Charlie must've fallen asleep before the landing because she was shaken awake by an irritated stewardess. Charlie glanced around, her mind still fuzzy; the plane was empty and the stewardess, pilot and copilot were all glaring at her.
"Jesus Christ," She mumbled with a yawn. "I get it, I'm going." She stood, swung her bag onto her shoulder, and shoved past her audience. "Jesus." She said again, running a hand through her hair and shaking her head.
When she reached the empty terminal, a lone girl stood in the center, holding a sign that read "Charity" in what had to be her father's sloppy script. The girl's gaze was on her phone, and Charlie took the opportunity to study her. She had light brown hair, a small frame with a slight build, tan skin that was so dark it contrasted against her hair, and too many accessories around her bare ankles. Her feet were padded with bright turquoise flip-flops, and her ripped jean shorts showed off her too-perfect legs.
Charlie cleared her throat and the girl looked up, startled.
"Are you Charity?" The girl asked, taking a hesitant step toward Charlie.
"Uh, yeah. But no one calls me that except my dad and he's a little bitch, so call me Charlie, okay?"
The girl nodded.
"And you are?" Charlie demanded.
"Oh! I'm Sophie," Sophie grinned, showing off a set of pearly white teeth, and held her hand out towards Charlie, who shrugged her eyebrows at it.
"Yeah. Can we just go get my luggage now?"
"Sure," Sophie's smile never failed as they made their way to Baggage Claim. Charlie rolled her eyes every time Sophie beamed at someone, which was always. Charlie hated people who were too happy. Everywhere Charlie looked stood soldiers holding large guns, watching the civilians and travelers as they passed.
When Charlie saw her bags making their rounds on the Baggage Claim belt, she reached for them, and so did Sophie. She snatched her suitcase from Sophie's hands and they commenced to the parking lot. They walked all the way through to the other end, and Charlie huffed, throwing her bags down.
"Okay, where the hell is your car?" She demanded, putting her hands on her hips. Sophie chuckled and pointed.
"Just beyond these bushes,"
"God," Charlie hefted her bags and followed her "step-sister" through the lush leaves. The branches snagged through Charlie's hair and scratched against her skin, leaving little crimson lines on her pale skin. Sophie didn't seem to mind.
"Ya know, Josh has been just dying to meet you," They came to a lonely road where an even lonelier looking truck sat across from them. Sophie crossed without making sure it was clear, but Charlie glanced both ways before hurrying after the girl.
"Josh?" Charlie asked as Sophie unlocked the back of her ugly and old Ford F-150. It had no color and was coated in rust. The bed of the truck was filled with surfboards, beach water and palm leaves.
"Yeah, he's the youngest,"
"How old is he?" Charlie placed her bags on the edge of the truck bed and Sophie closed the door.
"He's thirteen," Sophie went to the driver's side and climbed into the truck. Charlie pulled herself through the passenger side door and into the seat. Some of the seat's fabric had been worn away and its insides had begun to spill out. Fast food cups and wrappers were strewn everywhere, and the smell of stale cigarettes lingered on every surface.
"By the way, there's something you should know about Josh," Sophie continued quietly.
"Yeah, whatever. You smoke?" Charlie implored as she buckled her seatbelt. She watched an armored vehicle as it rattled by.
"Yeah. You?" Sophie shoved the key into the ignition and the truck growled to life. She grinded it into gear and away they went.
"Why'd you quit?"
"My mom found out. Said if I didn't quit, she'd kick me out,"
"Wow. Was it hard to quit?"
"No. It was hard to resist the urge to smoke, but it wasn't hard to quit smoking,"
"Aren't those the same things?" Sophie glanced at her.
"No. No, they're not,"
"Josh wants me to quit. So does Dad,"
At this, Charlie's gut wrenched. So does Dad.
"You mean my dad?" Charlie glared at Sophie.
"Right. Sorry. He told us to call him that, and I'm still trying to use... that word whenever I talk to or about him. Sorry." Sophie grinned sheepishly.
"Whatever. Just don't do it again."
"I can't promise you anything other than, 'I'll try'."
Do or do not, there is no try, Charlie thought, and stared out the window, silently watching the backdrop of Perth, Australia as it whizzed by.
"We're here," Sophie announced as they approached a rusted metal gate connected to an equally rusted metal gate that seemed to stretch on. Sophie pushed the truck into park and pulled up the brake before climbing out. Charlie followed her, stretching her arms and legs. She surveyed her surroundings; the truck was stopped on a grassy hill that faced south and looked over the whole property. A lake sat on the west side of the property, opposite of their small farm house. Horses and cows alike grazed the mostly empty land, and goats and sheep were dotted among the larger animals.
"So, no kangaroos?" Charlie asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Nope," Sophie grunted as she shoved the gate open. "Thanks for the help, by the way,"
"Yeah," Charlie scoffed and hoisted herself back into the truck. Once the gate was open, Sophie did the same. She smashed her fist against the horn three times and Charlie shouted and covered her ears.
"What the hell?" She demanded.
"That's like our doorbell. We ask everyone to do it."
Charlie shook her head and watched from afar as three figures, a man, a woman, and a child came out of the house. She couldn't tell, but she assumed they were her father, Brindy, and Josh. Two more figures emerged from the overgrown brush by the lake and waved at Sophie, who waved back.
"Who're they?" Charlie wondered aloud, pointing to the two new arrivals.
"Oh, that's Nate and Harry. Nate's mine and Josh's older brother, and Harry is our foreign exchange student from the UK." They continued on down the gravel road. Pebbles and dirt pelted the windows and body of the truck, but Sophie didn't seem to mind.
"My dad never told me about an exchange student," Charlie's brow furrowed.
"Right," Charlie grumbled as they approached the house. Sophie braked hard when they were in front of the house and jumped out, throwing her arms around her mother. Charlie had to reach over and put the car in park before pulling the keys from the ignition. She placed them on the seat and slid out of the truck. She watched Sophie hug everyone in the queue; her dad, Brindy, Josh, Nate and Harry, while she pulled her bags from the bed of the truck. Her dad saw her and smiled, opening his arms to her. She sighed and walked into his embrace, but didn't put her arms around him.
"Let me take those," He reached for her bags but she moved them out of his grasp.
"I'm good, thanks,"
"But they look heavy," His brow furrowed.
"Yeah, well, they are," She shifted her weight from foot to foot.
"Okay. Whatever floats your boat. Charity, this-" Her father began, gesturing to Brindy.
"Charlie," She interrupted him.
"What?" He turned his gaze to his daughter.
"I go by Charlie," She stated as if he should already know.
"Alright. Charlie, this is Brindy," He stepped back, allowing his new wife to come forward. The first thing Charlie noticed about her was her boobs. They overflowed from the all-too-tight dress she was wearing. Major red flag. Charlie raised an eyebrow at her bright blonde hair and pale skin. Dad had told her mom that he would never even consider looking at a blonde in "that way". Another flag. Charlie was much taller than this woman, and much wider. It wasn't that Charlie was overweight, but Brindy was skinny to the point of looking anorexic. More red flags popped up the longer Charlie studied her "step-mom", and she glanced at her father.
"Hi, Charlie. I'm so glad you're here; maybe David will stop talking about you so much. He's been so excited to see you that you're all he ever talks about," She grinned, showing another set of perfect teeth.
"Hopefully he'll stop talking about you too," Charlie loosely shook the woman's outstretched hand.
"Well, you've already met Sophie," David placed a hand on Charlie's back, leading her down the line of her new in-laws. "This is Josh," He gestured to a much younger boy with a mop of curly brown hair and the brightest blue eyes Charlie had ever seen. He reminded her of Elijah Wood in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, only his skin was tan and he was much taller than a Hobbit.
"Hey," She exhaled heavily at him and he threw her arms around her. She felt the whole family watching her, and her brow furrowed at the boy. "Um...okay." She patted his back.
"I'm Josh," He smiled. His teeth were crooked, and immediately, he was her favorite.
"Charlie," She gave him a half smile, which was more than she'd offered even her father.
"Charlie, this is Harry, our exchange student," Her dad pointed to the young man standing before her. He grinned and held out his hand. Both Harry and Nate were in swim trunks and were dripping wet. They must've gone swimming, or surfing, Charlie remembered all the boards in the bed of Sophie's truck.
"Hi." He said. Short and simple, the way Charlie liked it. No bullshit, not like from Brindy.
"Hey," She shrugged at her bags and his cheeks grew red, but he didn't apologize for not noticing that her hands were full. His hand dropped to his side.
"And this is Nathan," David gestured to the last boy in the line.
"Uh, Nate," He waved at her before shoving his hand back into the pocket of his trunks.
"Hi." Her gaze traveled up and down him, admiring his tan skin, dark brown eyes, black swim shorts, and floppy dark hair. She noticing him doing the same and tensed. "Um, can I go see my room? Please," She turned to her father, who nodded. They walked back up the line, and Charlie could still feel Nate's heavy gaze on her. David kissed Brindy before leading his daughter into the brick-walled house.
"Well," Harry chuckled, nudging Nate in the ribs with his elbow. "She's interesting, eh?"
They were walking back to the lake just as the sun was getting to its hottest. Josh had tagged along, bringing their beagle, Rosie, with him.
"I like her," Josh remarked. "Charlie was kinda scary at first. But not anymore."
Rosie barked in agreement.
Nate smiled at his younger brother. Josh had been born prematurely, and so his brain hadn't fully developed. He still read at a first year level, and he thought and acted as if he were a six-year-old. He was the sweetest kid that Nate knew, though, and he was very protective of his younger brother.
"Yeah, she's something," Nate replied distractedly as he watched his step-sister climb the stairs to their front door. She turned to him, and from a distance, his eyes held her gaze. Then David called her name, and then she disappeared into the house.
"Nate. C'mon, lad." Harry placed a hand on Nate's shoulder and tugged him lightly. "Let's go,"
Nate nodded and turned back to Harry and Josh and followed them to the lake.