This is the eighth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
When the curtain comes up, everything is a mess.
The soft yellow twilight is giving way to a deep blue, the already-chilly temperature dropping by the second. Waves break against the slippery rocks before dissipating over the sand like a lacy white blanket. If you listen closely, you’ll be able to make out two distinct voices over the roar of the ocean.
Scan the shoreline. Ah! There they are — two girls standing on the wet sand with a damp picnic blanket between them. The brunette is barefoot and wearing a long dress that’s soaked from the waist down. It’s fifty degrees out; no wonder she’s screaming. The Black girl looks dressed for a hike in a puffy yellow jacket and a black tennis dress. Two pigtails puff up like dark clouds on either side of her head. Her white sneakers are covered in sand and mud, but her expression is poised, tranquil.
“You told me that there was a trail!” the brunette continues, voice an octave higher from distress. “I’m not going all the way back up there.”
“Climbing down is the scary part,” her friend says, her voice steady. “You’ve already done that. Now you just have to focus on going up. You don’t have to think about heights. It’s just the next stone in front of you, and the next.”
“It’s getting dark! I’m wet and I’m freezing and I’m still tripping —” the brunette wraps her arms around herself, shaking. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” She gulps in the cold, salty air, chest heaving up and down faster and faster until the other girl puts both arms on her shoulders.
“Helena,” says the Black girl, looking the brunette in the eye. “Calm down.”
“Why the fuck did I follow you, how the fuck did I get myself into this situation … I’m still tripping, my dress is all wet, and I can’t — I can’t fucking do this —”
Without warning, the Black girl slaps the brunette across the face. The definitive thwack is enough to make both of them freeze. They look at each other, shell-shocked. The Black girl stares at her hand, as though she can’t believe what she’s just done.
What the fuck? How have we gotten here?
Let’s take this story from the top.
It was mid-April when I decided to try LSD for the first time. Nevaeh and I filled my room with peonies, tulips and orchids from the local flower shop, then opened all of the windows so that we could enjoy the occasional spring breeze that rolled in. San Francisco was only warm for a few weeks out of the year; we were determined to enjoy the weather for as long as it lasted.
I’d had my doubts about doing acid. People seemed to be at the mercy of the vibes around them. The thought of being so dependent, so out of control, made me hesitate. What if I had a bad trip? What if I lost my sense of self, or accidentally did something that permanently altered the course of my life?
But life was short. Plus, Nevaeh was one of the most responsible people I knew. After a few months of resistance on my part, I finally agreed to do a tab with her over the weekend. We went to brunch — I could barely swallow my avocado toast, but she told me I had to eat — and then, after we got home, she dropped into my sweaty palm a turquoise-colored square the size of my tiniest earring.
“It’s a gel tab,” she explained as she put an identical square under her tongue. “Keep it in your mouth for twenty minutes. If it doesn’t dissolve by then, swallow it.”
Oops — I’d lost track of my tab as soon as I’d put it in my mouth. I frantically swiveled my tongue around but couldn’t find anything. Maybe I’d swallowed it by accident?
Oh, well. There was nothing I could do about it now. For the rest of the trip, I wouldn’t be able to shake the uncomfortable feeling of a little something lodged in the back of my throat.
A few minutes in, I began to feel the tiniest bit nauseous. My entire body was heavy, as though every one of my pores were trying to take a shit. I could hear people talking right under my window, but they sounded as though they were at the end of a long hallway. I let out a long sigh and sprawled out across my bed, watching the shadows on the ceiling start to swim and dance. The air smelled sweeter, sharper. The flowers had been a good idea.
Nevaeh lay next to me, lost in her own world. For the first hour or so, we didn’t talk at all. I got the distinct sense that we could understand one another perfectly without having to say a single word.
It is spring, I thought lazily. It is spring and I am lying here with my best friend and the world is in equilibrium and I want to be kept in balance forever and isn’t it incredible that I am here and I brought myself here and it’s so beautiful, everything is so beautiful
I don’t know how much time passed after that, but I became aware of Nevaeh grabbing my hand with her own and squeezing it tight. Her skin felt smooth and cool, her breathing soft and steady.
and it’s funny how I never noticed the little triangles in that chandelier I wonder if another girl has laid in this exact spot thinking of the same things I wonder if she wanted to be famous too but there are so many people in the world aren’t there all fame is relative
Fame, fame, fame. I had 390k followers now, and none of them knew that I was doing acid. My online reputation was still squeaky clean — I made the occasional dark joke, but never said or did anything too inappropriate.
I should remember this I should remember how to translate it into words I brought my journal with me to San Francisco didn’t I should record this for posterity and maybe for my audience but I can’t tell them I was on acid fuck it this will just be for me my future self will appreciate that I have a concrete memory of my first trip but can’t I for once just enjoy the moment why do I feel the urge to record everything like my life isn’t important if I don’t like it never happened if I don’t how do regular people have all of these incredible experiences without ever taking a single picture or writing it down all of these stories die with them and even if no one else appreciates them I don’t want mine to die with me
“I want to listen to music,” Nevaeh said after a while, pulling a small black speaker out of her backpack. “Whew! It’s definitely, definitely hitting me. How are you doing?”
I covered my mouth and giggled in response, having momentarily forgotten how to speak.
Nevaeh’s laugh sounded like little tinkling bells. “I’m glad you’re having a good time, dude. Here — I think you’ll like this.” A few moments later, a sweet, serene voice filled the air.
Let’s get out of this town,
Drive out of the city, away from the crowds
I thought, heaven can’t help me now
Nothing lasts forever,
But this is gonna take me down
The song sounded so different! “Wildest Dreams” was in my top songs playlist on Spotify, but this time, I could hear the beat and the backing track just as clearly as the vocals. It was ethereal. I couldn’t believe that I’d gone eighteen years without listening to music like this.
I can see the end, as it begins
My one condition is …
“Did you know that Taylor Swift sampled her own heartbeat for this track?” Nevaeh asked, lying back down next to me.
“Really?” My own voice, when I found it, sounded distant, too.
“Yeah.” She stared at the ceiling, her eyelids heavy. “Isn’t that so cool? I thought you’d be into that.”
Red lips and rosy cheeks,
Say you’ll see me again,
Even if it’s just in your wildest dreams
“I want to be just like her,” I murmured.
“You’re getting there, aren’t you?”
“Mmm.” I pursed my lips, thinking about how far I still was from where I wanted to be. What I’d give to have Taylor’s life, to have the type of rabid fans who would analyze every single move of mine, who would pick up on all the little details I’d give them. I felt a stab of envy — my own followers seemed sycophantic, ready to gobble up whatever I gave them without looking deeper. And, I mean, it was my fault for keeping things PG-13 instead of R, so to speak. It wasn’t that I was too scared to tell my true story. I just didn’t think that my fans could handle the full interior world of a deeply human heroine.
You’ll see me in hindsight,
Tangled up with you all night,
Burning it down
Someday, when you leave me
I bet these memories follow you around
Being famous was more complex than it seemed. It wasn’t just about you or the content you put out. It was about the people who followed you, and how they engaged, and having to show up, day after day after day …
“Hey,” Nevaeh cut in. “Helena? Stay with me.”
With a start, I realized that I’d been breathing heavily, shaking as though I were about to have a bad trip.
“It’s okay,” she said, her pupils so huge that they made her green eyes seem black. “Breathe. Breathe.”
I inhaled and exhaled until everything went back to normal. Then my brain jumped to something else, and I forgot what I was freaking out about in the first place.
I was pinning the still-fresh orchids to Nevaeh’s hair when the door opened and Oliver peeked his head in. I was so focused that I jumped when I saw him, inadvertently pricking my finger with the safety pin I was holding.
“Bad time?” he asked as he walked in.
Nevaeh stiffened when she heard Oliver’s voice. She was facing the wall away from the door and hadn’t heard him come in. “Yeah,” she said without turning around. “We’re busy.”
“What’s up?” I asked him, ignoring the sudden chill in the air.
“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering if you wanted to take some pictures right now. It’s still, like, eighty degrees out, and I bet the sunset will be gorgeous.”
Nevaeh cleared her throat. I looked from her rigid spine to Oliver’s expectant face back to her again. “Maybe another time,” I said at last. “We’re tripping right now.”
“Ooh, nice! On what? Shrooms? Acid?” Oliver closed the door behind him and took a seat by the window, across from the bed. “I haven’t tripped since high school. Too much work on my plate.”
“Then maybe you should go … do it?” Nevaeh smiled without showing any teeth. “We’re vibing here, dude. You’re gonna kill the mood.”
“Ooooo-kay.” Oliver raised his eyebrows, smirked, and got up. “Enjoy your trip, you two. Helena, let me know when you want to take this next set of couple pictures.”
He made a show out of closing the door as gently as he could on the way out. As soon as he was gone, Nevaeh turned around and gave me a pointed look. “The entitlement of that motherfucker! Couple pictures, my ass. We were obviously in the middle of something, and he literally just came in here and manspread all over the place. Disgusting.”
“He just wanted to hang out.” I twisted an orchid stem between my fingers. “NipNop’s growth has been stagnating lately and he’s under a lot of pressure from investors to get things right.”
“You’re really out here making excuses for him? Well, excuse me for not giving a fuck.” She paused. “Why do you even do that thing?”
“What, pretend to date?” I shrugged. “We have an agreement. We signed a contract. You know that.” I’d disclosed Oliver’s and my fake-couple status to her thinking that she’d admire it, but she’d been instantly disgusted, and found a way to rail against it whenever she could.
“It just seems —” Nevaeh abruptly shut her mouth and pursed her lips. “Never mind.”
The vibe decidedly killed, I got up and looked out the window. “It is still beautiful out. What if we went and took some pictures instead?”
Nevaeh shrugged. “If you want.”
“Come on,” I said, giving her my best megawatt smile. “You were the one who told me that I should do a photoshoot on acid because the light looks so different.”
“Sure. I didn’t say no.”
Was it bad that her obvious annoyance toward Oliver made me feel … good? To think that I’d once feared that they’d get along too well! Nevaeh and Oliver’s relationship had been testy from the start. I’d tried to arrange a dinner between the three of us as a way to introduce them to one another, but instead of bonding quickly, like I’d expected, the two of them had tried to one-up one another all night. I left that dinner feeling strangely like some sort of prize they were competing over.
Then came the shit-talking. According to Oliver, Nevaeh was a party-pooping social justice warrior who hated fun, an English major who would starve for the rest of her life, and a loser who was holding me back. According to Nevaeh, Oliver was a self-hating queer person of color who tried to hide his feelings of inadequacy by chasing evil, capitalistic ideas of success and fake-dating a girl. Neither could understand why I hung out with the other.
Oliver and Nevaeh had met a handful of times after that dinner, each interaction more contentious than the last. I know that I should’ve felt bad, or at least tried to make them get along, but in actuality I enjoyed being caught in the middle, the reason for their mutual distaste. I’d never been fought over before. I felt like I was in the middle of a friendship triangle, both of them vying for my attention. As someone who’d been passed over and friend-dumped too many times in my short life, I admit that I secretly loved the drama.
“What about Marshall’s Beach, right under the Golden Gate Bridge?” I suggested now. “The sun won’t set for another three hours. We can pack some sandwiches, have a picnic, and shoot some photos.”
Nevaeh considered this. “Okay,” she said at last. “Let’s go. I think I’m starting to come down, and I’m not done enjoying this trip.”
Was it a bad idea to pack the Harvard plate into my tote bag, along with our other stuff? I did need a plate to eat out of, and though I could’ve used a plain white dish like Nevaeh, I told myself that I’d enjoyed taking my meals off of the pretty blue-and-white china. It wasn’t meant to be a dig or anything. I’d never meant to shove Oliver’s friendship in her face.
Obviously, I was lying out of my ass — both to myself and to Nevaeh. I didn’t know why I enjoyed making her so jealous. In the end, karma ran its course. I’d still have the Harvard plate today if I hadn’t been so reckless.
By the time the Uber dropped Nevaeh and me off by the Golden Gate Bridge, the light was starting to take on a reddish tone, and the air had the tiniest chill in it. There were the usual tourists milling about, laughing and taking shitty selfies with the bridge in the background. I couldn’t imagine spending money to come to San Francisco and leaving with nothing but a camera roll of shitty selfies. Then again, I was no ordinary daytripper.
I wore a new red maxi dress I’d bought right off the mannequin at Forever 21. The silky fabric caressed my legs every time I moved. I’d slipped on my favorite Mansur Gavriel flats to complete the look. Now, as the wind whipped my hair this way and that, I found myself regretting the footwear — along with the decision to leave my jacket at home.
Nevaeh had no such hangups. With her heavy-duty jacket tied around her waist, she looked like she was ready to climb a mountain. Her radiant smile stood out between her flushed cheeks. Clearly, riding all the way over with the windows down had done wonders for her mood.
The Golden Gate Bridge stretches across a body of water, connecting San Francisco to Marin County. Marshall’s Beach is directly under the bridge, surrounded by steep cliffs that lead down to the ocean. I’d been down there once — with Oliver — but we’d been kind of drunk, and I couldn’t remember the exact path we’d taken. Looking at it now, I found it hard to believe that we’d gone in the first place. The beach looked miles away from the terrifyingly rocky cliff. Not that it bothered Nevaeh, who was peering down at the beach with her mouth wide open.
“I think the entrance is somewhere this way,” I said, walking toward the bridge. She bounded ahead of me and disappeared out of sight a few steps later.
Great. I kept walking in the same general direction, scanning the horizon for her small frame. I knew that she had a thing for nature, but did she have to run off when we were both still tripping? Plus, she was holding the tote with all of our stuff in it. I didn’t want her swinging it around and spilling things all over the place.
I found Nevaeh perched on a rock a few feet off the side of the cliff, staring at the bridge, wind against her back. The light was beautiful, and I couldn’t resist pulling out my phone and snapping a photo of her before carefully, carefully inching my way down to where she was standing. What? My fear of heights had nothing on my desire for pretty, unique photos.
“I think I found a trail,” she told me excitedly after snapping a few photos of me turned toward the bridge, looking mysteriously away from the camera. “It goes straight down to the beach. It’ll be a perfect place to have our picnic.”
I had no idea which trail she was referring to, but she sounded so sure of herself that I let her take my hand and guide me down a few feet further. The ground below me was made of tiny little rocks, and my gold sandals soon became covered in dirt. I let go of Nevaeh’s hand and steadied myself by going down on all fours. It was a strange way to get to the trail, but I’d already committed myself by going there in the first place. It would be a bitch to climb back up.
Nevaeh was light and nimble on her toes, tote slung confidently over her shoulder, never needing to slow down or adjust her balance. Whenever a stone threatened to crumble beneath her feet, she jumped out of the way just in time; when she encountered a particularly unstable patch of dirt, she tested it with a single foot before placing her full weight on it. Every once in a while, she’d poke her head back up to where I was, struggling with my hands and feet on the rocks, skirt dragging under me on the ground.
“Use this rock!” she’d call. “Go left, not right!”
“Fuck!” I said eventually, when I was tired of feeling like a four-legged spider. “Nevaeh, where’s the trail? I feel like I’m going to die out here.”
“What?” She glanced back at me just long enough for me to see the playful smile on her face. “This is the trail, silly.”
Oh, no no.
Oh, no no no no no.
I looked at my dirty toes, which were starting to cramp up from exhaustion. I looked at Nevaeh’s quickly disappearing figure. I steadied myself, and, with a gulp, twisted my head to look at how far I’d come down the side of the cliff. There was nothing but blue sky and the small shrubbery that grew out of the rock. There were no more tourists, no more idiots taking selfies. Just me and the stone and the heavens.
Think, Helena, think.
I looked down and saw that I was only fifty feet or so away from a huge drop. Down past them was a particularly sharp, menacing-looking group of rocks, and then I’d be at my destination. Nevaeh was currently hopping off of one onto the sandy beach.
I sighed heavily, cursing Nevaeh and myself for trusting her. Then, I removed my sandals, looped them around my right wrist, and hoisted my body as slowly as I could past the drop and down onto the rocks below.
“Hooray, you did it!” Nevaeh squealed as I joined her on the beach, holding my skirts like a princess. “You looked hilarious coming down, by the way. Like a large insect struggling to upright itself.”
“I can’t believe you made me do that,” I said, crossing my arms. “That was so fucking dangerous. I could’ve died.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t,” she said pointedly. “Plus, it’s pretty safe. I’ve been on trails that were far more dangerous.”
“Nevaeh, we’re on acid!”
“I thought you wanted an adventure. Plus, look.” She made a sweeping gesture with her arm. “This is amazing. It’s the perfect place for a shoot, is it not?”
She had a point. The copper-colored bridge, the shiny black rocks, and the wet sand reflecting the surroundings above looked like a scene from a painting. There was nobody else on the beach, and down here, the wind was somewhat calmer. I felt my annoyance draining away. Sure, what we’d just done was incredibly stupid, but we were here now, and I didn’t want to waste any time being upset.
We spread out the picnic blanket and scarfed down our sandwiches while enjoying the incredible view. If Nevaeh was bothered by me eating off the Harvard plate, she didn’t show it. Then, as the sky started turning periwinkle and yellow, we got to work, taking countless pictures of me by the bridge. The slick rocks threatened to slide me into the ocean and the frigid waves soaked me from the waist down, but the pictures did have a special quality to them that I couldn’t place. I’d never looked more like a movie star.
When it got too dark to shoot, Nevaeh handed me my phone and slipped the jacket over her shoulders. “Those were good pictures, weren’t they?”
“I love them.”
“Good.” She started packing everything back into the tote. “We should probably get out of here, then, before the cliff becomes too much of a bitch to climb.”
I stared at her. “What did you say?”
“We should go,” she repeated, her face completely serious. “We have to climb back up the cliff, and I think we should do it before it gets —”
“You mean to tell me,” I hissed, “that we have to go up the same way we came down?”
“Um, yeah.” Nevaeh furrowed her brow. “How else would we do it?”
I looked at the cliff, which suddenly seemed ten times taller and especially menacing against the dark blue sky.
Oh, no no.
Oh, no no no no no.
And so here we are, folks, caught up with the beginning of this chapter! To recap: I freaked out and started hyperventilating, and then Nevaeh slapped me. I don’t advocate the use of physical violence at all — to this day, this is one of the few times I’ve been hit — but I will admit that I needed it, then. It was the only thing that could snap me back to the present moment.
Nevaeh was the one to speak first. “Oh my God,” she said. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to — I have no idea why I — Helena, are you okay?”
“Y — yeah,” I said numbly. I felt cold and angry and frustrated and exhilarated and astonished and confused, but overall I felt nothing. If you combined every single hue in the color spectrum, you’d get white light. Maybe emotions cancelled each other out in the same way. I bent down and started tossing our remaining things — the food wrappers, the picnic blanket, the plates — into the tote bag. “Let’s go.”
“I said, let’s go.” I hoisted the bag over my shoulder and walked over to the rocks. The wind had become stronger, but I didn’t feel it as I slipped my shoes back on over my feet and started to climb.
Was I mad at Nevaeh? Incredulous? Grateful? I couldn’t tell. I just knew that something had shifted within me. Whatever it was was intense, igniting a nameless determination in my stomach as I made my way back up the cliff. I didn’t think about our friendship or how I’d let her put me in a treacherous situation while I was in a vulnerable state. I only thought: Hand here, foot here. Hand. Foot. Push. Pull. Dirt dug under my fingernails. Little stones rolled beneath my soles. My dress, sandy and wet and cold, slapped around my legs. I didn’t care. I just needed to get back, goddammit, and I was going to do it no matter what.
I had almost reached the top when I lost my balance. My right arm swung out and grabbed onto a large rock just in time, but half of the tote bag slipped off my shoulder, and a flat, circular object came flying out. It sailed a few feet in the air, making a graceful arc in the dying light before landing with a shatter amongst the stones.
“What was that?” Nevaeh, a few feet behind me, stopped to take her phone out of her pocket. There, illuminated in the harsh glow of her iPhone flashlight, were fragments of blue and white china. Shards were scattered on the rocks and slipping into crevices. Some of them tumbled down the path to unknown places below.
I picked up the largest piece within my reach, an irregular triangle whose sharpest tip had broken off upon impact. On the back, in permanent marker, was the remnants of an F, written in Oliver’s unmistakable scrawl.
Without looking at me, Nevaeh kneeled down and gathered up as many pieces as she could, stuffing them into her coat pockets. We didn’t say a word to one another until we got to the main road, which had cleared of people long ago. I called an Uber, then stood shivering, the cold — and reality of what we were doing — finally caught up with me.
“What do you want to do with these?” my best friend asked, gesturing to her pockets.
“Toss them.” I led her over to the nearest public trash can, a lone dark cylinder standing guard at the edge of the now-empty parking lot. I was glad that it was now fully dark, that I couldn’t make out her exact facial expression as she took off her coat. Silently, we emptied both pockets, listening to the pieces falling, porcelain meeting metal, the larger ones breaking further as they hit the bottom.
My hand closed around the triangular fragment I was still holding on to, and winced as the sharp edges cut into my palm. Maybe some memories deserved to be buried forever.
I raised the shard over the circular opening and hesitated for a split second before dropping it in. When Nevaeh’s flashlight passed over it a last time, I saw that it had landed on its back, splitting the black F into two.
So, you see, I was telling the truth when I said that I didn’t exactly know where the Harvard plate went. Last I saw of it, it was in pieces inside a trash can by the Golden Gate Bridge. I have no idea what the garbage collectors did with those pieces. Sorry, Twitter. I did lie to Oliver, though — the next time I saw him, I told him that it had been stolen out of my room.
— Me walking towards the camera, bare feet in the sand, the Golden Gate Bridge misty against the sunset, elegant black rocks jutting out of the water: Say you’ll remember me standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset, babe.
Short captions weren’t usually my thing, but fuck it. I wanted to do something different, to signal to the future self scrolling through my feed that I’d felt different at this particular moment in time.
To her credit, Nevaeh kept her promise and never told a soul exactly what happened to the platter. Had she done so out of a selfish desire to be close to me, to have a shared secret against Oliver? That’s something I’ll also never know.