Like Never and Always: New Excerpt
By Ann Aguirre
Like Never and Always by Ann Aguirre is a wild ride where a tragic car crash changes the lives of four friends—but none more than Liv Burnham, who wakes up in the hospital as her best friend and must deal with the secrets and betrayal that entails.
Liv Burnham thinks nobody knows Morgan Frost like she does, but a terrible accident pushes her down the rabbit hole where Morgan’s secrets hide and she’ll be lucky to make it out alive.
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 in the 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.
Something is beeping, and there’s a Darth Vader sound, too.
Everything hurts. This is encouraging since I thought I was dead. My eyelids are too heavy and they won’t open, but I flex my fingers to reassure myself they still work. Nothing. I try again, though my body feels like lead. This time, I manage a flicker of movement and it prompts an intake of breath from whoever else is in the room.
“Are you in there? Can you hear me?” That’s Clay, sounding hoarse.
Why is he in my room? Where’s Nathan? Morgan? Anyone would make more sense than Clay. We were never close, though we silently agreed to a mutual armistice once I started going out with Nathan. Terror slithers in me like a coiled, tentacle-thing, twisting until I have only this thought: What if they didn’t make it? What if it’s just Clay and me? That would explain why he’s sitting with me, a sort of grisly survivor’s solidarity.
No, that can’t be true.
Clay sighs, and then he takes my hand. His fingers are hard and callused, completely unlike his brother’s. “Your dad will be back soon. I made him go to the cafeteria. He’s been here nonstop, not eating or sleeping.”
Where’s my mom? But there’s something in my throat and I can’t ask. Then it hits me; I’m on a breathing machine, probably waking up from a coma. Well, trying anyway. My body hasn’t caught up to my mind yet. What if I have … what’s it called? Locked-in syndrome.
It’s too much. I’d rather go back into the dark, so I let go and fall.
Clay’s voice recedes.
The next time I wake, my eyes snap open. It takes me a while to focus. The room is dim, apart from the low beam near the door and the illumination from the medical equipment. I’m alone, but the call button is within reach, provided my arms work. It takes me three tries, but I smack the device successfully.
The nurse comes quickly, a round-faced older woman in a scrub top covered in pink hearts, and cheerful fuchsia pants. “You must be scared, huh?”
I nod. There are so many questions, but I can’t ask them. My throat hurts and I feel like throwing up. This tube needs to come out ASAP.
“I’ll call the doctor and the respiratory therapist first thing. We’ll check you out and if you’re ready, we’ll wean you from the ventilator. Want me to notify your family?”
I nod again. That’s when I realize she’s only asking me yes or no questions. That makes things easier, but I guess I should expect her to be a pro at this. I raise trembling hands to my face and am surprised to find it bandaged. Why that startles me, I’m not sure, but my body awareness isn’t great at the moment. Certain aspects are muffled while other parts blaze with raw agony. I don’t feel right, like my skin is too big or something.
“You’re loopy,” the nurse guesses. “Try not to worry. You’ve had a rough few days, but you came out of surgery strong and your dad says you’re a fighter.”
Where are my friends? I ask in my head. What happened to everyone else? I know Clay made it, at least I think I know. A pervasive memory separates from the murk of my foggy mind. He’s beside me, and it’s dark. Clay is crying, his head resting on the bed beside my fingers. The IV stings my wrist, but I can still feel the hot plip of his tears on the back of my hand, like the inexorable drip keeping me alive.
Modern medicine is amazing.
Mute, I can’t protest as a squadron of professionals do all kinds of tests. But I’m pleased with their conclusion by the time the hospital is bustling with shift change; they’ve decided I’m ready to come off the artificial breathing apparatus. Apparently the one I’ve been using pushes back into my lungs so I don’t lose capacity or something. I don’t understand it all, and they talk about waiting for my dad. I’m a minor, and I don’t know if they need permission, or if it’s more of a courtesy, like he wouldn’t want to miss the big un-tubing.
The door opens as the doctor, nurse, and respiratory specialist are confabbing. I recognize the man standing there, but he’s not my dad. This is Mr. Frost, my best friend’s dad. Horror crawls through me. Morgan and me, we don’t look anything alike. How bad was the accident? Maybe … her face was too beat up for them to tell? And mine, too? But that hardly makes sense because she’s six inches taller. The grisly thought occurs to me that maybe her body was damaged, dismembered, even, so—
Oh my God, no. I can’t let myself think about it.
Even our names put us in different camps: Olivia Burnham and Morgan Frost. Clearly her parents took one look at her and thought, This kid will be incredibly cool, might as well name her for it. Any popularity I’ve enjoyed has come since we made friends when comic book nerd Ed Keller said we should because then we could form the crime-fighting duo of Frost and Burn. To quote an old movie with a sad ending, that was the start of a beautiful friendship. She’s the trendsetter, the one who finds the coolest music before anyone else and decides when people should stop wearing things or adopt a new look, usually something fresh in Tokyo or Paris.
They don’t know who I am.
There are no words for the horror washing over me like the sluggish lap of dark water against the lip of the quarry where we aren’t supposed to swim. I get a little frantic, but they misinterpret my response and so I get a lecture about exactly what they’re going to do to me. That’s worse than if they just removed the tube right away. Morgan’s dad is hovering, the circles beneath his eyes pronounced. He should know by my eyes. I’m looking right at him, trying to tell him with telepathy but he never flickers. Instead he mistakes my stare for fear so he murmurs reassuring nothings as the medical team gets to work.
When they finish, I’m breathing on my own. It feels weird and my throat hurts, but it’s not as bad as I expected. From what I remember, strep was like knives whereas this is residual soreness and a dry, rough feeling. I swallow a couple of times experimentally and I show how awesome I am by not throwing up.
“You’re doing great,” the nurse says.
“What day is it?” Of the hundred questions teeming in my brain, that one pops out first in a voice so rough that it doesn’t sound like mine. Or Morgan’s, for that matter.
Nobody seems surprised.
Mr. Frost answers. “Thursday.”
Almost a week. We were out Friday night, two weeks before school started. Well, for Nathan, Morgan, and me, anyway. Clay already lives like he’s grown, doing shit that earned him the notoriety that made people steer clear even before he dropped out. In different ways, the Claymore boys both have reputations; teachers projected remarkable things for Nathan, “explosive success” even, whereas some asshole on the yearbook staff tagged Clay as most likely to be blown up in a meth lab before he’s twenty-one.
“What happened?” I whisper.
It’s the least of what I want to know, but the knowledge they possess and I don’t might as well be grenades. If awareness goes off like I’m afraid it will, the impact will leave an imprint of me on the wall, nothing left but nuclear shadow. Cowering in the hospital bed, I’m a ghost at the top of the stairs, waiting to find out I was dead all along.
“There was a car accident,” Mr. Frost says. He reaches out, then hesitates, like he isn’t sure where to touch me. In the end, he pats my hand and I don’t pull away. “A driver got lost and was wandering the back roads, fiddling with his GPS. He hit the passenger side head-on.…” He stops and glances at the doctor as if for approval.
To me the medical staff look uncomfortable, like they don’t want to give personal advice. Can bad news wait? Mr. Frost wonders quietly. Well, she just woke up from a coma, the doc is probably thinking. But the parent is king in these matters, especially if it doesn’t threaten my immediate survival.
Finally, Nurse Pink Pants says, “Why don’t I go get a Popsicle? Your throat must be dry. We can give you five minutes before we do the swallow test.”
That sounds pornographic.
I’m thinking this as everyone else files out, so Mr. Frost can have a Serious Talk with me. I have pterodactyls in my stomach because once he speaks his piece, I have to convince him I’m not his daughter.
“This will be hard to hear,” he says softly. “But I feel like it’s best not to hide the truth. Liv didn’t make it. I’m sorry.”
That means Morgan is dead, and they don’t know.
Not Morgan. I can’t breathe.
Maybe the doctor was right to withhold judgment on whether I was strong enough for shocking news. If I’d known that night at Emma Lin’s party was the last time I’d ever talk to Morgan, I’d have said something more meaningful. I can’t even remember exactly what we rambled about, stupid stuff on the Internet, what the hell was Amanda Olsen wearing and whether Eric Mitchell would ever get up the courage to speak to Kendra Sanchez. A thousand moments like that, a million, but they couldn’t encompass the magic that was Morgan Frost.
I close my eyes. Take a choking breath.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Frost says again.
He’s trying his best to comfort me and I have lost my best friend. That’s when it hits me. My parents think I’m gone. I imagine their numbness and grief, making arrangements, notifying other relatives. My whole body shrinks. More and more awful, piled like bricks until it’s Empire State Awful, a hundred and two stories tall.
I can’t process or fathom how the hospital could’ve made this mistake. Even if we were both really hurt, they should be able to run tests, right? Dental records are always used in TV shows. With every fiber of my being, I want my parents; they need to fix this.
Everyone thinks I’m dead—my family, friends at school, and Nathan. Oh my God, Nathan. How am I supposed to break the news to Mr. Frost? I’m so cold my teeth are clacking. “What…” My words trickle off.
Is it grisly to want details? But I need them. I can’t remember anything except that damn song on the radio. Hope I never hear it again.
“Olivia didn’t have on her seat belt. She was thrown from the car and they found her body in a field nearby. The police … they said it was quick.”
It’s so strange, hearing about my own death, knowing it’s my best friend they’re talking about, not me. Morgan had only been home a week when we went to Emma’s party. One last summer blowout before we buckle down, she’d messaged.
I’m still unable to believe any of this, processing slow like an outdated computer. My brain keeps skipping; it won’t stick on the idea that Morgan is really gone. This must be a morphine dream. Any minute, I’ll wake up, and my family will be here. They’ll tell me that Morgan is just down the hall, right?
I try pinching myself and then squeezing my eyes shut, but it only makes Mr. Frost ask, “Are your eyes bothering you?”
Damn. This is reality.
I should just tell him. Then he can call my parents; I need them here. This situation is too much for me to handle on my own. He’s waiting for an answer so I shake my head, working up the courage to drop this massive bomb.
“What about Nathan and Clay?” Shock has me asking random questions. I can’t make myself tell the truth yet—I’m Liv. Morgan is the one who died. Not right to her father’s face.
“Nathan spent one night in the hospital. Clay walked away with cuts and bruises, probably because he was drinking.” Mr. Frost’s tone says he disapproves, but if he argues with his daughter about dating the town bad boy, she’ll dig her heels in even more.
And he’s not wrong. She enjoys the risks associated with Clay. He’s not like the guys at school; he has an edge. With Clay, you never know if you’ll get the carrot or the stick, though I admit he treats Morgan better than I anticipated. When they first hooked up, I expected a hump and dump, then a night of tears punctuated by too much ice cream.
It never happened.
Mr. Frost is rambling about how alcohol loosens you up, so that’s probably why Clay isn’t hurt as bad. But part of what he’s saying is true; I mean, I remember that I didn’t put on my seat belt that night. No big deal. We’re only driving five miles to Morgan’s place, and there’s no traffic. I didn’t consciously think that or anything, but Clay’s Corvair doesn’t exactly encourage thoughts of modern safety. There’s a timeless air to that car—or there was. It’s probably totaled.
But … I can’t wrap my head around an error of this magnitude. A slow throb starts in my temples as I try to put it together, and it physically hurts to imagine how damaged Morgan’s body must be. Was she not wearing her seat belt either, so we were both launched while the boys held on…? Clay wouldn’t let Morgan get hurt, I think, so she can’t be dead. She can’t be.
This is a mistake.
But the other explanation is that I’m dead. Which makes no sense. They found a body in the field; that’s a fact. Before I can decide how to bridge the subject of mistaken identity, the medical crew traipses back in with a frozen treat and the promise of another test. Mr. Frost takes off like he was waiting for this chance while I swallow a cowardly wave of relief and suck on the Popsicle. The cherry is too sweet, cough syrup instead of juice, and it’s like I can taste the red dye number 40 in actual chemical tang. That’s something Morgan would’ve said, though I always thought she was being dramatic.
I should’ve just blurted it out before. I force the Popsicle down.
The doctor talks a little more about my care and recovery plan, detailing my injuries, but I’m distracted by how he constantly calls me Morgan, like I need anchoring. This is probably some bedside manner thing, but in my case it’s a jolt, a needle-sharp poke. Each time, I take the bait, chasing the rabbit down the hole, and I drink the bottle marked I’m not Morgan. It feels like hours later when the specialist finally leaves.
Then it’s just me and Nurse Pink Pants, wearing a sympathetic look. “We’re moving you to a regular room now. That means you’re doing great.”
“We’ll do all the work.”
They do. I stay in bed, while it gets wheeled to my new digs, a private room that my parents never could afford. They should be here. How can they not know…? The numbness and shock are wearing off, and I want my mom so much it hurts. She would hug me and my dad would bring a thermos of my favorite tea. Hell, I’d even settle for my little brother, Jason, who spends more time with his handheld games than me. I’d trade all this hospital luxury for a minute with my actual family.
I get isolation instead.
Morgan’s dad is the CEO of a small IT company, Frost Tech, and he employs a lot of locals. Morgan tells the most hilarious stories about how all the MILFs about town hunt her dad like big game. The truth will wreck him; Morgan is the only family he has left.
The TV is on, running a special bulletin about missing girls in Monroe County. That’s too depressing, and I already have enough darkness in my brain. I turn it off as the pictures of the lost flash on-screen.
A bit later, Nurse Pink Pants bustles back in with some gear on a tray. “Let’s get those bandages off. I’m sure you’re probably worried about your face, a pretty girl like you.”
That’s the last thing on my mind, but it occurs to me that once I’m unbundled, that should clear everything up. No more worries about how to explain—my features, however distorted, will be all the clarification they need. Then someone can call my parents and … Morgan will be dead; it’ll be official. I swallow hard. There’s no way I can be relieved … or anything but empty. There’s no bright side here.
She gets to work when I don’t reply and is snipping away when the door cracks open. Clay comes in first, shadowed by Nathan, who looks like deep-fried shit. My gaze lingers on his face. He hasn’t shaved since the accident, it looks like. Normally, Nathan and Clay are like night and day, but right now, I see the family resemblance.
“We’re just in time for the unveiling, huh?” Clay smiles at me.
“Hey, Morgan.” Nathan doesn’t look at me, and it’s hard to see him so heartbroken, but he’ll cheer up soon enough.
I imagine him running to me when the gauze comes off. We’ve been dating for a while now, and I don’t doubt Nathan loves me. Thinking that I died because of him, while he was driving—it must be eating him alive. I’m unsure how Clay will cope with learning that Morgan died on that dark country road, but the truth has to come out.
“There,” she murmurs at last, offering a hand mirror. “Don’t focus on the stitches or the swelling. Try to believe that it’s not as bad as it looks, okay?”
I steel myself … and stare.
It’s not bad. It’s worse, a thousand times worse. Because despite the damage the nurse mentioned, I’m definitely registering Morgan’s face: her nose, her mouth, her chin, her black hair and blue eyes.
But I’m not Morgan Frost. For the last sixteen years, I’ve been Liv Burnham … and apparently, I am dead.
Copyright © 2018 Ann Aguirre.