Chapter no 21



Geoff slides into the seat across from me, and I’m so startled I nearly knock over my tea. I didn’t think he’d show. I straighten up. “Uh, hi.”

An embarrassed confession: I sent him a barrage of texts last night, hurling wild accusations about his motives and cruel jabs about getting dumped by Athena. He didn’t respond. I assumed he would delete them all and then block me.

But here he is, with heavy shadows under swollen eyes. He looks like he hasn’t slept all night. “I don’t suppose you still think I did it.”

“No.” I sigh. Part of me was hoping that he’d come off as somewhat guilty, but it’s clear from glancing at him that he has nothing to do with this. “I’m sorry, I just . . .” I give my phone a shake. “It rattled me. And I thought, of all people who might have had access to her account . . .”

He extends a hand. “Can I see?” “You didn’t look?”

“She blocked me. Years ago.”

“Ah.” I unlock my phone, navigate to Athena’s Instagram, and pass it over. Geoff scrolls up and down for a while, lingering on each photo, eyes scanning back and forth over the captions. I can’t imagine what’s going through his mind. This is his ex-girlfriend. This is someone he loved.

He lowers the phone. “No, this isn’t her.” “What do you mean?”

“It’s photoshopped from an old picture.” He returns the phone. “Can’t you see it? The lighting and shadows are all off. Also, she’s blurred around the edges.”

“Which old picture?” I ask. “I’ve been over all the photos I can find online. There’s nothing in that exact pose.”

“Maybe it’s not public anymore? I don’t know. I just know I’ve seen her looking like that before.”

“Then who’s behind it?” I press. “Who would know her password?” “Who cares?” Geoff shrugs. “You’ve got plenty of haters, right? It

could be anyone. Maybe Athena’s passwords were easy to guess, or maybe someone’s a very talented hacker, I don’t know. It’s just a joke.”

I can’t believe that, though. Something else is going on here. A random troll doesn’t explain Athena showing up to my reading, or the fact that her specter haunts every professional move I make. Someone is pulling the strings.

“Does Athena have a sister?” I ask. “Any cousins?”

Mrs. Liu had told me Athena was an only child. But cousins can resemble each other, can’t they? Or maybe Mrs. Liu was lying. All kinds of crazy plot twists fly through my head. A sister thought dead. A hidden twin, raised in Communist China, escaped to the free world and determined to step into her dead twin’s life. Maybe that’d be a good idea for a novel. Maybe I should write that down, file it away for once I’ve finished my pseudo-memoir.

“I know what you’re getting at.” Geoff shakes his head. “It’s not that, I promise.”

“Are you sure?”

“Athena’s folks lost touch with most of their relatives when they emigrated. I’m sure you’ve heard her talk about it. Seriously, there is some deeply fucked-up stuff in that family history. People were murdered, executed in firing squads, lost out at sea. And maybe it’s all made-up, in which case that would be supremely fucked up, but I don’t think it is. I’ve talked to Mrs. Liu about it a bit. That pain is real.”

“You don’t think . . .” I trail off.

“What? That it’s her?” Geoff pauses. He’s also had this suspicion, I can tell. It’s crazy, but I wouldn’t put it past Athena to fake her own death, to put the manuscript right where she knew I would find it. The funeral could have been staged. Her mom could be in on it. Maybe she’s watching from the wings right now, laughing into her trench coat.

But Geoff shakes his head. “No. No, she was an odd one, but she wasn’t, like, a crazy person. She’s—she was a writer. Not a performance

artist.” He meets my gaze. “And didn’t you—?” Didn’t I see her die?

Yes, I did. I saw the panic in her eyes, saw her thrashing and convulsing, trying to free her throat, saw her at last go still and blue in front of me. She couldn’t have faked that. The best actress in the world couldn’t have faked that.

“Then who’s doing this to me?” I demand. “What do they want?” “Does it matter?” Geoff shrugs. “Just ignore them. You’ve brushed it

off every time before, haven’t you? Where’s your thick skin? Why start getting bothered now?”

“Because . . .” I swallow. “It hurts. I just—it hurts.”

“Ah.” He leans forward. “So are you going to tell me the truth now?”

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. I can’t do it. I’ve held the line for this long; I can’t break it, even if, in some wretched way, it might set me free.

“I get it,” says Geoff. “You say it once, you can never take it back.”

He knows. I can tell from his face that he knows. I don’t bother trying to convince him otherwise, or to explain the complexities involved—that I did put in the work, that The Last Front is just as much my accomplishment as it is Athena’s, that it could not possibly exist in its current form without me. It doesn’t matter. Geoff’s made up his mind, and that’s fine—there’s nothing more he can do to me than what the internet already has.

I blink angrily down at the table, trying to collect my thoughts. I can’t convince him that I’m innocent, but I need to make him understand.

“I just don’t get why everyone’s so obsessed with Athena’s legacy,” I say at last. “They all talk about her like she was this saint.”

Geoff cocks his head, then settles into his chair, hands clasped in his lap like he’s prepared to stay awhile. “So we’re doing this.”

“I’ve seen her writing process,” I blurt out. I don’t know why I’m saying this, especially to Geoff, of all people. I just can’t keep it on my chest any longer, can’t keep swallowing my resentment. “She was a thief. She took people’s pain and made it her own to describe however she liked. She stole as much as I did—she stole from me. Back in college, she—” I choke. My nose stings, and I clamp my mouth shut. I’ve never told this story to anyone else before. If I keep talking, I’ll burst into sobs.

“She stole from me, too,” Geoff says. “Constantly.” I’m stunned. “You’re saying that your stories—”

“No, I mean—look, it’s complicated.” His eyes dart around, like he’s afraid that someone will overhear. He takes a deep breath. “It was more like

—okay, look, here’s an example. So we’d get into fights, right? Stupid stuff, like her dog allergy, or having joint finances—anyways, it felt so important at the time. And I’d yell something desperate, something vulnerable, only to find those same words published in a short story the very next month. Sometimes, when we fought, she would give me this very cool, narrow-eyed look. I knew that look, because it was the same look she got when she was drafting a scene. And I never knew if she was really there during our relationship, or if the whole thing for her was some kind of ongoing story, if she did what she did just to document my reaction. I felt like I was losing my mind.” He presses his fingers against the bridge of his nose. “Sometimes she would say things that made me upset, or ask about things I’d been through—and as time went on all I could think was that she was mining me, using me as fodder.”

It’s hard for me to really feel sorry for Geoff. This is, after all, the same man who once threatened to leak nudes of Athena on Reddit if she didn’t back him up against a Locus reviewer. But I can see the truth in his eyes, the pain. Athena always thought that what she did was a gift. A distillation of trauma into something eternal. Give me your bruises and hurts, she told us, and I will return to you a diamond. Only she never cared that once the art was made, once the personal became spectacle, the pain was still there.

Suddenly my eyes flash up to the window. My breath halts and my hands clench before my brain catches up to what I’m seeing: Athena, dark curls loose over her shoulders, draped in that same emerald-green shawl she’d worn to my book launch. Her eyes glimmer with amusement. Her berry-red mouth forms a jagged hole in her face. She’s laughing, jeering, at the sight of me with Geoff.

She lifts a hand to wave.

I blink, and then she’s gone.

“You all right?” Geoff half turns toward what he thinks I’m looking at. “What were—?”

“Nothing,” I say, rattled. “I just—sorry.”

I take a deep breath. The window’s empty. There’s nothing I can point to, nothing that proves I’m not going mad. I have the fleeting urge to get up

and sprint to the door, to chase this apparition around the block—but what if no one’s there? What if I’m simply losing my mind?

Geoff gives me a sympathetic look. A silence passes, and then he says, leaning forward, “Look, June. You probably don’t want to hear advice from me, but someone’s got to say it. Go work on something else. Don’t—I mean, just get out of her shadow. Leave this all behind.”

It’s decent advice. I imagine that’s what he’s been trying to do for the last two years. He’s not on Twitter anymore, so I haven’t heard much about what he’s up to, but from what I gather from others he’s making some decent money for himself writing for TV. He doesn’t go to literary conventions anymore. His name isn’t a punch line anymore, just a tired reference. He’s freed himself from Athena’s web.

But Athena is the reason for any modicum of success I’ve ever had.

My career as an author does not exist without her.

Without Athena, who am I?

“I’m trying,” I say in a very small voice. “I just—I don’t think she’ll let me go. Or these trolls, whoever they are—”

“Ignore them, June.” Geoff looks so tired. “Just block them out.” “Do you—do you think I should respond? Try to get in touch?” “What?” He sits up straight. “No, of course not, why would you—” “Just to see what they want. To see if they want to talk, I mean—”

“There’s nothing to say.” Geoff seems inordinately angry; far angrier than this response justifies. It scares me a bit. I wonder what’s going on in his mind, what ghosts of Athena’s he’s been struggling with himself. “All right, Junie? This road leads to nothing good. Just leave it alone, I swear to God. Don’t encourage the crazies.”

“All right.” I exhale slowly. “You’re right.”

For lack of anything better to do, I finish my tea in silence. Geoff never orders a drink. He pays my bill without asking, then walks me out to the street. He gives me this long look as we stand waiting for my Uber, and I almost think he’s going to ask me to come home with him. I imagine, for a fleeting moment, the act of sleeping with Geoffrey Carlino, the messy industry of clothing removal and frantic stimulation of parts. Shared trauma brings people together, doesn’t it? Are we not both victims of the same narcissistic bitch? He’s attractive, of course, but I feel no real twinge of desire. If I fucked Geoff, I’d only be doing it for the shock value, for the narrative wrench it would throw in this whole mess. And, though I can’t

quite articulate why, I know the only winner to come out of this would be Athena.

“I guess I’ll see you, then,” I say. “Around. Maybe.” “Maybe.” Geoff glances down at me. “And June?” “Yeah?”

“It’s going to be fine,” he says. “These things always feel like the end of the world when they’re happening. But they’re not. Social media is such a tiny, insular space. Once you close your screen, no one gives a fuck. And you shouldn’t, either, all right?”

“I—all right, Geoff. Thanks.”

He gives me a nod and walks off in the direction of the bus stop.

Maybe I’ve been too harsh. Maybe Geoffrey Carlino isn’t such an asshole. Maybe he was just young, and insecure, and caught up in a relationship he wasn’t ready for. Maybe Athena really did hurt him quite badly, and maybe we all judged him too quickly because he was a wealthy, cishet white guy and Athena was Athena.

What’s more, Geoff is one of the few people on earth who also understands the unique pain of trying to love Athena Liu. The futility of it all. Like Echo looking at Narcissus. Like Icarus, hurtling straight at the sun, just to feel its warmth on his skin.

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