Nick sighed, raking a hand through his unruly hair. As much as he hated to admit it, he was worried about his brother. He kept watching through the window, hoping he would see Aaron wandering back up the street any second, but he wasn’t holding his breath. He knew it was just as likely Aaron was off getting high in a hotel room or driving himself home, even though he had hardly slept in days. It was only a matter of time before the kid ended up killing himself - though whether it would happen accidentally or intentionally, Nick couldn’t say. So much for staging an intervention, he thought sadly. Nothing had worked out the way he’d wanted it to.
“Santy Claus!” a small voice squealed behind him, causing Nick to jump. Startled, he whirled around to see BJ’s daughter Bella standing there in her pajamas, holding a raggedy teddy bear. “Uncle Nick, are you Santy Claus?” she asked earnestly.
“What? Oh… Whew, you scared me,” said Nick, wiping his forehead in relief as he remembered the last time someone had snuck up on him like that. At least this time he wouldn’t be frozen in carbonite and shipped off to a galaxy far, far away. “No, I’m not Santa Claus,” he lied, looking down at his red sweatpants. Not this year, anyway.
“I wish I was,” he added, and that much was true. He was starting to regret his decision to stay home, but it was too late to change his mind. It was already Christmas Eve on the other side of the world, and even if he wanted to deliver presents, there was no way he would be able to get everything ready in time or convince Petunia to pull the sleigh in her postpartum condition. It would be up to the parents to play Santa this year. He just hoped they would come through, or there were going to be a lot of disappointed kids on Christmas morning.
“Whatcha doin’ up, sweetheart?” he asked his niece, as he plopped down on the sofa. He patted a spot next to him, inviting her to sit. Bella climbed up and curled her body so close to his, he could smell the combination of grape-scented bubble bath and BJ’s cigarette smoke clinging to her skin.
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Bella, twirling a piece of her long, brown hair.
“Why not?” Nick wondered.
She looked up at him, her big brown eyes meeting his baby blues. “I’m nervous... because Christmas is almost here.”
Nick offered a knowing smile. “Nervous or excited?”
Bella sighed. “Shittin’ bricks.”
Nick had to bite his tongue to stop himself from laughing. “You shouldn’t say that,” he chided her gently.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “Shittin’ rocks.”
He blinked at her in surprise, not sure how to respond to that.
“I’m nervous because I don’t know if I’m gettin’ nothin’,” she went on honestly, failing to notice his reaction. Her admission stabbed at Nick’s heart, making him feel even more guilty for deciding to stay home that year. How many other kids in the world were worried about the same thing?
“I don’t think you should be nervous,” he assured his niece. “‘Cause if you’re good, Santa knows it. And if you believe in him, and you believe in your mom, and you believe in your… your grandma…” He swallowed the bit of vomit that had risen up the back of his throat. “...and you’ve been good all year ‘round, Santa Claus is gonna bring you something.” I’ll make sure of it, he added inwardly, vowing to find out from BJ exactly what Bella wanted and buy it for her. What was the point in having a rich, famous uncle if you couldn’t get some good presents out of it? He could do that much for her, even if he couldn’t do it for all the good little girls and boys in the world.
“Sometimes I think all that Santa crap’s just bull,” Bella confessed. “If he was so real, how come I didn’t get squat last year? I didn’t do nothin’ wrong, and I still got the shaft!”
Nick was slightly distubed by what he was hearing, but he tried to hide that from her. “Well,” he said, forcing a smile onto his face, “I happen to know for a fact that Santa Claus is real. And in the next couple of days, somehow I’m gonna prove it to you. You know, every year he comes to our house. I’ve seen him.”
Bella’s brown eyes widened. “It’s true??”
Nick nodded. “Cross my heart,” he said with a wink. “So… it’s a good idea you came to stay with us, isn’t it?”
“I love it here!” she exclaimed. “You don’t gotta put on your coat to go the bathroom, and your house is always parked in the same place.”
A lump rose in Nick’s throat as he realized how badly he had let Bella down by not being there for her and BJ. Filled with regret, he sighed and said, “I think you better go back to bed now.”
His niece nodded. “Okay.” She crawled off the couch, then turned to look back at him. “How come you ain’t sleepin’?” she asked suspiciously.
“Oh, I was just looking for something,” said Nick wistfully, glancing out the window again. He did a double take when he saw a tall, lanky figure staggering up the driveway. “Aaron??”
Bella’s face lit up. “Uncle Aaron’s back?!”
They both ran outside.
“What do you want?” Aaron muttered when he looked up and saw them.
Before Nick could answer, his brother tripped over the curb and crashed into the trash cans Lauren had set out earlier, knocking them over with a clatter loud enough to wake the whole street. Lights went on inside the house, as Nala, Igby, and I started barking and one of the babies began to cry.
“Smooth move,” said Nick with a smirk, extending his hand to help Aaron up. “You okay, bro?”
Aaron slapped his hand away. “I told you, I’m fuckin’ fine,” he snapped defensively, as he scrambled to his feet.
Nick watched him with a sinking feeling. He was clearly high as a kite; Nick could smell the weed and duster fumes wafting up from his brother’s bleach-stained clothes. “You’re not fine, Aaron,” he said sadly. “I just wish you would admit it so we can help you get better. You can hate us all you want, bro, but your family will still love you, no matter what.”
“That’s right, sweetheart,” said a soft voice behind him. For the first time in ten years or more, the sound of his mother’s voice didn’t make Nick cringe. At least, for now, they were on the same side. “We love you, and we’re here for you, Aaron,” Jane added, opening her arms wide. “Let us help you the way you helped me.”
Aaron scowled. “If y’all think I’m going back to rehab, you’re dead fucking wrong! I don’t even drink or do drugs, except for weed, and that doesn’t even count - it’s natural!”
“Don’t forget the computer duster you like to huff,” his mother reminded him with a reproachful look. “That stuff is definitely not natural.”
Aaron hung his head, mumbling something under his breath. Nick thought he heard the words “smear campaign” again.
“Look, Aaron, none of us is in a place to judge you. We’ve all been there,” he pointed out, waving his hand to include not only himself, but also his mother and BJ, who was standing on the front stoop with Angel, both of them still in their pajamas. “Addiction and mental illness run in our family, and neither one is easy to overcome on its own, let alone a combination of both. But with the right people around you and the right attitude, you can overcome this. You’ve got plenty of support here, and I’m willing to pay to get you some professional help, too… but only if you commit to following the treatment plan.”
“I don’t want your money!” Aaron spat, as if he had tasted poison. “It’s blood money! You’ve used and abused people to get where you are. You’ve hurt people!” His bloodshot eyes flashed, reflecting the colorful Christmas lights. “You are not a good person, Nick!”
Nick sighed. “I’ve made some mistakes in my life, I admit,” he acknowledged with a nod. “But I’ve never raped anyone. What happened between Melissa Schuman and me was consensual, at least the way I remember it. Maybe she remembered it differently. We had both been drinking; I don’t blame her if she woke up with regrets. But I swear, I never meant to hurt her or any other woman. I don’t appreciate the accusations you made about me and Mildred.” He gave Aaron a disapproving glance.
“Don’t try to gaslight me, dude; I saw what I saw!” Aaron insisted. “And I will always believe women instead of victim-shaming them the way you and your BSB gang stalkers do!”
Nick shook his head sadly. His brother had obviously been brainwashed by Melissa, indoctrinated with a barrage of flowery, trauma-informed language to further her own attention-seeking agenda. Nick feared Aaron was too far gone to be rehabilitated. But he had to keep trying. It was Christmas, after all, and if the last few years had taught him anything, it was that miracles tended to happen at Christmas time.
“You know, they could be part of your gang someday too,” he said, appealing to Aaron’s own desperate need for attention. “If you and I could just agree to set aside our differences and join forces, we could do some pretty amazing things together. With my vocals and your beats, I bet we’d make a kick-ass collaboration that both our fanbases would love. And just think - if even a third of my 1.5 million Instagram followers started following you, you’d have over a million followers, too!”
A faraway look came over Aaron’s face, his eyes gleaming with an expression of greed as he was seduced by the fantasy of having an audience of over one million members watching him on Instagram… donating money on his livestreams… ordering his overpriced, crusty, bleach-stained, customized hoodies…
“Your brother’s right, Aaron,” added Jane. “You two are both so talented… I would love nothing more than to see you make music together again. But before you can do that, you must get clean, sober, and healthy. I suggest a compromise between you and Nick.”
“A compromise?” the Carter brothers said in unison.
Their mother nodded. “A compromise. Aaron, you stop saying nasty things about Nick, stay off social media for the next ninety days, and instead focus on your mental health at an inpatient facility. In return, Nick will fund your treatment and record a song with you once you’re well again.”
The thought of spending three months off social media made Aaron’s skin crawl. It had only been a few minutes since his last Instagram live video, and already, he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Twitching, he moved one of his trembling hands toward his pocket, furtively reaching for a joint to calm his nerves. His fingers found the computer duster first and wrapped around the cold can, clutching it tightly. He was never going to get clean. Scowling, he shook his head. “I won’t do it!”
“Then me neither,” said Nick with a shrug, turning his back on his brother.
“Boys, please!” begged Jane, her desperate eyes darting between them.
Aaron felt a brief stab of guilt as he remembered what he had done to her dogs - accidentally, of course, but only because he had been high. Maybe she was right. Maybe he did need help. “All right, fine,” he sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I’ll try inpatient treatment if Nick pays for it. I need to save my money for a new Lamborghini when I get out.”
“And Nick?” prompted Jane, now looking at him.
Nick fought the urge to roll his eyes. “If he’s serious, then so am I. I’ll cover the full cost,” he agreed, somewhat grudgingly. It wasn’t like he didn’t have the money to spare, but he hated to waste it, especially now that he had a family of his own to support. Still, if the treatment center worked this time and saved his brother’s life, it would be worth every penny spent.
“Good. Now hug it out, you two,” ordered their mother, and reluctantly, the brothers embraced.
“Sorry to interrupt this tender Carter family moment,” said a new voice, “but do y’all see that?” Nick and Aaron broke apart as Brian walked over, his eyes fixed on a point far above their heads.
Glancing up, Nick spotted what appeared to be a red star glowing in the sky.
“Look! Look, look!” cried Bella, pointing at it. “It’s Santy Claus! Santy Claus! Uncle Nick, it’s Santy Claus!”
Nick shook his head. “That’s not Santa Claus…” he started slowly, catching Brian’s eye.
With a nod, Brian finished for him: “It’s a spaceship!”
“That ain’t a friggin’ spaceship, cuz. It’s a light on the sewage treatment plant,” said Kevin, his eyebrows furrowing as he studied the strange glow.
Nick frowned. “Sewer gas…” He suddenly remembered how his mother had emptied the RV’s toilet into his storm drain, and a terrible thought occurred to him. At the same time he turned to share it with the others, he saw Aaron lighting a joint. “Don’t-” Nick started to warn him, but it was too late. The air around Aaron suddenly ignited, and the younger Carter brother was blasted off his feet by a violent explosion.
“I’ll have a blue... Christmas... without you,” Petunia had been singing softly to herself as she lay alone in the back yard, pining for her baby. “I’ll be so blue… thinking… about you. Decorations of red... on a green Christmas tree… won’t mean a thing… if you’re not here with me…”
When she heard the blast, she lifted her head off her front paws and looked around in alarm. She didn’t want to leave her den, but she couldn’t just lie there. Her friends might be hurt! She hoisted herself up and hurried around to the front of the house, her paws plodding heavily over the cold, hard ground as she followed the acrid smell of smoke.
In the front yard, she found Nick’s brother Aaron being patted down by the five Backstreet Boys. The back of his bleach-stained hoodie was still smoking, but when added to everything he had already done to distress it, the burn marks almost looked like they belonged.
“Damn, you okay, AC?” AJ was the first to ask. “You could have been killed!”
“All good,” Aaron replied, brushing himself off as he got back on his feet.
“That’s a relief,” said Nick, rolling his eyes behind Aaron’s back. That was when he noticed Petunia. “Hey, Petunia. How are you doing?” he asked her gently.
Before Petunia could answer, Brian said, “Are y’all sure that’s not a spaceship? ‘Cause it sure looks like a spaceship to me.” Following his gaze, Petunia noticed a red light shimmering high above the roof of Nick’s house. It seemed to be coming closer.
AJ squinted at the sky. “You know, Rok, you might actually be right.”
Kevin frowned. “In that case, we should prepare ourselves for another fight, fellas,” he said, casting a wary look at the crimson orb. “Just in case.” He slipped his amulet around his neck, and Nick, Brian, AJ, and Howie all did the same. In a matter of seconds, they had been transformed back into the world’s most unique team of superheroes.
“Wish I had a costume,” Aaron muttered enviously, kicking at a clod of dirt in the grass. “Wish I had a weapon so I could help protect my family, too.”
Howie exchanged a significant glance with Nick, silently asking his permission to use his powers of mental illusion to give Aaron what he wanted. After a moment’s hesitation, Nick nodded. Howie approached Aaron. “And what kind of weapon would you like, little boy?” he asked with a wink.
Aaron’s eyes widened. “I want an official Smith & Wesson M&P15 .223-caliber AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle!” he blurted.
In the background, Angel cringed and shook her head. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” she shouted at her twin.
But Howie granted Aaron his wish anyway, gifting him with the gun. “Wow… thanks, Howie!” exclaimed Aaron happily as held it, admiring the way it gleamed in the glow of the Christmas lights.
“You’re welcome, buddy,” said Howie, smiling back. When Aaron wasn’t watching, he leaned in close to Nick and whispered, “Don’t worry. I didn’t imagine it loaded.”
Nick laughed with relief.
Next to him, Petunia sucked in a deep breath and held it as she watched the light swell and slowly take shape, dwarfing the stars around it as it descended out of the sky. She was afraid to get her hopes up, but nevertheless, her heart lifted as the large spaceship landed on the lawn.
A hatch opened on the front of the ship, clouds of dust billowing out beneath the door as it gradually lowered to the ground to become an exit ramp. As the dust settled, the silhouette of a man in armor appeared in the doorway.
“What are you doing back here?” Nick demanded, putting his hands on his hips. He looked almost as menacing as the Mandalorian in his own black body armor, his nunchucks swinging from one hand. “Melissa Schuman is dead… the Misfit Fans destroyed. Your business with my brother is done.”
“I’ve come to return the bounty I took,” said the Mandalorian, and behind him appeared the egg-shaped cradle Nick had seen inside the compartment of his ship. It drifted down the ramp after him, floating a few feet in the air.
“JP?!” Petunia bounded toward it, rising on her hind legs to peer inside. When she saw her newborn nestled snugly in a bundle of Celebrity Sheets from the Littrell Collection (endorsed and approved by Backstreet Boy member Brian Littrell), she cried out happily, “It’s him! It’s him!”
“Pandakin Skywalker?!” shouted Nick, rushing forward to have a look. “Yes! It’s a Christmas miracle!” Reaching into the space cradle, he scooped up the sleeping baby pandaskunk and placed him carefully between his mother’s front paws. He looked a little cuter than Nick remembered him - less like the Antichrist and more like how he had imagined a baby pandaskunk would look, albeit without the black patches of fur.
“Oh, my sweet baby Jeff, thank goodness you’re home!” Petunia gasped as she sat on her hindquarters and held her son tightly to her chest. “Thank you,” she whispered, looking up at the bounty hunter. “Thank you for bringing him back.”
The Mandalorian’s helmet bobbed as he gave a brief nod. “I made a mistake,” he admitted, turning his head from her to Nick. “I’m sorry.”
“Mistake?! You kidnapped our sons!” cried Jane, as she stormed past Petunia. “We could press charges and sue you for millions of dollars for our pain and suffering!”
“Relax, Mom,” said Nick, resting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. We all make mistakes.” With a quick glance back at Aaron, he added, “All that matters is that we also make amends and try to move on from them.”
“How can I make up for this?” the bounty hunter asked quietly.
Nick considered this a moment, his eyes roaming over the Mandalorian’s space ship. He remembered Bella shouting, “Santy Claus!” when she had seen it in the sky. That was when he got an idea.
“I bet this ship goes pretty fast, huh?” he said, as he walked around the vessel, inspecting it from all angles.
“She’s fast all right,” the Mandalorian replied, following him.
“Fast enough to make it to every country on Earth in one night?” asked Nick.
The bounty hunter hesitated a second before answering, “I suppose so.”
Nick smiled. “Then I know exactly how you can make up for this.”
“But Nick, I thought you said you were taking a vacation!” protested Lauren when her husband told her his plan.
“A vacation?! Nonsense!” declared Nick, as he pulled on a pair of tall black boots, tucking the bottoms of his red sweatpants into their tops. “Well?” he added, looking around at the rest of his family. “Why’s everybody standing around? There’s work to be done! Find the Nice and Naughty List! Load up the ship! Fetch my coat!”
“But what about your exhaustion?” wondered Brian.
“And your hibernation sickness?” added Howie.
“And your AIDS?” asked Aaron.
“HIV,” Nick corrected him quickly. “I feel fine! My immune system’s never been stronger. Haven’t got a symptom any longer.”
“Yay!” everyone cheered.
“Now pile all those toys inside,” Nick told his friends and family. “There’s no time to waste. Tonight, we ride!”
“Here comes Nicky Claus, here comes Nicky Claus, right down Santa Claus lane,” they sang as they helped him pack all the toys his Elvises and showgirls had procured into the bounty hunter’s ship. “He’s got a bag that’s filled with toys for boys and girls again…”
Now that the Mandalorian was on his side, Nick no longer needed Petunia to pull his sleigh. The new mother pandaskunk stayed at home in her den, happily nursing her son, as Nick put his Santa suit on and jumped into the Razor Crest. He navigated from the co-pilot’s seat, while his new Mandalorian pal flew the ship around the world, making up for his past sins by delivering a bounty of presents to the good little girls and boys of planet Earth.
It wasn’t exactly how Nick had expected his fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas to go, but he couldn’t have asked for a better end to his holiday.