Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  “You can sit on the bleachers for a few minutes. It’s not going to kill you.”

  “Man.” Keshawn goes dragging off, the slowest human on earth. We wait for him to leave the court, and, two years later, he finally sits down.

  Natasha rolls her eyes. Shakes her head at the ceiling.

  Mr. Levine says, “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll sit out too. Even numbers. Whatever’s best for the group, right, Keshawn?”

  Keshawn looks at him, then past him at Natasha, who raises a single eyebrow. He says to Mr. Levine, “Sure.”

  So now we’re three and three. We keep the lead until Jack passes the ball to Andy, who’s on the other side. After Andy shoots and scores, Keshawn is on his feet. “WTF, Mass?” Only he doesn’t spell it out and he shouts it.

  Mr. Levine says to him, “Language,” at the same time Jack mumbles something about the ball slipping.

  When it happens again, I think Keshawn’s going to LOSE IT.

  Jack says, “Hey, man, just trying to do my civic duty.”

  Andy goes, “What does that mean?”

  Jack shrugs. Does this kind of cocky half-smile. “I’m just saying it looked like your team could use some help.”

  Andy throws the ball at him, a little too hard. Now they’re having some sort of standoff, bristling at each other like two cats in an alley. “Why don’t you keep the ball, Masselin? I’ll get it back in about sixty seconds.”

  Mr. Levine goes, “Enough, both of you. Jack, stop wasting time.”

  For the next few minutes, Andy and Jack are each trying to win the game single-handedly. Andy is shouting at Natasha and Maddy, and Jack isn’t even passing anymore, just moving the ball from one end of the court to the other and taking every shot. Until Natasha gets him cornered, and Jack has to get rid of the ball. To Andy. Again. The following thirty seconds go like this: Andy does a layup and walks by Jack, ramming him in the shoulder. Jack says, all sarcastic, “You’re welcome.” Andy gets in his face like he wants to take a swing. Jack stands there, like he wants Andy to punch him. Mr. Levine gets in between them and rattles off this speech about getting along and playing out our feelings.

  That’s the moment I look at Jack, and he looks at me. And I know what’s going on here. He’s getting Andy confused with Travis. Same build. Same height. Same hair. Same color shirt. I try to imagine that Andy and Travis are strangers to me, that I’m face-blind, that every time I look at them and then look away, I have to put them back together.

  I tell myself, Let it be, Libbs. Let nature do what it’s going to do. After all, doesn’t he deserve to be shamed in front of not only these people but all people everywhere?

  And now we’re playing again, and suddenly I’m yelling at Jack, “Hey, pass it to me.” Even though I am the worst shot in this room, maybe in the world.

  But instead of passing me the ball, he drives down the court himself. The next time he gets the ball, I jump up and down and wave my arms in his direction. “I’m wide open over here.” He shoots me this look, and I think, Fine, if you don’t want my help. But then he’s called on a foul. We stand next to each other, watching Maddy shoot free throws, and I say, “Just give me the damn ball before Mr. Levine makes us stay an extra hour.”

  A minute or so later, Jack throws me the ball. As I start to dribble, Maddy steals it away, but when he throws it to me the next time, I aim for the basket. By some miracle, I make it.

  I hold the door open as everyone files out into the parking lot. We won by thirteen points, and Keshawn is carrying Natasha like she’s his NBA trophy.

  As Libby brushes past, I think of sunshine. It’s her shampoo or her soap, or maybe it’s just her. I think, Did she smell like sunshine before she was cut out of her house, or did this come after, once she was back out in the world?

  She looks up at me and says, “You should really tell someone what’s going on with you.”

  “I already did.” I’m irritated because now here’s this girl saving my ass. Like I am a person in need of saving. Which, apparently, I am.

  “Someone other than me. It’s not like you’re the only one who has this. I know that may be what it feels like to you, but statistically it’s not that rare. At least, it’s not as rare as being so super-fat you got stuck in your house. Have you been on the Prosopagnosia Research Centers site? Because they have this wallet card you can carry with you and give to people to explain what you have. I’m not saying that’s the answer, but maybe it’s a start.”


  I call Caroline as I’m driving away. “Hey, beautiful.”

  “Come over.”

  “I can’t.”

  “What do you mean you can’t?”

  “I’ve got work.”

  “Later, then.”

  “I’m busy tonight. I’ll take you out tomorrow night. We’ll do it up big. We’ll paint the town. A night you’ll never forget.”

  “What are you busy with? Or should I ask who?”

  “I’m building Dusty’s Christmas present.”

  “It’s September.”

  “I’m building it.”

  She goes completely quiet.

  “Caroline? Babe?”

  “I wish you’d never grabbed that girl. That Libby Strout.”

  “Believe me, that makes two of us. I like to think I’m above that kind of shitty behavior, so you can imagine how disillusioning it’s been for me.”

  “All this detention time is eating into us time. It’s beginning to ruin my life.”


  I want to say Can you put nice Caroline on the phone? but instead I say, “Sorry, babe. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

  My dad and I are driving home on National Road, heading past the college, when this wave comes over me, and I feel the hollow in my heart that’s been there ever since my mom died. Loss does that, hits you out of the blue. You can be in the car or in class or at the movies, laughing and having a good time, and suddenly it’s as if someone has reached directly into the wound and squeezed with all their might. I can see my dad and me driving home, this same direction, that night we lost her. We pass us on the road, and I can see our faces through the windshield. We are ghosts.

  I look at my dad now, and he glances at me. “What is it, Libbs?”

  I almost say it.

  It’s her. Always. It’s the suddenness of life changing in an instant that makes me anxious when I sleep and makes me tell myself to breathe when I’m awake.

  “It’s nothing.”

  I lay my fingers on my wrist, so that it looks like my hands are just resting on my lap, when what I’m doing is checking my pulse. Breathe. Stay steady. No reason to get worked up.

  “It was nice of Bailey to come over. She was always a sweet girl.”

  “She is.”

  “You know you can have friends over to the house anytime you want.”

  “So can you. Mom wouldn’t want you to be alone.” I can almost hear her. Give me a respectable mourning period, Will, but don’t stop living your life.

  “I’m not alone.” He gives me this crazy-looking grin.

  “I won’t be here forever.” No one ever is.

  “I’m good.”

  I don’t fully believe him, though. And then I decide to let both of us off the hook. “Have you ever heard of face blindness?”

  “Face blindness?”

  “Prosopagnosia. It’s when you can’t tell faces apart, so you don’t recognize your family or friends.”

  “Is this for a school project?”

  Jack Masselin asked me not to tell and, against my better judgment, I intend to honor that. “Yes,” I say.

  Instead of checking inventory or filling orders, I sit at the Masselin’s office computer and search for Prosopagnosia Research Centers. The site says they’re located at Dartmouth, Harvard, and University College London, headed by a man named Brad Duchaine. I’ve heard of it and him, but I’ve never really explored the site, so I spend some time
on there, reading more about this thing I almost definitely for sure have.

  Not surprisingly, prosopagnosia can create serious social problems…

  Reports of prosopagnosia date back to antiquity…

  One of the telltale signs of prosopagnosia is great reliance on non-facial information such as hair, gait, clothing, voice…

  Most of this I know by now. I visit a few of the links to Face to Face, the biannual newsletter, and then I take the Famous Faces test, which tests my ability to recognize celebrities. The president, Madonna, Oprah. Even though I’ve taken tests like this before, the only one I get right is Martin Luther King, Jr., and that’s just because I guess.

  I click on the contact page.

  If you believe that you are prosopagnosic or have other types of recognition impairments and are interested in becoming involved with research, please contact us using our form. We will try to get you involved with studies that we are conducting or we can put you in contact with researchers in your area.

  I open the email client, and it’s logged in to my dad’s account. There, right there, where anyone can see it, is a new, unopened email from Monica Chapman. Sent eleven minutes ago. While I was sitting here researching my damaged brain. Subject: Re: Jack. As in me. As in my dad and Monica Chapman are in some way discussing me.

  I stare at the subject line, at her name, at my dad’s name, at my name.

  If I open it, here’s what will happen: I’ll know more than I already do, which means I’ll only be adding to the secrets I’m already carrying around.

  And then I open it.

  And wish I hadn’t.

  I saw Jack, and he seems so angry. Has he ever talked to anyone? I know he’s got Levine after school, but maybe you should think about getting him some one-on-one help. I can suggest somebody. The counselors here are actually pretty good, but I know other ones as well. We’ll figure this out. You don’t need to do it on your own. I love you. M.

  I look down and my hands are shaking. I wait to spontaneously combust, like Knight Polonus Vorstius of Italy, who burst into flame after drinking too much wine.

  When I don’t, I write:

  Dear M. If Jack is angry, it’s because of you and us. The only thing that’s going to help him is removing us completely. Maybe I should stop being so selfish. If I really loved you, I would end my marriage or at least come clean to my wife. I owe her that. Maybe I owe you that too. Maybe our love is the biggest love there’s ever been, although I doubt it. But whatever, I just need to stop being such a pussy. No wonder he’s so angry. Love, N.

  I don’t send it, but I leave it open for my dad to see.

  I do a search for books on prosopagnosia and the brain, and I order every one of them, charging his credit card. I sign in to my email account and write a letter to Brad Duchaine.

  My name is Jack. I’m a high school senior and I’m almost positive I’m face-blind. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this up. Everyone in my life is a stranger, and that includes me. Please help.

  I send it, and immediately want to take it back. But now it’s out there. So all I can do is wait and hope that maybe, just maybe, this man can tell me what to do.

  I still have the copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that some Good Samaritan sent to the hospital. I keep it on the little table beside my bed and use the letter that was sent with it as a bookmark.

  I want you to know I’m rooting for you.

  Sometimes we need to hear that, even from a stranger. I think of all the people I’m rooting for—my dad, Rachel, Bailey, Iris, Jayvee, Mr. Levine, Principal Wasserman, Mr. Dominguez, my classmates in the Conversation Circle, maybe even Jack.

  And then I get out my Damsels application, read it through to make sure I’ve answered every question and filled out every line, tuck it neatly into my backpack, and dance.

  During dinner, no one really talks except Dusty, who wants to audition for his school’s production of Peter Pan. Marcus is screwing around with his phone under the table, and Mom’s not even yelling at him. I’m too busy pretending we’re all friends here and I don’t want to knuckle-punch my own father, and he’s too busy pretending Mistress? What mistress?


  He finds me later in the bathroom when I’m brushing my teeth. He walks in and says, very low, “You shouldn’t have gone into my email. I’m sorry you saw what you thought you saw, but there’s the matter of respecting my privacy. There’s more to it than you know, so what you read there—it’s out of context. But I’m sorry.”

  He says it nicely because Nate Masselin is a nice guy and it’s important for him to be liked, especially postcancer. I can tell he’s waiting for me to forgive him and move on the way everyone else does, and that pisses me off.

  I take my time brushing, rinsing, wiping my mouth on a towel. Finally, I look at him. I’m taller than he is by a good inch, not counting my lion fro. I say, “You can’t use cancer as an excuse for shittiness anymore.” And of course I’m talking to me too, although he doesn’t know that.


  I dream that I’m flying from airport to airport, and each one is mobbed with people. So mobbed, I can’t breathe or move, and every face is blank—no nose, mouth, eyes, eyebrows. I’m searching for someone I know, for anyone who looks familiar, and the more I search, the more my chest tightens and the less I can breathe.

  But then I see her. Libby Strout. She’s lowered from the ceiling by a crane, larger than life, larger than anyone, and she’s the only one with a face.


  The locker room is enormous. It smells like feet and piss, or like Travis Kearns, whose main identifier is the fact that he sometimes reeks like a skunk because of all the weed he smokes. It’s pretty much the last place you want to spend a Saturday. But here we are, the seven of us and Mr. Sweeney (enormous belly, mullet, sideburns, slight limp). We spread out, and I purposely take a corner by myself because I don’t want to talk to anyone.


  At noon, we break for lunch. Sweeney gives us forty-five minutes to eat outside on the bleachers we’ll be painting next weekend, and I take a seat away from everyone else. The bleachers are old and weatherworn, and just the sight of them makes me lose my appetite. Painting these bleachers is one more thing added to the shit pile that is my life. I pop the top on my soda and close my eyes. The sun feels good. Soak it in, brave soldier, I tell myself. While you can.

  I almost drift off, but I hear someone yelling “Leave me alone,” over and over, and it’s a voice I recognize, bellowing and foghorn-like. I open my eyes and see a big guy lumbering past the school and there’s this group of guys following him. They’re all around my age, white, kind of interchangeable. I don’t recognize any of them, but the foghorn voice sounds like it belongs to Jonny Rumsford.

  I’ve known Jonny since kindergarten, back when he was just Rum for short. He was always bigger than everyone else, a kind of gentle giant. For as long as I’ve known him, kids have been following Rum around, heckling him for being a little slow, a little simple, a little clumsy, like a pack of hyenas targeting a buffalo.

  I’m watching these guys now, and they’re yelling stuff at him, even though I can’t hear what. The Boy Who May Be Rum’s shoulders are all hunched up, like he’s trying to pull his head into his neck or maybe right down into his chest. And then one of the guys throws something at him and hits him on the back of the head. Suddenly, I’m seeing myself like everyone else does—I’m one of those heckling, yelling hyena kids, throwing things at people who don’t deserve it.

  I set my sandwich down, and I take off like I’m being launched to the moon. At first, May/May Not Be Rum thinks I’m running straight for him and he freezes, clearly terrified. The guys are laughing and throwing shit—rocks, trash, anything they can find—and I run right into the herd of them. They don’t even have time to think. One lands on his ass in the dirt, and suddenly they’re not laughing anymore.

  “Did he do anything to you?” I point at Rum. “Did he

  “What the hell, Mass?”

  Of course they know me. I’m probably friends with these scumbags.

  “Tell me one thing he did to you.”

  One of the guys gets up in my face, and he’s as tall as I am and wider by a couple of feet. But I don’t back down because I’m at least three heads angrier. “Seriously, Mass? You’re gonna give us shit? What did that fat girl do to you? Huh? Tell me one thing she did.”

  Another guy goes, “Yeah, how’s detention, jackass?”

  I don’t think. I act. Maybe because I’m angry. At everyone. At myself. I feel like I could take on the whole world right now. I say to Rum, “Go home, Jonny. Get out of here.” And then I turn around and punch the first guy I see. He drops to the ground, and another one comes at me, and I haul off and punch him too. Even when my hand feels broken, even when I can’t feel my knuckles anymore, I keep pounding on these guys. And at some point, it’s as if I leave my body on the ground and float up into the sky, where I watch the fight like it’s happening to someone else.

  Some part of me thinks, What if that’s it? What if whatever malfunction in my brain that’s causing this face blindness is spreading, so that I can’t even recognize where I am or what I’m doing? What if my brain is completely broken and I never get back down there to me again?

  I’m not sure how much time passes, but at some point I’m aware of something or someone tugging at my arm. I turn around and I’m on the ground again, and it’s Libby Strout. She’s yanking me back.

  One of the guys says to Libby, “Don’t hurt me, Flabby Stout! Don’t hurt me!” He pretend-cringes, his hands up in front of his face.

  She goes, “Don’t call me that.”

  “What’s that, Flabby?”

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