“You still wanna drive for a while, Mom?” he asked, stifling a yawn.
There was no response from Jane. She was still sound asleep in the passenger seat, snoring softly with her mouth hanging open.
Aaron gave her a rough poke. “Wake up, Mom. It’s morning. Time to take your meds.”
Still no response. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he could hear her ragged breathing, Aaron might have thought she was dead. As it was, he doubted she was just sleeping deeply. She must have taken too many pills last night, he thought, shaking his head in disgust. Fresh out of rehab and already overdosing on drugs.
Aaron left the truck to stretch his legs and let her dogs out, tying their leashes to the rear bumper while he lit a joint. The pugs bounded playfully around his ankles as he leaned back against the side of the truck and smoked pot. It felt good to get some fresh air.
After finishing his joint, he stamped out the butt before he slid back behind the wheel. Jane was still sleeping as he started the engine and put the truck in drive. She didn’t even stir when he turned up his music and peeled out of his parking spot, pulling onto the highway without a backwards glance.
Several miles later, he caught a glimpse of something bright out of the corner of his eye. When he finally looked into his rearview mirror, his heart almost stopped. He was being followed by a police motorcycle, its blue lights flashing.
“Fucking BSB gang stalkers must have called the cops on me again,” he muttered as he pulled over onto the shoulder, hastily reaching across his unconscious mother to shove his duster can into the glove compartment, where he kept his bag of weed, along with the rest of his drugs. He could only pray the cop wouldn’t ask to search his truck.
He held his breath as the cop came swaggering up alongside his truck. “Hello, officer,” he said politely, as he put down his window. “What’s the problem?”
Whipping the sunglasses off his face, the cop glared through the open window at Aaron. “Get out of the vehicle.”
His heart pounding, Aaron tried to play it cool as he unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed out onto the pavement. “I don’t think I was speeding. Was I weaving or something?” he asked innocently, hoping the cop couldn’t smell the marijuana he had been smoking.
“Shut your mouth, sir,” snapped the patrolman, still glaring at Aaron. “You know, if I wasn’t in uniform, I’d split your skull with the butt of this revolver faster than you can say ‘police brutality.’”
Aaron could feel his blood pressure spike as he struggled to stay calm. “Well, officer, whatever it is you think I’ve done, I’m sure it’s a lie. My brother, Nick Carter, started a smear campaign against me and got his BSB gang stalkers to spread all kinds of vicious lies about me. They’ve been saying I’m a crackhead, that I smoke meth, that I’m crazy, that I’m a pedophile, that I abuse animals, that I threatened to kill members of my family, but none of it’s true. They keep calling the cops on me for no reason, trying to get me locked up, and it never works because I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
The officer raised his eyebrows. “Is that so?” Snatching Aaron suddenly by the elbow, he hauled him to the back of the truck, where he bent down to pick up the bundle of empty leashes that was still tied to the bumper. “Explain this, you son of a bitch.”
Aaron’s heart sank. “Oh my god,” he gasped, clapping his hand over his mouth. He felt sick to his stomach.
“Do you know what the penalty for animal cruelty is in this state?” asked the officer.
Aaron swallowed hard. “No, sir, I don’t.”
“Well…” The officer fixed him with a penetrating stare. “...it’s probably pretty stiff.”
“Oh, you can’t think I’d do this on purpose, sir!” Aaron sputtered. “I… look, I… I tied them to the rear bumper when I was stopped at the rest area. I… I’d been driving all night, and I was very tired; I must have forgot.” He shook his head with regret. “I’m very sorry. I feel terrible.”
The officer finally looked away, gazing off into the distance. “How do you think those little dogs feel?”
Aaron shuddered. He didn’t know what else to say. “Look, I told you I was sorry. It really was an accident.”
“Yeah… well, I guess I can buy that, sir. But it is a shame,” said the patrolman, shaking his head. “I had a pooch like these ones, when I was a kid. Poor little guys…” His voice grew thick as he choked up, tears sparkling in his eyes. “Probably kept up with you for a mile or so. Tough little mutts.”
“Oh no, they were purebred,” Aaron corrected him. “My mom breeds pugs.” Oh god, he thought, his heart skipping a beat. Mom’s gonna kill me when she finds out.
To his relief, the officer let him go with only a verbal reprimand. Aaron got back into the truck, only to realize he was still on Instagram live. His phone had been recording the whole time. Had it caught the conversation between him and the officer? Heart racing, he read the comments.
I was afraid you’d get pulled over, Aaron. You’ve been exceeding the speed limit for thousands of miles!
Aaron wasn’t speeding. The cops stopped him because he’s been driving high.
He was speeding, Rusty!
No he wasn’t!
Aaron let out a sigh of relief. It didn’t look as though any of them had heard the real reason he had been pulled over. “Listen to Ellen,” he said, looking at the camera. “I was speeding. I was driving like a maniac. We can all be grateful to this man for stopping me.”
At that moment, the officer suddenly reached through his open window. “Here are the leashes, sir,” he said, handing them to him. “I’m going back to get the rest of the carcasses off the road.”
Fuck, thought Aaron, his hands balling into tight fists. “Thank you, officer,” he said through gritted teeth. “Have a nice day.”
He ended the live video before his followers could start freaking out in the comment section, but he knew the damage had already been done. It was only a matter of time before someone uploaded the video to YouTube and the BSB gang stalkers started tweeting it out. They would see this as documented evidence that he really was an animal abuser, and they’d never let him live it down.
The only thing he worried about more than his own reputation was his mother’s reaction. It was a relief she had slept through the whole thing, but she would be devastated and furious when she woke up to discover her dogs were dead.
Maybe I can keep her from finding out the truth, thought Aaron, the wheels in his head already turning as he pulled back onto the highway. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right?
When he saw the exit for Phoenix, where his mom’s brother Steve lived, he took it. It was pouring rain by the time he pulled into his Uncle Steve’s driveway, yet despite the racket of the raindrops pounding on the roof of the truck, Jane was still sound asleep.
“Maybe this will sober you up,” said Aaron, hauling her out of the car and dragging her onto Steve’s doorstep. He rang the doorbell, but no one answered. He tried knocking. Still no answer. Finally, he lowered his mother into a lawn chair that was sitting on the front porch, propped an umbrella over her head, and left her there for her brother to find.
Not my problem anymore, he thought, brushing his fears aside, as he got back on the highway and headed for Sin City.
Halfway to Vegas, he stopped again for gas and food. He was parked outside a McDonald’s, eating his burger and fries, when he heard a soft, whimpering sound. What the hell is that? he wondered. Turning around, he looked into the back seat and saw one, tiny pug puppy sitting upright on the floor, pawing at the passenger seat in front of it.
“Well, where have you been?” he asked, staring at it in wonder. “You must have been hiding earlier when I let the others out. Lucky for you.”
He reached back and grabbed the puppy by the scruff of its neck, pulling it into his lap. “I guess that means I get to keep you, huh, little girl?” he said, looking her over. “I’m gonna call you Nala. It means ‘gift’ in Swahili. Merry Christmas to me!”
He fed the newly-christened Nala the last few bites of his cheeseburger and let her out to use the bathroom before he pulled out of the parking lot, the little puppy curled up in his lap. While stopped at a red light, he snapped a selfie of the two of them and posted it to Instagram with the caption, “Vegas, here we come!”
Overnight, a cold front had swept through Las Vegas, dropping the temperature to a frigid fifty-two degrees. Nick shivered as he braved the bitter cold to bring clean blankets, fresh from the dryer, to Petunia, who was holed up in her backyard den.
“Don’t you want to come inside the house?” he asked her. “It’s nice and warm with the heat on.” Lauren hadn’t been keen on the idea of having a half-skunk in her house at first, but now that Petunia was pregnant, she had agreed with Nick that the pandaskunk deserved to be pampered.
“Oh no, I’m nice and cozy right here,” replied Petunia, burrowing into the pile of warm blankets. “Thanks for the offer, though.”
“No problem,” said Nick uncertainly, not sure whether he should try to change her mind or just let her be. He knew many animal mothers preferred to be left alone when they were about to give birth, and he didn’t want to interfere with nature. “Let us know if you need anything, okay?”
“I will. Thanks, Nick.” Petunia gave him a tired smile as she lay her furry, white head upon her big, black paws.
“I’ll let you rest now,” said Nick, smiling back at her. “See you later.”
“How’s Petunia doing?” Lauren wanted to know the instant Nick stepped inside the house. “Didn’t she want to come in?”
Nick shrugged. “She said no, but she seemed okay. Just a little listless.”
Lauren nodded, not seeming too concerned. “Pregnancy takes a lot out of you,” she said knowingly, grunting as she bent down to pick up another ornament from the box at her feet. She was in the midst of decorating their twenty-foot Christmas tree while Odin watched cartoons. Baby Saoirse lay on a blanket spread out on the living room floor, staring up at the bright lights in wide-eyed wonder.
“What do you think of all this, baby girl?” Nick cooed, scooping her up so she could get a closer look at the lights on the tree. “Your first Christmas…”
Suddenly, he heard the ominous sound of the doorbell ringing. Lauren froze, looking at him with her ornament held in mid-air. Odin leapt up from the sofa and ran for the door, shouting, “I’ll get it!”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Nick called. He handed off Saoirse to his wife before hurrying after his son. If it was Aaron at the door, he wanted to be the one to answer it. He had no idea what to expect from his brother, but it wouldn’t have surprised him if Aaron showed up drunk, high, or manic. He didn’t want to subject his son to the sort of mental instability he had seen on Instagram live. His hope was that Aaron would be on his best behavior around his nieces and nephew, but he knew better than to count on it. “Let me get it, buddy,” said Nick, shunting Odin safely behind him before he opened the door.
He was surprised to find not only Aaron, but Angel and her family standing on the front porch. They were already fighting.
“You knew full well you had no business being at The Grove when my husband works there and we had a restraining order out against you!” Angel accused, wagging her finger in Aaron’s face.
“But he wasn’t even working that night! I knew he wasn’t working, or I wouldn’t have gone there!” Aaron protested. The pug puppy he was holding in his arms looked around nervously.
“How did you know he wasn’t working?” asked Angel.
“Because it was six o’clock in the evening! I know his schedule, all right? He never works nights!”
“You know my schedule?” repeated Angel’s husband Corey, raising his eyebrows. “That’s a little scary, all things considered.”
“What things?” Aaron retorted angrily.
“Oh, I dunno, maybe you threatening to kill my daughter?”
“You mean the sick lies Lina’s been spreading,” hissed Aaron, his eyes narrowing as he spat out the name of his ex-girlfriend like it was venom on his tongue.
Angel was holding her daughter Harper protectively on her hip. “Aaron, you’re the one who told me you had thoughts about killing babies!” she cried, turning her body to shield Harper from him.
None of them seemed to have even realized Nick was standing there in the doorway until he cleared his throat loudly and shouted, “HEY!”
Aaron, Angel, and Corey all froze, as Harper stared at her uncle with wide eyes.
Once his siblings had stopped bickering, Nick broke into a grin. “Merry Christmas!” he called, stepping back so they could come inside.
“Merry Christmas, Nick,” said Angel, leaning in to hug him as she carried Harper into the house.
“Good to see you, bro,” said his brother-in-law, shaking Nick’s hand. “How you been?”
“Not too bad,” Nick replied with a nod. Indeed, since he had taken the stress of being Santa off his plate, he did feel better, both physically and emotionally. Now if he could only take care of the Aaron situation… He looked up at his little brother, who had hung back, lingering hesitantly on the doorstep. “You coming in or what?” Nick asked him.
Aaron nodded, stepping slowly across the threshold. “Hey,” he said awkwardly.
“Hey,” Nick echoed. Without another word, he spread his arms wide and stood there, waiting. After a few seconds, Aaron set his dog down on the floor and fell into his big brother’s arms. “Welcome back,” Nick whispered, as he embraced him. “It’s good to see you, bro.”
In truth, Nick got no joy out of seeing his little brother the way he was. Aaron looked terrible. His clothes hung from his lanky frame; he had lost so much weight, he was practically nothing but skin and bone. His face was gaunt, his complexion gray beneath the hideous Medusa he had gotten tattooed down the left side of it. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was greasy and disheveled, as if he hadn’t slept or showered in days.
“Thanks for inviting me,” mumbled Aaron. As he pulled back, he added, “Look, I’m sorry for all my bullshit these past few months.”
“Water under the bridge,” said Nick, waving his apology aside. Beneath his casual facade, he was still bitter about the hurtful things Aaron had said about him, but he knew he needed to be the bigger man and model forgiveness if he was going to convince his brother to get help. “Come on inside. It’s cold out there.”
With a smile that didn’t quite reach his sunken eyes, Aaron walked further into the house, and Nick closed the front door behind him.
That evening, as Lauren and Angel were getting the kids ready for bed, the doorbell rang again. As Nala and I both barked excitedly, Nick hurried to answer the door, only half-expecting it to be his other sister, Bobbie Jean.
Though they had barely spoken in the almost eight years since their little sister Leslie had died, he had extended an invitation to BJ to join the rest of the Carter kids for the holidays. She hadn’t immediately said yes, though she hadn’t given him a definite “no” either. The last he’d heard, it all depended on whether or not she could find a way to get herself and her daughter to Las Vegas from their home in Florida, as she claimed she no longer had a car. When Nick had offered to fly her out, she had flat-out refused. “I’m an independent woman, Nick; I don’t need your charity. I make my own way in the world,” she’d told him with pride.
When he opened the door, Nick found not BJ, but one of the “elves” he had hired to help with Santa’s workshop, an elderly woman named Mildred. Mildred was one of the original Vegas showgirls, having performed in the long-running Lido de Paris revue when it opened at the Stardust Casino in 1958. Now ninety-one, Mildred hadn’t danced onstage in many years, but as her late husband had squandered away their retirement savings at the Blackjack tables just before his death, leaving her destitute, she was desperate for work. She reminded Nick of his grandmother, if his grandmother had worn bedazzled bras and elaborate, ostrich feather headdresses.
“Hi, Mildred!” Nick exclaimed warmly, as he ushered her inside. “What brings you here?”
“Just dropping off some gifts for the children,” Mildred replied, her wrinkled face barely visible above the pile of wrapped boxes in her arms.
“Oh, Mildred… you know, you shouldn’t have done that,” said Nick, as he took the packages from her. He handed them to Aaron, who had come to see who was at the door.
“Oh, dear,” Mildred fretted. “Did I break wind?”
Nick snickered. “Did the room clear out, Mildred? I mean presents - you shouldn’t have brought presents. We’re not delivering them this year, remember?”
“Um, Nick?” said Aaron, frowning down at the boxes he was holding.
“In the garage, Aaron,” Nick told him. Turning back to the old woman, he added, “Mildred, why don’t you stay for a cup of hot chocolate so you can warm up some? It’s cold out there.”
“It sure is,” agreed Mildred, shivering. She wasn’t exactly dressed for the weather. The skirt of her skimpy, red, sequined elf costume stopped at mid-thigh, and the fishnet stockings she wore beneath it offered no warmth. The bare skin above her waist had broken out in goosebumps, and the nipples on her saggy breasts stood erect underneath the snowflake pasties she’d put over them.
Once a showgirl, always a showgirl, thought Nick, shaking his head, as he escorted her into the living room.
When he went to the kitchen to make Mildred a cup of cocoa, Aaron was waiting for him. “Nick?” he said again, still holding one of the boxes.
“What?” asked Nick, as he got a mug out of the cupboard.
“This box is meowing.”
Nick frowned. “Let me see it.” Aaron handed him the box, and he gave it a shake. Sure enough, he could hear something howling inside it. “She wrapped up her damn cat,” he said, shaking his head.
Aaron’s eyes widened. “Why would somebody wrap up a cat in a box?”
“She gets confused, Aaron,” Nick sighed, setting the box down on the floor. “She’s old. She doesn’t have much money, so she takes things from around the house, wraps them up, and gives them away as presents.” He poured milk into the mug and put it in the microwave to heat it.
“Wow…” Aaron shook his head in disbelief. “You need to hire better help, bro.”
“Be nice, or you’ll end up on my Naughty list,” warned Nick with a wink.
While Aaron went to unwrap the cat, Nick added cocoa mix to the mug of warm milk and carried it over to Mildred, who was sitting on the couch. “Here you go, sweetheart,” he said as he handed it to her.
“Oh my, aren’t you a dear? Thank you very much!” replied Mildred, taking a sip.
After a while, Aaron wandered back into the room. “What did you do with the cat?” Nick whispered, while Mildred was distracted by drinking her cocoa.
“Put it in her car,” Aaron muttered back. Giving Mildred a sideways glance, he added, “Isn’t she kinda old to be driving?”
Mildred must have heard him because she suddenly set her mug down on the coffee table. “You know, on second thought... I really can’t stay,” she said, starting to get up.
“But, baby, it’s cold outside,” Nick protested, grabbing her arm as he glared at Aaron.
“I’ve got to go away,” added Mildred, rising again.
“Baby, it’s cold outside,” repeated Nick, coaxing her back down.
“This evening has been…”
Nick put his arm around her hunched shoulders. “Been hoping that you’d drop in.”
“...so very nice,” warbled Mildred, struggling to her feet.
He took one of her gnarled hands in his to steady her. “I’ll hold your hands; they’re just like ice.”
“My grandson will start to worry,” she went on, shaking her head.
Nick smiled. “Beautiful, what’s your hurry?”
“My daughter will be pacing the floor.”
He nodded toward the hearth. “Listen to the fireplace roar.”
“So really, I’d better scurry.”
“Beautiful, please don’t hurry,” he begged.
She hesitated before sinking back onto the sofa. “Well, maybe just a half a drink more.”
Nick handed her the mug of cocoa. “Put some records on while I pour.”
“The neighbors might think-”
“Baby, it’s bad out there,” he warned.
“Say, what’s in this drink?” she asked, looking into her mug.
“No cabs to be had out there.”
“I wish I knew how…” She started to stand again, wobbling under the weight of her huge, feathery headdress.
He wrapped his arms around her to keep her from falling, twirling her toward him so they were face to face. “Your eyes are like starlight now,” he crooned, looking into her light blue eyes, which were clouded by cataracts.
“...to break this spell.”
“I’ll take your hat; your hair looks swell,” he added as he removed her headpiece.
“I ought to say no, no, no,” she sang, shaking her head.
“Mind if I move in closer?” He rocked her back and forth, rotating her slowly on the spot.
“At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”
“What’s the sense in hurting my pride?”
“I really can’t stay...” Mildred insisted.
“Baby, don’t hold out...” Nick responded with a grin.
“Ah, but it’s cold outside,” they harmonized, as they danced hand in hand. Neither of them noticed Aaron recording their little duet on his phone.
Later that night, after Mildred had left, Nick was lying in bed with Lauren, catching up on his social media, when he saw the new post on Aaron’s Instagram account.
aaroncarter I cannot be silenced. @lasdlan @lvmpd @cnn @foxnews @wendyshow #CoverUp #SerialRapist @fbi he raped Mildred. 91 years old. And he is doing EVERYTHING TO PROTECT HIMSELF. NICK GIVE YOURSELF IN!!! Give it up. I stand by the #metoo MOVEMENT!! @realdonaldtrump
This was the caption he had written to accompany the video he had taken of Nick singing and dancing with Mildred.
With a sigh, Nick showed Lauren. She shook her head in disgust. “Nick, we need him out of this house. He’s sick! How can he apologize to your face, then turn around and post this crap behind your back? He’s a lying piece of shit!”
“I know, babe, but at this point, don’t you think everyone else knows he’s a liar, too? No one’s going to believe I really raped a 91-year-old woman,” said Nick, rolling his eyes.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Lauren cautioned. “Look what that cunt Melissa Schuman tweeted.” She handed him her phone so he could see her Twitter feed.
Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
Leave it to my abuser to sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a song about date rape. I’m disturbed by the video I saw of #NickCarter using physical force to prevent an elderly woman from leaving his home, despite her protests. No means no! I’ve already reported him to the @LVMPD, and you should too. #SantaIsaSerialRapist #CancelChristmas #metoo
“The Las Vegas police department must be getting pretty sick of people wasting their time with false allegations about me,” said Nick casually. He was trying to play it off as if he didn’t care about the claims against him, but inside, his stomach churned. These days, it seemed he couldn’t do anything without someone taking it the wrong way.
“Let’s hope they assume those allegations are false,” said Lauren, sounding worried. “If they decide to start taking them seriously…”
Nick snorted. “Trust me, Lauren, no one’s taking Aaron seriously. That’s why he’s acting out. It’s all just a show for attention.”
She sighed. “Look, if you’re not going to kick him out, at least keep him away from the kids. I don’t want him alone with Odin or Saoirse. He’s a horrible influence.”
“I know, baby.” Nick reached for her hand and held it tightly. “But I meant what I said before: I would never let him hurt our children.”
“He needs to be kept off his phone, too,” Lauren continued. “Can’t you come up with some kind of project for the two of you to work on together - a way to keep him occupied and out of my hair at the same time?”
Nick nodded. “I’ll have him help me put up Christmas lights tomorrow. It’ll get him out of the house, and hey, maybe we’ll even be able to bond a bit.”
His wife finally seemed to be appeased by this. “Sounds like a perfect plan,” she said, offering him a faint glimmer of a smile.