Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
1st Place - Young Adults 15-17 year olds

The Stray

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 novel.

-- 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 it’s 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 you’re late for class. Your English teacher will probably explode like a pimple if you show up tardy again.

And don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s 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, that’d 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 it’s September 11, 2001, and paradise is crumbling and the sky is on fire.

Whowhatwherewhen? Nobody’s 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 Max’s handheld TV. Crappy reception, just like when you watched the NCAA basketball tournament together. Nobody’s got time to notice that either. Mary and Jen are sittin’ scared, eyes like Bloomingdale’s doors on Christmas Eve. Collin cracks a joke; most people aren’t 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, we’re 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 have.

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. It’s soaked with tears, wet like a sweat towel after the twelfth round, and what a heavyweight classic this one’s 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? They’re floppy, aching—they don’t pop anymore. Why are you crying? You didn’t cry when grandpa died, with his plaid jackets and KFC dinners. You don’t know these people. You probably wouldn’t like them. Right? So why do you feel like a case of strep throat?

Why can’t they just kill the Republicans, you wonder, as the Republicans wonder why they can’t 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 tense—make that loved her dad. He’s five-foot-eight, she says to the camera (poor girl, she doesn’t have an eye for tense either,) and he’s built, his nickname is "The Kid." He really loves his dog.

That’s 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 can’t pay attention to the Depression or proper nouns. They figure you’re 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 you’re 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 don’t 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, c’mere. 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 one’s gonna make it home.

Judge's Comments:

"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. -- Tom Parker

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.


Sign-up now for 5K Run/Walk, 10k Run, Half Marathon

The 39th annual Moonlight Run and Walk is Friday evening, September 29. Join us under the light of the full Harvest Moon on a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon. Complete your race in person or virtually. Proceeds from the race go to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, benefiting local nonprofits that serve families and children in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.