A/N: It pains me to think of how long it's been since I added to this series!! It pains me even more to think that I started this one in December but wasn't able to finish it until now, which explains the whole Christmas-in-July thing (why I have a Christmas one-shot up in the summer). This might come off as a tad corny, but I hope you like it!
It was completely dark and totally silent. Leslie had no idea where she was, only a sense of being—kind of like that state where you are barely awake, still mostly asleep, lying in bed and waiting for your mother to come shake you for what she swears will be the last time. Only Judy wasn't coming and Leslie could not open her eyes, nor could she move a muscle.
"Leslie Burke?" called a distant voice.
Her throat opened up, and she took what felt to be the Breath of Life. "Yes," she managed to squeak. At least she could talk.
Somebody touched her eyes. She automatically opened them, and could finally see; it felt as if she had been lying immobile in complete darkness for hours. Leslie blinked a couple of times to see if it would make the image around her more clear. It appeared as if she was in some kind of a hospital; everywhere she looked in the room there was pure whiteness. But that couldn't be it, because at the same time, what she assumed to be walls had a misty, floaty look about them, as if they would dissolve on contact. Glancing about for the body of whoever had addressed her, Leslie turned her head to the left and saw a tall, lean man in a grey flannel suit standing next to her.
"Sir?" she asked, sitting up (for she had just realized she was lying in a bed, under white sheets and resting back on a large, white pillow). Normally she wouldn't have said something as formal as "sir;" more likely "excuse me," or just "hey," but something about the man's presence seemed to command the word "sir."
"We weren't expecting you so soon, Leslie."
Leslie stared at him. She ran a hand through her hair and, in the silence following the man's statement, realized what must have happened to her. The fall from the rope must have killed her. Where was she now, then? Where did one go after one died? And who was this man in the suit?—she was afraid to ask, and the tremulousness of her voice betrayed it. "Who… who are you?"
"Let me introduce myself," he said with a kind smile. He extended a hand. "Dr. Coleman, James Harold Coleman. You can just call me Jim, if you like. Or you can call me doctor, or Dr. Coleman. Some people feel more comfortable that way."
"You're a doctor?" was all Leslie could think to ask. "But I feel fine, I mean I don't …I don't think I need a doctor." She hoped her tone hadn't offended him, but really, did people need doctors once they had died?
"I'm not that kind of doctor," he said, sitting in a chair that seemed to have just materialized out of thin air. "No, I'm a doctor…of the mind, you might say."
"Oh…are you one of those guys who shows people the ink blots and they have to tell you what it looks like?"
Jim laughed. "That's what some people do in my profession, yes. But I haven't done that for some time now. Leslie, do you know what's happened to you?"
She scanned the room again. In a hollow voice she said, "I've died."
"Yes," the doctor replied solemnly. "Six months ago, actually. I'm terribly sorry that I couldn't get here sooner, but there were so many issues that needed to be worked out. In fact, technically you still aren't first on my list, but there is something happening down on earth that requires your specific attention—hence my coming to you now."
"My…my attention?" Leslie repeated, her head swimming. "Doctor—mister—er, Jim, I don't think I understand."
Jim shifted in his chair; leaned back and crossed his legs. "Leslie, you did know someone named Jess Aarons, correct?"
Know him? Her heart leapt merely at the mention of his name. She hadn't thought about him in what felt like ages (although apparently she hadn't thought of anything for ages; she'd been in some kind of dead hyper-sleep). "Yeah, I know him. He's the best friend that I've ever had."
"I think he feels the same way about you," said Jim. "Your death affected him very deeply, Leslie, very deeply. That is, of course, what we would expect, especially from someone as young as Jess. With some well-chosen words from his family, though, he seemed to get well-adjusted enough to be able to go on living his own life without your death scarring him permanently."
Not sure that she comprehended everything the doctor was saying, Leslie asked, "What needs my attention, then?"
Sighing, Jim gestured towards one of the room's walls. It suddenly evaporated into nothing and was replaced by something that resembled a large television screen. Leslie could see snow-tipped evergreens and colored lights; kids sledding and making attempts at building snowmen. "This is the, er, world," said Jim.
"It's Christmas," Leslie whispered, smiling slowly.
"Yes, that is, it will be tomorrow," Jim replied. "This time of year—it gets everyone in high spirits, doesn't it? Suddenly all the world is happy, and nobody seems to have any woes or cares. You wouldn't think anyone had reason to be depressed or sad around Christmastime, would you?"
"No," Leslie answered, looking shocked at the very thought.
Jim nodded at the screen. Leslie jumped at seeing Jess there, projected on the wall, sitting by the river next to Terabithia. It was a profile view of him alone, legs dangling over the edge of the riverbed, head hung low. Watching him in awe, Leslie crept out of her bed and walked slowly towards the wall that Jess's image was on.
"He…he's crying," she whimpered. Her hand shakily went up to the wall and touched his face, as if trying to wipe away the tears. "Jim, he's crying! I've never seen him cry before—he's upset, what's wrong?"
"It's Christmas, and he feels completely alone," the doctor answered. "During the happiest season of the year, everyone loves everyone else and everybody cares about everybody else, but he can't share it with his best friend. To be quite honest, Leslie, he is desperately miserable. Sometimes, when it seems that all other people are happy, one feels his greatest losses the most."
His patient (as it were) was only half-listening. Leslie's heart ached as she looked up at Jess, shaking a little from the cold and from his tears. She pressed herself against the wall, wishing dreadfully that it would melt away and leave her alone with Jess. But just as this soothing thought had occurred to her, his image disappeared altogether and the wall was back to its old, white self.
Jim's low voice brought her back. "Like I said, this kind of mourning is to be expected in people who have lost their greatest friends. But in the case of young Mr. Aarons, I'm afraid that his loneliness may be taking a far more drastic turn than we would have liked. And by drastic, Leslie, I mean that any signs of improvement in his mood seem to have long gone."
"Use smaller words, doctor," Leslie sighed, going back and sitting on her bed. "I'm only a kid, remember?"
With the shadow of a smile, Jim looked down at the clipboard Leslie had just noticed he was holding. He then remembered the utter seriousness of the situation and frowned. "I hate to have to tell you this, Leslie, but to get right to the point, your friend is thinking seriously of taking his own life."
"He—" Leslie stared at him. "He's…you're joking, right? Please tell me you're just pulling my leg, Jim."
"Wish I could, Leslie," he sighed. He leaned back in his chair and studied the papers on his clipboard, looking pensive. "We wanted to talk to you about this not only because you were his best friend, but also because our records indicate that before you met Jess, you also consid—"
"Yeah," Leslie interrupted him. Her heart had suddenly grown very cold. She could not bare the thought of Jess wanting to end his life, but at the same time, knew exactly how it felt: to be alone, without friends, isolated from family. "That's not going to happen, Jim, not on my watch. What do you want me to do?"
Finally, another smile graced Jim's face as he put down the clipboard. "Leslie, do you know anything about guardian angels?"
Jess rolled over in his bed and looked out the window. It had been another sleepless night, but he wasn't sure what to attribute it to. Maybe the snowstorm had kept him up, maybe more bad dreams that he couldn't remember. Well, snow or no snow, there were still chores to be done and only he could do them. Trying not to make too much noise (so as not to wake Maybelle), he crept out of the room.
Fifteen minutes later, he had milked the cow and was just about to check on the family's vegetables when he heard it—a strange, almost unearthly sound emanating from somewhere in town. Where had he heard it before? Oh, yeah. Those were church bells. But why were they ringing at 6:00 on a Saturday morning? He tried to ignore it and go back to work, but he just could not force himself to concentrate: every ten seconds or so, another dull ring would sound and subsequently dissolve into the air.
I should stop whoever's making that racket, Jess thought to himself, walking to the edge of the Aarons property. They're going to wake up the whole neighborhood. Of course, he reasoned, the bells usually went off every hour anyway—but he couldn't remember them ever starting off this early. But Jess supposed he just really wanted an excuse to go see what was going on. He ran to town and after a while, he started to think that the bells weren't really ringing anymore but that they had established a kind of mantra that was now stuck in his head. Finally, he had reached the snow-covered steps of the small church, and was pretty sure he wasn't imagining the soft yet loud noise coming from within its walls. I wonder why no one else is out here, he thought as he trudged inside. Usually this is something people in this town would get annoyed about.
"Hello?" Jess called in a normal voice as the church door shut silently behind him. The ringing had stopped, and there was suddenly an eerie atmosphere in the old building. "Is—is anyone there?" he asked, his voice cracking a little from nerves. Walking carefully among the pews, Jess looked for the door that would lead up to the bell tower—he didn't have to go very far; just a few rows in he spotted a passageway with a spiral staircase.
This could be potentially dangerous, he thought as he scaled the steps. Who knew what he'd find up there? A drunk person, maybe, or a criminal. Either way, at least that would be something exciting, and after having spent roughly half of the last six months in some kind of uninspired stupor, some excitement was very welcome.
But when Jess pushed open the door to the small belfry, it was to find it empty of any other human being. The rope connected to the bell swung ever so slightly, as if whoever had been pulling on it had just run away. But that's impossible, I would have seen them coming back down the stairs… unless… Jess rushed to the open window (maybe the wintry breeze was responsible for the subtle swinging of the rope), but did not see anyone on the ground below who might have jumped. The street was empty, just as empty as the church.
Disappointed, Jess turned away from the window and prepared to go back down the dizzying staircase when he noticed a thick, black book open near the rope of the bell. The wind coming in from outside shuffled its thin pages back and forth, but a long, red piece of material was stuck in the midst of it, as if marking a place. Jess debated whether or not he should just leave, but his curiosity got the better of him and he walked over to the heavy-looking book.
As soon as he picked it up and gave it a good look, Jess immediately recognized it as a Bible. He felt stupid for not placing it sooner, especially considering that he was in a church. Once upon a time his parents had liked to pull the old family Bible off the shelf and they'd all sit together and pass the book around, reading verses in turn. But with each year, these readings had diminished, until it had reached the present and the book sat unnoticed and untouched. Jess didn't really care about that—the Bible was just some old book that had been written hundreds of years ago and was incredibly difficult to understand, not to mention read.
But despite his annoyance, Jess turned to where the bookmark was, and his eyes were drawn instantly to a passage that seemed to be written in red ink:
"The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death."
Jess shut the book loudly, and the noise it made reverberated off the enclosing walls. This caused him to jump, and he nearly fell back down the spiral staircase. He walked carefully down the steps, making sure he didn't trip, then exited the church even more slowly. What the heck was that all about? Am I going crazy?
On his way across the street, Jess saw the front door of the local book store open. The owner had kicked it wide enough to step through, and Jess noticed he was carrying a large box—which he then placed carefully underneath the awning, away from the light snow that was falling. He disappeared back into the book shop, then reappeared a few moments later with a sign that read "Christmas Discount: Up to 70 percent off," with an arrow pointing down to the cardboard box he had just set out. Then he noticed someone watching him, and saw Jess a few yards away.
"Hi there, son!" he called out. "Bit early for you to be up, isn't it?"
"Bit early for you to be open, isn't it?" Jess countered, walking closer.
"Normally, yes," the bookstore man replied. "But during the holiday seasons I like to open a few hours ahead of my competitors—you know, people get really into that mad rush to buy presents, and I'm beating them all off by having a sale before the holiday even happens! You see the profits of…" He noticed Jess's vacant expression and laughed. "I won't bore you with the economics, kid. But if you've still got any gifts to buy for Christmas, look no further than right in front of you." He gestured to the box of books with a genial smile, then retreated back into his store.
Warily, Jess approached the store and looked blankly down at the books. He still needed to get his mother a present, but he was stuck for ideas. His sisters had been easy: makeup from the dime store (hopefully they wouldn't be to tell it was that cheap) for the older ones, and second-hand dolls for the younger. He'd saved up a bit of money doing extra chores for his dad, who had vehemently insisted that he receive no presents. So now it was only his mother Jess had to think about, and he had absolutely no clue what she would really want.
"How about a book?"
Jess looked up, expecting to see the bookstore owner again, but no one was there. That wouldn't have made sense anyway, because the voice that had spoken was not the low, masculine one that belonged to the man who had just spoken a few minutes ago. No, this one was higher-pitched, with a much lighter attitude driving it. But he was alone on the street, he soon realized. Oh, no. I really am going crazy.
He had nearly made it back to his house when Jess involuntarily came to a halt in front of the Burkes' old place. No one had bought it yet. It just sat there, snow covering it up, making it look cozy as a Christmas card. Jess deliberated there for a moment, when a sudden wind seemed to come out of nowhere, sending a miniature, horizontal avalanche of snow in his direction. Ducking down to get out of its way, he watched the wind carry the snow past his house, and further down the path until it faded it out of sight. It looked like it was headed for Terabithia.
Terabithia? He hadn't even been there in the last month or two; the most he had done was gone up to the river's edge and let his legs hang over them. While at first going there with Maybelle had seemed to ameliorate the pain, it had gradually become harder and harder to do, like bringing his little sister there was a mockery of Leslie's life. Didn't he have any respect for the dead? Clearly, or else he wouldn't have left that nice wreath there in memory of his best friend.
Jess was walking as he pondered all of this, and he was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't even notice he had been going down the snowed-over path to Terabithia until he found himself standing in front of the half-frozen stream. It was strangely unnerving but enticing at the same time, the thought of crossing over into Terabithia. Above him there was still a foot or two of broken rope, swinging somewhat in the wintry breeze. To the left there was the bridge he had constructed, perfectly safe but was it worth—
"I'd take the bridge if I were you."
"GAH!" Whirling around, Jess saw a figure out of the corner of his eye; yelled in fright again, and fell over onto his back. He screwed his eyes shut, terrified of whoever may have found him here. The gentle voice tried to get him to open his eyes, but they remained clamped closed, even as he was sure he felt someone pulling him to his feet. When Jess finally had the courage to see who it was that had startled him, it was to discover that he appeared to be completely alone again. He turned slowly in a circle, half-expecting whoever it was to jump out of nowhere.
"What is going on with me today…"
His breath escaped him again when he was sure he heard footsteps going across the bridge, although now he wondered if that was just the sound of his heart hammering against his chest in terror. Had he disturbed the Terabithian spirits somehow? Were they messing with his head? A particularly heavy gust of winter wind shoved Jess closer to the bridge, and he resignedly decided he'd better cross it. Unless he was hearing things again, it sounded like there was light laughter in the air.
There were no footprints in the snow on the path Jess was on; in fact, there were none that he could see anywhere. Even when he'd finally reached the dilapidated tree that had once been home to him and Leslie—
Leslie. It was the first time he had let himself think her name in a painfully long time. Every time he did, it sent a tremor through his body like a shot, an injection of something poisonous. But here, in Terabithia, it was impossible to think of anyone else. With a rueful smile, Jess looked up at the tree that he and Leslie had been standing in when she named their secret place. Now covered in snow, it looked vastly different from before… and unless he was very much mistaken, there was something moving in it…
A Squogre? A Fulcher? Jess had climbed into the tree house to apprehend whatever it was, but nearly fell out of it when a booming voice cried out "MYSTERIOUS DEATH!" The two words rang out over Terabithia, echoing over the empty landscape.
"—who in a single hour life's gold can so refine, and by thy art divine, change mortal weakness to immortal power!"
"Wh—who's there?!" Jess shouted, scared out of his wits. There was definitely some deranged beatnik or something up in that tree, because Jess knew that he certainly couldn't imagine a dialogue so poetic on his own. Crouched in a corner of the tree house, Jess thought the words had sounded like something Leslie might have penned while they were holed up in it…
"Relax, it's I," the disembodied voice laughed, now sounding slightly closer. "Spent with the noble strife of a victorious life, while you watched me fading heavenward through your tears." And then, lively as a young sparrow, Leslie Burke leapt into view off of a low branch. "Hi there, Jess."
He stared wordlessly at her. Leslie was dressed in a sweater that was even whiter than the snow surrounding her; there were intricately designed golden fringes on the sleeves and collar. She wore a skirt that was similarly styled, with the gold pattern on the hem that stopped just below her knees. Her hair appeared to be its usual color, but (and maybe this was the influence of the wintery atmosphere) it had an almost silver tint to it, like it was shining. As Leslie stepped towards Jess, hands casually placed at her hips and an impish smile lighting up her face, her tall, white boots did not make a sound or an imprint on the snow.
Forget that this was doubtlessly the most radiant Leslie had ever looked in her life—her life, which was supposed to have ended six months ago. Leslie extended a hand towards Jess, who was still sitting in the far corner of the tree house. He didn't move his arms, which were clasped around his legs. "W-what are you?" he stammered. "Am I having a really crazy dream? Are you a—a ghost?"
"No, you aren't dreaming, and no, I'm not a ghost," Leslie replied in that tone he was so used to hearing: almost offended, but extremely regal. Her affronted, lovely face suddenly turned into a wide grin as she asked, "Hey, how'd you like the poetry, by the way? You know, the stuff I was saying before?"
"Uh…" It was like nothing had changed between them; Jess was, as always, scrambling madly for words in her presence (a presence he had to strongly question existed outside of his imagination at all). "Fantastic," he said weakly, as Leslie looked so truly excited to hear his opinion. "Real nice. Shakespeare?"
"It, uh… it wasn't a Leslie Burke original, was it?"
"Nah," Leslie laughed, finally deciding to sit down next to Jess as he refused to stand up. Naturally, he scooted away from her. "What're you doing that for, Jess?" she asked, her eyes soulful and sorrowful. "What do you think I'm going to do to you?"
"I don't know—I don't know, but I know you shouldn't be here right now," Jess answered, on the defensive all of a sudden. His words came out in an angry growl as he added, "You're dead, Leslie! You're dead!"
Leslie's lips came together in a thin line, and she looked away with a nod. "Yes, you're right." She tried to remember what Jim had told her before, it had been so well said, but she doubted she'd be able to recount it as well. "In the… strictest definitions of the words, I am—technically—dead. Clearly you believe that. But don't you believe, Jess, that even though I'm not here anymore physically, that some small part of me might have remained here?"
"What do you mean?" Jess asked, confused. "Your ashes are still here, if that's what you mean." The words came out spitefully; he was still upset that the Burkes had cremated Leslie before giving him a chance to say goodbye to her body.
"But see, you're seeing me now, and I'm even talking to you! Isn't that better than just seeing the shell I left behind?"
"What—can you read my mind, or what?" Jess queried, unnerved by the fact that Leslie seemed to be able to just get into his head.
"Sort of, yeah. That's part of what being a guardian angel is. Reading your thoughts and knowing what you're about to do before you do it. Like, if you were going to do something stupid I might be able to prevent it."
"Guardian angel, huh?" Jess scoffed. "I've gotta be dreaming. And I gotta stop letting Maybelle force me into watching It's a Wonderful Life with her."
"Oh, that's a pretty decent movie," Leslie said lightly. "But it doesn't really get the whole guardian angel thing down right. I mean, the whole idea of an angel getting his wings every time a bell rings is nice and everything, but I don't need wings. I can get along fine without them."
"Sure," Jess said slowly, wondering why he hadn't woken up yet. His dreams never lasted this long. And he was sure that he would in fact wake up soon, which is why he did not want to get all warm and fuzzy with Leslie—being happy with her here like old times, in this dream world, would make it all that much harder when harsh reality came beating down on his door telling him to get out of bed.
"You still don't believe me, do you?" Leslie sighed. When Jess didn't respond, she said, "Slap me."
"Or hit me, or whatever. If you don't really believe in me, it won't hurt."
Jess didn't move, worrying for dream Leslie's sanity.
"C'mon, Jess. Just do it. What, don't wanna hit a girl?" she teased him. "Just pretend I'm Scott, or Gary. Don't be a wimp!"
"I'm not a wimp!" he yelled, kicking her leg. Or at least he had aimed to. But instead of feeling like he'd hit anything, his foot just went painlessly through her leg, as if she was a hologram.
Leslie sighed wistfully again. "This is unfortunate. What can I do to convince you?" But as usual, her mind was on more tracks than one, and before she could ponder the answer to her own question, Leslie produced an old wreath from no where. "So you made this, right?"
"I—" Jess studied it for a moment, then recognized it as the one he had in fact made for Leslie's memorial months ago. "Yeah," he whispered. "I made it for…for you."
"I wish I could have seen it in its original splendor," Leslie remarked, getting to her feet. "But maybe this will help you see I'm not an apparition." She closed her eyes, hands gripped around the wreath as if she was concentrating very hard on something. Then, the wreath shrank down to a much smaller size, its browning needles turning into a magnificent, glistening yellow color. Leslie placed it delicately on her head, where it perched there like a crown. "Thanks for making this for me, Jess," she said, sitting down again. "'The past years brought their harvest rich and fair; while memory and love, together, fondly wove a golden garland for her silver hair.'"
There was a hole that had formed itself in Jess's heart ever since Leslie had died, and despite himself, he felt as if it was filling slowly now. Looking at this incredible angel (he supposed) sitting so casually beside him, he wondered if he might not very well start to cry. Could this really be real? Not…not just a dream? There had been so much he had planned on seeing and doing with Leslie, thinking their lives would go on together forever, instead of hers ending so abruptly. There was so much…
As his thoughts continued in this vein, Leslie blushed lightly. He had forgotten that she had a vague idea of what was going through his head. "Well," she whispered. "That might not be such a bad idea, Jess. Maybe it'll push you off the fence." With a flick of her finger towards the wreath-turned-garland on her head, mistletoe appeared in the needles just over her forehead. She gave Jess an expectant but patient look.
Even if I am just dreaming…what's the hurt in believing? Jess thought, biting down hesitantly on his lip.
"There is none," Leslie replied quietly.
Jess slowly raised one of his arms, moving it even more gradually towards Leslie's face (which, like her body, was turned to look at him). He was visibly trembling, as if he wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to be able to really feel Leslie or just have his skin go through hers as it had before. But before he knew it, he didn't have a choice: his fingers touched her cheek, and not even a team of wild horses could have dragged his hand away. Leslie's skin was impossibly smooth, almost like silk, making it feel as if she could fall to pieces (or a shroud, at least) at any given moment. However, the look she was giving him in those bright, blue eyes of hers definitely negated that notion.
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, actually," she teased him softly.
Jess snorted a laugh, then lowered his palm so that his whole hand was touching her face. Leslie reached up and took it in both of her hands, sighing in satisfaction. "There, you see?" she said. "Mutual belief." She laughed. "Hey, Mutual Belief. That'd be a good name for a band."
"Mmm, I don't think so," Jess said with a crooked smile. In the blink of an eye he had leaned closer to Leslie; he was so close he could feel her warm, shallow breath on his face. Jess's hand moved farther back so that his thumb rested on Leslie's ear, his other fingers half-way in her soft hair.
"I'm not sure how to either," Leslie admitted in response to Jess's thoughts. "But I'm willing to try." She tentatively closed the gap between her and her best friend, letting her lips barely touch his.
It felt sort of like rose petals pressing gently against his mouth, Jess decided, wondering if there was something else he was supposed to do. He had only seen kisses in the movies, and as they were usually not moments he particularly enjoyed watching, he had never paid great attention to them. Now he sort of wished he had; the kiss between him and Leslie was strange and a little awkward …but somehow, at the same time, it was the most wonderful thing he had ever experienced.
"Interesting," Leslie remarked, pulling away, though her hand was still loosely hanging on to the back of Jess's shoulder. "Very interesting." Her hair was suddenly, inexplicably glowing, and the silvery light emanating from it distracted Jess from the red that was tinting Leslie's cheeks. Jess was reminded of the scene in It's A Wonderful Life where George offered to lasso the moon down for Mary, saying she could swallow it, and how that would light up the tips of her hair…
"Hey, where are you going?" Jess asked when Leslie got abruptly to her feet and strode over to the tree so she could climb out of the house.
"The rest of the town will probably be up soon," she replied, waiting for Jess to follow her lead and get out of the tree house. "You should go buy your mom one of those books that the store owner put out in that discount box."
"A book?" Jess asked, quickening his pace to catch up with her (she still moved so much faster than him, and the grace with which she did it was so much greater than he had remembered). "I dunno, what do you think she wants?"
"I'll think you'll know it when you see it," Leslie answered, shooting Jess a confident grin. She was walking so close to his side that soon their fingers were brushing together, until Jess had the guts to just close his hand around hers. Leslie smiled to herself but the smile faded when they had reached the stream. Her gaze shifted from the broken rope down to a large rock that was sticking prominently out of the frozen part of the water. Jess was looking at it as well, and their thoughts were synchronized: Maybe that's the one that did it.
Jess squeezed Leslie's hand harder, and it seemed to remind her of something.
"You have to promise me something, Jess," Leslie said in a shaky voice. This was uncharacteristic of her, and Jess grasped that this was going to be one of those rare circumstances where Leslie wanted to be serious. "I was sent back here because you…" She struggled to get the words out. "Well, let's just say sometimes the movies do get it right. They sent me down to see you because you—you aren't…" Were those tears she was fighting back? "You aren't supposed to join me there yet."
While she was not being entirely cryptic, it took Jess a minute to figure out what Leslie was trying to say. Then he realized that she was talking about how he had sat there on the stream's edge, multiple times, looking up at the broken rope and thinking how easy it would be to follow in Leslie's footsteps … just jump into that icy water and let it do with him what it may, it didn't seem to matter anymore without her. The thought of Leslie knowing he had considered this made the blood in Jess run cold. He was ashamed of the idea, wanted to deny that it had ever crossed his mind, but now of course (with Leslie's newfound, mind-reading powers) that was impossible.
"So," Leslie said in a hollow voice, gripping Jess's hand tighter. "You have to promise me that no matter what happens, you won't tamper with the plan that's laid out for you. Please, Jess. Be everything you can be in this life while it's still yours. I believe in you, I really do."
"Leslie, I don't…know…what I can do without you," Jess responded.
"You'll never be without me," Leslie assured him, walking him onto the snowy bridge. "I'll always be here."
But just as she said that, she disappeared completely from view. Jess panicked, but even more confusion struck him because while he could no longer see Leslie, he could still feel her hand enclosed in his. "Leslie? Where are you, what happened?"
"Oh, that's right. You won't be able to see me outside of Terabithia."
"What? Why not?"
"I haven't got my wings yet."
"But you said that whole wings thing was all Hollywood."
"It is, the way they described it. It's not so simple as just waiting for some bells to ring. Otherwise, I would have gotten them while I was working that old one in the church this morning. You've got to earn them. And also, I'm not sure what Jim meant exactly, but it sounds like these wings aren't the type we usually associate with angels."
"Jim? Who's Jim?" Jess asked, unable to keep a note of jealousy out of his voice. Who was this guy?
"Nothing to get worked up about, Jess, he's my… uh, supervisor, I guess you might say. He's the one who let me come be your guardian angel."
"Oh…right…" It felt very strange not being able to see anyone there, but hearing her voice and feeling her hand. Jess was grateful there was no one milling about the streets at this time of day, or else they might have seen him and thought he was talking to himself. When he finally looked around to see where he was, Jess realized that Leslie had led him back to the bookstore. He leaned over the cardboard box under the awning, which had been so full this morning now only had one, tattered book left inside.
"What is it?"
Jess picked it up, and saw that it was not one book but a box of them, with one side cut out so you could read all the titles. He turned it over to see what the title read. "Um… 'The Complete Works of Louisa May Alcott.' Who's Louisa May Alcott?" But as he asked it, he could see the name somewhere in his house, on the bookshelf in the living room.
"She wrote Little Women, that's one of my favorite books!" was Leslie's excited reply. "Do you know if your mom likes her?"
"Well, actually, now that I think about it, I think we do have a copy of that book somewhere in the house."
"Hey, look! Seventy percent off! That's an insane deal for the day before Christmas, Jess! Get it! Get it for your mom and then… come back to Terabithia and find me, okay?"
Jess felt the rose petals brush against his cheek, the pressure from his hand gone. She had left, like the wind. Looking doubtfully at the ratty set of books in his hands, Jess sighed and walked into the bookstore to buy them.
As it transpired, the books turned out to be his mother's favorite Christmas gift (as far as presents were concerned, Jess got the bum lot—all he'd asked for was a bomber jacket, but once again was disappointed). The next morning, Mary had acted overjoyed at the home-made crafts from the little girls, and told Brenda and Ellie they needn't have spent so much money buying her a nice new holiday dress ("We pooled our resources," Ellie explained at the same time that Brenda said she wouldn't mind returning it and getting one in her own size). Mr. Aarons grumbled that he was still waiting for his wife's present to arrive ("I'll never trust those stupid online services again"). But when she had opened Jess's set of books, Mary Aarons had the most astonished look on her face akin to nothing her family had ever seen her wear before.
"Uh…mom?" Brenda asked. "Are you okay? You look like you're about to like, burst into tears or something."
"Jess," said Mrs. Aarons, ignoring Brenda's question although she was indeed teary-eyed. "Did you know she was my favorite author? Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved her… her work."
"Er…well, I just thought that…you might, you know, like it."
For the rest of the day, Mary could not be seen without her nose in one of the books in the set, something her family was definitely not accustomed to. She was in the middle of skimming the book of poems by Ms. Alcott when she noticed her only son sitting by the window, staring wistfully into the spot. Marking her place in the book, Mary walked over and sat down next to him.
"I'm sorry, Jess," she whispered, placing her hand on his knee in what she hoped to be a solicitous manner. "I wish she could be here, too."
Jess turned to look at his mother, wondering if she had also possessed the ability to read minds. He shrugged and returned his gaze to the window. "I'm okay, mom," he said honestly. "I think she is still here, sort of, anyway. I don't know how to make it make sense, but…she's here."
Mary smiled at him, deeply moved that he seemed to be looking at it this way. She opened the book of poems again, saying, "You know, Jess, I've missed that little girl, too. She was a great friend to you. But since then, I have to ask myself … 'How could we mourn like those who are bereft, when every pang of grief found balm for its relief in counting up the treasures she had left?'"
"Treasures?" Jess asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Sure, honey. 'Faith that withstood the shocks of toil and time; Hope that defied despair; Patience that conquered care; and loyalty, whose courage was sublime.'"
"Could I take a look at that?" Jess asked, reaching for the book. Mary nodded with a sad smile, handing it over before getting up and leaving Jess to his thoughts. Jess scanned the poem, completely floored. It was as if Louisa May Alcott knew Leslie personally, and had written this poem about her. "No way… 'The great deep heart that was a home for all—Just, eloquent, and strong In protest against wrong; Wide charity, that knew no sin, no fall…'" With a start, Jess looked up to the first few stanzas of the poem and saw that they were the lines Leslie had been quoting to him only yesterday. Reading the page several times over until he was sure he had memorized it, Jess slammed the book shut and raced out the door, yelling to the house at large that he was going on a walk. That was why Leslie had wanted him to pick that book, it was supposed to help him. Help him what, deal? Maybe it would be possible after all… he belted down the snowed-covered path, with each step hearing a different word in his head:
"The Spartan spirit that made life so grand, Mating poor daily needs With high, heroic deeds, That wrested happiness from Fate's hard hand." If anyone could wrest anything away from Fate, it would be Leslie Burke. Before he knew it, Jess had crossed the bridge to Terabithia, panting heavily and slowing to a stop. "Leslie?" he called out. No response. "I know now!" he shouted gleefully. "Nothing but the weary snow lies dead!" He heard her laughter fill the air, like wind chimes. It was spiraling down to meet him, and Leslie suddenly appeared. She was wearing the same outfit as yesterday, complete with the golden wreath about her head. More than ever, Leslie looked like a true Queen of Terabithia.
"'Oh, noble woman!'" Jess recited, lowering himself into a bow. "'Never more a queen Than in the laying down Of scepter and of crown To win a greater kingdom, yet unseen!'" He laughed at his own posh accent, and Leslie laughed with him, spurring him on to the final verse, for which his voice became more reverent: "'Teaching us how to seek the highest goal, To earn the true success—To live, to love, to bless…'" He had to blink the tears out of his eyes, for they were beginning to obstruct his speech.
Leslie stooped down to Jess's bowed level, reaching out and wiping the tear from his cheek. "'And make death proud to take a royal soul,'" she finished for him.
Jess felt his mouth twitching into another grin. "Right," he said. "Anyone would be proud to have your soul, Leslie." He looked away to wipe the tears from his eyes himself, and when he looked back, it was to see Leslie in a dark brown, leather bomber jacket that was far too big for her. "Whoa! Leslie!"
"Hey, check it out!" she giggled, turning to inspect one of the sleeves. "I got my wings!" She pointed to the silver medal that was pinned to the jacket in the shape of a pair of wings. "Jim was right," Leslie said, un-pinning it and re-attaching it to her sweater. "These are much less of a hassle than the real thing …what're you laughing at, Jess?" she asked with one of her mile-wide grins.
"Normally I'd think that a bomber jacket would look ridiculous on you," Jess answered, smiling whole-heartedly back. "But I gotta say, it actually looks ridiculously good on you." He felt that "pretty" was not the word that applied here, but it didn't know of any others one could call a girl.
Leslie snickered and shrugged off the jacket. "Great as I'm sure I looked in it, I think it's better suited for your taste." She winked and tossed it at him. "Put it on, fighter pilot. But remember—I've got the wings. Merry Christmas, by the way."
"Right back at you," Jess said, putting on the jacket and instantly feeling warmer. "So does this mean I'll be able to see you? Outside of Terabithia, I mean?"
"I think there are certain limitations," Leslie answered carefully. "I mean, I don't want to get your hopes up. No one else will be able to see or hear me, so we'll have to make sure you're alone whenever I meet you. It may only be this one time a year that I can visit you, I'm not sure… but just know that no matter what, I will always be watching out for you."
"I should be watching out for you," Jess chuckled, taking one arm out of his jacket. He summoned Leslie to his side, explaining, "You look cold. Maybe we should share this for today."
Smirking, Leslie put one arm around Jess and the other into the free sleeve of the jacket. "You sure are sneaky, Jess Aarons," she teased him. In response to this, Jess kissed her briefly on the lips again. "Hey!"
"Sorry, Leslie," Jess said, unable to contain his glee. "But I think I just figured out that makes me feel like I have wings, too."
"Oh, what a sweet little mortal you are," Leslie laughed, thumping Jess on the back. "Thanks, buddy."
The walked around their kingdom, hand in hand, laughing like the old friends they were. If Jess had been able to share Leslie's talent for mind-reading, he would have seen that their thoughts were once again perfectly in synch:
"Ere the sense of loss our hearts had wrung
A miracle was wrought;
A swift as happy thought
She lived again—brave, beautiful, and young."
A/N: There was my sappy little Christmas story I always wanted to write! In case you were curious, the poem that so heavily influenced it is called "Transfiguration," and is in fact by the beloved Louisa May Alcott. Happy (summer) holidays!