Eight Months Later
Kowalski woke with a yawn and hopped down from the top bunk. He slugged his way over to the coffee machine to start Skipper’s brew when he realized it’d already been made. Suddenly alert, he turned to see Skipper’s bunk empty and a faint light coming from under his lab door. He gently pushed it open and peered in.
Skipper was facing away from him at the parallel bars Rico had built for him when he’d finally stood up from his wheelchair two weeks ago. So far, he hadn’t been able to do much but stand and pivot, but Skipper kept swearing he could feel in his gut that soon he’d be able to start taking little steps.
Skipper stood between the bars in place, hanging tightly to the railing and practiced shifting his weight from one foot onto the other, although his legs buckled each time and he had to grip the railing tighter. Luckily, his flippers barely trembled with strain against his weight. Those pull ups seem to have done the trick, Kowalski thought. He wondered how he didn’t get dizzy. Not only is this one of the few times Skipper stayed up on his feet for long periods of time in months, slowly swaying back and forth against the railings should cause motion-sickness as well as exertion.
“Skipper, I told you not to do this without someone being with you. If you fell, what would you do?” Kowalski said as he entered and came around the side of the parallel bars where he could see his face.
Skipper shuffled back a step and sat back in his wheelchair.
“Sorry, Kowalski. You just looked like you were sleeping so well, and I just got a little anxious to do therapy this morning. I think I might be getting close to taking actual steps!” he said wheeling toward Kowalski. “Did you see me? I’m already doing better than I did last week!” He grabbed Kowalski’s shoulders. “Did you see it?” he asked excitedly, shaking Kowalski back and forth.
Kowalski laughed and nodded.
“Yes, yes, Skipper, I saw it!” he answered pushing out of his grasp.
Skipper looked back toward the door.
“Are the others up yet?” he asked anxiously.
“I don’t think so. They were still sleeping when I realized you were gone,” Kowalski answered.
“Well, wake ‘em up! I have a blasted report, here! Rico! Private!” he called as he wheeled his way out of the lab.
Kowalski laughed. He thought about all the doubts Skipper had when they’d first started therapy. Even just a few months ago, Skipper had become frustrated with just lifting his legs with the weights strapped to it. They’d gotten into a strenuous argument.
“I’m sick and tired of waiting around for the strength in my legs to build up. It didn’t take this long the first time!” Skipper had said as he pulled the weights off his legs and tossed them aside.
“You didn’t have a brain injury the first time, either, Skipper,” Kowalski had reasoned. Skipper just rolled his eyes.
“And what makes you think that it’s just a stupid brain injury? What if my muscles just don’t work anymore?” Skipper had replied.
“Skipper, if your muscles didn’t work, then you wouldn’t have made this much progress. You could be standing by Spring!” Kowalski told him.
“Could be, Kowalski! That’s the problem!” Skipper said as he tried to move by him, but Kowalski shoved his pencil in the spokes of the wheel and Skipper was brought to an abrupt stop. “Hey!” he protested.
Kowalski moved in front of him and forced him into eye contact.
“I told you this from day one, Skipper. You have to have patience. The brain is the most complicated part in the whole body, any body! Even science hasn’t figured out all there is to it! You need to trust me, Skipper. If you give up now, you probably will never walk again. But if you stick to it, I promise you you’ll make it. You do trust me, don’t you?” he asked with serious, pleading eyes.
Skipper was silent for a moment and looked down.
“Yes, Kowalski. I trust you. I’m just in a hurry to get better is all,” he said to his feet.
Kowalski sighed sympathetically.
“You’ll get there before you know it, Skipper.”
Kowalski couldn’t help but smile at how far Skipper had come even from that one moment of weakness that few months ago. He could hear Skipper talking to Rico and Private in the next room and laughed. He sounded like a teenage boy telling his parents he’d just scored his first home run. In a way, he did.
Christmas had gone surprisingly well. It didn’t take nearly as much convincing as they’d thought it’d take to get Skipper to join the Kidsmas party. On the night of December 24th, Rico had turned Skipper’s wheelchair into a sled (with a rocket-propeller as his own personal touch) and Skipper took the children on a joyride around Central Park. Kowalski almost suspected Skipper had more fun than the children. He didn’t do so well in the snowball fight, since his blind spots were anywhere behind him when it came to how slowly the wheelchair turned, but Skipper just laughed and carried on as if it made no difference in the world. In his mind, it might not have.
His wheelchair (sledchair?) had actually become ideal in his role as the Santa. While everyone else carried about their Kidsmas activities, Skipper just made one large round through the zoo to allow the children to sit on his lap. Kowalski didn’t tell Skipper this, but Momma Duck had even pulled him aside and told him that she barely even recognized Skipper. Not because of the wheelchair, but because of his attitude. Who was this sweet, fun-loving penguin, and what did he do to the “iron-hearted, get-in-line” commando Skipper? Kowalski just laughed and said that he was always there, deep down. Something just needed to pull him out.
New Year’s was just as much a success. The animals of Central Park all gathered together on the clock tower to watch the ball drop—with the exceptions of the larger animals, of course—and with the assistance of Burt, Skipper was able to get a seat up there with them. A possum child had hopped in his lap and Momma Duck’s ducklings perched themselves on his head. Kowalski held his watch at the ready and they’d all counted down from twenty as the ball dropped promptly on zero. Fireworks erupted in the air and Skipper laughed and cheered with the children. Everyone glowed a different color every couple of seconds as different fireworks exploded above.
A month later, just when everyone thought Skipper couldn’t surprise them more, he really shocked them.
February 14th, 2015, Skipper actually insisted on spreading the love. Of course, since he is Skipper, he didn’t go the most romantic way in celebrating, but it was the thought, after all. He went around the zoo and gave each zooster a military salute and a hearty “Happy Valentine’s Day!” If that wasn’t enough, he told everyone one major thing he liked about them. Even Julien. Of course, it was something along the lines of “even though I hate you, if you were about to be hit by a bus, I’d probably save you,” it was still something of a shock to everyone. Despite, Julien still ate it up like a plate of mangoes and gave his friend/enemy/who-knows a hug.
Today was March 6th, 2015, exactly eight months and five days since Skipper’s accident. According to his PET scans, his inner motor cortex was very gradually becoming stronger with activity with each month. Kowalski was proud of him. As was everyone else. The experience had not only changed Skipper, it had changed everyone else. Kowalski didn’t know if anyone else noticed it, but he did. While Skipper became more appreciative of the little things, everyone else became true believers.
Miracles really did happen.
— § —
Skipper pushed himself from the wheelchair while Kowalski and Rico helped him balance himself. He wobbled a little bit, and while he still seemed a bit shaky, he was standing nonetheless. Private handed forward the forearm crutches and Skipper fitted his flippers into them and found his center of gravity. Kowalski and Rico gradually released their grip and stepped back.
“How do they feel?” Kowalski asked.
Skipper shifted his weight a little bit.
“They seem okay. Let me try to walk a little,” he answered. The team stepped out of the way and Skipper brought his left crutch forward and planted it on the ground, his right foot straggling behind it. He mirrored the motion, and then brought his left crutch and right foot forward again, and again with his right crutch and left foot. Private hurried around behind him and started following him with the wheelchair in case he needed to sit down.
“You’re doing great, Skipper!” Kowalski encouraged.
“Yeah, yeah!” Rico agreed.
Skipper started to grunt with strain and staggered, but Kowalski and Rico caught him and helped him settle back into the wheelchair.
“It’s all right, Skipper! You did great!” Kowalski said patting his back. “It’s a little harder when you have a little more freedom to walk rather than just eight feet straight on those parallel bars. Just give it—”
“Time,” Skipper interrupted. “Yes, I know. You’ve been telling me that for nine and a half months, now. Trust me, there’s no way I’m having doubts now,” he said with a smile.
The team smiled back.
“That’s the Skipper I know!” Private said patting his shoulder.
“He never left, young Private,” Skipper replied. “He just got a little lost there in the beginning, but he’s found his way now.”
“Affirmative, sir,” he agreed.
“So, what should we do now?” Kowalski asked. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving.”
“Fish!” Rico grunted.
“Amen to that, Rico,” Skipper said rubbing his empty tummy. “Let’s go get some grub.”
— § —
It was another zoo day in May of 2015, so the boys were up entertaining the visitors while Skipper remained down in HQ, finding ways to entertain himself. Today, he’d decided to have a look through the periscope to see how the visitors were enjoying themselves.
He smiled at all of the happy guests as they threw fish to his men. In the back of his mind, he was making a mental note to nab Rico for eating some of his share. Then something in the background caught his attention.
There was a teenage boy in a wheelchair next to Marlene’s habitat. He had a hard time seeing over the wall because it was so high. A woman Skipper presumed to be his mother was standing behind him, talking on a cell phone and feeding oysters to the happy otter, who didn’t even notice the boy hidden behind the wall. Finally, the boy just slumped down into his wheelchair and pretended not to notice the couple of kids across the aisle making fun of him. Skipper smoldered. Then some little girl who resembled him strode up to his side and started saying something. Skipper turned and hobbled along on his crutches to the security feeds and activated the microphones.
“. . . just don’t understand what you’re going through,” said the little girl’s voice once Skipper found the right feed.
“No one understands. I just don’t know why this had to happen to me. I don’t understand why I’m being punished like this. Do you think God hates me, Laura?” asked the little boy.
“Of course not. I think maybe God just wants to test you or something. That’s what Pastor Hemingway said, right?” Laura replied.
“I don’t know, Laura. I just don’t get why I was the one who got hurt. That drunk driver should’ve gotten hurt, but he’s still walking around on his merry way,” the little boy said. Skipper’s heart dropped.
“Yeah, walking around on his merry way in prison for life,” Laura replied. “At least he’s not still out there, where he could hurt other people. And didn’t you say physical therapy was going well? Doesn’t that count for something?”
“No, Mom said physical therapy was going well. The accident was almost a year ago, Laura. All I’ve been able to do is wiggle my feet a little bit. I almost picked my own foot up once, but it’s still really hard,” the little boy answered.
“Harold, you also have to take into account that you were laid up in a hospital bed all doped up on pain meds for, like, three and a half weeks after the accident. That probably didn’t help the healing process in your brain,” Laura reasoned.
“Whatever, Laura. Why don’t you go see the penguins or something? I’m gonna go look around the Zoovenir Shop. At least I can actually see what’s in there,” Harold said at the sound of wheels turning and fading.
Skipper’s heart pounded in his throat. This little boy could very likely be one of the seven injured from the same accident he’d been in. Except Harold wasn’t making progress as soon as he. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do. With anxiety burning in his chest and smoldering down into his stomach, he hobbled over to his wheelchair and hopped in it, holding his crutches across his lap. He then rolled it through the door in the HQ and took one of their secret tunnels toward the Zoovenir Shop. He stopped at the air duct leading inside and waited for the immediate area to clear before pushing himself out, replacing the grate, and quickly ducking behind a box of knick knacks.
Carefully peering around the box, he saw Harold enter the Shop and turn toward a clothing rack. Luckily, it wasn’t that busy over there, so Skipper rolled his way behind a bunch a merchandise until he was within whispering distance behind Harold. Skipper picked up a stuffed polar bear and threw it at the back of Harold’s head.
“Ah,” Harold responded in surprise as he picked the toy from the back of his neck. He slowly but surely turned the wheelchair and looked around for the culprit when his eyes finally settled on Skipper behind a rack of brochures. His expression contorted in confusion and he was about to call for someone when Skipper shook his head violently. Harold curiously cocked an eyebrow and leaned in a little, as if trying to be sure he was really witnessing this and not hallucinating.
Skipper wheeled forward a little bit and locked the wheels on his chair. Then he planted the crutches on the floor and looked up into Harold’s eyes as he watched intently. Looking around to ensure no one was coming, Skipper proceeded with pushing himself onto his wobbling feet. When he steadied himself, he walked forward a couple of shaky steps and looked at Harold. He was just sitting there with his expression a mixture of confusion and awe. Skipper locked eyes with him and gave a encouraging nod.
Harold’s face relaxed into surprise and he looked at his legs. His attention was diverted when he heard his name from behind and he turned his wheelchair.
“Mom,” he said when he saw her.
“There you are! I had no idea where you’d gone off to,” she said with concern. Laura followed close behind.
“I said, like, three times that he was in the gift shop,” she said with a roll of her eyes.
“Mom, you won’t believe this, this little pen—”
Harold turned back to where Skipper had been standing to find that he wasn’t there anymore.
“I won’t believe what?” Harold’s mom urged.
Harold looked down.
“Nothing. Um, yeah, when exactly did you say my next therapy session was?”
Harold’s mom looked through her SmartPhone for a second.
“Next Monday at four,” she answered. “Please don’t say anything about cancelling it again,” she pleaded putting her hand on his shoulder.
“Is there any way we could make it for, like, tomorrow or something?” Harold requested.
Harold’s mom blinked.
“Beg your pardon?” she asked incredulously.
“I just—I got this really weird sign. I think God was trying to tell me that I should keep trying with the therapy,” Harold answered.
His mom cocked an eyebrow, but she didn’t argue or question it further.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said with a hopeful smile.
The Mother pushed her son out of the Zoovenir Shop with Laura following close behind. Skipper watched with a satisfied smile from behind a rack of stuffed animals.
— § —
Skipper had a hard time trying to leave the Zoovenir Shop with all of the humans around, so he didn’t make it back to HQ until just before closing.
“Skipper! There you are! Where have you been?” Kowalski asked when Skipper wheeled himself in.
Skipper smiled and parked himself in front of the table.
“Don’t worry about it, Kowalski. I’m in the mood for some chess. You in or out?
“Um, in, I guess. Is everything all right, Skipper?” Kowalski asked as he pulled the chess set from a cabinet.
Skipper looked at his legs.
“I assure you, Kowalski, everything is just fine.”