“It’s a beautiful day,” Olgertle remarked, casting meaningful glances between her brother Klaus and the window of his study.
Klaus paused mid-quadratic-equation to glance contemptuously through the anti-cancer visor of his Suit at the candy-green rolling hills and painfully blue sky outside the quaint Florstadt cottage he hadn’t left for six months, ten days, and nineteen minutes. Then his gaze fell back to the numbers on his paper, which were infinitely more interesting than playing with his sister. Especially outside.
“Victor Ventura always wore adventure garb,” Olgertle pointed out, leaning against the physiological model of the human muscular system posed in the corner. “Maybe a helmet if he was climbing Everest, maybe gloves if he was handling the world’s deadliest snake. But he didn’t need to protect himself from common cold, gingivitis, and hunger pangs every waking moment of his life.”
“I don’t just wear this suit every waking moment,” Klaus corrected his sister blandly. “I wear it when I’m sleeping too. And you’re never going to get me to take it off. There are so many fatal liabilities all around us waiting to come crashing down when we least expect it -”
“There are a lot more fatal liabilities being a world adventurer, and Victor Ventura never -”
“Victor Ventura is dead!” If Klaus hadn’t been wearing elbow restraints to prevent joint fracture, he would have picked up his math book and thrown it. Probably not at his sister; at any rate he couldn’t apply enough force to propel the object much further than a few inches horizontally. So instead he glared and squeezed his pen like he was trying to extract every drop of venom from a reptile. “Victor Ventura is dead,” he repeated, almost too quietly for Olgertle to hear. “He wasn’t careful enough.”
“Well, you’re no fun!” Finally, the seven-year-old flounced out of the study, leaving Klaus with only the gentle rhythm of the clock and his math problems for company. For the first time in ages, he didn’t feel like working the numbers anymore.
Before he could stop them, his padded trip-resistant boots were squeaking across the carpet, springing Klaus toward the window. Some type of predatory bird was soaring above, the river was flowing in the thickness of early spring, and two young deer pranced among the trees, probably play-fighting in preparation for the mating season.
Six months ago it was November. The trees were in their cotillion dress and it was a Tuesday afternoon and Klaus was going to take Olgertle to the town square. But the corner of his eye happened to catch the newspaper headline – Worldwide Hero Victor Ventura Fatally Wounded by Rogue Giraffe While Vacationing in Germany. The words sank into Klaus, into the pit of his stomach like a bucket going down an endless empty well, never hitting the bottom, just diving deeper into darkness. He couldn’t bring himself to read the article.
The man who had inspired Klaus to study the rocks and insects outside, the explorer whose confident grin stared out of so many magazines on his bookshelf, the saint who’d constructed a flying machine on a deserted island with nothing but a coconut and an old crusty pirates’ treasure chest… snuffed out in Germany, never again to hurtle through the jungle on a vine zip line or discover a new butterfly species. Snuffed out in Germany. By a rogue giraffe that probably still lurked somewhere in the vicinity, searching for new prey. If Victor wasn’t invincible, no one was safe.
That afternoon, Klaus excused himself from his planned excursion with his sister. He spent the night rummaging around his closet, connecting wires, and stitching odds and ends together with embroidery thread until he had created the Suit. Never a replacement for Victor and the great sense of possibility his courage had once given Klaus. But maybe a workable reality that would allow Klaus to survive at least until he finished school, even in a world where no one was safe.
The Suit was prepared for anything and everything – internal feeding tubes automatically flushed glucose into Klaus’s bloodstream if his blood sugar dropped below optimum level; a robotic arm could instantly extend from between his shoulder blades and seize a would-be attacker or catch the boy before what would otherwise be a brain-damaging fall.
The one feature Klaus hadn’t thought to include was any sort of provision for the human need to occasionally expel waste. It was for this reason that he now left the window in his study and padded downstairs to take a bathroom break.
On the trek down the hallway to the one bathroom in the house without any humiliating windows, he had to pass through the family room. There, a crowd was assembled including his immediate family, extended family, even a few neighbors he used to greet on the way to school. Grandfather was saying, “It’s gotten to the point of madness. That Suit needs to come off. And if the boy isn’t willing to take it off, one of us will have to take it off for him.”
Silently, Olgertle raised her hand to point a finger in Klaus’s direction. All eyes swung to the boy in the Suit.
Klaus never did make it to the bathroom.
Luckily six months earlier he had decided to throw in the rocket-powered roller skates, just in case he ever needed to escape from something at hyper-speed. Within a few minutes, even spry Grandfather was miles behind. All around Klaus, twisted tree trunks stretched toward the lavender sky, and birds sang, constantly modulating between major and minor keys, pecking on his ears like a haunting piano melody. It occurred to Klaus that he had no idea where he was. Even worse, he needed to use the bathroom more than ever. There was nothing even remotely resembling a bathroom in sight.
After serious consideration, Klaus decided the risk of a public indecency arrest was less of a concern than the likelihood he might burst and damage the Suit. As there were no other people around, it was fairly comfortable to unbutton the front and step onto the ground in his bare feet.
After the imminence of bursting had been put to rest, it dawned on Klaus that the mud beneath his feet was rather lumpy like Grandmother’s spicy stew, interspersed with blades of grass that tickled his toes. Had he ever been barefoot outside before? The wind whipped the back of his neck to remind him he was unclothed. A few drops of rain leaked from the violet swirling clouds above. But Klaus was loathe to get back into the Suit. It was so much easier to breathe out here. For all he knew, his protection device could suffocate him.
That’s nonsense, he told himself. I mustn’t be so afraid that I forget to be afraid. Just before he could step back into the bulky Suit, a wild bellow rang out through the forest, freezing his foot in the air. It was too high-pitched to be a lion but too raw to be a military tank…
The object that had dominated Klaus’s nightmares for six months loomed in front of him. Spindly legs, a long neck, and a ferocious face from whose maw lolled a flabby gray tongue, perhaps scenting his blood as it raced through his veins. The rogue giraffe took a step closer. A step closer… Something was strange – the animal was coming too close to bend down and form an acute triangle between its neck, the standing boy, and the ground, which ruled out any chance it was planning to bite Klaus. However, it wasn’t close enough for its legs to reach him by kicking. How was it planning to annihilate him?
Behind him, a whistle pierced the air. “That’s right, Matilda,” a familiar voice coaxed from behind. “Come to Daddy.”
The giraffe breezed right past Klaus without so much as a second glance. He turned to see her kneeling to allow a muscular man in adventure gear to mount her bare back. That face – it couldn’t be – but he was giving Klaus the trademark wink –
“Victor Ventura?” Klaus breathed. “Is it really you?” When the man was alive Klaus had never dared hope he would ever meet him in person. That probability had diminished even further after Victor’s death.
“Well, I was me when I woke up this morning,” the man chuckled. He patted Matilda’s flank, and the giraffe began to prance slowly toward Klaus, who was still in his underclothes.
Victor’s hand, scarred by numerous fang encounters and rough from climbing many mountainsides, reached down, offering Klaus a lift up. The Suit wavered in the breeze, standing alone and small against the dark forest. Behind the Suit, the sun was sinking like melting butter into the trees.
Klaus took Victor’s hand.
“How did you come back to life?” the boy inquired incredulously as they turned about to set a course toward Florstadt.
“Amigo, I was fatally wounded, not killed,” Victor Ventura explained. “Didn’t you ever read the next week’s paper, where I made my miraculous recovery through magnesium supplements and exposure therapy? I decided to come back out here and make peace with Matilda. She’s actually quite gregarious when you get to know her.” After a pause, Victor exclaimed, “Where are my manners! What’s your name, kid?”
“I am Klaus Van Scullywiggins,” the boy announced. “I ran away from home, I am in my underwear, and I am also quite gregarious when you get to know me. I’m going back home and I’m going to play outside with my little sister.” Each word made the muscles in his lips tremble like they were gaining back all the strength they’d lost as he’d silenced his own spirit by locking it in the Suit.
Silently, Matilda plodded on toward Klaus’s home. The sky was painted a thousand colors, the birds were singing a triumphal melody, and Klaus couldn’t wait for Olgertle to see him climbing up the neck of a giraffe to meet her on the balcony and invite her to come play. Maybe he would fall. But without that heavy Suit, there was nothing to stop him from getting right back to his feet again.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By Jonfr (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“IMG 6544 My nephew’s dreadlocks – Foto Giovanni Dall’Orto March 2007”. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IMG_6544_My_nephew%27s_dreadlocks_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto_March_2007.jpg#/media/File:IMG_6544_My_nephew%27s_dreadlocks_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto_March_2007.jpg
“Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata” by brookenovak – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giraffa_camelopardalis_reticulata.jpg#/media/File:Giraffa_camelopardalis_reticulata.jpg
By Ryan Hodnett (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Agathenburg, Bauerngarten” by PodracerHH 21:57, 29. Mai 2007 (CEST) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Agathenburg,_Bauerngarten.JPG#/media/File:Agathenburg,_Bauerngarten.JPG