Petunia was sitting with her back against the wall of the den, doubled over so she could lick her privates. “Wow... I didn’t know pandaskunks were so flexible,” Nick whispered to Brian, making a face. He felt slightly perverse for watching what was unfolding in front of him, even though he knew it was just nature at work.
Lauren was kneeling on the floor beside her, stroking the fur on her back and whispering soothing words as the pandaskunk fought through her labor pains. “Okay, Petunia,” they heard her say. “On the next contraction, you’re going to push as hard as you can.”
“Wow, your wife really seems to know what she’s doing,” Brian remarked to Nick. He seemed impressed.
Nick nodded. “Well, she has been through a natural home birth herself,” he reminded Brian. “Plus, she used to be a veterinary tech, so she has some actual training to fall back on, too.”
“I bet she’s never delivered a baby pandaskunk before, though,” said Brian with a grin.
Nick chuckled and shook his head. “Nope. That part’s new.”
A primal growl escaped Petunia’s throat as another contraction hit. “Push, Petunia!” Lauren called. “You can do it! That’s it! You got this, girl!”
Nick and Brian both poked their heads through the entrance of the den, watching with wonder. Petunia leaned backwards, her roly-poly body writhing with pain, as a wiggly, pink head suddenly appeared between her splayed hind legs. The two Backstreet Boys leaned closer, their eyes widening, but before they could get a better look, the baby pandaskunk literally popped out the birth canal like a ball shot from a canon.
“Holy shit!” cried Nick. He stared at the baby in shock as it landed on the floor of the den and started squirming around in a pool of blood and amniotic fluid, its four tiny limbs flailing wildly. It was much smaller than he had imagined it would be, and it looked nothing like a panda, nor a skunk, but more like an albino rat. Its wet fur was pure white, and the skin underneath was pink. It was squawking loudly in a way that sent chills down Nick’s spine, reminding him unpleasantly of the chestburster scene in Alien. “That thing is not a pandaskunk,” he said shakily. “That’s a baby alien!”
Lauren laughed as she scooped the little creature up, swaddling it in a pillowcase from Brian and Leighanne’s Celebrity Sheets set to keep it warm. “What are you talking about?” she said, as she lay it gently on Petunia’s belly, between her two front paws. “Of course it’s a pandaskunk.”
Nick shook his head in disbelief. As he watched Petunia cradle her offspring, he realized it didn’t really resemble the chestburster in Alien. It looked more like Lady Porcupiney’s demon spawn in the “Woodland Critter Christmas” episode of South Park. “No,” he replied softly. “It’s the Antichrist.”
Brian drew in a sharp breath as his head turned toward his friend. “Nick!” he hissed. “Don’t say such blasphemous things! This baby could be the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior!”
Nick shrugged. “Or it could be the Spawn of Satan.”
“Will you two listen to yourselves? You both sound ridiculous. This precious little one is not the Son of God, and he’s certainly not the Son of Satan,” said Lauren, rolling her eyes. “He’s the son of a pandaskunk, and he’s just perfect! This is what baby pandas look like right after they’re born.”
“If that thing is a pandaskunk, then why’s its body all white? Where are its stripes? And the black circles around its eyes?” Nick demanded.
“Panda cubs start out all white, just like this one,” his wife explained patiently. “The black patches don’t come until later.”
Nick was still skeptical, but he knew better than to keep arguing with her. He would just have to keep a close watch over the baby to make sure it didn’t have any Satanic powers.
“Personally, I think your baby is beautiful, Petunia,” said Brian. “Congratulations.”
“Yes!” Lauren agreed. “You did it, Mama!”
“Thank you, everyone,” Petunia said, sounding exhausted.
As the pandaskunk leaned over and began to lick her baby clean, Lauren rose from the floor, brushing bits of straw off the back of her pants. “I think it’s time for the three of us to go back inside and give you two some time to bond in private,” she said, patting Petunia on the head. “We’ll be back to check on you later.”
By the light of the bright star shining down on their heads, she, Nick, and Brian walked back to the house to share the blessed news of the baby’s arrival.
Nick yawned as he wandered into the kitchen the next morning. After an almost sleepless night, in which he went out to check on Petunia and the baby whenever Lauren got up to feed Saoirse, he and his wife were both exhausted. But the fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas he claimed to have wanted was still in full swing.
Aaron and BJ were standing on opposite sides of the dining room table, screaming at each other about the pugs Aaron had apparently stolen from their mother and then sold, while Bella and Odin chased each other around the table. Angel poured herself and her husband glasses of champagne from the bottle BJ had brought to breakfast to “make mimosas,” and they settled back to watch the action as they fed Harper. Nick took one look at his dysfunctional family, then turned and walked away.
Lauren found him staring out the front window. “Aren’t you having any breakfast?”
Nick shook his head. “I’m not in the mood.”
“What are you looking at?” she asked, wrapping her arms around his waist.
He sighed as he returned his gaze to the window. “Oh, the silent majesty of a winter’s morn… the clean, cool chill of the holiday air… and an asshole in a unicorn onesie, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer.”
Lauren looked out the window. Her mother-in-law was standing on the curb in light blue, one-piece pajamas that looked like a unicorn, complete with a shimmery horn on top of the hood, which she had pulled up over her head. She was holding a hose, which was connected to the RV, while the other end hung over the storm drain. Waving to them with a cigarette in her hand, Jane shouted, “Shitter was full!”
“Ah… yeah,” Nick said with a nod, feeling his blood pressure rise as he turned to his wife. “Have you checked our shitters, honey?”
Lauren shook her head. “Nick, please… she doesn’t know any better.”
“She oughta know it’s illegal,” he replied, rolling his eyes. “It’s a storm sewer. If it fills with gas, I pity the person who lights a match within ten yards of it.”
“I pity the people who have to walk past and smell it,” said Lauren, smirking as she pointed down the street.
Nick looked out again and laughed when he spotted the three Littrells strolling up the sidewalk. They must have gone out for an early morning walk as a family, perhaps to escape the chaos of Christmas with the Carters. They had coordinated their outfits, of course; each of them was wearing a different red, crewneck Backstreet Boys Christmas sweatshirt with a pair of black joggers. Brian’s said “I Want It Santa’s Way” in white letters, Leighanne’s had a twenty-year-old photo of her husband on the front with the caption “All I want for Christmas is Brian,” and Baylee’s featured all five Boys’ faces as emojis.
As they approached, Nick saw their expressions slowly change, their noses wrinkling as the stench emanating from Jane’s hose wafted toward them. They looked at each other, then at Jane.
“Merry Christmas!” he heard her call out to them. “Shitter was full!”
Nick and Lauren laughed until their knees were weak as they watched the horrified Littrells hurry past her, holding their noses.
Over the course of that day, a steady stream of visitors came to the Carter house to see the newborn pandaskunk. Among them were a young street performer who did a drum solo on an upturned bucket and a trio of former Elvis impersonators who now worked as Nick’s “elves.” Decked out in matching, bedazzled, white jumpsuits, complete with capes lined in gold lamé, they crooned:
“We-uh three-uh kings uh-uh-of Memphis are,
Bearing gifts we traverse uh-uh-afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yond-uh-uh-er star, oh-huh-huh-huh-oh…”
“Star of wuh-uh-onder, star of night,
Star with roy-uh-al beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide uh-uh-us to thy perfect liiight...”
Before departing, the three kings presented the baby with gifts of peanut butter, bananas, and bacon - the ingredients of Elvis’s favorite sandwich.
After dinner, the doorbell rang. “Special delivery, straight from Disneyland,” the courier said, handing Nick an envelope. It was addressed to Petunia the Pandaskunk, so he and Brian took it out to her den.
“Another gift for you,” Nick announced, showing her the envelope. “Want me to open it?”
“Sure,” Petunia replied with a smile, as she patiently nursed her baby.
Nick slit open the envelope and slid out a card. Opening it, he read aloud, “To Petunia, from your father’s best friends, Bambi and Thumper: Congratulations on your new bundle of joy. We know Flower would be proud of you.”
“Aww, how sweet of them,” said Petunia, swiping away a stray tear with her paw. “I sure do wish my dad was still with us.”
“Didn’t your dad try to kill you?” Nick asked, frowning.
“Only because he was possessed by Lord Voldemort. He didn’t know what he was doing,” she said defensively.
“Look, there’s something else,” Brian suddenly interjected. Peering over Nick’s shoulder, he frowned in confusion as he read the certificate tucked inside the card. “It’s a... one-year membership to the Jelly of the Month Club.”
“Hey, that’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year,” said Nick with a grin.
“That it is, Nick. That it is indeed,” Brian replied. “Pretty random for a baby gift, though.”
Nick shrugged. “What else do you give the pandaskunk who has everything?”
“It’s a nice gesture. I’m sure JP and I will enjoy it,” said Petunia appreciatively.
“JP?” Brian repeated, raising his eyebrows. “Is that what you decided to name the little guy?”
Petunia nodded. “It’s short for Jeff Perseus. Patches said I was to name my son Jeff, but I liked the name Perseus better, so… I gave him both. Jeff for the first name, Perseus for the middle.”
“Aw, man.” Nick made a face. “Don’t get me wrong - I do it like it,” he added apologetically, “but I had the perfect name all picked out for him: Pandakin Skunkwalker!”
“Pandakin Skunkwalker?” Petunia repeated. Now it was her turn to make a face. “That’s, um… fun… but I think I’ll stick with JP, thanks.”
“Suit yourself,” said Nick with a shrug.
“Pandakin Skunkwallker?” Brian snorted, as he and Nick walked back to the house. “That’s pretty stupid, dude.”
“No, dawg, it’s genius,” argued Nick. “You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it yourself.”
“Whatever…” Brian shook his head. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, something bright caught his attention. “Hey,” he said, glancing at the sky. “Is it just me, or does that star overhead look a lot closer than it did last night?”
Nick looked up. “That’s no star…” he said slowly, staring at the reddish circle of light. “It’s a spaceship.”
Brian sighed. “Nick, please don’t start this again. It’s not a spaceship.”
“How do you know? It was a spaceship five years ago!” Nick protested.
“Okay, sure, but we defeated the Misfit Fans five years ago. They’re dead.”
“They’re not all dead,” argued Nick. “I mean, yeah, we killed their leader, Princess Kujo, and took out a lot of them, but at least one got away - their sentry, Mariah… I mean, Audrey… she flew off in her spaceship, back to the Planet of Misfit Fans. They’ve probably been biding their time for the past five years, plotting revenge.”
Brian considered this. “Maybe… but I still don’t think that’s a spaceship. It’s a sign from God. It’s only gotten bigger because the baby has been born. It’s been leading people here to see him, just like the Star of Bethlehem.”
“The Star of Southern Highlands,” Nick said dreamily, gazing skywards. He liked the sound of that. “Yeah, I guess you’re probably right.”
They went back inside, where the star was quickly forgotten.
Later that evening, as the adults were enjoying one last cup of eggnog before bed, Leighanne looked around the living room and announced, “I know what this night needs - some music!”
Nick and Lauren exchanged glances. “I can turn on Spotify,” he offered, reaching for his phone.
Leighanne shook her head. “No, not that type of music. Brian, Baylee, and I have been working on a little something that we’d love to share with you tonight as a token of our appreciation. Go get your guitar, Bay!”
“Oh god, here we go,” Nick heard Lauren mutter out of the side of her mouth, just loud enough for him to hear. He struggled to keep a straight face as Baylee ran to fetch his guitar from the guest bedroom where the Littrells had been sleeping.
After they had arranged themselves in front of the fireplace, Leighanne smiled and said, “From our family to yours… Merry Christmas!” As Baylee began to strum his guitar, she added, “Oh, wait! Would one of you please record this for Instagram?”
“Already on it,” said Aaron, holding up his phone. Everyone exchanged uneasy looks. Knowing him, he had probably been live-streaming the entire evening.
“Actually, I meant on one of our phones,” said Leighanne. Turning to her husband, she added, “Let’s use your phone, babe. We’ll get more likes if you post it from your account first.”
Brian dug his phone out of his back pocket and handed it to Nick. “Would you?”
“Sure, bro,” Nick agreed.
“Hold it sideways,” Leighanne directed. “There you go. Ready?”
“Ready,” said Nick, smiling through gritted teeth.
“Okay… hit record!”
Once Nick had pressed the record button, Brian began, “Hey, guys. We’re the Littrells. Uh, Merry Christmas. Uh, we’re thankful for each and every one of you watching this. This is special for you.”
Then they started to sing. “Silent night… holy night… all is calm… all is bright…” Baylee closed his eyes as he strummed his guitar, looking a lot like his father as Brian and Leighanne joined him in three part-harmony. “Round yon virgin, mother and child... holy infant so tender and mild… sleep in heavenly pe-eace.... slee-eep in heavenly peace.”
“Merry Christmas!” Leighanne said, smiling into the camera.
“Yeah, Merry Christmas,” echoed Brian.
“Merry Christmas, everybody,” added Baylee in his deep, baritone voice.
“Good playin’, bub,” Brian told his son with a grin before Nick ended the recording.
“Wow, that was great, guys,” he said, forcing a smile onto his face as he handed Brian’s phone back to him.
BJ didn’t even bother to hide her look of disgust as she stared at the Littrells. Downing the rest of her eggnog in one gulp, she cleared her throat and clapped her hands together. “Okay! Now it’s the Carters’ turn!” she announced. Turning to her siblings, she said, “Shall we sing our family’s favorite Christmas carol?”
Aaron and Angel shot each other identical evil grins, as Nick rose from his seat. “Let’s do it,” he said, snickering. “C’mon, Mom, get up here with us.”
Jane joined her sons and daughters as the five Carters assembled in front of the fire.
“We’re gonna do this thing a capella,” said Nick. “Ready, y’all?” He cleared his throat and sucked in a big breath before he began to sing. “Grandma got run over by a reindeer…”
“Walkin’ home from our house Christmas Eve,” the rest of the Carter clan quickly joined in. “You can say there’s no such thing as Santa... but as for me and Grandpa, we believe.”
Leighanne raised her eyebrows, while Brian and Baylee laughed.
“She’d been drinking too much eggnog,” sang BJ, tipping her empty cup.
“And we begged her not to go,” continued Angel, clasping her hands together.
“But she forgot her medication,” countered Jane with a shrug.
“And she staggered out the door into the snow,” added Aaron, doing a drunken sort of twirl.
“When we found her Christmas morning... at the scene of the attack,” Nick went on, as his family accompanied him with a series of “oohs.” “She had hoof-prints on her forehead... and incriminating Claus marks on her back!”
They all stomp-clapped along to the beat as they sang the chorus together: “Grandma got run over by a reindeer... walking home from our house Christmas Eve. You can say there’s no such thing as Santa... but as for me and Grandpa, we believe.”
Before they could start the second verse, there came a loud knock at Nick’s door.
“Damn, more visitors?” he grumbled as he went to answer it. “It’s like nobody’s ever seen a baby pandaskunk before…”
He pressed his eye to the peephole to see who was outside, but before he could get a good look, the door burst open, smacking Nick in the face. He stumbled backwards, holding his nose. In shock, he hardly noticed the blood that had begun to flow freely from it. His attention was focused on the man who had just entered his home.
Nick could only tell it was a man by his towering height, as his face was hidden beneath a helmet that covered his whole head. There was something familiar about that helmet, combined with the body armor and cape he wore.
“Holy shit,” Nick whispered, blood dripping down his face as he stared up at the masked man. “You’re a Mandalorian!”
The Mandalorian said nothing, simply handed him a small, circular disc.
“Is that a bounty puck?” Nick asked uncertainly, looking down at the disc in his palm. He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this. “You’re a bounty hunter, huh? Like Boba Fett?”
Suddenly, a holographic image sprang up from the disc. Nick swallowed hard when he saw his own head slowly rotating on the spot. “Is that me?” he said, his heart beating faster. “Look… uh, there must be some mistake. Please, I have plenty of money. I can get you more-”
“I can bring you in warm,” the Mandalorian cut him off, “or I can bring you in cold.” His voice was quiet, slightly muffled by the helmet, yet it still managed to sound menacing.
“Nick?” he heard his wife call. “Who was at the door?”
Before he could stop her, Lauren rounded the corner. She gasped when she saw the Mandalorian.
“Stay back, baby,” Nick warned his wife, his voice shaking. He knew he had no choice but to comply now. “I’ll go with you, I promise. Just, please, don’t hurt my family,” he pleaded with the bounty hunter, as he held out his hands. The Mandalorian placed a pair of cuffs around his wrists, binding them in front of his body.
“What the hell is going on here?” Lauren demanded, her voice rising. “Who are you, and what are you doing with my husband?”
“I’m a bounty hunter. There’s a price on your husband’s head. I’m here to apprehend him so I can deliver him to my client,” the Mandalorian explained matter-of-factly, his voice devoid of any emotion.
Lauren bristled. “You most certainly are not!” she protested. “Nick’s done nothing wrong! Who is this ‘client’ of yours?”
“I can’t tell you that,” said the Mandalorian. “It’s time to go.”
“NO!” Lauren shouted, as he started to pull Nick toward the open door. “STOP!”
At the sound of her screams, the rest of the family came running. Aaron was right at the front of the pack and reached the Mandalorian first. “Let go of my brother!” he cried, his fists flying as he attacked the bounty hunter, hitting and kicking him. Of course, the meager force of his frail, one-hundred-fifteen-pound body wasn’t enough to make a dent in the Mandalorian’s armor, and he only ended up hurting himself.
As Aaron massaged his sore knuckles, a cord suddenly shot out of the Mandalorian’s gauntlet and wrapped itself around his wrists, tying them together. “Looks like you’re coming, too,” said the bounty hunter, as he hauled both Carter brothers outside, where a spaceship was waiting on the lawn.
“I told you!” Nick shouted back to Brian, who was standing on the front porch with the others, staring at the ship. “I told you it was a spaceship!”
“Nick!” Brian cried out, watching as his friend was forced aboard it. “Don’t worry! We’ll find you!”
How? Nick wondered, swallowing hard when he heard the ship’s hatch slam shut with a heavy, metallic clang. His stomach jolted as the ship suddenly jerked to life, lifting off the ground. He looked at Aaron and found his little brother staring back at him, his brown eyes wide. Sitting behind the Mandalorian pilot, they were able to see out the large windshield. With tears in his eyes, Nick watched the rest of his family growing smaller and smaller as they got further and further away, wondering when and if he would ever see them again.