How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be.

But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town,

more …

How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be.

But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.

less …
  • Candlewick Press
  • Paperback
  • April 2018
  • 368 Pages
  • 0763698008

Buy the Book

$8.99 indies Bookstore

About Paula Garner

Paula Garner lives in Chicago with her family and their psychotic cat. Phantom Limbs is her first novel.

Author Website


“This debut novel is a story of loss, love, and friendship, about a teenager coming to terms with the past and dealing with repressed memories that are resurfacing…Readers will find Otis relatable and endearing in his first-person perspective of first love and heartbreak, as well as his unwavering loyalty to his friends. Meg and Dara round out a cast of well-developed characters who have extensive troubles of their own. Most teenagers will find a little bit of themselves in this well-executed work; a must-have for most YA collections.”School Library Journal (starred review)

“Garner’s debut sensitively portrays Meg and Otis’s bruised emotions, both recovering from deep loss. Though the description of Mason’s accident is a gut-punch in its realism, much of the plot unfolds predictably. The novel’s strongest moments go to Dara, whose no-holds-barred personality—’she was the human equivalent of a Venus flytrap’—livens and complicates the novel.”Publishers Weekly

“The inability to let go of the past pushes all three white teens beyond their comfort zones into uncharted territory, Garner slowly and steadily guiding readers through these journeys. A heavy read weighted by intense emotions and grief, the novel sifts through tough memories, searching for the silver lining.”Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions

1. When Otis and Meg see each other again, there is three years’ worth of unspoken emotion between them. How is that period of time evident in the way they act around each other?

2. It’s hard to go on after someone important to you is gone. Have you ever felt, as Otis does, that a new person in your life will never really know you since they never met your lost loved one? If you haven’t experienced this, can you understand why Otis feels this way?

3. Otis has many chances to learn what really happened on the day Mason died, but he puts it off as long as possible. What do you think about his wish to not be able to picture his brother’s death? Do you think knowing exactly what happened is important? Why or why not?

4. While Otis would rather not think about the day Mason died, Meg needs for him to know the truth so that he can understand how she feels. What does this tell you about the relationship between moving forward and looking back?

5. All of the characters feel some degree of guilt over the loss of loved ones, whether it’s for feeling in some way responsible, like Meg and Dara, or just for still being alive when a loved one isn’t, like Otis. Why is guilt such a common part of grief?

6. If someone you love didn’t talk to you for three years, would you be as forgiving as Otis?

7. Dara and Otis are nothing alike but become very close friends. Why do you think their friendship works?

8. Why is it so hard for Dara to admit to herself the way she feels about Abby?

9. After her accident, Dara’s not ready to give up her Olympic dreams, so she transfers them onto Otis. Why do you think she does that?

10. Meg thinks Otis and Dara’s dynamic is strange and unhealthy, and she’s not alone. But how is the friendship —as odd as it may look from the outside — helping both Otis and Dara heal?

11. Meg’s PTSD affects her primarily through sensory triggers, like the sight and smell of chocolate or the sound of kids screaming. Did you notice any other triggers that were a bit more subtle?

12. What did you think of the scenes between Otis’s mom and Meg? What do you think their relationship will be like in the future?

13. Over the course of the novel we witness many different kinds of mourning — in Otis and his parents, in Meg, and in Dara. What does this tell you about grief? Is there any one correct way to mourn? Are there any wrong ways?

14. Otis’s dad copes with his grief in different ways than Otis’s mom does. How does grieving affect the “unspoken agreements” (page 112) that make their relationship work?

15. Otis remembers his mother watching Mason’s face instead of the fireworks. Why is that scene so crucial to Otis’s understanding of his mother? How did that memory affect your reading of Otis’s mom?

16. How does the book contrast the childlike, innocent love that Otis and Meg have when they’re thirteen with the messy, unpredictable connection they feel as older teens?

17. What Otis and Meg want above all is to reconnect and find a new way forward. If someone you once knew well disappeared from your life and then re-entered as an almost stranger, how do you think you would react? What might be the hardest part of reconnecting?

18. What kind of future do you see for Dara’s relationship with her father?

19. One thing Meg and Dara can agree on is their admiration for Otis. They joke about him being a “dark horse” (page 119). Do you agree? Were there any points in the story when Otis’s actions surprised and impressed you?

20. Think about the representations of loss in this book. What are some examples that show how grief can affect a person physically?

21. The title of the novel is a reference to Dara’s missing arm. How are her phantom limb pains symbolic of the loss felt by Otis, his family, Meg, and Dara herself?


Excerpt from Chapter 1

When I finally hear from Meg, it was May, historically her month of choice for upending my universe. It was the ungodly hour of swim o’clock— I was checking my messages in the dark with one eye half open, synapses barely firing, when the sight of Meg’s name in my inbox jolted me awake. But with Dara due at any moment to lasso me for another morning of abuse in the pool, there was no time to process Meg’s brief message, let alone respond. I grabbed a pack of blueberry Pop-Tarts from the kitchen cabinet and headed out.

The morning was a hazy purple, chilly enough to make my breath mist. I guided the screen door closed so it wouldn’t bang and wake my parents—a pointless gesture, since Dara’s style of arrival in her ancient, souped-up Corolla could jar the fillings right out of your teeth. I tossed my backpack and my swim bag under the magnolia and sat down to wait for her. I reread Meg’s message, then turned my eyes to the house next door that I still thought of as hers.

It was the first time I’d heard from her since we said goodbye in her bedroom, just us and the dust bunnies that had been hiding under the furniture, her parents waiting outside with the moving truck. I clung to her in that empty, echoing room as if the last thing that mattered to me in all the world was being taken away. Which, after the clusterfuck of the preceding year, it basically was. And there wasn’t enough thirteen-year-old swagger in the known universe to keep me from bawling.

Minutes later they pulled away, Meg gazing out the window at me through teary eyes. She might as well have driven right off the face of the earth, because I never heard from her again. Until now, that is. A mere three years and four months later, not that I was keeping track.

Moving on was never my strong suit.

I opened my Pop-Tarts and gazed at the horizon’s pink glow, breathing in the smell of rain and earth. On the branches above me, I could just make out the fat magnolia buds. Any day now they would explode into a fucking carnival of white and pink flowers— a spectacle that had kicked me in the nuts for the last three years. But now? Now I didn’t know how to feel about it.

Four springs before, the most amazing thing happened under this tree. My best friend and I were moving out of childhood and into uncharted territory. Our bodies were catching up with us— Meg’s more overtly than mine, but what I lacked in physical maturity I made up for with a Herculean imagination. I was thinking less and less about whatever used to occupy my preadolescent mind and more and more about stuff that would have made Meg blush if she knew. Like how she’d look in a bikini that coming summer. And the way she smelled, all warm sun and green apples and something heady, like a secret I wanted in on. And— mostly— what it would feel like to kiss her. I could not tame this preoccupation no matter how hard I tried. It was like shoveling smoke.

On a warm night in May, right under this magnolia, it happened. The memory of that kiss still made my stomach flip over. What would it be like to see her now? What was she like? It figured that just when I started to face the fact that maybe I’d never see her again, she was coming back to town.

The squeal of tires in the distance signaled Dara’s imminent arrival. I got up, tossing the remains of my Pop-Tarts into the bushes and brushing the crumbs off my jacket. She screeched around the street corner, then barreled into my driveway with an eleventh-hour turn, nearly running me over. I leaped out of the way as she skidded to a stop.

“Jesus!” I yelled. “You almost killed me.” I glanced up at the house. If my mom had seen that, my days of riding with Dara would be over.

Dara poked her head out the window. “You shouldn’t stand in the driveway,” she said.

“I was on the grass.” I pointed to the tire tracks in the yard, just visible in the first light of day.

She gestured me toward the car with the stump that remained of her left arm. “Come on, get in. I need doughnuts.”

I tugged on the rusted door and climbed in, buckling my seat belt as tight as it would go—the wisdom of experience. “How come you get to have doughnuts?” She never let me eat crap before practice. Knowingly, anyway. I considered my Pop-Tart indiscretions to be my own personal business.

I reached over and turned down the stereo, which was blasting the Rolling Stones. In Dara’s car, I was never in the right decade. Jagger was crooning “Miss You,” which wasn’t going to help me stop thinking about Meg. Haunted? Dreaming? Waiting? I could have written the lyrics myself.

“I get to have doughnuts,” Dara explained in a prickly tone, “because it doesn’t matter what I eat.”

Arguing was as pointless as it was tempting. In Dara’s view, I was a career swimmer whereas she was a has-been—an aspiring Olympic hopeful whose career was tragically cut short. So while my body was to be regarded as a temple, hers was more like a motel for transients.

She jammed the gearshift into reverse and glanced at me as she turned to back out of the driveway. “Dude. You look like shit,” she said.

“Did you just get up?” Did I just get up? What the hell time did she get up? I’d stumbled out of bed about four minutes before she showed up. Oh, for just one freaking morning off . . . But Dara would have dragged me to the pool by the nipple if she had to. Like an Olympic swimmer, Otis Mueller didn’t take days off. Unlike an Olympic swimmer, Otis Mueller would never make it to the Olympics. But try telling Dara Svetcova that.

She blinked at me, all round blue eyes and milky-pale skin, as she backed into the street.

“It’s barely morning, Dara. Of course I just got up.”

She peered over at my lap, an impish smile on her face. “Do you still have morning log?”

I cringed. “God, Dara, it’s morning wood. And no,” I said, shoving her head back to her side of the car. “Eyes on the road, pervert.”

She shifted into first and set us in motion with a burnout loud enough to wake the dead— as if I didn’t have a hard enough time convincing my parents that, contrary to appearances, Dara was a safe driver. She enjoyed few things more than making noise with her car. She navigated our little town like it was the Indy 500, revving the engine and tearing around corners and dumping the clutch. There was no mistaking the one-armed tyrant and her unlikely choice of transmission: the stick shift