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-”
“Wait, Saint 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?”
“You’re at 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.”