Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

She stares at the ball for a moment, rolling it around in her hands, delicately, carefully, like she’s holding the entire world. Then she turns those eyes on me, and they’re hard to read. She opens her mouth, closes it. Opens it again. It turns out she doesn’t have five things to say about me. She has only one. “You’re actually not a bad guy, Jack Masselin. But I’m not sure you know it yet.”

  I walk as fast as I can out of the gym without actually breaking into a run. But Jack falls in step beside me, Afro billowing and blowing like it comes with its own wind effects.

  He says, “Thanks for what you said in there.”

  “It was nothing.”

  “Not to me. By the way, what you did yesterday? You’re my hero.”

  “You told me to put clothes on.”

  “Because Moses Hunt was getting a little too close, and who knows what he might have done. I didn’t want anyone grabbing you.”

  “Oh, the irony.” And then, because for some reason I can’t help myself, I tell him, “I’ve apparently gone viral.”

  “I know. I saw. Listen, some girl will see that video and you’re going to give her the courage to buy her own purple bikini. You’re going to make a difference. Just watch. Girls everywhere, of all sizes, are going to want one. Clothing manufacturers across the globe will be working overtime to produce enough purple swimsuits to satisfy the demand. Girls will stop asking Do these jeans make my butt look big? They won’t care if it looks big or small. They’ll wear what they want to wear and fucking own it.”

  He smiles, and there’s something in it that makes me want to smile, but I don’t because this is the boy who broke my heart.

  He says, “It may not look like it, but you’re actually smiling.”

  I can’t wait for Christmas, so I carry Dusty’s robot down the hall to his room and knock on the door. He yells, “Come in.”

  I push open the door, but I don’t go in because he’s still not really talking to me. Instead I set the robot on the floor and send it inside. I’ve named it the Shitkicker. It’s a superhero.

  The robot goes zooming into Dusty’s room, where it says, “Hello, Dusty. I’m fighting shittiness everywhere! The Shitkicker is here to kick your ass!”

  Dusty goes, “My ass?” And then starts laughing.

  It’s the best sound in the world. I poke my head into the room, and my little brother is rolling across his bed, and then he’s up and on his feet and examining the robot from every angle.

  He sees me and frowns. I hit the remote, and the Shitkicker says, “It’s you and me against the world, Dusty.”

  My brother stares at the robot and shakes his head. “It’s almost like it recognized me. How did you do that?”

  The truth is the Shitkicker can’t recognize Dusty any more than I can, but I programmed it so that Dusty is the only one it calls by name. To the Shitkicker, everyone is Dusty.

  “Magic,” I say. “So that he can always find you.”

  I push a button on the remote, and the Shitkicker says, “Don’t be shitty!” And then I hit another button, and the robot is kicking its legs, only it’s not really kicking anything—it’s dancing. The Jackson 5 come cranking out of a speaker in old Shitkicker’s chest, and now Dusty is dancing along with it.

  I hand my brother the remote and then I’m dancing too, and a couple of minutes later Dusty goes, “Is he carrying a purse?!” And of course he is, because the Shitkicker knows only the cool kids use them. And Dusty’s howling over this, and now the three of us are dancing in sync, and as good as Dusty and I are, there’s no doubt about it—the Shitkicker is definitely the man.

  Top 2 Things I Miss About Libby

  by Jack Masselin

  1. The way I feel when I’m with her. Like I just swallowed the sun and it’s shooting out of every pore.

  2. Everything.

  FOUR DAYS LATER

  I’m due at Kam’s house around nine. Caroline will be there. Everyone will be there. I don’t want to see everyone—or anyone, actually—but this is the way it has to be. I’m Jack Masselin, after all. I’ve got a reputation to uphold.

  I take a shower, pull on my clothes, shake out my hair. I grab the car keys, and I’m almost out of there when my dad (thick eyebrows, pale skin, Masselin’s shirt) comes chasing after me.

  “Hey, Jack, can we talk to you a minute?”

  I think of every excuse—I’ve got a date and I’m already running late (true), I think the car’s on fire (hopefully not true), I don’t want to talk to you (true true true). “Sure thing, Daddy-o. What’s up? But make it quick. The ladies don’t like to be kept waiting.” I almost add, As you know.

  “This is serious, buddy.”

  —

  Marcus, Dusty, and I sit on the couch side by side. Mom is opposite us on the ottoman that’s the size of a small boat. She leans forward, hands on her knees as if she might leap up at any minute.

  Dad clears his throat. “Your mom and I love each other very much. And we love you. The three of you are our life, and we’d never do anything to hurt you.” He goes on like this for a while, all about how much he loves us and how he’s lucky to have such a great, supportive family, how we were all there for him when he was sick, and he can never tell us what that means to him.

  Meanwhile, Marcus, Dusty, and I are all looking at Mom because she’s the one who tells it like it is. But she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t even look at us. She’s staring at some point just past our father, who is still talking.

  Finally, Dusty raises his hand and goes, “Are you getting divorced?”

  Dad’s face crumples, and I can’t look. Now no one’s saying anything, and finally, in this very quiet voice, Mom says, “Your father and I think it’s best to separate for a little while. We need to work on some things in our marriage, but those issues have nothing to do with you.”

  The conversation doesn’t end there. Dusty has questions, and Marcus wants to know what this means for us, like, where will we live and can we still go to college?

  Meanwhile, I’m here on the outside—always on the outside, even as the world crumbles around me—face pressed to the glass that divides us, looking in.

  We’re on our way to pick up Iris, and Jayvee is driving because she’s the only one with a license. Bailey and I sit in back. Bailey says, “Dave Kaminski’s having a party. I promised I’d stop by, just for a minute.”

  Jayvee catches my eye in the mirror. “Libbs? It’s kind of up to you.”

  Bailey says, “Jack won’t be there.”

  I say, “How do you know?”

  “He doesn’t really go to parties.”

  We roll up in front of Iris’s house, but Iris is nowhere to be seen. Jayvee shoots her a text, and we sit there. When she still doesn’t appear, Jayvee swears under her breath. “I’ll be back.” She leaves the engine running and goes marching up the walk.

  “Libbs?” Bailey is peering at me, eyebrows raised like banners, mouth in a half-smile, eyes wide and shining.

  “Okay.”

  Because I mean, why not? What do I have to lose?

  And then, because I don’t have anything to lose, I say, “Why didn’t you stick up for me when I was bullied? Back in fifth grade. When Moses Hunt started banning me from the playground. Why didn’t you do something or at least come talk to me? I stood there every day, too terrified to set one foot on the playground, and you never once came over to talk to me.”

  I say it matter-of-factly. I’m not emotional. I’m not upset. I just genuinely want to know. At first, I’m not sure she hears me. But then her eyebrows sink back into place and her half-smile disappears and her eyes go cloudy.

  “I don’t know, Libbs. I think I told myself we were friends, but not best friends, and that you seemed like you were okay. You’re still like that. You get letters from some horrible person, and you brush it off. Jack tells you he can’t go out with you anymore, and you’re ‘fine.’ ”

  “But it was a big deal back then, and it was kind of obvious, but no one di
d anything.”

  “And I felt awful because I didn’t, and then one day you were gone. You didn’t come back.”

  “Is that why you’re so nice to me now?”

  “It’s why I came up and said hi to you on the first day of school, but it’s not why I’m nice to you. I’m nice because I like you. I’m just really, really, really sorry I wasn’t a good friend then.”

  And it doesn’t change anything, but it’s enough.

  “I could have been a better friend too. I could have talked to you. I could have told you how I was feeling.” And then she hugs me, and I inhale her hair, which tastes like rainbows and peach pie, exactly how you think Bailey Bishop’s hair would taste.

  —

  When we walk into Dave Kaminski’s, the first person I see is Mick from Copenhagen. He’s in the living room, dancing in this circle of girls, and his black hair is shining blue-black like crow feathers. Next to me, Jayvee goes, “Hello, Mick from Copenhagen,” in this throaty voice, and then pretends to faint into Iris’s arms.

  I follow Bailey through the crowd, and Dave Kaminski’s house doesn’t look like a house but some sort of fraternity. It is literally crammed with so many people, we can barely move. The music is loud, and people are doing their best to dance, but it’s more like jumping straight up and down in place.

  My first high school party.

  The music is good, and so I’m shaking my hips a little as I walk, and when I accidentally bump some guy, he yells, “Watch it!”

  I tell my hips to be still and behave themselves, and finally we break through into the dining room, where Dave Kaminski is playing poker with a group of guys and a couple of girls. Bailey goes up to Dave and says something in his ear, and suddenly he’s grabbing her until she’s sitting on his lap, and she’s laughing and play-hitting him, and then she hugs him and comes back over to us. “Dave’s really glad we’re here.”

  I say, “Apparently.”

  And then Dave Kaminski catches my eye and gives me this nod, and there’s something in it that feels almost like an apology.

  Caroline (dark skin, smells like cinnamon, beauty mark by her eye) and I are in Kam’s sister’s room. Literally every inch of wall is covered in posters of Boy Parade, so it’s a little like sitting in the middle of a very small arena full of twenty-year-old guys. Their faces are everywhere, and their eyes are glued to us. They are smiling these unnaturally white smiles that glow in the dark.

  She thinks I’ve brought her in here to make out. But instead I’m trying to see once and for all if I can trick sweet Caroline into coming out and having a real conversation with me. Because I miss Libby. Because I miss talking to someone the way I can talk to her.

  After all this time, Caroline and I have our routine memorized. Until recently, I try to get in her pants, and she takes off her clothes because I’m not allowed to in case I mess up her hair. What comes next is we will almost have sex, and I’ll hold her for a little while, and then I’ll lie there wondering When when when?

  Usually my heart’s not in it, only my body, and my mind cooperates by going blank. But tonight my mind is in charge. Like Mr. Levine, it wants to know why. Why are you doing this? Why are you even sitting here with this girl? Why do you keep ending up with this person? Why don’t you just stop, Jack? Why don’t you just live your life and be yourself?

  Which is why I go, “What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you?”

  She blinks at me. “I’m supposed to say ‘Jack Masselin,’ right?”

  “Only if it’s true, baby. Come on, I want to know. In the whole history of your life, what’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you?”

  “I don’t know, maybe when Chloe was born.” Chloe is her little sister.

  “What’s the worst thing that ever happened?”

  “When my cat Damon got hit by a car.”

  The worst thing that ever happened to me was fucking up my relationship with Libby Strout, but I say, “There’s got to be something else.”

  “Why?”

  “Because you used to be different. Shy. Quiet. Dorky.”

  “God, don’t remind me.”

  “Okay, so what’s one thing people don’t know about you?”

  She frowns down at the bed. “I hate the color brown. I don’t like turtles. And I got my wisdom teeth out when I was fourteen.”

  Boring, boring, and boring. I almost say I have a neurological glitch in my brain that keeps me from recognizing faces. Boom! Muahahahahahahaha.

  But instead I ask another question and another, and the whole time she answers in this flat, dull voice and picks at the comforter. As she talks, I’m barely listening to her answers. Instead I’m thinking, All this time, I thought she was a security blanket, but there’s no security here. How can there be when she doesn’t see me any more than I see her? I might as well be alone. And, of course, I am alone.

  And then suddenly she lifts her shirt over her hair and drops it onto the floor. She readjusts her bra strap and leans back seductively. She bites her bottom lip, which is also part of the routine. A couple of years ago, the bottom lip thing slayed me.

  I’m about to say something along the lines of Please put your shirt back on when this shift happens, before my eyes, and Caroline grows paler and fuller until she’s no longer sitting there. It’s Libby Strout, leaning back on one arm, plucking at the strap of her electric-purple bikini. But she’s talking and telling me things and laughing and asking me questions, and I’m talking, and then she’s sitting up and leaning in, and we’re both just talking until she says, “Um. Hello!” And snaps her fingers in my face.

  And it’s Caroline again.

  I stare at her, hoping she’ll morph back into Libby, and she goes, “What is your problem? Why are you being so weird?” And she’s got this sexy bra and this sexy body, and there isn’t a single guy at MVB High, even the ones who are afraid of her, who wouldn’t want to be me right now. I lay my hand on her leg and it’s smooth and feels like satin, and all I can think is:

  I don’t love Caroline. I don’t even like Caroline.

  I force myself to think of things I like about this Caroline right now, the only one who’s here.

  She smells good. Her teeth are very…um…even. Her eyes are okay. Her mouth is nice.

  I mean, I guess. But the shit she says? Not so nice. Libby has interesting things to say that aren’t cruel or selfish.

  I say to my brain, Why are you doing this? Why can’t you stop thinking about Libby? Why are you fucking with me?

  And as I’m sitting here having this in-depth conversation with my brain, Caroline goes, “I’m think I’m ready.”

  “For what?”

  “It.”

  I’m trying to look into her eyes, but the room is dark except for the light that slips in under the door and her phone, which goes bright every other minute from all the texts coming in.

  “It. Sex, Jack. I’m ready to have sex. With you.” And then here comes the attitude: “Unless you don’t want to.”

  I’ve only been wanting to since birth, but inexplicably I hear myself say, “Why now?”

  “What?”

  “Why are you suddenly ready now? After all this time? What changed?”

  Apparently my mouth has a mind of its own because it won’t stop talking. My manlier parts are going, STOP TALKING, YOU IDIOT! SHUT THE FUCK UP! But my mouth isn’t listening. Why isn’t it listening?

  “Are you gonna argue with me about this?”

  “Is this really where you want to do it for the first time? I mean, look around you.” I point to the walls of posters. I dislodge a stuffed animal from under my back and wave it in her face. “You wouldn’t really want to do it in front of this little guy, would you?”

  “Are you freaking kidding me?” And she shoves me so hard I go flying off the bed.

  Mick from Copenhagen and I are dancing, his hair flashing blue-black, blue-black, and his smile flashing white, white, white. We are making up dances as we
go—actually, I’m making them up and he’s trying to follow along. “I call this the Wind Machine!” And then I act like I’m pushing through a windstorm. “I call this Shoes on Fire!” And then I’m jumping around like my shoes are on fire and I don’t want to touch the ground.

  When a slow song comes on, he holds out his hand and I take it. Dancing with him is different from dancing with Jack. For one thing, Mick is about fifteen feet tall, so my face is pressed into his chest. For another, he kind of just sways back and forth and shuffles his feet.

  Stop thinking about Jack Masselin. Jack, who doesn’t want you, at least not enough to give it a chance. Focus on Mick from Copenhagen and his shiny teeth and his giant hands.

  When Mick says, “Come with me,” I go with him. As Bailey watches, mouth open, I follow him up the stairs into what must be Dave Kaminski’s bedroom. Mick turns on the desk light and sits down on the bed. I stand in the doorway staring at him. He smiles and I smile, and then he says, loud enough so I can hear him all the way over here, “I was wondering if I could kiss you. I’ve wanted to kiss you from the moment I saw you.”

  And even though he’s not Jack Masselin, or maybe because he’s not Jack Masselin, I walk across the room and sit down next to him, and suddenly we’re kissing.

  My neck is twisted, and I want to move it, but I don’t want to move it because it’s Mick from Copenhagen, and now I’m getting a cramp in it, so I shift just slightly, and now I’m getting a cramp in my calf. It is the worst pain of my life, but here is a gorgeous boy kissing my face off, so I soldier on.

  In spite of the fact that my body is seizing up everywhere and I’m in excruciating pain, he’s a good kisser. I’m guessing he’s had a lot of practice, because it feels like he’s showing off a little, doing all these intricate circle dances with his tongue. He’s working it like a ringmaster, and don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about it. This is probably the way they kiss in Copenhagen. He’s probably been kissing people like this since he was two.

 
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