In this touching novel, Hattie and Presley’s instant connection seemed implausible—almost impossible—but falling in love is exactly what they needed to escape the ghosts of their pasts.Head-spinning, Taylor-Swift-song-level feelings. Their instant connection seems implausible, even impossible, as they start to realize all they have in common. Both are grieving, living in worlds haunted by ghosts; both have a parent who's out of sight, not out of mind; and both were forced to give up their Olympic dreams. Connected by experiences only they understand, Hattie and Presley fall into a whirlwind romance—flirting at their workplace, sleeping side by side beneath the stars, ice skating to a playlist all their own. But like the wildfires surrounding their California town, the trauma that haunts them is unrelenting. Can they overcome their losses without losing each other? Or will their ghosts break them apart?
Perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Rachel Lynn Solomon, A Pretty Implausible Premise explores the power of a love beyond comprehension, and how seemingly implausible connections can be the ones we need the most.
Release date: September 26, 2023
Publisher: Workman Publishing Company
Print pages: 384
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A Pretty Implausible Premise
BRADY: Hey, thanks for agreeing to do this. I’m turning the recorder on.
Hattie: That’s very official. I’m impressed. It’s like you’re a real . . . grown-up. Incredible. Next up: A real shirt and tie, an office with your name on the door, a creased look of constant sweaty exhaustion as you run on life’s treadmill to pay bills for things you don’t want. Your future is rosy, my friend.
BRADY: Ha ha. Okay, so are you ready?
Hattie: I’m as ready as I ever will be. But you owe me, big-time. I’m only doing this because you’re like a brother to me, which would be weird because you’re literally only seven years younger than my dad. But maybe like a sibling from a different dad. And mom. A cousin or—
BRADY: You’re being avoidant. Let’s start with your earliest recollection of tasting a word. Do you remember how old you were and what the word was?
Hattie: Ugh, I don’t. I don’t think I do. I’ll tell you what I think, but there’s a caveat: I might be making it up. It might be one of those stories I’ve told so often that it’s become true.
Hattie: Fine. I think I was six. The word was guitar.
Hattie: It tasted like steamed spinach, all green and metallic and . . . slippery.
BRADY: What was your reaction?
Hattie: I threw up, just like I threw up that one time my mom made me eat steamed spinach. She went through a health thing. It was terrible, truly the worst, all vegetables, all the time, but it didn’t last. Nothing she did ever lasted. After guitar, I threw up for a week. I felt stuck in it. I’d fall asleep and wake up and remember the word guitar. Dad thought I had the flu. I had to go to the hospital. I lost six pounds, which was a lot, because I was, you know, little. I don’t know how much six-year-olds weigh but not much.
BRADY: No, not very much.
Hattie: At the end I weighed less than not very much.
BRADY: Do you still taste it when you say guitar?
Hattie: I taste it when you say guitar. I taste it when I hear guitar or think guitar but especially when I say guitar.
BRADY: After guitar, what was next?
Hattie: There were a bunch all at once, words I didn’t say very often, like orangutan, which tasted like caramel apple—I love those so much—and encyclopedia, which was a burnt marshmallow, which were my favorite. I used to always try to set them on fire when we were making s’mores and Mom would get so mad, she was a perfect-golden-marshmallow person and my dad and I were blackened-on-the-outside-runny-on-the-inside people. I remember that she got mad because she said we were lying, that we were just trying to leave her out, which was . . . I don’t know. I was six.
Anyway, sorry, I got sidetracked. What was I saying? Oh, I’d try to work the words into conversation because I liked the taste, but I didn’t want my dad to know, because he’d maybe pack me up and send me to a place for broken kids. I totally thought I was broken. I thought that’s why mom left: because she could see through to my broken self. I remember asking my best friend Bug at some point if she thought it was funny that grapefruit didn’t taste like grapefruit and realizing that words didn’t taste like things to anyone else and it was like the bottom fell out of my entire life. I was hopelessly, fatally weird. My dad eventually noticed because what six-year-old says sequoia in every conversation?
BRADY: What did it taste like?
Hattie: Root beer.
BRADY: Do the tastes of words ever change or go away?
Hattie: No. They can just start out of nowhere though. Like last week I said Rottweiler, which I must have said before more than once, but this time it tasted like steak sauce. My mom used to put it on everything and when I used to beg for it, she’d say it wasn’t for kids, that I wouldn’t like it, but I was sure I would. So one day, I snuck the bottle and took a sip. It was so shocking how awful it was, like vinegar and something that burned. She laughed and laughed. Anyway, it felt new, but maybe I just didn’t notice it when it happened before. Saying that out loud makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong, like you’re going to say, “Oh, that’s not how lexical-gustatory synaesthesia works, you don’t have that, you are broken,” even though I know that broken isn’t part of the DSM-5 or anything. But I don’t know how it’s supposed to be. I read about other people’s experiences on Reddit and when they aren’t like mine, I feel like . . . broken. Sorry, there’s no other word for it, just broken broken broken. Like I can’t even get my own weird thing right, I have to have it even more weirdly. I don’t know. I don’t think all people with synaesthesia are freaks, just that I’m one because I don’t even get my own weird wiring right.
BRADY: There’s no right and wrong here, Hattie. I’m studying you and your unique experience. Can we go back a bit? What emotion do you feel when you say the word guitar?
Hattie: I don’t feel an emotion, I feel nauseated. Do you have a piece of gum?
BRADY: I appreciate you, Hattie. Thanks for doing this.
Hattie: I have regrets. I’m never getting this taste out of my mouth.
Hattie: I’m kidding! Don’t look like that. I’m fine. This is fine. Everything is fine.
Hattie’s leaning on the kitchen island eating Cheerios, except she isn’t really eating Cheerios so much as she’s sinking them to the bottom of the bowl and watching them bob back up to the surface.
“So resilient,” she says after a beat, savouring the too-sweet doctor’s-office-yellow-lollipop taste of that word. “We could all learn a serious life lesson from this cereal.”
“What’s that, hon?” Her dad glances over at her from where he’s stirring eggs in a huge cast-iron pan. “Are you sure you don’t want eggs? These are going to be muy delicioso!” He kisses his fingers and flings them wide, then salts the eggs with a flourish.
“Absolutely not.” Hattie’s dad loves eggs. He loves lifting weights and Taylor Swift. He loves mornings and hyperbole and El Amado and his job as a child psych professor at El Amado Community College.
In the Venn diagram of Hattie and her dad, the overlap is Taylor Swift, but sometimes she wonders if she even does love Taylor Swift or if she just loves loving Taylor Swift with her dad . . . and now she’s overthinking Taylor Swift and overthinking overthinking, which is another area where they overlap.
They’ve both been overthinking her mom’s departure for eleven years—her old toothbrush is still by his sink, her hiking boots by the front door, her surfboard in the shed out back—even though there is not that much information to overthink:
She went to Switzerland. She didn’t come back.
“So . . . eggs for you then?”
“No, Dad. God. Those eggs smell like wet dog.”
“They’ll taste like heaven itself has stirred itself into a pan to be fuel for these babies.” He flexes his massive bicep.
“Only if you have no sense of smell. Please put that arm away before someone gets hurt.” Hattie spins her phone on the counter. The glittery case reflects the lights like a tiny disco ball. Inside it, lurking behind a notification, there’s an email from her mom that she hasn’t opened and can’t open and won’t open. The subject line says: Fwd: Fwd: Save the Date.
“Any big plans today?” asks her dad.
“It’s the first day of school, Dad, so you could say that school has made plans for me. Then I’m going to work, because someone has to pay for . . .” Her voice halts, slamming on the brakes before it gets to college. She’s not even going to college now that she’s quit swimming. How can she? Swimming scholarships make swimming necessary. Her dad looks at her expectantly. “Stuff,” she finishes, quietly.
“Let’s make it Taco Tuesday then!” he says. “We’ll celebrate!”
“I’m always down for tacos . . . but it’s Monday.”
“Rules were made to be broken.”
“So you say until I break them.” Hattie can tell from his good mood that her dad did not get the Fwd: Fwd: Save the Date email. She’s equally sure that what’s in this email will break his big stupid heart. Again. And he’ll overcompensate by doing something ridiculous like taking up the lute and becoming a Renaissance musician or signing up for a macrame art class and opening an Etsy shop. It’s not normal. He’s not normal. His reactions all veer toward alarming positivity. Normal people get angry and sad when bad things happen, not enthusiastic.
Not that she wants him to get angry or sad. She wants to keep the email locked in her phone forever so he doesn’t have to get angry or sad or angrier or sadder than he’s already overcorrecting for.
She also wants to know what the email says so she can be angry and sad, which would validate how angry and sad she always feels when she thinks about her mom.
Or she could just delete it.
She could never think about it again.
That, she decides, would definitely be the power move.
But then she wouldn’t know. She has to know.
Her dad tosses the spatula in the air, spins on one foot, and catches the utensil behind his back. “Ta-da!”
“OMG. Stop.” She holds up her hand. “I’m googling how to get you an application for Cirque du Soleil. Those skills can’t go unshared with the world.”
“Do you look miserable because you’ll miss me when I’m touring the world with French Canadian acrobats and my spatula or is there some other reason?”
Hattie takes a sip from his coffee cup and makes a face. “Ew. That’s terrible.”
“That’s why I didn’t pour you a cup. But excellent avoidance.” He bobs, ducks, and weaves. “Bob! Duck! Weave!”
“Dodgeball rules don’t apply to conversations. And I get to be angsty on my last first day of school. It’s a legitimate developmental stage. It’s senioritis. Definitely in the DSM-5. Check it out.”
“Noted.” He inhales deeply over the pan. “Mmmmmm. Gordon Ramsay is probably turning over in his grave.”
“I’m pretty sure Gordon Ramsay isn’t dead.”
He gives her his signature look, one eyebrow raised so high, it practically disappears into his hairline. Scooping his mountain of eggs onto a bright yellow plate, he slides it onto the counter, sits down next to her, and starts eating. His fork scrape-scrape-scraping catapults her through the atmosphere and into deep space where, even then, she can still hear it, and she shatters into a million pieces, all her molecules dissipating into the eternal darkness of the multiverse . . .
He taps his fork on his plate, jerking her back. “So . . . is this really just first-day blues or should I worry?”
“It’s nothing. It’s . . . whatever. It’s scraping.”
“Forget it. Never mind.”
On the fridge behind her dad, there’s a photo of her mom wearing a faded pastel orange plaid sundress—it’s one of Hattie’s favorite things to wear now—holding Hattie’s hand in front of her lime-green VW bus, which is also now officially Hattie’s and dubbed Applejack after her favorite My Little Pony. Hattie’s mom looks impossibly young in the photo. She looks like a kid. She was a kid. She was less than a year older than Hattie is now. In the picture, toddler Hattie is crying with her mouth wide open. Her mom is staring at something in the distance, above Hattie’s head, outside the frame.
Hattie took the picture down once. It had been there so long that it left a ghost of itself on the fridge, a perfect square. She’d tucked it into the back of the cutlery drawer, under the tiny forks they never used. The next morning it was back, perfectly lined up with its own shadow.
It’s the only photo of her mom they have. Before she left, she deleted all the photos from the hard drive of the family computer. She factory-reset Hattie’s dad’s phone and deleted the cloud. She took every photo out of every frame. She deleted her entire existence from their lives, like someone purging an ex from social media, but a million times worse because in doing so, she also erased Hattie’s early childhood.
This photo only survived because it was in her dad’s office.
They don’t talk about how all the photos are gone yet the things they’d thought mattered to her mom had stayed, the things they’d thought she loved: her surfboard, the VW, her favorite Nikes, a rack of sundresses, her bright blue guitar, her collection of vintage mix tapes . . . and her daughter and her husband.
“You sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
Hattie startles. “No. Talk about what?” She shuts her eyes so she can’t see the photo or the eggs, picks up her bowl, and walks with her eyes still closed to where she thinks the sink is, gropes around, and puts the bowl down with a clatter. “There’s nothing to talk about. I’m fine.”
Fine tastes like fresh milk. She can’t remember when she stopped drinking milk, but Mr. Kim, her favorite teacher, taught them that human cells regenerate completely every seven years, so maybe it’s just that the cells of her that liked gulping down a glass of milk have been extinguished by the passage of time.
Elijah Johnston was only seven years old when he died on Hattie’s watch, so he never had a chance to become someone else. Thinking about Elijah makes his face appear over the kitchen island, with his wide smile and missing top teeth and huge dark eyes . . .
“Shit.” She presses the heels of her hands into her eyes, darkening everything.
“You’re fine but also . . . shit?” Her dad pushes his empty plate away. Scraaaaaaape.
She flinches. “I contain multitudes.” She is not going to tell her dad about Elijah’s presence. Her dad is a psychologist. He’ll diagnose her. She wants to change the subject. She wants to run away from Elijah’s face. She wants . . . another life. A different life! In a parallel universe, Elijah did not drown at his seventh birthday party. She, the lifeguard on duty, saw him slip under the floating island and jumped in and saved him in time. There was no CPR needed because she stopped it from getting that far. He didn’t freaking die, her hands uselessly pressing his chest, her breath uselessly puffing into his mouth. And if none of that happened, then she also wouldn’t have started having panic attacks in the pool. In that world, she’d be at practice right now with the rest of the team, hauling herself up and down the lanes until every muscle in her body was spent, waiting for the whistle that meant it was time to shower and go to school.
Elijah’s death is why Hattie believes in the multiverse.
She has to.
Somewhere, somehow, there’s a world where Elijah isn’t dead, and one where her mom didn’t leave, and even one where she still likes drinking milk.
She takes a deep breath. “Your obsession with me is comforting but unhealthy, Dad. Consider your own needs. How are you?”
“I’m more than fine. Thanks for asking.” He does a drum roll on the island. “I’m tied together with a smile, baby.” He starts to sing the song with the same name.
“It’s way too early for the kind of energy T-Swift brings to the table.”
“Hang on, kiddo.” He leaves the room, coming back with a folded black T-shirt that he tosses to her. “I can tell you need this today. Wear the power.”
She pulls the giant Fearless T-shirt from their first Taylor Swift concert over her cropped tank top and jean shorts. It’s been washed so often that it’s almost transparent in places. It’s soft and perfect and smells like her dad: some inexplicable yet fitting combination of a specific type of cookies—the kind you give to teething babies—and ancient rainforests. “Thanks, Dad. I think you’re right. This is exactly what I need.” She holds up her fist for a fist bump.
“Untouchable!” they say, at the same time, bumping fists, then waving their fingers.
She doesn’t necessarily feel better, but she does feel slightly closer to fine now, and that’s something.
Presley wakes up with the vibration of his phone alarm, his heart already in his throat, half-remembering something he doesn’t want to know. He blinks up through the skylight, which is only inches from his face, his brain scrambling like someone trying to regain their footing on a collapsing slope. He squints in the dazzling sunlight. A bird flies by, small and frantic, as though it’s trying not to crash.
He’s never related to something so hard.
Pinching the skin between his thumb and fingers, he reminds himself that it’s like this every morning. He’s fine. Everything’s fine! Or it will eventually be fine! Probably. Maybe. Possibly not. Sweat beads on his foreh«ead.
Mac is dead, he reads on a Post-it note, taped to the ceiling six inches from his nose, illustrated with a stick figure with x’s for eyes.
Dad is in prison. (Stick figure behind bars.)
Mum and Ellie got married. (Two stick figures in dresses.)
We live in California now. (Stick figure standing under a palm tree.)
This tiny house is temporary (watch your head!). (Stick figure bending over in a too-short room.)
Last night, he added a new one:
It’s the first day of school (don’t be late!). (Stick figure with a backpack.)
He reads them every morning so he’s not taken by surprise. It helps to remember everything all at once instead of letting it creep in gradually, like a really terrible rising tide. Or maybe it makes it worse. He isn’t totally convinced either way.
He peels the First Day of School note down and shreds it into confetti, sprinkling it with other one-time-only reminders on the shelf next to his mattress, a colorful flurry of paper snow. The others stay.
He can hear his mum and Ellie not snoring exactly, but sleep-breathing in unison from the bedroom below his loft. It’s sweet, if a little too intimate for comfort. But their new, big house overlooking the cliff is going to take months to build and is currently only a skeleton, bones stark and pale in the sun like the ribs of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s blue whale. So, for now, they’re embracing the tiny house lifestyle. He wears headphones a lot.
Keep it together, trash-hole, he tells himself. (This, he guesses, is probably not the kind of motivational up-talk Ellie suggested he give himself, but it’s as close as he can get right now.)
Trying not to make too much noise, he reaches over to his pile of clothes and grabs some layers: Mac’s old dark gray Nirvana T-shirt (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), the soft flannel plaid button-down he used to wear for luck when he traveled for skating competitions, his favorite cargo pants, a too-big vintage Levi’s jean jacket. He’ll be way too hot, but he needs something between himself and the sharp reality of today: the stares of the other kids; the sympathy of the teachers who probably know the bare bones, at least, of his past; the way his head after a few hours will feel like it’s full of nails, scraping his skull from the inside.
Once he’s dressed and brushed his teeth in the tiny bathroom, he gulps down a glass of water with his pills, throws his water bottle and a sandwich Ellie made into his backpack with a binder, an iPad, and a bunch of pens. Then he slips his silent phone into his pocket, steps outside, giving his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dazzlingly painful Southern California sun . . . and immediately seizes up.
It’s a thing that happens to him now, in his own personal After: Tonic seizures that disconnect his body from his brain for tiny spasms of time, locking him rigidly, although fleetingly, in place. After one numbly clenched minute, he manages to take a deep, slow breath and his muscles release like elastic bands, all popping at once. His nose fills with the cloying scent of the bougainvillea that grows over the trellis-covered patio behind the tiny house and the acrid smoke from the distant wildfires that stain the eastern sky.
“You all right, Pres?” His mum’s voice from behind makes him jump. He turns, and there she is, wild curly hair in disarray, looking half-asleep. Her British accent is stronger in the mornings.
“I’m fine, Mum. Go back to bed.”
“I thought maybe you were . . .” She shakes her head, then yawns. “Never mind. Love you to the moon, sweetheart.”
“Yeah, sure, Mum.” He waits for her to close the door, then presses play on Catfish and the Bottlemen—turns it up so loud his ears hurt, then louder still, so loud he can feel it reverberating in his joints, vibrating his skin.
I’m fine, he thinks. This is fine. Everything is fine.
Fine is the goal.
His goals once had words in them like exceeding, exceptional, excellent. Those days are long gone. Now he shoots for fine and misses more often than not.
He hasn’t walked more than fifty yards before he trips over . . . a goat. An actual real, live goat. His knees hit the ground first and explode in a firework of pain. The place where his left leg is pinned together shoots a lightning bolt of tingling agony to both his hip and his foot. “What the actual fuuuuuuuck.” The goat, who’s exactly the same shade of dusty brown as the dirt, blinks at him slowly, unmoved.
Presley flips over onto his back, his heart racing, and stares up at the hazy sky, trying to regroup. Just because one thing has gone wrong doesn’t mean the whole day is a write-off! Ellie would say. She’s the human equivalent of a motivational podcast playing constantly in his brain, but he can’t even hate her for it because sometimes it helps. Without her, he’s pretty sure he would’ve fallen into the abyss that’s permanently yawning around his feet, waiting to pull him in. Keep it in perspective!
“Yeah. Right. Sure.” He closes his eyes. There was probably a time in his life when he would have turned this situation into a funny story. But now, he just feels . . . defeated. “You win, goat.” His headphones have bounced off and the noises of this new place are an unfamiliar assault on his ears: distant freeway traffic, the surf. . .
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