Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Teen

The Dog's Boy

About Lillian Xie

Lillian Xie, 13, arrived to an interview carting "Robinson Crusoe" -- and a self-confidence uncommon in adolescence.

"Crusoe" is but the latest fictional work to feed the Jordan Middle School eighth-grader's voracious literary appetite.

For Xie, books are a wonderful way to enter strange new worlds.

"You can get in touch with a different perspective and different people," she said.

In her own work, "The Dog's Life," Xie explores a realm inhabited by shape-shifters known as faey changers. Protagonist Oliver grapples with his identity, trying to recover a part of his life that was lost when his father, a human, left.

The theme of discovering one's uniqueness is sure to resonate with teens.

Xie herself loves English, creative writing, painting, printmaking and drawing, among other interests. But when it comes to future goals, she demurs.

"I don't know. Like, I can be all Asian and say I want to go to Harvard," she said, not sounding convinced that's really something she's hoping for.

When she was younger, Xie aspired to be the next J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) -- "and write books 10,000 pages thick."

She's back off on that dream, though.

"I lost steam," she explained.

But she hasn't lost the desire to explore and to entertain new ideas.

Asked about the process of writing, she told of changing the ending of the story (which was "corny" in the first draft) and the names of the characters. Raquel was at first called Golden; Oliver became Sammy, then changed back to Oliver.

Names, Xie is learning, can be quite telling of a character's personality. She riffed on the pressure of being named Hope.

"There's a lot riding on you. My gosh!" she said.

But hope is exactly what Xie did this year, as she entered the Weekly's Short Story Contest for the second time in three years. And then, she got the phone call the week before Thanksgiving.

"Oh my god. I got it! Are you sure? Do you have the wrong number?" she recalled saying.

This year, her strategy was to back off on the idea of winning and simply enjoy the craft. It paid off.

"I wrote for fun to see if I'd get anything -- and I did!" she said.

--Jocelyn Dong

"Oliver, you need to concentrate more on your assignment."

Oliver spun around.   Nobody was in sight, just a wise looking great horned owl on a tall beech tree.   "Raquel," he laughed, "You scared me."

The owl suddenly jumped off the branch and landed on the earth transformed into faerie creature -brown head feathers to long brown hair, white breast feathers to milky skin.   Oliver and Raquel were a part of a village, Mossayner Grove, of these little creatures.   They were small but they weren't elves or gnomes or fairies, they were more like shape-shifters, the faey changers.   Through the centuries, they managed to survive by changing into animals, rabbits, foxes, and sometimes fish, when human eyes wandered. Graceful twig-like creatures, their skin and hair color vary remarkably, but their faces are also just so -a small pointed nose, high cheekbones, and big eyes which seem to reflect the world.

Raquel sighed, "Oliver, what are you doing?"   She looked past the brambles of the bush Oliver crouched behind and spotted a stable.   "Watching horses?"

"No of course not!"   Oliver whispered, and then hurriedly mumbled "ekhyt" trying not to look to disrespectful.  

Raquel rolled her golden eyes, concluding, "Then you must be spying on those dogs again, aren't you?"

Oliver looked down sheepishly, "I suppose so.   But what if my animal soul is a dog?"

Raquel looked skeptical, "A wolf maybe, but a common house dog?   Not likely."

"But Ekhyt, these dogs hunt. They are very keen in smell and sound -like us for that matter."

"Oliver, you may watch dogs on your own time.   I was told to teach you the tongue of all creatures and find you your animal soul, and I feel responsible to carry out those orders.   Do you understand?"

"Yes Ekhyt," Oliver replied glumly.

Raquel realized that she had spoken too harshly, so she softened her tone and continued, "What have I told you to do tonight?"

"To go to the Far East Meadow and watch the deer eat, sleep, talk and try to find my inner deer," Oliver said in a monotonous manner.

"Good tyke, now go do as you are told."

Oliver ran about five feet toward the east, stopped and turned around, "Raquel, why can't our village make contact with humans?"

Raquel stood up straighter, her mouth squeezed shut in a thin line.   After a long pause, she asked, "Why are you wondering Oliver?"

Oliver at once seemed to be more interested in the leaves and dirt around his feet, "Well, they don't seem that horrid."

The first signs of age were already showing on Raquel's face.   And now after Oliver brought up the tall ones, her wrinkles sagged a little more, "Oliver, Oliver, Oliver," she began wearily, "When the humans came, our world shrank away.   They burned our forests and destroyed our mushroom crop, and they brought with them the thing we fear most..." She looked at Oliver expectantly.

"Metal," Oliver murmured hoarsely.

"And you do not need for me to explain what the metal can do to us faey people."

"But Ekhyt, my father was human," young Oliver was close to tears.  

"Ah, yes, indeed he was," Raquel's eyes looked far.

"That day he walked away, I wanted to know everything about him.   But all Mum told me was that I was lucky that I still looked faey and that he had a dog," his round green eyes looked up at Raquel's, "Please Ekhyt, I need to be human for a while.   I want to touch a dog, just once.   That's all I have left of my father."

Of all the faerie creatures, Raquel was the only one that had the power of human transformation, but she knew the laws of the faerie realm -human transformation was forbidden anytime and anywhere, anyone who wishes to break the rules, was banished by all.   "No, no, no.   Not here, not now, not ever."

By this time Oliver was crying, "One night, Ekhyt!   Please, please, Ekhyt!"

Raquel sighed, touched by the boy's tears and want to be a father's son again, "Very well, just one night -and that is all."

"Oh thank you, Ekhyt Raquel!"   Oliver flung his arms around her waist.

She gently pushed him back and said, "Close your mind."

"My mind?"

Raquel smiled, "Take a deep breathe and shut your eyes.   Curl your soul into your mind."

"Curl my soul into my mind..." Oliver echoed.

Raquel laughed, "Like you're swimming underwater almost."

Oliver took a huge breath and squeezed his eyes shut, concentrated only on the throbbing in his head.   It felt like he was submerged in water, floating on his back.   Suddenly his inner eyes glimpsed a green neon light; it grew and grew and WHAM!   The jolt made him fling open his eyes.

He felt dizzy, like being suspended up side down in the air for too long.   Then he realized -he was huge!   He smelled different, he only had five fingers now (unlike the six before), and he was clumsy too.   Someone chuckled nearby.

His head spun around, "Ekhyt?" he boomed.   He looked up, there Raquel was, transformed into an owl again, roosting on a branch; she smiled,   "Feels different to be a ten-year-old human boy, doesn't it?"

Oliver nodded and grinned with pleasure.  

"Here," Raquel offered.   Out of nowhere came a bag, falling from the sky.   "These are what humans use to trade for items they need.   Coins."   Oliver fumbled with the bag and finally managed to open it.   Inside were little metal circles, shiny silver in the moonlight.   Raquel's voice suddenly became serious as it floated downward, "These coins disappear in two days starting next morn.   To be on the safe side, I want you back here by nightfall tomorrow.   And no, they are not real metal, only simulated to look like metal."

Clutching the bag, Oliver's eyes glimmered with glee, "Oh thank you Ekhyt!   Thank you!"

"One more thing," Raquel was in no rush to let the boy go, "There is an inn down the lane, first on your right.   They hire boys to help around there."  

"Alright, I'll go and get a job, and be right back here at this exact, same spot tomorrow nightfall," with that Oliver ran off into the night.

"Be careful!"   Raquel called after him, but she was sure he didn't hear her.

............................................

Oliver ran and ran, his feet were unusually heavy, and his breathing was loud and raspy in a few moments, but he tried to ignore those changes. He kept running until he finally reached the inn.   There was no one around when he knocked on the door, so he tried to go around the building.   He spotted a little hut and decided to try the door.   It was open so he let himself in, but he wasn't greeted pleasantly.  

"Hey you!"   A voice came around.   "You beggar!   What are you doing here?"  

"I'm not a beggar, I want a job here!"   What right did a human boy have to tell a faey boy what to do?

"Really?   Well, then you start tomorrow, bright and early."   And that was that.  

............................................

Oliver was up before the sun.   The voice, he realized, was a boy that was a little older than he, scrawny, with red hair.   After a breakfast of peanuts, the boy, who he knew now as Billy, said with a quite genuine country accent, "Master Williams owns this inn.   Does it for more money, but I say he already gots lots more than he needs.   He keeps a couple of hounds -maybe a pointer or two, and it's my job to clean 'em up."

"Hounds and pointers?   As in dogs?"

Billy chuckled, "What else would they be?"

They walked along a winding dirt road that went gently up a hill. Billy halted at the front of a big fenced pen at the top of the hill, "Here we are."   At the sound of his voice, dogs, tails wagging, tongues lolling, eyes rolling, came rushing out, barking and jumping on the fence.  

They were saying things to each other and to the two boys, which only Oliver could understand.   Things like "Hey Billy! Walk me please!" and "Last nights food was gross, I could barely eat a bite!"   They all seemed so excited, which made Oliver's insides squirm with anticipation.

After a whole day of grooming, clipping, mopping, and wiping -stopping only to have a break of more peanuts -the pen and the dogs were spotless.    Billy beamed, "You work hard fer a squirt like you.   The master will be pleased."

Oliver seemed not to hear.   Through all the excitement, he didn't notice one dog.   A dog chained to the edge of the pen, lying in its shadow.   It was a pointer, its coat was a dull gray.   Its nails were incredibly long and its eyes were deep and lifeless.   "Hey Billy," he called out, "Who's this?"

Billy jogged over and snorted, "This here's Buddy.   But he's not much of a buddy. Bites the hand that feeds, he does."   Billy tried petting the dog, but it snarled, baring long yellow teeth. Billy winced, quickly withdrawing his hand, "See what I mean?   No one's been able to come close to 'im for years."

Oliver took a step forward and their eyes met.   Buddy's ears pricked, his eyes trying to focus on Oliver; he whispered, "My boy.   My boy has come back... Why did you leave me for so long?   Why?   I am lonely and old.   But you are back, my boy is back."

"You knew my father?"   Oliver was barely able to breath.  

The old dog seemed taken aback.   "No, you are not my boy?   You are not?   You look like my boy, though.   You smell like my boy, though."

"I -I am your boy's... son, Oliver," he stammered, stepping closer and laying his hand on Buddy's head.   Buddy shivered.   Billy gasped.  

Buddy sniffed the air, "Yes, yes, exactly like my boy.   Yes, you will do, you are my boy."  

Billy looked spell bound, staring wide-eyed at Oliver and Buddy, "Groom 'im," he whispered, jamming a prickly brush into Oliver's side, "take a brush and groom 'im."

And so Oliver did.   Then he did something that amazed himself and Billy, "How much do you want for him?"

"For a dog?   A huntin' dog?   By golly, dogs cost a lot.   I dunno.   Maybe ten dollars!"

Oliver touched the bag of coins, "Well, I'll find some way to get him."

Billy took out an old worn rope and tied it around Buddy's neck.   Buddy didn't move, back hunched, ears pricked, he seemed to be remembering the days when Oliver's father was still young.  

Oliver finished grooming, took the rope from Billy and tugged gently on it, "Come on Buddy, we're going.   We're going... home."

Buddy seemed to stand a little taller, "Home, yes, home.   We're going home."   He trotted along side of Oliver as he went up the steps of the inn and to the front desk.   He asked the manager very importantly, "How much do you want for this dog?"

The manager looked down, "You mean Buddy?   This old mutt?   Give me two dollars and you can have him."

Oliver had no idea how much two dollars was so he took out two coins and slid it across the desk.   The manager laughed greedily, "No boy, you have to give me eight of these."   So Oliver reached in and took out six more, and the deal was sealed.  

It was already nearing nightfall when he reached the spot Raquel had told him to meet her.   All of a sudden, she appeared from under a root that had accidentally wandered up through the earth.   "Who's this?"   She nodded toward the dog.

"This," Oliver said proudly, "Is my dog."

"This," Buddy said with even more pride, "Is my boy."

Raquel smiled, turning into an owl, "Come along then, we have a distance to go."

"Lead the way Owl," Buddy looked stronger, younger.  

So they walked through the dense forest, Raquel flying from branch to branch, and finally, when they neared the clearing, Raquel landed on Oliver shoulder and whispered in his ear, "You must change back right now.   We are nearing the village, your mother wouldn't like to see you human."

Oliver gave a contented sigh, "Alright."   He shut his eyes, and raveled himself into his mind again.   After a second, he was a faey boy again.   The worn rope landed heavily on his back, making him fall over.  

Buddy barked chokingly, sensing the difference, "You are not my boy!   Where is my boy?   You tricked me!"   Buddy tugged on the rope (which Oliver could barely manage to wrap his arms around), wanting to get free.  

Oliver was desperate, "Buddy, please, I am your boy-"

Buddy wouldn't listen.   He howled with agony and pain of days that were better; off he ran into the forest, crying.   Raquel, who changed back into a faey changer, tried to grab Buddy, but alas, she was too small.   The last that Oliver saw of him was the dirty worn rope whipping behind him, into the darkness.  

Oliver and Raquel stood still together for the longest time, two dusty little figures silhouetted against the bright red, setting sun.   Slowly, Raquel put her hand on Oliver's shoulder, lost of words of sympathy for the boy.   At last she sighed, "Ah Oliver, will you ever forgive me?"

Oliver turned, genuinely baffled, "Forgive you for what, ekhyt?   You showed me to love dogs, to love my father.   Buddy will come back, I know he will."

But Raquel's eyes were still filled with sorrow as she gently touched Oliver's cheek, "How do you know, tekih?"

Oliver smiled through glassy eyes, "Because I'm his boy."