The white card the dove dropped into Meghan's hand definitely was not a bill. Please, don't let it be some cruel joke from the snobs at...

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The white card the dove dropped into Meghan’s hand definitely was not a bill.

Please, don’t let it be some cruel joke from the snobs at school, she thought. With that guy loitering in front of her house, she couldn’t go home. She needed to figure this out on her own. It was too cold to go to the park. Goodwin’s ice cream parlor came to mind.

Jack didn’t want to go into his house, either. It was just too sad seeing his father sitting in that chair. Nothing Jack ever said seemed to help. “Just leave me alone, son,” was his dad’s response whenever Jack suggested they watch a game, take in a movie or go out for pizza.

Jack thought about going to the Y, but he wasn’t in the mood to play ball. He needed to be alone so he could think. Why not Goodwin’s? Nobody went there anymore.

This was too weird, Nicole thought, standing outside the gate to her neighborhood, holding the invitation. Even though it was the only time of day when both her parents were gone and the house was peaceful, she didn’t want to go home. There was Starbucks, but she didn’t want to run into anyone from school. What about Goodwin’s? Back when her mom was a teacher instead of a lawyer and her dad was still a resident at the hospital, the ice-cream parlor was like her second home.

Wedged between a nail salon and a Dollar Tree in a strip mall, Goodwin’s was an old-fashioned mom-and-pop ice cream store. Its counter was marble, its wallpaper candy-stripe red, and its ice-cream blenders gleamed like polished silver.

Nicole sat at one of its small oval tables on a scuffed bentwood chair. Her envelope was concealed in her Dooney & Bourke purse. She grabbed a menu and ducked her head behind it when Jack walked in. He sat at the counter, his back to Nicole, with his invitation jammed in his letterman’s jacket pocket.

Meghan entered Goodwin’s still clutching her invitation. When she saw Nicole and Jack, she stopped dead and turned to flee.

“Wait!” Nicole said, pointing at Meghan’s invitation. “What’s that?”

“N-n-nothing. Just a card.”

Jack swiveled on his stool. He stood up and pulled out an identical envelope. “Like this?”

“And this one?” Nicole said, opening her purse. She pulled out the invitation and laid it on the table.

Jack sat down at Nicole’s table. Meghan hesitated, until Jack patted the chair next to him. She took a seat.

“Do you think someone’s playing a practical joke on us?” Meghan said.

Jack’s eyes lit up. “Maybe someone’s trying to punk us.”

“Yeah, right,” Nicole said. “Ashton Kutcher hangs out in Tennyson all the time.” She looked at the door. “Here he comes now.” Nicole waved like a crazed fan. “Hey, Ashton! Over here!”

Jack and Nicole cracked up.

“You guys,” Meghan said. “This isn’t funny.”

They stopped laughing. Nicole traced the gold lettering on her invitation. “This is pretty expensive for a joke. So what do we do?”

Jack shrugged.

“I suppose we could do what it says,” Meghan said. “Thing is, I’m not sure I know where my stocking is.”

“But what happens if we do follow the instructions?” Nicole said. “And why just the three of us?”

“I know what we need,” Jack deadpanned. “Milkshakes.”

“Ooh, that sounds good,” Meghan said.

Nicole tucked her invitation back into her purse and primly zipped it up. “I’ll just have water.”

“When have we ever had water at Goodwin’s?” Jack said.

The three of them looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Come on, Nicole,” Meghan said, relaxing and beginning to feel sure of herself again in their company. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

Meghan walked up to the counter. “Three shakes, please, Mr. Goodwin.”

“You kids sure have grown up,” said Mr. Goodwin, who hadn’t changed at all. “Still want the usual?”

Meghan turned to Jack. “One chocolate with chocolate sprinkles?”

Jack nodded. “Strawberry for Nicole,” he said.

Nicole joined Meghan at the counter.

“And a vanilla with Reese’s Pieces.” She gently tugged Meghan’s ponytail. “Some things never change, do they, Meghan?”

But some things had. Like their friendship. Meghan wasn’t sure if Nicole wanted to be friends again or if she was just being nice because Erin and the other cheerleaders weren’t around. Until this school year, she had felt like Nicole and Jack were part of her family.

Please, please, Meghan thought, let this be real.

Wednesday: Welcome to Elf Camp