Chapter One

 

AN EXASPERATED sigh followed by what sounded like hyperventilation caught Oliver Paxton’s attention. He rushed around his cubicle divider to check on his coworker.

“Are you okay? I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No, no!” Ben gasped for breath and frantically waved his arms. “I’m… okay….”

At his weight, getting down on his knees wasn’t exactly easy, but Oliver placed his hands against the desk and carefully lowered himself, then knelt beside Ben’s chair. “Are you sure, man? You can hardly breathe.”

Ben pointed to the computer screen. “I… I can’t figure… I can’t figure this out. Have deadline.”

Oliver glanced at the computer, then back at Ben. They’d met, and Oliver knew the guy’s name, but he knew nothing about him.

“Wait.” Oliver looked back at the screen. “Dude, you just missed one of the commands. Here.” He reached in front of Ben and typed rapidly on the keyboard to complete the code.

“W-wow.” Ben leaned in, staring wide-eyed at the screen. “Y-you fixed it! How’d… how’d you know?”

Oliver shrugged. “Guess I just remembered that code. I see how you missed it, though. Common mistake.” He smiled as he looked into Ben’s dark brown eyes. The tension drained from his coworker’s face as Ben returned his smile.

“I kind of panicked there. I… well, this is my first job. I knew if I didn’t meet this deadline, I’d probably get fired. I’ve been stuck at this stage of the programming for the past three hours.”

“Really? Well, you’re almost done. Let’s just bang it out real quick.”

Ben shook his head emphatically. “Uh… no, you’ve done enough. I’m fine now.”

“Don’t be silly. Two heads are better than one, right? And I’m sure I’ll need your help one day, probably sooner than later.” He winked before turning his attention once again to the monitor. He started keying in the codes while Ben got up and offered Oliver his chair. Ben then pulled over another chair from a neighboring cubicle. A half hour later, they’d finished the coding.

“I guess they weren’t lying when they said you were smart.”

“Who?” Oliver turned to Ben, smiling. “Someone told you I’m smart?” Oliver had graduated top of his class with a degree in computer science. He’d landed a job as an IT specialist for the insurance firm where he now worked, and Ben had started in the same department about a month later.

“A few people, actually. Head of your class….”

Oliver waved his hand dismissively. “Well, don’t believe everything you hear. I do know about computers, but so do a lot of people. They’re kind of my passion, which is why I’m also a gamer.”

“I think most people in our profession are… uh….”

The guy wasn’t having another panic attack, was he? Oliver placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “You all right?”

“S-sorry. I used to… uh… st-stutter real bad. Still do sometimes when I’m… uh… nervous.”

“Well, you totally don’t have to be nervous around me. I’m not your boss or anything.” He laughed. “And yeah, I agree with you. Pretty much anyone who goes into computer programming has got to love computers, or they’re in the wrong profession. Are you a gamer?”

With a slow nod, Ben looked over and smiled. “Most people call me Benjy. My friends, I mean… and family. And yeah, I do, um, I mean I am a gamer.”

“Cool. Well, I hope we can be friends, Benjy.”

“You play, um… Overwatch?”

“Only all the fucking time.” Oliver raised his eyebrows as Benjy’s grin broadened. “What do you think of the latest patch notes?”

“Oh my God. They, like, totally nerfed my character. It sucks, man. I mean, they diminished his healing bubble, like weakened it. I was so pissed.”

“I hear ya, man. Happened to a lot of characters.”

 

 

OLIVER STOOD perfectly still, emulating a statue, but as the seconds ticked by, he found it increasingly difficult to resist the urge to raise his hand to adjust the collar of the tuxedo shirt. Finding dress shirts that didn’t choke him had become challenging in recent years, and though he had a wardrobe full of nice clothes, few of them fit other than what he special ordered from a plus-size distributor. Over the previous decade, his neck size had increased along with the rest of him, and for some reason, clothing manufacturers didn’t seem to understand that plus-sized people also had large necks.

The tailor had offered him the largest neck size available for his particular shirt, which meant it was also the longest. This created another dilemma, one with which Oliver was all too familiar. He didn’t need a dress shirt that hung down far enough to be used as a nightshirt as well. When he put it on, before even trying to tuck it in, the shirt extended to his knees. It would’ve been perfect had he been a mere eight or nine inches taller.

Fortunately the size sixty-two tuxedo jacket successfully concealed his torso. Though he wouldn’t characterize the suit as “slimming,” it certainly concealed some obvious effects of his portliness.

For months he’d been determined to lose as much weight as possible prior to the wedding. He couldn’t say no to his best friend, Amanda, when she asked him to stand up for her. Though a bride usually chooses bridesmaids as attendants, Amanda insisted her gay best friend also be her best man. Sure, it was an unconventional choice, but then Amanda was an unconventional friend. She reveled in her rebellious acts and enjoyed shocking people.

If shock value had been her only reason for choosing Oliver, he certainly wouldn’t have accepted the nod. But she truly was his closest friend. They’d been besties since grade school, back when she’d taught him all the cool jump-rope games and they’d played “Down Down Baby, Down by the Roller Coaster” at recess. His coming out didn’t surprise her in the least. In fact, she laughed, stating it had taken him long enough to admit what she’d suspected all along.

Back then, back in the third and fourth grade when they’d first started hanging out together, he’d been thin… well, relatively. He’d never been a beanpole, but at least prior to middle school, he’d been close to “normal” size. He didn’t really start putting on weight until he hit puberty. Fortunately the only physical fitness requirement for high school was freshman phys ed. After getting that out of the way, he no longer had to worry about embarrassing himself by trying to run or perform calisthenics in front of an audience of peers.

That certainly didn’t provide any immunity from teasing and bullying, though. As his girth continued to expand, so too did their taunts and jeers. The endless stream of name-calling and teasing became so commonplace, he learned to laugh it off. Some of his classmates even mockingly nicknamed him “Slim.” It was easier to be the brunt of a joke when he was in on it, going along with the degradation. The name-calling didn’t seem so hurtful that way but more like endearing monikers.

Amanda wasn’t exactly Twiggy herself. Though she didn’t compare to Oliver’s size, she wouldn’t have been welcomed with open arms onto the cheerleading squad. Oliver didn’t consider her fat, though she often referred to herself as “overweight.” For girls, the standard seemed to be even more unforgiving. At least with guys, there was a range. You could be anywhere between skinny and husky and still be accepted as normal. You had to pretty much be excessively obese to be labeled “fat,” and that’s precisely what he was.

At five-foot-ten, he weighed two hundred eighty-three pounds the day he graduated. Four years later, when he received his bachelor’s degree, he was another forty-five pounds heavier. At twenty-four, Oliver could see no light at the end of the tunnel when it came to his weight battle. He feared by the time he hit his thirties and forties, he’d be an eligible contestant for Biggest Loser, or even worse, My 600-lb Life.

Staring at his reflection in the full-length oval mirror, Oliver wanted to vomit. He turned slightly to view himself in profile, trying to imagine how he’d look in the wedding photos. His absurd attempt to suck in his gut made no difference whatsoever, so he balled his hands into fists and gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to punch the mirror.

“You look awesome.”

He turned to Benjy and rolled his eyes. “Please, don’t mock me. I know I look like the Goodyear Blimp.”

“I’m not mocking. You really do…. You look amazing. That suit really suits you.”

“It’s a tuxedo, and my gut’s too huge for me to even wear the cummerbund.”

“It’s okay. You don’t need it.” Benjy stepped closer and reached out to pat Oliver on the shoulder. Of course a guy Benjy’s size wouldn’t understand the humiliation Oliver felt. If Benjy weighed a hundred thirty pounds while soaking wet, Oliver would be surprised.

“Two of you could fit into this tuxedo. I’m so disgustingly fat. My face looks like a pig.” He glared angrily at his reflection.

“I wish you wouldn’t put yourself down like that, Ollie. You know, you carry your weight well. It’s hardly noticeable.”

“And I wish you’d stop saying such stupid things you know aren’t true! I know what you think of me. I know what everyone thinks. I’m a fucking whale!”

The tailor, who’d finished taking measurements, stood on the other side of Benjy. He cleared his throat as he raised his chin. “Well, I think I have everything I need here. You can change at your leisure and leave the tuxedo hanging in the dressing room. We’ll have the alterations complete by Friday.” He turned and exited as briskly as he spoke, then made his way back behind the counter.

Oliver sighed. He looked into Benjy’s face and registered his crestfallen expression. Suddenly he felt like an ass. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“No, it’s cool. Don’t worry about it.” Benjy smiled. “I get how stressful it is. I… uh, I couldn’t imagine having to stand up in front of all those people like that. I’d probably, um, faint or something.”

Actually, Benjy wasn’t exaggerating. He probably would literally faint. He didn’t do well in crowds, and he didn’t handle stress like a normal person.

From the day they’d first met at work, they shared a passion for online gaming, their gaming conversations never stopped—their secret language. And interestingly, this common interest also served as a shield. Oliver enjoyed a comfort level with Benjy and could always communicate through gaming, no matter what was happening on the job, in his nonexistent romantic life, or at home. Even when Oliver felt frustrated, or lonely, or like the fattest, ugliest man on the planet, he could always talk to Benjy about video games.

But at times, Oliver wondered if he and Benjy would even be friends were they not coworkers and fellow gamers. Otherwise, they were nothing alike. Benjy was short and skinny, while Oliver was a big chubby dude. Benjy was shy, while Oliver had always been more outspoken. Benjy, at twenty-four, had just leased his first apartment, which he kept immaculately clean. In every way neat and tidy, he represented the opposite lifestyle Oliver embraced.

Oliver, though not a slob, had no propensity for tidiness. He lived and worked amid a swirl of controlled, manageable chaos. His rented two-bedroom home certainly wasn’t filthy, but he found comfort within the mounds of clutter that surrounded him. Things might not appear organized to outsiders, but he always knew where to find everything he needed.

But since he graduated college, now nearly fifty pounds heavier than he was his freshman year, most of his friendships had dropped off. In high school he’d always managed to insert himself into the group, participating in a range of extracurricular activities. Band, drama, and even the production of a school yearbook and a monthly newspaper had captured his interest and allowed him to interact with other students. Of course, they often regarded him as the token fat kid, but he was one of them nonetheless. As an adult, all that had changed. In the real world as a twentysomething, size seemed to matter even more than it had back in high school.

So how was it he’d gotten to this point? How had he allowed himself to grow to this size? Along the way, he’d known it was happening. As his pants and shirt sizes increased and his clothes no longer fit, he couldn’t deny he’d grown. It became more difficult for him to slide behind the wheel of his car, and he couldn’t explain away his ever-widening girth. As it became more difficult to dress himself, bathe, and even wipe himself in the bathroom, he could no longer make excuses.

And yet… he did. He always had excuses, and often they were valid. Other guys his age ate just as much as he did, often more, and they didn’t turn into orcas. With both of his parents being overweight, undoubtedly there was a genetic component. He had really low metabolism. He might even have a thyroid problem or something.

The cruel, baseless assumptions people made about fat people infuriated him. He wasn’t lazy. Far from it. He didn’t binge eat. He didn’t subsist solely on fast food. He wasn’t a filthy slob. Just because he was overweight, people assumed things about him, that because he was less attractive physically, he was less of a person. He was less intelligent, less motivated, less personable.

And in some cases, the assumptions became self-fulfilling prophecies. He did find himself at times receding into himself, pulling away from others. At times the fat jokes became too much to bear. The snide remarks and cursory glances cut into his soul, bruised him. He fought the natural tendency to think of himself the way he knew others viewed him. And with each passing day, he felt himself losing the battle.

Now decked out in the fanciest duds he’d ever worn, staring at his reflection in the full-length oval mirror, he raised his chin to examine the roll of fat encasing his neck. He held out his arms, taking in the puffiness of his bloated hands. He turned again to the right to view his profile and glared angrily at his distended belly. This wasn’t who he wanted to be, not now at the age of twenty-four and not ever.

“I hate you,” he whispered.

Benjy took a step closer to him, perhaps fearing the comment was directed at him. “Ollie, please… please don’t say that.”

“It’s true, Benjy. Look at me. Look at what I’ve become. I’m a big fat slob. A pig. I’m nothing but a disgusting hog.”

“You’re not disgusting to me.”

His eyes now misty, Oliver turned to Benjy. “You say I’m not disgusting to you, meaning I obviously am to everyone else.”

“No! Ollie, you’re putting words in my mouth. You’re not disgusting. You’re… imperfect. You’re a normal person who doesn’t happen to have an underwear model’s body. You’re not an athlete or a movie star, though. You’re a computer programmer and my best friend. I see you for who you are, who I know you to be. Smart, funny, and the best friend—”

“Benjy, stop! You’re not helping.”

Benjy sighed and shook his head. “I just wish you could see yourself as I see you. As Amanda sees you.”

“I have to do something about myself. I can’t go on like this.”

“Okay.” Benjy stared up at him, his eyes wide and perhaps a bit misty as well. “I’ll do anything I can to help.”