One of my biggest inspirations for fanfiction comes from YarningChick, the BNF of the fandom for The Cat Returns. She's famous for all her AU's and fan sequels that are retellings of fairy tales and films - but without resorting to "cookie-cutter plots." She takes the time to change plot points to fit character traits and backgrounds, and she'll reimagine scenes from the canon TCR film to fit the story (for example, many fics have the "Katzen Blut" waltz between Baron and Haru, but the circumstances that lead up to that moment will be different). This fanfic was inspired, in part, by one of her fanfics - which I'll reveal at the end since that would spoil a puzzle piece or two. ;)

Disclaimer - Goosebumps and its characters (including Jillian Zinman, Jimmy O'James, and, of course, Slappy) © R.L. Stine and Scholastics.

"Why can't we wait until after our birthday to hang up Christmas decorations?" Katie grumbled, bouncing on the heels of her sneakers so that her black ponytail bounced.

Jillian Zinman stretched the rubber end of the pink balloon she had just finished inflating and started to make a knot. "It's your own fault for being born a week late," she replied calmly. "You and Amanda could have been born on the Twelfth, you know." Dad often joked that the only reason the girls were born at all was that Katie had been hungry for Aunt Sophie's Christmas gingerbread cookies and had dragged Amanda right along with her.

Katie made a face and flopped onto the rec-room couch, causing the Christmas throw pillows to jiggle, and even laying down, she had to twitch her legs and fidget with the straps of her overalls. Katie rarely stayed still, except when she was glued to the television. "We don't have to hang up the decorations in November. We won't even go see Santa until next Tuesday," she declared before she made a sound that would have been immature even for a four-year-old, and today was Katie's seventh birthday.

However, Jillian could understand her little sister's plight with the seasonal competition. Since the twins were born on the 19th, many of their gifts mailed in from out-of-state relatives doubled as "birthday-and-Christmas" presents, which sucked no matter what age you were. At least this year their birthday fell on a Saturday, so the twins and their party guests had already started their Christmas vacation.

Humming under her breath, Jillian finished the next balloon and bopped it at her pouting sister. "Catch!"

Katie barely smacked it away in time, but a grin appeared on her thin face, her birthday troubles momentarily forgotten.

Satisfied, Jillian swept her hand across the festive basement rec room, which had balloons and streamers intermingled with green garlands and paper angels. "Now, are you gonna mope, or are you gonna help me get things ready for your party?"

Katie folded her arms. "I'm the birthday girl," she said, sticking out her tongue.

Jillian rubbed her chin. "Hmm, that reminds me. I still owe you a birthday pinch." She took a deliberate step toward her, holding up two fingers teasingly.

That made Katie spring to her feet, ducking beside the couch arm. "Don't even think about it!" she squeaked, narrowing her blue eyes.

Gotcha. Jillian chuckled to herself and pulled out another balloon. She did not mind the work. Mom was paying her, and this was a good business for someone who had just started middle school. Jillian was tall and thin and a good climber, making her a go-to choice when it came to hanging party banners and streamers, and her best friend and business associate, Harrison Cohen, was a champ at lifting heavy stuff. Jillian was confident they could get themselves a good clientele - someday. It just got annoying when Katie got underfoot and did not lift a finger to help. Still, despite the large age gap between them, it was nice to hang out with her little sister without her acting (completely) bratty or ignoring her in favor of some dumb toy - a very dumb toy.

"You're going to have a good birthday," Jillian assured her sister, taking a moment from her task to face the skinny little girl. "Everybody's RSVP-ed, and they're bringing presents. And the ventriloquist will be here soon," she reminded her. The twins had begged for weeks to get Jimmy O'James, the performer from the Little Theater, and his dummy, Slappy, to come to their party, and their parents finally caved in a few days ago. Fortunately, Jimmy did private shows. "You're lucky. You could've gotten my clown act for the entertainment," she added lightly - even as she inwardly winced.

"And Aunt Sophie is upstairs helping Mom bake both cakes," Katie agreed, shuffling her way through the pile of balloons Jillian had left on the ground, sending them bouncing against the furniture. "I like that we get two cakes this year. Amanda always wants yellow cake, and I really like chocolate cake."

"Like you aren't wired up enough already," Jillian laughed, not unkindly. Katie was the twin that wore overalls and swung through trees in the summer. Amanda was the twin that sat under those trees and had tea parties with her collection of teddy bears.

"Aunt Sophie is cool - for an old lady," Katie continued as if she had not heard her. "She gives Mary-Ellen her own cupcake when we play at her house - Mary-Ellen says she's a good cook. I hope she lives next door forever."

Aunt Sophie was weird that way, Jillian thought as she went back to her balloons. Her great aunt was a short, elderly woman with snow-white hair who was always doing old-lady activities like bingo and knitting, but her house was filled with porcelain dolls and miniature furniture which she had been collecting since she was eight years old. Jillian had not been fond of dolls even when she was a little girl, but Katie and Amanda loved spending afternoons with their aunt, especially since they could bring Mary-Ellen with them. Mary-Ellen was their doll - and the bane of Jillian's existence - but Aunt Sophie was as polite to her as the twins were. What a nut.

Katie kicked another balloon. "Mary-Ellen is really looking forward to the party," she said with sincerity. "Do you think Slappy will be friends with her?"

"Are we talking about the same dummy?" Jillian said dryly.

Before Katie could reply, there came the creak of the basement door opening, and heavy, familiar steps descended. In a few moments the bulk that was Harrison Cohen appeared.

Harrison was two months younger than Jillian, but he was huge for his age: tall, wide, and very muscular with a big, serious face that hid his easygoing nature. "Special delivery," he grinned as soon as he saw her, and he held up his cargo which Jillian recognized as the box that Mom kept the recycled birthday decorations in.

"Set it over there," Jillian replied, gesturing toward the television.

Harrison hopped off the last step with a thud and crossed the room with an easy saunter. Right behind him was Amanda, Jillian's other sister, who tailed him like a noontime shadow. She was dressed in her prettiest pink party frock, her black hair held in place by a pink hair-clip and allowed to hang around her shoulders. She carried a clear bin with Mom's curling ribbons under one arm. In her other arm she carried her huge doll, Mary-Ellen.

Jillian frowned. "Please, get her out of here. We're working."

"This is Mary-Ellen's house too," Amanda insisted. "She can go wherever she wants."

"Like the trash can," Jillian returned, rolling her eyes. She knew it was a cheapshot, but the girls had covered her toothbrush with hot sauce that morning - knowing full well that even black pepper was too spicy for her - and had said it was Mary-Ellen's idea, so Jillian did not feel too guilty for wanting to drop kick the inanimate toy into heavy traffic in the preferably near future.

Amanda set the plastic monstrosity on the couch before she turned to face Harrison. "Mary-Ellen can't wait for the party to start," she told him. "She really wants to meet Slappy." She gave the older boy what she must have thought was her loveliest smile. "That's why she's dressed so fancy. Doesn't she look pretty, Harrison?" she asked, gesturing to the frilly dress the doll wore.

No, Jillian thought.

Harrison gave the little girl an uncertain grin. "She... looks okay," he said diplomatically, and Jillian saw his dark eyes dart toward the staring plastic face - and she could see he was trying not to grimace.

Jillian could not blame him. Mary-Ellen was a complete horror of a toy. She was an enormous doll, a few inches shorter than the twins (who were already tall for their age). Her plastic head was decked with a frizzy wig of brown mop-yarn hair. Her face was a painted mask of violet eyes, blood-red circles on her cheeks, and a heart-shaped mouth that curled upward in a disturbing grin. She was a nightmare to look at, but the twins loved her. They were always talking to her, singing to her, taking her to the playground, or dressing her up in their clothes. Sometimes - actually, many times - they would ignore Jillian for that piece of junk. Even after she would do something nice, like buy that doll her own ice-cream cone when she took the twins to Dairy Queen.

Jillian pushed the thought aside. "Hey, if you guys want this party to start on time, help me finish," she ordered.

The twins did not even look at her. Amanda turned back to Harrison with her sweet smile, her blue eyes sparkling. "It was Mary-Ellen's idea to get Slappy to come to the party," she said, twisting her little hips so that her party skirt swished around her stocking legs. "Jimmy O'James never picks us when he asks for volunteers, so she thought we could get Slappy to come here for our birthday so that she can meet him. She thinks Slappy's very cool."

Harrison gave a weak grin and sidestepped away from the dark-haired girl to stand beside Jillian, practically using her as a human shield. "Yeah, I like Slappy," he replied at last. He had liked puppet shows as long as Jillian had known him, and he had even come to some of the ventriloquist's performances with the Zinman sisters. "He's really funny."

"That's up for debate," Jillian muttered under her breath, tossing another balloon so that it joined the pile on the floor.

Katie made a face. "Mary-Ellen says you're just jealous you're not as funny as Slappy. Nobody liked you when you were a clown, but everybody likes him."

"Everybody but the kids he insults on stage," Jillian drawled. "At least my jokes are better than saying Jimmy O'James looks like a plate of vomit."

"But Mary-Ellen says he does!" Amanda giggled mischievously.

Jillian rolled her eyes. Seven-year-olds. They got a kick out of gross insult humor. Since last autumn, the twins had gone to a lot of the Saturday matinee shows at the Little Theater four blocks away to see the ventriloquist get insulted by his little dummy - and they dragged Jillian along with them. Jillian had gotten into the habit of borrowing Harrison's GameBoy whenever they went, but taking the girls to the theater was still one of the few way she could force them to be nice to her - especially if they wanted to take Mary-Ellen to watch Slappy.

"Look, if you want your party to look nice," she began slowly, "either go upstairs or help me out. I'm doing this all for you, you know."

"You're doing this 'cause Mom's paying you," Katie accused.

"I can do things for my baby sisters and money," Jillian returned.

"Can't argue with that," Harrison laughed.

"So, please get Mary-Ellen out of here," Jillian continued.

Katie did not reply. She just took Mary-Ellen from her twin's hands. Ever active, she spun in circles, moving like a top across the floor as she swung the huge doll around - and the heavy plastic hand connected with Jillian's face.

Jillian staggered back. "Hey - !" she cried out, rubbing her smarting cheek.

Katie sprang back. "I didn't do it! It was Mary-Ellen," she insisted. "You were mean to her!"

It was not the first time "Mary-Ellen" had hit her - that day. "Get her out of here," Jillian said through her teeth, "or I'll tell Mom you dumped your oatmeal into the trash yesterday."

Both pair of blue eyes widened, and her sisters promptly turned and hightailed it up the stairs.

Jillian exhaled. She knew it was babyish to get mad at a dumb doll, but her sisters were always using that thing to torment her, even making Mary-Ellen their scapegoat for all their mean tricks. The twins loved practical jokes - they could even be funny sometimes - but ever since Dad had brought Mary-Ellen home, it had been just one problem after another in the Zinman household. Mostly for Jillian.

Harrison shook his head, turning toward her. "Your sisters are something else."

"Try living with them," Jillian replied.

They finished the decorations and flopped onto the couch to admire their work. It looked a little strange seeing the Happy Birthday banner hanging over the Christmas garland, but Jillian had tried to give the room a humorous spin, like tying balloons to the necks of the stuffed reindeers and putting a birthday hat on the singing Santa Claus. Still, Jillian told herself with a sardonic smile, the first-graders coming probably would not care as long as there was cake.

Jillian flicked on the radio to get some tunes going and found a station that was playing non-Christmas rock songs. "I hope I get my own CD player this year," she commented, bobbing her head as The Who sang about a deaf, dumb, blind kid playing a mean pinball. "No more mixtapes on the ol' cassette player."

"Yeah, but you can't hit 'record' on a CD player," Harrison countered. "I like being able to record songs off the radio."

Jillian turned to face him. "What have you been getting for Hanukkah this year?"

"Underwear, mostly," Harrison laughed, lacing his thick fingers over his wide, flat stomach. "But my uncle promised to bring me something good tonight when he comes over." Harrison usually got one big present from his parents, and the rest were all practical gifts like school supplies and clothing. Mrs. Cohen had explained to Jillian once that Hanukkah was actually such a minor holiday that some families did not even bother with presents. Jillian had trouble imagining such a thing.

Harrison suddenly frowned. "How much are your parents paying us again?"

"Ten bucks each."

Harrison shook his head with a grimace. "And Mrs. Henly offered to pay us fifteen bucks each just to dress up like clowns."

"Yeah, but we didn't get paid for that job," Jillian reminded him flatly, shooting him a look. Why did he have to bring that up?

"It was still nice," he said wistfully. "Even if our clown act stunk."

"And made kids cry," Jillian cracked darkly.

"Well, it wasn't the act that made them cry," Harrison replied, grimacing again. "It was the pie trick."

"That almost blinded two kids." She kicked at one of the balloons they had left on the floor for the guests, and the whole pile started bouncing off each other. "At least we get into less trouble decorating parties than we do entertaining at them. It's still a good business."

"But not as many clients," Harrison replied. He had not been that interested in dressing up as a clown when Jillian had recruited him back in the fall, but he had been motivated by his cut of the profits. At least as performers they had gotten three jobs easily - even if they had all ended horribly. Harrison shifted his weight, turning to face her. "You know, my cousin's birthday is on Friday," he said slowly. "He's turning four, and I know my aunt will hire us if we want to put on a show. It doesn't have to be a clown act," he added quickly at her frown. "We could learn some magic tricks - nothing with whip cream this time - or we can put on a puppet show or act out a story or something. Benny will like anything. It'd be easy money."

Jillian hesitated. He was right about the lack of clients - besides Mom, they had only one family hire them to help clean and decorate for their two-year-old's birthday. Most folks did not seem interested in hiring two middle schoolers to do a chore they could easily make their own kids do for free. Jillian had to admit it would be nice to perform again - but after what happened to those two kids at Joslyn Henly's party…

"I think we're better off doing the least amount of damage, Harrison," she said. "Alice Brown's parents still want to sue my folks. I don't want to see anyone else get hurt."

"Yeah, but Alice didn't get hurt because of our act," he insisted. "We just have to find what we're good at and do that."

"We're good at decorating," she replied. No trouble thus far. "I think it's fun."

"Yeah, right." He gave her shoulder a light poke. "C'mon, you like showbiz stuff, Jill. Remember at camp when you got up and led the sing-along? You were crazy doing 'A Rig-a-Bamboo'. We should at least try one more time - and we'll keep all our props at my house too," he promised.

She sighed. "I'll have to think about it," she said at last.

Harrison opened his mouth to reply, but suddenly, there came the creak of the basement door opening, and in moments Amanda came carefully down the steps, holding identical paper plates. Jillian could smell melted cheese and tomato sauce even before she reached the last stair. "Mom said to bring you guys a snack," Amanda announced, striding up to Jillian before she passed the other plate to Harrison with a big smile.

"Cool, Pizza Bagel Bites," Harrison grinned back before shoveling one into his huge mouth.

"Don't you mean hot Pizza Bagel Bites?" Jillian winked.

His dark eyes rolled heavenward. "Waka, waka."

"I helped make them," Amanda grinned and swished her dress again, fluttering her blue eyes at the older boy.

"Uh, thanks, Mandy," Harrison said, scooting away.

Jillian bit her cheek to keep from laughing out loud and took a bite - and immediately spat it back out as the taste of spice seared her tongue. "Hot, hot, hot!" she gasped, fanning her tongue and nearly dropping the plate in the process. Her eyes were already tearing up, but she looked down - and it was then that she saw the bottom of mini bagels were all sitting in a red liquid - Dad's Tabasco sauce.

Amanda tittered. "Gotcha!"

"Amanda, that's not funny," Harrison chided, but Amanda seemed unabashed even at his reproach.

Just like she had been with Jillian's toothbrush that morning. Mouth still burning, Jillian slowly handed her plate to Harrison and gritted her teeth. "You have five seconds, kiddo."

The little blue eyes widened, and Amanda turned on her heel.

"Go easy, Jillian," Harrison said as the little feet pounded up the stairs.

"I'm not gonna touch her," Jillian replied, difficult as it was with the heat on her tongue, and cried out, "Five!" She was on her feet and heading for the steps. She looked up in time to see Amanda reach the top -

- And there was Katie beside her with a blue balloon in her little hands. "Catch!" she sang and tossed the balloon - which fell a lot heavier than it should have.

Jillian instinctively reached out - and the skin burst as it touched her arms, covering her face and clothes in a cool, white substance. She closed her eyes in time, and the smell of shaving cream filled her nostrils.

"Whoa!" Jillian heard Harrison cry.

"Awesome!" Katie whooped as Amanda let out a cheer. She could hear them slap each other high fives.

Jillian wiped white foam as carefully as she dared, blinking to keep the chemicals from stinging her already teary eyes. "You - You - " she sputtered. It did not help that her mouth still felt like a volcano.

"Mary-Ellen told us to get ya," Amanda said. Jillian could see the Cheshire cat grin on her little face. "It was Mary-Ellen's idea."

"You should've been nice to her," Katie chided. "Now you look yucky for the party."

They both giggled at that.

It was too much - and too much like Joslyn Henly's party. Jillian clenched her hands. "I'm gonna kill you both!" she shrieked and bolted forward, pulling herself up the stairs with the handrail.

Both little jaws dropped, and the girls spun around and broke away.

By the time Jillian spilled onto the first-floor hallway, the twins were grabbing their coats from the pegs beside the front door, and the two ran into the snow-covered yard. Jillian started after them.

But she had only gone a few steps when something clamped onto her shoulder, and Jillian scrambled to keep her balance as she was spun around -

- And found herself staring into a pair of cold green eyes behind a large pair of glasses.

"Jillian Zinman, what are you doing?" Aunt Sophie demanded.

Jillian sputtered for a moment - and then pointed to the foam on her face and sweater. "Look what they did this time, Aunt Sophie!"

Her aged aunt did not bat an eye. "And how are you choosing to respond, young lady?" she demanded, her croaky voice somehow managing to hold much authority.

Jillian exhaled, slumping her shoulders. "I wasn't gonna hurt them," she insisted. "Just scare them. A little. Honest."

Aunt Sophie's expression did not change. The white-haired woman pointed a bony finger to the kitchen. "Talk to your mother. Now." As short as she was, and as funny as she looked in her knitted festive sweater, when Aunt Sophie spoke, Jillian had to obey, so Jillian gritted her teeth and stepped down the hall.

Mom was putting the frosting on Katie's chocolate cake when Jillian came in. Her pink apron was covered in smudges, and Jillian saw she had a streak of brown icing on her thin face as she stared, focused, on her work - but she quickly snapped out of it as Jillian cleared her throat. Mom pushed herself to her feet as soon as her blue eyes fell upon her daughter. "What happened now?" she cried in exasperation, grabbing a paper towel to wipe Jillian's black hair.

"Three guesses," Jillian returned, stepping around her mother to grab a cup of water to wash out the hot sauce.

"And your twelve-year-old daughter was ready to mow down two first-graders in revenge," Aunt Sophie said from the doorway, folding her arms.

"I wasn't gonna hurt them," Jillian repeated.

Mom shook her head, causing her tied-back brown curls to jostle. Her exasperated expression evaporated into her no-nonsense look - something Jillian had been getting used to seeing lately. "Jillian, please, no fighting with the twins. It's their birthday."

"They started it," she retorted and quickly told her mother what happened.

Mom's dark brow furrowed further - but Jillian could already see where her allegiances laid even before she spoke. "Yes, they were naughty, but you can choose how you respond," her mother returned sternly. "You're five years older than them. Don't be a bully."

"It was self-defense!" Jillian cried. "They could've blinded me with that shaving cream!"

"No, it was revenge," Mom insisted, "and revenge isn't the answer."

Frankly, Jillian thought, if revenge kept your sisters from permanently damaging your eyesight, it counted as self-defense.

"If you fly off the handle, what makes you better than them?" Aunt Sophie put in.

Mom nodded. "I'll deal with them, sweetie, but it's not your place to extract justice." At Jillian's scoff, she squinted her blue eyes hard and pointed a stern finger. "I mean it, Sophia Jillian Zinman."

The full name.

Jillian sighed. "Fine, fine."

"Now, go get cleaned up," Mom said. "I'll talk to the girls later."

Yeah, right, Jillian thought bitterly as she ducked past Aunt Sophie and headed into the hall. Why had she expected anything different on the twins' birthday?

Harrison was by the stairs, waiting for her. "How did it go?" he asked carefully.

Jillian rolled her eyes. "Well, you know. Girls got their just desserts. Mom saw I was right along. Weird Al invited me to tour with him."

His huge face became a grimace. "That bad, huh?"

Jillian slumped her shoulders. "They attack me, and I'm the criminal. The girls could come at me with a bomb, and Mom would still say I was the bully for protecting myself." She sighed. "Be glad you're an only child, Harrison."

"Oh, I am. I am," he returned. He ran a hand through his short hair. "You gotta admit though your sisters are really good at practical jokes."

She frowned at him. "They're nightmares."

He shrugged. "Well, sure, but remember when we were that age?" he returned. "Our best pranks were to jump out and scare people. The twins are pretty devious."

"They're crazy," Jillian retorted. "They're always blaming their pranks on Mary-Ellen."

"Well, maybe we should go to her for ideas next April Fool's," Harrison grinned weakly.

"Don't even joke," Jillian sniffed before she went upstairs to change.

A movement from the glass tank in the corner caught her eye as she entered her room, and she turned, sweeping a hand toward her clothes. "Look at what your aunts did, Petey."

The little lizard stared back at her with blank eyes.

She nodded to her reptile. "See? I knew you would understand," she said cynically.

She shedded the now white sweater and grabbed a green hoodie with deep front pockets. She liked wearing green since it brought out her eyes. She was the only one in her biological family with green eyes. Mom insisted Grandma Jill had had them too, but she no longer had any pictures of her - not since they had lived in Elmville, back before the twins were born. Jillian's only other relative with green eyes was Aunt Sophie, but she was Mom's aunt by marriage.

Hoodie in hand, Jillian headed to the bathroom. She hung a fluffy towel around her shoulders and used the removable shower head to rinse her long hair before she sicced a hairdryer on her sopping tresses. Yet she could barely concentrate. She kept thinking about the hot sauce and the shaving cream.

Sometimes, the five-year age gap between Jillian and the girls was a blessing - and sometimes, it was a curse. On the one hand, she could get away with acting silly around the twins, or she could get money just for sitting with them as they watched Beauty and the Beast for the hundredth time while Mom ran to the store. On the flip side, she could not do something about their mean tricks without her parents accusing her of being a bully - even if she was acting entirely in self-defense. And the girls could be horrors when they wanted to be - like the time they had snuck into her room at midnight to give her a haircut. Or the time they had disappeared at the circus and spent the whole time giggling at her panic attack from behind the bleachers. Or the time they had put stinkbugs in her sock drawer. Or the time they had swiped all the underwear from her suitcase - and Jillian had not found out until after she got off the bus at summer camp.

Still, her parents rarely took her side. Doubly so ever since Aunt Sophie came to town. She was long widowed and very independent, but she had moved from her native Elmville to be close to her remaining family in her old age. The twins adored her since she let them get away with murder - and she gave Mom lots of advice on how to handle Jillian's "anger issues."

Finished with her hair, Jillian pulled the green hoodie on and went back into her room long enough to give Petey a treat for being so understanding. She sighed and reached down to stroke Petey's soft head as if that would chase away her troubles. "Mom's been acting differently ever since Alice's party," she told the lizard. "You know the one I'm talking about."

The Browns were still not speaking to any of them, except through their lawyers. Though Mom and Dad never said it, Jillian could not help but notice that Aunt Sophie had never tried to purchase the long-empty house next door until after that disaster. As if Jillian needed another pair of eyes on her to make sure she did not mess everything up again - not that it was even her fault to begin with, but that did not seem to matter to the grown-ups.

"No wonder they think I can't do anything right," she sighed. Petey just nudged her hand, wanting more pets. "At least you believe in me, buddy."

Such a glum day for a party, she thought ruefully as she glanced out the window to see a fresh cascade of snowfall. Sometimes, she wished that something would just happen that would right all the wrongs - where Mom and Dad would take her side against the twins, where Aunt Sophie did not treat her like a criminal for fighting back, where she could show them that she was not incompetent. She wished for that the same way she wished she could have a birthday party that did not end in a horrible disaster.

And look where wishing got her.

She kissed her fingers and pressed them to the lizard's leathery head before she returned the lid of the glass cage and headed back downstairs. She reached the bottom step just as the doorbell rang.

"Jillian, can you get that?" Mom called from the kitchen. "That must be the ventriloquist."

A/N: Thanks for reading! Advice is appreciated. :)