Chapter no 20



what to do.

When you’ve got a project in your jaws, a full-time writing schedule feels like a blessing. But when you’re struggling to come up with a concept, the hours feel suffocating, accusatory. Time should be flying by as you sit wild-eyed at your laptop, possessed by the muse, pouring out your magnum opus. Instead the seconds creep to a halt.

I have nothing to do. Nothing to write, nothing with which to distract myself. Most days I occupy myself with housework, counting down the minutes until the distraction of my next mealtime. I water my plants. I arrange my mugs. I can make the ritual of consuming a microwave lasagna last for half an hour. I envy the barista at Starbucks, the clerks at Kramers; at least they can while away the days with their dignified menial labor.

I keep winding up on admissions pages of various graduate school programs. I don’t filter for degrees in any one field in particular. I consider them all—law, social work, education, even accounting—because they all promise a gateway into a wholly different life, after an appropriately long period of educational hand-holding in which I don’t have to do any thinking for myself.

I even consider returning to the Veritas College Institute, if only for something to do, but my willpower evaporates every time I reach for my phone. I told my boss I was quitting to pursue my dreams; I can’t bear explaining why I want to come back.

Most nights I end up curled up in bed, phone clutched inches away from my face, browsing the web for mentions of myself and my books just to feel an echo of that thrill from the time I was a literary darling. I read old

press releases about myself: the Publishers Weekly profile calling me “incisive and sensitive,” the New Yorker blurb calling me “publishing’s most exciting new talent.” I read and reread the most glowing reviews of The Last Front and Mother Witch on Goodreads, trying to remind myself that there was a time when people truly loved my work.

Whenever that starts to feel stale—usually when the clock creeps toward midnight—I venture into reading the negative shit.

In the past, whenever I trawled Goodreads, I would filter out everything but the five-star reviews, which I would skim over and over again whenever I needed a little ego boost. But now I go straight for the vitriol. It’s like pressing a bleeding sore repeatedly, trying to see how far you can go with your tolerance for pain, because if you know the limits of it, you gain some sense of control over it.

The one-star reviews contain everything you’d expect:

If I stole a novel, I’d steal something better than this LOL! Just here to say, fuck June Hayward.

Haven’t read this book, but giving this one star because the writer is a plagiarizing, racist thief. Took off three stars for the Annie Waters scene alone.

I lie there for hours every night, awash in every cruel thing the internet has ever said about me. It’s cathartic, in a perverse way. I like to concentrate all the negativity, to take it all in at once. I take comfort in the fact that it could literally not get any worse than this.

I’ve entertained, occasionally, the question of what literary redemption might look like. What if I begged my haters for forgiveness? What if, instead of holding the line, I admitted everything and made an attempt at reparations?

Diana Qiu has an article up on Medium titled “June Hayward Must Make Amends, and Here’s How.” The twelve-item laundry list includes things like: “Provide public proof she’s taken a training course in racial sensitivity,” “Donate the entirety of her earnings from The Last Front and Mother Witch to a charity selected by an objective committee of Asian American writers,” and “Post her tax returns from the last three years to confirm how much she profited from Athena Liu’s work.”

Tax returns. Is she fucking serious? Who does Diana think she is?

I can stand to be a pariah. But to bend, to throw away all my savings, to kowtow to the Twitterati and prostrate myself before the taunting, smug

crowd—I would rather die.

One night, I see a surprisingly thoughtful take amidst the kiddie pool of filth. It’s a review of The Last Front published two months ago, so verbose that it’s nearly a full-length article.

Drama aside, I find the question of authorship so interesting, reads the penultimate paragraph.

Unless Hayward releases a detailed and honest statement, we’ll never quite know the truth behind its creation. But a close reading leads one to believe that this is indeed a text of mixed authorship, for it seems quite schizophrenic in its handling of its central themes. At times it is so outraged about the covering up of the CLC that the moralizing bleeds off the page. At others, it descends to the same romantic platitudes that the rest of the text criticizes. It’s either a very clever manipulation of the reader, or it is what we think it might be—a work partially completed by one author, and finished by another.

I sit up, suddenly curious. Who is this person? I click on their profile, but the username is bland and innocuous—“daisychain453.” There is no profile picture. The account has no friends or followers I recognize, and its previous review history—similarly thoughtful takes on much-hated books like The Help and American Dirt—is fascinating to skim through, but reveals no clues about the author.

I’m frightened by how well this reviewer seems to know me. The earlier portions of the review were so clever, so incisive about the techniques employed in the text, that I wonder if she somehow got access to my editor’s emails, if she is perhaps someone who worked at Eden.

It’s the last paragraph, however, that lingers in my mind:

What no one’s really touched on in this discourse, however, is the nature of Liu and Hayward’s relationship. All the evidence suggests that they were indeed friends, though this seems a horrible thing to do to a friend. Was it a case of petty jealousy, then? Was Hayward—gasp— somehow responsible for Liu’s death? Was she, in some twisted way, trying to pay tribute to a friendly rival? Or is she in fact innocent in this whole affair? In any case, I’d pay to read a novel about that whole mess itself.


I wake up with the concept sitting in my mind, fully formed, welded together by my unconscious over hours of fitful, dreaming sleep. This is it:

the path to literary redemption and blockbuster success at once. The answer has been so obvious this entire time, I can’t believe I didn’t see it until now. I won’t dodge the controversy anymore. That mindset has been holding me back—until now, I’d been convinced that my literary

resurrection would have to be divorced from Athena’s legacy.

But I can’t move on and forget. Nobody will let me forget, least of all Athena’s ghost. I cannot rid myself of her influence, or of the rumors surrounding her, surrounding us.

Instead I have to face them head-on.

I’ll write about us. Well, no—a fictionalized version of us, a pseudo-autobiography in which I blur fact and fiction. I’ll describe the night she died in all its heart-stopping, lurid detail. I’ll describe how I stole her work and published it. I’ll describe every step along my way to literary stardom, and then my horrifying fall. Academics and scholars will have a field day with this text. They’ll write entire books about how I cleverly blended the truth with lies, how I reclaimed the rumors about me, subverted the ugly gossip about a treasured friendship into a tale that confronts the reader with their own sick desire for scandal and destruction. They’ll call it radical. Groundbreaking. No one’s ever refuted literary expectations like this before.

I’ll play up the sapphic quality of it all, too. Readers will love that; queer love stories are all the rage now. Drop in a little hint of girl crushing and the TikTokers will go rabid. They could cast us in a movie together. Florence Pugh will play me. That girl from Crazy Rich Asians will play Athena. The score will consist entirely of classical music. It’ll win all the awards.

And once this scandal has been transformed and preserved in novel form, once all the ugly, unconfirmed rumors about me have been relegated safely to the realm of fiction, I’ll be free.

I’m so excited that I almost email Daniella right then with the pitch. But Daniella’s dealing with her own shitstorm right now. An unnamed former editorial assistant has testified to Publishers Weekly that Daniella had a habit of saying all sorts of bigoted things during meetings (“We already have a Muslim writer,” she’d told the team once during acquisitions. “Any more and we’ll be outnumbered.”). Eden has gone into PR lockdown in response. I am firmly committed to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion in all areas of my work, Daniella assured us in an email sent to all her writers. These

remarks were taken out of context, and leaked to the press by someone I believe has a personal vendetta against me. The last I heard, she’d made some donations to some bail fund in the Midwest, although it’s not immediately obvious how this has anything to do with the original problem of Islamophobia.

I’m not terribly worried. The Daniella thing will blow over. Publishing professionals are accused of verbal gaffes all the time, but it’s not like you can cancel the one female editor at an otherwise all-male imprint. But it’s probably best not to wander into her inbox for now.

Instead, for the first time in weeks, I begin drafting in earnest. The words flow so easily from my fingertips, perhaps because there’s nothing to make up, nothing to pause and wonder about. It’s just the truth coming out of me, and this time I am in total control of the narrative. I start writing thousands of words a day, a level of productivity that I haven’t hit since college. I actively look forward to sitting down with my laptop every morning. I don’t stop writing until near midnight.

I can’t help but feel that there is some greater, karmic reason why my writing flow has returned. This feels like redemption. No—like absolution. For if I can write this thing on my own, if I can turn this whole horrible mess into a beautiful story, then . . . well, it won’t change what I’ve done. But it will assign artistic value to it all. It will be a way of revealing the truth without saying it. And beyond anything else, it will entertain. It will stay in readers’ thoughts forever, like a catchy tune or a beautiful woman’s face. This story will become eternal. Athena will be a part of that.

What more can we want as writers than such immortality? Don’t ghosts just want to be remembered?


Memories of her don’t haunt me anymore. I don’t force flashbacks of her out of my mind when they intrude. Instead I linger within them. I mine them for details, immerse myself in the feelings surrounding them, and imagine dozens of ways to reimagine and reframe them. I sit with her ghost. I invite her to speak.

My therapist taught me once that the best way to deal with panic-inducing flashbacks is to think of them as scenes from a horror movie. Jump scares are terrifying the first time you see them because they catch you off guard, and because you don’t know what to expect. But once you watch them again and again, once you know exactly when the demon-

possessed nun jumps out from behind the corner, they lose their power over you.

I do the same to every awful thought I’ve ever had about Athena. I delve deep into the horrible. I write out every excruciating detail of my evening at the Chinese American Social Club of Rockville. I describe how rotten I felt when the @AthenaLiusGhost account first went online, how the ensuing fallout wrecked my mental health. I capture Athena’s specter and etch it out onto the page, where it is trapped in black-and-white immovable text, where it can do little more than say, “Boo!”

I write about how inadequate Athena has made me feel since college, how I swallowed back vinegary envy every time she achieved something I could not. The way I felt when Geoff told me how she’d mocked me at that convention. I recount the way she stole the story of my maybe-rape. I describe how, despite it all, I still loved her.

But as I dig into the past, I find myself lingering on good memories, too. There are more of them than I realized. I haven’t let myself dwell on college for so long, but once I scratch the surface, it all comes bubbling to the fore. Starbucks every Tuesday after our Women in Victorian Lit seminar: an iced mocha for me, a Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher for Athena. Nights at slam poetry events during which we’d sipped ginger beers and giggled at the performers, who were not real poets, and who would one day certainly grow out of this nonsense. A Les Mis sing-along party at a drama major’s apartment, where we’d shrieked at the top of our lungs, “One day more!”

As I transcribe all this, I wonder if our friendship had indeed been as strained as I’d perceived it. Was that jealous tension always there? Were we rivals from the start? Or had I, in the throes of my insecurity, projected it all against Athena?

I remember the day during our senior year that Athena received the first offer on her debut novel, when her agent called and told her on her way to barre class that she would soon have her book on shelves. She called me first. Me. She hadn’t even told her parents yet.

“Oh my God,” she’d breathed. “June. You won’t believe it. I can’t believe it.”

Then she told me about the offer, and I gasped, and we both screamed back and forth at each other for a good thirty seconds.

“Holy shit, Athena,” I whispered. “It’s happening. Everything you wanted—”

“I feel like I’m standing on a cliff, and my whole life is in front of me.” I remember so clearly her breathy whisper; shocked and hopeful and vulnerable all at once. “I feel like everything is about to change.”

“It will,” I promised her. “Athena, you’re going to be a fucking star.”

And then we screamed back and forth a little more, relishing the other’s presence at the other end of the line, for it was so nice to know someone who understood this exact dream, who knew how mere words can become sentences can become a completed masterpiece, how that masterpiece can rocket you into a wholly unrecognizable world where you have everything—a world you wrote for yourself.


@AthenaLiusGhost tweets broke, I’ve been operating from fear, defensiveness, and insecurity. But now I’m able to dwell once again on all of publishing’s promises, the things this world could give me. Brett will sell this to Daniella for a much lower advance than The Last Front got, given the circumstances. But it’ll be a surprise hit. It’ll go into its second printing before launch day. Then the press cycle will kick up, and everyone will be unable to stop talking about the sheer audacity of it all. The frenzied discourse will drive sales, and I’ll earn out my advance within weeks. I’ll start making double the royalties I was before.

I’m feeling so good that I even log on to Instagram for the first time in weeks and—ignoring the slew of hateful comments on all my previous posts—put up a photo of myself from today’s writing session. I’m sitting at a hardwood table near a café window during golden hour, freckles popping, hair falling in soft waves around my shoulders. One hand cups my cheek; the other skims my laptop keyboard, fingers ready to compose.

“Falling right into this manuscript,” I write in the caption. “Blocking out the negativity, because when you’re a writer, all that matters is the story within. We’re overdue for the next chapter. I can’t wait to share this one with you all.”


I wouldn’t have even seen the post if I hadn’t been scrolling through my notifications, trawling for likes. Someone compliments my blemish-free

skin and asks for my skin-care routine. Someone exclaims that they love the coffee shop I’m at. Someone else writes, New Juniper Song book? Can’t wait!

But there’s also a notification tag that simply reads: Thought you could get rid of me? I imagine it’s just some shitpost, but the thumbnail image looks familiar, and the account has a blue verification check, so I click to view the post.

I almost drop my phone.

It’s Athena’s account, posting for the first time since the morning before her death. In the photo she’s sitting at her writing desk, smiling sweetly, but everything is off—her eyes are a bit too wide, her toothy smile so stretched it looks painful, and her skin is ghost pale despite the sunlight streaming through her window. She looks like one of those CreepyPasta memes: an image that should look normal, but that makes your skin crawl with its deranged intensity. Lying open by her right hand is The Last Front in paperback. By her left, a slim hardcover of Mother Witch.

I click to expand the caption.

Thought you could get rid of me? Sorry, Junie. I’m still kicking. Glad you had a good writing day! I had a good writing day too—here’s me, flipping through some old works for inspiration. Heard you’re a fan ☺

My dinner crawls up my throat. I run for the bathroom. It’s nearly half an hour of panicked breathing and mental exercises before I’m near calm enough to approach my phone again.

I run some searches on Twitter: “Athena Liu Instagram,” “Athena Instagram,” “Athena Insta,” “Ghost Athena,” and all the other possible queries I can think of. No one’s talking about this yet. The post didn’t have any hashtags or tag any other accounts. What’s more, the account, which once had nearly a million followers, now has zero. The person behind this has either blocked or soft-blocked all of Athena’s followers. The only person seeing this post is me. Whoever this is, they’re not trying to go viral

—they just want to get my attention.

How is this even possible? Don’t social media companies shut down accounts upon the owner’s death?

This is so fucking stupid, but I Google “Athena Liu alive” to make sure she hasn’t, like, resurrected thanks to some medical miracle without my knowing. But that search returns nothing useful; the most “relevant”

result is an article about how a recent English department event at Yale was dedicated to keeping Athena’s memory alive.

Athena is dead, gone, turned to ash. The only person who’s convinced she’s still around is me.

I ought to block the account and forget about this. It’s likely just some troll, posting grotesque things to fuck with me. That’s what Brett and Daniella would say. That’s what Rory would say, if I tried to explain why I’m so upset. A troll is the obvious and rational explanation, and I repeat this over and over in my mind as I inhale and exhale into my fist, since the most annoying symptom of anxiety is refusing to believe the obvious and rational explanation.

Don’t give it power, I urge myself. Just let it alone.

But I can’t. It’s like a splinter digging into my palm; even if it’s tiny, I still can’t rest easy, knowing that it’s under my skin. I don’t sleep a wink that night. I lie with my phone screen inches from my face, staring with aching eyes at Athena’s forceful, mischievous smile.

A memory rises unbidden to my mind’s eye, a memory that I’d hoped I’d drowned out or forgotten: Athena in her black boots and green shawl, sitting in the front row of the audience at Politics and Prose, beaming expectantly at me with bright, painted lips. Athena: inexplicably, impossibly alive.

It’s late on a Friday night, so I can’t get Brett or my publicity team on the line for another two days. But what good could they do? It’s hardly a problem from a publicity perspective. Aside from me, who cares about this post? And it’s not like I could explain why the account bothers me so much. Yes, see, the thing is that I did steal The Last Front, and I’m riddled with guilt, so you understand why these posts give me such bad anxiety I want to puke?

At last, because I have to do something, I reach for my phone. I text Geoffrey Carlino. This isn’t funny.

He doesn’t respond. After five minutes, I follow up. Seriously. Stop.

Finally ellipses pop up at the bottom of my screen. He’s typing.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

I send him a screenshot of Athena’s Instagram. Look familiar?

He types, stops typing, then finally sends the message. That isn’t me.

Bullshit, I type furiously. I know that all this anger is misdirected, but I hit SEND anyways. I want to take this out on someone, anyone. I’m not even entirely sure that it’s Geoff behind this—all I have are general vibes, and the fact that of everyone I know, Geoff is most likely to have access to Athena’s passwords—but it doesn’t matter. It’s not about Geoff. I need to take control, to do something that feels like I’m fighting back, even if all I’m doing is firing blanks. Coco’s, tomorrow. Or I’ll post the recording.

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