THE LEGACY OF TERABITHIA
THE LEGACY OF TERABITHIA
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction based on the book Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I am not affiliated with Katherine Paterson, her publisher, the Walt Disney company, Walden Media, or David Paterson. The original characters, settings, and story belong to Katherine Paterson.
Chapter One: Return To Lark Creek
Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity…
The sound of her grandfather's old pickup truck woke Leslie Aarons from a thin, dreamless sleep. She was surprised that she'd slept at all. There was something about other people's beds that prevented her from sleeping in them. But this was her father's old bed, in her father's old room. As a boy, he had to share the room with his younger sisters – Leslie's Aunt May Belle and Aunt Joyce. Their bed used to be in the opposite corner of the room, but Grandma and Grandpa took it out long ago to make a guest room with one bed. They did the same thing with the second bed in the room that Aunt Brenda and Aunt Ellie – her father's older sisters - used to share. Very convenient for when the grandchildren came to visit. They even had extra folding beds that could be moved into a room.
As a growing boy, it must have been hard for her father, Leslie thought, having to share a bedroom with two little girls. But his parents had five kids to feed and little money - he didn't have a choice. Leslie's parents had only one kid and plenty of money. Sometimes she felt lucky having her parents all to herself. Sometimes she longed for a brother or sister so badly it made her ache inside. Being an only child wasn't easy.
Being the only child of Jess Aarons was harder.
Leslie's father was a famous writer. He wrote and illustrated children's books. That meant that he wrote the stories and drew the pictures, too. He was a talented artist. When he wasn't drawing pictures for his books, he painted canvases. His oil paintings were almost always landscapes and seascapes. He loved painting scenes of forests, mountains, lakes, and oceans. None of Jess Aarons' fans ever saw his paintings. He kept them to himself or gave them to relatives and friends.
One painting Leslie knew Dad would never give away. It hung on the wall in his study. The painting was a landscape scene that depicted a boy and girl in crowns and robes looking out at what appeared to be a vast kingdom surrounded by a forest and mountains. A great and beautiful castle stood in the distance, protected by a moat. There were people moving about, and some strange creatures were watching them. A giant was hiding in the forest. Above it all, the sun shone brightly in the blazing blue sky.
The young King and Queen held hands and smiled as they surveyed their kingdom. They were ready to defend it if necessary - they each wore sheathed swords. The young King bore a striking resemblance to the artist, who signed his name in the lower right hand corner, underneath the title:
Terabithia. Leslie was five years old when she first read that word on the painting. She asked Dad what it meant, and he said "A great and secret kingdom." He didn't say anything more. It was almost like he didn't want to talk about it. Of course, she kept prodding him for details. He finally told her about Leslie Burke, the girl he named her after.
When Dad was a boy, Leslie Burke was his best friend. It was she who created Terabithia, their great and secret kingdom in the woods. It was she who took a poor, dumb farm boy out of the cow pasture and made him a king. They were more than just best friends. They were soul mates. Like yin and yang, they completed each other. They were two different halves that made each other whole.
And then, suddenly, Leslie Burke was gone, killed in a tragic accident.
And Jess Aarons would never be the same.
There was so much more Leslie wanted to know about Leslie Burke, but it was such a painful subject to her father that she was loath to prod him for more information. Besides, she already knew enough to understand why Dad named her after Leslie Burke. If Dad wanted to tell her more, he would.
He did want to tell her more. He wanted to tell the world. The first time he told the story was in The Secret Kingdom, his first picture book to reach number one on the New York Times list of best selling children's books. It stayed at number one for twenty-six weeks. Leslie was only four years old then.
In The Secret Kingdom, during a boring summer vacation, a lonely boy and girl meet, become friends, and discover a secret kingdom in the woods behind their homes. They are the King and Queen that the people of the kingdom have been waiting for. They rule with kindness and bravely defend their land from monsters and conquerors. At the end of the summer, the boy and girl don't want to leave their kingdom, but they know that they have to go back to school, and they won't have much time for it. The kingdom would still be there for them - no one can ruin it because, as Dad wrote:
You can't even see it if you don't have magic inside you, and the magic starts to dry up when you're a big kid. Not because it has to, but because you want it to. It's the saddest part of growing up. And by the time you are grown up, the magic is no more than a pinch of dust under your little toenail. To someone without magic inside him, the Secret Kingdom looks just like a plain old clearing in the forest. He would never know of the great battles, the giants and trolls, the wizards and witches, and the valiant King and Queen who ruled it all.
The secret is to hold onto the magic as long as you can.
After all, even Kings and Queens must grow up.
Even though Dad based The Secret Kingdom and its characters on himself and Leslie Burke, the story was quite different. The boy and girl were called David and Lisa, the kingdom was not called Terabithia, and the story had a happy ending. The book got great reviews. One critic called it "a lyrical ode to the magic of childhood and the power of imagination," while another said that it was "a beautifully written and magnificently illustrated story that should be savored by adults as well as children."
Still, Dad wanted to tell the whole, true story, and when Leslie was six years old, during one of their "Daddy Daughter Days" when Dad would take a break from his writing and drawing to spend the whole day with her, he told her that his new book, which he had almost finished writing, was the true story of himself and Leslie Burke. It was called Bridge To Terabithia. Dad wanted to know what she thought about it. When the book was published, everyone would know whom Leslie Aarons was named after.
At first, Leslie thought it was great. Then Dad read it to her at bedtime over the course of several nights. On the last night, after it was over, Leslie cried so hard she thought she'd never stop. Her poor father! And he had only hinted at what he went through after Leslie Burke died! It was so sad, yet it was the best thing Dad ever wrote. Leslie knew it would be a bestseller, and it was. It won the Newbery Medal, too.
Then, Dad's agent called to tell him that Disney was interested in making a movie of Bridge To Terabithia. Dad had to fly from their home in Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles to meet with studio executives. As part of the contract, Dad would write the movie script with a professional screenwriter. Writing the script was easy; dealing with the changes requested by the studio was not. But they got it all done.
Next came the location scouting. Leslie got to go with Dad to New Zealand to see where the movie would be filmed. While that was going on, the cast of actors was being assembled. And there was costuming, special effects, the musical score had to be composed. All the scenes in the script had to be filmed and then edited together. Making a movie was a long and complicated process. The Bridge To Terabithia movie premiered in February, just a couple months before Leslie's 10th birthday. She got to go to the premiere and meet Josh Hutcherson and Annasophia Robb, who played Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke. That was way cool.
What fame did for Leslie Aarons wasn't cool. She never had much luck making friends. When your father is famous, people either assume that you're a spoiled brat and a snob and want nothing to do with you, or they want to suck up to you because of who your father is. It got worse for Leslie after the movie came out. Not only was she hounded for her father's autograph, some kids seemed to think she could arrange for them to meet Josh Hutcherson and Annasophia Robb or get them to sign autographs. Everybody wanted to be friends with Jess Aarons' daughter, but nobody seemed to care about Leslie Aarons.
They're not my friends - they're phonies, all of 'em, Leslie thought. Who needs 'em!
Leslie's father had his own problems with fame. Ever since Bridge To Terabithia was first published, Dad found himself having to defend his book on all the talk shows. Somehow it had become the most banned and challenged children's book of all time. Some parents didn't like it because it dealt with death and grief. Others didn't like it because of the language. There were some mild swears in the book, but they weren't there to encourage kids to curse. That was just the way people in Dad's hometown of Lark Creek, Virginia, talked.
Some people thought that the part about Dad's music teacher Miss Edmunds inviting him to spend the day with her at an art gallery was really weird and disturbing. On Oprah Winfrey's talk show, Dad explained that things were very different back in the 1970s, when the story took place. Back then, parents would have praised a teacher like Miss Edmunds for being conscientious. Today, they would demand Miss Edmunds be investigated by the police for inappropriate conduct with a student.
What really made some people hate Bridge To Terabithia were the parts about church and religion. Some religious people said that the book portrayed Christianity in a very bad light. Leslie Burke was shown to be a happy, kind, intelligent, compassionate, creative, and moral person despite a total lack of religious faith. Her parents were the same way.
Jess Aarons depicted his family, who were religious, as deeply unhappy, if not dysfunctional. His parents were very close-minded; (if not downright ignorant) his father worried about his only son's interest in drawing and the fact that Jess spent most of his time playing with a girl. Though the Aaronses only went to church once a year for Easter, Jess still hated going. He would tune out the service in his mind while the fire-and-brimstone preacher screamed at the congregation about sin and repentance. When Leslie Burke died, Jess found no comfort in his religious faith. He worried that God would send Leslie to Hell for being a non-believer.
Leslie Aarons knew that her father was just telling the truth about himself and his family. They were very poor, and when you have a big family to take care of and little money, you can't help being unhappy. Grandma favored her daughters – she always yelled at Dad, Grandpa never showed him affection, and Aunt Brenda and Aunt Ellie were always mean to him. Aunt May Belle, Dad's younger sister, was really the only family member he was close to.
Dad did hate going to church, and he stopped going entirely when he grew up. Religion, Leslie thought, was like cauliflower. Some people found it nourishing, while others found that it left a bad taste in their mouths. Hearing religious people rant and rave about how children's book writers like her father and Philip Pullman were trying to "rip God out of our children's hearts" sure left a bad taste in Leslie's mouth.
Ba-room! Baripity, baripity, baripity…
Leslie got out of bed and went to the window. The ancient pickup's motor stopped. She saw her grandfather get out of the truck and head inside. Her father had told her that Grandpa always started the truck in the morning and let the motor run idle for a few minutes to exercise it, whether he was going out or not. It sounded silly, but it kept the old truck running all these years. Maybe Grandpa wasn't as dumb as she thought. She didn't know why, though, he would want to keep driving such an old truck when Dad offered to buy him a new one. Dad also offered to buy him and Grandma a new house. They refused both.
"They're proud people, honey," Dad explained. "Proud as peacocks and stubborn as mules."
Leslie went to the mirror, looked at herself, and sighed. Her honey-blonde hair, which barely touched her shoulders, was a mess. Her brown eyes had lost their amber sparkle, and the whites were bloodshot. She felt worse than she looked. Here she was in Lark Creek, no Internet access, only basic cable on Grandma and Grandpa's old console TV, and practically no signal on her cell phone. Not that she had anyone to call.
The worst part of it was that she had no idea how long she was going to be here. It might be the whole summer. Her parents said they needed some time to themselves to work some things out. Did they think she was stupid? When a husband and wife sleep in separate rooms at night and hardly talk to each other during the day, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's going on.
They were going to get a divorce. What they were going to work out was the details.
Leslie didn't want to think about it. Just the thought of the D-word made her sick. Her parents had been together fifteen years! How could they even think of –
Some heavenly scents sneaked in under the door and caught Leslie's nose. Hot eggs, sweet sausage, and… pancakes! Her stomach growled.
"Leslie! Breakfast!" her grandmother called. Leslie ran to the bathroom to wash up.
"Morning dear," Grandma said. Leslie sat down to eat.
"Morning," Grandpa said, and lit his pipe. He had finished eating.
"Morning," Leslie said through a mouthful of pancakes.
"You sleep well?" Grandma asked. Leslie nodded yes.
"Got anything planned?" Grandpa asked. "You could go fishing with me and Joe Henshaw."
"No thanks, Grandpa. I'll think I'll just go exploring. Maybe walk in the woods."
Grandma and Grandpa exchanged an uneasy look.
"You ain't planning on going out where your daddy and the Burke girl…"
"No! I mean… I'm not going there, Grandma. I don't need to see that place."
"Good. Best you stay away from there."
Actually, Leslie had already seen Terabithia. When she was six – the year Dad wrote Bridge To Terabithia - and they were visiting Grandma and Grandpa, her father brought her out there. She didn't want to go, but Dad wanted to see Terabithia again, and she was afraid to let him go alone. She knew exactly what happened there. After they'd walked down the path, Dad pointed out the creek bed – and the tree he used to swing from. A small piece of the Enchanted Rope still dangled from one of its branches.
She could see where it had broken off and sent Leslie Burke to her death.
Leslie Aarons never wanted to see Terabithia again. Not any of it.
"That place really bothers your Grandma," said Grandpa. "When the police come and told us they found the Burke girl dead in the creek, we were sure they'd find your daddy along with her. They were pretty tight, those two."
"Your daddy loved that little girl," Grandma added. "He went through hell after she died. I don't think he ever got over Leslie Burke. I wish I'd treated her better. I always wondered what your daddy saw in her. Maybe I'd have seen it myself if I hadn't been so damned blind."
"You have to understand, things were real different when your daddy was a kid," Grandpa explained. "Back then, if a man sees his only son spending all his time drawing pictures and playing with girls, he worries that something might be wrong with the boy. It was stupid, I know that now, but it really bothered me then. It shouldn't have. There was nothing wrong with your daddy. That girl never did him any harm. If anything, she did him a world of good. She brought him something special. That's why he named you after her."
"I know," Leslie said, and smiled. Maybe her grandparents weren't as bad as she thought. She finished her breakfast, drank her orange juice, and wiped her mouth with a napkin.
"Well, y'all run along and play now," said Grandma. "This is your summer vacation, so why don't you go out and have fun? There are plenty of kids around. Wait till they find out you're Jess Aarons' daughter! 'Course if you don't want to, you could always stay here and pick beans with me."
"No thanks, Grandma!" Leslie chirped, and ran off to get dressed. She put on her faded blue t-shirt top and a pair of cutoff shorts. Then she fished a hair scrunchy and her Washington Nationals baseball cap out of her suitcase. She tied her hair into a ponytail, which she tucked through the back of her cap after she put it on.
After she tied her sneakers tight, Leslie headed out. She stopped short of the kitchen when she heard her grandparents talking.
"That poor child," Grandma said. "I hope Jess and Sara don't split up. They've been together too long – you just don't walk away from fifteen years of marriage."
"Folks married longer than that break up," said Grandpa. "But if I know my son, he'll try his best to make it work. He's not the kind who gives up easy. But that damn woman… I don't know about her. She's got a thick skull, that one."
"That's for sure," Grandma agreed.
Leslie cringed. Her father had told her that Grandma and Grandpa never really liked Mom. Now she knew for sure. But there was no point holding it against them. They never really liked Leslie Burke, either – until after she died.
Leslie took a deep breath and went into the kitchen. "Okay, I'm going. Bye!"
"Bye, dear," said Grandpa.
"Have fun, honey," said Grandma.
Not likely, Leslie thought, as she bounded out the back door.