Back home, Meghan rummaged through the hall closet until she unearthed the box marked "Xmas. " In it she found ornaments, lights and the...

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Back home, Meghan rummaged through the hall closet until she unearthed the box marked “Xmas.” In it she found ornaments, lights and the tree stand, all dripping bits of silver tinsel. She found the manger encased in bubble wrap, along with the three-legged camel and a headless Wise Man. But there was no sign of the green-and-red-striped stocking with her name on it, the one her grandmother had crocheted for her first Christmas.

“Mom,” she called. “Where’s my Christmas stocking?”

“Why do you want that?” her mother said, looking up from her Accounting Principles textbook. “Thanksgiving’s barely over.”

“I just want to look at it.”

“If it’s not in the Christmas box, look in the plastic bin with the wrapping paper and ribbons. On the top shelf.”

Meghan pulled down the plastic container and popped the lid.

“Got it.” Meghan poked her head into the living room. “Thanks, Mom. G’night, I love you.”

Her mother closed her book. “What about ‘Law & Order’ night?”

“I’m tired, Mom. The first day after a break always wipes me out. Can you tape it?”

At first, Jack wasn’t even going to bother looking. This whole dove business was bogus, he thought. But then he remembered how, after his mom first got sick, she labeled everything that wasn’t nailed down. He went looking in the attic for the felt stocking they had made together when he was in first grade. Within minutes, he pulled it from a shoebox nestled inside a carton marked “Christmas Decorations-Living room.”

Once again, dinner at the Bradshaws disintegrated into bickering. Nicole’s parents could battle over anything. There was no way she was getting in the middle. Nicole holed up in her room.

She knew exactly where her stocking was — in her walk-in closet, where she kept everything that reminded her of happier times. Nicole had saved every ribbon and box from her American Girl doll collection. She loved the packaging — exquisite, shiny white boxes lined with colorful tissue paper and tied with rich satin ribbons.

She opened a small oak chest. Nestled in tissue paper was her burgundy velvet and brocade stocking. Its piping and silk tassel were gold. She lifted it out and breathed in its bayberry scent.

Meghan spat toothpaste into the bathroom sink and looked in the mirror. “If we are being punked,” she told her reflection, “we’ll know by tomorrow.”

Convinced sleep would never come, Meghan picked up her illustrated copy of “A Christmas Carol” from her nightstand. She climbed into bed and flipped through the familiar pages.

Jack set the alarm on his cellphone and plugged it into its charger. He slipped into bed, inserted his ear buds and cranked up Green Day on his iPod.

Nicole got under her down comforter. She pushed “Miracle on 34th Street” into her portable DVD player and plopped back into her pillows.

They fell asleep as Tennyson’s church bell tolled 10 times.

Head counselor Brian Radcliff braked to a halt outside Elf Camp’s headquarters. The new arrivals were due any second. All year long, they streamed into camp. Victims of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. Kids with parents in the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. In cemeteries and hospitals.

Normally, Brian didn’t get involved with new-trainee orientation. But when he spotted three Blake High students on the manifest, he wanted to be the first to greet them. It was always fun to see new campers when they arrived at Elf Camp for the first time.

Meghan, Jack and Nicole were no different. They entered the high-ceilinged lobby with a crowd of other confused kids, all clutching Christmas stockings. They stared, open-mouthed, at a banner that spanned the ceiling and bore this slogan:


Serving All Needy Types Always”

Except for a gigantic digital countdown-to-Christmas calendar flashing the number 22, the entire wall was blanketed by hundreds of stockings. There were short ones and long ones, some made of felt, satin or yarn. Others were quilted, patchwork, knitted, crocheted, stitched and glued together, trimmed with brocade, velvet or lace. Even ordinary old socks hung from the wall. Each one bore a kid’s name.

Counselors threaded through the crowd of newcomers, greeting them by name.

Brian walked over to Meghan, Jack and Nicole. “Hey, guys,” he smiled. “Welcome to Elf Camp.”

Thursday: He Sees You When You’re Sleeping