The cloaked figure sat down nearby in the ruins, glanced around and said,
"You don't seem to be as.. surprised as the others."
"I had warning."
"This sounds like something worth hearing.. want a drink?"
It all started only couple months before, as I was taking my daughter to school before going to work. She had learned how to count and she counted down the seconds from a block away to the school gates. I found that awfully cute, but forgot about it then. She did it again when we were going home, and again the next day.
She always started counting a block further away, until next week she counted from home to school and back. It worried me, but I thought I knew what her trick was, slowing down and speeding up the counting depending on how far we actually were.
I thought that it would pass in a couple of weeks when she learned something more interesting, but I was wrong. She seemed to be counting everything. One day, when returning from school she just sat silently. I think someone had said something to her at school.
Then she just sulked silently for a couple of days. I was getting concerned and wondered what exactly had happened at school. Then I noticed that she had started counting again, under her breath. "five hundred sixty seven.. five hundred sixty six..". I smiled to myself and let her continue, but I was getting afraid that I would have to do something about it sooner or later.
The rest of the world wasn't doing too well. There had been bombings in India, and apparently some Chinese scientists had been killed. Naturally everyone started accusing everyone, and CIA seemed to have something to do with it, as well as some Australians.
The more local explosion I had been half-expecting occurred two days later as my wife screamed "Cut it out! Stop it!", at dinner, as our little angel just kept counting down. "two hundred fifty six, two hundred fifty five, two hundred fifty four..". I had to have a long talk with her that night, trying to explain why it wasn't nice, normal, or healthy to have such an obsession to counting. Whatever she was counting.
After bedtime I tried to calm my wife, and we discussed the possibility of outside help. After she fell asleep I laid on my back for some time, gave up on sleep and figured that I might as well go and get myself something to drink. I paused at my daughter's bedroom door and glanced inside. She was asleep, but her lips still moved.
I sneaked to her side and listened. Very weakly she was saying, "five, four, three, two, one. Two hundred and forty thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine. Nine hundred and ninety eight..".
I sat down and thought for a while. Outside help was, naturally, one possibility. She had never done anything strange before, perhaps she was a bit too determined to finish whatever she was doing, but this was excessive.
Life had to go on nevertheless, so I kept dropping her off at school and picking her up each day, listening to her counting. Somehow it didn't feel cute anymore, and the target of her counting was starting to seriously bug me. I asked but she didn't tell me. She still talked as usual, and did her homework, but all the time she wasn't using her mouth for anything else, she kept on counting.
Next week someone tried to blow up the white house, and an American tourist, hearing this in the news flipped and tried to kill some Chinese politician. Several other such incidents were reported from around the globe. Demonstrations were appearing everywhere.
I had a call from school that day. My daughter's class teacher finally got fed up with the way she was acting, and asked me to fetch her at once. I went to my boss and asked if I could use my vacation right now, and took couple weeks off.
When I reached home with my daughter my military assignment was waiting in the mail. "If the improbable happens, you must get your family in the nearest shelter and report to your assigned garrison". I couldn't believe it. I turned the TV on, and saw endless newsfeed on how the world had gone mad.
My wife arrived only couple hours later, with bags filled with food. "We shut the office down for a while. No point, with what is happening". Our daughter was sitting in a corner, counting out loud, watching the floor in front of her.
"Mr. general, does a world war seem likely?" the TV boomed.
The general hesitated, then said, "Things do look bad".
I let the mail go, letters fluttering to the floor.
"Three hundred and nineteen, three hundred and eighteen..".
My wife put the bags down and turned to look at our daughter. An alarmed voice, nearly crying called from the TV, "NATO has informed us that they have detected multiple warhead launches.. the department of defense commands everyone capable to seek shelter! Do not remain home! Try to reach your nearest city! Oh my God..".
I felt powerless, coldness running through my body. My feet gave and I fell to my knees.
"Two hundred and eighty five, two hundred and eighty four.."
I fell silent. After a while, the cloaked figure nodded, and refilled my glass. "I guess you're out of work then". The figure chuckled and shrugged. "So, which side won?", I asked. The figure glanced back at the crowd, and shrugged again. "I guess they're still counting the points. May take a while."
Another short story that has been popping in and out of my head for some time. A bit more pessimistic than my usual material.. (Still no grammar checker as you can see..).
I find the common number-counting myths strange.. when I count to ten I tend to get more angry, and counting sheep keeps me awake. Oh well.
Comments, if someone actually reads these, would be greatly appreciated..