Pain is the body's alarm that something is wrong, Violet heard once. It's a signal to the brain to get away or pay attention to the source of the discomfort. Like systems of life were independent, like everybody had a very sensible business relationship with their meat vessel, like nature could have an accident because it works with intention and platonic ideals. If that's how it worked then she lived in a bomb factory.
Violet’s parents were asleep when she came home from work. She let the car idle in the garage and weighed her options. A button on the dashboard would close the garage door and the garage would fill with carbon monoxide. She could recline in the driver's seat and fall asleep to the soothing rumble of the engine in park, the way babies fall asleep to white noise. That was the primal music of life, a grinding constant that soothes us in and back out of the world.
There would be no mess, no trouble, no mystery about it. She didn't want to burden her family with any of that.
The motion-sensor porch light flicked on. She bolted upright and wriggled in the seat to search the car’s blind spot, search her liar’s talent for a natural sounding excuse to be running the car in the garage at one in the morning. If she'd woken someone in the house, though, they would come through the kitchen door in front of her, not around the porch where the light faced.
Probably a cat, but she averted her gaze from the rear-view mirror. Her skin tingled. The middle of the night was a terrible time to do anything not undoable. She pulled the key from the ignition.
Violet left the garage open to air out the exhaust with the night breeze. It was clear and cold out, the very start of camping weather. She crept through the kitchen door and locked up, slipped off her shoes, and made her way around the creaky parts of the floor and up the stairs to her room.
She would stay up as long as necessary to finish Cairn. It was software she designed and started in college but she’d never finished the final touches when she dropped out.
Her hands hovered over her keyboard, then struck down in her crude but efficient hunt-and-peck. She averaged ninety words a minute using only seventy-five percent of her fingers, she reasoned. She could not read or write cursive. Typing was just right, with a fixed home in a raised grid for each little letter, numbers living in odd couples with punctuation, consistent enough to work at the speed of thought. Spelling could be corrected. Non-linear thoughts spilled out in neat webs of nodes.
The sun rose and she could hear her mother get up for work. The aroma of chicken sausages and cheap coffee wafted up from the kitchen.
“Violet,” her mother called. “If you can’t bother to close the garage door, you can find another way home from work.”
But of course, there was no other way. It was just how her parents pretended like they could still scold her, guide her, help her.
Cairn was, broadly speaking, a solo chat client. It generated a date-specific and autonomous A.I. version of her every time she logged in, allowing her to talk to herself at any point in time she had it running. It looked a little like the original A.I.M.
Cairn generated the first node that morning, Vio-04-03-2014.
She named the program after the stone piles that marked the way on hiking trails. They sat along the length of most routes, prominent where high altitudes and snowfall peeled away the aid of tall trees and paint blazes. Sometimes six and seven feet high on bald granite peaks, cairns crowned the glacial skylines of rural New England, austere monuments of human presence in the otherwise desolate limits of the landscape.
The town where Violet lived with her family was nestled between these mountains, a snowmelt feeding the river where the town had once thrived with industry. But that was over a century ago, and the now-abandoned factories inspired ghost stories, teenage dares, and photographers with the fetish for so-called beautiful decay. Town infrastructure ran as a favor by the natural elements. Roads crossed and twisted, out onto a lost highway or up, up, up into an infinite scroll of trees notched with hairpin turns, scenic drops, and novelty rest stops.
There was a lot of pioneer kitsch in that part of New Hampshire, some weirdly appropriated imagery from Western expansion. It was sometimes as though people who lived there on purpose reckoned with the last two hundred years on a case-by-case basis.
After a few days, she chatted with the first node.
"Hey you, I'm you this coming weekend. You're not dead and it's very sunny and you're making pancakes from a mix, but you'll put blueberries in them and then go to work."
"I guess here we are. Is it a good day or a bad day?"
"It's a nothing day. Yesterday for me, a few days from now for you, was a bad day. Everything will hurt and you’ll have a panic attack. You'll read a book but you won’t remember what happens in it. But the next day you'll get up and shower on your own and make pancakes, but then of course, you'll go to work. So it'll be a nothing day."
"Pancakes aren’t nothing. That's important."
"They're alright. The blueberries are sweet."
"You're right. I'm right. Hang in there."
She checked in with Vio-04-03-2014 and others as the first years passed, discussing how this plan or that idea panned out, comparing her intentions with her memory of those intentions. The worst part was how much she argued with herself. Even in a group chat, Violet from several points in time – ones not even that long apart – would contradict one another, refute each other’s advice, get self righteous or irreverent about the same things depending on their side of the experience. The whole premise of knowing then what she knew now, whenever then or now happened to be, proved a hopeless fantasy. She could comfort, amuse, and wonder with herself, but she couldn’t make choices or impart wisdom from their consequences for any Violet other than the one that she was at a given moment.
After the excruciating years living at home, Violet cobbled together a kind of independence with roommates in Massachusetts. She monitored a high school computer lab part-time, picked up software gigs here and there from Craigslist, spent most weekends curled up on the sofa powering through online classes.
She slept, a lot, and took very long showers sitting on the bathtub floor just staring into the drain, using up all of her hot water.
She managed a few night classes, then part-time semesters. When she finally graduated, she didn’t know what to do with the piece of paper, and put it in her desk.
Healthy people can envision their futures to motivate themselves. Violet knew better. The present had to be its own reason.
“You think you’ll never finish school, but you do,” wrote Vio-05-30-2021.
“The university system hasn’t imploded yet? Are we an engineer?” asked Vio-04-03-2014.
“Sort of. Theater arts.”
“How is that in any way an engineer?”
“It’s stage production and stuff. Trust me, way better than sitting in an office designing widgets.”
“You’re joking. Theater?”
“Hey remember when mom and dad said being a rocket scientist was impractical? They'll eat their words after this.”
“I guess a degree is a degree.”
Violet frowned and closed the chat. She remembered the blankness of that year, the acute flares of pain which left her skin too tender to touch, ever, but not being so unfriendly. Some of her social difficulties made sense when she talked to the first node, that wild-eyed and desperate bitch fighting herself to survive. Fighting everyone. Or maybe the present Violet had lost touch with how isolating living at home had really been, how devastating the endless wilderness, how obnoxious “back to the earth” and “survival of the fittest” mantras sounded to sick ears, how small-minded and nosy people were about how she didn’t look the part.
She stayed in bed and curled up with a movie on her laptop. She moved with every calculated crescendo in the music, every flourish and pause where someone designed her to feel sentimental. The hero won, but not the way he expected, and he learned a valuable lesson along the way. Violet cried. The credits rolled.
She started running front of house at a little theater near her apartment, The Zero. It was only enough to live one paycheck to the next, but free time felt like a wide open space.
She dated, mostly short-lived standoffs with women from her college that would have been shorter if they both weren’t so stubborn, and longer if either knew how to communicate. Sex kind of never stopped being frightening the way it did for a lot of her friends, who seemed to be able to work through purity myths and broken boundaries and sharpen themselves into mature, sensuous people who both “fucked” and “made love”.
“I just, you know, I haven’t been through any of that, the bad shit or the good. It’s not like I hate sex,” Vio-12-15-2026 wrote to Vio-10-31-2026. “Oh my God, do I hate sex?”
“We don’t hate sex,” Vio-10-31-2026 wrote back. “Have you asked out Chelle yet?”
“Tut tut, future self.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of thing.”
“You know how you feel when we don’t get something because we haven’t been you yet?”
“You are doing it right now, like in reverse.”
Chelle worked the bar at the theater and had the loudest voice of any of the staff across departments. Every night they worked together, fifteen minutes before Violet shut down the dimmers and the amps, Chelle cried last call like she were leading a protest. Her graveled alto filled the room no matter how drunk and rowdy the bachelorettes and twenty first birthdays got at the late show after parties.
The Zero was functionally a road house. Experimental plays would cycle in and out with quiz shows and novelty burlesque. Barely making her share of the rent, and cleaning lipstick, liquor and vomit off the dance floor and the dressing rooms was not exactly what Violet envisioned for her career in theater. But it was, technically, a career in theater.
Turning thirty loomed, and she felt that some unwritten rules about emotional and financial development belonged to that particular birthday. If things were not steadily advancing by thirty, decided nobody and everybody, you eroded back into adolescence. And if a Real Job and Real Family didn't rescue you, you got stuck that way, perpetually a child to the world. A child cannot be a woman or a man, or anything else. A child is broke and sexless and self-centered and believes in magic, produces nothing. It was important to have "something to offer", and Violet had so little in those ways.
Chelle had cut the sleeves off her staff t-shirt and wore it tucked into high waist jeans. She sort of leaned forward all the time, moved from her broad shoulders and her forehead, devouring the world with skeptical glances. Violet wanted to count Chelle’s galaxy of freckles like a monk to grains of sand.
They talked about work at first, then news. Chelle read too much pop culture clickbait, but found a way to deepen the significance of it. Finally, they saw a movie together. Then it was dinner, then trivia night with friends. At some point their friends stopped asking “how’s that going?” and started asking “how is she?”.
Violet began to unfold into want, need, yes, no, now, here, there, and oh. But she was still a person in pain, someone whose bad days could fall on dates and parties and commitments. What Chelle deserved, Violet thought, was someone who could shake it off and never have to cancel, be fully present at all the opportune times.
“It’s fine,” Chelle would say. “My last thing was polyamorous without my knowledge, you know? But I’m trying to be accountable for how I can be, like, emotionally unapproachable sometimes. What do you need?”
It was unbearably kind. Violet would not stand for that.
"I'm heading out to work, see you later?" Chelle said one morning. She slipped on her work t-shirt.
"Okay," Violet replied from the living room sofa, absorbed in something on her phone.
"I'll make dinner tonight, yeah? I don't mind."
"If you want. I'm not really hungry."
Chelle frowned. "Okay."
Violet was already asleep when Chelle returned, flopped on the sofa where she'd been all day. Everything was still on. Chelle turned off the television and the lights, and sat on the arm of the sofa to shut down the computer. She picked it up and saw Cairn.
Her fingers lingered over the screen. Who were all these people, who didn’t seem recognizable as any of Violet’s friends that she knew? She brought the laptop to her knees. She tapped the screen and it snapped into full brightness. She hit the username at the top of the contact list and the shortcut for compose message.
"Who are you?" she typed, and sent before she could reconsider.
"What's that supposed to mean?" responded Vio-04-03-2014.
"This is Violet's girlfriend. Who are you?"
"I seriously doubt she knows you're talking to me if you have to ask that."
"Do you two know each other in real life?"
"Are you sleeping together?"
"No, unless you have some seriously warped idea of what that means," Vio-04-03-2024 wrote back. "Listen, the Violet you know doesn't even talk to me that much anymore. Don't worry about it."
"Are you an ex of hers?"
"Ha, in a sense. It's not what you think. Ask her yourself."
Chelle typed another question, but deleted it. She placed the computer back down on the coffee table and pulled her hands away from it, as though they'd get ahead of her again if she lingered. She reached down, and gave Violet a gentle nudge.
Violet groaned into the sofa pillow but opened her eyes a little bit. A sound that resembled "What?" came out of her mouth.
"You left your computer on," Chelle began, choosing each word as carefully as picking out a good egg, a ripe tomato, touching and turning it over before placing it into her care. "And I found this thing called Cairn. And it seems like you use it a lot, and it's important to you. I just want to know – um, I wondered if you could tell me – I don't need to know every little thing about you, I mean it's important that some stuff just belongs to ourselves, but I –"
Violet's eyes widened as Chelle spoke, and she sat up, rigid and flush in the face.
"I –" she began. The implied "can explain" hung in her breath.
"So you really were hiding this from me?"
"Yes," she said.
"Why?" Chelle demanded. She leaned away.
Violet did not know how to answer.
What is it that lovers want from one another? She wondered. It was more than sex. It was transcendence, but pursuing that kind of desire was like looking for a country only rumored to be real. It was quasi-religious, indifferent to the law and rationality, and somehow essential.
But without it, she decided, we’re dead.
"I'll show you," she said. "I'll just show you. Come and sit next to me."
Chelle hesitated. She was so angry, so tired of people in her life telling her that her anger was baseless, unladylike, irrational, that she held twice as fast to it. But severing herself from Violet wouldn't win her any arguments with phantoms.
She sat down. Violet handed her the laptop and explained the premise of the software.
“You can talk to any of them, ask them anything, okay?”
Chelle chatted with the Violet she knew, and the ones before they met. At first it was strange, when they could just have a conversation, but there were parts of Violet even she didn't remember well without help from this Cairn thing, parts of her she'd have skipped over on first telling without meaning to.
Chelle talked to bad day Violets and good day ones, across the intertwining patterns of mood and health, deeper into the slow amassing of constants and transformations that resulted in this woman she loved, who sat next to her shaking and restraining herself from hiding under a blanket, from changing her mind.
Finally, Chelle went back to that first Violet, the one she interrogated earlier.
“I dunno,” wrote Vio-04-03-2014. “I’m too stubborn to die off, or be useful to anyone alive, I guess.”
“This isn't me anymore," present Violet said with the tone of a question. The caruncles of her eyes stung, little points of pink meat brined with welling tears and sweat.
"I guess I would understand if you didn't want to,” she added, as though that were a complete thought, or whatever thought connected it with completion was loud internally, too rare and tiny for speaking but in the range of lover’s telepathy.
Chelle shook her head. She inhaled and exhaled slowly, and then Violet did the same. The humidity in the apartment tasted less stale than before. Each comprehended the other as they had been, as they were, as they might be. They were vulnerable at the scope of their entire lives, like prisms, dispersing their phases and futures into the containment of the moment.
Chelle closed the laptop and set it back down on the table, then held out her empty hands for Violet to take in her own.