Petar scratched at the back of his neck, where the flesh had begun to redden and peel. He hissed at the sting, but scratched again anyway. Opening a cupboard, he fetched out a cup and dropped in a teabag. He reached over to the kettle, pushed the small switch on its side, and gazed out of the kitchen window. The nearby city illuminated the fields surrounding it, although its light didn’t quite reach the perimeter of Petar’s farm. Looking up to the sky, he began to count how many stars he could see moving. Three moved in unison from the right side of his window to the left, while a far more distant star – with a faintly violet hue to it – drifted at a more relaxed speed directly upward from the far side of the city.
The kettle clicked, and Petar began to pour the water and add milk, all the while rubbing the back of his neck. Sitting down at the kitchen table, he picked up a newspaper and started to read. From the next room, a young man entered carrying a sheet of paper.
“About twenty minutes, he said,” the man mumbled.
“That’s quick for ‘em,” Petar answered. “Didn’t think anyone would be in a hurry to come out here.”
“Metrovic, his name is,” he said, reading from the paper.
Petar turned a page, and cringed at one column’s headline: OSLO EVACUATES. “Never ‘eard of ‘im.”
“’Course you haven’t. When was the last time you needed to phone them, dad? Either way, he’ll be here in twenty. Thanks for offering, by the way.”
Petar looked from his paper to his son. “Eh?” His response was a simple gesture at the steaming cup of tea. “Oh,” Petar responded, going back to his paper. He turned another page to read the article: MOSCOW STARTS REBUILD.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t want one anyway.”
His son moved to leave when Petar said, “Oh, Emir?”
“Open the window on your way out. Heat’s not helping in here.”
Emir sighed, but complied. After he left, Petar reached out a packet of cigarettes and lit one, and turned to another newspaper column: CHILD SEX RING FOUND IN CHICAGO RUINS. Scratching the back of his neck, he read on.
A gentle vibration shook through the house, building up until the lights flickered and several cabinet doors drifted open. A deafening sound akin to tearing fabric accompanied by a deep, bassy aural earthquake screamed from the open window. The house’s shaking ceased, the sound rolled into the distance, and Emir came running back into the kitchen.
“You hear that?” he said, staring out of the window. “They’re flying low tonight. Something’s going on.”
“Nothing’s going on,” Petar said, going back to his newspaper. “Just routine patrols. Happens all the time.”
“Not like this. I can count . . . four, five . . . six ships moving. That’s not normal. You might see a single dot moving across the sky at night, but now I can count six. Shit, there’s a seventh. Something’s going on.”
Petar turned another page of his paper nonchalantly. “Every time you see a ship. You’ve gotten worse over the years. Didn’t used to bother you when you were thirteen. Now you think every star moving means something. I tell you what it means. Means that one of ‘em’s bored on a Sunday and fancies a spin. Or seven, in this case. Calm down. I’ve seen hundreds more in the night sky at once, and it don’t bother me no more. Nothing happens.”
Emir turned from the window to look his father in the eye, who did not meet his gaze. “When was that? Fourteen years ago?”
“We’re under their radar. They don’t come here. Not for that. They have all of the US. They’re on the other side of the planet.
Emir shook his head. “They come to Europe as well. Remember Bern last month?”
“Everywhere west of Slovenia, maybe. Not here. We’re safe here. They have no use for us here.
Emir turned back to the window, and stared out into the distance. “Only so long ‘til there’s no one left in the west. US is already sparsely populated.”
Emir did not reply, and continued to gaze out of the window for several minutes until the doorbell rang.
“That’ll be him.”
Emir left the room as Petar turned another page. HOUSTON UPRISING: UNITY CRUSHES. The sounds of the front door opening, along with muffled voices, reached Petar’s ears. The door shut, and Emir’s voice became clearer as they approached.
“ . . . through here. Ah, dad,” Emir said as he and a man carrying an attaché case entered, “this is Doctor Metrovic.”
Petar closed the paper and stood up to shake the doctor’s hand.
“Mister Singer. Good to meet you. And how can I help you tonight?”
“It’s this thing in the back of my neck,” he said, rubbing the reddened skin. “Been aching since I woke up this morning. Pain got worse about two hours ago.”
The doctor’s expression changed to an exasperated look. “This . . . was an emergency? For call-out at one o’clock in the morning?”
“Sorry, Doc. You know what Unity are like. They don’t like anyone messing with their implants, whatever they are. Was just in there,” Petar pointed at his newspaper, “that the president of the, uh, the Arab something–”
“United Arab Emirates,” Emir offered.
“–yeah, them. Their president had his chip detonated just last night. He wasn’t trying to remove it or anything, it just went off. Thing is, though,” he said, pointing a finger at the doctor and squinting one eye in an attempt to radiate wisdom, “he’d complained about it starting to ache a few days before. He’d been scratching it, the paper said. Like me. Dunno if that’s what set it off, or if it went off for the same reason it started aching. Like, it’s broken. Malfunctioning or something. Shit, Unity might have just got bored with him and done it for a laugh. Who knows. All I know is that I like my spine in one piece.”
The doctor smiled. “Well, technically, your spine’s not in one piece now. You see, the spine consists of twent–”
“Doctor,” Petar interrupted, sitting in a chair facing away from Metrovic, “I don’t care. Just find out what the fuck’s up with this thing.”
The doctor sighed and leaned over to inspect the small bulge on the back of Petar’s neck.
“Very well. I should say, though, that this is really outside of my field. I’m a doctor, but I don’t really know how these things work. Unity made these and put them in us. If it’s aching it could be because your body has a problem with it, but then again it’s been there for over a decade. Has it only just started aching today? Well, yesterday, now.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Hrm. Well, in which case it may be for a reason other than your body rejecting it. Don’t let that concern you, however. Often with implants, we can have them for years and not have a problem with them, then one day they start aching. As Unity made them, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not comfortable.”
“I thought they were supposed to be more advanced than us? Should their crap be more . . . uhh, user-friendly?”
“Well,” Metrovic said, standing back up, “I doubt they’re all that concerned with our comfort.”
Petar turned back toward him. “So what do I do? I can’t very well just hope for the best, can I now?”
“As I say, this is really beyond my expertise. This isn’t my profession. I’d say you should go to the nearest Unity Administrator as soon as possible and speak to a representative. Get one of their . . . doctors, I suppose they’d be called. Get one of them to try to help you. Or at least take a look at it. Actually, I doubt it’d be a doctor and probably more of a technician.”
“And where’s the nearest of ‘em?”
“I’m not sure. Sarajevo, I imagine.”
“Hrm,” Petar grunted. “Lotta’ help you’ve been.”
“Dad . . .” Emir interjected.
“Look,” Metrovic continued. “Mister Singer. I know you’re worried. Especially after hearing the news about the Arab president. But I’m afraid that I’ve done everything that I can.”
“Pshh,” Petar said. “Never been no–”
Petar’s voice was drowned out by a deafening rumble growling from the window. The ground began to shake, cupboard doors and drawers were flying open, pictures fell from their hooks on the walls, mugs left on the kitchen table fell and smashed onto the floor, and the dogs outside began howling. Emir was at the window instantly. Even from where Petar stood, he could see the stars being blotted out one by one.
“A ship!” Emir shouted over the deafening rumble. “It’s colossal!”
Petar and the doctor each approached the window and gazed out. Although the darkness made it difficult to tell the boundaries of the ship, Petar could still see a vague geometric outline. Emir turned from the window and dashed toward the front door; Petar and Metrovic followed soon after. As they burst outside, the view became much clearer. The huge ship, appearing triangular in shape, drifted toward the nearby city. Streaking beneath it, smaller crafts – visible only because of the large, violet engines blazing on their sterns – flew toward the city, breaking off into small groups as they reached the edge and beginning to circle above the streets. Soon, white flashes spat out from the front of some of the smaller crafts and exploded within the city. Within minutes, an orange hue lit the underside of the huge, triangular ship above.
As the ship moved further away, the rumbling became more bearable, and the sound of Metrovic’s voice faded into Petar’s hearing.
“ . . . No . . .” he had been saying. “ . . . No, no . . . Bernarda . . .”
“The Hell is that thing,” Petar said to no one in particular.
“You know what it is, dad,” Emir answered, sounding contemptuous. “It’s what you said would never fly over our heads. They’ve finally come.”
“ . . . they can’t, Bernarda . . .”
“It’s a harvest ship,” Emir declared. “Unity have decided that we’re next.
“Bullshit,” Petar said. “Why us? Why now? Why don’t they start at the capital and then–”
“They probably have,” Emir interrupted. “They’re probably above the capital right now. They’ve probably got twenty of these fucking things all across the damn country. And I’ll tell you why.” Emir glared at his father, whose attention was fixed on the city. “It’s because they’ve run out of everyone else. The rest of the world. Barely anywhere left where they can just pick up ten thousand people in one go. Everyone’s scattered. The only places left are poor places like this. They left us until last because you get more out of an American, or a French, or an English, or a German. Fat cunts last longer when they’re shipped away, no matter what Unity want with them.”
Petar turned his gaze from the moving ship, which was almost completely above the city. “It’s slaves, isn’t it? That’s what they want? Don’t know what for, but it’s slaves, isn’t it? That’s why they want us, right?”
“No!” Metrovic shouted, finally breaking his trance. “They can’t. They can’t take my Bernarda. We, I have to go. I have to go. Now.”
Metrovic turned and ran toward his car.
“Shit, I’ve gotta see this,” Emir said, darting after Metrovic.
“Emir? What the hell do you think you’re doing? You ain’t going over there, they’ll have you as well,” Petar called after him.
Without turning to face his father, Emir called back “I’ll be fine.”
“Idiots,” Petar mumbled to himself, and dashed after the pair.
Metrovic, almost unaware that anyone else was present, dived into his car and started the engine, while Emir got into the front passenger seat and Petar in the back. Petar’s car door had shut a full second after the car sped from Singer Farm.
Metrovic sat transfixed on the view of the looming harvest ship floating above the city ahead. The speed of the car picked up, and the doctor showed no restraint in forcing the vehicle toward its destination.
“I’d be careful, doc,” Petar said. “The corners on these country lanes are a bit sharp . . .”
Metrovic didn’t reply, nor did he abate his wild driving.
“Can you blame him, dad? His family is in the city. You can’t expect–”
“Shit,” Petar interrupted, pointing ahead “what’s that?”
The triangular ship, now centred above the city, had projected a wall of translucent indigo light down from each of its three edges, enclosing the majority of the city within a short, fat, triangular prism.
“So this is how they do it,” Emir said. “It’s some kind of cage. Like a barrier. Keeps them cooped up. Means they can’t escape. The smaller ships will come down now, and get everyone they can.”
A noise that was somewhere between a growl and a hiss sounded from Metrovic’s throat, and Petar was pushed back into his seat as the car accelerated.
“How’d you know all this crap, anyway?”
“Read most of it on the ‘net a few years ago; before Unity shut it down, that is.”
“Well,” Petar began, “if these people are being rounded up and shipped off the planet, how did the people on the Internet know? No one escaped and came back, did they? How’d the people who sent you that crap find out?”
“I don’t know. Word-of-mouth, I suppose.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s not true. You know parts of it are true. I don’t know why they need so many slaves, or what it’s for, but even you know that they’re taking people. Whole cities at a time. Whole countries at a time, sometimes; like Luxembourg. Remember that there are humans who are in charge of administrating us. Traitorous bastards earn a cushy lifestyle if they agree to sell us out and keep us in line. Like a Judenrat only worse; these traitors are actually on Unity’s side. Maybe some of these cunts let spill what goes on after people are shipped off.”
“If they told the administrators what goes on, they wouldn’t be administrators any more. They’d be the ones organising the rebellions. Face it, we’re all being kept in the dark.”
“You assume too much. We can’t fight back against these things; not properly. These cowards probably just want to make sure they’ll survive. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome.”
“There isn’t any–”
Metrovic jerked the handbrake up, sending the car screeching diagonally along the road toward the indigo wall of light. The car ground to a halt only metres away from the barrier, and Metrovic wasted no time in exiting the car, even leaving his door open as he ran toward the city.
Petar and Emir followed soon after. It became apparent as they neared that the edge of the barrier was outside of the city perimeter; the giant ship looming overhead was much larger than the city above which it hovered. Even close up, there was no clear sight of the city beyond; a vague silhouette of buildings’ shadows were cast on the semi-opaque barrier, and any lights from within the giant cage were little more than blurs.
Metrovic stopped at the edge of the barrier, staring into the blue-purple blur.
“Careful,” Emir said, as they came up beside him. “Don’t touch it. I hear that–”
Almost as a rebellion to Emir’s caution, Metrovic reached out and touched the wall of light. The barrier crackled, and Metrovic fell to the ground, clutching his wrist, screaming. Petar knelt down beside him, and saw in the light still pouring from the car’s headlights that the palm and fingertips of Metrovic’s hand had been burnt black. The doctor lay on the floor, staring at his injury, and forced himself to stifle his screaming.
“I told you not to touch it,” Emir said.
“Give him a break,” Petar said. His voice was apathetic. “His wife’s in there, somewhere.”
“Not for much longer,” Emir muttered.
Metrovic turned his attention back to the indigo wall in front of him, and forced himself to a kneeling position. The sound of chaos grew louder from within. Screams, car screeches, even gunshots could be heard. Behind the individual sounds of disorder was the ambient hiss of the smaller Unity ships flying overhead. Metrovic knelt, static, gazing into the blur, despite no clear vision being possible; almost as if his stare could pierce the barrier should he wait long enough, all the while clutching his wrist.
A light grew from within the blur. The light, at street level, grew larger and began to divide into two. Petar’s brow furrowed as he studied the phenomenon, but the sound of a car engine growing louder revealed the source of the light.
“Shit,” he said. “Someone’s driving this way. Down this road, from inside. They’re gonna try and break the barrier. Move, quick.”
He and Emir backed toward the footpath, but Metrovic remained, kneeling, transfixed on the wall of light before him as if in a trance. The silhouette of the car began to form beyond the barrier, and its headlights shone through to illuminate Metrovic’s forlorn face. Petar cringed as the car, sounding like it was driving at full speed, reached the wall – if it broke the barrier, it would plough straight through Metrovic.
“Move you stupid–”
The wall lit up a bright purple for several metres around the three of them as the sound of an explosion drowned out the rest of Petar’s words. He looked up after the light had died down to see Metrovic still kneeling where he had been moments earlier, unphased that he had almost died. A few feet away from him, the silhouette of a twisted ruin that was once a car sat on the other side of the still-intact barrier. Even through the translucent indigo wall, Petar could see the flames dancing atop of the former car’s shell.
“Right,” he said, turning and walking back to Metrovic’s car, “time to leave, I think. We’ve seen all there is to see. We wait here much longer and they’ll come for us to. C’mon, doc. We can spare a bed, I think.”
“The fuck is wrong with you?” Emir shouted from behind him. “How can you act so nonchalantly? Don’t you realise what’s going on? The entire city is being harvested or some shit. They’re taking the whole population.”
“Nothing I can do about that, son. C’mon. Our farm is well outside of the city. If we keep our heads down, they’ll probably just move on to the next city and not look twice at us.”
“Jesus-fucking-Christ, pop. The hell is wrong with you? These are your fellow humans! They’re dying here, they’re being enslaved, they’re being treated like this, and you don’t even give a shit? Why don’t you fucking care?”
Petar stopped in his tracks, but did not turn to face his son. “I do care.”
“My arse, do you. If you care, fucking act like it. You’ve never given a shit about any of this. You roll over and accept it. You’re just complacent with what’s happening. You’ve become stagnant. I can remember when they came, y’know. I wasn’t that young. I remember neighbours getting together to fight. I remember them knocking on our door and asking you to come. You just shrugged your shoulders and said there was nothing we could do. You never gave a shit. Why the fuck not? Do you even remember what it was like before they came? Because you act like you were born into this, and have just accepted it as the norm. Even if there’s not much we can do against something like that, we should at least do something. We shouldn’t make it easy for them. And yet you’re willing to just sit there and let it happen. Why? Why are you such a coward?”
Petar span round to face his son, and locked eyes with him. “Coward? I am not a coward. Do you know why I refused to fight with them when they first came? It’s because I had a fucking kid to look after. I had a child, God dammit. By the time you were old enough to look after yourself, it’s not that I’d stopped caring. I hadn’t. I haven’t. It’s just that I’d realised that there’s nothing we can do. And it’s true. Even if every last person on the planet rose up right now, we would be able to do nothing. I do fucking care, and don’t you dare tell me I don’t, just because I don’t show it. And yes, of course I remember when they came. When they came, I was more concerned than anyone. I was concerned for you. How much do you remember, exactly? Do you remember the reason they gave us?”
Emir hesitated. “Reason?”
“Yeah, the reason they gave us for what they were doing. Y’see, they were kind enough to tell us why they were cooping us up like this and taking us off when they pleased. See? I know a few things, too. And the things I know are from before you became obsessed with them. They gave us a reason why they were treating us like farm animals, and the funny thing is: no one asked. But they, in their benevolent wisdom, told us anyway. Do you know what the reason was?”
Emir, mouth agape, shook his head.
“Because they were more intelligent than us. That’s it. They said that they had the right to do this to us because we aren’t as advanced as them. And because we were so less sophisticated than them, they decided to coop us up, tag us, and let us be free-range until they needed us. Then they’d come down and take us. Because they were more intelligent than us, that put them at the top of the food chain. It meant that they could dictate what to do with every other species less intelligent than them. Let’s face it: we’re not as smart as them. Their technology is so advanced that even our scientists can’t understand it. You see? I know shit as well. The only reason I don’t know as much as you is because I’ve stopped checking up on them. I’ve stopped trying to learn. And no, it’s not because I don’t care. I do care. It’s because I know that it’s futile. It’s absolutely useless trying to fight back against them, because we have a better chance of killing God than these bastards.
“I do care, and don’t ever say that I don’t. I care enough to know the reason why this is happening to us. That’s what I’ve always cared about the most when it comes to Unity: why? Because I think the reason why is more important than anything else. I wanted to know why this was happening to us. Why they thought they were able to do this, and how they were able to live with themselves. And when they gave us that reason, I cared about humanity even more. I cared like you do. I cared like a philanthropist does. Like a cosmopolitan does. I care enough to know that I hate them just as much as you. We just show it in different ways. I can’t oppose them because I know it’s useless. You’re young and idealistic and headstrong. It won’t do any good. We’re all done. But I do care and I do hate them, with every ounce of the body God gave me.
“So what if we’re a less intelligent species? So what? Why does that give them the right to herd us up, call us their property, enslave us, use us as tools, kill us, and feed us back into their empire? Why do they have the right to treat us as lesser creatures? Even if we are – and let’s face it, they are more intelligent than us – we still deserve to be treated with dignity, God damn it. We are living, feeling, thinking creatures!”
The two of them stood in silence for several moments, with only the distant sound of anarchy providing the ambience. Tears had come to Petar’s eyes during his outburst, and Emir could only stare down at the ground. Even Metrovic had broken his trance with the barrier in front of him, and had turned to stare the at father and son. He sat on the grass, no longer clutching his wrist, but his arm lay on his knee, his hand hanging limp.
“Come on,” Petar mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “Let’s go. We’ll be in trouble if we wait here much longer.”
“Right,” Emir whispered.
“Doc, you coming?”
Metrovic shook his head. “No. I think I’ll wait. Wait until this goes and I can get into the city.”
“They’ll get you, too. They might kill you.”
“I don’t care. I just want to see my Bernarda again. If they capture me, at least I might be with her again; if only for a moment. If we die, at least we’ll be together with God.”
“Your choice, doc,” Petar replied, walking away from the caged city and down the country lane, back into the darkness. “C’mon, Emir. Probably be a couple hours’ walk ‘till we get back to the farm. Doubt they’ll cop us. No street lamps or anything. They won’t see us in this dark.”
Together, father and son left the doctor sitting in the middle of the road, still lit up by his car’s headlights, and walked on into the night.
Petar stepped out of the back door and took a few steps toward the farm. He took a moment, looked up to the sky, and cursed the clouds that plagued the sky; but all the while was thankful that he was still here to see them. He breathed in fresh air that he had not tasted for three days, and continued on. Three dogs scurried out of the house and followed Petar, before darting into a nearby field. They, too, had been locked indoors for a full three days; their excited chasing of one another across the nearby field showed how much they relished their freedom.
Petar looked over at the distant city sitting on the horizon. A few plumes of smoke still rose from where there had been resistance and rioting, but other than that, the city was static and still intact. He knew that if he were to visit the city now – which he wasn’t willing to do, even after the bulk of Unity forces had left – it would be naught but a ghost town. Staring off at the city, Petar noticed how silent it had become. The birds seemed louder. A gentle breeze reminded him that nature lived on, even without humanity’s presence. This morning seemed, to him, so still; as if a calm peace had settled on this province after three days of turmoil. It was the calm after the storm. For a brief instant, he felt thankful that the region was so quiet after the human population had been near-enough culled, before he was overcome with guilt and quelled such thoughts.
As soon as Emir and Petar had returned home, they had decided to lock themselves indoors until the huge harvesting ship had moved on. It had taken three days, but the giant vessel eventually drifted toward the sky. None of the Unity had come to claim either Petar or his son, but he knew that they would have gathered all the slaves they needed at the city. Emir had remarked on how they didn’t seem to want to waste time on going after individuals or small groups – instead the Unity simply rounded up and gathered whole cities, communities, and other larger groups at a time. It was inefficient, Emir had commented, as eventually there would only be the small groups – such as two people living alone on a farm – left over. Petar had answered by saying that they were likely to cross that bridge when they got to it: if they were still desperate for slaves – and considering the rumours that Earth was not their first occupied planet, they would be – then they would take the time to hunt down every last tagged human. Until that time came, however, Petar and Emir were content to continue living at their secluded farm and avoiding any cities that might still exist.
Petar opened the shed door, found a bucket of chickenfeed, and carried it out toward one of the pens. The chickens swarmed out of their coops and all gathered at the pen’s fence, waiting for the inevitable feeding. Petar, with a small scooper in hand, started digging out the chickenfeed and pouring it into the bowls within the fence. The peep, having not been fed in three days, fought for priority. The birds were so eager to feed that most simply stood on the bowls and had chicken feed poured onto them.
As he continued to scoop the feed, he scratched at the back of his neck. The ache – which Emir had argued was now mostly from the fact that Petar kept scratching away at it – hadn’t gone away, but he knew that there was nothing that he could do about it now. He couldn’t visit a Unity Administrator: that’d be synonymous with turning himself in. There were almost certainly no doctors, or anyone else who could help him, left in the province. Neither he nor Emir knew what had happened to Doctor Metrovic since they left him at the edge of the city. They hadn’t heard from him, nor had they returned to the city. Petar suspected that if he wasn’t picked up and taken in the next three days, he had simply waited until the barrier disappeared and become the only resident of a ghost town; where any Unity scouts left over were almost certain to find him. Either way, they wouldn’t hear from him again.
After filling the bowls, Petar stood back up and looked over the swarming peep. The three days without feeding would set back when they would be slaughtered; they were originally due to be sent to the abattoir in another two days, but having not been fed for three days, the slaughter would have to wait. Petar sighed to himself as he realised that there may even be a few dead chickens still inside their respective coops; it would further delay shipping.
Petar frowned and looked back at the distant city. Despite the fact that only a quarter of his sales were to this city, he knew that what happened here would have happened across the whole province. It was almost certain, he concluded, that every other city and town to which he sold had suffered an identical fate to this one. He reached down and grabbed a handful of chickenfeed, but simply held it in his palm and gazed at it. Where would be his sales now? Even if there were any distributors left, the demand would have plummeted. This entire province’s population would have dropped to a mere few thousand. Possibly even only a few hundred, he amended. Even if the Unity harvest hadn’t directly affected him, it would do so indirectly.
Keeping his hand held out with the chickenfeed sitting in it, he looked back over at the city. He concluded that, even if he had no one to sell to immediately, he would still have to keep busy. Survivors might make their presence known, and he could sell to them. They too, he realised, would have almost nothing left, however. Money would be meaningless. They’d all have to trade for something more useful. He realised, all of a sudden, that he hadn’t thought at all what living in an empty province like this would be like. Life couldn’t go on as normal – they would have to find new ways to survive and adapt. Emir had almost certainly been planning for this event for a decade. He would know what to do.
Petar, however, was determined not to allow this catastrophe to alter his life too far from what he had become accustomed. He would not allow his farm to crumble. Even if he had no distributors to which to sell, he would still find a way to manage. Gazing at the distant, vacant city, he resolved never to allow his farm to become like it.
In an instant, a realisation dawned upon him. The strength went first from his arms – where he dropped the feed in his hand onto the floor – and then from his legs – as he was brought down to his knees. A feeling rushed through his body, clutching at his heart and stabbing at his stomach. He could feel his pulse pick up and sweat gather at his brow as his mouth hung agape. He licked his dry lips and took a deep breath, as he focussed his tunnel vision on the pen before him.
The clouds had parted, and sunlight now shone down upon Petar. Kneeling before the pen, he reached toward it and slid his fingers through the mesh fence. One hen, still amongst its feeding sisters, stepped toward the curious digits protruding from the fence. Petar, his heart still thumping within his chest, stroked the head of the chicken as gently as he could, and tears filled his eyes.
“Dad?” he heard Emir call from inside the house. “Dad!” Within seconds, Emir was kneeling at his side. “Dad? Are you alright? What’s wrong? Dad, speak to me. What’s wrong?”
“I’m . . . fine,” Petar whispered, although he doubted Emir heard. Accompanying Emir was one of their dogs, who now brushed her snout against Petar’s arm, wanting some sort of attention or fuss. Petar pulled his had from inside the fence and turned to the dog. He reached up to the dog’s neck, undid her collar, and dropped it in the dirt. He then reached behind the neck of the dog – a neck where no spinal tag lay beneath the flesh – and ruffled the fur where the collar had been pressing down.
He had been humbled.