By the light of a full moon, Brian drove Meghan, Jack and Nicole over Elf Camp's snow-covered hills. The laughter of kids on skis, sleds...

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By the light of a full moon, Brian drove Meghan, Jack and Nicole over Elf Camp’s snow-covered hills. The laughter of kids on skis, sleds and snowboards rang through the air.

“We work hard here,” Brian said, “but we play, too.”

They passed an ice-skating pond. Counselors and campers waved.

“Is this the North Pole?” Jack asked.

“Retired elves head south too,” Brian said. “We’re in the mountains of Washington.”

“Washington?”

“Technology,” Brian said. “Santa decided that computers were the only things that could replace elf magic. Bill Gates was one of Elf Camp’s first recruits.”

Back at headquarters, Meghan, Jack and Nicole stood before the stocking-covered wall. If these belonged to troubled children, what were their problems? How many, Meghan wondered, were homeless? How many, Jack thought, had lost a parent? How many had parents, Nicole asked herself, who fought all the time?

Meghan knew her mom wasn’t the only one who had lost her job when the plant closed. A quarter of the town had worked there. If Elf Camp wasn’t imaginary — and if it brought her, Nicole and Jack back together — she’d give it a try.

Jack’s mom had always been healthy. If flu blew through the house, it knocked everyone down except her. Then she started complaining about a persistent backache. In six months, the cancer won. Jack was game for the distraction.

To everyone else, Nicole’s life looked charmed: successful parents, popularity. Only she knew the secrets that an unhappy home keeps. Elf Camp seemed an unbelievable trip — and she was ready for the ride.

They pinned their stockings to the wall.

“Say ‘Santa,’ ” a counselor said as she snapped their photos. “They’re for your file and identity badges.”

“Assignment time,” Brian said, “but uniforms first.”

The kids groaned. Brian cocked his head toward two doors, one marked “GIRLS,” the other “BOYS.”

“Sorry, everyone wears a uniform at Elf Camp.”

They emerged, wearing green pants, red polo shirts and green and red plaid down vests.

“I’m a fashion don’t,” Nicole wailed.

“You’ll get over it,” Brian said. “Now, it’s work time. Jobs are tailored to suit your skills and interests. Trust me. You’re going to like your work.”

They weren’t sure if they could trust Brian, but he was right about their jobs. In the reindeer barn, Jack held a roster with each reindeer’s nutrition code. At each stall, he checked the brass nameplates and punched the occupant’s name into a handheld computer. An automatic feeder measured and poured ground lichen, grain, pellets and vitamins into individual troughs.

In Gift Wrap, Nicole selected wrapping paper and ribbons from a computerized catalog, matching them with a database of presents organized by age and gender. With hundreds of designs, textures and color combinations to choose from, she was in packaging paradise. For her first run, she began conservatively: teddy bears for babies, cowboys for boys and fairy princesses for girls.

In a windowless, temperature-controlled room, stacks of computer servers enabled Meghan to do her job: update the Naughty or Nice lists maintained by the North Pole Network. A program surveyed reports of kids’ behavior and generated rankings that slotted them automatically onto the appropriate list. Meghan scrolled through long columns of names, spot-checking entries for accuracy. She considered herself computer-savvy, but she was still impressed by the network’s quality control — until a familiar name appeared on the Nice list.

Time flew, a whistle blew and the three friends took their first break at a table in S.A.N.-T.A.’s cafeteria. It was dazzling — gleaming chrome and red leather booths and stools, polished black-and-white floor tiles. Glittering snowflake lanterns dangled from the ceiling. The room smelled of Christmas cookies, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg.

“Something’s totally weird,” Meghan said.

“You think?” Jack said. “We’re dressed like Christmas trees, helping Santa, in a place called Elf Camp.”

“Maybe we’re dreaming,” Nicole said. “When I was little, I used to dream about this cheese-stick tree in my backyard. I was convinced it was real. My parents would find me outside, in the middle of the night, in my pajamas, climbing the dogwood tree.”

Jack pinched her arm.

“Ouch!” Nicole cried, and swatted him.

“Still think it’s a dream?”

“If it’s a dream, it’s a nightmare,” Meghan said. “Guess who’s on the Nice list.” Remembering the embarrassing episode at lunch earlier that day, Meghan reddened.

“Erin Hobbs.”

Saturday: Blue-nosed reindeer