This is the eleventh chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
I have a little notebook just for perfecting my signature.
It’s hardcover and wide-ruled and scarcely bigger than my iPhone, with a picture of Cicely Mary Barker’s Lavender Fairy on the front. I came across it in an Etsy shop one night while scouring the Internet for hair bows. I fell in love right away and did not hesitate to pay the requisite thirty dollars plus shipping, because the Lavender Fairy bore an uncanny resemblance to my seven-year-old self. I love that the only thing I’ve ever written in it is my name.
Nevaeh made fun of me whenever I worked on my autograph in front of her. “Practicing for your book signings?” she’d tease as I wrote Helena Holloway over and over again, experimenting with different sizes, slants, flourishes. I didn’t like how the Y in Holloway was the only letter with a tail; the fact that it was at the very end of my name made the whole thing look like it was going to tip over at any moment. After several pages of iterations, I added a swirly heart before Helena to balance things out.
Yes, I was practicing for my book signings, and all the other times when my John Hancock would be required on a document. Nevaeh, whose idea of “high fashion” was wearing something other than athleisure, couldn’t understand why I was so obsessed with having a pretty autograph. I tried explaining to her once that signatures were like little art pieces, each one unique and representative of a person. In response, she’d thrown back her head and laughed. “I can tell that the edibles are working,” she said between giggles.
Is that why I felt extra-vindicated when I finally wrote Helena Holloway on my contract with Wren, each loop and dip and swirl perfect, the little heart in the front like a cherry on top? Funny enough, that scene with Nevaeh was what I was thinking about when I officially became Wren Falcon’s client — not the book I was about to write, or all the hard work and lies that had led me to be seated across from my dream literary agent in a four-star seafood restaurant the night before my birthday.
Suck it, Nevaeh! I thought as I handed the papers back to Wren, carefully avoiding the cocktail sauce I’d accidentally dropped onto the pristine tablecloth a few minutes earlier.
My new agent looked each page over and finally nodded, satisfied. “Congratulations, Helena. We are going to make a bestselling author out of you.”
“Like Marnie?” I asked. Marnie Tucker, author of I Hope They Serve Fireball Shots In Hell, had recently been credited with making gonzo-style writing popular again.
“No, you’re nothing like Marnie.” Wren shook his head, and I tried to conceal my disappointment. “Marnie was well-known when I started representing her, she didn’t have the New Yorker calling her a heroine.” He emphatically tapped the stack of papers I’d just given him. “Helena, I can tell you this: your book is going to fetch three times as much as Marnie’s on the market, at least. Marnie is niche feminism, and not safe for work at that. You’re sticking it to the patriarchy while going to Stanford, and you’re a marvelous writer on top of it all.” The fierce look in his eyes was back. “Trust me, Helena. You’re going to be a star.”
He wasn’t smiling, only studying me with what seemed like pride. I blinked once, twice, then pinched myself hard under the table. Nope — I wasn’t dreaming. Wren Falcon had just told me I was going to be famous.
I silently thanked that long-ago shooting star and took a sip of my ice water. “So I just need to email you my book proposal by May?”
“Yes. Jessica will send you a copy of everything you’ve just signed here. I need the proposal e-mailed by May thirty-first. Then you’ll come back to New York and we’ll make rounds with the editors at Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Hachette …”
My head spun as Wren listed all the major publishing houses. Was this how Oliver felt when he met with investors for NipNop? No wonder he’d gotten so worked up over which watch to wear. It was his version of practicing his signature until it was perfect.
“… excited to see those captions in book format,” he finished. “You have a very distinctive voice, and Instagram is a very hot thing at the moment. If we play our cards right, And We Weren’t Like will top the bestseller lists for at least two seasons.”
I let a grin creep across my face. The literary world was so much more business-driven than I would’ve thought. It wasn’t enough to be a good writer, or even to be critically acclaimed. You had to sell books, to move product, to make money. I hadn’t known until I’d signed our contract that Wren worked on commission, earning fifteen percent of every dollar I made. A younger, more idealistic me would’ve thought all this soulless, a bastardization of creativity. The Instagram influencer in me was used to thinking about my art in terms of numbers.
“You got it,” I told Wren now, raising my water glass in a toast. “To And We Weren’t Like.”
“To And We Weren’t Like,” he repeated, clinking his glass against mine.
Later, I would find out just how rare it was for literary agents to work with clients who didn’t have completed manuscripts. Wren had been an exception because he worked primarily with Internet celebrities, not writers, but I hear that even he demands at least a rough draft before he’ll sign anyone now. He’s far more careful these days, all thanks to me.
Do I feel bad about fucking him over so badly? Of course! The guilt motivates me, honestly. Every time I want to quit writing this book, I think of that day in New York and keep trudging on. Maybe I’ll bring this to Wren when it’s done and finally put those demons to rest.
That night, I sprawled out on the bed in my hotel room, nursing a virgin mojito I’d picked up from the bar downstairs. The wood-paneled walls and warm lighting made me feel like I was hanging out in the world’s coziest closet. Large, frameless mirrors hung on either side of the bed, reflecting dozens of Helenas, their honey-colored hair in identical messy buns, their lips all the same magenta shade, dressed to party in black crushed velvet dresses and nude Paloma Wool wedges.
My reflections provided all the company I needed. I only looked like I was about to go out because I believed in dressing up for special occasions, even if nobody but me would see it. Tonight was definitely a special occasion. I was saying goodbye to teenage naïveté and hello to big-time fame. Those things called for a little extra effort, appearance-wise.
I was, in Wren’s words, going to be a star. Was I ready to be liked, disliked, read, discussed, envied outside of Instagram and NipNop? Four hundred and ninety-five thousand people consumed my posts on social media, but that was small potatoes compared to the rest of the world. I’d once read that only twenty-eight percent of American adults used Instagram. And We Weren’t Like would introduce me to the other seventy-two percent, people who I wouldn’t be able to block if they said unsavory things about me.
All the Helenas in the mirror bit their lips at once. Before meeting with Wren, I’d done a quick Google search for Marnie’s name. She wasn’t as well-loved as I’d thought. Sure, tons of people praised her boldness and hailed her as a pioneer of the women’s movement and wanted to literally be her, but plenty more shat all over her for those same things. Ugly slut, one person had written in an Amazon review for her book. I feel like I caught syphilis just by looking at her face. Gonna tell all my buddies on Tinder to watch out for her, said another. Fucking asshole. Cunt. Stupid bitch.
My book would be more safe-for-work than Marnie’s, but it was going to be just as outspoken and unapologetic and fun. What would my trolls say about me? That I was self-obsessed, solipsistic, a fake feminist for having a successful founder boyfriend?
And what if word got out that Oliver wasn’t even my real boyfriend, that we’d essentially used each other this whole time? The only other people who knew about our little arrangement were Oliver’s co-founders and Nevaeh. They were trustworthy, but what if they told? What if Oliver himself randomly decided to blab to some tabloid magazine about the truth of our relationship?
I laid back in bed, feeling vaguely ill. I normally wasn’t the anxious type, but once my brain got hooked on something, it was hard for me to stop it from going to dark places. Lord knows how long I would’ve stayed like that if my phone hadn’t started vibrating, Ariana Grande’s sugar-coated voice breaking the suffocating stillness.
If you want it, take it
I should have said it before
Who the fuck was it at this hour? I didn’t want to be caught in a vortex of my own apprehension, but I also wasn’t in the mood to talk.
Tried to hide it, fake it
I can’t pretend anymore
Groaning, I reached for my iPhone, which was flashing its torch light in addition to blasting music and vibrating forcefully enough to wake the entire floor. My phone notifications were annoying on purpose — I was known to leave everyone on read otherwise.
Nevaeh Shore, read the caller ID. I hit Ignore. I’d call her back when I was in a better state.
A notification from the Phone app: Voicemail from Nevaeh Shore.
A second notification, from the Reminder app: It’s midnight! 🎉
I stared at the screen for a long second. It was midnight on my birthday. I was now twenty, no longer a teenager, no longer easily excused for fucking up.
I let my phone drop on the soft duvet and reached for the drink on my nightstand. There was no alcohol in my mojito, but for the sake of tonight, I’d pretend that there was.
Normal marigolds smell bad, like wet hay or straw, but there’s a fruity, sweet smell coming off of these that reminds me of Nevaeh’s pomegranate body wash. These flowers look like friendly lions, docile as puppies, soft as velvet when I pat their nodding heads. I roll around in the grass, enjoying its cool feeling on my bare feet. Above me, the pale blue sky turns to gold. I am blissfully, peacefully alone.
There’s an art to being alone, just like there is an art to signature-crafting and memoir-writing and agent-scamming. The secret to being by yourself is to want to be by yourself. If you go somewhere with the intent of socializing or having others accept you and end up alone, you’re going to have a bad time. But if your intention is to just hang out and feel the cool breeze tickle your legs and enjoy your own presence, you’ll find yourself more content than you knew you could be.
I lie in the grass until I hear the marigolds stir. Someone is coming.
The sky grows a little darker, the air a little colder. Goosebumps pop up along my arms. Out the corner of my eye, I see a girl in a dress with a bright pink skirt. The color is jarring but not entirely unnatural in this land of oranges, blues, and greens. Her walk is a whole other story. She lifts each leg awkwardly, as though she’s remote-controlled.
Step, step, step. She’s coming closer. The marigolds huddle close, on guard. I keep my eyes trained on her skirt. I have that dress, I realize, and those gladiator sandals, and that color nail polish, though I only paint my nails red during the summer.
An icy sensation rolls down my back as her red-toed feet stop right before me. As expected, there’s a tiny brown freckle on her right pinky toe and a thin white scar above her left knee from an unfortunate neighborhood scooter incident in the fourth grade.
No matter how hard I try, I cannot stop myself from lifting my gaze, from her feet to her skirt to her neck, until I am looking directly into her face.
At first, I do not understand why I don’t want to look at her, or what I find so unsettling about her, other than the fact that she looks just like me, but blonder hair and lips that are inflated, like a fish’s. Then those lips turn up into a mirthless smile, and with a start I realize that her eyes, rimmed in Glossier eyeliner just like mine, are just greenish-turquoise pools with tiny pin-pricks as pupils.
I sat up with a gasp, sweaty sheets tangled around me, choking back a scream as I came face-to-face with my myriad reflections in the hotel mirror. They looked back at me with smeared makeup and pale faces, their messy buns turned into rats’ nests from thrashing around all night.
It took me a moment to realize that I was still in New York, that it was still winter. My nightstand light was still on; behind the light-blocking curtains, the morning sun struggled to enter the room. I must’ve passed out at some point — I was lying sideways across the bed, perpendicular to the pillows, with my feet hanging off the sides.
My phone told me that it was 11:35 AM and informed me of three unread voice messages: the one from Nevaeh, one from my dad, and one from Oliver.
Nevaeh, at midnight: Happy birthday, dude! You’re probably getting drunk-sad by yourself right now and I don’t want to kill your vibe. Just wanted to personally welcome you to the land of adulthood. Love you, can’t wait to see you when you’re back. Text me if you need anything.
Oliver, at 2 AM, with cocktail-party chatter behind him: Yooooooooooo Helena! Happy birthday, whewwww! Did you sign with your Bret Manson? Sp-speaking of Bret, I gotta tell you something but, like, narightnow. Lemme know when you’re back so I can — I can buy you some alcohol because I’m LEGAL NOW, BABY!
My dad, at 8 AM: Happy birthday, Helena! Your mom and I just, ah, we wanted to let you know that we’re really proud of you and hope that you’re doing well in California. Give us a call if you have time. No pressure.
I stared at my reflections as I listened to each voicemail, unable to shake off the feeling that my dream had been somehow significant, like a sign or a warning. Several times, I got up to make sure that my pupils weren’t actually little black flecks, that my lips were the ones I’d been born with.
Get a grip, Helena, I thought after checking my Cupid’s bow for the third time. It was just a bad dream. Let it go. It’s your birthday and Wren Falcon’s now your agent, remember? Go out and get some fresh air and celebrate.
I changed and re-applied my makeup in my room, still a little too paranoid to step in the shower, lest my mind decide to bring up that ghoulish version of me while I was mid-shampoo. I would make a birthday post on Instagram, then buy myself some Birch coffee and a salad from Sweetgreen, then reply to the voicemails, in that order.
— A mirror selfie of me in bed, phone strategically placed in front of my face: Happy birthday to me! Goodbye, teenage years (although I still look like a young girl, in my opinion — sixteen or seventeen at the most). Onto the most exciting phase of my life: my twenties! I’m currently in New York for a very special reason that may or may not have to do with my ~literary ambitions.~ You know I hate keeping secrets, so watch out for an announcement from me later this week! P.S. If you ever meet me in person, please never let me do unknown drugs or get lip fillers. Ever. Long story to that one. Maybe I’ll tell you on NipNop sometime. 🦋