auggy’s A-U-G-G-Y, I think.”
Her little brother nodded enthusiastically. “And what about her Schwester? Um… Clara?”
Charlie shook her head. “Tante Clara… She’s not actually mom’s Schwester. She’s not even really our Tante. She’s mom’s Tante.”
“It’s… Kinda complicated.” Tony explained gently. “I really don’t think your teacher will mind if you stop there, you know.”
“Noooo! I wanna do everybody!” Adam insisted. “Oh! I forgot Zayne! Your other Bruder.”
Charlie felt herself bristle at the mention of her cousin. “He’s not our Bruder.” Her voice was much colder than she’d intended. “Tony’s right… You shouldn’t confuse your teacher with our messed up side of the family. You should just leave it there… It’s great the way it is. Okay?”
The little boy’s face fell slightly. “Yeah, I guess…”
With a heavy sigh, Charlie returned to the living room to join Alex and Elliot. She could feel Tony’s eyes watching her the entire time.
The sound of footsteps approaching almost made Charlie jump. She closed her book, laughing. “Jeez, thanks for the heart attack.”
Her sisters ignored her joke. “Charlie… What’s gotten into you?” Tony dropped down on the couch beside her as she spoke.
Her sister shrugged, her irritation apparent on her face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” Alex said, taking a seat on the other side of her. “Cut the crap, Charlie.”
Charlie sighed in exasperation. She hated being on the receiving end of these sorts of conversations. Her sisters had waited until Elliot and Adam were busy getting dinner ready to corner her… But about what? She wasn’t lying this time – She genuinely wasn’t sure what their issue was.
Charlie stared at them uncertainly for several moments, waiting for one of them to explain themselves. It was Alex who finally broke the silence.
“Are you seriously that dumb? Oh my God.” She rolled her eyes. “You’ve been acting so friggin’ weird any time someone mentions Zayne. And not just today… For like, weeks. What gives?”
“Oh.” Charlie’s voice was small. “That.”
She did not immediately reply. Lying to her sisters was the last thing she wanted to do… but so was sounding childish or petty.
The truth was that Zayne’s moving out hadn’t had quite the effect on her mother that she’d been expecting. Even with him living downtown, he somehow managed to take up so much of Jocelyne’s attention. Day after day she’d interrogate them about what they’d heard from Zayne. Or sit in the living room worrying with Mark about what he could be up to. Or call him on the phone and then complain about how evasive he was being.
It’ll get better. Charlie kept reminding herself. She knew her mother just needed to get used to Zayne not being around anymore. He’d been doing pretty well on his own so far, it seemed. The sooner Jocelyne realized that, the sooner she’d finally stop worrying so much. And the sooner she stopped worrying, the sooner she could stop obsessing over him.
“He’s just really pissing me off lately, I guess.” Charlie replied at last. “It’s been really annoying ever since he left. He barely even talks to us anymore! And when he does, he’s just… weird. It’s like he thinks he’s too cool for us or something.” Though she neglected to mention the true heart of her problem, what she said was not entirely false either. Zayne had always been a bit arrogant, but things seemed to have gotten worse ever since he left home.
Tony actually laughed at her sister’s words. “Okay… I think you might have a point there.” She admitted. “But you know how he is… It’s just that tough-guy act he’s always pulling.”
“It won’t last long.” Alex assured her. She hesitated for a moment before continuing. “So… His friend Dom gave me some insider info last week… And it’s actually pretty damn hysterical.”
Charlie raised her eyebrow curiously. “Oh yeah?”
Her sister nodded. “I’d promised not to tell anyone, but… Remi and Riv threw some party last weekend, and they let Zayne tag along…” Her smile widened. “Apparently Zayne was pretty reluctant to spill all the details, but Dom said something about him walking in on two people screwing each other and then puking all over the floor and running away.”
“Ha!” Charlie fought to choke back the rest of her laughter. If Elliot overheard their conversation, she knew he’d call her mother and tell her everything. “Oh my God. What a mess… Poor Zayne!”
As expected, Tony did not seem quite as amused. “Oh no… I hope he’s okay.”
Alex shrugged off her sister’s concerns. “He’s fine. Just probably embarrassed as hell. But the point is, if he keeps that kind of shit up, he’ll be crawling home in no time with his tail between his legs.” She laughed. “Zayne won’t think he’s so cool then. Problem solved.”
“Should we really just let him keep doing stuff like this though?” Tony bit her lip. “I mean, now that we know he’s getting into trouble… What if we tell mom and Mark about it? Maybe they could do something?”
“No.” Her sisters both replied in unison.
“You can’t tell mom.” Charlie continued. “Please, Tony.” That’d just make her worry about him even MORE. She wanted to say. Don’t ruin everything!
“Yeah, despite what Charlie says… Zayne’s basically our brother.” Alex added. “And no matter how much of an idiot he’s being, we’ve gotta have his back.”
It was a moment before Tony replied. “Yeah, okay.” She said at last. “I guess you’re right, I just… I wish he’d stop being so stupid about this.”
“Me too… But hey, he wouldn’t be our Zayne if he wasn’t stupid, right?” Alex laughed softly.
“I’m sure he’ll get it together.” Charlie tried to sound confident. “It’s only been a month. He was bound to hit a few bumps in the road.”
Before either one of her sisters could reply, they were interrupted by the sound of the opening front door.
“Hey, girls!” Emma smiled brightly at her step-daughters as she crossed the threshold.
All three of them muttered their hellos in reply, returning her smile.
“Did the boys just decide to abandon you ladies out here?” She teased.
Alex shook her head. “I think they’re working on dinner… You know how much Adam loves helping out.”
“That’s my boy.” Emma smiled warmly. “Well I’m gonna go see if they need any more help in there… Do you guys mind setting the table?”
As Charlie made to follow Emma toward the kitchen, she felt a small hand tugging at her elbow.
“Wait.” Tony whispered to her sisters. “Just one last thing… If I promise to keep this whole puking and partying thing a secret… Can you guys promise me something too?”
The other two girls simply shrugged.
“If things start to get bad with Zayne… Like, really bad… Do you promise to tell mom?” She continued softly. “I know we wanna be all ‘loyal’ to him or whatever… But we want him to be safe too, don’t we?”
“Of course.” Alex smiled. “If things get like, scary, I think that allows for a one-time violation the sibling-code.” She turned toward Charlie. “Right?”
“Y-yeah. Sure.” The pigtailed girl forced a smile, hoping she sounded sincere. “We’ll let mom know if things get bad.”