Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Second Place

My Right-Hand Man

by Sakeena Ahsan

About Sakeena Ahsan

While most 9-year-old girls were making cookies in easy-bake ovens or swapping secrets at the jungle gym, Sakeena Ahsan was penning a novel. Now a 17-year-old senior at Gunn High School, Ahsan's ever-evolving manuscript consumes three separate journals and represents her first memorable interest in the world of writing. A motivational class at Gunn buoyed that interest in the art.

"My sister encouraged me to take a creative-writing class (at Gunn), which was really inspiring," Ahsan said.
It was through that class Ahsan was able to conceive and complete the short story "My Right-Hand Man," which earned her a second-place award in the Young Adult category of the 19th annual Palo Alto Weekly short story contest. The tale, about a pair of war buddies and their ill-fated air jump, manifested when Ahsan's brother watched a video about a paratrooper's tragic fall.

"I was really shocked when my brother told me the story. I had to write about it," Ahsan said.
Ahsan, who has two brothers and two sisters, is a self-professed journalism enthusiast and photography aficionado. In fact, a college of choice for her is Northwestern University in Illinois -- widely regarded as one of America's best for journalism.

Although her path may take her in other directions, considering she spends hours writing poetry and is frequently influenced by relevant world issues. She also helps in production of Gunn's literary magazine, "Pandora's Box."

"(The magazine) is a pretty good read, but we're only just building popularity at school and in the community," she said.
If any of Ahasan's favorite authors -- Jane Austen, Isaac Asimov and Tobias Wolf -- are an indication of what's on the horizon, Ahsan's storytelling will be quite eclectic indeed.

--Tyler Hanley

"Upon investigation at the scene of the fatal accident it was discovered that there was nothing wrong with the parachute. The unopened chute was on the right-handed soldier who had been given a left-handed parachute."

- report on the Korean War

Who's Paul? Paul - he's my buddy. I mean -- Oh, God, I mean, was. We were like brothers, stuck to each other like nobody's business. As a paratrooper, that comes with some responsibilities. That means that we have to look out for each other. And that it's up to us to break it to each other's moms before the telegraph. I knew my mother, for one, would take it better if a person told her rather than a piece of paper that regrets to inform her. It was hard. Because I was the one who ended up having to do it.

We never promised or anything, but it's not like I could just let it pass. I mean, Mrs. O'Neill didn't even know me. But I can't pretend it wasn't my responsibility. Because it was. Oh, it was.

We were in the same squadron, in the same tent, for God's sake. I still remember the day we met. Jack Sweney, the kid I was bunking with, had shot himself in the foot, and, times not being so bad, it was enough to get him a one-way ticket out of our hell. Naturally, they filled his place within hours, just like Eli Whitney with his goddamn removable parts. Except with flesh and soul, not just metal. I was in the middle of A Tale of Two Cities for the fifth time when this removable part snuck up on me. Just walked into the tent. Didn't even wait for proper introductions from the soldier who was briefing him. Just walks in, comes in so quiet, quieter than anyone's got a business to. Doesn't mean to spook anyone. He's just not loud. Anyway, he just walks over to me and pulls my book down and next thing I know there's these eyes in my face, these huge brown eyes, and the guy says, "I'd prefer Madame Defarge over old fruitcake Lucie any day. And, personally, I was routing for Carton the whole lot through."
Offended by his opinion, and partly surprised he had one at all on the subject, I sat up and practically shouted, "Madame Defarge? That filthy crook of a bloodthirsty -- " He held out his hand and smiled.

"Paul O'Neill. I see you like Dickens." I had half forgotten to wonder who the hell the guy was. I took his hand and waved it frantically, still caught up with what he'd said.

"I'm Johnny Abrams and Lucie is a swell girl. What's Defarge to a doll like --"

"Passion! Passion for what matters. Tell me something. You know why we're here?"

Heaps of people had asked me the same thing. This time I was ready with an answer. "War, man! The bloodthirsty -- "

"You think old Truman could care a baby's behind about the Koreans, North or South? It's the United States he cares about. We're fighting our own war, not theirs."

"Yeah. I still don't see what this -- "

"It's got nothing to do with Lucie and her fine head of curls. Just like we have nothing to do with Korea." It was odd. If he had talked like that to anyone more brainwashed than me, they would have shot him. He said awfully controversial things, but he didn't speak offensively. He was talking. And I wasn't feeling too heated up about it. I was thinking. Even though I didn't agree then to what he was saying, I thought about it. It was probably the first time I'd thought since I had enlisted.

He isn't like the other chaps in the army. You can't even call him a chap. He's no Joe Chap. He's the kind of guy that only calls you "Johnny" if that's what you've told him to call you. He's the kind of guy that saves all his letters in their envelopes and keeps them in chronological order. He's not the kind of guy that, to be polite, turns around and leaves you to yourself when you're sobbing.

Mother sent me lots of stuff with her letters. Mementos. I didn't cry when she sent me the photo of me and my girl at the homecoming dance about a year before, or the picture of my baby sister Carol with her son William. I didn't cry when she sent me the botton nose off my teddy bear. I didn't cry when she sent me a leaf from the oak outside the front porch. But when I opened the letter, the letter she had sprayed with her tangy perfume, the one she wears all the time. That perfume. That letter. Home drifted through the suffocating army stench around me; Mother was in the air I breathed again. I put the letter to my nose and I can't stop. The tears just go. They're pouring and I'm drowning in my tears and Mother's perfume. Then, there's a hand on my back, a familiar hand. Reliable. Reassuring. Irreplaceable.

Paul stands me up and then does something my own father never does. He wraps me in this huge bear hug. The letter falls; the drowning stops. Paul pulls me back and grips my shoulders. Gives me a little shake, says, "Hey, hey, Johnny kid, you gotta stay together. Get a hold, Johnny. It's okay, Johnny kid. We're gonna do this, we're gonna finish, and we're gonna get home." He was that kind of guy.

When I pissed in my pants at nights, he'd give me his last pair of clean Long Johns and keep quite about it. We shared rations, covered each other in battle, and always made sure the other guy was still alive. We were each other's right-hand men. That's why he gave me the parachute. That's why it's my fault.

Okay, okay. I'll back up a bit, although, you must understand, it's really difficult to run through the details of that part. See, we were running a mission, flying somewhere over Korea. Ever flown over Korea? Well, today, I mean, thatday was cloudy. The commanding officer is a little apprehensive about going on with the mission, but that never matters, does it? You do what the book says, whether or not there's a flaw in the plot. Just do it. But weather doesn't cut it. It has to be worse. We don't have enough parachutes.

We do have enough parachutes, technically. Technically. If it's technically okay, then it's okay, and the mission is all a-okay. But, in reality, we're not okay.

We are short one right-handed parachute. Jonesy's barking orders everywhere. I never thought "bark" was an appropriate way to define human action until I heard Jonesy. Jonesy barks. Anyway, Paul and I are the only ones left who don't have chutes when Jonesy holds up the last righty and barks, "Here, O'Neill. Abrams, you get a lefty." My face falls. Paul grabs the chute and tosses it to me in one smooth move.

"Here, Johnny."


"You think I could take that after seeing the look on your face?"

I shrug. "I could handle a lefty. It's no big deal." But even as I say it, I am putting on the righty, asserting that it's mine. You have to understand. In the army, when nothing is familiar, the least a paratrooper can have is the type of chute he trained with. If Paul weren't my best friend, I would be wondering what got into him.

But, it is, really, no big deal. It's not. Jonesy hurriedly explains that the only difference is that the ripcord is on the left side. The ripcord is a -- it's the thing that lets the parachute out. Anyway, that's it: left side. No big deal.

Paul is still strapping himself in as I prepare to jump. I see his hand reach up and pat my back. "Let's go, Johnny." I nod.

Even as I jump, I can hear Jonesy screaming, "Remember, soldier, it's the left!"

How were we supposed to know he wouldn't remember?

When we found his body, I had to wretch for a good five minutes. You wouldn't, just couldn't understand. His whole right strap was shredded. The right side of his shirt was shredded and his right sleeve was falling off. He had even started to shred his skin. The blood, oh the blood! Oh God. The nails were ground to the quick. The left hand was clenching the strap so bad that the knuckles had turned pasty white in the space of two minutes, what must have seemed to him like two eons and two milliseconds wrapped into each other. His ripcord was completely unscathed, tucked neatly into the palm of his left hand. He was twenty-four.

I looked into his eyes. Ever stared into a dead man's eyes? I know it's morbid, but I couldn't help thinking I shouldn't be here. I should be there, splat on the ground, with my chute intact and my bones...not.

I think people are never the same, not even from second to second. I sometimes wonder if the Paul falling through the sky would have done the same thing as the Paul I had left on the plane. At the time, all I could do about it was hope he hadn't had time to remember that it was really supposed to be my chute. And that he hadn't insulted me or my mother. Oh God, I hope, for his sake, that it wasn't my mother.

Maybe I wouldn't have forgotten it was a lefty. But I know he didn't forget. You don't forget something like that. You don't think about it. You just go for the right, like you're putting on your pants or holding a pencil. The right, the right, the right, we've drilled into our heads, the right means the ripcord means the canopy means life.

I know I'm being too hard on myself. Hell, he volunteered. He gave me the right-handed parachute. He let me have it. He didn't have to. He didn't have to. But that's just it. He didn't have to. He offered it, like a trooper, like a man.

I took leave soon after and took the opportunity to tell his mom. Face to face. Like it was supposed to be. Mrs. O'Neill took it real hard. I would have explained, truthfully, that I technically cheated her son of life by taking the chute he had offered me after it was assigned to him --- except in milder words. So that she could have savored the Paul I know. So that she could know that there was in him the kind of character you only get to discover in people in the worst of times. But, she would have assumed me a murderer, no matter how I described it. She wouldn't have understood. Mother said she did. I wonder if she still would, if it had been me. I hope she would. I really do.

"My Right-Hand Man" is a very strong story. The writer establishes a clear, engaging voice, and then fills the story with vivid scenes and well-realized characters.

--Ellen Sussman

Stay informed.

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