“Prize Inside,” the cereal package read. But I was almost finished with the whole box, and I hadn’t found any prize at all. I poured myself a bowl, added milk, and started my breakfast. And then, I got so interested in the book I was reading that I almost missed it. There, lying in the puddle of milk at the bottom of my bowl, was a small silver key. It didn’t look like the usual kind of cereal box prize – it was real silver, and it seemed very, very old. I had to hold it up to the light and squint to read the lettering written across the top: think small. “Think small?” I thought, and suddenly I noticed I was shrinking and shrinking, faster and faster. By the time I stopped, I was sitting in my spoon like it was an armchair. I looked up at my milk-filled cereal bowl, as big as a swimming pool, and then…..*
“Hold it! Stop right there! Whoever started writing this story is totally stupid. For one thing, if you are sitting in your chair eating breakfast and suddenly you start shrinking, you aren’t going to land in your spoon. You’ll be on your chair. You may still be holding the old silver key, but you’ll be sitting in your chair, getting small enough that the cat will mistake you for a mouse.
Yuck! I don’t want to even think about the possibility that the cat might think I’m a mouse. Better to think about the cat seeing that I’m gone and there’s still milk in my bowl and she can leap to the table and finish my cereal milk.
That brings me to the next stupid thing. According to the beginning of the story, I found the silver key in a puddle of milk at the bottom of my bowl. But then it says that I was sitting in my spoon looking up at my milk-filled cereal bowl. You can’t have a bowl filled with milk at the same time there is only a puddle of milk small enough for a tiny silver key to be seen. Come on, I thought writers were supposed to be smart enough to get their stories right! This is disgusting!
But the biggest problem with the story is that it’s about me, and I’m the only one who can tell the whole truth about what actually happened, and why. It’s the why that’s the important part.
So, I was sitting at the table eating my breakfast one Saturday morning, and reading a book because I’d gotten grounded from the TV so I couldn’t watch cartoons. I was trying to get the last spoonful of cereal onto my spoon when I noticed a tiny silver key in the last puddle of milk. I fished it out, sucked all the milk off it, and held it up to the light to see what was written on it. It didn’t say “think small,” it said “think Smalle.” There’s a big difference, as I was soon to find out!
“Think Smalle,” I said to myself, and immediately the key and I began to shrink. In less than a blink, I was no bigger than a golf ball, teetering on the edge of my chair. But I wasn’t alone. Standing beside me was a sort-of person about half my size. I say sort-of person because he was only sort-of there. He rippled in and out between being colored air and a sort-of solid person. His clothes were very old, and old-fashioned, and he talked funny.
“Be quick, prithee, jump on the cat!” he exclaimed.
“Excuse me?” I tried to look at him, but really I was looking through him.
“Jump!” He grabbed my arm, pulling me with him as our cat rubbed up against the leg of my chair. We landed on the cat’s back, and the cat took off as if a dog was chasing her. Just before she leaped out the cat door, the little person pushed my head down into the cat’s fur. The next instant he grabbed me again, said, “Jump!”, and we landed at the base of the huge oak tree in my backyard.
“My pardon, good sir,” he apologized, dusting himself off, “I didn’t want thee to be decapitated.”
“Who are you, and what’s going on?” I was spitting cat hair out of my mouth as I glared at the little man. He seemed a little more solid now, not so much shimmering air as back in the kitchen.
“Make haste, good sir, I beg you. All will be clear in time. Hast thou the key with thee?” I held up the key.
“I thank thee, good sir. Now we must dig.”
“No!” I said. “I need some answers. Who are you, why am I suddenly so small, and what’s going on?”
“There’s no time for stories now. Time is of the essence.” He crouched down and began pawing at the ground. I saw his problem right away.
“What are you?” I cried. “Your hands are going through the dirt like it’s not even there.”
“Yes, master, this is why I am in need of your services. For you, the earth will move.”
“But what are you?” I persisted.
“Dig,” he commanded, “and I will answer as we work. I put the key in my pocket, dropped to my hands and knees, and started scratching the dirt away from the tree root.
“I am a wisp,” said the sort-of little man. “Some people call us will-o-wisps, but wisp is what we prefer. We are light that comes and goes, but we are also keepers of secrets, and helpers in times of great need. I come to you today at the request of someone in great need.”
“What exactly are we doing?” I asked. “Looking for something or just digging a tunnel?”
“We are searching for a key identical to thine.”
By now I had dug down past the largest surface root of the oak tree and was standing below ground. “It’s getting dark,” I complained. “How am I supposed to find a tiny silver key in the dark?”
The little man started glowing. “Is that better?” he asked.
It was. “Which way now?” I asked as we ducked under the root. The light bounced around the tiny space and finally settled over to my left. I wiped earthworm slime off my face and started clawing through the dirt again. “Go on with your story.”
“Three hundred years ago,” he continued, “the silver key in thy pocket belonged to a very fine English lady. It was half of the combination to the lock on a silver box that Lord Smalle buried on his estate in western England near Wales. In those days, only the eldest male heir could inherit land, but the eldest Smalle son had so dishonored his father, that the father disowned him and vowed to give his entire estate to his two daughters instead. On their wedding days, Lord Smalle presented each with one tiny key, with instructions that it was to pass on to her eldest daughter, and her eldest daughter in turn. This way, no son would ever inherit, and the Smalle lands would always be held by two Smalle daughters. Should a dispute arise, the owners of the keys were to insert both their keys into the locks on the silver box buried on Smalle lands as proof of ownership.”
“I need to rest,” I slumped down and tried to rub some of the grime off my hands. “You don’t by chance have anything to drink, do you?”
The light changed to orange and yellow and seemed a little frightening. Let’s get this over with, I thought, and got back to work.
The wisp returned to more comforting pale reds and greens with a hint of purple here and there, and continued. “Lady Caroline, the original owner of the key identical to thine, married a man who brought her to what has become America. Lady Caroline’s great-granddaughter, Alice, planted this oak tree beside her house. It was she who buried her key under this tree for fear that it would be stolen in those unsettled times. She and her daughter fled the fighting and always intended to return, but, alas, Alice died of a fever a few years later. Now the great-great-great granddaughter of Alice lives in England and is trying to establish her claim to the Smalle lands. Unfortunately, she cannot do so without her key. Family legend says her key is buried beneath this oak tree, and she has asked me to retrieve it. But time is short. If she cannot produce the key, the courts will auction the land to the highest bidder, who will undoubtedly be a male.”
Something live scratched my arm. “Ahhhh,” I screamed.
The wisp turned fiery red. “What ails thee, my lad?”
“There’s something alive down here and it is scratching me. Do something!”
The wisp softened to a gentle green and bobbed up and down as if in conversation. “Dear me,” he moaned, now just dark blue shadows. “The mole that scratched thee knows of the key we seek but is unwilling to help us. Time is wasting. I have failed.” The light went out.
I couldn’t see anything, and I certainly couldn’t find my way back. I was still me, but who would recognize me the size of a golf ball? I was thirsty, exhausted, and…oh no, I needed to pee. Real bad!
I heard snuffling noises. What was that? Should I be frightened? But what would it matter? No one would hear me if I did cry for help. No one would care about a kid the size of a golf ball. The snuffling noise was louder now, and it sounded like words, like words I knew. What was that – left, up, two inches?
Left, up, two inches. I forgot about needing to pee. I reached my left hand up and felt along the tunnel I had just dug. I moved it around. Nothing. I started clawing at the earth, sending dirt showering down on my hair. Two inches. How long was two inches? If I were my normal size, two inches would be about the length of my thumb. Was that the length of my whole body now? Probably. Well, I couldn’t dig two inches sitting down. I got up and dug until only my feet were sticking out of the new crosswise tunnel. It was totally dark, but I was pretty sure the wisp was still here. Maybe if I could get him talking again, he’d forget about being a failure and light up.
“Hey Mr. Wisp,” I said, “how did I get my key? I’m a boy.”
“I slipped it into thy porridge this morning.”
“You put it in my cereal? I thought it was the prize inside the box.”
“The prize is still in the box. You were too busy reading to notice me.”
The light was getting brighter. Good. I kept digging.
“How do you know this is the right tree?” I was having trouble breathing in all this dirt. It made me appreciate that my parents kept our house so clean.
“There are some things that we wisps know. You must trust me, master Scott.”
“You know my name?” My throat tightened.
“I am a wisp, and we wisps know many things. Do not fear, you are in no danger.”
I thought I felt something hard, maybe metal. I dug it out, but it was only a nail. Might be useful, I decided, and stuffed it into my back jeans pocket.
“How will I explain this to my mom?” I asked.
“Your mother will not notice. You must trust me.”
“But I’ve been gone hours!” I complained.
“Less than an instant, I assure you.” The light, almost white now, started bouncing up and down. “We should be very near the place now. Have you found anything?”
“A nail,” I answered, spitting out some dirt I almost swallowed as I scratched at the tunnel wall above my head, “but that’s all so far.”
“A nail?” The light was definitely white hot now. “The key should be very close. The legend says the key was buried in a wooden box that was nailed shut. The box would have rotted by now, but the nails should be intact. Have you found only one nail?”
“Two, just now!” I cried. Come on, I thought, be here now. I needed to pee again.
My hand hit more nails, all together, like on a corner of a box. Careful, I thought. Don’t do something stupid. If this is a corner of the box, where would the key be?
“Do you know how big this box was supposed to be?” I asked the wisp.
“Perhaps the size of your hand.”
“My hand now or before you shrank me?”
“The former,” he sounded impatient. “Have you found it yet? You should be very close.”
“How do you know?” I asked, still feeling around for several more nails all together in one place.
“I can feel it. The second key is very, very close.”
His tone bothered me. It was too happy, too smooth. My feet were hot. Something wasn’t right. I backed out of the tunnel as fast as I could.
“What’s wrong?” cried the light. “The key is still in the box!” The fiery orange-gold glow dimmed to a dark purple, giving off very little light.
“Just had to get a breath of fresh air,” I mumbled, shaking the dirt out of my hair. I rubbed my face on my arm, trying to brush off some of the grime and stall a bit. I needed some answers.
“What happens if I find the key?” I asked. “
“When,” spat the Wisp. “When you find the key. You will find it,” he hissed.
“OK,” I tried to sound calm, “when I find the key, what happens next?”
“I wisp both keys back to the lady who needs them,” replied the wisp. I could swear I saw his eyes narrow, but that was just my imagination. He was all light and nothing else. I wondered how I had imagined him to be a little man when we were both above ground.
“How do I get out of here and back to my house?” I asked evenly.
“There’s no time to talk,” squeaked the wisp. “The lady needs the keys now!”
I didn’t move. “I have all the time in the world, Mr. Wisp. I asked you how I get back to where I came from. If you’ll answer my questions, maybe I can get back to finding that precious key.”
Oh, dear. Had I just said ‘precious’ key? I don’t talk that way. This wisp must have changed more than just my size!
“You stupid child,” the wisp light bounced up and down with each word. “You’ll get out of here the same way you got in. Now hurry up and get me that key!”
I still wasn’t moving. “When will I return to my normal size?”
“Oh, for goodness sake, you’ll be back to your size as soon as I have the two keys,” yelled the wisp. He was back to that burning orange-gold and bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball. “Wilt thou get the key?”
“No, I won’t, Mr. Wisp.” I hunched down on the floor of the main tunnel. “You’re planning to leave me here as soon as you get the key. I know that as soon as I have that key in my hand, you’ll take it, the same way you put the other key in my cereal this morning. The only reason you needed me was to do your digging for you. You’re selfish and cruel. I’m sorry for the lady who needs to prove she owns her land, but I’m not ready to die down under this tree for her. I belong to the family who lives in my house, and I am going back to them now.”
I began crawling back the way I had come. I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to find my way back, even if I couldn’t see. The tunnel should still be there, and I could just feel my way along it until I reached the surface. Small or not, I wanted to be back home.
I thought the wisp would try to change my mind, but he didn’t, so I kept wiggling and crawling back through the tunnel. As I came to the big tree root, a beetle dropped onto my face. I screamed.
“Something wrong?” I knew that voice. So the wisp had followed me out. Why hadn’t I seen his light? Why couldn’t I see it now?
“Just a beetle,” I tried to sound like I didn’t care. “It surprised me, that’s all.”
“Want another surprise?” The wispy voice suggested he had more tricks to play if I didn’t do what he wanted.
“No,” I said and slithered out from under the big tree root. Ah! I could smell fresh air! Almost home.
A flash of red light zipped past me. There was a sound, too, like keys jingling. Instantly my tunnel got very tight. Air, I needed air. I tried to crawl, but I was stuck. Don’t panic, I told myself, think. My hands could move a little, so I started clawing away the dirt around me. Slowly I got enough of me unstuck that I could start digging forward. But I needed air!
Somewhere up above I heard my mom calling me. Mom. Home. Air. I wanted to cry, but I clawed and dug toward the voice, toward home, toward air. The dirt was closing in. My lungs ached and I was getting weaker and weaker. Just when I was sure I would suffocate and die, my hand clawed forward and reached…nothing. Nothing? Nothing! I was almost free. Adrenaline shot through me, giving me energy and oxygen. Ten more scrapes in the dirt and…air! I couldn’t gulp it in fast enough.
Then I saw my mom. Obviously, she couldn’t believe what she saw, but she called my name anyway.
“Hi, Mom,” I called back as I fought my way out of the tangle of tree roots.
But moms are moms. As soon as I said hi, she quit worrying and became her usual self.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” she scolded. “Get out of there this minute and go straight up and take a shower. And you’d better clean up any dirt you track into my house!”
“OK, Mom,” I sighed, and trudged across the yard to the back door.
“What were you doing under that tree, anyway?” She sounded more curious than mad.
“Mom,” I turned back to look at her, “this is one time you’ll just have to trust me.” I headed inside.
In a couple of days maybe I’d do an internet search about contested property in western England near Wales. If I found what I thought I’d find, maybe I’d leave the browser open so my mom could see the article. I knew the lady would get her land, because I had touched the key. That’s what the wisp had felt. I had cleared away the dirt around that key so that if he really wanted it he could get it. He had, and probably I’d be no worse for wear after a hot shower, clean clothes, and some more food. But first, I had to pee, real, real bad!
*Opening paragraph taken from And Then: Story Starters 20 Imaginative Beginnings, Vol. 1. M. H. Clark, Compendium, Inc., 2012