On the Plus Side by Jenny L. Howe (Excerpt)

On the Plus Side by Jenny L. Howe

CHAPTER 1 No one should be expected to exhibit self-control before ten in the morning. Especially when their coworker, a practical photocopy of Chris Hemsworth, was leaning over their shoulder to dig through the dregs of the company candy jar. The fact that Everly Winters hadn’t audibly inhaled his bonfire-built-of-air-fresheners scent or brushed her knuckles across his stubble should win her some kind of gold medal. She hadn’t even had a sip of her latte yet, for god’s sake. This was torture. She contracted her muscles until they were stone and held her breath. Not since her last attempt at yoga had she achieved such levels of stillness. Inside, though, her heart was dancing an uncoordinated rumba. Get it together, she told herself. This is your workplace, not a meat market. She homed in on her monitor and changed an item in the open spreadsheet, only for it to crash for the third time this morning. “Bastard,” she grumbled. “Everything okay, V?” James’s words blew warm across her arm, summoning goose bumps to the surface of her skin. He was the first person at Matten-Waverly to give her a nickname, and she loved it, despite the fact that V wasn’t the most logical abbreviation of Everly. “Will you bail me out of jail if I murder this computer?” James flicked aside a perfectly good Twix to grab a Snickers like the true monster he was. “Depends on how much.” The right corner of his mouth kicked up in a grin. “Wow. A fickle friend you are.” Everly swiveled in her chair so he wouldn’t see her gaze raptly at his fingers as they peeled away the candy wrapper. He circled her desk to put himself right back in her line of sight. “Some crimes need to be punished.” “This document has crashed multiple times. We’re looking at a clear case of self-defense.” Under her sweater, Everly’s skin had grown warm. Her little exchanges with James rarely went on for this long, and the prolonged attention was inducing hot flashes. Sometimes she wondered how people that attractive managed to exist without combusting. “You know, the computers in Design are better quality,” James said around a bite of nougat and peanuts. Once he swallowed, he bent over the chest-height counter to plunge into the candy again. He was so close now that the strands of golden hair that had fallen out of his bun brushed against her cheek. For the second time in ten minutes, Everly performed a reverse Pygmalion: woman transforming into statue. “I like it over here in Reception. It’s cozy.” And stable. Everly knew exactly what was required of her and could fulfill those tasks with ease. It wasn’t like a creative job, where there were so many opportunities to get it wrong. Clicking open a browser, she navigated to her email with the precision and focus of a neurosurgeon, trying with all her might to ignore the way James’s biceps strained the sleeves of his button-down shirt. Too many of her best daydreams starred those muscles, and Everly, clutching them as he saved her from an icy sidewalk, or, in her more daring fantasies, from falling down the second-floor stairwell where they were making out on their lunch break. (Once, there’d been this whole intergalactic motif right after she’d watched Gravity, but it was really hard to make space suits sexy, even in her imagination. Too many clips and gadgets and whatnot.) In her head, Everly could hear Becca clucking her tongue. As her best friend and sister-in-law, Becca had decided long ago that it was her duty to have an opinion on every part of Everly’s life. And she had a whole host of them about James and his yet-to-be-expressed feelings for Everly. And maybe Becca was right. Maybe the eye contact they shared every time he crossed from one end of the office suite to the other was meaningful. Maybe the finger guns he seemed to only shoot at her, the nickname only she got, all suggested that he might be interested in being more than work pals. But if Everly didn’t ask him out, if she didn’t push at this, then there was never the chance that those maybes were nos. The possibility of him … of them … persisted into infinity. He was Schrödinger’s date. She tilted away from James’s wayward strands of hair and cut her eyes to the computer. She’d barely caught a glimpse of a notification from the forums of her favorite makeover show, On the Plus Side, in her inbox before he rounded her desk. “If Bob knew how good you were, he’d have transferred you over to us by now.” Everly shook her head. Her boss had never asked for her portfolio. She was pretty sure he was waiting for her to approach him, but she appreciated that he didn’t push her. This reception job allowed her paid benefits and a livable paycheck, and being at a marketing firm meant that, if she ever wanted to, she could use her visual arts degree, so college didn’t feel like a waste of time and money. As far as she was concerned, she was exactly where she needed to be. “I get to dabble a little in everything here. I’ve learned a ton.” As she spoke, Everly tugged on the middle of her buttoned black cardigan to add a tad more room to the waist. Stupidly, she’d put it through the dryer last weekend, and now it hugged her curves more than she’d hoped. But as she fussed with the buttons (her kingdom for some that didn’t gape at her breasts), Jazzy Germaine’s favorite line from On the Plus Side echoed in Everly’s head. People see you the way you see yourself. She forced her hands still. If she thought her sweater fit fine, everyone else would, too. Including James, who, after grabbing another piece of candy (a Mounds, gag), kneeled beside her chair. “Fiiine. I’ll stop trying to recruit you for Design. But can I show you this one thing?” Everly shrugged because what were words? His proximity erased everything from her brain like her mother claimed magnets used to do to credit cards. He clicked around on her screen. “Your advice last week about the lines being too uniform in that logo for Ivy was so on point.” His file opened on her oversized monitor, revealing a social media banner for Bartleby & Sacks, the men’s style consulting something or other their firm had recently nabbed. The layout was all blacks and grays and straight lines, summoning a yawn from the creative side of Everly’s brain. The smoky scent of James’s cologne overwhelmed her senses, and her heart had no idea what a rhythm was, but she tried to focus on the layout, tried to let herself fall into the logo’s shapes and lines as she studied the screen. For Everly, art was something she felt as much as saw. And immediately, that itch of wrongness burrowed under her skin. “Something’s … off,” James mumbled. As he waited for her feedback, he picked up a vinyl figurine of Kermit the Frog off her desk and passed it back and forth between his hands. There were a good two dozen of them, mostly from The Muppet Show and Disney films, characters Everly had loved since she was a kid, plus the custom ones of her favorite book boyfriends from romance novels that Becca had been gifting her for her birthday for years. Meticulously organized by categories that made sense only to her, they were arrayed along the front of her desk like a museum display. Everly pursed her lips. “It’s the lettering. It’s too whimsical,” she concluded. Setting Kermit down (beside Ursula and Ariel, of all places), James pointed at the monitor. “I thought the ampersand really fit their brand.” “It’s got too many curves and loops.” Everly reached out and shifted Kermit to his correct spot between Fozzie and Miss Piggy. “I’d use it for a children’s clothing company or maybe the cover of a fantasy novel.” The font was called Woodland; the whimsy was right in the name. “The brand manager said they were looking for something sleek and contemporary. Totally minimalistic.” Because god forbid anything masculine be playful. She highlighted James’s lettering and replaced Woodland with Cooper Hewitt. The difference was immediate. What had once been a chaos of curves and lines was now starkly linear. Harmonious, even. For some light contrast, she tinted the letters a stone blue, then sat back, satisfied. James let out a low whistle. “Damn, you’re good.” He tapped his knuckle to her desk an inch from her hand, setting her whole body aflame. Imagine if he’d actually touched her? She’d have burst into ash like a molting phoenix. The sharp ring of the phone made them both jump. Though a call was usually James’s cue to cut their visit short, he took to sorting the chocolate bars by color as Everly pressed her earpiece. “Thank you for calling Matten-Waverly. This is Everly. How can I direct you?” Dead air hummed against her eardrum, followed by the telltale click of a hang-up. In the age of email and texts, Everly wasn’t sure why the company still had a landline. Ninety percent of the calls were wrong numbers or bots. James watched her disconnect the call, then cleared his throat. “So … V…” Her heart stuttered at the hesitation in his voice. “Hmm…?” Even that one syllable failed at sounding cool and collected. His fingers fiddled with the lid of the candy jar, and from the way he was swaying slightly back and forth, he seemed to be passing his weight between his feet. He looked nervous. Everly tried to catalog all the possible reasons why, but her brain kept coming back to one. He was going to ask her out. No. No. No. Her monitor blurred against her stare. He couldn’t do that. She wasn’t ready for her daydreams to become reality. She’d only be disappointed. Or worse, get her heart stomped on. Her fingers frantic, she clicked open the OTPS email, desperate for her favorite show and its fans to save her from this impending disaster. If James saw her absorbed in something, maybe he’d reconsider whatever he was about to say. Everly studied the list of thread updates and replies. As the only lifestyle makeover show catering exclusively to fat people, On the Plus Side had cultivated quite the online community, and she spent most of her free time on its forums. It was one of the few places lately where she felt seen. As much as Becca was always sympathetic, she’d been thin her whole life. She didn’t know what it meant to have the world literally be designed to forget you or to make you feel wrong. But for an hour on Thursday and Sunday nights, the hosts of OTPS—Jazzy and Stanton—and their guests reminded Everly that she wasn’t alone. And for the rest of the week, the forums were the closest she could get to injecting that feeling into her veins and carrying it with her everywhere. She scanned the email, searching for her favorite users. After two years of lurking on the forums, they were as familiar to her as her closest friends. Annette’s speculations about the upcoming season had gotten hundreds of likes, and everyone was participating in Bridget’s poll on their favorite episodes to rewatch. Everly was dying to respond to the poll (the ultimate rewatch episode was obviously the season one finale with the hot plus-size male model), but James was still hovering in her peripheral vision, encouraging her pulse to spike. At this point, he’d moved on from color coding to dividing the candy by ingredient. For some reason, the peanut butter and caramel bars were shoved to the side like he was trying to hide them. It was criminal. No one put peanut butter or caramel in the corner. Everly fought the urge to ask how his candy feng shui was going, or why, exactly, he hated delicious things. She tried to avoid being even remotely flirty around him. It was safer that way. No chance of accidentally opening that box. She was just shifting her attention back to her email when a clamor of boisterous voices broke out in the hallway. Matten-Waverly was one of the few office spaces currently in use on the second floor, and the emptiness of the surrounding suites amplified the acoustics until it sounded like an entire parade was marching toward them, megaphones and all. “What the hell?” Everly jumped from her chair and, rounding the reception area, yanked open the door. The way everyone on the other side yelled her name, it was like she’d stepped into a surprise party. Her stomach leapt into her throat as two people split from the group to rush at her, arms wide, ready to scoop her into a hug. “Everly Winters!” “Look at you, you queen.” Their embrace was inviting and warm, two sets of arms squeezing her tight. One of them smelled like strawberries and cream, the other like a summer day at the beach, and someone’s shirt pressed to her cheek, blanket soft. When they finally stepped back to appraise her, her knees and hands were trembling. Everly wanted to lie down on the floor. “What … how…? What?” She didn’t realize she was crying until she rubbed at her eyes with her palms, and they came back wet. Was this a dream? That was the only way to explain how the hosts of On the Plus Side were standing in front of her right now. Somehow, they’d stepped out of her TV into her real life, and they knew her name. The realization made her head fuzzy, and her chest felt too full. As Everly glanced around in disbelief, the details of her surroundings sharpened, as if it were the other way around, and she’d stepped through a hi-def screen like a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. Her mouth had lost the power to form words. This couldn’t be real. She repeated that over and over in her head as her hero, Jazzy Germaine, took Everly’s hands and said the catchphrase Everly had never expected to hear in real life: “Everly Winters, will you let self-love in?” Copyright © 2023 by Jenny L. Howe

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