Even from halfway down the road, Emmett felt a knot in his stomach, but laying eyes on the yard filled with debris, the panes without glass, the front door hanging slack against only one hinge, he realized he couldn’t have calculated just how bad things could have been. Stepping away from home for any length of time had been a risk, and it would have been foolish to think that his appearance at the school would be kept quiet. Now, it had come to a head and was over without debate or conflict or confrontation. Whoever had been behind this assault had been more thorough than the last two or had chosen to be more deliberate and direct this time.
The barns hadn’t gone untouched, despite what little remained inside of each. It looked as though a controlled burn had been done inside each as smoldering and soot-encrusted heaps of ruin lay all about but without the continuing consumption of the structure by hungry flames. Where the act of killing, releasing, or stealing all the animals on the last occasion had been to rob Emmett of his patients, this event destroyed his ability to take in any more animals. There would be no space for even a family of possums or jackrabbits. And with how much work was already needed to fix enclosures and pens, it would take all the winter and into spring before even one barn was operational and that was ignoring costs. But the barns were not the totality of the day’s incursion.
His home was hardly a shell to speak of as Emmett wandered through rooms of shattered glass and broken furniture. Anything that wasn’t bolted down, and even some of those heavy utilities that would take multiple men to move, had been thrown about like a tornado had rocked only his home. The walls were spray painted with threats and curses and slurs, as well as being sloshed with what could only have been raw sewage. Though it pained him to go up the stairs, Emmett went and looked at the bedrooms that had gone unused for years.
His room had never been cleaned, at least not since inheriting the house. It had become a collection of odds and ends without much value or purpose and only served as a place to sleep for a few months before he migrated to the living room. Regardless much of the mess it had been, the invaders had turned it inside out even further, putting holes in walls, tearing down pictures, and emptying bags of rotting garbage everywhere on the floor. The swarming maggots were like a living shag carpet that gleamed with a freshness Emmett’s own hadn’t in years.
Turning to the master bedroom, Emmett loathed to look on what had become of the preserved remains of his family’s history. Yet, as he swung open the door, he could hardly be surprised. The bed was gashed open, the innards thrown haphazardly about. The chest of drawers and nightstands were rifled through and then broken. His mother’s vanity, an antique that had been with the family for multiple generations, was almost unrecognizable. Likely they had found all the money squirreled away inside and, as a final precaution, did away with its container. There was a splatter of blood across the face of the old piece of furniture, the mirror’s biting teeth glistening with just a touch more of the crimson. If there were ever justice, Emmett could have extracted it from that fluid, but it hardly seemed likely to happen in this place and this time.
There was nothing of the house to save. Everything that had mattered was in the truck already, save a few supplies that were overlooked by the wave of destruction. Emmett climbed into the driver’s seat, and as he did so, Melina poked her head out from the blanket she had been covered with when they had gone to the school. Without waiting for the pleading call of the fawn, Emmett set to feeding the creature. As Melina had her fill, Emmett couldn’t help but wonder what would be next. He had gone from the man taking in every refugee of the wild to being a man refugeed to the wild. Gently petting Melina, Emmett conceded that he couldn’t hold onto her, not with any chance of keeping her healthy and fed. Then there would be all of Dee-Dee’s cats. The solution was obvious, though not easily made.
That afternoon was spent on the ninety-minute trip east to Heller-Rosing Zoo and Park, two counties over. Emmett had made the call before leaving, and when he arrived, Wendy and her team were there waiting to take in Melina. They were people he could trust and the only shot the poor fawn had at life. Despite having that chance to return to the wild, there was no future where she came from and no way of knowing when she would be ready to transition back. Life in the free zoo, despite all it would entail and curtail her freedoms, was still better than scavenging pesticide-blanketed clovers under solar panels.
Their parting was not easy. Emmett couldn’t pull away entirely from the spotty little girl doing her best to call for his attention. Wendy Heller was a good hand with animals, especially those orphaned by accidents. Despite his heart, Emmett had trusted those in charge of the zoo. Some time, he wasn’t sure when, he would return and see the beautiful doe she had become. It wasn’t easy to convince himself that he was telling himself the truth. After all, the various ‘donated’ animals he had left to Wendy and her team crossed his mind often but rarely did he visit them. Even on delivering Melina, he could bring himself to walk down the row of cages and see the blind porcupine, the orphaned river otters, or the lynx he had brought to the zoo in the past two years.
Without Melina’s tiny bleats, the drive home was quiet as the grave. Emmett hoped that the cats would be company to him as they had for Dee in her twilight years. As he pulled up to her home, he could see someone else had gotten a start on clearing it out. He knew she had children but hardly had expected so quick of a response. Knowing where her hide-a-key was no longer seemed relevant, instead, Emmett kept things proper and knocked at the door. The greasy-looking man who answered the door hardly looked like he could have been any relative to the dear old soul he had known, but neither did he look like any of the locals with his sweat-stained formal ware. Giving the impression of a used car dealer caught in the middle of a swindle, he snapped, “What do you want?”
“Hi, I’m Emmett Mausburg, I was a friend of your… I’m going to assume Dee-Dee was your mother and not your grandmother.”
“Yeah. What do you want, though?”
“I know this is sudden, with everything coming up all at once, but your mother had asked me a favor for when she passed.”
“Let me guess, take all her gold and hock it at the nearest pawn shop and pocket the expense. Look, pal, I know my mother and I weren’t close, but I know damn well that the only friends she had are buried.”
Emmett shook off the issue, “Fine, maybe I wasn’t her friend. I helped her when a raccoon would get in her trash or snake in the basement. She asked me to take in her cats. Would it be alright if I collected them, or I can wait in the truck if you don’t want me inside.”
“Cats? Friend, I let those fleabags run. Ma was a hoarder, she hoarded all of my father’s money and possessions when he passed, and then she started taking in strays. Those things would have been better on the street, and now they are. So unless you’re looking to make a twenty by helping me move some of this stuff before Samantha gets back, I’d like you off my stoop.”
There was no home left to go to, but Emmett made his way out of town and parked in the driveway. Night was coming on, and he hadn’t the slightest idea what he could do next. All roads led to Rome, but for Emmett, Rome was in the midst of its fall. Reclining his seat, he settled in for the night, hoping tomorrow the nightmare set before him would be gone and somehow everything would go back to how it was at the beginning of autumn. His phone rang, but it was easily ignored and slipped under one of the bags containing the home security supplies that would have been useless even had they been installed.
The next thing Emmett knew, morning had come, and so had unwelcomed guests. Kerry stood at the passenger window, rapping at the glass with bandaged knuckles. Even if things couldn’t get much worse, Emmett wondered if he had slept through the incineration of his house and the rest of his property. Inclining the seat, he found that everything was in the same disarray as it had been left the afternoon before. Shaking a chill out of his bones, the early onset of winter dancing on the November breeze, he hauled himself out of the truck and sat on the grass beside the door.
Parked beside the sheriff’s car was exactly what Emmett might have suspected, the same slick white sedan Sighn had always come in, but this time there was more. Standing beside the mouthpiece was the head of the company himself, Holt Winburg. He was dressed in a suit that would make a freshly white-washed fence look dirty complete with golden embroidery that likely sold clients on his deep ties to the solar energy game. The entire ensemble was finished with a matching hat that might have looked correct on the stereotype of a Texan oil tycoon were it not sat atop a squat, wrinkled man with Coke-bottle lenses.
Kerry came around the truck, and though it might have looked at a glance like he offered a helping hand, he had to haul Emmett to his feet. The two representatives for Winburg Solar made their way over. Sighn didn’t offer his hand, instead carrying another contract, while Holt’s shaking fingers hung in the air momentarily before their owner decided it was not to be. He adjusted himself on a cane that Emmett had to believe was for a genuine aid in his advanced years instead of affectation. As the owner of the solar panel company cleared his throat, looking to begin his pitch, Emmett cut him off, “Give me the contract. This isn’t going to end until you’ve got it, and there’s not a damn thing I can do. I get it.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a look? We’ve added a special clause per your previous request,” Sighn answered, removing a pen from his jacket pocket.
This gave Emmett pause, “What do you mean?”
“The wildlife bridge you suggested. It took us some time to make the calls to the zoning board and contractors, as you might imagine, but with a portion of city money, a grant from federal, and a little contribution on your end, it’ll be taken care through us in payment. We are moving to have one installed not far from this location. All that’s left is your signature.”
The notion was lost on them that much Emmett was confident. He wanted to scream at the incredulity of the offer. A wilderness bridge did no good if there were no animals to use it, but that seemed obvious. It was impossible to tell if they even meant this gesture of deference or if it was just something they insisted was in the contract but had been left out. Regardless of the facts, Emmett signed the dotted lines and initialed where necessary, giving Singh little time to point out all the required boxes. When it was all said and done, he thrust the packet back into the man’s hand and once more ignored the gesture of civility offered by the dithering owner of the company.
Despite the man’s attitude, Singh still presented decorum, “Would you like anything specific added to the plaque? We would inscribe it with ‘A Donation from Emmett Mausberg, friend to animals.’ But we could amend it with something about that length.”
“No. How long do I have left before I have to be out of the property?”
“End of the month if you can. Certainly, before we start the teardown process,” the creaking voice whistled out from the dentured mouth.
Kerry threw his own hat in then, “Don’t you worry a thing, Mister Winburg, I’ll see to it old Emmett has all the help in the world so we can get this deal done before spring.”
“That’s might generous of you, sheriff. We’ll be on our way. Thank you both. Gentlemen,” Singh bowed slightly before helping his employer back to the company car and fleeing into the sparsely leafed treeline.
A persistent silence hung between Kerry and Emmett as they watched Winburg disappear. Unaware of how much of a hand the lawman had in the various events on his property, Emmett wasn’t sure he might not pop his tires or draw on him. Neither was a solution, nor would either move make all that much sense, but Emmett didn’t know much of what was considered sense in the sheriff’s head anymore. If he wanted him dead, it would have been easy enough to do it from the start or as he reaped the chaos he sowed in the night while he slept. Making it impossible to leave would be a good cause to put jail him, but again, Kerry had just enough chances that if it was what he wanted, he would have had him in the clink from the start.
With a tip of his hat, Kerry let his twisted Chesire grin free, “We’ll be seeing you, Emmett. Of course, don’t hesitate to call down if you’re looking for help with some movers. I’m sure almost anyone around here would do it pro Bono. Take care.”
Care was the last thing on Emmett’s mind as he turned away from his childhood home for the last time.