Editor's note: This part of a continuing, fictional holiday tale that is running daily through Christmas. Parents are encouraged to read along with their children.
The next day at school, the students at John Hanson Elementary School were unusually subdued. In fact, the teachers remarked, they seemed dejected.
At recess, Phoebe, Brenna, Cate and Cienna gathered at their favorite spot underneath an old oak tree and compared notes.
"Owen and I asked our Grandma Zard to bake sugar cookies with us," Brenna said. "But the Christmas cookie cutters - you know, the wreaths and the Santa hats and the reindeer - were gone. I thought Owen was going to cry."
"It was the same at our house, too," Cate said. "My dad said he'd help us bake cookies after I finished my homework, but he didn't know that there was anything special about it."
"I asked my mom if we could make a gingerbread house," Cienna said with a sigh. "Remember that year she let us make them for my birthday, even though it was only November? But she just laughed and said that a house made out of gingerbread seemed like it would be a lot of work and maybe we could try it over the weekend."
Phoebe related her own story about making buckeyes and trying to get her mother to remember Christmas songs.
"I don't know what to do now," she told her friends. "Do you guys have any ideas? Christmas is just a few weeks away!"
Suddenly, they heard a pop, and an elf appeared in front of them.
"What the heck?" Cate exclaimed.
"Can you tell me, is this Warren, Ohio?" the elf asked.
"Yes," said Brenna. "Are you an elf? A real elf?"
"Whew," the elf said. "You wouldn't believe the trip I had! Do you know how many Warrens there are in the world? There are 37 Warrens in the United States alone! And don't get me started on Great Britain. So this is Warren, Ohio, at last, eh?"
"Yes," Cienna said. "Do you know what's going on? Is Santa OK?"
The elf looked sharply at Cienna. "Why? Have you heard something?"
"It's just that Christmas doesn't seem to exist anymore," Phoebe said. "And if you're an elf, wouldn't you know if Santa was OK or not?"
"He was the last time I saw him, or as well as he could be, seeing as he was locked in a big cage," the elf said.
"Cage?" Cate questioned.
"Oh, didn't I mention?" the elf said. "Santa and Mrs. Claus and all the reindeer and elves - well, all the elves except me - have been taken captive."
"Taken captive!" Phoebe exclaimed. "Who would want to do that?"
"It's a long story," the elf said. "How much time do you have?"
Brenna scanned the playground. "Just before recess is over, Mrs. Mocker starts to walk over to the doors, and she's still on the other side of the playground, so we have a little while, I think."
"Oh, good," the elf said. He sat down and began his story.
"My name is Tuffy, and I work for Santa Claus," he said. "I was running an errand for Santa. Prancer likes a special kind of reindeer feed, you know, and we were nearly out, so Santa sent me to get some more. We get it from this little place in Norway. Nice place, Norway. Feels very home-y. Anyway, I get back with the reindeer feed, and I notice that the reindeer paddock was empty. Everything was empty, actually. The reindeer paddock, the Clauses' house, the workshops. I saw a light in a basement window, and that's when I found out what was really going on."
Tuffy told the children all about Old Floovenhopper and his dastardly plan to erase Christmas.
"But Santa said that you kids had a plan that could save everything," Tuffy finished. "So I'm here to help!"
"We did have a plan," Cienna said glumly. "But it didn't work."
"Yeah," Cate chimed in. "The grown-ups still don't think that Christmas exists."
Just then, a boy from the third-grade class came running over.
"You guys, something weird is going on!" he said. "Stephen and Lizzy don't know the words to 'Jingle Bells' anymore!"
For the next part of this story, read Friday's Tribune Chronicle.