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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.”

“It’s not 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 virus.”

“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!”