Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  So far, we’ve sung songs, run a kind of obstacle course (stopping at each station to talk about a specific feeling or ways in which we might change our behaviors), and performed a scene from a Star Trek episode (about two enemies having to work together to survive). Mr. Levine calls these “teen-building exercises.”

  But this time he walks out of the gym.

  We wait. When Mr. Levine doesn’t return, Travis Kearns says, “Can we leave?”

  And then the gym goes dark, the only light coming from these narrow windows way up by the ceiling. A second later, the room starts spinning with these spiraling globes of light—pink, orange, green, yellow, blue. It’s what I imagine a European disco was like back in the 1970s.

  “What the—”

  But Travis doesn’t finish because a song booms out over the speaker system, so loud I almost cover my ears. It’s the sappiest eighties ballad you’ve ever heard, and all that’s missing is a DJ and a corsage pinned to my shirt.

  Mr. Levine comes back in and says, “On your feet.” He waves his hands like he’s some sort of conductor and we’re his orchestra. “Up. Up. Time’s a-wasting. Let’s work on building that self-esteem.”

  One by one, we stand. Keshawn and Natasha kind of jokingly start slow-dancing. When they stop, Mr. Levine says, “Keep going. Yes, it’s really that simple. Now the rest of you.”

  Travis Kearns asks Maddy, who’s pretty but shy. She stares at her feet the whole time. Even though there aren’t enough girls to go around, no one asks me. Andy Thornburg starts waltzing with an invisible partner because dancing alone is apparently better than dancing with me. My chest flutters, the first sign of panic.

  Mr. Levine says, “Ask her to dance, Jack.”

  “What?”

  “You heard me.”

  Jack looks at me and I look at him.

  “Before the song ends, please.”

  We keep standing there, and now my palms are damp—the second sign of panic. The next thing will be this strange compression in my chest and head, as if I’m being squeezed by a giant boa constrictor. Gradually, everything will grow dim and distant, and I’ll shrink until I’m a regular-size person, and then keep shrinking until I’m small enough to squash under someone’s shoe.

  Finally, Mr. Levine pulls out this remote and clicks it, and the song starts over. Everyone groans. “I can do this all day. My phone is fully charged, and there are a lot more songs just like this on there. Worse ones, even.”

  I look at Jack and he looks at me, and the lights are flashing across his face, turning his eyes green, brown, blue, gold, like he’s a chameleon changing colors.

  He offers his hand. I take it. Because we have to. This is not the way I imagined my first school dance.

  We fumble our hands together and stand as far apart as possible, like someone’s holding a ruler—more like a yardstick—between us. We shuffle back and forth as if we’re both made of wood, staring at the ceiling, the floor, the walls, the other kids, anywhere but at each other.

  The song only gets cheesier as it goes on, and the lights are swirling and strobing, and his eyes are flashing green/brown/blue/gold, and suddenly I’m thinking about my palms. Like how sweaty they are. I can just hear Jack Masselin going back to his friends, telling them all about my sweaty palms and what it was like to dance with the fat girl.

  Jack says, “This may scare me off school dances forever.”

  My first instinct is that he’s talking about me or maybe my damp hands, so I go, “Well, I’m not exactly having the time of my life.”

  “I didn’t mean you’re scaring me off. Although you’re kind of scaring me off now.”

  “Sorry.” As I realize he means the song and the lights and Mr. Levine, standing there like the world’s most attentive chaperone.

  We’re now kind of swaying, and it’s not so bad. It’s the first time we’ve touched where I wasn’t either punching him or stopping him from punching someone.

  I say, “This is my first school dance.”

  “Ah.”

  “Well, it’s the closest I’ve ever come, at least. Not to put any pressure on you.”

  “No pressure. Just extreme performance anxiety. Every guy’s dream.”

  “You’re not a terrible dancer.”

  “My confidence is soaring now.”

  “It’s just not exactly how I pictured it.”

  “Okay, so what can I do to change that?”

  “Uh…”

  “You look really pretty tonight.”

  In the second it takes me to realize he’s playing, my legs grow into the floor like roots. Jack tightens his grip on me and kind of nudges me into motion again.

  He says, “Especially in that dress. The color really brings out your eyes.”

  “Uh.” Think. “The sales clerk called it Hershey brown.” Ugh. What?

  “Actually more like amber.”

  And he’s looking into my eyes as if I’m the only thing he sees. I tell myself, He’s such a good actor, as these little goose bumps spring out at the base of my spine and go shooting up my back, across my shoulders, and down both arms.

  Suddenly we’re dancing closer, and I’m aware of not just his hands but each individual finger connecting to my body and his legs bumping against mine. I want to lean in and get a whiff of him and rest my head on his shoulder or maybe make out with his neck. Afterward he’ll walk me home and kiss me on the doorstep, sweet at first, and then hungrier and hungrier till we fall into the bushes and go rolling off across the yard.

  All at once, the song ends and a fast song begins, and my eyes fly open. We immediately break apart, and Jack wipes his hands on his jeans. Ack.

  Mr. Levine goes, “Don’t stop! It’s a dance-off. Go, go, go!” And he’s dancing like a crazy man. For a moment, all we can do is gawp at him. I mean, it’s a spectacle. The man is all legs and arms and flopping hair. “The longer you don’t dance, the longer we’re here. I’m getting at least three songs out of you.” And he starts it over.

  Jack Masselin goes, “Shit.” And then begins to move. Of course, I think. Of course he can dance. Because he’s their leader, they all start dancing. First Andy and then Keshawn, Natasha, Travis, and even Maddy. Jack Masselin is not my leader, so I’m still standing there.

  Once again, Mr. Levine starts the song over. “I’m going to keep doing that till we’re all moving.”

  It’s one thing to twirl in the near-empty park with Rachel, but it’s another to start shaking and jumping on school property in front of my counselor and my fellow classmates, delinquents though they may be. In that moment, my Damsels dream wavers because the audition will be so much worse. The audition means Heather Alpern and her squad captains—including Caroline Lushamp—sitting at a table, watching me. If I’m able to get past the potential humiliation of that moment, how will I ever perform in costume for the school?

  But ahhhhhhh, this song. It’s so…I realize I’m kind of tapping my foot and bouncing my head. No, I think. Libby, you can’t. But the song is…oh my God. I feel my hips start to move a little. No, no, no. Don’t do it.

  But I’m alive. I’m here.

  We never know how long we have. We’re never guaranteed tomorrow. I could die right now, right here.

  It could be over in an instant.

  She woke up like it was any other day, just like I did, just like Dad did. We thought it was a regular, normal day. None of us knew we were waking up to the worst day. If we’d known, what would we have done? Would we have held on to her tight and tried to keep her here?

  The song starts over. Keshawn goes, “Come on, Libby. Damn.”

  What would Mom want me to do right now? If she could see me, what would she say?

  And then Jack Masselin is suddenly breaking out these moves, Keshawn and Natasha are doing some sort of routine, and Mr. Levine is kicking his legs out like he’s Heather Alpern, former Rockette. Even shy little Maddy is shaking her shoulders.

  Stay still. Wait out the song. Don’t you do i
t, Libby.

  But I can feel my body taking over my mind, and this is what happens. The dance is in me. All at once I’m in there, waving my arms, waving my booty, swinging my hair. I jump a little, and when the gym floor doesn’t collapse, I jump some more.

  Jack starts jumping too, and before I can stop myself, I spin off into a twirl. Jack shouts, “What’s that dance called?”

  I say the first name I think of: “The Merry-Go-Round!”

  I twirl and twirl, and then Mr. Levine is twirling and Jack is twirling and all the others are twirling, just like the lights, until the gym turns upside down.

  —

  Heather Alpern is still in her office. She says, “Libby, isn’t it?” Her voice is warm, like honey.

  “I heard that Terri Collins is moving, and I wondered if there was going to be an audition for the Damsels.” I’m still flushed and entirely electrified from the dancing. I want to climb onto her desk and make it my stage and audition right here, right now, but instead I hand her my application.

  “Thanks so much for this.” She smiles, and I have to look away because she’s just that lovely. “I’ll be announcing tryouts next week.”

  —

  Outside, it’s starting to rain. The parking lot is empty and my dad isn’t there, so I stand up against the building where I won’t get wet, even though the last thing I ever want to do is stand against a building like I’m fifth-grade Libby Strout, banished from the playground.

  In a minute, this old Jeep-looking thing comes rolling up. The driver’s window rolls down and Jack Masselin says, “Need a ride?”

  “No.”

  “Do you want to at least wait in here?”

  “That’s okay.”

  But then the sky cracks in two and water comes flooding down. I run for the car, and he throws open my door, and I climb in as gracefully as possible, which unfortunately means I’m slipping and sliding all over the place, shoes squeaking against the floor mat, hair sticking to my face. I slam the door closed and here I am, panting and enormous and soaked to the skin, in the front seat of Jack Masselin’s Land Rover. I’m conscious of everything dripping. My hair, my hands, my jeans. This is one of those times when I can feel myself taking up too much space.

  I say, “Nice car.” The interior is a kind of burnt orange-red, but it’s all pretty basic and rugged. One thing is clear, though: I am in the vehicle of a cool guy. “It looks like something you’d take on safari.”

  “Thanks.”

  “Truck? Car? What do you call it exactly?”

  “How about the baddest mo-fo in Amos?”

  “Let’s not go crazy.”

  I’m getting the heater going and now the windows are fogging.

  She says, “I thought everyone was gone.”

  “I was driving away and saw you come out. I thought you might need a ride or at least some shelter.”

  “My dad’s usually on time.” She pulls out her phone and checks it, and I can see the worry in her, even though she’s trying to blink it away.

  “He’ll be here.”

  We sit watching the rain pour down. The music is playing low and the windows are steaming. If this was Caroline, we’d be making out.

  And then I’m thinking about making out with Libby Strout.

  What the hell?

  I tell myself, This is the girl you saw LIFTED OUT OF HER HOUSE BY A CRANE.

  But then I’m thinking about making out with her a little more.

  Stop thinking about making out with Libby Strout.

  I go, “Let me ask you something. If there was a test you could take to find out if you have what your mom had, would you take it?”

  She tilts her head to one side and studies the dash. “After she died, my dad took me to see a neurologist. He said, ‘I can run a battery of tests on you to see if you have any aneurysms in your brain. If you have them, there’s a chance we can pin them off so they don’t become problems down the line. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll be fixable.’ My dad and I went home and talked about it. I was too young to understand it all, so he was the one who made the decision.”

  “Did you do it?”

  “No.”

  “What about now? Would you do it now?”

  “I don’t know.”

  And even though we’re talking about aneurysms, I’m still thinking about making out with her. So I say, “Jesus, woman, you can dance.”

  She smiles.

  I smile.

  She says, “I just handed in my Damsels application.”

  “Really?”

  She arches an eyebrow. “Sorry, is that shocking to you?”

  “Only because I can’t picture you dancing in formation. I’m not getting the whole wielding-flags-and-wearing-the-same-costume-as-thirty-other-girls vibe. I see you as a do-your-own-thing girl. If you ask me, you’re better than the Damsels.”

  “Thanks.”

  She unzips her backpack and pulls something out, and at first it looks innocent—just a crumpled-up sheet of white paper. But then I read what’s written there: You aren’t wanted.

  “Where did you get this?”

  “My locker.”

  “Do you know who put it in there?”

  “No. But does it matter?”

  And I know what she means. No, it doesn’t. Not really. The point is that it was sent at all, that anyone would think that or say that to her.

  “People can be great, but they can also be lousy. I am often lousy. But not completely lousy. You, Libby Strout, are great.”

  “I don’t know about that, but this right here is one reason I’m auditioning.” She takes the paper from me and waves it. “They can tell me this all they want, but I’m not listening.” She crumples it up and shoves it back in her bag.

  I say, “I’ve got something to show you too.”

  And then I go into my phone and pull something up and hold it out to her.

  She reads the email out loud. “ ‘Dear Jack.’ ” And I like the way she says my name. I mean, I really like it. “ ‘Thank you for reaching out. We would be very interested in testing you. If you aren’t able to make it to Hanover, we suggest being in touch with Dr. Amber Klein, Department of Brain Sciences, Cognitive Neurology, Indiana University, Bloomington. Best, Brad Duchaine.’ ”

  She looks up. “Is this about the prosopagnosia?”

  “Yeah. I wouldn’t have written to him if it hadn’t been for you.”

  “Are you going to do it?”

  “I don’t know.” Yes.

  “Wouldn’t you need your parents’ permission?”

  “I’ll be eighteen soon.”

  “When?”

  “October first.”

  She hands the phone back to me, studies the dash again, then looks at me with wide amber eyes.

  “So let’s go.”

  “What?”

  “As soon as you turn eighteen. Let’s go to Bloomington.”

  “Really?”

  “Why not?”

  Before I know what’s happening, my eyes are reaching for her and hers are reaching for mine. Across the seat, our eyes are holding hands. We sit like this until the sound of a horn makes us jump.

  —

  I wait until they drive away before heading to Masselin’s, where I’m in such a good mood that I’m civil to my dad. It stings a little to see how surprised he is by this, so I go one step further and talk to him about the robot I’m building for Dusty. It’s going to be as tall as Dusty, maybe taller. It’s going to talk. It’s going to be the best damn robot ever.

  To his credit, my dad is polite and asks questions. We don’t mention Monica Chapman. We don’t mention the email. And for a minute I think, Maybe this is where we stay. Right here in this small radius where it’s safe. Maybe we can just stay right here, safe like this, forever.

  —

  Two hours later, when I get back in the Land Rover, it still smells like her. Sunshine.

  After dinner, my dad and I watch TV with George. Dad
is eating grapes one at a time, tipping his head back and throwing them into the air, catching them with his mouth as George swats at them. I lean my head back and catch one in my own mouth. I savor it the way I’m supposed to savor food that’s good for me. I bite it a little, and it bursts into an eruption of goodness.

  I was on fire today. I lit up the old gym. You should have seen me! I’m making up for every lost moment when I couldn’t move or get out of bed. The dance is in me! Just wait till they see me at the Damsels audition. I’m going to nail it. I’m going to dance my heart out for all the world to see.

  “The Masselin boy. Everything okay there? Is he leaving you alone?”

  “He’s not bothering me.” Not in that way, at least.

  “Libbs, you know you can talk to me about anything.”

  And I feel myself going bright red. What if my dad can read my thoughts? What if he can see how I am, at this exact moment, undressing Jack Masselin while I eat these grapes?

  “I know, Dad.”

  For the first time in my life, I don’t want to talk to him. Not about Jack and not about the letters. If I do, I become something he has to worry about, and I’ve already been something he has to worry about for too long.

  “I’m thinking of ditching school on October first.” One of the things my dad made me promise after my mom died was that I would always let him know where I was, and I figure I can at least tell him this much. “A friend of mine needs to go to Indiana University to take part in a research study.”

  “Who’s this friend?”

  “Just someone from school.” I don’t tell him it’s Jack. I figure it’s enough that I’m sitting here telling my father I want to skip school. “He’s going through some things right now. I want to be there for him.”

  “Do you have any tests that day? Anything big that you’d be missing?”

  “Not that I know of.”

  “Is this a…is it a…”

  “Date? No.”

  I don’t think so. I mean, it isn’t. But it makes me wonder: Could it turn into one?

 
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