Meghan, Jack and Nicole watched over Brian's shoulder. "Show them, Brian," Meghan said. Brian toggled to the Christmas stocking pop-up:...

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Meghan, Jack and Nicole watched over Brian’s shoulder. “Show them, Brian,” Meghan said.

Brian toggled to the Christmas stocking pop-up:

“Christmas Is Doomed!”

Jack and Nicole stared at the message on the monitor. The letters grew larger, filling the screen. A loud “KABOOM” emitted from the speakers as the stocking exploded into tiny bits of confetti that formed a sinister, leering face.

“Is this for real?” Jack said. Brian nodded.

“Can someone ruin Christmas?” Nicole asked.

“What do we do?” Meghan said.

“I have an idea,” Brian said, “but I need your help if it’s going to work.”

“You got it,” Jack said.

“Absolutely,” Nicole said.

“OK then. Let’s lure the hacker to camp,” Brian said, rapidly typing on his keyboard. “Here’s the bait!”

They read the message as it appeared on the screen:

“CODE RED! Attention all Elf Camp counselors and campers. CODE RED! Santa’s coming to Elf Camp tomorrow. Let’s make sure everything runs smoothly for his visit. Thanks, Brian.”

They looked expectantly at Brian. He grinned mischievously and clicked “send.”

At school the next day, Jack confided to Meghan that he had found his father on the floor, passed out from last night’s binge. Meghan didn’t burden Jack with her troubles; tomorrow was the eviction date, and they still hadn’t come up with the rent.

To make matters worse, Nicole wasn’t on the bus, and she wasn’t answering their text messages. Meghan had hoped that Nicole would show up today with news of a job for her mother. Jack and Meghan agreed to check up on Nicole after school.

Distracted by her worries, Meghan didn’t hear Courtney Smith calling her name until she was right beside her.

“The computer club’s meeting now,” Courtney said.

“During lunch?”

“We eat in the lab,” Courtney said. “But if you can’t make it … “

“No problem.”

Only Gary Hobbs and Dylan were in the lab when they arrived.

“Leave, Dylan,” Courtney ordered.

“You’re my sister, not my boss,” Dylan said, propping his feet up on a desk.

“You are so annoying.” She slammed the door, locking them in. Courtney approached Meghan, getting up in her face.

Meghan tried not to show fear. “Open the door, Courtney.”

“Why? Are you afraid of me?”


“Then you won’t mind answering a few questions.”

“Whatever,” Meghan said, trying to sound tough. “You let her do all the talking?” she asked Gary. Meghan felt bad when his face reddened.

Courtney inched closer. “Why the interest in Brian Radcliff?”

Meghan swallowed, hoping she could pull it off: “He was the only cool guy in this club of losers.”

“Brian got caught hacking into the school’s computers,” Courtney said. “That’s not so cool.”

“What isn’t cool, Courtney? The hacking? Or the getting caught?”

Dylan laughed.

“You don’t belong here, Meghan,” Courtney said. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but we don’t hack in this club anymore.”

She unlocked the door and held it open. Meghan scurried out. The door slammed behind her.

Heart pounding, Meghan ran to the girls’ room and splashed water on her face. She was confused. If Courtney and Brian were both telling the truth, then who was the Elf Camp hacker?

Walking up Nicole’s driveway, Meghan was so engrossed in telling Jack about the computer lab incident that she nearly walked into the path of Dr. Bradshaw’s Mercedes, packed with clothes and boxes. He didn’t wave as he drove past them.

The maid let them in. Upstairs, they found Nicole weeping on her bed.

“It’ll be OK, Nicole,” Meghan said, patting her back.

“Yeah,” Jack said, standing awkwardly by the bed. “Maybe they just need some time apart.”

Nicole sat up, sniffling. “No, they’ve tried that before. This time, I don’t think he’s coming back.” Meghan handed her a tissue.

“I asked Dad about a job for your mom,” Nicole said. “And … “

But before Nicole could answer, calliope music blared from Nicole’s computer speakers. A message embroidered on a stocking flashed on the screen: “Stay Out Of Elf Camp Or Else!”

Jack’s dad stood in the doorway when he got home from Nicole’s. The same threat flashed on and off on their computer screen. “Is there something you need to tell me, Jack?”

Meghan opened the front door. Her mother knelt on the floor surrounded by boxes of their belongings. Meghan felt sick. Tomorrow, she and her mother would be homeless.

Thursday: The visit