James got the job after Mom and Dad cut him off. He called Grandma, even sent her a hand-written letter, but she’d been spoken with and was told to not help him financially. He would never learn responsibility if they all kept funding his ennui. When pressed, however, finding work wasn’t difficult for him. James has always been charming, to men and women alike. He has a pleasant vocabulary—articulate but not pedantic—and he looks sturdy, with a full head of hair and boyish sideburns. My brother’s cuteness as a child fed him quarters for candy, and as a young man his sweet tooth stays satisfied.
He started working for mtChilla early last spring. They paid him $13.25 per hour, not bad if you ask me. That’s considered a living wage in Santa Cruz County, which is important to mtChilla’s customers. The company passes the cost on, of course, but they sell to members of a discerning demographic who are willing to make this pecuniary sacrifice. In my opinion mtChilla is bound to be a temporary enterprise. The trend can’t last. Yet somehow Hollywood and its fans are heading into their second year of frenzy over these idiotic Mitochondrially EnhancedTM miniature chinchillas. mtChilla has the patent, and the media takes care of the rest.
I don’t follow these things, personally, but friends from work told me the fad was initiated after a breakthrough performance by the actress Olivia Leigh. Olivia plays a brilliant bisexual CIA operative who abandons Agency protocol to build a girls’ school in Yemen. True drama. One of the characters, a young woman who is gunned down by terrorists early in the story, owns an adorable blue-eyed chinchilla, which Olivia’s character rescues from the blood-filled gutter. The film, combined with Olivia’s real life charity work for the Humane Society, helped to launch one of the most nauseating pet lines ever marketed.
At any rate, how it started doesn’t really matter. The point is that these wretched little creations are selling like the plush disposables they are, and a premium is placed on their ethical pre-sale treatment. Hence, James was hired as a highland shepherd for the free-range rearing station about three-and-half hours east in the Sierra Nevadas. I’m not kidding. He was an actual goddamn shepherd!
Basically, his entire job was to hang out among 500 or so mtChilla brand chinchillas all day and watch them feed on seeds and grass, seasoned with an occasional insect. They don’t eat much. This is in part due to the mitochondrial modification, which not only keeps them petite, but also decreases their metabolic requirements significantly. I’m told that traditional genomic alterations are also important in fabricating these desirable traits, but the whole process is rather beyond me. The low food intake is a major attraction for owners, particularly among film and television actors. There’s nothing more infuriating than to finish barfing up your tabouli only to walk out of the bathroom and see your eight-year-old dachshund scarf down Kibble and not gain an ounce of fat. mtChilla’s chinchillas eat in a more empathetic manner than your average over-the-counter pet.
James took to shepherding almost immediately. It’s not that he loved the work, but he loved telling people about it. He picked up more than a few women at bars while talking about his job. Like I said, James is charming, and good looking too, and most of the time all he had to do was convince them that he had a modicum of ambition and these inebriated twenty-somethings would scurry off to bed and pay for the cab.
“It can get worrisome shepherding those little guys around,” he’d say.
Concerned leader, they’d sigh.
“But little Timothy is the absolute worst, that rapscallion.”
Affectionate father, they’d breathe.
“Up on the mountain, in that raw, wild beauty, you can feel the energy everywhere.”
Artistic lover, they’d quiver.
“Do you want to go watch Netflix at your house?”
Take me now, they’d scream.
Each day, Monday through Friday, James would hike a half mile out from the parking lot by the shipping facility to the rearing site, and he’d sit beneath a fir tree and fall asleep. Sometimes he’d smoke a little joint first or roll a cigarette, but invariably he would slumber, and the burbling of the fragile chinchillas would soothe his youthful dreams.
Eventually, he would wake, count the chinchillas to ensure none had escaped, and he would document any daily births or deaths on a company tablet. New pups would be gathered into small plastic tubes which he would cart back to the shipping station when his shift was over, punctually clocking out at 7 hours and 56 minutes.
One Friday, after working for mtChilla for about four months, something strange happened. When he clocked in, he noticed a small printed sign warning company shepherds that a solitary male wolf had been sighted thirty miles to the north. They were advised to be extra vigilant until the company could lobby local lawmakers to create an exemption to the wolf’s federally protected status and exterminate it. James didn’t let his thoughts tarry too long on this tedious note, but he was interested to learn that he might soon be equipped with pepper spray and a stun gun. “Zap!” he thought aloud and chuckled.
That afternoon, however, when James awoke from his usual doze beneath the fragrant fir tree, he found that he was short seven chinchillas. “Little retards must’ve gotten loose,” he said to himself. As he walked the perimeter, however, he noticed a small patch of blood, and lying at its center were seven velvety severed heads. When he inspected the murder scene more closely, he noticed a single massive paw print. That paw print, of course, was made by the stealthy foot of this tale’s Lone Wolf.
James rarely thought about the concerns of mtChilla’s executives in Santa Cruz, but he knew they’d be unhappy to learn their product was being violently decapitated during James’ watch. Escapees, however, could be blamed on shoddy infrastructure, a hole in the electric fence or a brief loss of power. James thought it wise, therefore, to document the event as colony desertion. He recorded it as such, kicked the chinchilla heads under the fence, knocked dirt and pine needles into the wolf’s massive print, gathered 18 trembling new pups, popped them into shipping tubes, and headed back to the station to end his shift.
Unfortunately, the executives in Santa Cruz were a naturally suspicious lot. Never before had seven units escaped at once, and the utmost care had been taken to ensure a closed perimeter. When a wolf is at your door and you hear a scratching, it’s time to cash in on that campaign donation. Convinced the wolf was to blame, the executives made a few calls, and while the government’s gears were squeaking in Sacramento, a new sign was printed and posted for the company shepherds:
“A Lone Wolf is suspected of eating mtChilla product. Before heading to the rearing site, please watch the training video loaded on your tablet, and grab your assigned stun gun and pepper spray. Be vigilant, and report any wolf sightings to your supervisor IMMEDIATELY.”
James opened the training video. He was disappointed to discover that occupational safety isn’t stun-gun specific. The leading cause of work-related death is tractor roll-over. “Fuck this,” James muttered as he shut off the tablet. He grabbed his pepper spray and stun gun, took a few practice poses which he photographed with his phone, and walked to the fir tree where he smoked a joint and fell asleep. It was a Monday, and on Mondays James slept the soundest. When he awoke, he saw a massacre.
Body parts were smeared and eviscerated. Sorting through the tiny entrails packed full of adorable forest grains, James had difficulty differentiating one partial corpse from another. Fortunately, he noticed something peculiar which sped the gruesome accounting to a conclusion. While the wolf consumed the majority of each chinchilla, it never ate the head. I suppose this isn’t too surprising because with such little neural mass, the head was mostly comprised of abundant cartilage from two oversized ears, an excess of follicle-bursting fur, and an ever-so-thin skull. The only parts of the heads which were ever missing were the two giant blue eyes. These were always sucked clean out. After counting the heads—making a small pile in the middle of the enclosure—and double-checking his count against the living chinchillas, James established that 53 units had been slaughtered, approximately 10% of his charge.
Panic set in, but only momentarily. James quickly came up with a plan. He dug a hole in a bit of sandy soil located several yards beyond the electric fence, then he took off his company windbreaker and used it as a sack to haul the remains and bury them. He piled a few large rocks on top, and scattered leaves and pine needles around to make the altered landscape appear natural. Next, he broke a dead limb off a nearby tree and used it to tear a hole in the fence, hoping that it would look like the wind had blown the branch down to cause the damage. Finally, he called the station facilities manager and reported a “natural disaster.”
When the facilities manager arrived, he surveyed the scene with vague curiosity. “You say fifty-three of the little fuckers got out?” he said.
“Yeah, it’s like they’d been waiting for their chance. Even more would’ve escaped if I hadn’t thrown my body in front of the hole,” James explained. “I tore my jacket pretty bad on the branch, so I tossed it out, but luckily I didn’t get electrocuted.”
“Tell Nancy and she’ll get you a new jacket,” replied the manager. “You couldn’t have been electrocuted, though. Once the current’s broke you can’t get zapped any more.”
“I know, right?” said James. “I’m just saying that the electricity might not have shut off like it was supposed to, you never know.”
“No, it doesn’t work like that, dude. Just go talk to Nancy and clock out.” Neither James nor the facilities manager knew how electricity worked.
“Alright, later, bro,” said James. He walked back to the station, did as he was told, and went home.
On Tuesday when he arrived at work there was a new note posted for the shepherds:
“A Lone Wolf has been confirmed to be destroying mtChilla property. Unfortunately, we are unable to do anything about it at this time because of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s job-killing regulatory overreach. While we work out a solution, please remain vigilant. Watch the new training video loaded on your tablet, and report any wolf sightings to a supervisor IMMEDIATELY.”
Additionally, there was a sealed envelope with James’ name written on it lying on a table next to the sign. James looked around to see if anybody was watching. He was alone, so he hesitantly opened the letter and read what was enclosed:
We are aware that a Lone Wolf has been destroying valuable mtChilla breeding stock during your shifts. We have begun a three strike policy. Three strikes and you will no longer have a job working for mtChilla. We will give you the benefit of the doubt, and only count one of your previous two failures of duty against you. Consider yourself at ONE STRIKE. Your honesty, understanding, and hard work are appreciated, but we will not afford many further losses.
Dick Savoy, MBA
Operations Chief Officer
James crumpled up the letter and threw it in the garbage. “What the fuck,” he muttered to himself. To be fair, I’ve never understood what the executives thought James would do if he were ever faced with the Lone Wolf. A larger fence seems to be the obvious solution, but who am I to challenge the decision-making of one of the fastest growing California start-ups of the last two years.
That day, after James hiked out to the rearing site, he sat down on an awkward rock and peered around at the napping chinchillas. In the wild, chinchillas are nocturnal and sleep under stones and in holes and crevices during the day. To facilitate management, however, the company removed most debris from the fenced enclosure, so the chinchillas simply piled on top of each other and snoozed in a giant fluffy mass.
James was determined to stay awake during his shifts until the company got permission to kill the Lone Wolf. He was beginning to hate the wolf. His parents had sworn they wouldn’t give him another penny, and the only other job he could think of was to work at McDonalds or something, and James felt he was too good for that sort of thing. “I should kill that wolf myself,” he thought aloud.
Staying awake wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped. The body gets into rhythms, and James’ rhythm was well beaten into his system. Even while perched on the most uncomfortable rock he could find, with a jagged edge grinding his tailbone, his eyes began to feel heavy. His thoughts began to flicker in and out from the rational to the dreamworld, and his head began to sag on his limp neck. He dreamt he was sitting at a bar talking to a brunette in short shorts. She giggled and leaned in to whisper something he couldn’t understand. Her nose felt cold as it brushed against his cheek. He moved to kiss her and he put his hand on her thigh, waxed and smooth. He pressed his mouth hard against hers. She pulled away, smiling, then began with her tongue to caress his ears and neck. Gently teasing down his jaw, she began to drag her tongue from his bottom lip up to the top of his forehead. Over and over, she licked faster and faster, and he could feel her spit dripping down his chin. Then he noticed a smell. Her breath was horrible. He recoiled in disgust and pushed her back, but as he did so he fell over on the bar stool and crashed to the floor.
James opened his eyes and he was lying on the dry, lichen-covered earth beside the rock he had been perched upon earlier. He sat up, and he could tell the shadows were longer and the sun further along in the sky. Hours had passed no doubt. He rubbed his face and felt a viscous fluid that dripped down his neck and matted his hair and sideburns. He gagged at the stench.
Stumbling to his feet he was horrified by what he saw. A circle of eyeless chinchilla heads surrounded him, each precious face vacantly staring at him, oozing patented blood from their cavernous sockets. There were fifteen heads in all, and the remainder of their body parts were more haphazardly strewn about the enclosure. James spun in quick circles, his eyes scanning for the Lone Wolf. It was nowhere to be seen. He pulled the stun gun from his belt clip and turned off the safety.
“Go back to Oregon you goddamn wolf!” he screamed. He let out a few more incoherent shouts, and finally began to calm down. The wolf hadn’t hurt him when it obviously had a chance, and licking is a sign of affection in dogs, so the wolf must think of him as its master, James decided. Maybe it brought the heads over as a sign of loyalty. Sure, it was a wolf, but at heart it was probably no different than a good ol’ hound dog. These were the thoughts running through James’ mind when he had his great idea:
A dog. A real shepherd, like a border collie or something. James would just buy the biggest trained shepherd he could find. He could sleep all he wanted and the dog would do the work! At the very least it would start barking and wake him up if the wolf ever came near. James was determined to keep his job, and getting a dog was his perfect solution.
He quickly buried the chinchilla corpses as he’d done before. This time, saving his jacket, he carried them in his hands, which only took two trips. For variety’s sake, he dug a small hole beneath the fence, an escape route for the chinchillas, and then he filled the hole back in. True, mtChilla chinchillas are a bit too feeble to dig through the dry earth, but that scenario was more plausible than them jumping over the fence or the occurrence of a second consecutive “natural disaster.” James grabbed the day’s new pups, indelicately crammed them into shipping tubes, and hurried off, just barely clocking out at exactly 8 hours.
On his drive home he left a message with the facilities manager about the hole under the fence. “Hi bro, it’s me, James. Just letting you know a few of those guys escaped again, dug a hole under the fence. No worries, I filled it back in. Later, bro.”
Next, he called his supervisor and told her that he was feeling sick and probably wouldn’t be in tomorrow. In fact, he called in sick on Thursday and Friday as well, giving him a 5 day weekend to bond with his new German shepherd.
He bought a completely trained one-and-half-year old male. The thing was huge. He would have gotten a puppy—he knew how much girls would coo over a puppy—but he didn’t have time. He found a kennel on the internet, Der Hund Comander, a company based out of Riverside that trained their dogs using the same techniques as the Nazis in WWII. Of course, they weren’t trained to attack any persecuted peoples, but they would jump off a cliff if you gave the word. This was just what James needed. It was $3000 before tax, so he put it on a credit card.
He picked up the dog on Wednesday morning. The trainer gave James a sheet of commands, forty-seven in all, and told him his new pal was named Warner (pronounced Varner). James asked if he could choose a better name.
“Better?” asked the trainer. “No, you may choose nothing different. These animals are trained from birth to recognize their unique identifiers. To use a different name would be confusing and disorienting to the animal.”
“I thought these things were supposed to be super smart,” James replied. “Can’t they figure out a new name?”
“Of course they could figure it out, but it would be suboptimal,” the trainer said with more than a hint of irritation. “Moreover, to use a different identifier would void our guarantee of absolute obedience.”
On the car ride home James decided he would call his new dog Dirk. Though the animal had been neutered, it had the biggest bratwurst James had ever seen. “That stupid wolf is gonna get fucked, isn’t he buddy?” James said to Dirk who sat in the passenger seat panting. James scratched his ear and Dirk licked his hand lovingly, and at that moment James understood why dogs were called man’s best friend.
Over the long weekend, James and Dirk formed and amazingly fast and strong bond with each other. They never left each other’s side. They even went to James’ favorite bar together, which was a pretty laid-back place. James was pleased to discover that women love adult dogs too, especially dogs that do tricks. The trainers at Der Hund Comander would have been appalled to hear them called “tricks” but James would never see those Nazis again and did not care.
“Check out this trick,” James would say. “Ja gebieter!”
Dirk would stand on his hind legs and put one paw above his head. Animal lover and worldly, the girls would giggle.
“I don’t know why they trained him to do that but it’s pretty hilarious,” James would say.
On Sunday before bed, James gave Dirk a big hug around his massive neck. “I love you buddy,” he said and meant it. “Good night.”
The next morning when James got to work he had to show up a little early so he could sneak Dirk out to the rearing site. The company was very concerned about introducing diseases to their breeding stock. Even James had to get a bunch of immunizations before starting, so there was no way they’d let him take his dog out, even a $3000 professionally-trained German shepherd. After he hid Dirk in the trees along the path to the rearing site, he said “stopp,” and walked back to clock in.
On the table was a second letter addressed to James:
This letter is to inform you that you have TWO STRIKES against you. Any further failures and you will be terminated. While our lobbying efforts appear to be successful and the Lone Wolf should soon be dealt with, we worry that your preterition of duty is indicative of deeper flaws in work ethic and character. Please take advantage of our free motivational webinars at mtchilla.com/staff/webinars/teamchilla. Only through an enterprising spirit and respect for the mtChilla Production MatrixTM will our company succeed in the global economy while building jobs here in California.
Dick Savoy, MBA
Operations Chief Officer
James tossed the letter into the garbage, clocked in, and left to get Dirk and head to the rearing site. Soon enough, James was settling down under his favorite fir tree and lighting up a joint he’d picked up at a clinic in Riverside.
“Beschütze,” he said as he exhaled a plume of bluish smoke. The dog immediately began marching the perimeter along the fence, it’s head turning back and forth scanning for intruders. James smiled broadly and let out a deep sigh of relief. He hadn’t realized until then how uptight he’d been feeling. Finally, it seemed like things were back in order, and as he drifted off into slumber he wondered how chinchillas ever survived in the California wilds before mtChilla came along. “Stupid ‘chillas,” he murmured from somewhere deep in a dream. As if in response, through the soft layers of disabled cognition, a mountain of sleeping rodents burbled back.
James awoke to a gunshot. He stood up quickly and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He could hear the voices of men coming up the hillside. He looked around at the chinchillas but they had barely stirred from the sound. No blood was apparent and all heads were firmly attached to the cutest little necks. James’ eyes scanned the perimeter, and there was no sign of the wolf either.
“Dirk!” he shouted. “Komm, Dirk!” He heard a faint bark near the fence from where the voices were approaching. Dirk was limping badly. “Dirk!?” he shouted again. “Are you okay, boy!?”
“There!” he heard a man yell from a distance, and his voice was followed by another gunshot. Dirk collapsed to the ground. He remained a motionless heap.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” James yelled as he ran toward Dirk, waving his hands above his head.
“Hey, look there” one of the men said. “Hold fire! Hold fire!”
“What’s that fence?” another man said. “Hey, we’re way closer to the facility than I thought.”
James ran up and threw himself onto Dirk’s crumbled body. A shocking amount of blood had already soaked the ground, and Dirk’s eyes were closed. There would be no last look of affection between dog and master.
James was still lying there crying when the men climbed over the fence and reached him. “That’s definitely no wolf, Dick,” one of the men said.
“It’s sure big enough to be,” said Dick. “What the fuck did you bring your dog out here for, anyway?” He poked James with his foot. “What’s your name?”
“J-James,” he whimpered back.
“Are you one of our colony maintenance specialists?” asked Dick.
“I told you we should have just contracted somebody to hunt this thing,” said the other man. Dick ignored the other man.
“I’m a shepherd,” James said meekly.
Dick laughed. “Oh hey, that’s right. I remember you.” Dick smiled. “Three strikes, James. Now, get your dead dog and get the fuck outta here.”
As James stumbled in a daze back down to the shipping station his arms felt weak and he could barely manage to carry Dirk’s corpse all the way to his car. The facilities manager brought him some plastic bags so the blood wouldn’t ruin his upholstery.
“A shame,” the facilities manager said. “That’s a good looking dog.”
James nodded in agreement as he pulled his door shut and began driving away. He winded down the highway, leaving the Sierra Nevadas behind. The mountains transitioned to foothills. The grass on the side of the road looked dry and senesced, and the trees became uniform and managed. Suddenly, James slammed on his breaks.
He skidded to a halt about six feet in front of a massive gray and black wolf. Its eyes were locked on his, eyes full of sentience and anger. The Lone Wolf briefly curled its lips to show enormous fangs, and James was sure they were dripping with warm blood. It arched its back, the muscles in its shoulders and haunches trembling. James gasped and reflexively locked the doors. The Lone Wolf’s tail stiffened and projected straight like a fault line down and across the Great Central Valley to Santa Cruz. Slowly the wolf moved its hind legs forward and spread them in a wide squat. Amber eyes never flinching from James, the Lone Wolf defecated a gigantic pile of steaming scat, brown and full of chinchilla bones. When it finished, it wagged its tail and bounded off the road and into the forest. “Wolf!” James shouted to no one at all.
Front page image courtesy of Bob Haarmans .