Against her wishes she was turned upside down, pushed to her back, and forced to spread her legs until she exposed her belly. Starved, weak, and propped up between his knees, she barely struggled. Having grown accustomed to the deed, she had learned bleating would not help her situation. Besides, it would all be over soon. They had made it warm in the makeshift pen, the cherry red coil of the heaters fluffing up her dried hair, but still she shivered as unfamiliar yet confident blows guided an electric razor above her flank, down her wool, and off her matted form as dirty tags heaped upon the tarp covered ground.
“Now be sure to cover her teats with your free hand,” Terrance said. “These ladies are going to be lambing soon and if you shave off their nipples that’s not going to do anyone any good.”
“I’m just watching out for ewes, son,” Ethan’s dad said.
Ethan barely hid his simper as he rolled his eyes and returned to the task at hand. Unable to rouse a symptom of positivity from his son, Terrance wandered over to check on Buddy. Enraptured by the simple joy of having a role to play, the dog panted a grin while corralling the last remains of an untrimmed flock towards the shearing race. Terrance plucked out a full pelt and guided it along to the head gate before returning his watch over Ethan. Finishing up by tidying the tufts along black floppy ears, Ethan combed out the sheep’s excess tresses with his fingers then let her go. She ran off her naked trauma, reuniting with the freshly shorn drove no worse for wear.
“You getting tired?” Terrance asked. “Need a breather?”
“I can’t quit because I’m tired,” Ethan responded. “I can only quit when the job’s done.”
Hearing his own words spoken back to him, Terrance beamed. He picked up and inspected the body fleece. He had to admit Ethan had done fine work keeping it uniform and whole. Terrance rolled it into a ball and added it to the accumulated pile stuffed in a plastic bag.
Unsettled fibers lifted outdoor allergens towards the cilia in his nose. The pressure of the irritants invited bodily reaction and with a quick maximum intake of air, he obliged the built-up volume by releasing a hurricane-force sneeze. The rubber band twang of his heartbeat echoed in his skull, alerting Terrance to his stretched antibodies. He rubbed the corners of his eyes, picked away at crusty rheum sealing away the outside, then took the razor from his son.
“I’ll take over for the last two,” Terrance said, cleaning the blades with mineral oil.
Ethan shrugged and retrieved the ruminant for his father. Terrance promptly flipped the animal, placed her comfortably against his legs and began crutching. Moving from the quarters to the tail, he placed his right foot between its hind legs and his left foot at the base of her spine, skirting her body between his knees. Dragging the clippers from her brisket to her chin, he unzipped her fleece and kept her wrinkles taut, stretching her skin as he untucked her shoulders, moving from one side to the other until her coat slipped off.
Adding the final touches to her haircut, Terrance left a knot of long hair just above her eyes before lifting and resetting her on all fours. She scampered off to rejoin the herd, her coif bobbing over the side of her face like a teenager with emotional bangs. He grinned at his handiwork, hoping it would perk up his son, but Ethan remained despondent.
“So what happened?” Terrance asked.
“What do you mean?” Ethan responded, awoken from his brooding daze.
“I know that you snuck out last night. I can tell it didn’t go well.”
“How—did someone say something?” Ethan said, panic seeping into his voice. His face contorted in a combination of quizzical and incredulousness.
“Come on, give your old man a little credit. I still haven’t figured how you manage to get from your room to the front door without making a sound but I always hear you shuffle back in. And it’s obvious you’re out of sorts—so what happened?”
Ethan eyes scowled.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
“Of course you don’t. I get that. But if I could offer some advice—try keeping it light.”
“With Kay. You have to give a girl options, not choices. Choices are serious. And serious is not fun. Kay’s at that age where everything is an option. And you’re lucky, you’re one of them. That’s good. That’s fun. You should enjoy that. Because while girls prefer options, us guys don’t have a choice. Especially with girls like Kay. So don’t overthink things. Just enjoy the moment.”
His son stood and stared blankly, a monolith to silence. Terrance had no idea what his son was thinking.
“But why listen to me. I’m just an old fogy turning fifty. Do me a favor—grab the tup. About time we gave him a shear.”
Ethan did as he was told, walking over and tugging the old alpha back along the corridor until his father grabbed the ram by its shoulders and dragged him to the station.
“Always important to let the guys know who’s in charge. Every male thinks they know better than the last. That’s why you’ve got to push them down and keep them there until they realize and accept their place.”
Minding the curled horns, Terrance got started on the tricky parts and tossed the undesired bits into an old laundry basket before moving on to the main course. Despite its alarmed grunts and uneasy shuffling, Terrance kept a steadfast grip on the uncooperative animal, not noticing that the animal’s discomfort stemmed from the shearing static seeping into Terrance’s skin. Thousands of tiny sparks rubbed along his forearms, priming taxed immune system.
Ethan’s eyes were too busy looking at his shoes, a fearful shame weighing on his shoulders. Finally he cracked.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Ghosts? No, I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe in spirits, though; the memories we keep to haunt our future. Sometimes people call those ghosts.”
“How about the supernatural, the paranormal?”
“Those are just words to describe things we haven’t figured out yet. A big problem people have is knowing what they want the answer to be. Their belief creates its own logic. People would rather trust the feeling that they’re right rather than question their own integrity. Plenty of people are happy to die for the certainty of lies. Thankfully the world is greater than what people want it to be.”
“And unsolved mysteries?”
“Unsolved mysteries are just people getting away with being evil, son.”
Ethan paused, mulling how best to get to the root of his question.
“What about karma? You know, when you do something wrong and the universe goes out of its way to make you make up for it?”
“Karma’s as a real as people want it to be.” Terrance said. “If you feel guilty about something then you’ll find the pain you’re looking for. If you have no conscience then karma’s just another word that means as much as all the other empty prayers in this world.”
“You make it seem like it is better not to care.”
“It’s certainly easier not to care. Caring demands time, effort, and you don’t always get what you put in, what you think you deserve. Sometimes all the care in the world won’t change a thing. But if you care enough, you act. And acting does change the world. It can change your world.”
“What if you don’t change anything? What if you fail?”
“Ethan, everyone fails in this life. Most just want to see you do it first. It took me a while to learn that most people don’t really want to make the world a better place. They just want to make the world a better for themselves. And some people would like to watch you burn alive for getting in their way. As for me, I’d rather side with our angels than our demons.”
Terrance let the ram run back to its horde then looked at his son, hoping his honest answers were enough. Ethan’s confused look remained on his face. Terrance peered over his son’s shoulder and gestured.
“Look at Buddy,” he said, pointing to their dog. She was wagging her tail, frolicking around the perturbed herbivores with her paws and head still directing the way. “Look how happy she is. She’s evolved beyond her instincts of attack to have a greater purpose. Now she works with these animals, protects them. It takes time but there’s true goodness in helping life succeed. Sure it comes with risks but the lessons are worth it. They are why we’re still here, why we’ll stay here. As long as we keep learning, that’s the key to life. It may not be easy, but it’s worth it.”
Ethan was still upset over what had happened to him the previous night, but after noticing his father’s need for reinforcement he grinned a connection and nodded.
“Thank you Ethan, you really helped me out today. I set up the trough at the other end of the pasture. I’ll clean up here, but could you open up the pen and offer the sheep some feed?” He then reached in his pocket to give Ethan a dog whistle. “After that you can call Buddy in we’ll all get some lunch.”
While his son went around to the other side of the pen and opened the latch, Terrance picked the edge of fleece and began rolling it up. Exhausted, he carried it over to the pack. He dropped it but missed as the piece slid off the bag’s side and unfurled. Terrance sighed, bent down to pick it back up and crammed it in. He then tried hauling the two-hundred pound bale but only made it halfway to the fence before giving up, plopping the weight back on the ground.
His tired blood rushed from behind his bent knees and pushed through his aorta in a wave of pressure that burst past his brain barrier. Forced to adjust, his eyes began to cloud over with the haze of unconscious. He stumbled towards the heaters, feeling dehydrated and faint, then placed his hand on the generator to catch himself. It blew a fuse. Thinking he had flipped off the switch, Terrance let out a sneeze and recovered, grabbing a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He poured its contents over his hands, cleaning off the dirt, crud, and wool until his body reeked of human sweat, animal fear, and chemical cleanse.
“Hey dad,” Ethan called out. “Something’s wrong.”
“What is it?” Terrance yelled back, but the moment he looked over he could see for himself.
The mass of animals had congregated around the trough in anticipation but, despite Ethan’s efforts, the hanging burlap bundle of feed would not open. Left eyelid pulsing, head aching, Terrance plodded out into the pasture. The moment he was within ten yards of the dozens of sheep turned, compelled to collect around him. Buddy, who had been waiting opposite Ethan, ran over to Terrance and began jumping at her owner, crazy with canine energy.
“Okay girl, okay,” Terrance laughed. “I’ll get you some food in a minute.”
With Buddy still frantically trying to climb over him, Terrance pushed the fleeced bodies out of the way and reached up from behind the trough to tug open the knotted restraint. After a little elbow grease the flap gave way and out poured the mix of barley, corn, forb and hay. Ethan dragged it along the suspended rails so that it dispersed evenly in the elongated trough, but the entire flock ignored the food. Instead they remained gathered around Terrance, captivated by his presence.
Terrance gently nudged the animals, but they would not budge. Forcing his way through he began walking back to the opened gate. The herd followed. Terrance picked up the pace and hastily closed the gateway as the mass of animals charged behind him. Heart racing, stomach churning, Terrance then ran over to rejoin Ethan as the animals gathered along the boundary, shifting and jostling to cram closer.
“What the hell is going on?” Terrance said, breathing heavily.
“I don’t know, but you left Buddy in there.”
Buddy was running side to side along the cluster, desperate to get closer to the center where Terrance stood on the opposite side of the fence. Crawling along the heave of hooves, Buddy bit and barked at the legs in her way to create an opening. The moment she saw her master she jumped into the electric fence. Crashing back, whimpering from the shock, she shook off the jolt and tried again. And again.
“Buddy stop it!” Terrance shouted, but the dog kept up its barrage on the electrified obstacle, convulsing with each failed attempt. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, I swear!” Ethan cried.
“Well do something!”
Ethan reached into his pocket for the dog whistle, put it to his mouth, and huffed. Never hearing the pitch, he watched as his father doubled over in pain from the acute sound.
Terrance groaned, the frequency ringing in his ears. The agony in his cranium crippled him, and as one hand clutched his forehead the other reached out on instinct to get a solid grip. His left palm caught the electrified wire.
In that instant all the animals ceased their clamor. Within seconds that had all stampeded away, settling at the other end of the paddock. Buddy, trampled over by the quadrupeds, was able to recover and limp away from the man she had been enamored with moments before. Ethan raised his hands to protect himself from the sudden heat, peering through his fingers as he stepped back to stare at the source.
And then it all went slow. Ethan could see his father’s hair raise, each strand standing on end, pulled up from his skull by an invisible force. Like rays from the sun, Terrance’s face was encircled with a static mane. A visible spark flashed from where his hands met the metal, igniting a low flame that singed blue from the plasma mixing with his skin. Crisping each hair, the flicker danced under seared clothes, up his arm and across his body before crawling down his belly button, burning through the torso to the intestinal tract like a gunpowder fuse to dynamite.
Sizzling the vascular watershed known as Sudeck’s point, the blaze sponged the compiled mitochondrial waste of white cells run amok like napalm to a gas light. The fire lit through acetone soaked innards, boiling blood and bubbling organs into ooze. The bronchioles in his lungs steamed through his esophagus. Terrance tried to scream but his vocal chords could only chimney out white smoke.
Meeting his son’s veiled pupils, Terrance’s eyes pulsed with the colors of an aurora before their electric shimmer popped from burst capillaries. His inflated lips curled in a smile before they seared off to reveal charred teeth gritting through the misery. Limbs contorted and creased like a log in an inferno, and as the flesh scorched from within the outer dermal layer shrank to show the underlying yellow fat leak and fry before peeling off to a bony surface. Conflagration then consumed the human wick.
Ethan finally brought his hands down, his arms inflamed with blisters. Agape, he stared at what was left of his father. A pile of human ash was strewn across the tips of taller grasses. At the bottom, standing in a field of dusty clover, lay a pair of work boots smoldering among the glowing embers. Jutting out of the burnt cuffs were the charcoal remains of lower fibulas leading to still-socked ankles.
Ethan’s father was gone in a matter of seconds.