by M.L. Owen

Lydia peels celery before she eats it. That’s how I noticed her in the first place. It was at the parents-day pot-luck the week before school started. She sat under the elm tree, the one away from the street, the one that doesn’t have a swing. She sat there with a full plate of food, peeling the celery and laying the strings in a little pile.

She saw me staring at her. “I don’t like to floss my teeth while I’m still eating,” she said.

“I’m David,” I said.

Other people say that she has really big glasses, but I know that she has to have big glasses because she had such huge eyes. They take in everything. I went over and sat down beside her, near her. I didn’t ask her permission or anything. I just did it. While I did it, her eyes followed me. Her huge eyes. It wasn’t like she seemed frightened or angry or even especially curious. She just watched me and peeled celery.

I stuck my hand in the applesauce on my plate. I realized then that I’d been staring at her, too. She didn’t seem surprised at what I’d done but reached over and handed me a napkin. Maybe people always stare at her so much that they stick their hands in their food, or run into walls, step off cliffs. She must be used to it. I stopped staring for a while, and we ate.

We finished our plates at more or less the same time. It’s hard to tell exactly when a person’s done eating, but both of us wiped our mouths and laid the napkins on top of the plates. I picked up both of the plates and stood up. She reached up and touched me on the arm. That’s all. She just touched me. Then she picked up the little pile of celery strings and put them on top of the napkin. “I’m Lydia,” she said.

Together we walked to the nearest trash barrel, dropped the plates, and just kept on walking out toward the apple orchard. Sometime after that I took her hand, or she took mine. Sometime after that, we started talking. I don’t remember how we got to talking or what we talked about. We must have talked about her moving to Atacra, about being in the same grade, about her dad dying, and her mom having grown up here. I got to know whose things somehow. I know we talked about me, too, but I don’t remember what I told her. We just talked.

It must have been about an hour before we got back to the picnic. Bill and Ed yelled at me to grab my glove for the softball game, and her mother called to her. She stared at me again with those huge eyes and then squeezed my hand before letting go and running away.

I’ve never known anyone who peeled her celery.

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M. L. Owen lives and writes among the giant redwoods of Northern California and has published in a number of literary journals, including Down in the Dirt, The Bookends Review, Toyon, Mosaic (10th St. Press), Poets & Writers (College of the Redwoods), Gambit, and Scribblement.

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