This is the thirty-sixth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
If you want a lie to be convincing, mix it up in the truth.
Want your parents to think that you’re at a friend’s house when you’re actually out with that cute girl from your sociology class? Grab brunch with said pal the next day after your walk of shame. Stealing a thirty-four dollar lipstick that has no business being that expensive? Oops, you totally forgot that it was in your pocket. Need to tweak an algorithm so that your NipNop account stays the most popular on the platform? Make sure that it only shows you once every five days to each individual user.
Lying by omission isn’t actually lying. It’s stretching the facts, and stretched facts are still facts. Trust me on this — I would know. Telling half-truths has gotten me out of immeasurable sticky situations with nary a moral quandary. There are more important things that keep me up at night.
After Elio’s changes went live in May, my online growth increased like a bad Hemingway cliché: gradually, then all at once. The night the new code rolled out, I went to sleep with two million followers and woke up with ten thousand new ones. Then thirty thousand. Fifty. A million. Two million. Another two million. After that, Elio limited my exposure to new users to keep things from looking too suspicious. Discovery naturally showed people popular accounts before it knew what they liked. He was just adjusting the amount of truth needed to keep my lie from becoming a lie. It wasn’t like I was forcing anyone to interact with me — all the algorithm did was alert users to my existence. They still had to tap the “Follow” button themselves.
My Instagram numbers followed suit. By the end of June, I had nearly five million followers, all of whom ate up my little anecdotes and life updates like pigeons around an abandoned piece of avocado toast.
— Me clutching a bouquet of yellow daisies at a New York City bodega, the pleated skirt of my salmon-colored chiffon dress blowing in the breeze: Back in my fav East Coast hangout for some publishing meetings! My literary baby has an official due date: JULY 27, 2017. If you’re thinking that that’s a long time from now, I’m with ya. Who knew that it could take a full seventeen months for a fully finished manuscript to turn into a book? Certainly not me. But delayed gratification is a joy all its own, and I promise that And We Weren’t Like will be worth the wait.
— Marnie and me, both dressed in magenta, sitting side-by-side in a baby pink hot-air balloon seat at NipNop headquarters, holding identical strawberry green teas: Chatted with @marnietuckersfinsta last week about NipNop’s brand new boba bar, my collection of princess-cut coats, consensual non-monogamy, and big plans for the future. If you’ve been looking for something of mine to read RIGHT NOW, this is it. Full interview in @dialoguemagazine today! Link in my bio.
— A full-skirted white dress on a mannequin in my room, orange and green grapes embroidered along the square neckline: Any guesses on where I’m headed this weekend with the rest of the @nipnop exec team? This dress should give you a hint 😉
— A balcony view of sprawling vineyards at sunrise: Five hundred NipCoin to everyone who guessed Napa Valley! (Just kidding, NipCoin isn’t a real thing … unless? 😳👉👈) Here for a weekend summit with my fellow founders to talk strategy while wine-drunk. The dream!! And yes, we’re in St. HELENA for a reason. Andre says I’m no saint, but I never claimed to be one …
If we’re telling the whole truth here, I’d only posted that morning-sunrise picture because I hadn’t been able to sleep. The conversation Andre and I had had in the hallway the night before kept looping over in my head, causing me to kick at the covers while muttering fuckfuckfuckfuck under my breath. Attempting to mindlessly scroll through my various social media feeds only reminded me of the awful things he’d said to me, the thinly-veiled threat he’d made before bidding me good night. Rat bastard. Finally, I’d given up and pulled open the curtains. Moments like these were what extra-coverage concealer was for.
It was early afternoon now. I sat shotgun in Oliver’s Tesla with the windows down, belting out my favorite country tunes as Elio harmonized from the backseat. The four of us were headed to a tasting at Svengali Estates, and I couldn’t wait to be woozy and numb. My hair whipped around my face in loose curls; large sunglasses sat firmly over half my face, shielding me from the sun and any keen observers. Mental health insurance.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye like the back of my hand
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
A better man
Oliver rolled his eyes good-naturedly, making a show of turning up the volume on his headphones. Through the side mirror I could see Elio, eyes shut as our voices intermingled with one another’s.
And it’s always on your terms
I’m hanging on every careless word
Hoping it might turn sweet again
Like it was in the beginning
I’d wanted to climb into the back with him, but Andre had given me such a pointed look that I’d decided the passenger seat wasn’t that bad after all. Best be careful now, that look said. I know what you’re hiding.
He had found me tiptoeing back from Elio’s room late last night after a long session of user-experience testing. The video game Elio showed me last year — the one where users constructed their own world out of blank space — was almost ready to ship. I’d been making little suggestions along the way, urging Elio to add additional clothing styles, skin tones, and potential gender presentations for the main character. That night, we sat in his queen-sized hotel bed, trying out all the new changes and brainstorming new ones. It was so cool to see his — our — ideas come to life. 6 PM easily turned to midnight. The next time I glanced over at Elio’s wrist, his Apple watch read 2:31 AM.
“Oh, shit.” I pushed aside the fluffy white duvet, goosebumps rising as my legs met the chilly conditioned air. “There are, like, six hours before brunch. We should probably get some sleep if we want to make it on time.”
“Mm, yeah.” He stifled a yawn with his hand. “Or we can each pop an Addy and stay up all night.”
I eyed the memory foam mattress, the paused game on Elio’s MacBook screen, Elio himself in a too-small Treehacks 2014 shirt, feather-duster lashes blinking up at me. What I really wanted to do was get back in bed and work on the game until we both fell asleep, but I couldn’t think of how to propose that without sounding weird. “I’ve been doing too much Adderall lately,” I said. Another half-truth. “I’ll see you later.”
I’d barely made it three steps into the corridor when Andre’s Crossfit-toned body appeared like an apparition in the corner. “Aah!” I yelped before realizing who it was. My hand was still on my chest, feeling my heart fluttering in my ribcage.
“That’s not your room,” he said, moving to occupy the middle of the candlelit hallway. Their greasy hair was held up by a tortoiseshell clip, eyes pitch-colored in the dim light. “You don’t strike me as the type to do late-night visits.”
I glanced back at Elio’s hotel-room door, one over from Oliver’s. “I was in the zone,” I said. We’d created a room based on the office’s new carousel bar; my head was still filled with images of pink hot-air balloons and purple fruit teas. “If you’ll excuse me —”
Andre made no effort to get out of the way. “Do you have a few minutes?”
I feigned a yawn. “I’m tired. Just stop by my office on Monday. My calendar should show all the times I’m free.”
“I just want to tell you to be careful with Elio. We’re supposed to set a good example as leadership.” The faded letters on Andre’s Stanford Finance Club T-shirt were starting to crack. What was with techies and wearing old swag as pajamas? I slept in a rotation of carefully curated pastel nightgowns from the 1950s.
“Careful about what? You didn’t like my last Nop?” It had been a video recording of Elio’s screen, showing an animation where the main character slowly melted into a puddle of wax. Wicked Witch of the West Coast, I’d captioned it.
He shook his head. “People have eyes, Helena. And what those eyes see is a member of the executive team getting awfully cozy with another co-founder who isn’t her boyfriend. It’s not great. Shit like this could get back to the board.”
I glared at them. “What, are the Board of Directors our parents now? Oliver and I aren’t exclusive anymore. If I wanted a daddy dom, I’d just patronize a local sex club.” Then another thought occurred to me. “If you’re so concerned, why aren’t you giving this so-called warning to Elio as well?”
“Because Elio isn’t dating Oliver.”
“Me and Elio aren’t even … we’re working on a project together right now, okay? We’re co-founders.” I drew the last word out, staring down my nose at Andre as if he were a simpleton. Which, I mean. “We have ideas and we work on them together. Like Stories and Discovery. Remember those?”
Andre leaned their elbow against the rose-print wallpaper, studying me. “I’m just saying. You don’t need to be cozying up in the lunch line or staying up past 1 AM together on an offsite retreat. You never know who may be around.”
“Can I go now?”
Shadows flickered across Andre’s face, making him seem like a living version of those creepy paintings who followed you with their eyes. “You of all people should know how bad the optics can be with something like this. Open relationship and all,” he added, noticing my expression. “You and Elio having a little office tryst makes it seem like neither of you care about Oliver’s feelings, which will cause people to lose trust in the NipNop brand.”
“Nothing is happening between me and Elio,” I hissed, pushing him aside to get to my door. “And please don’t mansplain public relations to your own CMO. Good night.”
“I’m looking out for you. You don’t want it to seem like you’re sucking dick for favors.”
I whirled around, ignoring the sudden sharp pain that tore through my neck. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”
The corners of Andre’s mouth twitched upward. “Elio’s not the only one with access to the codebase. Your NipNop user ID is all over the Discovery files.” He took a step closer, unblinking. “We’re all under NDA, but …” Their gaze was steady on mine. “I’m just looking out for you,” they repeated.
Now, I closed my eyes behind my shades and threw myself into the song, willing the dread away.
But your jealousy, I can hear it now
You’re talking down to me like I’ll always be around
You push my love away like it’s some kind of loaded gun
Boy, you never thought I’d run
Elio’s gaze followed mine, burning the side of my cheek. I stopped singing, breathing in the honeyed air until the flutters in my stomach subsided. For a minute, only Elio’s voice rang out through the small cabin, unwavering and impassioned.
I hold onto this pride because these days, it’s all I have
And I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that
Did I have feelings for Elio? I took another shaky breath, not wanting to think about the answer. The truth was that I’d been finding ways to stick around the engineering department ever since that night in Corona Heights, finding little ways to catch his attention. I’d stand extra close to him in the coffee line during the morning rush, imagining what it would be like to wrap my arounds around his neck and pull him in close, right in front of everybody.
I’d kissed Oliver in public once or twice, but even sitting on my fake boyfriend’s lap made my insides twist. We’d cut the PDA altogether once he’d started dating Ben. But with Elio, I wanted to do all the cutesy shit that I’d previously considered myself too good for. I wanted to hold his hand on the Caltrain and make him a crown of dandelions at the Conservatory of Flowers and split ice-cream sundaes with him in the Mission. Was this infatuation? I’d been in relationships before, but none of them had ever made me want to RSVP “yes” to all of my optional meetings in the hopes of seeing someone.
I risked another look in the mirror. Elio was singing another song now, about playing guitar with some curly-haired girl who liked to perform in hotel bars. I’d only heard it once or twice. He was so pretty when he sang, the music transforming him into someone glowing, radiant.
Fuck. Why was I even thinking these things? How did Andre know I was thinking them? The fluttery feeling was back. Was I really that obvious? And if Andre could tell, did it mean that he could see it in Elio, too? Could Elio himself tell?
And if Andre knew about Discovery, did that mean that other people did, too?
I inched my head out the window until the wind blew in my face at full force. Swift but gentle. Just the cleanse I needed. I took off my sunglasses and closed my eyes again, picturing myself floating through the roof of the car, weightless, further and further up until everything below me calcified into a mass of solid green.