“No, Mort! You are so stupid-y! You can not just hop right in front of me like that when I am shaking my money-maker!” Julien snapped at the small lemur.
“But I wanted to shake my money-maker, too!” Mort protested.
“No! You do not have a money-maker! Only the king has the maker of the money,” Julien insisted as he dusted off his crown. “Also, I—”
“King Julien!” Maurice interrupted from the sidelines.
“Maurice!” Julien said angrily. “How dare you interrupt me when I am ranting!”
“Just look!” Maurice said pointing to the penguins’ habitat across the way.
Julien followed his finger and instantly his expression relaxed and his ears drooped.
On the penguins’ island, Private spotted Kowalski from above as Rico spotted him from below, inside the HQ, as Kowalski pulled Skipper up and out of the hatch on a rope with a series of pulleys, with four ropes branching off at the end secured to four corners of a . . .
“Wheelchair,” Maurice said under his breath. “When Marlene told us that he was in a wheelchair, I never doubted it, but seeing it is just . . .”
“Unbelieveable,” Julien finished for him.
“How long has it been since we saw him last?” Maurice asked slowly.
“Well,” Julien started, “the accident was on . . .?”
“July the first,” Maurice answered.
“And today is . . .?”
“August the twenty-second,” Maurice answered slowly.
“Is the bossy penguin all better, King Julien?” Mort piped up.
Gradually, Julien smiled and he coughed out an overjoyed laugh.
“I don’t know, but I don’t care!” Julien announced jumping down from his rock. “Come, my loyal subjects! Let us initiate the warmest of welcomings!” he said rushing toward the penguins’ habitat.
“Okay, that wasn’t so bad, I guess,” Skipper said as the boys settled him on the island and detached the ropes. He took a deep breath of fresh air that ended up stinging his lungs after going so long without it, but he found himself liking how it felt.
“No, it seems to have gone quite well. Now we just need to get you from here to the other side of the pool,” Kowalski replied.
The penguins turned their attention to Julien as he jumped over the side of the habitat and landed on their island with Maurice and Mort lagging behind. Julien threw his arms around Skipper, causing his wheelchair to roll back a few inches.
“Skipper, you have no idea how much that I—” He caught himself and let go, dusting himself off. “I mean, Mort missed you. Right, Mort?”
“Okay!” Mort replied with a smile.
“Yes, he insisted on coming over when he saw you,” Julien said examining his paw.
Skipper glanced at the team with a humorous smile.
“Well, I guess I have to admit, I missed Mort, too,” he said cocking an inquisitive brow.
“Hey, what about me?!” Julien blurted turning sharply at him. After realizing all eyes had fallen on him, he relaxed and crossed his arms, looking at the ground. “You know, not that I care, or anything.”
Maurice rolled his eyes behind them as Skipper did the same, although with a smile.
“Well, Ringtail, admittedly, I guess deep, deep, deep down, I did miss you just a little bit,” he said shifting awkwardly in his wheelchair.
Julien’s ears drooped and he looked at him.
“Really?” he asked softly. Without waiting for an answer, he flung his arms around him again. “I missed you just a little tiny bit, too, buddy!”
“Ringtail—I can’t—I can’t breathe,” Skipper rasped.
“What’s going on over here?”
Julien let go and everyone turned to the sound of Marlene’s voice as she hopped onto the penguins’ island with a disbelieving stare. An awkward silence passed before Skipper wheeled himself into view from behind the lemurs and the team. Marlene’s eyes widened in shock and her jaw dropped open when she saw him.
“We were all just . . . getting some fresh air,” he said with a warm smile.
Marlene assessed him for a moment and a smile crossed over her face.
“Are you serious?” she asked incredulously.
“Affirmative,” Skipper said with a nod.
Marlene laughed and started to back away with an excited hop in her step.
“I—I have to tell the others!” she said as she leapt into the pool and climbed over the wall. You could hear her in the near distance announcing that “Skipper’s back!” to everyone in the zoo.
Skipper turned his head toward Kowalski, although he didn’t look him in the eye.
“She’s been waiting for this, hasn’t she?” he asked with a hint of guilt in his voice.
Kowalski smiled and sighed.
“No, Skipper. Everyone has,” he answered softly.
“Yes!” Julien agreed. “And do you know what this calls for? A celebration!” he announced turning to Maurice.
Skipper straightened in his wheelchair.
“Actually, Ringtail, that won’t be n—”
“Maurice, we’re going to need music, lights, snacks, a guest list, and a party location,” Julien said listing the orders on his fingers. “Ooh! And smoothies, too!”
“On it, your highness!” Maurice said turning on his heel and hurrying off with Mort.
“Yay, celebration!” Mort cried as they left.
Skipper wheeled himself around to Julien’s front.
“Ringtail, seriously, you don’t need to—”
“—hold back?” Julien cut in. “No worries on that one, buddy! I will be throwing you the best-est, most biggest party ever!” he said before he scampered off.
Skipper smacked his forehead.
“Is it too late to go back inside?” he whined.
Kowalski chuckled and patted his back as he came around to his side.
“Come now, Skipper, everyone wants to see you. It’s been over a month, and they really miss you. Surely, you won’t let Julien be the reason you go back into hiding,” he reasoned.
“Okay, fine. But only if you agree to tamper with the music.”
“Done,” Kowalski agreed without hesitation.
Skipper laughed and sighed as he rolled his head back.
“It really has been over a month, hasn’t it?” he asked looking at the sky.
Kowalski looked down.
“Affirmative, I’m afraid,” he answered softly.
Skipper looked at him.
“Do you think they’ll see me differently?” he asked quietly.
Kowalski thought for a moment and smiled.
“I think they’ll see you just as they saw you before,” he said. “A good friend.”
— § —
That evening started unexpectedly well.
News had buzzed through the zoo faster than time could catch up. Everyone talked as if Skipper hadn’t even been in the zoo at all. Most showed up at the Zoovenir Shop long before Julien had scheduled the party. Conversation had grown concerning Skipper’s sudden reappearance. It had come seemingly out of nowhere, without warning or even some sort of sign. How long had he been considering it? Didn’t Marlene say he was in a wheelchair?
Finally, the tension in the room had grown to its maximum as the clock ticked closer to five o’clock, the hour the party was meant to begin, therefore the hour Skipper was supposed to arrive. Maurice and Mort had hurried off to retrieve more snacks and fruit for the smoothies since much of the supply they had brought earlier had disappeared due to anxious munching by the guests.
“Sh! Everyone quiet down!” Mason called from the window in a hushed whisper. Everyone turned his way and their voices died down. “They’re coming! Everyone act natural!”
“Are you nervous?” Kowalski asked Skipper as he and the team walked beside him to the Zoovenir Shop.
“A little,” Skipper answered as he glanced at one of the Shop’s windows to see Mason duck out of sight. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“I’m sure,” Kowalski assured him. “Just be yourself. The wheelchair may change your appearance, but it will never change who you are.”
Skipper slowed to a stop and the team stood around him.
“I just feel like I’m going to be meeting them for the first time again. I don’t know if I can face that. I see old and crippled people coming to the zoo all the time. People look at them like they’re—like they’re helpless,” he explained looking at his legs.
“Not everyone looks at them that way, Skipper,” Kowalski said. “You only think they do because you’re afraid that’s how everyone will see you. Skipper, you’re going to have to face them sooner or later. They’ve been waiting to see you all day. If you back out now, they’ll be so disappointed. I assure you, you’re just overthinking it.”
Skipper breathed heavily.
“What if you’re wrong?” he asked slowly.
“I’m not,” he answered confidently.
Skipper looked at him reluctantly. Then he cast a glance over Rico and Private, who smiled with encouragement. Skipper took a deep breath and sighed.
“We’re behind you, no matter what,” Private assured him patting him on the back reassuringly.
“I know,” Skipper said straightening himself. “I guess we should get going,” he added as he started forward with his heart racing.
“There’s the Skipper I know,” Kowalski said following behind with the rest of the team.
The door to the Shop was opened just a crack, so Private and Rico pushed it open as Skipper slowly wheeled himself over the threshold with Kowalski following behind.
The zoosters all looked at Skipper in an obvious over-dramatic surprise, almost as if they hadn’t suspected his showing up at all. However, despite their attempted subtlety, their heartfelt greetings were sincere. Questions came from all directions; how have you been holding up for the past month? what’s been going on in the HQ? we heard you were taking physical therapy, how’s that going? what made you finally decide to come out?
Skipper gladly took his time to thoughtfully answer each of their questions. It was a difficult thing to accept—even just the possibility of never walking again—and even still is sometimes. But he’d battled far worse in the past, and he wasn’t going to let this get him down. He and the team had actually been doing well in the HQ. Kowalski helped him with his therapy each day, he and Private had had much time to talk about missions and how all the others were doing, and Rico would bring down meals and do any maintenance needing done. He’d spent most of his time playing cards with Private or working on his therapy on his own even after Kowalski had finished with him. Of course, Marlene had also been a big help when the boys had to take care of the bigger missions.
Speaking of therapy, it’s been going well. Although, he did have to be truthful. Chances of him walking anytime soon were unlikely. It would probably be about a year before he even got to stand. Even with the unfortunate news, the confident way Skipper informed them made the news seem more relieving. Better late than never, right?
He decided to come out when he finally truly accepted everything that had happened to him. It was a tough process; first, he had to realize that the situation had affected all of them. After he started therapy, the extent of his injuries became more real. He just wasn’t ready to show off his disability to everyone he knew. Finally, he realized that hiding in a box until he recovered was ridiculous considering how long that would take. He’d already missed so much, and he couldn’t bear to miss month’s on end worth of life going on in the zoo and New York without him.
“Well, we couldn’t imagine life going on without you, either, Skipper,” Marlene commented once Skipper had finished his story. The others nodded in agreement.
Julien hopped to the center of the floor.
“And I cannot be imagining life going on without this party getting started! Hit it, Maurice!” he commanded his right hand man. A moment later, the Shop was filled with electronic dance music as the official signal for the party’s beginning.
Skipper turned to Kowalski and mumbled under his breath, “About that deal . . .?”
“A deal is a deal. I’ll see what I can do,” he said as he tried to discretely make his way over to the boom box.
The next couple hours consisted of laughs, long conversations, eating snacks and drinking smoothies, and many more questions in which the answers would ultimately lead to more questions. Julien and Maurice argued over why the boom box had mysteriously started playing nothing but KLOU Radio. Skipper decided to try and ignore when someone tried and failed not to look at his wheelchair or his legs. He told himself that if he could get used to it, so could they.
Skipper eventually found himself happy with his decision to stop hiding. He even laughed at himself for ever thinking that his friends would ever see him for anyone but who he is. Although the sympathy he did catch in some of their gazes did pinch incessantly at his gut, he tried not to let that bother him either. Nitpicking each of their absentminded insensitivities would only ruin the point of dragging his tail feathers over there in the first place.
After a while of excitement, the mood of the evening shifted for the worst.
There was a round of laughs, and a gasp was heard from atop the counter. Someone shouted, “Maurice is choking!” and everyone started scrambling forward to try to figure some way to help. Skipper’s first instinct was to jump into action, but he was quickly reminded of his restraint. But that didn’t stop him from leaping—give or take the actual leap—into action and rolled himself around the other animals and nearly left skid marks as he rounded the counter where Alice kept the wooden plank she’d use to get into their habitat. He pulled it out from behind the counter and with a little bit of effort, he managed to prop it up on the edge.
Skipper rolled backward to gain some momentum and shot straight toward the plank, and climbed upward until he rolled onto the countertop . . . just as someone handed Maurice a glass of water and Kowalski patted his back.
“Are you all right, Maurice? You’re lucky we were here; a few more seconds, and you might have lost consciousness,” Kowalski said as Rico and Private cleaned up the fruit Maurice had expelled from his esophagus when Kowalski gave him the Heimlich.
Skipper looked from Kowalski and Maurice to the other zoo animals, who had all gathered around the counter to see if Maurice was okay. A couple of them noticed Skipper and whispered something to one another.
“Thanks, Kowalski,” Maurice said hoarsely. He took another sip of water and noticed Skipper behind them. “Oh, I’m sorry, Skipper. I didn’t mean to interrupt everything.”
Everyone turned to look at him and Skipper cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“I’m sorry, everyone, but, uh . . . I’m really tired. I think I’ll go on back to HQ,” he said as he slowly turned and rolled back down the plank and started out the door.
Julien trotted up next to him.
“Wait! Are you sure? We have not even had the boogie dance-off, yet! It’s gonna be great,” he tempted with a smile.
Skipper didn’t halt his departure as he responded.
“Thanks, Ringtail,” he said without making eye contact, “but I really want to get some rest. I’m sorry.”
The other animals watched him leave. An awkward silence passed through the room before Kowalski stepped forward.
“My—apologies, everyone. You all just—continue the party and we’ll be on our way,” Kowalski said before ushering the boys out the Zoovenir Shop.
“Skipper!” Kowalski called as he and the rest of the team jogged to catch up with him.
Skipper acted as if he didn’t hear him and tried to wheel away faster. The team leapt onto their bellies and slid until they’d passed him and blocked his path.
“Skipper,” Private said getting to his feet. “What’s the matter? Why the sudden retreat?”
Skipper turned his head away, refusing eye contact.
“I’m just tired, Private. I want to go to bed,” he insisted.
“Skipper, did someone say something to you?” Kowalski asked. “Did they make a comment that upset you?”
Skipper tried to wheel around them, but they blocked his path again.
“Kowalski, please, I don’t want to talk about it. Let me pass,” he demanded.
“Skipper, I don’t understand. You seemed to be having such a nice time, seeing everyone again. What happened—?”
“You happened!” Skipper blurted, taking the team aback.
“Me?” Kowalski said with a disbelieving shake of his head. “What did—?”
Skipper sighed heavily and put his face in his flipper, leaning on the armrest of the wheelchair by his elbow.
“I didn’t mean that,” he said softly. Anyone who didn’t know Skipper well wouldn’t be able to tell he was close to tears. But the team knew. “I just . . .” he said into his flipper, “when Maurice choked, I . . . I was just so slow. You said it yourself, Kowalski. A few more seconds and he would’ve lost consciousness. If it’d just been me and Maurice in there, I don’t think I would’ve been able to save him. It’d be pretty hard to give the Heimlich sitting in this blasted chair, anyway. I just can’t help but wonder if something’s going to happen before I get better, and I’ll be the only one who can do anything. Except that I . . . I can’t.”
The team exchanged a glance.
“Skipper,” Kowalski started, “I understand how you feel, but—”
“How could you possibly understand how I feel, Kowalski?” Skipper asked finally turning to look at him.
Kowalski locked eyes with him.
“Nineteen years ago, Operation: Getaway Gurney. I was fatally wounded and barely hanging on, and you had to fight with all you had to get us out of enemy territory. I was just hanging on to consciousness, but I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. You received near-fatal head trauma, a deep gash on your side, and a black eye the size of a grapefruit,” he said through a hard stare. Skipper dropped his gaze and said nothing. “No matter what was thrown at you, you pushed through. As weakened as I was, no amount of determination to jump out of that beaten up luggage cart to come to your aid would’ve done any good, because I couldn’t.
“When I finally woke up the next morning, you’d tied a ripped piece of cloth from your tent around your waist, yet blood still made its way through. You faltered through every step, as if you were ready to pass out for a whole week. Yet you resisted any urge to rest until you stabilized me, no matter how much I begged.
“Fourteen years ago, Operation: Sticky Situation. You were in capture of the enemy. They toyed with Rico and I, sending video calls to us. Showed us what sort of torture you had endured. Sometimes did it while we were still on the call. We wanted no more than to stop them, but how could we until we figured out where they were keeping you?
“Twelve years ago, when we found Private. He was only seven, and he’d lost his parents. He was all alone. We took him in, not fully sure what we could do with such a young penguin. Yet, somehow he took a liking to you, for some reason.” Kowalski tried to remain serious, but found himself unresistant to a smile at the memory. “We had to leave him alone while we dealt with a mission. We came back, all of us beaten and exhausted. Private pestered us about what had happened. He wanted to make us all feel better, but he didn’t know how. So, he just did what he did know. He offered to cleanse our wounds every ten minutes, brought us tea without our asking, tried to chop up our fish into bite-sized pieces so we wouldn’t choke.” Kowalski started to chuckle and sideways glanced at Private, who was smiling bashfully.
“Rico ended up growling at me not to touch his lunch,” Private commented.
Kowalski’s smile faded again.
“Skipper, I will agree that there are certain aspects of your situation that we will never fully understand without experiencing it firsthand. But there still is a small part of each of us that understand what you’re going through, that understand what it’s like to feel as if you’ve lost all control. You have to trust us, Skipper. I know you feel like you’re nothing if you can’t save the day, but until you get walking again, there isn’t anything you can do about it. You need to accept that you can’t do everything—that you need help. Don’t put yourself down because of things you can’t change.”
Skipper remained silent before he closed his eyes and sighed.
“Since when did you get so good with words, Kowalski?” he asked softly, almost smiling.
Kowalski thought for a moment.
“We’re brothers, Skipper. I don’t have to be good with words.”
— § —
Note: KLOU Radio (103.3) is a channel that plays the biggest hits from the sixties through the nineties. The reason I chose this particular channel is because in Madagascar 2 and 3, the only songs Skipper (and the other penguins as well) seemed to enjoy were the ones they put in the radio, including More Than A Feeling by Boston from 1976 and Anyway You Want It by Journey from 1980. I thought it was okay to assume they at least enjoy some of the oldies.