This is the sixteenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Pale sunlight filtered through the branches, illuminating the tangle of roots that stretched out before me. Each root meandered past the point where I could see, rising high enough that the ground beneath me was nothing but a dark void. I’d seen my fair share of fig trees while visiting my grandparents in southwest Florida, but this one was so big that its trunk reached into the sky, splitting into smaller and smaller sections as it went. It was as though I were standing atop an intricate maze, each wall so thin that only one foot could fit at a time.
Nevaeh’s laugh echoed through the air, tangling amidst the bird-chirps. Her hair fluffed out about her face in its natural state; the yellow flash of her shirt stood in sharp contrast to the shades of moss and umber.
“Come on, slowpoke! At this rate, you’ll never get me.” She winked before skipping over to the other side, as easy as a stone across water.
I inched my way along as gracefully as I could, sticking my arms out for balance, face flushed from the effort. My toes were starting to cramp up from curling around the curved surfaces. Any sudden movement would make me slip — I was sure of it.
“Catch me, catch me, catch me if you can!” Her voice seemed to be coming from all corners at once. She herself was nowhere in sight.
“I’m trying,” I muttered through gritted teeth, mostly to myself. Fucking Nevaeh, with her agility and her dexterity and her ease. This sort of thing came so naturally to her.
Stop looking down. You’re most definitely going to fall that way.
I forced my eyes onto the beams of sunlight in the distance, little incandescent waterfalls cascading through the air. When I was little, I’d often pretended to be a flower fairy, living in an enchanted forest much like this one. In every fantasy, I fluttered around looking cute all day, ate flowers for breakfast, and never worried about friends or fame or falling off of my delicate perch.
Now that I was actually here, all I wanted was to get out.
Nevaeh suddenly appeared two inches away from me, so close that I could smell the hyacinths in her hair and see the hazel flecks in her eyes. There was no trace of hostility in her glance, no signs of grudges held or displeasures unspoken. Time stood still as her gaze traveled down my face, causing her to break into a smile.
I reached out to touch her shoulder, only to have my hand collide with air. She had vanished once more.
“Nevaeh!” I shouted, an angry lump quickly forming in my throat. I wanted to stomp my foot, but I didn’t dare risk falling off where I stood. Who knew what lay in those depths below?
“A tantrum won’t make her come back,” came a voice somewhere in the branches above. It was syrupy and sharp — familiar, though I couldn’t place it. “It’s your fault, you know. You were the one who fucked it all up.”
I squinted and craned my head upward, following the direction of the sound. When I finally found its source, there was a pang in my chest that nearly made me lose my balance.
Nestled between two high branches was Kayleigh, silhouetted against the sun, her hair now fully grown out and pulled into a low chignon at the base of her neck. The train of her long dress spilled down the trunk, creating a deep purple wound in the dappled bark. Even from where I stood, I could see her lips, painted black and twisted up on one side.
“Half a million followers, yet you can’t keep a true friend to save your life.” The smirk in her tone cut into me, sharp and unyielding. “Those eyes are hungry, Helena. The only thing they’ll do is take and take.”
As she spoke, the tops of my feet began to prickle, then burn. I glanced down despite myself, and it was all I could do to keep myself from teetering off the edge.
Swarming the branches were billions of tiny red bugs, so dense in number that they resembled a flame-colored carpet slowly rising out of the ground. As I watched, my heart in my throat, they tore into my feet and legs with needle-like pincers, refusing to let go.
My scream reverberated through the woods as more and more latched on. I didn’t dare to shake them off, lest I lose my balance; it took every ounce of willpower I had to remain fixed in place, watching them crawl up the roots, stumbling over one another to get to me.
Fuck, fuck, fuck —
There was a sharp sting on my left hand. One of the braver bugs had hopped on, feasting away. Shaking, I brought my hand up to my face to get a proper look. This was somehow Kayleigh’s doing; there was no doubt about it. What were these creatures, and how was she controlling them?
It had a strange little body, this bug: a rounded rectangle, thin as a credit card, with a sharp tail that dug deep into my skin. All red, except for a little splotch of white on each side …
My eyes widened when I realized what I was looking at.
No. It can’t be.
I wasn’t looking at a bug at all — I was looking at a like.
An Instagram like.
Kayleigh cackled above me. “Well, well, well! Guess you’re not as much of a vapid bitch as you seem to be. Congratulations.”
The likes climbed higher and higher, digging into my calves, and then my knees. No matter how hard I picked at it, the one on my hand wouldn’t budge. I felt my skin getting ripped up into tiny shreds before my bones started cracking, fracturing under their collective effort.
“Isn’t this what you wished for?” Kayleigh asked, pushing herself off her roost in one fluid motion. Time seemed to slow down as she glided down on thin air, her billowing dress making her resemble a deadly sea creature. The effect was oddly mesmerizing; even the burning bites of the likes faded away. This version of Kayleigh was beautiful in a way that made my insides turn to ice.
“Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted? Look.” She put an icy hand on the small of my back and pointed at the churning masses below. There were so many of them now that the ground resembled a red ocean rather than a black void. “They’re all here for you.”
With that, she gave me a rough shove into the waiting likes below. Down, down I went, landing in what felt like a pool of broken glass. The pain was so acute that I faded in and out of consciousness, no longer a person but a bag of flesh, a tangle of limbs, an animalistic wail echoing over and over in the wood. Kayleigh stood over me against the canopy of leaves, satisfied and serene.
“NEVAEH!” I shrieked, my voice cut short as thousands of likes clawed their way onto my neck, miniscule knives on my tongue. The thick, warm blood clogged up my airways like warm syrup, gurgling at the back of my throat. My sight started to blur. The likes jumped onto my face, burrowed their spindle-sharp ends onto my ears and eyebrows and nose. Then they started to feast.
Kayleigh laughed. “She’s way too good for you, you attention-craving ghoul.”
Air. I need air.
My nose was gone, but I could suddenly smell hyacinths all around me, almost cloying in their sweetness.
But there was no friendly face to greet me, no outreached hand ready to pull me out.
I kept my eyes intact just long enough to see her appear by Kayleigh’s side. She gave me one tiny, concerned glance before taking her ex-girlfriend’s hand. Together, they glided into the light as the little red spikes closed in, leaving what was left of me to writhe in complete darkness.
— A close-up selfie of me standing on the train, one cheek dangerously close to being smushed by the window, a slightly dumbstruck look in my eyes: Morning rush hour is teaching me how to be assertive. On the weekdays, the N line is a de facto techie shuttle that schlepps all of the software engineers, designers, product managers, and marketers from their colorful homes in the Sunset to their office playgrounds downtown. My stop is the last in the residential neighborhoods, which means that the train cars are full to bursting by the time they get to me. To even have a chance of getting on, I have to elbow people and stake my claim as quickly as I can, ignoring all of the passive aggression aimed my way. It’s great practice for the boardroom.
The N sprang back into motion as I hit POST, bells ringing as the train lurched forward. A week earlier, this sudden movement would have sent me flying into the shoulder of some unsuspecting white dude with a company-branded designer backpack. Now I stood firm, no railing necessary. It was kind of exhilarating, this dance made up entirely of quick glances and moved backpacks and practiced ignorance of the robotic overhead voice warning us to stand clear of the doors. I preferred it to driving in with Oliver and the other founders, who liked to talk about the news and the dreams they’d had while playing emo rap in the background. Being pleasant and conversational first thing in the morning was hard. It was much nicer spending this time scrolling through Instagram, listening to my own music.
— Me, standing by the NipNop logo in the lobby, grinning profusely: Remember when I made a caption about how I, as NipNop’s unofficial in-house storyteller, should be promoted to Chief Marketing Officer? I may have been joking then, but Oliver took it to heart and now I’m not only OFFICIALLY NipNop’s newest executive but also a full-on co-founder! And the only girl, of course. Gotta love being an exception 😎 No longer just a girlfriend, huh? Don’t worry, though — you’ll still find plenty of overly long captions about books, hair bows, daydreams, and Victorian houses on this account. Just couldn’t keep the exciting news to myself any longer!
— Matisse, curled up in my lap at my desk: This is Matisse, our big, tubby, blue-eyed office mascot. He’s so clingy and I love it. Matisse technically belongs to our office manager, Joel, but the company has unofficially collectively adopted him. Yes, we have a cat instead of a dog here at NipNop headquarters. What can I say? We’re quirky like that. My only complaint is that, despite having FOUR (4!!!!) litter boxes around the office, he likes to leave ~little surprises~ by the vending machine. Stop pooping in public spaces, M! You’re a full-grown adult.
— Me in a light blue ruffle dress, leaning against a reflective office building in San Francisco’s Financial District: It’s sexier to drop out of Stanford than it is to graduate.
— Me, sitting sideways on the newly finished LaCroix throne, one leg crossed over the other, with a smug expression on my face: Input LaCroix, output code. Not that I know how to code, of course, but I’ll learn someday when AIs make writing completely obsolete. This pretty seat was made by one of our engineers in her free time. Apparently, she drank these all by herself? In one week? Software engineers are an intense breed.
— Me in my office corner with my feet up on my desk, six magenta orchid plants lined up on the sill behind me as the sun peeks through the windows: I cannot describe how much I adore being around other people who also consider making things to be their mission in life. I can FEEL the ambition in the air here. Daresay that I’ve found a better working environment than my turquoise tower? We’re building something new. Special. Disruptive. And you’re going to love it. 🚀
Likes started popping up on my newest post — first a steady trickle, then a torrent. One hundred. Two fifty. Four hundred and five. An involuntary chill ran down my neck as I recalled my dream from the night before. All of those likes, sparing no pain in their haste to devour me. The barely-contained glee in Kayleigh’s eyes as she watched me meet my premature end. Nevaeh and those intoxicating flowers in her hair.
It’s your fault, you know. You were the one who fucked it all up.
Half a million followers, yet you can’t keep a true friend to save your life.
I turned my music up higher, shaking my head to clear those thoughts away.
Sweet sixteen, and we had arrived
Babies table dancing at the local dive
Cheering our names in the pink spotlight
Drinking cherry schnapps in the velvet night
Against my better instincts, I navigated to Nevaeh’s Instagram page, even though I knew that she wouldn’t have put up anything new. The only thing she’d ever posted was a crooked, backlit photo of the Hoover Tower on campus with a Valencia filter slapped over it.
Yo, we used to go break in
To the hotel
Glimmering, we’d swim
Running from the cops in our black bikini tops —
Screaming, “Get us while we’re hot,
Get us while we’re hot”
For someone with such a dynamic personality and love of popular culture, Nevaeh had only made an Instagram account after months of goading and cajoling on my end. Now it sat, empty as a ghost town save for that one picture. I knew that she hated social media, but I wished that she’d just post something already. I hadn’t seen her since our fight in LA almost a month ago. Was she heartbroken over the end of our friendship? Were she and Kayleigh together again? Were they conspiring against me?
The train entered a tunnel, reflecting my haggard face back to me in the window. Glossier concealer was no match for the fluorescent light of the Muni metro. My under-eye circles were extra conspicuous, a surefire sign that I’d spent the night tossing about. Great. I opened NipNop — per usual, there were only a few thousand unread messages from fans and nothing from her — before dropping my phone into my cardigan pocket and shaking my head at my dead-eyed reflection.
The prettiest in-crowd that you had ever seen
Ribbons in our hair, and our eyes gleamed mean
A freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens
Despite the hostility she felt towards Oliver, Nevaeh was a pretty frequent NipNop user. We often sent pictures back and forth with overlaid captions instead of texting. I like seeing your reactions to the jokes I send, she’d told me once. It’s real, unlike some emoji. I was pretty sure that she was still using it with her other friends.
And you know something?
They were the only friends I ever had
We got into trouble, and when stuff got bad
I got sent away; I was waving on the train platform,
Crying ’cause I know I’m never coming back
My hand tightened around my phone. If I wanted to, I could look up her profile in God View, the secret founder-only feature that Elio had developed at Andre’s request. God View allowed you to see any Nop sent from one user to another, at any point in time — self-deletion was a client-side myth — but Oliver had yet to give me access.
My face burned at the thought of asking him, knowing that he’d be able to discern my motives right away. If only there were some sort of public God View on NipNop, where users could put pictures up for all of their friends to see. Such a feature would be nice for me, too — half of the messages I bothered to open were requests from fans to re-send something, because they’d missed it the first time.
Wait a minute. My heartbeat quickened as I locked eyes with my reflection a second time. Public NipNops. Longer periods before self-destruction. The ability to view a Nop more than once.
Sure, such a feature would help me spy on Nevaeh. But there was also the wider market to consider. How many influencers had reached out to me in just my first week alone, complaining about the “Send to All” button and the fact that NipNop didn’t give any options for users to re-view Nops they’d already opened? I’d told them that the product team was working on a solution, but none of their solutions involved disappearing images that anyone could see.
The lighting against the window wasn’t great, but I could detect a gleam in the eyes reflected back at me just the same. I was onto something. I felt like I had when I’d gotten the idea to write long-form captions at Austin’s house, only now I was sober, and the feeling — this singular, nearly obsessive pull towards something that I could just barely begin to fully wrap my mind around — was a million times more intense.
I tapped my foot inside my pale blue Manson Gabriel flats, already anticipating barreling past the two people who stood in front of the doors — a young woman pushing a stroller and an old man holding a physical newspaper close to his face with shaking hands — as soon as the train pulled into the Civic Center station. I needed to get off this damn thing, needed to be at my desk right fucking now. I hoped to God that I wouldn’t lose any of the sparks firing off in my brain. Elizabeth Gilbert had once written that ideas were sentient beings who abandoned you once they saw that you weren’t serious. I hoped that this one would hold on until I got to the office.
This is what makes us girls
We all look for heaven, and we put love first
Something that we’d die for, it’s our curse
Don’t cry about it, don’t cry about it
My feet sprung right into action when the train slid to a stop at the platform an eon and a half later. “EXCUSE ME!” I hollered before I even knew that I was moving, not bothering to apologize to the people I bumped into.
Don’t cry about him, don’t cry about him
It’s all gonna happen
My laptop and notebooks sloshed back and forth in my backpack, an unscripted beat to the sudden action-thriller my life had become. The platform turned into the escalator turned into the street. One block, two blocks, three. I was gulping down the piss-scented SoMa air; my heart had jumped into my throat; my sides screamed for mercy from the stabbing pain. I didn’t slow down until I’d made it up all three flights, breathing so loudly that Matisse darted around my ankles, meowing loudly.
“Sorry, M, not today,” I wheezed out. “Got … the next … million … dollar … idea …”
I flew to my desk, the ground oddly cold and sticky below my feet. When I got to my seat and glanced down, my eyes widened. My beautiful sky-colored flats, each stamped with a golden H — a birthday gift from my mom that I’d only worn once before — were crisscrossed with grey scuffs and new wrinkles. The soles under the balls of my feet had been worn clean through, thanks to my habit of shuffling as I ran.
Yikes, I thought, but my pang of guilt was quickly eclipsed by the same hurried excitement that had rushed me here in the first place. I tore the shoes off my feet and tossed them under my desk. They were only two hundred dollars or so. I’d buy a new pair once I finished dumping the contents of my brain onto some fresh A4 sheets.
After all, who had time to give a fuck about shoes when there were ideas to be acted upon?