Fifteen year old Jess Aarons jogged across the road to his best friend's house. Oddly, there was no PT or Leslie in sight. Instantly, Jesse's radar went up. Since Judy Burke had given birth to twins named Amanda and Isabelle, Leslie had been left alone quite a lot. He recalled something Leslie had told him back in Terabithia when they were twelve.
"Don't your parents notice all this stuff missing?" I asked as Leslie handed me an apple. She selected an Oreo for herself, no surprise.
"Not when they're in the middle of writing a book." She responded, avoiding my eyes.
"What do they write about?" I asked, as we sat down on our castle's "porch".
"Lots of things. Mostly fiction." I noticed now her pinky was brushing mine. Still, I liked having someone so close to me, being pretty much neglected at home. I said nothing.
"That explains you." I said, taking a bite of my apple.
She unscrewed the top of her cookie and handed it to me, then licking the crème off. After a few licks, she spoke.
"Wada ya mean?"
"Well, you like to make stuff up, and that's what your parents do for a living."
"Do you know a lot about hardware?" The blonde asked suddenly.
"Well," She turned to me with a sweet smirk, and I found myself trying to count the other colors in her blue eyes. "Your Dad works at a hardware store."
"Okay!" I sighed, breaking eye contact.
"All I'm saying is you are who you are. Not your parents."
"Well, since they work at your house, you must get to see them a lot, right?"
She looked at me, and I saw something in her eyes I had never seen before.
"Hey there Jess!" Bill Burke's voice snapped him out of his reverie.
"Hello Mr. Burke! How are Amanda and Isabelle?"
"Good. They're napping, just like their mother. Apparently my new princesses are nocturnal!"
"Just like Leslie!" Jess laughed. "Speaking of which, is she here?"
"You just missed her. She went into the forest about ten minutes ago."
It felt like someone had dropped an ice cube down his shirt. Would Leslie go to Terabithia without him?
He turned and ran towards the forest.
"Leslie?" He called. Silence.
She must have gone into Terabithia. Grabbing hold of the rope he swung across, hoping that Leslie wasn't hurt somewhere.
"Leslie?" He yelled as he ran towards the castle. Still nothing. If somebody had hurt her…
"LESLIE!" He yelled again. He was about seven yards from their fortress. A sudden noise caught his ear. It sounded like…crying? He strained his ears. Yes, somebody was crying.
And the sound was most definitely feminine.
"Leslie! Leslie, are you okay?" He was running towards the tree house, where the sound was coming from.
He grabbed hold of the oak's trunk and climbed up faster than he ever had. The noise was loud, and it wasn't just crying, it was sobbing.
He found her sitting on her heels in the corner of the fort. Gently, he walked over to her and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Les?" He murmured softly.
She turned to face him, her eyes swollen and red.
"Jess?" She sounded surprised, almost as if she wasn't expecting anybody to come after her.
"Hey Les." His voice was still gentle. "Are you okay? What's wrong?" the boy knelt beside her, facing his friend.
She didn't answer his question. She just stared at him, her eyes holding extreme sadness and elation at the same time.
"Jess." She repeated, staring at him. The eyes locked for five seconds, and then Leslie lost control. She began sobbing harder, flinging her head into Jess's chest. Surprised by the sudden weight, he rocked back on heels, but kept his balance. He locked his arms tightly around the petite shaking body, something he normally would have enjoyed if his friend wasn't so upset. She shook violently; he was surpised by the force Leslie's crying was exerting. Even though he had no idea what was the matter, Jess felt that his friend's pain was somewhat his fault, something he could've prevented.
Leslie cried for about ten minutes, Jess's arms still around her. He could feel the breathing steadying, and soon she looked up at him.
"I got your shirt all wet." Leslie whispered.
"It's okay." He whispered back, not wanting to cause his friend anymore guilt.
"Jess, what's wrong with me?" She whispered, so softly that he could barely hear her.
"What's wrong with you?! Leslie Sophia Burke, nothing is wrong with you. You're…you're…perfect."
She made a mild chuckle and turned her face away, eyes staring at the floor. Jess gently took a thumb and brushed a tear off her face, a bit of her mascara coming back with it.
Why does she wear it? He wondered. She's beautiful without it. Normally he would've scolded himself for thinking like that, she was his best friend after all, but today he scolded himself for a different reason.
His arms were still around her.
Jess released Leslie and backed away. She stared at him tearfully.
"But Jess…there has to be something wrong with me. There can't be any other explanation."
He cocked his head slightly, and Leslie's pink lips fought a grin.
He looks so cute when he's confused…wait a minute. Jess? CUTE?! Leslie, you've lost it.
This sudden confusion in her head brought on more emotions that she did not understand. Her voice cracked when she spoke.
"It's…It's my…family. My family is the problem."
Jesse's heart skipped a beat. Bill and Judy wouldn't hurt Leslie, would they? He remembered watching a news program briefly. It was about a grandfather who molested his own grandchildren, who were so young that they didn't understand what he was doing, and the parents had no idea…
He shuttered. But if someone was hurting Leslie…If someone was hurting Leslie like that, he would kill them without hesitation, regardless of his own fate. Leslie mattered the most.
As he thought that, it felt like someone had dumped a bucket of water over his head. He remembered something his father had said not too long ago. He was talking about how Jess's uncle Robert had died in the military before he was born.
"Why did he join the military if he knew he would die there?" I asked.
"He did it because he knew he had to. He did it so he could know that he would be doing his part to keep his fiancée safe. You'll find a girl like he did, someone you love enough to care more about her safety and happiness then your own. That's the way it is with your Momma and me."
"What'll I do when I meet that girl, Dad?"
"Well, hopefully, all will go well, you'll fall in love, marry her, and be together until you die."
I smiled. Dad was so blunt. "That's it?"
"You know, there's one more thing. It's something my father told me when I was around sixteen, a few weeks after I had met your mother."
"You met Mom when you were a year older than me?!"
"Yes. Now do you want the advice or not?"
"Sorry sir." I whispered.
"Don't try too hard. Follow your instincts. And the most important…"
"What you're looking for may be right under your nose."
But the way he smiled, I had a feeling my father added that for me.
Jess snapped back from his memory, and even though it had only been about ten seconds, it felt as if everything was in slow motion.
"Leslie…what's wrong with your family?" He asked slowly.
"They don't love me." She whispered.
"Leslie, that's not true." He had meant to comfort her, but the words only angered her.
"Yes it is, Jesse, and you know it!" Her eyes flashed. "It's always been like that, and it always will! They're always too busy with books or babies. It's always: 'Tell me later honey.' Or 'One minute.' Or 'Leslie, I'm too busy right now.' And you know what's really sad?"
Jess shook his head.
"They're the only family I have!"
Though he knew he shouldn't, Jess felt stung. He had always considered Leslie to be a part of his family. In fact, until he met her, he hadn't really even had much of family.
"And they have the nerve to go and have two more when they can't even properly take care of me!"
She wasn't listening. "Jesse, don't you get it? NOBODY LOVES ME!"
That was it for Jess's self control. All of the knowledge from his father, the knowledge from that afternoon in the rain some three years ago, all the things he had realized now. And she thought nobody, not one person, loved her. Well, if anything, one person loved her. And he knew more than one did.
His self control was gone. Caring about what would come of losing control was gone. Everything except the certain truth filled his mind.
"THAT'S A LIE, LESLIE!" He shouted, standing up. He was now five foot six, while Leslie was only five foot two. And since she was sitting down, he clearly towered over her.
She didn't let it stay that way for long though. She rose too, not about to let him triumph over her.
"NO IT'S NOT, JESS! DON'T TRY TO TELL ME DIFFERENTLY!"
"I'M GOING TO HAVE TO LESLIE, BECAUSE I KNOW FOR A FACT THAT ONE PERSON LOVES YOU MORE THAN THEIR OWN LIFE!"
"OH REALLY? IT'S MY PARENTS I'M ASSUMING. OR YOU MAYBE, AS A JOKE? BECAUSE IT SEEMS EVERYBODY LOVES TO TAUNT ME THESE DAYS!"
"Leslie…" His voice was softer. For a moment, she thought she had won.
"Me saying I love you would never be a joke."
She was stunned. In all their years of friendship, he had never spoken to her so seriously. She felt guilty. Lowering her voice, she spoke gently.
"Jess…I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you."
"I'm glad you did." He was walking forward, forcing her to walk backwards, into the corner. Normally, someone stalking her like that would've scared her. But Jess didn't scare her.
"Why's that?" She whispered. She really did want to know.
"I learned something very important from that." She was in the corner now.
"Oh really?" Leslie said, trying to mask her confusion. Their noses were only four inches apart.
"Yes. Leslie, I…"
"I…love you, you know."
She smiled lightly. "Jess, you're a good friend. I know my family loves me, and I know best friends love each other in their own special way, you don't have to tell me, I just…"
He cut her off.
"No, you don't understand!" His voice was so desperate, so pleading, that it frightened Leslie.
He took her by the shoulders and stared into the blue eyes that had captivated him since he met her.
"Leslie… I love you." His eyes were true, the words were said with just the right emphasis.
He loved her, in a way more than friendship.
Just like she had from the very beginning.
But she couldn't speak.
She just opened her mouth and stared.
"I get it, Les. I get it." He looked so broken, so hopeless. It broke her heart. He started to back away.
"I love you too."
A smile crossed his face. He walked towards her again, Leslie's eyes fluttered closed, and ever so gently, he kissed her.
At that moment, Leslie didn't care about anything. She didn't care about Amanda and Isabelle, or the fact that her parents didn't pay that much attention to her and probably never would. She just wrapped her arms around her friend's neck and enjoyed it.
Leslie was flying.