"This book was a real labor of love,” says the woman seated behind a table of hardcovers sporting her makeup-free face, scrunched mid-yelp as she attempts to drink from a garden hose. “I can’t believe it’s something I can finally hold in my hands! And the cover’s not too bad, either.”
The audience laughs right on cue. In the back row, I can practically feel Noemie cringe beside me. “I’ve made bowls of cereal that were more a labor of love than the effort she put into that book,” she whispers.
She’s not wrong—I experienced it firsthand. Still, I give my cousin a nudge. “Be respectful.”
“I am. To the cereal.”
I press my lips together to keep from reacting and focus on the stage, where Maddy DeMarco commands the room with a warm, practiced confidence bordering on emotional manipulation. The bookstore is filled with just a fraction of her 1.6 million Instagram followers: mostly women, mostly white, mostly dressed in sustainable linen they bought using her discount code MADSAVINGS10. At first I thought it was a cult, and to be completely honest, I’m still not sure. Her brand of saccharine positivity doesn’t quite do it for me anymore—whenever I need self-love, it’s more likely to take shape as something handheld and battery-operated. Which Maddy has devoted tragic few (read: zero) social media posts to.
She’s built her career on empty affirmations and obvious advice. Case in point—the book is called Go Drink Some Water: A Guide to Self-Care, Self-Discovery, and Staying Thirsty.
“People often ask how I turned one viral post into a lifestyle brand,” Maddy says, crossing one linen-clad leg over the other. Her natural waves are shined to perfection with an expensive oil I’m ashamed to admit I tried before chopping my ash-blond hair into a pixie last year. “And the answer is simple: I don’t sleep.” This gets a few more laughs. A muted groan from Noemie. “No, I want to be real with you guys. I was one of those people who never had their shit together—wait, can I say that? Are there kids here?” She makes a show of squinting out at the audience before barreling onward. “I would get so stressed that I literally forgot to drink water! It wasn’t until I got so dehydrated that I ended up in the hospital that I realized I’d stopped doing things just for myself. I’m talking basic, keeping-yourself-functioning kind of things. Like drinking water. And I knew something needed to change.”
I wrote three chapters of her book on that hospital visit, poring over her Instagram to make sure I was capturing her voice. Every fourth comment swooned over how relatable she was—and this is someone who sells wall hangings that say live laugh girlboss.
All through the writing process, I tried to keep Maddy relatable: when she insisted on communicating with me only through her team, when that team sent me photos of notes she’d scrawled on compostable napkins, when she said the writing needed to feel a little earthier. I wanted to like her so badly, wanted to believe her posts were inspiring people to live their best and most carbon-neutral lives. Because the thing is, back before the book, I did like her. There was something both aspirational and authentic about her that had compelled me to hit “follow” a few years ago, long before the wall hangings and the constant #ads that clutter her feed these days.
Ghostwriting isn’t a glamorous job, and even if nothing about this finished product screams Chandler Cohen, I’ve been strangely giddy over the idea of finally meeting Maddy—because some part of me is still a little starstruck. The book came out a few days ago, and I’ve made myself wait to get a copy until her Seattle tour stop, convinced her signature on the title page will cement this as a collaboration. I didn’t even open the box of hardcovers that showed up on my doorstep last week.
In my wildest dreams, I’ve wondered if maybe Maddy will ask me to sign a copy for her, too. An inside joke between the two of us. And somehow, that would make up for all the eleventh-hour rewrites and irreversible, anxiety-induced damage to my cuticles.
Chapter 6: Harness Your Inner Optimist. Maybe the book really did make an impact.
Maddy lifts one arm in the air. “Can I get a show of hands—who here has ever posted a photo of themselves smiling when they were so far from happy, hitting the submit button almost felt like a lie?” Nearly every hand goes up. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve done it plenty of times. But it’s not the photos of my smiling face that have enabled me to connect with so many of you—it’s the photos of my crow’s-feet. My frowns. Even my tears.” She slips her phone from her pants pocket, scrolls through her own feed. “The next time you post something, think about how much it’s representing your authentic self. And then don’t just hit submit. Take a new photo. Write a new caption. Let your inner beauty do the talking.”
“Then she’s going to love my event recap,” Noemie says.
A woman in front of us turns around, shoving a finger to her lips. Noemie goes silent and blinks wide, innocent eyes at her.
“You’re going to get us kicked out,” I say. “And then what am I going to say to my publisher?”
“You can tell them I’m living my truth and speaking my heart. Isn’t that what chapter twelve was about?” Unfortunately, yes.
After another half hour of Maddy’s sweeping proclamations about our on- and offline lives, infused with no fewer than four references to brands that sponsor her, she gets a signal from her assistant and claps her hands once. “I’m afraid that was all the time we have! I can’t wait to sign these beauties for you, but before I do . . . I want you all to do something for me.” A sly grin spreads across her face. “If you reach under your chairs, you’ll find your very own bottle of water.”
There’s a flurry of eager, electric energy as those who didn’t notice the water bottles when they came in discover them for the first time.
“Now I want you to open that baby up”—Maddy uncaps her water bottle, raising it high in a toast to the audience. I tap my recycled plastic against Noemie’s with an exaggerated lift of my eyebrows—“and take a big, delicious sip.”
“Doesn’t it bother you,” Noemie asks in the signing line, running a hand along the book’s glossy cover, “not seeing your name on it?”
It did. At the beginning. But now there’s a sense of detachment that accompanies a book release. As a celebrity ghostwriter, I’m not hired to be anyone’s coauthor—I’m supposed to write from their point of view. To become them. My first author, a Bachelor contestant who infamously dumped the guy on national TV after he proposed, was an utter delight, and she still emails asking how I’m doing. But I quickly learned that wasn’t the norm. Because then there was Maddy, and the book I just finished for a TikTok-famous personal trainer with his own line of protein shakes that really stretches the definition of literature.
Maybe there’s some satisfaction in clutching these several hundred pages I churned out at record speed, a tangible conclusion to all those late nights and canceled plans. And yet I can also completely divorce myself from this book in a way that’s either great or terrible for my mental health. Maybe both.
“It’s not my book,” I say simply, taking another sip from my Maddy DeMarco–branded water bottle. It’s like, weirdly good water, and I’m not sure I want to know why.
The signing line crawls forward, people asking Maddy to pose for photos before they head off to pay at the register. I can’t fault any of them for loving her the way they do. They want to believe that changing their lifestyle can change their life—after all, it worked for her.
“Thanks for waiting with me,” I say, and Noemie’s eyes soften behind her tortoiseshell glasses, her cynical exterior cracking for a moment. “I know this isn’t your ideal Friday night.”
“Considering I spent last Friday explaining to a client why we couldn’t guarantee them a cover story in Time, this is a definite upgrade.” She’s still dressed in her PR professional best: tapered slacks, daisy-patterned peplum top, a blazer draped over her arm. Long dark hair straightened and frizz-free, because she’s not Noemie if she has even a single flyaway. Meanwhile, in my cords, faded Sleater-Kinney tee, and a black denim jacket that’s too warm for early September, I must look like I haven’t seen the sun since 1996. No vitamin D for me, thanks.
“Can’t argue with you there.” I pick at a speck of silver nail polish, a tell my cousin will be able to see right through. “And hey, the longer we’re here, the longer I can pretend everyone else isn’t at Wyatt’s housewarming.”
Noemie grimaces in this familiar way I’m never sure whether I learned from her or the other way around. Noemie Cohen-Laurent is both my only first cousin and my closest friend. We grew up on the same street, attended the same schools, and now even live in the same house, though she owns it and I’m paying a deeply discounted monthly rent.
We both studied journalism, starry-eyed about how we were going to change the world, tell the stories no one else was telling. The economy pushed us in different directions, and before we graduated, Noemie had already been hired full-time at the PR firm where she’d interned during her senior year.
“I’m guessing that means you decided not to go?” she says.
“I can’t do it. You can go if you want, but—”
Noemie cuts me off with a swift shake of her head. “Solidarity. Wyatt Torres is dead to me.”
My shoulders sag with relief. I haven’t wanted her to feel like she needs to pick a side, even if there’s no risk she’d pick his. Still, she’s the only one who knows what happened between us a few weeks ago: one incredible night after years of pining I thought was mutual, given the desperate way his hands roamed my body as we tumbled into bed. I’d helped him unpack his new apartment, and we were exhausted and tipsy and just seemed to fit, our bodies snapping together in this natural, effortless way. Wyatt’s dark hair feathering across my stomach, tanned skin shivering where I touched him. The way he dug his nails into my back like he couldn’t bear to let me go.
But then came the Can we talk? text, and the confession, during said talk, that he wasn’t looking for a relationship right now. And I was a Relationship Girl, he said, with all the distaste usually reserved for that one person who replies-all on a cc’d email. He valued our friendship too much, and he didn’t want either of us to get hurt.
So I pretended I wasn’t.
“We would have been good together, though,” I say quietly, forcing my feet forward in line.
Noemie places a gentle hand on my shoulder. “I know. I’m so sorry. We’ll have a much better time tonight, I promise. We’ll go back to the house and order way too much Indian food, because I know how you love being able to eat leftovers for five days afterward. And then we can watch people on Netflix making bad real estate decisions with partners they absolutely should not be with.”
Finally, it’s our turn, one of the booksellers beckoning us forward. Maddy’s smile has barely slipped, an impressive feat after all those photos.
“Hi,” I say, thrusting my copy forward with a trembling hand, which is only marginally embarrassing. I wrote pages and pages pretending to be this woman, and now that she’s three feet in front of me, I can barely speak. Someone take away my communication degree.
“Hi there,” she says brightly. “Who should I make it out to?”
“Chandler. Chandler Cohen.”
She squeezes one eye shut, as though trying to remember. Any moment now, it’ll ring a bell. We’ll laugh about her takedown of internet trolls in chapter four and roll our eyes at all the people-pleasing she used to do, documented in detail in chapter sixteen. “How do you spell that?”
“Oh—um,” I stammer, every letter in the English alphabet fleeing my mind at once. “Chandler . . . Cohen?” Maddy gives me a blank, expectant look.
No. It’s not possible, is it? That she wouldn’t even remember my name after all the back-and-forth? All her demands?
“You don’t know Chandler—” Noemie starts to say, but I silence her with an elbow to the ribs.
Sure, I communicated mostly with Maddy’s team . . . but my name was on the contracts. The rough drafts. The endless email chains. I wrote this fucking book for her, and she has no idea who I am.
I must mumble out the spelling, but my vision blurs as she swoops her magenta sharpie over the title page, sliding in a bookmark and passing it back to me like a seasoned pro.
“Thank you,” I manage as Maddy waves us away with a sunshine grin.
Once we’re safely in the picture-book aisle, the one farthest from the stage, I let out a long, shaky breath. It’s fine. This is fine. Obviously, she wasn’t going to ask me to sign our book.
Because that’s the whole point of a ghost—no one is supposed to be able to see me.
“You should have told her who you were,” Noemie says, one hand gripping her quilted Kate Spade and the other white-knuckling the water bottle. “I would have, if you hadn’t viciously attacked me.”
“It would have just made it more embarrassing.” I clutch the book tight to my chest because if I don’t, I might hurl it across the store. “Maybe she’s not great with names. She meets a lot of people. I’m sure she just gets . . . really busy girlbossing.”
“Right.” Noemie’s stance is still rigid. “Well, I’m still going to unfollow her.” And to prove it, she takes out her phone, only to have something else catch her attention. “Shit, it’s work. The wrong draft of a press release went out and the client is livid. I might have to . . .” She trails off, her fingers flying over the screen.
Every so often, it hits me that there are only two years between us, though Noemie’s life is wildly different from mine. When The Catch laid me off five years ago and eventually folded, unable to keep up with BuzzFeed and Vice and HuffPost, she was buying a house. When I was struggling to sell freelance articles about new local musicians and the evolution of Seattle’s downtown, she was juggling high-profile clients and contributing a respectable monthly amount to her 401(k). She’s twenty-nine to my thirty-one, but it’s almost shocking how much better at adulting she is.
Only two years, and yet sometimes it feels like I’ll never catch up.
“Go,” I say, nudging her with the book. “I get it.”
If I told her I needed her, she’d probably find a way to do both: comfort me and save her client. But most of the time, when work and anything else are fighting for Noemie’s attention, work wins.
“Only if you’re sure,” she says. “You want to go back home, fire up DoorDash, and save me a couple samosas for when I’m done?”
“I actually might stay out a bit longer.”
She gives me a lingering glance, as though worried there’s something I’m not telling her. It’s the same way she looked at me when I learned about The Catch slashing its staff. My onetime dream job forcing me to find a new dream.
“Nome. I’m fine,” I say, with so much emphasis that it sounds more threatening than reassuring.
She gives me a tight hug. “I’m proud of you,” she says. “In case I didn’t say it before.” She did, when I turned in my draft and my revisions and then on the book’s release day, when she had to go into work early but had a spread of donuts and bagels waiting for me when I woke up. “You wrote and published a book. Two of them, in fact, with another on the way. Don’t let her take that away from you.”
I’m not sure I can put into words how much I love her in this moment, so I just hug her back and hope she knows. Clearly, I’m not the best at words today.
One great thing about this bookstore is that it has a bar, and I hate that on my way over, I have visions of Maddy sitting down next to me. I’d offer to buy her a drink and then tell her something that only someone intimately acquainted with Go Drink Some Water would know. She’d gasp, apologize, gush about how happy she is with the book. She’d confirm that all those months weren’t just a paycheck—they mattered.
Except this isn’t really about Maddy DeMarco at all.
It’s the bundle of self-worth tangled in the sheets on Wyatt’s bed, in the paychecks that don’t always arrive on time, in the lovely bedroom in my cousin’s lovely house that I’d never be able to afford on my own. It’s the persistent tapping at the back of my mind that sounds suspiciously like a clock, wondering if I picked the wrong career path and if it’s too late to start over. And if I’d even know how.
It’s that every time I try to move forward, something is waiting to tug me right back.
The two bartenders are immersed in what looks like a very serious conversation, so I have to clear my throat to get their attention. I order a hard cider that’s much too sweet, and before slipping Maddy’s book into my bag, I open it up to the title page.
If I weren’t already gutter-adjacent, it would sink me even deeper.
For Chandler Cone, it says in magenta ink. Drink up!
Copyright © 2023 by Rachel Lynn Solomon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.