Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven




  THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Niven

  Cover art copyright © 2016 by Shutterstock

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jack Robinson for permission to reprint lines from “I Love to Love (But My Baby Just Loves to Dance),” words by Jack Robinson, music by James Bolden. Used by permission of Robin Song Music SARL and ROBA Music Publishing.

  Visit us on the Web! randomhouseteens.com

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Niven, Jennifer, author.

  Title: Holding up the universe / Jennifer Niven.

  Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2016] | Summary: “A boy with face blindness and a girl who struggles with weight fall in love”—Provided by publisher.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2016003865 (print) | LCCN 2016029920 (ebook) | ISBN 978-0-385-75592-4 (hardback) | ISBN 978-0-385-75593-1 (library binding) | ISBN 978-0-385-75594-8 (ebook)

  Subjects: | CYAC: Prosopagnosia—Fiction. | Brain—Wounds and injuries—Fiction. | Obesity—Fiction. | Love—Fiction.

  Classification: LCC PZ7.N6434 Ho 2016 (print) | LCC PZ7.N6434 (ebook) | DDC [Fic]—dc23

  Ebook ISBN 9780385755948

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

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  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Prologue

  18 Hours Earlier

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Six Years Earlier

  Libby

  Now

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  The Next Day

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Three Years Earlier

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Now

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Saturday

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Monday

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  One Week Later

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  The Next Eight Days

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Saturday

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  The Week After

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  The Next Day

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Four Days Later

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Libby

  Jack

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  for Kerry,

  Louis,

  Angelo

  & Ed,

  who help hold up my universe

  and for all my readers everywhere,

  who are the world to me

  “Atticus, he was real nice….”

  “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

  —To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

  I’m not a shitty person, but I’m about to do a shitty thing. And you will hate me, and some other people will hate me, but I’m going to do it anyway to protect you and also myself.

  This will sound like an excuse, but I have something called prosopagnosia, which means I can’t recognize faces, not even the faces of the people I love. Not even my mom. Not even myself.

  Imagine walking into a room full of strangers, people who don’t mean anything to you because you don’t know their names or histories. Then imagine going to school or work or, worse, your own home, where you should know everyone, only the people there look like strangers too.

  That’s what it’s like for me: I walk into a room and I don’t know anyone. That’s every room, everywhere. I get by on how a person walks. By gestures. By voice. By hair. I learn people by identifiers. I tell myself, Dusty has ears that stick out and a red-brown Afro, and then I memorize this fact so it helps me find my little brother, but I can’t actually call up an image of him and his big ears and his Afro unless he’s in front of me. Remembering people is like this superpower everyone seems to have but me.

  Have I been officially diagnosed? No. And not just because I’m guessing this is beyond the pay grade of Dr. Blume, town pediatrician. Not just because for the past few years my parents have had more than their share of shit to deal with. Not just because it’s better not to be the freak. But because there’s a part of me that hopes it isn’t true. That maybe it will clear up and go away on its own. For now, this is how I get by:

  Nod/smile at everyone.

  Be charming.

  Be “on.”

  Be goddamn hilarious.

  Be the life of the party, but don’t drink. Don’t risk losing control (that happens enough when sober).

  Pay attention.

  Do whatever it takes. Be lord of the douche. Anything to keep from being the prey. Always better to hunt than be hunted.

  I’m not
telling you all this as an excuse for what I’m about to do. But maybe you can keep it in mind. This is the only way to stop my friends from doing something worse, and it’s the only way to stop this stupid game. Just know that I don’t want to hurt anyone. That’s not why. Even though that’s the thing that’s going to happen.

  Sincerely yours,

  Jack

  PS. You’re the only person who knows what’s wrong with me.

  Prosopagnosia (pro-suh-pag-NO-zhuh) noun: 1. an inability to recognize the faces of familiar people, typically as a result of damage to the brain. 2. when everyone is a stranger.

  18 HOURS EARLIER

  If a genie popped out of my bedside lamp, I would wish for these three things: my mom to be alive, nothing bad or sad to ever happen again, and to be a member of the Martin Van Buren High School Damsels, the best drill team in the tristate area.

  But what if the Damsels don’t want you?

  It is 3:38 a.m., and the time of night when my mind starts running around all wild and out of control, like my cat, George, when he was a kitten. All of a sudden, there goes my brain, climbing the curtains. There it is, swinging from the bookshelf. There it is, with its paw in the fish tank and its head underwater.

  I lie on my bed, staring up into the dark, and my mind bounces across the room.

  What if you get trapped again? What if they have to knock down the cafeteria door or the bathroom wall to get you out? What if your dad gets married and then he dies and you’re left with the new wife and stepsiblings? What if you die? What if there is no heaven and you never see your mom again?

  I tell myself to sleep.

  I close my eyes and lie very still.

  Very still.

  For minutes.

  I make my mind lie there with me and tell it, Sleep, sleep, sleep.

  What if you get to school and realize that things are different and kids are different, and no matter how much you try, you will never be able to catch up to them?

  I open my eyes.

  My name is Libby Strout. You’ve probably heard of me. You’ve probably watched the video of me being rescued from my own house. At last count, 6,345,981 people have watched it, so there’s a good chance you’re one of them. Three years ago, I was America’s Fattest Teen. I weighed 653 pounds at my heaviest, which means I was approximately 500 pounds overweight. I haven’t always been fat. The short version of the story is that my mom died and I got fat, but somehow I’m still here. This is in no way my father’s fault.

  Two months after I was rescued, we moved to a different neighborhood on the other side of town. These days I can leave the house on my own. I’ve lost 302 pounds. The size of two entire people. I have around 190 left to go, and I’m fine with that. I like who I am. For one thing, I can run now. And ride in the car. And buy clothes at the mall instead of special-ordering them. And I can twirl. Aside from no longer being afraid of organ failure, that may be the best thing about now versus then.

  Tomorrow is my first day of school since fifth grade. My new title will be high school junior, which, let’s face it, sounds a lot better than America’s Fattest Teen. But it’s hard to be anything but TERRIFIED OUT OF MY SKULL.

  I wait for the panic attack to come.

  Caroline Lushamp calls before my alarm goes off, but I let her go to voice mail. I know whatever it is, it’s not going to be good and it will be my fault.

  She calls three times but only leaves one message. I almost delete it without listening, but what if her car broke down and she’s in trouble? This is, after all, the girl I’ve dated off and on for the past four years. (We’re that couple. That on-again, off-again everyone-assumes-we’ll-end-up-together-forever couple.)

  Jack, it’s me. I know we’re taking a break or whatever but she’s my cousin. My COUSIN. I mean, MY COUSIN, JACK! If you wanted to get back at me for breaking up with you, then congratulations, jerkwad, you’ve done it. If you see me in class today or in the hallways or in the cafeteria or ANYWHERE ELSE ON EARTH, do not talk to me. Actually, just do me a favor and go to hell.

  Three minutes later, the cousin calls, and at first I think she’s crying, but then you can hear Caroline in the background, and the cousin starts yelling and Caroline starts yelling. I delete the message.

  Two minutes later, Dave Kaminski sends a text to warn me that Reed Young wants to kick my face in for making out with his girlfriend. I text, I owe you. And I mean it. If I’m keeping score, Kam’s helped me out more times than I’ve helped him.

  All this fuss over a girl who, if we’re being honest, looked so much like Caroline Lushamp that—at least at first—I thought it was her, which means in some weird way Caroline should be flattered. It’s like admitting to the world that I want to get back together with her even though she dumped me the first week of summer so that she could go out with Zach Higgins.

  I think of texting this to her, but instead I turn off my phone and close my eyes and see if I can’t transport myself right back into July. The only thing I had to worry about then was going to work, scavenging the local scrap yard, building (mind-blowing) projects in my (kick-ass) workshop, and hanging out with my brothers. Life would be so much easier if it was just Jack + scrap yard + kick-ass workshop + mind-blowing projects.

  You should never have gone to the party. You should never have had a drink. You know you can’t be trusted. Avoid alcohol. Avoid crowds. Avoid people. You only end up pissing them off.

  It’s 6:33 a.m. and I am out of bed and standing in front of the mirror. There was a time, a little over two years ago, when I couldn’t, wouldn’t look at myself. All I saw was the bunched-up face of Moses Hunt, yelling at me across the playground: No one will ever love you because you’re fat! And the faces of all the other fifth graders as they started to laugh. You’re so big you block the moon. Go home, Flabby Stout, go home to your room….

  Today, for the most part, I only see me—adorable navy dress, sneakers, medium-longish brown hair that my sweet but slightly demented grandmother once described as “the exact color of Highland cattle.” And the reflection of my giant dirty cotton ball of a cat. George stares at me with wise gold eyes, and I try to imagine what he might say to me. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with heart failure and given six months to live. But I know him well enough to know that only George will decide when it’s time for George to go. He blinks at me.

  Right now, I think he would tell me to breathe.

  So I breathe.

  I’ve gotten really good at breathing.

  I look down at my hands and they’re steady, even if the fingernails are bitten to the quick, and, weirdly, I feel pretty calm, considering. I realize: the panic attack never came. This is something to celebrate, so I throw on one of my mom’s old albums and dance. Dancing is what I love most and dancing is what I plan to do with my life. I haven’t taken lessons since I was ten, but the dance is in me, and no lack of training can make that go away.

  I tell myself, Maybe this year you can try out for the Damsels.

  My brain goes zooming up the wall, where it hangs, shaking. What if it never happens? What if you die before anything good or wonderful or amazing ever happens to you? For the past two and a half years, the only thing I’ve had to worry about has been my survival. The focus of every single person in my life, including me, has been: We just need to get you better. And now I’m better. So what if I let them down after all the time and energy they’ve invested in me?

  I dance harder to push the thoughts out until my dad thumps on the door. His head appears. “You know I love a good Pat Benatar song first thing in the morning, but the question is: how do the neighbors feel?”

  I turn it down a little but keep on moving. When the song is over, I find a marker and decorate one shoe. As long as you live, there’s always something waiting; and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living. (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood) Then I reach for the lipstick my grandmother gave me for my birthday, lean into the mirror, and paint m
y lips red.

  I hear the shower running and voices downstairs. I pull the pillow over my face, but it’s too late—I’m awake.

  I turn on my phone and text first Caroline, then Kam, then Reed Young. The thing I say to all of them is that I was very drunk (an exaggeration) and it was very dark (it was) and I don’t remember anything that happened because I was not only drunk, I was upset. There’s just this shit happening at home that I can’t talk about right now, so if you can bear with me and find it in your heart to forgive me, I’ll be forever in your debt. The shit happening at home part is completely true.

 
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