The sky explodes as the runner’s trainer splashes down into a puddle on the dirt track. The mud that he kicks up spatters his legs and joins the zig zag of red lines that bramble thorns have already etched into his shins. A low sun warms his back and casts a shadow at his feet. A silhouette that’s always one step ahead.
With less than half of his run covered a rough ‘v’ of perspiration soaks the front of his t-shirt and his shorts cling to his muscular thighs like a second skin. The runner’s fitness band chimes his progress and, disappointed by the time, he picks up the pace, fighting against the calf cramps and the tightening across his chest.
The path snakes ahead for another 200 metres or so before splitting at a wooden stile. Beside him a field of rapeseed shimmers under the kiss of a light breeze and releases a handful of angry sparrows that chirp a protest as he flashes by. Without slowing for the stile, he plants his hands firmly down on top of the wooden frame and vaults over it.
As he follows the track between the trees, the drop in temperature immediately introduces the damp t-shirt to his skin and reacting to the cold air, his lungs snatch in a breath that tastes of damp soil and bark. As he exhales, a small cloud trails out behind his head and, without leaving a trace that he’s ever been there at all, disperses.
Pounding feet snap branches and foliage underfoot as he continues along a path that is slowly being reclaimed by the undergrowth. After a few minutes of uneven running, the track widens and rejoins the main path to take him back out into the morning.
Squinting against the light, the runner bursts out from between the trees and straight into a meadow of wild flowers and tall grass. He raises a hand to shield his eyes from the light and continues up the well-trodden path that ends at a large oak tree at the centre of the meadow. His halfway point. A few hundred metres to go and then he’ll circle the tree and start the run home.
He’s pushing hard against the slight incline of the meadow when a glint of light catches his eye, quickly followed by a sharp, metallic snap.
The keeper has been perched in the tree for almost an hour before she spots any movement. In preparation, she lowers her eye to the scope and hooks a gloved finger around the trigger. The scene expands through the lens as she tracks it between the trees and then out into the meadow. Without stopping, it heads straight up the path towards the tree, just like it has done for the past three days. A creature of habit.
She draws in a long breath, holds it down and presses the rifle against her cheek.
She watches as it react to something and then glance up in her direction. For the briefest moment their eyes meet and that’s when she pulls the trigger. She hears it yelp a split second after the dart hits its torso.
She exhales and looks up over the rifle sight and watches it stop running and grope at the fluorescent feather dart. By now it will be frantically playing out scenarios in its head, searching for some kind of explanation. It looks down at the dart in its hand, up at the tree and then back at the dart. The keeper can almost see a conclusion forming.
It drops the dart and runs for cover among the grass.
The keeper follows the wave of falling grass across the meadow. It runs erratically back and forth for a few minutes until the tranquilliser takes control and then it collapses. She waits for thrashing arms and legs to stop disturbing the grass before she reaches for her radio.
“Get the truck,” she barks.
The school children use elbows and bickering to gain the best possible view into the steel pen. It’s a two metre wide steel box with a reinforced glass front and is identical to the other five in the row. The back wall contains a small square hatch, into which it can crawl to gain access to the communal yard. Straw is scattered thinly across the stone floor mixed with the food and water from its upturned bowls.
“That’s it. Make room for everyone. Right then. Here’s our newest arrival,” announces the guide.
Some of the children flinch as it charges forward and pounds the glass with its fists and two of the sillier girls squeal louder than they need to do. Spittle hits the glass as it shouts, but the pen holds onto any noise that it makes. Blood smears and scratches have marked the inside of the glass.
“Miss. I think it wants to get out,” a boy calls from the back.
“It’s only been here a few days,” points out the guide, adding “it’s still adjusting to its new home.”
Its face red from shouting, it runs to the back of the pen, grabs a bowl and hurls it at the glass.
“Do they eat what we do?” asks one blonde girl, watching the metal bowl clatter silently to the floor.
“Oh, yes. They eat fish. Or chicken. And they get lots of fruit and vegetables. The local supermarket donates all of their bruised food,” the guide replies.
“Even sprouts?” asks a boy. The group starts giggling. Some stick out tongues and make vomit noises.
“Maybe one or two at Christmas,” jokes the guide, raising more laughter from the group.
“Do they have break time like at school?” asks another boy.
“That’s a good question,” replies the guide. “Yes they do. We let them out into the yard for an hour every day. They can all play together. We want it to feel just like they are living in the wild.”
Established in 1973, Steve Campbell is a full-time designer and part-time writer. He’s written articles for design blogs and print magazines, and self-published two coffee-table design books. His flash fiction can be found online at SickLit, Ad Hoc Fiction, and Medium. Steve can be found on Twitter @StandOnDog and through http://www.standondog.com