“Santa!” Odin cried suddenly, pointing at the screen.
“Santa woke up one day, looking tuckered and gray,” an old woman was singing, as a stop-frame animated Santa shuffled across his bedroom in pajamas and a night cap.
“Yeah, buddy, that’s Santa,” said Nick with a grimace, realizing he had landed on one of the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials he had watched as a child. He had been looking forward to sharing them with his son, but now he was overcome with guilt. What would Odin think when he found out Santa Claus wasn’t coming this year?
“...There’ll be a year without a Santa Claus beside your Christmas tree.”
He won’t find out, thought Nick, swallowing hard. We’ll still play Santa for him. Parents around the world would have to do the same for their own children, just like most people grew up thinking they always had. Nick had stopped believing in Santa long before he met the jolly old man at one of his concerts in Canada five years earlier. But that fateful encounter had triggered a chain of events that had changed everything.
“And he slept through the day, as the hours ticked away, and the time was growing near. And the children, they cried - they thought Santa had died! Every eye shed a blue Christmas tear.”
Nick squirmed as he listened to the song. Santa had died, and it was all because of him. At the meet-and-greet before the show, Mr. Claus had become infected with Nick Plague, a highly contagious virus spread through contact with Nick’s unwashed hands. With the North Pole under quarantine and Disneyland under attack by a miserable army of Misfit Fans, it had been up to Nick to save Christmas with the help of his friends from the Backstreet Boys, a bunch of Disney characters, and a young pandaskunk named Petunia. Though they had ultimately succeeded in defeating the Misfit Fans and delivering presents to children around the world, they hadn’t been able to save Santa, who had succumbed to his illness. Nick was devastated to discover that the doctors had not been able to use his host blood to produce an antidote for Nick Plague, as it was found to be infected with HIV from a drunken fling he’d once had with Howie in another story. Santa was dead, and it was all his fault.
“It was a year without a Santa Claus, a Christmas Eve so sad. It was a year without a Santa Claus, the worst we’ve ever had!”
Determined to keep the spirit of Christmas alive, Nick had tried to fill Santa’s boots and taken over his duties, overseeing operations at the North Pole and delivering presents to nice boys and girls. But in the five years since his promotion, everything had fallen apart.
First, he and his wife, Lauren, had started a family, which made it much harder for Nick to leave home and spend the holiday season at the North Pole. He hated every minute he spent away from his wife and son. Having grown up in Florida, he wasn’t a fan of cold weather, either, so when Odin was one, Nick had relocated Santa’s workshop from the North Pole to Las Vegas, Nevada. It was the perfect solution to his problems, or so he had thought - he and Lauren had just bought a house there themselves so their family could be together while the Backstreet Boys were doing their residency. But the reindeer weren’t acclimated to such a warm climate, and the elves, upset with the change, had flat-out refused to continue working for him, forcing Nick to hire local talent to manufacture the toys. As it turned out, former show girls and Elvis impersonators weren’t anywhere near as adept at toymaking as the elves had been, and the workshop had been flooded with complaints from kids around the world about the drastic decline in both the quality and quantity of their Christmas gifts. The following year, they’d resorted to purchasing premade toys instead, but with Toys ‘R’ Us having gone out of business, it had been difficult to find a large enough supply to keep up with the demand.
But Nick had an even bigger problem than his employees or inventory. For the past two years, a washed-up popstar named Melissa Schuman had been waging a very public war against him on social media. At the height of the #MeToo movement, when it had become trendy for women to accuse high-profile male celebrities of sexual misconduct, Melissa claimed Nick had raped her fifteen years earlier. She and her father had been dragging his name through the mud ever since, doing their best to discredit him and ruin both his reputation and career. They had barely made a dent in either - the Backstreet Boys were back and better than ever. In the past year, they had released a number one album, earned their first Grammy nomination in seventeen years, and embarked on a successful world tour, selling out stadiums around the globe. Nineties nostalgia had brought the bestselling boyband of all time back into the spotlight, which only seemed to infuriate the attention-seeking Schumans even more. In the last two months, Melissa had stooped lower than Nick had thought possible and formed an unholy alliance with his ailing little brother, Aaron, who had been struggling with addiction and mental illness for most of his adult life. Together, the two had aligned themselves against Nick, determined to take him down.
Aaron had supplied Melissa with fresh ammo by telling her how Nick had taken over as Santa Claus. Now she wasn’t just attacking Nick and the Backstreet Boys, but Santa, too.
Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
What do I want for Christmas? Santa Claus behind bars! #SantaIsASerialRapist #CancelChristmas #metoo
Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
I’m disturbed to think parents would actually let their daughters sit on the lap of a known serial rapist. #NotMySanta #CancelChristmas #metoo
Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
Are you really comfortable having a serial rapist come into your house in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping? You better watch out! #SantaIsASerialRapist #NotMySanta #CancelChristmas #metoo
In the meantime, Nick and his sister Angel had both been granted temporary restraining orders against Aaron after he’d made threatening comments against their families, but Nick hated to see his brother struggling, especially around the holidays. Judging by his round-the-clock Instagram live videos, Aaron appeared to be in the midst of a mental health crisis. He was manic, barely eating or sleeping, constantly smoking pot, flaunting his guns and bling as he told braggadocious lies about his financial success, driving cross-country and back to do concerts that had been booked before his mental breakdown. If he didn’t get help soon, he was going to seriously hurt himself or someone else. Nick and Angel had both appealed to the authorities, begging for Aaron to be hospitalized on a 5150 hold, but their desperate pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Every time the police went out to Aaron’s place for a welfare check, the charismatic Carter managed to convince them he was doing just fine. As a former drug-user himself, Nick knew just how manipulative addicts could be. But if he also knew his brother had to want help in order to truly get better. If he couldn’t have Aaron committed or arrested, maybe he could get him to agree to voluntary treatment.
“How we doing in here?”
Nick looked up to see Lauren standing in the doorway, holding their newborn daughter, Saoirse, in her arms. “Hey,” he said, smiling at them both. “We’re okay. Why don’t you come watch TV with us?”
Lauren smiled back. “Maybe for a little while.” She came into their bedroom, carrying Saoirse, and climbed onto the bed, laying the baby next to her big brother between them. “Are you feeling any better, babe?” she asked Nick.
“Yeah, a bit,” he replied. He glanced quickly at his son, who was completely engrossed in the Christmas special, before adding in a low voice, “You know, I’ve been thinking… maybe we’re going about the whole Aaron situation the wrong way. Instead of cutting ties with him and trying to have him detained, what if we reached out to him and extended an olive branch? He might be more willing to accept our help if he could see that it’s coming from a place of love.”
Lauren was silent for a few seconds before she finally sighed and said, “Look, I’m sorry if this sounds… negative… or heartless… but haven’t we tried that before? Like, a bunch of times? It always ends the same: Aaron will eventually go back to his old ways, and then you’ll feel guilty for not being able to help him. We need to break the cycle, not repeat it.”
Nick raked his hand through his hair. “I know, baby, but he’s my brother. I can’t just give up on him. I have to keep trying. If I turn my back on him and he ends up like Leslie, I’ll never be able to forgive myself.”
“Nick, you know none of your family’s issues are, were, or will ever be your fault, right?” said Lauren, reaching out to rub his shoulder. “Aaron’s a grown man who makes his own choices. You can’t control him.”
“No, but I can still try to help him,” Nick replied firmly. In spite of his wife’s assurances, he knew the truth. Money and fame had torn his family apart, and that was at least partly his fault. As the most successful Carter by far, he was the only one with the finances and clout necessary to get his brother the help he needed. Money couldn’t fix everything, but it could pay for inpatient treatment, therapy, or whatever he could get Aaron to agree to.
Lauren let out another sigh. “Okay… so how do you propose we try to help him this time?” she asked.
Nick took a deep breath before answering. “Since I’m going to be home this year, I want to invite him here for the holidays.”
Lauren raised her eyebrows. “You want to invite him here?” she repeated. “To our house? Nick, he said he wanted to kill me and Saoirse!”
“I know, baby, but he didn’t really mean that,” said Nick, shaking his head as he looked down at his newborn daughter. “Aaron’s a pathological liar; he says a lot of stuff he doesn’t mean to get attention. It was probably just a cry for help.”
“And how is having him here for the holidays going to help him?”
“Because it won’t just be him. I want to invite everyone - the whole Carter clan. My hope is that we can all come together and show Aaron how much we care about him and how willing we are to help him.”
“It sounds like what you really want is to stage an intervention,” said Lauren.
Nick nodded. “I do. But I can’t tell Aaron that, or he’ll never come.”
“Well, you and Angel do have a restraining order against him - for good reason, I might add. What makes you think he would risk getting arrested to come here for Christmas?”
“The restraining order’s only temporary; it can be dropped. I’ll talk to Angel about it, but I wanted to run it by you first,” said Nick.
His wife gave him a long-suffering look. “I don’t know, baby, I just have this feeling-”
“Lauren, I want to have Christmas here in our house,” Nick insisted. “It means a lot to me. All my life, I’ve wanted to have a big, family Christmas.”
She sighed again. “If it means that much to you, then fine, let’s do it. We’ll invite your brother, your sisters, and whoever else you want. Aaron wouldn’t kill anyone in front of his whole family, would he?”
Nick reached across his two children to take her hand. “You know I’d never let anything bad happen to you or the kids. I love you, Lauren.”
“I love you too, Nick,” Lauren replied. “I just hope this plan of yours works.”
Meanwhile, Petunia the pandaskunk was having an equally lazy day, lounging in the den Nick had built for her in his backyard. She hadn’t been feeling like herself lately, and she didn’t know why. She wasn’t sick, as far as she could tell, but something was different - she just couldn’t put her paw on what it was.
As she lay pondering, the pandaskunk eventually drifted off to sleep. When she woke, it was dark outside. Having slept the entire day away, Petunia stood and stretched before ambling out of her den. She decided to take a lap around the pool - she could use the exercise. If I pack on any more pounds, I’m not going to be able get myself off the ground, let alone fly around the world, thought Petunia as she padded slowly along the perimeter of the pool. At least I don’t have to worry about doing that this year. Though she had been happy to help her liberators, Nick and Brian, deliver Christmas presents, the pandaskunk couldn’t imagine pulling the heavy Wylee trailer through the sky in her current condition. What’s wrong with me? she wondered, pausing to look down at her reflection in the still water. Am I just getting old?
“Be glad you can still get old,” the face in the water said back to her.
Petunia jumped. Great, she thought, shaking her head. Looks like my mind is starting to go, too.
“Greetings, sister!” She stared, flabbergasted, as what she had mistaken for her own reflection rose out of the pool and materialized on the patio before her, a full-fledged pandaskunk. “Fear not, for it is I, your brother from another mother.”
Picking her jaw up off the ground, Petunia stammered, “P-Patches?”
“In the flesh,” replied the other pandaskunk, spreading his paws with a smile. “Well, not really - I no longer have a corporeal body, but I can take on a physical form when I wish for others to see me.”
Petunia blinked as she tried to comprehend what he was telling her. “Are you a… ghost?” she asked warily, noticing the otherworldly glow shimmering around the semitransparent pandaskunk.
“I prefer the word ‘spirit,’” said Patches.
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” Petunia decided, remembering the only other time she had talked to Patches. It was during that strange, out-of-body experience she and Brian had shared five years ago, after her father Flower, possessed by Lord Voldemort, had nearly killed them both. “Or am I dead?”
“You are neither dead, nor dreaming,” said Patches, shaking his fluffy head. “You are awake and very much alive.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Petunia wondered uneasily.
And the spirit said to her, “Do not be afraid, Petunia, for The Force is with you. And soon, you will bear a son, and you will name him Jeff. He will-”
“Jeff?” Petunia interjected, wrinkling her nose. “I would never name my son Jeff.”
“But you will,” insisted Patches. “He-”
“I’ve already thought about it, and if I ever have a baby boy, I’m going to name him Perseus and call him Percy for short,” replied Petunia. “Percy the Pandaskunk - isn’t that cute?”
“Yes, but this baby’s name shall be Jeff,” said Patches impatiently.
“Just Jeff? Not Jeffrey?”
“Just Jeff,” Patches confirmed.
“Jeff with a J or Geoff with a G?” Petunia wanted to know.
“Jeff with a J!” shouted Patches. “Geoff with a G is pretentious and stupid!”
“Well, Jeff with a J is just plain stupid,” said Petunia. “Why should his name be Jeff at all?”
“Because it has been foretold,” said Patches simply. “You will name him Jeff, and he will be great and will save Christmas and bring balance to The Force.”
Petunia said to the other pandaskunk, “How can that be, since I am a virgin?”
The spirit said to her, “The power of The Force has manipulated the midi-chlorians inside you to create life. The Force will be strong with the child growing in your womb; he will be called The Chosen One.”
“The Force?” Petunia repeated with a frown. “I thought that only existed in Star Wars.”
“Ah, yes, but remember, Star Wars has become a part of the Disney universe, the very same universe to which you, as the daughter of Flower the Skunk, also belong,” said Patches. “Never forget, you are a half-blood Disney princess, Petunia. The Force will be with you… always.”
Petunia wrinkled her furry, white snout. “That still doesn’t make much sense,” she said.
“No? Well, consider this: Your friend Lauren, in her old age, has given birth to a daughter after another miscarriage, for nothing is impossible in a world where flying pandaskunks exist.”
“Old age?!” Petunia exclaimed, laughing. “Lauren’s only thirty-six! That’s not even middle-aged in human years.”
“Yet when the mother is over thirty-five, it’s considered a geriatric pregnancy,” Patrick replied wisely. Then the pandaskunk departed from her, leaving Petunia to ponder what he had prophesized.
Brian Littrell was at home with his wife Leighanne, helping her decorate one of their forty-three Christmas trees, when his phone rang. “Hey, Nick,” he answered it, having noticed his friend’s name flashing on the screen.
“What’s up, man?” Nick replied.
“Not much. Leighanne and I are just working on getting our bathroom trees put up,” said Brian.
There was a pause. Then: “You put up Christmas trees in your bathroom?!” Nick cried.
“We put up Christmas trees in every room,” said Brian nonchalantly. “And yes, that includes the bathrooms.”
“The Littrells love Christmas!” Leighanne exclaimed loudly enough for Nick to hear, closing the toilet lid so the gold ribbon she was draping on the tree wouldn’t dip into the water.
“Gross,” said Nick. “Isn’t that, like, unsanitary or something?”
“Unsanitary? Says the man who started a plague by not washing his hands after going to the bathroom,” Brian replied snarkily. He saw Leighanne make a face, giving his phone the stink-eye. She had never been a huge fan of Nick.
“Exactly - bathrooms are filled with germs,” said Nick, missing the point. “I hope you at least have a Mr. Hankey theme happening in there.”
Brian laughed. “You’ve gotta be kidding. You really think my wife would let us do a Mr. Hankey theme?”
Leighanne looked outraged, her mouth dropping open at the mere mention of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. Brian would never dare admit it to her, but privately, he thought Nick’s suggestion made a lot of sense.
“I mean, maybe if Mr. Hankey were made of gold and bedazzled with diamonds,” replied Nick. “Hey, if I had a custom Mr. Hankey statue made for you guys, do you think she’d let you put it on display? ‘Cause I bet my brother knows a guy who could do a real classy-looking one.”
Brian chuckled, shaking his head. “It’s a nice idea, Nick, but I wouldn’t waste your money on something like that.”
“Aww, man…” He couldn’t tell if Nick was still joking, or if he was actually disappointed.
“So what’s up with you?” Brian asked, wondering why he was calling. “You sound like you’re feeling a little better. Did you change your mind about being Santa?”
“No, I haven’t changed my mind, but you might after you hear what I’m going to tell you. I’ve got some big news,” said Nick.
“Good or bad?” Brian wondered with trepidation. He had been worried about Nick ever since he had called and begged for Brian’s help playing Santa Claus, claiming he was too tired to deliver presents that year. Nick had always had boundless energy, but between the world tour, the birth of his second child, and the feud with his brother and Melissa Schuman, the past few months seemed to have taken a toll on him. At least, Brian hoped that was all it was. Nick’s health had been stable for the last five years, thanks to the advances modern medicine had made in treatments for HIV, but Brian knew it was likely to get worse one day. He hated the thought of that happening now, when Nick was not yet forty, with a wife and two little kids to take care of.
“Good and bad, I guess,” was Nick’s answer. “The bad news is, Petunia won’t be able to pull the trailer for you this year. The good news is, we’re gonna have another new addition to the Backstreet family!”
At first, Brian didn’t understand. “Wait, what?! Lauren’s pregnant again?” He saw Leighanne’s eyes widen as she looked at him in surprise. Was it even possible for a woman to get pregnant again so soon after giving birth? he wondered.
Nick laughed. “No, not Lauren - Petunia’s pregnant!”
“Petunia?” Brian repeated incredulously. “But… how? She hasn’t been-?”
“Fucking other pandaskunks?” Nick finished the question Brian couldn’t put into words, albeit less tactfully than he would have attempted to. “No, dude, that’s the crazy part. She claims she hasn’t been, and even if she wanted to, I’m not sure when she would have had the opportunity. As far as we know, Petunia’s the only living pandaskunk in the world, right? But according to her, she was visited by the ghost of Patches, who told her she was going to have a baby.”
Brian’s heart began to beat faster. “Nick…” he whispered.
“I know, I know,” Nick interrupted. “I know it sounds unbelievable. And it’ll be hard to prove; apparently it’s almost impossible to tell if a panda is pregnant. But-”
“I believe you,” blurted Brian, bringing Nick to an abrupt stop.
“You do??” he asked, sounding surprised.
Tears had sprung up in Brian’s eyes. “Nick, don’t you know what this means?” he replied hoarsely. “It’s an immaculate conception. Just like-”
“Anakin Skywalker!” shouted Nick.
Brian paused, caught off-guard. After collecting himself, he said, “Actually, I was thinking of Jesus. You know... our Lord and Savior? The Son of God?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Nick. “Him too.”
“Nick, this could be the Second Coming of Christ in pandaskunk form!” exclaimed Brian. Leighanne’s eyes were as round as saucers now; she was staring at him as if he had grown a second head. “I want to be there to witness this miracle with my very own eyes. Can I bring my family for a visit before Christmas?”
“Of course, dawg, you know you’re welcome any time,” replied Nick, sounding delighted. “We’ve got plenty of room - the more, the merrier! Just a heads up, though: since I’m not doing the Santa thing this year, I’ve decided to host a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas instead, so my crazy family may be coming, too. Consider yourself warned.”
Brian laughed. “Christmas with the Carters, huh? Count us in.”
When he hung up the phone, Leighanne gave him an incredulous look. “Brian Thomas Littrell,” she scolded him, shaking her head. “What in the world have you gotten us into now?”
“Holiday ro-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oad! Holiday ro-o-o-o-o-o-oad!” Jane Carter sang along with Lindsey Buckingham on the radio, as her son Aaron’s pick-up truck sped down the highway.
In the driver’s seat, Aaron rolled his eyes. “Okay, Mom, time to turn off your old people music,” he announced. “I wanna play you my new beats!”
Please don’t, thought Jane, cringing inwardly. Her ears were already hurting. “We don’t have to listen to music at all, you know,” she said, turning down the volume on his truck’s stereo. “We could just make conversation and enjoy each other’s company.”
“Okay,” agreed Aaron. “What do you wanna talk about?”
“Well…” Jane trailed off, racking her brain for a topic. “What do you want for Christmas?” she finally asked her son.
Aaron had his answer ready. “I want an official Smith & Wesson M&P15 .223-caliber AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle!” he blurted out, all in one breath.
Jane just looked at him, her eyebrows raised, and shook her head. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” she replied.
“But Mo-om!” whined Aaron. “Nick and his BSB gang stalkers sent the cops to my house, and they took all my guns away!”
“You don’t need guns, Aaron.” You need help, Jane added in her head, but she knew better than to say so out loud. It would only set him off.
“Yes I do!” Aaron argued. “According to the second amendment, it’s my constitutional right to bear arms!”
“Oh, Aaron,” sighed Jane.
Her son just scowled. “Fuck this conversation,” he huffed. “I’m turning my music on.” He pressed a few buttons on his stereo and cranked the volume back up until the whole truck was vibrating with the booming bass of his latest techno track. “What do you think?” Aaron asked his mother, as he bobbed his head to the beat.
Holding her ears, Jane shook her head. “I don’t know, Aaron… I think this is bad idea.”
Aaron frowned, turning the music down a bit. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he said scornfully.
“Watch your mouth!” Jane snapped back. “I’m talking about this trip. Driving all the way across the country to spend Christmas with your brother and that gold-digging whore he married is a bad idea. After how hard he’s worked to cut his family out of his life, I still can’t believe he invited us.
“Me,” her younger son corrected. “Nick invited me. He doesn’t know you’re coming.” And he’ll be in for the shock of his life when you show up at his house, Aaron added in his head, snickering to himself. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Nick’s face when he opened the door to find his estranged mother and her dozen pugs standing on his front porch. It was going to be great.
“What?! You told me he invited everyone for a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas!” cried Jane.
“Well, I think Angel’s coming too,” Aaron said with a shrug. “I don’t know. We haven’t really been speaking lately.”
Jane sighed. “I know how that feels.” She hadn’t heard from her oldest son or youngest daughter in several years. It was only recently that Jane and Aaron had reconciled, after appearing on the reality show Marriage Boot Camp together. When he had offered to drive her and her dogs from her home in Florida to Nick’s house in Las Vegas for the holidays, she had jumped at the chance, hoping it would help her heal the fractured relationships she had with the rest of her kids, as well. Now she was wondering if she had made a mistake.
“It’ll be fine, Mom,” Aaron insisted. “I know you just got out of rehab, but I really don’t think you need to worry. I don’t drink anymore-” He paused to puff from the joint he held between his fingers, filling the car with a cloud of pot fumes as he exhaled. “-and Nick’s not supposed to with that heart condition he has. Plus, I’m pretty sure Lauren’s still breastfeeding. They probably won’t even have any alcohol in their house, so we should have no problem staying sober,” he said confidently, as he picked up the can of computer duster he kept in his cupholder and took a hit of the inhalant.
“Stop that!” Jane scolded her son, as he drifted across the center line. “You’re going to kill us both!”
“You stop!” Aaron shot back, swerving back into his lane. His lips were tingling, and his head felt pleasurably light and floaty. “I’m a grown man, Mom; I got this. Go to sleep.”
“Why don’t you let me drive for awhile?” Jane offered.
“After you took two hundred miligrams of fucking Seroquel?” Aaron scoffed. “Yeah right. I told you, I got it. Chill out. It’s all under control.”
“Yeah, you seem real in control,” said Jane, rolling her eyes.
“Shut up, Mom,” snapped Aaron. He could already feel his high starting to fade away. “You’re annoying me. Just go to sleep.”
“All right, fine,” Jane finally relented, taking a bottle of sedatives out of her purse. She washed a handful of pills down with a swig of soda from her Big Gulp cup. Jesus, take the wheel, she prayed, as she closed her eyes and leaned back against the headrest. It was going to be a long trip.