This is the twenty-sixth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
My dreams often take on a surreal quality.
Coming face-to-face with a grotesque, pinprick-pupiled version of myself in a field of whispering marigolds. Getting slashed, mauled, devoured by millions of sharp-tailed Instagram likes out for blood. Being stuck in a life-sized mason jar filled with pretty purple wildflowers and a very unfriendly bee. Running for cover from seven-foot orchid stems that want to rip my head off. I’ve often wondered what Dr. Phillip Martinez — the therapist I’d fabricated to get out of living on Stanford campus — would think of them if he were real. I personally don’t think they’re indicators of any deeper issues. If anything, they’re just proof that I have a nice, healthy imagination.
Quite a few dreams starred Nevaeh, especially after she’d faded into my memories, become an abstraction of herself. She was the voice of the wildflowers, the ethereal fairy in the woods, always a step out of reach — my savior from all those unpleasant scenarios, if only I could catch up with her. I was so used to thinking of her that way that I stood frozen in the doorway at the sight of her in the flesh, just a normal girl in a cardinal-red Stanford sweatshirt and leggings, North Face backpack slung over her shoulder, hair gathered in a single poofy ponytail at the top of her head.
“Hi yourself.” She shifted from one foot to the other, shoving her hands into the front pocket of her hoodie. “Sorry about the delay. The Caltrain got stuck at the Millbrae station for, like, an hour because of engine troubles or something. I tried to text you but I had horrible reception.”
“Oh, right. No worries.” I tightened my grip on the door handle. It had been so long since I’d been down to the South Bay that I’d forgotten how finicky those trains could be. I couldn’t imagine relying on them to go to work each day. “Well, um, welcome!” I opened the door wider and stepped aside to let her through, my heart pounding all the while.
The tower was spotless. I’d speed-cleaned my room while waiting for her to show up, fluffing my pillows and hauling giant trash bags of Monster Energy cans and orange pill bottles to the kitchen. Out of sight, out of mind. She took a seat at my desk, swiveling the white chair around to face the bed, the end at which I perched on like a songbird with stage fright. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten or slept in nearly thirty hours or maybe I was in shock at finally seeing my best friend in six months, but my heart wouldn’t stop racing and my tongue felt like it was tied up in knots. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, unsure of what to say.
Nevaeh broke the silence first. “Nice dress,” she said. “You look pretty.”
“Thanks!” I smoothed out the skirt, black with big yellow flowers printed all over it, a sponsored gift from a fan who worked at a novelty vintage boutique in New Orleans. “It’s sponsored.” At the last minute I’d changed out of the white dress, afraid that Nevaeh would see right through my ploy and think me pathetic, desperate.
“Enjoying that influencer life?”
“You know it.”
“Cool. I saw an article about your new office. Very you.”
“Thanks, I supervised all of the design. You know how much I love pastel colors.”
I wanted to die. This was what we’d devolved to after not speaking for so long? Small talk with Nevaeh was so much worse than getting beheaded by humanoid orchids. I could sense the well of unspoken words between us, the real things we wanted to say, trapped below a veneer of uncertainty.
Maybe some weed would help. I rooted around under my pillow until I found the vape pen that Elio had brought over a few days ago — Blue Dream, sativa, eighty-nine percent THC. I still wasn’t a stoner by any means, but getting a little stoned did make me loosen up.
Nevaeh watched as I pressed the little button and inhaled for a solid five seconds, managing to keep everything down without coughing. Or, at least, I managed for a few moments before letting it all out, bending over and sputtering. Great. Not only did I lose it in front of her, but that monster hit ensured that I was also going to be way higher than I’d like to be.
“Want some water?” She pulled a mint green Yeti bottle out of her backpack. “It’s fresh. I filled up before I left campus, at that water fountain you like.”
I shook my head, still coughing, and handed her the pen. “Nah — I’m — good,” I wheezed, placing a hand on my chest. “I’ll be fine” — cough — “in a few minutes.”
“All right, if you’re sure.” She took a long hit from the pen and exhaled gracefully, blowing silky puffs into the air. We sat in silence for a few moments more, the weed quickly going to my head, turning everything dreamlike, hazy. Impulsively I reached below the bed for my laptop, where I’d stored it along with the miscellaneous books and magazines that had been scattered across the floor. It was too silent in here; we needed some background music.
I could go back to every laugh
But I don’t wanna go there anymore
And I know all the steps up to your door
But I don’t wanna go there anymore
“Fearless era Taylor Swift,” Nevaeh remarked approvingly. “Nice.”
I’ll leave my window open
‘Cause I’m too tired tonight to call your name
Just know I’m right here hoping
That you’ll come in with the rain
I was getting higher by the minute. Now, my former best friend seemed more like her familiar dream-self, a princess in her high chair a world away from me. Distant, unavailable, untouchable as a distant diamond sky.
She jolted me out of my reverie by lightly tapping my foot with hers. “So,” she began over Taylor’s sweeping voice. “I, um, need to tell you something.”
I reached over and turned down the music. “I’m all ears.”
“I’m not sure how to say this.” Nevaeh looked down at her fingernails, bitten to the quick, the skin around them red and irritated. “But what happened in LA … um.” She paused. “This is gonna piss you off, and I just want to say that I’m sorry that I did this. It was really petty of me, and I’ve spent the last however long regretting it.”
What could be so bad that she was having trouble telling me? “I’m a big girl,” I offered. “I literally run a company dealing in teen drama. I’ve pretty much seen it all at this point.”
“Promise you won’t get upset?”
“Promise that I’ll at least try.” I smiled. Whatever it was, she was here, now, in front of me. That was the most important part.
She took a deep breath. “Kayleigh and I. We had a plan to, um, make you uncomfortable. To see how you’d react.”
“What do you mean?”
“Kayleigh and I pretended to still be into one another, to kind of third-wheel you to see how you’d react.” Her green eyes studied me, pupils wide, searching. “We wanted to see if you really cared about me. If you’d be worried if I left.”
Was she trying to say that she’d shut me out on purpose? I sat on the edge of the bed, frozen, unsure whether to be relieved or furious, unsure to act relieved or furious. I wished that I hadn’t smoked so much.
“Well, congratulations,” I said finally. “You got your wish.”
I’ve watched you so long, screamed your name
I don’t know what else I can say
Her eyes glittered, voice taking on a thin, reedy quality. “Dude — Helena — don’t be like that. You really hurt me back then, you know. Pretending to be my friend when you didn’t give a shit. Making me feel like shit, parading your so-called relationship with Oliver around in front of me when you know how uncomfortable that whole thing made me. You made me feel like shit. No — worse than shit. Like a non-player character in the grand story of Helena Holloway’s life. Like you wouldn’t give a damn if I just up and disappeared.”
The raw emotion in her tone made me snap into ice-queen mode, shutting down faster than a party surrounded by cop cars. I sat up stick-straight, folding my neatly manicured hands in my lap. “So you decided to deal with your feelings by trying to make me feel like shit?”
Her voice shook when she spoke next. “I know it was wrong, and I’m sorry.” She took a ragged breath. “It got out of hand, and I feel really bad about it. Really, really bad. I’m sorry, Helena. Truly.”
I raised my eyebrow, pursed my lips. “Are you with Kayleigh now?”
Nevaeh shook her head so hard that her corkscrew curls shook in their ponytail. “No, not at all. I meant it when I said that we were just friends. I like her a lot as a person, but that part of my life — our, um, entanglement — is over.”
I thought of the dream with the bloodthirsty likes, of Kayleigh’s long heliotrope dress and sugary-sweet voice as she shoved me down, down into the darkness. Nevaeh had done something awful to me on purpose, but at least she wasn’t with such an awful person. At least she’d admitted to me that she’d felt bad about the whole thing. She hadn’t been perfect by any means, but who was I to judge?
And I’ll leave my window open
‘Cause I’m too tired tonight for all these games
Just know I’m right here hoping
That you’ll come in with the rain
“That’s hard to hear,” I told her truthfully, uncrossing my legs, “but I understand. I’m glad you told me. I … probably deserved it.”
She regarded me warily. “Are we cool now?”
“I’m cool with you if you’re cool with me.”
“Of course.” She smiled for real then, and the figurative elephant that had been lounging in the corner rose, shook off the dust on its back, and exited through the door. “I’m so glad that we’re finally talking again. I missed you a lot.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I admitted. Maybe it was the weed; maybe it was the loneliness or just the sheer happiness of seeing her again, but I found myself telling Nevaeh of the dreams, of my fallout with Oliver and my dalliance with Marnie, of everything that had happened since I’d stormed out of her life back in LA. She just sat there and took it all in as I unloaded, eventually coming over and sitting next to me on the bed, listening intently all the while. I’d forgotten how easy it was to talk to her, how I didn’t have to worry about putting on a show. I talked and talked and talked, until I found myself repeating stories.
“Sounds like a lot for one person to handle,” Nevaeh observed, staring out the window.
“Damn right. Ah, I’m so glad we’re friends again.” I felt like I’d just taken the biggest, most rewarding dump of my life. “Thanks for coming all the way up here just to hear me rant.”
“No problem. Just like old times.” She smiled cryptically, then turned to the still-open laptop on the bed. “So what about this book proposal? You haven’t talked much about that, actually.”
“I was hoping you could help me with that.” I logged into my account, showed her the thirtyish pages I’d managed to cobble together. “It’s total shit, honestly. The proposal is due in a month and I only have four chapters.”
“Isn’t a proposal only supposed to be, like, the first three chapters or something?”
Right. I’d forgotten that Nevaeh was semi-familiar with the publishing process, though she’d never tried to write a book herself. She’d published several of her essays and short stories in obscure but well-regarded literary magazines. “Technically yes, but I want to make a solid impression, you know? Really knock Wren’s socks off.”
“Let’s see what you’ve got.” She took the laptop from me and started reading, jade eyes scanning each page in seconds. I had barely taken another hit from the vape when she indicated that she was finished.
She cracked a half grin. “It’s not total shit.”
“Thanks,” I said half-sarcastically.
“I mean it. It’s just … well, it’s just full of lies.” She scrolled through the text, highlighting phrases as she went. “You didn’t get your initial fifty thousand followers from a picture that landed you on the Favorites page. You didn’t have a meet-cute with Oliver through the windows of your apartment. You’re certainly not ‘so in love’ with him, and you didn’t start working at NipNop because they sorely needed your specific business acumen.”
“That last part is technically true,” I protested. “I just can’t reveal the details because of legal reasons. I’m literally under contract for some of these things.” Plus, of course, the lies made me seem so much cooler, painted me out to be a more sparkly, likeable Helena. I could tell that Nevaeh knew that, too, and I was glad for the implicit understanding in our friendship, how she didn’t need to spell it out loud.
“Well, what about this?” she said at last. “We write the truth, and you can do a heavy edit before you submit the proposal to Wren. Cut out all the bits you don’t want people to see.”
“That could work,” I admitted, “but wouldn’t it take too much time to put everything down, and then take so much of it out?”
Nevaeh grinned, little dimples etching themselves on each side of her cheeks. “Not at all. Remember how quickly we wrote your critical essays for English Lit?”
“Our first joint project.” My eyes crinkled at the memory. “We somehow always got them in the night before.”
“They were solid, too.” Nevaeh smiled smugly. “And we’ll do the same now, except this time, you’ll actually be interested in your subject, and you’ll be doing it all in the name of money and fame.”
“Hella money and fame.” Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to dive in. I jumped out of bed, twirling around a few times. “Speaking of which, if you’re gonna help me, you should get a cut. I’m gonna make money from this. I can afford to pay you in more than just weed now.”
She extended a leg out in front of her, forcing me to grind to a halt. “Don’t get too excited yet,” she warned. “Let’s write first and discuss my compensation later. I know you’ll pull through.”
I smiled. Nevaeh was no girlboss, and I loved that about her. Such an attitude was refreshing after being around hungry startup opportunists like Oliver all the time.
“Okay,” she started, scooting back on the bed until she was leaning up against the wall, one of my pillows supporting her lower back. “I like the first part of what you’ve got here. ‘I wasn’t always Helena Holloway’ is a very strong opener. It pulls you right into the narrative. But I’d move the part about your childhood down a bit until you’ve described why you decided to change your name before college …”
In the end, no Adderall was needed. We continued like this throughout the night, Nevaeh meticulously editing every sentence I wrote, re-educating me on the rules of craft I’d missed out on after skipping so many creative nonfiction classes. Openings, paragraph length, story versus discourse, showing versus telling. When we’d exhausted my current manuscript, she helped me draw up an outline. And We Were Like would be a straightforward account of my desire for and eventual rise to cultural relevance, warts and all.
“You’ve got to make yourself more relatable,” she drilled into me as the sun’s golden rays started filtering through the early-morning fog. “The people you’re writing to — your fans — are just normal kids living normal lives, not ambitious fanatics from well-to-do families like you and Oliver. People hate the rich in long-form prose, and they especially hate people who are kind of rich but still aspire to have more. Make yourself the plucky underdog, and you’ll be set.”
“Noted.” I eyed the new pot of orchids sitting on my fireplace mantle — white this time — and my new pair of Manson Gabriel flats, bought fresh after I’d fucked up the last ones running through the train station. “No rich-girl antics for the book.”
“Not unless those antics make you more sympathetic. Use the fact that you’re a female founder to your advantage. Approach everything that could make you seem horrible from a feminist point of view. You want to be rich and famous and fuck pretty girls at star-studded events because cis men get to do that, and everyone should have the right to be as horrible as cis men.”
In the eventual proposal for And We Weren’t Like, the character of Helena Holloway would play a shy, awkward second fiddle to all of the sociable swans that glided around her. Was it strange to see Nevaeh take the same literary device she’d taught me, and weaponize it against me in her own viral essay?
Yes. But more on that later. We haven’t gotten to that part of the outline yet! After we finished the outline — fifteen pages, three thousand, nine hundred and thirty words — I turned to Nevaeh with a big grin on my face.
“I love you,” I said sincerely. “Let’s make it official. Collab with me?”
“There is nothing I would like more.”
“How much do you want?” I asked, getting up to look out the window. The N had started running for the day; I watched as a small horde of puffer-jacket-clad twentysomethings tried to squeeze their way onto the already overflowing train. Thank God for my new team, who made me going into the office completely optional.
Nevaeh yawned and fell back into the tangled mess of blankets. “I dunno. Thirty-five percent?” she asked blearily.
“Oh, come on,” I scoffed, suddenly annoyed at her lack of business acumen. “I own ten percent of NipNop. Frankly, my dear, I’m rich as fuck. I’m not writing this for the money. You’re the only one of my friends who needs this sort of money badly.” I climbed back into the bed and got under the covers with her, looking her in the eye all the while. “You should take fifty percent. At least.”
“Oh! Wow. That’s super generous.” Nevaeh looked like she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to laugh or make a run for it. “Really generous, Helena. Are you sure?”
We shook on it. Perfect. My book was going to come out on time, and I had my best friend back. My world was once again spinning around on its axis, with me at the very center. This time, I’d try and keep it that way for as long as I could.