“Good morning,” Nick greeted the twins cheerfully, getting out the ingredients to make gluten-free pancakes for his family. As he flipped flapjacks on the griddle, he asked casually, “Hey, Aaron, you wanna help me hang Christmas lights outside today?”
To Nick’s astonishment, Aaron didn’t take much convincing. “Sure,” he agreed with a shrug.
After breakfast, the two brothers trouped out to the garage to get the lights. “We’re gonna have the best looking house in town, Aaron,” Nick said, as they carried box after box to the driveway. “I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Aaron raised his eyebrows as he looked down at the stockpile of plastic storage totes that had amassed on the pavement. “That’s a lot of lights, Nick.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure it’s a lot of work, too,” Nick acknowledged as he set down the last box, “but if I’m out in the cold and I’m committed to decorating the house, I’m gonna do it right, and I’m gonna do it big. You want something you can be proud of, don’t you?”
Aaron shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Nick smiled as he started unwinding one string of white lights. “Sure you do.”
“Think you might be overdoing it, Nick?” Aaron asked, as he watched him work.
“Aaron… when was the last time I overdid anything? C’mon, unravel these,” said Nick, handing him a length of cord. “You have to check every bulb. Oop, got a little knot here.” He shoved a tangled ball of lights toward Aaron. “You work on that. I’ll get the other box.”
Aaron sighed. He was already starting to regret agreeing to help his brother.
Putting up the lights took all day. By the time they had finished, the sky was getting dark, but the ground was fully illuminated, every tree, bush, and flower bed gleaming with bright white, purple, and multicolored lights.
“Oh, Nick, it’s so lovely!” gasped Lauren in delight when she saw the winter wonderland they had created. The whole family had come outside to admire it.
“Babe, you and the kids deserve a home like this to spend Christmas in,” Nick replied proudly, resting his hands on his wife’s shoulders.
“It’s a beaut, Nick!” declared Lauren’s dad, Larry. “It’s a beaut!”
“Aw, Dad… you taught me everything I know about exterior illumination,” said Nick, who had turned into quite the handyman under his father-in-law’s tutelage.
“Thank you. Thank you,” said Larry with a wide grin.
Nick went down the line of family members, wanting to acknowledge each one of them. “Aaron… Angel,” he said, slinging an arm around each of the twins as he stood between them. “I hope this adds to your enjoyment of the holidays.”
“Oh, it’s just wonderful!” Angel exclaimed, her dark eyes shining in the glow of the lights.
“Corey,” Nick continued, slapping her husband on the back. “Bro… thanks for being here.”
“Hey, thanks for inviting us,” replied Corey, who was carrying Harper on his shoulders. “You did a great job, dude.”
Aaron scowled. “I helped, too, you know.”
“The house sure does look swell, Nick,” said Jane, ignoring her other son.
“Thanks, Mom,” Nick replied automatically, as he put his arm around the next person in line. “I hope this enhances your holiday spirit. And BJ…” Smiling at his sister, Nick suddenly did a double-take, as he realized who he was talking to. “Mom?? BJ??”
“Aw, the house is gorgeous, Nick,” gushed Bobbie Jean, grinning back at him.
Nick kept looking between the two of them, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Mom?!”
“I hope you didn’t do this all on our account, Nick,” Jane said, as she hugged her oldest son. Nick felt numb with shock. He hadn’t seen his mother in many years, and he certainly hadn’t expected her to come to his house for Christmas, especially considering he hadn’t invited her.
“Hey, baby!” called BJ. “Come here and see what Uncle Nick did to the house!”
Turning around, Nick noticed a rusty RV parked in the driveway. When did that pull up? he wondered, still feeling completely bewildered. He watched as the door opened and a little girl came bounding out. She ran right up to BJ, wrapping her arms around her mother’s waist.
“This here is Bella,” BJ introduced her daughter.
Angel bent down to Bella’s level. “Do you have a kiss for me?” she asked, smiling, as she turned her cheek toward her niece.
“Eh, you better take a rain check on that, sis,” said BJ. “She’s got a lip fungus they ain’t identified yet.”
Angel quickly drew back in disgust.
“We were gonna call,” BJ added, turning back to Nick, “but Mama wanted to make it a surprise.”
“Yeah… you surprised?” asked Jane, smirking at Aaron, who looked like he had seen a ghost.
“Surprised, Mom?” replied Nick, smiling through gritted teeth. “If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now.” He turned away from her, giving his wife a look of wide-eyed horror.
“That could be arranged,” Aaron muttered under his breath.
Lauren was looking back at her husband in dismay. “We have plenty of room,” he heard her say with forced politeness, as she pasted a smile onto her face. “Plenty of towels… plenty of everything.” She went over to hug BJ, but not Jane. Nick knew she had not forgotten how horrible his mother had been to her before and after their wedding, to which Jane hadn’t been invited either.
Jane, however, acted as if none of that had happened. “And this must be baby Seer-say!” she cooed, pulling back the fabric of the sling Lauren was using to carry Saoirse so she could better see her face. She leaned down close and pinched the baby’s cheek. Saoirse immediately began to cry.
“It’s Seer-sha,” Lauren corrected, as she took a step backwards.
Jane moved closer. “Can I hold my granddaughter?” she asked.
“Maybe once we’re inside,” Lauren said stiffly. “It’s too cold for her out here.”
While Lauren lead the rest of the family into the house, Nick hung back with BJ. “It’s good to see you, Beej,” he told his sister sincerely. “I wish I’d known you were bringing Mom.”
BJ sighed. “I’m sorry, Nick. I know you didn’t invite her, but Aaron was the one who decided to bring her in the first place. He drove all the way to Florida to pick her up, and then halfway here, he ditched her and stole all her dogs!”
“What?!” gasped Nick. “But, wait… Aaron only has one dog with him now.”
BJ shrugged. “He probably sold the rest of them for drug money or something. According to one of his stupid Instagram videos, he dropped Mom off at Uncle Steve’s house in Arizona because she was ‘overdosing’ in the seat next to him, but Uncle Steve wasn’t home, so he literally left her lying on the front porch, unconscious.”
Nick shook his head. “I can’t believe him. So is Mom using again, too?”
“Who knows,” said BJ, rolling her eyes. “She claims she accidentally took too many sedatives. She called me, crying, and begged me to come get her. I couldn’t leave her stranded there, so I did. It just made more sense to continue on to Vegas from Phoenix than to drive all the way back to Florida, so… here we are.” She offered an apologetic shrug. “I hope you’re not too mad.”
Nick sighed. “No, it’s okay. I wanted to have a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas, and I guess Mom should be included in that, too. Maybe this is just what we need to make things right again.”
BJ nodded. “Maybe. But watch your back. You can’t trust either of them, Mom or Aaron.”
“Believe me, I know,” said Nick with a rueful smile. He turned his attention to her ride. “So… when did you get the tenement on wheels?”
“Oh, that there? That’s an RV!” BJ replied proudly. “I borrowed it off a buddy of mine. He took my house; I took the RV. It’s a good-looking vehicle, ain’t it?”
“Yeah. It looks so nice parked in the driveway,” said Nick.
She seemed to miss his sarcasm. “Yeah, it sure does,” she said, nodding. “But don’t you go falling in love with it now. We’re taking it with us when we leave next month.”
Next month?! Nick nearly fainted. If his whole family made it through the holidays without killing each other, it would be a Christmas miracle.
In the morning, while everyone else was getting dressed for a day of shopping, Nick, still in his pajamas, snuck up to the attic to stash some packages that had just been delivered - presents for Lauren and the kids. He much preferred shopping online to going into stores, where he was often stopped by fans wanting photos and autographs, but Lauren, desperate to get everyone out of her house for a few hours, had suggested the whole family go Christmas shopping together. She and Angel wanted to visit The Shops at Crystals to browse the high-end boutiques there, while Aaron, BJ, and Jane were more interested in bargain-hunting at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop.
“Can’t Corey and I just stay home with the kids?” Nick had practically begged his wife.
“And leave me alone with your crazy family?!” Lauren had hissed back. “Not a chance in hell, Nick. You’re coming!”
He knew she would start to wonder where he was if he stayed in the attic for too long, so he hurriedly hid the packages and turned to leave. But before he could climb back down the ladder, he heard the trapdoor it was attached to close with a thud.
“What on earth was that doing down?” wondered Jane, making sure the door was safely shut before she walked away, shivering from the draft of cold that had been coming from the attic. “The kids could have gotten hurt climbing that ladder!”
“Hey!” Nick called, rattling the trapdoor, but there was no response. “Hello?!”
“Has anyone seen my husband?” asked Lauren later, as they were getting ready to leave. Odin and Saoirse were both buckled snugly into their car seats in the back of her car, but no one seemed to know where Nick was. “Aaron? Is Nick coming?”
Her brother-in-law was no help. “How the hell would I know?” he snapped, as he slid behind the wheel of his truck.
“Is he in the house?”
“If he isn’t out back with the pandaskunk, he must be in the house,” said Aaron with a shrug.
Lauren sighed with frustration. “I’m sure he wants to come shopping and have lunch with us,” she said, starting back toward the house, but Jane caught her by the wrist and stopped her.
“Nick’s got another car; he can drive. I’ve got to eat so I can take my Seroquel!” she exclaimed, settling herself into the front seat of Lauren’s car.
Closing her eyes, Lauren took a deep breath and counted to ten before she let it out slowly. I will not cuss out my mother-in-law. I will not cuss out my mother-in-law, she chanted in her head. I may just kill my husband, though. Damn it, Nick, where the hell did you disappear to??
“Help!” Nick called desperately from the attic, but no one heard him. Through the tiny attic window, he watched his whole family drive away without him.
Well, looks like I get to stay home after all, he thought with a sigh, as he paced around the chilly attic. I guess it’s true what they say: Be careful what you wish for.
He rummaged through some storage boxes, looking for something warm to wear over his thin pajamas. In a box of his old Backstreet Boys stage costumes, he found a puffy jacket, a pair of gloves, and a beanie. Good thing we used to dress like we were going skiing instead of singing and dancing, he thought, pulling the winter gear on gratefully.
Digging to the bottom of the box, Nick discovered a DVD set of House of Carters, the reality show he had filmed with his siblings over a decade ago. A lump rose in his throat as he looked at the picture of the five of them on the cover. He was pretty sure living in that house in L.A. was the last time they’d all been together before Leslie’s death six years later.
Feeling nostalgic, he found a boxy old TV with a built-in DVD player, plugged it in, and popped in the first disc. Tears rolled down his face as he watched the old family videos, smiling at the fond memories they brought back: he and Aaron fighting over Aaron’s beats and what had happened with Paris Hilton, Aaron jumping off the balcony and barking at him like a dog, BJ guzzling bottles of champagne and lighting her cigarettes on the stove burner, Leslie chasing Angel around the kitchen as they threatened to stab each other with cooking utensils. God, we were one fucked-up, dysfunctional mess of a family, he thought, shaking his head. But I sure do love those guys.
He was so engrossed in watching, he didn’t realize how many hours had passed until he heard the trapdoor open and the ladder being lowered down. “Lauren?” he called.
“Nick?!” Lauren’s head poked through the trapdoor, and her jaw dropped. “There you are! Have you been up here the whole day?”
“I got stuck,” he said with a shrug.
“Oh my god, baby!” Scrambling into the attic, Lauren dropped the shopping bags she had brought up and hurried over to hug him. “I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’ve just been watching this old DVD I found of House of Carters,” he said, holding up the case to show her.
She laughed as she took it from him. “Wow… you guys look so young! When did this come out?”
“So before we met. No wonder I’ve never watched this,” said Lauren, turning over the case to look at the back with interest.
“You wanna hide out and watch it with me for awhile?” Nick asked, raising his eyebrows.
“You mean avoid your family?” Lauren replied, smirking. “You bet your ass I do!” She wedged one of her bags into the trapdoor opening to prevent it from being closed all the way, and Nick bundled her up in more of his old tour clothes. “You owe me, by the way,” she added, as she leaned back against him.
“I promise I’ll make it up to you, baby,” he replied, kissing the top of her head before he pressed the play button.
“Oh my god, look how much hair AJ had back then!” she gasped the first time the Backstreet Boys appeared onscreen.
Nick snickered. “He just grew it out to make it look like he had a lot of hair. If you lifted his hat, you would see how bald he was underneath. This was before his hair transplant.”
Lauren laughed. “And Howie looks exactly the same. How has he not aged at all in thirteen years??”
“I know, right? I swear he discovered the Fountain of Youth down there in Florida and didn’t tell anyone. He’s like freaking Benjamin Button,” said Nick, shaking his head.
“And who’s that in the background, in the white t-shirt, with his face all blurred?” asked Lauren, frowning. “Is that Brian??”
Nick snorted. “Who else would it be? ‘Cause it sure as hell ain’t Kevin.”
Lauren looked at him in disbelief. “Brian wouldn’t show his face on your reality show?”
“He had just released his contemporary Christian solo album. Somehow, he didn’t think House of Carters would be a good reflection of his Christian values,” said Nick, rolling his eyes.
Lauren raised her eyebrows. “Wow. Just wait till he and his flawless little family get to spend Christmas with the Carters. Won’t that be fun?”
They both burst out laughing at the thought.
“Oh, come let us adore hi-im, Chri-ist the Lord!” sang the trio of Littrells in perfect, three-part harmony as their rental car drove down the desert road to Southern Highlands, the gated community where the Carters lived.
“That was beautiful,” sighed Leighanne, looking over at her husband in adoration.
“Deck the halls with bows of holly,” Brian began without missing a beat, and she and their son Baylee quickly joined in. “Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! ‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! Don we now our gay apparel, fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la! Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!”
“Hey now, don’t be trolling. This apparel’s not gay!” joked Baylee, looking down at his Baylee Littrell “Don’t Knock It” t-shirt.
Brian and Leighanne laughed. They were both wearing shirts with their child’s name and face on the front, as well.
“No… it’s beautiful,” sighed Leighanne, looking back at her son in adoration. Since liquidating her company, Wylee Bags, the year before, her life had revolved around managing Baylee’s budding career as a country music artist. She and Brian had traded in their Wylee wardrobe for a closet full of Baylee merchandise, and they couldn’t have been more proud.
“Now, that’s beautiful,” said Brian, pointing straight out the windshield. Normally, it was hard to see the stars over Las Vegas because of the light pollution coming from the Strip, but a single, bright star hung low in the night sky, as if it were lighting their way to Nick’s house.
“Why, it looks like the Star of Bethlehem!” gasped Leighanne. “Do you think the baby pandaskunk has already been born?”
Brian frowned. “I’m sure Nick would have called to let us know if that were the case. But I guess we’ll soon find out. We’re almost there.”
When they pulled up in front of Nick’s place, Leighanne made a face. “What on earth is that?” she asked, looking at the rustbucket that was blocking the driveway.
“That there’s an RV,” said Brian, laying his Southern accent on thick.
“Yes, dear, I know it’s an RV. What is it doing in Nick’s driveway?” Leighanne wondered.
Brian shrugged, as he parked their car carefully alongside the curb. “Remember, he invited his whole family for a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas. It could belong to any of them.”
“God help us,” said Leighanne, shaking her head. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? I love our Littrell family Christmas a whole lot more.”
“Now, baby, be nice,” Brian warned before he opened the car door. “You’ve never been to a Carter family Christmas before, so how can you compare?”
Brian paused to consider her question. “Come to think of it, no. I have no idea what we’re in for, but I’m sure it’ll be a December to remember,” he said with a grin.
Leighanne rolled her eyes as she reached reluctantly for the door handle. “Lord, give me the strength I need to get through this,” he heard her whisper as she climbed out of the car.
Brian and Baylee unloaded their luggage from the trunk, and the three of them trouped up the well-lit walkway to the front door. “Look at all the lights,” Brian pointed out, admiring Nick and Aaron’s handiwork. “It’s like a winter wonderland!”
Leighanne looked critically at the trees. “Purple lights? For Christmas?”
“What’s wrong with purple?” Brian wondered. “It’s the color of royalty - and of our advent candles. I think purple’s perfect for celebrating the birth of our King.”
“Well, then next year, you can put up purple lights all over our house, if you love purple so much!” snapped Leighanne. “Personally, I think all white lights would have looked much classier.”
He sighed. Why did his wife have to be so particular? “Save it for your Yelp review,” he muttered under his breath as Baylee ran ahead to ring the doorbell.
Thankfully, Nick answered the door right away. “Hey, guys! Merry Christmas!” he cried as they came in, hugging Baylee, then Brian, and finally Leighanne.
Leighanne instantly turned on the charm, her whole demeanor transforming the moment she set foot inside. “Merry Christmas!” she chirped back, beaming at Nick. “The lights outside look so pretty!”
“Thanks,” said Nick with a grin. “Aaron and I worked really hard on that.”
“You’re welcome! Oh, and here’s a little gift for you and Lauren for being such gracious hosts.” She handed him a beautifully gift-wrapped package.
“Oh wow, you didn’t have to do that. Thanks!” said Nick. “Should we wait until Christmas to open it, or-?”
“No, you can open it now,” Leighanne said eagerly. “It’s something you and Lauren will want to use tonight.”
Before Nick could make a sex joke, Brian asked, “Where is Lauren, anyway?”
“She’s out back, checking on Petunia,” Nick replied. “She should be in soon. Everyone else is hanging out in the living room. You can just leave your bags right here for now; I’ll take ‘em to your room later. Come on.” He motioned for them to follow him into the living room, where all the core members of the Carter clan were gathered.
It had been many years since Brian had seen Nick’s mother or most of his siblings. Baylee had only been around Angel and Aaron a handful of times and had never even met BJ or Jane. Together, Nick and Brian made a round of introductions, making sure their families were reacquainted.
“And this little princess is Seer-say,” said Jane, showing them the new baby, who was sound asleep in her arms. “Named after a Greek goddess - and also one of my Siamese cats I had when I was a little girl.”
“Seer-sha,” Nick corrected her, rolling his eyes at Brian while his mom wasn’t looking. “And, actually, Saoirse is an Irish name; we got it from one of Odin’s favorite movies, Song of the Sea.”
“Well, either way, it’s beautiful, and so is she,” said Brian, grinning at his bandmate. “I’m glad I finally get to meet her.”
“Oh, Nick, she’s absolutely precious!” Leighanne gushed, as Nick glowed with pride.
“Thanks, guys,” he said. “She’s the best gift we’ve been given.”
“Now, wait a minute - you haven’t seen what we got you yet,” Brian joked, and they all laughed.
“Well, I dunno what’s taking Lauren so long, but the suspense is killing me. I gotta see what it is,” said Nick, looking down at the present in his hands. “I’m gonna go ahead and open it without her. Wanna help me, Odin?”
“Yeah!” said his little boy, his blue eyes lighting up as he rushed over. Everyone watched in anticipation as Nick ripped off the ribbon and Odin tore into the paper, unwrapping a lovely set of…
“Sheets?” said Nick, raising his eyebrows at Brian as he held up the package of bed linens.
“Not just any sheets,” Leighanne said enthusiastically. “Celebrity sheets from our new collection at CelebritySheets.com! See?” She pointed out the small picture of herself and Brian on the front of the package. “They’re even autographed by both Brian and me!”
Brian had to look away as he heard Nick exclaim, “Wow, just what we’ve always wanted - your names on our sheets! Thanks!” He knew Nick was being sarcastic, of course, but Leighanne didn’t seem to catch on.
“You’re welcome! I guarantee you’ll love them just as much as Brian and I love ours. They’re amazing! They’re microfiber!” his wife went on. “Baylee loves his, too, don’t you, Bay?”
“Uh-huh,” said Baylee, looking as embarrassed as Brian felt.
“You’ll sleep like a celebrity on these sheets!” Leighanne chirped, flashing a big, toothy smile like she was filming a TV commercial.
Brian bit his tongue before he could say, “He is a celebrity!” and thankfully, Nick bit his, too.
“Ooh, I’d love a set myself!” Jane interjected.
In the midst of all the awkwardness, Lauren burst into the living room. “The baby’s coming!” she cried.
“What?!” everyone gasped.
“Yes! It’s coming now! Nick, grab some old towels or sheets, something we can use to clean and wrap the baby in after it’s born, and bring them out to Petunia’s den. I’ve gotta get back; I don’t want to leave her too long.”
“Here,” said Nick, thrusting the new set of sheets into her hands. “Let’s go!”
Brian saw his wife’s jaw drop as Nick and Lauren disappeared outside with her sheets. He hesitated for one second, then hurried after them. Besides wanting to witness the baby pandaskunk’s birth himself, he knew he had better get the heck out of the house before Leighanne lost it.