"At Elf Camp, we have a tradition," Head Counselor Brian Radcliff told Meghan, Jack and Nicole, drawing them away from the main group. "First, we hang up...

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“At Elf Camp, we have a tradition,” Head Counselor Brian Radcliff told Meghan, Jack and Nicole, drawing them away from the main group. “First, we hang up our stockings.”

The three of them stared wide-eyed, clutching their Christmas stockings. The last time they’d seen Brian Radcliff, he was a hacker — Blake High’s computer outlaw, a long-haired troublemaker dressed in dirty jeans, black T-shirt and high-top sneakers.

The opening bar of “Jingle Bells” chimed from the phone on Brian’s belt. “Sorry, I have to take this,” he said, moving away from them.

“Do you believe this?” Meghan whispered.

“I thought he was in prison,” Nicole murmured.

“No,” Jack said. “A judge gave him a choice: jail or the military. I heard he was in the Marines.”

When the three of them had started at Blake, Brian was president of the school’s computer club, a refuge for geeks, nerds and other outcasts. Someone hacked into the school’s computer system first semester, changing some students’ grades to A’s and others’ to D’s. Complaints from dishonored honor-roll students triggered an investigation. Several club members were suspended. Brian, the ringleader, was expelled.

Brian’s hair was still long, but trimmed and washed. His pants were clean. He wore a red down vest over a red-and-green plaid shirt. He hung up and rejoined them.

“What is this place?” Jack demanded.

“Is this one of those tough-love camps?” Nicole said, her eyes darting. “Like on TV?”

Brian looked at them. “Did you ever wonder how Christmas happens?”

“What do you mean?” Meghan said.

“Remember when you were little,” he said, “and you’d go to bed on Christmas Eve? In the morning you’d wake up, and under the tree there’d be all these presents, and your stocking was stuffed.”

They nodded warily.

“So how did it happen?” Brian prompted.

“Back then?” Meghan said. “Santa.”

“Duh,” said Nicole.

“Then we grew up,” Jack said derisively.

“Let me show you,” Brian said. “Keep your stockings for now.” He led them outside to a parking lot and jumped onto the front seat of a cherry red high-backed wooden sleigh, souped-up with all-terrain tires that replaced metal runners, a battery-powered engine that substituted for horsepower and a steering wheel instead of reins.

“I’ll give you a tour,” Brian said.

Meghan, Jack and Nicole looked at each other, shrugged and hopped aboard.

“Seat belts,” Brian said. “This thing’s faster than it looks.” As they whooshed away, Brian pointed to a cluster of buildings — tall, short, wide, cylindrical — dotting the snow-covered landscape.

“That dome-shaped cage is the aviary,” he explained, “big enough for thousands of doves. The peaked, wooden building is the reindeer barn. Sleigh hangars are next door.”

They zipped by a multistory building of gleaming steel and glass.

“Wow, what’s that?” Jack said.

“Heart of the operation,” Brian answered. “Toy assembly line.”

He turned onto a path that led through a tunnel of towering evergreens. He halted at a yellow road sign marked “Elf Crossing.”

“Elves?” Meghan said. “For real?”

Snow glittered on pines shaped like perfect Christmas trees just waiting to be taken home and decorated.

Two bearded elves, wearing green britches, jackets and stocking caps, stepped from the woods. One carried an ax, the other an armful of logs. They nodded before disappearing into the trees on the other side.

“About 10 years ago, Christmas was in trouble,” Brian continued, steering the sleigh-cart deeper into the woods. “The world’s population was booming. Overworked parents started overcompensating in the gift department.”

“That’s for sure,” Nicole said.

“Santa’s workshop couldn’t keep up with the demand,” Brian said.

“What happened?” Jack said.

“P.C.S.D. Post Christmas Stress Disorder. Elf burnout. Big time. Something had to be done.”

“Like what?” Nicole snickered, “Club Med for elves?”

Brian stopped the sleigh-cart. They were surrounded by oak trees that blotted out the sky. Dutch doors were cut into the trunks. Arched windows decorated with lace curtains jutted out from thick limbs.

“If you haven’t figured it out yet,” Brian said, “Santa’s helpers aren’t little guys with pointy shoes anymore. They’re troubled kids who get a chance at Elf Camp to solve their own problems by making Christmas happen for everyone else.”

“Troubled?” Meghan said hotly.

“Yeah,” Jack said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Hey,” Brian shrugged. “Like the song: ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good.’ “

Meghan, Nicole and Jack rolled their eyes until Brian added a new lyric.

“And your heart’s about to break.”

Friday: Naughty or Nice