Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  At first, he doesn’t see her, which is a miracle because this girl is enormous. But then I can tell he sees her, and he picks up speed, laughing and sprinting away. Seth is sitting straight up, like a dog watching a squirrel. Under his breath he goes, “What the hell…”

  Just as the girl gets close, Kam takes off like he’s on fire, and the girl runs after him. I’m on my feet now because it’s the best damn thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, she is flying.

  Seth starts clapping like a fool. “Oh shit.” He’s hollering at Kam and laughing himself blue, kicking and stomping at the bleachers, and the whole time I am rooting for the girl.

  “Run!” I yell, and I’m yelling it to her, though no one knows it. “Run! Run! Run!”

  Finally, Kam hurdles the fence and races off down the street away from us. Like a fucking gazelle, the girl hurdles the fence right after him, and the only thing that stops her from catching him is a truck that goes barreling past at just that moment. She stands on the street and stares after Kam, and then she walks, not runs, back toward the school. She crosses the football field, and as she walks her eyes are on me again. She doesn’t turn her head, just follows me with her eyes, and I am telling you she is pissed.

  SIX YEARS EARLIER

  I walk onto the playground, and Moses Hunt says to me, “Hey, if it isn’t Flabby Stout. What’s up, Flabby?”

  I say, “You’re flabby.” Even though he isn’t, but then neither am I.

  He does a sideways look at the boys grouped around him, the ones who hang on his every move all the time, even when he’s just making arm farts and repeating the swear words his brothers taught him. His eyes come sliding back to me, and he’s about to say something, and I know whatever it is I don’t want to hear it because no one could say anything nice with a mouth that looks like it swallowed a whole lemon, seeds and all.

  He opens that pursed-up lemon mouth and says, “No one will ever love you. Because you’re fat.”

  I stare down at my legs and stomach. I hold out my arms. If I’m fat, it’s news to me. Plump, maybe. A little chubby. But this is the way I’ve always been. I take a good, hard look at Moses and the other boys and the girls over by the swings. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t look that much fatter than any of them.

  “I don’t think I am.”

  “Well then, you’re not only fat, you’re dumb.” The boys fall down with laughter. Moses’s face bunches up like a fist, and he opens his mouth so wide it looks like all the pigeons in Amos could nest there. “Go home, Flabby Stout. The sun can’t shine when you come out…” He’s singing it to the tune of “Lullaby and Goodnight.” “You’re so big you block the moon. Go home, Flabby, go to your room…”

  I think, You’re the one that’s dumb. And I move past him. I’m aiming for the swings, where I see Bailey Bishop along with a hundred other girls. Moses steps in front of me. “Go home, Flabby Stout…”

  I step the other way, and he blocks my path again. So now I move toward the jungle gym, where I can sit in peace, but he says, “I can’t let you do that. You might break it.”

  “I won’t break it. I’ve been on it before.”

  “But you might. Your flab has probably cracked the foundation. The next time you go on it, I bet that whole thing’ll collapse. Maybe the playground too. You’re probably cracking it right now just standing here. You probably killed your mom by sitting on her.” The boys die over and over. One of them rolls along the ground, hooting his face off.

  I’m not as tall as Moses is, but I stare directly into his dark, soulless eyes. All I can think is For the first time in my life, I know what it’s like to have someone hate me. I can see the hate in there like it’s lodged in his pupils.

  I spend the rest of recess standing against the wall on the edge of the playground wondering what I’ve done to Moses Hunt to make him hate me and knowing that whatever it is, there’s no coming back from it. It’s my stomach that tells me He will never like you no matter what you do, no matter how thin you are, no matter how nice you try to be to him. This is a terrifying feeling. It’s the feeling of something turning. Of coming to a corner and going around it and seeing that the street ahead is dark and deserted or filled with wild dogs, but you can’t go back, only forward, right into the middle of the pack.

  I hear a shriek, and my friend Bailey Bishop jumps off the swing in midflight, legs reaching for the earth, hair sailing for the sky, bright gold as the sunrise.

  I wave but she doesn’t see me. Doesn’t she notice I’m missing? I wave again, but she’s too busy running. I think, If I were Bailey Bishop, I’d run too. She has legs as long as light poles. If I were Bailey Bishop, I wouldn’t even look for me to see where I’d gone off to. I would just run and run and run.

  NOW

  The girl’s name is Iris Engelbrecht. These are the things I’ve learned in the past five minutes: She’s been heavy since birth, thanks to a double whammy of hypothyroidism and something called Cushing’s syndrome. Her parents are divorced, she has two older sisters, and everyone in her family is overweight.

  “You need to tell the principal.”

  Iris shakes her head. “No.”

  We are back inside the school, just the two of us. I’m trying to lead us toward the main hall, toward where the principal’s office is, but Iris is dragging her feet.

  “I’ll go with you.”

  “I don’t want to make it worse.”

  “What makes it worse is Dave Kaminski thinking he can do that to you.”

  “I’m not like you.” And what she means is I’m not brave like you.

  “Then I’ll just go.” I walk away from her.

  “Don’t.” She catches up to me. “I mean, thanks for chasing after him, but I want the whole thing to go away, and it’s not going away if I tell. It does the opposite of going away. It gets so big I have to look at it all the time, and I don’t want to. It’s the first day of the school year.” And again I can hear what she isn’t saying: I don’t want this thing to follow me the whole year, even if I’ve got every right to kick his teeth in.

  —

  My counselor, Rachel Mendes, meets me at the park. For two of the past three years, I’ve seen her every day. Back when I was in the hospital, she was the first person, other than my dad, who spoke to me like I was a regular girl. Later she became my tutor and also my caregiver, the one who stayed with me while my dad went to work. Now she’s my best friend and we meet here once a week.

  She says, “What happened?”

  “Boys. Idiots. People.”

  There used to be a zoo in the heart of the park, but it was shut down in 1986 after the bear tried to eat a man’s arm. All that’s left of it is this wide stone bench, which used to be part of the bear’s habitat. We sit on that and look out toward the golf course, and I’m fuming so much I’m worried the top of my head is going to blast right off.

  “This boy did a cruel thing, and the person he did it to doesn’t want to speak up.”

  “Is the person in danger?”

  “No. The boy probably thought what he did was harmless, but he shouldn’t have done it and he shouldn’t get away with it.”

  “We can’t fight another person’s battles, no matter how much we want to.”

  But we can chase the bastards who terrorize them down the street. I think how much simpler life was when I couldn’t leave the house. It was just Supernatural reruns all day long, reading, reading, reading, and spying on the neighbor boys from my window.

  “How’s the anxiety?”

  “I’m mad, but I’m breathing.”

  “How’s the eating?”

  “I didn’t stress-eat, but the day’s not over.” And there’s an entire school year left to experience. Even though I’ve spent almost three years eating nutritiously and boringly without a hiccup, Rachel and my doctors are worried I might end up spiraling into some wild, bottomless binge because I’m so deprived. What they don’t understand is it wasn’t about the food. Food was never part of the
Why. Not directly, at least.

  “Here’s the worst thing of it,” I say. “You know how far I’ve come and I know how far I’ve come, but everyone else just sees me for how large I am or where I was years ago, not who I am now.”

  “You’ll show them. If anyone can, it’s you.”

  Suddenly, I can’t sit on this bench any longer. This happens sometimes—after all those months of being motionless, I still get overcome with the need to move my body.

  I say, “Let’s twirl.”

  And this is what I love most about Rachel. She just gets right up and starts twirling, no questions asked, no fear of what anyone else might think.

  Christmas Eve. I’m four. My grandmother gives Mom and me these giant matching Christmas skirts—one in green, one in red. They’re ugly, but they twirl, and so we wear them straight through New Year’s, twirling all the way. Long after I outgrew the skirt, we twirled for birthdays, Mother’s Day, anything worth celebrating.

  Rachel and I spin till we’re dizzy and then fall back down onto the bench. I sneak-check my pulse without her seeing because there’s good breathless and bad breathless. I wait until I feel my pulse go steady, till I know I’m safe, and I say, “Do you know what happened to the bear? The one that was here?”

  I can’t blame him for trying to take someone’s arm off. I mean, the man reached into his cage, and that cage was all the bear had in the world.

  “The news report said they sent him over to Cincinnati for socialization.”

  “What do you really think happened?”

  “I think they shot him.”

  On the wall above me, my great-great-something-grandfather stares at me from out of a giant frame, stern and wild-eyed. The stories paint him as a saintly man who lived to carve toys. If they’re to be believed, he was a kind of selfless Indiana Santa Claus. But in his photo, he is one scary old son of a bitch.

  He fixes those wild eyes on me as I leave a voicemail for Kam: I’m sitting here at good old Masselin’s Toys, wishing you well on your journey home. Let me know if you need money for a plane ticket back.

  I hang up and say to Great-Great-Something-Grandfather, “Don’t judge a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

  I’m in the store office returning emails, checking inventory, paying bills, work I could do in my sleep. Masselin’s Toys has been in our family for five generations. It’s survived the Great Depression and race riots and the downtown explosion of 1968 and the recession, and it will probably be here long after my dad is gone and I’m gone, long after the next ice age, when the only other survivors are cockroaches. Since birth, reliable, dutiful Marcus has been the one expected to take the baton from Dad. This is because for whatever reason everyone expects Great Things from Jack. But I know something they don’t. This will be me one day, living in this town, running this store, marrying, having kids, talking loudly to foreigners, cheating on my wife. Because what else am I possibly equipped for?

  My phone buzzes and it’s Kam, but before I can answer, a man walks in (dark, wiry hair, dark eyebrows, pale skin, Masselin’s store shirt).

  My dad clears his throat. The chemo has left him with hearing damage in one ear and a throat that constantly needs clearing. He says, “Why did you quit advanced chemistry?”

  How the fuck does he know this? It only happened a couple of hours ago.

  “I didn’t.”

  I’ll tell you how he knows this. Monica Chapman probably whispered it in his ear as they were doing it in his car.

  And before I can stop them, all these images go racing through my head of primeval naked body parts, some of them belonging to my dad.

  He grabs a chair, and as he sits down I look away because I can’t get these images out of my mind. “That’s not what I heard.” As I was banging Monica Chapman all over the chem lab. As I was banging her against your locker, on top of your lunch table, on the desk of every teacher you will ever have.

  I say, maybe too loudly, “I just changed to the other class.”

  “What was wrong with the class you were in?”

  And there it is. I mean, he must be kidding, right? Because there’s no way he’s actually continuing to ask me about this.

  I can’t avoid it. I have to look him in the eye—something that makes me even more uncomfortable than this conversation. “Let’s just say I have a problem with the teacher.”

  Dad’s shoulders stiffen, and he knows I know, and it is awkward as hell in there. Suddenly I don’t give a shit about the emails or the inventory. All I care about is leaving because why would Monica Chapman tell him anything if she wasn’t still sleeping with him?

  —

  This skinny kid with big ears sits at the kitchen table drinking milk out of one of the whiskey glasses my parents keep on the bar. Even though he’s just a kid, the way he’s sitting makes me think of an old man who’s seen kinder times and better days. His purse is on the table.

  I grab a glass, pour myself some juice, and say, “Is this seat taken?” He pushes the chair out to me with his foot and I sit. I hold out my glass and he clinks his against mine and we drink in silence. I can hear the tick of the grandfather clock from down the hall. We’re the first ones home.

  Finally, Dusty says, “Why are people so shitty?”

  At first I think he knows about my conversation with Dad, or about me, about the person I am at school, but then my eyes go to the purse, where one of the ugliest words in the English language is scrawled across one side of it in black marker. The strap has been sliced in two.

  My eyes go back to my little brother. “People are shitty for a lot of reasons. Sometimes they’re just shitty people. Sometimes people have been shitty to them and, even though they don’t realize it, they take that shitty upbringing and go out into the world and treat others the same way. Sometimes they’re shitty because they’re afraid. Sometimes they choose to be shitty to others before others can be shitty to them. So it’s like self-defensive shittiness.” Which I know plenty about. “Who’s being shitty to you?”

  Dusty holds up his hand and shakes his head, which tells me no, we won’t speak of details. “Why would being afraid make someone act shitty?”

  “Because maybe someone doesn’t like who he is, but then here’s this other kid who knows exactly who he is and seems pretty damn fearless.” I glance at the purse. “Well, that can be intimidating and even though it shouldn’t, it can make that first kid feel even worse about himself.”

  “Even if the other kid isn’t trying to make anyone feel worse, he’s just being himself?”

  “Exactly.”

  “That’s shitty.”

  “Is there anything I can do?”

  “You just don’t be shitty.”

  “I can’t promise anything except that I’ll never be shitty to you, little brother.”

  We drink like two old comrades, and after a while I say, “You know, I bet I could fix that bag for you. Or even build you a new one. One that’s indestructible.”

  He shrugs. “I’m better off without it.”

  And the way he says it makes me want to buy him every goddamn purse in the world and start carrying one myself out of solidarity.

  “What if I build you something else, then? What’s one thing you’ve always wanted? Sky’s the limit. Heart’s desire.”

  “A Lego robot.”

  “One that can do your homework for you?”

  He shakes his head. “Nah, I’ve got that covered.”

  I lean back in my chair and rub my jaw like I’m deep in thought. “Okay, you probably want one that can do your chores.”

  “Uh-uh.”

  “Maybe a drone, then?”

  “I want one that can be my friend.”

  It’s like a kick to the gut. I almost lose it right there, but instead I nod, rub my jaw, empty my glass. “Consider it done.”

  After dinner, Dad and I sit on the couch and I show him the most recent Damsels video, filmed two weeks ago at a festival over in Indianapolis. Seq
uins flashing, stadium lights blaring, crowd cheering. All that color. All that life. I’m not sure anyone else on earth appreciates it as much as I do.

  He says, “Are you sure about this?”

  “No. But I’m auditioning anyway. You can’t protect me from everything. If I fall on my face, I fall on my face, but at least I’ve done it.”

  I hand him the application, which he flips through. He reaches for the pen that lies on the coffee table and signs his name. As he hands it back, he says, “You know, having you out in the world again is harder than I thought.”

  I’m in the basement, which is like a warped version of Santa’s workshop, cluttered with cars and dump trucks, Mr. Potato Heads, walkie-talkies, and all things Fisher-Price. Discarded toys, but other stuff too—car parts, motorcycle parts, motors, fragments of lawn mowers and appliances. Anything I can turn into something else. Some projects are finished, but most are works in progress, the guts pulled out, pieces everywhere. This is where I take things apart and put them back together in new and stupefying ways. The way I wish I could do with myself.

  The phone buzzes and it’s Kam. “I ran all the way to Centerville, man.”

  I laugh the laugh of someone brave and manly. “Did the mean girl scare you?”

  “Shut up. She was so fucking fast.”

  “Are you okay? Do you need to talk about it?” I use the voice Kam’s mom uses when she’s speaking to his little sister, the one who’s always crying and slamming doors.

  “That’s it, dude. The golden ring.”

  “What?”

  “Her. She’s the prize. Or at least, the goal. Whoever can hold on to that one, wins.”

  “Wins what?”

  But I already know what he’s going to say.

  “Fat Girl Rodeo.”

  The walls of the workshop start to close in around me.

 
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