“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 sick?”
“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!”