Chapter no 15



The Discourse has finally blown over, just as Brett had promised. I no longer need to mute my notifications for fear they’ll crash my phone. I’m no longer Twitter’s main character. But that’s precisely the problem—I’m now trending toward irrelevance.

Such is the life cycle of every book that doesn’t become a classic. The Last Front has been out for nearly a year at this point. It finally dropped off bestseller lists after four months. It didn’t win any of the awards it was short-listed for, in no small part due to the @AthenaLiusGhost scandal. The fan mail, good and bad, is all starting to dry up. The school and library invitations have ground to a halt. I’ve heard no news from Greenhouse Productions since I signed the contract—which is common, apparently; most optioned properties sit untouched on the shelf until the option period is up. People have stopped soliciting me for op-eds and essays. Nowadays, when I tweet something funny, I get fifty or sixty likes at most.

I’ve been an internet nobody before, clinging to one or two weekly Twitter mentions for a boost of serotonin. But I hadn’t realized that even if you capture the entire literary world in the palm of your hand, it can still forget about you in the blink of the eye. Out with the old; in with the hot new thing, which is from what I can tell a pretty, fit, twentysomething debut writer named Kimmy Kai who spent her childhood doing acrobatics for a traveling circus in Hawaii and has now published a memoir about spending her childhood doing acrobatics for a traveling circus in Hawaii.

I’m not starving. I’ve done the math. If I live modestly—“modestly” defined as staying in my current apartment and ordering takeout every other day instead of every day—I could survive the next ten, even fifteen years

on my earnings from The Last Front alone. The hardcover of The Last Front has gone back for its eleventh printing. The paperback edition just came out, which has generated a nice sales bump—paperbacks are cheaper, so they sell a bit better. I truly don’t need the money. I could walk away from all of this and be perfectly fine.

But, my God, I want to be back in the spotlight.

You enjoy this delightful waterfall of attention when your book is the latest breakout success. You dominate the cultural conversation. You possess the literary equivalent of the hot hand. Everyone wants to interview you. Everyone wants you to blurb their book, or host their launch event. Everything you say matters. If you utter a hot take about the writing process, about other books, or even about life itself, people take your word as gospel. If you recommend a book on social media, people actually drive out that day to go buy it.

But your time in the spotlight never lasts. I’ve seen people who were massive bestsellers not even six years ago, sitting alone and forlorn at neglected signing tables while lines stretched around the corner for their younger, hotter peers. It’s hard to reach such a pinnacle of literary prominence that you remain a household name for years, decades past your latest release. Only a handful of Nobel Prize winners can get away with that. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.

I’ve just learned from Twitter that my mentee, Emmy Cho, has signed with Athena’s former literary agent, Jared, a hotshot shark known for six-and seven-figure deals. As her mentor I’m happy for her, but I also feel a spike of anxiety every time Emmy shares her good news. I’m afraid she’ll catch up to me, that her inevitable book deal will involve an advance bigger than mine, that she’ll sell film rights to a production company that will actually sell it to a studio, that her fame will then overshoot mine, and that the next time we see each other at some literary event she will merely greet me with a cool, superior nod.

The only way to get ahead, of course, is to dazzle the world with my next project.

But I’ve no clue what that might be.


for a while, and then he asks, “So, how are things going in writing land?”

I know what he’s really asking. Everyone’s clamoring for my next pitch, and it’s not only because publishing has such a short attention span. What he’s thinking, and what Daniella is thinking, is that if I can put out a follow-up to The Last Front soon, something clearly not plagiarized or so intimately linked to Athena, but that still retains the ineffable Juniper Song spark, then we can dispel the rumors once and for all.

I sigh. “I’ve got to be honest: I have nothing. I’m out of ideas. I’ve been toying with a few concepts, but nothing really sticks.”

“Well, that’s all right.” I can’t tell if he’s irritated or not. This is the third time we’ve had this conversation, and I know that time is running out. There’s no hard deadline—I only signed a one-book contract with Eden, but that contract stipulates that Daniella has the right to a first look on my next work. Brett wants to show her something very soon, while we’re still in her good graces, otherwise who knows what other publishers would want to pick me up next? “You have to let creativity come when it comes; I know that. It’s just that you’ve got social capital right now, and it’s best to strike when the iron’s hot—”

“I know, I know.” I press my fingers against my temples. “I just can’t think of anything that hooks me. I have to really care about something, you know? It’s got to have the heft, the importance—”

“It doesn’t have to be great, Junie. We’re not trying to win the Pulitzer. We don’t even need something like The Last Front.” Brett pauses. “You just have to publish, you know, something. Anything.”

“Okay, Brett.”

“You get what I’m saying, though?” I roll my eyes. “Loud and clear.”

We say our goodbyes. Brett hangs up. I groan and turn back to my laptop, where I’ve been staring at the same blank, accusing Word document for weeks.


more time to turn those ideas into full drafts. Now that publicity commitments for The Last Front have died down, I have no excuse not to be productive. Brett’s right to be impatient—I’ve been making vague promises about forthcoming projects for over a year now, and nothing has materialized.

The problem is that every time I sit down to write, all I hear is Athena’s voice.

The Last Front was supposed to be a onetime collaboration. Athena’s research and brainstorming, my prose and polish. I felt a wonderful, mysterious alchemy during those fevered weeks, when I conjured her writing voice from beyond the grave and harmonized my own against it. I wasn’t dependent on her—I’ve never needed her to write—but the joint exercise gave me confidence at a time when I had none. It made my pen so sure, knowing I was writing across her footsteps.

But now that I’m trying to move on, she won’t leave me alone. Most authors will confess they hear an “inner editor,” an internal naysayer that nitpicks and hampers their attempts at first drafts. Mine has taken the form of Athena. Haughtily, she peruses and dismisses every story idea I attempt. Too trite. Too formulaic. Too white. She’s even harsher at the sentence level. The rhythm’s off. That imagery doesn’t work. Seriously? Another em dash?

I’ve tried to block her out and push through, to write in spite of and to spite her. But it’s in those moments that her laughing grows louder, her taunts meaner. My doubts only ever intensify. Who am I to imagine I can achieve anything without her?

I’ve put on a stiff upper lip in public, but Geoff’s Twitter antics rattled me more than I let on. Athena Liu’s Ghost. A grotesque choice of name; surely chosen to surprise and provoke, but there’s more truth to it than even Geoff knew. Athena’s ghost has anchored itself to me; it hovers over my shoulder, whispering in my ear every waking moment of my day.

It’s maddening. These days I’ve started dreading the thought of trying to write, because I can’t write without thinking of her. Then, of course, my thoughts inevitably spiral beyond the writing to the memories: the final night, the pancakes, the gurgling sounds she made as she thrashed against the floor.

I thought I’d gotten over her death. I was doing so well mentally. I was in a good space. I was fine.

Until she returned.

But isn’t that what ghosts do? Howl, moan, make themselves into spectacles? That’s the whole point of a ghost, is it not? Anything to remind you that they’re still there. Anything to keep you from forgetting.


That night in Athena’s apartment, I didn’t only take The Last Front. I also took a smattering of papers lying across her desk, some typewritten, some covered in Athena’s looping, nearly illegible scrawl, accompanied by abstract line doodles whose significance I still haven’t figured out.

I swear it was only out of curiosity. Athena was always so cagey about her creative process. The way she described it, it was like the gods dropped award-winning stories into her mind fully formed. I just wanted to get a look inside her head, to see if her early-stage brainstorming was anything like mine.

It turns out, we create in very similar ways. She starts with random words or phrases, some original, some clearly song lyrics or minor modifications of other, more famous lines of literature—Rook was already dead when I arrivedthe boy from nowhereit was a dark yet brilliant nightif I hit you, would it feel like a kiss?

I place them out on my desk now, staring at them, hunting for a shred of inspiration. I can’t get Athena’s voice out of my head, but maybe I can work with it. Maybe I can force her ghost back into service and resurrect that same unholy chemistry that fueled The Last Front.

There are only a few completed sentences and only one completed paragraph, written out by hand, which begins like this:

In my nightmares she walks into a dark and never-ending hallway, and as many times as I call her name, she never turns around. Her dress leaves wet streaks on the carpet. Her pale arms are bloody and scratched. I know she has slain the bear. I know she has escaped the forest. She moves now with that same urgency, abandoning the past like Orpheus, inverted, like if she never glances back over her shoulder, it will cease to exist. She forgets I am trapped here, unable to move, unable to make her see me. She forgets me entirely.

I don’t know how to explain what happens next. It’s like the story was already in my heart, waiting to be told, and Athena’s voice is the spell to draw it out. Suddenly my writer’s block dissipates, and the unlocked gates to my imagination swing wide open.

I can see the shape of the story in full: its opening hook, its underlying themes, its shocking yet inevitable ending. Our protagonist is a barefoot girl, a young witch chasing her immortal mother through eternity, uncovering her secrets only to form more questions about herself and where

she’s come from. It’s a not-so-subtle exploration of my feelings toward my own mother: how she transformed so abruptly after my father’s death; how the adventurous young girl she once was, who was perhaps not so different from me, has been locked entirely away. It’s about wishing you knew who your parents were. It’s about needing things from your parents you’ll never get.

When you’re in the zone, drafting doesn’t feel like an effortful artifice. It feels like remembering, like putting down in written form something that has been locked inside you all along. The story pours out of me, paragraph by paragraph, until I look up and realize that it’s nearly dawn, and that I’ve written almost ten thousand words in a manic sprint.

Athena’s ghost has not bothered me once. At last, I’ve arrived at a project even she can’t find fault with.

I sketch out an outline for the rest of the story and create a work schedule for myself: at a rate of two thousand words a day, and factoring in time for revisions and line edits, I can have this finished in less than a month. Then, before I crash into sleep, I type out a title at the top of the document:

Mother Witch.

No one in their right mind could call this stealing. That’s what’s most fucked up about this whole debacle. Mother Witch is my original creation. All Athena contributed was a couple of sentences, maybe some underlying imagery. She was the catalyst, nothing more. Who knows where she would have taken the rest of the story? I certainly don’t—and I bet that, whatever it was, it’s nothing like what I ultimately publish.

And yet it’s this story that brings me down.


We became friends at the start of our freshman year. We were both assigned to the same floor in our dorm, so naturally that became our default social circle those first few weeks. We ate all our meals together, went shopping for dorm goods together, took the Yale shuttle to Trader Joe’s for pepper jack cheese and cookie butter, hung out late nights in the common room, and stalked the streets of downtown New Haven on Friday nights in short skirts and tight-fitting tops, watching like vultures for the noise and lights that signified a party, hoping that someone knew someone who would let us in.

Athena and I had bonded instantly over our love of the same book, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. “It is the perfect campus tale,” Athena said, articulating clearly every feeling I’d ever had about the novel. “It describes precisely that gulf between wanting others to know you, and being terrified that they might understand, at a time when we’re not sure who we are at all. It’s not just about translating between Russian and English, it’s also about translating an unformed identity. I love it.” We would go together to open mic nights at bookstore cafés and apartment parties hosted by upperclassmen in our fiction seminars, and from late August through September I made myself believe I was the sort of person this impossibly cool goddess would be friends with.

The first weekend of October, I went on a date with a cute sophomore named Andrew: someone I’d noticed during my World History discussion sections but hadn’t worked up the nerve to speak to until we crossed paths at a Delta Phi party, both falling-down drunk and just looking for a body to glue ourselves to. We hadn’t exchanged two words before we started making out. I can’t remember if it was good or not, only that it was very sticky, but it felt like we were doing the expected, and that in itself seemed like an achievement. Before my friends dragged me home, I put my number in his phone. Miraculously, he texted me the next day, invited me over to his room the following Friday to watch an episode of Sherlock while his roommate was at late-night Ultimate Frisbee practice.

What happened next is so mundane it almost doesn’t feel worth describing. He had a handle of Burnett’s on hand. Excited, I drank too much and too fast. We never got around to watching Sherlock. I woke up the next morning with my panties around my ankles and violent, purplish-black hickeys on my neck. My vagina, to be honest, felt fine—later I would poke and prod at it, trying to tell if I was sore or bleeding, but it all seemed normal. I was just dry-mouthed, hungover, and so nauseated that I kept leaning over the side of the bunk bed to dry heave. Everything was blurry; I’d fallen asleep with my contacts in, and my eyes were so dry I could barely keep them open. Beside me, Andrew was fully clothed and asleep. He didn’t wake up when I climbed over him out of bed, for which I was desperately grateful.

I found my heels, pulled them on, and staggered back to my dorm.

I was fine throughout the weekend. I didn’t go out again, even though half the girls I knew were getting pretty for a sorority open house night. I

stayed in, enjoyed a popcorn and movie night with some girls on my floor, and attempted my course reading. It was getting colder outside; I wore turtlenecks and scarves to hide my hickeys. Back in my room, where I could not conceal my bare neck from my roommate, Michelle, I made jokes about having a wild weekend, and that was the last we spoke of it.

Andrew hadn’t texted me since I left his room, which didn’t bother me much. Mostly I felt blasé about the whole affair, and proud of being blasé. I felt grown-up, womanly, accomplished. I’d hooked up with a sophomore. A cute sophomore. The enormity of it delighted me. I’d crossed a bridge into adulthood; I’d “hooked up” with someone, as the youths say. And I was fine.

It was only the next week that I started suffering flashbacks. Andrew’s face would pop up in my mind during lectures: vivid, up close, his chin prickly and his breath sour with cinnamon Burnett’s. I’d find myself unable to breathe, unable to move without feeling waves of vertigo. My imagination would spiral out, imagining the worst possible scenarios. Could I be pregnant? Did I have HIV? HPV? Herpes? AIDS? Would my uterus rot out inside me? Should I see campus health? If I saw campus health, would it cost me hundreds of dollars I didn’t have? Had my mom waived the student insurance plan? I couldn’t remember. Was I going to die because of a stupid mistake I’d made, something I hadn’t even been awake for?

Andrew didn’t text me until two in the morning the following Saturday: Hey, u up? I saw it when I got up to pee and deleted it, hoping to spare my waking self the reminder of his existence.

But I couldn’t get his face, his smell, his touch out of my mind. I started taking incredibly long showers, three or four times a day. I kept having nightmares in which I was pinned beneath him, trapped under his scratchy chin, unable to move or scream. Michelle would wake me up, shaking my shoulders gently, asking me apologetically and diplomatically if I had earplugs she could borrow, because she had discussion section at eight in the morning and I was interrupting her REM cycles. I found myself weeping randomly in the afternoons, overwhelmed with self-loathing. I even considered going to a student Bible study group, though I’d stopped going to church after Dad since the pastor told me he was going to hell as he’d never been baptized, just because I wanted something that could help me make sense of my very retrograde but still strong conviction that I was irreversibly tainted, used, and dirty.

“Hey, Juniper?” Athena stopped me one afternoon on my way back from the dining hall. Back then, Athena was the only one who used my full name, which was a habit she would sustain through adulthood, calling Tashas “Natasha” and Bills “William” as if this insistence on formality would elevate everyone in the conversation. (It did.) She touched my arm. Her fingers were smooth and cool. “Are you okay?”

And maybe it was because I’d been holding it all in for so long, or because she was the first person at Yale who’d really looked at me and noticed that something wasn’t right, but I burst immediately into loud, ugly tears.

“Come on,” she said, rubbing gentle circles on my back. “Let’s go to my room.”

Athena held my hand while I recounted the whole thing through hiccupping sobs. She talked me through my options, made me look through the campus resources list, and helped me decide if I wanted to seek counseling (yes) or report Andrew to the campus police to try and press charges (no). She walked with me to my first appointment with Dr. Gaily, where I got a diagnosis for my anxiety, unpacked all this shit I’d been carrying since my father’s death, and learned coping mechanisms that I still use today. She left takeout meals from the cafeteria outside my door when she noticed I hadn’t gone to dinner. She texted me puppy photos late at night captioned, Hope you dream of this!

For two weeks, Athena Liu was my guardian angel. I thought she was so kind. I thought we would be friends forever.

But freshman friendships don’t last. By our second semester, I was running in my own circles, and she in hers. We still smiled and waved when we passed each other in the dining hall. We still liked each other’s Facebook posts. But we weren’t talking for hours on the floors of our rooms, trading stories about authors we hoped to meet and literary scandals we’d read about on Twitter. We weren’t texting each other during class anymore. Perhaps, I thought, the enormity of what I’d shared had killed a proper friendship in the bud. There are appropriate levels to intimacy. You can’t break out “I think I was raped, but I don’t really know,” until at least three months in.

We all moved on. I forgot about Andrew, or at least buried him so deep in the back of my mind that he wouldn’t resurface until therapy sessions many years later. The freshman girl’s brain is startlingly capable of

selective amnesia; I believe it is a survival reaction. I made new, closer friends, none of whom would ever know what had happened. My hickeys faded. I settled into life at Yale, stopped going to parties where I made a fool of myself, and threw myself into my coursework.

But then Athena’s first short story came out in one of Yale’s alt literary magazines, a pretentious rag titled Ouroboros. This was a big deal— freshmen never got published in Ouroboros, or so I heard, and we all bought copies to support her. I took my print volume up to my room to read. I felt a snarl of jealousy—I’d submitted my own story months ago and had been resoundingly rejected within a day—but I wanted to look like a good sport, so I thought I’d read enough to find a few particularly witty lines, and then quote them back at Athena the next time I saw her.

I flipped the issue open to page twelve, Athena’s story, and found my own words staring back at me.

But they weren’t quite my words. Just my feelings, all of my confused and tangled thoughts, articulated in a clean, understated yet sophisticated style that I didn’t then have the eloquence to achieve.

And the worst part was that I didn’t know, narrated the protagonist. I truly couldn’t tell if I’d been raped, if I’d wanted it, if anything had happened at all, if I was glad that nothing had happened, or if I wanted something to happen just so I could make it out to be more important than I was. The place between my legs is a lacuna. There is no memory, no shame, no pain. It’s all just gone. And I do not know what to do with the lack.

I read the story from beginning to end, again and again, spotting more and more similarities every time, identifying personal details changed with either astounding laziness or indifference. The guy’s name was Anthony. The girl’s name was Jillian. They drank strawberry lemonade Svedka. They were in the same Ancient Philosophy section. He invited her over to watch The Hobbit.

“I liked your story,” I told Athena at dinner; holding her gaze, daring her to deny it. I know what you did.

She met my eyes, and gave me a polite, nothing smile—the one she would later give regularly to fans at signing tables. “Thank you, Juniper. That’s really kind of you to say.”

We never spoke about that story, or what happened with Andrew, again.

Maybe it was a coincidence. We were small, fragile freshmen girls at a large university where such things are known to happen. My story isn’t remarkable. It is, in fact, utterly mundane. Not every girl has a rape story. But almost every girl has an “I’m not sure, I didn’t like it, but I can’t quite call it rape” story.

I couldn’t, however, overlook the similarity between the phrases I’d used when describing my pain and the phrases Athena used in her story. I couldn’t unlink Athena’s prose from the memory of her doe-like brown eyes, blinking in sympathy as I told her every black, ugly thing in my heart between choked sobs.

She’d stolen my story. I was convinced of it. She’d stolen my words right out of my mouth. She did the same to everyone around her for the entirety of her career, and honestly, if I’m supposed to feel bad about getting my revenge, then fuck that.

Mother Witch COMES OUT TO A MODERATELY WARM RECEPTION—plenty of critical acclaim, but modest sales. We expected as much. It’s a novella, not a full-length novel—I couldn’t think of a way to build it out longer than forty thousand words—and the market for those is always smaller. I do a three-city tour at bookstores in DC, Boston, and NYC, where it’s easier to wrangle together an audience of book enthusiasts on any given Friday. These are well attended. No one asks any nasty questions about my racial bona fides. No one mentions the plagiarism scandal.

The critical reception is good, in a faintly surprised way. From Kirkus, a starred review: “A quiet, heartrending tale of betrayal and innocence lost.” From Library Journal, also a starred review: “Juniper Song proves adept at handling mature themes in contexts entirely removed from World War One.” And our greatest achievement, in the New York Times, which I know Daniella had to pull strings to get: “If there were any suspicions that Juniper Song does not produce her own work, let Mother Witch settle those fears: this girl can write.”

There’s something unsettling about all this calm. Things are too quiet, suffocatingly so, like the air before a thunderstorm. But I’m too relieved, too ready to believe I might have put all the trouble behind me. I’m already thinking about the next contract, about possible film options for current properties. Maybe Mother Witch isn’t blockbuster material, but you could make a quiet prestige TV series with it. Something like Big Little Lies, or

Little Fires Everywhere. Someone call Reese Witherspoon to produce. Someone tap Amy Adams to play the mother. Someone tap Anna Kendrick to play me.

I let myself relax. I fill my head with dreams. After all this time, I finally stop hearing Athena’s ghost every time I sit down to write.

I should have known it wouldn’t last.

You'll Also Like