ATHENA IS ALIVE.
I can think of no other explanation. The Exorcist steps are our private joke. The steep, pitch-black stairs a block off the Georgetown campus, the site where Father Karras dies in The Exorcist, are famously haunted, and I’ve always found those steps so slippery with rain and snow that I’m surprised they haven’t killed more joggers. Athena and I came here after a poetry reading the first winter after I moved to DC. She dared me to run up the iced-over stairs without stopping. I challenged her instead to a race. I bashed my knee ten steps up, and she dashed past me without a backward glance. She won.
Whatever the fuck is going on here—whatever supernatural or twisted explanation lies behind that Instagram account—it’s not some asshole pulling off a prank. It could only be Athena. Only Athena knows what this means to me. The metaphor is too symbolic—my crashing and falling, her dancing all the way to the top.
I know it’s a trap. I know that by showing up, I’m playing right into the hands of the ghost, that I’m likely putting myself in grave danger. But I have no choice. This is my only chance to find answers, and I’m desperate now for just a shred of the truth.
I play it as smart as I can. I make sure my cell phone is fully charged. I buy a utility belt and pack it with a flashlight with fresh batteries, a can of pepper spray—thanks, Diana—and a Swiss Army knife. I even buy a string of Chinese firecrackers from a sketchy corner grocery in Chinatown, because I read online that the popping noise can ward off ghosts. It’s stupid, I know, but I want to feel prepared. If Athena’s ghost tries to murder me on these steps, there’s probably no way I can prevent my fate. But I won’t go out without a fight.
I think about texting Rory, or even Brett, to leave a record of where I’m going. But if this goes the way I think it might, perhaps it’s best I leave no record at all.
I take an Uber up from Rosslyn and get out at Georgetown’s front gates. It’s a five-minute walk to the stairs, but I don’t want to entertain my driver’s questions about what I’m doing at the Exorcist steps at this hour. School’s out for the term. I’m the only one wandering campus tonight. I hurry along the quiet sidewalk of Thirty-Seventh Street, arms folded tight against the wind. It’s a moonless dark, and bitingly cold. The Potomac surges against the banks, flush with this morning’s rain. It’s all very gothic and dramatic. If I were an avenging ghost, I think, this is where I would lure someone out to kill them. All this scene needs is an ominous flash of lightning, and we might get that, too—storm clouds have been gathering all afternoon.
I’m not afraid. At this point nothing could scare me. At this point I would love for Athena to lunge out and attack me, just so I could confirm that she is real, that I’m not insane.
The steps are empty. There’s no one in sight for several blocks, and when I hurry down to the bottom of the stairs, I find only the abandoned gas station. It’s five past eleven. I double back up the steps, gasping for breath.
I feel like an idiot. Maybe Geoff was right, maybe this was a hoax. Maybe the point was only to scare me.
I’m about to leave when I hear her speak.
“It’s so good to see you again!”
IT’S ATHENA. THAT’S UNDOUBTEDLY ATHENA’S VOICE, AFFECTING THAT disinterested, so-transparently-artificial-it’s-ironic-which-makes-it-real timbre I’ve heard her employ dozens of times on radio interviews and podcasts. “It’s been aaages.”
“Athena?” She sounds like she’s standing at the top. I dash up the rest of the steps and emerge panting back up onto Prospect. The streets are still empty.
“I’m so glad you’re a fan of my work.”
What the fuck? What is she talking about?
“Athena?” I yell. “Where are you?”
“So.” Her voice comes from farther away this time. I strain my ears, hunting for the source of the sound. “How’ve you been?” It seems like it’s drifting up from the bottom of the stairs. How could she have gotten down there so quickly?
Unless she’s dead; unless she’s a spirit, flittering through the air.
I hear a patter of footsteps on the stairs. Is she running from me? I want to chase her down, but I don’t know where to turn; her footsteps echo from one direction, but her voice sounds from another. I spin around, scanning the darkness for a face, a flash of movement, a clue, anything.
“What would you say is your greatest inspiration?” Athena asks suddenly.
Inspiration? What game is this?
But I know the right answers. I know what will lure her out.
“It’s you,” I shout. “You know that. It’s obviously you.”
Athena bursts into a peal of laughter. “So I guess my question is, why?”
There’s something off about her voice. I’ve only just noticed. It’s not the voice you use with your friends. It’s pitchy and artificial, like she’s putting on a performance. It’s the voice you hear from celebrities on game shows, right before they have to describe their first sexual encounter or eat a boiled monkey brain.
Is she okay? Is she being held hostage? Does someone have a gun to her head?
She asks again, in precisely the same intonation, prefacing her question with the same tinkling laughter. “So I guess my question is, why?”
“There’s no reason why,” I yell. “I took your pages, I read them, and I thought they were so brilliant—and I’ve always envied you, Athena, I just wanted to know what it was like, and I didn’t even think about it, it just happened—”
“You didn’t think you were stealing my work?” Now her voice echoes from somewhere above me. It’s strangely garbled this time, like she’s speaking underwater. It doesn’t sound at all like her. “You didn’t think it was a crime?”
“Of course it was. I know that now. It was wrong—”
More tinkling laughter. That same question as before, voiced in an identical manner. “So I guess my question is, why?”
“Because it’s not fair,” I shout, frustrated. She’s made her point. She doesn’t have to keep toying with me. “You know what kind of stories people want to hear. No one cares about my stories. I wanted what you have—had—but I didn’t mean to hurt you. I would never have hurt you, I just thought—”
Her voice rises in pitch again, turns girlie and twee. “I’m a lucky girl, aren’t I?”
“I thought you were the luckiest person I’d ever met,” I say miserably. “You had everything.”
“So you’re sorry?” Garbled, distorted, once again. “Are you sorry, June?”
“I’m sorry.” My words feel so small, so tinny against the howling wind. My throat aches from holding back sobs. I don’t care about maintaining the line anymore. I just want this to be over. “Fuck, Athena—I’m so sorry. I wish every day I could take it back. I’ll do anything to make it right—I’ll tell your mom, I’ll tell my publisher, I’ll donate everything, every cent—just tell me you’re all right. Athena, please. I can’t do this anymore.”
A long pause.
When she at last responds, her voice has changed once again. It’s lost its pitchy, artificial timbre. It sounds human, and yet completely unlike her. “That’s a confession?”
“I confess,” I gasp. “I’m sorry, Athena. I’m so sorry, please—come talk to me.”
“I see.” A pause. I hear footsteps again, and this time they match the direction of her voice. She’s standing right behind me. “Thank you, June.”
A figure steps out of the shadows.
IT’S NOT ATHENA.
This girl looks nothing like Athena. Her face is rounder, plainer. Her eyes are not as massive and doe-like. Her legs aren’t impossibly long. She smirks at me as she moves farther into the light, and I have the vague feeling I ought to know her, that I’ve looked into these eyes before. But I simply cannot place her.
“Nothing?” The girl crosses her arms. “Ruined my life, drove me out of publishing, and you don’t even remember me?”
The pieces crash together in my mind then—a tiny face in a Zoom screen, a slew of angry emails, a hiccup in my publishing journey I’d long forgotten.
She’s off the project. You won’t have to deal with her anymore.
“Hi, Juniper.” She drawls out my name like poison. “Long time no see.”
My mouth works, but nothing comes out. What is she doing here? Didn’t she move to Bumfuck, Nowhere, Oregon? And since when did Candice know Athena? Is Athena still alive? Is she in on this hoax? Or was it just Candice all along?
“Oh, the look on your face,” Candice sneers. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”
“I don’t—why—” My brain has short-circuited. I can’t articulate my confusion into questions. “Why?”
“Simple,” Candice sings. “You ruined my life. I ruin yours.”
“But I didn’t—”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a job in publishing once you’re on Daniella Woodhouse’s blacklist? They fired me over a Goodreads rating. A fucking Goodreads rating. Does that ring a bell?”
“I don’t—I didn’t—”
“I didn’t even get severance.” Candice’s words spill out of her, a hornet’s nest of spite. She talks like she’s been keeping this bubbled inside for years, like if she doesn’t get it all out she’ll explode. “Unprofessional conduct, they said. I couldn’t pay rent. I slept in a fucking bathtub for weeks. I applied for dozens of openings I was overqualified for. No one would even email me back. They said I was toxic, said I didn’t know how to maintain boundaries with authors. Is that what you wanted? Did you gloat?”
“I’m sorry,” I manage. “I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Candice mimics. “Is that how you get away with everything? By batting your eyelashes and pretending to be a fucking idiot?”
“Really, Candice, I don’t—”
“God, stop lying!” Candice’s voice flies up several octaves then. “You confessed. You finally confessed. I heard you.”
I wonder then if Candice might not be entirely well. She sounds unhinged. Dangerous.
I take two steps back. My thoughts fly to the pepper spray in my belt, but I’m scared to reach for it—I’m scared any sudden actions might send Candice over the edge.
“God, I’ve dreamed of this for ages.” Her voice is flushed and giddy; she sounds high on adrenaline. “I wanted to go public when I got fired—but who was going to believe me? All I had were doubts. You acted so weird about the sensitivity read. And the way you spoke about the novel as if it wasn’t your own. As if it was some thing you could chop up and polish however you liked.” She looks me up and down, and the hungry gape of her mouth makes her look like a ravenous, wild animal—a beast about to pounce. “God. I was right. I can’t believe I was right.”
“I don’t know what you think you know.” I try to steady my breathing. My mind’s scrambling for explanations, possible denials of everything I’ve just yelled into the darkness. I was confused. I’ve been coerced. “But Athena was my friend—”
“Oh yes. Your greatest muse.” Candice scoffs. “I’ve heard that line. Tell me, how long were you planning to steal her work? How accidental was her death, really?”
“It wasn’t like that,” I insist. “I worked hard on that novel; it’s mine—”
“Oh, shut up.” Candice steps closer. This scene composition is so fucking dramatic. The streetlamp glows behind her, casting her shadow across the steps and across me. It feels like we’re in some gothic film. Now the villain’s reveal at the climax; now the hero’s righteous monologue before I’m cast, screaming, into hell. “I knew you’d never come out and say it. That was the challenge, you know. I figured it out early on. You were never going to admit it, no matter how vicious the allegations got, no matter how much proof there was. You needed to cling to some version of events where you weren’t the bad guy. Isn’t that right? So I realized the only way to settle this was to make you confess on your own.”
She raises her voice, starts projecting, like she’s narrating to someone else. Like she’s been waiting forever to get her monologue in the spotlight. It’s bizarre, but here I am, frozen: a captive, horrified audience. “I thought I’d just mess with you a bit. Rattle you enough to say something circumstantial. Instagram was easy—I know Athena’s publicist; she still had her login. At first all I did was fuck around with Photoshop. I wasn’t sure if it was working—you kept ignoring my tags—but then I heard you’d attacked Diana Qiu on the street. She said you looked haunted. Turns out white people are more gullible than I thought.”
Photoshop? A borrowed login? Is that all it took? “So Athena is . . .”
“Dead and ash.” Candice barks out a laugh. “Or are you still hoping to see her ghost?”
“But the stairs . . .” I feel so stupid, questioning her like this. But I can’t think of anything else to say. I need it all explained to me, step by step, because Candice is right: part of me still thinks Athena will step out from the shadows any second, cackling, ready to accept my confession. “How did you know about the stairs?”
I want Athena to step out. She’s the only one I want to confess to. I need true catharsis, not Candice Lee laughing in my face. Not this cruel, childishly simple prank.
“It’s Athena’s favorite workout,” says Candice. “She wouldn’t shut up about it on Twitter. Wait, you didn’t know?” She registers my expression, then bursts into laughter. “You thought this was personal? That’s so good. That’s so good. I hope I got that.”
She straightens up. She’s holding a camera. She’s been recording this whole thing.
She fiddles with the buttons, then plays my own words back at me.
“You know what kind of stories people want to hear. No one cares about my stories. I wanted what you have—had—but I didn’t mean to hurt you. I would never have hurt you.”
It’s utterly damning. It’s my voice, without question. She has my face on camera, too, from who knows how many other angles. There is no denying this.
“But the stairs . . .” She zooms forward, and my voice comes out faster, higher-pitched, panicked. I sound so fucking stupid. “How did you know about the stairs?”
“Feels bad, doesn’t it?” Candice drops the recorder in her backpack. “Watching someone warp your image and tell your story however they choose, knowing you have no power to stop it? No voice? That’s how we all felt, watching you. Pretty awful, huh?”
“Candice.” My chest deflates. My limbs feel like lead. I know it’s pointless even as I say it, but I can’t help but go through the motions. I can’t walk away knowing I didn’t try every possible thing. “Look, please, maybe we can work something out—”
She snorts. “Nah. Sorry, you can’t bribe your way out of this one.”
“Candice, please, I’ll lose everything—”
“What would you offer me?” She pulls another camera down from the branches above her head. Jesus Christ, how many cameras are there? “Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand? What’s the cost of justice, Juniper Song?” She points the lens right out at me. “How much,” she drawls, “do you think Athena deserves?”
I cross my arms over my face. “Candice, stop.”
“How much do you think Mrs. Liu deserves?”
“Can’t you understand what it was like?” I beg. “Even a little bit? Athena had fucking everything. It wasn’t fair—”
“Is that how you justify it?”
“But it’s true, isn’t it? Athena had it made. You people—I mean, diverse people—you’re all they want—”
“Oh my God.” Candice presses a palm against her forehead. “You really are insane. Do all white people talk like this?”
“It’s true,” I insist. “I’m just the only one who saw it—”
“Do you know how much shit Athena got from this industry?” Candice demands. “They marked her as their token, exotic Asian girl. Every time she tried to branch out to new projects, they kept insisting that Asian was her brand, was what her audience expected. They never let her talk about anything other than being an immigrant, other than the fact that half her family died in Cambodia, that her dad killed himself on the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen. Racial trauma sells, right? They treated her like a museum object. That was her marketing point. Being a Chinese tragedy. She leaned into it, too. She knew the rules. She fucking milked it for all it was worth.
“And if Athena is a success story, what does that mean for the rest of us?” Candice’s voice hardens. “Do you know what it’s like to pitch a book and be told they already have an Asian writer? That they can’t put out two minority stories in the same season? That Athena Liu already exists, so you’re redundant? This industry is built on silencing us, stomping us into the ground, and hurling money at white people to produce racist stereotypes of us.
“You’re right, though. Every so often someone in this industry develops a conscience and gives a nonwhite creator a chance, and then the whole carnival rallies around their book like it’s the only diverse work ever to exist. I’ve been on the other side. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve been in the room when we pick our one spicy book of the season, when we decide who’s educated and articulate and attractive but marginalized enough to make good on our marketing budget. It’s sick, you know. But I suppose it’s nice to be the token. If the rules are broken, you might as well ride the diversity elevator all the way to the top. Wasn’t that your logic?”
“Candice . . .”
“Can you imagine how they’ll fawn over this?” She spreads her hands in the air like she’s tracing out a rainbow. “Yellowface. By Candice Lee.”
“Candice, I beg you. Don’t do this.”
“If I don’t go public, will you?”
I open my mouth, then close it. I can’t answer that. She knows I can’t answer that. “Candice, please. Athena wouldn’t have wanted this—”
“Who cares about Athena?” Candice barks out a laugh. “Fuck Athena. We all hated that bitch. This is for me.”
There’s nothing I can say to that.
It all boils down to self-interest. Manipulating the story; gaining the upper hand. Doing whatever it takes. If publishing is rigged, you might as well make sure it’s rigged in your favor. I get it. I’ve done it, too; it’s just playing the game. It’s how you survive in this industry. If I were in Candice’s shoes right now, if I had the same kind of narrative gold she’s carrying in her backpack, of course I’d do the same.
“Well, I think I have what I came for.” She drops the last camera into her backpack, zips it up, and tosses it over her shoulder. “If I were you, I’d get off social media when you get home. Save yourself the agony.”
Something sharpens in my chest then. The same feeling I’d always had watching Athena succeed; the vinegar-sour conviction that this wasn’t fair. Now Candice is sauntering in front of me, flaunting her spoils, and I can already see how the industry will receive her manuscript. They’ll fucking go wild for her, because the narrative is simply so perfect: brilliant Asian artist exposes white fraud, wins big for social justice, sticks it to the man.
Ever since The Last Front came out, I have been victim to people like Candice and Diana and Adele: people who think that, just because they’re “oppressed” and “marginalized,” they can do or say whatever they want. That the world should put them on a pedestal and shower them with opportunities. That reverse racism is okay. That they can bully, harass, and humiliate people like me, just because I’m white, just because that counts as punching up, because in this day and age, women like me are the last acceptable target. Racism is bad, but you can still send death threats to Karens.
And I know one thing.
I will not let Candice walk away with my fate in her hands.
Years of suppressed rage—rage at being treated like a stereotype, like my voice doesn’t matter, like the entirety of my being is constituted in those two words, “white woman”—bubble up inside me and burst.
I throw myself at Candice’s waist. Attack the center of gravity—I read that in a Tumblr post once; if someone attacks you on the street, go for their gut and their legs. Unbalance them; knock them to the floor. Then go for something that will hurt. Candice is hardly some hulking, six-foot predator. She’s so tiny. Asian women are all so tiny. I sometimes looked at Athena and imagined someone easily scooping her up by the waist. She, and Candice, are like little porcelain dolls—how hard could they be to break?
Candice shrieks as I crash into her. We land on the ground, limbs tangled. Something crunches—the cameras, I hope.
“Get off of me!” She flings a fist at my face. But she’s punching from below; she’s got no momentum, and she’s not that strong to begin with. Her knuckles barely tap my chin. Still, she’s stronger than I imagined. I can’t keep her pinned down—she keeps thrashing beneath me, cursing and screaming, jabbing her palms and elbows at every part of me she can reach. I remember I’ve brought a Swiss Army knife and pepper spray, but there’s no time to unzip my belt; it’s all I can do to fend off her blows.
It crosses my mind that we’re too close to the steps. We could both tumble, or she could kick me down, or I could—
Fuck, no, what am I thinking? There are already people out there who think I murdered Athena. If the police found me at the base of the steps, standing over Candice’s shattered body—how would I explain that?
A small voice whispers: Easily, that’s how.
We were jogging. We’re both dressed for it; how hard would that be to believe? The steps were icy, it was raining, and Candice wasn’t watching her step. I’d definitely have time to stash the cameras before the EMTs got here. I could dump the whole backpack in the Potomac—or, no, that leaves too much to chance; it’s better that I hide it near Georgetown and retrieve it later. If Candice can’t talk, who’s going to suspect me?
It’s fucked up, yes. But I could survive a murder investigation. I can’t survive what Candice will do to me if she walks out of here alive.
Candice’s thrashes are getting weaker. She’s tiring out. I am, too, but I’m bigger, heavier; all I have to do is exhaust her. I pin her wrists to the ground, drive my knees against her chest. I don’t want to kill her. If I can just keep her still, if I can get the backpack off, then search her for any hidden recording devices—that’d be ideal; that way we can both walk out in one piece. But if not, if things come down to it—
Candice shrieks and spits at my face. “Get off !”
I don’t budge. “Just give it,” I pant. “Give it, and I’ll—”
“You fucking bitch!”
She bites my wrist. Pain shoots up my arm. I jerk back, shocked. She’s drawn blood—Jesus fucking Christ, it’s all over her teeth, all over my arm. Candice thrashes once more. My knees slip off her chest. She breaks loose, coils up, and kicks out at my stomach.
Her foot lands with such force—so much more force than I thought possible from that tiny body. It doesn’t hurt so much as it stuns, knocks the air out of my lungs. I reel backward, arms windmilling for balance, but the ground I thought was behind me is not there.
Just empty air.