مرکزی صفحہ Holding Up the Universe
آپ کو دلچسپی ہوسکتی ہے Powered by Rec2Me
23 March 2021 (23:12)
I literally finished this book in one day and I love it so much. One of the best reads ever!! It's so unique as well, never seen a story like it. Libby is such a girl boss and the way she lives and thinks is truly inspiring! If you're contemplating on whether to read this or not, READ IT!! You won't regret!
03 May 2021 (09:13)
Contents 18 HOURS EARLIER LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK SIX YEARS EARLIER LIBBY NOW LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK THE NEXT DAY LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK THREE YEARS EARLIER JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY NOW LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK SATURDAY JACK LIBBY JACK MONDAY LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY ONE WEEK LATER JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY THE NEXT EIGHT DAYS JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY SATURDAY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK THE WEEK AFTER LIBBY JACK LIBBY THE NEXT DAY LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK FOUR DAYS LATER JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK LIBBY JACK Acknowledgments Read More Follow Penguin About the Author Jennifer Niven is the author of the New York Times and international bestseller All the Bright Places. She has also written four novels for adults, as well as three nonfiction books, and the screenplay for the movie version of All the Bright Places. Additionally, she is the founder of Germ Magazine, an online literary and lifestyle magazine for readers high school age and beyond. She grew up in Indiana and now lives in Los Angeles. For more information, visit JenniferNiven.com or GermMagazine.com, or find her across the social media universe on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, or Snapchat, happily interacting with readers. for Kerry, Louis, Angelo & Ed, who help hold up my universe and for all my readers everywhere, who are the world to me “Atticus, he was real nice.…” “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” —To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee 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. This will sound like an excuse, but I have something called prosopagnosia, which means I can’t recognize faces, not even the faces of the people I love. Not even my mom. Not even myself. Imagine walking into a room full of strangers, people who don’t mean anything to you because you don’t know their names or histories. Then imagine going to school or work or, worse, your own home, where you should know everyone, only the people there look like strangers too. That’s what it’s like for me: I walk into a room and I don’t know anyone. That’s every room, everywhere. I get by on how a person walks. By gestures. By voice. By hair. I learn people by identifiers. I tell myself, Dusty has ears that stick out and a red-brown Afro, and then I memorize this fact so it helps me find my little brother, but I can’t actually call up an image of him and his big ears and his Afro unless he’s in front of me. Remembering people is like this superpower everyone seems to have but me. Have I been officially diagnosed? No. And not just because I’m guessing this is beyond the pay grade of Dr. Blume, town pediatrician. Not just because for the past few years my parents have had more than their share of shit to deal with. Not just because it’s better not to be the freak. But because there’s a part of me that hopes it isn’t true. That maybe it will clear up and go away on its own. For now, this is how I get by: Nod/smile at everyone. Be charming. Be “on.” Be goddamn hilarious. Be the life of the party, but don’t drink. Don’t risk losing control (that happens enough when sober). Pay attention. Do whatever it takes. Be lord of the douche. Anything to keep from being the prey. Always better to hunt than be hunted. I’m not telling you all this as an excuse for what I’m about to do. But maybe you can keep it in mind. This is the only way to stop my friends from doing something worse, and it’s the only way to stop this stupid game. Just know that I don’t want to hurt anyone. That’s not why. Even though that’s the thing that’s going to happen. Sincerely yours, Jack PS. You’re the only person who knows what’s wrong with me. Prosopagnosia (pro-suh-pag-NO-zhuh) noun: 1. an inability to recognize the faces of familiar people, typically as a result of damage to the brain. 2. when everyone is a stranger. 18 HOURS EARLIER * * * If a genie popped out of my bedside lamp, I would wish for these three things: my mom to be alive, nothing bad or sad to ever happen again, and to be a member of the Martin Van Buren High School Damsels, the best drill team in the tristate area. But what if the Damsels don’t want you? It is 3:38 a.m., and the time of night when my mind starts running around all wild and out of control, like my cat, George, when he was a kitten. All of a sudden, there goes my brain, climbing the curtains. There it is, swinging from the bookshelf. There it is, with its paw in the fish tank and its head underwater. I lie on my bed, staring up into the dark, and my mind bounces across the room. What if you get trapped again? What if they have to knock down the cafeteria door or the bathroom wall to get you out? What if your dad gets married and then he dies and you’re left with the new wife and stepsiblings? What if you die? What if there is no heaven and you never see your mom again? I tell myself to sleep. I close my eyes and lie very still. Very still. For minutes. I make my mind lie there with me and tell it, Sleep, sleep, sleep. What if you get to school and realize that things are different and kids are different, and no matter how much you try, you will never be able to catch up to them? I open my eyes. My name is Libby Strout. You’ve probably heard of me. You’ve probably watched the video of me being rescued from my own house. At last count, 6,345,981 people have watched it, so there’s a good chance you’re one of them. Three years ago, I was America’s Fattest Teen. I weighed 653 pounds at my heaviest, which means I was approximately 500 pounds overweight. I haven’t always been fat. The short version of the story is that my mom died and I got fat, but somehow I’m still here. This is in no way my father’s fault. Two months after I was rescued, we moved to a different neighborhood on the other side of town. These days I can leave the house on my own. I’ve lost 302 pounds. The size of two entire people. I have around 190 left to go, and I’m fine with that. I like who I am. For one thing, I can run now. And ride in the car. And buy clothes at the mall instead of special-ordering them. And I can twirl. Aside from no longer being afraid of organ failure, that may be the best thing about now versus then. Tomorrow is my first day of school since fifth grade. My new title will be high school junior, which, let’s face it, sounds a lot better than America’s Fattest Teen. But it’s hard to be anything but TERRIFIED OUT OF MY SKULL. I wait for the panic attack to come. Caroline Lushamp calls before my alarm goes off, but I let her go to voice mail. I know whatever it is, it’s not going to be good and it will be my fault. She calls three times but only leaves one message. I almost delete it without listening, but what if her car broke down and she’s in trouble? This is, after all, the girl I’ve dated off and on for the past four years. (We’re that couple. That on-again, off-again everyone-assumes-we’ll-end-up-together-forever couple.) Jack, it’s me. I know we’re taking a break or whatever but she’s my cousin. My COUSIN. I mean, MY COUSIN, JACK! If you wanted to get back at me for breaking up with you, then congratulations, jerkwad, you’ve done it. If you see me in class today or in the hallways or in the cafeteria or ANYWHERE ELSE ON EARTH, do not talk to me. Actually, just do me a favor and go to hell. Three minutes later, the cousin calls, and at first I think she’s crying, but then you can hear Caroline in the background, and the cousin starts yelling and Caroline starts yelling. I delete the message. Two minutes later, Dave Kaminski sends a text to warn me that Reed Young wants to kick my face in for making out with his girlfriend. I text, I owe you. And I mean it. If I’m keeping score, Kam’s helped me out more times than I’ve helped him. All this fuss over a girl who, if we’re being honest, looked so much like Caroline Lushamp that—at least at first—I thought it was her, which means in some weird way Caroline should be flattered. It’s like admitting to the world that I want to get back together with her even though she dumped me the first week of summer so that she could go out with Zach Higgins. I think of texting this to her, but instead I turn off my phone and close my eyes and see if I can’t transport myself right back into July. The only thing I had to worry about then was going to work, scavenging the local scrap yard, building (mind-blowing) projects in my (kick-ass) workshop, and hanging out with my brothers. Life would be so much easier if it was just Jack + scrap yard + kick-ass workshop + mind-blowing projects. You should never have gone to the party. You should never have had a drink. You know you can’t be trusted. Avoid alcohol. Avoid crowds. Avoid people. You only end up pissing them off. It’s 6:33 a.m. and I am out of bed and standing in front of the mirror. There was a time, a little over two years ago, when I couldn’t, wouldn’t look at myself. All I saw was the bunched-up face of Moses Hunt, yelling at me across the playground: No one will ever love you because you’re fat! And the faces of all the other fifth graders as they started to laugh. You’re so big you block the moon. Go home, Flabby Stout, go home to your room.… Today, for the most part, I only see me—adorable navy dress, sneakers, medium-longish brown hair that my sweet but slightly demented grandmother once described as “the exact color of Highland cattle.” And the reflection of my giant dirty cotton ball of a cat. George stares at me with wise gold eyes, and I try to imagine what he might say to me. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with heart failure and given six months to live. But I know him well enough to know that only George will decide when it’s time for George to go. He blinks at me. Right now, I think he would tell me to breathe. So I breathe. I’ve gotten really good at breathing. I look down at my hands and they’re steady, even if the fingernails are bitten to the quick, and, weirdly, I feel pretty calm, considering. I realize: the panic attack never came. This is something to celebrate, so I throw on one of my mom’s old albums and dance. Dancing is what I love most and dancing is what I plan to do with my life. I haven’t taken lessons since I was ten, but the dance is in me, and no lack of training can make that go away. I tell myself, Maybe this year you can try out for the Damsels. My brain goes zooming up the wall, where it hangs, shaking. What if it never happens? What if you die before anything good or wonderful or amazing ever happens to you? For the past two and a half years, the only thing I’ve had to worry about has been my survival. The focus of every single person in my life, including me, has been: We just need to get you better. And now I’m better. So what if I let them down after all the time and energy they’ve invested in me? I dance harder to push the thoughts out until my dad thumps on the door. His head appears. “You know I love a good Pat Benatar song first thing in the morning, but the question is: how do the neighbors feel?” I turn it down a little but keep on moving. When the song is over, I find a marker and decorate one shoe. As long as you live, there’s always something waiting; and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living. (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood) Then I reach for the lipstick my grandmother gave me for my birthday, lean into the mirror, and paint my lips red. I hear the shower running and voices downstairs. I pull the pillow over my face, but it’s too late—I’m awake. I turn on my phone and text first Caroline, then Kam, then Reed Young. The thing I say to all of them is that I was very drunk (an exaggeration) and it was very dark (it was) and I don’t remember anything that happened because I was not only drunk, I was upset. There’s just this shit happening at home that I can’t talk about right now, so if you can bear with me and find it in your heart to forgive me, I’ll be forever in your debt. The shit happening at home part is completely true. For Caroline, I throw in some compliments and ask her to please apologize to her cousin for me. I say I don’t want to contact her directly because I’ve already made a mess of things and I don’t want to do anything else to make things worse between Caroline and me. Even though Caroline was the one who broke up with me, and even though we’re currently in an off-again phase, and even though I haven’t seen her since June, I basically eat crow and then throw it up all over my phone. This is the price I pay for trying to keep everyone happy. I drag myself down the hall to the bathroom. The thing I need most in this world is a long, hot shower, but what I get instead is a trickle of warm water followed by a blast of Icelandic cold. Sixty seconds later—because that’s all I can bear—I get out, dry off, and stand in front of the mirror. So this is me. I think this every time I see my reflection. Not in a Damn, that’s me way, but more like Huh. Okay. What have we got here? I lean in, trying to put the pieces of my face together. The guy in the mirror isn’t bad-looking—high cheekbones, strong jaw, a mouth that’s hitched up at one corner like he just got done telling a joke. Somewhere in the neighborhood of pretty. The way he tilts his head back and gazes out through half-open eyelids makes it seem like he’s used to looking down on everyone, like he’s smart and he knows he’s smart, and then it hits me that what he really looks like is an asshole. Except for the eyes themselves. They’re too serious and there are circles under them, like he hasn’t slept. He’s wearing the same Superman shirt I’ve been wearing all summer. What does this mouth (Mom’s) mean with this nose (also Mom’s) and these eyes (a combination of Mom’s and Dad’s)? My eyebrows are darker than my hair but they aren’t as dark as Dad’s. My skin is a kind of middle brown color, not dark like Mom’s, and not light like Dad’s. The other thing that doesn’t match up here is the hair. It’s this enormous lion’s mane Afro that looks like it’s allowed to do whatever the fuck it wants. If he’s anything like me, the guy in the mirror calculates everything. Even though this hair cannot be contained, he’s grown it for a reason. So he can find himself. Something about the way these features add up is how people find each other in the world. Something about the combination makes them go, There’s Jack Masselin. “What’s your identifier?” I say to my reflection, and I mean the real identifier, not this giant lion fro. I’m having a right serious moment, but then I hear a distinct snicker, and a tall, skinny blur goes breezing by. That would be my brother Marcus. “My name’s Jack and I’m so pretty,” he sings all the way down the stairs. Top 5 Most Embarrassing Moments of My Life by Jack Masselin That time my mom picked me up from kindergarten (after getting her hair cut), and in front of my teacher, the other kids, the other parents, and the principal, I accused her of trying to kidnap me. That time I joined the pickup (uniform-free) soccer game at Reynolds Park and passed every ball to the opposite team, setting the all-time park record for Most Disastrous and Humiliating Debut Ever. That time I’d been working with our high school sports therapist because of a shoulder injury, and, in the middle of Walmart, told the man I thought was my baseball coach, I could use another massage, only to discover it was actually Mr. Temple, Mom’s boss. That time I hit on Jesselle Villegas, and it turned out to be Miss Arbulata, substitute teacher. That time I made out with Caroline Lushamp and it was actually her cousin. I don’t have my license, so Dad drives me. One of the many, many things I get to look forward to this school year is driver’s ed. I wait for my father to offer me sage words of advice or a stirring pep talk, but the most he comes up with is “You got this, Libbs. I’ll be here to pick you up when it’s over.” And the way he says it sounds ominous, like we’re in the opening scene of a horror movie. Then he gives me a smile, which is the kind of smile they would teach you in a parenting video. It’s a nervous smile taped up at the corners. I smile back. What if I get stuck behind a desk? What if I have to eat lunch alone and no one talks to me for the rest of the school year? My dad is a big, handsome guy. Salt of the earth. Smart (he does IT security for a big-name computer company). Smushy heart. After they freed me from the house, he had a hard time of it. As awful as it was for me, I think it was worse for him, especially the accusations of neglect and abuse. The press couldn’t imagine how else I would have been allowed to get so big. They didn’t know about the doctors he took me to and the diets we tried, even as he was mourning the loss of his wife. They didn’t see the food I hid from him under my bed and deep in the shadows of my closet. They couldn’t know that once I make up my mind about something, I’m going to do it. And I’d made up my mind to eat. At first, I refused to talk to reporters, but at some point I needed to show the world that I’m okay and that my dad isn’t the villain they made him out to be, stuffing me with candy and cake in an effort to keep me there and dependent on him like those girls from The Virgin Suicides. So against my dad’s wishes I did one interview with a news station out of Chicago, and that interview traveled all the way to Europe and Asia and back again. You see, my whole world changed when I was ten. My mom died, which was traumatic enough, but then the bullying started. It didn’t help that I developed early and that all at once my body felt too big for me. I’m not saying I blame my classmates. After all, we were kids. But I just want to make it clear that there were multiple factors at work—the bullying coupled with the loss of my most important person, followed by the panic attacks whenever I had to leave my house. Through it all, my dad was the one who stood by me. I say to my dad now, “Did you know that Pauline Potter, the World’s Heaviest Woman, lost ninety-eight pounds having marathon sex?” “No sex of any kind for you until you’re thirty.” I think, We’ll see. After all, miracles happen every day. Which means maybe those kids who were so hateful to me on the playground have grown up and realized the error of their ways. Maybe they’ve actually turned out to be nice. Or maybe they’re even meaner. Every book I read and movie I watch seems to give out the same message: high school is the worst experience you can ever have. What if I accidentally tell someone off so that I become the Sassy Fat Girl? What if some well-meaning skinny girls adopt me as their own and I become the Fat Best Friend? What if it’s clear to everyone that my homeschooling has really only equipped me for eighth grade, not eleventh, because I’m too stupid to understand any of my classwork? My dad says, “All you have to do is today, Libbs. If it completely and totally sucks, we can go back to homeschooling. Just give me one day. Actually, don’t give it to me. Give yourself one day.” I tell myself: Today. I tell myself: This is what you dreamed of when you were too scared to leave the house. This is what you dreamed of when you were lying in your bed for six months. This is what you wanted—to be out in the world like everyone else. I tell myself: It’s taken you two and a half years of fat camps and counselors and psychologists and doctors and behavioral coaches and trainers to get ready for this. For the past two and a half years, you’ve walked ten thousand steps a day. Every one of them was pointing you to now. I can’t drive. I’ve never been to a dance. I completely missed middle school. I’ve never had a boyfriend, although I did make out with this boy at camp once. His name is Robbie and he’s repeating his senior year somewhere in Iowa. Except for my mom, I’ve never had a best friend, unless you count the ones I made up for myself—three brothers who lived across the street from my old house. The ones I called Dean, Sam, and Castiel, because they went to private school and I didn’t know their names. The ones I pretended were my friends. My dad looks so nervous and hopeful that I grab my bag and push out onto the sidewalk, and then I’m standing in front of the school as people walk past me. What if I’m late to every class because I can’t walk fast enough, and then I get detention, where I will meet the only boys who will pay attention to me—burnouts and delinquents—fall in love with one of them, get pregnant, drop out before I can graduate, and live with my dad for the rest of my life or at least until the baby is eighteen? I almost get back in the car, but my dad is still sitting there, hopeful smile still on his face. “You got this.” He says it louder this time and—I swear to you—gives me a thumbs-up. Which is why I join the crowd and let them carry me along until I’m waiting my turn at the entrance, opening my bag so that the guard can check it, walking through metal detectors, stepping into a long hallway that splinters off in all directions, bumped and jostled by elbows and arms. I think, Somewhere in this school could be a boy I fall in love with. One of these fine young men might be the one who at long last claims my heart and my body. I am the Pauline Potter of Martin Van Buren High School. I am going to sex the rest of this weight right off me. I’m looking at all the boys going by. It could be that guy or maybe this one. That’s the beauty of this world. Right now, that boy right there or that one over there means nothing to me, but soon we will meet and change the world, his and mine. “Move it, fat-ass,” someone says. I feel the sting of the word, like a pinprick, like the word itself is trying to pop me the way it pops my thought bubble. I forge ahead. The great thing about my size is that I can clear a path. Like the hair, the car is part of the image. It’s a restored 1968 Land Rover that Marcus and I bought from an elderly uncle. It was originally used for farmwork before it sat rusting for forty-some years, but now it’s part Jeep, part all-terrain vehicle, and one hundred percent total badass. In the passenger seat, Marcus sulks. “Asshole.” This is said low and to the window. Unfortunately for me, he got his license a month ago. “You’re adorable. I hope eleventh grade won’t spoil your boyish charm. You can drive next year when I’m at college.” If I go to college. If I ever leave this place. He holds up his middle finger in my direction. From the back, our younger brother, Dusty, kicks the seat. “Stop fighting.” “We’re not fighting, little man.” “You sound like Mom and Dad. Make the music louder.” A couple of years ago, my parents got along pretty well. But then Dad was diagnosed with cancer. The week before he was diagnosed I found out he was cheating on my mom. He doesn’t know I know, and I’m not sure Mom knows, but sometimes I wonder. He’s cancer-clear now, by the way, but it hasn’t been easy, especially on Dusty, who’s ten. I turn up the song, an oldie—Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack”—and I can feel myself settling once again into my zone. I’ve got four soundtrack songs that I wish would start blasting every time I walk into a room, and this is one of them. We pull up outside Dusty’s school, and he goes leaping out before I can stop him. I get out after him, taking the keys so Marcus can’t drive off with the car. This summer, Dusty started carrying a purse. No one talks about it—not my mom or dad or Marcus. Dusty is halfway up the walk before I chase him down. I have to keep my eyes on him so I don’t lose him. He has the darkest skin of the three of us, and his hair is the color of a copper penny. Technically, Mom is half black, half Louisiana Creole, and Dad is white and Jewish. Dusty is dark like Mom. Marcus, on the other hand, couldn’t be whiter. Me? I’m just Jack Masselin, whoever the hell that is. Dusty says, “I don’t want to be late.” “You won’t be. I just wanted to … Are you sure about the purse, little man?” “I like it. I can fit everything in here.” “I like it too. It’s a really damn cool purse. But I’m not sure everyone’s going to dig it as much as we do. There might be some kids here who are going to be so jealous of that purse that they’ll make fun of you.” I see about ten of them walking past us right now. “They won’t be jealous. They’ll think it’s weird.” “I just don’t want anyone to be rough on you.” “If I want to carry a purse, I’m going to carry it. I’m not going to not carry it just because they don’t like it.” And in that moment, this scrawny kid with big ears is my hero. As he walks away, I watch the way he moves, straight as an arrow, chin up. I want to follow him all the way into school to make sure nothing happens to him. 7 Careers for Someone with Prosopagnosia by Jack Masselin Shepherd (assuming face blindness doesn’t extend to dogs and sheep). Tollbooth operator (assuming no one you know is taking the route you’re working). Rock star/boy band member, NBA player, or some other profession along these lines (where people expect you to have an ego so massive they won’t be surprised if you don’t remember them). Writer (the most recommended job for people with social anxiety disorders). Dog walker/trainer (see number one, above). Embalmer (except that I might get the corpses mixed up). Hermit (ideal, except the pay isn’t very good). I clear a path all the way to my first class, where I take a seat in the row closest to the door, in case I need to flee at some point. I just fit behind the desk. Under my shirt, my back is damp, and my heart skips a beat. No one can see it, though. At least, I hope no one can see it because there’s nothing worse than being known as the sweaty fat girl. As my classmates trickle in, a few of them stare. A couple of them snicker. I don’t recognize any of the eleven-year-old kids I once knew in these teenage faces. But school is exactly what I expected, yet more at the same time. For one thing, Martin Van Buren High School has about two thousand students, so it is a place packed with commotion. For another, no one looks as shiny and polished as they do in the TV and movie versions of high school. Real teens aren’t twenty-five years old. We have bad skin and bad hair and good skin and good hair, and we’re all different shapes and sizes. I like us better than our TV selves, even though sitting here, I feel like an actor playing a part. I’m the fish out of water, the new girl at school. What will my story be? I decide that what I’ve got here is a clean slate. As far as I’m concerned, this is me starting over, and whatever happened when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen doesn’t exist now. I’m different. They’re different, at least on the outside. Maybe they won’t remember I was that girl. I don’t plan on reminding them. I look them in the eye and give them my father’s new signature taped-up-corner smile. This seems to surprise them. A couple of them smile back. The boy next to me holds out his hand. “Mick.” “Libby.” “I’m from Copenhagen. I’m here for the exchange program.” Even with crow-black hair, he is Viking-like. “Are you from Amos?” I want to say I’m an exchange student too. I’m here from Australia. I’m here from France. But the only boys I’ve talked to in the past five years are the ones at fat camp, which is why I don’t do anything but nod. He tells me how he wasn’t sure at first whether to come here, but then he decided it would be a good experience to see the heartland of the States and “the way most Americans live.” Whatever that means. I manage to say, “What’s your favorite thing about Indiana?” “That I get to go home one day.” He laughs, so I laugh, and then two girls walk in and their eyes go immediately to me. One of them whispers something to the other, and they take the seats in front of us. There’s something familiar about these girls, but I can’t place them. Maybe I knew them before. My skin prickles and I have that horror movie feeling again. I look up at the ceiling as if a piano is about to fall on my head. Because I know it’s going to come from somewhere. It always does. I tell myself to give Mick a chance, give these girls a chance, give this day a chance, give myself a chance most of all. The way I see it, I’ve lost my mom, eaten myself nearly to death, been cut out of my house while the whole country watched, endured exercise regimes and diets and the nation’s disappointment, and I’ve received hate mail from total strangers. It is disgusting that anyone would ever let themselves get so large, and it is disgusting that your father wouldn’t do anything about it. I hope you survive this and get straight with God. There are people starving in the world and it is shameful that you would eat so much when others don’t have enough. So I ask you, What can high school do to me that hasn’t already been done? With a minute to spare, we roll into the parking lot, into the last empty space in the first row of cars. Marcus drops his phone, and when he sits up again, it’s as if he’s a brand-new person. Like that, the Etch A Sketch in my brain is cleared, and I have to start over, adding up the parts: Shaggy hair + pointy chin + eight-foot-long giraffe legs = Marcus. The Land Rover’s barely in park before he’s out the door and calling to people. I want to say Wait for me. Don’t make me go out there by myself. I want to grab hold of his arm and hold on so I don’t lose him. Instead, I keep my eyes on him, not blinking because that will make him disappear. And then he morphs into the crowd, moving toward school like one of the herd. The animal kingdom has crazy names for animal groups. A zeal of zebras. A murder of crows. An unkindness of ravens. And, my favorite, an embarrassment of pandas. What would this group be called? A horror of students? A nightmare of teens? Just for fun, I scan the faces going by, looking for my brother. But it’s like trying to choose your favorite polar bear out of an aurora of them. 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 comes 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 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. It runs in my family. The way it can hit you like a meteor, completely out of the blue. Chemo. 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.) Having to bribe/bargain with God, even though you’re not sure he exists. When your dad gets diagnosed your sophomore year one week after you find out he’s been cheating on your mother. 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. “Hey, Bailey. I remember you.” “I’m just so glad you’re back.” And then she throws her arms around me, and I accidentally suck in some of her hair, which tastes like a cross between peaches and bubble gum. Exactly how you think Bailey Bishop’s hair would taste. We pull apart and she stands there grinning, eyes wide, dimples shining, and everything about her is too bright. Five years ago, Bailey was my friend, as in an actual friend and not one I made up. Five years is a long time. We barely had anything in common back then, so I’m not sure what we’ll have in common now. But I tell myself, Be nice. This could be the only friend you will ever make. She calls out to a girl walking past, and says to me, “I want you to meet Jayvee. Jayvee, this is Libby.” Jayvee says, “Hiya. What’s shakin’?” Her hair is cut in a swingy black bob, and she’s wearing a T-shirt that reads, MY REAL BOYFRIEND IS FICTIONAL. Bailey is beaming like a lighthouse. “Jayvee moved here two years ago from the Philippines.” I wait for her to tell Jayvee this is my first year back at school after being a shut-in, but all she says is “Libby’s new too.” Fourth period is advanced chemistry with Monica Chapman. Science teacher. Wife. And the woman who slept with my dad. As a rule, teachers are easier to recognize than students because of these three things: there are fewer of them than there are of us; even the younger ones dress older than we do; and we have license to stare at them on a daily basis (i.e., more time for me to learn their identifiers). None of this helps me with Chapman. I’ve never had class with her before, and everything about her is young and also ordinary. I mean you’d hope that the woman your dad decides to cheat with on your mom is so remarkable that even a person who doesn’t remember anyone would recognize her. But there’s nothing about her that stands out. Which means she could be anywhere. I choose a seat at the back, by the window, and someone sits down next to me. There’s this look people get when they know you and when they expect you to know them, and he gives me this now. “Hey, man,” he says. “Hey.” At some point, this cluster of girls breaks apart and one of them walks to the whiteboard at the front of the room. She looks around at everyone, introduces herself, sees me, and her face freezes, just for an instant, before she remembers to smile. After everyone settles, Monica Chapman starts lecturing about the different branches of chemistry, and all I can think about is the branch she’s not mentioning—the one that’s responsible for her affair with my dad. The way I found out was Dusty. He was the one who saw the text on Dad’s phone. It was just sitting there, where anyone could see it. Dad had walked away, and Dusty was looking for things to collect—like me, he’s always collecting things—and later he said to me, “I thought Mom’s name was Sarah.” “It is Sarah.” “Then who’s Monica?” So the bastard didn’t even bother to change her name on the phone. There it was, plain as day, Monica. To make matters worse, it wasn’t his regular phone, but some phone he must have bought just to talk to her. Figuring out which Monica took a little more work, but you can take my word for it, it’s her. Right now she starts in on physical chemistry, and I raise my hand. “Do you have a question, Jack?” I think, Do I ever. If I can get the next words out of my mouth, it will be a miracle, because I feel like my chest is stuffed into my throat. “Actually, I just wanted to tell you what I know about physical chemistry.” The guy next to me—who seems to be Damario Raines—nods at his desk, and some of the girls turn around to see what I’m going to say. They are identical to each other, and I wonder if they want to look exactly the same or if they even know they do. They’re expecting me to say something clever. I can see it on them. Besides, no one else knows about what happened between Chapman and my dad. Marcus doesn’t even know, and I want to keep it that way. “Go ahead, Jack.” Chapman’s voice sounds perfectly normal, breezy and clipped, with a hint of Michigan or maybe Wisconsin. “Physical chemistry applies theories of physics to study chemical systems, which include reaction kinetics, surface chemistry, molecular quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and electrochemistry.” I smile this dazzling smile, one that competes with the overhead lights and the sun beating in the windows. I am going to blind her with this fucking smile so she won’t ever be able to see my dad again. A girl two chairs over is grinning at me, chin in her hands, but the others look confused and a little disappointed. The Guy Who Seems to Be Damario says to his desk, “Man.” And I can tell in that one word what a letdown I am. “Actually, I think that’s my favorite, electrochemistry. There’s just something about a good chemical reaction, am I right?” And then I wink at Monica Chapman, who—for the next twenty seconds—goes speechless. As soon as she can talk again, she gives us a pop quiz to “judge our aptitude,” but really I think she’s doing it to mess with me, because she grades them at her desk and then says, “Jack Masselin. Pass these back.” And it is on. I get out of my seat and walk to the front of the room and take the quizzes from her. And then I stand there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. The class is looking at me as I look at them. There are four kids who are definite IDs. Three, I’m fairly sure I don’t know and am not supposed to know (but I’m not completely, totally sure). Eight are in the gray zone—better known as the danger zone. Now, I can march up and down the aisles, trying to match the names of people I know with the faces. I can take all the shit that would be thrown at me as soon as it’s clear that I don’t know who everyone is. Prick. Dumbass. Or I can do what I’m doing now—hold up the stack of papers and say, “Who here really wants to see what you got?” It was a pop quiz, after all, so it’s not like any of us prepared for it. For good measure, I flip through the pages, and most of the grades are C, D, C-, C. As expected, no one raises a hand. “Who would rather take this opportunity to promise Mrs. Chapman you’ll do better from here on out?” Almost all hands go up. These hands are attached to arms that are attached to torsos that are attached to necks that are attached to faces, which swim at me, foreign and unrecognizable. It’s like being at a costume party every single day where you’re the only one without a costume, but you’re still expected to know who everyone is. “If you’re interested, I’m going to set them right here.” I drop them onto an empty desk at the front and take my seat. When the bell rings, Monica Chapman says, “Jack, I’d like a word with you.” I walk right on out the door like I don’t hear, and go directly to the school office, where I tell them I need to change to the other advanced chemistry class, even though it’s taught by Mr. Vernon, who is at least one hundred and deaf in one ear. The secretary starts in with “I’m not sure we can switch you because we’ll have to reorganize part of your schedule …” For a minute, I’m tempted to say forget it, I’ll stay right where I am. Believe me, I’m more than happy to torment Monica Chapman for a semester. But I think about my dad losing his hair, about how paper-thin the chemo left him, about how frail he looked, like he might crumble away in front of us. I remember what it felt like to almost lose him. There’s a part of me that still hates him, that maybe will always hate him, but he’s my dad, after all, and I don’t want to hate him any more than I already do. Besides, I actually like chemistry, and why should I ruin that for myself? I lean on the counter. I give the secretary a smile that says I’ve saved this up for you and only you. “I’m sorry if it’s inconvenient, and I don’t want to be a pain in the ass, but if it helps, I know we can get Mrs. Chapman to sign off on this.” I decide to skip lunch. The thing that comes after it is gym, and I don’t think there is a heavy girl on this planet, no matter how secure she is, who doesn’t dread gym. In the grand scheme of things, today could be worse. No one’s banned me from the playground. So far I’ve only been mooed at and laughed at four or five times, and stared at a couple hundred times. A lot of people haven’t looked twice at me, and a lot of them are treating me like anyone else. I’ve made at least one, maybe two, potential friends. I haven’t had a single panic attack. But the hardest thing is something I didn’t expect—seeing people I used to know, people I grew up with, and knowing that while I sat in my house, they got older and went to school and made friends and had lives. It’s like I’m the only one who stopped. So I don’t feel like eating. Instead I sit outside the cafeteria in the parking lot and read my favorite book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. It’s about a girl named Mary Katherine Blackwood. Most everyone in her family is dead, and she lives with her sister, holed up away from society, trapped in her house, not by her weight but by a horrible thing she did once upon a time. The people of her village tell legends about her and are afraid of her and sometimes sneak up to the house to try to catch a glimpse of her. I’m pretty sure I understand Mary Katherine in a way no one else does. I read for a few minutes, and then I close my eyes and tilt my head back. It’s a warm, bright day, and even though I haven’t been housebound in a while, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of sunshine. Gym is worse than I imagined. Of course it’s Seth Powell who says, “There’s this game I read about.” Or maybe he saw it online, he can’t remember. “It’s called Fat Girl Rodeo.” And he’s laughing like it’s the funniest damn thing he’s ever heard. He laughs so hard he almost falls off the bleachers. “And what you do is you go up to some fat girl and you throw yourself around her like you’re riding a bull …” He leans forward, covering his face, and then he kicks the bleachers three times like it’s going to help him get his breath. When he finally looks up again, his eyes have gone squinty and wet. “And you hold on as tight as you can, really squeeze the shit out of her …” He doubles over and rocks back and forth. I look at Kam and Kam looks at me like, What a dumb motherfucker. Seth sits up, shaking all over. “And whoever …” (These last words are the hardest to get out.) “… holds on longest …” (He’s barely breathing.) “… wins.” I say, “Wins what?” “The game.” “Yeah, but what do they win?” “The game, man. They win the game.” “But is there a prize?” “What do you mean a prize?” Seth is pretty stupid, if you want to know the truth. I sigh like I’m carrying the world’s burdens, like I’m freakin’ Atlas. “If you go to the state fair and you play the shooting gallery, they give you, like, a stuffed panda or some such shit.” “When I was eight.” Seth rolls his eyes at Kam. I rake my hands through the lion fro, making it bigger and badder. I talk very, very slowly, the way my dad does to foreigners. “So when you went to the shooting gallery at age eight, they gave you something when you won.” Kam takes a swig of the flask he always carries, but he doesn’t offer us any. He snorts. “Like he ever won.” Seth is looking at me, but he reaches out and slaps Kam on the side of his head. I’ll say this for him, he’s got good aim. Seth squints at me. “What’s your point?” “What do you get if you win the rodeo?” “You win.” He holds up his hands like what more is there. It could go on this way for hours, but Kam says, “Losing battle, Mass. Let it go.” I look at Kam now. “Have you heard of Fat Girl Rodeo?” He stands, takes another swig from the flask, and for a second I think he’s about to offer it to me. Then he caps it and shoves it back into his pocket. “I have now.” And suddenly he’s out of the bleachers and on the ground and jogging toward some girl, who looks like she’s wearing an inner tube under her shirt. I don’t recognize her, but of course I don’t recognize anyone. Except for the inner tube, she could be my own mother, for all I know. Seth’s identifier isn’t the fact that he’s the only black kid in school with a Mohawk. His identifier is his stupid laugh. Because he’s an idiot, he’s always laughing, and I’d know that laugh anywhere. With Kam, it’s the fact that he has this white-blond hair that makes him look like an albino. He’s the only person I know with hair that color. I have no idea who this girl with the inner tube is, and the whole time I’m watching, I’m thinking Kam’s not really going to do it. He’s just trying to make us think he’s going to do it. And then he’s doing it. He’s wrapped around the girl like cellophane, and at first you can tell maybe she’s happy because it’s Dave Kaminski, but the longer he holds on, the more upset she gets, till it looks like she’s going to start screaming or crying or both. I stand up. I want to tell him to stop. Seth’s eyes are fixed on Dave and the girl, and his jaw goes slack before he starts pounding on his knee going, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.” And then he’s laughing and says something to me that sounds like “You know she wants it.” And the whole time I’m thinking to myself, Say something, douchebag. But I don’t. And right before she loses it, Kam lets her go. Then he breaks into a victory lap around the track. “Fifteen seconds,” Seth says under his breath. “It’s a goddamn world’s record.” Libby Strout is fat. I am locked in the bathroom after school, black Sharpie squeaking against the ugly, ugly wall. There is an unused tampon lying on the floor and an empty lip gloss in the sink, even though the trash can is literally right there. A sign on one of the stalls says OUT OF ORDER because someone dropped (shoved) a math book in the toilet. It smells like air freshener and cigarettes in here, among other things. That old saying about girls being sugar and spice and everything nice? Not so true. All you have to do is visit the third-floor bathroom of MVB High School in Amos, Indiana, to figure that out. Someone is pounding on the door. I reach up one arm and write in thick letters as large as I can so that everyone will see. Libby Strout is fat. Fat and ugly. She will never get laid. No one will ever love her. I catch sight of myself in the mirror, and my face is the color of beets, the ones Mom used to call “nice vegetables,” even though she knew there was nothing nice about them. Mom always did that—made things nicer than they were. Libby Strout is so fat they had to destroy her house to get her out. Word for word, these are the things I overheard Caroline Lushamp and Kendra Wu saying about me in gym, as the other girls stood around and listened. And laughed. I add in one or two other lines, the meanest things I can think of, so that I don’t have to hear it from anyone else. I write it so they don’t have to. This way, there is nothing they can say about me that I haven’t said myself. Libby Strout is the fattest teen in America. Libby Strout is a liar. I step back. These are the truest words of all, and until I see them I’m okay. But something about seeing them there, like someone else wrote them, makes me catch my breath. Too far, Libbs, I think. Yes, I’m fat. Yes, they had to partially destroy my house. Maybe no boy will love me or want to touch me ever, even in a dark room, even after an apocalypse when all the skinny girls have been wiped off the earth by some horrible plague. Maybe one day I can be thinner than I am now and have a boyfriend who loves me, but I’ll still be a liar. I’ll always be a liar. Because in about three minutes I’m going to open the door and walk down that hall and tell myself what did I expect, I knew this would happen, it was never going to go differently than this, they don’t matter, high school doesn’t matter, none of this matters, it’s what’s inside that counts. It’s what lies beyond this. All those things they like to tell you. Besides, I stopped feeling a long time ago. Except this is a lie too. Sixty seconds later: I walk out of the bathroom and bump right into a girl almost as big as I am. She’s bawling her eyes out, and my first instinct is to get out of her way. She says, “What were you doing in there? Did you lock the door?” Actually, she shouts it. “It must have gotten stuck. Are you okay?” I talk softly and calmly, hoping she’ll follow my lead. She’s crying and hiccupping hard, and it takes her a minute. “Bastards.” This is a little less loud. I don’t have to ask what, only who. I can imagine by the size of her what’s happened. “Who?” I ask, even though I feel like I don’t know anyone at this school. “Dave Kaminski and his bastard friends.” She pushes by me to the sink, where she bends over, washing her face, wetting down her hair, which is wound in tight black ringlets. She’s wearing a Nirvana shirt and one of those candy necklaces you eat. I grab a paper towel and hand it to her. “Thanks.” She pats at her face. “Dave Kaminski grabbed me, and when I told him to let go he wouldn’t.” The Dave Kaminski I knew was a scrawny twelve-year-old with white hair who once stole his dad’s Johnnie Walker and brought it to school. “Where are they?” “Bleachers.” She’s still hiccupping, but not as bad. She glances up at the wall and starts reading. “What the …” My eyes follow hers. “I know, right? Look on the bright side. At least that’s not your name on the wall.” Kam’s still running laps when these two girls come walking out of the school. One of them hangs back, but the other marches across the football field. She glances up at us for a second, and our eyes meet. And then she heads straight for Kam. 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. Sequins 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. “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.” The principal folds her hands on her desk. Her eyes are fixed on us like she’d turn us to stone, if only she could. “Fighting on school property is a serious charge. So is vandalism.” And it takes me a minute. She holds up a scan of a photograph, which I don’t need to look at because I already know what’s there. She says to Jack, “Do you know anything about this?” He leans forward to study the picture. Sits back again, shaking his head. “No, ma’am, I do not.” Ma’am. My dad leans in. “Let me see that, please.” As he takes the piece of paper, Principal Wasserman says, “I’m afraid someone has defaced one of our school bathrooms with derogatory comments about your daughter. I assure you it is going to be dealt with. I don’t take something like this lightly either.” She looks at Jack again. His mom looks at him. My dad looks at him, his jaw tensing so much I’m worried it will crack in half. I will myself to become invisible. I shut my eyes, as if this might help. When I open them again, I’m still in the chair and everyone is staring at me. I say, “Sorry?” My dad waves the scan. “Do you know who did this?” I want to say no. Absolutely not. “Libbs?” Here’s my choice—I can lie and say no. I can tell them Jack did it. Or I can tell the truth. “Yes.” “Yes, you know who did it?” “Yes.” Everyone waits. “It was me.” It takes them a minute. The boy whistles. His mom says, “Jack.” “Sorry. But.” He whistles again. Principal Wasserman’s face has fallen, and I can imagine her sitting down with her husband tonight, telling him how kids have changed, how we break her heart, how it’s a good thing she’s almo