This is the thirtieth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Success made me paranoid.
The funnel of winners had carried me higher and higher without demanding any extra work on my part. By the end of my twentieth year, I’d gotten used to seeing my face on the cover of Teen Vogue, to my name being on celebrity guest lists, to people approaching me whenever I went out for groceries. No longer was fame a distant dream, an unreachable goal.
And I … was terrified. I’d read enough books to know that what went up had to eventually come down. That was one of Newton’s laws, wasn’t it, that every action had an equal and opposite reaction? There was no way my good fortune would hold forever, especially considering how I’d entered the funnel: buying Instagram followers, creating appointments that didn’t exist, faking true love.
So I put on a front of calm affability for every public event, all while wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. I took selfies with fans and held hands with Oliver and waxed poetic about “the hustle” on Instagram, all the while thinking that it was all going to go away, go away, go away.
In hindsight, my twenty-first birthday was the beginning of the end. I’d caught a late-afternoon flight back to San Francisco, landing in the foggy city an hour before midnight. Oliver was taking me to the Ophelia Lounge, a rooftop bar in Union Square that I’d been dying to get into for a year and a half. We were to catch up, split a bottle of Dom Perignon, and take enough pictures to assure the public that, despite spending so much time apart, we were still very much in love.
I heard Oliver call my name before I spotted him leaning against his new Tesla Model S in the middle of the Arrivals curb, all leather and hair gel like a sixties greaser turned venture capitalist. The obsidian-black car gleamed under the airport’s fluorescent lighting, all shiny paint and smooth windows — a perfect chariot for the modern-day princess. My high ponytail swung back and forth like a pendulum as I walked over, suitcase thunk-thunk-thunking over the shiny airport tiles.
“Long time no see,” he said as he pulled me into a hug, crushing my face against his chest. He smelled as though he’d been marinating in a tub of Old Spice before driving over. Still, I held on for a second longer than necessary, the very picture of a lovesick girl who hadn’t seen her boyfriend in over two months.
“Good to be back,” I replied once we’d stepped apart, looking Oliver up and down. I’d never seen his leather jacket before, but it looked well-loved, as though it had been through myriad adventures and lived to tell the tale. His hair was gelled back in a low ponytail, a day’s worth of stubble on his chin. He seemed larger somehow, sturdier. Maybe Ben was stepping it up in the bedroom at last. “Speaking of being back, let’s fucking go. I can’t wait to buy my first legal dri —”
“Excuse me, are you Helena Holloway?” a breathless voice squeaked from somewhere near my right. I turned to see a teenager, no older than sixteen, in a black puffy jacket and sandy UGG boots. They wore a pair of smudged glasses, but those didn’t stop their voice from hitching up half an octave as we locked eyes. “Ohmigod, you are! Holy shit. I’m one of your biggest fans, I swear. I just love your NipNop updates. My friends and I screenshot every single one. And —” they turned to my companion — “is this Oliver? As in the Oliver?”
“It is,” I said.
“Dude! Oh my gosh! This is the best day of my life. My friends are all gonna —”
Instead of finishing the sentence, they let out a high-pitched squeal. “My friend Taylor? He runs a fan account dedicated to you? At-thehollowaypapers on Instagram? He’s gonna be so envious when he finds out that I ran into you. In person.”
Oliver coughed politely. “It’s great to meet you, ah …”
“Oh! Right.” They giggled, sticking out a bony hand, unpainted nails bitten to the quick. “I’m Sarah Marie. She/her. I don’t, like, run a fan account or anything, but I love love love everything that you post. I really wanted to move to LA before I found you, but you’ve convinced me to stay in SF and, like, break into the corporate world.”
“Wow,” I said, trying not to wipe my hand after shaking hers, which were covered in some sticky substance that I didn’t want all over my new peacoat. “That’s so sweet! Good luck.”
“Do you mind if I take a selfie with you guys?” She wedged herself between Oliver and me before either of us could reply. All three of us bent toward the cracked iPhone she’d coaxed out of her jeans pocket, smiling as the flash went off again and again. I idly wondered if it was midnight yet. Would I turn twenty-one at the bar? On the way? Or here, with digital bulbs detonating in front of my eyes?
At last she stepped back, thumbing through the pictures with a satisfied look on her face. “Oh, these are amazing!” she trilled. “Thank you sososo much.”
“No, thank you, Sarah Marie,” I said, putting my hand around Oliver’s waist. “Have a great night.”
“You too! OH! And please follow me back! I’m at-sarahmarie269 on Instagram and NipNop.” She gave us a final little wave before running back to the Toyota Corolla behind us, where two adults stood waiting. I caught sight of her jumping up and down in the rearview mirror as Oliver pulled out of the terminal.
“Jesus,” he said once we were out on the road. “I know that we pay you handsomely for it, but is that what you have to deal with every day?”
“It’s not too bad once you get used to it,” I said graciously. At the beginning, such exchanges had made my stomach twist up — somehow, it’d seemed inappropriate to be too real or too fake with fans — but I was getting better and better as time passed.
“Are you gonna follow her back?”
“Fuck no.” Sarah Marie seemed like the type of person who would send me endless streams of inane selfies and never stop bragging that we mutually followed one another. I’d made the mistake of following some people back when I’d first started, and I ended up having to block them after they got more and more annoying, demanding that I answer their DMs or Nop them back. It was a shame, really. As fans, they should’ve understood that parasocial relationships were a one-way street.
As we sped toward the city, I filled Oliver in on everything that had happened while I was out of town — Nevaeh, Wren, my last days in that fancy hotel room, popping little blue pills so I never had to miss a fiery sunrise. He nodded along, laughing at all the right moments, reaching over to squeeze my hand when I talked about how I’d felt that evening that Nevaeh and I finished the draft on the balcony. I’d missed this, just the two of us talking in person, Young Thug playing softly in the background. We’d both been so busy that we’d spent all our one-on-one time talking business. It was good to have some old-fashioned quality time.
“So what about you?” I asked after I’d finished. “Any exciting personal news? Company secrets you were keeping from me while I was gone?”
He smirked in the mirror. “Elio caught Andre fucking one of the new hires in the nap pod after happy hour last Thursday and he wants to bring it to the board, but we don’t really have HR, so …”
“In the nap pod?” I wanted to puke, thinking of Andre splayed out on top of some poor skinny engineer against the baby-blue leather, hairy ass in the air. “Fucking gross. Better keep that out of Hacker Hearsay.”
“I’m kidding! Andre’s a fuckboy, yeah, but he hasn’t been that egregious. Yet.” He laughed when he saw the look on my face. “Company things are the same old. You know. More hires, prep for another round of funding, all that.”
“Ugh, I bet that Bret Manson wouldn’t like knowing what one of her darling founders gets up to after hours —”
“I said I was kidding! Plus, he’s definitely done it before. We all have.”
“I haven’t!” I grimaced. “And now I probably never will, considering the mental images you’re giving me.”
“Ah, Helena, so innocent.” A smile crept into Oliver’s voice as he switched lanes to the right. “Personally, though, things have been going great.”
“Yeah? So you and Ben are …”
“No! I mean, yes, but that’s not what I was referring to. I meant that my mom and dad came by the office the other day, and they ended up having a change of heart about the whole startup thing.”
“Oh, right.” Oliver’s parents were of the traditional sort, so old-fashioned that they’d continued to shame him for not being a doctor even after NipNop had launched in Australia. They’d also refused to acknowledge or meet me, his “girlfriend,” a fellow Stanford dropout and therefore an equally bad seed. Last I heard, they’d willed over all of their assets to Oliver’s younger sister Karen, who was gunning for Harvard Law. “What happened?”
“They came to visit the office oh, about two weeks ago,” he began, tapping his nails against the wheel. “I went all-out, of course. Gave them this extensive tour, had the kitchen prepare the healthiest foods, trotted out my most kiss-assy engineers, the whole shebang.”
“But they weren’t impressed?”
“No, they definitely, definitely were. I think it surprised them, honestly, how I managed to pull everything off. Reading about NipNop apparently didn’t stop them from thinking that the company was some little hobby, or some illusion that I’d pulled out of my ass.
“Both of them — my dad, especially — wouldn’t stop saying how proud they were of me, how my hard work had finally paid off, all of that. They even tried to backtrack, saying that they’d believed in me all along.” He made a wheezing sound through his nostrils. “Can you believe it? Apparently, it was all in the name of tough love. Because, you know, it’s fucking impossible for them to apologize or admit that anything is their fault.”
“So they like what you’re doing?” This explained the glow radiating off of him. No matter how bitter he was, Oliver had been brought up to crave the rare compliment from his caregivers, like a little dog begging for treats.
“They love it,” he scoffed. “Oh, and my mom was big into the office design. I told her that it was all you.”
Unexpected pride bloomed in my chest at the thought of Oliver’s hard-ass mother complimenting my work. “Good shit. Tell her that I said thank you.”
“Oh, but I saved the best shit for last.” He smiled wolfishly, tightening his grip on the wheel. “After the tour and the gourmet meals and the way-overdue compliments, I sat them down in my office — you know, the one with the view — and told them that while I was glad they were on board with my vision now, I never wanted to see or talk to them ever again.”
Outside, the niche billboards advertising data storage, project-management software, and nootropics for the enlightened engineer sped by faster and faster. How to Train Your Algorithm. Like LSD, But For The Office. Never Use Google Analytics Again. “It’s their own damn fault. This shit is long overdue.”
I blinked a few times and turned back to face him, trying to digest everything he was telling me. “That’s … damn. How did they react?”
“Let’s just say that they were shocked. My mom even cried a little.” Oliver barked out a laugh, sadistic glee evident in his voice. “You know, typical Asian-parent shit. I wish I’d gotten it down on video. I really should have. Prime drunken-rewatch material.”
“Sheesh. Remind me to never get on your bad side.”
“Oh, please. You’ve gotten on my bad side plenty of times.” He waved me off. “You’re not even close to their level, trust me. Like, for example, in elementary school, the cafeteria gave us these standard lunches, right? You had your main dish, like chicken nuggets or a sandwich, and then you had a juice box and a chocolate-chip cookie. Well, a lot of us either didn’t like the juice or didn’t like the cookies, so one day I came up with this trading system where people could always get what they wanted.”
I imagined a young Oliver with light-up sneakers and hair in a little man bun drawing up charts in magic marker. “That’s actually really innovative. I never liked my school’s orange juice. I would’ve traded it for a cookie in a heartbeat.”
He wagged a finger at me. “Ah-ah-ah! Not so fast! The lunch supervisors didn’t like what I did. They put a stop to it and called my parents, who refused to give me dinner for a week. Instead of eating with them every night, I had to stand on the street facing the front window, where they could see me — and where I could see them, slurping down dan-dan noodles and fish soup like they didn’t have a care in the world. And if I cried or made any fuss about it, I wouldn’t get breakfast, either.”
In my mind, Little Oliver now stood outside of a brightly lit bay window, trying to still a trembling lip as his family dug into steaming bowls of fragrant Chinese food. “Jesus. They didn’t —”
“They did.” He narrowly swerved the Tesla past a Jeep, ignoring the angry honks from the other driver. “Don’t feel sorry for my parents, Helena. They’ve always been like this. They’ve never had a problem cutting things off when I wasn’t doing well.”
I thought of my own mom and dad, cheering my accomplishments on from afar. My mom had recently told me that I was the pride and joy of her office. “Shit, dude. This is all so …”
“Deserved,” he said firmly. “They got what they deserved. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
We fell silent as the city came into view. Ahead was a sign that read Downtown San Francisco / Bay Bridge. Then we were surrounded by tall, twinkling buildings that I would’ve called “skyscrapers” before my extended stay in New York. Oliver slowed the car to a stop in front of a red light, and as I watched a gaggle of kids around our age crossing the street, shouting and laughing, it finally hit me that I was back in San Francisco.
Home. I was home. How strange it was to be here after so long. Just that morning I’d been in New York, stopping for one last coffee at Pret before hopping on the F train to LaGuardia. Now, sitting in the Old Spice-scented cabin, I felt … mentally dizzy. Off-kilter. Nostalgic for New York, Sarasota, those long days writing with Nevaeh. Homesick, almost, for the places I’d left.
“We’re here,” Oliver announced, shifting the car to a stop.
I looked up to see the straight, regal lines of the Art Deco-style tower that housed the Ophelia. In front of it stood a smiling concierge and a valet, both waiting patiently for me and Olier to get out. Across the street was the eighty-six-foot Christmas tree the city put up each year, a gigantic cone decked out in twinkling lights that stood at the center of Union Square like a cheery lighthouse. There was the Macy’s, done up in equally pretty lights; there was the Victoria’s Secret, the Apple Store, the frenzied shoppers hustling about to and fro.
There was that familiar tug of my heart every time I came back to San Francisco — that sense of ownership, of finality. The feeling of being back where I belonged. Confusing, now, on top of everything else. Where were these thoughts coming from? My place was here, in San Francisco, and it wasn’t like Nevaeh was waiting for me in Florida — she’d come back to Stanford weeks ago. I reminded myself to give her a call before the night was over.
“Shall we, milady?”
Oliver stood on the curb, holding a hand out to me, dark eyes shining. “We have ten minutes before the clock chimes midnight.”
I took his hand, stepping out of the car with my head up, putting a little smile on my face as the concierge swung open the brass doors. Now wasn’t the time to be stuck in the past. The only way to move was forward.
A large turquoise bow sat above the entrance of the third elevator in the chrome-and-marble lobby, right atop the plaque that read Ophelia Lounge in flowery Edwardian script. Miniscule pins held up the rippled ends, giving it the effect of fluttering in the breeze.
“Cool coincidence,” I said, studying my reflection in the mirrored elevator as we passed by the third floor, the fifth, the tenth. I was wearing a white pleated dress that Elio had sent as an early present; tied around my waist was a grosgrain bow of the same color. “Do you think they knew it was my birthday tonight?”
Half-joking, of course — the city was filled with up-and-coming founders, and though my name was big, I didn’t think it was enough to warrant entire decorations on my behalf. But maybe … maybe they’d bring out a bottle tied with the same bow? A girl could only dream.
One last glance at myself before we reached the final floor: high ponytail, curled at the ends; red lipstick and winged eyeliner that rivaled the best fifties housewife’s; white dress, turquoise sash, peep-toe sandals revealing my cherry-red manicure. Tiny diamond earrings that glinted this way and that.
“Eight minutes ‘til twenty-one,” Oliver announced as the elevator made its final ding.
The doors opened.
We stepped out.
At first glance, nothing was out of the ordinary. Soft amber lighting, dark blue walls. Two bartenders in suspenders mixed drinks before three shelves of liquor. Classical music played over the speakers: Gymnopedie No. 3, my favorite of the set. The black-and-white tiles were polished, gleaming. Outside the windows, the gigantic Christmas tree continued to sparkle. But the red velvet barstools were all empty, as were all the tables and couches in sight.
“Where is everybody?” I asked Oliver, who stood beside me, surveying the scene. “It’s a Friday night.”
He put his hand on my back, guiding me to one of the barstools. “Have a seat.”
I sat. The stool was soft, more comfy than I’d expected. He took the next seat, facing me, resting the tips of his black leather shoes on my footrest. As if on cue, the bartender closest to me poured out the contents of their silver shaker into a martini glass. Cranberry-colored liquid fizzling, a tiny chunk of lemon on the side. A Cosmopolitan, my favorite drink.
“Technically we still have five minutes, but I don’t think they’d give a shit,” Oliver said, holding out his own drink — whiskey on ice — in a toast. I followed suit, lifting the glass to my lips. The drink was perfect, just sweet enough without being cloying.
Oliver cleared his throat. “Two years ago, we had a joint birthday party to celebrate not only our birthdays, but the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We were celebrating with our collective friends, bringing them together … or so I thought. But I didn’t realize that you were new to the city, that you hadn’t really had time to establish yourself yet. It became all about me, and I’m sorry.”
“Oh, dude,” I said, ignoring the little movement at the corner of my eye. “It’s cool. It’s all in the past. I got over that long ago.”
I still avoided throwing joint parties with him, though, but now wasn’t the time to bring that up.
“Same with the whole Instagram thing,” he continued, as if he hadn’t heard me. “I charged full speed ahead and let you do all of the promotional work without realizing how it made you look. How it made you feel. And all of that rotten ‘girlfriend’ business came out, and I realized it was all my fault —”
“It wasn’t. I overreacted about that.”
“No, you didn’t.” His eyes met mine, and I saw that they were bright, like he’d taken some E and suddenly felt the need to profess how much he loved me. “When you were dealing with all of that sexist bullshit, I just stood by and let you take it. That was super shitty of me, Helena. Because we all know that NipNop wouldn’t be nearly ready to go public without you. You’re not just my, ah, partner — you’re my best friend, my best co-collaborator.”
“Oh, Oliver.” I wondered if he’d actually taken something in the elevator when I wasn’t looking. I’d been so zoned out that he could’ve snorted a line without me noticing. “Thanks. It means a lot, it really does.”
“I wanted to do something to make it up to you. I couldn’t write your book for you, or get you more followers, but I do know how to bring people together.” He showed me his watch, which read 11:59 PM. “And so I planned something …”
Slowly, I looked around. The bartenders were stacking glasses, sorting fruit, idle but trying not to show it. There was that movement, again. This time I turned: nothing, save for a vase of white orchids.
“— all about you, not about me,” Oliver continued.
The flowers …
“— show my appreciation —”
… The bow, the Gymnopedie, the drink …
“— all of your hard work —”
The empty bar …
“— for you.” Oliver downed the rest of the whiskey and set his newly empty glass on the bar with an audible clunk. “So here it is. Happy birthday, Helena.”
The music stopped and the lights dimmed, fading into a soft blue. Then it came on, brighter and brighter, blinking faster and faster until my view of the lounge looked like it was coming through fine static. Through the blinks: people, hordes and hordes of them, all in smart-casual party outfits, streamed into the bar area. I caught a few faces here and there: Elio, Marnie, Andre, some people from NipNop … Nevaeh? I tried to look at all of them, but it was impossible. Then, out of nowhere, came a new song, all smooth vocals layered over an impossibly loud, wall-vibrating, floor-shaking beat:
Baby, you’re like lightning in a bottle
I can’t let you go now that I got it
And all I need is to be struck
By your electric love
“SURPRISE!” Oliver shouted over the noise, jumping onto the bar with both of his hands raised in a universal Time-to-fucking-party gesture. “HAPPY TWENTY-FIRRRRRST, HELENAAAAAAA!”
There the mob was again, turning its collective attention towards me — touching my dress, grabbing at my arms, my legs, the stool, pulling me out towards it —
You make my heart beat like the rain
Hold me deep beneath your weight
— “OLIVER!” I shouted, my voice disappearing into the chaos —
Rushing through me
I feel your energy rushing through me
I feel your energy rushing through me
— Someone took hold of my hands and yanked me off my seat, causing me to stumble into the crowd. Luckily I landed on my feet, wincing as I was suddenly surrounded by a crush of bodies. But they didn’t let go — and it was impossible to tell who it was, amongst the throbbing lights and the mass of people — so I was forced to follow them through the crowd as they dragged me further and further into its pulsing center.