Something is wrong. It's weird.
The thought comes across Jessica's mind in the middle of a conversation. A conversation she doesn't remember why she's having. The man talking to her stands near, he puts a hand behind her neck, it's intimate, but she flinches, and he frowns.
"Are you alright, babe?" he asks.
"Yeah." Jessica puts a smile on her face and replies, it's an autopilot move; she wonders why. "Yeah, I'm fine."
Jessica stares at the man, he's saying something, but everything seems to be suddenly a million miles away from her. Her body and expression act as if they have their own minds, or rather, it's her mind that slips away. She smiles at the man. She nods slightly and listens. But she can't concentrate.
She's supposed to know this man—be in love with him, probably, according to these clues. But who is he? And more importantly, where is this place and why is she here?
The man's mouth stops moving. He asked her something and now is her cue to answer. What was he saying? Before she can come up with a proper reply, someone approaches them.
"Hi!" She grabs the chance and turns. It's the cameraman. She waves at the camera.
The man beside her raises his glass of wine. "Hey. Cheers!"
What a lovely couple, you two, the cameraman says. Jessica can't see his face, it's all covered up by the camera; all she can see is the lens. It looks like a long tunnel.
To Jessica and Peter. The words come from behind her back. She turns around but finds no one speaking directly to them.
All the other people are dressed in nice clothes and wearing smiles on their faces. Some holding glasses. Some chatting in small groups. Sensing her glance, some turn and give her their congratulations. The sky is pale blue, and it's chilling. They're outdoors, but the air is suffocating. It isn't supposed to feel like this.
Jessica is in a pretty dress. She loves the design, so she must have bought it at some point in the past. But it's dark purple. She doesn't like the color. Also, why would she wear this on this occasion? Now she remembers where she is. She is at a party, or more specifically, their wedding reception. Hers and Peter's.
"I'm fine, Peter, really. I'm just tired."
"Sure. Why wouldn't I believe you?"
And then there was silence.
"How many times are you going to rewatch that thing?" she asked, sitting beside him on the sofa. The light from the screen made her a little dizzy in the dark living room.
"What's the problem with it?" Peter moved his arm and circled her in a half hug without looking at her, his eyes glued to the screen. "It's our happy memory. You look gorgeous in that violet dress."
Jessica closed her eyes. The imprint of the light still pressed on the inside of her eyelids. She counted to ten in her mind and then left the living room.
At first, Jessica is at a party.
People are all so happy for them. For her and Peter. It's their wedding reception. They wanted to make it small, but lovely and intimate, with only their closest family and friends, so they decided to hold the reception in the backyard of their newly bought house in New Rochelle.
She remembers this.
She remembers this as if everything happened just yesterday. Except that everything is happening… now.
Her mother is talking with someone near the porch. It seems they are having a good time, but Jessica decides not to join them. Thirty-two seconds later, Peter will finish his conversation with his business partner. Sixty-seven seconds later, he will come to her side to check whether she enjoys this, and she will reassure him: Yes, this is the happiest day of her life.
She stares at Peter's mouth while he speaks. It opens and then closes, opens, and then closes. Other women chuckle cheerfully. And then the cameraman comes near.
"Hi!" Jessica turns to the camera and waves.
"Hey. Cheers!" Peter's voice arises beside her.
The cameraman is a friend of Peter's. Peter asked him to help record the day, so that they can relive the memory in the future. It all tastes like a bad joke now. Jessica stares at the camera lens, it looks like a long tunnel leading to somewhere in her past, or future. It doesn't matter. There's no way out of here.
The sky is getting darker.
"You don't really care about if I'm happy or not." Once, Jessica was too frustrated, and words slipped out. "You're just finding proofs." It had gotten more and more difficult to live with Peter when everything she did would be picked apart and scrutinized to hold her accountable for how she felt.
Peter was upset, but he didn't look at her; he just kept watching the video. After a long silence between them, "Why don't you wear that dress anymore? You look good in violet," Peter asked. That wasn't even a question. Jessica wasn't going to answer that.
"Sometimes I feel like you'd rather stay in that moment forever," Jessica said sadly.
"Maybe I would."
"Peter will be a good husband."
Her mother approved immediately after hearing about their engagement. Jessica twisted the telephone cord absent-mindedly while listening to her mother talking about the wedding plan.
So is this it? Jessica thought. Is this what going to be my life now?
After breaking up with John, Jessica hadn't planned to date anyone new, because what was the point? They were all going to leave anyway.
Then she'd met Peter, and she thought, maybe he'll be different. He seemed to be the one who'd never leave. In fact, Peter had this tendency to be insecure and sometimes, when Jessica thought of John and their unfulfilled promises to each other, she'd believe that Peter's sense of insecurity was a good thing. It might make their bond tighter.
Jessica has figured out how to live in this repeating life; the only rule is to make sure she acts the same way that she, the Jessica at the wedding reception, was shot in the video. Ironically, all that time she spent watching the video with Peter was worth something after all.
It all started in the middle of a conversation. A conversation she didn't remember why she was having. Her mind had slipped away from her body somehow.
She hadn't quite grasped it at first, the being inside the video. Her body had moved without her, carrying her along, smiling and waving and saying things that she only vaguely recalled having said, once. At first, she'd panicked, fought it, struggled to get away—but she couldn't control any of it, where she went or how she moved her limbs, who she spoke to. Her body didn't even produce tears for her to shed no matter how she felt inside.
It took a few repeats for her to calm herself and focus on trying to alter some details: moving her fingers, looking at someone she didn't look at in the last loop, blinking, by using all her will to imagine herself doing so. Sometimes it even worked… and, eventually, she realized the key.
It worked when the camera wasn't watching her.
She is trapped inside a video. A video means everything recorded and showed on the screen is fixed. If she fails to fulfill that, the video reformats itself to fix the problem, and she is thrown back to stage one, where she just starts to realize there's something wrong, and she'd have to train herself all over again.
Apart from those fixed moments, she is, in a sense—free as long as she imagines it hard enough.
Sometimes she talks to her mother, sometimes Peter. She asks them questions she'd never ask in real life. Of course, they never answer her; all the other people here are just digital records. She's alone, and there's very little that she can do in here. So Jessica speaks the questions, knowing there will be no answer. Sometimes it's enough.
She is trapped, and no one is coming to save her. But she can still try to make some difference. Unlike the others, she's a mind captured in digital data… or, rather, she's a string of digital data with an awakened mind. Most importantly of all, she remembers. Piece by piece, she tried to replace some fragments of this world with hers, recalling memories inside a memory to tell a new story inside an old one, creating a version that helps her to keep sane here. Cautiously, so she doesn't get caught. She isn't sure how it can help, but it's better than doing nothing.
The cameraman walks near, and Jessica says hi.
Many loops ago, she stopped paying attention to her conversation with Peter. She isn't even sure what they're talking about. What matters is how their interaction looks, from the camera's view. It's just a role-play. And this is their marriage now, a visualized metaphor of the two of them being stuck in a never-ending loop. The contents are lost, and the rest of it is pretending; he's unaware, and she's happy. Everything is fine.
The man beside her was her husband-to-be. They were in love with each other, or so they believed, once. But now he's just someone she doesn't know. Who he was has been washed away, after so many repetitions—like faded clothing, full of fuzz balls. Even before Jessica got trapped in here.
Now, Jessica focuses more on the camera lens. Once she got familiar with how she should act in front of the camera, she found the moments where she could look at the camera itself, study it. That's how she discovered the secret: It's like a window back into her living room, the house in New Rochelle. Peter always keeps the videotape in the player so he can rewatch it as many times he wants.
And now it seems he even keeps it playing when he isn't watching. Jessica looks into the lens, and instead of seeing Peter looking back with crazy eyes, there's just an empty chair. How Peter keeps the living room makes it look like a shrine of her. Her photos framed. Flowers and petals on the table.
Am I dead? Jessica considers the possibility.
She's spent so much time and effort to stay as alive as she can be that she never thought to consider the opposite.
Maybe Peter would rather think that she's dead; maybe it'd be easier on him. After death, all the past are just memories for people to shape into something they yearn to be loved by.
Am I dead, now? Am I watching Peter from the afterlife?
The cameraman leaves, and Jessica turns to the man beside her.
If I were dead, she thinks, the one I'd want to see isn't you.
Jessica once had a lover named Peter. When they met, Peter had a clear picture of how their future should be—and he made it his mission to create that idyllic life for them. If he sometimes forgot that she wasn't just a part of his future blueprint, but a person who should have had some say in creating that future, well, people said there was little to complain about.
They bought a beautiful house and planned a lovely wedding reception at its backyard. She wore her favorite dress, which was violet. They'd asked a friend of Peter's to record the wedding day; he brought the camera, but unfortunately forgot the tape. Luckily, they found one lying beside the TV set in their new house. As if waiting to be found.
Weeks after the wedding, Peter suggested that they watch the video, so Jessica watched it with him. Days later, he made the same suggestion. Then again. Then, again.
Jessica soon lost interest. Somehow watching the video made her uneasy. The more times she watched it, the more details she noticed. In the video, she made an expression, and it got sadder each time. In the video, Peter adjusted his tie in a certain way, and it looked more annoying each time. But Jessica had made her choice when she walked away from an unfinished conversation at an airport. It was just an illusion, a false fear. She wasn't marrying the wrong man.
She should have waited for him a little longer.
Peter loved watching the video much more than Jessica did. He never took the videotape out of the player. He'd still watch it when Jessica refused to join him.
And then Peter's sense of insecurity grew worse. He called her selfish, manipulative. Claimed that she should never have agreed to marry him, knowing that she didn't love him the way that he loved her.
"You're unreasonable," Jessica said.
Peter remained silent, pressing the keys on the remote control, and then. "It's this house, right? That's why you married me. You never really loved me."
"I'm not continuing this conversation—"
"And why did you wear this dress, babe? I thought we agreed, you look beautiful in the violet dress. Where was that one?"
Jessica turned to the screen. In the video, she wore a dark purple dress with a similar design—a dress she didn't remember owning. And the video seemed to be much, much darker than how it was the last time she'd watched it.
"How many times have you rewatched this?"
"Does that matter?"
Jessica bit her lip. "Nope."
Jessica once had a lover named John.
She'd wanted to be his wife, have his children… grow old with him. They didn't get much time together, but she'd known it from the start. He was a soldier. And despite those times when she affectionately complaints about the time they could share was so limited, she was really quite good at waiting; the nights she spent alone could be sweet and meaningful as she looked forward to being held in his arms once the waiting was over.
And then, surprisingly, he'd completed his service and come home to her. But just as they'd been ready to start a life together, the world they'd been familiar with had exploded and shattered.
John had wanted to protect the country by re-enlisting. They'd talked about that and come to an agreement. But John had barely signed the paperwork before another group had found him, convincing him that their mission would do more to protect the world. John hadn't been allowed to tell her any of the specifics, but as far as Jessica had known, it'd changed everything.
Each time he'd come back to her, she'd seen that darkness seeping into him. Fewer smiles, and faked ones. Despite that, she'd been willing to stay in his life, and told him that they could still find some way to protect the little warm corner in this world that could've become their home.
But it wasn't enough. Little by little, Jessica sensed the growing self-loathing that John tried so hard to hide from her. And while John brushed off her fears about him dying on the job, he seemed to believe that even if he survived his tour, he would never come back at the end as the kind of man that she could build a life with.
Not wanting to hurt her in the future by tying her to a man she couldn't love, he'd decided to hurt her now by letting her go. If he, at the moment, forgot that she wasn't just a tragic bride struggling to survive marriage to a monster, but a woman whose love might have brought him back from the dark… well, that was how he wanted to love her, to cut her loose before it got that bad.
Jessica chose to love him back in the same way, by letting him go.
Not everyone is lucky enough to marry the one they love, Jessica told herself, while walking away from her love and toward the altar, dressed in white.
So she accepted her life: the loss of her love, and a marriage that turned out to be shallow, surface-deep. But it was a different thing altogether when Peter began to turn violent.
One day, after an argument, he'd asked her to watch the wedding video with him again. When she'd refused, he'd gotten upset—and then she'd made the mistake of trying to take out the videotape. Before she knew it, he was at her side—a huge dark figure, tall and menacing—and he'd grabbed her wrist, twisted it painfully to make her let go.
It was the first time.
When Jessica realized that she needed help, she found no one she could reach out to except John. She'd called him, but the call had gone straight through to voicemail.
Jessica didn't remember what sort of message she left. She knew that he probably wouldn't come, and that was fine; she'd just hoped to talk to him again before it was too late. By this point, one way or the other, she was convinced that she would never see him again.
Peter walked into the living room, drunk as always, and demanded to know who she'd been talking to.
Hiding the phone behind her back, Jessica prayed for someone, anyone, to save her. She prayed to see John again; it didn't even matter how long she had to wait. She was good at waiting for John.
An intense light flashed on the TV screen, blinding her eyes before Peter's fist could fall on her. The phone fell to the floor as the wedding video started up.
Then, Jessica is at a party.
A party that feels more like a sad ceremony now. Everything is getting darker, getting colder, and she is so, so alone. For two loops Jessica hasn't wanted to make any alteration because what's the point? She might never leave here. The more she uses her consciousness and heart and soul, the more it reminds her that all those things she has been trying to do never affected those people in any way; they're just digital information, no consciousness, no feelings. But she isn't. She isn't digital, not really. She's just weary, wondering if there will ever be an end.
She looks into the eyes of her digital husband. Those digital women chuckle. The digital cameraman approaches.
"Hi," Jessica says, glancing into the tunnel. And then she sees him.
John looking back at her, his eyes filled with sorrow and so much regret. He's here, Jessica thinks. Somehow he came for her, and all those repetitions, all the time she's spent alone here, it all seems suddenly worthwhile.
Jessica almost cries and breaks her character, but, fortunately, John pauses the video. Unable to move, Jessica watches him through the screen, overwhelmed with longing and affection. Hi, she says, silently, in her mind. I've missed you.
Then John rewinds. He rewinds and then rewinds, staring at the video, leaning forward intently, his brows drawn tightly together.
Jessica isn't sure whether John finds anything weird about the videotape. If he does, maybe there's a way to break this cage and set her free. But instead of excitement and hope, Jessica gets panic and worry. She's seen firsthand what the video did to Peter, and, even though she only has the one data point, she's made an assumption about it. The video reflects and encourages fear. For Peter, it turned a little trickle of insecurity into an all-consuming flood. For John, who left her to a man who doesn't deserve her… a man who might well have been the reason for her disappearance… she has an idea what it's showing him right now.
This might destroy John.
With no idea how to help him, Jessica calls up all her will, trying to give him something other than this. This isn't the memory she wants John to think of, when he thinks of her. They've created so much more than just a sad ending and a regretful result; as John keeps replaying the video, she tries—so hard—to remind him of the details, the memories they'd made together.
On their second date, they're sharing a drink together; she asks him for a dance before he's gotten up the nerve to ask her. After their first night together, he is playing with her hair as she runs her fingers over his scars. In the hotel in Mexico, full of light and the promise of a future, she is asking him to stay so that they'll never get separated again, and he is saying yes; he already quit his job, and she doesn't believe him right away.
To hell if the video is watching; Jessica wants to show John those moments, the beautiful shining fragments of their past. Those are what keep me alive here, she wants him to know. They're what makes all this bearable. So please—can you find them all?