Jess doesn’t dream about Leslie all the time any more. It’s been ten years and she’s still the most important thing that ever happened to him, but he doesn’t dream about her all the time now. Just her birthday. His. Christmas, Easter, and every night he hears the trees cracking in a bad storm. The first time he dared to go back to the National Gallery he dreamt about her for a solid month. But it isn’t all the time.
It’s three in the morning in the middle of June and she’s calling his name. “Jess.”
“I know that, dummy. How else would I get you here?”
That earns him another “dummy” and a laugh. She’s in the trees somewhere. She always did this, even before. He’d turn around, just for a second, and she’d be gone. Into the shadows up the path, or at the top of one of the trees, trying to get a better view. Jess thinks sometimes that’s why he didn’t believe them the first time that they told him. Didn’t they know Leslie was always running ahead someplace or another?
They had never visited Terabithia in the dark, but he recognises it all the same. It’s the track back to the creek – Jess can see the rope through the branches. It’s not broken now. “Leslie,” he calls. “Leslie!”
He’s about to catch her.
“Jess. I tried waiting for you to figure it out.”
Her hair shines in the moonlight off the river. She’s turning her face towards him. He wakes up.
* * * *
His dad doesn’t understand why he chose to move to the city. There are plenty of crappy shop jobs at home -- or so he claims -- and anyway why the hell does Jesse want to spend his days looking after middle-class suburb dwellers who don’t know which end of a handsaw is up?
“I guess I learned from you,” Jess had said.
That had made his father mad, for reasons Jess didn’t quite understand. His dad wants to work the farm, but drives off every morning to sell hardware because that’s where the living is. That’s what grown-ups do. Jess is barely a grown-up but even he knows that.
Besides, Jess sells books, not hammers and nails. That’s maybe what his father objects to, when he thinks about it. Books were sort of foreign objects in his house growing up. Ellie or Brenda might have had a few of those pink and red romances under their mattresses, and the little girls had picture books, but all Jess’s reading had been ordered by the school until Leslie came along. Leslie had borrowed hodgepodge from all of her favourites, so that Terabithia had little pockets of Narnia and Middle Earth buried under its dusty soil. Jess had mostly contributed bits of bible verse – the only book he had read that Leslie hadn’t. He ended up with lots of her books afterwards; he doesn’t know whether the Burkes hadn’t wanted the reminders or had simply been good enough to realise that he might need them more.
Mrs Grant smiles at him when he walks into the store in the morning. “Hello, Jesse.”
“Hello, Mrs Grant.”
“Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“It’s… Yeah. Hot.”
She’s sweet enough for an old lady but she’s not all there some days. He guesses that’s probably why she hired him. He’s still not a fast reader, and customers ask him for stuff that he doesn’t know all the time. Plus, he forgets to smile.
Darryl, now, he smiles wide and bright at Jesse when he sees him. He’s pinning something up on their little community notice board – “Save Sanderson Heights Park” – and conscientiously not sticking it on top of anyone else’s posters. He waves at Jess, who nods back before heading over to their children’s section. That’s pretty much his social interaction done for the day.
* * * *
Leslie is waiting for him in Terabithia again. “Hi,” he says dumbly.
“Hi.” She’s sitting on the low branch of a tree, waving her legs. “How was work?”
“How. Was. Work? Jeez, is your hearing going or something?”
“Work was fine. Leslie, how is…?”
“Make any new friends?”
“You should really work on that.” He’s about to try and speak again but she cuts in first. “You remember the dryads?”
“Tree spirits,” he answers without thinking about it.
“And the warriors?”
“The little flying ones or the archer-ones?”
She smiles at him and it’s like it always was with her – like the sun coming out from hiding. Then her expression turns solemn. That’s part of the game. “They’re in trouble,” she says.
“The dryad, Jess! And the warrior with the bow. Why don’t you hear me?”
“Leslie.” He catches her hand and it’s a dream - he knows it’s a dream - but her hand is small and warm and fits entirely in his own. “You’re just a little girl.”
She laughs, not mad at him any more. “And I still know more than you. Bet I can still run faster, too.”
She pulls away, dashing off through the trees. Jess thinks he does see a sad face amongst the leaves, but Leslie is more important. He runs after her, hearing the twang of bowstrings in the distance. She’s running towards something, not away, and Jess can’t remember what you find in this direction. He wakes up before he catches her.
* * * *
Ms Harriet from the floor below is standing outside his apartment door. “Jesse Aarons?”
He doesn’t think she’s said more than three words to him since he moved in here. “Yes?” he says.
She holds out an envelope. “I have some of your mail. Must’ve gotten mixed up in mine somehow or another.”
He takes it from her – a catalogue, hardly urgent – and says thank you.
“The catalogue,” she says. “Art supplies. My nephew paints. And pottery, things like that. He brings me things to hang on my wall but I can’t get them on those little hooks that stick on. I’d put up some nails but I’d only do it wrong and I’d hate to break one if they fell. He’s in classes, you know. You ever go to classes?”
“I don’t, ma’am, no. I mean, I do paint. But not in classes. Look, I really have to go to work, I’m sorry. But thank you. For bringing me the catalogue I mean. Bye.”
She backs against the wall to let him get past and he can feel her eyes on him as he walks downstairs and leaves for work.
* * * *
There are five of them in the store: Mrs Grant, Darryl, Zara, Jess and Wade. Wade looks after the store when Mrs Grant isn’t there, and so he’s sort of in charge of the rest of them. He’s also pretty much a jerk. Mrs Grant doesn’t seem to notice, but then she also hasn’t noticed that Jess hides from every customer over the age of twelve.
Zara doesn’t do that. She’s younger than Jess and working in the store part-time while she finishes college. She’s good with the customers where Jess is bad, smiling and chatting with them while she’s ringing up purchases. She’s scared of Wade, though.
Wade is a little older than the other three, which is probably how he got to be in charge. He talks a lot about “When I’m outta here” but never mentions what he plans to do about it. Jess doesn’t judge about that kind of thing, but he’s never liked bullies.
Jess is sitting on the floor behind the desk in the children’s section. Zara comes to sit beside him. She leans over his shoulder. “I didn’t know you draw.”
Jess closes the book and turns to look at her, ready to say that he doesn’t, really, and anyway it’s private. But her eyes are red and so he stops. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s just. Wade.” Jess nods and this is enough encouragement. She goes on, “He’s out there reorganising everything I did this morning. He threw the books on the floor, and I told him – I told him – they’d get banged up but does he listen? And now Mrs Grant’s gonna come in and think I’ve been hurting the books.” She reminds him of May Belle, all of a sudden. He thinks it’s the “told him” - he remembers his sister’s pipe of a voice ringing out on “I tole him, momma, I tole him.” She’s nearly eighteen now.
He pats Zara’s shoulder. “Wade’s just mad ‘cause the Redskins lost last night and he’s late putting the deliveries out on the shelves. It’s nothing to do with you.” She stops talking and looks at him oddly. “What?” he asks.
“That’s the longest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
He flushes and looks down. “Sorry?”
“Don’t be sorry.” She smiles, though it’s still a little watery. She blinks the last evidence of tears from her green eyes. “Okay. Gotta leave the fort sometime I guess. Pity I can’t take your knight with me. Wish me luck.”
She stands up and walks to the corner of his section. “Oh, hey,” she says. “I love your picture by the way. Is there a story to go with it?”
He looks down at the book. “Not really.” When she’s walked away, he opens the page again. He’s got Narnia and a child’s King Arthur under the counter at the moment, so the drawing is a castle and a man in armour riding out from it. He writes Knight-Errant at the bottom of the page, and then goes to find a dictionary to make sure it’s spelled right.* * * *
Terabithia is bigger than he remembers. It had only been a little bit of waste ground, really – rocks and trees and water caught between good farming land. But he stands at the top of the tree with Leslie and the world seems to stretch out forever. She’s just quiet with him for a long while. Then: “I saw you today.”
“No, not here. In your shop with the girl.”
“Leslie, it’s not-”
“It was good, what you did. You made her smile. Jess, you never talk any more. My parents used to say I talked enough for both of us. Did I do that?”
He thinks about it for a second. “You talk more than me, I guess. But that’s not your fault.”
“No, Jess, I mean did I make it so you wouldn’t…? You should talk to people. Not just me.”
“I talk to plenty of people.” The tree shakes in what might be disagreement. Jess catches the blink of bright green eyes amongst the foliage.
Leslie frowns. “And your parents thought I was a bad influence on you. What if they were right?”
Naturally, this is when he wakes up.* * * *
May Belle answers the telephone when he calls home on Sunday. “Jess?” she asks, before he’s even said hello.
“Jess! Hi. How are you, you haven’t called in-”
“Two weeks? May Belle, I told you I couldn’t call last weekend - I had to work. Everything okay back home?”
She sighs. “It’s fine. Ellie brought the baby over, and Joyce Anne’n me have been hiding outside.”
“Baby still crying?”
“Non-stop, Jesse, I swear. You’d think Ellie would be able to get her own kid to hush for five minutes, wouldn’t ya? And Mom just sits there and coos at it like it ain’t wailing fit to crack something.”
“Isn’t,” Jess corrects her. “Girl, aren’t you going to college in the fall?” He puts the tease in his voice so she’s knows he’s joking. “Cause I would swear your dad said something about his baby girl being the first in the family to go.”
“What?” he asks innocently.
“It’s only community college. Maybe, if I do well in my classes, and I can find a job so I can pay for it, maybe, I’ll be able to transfer.”
Jess traps the phone between his ear and his shoulder and slides down the wall to sit on the floor. “May Belle, don’t you say ‘only’ about anything you do, all right?”
“You say it all the time about what you do.” She’s always been too smart for her own good.
“Yeah, well, that’s different.”
They’re quiet for a little while, just her soft breathing coming down the line, and the distant crying of the baby.
“Jesse?” May Belle asks.
“Are you coming home soon? Only Mom said you might, and you said you’d show me your new pictures. Said you’d bring me one, actually. You promised.”
“May Belle, I haven’t had much time to draw lately. There’s work, and the apartment, and-”
She laughs at him. “Liar. If you’re not drawing or thinking about drawing then you’re probably asleep. Come on, it’s my birthday soon and I miss you.”
“I’ll come back for your birthday, I promise.”
“Swear?” she asks.
“Swear. I’ll be home, May Belle, don’t you worry. And I’ll bring you a picture. Promise.”* * * *
Ms Harriet has caught him on the stairway three or four times in the past week. Jess is starting to think she waits for him. She’s just turning the corner and runs into him. He drops his bag and his notebook; she drops her shopping. Jess says, “Sorry, ma’am, let me help you with that.”
She bends down too and says, “You’re awfully polite for a boy your age.”
There’s not really any way to respond to that, so Jess doesn’t.
“Quiet, though,” she adds.
“So I’m told,” he mutters.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, ma’am. Hey, now, that’s-”
She has his sketchbook in her hand. She flips the pages, stopping on one three-quarters of the way through. She’s holding it away from Jess but he can still see the corner and he knows what it is – the view from the roof of their building into the skyline and the stars. He’s imagined the little flying creatures huddled into the nooks like pigeons, and the darting ghosts leaping from roof to roof. Ms Harriet says, “And this is the boy who doesn’t paint?”
“Those are drawings. Ma’am. And pencil. I don’t have the time to paint.” He doesn’t have the money really, either. Paint needs better paper, and brushes, and there’s no use having all that and then buying crappy, watery paint. A pencil is less likely to disappoint him and it doesn’t smudge when he has to close the book in a hurry.
She looks at him over the top of her glasses. “Facetious remarks will get you nowhere.”
Jess marks that one down as another word he’s probably going to have to look up. He says, “No, ma’am.”
He wants, badly, to just make a run for his apartment. But she’s standing there looking at him expectantly. He looks back.
Ms Harriet says, “This is really good. Is it a hobby or do you…?”
“It’s a hobby,” Jess says firmly. “Just something to do when I’m bored. I work in the bookshop, remember?”
“I do,” she says. “That’s a pity.” She hands him back the notebook and finishes putting the shopping in the bags. She looks distracted for a moment and then: “Jesse, you don’t know anything about plumbing, do you? My kitchen sink’s making the strangest noise and I can’t get the super to come and look at it.”
“Sorry,” he says. “Not really. But if I see the super I’ll remind him. I really should go now. I have- cooking. In the oven.”
She nods at him and sketches a fluttery half-wave with her free hand. She’s still adjusting her glasses to look at him better when he closes the door behind him.* * * *
Leslie sticks her tongue out at him. She’s in the tree-house, painting energetically if inexpertly. “Jesse Aarons,” she says, “what did that poor woman ever do to you?”
The paint smell gets carried away by the fresh wind, but there’s enough of it that Jess is hit by that old rush of longing. His fingers twitch for a brush.
Leslie hands him one. She paints swirls on the wood of the tree-house; Jess begins painting an elf riding one of her rainbow smudges.
Outside the fort, deeper in the forest, there is a roar. Then a whoosh of arrow crossing the clearing towards the noise. Leslie looks at him sharply, but doesn’t say anything, so Jess ignores it too.
“We never had this many colours,” Jess says. “Even in your paint box.”
“No,” Leslie agrees. “But we do now.” She sings, so low and sweet that Jess can’t work out if it’s one of her dad’s songs or something Miss Edmunds played them.
“I wish I could stay here,” Jess says.
Her smile is sad. “You can’t.”
“Leslie…. It’s been every night for weeks now. Why’s it…?”
“Because you’re being stupid,” she says. “That’s why.”
“Then I’m glad. I missed you.”
She puts down her paintbrush and hugs him so hard around the neck that they tumble to the floor. “God, Jess, me too. But that’s not the important part.”
“So what is?”
“That woman, Jess, in your building. Why’d you have to go and tell her you don’t mean it? When are you going to just do something, Jess?”
“If you want to sell books, sell books. If you want to draw, then draw.”
“And it’s just that damn easy, is it? That sort of stuff works here, Leslie, not out there. You oughta know that and I know you don’t, but that don’t give you the right to just-- Leslie.”
She’s crying. Jess hates it when girls cry. He puts his arms around her again and hushes her. It’s weird, actually touching her – when he’s just looking, he can forget that he’s grown-up and she’s still stuck at twelve. But in his embrace she’s so small.
Leslie says, “I’m sorry.”
He’s awake before he puts the words in order to ask: “What for?”* * * *
Darryl is pinning another notice to the board at work. He says, “Hey, Jesse, do you know anyone who’d be interested in this?”
Jess comes over to read it. “Save Sanderson Heights Park.” He says, “Didn’t some kids get hurt there? It’s the one between here and my apartment, I think.”
“There was an attack, yeah. Two boys were jumped on their way home – they cut through the park. It’s an eyesore and it’s dangerous and-”
Jess cuts in. “So why do you want to save it?”
“Because it doesn’t have to be. All it would take is a little money and some effort. There’s a local charity willing to donate some of the money, and I’ve spoken to a few of the shops here. Everyone says they’re willing, but we need more people.”
Jess shrugs. “I don’t know, sorry.”
Darryl has a tube of posters slung over his back like a quiver. He pulls one of the posters out and passes it to Jess. “Yeah. Well, let me know, okay? And maybe put that up in your building? I’ve got some flyers, too.”
Jess nods. He’s distracted by the little blue page beside Darryl’s shining green and white one. It says: Evening Art Classes.
Jess writes the number given there on the back of his hand and tries not to think too hard about it.
* * * *
He calls the number, just to verify that it’s a real thing in a real studio. They’re attached to one of the local schools, and it seems to mostly be aimed at bored housewives, but Leslie’s voice is ringing in his head. When are you gonna do something, Jess?
He was never sure if he should be mad at her for the way she could make him feel like he wasn’t trying hard enough. Like he was better than he was acting. He became a king because she said he could be one - that he was one, and just hadn’t realised it.
He calls home in the middle of the week to see if May Belle can help him think this through. Jess needs her sympathetic ear just now, but it’s his father who answers the phone. “Aarons Residence.”
A pause. “Jesse?”
“Hey, Dad. I was… Is May Belle home? I wanted to run something by her.”
“She’s out with her friends. Studying, she says, but how would I know?”
“Is--” another pause. “Is everything okay over there? You need money?”
Jess bites back the automatic response that his parents don’t have any money to give him. It’s true, but the offer was made honestly. “No, Dad. I just… There are these classes, nearby where I live. Art classes. And I was thinking about… It’s only two evenings a week, and I could afford the charge. I guess… I guess I just wanted to see what May Belle thought.”
“You’ve been drawing those pictures since you were three years old, what the hell makes you think you need to pay someone to tell you how to do it?”
Jess laughs because there was almost praise underneath all of that. “Dad,” he says. “Nobody ever taught me how to do it right. There’s… perspective and form and… muscles and things. A little help would be nice, is all.”
“And then what?” His father doesn’t raise his voice, but he doesn’t need to. “And then what, Jess?”
Jess feels that great ache in his chest – the same as the very first time he said “I want to be an artist” and his father yelled at him. Not real, not grown-up, not man enough. As though he’s a child still playing make-believe. Jess’s knuckles are white around the receiver but he doesn’t have anything left to say. This is his father and words will never be enough.
* * * *
“You don’t need to listen to him,” Leslie says. “He’s not always right.”
Jess slams his fist into the tree. It stings and he’s grateful for it. “He’s my dad.”
“God dammit, Leslie, would you stop that?”
Her eyes water up again and he hates her, for a moment. For not being as brave as he remembers, for not having an answer he can use. For dying, and leaving him here all alone. If he could bring her home, or bring her to the shop, she would know what to do. But here she just says the same things over and over again.
“You don’t help,” Jess says. “This isn’t- it isn’t making things better. You keep trying to get me wanting things I can’t have. Wanting stuff I can’t afford to want. Leslie, anyone’d think you want me miserable.”
“Take that back, Jesse Aarons.”
“No. You want me stuck here with you, so you try and make it that I can’t just settle down and be right anywhere else.”
“Maybe you weren’t so far wrong when you said you made things worse.”
“Fine!” She turns on her heels and disappears into the trees. Jess runs after her, but she’s too fast again, hot-footing it down that damn track all the way to the creek. Jess stops as soon as he can see the black twist of water. He turns his back before he hears the splash.* * * * *
The shop is weirdly quiet that afternoon, when Jess starts his shift. He nods at Wade when he stows his things, just to acknowledge that he is here.
“You’re on registers today,” Wade says.
“I’m supposed to be… The shelves in my section need to be restocked. Mrs Grant said I should take the day to-”
“She’s not here today. You want to argue with me?”
Jess can see Zara watching him from where she’s sitting behind the counter. He hunches his shoulders and looks back at Wade. “It’s fine.”
Jess takes his place beside Zara on the registers. It’s not that he never does sales, it’s just that he’s better on shelves and information. There’s less sustained customer interaction, less forced smiling. It’s quieter, too – the registers are right by the doors and Mrs Grant knows Jess doesn’t like the noise over there.
Zara smiles at him sympathetically. They normally trade off on things like this; she likes selling and hates stock-checking. So it’s not like Jess is lazy or doesn’t pull his weight – they just divide up tasks in the way that makes more sense.
He knows the customers think him rude sometimes, when he doesn’t meet their eyes to smile. This one hrmphs and sighs his way through the transaction, especially when Jess tells him they don’t have the book he wants in the store.
“I can order it in,” Jess says. “If you leave your phone number we’ll call when it gets here.”
“Hmm. I’m sure. You’ll probably sell my telephone number to one of those cold-calling companies.”
Jess doesn’t really know why he would do that, so he smiles at the register like the customer was joking and says, “So, do you want to order it in or not?”
The man rolls his eyes and walks out of the store without buying any of the books he set on the counter. Jess sighs and goes to put the books back on the shelves. There’s no one waiting anyway and he really doesn’t want to fall more behind on shelving.
He’s been gone less than a minute when he hears Wade’s shout. Jess hurries back, but it’s Zara who’s being yelled at. “Sixteen dollars missing from the register.”
“Wade, I don’t know -- are you sure you counted right?” Zara asks.
Wade’s face darkens. “What the hell do you mean by that?”
“I just mean…. Anyone can make a mistake. I don’t how my register would be down that much without…”
“Yes, without what, exactly?”
Jess walks within the scope of Wade’s sight. He tries to defend Zara. “Wade, maybe the change in the registers was wrong to start with or something?”
“Did I ask you to butt in? And why aren’t you where I told you to be? You should be keeping an eye on her. Do you want me to tell Grant that you can’t even be trusted to…”
Jess cuts into the diatribe by shaking his head. He keeps his eyes down as he walks back to his register, and doesn’t look at Zara.
Wade turns around to yell at her some more, but she’s already running for the door. She bumps into Darryl, on his way into the store, and bursts into tears. Darryl looks after her, and then straight at Jess. There’s been disappointment before, but Jess has never seen him look so angry.
Wade says, “Good, you can take over from her. Jesse, you’ll need to stay late.”
“Excuse me? Look, if Zara’s going to flake out on her co-workers – as if we needed a thief anyway - the rest of us need to pitch in.”
“No,” Jess says quietly. “I’m going home this weekend. I can’t stay here.”
* * * *
May Belle squeaks and throws her arms around him. “Jess! You came.”
“I promised, didn’t I?” he mutters, not displeased at her attention. Her skinny little arms squeeze him once more for good measure and then she lets go.
His Mom looks at him, sighs, and says, “I guess I’ll go make you up a bed then?” She’s smiling as she goes though, so Jess thinks she probably doesn’t mind so much.
“Happy Birthday, May Belle,” Jess says. She grins and hugs him again. Over her shoulder, his father nods at him, wary but approving. Even the failed-artist screw-up can be good to his little sister.
Joyce Anne smiles at him in an anxious kind of way – hovering between a true smile and lip-biting uncertainty. Jess reaches an arm out to her for a hug and she trips towards him. Maybe he should come home more often.
His Mom comes downstairs. “There. Sorted that out, no thanks to any of my kids.” She rubs Jess’s shoulder with awkward affection. “Coffee, honey?”
“Sit down,” Jess tells her. “I know where everything is.”
Joyce Anne scrambles to help him, May Belle following, and they bump into each other trying to get into cupboards. Jess doesn’t remember any more whether he used to fit better than this.
Still, they squash around the table so Dad can serve, and Brenda and Ellie turn up late with the baby, who squawks right up until she’s deposited onto Jess’s knee to be fussed over. She promptly spits up and falls asleep, so he has to eat his dinner with a damp shoulder and a lapful of baby. Ellie threatens him with sure and certain death should he even move funny and wake the kid up.
Tomorrow’s Saturday so they stay up late, long after May Belle’s opened all her presents and blown out the candles. Jess’s feet are itching; he thinks he might go for a run around the field like he did when he was a kid and he felt like this.
The TV goes to commercial and May Belle asks, “So, did you bring me any pictures? Not that I didn’t love my present, but you promised me a drawing all of my own.”
“Not now, May Belle,” Jess says, looking at their father.
“Jess,” she says, “when are you going to do something with those pictures? You keep saying…”
“May Belle!” She stops talking like he slapped her. Jess tries to speak more quietly – everybody’s looking at them now. “You gotta get over this big-brother hero worship thing some time soon. They’re not that good. And nobody with half a brain thinks they’re gonna make a living painting pictures.”
“People do.” Joyce Anne’s voice is insistent. “Umm…” She’s clearly working from the dim remembrances of school lessons. “Picasso? Oh, and Walt Disney and the people who draw the Spider-Man comics.”
“Not real people,” Jess says. “Not people like us.”
Jess doesn’t want to know what his father’s got to say. “I’m going for a walk, okay? Happy Birthday, May Belle.”
He runs. Round and round the field ‘til his feet hurt and his lungs ache. But he ends up at the creek, so predictably that Jess can't even be angry about it. It seems smaller, as everything does. And the bridge is broken.
There is a wide crack in one of the crosspieces Jess had so painstakingly hammered together, and so the planks have slid loose and into the water. It is green and mossed-over at the edges where it meets the banks.
Jess had repaired it more than once, when he had stopped going himself but May Belle was still running across the bridge with Joyce Anne. It had never been so badly broken as this, though. He doesn’t know if this is something that can be mended.
Jess sits on the edge of the creek and takes off his shoes. He dabbles his feet in the cold water and thinks. Across the water the trees are shaking. They whisper at him: taunts and entreaties and accusations.
There is the sound of patient, heavy footfalls. Standing above him, his father feels like a giant. Jess doesn't speak.
"June," his father says. "It broke in June."
Jess hums one note: yes, I heard you.
“Joyce Anne bawled. Fifteen years old and crying over a bit of wood.”
His heels hurt when he kicks the side of the creek.
“May Belle says, ‘Don’t you worry, Jess’ll fix it when he comes home.’”
Jess turns to look at his father. He says, “I’ve been dreaming about Leslie again.”
His father sits down. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. She’s -- she’s kind of mad at me.”
It is his father’s turn to hum acknowledgement.
“She says -- in the dream, she says I don’t do enough. But I don’t know what she wants me to do. You think -- you think that means something?”
The sense memory nearly knocks him over – his father wrapping his arms around Jess, here by the river, and Leslie’s shadow over it all. “Maybe you know that, Jess. Nobody else would.”
His father smells of soap and motor-oil and that one beer he had after dinner. He grips Jess’s shoulders as he stands up. “You’re not a kid any more, Jess. If you want to come home, you come home. But if you don’t… you get to choose. You want to be a man and make your own choices you go right ahead. Don’t hide behind Leslie or your sisters and you sure as hell better not hide behind me.” He walks away.
The creek is shallow at this time of year. Jess looks across at the other side, thinks for a long moment, and creeps across what is left of the bridge. It gets him halfway. Jess takes a flying leap. He’s not a kid any more – his longer jump takes him to the side of the creek-bed and he claws himself up.
Leslie is waiting for him.
He knows that it’s her – it’s the dream-logic at play. She’s as old as him now, up to his shoulder, with the same cropped hair. And anyway she smiles at him and that’s unmistakable. “Jess.”
“What are you…?”
“Took you long enough.” She reaches out one hand. “Come with me.”
“To the fortress?”
“No.” She tugs at him. “We don’t always go where it’s safe. Or we didn’t, do you remember? There are people who need your help. The witch – a good witch – trapped in her house. And the warrior. He came to Terabithia for aid and no one hears him. Oh, and the dryad but you’ve seen her.”
She’s leading him deeper into the forest, the part he was always afraid of entering before he met her. He was even a little afraid after, but she wasn’t scared, so he was able to pretend not to be either. “It’s dark, Leslie,” he says. “I can’t see.”
“You don’t need to. See past that. We’ll get what we need.” As if in answer, fireflies float from the trees and dance around her head. She reaches both arms up like a dancer, still holding his hand on hers.
The bugs don’t give enough light to see by, just enough to show where they’re walking. So when Leslie stops abruptly, Jess has no idea why. “Leslie?” She turns him around so they’re standing back to back, her head leaning against his shoulder blade.
Her fingers slide between his. “Look, Jess.” The light widens around them, inch by inch. They’re in the clearing. Jess can see the pair of bright green eyes amongst the trees. Part of the trees, set in a young, brown-skinned face.
He can see the little light of a house far away through the trees, and a low murmur of sound coming from it.
Farther away, in the depths of the forest, he can hear the ogre stamping and the trees being uprooted. There are the clashes of metal and the hissing noise of arrows. Battle is being waged, here in Terabithia.
“What is it?” he asks. “What do you want me to see?”
“Oh. Everything, Jess. Everything.”
“I tried. It’s too hard, without you. It all -- it fades away.”
“So paint it up again. Make it new. Jess-”
He pulls Leslie this time, turning her to face him. Her cheeks are wet with tears and he’s never loved anyone more than he did her. Does. But he can’t, even in a dream. So he wraps his arms around her, holding this close against the dark night.
She whispers, and the trees and the wind rise up to echo her. “Come on. We have work to do.”
They do battle through the long night. Branches turn to swords in his hand, the trees pull themselves loose to enter the fray, and as the first threads of pink colour the sky Jess says, “I have to do this one last thing.”
Leslie hugs him from behind, pressing her chest to his back. “It’s not the last. But it’s a good start. I’ll keep working here. And you…”
“I will,” Jess says. “I promise.”* * * *
Jess apologises to May Belle in the morning, before the others go to church and he starts the drive back. She looks at him. “Why are your jeans dirty?”
“I did a bit of building work.”
“What did you…? Jess.”
“Tell Joycie she can go back any time she wants. It’s safe. Maybe she wants to take one of her friends. Or the baby, when she’s old enough.”
May Belle hugs him tight enough to break. “You’re a good big brother.”
“I try, anyway.”
Their father is watching them again, and Jess does his best not to look around. He hugs the little girls, and his mother, and waves at Ellie and Brenda. He nods at his father and climbs into the car.
Joyce Anne is shouting so he winds the window down. She calls, “Come home soon?”
“I promise,” he says. Never looking back seemed like a nice idea when he was twelve, but this is family. You don’t abandon that just because it’s a little screwed up sometimes. It doesn’t mean they get to run your life, either.
When he gets back to the apartment, Ms Harriet is walking up the stairs with her groceries. Jess walks beside her. “Would you like a hand with those?”
“Oh, hello, Jess. That would be nice, thank you.”
He takes the heavy bag from her and tries. “I’ve been back home to see my family.”
She turns to look at him, nearly forgetting to keep walking straight. “Oh. Did you have a good time?”
“I did, thank you, yes. How was your weekend?”
“Good, thank you. Very good.”
They’ve reached the right floor and once Ms Harriet has the door open, Jess passes her back the groceries. “Have a nice evening.”
She nods at him, smiling, and Jess holds his own smile steady until he’s inside. Baby steps.* * * *
Wade is glaring at Jess for no reason when he gets into work. Zara looks pleased to see him at least. Jess is just glad she’s still here. He smiles cautiously at her.
Mrs Grant says, “Jesse, can I see you in the office, please?”
He follows after her, trying to work out what he’s done wrong.
“I booked the weekend off,” he says, while she sits down by the desk. “I didn’t just go.”
She adjusts her glasses. “Sorry? Yes, Jesse, I know that. That’s not why I want to speak to you. Wade has -- well, he raised some questions about Zara’s suitability as a cashier. I wanted to know what you thought about that.”
He feels like he’s in front of the principal again, or Mrs Myers - asking questions without giving him a hint to what the answer should be. “What did… what did Wade say?”
“Jesse. I want to know what you have to say.”
He thinks about it. “Wade’s a bully.”
She opens her mouth like she might want to object.
“He’s mean to Zara for no reason. Everyone, but Zara worst. I don’t know if it’s because she’s a girl or because she’s youngest, but he picks on her all the time. When you’re not here he ignores what you’ve told us to do. And he’s rude to the customers as well, especially the kids and the students. I know you don’t have to -- and I haven’t said it before but…. Ask anyone else. Ask any of the customers who’s better at helping them, and who makes it easier for them. Wade’s a bully and it’s not right.”
She blinks at him and taps the desk. “Jesse, if you had a complaint you should have…”
“All due respect, ma’am, but we kind of thought you knew. At least we didn’t see how you could have missed it.”
“Please send Wade along when you get back.”
Jess nods. He goes back into the store and tells Wade that Mrs Grant wants to see him. Darryl’s appeared now too, and he sits beside Zara at the registers. Jess goes back to his section, looking across at the other two every few minutes. It’s very quiet.
It’s thirty minutes before Wade leaves, cursing and spitting abuse at the rest of them before hurling himself out of the door.
The stamping and yelling upsets one of the kids browsing in Jess’s section. Jess is over there before the tears have really started. “Hey.” The little girl blinks at him. She’s maybe five, and her dad is off browsing the self-help books. Jess says, “We have a book that’s just come in that I bet you’d love. Want me to find it for you?”
She nods, still sniffling.
Jess finds the book he wants and hands it to her. “It’s called The Gruffalo. It’s about a little mouse taking a trip through a deep dark wood. Do you want to look?” He sits beside her and starts to read. As he goes through the little book, showing pictures and reading voices, he collects more listeners. All the while, Jess can see Zara and Darryl watching him from the other side of the store. When he is done, Jess hands the girl the book – she tucks it under her arm and smiles shyly at him before going to see her father.
When it is quiet again, Zara walks over. “What did you say to Mrs Grant?”
“I told her what happened when she was away, that’s all.”
Zara leans over the counter. “Jess.” She wraps both arms around him. “Thank you.”
“It wasn’t… don’t worry about it.”
Darryl is less effusive. Darryl wouldn’t have let it get that far to begin with. Jess wonders what it is like to be so sure of your own right and wrong, and to be willing to defend it without thought. Jess says, “Do you still need help with your… with the park?”
“I’m free at the weekend. If you do. Tell me when?”
Darryl nods at him slowly. “All right. Sure.”
Jess begins piling books to be re-shelved, to give himself something else to look at. He could build a fort and hide but he doesn’t, this time. He just systematically puts his small world back in order, and tries just to focus on that for a little while.* * * *
It takes him a long time to fall asleep that night.
When he does manage, she isn't there. It's quiet amongst the trees though. The air is still and crisp with early morning light. He walks to the clearing. The warrior bows to him as he passes – gracious but not yet decided. The trees stand aside to welcome him.
He can't see Leslie, but she's out there somewhere. Her laughter is on the edge of his hearing, as though she has merely wandered a little farther along the path. Jess sits down in the leaves and lets the sun warm his skin.* * * *
Jess passes Ms Harriet on the way down the stairs on Saturday morning. He stops her with a hand on her elbow. She turns slowly. “Jess.”
“Yeah. Um. Do you still want a hand putting those pictures up? I’m going out to see a friend now, but I’ll be back this evening. Just let me know.”
She fixes her hair with her hand. “Oh. If you can, I would really appreciate that. It’s just a few nails but I’m worried about them being the wrong sort.”
He says. “My dad… anyway, I can find the right ones. I could maybe look at your pipes as well if they’re still…. Don’t worry.”
She nods. “That would… that would be lovely. Thank you, Jess.”
“No problem. Anyway, I’ll be back later, or you can think of another time. Just tell me when’s good.” He starts walking again, his bag slung over his shoulder.
She asks, “Are you going anywhere fun? With your friend?”
“Oh, I’m just helping him out with a project. Actually… the park on Sanderson Heights?” She nods quickly, knowing where he means. Jess says, “Darryl’s helping organise the clean-up and I told him I’d lend a hand.”
“That’s very good of you.”
Jess flushes. “Yeah. Anyway, I should…” This time he gets halfway down the first set of stairs. “Ms Harriet?”
“You know, you really can call me Suzanne.” She smiles and she’s younger than Jess thought she was. “What is it?”
“You asked me before, about my drawing. And I didn’t say. I want to draw for children’s books. That’s what I really want to do. I’m thinking about classes which is- Anyway. I just wanted to tell you that.”
She walks down the steps to meet him, settling her hands on either side of his shoulders. “Then I wish you the best of luck. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” She pats the side of his arm, smiles once more, and heads back upstairs.
Jess can’t quite believe he just said that out loud. That’s what I want to do: I want to make stories. He was a kid in Terabithia, listening to Leslie talk, and that was what he wanted. I want to paint her words. So that is a goal. That will make her happy. He’ll write her name in the dedication – nothing fancy - just: For Leslie, from Jess. And that will be how she’ll know he kept his promise.
Darryl looks a little surprised to see him at the park. “Jess. I wasn’t sure if you were… I know you’re busy.”
Jess looks down. “I wanted to help. You sounded like maybe you needed it.”
The park is quiet, but it’s early morning still. There are shovels, and bags for the trash, and moms to make sure that none of the kids pick up something they shouldn’t.
Darryl says, “Where do you want to start?”
Jess shrugs. “Clean-up? Or painting if you want that.”
Darryl is properly smiling now. He wraps his arm around Jess’s shoulder and walks them away from the others. Darryl says, “I know you can’t see it now, but-”
“No,” Jess says. “I can see it.”
There’s a space at the end of the park, with wild grass overgrowing into the swing-set in the middle. The wall looms over all of that at the moment, half-covered as it is in graffiti and bill-postings. But Jess can see what it should be.
Darryl tilts his head and looks at Jess. “Okay then. Well, I guess I’ll leave you to get started.”
Other people wander in and out but Jess barely registers them. He makes the wall a blank first. Without the posters and the scrawling he can cover it all in blue. Then there’s junk to be cleared away and grass to be cut down. He makes the place right, inch by inch.
By the time he’s cleared a good space, the paint is dry. Jess loves a blank canvas. He begins to paints Terabithia in the evening, as the sun sets in both worlds.
Darryl comes to check on him and whistles through his teeth. “Wow. Jess…”
“It’s not finished yet.”
“Okay… Anyway, a bunch of us are going to get something to eat. It’s getting dark – we can start again tomorrow. You want to come?”
“Maybe in a little while. I just want to sit here for a bit longer.”
“Sure. Give me a call when you’re done and I’ll let you know where we are.” Jess nods and Darryl says, “And thanks again for this. I know we…. Well, thanks.”
Jess rubs at his face. “Okay. No problem.”
Darryl hugs him, which is strange, but Jess manages to hug back. And then he is alone.
The swings creak. Jess sits entirely still in the swing on the left hand side, and hears the sound of squeaking to his right. He keeps her in the corner of his eye: blonde hair streaming out behind her as she soars.
“Jess,” Leslie says. “Let your head hang back and watch the clouds. It feels like flying.” She laughs in delight.
Jess leans back in his swing and sets it going higher and higher. Clinging onto the rusting chains, he tilts his head back as far as it will go and swings back and forth. He looks up at the evening sky and the world stretches into forever.
The worlds overlay and in both of them Leslie is asking him, “What if?”