The sun baked down on the pages of the book that Leslie Clark had lying out on the picnic table in front of her. It was a pleasantly warm day outside with just enough cloud cover to keep it cool, but not so much as to interfere with the natural light source to her reading. She looked up as some kids ran by her table chasing a soccer ball and watched them depart and circle back toward the soccer fields a few yards away, only keeping her attention away from the book, which she was dying to finish reading, for a few seconds.
She sat at the picnic tables at her local park perusing a recently acquired edition of Homer's The Illiad, which she had been interested in examining for its correlation to recorded events of the Trojan War. She was supposed to meet her mom at the park, and then the two of them would grab a quick lunch before she had to teach a seminar at the community center that afternoon. She was glad to live in a neighborhood that had a nice, large, easily locatable park in the middle of it, it made a great landmark and meeting place and, she thought to herself- probably didn't hurt the local property values, either.
Of course, there had to be some disadvantages. Living close enough to Owen Lam to be relatively sure that he would choose to visit the same park on all the days that she did was one of them. He came running up to her, dragging his skateboard behind him with one hand so that it made a vaguely irritating sound as it would scrape and bounce along the sidewalk. His glasses tried to slide off the bridge of his nose as he ran, and he had to grab on and hold them with one hand. When he reached the table, his appearance was largely very disheveled overall.
He didn't seem to notice, or care, "I didn't know you would be here!" He gleefully exclaimed, resting his skateboard at his feet as he sank into a spot on the bench diagonally across from her.
"I always wait here for my parents to pick me up," Leslie informed him, in case he had forgotten.
"Right," he replied thoughtfully, "You can't drive yourself anyplace for another... six years."
Leslie frowned, looking at Owen. She couldn't deny that it was highly paradoxical that she could prove herself competent enough at the age of ten to be allowed to go on rescue missions, perform research experiments, and teach high-school level classes, but be forced to abstain from learning how to drive and instead rely on her parents to transport her to all the other things she could do. As she studied Owen she couldn't help but feel a bit sore over this. Knowing him like she did, she thought he was probably the last person she would trust behind the wheel of a car, but he was sure to have his liscence before she would even see a permit. Of course, she realized, Joni and Santiago would also both have their liscences long before that.
"Well don't worry. I'd be happy to give you a lift until then."
Maybe she could just get rides from them.
She tried not to scowl, feeling of having been prodded in her weakness, and tried instead to show her displeasure by returning her gaze to the book. A measure that didn't seem to work very well.
"So where are you going, anyway?"
She tore herself from the page for what she hoped was one last time and answered, calmly, "To a seminar."
This returned a quizzical look from him, "What is that? Is that like another competition?"
Leslie was briefly bewildered, "No... What? Owen a seminar is like a class, or a lesson."
"Yuck. Bummer, dude. I know I wouldn't wanna be in school right now."
She shook her head, "I'm not taking the class. I'm teaching it."
His face froze briefly in an "Oh, wow," pattern, and then he resumed his previous train of thought. "Is that all you're doing?"
She really didn't get that, "Would you please clarify? I have a pretty full schedule, if..."
"No, what I meant was are you doing any more of those contests? You know, like the spelling championship?"
She paused for a profound beat, recalling the occasions over a year ago where she had won the National Spelling Bee. Incredibly, she had almost forgotten it until now, which was understandable given the other projects she had taken on in the meantime, the age-related milestones that concerned part of her growing brain, and the two-and-a-half dozen perilous missions she and her friends had been on since that one eventual triumph.
"No, nothing like that."
Owen stared. Something in that apparently seemed odd to him.
"So how did you get so good at spelling?" He inquired after some time.
"It was just something I was interested in."
"Seriously? Seems kind of boring. "
"Do you have something else to do?"
Then, after a brief pause.
"So can you spell anything? You know, any word?"
"I would expect so,"
"Let me ask you one,"
"Owen, I don't think..."
"You CAN'T be serious."
"M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I, Missisippi. Satisfied?"
"I guess. Now try that."
"Go away, Owen."
"Aw, C'mon, Less! I thought we were having fun."
Leslie slammed her book shut hard and glared into her hipster friend's face as she recited, "S-A-T-I-S-F-I-E-D. Satisfied. There, and don't ever call me 'Less' again- you know how I feel about the use of nicknames."
"Oh yeah," he imitated her vocal tone, "It's 'barbaric,' right? Hey! That's a great one! Spell 'barbaric.'"
"Owen..." she warned.
"Come on!" he repeated in a sing-song pattern.
She stared at him for a beat, not bothering at all to hide her annoyance, then she quickly uttered, "B-A-R-B-A-R-I-C." This seemed to make him happy. Before he could ask another word, though, she fired back, haughtily, "I'd ask you to refrain from further query if you are insistent on wasting my time with such trivially easy words."
He seemed stunned, which was good, she thought. The comment had, after all, been largely meant to silence him. Feeling victorious, she settled back into her book, getting lost in the pages, until...
She pulled away from the lines of text she had been reading, to look up at her surroundings in bewilderment. Where, she thought, had he gotten a word like that?
She looked over and found him happily examining the nutrition information on the back of a package of one of the sugar-free varieties of gum he had pulled from his pocket. He was looking directly at the warning label on the back. She resisted the urge to slap her forehead.
He met her gaze, "Can you spell that or is it too hard for you?" He grinned and narrowed his eyes at the text as he started to read the word again, "Phenyl-"
"P-H-E-N-Y-L-K-E-T-O-N-O-U-R-I-C," she spat out, feeling to her disdain, a mounting frustration that she knew wasn't going to go away as long as he insisted on doing this.
"Whoa!" He smiled broadly, "You got it! First try, even!" He looked at the package again. His brow furrowed, "That's really something."
Leslie didn't say anything. She tried to go back to her book, but his thoughts kept interrupting hers.
"That's pretty cool, Less. Can you do that with everything?"
She purposefully refused to answer.
His musing continued, "I mean, like... Can you spell things in other languages? Like, let's see..."
He milled over this for a while. Leslie put her book down and closed her eyes, actually dreading the next word choice he would connect to.
"Spell 'Arrivederci!'" he said. Her eyes were still closed so she could only imagine the goofy grin that had accompanied this.
"I don't think so," she cautiously replied.
"But... come on! You won the national spelling bee!"
"In English," she emphasized.
Then, "But you can do it, can't you?"
She opened her eyes and noticed with a start that he was even further into her space by now than she would have predicted. He smiled, looking to her expectantly. She took a sharp breath in, and managed, "A-R-R-I-V-E-D-E-R-C-I."
He just stared for a second, and for a moment she thought he might be done with the 'game.'
"Gee, I don't actually know how to spell it, but that sounded right to me," he responded. She couldn't help but roll her eyes.
"What language is that?"
"Oh, right," he said with a laugh.
Then there was silence, an actual, lengthy conversational pause. Leslie found she could actually hear birds chirping in the trees nearby and the sound of cars on the highway. The more her ears adjusted, the more she could hear. Somewhere in the neighborhood around them, she could hear the muted click of a sprinkler, a dog barking at something, and some friendly conversation between neighbors, from which she was unable to discern any words. Around her the sunlight bounced off the concrete and lit up blocks of green grass. Light reflected off of the water in the fountain nearby, making the water droplets shine as they tumbled through the air. Suddenly she felt relaxed as all these sights and sounds began to harmonize. She took them all in at once, feeling certain cheer and warmth spreading through her as she took the time to appreciate this moment of peace on a beautiful day.
She looked at Owen. Without him to interrupt her, she would have kept on reading, absorbed in the book and its imagery, completely unaware of the sights and sounds she was missing. She studied him as he too took in the pleasant scene before him, a mild breeze lapping at his bangs. That was just his way, she realized. He relaxed, took in things that no one else had time to notice.
Things, like her.
"Well, see you later, Less."
With that, he grabbed up his skateboard and just left. Leslie was borderline stunned.
He was too far away to hear her, and continued off on his skateboard until he was outside the park, headed towards the housing development. She sighed, a small pang of guilt welling up inside her as she watched him depart.
She had meant to push him away, and now she really hoped she hadn't.