Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

  “So lovely.”

  I go on and on, Bailey as my cheerleader, until I run out of steam. I sink down onto my bed and say, “Why are people so concerned with how big I am?” She doesn’t answer, just takes my hand and holds it. She doesn’t need to answer because there is no answer. Except that only small people—the inside-small kind—don’t like you to be big.

  I’ve never built a robot before, but I’m determined. I watch a couple of YouTube videos. Consult a couple of books. By the time I’m done, I’ve decided it’s going to be the best damn Lego robot ever.

  For my eighth birthday, I asked for a hammer, screwdrivers, and wire cutters. I got my first soldering iron when I was nine. No one knows where this urge to build comes from, except that my dad has always been pretty handy, so maybe I get some of it from him. I just know that ever since I was little, making things out of thin air is what centers me, like the way other people turn to yoga or morphine. It’s why we have a pizza oven and a pitching machine in our backyard, a catapult in our garage, and a weather station on the roof. When I’m working, I see the object as a whole before it ever exists, and I build my way there. It’s the exact opposite of my everyday life.

  But right now all I see are the pieces, which is exactly like my everyday life. Red ones here, blue ones there, white and yellow and green and black. At some point, I lie back on top of them, right on the cold concrete floor. It’s uncomfortable as hell, but I tell myself, You don’t deserve comfort, asshole.

  I wonder what Libby Strout is doing right about now. I hope she’s not thinking about me or today. I hope somehow she can think about something else. Anything else.

  I hear footsteps on the basement stairs, and a woman appears, first her legs, then the rest of her. I assume it’s my mom, because what other woman would be in the house unless Dad’s decided to bring Monica Chapman in here? I look for the identifiers. This is Mom-with-Hair-Down. Her mouth is wide. She’s clearly black. I try to build my way to her face, but even after I locate enough pieces to tell myself Okay, that’s her, it’s not as if the image of her snaps into place for me, and it’s not as if it sticks around. I suddenly feel old and so, so tired. It’s exhausting, constantly having to search for the people you love.

  She says, “I don’t need to tell you how disappointed I am in you. Or how angry.”

  “You do not.” I look up at her from the floor.

  “We have to hope they don’t decide to press charges. You may not see yourself as black, and you may not think people see you as black, but it’s a fact that our society treats kids of color more severely than others, and I do not want this following you for the rest of your life.” We’re both quiet as I think about my dismal, dead-end future. She says, “What are you doing?”

  “I was preparing to build a Lego robot for little man, but right now I’m contemplating what an asshole I am.”

  “That’s a start. How are you going to make this better?”

  “I don’t think there’s any making it better, is there? There’s just making it as good as I can after the fact.”

  “Is there anything you want to talk about? Anything you need to tell me?”

  “Not tonight.” Maybe not ever. My phone buzzes on the floor next to me.

  “Get your call. You can tell me tomorrow.”


  She adds, “I love you anyway.”

  “I love you anyway too.”

  It’s almost nine when Bailey leaves. I’m still fired up, so I dance for a while, and then I decide to do homework. I dump the contents of my backpack onto my bed and sort through my papers and notebooks and pens and gum wrappers, and all the miscellaneous rubbish I’ve stuffed in there, including We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I carry everywhere.

  Buried in the mess is a white letter-size envelope.

  What’s this?

  I rip it open and start reading.

  I’m not a shitty person, but I’m about to do a shitty thing…

  At first I think he’s making it up. I read the letter again. And again.

  You know how it’s easy to believe everything is about you, especially when something goes wrong? Why me? Why do I have the worst luck ever? Why is the universe so mean? Why does everyone hate me? My mom used to say sometimes it’s actually about the other person and you just happen to be there. Like sometimes the other person needs to learn a lesson or go through an experience, good or bad, and you’re just an accessory in some way, like a supporting actor in whatever their scene happens to be.

  Maybe, just maybe, this whole nightmare is more about Jack Masselin than it is about me. Maybe this whole thing happened to teach him a lesson about how to treat other people.

  I sit and think on that for a while. This was the thing Mom did—looked at all sides of things. She believed that situations and people were almost never black-and-white.

  Ten minutes later, I’m reading everything I can find on prosopagnosia, which leads me to an artist named Chuck Close, neurologist/author Oliver Sacks, and Brad Pitt. According to the Internet, they all have face blindness. I mean, Brad Pitt.

  What if the entire world was face-blind?

  If everyone had prosopagnosia, there’d be hope for the homely. No one would ever say “You’re too pretty to be fat” or “She’s pretty for a fat girl” because looks would stop mattering. Would people still care if you were overweight or too thin? Tall or short? Maybe. Maybe not. But it would be a step in the right direction.

  At fat camp, we had to try to put ourselves into the skin of other people, just like Atticus told Scout: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it…Skin’s so fascinating anyway—I mean the way it expands and shrinks. I used to weigh twice what I do now—that’s two times more—and my skin fit me then and it fits me now. Weird.

  I try to put myself in Jack Masselin’s skin and imagine what he sees when he looks at me. Do I look different, in some way, from everyone else? Or do I blend in? Then I imagine that I’m the one with face blindness. What would the world look like?

  I pull up a new document. I write:

  Dear Jack,

  Thanks for explaining your douchiness. I don’t think prosopagnosia gives you the right to be a jerk, but I’m at least glad you’re not rotten to your core. Maybe there’s hope for you.


  p.s. I have questions.

  On the other end of the phone Kam says, “I wish you could have seen it. The look on her face when you threw yourself around her, and then when you just hung out there and wouldn’t let go.”

  I force out this kind of halfhearted laugh that sounds like I’m being strangled. “Man, I bet she looked surprised.”

  “As surprised as that chick in Psycho when Norman Bates interrupts her shower. So what did Wasserman say?”

  “Oh, she was really fucking thrilled. Community service and counseling. For weeks.”


  “I know.”

  “But it was worth it.”

  “Says the man who doesn’t have to do it.”

  He’s laughing again. “But wait, it gets better.”


  “Remember the girl who got cut out of her house a couple of years ago?”

  “What about her?”

  “That’s her.”


  “Libby Strout. She’s the one you rodeoed.”

  I feel like I’ve been punched in the face again.

  “Are you sure?” I try to sound like I don’t really give a shit, but here’s the thing—I do give a shit. I give five million shits, which is why I feel like I’m going to be sick all over these Legos.

  “Oh, I’m sure.” He’s laughing.

  I do my strangle-laugh again, only it sounds worse this time.

  “Man, you sound rough.”

  “I think she broke my throat.”

  “So do you remember her?”

  “Yeah. I do.


  Outside, the neighborhood is asleep. I climb out my window and into the tree that acts as a ladder to the roof. I snake all the way up it until I’m there, and then I walk to the edge, over by the gutter. My weather station is anchored near the chimney, battered and lopsided. When I was six, I fell off the roof and cracked my head open. Without thinking, I reach up to feel the scar.

  I run my fingers along it as I stare across the street. If I stand here long enough, I can see it—the gaping hole where the front wall of her house used to be.


  I dream that the street’s on fire. And then I wake up to sirens. I lie still and listen as they come blaring toward the house. It’s end-of-days dark in here, but suddenly the ceiling flashes red and the sirens wind to a stop. I’m up and out of bed and grabbing shit off my dresser and bookshelves before I even know what’s happening.

  On my way out, I fall headfirst into the hallway, where I hear but don’t see my dad, who says from the black recesses of his bedroom, “It’s not us. Go back to bed.”

  But the dream was so damn real that I’m still half in it, and I keep right on going. Outside, the air is cold but smells clean. No fire, no smoke. I’m still holding the shit I grabbed—my granddad’s watch, my retainer, a stack of baseball cards, my phone charger (but no phone)—and of course there’s no jacket.

  It’s the house across the street. Rolling up in front is this line of fire trucks, an ambulance, two police cars. I figure it must be drug lords or a meth lab or maybe even a terrorist. I think it would be really damn cool to have a terrorist on our street because Amos, Indiana, is one boring-ass place.

  “Whose house is that?” It’s Mom behind me.

  “Strom, Stein…” This from Dad.

  “Strout,” says Marcus, who’s twelve, almost thirteen, and knows everything.

  I say before he can, “The Strouts moved out years ago.” The house has been empty since then. You never see anyone coming or going.

  “No, they didn’t.” My other brother—Dusty, seven—is hopping on one leg. “Tams and me went over last week and looked in the windows.”

  “Dusty.” Mom shakes her head.

  “What? We wanted to see the fat girl.”

  “We don’t say ‘fat.’ It’s not polite.”

  “Teacher says ‘fat’ is an adjective just like ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome.’ It’s only people that make it a bad word by saying ‘Listen up, fatso,’ or ‘Hey, look at that fat-ass.’ ”

  Mom frowns at my dad like, He’s your fault, and he says, “Dustin,” in a warning tone, but I can tell he’s trying not to laugh.

  I say, “Mrs. Buckley?” Dusty stares up at me, still on one leg. He nods. I nod. “That’s about right.” Mrs. Buckley is a very large woman.

  “Jack.” Mom sighs. My mom is always sighing. “Let’s go. Back inside. It’s cold. You’ve got school tomorrow.” If we don’t stop her, she’ll list a hundred and one reasons why we need to get off this lawn.

  Just then another fire truck comes roaring up, siren blaring, and then this white truck comes lumbering along behind and this one’s pulling a crane.

  A crane.

  We watch in silence as the firefighters and police and these construction workers, who suddenly seem to be everywhere, set up giant spotlights. The front door to the house opens and closes, and people are moving like ants, scrambling across the yard and disappearing inside and blocking off the street. By now, all the lights on the street are on and every lawn is covered with gawkers. We’re directly across from it all, front-row seats.

  A man walks toward us, hands in pockets, glancing over his shoulder at all the commotion. He says to me, “Can you believe this?” He nods over at the house.

  “I really can’t,” I say, and then Dad goes, “I thought that house was empty.” He says it to the man, who falls in beside him, and they stand side by side, watching. There’s an ease to it that makes me think my dad must know him, and then my mom calls the man Greg and asks about his daughter Jocelyn, the one at Notre Dame, and that’s how I know it’s Mr. Wallin, our next-door neighbor.

  I stand there surrounded by the fire trucks and the spotlights and that giant crane, ruminating on my brain and how it’s so weirdly, strangely different from Marcus’s or Dusty’s or the brain of anyone else I know. It’s so weirdly, strangely different that for the past year I’ve been writing about it—not my life story, but a sort of This is me, this is what I think log because I like to understand how things work. Other brains are simple and uncomplicated, and there’s room in them for Mr. Wallin and his daughter Jocelyn, whereas my brain seems to be made for bigger things. Baseball. Physics. Aeronautical engineering. Maybe president. This is the reason I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies. I tell myself my brain is too busy thinking important things to keep track of the characters.

  I watch as a news van rolls in, all the way from Indianapolis, and think again, Terrorists. I mean, what else could it be?

  It’s the feeling of being suffocated.

  What being strangled must be like.

  My world has tilted away and gone light and floaty, and maybe it’s actually more like floating in space. I try to move my head. My arms. My legs. But I can’t.

  When I was little, my mom read me this story about a girl who lived in a garden and was never allowed outside the walls. The garden was all she knew, and to her that was the whole world.

  I’m thinking about this girl now as I’m trying to breathe. I see my dad’s face but he looks a hundred years away, like I’m circling the moon and he’s down on earth, and I’m trying to remember the name of the story.

  I suddenly need to remember. This is what happens when people die. They start to disappear if you don’t watch it. Not all at once, but a piece here, a piece there.


  The father was Italian.


  Rappaccini’s daughter.

  Did the girl have a name?

  I try to raise my head so I can ask my dad, but he says, “Stay very still,” from way down on earth. “Help is coming, Libby.”

  Not Libby, I think. Rappaccini’s daughter. I am here in my garden, and the world has stopped, and my heart has stopped, and I am all alone.

  Then I hear something that brings me back to this planet, this town, this neighborhood, this street, these four walls. The sound of the garden being torn away, the sound of my world crumbling.

  Five hours later, the top half of the house has been demolished by a team of sledgehammers and circular saws. The emergency workers have erected scaffolding and a long, wide bridge up to the second-floor window. They’ve fitted supports to keep the roof from collapsing, and when the sun comes up, they unroll this black tarp and circle the house with it—for privacy, I guess.

  It’s clear that something needs to come out of there, and whatever it is, it’s big.

  I sit on our roof so I can see right over the tarp. An enormous stretcher—I’m not sure what else to call it—is hauled out of the truck and rolled up onto the bridge. The emergency workers are racing back and forth, and a handful of them anchor the stretcher in place. And then the crane goes cranking forward and reaches its claw into the bowels of the house.

  The tree outside my bedroom window suddenly starts to shake and a head appears. This skinny little kid pulls himself up next to me. “Move over,” he says.

  I make room for him, and together we sit there. We watch as the claw comes up and out, and inside the claw is a pair of arms and a pair of legs.

  “Is she dead?” Dusty whispers.

  “I don’t know.”

  The arms start waving and the legs begin kicking. It’s like King Kong clutching Ann Darrow. “Not dead,” I say.

  The crane sweeps around till it’s above the bridge and all that scaffolding, and then lowers itself over the stretcher. Very gently, like it’s playing a game of pickup sticks, the crane releases the arms and legs until I can see that they belong to a g

  The largest girl I’ve ever seen.

  “Told you,” Dusty says.

  The sky is bright and blinding. It’s like I’ve never seen it before, and oh, it’s so beautiful and I’m alive! I’m alive! If I die right now, at least I’ve seen the sky like this—all blue and brilliant and new.

  My chest is still clenching, but some of the clenching releases and it’s because these nice men and women are here and I’m not dead and I’m not going to die in there, in that house. Not to say I won’t die here in the yard, but at least the air is fresh and I can breathe and there are trees and sky and birds and over there a cloud, a fluffy one, and there is the smell of something, flowers maybe. I want to say Look at me, Dean, Sam, Cas! I’m out here just like you. And then I think how they’re my only friends, even though they don’t know it. And oh my God, I’m crying again, but then I must pass out because when I wake up I’m being bumped all around, and I’m in the back of a truck, not even an ambulance like a regular person. I stare up at dingy metal instead of blue, and all at once I feel humiliated. How many people did it take to break me out?

  I try to ask my dad, who sits back against the rattling metal wall, head jostling up and down, but his eyes are closed, and I can’t speak and suddenly I think, What if I never speak again?

  Dad opens his eyes and sees me staring at him, and he smiles, but he’s not fast enough. My chest is clenching tighter and tighter, and I don’t want to be here in this truck. I want to be in my bed, in my room, in my house. I don’t want to be out here, in this world.

  I want to say Take me home, please, if there’s anything left of it, but then something sweeps over me, and it’s this kind of quiet, peaceful feeling, and that’s her, that’s my mom. I breathe slower, to try to make it last, to try to keep her with me. Live live live live…I think it as hard as I can before everything goes black, and as I drift off I remember.

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