GROUNDHOGS AT TERABITHIA
KING OF TERABITHIA'S ROW
Dinner conversation at the Burkes' included no mention of Leslie and Jesse's activities in the woods, and focused on the new exhibits at the National Gallery, as well as on all the compliments Miss Edmonds had heaped on both youngsters over tea that afternoon; her compliments were more generous in their absence than those she'd given them directly on the drive home from the museum. Leslie waited until they were almost done dessert before saying, "Mom, Dad, something happened out in the woods this afternoon that I've gotta tell you about. Something really strange."
"You're suddenly sounding a lot more serious, Sweetheart," her father mused.
"It is serious, Dad. I almost died."
Both her parents gasped. "What happened?" Mrs. Burke asked.
"Be right back," Leslie said, getting up. Jesse said nothing in response to the Burkes' inquiring glances at him as she went through the kitchen into the utility room where she'd left the coil of rope when they'd first returned, and brought it back. She undid the frayed end she had wrapped around the rest of the coil and held it up.
"This is-- was the rope that Jess and I used to swing on to get across the creek to our tree house. It broke today."
"Leslie," her mother gasped, "you weren't hurt, were you?"
"I'm fine, Mom. Jesse's tush is probably gonna be a little sore for a few days, though. He's the one who was on the rope when it broke."
"Just your tush, Jesse?" Mrs. Burke was clearly concerned.
"I'll be fine, Mrs. Burke!" he reassured her. "A small price to pay for Leslie!"
"But there's more, Mom and Dad," Leslie continued. "Jess knew the rope was going to break. He saved my life!..."
"That's quite a story, Sweetheart," Mr. Burke smiled, both he and Mrs. Burke greatly relieved.
They'd moved to the living room at Mrs. Burke's suggestion shortly after Leslie started her recounting of the events, and now the two couples faced one another on the couches, the coil of rope on the coffee table between them. Leslie had done nearly all of the talking.
"Thank you, Jesse!" Mrs. Burke said, her eyes moist, and breathing a little anxiously, then turned to Leslie. "Someone was definitely looking out for you, Sweetheart."
"Yes, Mom. I know. Jess and that Other Someone!" Leslie held Jesse's hand and squeezed it tight.
"You know, Leslie, Jess," her father said, "I majored in psychology in school and worked in psychology research before I met Leslie's mom. Our writing careers came later. Most people in the field believe that a 'Sixth Sense' is actually just the other five senses coming together and subconsciously putting it all in a way that makes sense to the consciousness. My guess is that you caught a glimpse of that rock sometime earlier without realizing it, then while you were swinging along on the rope, you felt it starting to give-- again without realizing it-- and then when you went to sleep last night your subconscious put it together in a dream and told you the rope was going to break." He smiled. "We owe you our Leslie's life no less for that. If anything, we owe you even more."
"It wasn't a dream, Mr. Burke," Jesse shook his head.
"Daddy, he knows stuff that he couldn't possibly know just from his subconscious!" Leslie said, disappointed at her father's smug skepticism. She smiled. "He knew I told you once that I love him and that he's the only real friend I've ever had!"
"Well, Leslie, honey, that's hardly the best kept secret in the world!" her father laughed. "Both of you have rather vivid imaginations, that's why you're so close and share so much. And that's why your dream was so vivid and detailed, Jesse."
"He knew that a tree was going to fall down by the creek, and we were there when it did!"
"Leslie," her father replied, "I believe that you believe that, but..."
"Mom, Dad, we've never talked about this before," Leslie looked at both of them, "but if I were to die right now, would you put me in a coffin, or would you have me cremated?" She raised her hand. "Don't answer that out loud! You know what the answer is, and you know that both Jesse and I know what the answer is!"
"Well, Sweetheart," her mother replied, "your dad and I never actually gave it any thought until today, but we do both plan on being cremated ourselves whenever our times come. And I suppose that if, God forbid, we should ever have to make that decision..."
"You did, Mrs. Burke," Jesse looked at her, his eyes watering. "You did make that decision. And I was in this room grieving with you when you announced it to everyone. You had a couple of snapshots and school portraits of Leslie in frames on that table over there, with a memorial album that my parents and I signed."
"Vivid imagination. Details," Mr. Burke nodded.
Jesse had been quiet and passive most of the evening, letting Leslie do most of the talking, but now he was getting a little mad at Mr. Burke's now patronizing tone. He got up and stepped over to the vestibule where his backpack was, then opened it. He pulled out a sketchbook and his set of pastel crayons. "Mr. Burke, I've never met Leslie's grandma-- your mom-- ever, have I?"
"You know you haven't!"
"And you don't have any pictures of her out here in the living room or any other part of the house I've been in, right?" He returned to the couch beside Leslie and set the sketchbook and pastels in the coffee table.
Leslie's parents looked at each other and both shrugged. "I guess not," Mrs. Burke replied.
"But I remember meeting her!" Jesse said. "At your front door. What I remember as six days ago, what to you would be tomorrow afternoon!" He opened the sketchbook to a blank page and started drawing. "I'll draw you a picture of her!"
"Ohhhhkay!" Mr. Burke smiled skeptically. "Only, Leslie, you can't help him!"
"I wasn't going to!" Leslie snapped, incensed.
He gestured toward an armchair in a corner. "Leslie, please sit over there in that chair. Jesse, please turn your back so you can't see her. Even subtle visual cues can help! Even if neither of you are aware you're exchanging them!"
"I'll do better than that!" Leslie sighed. "I'm going to my room. Jesse doesn't need my help, conscious or subconscious!" She pecked Jesse on the cheek, squeezed his hand and then stalked off down the hallway. "You'll show 'em, Jess!"
Jesse continued to draw, holding the sketchbook on his lap. It was the least cartoonish or caricaturish portrait he had ever done in his life so far. The details of Grandma Burke's face and what she was wearing were burned into his memory, and he meant to convey every single detail to Leslie's parents.
When he was nearly finished, Leslie reemerged from the hall, now barefoot and wearing her yellow robe, open at the front, over a pale pink floral-embroidered nightshirt. "Remember what I said about having company over!" she said softly to him with a wink.
Her father motioned for her to sit with him and her mother on their side of the coffee table and she did so, on her mother's other side.
"Done!" Jesse said after a couple of more minutes. He kept the sketchbook open as he handed it over to Mr. Burke. Leslie caught enough of a glimpse of it to see that it was every bit as good as she was expecting.
Her father took the sketchbook, and his skeptical, patronizing smirk immediately gave way to a shaken, palefaced gasp. It was probably as good a pastel-crayon sketch as any fifth grader could do as a likeness of his own mother.
"You know, Leslie has always taken after my mom," he said, but his voice quavered. He turned to his daughter. "It wouldn't take too much imagination to picture you as an older woman with white hair..."
"Daddy, now you're grasping at straws! You know Jesse's been telling you the truth all along!"
"Judy, are you sure we've never had pictures of my mom on the wall out here sometime?"
"You know we haven't, Bill!" Mrs. Burke shook her head. "Just in your den, and you keep that locked most of the time! Even if Jesse's been in there, I doubt if he'd know for sure who she was." She tilted the sketchbook toward her. "Let me see... Oh, my God!" She became as pale and shaken as her husband. "Bill, look at her dress!"
Mr. Burke looked at the sketch again and his face got even whiter, if that was possible.
Leslie looked over her mother's shoulder and squinted at the sketch. "What about the dress? I've never seen Grandma wear a dress like that one!"
"You couldn't have!" her mother replied. She wrapped both her arms around Leslie's waist and pulled her close, very protectively. "Daddy and I got that dress for her, when we buried your grandpa four years before you were born, and the last time she wore it was at your Great-Aunt Patty's funeral when I was pregnant with you. She calls it her 'Funerals Only' dress!"
The two of them spent most of the rest of the evening playing with Prince Terrian in Leslie's room, while Leslie's parents retired to the den where Leslie and Jesse could hear very muted and serious-sounding conversation. As it got later, Leslie took PT to his bed in the utility room, and then she and Jesse went to the guest bedroom next to hers, where she helped him make the bed. Over the course of setting up, Leslie took Jesse's sketchbook, opened it to the drawing of Grandma Burke, and propped it up on the bedside table against the lamp.
Both were obviously reluctant to call it a night.
"I have an idea!" Leslie brightened. "Be right back!"
She stepped back in her room for a few seconds and returned with a copy of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. She sat on the bed beside him. "Let's read Act Three together!"
Jesse looked at her but pursed his lips.
"Bad answer?" she winced.
"Bad answer! Leslie, you know I'm still scared that that--" he indicated the book-- "is what's really going on, why we're realy back together today."
"And I know it's not, Jess!"
He took the book and set it on the bedside table next to the sketchbook. "Tell you what. If you're still here in the morning and this whole day wasn't a dream, we'll spend the whole day tomorrow reading it. But right now, I don't even want to think about it! Okay?"
"It's a deal, silly!"
The Burkes appeared in the open doorway and rapped on the frame. Jesse and Leslie both stood up.
"Leslie, Dad and I are going to turn in now. Jess, do you need anything else?"
"No, thanks, Mrs. Burke."
"You'll still be here for breakfast in the morning, right?"
"I sure hope so!" Jesse nodded, looking over to Leslie.
"Oh, and Leslie," her father said, "Mom and I are going to need your help Sunday morning."
"My help? With what?"
"We need you to show us how to get to the church Jess and his family go to," he smiled.
"We're joining?" Leslie's eyebrows raised.
"Maybe not, but you're free to keep going with the Aarons as often as you want. For now, Mom and I decided to say thank you!"
"Daddy, if God's really watching over me, we don't have to go to church for Him to hear us."
"Yes, but the gesture's important. And speaking of saying thank you..." Mr. Burke stepped over and gave Jesse a hug. It was almost exactly like the hug Jesse remembered from the "first time around", at the wake when Mr. Burke had told him that Leslie had loved him. "Jesse, thank you for saving our Leslie's life. And I owe you a big apology!"
"It just happened, Mr. Burke. I don't know how, but it just happened. I couldn't have done anything different, knowing what I knew this time around. And I'm as happy as you are that it happened."
Mrs. Burke stepped in and hugged him as well. "Nevertheless, thank you for saving my baby. I don't even want to imagine how devastated we would be if we ever lost her." She kissed him on the cheek as Leslie watched and smiled with misty eyes.
"I hope you never find out," Jesse smiled back, tears in his voice, "because I do know. Believe me, I do!"
"We believe you," Mr. Burke nodded, glancing over at Jesse's drawing of Grandma Burke. He and his wife put their arms around each other, and then they both pulled their daughter between them. Leslie buried her face in the crevice between their bodies, then kissed both of them.
"I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy."
"We love you, too, Sweetheart," Mrs. Burke said.
After they separated, Mr. Burke smiled and said, "You guys be sure not to stay up too late! I know it's been a weird day and you're both wired, and it's still Spring Break, but you still need a good night's sleep. Good night."
Leslie's parents stepped out of the room as Jesse sat back down on the bed. "I guess that's their way of telling us to call it a night," he said apprehensively. He was still afraid of letting her out of his sight and letting the day end, and it showed.
"It is," she nodded. He lay down and pulled up the covers, but Leslie just stood there. She waited until they heard the door of her parents' bedroom close, then she smiled. She waited quietly several more seconds. "Okay, now slide over!" she whispered.
She stepped over and sat on the bed next to him. "You heard me! Move over!" She lay down on top of the covers and started sliding up close to him.
"Leslie, your parents will kill us!" he whispered.
"No, they wont!" she giggled while continuing to whisper. "First off, I plan on both of us waking up before they do. Second, even if they do find us, they trust me and they know I know I'm too young to even think about having sex or anything like that. And my folks both just hugged you and my mom just kissed you. They love you, and they just came within a hair's breadth of losing me forever, so they're not going to kill either of us." She pointed to the drawing of Grandma Burke and smiled. "That's a Get Out of Jail Free Card for both of us!"
"You sure?" he asked
"Sure I'm sure. We'll be okay as long as I keep my shirt on and stay on top of the covers. If they find us, I can say you fell asleep first and I was too tired to go to back to my own room, so you'll be completely off the hook." She paused and smiled. "Jess, I think I have to do this!"
"If this is Groundhog Day, then for you move on to tomorrow with me still here, you and I have to wake up together, without having had sex and with our clothes on but in the same bed, like Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell!"
"Hey! I like that theory!" He slid over to make room, but kept her close. "You gonna be warm enough without the covers?"
"I usually sleep naked, remember?" she nodded. "I'll be fine with this shirt and robe on. But I guess I should keep my feet warm." She lifted the edge of the covers with her toes, slid her feet under them and put them against his. He smiled as he draped one arm over her waist. She did the same to him.
"And Jesse, even if it isn't like Groundhog Day, and if I was like Emily from Our Town, and I was given just one more day in this life, I want you to know that this is just how I'd want that day to end." She saw him frown. "But it's not like Our Town! I'm here, I'm alive, and I'm alive because of you. And I'll be here when you wake up. I promise!" She smiled. "Have I ever broken a promise to you?"
"No. You never have, Leslie."
"Every day of my life from now on, I owe to you and to the God who sent you back in time to this morning, so I'm not going to waste a second of your gift and His. Thank you, Jesse. I love you."
"I love you too, Leslie."
They kissed and then she closed her eyes. He pulled up close to her and buried his face in her hair. The scents of the shampoo and conditioner from when he first hugged her that morning had faded, and were now mixed with those of her own sweat, the water of the creek and the woods of Terabithia. Jesse closed his eyes, and fell asleep smelling those scents, feeling the warmth of her feet touching his, and feeling and listening to the steady rhythms of Leslie's breathing and heartbeat.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed writing it. I pretty much took the characters as Katherine and David Paterson created them, set up the situation my way, and the story pretty much wrote itself!
This is the last chapter of the main body of the story, but I'm not calling it Complete yet and reserve the right to add a more expended Afterword later on, depending on the feedback I get.
If you thought this story was too light and fluffy, you might want to check out my much darker one-shot scenario Last Battle of Terabithia. It's not a sequel to this but an alternate followup. But I have a feeling most people will want to come back here and reread this whole story as an antidote afterward!
Thanks for the reviews. Keep 'em coming!