Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  “Mass?”

  “Maybe I’m not so into this game.”

  “What do you mean you’re not into it?”

  I mean I don’t want to have this conversation because I don’t like where this is going.

  “It just seems kind of lame. I mean, dude, Seth came up with it.” When in doubt, always, always throw Seth under the bus.

  “He didn’t come up with it. He told us about it. A different animal altogether. Besides, it’s fucking hilarious. What’s wrong with you? She almost ran me over.”

  “Seth’s a moron.” More bus throwing as I try to think of a way to stop this before it ends in the humiliation of every heavy girl in school. They don’t deserve it. The girl who hurdled that fence like a gazelle and chased Kam down the street doesn’t deserve it. I say, “She doesn’t deserve it.”

  “Jesus, you mad fucker. It’s like you want to take her to prom. Should I order the limo now?”

  “I’m just saying we can make better use of our free time senior year. Have you seen the freshmen girls?” When in doubt, mention girls.

  “Since when are you such a pussy?”

  I stop talking. My heart pounds like a drum. Say something , douchebag.

  “We’re doing this with or without you, Mass.”

  Finally I go, “Whatever, man. Do what you want.”

  “Thanks so much, I will. As long as we have your approval.”

  “Dick.”

  “Douche.” Our pet names for each other. The ground between us feels a little more solid, but the rest of the world shakes, like it’s built on a high wire miles above the earth.

  What I Stand to Lose if I Tell My Friends to Fuck Off

  by Jack Masselin

  1. Kam and Seth. They may not be the greatest friends in the world, but they’re the only ones I can reliably recognize on a semiconsistent basis. Maybe it’s because I’ve known them longer than anyone else, or maybe it’s because their identifiers are so easy to pick out in a crowd. For whatever reason, they stick. Which is probably why I became friends with them in the first place. Imagine moving to a town where you only know two people and will only ever know these same two people, no matter how many other people you meet.

  2. The carefully constructed world I’ve built for myself within the walls of Martin Van Buren High School. I did not get to be Jack Masselin by pissing people off. And even though I may not always like Jack Masselin, I need him. Without him, I’m just some screwed-up kid with a screwed-up family and a questionable future. And if I know anything about high school, it’s this: if you give people an excuse, they will feed you to the wolves. (Luke Revis, I’m looking at you.)

  So yeah.

  3. Me. I’d rather not lose me.

  I lie on my bed—not the same bed I spent twenty-four hours a day on, back when I couldn’t leave the house, but a new one we bought after I lost some weight. I pull out my headphones and find the song “All Right Now.” I know it from season one, episode six of Supernatural. It’s at the very end of the episode, when Dean tells Sam he wishes he could have lived a normal life.

  A normal life is what I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember. It’s what I tried to create in my mind, from my bed. When Dean-across-the-street learned to skateboard, I learned with him, and we would race each other for hours. When Dean and Sam played baseball in the yard, I played too, and when they built a potato cannon in the driveway, I helped spray-paint it and shoot potatoes over the roof. The four of us hung out in their tree house, and whenever Castiel’s big brothers left him behind, I took him for ice cream and told him stories. Afterward, I would go back to my house and eat dinner at the dining room table with my dad and my mom, because, of course, it was all imagined, which meant I could make it anything I wanted it to be. Just like I could make me anything I wanted to be, including a regular-size girl.

  I turn the song up loud enough that it feels like it’s in me, running through my veins just like blood. As angry as I was today, I don’t remember feeling anxious. No heart palpitations, no nervous sweats. The cafeteria didn’t spin. My head didn’t feel like it was being squeezed by two enormous hands. My lungs breathed normally, evenly, all on their own.

  The Damsels application lies next to me. Under What trait or asset do you possess that you could bring to our team that we might not find in other candidates? I wrote, I’m big, eye-catching, and can dance like the wind. Nowhere on the application does it ask for my weight.

  I watch as George attacks the comforter and think, Yes. All right now. That’s me. Nothing will ever be okay again, not in the same way, but I’m getting used to it. Maybe I will get that normal life after all.

  I sit at my computer for a long time, trying to figure out what to say. I can bullshit my way through school essays, but I’m not a writer. This has never been a big deal until this exact moment.

  Here’s the thing. For all their faults, my parents are good people. Okay, Mom more so than Dad. They’ve taught my brothers and me to be good people too, and even though we may not always act that way, it’s still inside us, inside me. Enough so, at least, that I don’t want some innocent girl getting shamed and humiliated because of my jackass friends.

  And what if they do something worse than the rodeo calls for?

  What if they try to kiss her?

  What if they try to cop a feel?

  In my mind, I run through every worst-case scenario, and all of them end with this girl crying her heart out.

  I rest my head on the desk. I feel like crying my own heart out right now.

  Finally, I’m like:

  To hell with it.

  I lift my head and just start writing.

  I’m not a shitty person, but I’m about to do a shitty thing. And you will hate me, and some other people will hate me, but I’m going to do it anyway to protect you and also myself…

  THE NEXT DAY

  Iris Engelbrecht decides to join me in the cafeteria. For some reason—maybe it’s our combined size—she walks five steps behind me.

  “You still back there, Iris?”

  “I’m here.”

  She can make even those two words sound miserable and defeated. She is the Eeyore of Martin Van Buren High. And she talks about weight a lot. I definitely am not interested in becoming the Official Spokesperson for Fat Girls, which is exactly what Iris seems to think I am, along with Badass Fat Girl with Attitude. This is ten times worse than the Sassy Fat Girl or the Fat Girl Best Friend. This is a role that comes with a lot of expectations, and the last thing I want is to feel responsible for helping someone else maneuver high school.

  I’m heading over to where Bailey Bishop sits with Jayvee De Castro at a table by the window, when I spy Dave Kaminski, white head covered by a black beanie. Iris tugs on my sleeve. “I want to get out of here.”

  I turn around and start walking in the opposite direction, poor Iris bumping along behind. And I run smack into one of Dave Kaminski’s friends, one of the guys from the bleachers. He’s tall, long-limbed, and lanky, with gold-brown skin and this dark brown hair that explodes in all directions like the sun.

  Before I can get out of his way, he goes, “Sorry.” And there’s something serious and troubled in his eyes, like he just lost his best friend.

  “No, I’m sorry.” And I step to the side so I can go around him. But then he’s stepping to the same side. So I step to the other side, and so does he, and I’m thinking how ridiculous we must look when I hear Dave Kaminski somewhere over my right shoulder going, “HOLY SHIT, IT’S ON!”

  For a second, I think this boy is going to pass out right in front of me. He says again, “I’m sorry.” And then he throws himself on me and holds on like his life depends on it.

  I’m so surprised, I can’t even move. Instead my mind goes spinning back in time to a family vacation when I was nine. My mom and dad and cousins and aunts and me at the beach in North Carolina. It was a hot day, and we were all swimming. I had this pink-and-yellow checked bathing suit I loved. I was treading
water in the shallows and a jellyfish attached itself to my leg while I was swimming. I mean, the little monster wouldn’t let me go and they had to carry me out of there and pry it off, and I thought I was going to die.

  Well, this little monster is holding on just as hard, and at first I can’t do anything but stand there. It’s like the world goes blank and still, and so do I. Everything just

  s

  l

  o

  w

  s

  d

  o

  w

  n.

  And stops.

  Just stops.

  For the first time in a really long time, I feel panicked. Chest clenching. Breath coming too fast. Palms damp. Neck hot.

  And then something snaps me back into reality—maybe the sound of shouting and clapping and booing. Or is it mooing? Whatever, I’m suddenly back in the school cafeteria with this boy draped on me like a sweater, arms wrapped around me tight.

  “No.”

  I recognize my own voice, but I sound far away, like I’m on the other side of the school, over by the library.

  It’s clear that this is some kind of horrible game. Hug the Fat Girl or Velcro Yourself to the Fat Girl. This is worse than being banned from the playground, and I’m suddenly so mad I’m shaking. My whole body goes hot, which I’m sure he must notice, seeing as how he’s as attached to me as my arms and legs.

  I think, I didn’t lose three hundred pounds and give up pizza and Oreos just to be shamed in my school cafeteria by this jackass.

  “NOOOOO!” It comes out like a roar.

  For someone so lanky, he’s strong, and I summon all the strength I have to peel him off like a Band-Aid.

  And then I punch him in the mouth.

  I’m lying on the cafeteria floor, and the girl is standing over me. My jaw feels knocked loose, like it’s over somewhere in Ohio. I give it a rub to make sure it’s still attached, and my hand comes away covered in blood.

  I say, “What the hell?” My words are garbled. Jesus, I think she broke my voice box. “Why did you punch me?”

  “WHY DID YOU GRAB ME?”

  My eyes go to her backpack, to the letter sticking out of the pocket I just managed to shove it into. I want to say You’ll understand later, but I can’t speak because I’m wiping the blood from my mouth.

  I may not know who anyone is, but every face in that cafeteria is turned toward us, eyes staring, mouths hanging open or gums flapping. The girl is still standing there, and from the floor I say, “I’m getting up. In case you’re thinking of punching me again.”

  A hand comes toward me, and it’s attached to a tall white guy wearing a stupid black beanie. I hate hats because sometimes the only identifier is someone’s hair, and a hat erases that, which erases them. I’m not sure whether I should take the hand, but no one else is offering one, so I let him pull me up. As he does, the son of a bitch starts laughing.

  The girl turns on him. “You’re a jackass.”

  He holds his hands up like she’s pulled a gun. “Hey, I’m not the one that grabbed you.”

  “Maybe not, but I’m sure you had something to do with it.” Which tells me this might be Dave Kaminski.

  Then another girl is there, dark and angry, with a mole by one eye, and she gets right up in the face of the girl I grabbed. “YOU HIT HIM? YOU STUPID COW! HE WASN’T HURTING YOU!” And only Caroline Lushamp can get her voice that high and loud.

  I say, “I deserved it. I shouldn’t have grabbed her.” And suddenly I’m defending my attacker.

  “She did this to you?” A kid appears, pointy chin, shaggy hair. I’m searching his face for signs of who he is, but everyone is coming at me all at once, and this is my nightmare because I don’t know who anyone is. People are pulling at me, and wanting to know What happened, am I okay, it’s going to be okay, don’t you worry, Jack. I want them to get off me and go away because I’m supposed to know them and I don’t, and I might as well have amnesia. They are freaking me out and I want to tell them to fuck off. She’s the one who deserves the attention, not me. It’s my fault, not hers.

  “What the hell happened, Jax?” The pointy-chinned guy is Marcus, my own brother, because this is what he used to call me when we were kids.

  But I can’t be sure, can I? Even babies recognize the people they know. Even dogs. Even Carl Jumers, who still—how many years after grade school?—has to count on his fingers, and last year ate a cat turd because he was dared.

  One of the security guys appears, pushing people away. And also a teacher (gray hair, beard), who tries to restore order in the crowd. As he’s telling them there’s nothing to see here, go back to your business, another girl comes walking up, fast.

  “Jack Masselin, what happened?” She’s examining my face, and at this point I’m not sure where I’m bleeding from. Do I know this person? There’s nothing about her that looks familiar, but then someone goes, “It was him, Ms. Chapman. He grabbed her.”

  I jerk my chin out of her hand. I say, “It’s Mrs. Chapman,” and I look her right in the eye. In that moment, I’m like, Come on, lady. Show me what you got. Show me what makes you so special. I mean, there must be something incredible here, right? Why else would my dad put his family on the line and risk everything?

  But the only one who stands out from the staring, jabbering crowd of them isn’t my own brother or the woman who’s wrecking my parents’ marriage. It’s a girl I don’t even know, the largest girl here.

  Principal Wasserman is a wiry jumping bean of a woman. A plaque behind her desk says she’s been a principal for twenty-five years. I sit across from her, next to the boy and a woman who must be his mother.

  Principal Wasserman says to me, “Your dad should be here any minute.”

  Suddenly I feel like I’m going to throw up because I’ve just gone reeling back in time to the worst moment of my life. I was in fifth grade, in the middle of a school assembly, when the principal found me and led me out of the auditorium in front of everyone. She took me to the office, where my dad was waiting along with a school counselor. A big box of Kleenex sat on the corner of the principal’s desk, and that was what I focused on. It was such a big box, as if they’d created it especially for that moment.

  “Your mom is in the hospital and we have to leave now.”

  “What do you mean?”

  He had to repeat it three times before I could understand, and even then I thought it was a terrible joke, that they’d all conspired for some reason to play this really cruel trick on me.

  “Libbs?”

  I look up as my dad walks in. “Are you okay?”

  “I’m okay.”

  Someone brings in a chair for him, and then the principal tells everyone what happened in the cafeteria.

  The boy’s mom is staring at her son like he’s Rosemary’s baby. She says, “There’s got to be some sort of explanation as to why on earth you would do such a thing.”

  My dad says to her, “I’d like to hear the explanation that could make me understand this.”

  The principal speaks over them. “I want to hear from Jack and Libby.”

  Everyone looks at us.

  “He grabbed me.”

  “How did he grab you?”

  “He launched himself at me and held on like I was a flotation device and he was the last man off the Titanic.”

  This boy, Jack, clears his throat. “That’s not exactly how it happened.”

  I raise an eyebrow at him. “Really?”

  But he’s not looking at me. He’s too focused on trying to seduce Principal Wasserman. He leans forward in his chair and talks in this low, drawling voice like he’s conspiring with her. “It was stupid. The whole thing was stupid. Is stupid. I’ve just…” He glances at his mom. “The past couple of years haven’t been so easy.” He looks at Principal Wasserman in this superintense way, like he’s trying to hypnotize her. “I’m not saying there’s any excuse for what I did, because I doubt there’s anything I can say to you
to justify what happened out there…”

  He’s a snake charmer, this one, but lucky for me, Principal Wasserman isn’t a fool. She cuts him off and turns to me. “I’d like to hear what precipitated the punch in the mouth.”

  My dad goes, “You punched him?”

  As evidence, Jack points to his face.

  I say, “He grabbed me.”

  “Technically, I hugged her.”

  “It wasn’t a hug. It was a grab.”

  Principal Wasserman goes, “Why did you grab her, Jack?”

  “Because I was being an idiot. I didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t trying to scare her. Wasn’t trying to bully her. I wish I had a better reason, believe me.” His eyes are going, You will forgive me. You will forget this ever happened. You will love me as all the others do.

  “Did you feel threatened, Libby?”

  “I didn’t feel great, if that’s what you’re asking.”

  “But did you feel threatened? Sexually?”

  Oh my God.

  “No. Just humiliated.”

  Even more so now, thanks.

  “Because we don’t take sexual assault lightly.”

  Jack’s mother leans forward in her chair. “Principal Wasserman, I’m an attorney, and I’m as concerned as you are—if not more so—about what’s transpired here today, but until we—”

  Principal Wasserman says again, “I want to hear from Jack and Libby.”

  Next to me, I can feel the life go out of this boy. I glance over at him, and he looks like a shell, like someone came along and sucked away every ounce of his blood. For whatever moronic reason he grabbed me, I know he didn’t mean it like that.

  So I say, “It wasn’t sexual. At all. I never felt threatened in that way.”

  “But you hit him.”

  “Not because I felt assaulted.”

  “Why did you hit him, then?”

  “Because he grabbed me in a totally nonsexual but still really annoying and humiliating way.”

 
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