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! 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.
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?”