Experiment #360

The Valiant Part 1

Hank flicked lumpy muffin mixture into tiny baking cups. He shoved the pan into the oven and turned his head toward the living room. Raising his voice to be heard over the TV, he shouted, “Turn that old cartoon off already. You’ve got to get going.”

“It’s almost over, Grandpa,” Jimmy called back.

Hank didn’t approve of Jimmy watching TV, and he liked Jimmy’s choice of programming even less. The Miscellaneous Adventures of The Valiant, based (loosely) on the true story of a hero who’d fought crime in their own city. The content of the show was all right. But Hank, who’d witnessed The Valiant’s heroics firsthand, remembered The Valiant as a hero who’d betrayed his heroic ideals. A hero who’d vanished when the city needed him most. Hank wanted a better legacy for his eight-year-old grandson.

“The bus is coming right now,” Hank said.

Jimmy ran and jumped at Hank with a karate chop and a mighty “Hi-ya!”

“Whoa, kiddo, you’re gonna take out your ol’ Grandpa.” He handed Jimmy his lunch.

“Crime doesn’t pay!” Jimmy yelled as he ran out the door to the bus. 

“Neither does being late,” Hank called after him from the doorway.

Jimmy ran down the front walk, jumped over a mud puddle, and landed on the lowest step of the bus entrance just after the last kid had cleared it.

“He’s got a lot of you in him, Dad,” Sarah, Jimmy’s mom, said as she came up next to Hank.

“That should worry you,” Hank said.

“Oh, come now.” She play-punched him in the arm, then took the arm and put it around her shoulders. “You’re not a bad guy.”

“I’m glad your mother’s not around to debate that.”

Sarah laughed, then looked at her watch. “Oops. Gotta go,” she said. She slipped under his arm and headed into the house. “I’ll be late tonight. I’ve got class.”

 “I’ll keep us out of trouble,” he said.

“You better.” She kissed him on the cheek as she passed him again on the way to her car.

Hank waved good-bye. He walked back into the house where he heard the TV still blasting The Valiant’s theme song. He stepped into the living room and picked up the remote. He clumsily turned off the on-demand cartoon and went back to what he called “regular” TV. As he stood there fiddling with the remote, a special report broke in. During excavations for a new shopping mall in the old warehouse district, construction workers found the decades-old remains of a body.

Hank took in a long breath. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed.

“My muffins!” he shouted and ran into the kitchen.

Experiment #361

The Valiant Part 2

The rain poured down as Jimmy’s bus pulled back onto the street after school. Hank headed for the end of the driveway with a wide umbrella, deflecting the slings and arrows of nature. He’d always had a knack for timing. Thirty seconds after he stopped at the end of the driveway, Jimmy’s bus arrived. Jimmy exploded out of the bus and babbled all the way to the front door.

While Hank started on supper, Jimmy banged around the house, chased the dog, screamed, yelled, and knocked over both lamps in the living room. Hank banished him upstairs to give himself (and the dog) some peace.

An hour later, with the casserole in the oven, Hank realized how quiet it had gotten.

He went upstairs. He looked in Jimmy’s room and Sarah’s room, but he couldn’t find Jimmy. Hank checked his own room and the bathroom, but Jimmy wasn’t there. He checked the laundry room and found the door to the attic ajar. Then he heard something: “Crime doesn’t pay, villain!”

Jimmy’s voice.

Hank’s heart skipped a beat. He threw open the door and charged up the stairs. “Jimmy, what are you doing?” Hank roared.

Jimmy wore a black and red costume five sizes too big with a large white V in the center. He pointed a gun-shaped gadget at his mom’s old dress mannequin. He froze when he heard his grandfather’s voice. The hand holding the gadget trembled.

“Put that grappling gun down,” Hank yelled.

Before Jimmy could comply, his trembling finger brushed the grappling gun’s trigger. A tri-pointed grappling hook flew one way; Jimmy flew the other. The grappling hook embedded itself in the mannequin’s midsection. Jimmy crashed into a pile of old suitcases. A long, thin steel cable connected Jimmy to the mannequin.

Hank yanked Jimmy to his feet and grabbed the grappling gun from his hands. “Take that ridiculous costume off,” Hank said. 

He examined the grappling gun and began rewinding the cable back into it.

Jimmy mumbled something Hank couldn’t hear.

“What?” Hank asked, his voice still sharp.

“It’s not ridiculous,” Jimmy whispered.

“What?” Hank asked again.

Jimmy balled his fists and shouted, “It’s not ridiculous!” He shook with anger and frustration. “The costume,” he said, “it’s not ridiculous.” Then he added in a whisper, “He’snot ridiculous.”

Hank looked at his grandson. His anger melted like a Popsicle on a barbecue. “I’m sorry,” he said. Hank had never yelled at Jimmy like that before. He’d scared himself as much as he’d scared Jimmy. Emotions and memories of a life he’d tried to forget surged through his mind.

Jimmy removed the costume, folded it, and put it back in the box where he’d found it. When Hank hadn’t moved or said anything in a long while, he ventured a question. “Where’d you get the costume?”

The words freed Hank from his prison of memories. His muscles relaxed and he breathed out a sigh. 

“That ratty old thing?” Hank asked, his lips twisting into a smile. “It…it doesn’t matter.”

“But it’s great,” Jimmy said. “Did you like The Valiant when you were younger?”

“You could say that,” Hank said. His voice creaked.

Jimmy looked at the costume. “Did you use it for Halloween?”

“No, no, I didn’t.”

Jimmy rubbed the cloth of the cape between his fingers. “So why do you have it?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me.”

“Let it go, Jimmy. Let an old man have his secrets.”

“What secrets?” Jimmy asked. “You always tell me to turn it off. You hate that show.”

Hank looked at the ground.

Jimmy looked from the grappling gun to the costume in the box next to him. He fingered the hand-sewn seams. He looked at his grandfather, then back at the costume.

Joy flashed across Jimmy’s face as he turned back to his grandfather. “You?” he asked. “Youwere the Valiant?”

Hank took a deep breath. He looked over at his grandson for a long moment, holding Jimmy’s gaze with his. Finally he turned back to the floor.

“No,” he said, “it wasn’t me. It was someone else entirely.”

Experiment #362

The Valiant Part 3

The next day it rained again. When Jimmy got off the bus at the end of the day, Hank did not meet him with an umbrella. All Jimmy found was a hastily scrawled note about staying with the neighbor till his mom came home.

Hank wandered down a city street a few miles away. For hours he’d walked block after block, in the cold, relentless rain, listening. Finally he heard it: a scream.

He stepped into an alley and tore off his raincoat. A white V stood out on his chest. A red cape flew out from behind him as a gust of wind picked it up. The grappling gun hung from a metal clip at his belt and when he pulled on the mask, he felt once more like the hero he had been so many years ago. With the confidence of a much younger man, he sprinted toward the scream. 

The Valiant rounded the corner and came upon a woman jabbering into a phone. Another woman rubbed her back and held an umbrella over her head.

“Which way did he go?” The Valiant asked. He no longer filled out the costume the way he once had. It drooped and wrinkled in odd places, much like his skin.

The woman with the umbrella raised an eyebrow. She pointed in front of her. A man lay on the ground, twitching. Two electrical leads spiraled their way from the man’s chest to a device in the upset woman’s hand. A moment later sirens sounded in the distance. 

Hank’s heart began to throb. He backed away, turned, and ran toward the alley. He lunged for the shadows, pulled his raincoat over his costume, and yanked off the mask.

He coughed and hacked. His heart beat through his chest. His knees buckled and he fell to the ground.

When the police arrived to help the mugging victim, one of them noticed an old man in a raincoat lying face down in the street.

Experiment #363

The Valiant Part 4

As soon as word leaked that the police had found a guy in a Valiant suit, the news media, well-wishers, and protesters swarmed. He could have been a crackpot in a costume (and probably was). But given his age, his location, and the old, hand-stitched costume he wore, the court of public opinion made its ruling: he was The Valiant.

A few officers who’d been on the force since The Valiant’s glory days made it their personal mission to help him get some peace and rest. He had helped them take down the Ganglia crime family and that real deed meant more to them than the vicious rumors that precipitated his fall from grace. They guarded his room day and night, and didn’t let anyone in besides hospital staff.

When Sarah and Jimmy came to see Hank, having seen the news reports and pictures on TV, The Valiant’s guards would not let them in until they showed proof they were kin.

Sarah and Jimmy sat down next to Hank’s hospital bed. 

“I’m sorry, Jimmy,” Hank said. He looked over at his daughter. She looked like a balloon about to burst. 

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Sarah asked.

“Why would I tell you? What good would it do? That life is long gone. No one wants to remember The Valiant anymore.”

“Hey!” Jimmy said.

“’Cept you, Jimmy.”

“Well, I just…I would have liked to know,” Sarah said.

“Why did you say it wasn’t you, Grandpa?” Jimmy asked.

“Even old men sometimes say things they shouldn’t.”

“Did Mom know?” Sarah asked.

“Eventually, yes,” Hank said. He remembered the look on his wife’s face when he’d told her about his alter ego. “I couldn’t bring myself to marry her without giving her a full picture.”

“Can you show me how to throw a bad guy up against a wall?” Jimmy asked, his disappointment turning suddenly to joy. “Or the stranglehold that knocks him out?”

“That only happened in the cartoon,” Hank said. “In real life the bad guys fought back a lot harder. Sometimes with lawyers.”

“Did she really have cancer?” Sarah asked. She sucked in her lips and raised her eyebrows. “Mom, I mean. Is that really how she died?”

With effort Hank swallowed. “Yes,” he said, “Your mom…had cancer.”

“And do we need to worry about radiation or gamma rays or anything?” Sarah asked.

Hank stifled a smile. “I wasn’t that kind of hero. My origin story’s pretty boring, just a blue-collar guy who wanted to help.”

“Wait,” Jimmy said. “Did you really kill that boy?”

“How did you know about that?” Sarah asked.

“The Internet.”

“Well,” Sarah said, “I’m not sure—”

“Let it be, Sarah,” Hank said. “He would have found out sooner or later.” Hank shifted in his chair. “Everybody does things they’re not proud of…” Hank broke off.

“Oh, my goodness, Dad, did you?” Sarah asked.