The second annual Anderson Park Short Story Contest, a competition for middle school students, asked students to write stories that incorporated the park in some way. The contest was sponsored by Friends of Anderson Park. The judges were Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs; author Sharon Dennis Wyeth; author Nancy Star, and Ann Anderson Evans, a descendant of the parkland’s donor.
Abigail Shepheard-Walwyn’s entry, “Elves,” is the first winner to be published by Montclair Local. Others will be published in subsequent weeks. Shepheard-Walwyn is a sixth-grader at Buzz Aldrin Middle School.
Grace’s legs were throbbing as she ran through the grass. The cat behind her wasn’t much larger than a squirrel, and he was much slower than a kitten.
But, as she was only 4 inches tall, Grace had good reason to run. The cat was hungry, and she couldn’t climb up the nearest tree in a matter of seconds like a squirrel or run into a burrow like a chipmunk.
To him, Grace was easy prey. She was growing tired from the effort and tired of the game. She looked around, trying to find something she could use to escape. Spotting the one willow tree in the whole of the park off to her left, she changed her direction and quickened her pace.
Once she reached the tree, she grabbed hold of one of the drooping branches and jumped. She scrambled up the limb, out of reach of the cat, who, having lost his prey, turned and slinked back to the bushes.
Grace let go of the bough, landing in a ninja pose. She scanned the ground and found a little tunnel, about the same size as a chipmunk hole, leading into the ground. She slid down into it as if surfing into the darkness.
It wasn’t dark for long, though. Humans had dropped all sorts of things in the park, and Grace and the other elves had collected many of these odds and ends over the years.
One of these things was a 5-foot-long strand of elf-sized lights, which, for some reason, had been tangled up in a pine tree. Grace had never quite figured out why. The lights ran on batteries, a perfectly good pack of which had easily been found in a dumping bin. The lights now lit up the tunnels, illuminating them with their colorful glow.
“Grace! You’re back! What did you find?” an old voice sounded. Grace switched from sliding to running down the tunnel, taking off her backpack as she went. She pulled open the drawstring top and peered inside.
“Some colored glass, and an acorn shell,” she called back.
“Good, good, good,” the voice, now nearer, replied.
“Should I deliver them to the Sorting Room?” Grace asked, stuffing the items back into her bag.
An aged man, his wrinkled face and long white whiskers nearly hiding his deep blue eyes, stepped out from a corner. He leaned on a beautiful cane, which was his ultimate pride and joy. The wood the staff had been built from was strong and durable. The stick had a mythical, swirling pattern engraved into it. It was made from fine wood and had a round piece of blue glass on the top. Its owner believed it to be a gift from The Founders. After all, The Founders were supposed to have created everything.
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” he said, stretching his back. Grace raced past him, slinging her bag back over her shoulder. She raced past hallways with bark, fabric, and intricately carved wooden doors until she found an entrance with only a blue silk cloth hanging over the opening. She pushed it open, expecting the usual noise and commotion to greet her. Except inside, it was deathly quiet. Everything that they had collected in the park over the years had either disappeared or was strewn all over the floor.
Grace was puzzled. The Sorting Room was usually the busiest place in the whole park, not just the tunnels. Busier than at the festivals, when an elf had to shuffle along the ground to avoid being seen. In the Sorting Room, there could be traffic for hours. Nobody would be able to move for more than 60 minutes.
“Hello?” Grace called, her nerves shaky. She didn’t really expect a reply, but a distant “Help!” sounded, followed by a roar. Grace, shivers running up her back and her heart pounding, crept farther into the tunnel. First, she saw elves. Probably about 20 of them. They were huddled off to the side, using clumps of dirt, green fabric, and flowers to blend in.
“What happened?” Grace asked, but they quickly shushed her.
“Dragon,” one replied.
“What?” Grace asked, confused. Dragons weren’t supposed to exist. The elf next to her opened her mouth to reply, but her answer was silenced by a ground-shaking roar.
Grace jumped and quickly looked around, starting to panic. She found a needle and a plastic food container lid. She brandished the needle like a sword and held the lid in front of her like a shield.
Soon, a thread of smoke rounded the corner, making Grace’s eyes water. She took a careful step forward, watching the corner like a hawk. After a few seconds, a gleaming red-scaled head emerged. It was small, about the size of Grace’s head, maybe a little bit bigger. It had a long snout, with wisps of smoke emerging from the nostrils. From its skull, two snow-white horns emerged, each with dagger-sharp tips.
Grace squealed with surprise. Anderson Park hadn’t hosted a dragon since medieval times, and the dragon, having just been woken up by the continuous tunneling of the elves, wasn’t in the best of moods. He was wondering where his friends were, and what the little creatures that had awoken him so early meant by their tyranny.
“Hello,” Grace said weakly, not able to think of anything else to say. The dragon snapped his gleaming head around to face her and stepped out from behind the corner.
He was a handsome dragon, with giant folded wings, and sharp talons. The tips of his wings brushed the ceiling, and he seemed to be crouching down to avoid the rocky roof. Abruptly, the dragon let out a mighty roar, turning and darting toward Grace with what was, to Grace, the speed of a cheetah.
Grace, her heart pounding in her ears, could do nothing but turn and run. She sprinted as fast as she could back up the tunnels, ducking fireballs that the dragon sent her way. Her throat was dry, and her vision was blurred. Outside, it was dusk, and few humans were around to notice the affairs.
The dragon was much faster than the cat, and not only was he hungry, he was annoyed with elves in general for waking him up, and annoyed with Grace at daring to speak to him. He wasn’t particularly friendly normally, as far as dragons go, and he had a habit of disintegrating anyone who annoyed him. He, as a result, had been very popular among dragons and was confused at why his friends weren’t supplying backup for him. He didn’t put much thought into it, though. Dragons are rather simple creatures, and too much thinking was prone to give them headaches.
They were approaching the rock at the entrance of the park, and Grace was beginning to grow a little bit desperate. The rock was the source of all spiritual inspiration, and Grace couldn’t help but whisper a hasty prayer to The Founders.
The dragon, right behind her, let out a mighty roar and spread his wings, taking to the sky. Grace swerved and ducked to avoid being hit by the massive fireballs. Suddenly, a blue light emerged from the rock. It slithered across through the air like a snake, heading directly for Grace.
When it hit her, she was thrown back a couple of steps by the force. But when the mist cleared, she found she was wearing silver chain mail and carrying … was that a music box? The dragon didn’t seem to care what it was, though. He was still groggy and annoyed. However, a plan was beginning to hatch in Grace’s mind.
Grace quickly scanned the ground, looking for holes. When she had been little, her instructor had taught her and her classmates how to tell apart the different types of tunnels. Some were chipmunk and mice holes, with the owners still inside. These were dangerous because, although from a distance they may seem cute, chipmunks and mice could seriously injure an elf. Some holes were elven tunnels, which were as safe as possible.
And the last was the type Grace needed. A vacant tunnel, abandoned by mice and chipmunks but not yet occupied by snakes, which tended to take over old holes. She found one soon enough.
It was too large to be an elven tunnel, but there were no curving tracks to signal a snake, and no fresh dirt by the entrances to indicate that a mouse or chipmunk inhabited it.
“Hey! Sparky!” she yelled, running toward the hole and waving her arms. The dragon let out a roar and followed her. She ran to the edge of the hole, ducking to avoid the latest fireball.
The dragon dove for her, but Grace stepped aside, letting him dive into the tunnel. Before he could turn around and fly back out, Grace wound up the music box and shoved it into the entrance. It fit perfectly, and soon a soft melody filled the tunnel. The dragon roared in protest, but his complaints were cut off by his yawn.
Soon, the sound of soft snoring filled the air, and Grace, satisfied with her work, turned around, brushing off her hands.
Grace made her way back to the main elven tunne, and, nearly knocking over the aged man and his cane, ran back to the Sorting Room, finding the elves where she had left them.
“The dragon’s gone for now,” she said, helping them up.
“For now?” one asked warily, pulling back when she offered him her hand.
“For now,” Grace agreed.
And in the end, it was a good long while before the dragon woke up, and even longer before he was awake long enough to get out. For the music box played for hundreds of years to come.