The time between his graduation and this return to the local high school had not been terribly long, but to Emmett, it may well have been a lifetime. There was no pale reflection of the halls he once walked and classrooms he sat in within the sparsely adorned walls of the public high school. Everything was different now, changed beyond recognition, save for two factors, the facade, and the auditorium. Likely, amid the remodel that had initially been suggested as the construction of a new school which taxpayers whole-heartedly refuted, the budget ran short. If the shell of the structure were good enough, a fresh coat of paint would be slapped on eventually; however, that nucleus for the arts and any such presentation would be overlooked until loose light fixtures and an uneven floor became safety concerns.
Finding his way to the auditorium was not a terrible issue. The labyrinth that once stopped him from remembering where his third-hour English class and fourth-hour Algebra course was overhead. What problems did proliferate as Emmett made his way down the halls with plaques and trophies won in decades past were the onlooking students either playing hooky from the assembly or simply not intended to attend. Their looks would have been for nothing if not for the odd faculty member here and there who seemingly were given from the shadows only to flag Emmett down and inquire about his business at the school. Not a single one of them looked too delighted to see someone known as something of a public menace milling about the youths, but once his business was stated, they were polite enough to let him on his way.
Making it to the backstage entrance of the stage, Emmett let his fraying nerves settle at the sight of Robert. Principle Chambers was beside him, and though he didn’t look terribly happy to see Emmett show up, he did not let the feeling touch any other aspect of him but his face. He held out his hand, “Mister Mausberg, good to see you. I’m glad I could finally put a face to the name. Your old school photos don’t quite hold up, I’m afraid. You have everything you’re going to say figured out?”
“Yes. I made sure to make some notes.”
“Excellent. Then hopefully, you left a little space to add to those notes,” the man’s grip had been weak and clammy, “I don’t care to get involved in the politics of the town here, I don’t live in town, so I won’t speak to any of it. However, I’ve been asked for you to allot time to mention the booming solar panel industry in town. I’m not asking for you to choose sides or say this, that, or the other, but I need you to mention it in a positive light if you can. You don’t have any qualms with green energy, right?”
“No. How long until I go on?”
“Few minutes. Officer Shelly is wrapping up, I think,” Robert added, trying his best to intercede between his friend and boss.
Chambers looked about Emmett one last time before leaning in to make a poorly concealed whisper, “Wasn’t he supposed to bring an animal to show the kids? You know they get antsy if there’s nothing to hold their attention.”
“Debra suggested, or wrote into the contract, that he shouldn’t bring anything this time around.”
“The hell what Deb thinks. She doesn’t have to deal with these kids. She just takes the calls when they’re playing sick.”
Emmett didn’t want to venture the risk to his newest friend, “I could run out to the sanctuary and collect something, but I don’t think I’d make it back in time.”
“Ah, don’t sweat it. We’ll set up something down the road.”
The half-hearted suggestion did little to help the sting still stuck deep in Emmett’s gut after the invasion of his home. It was made no better as the principal shuffled off without a care and likely somewhat oblivious to the reality of things. Robert hung along for another few minutes as the drug officer finished her presentation on yet another of the up-and-coming street drugs that was taking lives every day. He left Emmett’s side, having to mind his class who kept jostling and feuding in the first few rows of seats. As the officer stepped away and Gene announced him, Emmett’s mind blanked, and the very thought of presenting anything but the truth of his past few weeks in operation sounded absurd.
With reluctant steps, Emmett made his way to the podium at center stage, facing lights that were dozens of times brighter than he was used to. Likely the bulbs had been the only improvement to come to the auditorium with the grant money as he could quickly discern the old, broken, and half-rusted rows of seats from his teenage years still filling the ramped floor with its hideous orange and yellow octagonal patterned carpet. The children may as well have been his graduating class and the underclassmen that followed. Their rowdy attitudes were unchanged, and they were still otherwise a homogeneous grouping, the only alteration being hairstyles and the logos printed on their shirts. They were no better behaved than his peers at the time, and it took several of the staff’s attempts at sushing them for something of silence to fall over the student body.
“Good afternoon, I’m Emmett Mausberg, owner of the Mausberg Animal Sanctuary just outside of town here. I’m here today to inform you just how important the biome surrounding our town and animals within actually are,” public speaking had never been his strong suit, but Emmett swallowed his anxiety and pressed on, “Now, I could go on all afternoon about how every animal, every last one, is important to our environment and their food web. I could tell you how, from a mosquito to the leopard frog, from a fawn to the occasional bear that wanders through the county, every animal is as important as the next, whether we like them or not. But instead of lecturing on the micro to macro causes of trouble in our environment, I’d like to instill one point. It is not as simple as insisting that poaching is bad, which it is regardless of what someone doing the poaching might say. It isn’t that littering is a terrible thing to do and is preventable. It is the sustainability of the environment which matters most. It incorporates all these problems and more. The expansion of cities and industries takes more and more land away from the wildlife that depend on it. When we have raccoons and deer and bear picking through our garbage for scarps, it isn’t because they want our leftover cereals and snacks but because their normal fare is no longer available or there is too much competition for it. The same could be said of possums and squirrels invading crawlspaces. There is simply not enough room. The result of too little room and too little food is fewer and fewer of these creatures. My rescue does everything we can to rehabilitate animals that have been injured and need a second chance, perhaps relocation, and sometimes to be given over to zoos when returning to a natural habitat is impossible. However, without the sanctuary, those animals that might have a better chance tomorrow have no chance today. And today, the sanctuary faces trouble, endangerment just like the animals we protect. A land grab that would…”
Emmett looked up as the microphone cut off. He searched the crowd for a cause, for someone like Sheriff Kerry glaring at him, but found only the bored and disinterested faces chatting away or buried in glowing blue screens. Principle Chambers was crossing the stage, keeping a calm face plastered over features likely tense beneath the mask. He lifted his microphone, which still worked, “Thank you, Mister Mausberg. A very informative presentation. I’m sure you all were paying close attention. That looks like all we have for time. Please give a round of applause to Officer Shelly and Mister Mausberg. I’m sure they both appreciated your attention to their presentation. You are all dismissed to your fourth-hour classes.”
Officer Shelly took the applause with pride, bowed, and went to the floor, where one of the teachers, with a few students in tow, began asking her questions. Emmett sat at the edge of the stage by the fire exit, watching the future leaders of his community funnel out of the auditorium as though there was nothing to be said of the sermon he had just launched into. For what it was worth, Emmett didn’t think a single one of them would have listened. As a matter of fact, he had certainties that each one had been informed by their parents about him and warned of what he might say. In the mass of moving humanity, he could find Robert but expected a less than sympathetic glance. He had known what was expected of him, and try as he might have, he had gone off script enough to warrant being shut down. It burnt worse knowing that his only friend outside of Dee-Dee in so many years would fall away from a tiny slip-up. Getting chewed out by Principal Chambers, as he expected was soon in coming, would be nothing by comparison. However, there was a small sliver that stuck in Emmett before the totality of the auditorium cleared.
A young girl made up as though she were playing the part of some antiquated stereotype of a flower child with long unkempt hair and stained overalls made her way up to where he sat. She looked nervous, but with so few of her peers around or a teacher to keep watch, Emmett could understand her apprehension. He was hardly a welcoming sight. He didn’t hold out hope that this would be anything but another local to spit in his eye, but as she opened up, it was clear that was not her intent. Her smile was nervous, not only attempting to hide braces but to belie some sense of confidence.
Seeing the girl stall prompted Emmett, “Hi. Did you have any questions about the presentation?”
“What kind of school to did you go to be able to run an animal sanctuary?”
“That’s a bit of a long story, but… are you in one of Mister Hitchfield’s classes?”
“I have him for biology.”
“Okay. I’ll pass some information through him. Maybe I can
do another presentation for your class and be able to answer any questions you have.”
“Thank you, Mister Mausberg.”
“You can call me Emmett. With any luck, maybe it can be arranged through the school for your class or a few classes to come out in the spring and meet some of our animals. There’s a little fawn with an injured leg we just took in, and she’s very friendly.”
“I love deer.”
“Amelia, get back to class. I’m sure Mister Mausberg has to get back to his business,” Principal Chambers entombed, lurking in Emmett’s shadow silently.
Emmett didn’t regard the man but let the girl know it was fine, “Maybe we’ll have more time next time I’m at the school, Amelia.”
The girl caught up with her class, and Gene Chambers seated himself beside Emmett as though he were expected company. Their gazes met, and Emmett was surprised to find the man wasn’t furious, “Sorry to cut you short, Emmett. I don’t agree with what you do and probably wouldn’t have agreed with what you said, but the pressure is what it is. If we didn’t give you time, someone would have asked questions, but too much time, and we’re facing a walkout of most of the coaches, some teachers and staff, as well as students. I hope you understand. Maybe in a few months, right after Christmas, let’s say, just into the new year, we’ll try to set up something with Hitchfield. You’ve got my word.”
“That’s all well and good, Mister Chambers, but I don’t think we’ve got that long. They want the land, all of it, and I don’t got more than a few in my corner. If I make it to winter, you make the call, I’ll answer. That’s if we make it.”
Chambers went quiet at the news but only that respectful quiet of someone unattached, “Well then, I wish you luck, Emmett.”
As he made his way back out to the street, the school parking lot too full of staff and student cars to permit one extra, Emmett’s phone went off. He didn’t check the number; he was expecting a call from Dee-Dee after leaving a message with her nurse. The person to answer wasn’t that familiar aged voice but the kindly and bassy sound of her nurse, “Hello, I’m looking for an Emmett Mausberg.”
“Good afternoon. How are you holdin’ up, sweetheart?”
“I am sorry, dear.”
More words were passed, the awful details of the pleasant old woman’s last moments and the final time and cause of death. It didn’t do Emmett’s heart well to know that she went peacefully, with that ever-present angel’s smile painted on her features. Though he could feel better knowing she did not go with fear or in violence like he expected of himself, the loss of just one more thing in his life was an unnecessary brick through a car with only one last window left.
The very last of Emmett’s strength kept him from collapsing in the street and instead slapped him face-first against his driver’s side window. He stared at the half reflection of his face, figuring room for all of Dee-Dee’s cats, space for Milena, and all the other chores that needed doing at home. It was a list he could have counted on all his finger and toes and still wouldn’t be halfway up. And he might have if someone wasn’t watching.
“Excuse me, Mister Mausberg, are you alright?”
The woman’s voice was familiar but not entirely. It took Emmett seeing the officer in her cruiser before remembering Shelly. Numbly he nodded his head, words choking in his throat, a burning sensation beginning under his eye, and a knot of tension welling in the back of his head. Her expression showed that everything he felt was present in his features, “You know, Emmett, if you don’t mind me calling you Emmett, it takes a lot of guts to do what you’re doing. I only know what I know of you from hearsay, but from what I got of it, you have quite a bit of integrity. Stay strong for whatever you’re going through.”
The squad car carried on down the street, leaving Emmett still against the side of his truck, searching for some sort of answer. To his face, everyone had nothing but nice things to say, support to give, and hope to hold for the animals and the sanctuary, but when it boiled down to action, the words were hollow. Just like all those words, Emmett felt empty inside, fighting to refute that it was all for not. He had struggled like a bass at the end of a line, the hook firmly buried in his lip, but all that agony and thrashing would be meaningless. Sickened and thoroughly disgusted by the hypocrisy, Emmett finally loaded into his vehicle and headed back from the sanctuary.