It Wasn't Always Like This - Joy Preble

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