Originally published December 23, 2017.
Contains: accelerated weight gain, supernatural encouraging.
I wrote this story back in October, since it was originally intended as a Halloween story, being that it involves a spirit and magic. However, as I kept working on the story, I got the persistent feeling that it was ending up more like a Christmas gaining story than a Halloween gaining story. Between the holiday-like feast, the more benevolent tone, and the fact that there’s a moral, it just didn’t feel like a Halloween story anymore. In hindsight, the fact that my friend who gave me the idea for the story said to imagine the main spirit as being like the ghost of Christmas present from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol should have tipped me off early on that it would go in this direction.
So I sat on this story until now, only releasing it to the friend who gave me the idea and my early access patrons on Patreon to read if they so chose. And now that we’re finally in the Christmas season, it’s time for it to see the light of day.
Synopsis: Rick has been skinny his whole life. As a kid, he was made fun of for his weight, leading him to have a hard time connecting with people as an adult. As he walks home from a particularly embarrassing work social, he finds a flier advertising a healthy weight gain program, which reads like it was written specifically for him. When he goes to the address the next day, he finds the front door of the building leads not to an office, but to a great hall, with a massive buffet spread laid out on a table in the middle. There he’s greeted by a boisterous figure who encourages him to partake of the feast, allowing him to gain confidence as well as weight, but only once the spirit can teach him the confidence comes from within (and not from his stomach).
Another work social, another afternoon that Rick spent against the wall with a drink in one hand and a snack in the other, eyes scanning the crowd for some way he could join in on the festivities. He wasn’t sure why he bothered coming to these events time and time again. Sure, it was good form to at least put in an appearance so he looked like a team player. But they always ended up like this: him against the wall, almost certainly looking as lonely as he felt.
“Hey, Rick,” Lola greeted as she walked up with a plate full of fruit. Caught off guard by her greeting, Rick flinched just enough to cause his cup of water to spill onto his sleeve, before it dripped onto the floor.
“Oh, hey,” Rick replied, trying to play it off. “What brings you here?” Dammit, stupid, stupid.
“Oh, same thing as you, you know?” she laughed, playing it off like she wasn’t making fun of him the way Rick knew she was. “How’s the Opal project going?”
“Oh!, uh, g-great! You know, no complaints.”
“Really? Because Cindy was just telling me the customer wants it faster than we can deliver, and sales won’t tell them no.”
“Huh.” Fuck. Why did I say it was great? “Well, you know, she’s, uh, more forward facing than I am.”
“Must be. So,” she interjected in a higher pitch, like a tire screech for the conversation. “Anything fun planned for this weekend?”
Thinking ahead, Rick knew he had some personal coding projects he’d be working on, but they could only possibly be of interest to him. With his mouth open, ready to speak but with nothing to say, he tried to think of anything he could say to keep the conversation going. But with no ideas coming, he went with the first answer that came to him: “No.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, um, I’ll talk to you later,” Lola said before she retreated back into the crowd, where she’d undoubtedly find someone else to talk to.
Rick, on the other hand, knew he’d probably blown his only chance at being included that afternoon. With a sigh, he scarfed down the cookie in his left hand and chased it down with what little water remained in his cup. With his head down, he weaved in and out of the crowd to make his way toward the exit. As lanky as he was, it wasn’t hard for him to find the space to move between everyone else. At the exit, he tossed his empty cup in the trash before pushing his way through the door.
Rick lived a 30 minute walk away from work, and except when the weather was too hot, too cold, or too wet, he always walked to work and back. It gave him some time to himself to just think about things and reflect on his day. But after a day like that, the walk was more of a curse than a blessing, giving him all the time in the world to think about every way he’d embarrassed himself that day. His brain replayed every stuttered reply over and over again, both those he’d uttered that day and those he’d made at work events past. He tried to turn up his music to drown it out, only to find it just hurt his ears.
As he neared the end of his walk, Rick passed a telephone pole with an orange flier–his favorite color–and a very eye-catching heading: “Interested in healthy weight gain?”
Have you been skinny your whole life? Were you made fun of for your figure as a kid? Called “toothpick”, “beanpole”, or “slim pickings”? Do you have a hard time connecting to others because of names you were called as a kid? Are work functions a chore because you have an easier time slipping out than fitting in? Have you tried everything to gain weight and found it just didn’t stick? Do your friends tell you they wish they had your metabolism? Do you wish you had their confidence and charisma?
Rick looked over his shoulder, then looked around him, as if he might find the person who put the flier up. If he could, he’d be very interested in asking them how they’d managed to perfectly capture every single insecurity and ordeal he’d suffered because of his weight. It was like they’d been watching Rick his whole life, and left the flier on a pole on his route home facing just the right way for him to see it while walking home after a particularly humiliating day. The heading was even perfectly at his eye level. After looking around and not seeing anyone else on the street, he turned back to the flier and continued.
We can help! Our unique program can help you put on weight quickly, healthily, and, most importantly, enjoyably! Our group setting can help you with your personal growth while you work on your literal growth! Join us on Saturday, April 21st, at 10:00 AM, for a free, no obligation introductory presentation.
Looking down at the address, Rick saw that it was only a ten minute walk from his house. It was strange, though; he couldn’t remember any building at that exact address, although he’d never paid too close attention. With a shrug, he tore the flier off the telephone pole and folded it up to put it in his pocket. He knew it was absurd to think the flier was targeting him and him alone. But to him, it was believable enough that he had no problem taking it with him. After all, he wasn’t doing anything important the next day.
On a surprisingly cool Saturday morning, with nary a cloud in the sky, Rick walked to the address listed on the flier. He’d checked on Google maps to make sure he had the right place in mind, and Google had only returned an estimated location based on the street number. Looking on street view, he could see buildings with addresses on either side of the supposed location, but merely a grassy space between them. Perhaps something had been built there in the time since the photos were taken, he conjectured.
That seemed to be exactly the case, as Rick arrived to find a two-story building on the grassy lot he’d seen online before. It’s architecture was very modern, implying recent construction. While the lack of any exterior labels did seem moderately suspicious to Rick, he supposed it was probably one of those office buildings that different people rented space within. The lack of a directory outside didn’t make him any more confident, but he supposed it couldn’t hurt to at least take a look inside. After looking at the flier one more time to confirm the address, he took a deep breath and stepped forward toward the entrance.
Looking inside, Rick felt like he had to be on the receiving end of some sort of prank. The door opened to some sort of great hall, whose ceiling seemed to extend twice as tall above him as the the building looked like it did from the outside. On either side of him, the room extended far wider than the building itself did, with large paintings statues adorning the walls and statues accenting the rooms. And in the center, a dining table, so long it extended out of sight on either side, which bore a bountiful feast along its entire length.
Rick looked outside again to confirm that the building’s exterior was as small as he’d remembered it. He spent nearly a minute looking in and out of the building, trying to make sense of the strange sight in front of him. Was it some sort of forced perspective making the room seem bigger than it really was? A really realistic projection? Was it only a model? Standing in the door frame, he couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation. Soon his curiosity got the better of him; as fantastical as it all seemed, he had to know how the illusion was possible.
Stepping inside, Rick expected the room around him to warp or change in some way that would slowly reveal how it had looked so big from the entrance. Maybe the perspective would get all wonky, showing that it was all a set. Maybe things would look flatter, revealing a painted background. But everything within the room moved around him as if it were real, as if the inside of the building really was bigger than the outside. With a pensive expression, Rick crept forward along the carpet that lead from the door to the table.
Making matters stranger was the fact that the hall seemed to be deserted. The room was completely silent, save for Rick’s footsteps and breaths. There was no sign of who’d laid out the feast, or whom it was for, just Rick alone in the giant room with enough food to feed a small village. Or perhaps as a large one, for as Rick drew closer to the table, he looked on either side and saw no end to it or the hall itself. As large as the room he inhabited was, it seemed to lead to an infinite number of rooms via large entryways on either side. It was as if there were mirrors on either side of the room, making it look endless, but minus the warping and greenish shift in color that accompanied such illusions. Also missing was an infinite number of Rick’s looking back at himself, just him alone in the seemingly endless hall with a banquet in front of him.
On the table, Rick saw cooked birds of various sizes, flanks of meat already sliced, seafood with plenty of garnishes, plates of vegetables, potatoes prepared in different styles, bread with plenty of butter, a wide variety of sweet and savory pastries to choose from, and all sorts of desserts, including cakes, pies, and chocolate dishes in more bite-size portions. The variety was almost as impressive as the sheer quantity. And it all seemed fresh. Nearly all of it was still steaming, as if it had been set down just before he came in. The smell was unreal, just like the rest of the experience. Rick had never smelled so much good food in once place. Granted, he’d never seen so much good food in one place either.
It was all so overwhelming that Rick nearly forgot what had brought him there in the first place. Was this part of the weight gain program, he wondered? Trying to eat more hadn’t put weight on him in the past, so he wasn’t sure how this would be any different. But if it was part of the program, where was everyone else? Counselors? Other attendants? Was this some sort of initiation? An introductory presentation of some kind?
It all made the situation seem very unreal. But Rick’s curiosity got the better of him, and he reached out toward one of the bread baskets that contained individual rolls rather than a whole loaf. He half expected his hand to pass right through it, still not convinced this wasn’t an illusion, but instead, his fingertips landed on a warm, flaky crust. Tearing the roll open, he was met by a puff of steam before whisps of it floated out. With a shrug, he took a bite, and found the inside to be so soft it practically melted in his mouth.
Just as Rick was ready to take another bite, he heard footsteps coming from the side of the room. “I see you got our invitation,” a deep, booming voice echoed.
Turning around, Rick saw the source of that voice. He was a man who seemed tall enough to tower over Rick, though it was hard to tell from across the room. On top of brown pants, he wore a green vest over a similarly-colored shirt that wrapped around a gigantic belly that dwarfed every other part of him. He had a long, bushy red beard that traveled down to his chest and matched the more closely cut red hair on his head. He was exactly the kind of man Rick expected to find in a room like this. He just expected there’d be more than one.
“You mean the flier?” Rick called out, feeling like he had to practically shout for his voice to travel as far away as the man stood.
“It takes whatever form it needs,” he replied, not needing to raise his voice at all in order for Rick to hear him clearly. It sounded like he was saying it softly, as if Rick were standing right next to him. As he started walking toward Rick, he continued, “Whatever it takes to be found by those who need to come here.”
“So… what is this place?” Rick asked, lowering his voice even though the man was still far away. When he didn’t have to shout, Rick felt rude raising his voice.
“Consider it a sort of place between places. What matters more than what it is, is what brought you here.”
Rick looked down at his own skinny frame, not even filling out the meager clothes he’d worn that day. Looking up, he had a clearer view of the man he shared the room with. His green vest was in fact decorated with various intricate designs in white, red, and gold. It looked like it had been tailored to perfectly fit his size, wrapping around the two hefty lobes of his chest before encircling his globular belly, which stuck out past his shoulders on either side. Above that, he had a friendly smile, and his eyes were half-closed in a disarming expression. Even though Rick was now sure the man towered over him, he felt more at ease. Enough that he could ask the man, “You mean my weight? Or… lack thereof?”
“There is much that brought you here. It cannot simply be reduced to your waistline.”
“Yeah, my waistline is too small to hold it all.”
At that, the man let out a boisterous laugh that boomed all around the great hall. It was nearly deafening. As Rick kept his shoulders elevated after flinching from the noise, he understood why the man had talked in such hushed tones in spite of the distance between them. “You have the right idea. And I see you’ve already started on the feast. This is good! But…” he stalled as he approached Rick, until he was close enough that Rick could see that the man had over a head of height on him. “No butter? Is the butter displeasing to you?”
“Well…” Looking over at the butter, Rick saw that it looked perfect fine, quite delicious, in fact. “No, it looks fine—wait, you’re not just going to try to make me gain weight by eating a lot, are you? Because I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t stick.”
Leaning his head down, the man let out an audible exhalation before he said, “Focus on the next few bites in front of you, then once those are down, then next few after that. You don’t eat a meal by wolfing it down all at once.”
“Well, obviously, but–”
“Try the butter,” the man insisted. “See if it makes the bread tastier.”
With a sigh, Rick sat down and spread the butter in the crevice he’d ripped open. After taking a bite, however, he found he didn’t care much about where the man was going with all this. The bread and butter was delicious, the butter having the perfect balance of salty and sweet.
“So,” Rick started with a mouth still full of bread. “Who are you? A person between persons?” he chuckled before taking another bite.
The man seemed amused as well, as he let out a laugh of his own, this one quieter than the last, before he answered, “Something like that. You can call me Claude.”
Rick giggled to himself at the man’s uncommon name, but it didn’t take long before he was chomping on the bread again, and he’d eaten the whole piece. Without a second thought, Rick took another roll and ripped it open to fill it with more butter. “So Claude,” Rick started before taking a bite and continuing through his full mouth with a smirk, “What, exactly, lies between places?”
“Why, this place, of course!” Claude chuckled. “But I suspect you hunger for a deeper answer. Fill your plate and I’ll tell you more.”
As Rick munched on the second roll, he filled his plate with slices of roasted chicken, a turkey leg, mashed potatoes that he drenched in gravy, baked carrots with brown sugar, a scoop of green bean casserole, and some rolled pastries that seemed to have pesto inside. From the pumpkin pie, he cut a wide slice and put it on the small plate that wasn’t covered with bread crumbs. When he realized his other small plate was empty, he reached for a few slices of French bread and spread the soft, room temperature butter on top.
“So…” Rick said before he took a bite of the chicken.
“This place,” Claude started, as he intertwined his fingers and let his arms fall loose in front of him. As big as his belly was, they only hung down far enough for his hands to land halfway down the front. “This place was once a part of your world, an immense hall that provided sanctuary, fellowship, and nourishment for those who needed it. In time, the need for such a building was lost. The winds of change are the only constant in time’s passing, and change brought other ways for our companions to find these things when they needed them. But the need for a place like this, that will always be constant.”
Claude spoke in a slow, deliberate voice, as if to make sure Rick could still hear him over all the food he was munching down. He paced around Rick’s chair, but remained on Rick’s left side, so Rick didn’t have to whip his head around to keep his eyes on his new companion.
“In time, this place separated from the world you know. As fewer of the regular visitors came back, more came from other places, places not quite connected to this hall in the same way. Not unlike how you came in just now, from a location with no connection to this building’s time or place. But the people who need what this hall has to offer, they find a way. They always find a way.”
As Rick ate his pumpkin pie slice by hand, having forgone a fork and knife, he couldn’t help but doubt Claude’s words. If those people so reliably found their way to the hall, why were he and Claude the only ones inside? It seemed that even the hall’s tenuous connection to the places it was between, whatever that meant, was growing weaker with time. He looked up and down the table, sure he wouldn’t see anyone else, which would make for the perfect segue to disproving what Claude had said.
But Rick saw several other people sitting at the table. He could spot about a dozen people on either side of him before the table shrunk out of view like train tracks into the horizon. As long as the table was, that meant the table was sparsely populated, but it was still plenty more than none. Their outfits placed them in different locations and time periods from Rick and each other, like the hall was a gathering place for people otherwise separated by place and time.
On either side, Rick also spotted a few figures like Claude, larger than life and intricately dressed just like him. Nearby, he could see a woman in a green dress that flowed like leaves swaying in the wind was pacing between other diners at the table, while a man dressed in red and gold admired the artwork on the wall. Even the farther figures, who were too far to see in much detail, were clearly taller than the diners they tended to.
Rick turned toward Claude to ask what exactly was going on, and reached at his plate for another bite of food as he did. But to his surprise, his hand landed on an empty surface, left with only the crumbs and other remnants of what he’d eaten. Somehow, in the span of Claude’s short speech, Rick had wolfed down the entire plate.
As Rick looked down in disbelief, he found another source of surprise: his once flat, lanky frame had filled out to have a modest amount of pudge creeping over his belt as he sat down. His previously loose-fitting tee shirt now wrapped around his midsection just snugly enough to reveal the modest amount of pudge beneath. At least, it was modest by conventional standards. To Rick, who’s never been able to maintain body fat, it was by far the most surprising thing that had happened so far that day.
Like the room itself when he walked in, he looked down at it and was sure it had to be an illusion of some sort. The fact that he didn’t feel all that full, in spite of how much he’d eaten, didn’t make it any easier to believe. But once his curious fingers made their way down to his midsection, they were met by a flabby tummy pushing back against them as they sunk into the flab. Rick was afraid to push too hard, never having had flab of his own before and not sure what it could take. But it seemed this was all his.
“I trust you have questions,” Claude said, breaking Rick out of his dumbfounded astonishment.
Rick still had trouble finding the words to answer, but after staring back at Claude with mouth agape for a few seconds, he replied, “Yes.”
“Fill your plate up and you shall have answers.”
Rick didn’t have to be told twice. His eager hands grabbed at any and every course within reach, filling up every space on his plate, while the more robust items hung over the edge so he could fit even more. His bread plate had vanished under the pile of rolls and slices that now covered it, and his dessert plate held far more than the traditional single item that one took for dessert. Starting with a roll, Rick picked it up and slathered it in butter. He then looked at Claude and asked, “First off, where did this come from?” as he pointed to his newly flabby abdomen, before taking a big bite of the roll.
“The hall will give you what you need,” Claude answered, shrugging his shoulders as he wasn’t sure how else to answer Rick’s question.
“Right,” he mumbled through a mouthful of bread. Once he swallowed, he continued, “One plate here, and I have some meat on my bones for the first time in my life. I’ve been trying to gain weight by eating more my whole life, and it seems like it goes right through me, no matter how much I eat.”
“Given how much persuasion it took to make you eat a single roll with butter, I have my doubts about that,” Claude said, looking away from Rick with a smirk as he walked to the other side.
“Wha–okay, that flier you left was written as if someone had been watching me my entire life, including all the times I tried to eat more to gain weight. And now you’re going to act like that just never happened?”
“Did our invitation mention eating big specifically? That seems unbelievable.”
After putting down his fork once he’d eaten the piece of ham that it had previously skewered, Rick reached into his pocket to find the flier that had brought him there. It took a bit more effort than expected to pull it out, now that his pants had some real thighs to wrap around, instead of scrawny legs that looked like they could have been someone’s arms. After unfolding it, he read aloud, “‘Have you tried everything to gain weight and found it just didn’t stick?’ See? Whoever wrote this knew.”
“They knew you’d think you’ve tried everything, and they were quite perceptive about that. But no matter. You found your way here, and now, you’re getting what you needed.”
“But how?” Rick asked insistently. “A single meal like that can’t put on this much weight this fast.”
“Here it can,” Claude told him, making Rick roll his eyes after he looked away from Claude. “You sure are asking a lot of questions when this,” he said as he gave Rick’s stomach a few pats, “is what you supposedly wanted.”
“‘Supposedly?’” Rick repeated indignantly through a mouthful of chocolate tort. Seeing Claude smirk didn’t exactly placate his frustration, and as Claude walked from one side of the chair to the other, Rick swung his head around to keep giving him an angry look.
But in the process, Rick had to look down both ends of the table. In doing so, he saw more people sitting along the table’s length. They were still few enough to leave a half dozen seats between every person, with the closest people to Rick sitting at least a dozen seats away. Several more large beings like Claude populated the hall as well, pacing the room, talking with the diners, and tending to the feast. It seemed there were also a number of the tall folks sitting at the table, with the nearby guests providing contrast to show just how tall they were. With Rick now silently looking the table up and down, he could hear some mild hubbub filling the room, as the people passing each other by occasionally made conversation.
“And where do all these people and… beings like you keep coming from?”
“They were always here,” Claude insisted, making Rick raise his eyebrows. “But tell me: would you have sat down to enjoy this feast if you were met by the image of a bustling hall filled with people and all the seats taken, save for one reserved for you?”
Rick paused with a mouthful of brown-sugar-sweetened baked carrot in his mouth. After slowly chewing and swallowing the bite, he asked, “Well… how would I know the seat was for me?”
“Perhaps another guest would see you standing by and ask you to join them.”
“I, uh… I think I’d pass,” Rick finally admitted. In the silence that followed, he realized the hubbub that he’d heard previously had vanished. Looking around, he couldn’t see any of the other diners or spirits who’d populated the hall before. It was deserted yet again, and with plenty of fresh, steaming food for no one to eat. He looked from Claude to the length of the table, hoping desperately for something to break the empty silence.
“Yes, ‘supposedly’,” Claude finally said, walking up to the table so he could be right next to Rick. Looking up, Rick could barely see the towering man’s face with his belly in the way. “This hall will provide for you what you need, if you are willing to take it. Why do you think I didn’t appear until you’d taken the first bite of a roll?”
Rick looked down at his now-empty bread plate, matching the entire place-setting that he’d cleared of the mass of food he’d put down before. Looking down further, he saw where it had all gone.
The modest pudge that had previously grown on his midsection had been replaced by a veritable belly. It looked like he’d stuffed one of the smaller roasted birds into his shirt, but a less hesitant examination revealed that it was all him. His finger sunk into the supple flesh as he ran his hand over his new belly, appreciating the weight that now lay underneath them. As he looked down, Rick saw that his chest had perked out too, growing into two lobes with their own mass. Both were even softer than his belly, demonstrating just how jiggly he could be. Even his arms and legs had pudged out, from the bony appendages he’d had all his life to arms that looked like they’d actually carried food to his mouth before and legs that spread out over his chair, pushed apart by their own pudge.
Rick rubbed his newly padded body over, feeling all of his new weight with a smile on his face. Considering how happy he was, he had no idea why Claude insisted the weight was “supposedly” why he was there. He couldn’t think about it for long, though, as one of the beings sat next to him and asked, “Is this seat taken?”
Without any hesitation, Rick got up and said, “Oh, I-I’ll j-just move somewhere–” Before he could say “else”, he recognized Claude sitting next to him, his eyes looking like they were interrogating Rick without the help of his mouth. “Wha-what was that all about?” Rick asked.
“It was about why you’re supposedly here,” Claude told him before he got up and pushed the chair back in. “You think your scant figure is what brought you here. After all, you tell yourself, your frame is why you were made fun of as a youngling, and that mockery still haunts you to this day. And yet here we are, having put plenty of meat on your bones, and you still shy away from sharing a table with someone for fear of being in their way.”
Rick’s nostrils flared as he tried to met Claude’s gaze head on, but soon his gaze fell to the ground and he stumbled over to his seat. He could feel his newly rounded out midsection bouncing with his steps, an unfamiliar and alien sensation, but it just felt like it was in the way. Rather than giving him more confidence as he walked, he just felt like he had a backpack on the front of his body full with textbooks for him to lug from place to place. It felt like a burden, not the blessing Rick was sure it would feel like.
“You could eat your way to the grandest, most magnificent belly in the world, and it would only mean you’d have to dig deeper to find that assurance inside of you.”
“So you’re saying I should stop eating?” Rick asked.
“Know why you’re eating,” Claude replied in slow voice that emphasized every word. “Then you can fill your plate again.”
Great, now we’ve moved on to riddles, Rick thought as he sat back in his chair. He let his hands wander down to his newly convex midsection, rubbing it gently as he thought over Claude’s words. “Know why you’re eating.” Did he need a reason? He’d been invited, and no one had stopped him before. Why would Claude stop him now?
It was that question that prompted Rick to start filling his plate again, not even looking at Claude to give him an answer. “So, why do you eat?” Claude asked in a dour tone. Rick knew Claude had asked, and instead of acknowledging him, he kept his eyes on his plate and the feast in front of him. When Claude repeated, “Why do you eat?”, Rick merely smirked and kept filling his plate. Unbeknownst to Rick, Claude had a smile of his own as he stood behind him.
Soon enough, Rick’s plates were piled so high with food that they looked like if he tried to take anymore, the piles would collapse. So he grabbed a meatball off the top of the pile and tossed the whole thing in his mouth, before he dug into the rest with abandon. He tore through course after course, entrée after entrée, caring not for coordinating flavors or moving between courses in a logical progression. All in the name of sticking it to Claude for insisting there be any prerequisites to the feast.
That spite made it easy for Rick to plow through his first several bites. But once he’d settled into a rhythm, he found the silence between him and Claude unnerving. Surely Claude was still standing there, so why didn’t he say anything? Why didn’t he try to stop Rick? Was he going to punish Rick for his insolence once he stopped eating? Rick’s instincts had him turning his head to the side, to look behind himself and see if Claude was displeased at all. But he snapped his head back to face forward, looking ahead as his nostrils flared with renewed resolution. He’d made his decision, and he was going to stick with it.
And stick with it he did, until the last bite of food on his plates had gone into his mouth. Crumbs and smears were all that remained to indicate that the plates once bore food. With a satisfied sigh, Rick leaned back in his chair, letting his bulging midsection stick out over his legs. He kept his eyes closed, content to delay finding out how much bigger he was and just comfortable in the knowledge that he was.
“Feeling good?” Claude asked, without a hint of impatience or frustration in his voice.
Rick’s eyes shot open, still looking straight ahead at the empty chair in front of him. It was the farthest thing from the response he expected, and he was just as unprepared for it. “I, uh… I–I, I–“
“It’s a simple question, Rick,” Claude interjected.
“I–yes,” Rick finally answered as he turned his head to face Claude. Looking him straight on, he continued, “I am.”
“Good,” Claude finally said, though Rick could tell from his voice that he wasn’t entirely satisfied. “A contrarian urge can be a quick source of confidence, but it is often misguided and, as you discovered, short-lived. You’ll have to find a more steadfast source of self-assurance if you wish to hold onto it.”
Looking back toward the table, Rick’s gaze lingered along the side of the room long enough for him to see that it had returned to its previous level of crowdedness, with enough diners so the hall didn’t feel abandoned and enough giants like Claude to tend to everyone. After looking to both sides to confirm that things were as they had been before, Rick let out a sigh and let his head fall down. In the process, he caught a glimpse of where all that food he’d eaten in his fit of contrarian hunger had gone. He let out a single chuckle as a smile spread across his face and his hands moved to his midsection. Claude had given him plenty to think about, and what better way to occupy his hands as he pondered than rubbing his new expanded belly?
Rick’s stomach, once the size of one of the smaller roasted birds, had swelled out to the size of a larger roasted turkey. The previously self-contained ball of fat had now spilled over his sides to make a pair of love handles that pushed his hands to the side as he rubbed his belly over. His belly itself had taken on a new firmness, the supple surface only letting his wandering fingers dip in so deep before his flab pushed back. As he looked up to consider Claude’s words, his hands remained on his belly, feeling the warm, plush mass over. As he sat back and rubbed his gut in contemplation, the sensation of all that new flab underneath his touch made a smile creep across his face.
That was when he turned to Claude and asked, “Can’t this be a source of confidence?”, giving his belly a few shakes as he did and feeling it jiggle before it settled into place.
“Could be,” Claude replied with raised eyebrows and a modest smile, before he gave his own mountainous midsection a few gentle pats. “But it’s tricky. Grab some more to eat.”
Rick didn’t have to be told twice, filling all his plates in record time with piles of food from all the dishes within his reach. After grabbing a roll and spreading it with butter, he said, “I’m listening,” before taking a big bite.
“One’s body can certainly be a source of pride, but even those who strive for the bodies they have often find themselves feeling it isn’t enough,” Claude continued, pacing around while staying on one side of Rick like he’d done before. “Many would give anything to have a frame like the one you walked in with today, as I’m sure they’ve told you themselves.”
“Many times,” Rick replied with a tone of exasperation, his words garbled by a mouth full of bread and butter.
“But you know something?” Claude asked with a pause, prompting Rick to look up from his feast with inquisitive eyes and puffed out cheeks. “If they had your body, they’d be just as unhappy as you are. The difference is, they’d convince themselves they need to be even thinner, not fatter.”
“You’re saying they should want to be fatter?”
“I’m saying their stature was never the problem. Neither was yours.”
“Tell that to the kids who called me ‘slim pickings’,” Rick grumbled through a mouthful of roasted potatoes.
“Those kids really got to you, huh?” Claude asked. As obvious as it was, there wasn’t a hint of mockery in his voice. He sounded like an uncle trying to comfort Rick.
“That’s why I’m here,” Rick replied before swallowing the potatoes, making space to take a big bite of steak.
“Ah ha!” Claude exclaimed. “But don’t you see? That’s exactly it! That is why you’re here!”
“Because I’m skinny?”
“Because those children made you feel like an outcast!”
“Because I was skinny.”
“Because they taught you that was a bad thing, when it isn’t, and never was!” Claude maintained, his eyes alight as he bent down close to Rick, who kept up the frenetic pace of his eating as the conversation intensified.
“But I’m not skinny anymore,” Rick objected, smacking the side of his ever swelling midsection for emphasis and feeling that it was even bigger than before. “What does it matter now?”
“You learned that your body is the source of all your strife, took the torment inflicted by those around you and kept it inside of you. Unless you can find a way to force that torment out of you, a more substantial frame will only help you hide it from others better.”
Rick’s chewing had slowed for the first time since he’d filled his plate. He pondered Claude’s words as he munched on a mouthful of carrot cake, one of the few items he ate with a fork rather than stuffing in with his hands. As he savored the dense dessert, he looked over to Claude and said, “Wait a minute, if getting bigger won’t make me happy, then why even bring me here with this feast?”
“Well,” Claude exclaimed with a newfound enthusiasm, a smile peeking out from behind his beard yet again. “It is what you wanted, is it not?
The pensive expression on Rick’s face slowly grew into a smile, one more comfortable than any of his previous grins, and he turned around to dig into what remained on his plate. Behind him, Claude relaxed his smiling expression into a contented one, before he pulled out the chair next to Rick and sat down. “I think it’s high time I join you. I’m getting rather peckish.”
“By all means,” Rick said through a mouthful of some sort of lemon-filled pastry as he extended a hand toward the seat. He paused momentarily when it dawned on him that it certainly wasn’t his place to give approval for Claude to sit down, and wondered where that had come from.
As Claude filled his plates, Rick was polishing off the last of his food, finishing just around the time Claude started digging in. By the time Claude took his first bite of a roll with butter, Rick leaned back in his chair with a small burp. For the first time that night, it seemed he’d eaten enough to feel full.
Rick’s midsection reflected his stuffed state, as his belly had grown big enough to start creeping out noticeably over his thighs, even as he leaned back. As he leaned forward, he could feel the underside of his gut rolling over his thighs as his flab encroached upon his lap. Beneath it, his thighs had grown from scrawny limbs to resemble logs in their girth. They looked wide enough to hold up all of Rick’s new weight, and as he fidgeted in place, he could tell that they were strong enough. As Rick looked down and pondered his legs, he could see that his chest had pushed out too, with the two lobes pushing out distinctly from behind his shirt before they came to rest on his belly.
Rick lifted his burly arms to give those a look as well. As he did, however, he saw that the hall had filled with even more people than before. It seemed around a third of the seats were taken, by people and giants like Claude alike. Still more giants tended to the feast, making sure there was plenty of food to go around as people kept eating. The commotion of everyone talking and eating, Rick realized, was louder too. It seemed to have risen steadily enough that he didn’t notice until he paid attention to it specifically.
But there were still a few seats’ worth of space around Rick. Until a woman whose outfit had more in common with Rick’s than those of most of the people there, making Rick think she was of his time, came over toward him. “Is this seat taken?” she asked as she put her hand on the seat next to Rick.
Rick shook his head back and forth before he motioned to the chair and said, “It’s yours now.” Unbeknownst to him, Claude looked over with a proud smile before he forked a brussel sprout and popped it in his mouth. Rick, meanwhile, leaned forward toward the food near him and filled his plate yet again, this time not quite so overflowing as previously. It seemed the mound of food in his belly previously had finally digested just like the rest, and he was ready for more.
As Rick took his first bite of sourdough bread with butter, a thought occurred to him. “Hey Claude?”
“How come I haven’t outgrown my clothes? I mean, with how much bigger I’ve gotten, I should have ripped out of all of them. It’s like they’ve been growing along with me.”
“That’s why you haven’t ripped out of them,” Claude told him before taking a bite of some corn on the cob.
“But how?” Rick asked through a mouthful of his own.
“In less than a day, you’ve grown more substantial than you could have in years outside of this place, and yet the fact that your clothes still fit is unbelievable to you?” Claude chuckled.
“Call it yet another gift of this place. Another thing it knew you needed.”
“Seems there’s a lot this place can provide,” Rick commented, half snarkily, half in wonder.
“It’s pretty special,” Claude beamed, looking up and around himself with eyes partly-closed in reverence.
As Rick kept eating, he stared at Claude a while longer, before he finally asked, “Claude?” After Claude looked down at him, still smiling wide, Rick asked, “You’re not human, are you?”
“Not mortal, if that’s what you mean,” he answered before he popped a shrimp in his mouth. “None of us are. We tend to this place and enjoy its riches ourselves as mortals who require its sanctuary continue to visit.”
“Were you once mortal?”
“Not sure. I suppose if I was, my time before this place wasn’t worth remembering.”
Looking around at the exquisite feast laid out in front of them, the lavish artwork that adorned the walls, and the still growing crowd of diners, all eating and chatting with smiles on their faces, Rick turned back to Claude and said, “I don’t blame you.”
“You wish to stay?” Claude asked, his tone genuinely inquisitive, as if the invitation were actually open.
Rick chewed more slowly as he pondered the offer, not have considered the possibility before. “You know,” he started before swallowing his bite of roasted squash. “It’s tempting. But I have some business left on Earth I should tend to first.”
With an understanding nod, Claude assured Rick, “When your business is done, this place will welcome you again.”
“Will I keep getting bigger if I keep eating here?”
“Only if that’s what you need. Seems to me you’ve already gotten there, though. This course doesn’t seem to have put much on you.”
Indeed, when Rick looked down, he saw that his substantial belly seemed to only be sticking farther into his lap because he wasn’t leaning back anymore. It had still grown to a remarkable size, making him sure that he’d be one of the biggest guys in the office when he went back on Monday. As he ate, he found himself resting his elbows on top of his belly while they reached toward his plate, with his left arm resting on it when he only needed his right. It had grown big enough to serve as an armrest, and he took great pride in letting his arm or elbows settle into the warm, plush top.
“Guess that means I won’t be staying much longer,” Rick lamented before he stuck a forkful of apple pie in his mouth.
Claude’s chewing slowed noticeably before he swallowed and turned to face Rick. “If you feel the hall has nothing left to offer you, then that is your choice to make.”
“Oh, no, no, it has plenty–”
“You don’t have to justify yourself, Rick,” Claude interjected before taking another forkful of the mashed potatoes. “It is not the way of this hall to hold captives.”
Rick looked down at what remained of his slice of apple pie. Though he wanted to return to his old life with his new size, something in him still didn’t want the feast to end. But with Claude seemingly feeling more somber, he also didn’t want to prolong the current mood any longer than he had to. With a sigh, he scarfed down the rest of his pie. “Well, I think that’s it for me.”
Claude nodded while still looking straight ahead. “You’ll find no locked doors here. Either in or out.”
“You’re saying I could come back?”
At that, Rick saw Claude smile for the first time since he announced his intention to leave. “You’re always welcome here.”
With a smile, Rick pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. He was surprised to find it wasn’t nearly as difficult as he expected, coming easily to him as if he’d been that size his whole life. Sliding off of the side of the chair, he pushed himself up off the back and took a standing position, where he leaned back to counteract all the new weight he’d put on in front.
Once Rick was standing, he felt some rather forceful pats on his shoulder. He looked to the side and saw Claude’s arm extended out. He didn’t have to extend it very high to reach Rick’s shoulder, even while sitting down. “If you need this place again, you’ll find your way back here.”
As a smile grew across Rick’s face, he returned the gesture, finding his could scarcely do more than give Rick’s broad back some gentle taps. But it was enough for him, and he turned around to face the door through which he’d entered.
The whole dining hall was packed full, with diners and spirits alike congregating in front of the table as well as sitting down to eat. Save for the seat Rick had just vacated, the whole table was full of people and giants happily partaking of the feast. The hubbub was consistent, but warm, as no one tried to yell over one another. Only laughter and cheers punctuated the din of the hall. Rick had to hand it to Claude; he would have found the environment intimidating when he’d first walked in. But now, it made him even more reluctant to leave. But knowing he could come back was enough to make him let out a long sigh and walk toward the door.
Rick walked with his back arched straight up, no longer the slouch that marked his gait as he moved through a room before. As such, his belly ballooned out in front of him, given all the room it needed to jut out into room as he walked. He could tell he moved with a wider gait, but didn’t feel as if he was moving any more slowly, like he’d also grown the muscles to move his new heft along with his flab. With each step, he could feel his belly bounce just a little, jiggling each time his feet hit the ground. As foreign as the sensation was, it still made him smile.
Rick was used to ducking through crowds at his smaller size, something he knew would be impractical now. But to his relief, the crowd parted ways as Rick approached without him having to say anything. He still said “excuse me” as he passed by, wanting to be polite to his fellow diners and his spirit hosts. Soon he was through the crowd, and right near the door.
There Rick found a man whose mannerisms were very familiar to him. The man stood at the edge of the room, looking into the crowd with nervous eyes and fidgeting hands. He was thin as a rail, and wore a sweater that would have fit him better with a few more pounds on his frame.
“Hey,” Rick said, prompting the man to look his way as his eyes got extra wide. “There’s a free seat at the table that way,” Rick told him, pointing toward where he’d gotten up. “It’s next to a giant of a man named Claude, with red hair and a green vest. Introduce yourself.”
Though the man still seemed nervous, he looked out into the crowd with eyes more eager than before. With a timid smile, he gave Rick a nod before he made his way toward the crowd. Rick watched the man weave in and out of the people, who didn’t move for him the way they had for Rick. It seemed strange to him that the man had to fight through a crowd when Rick had been able to walk right up to the table. But he was also just glad he’d been there to give the man some encouragement.
Once the man disappeared into the crowd, Rick opened the door and looked outside. It was the same cool, sunny weather that had met him on his walk Saturday morning, with the sun still rising in the east. He wondered, had he been there a whole day and into Sunday? Longer? He hoped he hadn’t missed any work. It was that nervousness that prompted him to step outside to try to see what day it was. With a forceful swing, he pushed the door closed behind him.
But Rick didn’t hear the door latch shut behind him. He didn’t hear anything, just the hubbub of a main street on a weekend morning. He turned around, only to find a field of grass. No building of deceptive size, no door to the great hall, no grand feast. Just the empty lot he’d seen on Google maps before.
Rick supposed that given everything that had happened to him, the whole building disappearing wasn’t entirely out-of-the-ordinary. Still, it made him wonder if he’d imagined the entire thing, even though he now bore a massive belly that made it clear he hadn’t. Reaching into his pockets, he found the original flier, with the same address where he now stood, where now there was only a grassy lot. He also pulled out his phone, and found that it read 10:01 on the same date on the flier.
Looking out in front of himself, Rick’s eyes narrowed pensively as he tried to convince himself he wasn’t losing it. After pocketing his phone, he let his hand wander over his newly rotund belly, feeling all the extra flab underneath his shirt. As his hand made the long trip from one side to the other, it felt unfamiliar, yet somehow comfortable. As he cracked another smile, he pulled out his phone again; same date and time. “I guess it was a time between times too,” he chuckled to himself.
Rick walked into the office the next Monday in a perfectly-fitting lavender button-down shirt and khakis. He was thankful to find when he got home that his entire wardrobe seemed to have grown along with the outfit he’d worn to the dining hall, giving him plenty of clothes to choose from for work the next week. As he walked through the door, he bade hello to the receptionist, a few of his coworkers in the hall, and two in the elevator. None of them reacted as if anything was out of the ordinary, much to Rick’s relief.
Once he arrived at his desk, he grabbed his water bottle and headed for the bubbler. There he found a crowd of about eight people surrounding the machine, chatting as one leaned on it with his elbow. “Excuse me, everyone,” Rick said as he used the hand that was holding he water bottle to push through the crowd. As the group parted to let him through, Rick cracked a smile before he pushed down the water bubbler spout.
With his full water bottle in hand, Rick bounded over to toward Lola’s desk, where he found her working dutifully as always. “Hello,” he greeted as he tapped on the cubicle wall.
“How was your weekend?”
“Good! Happy to say our hiking trip went off without a hitch.”
“Mmm, the one in the mountains northwest of here, right?”
“How’d those newbies you were bringing along manage?”
“Well, one somehow fell off the trail and into a creek, getting his spare clothes wet in the process. But other than that, they were surprisingly competent.”
“Good,” Rick chuckled. “Listen, when you have a free moment, we should get together to make sure we’re on the same page about Opal.”
“Yes!” Lola exclaimed. “Can you do… 10:00 at your desk?” she asked after checking her calendar.
“Works for me,” Rick said.
Just before Rick could walk away, he heard Lola says, “Hey Rick?”, prompting him to look back into her cube. “You look… different somehow. Did you get a haircut?”
As he chuckled and answered, “Not quite,” Rick wondered if there was any way to answer the question honestly without telling the truth. “I did get some clothes that fit me better than my old clothes did.”
“That must be it. Sometimes a makeover can really make you feel like a new person.”
“Well, “makeover” is an ambitious term, but I do feel more confident,” Rick told her. That much was entirely true.
“Good!” Lola exclaimed before turning back to her computer, as Rick turned to return to his desk.
With his free hand, Rick felt over the top of his bulbous midsection as he strolled down the hallway. He supposed his coworkers wouldn’t think anything of it, being that they all seemed to think he’d always been that big. But as he traversed those halls, feeling the warm, heavy protrusion all over, he remembered ducking out of the last office social after squandering his only chance at being a part of the goings on. With a smile, he told himself he wouldn’t be doing that anymore. And not because he was too big to weave in and out of the crowd anymore.