Meghan's mother nearly tripped over the boxes scattered around the living room. She bear-hugged Meghan. "You're not going to believe it...

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Meghan’s mother nearly tripped over the boxes scattered around the living room. She bear-hugged Meghan.

“You’re not going to believe it, Meghan.”

“What, Mom?”

“Nicole’s dad dropped by,” said Lisa. “Out of the blue. Anyway, you’re looking at Dr. Bradshaw’s newest office assistant.”

“Oh, Mom, that’s amazing.”

“He insisted on giving me an advance. I paid the rent and there’s still plenty left.”

They held hands and jumped up and down.

“Meghan, we’re going shopping.”

“Could we get a Christmas tree? A small one?”

“Why small? I’ve got a job!”

Meghan dumped her backpack on her bed. The door bell rang. She heard muffled voices. Now her mom could pay those creepy bill collectors.


But it was Jack’s father, standing just inside the door.

“Meghan, Mr. Moseley wants to know if Jack is in trouble.”

“Gee, I don’t think so.”

“I know you and Jack used to be friends before,” Bill Moseley paused, “his mother died.”

Meghan’s mother patted his arm.

“I haven’t been there much for him lately,” he went on. “But something’s not right.” He pulled out a printout with a now familiar message: “Stay Out Of Elf Camp Or Else!”

“Jack got one too?” Meghan blurted out.

“Did you get one?” her mother demanded.

“We’re not online. Remember, Mom?”

Mr. Moseley bowed his head. “I’m regretting the day I plugged that computer in.”

“It’s probably just a prank, Mom.”

“What is this Elf Camp business?”

“It’s a long story, Mom.”

“We’ve got plenty of time. Right, Bill?”

Jack’s dad nodded. “When I asked Jack the same question, he gave me this cockeyed story about traveling through time, helping Santa, and battling computer hackers trying to sabotage Christmas. I told him I wanted the truth. He said it was and gave me this.”

He pulled the Elf Camp invitation from his inside coat pocket. “When I told him he was grounded, he said talk to Meghan and Nicole.”

Meghan’s mother turned to her. “Well?”

Not since she’d scooped icing off her fifth birthday cake before the party began had she lied to her mother.

“Jack’s telling the truth,” Meghan replied. “I can show you.” She ran to her bedroom and returned with her invitation.

It took a while, but Meghan told them everything — the dove’s delivery, the wall of stockings belonging to kids with problems, Brian’s unexpected appearance as bad-boy-turned-counselor, the magical world of Elf Camp with its RoboElves, GPS-guided reindeer, sleep chambers, and all the other high-tech gizmos that kept Christmas alive.

Her mom and Jack’s dad looked shell-shocked. “Bill, we need to talk to the Bradshaws. Meghan, until we get to the bottom of this, you’re grounded.”

After they left, Meghan grabbed the cellphone from her backpack. Her fingers flew over the keypad: “Mom & Mr M coming to ur hous. They no about EC. J & I r grounded.”

“What do I say?” Nicole texted back.

“The truth.”

Within an hour, Meghan’s cellphone chimed.

“4 once my Dad & Mom listened. 2gether. Im grounded 2. What about EC 2nite?”

“We hav 2 sleep,” Meghan texted Nicole and Jack.

“C u l8r,” they messaged back.

That night, Elf Camp buzzed with the excitement of gleeful counselors and campers preparing for Santa’s visit.

All things, mechanical and computerized, were functioning normally. The assembly lines chugged along, turning out checker, backgammon and Scrabble boards by the thousands. Wrapping robots dispensed uniform sheets of paper — wreaths, candy canes, snowflakes — securing them with tape-dispenser guns. Guillotine arms cut glossy streams of satin into ribbons, and then in a blur of mechanical fingers, cinched them in place. The bow-makers affixed bows uniformly on packages. Spot checks of the Naughty and Nice list revealed no mix-ups. Even Rudolph’s nose glowed red.

But Meghan, Jack and Nicole were on edge. Sitting in the cafeteria, they told Brian about the confrontations with their parents.

“They didn’t believe us,” Meghan said.

“We’re all grounded,” Nicole said.

“Who knows what they’ll do if they find out we’re here,” Jack said

“Sometimes parents believe what they want, because the truth is too painful,” Brian said. “Let’s go over your assignments … “

He was interrupted by the piercing scream of a security alarm. They dashed outside and watched in amazement as scenes of utter chaos unfolded.

Reindeer, their noses a rainbow of changing colors, stampeded out of the barn. The fleet of Santa sleighs skidded along the camp runway and took off. From the aviary a chorus of coos filled the air as hundreds of doves flew away.

A red-hooded figure dashed from the North Pole Network headquarters, jumped aboard a sleigh-cart and zoomed off toward Toy Assembly.

Friday: The reluctant camper