After the dreadful day of the coyote, Emmett found himself very lucky to have a quiet spell of days without a call or errand to run. The only thing he had to do was what he enjoyed, taking care of the animals. More importantly, the female raccoon he had went into labor in the wee hours of the morning after the incident at the DuBois residence.
Her three pups were a net gain on the world and biome surrounding the old Mausberg farm. He couldn’t have done anything to save the fourth; no more than he could have helped the coyote or the Goodman raccoon. Unlike the poached and eviscerated dog, he could give the small one a proper send-off. Its tiny body could have easily fit in the incinerator with the coyote but was instead joined by a fistful of wild honeysuckle and rose roots. The send-off wasn’t much, but it brought peace to Emmett, despite the troubles he had been facing. But trouble was quick to rear its head once more, even during the quiet hours of day.
As he left the barn, Emmett caught sight of a faint impact that had filtered through into the barn over the hum of the furnace. His mailbox looked closer to the image of a tall boy crushed beneath a boot on the curb than the box it had been the night before. Random acts of vandalism were nothing new, the local kids had little else to occupy them, but this didn’t reek of adolescence and angst, nor did the note stuck through one of the new openings in the aluminum. It wouldn’t take more than a glance to know what the author of such destruction wanted. Understanding what the townsfolk thought of him, Emmett didn’t bother to read it. Graffiti imposing the simple message of ‘Get Out’ would have done just as well.
Returning to the cluttered mess of a living room, Emmett checked his phone. There were no messages, nothing of interest, as though the last of the town’s animals were huddled in his two barns. With how little there was for grain to go around for the herbivores and how little prey there would be for the carnivores, the notion struck Emmett as closer to truth than fiction. How so many people could turn a blind eye to the majestic life that spawned all about them, interweaved with their own lives, and served as a network and bridge into the wild nature of the world was beyond Emmett. Money, the only green any of his countrymen actually cared about, seemed to be the only thing a single one of them saw, that and someone standing in the way of more of that green.
Green seemed to be a theme in the thought process of the greater will as a knock came at the door, and on the other side stood Missus Green. Her daughter had contracted Emmett just a week before to collect an owl from the house. He hardly thought that the mother was coming to even up the debt of which Lucy Green had paid half of upfront. In truth, Emmett didn’t care if Margret brought only an honest thank you or something minimal to settle up. To know that anyone trusted him, wanted him, to take proper care of an animal out of place in their residence meant the world.
“How are you this morning, Margret, Joseph?” he regarded the mother and her young son.
Both looked equally cross with him, “My daughter told me you are the one that came out the other day and stole Joey’s owl. Is that right?”
“Stole? My apologies, I wouldn’t call your daughter a liar, but I didn’t steal any owl. Lucy had told me a barn owl was loose in your house and that it was supposed to be removed.”
“He’s mine! His name is Fearless. He flew into my treehouse. You stole him. I don’t care if my stupid sister said it was okay,” Joseph erupted as any child would with a peer, not an adult.
Margret retook control of the conversation, “We want it back. I know what you do out here, and up until now, it was none of my business, but when you came into my house and stole my son’s pet, whether his brat of a sister said to or otherwise, it became my business. Where is it?”
“The green barn,” Emmett muttered, confused, “But that’s no pet, Missus Green. State law would say you can’t have it without a special permit, and she, it’s a female owl, has a broken wing. Even if it’s all on the level, she needs time to recover before moving her.”
“I don’t want to hear the excuses, Emmett,” Margret filled the doorway, allowing her son to bolt for the barn. Emmett tried to budge past her, but the rotund figure of Margret Green could have successfully blocked two of his front doors. Her tone didn’t rise but remained level, “You were a weird kid in school, and everyone cut you breaks. Your parents had a nice farm; I know you never went hungry. You’ve had it all handed to you while my family and my husband’s family grew up without anything. I hate to judge, that’s the Lord’s business, but I think he’d agree I’m his servant in the matter. You are scum, full of yourself, always looking for trouble and not to lend a hand. You’re damn lucky I talked Peter out of pressing charges.”
Before Margret could carry on further, the mingled shrieks of a young boy and an owl crept across the yard like a clutch of frantic gartner snakes. As Missus Green stepped back in shock, Emmett shot out of the house like a bullet. He went over the porch railing and was in the green barn before the boy’s mother was fully turned around. The owl’s cage was open, with Joseph on the floor right before it. As he came alongside the enclosure, he found the owl hiding beneath the table her temporary home sat on. With his chief concern out of the way, Emmett rolled the boy over onto his back.
There was blood, and not a small amount of it. Emmett fought to see the wounds, hoping that, in her injured state, the owl could only break the skin. Though he tried to be relaxed, Emmett gave way to his anxiety and pinned the boy’s arms to the ground. Margret shuffled up, wheezing and heaving up sharp breaths. Condemnations attempted to rattle off her tongue, but she found no air to do so. Together they inspected Joseph’s face the best they could without wiping it down with a rag. Emmett saw his eyes flash open, crimson meeting and intermingling with one ruptured pool of cedar, the other unblemished. Tossing himself to his feet, Emmett began for the cabinet by the entrance before Margret stopped him. Slapping her grotesque sausage fingers away, he shouted, “Hold him! Your son will lose that eye if I don’t do anything.”
Snatching up the emergency medical kit from the cabinet, Emmett went to work as Margret stepped aside. Clearing the blood, cleaning the wounds, applying anti-septic spray, a particular sharp stinging one, and wrapping the boy with gauze was all an uphill battle. The boy’s struggle made the owl’s ease and acquiescence to being helped into the cage all the more humorous. What was far less comical was the sight of Margret Green pulling her son off the floor, her phone pressed to her ear, shouting half to her son and half to the sheriff on the other end of the line.
In less than twenty minutes, Kerry was on Emmett’s porch, waiting for him to finish cleaning up the mess left in the barn. After giving their statement, Margret and Joseph left, but if their destination was a clinic or just home was unclear. Emmett didn’t want to think that Joseph would be handed an ice pack by his mother and told to suck it up. Despite what he might know about injuries, he had made it apparent that the kid should see a professional if they wanted any hope of saving the eye.
“Well, Emmett wouldn’t, you know, but even you get to have a lucky day here and there,” Kerry remarked, sneering as though he was disappointed his paperwork wouldn’t include an arrest report.
Ignoring the blood dampening his shirt, Emmett stopped to regard the sheriff, “How’s that?”
“Well, I’d like to have hauled you off, but after getting Margret’s side and calling that daughter of hers as well as consulting the state statue on wild birds, you’re off the hook. Between you and me, I never liked the Greens at all. Day I cuffed Peter, god, I wish it were my retirement day. It was a high point, for sure. Catching that Lucy Green drinking behind the bowling alley, drinking with her friends, that’s a close second, and sure enough, if I had only that little hole’s testimony, today would have been the highest point when I brought you in. Maybe next time you see her, you give the little gal a tip, or maybe don’t pull out, and she can have a place to stay without that witch of a mother.”
Sheriff Kerry laughed at his wit, or lack thereof until Emmett carried on up the steps of his porch and halfway inside. Yet, the law wasn’t entirely done as Kerry began again, “You keep your nose clean out here, Emmett. Had it been anyone else, I would have made sure, come hell or high water, that this little shitshow out here was stomped into the ground worse than that mailbox of yours. Best get that fixed too. Now have yourself a good day.”
There was a space of about twenty minutes composed of pure silence in which Emmett laid down on the couch and rolled himself into a ball of pitiful humanity. However, before he could allow his mind to wander into sleep, a knocking came to disturb any sense of peace and calm. The notion of opening the door to another slew of trouble, another visit from Sheriff Kerry, or maybe even another direct attack from locals didn’t sound quite appealing. With a huff, he turned over to face the couch cushions while pulling a throw blanket over his face. After another few knocks, the footfalls seemed to indicate that whoever had stopped up had gone away. But Emmett quickly recalled he hadn’t locked up either barn properly.
Sitting up as though he’d just poked an outlet with a steak knife, Emmett was quick to throw on his boots, but before he could make the door, he realized his guest was standing in the entryway. The man must have been about his age, no older than thirty, in a beige polo and gray slacks. He met the frantic contortions of Emmett’s face with curiosity. For a moment, Emmett wasn’t sure if the man was another representative here to buy his land or someone the locals put up to cause trouble for him, but he seemed out of place. Emmett didn’t care quite what the man wanted, he needed to lock the barns, and if he needed to pull Dee-Dee’s knife, it was on his belt.
Cautiously, the man spoke, “Sorry to barge in like this, the door wasn’t really closed, and I thought I should check if everything was all right. Is this a bad time?”
“There’s not much for good times, now is good as any. What are you here for?”
“My name’s Robert Hitchfeld; I’m a teacher at the high school,” it was clear he was eyeing the blood on Emmett’s shirt, “I wouldn’t expect you have a child in any of my classes.”
“Not unless you’re in the business of teaching fawns and possums or what’s left in the county of them.”
“No, sir. But that’s what I came out today to talk to you about. I’m not well versed in the town gossip, but I’ve heard about what you do out here. It’s very respectable.”
“Look, I don’t know who put you up to this, but you can stop. It’s not been quite a week. I’m not having people put me on.”
“No, I mean what I say. I wanted to know if, by chance, you’d be interested in helping me out with my classes. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for an up-close study of animals with injuries or illnesses, not even in parts of the country with large state-funded sanctuaries. I wanted to know if maybe you’d come by the class. I’d hate to impose, but maybe bring an animal, or maybe I could arrange a field trip.”
Leaving the question hanging in the air, not sure if the noose of tension should hold or break clean and drop hope to the floor, Emmett stared. He hardly scrutinized the man, only taking enough measure to say he wasn’t the average neighbor. Now that he took into account the glass, the straight-backed posture, the figure belying some sense of a health-conscious diet, and the otherwise well-groomed nature of the man, Emmett eased. A chuckle scratched in his throat, but not enough to make a real noise. Instead, he offered out his hand, “Apologies, I’ve had a rough go as of late. I’m Emmett Mausberg, but you probably know that by now. Take a walk with me, just around the yard. We can talk.”
Robert fell into step with Emmett as they made their way around the yard. Where Emmett had initially only intended to hear him out, he ended up showing the man around the barns. It wasn’t long before they entered the green barn and saw the owl. Emmett could only believe his luck had evened out, seeing the sawdust had soaked up enough of the blood, and the animal scent did away with the copperish odor. There wasn’t a moment in their conversation that felt dull or empty to Emmett. At every turn, Robert had a question or comment that came clearly from someone with a background in biology and animal care. Had the conversation started here, had Robert walked in on him in the barn and made the observations he had, Emmett might have pegged him as an inside man for the state. However, in the way Robert carried himself, he could see the spark of interest and intrigue over the subjects.
Once all was wrapped up and the barns locked, Robert checked his wristwatch and cursed to himself. Meeting Emmett’s gaze, his smile broke to consternation, “I’m so sorry I can’t stick around any longer. I have an appointment I have to make while I can. It was great meeting you. Here’s my number. If you can come into the class even for a few minutes, call me, and let me know. I don’t know how many kids might benefit from the exposure, but if even one kid walks away with a slight interest in animal care, I’d say we did our job.”
“You’ll be hearing from me, one way or the other,” Emmett remarked as he languidly followed the first friend he could think he made in almost a decade back to his Volkswagen. A sudden timidity fell over his mind as Robert slipped into his car and gave a polite wave. Emmett stepped back, giving the bit of room needed to make most motorists feel safe in backing up. As the lime bug zoomed out of sight, Emmett folded the card between his fingers. He’d rather have given his number to the teacher, leaving the ball in his court where it began, but now it was too late. He’d have to swallow pride and anxiety and call if he could be so bold.