“Don’t ask her how many,” Joseph said. The clean-shaven Joseph on the computer screen explained. A red-bearded Joseph watched himself on the video intently. “You don’t want to know. We,” the Joseph on the screen pointed at the camera. “…you still love her. She still loves you. Nothing has changed for you, keep loving and supporting her.” The video ended.
“That’s the last one you recorded,” Elsa said. She sat on the edge of the desk holding Joseph’s hand.
“How many?” he asked her.
“You told yourself not to ask,” she said.
“I need to know. Please,” Joseph looked her in the eyes for the first time that evening. Joseph had been suffering from severe déjà vu that seemed to be getting worse in recent weeks. Somehow the idea formed in his mind that he was in a time-loop. Once the seed took hold, his mind could think of nothing else until he confronted Elsa that day after work. He knew he sounded crazy and had no idea how she would respond. Despite not knowing what to expect, Elsa still managed to do something unexpected. She nodded and pulled a USB drive out of her pocket. She repeated the action again when Joseph demanded to know. She inserted a different USB drive into the computer. It opened a folder with a single video file named. “How many times?” Joseph clicked on it and he appeared on screen again. Instead of the clean-shaven version, the Joseph in the new video file was an old man with a wild grey beard and a bald head. Elsa sat next to the old him. She still looked as young and beautiful as she did sitting on his desk then and there.
“You said the other video was the last one,” Joseph asked. Elsa nodded and pointed at the screen as the old him started talking.
“If you’re watching this, you’re an idiot,” he said. The frail man burst into a wheezing cackle. His body spasmed as he laughed and pointed at the camera. “I’m dying tonight and in the morning I’ll wake up as one of you again.” the old man sat up straighter. His face hardened as he looked younger Joseph in the eyes. “You’re watching this because you want answers. Because you’re trying to figure everything out. Now, I like you,” he grinned at the camera. “So I’ll give you a shortcut. The answer to all your questions is right here.” Old Joseph put his arm around Elsa and pulled her close.
“This woman has been in my life since I was 18. I’m 97 now. Tonight isn’t the first or last time she will watch me die.”
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt anymore. Honestly, it got boring already,” the Elsa on the screen joked. Old Joseph wheezed with a smile.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been through it, because she will love us each and every time. I’m going to do you two big favors. First, the next one of me that watches this, make a new video. It’ll be the final one, and tell yourself the number doesn’t matter. The second thing is I’m asking Elsa to stop counting. If you’re watching these that means Elsa is there next to you. Focus on her, not on this. You know your destination,” Old Joseph pointed at his wrinkled, saggy face. “So just enjoy the journey.” Younger Joseph looked up at Elsa and squeezed her hand. “But, I know you. You need some sort of closure. This time,” Old Joseph patted his chest. “Since this is the last day let’s hear the count. Elsa, how many times have we gone through the loop?”
“Tonight is the 614th time you die,” the video Elsa said.
“There, see? You had no idea, did you? You don’t even know how many times you’ve died since 614. It doesn’t matter,” the old man said. Then the video ended. Joseph lifted Elsa’s hand to his lips and kissed it. As he appreciated her soft skin a stray thought irritated the back of his mind.
“How come you didn’t age?” He asked. Elsa shrugged.
“I don’t age. Usually, you notice it when your grey hairs start popping in, but this time you saw the video early.”
“You don’t age?” Joseph asked with a disbelieving tone. He looked her up and down as if appraising her. in a new light. Then, he took a step back.
“It’s you. You’re the reason I’m in the loop. I keep dying but you don’t,” he said, then took another step back. Elsa sighed and reached into her pocket. She pulled out a third USB and replaced one of the other two. She started the video for Joseph. A mid-40s version of himself, with combed-over grey hair, appeared on the screen.
“Of course it’s her you idiot. C’mon. You figured this out,…” The balding Joseph paused and yelled off camera. “What’s the Count, Elsa?”
“172” her voice replied.
“You figured this out on loop 172. That’s it. I know you’ll get paranoid once you figure it out. But it’s cool. Trust me. Trust her.” The video ended.
“How many of those do you have?” Joseph asked. Elsa winked.
“There’s a question I don’t have a pre-recorded answer for,” she said. Then she held up a fourth USB. “Just kidding, I totally do.”