This week we’re featuring a new chapter from Ann Aguirre’s Like Never and Always every day on our blog at 3PM EST from Monday, June 4 to Sunday, June 10. Keep track of them all here, and dive in to chapter three below! Like Never and Always will be available July 17.
On a hot summer night, Liv, Morgan, Clay and Nathan are on the way home from a party in Clay’s convertible. Best friends dating brothers? It doesn’t get better than that. But the joyride ends in sudden impact, a screech of brakes, and shattering glass. On that lonely country road, four lives change forever.
Liv wakes in the hospital. At first she’s confused when they call her Morgan, but she assumes it’s a case of mistaken identity. Yet when the bandages come off, it’s not her face inthe mirror anymore. It’s Morgan’s.
Morgan always seemed to have the perfect life. But as Liv tries to fit herself into Morgan’s world, she discovers endlessly disturbing secrets of the criminal and murderous variety and a dark task to finish…if she doesn’t lose her mind first.
Forced to confront the disturbing truths that Morgan kept hidden in life, Liv must navigate a world of long-buried murder, a dangerous love affair—and a romance that feels like a betrayal.
[dropcap type=”circle”]O[/dropcap]nce Nurse Pink Pants leaves, it’s just Nathan, Clay, and me. I can’t remember the last time I saw Nathan in a hoodie, but right now he’s an echo of his older brother. There’s no question they’re both hot, but usually Nathan is clean-cut and polished, none of Clay’s shadow.
I want to hug Nathan and tell him I’m right here, but now that I’ve seen the mirror, I understand how crazy it will sound. With an aching heart, I let him mumble without making eye contact, and then he slips out to give me some privacy. With Clay. Before this moment, I never wondered what he talked about with Morgan when they were alone. Maybe in some snarky part of me, I figured it was all heavy petting because Clay strikes me as teaspoon deep, but that’s certainly not on—for so many reasons.
“I wish I was better with words.” Clay’s voice is husky, and his eyes are soft.
This is how he looks at Morgan when nobody else is around. And I shouldn’t be seeing it.
He perches on the edge of the bed, taking my hand with a tenderness I can’t believe. “But you already know that’s not me. So you don’t expect me to know how to make it better, huh?”
“No,” I say.
That much is true.
I stare at his hand, wrapped around mine. While I’m looking down, he cups my cheek in one large hand. But he doesn’t lean in, thank God, or I’d have to make some excuse. It’s unnerving being this close to Clay, and I want to scream because I’m worried about Nathan. He thinks I’m dead, just like my parents do. He’s in the hallway alone, chewing himself up about the accident if I know him at all, and I can’t stand it because I’m holding hands with his brother.
Maybe this is hell. Maybe I am dead and the afterlife is way more FUBAR than I could’ve possibly imagined. I never pictured Clay touching me like this, though I’d have said hell would freeze before this would happen. I was wrong about him, too; right now, I can see he cares for Morgan.
“I’m real sorry about Liv,” he says. “And I don’t know what to do here. I get that you’re not a talker, but you have to give me something, sweets.”
I close my eyes then. Because it’s not Liv who’s gone; it’s Morgan. And nobody in the world knows except me. In this moment, I feel completely alone. I want my mom. My dad. Nathan. My old life. Bewilderment and sorrow are duking it out, but I can’t cry in front of Clay. I’m thirsty and my throat hurts, and the medication is making me feel weak and shaky. Despite my best efforts, a tear slips out. I feel it tracing down my cheek and then rough fingertips dust it away. Shocked, I open my eyes to find Clay’s face right next to mine.
At this distance I can see the green and gold flecks in his hazel eyes, dark stubble on his jaw, and the slightly chapped burn of his lips. His arms are gentle when they go around me; I’m shocked into stillness by the strength and heat of him. For two seconds, I lean. The situation is too big and I can’t fix it.
Then I sit back and say, “It hurts.”
Clay lets go as if galvanized with a cattle prod. “Sorry. God, I’m sorry. You look slagged. Should I . . .”
Say it. Offer to let me rest.
But he doesn’t. I can tell he wants me to ask him to stay. And if circumstances were normal, I’m sure Morgan would. Maybe they wouldn’t talk. Maybe they’d just hold hands and watch TV until the drugs took her away. But I can’t leave Nathan alone, and I’m dying inside, imagining how my parents feel. My silence builds too long and hurt flashes in his eyes, making him drop his hand from my face.
“I’m worried about your brother,” I say.
Which is true, but maybe Morgan wouldn’t be. I feel so uncertain in her skin. How is this happening? There are no sensible answers to that question.
Before I woke up in this hospital bed, I’d have said that I understood her better than anyone else. Now I’m left to wonder how much I really knew, how much I assumed.
The hurt shifts, then Clay gives a wry smile. “Liar. You just know I am. He was nuts about Liv.” Was, as in not anymore, because I have ceased to be. The past tense staggers me.
For everyone in the world, Liv Burnham is a memory. She’s a deceased daughter, a lost love, or just the girl in homeroom that they didn’t know too well, and that’s kind of sad, right? To some people, this might seem like a miracle—that I’m still here—but I can’t help thinking this is a mistake. Something went wrong, or Morgan would be, not me.
Why am I here?
If I could fix it, I would. But I don’t know where Morgan went or why I was left in her place. Religious people would talk about God’s plan and how I have work to do here on earth. The same thing could be said of anyone, though. How many people are good to go at the ripe old age of sixteen?
Seventeen. Morgan’s seventeen.
Though she’s only six months older, April to October, the difference in our birthdays means I’m a junior this year while she’s graduating. Would have. Jesus Christ, the tenses will kill me. My eyes fill with tears, but Clay is still here.
While I silently freak out, Clay goes on, “A few weeks back, they were comparing notes on colleges, trying to figure out if there was any intersection of first picks that would give them a reasonable shot to see each other now and then.”
I remember that convo. We mentioned Stanford and Berkeley as possibilities, though neither one of us was thrilled with the idea of the West Coast. Duke and Davidson came up, too, much closer to home. Nathan always joked about attending the same college, but it didn’t seem likely we could find a university with great programs in both our respective interests. And after half an hour, we’d stopped thinking of the future and made out instead.
That’s it. I can’t take anymore. I break down.
Morgan would probably never do this because she’s cool and strong. I can’t remember ever seeing her cry, though I’m sure she did. Maybe she preferred to do it alone like a wild animal. Though she was my closest friend, there was always a wall between her and . . . everything. I know she valued me as a person, but damn, that sounds so detached. Morgan was Morgan. Bright, clever, a little bit wild. Other adjectives pile up like happy puppies.
The word cracks me open. I’m sobbing, loud, noisy gulps and streaming tears. It’s too much, I’m alone, I can’t deal, and Clay is watching it all happen with his mouth half-open.
Then he springs into action, pulling me against him gently, and I don’t have the strength to resist. I cry into his chest while he whispers into my hair, comforting bullshit. “That’s good, let it go. Otherwise this will eat you alive, like everything else.”
I don’t have any clue what that means. And I hate that he knows her better than I do. I loved her too and I lost her and I’m the only one who knows. If I wasn’t so sore, I’d probably hit him, the ultimate cliché. But I’m too wobbly, woozy, weepy. It takes ten minutes before I’m wrung out, but Clay seems lighter, like our relationship has deepened.
He thinks Morgan let him in. Poor bastard has no clue that I’m a stand-in.
“We’ll get through this,” he whispers.
I’m not your girlfriend. I’m not who I was or who you think I am. I’m . . . wrong, a thing that shouldn’t exist.
“I miss her.”
Morgan and me, both of us. I miss us both.
“They had a nice service.”
“What was it like?” My voice is muffled in his shirt.
“Everyone from Liv’s class came, half the seniors, too. They pretty much gave everybody the day off and most of the teachers showed up. Mrs. Caruso sang ‘Defying Gravity.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the place after the ‘kiss me good-bye’ line.”
That’s my favorite song—from my favorite musical. A few months ago, Nathan borrowed his brother’s car and drove us to Atlanta, surprising me with tickets. I can picture everything so clearly. My parents would’ve used the Purcell Funeral Parlor downtown, and my mom probably ordered the flowers.
I can’t breathe.
“There were a lot of wreaths and bouquets, too. Purple and yellow flowers everywhere.”
Hyacinths and jonquils. Sorrow and sympathy. That subtlety would be my mother’s doing. She loves the elegance of the Regency period and the language of flowers. It’s probably just as well that I missed the funeral. Seeing my own face in the casket, hearing that song . . . I wouldn’t have survived without a breakdown. Shit, maybe I’m having one now.
Listening to Clay’s heart makes me feel a little better, and that’s wrong, too. Everything about this situation is. How can I even leave the hospital? I’ll have to go home with Morgan’s dad, live in her room, go to school and be a senior, sitting in her classes. A shudder rolls over me as I ease back.
“I need to crash,” I say around a jaw-cracking yawn that I don’t have to fake. “Seriously, go take care of your brother.”
“Someone has to.” Clay kisses the top of my head. “Your dad will be back soon.”
But he’s right. I manage an hour of fitful sleep before the nurse is back to take my vitals and Mr. Frost is dozing in the chair. He rouses while she wraps the cuff around my arm, and gives me a sweet smile.
“You’re already looking a lot better. It shouldn’t be long before they’ll let you go home. If necessary, I can hire a nurse, whatever she needs.” The latter he adds for our silent audience’s benefit, I suspect.
Nurse Pink Pants laughs. “Convince the doctor, not me.”
If I had been listening, I’d know what exactly was wrong with this body. There’s a low, burning pain in my abdomen, a sharper one in my shoulder. My face is sore, and my pelvis feels weird, though that might be the meds.
I close my eyes and pretend none of this is real.
Copyright © 2018 by Ann Aguirre