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 funny!”
“It certainly is!”
“After all, who cares about her precious little Petunia?”
“Petunia? You mean Pe-toot-ia!”
“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!”
“There’s no such thing as 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…”