Immortality, first love, murder, and mystery come together in It Wasn't Always Like This, an electrifying young adult novel from Joy Preble.
Seventeen-year-old Emma O'Neill became immortal in 1916 after sampling an experimental polio vaccine. She wasn't alone, however; her family and her family's partners, the Ryans, no longer age either. For the most part, Emma is OK with this sudden, supernatural turn of events — especially since she and Charlie Ryan have fallen in love. Now, they can be together forever... literally. But when a group of religious fanatics called The Church of Light set their sights on the O'Neills and the Ryans, only Emma and Charlie make it out alive. Unfortunately, they don't make it out alive together.
Now a private eye, Emma has spent the better part of the last century searching for her lost love and running from The Church of Light. A series of murders — all with victims who look suspiciously like her — leads Emma to believe that The Church of Light is closing in on her. Will she make it out alive? Will she ever be reunited with Charlie? You'll have to read to find out.
Joy Preble's It Wasn't Always Like This is available everywhere now. For a sneak peek at this addictive read about immortality and the bonds of true love, read an excerpt below. In this excerpt, Emma meets up with fellow detective and friend Pete Mondragon, who has begun to suspect Emma may be in danger.
The building management allowed Emma back into the apartment to get some clothes and whatever else she needed for the short term. Everything smelled vaguely like burned toast. Including her. The fire had started in the kitchen of a recently vacated unit down the hall, so it was very lucky that someone—Emma had yet to learn who—had smelled the smoke. It could have been a lot worse.
Management also informed the residents that it would be best if everyone found somewhere else to stay for the night until the smoke and water damage could be dealt with.
“Nice digs, by the way,” Pete remarked. He elbowed open the glass doors in the lobby after collecting Emma’s things. “Other than the barbecue vibe.”
Emma harrumphed at him. It was a nice place. If you were here for eternity, you might as well be comfortable.
Pete didn’t know, but she’d kept her promise to her father in those last days and looked into the trust fund he’d set up through his lawyer, Abner Dunn. And although it had taken Emma a while to give in, eventually the practicality of eating and living had gotten the better of her. Besides, Abner Dunn was the model of discretion. As had been the lawyers who had taken over his practice upon his retirement, and the lawyers who’d taken over after their retirement—generations of quiet, plainspoken, intelligent men and women, all of a type. Lawyers who believed she was her own daughter and then her own granddaughter and on like that. The current one was named Thatcher Elliott. He’d asked Emma to call him Thatch.
Human beings were survivalists. Es verdad.
And along the way, the sheer act of survival had woken in Emma an ingenuity she never could have imagined back in St. Augustine. It had also hardened her and made her a girl that the old Emma would have barely recognized, appearances aside.
This was the Emma O’Neill who hoisted herself into Pete’s black Tundra. The survivalist. Now, with another hour gone and Coral still missing, Pete cranked the engine. The Tundra was a noisy beast. Outside, the clouds had returned, and the temperature had plummeted. Emma shivered. The air smelled like snow.
“I’m going to feed you,” Pete said. “Because I can tell you haven’t eaten. And you’re going to fill me in. Pancakes okay with you?”
Emma thought of arguing, then thought better of it. Uptown Pancakes—its neon sign, a short stack with butter— sat a mile away on Lemmon. Even from inside Pete’s ridiculously oversized truck, Emma imagined she could smell the bacon frying, mixing with the smoky odor of her hair in a not entirely unpleasant way. Her stomach growled.
Pancakes always reminded her of Charlie. Specifically: the first time that Maura O’Neill acknowledged that her daughter and Frank Ryan’s son were more than good friends who’d grown up together. Not out loud. Like the immortality, it was a subject no one talked about, except to hint at. Certainly her parents had more important things to worry about than if their daughter had fallen in love. By that point, they had all been frozen in time together for going on two years.
But one Sunday morning, out of the blue, Emma’s mother had invited Charlie to have breakfast with them. Emma knew why; Maura O’Neill had begun a fierce campaign of pretending that everything was normal. Asking Emma’s “young man” to eat with them, formally, was part of it. Later, while they did the dishes, her mother whispered, “Charlie loves my pancakes.”
Emma remembered her face flushing. Her mother’s approval still meant something to her. And so she memorized the pancake recipe, a simple combination of flour and eggs, butter and milk. She remembered imagining the future: she would make pancakes for Charlie when they were married. And not just on Sundays. Every day if he wanted them.
Of course the future doesn’t always work out the way you plan. Emma tried not to take this out on her love of pancakes.
Pete climbed out of the truck and started across the lot. “O’Neill,” he began, his voice quiet even though she trailed several feet behind, “How long did you think it would take me to figure out that these dead girls who keep popping up all look a lot like you? Including your friend Coral?”
Emma froze. She kept her eyes on the restaurant. Inside would be pancakes and bacon and a steaming cup of coffee. She really wanted a cup of coffee.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded.
“You could have said something before taunting me with pancakes,” she muttered. “They make this sourdough batter one here that is seriously—”
“What else, Emma?” Using her name punched through her defenses; he rarely used her first name. Pete shot a wary glance around the parking lot and lowered his voice even more. “And remember that most likely, someone just tried to burn you alive. In case you hadn’t noticed.”
He had a point. She stepped forward, then paused again on the little walkway outside the glass door. “I . . . I needed to protect you. I couldn’t . . . There’s just a lot to it.” She glanced around the parking lot now, too, gloomy under the dark clouds.
As if on cue, it started to rain—hard, stinging drops. Pete made a disgruntled sound in the back of his throat. He ran his hand through his scruffy graying hair. Emma noted that he could use a haircut but thought better of saying so at this particular moment.
“Protect me?” he cried, his voice rising. He strode back to the truck, leaving her no choice but to follow. Then he gestured sharply. She followed him back into the truck, angry now, too, and also wet from the rain.
“Yeah,” Emma said, climbing in and slamming the door behind her. Pete had no right to question her judgment. He wasn’t her. He hadn’t lived what she had. And then she thought, Coral is missing. I need to find her. I need a lot of things, but right now, that’s the most important one.
The rain smacked the windshield, and Emma shook the water from her smoky hair.
“I didn’t ask you to come to the rescue,” she said. “You’re not my . . .” Father, she had been about to say before she bit back the word.
Emma hated when she figured herself out. It made her feel small and cranky. But the truth was still the truth: being friends with her was dangerous. She hadn’t meant for Coral to become a friend. It was enough balancing Pete. Enough keeping herself alive and in the game. It would be so easy, she knew, to just run and hide. Not just from those who wished her gone, but from everything and everyone. Go someplace and just be. She could do that, couldn’t she? Why the hell not?
Was that what Charlie had done? Was that the real reason she hadn’t found him?
Maybe he was just better than she was at not being found. Of course he was.
Or she was just a shitty detective, which was also possible.
In her head, Charlie Ryan was still the Charlie Ryan she remembered, the Charlie from 1916. But why did she cling to that stupid lie? Over the years, she’d imagined different possibilities: Charlie would like football but maybe not soccer. He would enjoy texting but not phone calls. He would like thin-crust pizza, New York style, with sausage, and he’d fold his slice over and shovel it into his mouth. He would have owned the sleekest of automobiles over the years: A Dodge Charger because yes, Charlie would like muscle cars. Or maybe a Mustang. She wasn’t sure what year. A Carmen Ghia. A 1957 Thunderbird.
And he would have learned to fly. She had dug into war records once and found various Charlie Ryans with service records, some who were pilots, but tracking them down always led to dead ends. She supposed he’d used aliases. Certainly she had, although she’d gotten sloppy about that lately, and look how that had turned out.
Because for one wrongheaded second she had thought she could have a real friend. Be a normal person.
And so people were dead. Again. And Coral was missing.
“From the beginning,” Pete said, and Emma refocused. “Whatever you’ve been holding back.” Then more quietly, “I can’t help you if I don’t know. So enough with the thickheadedness.”
Her brows furrowed. “I am not—”
Emma’s eyes stung now and not from the smoke. “I have to find her,” she said. “Jesus, Pete. I don’t know—” “
From the beginning,” he repeated and touched a hand to her shoulder. “Repeat yourself. I don’t give a shit. I have all the time in the world. Bad joke. But bear with me. I need you to fill in the dots.” He shimmied out of his jacket. “And put this on before you freeze to death.”
Emma almost smiled. “Don’t think that’s possible,” she said. “But thanks.”
She let him drape his jacket over her. The weight felt comforting. It reminded her of being tucked into bed. Or maybe it didn’t remind her. Could she remember that feeling as viscerally as she believed she remembered, a century later? There was so much she didn’t know. But Pete Mondragon, this strange protector, deserved to know as much as she did.
So she told him.