I figured the only way to make up for the shortness of the last chapter was to make this one as long as I possibly could. :) So . . . enjoy!
Valentine's Day brought a hostile wind and an ugly gray sky to Lark Creek - both of which matched Jess's mood perfectly. When he awoke early that morning, groggy and discombobulated, it took him a moment to remember why his stomach felt like it had been tied in a knot, but upon digging a little deeper into his thoughts, he bolted upright, a fresh wave of anxiety crashing over him.
"Is there going to be a trial . . . ?"
"On Valentine's Day . . . can you imagine . . . ?"
Jess shut his eyes briefly, begging his thoughts to stay collected for the sake of his sanity, then he quietly out of bed. It was only a little past six, but Jess snuck past his sleeping sisters in his pajamas anyway, hoping that his moving body would cancel out the movement of his insides that kept squirming.
Shutting the bedroom door behind him, he crept down the hall to walk down the stairs and, without warning, found himself face to face with Ellie.
"Watch it!" they yelped at the same time, jumping back a little. Ellie blinked and said, "Oh, it's you."
"What's that for?" Jess demanded as he rubbed sleep out of his eyes, pointing to the roll of paper towels Ellie grasped in one hand and a glass of water she held in the other.
"Brenda," his sister said simply. "You can help if you want, Mom and Dad are still asleep."
Jess blinked, confused, as Ellie pushed past him and walked over to the bathroom she and Brenda shared. The light was on. The nerves in Jess's stomach were starting to spread to his chest, his legs, his arms; his mind had gone numb, which was the only explanation he could think of for his feet that had started moving in the direction of the bathroom, following Ellie into the little room where Brenda was kneeling in front of the toilet.
His eldest sister's face was white and her forehead shone with sweat.
"Goddamn it, isn't morning sickness supposed to be over by month four?" she groaned as Ellie wet a few of the paper towels under the sink and pressed them to Brenda's face.
"Shut up before you wake up the whole house," said Ellie with a sweet smile. "Jess, if you're gonna stand there, hand me that water."
Jess did as he was told. His legs wobbled a bit and he lifted himself up so he could sit on the counter.
"Can I do anything else?" he asked as Brenda drank from the cup only to spit it back up.
"Nah, she'll stop spewing soon enough," Ellie said cheerfully. "Usually I just stick it out, you know, for moral support."
"I hate you," moaned Brenda directly before she threw up again into the toilet. Jess closed the bathroom door with his foot and hopped off the counter to open the window. Ellie pressed a new batch of paper towels to Brenda's forehead, pulling her dark hair back out of the way.
"Better here than in Leslie's place," she said with a small shrug. She looked at Jess quickly. "I mean, well . . . you know. It'll be over soon, right?"
Jess looked at Ellie. It occurred to him that whenever he could find no words to explain his shock, all he seemed to be able to do was stare.
"Okay," Brenda said a few minutes later, gasping, and she reached for the water cup. "I think it's done."
"Good, I have puke on my finger," Ellie said. She leaned over to the sink to scrub her hands, so Jess stepped forward and put the paper towels on Brenda's face instead, dampening her hot skin as gently as possible. Brenda shot him a weary glance before the look in her eyes melted into one of gratefulness.
"Well, who's up for some bacon and eggs?" Jess asked jokingly and recoiled when Brenda's face screwed up and she put a hand over her mouth. "No, no, no, don't think of that! Think of, uh, meadows and steams and stuff . . . no, you're sitting in a field of flowers where there is no food to be seen . . . ."
Ellie burst into laughter at the sink, and Brenda gave a weak chuckle as she leaned away from the toilet and sat down properly on the bathroom floor. Jess crumbled the wet paper towels into a ball and threw them at Ellie. To her credit she didn't shriek, only picked them up and threw them back, still snorting.
"I've come to a conclusion," Brenda announced half an hour later, as Ellie and Jess, all fully dressed, supported her on their way downstairs. "When this kid is born, he or she's gonna get a detailed analysis of what exactly I had to go through for nine months. It'll be so ashamed that it will be the best child known to man."
"It?" Ellie asked, chortling.
"Mom must have failed to have that talk with all of us," Jess said and his sisters laughed as the three of them walked into the kitchen together.
Nancy came down to cook breakfast not too long afterwards and the rest of the family trickled into the kitchen while Jess's nerves began to heighten again. He could eat nothing, could only think of what the day ahead of him would unleash while every member of his family pretended to be interested in his or her food as well, as though they all were not anticipating the trial that Jess had secretly been dreading more than Terabithia's.
Judy came rushing through the kitchen door as the seven of them attempted to go about their routines. Nancy was dishing up scrambled eggs at the stove while Ellie was refilling her glass of orange juice, and they turned at the slam of the door as the rest of the family looked up from the table.
"Oh," Judy said, out of breath, as she closed the door behind her, "I'm so sorry to interrupt—"
"Not at all, not at all," Nancy said quickly as Jack pulled out a chair for her. "Is everything alright over there?"
"Wha—? Oh, yes, everything fine, just chaotic," Judy said, attempting to smile as she sat down, running her fingers through her hair. She was in jeans and a sweater, clearly not what she intended to wear to court. "You know, we've just got the lawyers running around making sure they have their material and we're all trying to get ready . . . and apparently there's been a problem with our limo schedule and we're not sure what's going on—"
"It's just all pre-trial dilemmas," Jack said as Ellie sat back down and Joyce Ann whispered, "They get a limo?"
"Absolutely, it'll all work out," Nancy said encouragingly.
"And I can call up my workers and they'll give you all rides if it comes to that," Jack added.
"Thank you, Jack, but don't worry, I'm pretty sure they'll get it solved," replied Judy gratefully. Up close, she looked fatigued. "The thing is Leslie said she was taking a walk an hour ago and we haven't seen her since . . . which isn't good because they all want to review their facts . . . I kind of hoped she would be over here . . . "
"She's at the forest," Jess said automatically and all eyes turned to him. "By the creek? I'm sure that's where she went."
"Is she okay?" May Belle interrupted, looking anxious. The room got quiet as Judy sighed.
"Well, she's nervous," she answered softly, "but I talked to her for a while this morning and I think she's going to be okay. Down by the creek, you said, Jess?"
"Yeah, I'll go get her," Jess answered, getting up rapidly and grabbing a piece of toast. Brenda glanced up at him.
"I hope she isn't looking at all that construction," she mentioned. "That won't make her any calmer."
"You're a lifesaver, Jess. Hey, at least she knows that she'll win this trial," Judy said, and Ellie offered her a plate of food. "Thank you, honey, this looks delicious. Do you all have your passes, Nancy?"
Nancy patted the kitchen counter where four slips of paper lay. "Right here."
"Why can't May Belle and I come to the trial?" Joyce Ann demanded as Jess hurriedly threw on his coat and shoes. "Why do we have to stay with Ellie?"
"Honey, this is a criminal trial, not a civil one at all. Your father and I don't want you to—" Nancy was saying as Jess rushed out the door. The frosty air seemed to enhance his nerves rather than freeze them as he walked down the driveway to the dirt road. He saw two Audi cars and a Mercedes sitting in the driveway next to Bill's BMW and Judy's Lexus, and his anxiety deepened as he realized that the lawyers were indeed over at the Burke household, that this was not a nightmare after all, but reality.
He walked. The air was cold and bitterly stung his face but after a while he hardly noticed for lack of concentration. Absentmindedly he trotted along the dirt road, looking around him at the grass and bushes and bare trees on all sides of him, occasionally glancing upwards to study the grey sky. He only broke his steady pace to pick out a few of the wild flowers that had grown through the winter frost and were waving slightly to him from the sides of the road.
He walked through the farmland as he arranged the yellow and violet and red flowers together and twisted the stems slightly. As he passed the huge billboard that had been hammered into the ground at the edge of the forest, he forced himself to close his eyes briefly.
It's not important now, he attempted to tell himself, and he set his mind to looking for Leslie.
Sure enough, within a moment or two, he caught sight of Leslie's golden hair whipping around slightly in the mild breeze at the edge of the creek. PT was beside her, lying with his head on her knee. When the terrier turned around to see Jess, his tail started wagging frantically and Leslie jumped as he barked in greeting. She turned and saw him walking toward her.
"Well, I figured if anyone was going to find me it'd be you," she said abruptly, squinting up at him. To Jess's astonishment, she was smiling slightly. "Everybody freaked out yet?"
"No, Judy's a bit stressed though. I think the limo schedule got screwed up or something," Jess said and he immediately regretted the words; Leslie's smile faded. "But I'm sure everything's fine," he added hastily as he sat down next to her.
Leslie sighed and put a hand to her forehead.
"Happy Valentine's Day," Jess said, kissing her cheek lightly and holding out the bouquet to her.
Leslie turned to him with overwhelmed eyes, taking the flowers with a small smile. "Oh, Jess," she whispered. "I forgot."
"You have every reason for that," said Jess, holding his arms out for her. She leaned into them almost at once. "You okay?"
Leslie shrugged, staring out at the quietly moving river and the forest that lay beyond it. Jess followed her gaze. During the three weeks or so between Terabithia's trial and Leslie's, Miranda's Outfitting! had pulled out all the stops. The trees had been splashed in horrid red and orange and white colors, the dirt had been re-staked and spray painted until Jess could hardly tell one clearing from another. There were cigarette ends scattered everywhere, and bits of plastic and trash tumbling around over the new colors of the dirt - all courtesy of the workers who were there almost every day. No one was around since it was Valentine's Day, but the echos of the workers' presence were everywhere Jess looked.
"I figured you'd be here," he said, to fill the silence.
Leslie closed her eyes. Jess played with her hair absently until she reached up to intertwine her fingers with his.
"Are you nervous?" Jess asked quietly.
Leslie took a breath. "No," she said, still gazing at what remained of Terabithia's beauty.
Jess was surprised. "I'm glad," was all he said.
They were quiet. The wind made the trees' branches shiver.
"I was just thinking," Leslie said softly, still staring straight ahead across the creek at the forest, "about that day, all those years ago. When the rope broke."
"Is that making this any easier?" Jess asked in amazement.
"Surprisingly, yes," Leslie answered, and a smile broke across her face. It flooded Jess's heart with emotion, seeing her at ease like she had been months ago. "I just remember . . . when I was drowning in that river . . . when I couldn't breathe and thought I was going to die, I had this thought in the back in my mind that maybe the darkness would go away soon, you know? Like maybe everything was going to get brighter."
Jess said nothing. Leslie had a true smile on her face now.
"And you jumped in after me and got me out and . . . and got me back home, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Jess murmured softly, and Leslie nestled closer to him, resting her cheek on his shoulder.
"I just keep thinking of that feeling more than anything else. The idea that maybe everything would be okay in the end. And that river . . . me being in that river, anyway, that's how I feel now, I guess. I was drowning. I thought I was going to die. But now I think that maybe, maybe I won't be in the darkness much longer."
Suddenly Jess felt his eyes sting with the threat of tears. He closed them quickly and rested his chin on the top of Leslie's head.
"They might have taken down our bridge and spray painted our land," Leslie said, her voice rising slightly, "but I can still see the sign that used to hang there, right there. Nothing crushes us, Jess. Nothing."
Jess pressed his lips to her hair. "No one," he said, voice husky, "could have said it better."
"The lawyers could have," Leslie said, and suddenly she burst out laughing. "God, they're amazing. Truly, they're all gearing up back there like they're prepping for freaking war. It's fantastic. And I thought I could write. You should see their material. Well, you're going to hear it, but still."
Jess was grinning for the first time in days. Hearing Leslie laugh did more to calm his nerves than anything else in the world could have. "So you know everything you're going to say?"
Leslie snorted. "As opposed to last time, where I winged everything I said on that podium? The lawyers and I have outlined everything to the last syllable. They have their roles, I have mine. It's going to be one good show, I think. Not like last time, though, when I got to bitch out the entire town."
Jess laughed suddenly and threw his hands to the sky. God, did it feel good to laugh. "O great spirits, protect the world from the wrath of Queen Leslie, fearless destroyer of towns and outlines. . . "
"Your royal highness," Leslie said, pointing a stick at him with authority, "are you mocking Terabithia's queen?"
"Maybe," Jess said mischievously.
Leslie tacked him. She threw her hands to his shoulders with such force Jess was taken completely aback. He toppled backwards and his queen landed on top of him, pinning him to the ground almost before he could think.
PT jumped up and barked frantically as Jess fought back laughter.
"Does the king dare to mock his queen?"
"Yes, he does," Jess answered.
"Then he is to receive punishment," Leslie said, lowering her head so that Jess felt her warm breath on his neck.
"Oh?" Jess asked, wrapping his arms around the waist of the girl on top of him, trying not to seem too eager, "and what might that be?"
Leslie brushed her lips against the softness of the skin under Jess's ear.
"Torture," she breathed wickedly, and Jess shivered, bringing his hands up over her back and shoulder blades to cup her neck in his palms. Leslie sighed softly as he planted countless kisses in her hair, his skin tingling as Leslie's small hands gently caressed his shoulders.
"Torture me, then," Jess challenged, dizzy with ardor, and Leslie, eyes alight, raised her head and rested her lips on his, kissing him more fiercely than she ever had before, her as Jess responded hungrily . . . he could hardly breathe, he was unaware of hardly anything except for the beating of both of their hearts as their kisses deepened . . . .
P.T., who had been barking nonstop, suddenly moved so close to them they could feel his breath in their faces as he screamed directly at them. They broke apart and Leslie grumbled something that Jess could not hear over the dog's racket. They stopped to look at their prince. When Leslie raised herself up a few inches off of Jess, P.T. backed up slightly, his barking melting into low growls.
"Stupid dog," both she and Jess said at the same time, and they looked at each other and smiled before Leslie bent down to press her lips against his briefly. P.T. yelped before she could move away.
"We'll continue this when the royal prince is put to bed," Leslie declared.
"We will?" Jess said, startled.
Leslie pushed herself off of him and pulled herself upward to a sitting position. Jess was not nearly ready for her to let him up, but he rightened himself, too.
"When the trial's over," Leslie said as they both brushed bits of grass from their clothing, "we'll come back here."
Jess mentally shook himself and looked over at her. His heart was still pounding, his mind still a blissful haze. But something deeper was awakening in his head, too.
"I guess we'll have to see, right?" he asked gently.
Leslie blinked. The light in her eyes dimmed a little bit.
"Yeah, I guess we'll see. After the trial."
"After the trial," Jess repeated. They sat in a very full silence for a minute or two, then Jess stood up and offered his hand to his queen, who took it gladly. As soon as she had stood up, Jess could not resist. He scooped her up in his arms and kissed her again, ignoring P.T.'s fresh round of protests and feeling only her lips as she kissed him back . . . hearing only the screeches of a nearby truck that was slowly growing in volume . . .
As the two of them broke apart yet again, Jess realized P.T. wasn't barking at them this time, he was howling at an orange truck that had been pealing down the road through the farmland, the radio positively screeching along with the brakes as the truck came to an abrupt halt just outside the start of the trees. PT yowled and he charged at the arriver; Jess caught him and scooped him up as he and Leslie hurriedly walked towards the edge of the forest.
"Reinforcements?" Jess said in utter confusion.
Leslie opened her mouth to answer, but stopped short as they broke through the trees into the open land, and a man heaved himself out of the orange truck. He stopped and looked at them, confusion in every feature of his face.
"Well, hi there," he grunted. A lighted cigarette was sticking out of the corner of his mouth. "There a reason you're up 'ere where you shou'n't be?"
Jess felt it for good then, felt it in the air as Leslie's mouth opened and her eyes snapped with irritation. He felt the energy he had missed, the energy he had once lived off of coming from Leslie's previously broken spirit and his heart absolutely soared the moment Leslie began to talk.
"I might ask you the same thing," she snapped and suddenly, short as she was, she seemed much taller. "I was under the impression that holidays were breaks for you workers."
The man squinted at her, frowning.
"Th' boss told me to get on up 'ere and make sure you kids wasn't doing anything," he said. "Looks like it was a good thing I came."
"We lost the trial," Leslie growled. "Why would we break the law?"
"Run along now, kids, I've got work to do," snapped the worker, taking a long drag on his cigarette and blowing the smoky air definitely in their faces. Leslie seized Jess's free hand and began to march away, P.T. yapping at the man one last time and Jess looking back to see the worker holding his cigarette and studying the forest as the two of them hurried back down the dirt road, both of them coughing from the smoke.
They were halfway to their houses when suddenly, unexplainably, P.T. started to struggle madly in Jess's arms. When he wasn't let down at first, the little white and brown terrier began to yowl so ferociously that Jess and Leslie stopped walking and studied him.
"Easy, boy, it's okay - " Leslie murmured, trying to pat his head.
"Stop - scratching - okay, okay, here . . . "
Jess set him on the ground, or rather, he bent over in order to drop him on the dirt road as P.T. leapt from his arms. Leslie had time to say, "P.T., what . . . ?" before the dog was gone, sprinting toward the forest as though his life depended on it, little legs a blur as he ran right back down the road.
"P.T.!" they both yelled, and Jess started to jog back to Terabithia, Leslie right at his side. "P.T.! Come back!"
"What's gotten into him?" Leslie said in astonishment.
P.T. halted. He looked back at him, ears cocked, tongue lolling, and turned back to the forest. Though he was several hundred feet away, Jess could hear him whimpering.
"He wants to go back," Jess said, dumbfounded. Their dog had always followed them whenever they headed back home.
"Well, who can blame him?" Leslie said. But she added, "P.T., come on, we'll go back later, we have to go now . . . "
But P.T. didn't move. They called him again and again; when Jess or Leslie took a few steps forward in the hopes of enforcing their authority, the dog turned and ran toward the forest once more, farther away from them, stopping to look back and see whether or not they were following. When he saw they weren't each time, he waited impatiently, refusing to come to them.
"P.T., we don't have time for this!" Jess called desperately and Leslie added, "We have to go now!"
P.T. whimpered again. Beside him, Leslie shook her head.
"You don't think he feels neglected, do you?" she asked Jess, bewilderment in her voice. "You think that maybe . . . maybe with all that's been going on . . . he hasn't been getting enough attention, and now . . . ?"
But for the first time in as long as Jess could possibly remember, he saw something that Leslie did not. Even though P.T. had been their truest friend and the keeper of their greatest secret for more than six years, the dog did not, could not, understand everything about the trials - both figurative and literal - that Jess and Leslie had faced recently. Jess realized that perhaps P.T. had finally sensed the changes that had been taking place. While Jess and Leslie had known all along that Terabithia's destiny was changing in harmony with theirs, while they had accepted it . . . P.T. had not.
"He knows," Jess said aloud.
"What?" Leslie said distractedly, looking at him.
Jess fixed his eyes on their dog. Sadness gripped at his heart.
"Okay, boy," he called, and P.T.'s ears perked up again at the sympathy in his tone. "You go protect the forest. You go watch over it for us until we get back, okay? Protect it while you still can."
PT barked in response and turned, running at the forest once more until his little white and brown form was out of sight. This time, he didn't look back.
Leslie was dead silent beside Jess. It wasn't until Jess gently took her hand and began to walk down the dirt road, opposite of P.T., that she moved at all, falling into step beside him silently, a look of understanding dawning on her face.
And so they returned to their houses where both families were waiting for them anxiously, but for the first time in their lives, their little dog did not trot along beside them.
O O O
Bill and Judy Burke were rather well known throughout the town. As both were accomplished authors that frequently met with other famous writers and political activists, their existence was no secret and therefore, neither was their dilemma - so when the time came for police escorts to push people back from Lark Creek's courthouse's exterior so that the family could enter through its main doors with their attorneys, there was quite a crowd to control.
Jack, Nancy, Brenda, and Jess waited quietly to be let in with the rest of the people who were permitted to watch the trial in the courtroom. They and the rest of the onlookers holding court passes were huddled near the glass doors and were able to observe everything from the five or six officers keeping them separated from the crowd to the interviewers, television reporters, journalists, and "friends" that were hoarding every person involved in the trial in the same fashion starving dogs fought one another for meat. The noise was not unlike what Jess had been exposed to on his first day of his sophomore year of high school; people were yelling and shouting as they pushed one another to get a better view of everyone being escorted into the courthouse; reporters were broadcasting live in front of the horde of people with mikes held firmly in their hands as they looked directly at various cameras scattered around within five hundred feet of the huge marble building; photographers lit up the scene as they clicked away at their cameras and bellowed orders at the crowd.
As he watched the Burkes walk through the madness with their crew of lawyers and surrounded by police escorts, Jess briefly remembered the day Leslie had brought him to her house for the first time all those years ago, where he had been so startled by how nice their house was and money had been, seemingly, not an issue. That same awe-stricken feeling flooded back to him as he saw Bill, Judy, and Leslie walking with their heads thrown back, eyes focused straight ahead, walking in a regal, haunted way, as though they owned the world and they didn't care that people knew it. Their presence, so much like that of royalty, was utterly breathtaking in comparison to the loud, pushy mass of people that screamed questions and roared assumptions and pointed mikes in their directions hopefully. Not one of them said a word, they kept walking as though no one was there, though Bill had his arms around his wife and daughter protectively.
"Leslie looks really pretty," Brenda said in a low tone, and while Nancy and Jack forced themselves to smile, Jess was still utterly anxious as more and more people added to the chaos by jumping around and trying to get the family to talk. Leslie never flinched, never acknowledged the crowd's existence, only moved closer to her father as her party kept gliding in the same calm manner and hoards of men and women kept demanding and bellowing. The nerves had flooded to Jess's whole body now, and cold as the day was, his face felt hot and his hands were shaking very slightly, but he couldn't help but feel a twinge of pride for his queen.
When the Burkes, the lawyers, and various jury members were inside, several more police officers came through the crowd once more, this time surrounding a woman with dark hand and a strong jawline, three men in business suits, and . . . Jess's stomach dropped . . . Trent. Before he could get a good look at him, however, Trent and his parents and lawyer had been engulfed in the crowd and the noise and were inside, but not before a large woman in front of Jess moved so he could see Trent again, and also another identical looking older man who sauntered behind Trent and the police officer who held onto Trent's arm.
Brenda squeaked beside Jess, her hands flying to her mouth as Trent's party finally vanished inside. Jack reached over and put a hand on her shoulder, eyes narrowed to slits.
"Onlookers! Please show your passes to the marshal as you enter the building, turn off all cell phones and be aware that food and drink is not permitted inside. . . have your driver's licenses at the ready if applicable and follow the officers directly into the courtroom . . . !"
The smaller, much tamer crowd made up of those who had passes began to move toward the entrance. The rest of the people started to direct the attention at them, screaming for answers to their questions and pointing microphones at them like they were guns.
Do you know that I'm her boyfriend? Jess wanted to ask every one of them as the marshal studied the four passes Jack held out to him. Do you know that I was the first one she told? Do you know that she kissed me this morning before any of this started?
"Let's go, Jess," his mother said gently and Jess's mind jumped back to reality. He and Nancy walked behind Jack, who had his arm around Brenda, all of them looking around as they walked with the crowd through the great room and several hallways before finally entering the courtroom.
It was huge, much larger than the courtroom Terabithia's hearing had been in. Past the several rows of wooden benches for the onlookers were seats and tables for the defendants and prosecutors. On the sides were seats for the jury, and at the front lay the judge's great podium and chair. To the left of the judge was the lower, smaller place where the defendants and prosecutors sat to testify.
When he had entered the row in the gallery where he was to sit with his family, Jess was able to look around a little more and when he did, he saw Trent sitting at the front of the courtroom at the desk on the left side of the room, his lawyer and a police officer beside him. He looked terrible. Three weeks had not completely cured him of his swollen lip, black eye, broken wrist, and various other bruises Jess had been able to deliver unto him. He felt a twinge of satisfaction as Trent caught his eye and gave him one look of loathing - a look Jess returned - before Trent looked pointedly away.
"Damn, Jess," Brenda muttered in his ear, and Jess smirked. His father shot him a look.
"Don't be so proud of yourself, boy," Jack told him. "I should have grounded you for a month for your idiocy." But he was smiling.
The four of them took their seats and Nancy put her coat and purse down beside her to save places for Bill and Judy. The onlookers sat down around them, chattering quietly. The rest of the jury entered the room and took their seats just as Bill and Judy came hurrying through the aisle and made their way to where the Aarons family sat. As they moved through other seated onlookers and took their places beside them, Jess saw that Judy's eyes were red.
"She's so brave," she whimpered quietly as Nancy immediately took her hand, "my God, my baby . . . she's just ready to take this whole thing on . . . "
Jess forced himself to look to the front of the courtroom, his heart drumming against his chest uncontrollably. Brenda shifted in her chair beside him.
"It's not like she can lose," she said very quietly, almost to herself. "That asshole's gonna be in jail before the day ends, I bet."
Jack leaned his head forward to look across Jess and address her. "Juvenile," he said. "The kid's underage. This may be serious enough for another option, however."
Brenda nodded in agreement and stared ahead at the judge's seat at the front. Jess said nothing, only twisted his fingers anxiously in his lap. Jack eyed him for a brief moment.
"Son," he said, in an undertone that only Jess could hear, "have faith in her. If there is anyone who can land that boy in a place he needs to be, it's your Leslie."
Jess glanced at his father. Somehow, someway, he thought back to last summer when he had helped Jack saw trees for firewood, the time Jack had shown his respect for the girl who had taught him, Jess, so much.
He attempted a smile, unable to speak, and Jack clasped him on the shoulder briefly.
Within another minute or two, Leslie entered the courtroom from a door beside the jury's seats. The Burke's lawyers followed her and one of them, a tall African American woman with a kind face, led the way to the table on the right. They all took their seats, but not before Jess saw Leslie shoot the left side of the room a look of upmost loathing, determination etched in every feature of her beautiful face. Jess's heartbeat evened out slightly and his skin stopped tingling.
"All rise for the honorable Judge Robert Smith!" came a shout from the front of the courtroom a moment or two later. There was a scuffling as people hurriedly scrambled to their feet, and Jess saw a man in long black robes enter the courtroom and take his place behind his podium. He began to say words but Jess couldn't listen to them. He saw everyone sitting down and he did the same.
The opening statements begun. Not one of the onlookers breathed as the charges were read and both the prosecutors and the defendants sat silently, lawyers on both sides already beginning to take notes. And as Leslie's case was made to the judge, Jess couldn't help but notice a few members of the jury starting to whisper, a few of the onlookers starting to look at one another with horror and sympathy on their faces.
It's not like she can lose, he thought, reminding himself of Brenda's words, and Jack, as though he knew what his son was thinking, put his hand on Jess's shoulder again for a fleeting moment.
By the time the presentation of evidence was required, by the time the judge and various court members had outlined the trial that would determine Trent's sentence, Jess's anxiety had completely vanished. As he heard Leslie's name called by the judge and as he saw his queen rise gracefully from her seat and walk across the room as though she owned it, he realized that she had been right all along. She had declared the simple words, "We fight," so long ago, and they had. She had told him that nothing crushed them, and nothing did. When an enemy had ventured onto their territory, when push came to shove so that the sake of everything of importance was at risk, Jess realized that nothing had held them back from taking action.
And as Leslie threw her head back and surveyed the officer in front of her unblinkingly, one hand on the Bible and the other held in the air, Jess understood in an instant that this fight was over. Despite the battles she had already endured and faltered through, Leslie, his Leslie, though she had not yet spoken, had already won.
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
Leslie's eyes were on fire.
"Please be seated."
In the weeks that were to follow Leslie's trial, Jess would not be able to look back upon it and remember everything. Details would brush upon his mind like the paint stokes he so often made in his sketch book, memorable moments would come to mind whenever he saw something that reminded him of Valentine's Day . . . but with all of the activity that happened that day, Jess would only truly recall the fifteen minutes or so Leslie gave evidence.
There was nothing like it in the world . . . nothing like the pride and admiration and utter love he felt as Leslie sat calmly and surely in her chair, chin raised and eyes snapping she talked her way through delicate questions aimed her way by the lawyers. Judy flinched every so often during the rough parts, holding Bill's hand tightly in one hand and Nancy's in the other, biting her lip so that her mouth was completely white. The onlookers didn't help; they clucked their tongues at some points and looked at one another incredulously as Leslie talked on, unblinking, unwavering, as the lawyers cleverly spun her evidence into a web of harsh truths Trent's lawyers would have trouble countering. People gasped, whispered, shook their heads . . . Jess just sat in awe.
As was predicted, the defendant's statement was brief and pointless. While the onlookers and the jury looked between Leslie and Trent, Jess got the feeling that the entire courtroom was simply waiting for Trent's lawyer to stop talking so they could pass jurisdiction. They wanted to give it, but Jess didn't need to hear it. He, like everyone else in the courtroom, already knew who would be walking away as the winner.
By the time the Aarons and the Burkes were outside, waiting for Leslie and the lawyers to emerge, not one person among their party was concerned as far as the verdict went, though Judy and Nancy were both in tears. The lawyers brought Leslie to them after half an hour of waiting, exchanged some brief words with the Burkes, then quietly left in the limo that would take them to their cars.
Leslie, a small and weary smile on her face, accepted hugs from each member of both families. She and Brenda looked at one another briefly, both of them hesitating as they hovered near one another. Jess was not the only one who watched the two of them anxiously.
"You kicked ass," his sister finally said. Leslie's face broke into a smile almost before anyone could react, both girls were hugging and laughing, talking all at once as though they had only recently been introduced properly.
"You look beautiful," were Leslie's first words and Brenda immediately waved off her words. "Has anyone told you that lately - ?"
"Me? I'm just a fat cow, you look amazing in that dress, really - "
"Please, you're not fat, you could borrow this less than a year from now - "
Nancy and Judy were beaming and wiping their eyes, and Jack and Bill looked at one another with astonishment. Jess couldn't stop smiling.
"All right, listen, let's start walking to the cars, I'd like to get out of here before the press realizes we're over here," Bill said as he started herding everyone to the parking lot. Judy nodded.
"Yes, and you guys are welcome to ride back with us, we can get the truck later on if you'd like, we've both got to come back here later tonight - "
Leslie had been gently withdrawing herself from Brenda and everybody's words of praise all together . . . and finally, finally, she was all Jess's. Wordlessly he held his arms to her and wordlessly she hurried into them, her face glowing with happiness as he discreetly kissed her hair and their two families launched into smiles and laughter and conversation as though they had not been allowed to properly show contentment before the trial.
Jess and Leslie just stood silently, Leslie with her head resting right at Jess's shoulder, both of them allowing their thoughts to mix and their emotions to reveal themselves in the silence they both shared. Heart so full he thought it might burst, Jess hardly heard the plans their parents and Brenda were making, registered nothing but the steady beat of Leslie's heart against his chest and the overwhelming honor he was feeling at the thought that Leslie had sought him for refuge after her battle . . .
" . . . might as well, so we'll just drive together, then . . . "
"And we can whip up a meal in instants, you know that, I think we could all have a late lunch beforehand . . . "
" . . . that sound all right to you two lovebirds?"
"They're not even listening," Jess heard Brenda say smugly. "Look at them. You'd think that they're living in another world or something."
The drive back to their houses was very different than the drive that had occurred after the last trial Jess had attended. Everyone chatted and rested comfortably in the small limo Bill and Judy had rented for the day's use. Bill was at the wheel and while he joined in the conversation merrily for most of the ride, he was frowning at the sky by the time they were nearly home.
"Good Lord, we may get some rain," he mentioned, interrupting a story Judy was telling, and everyone looked up at the clouds through the windows. The sky was indeed much darker than it had been that morning.
"Huh," Nancy said uncertainly. "Those are some fast moving clouds."
"They're really thin little clouds, to be moving that fast . . . " Brenda murmured, brow furrowed.
Everyone was silent as Bill turned the limo onto the dirt road that would eventually bring them to the crossroads between their houses, and the sky was as dark as ever, particularly in the space directly ahead of them . . . .
"Bill, you don't see anything up front, do you?" Jack asked uncertainly and as Bill opened his mouth to answer, the limo swerved around a bend.
Nancy let out a cry.
"Dear God in heaven," Judy gasped, and everlasting horror exploded in Jess's heart.
Thick, black, massive amounts of smoke were billowing upwards directly ahead of them. As the limo stopped dead on the dirt road and as horror froze them to their seats, Jess saw that the horizon before them seemed to have melted into a fiery wall that was unleashing globs of unholy smoke that took to the sky and wafted towards them, even though it was a mile away . . . behind the farmland, Strellgate's farmland . . . .
"No!" screamed Leslie and pandemonium erupted. Everyone launched his or herself from the limo within instants and began to yell instructions . . . Jack and Nancy started sprinting down the road to where Jess could see Ellie, May Belle, and Joyce Ann halfway to them already, having sprinted from the wooden farmhouse, clutching bags in their hands . . .
Leslie launched herself in the direction of the flames. Jess charged for her but Bill got to her first. He caught her and held her back as she fought against him, screaming.
"P.T.!" she cried again and again, "P.T.'s down there!"
Jess's stomach lurched. Judy was running for the Burke's front door, already yelling, for the dog in hopes of the terrier being nearby . . . the rest of the Aarons sisters reached the limo and Brenda started grabbing the backpacks Ellie and May Belle and Joyce Ann had apparently managed to pack and putting them in the seats and Bill looked at Jess for a brief instant, his eyes piercing right through Jess's as he let go of Leslie to run after Judy, and Jess, despair spreading through him, immediately took hold of Leslie as she continued to fight, sobbing.
"Into the limo - " Nancy was panting beside them as Ellie and Brenda herded the younger girls into the car and as Jess spotted Jack sprinting down the road toward their home. The smoke was getting thicker, the fire was spreading quickly, and within instants he could no longer see his father.
Jess could control his terror no longer. "Dad!" he yelled out. "Dad, come back!"
"He's going to get some things, you both get in the limo, now - " Nancy was saying, squinting as she looked for Judy and Bill.
It was getting harder to see . . . the temperature was rising fast . . .
"Hurry, hurry, get in the car . . . we're going to be all right - "
"P.T.!" cried Leslie, tears running down her face, "P.T. . . . he's down there - "
Bill and Nancy were sprinting from their home again, Jess could faintly see Bill charging across the road to the Aarons' home where Jack was emerging, throwing hastily packed bags over his shoulder. The three of them ran back down the road as the roar of the flames in the distance grew louder.
Leslie turned to Jess, eyes wild.
"P.T.!" she sobbed as the rest of their parents reached them. "Where is he . . . where is he . . . ?"
"Into the limo!"
"But Mom - "
"The dog will be fine, he'll find shelter!"
"But P.T. - "
"Son, get in, hurry - "
Jess, heart aching, made sure his sisters and Leslie were in the limo before he turned to look at a flaming, burning Terabithia one last time . . . he climbed into the limo as Bill and Jack ran for the front seats and Nancy and Judy hurried after in him as the smoke continued to billow upwards like the winds of death, and the sound of sirens began to fill the air.
I apologize for the cliff-hanger here, but I have the next chapter planned out so you all shouldn't have to wait too long. And I'm sorry for, well, you know.
I skipped Leslie's preliminary trial that is custom to criminal proceedings, I hope you guys don't mind. I just didn't think it was necessary to include in the story.
And if anyone can correctly point out the HUGE foreshadowings that have hinted at what happened in the end here, clues that I've placed within the last few chapters (particularly this one), it would make me very happy. :D
Thank you in advance for your reviews! I love reviews dearly, just please don't flame me this time around . . . oops, no pun intended . . . .