Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  I say, “I know you’re not talking to her.” All cool and collected.

  “She knows who I’m talking to.”

  And I don’t like the way he says it, so I punch him. Then this tall black guy with a smooth, shaved head is there, and he’s glaring at the herd of hyenas. “You better run. My boy here, he’s gonna kill you, and if he don’t, I will.” This can only be Keshawn Price.

  Those boys go walking away, and the Guy Who Must Be Keshawn stands watching them. “Son, you’re as stupid as you look.” He’s staring at me. “What do you think Sweeney would have done if he saw you?”

  “He’s inside. He didn’t see. Come on.” Libby pulls me toward the bleachers. “Your lip,” she says. “It’s bleeding again.”

  But I don’t even remember getting hit. I look back toward the street, and Rum is wandering across the bridge that I know will take him home.

  We’ve got fifteen minutes left of lunch, and Jack Masselin drops onto the bleachers, lip bleeding onto his shirt. As he stares off into the tree line, I’m watching him, trying to put myself in his skin again.

  I think about going home and what it would be like if my dad walked in and I couldn’t recognize him. Or if my mom miraculously came back from the dead and I didn’t know it was her. If I’m putting myself in the skin of Jack Masselin, I’m feeling pretty lonely. And maybe scared. How would I know who to trust?

  I sit down beside him and say, “It’s Libby again.” Even though I probably don’t need to because it’s pretty obvious in this group, even to someone with face blindness.

  He’s staring out at the street, like he’s itching for another fight. The blood is dripping down his chin and onto his shirt, and he’s not doing anything to wipe it away. I hand him a napkin.

  “No thanks.”

  “Take it. You don’t want Sweeney to see.”

  He swipes at his chin with the napkin, winces a little, and then holds his soda can against it like an icepack. He cocks an eye at me. “Was that about me?”

  “What?”

  “ ‘Flabby Stout.’ Did I do that? With the rodeo? I want to know exactly how shitty I should feel right now.”

  “That wasn’t about you. That was about Moses Hunt being Moses Hunt—the exact same Moses Hunt he was in fifth grade.”

  “Moses Hunt. Great.”

  The Hunt brothers are as notorious as the James Gang. There are at least five of them, maybe more, because their parents just breed and breed. Age-wise, Moses falls somewhere toward the bottom, although he looks forty thanks to all the hard living, the missing teeth, and the fact that he’s so mean.

  Jack says, “Are you okay?”

  “We just have history. Part of me wishes I’d let you kill him, but otherwise yes, I’m okay.” Rattled, but okay. Heart pounding, chest clenching, but okay. “Thanks for standing up for me.” Jack shakes his head and stares off toward the street again. We sit there a minute, Jack watching the street, me watching him. Finally I say, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to run into someone angrier than you.”

  “I doubt that person exists.” And this isn’t charming Jack Masselin. This is a boy who is burdened by life. I make myself sit there, inside his skin. I do it for Atticus and for my mom.

  “If you’re not careful, you’ll eat too much and get stuck in your house. Trust me. You think no one understands and you’re alone, and that makes you angrier, and Why don’t they see it? Why doesn’t someone say, ‘Hey, you seem burdened by the world. Let me take that burden for a while so you don’t have to carry it around all the time.’ But it’s on you to speak up.” And then I shout, “Speak up if you’ve got something to say!”

  The other delinquents turn and stare at me, and I wave.

  “You’re a very wise woman.”

  “I am, actually. You’d be amazed. But I’ve had a lot of time to read and watch talk shows and think. A LOT. So much time to think. Sometimes all I did all day was just wander around in my mind.”

  “So what makes you angry?”

  “Stupid people. Fake people. Mean people. My thighs. You. Death. Gym class. I worry about dying all the time. Like, all the time.”

  He shifts the can so he can see me better.

  “My mom died when I was ten. She got up that morning like it was any other morning and I went to school and my dad went to work, and I only told her I loved her because she said it first. She drove herself to the hospital. She was feeling dizzy. By the time she got there, she wasn’t feeling dizzy anymore, but the doctors ordered some tests anyway.”

  He sets the soda can down but doesn’t say a word.

  “One minute she was talking to them, and the next minute she wasn’t. It all happened in an instant. Conscious.” I snap my fingers. “Unconscious. The doctors said the thing that caused it was a cerebral hemorrhage in the right hemisphere of her brain. Something just burst.”

  “Like an aneurysm?”

  “Kind of. I was pulled out of assembly, and my dad came to get me. We went to the hospital so I could say goodbye. My dad had to tell them to turn off the machines, and half an hour later, she died. One of the nurses said to me, ‘It can run in families.’ So I was convinced it was going to happen to me. It still might.” I check in with my heart rate. Yes, it seems okay. “I went to bed that night thinking, Last night she was here. This morning she was here. Now she’s gone, and not for a few days, but forever. How can something so final happen in an instant? No preparation. No warning. No chance to do all the things you planned to do. No chance to say goodbye.”

  His eyebrows are drawn together in a V, and he’s looking at me like he can see straight into my heart and soul.

  “Now you’re the only one who knows something about me.”

  “I’m sorry about your mom.”

  “I’m sorry too.” I stare at my lunch and realize I’m not hungry. In olden times, I would have eaten every last bite because it was in front of me. “I think that makes us even.”

  “Does it?”

  “You’re not punching me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

  He laughs. “It’s not.” In a minute he goes, “What do your shoes say?”

  I hold my leg out to show him. “Just quotes I like from books.”

  He points at the most recent one, written in purple marker, the one that says, More weight.

  “Where have I heard that?”

  “Giles Corey. From The Crucible. He was the last person put to death in the Salem witch trials. Those were his final words, a kind of FU to the people who were pressing him to death with stones.”

  Mr. Sweeney appears and yells for us to get back inside.

  As we’re collecting our trash and walking toward the doors, Jack goes, “Moses and who else?”

  “The ones bullying Jonny Rumsford?” He nods. “His brother Malcolm and also Reed Young.”

  “Malcolm?” Now I nod. “Shit. He’s the meanest of them all.”

  “I think the other two must be seniors.”

  “Thanks.” He shoves his hands in his pockets.

  “You’re welcome.”

  The light catches his wild, wild hair and holds it. And wham!

  Suddenly.

  Just like that.

  I’m completely conscious of his guyness next to me. His long legs. The way he walks, fluid, easy, like he’s made to walk through water. But at the same time with purpose, which makes him seem taller than he is. There aren’t a lot of guys my age who walk like this. With swagger.

  It’s as if I’ve suddenly discovered he’s male. My face is hot and my back is damp and I’m thinking about Pauline Potter, sexing off all that weight, and I’m staring at his hands and I’m like, Stop staring at his hands. What are you doing? He’s the enemy! Well, maybe not the enemy, but you are absolutely not going to think of him like that.

  I realize he’s talking and so I come zinging back to attention. He’s saying, “I want you, Libby Strout. I’ve always wanted you. It’s the reason I grabbed you.”

  Or may
be he’s actually saying, “You can’t tell, but I’m smiling on the inside.”

  I say, “I’m smiling back.” I try to keep my face a blank, even though I don’t have a split lip. But I can’t help it. For some reason, I smile so everyone can see.

  It’s midnight when I walk Caroline to her door. On the step, I grab her by her waist and pull her in, and her body is rigid, like she’s made of broom handles and marble. I want to ask her what it is that makes her like this, all uptight and controlling and mean. I wonder where geeky Caroline is right now, if the other day was real or a fluke and this newer, shinier Caroline has really swallowed her whole. Is there anyone in there? I want to say. Instead I pull her in tighter and wrap both arms around her, and try to squeeze geeky, awkward, nice Caroline out of there.

  “Ow,” she says. “You always do that too hard.” She pushes me off her. “People might like her more if she didn’t have such a chip on her shoulder.”

  “Who?”

  “Libby Strout.” She has been talking about Libby all night—at dinner, during the movie, on the ride home.

  I laugh because, coming from Caroline, this is hilarious.

  “Why is that funny?”

  “It’s not. But you know, pot. Kettle.”

  “No, I don’t know.” She crosses her arms. “Tell me more.”

  Smooth it over. Tell her what she wants to hear.

  But I don’t because suddenly I can’t do it anymore. She’s exhausting and I’m exhausting, and we’re exhausting. I’ve been telling her what she wants to hear for the past four years.

  I say, “You know what? I’ll talk to you later.”

  “If you walk away, Jack, don’t come back. You don’t get to do that and come back.”

  “Thanks. Got it.”

  I feel this weird nervous energy, like I’m doing something big and life-altering. I tell myself, You need her, as I get back into the Land Rover and drive away.

  —

  I head straight to the scrap yard, where I jump the fence and wander through and no one bothers me because it’s late and dark and I’m the only one here. It’s amazing what you can find—old license plates, old screws, a metal bumper. For me, the greatest item of all is gears. Whether they’re small or big, it doesn’t matter—gears are like the power source for almost all machines, the thing that decides their force and speed.

  I dig for a while, and it’s peaceful, like I’m the only living soul for miles. But my mind’s not in it. My heart’s not in it. Too much of my life feels like this already—trying to recycle something old into something new and better, disguising someone else’s trash as some fresh, shiny thing.

  —

  In the driveway of my house, I pull out my phone. Thirteen texts and one voice mail from Caroline, sent over the past hour. A text from Kam. Another from Seth. I open my email and wait for it to load. I’m thinking about Libby Strout when I see it. The email. Delivered at 6:35 p.m.

  A reply from Brad Duchaine of the Prosopagnosia Research Centers at Dartmouth.

  MONDAY

  Before first period, Heather Alpern and the Damsels are running drills on the football field. I stand on the sidelines and watch them, and I can’t move because there they are. I’m starstruck. The Damsels are sixty-five years old this year. They were originally created by two students who loved to dance, and the first-ever team was made up of twenty girls. They wore skirts to their knees, which some people found shocking, and white gloves, and they performed with pom-poms and flags. Now there are forty members, thirty-nine without Terri Collins. At the end of the school year, everyone in Amos will turn out for the Damsels Showcase, which is held in Civic Auditorium, the town’s performing arts center. And I want to be on that stage.

  —

  I’m in a good mood until third period. After all, I have faced Moses Hunt without the sky falling. I’ve made up my mind to be a Damsel. And I’ve walked around in Jack Masselin’s skin and been, yes, the bigger person.

  I’m practically whistling as I go to my locker. Iris follows me, wanting to know why I’m so happy. And then I open the door.

  The letters fall out like confetti. They are everywhere, across the hallway, like a carpet. People are trampling them as they pass, and I’m on my knees trying to collect them before anyone can see them and connect them with me.

  Iris bends over, helping me. She opens one up and reads, “ ‘You aren’t wanted.’ ” She opens another. “ ‘You aren’t wanted.’ ” I grab the letters from her so she won’t stand there reading every single one. There must be a hundred of them. “Are these for you?”

  “That’s my guess, Nancy Drew.”

  “Who would do this?”

  But I know it’s rhetorical because Iris Engelbrecht, more than anyone else, knows what people are capable of.

  When I don’t answer, she says in her matter-of-fact Eeyore voice, “You need to tell someone. Take them to the principal. Come on. I’ll go with you. Let’s go right now. They can write us a pass for next period.”

  I’m stuffing the letters into my backpack. “I’m not going to the principal with this.” And I sound as hurt, angry, and upset as I feel.

  “Weren’t you the one who told me to be brave?”

  “I never told you to be brave.”

  “You told me if I didn’t speak up, Dave Kaminski would think he could go on doing things like that to me.”

  “This is different.”

  “No, it’s not. You have to let them see they can’t do this to you. Let’s go.”

  I can feel the fluttering in my heart start to steady itself. This is another effect Iris has on a person. She’s the human equivalent of Valium.

  I slam the locker door closed, shoulder my backpack, and start walking, the weight of all those letters drilling me into the ground. Iris trudges along behind me, still talking. “Okay, I get it. I guess you can look on the bright side instead. It won’t last forever. Eventually they’ll find someone else to focus on, and then this whole Fat Girl Rodeo thing will be forgotten.”

  As if on cue, a group of boys goes by, hollering in my direction. Things like “Saddle up, fellas! Who wants a turn?”

  “Bastards.” This is from Iris, because instead of speaking I’m doing the thing I used to do when I was younger—trying to will myself small, as if by concentrating really, really hard I might start shrinking until I’m the same size as everyone else. An acceptable size, whatever that is. One that won’t make all other people feel so uncomfortable.

  Iris bumps my arm with hers, as if she’s trying to remind me she’s there and I’m not alone, but for some reason it ticks me off. I never volunteered to be her savior and protector. I can’t even protect myself. She starts singing the Cowardly Lion’s “If I Only Had the Nerve” verse from The Wizard of Oz, and as irritating as it is, I have to admit she’s got a really pretty singing voice.

  Bump.

  Bump.

  Bump.

  I stop walking. “Why do you want to be my friend anyway?” I talk right over her singing. “Is it because I stood up for you that day? Is it because I make you feel less freakish by comparison? Or is it because when you’re with me everyone leaves you alone for once and focuses on me?”

  Her eyes go wide and then narrow, and Iris Engelbrecht is staring at me like she thinks I’m a bastard too. “It’s because when you’re not being a jerk? Like this? I like you. Because except for that jerkiness? You’re who I want to be.” And she walks away.

  “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Kendra Wu crows as she strolls by with Caroline Lushamp.

  I stand there, my hand on the classroom door, and yell, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  They’re still heading away from me, but Caroline turns to face me, as graceful walking backward as she is walking the regular way. “What she’s trying to say is that you might not want to burn your bridges when you’re standing on an island.” And then she smiles the meanest smile I’ve ever seen.

  —

  In driv
er’s ed, Mr. Dominguez says, “Libby? Whenever you want to join us.”

  “Sorry.” I stop staring into space.

  Bailey passes me a note. Are you okay?

  Instead of answering, I sit there and pretend I’m paying attention, and even when Mr. Dominguez says, “Next week, we’re ready to start driving”—the moment I’ve been waiting for all my short, sad life—it’s like I’m sitting in another room, at another school, far, far away.

  I’m in the bathroom after third period when two guys walk in, both white, both nondescript, except that one is a fucking mountain and the other is about my height. They shut the door. This is bad news because for as long as I’ve been at MVB, that door has never been closed.

  “What’s up?” I do the head nod, act casual, but even though I can’t recognize their faces, I recognize the emotion. They’re mad as hell. I saunter toward the exit, trying to look as carefree as one can in this particular situation, but the smaller one blocks my way.

  “When you messed around with my girlfriend, I let it go, but when you jump me and my friends for no reason and try to beat the living shit out of us? You don’t do that, man. You don’t screw with the people I love.”

  This tells me it’s almost definitely (probably) Reed Young, and that right there behind him is definitely (probably) Moses Hunt. I’m feeling reckless enough to go, “So you’re saying you love him?” I nod at Moses.

  And they both lunge for me. I can’t afford another fight, so I duck and Probably Reed goes sprawling while Probably Moses ricochets into the wall, and then I throw open the door and I’m out of there. I don’t run. Hell no. But I burn a path in the floor all the way down the hall.

  For as long as people have been around, we’ve relied on facial recognition for survival. Back in caveman times, whether a person lived or died could come down to being able to read a face. You had to know your enemy. And here I am, barely able to make it out alive from a high school bathroom.

  Mr. Levine (electric-blue bow tie, electric-blue sneakers) is sitting on the risers waiting for us as we walk into the old gym. We take our usual seats and after we have a chance to get settled, he bounces to his feet. “We’re going to try something different.” Which is what he says every day.

 
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