Title: Conquering Evil
Summary: Leslie tells Jess that she is being abused. He tries to help her.
Rating: T due to subject matter.
Warning: This story discusses/alludes to child abuse. Not in detail; just be extra aware of that before you decide to read it.
Disclaimer: None of the characters from Bridge to Terabithia belong to me. I promise. I'm pretty sure that Katherine Patterson owns them, but now that the movie is out perhaps they belong to several other people as well. I'm not making any money by writing this story. I did invent one character, but I don't think you're going to want him.
Author's Notes: This is a oneshot. It begins on the day that Leslie tells Jess Janice Avery's secret. It's based more on the movie, but could be understood after reading the book as well. The ending of either is obsolete for the purposes of this story; you can imagine that the ending is the same or not. I was going to change it, but I think it's far more bittersweet if the ending stays the same. Of course it's also more tragic. Take your pick.
Jess Aarons was still reeling after learning what had happened to Janice Avery. He and his best friend, Leslie Burke, were hiding up in their tree house in the Kingdom of Terabithia, and outside the rain was pouring steadily.
Jess was thinking about what Leslie had said. He was pretty impressed that Janice, an eighth grader and the school bully, had taken advice from Leslie. He was even more impressed because Leslie had seemed to know exactly what to say to Janice. It was almost as though she knew exactly how Janice had felt.
Leslie had been especially quiet after she'd told Jess what Janice had told her, but Jess hadn't had much time to dwell on it in the past few minutes; he and Leslie had been too busy getting up into the tree house and out of the rain.
Ordinarily they liked to play in the rain, but it was starting to come down hard, and they'd known they'd never make it home before they were soaked. They had been trying to get all of Jess' paints and Leslie's paper and pencils covered up before they got drenched.
Jess pulled a particularly drenched piece of paper from beneath his foot and smiled apologetically at Leslie.
"Sorry about that," he said, trying to sound sincere. Leslie cared a lot about her writing. She had told him once that it captured pieces of her imagination so that she could keep them forever, the way a picture captured a moment in time.
But Leslie wasn't paying attention to him.
"Hey Leslie," he called to her.
She didn't answer.
"Leslie!" he tried again, louder this time.
But she didn't respond. Leslie often got lost in thought, but right now she looked really out of it.
"Something's going on with you," Jesse mused.
That time Leslie heard him. Her head snapped up and she turned to face him, trying to look as though that were ludicrous.
"No it's not."
Jess peered at her across the tree house.
"Yeah it is."
Leslie looked a little annoyed.
"Nothing's going on, Jess."
"Are you sure?"
It was supposed to be a warning for him to stop bothering her, but the way she'd said his name made Jess wonder. There was something odd about it, almost as though it were a plea for him to keep questioning her rather than one to make him shut up.
He walked over to where she was standing.
He expected her to shake her head at him and tell him to be quiet, or to sigh, or even to stick her tongue out at him. But instead he heard her respond to him in a way he hadn't anticipated.
"No, I don't wanna tell you," she said in such a vulnerable voice that he was puzzled. If there was one thing Leslie Burke wasn't, it was vulnerable.
Jess tilted his head to look at her more closely.
"That's what you said when I asked you about Janice Avery on the bus. Only you sound more scared now."
Leslie looked at him defiantly.
"I'm not scared."
"Okay," said Jess, sounding as though he didn't believe her. "But you sure look scared."
Leslie sat down, and Jess sat down with her. This time she did sigh. She drew her legs up to her chest and looked past him.
"I just can't tell you, okay? Come on Jess, just let it go."
He didn't say anything, but Leslie was pretty sure he wasn't going to forget about it. Leslie sucked in her breath and looked down through the slats in the tree house. Jess waited, but she looked through them for a long time.
Jess tilted his head to the side and observed her.
"Think of all the other secrets you've told me," he coaxed. "Have I ever told a single one?"
"No," admitted Leslie.
She was still looking at the ground. It was such a long way down. She'd never noticed before. She wondered how far she was going to fall if she told Jess her secret.
And how much farther it was possible to fall if she didn't.
Jess' voice brought her back to the present.
"Leslie, if whatever your secret is is as bad as what happened to Janice-"
Leslie glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and Jess felt a chill go down his spine. It was not a pleasant feeling. He knew he was onto something.
Her mouth opened, but she didn't say anything. Confused, he looked into her eyes. There was something different about them, something he hadn't seen before. But when he looked more carefully, he realized it had been there for a while.
It just hadn't been there when he'd met her.
When he looked harder, he noticed something else. There was something she was trying to tell him with her eyes, something she was afraid to say out loud.
Jess concentrated as hard as he could, but he couldn't figure out what it was.
A few minutes went by in this way; Jess trying to figure Leslie out and Leslie trying to figure out how to make him see what was happening without having to explain it to him.
Finally Jess gave up trying to understand this way; it was odd, because this was the way they had always been able to communicate; with their eyes. But he wasn't getting anywhere, and it was frustrating to see his friend so helpless and to have no idea why.
He went back to talking, although he wasn't sure it would do any good. Whatever Leslie's secret was, it was dark and she'd buried it deep.
"Just tell me."
Leslie looked forlorn.
"I don't know how."
He thought about that.
"You don't know what it is?"
Leslie considered this for a long time.
"No. I didn't before, but now I think I know."
The feeling of unease came upon Jess again, and this time it surrounded him.
"Leslie, what is it? I can't help you if you won't even tell me-"
"You can't help me anyway," she whispered.
"Of course I will!"
Jess was offended. Just because he didn't go around gushing like some girl about it didn't mean he didn't care about Leslie. He would have done anything for her.
Leslie's voice was weak when she answered him.
"I know. I didn't say you wouldn't; I said you can't."
Jess wasn't sure what to make of that. He thought of Janice.
"Your dad doesn't hit you, does he?" he asked, fighting off a sense of dread.
Jess thought of all the times he had seen Leslie with her father, and he couldn't imagine Mr. Burke hitting Leslie.
She shook her head, and Jess sighed with relief. But Leslie did not look relieved in the least.
"It's worse than what happened to Janice," Leslie whispered, looking down. "A lot worse."
Worse? thought Jesse. What could be worse than your own parents hitting you?
"Leslie," he tried, but found that he couldn't think of a single thing to say.
What was going on?
"Do you promise not to tell?" she asked him at last.
Jess nodded. He could tell that this was important to Leslie. She nodded back, and they shook on it.
Leslie took a deep breath. She sat still for a long time after that, and Jess began to think that she wasn't going to tell him after all. She hugged her knees and started to rock. Jess moved back, confused.
Tears swam in Leslie's eyes, but Jess couldn't comprehend her fear. He was afraid of whatever was happening to her, and he wanted to run. For a fleeting instant he wished he'd never asked her what was wrong.
But he was overcome with a fierce sense of protectiveness anyway, and so he remained where he was. He wouldn't leave Leslie to her demons. He began to pray.
He wasn't sure what he was praying for or what doing so would accomplish in this situation, but he had to try to help Leslie, because he got the feeling that she needed help, and as much as he wanted to be the one to help her, he wasn't sure that he could. Not with this.
Whatever this secret was, it was consuming Leslie, bringing her down into the shadowy depths. He thought he might be losing her to it. He couldn't let that happen. Jesse closed his eyes.
When he opened them, Leslie was regarding him oddly.
After what seemed like an eternity, she looked as though she had come to a decision. She looked right into Jess' soul, and he knew she was going to tell him whatever it was.
She watched him watching her.
"You know my Dad's friend Ken?"
Jess' throat was dry and his voice cracked on his reply.
"The one who's been staying with you guys?"
Ken had come about three months ago, claiming that he just needed a place to stay while he looked for a job, but within the month he'd gotten one at a convenience store downtown. Now, according to Leslie's father, he was "Just staying until he could find a house around town." Leslie had told Jess that she wasn't sure if Ken would ever leave.
Jess remembered that Ken had taken a particular interest in everything that he and Leslie did. When he had first arrived, Leslie had liked him; she'd met him before and he had always been nice to her. But two or three weeks after he'd arrived, Leslie had started to change somehow.
The hair on the back of Jess' neck prickled.
"What about him?"
Leslie sighed. She still wasn't looking at Jess. She was looking far off in the distance, at something Jess couldn't see.
Her determination seemed to have drained her somehow. Later Jess realized that although she spoke about what had happened to her, it was as though she were speaking about somebody else, or as though she were someone else talking about Leslie; he couldn't decide which.
Though he didn't understand it just then, Jess would never forget what she said next.
"Sometimes… sometimes he-touches me."
Jess waited for her to say something else, but she didn't.
There was still no response from Leslie. She didn't even look like she noticed she'd said anything.
"Is that it?" asked Jess.
She turned to look at him, but Jess immediately wished she hadn't. Her face was blank, and her eyes looked empty. Jess had never seen anyone look like that. He stood up, pulling her with him.
"Leslie, what is going on?" he demanded nervously.
She wrenched her hands away from him and leaned against the wall of the tree house, her physical strength gone. It was all going to the mental effort of talking to Jess.
"I mean, he touches me where he isn't supposed to."
"Where he isn't supposed to…?"
"Down there," clarified Leslie.
She was pointing to the ground, but Jess felt his face heat up when he realized what she meant.
"A lot," continued Leslie. "All the time."
Now the blankness left her eyes, and Jess could see that it was taking all she had not to cry.
"Leslie," he whispered in horrified shock. "You have to tell someone."
Anger lit her eyes and she turned on him.
"No I don't."
He opened his mouth, but she cut him off.
"And neither do you. You promised, Jess. You swore," she reminded him.
"I know, but Le-"
She was really getting upset. She was looking at him as though he'd betrayed her. She was getting hysterical, and Jess backed up.
"Okay, Leslie, geez, okay. Just stop yelling."
Leslie sniffled, and she cursed when she realized she was crying. She turned away from him and slunk down against the wall.
Jess had no idea what to say to comfort her. Carefully, he slid down the wall about a foot away from her. He reached out his hand to soothe her, and he was surprised at how quickly she jerked back.
"Don't touch me," she whimpered.
Jess pulled his hand back.
"Sorry," he whispered.
Leslie closed her eyes, and he just stared at her, watching as the tears flowed down her cheeks unchecked.
He started to shake.
Then, not knowing what else to do, he began to pray again.
They sat there for a long time, hours maybe, until the sun went down and Jess could hear his mother calling for him. He knew he was going to get in trouble. He knew she would be worried about him. But still he didn't move. He couldn't.
Leslie sat beside him, shaking and sobbing, until she ran out of tears to cry. She had started to shake at about the same time he had stopped, and she didn't quit just because she couldn't weep anymore.
She finally lay her head down on Jess' knee. When she felt his rough familiar jeans against her cheek, she began to cry again.
Cautiously, Jess put a hand over her head to soothe her. He started to run it down her back, but that only made her sob harder, so he brought it back over her hair and tried not to move. He could feel her clutching at his leg for dear life, and he wished there was something, anything, that he could do for her.
Finally she fell asleep.
Jess, however, could do no such thing.
When Leslie woke forty minutes later, she sat up carefully, unsure of where she was. She pushed the hair out of her eyes and looked around. When she saw Jess everything came rushing back. She looked warily at him, but his eyes were closed. He couldn't have been sleeping though; his mouth was moving.
"Jess?" she asked softly, her voice breaking on the word. Her throat was hot and tight, and the word felt scratchy inside it.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, his mouth still half open.
"What are you doing?" asked Leslie.
"Praying," he whispered.
Leslie's breath caught.
"You're praying?" she repeated, incredulity etched into her features. "You're praying for me?"
She shrunk back from him.
"After I was so mean to you?" Her eyes were wide with disbelief.
Jess reached for her hand, and this time she let him take it.
"I don't think you meant it," he said quietly.
Leslie shook her head, grateful that he understood.
He blinked at her. There was a resolution in his eyes. When he had finished praying, he knew what he had to do. But he also knew that it might be the hardest thing he ever did. Because going through with it might mean losing the person he cared most about in the whole world.
Leslie seemed to sense his apprehension. She squeezed his fingers.
"What- what is it Jess?"
Jess gathered up his courage and squeezed back. When he spoke, his voice was raw with emotion.
"You really need to tell somebody, Leslie. Somebody who can do something about it. I-I can hit him, but he won't fall down."
Leslie looked at him.
"I told you, Jess. It's okay now. I just needed it to be someone else's secret too, that's all," she tried to persuade him. "Now that we're here in Terabithia we can work it out. We can-"
"Leslie," interrupted Jess, more harshly than he'd meant to. "There's nothing to work out. Didn't you hear me? I can't save you."
She moved closer, trying to convince him as well as herself.
"Yes you can. You already did. You just have to-"
She stopped talking and released his hand.
"I can't. I don't know how," Jess admitted, ashamed that he didn't.
She moved away from him.
"Well, fine. We'll let the Terabithians handle it then."
She sounded a little more like her old self, albeit a slightly angry version of her old self. But Jess knew he wasn't done yet. He gulped. He wished he were.
"Listen, Leslie… imagination isn't going to fix this."
She looked at him incredulously.
"I know that Jess. Nothing's going to fix it. It's done."
The finality of her voice caught Jess off guard, and he shivered.
"But at least it helps, you know? And I told you, right? That has to count for something."
She smiled at him, but Jess thought it was a lot like the smile he'd given Monster Mouth Myers when he hadn't done his homework; it was the kind of relieved smile you gave someone when you wanted to convince them that you'd already won a battle you knew wasn't yours to win.
And Leslie's smile was even more sickly sweet and unbelievable than his had been.
He shook his head.
"It's not enough."
She stood up.
"Sure it is."
"You have to-"
Her eyes narrowed, and she came to stand directly over him.
"This is my problem Jess. Mine. Do you hear me? It's really nice of you to try and help me and all, but I can handle this. If you don't really want to help me I'll understand. Thanks for listening."
Jess stood up too. He wasn't going to just sit there while Leslie commanded him to keep out of it.
"You have to tell."
"Just because you want me to," she said spitefully.
"It's never going to stop if you don't," countered Jess, surprised at the way he was standing up to her.
They'd never had to defy each other before; they'd had each other to lean on, to help each other face everyone else, ever since Leslie had moved in.
"I'm not going to," said Leslie. "And that's final."
She turned away from him in order to punctuate that statement, and Jess knew that she was about to leave. He took a deep breath.
"You- you don't have a choice," he said nervously.
Leslie turned back around. Her mouth fell open. Jess watched the panic sweep her up as she realized what he meant.
"Yes I do," she said. Her voice was quiet, dangerous.
"No you don't," said Jess with more conviction this time. "'Cause if you don't tell, I will."
He watched her start to crumble. She knew she couldn't stop him. He felt his heart breaking all over again.
"God," he begged silently, "Please don't make me do this to her."
But Jess knew that sometimes God's way of helping people wasn't the same as men's.
"You lied to me," Leslie whispered, her voice breaking. "You're going to betray me." She sounded like a little girl.
"Don't say it like that!" cried Jess. Did she think he wanted to hurt her more?
Her voice rose, and he could tell that she was about to cry again.
"You promised you wouldn't tell, Jess!"
"I-I know." His voice shook. "I'm sorry."
She walked back up to him and took his hands.
"Please don't tell Jess. Please."
He tugged her closer and squeezed her hands again. He could feel the tears slide down his face.
She let go and backed away from him, the sting of betrayal clear in her eyes. She was crying again, too.
"I'll hate you forever, Jess Aarons."
His knuckles went white.
"I don't care."
But he did. So very much.
And then Leslie was gone.
The rain had stopped by the time Jess reached his front porch. The door was wide open and he knew both of his parents would be up waiting for him.
He walked inside.
"Jess!" cried his mother. She wrapped him in a bear hug. "Where have you been?"
When she released him, he looked up at them; at his own mother and father. They were so poor, but they kept him safer than so many other parents kept their children.
Jess struggled to find the words, but he couldn't. He just stared at his parents, lost.
And then he fell onto the couch with a sob.
And through his sobs, he began to talk.
Twenty minutes later, Bill Burke answered the doorbell.
Jess stood before him, his mother and father on either side of him. He'd been afraid that Leslie wouldn't have come home; that she'd run away. But Mr. Burke didn't seem upset.
"Jesse! Leslie told me you two fell asleep out there in your magic kingdom. You sure had me worried. I wish one of you had thought to bring an alarm clock," he joked.
He smiled at Mr. and Mrs. Aarons.
"You must be Jess' parents," he said politely. "Please, come in."
Mr. Aarons nodded. He wanted to be polite, but he didn't bother much with introductions.
"Yes, sir. Mister and Miz Aarons. Pleased to meet you. But I think Jess here has something to tell you, if you haven't heard it already."
Mr. Burke looked confused. He obviously hadn't.
Jess looked past Leslie's father into the hall. Ken stood there, watching them. Jess pulled on his mother's hand. She looked up and nodded.
"If you don't mind Mr. Burke, could we talk on the porch?"
Mr. Burke obliged. He regarded Jess fondly.
"You look a little anxious, Jess. Why don't you go in the house and sit with Leslie while I talk with your parents. She's in her room reading."
Jess didn't have to be told twice.
Jess walked past Ken, doing his best not to look or act suspicious. He made his way down the hall to Leslie's bedroom.
He knocked at the door. There was no answer. He knocked again.
"Leslie? Leslie, it's Jess… I'm coming in."
When she didn't protest, he took a deep breath and opened the door.
He found Leslie sitting on her bed in the dark, her back against the wall, her pillow clasped tightly to her chest. Jess turned on the light and stood in the doorway for a moment, unsure of what to do.
Leslie looked up at him. Her eyes were bloodshot and her face was still wet with tears. Her hair was a mess, and she was still wearing the clothes she'd worn out in the rain. Jess wondered how her parents had missed this.
But the rain had probably disguised her agony; Leslie had probably run inside and closed her bedroom door so fast that no one had noticed her disheveled appearance. Jess knew that she'd talked to her parents even less since Ken had arrived. She'd probably lied to her father about falling asleep and reading through her door.
"You told," she said.
But this time she didn't say it as an accusation; she was only stating what she already knew to be fact.
Jess nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Wow," said Leslie.
And then she moved over so that Jess could sit down on the bed beside her.
Jess and Leslie stayed in Leslie's room while the police came and questioned Ken. Thankfully, he was arrested.
Jess' parents let him go with the Burkes when Leslie went to the police station and later, to the hospital. He was too young to go into the rooms Leslie went into, so he sat in the waiting rooms with Mr. Burke while Leslie went in with her mother, clutching her hand as tightly as she'd held onto Jess' leg in the tree house.
Jess wasn't sure he'd ever get over telling Leslie's secret. But in the aftermath, she forgave him.
Leslie didn't say anything on the way home late the next afternoon. But she held his hand in the car, and she watched him as he walked up the stairs of his front porch and into his house.
And two days later, Leslie was on his doorstep, a shaky half-smile on her face.
"If I died right now, Jess Aarons, I'd die happy," she said. "Because you rescued me."
"Leslie," began Jess, "you don't have to-"
She cut him off.
"And… I'm sorry I said you were betraying me. You weren't. You were only helping me when I couldn't help myself."
And she hugged him, breathing in the scent of the one friend she knew she'd keep all her life.
It would take her a long time to heal, but right now things were okay. Right now she wanted Jess to know what he'd done for her.
Jess felt his heart swell up with pride. He knew that he'd done his part to keep Leslie safe. Maybe he could protect her. Maybe Terabithia had given him courage after all. And maybe, just maybe, he loved Leslie Burke in a way he'd never loved anyone else.
He hugged her back.