Return of the Pandaskunk by RokofAges75
1. Prologue by RokofAges75
2. Part I by RokofAges75
3. Part II by RokofAges75
4. Part III by RokofAges75
5. Part IV by RokofAges75
6. Part V by RokofAges75
7. Part VI by RokofAges75
8. Part VII by RokofAges75
9. Part VIII by RokofAges75
10. Part IX by RokofAges75
11. Part X by RokofAges75
12. Part XI by RokofAges75
13. Part XII by RokofAges75
14. Part XIII by RokofAges75
15. Epilogue by RokofAges75
Through the snow and sleet and hail,
Through the blizzard, through the gale,
Through the wind and through the rain,
Over mountain, over plain,
Through the blinding lightning flash
And the mighty thunder crash,
Ever faithful, ever true,
Nothing stops him; he’ll get through!
And why, you ask, am I speaking in rhyme?
Well, let me remind you: it’s Christmas time!
Again! There’s just something about the yuletide
That brings out the budding poet inside
Of all of us, human and canine alike,
So if you don’t mind, let me get on the mic
And tell you the tale of a Christmas almost ruined.
Don’t worry: I won’t rhyme all the way through it.
But why, you ask, am I talking at all?
Yes… yes… I know I’m a dog…
Nacho’s the name, and Nick Carter’s my master.
He could tell you the story, but I’ll tell it faster.
Our last night on tour is when it began,
When he met with an unexpected fan,
Who’d come a long way to see his show,
Over the mountains and through the snow,
Straight from his home in the chilly North Pole…
“Yo, Nick, you almost done in there? The fans are getting restless, man.”
“Be out in a sec!” Nick called to his bodyguard, Mike. He finished his tweet, pressed send, and stood up from the toilet, hitching up his pants. He flushed and stood there, watching the water wash out the bowl, just long enough to make sure it didn’t clog. Then he slipped his phone back into his pocket, wiped his hands on his jeans, and walked straight out of the bathroom. Mike was waiting for him in the hall. “Let’s do this.”
“Last show,” Mike remarked, as he led Nick down the hall to the VIP area. “You sad to see it end?”
“A little,” replied Nick. “But it’ll be nice to be home for the holidays. Spend some quality time with my wife. Man, it still sounds so weird to say that: my wife
?! Who’da thunk, right?”
Mike laughed. “It’s about time you settled down, man. Just don’t let those girls out there hear you say it. Half of them are still hoping you’ll ditch Lauren and hook up with them.”
Nick grinned. He knew they had no chance, but still, it felt good to be lusted after. He enjoyed stepping around the corner to a chorus of excited squeals. “Hey, how you guys doing?” he greeted his fans, who had gathered in the hallway for the VIP experience: a quick Q&A, followed by photos, autographs, and free #IHeartNickCarter crop tops. He had been trying to make the whole thing more interactive, worth the steep price the fans paid to spend time with him, so he went down the line and hugged each one of them. Most of them were women in their twenties or thirties. Some had brought their mothers or daughters along, and there were a few dutiful husbands and boyfriends, as always, but only one face stood out from the crowd as being far outside the usual Backstreet demographic.
He was an old man with a bushy white beard, wearing a red hoodie that was stretched tight over his big, round belly. Someone’s grandpa,
Nick thought at first, looking around for the man’s granddaughter. But although several children seemed to be looking curiously at the man, none were standing particularly near him.
“Hey, thanks for coming,” he said to the man, offering a handshake, followed by a one-armed hug. As he pulled away, he couldn’t help but add, “I bet you hear this all the time, but… you could totally play Santa, you know.”
“Ho, ho, ho!” the man laughed, deep dimples appearing in his rosy cheeks. He said not a word, but winked at Nick. Nick just grinned and moved on, pretending to be equally interested in the next fan, another twenty-something girl.
That was the extent of their encounter, and by the end of his soundcheck with Jordan, Nick had forgotten all about the old man. But it wouldn’t be long before he was reminded of him.***
Thanksgiving was five days later. Up in the North Pole, Mrs. Claus had prepared a fantastic feast, but Santa only picked at his food. “Papa, you haven’t touched a morsel!” she scolded. “I’ll have to take your suit in! EAT!”
“I’m not hungry, Mama,” said Santa, shaking his head. “It’s almost Christmas. I have to save room for all those cookies, you know.”
Mrs. Claus rolled her eyes. “Whoever heard of a skinny Santa? EAT! EEEEEEEAT!
Santa quailed under her furious stare. “To be honest, Mama, I’m not really feeling-”
But Mrs. Claus wasn’t listening. With a sigh, she strode to the window to gaze outside. “The reindeer are munching on carrots. The polar bears hunt for seal meat. I know you’re too hungry to reason with, but you have to fucking-”
Her rhyme was interrupted by a loud crash. Spinning around, she saw Santa slide out of his chair and fall to the floor, where there was already a puddle of cocoa spilling from the shattered remnants of his favorite mug. “Papa!” she cried, as her husband began to convulse, spittle foaming from the corners of his droll little mouth. She rushed to his side, but quickly realized there was nothing she could do except call for help. “Rudolph! RUDOLPH!”
The red-nosed reindeer came skittering into the room. “Yes, ma’am?”
Mrs. Claus tried to stay calm. “Rudolph, with your nose so bright,” she said, struggling to keep her voice steady, “We need the sleigh, with sirens and lights!”
“Right away, ma’am!” Rudolph rushed to gather the rest of the reindeer team, while the elves hitched up Santa’s sleigh and strapped him carefully inside. “Ready, Mrs. Claus!”
“Okay, Rudolph,” said Mrs. Claus tearfully, as she climbed aboard and took the reins. “Full power!”
A high-pitched wail rose from Rudolph’s red nose, which began to flash like a strobe light as he lead the reindeer up, up, and away!***
A week after Thanksgiving, Brian Littrell, fellow Backstreet Boy and friend to Nick, sat with his wife and son at the Atlanta airport, waiting for their flight to Los Angeles. Unlike Nick, who had just wrapped his tour with Jordan Knight, Brian had been enjoying a nice long break, and he was looking forward to traveling for a reason other than work. Well, not his own work, anyway. His son, Baylee, had an audition in L.A. They would spend a few days on the West Coast, then return home in time to finish decorating the house for Christmas, his and Leighanne’s favorite holiday. But as Brian stared at the window at the steel-gray sky, he found it hard to feel festive.
“You’re awfully quiet, Husband!” chirped Leighanne from his left side, reaching out to squeeze his knee. “Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout?”
“Nothin’ much,” shrugged Brian, but his wife knew when he wasn’t being honest.
“You’re thinking about Patches again,” she said, her voice softening. “Aren’t you?”
He nodded. It was impossible not to think about Patches this time of year. It had been two years since the pandaskunk had saved the world, but Brian still thought of his misfit friend often, especially around the holidays. “I wish he was still here with us,” he admitted. “You know, he never really got to experience Christmas the way it’s supposed to be. They treated him like crap at Disneyland. I wish we could have shown him what it’s like to be part of a family, before he...” He trailed off.
“I know,” Leighanne agreed. “He would loved our Christmas trees.”
Brian went back to staring out the window. It wasn’t long before something unusual caught his eye. A small, private plane had just landed on the tarmac outside, and an ambulance was pulling up alongside it. Two people, wearing white Hazmat suits, stepped out of the ambulance, as the plane door opened. More men in suits emerged from the plane, struggling to carry a stretcher onto which a rather rotund figure in a similar red suit was strapped.Oh boy,
thought Brian. Hope it’s not another Ebola patient.
He watched them load the stretcher into the ambulance, which sped away with its lights flashing, flanked by a full police escort. For once, Brian was glad to be leaving Atlanta behind.***
Nick was at home with Lauren, Igby, Meow Meow, and me when he saw the news.“In tonight’s top story, another possible Ebola patient has been flown to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for testing, this time from Siberia.”
“Siberia?” said Nick. “My heart did time there once.”
Lauren, never much of a fan of the Backstreet Boys’ music, missed the joke. “Ugh, not another one!” she exclaimed, shaking her head at the TV. “When is this Ebola crisis going to end?”“While several U.S. healthcare workers infected with the disease have been flown home from West Africa, where the worst Ebola outbreak in history continues to rage, this is the first international patient the CDC-affiliated hospital has accepted from outside of Africa. CDC officials have not released the name of the patient, leading to rampant public speculation about his identity. Many are wondering how a person could have contracted the Ebola virus in such a remote region of the world, but the patient is said to be well-traveled, having returned from a recent trip to Canada several days before falling ill. The Public Health Agency of Canada has released a statement insisting there have not been any cases of Ebola in their country, but here in the States, we know that, when in doubt, it’s best to blame Canada.”
“Canada?” repeated Nick. He, too, had just returned from a recent trip to Canada, where he’d played two shows for the Nick & Knight Tour, one in Vancouver and the other in Calgary. Could he be at risk? He cringed just thinking of all the people he’d come into contact with, all the fans whose hands he’d touched. What if one of them had been infected?
As he watched the footage of a large man in a red, Hazmat-style suit being hoisted off an airplane and into an awaiting ambulance, it struck Nick that something about him seemed familiar. The man’s face was completely covered by the Hazmat mask, but not even the roomy suit could hide his big, round belly. Suddenly, Nick was reminded of the old man at his last soundcheck party, whose red hoodie had stretched across his gut in a similar way.
Nick’s mind raced. The patient had been brought from Siberia, but before that, he had been in Canada. Despite his many world tours, Nick was no expert on geography. Still, he was pretty sure that the quickest way to get to Siberia from Canada was to cut across…
“The North Pole!” Nick shouted, smacking himself in the forehead. “Oh my god… Santa Claus!!!”
“Huh?” Lauren looked over at him like he’d lost his mind.
“It’s Santa!” screamed Nick, pointing at the TV screen. “Santa’s got Ebola! Santa was at my show! Oh my god, what if Santa gave me Ebola too?!”
“What the hell are you talking
about?” Lauren cried, but for a few seconds, Nick could only gibber. “Nick,” she said, taking him by the shoulders and forcing him to turn away from the TV and look at her. “Slow down, babe. Start from the beginning. Why are you worried Santa gave you Ebola?”
Nick took a deep breath and started talking a bit more slowly. “Okay, so, at my last show in Calgary, there was this old dude at VIP who looked like Santa. I even told him so. He had the white beard and the beer belly and everything! He was even wearing a red sweatshirt!”
Lauren suppressed a smile. “Nick, there are lots of old men who look like Santa. Maybe he even plays
Santa this time of year. Why would you assume that that
guy-” She pointed at the TV. “-is the same guy you saw, who’s also Santa Claus?”
“Because!” Nick insisted. “They said he came from Siberia! Siberia’s, like, really cold, ‘cause it’s up by the Arctic circle, right? And they said that, before that, he had been in Canada. Canada, where I was touring! And how do you get from Canada to Siberia? You fly your fucking sleigh over the North Pole, that’s how!”
“Nick, you sound totally insane right now, you know that? You’re hysterical. Think about it: How would Santa Claus contract Ebola? He lives in the North Pole! I promise you, there are no cases of Ebola in the North Pole.”
“There are now! I dunno, maybe he went to West Africa to bring them a little Christmas cheer, like in the new Band Aid song: ‘Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa…’
before they all DIE OF FUCKING EBOLA!”
“Nick! Calm down!”
But Nick was singing maniacally, “Feed the world… Let them know it’s Christmas time! Feed the world… Let them know it’s Christmas time!”
“NICK!” Lauren slapped her husband across the face. That shut him up. He stared at her, too stunned to speak. Taking advantage of his temporary silence, Lauren said calmly, “Let’s say you’re right and that is Santa, the same Santa who was at your show. Have you even stopped to consider the fact that maybe you
were the one who got him
“Huh?” Nick scowled and shook his head. “That doesn’t even make sense, Lauren. How else would I have gotten Ebola?”
“What if it isn’t Ebola?” Lauren asked, raising her eyebrows at him. “What if it’s actually Nick Plague?”
“What?! What the fuck is Nick Plague?”
Lauren snickered. “It’s a fandom thing… you know, like Backstreet Time?”
“Oh, it’s a ‘fandom thing,’ huh?” said Nick sarcastically, making air quotes with his fingers. “How would you even know? It’s not like you’re a fan.”
Lauren rolled her eyes, but ignored the dig. “Apparently, any fan who touches you gets sick approximately three to five days after their show. They call it ‘Nick Plague.’ Some girl tweeted me a picture of this special hand sanitizer her friend made that they use after they shake your hand at soundcheck, since you don’t wash your hands after going to the bathroom. I thought it was hilarious. I thought I showed you?”
“Uh, no. You didn’t.” Nick wasn’t sure whether to be amused or horrified. How long had the fans known his dirty little secret? How long had they been laughing behind his back, making jokes at his expense, mocking him with hand sanitizer? And how long had he unknowingly been spreading his germs to fans around the globe? “Oh my god,” he said aloud, as he was hit with the full weight of his revelation. “That makes me Patient Zero!”
Lauren frowned. “No,” she said slowly, shaking her head, “I think that actually makes you the Host. You’re like that cute little monkey in Outbreak
- remember that movie?”
Nick’s mouth fell open in horror. “So I’ve been infecting all my fans… and now, I’ve infected Santa?! Christmas is ruined… and it’s all my fault!”
Brian landed in L.A. to find a frantic voicemail message from Nick on his phone.
“Yo Brian, call me back when you get this, man; I need to talk to you. I’m looking up flights to Atlanta, and I was wondering if I should book a hotel too, or if I can just stay with you. I’ll only be there a couple of days, just so I can see Santa and apologize for making him sick and ruining Christmas, so… call me!”
Brian wrinkled his nose in confusion. What on Earth was that all about?
he wondered. “I think Nick might be doing drugs again,” he said slowly, as he set down his phone.
“Aw, that’s too bad,” said Leighanne absently as she rifled through her Wylee carry-on, sounding less than concerned. “Babe, have you seen my lip gloss?”
“Check your boobs,” Brian replied automatically, Nick’s message still on his mind.
“Oh, duh, of course!” Leighanne stuck her hand down her cleavage. It emerged two seconds later, triumphantly clutching a tube of lip gloss. “Thanks, Husband!”
“You bet,” Brian muttered, picking up his phone again.
“So… Nick called?”
“And…? What’s going on with him now? Did he get another DUI?”
Brian sighed. “No. He babbled something about coming to Atlanta… to see Santa Claus? He wanted to know if he could stay with us.”
“Well, since Santa lives at the North Pole, and we’re now in L.A., I guess the answer to that is no,” said Leighanne, none-too-kindly.
Brian sighed again. “I know. I’ll call him back.”
He waited until they were on their way to the L.A. house to call Nick, who answered on the second ring. “Dude, I called you, like, three hours ago! Didn’t you get my message?”
“Nice to hear from you too, Nick,” Brian replied sarcastically. “I did
get your message, which is why I’m calling. Sorry it took me so long, but my phone was shut off because I was on a plane. See, I’m not in
Atlanta right now; I’m actually in L.A.” He spoke slowly and enunciated every syllable, like he was talking to a small child with a processing disorder - or like his cousin Kevin talked to foreign fans.
“You are? What for?”
“Baylee’s got an audition. Now what were you saying about Santa?”
Nick sighed. “It’s a long story, Brian; you better just come over. See ya soon.” He abruptly hung up, leaving Brian staring down at his phone again, bewildered.
“Sorry, babe, but can we swing by Nick’s place?” Brian asked Leighanne. “You can just drop me off; I’ll have him bring me back to the house later.”
?? No way! We have to help Baylee rehearse!”
“It’s okay, Mom,” Baylee spoke up from the back seat. “I don’t mind if Dad goes to see Nick. You and I can run lines together.”
Leighanne sighed. Brian knew she didn’t approve of their son’s adoration of Nick, but there wasn’t much she could say about it in front of him. “Alright, alright,” she consented reluctantly. “Don’t stay too long, though. You’re taking Bay and me out to dinner tonight!”
“I won’t,” Brian promised. “Two hours, tops.”
But when Brian arrived at Nick’s condo, he could tell it was going to take a lot longer than that. “Why didn’t any of you tell me about Nick Plague?!” Nick ranted, waving his arms around wildly, as he paced back and forth across the living room. “We could have saved so many lives! W-” He suddenly stopped, mid-word, and stared at Brian, who had just removed his jacket. “Dude… what the fuck are you wearing?”
“Huh?” Brian looked down at the black-and-white striped cowl neck tunic he had on. “Oh. It’s one of Leighanne’s tops, from the new Wylee B&G Collection.”
Nick stared. “You’re borrowing your wife’s clothes now? Dude, that is fucked up.”
Realizing he had misunderstood, Brian quickly shook his head. “Oh no, no, it’s not literally
Leighanne’s top. It’s mine! I mean, it’s clearly unisex, right?” He did a quick spin, making the long, asymmetrical hem of the tunic spin like the blades of a helicopter.
Nick blinked and then closed his eyes, shaking his head like he was trying to erase what he had just seen. “Brian, we’ve been friends for a long time, so I hope you know that I only have your best interest at heart when I tell you this: That is the fugliest-ass shirt I have ever seen, and no man - or woman, for that matter, but definitely not a straight guy - should be caught dead wearing it. Like, ever.”
Brian sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I know,” he whispered. “It’s awful, isn’t it? Please don’t tell Leighanne I said that. She works so hard designing all this stuff. I agreed to model the new line because I knew it would help bring more fans to her site and maybe even sell some clothes.”
Nick snorted. “Well, you may be whipped, but at least you’re not as brainwashed as I thought. Please, though, for the love of God, take that thing off. I promise I won’t tell your wife.”
“Thanks, buddy.” Brian smiled with relief as he slipped the striped tunic over his head and tossed it aside, revealing the black wifebeater he’d worn underneath. “Now… what were you talking about before? What’s ‘Nick Plague’?”
“You mean you didn’t know either? I thought everyone knew but me. Apparently it’s a ‘fandom thing,’” said Nick, making air quotes. “You know, like Backstreet Time. Except instead of being late for everything, I’ve been making fans sick!”
Brian snickered. “You mean cause you’re always sick yourself and do gross stuff like wipe your nose with your hand and then touch fans without washing it?”
“Uh-huh,” Nick said miserably.
“So you’re, like, Patient Zero?”
“Worse,” sulked Nick. “I’m the Host.”
Brian grinned. “Like the monkey in Outbreak
. Heh… Nick Plague. That’s pretty funny!”
funny!” Nick insisted. “I think I infected Santa Claus! Christmas is ruined!”
“Santa Claus?” Brian snorted. “What, did you take a ride on the Polar Express and not tell me? When did you see Santa? I mean… you do know the one at the mall isn’t the real
Nick rolled his eyes. “I know that. But I’m pretty sure the real Santa came to my show in Calgary and did VIP. Did you see the news? They flew a suspected case of Ebola in to Atlanta from Siberia
, Brian! You know where Siberia is?”
“Yeah,” said Brian, grinning. “I’m pretty sure my heart did time there once.”
“Heh.” Nick smiled briefly. At least someone
shared his sense of humor. “Yeah, but Siberia is also near… the North Pole!”
Nick expected a big dramatic prairie dog moment, but Brian seemed disappointingly underwhelmed. “Siberia’s a pretty big place, Nick. It’s also
“So? They didn’t say what part
of Siberia he was coming from. It could’ve been Northern
Siberia. And you know what they did
say? That, before he got sick, the patient had been to Canada. Guess who else was in Canada? This guy!” screamed Nick, pointing at himself.
“Nick, man, chill out!” Brian placed a comforting hand upon Nick’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “As a matter of fact, I saw that guy arriving at the Atlanta airport earlier today. They were out on the tarmac while I was waiting for my boarding call. And sure, he was a big guy and all, and he was wearing a red suit - but it was a Hazmat
suit, not a Santa suit. Underneath that mask, he could have been anyone… anyone but Santa Claus.”
“Oh yeah, and why not? They won’t say his name on the news. They won’t show his picture. They’ve done that with all the other Ebola patients, but not this guy. Know why? Because he’s Santa Claus
, and if the world knew Santa was sick three weeks before Christmas, they’d lose their shit!”
“Nick…” Brian laughed and shook his head. “Buddy, I hate to break this to you,” he said, patting Nick on the shoulder again, “but you’re almost thirty-five years old now, and it’s time you learned the truth. Santa isn’t real.”
Nick looked affronted. “How can you
, of all people, say Santa isn’t real?”
Brian knew what was coming and steeled himself, sucking in a deep breath. “Nick, please don’t bring my faith into this. Santa isn’t the same as God, okay? And it’s a historical fact that Jesus was a real person.”
“Jesus Christ, Brian, I’m not talking about freaking Jesus!” shouted Nick, managing to offend his friend all the same. “I’m talking about pandaskunks
! Did you forget all about poor Patches the Flying Pandaskunk? I mean, if a mystical pandaskunk can take us into space for a magical Christmas adventure and save the world by blowing up an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, then why can’t Santa Claus be real? Seriously, dude, the whole Santa story is much less fucked up than the one we starred in two years ago! Are you gonna tell me you don’t believe in The Force anymore, either?”
Brian opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, as he realized that Nick had a point. “Huh,” he said, scratching his head. He quickly stopped when he saw a few of his precious, wispy curls float to Nick’s floor. “I guess you’re right. Maybe Santa Claus does
“Yes! He does exist, and right now, he’s in the hospital in Atlanta, suffering the same flu-like symptoms that make Nick Plague resemble Ebola in its early stages, and if I don’t get there soon to apologize and offer to help him out, then Christmas could be ruined!”
“Nick, Christmas is still three weeks away. I don’t think you need to start panicking yet, especially if it’s not actually Ebola.”
“Uh, yeah, so apparently, Nick Plague is nothing to mess around with. I did some research on Twitter while I was waiting for you to call me back, and while it doesn’t have the high fatality rates of Ebola, it’s way more contagious and can last up to a month! A month
, Brian! Christmas is in three weeks
! And if Santa’s quarantined, who’s going to supervise his workshop? And what if he’s not better by Christmas Eve? Who’s going to deliver all the presents? I’ve got to do something! I’ve got to make this right!”
Brian sighed. Nick was known to get overly passionate about things, but it had been a long time since Brian had seen him so worked up. “It’ll be okay, Nick. Hey, why don’t I go with you? We can figure this out together.”
Nick blinked in surprise. “Really? You’d do that? You’d go with me?”
“Well, you do need a place to stay in Atlanta, right?” Brian smiled and squeezed Nick’s shoulder again. “You bet, buddy. Why don’t you go get packed while I call Leighanne?”
“Heh, good luck with that,” said Nick as he walked away.
“Good luck? Why?” Brian called after him.
“Cause…” Nick stopped and smirked over his shoulder. “You’re about to call your clingy-ass wife, who doesn’t like to let you out of her sight, to tell her you’re flying back to Atlanta without her? And, to make matters worse, with me
? Yeah… you’re gonna need it, bro.”
As much as Brian hated to admit it, Nick had been right. Leighanne hadn’t reacted well to his call. “You want to what
?!” she’d screeched, when he’d told her his plan. “Go back to Atlanta by yourself? Tonight? But… what about Baylee? He needs you!”
“Right now, Nick needs me more. Bay’ll be fine. Just keep running lines with him. I’ll call him before the audition tomorrow to tell him good luck.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to go off and leave your son on the eve of what might be his big break! And I thought we had dinner plans!”
“I’m sorry,” Brian had said. “I love you both.”
“Hmph! You have a funny way of showing it. I’m very disappointed in you, Husband.” Leighanne had hung up without a goodbye, but Brian wasn’t too worried. He knew she would come around, especially if he did manage to save Christmas again.
In the meantime, he and Nick flew back to Atlanta as planned and headed straight for Emory University Hospital. Brian had been there before to visit sick kids who were fighting cancer or facing heart surgery, but he didn’t exactly know the place like the back of his hand, and it wasn’t like the hospital directory was going to advertise the “Ebola wing.” He and Nick scanned it for several minutes as they tried to figure out where to go to find Santa. Finally, he spotted the words Infectious Disease
. “There!” he said, pointing. “Infectious Disease Clinic. I bet he’s there.”
They found their way to the right floor, where they were faced with another obstacle: a pair of locked doors, with a sign that said ISOLATION UNIT: Only authorized personnel admitted beyond this point.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” asked the woman who was monitoring the doors from inside a small cubicle.
Brian and Nick looked at each other, wondering which of them would do the talking. When it came to younger women, no one could turn on the Backstreet charm better than Nick, but this woman looked too old to have been a fan even back in the day, which meant that it was up to Brian to convince her to let them in. He had a way with older women. A nod from Nick was all the encouragement he needed. Putting on his most irresistible smile, he stepped up to the glass partition.
“Good evening, ma’am,” he said, laying his Kentucky drawl on thick. “My name’s Brian Littrell. I’m a singer - with the Backstreet Boys?” He tried to sound humble, like he would never be so bold as to presume she knew who he was. “You might’ve seen me around the hospital before; I come here sometimes to sing to the patients.” The woman watched him coolly through the glass, not smiling. He could tell he wasn’t getting very far with her and decided to turn it up a notch. Time for the sob story,
he decided. “You see, I’ve been in the hospital before - spent two months there as a child, actually - and I know how boring it can be, especially in a unit like this that’s… well…” He gestured to the sign on the door. “…isolated.”
He smiled. The receptionist blinked up at him.
Clearing his throat, he continued, “So, um, my friend Nick here - who’s also a Backstreet Boy - and I were wondering if we could sing some Christmas songs to the patients in here, hopefully cheer ‘em up some. Whaddya say?”
The woman arched her eyebrows. “You want to sing Christmas songs.”
“Yeah… like, you know…” Brian glanced at Nick and gave him a quick wink. Then he sucked in a deep breath and started to sing, in a perfect impression of Alvin the Chipmunk, “Christmas, Christmas, time is near…”
Grinning back at Brian, Nick joined in on the next line. “Time for toys and time for cheer…”
His high-pitched chipmunk voice wasn’t as spot-on as Brian’s, but his harmony was impeccable.
Linking arms, they rocked from side to side as they sang together, “We’ve been good, but we can’t last. Hurry Christmas, hurry fast!”
Brian nodded at Nick to take the next line: “Want a plane that loops the loop…”
Nick pointed back at Brian to ham it up on Alvin’s solo: “Me, I want a hula hoop!”
“We can’t hardly stand the wait. Please, Christmas, don’t be late!”
they finished together.
Finally cracking a smile, the receptionist gave them a polite golf clap. “Alright,” she said, with the air of someone admitting defeat. “I suppose anyone who can harmonize like that should be allowed inside. The patients are going to love you two. But you’re going to have to gown up in protective garb: gowns, masks, hats, and gloves.”
The two men nodded seriously. “Whatever you need us to do.”
Once they were “gowned up” so that not an inch of skin was exposed, they were finally let in to the infectious disease unit. A nurse lead them into the room of a dying AIDS patient, where they sang another Christmas duet, then made a quick escape.
“Doesn’t this kinda creep you out?” Nick as Brian, as they slunk down the halls, peeking into windows in search of the white-bearded man they sought.
They passed a custodian who was singing morosely to herself as she mopped the floor. “Douse the halls with disinfectant. Fa-la-la-la-la… la-la-la-la! ‘Tis the season to contract Ebola-la-la-la… la-la-la-la! Don we now our masks and glo-oves. Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la! So we stay protected from Ebola-la-la-la… la-la-la-la!”
Strains of the song followed them as they made their way down the hall.
Brian looked back at Nick. “Yeah, it’s a little creepy,” he admitted, “but I’m trying to be brave, like Patches. For Santa’s sake.”
“For Santa,” Nick agreed, smiling behind his mask. “You know, I feel like Darth Vader, all suited up like this. Luke… I am your father.
Weird, I feel like I’ve made that joke before, like in some strange parallel universe or something.”
“Search your feelings,” said Brian. “You know it to be true.”
“Yeah, getting some serious déjà vu here. It’s like we’ve… HEY! IT’S HIM!” Nick tapped the glass window outside one of the rooms. Peering inside, they could both just barely see the patient’s bushy white beard over the top of his protuberant belly. “SANTA!!!”
“Shh!” Brian hissed. “Keep it down, or you’re gonna get us kicked out! Jeez, have a little self control, would ya?”
“Sorry, I just got excited for a second. C’mon, let’s go inside and see him!” Nick was like a little kid on Christmas. For a second, he’d almost forgotten the real reason they were there.
“You gonna sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas, too?” Brian rolled his eyes behind Nick’s back, but followed him into the room, where the eerie silence was broken only by the steady beep of a heart monitor.
Santa was lying absolutely still in the bed, his covers turned down, dressed in a pair of red pajamas. His pajama top was open, and underneath it, he was wearing a white shirt with a big red heart in the middle. Nick’s suspicions were confirmed when he recognized it as the crop top given out at all his VIP events the past tour. “Wow,” he said, wrinkling his nose at the sight of Santa’s silvery chest hair spilling out of the top of the shirt, his round belly bared by the bottom. “We should have really reconsidered handing out half-shirts, huh?”
“What?” Of course, Brian was clueless; it wasn’t like he had bothered to come to a show, not even the one in Atlanta.
Nick rolled his eyes. “Never mind.” He took a step forward, unable to tell if Santa was unconscious or merely asleep. “Santa?” he asked timidly, leaning over his bed. At the sound of his voice, Santa’s twinkly eyes fluttered open. “Santa, it’s me… Nick Carter.”
“Nick…” Santa croaked.
Brian stepped forward. “How are you, Santa?”
It took Santa’s groggy eyes a few seconds to focus on Brian’s face. “Brian…” he whispered. “Santa is… very sad…”
Brian and Nick exchanged stricken looks. Nick’s chin quivered, like he was about to cry.
“Ho, ho… ho!” Santa chuckled weakly, coughing in between. “Santa’s only kidding. The looks on your faces. Do I look so old to young eyes?”
They glanced at each other again, then quickly looked away. “No… of course not,” said Brian.
Santa smiled. “I do, yes, I do! I’ve become sick. Old and weak.”
“Santa, I’m so sorry!” Nick sobbed. “I’m sorry I got you sick! This is all my fault! I should really start washing my hands after I go to the bathroom!”
“Yes,” said Santa, pointing a gnarled finger at Nick, “Yes, you should. But not because of me. Do it because using the bathroom without washing your hands is gross and unhygienic. Do it because you want to stay healthy and live a long, fulfilling life. But just know that even if you reach nine hundred years old, you won’t look as good as me.”
He chuckled again at his little joke, but the effort cost him. He coughed long and deep, drawing air through labored breaths. “Soon I will rest. Yes… forever sleep. I’ve earned it.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “Santa Claus, you can’t die.”
“Santa, please!” Nick begged. “We’ve come to help you. What can we do to make it up to you?”
Santa took another shuddering breath. “You can deliver presents… to good little girls… and boys… around the… world…” It was getting harder and harder for him to speak. His words were cut off as he began to cough uncontrollably. The heart monitor began to beep faster.
Brian looked worriedly at Nick. “Should we call for someone?”
“No,” Santa gasped. “Wait!” He took a few more raspy breaths, and after a few seconds, the coughing fit subsided, and the heart monitor slowed.
“Santa,” Brian said, “we would love to deliver gifts for you, but how can we? We don’t have a sleigh… or flying reindeer…”
“Duh, Brian, we’ll just borrow his! You can make that happen, right, Santa? Just summon Rudolph and the rest on down from the North Pole. The elves can help, too, right?”
Slowly, Santa shook his head. “No… I’m s-sorry. The North Pole is… under quarantine. No living thing… is allowed to leave… not even the reindeer.”
“Then how are we supposed to fly swiftly and silently to the house of every good boy and girl on Christmas Eve?” Nick asked desperately. “We’ll never be able to do it without the flying reindeer!” He sank to his knees, burying his masked face in his gloved hands. The situation seemed hopeless.
“Nick…” Santa wheezed. “Niiiiick…”
Nick looked up, leaning closer to Santa’s bed.
“Nick…” Santa seemed to be struggling to stay awake. His eyes were drooping, and his voice was weaker than ever. Nick strained to hear him. “There is… another… p-panda… skunk…”
On the last syllable, Santa’s eyes lost their twinkle, as the lids slowly lowered over them. “Santa?!” cried Nick, searching his broad face. The features had relaxed, and he looked quite peaceful. But even so, Nick threw himself across Santa’s chest, sobbing, “Santa, NOOOOOO!!!”
“Nick… NICK!” Brian shook Nick’s shoulder. “Calm down, dude, he’s not dead! Look at the heart monitor. He must have just passed out.”
“Huh?” Nick looked up and saw the line on the heart monitor peaking and dipping at regular intervals, accompanied by a series of steady beeps. He realized that Santa’s chest was still rising and falling underneath him with every wheeze breath he took. “Oh.” Feeling embarrassed about his over-the-top reaction, Nick quickly scrambled off Santa and stood up straight. “So… um, now what?”
“He said there was another pandaskunk. We have to find it! If it’s a magical flying pandaskunk like Patches, it could pull Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas!”
“Okay, but how are we going to find this other pandaskunk?”
“Hm…” Brian perched on the edge of Santa’s bed to think. “I guess we’ll just have to wait for Santa to wake up so we can ask him.”
Nick cast a doubtful look in Santa’s direction. “What if he doesn’t wake up? I mean, he’s, like, old
. Nine hundred years
old, according to him. You know how Nick Plague wreaks havoc on the elderly.”
“Not really, but you have a point. We need to either find a cure for Nick Plague, or find this other pandaskunk on our own.”
“We’d probably have better luck curing bloody Nick Plague,” muttered Nick, raking a hand through his hair. “If only we… HEY!”
Brian stared at Nick. “What?”
Nick’s eyes were as round as cherries. “Blood! Antibodies! If I’m
the host animal, like that monkey in Outbreak
, then my blood must have antibodies that have made me immune to my own virus. That means my blood can be used to make an antidote!”
Brian’s eyes widened, too. “Dang, Nick… that actually sounded smart! Where did you learn about antibodies?”
“I dunno, probably some science article I tweeted about.” Nick shrugged. “Or maybe I’m just remembering it from the movie. But either way, we should tell someone so they can take a blood sample from me and get started! Come on, let’s-” But as Nick spun around, he smacked right into a nurse who had just walked into the room. “Oh, shit, sorry!” he apologized quickly.
The nurse looked from Nick to Brian, her eyes narrowing suspiciously behind her protective goggles. “Who are you?”
They looked at each other. “We’re, uh… from the Backstreet Boys?” Nick said awkwardly. “We came to sing Santa some Christmas songs.”
Frowning, she shook her head. “You two shouldn’t be in here.”
“We’ll go,” Brian said quickly. “C’mon, Nick.” He put his gloved hand on Nick’s shoulder and nudged him toward the door, but Nick dug his heels into the floor.
“Wait!” he cried. “Ma’am, I don’t think he has Ebola. I’m pretty sure he’s suffering from something called… Nick Plague.”
The nurse looked at him skeptically. “Nick Plague?”
“Please, I know it sounds crazy, but you’ve got to believe me! If he does have Nick Plague, then my blood probably has the antibodies you need to make an antidote! Here… take my blood!” Nick insisted, extending his arm.
“If you don’t leave this second, I’m going to have to call security.”
“Wait!” Brian cried, as the nurse reached for the phone. “Please don’t. We’ll get out of here right now, I promise. Come on
“Okay, we’ll go, but before we leave the hospital, could you please just take a blood sample from me? Just in case?” begged Nick.
The nurse sighed. “Fine. Come with me.” She took Nick by the wrist and led him out of the room, Brian following on their heels. “There’s a waiting area down the hall, just outside the unit,” the nurse told Brian, pointing him in the right direction. “Please wait there. I’ll bring your friend back when we’re all done.”
“O-okay. Um… thanks.” He walked slowly away, hoping the nurse would really bring Nick back after drawing his blood. What if she took him straight to the psych ward instead? What then? “I need you, Nick,” Brian whispered. “I can’t do it alone.”
“Nick will be back with you soon enough.”
The sound of a familiar voice caused Brian to look up, startled. “Patches?!” he gasped.
The pandaskunk was hovering several feet above the floor, its skunk-like tail shimmering in the fluorescent light. Brian realized he could see right through it.
“Oh no… first Nick starts ranting like maniac, and now I’m seeing ghosts?! If we’re not careful, we’re both going to end up spending Christmas in the psych ward!” Brian cried. “Aaaaand now I’m talking to myself. Awesome.”
“Actually, I prefer the word ‘spirit’ to ‘ghost,’” said Patches, a smile appearing on his furry, slightly translucent, panda face. Brian shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut, but when he opened them again, the flying pandaskunk was still there, though his smile had faded to a frown. “Aww, you’re not trying to will me away, are you? That makes me a saaaaad pandaskunk spirit.”
“I’m sorry, Patches, but… what are you doing
Patches smiled again. “I’ve always been here,” he said softly, placing one of his paws close to Brian’s heart. Brian tried to cover it with his hand, but his fingers slipped right through Patches’ shimmering fur. “Not physically, of course,” he added gently. “Only in spirit.”
“But… why can I see you now, when I never could before?”
“Because your visit with Santa Claus left you with unanswered questions, did it not?” Patches gave him a knowing look.
Brian nodded. “He spoke of another.”
“The other he spoke of was my twin sister.”
Brian blinked. “You have a sister?”
The pandaskunk nodded. “In a matter of speaking. We aren’t related by blood, but we are the same rare breed, created by a mistake in the lab, a simple switch of sperm. You see, my skunk parents were having trouble conceiving, so they opted for artificial insemination, but instead of inseminating my mother with my father’s sperm, her egg was accidentally fertilized with panda sperm that had been collected as part of a panda breeding program. My father’s sperm was mistakenly sent to the San Diego Zoo, where it was used to inseminate a female panda named PopoZao. Like my mother, she eventually gave birth to a half-breed, a hybrid, part panda, part skunk. Unlike my mother, she survived, and so did her spawn. My... ‘sister,’ Petunia.”
“And where is this Petunia now?”
“Still in the same place where she’s spent her whole life: the San Diego Zoo. If you’re going to use her to pull Santa’s sleigh, you’ll need to free her from captivity first.”
“Wow…” Brian felt a sudden headache coming on. He closed his eyes, trying to sort out his jumbled thoughts. This whole mission was becoming a lot more complicated than it had seemed when he’d first agreed to fly back to Atlanta with Nick. “Well, hey… if I have to head back to California anyway, maybe I can help my son prepare for his audition after all, huh, Patches?”
There was no reply.
“Patches?” asked Brian. But when he opened his eyes, the pandaskunk was gone.
Nick came bounding back to him a few minutes later, unscathed except for a Band-aid covering a cotton ball in the crook of his arm. “Well, that sucked,” he complained. “You’d think that woman was trying to drill for oil instead of drawing my blood. ‘Quick prick,’ my ass!”
“Aww, and she didn’t even give you a sucker for being such a good boy?” Brian teased.
“No!” Nick pouted.
“Well, maybe this’ll make you feel better.” Brian could hardly contain himself. “While I was waiting, I saw Patches’ spirit! Or, rather, his spirit came to see me. I asked him about what Santa said, and he told me the craziest story.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Crazier than your story about being visited by the ghost of the Christmas Pandaskunk, you mean?”
“Yeah, now shut up and listen,” said Brian, and he started to tell Nick the story of the other
“Look out for Mr. Stork… the perservering chap,”
the veterinarian sang to himself, as he prepared the sample of thawed semen for injection into his sedated patient, a ten-year-old female panda named PopoZao. “He’ll come along and drop… a bundle in your lap…”
Leaning over the unconscious panda, he carefully injected the syringe full of sperm into the long, thin tube that ran straight into the panda’s uterus. Then he stepped back, praying for the best.
Since panda fetuses are often too small to be spotted on an ultrasound, there was no way to know for sure whether or not the procedure had worked. But three months after the artificial insemination - and six months before the Mayan apocalypse - the San Diego celebrated its success, as its expectant mother gave birth to a baby girl, christened “Petunia.”
“Awww!” cooed the other pandas in the exhibit, as they oohed and ahhed over the newest addition. “Look at her!”
“Oh, you sweet little-”
“She is cute, isn’t she?”
“Oh, she is
! The darling little angel
“Isn’t she a darling
One of the elder pandas couldn’t resist reaching out to tickle the baby’s belly. “Goochie, goochie goo!” But as her big paw pushed against Petunia’s tiny tummy, the baby expelled a gas bubble in the form of a fart that was powerful enough to puff out her tail. The other pandas gasped as they caught their first glimpse of Petunia’s long, fluffy tail, so unlike their short, stubby ones.
“Is it possible??”
“Isn’t there some mistake?”
“Just look at that… that-” One panda leaned into another, whispering into her ear. “T-A-I-L.”
“That what?” The other panda was puzzled at first, but after a second, her eyes lit up. “Oh!” she squealed. “Tail!” Giggling, she lifted Petunia’s long tail to get a better look at it. “This! Isn’t it funny?!” she exclaimed, laughing obnoxiously, until the baby’s protective new mother, PopoZao, smacked her paw away.
The other pandas gasped again, outraged by this display of violence.
“What a temper!”
“Well! What did I do?!” cried the one who had touched Petunia’s tail. “Well, tell me, did I say something?”
“Perfectly harmless remark.”
“I just said it was funny! It is
“It certainly is!”
“After all, who cares about her precious little Petunia?”
“Petunia? You mean Pe-toot
“Petootia!” cried the other pandas, rolling with laughter. “Oh, Petootia, that’s good!”
The infant pandaskunk smiled innocently at the sounds of their laughter, not knowing she was different, not knowing she was special, not knowing she would soon be separated from her mother, nor that she would spend the next two-and-a-half years being picked on by the other pandas. She couldn’t know that, at that very moment, an asteroid the size of Texas was hurtling toward Earth, and that in six months, people all over the world would be holding up their glasses and saying: “To Patches - the pandaskunk who saved the planet!”***
Two years had passed since then, but the San Diego Zoo had hardly changed at all. As Brian and Nick approached the Panda Canyon, the sun on their shoulders, they stopped to read the signs posted all around the exhibit, which gave information about pandas and showed lots of pictures of big balls of black-and-white fur with short, stubby tails playing, eating, and lying around. There was no sign at all that another pandaskunk lived at the zoo, too.
Yet Petunia was still there, asleep at the moment, but not for long.
Petunia woke with a start, as someone rattled the bars of her cage again. She looked up at the blue-eyed, blonde-haired stranger who stood, smiling, outside her cage.
“I’m Nick Carter; I’m here to rescue you.”
It had taken a lot of time and effort for the two Backstreet Boys to find the pandaskunk. “Where else would she be?” Nick had wondered, after they’d walked the length of the panda enclosure several times and still hadn’t spotted one with a skunk-like tail.
“I dunno,” said Brian, taking off his jacket and tying it around his waist. “With the skunks, maybe?”
“Maybe,” echoed Nick doubtfully, “but if she looks anything like Patches, she’d blend in with the pandas a lot better than with the-” He suddenly stopped.
“Skunks?” Brian supplied, as he pulled the sleeves of his jacket tight. When he finally looked up, he found Nick staring at him. “What?”
“Dude…” Nick shook his head in disgust. “What the fuck are you wearing now
? No, wait, lemme guess: Wylee.”
It wasn’t a question. His words were dripping with sarcasm. With a sigh, Brian hung his head in defeat. “Yep… it’s Wylee alright,” he muttered, staring down at the charcoal gray poncho Leighanne had paired with a sky blue turtleneck.
“It’ll match your eyes!” his wife had gushed, as she’d dressed him that morning. But Brian knew it didn’t matter what color it was: the outfit would have looked ridiculous on any man.
“It’s like a… mullet!” exclaimed Nick with morbid curiosity, as he circled behind Brian to get a look at it from the back. “Short in front, long in back. And… it has a hood?! Dude, pull up the hood!”
Brian reluctantly obeyed the order, knowing it would be best just to get it over with. As he pulled the floppy, oversized hood up over his head, Nick burst out laughing.
“You look like a gay Obi-Wan Kenobi!” he cackled, pointing his finger in Brian’s face.
“May The Force be with you,” Brian said miserably, not even bothering to do his best Obi-Wan impression with a lisp.
Nick shook his head. “Wow, man… that is bad
. When are you going to stand up to your wife and tell her you’re not going to wear her ugly-ass stuff anymore?”
Brian sighed. “I can’t say that to her.”
“Why not? I thought the scarves and the murses were bad enough, but this is something else. She’s not just accessorizing you with queer shit anymore; she’s dressing you in it from head to toe! Soon she’ll have you wearing high-heeled, snakeskin boots stamped with Bible verses or something, and then the transformation will be complete. You won’t be a man anymore… you’ll be her mannequin!”
“Shh!” Brian hissed. “She’ll hear you!” He looked over his shoulder for Leighanne and Baylee, who had fallen behind in the panda gift shop. If there was one thing Leighanne loved - besides designing ugly clothes and accessories - it was spending money. Still, she and Baylee could be coming back at any time.
Nick rolled his eyes. “Well, she needs to hear it from someone
,” he muttered, but he shut up about Wylee - for awhile, anyway.
As they walked back past the panda exhibit to find Brian’s family, who had insisted upon meeting them at the zoo after Baylee’s audition that morning, Nick noticed a big building with a green roof tucked between the panda exhibit and the gift shop. Giant Panda Research Station,
a sign on the front of the building said.
“Hey, Brian!” he said, pointing it out. “I bet they’re keeping the pandaskunk in there!”
“Hmm… you’re probably right.” Brian frowned. “I don’t think the public can go in there, though.”
“So? You gonna let zoo security stop you from freeing the flying pandaskunk and saving Christmas?” Nick looked at Brian incredulously. “Come on, man, all we need is a plan to get in there, just like we did at the hospital!”
“I dunno, Nick, somehow I don’t think they’ll buy us wanting to sing Christmas songs to the pandas,” said Brian with skepticism.
“Ooh, I know!” Nick’s eyes lit up. “Let’s get Leighanne to ask for a special VIP tour of the place!”
“Why Leighanne? Why don’t we just ask ourselves?”
“Because, while we pride ourselves on being ‘just regular guys,’ Leighanne’s not above using your fame to get whatever she wants. And if they don’t give her what she wants, she can always threaten to give them a bad review on Yelp. Whaddya say?”
Brian sighed. He was not used to using his wife to get what he wanted. Like Nick said, usually it was the other way around. He supposed Nick had a point, though. “Alright,” he agreed. “Look, here they come now.”
Baylee was walking toward him with Leighanne in tow, lugging one of her large Wylee totes. “Look what we bought for Kiko and Maymee and Willie and Ellie Sue!” Leighanne trilled. She reached into her bag and pulled out a canine panda costume. There were three more where that one came from. “Won’t they just look so cute in these?!”
Brian forced himself to smile and nod, knowing if he caught Baylee’s or Nick’s eye, none of them would be able to keep from bursting out laughing. “Adorable,” he agreed. His wife could be so ridiculous sometimes, but he loved her all the same. “Hey, did you see the Panda Research Station?” he asked, pointing at the building off to his left. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we got to go inside and see the pandas that are off exhibit?”
Leighanne’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, do you think they’d let us?”
Brian shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to ask. Maybe if we made a donation to support their research?”
“Ooh, yes. Or we could offer them a sponsorship deal with Wylee! Oh my gosh! Wouldn’t the pandas look so cute in Wylee scarves? They could be our spokespandas!”Shut up, Leighanne,
Brian urged her silently, but he kept on smiling, still avoiding Nick’s eye. “Why don’t you go ask? And, um… leave Wylee out of it, just for now, okay, hon?”
“Okay, Husband!” Leighanne chirped, scampering over to the research station. “Come on, Bay!” she called, and Baylee trotted after her like an obedient puppy, leaving Brian and Nick behind.
Finally, Brian turned to face Nick. “Don’t say it,” he warned, holding up a hand.
Nick was staring at him incredulously. “Do I even have to? You know what I’m thinking. How the hell do you put up with that every day??”
Brian gritted his teeth and smiled through his grimace. “It’s called marriage, Nick. You and Lauren are still in the honeymoon phase, but you’ll learn soon enough.”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t think so. Lauren doesn’t dress up our dogs and offer to give fitness tips to zoo animals, so… I think I’m safe.”Thank god,
I thought, when he told me this later. But Brian just sighed heavily and shook his head.
Ten minutes later, Leighanne emerged from the building. As she jogged back to them, bouncing like a Baywatch
lifeguard, Brian couldn’t help but notice that her Wylee v-neck t-shirt had been pulled down lower. “Well,” she said breathlessly, tugging her t-shirt back into place, “it took some convincing, but I got them to agree to let us in for a special VIP tour!”
Brian glanced at his son. Even Baylee looked embarrassed.
“Really? That’s awesome! You go, girl!” exclaimed Nick with exaggerated enthusiasm, raising his hand for a high-five.
Leighanne slapped his hand, oblivious to the fact that he was mocking her. She was smiling from ear to ear, obviously pleased with herself. But, all Nick’s mocking aside, even Brian had to admit that Leighanne’s powers of persuasion were pretty impressive. That was, until she leaned over and said, “By the way, you owe them twenty-five hundred dollars, babe, for the VIP passes.”
Brian nearly choked, stifling his surprise with a quick cough. “Oh! Uh… sure, babe. No problem,” he said hoarsely, pulling out his wallet. We have to save Christmas,
he reminded himself. Santa’s counting on us!
“That’s okay, Brian,” said Nick, with a wink and a shit-eating grin. “I’ll pay my own way.”***
Once they were inside the Giant Panda Research Station, Nick managed to give the tour group the slip and snuck off on his own in search of the pandaskunk. He hummed the Mission: Impossible theme song to himself as he slunk down the halls, stopping to peek around each corner before he proceeded, so he wouldn’t get caught. The whole time, he had that same sense of déjà vu he’d experienced at the hospital, like he’d done it all before.
Finally, he found his way into a small room, where there was a single, large cage. Inside slept the pandaskunk, her fluffy white skunk tail wrapped around her plump panda body. “Psst… wake up!” Nick whispered, but the pandaskunk didn’t stir. He rattled the bars of her cage, softly at first, then more urgently. “Wake up!” he hissed.
At last, the pandaskunk raised her sleepy head off her paws and blinked up at him through the black spots around her eyes. He could see the curiosity in them and knew she had to be wondering who he was and what he was doing there.
Smiling, he said, “I’m Nick Carter; I’m here to rescue you.”
But before he could work out how to free the pandaskunk from the confines of her cage, Baylee came bursting into the room. “Nick, there you are!” he exclaimed. “We’ve been looking all over for you!”
“Baylee, shh-” Nick started to shush Brian’s son, but not before Baylee spotted the creature in the cage behind him.
“Is that a… pandaskunk?!” Baylee’s mouth dropped open in delight. “Mom! Dad! Come here! You’ll never believe what Nick found!”
Within seconds, the rest of the tour group had caught up to him. The zookeeper who had been kind enough to let them in suddenly did not seem so kind. He was glaring at Nick. Nick gulped, knowing he needed to think fast.
But his racing thoughts were silenced by a new voice in his head, the voice of Patches the Pandaskunk, who whispered, “Use The Force, Nick. Let her go.”
Remembering all he had been taught at the Jedi Training Academy at Disneyland two years earlier, Nick focused all of his energy upon the bars of the pandaskunk’s cage, willing them to disappear. All at once, the metal seemed to melt away.
The pandaskunk tumbled out of her cage and took off at once. Leighanne screamed as it scampered around her. “Give him hell, babe,” Nick heard Brian whisper to his wife as he took off in pursuit of the pandaskunk.
Leighanne rounded upon the stunned zookeeper. “I thought you said all of the animals were safely confined! My son could have been mauled
by that thing!”
“I’m fine, Mom,” said Baylee, rolling his eyes. Whether Leighanne was faking her outrage or not, Nick couldn’t be sure, but either way, it was believable. He had to give her credit for that.
“I-I’m sorry, ma’am,” the zookeeper stammered. “I’m not sure what…” He suddenly looked at Nick, his eyes narrowing. “What happened?” he demanded.
“I swear, I don’t know!” Nick insisted, hoping he looked innocent. “One minute the bars were there, and the next they were gone! It was like magic!”
!” huffed the zookeeper as he hustled them out of the research station, slamming the door in their faces.
“Don’t let the people at Disneyland hear you say that,” Nick muttered, searching the skies for any sign of the flying pandaskunk or his friend Brian.***
Meanwhile, a hundred miles away in Anaheim, the pandaskunk’s father was sleeping the day away in the dungeon of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Since retiring from making appearances at the amusement park, Flower the Skunk had returned to his crepuscular habits, only venturing out in near darkness. Normal behavior for a skunk, he argued, when his friends Bambi and Thumper suggested he was suffering from depression. He adamantly denied it, but, if he was being honest with himself, he had every reason to be depressed. His wife was dead, and so was his son - not that Flower had ever cared much for the offspring he’d considered to be an abomination.
He still dreamed about his son’s birth, which had led to his wife’s death, and so his sleep was far from peaceful. His nightmares were haunted by the sound of Bluebelle’s screams and the sight of her small, black and white body being torn apart as the baby’s panda bear head poked out between her legs. “No - no - not again, please-” Flower murmured as he tossed and turned, finally jerking awake to find his musky fur matted and drenched with sweat. He sat up slowly and buried his face in his paws, manically smoothing the striped fur on the top of his head. Then he rose and walked across the room, where he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror on the wall. His sad, blue eyes stared back at him, brimming with tears.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” he sniffled. “Who is the most powerful one of all?”
As he turned to pace, a chalk white face appeared in the mirror. “Once upon a time it was I,” spoke the face, “but you see what I have become… mere shadow and vapor…”
“Yes, but your powers kept you from dying,” Flower pointed out.
“The Dark Side of The Force is a pathway to many abilities some
consider to be unnatural
Flower was quiet for a few minutes, as he continued to pace the floor. Then, hesitantly, he asked, “Is it possible to learn this power?” He paused, awaiting the answer.
“Not from a Disney character.”
Flower sighed. “I figured. I know it’s powerful dark magic, what I’m asking. Not the kind of magic Disney deals in. But I’d give anything to have my wife back.”
“You have let me into your heart and mind… and for that, I owe you a favor. I will help you, as long as you continue to serve me faithfully.”
Flower nodded. “I will do whatever you ask.”
“Good…” breathed the face in the mirror.
“Just help me bring back Bluebelle,” begged Flower. “I can’t live without her.”
“To cheat death is a power only one has achieved… but if we work together, I know we can conquer it and become the Masters of Death.”
“I pledge myself to your teachings,” Flower vowed.
The face in the mirror smiled, its red eyes aglow. “Good…” it whispered again. “Good…”
Nick finally found Brian and Petunia hiding in a heavily wooded area underneath the Treetops Café, across from the Panda Canyon. “What are you two still doing here?” he hissed. To Brian, he added, “I thought you would have hopped on Petunia’s back and flown her out of here by now!”
“I tried to,” Brian replied, “but then we encountered one teeny little problem.”
“Well…” Brian sighed. “Petunia can’t fly.”
“What?!” Nick looked at the pandaskunk in surprise. “But… I thought all pandaskunks could fly!”
Petunia shook her panda head sadly.
“It must have just been Patches,” said Brian. “Maybe he rolled around in some pixie dust while he was at Disneyland or something.”
“Hm…” Nick thought quickly. “So… all we need to do is go to Disneyland, find Tinkerbell, and steal some pixie dust! Then we sprinkle it on Petunia, and… problem solved!”
“Not quite, Nick,” said Brian. “We gotta find a way to get her out of here first, before they find her and lock her back up in that research facility! Have you thought of how we’re gonna sneak a full-grown pandaskunk past all the zoo staff and guests without a single person spotting her?”
Nick was at a loss, until Leighanne suddenly stepped forward. “I know!” she cried, her blue eyes alighting with an idea. “We’ll use the magic scarf!” She unwrapped the Wylee scarf from her own neck and handed it to her husband.
Brian played along is if they’d planned the whole thing. “Ohhh, of course! The magic scarf!” he exclaimed, winking slyly at his wife. “Let’s see… we’ll just slip this around your neck, and-”
“SERIOUSLY?!” Everyone stopped and stared at Nick, who was standing there with a look of total revulsion on his face, a little slower to catch on than Brian. “Stop trying to make the pandaskunk model your ugly-ass scarves!” he snapped at Leighanne. “Enough already! Brian, man, back me up! You said yourself her clothes were awful!”
He looked expectantly at Brian, whose face turned bright red. Immediately, Brian started backpedaling. “Nick, I never-”
Leighanne was also looking at Brian, her expression slightly crestfallen. “Husband?”
But when Brian could only shake his head, speechless, Nick stepped forward. “He hasn’t got the balls to tell you this to your face, so I’ll say it for him: your Wylee stuff? It sucks. It’s ugly and overpriced. The only people who buy it are Backstreet Boys fans, and the only reason they do, the only reason they even bother to show up to your little Wylee parties, is to get closer to Brian. And sometimes it works. They’ve seen how you play favorites with the fans who are always singing Wylee’s praises, so they buy stuff, too, and wear it to BSB events in hopes of getting the same kind of attention. But don’t kid yourself: they don’t give a shit about you or Wylee. It’s all about Brian. I think, on some level, you must already know that, though, or you wouldn’t force him to model your stuff. I mean, look at him!” He gestured to Brian in his blue turtleneck and mullet poncho. “He looks ridiculous! No straight guy would ever be caught dead in that outfit, but he puts up with it because he loves you and doesn’t wanna hurt your feelings by telling you the truth. But I love him too much to let him go out in public dressed like this, so I’m saying it. Sorry, bro,” he added to Brian.
A teary-eyed Leighanne turned from Nick to Brian, her chin trembling. “Husband, is this true?”
“I… uh…” Brian hesitated, then sighed, his shoulder slumping. “I wouldn’t have used Nick’s words, but… I… I would rather pick out my own clothes than wear Wylee all the time,” he finally admitted.
“Because you think they’re ugly??”
“No… not ugly. They’re just… not really my style,” Brian said carefully.
“But you’re such a hottie in Wylee!” Leighanne insisted, causing Nick to snort with laughter. He tried to stifle it, but Leighanne heard and turned back to him, her eyes flashing dangerously. “And you! Who are you to give fashion advice? You wear the same three Fruit of the Loom t-shirts with everything!”
Nick looked down at his thin, gray v-neck and shrugged. “Yeah - so?”
“So!” Leighanne shook her head. “I have never been more insulted in my life! You should be ashamed of yourself, Nick Carter! And you too, Husband, for not sticking up for me!”
Brian gulped. “Baby, I-”
“Save it!” Leighanne sniffed. “I’m leaving! Come on, Bay!” She took her twelve-year-old by the hand and marched him away.
Brian started to follow, but Nick threw his arm out, catching him in the chest, and held him back. “Don’t, man. Let her go cool down. You can talk to her later, when she’s calm. You don’t wanna have this conversation in public anyway.”
“Gee, ya think?” Brian snapped. “You promised you wouldn’t tell her what I said! Thanks a lot for that.”
“Sorry, man, but I was just being honest. You’d think after all these years, I could speak my mind without insulting your wife.”
“You called her clothing line ‘ugly and overpriced’.”
Nick shrugged. “Like I said… I was just being honest.”
Brian sighed. “Yeah, but now I’m the one who’s got to deal with the fallout.”
“Not yet you don’t. First we’ve gotta get this pandaskunk to fly outta here!” said Nick, turning to Petunia. “Oh, look, Leighanne left her scarf.”
“Yes,” said Brian, straightening the scarf around Petunia’s neck. “It’s a magic scarf
.” He enunciated the words, giving Nick a significant look. “You know, like the magic F-E-A-T-H-E-R in D-U-M-B-O
?” he spelled, hoping pandaskunks couldn’t. “Catch on?”
It took Nick a few seconds to work that out, but finally, he understood. “Ohh! Right! A magic scarf! That explains the sparkles,” he said, running his fingertips across the rhinestones that spelled out the word Wylee
on one end of the scarf.
Brian rolled his eyes. “Yeah… so… let’s see if it works, eh?” He smiled encouragingly at the pandaskunk, who blinked back at him apprehensively. “Think of a wonderful thought...”
“Any happy little thought!” Nick chimed in enthusiastically. “Like toys at Christmas!”
“Or sleighbells… or snow!” added Brian. “It’s easier than pie. Now you give it a try!”
The pandaskunk still looked skeptical.
“Let’s go, Petunia!” Nick coached her. “Come on now, work that tail of yours. Up, down! Up, down!” He turned around and started twerking, shaking his ass to show Petunia how it was done. Slowly, but surely, the pandaskunk started to imitate him. “There you go! One, two! One, two! Faster, faster! Get up to flying speed! Retract your landing gear! Raise your fuselage! Take off!”
A cloud of dust rose up around the pandaskunk as she beat her puffy tail against the ground, and when the dust cleared, Petunia was hovering a few feet above the ground.
“Look!” Nick exclaimed.
“Hot diggity!” shouted Brian. “She’s flying! She’s flying!”
The pandaskunk smiled with pride and pumped her tail harder, suddenly seeming much more confident. “Well, I be done seein’ ‘bout everything, when I see a pandaskunk fly!”
sang Nick, as Petunia soared around them in a small circle, then landed gracefully on the ground in front of them.
“Petunia, I knew you could do it!” Brian praised her, petting her furry head. “Wait’ll we get to the North Pole!”***
But there was another problem: the North Pole was still under quarantine, and to make matters worse, a massive winter storm was working its way across Canada, making travel to the Arctic almost impossible. Brian and Nick kept a close watch on the weather from Nick’s condo, where they had been keeping Petunia hidden ever since they’d freed her from the San Diego Zoo, but with only a week until Christmas, the storm was showing no signs of letting up anytime soon.
“What are we gonna now do?” moaned Nick. “We’re never gonna be able to get the toys from Santa’s workshop, and even if we did, how would we transport them without a flying sleigh? God, I wish I still had my spaceship…”
“I think it’s time to hit up Toys ‘R’ Us,” said Brian seriously. “We can use the money you made selling all those VIPs and quickies and Afternoon Delights and whatever else you were offering on your tour-”
“Not that you would know,” Nick muttered under his breath, “since you didn’t go…”
“-to buy gifts for all the good little girls and boys. And as for how we’ll deliver them, well… we could always use the Wylee trailer,” Brian suggested.
Nick groaned. “Oh, no. No way. Not the Wylee trailer!”
“What other option do we have? We need something Petunia can pull behind her, something big enough to hold all the presents, but still portable, ya know? It’s perfect!”
“Except it doesn’t freaking fly!”
“Neither did your spaceship, and Patches pulled that through space!”
“Yeah, but my spaceship did
fly, at one point in time. At least it was aerodynamic!” Nick argued.
“So is the Wylee trailer! Well, sort of.”
“Or not.” Nick snorted. “You think your wife would even let us use her precious trailer? She’s still mad about what I said at the zoo!”
Brian sighed. “I know. Maybe this’ll be a way for us to make it up to her. I mean, think of the free publicity she’d be getting if the Wylee trailer was seen flying all around the world!”
“True,” Nick said thoughtfully. “Leighanne would never turn down free publicity.”
“Stop,” Brian admonished him. “No more talking smack about my wife.”
“Well, fine then, go ahead and ask her. Maybe she can make us some bedazzled bags to carry the toys while she’s at it.”
Brian smirked. “Don’t let her hear you suggest it, or she’ll do it.”
Nick snickered as he walked away. “Oh, I don’t doubt that.”***
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Nick ranted three days before Christmas, as he helped Brian load toys into the Wylee trailer.
“What do you mean? This was all your idea!”
“Well, sure, it was my idea to save Christmas, but not like this
!” Nick looked down at himself with disgust. The high/low cowl neck hoodie, red with a white faux fur trim, hung awkwardly on his lanky frame, and the matching B&G pants were equally ill-fitting, baggy in the crotch but several inches too short, so that his ankles were exposed whenever he sat down.
“Hey, man, that was the deal,” shrugged Brian, who was wearing a similar outfit in Grinch green. “Leighanne said the only way we could use the Wylee trailer to deliver presents was if we wore Wylee while we did it.” He was still in hot water at home, but he had apologized for hurting his wife’s feelings and persuaded her to let them borrow her pimped-out trailer. It sat in the driveway of their LA house, shimmering in the sun, the words Wylee by Leighanne Littrell
emblazoned across the side in big, pink letters. They had packed every square foot of the spacious interior with toys, each one wrapped in a bedazzled Wylee scarf, which - if they fell too far behind schedule - could also serve as a parachute.
“I thought the idea was to play Santa, not promote your wife’s fashion line,” grumbled Nick.
“Hey, I’d say we look the part,” said Brian, gesturing to their coordinating elf costumes. “Well, sort of. But c’mon, man, cheer up! You look good in red!”
“I look good in most things, but no one could look good in this,” argued Nick. “I’d rather be wearing my red sweatpants.”
“Didn’t Lauren throw those away?” Brian slammed the trailer’s side door shut. “Okay! That’s everything! Now we just need to make sure Petunia can still pull the ‘sleigh’ when it’s this full.” He whistled for the pandaskunk, and she scampered over to them. “Okay, Petunia,” said Brian, as he hitched her up to a harness woven with Wylee scarves. “Moment of truth. Let’s see if you can make this thing fly!”
Petunia strained against the scarves as she first started to run, slow at first, and then faster and faster, the trailer rolling behind her with ease as she picked up speed.
“That’s it, Petunia!” shouted Nick. “You can do it! Up, up, and away!”
When the pandaskunk reached the end of the driveway, her makeshift runway, she took a flying leap into the air. But rather than follow her upwards, the Wylee trailer slowed to a stop, with its wheels planted firmly on the ground. Tethered to the trailer, Petunia couldn’t fly; she could only float.
“It’s too heavy for her,” said Nick, shaking his head.
Brian sighed with disappointment as Petunia drifted to the ground. “I thought all we needed was faith and trust…”
Suddenly, they looked at each other, realizing the solution to their problem at the same time: “And a little pixie dust!”
“Well, Brian,” said Nick with a smile. “Looks like we’re heading back to the happiest place on Earth. Off to Disneyland!”***
“Thanks for coming, guys,” Nick said to his bandmates as they stood in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle later that day. He had asked the other Backstreet Boys to meet them there, and they had all answered his call, except for Howie, who was spending the holidays at home in Orlando.
“Sure thing, bro. Any excuse to bring the kids to Disney, right, Kev?” replied AJ, who came to Disneyland quite often with his wife and daughter, Ava. Kevin didn’t look quite as enthusiastic about their mission, but he nodded his head in agreement anyway.
“So here’s the plan,” said Nick, drawing them in to a huddle. “We need to find Tinker Bell and collect some pixie dust. We only have a couple of hours to search, so I think we should split up. That way, we’ll cover more ground. AJ, you and Kevin go that way.” He pointed, consulting his map of the park. “Look in Adventureland, Frontierland, and everywhere else on that side of the park. Brian and I will check out Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Mickey’s Toon Town. We’ll meet back here at the Walt Disney statue in two hours.”
“If you find Tink, gather some of her pixie dust in these bags,” added Brian, passing out a set of Wylee totes, “and then text us. Got it?”
“Got it,” AJ and Kevin agreed.
“On three,” said Nick, sticking his hand into the middle of the huddle. Brian, AJ, and Kevin placed their hands on top of his. “One… two… three…”
“BACKSTREET!” they all shouted their battle cry, then broke apart.
As they walked away, Nick overheard AJ mutter to Kevin, “Brian’ll have no problem attracting Tinker Bell in that outfit. He looks just like Peter Pan.”
“What’s so funny?” Brian asked, as Nick snickered to himself.
“Oh, nothing. Hey, let’s go to Fantasyland first.”
As it turned out, AJ was right. It didn’t take them long at all to find Tinker Bell. She was hanging out with her fairy friends in a place called Pixie Hollow, and as soon as she spotted Brian in his bright green pants and matching tunic, she came right over, beaming at him and batting her eyelashes.
Brian played his part well. “Tink!” he cried. “Nick, look, it’s Tinker Bell!”
But Nick, not realizing how temperamental Tinker Bell was known to be, got right to the point. “Hey, Tink, can we have some of your pixie dust?”
The smile suddenly faded off Tinker Bell’s face. Frowning, she shook her head.
“Please!” Nick begged. “We’re trying to make our trailer fly so we can play Santa Claus and save Christmas!”
Tinker Bell crossed her arms over her chest, still shaking her head defiantly.
“Oh, come on! Don’t you want to make sure all the good girls and boys get Christmas presents?!”
With one more firm shake of her head, Tinker Bell turned and started to flounce away from them.
“Wait!” Nick shouted, but Brian quickly shushed him.
“Never mind, Nick,” he said loudly. “We don’t have time to argue with her. We’ve gotta get over to Tomorrowland for that twerking contest you signed up for, remember?” He winked at Nick.
Tinker Bell stopped and turned around, cocking her head in confusion. Next to Brian, Nick was looking equally confused, but he knew better than to ask. Obviously, Brian had a plan.
“What’s that, Tinker Bell?” Brian asked. “You don’t know what twerking is? What a tragedy! But no worries, we can fix that. Show her, Nick!”
Nick blinked. “Uh… what?”
“Come on, Carter, don’t be modest! You’re the twerking king! Turn around and show Tink how it’s done!”
Suddenly, Nick saw where this was going. “Ohh… well, okay! Here goes!” He turned around and started thrusting his hips and shaking his ass, letting his jelly bounce just like Santa’s belly.
Tinker Bell kept her arms crossed, tapping her foot impatiently as she watched. “He’s pretty amazing at that, huh, Tink?” said Brian, grinning at her. Tinker Bell rolled her eyes and shook her head. “No? Not so much? I bet you think you could do it better, huh?”
Tinker Bell nodded.
“Oh yeah?” Nick challenged her. “Nuh-uh, Tink, there’s no way you could ever out-twerk me! Brian’s right; I’m the twerking king!”
With a smug smile on her face, Tinker Bell sashayed toward them, butting Nick out of the way with her hip. Then she turned around, stuck out her booty, and started to shake it. Although they were in Fantasyland, Tinker Bell’s tiny green dress left little to the imagination, and Nick couldn’t help but stare. But Brian was prepared with an open Wylee bag, which he held under the hem of Tink’s dress, catching the flecks of fairy dust that fell as she twerked.
“Wow,” he said, when she was done. “You were right, Tink; that was impressive! Nick, I think we’ve found our new twerking queen
“Hell yeah!” exclaimed Nick. “Hey girl, maybe we’ll catch you at that twerking contest later, huh?
Tinker Bell actually blushed, ducking her head to one side and batting her eyelashes at him shyly.
Nick smiled. “See ya around.”
“Bye, Tink!” said Brian as he hurried away, holding the bag of pixie dust tightly in his hand. “Nice twerking,” he told Nick, once they were safely out of Pixie Hollow.
Nick didn’t have to look at him to know he was smirking. “Yeah, you know it. My ass saves the world once again!” he declared triumphantly. Brian smacked his butt playfully as they made their way out to the parking lot, where they’d left Petunia waiting with the Wylee trailer.
“We’ve got the pixie dust!” Brian announced. “All we need to do is sprinkle some on…” He and Nick hurled handfuls of the glittering dust at the already shiny trailer. “…think happy thoughts, and…”
“Look!” gasped Nick.
Their mouths dropped open in delight as the Wylee trailer floated up off the ground.
“It worked!” cried Brian.
“Yes!” Nick shouted, pumping his fist in the air. “Come on, guys! Off to Christmas Island!”
They scrambled into their makeshift sleigh, and Petunia pulled them into the sky. “Think of a wonderful thought… any merry little thought,”
Brian and Nick sang, as they soared over the parking lot. “Think of Christmas, think of snow, think of sleighbells, off we go! Like reindeer in the sky… we can fly, we can fly, we can fly!”
“I’m gonna text the guys,” said Brian, taking his phone out of his pocket, “and tell them we won’t be back until Christmas.”
“Cool. Hey, how will we know how to get to Christmas Island, anyway?” asked Nick.
Brian looked up, his eyes searching the skies. “We’ll do what the Wisemen did: follow the star!”
“Which star?” wondered Nick, frowning. It was still afternoon, but the first stars of the evening were starting to come out.
Brian pointed. “Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning!”
Nick’s eyes narrowed as they followed Brian’s line of sight to an eerie, pink orb glowing in the distance. “That’s no star…” he said slowly, shaking his head. “That’s a spaceship!”
Brian and Nick stared at the rapidly darkening sky, watching as angry-looking clouds seemed to smother the sun. At first, it seemed like a storm was rolling in, and Brian was reminded of the strange way the sky looked before a tornado. Nick thought of a hurricane, then a solar eclipse, as an immense shadow crept slowly over the parking lot. Even as the Wylee trailer began to rattle and shake with air turbulence, they knew this was no storm, nor quake. This was something entirely different, something neither of them had ever experienced before.
Then, emerging suddenly through the smoky pink clouds, a massive, metallic object began to materialize, and Brian realized Nick had been right all along.
“My God,” said Brian in a low voice, looking up as the ship rumbled right over their heads. “We’ve gotta get back on the ground. We’ve gotta warn the guys!”
He pulled on the scarf reins, guiding Petunia safely to the ground. They landed in front of the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, where they’d planned to meet Kevin and AJ after finding Tinker Bell. But only Kevin had made it back. He stood there with his wife and sons, staring up at the sky with his mouth wide open, same as everyone else around him. All over the park, strollers were slamming into each other, pushed by panicked mothers who suddenly stopped to stare. Other people were starting to run, screaming, toward the exit.
“Where’s AJ?” Nick asked Kevin, as he and Brian scrambled out of the trailer.
“He… he and Rochelle took Ava into the castle!” exclaimed Kevin, pointing toward the tall turrets.
Nick and Brian looked at each other. The spaceship seemed to be settling right over Sleeping Beauty Castle. “We have to get them out of there!” cried Nick.
“I’ll go,” Brian volunteered. Unhitching Petunia from the trailer, he hopped onto her back. “Let’s go, Petunia! Up, up, and away!” With his arms wrapped tightly around the pandaskunk’s neck and the wind in his face, Brian flew all the way to the top of the castle. Petunia let him off on the biggest balcony at the front of the castle, and they ran inside. They found two staircases, one that spiraled up to the turrets, the other that led downward, toward the dungeons. “I’ll go up; you go down,” Brian directed Petunia, pointing to the second staircase. “Find AJ and his family and get them out of here!”
Petunia nodded her furry head and scampered down the stairs. The soft, pink light gradually darkened, taking on an eerie greenish cast the further down she went. At the bottom of the staircase, the pandaskunk passed through a doorway and found herself in a small, dimly-lit chamber. In the center of the room glowed a cauldron that was sitting above a small fire, bubbling with a toxic-looking potion and sending up clouds of gray-green smoke. Petunia squinted as the smoke stung her eyes. It was hard to see through the thick haze, but on the other side of the room, she suddenly spotted something that made her heart give a hopeful leap.
Darting around the fire, she bounded happily toward the familiar pandaskunk, whose face stared back at her through a small window in the wall on the far side of the room. “Mother?” whispered Petunia, her eyes filling with tears as she pressed her paw against the glass. On the other side, her mother brought her paw up to meet Petunia’s at the same time, her own eyes sparkling with happy tears. It had been so long since the two had seen each other. After what had happened at the San Diego Zoo, Petunia had thought she would never see her mother again. She blinked back tears, trying to erase the bad memory, but as soon as she closed her eyes, she saw her mother slumped on the ground, her side heaving as she struggled to take what Petunia thought had been her last breaths…“I’m sorry… sweetie,” said PopoZao, looking up at her daughter with her sad panda eyes. “I was just… trying to… protect you.”
“I know, Mama.” Petunia smiled through her tears, as she thought of all the times her mother had tried to shelter her from the other pandas’ ruthless taunting. “You always have.”
But that time, it wasn’t another panda picking on the baby pandaskunk. It was a boy. He had crawled over the fence that surrounded the panda paddock on a dare from his friends, who, laughing wildly, were snapping pictures of the boy as he struck silly poses with the strange-looking little panda, pulling its long, puffy tail around his neck like a boa. Petunia let out a yelp of pain as her tail was pulled, which was enough to bring Mama Bear barreling over.
The boy backed away slowly as PopoZao rose up on her hind legs, towering over him with her teeth bared, but it wasn’t fast enough for her. She took an angry swipe at him, and the boy screamed as her claws ripped through his t-shirt and sank into his skin. He tried to run, but she chased him and soon had him cornered. When the police arrived on the scene, he was cowering in the fetal position, covering his head with his arms, as the mother panda mauled him half to death. They had no choice but to shoot her.
But the officer’s aim was off, and rather than hitting her in the head and ending her life instantly, the bullet embedded itself in the back of PopoZao’s neck, severing her spinal cord. The panda collapsed immediately, unable to continue her attack, but she was still alive when Petunia approached her. The police stood back, allowing the young pandaskunk to spend a few minutes alone with her mother so she could say goodbye before the zookeepers came to put her in a cage in the Panda Research Center, where they would spend the next two years running all sorts of genetic tests on her.
“Does it hurt, Mama?” the baby pandaskunk asked.
“I don’t feel much,” PopoZao replied.
This was probably true, due to the damage to her spinal cord, but even as she lay dying, the mother panda did everything she could to protect her daughter from the pain of the world.
“Good.” Petunia reached out and put her tiny paw atop her mother’s, hoping to give her some comfort in her final moments, the way her mother always had when she was hurting.
She would never forget her mother’s last words - words of advice, of course, whispered right before the connections in her brain finished firing and she fell unconscious.
“Petunia, I want you to… to play games. It’s okay… to be silly… just as long as it doesn’t look like you’re about to attack the zoo guests…”
“I will,” promised Petunia.
“And tell Brian…” The panda mother gasped for breath, her eyes glazing over. “See. Tell him to see. And tell AJ to… swing away…” The words slurred from her muzzle as her eyes drifted shut, and her head slumped onto her paw.
“Mama?” Petunia shook her mother’s massive shoulder. “Mama, what does that mean? Who are Brian and AJ??”
But it was too late.
“What did you mean when you said ‘swing away,’ Mama?” Petunia asked, hoping to finally get an answer to a question that had been puzzling her for some time. “I know who Brian and AJ are now, but what did you want them to see?”
As she spoke, she saw her mother’s mouth moving at the same time. And that was when she realized the truth: she was looking not through a window, but into a mirror. Her mother’s face was merely her own reflection. With a sad sigh, the pandaskunk slowly turned away from the wall, feeling the pain of her mother’s death as if it were fresh.
“Devastating, isn’t it, to lose a loved one?”
Startled, Petunia looked up suddenly to see a small, dark figure emerge from the shadows.
“Yes,” sighed the stranger, “I can imagine it must be especially difficult to lose a parent, particularly for one so young. Yet it is a fate most Disney characters will suffer at some point or another. One of my best friends lost his mother when he was a boy, too. She was shot to death as well.”
Petunia shook her head in confusion. “I’m sorry. That’s very sad, but… I think you may have mistaken me with someone else. I’m not a Disney character.”
“Your father was a Disney character. That makes you a half-blood Disney princess.”
Petunia frowned. “But my father didn’t make Disney movies. I never actually got to meet him, but my mother told me he lived in a different zoo.”
am your father.”
Petunia’s mouth dropped open in shock, as the shadowy figure stepped slowly into the light. She found herself face to face with a skunk, who was wearing a bejeweled turban.
“Oh, do you like my turban?” asked the skunk, putting his paw atop his head. “I borrowed it from my friend Aladdin.”
Petunia blinked, still stunned by the skunk’s revelation. “You’re my… father?”
“Unfortunately, yes. My name is Flower,” said the skunk. “My semen was accidentally sent to the San Diego Zoo and used to inseminate your mother, instead of my wife, as it was intended. She got your would-be panda father’s sperm by mistake and died giving birth to your… brother, for lack of a better word.”
“You mean Patches!” gasped Petunia, who had been told the tale of Patches the Flying Pandaskunk by me during her stay at our condo.
Flower grimaced. “Yes, that’s right. You see, I, too, know what it’s like to lose members of my family. First my wife… then my son.”
“I’m sorry,” Petunia said again.
“No need to apologize. I’ve found a way to bring them back.” Flower reached up to his turban and removed the large jewel from the front, revealing it to be a reddish stone. As he held it up, it sparkled in the firelight, sending flecks of scarlet dancing across the stone walls of the dungeon. “This is the Resurrection Stone. All I need to do is add it to the magic potion I have prepared, and my wife and son will rise again.”
Petunia frowned. “Wouldn’t that mean making a… zombie
“So?” Flower snapped. “I’m desperate. You, of all creatures, should understand. Wouldn’t you do anything to bring your mother back from the dead?”
Petunia swallowed hard and didn’t answer.
She watched as Flower used a mortar and pestle to crush a small part of the stone into powder, which he then carried over to the cauldron and poured in to his potion. The bubbling liquid turned crimson and started to send out fiery sparks, as bright red steam began to rise from its surface. It cast a reddish glow on Flower’s face as he leaned over the cauldron, peering eagerly inside.
But after a few moments, when nothing happened, his face fell with disappointment. “Sometimes I find it hard to follow my master’s instructions,” he admitted. “He is a great wizard, and I am weak.”
“Your master?” asked Petunia.
Patches nodded. “Lord Voldemort - you know, from Harry Potter
? I met him at Universal Studios when I traveled to Orlando to visit my friends at Walt Disney World. Bambi and Thumper thought I was spending too much time alone. But now I’m never alone…” He shivered suddenly, then swore under his breath. “I don’t understand. What else must I do? How does it work? Help me, Master!”
And to Petunia’s horror, a voice answered, and the voice seemed to come from Flower itself. “Use the pandaskunk…”
Flower looked up, his eyes flashing red. “Yes… I see. I’ve forgotten a step. Petunia - come here! Now!”
His tone of voice made Petunia tremble, but she took a tentative step toward her father.
Flower reached out and took her paw. “Blood of the daughter,” the skunk growled, baring his teeth, “forcibly taken… you will resurrect my family!”
Petunia realized what Flower was about to do a second before it happened, but she could do nothing to prevent it; he was holding her paw too tightly. Struggling, she saw the sharp tips of his teeth shining in the firelight as he sank them into her skin. She felt the pointed fangs penetrate the biggest pad on her paw and blood seeping down into her fur. Flower, panting, produced a glass vial and held it to Petunia’s bite, so that a dribble of blood fell into it.
He skulked back to the cauldron with Petunia’s blood. He poured it inside. The liquid within turned, instantly, a blinding white. “It is ready, Master.”
“Now…” said the high, cold voice that had come from Flower. “Bring some to me.”
Petrified, Petunia watched as Flower filled the vial with potion. Then he reached up and unwrapped his turban. What was going on? The turban fell away. Flower’s head looked strangely oversized, even without it. Then he turned slowly on the spot.
Petunia would have screamed, but she couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Flower’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Petunia had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.
“Pandaskunk…” it whispered.
Petunia tried to take a step backwards, but her legs wouldn’t move.
“See what I have become?” the face said. “Mere shadow and vapor… I have form only when I can share another’s body… but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds. Once I drink the Elixir of Life produced from the Philosopher’s Stone, I will be able to create a body of my own once again. Now, Flower… give me my elixir.”
Stone?” repeated Flower, sounding puzzled.
The face rolled its red eyes. “Or Sorcerer’s
Stone, as you ignorant fools in the States know it.”
“But… you said this was the Resurrection
Stone!” Flower protested, holding up the gleaming red stone from his turban. “You said it would bring back my family!”
“First, you must resurrect me
. Then you and I shall find the real
Resurrection Stone, along with the Elder Wand and the Cloak of Invisibility. Together, we will become the Masters of Death.”
“Don’t do it, Dad!” Petunia shouted. She still wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but she knew it wouldn’t be wise to let her father feed that face with the potion.
Flower sighed and shook his head. “You don’t know the power of the Dark Side. I must obey my master.” With a shaking paw, he raised the vial of potion and reached around to the back of his head. The face’s snakelike features contorted, its tongue sticking out as it tried to catch a few drops of the elixir Flower was clumsily trying to tip down its throat.
“Stop, fool, or you’ll spill it all!” the face finally shouted in frustration. Fixing its red eyes upon Petunia, it said, “You… pandaskunk… give me my potion.”
Petunia shook her head, taking a step backward.
“Don’t be a fool,” snarled the face. “Join me, and together, we will conquer death.”
Petunia sprang toward the doorway, but Voldemort screamed, “SEIZE HER!” and the next second, Petunia felt Flower’s paw close around hers. At once, needle-sharp pains seared across her paw, as his claws dug into her skin. She yelled, struggling with all her might, and to her surprise, Flower let go of her. The pain in her paw lessened. She looked around wildly to see where her father had gone, and saw him hunched in pain, looking at the pads of his own paw - they were blistering before his eyes.
“Seize her! SEIZE HER!” shrieked Voldemort again, and Flower lunged, knocking Petunia clean off her hind feet, both paws around her neck.
“Master, I cannot hold her!” he howled with agony. “My paws! My paws!”
And Flower, though pinning Petunia to the ground with his hindquarters, let go of her neck and stared, bewildered, at his own paws. Petunia could see that they looked burned, raw, red, and shiny.
“Then kill her, fool, and be done!” screeched Voldemort.
Flower raised his claws to perform a deadly curse, but Petunia, by instinct, reached up and grabbed her father’s furry face.
Flower ran away from her, his face blistering, too, and then Petunia knew: her father couldn’t touch her hairy skin, not without suffering terrible pain. Her only chance was to keep hold of him, keep him in enough pain to stop him from killing her.
Petunia jumped to her feet, caught Flower by the tail, and hung on as tight as she could. Flower screamed and tried to throw her off, and as he did, he unleashed a spray of potent-smelling liquid from his anal scent glands. Petunia gagged and choked, suffocated and blinded by the cloud of toxic fumes. She couldn’t see. She could only hear her father’s terrible shrieks and Voldemort’s yells of, “KILL HER! KILL HER!” and then another voice, maybe in Petunia’s own head, crying, “Petunia! Petunia!”
She felt Flower’s tail wrenched from her grasp, knew all was lost, and fell into blackness… down… down… down…***
Up at the top of the castle, Brian had found AJ, Rochelle, and Ava in one of the towers, staring at a tableau of Sleeping Beauty along with the other tourists who were still blissfully unaware of the alien spacecraft hovering over their heads.
“AJ!” he cried. “Oh, thank God I found you guys.”
“Hey, Rok, what’s up? Did you and Nick find Tinker Bell and get some pixie dust?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t matter now. We’ve gotta get out of here and go somewhere safe! An alien spaceship has just entered our atmosphere, and it’s centered itself right over the castle! We could be in danger!”
AJ snorted. “Did Nick put you up to this? I gotta hand it to you, Rok, you’re a way better actor than he is. He can never keep a straight face.”
“I’m dead serious!” Brian insisted. “Do you see this?” He pointed to his chin. “This is my serious face!”
“AJ, I think he’s for real,” said Rochelle, looking uncertainly at Brian.
“I swear to God, I’m telling the truth,” added Brian, “and you guys know I wouldn’t lie about swearing to God. It’s a sin!”
AJ and Rochelle looked at each other, then down at their daughter. “Okay,” AJ said finally. “Let’s get outta here, and you can show us this spaceship of yours.”
“Yes… yes, I’ll show you. Come on!”
Brian led them back downstairs to the main entrance of the castle. There, he suddenly stopped. “Aren’t you coming?” asked AJ.
Brian hesitated. “I… I have to find Petunia. She went downstairs to look for you. I’ll go get her, and then we’ll be right behind you. Go on without us and tell the other guys we’re on our way. They’re waiting at the Walt Disney statue.”
“Are you sure? We could go with you,” AJ offered, but Brian shook his head.
“No, that’s alright. Go ahead. I’ll catch up with you guys soon.”
AJ shrugged. “Okay, man, whatever.” He put his hand on Rochelle’s shoulder, and they walked out of the castle with Ava in tow, while Brian turned and raced down the stairs that led to the dungeon.
Suddenly, he heard a thud, followed by a scream. He stopped on the landing, listening. Someone was definitely down there. More than one, by the sound of it. He could hear them shouting at each other.
“Seize her! SEIZE HER!”
“Master, I cannot hold her! My paws! My paws!”
“Then kill her, fool, and be done!”
Brian knew he was about to enter a dangerous situation, but he could not stand by and let the two men kill whoever it was they were talking about. He had tiptoed down a few more steps when he saw light ahead. Staying close to the wall, he stood off to the side of an open doorway at the bottom of the stairs, out of sight, and cautiously peeked inside.
A fire burned in the middle of the chamber, and its flickering light fell over the fight taking place a few feet away on the floor. Petunia was tussling with a skunk Brian recognized as Flower, her biological father. But there was a white face embedded in the back of Flower’s head, and when it spoke, Brian recognized it, too, and a chill ran down his spine.
“KILL HER! KILL HER!”
Knowing he had not a moment to spare, Brian burst through the doorway, shouting, “Petunia! Petunia!” just as the pandaskunk passed out. Pulling his tail out from between her paws, Flower turned, so that Brian found himself looking into the red eyes of the face on the back of his head. His own eyes began to water as the skunk smell invaded his nostrils, but he saw the mouth move and heard the high, cold voice say, “Kill the spare.”
Then, as Flower turned back toward him, there was a flash of green light, and everything was gone.
He lay facedown, listening to the silence. He was perfectly alone. Nobody was watching. Nobody else was there. He was not perfectly sure that he was there himself.
A long time later, or maybe no time at all, it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied thought, because he was lying, definitely lying, on some surface. Therefore he had a sense of touch, and the thing against which he lay existed too.
Almost as soon as he had reached this conclusion, Brian became conscious that he was naked. Convinced as he was of his total solitude, this did not concern him, but it did intrigue him slightly. What had happened to the Wylee elf costume he’d worn? He wondered whether, as he could feel, he would be able to see. In opening them, he discovered that he had eyes.
He lay in a bright mist, though it was not like mist he had ever experienced before. His surroundings were not hidden by cloudy vapor; rather the cloudy vapor had not yet formed into surroundings. The floor on which he lay seemed to be white, neither warm nor cold, but simply there, a flat, blank something on which to be.
He sat up. His body appeared unscathed, but for the first time, he wished he were clothed.
Barely had the wish formed in his head than a white bathrobe appeared a short distance away. He took it and pulled it on: it was soft, clean, and warm. It was extraordinary how it had appeared, just like that, the moment he had wanted it…
He stood up, looking around. Was he in Heaven, or had he been abducted by the aliens? The longer he looked, the more there was to see. A great vaulted ceiling glittered high above him in sunlight. Perhaps he was still in the palace.
Brian turned slowly on the spot, and his surroundings seemed to invent themselves before his eyes. A wide-open space, bright and clean, a hall larger by far than any arena he’d ever performed in, with that high, cathedral ceiling. It was quite empty. He was the only one there, except for-
“Petunia!” Petunia suddenly came bounding toward him, her panda paws padding soundlessly against the blank floor. “Petunia! You’re okay!” As he bent down to embrace the pandaskunk, wrapping his arms around her thick, furry neck, he saw someone else emerging from the mist. “Patches?!”
Patches the Flying Pandaskunk was walking toward him, his long, fluffy tail sticking spryly up in the air. “Brian.” He rose onto his hind feet and spread his front paws wide. “You wonderful Backstreet Boy. And Petunia. You brave, brave pandaskunk. Let us walk.”
Stunned, Brian and Petunia followed as Patches led him to three more stools that Brian had not previously noticed, set some distance away under that high, sparkling ceiling. Patches perched atop one of them, and Brian and Petunia climbed onto the other two, staring at the mystical pandaskunk’s face. Patches’ thick white fur, the friendly eyes shining from the center of two black circles, the striped tail: Everything was as Brian had remembered it. And yet…
“But you’re dead,” said Brian.
“Oh yes,” said Patches matter-of-factly.
“Then… we’re dead too?”
“Ah,” said Patches, smiling still more broadly. “That is the question, isn’t it? On the whole, dear Backstreet Boy, I think not.”
They looked at each other, the pandaskunk still beaming.
“Not?” repeated Brian.
“Not,” said Patches.
“But…” Brian slid his hand inside his robe, reaching instinctively toward the surgery scar on his chest. It did not seem to be there. “But I should have died. Voldemort used the Killing Curse on me! How can I be alive?”
“Love,” Patches said with a smile. “It was love that saved both of you. Petunia, your mother died protecting you. And Brian, your wife made you that rather ugly elf ensemble, which you wore without complaint for the same reason she put the effort into making it, even though she was mad at you: love. If there’s one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as Petunia’s mother’s for her or your wife’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person or panda who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Our father, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason, Sister. It was agony to touch a pandaskunk marked by something so good. But there is still some good in him. I know there’s still good in him.”
He was looking at Petunia now. The other pandaskunk nodded, swallowing hard. “But what about the Stone?” she asked, speaking for the first time. “The Resurrection Stone or Philosopher’s Stone or Sorcerer’s Stone or whatever it was. What happened to it?”
“It has been destroyed,” said Patches. “Its maker, my friend Saint Nicholas Flamel-”
Nicholas?” repeated Brian. “You mean… Santa Claus?”
Patches smiled. “Indeed I do.”
“But how do you know Santa?” asked Brian in confusion.
“We are both mystical characters associated with Christmas - of course we know each other. We’re friends with Frosty and Mr. Hankey, too. Well, anyway, I visited Santa in his hospital room, the same way I visited you. He and I have had a little chat and agreed it’s all for the best.”
Suddenly, it made sense to Brian how Santa could be over nine hundred years old. “But… that means he and Mrs. Claus will die, won’t they?”
“They have enough Elixir stored to set their affairs in order and then, yes, they will die.”
Patches smiled at the look of amazement on Brian’s face.
“To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Santa and Mrs. Claus, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
Brian thought about that for a long time, until he remembered what he had left behind. “We’ve got to go back, don’t we?”
“That is up to you.”
“I’ve got a choice?”
“Oh yes. You both do.” Patches smiled at them.
“But you want us to go back?”
“I think,” said Patches, “that if you choose to return, there is still a chance that Christmas can be saved. By returning, you may ensure that good little girls and boys still get the gifts they are anticipating on Christmas morning. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say goodbye for the present.”
Brian nodded and sighed. He stood up, and Patches and Petunia did the same. They all looked for a long moment into each other’s faces.
“Tell me one last thing,” said Brian. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Patches beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Brian’s ears, even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Brian, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”***
The whole time this was happening on the West Coast, the fifth Backstreet Boy, Howie, had been making dinner with his wife, Leigh, at their home in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s getting dark out there,” he observed, glancing out the kitchen window. Something about the sunset seemed foreboding. The sky was an angry shade of orange, with fast-moving, fiery clouds. “Looks like a storm’s rolling in.”
“You better call the boys inside,” suggest Leigh, so Howie stepped outside the back door.
“James! Holden!” he called to his two young sons. “Time to come in!”
“Daddy, lookit!” he heard his firstborn, James, yell from the front yard.
Howie jogged around the side of the house to find the boys playing with water guns. “What are you guys up to?” he asked.
“Shooting the aliens,” James replied matter-of-factly, pointing his squirt gun at the sky.
“Oh, you’re shooting aliens, huh?” Howie laughed, as he looked up. His mouth dropped open when he saw what his son was aiming at: a colossal flying saucer, hovering over the horizon.
“Pew, pew, pew!” James made high-pitched laser noises as he squeezed the trigger of his squirt gun, sending weak spurts of water into the air.
Howie felt light-headed. Scooping up Holden, he held the toddler on his hip, took James by the hand, and hauled both boys back into the house. “Go play until dinner, guys,” he told them weakly. Once his sons were safely out of hearing range, he went into the living room and turned on the TV. “Leigh!” he called. “Come here! You’ve gotta see this!”
It was all over the news. “Pentagon officials are reporting more ships have just arrived over Disneyland Paris in France, Tokyo Disney Resort in Japan, and Hong Kong Disneyland in Hong Kong. In addition to the two ships already positioned over the United States - one over Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the other over Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida - this brings the total up to five of these amusement park-sized spacecrafts.”
“Oh my God!” gasped Howie.
“What’s going on?” Leigh walked into the living room, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
Too stunned to speak, Howie simply shook his head and pointed at the screen. While Leigh stood gaping at the TV in disbelief, Howie began to pace in the background, raking his hands through his hair as a million thoughts ran through his head. “I better call my mother! I gotta call my sisters… I gotta call my brothers…”***
Nick was still standing in front of the Walt Disney statue with Kevin when Howie called.
“Are you watching the news?!”
Nick snorted. “Who needs the news when you’re an eyewitness? I’m watching the spaceship
Howie gasped. “So you are
in LA? Damn, bro, I was hoping you’d be in Tennessee. I doubt they’d target Dollywood or Graceland, although you never know…”
Nick laughed. “What the hell are you talking about, Howie?”
“Haven’t you heard? They’re all over the world! Not just over Anaheim, but Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and… Orlando.”
“Holy shit, are you serious?” Nick held the phone away from his head and turned to Kevin. “Dude, Howie says this is happening all over the world! There’s one in Orlando, too!”
Kevin’s eyes widened with fear.
“Yeah, and they all seem to be centered over Disney parks,” Howie added.
“Wow. That’s really… weird.”
“What’s weird?” AJ had just appeared with Rochelle and Ava. Kevin whispered what Howie had told them.
“Hey, where’s Brian?” Nick asked AJ.
On the other end of the phone, Howie had overheard. “Isn’t he in Atlanta?!” Nick could hear his panicked voice say.
“No, not you; I was talking to AJ.”
“AJ? He’s with you?”
“Yeah, man, all of us are here. Even Brian, but apparently he’s still inside the castle; that’s what AJ just said.”
“Castle?!” Howie squawked. “What castle??”
Nick sighed, staring up at the spacecraft again. “Um… the one at Disneyland?”
Disneyland?!” Howie gasped. “You guys gotta get out of there!”
“We’re going,” Nick promised, “just as soon as Brian and Petunia come back.”
“Petunia?? Who the hell is Petunia?!”
“Long story, bro. I’ll fill ya in later. Gotta go now, bye!” Nick hung up on Howie and crammed his phone back into his pocket. “God, Howie’s a friggin’ basket case,” he told Kevin and AJ.
“I kinda don’t blame him,” said Kevin, looking nervously up at the spaceship. “He’s right; we really should leave. Now.”
“Not without Brian,” insisted Nick stubbornly. “We’re not gonna leave him behind.”
“Well, he better hurry the hell up and get his ass out here then,” grumbled AJ.
All of a sudden, Kevin gasped. “They’re opening up!”
Nick looked up. A circular door in the very center of the spaceship, poised right above the spire on the tallest tower, was opening outward, its panels extending like the petals of an upside down flower. Inside, he could see brilliant pink light.
“So pretty!” he heard Ava say and turned to see her smiling in her mother’s arms, looking up at the ship without the slightest trace of fear, only fascination. Nick wished he shared her sentiments. He had always thought he would be ecstatic when the alien visitors he’d always known had existed finally arrived, but now that that moment had come, he felt nervous and afraid.
Returning his attention to the ship, he saw that bright pink laser beams were projecting from each of the opening’s petals, like lightning bolts. He could suddenly feel the electricity crackling in the warm air and sensed what was going to happen a second before it did.
Helplessly, he watched as the beams of light converged into a single column, which suddenly shot downward and struck the castle tower.
“Get down!” he heard Kevin scream and saw AJ hurl himself on top of Rochelle and Ava, slamming them to the pavement and shielding them with his body. Nick ducked, covering his face with his arms, as Sleeping Beauty Castle exploded, sending a massive fireball full of smoke and shrapnel his way.
Nick stayed down until the smoke had cleared enough to see, then stood up slowly. The ground was still shaking, as, all around him, panicked people ran by, screaming. In the midst of the chaos, he saw Kevin, AJ, and their families climbing back to their feet. Everyone seemed shaken, but miraculously unscathed.
Kevin stared at the burning remnants of the castle, his brow furrowing as the last tower toppled and fell. “I’m sure Brian wasn’t still inside that thing when it blew…” he said uncertainly.
Nick felt a momentary jolt of panic, but managed to keep his emotions in check. Clearing his mind, he searched his feelings, then shook his head. “He wasn’t,” he said, smiling. “I can feel it.”
Chapter End Notes:
I am planning to credit all the sources I stole from for the sake of this spoof in an author's note at the end, but now seems the appropriate time to state that I obviously plagiarized scenes from Harry Potter in the last two parts for the purpose of parody. I am nowhere near as brilliant as my idol J.K. Rowling; they're her ideas and her words - I'm just borrowing and twisting them! Since JKR is a supporter of fanfic, I'd like to think she wouldn't mind.
Brian was lying facedown on the castle floor again. The smell of smoke filled his nostrils. He could feel the cold hard stone beneath his cheek. Every inch of him ached, and the place where the Killing Curse had hit him felt like the bruise of an iron-clad punch. He did not stir, but remained exactly where he had fallen, with his left arm bent out at an awkward angle and his mouth gaping. He had expected to hear that high, cold laugh again, but instead, hurried footsteps, whispers, and the sound of a fire alarm filled the air.
It was Petunia’s voice. Desperate to see what was happening, Brian opened his eyes by a millimeter.
Flower the Skunk seemed to be getting to his feet. Petunia knelt beside him, helping him up. Something had happened when he had hit Brian with the Killing Curse. Had he, too, collapsed? It seemed like it. And where was Voldemort? When Flower stumbled and fell over again, Brian caught sight of the back of his head. Where there had once been a snakelike, white face, there was only a white stripe of fur. Voldemort had vanished, leaving Flower for dead.
Becoming more aware of the fire alarm ringing repeatedly in the background, Brian pulled himself painfully onto his hands and knees. “Petunia,” he said, as he slowly climbed to his feet. “I think they’re evacuating the castle. We need to get out of here.”
Petunia nodded. “Come on, Father,” she said, crouching down next to the fallen skunk. “Climb onto my back.”
Flower shook his head. “No… leave me.”
“But you’ll die!”
“Nothing can stop that now,” said Flower, taking a ragged breath. Brian could hear the air rattling around in his lungs and knew he wasn’t long for this world. Whatever Voldemort had done to leave his animal host, it was killing him.
Petunia seemed to recognize it, too. “You’re going to be… just fine,” she tried to reassure her father, but her voice shook as she said it.
The faintest trace of a smile appeared on the skunk’s face. “Liar.”
Petunia shook her head. “I won’t leave you!”
Flower stretched out on the floor, making himself more comfortable. “Petunia,” he whispered. “Help me take… this mask off…”
Petunia cocked her head to the side in confusion. “You’re wearing a mask?”
“I was involved in a… horrific forest fire… in my youth.” He was wheezing worse than ever. “Just for once… let me look on you with… my own eyes.”
With shaking paws, Petunia took hold of the sides of his oversized head and lifted it off his body. Underneath, Flower’s face was badly burnt, his former features hardly distinguishable through the melted mass of gray flesh, bald except for a few sparse patches of black and white fur.
For a few moments, the dying skunk just gazed up at his offspring. Then, struggling for breath, he said, “Now… go… my daughter. Leave me.”
“No,” said Petunia, shaking her head stubbornly again. “You’re coming with me. I won’t leave you here; I’ve got to save you!”
“You already have… Petunia. Patches was right. Tell your brother… he was right.” Flower was slurring his words now and hardly making sense. How could he have known what Patches had said? Brian wasn’t surprised to see his big blue eyes slowly shut, as his head slumped toward the floor.
“Father…” whispered Petunia. “I won’t leave you.”
But Flower was already gone.
Brian wished he could give his pandaskunk friend a few moments alone with her father, but there wasn’t time. “Petunia?” he said gently. “We’ve gotta go. We can bring your dad’s body with us, but we have to get out of the castle. Come on.”
Silently, Petunia nodded. Brian gently scooped up the dead skunk and draped it across her back, then climbed on behind it. The “magic” Wylee scarf whipped in his face as Petunia soared up the stairwell and out an upstairs window. But once the flying pandaskunk hit the open air, a gust of wind caught the scarf and blew it clean off her.
“The magic scarf!” Brian gasped, as he watched his wife’s creation flutter away.
Petunia turned her head to look back at him, her eyes wide with panic. All of a sudden, they began to plummet.
“Petunia! Come on, fly! Flap that tail!” Brian begged, as the ground grew closer. “The magic scarf was just a gag! You can fly! Honest, you can! Hurry! Please!”
They were a fraction of a second from splatting onto the pavement when Petunia finally pumped her puffy tail, giving them the upward thrust needed to pull out of the dive at the last possible moment. The pandaskunk sailed through the sky, putting distance between them and Sleeping Beauty Castle, which was suddenly bathed in an eerie, pink light.
Seconds later, the castle exploded.
Brian could feel a wave of overwhelming heat and looked back over his shoulder to see a massive fireball shooting toward them. “Must go faster, must go faster!” he urged Petunia, squeezing the scruff of her neck as he clung tight to her fur. The pandaskunk pumped her tail harder, putting on a fresh burst of speed. Out of the fire, she flew, dodging the flames that singed the tip of her tail, diving to avoid the smoke that stung her eyes.
Suddenly, Brian became aware of the sound of his own name being shouted from somewhere down below. He looked down and saw Nick, waving frantically at him. Tapping Petunia’s shoulder, he pointed, and the pandaskunk started to descend. He could feel the heat of the fire growing more and more intense as it gained on them and knew they could not outfly it much longer. Finally, a few feet from the ground, he rolled off of Petunia’s back and let himself fall.
“BRIAN!” Throwing an arm around him, Nick pulled him down, and they flattened their bodies against the pavement, as the smoke poured over them.***December 23
The next day dawned hazy and cool. As the early morning sun’s weak rays filtered through the fog, casting its golden light across the land, the full extent of the devastation to Disneyland was finally revealed. Sleeping Beauty Castle lay in smoldering ruins, and most of the attractions found in nearby Fantasyland had been destroyed.
“God, this is just depressing,” said AJ, looking down at the sad remnants of the Dumbo ride. Most of the flying elephants had been reduced to mangled hunks of metal, their trunks twisted, big ears bent.
He and Kevin had long since sent their families home, anxious to get their wives and children out of harm’s way, but the Boys themselves had stayed through the night to help with the search and recovery efforts. There were a lot of injured people and Disney characters and still more dead bodies lying beneath the rubble. And above it all, the spaceship still loomed, seemingly dormant for now, but not for long.
“We’ve got to do something,” Nick insisted, still desperate to save Christmas. “We’ve gotta find a way to take that thing down!”
Kevin raised his eyebrows. “Don’t you think we should leave that up to… oh, I dunno… the military
“Do you see
any military planes around?” Nick retorted, throwing his arms into the air. “We’ve
got the power to stop this - and
Kevin snorted. “What power? We’re singers in a boyband.”
Rolling his eyes, Nick reached into the front pocket of his fur-lined Wylee hoodie and pulled out a bejeweled pendant on a long, gold chain. “Maybe you’ve forgotten all about the amulets Zanell gave us, old man, but I sure as hell haven’t. Who’s with me?” He looked around at his other bandmates, silently challenging them to argue.
“I’m with you, bro,” Brian replied with a grin and whipped out his wallet, opening the Wylee-embossed leather to reveal the amulet tucked safely inside.
“Hell yeah!” enthused AJ, reaching for his own amulet, which was hanging on the silver chain he wore with his pants.
They all looked expectantly at Kevin. Slowly and sheepishly, the eldest Backstreet Boy opened his hand to reveal his amulet, which he’d apparently had all along. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,” he said with a heavy sigh. “It’s been a long time since we saved the world from Queen Sinissta.”
“And now our planet faces a new threat,” said Nick nobly. “We must once again wear our amulets around our necks and use them against the aliens. When our five powers combine, we are unstoppable. We are... Backstreet.”
And now for some back story
:Our world was in peril.
Zanell, a communications officer from the planet Zophacia, could no longer sit by and watch as her merciless ruler, Queen Sinissta, invaded another innocent planet. She gave five magic amulets to five special Boys:
KEVIN, from Lexington, Kentucky, with the power of super strength.
From Orlando, Florida… HOWIE, with the power of mental illusion.
From West Palm Beach… AJ, with the power of marksmanship.
Also from Lexington… BRIAN, with the power of jumping really high!
And from Tampa… NICK, with the power of… making things work! Ooh, and also some mad martial arts skills! Yeah, that’s right! Nick gets TWO powers, for he is THE CHOSEN ONE.
When the five (six?) powers combine, they form Earth’s greatest boyband: THE BACKSTREET BOYS.
“Go BACKSTREET!” shouted the Boys, their amulets colliding as they chest bumped.
“But wait,” said Brian in confusion as he looked down at himself. “Something’s wrong. Where are our cool costumes? Last time we used these, we started changing as soon as we put the amulets around our necks.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Nick frowned. “I’m still wearing this ugly Wylee outfit. And I don’t feel that tingling sensation…”
Kevin shook his head. “I don’t feel super strong yet.”
“It’s ‘cause we’re missing one of the amulets,” said AJ. “We need Howie!”
The other three boys sighed. But just when the situation was beginning to seem desperate again, they heard a familiar voice behind them.
“Did somebody say ‘Howie D’?”
They turned in shock to see Howie himself striding toward them, a big, goofy grin on his face.
“Howie doin’, guys?” he asked, hugging each of them. His hug with Nick lasted a little longer than the rest, but no one else seemed to notice. “When I heard Disneyland was destroyed, I thought the worst… especially when none of you would answer my texts!”
Nick, Brian, AJ, and Kevin exchanged guilty looks. “Sorry, bro. We were a little preoccupied here,” said AJ, pointing to the heap of rubble where the castle had once stood.
Howie shrugged. “It’s alright. I understand. From what I’ve heard, Disney World doesn’t look a whole lot better.”
“Is your family okay?” asked Kevin.
Howie nodded. “As soon as we saw the spaceship and realized what was happening, I put them on a plane to New Jersey to stay with Leigh’s folks, while I booked the next flight here. I barely made it off the ground before they took out Cinderella’s castle. I could see the fireball from the air.”
“Wow,” said Brian softly. “You’re lucky, man. And Leigh and the kids made it safely to Jersey?”
“Yeah, I talked to her when I landed. They’re freaked out, but fine otherwise. So what’s the plan here?” He looked around. “I see you’re wearing your amulets. I’ve got mine, too.” He slipped his on around his neck. “I thought we might need them.”
“See?” shouted Nick triumphantly. “We’re already starting to transform! Now that we’re united, our powers will work!” He looked down at himself, relieved to see that his hideous Wylee costume was covered by badass, black body armor. The other Boys had also changed: Kevin was wearing similar suit of red armor, AJ had on his brown trench coat, Howie was cloaked in blue, and Brian wore… a blue vest with gray shorts. Well, not all of their superhero costumes could be as cool as Nick’s. His even came with ninja weapons! And nifty goggles! “Now we just need a plan!” Nick said happily, whipping his nunchucks around absently.
“Watch it there, ‘Ninchuck Nick,’” said Kevin, taking a wary step back.
“I’ve got it!” AJ suddenly exclaimed. “We need to attack them in the air, right? So we’ll use some of the pixie dust Nick stole from Tinker Bell on these Dumbo elephants to make them fly! No, hear me out, guys,” he insisted, when the others looked at him skeptically. “Here’s how it will work: Brian can use his jumping ability to grab the undamaged ones that are still stuck up high and bring them down, then Kevin can use his super strength to rip them off the arms of the ride. Then Howie will use his powers of mental illusion to imagine the elephants’ trunks are missile-launchers, and I’ll load them with ammo from my laser guns. And then Nick can use his power to make things work to… make them work!”
Kevin frowned, his brows furrowing. “That’s either incredibly clever or completely crazy… I can’t tell which.”
“It’ll work!” Nick guaranteed with a grin. “I’ll make
Howie do it!” Howie agreed cheesily.
“Howie… stop,” said AJ. “Brian, you in?”
“You bet!” replied Brian.
“Alright, then. On three. One… two… three…”
“BACKSTREET!” they chanted again, then broke apart to carry out AJ’s plan.
“How many Dumbos do we need?” asked Brian, as he bounced off the ground to bring down the first elephant. “Who’s all gonna fly these things?”
“I think only those of us with flight experience should,” said Kevin. “Which would be… me.”
“And me!” cried Nick.
Kevin raised his eyebrows.
“I played a pilot in Kill Speed
, remember? Dolla dolla bill, yo!”
“But wasn’t that just a prop plane? You didn’t actually
“So? I’ve played enough video games to know how!” Nick insisted. “And I did
have my own rocketship, remember?”
“Kevin, he was going to fly the Wylee trailer around the world,” Brian pointed out.
Kevin sighed. “Fine. Whatever. Go ahead and fly the damn Dumbo. But if you crash and burn, don’t blame me.”
“I’ll blame Brian,” said Nick happily. “Everything’s always his
“Everything except for infecting Santa with Nick Plague,” Brian was quick to counter. “That one’s on you.”
Nick’s face fell. “Oh yeah…”
“Well, now’s not the time to dwell on it,” said Kevin quickly, clapping his hands together. Now that they had a plan in motion, he was eager to keep things moving. “Okay, so we’ll need one more elephant for Nick.”
“Well, what about the rest of us?” asked AJ. “What are we supposed to do?”
“It would be a good idea for some of us to stay on the ground, in case the aliens come down to fight once we start attacking their ship. AJ, you and Howie can lead the ground force. Use Howie’s illusion skills to arm yourselves and anyone else you can find with more laser guns. And Brian, we’ll also need a pair of eyes to oversee the entire operation. Why don’t you hop up on the Wylee trailer and use your jumping power to see what’s going on in the air and
on the ground? That way, you can give us commands.”
Brian blinked. “So… you want me to bounce up and down on top of the Wylee trailer and watch
the action?” he asked slowly.
“That’s right. And hey, if the aliens attack, you can leap into the air and knock them right out of the sky with your magic basketball!” Kevin demonstrated with a quick jump shot.
Brian sighed. Sometimes it felt like he’d drawn the short straw when it came to powers. But what choice did he have? “Okay,” he agreed. As he trudged off toward the Wylee trailer with the basketball that had appeared in his arms when he’d put on his amulet, it occurred to him that the other guys were putting themselves in real danger, especially Nick and Kevin. He would feel better about their plan if he knew they had some kind of protection. Seeing the logo of his wife’s company gleam off the side of the trailer, Brian was struck with sudden inspiration. He hurried into the trailer, rummaged through the piles of presents still waiting to be delivered, and ran back to the Boys with a wad of fabric clutched in his first.
“Guys, wait!” he called, as Kevin and Nick were climbing into their elephants. “Will you do me one favor? Will you please… wear one of these?” He thrust a Wylee scarf at each of them.
Nick’s lip curled with disgust, while Kevin just looked confused. “One of Leighanne’s scarves?” he asked. “Why?”
“Because Leighanne probably put him up to it, that’s why!” Nick shouted before Brian could answer. “I swear, that bitch has got his balls shoved inside one of her handbags so that she can carry them around with her and control him even when she’s not anywhere near him - which is hardly ever! What’s her agenda this time, Brian? Is she trying to sell her accessories to aliens
“Nick, stop! For God’s sake, shut up and listen!” snapped Brian. “This has nothing to do with Leighanne. This is me
giving you this scarf because I love you, bro, and I hope it will help keep you safe.” The same way my Wylee clothes shielded me,
he added silently, rubbing the place where the Killing Curse had struck him. He knew better than to say this out loud, knew Nick would never understand. He
hadn’t been there. But Brian hoped he would at least wear the scarf.
“Oh, my bad. I forgot - plaid is impenetrable to lasers!” said Nick sarcastically, but he put the scarf on anyway, tucking the ends into his body armor. Kevin did the same.
Brian, impressed with Nick’s use of the word “impenetrable,” smiled. “Thanks, guys. Good luck,” he added, as he went to give scarves to Howie and AJ. He hoped it wouldn’t be the last time he saw his friends alive.
Chapter End Notes:
Happy Birthday, Ninchuck Nick!
On the other side of the park, Petunia was oblivious to the Boys’ plan. After the explosion, the young pandaskunk had carried her father’s body away from the wreckage, intending to give him a proper burial. Instead, she had found his two best friends, a deer named Bambi and a rabbit named Thumper. They had taken her to a shady patch of trees - one of Flower’s favorite spots, they’d told her - and insisted upon laying his body out there so the other Disney characters could come by and pay their respects.
By sunrise, Flower’s body was surrounded by mourners and… well, flowers. Meanwhile, poor Petunia was exhausted. She hadn’t slept all night. Leaving her father under the supervision of his friends and seven solemn dwarves, the pandaskunk slipped away to find a quiet place to curl up and close her eyes for awhile. All she wanted to do was sleep, if only so she could forget what had happened.
But sleep didn’t come easily to the sad pandaskunk. It seemed like she had just shut her eyes when she heard a scurrying sound in the bushes. With a start, she opened her eyes to find two strange creatures staring at her curiously. “You okay, kid?” the smaller one asked.
“I guess so,” said Petunia sadly, referring only to her physical condition. Aside from some singed fur on the tip of her tail, the pandaskunk had escaped the explosion mostly unscathed. Yet her heart ached for the father she had hardly known. Not in the mood for conversation, she pulled herself painfully to her feet and padded off in search of a more private place to nap.
“Hey, where you going?”
“Nowhere,” said Petunia shortly as she walked away, her tail hanging limply between her legs.
“Gee,” she heard the smaller animal say to his companion. “She looks blue.”
“I’d say more black and white…” replied the big one.
“No, no, no. I mean she’s depressed
“Oh.” Petunia heard heavy footsteps approaching. “Hey, what’s wrong?” asked the larger of the two animals as he came up alongside her.
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Good,” said the smaller one, as he joined the other two. “We don’t wanna hear about it.”
“Come on, Timon!” whispered his companion. To Petunia, he asked, “Anything we can do?”
Petunia sighed. “Not unless you can change the past.”
“You know, kid, in times like this, my buddy Timon here says, ‘You gotta put your behind in the past!’”
“No, no, no, Pumbaa!” cried Timon, waving his arms. “Amateur. Lie down before you hurt yourself.” His friend, Pumbaa, sank to the ground, looking disgruntled. To Petunia, Timon said, “It’s ‘You gotta put your past behind ya.’ Look, kid. Bad things happen, and you can’t do anything about it, right?”
“Right,” replied Petunia glumly.
“Wrong! When the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world.”
Petunia frowned. “Well, that’s not what I was taught.”
“Then maybe you need a new lesson! Repeat after me: Hakuna Matata.”
“Ha-KU-na… Ma-TA-ta,” enunciated Pumbaa. “It means ‘no worries.’”“Hakuna Matata,”
sang Timon, “What a wonderful phrase!”
Pumbaa joined in. “Ain’t no passin’ craze!”
“It means no worries… for the rest of your days…”
Timon went on, oblivious to the fact that Petunia had started to walk away again. The pandaskunk just wasn’t in the mood for a song, but her new pals went on singing in harmony anyway. “It’s our problem-free… philosophy… Hakuna Matata!”***
Meanwhile, Backstreet Boys were preparing to engage the aliens in battle.
“All wings, report in,” said Brian from his position atop the Wylee trailer, testing his Bluetooth headset.
“Dumbo 1, standing by,” Kevin replied from his flying elephant.
“Dumbo 2, standing by,” said Nick, pulling up alongside Kevin. As the haze cleared, he saw the alien spaceship looming straight ahead of him, even more massive than it had appeared from the ground. “Holy god…”
“Lock and load!” exclaimed Kevin, with more confidence than Nick felt.
“Roger that,” replied Brian from the ground. “Fire at will.”
“Dumbo 1, fire!” shouted Kevin as he launched his first laser missile.
“Dumbo 2, fire!” Nick echoed, firing as well. He and Kevin hung back and watched as the twin jets of light followed a trajectory straight toward the spaceship. But seconds before their lasers should have struck it, they saw two bursts of pink light ripple over the surface of the ship, like wavelets from a pebble being dropped into water.
Watching, Brian frowned. “Did they not get through?”
When the pink light faded away, Nick could see there had been no damage done to the ship. “No,” he said with disappointment. “They must have some kind of protective shield over their hull.”
“We should have seen this coming,” said Kevin. “Dumbos, pull up!”
As he and Nick swooped up and over the spaceship to avoid hitting the side of it, smaller spacecrafts suddenly started to emerge from inside it. The alien spacecrafts fired at the two flying elephants, pelting them with pink laser bullets.
“Oh no, you did not
shoot that pink shit at me!” cried Kevin, swerving to avoid the onslaught.
“I got ya covered, Big Daddy,” Nick replied, coming up behind him to shoot at his attacker. But Nick’s laser bullets seemed to be swallowed up by the small alien ship, disintegrating into the bright pink aura that swelled around the ship. “Damn! They got shields, too!”
“Let’s go, Nick,” he heard Kevin say as he flew away. “Move, Nick, move!”
Nick looked over his shoulder and saw another spacecraft following him. “They’re on me like white on rice, Big Daddy.”
“Get out of there, guys!” Brian ordered from the ground. “Abort mission!”
“Let’s push it, Nick!” shouted Kevin. “We gotta go! We gotta go!”
Nick accelerated, but behind him, the alien ship quickly caught up. “I can’t shake ‘em! I can’t shake ‘em!”
“Yes, you can! Just the way I showed you,” Kevin coached him. “Let’s go!”
But Nick knew there was no way he was going to be able to outfly an alien spacecraft in an elephant. He was going to have to outsmart them instead. “Check me out, Kev. I’m gonna try something.”
“Man, don’t do nothin’ stupid over there,” Kevin warned.
Nick grinned. “You know me.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!”
Nick just laughed as he leaned forward, forcing his Dumbo to take a dramatic dive.
“Nick! Nick!” cried Kevin, as he watched Nick’s elephant suddenly plummet. “What are you doing??”
Nick couldn’t respond; his jaw was clenched tightly as he tried to concentrate on not crashing into the ground. He could hear the alien craft gaining on him and saw one of its laser bullets go shooting right by him.
“Nick, he’s closing on you!”
The alien ship fired again, and this time, the shot struck one of the elephant’s large ears, throwing it off balance.
“Nicky!” Kevin screamed, as Nick’s Dumbo tipped to one side, leaving a trail of smoke behind it as it spiraled toward the ground. The alien ship was still shooting at it. Then, all of a sudden, there was an explosion, and both Nick and the alien ship disappeared into a cloud of smoke and dust. “Nicky, NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”***
Petunia flopped down on the side of a small reflecting pool, too tired to walk any further. Resting her chin on the edge of the pool, she gazed absently into the water, where she caught sight of her rippling reflection. Again, her own sad panda face reminded her of her mother’s.
“You said you’d always be there for me,” she whispered. A tear trickled slowly down her cheek and splashed into the water, distorting the reflection. “But you’re not. And it’s all my fault.”“I’m sorry… sweetie,”
she could hear her mother saying, as she struggled to stay conscious. “I was just… trying to… protect you.”
Petunia sighed and wrapped her long, fluffy tail around herself, wrinkling her nose at the stench of burnt fur. That which had cursed her was her only source of comfort now that both of her parents were gone. There was no one left to protect her. The orphaned pandaskunk knew then that she was on her own.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” she muttered cynically to herself. “Putting my trust in others… letting myself love… it only leads to more pain. If I have no one in my life, then I have nothing left to lose.”
Another explosion shook the ground underneath her, sending water sloshing over the sides of the pool and onto Petunia, but the pandaskunk hardly reacted. More people were probably dead now. She wanted no part of it.
At the sound of her name, she looked up and saw a cloud of smoke rising from somewhere on the other side of the park. With a sigh, she put her head back down on her paws and had just close her eyes, when she heard it again.
The voice was a painfully familiar one. “Mother?” Petunia opened her eyes and looked up again to see the smoke shifting to form the silhouette of a bear. Out of the cloud, her mother emerged, her familiar features slowly taking shape. “Mother!”
“Petunia,” her voice echoed from the sky. “You’ve been so brave.”
“We are so… proud of you,” said a second voice, and Petunia gasped as Flower’s ghostly face appeared over her mother’s shoulder.
“Father!” The tears were pouring from Petunia’s eyes now, matting the fur on her face. “I didn’t want you to die. Either of you. I’m sorry…”
“I am sorry too,” said Flower. “Sorry I will never know you… Sorry I wasn’t a better father. I never told Patches how proud I was of him in life. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
Petunia smiled through the tears and snot dripping from her snout.
“Petunia,” said PopoZao, “You must not give up. You must help the Backstreet Boys save Christmas.”
“But how can I go back?” Petunia shook her head sadly. “I… I tried
to help them, but it’s just too hard! It’s too hard to keep losing the ones I love! Why does it always have to be me?”
“Remember who you are,” said Flower. “You are our daughter and the only pandaskunk left who can save Christmas. Remember who you are…”
“No!” Petunia cried, as her parents started to ascend back into the cloud. “Please! Don’t leave me!”
“Father!” Petunia began to chase after the cloud of smoke.
“Mother! Don’t go, Mother! Don’t go!”
Desperately, Petunia followed the smoke across the park, passing the sad ruins of rides, climbing over collapsed concession stands. Finally, she found the source of the smoke: a fiery crash in front of the former Sleeping Beauty castle, where she was forced to face her fear of losing someone she loved all over again.
“No,” whispered Petunia. “Not this time!”
That was when the pandaskunk went charging forward, into the fray.
Before the crash, Brian had been listening to Kevin and Nick’s conversation through his Bluetooth earpiece. Hearing the panic building in his cousin’s voice, he had looked up to see one of the two Dumbos suddenly dive out of the sky, followed closely behind by one of the smaller alien ships. As the two aircrafts came closer to his position atop the Wylee trailer, Brian bent his knees and concentrated all of his jumping power on taking out the alien ship that was shooting at Nick. Just as the alien craft was about to fly overhead, he sprang into the air and lobbed his basketball at it. The ball soared in a high arc across the sky and crashed right through the windshield of the spacecraft.
“YES!” shouted Brian, pumping his fist in the air, but the next thing he knew, both the alien ship and the elephant had disappeared into a cloud of dust and smoke coming from the ground. That was when he heard Kevin scream. Unsure of which aircraft had crashed - or was it both of them? - Brian landed on the ground with a sinking feeling in his stomach and took off running toward the wreckage.
He saw Kevin’s elephant swerve to avoid the thick cloud of smoke and take off in the other direction, trying to shake the alien ship that was still tailing it. Kev can handle it,
Brian told himself, his heart pumping fast as he ran. I’ve gotta find Nick first.
The hot smoke scorched his lungs and stung his eyes, almost blinding him, but Brian fought through it, waving his arms in front of his face. He could hear steam hissing from an engine and knew the alien ship was somewhere nearby, but he ran past it, looking around for a fallen elephant. That was when he heard a scream, which was quickly followed by a familiar cackle.
“WHOOOOOO!!! Hahahaha! YEAH!”
Brian’s heart leaped into his throat. As the smoke started to clear, he could see a human silhouette flinging his arms into the air in triumph.
“Yeah, dat’s right, punk ass! You don’t want none! Go ‘head, take it back to mama!”
Something about flying seemed to bring out Nick’s inner black man, mused Brian, breaking into a grin. “Nick!” he called. “Nick, over here!”
“Brian?” Nick came trotting through the smoke, and the two collided in a tight hug. “Was that you that knocked that bitch outta the sky? Thanks, bro; you saved my life!”
“Thank Leighanne,” said Brian, touching the Wylee scarf that was still wrapped around Nick’s neck. “I think her clothes are good luck!”
Nick snorted. “I think you just have good aim. C’mon, let’s go see what’s inside that thing.” He pointed to the crashed alien craft, now visible through the thinning smoke.
“Do we have to?” Brian asked, but he followed Nick anyway, not about to let his friend go alone.
“Where you at, huh? Where you at?!” Nick shouted as he swaggered right up to the spaceship and opened its hatch, clearly expecting to find a semiconscious alien he could punch in the face with the quip, “Welcome to Earth.” What he found instead was much more surprising.
As the spaceship door slowly rose, both boys heard a low, growling sound. Nick’s bravado failed him, and he took a tentative step backward. Brian stayed behind him, fighting the urge to turn and run away. Out of the smoky, dark interior of the ship emerged a huge, hulking, yet oddly familiar shape. As it lumbered toward them on four feet, something shiny caught the light. Recognizing the crown atop the creature’s head, Nick gasped. “Princess Kujo?!”
The Saint Bernard stood in the doorway, her silver tiara tilting to one side. Brian stared at her, feeling his breath come to a painless and yet complete stop in his throat. It was the same dog, leader of the Misfit Fans. It was Princess Kujo. But-
“Oh my God…” he whispered, as the dog’s eyes settled on his. They were red and rheumy. They were leaking some viscous substance. The dog seemed to be weeping gummy tears. Foam dripped from her snout. She never stopped growling. It was a low, purring sound, soothing in its menace. “Princess Kujo’s gone rabid.”
That was all it took for them both to turn and run. Princess Kujo’s growl rose to a shattering roar of rage, and she charged at them. Their feet pounded against the pavement as they raced back toward the Wylee trailer. Its door was shut. The chrome handle suddenly seemed dazzlingly bright, winking arrows of sunlight into Brian’s eyes. I’ll never be able to get that door open and get Nick and me in and get it shut,
he thought, and the choking realization that he was about to die - again - rose up in him. Not enough time. No way.
He raked the door open. He could hear his breath sobbing in and out of his throat. Behind him, Nick screamed, a harsh, breaking sound. Brian scrambled out of the way, almost falling over a pile of Christmas presents, so Nick could get inside. He got a glimpse of Princess Kujo coming at him, hindquarters tensing down for the leap that would bring all three hundred pounds of her right into his legs.
He yanked the trailer’s door shut with both hands, just in time. A split second after the door slammed closed, there was a heavy, solid thud, as if someone had swung a chunk of stovewood against the side of the trailer. The dog’s barking roars of rage were cut off cleanly, and there was silence.
“Knocked herself out,” he said faintly.
“Thank God,” panted Nick, “thank God for that.”
A moment later, Princess Kujo’s foam-covered, twisted face popped up outside the window, only inches away, like a horror-movie monster that has decided to give the audience the ultimate thrill by coming right out of the screen. Brian could see her huge, heavy teeth. The sound of her snarling barks filled the trailer. Then the dog’s terrible face dropped from view. He saw her tail and the top of her broad back moving toward the front of the trailer.
“Let’s get out of here, Brian,” Nick said anxiously. “I don’t wanna be here.”
“Yeah,” Brian agreed breathlessly. “Yeah, we’ll-”
Like a great tawny projectile, Princess Kujo leaped onto the hitch of the trailer, barking. She struck the windshield with a muffled thud, bounced back, and scrabbled against the smooth exterior of the trailer, leaving scratches on the decals. Then she came again. Foam smeared against the glass as she tried to bite her way through. Those muddled, bleary eyes stared into Brian’s. I’m going to pull you to pieces,
they said. You and the other Backstreet Boy both. Just as soon as I find a way to get into this tin can, I’ll eat you alive. I’ll be swallowing pieces of you while you’re still screaming.
“Rabid,” he said again. “She is literally a rabid fan.”
Nick let out a nervous laugh.
“Don’t worry,” Brian added, feeling the sudden urge to become his protective older brother again, even though they had both been full-grown men for years. “Kevin will be coming back, once he shakes off that other ship that was behind him. And AJ and Howie - they’re around here somewhere, and they’ve got laser guns. They’ll find us eventually, if Kevin doesn’t come back first. We just have to hunker down and wait awhile.”
Nick nodded, and that was what they did.***
Petunia had watched the big dog chase Brian and Nick from the wreckage of the spaceship to the safety of the trailer. They would be okay inside, as long as the glass held, but with the dog hurling herself at the windows like that, Petunia wasn’t sure how long it would. She knew she had to do something. She was easily the same size as the dog, and she came equipped with the same natural weapons. Powerful teeth. Sharp claws. And something the dog didn’t have: an assload of stinky spray. She wasn’t a defenseless cub anymore. She couldn’t stand by and watch as someone else she loved was killed.
“No,” whispered Petunia. “Not this time!”
That was when the pandaskunk went charging forward, into the fray.***
Princess Kujo stared through the glass at THE BOYS in the trailer with rising hate. It was THE BOYS who had caused all her pain; she felt sure of it. It was THE BOYS’ fault.
But then she sensed someone else coming up behind her, making the fur on the back of her neck stand up straight. She turned slowly and saw THE PANDASKUNK on the other side of the plaza. She had been wrong; it was obviously this PANDASKUNK who had put her in such pain.
A growl began somewhere deep in her heavy chest. She could smell THE PANDASKUNK, the musky odor of her fur, the heavy meat set against her bones. The growl deepened, then rose to a great and shattering cry of fury. She sprang off the trailer’s hitch and charged at this awful PANDASKUNK who had caused her pain.***
“Where’s she going?” Brian wondered aloud, frowning, when he saw Princess Kujo’s face suddenly disappear from the windshield again. Maybe she was going around to the other side of the trailer to try her luck there. He braced himself, waiting for the impact of the dog’s body slamming against the side of the trailer again. But nothing happened.
“Hey!” Nick exclaimed suddenly. He was still sitting by the door, squinting out the foam-stained window. “It’s Petunia! She’s going after Petunia!”
Brian gasped. He scrambled over the piles of presents to get to Nick, leaning over his shoulder to watch out the window. They could see the Saint Bernard charging at the pandaskunk, who was some twenty feet from the trailer.
Petunia rose up on her hind legs and walloped the dog with her front paw, claws out. Princess Kujo let out a sharp bark of pain, but didn’t retreat. Instead, she lunged at Petunia, aiming for the pandaskunk’s throat. Petunia used her powerful front half to push the dog back. They struggled like that for several minutes, matching each other in strength, the dog’s jaws snapping, the pandaskunk’s claws scratching.
At one point, Petunia turned and lifted her tail, spraying her potent chemical weapon straight into Princess Kujo’s face, but the Saint Bernard was so far gone, she didn’t even seem fazed by it. If anything, it only made her more angry.
Nick shook his head. “I can’t believe it was them the whole time. The Planet of Misfit Fans. I thought they loved us. Why would they want to attack us?”
“They’re sick, Nick,” said Brian, watching Princess Kujo pounce onto Petunia’s back, throwing her to the ground. “Maybe they’re all
rabid.” A sudden, horrible thought struck him, as he watched the pandaskunk struggle underneath the rabid Saint Bernard. “Nick, we’ve gotta get Petunia away from her. If she gets bit…”
Nick understood. “I’ll go,” he said, pulling his nunchucks out of his holster. “Time for a little ‘Ninchuck Nick’ action!”
“You know you’re not really a ninja, right?” Brian replied worriedly. “Don’t go getting yourself killed. Just distract the dog long enough to let Petunia get away. I’ll wait here and open the door for you guys to get back in.”
Nick nodded. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” He opened the door and stepped out, swinging his nunchucks. “Hey!” he called out. “Kujo!” He saw the Saint Bernard’s floppy ears perk up at the sound of his voice. “Come here, Your Highness! Come and get me!”
It worked. She would rather have him than the pandaskunk, and he knew it. Nick planted his feet firm against the pavement as the dog bounded toward him, willing himself not to run until Petunia had time to get away. He pulled the nunchucks taut between his hands, gripping them tightly.
When Princess Kujo was only a few feet away, he finally turned and ran back toward the trailer. Brian would be there, watching, waiting with the door open, ready to slam it shut behind him when he got inside. He could hear the sounds of Princess Kujo’s ragged panting and her heavy paws hitting the pavement right behind him. He could feel her warm, wet breath on the back of his neck and smell her stench. He put on a fresh burst of speed, the nunchucks swinging wildly as he pumped his arms, his chest screaming in pain as he struggled for breath. He could see Brian in the doorway now, holding the door to the trailer wide open as he beckoned wildly. “Come on, Nick!” he shouted. “Hurry!”
Nick was almost to the step leading up into the trailer when Princess Kujo pounced. He felt her paws on his shoulders and reached for the door, a split second before the rest of her massive body slammed into his back. The force sent the nunchucks sailing out of his hand and threw him forward into the door, forcing it shut with him still trapped outside the trailer. “No!” he cried, scrabbling for the door handle.
Brian was on the other side, trying to push the door open from within, but with Nick’s body squished against it, it wasn’t going anywhere. Brian threw his weight against the door, but he was no match for the combined weight of Nick and the Saint Bernard pressing against the outside. “Nick!” he screamed helplessly. “Nick, get away from the door! I can’t open it!”
Nick could barely breathe, let alone move. Princess Kujo had smashed him against the side of the trailer and seemed to be humping him from behind, her heavy body thrusting repeatedly against his backside. “Release… me…” he gasped, the side of his face pressed flat against the door. “Release… me…”
“Nick, I’m trying!” Brian cried, frantic tears pouring down his face. “Petunia!” He looked past Nick to the pandaskunk, who was still slumped on the ground across the plaza. Brian could tell she was hurt, but how badly, he didn’t know. Could she still help Nick? “Petunia, get up, please
get up! PETUNIA!”***
From far away, Petunia heard the sound of her own name, and at first, she thought it was her mother. But no… it was a man’s voice. Brian’s voice. Shouting. Petunia’s ears pricked as she tried to make out his words, but it was difficult to concentrate. Blood was flowing freely from a wound in the side of her neck; she could feel it seeping into her fur, warm and sticky. Lying facedown on the ground, she was too weak to even try to staunch the flow. She struggled to stay conscious, struggled to keep her eyes open, knowing Brian and Nick needed her. But despite her best efforts, her eyes closed.
She saw her mother.“Petunia, I want you to… to play games. It’s okay… to be silly… just as long as it doesn’t look like you’re about to attack the zoo guests…”
“I will,” promised Petunia.
“And tell Brian…” The panda mother gasped for breath, her eyes glazing over. “See. Tell him to see. And tell AJ to… swing away…” The words slurred from her muzzle as her eyes drifted shut, and her head slumped onto her paw.
Petunia came to suddenly, straining to lift her own head off the ground. “Brian!” she cried, but her voice was too weak to be heard all the way across the plaza. She would have to get closer. Pressing her paws against the pavement, she pushed herself up off the ground and slowly started to crawl.***
Petunia was up and moving, but just barely. Brian knew she would never be able to get to Nick in time. Even if she did, she wouldn’t have the strength to take down Princess Kujo. She would only get herself killed in the process.
He would have to help Nick himself. If he couldn’t get the door open, maybe he could squeeze out a window. Brian moved to the other side of the trailer and opened one of the larger windows. He wasn’t sure he would be able to fit through the gap between the glass and the metal frame, but he was sure going to try. Climbing a pile of presents, he boosted himself onto the window sill and stuck his legs through the gap, deciding to go feet first. His high-top shoes were so huge, they barely fit, but once he had wedged them through the window, the rest of his skinny legs slid through easily.
Sitting on the window sill, half-in and half-out, Brian suddenly saw AJ running toward the trailer, looking like a superhero with his brown trench coat flapping behind him like a cape and the laser gun held high in his hand. “AJ!” Brian shouted. “Go around to the other side! Nick needs help! Watch out - the dog’s rabid!”
As he saw AJ go running around the front of the trailer, Brian pulled his feet back in and jumped down from the window sill. He scrambled over the mounds of presents inside the trailer to get to the other side, so he could watch from the window. AJ was now standing just a few feet from Nick. He was pointing his gun at Princess Kujo, but Brian could see the hesitation on his face. The dog’s body was pressed up so close to Nick’s, it would be difficult to get a good shot at her without hitting Nick.
If only he had a different weapon…
That was when Brian heard another voice calling his name. “Brian! Brian!” He looked past Princess Kujo and Nick, past AJ, and saw Petunia the Pandaskunk waving her paw at him from the center of the plaza. She had crawled halfway across it, leaving a trail of blood behind her. “Brian, see! SEE!
” she screamed.See what?
Brian looked around the trailer, and that was when he spotted it, sitting on top of a pile of presents: a wooden baseball bat, wrapped with a red bow. He reached for it, ripping the bow right off the bat, and pushed open the window through which he’d been watching. “AJ!” he shouted, poking the bat out the bottom of the window.
“Swing away, AJ!” Petunia shouted. “AJ! Swing away!”
AJ took the bat, choking his hands up around the handle. Creeping up alongside Princess Kujo, he swung the bat like A-Rod going after a high fastball. He missed Princess Kujo’s head, but the bat struck her in the ribs. There was a heavy, dull thump and a snapping sound from somewhere inside Princess Kujo. The dog uttered a sound like a scream and went sprawling onto the pavement, freeing Nick, who instantly fell to the ground, too.
As Brian forced the trailer door open, AJ cried out in a rough, breaking voice and brought the bat down on Princess Kujo’s hindquarters. Something else broke. He heard it. The dog bellowed and tried to scramble away, but he was on it again, swinging, pounding, screaming.
Brian bounded out of the trailer and dropped to his knees at Nick’s side. Nick’s face was very white. His eyes were closed. He didn’t appear to be breathing. Brian put his head on Nick’s chest, but he couldn’t hear anything through the armor on his costume. That which had protected him from Princess Kujo’s powerful jaws was now in the way. Brian started pulling off pieces of it - the shoulder pads, the chest plate. It was like undressing a life-size rag doll; Nick’s limbs were floppy, his body heavy and limp. Brian cast a quick glance in AJ’s direction, hoping he had Princess Kujo under control.
The bat was bloody now. Princess Kujo was still trying to get away, but her movements had slowed. She ducked one blow - the head of the bat smacked against the concrete instead - but the next one struck her midway on her back, driving her to her rear legs. He thought she was done; AJ even backed off a step or two, his breath screaming in and out of his lungs like some hot liquid. Then she uttered a deep snarl of rage and leaped at him again. He swung the bat and heard that heavy whacking thud again… but as Princess Kujo went rolling across the pavement, the wooden bat split in two. The fat part flew away and struck the right front hubcap of the Wylee trailer with a musical bong!
AJ was left with a splintered eighteen-inch wand in his hand. He tossed it aside and raised his laser gun.
Princess Kujo was getting to her feet again… dragging
herself to her feet. Blood poured down her sides. Her eyes flickered like lights on a defective pinball machine.
“Come on, then!” AJ screamed.
For the last time, the dying ruin that had been Princess Kujo, Ruler of the Planet of Misfit Fans, leaped at one of THE BOYS who had caused all her misery. AJ aimed and shot a laser bullet through Princess Kujo’s right eye and into her brain.
Princess Kujo thudded heavily to the ground. Her rear legs scratched at the concrete. They slowed… slowed… stopped. Her remaining eye glared up at the warm winter sky. She pulled in a breath and let it out. She took another. She made a thick snorting sound, and suddenly a rill of blood ran from her mouth. Then she died.
Nick was dying, too.
Brian had finally gotten smart and slipped the amulet off over his head. Instantly, the black ninja costume had vanished, leaving Nick in nothing but the red Santa suit Leighanne had made him, with the Wylee scarf still wrapped around his neck. Brian ripped the red fabric right down the middle and pushed the ragged pieces out of the way so he could press his ear against Nick’s bare chest. Still, he heard nothing.
“Nick!” he cried, shaking his friend. Nick’s head lolled around limply. Brian crouched over him. He opened Nick’s mouth, pinched his nostrils shut, and breathed into his best friend’s lungs. “Come on, Nick!” he begged. “Breathe!”
When he looked over and realized what was happening with Nick, AJ McLean howled his anguish. But he couldn’t just stand by and watch Brian’s desperate attempt to resuscitate their bandmate and brother. He walked to where the heavy end of the baseball bat lay, its far end streaked with gore. He picked it up and went back to where Princess Kujo lay. He began to pound her with the baseball bat. Each downward swing ended with a heavy meat thud. Splinters gouged into the soft pads of his palms, and blood ran down his wrists and forearms. He was still screaming, but his voice had broken with that first howl of despair, and all that came out now was a series of growling croaks; he sounded as Princess Kujo herself had near the end. The bat rose and fell. He bludgeoned the dead dog. Above him, Kevin’s flying elephant appeared on the horizon.
Kevin didn’t know what he had expected when he flew back toward the Wylee trailer, but it wasn’t this. He had been afraid, but the sight of his cousin leaning over the limp and lifeless body on the ground, pushing down on the center of Nick’s chest again and again with his hands… and AJ - could that really
be AJ? - standing over the twisted and smashed thing on the pavement, striking it again and again with something that looked like a caveman club… that turned his fear into a bright, silvery panic that almost precluded thought.
But when the Misfit Fan in the spaceship that was still chasing him looked down and saw her wildest slash fantasy seemingly coming true - Brian straddling Nick’s half-naked body, his hands on Nick’s bare chest, his mouth pressed against Nick’s - she squealed with delight and clapped her hands, causing her spaceship to veer, ironically, right into the Astro Orbitor ride, which she surely would have seen, had she been watching where she was going.
As he circled around the plaza, Kevin saw his pursuer crash into the ride and swerved to avoid the explosion of smoke and fire. For one infinite moment, which he would never admit to himself later, he felt an impulse to put on a fresh burst of speed and fly away… to fly forever. What was going on in that still and sunny plaza was monstrous.
Instead, he guided his elephant to the ground and leaped out. “AJ! Brian!”
AJ appeared not to hear him or to even realize that he was there. The baseball bat rose and fell, rose and fell. He made harsh cawing sounds. Blood flew up from Princess Kujo’s limp carcass.“AJ!”
Kevin got a hold of the baseball bat on the backswing and wrenched it out of his hands. He threw it away and grabbed his shoulder. AJ turned to face him, his eyes blank and hazed, his hair sticking out every which way. His brown fedora had fallen off his head sometime during the struggle with Princess Kujo. He hadn’t even realized it. He stared at Kevin… shook his head… and stepped away.
“AJ… Jesus,” Kevin said softly. Then he left AJ and went to the front of the Wylee trailer. AJ stood where Kevin had left him, looking fixedly down at the dog’s battered body. “Oh my God,” he heard Kevin say, his voice rising thinly out of the stillness.
Suddenly finding himself and Nick in the shade of a tall, thin shadow, Brian looked up and saw Kevin standing over him. Kevin put his hand on Brian’s shoulder to hold him back from Nick’s body while he knelt down and picked up Nick’s limp wrist, pressing his fingertips to the artery there. He looked back at Brian. His face was white, but calm enough.
“How long has he been dead, Brian?”
“Nick’s not dead!” Brian insisted, pulling his best friend’s body into his arms. “He was wearing the Wylee scarf! Princess Kujo can’t have killed him… his neck was protected. His neck was protected. No rabies got in. No rabies got in. His neck was protected. His neck was protected.”
Kevin reached out and slipped his fingers underneath the Wylee scarf still wrapped around Nick’s neck, feeling for a pulse.
“Don’t touch him!” Brian snapped. “Give him a minute!”
Kevin pulled his hand back and brought it up to his mouth. “Brian…” His voice shook this time. He could feel his forced calmness slipping away, his barely-controlled panic taking over. He clenched his fist, fighting the urge to hit something. Suddenly, he understood why AJ had been bludgeoning an obviously dead dog.
“Give him a second,” Brian repeated.
“Rok?” AJ had come over. His blank face crumpled at the sight of Nick’s lifeless body.
“Don’t touch him!” Brian hissed.
“Don’t.” Brian brought his mouth back down over Nick’s and whispered the word again. “Don’t.” He breathed for his best friend. He breathed. He breathed. His best friend, his bandmate, his brother was not dead; they had not gone through all this hell over saving Christmas for Nick to be dead now, and it simply would not be.It would not be.
He breathed. He breathed. He breathed for his brother.
Kevin reached around Brian, wedging his hand between him and Nick, and unwrapped the Wylee scarf that had been pulled tight around Nick’s neck during the attack. As soon as it was loosened, Nick started to cough.
“Yes!” Brian sat up, sobbing with relief. “Yes!”
“Bri?” Nick croaked, opening his eyes. Brian was still cradling him, holding his head off the ground so he could breathe more easily. “What happened?” Nick asked. “Did someone save me?”
Brian burst into a fresh batch of tears and nodded, wiping his eyes with the end of the Wylee scarf. “Yeah, buddy, I think something did.”
Behind his back, Kevin looked at AJ and held a finger to his lips. AJ nodded, silently agreeing never to tell Brian it was his wife’s scarf that had almost strangled Nick.
“Sorry, Brian,” said Nick, looking down at his ripped hoodie. “Princess Kujo musta torn my Wylee top…”
“That’s okay, Nick,” Brian wept. “No one will mind if you’re shirtless the rest of the story.”
“Did somebody say ‘shirtless’?” That was when Howie suddenly came waltzing into the plaza. “Hey, guys!” he cried, waving. “Howie doin’?”
When no one replied right away, he looked around, his eyes taking in the sight of Princess Kujo, collapsed in a pool of her own blood, her silver tiara stained with blood and brain matter… Petunia, slumped on the ground several yards away with her head on her bloodied front paws … and his bandmates, gathered around Nick, who was lying in Brian’s arms with his shirt ripped apart, looking a little blue.
Frowning, Howie cocked his head to the side in confusion. “What’d I miss?”
Chapter End Notes:
Credit goes to another of my favorite authors, Stephen King, for the portions of text I borrowed from "Cujo," the first King book I ever read!
Howie and Brian helped Nick back into the trailer, while Kevin and AJ went to check on Petunia.
“Are you all right, Nick?” Brian asked, noticing the distant look on Nick’s face as he lay down on a makeshift bed of Wylee clothes.
“There was this moment,” said Nick slowly, massaging his throat, “when Princess Kujo and I were both… somewhere between life and death, I guess… and we shared some kind of, like, psychic connection. I could see into her mind. I saw her thoughts. I saw what the Misfit Fans are planning to do.”
Brian and Howie stared at him.
“They’re like internet trolls,” Nick went on. “They’re unhappy with themselves and their own lives, so they go around trying to make everyone else miserable, too. See, they were mad because we didn’t play a show on the Planet of Misfit Fans during the In a World Like This Tour
, so they decided to take their anger out on our planet. They targeted the happiest places on Earth: Disney parks around the globe. If they couldn’t be happy, then no one should. After they’ve sucked all of the joy out of us, they’ll go troll someplace else.”
“Not if we can help it!” cried Howie.
“But what can we do to stop them?” Nick wondered. “We tried blowing up their ships, but their shields were too strong.”
“Maybe,” said Brian slowly, “we could beat them with the very thing they hate: happiness.”
Howie’s eyes lit up. “That’s it! And you know what they say: ‘The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!’ Ready, everyone? Ohhh… you better watch out! You better not cry!
Nick sighed and shook his head, but Brian quickly joined in on the singing. “You better not pout. I’m telling you why…”
“Guys,” Nick said. “Stop.”“Santa Claus is com-”
“STOP!” Nick shouted, his voice rasping so harshly it stopped both Boys mid-syllable. The effort caused Nick to start coughing uncontrollably. Brian rubbed his back, while Howie offered him some water. When the coughing fit finally subsided, Nick whispered, “Santa Claus isn’t
coming to town, and it’s all my fault.” There were tears in his eyes, but whether they were from coughing or guilt, Brian couldn’t tell.
“It’ll be okay, buddy,” he said, patting Nick’s back again, but in the back of his mind, he remembered what Patches had told him during his own out-of-body experience.“They have enough Elixir stored to set their affairs in order and then, yes, they will die.”
Patches smiled at the look of amazement on Brian’s face.
“To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Santa and Mrs. Claus, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
okay!” Nick cried. “I made Santa sick, and no amount of singing is going to make him better. Only the antibodies from my blood can do that, and I still haven’t heard back from the hospital on whether or not that worked. If Santa Claus isn’t coming to town, it’s up to us to spread Christmas cheer, and the only way we can do that is with Petunia to pull our trailer! Where is Petunia, anyway? She’s all right, isn’t she?”
Brian saw the fear flicker through Nick’s eyes. He may have put his own life on the line to save the pandaskunk’s, but Petunia had risked her
life to save his in return. If she wasn’t all right, Brian knew Nick would blame himself. He was so used to the fans blaming everything on him back in the day that he had sort of just started assuming everything was his fault, anyway, even when it wasn’t.
“I’ll go find out,” Brian promised him. “Sit tight, and try to get some sleep. Howie will stay with you, won’t you, Howie?”
“Sure,” Howie agreed, while Brian left the Wylee trailer and went to find the other guys.
He didn’t have to look long. Kevin and AJ were sitting outside with Petunia, who was still lying unconscious on the pavement. They had both used their Wylee scarves to bandage the wound in her neck, but there was still blood seeping through the bedazzled fabric. “She doesn’t look too good,” Brian said sadly.
AJ glanced up. “She’s lost a lot of blood,” he said grimly, “but I think she’ll live. The wound doesn’t look that deep. The dog must have missed her jugular, or she would have bled to death by now.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” sighed Brian. “One less thing for Nick to worry about. Right?” He looked between AJ and Kevin. Why didn’t they look any less worried?
Kevin cleared his throat. “Brian… we think what we have here is an Old Yeller type situation.”
“Old Yeller?” Brian repeated faintly.
“Yeah. Old Yeller was the best, most loyal dog there ever was. Everybody loved that mutt. But one day, he showed up rabid, and little Timmy, for Old Yeller’s sake, had to… well, you saw the movie.” There was a sheen of sadness in Kevin’s eyes as he looked at his cousin.
Of course, Brian had seen the movie. They had seen it together as kids. Brian understood where Kevin was coming from, but he couldn’t accept it. “But… we don’t know
that Petunia will turn rabid,” he argued.
“Princess Kujo was rabid,” said Kevin. “She bit Petunia.” He pulled back a bit of the Wylee scarf bandage to show Brian the puncture wounds in Petunia’s neck. His heart sank as he saw the teeth marks. “I’ll shoot her,” Kevin added quietly, “if you can’t. But either way, we’ve got it to do.”
“Kevin, listen,” Brian begged. “Petunia just saved Nick’s life - and AJ’s too! And she saved mine! She saved all of us! We can’t! We don’t know for certain!” His mind raced, as he tried to come up with another solution. “I’ll tie her up with Wylee scarves,” he suggested, “a-and then we’ll wait. We can’t just shoot her like she was nothing! Don’t you understand?”
Kevin sighed. “Alright, cuz,” he said slowly. “If you think there’s a chance.”
They carried Petunia to the closest concession stand that was still standing and secured her inside it with a rope woven of Wylee scarves. As Brian was knotting the last scarf, the pandaskunk’s eyes opened. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t come back sooner,” she whispered, wincing in pain.
“No, it’s okay,” Brian replied quickly. “Nick’s all right. And Kevin and AJ bandaged you up, and they think that you’re gonna be just fine...”
Hearing the tremor in his voice, Petunia was reminded of the last time she’d talked to her father. “Liar,” she said, smiling.
Brian couldn’t hide the tears in his eyes. He wrapped his arms gently around the pandaskunk and buried his face in her thick fur, as the two friends cried together.
When night fell, he walked back to the Wylee trailer, where the rest of the guys were waiting. “Is Petunia sleeping?” asked Nick, who had been unable to sleep himself.
“Yeah,” Brian sighed, not sure what else to say. “Petunia’s sleeping.”***December 24
“It’s Christmas Eve!” Nick sulked, a few minutes after midnight, as he sat inside the Wylee trailer with Brian. “It’s been Christmas Eve for hours in the rest of the world, and we’re still stuck here in this stupid trailer with these stupid Misfit Fans hanging out over our heads, and there’s no way we’ll be able to deliver all these presents in time without Petunia to pull us!” He kicked a package across the trailer.
Brian sighed. Staring out the window, he could see the massive alien spaceship glowing ominously above the ruins of Sleeping Beauty Castle. He had hoped that once the Misfit Fans realized their leader was dead, they would go back to their own planet and leave Earth alone, but Princess Kujo’s minions had stayed put. Nick was right. They were trolls.
“How long until we know if Petunia’s going to go mad, anyway?” Nick asked.
Brian swallowed hard. “According to Wikipedia, it can take one to three months for someone who contracts rabies to start showing symptoms,” he said sadly, showing Nick his phone. “And that’s in people. They don’t know how long the quarantine period is for skunks, let alone pandaskunks.”
“So we’re just going to leave her locked up for the next three months?” Nick asked disgustedly. “That is bullshit!”
“Better than the alternative, don’t you think?” Brian retorted. “Would you rather shoot her now? ‘Cause I sure as heck wouldn’t.”
Nick shook his head. “There has to be something else we can do. Can’t we take her to a vet?”
“They’d probably just want to euthanize her on the spot so they could test her brain for rabies.”
“This really sucks,” Nick sighed.
“I know,” Brian agreed.
They were silent for a few minutes, listening to the sounds of night settling around them. Underneath the eerie, pink lights of the Planet of Misfit Fans’ mothership, all of Disneyland seemed quiet and still. The other guests were long gone, and most of the Disney characters and cast members seemed to have disappeared, too. Even Kevin and AJ had gone home to check on their families. Howie had agreed to stay at the park with Brian and Nick, who refused to leave Petunia. He and Brian took turns standing guard outside her makeshift pen, while the other stayed in the trailer with Nick. After his near-death experience, neither of them thought he should be alone.
“Maybe we should just ask Petunia what she wants,” said Nick suddenly. Brian looked over to see him massaging his sore neck again. “I mean, if it’s the choice between staying cooped up in that little concession stand for the next few months or… some other alternative… well… shouldn’t Petunia be the one to make that decision?”
Brian sighed. He hadn’t wanted Petunia to worry, but he supposed they were going to have to tell her the truth at some point. When she recovered enough to realize they were keeping her tied up, she would want to know why. She deserved an honest explanation. They owed her that and so much more.
“You have a point,” he admitted to Nick. “We should probably be having this conversation with Petunia.”
Nick nodded and got to his feet. Brian watched as he swayed slightly, touching the side of the trailer to steady himself.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“What do you think? To talk to Petunia!” said Nick.
“Right now? It’s the middle of the night!”
“So? Like I said, it’s already Christmas Eve! We can’t afford to waste any more time!”
Brian sighed. “Nick, buddy, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to save Christmas this year. I want to, but… well, you said it yourself. We’re about out of time. Even if we could do it, aren’t there more important things to worry about than Christmas?”
“How can you say that?” Nick asked incredulously. “You’re the Jesus freak here! What’s more important than saving Christmas?”
“Oh, I dunno, maybe stopping the aliens from attacking us again!” said Brian sarcastically.
“Well, I say we can stop them and save Christmas at the same time!” declared Nick confidently. “I don’t know how… but somehow, I think the answer lies with the pandaskunk out in that concession stand.” He pointed, letting his finger lead the way, and Brian had no choice but to follow him out of the trailer and over to the concession stand.
He was afraid of what they might find when they opened it up, especially since Howie was sitting with his back pressed up against the side of the stand, sound asleep. But when Brian shone his flashlight inside, he saw the pandaskunk sleeping just as peacefully, curled up with her head resting cutely on her paws and her fluffy tail wrapped around herself. He sighed with relief.
“Petunia?” whispered Nick. “Hey, Petunia… wake up!”
The pandaskunk opened her eyes slowly and blinked blearily up at them.
“How are you feeling, Petunia?” Brian asked, reaching out gingerly to pat her head.
The pandaskunk closed her eyes, smiling with pleasure. She seemed all right. “Better,” she said. “It’s been awhile since I’ve eaten, though. Do you know where we can find some bamboo around here?”
Brian and Nick looked at each other in surprise. “See? She’s hungry. That’s a good sign,” said Nick out of the side of his mouth. He tried to speak under his breath, so Petunia wouldn’t hear, but her keen panda ears heard him anyway.
“A good sign of what?”
Brian gave Nick a nod, as if to say, “Go on. You were the one who wanted to tell her the truth.”
Nick swallowed hard. “So… the dog that bit you had a disease called rabies. We’re worried that you might have contracted it. If you’re feeling all right and wanting to eat and drink, those are good signs, but it… it can take awhile to tell.”
Petunia cocked her head to the side. “You’re worried about me getting rabies?” she said. “Why? I’ve had my shots.”
Brian and Nick looked at each other again. “Really?” Brian replied, his heart lifting hopefully.
“Well, sure.” Petunia laughed. “You don’t really think a pandaskunk who was raised in a research lab at a world-renowned zoo wouldn’t have gotten her rabies shots, do you? Skunks are known carriers of rabies. Of course I was vaccinated as a cub!”
“Oh!” sighed Brian with relief. “Well, thank God!”
Nick chuckled. “Yeah - shit, Petunia, they were talking about shooting you! Thank God you had me as the voice of reason, right?”
Brian rolled his eyes at him. “She should really be thanking God she hasn’t gotten Nick Plague from you yet. There’s no vaccine for that!”
Nick groaned. “Don’t remind me. Although maybe there would
at least be an antidote
, if that damn hospital in Atlanta would do their job! Why haven’t we heard anything about Santa’s condition yet? Even if it’s not Ebola, they should still take it seriously! They should-” He suddenly stopped, the annoyed expression on his face changing to one of enlightenment.
“Nick?” asked Brian warily, wondering if the brain damage his friend had surely suffered from the lack of oxygen following Princess Kujo’s attack was finally manifesting. “You okay, buddy?”
“Ebola!” Nick exclaimed, his eyes wide as saucers. “Nick Plague! Rabies! What do they all have in common?”
“Um…” Brian racked his brain. “They’re all… viruses?”
“That’s right!” Nick replied excitedly. “Viruses! That’s how we’ll defeat the Misfit Fans. We’re gonna give ‘em a virus!”
Brian blinked. “You’re going to infect them all with Nick Plague? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but…”
Nick shook his head. “No, not that kind of virus. We’re gonna infect their ship with a computer
“And how are you going to do that?”
Nick thought quickly. “I’ll make all the Misfit Fans members of Carter’s Cartel. Then I’ll tweet out a link with the virus attached. Once they click on it, their computers will become infected. They’ll have to run antivirus software and restart their computers for the changes to take effect, which will temporarily disable their shields. If we can time it right, we can attack while their shields are down!”
Brian’s eyes widened. “Wow. I gotta give you credit, Carter. It sounds crazy, but it just might work!”
“Oh, it’s gonna
work.” Nick flashed him a cocky grin. “You better get on the phone and get the rest of Backstreet back. And Howie…” He looked over at Howie, who was still sleeping. “Howie? How-Howie? Yo, yo, D!”
“Yo, why you gotta diss me like that for?” Howie mumbled, as he jerked awake.
“Howie!” Nick snapped. “Get your ass up and go round up anyone you can find who can fly.”
“Why?” Howie whined sleepily.
“’Cause we’re gonna fight back and save Christmas!”
Howie groaned. “Aw, c’mon, Nick, I’m tired! It’s the middle of the night, and you know I need my beauty sleep! Why can’t you do it?”
“’Cause.” Nick grinned as he held up his phone. “I got some tweetin’ to do!”
When Christmas Eve dawned, Misfit Fans around the world were waking up to a barrage of tweets from their favorite Backstreet Boy.
“Have you guys seen this?!” gasped Attention-Seeking Ashley, bursting in on the others in the spaceship over Walt Disney World with her phone in her hand.
“What is it?” the Misfit Fans all wondered.
“It’s from Nick!” Ashley exclaimed, showing them her Twitter feed. “He wants to recruit more members for Carter’s Cartel!”
“It’s about bloody time!” sniffed Long-Suffering Lisa. “What do we have to do?”
“He wants us to send him selfies from our spaceship!” Self-Absorbed Sarah said excitedly, snapping a picture of herself inside the ship over Disneyland Paris.
Meanwhile, Homicidal Holly was replying to one of Nick’s tweets from the spaceship hovering over Hong Kong Disneyland. Nick Carter
I know there is much we can learn from each other if we can negotiate a truce. We can find a way 2 coexist. Can there be a peace between us? Homicidal Holly
@nickcarter Peace? No peace. Nick Carter
What is it you want us to do? @HollyHatesEverything Homicidal Holly
Back in the Wylee trailer, Nick watched the follow requests and @replies pour in.
“Yessss…” he sighed sinisterly, as he accepted all the ones accompanied by an authentic spaceship selfie. “All is going according to plan.”***
The sun was still low in the sky when the Backstreet Boys regrouped in front of the Walt Disney statue, which had been decapitated in the attack on Sleeping Beauty Castle. Mickey, thankfully, had remained intact, but his creator’s head lay several feet away. AJ stooped to pick it up. He turned it over in his hand, running his fingers down the crack through the center of Walt’s face.
“Will you put that down?” Kevin suddenly snapped at him. “We’ve got work to do!”
AJ sighed, looking around the abandoned plaza. “Seriously, Kev? Even if we thought Nick’s plan would work, we don’t have the manpower to pull it off.”
Brian looked over at Nick. “I thought Howie was going to recruit some more pilots. Whatever happened with that?”
“I dunno,” said Nick, frowning, as it dawned on him that someone was still missing from their ranks. “Where the hell is
“Did somebody say ‘Howie D’?”
Their hearts lifted hopefully as they turned around to see Howie marching toward them, leading an army of Disney characters. “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go!”
sang the seven dwarves as they trouped along behind him, barely a head shorter than Howie himself. Fluttering over their heads were Tinker Bell and her fellow fairies, followed by every bird, bat, and bug who had ever been featured in a Disney movie, it seemed.
“Well, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I told him to find anyone who can fly,” Nick muttered to Brian, “but I guess they’ll do.”
They were soon joined by Captain Hook in his flying pirate ship - a welcomed addition, since it was already equipped with its own canons - and Baloo the bear, who had become a bush pilot since leaving the jungle. “Let’s begin!” Baloo shouted, laughing cockily as he circled over the plaza in small seaplane. Then he sang out his window, “Oh-ee-ay… TaleSpin!”
those on the ground echoed back.“Friends for life through thick and thin, with another tale to spin!”
sang Nick and Brian, slapping each other a high five.
is Howie do it!” added Howie with a thumbs-up.
“Yes, uh… well done, Howie.” Kevin coughed. “AJ, could you make sure all the new recruits get armed with laser guns? Howie can imagine some more up for you.”
“Aye-aye, Kev,” said AJ, saluting him. “D and I are on it.”
Once everyone was armed and ready, they assembled by the broken statue again. Kevin climbed up onto the statue’s base to address the small crowd.
“Good morning,” he began and then cleared his throat. “Good morning. In less than an hour, our Dumbo aircrafts from here will join Disney characters from across the decades, and we will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of the Happiest Place on Earth.”
Kevin looked across the crowd, his eyes landing upon the seven dwarves’ smiling faces. (Well, six were smiling, anyway. Grumpy, Kevin saw, was still scowling. He forced himself to focus on Happy’s face instead.)
“Happiness,” he said. “That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty problems anymore. We’ve seen what happens when people allow anger and misery to take away any chance of happiness.” He pointed to the spaceship over their heads. “We will be united in our hope for the future. Perhaps it’s fate that today is Christmas Eve… and we will, once again, be anticipating the arrival of our savior. Not the Son of God or Santa Claus or even a pandaskunk… but a Backstreet Boy named Nick Carter.”
Mirroring the headless Walt Disney statue behind him, Kevin stretched out his hand toward Nick, who stood in the middle of the plaza, the morning sun sparkling off the amulet he wore in the center of his sculpted chest.
“Nick’s going to give the Misfit Fans a gift they’ll never forget… and never get rid of,” continued Kevin. “And if he delivers, Christmas will no longer be known as a Christian holiday… but as the day when Disney World declared in one voice, ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to tell the Misfit Fans, make them understand… as long as there’ll be music, we’ll be coming back again!’ Today we wish them… a Merry Fuckin’ CHRISTMAS!”
The whole plaza exploded in applause, as the Backstreet Boys and Disney characters alike all clapped and cheered. A single tear slipped down Petunia’s cheek as she watched from the window of the Wylee trailer. As inspiring as Kevin’s speech had been, she worried about losing more people she loved. Without Nick, Brian, and the other Backstreet Boys, she would have no one.
The Boys were exchanging hugs and goodbyes, slapping each other’s backs as they wished one another good luck. “Let’s go!” Kevin called, sending everyone scurrying off to their assigned places. AJ and Howie led their army of dwarves and anthropomorphic woodland critters into the wooded area around the park for a little guerilla warfare.
As Kevin climbed into his flying elephant, he looked over and saw Nick doing the same. “Mr. Carter, I’d sure like to know what you’re doing,” he said with a frown.
Nick just smiled. “I played a pilot in a movie once, Kev,” he replied. “I belong in the air.”
Kevin sighed and shook his head. Nick had nearly given him a heart attack last time, but he knew once his little brother’s mind was set on something, there would be no stopping him. “Just upload the virus before you leave the ground, huh?” he told Nick. “I don’t want you using your phone while you’re flying.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Okay, Dad
.” Then he turned to Brian, who was standing alongside his elephant. “You know as soon as I get back we’re gonna deliver those presents, right?”
Brian nodded, then reached into his back pocket. “Here,” he said, handing Nick the Wylee scarf he’d been wearing when Princess Kujo attacked. “Take this. Just in case.”
Nick made a face, but he wrapped the scarf loosely around his neck anyway. “Oh, wait! Where’s… where’s, uh-?” He ducked down in the Dumbo, looking around for something, then popped back up again a few seconds later with Brian’s magic basketball, which he had retrieved from the wreckage of the alien ship it had helped to shoot down. “Just in case,” he repeated, as he tossed it to Brian.
Brian caught the ball and smiled tightly at his best friend. “So be careful, okay?”
Nick nodded, then winced as Brian leaned over and hugged him again, burying his face in Nick’s sore neck. “I love you,” he whispered as he pulled away.
“Love you too, bro,” Nick said back.
Howie watched from the woods, his heart panging with jealousy. I love you,
he mouthed, as Nick licked his lips nervously and looked down at his phone.
Brian was walking back to the Wylee trailer, his magic basketball tucked under one arm, when something bounced out of the bushes and pounced upon him, knocking him flat on his back. “Hello!” cried the creature now standing on Brian’s chest. “I’m Tigger!”
“Oh.” Brian laughed weakly, struggling to breathe. “You scared me.”
“Yeah, sure I did. Hoo-hoo-hoo!” the tiger laughed. “Everyone’s scared of tiggers! Who are you?”
“Oh, Brian, hoo-hoo-hoo, sure!” Then Tigger’s smile suddenly faded. “Uh… what’s a Brian?”
“You’re sitting on one,” wheezed Brian.
“I am?” Tigger looked down. “Oh!” He quickly scrambled off. “Well, glad to meet ya!” he said, shaking Brian’s hand. “Name’s Tigger! T-I-double ‘guh’-‘er,’ that spells ‘Tigger!’”
“What are you doing here?”
Tigger’s black button eyes lit up. “What’s a Tigger, you ask?”
“No, I asked-” Brian started to correct him, but Tigger had already begun to sing.
“Well… the wonderful thing about tiggers, is tiggers are wonderful things!”
he sang, bouncing about on his tail. “Their tops are made out of rubber! Their bottoms are made out of springs! They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun! But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one!”
“And what about you?” Tigger asked. “What is it that Brians do?”
“Well… I sing in a boyband called the Backstreet Boys, and I like to play basketball,” said Brian, showing Tigger his magic ball, “and I can jump really high.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Tigger. “Since you and I both like to sing and bounce, we should team up! Maybe we can take down the aliens together!”
Brian wasn’t thrilled about this idea, but he supposed it would be better than standing up on the Wylee trailer and watching all the action alone again. So he said, “Okay. I know the perfect place for bouncing.” Then he led Tigger back to the trailer, which was to be his command post once again.
“Do not engage until we’ve determined the package has been delivered,” Brian ordered the others.
“Roger,” said Kevin, who was already in the air.
Nick was still on the ground, typing one last tweet on his phone. Nick carter
Who needs clothes when you’ve got a guitar and a brand new song to sing? I wrote this one for you guys!
He tweeted this along with a link to the virus-infected video he’d created, knowing he could count on the Misfit Fans to click on anything that promised a combination of new music and nudity. “The virus is up,” he told the others, as he took off into the air.
Brian watched Nick’s elephant fly off toward the Misfit Fans’ spaceship with a nervous feeling gnawing at his stomach. “All we can do now is pray.”
“Delivery complete. It’s a go!” said Kevin. “Dumbo 1, fire!”
“Boys, this is it,” added Brian. He watched with bated breath as Kevin’s laser missile went shooting toward the spaceship.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” Kevin whispered, as he tracked its progress. It seemed to take forever to reach its target, but finally, he saw a halo of bright pink light, and his heart sank. “Damn…”
“Virus ineffective,” said Brian with a disappointed sigh, when he saw that the ship was undamaged. “Disengage and get outta there, guys.”
But Kevin refused to give up that easily. “Hold on, cuz,” he said. “I want another shot at it.”
“Yeah, they could just have a slow internet connection up there,” Nick agreed. “Fire away, Kev!”
“Dumbo 1, fire!”
The others held back and watched again as Kevin’s second missile hurtled toward the ship. This time, it crashed into the hull with a colossal explosion of fire, and everyone cheered. “Direct hit!” Nick cried, pumping his fist in the air.
“Fire at will!” Brian encouraged them, jumping into the air alongside Tigger, who was bouncing up and down in excitement beside him.
“Dumbo 2, fire!” shouted Nick, shooting a second laser straight at the ship.
“Jolly Roger, fire!” Captain Hook blasted a cannonball in the same direction.
“Sea Duck, fire!” Baloo guffawed in triumph as his stream of bullets punched a series of holes into the spaceship’s hull. “Ha, ha-” But before his last laugh could leave his lips, a pink laser blast pierced his windshield, sending his plane into a tailspin.
Nick looked over the side of his elephant in time to see the small seaplane swallowed up by smoke as it struck the ground. “We’ve lost Baloo!”
Brian looked up to see one of the smaller alien ships heading his way, spewing pink laser bullets. He jumped down from the trailer, just managing to avoid them, but when he looked back, he saw that Tigger had not been so lucky. “And Tigger, too,” he added sadly, as the bouncing tiger’s body slid off the top of the trailer and slumped to the ground, where it lay lifelessly still. “He should have been wearing Wylee,” Brian said, shaking his head.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw laser blasts bursting from the trees. AJ, Howie, and their army of Disney characters were shooting up at the alien ships attacking them. “Now this
is Howie do it!” shouted Howie in triumph.
But, of course, the alien ships were shooting back, and suddenly, AJ heard a much different kind of scream coming from Howie. “Howie!” he cried, as his friend collapsed. Fearing the worst, he dropped to his knees beside Howie’s body. Howie’s eyes were closed, but he appeared to be breathing. There was a smoldering hole in the sleeve of his t-shirt.
“Was he hit?” AJ heard Kevin ask in his ear. He rolled up Howie’s sleeve and saw a minor wound - just a scratch, really.
“Yeah, but it’s not bad,” he replied with relief. “The bullet only grazed his shoulder. I think he just passed out.”
“Well, wake him up! Without his powers of mental illusion, we’re running out of lasers. We’re just not causing enough damage!”
AJ shook Howie’s shoulder, but Howie just moaned in pain, unable to imagine anything. “He won’t wake up! Can’t Nick use his power to make things work to… you know, make it work?”
“I can keep the elephants flying, but I can’t create weapons out of thin air!” cried Nick. “That’s Howie’s power!”
As the other Boys argued, Brian watched the mothership moving slowly toward the Wylee trailer. “It’s settling right over us!” he shouted.
With dismay, AJ looked up to see the central doors of the ship starting to open and the pink laser beams beginning to light up, as they had just before Sleeping Beauty Castle had been blasted to cinders. “They’re preparing to fire their primary weapon!”
“Then let’s take it out before they take us out!” cried Kevin.
Brian bit his lip as he watched the laser power building in the center of the spaceship. “You’re out of time! You’ve got to disable it now!”
“I’m in range!” said Nick, as he swooped underneath the mothership, not seeing the small alien ship behind him.
“I have you now,” smirked Audrey, the former sentry of the Planet of Misfit Fans, as she set him in her sights. But just as she was about to blast Nick into oblivion, a laser bullet struck the side of her ship, sending her spinning off-course. “What?!” she cried in confusion.
“Yahoo!” yelled Kevin when he realized his last laser bullet had not gone to waste. “You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home!”
Nick took a deep breath, aimed, and fired his last laser. He held his breath as he watched it soar toward the opening in the center of the spaceship, and for a few seconds, he thought he had done it. But his laser bullet struck off to one side, missing the massive bolt of energy gathering in the middle. “Damn, I missed!”
“That is a negative impact,” said Brian, sighing with disappointment.
“I’m out of lasers,” said Nick.
“Me too,” added Kevin.
AJ looked around at the ground troops, as well as the birds in the sky. With Howie out cold, no one seemed to be shooting anymore. “All weapons have been fired,” he said. “Get your asses out of there.”
“But we’re not done yet!” Kevin argued. “Doesn’t anyone have any weapons left?!”
“I have my nunchucks,” said Nick, “but I’m not sure I can use them on a giant spaceship.”
That was when Brian suddenly heard the disembodied voice of Patches inside his head. “Use the ball, Brian,”
it said. “Let it go, Brian.”
He looked down at the basketball in his hands, and he knew what he had to do.
“Brian!” cried Nick, when he saw his best friend standing directly underneath the opening in the spaceship, dribbling a basketball. “What’s he doing?!”
“Do me a favor,” said Brian to the other Boys, swallowing hard. “If this doesn’t work… tell my wife and son I love them very much.” He blinked back tears as he squinted up into the blinding pink light over his head. And then he jumped.
“Hello, girls!” he shouted, as he soared to new heights, coming within a few feet of the mothership. “Backstreet’s back!”
He lobbed his magic basketball straight up, up, up into the column of pink light that had formed in the center of the opening, causing the laser beam to bounce off the surface of the ball and blast the ship instead. His trademark “alright!”
was drowned out by the deafening boom of the alien spaceship exploding.
“NO!” cried Nick, Kevin, and AJ, as they watched the alien spaceship go up in flames with their friend underneath it.
“YEAH!” cried the Disney characters, whooping and cheering around them. Even Grumpy couldn’t stop himself from smiling.
“Get on the phone with every Disney park around the world,” he ordered Doc. “Tell them how to bring those sons of bitches down!”
It wasn’t long before celebrations had broken out all around the world. In Africa, the children sang, raising their spears in triumph, while in the Middle East, the snake charmers played their pungis for the people, who took off their turbans and danced around the pyramids, relieved that the “It’s a Small World” ride had been spared. “It’s a small world after all!”
they sang. “It’s a small world after all! It’s a small world after all! It’s a small, small world!”
As their incessant singing reached the unconscious Howie’s ears, he began to stir, mumbling, “It’s not small… I’m not small…”
AJ looked down at him. “Wake up, D!” he snapped, and Howie startled awake.
“What’d I miss?” He looked around. “Howie doin’ with the Misfit Fans?”
“They’re gone,” AJ said shortly. “So is Brian.”
“What?!” Howie gasped.
AJ blinked back tears. “B-Rok used his magic basketball to blow up the spaceship. He sacrificed himself to save the world… just like that damn pandaskunk did two years ago.”
“Wow…” Howie shook his head sadly, his eyes filling with tears. “And… what about Nick and Kevin?”
“They’re still circling around, hoping to see some sign of life… but there’s no way Brian could have survived that blast, unless you believe in miracles.”
Howie frowned at AJ. “Now don’t go saying that. The search is not over yet. There’s… there’s always hope! Miracles happen most every day, to people like you and me. But don’t expect a miracle, unless you help make it to be…”
“Hey, wait!” Before Howie could break out in song, Nick’s voice suddenly crackled through the Bluetooth piece in each of the Backstreet Boys’ ears. “I think I see something down there!”
Howie gasped. “You see?!” he said to AJ. “It’s a miracle!”
They took off running through trees, toward the Wylee trailer, where Nick and Kevin had just landed. It was there that they saw a familiar silhouette emerge out of the smoky haze surrounding the burning wreckage of the spaceship.
“BRIAN!” Nick ran towards Brian, nearly knocking his best friend down as he threw himself into his arms.
“Great shot, cuz; that was one in a million!” exclaimed Kevin, clapping his hand down on Brian’s shoulder, as AJ and Howie hurried over and wrapped their arms around him as well, enveloping Brian in a big group hug. As their five amulets came together once more, their powers were restored.
“Strength!” shouted Kevin, punching his fist into the air.
“Air!” shouted Brian, doing a double backflip as he bounced off the ground.
“Aim!” shouted AJ, pointing his laser guns at the fallen spaceship.
“Nunchucks!” shouted Nick, whipping his favorite ninja weapon out of his belt.
“Imagination!” shouted Howie, waggling his spirit fingers in front of his face.
“GOOOO BACKSTREET!” they chanted all together. “By our powers combined, we are… the BACKSTREET BOYS!”
That was when the celebrating Disney characters started to sing a different song.“Backstreet Boys, they’re our heroes!
Gonna make the Misfit Fans all zeroes.
With their powers magnified,
They’re fighting on the planet’s side.”
“Backstreet Boys, they’re our heroes!
Gonna make the Misfit Fans all zeroes.
Gonna help us clear the skies
Of bad girls who troll and terrorize.”
“You’ll pay for this, Backstreet Boys!” shouted Audrey out the side window of her spaceship as she blasted off into outer space, on her way back to the Planet of Misfit Fans.
The Backstreet Boys just looked at each other and laughed. Then they launched into this rap verse, like they’d been rehearsing it all along.“We’re the Backstreet Boys! We think we’re really crunk!
‘Cause we just saved Christmas with a pandaskunk!
Whack jobs who attack us have got to pay!
That’s why Princess Kujo has gone away!”
“The rabies is hers
!” shouted Nick, pointing at the fly-infested corpse of a Saint Bernard that was slowly rotting on the sidewalk.
“Thank God!” Brian agreed.
“Brian…” AJ shook his head in disbelief. “How the hell
did you make it out alive?”
Brian grinned. “Same reason Nick didn’t get rabies.” He pulled up the hood of his high/low cowl neck top. “I was wearing Wylee!”
Whether it was really
the love in his wife’s clothing that had saved him or just luck, they would never know, but the Backstreet Boys were sure of one thing: they had a lot to celebrate that Christmas!
“Merry Christmas, Frick,” said Nick cheesily, slinging his arm around Brian’s neck.
“Merry Christmas to you, too, Frack,” Brian replied, matching Nick’s cheesy grin. “Didn’t we promise Santa we’d save Christmas and give presents to the whole world?”
Nick smiled. “Yeah, I guess we did. But… we’re still gonna deliver the gifts in the Wylee trailer, aren’t we?”
Brian looked at his watch. “We’ll never make it all around the world by morning, but better late than never, right?”
“Right! Let’s just say that, this year, Santa’s running on Backstreet Time!”
They both laughed.
“Come on,” said Brian, “let’s go find Petunia and see if she’s feeling up to flying.”
They walked back to the Wylee trailer, but when they opened the door, the pandaskunk wasn’t there. “Where’d she go?” asked Nick in a panic.
“I don’t know!” Brian was baffled. “I left her in here during the battle…”
But unbeknownst to them, Petunia had gone back into the woods, where her father’s body had been laid to rest. While Bambi, Thumper, and the other woodland critters were celebrating with the rest of the Disney characters, Petunia had built a funeral pyre for Flower. When Brian and Nick found her, she was standing alone in front of it, watching his body burn.
They approached her slowly, coming up alongside her. “Are you okay, Petunia?” Brian asked, putting his hand on her back so he could stroke her thick, black-and-white fur.
Though her gaze never left the flickering flames, the pandaskunk smiled sadly and nodded, her striped tail held high. She knew now that she was not alone. For across the fire, four ghostly figures stood, smiling at her. Her mother PopoZao’s eyes shone with pride. On her right side, her father Flower waved, looking much friendlier than he ever had in life. Next to him was her brother from another mother, Patches, his skunk tail wagging cheerfully. And finally, on the far left stood a tall, slender, young man with wavy hair that he wore long, past his jawline. He was wearing a red suit trimmed with white fur.
When Nick followed Petunia’s gaze through the fire, his mouth fell open. “SANTA?!”
Petunia jumped in surprise when Nick shouted; she hadn’t thought anyone could see the apparitions but her.
Nick turned to her in shock. “That can’t
be Santa Claus… can it?” he asked, pointing at the figure on the far left. When Petunia nodded, he shook his head in disbelief. “Weird. Young Santa looks a lot like… Hayden Christensen.”
And then, all of a sudden, a horrible truth occurred to him.
“Wait!” he cried. “If that’s
Santa, then that must mean… SANTA CLAUS IS DEAD
?!” Nick let out a wail like a wounded animal and buried his face in his hands. “I KILLED SANTA!”
Brian and Petunia exchanged guilty looks. With everything else that had happened, they hadn’t gotten the chance to fill Nick in on their conversation with Patches about Santa and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Nick, no… it wasn’t your fault. He was nine hundred years old…” Brian started gently, but Nick shook his head.
“NO!” he cried, suddenly looking up. “It can’t be! I gave them my blood so they could make an antidote! Why didn’t it work?!”
Before Brian or Petunia could say anything, Nick took out his phone and started punching at it furiously. In a matter of seconds, he was on the phone with Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
“Hello?” said Nick. “My name is Nick Carter, and I’m calling to find out why my blood didn’t work to save Santa Claus. How could you have let him die?!”
“Oh, Mr. Carter! We’ve been trying to reach you for a few weeks now!” said the surprised-sounding receptionist on the other end of the line. “The contact information you gave us was apparently incorrect.”
“Oh… yeah… well, sometimes I write down fake phone numbers and stuff so fans won’t start bugging me,” Nick admitted sheepishly. “What were you trying to call me about?”
“Well, there was a problem with the blood sample you provided, which prevented us from being able to use it. We run all donated blood through a rigorous testing process before giving it to a patient, and I’m afraid something rather serious came up in your test results.”
“Really?” Nick’s heart started to pound. “What is it?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Carter, but your blood tested positive for HIV. You are-”
“What?!” Nick gasped. “Are you sure??”
Nick dropped his phone and clenched his hands into fists. Throwing his head back, he raised his fists and cursed at the sky. “GOD DAMN IT, HOWIE!!!”
So Santa was dead, and Nick was infected
From fooling around with his friend, unprotected,
But he'll tell you that
story some other time.
This tale's long enough, and I'm starting to rhyme
Again, like I did back in the beginning.
Sorry - didn't think I would be so long-winded!
Despite his bad news, Nick got in the trailer,
Still wearing the Santa suit sewn by Leigh's tailor.
Pulled by Petunia, they flew 'round the world,
Delivering presents to good boys and girls.
Christmas was saved, and though Nick Plague raged on,
At least Princess Kujo was dead and gone.
The Misfit Fans had left Disney a wreck,
But the Disney characters cried, "What the heck?
We can't let this devastation
Ruin our Christmas celebration!"
So they joined hands and paws, as they sang and they danced,
Spreading Christmas cheer from L.A. to France.
And they all lived happily ever after, that festive Disney bunch,
Except for those who died of measles within the next month.
See, this story has a moral, and I'll state it at the end:
Vaccinate your kids, protect ya tings
, and WASH YOUR FREAKING HANDS!
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.