This is the thirty-first chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Remember that dream I had about the Instagram likes devouring me whole?
As I blindly followed the mystery person through the crowd, I recalled it once more: the big tree, Kayleigh’s sharp, cruel laugh, and all of those little red likes swarming me. Sharp. Ravenous. Ready to feast. This time, I was surrounded by friends and people I admired, but I still couldn’t stop the panic from rising in my throat. Being the center of attention on the Internet was one thing. Experiencing it in person was quite another.
Parting through sweaty bodies dancing, stepping on wing-tipped shoes — excuse me, my bad, coming through — waving at people who recognized me, excited faces melting into a blur — oh hey, long time no see, talk to you later — stumbling toward a stairwell with a glowing red EXIT sign hanging above — only going down the stairs in the semi-darkness did I get a glimpse of the person whose cold hand gripped me like a vise. Dark hair gathered up in a poofy bun, hoop earrings that could double as bracelets, a black satin dress that exposed the lower back. Hyacinth perfume.
She pulled me through a frosted door, then let go of my hand so suddenly that I stumbled back a few steps. I blinked, stunned, as I took in my surroundings: black-and-white tiled floor, gilded sinks on smooth marble, two stalls whose doors resembled the one that Nevaeh had just shoved through. A window in the corner revealing the giant Christmas tree in the square. My own reflection in the gleaming mirror above the sinks: flushed face, hair mussed, eyes as big as an anime character’s.
“Are you okay?” Nevaeh asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. She looked even better from the front. Her dress wasn’t black but a dark navy blue, and the velvet choker around her throat held a single sparkling pendant in its center. “How do you feel? Do you want some water?”
I shook my head. The Cosmo was finally starting to hit, making the room around me feel soft, buzzy. Outside, electro-pop faded into a guitar riff I knew from my middle-school days. Elio must’ve had a hand in making the playlist.
I am confident, but I still have my moments
Baby, that’s just me
I’m not a supermodel
I still eat McDonald’s
Baby, that’s just me
“— fucking told Oliver it was a bad idea, and I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t know this was going to happen,” Nevaeh continued, blinking rapidly. “What a selfish douchebag of a person, I swear to the Lord —”
Well, some may say I need to be afraid
Of losing everything
Because of where I had my start and where I made my name
But everything’s the same
In the la la land machine
“Do you need to get out of here?” She paced back and forth, the light making her satin dress appear almost liquid. “We can go back to my place — I’ll pay for the Uber — and drink wine or do shrooms or something. Just say the word and we’ll go.”
I staggered over to the windowsill and half-leaned against it, mind still reeling from the past few minutes. First legal drink. Surprise party. Surprise party that Oliver had planned — maybe with help? Nevaeh in that gorgeous outfit, appearing out of nowhere. Dragging me to the bathroom, where I now sat. Away from people. Away from everyone. Refuge. Privacy?
“Hellooo? Earth to Helena?” Nevaeh waved her hand in front of my face. “You good? Talk to me.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m good.” My voice sounded raspy. Underused. “I’m good,” I repeated. “I think I’m just a little …” Overwhelmed? Shocked? “… out of it.”
“Do you want to leave?”
“No, I think … I think I’m fine.” I hoisted myself onto the windowsill, straightening out my back. “Surprise party, huh? Color me sufficiently surprised.”
“Dude, I literally told Oliver that this was a bad idea, but he wouldn’t listen. Now there’s a surprise.” Nevaeh rolled her eyes. “He made me promise not to tell you, but that was obviously a mistake. I’m sorry. I should’ve let you know as soon as I found out.”
“Don’t worry about it. I just wasn’t expecting it is all. Does my hair look okay?” I took out my phone and smoothed out my ponytail, using the front-facing selfie camera as a mirror. “How many people are here, anyway?”
“Dunno, like seventy maybe? A hundred? They’re definitely breaking a fire code violation or something.” Nevaeh looked me up and down. “You sure you’re okay? I can go grab you some water —”
The door swung open with a crash, revealing Oliver with his arm around the shoulders of a giggling Elio. Both of them were red-faced, bright-eyed. Elio wore a forest-green vest over a black T-shirt and ripped skinny jeans, his curly brown hair loose around his face.
Tell me, do you feel the way I feel?
Cause nothing else is real
In the la la land appeal
“HELENA HOLLLLLLLLLLOWAY!” Oliver boomed, filling the room with the smell of Old Spice. “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? IZZZZZ YOUR BIRTHDAAAAAYYYYYYY —”
Elio ducked free, putting his index finger to his lips in an exaggerated manner. “SHHHHHHH! Inside voice,” he hissed.
“Helena and I are having a private conversation,” Nevaeh snapped.
Oliver made a pfft noise. “Nuhhhh-vay-uhhhh. Come onnnn. It’s Helena’s birthday, she’s twenty-one. Let her have some fun. Don’t be such a spoily-sport.”
“I’d rather be a spoily-sport than host a party without someone’s consent,” Nevaeh retorted. “For someone who claims to be one of her best friends, you should know that Helena hates parties. Especially ones where she’s forced to be the center of attention.”
“It’s her birthday! She’s the guest of honor.” Oliver narrowed his eyes at Nevaeh, all signs of previous inebriation gone. “She told me that she wanted a party like this two years ago — don’t you remember, Helena? You said that you wanted to have a celebration that was all about you, at the Ophelia, with all the people who you loved. Tell her! We talked about it, and I’ve been planning it since.”
Fuck, he was right. I vaguely recalled sitting with him in the tower shortly after our joint party, guzzling wine and loudly describing what an ideal birthday party should be. Oliver had not only remembered, but actually made it happen? “I … wow. I don’t know what to say.”
“You can say to her that I’m not committing a heinous crime by making your dreams come true.”
I turned to Nevaeh. “He’s right. I’m sorry. I low-key forgot that we had that conversation.”
She threw her hands up. “Okay, whatever. Clearly I was in the wrong here for trying to make sure that you were all good. I’ll see myself out.” Without looking at me, she pushed past Elio, leaving the door swinging behind her.
Well, I’m not gonna change
In a la la land machine
Well, I will stay the same
In la la land
“Wait!” I got to my feet, but by the time I reached the staircase, there was no one there save for a gay couple I vaguely recognized from Instagram, taking kissing selfies against the wall. They’d been among the ones I’d oopsies-see-you-latered on my way down.
“Let her go,” Oliver said, resting a hand on my shoulder. “You can catch up with her later. Or maybe she chilled out on the way up and decided to stay for drinks, in which you can still catch up with her later. Right now, you’ve got a party to attend.”
He was right. It was too late to pick her out of a crowd. Best to leave Nevaeh be until everything else was sorted out. Plus, it was my birthday. The music had gotten to me. Now, all I wanted to do was to down two more drinks and dance until my feet were too swollen for my shoes.
I won’t change anything in my life
(I won’t change anything in my life!)
I’m staying myself tonight
(I’m staying myself tonight!)
“Shall we?” Elio asked, holding out an arm.
I looked up the stairs again. The couple was now scrolling through the pictures they’d just taken, determining which ones to post. A new song was coming through the speakers. But Nevaeh — she’d gone out of her way to see that I was all right. Maybe I should go after her now and do the same to her?
Then again, I had two other best friends here, ready to party with me.
“You ready?” Elio repeated.
I nodded and looped my arm through his, grabbing Oliver’s with the other, the three of us ascending the stairs like Musketeers.
“I call it the ‘Helena Holloway,’” Andre said, pushing toward me the cordial glass he’d just topped off. The pale liquid inside sloshed dangerously close to the edge, threatening to spill over. “One of my originals.”
I lifted the glass and held it up to the light. Cut from crystal, it resembled a doll’s wine goblet, or something an aristocrat would do shots from. He watched me, pale eyes nearly disappearing into their meaty face. At some point, he’d stripped off their dinner jacket and taken over the bar. Judging from the people crowding around the marble counter, jostling over the seats, he wasn’t half bad at what they were doing. Of course, as the birthday girl, I had the best spot smack dab in the middle of the action, with a full view of those pretty lit-up liquor bottles on the back shelves.
Andre tapped his fingers impatiently on the counter. “Come on, hurry up, I’ve got to see what you think,” they said. “I spent a week perfecting it just for tonight. I think it could be a real hit.”
Two hours had passed since I’d walked up the stairs with Elio and Oliver — two hours in which I’d consumed another Cosmopolitan, two Moscow Mules, a half shot of some Russian drink that Marnie called a Nastoyka, and a flute of fizzy champagne. The room was glowing now, pulsing, the conversations blending into one another and becoming a living being all its own. I was barefoot for some reason. Hopefully, I hadn’t thrown my heels off the roof. It was a long way down from the twenty-sixth floor. Somehow, my turquoise bow was intact, still snug around my waist, barely wilted. Perhaps grosgrain just had good staying power. Nevaeh would find that funny.
Oh God, Nevaeh —
I tipped the glass back and swallowed hard, not wanting to think about Nevaeh anymore. Going against Oliver’s advice, I’d circled the bar and its surrounding areas, hoping to pick my best friend out from the crowds of revelers. No such luck. She was gone, again. I had failed to go after her, again. Hopefully this wasn’t becoming a pattern.
The sweetness hit me first. Sweetness and light, peachy and fresh. Then, almost out of nowhere: sharp, stinging liquor, pungent like nail polish remover, straight past my tongue and down my gullet.
I blinked a few times before making an involuntary retching noise. “Andre, fuck! What the hell was that?”
“You like it?” A grin parted his sweaty cheeks, revealing a row of chiseled white teeth. “Like I said, it’s an original. A Helena Holloway. Triple sec up top, peach schnapps keeping the peace, and at last vodka on the bottom, packing the punch. Sweet at first then knocks you down flat — bam! — out of nowhere.” He batted their nonexistent eyelashes at me. “Just like the real you.”
See, there’s a reason why I’ve only mentioned Andre in passing until now. It’s because he’s a huge douchebag who isn’t worth the shit that comes out of their asshole. No joke. He left the company shortly after I did and now stars in their own reality show off the Florida coast, where he gives a different masc syphilis every week.
Joking! About the syphilis part, at least. I hope.
Anyway, back to the party. “Thank you,” I said sweetly, pushing the little glass back towards Andre, its delicate charm now ruined.
“What, you don’t think it’s good? I actually spent time working on it.” He stuck out their bottom lip.
“Give it to someone who actually wants to throw up tonight,” I said, hopping off my velvet stool. The scene around me faded in and out like a slow stop-motion film. Snap. there was Andre, turning to talk to Elio at the bar. Snap. Marnie, blowing me a kiss as she led that one diplomat’s daughter — what’s-her-face, I couldn’t remember now — out to the open-air terrace. Snap. Oliver, in front of me suddenly, holding a package wrapped awkwardly in newspaper. The smell of Old Spice, thick in the air again.
Snap. Walking through the crowd again.
Snap. Now we were on the terrace too, but alone — how did that happen? — and Oliver was saying something again, pushing the package into my arms, his breath making billowing puffs into the frozen air.
Snap. My hands fumbling at the paper, ripping the layers back as though it were a giant onion, nails scraping against something hard inside. Snap. Oliver reaching out to take whatever it was before it slipped through my arms. Snap. Paper gone, out of sight out of mind, in my hands a porcelain dish bordered in floral. Another Harvard plate, red this time.
“Whazdiz, Olly, I holy shitttt …” Words weren’t coming out properly. With great care, I set the plate down on the table next to me. “Thaaaaank you.”
“Happy birthday, Helena.” Oliver, dangerously close, looking right into my eyes. Both his hands holding mine — how had that happened? — leaning in, whispering —
“You didn’t have to lie to me.”
Snap. My feet taking an involuntary step back, cramping up on the icy tiles. No, no, I had to stay here. Stay present, I willed myself, sucking in as much air my lungs could hold. Perhaps the sudden cold could jar me back into sobriety. Come on, come on! I couldn’t go into a serious conversion like this, I just couldn’t.
“I dunno whayour talkinbout,” I said to Oliver, trying to focus on his four shifting eyes. Behind him a poppy remix of a sad Hunter White song pounded on, all synths and drumbeats. Above us the sky was a blue, blue, dark blue indigo velvet. Blue velvet! What a classic song. Bobby Vinton. Man, I should have worn blue velvet to my twenty-first. Who the fuck in their right mind wore white in December?
“Helena, seriously. You don’t have to pretend. I know that you lost the Harvard plate. It’s totally cool, see? I just wish that you didn’t feel like you had to make up some story.” He blurred slightly, breaking into two for a brief moment before consolidating back into a single form. “Okay, let’s have this conversation when you’re sober. I’m feeling another drink anyways.”
Another drink. Ooh. Yes! I wasn’t sure if it was the best idea considering how spinny I felt at the moment, but the thought of another Nastoyka or Cuba Libre. Had I had one of those yet tonight? Hell, even another Helena Holloway sounded great. Legal now, I was legal now and I would be forever and could get like this for the rest of my life if I wanted to.
“Lezzzzzzzgo,” I said aloud before looking around and realizing that I was quite alone. Oliver had disappeared sometime in the last few seconds. He must’ve brushed past me when I was deep in thought.
Well, what the fuck. First Nevaeh, now Oliver too. I blew air out of my nostrils, enjoying the way it billowed out like a cloud, before tucking the new Harvard plate under my arm and setting off in search of another drink.
“Hold out your drink a little higher. Higher. Perfect! And now we —”
Off went the camera flash, temporarily blinding me. The hipster-looking femboy I’d appointed as my party photographer sprang up from the floor, dusted himself off, and handed my phone back to me. “Check these out. I think they’re absolutely divine.”
I swiped through the photos, nodding in approval. There I was, toasting the camera in front of a red velvet couch, the city aglow behind me. My still-pristine white dress popped against the darkened background; my skin glowed in front of the black-and-white checkered floor. I had to hand it to this guy — he knew what he was doing. He’d even managed to capture the little smile on my face: tipsy enough to be having a good time, it said, but not so drunk that I’m sloppy.
“If you like those, hit me up sometime,” he said, sliding a shiny business card on top of my phone. “I’m trying to get into influencer photography. You know, for fashion bloggers and stuff. I’d do your Instagram photos for free.”
Tobin McAdams (he/him), Photographer, read the card. Fashion, Parties, Album Covers. Appointments by Instagram DM. Off to the side was a moody photo of him leaning against the wall of a subway station in a tiny green nightgown and heavy Doc Martens.
“Wow, I didn’t know that you two were acquainted,” came a third voice. Marnie strode over to us in a boxy red romper, a wild look in her eyes. I wondered whom she’d sweet-talked into the bathroom stall downstairs. One of the waitresses? Some swimsuit model? Nevaeh, provided she was still at the party?
“Tobin shot my latest book cover,” she informed me. “I think you guys would really get along, actually. But you should talk later. Helena, you’re wanted outside, like, right now.”
“What’s outside?” Tobin asked, peering past Marnie’s shoulder. “I’ll turn into an icicle if I step out like this.”
“And miss it? I don’t think so.” Marnie took hold of my wrist, and for the second time that night, I found myself being led through my own party like a show pony. “You’ve got alcohol layers, no? You’re not going to want to miss this. It’s a birthday gift.”
Great. Another gift. My opinion about surprises had consistently soured throughout the evening. What I wouldn’t give to be in my tower with a single vanilla candle burning on the nightstand, editing photos and planning captions for the upcoming week. My swollen feet pulsed as I walked with Marnie to the terrace, Tobin trailing behind us like an iPhone paparazzo.
Once we were through the doorway, it became clear why the couch area had been so empty. Everyone was gathered on the balcony, jostling to get the spots nearest to the edge, iPhones held out in front of them like butterfly nets. What were they on about?
“Coming through!” bellowed Marnie, making widening motions with her free arm like she was about to part the Red Sea. “Make way for the birthday girl! She needs the prime spot at the front. Yes, Todd, that means you need to get the fuck out of the way. Yes, exactly like that.”
She pushed me into the center, so that I could see all the way down to the street below. At first, there was nothing out of the ordinary: just cars and pedestrians speeding on by, yellowed out under the streetlights. Then my eyes locked onto a single figure, a tiny two-legged ant in a blue puffy jacket that seemed to be getting bigger by the second. It was a person climbing up the side of the building with their bare hands, no protective gear in sight. At one point they stopped and I thought they were going to get down, but they just adjusted the band around their head with one hand and kept going.
“Fuckin’ hell,” someone said beside me, holding their phone above them to capture the full height of the building. “My palms are sweaty just watching.”
They were right. I stood, unable to tear my eyes away, thoughts of the cold and my aching feet completely forgotten. A wobbly, ticklish sensation appeared in my stomach. I gripped the railing with shaking hands, suddenly lightheaded.
Three floors. Four floors. Five floors. Six. By the time they reached the tenth story, I could make out their facial features: thick brown eyebrows, freckled cheeks, a grin that rivaled the local hooligan’s back home.
Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. When there was only one level left between her and the rooftop, her hand slipped. The smile dropped from her face, replaced by an O of surprise.
“They’re gonna fall!” wailed someone from my other side. “Someone get the manager!”
Cairee’s remaining fingers curled around the brick, knuckles turning white. For a precarious few seconds she hung there, long pigtails blowing back in the wind. Then she swung her other hand up, jumping almost, the smile back on her face. Gotcha.
People started to cheer. I let my breath go in a slow woosh. Cairee scaled the remaining floor and vaulted over the edge, landing with a soft thud right in front of me. No Marnie required to part the crowd for her — she made her own entrance. She bowed to the audience, whose whistles and applause only intensified, before walking up and giving me an icy kiss on the cheek.
“Happy birthday, Helena,” she said breathlessly.
She smelled like wind and fresh air; her own cheeks resembled ripe apples, shiny and red. The thing strapped to her forehead was a GoPro, I realized, and it was recording. I quickly turned my scowl into what I hoped would be a passable smile.
“Thank you,” I said as graciously as I could muster. “That was certainly … an entrance.”
“Sorry to be so fashionably late,” she said, her voice carrying over the still night now that everyone had finally hushed up. From her backpack came a flat rectangular package wrapped in paper the same color as her jacket. “I was picking this up! Things got kinda rushed in the end with the holidays and all. You know how it goes.”
The holidays were twenty days away. She had to be making things up. “What’s this?” I asked, holding up the present.
“O-pen it! O-pen it!” someone started shouting. The chant spread through the crowd until everyone was screaming like a demented cheerleader. “O-pen it! O-pen it! O-pen it! O-pen it!”
Fine. If they wanted me to, then fine. Smile stiffly plastered onto my face, I tore into the obnoxious M&M-blue paper, ripping it away shred by shred. At least Cairee had gotten it professionally gift-wrapped — mummified by tape, it was not — and soon I found myself holding a hardcover coffee-table book, the heavy kind that indicated fancy paper. On the cover was a bird’s-eye shot of Cairee climbing up a bright red crane, a glass-and-chrome city behind her. Laid over the picture in blocky yellow letters were the words Always Looking Up.
“It’s an advance copy!” chirped the real-life Cairee. “I’ve mostly got pictures in there, but I also talk about getting over my fear of heights and things like that.” She took the book from me and flipped open to the dedication page: To Helena, for paving the way.
“I was so inspired by the article that Lia Townsend wrote about you, being the heroine of your own story and all,” she said. “Plus, NipNop helped me grow my audience tenfold. When you said that you were writing a book, I thought ‘why not?’ and plunged right in.”
A flash went off from somewhere behind me. I could taste the dill from the Nastoykas coming back up. Just pictures, just a coffee table book … but still a book, still a published thing, an accomplishment. I didn’t even have edits back on my manuscript yet. If Cairee already had copies to give to people she barely knew, then she was way ahead.
The black-and-white tiles and the night sky and all the guests in their utterly weather-inappropriate outfits spun faster. A grip, I needed to get a grip. I could dig into this situation later. Right now, I had to keep my mouth from filling with saliva, because what happened next was always —
“Are you okay?” Cairee asked, the earnestly smug look on her face shifting to one of concern.
I put up a hand to tell her that yes, I was fine and would like her to leave immediately, thanks — then stumbled to the edge, sweaty hands on the brick walls. Everyone was clamoring, someone was touching my arm, pulling back my hair.
“You’ve had too much,” an unfamiliar voice said in my ear. “Let it go. It’s okay. Let it all go.”
I swallowed. The saliva eased up a bit. No, I could handle this. I had this, I had this, I —
With exceptional force, my stomach heaved up its contents: cocktails now garnished with stomach acid, goopy chunks of hams and salamis I’d snatched from various charcuterie boards. A nightmarish reddish-pink slime, headed straight for the group of unfortunate individuals lined up in front of the Ophelia.
“Oh shit,” said Cairee, glancing down. “Let me go get someone to —”
A bottle of water, shoved into my hands. I waved it away.
“My phone,” I croaked. “I need my phone.”
No response. “My phone,” I said louder.
My phone, appearing suddenly. I snapped a blurry selfie and sent it to Nevaeh. Nevaeh, I need you. Please come back and get me.