He’d driven down the road hundreds of times. More, actually, but who was counting? It was funny how driving the same route, the same distance, the same speed day after day was so much a part of his routine he didn’t even think about it. He saw but didn’t see the sign posts or the dips in the road. His foot automatically tapped the break before the turns he barely noticed. It was a little like life: going through motions once carefully considered and now unconsciously carried out.
One morning, though, he’d caught something out of the corner of his eye that seemed out-of-place. He’d whizzed past it before he could make out what it was. It bothered him a bit. Not that it should. Why should some little change, some barely noticeable something or other catch his attention and hold it?
He slowed down the next morning and peered off to the side of the road, looking for whatever it was that bothered him. There. There it was. A sign. No, more like a marker. Just a small post really. With a number: 636. It wasn’t a mile marker. It was on a simple piece of wood – sturdy, but small. And each day he passed it, he noticed it until he began to notice something else. The number changed every day. Every single day the number increased by one.
He mentioned it at work, covering his unsettled feeling by making it into a joke. Everyone dutifully chuckled. Well, not everyone. An intern looked alarmed, but what intern didn’t have that look on her face at some point every day? Later, she poked her head into his office and asked if he had a minute. Annoyed, he motioned her to enter. She stood resolutely as though she’d made some important decision which she was about to announce. He looked pointedly at his watch.
“There are stories. Maybe you haven’t heard them.”
“I’ve no idea what you’re trying to say. I’ve lived enough years to have heard every story to enter your young head.”
She turned to leave, then turned back.
“It’s just – something – I don’t know why I’m telling you. It’s probably nothing.”
“There’s a story that every Halloween someone somewhere in the world sees a sign post that keeps count of – I don’t know. No one does I don’t think. But it keeps count, and shortly after they’re never seen again.”
He shook his head and smirked. “Somewhere in the world. How well-traveled you are. What are you? 22?”
The intern’s face crumpled and she walked out.
The next day he looked at the sign. 646. He felt slightly queasy. Okay. This was ridiculous. He’d start taking a different route, end of problem. And the next day as he drove the slightly longer route, he spied the post somewhere around mile marker 10. It read 647. He took a different route still the day after that. And after that.
“You’re late again today,” his secretary remarked.
He swallowed the coffee she held out to him. It was lukewarm. He was tired of lukewarm coffee. He’d go back to his preferred path. What difference, at this point, did it make?
By the time the sign turned to 665, he’d begun to chill as he neared the spot and could feel a trickle of sweat run down his temple. Something had to be done.
The weather was turning. It always did this time of year. Like a clock. Tick, tick, tick. He felt like he was going a little bit crazy. He couldn’t stand it.
The next morning looked like twilight and a misty rain spit down on his windshield whisked away by wipers, an ineffectual remedy to persistent rain. He pulled to the side of the road and put his coat collar up against the wind. Walking over the the post, he knelt down and read the number: 666. He kicked the wood. Stupid, stupid marker. He gripped the post with both hands and heaved. It wasn’t so sturdy that a few tugs couldn’t pull it out. He pulled again. Once more should do it.
And his hot coffee grew warm, then cold.
Image: pexels-photo-561201 Maizal Najmi