Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  “No, I don’t.”

  I wonder how many of them know me and how many of their parents will hear about this. I feel like I’m going to be sick, and I almost walk out. Let Dusty find his own way home. Let my mom come get him. But it’s as if the floor is holding me there. My feet are like anchors. They won’t move. I just stand there, staring past the kids staring back at me, at the kid who walked in, the one who’s still crying.

  “I’m sorry.” I say it directly to him a couple of times, but no one is listening. These kids could kill me if they wanted to. There are so many of them, and small though they be, fury is on their side.

  An eternity later, the woman stands and says in this cold, cold voice, “That is your brother,” like I’m the world’s biggest child predator. She pushes Dusty toward me like she wants both of us gone, like Dusty, by association, is also guilty.

  I’m not an assface, not in this way at least. I have a condition called prosopagnosia. It means I can’t recognize faces, not even the faces of the people I love.

  I add, “They grow so quickly at this age. Makes it hard to keep track of them.”

  And I grab the actual one-and-only Dusty and drag him outside. I throw the jacket at him, and he drapes it over his head, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to be near me, so he takes his sweet time coming down the walk. I’m soaked to the bone by now, but I hold the door open for him, and as he gets in he looks up at me with tears all over his face and says, “Why would you try to kidnap Jeremy Mervis?”

  “I was only joking around.”

  He is studying me the way he does my parents these days, like he’s not sure if he can trust me. “Fourth grade is hard enough without being known as the brother of a child stealer.”

  —

  My hands are shaking, but I don’t want him to see, so I grip the wheel till my knuckles turn white, and then ask him to tell me about the party. I can barely hear him over the sound of my heart as it goes BAM BAM BAM against the walls of my chest.

  Rachel wants to know what happened. This is a person who has seen you through your very worst. When you met her, you were taking up two hospital beds after being rescued from your HOUSE. She has been there for you and loved you through everything , just like a mom, only she isn’t your mom.

  I tell her I don’t want to talk about it, not now, and we ride in silence most of the way home.

  —

  In my room, I open my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even though she’s done a terrible, horrific thing, Mary Katherine doesn’t feel anything—no pain or remorse or emotion. Not even when the villagers trespass across her property and chant songs about her.

  Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

  Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

  Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?

  Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

  Merricat is happy enough in her house with her sister for company, but she still thinks about the villagers and wishes their tongues would burn right out of their skulls.

  I remember being so full of pain and anger that I wished nothing but tongue-burning on everyone who hurt me, especially Moses Hunt. But here’s the thing—Merricat poisoned her entire family. The only crime I committed was being fat.

  “Why weren’t you in the living room with the other kids?”

  “I didn’t feel like playing their games. I went out to the back porch to study my lines.” The crying seems to have stopped, but he won’t look at me directly.

  “Did Tams and the others want you to play with them?”

  He shrugs. “I don’t think they missed me.”

  “But everything’s cool with Tams, right?”

  He takes a few seconds before each reply, and I can hear the hurt in his voice. The hurt I put there. “I guess.”

  I let him be, my mind racing, my heart still going BAM BAM BAM.

  As we pull up in front of the house, Dusty says, “Jack?”

  “Yeah.” I want him to tell me he forgives me, that he loves me anyway.

  “I really wish you hadn’t tried to kidnap Jeremy.”

  “Me too.”

  “What if Tams’s mom had called the police? What if they sent you to jail?” His voice shakes, and he looks like he’s going to cry again.

  “I’m not going to jail. I wouldn’t have let them send me to jail. It was just a misunderstanding. That’s all it was. I got confused.”

  He gets out of the car without a word, and as we go up the walk, I say, “Hey, little man, do you mind not mentioning what happened today to Mom and Dad?” The rain has let off, but I can still feel it in the air.

  He hesitates, and I can tell he doesn’t want to promise me anything. Ever. He tilts his face upward and latches his eyes onto mine. These are eyes that are shutting me out. They are looking at me but from very far away. Finally he says, “Okay.”

  After he goes inside, I sit down on the front step, damp as it is, because I’m not ready to go in yet. It’s been a long day, and the evening is quiet and cool, like a hand against your forehead when you’re running a fever. I stare out at the street and then up at the sky. My hands are still shaking. My heart is still pounding.

  Today was really, really bad. Your brain is broken. It will never get better.

  I can’t tell you what Jeremy Mervis looks like. If he was to walk down the street right now, I wouldn’t be able to recognize him. But I will never forget the look of terror in his eyes as I tried to drag him out of there. And I will never forget the look on my brother’s face as he watched.

  Today could have been worse.

  I repeat it over and over even as I try to think of the five ways it could have been more horrible, but I can’t because really what’s worse than accidentally trying to kidnap some kid you don’t know? My mind goes reeling back to Dusty. He’s carrying around things that I can never know about, just like I am, just like we all are. I’m not sure what these things of his are, but I can guess. Dusty’s sensitive, he’s honest. He’s a little eccentric. He’s almost certainly gay, but I doubt even he knows it. Like Libby, he’s not going to pretend to be someone he’s not, and he’s not afraid to be different. But other kids won’t always like that.

  I don’t believe in God anymore, if I ever did, but out loud I say a kind of prayer. Just keep him safe. Don’t let anyone hurt him. And while you’re at it, look after Libby and old Jonny Rumsford too. And my mom. And Marcus. And even Dad.

  I don’t add myself to the list because that feels selfish. But maybe I think it, just for a minute. And me, I guess, even if I don’t deserve it. Maybe look out for me too.

  —

  When I get inside, my mom is on the phone with Tams’s mom, and my dad is on the phone with the parents of Jeremy Mervis. So much for secrets. Everyone is apparently very, very pissed.

  My mom holds up a finger at me. “Jack Henry. Stay.” She points to the living room.

  —

  Ten minutes later.

  Mom: “What is this about?”

  Me: “Maybe I need glasses.”

  “I’m not just talking about the Jeremy Mervis kidnapping. I’m talking about all of it, Jack. Getting in trouble at school. Fighting. This isn’t you.”

  Me: “I’ve just had a bad run, Mom. I’m the same lovable boy you raised. Still your favorite child. Still me.”

  Mom: “I don’t know what’s happening with this family, but this behavior ends now. If there’s something going on, you need to talk to us.”

  And here’s my chance to spill it all out onto the floor, right next to the stray piece of popcorn that’s poking out from under the couch and the PlayStation remote lying on the rug.

  Mom: “Jack? Tell us what’s going on.”

  But in that moment, I don’t know what to say. Everything that’s wrong with me seems made up because it’s not like I can point to any of it and actually show them—my dad’s secret affair, my secret brain disorder.

  Me: “I’m sorry. I’ll
do better. That’s the best I can do.” I look at my dad. “That’s the best any of us can do.”

  And maybe because he knows some of this might be his fault, my dad says, “I believe you, Jack, but this is pretty bad. You need to make amends with the families.”

  Mom: “We also want you seeing a counselor. Mr. Levine or one of the others. No going out for two weeks. School, work, home. That’s it.”

  I want to say Two weeks? Ground me for the rest of the year. Ground me from school while you’re at it. Let me stay at home like Mary Katherine Blackwood, like Libby. It will make things so much easier.

  —

  I feel all tied up. Hands, legs, feet. Every single part of me. Like they might as well stuff me in a box and leave me there.

  I call the Mervises first. And then Tams’s mom. In this dead voice, I apologize. I tell them I’m still reeling from my dad’s cancer, from all the stuff happening at school. I say, “Please don’t punish Dusty for my bad behavior. He’s the best person I know.”

  As I hang up the phone, I add a postscript to my prayer. Don’t let anyone hurt him. Including me.

  I don’t feel like dancing, but I get out the pink toe shoes and tie them on. I drop onto my bed and lean against the pillows and pull George onto my chest, inhaling a mouthful of musty fur. He starts kicking, so I let him go, and then he does something he’s never done before—he sits beside me, petting me with his sharp, dirty little claws.

  I cross my ankles so that I can see my toe shoes as I’m staring at the wall. For a minute, this feels like old times—lying in bed, locked away from everyone. I pretend I’m in my old house, across the street from Dean, Sam, and Castiel, my imaginary friends who were never actually my friends at all.

  I’m Libby Strout, America’s Fattest Teen, maybe the World’s Saddest Teen, alone in her room with her cat while outside that room, the rest of the world goes on.

  The night is cool and clear after the rain. I inch my way to the edge of the roof until I’m standing where I was standing before, twelve years ago, and I look out over the neighborhood and the house that used to belong to Libby Strout.

  Maybe if I fell again, it would jar something back into place in my brain. I might see the world and the people in it in ways I don’t now. I might conjure up a face from my memory or be able to think Mom, and instantly associate the word with a whole, added-up image of eyes, nose, mouth, the way everyone else does.

  I stand there for a long time, trying to figure out a way to jump and bang my head in the same exact spot I hit it before. Maybe I should take a rock and hit myself with it instead. But what if I do more damage? What if I get complete and total amnesia?

  I sit down and then I lie down, and the roof is damp from the rain. I let the water soak through my shirt as I gaze at the sky and all the stars that look just like all the other stars, and it might as well be a sky full of faces. I tell myself, Libby is one of those stars. I choose one and name it after her and keep my eyes on it as long as I can.

  And then I blink.

  Stay. Stay. Stay.

  Don’t go away.

  But she’s gone.

  The phone rings, and it’s Jack, the only person I want to talk to.

  Something’s wrong.

  I can hear it in his voice.

  At first, I can’t understand what he’s saying.

  “I’m sorry,” he says. He keeps repeating it, until I tell him to stop.

  “Why are you sorry? What’s going on?”

  “I can’t do this. I thought I could. I wanted to. But I can’t. It’s not fair to you.”

  “What’s not—”

  “You deserve to be seen, and I’ll never be able to see you, not really. What happens if you lose weight? You’d need to stay large forever, and that’s your identifier, but you’re so much more than weight.”

  “What are you saying to me, Jack?”

  Even though I know, and my stomach knows, and my bones know, and, most of all, my heart knows. All of me is sinking like a stone.

  He says, “I can’t be with you, Libby. We can’t do this. I’m sorry.”

  And then he hangs up.

  Just like that.

  And I sink through the floor and into the yard and from there into the dark, deep core of the earth.

  —

  I think of Beatrice in her garden, and how she died for love. And then for some reason I think of another story my mom used to read me, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” I walk to my bookshelf and search for it. I flip through until I find it—Libby in purple crayon. I wrote it very small, on the skirt of the youngest princess, Elise. She was my favorite, not just because she wins the prince, but because she has the loveliest heart. She is who I wanted to be.

  I look at Elise’s perfect hair and face and figure. Of course people love to watch her dance. Of course she marries the prince. I wonder what would have happened if Elise had looked like me.

  Before I go to sleep, I write Libby this long apology text, but I end up deleting it because what’s the point? It won’t change the fact that there will always be this part of me that’s searching for her, even if she’s right there.

  THE WEEK AFTER

  Even though I don’t expect to make the team, I still go around to Heather Alpern’s office to see if she’s posted the name of the newest Damsel.

  And there’s the paper on her door. And there’s the single name listed on that paper: Jesselle Villegas. I tell myself, You shouldn’t be surprised. You shouldn’t be disappointed. What did you think would happen when you talked back to Caroline? But I am surprised. I am disappointed.

  I tell myself, You didn’t really want to make the Damsels anyway. Not like that. Not having to dance in formation and carry flags and take orders from Caroline Lushamp. But my heart feels like a deflated balloon.

  —

  Bailey and Travis and I wait outside for Mr. Dominguez to pull the car around. Travis’s eyes are closed, and he looks like he’s sleeping standing up.

  Bailey says, “I heard about Jesselle.”

  “It’s okay. I’m okay.” Just to drive the point home of how COMPLETELY OKAY I am, I wave my hand at the air, so carefree, like I’m smacking away a mosquito.

  She says, “It’s that horrible Caroline.”

  “This will just free me up to pursue other things.” Like dancing by myself in my room and creating voodoo dolls with Caroline Lushamp’s face.

  As I fish through my backpack for a lip gloss, Bailey is listing all the other non-dancing, non-voodoo-doll-making activities I could start doing. My hand closes around something. An envelope. I yank it out and turn away to read it, even though I can guess what it says.

  You aren’t wanted. (I told you so.)

  I look up, expecting Caroline to be there watching me. Instead, Bailey is reading over my shoulder.

  “Who’s that from?”

  “No one.” I shove the letter back into my backpack.

  I told you so.

  Does she mean See there? Jack doesn’t love you. Or does she mean Why did you ever think YOU could audition for the Damsels?

  “Libbs, who wrote that?”

  “Don’t worry about it.”

  “But—”

  “Please, Bailey. I’m fine.”

  “I guess you’re fine about Jack too, then.”

  “I don’t want to talk about Jack.”

  Her mouth snaps shut. Then she says, “You can’t always be fine. No one’s always fine. And I know you’re used to being on your own, and I know I should have been a better friend so that you didn’t have to get used to being on your own, but I’m here now, and I wish you’d talk to me.”

  —

  In the car, I ask Mr. Dominguez to, for God’s sake, play some music, only I don’t actually mention God because this will only set Bailey off and I already feel bad enough for barking at her. The first song Mr. Dominguez chooses is, of course, ancient 1970s rock. “Love Hurts,” and if you don’t know it, DON’T EVER LISTEN TO IT, ESPECIALLY IF
YOUR HEART IS BROKEN. Immediately I get this lump in my throat, the kind that makes it impossible to swallow or even breathe.

  One minute into the song, tears are rolling down my face, but Mr. Dominguez doesn’t bat an eye.

  —

  I see Jack in the main hallway of school. He’s flanked by Seth Powell and Dave Kaminski, who looks right at me, almost through me, while Jack saunters past like I’m invisible.

  And maybe I am.

  Like everyone else in his life.

  Just one more person he can’t see.

  Conversation Circle is canceled today because Mr. Levine has some sort of staff meeting, and honestly I’m glad. I don’t want to face Libby because I’m a miserable coward, and this is what miserable cowards do—we avoid facing things. I walk out of school with Kam, who’s going, “What are you up to tonight? I hear Kendra’s having some people over.”

  I can picture tonight like it’s already happened—Kendra’s enormous house, filled with yapping dogs no higher than your ankle, Caroline and the rest of them bitching about one thing and another, everyone drinking till they’re stupid(er).

  “Man, I’m still grounded.” Not that I would go if I could.

  He starts telling me a story about Seth, but I’m only half listening because a car comes pulling up and I watch as this girl who can only be Libby climbs in. The car rolls away, and I’m thinking, Look up, look up. But she doesn’t even glance in my direction.

  —

  I find Mom-with-Hair-Down in the kitchen, standing in front of the window, drinking one of Dusty’s juice boxes. She looks distracted and far away. I walk in coughing so I can give her fair warning.

  She smiles, but it lands somewhere over my left shoulder. “What’s up?”

  “Just thirsty.” I grab a juice box and lean against the counter. “Do you remember when I was playing Little League?”

 
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