It wasnt always like thi.., p.1
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       It Wasn't Always Like This, p.1

           Joy Preble
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It Wasn't Always Like This

  Also by Joy Preble

  The Sweet Dead Life

  The A-Word

  Copyright © 2016 by Soho Press, Inc. and Joy Preble

  All rights reserved.

  This is a work of f iction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used f ictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Published in the United States in 2016 by Soho Teen

  an imprint of

  Soho Press, Inc.

  853 Broadway

  New York, NY 10003

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Preble, Joy, author.

  It wasn’t always like this / Joy Preble.

  ISBN 978-1-61695-588-5

  eISBN 978-1-61695-589-2

  1. Love—Fiction. 2. Immortality—Fiction. I. Title

  PZ7.P90518 It 2016 DDC [Fic]—dc23 2015035679

  Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.

  Printed in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  For everyone who has ever loved.

  i carry your heart—(I carry it in my heart)

  —e. e. cummings


  This novel is a work of f iction. The author fully owns any historical or place errors that might have occurred in the telling of Emma and Charlie’s story. If the Fountain of Youth really exists in Florida or Texas or some obscure corner of the New York subway system, the author is keeping that to herself.

  Chapter One

  An island off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida


  It was gone. Dried up. The stream. The plants. All of it.

  “Maybe we’re in the wrong place,” Charlie said, but Emma knew he didn’t mean it.

  “We’re not.” She pushed her way through the tall grass, not caring what she disturbed. Something sharp poked through her skirt and bit into the tender f lesh at the back of her knee. She kept moving. The empty jars in her pockets slapped her thighs.

  Maybe Charlie was right. Maybe they were just turned around or confused. This was the f irst time they’d come here alone. Emma herself had been only once, under the watchful eye of her father. Maybe they were lost.

  But the place was too familiar. She recognized the strange little clearing at the center of the island, only there was no stream. No purple-f lowered plants. If the spell or whatever it was—Emma had never settled on the right words for what had happened to them—if “it” faded, she feared there would be no getting it back, not without the plants and the water.

  At least, that’s how she thought it worked. But she wasn’t certain, was she? That frightened her, too; Emma liked being certain.

  “It doesn’t matter,” Charlie said. He grabbed her shoulder from behind and spun her around, pulling her close, arms encircling her waist. “You were still right. We need to run. Emma . . . we can manage without the plants. I love you.”

  Even in the swampy heat, he looked the way he always did; that was the root of all their troubles. Tall and angular, with broad shoulders and taut arms, jaw neatly def ined. Brows thick and cheekbones etched high. A wild thatch of hair that never stayed put. Brown eyes blazing with a stubborn streak, yet with a hint of that sweet silliness he saved for Emma alone, and a sparkle she’d convinced herself nobody else could see.

  He’d wanted to run even before now. In this moment, she could see him glancing skyward unconsciously, consumed with the desire to f ly from this place. That desire had brought them here. She’d done this for him.

  On her right side, not ten feet away, the grass waved and shifted. She felt more than saw a small alligator slither by. Caught a glimpse of a coal-black eye between the tall green blades.

  Emma tried not to panic. The gators were the least of her worries.

  Two days earlier, Emma had rushed to the aviary and wrapped her hands tight around Charlie’s. “Simon,” she gasped. “He . . . he . . .” How even to start?

  Something both horrifying and miraculous had happened to her baby brother. They could no longer hide what they’d become. They had to leave St. Augustine. Now.

  “What is it, Em?” Charlie held her close, his eyes searching hers. On their perches, the hawks quieted, as if overwhelmed with the same concern. “Is something wrong with Simon?”

  “I was supposed to be—to be watching him,” she stammered. “But you know how he gets.” She didn’t have to elaborate. Simon was a two-year-old toddler, had been for over three years now. He would be a two-year-old toddler forever. Perpetually curious and naughty and needy, all of which Charlie knew full well. “He got into the benzene while I wasn’t looking. I guess it was the sweet smell, like soda pop. Daddy must have left it out on the kitchen counter after stripping the paint on the wall that—”

  “Slow down, Em,” Charlie soothed. “Just tell me what happened.”

  “Nothing.” Her voice trembled. “That’s the trouble. My brother drank half the bottle. Should have burned his insides. He should have blisters or be vomiting. Something. That stuff is poison, Charlie. But nothing happened. I watched him. Maybe he looked a little green for about a minute . . . that was all.”

  Tears stung her eyes, but she trained her gaze on Charlie to calm herself. His stillness was a gift, never more so than at this moment.

  “He’s f ine,” Charlie said soothingly. “That’s all that matters.” But they both knew things weren’t f ine. Simon’s throat hadn’t burned, but the world felt like it was burning, consuming her with it.

  So she’d done what a girl had to do under such circumstances. When life itself stopped making sense, she’d come up with a plan.

  First they’d steal a skiff from the harbor. Row to the island.

  That part of the plan had worked.

  But the second part, the part that mattered, had gone up in smoke. They’d brought jars to dip in the stream, but the clear water had vanished without a trace. They’d brew more tea from the plants, but the plants had vanished as well, leaving only nettles and swamp grass in their absence.

  As for the last part of the plan—running—that they could still do.

  Emma had thought the escape would be joyous. Liberating. Their parents, both hers and Charlie’s, were drowning in paranoia, unable to think or act sensibly anymore. But who knew what or how grown-ups thought, anyway? They were all crazy, the good ones, the bad ones, the dangerous ones. She and Charlie would f inally be free of the worry, free of all the hateful whispers. They would be together. That was all that mattered.

  Except the stream and its plants and the world itself had chosen not to cooperate. She felt as if the island were playing a cruel practical joke, or worse, punishing her for the sin of wanting to run off with the boy she loved. Three years they had been together. But it wasn’t three years at all; it was nothing. Time was meaningless once you discovered you’d drunk from a Fountain of Youth. How stupid Emma had been, thinking that if they could just get away from their families, they could stop treading water and hide for an eternity.

  Now Charlie pulled her to him again, kissing her over and over until she was dizzy from it. “It’s okay,” he insisted. “We’ll f igure something out—” All at once he stiffened. His hands fell from her body. He sniffed the air. “Smoke. It’s . . .”

  “The Church of Light,” she f inished with him.

  Under different circumstances, this would have struck her as impossibly romantic: their habit of sharing the same thoughts, of ending each other’
s sentences. And now the sudden, wary anger in Charlie’s eyes echoed the thought that squirmed in her brain: if something was burning, Glen Walters and his followers had lit the f ire.

  They were running again even before Charlie’s f ingers threaded through hers.

  Chapter Two

  Dallas, Texas


  Emma pried open one eye. Her head was splitting, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She felt like she had licked the bottom of a dirty shoe—after the shoe had been dragged through a puddle of bourbon. She eased up on an elbow. The room tilted, her stomach giving a sickly lurch.

  She wasn’t alone in bed. There was a guy next to her. Snoring.

  Vaguely she remembered having bought street tacos outside the bar from a girl with an Igloo cooler. At the time, it seemed like a solid idea. Emma had many solid ideas when she was drunk. The tacos, involving a meat substance of unknown origin, did not seem so solid at the moment.

  Her reason for being at that particular downtown Dallas bar wasn’t scoring high points, either. Another dead end, it turned out. But Emma kept at things, because you just never knew. Cold trails turned warmer. Hopes bloomed, well, hopefully. Things happened. People came and went.

  Girls disappeared on their way home and later turned up dead.

  There had been a rash of kidnappings and murders, or at least Emma saw it as a rash, given her, well, uniquely expansive view of time. It was a decades-long rash, a near-century-long rash. Crimes spread apart by a dozen years and thousands of miles, not close enough together in any reasonable sense for the cops to see a pattern—and who could blame them?

  But recently, there had been a subtle uptick. That f irst girl, Allie Golden, in Rio Rancho, north of Albuquerque, four years ago. Then six months back, one outside of Fort Worth. Karissa Isaacs, twenty years old. Both living near Emma, their deaths following her as she moved east. Both kidnapped and poisoned and dumped.

  And now the third in four years, right here in Dallas. Elodie Callahan, just sixteen.

  There might have been more. Emma guessed there were more. She would like to think she was certain about that; she still prized certainty. But she’d learned many lifetimes ago that certainty was a luxury. You could shrug off the pattern, chalk the atrocities up to coincidence. A long time ago, Emma had tried that very thing.

  Or you could leap into the fray and see where it led you. Move to Dallas. Poke and prod. Hone your investigative skills. See if the pattern was indeed what you feared.

  Now, in the much-too-bright light of yet another day, on the cusp of yet another new year, Emma pressed her knuckles to her aching eyes. The tacos were about to make a messy reversal unless she got herself under control. Her commitment to staying off the grid? Blown to hell and back. Emma O’Neill had let herself surface once again and now she was paying the price.

  So were the dead girls.

  And the guy, snoring—Mason, maybe? Mike?—legs tangled in her comforter, mouth hanging open—well, he had to go.

  “Shit.” She elbowed him, hard, in the ribs. “Wake up. Get out.”

  She smoothed her hands over her rumpled red minidress. Right now it felt like one of those old burlap sacks her father had used to store feed in St. Augustine. Between the tacos and the bourbon, it didn’t smell much better.

  At least the dress was still on her.

  Mason/Mike was shirtless, but he was still wearing his pants.

  If they’d done anything, they could have only done so much. She hoped.

  “Mmphff,” he mumbled. Then belched.


  “Out,” Emma said, rising, pulling herself together. “You. Rise and shine. Go away.” She wasn’t always this inhospitable. But Mason/Mike was an error in judgment, not company. Emma didn’t mind company. She did attempt to avoid errors in judgment, but over time, over history, they were inevitable. The trick was to act fast and stay pleasant about it.

  He opened his eyes—blue, bloodshot—and grinned at her. “How the hell do you still look so good?” he drawled.

  Matt. His name was Matt.

  “Habit,” she told him, pushing harder now until he rolled off the bed and hit the f loor with a thump. She didn’t need a glimpse in the mirror to know they were both right. Emma O’Neill might be a tad rumpled and head-throbby right this second, but that would fade soon enough. A hangover would never make a dent in the overall picture. Toxins of any kind didn’t have any real effect beyond an initial jolt or a groggy wake-up. Even toxins less pleasant than questionable street tacos. Hadn’t in longer than she preferred to remember.

  Matt sat up, rubbing his backside. “Now why’d you go and do that?” He scratched the side of his face. His gaze was bleary. He was cute—thick blond hair and a stubbly chin—but pasty under his tan.

  He’d looked better last night. They all had.

  Emma thought of her friends, Coral and Hugo. Well, mostly Coral. Coral Ballard. The girl who looked like the other girls. The girl who looked like Emma.

  Their meeting had been a random thing.

  The Ballard family—Coral and her little brother and her parents and a mop-like mutt named Bernie—lived in a one-story house down the block from Emma’s apartment. Emma might not even have spoken to Coral had it not been for Bernie. Stupid cute dog.

  Emma had always wanted one, but a dog was a responsibility she couldn’t assume. A dog might call attention where she needed anonymity. Even if it was lovable. Even if it was loyal, which dogs mostly were, unlike lovable humans, who had a bad habit of betraying girls they were supposed to love.

  Maybe she was over-identifying on that last one.

  Either way, a dog was just one more thing that would die before she did.

  The pup padded closer and sat on her foot.

  “You live around here?” the girl asked.

  Emma’s gaze shifted. Coral, she noted now, was medium height, like she was. Pale like Emma, too. A slew of brightly colored vintage pottery bracelets adorned her milky arms. Her wavy hair was streaked with lots of red and a bit of blue. Underneath it looked to be blonde . . . maybe. But even, then Emma suspected it could have been brown. Like hers, too.

  “Yeah,” Emma said. The pup was still sprawled across her foot. She hoped he wasn’t about to pee. “Over there.” She waved toward the bits of downtown Dallas skyline visible beyond the trees on her left.

  The girl yanked on the leash until the puppy moved. “Sorry about that. He likes you. You should be f lattered. Bernie’s particular. He doesn’t like a lot of people.”

  “Good to know.” Emma turned and nearly bumped into a boy.

  “Hugo!” Coral scolded, but she was smiling. She turned to Emma. “He never watches where he’s going.”

  Hugo had a big grin. Gangly, black-haired, Latino. And friendly. Before Emma knew it, they were introducing themselves. Hugo Alvarez and Coral Ballard were both seniors at North Dallas High School. And Emma could see: Both were funny and quirky and very much in love. It was that last part that slipped through her defenses. The way Hugo casually rested a hand on the small of Coral’s back. The way their closeness reminded her of a closeness she’d once had.

  Coral tapped a painted nail on her chin. “Look at her, Hugo. We could be. . .

  “Sisters,” Hugo and she f inished at the same time. They giggled.

  Bernie nudged Emma’s hand, then signed happily as she stroked his head.

  “Seriously, though,” Coral went on, “if I let my hair go back to its own color, which I totally won’t—but if I did . . . Don’t we look alike, Hugo?”

  He nodded.

  Emma shrugged. “Maybe.” She rolled her eyes to make it not true. But it was true. And acknowledging that—even silently—awakened in her a f ierce and sudden protectiveness she hadn’t been able to quell since. So she told Coral and Hugo that she was a freshman at Brookhaven Community Col
lege studying for a nursing degree. It was the lie she’d chosen for herself upon moving to Dallas.

  But occasionally, she’d wished that this were true: that she was studying to become someone who could maybe save a life.

  Unfortunate that Coral and Hugo had chosen last night—of all nights—to sneak into that same neighborhood bar.

  But that’s what happened when you made friends. You ran into them.

  Emma kept one eye on the guy she’d followed, and the other on Matt, whom she matched bourbon for bourbon. She didn’t indulge that often, but it was the holidays, and he was cute enough. Besides, the guy she’d followed, one of Elodie Callahan’s classmates, seemed to be guilty only of a bad fake ID. Like she’d f igured: a dead-end. And the bourbon was reminding Emma that at the end of the day—in point of fact, a century of days—she was still alone in all this.

  A potent combination.

  She should have left the moment Coral and Hugo sauntered in. Or told them to leave. They were underage, after all. She didn’t. Among a long list of reasons why: they thought she was underage, too. (In a way, she was.) And cute-enough Matt? He thought otherwise. Better to let sleeping dogs lie. Or sit on your foot, like Bernie.

  “You like him,” Coral whispered to Emma after bourbon number four. Or f ive. “Don’t you?” Coral was a romantic like that.

  “He’s all right,” Emma whispered back.

  “You’re cute, too,” Matt said, leaning across Emma to wink at Coral. He’d heard them, obviously. Then he pressed his mouth close to Emma’s ear. It had been a long time since she’d felt a boy’s lips brush her skin. “But not as cute as you.”

  She should have known better. She did know better. Just sometimes . . .

  At least Coral and Hugo hadn’t stayed long. A party somewhere, Coral said, eyes bright—and then they were gone. Emma told her to have a nice holiday if she didn’t see her; Emma was going to be spending it with some of her fellow nursing students, studying for their practicums. (Translation: investigating why a girl named Elodie Callahan had been murdered.)

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