Jesse Aarons was in love with Leslie Burke. He came to this conclusion one day just after he had turned 16 years old, whilst reflecting on some fond memories they made together as children. The sight of her waving to him under the cover of rain that day was the defining moment, and it was never far from his teenage mind. Whenever he went off into one of his daydreams, she'd visit him in the form of that memory. Jesse recalled the thought that had entered his mind in that instance perfectly... It was just one word: 'beautiful'. Granted, he was 11 years old at the time, so the implications of such a thought being applied so instinctively to a girl he was close with went right over his young head. He blamed it on the all-too-familiar process of budding hormones at the gates of puberty that everyone eventually stumbles their way through. Back then, he was right on the line between innocence and adolescence, so something like "falling in love" didn't quite compute so readily as it did after he started getting older. From that day forward, every thought he had of Leslie, every memory and experience they shared, was viewed in a new light. Not always, mind you. Their connection ran deeper than love, or even friendship. But for the most part, every time he pictured her face or heard her laugh, or saw her spreading her arms out as if to feel the whole world through the wind... Whenever he was reminded of her free spirit, uplifting attitude, compassionate nature, or wild imagination, he could feel his heart squeezed tight as if by some invisible hand. In a perfect world, this would be a wonderfully intoxicating feeling. Unfortunately, Jesse Aarons did not live in a perfect world. For you see, there was one major problem with his recently discovered feelings for his best friend... Leslie Burke was dead. Hit her head on a rock and drowned in the creek below the rope they'd always used to cross from one side to the other every day after school or on the weekends. Using the rope was their ritual for getting into the magical kingdom of their own creation. And it eventually betrayed them both when the old rope finally snapped while 11-year-old Leslie Burke was attempting to cross the river alone one fateful day.
The last time Jesse saw Leslie alive was after they had said their goodbyes for the day, in the heavy downpour, when he only just began to realize how beautiful he found her... She died the very next day. Jesse blamed himself for a long time on account of not being there with her, even after his otherwise stoic father had consoled him while the wound was still fresh, and explained how that simply wasn't true. Even while understanding this, of course, Jesse remains stubborn in his belief to this day that if he had been there, instead of on a personal field trip to an art museum with his one-time music teacher, he might have been able to prevent her death. He knew he wasn't the cause; Leslie shouldn't have placed so much faith in the rope, or used it by herself. Not after the weather they had all been hammered with for weeks prior to the accident. No one should have... That makes it sound like he was blaming her for what happened, but the truth was, she was just a kid. They both were. And as smart as Leslie Burke was, kids are prone to making mistakes, and both of theirs cost Leslie her life... And, in Jesse's mind, it was his moment of selfish desire in wanting to have a day with Miss Edmonds all to himself that stopped him from being there for his best friend when she needed him most. He was naturally aware that being there with her very well could have resulted in both of their untimely demise, but even if he had simply invited her to go along with him and Miss Edmonds that day, had the rope still been dangling from its tree after they returned, they would have ended up facing the same danger anyway. So, to Jesse's logic, he may as well have been there with her in the first place.
Now at the ripe ol' age of 17 going on 18, Jesse Aarons occasionally has bouts of romantic fluff for his deceased friend when he thinks back on their time together, and that vice-like grip over his heart is immediately followed by and, soon after, mixed with the sensation of the vital organ being ripped straight from his chest. It starts as a shortlived yet wonderful ache, and ends with an unbearable amount of pure anguish. He realized that she was his soulmate, and that he couldn't even begin to imagine being with anyone else moving forward now. He figured part of the reason why he felt that way was likely due to the fact that she was gone forever, and as such, he would never be able to resolve those feelings, but sometimes understanding isn't enough to move on. The internal confession came on in the form of a delayed effect, taking root when he was an 11-year-old boy, and only managed to fully bloom after it was too late to do anything about it. He compared it to the idea of getting his foot caught in a bear trap he had no way of spotting beneath all the foliage. He hated it, and knew that, realistically, he would have to get over her eventually, but he also knew that he simply didn't have the strength to pry the teeth of that trap apart. He couldn't bear to let his feelings for Leslie disappear. They were about all he had left of her now, aside from her legacy -- Terabithia.
However, the magical kingdom of Terabithia was more his little sister, May Belle's, special place now than it was his. It was sad, but Jesse was beginning to outgrow the world of make-believe. In his heart, he would always view their treehouse as a truly magical castle born from his and Leslie's imagination; originally a special place made just for them in order to escape their problems. But he couldn't use it as a crutch forever... Nowadays, Terabithia was more of a symbol, or a promise, than a physical place to him. Sure, he still visited from time to time (thanks to the makeshift bridge he had built in honor of Leslie Burke), but only when May Belle wanted to play. Sometimes he'd go it alone, late at night, when his yearning for Leslie would grow to be too much for him to handle, but it was always out of a sense of loyalty to Leslie more than anything else, and lately his interests rested primarily on his art and running track & field.
Jesse kept Leslie alive as best he could through his artwork, which included incredibly detailed concepts of their special place, along with all of the magical creatures that inhabited it, and, of course, the kingdom's queen: Leslie herself. Whenever he wanted to create, he allowed his imagination to soar, and as though Leslie herself was guiding his hand, he managed to craft works of beauty he never could have dreamed of had she not helped him to open his mind nearly seven years ago. He was becoming quite good, and like any great artist of their age, he was beginning to develop his own unique style. Drawing or painting Leslie, especially, was therapeutic for him, as it allowed him to maintain his memory of her for as long as possible. He dreaded the day he would no longer be able to recall what she looked like on his own... There was nothing he could do about the sound of her voice, but her likeness at least -- that, he could protect.
When Jesse wasn't drawing or painting, he was running. Truly, aside from his physical features, the young man hadn't changed all that much since he was a young boy. However, now much taller, he was on his way to taking part in official races for the USATF. The youth division he was applying for was currently training for an upcoming national race half a year from now, and he was determined to enter it and take the gold. He was already in track & field at his school, and at the very top among the other runners, but he knew he could do better. The USATF's youth division would have agents scout the local candidates every year to see if any of the students had potential. And this year, their eyes were all on Jesse. There were naturally other worthy candidates besides him, but none of them ran quite like Jesse did. There was a certain air about him that no one could put their finger on... When Jesse Aarons took off, it was like watching one of his paintings come to life. His aura changed -- almost made him glow! It was a magnificent sight. Of course, Jesse could only take the word of others on this one, as he never noticed anything special about him. But he had a feeling their interpretation of his running likely had something to do with what he saw whenever he set foot on the field, and how it would naturally affect his mood. Something only he could see. Someone only he could see... That's right, you guessed it. Every time Jesse went for a run, Leslie Burke would be running right there beside him, neck-and-neck, until she ultimately ended up overtaking him and leaving him in the dust. Every time. Just like when they were kids.
This strange phenomenon first started not long after Jesse had realized his true feelings for Leslie, and he reasoned that it was more than likely that the two discoveries had a direct correlation. His view of her had changed, although the nature of his longing for her had remained much the same, so his imagination took that reinforced emotion and projected it outward in order to give him what he wanted. He understood the psychology behind it well enough, and always made sure to not let himself get carried away with delusions that Leslie Burke had come back from beyond the grave in order to haunt him. But even still, it was so very authentic... Whenever he took his starting position, he could almost make out her slender hands gently touching the dirt on the ground from the corner of his eye. Everything from her long fingers up to a glimpse of her unique fashion sense; the personalized red wristband she always wore, and the black elbow braces she'd used the day of their intial encounter. If he turned to look at her straight on, her apparition would disappear like mist against a breeze, so he remained focused on the path ahead in order to enjoy her presence. When he takes off, full-speed, it doesn't take long for Leslie's ghost to catch up with him. Then, and only then, can he take her in fully with his eyes without fear of her vanishing before them. She always appeared just as she had in his memories: pre-teenage years, short and spunky blonde hair, slender frame, about as tall as he was back then, her weird choice of clothing attire, and her amazingly deep blue-green colored eyes. And her smile -- how could he forget that wonderful smile! She was so happy. So free. So...alive.
Just as in their very first race together when she was among the living, Leslie's ghost, too, beat Jesse. It was strange, for the obvious reasons, but also because he knew there was no way an 11-year-old girl could beat him in a footrace -- not anymore, not now that he was almost an adult himself and currently training for the nationals. Yet she still managed to outstrip him in almost no time at all. He would watch her, not unlike that first time all those years ago, slowly pass him by until he couldn't keep up and, pushed to the point of exhaustion, was forced to slow to a heavy-footed halt. Whilst in the process of catching his breath, he'd steal a glance at the path ahead in order to see her continue on without him, only to be blinded by a convenient ray of sunlight, by his own sweat, or blocked by a tree, and even during late runs when it would be too dark to make out her form in the distance before she'd disappear into the ether altogether. Every time he went out on a run, he'd see her fade away in the midst of her running motion. Jesse liked to think of it as her leaving the realm of the living and returning to heaven. The first time he had encountered her ghost, he'd stumbled out of natural shock, and broke down in the street, scraping his knees up in the process. That day, he wept as hard as he had the day she died, and his mind hadn't even processed the state of his knees yet.
After that first encounter, Jesse had made the concious decision not to run anymore, out of fear of seeing her again only for her to vanish once more. His conviction lasted only a couple of days before he caved in to his unearthly desire to see his favorite person even one more time. Jesse decided that seeing her even for the duration of a short run was better than not seeing her at all. After all, it wasn't like when she'd enter his headspace via memory. When he'd see her there running beside him, she looked so real that he swore he could almost reach out and touch her. But any attempt at doing so always resulted in her untimely exit from the race, which sucked because, for whatever reason, Jesse could only ever get his brain to perform this incredibly convincing trick once per day... He knew the gist of the psychology behind it all, yes. But he was no psychologist, that was for sure. Trying to figure this all out on his own would get him nowhere except for making his head spin. That being said, he also wasn't dumb enough to tell anyone that it was happening, as that would naturally lead to concern for his health, and the eventual suggestion that he seek psychological help, and considering he was still a minor, that "suggestion" could easily be turned into a forced admission to a psyche ward. While he understood that there were people to see for this kind of problem, that didn't interest someone who not only didn't want to fix the problem, but also didn't even see it as a problem to begin with. Jesse looked at Leslie's ghost as a blessing in disguise. He was aware of the risks to his psychological health, but he figured that as long as he was aware she wasn't really there, he would be alright to enjoy her company where and when he could. Besides, it wasn't that different from when they imagined seeing a giant troll that had an uncanny resemblance to their one-time tormentor, Janice Avery. Jesse simply hadn't had such an active imagination since he was 14. This and that felt very similar in both nature and design, so he fully endorsed it. Some part of him felt like that may be him backsliding into denial and trying to cope with her death, but he also argued that it wasn't denial if he understood that she wasn't really there, that it was just something his brain cooked up to make him feel better. Go figure, Jesse was oftentimes deeply depressed, so he didn't see the actual harm in continuing to indulge in this activity so long as it uplifted his mood. Plus, on the brighter side, it was keeping him extremely fit.
Unfortunately for Jesse, it seemed that his brain slowly began to lose its imaginative spark in regards to Leslie's ghost, as it was getting progressively harder to see her while he ran... He began to lose heart and sink back into chronic depression, when a school acquaintance of his told him he should enter in one of their school's unofficial track races. He did so, on a whim, and just as clearly as the first time it had happened, Leslie was setting up for the race right next to him. She was closer than usual, too, on account of the other lanes being filled with actual people. Jesse's heart immediately began to beat faster, and he couldn't help but smile. He won the race, but still lost to Leslie, same as any other time. The difference here, however, was that at the end of the race, he caught sight of Leslie's ghost spinning around to face him after she slowed to a stop, and through the glare of the sun beating down on them, he could barely make out an almost self-aware smile forming on her face. It lasted for no more than a couple of seconds before she was gone, but it was there. Jesse's first thought was that Leslie's ghost was becoming more like Leslie. The Leslie. And the trigger? An actual race! Jesse could hardly hold back his excitement at the prospect of seeing even more from this phenomenon, and even pumped his fist and yelled out a victory cry that unsuspecting runners and spectators simply took as excitement over his finishing in 1st place.
And so, having shown his stuff in the rough among the actual track & field stars, Lark Creek High's coach offered him a spot on the team. Knowing full-well that he could use this to see more of Leslie, Jesse didn't hesitate in accepting the offer.
Finally, Jesse had found a means to see Leslie again! Even if it was all just in his head, he could pretend -- just like when they were kids. She was physically gone from this world, yes. But her influence remained. She was teaching him to open his mind all over again -- the barrier between life and death be damned! Jesse couldn't help but think that God must really love her, to let her reach him from heaven. Jesse could understand such love. He could understand it very well indeed.