Sanctuary: Eight

The car was barely in park as Emmett flung himself out and up the steps of his porch. He wasn’t the best at remembering little things that were so essential to life they could be forgotten. However, of the many acts that fell by the wayside for him, Emmett never left the door unlocked or open. The main entrance, never mind the screen door, was blowing in the late autumnal winds just as the leaves coming off of the trees. It was as he entered his home that Emmett realized with panic that he hadn’t kept his revolver on hand, despite all that had happened of late.
Storming in, regardless of likely being outgunned by an invader, Emmett found the house a wreck worse than anything he could have done. Though most of the main floor looked as though a hoarder’s house had been hit by a class five tornado on a good day, it somehow now looked worse. The sense of order Emmett had established was gone. Furniture was turned over, windows shattered, letting in the cold, while pictures and decorations were left in a pile on the floor. Turning to the kitchen and dining room, Emmett caught the foul, sickly sweet odor of manure only to find vast quantities of waste smeared like a messy paint job across every surface. Then there was his pet project.
The terrarium was nothing but the metal framework that had held it together, and some algae stuck to wet silt. There was no evidence of the frogs or other amphibians and fish from within. Those not tied down with gills might have slipped away, hid under the sofa or stove, but even if they had, they’d be impossible to find and catch. Likely, they fled outside and would hibernate, if they could, but to wake to what? The ponds and streams were lousy with trash and chemical runoff from lawns bordering them. The project was a complete bust. The upstairs came to mind, but Emmett quickly changed course after pulling his revolver from his coat hanging off the rack.
As he rushed across the yard, Emmett didn’t bother checking the gun. He knew it held six live rounds, and should he find someone tampering with the animals again, all six would find their way into dead flesh. Flinging open the door to the green barn, he scanned and paced the floor before coming up with nothing. Still in hot pursuit, Emmett rushed to the red barn, further from the road but nearer the house’s back entrance. This barn was empty as well after multiple pass overs. It was apparent to Emmett though it seemed too simple, that whoever hit his home only had hit the house and left before his arrival. Allowing the stress of the day to set in, Emmett sunk nearly to the floor, stopped only by a knee-high stool that was often used to prop open the red barn’s door.
It felt like a second had passed, but for all Emmett knew, it had been hours. He may never have stirred from his shallow slumber if not for that unexpected hand on his shoulder. Twisting around like a viper ready to strike, Emmett had the gun halfway up before recognizing Robert. The sight of this man, hardly more than a stranger, brought a pained noise from Emmett, his eyes misting over as he set his free hand on the man’s shoulder in reply.
“Shoot, I didn’t mean to startle you at all. I can see you’re having what looks like a rough day. You got a minute? I can come back later.”
“No, it’s fine. I got a call from your boss. Speaking of which, shouldn’t you be working?”
“Half-day for the students, and I figured since Gene passed the word to me, I’d run out the paperwork to you. If you’d like, I could hang out for a bit, so you don’t have to make a trip back into town with it.”
For Emmett, it felt like Robert knew more about the defilement of his home than he should have, but it also felt like a kindly rib. Anyone could have guessed Emmett didn’t have children, certainly not high school age, and assuming he knew the ins and outs of the school would have been very presumptuous. At one time, Emmett had, but in the way of things, renovations instead of the construction of a new school had distorted the building into a shell filled with new compartments and paths. Forcing a kindly smile, Emmett nodded, “If you’d like. I have a few things to take care of around here. Are you in a hurry?”
“Not at all. My last hour before lunch is a study hall, I have all my students’ papers graded. Did you want to step inside and take care of it first?”
“We can’t go inside.”
“Look, I know your place is a bit messy, it’s really just fine. I could help you even. I don’t mind lending a hand with a little cleaning.”
“It’s not a little cleaning,” Emmett sighed, “Someone broke in. The place is a wreck. They tossed fertilizer all around. It does not smell pleasant.”
The moment paused as Robert glanced up to the first-floor windows that faced the yard. He could see one was shattered, another concealed by debris, and a third splattered with a substance he could only imagine was not there naturally. After taking a measure of the exterior and considering the potential mess he would be walking into, Robert was not deterred. Knowing of the meeting he would have with the principal, Robert had worn his best; he still wouldn’t let much stand in his way. Offering Emmett a hand up, he let it all slide, “Then it sounds like you could use a hand. Love your animals all you want, I know you got heaters and ample space in the barns, but you need a proper place to sleep and eat. I’ll help you, we’ll take care of the paperwork, and I’ll get it delivered for you.”
“You don’t need to put yourself out like that.”
“Look, Emmett, I don’t know what your standings are with most people in town, but from what I’ve caught, they aren’t good. I can’t say that I do much better. Gene and the coaches and definitely the parents aren’t quite fond of me. Being that you live here, you probably know this is kind of a football town. Failing star athletes who can hardly read or add on their fingers is a big no-no. So as far as I take it, you and I are in the same boat, maybe even friends,” Robert’s grin, light as it was, was genuine as his teeth were pearly white.
It was odd for Emmett to let his guard drop, even briefly. Letting someone else in to help, even cleaning up a mess that wasn’t his necessarily, felt strange. But in time, as they removed the manure, cleared away the terrarium’s remains, and sealed up the broken windows, it began feeling more natural. Despite differences in education, background, race, and responsibilities, Emmett felt more akin to Robert than any neighbor or local he had grown even a little bit close to.
Before long, they had the kitchen cleaned, at least of anything unsanitary or brought in by the vandals. The paperwork was nothing but terms defining the liability of the school in the event anything went wrong were Emmett to bring any animals in. They would assume zero responsibility and pay for absolutely none of the damages to students, staff, or critters should anything negative occur. However, Robert insisted that there would be no discussing the contract. It was an agree or disagree situation, but to rebuke the offered deal meant no form of visitation of any kind. As taxing as it would be on Emmett, he signed, knowing what it meant for the sanctuary.
After the contract was taken care of, Emmett caught sight of the time and went to tend to the animals. Regular feedings were needed, reapplication of medication and bandages, and tidying up, they were all overdue. Though he expected to part ways after signing on the line, Emmett found Robert was behind him all the way to the barn. Recognizing he was shadowed, Emmett thought to tell the teacher he could go on his way only to have his guest offer a helping hand. The day had crept on, and it was getting towards dinner for his own stomach, so he let Robert tend to some of the more docile creatures.
By the time they were done, night was looming. The long days of summer and early fall were giving way to the quickening darkness of winter. Emmett wanted to kick himself for losing track of time so completely. He had gotten so busy that the security measures he wanted to put in place would need to wait until the morning. Worse still, he hadn’t planned ahead enough to be able to prepare dinner for his guest. At the merest suggestion he should throw some sort of meal together, Robert waved him off. Despite all he had done, Robert was nothing but humble, “Don’t sweat it, any of it, Emmett. I might not make real mad money through the school, but I get by. I can take care of my own dinner. Let’s call your willingness to put up with the school and their demands for your presentation thanks enough. I’ll get everything in. I’m hoping by tomorrow, end of the day, we have some idea of how things will go. Take care.”
“You too,” Emmett half muttered as his friend sunk down into his beetle. Despite the gloom of night, Emmett could see the lime shrink and fade from sight until it was completely gone.
Creeping back into the house, Emmett stopped for a moment to appreciate the state of things inside. The place wasn’t brand new, in fact, anything not touched while he was out in the day was left in its already rundown or dirty state. Yet it was all the things that Robert had done or helped do that he appreciated. If not for the school teacher, Emmett wasn’t sure how he would prepare his food that night or where he would sleep other than possibly the barn. Despite what was said, Emmett couldn’t help but feel a tug of shame on his heart, a pang of guilt that he hadn’t adequately repaid the man’s kindness. No sooner did the thought come to mind did a new opportunity present itself.

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