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24. Calamity Call

24. Calamity Call

This is the twenty-fourth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.

This chapter contains descriptions of prescription drug abuse.

Delegation is an art.

That’s why celebrities and executives have assistants to take care of the boring things for them. Time is a person’s most precious resource, after all. You can’t focus on high-level things if you’re spending all of your time scheduling meetings and figuring out the best time to post on Instagram.

Unfortunately, this was something I still had to internalize. I’d started using automators for Instagram and NipNop — the latter a custom solution built by Elio — but I was still overseeing the minute details of each campaign and answering my own emails. My reputation was at stake here, and I didn’t want anyone getting too close. There were certain parts of my life I wouldn’t be able to hide from an assistant or a team.

What goes up must come down, and that period of smooth sailing right after the office reveal proved to be short-lived. Suddenly, I was swamped with so much work that I found myself frozen, unable to tackle the To-Do list that had somehow become a never-ending pile of tasks of equal priority. Which one was more important — advertising the international rollouts of our new algorithm? Continuing the never-ending fairytale with Oliver and NipNop? My book proposal, whose deadline loomed nearer and nearer? 

If you were to ask me the classic job-interview “what’s your biggest weakness” question today, I’d tell you about my tendency to overestimate how many things I can take on at any given time. Even now I stack way, way too much on my schedule, only to discover far too late that I’m in over my head. ⁣⁣Back then, it was worse. Working on NipNop made me guilty about ignoring the book proposal. Writing the proposal made me feel like I was neglecting my NipNop duties. And I put all my non-work relationships on the back burner, never returning my family’s calls or responding to Marnie’s invitations to hang out. 

Gone were the nights where I could fuck around, shoot the shit, race up and down the stairs with my fellow co-founders. Now it was nothing but work, from six AM until well after midnight, where I’d pass out, wake up, freak out about sleeping too much, and start all over again.

I could’ve hired a junior marketing director to oversee the rollouts, a social-media manager to help with the Instagram and NipNop storylines, a ghostwriter to whip my half-baked manuscript into shape. But pride — the deadliest of sins — held me back, over and over and over again.

I’d built myself a precarious Jenga tower. Now, it was starting to wobble.

Though I’d modeled my new office after my room in the Haight, there was one detail I couldn’t change — the straight pink walls made the room a square, not a circle. To make up for this architectural aberration, I had mirrors installed behind my bed. I liked to sit at the foot of my mattress, admiring my makeup job every once in a while. At least I still looked good.

On the night before the Discovery algorithm was to roll out in Australia, I leaned against the mirror, breathing heavily. My back had started aching so much that I had no choice but to give it support. The rollout campaign, which involved online ads and few local influencers posting about the algorithm on their NipNop stories, was supposed to go live in a few hours. I’d had everything ready to go weeks beforehand, but I’d gotten an email at five-thirty in the afternoon from several companies’ marketing directors. 

Apparently, they’d gotten together and collectively decided that the language in some of the ads was too “socially insensitive” for them to post. Never mind that everyone had already given their individual blessings — now, they demanded a different set of words to show on their websites. Oliver and I had both tried negotiating with them, but it was no use. It was new ads or bust. NipNop was well-established in America, but it was a small fry in other places. If we wanted to get in the same league as Instagram or Facebook, we had no choice but to comply.

Oliver had turned to me after the latest Sorry, but no email, a pleading look in his eyes. “I don’t think we have any choice,” he’d said. “Can you give them something new? You haul serious ass and you’re good at words. I know that you can do it.”

Of course I’d agreed — even though I’d been planning to go home and bang out another chapter of And We Weren’t Like that evening. Take it from me: sometimes dedication makes you do some idiotic things.

Shit, shit, shit, I thought now. It was nearly ten PM, and my mind was as blank as the space in that oft-played Taylor Swift song. We were to go live at midnight; the subject lines in my inbox had gone from polite to insistent to frantic. Everything, it seemed, was riding on me. Not even the cozy glow from my light-therapy lamps could stop my heart from leaping wildly in my chest, like a caged chicken with a horrible premonition. White spots flickered in front of me, then disappeared.

I bit at the skin around my ragged fingernails, trying to breathe normally. Nauseous, I was so nauseous. I hadn’t eaten anything that day, but saliva drenched my mouth just the same, as though I was about to throw up.

Two hours until launch and I’ve got nothing, nothing, I’m a horrible founder, why the fuck did I say yes, I’m failing everyone …

The room went still. Everything around me seemed to freeze, as if I’d pressed Pause on reality. A tightening sensation formed deep in my stomach, spreading to my neck, my legs, the joints in my fingers. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, help me. What was I supposed to do? I’d always been in control of my own emotions, my own reactions. And now … and now …

I blinked and forced myself to take deep breaths. In through the nose and out through the mouth, I thought, like I’d seen people in movies do when they were distressed. In through the nose and out through the mouth. In, out. In. Out.

Slowly, slowly, my heart rate returned to something resembling normal, and I could move again. Once I regained control of my limbs, I slumped over, dropping my head between my knees.

God, I was so fucked. What was Oliver going to say now? What would my fans think? I imagined the headlines spreading like wildfire on Reddit and Hacker News: NipNop Founder Helena Holloway Buckles Under Stress of Launch. #Girlboss Helena Holloway Fumbles International Rollout.

What happened to being hard-working, a master juggler? A multi-multi-tasker? My career was just getting started — why was my productivity lagging?

What am I supposed to do?

I’m so fucked. I’m so fucked.

I turned around to examine my reflection. My face looked shiny and haggard; an angry red pimple was starting to poke through the surface in the center of my nose. Large circles — bags under bags under bags — etched themselves under my eyes, which brimmed with tears.

Great. Not only was I a failure having a pathetic meltdown, but now I was ugly, too.

Never had I ever cried at work before. Well, not in the office, anyway. Between this and the panic attack, it was a day of unwelcome firsts. I didn’t sob as much as gasp for air like I was drowning, struggling for oxygen. Fat tears rolled down my cheeks, making my eyes sting.

Stupid, unproductive, lazy, good-for-nothing little

Two sharp raps sounded at the door. I lifted my head, mid-sob, quickly dabbing at my eyes with the edge of my duvet. “Come in,” I said in a normal voice, hoping that my appearance wouldn’t betray my emotional state.

“Working late, huh?” Elio asked, wrinkling his nose as soon as he was fully inside the room. “Ugh, why does it smell like a convenience store died in … oh.” His eyebrows knitted together as he took in the garbage bags full of rotting white blooms — what remained of Oliver’s gift weeks ago — and the piles of crushed Monster Zero Ultra cans around them. The dainty wastebasket under my desk couldn’t hold more than a few crumpled papers at a time. I knew better than to use it for actual trash.

“It looks it.” I gave him a weak smile. “What’s up?”

He ran a hand through his curls. “I, ah, was going to make an Insomnia Cookies run and saw the light on in your room. Do you want any?”

The thought of warm, soft cookies almost made me choke up again. “I would love some,” I said gratefully. “Double chocolate mint, please. At least three of them. I haven’t eaten anything solid all day.”

“Haven’t eaten anything solid? We literally have a mini-kitchen on every floor and a cafeteria serving ready-made meals.”

“I know.”

You helped pick out the menu.”

“I know.” A stinging pain cut through my head, making me wince. “I’m supposed to get this ad out at midnight, and I still have a chapter to write to stay on track for Wren, and …” I shrugged. “Startup life. You know how it goes.”

“You’re still working on the ad?” Elio sat down next to me at the edge of the bed. “I thought you sent it out at the end of the day.”

“The night is still young.” I slid onto my back and closed my eyes. “Really, though, some cookies would be great.”

“You gotta take care of your body first. At least have some almonds from the micro-kitchen, or a salad from the caf. That’s what I sustain myself on.”

Easy for him to say. He wasn’t penning a potential bestseller while introducing new features to audiences of millions. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll try to keep that in mind.”

His expression softened. “How are things going? We haven’t talked in a while.”

My vision was going hazy; Elio’s Velvet Underground T-shirt blurred, then came back into focus. I laid an arm over my throbbing eyes. “Dying, as usual. I’m super stressed about the Australia campaign. I kind of want to take a handful of Ambien and sleep for a week straight.”

He frowned. “Weren’t you hiring a team to take care of all the campaign shit? Oliver told me that you were looking into a few candidates from Berkeley.”

“Yeah, that’s going …”

“You haven’t done it, have you.”

I groaned in response.

“Helena, the first thing I did when we got funding was hire people to help me. More developers, designers, quality assurance engineers. NipNop is a multi-million dollar corporation. I would never — could never — run an entire division on my own.”

I lifted my arm from my eyes and sat back up, wincing at the sudden light. “It’s not all on my own. I work with vendors and other campaign managers. Plus, I’m only doing marketing. It’s hardly rocket science.”

“Not this again.” Elio rolled his eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re not a dumb bitch, and the work you do is valuable.”

“Your work is much harder than mine. Objectively, intellectually harder. It’s just the truth.”

“Who put you up to this? Was it Andre?” His eyes narrowed. “Bruh, Andre’s one to talk. He’s got, what, ten people working under them? Fifteen? Plus, I’m pretty sure that he’s banging his secretary, but since they’re both over twenty-one and he’s a founder, no one’s saying anything about it.”

I stared down at my hands. Andre did have a way of making me feel useless, smaller than a dormouse and only half as cute. They’d been particularly antagonistic lately, tossing backhanded compliments or sneaking in snide comments whenever we crossed paths.

“Honestly, I think Andre is a misogynist,” Elio said. “He’s one of those white gays — you know, the ones who openly talk about how femmes are inferior, even in bed. I wouldn’t put any stock in what they say about your abilities. Plus, he’s probably jealous.”

I lifted my head. “Jealous?”

“Of you and Oliver. The two of them used to hook up, you know.”

I most certainly had not known. No wonder Andre was always so standoffish, acting like everything I said was stupid or wrong when he wasn’t going out of his way to ignore me. “Oliver never told me,” I said stiffly. Why hadn’t he? He’d readily spilled the beans about everyone else.

“You should ask him. I would want to know if I were you.” Elio stood up and stretched. “Okay, I’m gonna get going because Insomnia is gonna close in an hour, and I want to walk. You sure you’re gonna be okay?”

“Who knows,” I said darkly. “I might die. Or let the entire company down. Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I’m serious. I don’t know how I’m going to get all of this done before the deadline.”

Elio hesitated, then took out an orange bottle from his pocket. “I have something that may help.”

“What is that?”

He twisted off the white lid. “Hold out your hand,” he instructed, coaxing out a tiny object with his index finger and dropping it in my palm.

It was a circular pill, light blue like the walls in my favorite meeting room. The letters dp were stamped on one side, the bottom right corner of the d kissing the top left corner of the p. 1 | 0, read the other side.

“Adderall,” Elio explained. “Ten milligrams. Gets me through the day when coffee isn’t enough.”

I stared at the pill, resting so prettily in the center of my hand. Magic, I’d heard it called. Study drug. I knew it was addictive as all hell, could turn people’s lives upside-down if they weren’t careful. Was Elio prescribed? I hadn’t known that. He was so calm, so peaceful, nothing like the bouncing-off-the-wall stereotype of people with ADHD.

“Biscuit — one of the other founders — has a scrip,” Elio explained, as though he’d read my mind. “I don’t use it too much. Once a month, at the most. Tolerance builds up pretty quickly, so I wouldn’t make it a daily thing. But you seem like you could use it, so …”

“Th-thank you,” I mumbled, closing my fingers around the little circle.

“Good luck.” He gently squeezed my shoulder. “I’ll be back in about two hours.”

I paced around the room after he left, deliberating. Cocaine had made me feel so good, like I had all the answers to life’s questions. Like I could do anything. I’d stopped myself before I could really get started, because I’d known how dangerous it could be. But Adderall was different — it was legal if it was prescribed to you, and people got prescriptions all the time. Even kids took it to help them focus. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?

You do have an addictive personality, my mind piped up. Be careful.

I snuck a quick glance at my phone. It was almost eleven-thirty, and I still had so much to do. Backed up against a rock and a corner I was, with the rock closing in on me with each passing moment. The tiny blue pill in my hand was a bulldozer, offering me a way out.

Time was a-ticking. I could afford to spend no more of it deliberating.

Without a second thought, I swiped the unopened can of Monster Energy on my nightstand, cracked open the seal, and washed down the ten milligrams of Adderall with seventy milligrams of caffeine.

Next chapter

Chapter 25: Chaotic Delight

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