Main Followers

Followers

When everyone is watching you can run, but you can’t hide…

2051. Marlow and her mother, Floss, have been handpicked to live their lives on camera, in the closed community of Constellation.

Unlike her mother, who adores the spotlight, Marlow hates having her every move judged by a national audience.

But she isn’t brave enough to escape until she discovers a shattering secret about her birth.

Now she must unravel the truth around her own history in a terrifying race against time…

Year: 2019
Language: english
File: EPUB, 354 KB
Download (epub, 354 KB)

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		 			An electrifying story of two ambitious friends, the dark choices they make and the stunning moment that changes the world as we know it forever

			Orla Cadden is a budding novelist stuck in a dead-end job, writing clickbait about movie-star hookups and influencer yoga moves. Then Orla meets Floss—a striving wannabe A-lister—who comes up with a plan for launching them both into the high-profile lives they dream about. So what if Orla and Floss’s methods are a little shady and sometimes people get hurt? Their legions of followers can’t be wrong.

			Thirty-five years later, in a closed California village where government-appointed celebrities live every moment of the day on camera, a woman named Marlow discovers a shattering secret about her past. Despite her massive popularity—twelve million loyal followers—Marlow dreams of fleeing the corporate sponsors who would do anything to keep her on-screen. When she learns that her whole family history is based on a lie, Marlow finally summons the courage to run in search of the truth, no matter the risks.

			Followers traces the paths of Orla, Floss and Marlow as they wind through time toward each other, and toward a cataclysmic event that sends America into lasting upheaval. At turns wry and tender, bleak and hopeful, this darkly funny story reminds us that even if we obsess over famous people we’ll never meet, what we really crave is genuine human connection.





		 			Followers

			Megan Angelo





			For Mom and Dad, who taught me what is real.





		 			Contents

			EPIGRAPH

			PROLOGUE

			CHAPTER ONE

			CHAPTER TWO

			CHAPTER THREE

			CHAPTER FOUR

			CHAPTER FIVE

			CHAPTER SIX

			CHAPTER SEVEN

			CHAPTER EIGHT

			CHAPTER NINE

			CHAPTER TEN

			CHAPTER ELEVEN

			CHAPTER TWELVE

			CHAPTER THIRTEEN

			CHAPTER FOURTEEN

			CHAPTER FIFTEEN

			CHAPTER SIXTEEN

			CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

			CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

			CHAPTER NINETEEN

			CHAPTER TWENTY

			CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

			CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

			CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

			ACKNOWLEDGMENTS





			What? You seek something? You seek to multiply yourself tenfold, a hundredfold? You seek followers? Seek zeros!

			—Friedrich Nietzsche

			I know how influential I am over my fans and followers. I feel like everything I do, my hair color, my makeup, I always start these huge trends, and I don’t even realize what I’m capable of.

			—Kylie Jenner





PROLOGUE


			Marlow





New York, New York

2051


			So she still believed in mail, this woman, whoever she was. The first thing Marlow saw when she walked into the building was a grid of metal boxes, each with its own window and cobwebbed keyhole.

			Most of the boxes had only blank spaces where the names had once been. But the one for 6D still had a label, and the name on it was the same one Marlow had written down in eyeliner at the Archive. She could see, behind the small square of glass, the white slant of a waiting envelope.

			Marlow slid a bobby pin out of her hair, ignoring the wave that sprang free and clung to the sweat on her neck. Ellis had taught her how to pick a lock on their third date. “Why do you know how to do this?” she’d asked, watching him bend the pin. Though she didn’t know him well yet, she was sure he had never needed to steal. They had grown up the same way.

			“I like exploiting the flaws in things,” Ellis had answered. And Marlow, twenty-two and in a hopeful phase, had laughed and let the omen sail high over her head.

			Now she jiggled the crimped bit of metal in the keyhole, listening for the seize as he had taught her. Finally, the little door popped open and the envelope jutted toward her. She slid it into her back pocket, shut the box, and walked toward the elevator.

			The stoned superintendent stared at her as she waited. His desk was tall, pointedly designed for someone to stand behind, but the man sat, his bloodshot eyes at the lip of the walnut veneer. He must have seen her pick the lock, but he didn’t say a thing.

			On the sixth floor, the doors were painted jade, the color the carpet looked like it had been before it turned trampled brown. Marlow found the door with the oily brass D and knocked. No answer. She tried the knob. It turned, and then she was inside, her feet falling on a gaudy doormat—black rubber, with hot-pink stripes. Marlow winced. Now that she was seeing colors clearly again, she could not get over how many of them she disliked. She saw, in a flash of memory, the roses stuffed into her mother’s bathroom, just before she ran. That had done it for pink, she supposed. She’d be avoiding it the rest of her life.

			No one was home. The apartment smelled like air that had been sitting undisturbed. To Marlow’s left, as the front door swung shut behind her, was a narrow kitchen wrapped in cheap white cabinets. Three stools sat beneath the gray counter that divided the kitchen from the rest of the long, charmless room. The place dead-ended twenty feet or so out, in a naked window overlooking Eighth Avenue. The walls were dull handyman white, the color of a place between people.

			The couch was the thing that made her feel like something was off. It was plump and lived-in-looking, the color of melted chocolate. But on the cushion closest to the window, a precise rectangle of fabric had been bleached beige by the sun. It was not the kind of thing, Marlow thought, with a tweak in her stomach, that anyone just let happen. Staring at it, she felt the way she would if she was sensing an intruder, though this was the opposite: an absence, just as sinister.

			She wasn’t sure how long she lay shaking on the couch, trying to recover from the chase. After a minute, after an hour, she sat up and looked at the mail she’d stolen. The envelope was soft with age. The faded stamp on its front claimed it had been sent from Los Angeles. Marlow scratched at the yellowed seal, scraping it upward bit by bit. She could never remember how to open these things.

			The paper inside was child’s stationery, embossed at the top with a chain of daisies. Above them, in all capitals, was a declaration that made the skin on the back of her neck prickle: FROM THE DESK OF MARLOW. She had never seen the paper before.

			Each sheet—there were three—had the same crazy look. Filled back and front and end to end, margins forgone. Words compressed, begging to be heard out, at the edges where their writer had misjudged the space left.

			She was reading for several seconds before she realized: she wasn’t. She couldn’t. The letter was in another tongue, one with its own strange alphabet—lilting loops, curving tails, linked letters forming something both foreign and familiar. There—that word reminded her of free. But was it?

			She’d have to take the letter with her. As if she didn’t look suspicious enough already, now she’d have three pages of paper on her person. She practiced fixing her face in a way that made this seem like nothing—Yes, I’m carrying a bunch of paper, casually. What’s the problem? People still have it for plenty of reasons. She was the last person who would have bought her own explanation. Paper had occupied a nervous place in Marlow’s childhood. There was a shredder in her house, kept on a high garage shelf, that each of her parents brought down and used when the other wasn’t home. Her mother used it to destroy the department store receipts she still insisted on cashiers printing for her, so that Marlow’s father couldn’t trace her greedy habits as easily. Her father fed the shredder wrinkled cocktail napkins, after he memorized the names and numbers on them.

			She had grown up seeing paper as synonymous with secrets. It was why it still surprised her, how light it felt in her hands.

			Her fingers still gripping the letter, Marlow looked up. She heard footsteps in the hallway, getting closer. She waited for the click of another door, the sound of someone who had every right to be here going home. But the footsteps kept getting louder until, finally, they stopped. She watched the steel handle of the apartment’s front door beginning to turn—slowly, soundlessly, like the person on the outside didn’t want to scare her yet.

			She put the letter down on the counter carefully. Eyes, then balls? Balls, then eyes? She wished that she and Jacqueline hadn’t gone to happy hour before their self-defense class. “It’s just for fun, anyway,” Jacqueline had reasoned, lips pursed on the rim of her vodka martini. “If you ever get jumped for real, your device will walk you through what to do.”

			But Marlow’s device was gone.

			There had been a part in the self-defense class, too, Marlow recalled, about how to disarm a rogue bot. But bot-on-human violence almost never happened, and so that was the lesson she and Jacqueline paid the least attention to. If memory served, they had talked off to the side throughout the demonstration, admiring the instructor’s exquisite biceps.

			If it was a bot, she would go for the hip area, where the controls were usually hidden.

			If it was a human, she would go for the balls. The thought of her thumbs on someone’s eyes made her queasy.

			The doorjamb gave way. Marlow braced herself up and down. She tried to look indestructible, like she was made of more durable stuff than whatever lay inside the thing or person in the hall. Stronger than heartless steel, stronger than menacing bone. Just as the door started out of its frame, the word for the language the letter was in came back to her. Cursive.





CHAPTER ONE


			Orla





New York, New York

2015


			Orla left for the bad salad place without her phone, so it took her a while to find out that Sage Sterling had finally died. Sage was found on a poolside chaise at the Los Angeles hotel where she had been living for a year—never mind the fact that she was so broke, she often tipped the staff not from her handbag but with old handbags: scuffed-up Louis Vuittons, old Balenciaga totes with half the fringe worn off. The bellhops would make a big show of thanking her, then place the purses in the lost and found.

			Sage was erratic and filthy and sporadically mean, and she kept a pet ferret named Mofongo in the room with her. Yet everyone felt compelled to treat her gently, because outside the stucco walls of the hotel complex, the world was waiting, teeth bared, for her to fuck up again. So it was not strange, as the staff would tell the police later, that no one stopped Sage when she let herself into the pool around three in the morning. And it was not strange that no one disturbed her when the sun came up and she was still there, sleeping soundly. She was, after all, known for her impenetrable naps. Paparazzi had captured Sage snoozing in roped-off sections of exclusive New York bars, on a ski lift in Gstaad (she rode it around for hours), and during the premiere of her own latest film, an expensive animated adventure based on the phone game Candy Crush. (Sage played a lemon drop.) Head back, Sage snored loudly through the whole terrible movie. Someone at the premiere captured her snuffling on video. It went viral instantly, via a website called Lady-ish.com. Orla was the one who put it there.

			Sage had lain still at the pool until around eight in the morning, when a towel boy watched a seagull shit directly onto her stomach. Sage didn’t even flinch. The towel boy—“towel maintenance associate,” as he would later correct a reporter—walked over, wondering what the most tasteful part of her body to jostle was. He saw that her lips were blue. Her eyes were still, but just slightly open, watery slivers cast down through brittle lashes. He touched her shoulder, the one directly in the sun. It was cold.

			Orla was in the middle of ordering her salad when the news on the flat-screen over her head cut to an aerial view of the hotel. The shot circled its gray slate roof, hovering above the oblivious billboards on Sunset, and informed viewers that, somewhere down there, Sage Sterling was dead at twenty-seven.

			The girl behind Orla, who wore dingy flip-flops with her skirt suit, looked up from her phone and said, sounding bored, “I literally thought she was dead already.”

			The stout Guatemalan man on the other side of the counter sighed as Orla gaped at the screen, ruffling brown-edged romaine with his tongs. He was waiting for her to choose another topping. Orla always spent a long time pretending to consider vegetables before saying, as if it had just occurred to her, “Actually, just double croutons, please.”

			The man in front of Orla was tapping out a missive on his phone in all caps: SAGE STERLING DEAD! Like no one would know it had happened, Orla thought, if this guy didn’t tweet it.

			Not that she was much different. Back at the Lady-ish offices, Orla’s intern would be looking over the obit Orla had written for Sage eighteen months ago, the one she had marked with a warning: DO NOT PUBLISH UNTIL. Sage had been Orla’s beat at Lady-ish for most of the time she’d worked there. Ingrid, Orla’s boss, had identified Sage as a source of “bonkers” traffic early on, when a post Orla tried about her nail art drew ninety thousand views in ten minutes. From then on, every move Sage made, every boy and girl she kissed, every gown she put on was Orla’s to write up. The clicks flooded in, even more so when it became apparent that Sage had a temper. Sage grabbed photographers’ cameras and forced them down to the sidewalk. Sage scratched a bouncer, nearly blinding him. Sage pushed her boyfriend off his own parents’ yacht. Orla received small bonuses for stories that clocked more than five million views in a day; Sage’s boat rage had paid for her laptop. She tried now, very hard, not to think about what the star’s death might bring, pushing away the thought of a pair of boots she had seen in a shop window recently—soft gray suede and knee-high, meant to be worn in weather that was still weeks away. Maybe months, with this heat.

			Orla apologized to the Guatemalan man and left. The intern would have published Sage’s obituary by now, Orla’s name at the top of it. The clicks would be raging, Ingrid ecstatic. No one on the internet would care about anything else today. Orla could afford, in terms of time and money, to go to the good salad place now.



* * *



			That night, Orla wrote three hundred ninety-six words of her novel while watching a dating competition show. She had been aiming for six hundred words, but the episode had been too engrossing. Dabbing at her nose with a tissue, a finalist had confessed that she was bipolar. The oatmeal-faced host had raised his eyebrows and said, “Wow. This is a first for us.”

			Orla promised herself she would write more tomorrow. Three hundred ninety-six words, she figured, would turn easily into six hundred once she went back and filled in some of the parts about the Orthodox Jews. She didn’t know any Orthodox Jews. She kept meaning to google them. But along with themes of self-discovery and female sexuality, along with tiny doodles and charts she drew herself, she felt that, to be edgy and relevant, her book needed an Orthodox Jew or two. For now, she marked the passages about them with the same shorthand they used at work for “to come” where they didn’t yet know what to say in a story: “TK.” Then she went to bed and lay awake, thinking she should have done more.

			The frustrating part of it, writing a book she wasn’t really writing, was that she had been good at this once, when she was young. Orla would spend her afternoons curled over the electric typewriter that sat on her bedroom carpet, her shins beneath her and still encased in the blue knee socks she wore to school. She didn’t have time to change; she was filled with urgent, grotesque tragedies, like the one about the murderous lunch lady who ground her child victims into the taco meat, or the one about the baseball player killed by a wild pitch, a fastball that orphaned his nine frilly-named daughters. She was prolific.

			There was one main difference between writing now and writing when she was in second grade: back then, she didn’t own screens. Now, whenever a sentence of hers unfurled into something awkward or just never began at all, she gave up. She let her eyes jump from her drab Word document to the brighter planes of her phone and TV. Suddenly it would be 1:00 a.m., and she would be tapping out half-dream run-ons—into her manuscript if she was lucky, Facebook if she wasn’t.

			All of the scrolling and staring was delaying her grand life plan, the one she had always had. Orla had never not known she would move to New York. That was where authors grew, and she would be an author. She thought, when she walked into a bookstore as a kid, that the novels on the shelves had been emitted, nearly automatically, by the grown-up iterations of each American high school’s best writer. In her high school, that was her. She was always winning prizes for her persuasive essays, written on things that didn’t matter anymore. She had a ribbon from the governor for her paper on Napster, and she imagined, serenely, when she was young, that New York was holding her place. Then she got to New York and found out that it wasn’t. No one cared about her ribbon. She learned what former teen composition all-stars actually did when they got to the city. They blogged.

			She had been blogging at Lady-ish now for six years, and trying to do something bigger—write a book—for just as long. She tried to ignore the old teachers who found her on Facebook, who remarked, between FarmVille moves, that they couldn’t wait to see what she did next.

			Not that it was their prophecies that haunted her. No: it was Danny’s. That was all part of the pressure, too—a part that grew, strangely, as the years since she had last seen him counted up. Orla thought that perhaps she was striking a bargain with herself: if the whole world wasn’t meant to believe she was special, then maybe just him thinking it would be enough.

			And now, at twenty-eight, with her brain wrung of thousands of Lady-ish posts and her body sick of being pounded by New York, she was—though she couldn’t admit it directly, not even to herself—in search of a shortcut. A way to be someone who had done something without having to actually do it.

			A former Lady-ish colleague of hers—she was one of the older women, thirty-three, maybe—had quit the site after selling a compilation of her dating app exchanges to a large publisher. “Now I just have to actually write the damn thing,” Orla had overheard the woman say in the ladies’ room, the day before she left Lady-ish for good. Her agent, she added, had sold the unwritten book on a single chapter. Orla’s ears had perked at that: she had a chapter and then some. Now she just needed an agent. But she had no idea how to get one.

			And then, one morning, an agent turned up on the floor outside her apartment.

			Orla wouldn’t say that she had stolen the business card, really. For one thing, what was a business card these days but a collection of information anyone could find online? For another, Florence was never going to remember dropping the card. She was so drunk when she came home the night before, she could hardly remember which apartment was theirs. Orla had awoken to the sound of her stumbling down the hall, ramming her key into different locks, before finally their door swung open and Florence bellowed from the doorway, “Six! Motherfucking! D! I live in 6D!” A raft of smells—rum, shawarma, Florence’s thick cotton-candy perfume—pushed under the fake door in Orla’s fake wall, the dinky partition that cut the living room in half, making the one-bedroom two.

			It had been three weeks since Florence moved in, and she had never come home before last call. Orla had barely caught a glimpse of her new Craigslist roommate since the day she arrived, braless in a tight white tank top, her long dark hair straying into her armpits. Florence slept all day and woke at dusk to start primping, the odor of her burning hair mixing with the fumes from Orla’s microwave dinner. She left each night just after Orla went to bed, returned around dawn, and settled in to sleep just as Orla left for work, picking her way through the living room aftermath of Florence’s night out: shoes shipwrecked in the entryway, clutch forsaken on the kitchen linoleum, credit cards half under the oven, keys still swinging from the door.

			But on that morning, there was something else: at least a dozen business cards, strewn across the living room’s linted rug. Orla gathered them up and read them all. Modeling scouts, TV producers, beauty company underlings, and one man calling himself a “personal brand cultivator and 360-degree image guru.” Orla shuffled the cards together, placed them on the counter, and walked out the door.

			On the matted, jade-colored carpet near the elevator, faceup, there was one more card. Orla could read it without picking it up: Marie Jacinto, literary agent. The card was not impressive. The name of the firm it advertised had the ring of something small, and its stock was so flimsy that it shuddered slightly when the elevator came and split open.

			Orla stepped into the elevator, then put her hand against the door and got back out. Couldn’t hurt was the phrase skipping around in her mind. She had no reason then not to believe it. She was already composing the email she would send Marie Jacinto as she scraped the card off the carpet and slid it into the gut of her purse.



* * *



			The apartment was dense with new silence in the mornings, at least between the banshee wails of the fire trucks racing up Eighth. Though she was the one who had lived there for years, Orla found herself trying not to wake Florence up. She watched the morning news on mute, let her hair air-dry, and started picking up coffee after she left instead of grinding beans in the kitchen. Orla told herself that it was better for her brain to have quiet, that her damp waves helped keep her cool in the underground heat of the August subways, that holding a paper coffee cup as she marched into her day was the New York thing to do, anyway. But this was just what she did, and she knew it. Orla had always been the sort of person who let brazen classmates borrow her clothes, the sort of person who said “sorry, sorry” when someone ran into her on the street. The sort of person who could not speak up at Lady-ish team-building tapas, who let her colleagues order awful things, octopus and duck, then failed to secure any carbs for herself. Orla hated tapas. She hated so much about food in New York: six inches of meat in the sandwiches, block-long lines for mutant pastries, the way people talked about chefs as if they knew them intimately. (“That’s one of Boulud’s places,” Ingrid had said casually the other day, as if she sometimes played pickup basketball with him.) Most of all, Orla hated brunch, how it went on all day, pulling everyone out of their apartments and dumping them on the sidewalk, making her seem glaringly alone as she passed by with her solitary bagel.

			But there was one good thing about brunch: on Sundays, Florence left to go have it. Orla would hear her in her room—the apartment’s real bedroom—agitating her phone into an endless flurry of chimes before finally using it to call someone and rave about her hangover. Vowels stood in for each other at random. “Hay gurl hay,” she would whine. “Faaaack. I’m hungover as fuuuuck.” The call would conclude with Florence agreeing to meet someone somewhere in twenty minutes. “Getting in a cab now,” she would sign off. Then she’d sleep for another hour before clattering out the door.

			The Sunday after Orla took the business card, she heard Florence through the walls, braying her way through one of these exchanges. Suddenly, Florence stopped talking, so abruptly that Orla was scared her roommate might be choking. She crawled to the foot of her bed and pulled her laptop from her desk to the comforter. She was googling the Heimlich maneuver when she heard Florence say, in the unmistakable manner of someone getting another call: “Shit. Call you right back.” Orla closed her laptop. She stayed very still. There was something about the way Florence sounded that made Orla wonder who was getting through to her.

			“Hi, Mommy,” Florence said. There was a flinch in her voice, but a steeliness, too, like she was ducking something sharp before it could be thrown.

			“What’s wrong with her?” Florence went on, worry leaping into her tone. “Oh. That’s no big deal. You scared me. Her paw’s always like that.” A pause. “Are you kidding? Put her down? She’s not even sick. You just don’t want to take care of her—”

			The air-conditioning unit under Orla’s window rattled into action. She leaped up and switched it off.

			“Just don’t do anything, please,” Florence was saying, “until I can afford a flight home. I’ll come and get her and bring her back with me—please, Mom.”

			Orla imagined, rather than heard, the tinny hum of someone protesting on the other end.

			“I know you don’t believe me,” Florence said, “but I’m getting real traction. People out here love my voice. They get me. I’m meeting so many—Give me a few weeks, okay? Forget airfare to Ohio—if things keep going like this, I’ll have a record contract soon. I can buy you a new house.”

			Another pause, then Florence rushing her words out like she regretted it, in a voice so small and beaten Orla almost ran down the hall and hugged her. “No-no-no,” Florence said. “I love our house. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just something famous singers do.”

			This time, Orla was sure she could actually hear mocking on the other end.

			“Well, I think I could be,” Florence said quietly.

			After that, there was nothing—no sign-offs—and then Orla heard Florence pacing. Orla lifted herself off her bed, avoiding the creaky pit in the mattress, and came to sit on the ground beside her door, one shoulder and ear leaned against it.

			Florence was making more calls—short ones.

			“I sent you my demo a few months back—Oh, you did?”

			“And you thought you might have a spot in the showcase—Oh, it was?”

			“I saw your posting about needing models for—Hello?”

			“Yes! That’s so sweet of you. I mean, I’ve been working on those songs since—Oh. No. I’m sorry, I have to stop you—I’m not blonde. No, I was the brunette. Sure. I understand. I’ll be at this number if you want to—Okay. Bye.”

			Orla held her breath, waiting for things to resume. She could picture, vaguely, the sort of people Florence must be calling: the so-called promoters and producers who were always male, who claimed to know everyone and have a hand in everything, who did all their business from their cells rather than an office, who picked up the phone on Sundays. The sort who only ever seemed to see potential in pretty girls, sidling up to them at bars to set meetings which, invariably, took place in the man’s apartment.

			After a minute of silence, she heard Florence murmur, in the stilted tone of someone leaving a voice mail: “Following up on the entry-level programmer position. Fuck,” she finished softly. Orla hoped she had hung up before that last part. Ten seconds later, Florence left for brunch.



* * *



			After an hour of enjoying being alone in the apartment, Orla got bored and went to the office, walking directly into the sun as she moved east on Twenty-Third Street, toward the not-old, not-new Gramercy building Lady-ish shared with dentists and accountants. She wanted to get a jump on her posts for the week. Sage had been dead six days. The slideshow of celebrities walking into her funeral had gotten nine million clicks and counting, but the pace was tapering off. Orla’s follow-up, a trend piece on a hat three stars had worn to the services, had done about twice that, despite everyone on the internet pretending to be horrified by it. SO INAPPROPRIATE! a Lady-ish reader had screamed in the comments, echoing Orla’s original thoughts on the post. Ingrid had only said, “If we didn’t do it, someone else would have.”

			Orla liked the office on weekends—the half-light, the natural coolness it took on when jittery bodies weren’t packed along the tables. She sat down and closed her hand over her mouse, nudged her computer awake. She was scanning social media, looking for actresses who might have cut their hair over the weekend, when she saw Ingrid’s office door sliding open out of the corner of her eye.

			“Hey,” Ingrid said when she reached Orla’s desk. Orla looked up. Ingrid’s hair was even greasier than usual. Her boss had a six-step lip routine involving liners and glosses and setting powders, but she seemed to only wash her hair roughly once a moon cycle. “How was your weekend?” she said, like it was already over, and without waiting for an answer went on: “Can you cover a red carpet tomorrow? It’s this what’s-her-name who’s going to be there, her publicist’s always bothering me, and we need to keep the publicist happy because she also reps that—you know, that YouTube girl, with the harp?”

			“Tomorrow?” Orla rolled her eyes sideways, grasping for an excuse.

			“I just thought you might have some extra time,” Ingrid said meaningfully, “now that the Sage stuff is going away.”

			Orla nodded. She would do it. The year before, a handsome European prince who was constantly falling down outside clubs got sober, joined the armed forces, and largely disappeared. As a result, one Lady-ish blogger lost her job. Orla was determined not to lose hers—after all, if she lost it, she would never get to leave it. And this was something she fantasized about constantly: her quitting Lady-ish after selling her book, just like her Tinder-star colleague. In the fantasy, she carried a box of her things, though she didn’t have things at the office. Her desk was just a two-foot section of a long cafeteria-style table shared by nine other bloggers. No one had drawers or plants or picture frames—they barely had supplies. “Where’s the pen?” one of them would cry out a few times a day, and whoever had it last would send it skidding down the row.

			She knew she wasn’t the only one who dreamed about quitting. When she and her colleagues sat in the conference room, watching Ingrid run her laser pointer over a screen filled with top-performing headlines (“You Won’t BELIEVE What This Megastar Looks Like WITHOUT Her Extensions”), Orla would think about how every one of their minds was somewhere else, lusting over their next moves, reminding themselves they were better. Better than this job, and better than the girl in the next seat doing it, too. That last part was important. Orla believed it fiercely: she would be gone someday, on to greater things, and the next girl down would still be in her chair. She better still be in her chair. Someone had to stay to be who Orla was before.

			But before what? That was the question in her mind at dawn, when Florence slammed over the threshold and woke her, and at night, when she lay staring at her phone while she should have been writing or sleeping. More than anything else—to be an author, to have a boyfriend, to learn how it felt to breathe without being forty thousand dollars in debt—she wanted the answer to the question. She was living in the before of something, and she was getting tired of it. The dangerous thing about the way she felt, Orla knew, was that she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to happen, and she didn’t care that she didn’t know. Almost any change would do.





CHAPTER TWO


			Marlow





Constellation, California

2051


			The morning was for numbers. Marlow woke at seven to take one pill in front of—she gave a mental glance at the dashboard that kept track of her followers, blinking on the screen inside her mind—eleven-point-six million people, as of this moment. She hooked the quilt beneath her armpits in two places—wardrobe malfunction prevention had installed loops on all her bedding, had sewn prongs into the lace edges of the short silk gowns she wore to bed. Then she sat up and took three deep breaths, opening her eyes on the last one. She blinked four times, unhurried. Smiled twice. The first smile was meant to look sleepy, to hint at consciousness emerging. The second was meant to look spontaneous, giddy, as if she had just remembered that she was alive and felt unspeakably blessed.

			To look, in other words, as though the pill worked that fast.

			Lately, Marlow had been adding some movement to this second smile, sighing and stretching her arms over her head. But the network had sent her a clucking note yesterday, reminding her to aim for consistency wherever possible. Departures from long-held routines can seem to the audience like signs of emotional trouble. Her followers had other concerns. After Marlow lowered her palms this morning, she closed her eyes just in time to see a comment scrolling: Is it me or does Mar have kinda chubby armpits?

			Marlow looked at Ellis, sleeping stomach-down beside her. She couldn’t ask him if he thought her armpits were fat. To bring it up on camera would be to acknowledge the follower’s comment, to acknowledge the existence of followers at all. This was against employee policy. Which was a total farce, of course; her followers knew she knew they were watching. They knew she could see them talking about her. But the fact that she and the other talent never let on, that they pretended to just be living—this was what her followers wanted. They liked to feel like voyeurs; they didn’t want to be looked in the eye. And so, as her contract stated: The Constellation Network has a zero-tolerance policy on spell-breaking.

			She got up and padded across the bedroom, listening to the faint saw of the cameras in the shiplap wall’s grooves sliding on their tracks to follow her.

			The writers had been editing her closet again, Marlow saw when she pulled its doors open. Yesterday, as the day stretched empty before her, Marlow had reclined in her backyard cabana, let her eyelids close behind her sunglasses, and intuited lazily, just for something to do: vintage fashion images. The browsing turned into obsession; the obsession turned into a wardrobe request that was filled within the hour. As Marlow sat cross-legged in her sarong on the dove-gray cushion, eating a spinach salad with strawberries, a drone descended from the sky and landed on the deck. It unfurled its arms to release a metal bar hung with the clothes she had asked for: jeans with the knees cat-clawed out, shoulderless blouses that billowed in the breeze as they settled down in front of her.

			When she put everything on, Marlow grinned at herself in the mirror, feeling like a twenty-teens pinup. But then she saw her dashboard throbbing with feedback. Those pants just made me second-guess being on the same meds as her, someone wrote.

			That night, as she lay in bed, Marlow heard the overnight drone making more noise than usual. After it cleaned and filed the dishes, after it folded the blankets she and Ellis left slopped on the couches when they ambled to bed, she heard the drone pushing its way into her closet, clattering around. Sure enough, this morning, all her vintage looks were gone.

			Now she pulled a lime-colored hoodie and matching leggings off a hanger. If the network cared so much about what she wore, let them green-screen it in themselves.

			Such a bold floral on that cardigan, but she’s pulling it off! went the follower comment that appeared a moment later. Clicking to buy!

			Marlow fought the gag that rose inside her at the phrase bold floral. She swore someone in wardrobe had it out for her.

			On the other hand, she thought as she went into the kitchen and opened the fridge, she had a guardian angel in craft services. Science had definitively linked caffeine to anxiety recently, and the network had immediately freaked about the optics of Marlow consuming it. But someone in crafty had come to the rescue, developing a coffee, just for her, that could be dyed to look like cold-pressed juice. Now Marlow uncapped a plastic bottle with a label that read Carrot Apple, took a sip of terra-cotta-colored liquid, and tasted the bitter cool of iced espresso. The sensation loosened her instantly; her shoulders retreated downward, her heart rose, her face relaxed. She could sense herself having an attractive moment, and, as if on cue, she heard a muted snap. The camera in the brass knob on the cabinet door across from her had detected, and captured, a still image perfect for the Hysteryl ad that would be patched onto the corner of her live feed in—Marlow counted—three, two—

			She DOES always look so content though, someone piped up on her dashboard. Next time they do a promo code for Hysteryl I might give it a shot.

			Doesn’t anyone think it’s weird the way she drinks that juice, someone else said. She’s like SAVORING the tiniest sips. I bet she’s on coffee and they’re CGI’ing shit.

			Marlow froze with her lips on the bottle. She waited a beat for the comment to clear, then tipped her head back and forced herself to take a giant gulp of her drink. She exhaled discreetly, to keep from releasing the telltale coffee char of her breath. Then she stifled a smile; her followers couldn’t smell her. Her heartbeat stuttered as it always did when she came up with another thing, though sometimes she could go years on end without adding to the list: Things I Have to Myself. The hour before 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., when the network broke for ad interruption. Dressing rooms and doctor’s office chambers and bathrooms, in her home and all over town. Her favorite was a toilet stall in the vegan gastropub downtown—as a teenager, she used a nail file to scratch mean things about some of her ruder followers into its enamel walls. And now: her smell. Something small, but hers alone.



* * *



			This was how it had gone, at Jacqueline’s parties, for nearly a decade: Marlow sat on the cantaloupe-colored sofa, against its right arm, her good side facing camera east. Ida slumped opposite her, on the daisy-patterned club chair, droning unbearably. Marlow had once liked being across from Ida, back when the woman was a bawdy, sloppy drunk. But these days, Ida was sober, and a stay-at-home mom, and she spent most of Jacqueline’s parties performing small dramas about her allergies. Marlow had seen Ida walk around an ottoman like it was a land mine, sniffling, “Oh, God, is that mohair?” Ida routinely flung herself across the room to close a window, whining, “Sorry, pollen, I have to.” Once, failing to detect Ida’s allergy profile from her device, a server bot had extended a tray of shrimp cocktail her way. Ida had gone to City Hall the next week, made a twenty-minute speech about her hives, and insisted that the network decommission—and dismember, Marlow recalled, with a scandalized chill—the offending machine.

			But tonight, Ida was missing, recast without explanation. A new girl—olive-skinned and sleek, formidably cheekboned, with bronze lipstick and black hair parted into pigtail braids—sat in Ida’s chair with her bare feet pulled up under her, like she had been here forever.

			Marlow looked at Jacqueline, who stood in the center of the thick sand-colored carpet, holding up something called a “scrunchie.” At these parties, Jacqueline pushed things that, according to her invites, changed her life: ab gadgets, smoothies, ugly quilted handbags. Marlow knew—they all knew—that none of these things had really changed Jacqueline’s life. The network chose the items based on sponsorship agreements. Then Jacqueline threw parties where she raised them up and gushed about them to her dozen in-person guests and her roughly nine-point-nine million followers—plus all of her guests’ followers, too. The items the network chose reflected Jacqueline’s core audience demo: married mothers across America, aged twenty-eight to forty-four, who tuned in while folding laundry around 9:00 p.m. on weeknights. Though Jacqueline fit squarely in with her followers—she was thirty-eight, with two daughters—she was always embarrassed when someone mentioned her demo. “It makes me feel so old and boring,” she told Marlow once. “It’s better than mine,” Marlow had said. No one would argue with that.

			“Where’s Ida?” Marlow called to Jacqueline, raising her voice above the scrunchie-induced oohs and aahs.

			Jacqueline ignored her. She pushed the scrunchie onto her wrist and waved her hand around for all to see. “And it’s supercute as a bracelet,” she said.

			“Jac?” Marlow repeated. “Is Ida on vacation?”

			The end of her sentence slipped under the clatter of something breaking on the ground. The women turned to see a server bot bent over the shards of a wineglass. Marlow watched the lilies in the coffee table vase twist in the same direction, their scarlet pistils stretching to train their tiny cameras on the action. She could swear the bot had dropped the glass to drown out the sound of Ida’s name.

			When she looked back at Jacqueline, her friend nodded once and dabbed at her lips. It was their signal for Tell you off-camera.

			An hour later, as Marlow passed the powder room, Jacqueline’s arm shot out of it and pulled her inside. “Ida’s gone,” she said, as she pulled the door shut.

			“Gone?” Marlow saw herself in the mirror. One of Jacqueline’s hair drones, its silver talons clacking near her ear, had pinned a ridiculous silk bow barrette into her dark waves.

			“Yup,” Jacqueline said. “Just up and left Mike and the kids. Blew right through the perimeter. Left the fucking state.” She walked her fingers on an invisible path through the air. “Check your map. She’s in Denver. And for God’s sake, Marlow—don’t mention her on camera again.”

			“But what about her contract?” Marlow said. “I thought she and Mike were doing the whole on-the-rocks thing this year.” She unlatched her barrette and massaged her scalp, ignoring Jacqueline’s puffed breath of protest.

			“They didn’t even stage a hunt for her, supposedly,” Jacqueline said, adjusting the pearl comb at her temple. She sucked her cheeks in and glared at herself in the glass. “How shitty would that feel? It’s like they don’t even care she’s gone. I honestly think the network was glad to get the chance to sub in that new girl. Diversity and all.”

			“Jacqueline.” Marlow spoke in a firm voice. This was something she had been trying to do more since she turned thirty-five—the age felt, to her, like a cosmic deadline for being strong and self-possessed. Complete. “Hunts aren’t real,” she said.

			“They certainly are,” Jacqueline returned, in a tone that trumped hers effortlessly, and Marlow let it go. Jacqueline was an incorrigible know-it-all. It was what Marlow loved most about her. Her friend’s brazen authority always made her feel safe.

			Jacqueline’s eyes flitted away for a moment. She nodded, but not at Marlow. Her device was telling her something. “Gotta get back out there,” she said. “Talk later.”

			Alone in the bathroom, Marlow twiddled the twigs in the diffuser on the sink and closed her eyes. Find Ida Stanley, she intuited.

			In her mind’s eye, California shrank and plummeted away, making Marlow’s stomach flip, like she was the falling thing. Her map shifted, streaking past hundreds of her neighbors’ symbols in a blur, and brought her down again in Denver. Ida’s symbol—the red stiletto that had always depressed Marlow—hovered over the city. There she was, proudly gone, in the state of—Marlow had to zoom out to remind herself what state Denver was in—Colorado. Marlow pictured Ida on a purple-flowered mountain. Sneezing.

			The black gem at her wrist nicked her gently. I have a message from production, came the voice in her brain. I should return to an on-camera space. I have now been off camera five minutes. I have lost seventy-eight followers during this off-camera time.

			Marlow watched herself blush with guilt in the mirror. It was as if the network knew what she was thinking about just then: what it would be like for her to leave, too.

			I have lost eighty-nine followers during this off-camera time, the voice followed up.

			Eighty-nine followers was nothing. Marlow averaged an audience of over twelve million. And that was why Ida could run, she thought, and get away with it, whereas she wouldn’t. Ida had, what—one, one-point-five million followers? Hardly a fan favorite, especially after she transitioned from the party-girl ensemble to a standard housewife arc. She didn’t even have a sponsor. Marlow, by contrast, was the most looked-at woman in the room, presented by a marquee partner: Hysteryl. Her followers—the people who observed every move she made—were spread across the rest of America and various races and age groups. What they had in common was that they were troubled. This was how the network marketed her: as the poster child for troubled, the Constellation star who got what they were going through. The network mined public data, looking for adults whose devices clocked too much crying or eating, for kids whose heartbeats surged to panicked levels during gym class. Meet Marlow, went the ad the network would beam straight to their devices. She knows just how you feel. The sad people, glad to be talked to, would opt right in and start watching her. They would see that she moved through her days with buoyant normalcy, and they would be reminded, every so often, that Hysteryl had made her this way. It was Jacqueline’s job to show America what they could buy to keep them happy. It was Marlow’s job to show them what to swallow.

			She calmed herself at the sink, willed the redness to fade from her cheeks.

			I should return to an on-camera space.

			Marlow’s hair was bent and snarled where she had pulled out the bow. She dug the clasp back in, even tighter this time, and went back out to the party.





CHAPTER THREE


			Orla





New York, New York

2015


			The red carpet Ingrid sent Orla to was at a terrible club on a terrible block. Bits of trash stuck to the filthy red carpet slapped down at its entrance. A bouncer stood at the doorway, staring straight ahead, as if trying to block out the Container Store directly to his right.

			Orla scanned the ground and found her place, a square of sidewalk the size of a cereal box, marked with a laminated printout: ORLA CADDEN, LADY-ISH.COM. She elbowed her way in next to an anxious waif who wore a gown that plunged to her belly button. She was dressed, Orla knew, like she was hoping to be invited inside later. A chubby Hispanic guy in horn-rimmed glasses held his phone up to the waif, filming her as she said: “We’re here at the launch of Hilaria Dahl’s dog sweater line, and all the hottest celebrity animal lovers have tuned out for the occasion.”

			“Turned out!” Horn-rimmed Glasses shrieked as if he had just caught fire.

			Hilaria Dahl was a judge on a reality show that pitted cancer survivors against each other in baking contests. By the time she made her way to Orla, Hilaria had submitted to eighteen other interviews, and the corners of her mouth were caked with spit. She smacked her lips together. “I love Lady-ish!” she squealed, her long earrings jangling at either side of her jaw.

			Orla nodded and stretched her face into a smile. “So, dog clothes! What inspired this project?”

			Hilaria shifted in her heels. “Well, it’s really close to my heart.”

			“What is?” Orla said.

			“AIDS,” Hilaria answered.

			“AIDS?” Orla looked to Hilaria’s publicist, a black-clad woman in a headset.

			“Ten percent of the proceeds from the line benefits AIDS,” the publicist snapped.

			“And I love animals,” Hilaria added. “I loved the idea of putting my name on something that would keep them warm, the way they keep us warm.”

			Next to Orla, the waif was nodding fiercely, a hand pressed over her heart.

			“We’re just targeting dogs right now,” Hilaria went on. “But I’m also really passionate about cats. So we’re looking to expand into the cat market as well.”

			Orla couldn’t stop herself. “Couldn’t cats just wear the clothes you make now?”

			Hilaria looked at her publicist. “I guess cats could wear the small ones, right?” she said uncertainly. “Like the alpaca cowl-neck?”

			“Cats could wear the small ones,” the publicist confirmed, glaring.

			“And every piece is one hundred percent vegan!” Hilaria shouted.

			“Didn’t you just say something’s alpaca?” Orla said. “An alpaca is an animal. It’s kind of like a llama.”

			“That’s all the time she has,” the publicist said, taking Hilaria by the elbow and guiding her toward the doors. She looked back at Orla. “Fuck you,” she said plainly. “Not you,” she added, into the headset. “But maybe you, soon, if you don’t find out where Isabelle went.”

			There was a lull in the arrivals. The waif was complaining to Horn-rimmed Glasses, claiming her improv teacher had called her too pretty for comedy, when Horn-rimmed Glasses waved his hand in her face and bellowed, “GIRL SHUT THE FUCK UP HERE SHE COMES.”

			Orla perked up and craned her neck toward the SUV that had just pulled up. Hilaria’s publicist had likely emailed Ingrid already, demanding that Orla apologize. Maybe Orla could redeem herself with a quote from whoever was making Horn-rimmed Glasses clap tiny, overjoyed claps.

			Flashbulbs popped so brightly that Orla had to look down. Then she could only see the pair of legs coming toward them, oiled and deliberate. Next to her, the waif leaned forward and said breathlessly, “Floss, it’s like the hugest honor.”

			Standing in front of the waif, Orla saw as bursts of light cleared her vision, was her own roommate. Florence.

			Orla stared at her from the side. She was closer to Florence now than she had ever been in their apartment. The skin that ran from her ear to the corner of her mouth shimmered with such pearlescence that Orla could see her own shadow in it. Florence’s eyes, dark and liquid, blinked slowly, sleepily, beneath the weight of her thousand-legger eyelashes. She had more hair than she did at home, and they were laughably bad, the extensions—limp, and shiny, and stinking of something chemical. Florence had on the same things Orla wore on formal occasions: a strapless, nude bra and stomach-slimming nude panties that continued down the thigh. But Florence wasn’t wearing anything over them.

			She was beautiful, the type of beautiful that made Orla wish that she knew more of Florence’s bad qualities, so she could soothe herself by listing them out loud.

			Then, suddenly, Florence was air-kissing the waif goodbye and stepping into Orla’s little space. “Hi,” Florence trilled. Orla startled at the sound of her public voice. It came from somewhere high in her nose. “Oh,” Florence went on, “I love Lady-ish.”

			“Florence,” Orla said.

			“Call me Floss!” Florence giggled. She pulled all of her hair over one shoulder and stroked it like a pet.

			They were at an impasse: Floss didn’t recognize Orla, and Orla didn’t know who Floss was supposed to be. As Orla tried to decide what to say next, Floss’s publicist—she had a publicist!—jumped in.

			“Jordie from Liberty PR,” he said. “You of course know Floss Natuzzi from the reality competition Who Wants to Work at a Surf Shack.” His voice had a defeated sort of hum, like he no longer got up in the morning hoping people would take him seriously. Orla could envision the half-finished law school application on his desk at home. “She’s also a fixture on the Akron fashion scene,” Jordie added, “where until recently she lived with Columbus Blue Jackets star Wynn Walters.”

			“The Athens fashion scene?” Orla said.

			“Sure, let’s go with that,” Jordie sighed, at the same time Floss said loudly, “No, Akron. Akron, Ohio.”

			Jordie shot Floss a look, then laughed and threw his hands up. “Yes, Akron,” he said wearily. “It’s mostly, ah, underground. Very avant-garde. LeBron James...” He trailed off purposefully. It wasn’t a lie; he had merely said the words “LeBron James.” Orla nodded appreciatively. He would do well at law school.

			She looked at Floss, who seemed not to be listening. She was peering down at the printout Orla was standing on, then back up at Orla’s face. As Jordie tugged her toward the next reporter, Floss seemed to realize something. “Wait,” she said, blinking, looking back. “Omigod.”

			Orla waved at her stupidly.

			“Come inside, then,” Floss called over her shoulder. “I want to talk to you.” She tottered off on her heels. Orla watched as Jordie stepped forward to pull something off Floss’s wrist. It was Orla’s own yellow hair elastic. She had left it on the sink that morning.

			“What, you know her?” Orla heard the waif say, sullenly. Out of some instinct, Orla didn’t respond. Floss was only the last to arrive at a party for dog shirts in Midtown, but she was clearly someone to someone, and she had told Orla to come inside. Orla didn’t have to talk to the waif anymore.



* * *



			The girl at the door with the list was unimpressed. “I’m a personal guest of Floss Natuzzi’s,” Orla said again. “She’ll be so upset to hear about this.” The girl just looked behind her, waving someone forward. Orla stepped back to let an Afghan hound in a beret and its handler walk through.

			She walked along Fifty-Seventh Street and found she could see into the event, which spilled into a courtyard fenced in by wrought iron. Floss was just a few yards away, talking to a short, sweaty man with his shirt buttons mostly undone.

			Orla put her face to the bars and hissed into the party. “Floss!”

			Floss looked up. She turned away from the man while he was still midsentence and came trotting over to Orla. “What are you doing? I said to come inside.”

			“They wouldn’t let me,” Orla said. “Can you get me in?”

			Floss looked down at Orla’s scuffed ballet flats and murmured, “Those, probably.” She took a glass of champagne from a waitress and slid it through a gap in the fence to Orla.

			“You can’t—” the waitress began, and Floss fixed her with a cold smile. “Did they resolve the oyster situation yet?” she asked the waitress. “Would you please find Gus and find out? I’ll wait here.” The waitress scurried away.

			“Who’s Gus?” The champagne glass felt so delicate in Orla’s grasp, she had to focus on not crushing it.

			Floss rolled her eyes. “There’s no Gus.” She drained her champagne and motioned for Orla to drink hers down. “Wait there,” she said.

			Three minutes later, Floss was walking toward Orla, one arm in the air, hailing a cab. When one stopped, she stood there blinking at it until Orla stepped forward and opened the door, then stepped back to let her in first.

			Jordie skidded out of the club toward their cab, the soles of his needle-nosed shoes slipping on the pavement. He stuck his head through the window. “Where the hell are you going?” he said to Floss. “Do you know how I had to beg to get you into this party? You’re nobody, honey.” A drop of sweat eased out of a crease in his forehead and landed on Floss’s thigh, right where the nude shorts disappeared into the boot that stretched over her knee.

			Floss dabbed at the mark. “If you had to beg that hard,” she said calmly, “I guess you’re nobody, too.”

			The light turned green. As the cab pulled away, Orla glanced over her shoulder at Jordie. She thought he’d be staring after them, reeling from the exchange, but he was already back on his phone, skating toward the party.

			Perhaps it was because Orla remembered how he looked from that distance—freckles you could sense a block away—that she recognized Jordie’s photo on the cover of the New York Post, more than a year later, while she was still walking toward it. She would never forget him. Nobody would. Jordie was the very first to die in the Spill. The story about his death didn’t mention his working with Floss, which surprised Orla at first. By then, even a minor interaction with Floss would be the starriest thing that had ever happened to most people, and any reporter with a brain and a LinkedIn log-in could have dug up Jordie’s connection. Then Orla remembered: the reporter who wrote about Jordie dying wouldn’t have been able to see his LinkedIn page—wouldn’t even have been able to google him. The reporter must have had to rely on word of mouth and yearbooks. Jordie’s aunt was quoted as saying that he had just been accepted to law school. When Orla read that—her snarky prediction in print—she let out an actual howl, and crushed the paper in her hand. The newsstand attendant, who had been staring at the white grid on his useless, frozen phone screen, startled. “One dollar, you know?” he said to Orla. But he sounded scared, like he was only suggesting it. Orla dropped the paper and kept walking, kept crying. This was back when things had gotten as bad as everyone thought they would get, and when no one knew yet how bad things would actually go on to be. There were still jokes about the chaos on the late-night shows. There were still late-night shows.



* * *



			When Orla and Floss got back to Twenty-First Street, the doorman grinned at them in a way that let Orla know they looked drunk, and the smile she gave back to him made her feel like she was someone else, someone used to being part of things. In the elevator, Orla reached for 6, but Floss batted her hand back and sent them to the roof. Orla hadn’t been up on the roof since a few weeks after she moved to the city. She had gone up there one night with a book and a glass of warm white wine, because she was twenty-two and didn’t know to chill it yet. The roof was a disappointment. There was nothing to see from the one bench rooted next to the cluster of air handlers. A neighboring, newer building stood in the way of the view. Orla had spent fifteen minutes rereading the same page before she gave up and went in, imagining the people whose windows faced the courtyard laughing at her over their dinners.

			The one corner that escaped the adjacent building’s shadow was reserved for residents of the penthouse. But Floss walked straight toward the gate to the penthouse’s private patio and rattled it open. She stepped inside without looking back to see if Orla was following. She was.

			The patio had a modest outdoor dining table and a row of hostas in wooden planters. Floss kicked at a red-and-yellow toddler car in her path, then reached into one of the planters and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. Above the top of the patio fence, the view stretched, uninterrupted, toward New Jersey. The sun was already gone, dragging the last of its light down over the Hudson. Orla sensed another glow behind her and turned to see, beyond a pair of sliding glass doors, a giant television flashing out the news. Opposite it, a man leaned back on his couch. His feet, in black socks, rested on the coffee table. Without smiling, he raised his glass to Orla.

			“Jesus Christ,” Orla hissed. “Floss, he sees us.”

			“It’s okay.” Floss took a sip of whiskey. “He lets me use the deck. It’s just his crash pad anyway, ’cause he works here. He really lives in Delaware.” She passed the bottle to Orla.

			“But...” Orla looked at the toddler car, then back at the man in the penthouse. He was still watching them. “But it’s weird.”

			Floss shrugged. “Whatever. He’s, like, Ukrainian.”

			They drank and talked, but did more of the former than the latter, the conversation stalling constantly. Orla sensed that Floss wanted both of them drunker before she said what she wanted to say. Finally, as Orla answered Floss’s demand to know who had lived in her bedroom before her—big-haired Jeannette, with the sportscaster ambitions, then shy Priya, with the endless visiting relatives—Floss cut her off to confess something.

			“So, like, I know who you are,” she said. “I mean, I know your name. I just didn’t know that you were my roommate. To be honest, when we met that first day, I forgot your name as soon as you said it—you know how that happens? I decided it was Olga.” Floss spread her hands, swinging the whiskey by the neck. “And here, all along, you were Orla Cadden. I know your work.”

			“My work?” Orla repeated. It seemed too grand a term for blogging.

			Floss didn’t hesitate. “Sage Sterling,” she said. “Pretty sad, her dying and all.”

			“It was sad,” Orla agreed. She actually, absurdly, did kind of miss Sage.

			“You wrote about her one hundred and twenty-three times in the last year,” Floss said, swiping her manicured finger over her phone. Orla could see her own name and headshot atop the list of headlines on the screen. “Here’s the one where you listed what was in that salad the paparazzi always snapped her eating,” Floss murmured. “I liked that.”

			“It was the best traffic anything on her ever did,” Orla said. “Even better than when I wrote she died.”

			Floss waited for a siren to fade, then said: “Do you think you could do that—what you did for her—for me?”

			“Um,” Orla said. “I just called the salad place, and they told me what she got. It was just a standard Cobb with edamame, if you think about it.”

			“Not that.” Floss took a swallow of whiskey and set the bottle on the edge of the roof. “The first time you wrote about Sage,” she said, “she was just the daughter of some studio executive. She was nobody.”

			“Right, but then she started to act,” Orla protested. “She got the Some Like It Hot remake pretty much right away—”

			“No.” Floss shook her head hard. A segment of her fake hair was starting to come loose, its sticky root sagging into view. “No, she did not get it right away. First she was in that photo, when all those models went to one of those dumb strip mall places where you drink and paint the same paintings. They Instagrammed it, and you did that post identifying everyone in the picture.”

			Orla had forgotten that that was how it started.

			“That, just that, was enough to get her a publicist,” Floss went on. “And the publicist got someone to send her those boots, the white leather ones with the rainbow laces. And she wore them, so the boot people sent the pictures to bloggers. You remember getting those pictures?”

			Orla nodded. The post she had turned them into was headlined “Sage Sterling’s Boots: Trippy Or Trippin’?” “I don’t think we should say ‘trippin’,’” Orla had protested to Ingrid, before she hit Publish. “I think that’s like a black thing? And we shouldn’t appropriate it? It might seem racist?” Ingrid had overruled her. “You’re the one being racist, trust me,” she had said.

			“So then you did a post about her boot style, with photos of all the boots she’d ever worn.” Floss smeared the gloss off her mouth with her palm and wiped it on the back of a cream-colored chair cushion. “You called her a boot icon. A couple months later, the boot people named a style after her, which you covered, which made the boots sell out. So some fashion line invited her to curate—” here, Floss raised her fingers and made air quotes that punctured the air so forcefully, Orla winced on its behalf “—a whole line of boots for them. That got her to Fashion Week. She was supposed to sit in the second row, but her publicist brought sheets of paper with her name printed on them and stole the seats of front-row girls who didn’t show up. That was smart. I liked that move.”

			It had grown dark. A floodlight tacked up over the sliding doors went on. It was too bright for the small space, meant to shine over someone’s endless suburban backyard. It might have made Orla homesick, if she wasn’t busy wondering whether the Ukrainian man could now see up her skirt as she leaned over the rim of the building, into the night. She felt thirsty and picked up the whiskey, found it didn’t help.

			“You put her in a roundup of Fashion Week It Girls,” Floss went on. “A reader asked you who she was, so you did a post with, like, facts about her. Remember?”

			“9 INSANE Facts About Sage Sterling.” Never ten facts—readers hated the number ten. It was too perfect, too choreographed. Suspect.

			“And you found that old photo of her with the kid from that boy band, the one who’s hot now,” Floss went on.

			“Yeah,” Orla said. “I thought they dated in high school.”

			“Wasn’t true,” Floss said, “but it didn’t matter. You wrote it, and then you corrected yourself, but someone had already put it in their Wikipedia pages. I bet you it’s still there now. And the publicists were into it, so they went with it. They made them date.” Floss hugged herself and shivered. It was August, warm enough to be out on a roof near the water, but not warm enough to do it in just shapewear. “And then you really wrote,” she said.

			Orla remembered. “Sage and Finn—Uh, We Mean SINN—Step Out Together for the First Time.” “Every Sinn-gle Thing Sage Wore On Tour With Finn’s New Band.” “Sinn Has a Sexy Hawaiian Veterans Day—Pics, Right This Way!”

			“And then, Jesus Christ,” Floss said. “She got that haircut, the grandma haircut with the platinum and the curlers.”

			“Erm, Marilyn Monroe WHO? Come See Sage Sterling’s New ’Do.” Ingrid had added the “erm” after Orla left the office for the day.

			“That’s when she got Some Like It Hot,” Floss said bitterly. She pointed at Orla. “After you said she looked like Marilyn Monroe. She looked like a goddamn Golden Girl!”

			Floss sounded so upset that Orla almost apologized. Instead, she reminded Floss that the movie was made by the studio Sage’s dad ran, that she probably would have gotten the part even if he was the only one who knew who she was. “Besides,” she added, feeling suddenly defensive of Sage, patron saint of her disposable income, “are you trying to tell me you’re jealous? She got addicted to heroin and died.”

			Floss waved it away. “She got sloppy. I’m not like that.”

			Orla stared at her. She thought about going downstairs and into her room, about putting the flimsy fake wall between her and this strange, scheming girl. She thought about telling her super, Manny, about the weirdo in the penthouse, watching young women on his deck when he should have been home with his kid in Delaware.

			“This is the part,” Floss said patiently, “where you ask what’s in it for you.”

			Orla shook her head. “What could possibly be in it for me?” she asked. “Also, no offense, but you’re a little old to start trying to be famous. I mean, you’re, what...?”

			“I’m twenty-eight,” Floss said. “Just like you, right?”

			Orla straightened herself with what she hoped seemed like authority, with the air of someone who had put Sage Sterling on the map. “And you’re just now getting into dog apparel parties,” she said.

			Floss smoothed her hair away from her face, flicked it over her shoulder. “At least I’m not working at them.”

			The line was cruel, but Floss made it sound like a joke they’d had for years. And that was what got Orla—Orla, who had told herself on the day she moved to New York that the hollow way she felt would subside once the cable got hooked up, and who had gone on feeling empty every day for six years.

			She said, “What’s in it for me?”

			“If we do this right,” Floss answered, “whatever you need. I’m sure you don’t want to blog forever. I’m sure you have, what? A book? So you need an agent. If you help me, if I get as big as I think I can, they’ll want to talk to you just because you’re standing next to me.”

			Orla thought of her laptop sitting closed and cool, untouched in the dark of her room. She told herself that as soon as she finished this drink, she would go downstairs and write a thousand words without the TV on. “I don’t need your help with my book,” she said. “I can get an agent on my own.”

			Floss laughed. “Oh, really?” she said. “Are you sure? You better be sure. You better be sure that you’re in, like, the top five writers in New York City, and that you know all the people they know, and that those people like you better, and that those people are the right ones to begin with. Because look, Orla.” Floss placed her hands on either side of Orla’s head and pointed it at the building next to theirs, the one that blocked the sky from the rest of the roof. “It’s 10:45 on a Monday night, and everybody in that building has their lights on. You see? They’re all still up. Just like we’re still up. What do you think they’re doing?” She aimed Orla’s head, roughly, at another building beneath them, a low-rise in pinkish-gray brick. “More lights,” she said. “How about them?”

			Orla saw a girl in her sports bra bent over her computer, drumming her fingers on her chin.

			“I’ve done the math,” Floss said. “I’ve done the actual math. There are eight million people here, and all of them want something as bad as I want what I want, as bad as you want what you want. We’re not all going to get it. It’s just not possible, that all these people could have their dreams come true in the same time, same place. It’s not enough to be talented. It’s not enough to work hard. You need to be disciplined, and you need to be ruthless. You have to do anything, everything, and you need to forget about doing the right thing.” She released Orla with a little shove and put her hands on her hips. “Leave that shit to people in the Midwest.”

			They were quiet as the atmosphere sucked up her monologue. Orla steadied herself and looked Floss over. She would never make it as an actress, she thought. She went a little too big, wanted a little too hard. But Floss, it seemed, didn’t want to be an actress. She wanted to be what she already was, even if nobody knew it yet: a celebrity. A person, exaggerated. And her point—the cold slap of the eight million dreams around them—unhooked something in Orla.

			“I don’t know,” she said, shakily, finally. “That kind of sounds like bullshit to me.” She tried to hold back a burp and found that it wasn’t a burp at all. She leaned over and threw up on the deck. The whiskey burned twice as hot coming back up. Orla kicked her purse toward Floss. “Can you get me a tissue?” she gasped.

			Floss dug through Orla’s bag. “Ohhhh,” she breathed after a moment, tugging something out. “This looks familiar.”

			Panting, hands on her knees, Orla squinted up and saw Floss holding, between two egg-shaped nails, Marie Jacinto’s cheap business card. The one Orla had found by the elevator. Orla would never forget that: Floss standing there, grinning at her, flicking the card. She would think of it on that awful last day, as blood bloomed through her shirt and Floss said in a low voice, for once trying not to be heard, that this was the deal, and you know it.

			And they did have a deal by then, with lawyers and seals and duplicates, but Orla never felt that the scrawls she made numbly on those documents were as binding as her failure to argue with what Floss said next. Floss put the card back in Orla’s bag carefully, like she wanted it to be safe. She pushed the kiddie car away from the puddle of vomit and walked Orla off of the roof, leaving the mess untouched and the gate wide open behind them. Inside, as they waited for the elevator, Floss grinned and put her face in Orla’s hair. “I don’t think it does sound like bullshit to you,” she said into Orla’s ear. “I think you are like me.”





CHAPTER FOUR


			Marlow





Constellation, California

2051


			When Jacqueline’s event had wrapped, Marlow told her car to take the long way home, hoping she could put off arriving until Ellis had gone to bed. The car obliged and turned onto Clooney Street, which wound lazily through Constellation. Marlow reclined her seat and lay on her side, watching her hometown float by. She was mistily struck, after two cocktails and a glimpse of how stupid-old she looked in a hair bow, by how different Constellation had seemed to her when she was young, when she didn’t know what so much of it was. As a kid, she had seen trees draped with ruby-red leaves in the fall and pure white blooms in the spring. She had seen gentle green hills loping along the back of the town, jutting up into pale coral sunsets that were always on time and spectacular. But the sunsets, she later learned, were staged—lit, from below, by colossal rose-colored lamps in the ground, because the network liked continuity and could not rely on the weather. The hills she had sprawled on as a teenager, bikini’d, enjoying being the only kid in town whose mother let her tan—those were actually fortified shelters, for hiding talent in case of an attack. As for the trees: they turned out to be fake, and fireproof, their mineral wool trunks wrapped in vinyl laminate bark. (Constellation had been built, after all, on top of the scorched wreckage of a county-leveling wildfire.) The leaves and flowers Marlow so loved, she found out, would never have coexisted in one natural species, especially not in California. Their foliage was laser-cut from modacrylics and melamines. When they flooded with color, they did so at the push of a button, at the whim of the network.

			But even with all that was choreographed for the cameras, Constellation still had more realness to it than its fans believed. Though Marlow knew people thought the opposite, her life wasn’t technically scripted. There were writers, of course—they lived in the gray-block high-rises on the edge of town, buildings so ugly they seemed designed to remind the writers who they weren’t—but they didn’t decide what came out of Marlow’s mouth. The writers were more like overbearing aunts, giving Marlow broad pep talks on how to be, weeding out her wardrobe. The network execs were both more mysterious and more direct. They lived among the talent, rotating and functioning as watchful extras—not long ago, Marlow had been startled to find the Head of Storyline himself behind the juice bar’s counter, handing her her usual smoothie. They never spoke to the talent out loud, not with the audience watching, but they were constantly in Marlow’s head, bossing her through her device. They let her choose things for herself, but they also closed off plenty of options. It was a little like being a mouse in a maze. She could run as fast as she wanted, but she wasn’t picking the turns.

			It took Marlow a long time to see that this was how she had come to marry Ellis. The network had nudged him into the path they knew she’d have to take, a lonely corridor she had been racing down since freshman year of high school, when Hysteryl started sponsoring her and the network began forcing kids to sit with her at lunch. Marlow knew her classmates’ parents had threatened and cajoled them—be nice to her or we’ll get a fine, next semester you’ll be back with your real friends—and the kids always listened. They were always kind. But she could feel the resentment over their assigned seats rising like heat from their skin. No one had sat with her just because they wanted to since Grace. No one had been her friend out of choice since the night she became, as the network put it, “a good fit” for the Hysteryl campaign.

			After graduation, everyone else in Marlow’s class was issued their vocational arcs—outdoorsy chef, promiscuous nurse—and sent off for their year of training. But all Marlow got was a memo, telling her she was free to spend her days in any way that kept her happy. So she trailed her mother to the spa. She rearranged the furniture in her room and pretended that it meant she had a flair for interior design. She kept going to ballet class, even though every year the girls got younger and younger than her. Marlow never liked the actual dancing but loved posing in formation with the others. She loved the tiny heh of the shared breath they took just before they started moving, the synchronized thunk of their pointe shoes as they finished a combination. She would let herself imagine that these girls were really her friends, standing close to her on purpose. After class, she would pay attention as the other dancers rolled their tights up to their knees and talked about their classmates. Over time, she learned all the names, all the stories, every corner of an ecosystem she was not a part of. Sometimes, when she was out, she would recognize someone from the ballerinas’ gossip, someone she had never met but felt like she knew so well, it was hard not to say hello. It was the first time she understood the way her followers must feel about her, and the line that came into her mind, as she gazed at these strangers, was always the same: Oh, it’s one of you. From my collection.

			Finally, Marlow turned twenty-one and was eligible for real romance. Twenty-one was the age at which the young talent’s random dalliances with each other were replaced with dates staged by the network: amber-lit restaurant dinners of vibrant food that sat untouched, lest the sounds of chewing muddy the audio of the two stars at the table. The network sent Marlow matches each Friday morning, the smirk of a straight, single, network-approved man appearing in her thoughts over breakfast. Would I like to meet him? her device would prompt, and Marlow always said yes. Even though she never ate, Marlow always ordered dessert, just to prolong the experience of being in a place full of happy-looking couples her age. It felt nearly like having friends.

			She met Ellis on one of those bad dates. Marlow couldn’t remember, now, the face of the boy she had come to the bar with—this was fourteen years ago—but she remembered that her followers were not enthused by the way he blabbered on about his family’s vineyard. She remembered that, when she let her mind wander and checked her dashboard, 61 percent of her audience thought that she should ditch him immediately.

			Over her date’s shoulder, she watched a knot of people orbit a tall, lanky boy with a shock of reddish-brown hair and a stubbled, strong jaw. He wore a T-shirt with tiny holes at the shoulder seams. Eventually, he pushed through a segment of the people around him and joined the line for the bathroom. His friends watched him go, holding their drinks against their chests. When he tossed a joke over his shoulder, they laughed in hearty unison. They held the space where he had been standing open, for when he came back.

			“Excuse me,” Marlow said, after watching this scene. She ducked under her date’s arm. “I’m just going to the bathroom.”

			She went and stood behind the boy. His face was turned in her direction, but she could tell he was lost in his device. She tried to think of something to say, a way to flare her eyes, that would make him see what he was already looking at. The song that was on in the bar, a woman sounding anxious over bitter guitar, flooded the space between them.

			Before she could speak, Ellis snapped to. “I know you,” he said. “I’ve got a poster of you on my wall.” Then he went red, and she laughed. “My cubicle wall,” he clarified. People loved this part of the story, and Marlow had once, too. Now when she looked back on it, she only thought: Of course.

			Marlow always said she fell in love that very night—and she did, but not with him. It was the group Ellis drew her into when she followed him back from the bathroom. His hand on the small of her back, he guided her into the space his friends had saved for him. “Everyone, Marlow,” he said. “Marlow, everyone.” Everyone’s faces turned warmly her way. Everyone’s hands clasped hers without hesitation. One boy passed her a beer like it was a napkin, the essence of no big deal. The girls pulled their hair away from their faces and told her their names.

			Ellis leaned through the driver’s side window of her car and kissed her before she rode home, hugging her knees to her chest and giggling the whole way about her good fortune: she had met a new crush and all of his friends. As soon as she got home that night, slamming her door on her mother’s questions, she plugged each and every one of them into the neighbors list on her map. Up their symbols popped, all around hers. It astonished her: they had been right there, all around her, these friendly people. And despite her past—despite her breakthrough moment, the thing they all must know she was known for—every one of them treated her like she was normal. Ellis Trieste standing next to her instantly undid years of shunning.

			That night, as she lay on her bed, she researched him. She learned that his parents were on the board of the network. They were part of the original group of old-Hollywood producers who invented Constellation, who had moved quickly, in the twenty-twenties, to purchase the stretch of ash it would be built on. She learned that he was business-class talent, which meant he had a real job, not just a few tricks for making it look that way on camera. He was even approved for travel beyond Constellation’s borders; he worked in marketing for a company outside town called Antidote Pharmaceutical, which—more research, propping her legs up on the headboard, jiggling one knee impatiently—happened to be a valued network ad partner. Beneath the stone-faced profile photo of Ellis that Marlow held in her head, scrutinizing each pore, was a tagline. Ask me about Hysteryl. The pill that kept her even, and kept her on the air.

			What she told herself as they began to date was: So what? So what if her relationship had been dreamed up by people in a meeting? So what if some ambitious Antidote intern, having studied up on Marlow, had pointed out that she seemed lonely, that she would probably love to date someone who came with a group of friends? So what if some VP of something or other had nodded at the intern’s suggestion, then turned to Ellis and said, “Trieste, you’re single, aren’t you?” So what if Ellis had nodded sagely, ever the company man, and answered, “Sure, I can run point on this.”

			So what if these things that she imagined were true? No matter how things had begun, Marlow decided then, she was glad to be with people. Happy to have friends, and proud to have won the unwinnable Ellis Trieste. He confessed to her, early on, that he was a “personality snob”—that his standards were probably too high, that he found most women too dramatic. The frame of reference he gave made it even sweeter, then, when he began to compliment her lack of feeling. He noted how cool she was, for a girl—how even-keeled, how unaffected. But for Marlow, it was no challenge, looking like she didn’t care. Hysteryl kept her emotions like clothes in a neat dresser drawer: stored where they belonged, unfolded only when appropriate, and put back with ease, in order. She was so pleased about earning the label of cool—her, the girl whose reputation could not, for so long, outrun one violent impulse—that she missed what a stupid thing it was, marrying someone to celebrate impressing him.

			At their wedding, they were surrounded by the people from the bar the night they met. When the ushers went to seat their friends—bride’s side, or groom’s?—the friends all flapped their hands. They said it didn’t matter; they said they loved them both. Marlow had never been so content.

			Then the people went home, and the marriage began. Marlow realized she had been naive to think that they would see their friends as much afterward; they were all marrying, too, and Ellis began to grow tired of, as he called it, “the scene.” Even when he withdrew, Marlow kept up with everyone. She played tennis with them, got massages and manicures with them, helped them plan brunches and showers and parties. She did her best to not be alone with her husband, because a frightening truth was beginning to peel itself back, like paint off a wall: she didn’t like being married to Ellis. He was always on his device while she spoke, working on other things in his head as he stood there, pretending to listen to her. The only time he paid attention to what she was saying was when she talked about her medication—the thing they had in common, the thing he was keeping tabs on. There were small things she hated about him, too, and those were somehow worse, their symbolism metastasizing as the years passed. This one drove her insane, a permanent mental hangnail: he hid the snacks he liked best beneath their bed, so that he didn’t have to share them with her. He would rather risk eating unrefrigerated cheese—cashew cheddar he stashed in the dark next to his snowboard—than let her have some, too. It all added up to an obvious correlation, one she had no business being surprised by: the man with the air of not-caring actually didn’t care.

			It went on like this for ten years. Sometimes Marlow thought—from a detached, theoretical distance—about screaming or breaking a dish. But mostly she would call up her map with its crop of contacts, her busy social schedule for the week, and remind herself: Small price to pay. Sometimes she thought it so forcefully, her device mistook it for an intuition. Small price to pay, the soundless voice would repeat. An English expression meaning: a minor sacrifice. Worth the trouble.

			The marriage had gone flat, and so had the content they made together. More than once, the network had chastised them for their long dinner silences, their heavy sighs side by side in bed. For Ellis, the matter was doubly serious. Like all network talent, he was obligated to be interesting. And as an Antidote employee, he felt pressure to make sure that his wife—the face of Hysteryl—looked content. But these days, Marlow made no attempt to look content with Ellis. She secretly hoped that her marriage would become so boring to viewers that the network would have to cancel it.

			And now Ida, who was supposed to get this season’s divorce plot, was gone.

			Someone would have to take over that narrative—the network needed breakups. Ratings on the hetero ones were particularly good, especially with women in the flyover states, forty-five to sixty. The network lavished real budget on such arcs: if Marlow got one, she might even get to go on a trip, despite the no-travel stipulation in her contract. (It was too hard to control her environment beyond Constellation’s borders, to ensure that nothing would dent her mood and, by extension, Hysteryl’s reputation.) She could imagine the ending perfectly, could see herself giving Ellis a poignant goodbye, taking one last look around the home they had shared. She wouldn’t sob or heave, the way her mother would in such a scene. She would stand straight and tall—with a fresh blowout, maybe. She would radiate class and faint optimism. Now, that, she bet, would make her feel thirty-five. She was ready for a new story.



* * *



			One evening, not long after Jacqueline’s scrunchie party, Marlow and Ellis sat on the couch in silence, watching different films in their heads. Suddenly, their devices perked in unison. Midseason assignments were in.

			Divorce c’mon divorce, Marlow begged silently. Divorce, with temporary relocation to Anguilla and personal fitness trainer. Male.

			She and Ellis sat forward on the sofa.

			Congratulations! Marlow heard in her head. We will be having a baby this season.

			Marlow broke the word down into syllables—bay, bee—and found she couldn’t make sense of the term in this context, the context being her life.

			Egg storage for female lead Marlow Clipp, aged thirty-five, has reached its expiration date. More details about our baby design process and sowing celebration will be forthcoming.

			Bay. Bee.

			Marlow tried to picture herself in a hospital bed, Ellis at her side, an infant being lowered onto her chest. She couldn’t imagine them smiling at each other the way the parents always did in these scenes. All at once, Marlow got what this storyline meant. For the first time in her life on camera, she would have to act.

			She looked at Ellis, to see how he was taking the news, and found him one step ahead of her. His eyes were wider than she had ever seen them, his smile unfamiliar, with too many teeth on display. He raised a hand and smacked his forehead theatrically.

			He knew, Marlow thought. He’s not surprised. And neither was she, when she thought about it. When she remembered the Liberty deal.

			Six months earlier, Ellis had come home with a new account. He was overseeing his first merger, he told Marlow proudly. Antidote was acquiring Liberty Family Planning, the company that had long overseen Constellation’s babymaking. Liberty was expanding across the country, and it was Ellis’s job to up their profile on the network, to convince Constellation fans that they should have babies the same expensive way their favorite stars did. The process had three stages: egg reaping, baby design, egg replacement.

			“Huge for me,” Ellis had said that day, rapping a rhythm on the table. “Huge for us.”

			Marlow had opened some champagne, feeling conspicuously wifelike. As she poured their drinks, she thought of her own trip to Liberty. It was where she and every other teenage girl in Constellation had their eggs siphoned out of them at eighteen, to be frozen until the network green-lit their pregnancy arcs. “This will give you total freedom from your biological clock,” Marlow could still hear the nurse saying. “Freedom to grow and achieve.” (Lazy writer guidance, there, Marlow thought later—Liberty’s actual motto was “Freedom to grow. Freedom to achieve. Freedom from your biological clock.”) The network worked closely with Liberty to plan the births of their stars’ babies—to prevent viewers from being torn between Jacqueline’s second C-section and the bursting forth of Ida’s twin boys, or to ensure that offspring could be quickly defrosted for couples the audience responded to.

			Or for couples, Marlow thought, whom the audience had grown bored of. Whose stories were in dire need of a twist.

			She got up and went into the master bathroom. Ellis followed her in, closing the door behind them. He seemed somewhere else entirely for a moment before he looked to her and grinned. “A baby!” he said. “Man, I can’t wait to be a dad. I can’t wait to tell the client.”

			He said those two things, Marlow thought, like they were perfectly related, and equal in weight. She heard herself laughing, heard the way the drugs in her bloodstream smoothed desperation out of the sound. Her laughter sounded joyful. Normal.

			Ellis thought so, too. “Hold on!” he said, waving his hands. “Save it, Mar. This is your authentic reaction to becoming a mother. You’ve gotta share it with your followers.” He opened the bathroom door and prodded her out, to where she could be seen.



* * *



			Her followers were thrilled, of course. Followers loved babies.

			The next day, Marlow and Ellis drove to the same blush-colored, circular building where Marlow’s eggs had been harvested. Liberty’s waiting room hadn’t changed. The furniture was all cut from that frosted plastic that had been everywhere in her youth, the past’s idea of future, all of it yellowing now.

			“Have you decided on a gender?” the chipper nurse asked in the exam room. She handed them six genetic input kits, for each of them and their parents. They were to return them dirty, full of swabs and hair, so that the designers could begin sorting Marlow’s and Ellis’s gene pools, marking the things they wanted their child to have, striking the things they didn’t. This was stage two: design.

			“We don’t know yet,” Marlow said, at the same time Ellis said, “A boy.”

			The nurse smiled. “You don’t have to be coy,” she said to Marlow. “Exam rooms are off camera. There won’t be any spoilers.”

			“I’m not,” Marlow said, aiming her tone at her husband. “We aren’t done discussing it.”

			Ellis held his tongue, for the moment.

			“This is a special case, of course.” The nurse flattened her hands on the desk, splaying her elbows as she looked at her tablet. “While Hysteryl is a miracle drug, it’s still not safe for baby’s development. So we’ll be weaning you off, Marlow, a bit at a time, before we replace your eggs.”

			“She’ll still be the face of the drug,” Ellis broke in, as if this was the important thing, as if this mattered to the nurse. “She’ll be on a short cleanse, yes, but her campaign will go on. We’re testing some new ads that focus on the baby—like, what could be a happier ending for a troubled girl, growing up into a perfectly normal mother?”

			Marlow watched the side of his face as he talked. His ears were red. He seemed so eager for the nurse’s approval. “You didn’t tell me that, honey,” she murmured. “I had no idea that marketing had already met to decide my happy ending.”

			Ellis didn’t turn to look at her. “See how she jokes?” he said to the nurse. “She’s going to be fine.”

			The nurse nodded uneasily. “Right,” she said. “Well, it’s incredibly important—” the nurse trailed off, like she was listening to something come through her device, then nodded and squinted threateningly at Ellis “—that Marlow avoid stress completely during this time. Because she won’t have her normal defense system in place.”

			That night, the housekeeping drone whirred into their bedroom and set only half a pill on Marlow’s nightstand. Both of them looked at it. Ellis patted the blanket near where her leg was.

			“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll just have to be vigilant about self-care. All you have to do is stay happy.”



* * *



			A week later, Hysteryl was officially out of her system, the tiny dish beside her bed empty for the first time since she was fourteen.

			“You’re feeling good? Good girl,” Ellis said, scrutinizing her over his coffee, when she came into the kitchen each morning.

			And she was feeling good, at first. Then she began to feel strange, as if she was expanding, taking on new acreage too rapidly to keep up with her own topography. Feelings were returned to her like toys she hadn’t seen since childhood, and she held them awkwardly, unsure of what to do with them as an adult.

			Pettiness—at least, that was the best word she could think of for the sensation—came over her like hunger, several times a day.

			Once, in the middle of taking a bath, she stood up and sloshed naked into her bedroom, tugged Ellis’s snacks out from under the bed, and shoved every morsel down the garbage disposal. A few days later, she walked out of trivia night—a monthly outing with Ellis and their friends—after getting an answer wrong.

			“What’s the matter?” Ellis said, his voice deadly even, when he found her in the parking lot.

			“I hate trivia,” Marlow said. “I’m terrible at it.”

			Ellis ran his fingers slowly through his hair. He did this as often as he had when they met, though now he only had a third of the hair he had then. “You’re terrible at it,” he said, “because you’re not cheating. Everyone else is, you know.”

			Marlow stared at him. “What do you mean?” she said. “Cheating how?”

			Ellis held up his wrist. “We use our devices,” he said. “We just ask them the questions, and whoever’s fastest...”

			Here it came, with a force disproportionate to the moment: her anger. She imagined it black and crinkling, peeking out from all the places Hysteryl had long hidden it—behind her pink organs, between the gray folds of her brain. The trivia master made it clear before every game: No devices. Use the rest of your brain! “Everyone’s cheating?” Marlow repeated. “What’s the fun in that?”

			“The part where you win,” Ellis said. “Come on,” he added, somewhat sharply. “Don’t be sad.”

			“I’m not sad.” Marlow turned away from the window of the bar, so that her friends couldn’t see her face, even if twelve million strangers could. “I’m pissed.”

			Ellis shrugged and dug into his jeans pocket. “Then why are you crying?” he said.

			She took the tissue he handed her. She didn’t know she was.

			She went to Jacqueline’s again, for a mud mask party, and found her lungs constricting in the middle of it, her brain suddenly rattling with the sensation that she had wasted too much of her life here, watching Jacqueline smearing on things. She backed quietly toward the front door, then out of it. On her way to her car, she stopped at the line of vintage lawn flamingos in Jacqueline’s front yard.

			“What is the point of you?” she hissed at them, glaring into their black button eyes. Her hand twitched at her side. She knew, if she gave in to the urge, what would be waiting for her when she woke up: a note from the network, idling in her mind, warning that erratic behavior had been flagged on my feed, that commercial cutaway had been employed as a stopgap, that I should please restrict such behavior, in the future, to off-camera zones.

			She hauled off and slapped the plastic birds, every one of them, and felt savagely wronged when they didn’t fall. Jacqueline had staked them in firmly, and so they only bobbed, beaks glinting in the haze of the illumidrones waiting in the sky for someone on the ground to need them. When an illumidrone sensed a person walking in the dark, it swooped down to light a path, looking, from a distance, like a shooting star in descent. When she was young, Marlow remembered, that was what she thought they were. Another pretty thing she had misjudged.

			She toggled over to see what her followers were saying.

			She’s losing it again. Go bitch! Show them one-legged fuckers what’s up!

			What did those birds ever do to you Mar? LOL

			NOOOOOOO NO ONE WANTS TO WATCH ANOTHER PILL AD—PUT THE MARLOW FLAMINGO SMACKDOWN BACK ON!!!!!

			And:

			What I don’t get is how she’s so unhinged over this pregnancy thing, like it’s some big surprise. Course they were gonna give her one, with Ellis on that deal or whatever and her being thirty-fucking-five. Saw this “twist” coming a mile away.

			That was the thing about being the mouse in the maze, Marlow thought as the flamingos finished trembling, went still. She was the only one surprised by where she ended up.





CHAPTER FIVE


			Orla





New York, New York

2015


			Right from the start, it was suspiciously easy. At least, Orla should have been suspicious of how easy it was, two girls hijacking the public eye from the floor of their Chelsea rental. Her mistake was seeing the ease—the way things ribboned out in front of her and Floss—as a sign she was on the right path.

			They started the way everyone did: they shared. Floss posted pictures online—of herself, her things, her food—constantly, as if she was someone whose meals became fascinating just by virtue of her being in front of them. Nobody ever said, as Orla worried they would, With respect, what do you do for a living? or Who dis bitch? Floss didn’t even have a proper bio on any of her platforms, just a quote: “There is no security on this earth. There is only opportunity.” She had attributed it to Britney Spears before Orla plugged it into Google and found that it had been said by General Douglas MacArthur.

			One day, Floss prepared to post a Snapchat of herself explaining how to apply brow gel. “So fire,” she rehearsed, as she ran the brush across her arches. “So fi-yah.” A thought came to Orla, torn from the script of people more famous than Floss.

			“You know what I think you should do at the end?” Orla said. “Say that you don’t have a deal with them. The brow gel people. Say, like, ‘I swear, they’re not even paying me to say this.’”

			“Why?” Floss jammed the wand back into its bottle and stretched her eyes in the mirror.

			“Because then people will think that other brands do pay you,” Orla said. “To talk about their stuff.”

			That was at seven thirty in the morning. As Floss mulled the idea, Orla showered, then went to work. She was at her desk when Floss posted the video, at 8:45 a.m. “I’m not getting any money for this, either, you guys,” Floss sang dutifully. At 9:03 a.m., Orla sent the video to Ingrid, who popped her head out of her office thirty seconds later. Her lips were coral. Lady-ish had recently taken a firm stance on coral being the new red.

			“Orla,” Ingrid called, “why do I care this girl’s doing her eyebrows?”

			“It’s Floss Natuzzi,” Orla said. “She’s big on Insta? Plus, you know that hundred-dollar brow gel, from that Korean beauty line that doesn’t write anything on their packaging? It looks from the video like she might be one of the first stars here they sent it to.”

			It did look like that, because, just before stepping onto the elevator at home, Orla had run back to the apartment, scraped the lettering from an old Maybelline tube, and pressed it into Floss’s hand.

			“Fine,” Ingrid said, and slid her door shut.

			At 9:27 a.m., Orla published the post: “Sooo What Does The World’s Most Expensive Brow Gel Actually Do? One Instagram It Girl Finds Out.” Then she cupped her phone in her hands and swiped to Floss’s Twitter account. As Floss, Orla tweeted the link to the post, tagging Lady-ish. She waited.

			Two minutes later, Orla got an email from Ingrid: Floss tweeted our post! What a SWEETHEART. RT from Lady-ish, pls. That was the thing about Ingrid: every semifamous person disgusted her right up until the second they threw her a bone.

			Orla used her computer to log into the Lady-ish account and retweeted the missive she had written as Floss. She quickly silenced her phone, muffling the incoming notifications of Floss’s new followers. It was 9:30 on the nose.

			That night, when Orla got home, Floss was waiting for her at the door. So was a crate of cream-flavored vodka, a pallet of whispery diet chips, and a dozen forty-dollar lipsticks, arranged like chocolates inside a black box.

			“This one came by messenger,” Floss said. “And he asked me for a selfie.”

			The more she tweeted, the less they spent. Orla found herself living almost entirely off Floss’s loot. Their apartment filled up with the sort of things Orla never would have chosen for herself—gluten-free freezer meals with a pop star’s face on the box, shoes downy with calf hair, purses pimpled with ostrich flesh—but she ate them and wore them eagerly, because they were free and they were proof: she and Floss were succeeding. The doorman never grinned at them anymore; “Package,” he said wearily, over and over, rising from his stool when he saw one of them coming. Orla sometimes slipped him bags of free cookies or chips, removing the hopeful notes from entry-level PR girls. Almost invariably, the girls were named Alyssa.

			Orla didn’t have time, most nights, to work on writing her book. As soon as she w