This is the twenty-first chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
The amount of effort I put into some things is mind-blowing, even to myself.
My pictures are a good example. Before anything appears on my feed, it’s cropped, rotated, adjusted, color-balanced, and yes, sometimes even Photoshopped to perfection. Same thing goes for captions: I edit meticulously, reading my words aloud before posting. When I decide to do something well, I pour into it all the time and energy I should be spending on my other projects. This was why NipNop was doing so well while my book was dying in the water.
But no matter how much my babies mattered to me, I’d still drop them all for certain opportunities. Meetings with up-and-coming literary agents, free drugs from a Tinder cutie, an eleventh-hour invite to the Met Gala … these things only presented themselves once. Whenever they showed up, they took priority over work, period.
And so I found myself in South Florida on the Fourth of July, despite the fact that NipNop was gearing up to launch its new Discover algorithm in a few days. It was fine, really — I’d made sure my content was ready before I took off, and my co-founders and some of the lower-ranking employees were perfectly capable of covering for me. They’d done it before I’d come along, hadn’t they? Everything would be fine on that end.
My New Yorker tote cut into my sweaty shoulder as I marched my way through the Miami International Airport. Crowds of stylishly dressed individuals swarmed around the gates, shouting at one another in lightning-fast Spanglish. I tried my best to stay out of their way. My peony-colored tutu skirt clung to my thighs, chafing like mosquito netting on a cheese grater.
What had I been thinking, wearing my party outfit on the plane? It had been less than sixty degrees Farenheit in San Francisco. Then again, I’d literally gotten the invite the night before. It had been so last-minute that I was effectively homeless in the city — all the hotels in the immediate vicinity of Miami Beach had been booked up for the holiday. I could give myself some grace for making a sartorial faux pas. Marnie Tucker had invited me to a Hunter White soiree and I was going to be there, goddammit, even if it meant that I had to sleep on the street afterwards.
Hunter White, the country-turned-pop princess whose melodic earworms dominated the Top 40 charts week after week, was just as famous for her lavish get-togethers as she was for penning confessional breakup tunes. Year after year, celebrity gossip magazines captured and analyzed her holiday parties to death. Anyone who was anyone would be there. Even with all the favorable press that had come out about me, I could barely wrap my mind around the fact that I, a scrawny twenty-year-old who’d grown up devouring coverage of these very parties, was now on the guest list.
If I don’t miss everything, that is, I thought, impatiently waiting for my Uber to arrive at the curb. Why the fuck was there a twelve-minute wait? It was at least a half-hour drive from the airport to Hunter’s mansion on Biscayne Bay, and the sunlight was already starting to weaken. It was one thing to be fashionably late, but to arrive — sober — when the party was already in full swing was an awkward experience that I wanted to avoid.
There was no new Nop from Marnie, which had me a little worried. She had joined the app a few days ago, making minor headlines when she claimed to be looking for her next hookup from her NipNop reply guys. I’d reached out, and despite God View showing that the size of her inbox rivaled mine, she’d responded almost right away. We’d been Nopping back and forth when she’d extended her invitation.
Helena: > Carefully ring-lit selfie, white orchid in hair, red-tinted sheen across lips — What’s up?
Marnie: > Dark liquid in thick glass, three frosty ice cubes floating on the surface — pregaming
Marnie: > Up-close shot of the same liquid — hunter’s thing is tomorrow and there’s no way ima go sober
Marnie: > Side-eye selfie with fox-face filter atop it — she and her crew are insufferable imo but hey i’m a bougie bitch and i’ll take the free alc if it’s around
Helena: > Wide-eyed selfie — Ugh, so envious. Wish I could go!
Helena: > Selfie with lips in exaggerated pout — Will just be stuck in SF grilling hotdogs with Elio :\
Marnie: > Blurred selfie — wait u should come!!!
Marnie: > Tongue-out selfie — im srs
Marnie: > Winking selfie, with fox-filter over it — get a ticket to MIA rn
Marnie: > Close-up shot of full lips — we can finally hangout
Helena: > Grinning selfie — Omg I would tho
Marnie: > Pouting selfie, chipped manicure in a downward-pointing peace sign — BITCH DO IT
Marnie: > Screenshot of email to <redacted>: “hey this is marnie tucker, can i bring a +1 tomorrow? helena holloway” — getting u on the guest list as we speak
Marnie: > Screenshot of reply from <redacted>: “Hi Marnie, Yes, that’s fine. Make sure that your guest has a photo ID with them. Have a great night.” — ur in!
Helena: > Video, full-on screaming — omgomgomgomgomg ur the BEST
Helena: > Screenshot of a flight from SFO to MIA, landing at 4:30 PM — Hell yeah, got my tickets!
Marnie had read my message without replying. Perhaps she was one of those semi-flaky people who hadn’t actually expected me to hop on a plane and fly across the country for a party. Or maybe she was just drunk. Either way, I was already here. If things didn’t go exactly as planned, I’d just have to make the best of it.
Hunter’s house was in a gated community that had an entire line of scowling security guards positioned at the front. As my Uber driver pulled up to the entrance, I realized with a sinking feeling that Marnie had never actually given me the details I needed to get in. Hunter White was notoriously paranoid about privacy matters. Would a photo ID be enough?
I rolled down my window and found myself face-to-face with a white guy with a buzz haircut. Reflective orange-tinted sunglasses wrapped around his meaty head. In them I saw my reflection: knotted eyebrows, tiny hairs coming loose from my once-pristine bun, dark circles visible despite the copious amount of concealer I’d dabbed on before boarding the plane.
“Reason for visit?”
“I’m here for a-a party,” I stuttered. “Hunter White’s party. For Independence Day. My name is Helena Holloway.”
The guard continued to stare.
“Oh! I have this.” I handed him my California driver’s license, slightly bent from being squeezed in my hand for the entire ride. “I was invited last-minute, so …”
“One sec.” He disappeared past the line of his colleagues and handed back my card a minute later, along with a bright blue wristband. “You’re good to go, but you’ll have to walk from here. Only community residents and registered guests of Miss White’s are allowed through today.”
“How am I going to find it? I’ve never been here before.”
“Trust me” — the guard exchanged looks with one of his colleagues — “you won’t miss it.”
I squinted at the closed gate. The path beyond it, flanked by regal-looking royal palms, seemed to go on for eternity. And it was so hot outside. Getting to Hunter’s was going to be a death march, even if the sunlight was letting up. I leaned back in my seat and took a deep breath.
> Grinning selfie from inside of gates — Made it past security!
> Same selfie, only pouting — Now just have to find the actual house bc they won’t let my Uber through
> The long, winding path into the neighborhood — Gotta walk this entire way. Can someone give me a ride?
I gave five minutes for responses. Unfortunately, the only ones that came through were from fans, not people who could actually help me. What a waste. I dropped my phone into my tote and began to walk.
Luckily, the security guard was right. A few steps in, I began to hear the distinctive thump-thump of a bass line played over state-of-the-art speakers. Then the cars appeared: lines of candy-colored Maseratis, Lamborghinis, and Teslas that snaked down both sides of the road, beginning at the driveway. The music got louder, became mixed in with exhilarated screams. My footsteps involuntarily sped up.
But you don’t wanna be high like me
Never really knowing why like me
You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster and be all alone
You don’t wanna ride the bus like this
Never knowing who to trust like this
You don’t wanna be stuck up on that stage singing
Stuck up on that stage singing
I approached the front of Hunter’s house as the beat dropped, and had to stop my mouth from hinging wide open right along with it. There were plenty of pictures of Hunter’s Miami residence online, of course, but I’d been long desensitized to glamour on the Internet. Plus, no picture did the masterwork in front of me justice.
It looked like … a wedding cake. No, a high tower. A palace. Like the sort of place a lord would live, surveying over all thousand acres of his property. Guarding it from the riffraff was a thin wrought-iron gate, supported on both sides by a cream-colored fence covered in ivory roses. Beyond the fence stood two regal palm trees, twin fireworks frozen in time — trunks shooting up straight and tall before bursting into a mass of green and yellow in the sky.
And that was just the entrance! The house itself, I knew, was actually five stories tall, but hedges hid the first two from the street, making the entire structure appear as though it sat atop a hill. A railway tycoon had supposedly built it in the 1920s to replicate the Victorians he’d coveted in his youth. Clearly, he’d spared no expense. Bright white, with six sets of curved windows, two balconies supported by finely chiseled Corinthian columns, and an elaborate double staircase winding up to the third-floor entrance, the place seemed almost otherworldly, like it had been transported straight out of a dream.
My hands shook as I raised my phone camera.
> Hunter’s house basking in the sunlight, framed in all its glory — If I’m extra good in this life, can I get reincarnated as a famous pop star?
“The view is even better from the top,” came a voice to my left. The gate swung open a moment later, revealing a girl wearing a blue polo shirt tucked into a pair of khaki shorts. Small red welts covered her legs and the insides of her tanned arms. Two long braids, dark and straight, framed her face. She wore no makeup, but there was an exuberance in her eyes that lit her face up from inside. She looked familiar, somehow.
“Were you just … climbing that tree?”
“Duh.” She pointed at the tree. “It’s beautiful from up there. The water stretches out for miles and miles and makes you really appreciate how it’s been here, all along, while humanity has been building up civilization.”
“… Right.” I gestured to the gate. “Where is everybody? Isn’t this the entrance?”
“Oh, they’re all out back. That’s where all the drinks and jet-skis are.” The girl studied my face. “Wait, I know you, right? From the Internet. You’re —”
“Helena Holloway,” I said, feeling a rush at being recognized. “I’m the co-founder of NipNop.”
“Right! I just signed up for NipNop. Haven’t posted anything yet, but I’m thinking about doing one on the tree. The view from up there is something else, and I’ll bet that not many paparazzi can get that shot of Hunter’s house!”
The girl threw back her head and laughed. I recognized her with a start: she was Cairee Reesemarks, the free-climber who’d risen to Instagram fame for scaling buildings and cranes, sans ropes or any other form of protection. It was the laugh that made this click in my mind — she made the same sound, in accordance with that same shit-eating grin, when she took videos thousands of meters above the ground.
“My ex-best — a friend of mine loves your content,” I told her, remembering how Nevaeh would type in Cairee’s Instagram username just to see the new things she posted. “It’s so … palm-sweat inducing.”
“Good! Tell them I said thank you.” Cairee went back through the gates and re-positioned herself at the base of the tree. As I watched, she began to slide herself back up the trunk, arms reaching for a new section of tree, legs closely in pursuit.
I waved goodbye just to be polite. What a fucking weirdo.
The inside of the house was a blur of smooth skin and expensive cologne and shining white teeth. Hot people were everywhere, each one of them dressed to the nines in outfits I’d seen on designers’ Instagram pages only days before. I felt like a well-loved American Girl doll amongst pristine Bratz collectibles. The floofy skirt and ballerina bun that had seemed so cute back in California was all of a sudden frumpy and juvenile. I had to find a private room, let my hair loose, ditch the tutu.
But first, a Nop for posterity.
> Blue wristband on left arm, turned so that the gold embossed “H.W. 7/4/16” glinted in the light of the doorway — [no caption]
Find Marnie, I thought. Go to the bathroom, fix yourself, find Marnie.
The music and cocktail-party chatter grew more pervasive, enveloping me like a fog as I made my way through reality-TV stars, musicians, supermodels, political commentators, magazine editors, social-media activists, rumored cult leaders. Never before had I seen so many famous, important people in one place. My hands itched for the camera, but I stopped myself. There would be plenty of time later for insider photos.
Bathroom. Change. Find Marnie.
I kept a smile on my face in case someone recognized and cared enough to talk to me. Everywhere I looked there were drinks: chilling in iced pails on the long, rectangular tables, overflowing from the champagne fountain in the middle of the room, fizzing on the trays of cocktail waitresses that walked through, being handed over in the open bar near the back. Somehow, the white leather furniture had remained intact.
I reached the glass windows and caught my breath, all thoughts of clothing changes instantly evaporating. Dozens of small white boats bobbed on the surface of the turquoise water. Behind them, all the way at the other end of the bay, sat a line of gleaming white buildings, tinted gold in the light. Cotton-candy clouds hung in the azure sky.
No wonder Cairee was so entranced. It looked just like a painting. I put my phone’s camera lens to the window, snapped a picture, and sent it to my Story. Now, to find someone to get one of me out there for Instagram …
Hmm. Maybe self-timer was the best way to go. I strode outside, looking for an unoccupied table or chair to lean my phone against. There! An open white wicker chair. Victory.
The chair was surprisingly heavy. When I lifted it up, an unopened bottle of green apple Smirnoff Ice rolled onto my foot. The liquid inside looked radioactive, poisonous. Seat still in my arms, I wrinkled my nose and kicked it out of the way.
“What are you doing? You just got iced!” came a raspy feminine voice from a few feet away.
I turned and very narrowly missed elbowing the speaker in the face. She was half a head shorter than me, with pale curls escaping from her little nub of a ponytail. Big blue eyes, clear as a crystal pool on a sunny day, blinked up, creased slightly at the corners. Two cherry-red triangles stretched over her perfectly tanned cleavage; sliding off her shoulder was a men’s white Oxford button-down, fully undone.
“Hey, my eyes are up here,” she faux-scolded, directing my gaze back up to her baby blues, which seemed to sparkle even more.
I felt heat blooming beneath my cheeks. “S-sorry, I was just admiring your locket,” I stammered, risking another glance to the heart-shaped locket that hung around her neck on a delicate gold chain. “It’s the same one as in your stories, right?”
“You can look,” she laughed. “I don’t kill myself every other day at LA Fitness for nothing.”
I reached up and adjusted my bun, an ugly duckling once more. “What’s that you were saying about ice?”
She nudged the sweaty bottle with her foot, causing the metallic red logo to face up toward us. “You’ve been iced. You gotta chug that.”
“You know …” She hesitated. “It’s a college drinking game. usually people hide Smirnoff Ices in unusual or hard-to-find places, and when you happen upon one, you have to chug the whole thing.”
“Ah.” I picked up the bottle and twisted it open, smiling sheepishly. “The little things you miss when you drop out of Stanford.”
Marnie giggled. “It’s fine. I actually hid that there and waited for, like, twenty minutes to see if anyone would find it. I’m glad it was you.”
“Cheers.” I raised the bottle to my lips. The drink was horribly sweet, syrupy almost, and I fought the urge to gag as I forced myself to gulp over and over again. Bubbles threatened to escape through my nostrils. Tears came to my eyes. This was supposed to be fun?
“Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!” Marnie chanted. Her enthused cries caught the attention of several people nearby, and soon everyone in our immediate vicinity was joining in, shouting and clapping along. I glimpsed Hunter through the window, standing alone, watching with an amused look on her face.
Baby, this is what you came for
Lightning strikes every time she moves
And everybody’s watching her
But she’s looking at you
Finally, I titled the bottle back, swallowed with one last glug, and held it aloft to whistles and cheers. I sank down into a mock curtsy, hoping that the inevitable burps I’d have to deal with later wouldn’t be the through-the-nose variety that brought tears to my eyes. Somehow, I doubted it.
“Yay!’ Marnie jumped up and down, then threw her arms around me, pressing her boobs to my ribcage. Already, the temporary crowd had dispersed, sinking back into cocktail-party chatter. “Congratulations on your first time! It was an honor to introduce you to this stupid game.”
“Thank you for deflowering me,” I joked.
“Pleasure’s all mine. I’ll write it up for my next book.” Marnie grabbed my hand, pulling me with her to the dock off the side, where a few tiny dinghies were moored, their captains enjoying their own drinks and cigarettes by one of the side tables. “I rented a sailboat here in case I needed to get away from all the noise,” she said. “I’m gonna go chill out for a bit. Care to join me?”
The two of us were standing slightly under the shade of a tall, thin coconut palm. A few feet away from us, the daughter of a well-known Russian opposition leader turned hot dogs over on a sizzling grill, wearing a tiny white apron over her yellow bathing suit. Further off in the distance, two race car drivers on jet skis raced each other, making elaborate circles around the stationary boats, leaving foaming white trails in their wake.
We go fast with the game we play
Who knows why it’s gotta be this way?
We say nothing more than we need
I say “your place” when we leave
The strategic part of me wanted to make my rounds and get to know everyone, but I doubted that any of them would be as useful — or as fun — as the pretty blonde standing right here, waiting for an answer.
So I looked at her and smiled instead. “I thought you’d never ask.”