Campers swap stories about first-day tasks

“Hey!” Miles called out, taking charge. “All you little elves. Listen up! You need to get in line; we can’t work this way …. no wonder everything is getting messed up.” Quickly, he directed the elves into two lines so he and Olivia could serve them.

“From now on, you guys need to get in line first,” Miles said. Olivia thought that should have been common sense but just nodded in agreement. The little Elves on the Shelves were just excited, after all — they were eager to do their job, which in itself wasn’t a bad thing. They just needed a little guidance to help keep things in order.

When the lines had cleared, Olivia and Miles assembled a waiting area using long lengths of red licorice rope and candy cane sticks as poles. They stood back and admired their handiwork while munching on leftover licorice.

“That seemed too easy,” Olivia observed, watching as a few more elves trickled in and weaved through the licorice queue in a neat line. “If this kind of stuff is all we have to do, maybe this camp won’t be so bad after all.”

When they met back up with the other kids for lunch, though, it was obvious they hadn’t all had the same kind of morning.

“That was the worst,” Gia said grumpily. There were smudges of dirt on her face, and the smell coming off her clothes reminded Olivia of the animal barns at the county fair.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Chloe tried to say, but Gia glared at her.

“We just spent all morning cleaning out stables, Chloe. We had to shovel manure! That is the very definition of awful.”

“Well, we had a good morning,” Lucas spoke up, and Cameron nodded.

“We got to help sort letters at the post office,” Cameron said. “You guys need to see that place. It’s so cool the way they have it set up to sort them and scan them and make an electronic list for Santa. There’s all sorts of categories, and he’s able to cross-reference them — “

“Booo-rrring,” Gia sang out, rolling her eyes. “That sounds almost as bad as cleaning reindeer stalls.”

Once again Olivia bit her tongue, not wanting to start an argument with Gia. None of them had made the choice to be here, but Gia was the only one constantly complaining. At least the rest of them were trying their best.

As they ate their lunch of turkey sandwiches on fresh-baked bread with a side of fruit and potato chips, they talked about how they’d all come to end up at Camp Secret Santa.

All of their stories were basically the same: Kris Kringle had shown up on their doorsteps, camp contract and brochure in hand, and their parents acted like it was no big deal that a man claiming to be Santa Claus himself wanted to take them away for a week.

“I guess I don’t really blame my parents for sending me away,” Cameron said with a sad frown. “We’ve been fighting all the time. They think I spend too much time on video games.”

“Yeah, me, too,” said Chloe. “Not really video games, but I’m on my phone and tablet all the time. I don’t remember the last time I just sat down with my mom and dad and talked about stuff.”

Just about all of the kids murmured in agreement.

“I haven’t been very fair to my mom,” Olivia said quietly, looking down at her chips. “None of what I’m feeling is her fault.”

“Whose fault is it?”

Olivia startled at the crisp tone in the question, and she was just as surprised that it came from Gia. She looked up to find the girl watching her with narrowed eyes.

“Nobody’s,” Olivia stated for the first time ever out loud. “My dad died. He left to go Christmas shopping and never came back. He was in a car accident. So whose fault should it be? The deer that ran out in the road? The tree he ran into?”

She shook her head, feeling frustrated with herself as a tear slipped down her cheek. For a second, she thought she saw a flash of understanding in Gia’s eyes, but then Gia broke eye contact and cleared her throat.

“Well, nothing I’ve done should have landed me here.”

Lucas snorted and rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you’re just as pleasant to your parents as you are to us, so yeah, whatever you say. Face it, we’re all here because we’ve been such big jerks to our families that our parents were desperate enough to ship us off to Christmas land.”

Olivia had to agree. But Gia just stood up, tossed her lunch away and headed toward the door. “I’m going to take a nap.”

“But what about sledding? You’ll miss the challenge,” Olivia called out to her retreating back.

“I don’t like being cold. Not like you guys want me there anyway.”

Olivia’s first thought was, “Well, you’re right about that, Gia.” But she immediately felt guilty as a new thought took place in her head. Maybe Gia acted like this because she was hurting even worse than Olivia. And maybe, just maybe, they were more alike than she’d thought.


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