Working in an Amazon fulfillment warehouse is as soul-satisfying as it sounds. It wasn’t my dream job but nothing really was. College was a wash and trade school didn’t go any better for me. I landed here through a temp service downtown. The work is garbage but the money is decent. About a year in the company even hired me full-time to run the night shift supervising the order picking crew.
Night shift picking was shit work and it tended to attract desperate people, at least at my warehouse. Most of them were nice enough but it wasn’t exactly America’s best and brightest. Strung-out junkies, pill heads, high school dropouts, and other aimless assholes like me usually pull the mass-produced shit you order online and ship it your way.
Be sure to send up a silent thank you when you open your box of FRIENDS DVDs and your new iPhone charger, American Consumer. We’re doing the lord’s work.
Anyway, I had been running the night shift for about three months when I got an email that a new night picker would be joining the team. Aaron Weightman. His resume made it clear he was overqualified for the job. He had worked as a paralegal for over twenty years and was the owner and operator of a company called Weightman Exotic Animal Service.
6:00 PM hit and I had already passed out the picking carts and scanners to my ragtag crew but after they shuffled off into the rows of shelving there was still one man still standing in the prep area. He appeared to be in his late 40s with thinning red hair and a pair of wire-rim glasses clinging to his nose. His long-sleeved shirt was buttoned to the neck and tightly at the wrists. A pair of pressed khakis fell neatly on top of his bright white tennis shoes. Dress for the job you want rather than the one you have, I guess.
“Brandon Stone?” the man asked in a nasal voice. He stuck his hand out to shake mine “I’m Aaron Weightman and I believe you will be overseeing my work this evening.”
“Right, right,” I replied and shook his hand. His grip was firm but clammy. “Let’s get you started over here, Aaron.”
I gestured toward the cart locker and scanner shelf. It only takes about five minutes to explain how the picking process works so I blazed through it pretty quickly. Aaron nodded his head in agreement at the end of every instruction and maintained eye contact with me the entire time. Eye contact doesn’t bother me but this guy was just intense. It was like he was looking into your damn soul and it made my stomach church a little.
After giving him the ins and outs of the job I sent him off to start putting orders together and shoving them onto the conveyor belt for shipping. My promotion had given me a decent little desk job to monitor the workflow of the pickers and keep an eye on productivity. My current crew got their numbers in and to my delight Aaron was keeping pace with the best of them. If he was going to work that hard I figured he could be as creepy as he wanted to be.
The lunch bell rang and everyone in the warehouse poured into the huge lunchroom like a horde of zombies. I was settled into the corner and tucking into my half stale bologna sandwich when someone plopped a lunchbox down on the table across from me and sat down. Looking up I saw Aaron. He smiled at me at started unpacking his lunch.
“Mind if I eat with you, sir?” he asked.
“No problem,” I responded and took a bite of my sandwich. “How’s the new job treating you?”
“Good!” he replied cheerfully. He began rolling up the sleeves of his shirt as he talked. His forearms were covered in thick bandages with a light spotting of blood showing through. “All of the walkings is a great change from sitting at a desk all day!”
“What happened to your arms there, bud?” I asked him. “Looks pretty nasty!”
“Just a little accident from my side business,” he chirped. “I raise and sell exotic animals in my private time. Sometimes I get a little careless.”
“Exotic animals, huh?” I muttered. “Sounds interesting. Is there much money in it?”
“It’s extremely lucrative!” he said, smiling widely. “I can get ahold of any kind of animal my clients need so they tend to pay top dollar!”
We chatted the rest of the lunch break away about the different types of creatures he had raised and sold over the years. Anacondas, chimpanzees, porcupines, and the occasional big cat. Some of the shit he told me didn’t seem totally legal but who was I to judge? Most of my time here had been spent working with people living worse lives than that so I figured he was entitled to live his life.
Over the coming months, Aaron turned into my team all-star. Some of the other pickers came and went but you could count on him to be on time every night and to be your highest producer every week. We ate lunch together most evenings and he would tell me about his new batch of animals and show me the bandages covering his most recent close encounter with them.
His odd mannerisms faded into the background to me the more time I spent with him. I had gotten so used to working with social outcasts that his social skills just seemed foreign to me now. Aaron was different but I settled on it being a positive rather than a negative. It was a breath of fresh air to have someone on my team that provided entertaining stories at lunch rather than a lot of bitching and workplace complaints.
At the start of a shift last month Aaron had approached me about taking some time off. I groaned internally at the thought of letting my best employee leave for a week but the guy worked hard and I knew he deserved it. He explained to me that he had to take a road trip to deliver an animal to one of his clients so I agreed.
“Thanks for the help, Brandon,” he said with a smile. “By chance would you be interested in making a little money while I’m out of town?”
“Depends on what it is, my dude,” I replied curiously. “What have you got in mind?”
“Well,” he started. “I need someone to feed and water my animals when I’m out of town. It is difficult to find people with discretion and good sense but you already know a lot about my work so I thought you would be a trustworthy caretaker!”
“What’s the pay?” I asked.
“$2,000 for the week.” He responded. “It just needs to be done every other day and it can all be done without entering the facility!”
I agreed immediately. Two grand in my pocket would take a lot of weight off of my shoulders and even get me ahead on a few bills. My pay was decent now but I had been playing catch up the entire time. Here was my chance to wipe the slate clean financially. Aaron told me to come out to the house the following week to see the property and walk me through the process of feeding and watering the animals.
The day rolled around and I drove to the address he gave me. It was pretty far out into the county and there was a time or two I got turned around on the country roads. I knew raising any kind of animal would take plenty of space but I hadn’t imagined he would be this far out in the sticks.
When I finally arrived at the end of his driveway I looked up to see a pristinely kept two-level farmhouse on a hill. There was a classically constructed red barn next to it and besides that sat a smaller sheet metal building. As I pulled up in the drive I could see Aaron standing on the porch waving to me. He met me at the car without wasting any time put a hand on my back and guided me to the metal building.
There was a constant noise in the air from two industrial vent fans on either end of the metal-sided building. There was one heavy steel door on the front but no windows. Spaced out roughly every four feet on the side was a diagonally placed chute with a locked cover on each. Hoses and wires ran out of the left side of the building into the ground.
“This is where the magic happens!” Brandon exclaimed as he gestured to the odd metal structure. “Follow me into the barn and I’ll show you where I keep the feed!”
I walked behind him into the barn where he kept huge blue barrels. Opening them up I could see dried food pellets of different shapes and sizes. There were numbers written on the front of each barrel in white greasepaint. Aaron explained that each barrel’s number corresponded with the same numbered feed chute on the side of the building.
I was to take five scoops to each chute every other day and pour them in. There was also a fridge behind the building with meat in it and each shoot was to receive one portion per meal. He scooped five servings into a smaller blue bucket and beckoned me to follow him back out to the metal building.
When we reached the first shoot he opened it and poured the bucket’s contents down the black hole. He was trying to talk to me and pointing to a button beside the chute but the fans were so loud I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Eventually, he started making a gesture as though he were drinking a glass of water and pointing to the button again. Figuring out I hit this button to provide water to the animals I gave him a thumbs up.
Last we walked around to the rear of the building to an old white refrigerator. Aaron opened it up revealing stacks of juicy cuts of raw beef. He pulled out eight of them. He began to circle the building dropping one each down the chute before relocking the cover. After he was done we left the metal building and walked toward his front porch.
“Any questions, Brandon?” Aaron asked me as he stood in front of his porch.
“Yeah,” I responded. “Do I need to do anything inside or just dump in the food and water?”
“Don’t go inside for any reason,” he said as his face grew intensely serious. “I have video monitoring inside so I’ll know if anything needs to be done in there. I don’t want you to put yourself in harm’s way!”
His face softened and he smiled again. “You’ve seen my arms! No need to get you cut up, my good friend.”
We said good night and I made the long drive back to town. Aaron was a friendly enough guy but I was starting to get that churning feeling in my stomach just like I had the day I met him. When he said I would be feeding animals I had assumed they would be in some kind of open-air environment or maybe in the barn. Something about that weird metal building just made me uncomfortable. Then my mind drifted back to the two grand he was paying me and I used that to push down the bad feelings as well as I could.
When the week of Aaron’s vacation came around and I headed out to his farm to feed his exotic menagerie. I had just finished relocking the last chute and hitting the water button when the exhaust fan began to make a slight grinding noise. It only lasted for a few seconds but I was concerned it may break down and leave the animals in smothering heat. I shot Aaron a text message explaining it and he thanked me saying that he would have some techs out to work on it the next day. Feeling like I had done my duty I headed back home.
Two days later it was my day off and I headed back to Aaron’s house ready to knock out my second shift. I pulled my shitbox car in front of the metal building and got out headed toward the barn. The silence out here was a welcome change from city life and the sun beating down on my back as I walked to the barn felt amazing. Something seemed off today though and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Then it hit me.
The exhaust fan had shut off.
I dropped the feed bucket I had picked up and pulled my cellphone out to call Aaron. Over and over I dialed his number but I never got an answer. Text message after text message went unanswered. He said there would be a crew out to fix the fans but there was no one here and the temperature was slightly north of 100 degrees today. The animals inside that building would be dead soon if they weren’t already.
After giving it a few more minutes and another dozen unanswered calls I decided I had to break the door open and get some fresh air into the buildings. There was a pipe wrench sitting on top of a tool bench near the feed barrels so I grabbed it and began running out of the bar toward the building. As I rounded the corner of the barn and the building came into view I could see thick strings of blood running out of the exhaust fan. I sprinted to the door and began to rain down blows with the pipe wrench.
The pipe wrench slammed uselessly against the knob on the heavy steel door. It was beginning to dent but there was no sign of giving way. I continued to hammer against it but it was becoming clear that this approach wasn’t going to get the door open. In frustration, I swung the hammer a final time into the door just above to knob and heard the squeal of metal on metal. The edges of the door by the frame bowed out slightly and a thin stream of sunlight poked through the hole into the building.
With the new opening between the door and the frame giving way I ran back into the barn and found a crowbar on the work table. When I got back to the door I slid the rusty metal prybar into the hole and began to work it back and forth trying to widen the opening. The gap was slowly growing and I could now see the hay-covered floor inside of the building in the beams of sunlight. A fetid odor poured out of the gap and nearly made me vomit. With one last pull, the door latch broke free and I tumbled backward onto the dusty ground. The wind was knocked from my lungs and my head was spinning.
I sat up gasping for air and peered inside the metal building. Dim bulbs in rusted cages on the ceiling illuminated the den of horrors inside. A steel grate that had once been attached to the inside portion of the exhaust fan was in the center of the floor against the wall. Above it, two dirty human feet jutted out from the fan housing and dripped blood into a congealing pool.
Scrambling to my feet I ran toward the door into the building. The smell was so foul I began vomiting and clutching my stomach. There were four cages bolted to the walls on each side of the door. One of the doors leaned off its hinges against the cage directly across from it. In the seven secured cages, I could see shaking creatures shaking in the corners.
Wiping the vomit from my lips I began to walk toward one of the huddled masses. Flicking the flashlight on my cellphone on its brightest setting I pointed it into the cage. As soon as the bright beam hit the shivering creature it sprung to its feet and pressed itself against the cage, shrieking and spitting. I stumbled back and slammed back and slammed against the cage behind me. Before I could regain my footing I could hear rapid footfalls on the concrete floor behind me and felt bony fingers grab my clothes.
I struggled to release myself from the thing’s grasp as its jagged nails sank into the flesh of my back. All of the emaciated things were now on their feet and shaking the metal wire of their cages as their shrill cries filled the air. A ripping sound crept up my back and I could feel the fabric of my t-shirt begin to rip before I fell forward to the floor.
Frozen in fear I looked back toward the cage at the creature that I had just escaped. Its fingers wrapped around the wire mesh and chunk of fabric from my shirt as it screamed at me. The skin was sickly pale and stretched tightly revealing the curve of each bone in its body. Matted, greasy hair draped down past shoulders and appeared to be completely missing in patches. The bright blue eyes connected with mine and tears began to roll out.
It was a woman. Starved a feral but a woman nonetheless. I looked around to the other cages at these husks of humans. Some of them were still violently shaking the walls of their cages while others began to calm down and grunt loudly at me. There were no words that I could understand but I could hear the desperation and see the pleas for help in their maddened eyes.
Tears began to pour from my eyes and I stood and walked to the exhaust fan. The bottom half of a man met the huge metal blades now frozen in place. They were covered in gore and bits of meat. I glanced back to the empty cage. He had escaped. Whether in madness or desperation taking his chances with the fan had seemed a better option than remaining here another day.
I began to back toward the door as my mind scrambled with who to call and how to get these people some help. That’s when I looked up at the blinking red light opposite the door. The camera mounted to the ceiling swiveled from side to side and then pointed back at me.
It moved from side to side a few more times as though the camera were shaking itself with disappointment before the light blinked a final time and shut off.