It was months of stress and heartbreak and phone calls, but finally it was over and you’d moved into your new house at No. 12, the house that you hoped would be your forever home.
Over a week, the boxes empty and the shelves and the cupboards filled, and it started to look like you had seen it in your dreams. You were exhausted though, by the move, by the unpacking, and at the end of the week you took some time out just to rest because you were that tired you kept seeing flickering in your peripheral vision, and once thought you heard someone talking, even though you were the only person there.
At the end of the week, the doorbell rang and when you opened the door a man was standing there, who looked surprised to see you.
“Hi,” you said.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t think - I was looking for 12a.”
“This is number 12,” you said. “I…” You look left and right. “I’ve only been here a few days, so I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a 12a. Look, if you step back you can see that next door that way is 10, and that way 14, and over the road they’re all odds, so…”
The man frowned, but at himself, not at you. “I mustn’t have my directions right. I’ll try again. Sorry.”
You tell him it’s not a problem, and close the door and go back to what you were doing.
A few days later your doorbell rings again, and when you open it there’s a middle-aged woman there, looking anxious.
“Hi,” you say, worried that something’s up.
“No, it’s definitely here,” the woman said. “Why won’t you let me in?”
“I’m really sorry,” you say, because you’re polite and kind. “But this is definitely number 12. Look, there’s the number on the wall. There’s no 12a. I think there must be some kind of mix-up or misprinted map, because you’re not the first…”
She wasn’t the first, and neither will she be the last.
There is a number 12a, and it occupies exactly the same place and time as your house. Sometimes people will forget their way there, and will call at your door. Be kind to them, explain that they have just missed the way, and they need to read their directions again.
You’ll never stop seeing the flickers again, in your peripheral vision, but you’ll get used to them. Think of them as your very near neighbours.
Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.
By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,
we look for you in vain;
More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,
yours is the solitude, yours the secret.
Your haunch allows the lingering
caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,
the love of the distrustful hand.
You belong to another time. You are lord
of a place bounded like a dream.
- Poem by Jorge Luis Borges.
Illustrations by itsallinsideus
Concept: A streaming service releases a movie about a person caught in a time loop that ends not with breaking the time loop, but with the protagonist reaching peace with the new condition of their life, making a point of finding joy in small things and doing good works even if they don’t last.
It was a pretty good movie, so when you have a friend over who you think would like it, you watch the movie again. About 2/3 way through the movie, something starts feeling off. You didn’t exactly memorize the movie the first time, but it feels like some scenes are going differently. As the movie goes on, you become more and more certain that it’s not the same. The ending is definitely different. The protagonist still ends the film trapped in the time loop, but this time they’re in despair about it. This ending emphasizes the futility of trying to change controlling systems and the way people’s fundamental natures trap them in destructive cycles.
You’re initially shocked not to see the movie you expected, but you realize that it must have two alternate versions, shown either randomly or in some designated order depending on how many times you’ve viewed the film. You wonder if there’s more than two versions, so you watch it again.
Broadly speaking, it seems like the same film you watched the first time, but even though you can’t put your finger on any specific changes, it feels a bit different, like maybe the film’s editor used different takes. In the jubilant final scene, you realize that the protagonist isn’t wearing a snazzy leather jacket like you remember, but instead a button-down shirt with sleeves rolled up their forearms.
The fourth time you watch it, you get the grim ending again, except this time in the final scene the protagonist isn’t crying silently while staring into the distance, but wailing while covering their face with their hands.
The fifth viewing, the protagonist goes mad by the end, though the film is clear that they’re mad within a time loop rather than imagining a time loop due to madness. The sixth time, the mood of the ending is stoic resignation.
You finally get online to look for information about this film. There’s plenty of people talking about the film and its different versions. The streaming service has implemented some super-advanced anti-piracy technology, so no one can save clips, and even trying to use another device to film a tv showing the movie seems to just result in weird static. That makes it impossible for people to compare footage from their versions and figure out exactly how many there are, but it’s clear there are lots.
The director and cast did some publicity before the film was released, talking about the characters and the setting, but there was no mention of alternate versions. They haven’t done any press since the release. One person online claims to have run into the director at a Starbucks in Malibu and asked whether there were any alternate endings where the movie’s protagonist escapes the time loop.
“The structure of storytelling, at least as we understand it in Western culture, always calls for an ending,” the director said with a wink, then slipped out the door, clutching a triple-shot hazelnut latte. The online person reporting this encounter didn’t realize until too late that that wasn’t actually an answer.
You watch the movie again and again, usually several times a week. You take notes each time so you can better spot the differences. You start changing how you watch it: different times of day, on different devices, with different settings. Maybe there’s a trick to control which version you’ll get. It’s never exactly the same twice. (Just how long did they spend filming all these versions? You can’t find any information about the lead actors working on any new projects.) The repetition and lack of resolution are maddening, but every time you decide you’re done with watching this movie you only make it a few days before you give in and watch it again. You keep hoping to find the ending where the time loop breaks, but it never happens.
Finally, in frustration, you open a document on your computer. You stay up until 4 am furiously typing. Eventually you have it: a new version of the latter half of the movie where the protagonist successfully breaks the time loop. Your ending is true to both with the film’s worldbuilding and the protagonist’s character. It’s big and triumphant. You can’t remember the last time you felt so satisfied.
You go to sleep. The next day, you open up the streaming site. Your cursor lingers on the time loop movie you’ve watched so many times before, but instead you select a teen rom com that looks like it will take absolutely no narrative risks. You feel free.
The day after that, you have an idea for how the time loop film’s protagonist could break out of the loop in a super ridiculous way. Just thinking about it cracks you up. You don’t want to forget any part of this hilarious idea. You open another document and type it out.
Three weeks later you’re sitting in a Starbucks. You have another idea for how the protagonist can break out of the loop but with absolutely heartbreaking consequences. It’s painful to consider, but the idea won’t let you rest. You open your laptop and go to the folder already growing crowded with version after version of the protagonist’s escape from the time loop. You take a sip of triple-shot hazelnut latte and begin again.