THE DOCTORS LET ME LEAVE THE HOSPITAL AFTER FOUR DAYS, AFTER my clavicle and ankle have been set and I’ve proven I can hop my way into and out of a car without assistance. It doesn’t seem like I’ll need surgery, but they want me back in two weeks to check that my concussion has resolved itself. The whole thing costs me thousands of dollars even after insurance, though I suppose I should be grateful I got off this easy.
No police were standing over my bedside when I woke up. No investigators, no journalists. I slipped on the ice while jogging, I’m told. An anonymous Good Samaritan found me and called the EMTs using the emergency feature on my phone, but they’d disappeared by the time the ambulance arrived.
Candice has played this perfectly. Any accusation I make will appear utterly groundless. From the outside, we are near strangers to each other. Our last email interaction was years ago. I don’t have her number in my phone. There is no room to suspect foul play, for what motive could there be? It’s been storming for days now; the rain will have washed away all fingerprints, all proof of her cameras. Even if I can somehow prove Candice was at the steps that night, this only turns into a battle of verbal testimony that will cost us both thousands in legal fees. What’s more, I’m sure I’ve left bruises on Candice, too—bruises she’s no doubt embellished and documented by now. There’s no guarantee I’d win.
No. Whatever plays out now will happen in the realm of popular narrative.
I look up Candice’s name during the Uber ride back to my apartment, just as I’ve been doing every few hours since I woke up. It’s only a matter of time, I figured. I’d like to see the news the moment it drops. This time, the headline I’m awaiting tops the search results. An interview has just dropped from the New York Times: “Former Editor Candice Lee on Athena Liu, Juniper Song Hayward, and the Confession of a Lifetime.”
I’m honestly impressed. Putting aside the fact that Candice has managed to retcon her job title from assistant to editor, it’s hard to get a New York Times piece published in just four days, especially one about a literary feud that passed out of the news cycle months ago. Even Adele Sparks-Sato could never get her think pieces published in the NYT; she always had to resort to Vox or Slate or, God help us, Reductress.
But Candice had something no one else had. She had the tapes.
The final paragraph following the interview mentions that Candice is working on a memoir about the whole affair. Of fucking course. She’s only begun drafting it, but “multiple publishers” are reportedly “very interested” in acquiring her manuscript. Eden is listed as one of the publishers who have reached out to Candice’s agent. Daniella herself is quoted in the final lines: “Of course we’d love to work with Ms. Lee. It would be the ideal way to make amends for the part we played in this tragedy, which we deeply regret.”
SO HERE I AM, FINISHED.
I crash through one week, and then another, with painkillers and sleep aids. Consciousness is a burden. I wake up only to eat. I don’t taste the food in my mouth. I subsist entirely on peanut butter sandwiches, and after a few days, I stop bothering with the peanut butter. My hair grows ratty and greasy, but the thought of washing it exhausts me. I push myself through the motions of bare survival, but there is no telos, nothing to look forward to, other than marching down the dreadful progression of linear time. This is, I believe, what Agamben would call “bare life.”
News of my accident must have circulated around the web. Marnie texts me, Wanted to check in. I heard about the accident, are you alright? I take this to be an attempt to assuage her own conscience in case I die. I don’t respond.
Beyond that, not a single other person reaches out. Mom and Rory would drop everything to come to my bedside in an instant, if I told them what happened, but I’d rather shove screwdrivers into my eyeballs than explain it all. My phone chirps one night, but it’s only the DoorDash guy with the toilet paper, and I cry into my pillow, feeling profoundly sorry for myself.
When my painkillers run out and I have to face down the agony of cogitation, I while away the hours scrolling numbly through Twitter. My timeline is full of authors begging for attention as usual. Book deal. Cover reveal. Cover reveal. A starred review. A Goodreads giveaway. A plea for preorders. A romance novel cover featuring two white leads looks too similar to another romance novel cover, and the Twitterati aren’t sure whether to be mad at the authors, the publishers, the art teams, or White Supremacy in General.
It all reeks of desperation, but I can’t look away. It’s the only thing linking me to the only world I have any interest in being a part of.
The solitude wouldn’t bother me so much—I’m used to being alone; I’ve always been alone—if I could write. But I can’t write—not now, not knowing that I probably don’t even have an agent anymore. And what’s an author without an audience?
I’ve wondered, before, how authors who were canceled—and I mean canceled for good reasons, like sexual harassment or using racial slurs—felt after they were iced out of publishing. A few tried to worm their way back in, usually through seedy self-publishing endeavors, or weird cultish workshops. But most just disappeared quietly into the ether, leaving nothing behind but a few tired headlines recapping the drama. I suppose they’re living new lives, in new professions. Maybe they’re working office jobs. Maybe they’re nurses, or teachers, or real estate agents, or full-time parents. I wonder how they feel whenever they walk past a bookstore, whether they get a gnawing desire in their gut for the fairyland that cast them out.
I guess Geoff made his way back in eventually. But Geoff is a wealthy, attractive, cishet white guy. Geoff has endless room for failure. The world will afford me no such lenience.
I do consider suicide. In the later hours of the night, when the ongoing press of time feels like too much, I find myself researching carbon monoxide and razor blades. In theory, it seems like an easy way to escape this suffocating dark. At least it would make my haters feel terrible. Look at what you did. Look what you drove her to. Aren’t you ashamed? Don’t you wish you could take it all back?
But it all seems like so much trouble, and despair as I might, I can’t make peace with the idea that I will depart from the world without so much as a final word.
A MONTH LATER, CANDICE SELLS HER TELL-ALL MEMOIR ON PROPOSAL to Penguin Random House for a staggering seven figures.
I scroll down past the deal announcement to the comments. Some are viciously celebratory; others express revulsion at the commodification of a painful, personal tragedy. A few people express disbelief that a first-time writer would earn such a high advance for a book that doesn’t even exist yet.
They don’t understand. It doesn’t matter how well Candice can write. Who knows if she can string together a paragraph at all? Who cares? Athena and I are national news by now. Everyone and their mother will buy and read this exposé. It’ll linger at the top of bestseller lists for months. It will surely become one of the most talked-about books in the industry, and when it does, my name will be ruined forever. I will always be the writer who stole Athena Liu’s legacy. The psycho, jealous, racist white woman who stole the Asian girl’s work.
It’s hard to imagine a more total, eviscerating defeat.
But my mind does a funny thing then.
I don’t spiral into despair. I don’t feel the telltale symptoms of an incoming panic attack. In fact, quite the opposite: I’m utterly calm, Zen-like. I feel alive. I find myself composing sentences then, dreaming up turns of phrase, sketching out the contours of a counternarrative. I am the victim of a dreadful hoax. I was cyberbullied, stalked, and manipulated into thinking I was going mad. Candice Lee took my love for my deceased friend and turned it into something ugly and horrible. Candice is the one who exploited me for her art, not the other way around.
Because if Candice is showing off those tapes, then she’s revealing that she was at the Exorcist steps the night I fell. Then there’s no question who that anonymous EMT caller was. And that gives me an opening to make my own accusations.
The truth is fluid. There is always another way to spin the story, another wrench to throw into the narrative. I have learned this now, if nothing else. Candice may have won this round, but I won’t let her erase my voice. I will tell our audience what they ought to believe. I will undermine all of her assertions, ascribe new motivations, and alter the sequence of events. I will present a new account that is compelling precisely because it aligns with what our audience, deep down, really wants to believe: that I have done no wrong, and that this is, once again, an instance of nasty, selfish, overdemanding people fabricating a tale of racism where there isn’t one. This is cancel culture gone deadly. Look at my cast. Look at my hospital bills.
I will craft, and sell, a story about how the pressures of publishing have made it impossible for white and nonwhite authors alike to succeed. About how Athena’s success was entirely manufactured, how she was only ever a token. About how my hoax—because let’s frame it as a hoax, not a theft—was really a way to expose the rotten foundations of this entire industry. About how I am the hero, in the end.
I start planning my next steps. First, I’ll write a proposal. I can have that done by the end of the day, or perhaps tomorrow morning if I get too tired. But I’ll certainly whip it into shape by the end of the week, and then email it off to Brett, assuming Brett hasn’t fired me. If he has fired me, I’ll ask for a phone call, then pitch this to him in person. He’d be insane to say no.
I’ll spend the next eight weeks scribbling down all my thoughts and recollections. I can’t recycle material from my pseudo-autobiography. No—in that project, I was willing to make myself the villain for the sake of entertainment. In this version, I need redemption. I must make them see my side of the story. Athena was the leech, the vampire, the ghost who wouldn’t let me go; Candice her deranged wannabe proxy. I am innocent. My only sin is loving literature too much, and refusing to let Athena’s very prenatal work go to waste.
The draft will be messy, but that’s all right—this whole affair is messy. It’s more important to strike while the iron’s hot. Brett and I will clean up the typos as best we can, then put the manuscript on submission. Someone will buy that story. Perhaps it’ll be Eden—I’d be willing to work again with Daniella, provided she comes groveling, stacks of cash in hand. But I’m expecting a choice. The offers will be many. We’ll go to auction. I would not, in fact, be surprised if this project goes for more money than any of my previous works.
A year later, I’ll be in bookstores everywhere. The initial press coverage will be skeptical at best, scathing at worst. White lady publishes tell-all! June Hayward writes the memoir none of us wanted, because this psycho just can’t stop. Diana Qiu will blow a gasket. Adele Sparks-Sato will lose her fucking mind.
But some reviewer, somewhere, will give the book a closer look. They’ll publish a contrarian review, because editors who want clickbait always solicit contrarian reviews. What if we got it all wrong? And that’s all it takes to sow doubt. The netizens who love to argue for the sake of arguing will look for the holes in Candice’s story. The character assassinations will begin. We’ll all get dragged down in the mud, and when the dust clears, all that will remain is the question: What if Juniper Song was right?
And this will become, in time, my story once again.