This is the fourteenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
I’m going to be honest: I’m very pretty, and it makes people think I’m dumb.
Kayleigh was one of those people. I could see her judgment in the twist of her lips as I readjusted my parking in the Griffith Observatory car lot and in her gaze as she watched me tilt my head all the way up to marvel at the ceiling murals in the lobby.
“Too bad you can’t get a picture with that, huh?” she asked once my eyes had returned to the walls around us. “It’s a Hugo Ballin mural. I bet your followers would eat it up.” She paused and looked at me slyly. “Only if you’re in the photo, of course. Everybody loves cute girls in front of pretty art.”
Her words were warm, but the way she said them reminded me of how the popular girls in middle school used to speak to me whenever they spotted a new novel amongst my stack of textbooks. That looks so interesting. You’ll have lots of fun reading it this weekend, won’t you? No parties or homework to distract you. Playful but sharp, on high alert for any signs of weakness or hurt, dispatching little compliments that stung all the same.
I shrugged off the familiar stiffness in my spine — an echo of Nicole, who never knew how to respond in these sorts of situations. Kayleigh’s little barb was no match for my newfound confidence. I was Helena Holloway, Instagram star, NipNop celebrity, soon-to-be author, potential startup executive. If she wanted to get under my skin, she was going to have to do a lot better than making subtle digs at my interests.
I joined Nevaeh by the circular installation in the middle of the room. A massive golden sphere hung from a threadlike cable, dropping down into an enclosed circular pit a few feet below where we stood. A pendulum. The ground of the pit looked like a compass of some sort, with numbers around the perimeter; at the far end sat a set of little brown pegs. Back and forth the ball swung, knocking over a few pegs in the process. I thought about what it would be like to climb on top of the orb, riding it à la Miley Cyrus. Then I thought about being in the pit myself, watching the thing come barrelling towards me.
“That ball is two hundred and forty pounds,” Nevaeh muttered, as if she’d heard my thoughts. “Apparently, it’s attached to the ceiling in a way that it doesn’t rotate when the Earth does. The way it knocks over the pegs is supposed to show that we are indeed rotating.”
“Bad news for a flat-earther,” I joked. Then I saw Kayleigh coming in our direction and decided I’d seen enough science for the day. “I’ll be outside,” I told Nevaeh before heading up the stairs. It was time to explore the many curved staircases, tall arches, and dazzling city views that would make for gorgeous photographs.
The moment I stepped outside, however, I knew that my outfit was going to be all wrong. The Griffith Observatory was all white stone and dark accents against a cerulean sky; my black-and-white getup would make me fade into the building. Fortunately, I’d come prepared with a backup outfit: a short red dress with frills on the spaghetti straps and hem, the perfect antidote to the cold colors and straight lines around me. It always paid off to have an extra dress in my bag. I just hoped that my pigtails didn’t make the whole ensemble look too juvenile.
I darted up the stairs and made a loop around the terraces, gasping with delight as I saw the little buildings below, like tiny daisies in a field, and the towering skyscrapers in the distance. There was something distinctly LA in the way the buildings sprawled out, in the little green shocks of palm trees in street intersections, in the way the cars looped around the roads. Looking at San Francisco from high up made me want to get high and paint. Looking at Los Angeles made me want to put on a brightly colored dress and go dancing.
People milled about in gaggles and pairs, laughing and pointing and occasionally stopping for pictures. I found an unpopulated corner and hoisted myself onto the sunny ledge. This was the LA I’d come to see, its beauty and mythos in physical form, a fascinating story on every street corner. I could feel them around me, buzzing in the air — billions and billions of narratives being written, directed, lived out at the very moment.
“… sent me a NipNop of his stash the other day, and it was fucking wild,” said a guy walking past. My ears pricked up at the word NipNop, and I nearly fell off the ledge, steadying myself just in time. I knew that NipNop had a user base in the millions, but hearing it mentioned here, miles away from my real life, made something click in my brain.
Right now, I was working at a small scale. No matter how famous I got on any platform, it was still only about me. If I became an executive at a fast-growing media startup, I could be an integral part of the scene. My heart raced at the idea of influencing the very way stories were told. How many people in LA had NipNop?
I had to take the job. I would tell Oliver as soon as I got back to campus.
Real-time memoir, Nevaeh had said when we’d talked about my Instagram account. Memoir without the act of remembering. Collapsing the distance between writer and reader and critic. I felt goosebumps rising on my skin. Nevaeh had pegged me from Day One. Being a memoirist — recording my story for everyone to see — was all I’d ever wanted. As much as she didn’t like Oliver, Nevaeh would understand why this job was important to me, what it meant for my career and life.
Satisfied with my decision, I climbed down and went to look for Nevaeh. The lighting was starting to get harsh. I wanted to get some pictures before the sun made my face all shadowy.
Nevaeh, however, did not want to be found. I went back through the terraces, across the promenade, down the stairs. No Nevaeh. I made my way through every indoor room. No Nevaeh. Where had she gone? There was a flash of horror as I contemplated the possibility of her leaving with Kayleigh, stranding me here.
She wouldn’t do that, I reassured myself. Plus, the keys are in your bag.
I had just about given up when I heard a high-pitched giggle from below. There Nevaeh stood with Kayleigh’s arm on the small of her back, their dark heads touching as she leaned in to see what the other girl was pointing out. The two of them looked like they were in an invisible bubble, high off one another’s company. No room for a third.
Did … Nevaeh and Kayleigh have a thing going on? My stomach flipped at the possibility. Nevaeh had never said anything about it, and I’d never asked. I knew that she’d had a girlfriend in high school, but hadn’t pushed on the subject. Not that it mattered at all. It wasn’t like I had any sort of claim on Nevaeh — she could do whatever she wanted. But seeing her with Kayleigh made me slightly nauseous, and I turned away, willing the image away, knowing all the while that it would live rent-free in my mind for far too long.
Was this how Nevaeh felt whenever she saw me with Oliver? I knew that she felt shitty seeing pictures of us all over social media, but that was all fake and she knew it. Plus, she was barely ever on Instagram. This was something entirely different altogether.
Mood and experience effectively ruined, I turned and ran down the stairs, finding a curve that was hidden from view. Fuck Nevaeh. Fuck Kayleigh. Fuck this entire goddamn trip. My hand reached for my phone, re-downloaded Instagram, and entered in my credentials. I did nothing to stop it. I needed to be with my fans right now, with people who loved me and what I did and didn’t canoodle with their asshole friends right in front of me.
1980 new followers. 310,458 new likes. 3980 new comments. I’d been gone for less than a week.
I sat down, wiped my eyes with the hem of my dress, and started to go through them. Normally, I didn’t give my followers any love in return — I was simply too busy putting out new content, and they didn’t seem to mind — but today, I liked every comment as I read it, feeling the tangled knot in my chest unfurl a little bit with each one.
Hell yes, Helena! You are my inspiration. We all need to log off once in a while to remember what’s important.
Omg you’re leaving? Nooooo how can I go ten whole days without my fav drug?!?! 😩😩😩
Ugh I can see you taking over the city, please at least take some pics for us to enjoy.
“Couldn’t stay away, I see.”
I looked up to find Nevaeh, alone, leaning against the curved wall of the staircase, arms folded across her chest. She was wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses I didn’t recognize — Kayleigh’s, probably. My shoulders tensed as I imagined them walking around the observatory together in a cloud of bliss, hands touching, switching sunglasses and along with other clothing items. “Neither could you,” I snapped back.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve been getting awfully snug with your girlfriend down there,” I said. “Was it your intention to drag me down here just to third-wheel me, or are you just that dense that you don’t realize what you’re doing?”
I expected Nevaeh to get offended or deny something at the very least, but she just glared at me. “That’s real funny, coming from someone with a fake boyfriend whom she parades in front of half a million people.”
“At least half a million people care about me.” I stood up so that Nevaeh, standing two steps below me, had to crane her neck to maintain eye contact.
Nevaeh’s stern expression fell, and her lip twitched, like she was going to scream or cry. Her voice shook as she spoke. “Yeah, and as long as you have all of those adoring fans, you won’t give a single damn about the real people in your life.”
“I fucking drove you here all the way from San Francisco! You don’t think that counts as caring?”
“I had to beg you to come here, and you only said yes after I agreed to take pictures of you the entire time.” She scoffed. “You know what? I’m going to find Kayleigh and walk around for a bit. I’m sure someone around here would love to be Helena Holloway’s photographer for a day.”
She turned and descended the steps without a further word. I didn’t bother telling her that it was too late. The sun was now directly above us, surely making me look as ugly as I felt.
After Nevaeh stormed off, I waited at the staircase until the light got better, then got a mom with three little toddlers to take my picture. My eyes were red and my entire body ached, but I wanted something to commemorate the event. Already, my realization about NipNop and subsequent fight with Nevaeh was starting to take on a dreamlike quality. For what it’s worth, I look great in the photo, but I’m pissed that I didn’t get an artsy shot by the window ledges. If I ever go back to the Griffith Observatory, that’s the first thing I’m doing.
I went inside and actually paid attention to the exhibits, trying to distract myself with science. I must’ve stood by the giant pendulum for hours, watching as the ball knocked over peg after peg. Perhaps I could stand to be knocked down a few pegs, too. I knew that I should’ve run after Nevaeh and apologized, but I couldn’t get rid of the awful wormy feeling I got whenever I thought of her with Kayleigh. That nasty, snide bitch. What could Nevaeh possibly see in her?
When the sky began to show hints of pink and yellow, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Nevaeh, still wearing Kayleigh’s sunglasses and a mild look of disdain, asked if I wanted to grab dinner downtown. Evidently I was an emotional masochist, because I agreed. My brain clearly craved stimulation, even at the expense of my mental and emotional health.
I played chauffeur again, taking us down the winding hill back into the city. Kayleigh and Nevaeh chattered aimlessly in the backseat, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I debated getting out of there as soon as dinner was over. Nevaeh could drive, even though she didn’t like to. I could leave the car with her and put a flight on my emergency credit card. It was only an hour and thirty minutes from LAX to SFO. If I left Nevaeh’s by ten, I could be back in my turquoise tower a little after midnight.
As we neared the restaurant, I willed myself to stay strong. Only a few more hours of this before I could go home, take the job at NipNop, and put all of my new, nasty memories behind me. Nevaeh and I would have a talk once she was away from Kayleigh’s toxic influence.
I can’t recall what the restaurant was called, but it was one of those upscale Italian places with high ceilings, ambient lighting, and waitresses in trendy black dresses. The three of us sat in a booth by the corner — me on my own side, while Nevaeh squeezed in with Kayleigh.
“So, Helena,” Kayleigh began as soon as we ordered. “I heard you’re dating the founder of NipNop? How’s that like?”
I could feel Nevaeh’s gaze on me, expectant. “It’s great,” I said casually, reaching for the bread basket. “We do a lot of projects together. Our goals are really aligned.”
“That’s amazing,” she said. “I read your captions about not letting his work overshadow yours, and I think that that’s a really important and noble goal. Women in cishet couples always have to deal with so much shit. You’re taking a stand against it.”
There it was again — those backhanded compliments. I had to give it to her; the girl was a master at plausible deniability. She was as witty as Nevaeh and as vicious as me. If we’d met under different circumstances, I would have liked her very, very much.
“Thanks!” I replied, beaming. “Oliver’s really supportive. Not only is he my partner in crime, but he’s my best friend, too. He takes most of my Instagram pictures these days, and I help him with NipNop operations.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nevaeh tense. Checkmate.
“So sweet.” Kayleigh smiled with all her teeth. “You know, Nevaeh and I dated for a little bit our senior year of high school. It was like one of those classic best-friend-romance stories. We were already inseparable — everyone called us Kay and Vay.” She batted her eyes at Nevaeh. “It’s kind of sad that we broke up, but we both needed to fully focus on college. I’m hoping that we’ll still be good for one another after we graduate.”
I nodded supportively as I dug my fingernails into my leg under the table. “That would be amazing. Nevaeh’s kind of lonely at Stanford. Aren’t you, Vay?” I turned to Nevaeh. “I’d love to be the maid of honor at your wedding.”
“Did you have anybody like that in high school, Helena?” Kayleigh asked before Nevaeh could say anything.
I shook my head. “I was too busy with my studies to have a romantic relationship.”
“Well, hard work definitely pays off.” Kayleigh leaned into the table. “I heard that you’re signed with Wren Falcon.”
“Congratulations. Your new book is going to be so … widely read. Wren’s Marnie Tucker’s agent too, isn’t he? She’s a hit with the sorority girls at NYU. I didn’t even know that they could read.”
“Kayleigh wants to be a culture writer, like Rebecca Solnit,” Nevaeh said. It was the first time she’d talked since we’d made our orders, and both Kayleigh and I instinctively turned towards her. “She wants to focus on queer and influencer culture. Especially the behind-the-scenes aspects.”
Nevaeh pointedly looked at me as she said this, and I suddenly found myself too tired to continue. “That’s amazing,” I said. “I can’t wait to read her pieces. Excuse me for a moment.” I got up as the food runner came to our table, arms full with steaming dishes. I’d been looking forward to scarfing down some vegetarian pasta — all of that turmoil had left me hungry — but the carbs would have to wait. My patience was wearing thin. If I didn’t do something about it right away, I was going to say something I didn’t mean to, and then I’d be in real trouble.
The bathroom was gender-neutral and single-stall, with deep purple wallpaper and a tall mirror with a gilded gold frame. One glance in it told me that I was still beautiful, despite my disheveled pigtails and slightly smeared makeup. The Helena that looked back at me was the one I saw on my Instagram grid: glowing and confident. Somewhere along the line, my mask had become reality.
Seeing myself put me in a neutral state, ready to objectively assess what was happening with regards to my best friend. What was happening out there, and how could I turn it around in my favor?
I sat down on the toilet, carefully keeping my hem from dragging into the bowl. Kayleigh sucked — that much was clear. I didn’t know if Nevaeh had done anything with her at the observatory, but I decided that I would no longer let it bother me. After all, Nevaeh wasn’t my girlfriend, nor was she my property. I just didn’t like how she went along with everything Kayleigh did, even if those things made me feel bad. And why was Kayleigh so determined to cut me down in the first place? It didn’t make any sense.
Unless she was the one who was jealous of me.
Slowly, I rose from the toilet seat and went back to the mirror, gazing at my thick hair, my huge eyes, my porcelain skin. Could lesbians fail the Bechdel test? I remembered my first reaction upon seeing Kayleigh’s Instagram page: She looks like someone who would hate me on principle, I’d thought. I was thin, blonde, hyper-feminine, with a girly social media account. And I had Nevaeh’s friendship. She’d brought me back to her hometown, which meant that I was an important part of her life.
Promise me you won’t find some basic bitch in college, I pictured Kayleigh saying to Nevaeh. I’ll be right here for you after you come back.
The girl in the mirror smirked. Nevaeh and I were just friends, but Kayleigh didn’t have to know that. I tugged at my pigtails until they were fresh and springy once more. Then I breezed out the door and took my seat across from Kayleigh and Nevaeh. My pasta was a little cold, but not as cold as my behavior.
“So, Nevaeh,” I began once I’d polished off half of my plate, “my friend Biscuit invited me to his launch party, and I can bring a plus one. Want to be my date?”
Nevaeh looked surprised. “I thought that you were going with Oliver?”
“He’s invited, too, and he’s taking one of his buddies.” Oliver had been secretly seeing a guy he’d met at a personal development retreat, and something told me that they were more than just friends with benefits. “I thought that it would be cool to take my favorite girlfriend for once.”
I hate it when straight white women use the word ‘girlfriend’ to mean ‘girl friend,’ but I was willing to play dirty this time. Kayleigh stabbed her penne alla vodka with extra strength. She said nothing, but I could tell that the G-word had her on edge.
“Um … yeah, that sounds like it would be cool.” Neveah dabbed her lips with a napkin. “What day is it?”
“April twenty-first. I’ll send you the invite. We can wear matching dresses.” I winked. “We’re going to look so cute together. Let’s go shopping once we get back to San Francisco.”
“Matching dresses?” Kayleigh frowned. “Vay, you never wear dresses.”
“Oh, but she does. We share clothes all the time.” I grinned. “When we came up here, at Carmel, Nevaeh and I got this really cute Airbnb cottage, like, right on the beach. It was pretty chilly, but all the dogwood trees were blooming, and I got Vay-Vay here to put on a pink frilly dress and do a shoot with me.”
Kayleigh looked at Nevaeh. “I thought you hated getting your picture taken.”
Nevaeh smiled shyly. “She convinced me to do it just this once.”
“Ah, Carmel, that was such a good time,” I continued. “All we did was sleep in until noon and stay up talking all night and take pictures. The town looks like it’s right out of a storybook. And Nevaeh was like my gorgeous princess —”
“Can you let me out for a sec?” Kayleigh asked Nevaeh. “I’m going to use the bathroom, too.” She glanced at me as she passed by, two red spots high up on her cheeks. When she came back, she was quieter and more subdued. Her eyes looked washed out, as if she’d been crying. Every time Nevaeh asked her what was wrong, she waved her off.
So I’d been right — Kayleigh was seeing green! All it had taken was some heavy-handed flirting on my side to get her to crack.
It was a real challenge to keep from breaking out into a victory dance right then and there. I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from smiling. Helena — 1, Kayleigh — 0, I thought triumphantly.
Too bad that Nevaeh would end up taking Kayleigh’s side.
“Why were you so determined to make her uncomfortable?” Nevaeh demanded, pacing around her room. The color of the walls was starting to get to me. It was meant to be the same shade as pistachio ice cream, but in the yellowish light, it looked more like aged puke.
Technically, I hadn’t done anything that Kayleigh hadn’t done first. On the drive back, I’d continued to sweet-talk Nevaeh, laying it on thick until Kayleigh had gone completely quiet. Nevaeh started noticing it about halfway through. She insisted on walking Kayleigh to her door when we got to her house, and the two of them had stayed inside for a while. Now, Nevaeh was convinced that I’d been the villain in the entire situation. Talk about unfair.
“She was the one going out of her way to make digs at me the entire time,” I protested, sitting up ramrod-straight on her bed. “Did you not notice this morning? Or at the observatory?”
“I only saw someone curious about my new friend.” Nevaeh stopped to glare at me. “Kayleigh was trying to get to know you, Helena. Just because she doesn’t fall all over herself fawning over you doesn’t mean that she hates you.”
“Really?” I thought for a moment. “What about all of that shit about Oliver? ‘Women in cishet couples always have to deal with so much shit. You’re taking a stand against it,’” I singsonged in a mocking tone. “Don’t tell me that she meant to be nice when she lobbed that at me.”
Nevaeh looked away. “Yeah, well, I don’t disagree. We’ve talked a lot about Oliver, Helena.” Her lower lip quivered. “Ever since you signed with Wren, I’ve watched you turn into some — some —”
“I’m going to say yes to the CMO position at NipNop,” I interjected. “I’m telling Oliver as soon as I get back to San Francisco.”
There was a long, cold pause. Nevaeh froze, and I could see the emotions flickering through her face as she took in the news. Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Fear. Disappointment.
“So you’re picking him over me,” she said at last, her voice cracking.
She sounded so sad that I should have been a little bit guilty, but I was so full of adrenaline that all I felt was a twisted rush as I watched her face crumple. Perhaps I was an emotional sadist as well — all I wanted, right now, was to twist the knife further.
“It’s not like that,” I said calmly. “It’s work. Business. Oliver and I just … get along. We don’t argue. We don’t fight. There’s none of this —” I gestured around vaguely — “emotional bullshit. We get things done. You know how it is.”
“No, I don’t know how it is,” Nevaeh snapped. “You’re out there faking being in love with Mr. Anarcho-Capitalist-Poster-Boy and letting him use you to grow his company, and now you want to work for him?” She shook her head. “I don’t know why I keep trying with you. You know who you remind me of? My mom. I guess I do have mommy issues after all.”
“I can’t say anything about that,” I replied coolly. “You won’t tell me a damn thing about your mother.”
Nevaeh took several purposeful strides toward the door. “I think I need some space right now. Clearly, we’ve been spending too much time around one another.”
“Don’t worry,” I said as she opened the door. “You’ll have this place to yourself soon. I’m flying out tonight.”
“When you were talking about your feelings with Kayleigh, I decided to buy myself a plane ticket. I’m leaving in —” I checked my phone — “two hours. Guess I should get going. Nasty traffic is an LA thing, is it not?”
“Helena, don’t —”
I jumped off the bed and started to stuff my discarded dresses into my suitcase. I’d had quite a time this morning trying to pick an outfit that would impress Kayleigh. What a waste. “Sorry, babe. It’s a done deal. Maybe you can call Kayleigh and ask her to come over, now that I’m gone. She’s been dying to get her hands on you all day.”
The door slammed shut behind me. When I turned to look, Nevaeh was gone.
Oh, well. Fuck her. I finished packing and called an Uber to the airport, where I sent a NipNop of my smiling face in the security line. Then I opened up Instagram and posted the picture I’d taken earlier at the observatory.
— Me in a red dress, standing on the steps of the Griffith Observatory, a clear blue sky behind me: All good things come to an end, some earlier than expected. Coming back to SF — and social media! — tonight.
Once I was on the plane, I shoved my suitcase onto the overhead bins and curled up into my window seat. The adrenaline had worn off a bit; now, images of Nevaeh and Kayleigh at the observatory filled my brain, along with a creeping sense of guilt. When I’d walked down the stairs at Nevaeh’s, I’d heard her crying softly at the end of the dark hallway in the lobby. Instead of checking on her, I’d just left, letting the door swing shut behind me without another word.
I checked my phone: Five hundred new likes and fifteen new comments on my most recent post. There were twenty-two replies to my NipNop and one text message from Oliver: Oooooo can’t wait to hear the tea. There was nothing from Nevaeh.
Should I text her first and apologize?
Nah. It was too soon for that. It was better to wait a day, to calm down first. Plus, she was probably with Kayleigh by now.
“Excuse me, do you know how long —” The old lady sitting across from me started to ask, before catching sight of my face. “Oh, dear. Are you okay, sweetie?”
I shrugged and swiped at my eyes with my sleeve, staring out the window as the glowing city of Los Angeles — and all of its stories — got smaller and smaller below me.