It Wasn't Always Like This

It Wasn't Always Like This

by Joy Preble


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It Wasn't Always Like This by Joy Preble

In 1916, Emma O’Neill is frozen in time. After sampling an experimental polio vaccine brewed on a remote island off St. Augustine, Florida, she and her family stop aging—as do the Ryans, her family’s business partners. In a way, this suits Emma fine because she’s in love with Charlie Ryan. Being seventeen forever with him is a dream. But soon a group of religious fanatics, the Church of Light, takes note. Drinking the elixir has made the O’Neills and Ryans impervious to aging, but not to murder—Emma and Charlie are the only ones who escape with their lives.

On the run, Emma is tragically separated from Charlie. For the next hundred years, she plays a cat-and-mouse game with the founding members of the Church of Light and their descendants. Over the years, a series of murders—whose victims all bear more than a passing resemblance to her—indicate that her enemies are closing in. Yet as the danger grows, so does Emma’s hope for finding the boy she’s certain is still out there . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616955885
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Joy Preble lives in Houston with her family. She teaches and lectures widely on writing and literacy, and is the author of the Sweet Dead Life series, the Dreaming Anastasia series, and Finding Paris. Visit her online at or follow her on Twitter @joypreble.

Read an Excerpt

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 flesh 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 first 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-flowered 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 defined. 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 fly 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 fine,” Charlie said soothingly. “That’s all that matters.” But they both knew things weren’t fine. 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 finally 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 figure 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 finished 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 fire.
   They were running again even before Charlie’s fingers 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 first 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 floor 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.

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It Wasn't Always Like This 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
18876111 More than 1 year ago
This is definitely a retelling of Natalie Babbit's "Tuck Everlasting." While both have the element of immortality, and it is done somewhat similarly in both books, they are still different. I'm going to start off with what is similar. First, families drink things that make them immortal. In "Tuck Everlasting" it's water from a well-type system by a tree in a forest owned by the Fosters. In "It Wasn't Always Like This" the immortality drink is in the form of a "tea" made by a man who comes into the lives of the families of the two main characters, Emma and Charlie. I definitely had suspicions of this guy and his "tea" which he marketed as something that will protect them against polio. On to the differences, in "Tuck Everlasting" a guy discovers the secret of the water by the tree, wants to buy the forest and make money off of the water. He pretty much wants to make the forest a tourist destination. In "It wasn't Always Like This," a "cult-like" religious group leader overheard the families talking about the "tea" and didn't like what he had heard. (I know not all religions/religious groups are "cult-like" however the one in this book is). The leader of the group went after the families who owned an alligator farm/museum, burned the farm/museum and the families alive, leaving Emma and Charlie the only survivors. I did not like the burning of the families, the farm/museum or how the religious group leader went about things, I think he could have done things differently. I also didn't enjoy that Emma and Charlie, who truly love each other had to separate and go on the run. Another thing that I didn't like, was how abrupt the ending was, I wanted more to the story. There were things that I did enjoy. I really enjoyed how Emma and Charlie never stopped thinking about or looking for each other. The time jump aspect between the past and present was something else that I enjoyed, which is rare for me to enjoy something like this. While I didn't like how the ending was abrupt, I did love how Emma and Charlie's lives come full circle. This book had its ups and downs, but I still liked it.
CCraig More than 1 year ago
Immortality, mystery and a romance. Joy Preble's story is a haunting tale that makes you care for Emma as she works as PI, while having to hide from a murdering cult. The story spans over time and time is something Emma has plenty of. Her family is tricked into drinking a potion that offers mortality leaving Emma forever young. But after all these years of hiding, hurting, and being left by the boy she loves, she often feels old. You feel for Emma as she longs to be united with Charlie, the boy she loved and lost. She struggles to stay alive and to protect others. I enjoyed the poetic voice.
MissPrint More than 1 year ago
Thanks to a mysterious tea, Emma O'Neill and her family stopped aging. Charlie Ryan and his parents suffered the same fate. By 1916, Emma has been seventeen for two whole years. When an organization called the Church of Light notices, both families are targeted. Emma and Charlie survive the massacre but they aren't sure they can ever really be safe. Separated during their escape, they are still bound together by their love for each other even as circumstances conspire to keep them from finding each other. Over the last hundred years Emma's gotten good at hiding and at noticing patterns. It takes someone with her uniquely long perspective to realize a decades long series of murders have something in common: every victim bears a striking resemblance to Emma. The murders are coming closer together now--closer than they have in a very long time. Which can only mean Emma's enemies are getting closer too. As Emma hunts the murderer she begins to hope, for the first time in a long while, that solving this case might also help her find Charlie again in It Wasn't Always Like This (2016) by Joy Preble. It Wasn't Always Like This has been likened to Tuck Everlasting meets Veronica Mars. It turns out that this comparison is wonderfully accurate. Preble uses sparse prose for Emma's no-nonsense narration. Third person narratives from other characters are interspersed throughout for necessary exposition. It Wasn't Always Like This offers a fascinating perspective with its immortal teenager heroine. Emma is as jaded as the best hard-boiled detectives and possibly even more world-weary. But she is also still seventeen. She is still rash and impetuous. Sometimes she's still dangerously optimistic in spite of everything she has seen. Throughout the novel Emma keeps wondering if she can ever really learn from her mistakes and grow when it is physically impossible for her to grow up or mature. A high stakes mystery and lots of action make this a page-turner even while the characters hearken to a more thoughtful tome. It Wasn't Always Like This is a refreshingly original mystery with a little something for everyone. Highly recommended. Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit, Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol Ostow and David Ostow, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Veronica Mars (TV show)