Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  Rappaccini’s daughter.

  Beatrice.

  Her name was Beatrice.

  When I get home from school that day, a security vehicle is parked in front and a guard sits behind the wheel, sound asleep. I check to see if anyone is looking and then I walk right in.

  There’s only half a living room. The sofa is oversize and drooping in the middle like a hammock. A framed picture lies faceup on the floor, and it’s of a man and a woman and a little girl. The girl is out of focus, and you can tell she’s laughing. In the photo, she’s just a regular-size kid.

  The kitchen is a typical kitchen. For the most part, it’s intact, only a little dust. I go to the fridge first because I can’t help it, I want to see what’s in there. I expect a banquet suitable for Henry VIII, but it’s just your run-of-the-mill stuff—eggs, milk, deli meat, cheese, diet sodas, juice. On the outside of the door is a single magnet: OHIO WELCOMES YOU.

  I walk through the whole house. It’s smaller than ours, and it doesn’t take me long to find her bedroom. Even though part of the front wall is missing, I don’t go in because it doesn’t feel respectful. Instead, I stand in the doorway. The walls—the ones that are left—are lavender, and there are bookshelves, floor to ceiling, on every single one. The books look like they might spill out and overtake the room, maybe the whole house.

  The bed is the focal point of the room and looks specially built. It’s a king-size bed that pretty much fills all the space. It sits on top of this metal—steel?—platform, and beside it is a single pair of slippers. It’s the slippers that get me. They look delicate, like they were made for a girl Dusty’s age. The sheets have daisies on them, and they’re thrown all around, as if a tornado’s blown through. One of the pillows lies on the floor. A stack of books sits by the bed, and it takes me a second to see that these are six copies of the same book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, although the bindings are different. I think, She must really love that book.

  When I leave, I try not to touch anything except for one copy of the Shirley Jackson book and the Ohio magnet, both of which I take. I don’t know why. Maybe it makes me feel closer to the girl who lives there. Outside, the guard is still sleeping, and I rap on the glass to wake him up. When he rolls down the window, I say, “Stay alert, buddy. I imagine everything they own is in that house, and they’ve been through enough without losing it to looters.” Of course the book and magnet don’t count.

  —

  I knock on the door of Marcus’s room and then walk on in. His walls are covered with posters—mostly of basketball players. There’s a hoop attached to the closet door. A gangly, shaggy-haired kid hunches on the floor in front of his computer. He’s playing a video game—the shoot-everyone-and-blow-shit-up kind.

  I do what I usually do—look for the signs that this is my brother. The pointy chin, the messy hair, the mopey expression. I look for the pieces and put them together because this is how I know it’s him.

  “Can I ask you a question?”

  “What?” He doesn’t take his eyes off the screen.

  “How do you remember people so well? How do you tell them apart?”

  “What?”

  “Take Squinty.”

  “Her name’s Patrice.”

  “Whatever. Patrice. How do you pick her out of a crowd?”

  “She’s my girlfriend.”

  “I know she’s your girlfriend.”

  “Do you know what she’d do to me if I couldn’t pick her out of a crowd?”

  “Yeah, but what is it about her that tells you it’s her?”

  He pauses the game. Stares at me for, like, a whole minute. “I just look at her. I just know. What’s wrong with you? Have you gone crazy?”

  My eyes move past him to the walls of basketball players. I want to ask if he can tell them apart without their jersey numbers or names on the back. When I look at him again, he’s still staring at me, only his features have shifted so that he’s brand-new. I say, “Never mind. I’m just messing with you.”

  —

  I go back into my room and dig out the old composition notebook I keep hidden away in a drawer and start flipping through it. This is where I sort out the projects I build—drawing them, planning them out. But in between the brainstorms and sketches and blueprints and lists of materials needed, there are passages like these:

  Went to Clara’s Pizza with the family. Got lost coming back from bathroom. Took me a while to find them. Dad finally had to wave me down.

  I was so wiped out after Saturday’s game (we won in straight innings) I didn’t even recognize Damario Raines when he came up to congratulate me.

  Every few pages, entry after entry. Nothing earth-shattering or alarming until you start adding them up. As I’m reading them now, a feeling settles over me like a blanket, but not the warm, comforting kind. More like a thick and scratchy blanket thrown over the head just before you’re shoved into the trunk of a car.

  There is something wrong with me.

  Of all the people in the world, I feel like the girl would understand. I sit there the rest of the night thinking, I hope she makes it. And even though the news is protecting her identity, and all I know is her last name, I write her a letter to tell her this, tuck it into her favorite book, and go online to find the mailing address for the local hospital.

  Dr. Weiss is thin and tall and probably couldn’t gain weight if he tried. He’s worried I’m trying to kill myself. I tell him, “If I wanted to kill myself, there are faster ways to do it.”

  He stands beside my hospital bed with his arms crossed. His face is hard to read because he does this thing where he can frown and smile at the same time. He says, “Your father says you’ve been housebound for six months.”

  “It depends on when you start counting. For five months and twenty-four days, I’ve been too large to get through the door. But my last day of school was two years ago.”

  “There are two important things we need to understand here: why you had this panic attack and why you gained the weight. That’s what we need to address. It will be a process and it will take time, but we are going to get you healthy again.”

  I glance at my dad, in the armchair across from me. He knows as well as I do what the Why is. It’s everything changing when I was ten. It’s the bullying and the fear. So much fear of everything, but mostly death. Sudden, out-of-the-blue death. It’s also me being terrified of life. It’s the giant emptiness in my chest. It’s touching my face or my skin and feeling nothing. This is the Why of me staying home in the first place. And the Why of me eating. And the Why of me ending up here. But that doesn’t mean I want to die.

  —

  On the day before I leave the hospital, the nurse brings me a package, no return address. Most everyone else is sending me letters, not packages, which is the only reason I open it. That and the fact that my dad isn’t here to take it away before I can.

  Inside is a handwritten note without a name or signature, and a copy of my favorite book. One of my actual very own copies of my favorite book, with my initials on the cover and my highlights throughout.

  I thought you might want this. Unlike the other letters, this one is nice. I want you to know I’m rooting for you. For the first time in a long time, I touch my skin and feel something.

  When Rachel Mendes—tutor and caregiver—arrives, I lay the book down and tell her the thing I’ve been wanting to say but no one will hear. I pull up one of the news articles on my new phone, my first phone, the one my dad bought me so I can call him if I need anything.

  I enlarge the picture of me, taken the day I was rescued from our house. “This girl,” I tell Rachel. “That’s not what I look like. That’s not who I am.” I have a feeling Rachel will get this because she pretended to be straight all through high school, even though she figured out she was a lesbian when she was in eighth grade.

  I say it again, “That’s not me.”

  Her eyes light up. “Great. Let’s see if we can fin
d her.”

  NOW

  I throw open my locker before first period, and something flutters out and lands on my shoe. It’s a piece of paper folded in thirds. I stare at it for a while because it’s been my experience that pieces of paper folded in thirds are not a good thing.

  I finally pick it up and hold it inside my locker, where no one will see.

  America’s Fattest Teen Rescued from House

  It’s an article from the Internet, and there I am, in a blurry photo, being wheeled across the front lawn by emergency workers.

  On the other side is a giant picture of my giant face taken yesterday in the cafeteria. Beside it someone’s written, Congratulations on being voted MVB High’s Fattest Teen!

  I close the door and rest my forehead against the metal of the locker because my head is going hot and I feel dizzy, which is sometimes how it starts. Is this what she felt the day she drove herself to the hospital? Is this how it began for her?

  The metal cools me for only a second, but then it’s hotter than my skin and I’m worried I’ll burn myself. I concentrate on lifting my head till it’s sitting upright on my neck once again. The hallway tilts. I open the locker door and focus on the jacket hook, my books, my little corner of the universe. I breathe.

  —

  In first period, Mick from Copenhagen is talking to me, but I’m too busy to listen because I’m writing my resignation letter from school.

  Dear Principal Wasserman,

  Thank you so much for this educational opportunity. Unfortunately, I will not be able to continue here at MVB High because it is overrun by imbeciles.

  I cross this out and write,

  because of an unfortunate epidemic of imbeciles.

  Unfortunate epidemic of imbecility?

  I say to Mick from Copenhagen, “Which sounds better to you? ‘An unfortunate epidemic of imbeciles’ or ‘an unfortunate epidemic of imbecility’? Or do you think it sounds stronger to say a place is ‘overrun by imbeciles’?”

  He laughs, and lines like the sun’s rays frame the corners of his eyes. “Libby Strout. I’m amazed by you. You turn the hell out of me on.”

  At least that’s one person.

  As far as days go, this is pretty much the worst one ever.

  You think it’s funny to harass women?

  You think bullying is funny?

  Eating disorders aren’t funny, asshole.

  I want to go, The whole reason I fucking did this was not to piss you people off.

  I’m also getting a lot of:

  That was hilarious. You’re fearless, man.

  Good one, dude. You’re awesome.

  And:

  Nice lip, Mass. What’s the other guy look like? Oh wait—the other GIRL.

  Hey, Masselin, don’t piss off [insert name of tiny freshman girl], she might kick your ass.

  The only good news is that I can’t tell who’s yelling things at me as they pass me in the hall.

  Caroline Lushamp holds my hand between first and second period, and when someone shouts at me she says, “Just ignore them.” Suddenly, she’s the sweet Caroline of years ago, and I concentrate on the feel of her hand in mine.

  Throughout the day, more printed-out articles show up in my locker. I try to tell myself to look on the positive side—at least my peers are using the Internet for something other than social media and porn. But honestly, it’s not very comforting. By fourth period, it’s clear that everyone, even the janitors, knows me as the Girl Who Had to Be Cut Out of Her House. I’m Indiana’s high school version of Typhoid Mary. In each class, I sit alone, like fatness is catching.

  Moons ago, when I was getting all that hate mail, my dad talked to an attorney who told us to hang on to everything just in case something terrible happened, like I was murdered. That way there would be a paper trail to possible suspects.

  News reporter: Do you feel worried? Do you fear for your safety?

  Me: You know, I’m glad you asked that. Maybe I should be scared right now, but I honestly think the people writing these letters need to be pitied more than feared. It’s been my experience that the people who are most afraid are the ones who hide behind mean and threatening words.

  I stuff the articles in my backpack. I don’t think anyone at MVB is planning to kill me, but you can never be too safe.

  —

  I return to the cafeteria even though this is the last place on earth I want to be. I walk in, and six hundred heads turn at once. Six hundred mouths start buzzing. Twelve hundred eyes follow me as I walk. I feel my breath abandon ship like it’s saying Every man for himself! Good luck to you, you’re on your own. I move on without it, taking one step, two steps, three steps. I’m counting them the way my trainers and counselors taught me to do.

  It is thirty-seven steps to the round table by the window, where Iris, Bailey, and Jayvee De Castro are sitting. I clutch the back of the chair, and it feels so solid and comforting that I almost remain standing, gripping it with all my might. But then I lower myself into the seat and say, “Well, that was fun.”

  Bailey says, very low, because, let’s face it, the people around us are trying to listen, “I’ve known Jack Masselin since seventh grade and I can’t believe he would do this. I mean, okay, he’s not exactly a model student, and there was that one time junior year—his junior year, our sophomore year—when he and Dave Kaminski kidnapped a freshman and locked him on the roof outside the second-floor boys’ bathroom—”

  “Walt Casey.” Jayvee shakes her head, and her bob makes a swish swish sound. “Poor Walt.”

  Iris freezes midsip. “What’s wrong with Walt?”

  “He’s just…off.” Jayvee frowns across the cafeteria at a boy I assume must be Poor Walt Casey, sitting by himself. As if he’s trying to illustrate her point, he starts picking his nose.

  Bailey keeps right on. “But I mean, if you’d told me something like that happened and asked me to guess who was behind it, I never would have guessed Jack Masselin. Never. There are a lot of other people I would have guessed before him. Dave Kaminski being one, and Seth Powell. And the Hunts, of course, and Reed Young and Shane Oguz and Sterling Emery…” On and on, naming every boy in the history of the universe.

  “I think he’s really sorry he did it.”

  They look at me.

  “He wasn’t thinking. He did this stupid thing and he feels pretty bad about it.”

  Iris goes, “You’re defending him?”

  “I’m just crawling around inside his skin.”

  Jayvee says, “Atticus Finch.” She holds up a hand so we can high-five. “If it was me he did that to, I’d go super-ninja on him.” Jayvee would go super-ninja on anyone who pissed her off.

  “Haven’t you ever done something you regretted?” I look right at Bailey.

  Jayvee says, “Does last year’s school picture count?”

  I poke at my food—at this lunch my dad so carefully prepared—and then shove it aside. I can’t eat. Not in here where everyone is staring at me. Iris says, “Did you hear about Terri Collins? She’s moving to Minnesota.”

  Jayvee’s hair goes swish swish swish. “Poor Terri.”

  I say, “She’s a Damsel, right?”

  Jayvee holds up a finger. “Was.”

  In the cafeteria, Kam and Seth and the other idiots I call friends can’t talk about anything else. Seth is giving those who missed it a play-by-play.

  “Shit, Mass,” one of the idiots says, and you can hear the admiration in his voice, see it there on his face.

  I hitch up one corner of my mouth, as if I’m just too fucking cool to smile all the way, and hold up my hands like, Whatever, man, all in a day’s work. “That’s why I’m me and you’re you, baby.” I slap Seth five and go back to watching the large girl by the window, who I’m pretty sure is Libby Strout.

  At some point I feel Kam staring at me. “Whatcha looking at?”

  “Nothing.”

  He turns and looks toward the window, hangs out there for a few seco
nds, then turns back to me.

  “You know, sometimes I can’t figure you out. Are you as dickish as the rest of us? Or is there a heart beating in that underdeveloped chest of yours?”

  I fake-grin. “I couldn’t possibly be as dickish as the rest of you.”

  And this is why I like Kam, in spite of himself. He’s no dummy, and someday, about fifteen or twenty years from now, he may even become a nice guy. Which is more than I can say for the rest of them.

  Seth and the others are congratulating me on how goddamn hilarious I am, and I’m feeling smaller and smaller, when a girl comes over, trailed by a group of girls, and they all look exactly the same. Same hair. Same lip gloss. Same clothes. Same bodies. The leader goes, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, Jack Masselin?” And empties her Diet Snapple on my head.

  Someone yells, “Not the hair! Anything but the hair!” Laughter.

  I jump to my feet, dripping everywhere, and now people are applauding. The girl goes storming away, and Kam says to me, “If you’re only picking on people your own size, I’m afraid that’s going to limit you to freshmen.” And then he pulls out his flask, unscrews the top, and—for the first time ever—offers it to me.

  “I hope that’s orange juice.” It’s a woman’s voice, over my shoulder.

  I’m looking at Kam, and he goes, “Of course, Mrs. Chapman. Vitamin C is not only crucial to our development, it protects us from scurvy.”

  Monica Chapman shakes her head at Kam and then, in front of everyone, turns to me and goes, “I wanted to make sure you’re okay.” She’s eyeing my wet clothes and the puddle of Diet Snapple at my feet.

  “I’m super, thanks.”

  “I know today can’t be easy.” To her credit, she lowers her voice, but this actually makes it worse. Like she’s conspiring with me. As if we’re the ones with the secret. “There’s nothing that bonds people more than judging someone else, and even when we’ve done something wrong, it often doesn’t warrant those judgments…”

 
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