ROYAL COURT OF TERABITHIA
"Jess and Leslie, sitting in a tree..."
Even though it was around nine at night when they left the country club, since it was so close to the summer solstice, it was still twilight when the three limousines returned to the driveway between the Burke and Aarons homes and discharged their passengers. The chauffeurs helped the passengers to carry the armloads of wedding presents and leftover food into the Burkes' home.
"Janice and Rick aren't really taking those two guys all the way to South Carolina tomorrow, are they?" Joyce Ann asked.
"No, Joycie," Jess replied. "Parris Island is almost on the Georgia state line, across from Savannah, near where Grandma and Aunt Barb live."
"And you can't really enlist in the service and get shipped off to Boot Camp overnight," May Belle added. "You have to get a medical exam, pass an aptitude test, get your school transcripts and a background check with your fingerprints..."
"But Squoger and Vulture probably don't know that!" Leslie giggled. "Janice and Rick are just going to take them as far south as they can to scare the bejeezus out of them and still make it back here in time for brunch. If they make good time and get some good videos, they might go as far as Rick's office in Camp Lejeune so they can EMail the videos to us. Then they'll take some back roads so that Hoager and Fulcher don't realize right away that they're heading back north."
"Squoger and Vulture on YouTube!" Jess laughed. "Being told they're on the way to Marine Boot Camp!"
"Actually, Jess," Leslie said, "not putting it on YouTube has a lot of blackmail mileage in it!" She looked over to the non-stretch limousine just as the two grandmothers were getting out. "Grandma, you were right! The glass is half full!"
"That's good to know," Grandma Burke called back. "Whatever you mean by that, I told you so!"
"Ours was the last wedding those two will ever crash!" Jess added.
When they entered the Burke home, Prince Terrien barked as he bounded up to the newlyweds, and Leslie knelt down and let him jump up into her arms and lick her face. "PT! Sorry the club wouldn't let you be there, but we've got plenty of great leftovers for you!"
After the presents and several containers of the buffet leftovers were brought in, Leslie carefully packed away the veil and tiara but kept the rest of her ensemble on, while May Belle and Joyce Ann went into one of the spare bedrooms and changed out of their gowns and sandals into jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. Leslie took PT's food bowl and let him feast on piles of scraps of prime rib and other foods.
Leslie and Jess waited for all the members of both families to let the celebration continue back in full swing in the Gold Room. They went first to Leslie's parents.
"Mom, Dad," Leslie said softly. "We're ready to start our honeymoon, but we don't want to make a big scene of leaving, so we're just going to say our good nights to everyone individually and try to slip out as quietly as we can."
Judy hugged and kissed both of them, and then Bill hugged both and kissed Leslie. When the newlyweds said the same thing to Jess's parents, Nancy and Jack did the same. Jess and Leslie circulated around the room as quietly and unobtrusively as they could, explaining their wish for a quiet departure, then successfully slipped out the back door with May Belle, Joyce Ann and PT.
Jess took the wheel of Jack's pickup as Leslie, his sisters and the dog piled in. The sliver of twilight in the western sky was getting narrower, and as they headed down the dirt driveway between the Burke and Aarons homes towards Terabithia, it was getting harder and harder to make out anything outside the headlight beams. Fortunately, after nearly ten years of traveling the route on foot, it didn't take much effort to find their way along the cattle pasture fence at the end of the driveway and into the woods and the farthest point they could take the pickup.
Jess left the headlights on as they got out. May Belle produced a military-issue crook-necked flashlight. "I'll go turn on the generator," she announced as she rushed ahead in the headlight beams. The others watched as she moved in and around the trees, shining the flashlight around where they had set up the two pup tents and the generator two days before. Presently, they heard the coughing and then steady hum of a small gasoline engine, and then a second later the pup tent/generator/bridge area was bathed in the light of an electric lamp hanging from a tree branch. Jess turned off the headlights, and beyond the lamp, they could see two strings of white Christmas Tree-type lights outlining the archway and railings on the bridge and running up and into the woods in the direction of the Castle.
"Whoa!" Jess gasped. "It's beautiful!"
"This is just the start!" Leslie beamed. "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" She took him by the hand and led him toward the lit area. Joyce Ann brought up the rear as Prince Terrien trotted ahead, past May Belle and the generator and across the bridge.
"PT! No!" Leslie called. "Come back here!"
Prince Terrien came bounding back across the bridge; at over nine years old, he would be in his mid to late sixties in "people years", but he was still springy and energetic in his gait. Leslie lowered to one knee on the grass and scooped him up as he leaped into her arms. As she stood up fully, she kissed her dog on the nose and then let him lick her face.
"PT, my old friend," she smiled tearfully, "you've been a part of my relationship with Jess almost from the very start." She sniffled. "I think the moment Jess gave you to me was the moment I knew I loved him and that I was going to marry him some day! Now that that day has come, I'm sorry, but you don't get to cross the creek with us this time. And as for your responsibilities as a Virgin Alarm..." she burst out laughing as she tossed the dog into May Belle's unsuspecting arms, "they are hereby shifted forever!"
"Hey!" May Belle protested as she steadied her balance to catch him.
Leslie clasped both hands of her new husband and the two of them smiled in anticipation. "Well," she said to him, "the doorway to the Castle is way too small for you to carry me across, and we've always considered the creek to be the boundary to Terabithia, so you get to carry me across the bridge. I don't expect you to carry me all the way to the Castle unless you want to, but this is the threshold! Ready, my King?"
"Ready, my Queen!"
They kissed as he placed his left arm across her back and she jumped up and hooked her right arm around his neck and the backs of her knees over his right arm. They and the two Princesses all giggled like little kids as he proceeded to carry her down the center of the bridge.
Somewhere about halfway across, there was a sudden cracking sound and Jess felt the plank under his right foot give out from under him, and then felt something smack him hard in the butt. He reflexively pulled his foot back up and then found himself struggling to regain his footing and balance while continuing to carry Leslie. Then they both screamed as he crashed into the railing on his left. The railing held for only a split-second and then before he was aware of anything else, he and Leslie had splashed into the cold, rushing waters of the creek.
"LESLIE!!!" he screamed, flailing his legs and right arm to get his head above the surface. The terror of the events that Spring day nine years earlier in Fifth Grade came crashing back into his mind. But somehow he'd had the presence of mind to grab onto her upper arm with his left hand and hold on.
"I'm okay, Jess!" Leslie shouted back quickly, wrapping both arms around him. He looked around in the darkness and saw that they had fallen and drifted about ten or fifteen feet downstream from the bridge; the string of lights on the near railing were now hanging and sagging a few inches above the water. He sensed that by Leslie grabbing him, they had stopped moving downstream and that the current was washing past them.
"Jess, you can quit kicking and stand up!" she added.
"Huh?" he asked numbly between gasps.
"The water's only chest deep." In the dim light, he could see her smiling. Jess felt around with his feet and quickly found the bottom of the creek. Since he was that much taller, it was to him only a little above waist deep. He calmed down quickly, although the flashback to Leslie's death in that alternate reality so long ago still had him badly shaken.
"You guys all right?" May Belle shouted from the bridge. A second later, it got a little brighter as she and Joyce Ann had each turned on a flashlight and started sweeping the area around the couple.
"I'm all right!" Leslie called back.
"Yeah, me too," Jess said finally after shaking his head clear. His sisters found the two of them with their light beams and they all saw that Leslie was leaning against a rock protruding out of the embankment, to anchor the two of them in place. Jess and Leslie looked up and saw the remnants of the old rope hanging above them; they were leaning against the same rock that she had hit her head on and drowned in that alternate universe.
The two of them clung tightly to each other and kissed for several seconds, Leslie realizing how traumatized and in need of comfort and reassurance Jess was. Then she started giggling, and then gradually laughing more loudly. Finally, Jess started laughing along with her, almost hysterically, squeezing her tight.
Leslie pulled herself up on the rock and through the underbrush on the bank, with Jess following closely and protectively behind. They worked their way back the short distance to the bridge in a few seconds with his sisters' flashlights guiding them, leaving a trail of dripping water that started to pool under them when they stopped, back on the end of the bridge. Prince Terrien came rushing up and tried to nuzzle under the dripping hem of Leslie's gown. The two sisters laughed at the sight of the soaking wet bride and groom, while Jess was vacillating between laughter and terror.
"What the heck just happened?" Leslie wheezed, still laughing.
"I don't know," Jess shook his head. "I just lost my footing. I think my foot broke through the planking."
May Belle trained her flashlight on the planking. One plank at dead center was indeed broken and collapsed at the far end while the near end was sticking upward. "Yeah," she nodded in agreement. "And the other end kinda seesawed up and smacked you in the butt. The nails were probably rusted through. And you did have the weight of both of you on that one foot, and it's over the gap between the two tree trunks so there was nothing underneath to stop it." She paused thoughtfully. "Maybe it's the Dark Master's way of jumping up and biting you in the butt again, and finally dumping Leslie in the creek, just once on the way to Happily Ever After."
"The Dark Master," Leslie nodded. "Or Fate. Or Karma. Whatever you want to call it."
Jess was laughing and crying at the same time as he squeezed her tight again. "Lord, I was so scared, Leslie!"
"I know, Jess. I'm okay! Really!" She gave him another soothing kiss.
"And your wedding gown is ruined! I'm sorry!"
"No. Silk is washable, so a dip in the creek won't harm it." Leslie shook her head with a smile. "Now, your tux, on the other hand..."
"You want to go back to your house and change?" he asked.
"No need to!" she said quickly. "We'd just get both my folks and yours all agitated for no good reason. I've already put a few changes of clothing in the Castle for both of us. Not that we're gonna need any until we go back in for brunch late in the morning."
"So," Joyce Ann smiled, leaning over and holding Prince Terrien by the collar, "you guys want to try that again?"
"Only this time," May Belle added, "I suggest you stay over one of the tree trunks where it's solid underneath. I suggest the right side where the railing is still intact." She paused and smiled, "And Jess, don't be too proud to put her down if you feel the planks starting to give!"
"Groom carries Bride across threshold, Take Two!" Leslie giggled as she again hooked her arm around Jess's neck and jumped up into his arms. They were still dripping water as Jess, following May Belle's advice, carried Leslie along the right side of the bridge, stepping slowly and gently, particularly if a plank creaked underfoot. He did so, breathing heavily and smiling nervously at his bride, all the way until he stepped on solid ground at the far side of the bridge and creek.
Leslie slid herself off his arms and onto her own feet, then raised her right fist into the air. "We rule Terabithia--" she shouted into the night.
"--and nothing crushes us!" Jesse and his sisters joined in the second half of her shout and fist-raising. The bride and groom kissed again to the applause of May Belle and Joyce Ann.
"All right, we'll see you guys in the morning!" Leslie called back to the sisters.
"May Belle," Jess added, "if you two need to go back in before we wake up, you can drive the truck back without us. We can walk."
"Thanks!" May Belle replied. "You two enjoy yourselves!"
"Have fun!" Joyce Ann giggled.
Leslie grabbed Jess by the hand and led him along the strings of lights toward the Castle. In all the years, they very rarely went into Terabithia at night, and even then using flashlights or Coleman lanterns. The strings of lights added a dimension of magic that hypnotized them with wonder. Even Leslie, who had strung them up, had not seen their full effect until now.
"Yes, Mrs. Aarons?" he smiled.
"You're not going through another Groundhog Day thing, are you?"
"No, Leslie. I think I would've told you if I was. And I definitely would've stayed over one of the tree trunks the first time we tried to cross."
"Then I don't think it was the Dark Master who dumped us in the creek. We beat him when you saved my life nine years ago, Jess. I think he's gone!"
"Well, Leslie, I don't think it's just a coincidence that tonight of all nights, one of the planks happens to break."
"Well, the bridge is nine years old, and as May Belle pointed out, we did have the weight of both of us on your one foot at the time. But no, I don't think it's a coincidence either."
"Then maybe God needed to remind me to never ever take you for granted."
Leslie laughed and gave him a squeeze. "Trust me, Jess! You are the last person in the universe who needs to be reminded not to take me for granted!" She paused thoughtfully before adding, "Jess, I converted and even got my parents going back to church, and you know I love your whole family dearly, but you guys are still too hung up on the 'nailing holes in your hand' part of Christianity! Did it ever occur to you that maybe it's just that God's showing us that He has a sense of humor? That He just gave you an affectionate little slap on the butt, telling you to have a good time and enjoy yourself?" She grinned and her eyes gleamed. "And enjoy me?"
He grinned back and kissed her. The tension in his body was much less. But it wasn't gone completely. "But if it was an Act of God, and He isn't reminding me not to take you for granted, then why'd He let us fall in the creek?"
"To make us take our clothes off faster, silly! And just to show His sense of humor!"
The hulk of the old pickup truck, partly outlined by the strings of lights, came into view ahead of them, just as a gentle breeze rang the wind chimes inside it. "That was not lucky timing!" Leslie added.
"Okay, I'll buy that!"
They continued on, walking faster now, past the old pickup until the Castle came into view before them, magnificently outlined by the strings of white lights. Again, Leslie had been the one to string them up but was seeing them in the dark for the first time, and it took her breath away as well as Jess's.
"Whoa!" Jess gasped. "It looks just like the boathouses in Philadelphia! Remember when we saw them during the Penn Relays?"
"Uh hmm," Leslie smiled. "That's exactly the effect I was going for!"
"It's beautiful! Just like the girl who set it up!"
They walked up to the rungs of the Castle steps. The strings of lights had been wrapped around a series of outdoor extension cords, and near the base of the Castle two of the cords had been disconnected. Leslie connected them, and a number of brighter lights came on: a set of lamps inside the Castle, one floodlight above the doorway to the Castle to light up the porch, and two more mounted underneath the porch to light up the ground around them. Jess saw Leslie reaching from one of the lower branches near the rungs for two wooden hangers.
"I wasn't expecting you to climb up in your full tux and me in my gown," Leslie said as she handed him one of the hangers. "Of course, I hadn't planned on us being thoroughly drenched too!"
He removed his tuxedo jacket and hung it up on the branch as she turned her back to him. "Could you unzip me, please?" she asked him.
"With pleasure," he grinned, kissing her neck and shoulders as he pulled down her zipper tab. She slipped off the gown, leaving herself in her strapless slip and other undergarments and her white high top sneakers. She took one of the hangers and hung up the gown on the branch as Jess pulled off his tuxedo jacket and hung it up with the other hanger.
Leslie looked down at sneakers and laughed. "Jess, you know there's always a method to my madness. I wasn't just flaunting the Leslie Burke Specials. There's also no way I was going to try to climb up to the Castle in the kind of sandals that May Belle, Joyce Ann, Candy and Janice decided on wearing."
The two of them started up the rungs, with Leslie first and Jess following, the way he had always insisted ever since the rope across the creek broke over nine years earlier, so that he could break her fall if she ever slipped, or the rungs or the rope they used to pull themselves up broke. This was also an inside joke between them; although she knew that he was absolutely sincere in his intent to protect her, since she had stripped down to swim across the creek-- and Jess joined her after the initial shock-- the day the rope swing broke, she jokingly accused him of doing it just to keep looking up at her tush.
They reached the porch of the Castle, and Jess looked inside: he knew Leslie had spent the last three days doing renovations for tonight, and was amazed to see that the interior had become a blend of its former self and their off-campus apartment: all his artwork from over the years was still on the walls but straightened out and spruced up, and filling nearly the entire floor space was the Queen-sized air mattress she had purchased, with the pillows, bedsheets and summer-weight quilt from their apartment. An open soft-sided suitcase filled with several items of their clothing sat on top of their snack storage shelf.
"You've really been dreaming of this since Fifth Grade!" he smiled.
"Like I just said to him, since the day you gave PT to me!" Leslie grinned. "Remember, that was the first time I hugged you, and you kind of turned your head like you weren't sure what to do next?"
"Of course I remember!"
"I wanted to play tonsil hockey!" she laughed. "But that's okay! We've more than made up for that one day!"
They sat side by side on the porch, untying and removing their shoes and shaking the water out of them, then taking off and wringing out their socks. Then they stood and undressed the rest of the way, Jess reaching inside and placing his bowtie, dress shirt studs and cufflinks inside a plastic drinking cup on one shelf, and the contents of his pockets next to the cup.
"There are towels in the suitcase," Leslie told him as she draped their wet clothes over the porch rail.
He came back out with one towel and smiled, "Allow me!"
He kissed her, and then she giggled as he dabbed the towel over her face and then started running it downward along her body. The floodlight was bright enough for him to see that she was flushed. "It's funny," Leslie said. "We've been sleeping in the same bed and swimming and running around naked together on a regular basis for nine years-- we've watched each other grow up-- and I'm still a little nervous!"
"Me too!" Jess breathed. "Yeah, we've done all that, but we also drew some very carefully drawn boundaries, and stuck to them."
"And now," Leslie smiled, taking the towel after Jess finished drying her, and then proceeding to dry him off in the same way, "there are no more boundaries!"
When finished, she dropped the towel and the two of them pressed against each other with a deep kiss. Without stopping, Leslie reached up and loosened the floodlight bulb, leaving them in the dim lights of the lamp inside the Castle and the light in the area below them reflected from the lower floodlights. They continued to kiss as they stepped inside, pulled back the quilt and top sheet, then settled onto the mattress.
"Jess and Leslie sitting in a tree!..." May Belle's and Joyce Ann's voices shouted from the direction of the creek, over the hum of the generator. "K-I-S-S-I-N-G!"
The newlyweds burst out laughing. "Those two are so predictable!" Jess shook his head.
"First comes love! Then comes marriage!
Then comes Jess with a baby carriage!"
The couple resumed kissing and began some intimate fondling. Then they heard first the faint hiss of dead air from a boom box or some other sound system, and then the familiar and unmistakable chords of Candy Edmunds-Brubaker's guitar, soon accompanied by a chorus of voices.
There ain't a lot that you can do in this town.
You drive down to the lake and then you turn back around...
"Now that I wouldn't have predicted!" Leslie laughed.
"I guess they must've recorded the sing-along at the reception."
You go to school and you learn to read and write,
So you can walk into the county bank and sign away your life..."
Leslie listened for a few seconds. "No, that's all kids' voices! And there's no real background noise."
I work at the fillin' station on the interstate,
Pumpin gasoline and countin' out of state plates...
"Sounds just like our old class in Fifth Grade! I guess they recorded Joyce Ann's class singing with Candy," Jess smiled.
They ask me "How far into Memphis son, and where's the nearest beer?"
And they dont even know that theres a town around here!
"No!" Leslie smiled, "It's a choir of Terabithian children serenading their King and Queen!"
"On the happiest night of their lives!" Jess smiled back.
Someday I'm finally gonna let go,
'cause I know there's a better way,
And I wanna know what's over that rainbow!
I'm gonna get out of here someday!...
"I love you, Jess!"
"I love you too, Leslie!"
And the King and Queen of Terabithia proceeded to consummate a marriage that had been ten years in the making, and to live happily ever after.
Well, that's it for now. I can't say when I'll do another Bridge to Terabithia fanfic. It all depends on when my muses kiss me again. I'm open to requests and suggestions for new storylines from anyone and everyone. In the meantime, I'll still be active playing Bill Burke (and other characters as needed) on the BtT Role Play site. And looking forward to the BtT fanfics of others, especially those whom I've included in my Favorite Authors list.
Comments are, as always, invited.