Jasper was cleaning out a smelly animal pen when he realized that he had a dopey crush on his boss’s daughter. Until this moment he had just assumed he hated Anna less than the girls he went to school with, but now he saw with disgust that he didn’t hate her at all. Her face was stuck in his mind like dried mud. Exiting the pen, Jasper opened the holding cage on the ground. Fireball, a slender red fox, came scampering out. She rotated her radar ears, scratched her neck with a whirring back paw, and then zipped into her pen.
“I got a question for you, kid,” Mr. Crowley, his burly boss, said when Jasper saw him in the yard later. “Is anything wrong? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile.”
Jasper shrugged. What was there to smile about? In another month, it was back to stupid school and no friends and dumb teachers. Not to mention that the fox sanctuary wasn’t exactly his idea of a thrilling summer job. He liked the foxes okay, but it wasn’t like he sat around all day cuddling them. More like cleaning up their turds. Also, despite the dumbbell courses they put him in at school he was smart enough to realize that Anna, blonde and earthy and a year older, would never like him even as a friend. Except later that very same day he started to wonder. Giving a tour to rowdy camp kids, Anna waved to Jasper across the yard and told the kids that he was an important member of the team.
“Oh, also, Jasper,” she said as he was about to enter one of the huts for problem foxes. “Can you stop by my office around five? I want to talk to you about something.”
The afternoon whizzed by. Jasper whistled while cleaning out the pens and at feeding time gave the foxes extra melon cubes. They feasted, tails swishing. He arrived at Anna’s musty office promptly at five. She was seated at her desk, cradling Hurricane, a baby grey fox, and feeding him from a bottle. Anna’s face was like swirling stars. Jasper felt ugly by comparison. He felt ugly even without the comparison, but apparently his honker nose and skimpy body didn’t bother her. Finally he understood what people meant by happy. Looking up from the glugging fox, Anna explained to Jasper that she had some ideas to improve the sanctuary and she just knew he would want to help. Jasper smiled. She had misjudged his investment in this place, but at least she had done it in a friendly direction. Most people, like his parents and teachers, assumed he cared way less than he actually did. About all his mom and dad agreed on was his worthlessness. His dad called him sissy more often than he called him by his name. Suddenly the office door swung open. Neil, the new guy, a hippy-haired college student, entered the room, breathless.
“Anna, you gotta come see this,” he said. “Jasper, you too. Bring a muzzle.”
Jasper found a zipper muzzle and met them out at the fence. Anna and Neil were crouched down, staring at the hissing fox in the corner. Its fur was a glossy purple. When Neil tentatively reached out, the fox bared teeth like tiny daggers. Anna, unsettled, hands shaking, contacted her father on the walkie-talkie, asking him to come ASAP. Neil rubbed Anna’s arm soothingly. She frowned, then smiled strangely. By the time Mr. Crowley arrived, the sun had set and Neil and Jasper had gotten the purple fox muzzled. It purred evilly. Mr. Crowley asked what the hell kind of fox was this and where the crap had it come from but no one could answer. Finally Mr. Crowley said whatever it was, Neil was in charge of it and it had to stay muzzled or someone would lose a hand or worse. They would feed this animal by nutrient injections, he said. Neil took the purple fox to a vacant hut. Walking back to the office with Anna, knowing it was the wrong thing but unable to stop himself, Jasper asked her if she still wanted to talk over her improvement ideas.
“Jasper, what do you think?” Anna said, giving him a disgusted look.
Summer unraveled. Jasper fed the foxes and cleaned up their stinking feces and winced at the smiling families who came for tours. His own parents were divorcing and constantly argued over who would take Jasper. Neither wanted him. Anna started wearing pink lipstick. One week it rained nonstop and Jasper slogged around the yard soaked to the bone in his cheapo raincoat. The following week was a murderous scorcher. Weather would screw you however it could. One mild afternoon Neil showed up with teachers from his college. They disappeared with Neil into the purple fox’s hut and came out looking disturbed and excited and saying that they would be back in a few weeks and to keep the bugger muzzled. Jasper saw Anna and Neil kissing by the fence one night, but it didn’t bother him. She could guzzle the guy’s cock for all Jasper cared. Actually, nothing bothered him. Or pleased him. Now he understood what people meant by suicidal. But what was less sissy, hurting yourself or hurting others? One morning he stopped to watch three foxes play in their pen, nibbling each other, tumbling around, and felt so comforted. Such friendly animals. Then Mr. Crowley yelled at him to stop slacking. Before leaving for the day, Jasper entered the purple fox’s hut, opened the latch at the top of its cage, then reached down and unzipped its muzzle, snatching back his hand before it snapped its teeth. Then, grinning darkly, leaving the latch open, he exited the hut and went home.