This is the thirty-third chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
My biggest flaw is probably my utter lack of sensitivity.
“Helena has great ideas, but she lacks tact,” my seventh-grade history teacher wrote after I’d won a devastating debate against one of the shyer girls in my class. She’d tried to say that it was impossible for transgender men to get pregnant, and who would I be if I just stood by without making sure that people knew the truth? Sure, my directness has made me a few enemies, but NipNop wouldn’t be nearly as great if I were nicer. The world of business is filled with people who want to step all over you. Startups especially. You have to be willing to put people back in their places.
For some reason, though, this directness did not extend to my relations with Nevaeh. I was astonishingly gentle with her, careful to not say things that would upset her or do things that pissed her off. Around her, I was encouraging, deferential — the sweet friend that opened doors and hyped her up. She took care of me, too, giving me a safe space to bounce my ideas off of and pulling me out of trouble whenever I got myself in too deep.
We’d had our rough patches, like that time in LA, that taught me Nevaeh wasn’t the type to explode in public, or to call me out at all, really. Rather, she sought space when upset, proffering the cold shoulder treatment until she was ready to forgive. That was fine, for the most part. But this time was different — I literally had no idea what I’d done. Plus, there was the fact that she wanted to “take a break” after I’d basically set her up for life. The audacity!
I couldn’t let her off so easily when there was so much money at stake. She owed me an explanation at the very least, and I was going to get it.
The redwood trees cast a shadow over Oliver’s Tesla as I guided it into one of the student-only parking spaces on campus. It was unseasonably warm out — but then again, the weather at Stanford was almost always temperate, a far cry from foggy San Francisco. The breeze was warm on my bare legs, ruffling the skirts of the pink floral dress I’d worn to fool myself into thinking that spring was just around the corner.
“Nevaeh,” I said to the air, walking briskly toward the row of themed undergraduate houses out by the back. “We have to talk.” Practice, for later. I often talked to myself in preparation for serious conversations. But what would I say if she asked what I wanted to talk about? Your weird, aggressive text? Too desperate. Why you keep avoiding me? Too needy. I haven’t seen you in a while and I missed you? True, but missing a crucial part: I was here to get answers.
Why was I so tongue-tied all of a sudden? I, who’d bluffed my way into a two-million-dollar book deal? Ridiculous. I walked faster, my heels wobbling on the fallen pine needles. I was psyching myself out. I’d think of something clever to say on the spot. I always did.
Nevaeh lived in Madingley House, a themed residence for undergraduate writers. After seven semesters of being fucked over by the housing lottery, she’d finally been rewarded a private room. Madingley was three stories tall and beautiful, all white with black window shutters and a wraparound porch. It looked like it had been transported straight from the Hamptons in its Sunday best, nothing like the yellow-hued monstrosities on the Main Quad.
A single forest-green Doc Marten propped open the front door. Fortunately, nobody was on the porch — I’d been dreading any forced conversation with my former classmates — and I was able to slip in without notice. Inside, a grimy chandelier cast a dark orange hue over miscellaneous chairs and couches that looked like they’d been rescued from the dumpster. A bulletin board in the back of the room held a few colorful advertisements. Nothing Like Them: A Reading. Join the Super Gay Writing Club today! Marco Angelo on the art of believable horror.
I shuddered and headed straight for the staircase around the back. If this was where I’d be otherwise, I was glad that I’d dropped out.
The entrance to Nevaeh’s room was nestled in a tiny alcove on the very top story, her name printed on a navy blue book cover on the door. Cute. I vaguely recalled her saying something about how the Madingley RAs had gone out of their way to make those nameplates. She’d wondered if it was bad luck to have your name on a cover before you’d written anything. Clearly this didn’t count.
I knocked loudly, hands suddenly clammy. Would Nevaeh be hostile? Confused? Glad to see me?
No reply. I knocked again. Still nothing.
Damn it, I was getting tired of this cat-and-mouse shit. Where could she be at this time of day? I knew that she was close with a few people in the house, but two PM on a Tuesday was a weird time to be out, especially for someone like her.
The doorknob turned easily when I tried it, and I found myself in Nevaeh’s room for the first time that year. It was the size of the shittiest all-gender bathroom at NipNop and painted a less cute shade of cream. The essential-oil diffuser I’d gotten her for her twenty-first birthday sat on her windowsill, blowing out a puff of steam as if saying hello. I wrinkled my nose at the sudden stench of lavender. Indie-movie posters hung on the stark white walls: Auteur. Women Who Love Women Who Love Recycling. Mr. Nobody. An oversized Jared Leto glared down at me from his perch across the room as I plopped my ass down on her soft duvet cover. Have you made the right choices? he seemed to ask. I don’t think so.
Nevaeh’s diary lay face-down in the middle of her otherwise pristine desk, a black InkJoy gel pen a few inches away. My fingers twitched in my lap. So she still actively wrote in that thing, dangerous as it was. How many times had I told her that it wasn’t the best idea to pour her heart out into a physical object? She’d be giving up her secrets so easily …
… to people like me. That kelly-green fabric cover, a little worn with age, IDEAS stamped in gold foil sans serif on the front just inviting me to pick it up, to leaf through those creamy pages filled with her neat blocky handwriting …
A second passed. Two. I slid off the bed and made my way over to the desk. My heart pounded in my chest. Fuck Helena, I imagined her writing. Stupid, cold, inconsiderate bitch.
My hands touched the cover —
I leapt back, my left heel scraping against the side of my leg so hard that tears came to my eyes. Great. That was definitely going to leave a mark later.
“AAHHheyy,” I managed, swallowing back the scream that threatened to burst out from my throat. Nevaeh leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over her chest, the rock-climbing shoes in her hands bleeding chalk all over the front of her black tennis dress. Her hair was up in two puffy pigtails, her sea-glass eyes narrowing even further as she looked from me to her desk and back.
“What are you doing?”
I gingerly rubbed at my leg with the front of my other foot. “You weren’t answering my texts so I came looking for you, and your door was open and —”
“And so you broke into my room?”
“We have to talk.” I crossed my arms, too, mirroring her stance. “What was that last text about? Taking a break? We’ve just made it! And We Weren’t Like is getting internationally published! And all of a sudden you just don’t want to talk anymore? You need to tell me what’s going on.”
“Dude, you’re technically trespassing right now.” Nevaeh stomped across the room and dropped the shoes in a dusty corner. “Please don’t make me call an RA.”
“Stop changing the subject,” I snapped. “I came because this is important. You’re important, and you’re not even going to tell me why you’re mad at me?”
“I’m serious, Helena. Get out. Now.”
“Is this about the party? I’m sorry that I left you in the bathroom. I was just really overwhelmed, and I hadn’t seen Oliver or Elio in a while, and it was shitty of me to ditch you like that. I’m sorry, Nevaeh. You know I didn’t mean it. We’re finally about to get published! We should be celebrating —”
“You’re about to get published.” Nevaeh closed her eyes and sighed, rubbing her temples in a slow, circular motion. “My name doesn’t get to be on the cover, remember?”
“Well, yeah, but that was part of the agreement. Isn’t fifty percent of everything enough?”
“I need to shower.” She grabbed an electric blue towel from her closet, slipping her bare feet into a pair of flip-flops by the door. “Climbing fucking sucked today. That same asshole who refused to let me join the team told me that I couldn’t be at the wall during private practice time.”
Oh, right. Nevaeh was still salty about not making the Stanford climbing team. I faintly recalled her saying something about leveling up on her own to beat them at competitions. She’d blamed her shitty audition on being out of practice, on the lack of bouldering walls in Sarasota. Wasn’t it a worthy sacrifice for writing a sure-to-be bestseller?
I caught her arm as she turned toward the still-open door. “Tell me what I did wrong. Please. I hate playing guessing games, especially with you.”
“And I hate having to force the truth out of you.” Nevaeh wrenched herself free and paused, back turned to me. “How many times have you lied to me, Helena? Five times? Ten?”
“Lied to you about what?” I shoved past her, marching into the hallway before turning back towards her. “Just fucking tell me to my face.”
“You’re in my way.”
What did I lie to you about? What did I do wrong?” My voice quivered. I blinked, surprised at the sudden stinging in my eyes. “I thought that you were proud of what we made.”
“Proud of what we made.” She smacked her lips together as if tasting the words. “Would you say that you’re proud of spying on all of your users? That that’s something you’re proud you made, too?”
“Spying on all of my users?” I tilted my head to the side. Was she on something?
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” she said. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. I even asked you about it once on the balcony, remember? You said, and I quote, ‘if this thing is real, then I’ve heard nothing about it.’”
If this thing is real.
“Are you talking about … God View?” My voice squeaked on the last syllable. Oh fuck, oh fuck.
Nevaeh raised both eyebrows at me, not saying a word.
Fuck. This must’ve been what she’d been talking to Andre about at my party. She was right, I had denied the existence of God View outright, but what other choice did I have? I’d signed an ironclad NDA before coming onboard.
“Dude, you have to understand … I couldn’t tell you about something like that. I was — I am — under contract. Andre shouldn’t have said anything, either.” I was babbling; this conversation was veering off-track, fast. I cleared my throat, determined to bring it back to the topics I’d rehearsed on the walk over. “Why didn’t you just ask me about this earlier? My party was weeks ago.”
“The fact that you’re not even bothering to apologize says a lot. And you denied it to my face when I asked you directly.” She closed her eyes, then opened them again slowly. “What else have you fucking lied to me about?”
“Nevaeh, God View is a company secret,” I repeated. “I’m under NDA. Andre really shouldn’t have said anything —” A horrible thought went through my mind. “— and you shouldn’t either, okay? Please.” Andre may have been legally required to keep his mouth shut, but Nevaeh wasn’t under any restrictions. If any of this got out …
“I don’t even know what to say.” Nevaeh’s eyes bore into mine. “God, people warned me about you, and —”
“— and I chose to fucking ignore them because I loved you.” She slid down the doorframe until she sat on the ground, caught between her room and the hallway. “God, I’m a fucking idiot. The very definition of insanity. It’s the same fucking thing again and again. I can’t do it anymore.”
“It wasn’t even my idea to make God View,” I said, the pitch of my voice rising even higher. “I swear. It was already a thing when I joined. I had to ask to be put on it. And it wasn’t even all bad. Like, really! It pretty much inspired me to create Stories.”
Nevaeh’s head dropped between her legs. Her back rose and fell from the huge gasps of air she took, as if she’d just been resuscitated from an uncertain death. She was mumbling something so softly that I couldn’t catch it.
“What did you say?” I asked, squatting down so that I was on her level.
She let out a long sniffle.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Nevaeh —”
“Don’t! Don’t touch me.” She lifted her head, blinking the last of the tears from her face. “I can’t be with someone who lies for a living, okay? It’s actively making me sick. I’ve got all these stomach problems now, I’m in pain all the time, I can’t sleep. I’ve missed my period two times in a row. I’ve been to the Health Center three times in the last week and they can’t find anything wrong with me. But I know, Helena. It’s you. You’re making me sick. The lies, I can’t …”
“I’m the one making you sick?” I stood back up. Something began to curdle inside of me as I stared down at Nevaeh’s balled-up form. Why was I always the one bending over backwards, making sacrifices just so her fragile little self could feel more comfortable. Why couldn’t she just skip the cryptic shit and just tell me what was up?
“Why do you always assume that I’m acting in bad faith?” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry that I’m such a fucking liar, that I can’t be as pure as you. I work in business. We have to get ahead somehow. God View was Andre’s idea; it was so that we could see what users might like better.”
“To see what users might like …” Nevaeh blinked. “Jesus. That’s just about the worst excuse I’ve ever heard.
“It’s not just that,” she went on. “It’s the whole Oliver thing, too. Do you know how it makes me feel, keeping that kind of secret from people? How it affects me? When people ask me about you two. It happens, you know! In case you don’t realize, people know who you are and they know that we hang out. It fucking kills me, Helena, to have to lie for you. I did it because I loved you. But it’s killing me, it’s killing me.”
“That was for —” I began.
“— the company, I know, but what about my feelings?” Nevaeh’s voice was soft. “What about Oliver’s, and Ben’s? Success isn’t everything.
“I’ve tried to understand, but you know what? The more I think about it, the more I’m glad I don’t. I could never be like you, living like this.” She took another jittery breath. “I’ve never met someone like you, never felt something as intense as this, so I held on, but I just. Cannot. Do it. Any. Longer. It hurts too much.”
“What are you saying?” I asked, my voice cracking. I thought back to the promise I’d made to her on the beach. I will never leave you behind, I’d said. Didn’t that sort of thing go both ways?
“I —” Nevaeh’s face crumbled, snot and tears giving her face a gummy, shiny effect. Goddammit, she was still a prettier crier than me. “I don’t think I can talk to you anymore. Not while I still have all these strong feelings. It’s too much.” Another long sniff. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone about your stupid thing.” She hastily wiped her face with her hands and got on her feet, leaning on the doorframe for balance. “I don’t even know why, but I won’t. Fuck.”
“I’m happy about the book. Really.” She gave me a wobbly smile. “But I really can’t see you anymore, Helena. It’s just … my mental health. I hope you understand.”
Swear that you won’t leave me again, the way you left me in LA, she’d demanded.
I will never leave you behind, I’d replied.
So this is what that came to. A promise that I couldn’t keep, because she wouldn’t let me keep it. I could see it already, looking back at the moment in the rearview: one martyr and one manipulator, heartless and cold and cruel. No nuance. No context.
The thing inside me continued to sour. Each bone in my spine shifted until my back formed a perfectly straight line. “So much for being my North Star,” I heard myself say. “I’ve never dropped you, you know. You’re the one who constantly does it to me.” I did nothing to keep the venom out of my voice. “I’ll have my lawyer text you about the book.”
Nevaeh stared down at the ground, not saying a word as I turned away. A sickening, white-hot satisfaction rushed through me, but my steps remained measured as I walked down the stairs, chin angled upward. I was glad that anger turned me cold, calm, steady. Clear. I wouldn’t be able to stomach what had just happened otherwise.
The sun had creeped onto the porch while I was inside, and now there were two femmes sprawled out across the front steps. One of them I recognized — it was the blonde who’d worn a top shaped like a giant papier-mâché orchid to our first Advanced Nonfiction class. Today, they were in an oversized tie-dye shirt that read You Don’t Matter, Give Up in Comic Sans font. The other was an Asian femme in a white eyelet dress and fuchsia lipstick.
“Excuse me,” I said, gathering up my skirts so that I wouldn’t hit them on the way down. Please don’t recognize me, please don’t recognize me, please don’t —
The blonde was looking over at me, their head angled backwards. “Damn, speak of the devil. I was just telling my friend here about that essay you wrote on your aesthetic during our first year. It was so good.”
I snuck my best oh-shucks look onto my face. “Oh wow, thanks! That seems like forever ago, doesn’t it?”
“Mm-hmm. I saw your Story about your book and just wanted to say congratulations. That’s fucking huge. I’m, like, so envious.”
“Lia taught me a lot about writing,” I offered generously.
“Can we have a pic?” The blonde nudged her friend. “Avia’s an inspiring influencer! She just got started last month. So it’d be really cool —”
“Of course. Let’s get one in front of the house?” Maybe this wasn’t all bad. Nevaeh had a window that directly faced the lawn. I didn’t check as we snapped away — me with the blonde, then me with the other femme, then all three of us together in a mashed-up selfie situation — but I was willing to bet that she was watching.