Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
1st Place - Young Adults 15-17 year olds
by Luke M. Rickford
About Luke M. Rickford
Seventeen-year-old Luke Rickford needed some kind of outlet
to vent his feelings about the events of Sept. 11.
"Things got kind of crazy that week," said the Gunn
High School senior. "When you're in school, you have
seven hours of floating from class to class. When something
like what happened happens, you shift your focus, and that
was really confusing at times. There I was taking a math test,
and there were people stuck under tons of rubble. I really
needed to write about it."
Two days after the attacks in New York, Rickford, who has
won numerous Bay Area awards for his poetry and short stories,
sat down and wrote "The Stray." As a day-long narrative
of one teenager's experiences, Rickford uses references in
popular culture to convey his generation's disillusioned perception
of the events.
"My writing always tends to mirror something I've seen
in real life," he said. "(With this story) I really
want people to realize my perspective and many of my friends'
perspectives on what happened."
Rickford says he plans on majoring in English during his undergraduate
studies. In the meantime, he runs on Gunn's track team and
plays pool when not avidly working late nights on his first
-- Bryan Chin
You wake up and pull a clean shirt over your head. The smell of
cold, car seat is freezing. Ben Folds Five really got these mornings
right. Halfway down the road, forgot to brush your teeth, bed-head
screams at you from the rear view mirror. "You look like shit,"
it says. You know. Shut up. A shaggy dog is limping down the side
of the road, leash dangling behind it. You wonder if its gonna
come back home. You hope so; you had a dog once and man, do you
miss that big brute. Some DJ had the sense to play Joni Mitchell
on the radio today. Joni, damn, what a groove. You snap your fingers
and run a few red lights cause youre late for class.
Your English teacher will probably explode like a pimple if you
show up tardy again.
And dont it always seem to go, that you dont know what
youve got till its gone...
Today would be a good day to pave paradise and put up a parking
lot, you think. Hell, why not two, or three? Maybe a concessions
stand, with free cotton candy like when you were a kid. Yeah, thatd
be nice. You push your 81 hatchback Toyota up to 55 miles
an hour, which is pretty much terminal velocity. Class starts at
7:55 prompt every day. Every day except today, because its
September 11, 2001, and paradise is crumbling and the sky is on
Whowhatwherewhen? Nobodys even got time to ask "why?"
yet. You walk up and man, did you hear the news? They crashed a
plane straight into em. Suddenly ten friends are huddled in
a halo around Maxs handheld TV. Crappy reception, just like
when you watched the NCAA basketball tournament together. Nobodys
got time to notice that either. Mary and Jen are sittin scared,
eyes like Bloomingdales doors on Christmas Eve. Collin cracks
a joke; most people arent sure whether or not to laugh. You
get the water-cooler chuckle that follows a sexist joke at work,
then the chatter swallows it up again. Just you and the chatter,
dancing like old friends, missing steps and not giving a damn: holy
shit they hit The Pentagon too, San Francisco bound to be next,
were in silicon valley is there a bomb shelter, not so invincible
anymore, hey can you talk the principal into letting us out of school,
I have a Calc test today what awful timing and yes, the terrorists
have awful timing and yes, what awfully perfect timing the terrorists
Terror is not for you. Terror belongs to old ladies; they cling
to it like a little Pekingese dog. You have anger, a frayed rope
waiting to string up the next criminal who speaks out of turn. Your
mind is a lynch mob. Its soaked with tears, wet like a sweat
towel after the twelfth round, and what a heavyweight classic this
ones gonna be. Terror is not for you. Terror gets pushed behind
political agendas and the latest media spin, MTV told you to be
cynical and here you are, right? You have a plan, a loose nut in
the machine, ready to tear it all down and scream your name onto
blank walls. Your intuition is a tightly woven net. No, terror is
not for you.
Now, a few hours after impact, you discover the much-neglected why.
Why do you keep cracking your knuckles? Theyre floppy, achingthey
dont pop anymore. Why are you crying? You didnt cry
when grandpa died, with his plaid jackets and KFC dinners. You dont
know these people. You probably wouldnt like them. Right?
So why do you feel like a case of strep throat?
Why cant they just kill the Republicans, you wonder, as the
Republicans wonder why they cant just kill the Democrats and
maybe the faggots, too, and the Israelis wonder when God will smite
the Palestinians and the Palestinians wait for Israel to spontaneously
combust. No such luck. Instead CNN gives you Lizzie, the fifteen-year
old girl who loves her dad. You never did have an eye for tensemake
that loved her dad. Hes five-foot-eight, she says to the camera
(poor girl, she doesnt have an eye for tense either,) and
hes built, his nickname is "The Kid." He really
loves his dog.
Thats the real evil of it all. You get the cement-gut feeling
of an unwelcome epiphany: those bastards took The Kid away from
his dog. You remember third grade, running across the front lawn
in a Superman cape. Dad came home with a warm bundle wrapped in
a dish towel, and Superman faded into the background like a passing
train. You named him Krypton and kissed his nose. Shared peanut
butter and banana sandwiches. Wet the bed together. Had mixed feelings
about your first crush. You tied two sticks together and planted
a cross in the backyard when he died. You wanted to die too; a boy
belongs with his dog. The Kid belongs with his dog.
The school day lingers like an unwelcome guest. Nobody asks why
you keep looking up at the sky, why you cant pay attention
to the Depression or proper nouns. They figure youre like
the rest of them, watching for a plane pregnant with death, realizing
you might not get to college after all. What you really wan to know
is will The Kid be OK, way up there in heaven, without his dog?
Finally the bell rings, and youre all free to go home, to
sit in suspended animation like ball players in the off-season.
You drive home and run every red light. The streets should be empty;
traffic and terror dont mix. You stop the car by the side
of the road, put on your hazard lights and pull a piece of salami
out of your sandwich. There, just down the road, tongue hanging
out the side of his mouth. Tail wagging hard as if the world were
still right side up. Here boy, cmere. The shaggy dog limps
over to you and snaps up the meat. You take him by the leash and
begin walking back to your car. Joni Mitchell never lied. This ones
gonna make it home.
"The Stray" introduces a fresh and funny voice, one
that provides us with an insightful and highly-personalized view
of a day none of us will soon forget in a way I'll long remember.
I'm particularly impressed by how artfully the writer packs so much
of the character's universe into such a small space. --