Chapter 1 ~ The Words
Chores could wait, Jesse Aarons told himself, for this one day, at least. Antsy and excited, he fidgeted with the seatbelt and watched for a break in the unusually heavy traffic on Route 11. The nearly constant urge to shout “Go!” whenever a gap opened between the oncoming cars pestered the impatient passenger, but backseat driving would be rude and ruin the perfect day he hoped to enjoy with his music teacher, Ms. Edmonds. The surprize invitation less than an hour earlier delighted Jesse. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day with the prettiest and nicest teacher in the entire school?
As cars and trucks passed, Jesse’s eyes followed them north and he caught a glimpse of the Burke’s house on his right. His eyes lingered on the two-story residence and guilt threatened to depose delight. Leslie would be getting up about now, Jesse knew. The Burke’s front door opened and gave him a start, but it was Leslie’s father, Bill Burke, retrieving the paper.
“Did you forget something, Jesse?” asked Ms. Edmonds, seeing her student looking back at a house partially hidden in the woods.
Through the car window, Jesse Aarons continued to stare at the Burke’s house nestled amid the trees, dew-soaked spider webs, and mists of the early April morning. The twinge of selfishness he felt at accepting Ms. Edmonds’ offer to visit the art exhibit in Lynchburg brushed aside a nagging shadow of guilt, just as he had brushed aside Leslie’s request the day before to do something together. But a sharp pain, like a knife cutting into his forehead, distracted him. He had heard Ms. Edmonds’ question and was about to reply, but what came out was very different than what he planned to say.
“Leslie should come with us.”
Where the heck did that come from? Jesse wondered. Then he realized he was staring at Ms. Edmonds, his mouth open.
“Jesse, are you alright?”
“Yes…NO! Yes, I mean…” At this point, the promise of something even remotely logical coming out seemed remote, so Jesse said nothing and turned back to his neighbor’s house.
Why did I suggest that Leslie go with us? he again asked himself. Glancing again back at his music teacher he saw a concerned look on her face.
“Did you have plans with Leslie you forgot about? It’s fine, Jess, if…”
“No, we, I mean I, I mean…” Jesse, shut up! He groaned and put his head in his hands: The headache had intensified. In fact, it was far worse than he had ever experienced. It hurt so badly he thought he might…
Turning, and moving faster than he thought possible, Jesse pawed at the door handle and seatbelt lock until both released. He was just able to get out of the car before vomiting up the breakfast he’d consumed minutes earlier. Groaning, dizzy, and embarrassed beyond words, Jesse remained on his hands and knees, gagging. He heard the other car door open and footsteps approach.
“Jesse, my goodness, you look green.”
There was something disturbingly truthful in his teacher’s statement that made him shiver. And why not? He felt green. But the pain in his head was subsiding and his mind was quickly clearing.
“Here, Jesse, let me give you a hand.” Ms. Edmonds reached down and helped him back into the front seat of the car. Though it had been only a minute, Jesse felt that whatever was affecting him had cleared. What concerned him more was the approach of another person.
“Jess? Is that you?” asked the calm voice of Bill Burke. “I though I heard someone out here.” He then turned to the woman. “Do I know you…?”
“Hello, Mr. Burke, I’m Ms. Edmonds, Jesse and Leslie’s music teacher. Jesse and I were just headed up to Lynchburg when he got sick.”
“I’m not sick. I feel fine.”
“You just vomited, Jesse. You’re sick.”
“Jess, she’s right. You might feel better now but you can’t go off like this. Let me walk you home.”
“I’m not sick, Mr. Burke, I really want to go with Ms….”
“No,” declared Ms. Edmonds. “The trip is cancelled. We’ll reschedule for sometime this summer.”
Another set of footsteps, these lighter and more familiar, approached at a rapid pace but stopped a few feet away. “Ew, gross! Did you do that, Jess?” asked Leslie Burke.
Another violent stab of pain shot through Jesse’s head. He tried to reply but only succeeded in falling forward and vomiting again, this time on Mr. Burke’s left foot.
“Ah, yes, ‘something foul is afoot’,” Mr. Burke quipped dryly. “Jess, I do believe this settles the question of you going out today. Now, shall I walk you home?”
This time there was no argument. Jesse stood, holding his head in his hands at the renewed pain. But when Mr. Burke took a squishy-sounding step he reconsidered. “Hmmm. Jess, I do believe I’ll go and wash off my foot and let Ms. Edmonds take you home.”
Looking up, Jesse was not sure the music teacher really appreciated getting the job back.
“It’s okay, Ms. Edmonds, I’ll roll down the window and hang my head out.” He paused for a second and then turned back. “Bye, Leslie.”
The still sleepy-eyed blonde girl laughed, waving her hand in front of her face. “See you later, and try brushing your teeth, too, Jess.”
Back in Ms. Edmonds’ car, Jesse watched Leslie and her father walk back to their house. He hadn’t noticed it before, but both were still in their PJs and Mr. Burke was holding his left slipper at arms length. A smile came to his face at the sight of the two, and a small twinge of jealousy, also. They had a parent-child relationship he envied.
Back in his bed, Jesse was able to sleep a couple more hours and woke near ten o’clock feeling much recovered. His young sister, May Belle was playing quietly on her bed with one of Leslie’s old Barbie dolls, apparently trying to find a combination of outfits that resembled her idea of Terabithian royal dress. Not having had much success, she switched to blue and pink Kleenex.
“You look better, Jess. Mom said you threw up all over Mr. Burke. Was he mad?”
Clearing the sleep from his eyes, Jesse scowled. “It was just his foot, but yeah, I guess he was. I’d be, if someone barfed on my shoe.”
“No you wouldn’t,” May Belle said happily, holding a doll out for inspection. “I threw up in you sneakers last fall and you said it wasn’t a problem.”
Sighing at the memory, Jesse conceded the point with a smile and compliment on the gown. Making his way to the bathroom he showered and then, heeding Leslie’s advice, brushed his teeth - twice. As he exited into the hallway, May Belle ran up to him and gave him the phone.
“It’s your girlfriend again,” she giggled.
Jesse snatched the phone from his sister. “Hello?”
“Jesse, how are you feeling?” a familiar voice asked, but it wasn’t Leslie’s.
“Um, who is this?”
“Jesse, it’s Ms. Edmonds. Did you forget my voice already?” He heard her laugh into her end of the line.
“Oh, sorry, I thought you were… never mind. Yeah, I feel fine now. I’m sorry about that, um, being sick and all.” In fact, he was still embarrassed beyond words but managed to keep his voice even.
“It happens; we won’t talk of it again.” Her voice faded - Jesse could tell she was using her cell phone. When it returned all he heard of her last comment was, “…to keep me company. Sounds like the signal is going. I’m glad you’re better. I’ll see you Monday.”
The signal cut her off before he had the chance to stop his reply: “Bye,” he said into the dead line.
Jesse spent the rest of his morning doing his chores and listening to his older sisters bicker about who had to prepare lunch. Their mother had gone into town for something and his father was at work. Between taking care of the baby (which his sisters should have been doing) and his usual responsibilities, he also took time to look through his backpack for any homework assignments he’d forgotten. There was one. In a bit of a panic, he reviewed the math project and muttered a contemptuous comment about Mr. Thomas, the math teacher.
“For a guy who seems nice, he’s a real jerk,” he said aloud, believing no one was around.
“Who’s a jerk, Jess?” May Belle asked in a loud voice, startling him to the point that he spastically lost hold of his school books and papers, sending them flying.
“May Belle! Don’t do that,” he snapped angrily, though more because of his less than artful rearrangement of his burden than with his sister unexpected comment.
“Sorry, Jess,” the little girl said contritely. Then more cheerfully, “Do you like Barbie, Princess of …? What should she be Princess of, Jess?” She proudly showed her brother the results of the morning’s work.
Jesse was impressed with the doll. “How about…Terabithia?” he whispered. May Belle gave him a huge smile.
“It’s our secret, Jess.”
He apologized for raising his voice, congratulated his sister, and then gently told her to get ready for lunch. Looking as if it was the happiest day of her life, May Belle ran back up to her room.
Standing, thinking for a few seconds, Jesse felt a wave of satisfaction spread into his chest, it was a warm feeling of accomplishment. Since Leslie had told May Belle about Terabithia, the siblings’ relationship had improved.
When lunch was finished, and without anything in particular to do, Jesse decided to call Leslie to see if she wanted to do their math homework together. She was a level ahead of him and he hoped she could explain some of the concepts of algebra they were just starting to learn. With numbers, Jesse had no problem. But put letters in the equation and everything fell apart. He grabbed the phone just as his next oldest sister, Brenda, was about to use it and ran up to his parents room for privacy. Dialing the Burke’s house, he sat and waited through five rings.
The voice that answered was breathless and was barely able to gasp out a polite, “Hello?”
“Hi, Mrs. Burke, this is Jess. May I speak with Leslie, please?”
A couple more gulps of air followed before Mrs. Burke replied. “Sorry, Jess, I just came in from jogging. Leslie left a note, she’s out walking the dog. You might be able to find her down by the creek, I thought I saw her as I came in the house.” A few more gulps of air and she continued, “Are you feeling better? Bill said you were sick this morning.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m fine now, thank you. It was probably just something I ate. I’ll go look for Leslie.”
Jesse knew it wouldn’t be hard to find his friend. They had walked P.T. down the same road together many times and she only went as far as the rope swing. He looked at his mottled pink sneakers, sighed, put them on, and ran out the door. After passing the Burke’s house he saw P.T. jumping and barking happily a couple hundred yards ahead. A stick appeared from the trees to the left and sailed over the dog’s head; he immediately turned and shot off after it. Knowing who it was ahead, Jesse halved the distance in a few seconds and shouted out, “Hey! Leslie!”
A smiling face appeared from around a tree. “Hi, if you’re feeling better wanna go?” She thumbed in the direction of their treehouse across the creek, her standard invitation to Terabithia. Jesse feigned a stomach ache and mimed vomiting; his friend giggled and called for P.T.
Sprinting the final fifty yards, Jesse turned at the tree, looking for Leslie and P.T. but they weren’t there. What he saw next stunned him. The top half of the rope, its end shredded - was still swaying over the rain-swollen creek. Time froze and Jesse truly did feel nauseous as he scanned the far bank, hoping Leslie had made it but knowing she hadn’t. For just a few seconds - though they seemed like hours - Jesse called out his friend’s name but heard no reply.
Then he saw P.T. struggling to keep his head above water about thirty yards down the stream. If P.T.’s in the water, Leslie must be, too, Jesse realized. But she was nowhere to be seen. He looked left, back up the road and saw no one; he was nearly frozen with panic.
The next thing Jesse recalled was the sensation of falling, followed by an icy blast against his skin. His left shin struck something hard, tearing his pants and forcing a agonized scream from his mouth. He was in the creek, too.
The cold shock refocused him on why he was there, though he could recall nothing of how he had arrived in the water. Pushing up with his right leg, his left hurt too much to use, he came to the surface, sputtering and calling out Leslie’s name. P.T. could still be heard far downstream now, still barking and yelping. Sinking again under the weight of his waterlogged clothes, Jesse prepared to spring up from the creek bed but his feet were set against something that was neither mud nor rock.
Steadying himself with a thick root, Jesse reached down with his hand, afraid to go under the water. He felt down the steep bank and found something that should not be in the creek: a cold unmoving hand. His efforts had pulled him deeper into the water than he intended and he had to let go of the hand for a moment to get another breath of air. While on the surface he screamed at the top of his voice, hoping Mr. or Mrs. Burke - or anyone - would hear his cry for help. Without waiting for more time than it took him to refill his lungs, Jesse dove back into the blackness.
It took only a few seconds for him to find the hand flowing limply in the current. He took hold of it and pulled himself down to Leslie’s torso, letting go of the root. His friend was not large, but under the water she felt as if she weighed a ton. With one hand under her knees and the other under her back and pushed up from the creek bed.
It didn’t work. The two waterlogged children weighed more than enough to hold them below the surface - forever, and Leslie’s foot was tangled in something. Jesse did manage to get his head briefly into the air, but he went right back down. On the verge of panic, his chest protesting, demanding he gulp in the water if no air was available, he had one last idea. He let go of Leslie, except for one wrist, and again went to the surface. His burden partially relieved, it worked. Gulping in air and coughing out water, he found solid footing and brought his other hand down to pull Leslie up. In a few seconds her head was above the water, but the young face was ashen and its lips blue. But what disturbed Jesse most was the blood running from a long, deep cut across her scalp.
Jesse knew some first aid, his elementary school had sponsored a basic class earlier in the year, but the gash was far beyond what a Band-Aid could fix. His fear that Leslie was dead, however, instantly vanished. If she’s bleeding her heart is still pumping! The small pool of water in her mouth, however, told him she was not breathing. She would need artificial respiration…
That I know!
Again cradling the limp body, Jesse managed to throw her up upon a low part of the embankment and pull himself out of the water in spite of his growing leg pain. Rising, mainly on the other leg, he took Leslie’s wrists and dragged her a couple yards away from the creek and prepared to start the assisted breathing.
Check the mouth for obstructions, lift the neck and tilt the head back...
Jesse placed two fingers down her throat and pulled the back of her tongue forward.
Pinch the nostrils and seal the mouth, and exhale directly into the victim’s mouth… ok…
He heard himself lash out at someone but later had no recollection of what he said.
Release the nostrils and the seal around the mouth. Watch for the victim’s chest to rise by itself.
Feel for a pulse on the victim’s neck.
If the victim’s chest does not start to rise on its own, repeat this process until professional help arrives…
Great, and when will that be?
Jesse completed three cycles before he felt or saw any change. As he was about to start another breath, Leslie coughed and then vomited out a large quantity of water. She gagged and struggled to breathe for a few seconds, exhaling more fluids. Then it was over: she was breathing on her own. Jesse held his place leaning over her and for the first time since jumping into the creek was fully aware of his surroundings.
Mr. Burke was kneeling in the mud next to Leslie, holding her head. Mrs. Burke was, at that moment, returning from their house, sprinting all out, carrying blankets and speaking into her cell phone. She slipped in the mud and slid, arms flailing for balance, the final few feet to her daughter. If he hadn’t been so completely terrified and exhausted, Jesse might have laughed.
Turning his attention back to Leslie, he noticed Mr. Burke pressing a blood-soaked piece of clothing to Leslie’s cut head. It was his own t-shirt. A wave a disorientation and queasiness overcame Jesse again and he collapsed on the ground next to his best friend. He was not unconscious, just totally spent, and the pain in his left leg was becoming excruciating. Then his eyes began to shut, he felt dog-tired and knew he had to rest. The last thing Jesse recalled was Mrs. Burke saying she could hear the siren of the rescue squad, and May Belle crying.
Jesse had never been to Roanoke Valley Hospital, but even as he woke he was sure that was where he was. Hospitals, like dentist’s offices and veterinary clinics, have deeply ingrained smells unique to them. Jesse’s room, or ward - he still wasn’t sure which - was definitely part of a hospital. It was just too clean, hot, and medicine-smelling to be anything else.
He tried to open his eyes but they were sealed shut. Bringing one hand up, he massaged his lids and managed to work through the encrustations holding them together. After a minute he succeeded and saw for the first time what the inside of a hospital looked like. He was in a large room with seven other beds, of which only three, not including his own, were occupied. All the boys had casts on various parts of their body. An African-American boy, the closest to him, was in traction and had an evil looking bolt sticking out of his skin just below his knee with wires and weights attached to an equally frightening looking assembly above the bed.
“Pretty wicked, isn’t it?” the boy asked cheerfully, and with not a small amount of pride. “They almost had to cut it off, but the doc said she worked on me for seven hours! I’ll be in here for weeks. At least the food’s good.”
Jesse noticed he was tall, very thin, and probably undernourished. The Roanoke area was full of the poor and impoverished, perhaps this boy was one of them.
“My name’s George,” he continued, wagging his hand again as if to shake Jesse’s. “What happened to you?”
A good question! “Um, I’m not sure. I was…” But before he could continue, a smallish girl bound through the ward door and started calling out, “He’s awake! He’s awake! Jesse’s awake!”
May Belle ran to Jesse’s bed and threw her arms around him, but instead of talking up a storm as he expected, she started crying piteously. Looking over her head, Jesse saw his parents, both with smiles on their face, possibly bigger than he’d ever seen, standing at the door with Mr. and Mrs. Burke. His parents had not known Leslie’s parents before this point, but that was obviously a thing of the past. His mother was holding Joyce Ann, and even Ellie and Brenda were there.
Is that flowers they’re holding? Maybe I’m really dead…
Then Jesse froze. Leslie? He set May Belle down as quickly and gently as he could and started to get up. Before he had so much as thrown off his blankets, all four adults, a newly arrived linebacker-size nurse, and his two older sisters were admonishing him to stay where he was. But it didn’t matter, Jesse realized, he wasn’t going anywhere. For the first time since he awoke he looked down toward his feet. There, covering three-quarters of his left leg, was a cast. It was complete with wires and bolts, much like the ones George had, but without the extensive rigging.
Collapsing back into bed, Jesse turned and asked, “Is Leslie okay?” The smiles from her parents gave him the answer.
A while later, with visiting hours nearly over and the stories told and retold, Jesse’s parents rolled his bed to the large picture-window next to a door that led to the corridor. He had no idea why this was happening, he was too happy from hearing that Leslie was alive to be alarmed by much of anything. The pain killers had something to do with that, also. Mrs. Aarons opened the curtain while her husband cranked up the top end of Jesse’s bed. When raised, Jack Aarons silently pointed out the window and Jesse discovered the reason for all the activity.
Across the hallway was another window, its curtain also open, with a child - a girl - in a bed similar to his. She wore a neck brace and a bandage ran down one side of her shaved head, from crown to right ear, with the telltale marks of sutures barely visible beneath. She looked like a soccer ball. She looked like Leslie. The girl managed a small smile at seeing her friend: she waved, mouthed what looked like a thank you, and then lay back down, obviously exhausted.
A few minutes later, Jesse Aarons fell soundly asleep, ending the happiest and most frightening day of his life.
Not far off, Judy and Bill Burke held their daughter gently while saying goodnight. That was something of an accomplishment in itself, trying to show her the intimacy she deserved and not touch her battered head or braced neck. She was barely awake, too. “Goo’ night, Mom…love you. Love you, Daddy.” She hadn’t called her father ‘Daddy’ in three years.
Judy stood up to give her husband more room. He leaned closer and whispered into his daughter’s ear, “Love you, too, Les,” and started to stand, but a hand came up quickly to stop him.
“Did you say Jess saved me?” she asked groggily.
“Yes, he did. He’s a very good friend.”
Leslie muttered something unintelligible and her father almost let it go, but having seen his only child near death, he was unwilling to miss anything she might say.
“What was that, sweetheart?”
“Yes, I know.”
While Leslie slept, her parents sat at the far end of the girl’s ward to prevent disturbing their daughter while they talked. Both wore clothing stained with her blood: she required two units to make up for what she’d lost in the accident. But Leslie’s parents were fully aware that they had been extraordinarily lucky that day. Any one of a number of events could have easily left their daughter dead. If Jesse hadn’t become sick he wouldn’t have been there to save Leslie… If May Belle hadn’t followed her brother and heard his cry for help… If Jesse hadn’t been able to pull Leslie out of the water with his shin bone broken - a feat the doctor had told them must have been dreadfully painful. The list went on, but both realized that it was primarily through Jesse’s intervention that their only child was alive.
A sense of failure, unspoken, but real to both, silenced their quiet conversation of the last hour. Both parents had expected that their presence at home, the benefit of successful writing careers, would expose Leslie to fewer bumps and scrapes. But it had not; certainly not physically or emotionally. Her first days at the new school had been like all the others at the old ones. Bill liked to tease his wife by saying Leslie was a cross between Annie Oakley and your every-day garden variety tom-boy. Judy would, on these occasions, remind her husband that Leslie was a carbon copy of her father in every way but gender and appearance.
It was not long after their move to the quiet Appalachian town of Lark Creek that Leslie began to act happier. They suspected she had made some new friends and tried to question her about it. But the only point they could glean from her reserved responses was that it was a single person. They would not press her for more details; however, they correctly deduced that the person was male since her few friends at other schools had all been females and she readily told them their names. The gender of her new friend really did not matter, they knew, it was the acceptance of the person that was significant. As the weeks passed and they learned about Jesse Aarons it was obvious the two children had grown into a mutually beneficial relationship.
The satisfaction and gratitude the parents felt for Jesse befriending their daughter was beyond words, but both parents understood the other’s thoughts. Leslie had not been the only one to benefit from the friendship. Jesse, they’d heard, had been a loner, too, and a regular target of bullies at school.
“Jude, she loves him. You know that, don’t you?” Bill said, in almost a whisper to his spouse and with a smile barely perceptible on his tired face.
“Yes, she told me… but they’re so young.”
He smiled and nodded. “I know, she doesn’t really understand the word yet, but they both understand friendship. I’d rather she have one good friend like Jess than a dozen failed loves.” Bill spoke the words as though he was quoting from some ancient sage. “Jude, something happened back at the creek that I haven’t told you about.” He pronounced creek like crick.
Judy simply nodded, waiting for the rest of the story.
“When you ran off to get the towels and blanket, Jess started to give Leslie artificial respiration. He was doing perfectly fine, obviously,” he nodded at their daughter, “but I tried to get him to let me take over.” Bill stopped, his emotions beginning to spill over.
“What is it, Bill?” she asked with concern.
“I…I don’t think Jess knew what he was doing, but he shoved me away. Pretty roughly, too, for an eleven-year old. And between almost every breath he was saying something even though he could barely talk from the cold and everything else. It sounded like he said, ‘Leslie should come with us’.”
“‘Leslie should come with us’? What does that mean?”
“I think…I’m not certain, but I think it has to do with their music teacher, Ms. Edmonds. When I saw Jess this morning he was with her and she told me they were going up to Lynchburg to an art exhibit when Jess said Leslie should go with them.” Bill twisted his neck back and forth to relieve tension and waited for a response.
“Jess’s mother told me she didn’t know he was going anywhere. What does this have to do with Leslie, Bill?”
“I don’t know, probably nothing. But think about this: If Jess had gone with Ms. Edmonds…” He pointed to their daughter again. Judy Burke understood. “But he asked if Les could go with them. It’s eerie, like he knew he had to be near her today.”
“Look, Bill, we’re both beat, and you’ve been writing too much science fiction lately. I think we just have to thank…” she almost said ‘God,’ “…we have to be thankful that it turned out as well as it did.” Leaning against her husband, Judy ended the conversation with a brief kiss.
“You want the night watch?” asked Bill a minute later.
“Yeah, you go home and rest. We’ll see you tomorrow.” With that, Bill left his wife and daughter to drive home for the night.
Judy Burke, after a final goodnight kiss on her daughter’s poorly shaven head, looked into the boy’s ward. Jesse was sleeping, too, along with the other three boys. His father, she was not surprised to see, was kneeling at his bedside, obviously in prayer. With an unconscious motion, she blew a kiss to Jesse Aarons, as she used to do with her daughter, and returned to the girl’s ward. Glancing one last time at Leslie, seeing her soundly sleeping, she left for the guest room the hospital supplied for the parents of their patients. The room smelled of medicine and the bed was lumpy and uncomfortable, but it didn’t matter. Judy Burke was asleep before her head hit the pillow.