Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  I sit for thirty seconds, enjoying the solitude: 30. 29. 28. 27…

  This is it for the day until I’m home again. In this thirty seconds, I let myself think all the things I won’t let myself think for the next eight hours. The song always starts the same way.

  I have a fucked-up brain….

  Twenty minutes into class, no one is staring at me. Our teacher, Mrs. Belk, is talking and so far I’m able to keep up. Mick is whispering clever commentary just for my benefit, which makes him either my new best chum or my future boyfriend, or possibly the boy who will sex the rest of this weight right off me.

  You belong here as much as anyone. No one knows who you are. No one cares. You’ve got this, girl. Don’t get ahead of yourself, but I think you’ve got this.

  And then I laugh at one of the things Mick says and something goes flying out of my nose and lands on his textbook.

  Mrs. Belk says, “Settle, please.” And keeps on talking.

  I superglue my eyes to her, but I can still see Mick in my peripheral vision. I’m not sure he notices the thing I shot at him, and I don’t dare look. Please don’t see it.

  He goes right on whispering as if nothing happened, as if the world is not about to end, but now I only want to close my eyes and die. This is not the foot I want to start on. This is not what I envisioned for myself when I was lying awake last night imagining my grand reentrance into teenage society.

  Maybe he’ll think this is some weird American tradition. Like, some bizarre custom we have for welcoming foreigners to our country.

  I spend the rest of the class period focusing hard on what Mrs. Belk is saying, my eyes on the front of the room.

  —

  When the bell rings, the two familiar-looking girls turn around and stare at me, and I see that they are Caroline Lushamp and Kendra Wu, girls I’ve known since first grade. After I was rescued from my house, they were interviewed by the press, referred to as “close friends of the troubled teen.” The last time I saw them in person, Caroline was a homely eleven-year-old who wore the same Harry Potter scarf every day, no matter how hot it was. Her other distinguishing factors were that she’d moved to Amos from Washington, DC, when she was in kindergarten, and she was self-conscious over her feet, which had these very long toes that curled like a parrot’s. The thing I remember about Kendra is that she wrote Percy Jackson fan fiction on her jeans and cried every single day over anything—boys, homework, rain.

  Caroline, of course, is now eight feet tall and beautiful enough to be a shampoo model. She wears a skirt and a tight little jacket, like she goes to private school. Kendra—whose smile appears to be tattooed on—is dressed all in black, and is just pretty enough that she could hostess at the Applebee’s on the good side of town.

  Caroline says to me, “I’ve seen you before.”

  “I get that all the time.”

  She stares, and I know she’s trying to place me.

  “I’ll help you out. Everyone gets me confused with Jennifer Lawrence, but we’re not even related.”

  Her eyebrows shoot up like rubber bands.

  “I know, right? It’s hard to believe, but I went on Ancestry.com and double-checked.”

  “You’re the girl who was trapped in her house.” She says to Kendra, “The fire department had to cut her out of there, remember? We were on the news?”

  Not You’re Libby Strout, the girl we’ve known since first grade, but You’re the girl who was trapped in her house and was the reason we got to be on television.

  Mick from Copenhagen is watching all of this. I say, “You’re thinking of Jennifer Lawrence again.”

  Caroline’s voice goes soft and sympathetic. “How are you doing? I was so worried. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for you. But oh my God, you lost so much weight. Didn’t she, Kendra?”

  Kendra is technically still smiling, but the upper half of her face is pinched into a frown. “So much.”

  “You look really pretty.”

  Kendra is still smile-frowning. “I love your hair.”

  One of the worst things a pretty girl can say to a fat girl is You look really pretty. Or I love your hair. I realize lumping all pretty girls together is just as bad as lumping all fat girls together, and I realize that you can be pretty and fat (hello!), but it’s been my experience that these are things girls like Caroline Lushamp and Kendra Wu say to you when they’re really thinking something else. These are pity compliments and I feel my soul die a little. Without a word, Mick from Copenhagen gets up and walks out of the room.

  Caroline Lushamp is the closest thing I have to a girlfriend. This used to be because she was geeky and sweet, and, most of all, smart. When I first fell for her, she was the kind of smart that didn’t make a show of it—that came later. She would just sit back and soak things up like a sponge. We’d get on the phone after everyone else had gone to sleep, and she’d tell me about her day—what she saw, what she thought. Sometimes we talked all night.

  The Caroline of today is tall and gorgeous, but her biggest identifier is that she can part a crowd. She intimidates the hell out of everyone, even the teachers, mostly because she speaks up now—always—and tells it like it is. The main reason we’re still at all on-again is history. I know she must still be in there even if there’s no sign of her. This new Caroline arrived without warning, sophomore year, which means the old Caroline could (possibly) come back at any minute. The other reason is that she is generally easy for me to recognize.

  I turn down my least-favorite hall, the one outside the library, the one where Caroline’s locker is. When I was a freshman, I worked in the library, and if I run into any of the librarians, they’ll all say hi and ask how my family is, and I’ll be expected to know who they are.

  As I walk, people are saying hi to me, and that’s a nightmare too. I put on some extra swagger, half smiling at everyone, keeping it casual, but I must miss someone because I hear, “Prick.”

  The waters are treacherous. And also fickle. This is the first thing I learned about high school. One minute you’re well liked, the next minute you’re an outcast. Just ask Luke Revis, the most famous cautionary tale at MVB. Luke was the man our freshman year till everyone found out his dad served time in prison. Now Luke’s in prison too, and you don’t want to know why.

  At this moment, the hall is full of potential Lukes. One kid being stuffed into a locker. Another kid tripping over someone’s outstretched foot so that he goes flying into someone else, who shoves him, until he’s bouncing from one person to another like a human volleyball. Girls trash-talking another girl right in front of her face so that she turns away, all red-eyed and crying. Another girl walking by with a big scarlet “A” swinging from her back, which leaves people snickering in her wake because everyone but Hester Prynne is in on the joke. For every single laughing person in this hallway, there are five who look either terrified or miserable.

  I try to imagine what it would be like if the general high school public knew about me—they could literally walk right up and steal my shit or steal my car, then come back and help me look for it. This guy could pose as that guy or this girl could pretend to be that girl, and it would be really fucking hilarious. Everyone in on the joke but me.

  I want to keep walking till I’m at the front entrance and then run the hell out of here.

  I hear, “Wait up, Mass,” and I start walking faster.

  “Mass!”

  Holy shit. Fuck off, whoever you are.

  “Mass! Mass! Wait up, you fucker!”

  This guy runs to catch up with me. He’s about my height and stocky. His hair is brown and he’s wearing a nondescript shirt. I glance at his backpack, the book he’s carrying, his shoes, anything that might give me a clue as to who he is. Meanwhile he’s launching into a conversation.

  “Man, you need to get your hearing checked.”

  “Sorry. I’m meeting Caroline.” If he knows her, this will work.

  “Shit.” He knows her. When it come
s to Caroline Lushamp, most people fall into one of two camps—they’re either in love with her or terrified of her. “No wonder you’re somewhere else.” The way he says it lets me know he belongs to Camp Terrified. “I just thought you might want to tell me to my face.”

  This is yet another nightmare—when they don’t give you enough to go on.

  “Tell you what?”

  “Are you serious?” He stops in the middle of the hall, and goes red in the cheeks. “She’s my girlfriend. You’re lucky I don’t beat the shit out of you.”

  This is almost certainly Reed Young, but there’s a slight chance it could be someone else. I decide to keep it generic while trying to sound as specific as possible. “You’re right. I am lucky, and don’t think I don’t appreciate it. I owe you, man.”

  “Yeah, you do.”

  I hear voices coming down the hall, loud and boisterous like a mob pillaging the countryside. People are dodging out of the way, and here come a couple of guys as big as the football field. They go, “What’s up, Mass? Heard you had a nice time at the party.” And they laugh hysterically. I may not recognize them, but these are apparently friends of mine. One of them rams his shoulder into some poor kid slinking past and then tells the kid to watch where he’s going.

  I say to the football field, “Dude, show some respect.” And nod at Reed. Then I say to him, “Really, man. You’re a good friend.” This isn’t exactly true, but he and I have been on the baseball team together since freshman year.

  “Well. I still want to kick your ass, but don’t let it happen again.”

  “Never.”

  He looks toward the library. A girl stands at the lockers opposite, talking on her phone. He shivers. “I wouldn’t want to be you right now.” And he bolts in the other direction, followed by the human football fields.

  As I get closer to the girl, I can see the light eyes against the dark skin and the mole she paints on by her right eyebrow, even though everyone knows it’s not real.

  Run away while you still can.

  She looks up. “Seriously?” she says, and yep, it’s Caroline. She doesn’t wait, just turns to go into the library, where I can see the librarians behind the desk, waiting for me to walk in there so they can make a fool out of me.

  I grab her arm and spin her around and even though I don’t want to, I pull her in and kiss the breath out of her. “That’s what I should have done on Saturday,” I say when I let her go. “That’s what I should have been doing all summer.”

  Caroline’s Achilles’ heel is rom-coms and vampire romances. She wants to live in a world where the hot guy grabs the girl and just plants one on her because he’s so overcome with desire and love that he’s rendered brainless. So I touch her face, push her hair behind her ear, careful not to mess it up or she’ll be madder. For some reason, eye contact, as a rule, is tough for me, which means I focus on her mouth. “You’re beautiful.”

  Be careful. Is this what you want? We’ve been down this rabbit hole before, buddy. Do we really want to go down it again?

  But there’s a part of me that needs her. And hates that I need her.

  I can feel her softening. If I know Caroline, this is the greatest present I could ever give her—letting her be the forgiver. She doesn’t smile—Caroline rarely smiles anymore—but her eyes dart to the floor, fixing themselves on some invisible something there. The corners of her mouth turn down. She is thinking it over. Finally, she says, “You’re the worst, Jack Masselin. I don’t know why I even talk to you.” Which is Caroline-speak for I love you too.

  “What about Zach?”

  “I broke up with him two weeks ago.”

  And like that, we’re back together.

  She takes my hand and we walk through the halls, and my heart’s beating a little fast and I’ve got this feeling of I’m safe. Without even knowing it, she’ll be my guide. She’ll tell me who’s who. We’re Caroline and Jack, Jack and Caroline. As long as I’m with her I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe.

  According to Mr. Dominguez, if he wasn’t teaching driver’s ed, he’d be repossessing cars. Not the cars of people who can’t afford payments. No, he’d reclaim the cars of the people who are bad drivers, and then, like Robin Hood, he’d give those cars to an orphanage or to good drivers who can’t afford their own set of wheels. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious because he has absolutely no sense of humor and he glares at everything. He is the sexiest man I’ve ever seen.

  “A lot of schools are doing away with driver’s ed. They send you out somewhere to take classes…” The way he says somewhere makes it sound like a dark and terrible place. “But we teach you here because we care.”

  And then he shows us a film on underriding, which is when cars rear-end semitrucks and go plowing under them. At first, this boy named Travis Kearns is laughing, but then he utters one last “Goddamn” and goes quiet. Ten minutes later, even Bailey Bishop isn’t smiling, and Monique Benton asks permission to go throw up in the bathroom.

  After she leaves, Mr. Dominguez says, “Anyone else?” As if Monique walked out in protest and not clutching her stomach. “Statistics say you’re going to die in a car crash before you’re twenty-one. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

  My skin prickles. I feel like he’s preparing us to go to battle, like Haymitch to our Katniss. Across the room, Bailey goes, “Oh my golly,” which is her equivalent of “Holy fuck.” Everyone looks ill except me.

  This is because in that moment, as someone’s head goes rolling off down the highway, I know the part I want to play here in this class and at MVB High. I’m not going to be a statistic—I’ve beaten statistics for most of my life. I’m not going to be one of those drivers who gets smashed under a truck. I want to be the girl who can do anything. I want to be the girl who tries out for the MVB Damsels and makes the team.

  I raise my hand. Mr. Dominguez nods at me and my skin goes electric.

  “How soon do we drive?”

  “When you’re ready.”

  Top 8 Things I Hate About Cancer

  by Jack Masselin

  1. It runs in families, which means even if you’re my age, you can still feel like you’ve got a target on your back.

  2. It runs in my family.

  3. The way it can hit you like a meteor, completely out of the blue.

  4. Chemo.

  5. It’s really goddamn serious. (In other words, do not, whatever you do, smile or laugh about something in an effort to lighten the mood.)

  6. Having to bribe/bargain with God, even though you’re not sure he exists.

  7. When your dad gets diagnosed your sophomore year one week after you find out he’s been cheating on your mother.

  8. Seeing your mom cry.

  I stop in the office of Heather Alpern on my way to fourth period. She is eating apple slices, long legs crossed, long arms draped like cats on the armrests of her chair. Before she was coach of the Damsels, she was a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. She is so beautiful that I can’t look directly at her. I stare at the wall and say, “I’d like a Damsels application, please.”

  I wait for her to tell me there’s a weight limit and that I am far, far beyond it. I wait for her to throw her beautiful head back and laugh hysterically before showing me the door. After all, the Damsels are high-profile. In addition to football and basketball games, they entertain at every big event in town—grand openings, parades, dedications, concerts.

  But instead Heather Alpern rummages through a drawer and pulls out a form. “Our season technically started this summer. If we don’t lose anyone, the next tryout period isn’t until January.”

  I say to my feet, “What if you do lose someone?”

  “We’ll have auditions. We’ll make an announcement and post flyers.” She hands me the application. “You can fill this out and bring it back to me and I’ll keep it on file. Just make sure to get your parents’ permission.” And then she smiles this beautiful, encouraging smile, like Maria in The Sound of Music, and I
float out of there like I’m full of helium.

  I bob and bounce like a balloon through the halls feeling as if I’m carrying the world’s greatest secret. You may not know this about me, but I love to dance.

  I am looking at the faces of everyone passing by and wondering what secrets they’re keeping, when someone slams into me, a square-headed boy with a big, ruddy face.

  “Hey,” he says.

  “Hey.”

  “Is it true fat girls give better blow jobs?”

  “I don’t know. I’ve never gotten a blow job from a fat girl.”

  People are passing by on all sides, and some of them laugh at this. His eyes turn cold, and there it is—the hatred a total stranger can feel for you, even if they don’t know you, simply because they think they know you or hate what you are.

  “I think you’re disgusting.”

  I say, “If it’s any consolation, I think you are too.”

  He mutters something that sounds like and probably is fat whore. It doesn’t matter that I’m a virgin. I should have had sex a thousand times by now for all the boys who’ve been calling me this since fifth grade.

  “Leave her alone, Sterling.” This is from a girl with long, swinging hair and legs up to her neck. Bailey Bishop. If the Bailey of now is anything like the Bailey of then, she is earnest, popular, and loves Jesus. She is adorable. Everyone loves her. She walks into a room expecting people to like her, and they do, because how could you not like someone so thoroughly nice?

  “Hey, Libby. I don’t know if you remember me…” She doesn’t link her arm through mine, but she might as well. Her voice still has the same lilt to it, every sentence ending on a high, happy note. She almost sounds as if she’s singing.

 
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