AND IN ALL THE WORLDS BEYOND
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.
First and foremost, I would like to thank all of you who enjoyed my previous work, The Legacy of Terabithia, and took the time to review it and post such kind comments. To you and to all fans of Katherine Paterson's great novel, I dedicate this new work.
And In All The Worlds Beyond is not related to The Legacy of Terabithia. It's a stand alone story that takes place in the summer of 1980, three years after the end of BTT. While alone in Terabithia, 13-year-old Jess Aarons gets caught in a strange and powerful storm and is reunited with... Leslie Burke! She's the same age as Jess. It's like she never died! That's because she didn't die. This Leslie comes from a parallel universe - a world where it was Jess who died on that tragic day...
AND IN ALL THE WORLDS BEYOND
"I took her hand
and then we walked into the night
I took her hand
and then we watched the moon go by
Memories of long forgotten times
I took a chance to relive my life
and then I saw her – she smiled
You are the ghost of change
and now we meet again
You are the ghost of change
but I will always stay the same
Ghost of change, do you remember my name?" - Mercyful Fate
Jess Aarons smiled to himself as he packed up his brushes, watercolors – the good set he'd bought at the arts and crafts store – his sketch pencils, and his pad of art paper. It was a glorious summer morning – windier than he'd hoped, but that wouldn't deter him. He was going to Terabithia.
He never stopped going, not even after he lost Leslie, though it wasn't the same without her. It would never be the same, he knew that, but it was a part of him that he couldn't let go. He'd made his little sister May Belle the new queen, and later, they brought Joyce Ann in as the princess.
After a couple of years, Jess and May Belle both knew he was too old to be "playing Terabithia" with his little sisters. Sometimes he went with them and let them play, (he didn't want them to go there alone) but mostly, he went alone. Not to play, but just to be alone for a while – alone with his thoughts, his drawings, and his memories.
When he first started going to Terabithia alone, Jess felt a strange sense of unease. He remembered how, before Leslie Burke had come into his life, he used to think that the deep forest behind Terabithia – the Sacred Grove – was haunted.
"Oh, but it is," she said. "But you don't have to be scared. It's not haunted with evil things."
"How do you know?"
"You can just feel it. Listen."
Jess felt it the first time he went to Terabithia alone after Leslie died. He always felt it when he went there alone – a feeling of unease, of being watched. The sound of a gentle breeze rippling through the trees would make Jess think of Leslie's voice. Sometimes it felt like she was watching him. He'd turn around, his heart pounding, thinking that she was standing right behind him, but no one was there.
He knew it was crazy. Leslie Burke was dead, killed in a tragic accident, then cremated. He never saw her again. He relived that horrible day over and over in his mind; the way Momma was crying when he got home, how Brenda just blurt out "your girlfriend's dead," the look on May Belle's face – May Belle, who knew in her heart that Jess hadn't died with Leslie, that he had just gone off somewhere, yet there was such fear in her eyes.
He still blamed himself for Leslie's death. He knew it was an accident, that the enchanted rope could have snapped while he was swinging on it, and oh Lord, how he wished it had, but no, it had to snap while Leslie was swinging on it, and he had to go out with his music teacher and not invite her along. How could he do that to her? How could he not even tell her that he wouldn't be meeting her in Terabithia that day?
Whenever he got that weird feeling and thought he was being watched, he wondered if it was Leslie – well, Leslie's ghost – who was watching him. The idea that she could be haunting Terabithia instead of moving on to Heaven was more than he could bear. Once, when he was sure that he was alone in Terabithia, he said aloud, "Leslie, if you're still here, please... PLEASE go to Heaven. Don't stay here to watch over me. I'll be okay, I promise."
Then he told her that he loved her. He wished he had done that when she was alive. There were so many things he had wanted to tell her, but he just couldn't find the words to express what he felt. Now it was too late.
He had to admit that it had been a long time since he'd gotten that weird feeling when he went to Terabithia alone. Now it was his sanctuary, a place of peace where he could get away for a while and think and draw. It had been three years since Leslie died. It felt more like thirty. He still thought about her.
He thought about Leslie a lot. He wondered what she would think if she could see him now. He was a couple inches taller – he'd had a growth spurt – but he still had the same ornery straw-colored hair. He still drew, only now, his drawings were better – much better. He was more determined than ever to become a professional artist; not just for himself, but to make Leslie proud of him.
With his older sisters out of the house – Brenda was away at college and Ellie was working and sharing an apartment in Millsburg with her best friend – his younger sisters moved into their room, which meant that for the first time, Jess had a room of his own. Which was good, because he was way too old to be sharing a room with two little girls. He needed his privacy, but sometimes, he missed not having them there, and he knew that they missed him, too.
Jess put on his backpack and headed out. In the living room, May Belle and Joyce Ann were still in their nightgowns, parked in front of the TV set. They were watching, of all things, the morning news. As the anchorman spoke, a picture of an asteroid was displayed in the upper right corner of the screen.
"At 7:38AM Eastern Daylight Time, the asteroid THX-1138 crashed into the planet Venus, as predicted by NASA scientists and astronomers. The giant asteroid, over a mile in diameter, posed absolutely no threat to the Earth, however, the effects of such a tremendous impact on Venus will be studied thoroughly by scientists for years to come. The study will not only help scientists develop a plan to protect the Earth, but also help to answer questions about the origins of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe. Scientists have long hypothesized that asteroid collisions may have not only wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth, but may have also wiped out life on other planets in our solar system, especially Mars, where there is evidence of the existence of oceans whose waters nourished life billions of years ago on the Red Planet. While the asteroid crash on Venus poses no direct threat to the Earth, meteorologists caution that shock waves may cause temporary atmospheric destabilization resulting in anomalous weather patterns. The National Weather Service will be monitoring atmospheric and tidal conditions, but stresses that no unusually severe weather is expected. President Carter will be meeting..."
"I'm scared," Joyce Ann whined.
"Don't be a baby," said May Belle. "Nothing's gonna happen."
"I'm going to Terabithia," Jess told them. "I'll be back in time for lunch."
The girls got up and ran to him.
"I wanna go, too!" cried Joyce Ann.
"No," said May Belle. "He's got his art stuff. He wants to be alone." She winked at Jess, smiling.
"Are you really gonna leave us alone?" Joyce Ann whined.
"Momma and Daddy are at the Henshaws. They'll be back soon. While they're gone, and I'm gone, May Belle's in charge." Jess turned to her and said, "Make sure she stays out of trouble," pointing at Joyce Ann.
May Belle beamed. She loved being in charge. She was good at it, too – for a nine-year-old.
"Who's gonna keep her out of trouble?" Joyce Ann snickered, pointing at her sister.
"Very funny," said May Belle.
Jess hugged his little sisters and kissed them goodbye.
"I'll be back soon."
As he walked down the old dirt road, a gust of wind rose up and blew into his face. It was surprisingly strong. Jess squinted to keep the dust out of his eyes. He wondered if it was a mistake going out on such a windy day. He imagined his artwork snatched out of his hands by a breeze, carried through the air, and dumped in the creek bed, where by now, the water was just a few inches of thick, muddy soup.
Jess came to a path that wound through some tall grass. It led him into the woods and a clearing where, in the distance, a tall tree overlooked a creek bed. An enchanted rope once hung from a branch on that tree. Jess averted his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at what was left of the rope. He found a reasonably dry part of the creek bed and crossed over.
Taking off his backpack, Jess sat down where his castle had once stood. He took out his pad of art paper and a charcoal sketch pencil. He flipped through some of his other sketches to find a blank sheet of paper. There were no sketches of Leslie in this pad, but other pads were full of them. He had painted some watercolor portraits of her, too. One of his favorites was a portrait of Leslie sitting on the fence between their homes. She looked just as he remembered her on the first day they met. She wore her blue t-shirt and cutoff shorts, and he captured other details in the portrait – her boyish, short brown hair and spiky bangs, her summer tan, and of course, her smile.
Jess wished he had brought some drawings of Leslie to look at. He tapped his pencil on his art pad – the other end of the pencil so he wouldn't make dots on the paper – and thought about what to draw next. Maybe he'd do another sketch of Leslie. He looked over at the Sacred Grove. He'd painted a great watercolor of that. I finally got the poetry of the trees, he thought.
His mind started to wander. He thought about school – he'd be in the eighth grade come September – and going to art class again. Mrs. Herschaft was the art teacher. She was a petite, heavy-set woman with short, curly red hair; a great teacher with an offbeat sense of humor and an infectious love of art. Jess was her favorite student. Susan Mead was her second favorite.
Just thinking about Susan made Jess feel warm and bubbly inside. He met her in homeroom last year – she sat at the desk next to his. One day, while he was waiting for the teacher to take attendance, he began to draw on some scrap paper. Just as he was losing himself in his sketching, a voice said "Hey, that's really good!"
It was Susan. She had been watching him draw. Embarrassed, he stammered out some words of thanks. She told him that she liked to draw, too. Then she took out a notebook and showed him some of her sketches. And she said my drawing was good, he thought. Her sketches were better. His admiration must have been written on his face; she smiled warmly at him.
Jess had never really noticed Susan before, and that surprised him. She was a thin little wisp of a girl, olive-skinned with dark brunette hair. Her cheeks were dimpled. She took her glasses off to clean them, revealing the most beautiful pair of brown eyes he'd ever seen. They sparkled like fine amber. Too bad she had to hide them behind those big lenses. As for her body, she had just started to develop – her figure hadn't gotten there yet, but it was on the way.
All in all, Susan was cute – achingly cute. Whenever he saw her, he ached inside. He hadn't felt that way since... well, since Leslie Burke. He had ached for her, too. He still did, but not in the same way. It was a different kind of ache now. He missed her terribly. She weighed heavy on his heart.
Jess guided his hand toward the paper. He decided to do a sketch of Susan, then changed his mind and decided to draw Leslie instead. Then his thoughts muddled together and he couldn't decide what to draw. Finally, he settled on a seascape – a lighthouse on a rocky shore, overlooking a churning sea. Maybe he'd put a lone boat out on the horizon. Yeah, that's it.
As he started to draw, his mind drifted back to Susan. Besides homeroom, they were in art class together last year. Mrs. Herschaft had seated them at the same table in the front, as though she had known they would be her star pupils.
Watching Susan draw was like watching a harpist play. Her hands were small and dainty, her fingers thin and delicate, but put a charcoal pencil, pastel chalk, or a paintbrush in her hand, and it would move with the speed, fluidity, and precision of a true artisan – like a harpist's fingers moving about the strings and weaving a beautiful tapestry of notes.
When Mrs. Herschaft had the class work with clay, Jess was flummoxed by the medium. His hands were clumsy with clay – shaping it, that is – and if there hadn't been any molds for him to use, the only thing he could have made was a clay snowman. But, after using a mold to get the basic shape he wanted, clay was a piece of cake. Using the clay knife to carve and etch designs was just like drawing, only three-dimensional. When he was done with that, all he had to do was glaze his sculpture and fire it in the kiln.
Susan didn't need molds. She knew what she wanted and how to sculpt it. When they studied pottery, she had no problem working the wheel and turning a spinning hunk of wet clay into a handsome pot. Jess always ended up poking a hole through the side of his drooping parody of a pot.
Despite Susan's talents and her achingly cute looks, she was, like Jess, a loner. She didn't talk much. She dressed plainly – you'd never guess that she was an artist. She floated through the hallways like a ghost – nobody noticed her, not even the boys. Except for Jess. He and Susan had been friends since that day in homeroom. When the weather was good, they would eat lunch outside and talk. She lived about a mile away from Jess, so they would hang out after school and on the weekends. He loved spending time with her. Sometimes they drew together, sometimes they just talked. It felt good having someone to talk to again. No matter what they did, when he was with Susan, the pain went away.
Of course, Jess' little sisters teased him about his "girlfriend." His father said nothing. He wasn't concerned about Jess "playing with girls" now that he was thirteen. In fact, Jess sensed that now, his father was relieved to see his only son hanging out with a girl. Even if they did spend a lot of time drawing together.
When they first met, Susan hadn't known about Leslie Burke. She and her family had moved to Lark Creek only a month before school started. Just about everybody in town still talked about "the day the poor Burke girl was found dead in the creek" and how "she was friends with the Aarons boy." Sooner or later, Susan would find out about Leslie, so Jess figured he may as well tell her. He did more than that. He took her to Terabithia.
As soon as they got to the creek bed, Jess felt sick to his stomach. This place belonged to him and Leslie – it was their place - and here he was with another girl. Sure, he had brought May Belle and Joyce Ann there and made them part of the royal family of Terabithia, but that wasn't the same thing. Now he felt like he was betraying Leslie, or worse, trying to replace her.
Nobody could replace Leslie Burke in Jess' heart, not even Susan. Except for her imagination, she wasn't like Leslie at all. Though she dressed plainly, Susan was no tomboy. She had a kind of quiet elegance, a subtle but visible femininity. Jess liked how she preferred to be called by her proper first name and not Susie or Sue. Where Leslie was outgoing and fearless, Susan was soft-spoken and timid.
Still, Jess couldn't shake the feeling that he was betraying Leslie. After he told Susan about her, she didn't say anything at first. She just smiled – it was the saddest smile he'd ever seen – and put her hand on his cheek. It felt like cold fire. Something wonderful rose up inside him and he struggled to keep it down. "Poor Jess," she sighed.
He knew then, once and for all, that he was in love with her. He couldn't deny it anymore. He'd just be lying to himself. He was in love with Susan, and thought of it scared him to death. What if she didn't feel the same way? Or what if she did? Bad things happen to the girls he loved. He sat there, unable to speak or even think. Finally, Susan broke the silence and asked him to look at a new drawing she was working on.
That day, Jess hadn't told Susan that he loved her. He wanted to, but he just couldn't find the words. He couldn't find the words for Leslie, either. Then it was too late. What was wrong with him? He thought back to the first time he went to Susan's house. That would have been the perfect time to tell her.
Susan lived with her parents and her older sister. She had no brothers. Her sister, Kate, was an aspiring supermodel. Their father was a graphic designer for an advertising firm in Millsburg, and he got Kate an audition for a local TV commercial. She had appeared in print ads before, modeling clothes in store circulars, where everyone seemed to love their outfits, but you knew their smiles were phony.
Jess had known that Kate was a model before he met her, but when he did meet her, he didn't think much of her. She looked like a model, all right – she was way thinner than Susan, (whom Jess had thought was too thin), with long legs, a long mane of shiny dark hair (Susan's hair was short) and a pretty face – which seemed to be frozen in a permanent scowl.
When Susan introduced her to Jess, Kate scoffed and said sarcastically, "So, you finally met a boy. Congratulations." Then she looked Jess over and said, "Well, at least he's cute. I'm surprised he's interested in you." What a bitch, Jess thought. Kate left the room, and Susan's face fell. Jess smiled warmly at her. "I can't wait to see your painting. Is it a watercolor, an acrylic, or an oil?"
Susan's mother was no better than her sister. Mrs. Mead managed her older daughter's modeling career. She was always on her husband's back to pull strings to help it along. When Susan introduced Jess to her mom, there was no mistaking the delight in Mrs. Mead's eyes. "Well, it's about time you brought home a boy, dear! I was beginning to think you were... not interested in boys."
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" Susan's father exclaimed.
"I just meant that for a 13-year-old girl, she seemed more interested in art than in boys."
"We both know damn well what you meant. So does Susan."
"Could we please not fight in front of our guest?" asked Mrs. Mead.
Susan looked mortified.
Jess wished he had told her that he loved her right then.
He wondered if he would ever be able to tell her.
Jess felt sorry for Susan. At least her dad was cool. He let her share his studio and drawing table and bought her an easel and all the art supplies she'd ever need. Her dad understood her. He was an artist himself. He knew what it was like to have something burning inside you that you just had to get out on paper or canvas or whatever. He knew what the need to create was like – the need to express yourself. So did Harriet the Spy.
After Leslie died, her parents had given Jess all of her books. One of her favorites was Harriet the Spy. It was about a really smart girl, Harriet M. Welsch, who longed to be a writer. So, she bought a notebook and used it as a journal. She became a spy and wrote about everybody and everything she saw, exactly how she saw it - with brutal honesty.
One day, Harriet's classmates got a hold of her notebook and read it, even though she had written PRIVATE on the cover. They were surprised at what Harriet had written about her friends, her enemies, and other classmates. The notebook was filled with humorous observations and caustic comments. Harriet's friends were hurt by her words. Her enemies were furious. So, they all decided to make Harriet's life a living hell, shunning her and playing nasty pranks on her.
Rather than apologize to everyone, Harriet decided to take revenge on them for violating her privacy. Jess cheered her on. The other kids had no right reading Harriet's private notebook. If they were hurt by her words, well, that's what they get for violating her privacy. They thought that by mistreating Harriet, they could stop her from writing, but she needed to write – to express herself through her words. Just like Jess needed to draw.
Harriet kept writing in her notebook. She didn't care what anyone thought, not ever her parents. Soon, her need to write became an addiction – a crutch to help her deal with the painful mess her life had become. It got to a point where she couldn't even think unless she was writing. Harriet's parents took her to see a psychiatrist, but in the end, it was her former nanny, Ole Golly, who helped her understand that while you should always be truthful to yourself, sometimes you have to lie to spare other people's feelings.
The book ended on a happy note. Harriet became an editor and writer for the class newspaper. The other kids finally recognized her talent for writing, which she put to good use by publishing a clever apology to them in the form of a retraction. That's what journalists do when they mistakenly report erroneous information as fact – they write a retraction.
Jess loved Harriet the Spy, and he understood why it was one of Leslie's favorite books. He wished he could have talked to her about it. He wished he could talk to her about a lot of things. Oh Leslie, why did you have to die? It's been three years, and I still need you. It felt more like thirty.
His seascape sketch complete, it was time to paint. Jess took out his paint set and a bottle of water. He unscrewed the bottle's cap and poured some water into the reservoir built into the paint tray. After he drank from the bottle, he capped it and put it away. Then he dipped his brush into the water reservoir. He settled on dark blue for the choppy waters of his ocean. He ran the wet brush over the cake of dry paint.
As Jess started to paint, a gust of wind rose up from behind and blew into him. The sheet of heavy art paper flipped over just as he finished his brushstroke, causing him to smear the paint. Jess swore and pulled the paper down. The blue smear looked like a waterspout from a storm at sea. He swore again and the wind blew harder.
Jess watched in horror as his paint set overturned, spilling the reservoir of water. He snatched it up and wiped grass and soil off the surface of several dry cakes of paint. The wet cake of dark blue paint was ruined. Well, maybe he could clean out the crud when it dried -
The mother of all wind gusts hit Jess. His paintbrush sailed through the air, tumbled to the ground, then took off again. He chased it. The wind changed direction and blew into his face. As he slogged through it to get to his paintbrush, Jess slipped on the grass and fell down. He landed on his side and winced in pain. The wind blew so hard that he could barely see. His eyes squinted nearly shut, he was just able to see his paintbrush whipped through the air toward the creek bed.
The wind blew even harder, and Jess, remembering the safety drills he'd learned at school, ducked down and covered the back of his head with his hands. The wind roared so loudly that it made Jess think of a train passing by. His heart raced in terror as he realized that it must be a tornado. A tornado? In Lark Creek? If he hadn't seen it, he'd have never believed it. But he hadn't seen it, not really. He hadn't seen any funnel-shaped clouds – but he hadn't looked up at the sky, either.
Oh, no! Jess remembered. May Belle and Joyce Ann are home alone! Would they know enough to go down to the basement for shelter during a tornado? A nightmare vision unfolded in his head: his little sisters running outside to see what the noise was, then staring in awe and fear at the tornado, unable to move. It would suck them right up into the sky - and they wouldn't land in Oz.
I have to get to them. I have to try.
Jess struggled to open his eyes, but the debris in the wind lashed them shut again. He tried to pick himself up, but the wind, like a giant hand, pushed him back down. A tremendous explosion rocked Terabithia, making him scream. His ears rang. His head hurt. He tried to open his eyes again. This time, it wasn't the wind but an impossibly bright light that shut them.
The wind finally let up. Jess slowly got to his feet, his knees shaking, his right leg still smarting from the fall. Strangely, he was still blinded by the bright light. He thought it was lightning, but lightning doesn't last long. This light seemed to go on and on. He shielded his eyes with his hand and turned around.
The Grove of the Pines was illuminated by the impossibly bright light. The Grove, where the pine trees grew so close together that they blotted out the sun, giving them an ominous appearance that used to scare Jess, was now alight with a blazing and eerie glow. He found himself walking toward the Grove. Somewhere in his head, Leslie's voice whispered, This is not an ordinary place. Even the rulers of Terabithia come into it only at times of greatest sorrow or of greatest joy...
Jess had already gone there during his time of greatest sorrow.
The light that filled the Grove suddenly flashed so brightly that Jess had to turn his eyes away. This time, it only lasted a few seconds.
Then there was darkness. Well, almost. Jess seemed to be standing in the middle of a shadow – the shadow of something enormous. He looked up.
There was a hole in the sky.
There was a hole in the sky! Jess could hardly believe his eyes, but there it was – a black hole in the sky, high above the Grove of the Pines. It stood out like a wound, as though the sky had been shot with a gun. The sky wound pulsed. Pain seemed to radiate from it. Inside the hole, Jess could make out swirling, grayish yellow clouds, like the wound was infected. The clouds dissipated and then... no, it couldn't be...
He saw stars! Stars in the middle of the morning!
The black hole had become a porthole – a window into space. Around the hole, the sun had come out and the sky was clearing; Jess could see patches of blue through the clouds. But inside the hole, it was night. The stars were shining, but there was no moon. What looked like flashes of lightning danced around inside the hole.
A crackling sound echoed from the Grove. Jess cast his eyes down at the trees. He heard it again. Someone was walking around in the woods. He was too far away to see anyone, but he could hear the sounds of crackling twigs and branches being pushed out of the way. Who was there? His little sisters? No, they'd have had to walk for miles down the dirt road and then through the deep woods to come into Terabithia through the Grove. Then who was it?
Jess started walking, then he ran toward the sounds. He stopped just short of the entrance to the Grove. Taking a deep breath, he walked in. As he moved through the trees, he could hear the sounds grow louder. Suddenly, he caught sight of a figure moving in the opposite direction. He reached out and grabbed hold of it. A tree branch lashed his cheek.
Jess winced. The person, whoever he had hold of, screamed and turned around.
What he saw should have destroyed his sanity in a swift, clawing stroke.
The confused look on her face reflected his own.
Her eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted. Jess caught her before her head could strike the ground. He whirled around and landed square on his rump, with Leslie sitting on his lap, her neck safely cradled in his arm. Where she would have fallen, had he not caught her, there was a big rock wedged into the earth. She could have struck her head on that rock and -
Jess knew exactly what would have happened – what did happen that tragic day when the enchanted rope snapped. And yet, there he was, with Leslie in his arms. She was unconscious, but still alive. He could see her chest rise and fall with her breaths.
She was alive! How could it be? He knew she was dead, but there she was, still alive!
Jess had to get her out of the Grove. Not just for her sake, but because he didn't want to sit there on the wet ground. And if that storm roared up again, if that powerful wind blew through the trees, they wouldn't stand a chance. He laid Leslie down gently on the ground, then got up. He thought for a moment. He'd have to carry her – there was no other choice. So, he bent down and scooped her up. Thankfully, she wasn't too heavy to carry. He made his way through the trees, taking care that no branches struck her.
Jess carried Leslie out of the Grove and into Terabithia, laying her down in the clearing where their castle once stood. His art supplies were still scattered about, but he didn't care. Nothing mattered now but Leslie.
She was still unconscious. Jess looked her over. There was something wrong about her. She seemed strangely out of place. She wore futuristic looking clothes – a pink jumpsuit with a wide white belt and black boots. There was a purse slung across her shoulder – well, not a purse exactly, but some kind of high tech shoulder bag. She looked like she belonged on Star Trek. He wondered if Mr. Spock's tricorder was inside her bag.
What troubled Jess the most was her appearance. Of course, she was Leslie Burke – there was no doubt about it - but she was older. She should be ten years old, almost eleven, but she was older than that. She was starting to develop a nice figure and he could see the outline of her small breasts under the top of her jumpsuit. She had to be thirteen, like him.
But that would mean that she never died! But she did die, I know that she did! How can she be alive?
Jess brushed the hair out of Leslie's eyes. Her brown hair was still short, but not as short as he remembered. The spiky bangs were gone. Her hair was styled smartly. It made her look feminine – and pretty. I guess she's not a tomboy anymore, he thought. He couldn't help but smile. Something warm bubbled up inside him. He wondered what it would be like to kiss her.
Jess shook the thought out of his head. There were more important things to think about. He looked at her shoulder bag again. He decided to open it and see what was inside. Leslie would understand. He wasn't snooping, just looking for clues. If he was going to help her, he had to figure out what happened to her. He opened the clasp on her bag. He hesitated to stick his hand inside. What if she had personal female stuff in there? Not something like a hairbrush or makeup, but that other stuff? He felt himself blush.
He couldn't waste time worrying about that. He took a deep breath and reached inside. There was no personal female stuff in Leslie's shoulder bag, just a weird looking hairbrush and makeup – lipstick, lip gloss, and face powder – in even weirder looking containers. There was a handkerchief, a small, clear vial of colored tablets that smelled like candy, and something that looked like a wallet, but was long, thin, and rectangular in shape.
Jess unfolded Leslie's wallet, or whatever it was. It had three compartments. In each compartment, an object was held in place. They looked like shiny black tiles. The tiles in the left and right compartments were shorter and wider than the tile in the center compartment. They looked like credit cards, but larger and thicker. He slid out the tile in the left compartment. The front of it was shiny and black, the back dull and gun metal gray. There was something etched into the back. Jess recognized it at once – it was the State of Virginia logo.
He turned over the tile. There was nothing etched into the shiny black surface. He ran his finger over it. The tile beeped, and a picture suddenly appeared, startling Jess so much that he almost dropped the tile. He looked at the picture. The heading said STATE OF VIRGINIA JUVENILE IDENTIFICATON. There was a recent photo of a smiling Leslie and a list of information about her:
NAME: BURKE, LESLIE JUDITH
ADDR: RR 2, BOX 8, LARK CREEK VA 22207
TEL: (703) 555-0381
PARENTS OR LEGAL GUARDIANS:
BURKE, WILLIAM A
BURKE, JUDITH K
The last line said VOICE SAMPLE. Jess touched it.
"Hi, I'm Leslie Burke!" the tile chirped. He almost dropped it again.
There was a graphic of an arrow. Jess touched it and scrolled down to see more information. Leslie had no medical conditions, she took no medication, and was only allergic to dust and ragweed. She was a student at Lark Creek PJHS #1 – whatever that meant.
This was no tile - it was some kind of electronic device. He touched the arrow and scrolled back up to Leslie's address. It was the address of the old Perkins place. He looked at her phone number. It was the same as before. "This is nuts," he said to himself. He slid the device back into the left compartment of her wallet. The device in the right compartment was the same size, so he slid it out. Another logo was etched into the back. It was something called a CashCard.
Jess turned the device over and touched the shiny black surface. The device beeped, and a picture of a safe appeared. The safe's door opened, and a voice read what was on the display:
"Greetings, Leslie...J...Burke...you have 62.17 MUs left on your Junior CashCard. To make a purchase, insert the card into the checkout interface with the scanner port facing forward. To make a purchase or payment through the Network, insert the card into the dock of any Network-connected terminal. To add more money to your card, have a parent or adult guardian deposit the funds into your account. Thank you."
MU's? What were they? What was the Network? Jess touched ACCT INFO. It showed Leslie's name, address, phone number, account number, and the dates and amounts of her last deposit and withdrawal. There was a TRANSACTION HISTORY available, but he didn't touch it. Knowing everything that Leslie had bought with her CashCard wouldn't help him, and besides, it was none of his business. He returned the device to its compartment. He saw that her identification card had turned itself off.
Jess was about to slide out the tall device in the center compartment of Leslie's wallet when he heard her groan. He put the rest of her stuff back into her shoulder bag, but left the wallet out.
Leslie opened her eyes, sat up, and groaned again. She ran a hand through her hair and rubbed her eyes. "Oh god," she moaned. "What a nightmare."
Then she saw Jess and screamed.
"Leslie, it's okay, it's me – Jess."
The look on her face was a dysfunctional marriage of fear and confusion.
"No... it can't be... it can't..."
"That's what I thought when I saw you."
They must have been thinking the same thing, for they said it at the same time:
"No," Leslie said. "You died!"
"No," Jess corrected her. "You died. Don't you remember? You were swinging on the enchanted rope, and it broke. They said that you hit your head -"
"No! Jess, what's wrong with you? You know that you were swinging on the rope when it broke. You fell into the creek and drowned because you couldn't swim. They said you probably panicked and -"
"Leslie, you're not making any sense."
"I'm not making any sense? How can you be alive? And why are you wearing those ancient clothes? You look like you belong on a screen in a history digitext."
"My clothes aren't ancient. I got these jeans at Newberry's last year. And what's a digitext?"
"Jess, it's 1980. People haven't worn jeans in like a hundred years."
"What are you talking about? Everybody wears -" He stopped arguing. There was no reason to argue. Who cares if Leslie thought that people didn't wear jeans anymore? She was alive. He smiled warmly at her. She smiled back.
"I don't understand any of this," Leslie said. "But I don't care."
She threw her arms around him. He returned the embrace.
They hugged each other so tightly that it hurt. It was the sweetest pain Jess ever felt. He would never let her go, not ever. So many times he had felt like hugging her, but he never did, and then it was too late. Now, he finally had her in his arms. He wanted time to stop. He wanted to hug her forever.
"Oh, Jess," her voice broke. "I missed you so much."
They stopped hugging and looked at each other. Tears ran down Leslie's cheeks.
"I missed you, too," said Jess, his own face scorched by hot tears.
"But how can this be? I just don't understand it. I was in the Grove... I know this is going to sound silly, but... I go to Terabithia to talk to you. I used to go to the mausoleum where your ashes were interred, but... you felt closer to me here than there."
Jess knew the feeling. Her parents had taken her ashes away, but it didn't matter, because she felt closer to him in Terabithia.
"I was in the Grove," Leslie continued, "and then the storm hit. I knew I shouldn't have gone to Terabithia on such a windy day... but I did. I had to."
"What happened after the storm hit?" Jess asked.
"Lightning flashed... well, at first, I thought it was lightning, but lightning only lasts like a couple of seconds, and this light... just stayed on. It was like the whole Grove was lit up. I could hardly see. The wind was blowing so hard... it sounded like a tornado. I was so scared. And then it was over. I was able to see again, and I knew I had to get out of there fast. I was trying to leave when I heard someone following me. I tried to get away from him, but he – you – grabbed me."
"That's what happened to me," said Jess. "Except that I wasn't in the Grove. I saw it all lit up like you said, and I was going in to check it out. I heard someone walking around, and when I grabbed the person... it was you."
"Well, that explains something, but I still don't understand how you can be alive."
"And I don't understand how you can be alive."
Jess looked up at the hole in the sky. "Maybe that has something to do with it," he said, and pointed at the hole.
Leslie gasped. The color drained from her face. Her lower lip trembled. "Oh my god..." She got up and gazed at the hole in the sky. "Oh my GOD!" She looked at Jess, her eyes wide with fear.
"Weird, isn't it? I've never seen anything like it," he said.
"Jess, don't you know what that is? It's a wormhole!"
"I'd hate to run into the worm that made that."
"Noooo, Jess," Leslie laughed. God, he loved her laugh. He had always loved her laugh. "Not that kind of a wormhole. You know, a wormhole – a tear in the fabric of time and space. It's basic quantum physics. Seventh grade science stuff."
"Not here. What's quantum physics?"
Leslie rolled her eyes and smiled. Then a thought came to her and her smile dissolved into a serious look. "Of course!" she suddenly blurted out. "That's it! No wonder you said I died! I did die here. The wormhole brought me into this world. Not back to life – I mean into this world. That's why you're alive – you didn't die here. Only in my world."
"But... you're Leslie Burke."
"Of course I am. And you're Jess Aarons. But I'm not your Leslie. And... you're not my Jess." Her face fell. Her sigh sounded like a deflating balloon.
"So... there are different worlds... with the same people?" Jess asked.
"Yes. And different universes with similar worlds."
"How? I mean... they showed us a movie in science last year, and it said that the universe was like a big balloon that would get bigger and bigger until it popped. Something like that."
"Well, that's what scientists thought – many years ago. Then a star in a neighboring solar system went supernova – it blew up – and they sent out a probe so they could study the black hole that formed after the explosion. Only it wasn't a black hole – it was a wormhole. The probe showed that the other side of the wormhole was a mirror image of our galaxy. It looked just like the Milky Way, but... there was something wrong about it. There were no big differences, but a lot of small things were out of place. That's when they knew they were looking at the same galaxy, but at a different time. Maybe zillions of years in the future – or in the past. Another universe in another time."
"Wow. Then what happened?"
"They sent out another probe – one that could go deeper into the wormhole and take more detailed pictures. What it found changed science forever. They came up with new theories about the origins of life and what the universe really is. It's alive, Jess. The universe is one large organism made up of zillions of smaller organisms. And what are the two main goals of any living organism?"
"To survive and... to reproduce?"
"Right," Leslie smiled. And this giant organism we call the universe reproduces just like the tiniest microorganism - it clones itself. Not overnight and not in nine months, either. It takes zillions of years for the universe to reproduce."
"So then... after the new universe is born... the old one dies?"
"Right. And it doesn't blow up. It loses its energy... or life force, or whatever you'd call it, and kind of... fades away. The new universe grows... and starts to clone itself."
"So, you and I – we're the same people, but from different universes?"
"Physically, yes, and judging by your clothes, and the fact that it's the same year, I'm guessing that your universe is older than mine."
"I was thinking the same thing. When your universe is born, mine will have died out. But there's one thing I don't get – how can there be a hole in time?"
"Wormholes are usually caused by massive cosmic disturbances. Some last for years, some for only a split second."
"Okay, so that's how a wormhole is made, but how can there be a hole in time?"
"Here on Earth, time is a measure of the planet's movement. In space, time is completely different. It's relative."
"My head's spinning from all this," Jess said, and rubbed his temples.
"My head hasn't stopped spinning," said Leslie. A gurgling noise came from her stomach. She put her hand on her belly. "And I'm starving, too. And all I've got is some candy."
"Hey! Let's go to my house – I'll make us some lunch. I'm starving, too. Wait till May Belle and Joyce Ann see you. I'll bet – oh, no! My sisters! I forgot all about them! Come on, Leslie."
She stayed put. "No, Jess. I can't go with you."
"What? Why not?"
"We can't let your sisters or anyone else see me. I don't belong in this world anymore."
"I'm not leaving you here alone, Leslie. I made that mistake once, and I'll be damned if I do it again. Besides, what are you going to do – live out here in Terabithia for the rest of your life? Sure, I could bring you food, but you can't live outside in the heat and the rain and -"
Leslie got up and threw her arms around him. He hugged her back. "Jess, listen," she said. She took his hands in hers. "I'll be okay. I won't be living out here for the rest of my life. When the wormhole opens up again, I'll run into the Grove, and I'll be back in my world."
Jess looked up at the hole in the sky. What once looked like a festering wound seemed to be healing. It had shrunk noticeably since he brought Leslie out of the woods. The hole was an undulating mass of darkness and light, the porthole into space closing to reveal blue sky, then opening again, then closing, over and over again. Whenever it opened, a flash of light flooded the grove – but only for a split second.
"It's getting smaller," Leslie observed. "Soon, it'll open wide again, bridging the gap between our worlds one last time. Then it'll close for good."
"Probably in a couple of hours. It's a small wormhole."
"I better get going and make us lunch. Sure you won't come with me?"
"I can't, Jess. I'm not supposed to be in this world. You ever heard of chaos theory? What's going to happen when your family – this town – this world – finds out that a girl who died three years ago is still alive? This world is primitive. It's not ready to accept that there could be intelligent life on other planets, let alone other universes."
"But you're the proof."
"Yes, I am. A blood test would prove that I'm Leslie Burke. And all over the world, people would start questioning everything they believe in – science, religion, everything. They would have a hard time understanding why I'm here, and people are afraid of what they don't understand. And from fear comes hate and violence and war. My presence on this world would cause chaos, Jess. That's chaos theory. And there's something else to think about."
"My parents. I mean, her parents. They lost their child. They cremated her and interred her ashes. Now, they're struggling to get on with their lives. What would they think if they found out about me? When they realize that their daughter is alive, but she's not really their daughter?"
"I never thought about that. I guess you'll have to stay here until the wormhole closes."
Leslie smiled sadly and nodded yes.
Jess gathered up his scattered art supplies and hoisted his backpack over his shoulder. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I'll be here. For a while." She gave him a wink.
As he ran down the old dirt road, Jess remembered the way he had run when he found out that Leslie had died. He ran as though by running, he could keep her alive. Now he was running to keep alive the hope that she – this Leslie – would be waiting for him when he returned.
Jess took a shortcut that led to the back of his house. Sitting outside by the back door were his little sisters. When they saw him, they jumped up like they'd been sitting on hot coals.
They ran to him and hugged him.
"We were worried about you!" cried May Belle. "Where were you? Didn't you see the storm... and that thing in the sky?"
Thankfully, she and Joyce Ann hadn't gone to Terabithia to look for him.
"S'alright, I'm okay," he smiled, and tousled May Belle's hair.
Jess went to his room and unpacked his art supplies. Then he brought his empty backpack into the kitchen. He made peanut butter sandwiches for himself and Leslie, wrapped them, and packed them up along with a few of his mother's oatmeal raisin cookies, a thermos full of iced tea, and two plastic cups.
"Okay," he told his sisters. "I'll be back later. You wait here for Momma and Daddy to come home."
"Noooo," Joyce Ann whined. "We wanna come with you!"
May Belle grinned like a Cheshire cat. "He's already got someone with him. Why do you think he made two sandwiches?"
The look on Joyce Ann's face said Huh?
"Better get going, Jess – Susan's waiting for you!" May Belle teased.
"Ooooh!" Joyce Ann cooed. She made kissing faces.
Jess couldn't help but laugh. "Very funny. For your information, Susan is not waiting for me. I made two sandwiches because I'm starving."
"No you're not. You had extra bacon at breakfast."
"May Belle, look... I don't have time for this. I don't ask you guys for much. Will you please just stay here and wait for Momma and Daddy? You can't go with me now – it's too dangerous outside. Tell you what... when the weather's good, I'll take you both to Terabithia, and we'll have a picnic. How about that?"
"Yay!" Joyce Ann cried.
"Great!" May Belle agreed.
"Okay then. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Jess turned to leave, but May Belle grabbed his arm.
"Jess... be careful."
"Don't worry," he smiled. "I will. And if another storm hits, and it roars real loud like a train going by, take Joyce Ann and go down to the basement. You'll be safe there till I get back."
As he ran down the old dirt road, Jess wondered if it had all been a dream. Would Leslie – the other Leslie – really be waiting for him in Terabithia? He stopped to look up at the sky. The wormhole was still there. But it was getting smaller. Weaker. And dimmer.
When he reached the path that led to the creek bed, he closed his eyes and hoped with all his might. Please be there... please be there... please be there...
Leslie was there. She sat on the ground where their castle once stood, her attention divided between the wormhole and the Grove of the Pines. When she caught sight of him, she got up and waved.
Jess crossed the creek bed, then ran to her.
Leslie wolfed down her sandwich, gulped her iced tea, and devoured her cookies before Jess had even finished his sandwich.
"Thanks," she said. "I was so hungry."
Jess took a sip of his iced tea. "Leslie, I... after you fainted, and I brought you out of the Grove, I looked through your bag. I wasn't snooping or anything – I was just trying to figure out what happened to you."
"S'okay. I don't mind."
"How come you have those... things in your wallet?"
"Wallet? Oh! You must mean my card carrier. Everyone carries an ID card – it's the law. You use the CashCard to buy things. The other card is my link – technically, it's an uplink controller card, but most people just call it a link."
"What's it for?"
"You know, to connect to the network. To call people, browse network sites, watch video feeds, listen to music, that kind of thing."
"What's the network?"
"The global network. Oh... I bet you don't have anything like that here. Strange, isn't it? It's 1980 here – the same year as in my world - yet it's... primitive."
"Not really. We've got a TV set."
"TV? As in television? Wow, it's really primitive here! No offense – it doesn't bother me. Actually, I think it's neat. And it explains why Terabithia hasn't changed. I bet there's a lot of land around here. On my world, there's not much land at all. Pollution killed most of the soil, so the land was just paved over. Now it's like a sea – of skyscraper apartment buildings. That's why I love Lark Creek. Of course, you have to be a millionaire to live here."
"What?" Jess was sure she hadn't said millionaire.
"My parents took all the money they made from their digitexts and bought a place here in Lark Creek. They did it for my sake. Of course, our house wasn't as nearly as big as your estate, but I liked it."
"Well, your father's... that is, my Jess' father's estate."
"He was rich?"
"Are you kidding? J. Oliver Aarons, the agriculture magnate?"
"He started out as just a farmer, but during the famine of '68, he invented SynthSoil – a synthetic soil substitute. It was a mix. You add water to it, and it gets real thick. It looks like chocolate gelatin. You take out a scoop, add your seed, and cover it back up. The seed grows real fast."
"Your dad's – I mean, my Jess' dad's – invention ended the famine and made him rich. At first, he was just happy that he was able to feed millions of hungry people, but then... money changed him. He wanted to join a country club, but they turned him down. He was rich, but he wasn't born rich. And with them – those country club people – it's all about breeding. He changed after that. He vowed that no one would ever poke their nose up at him or his family again. He went on a real wealth and power trip. But you weren't like him at all. I mean... my Jess wasn't like his father."
"What was I... he... like?" Jess asked. A dreamy smile came to Leslie's face.
"He was wonderful. God, I loved him so much. He loved to draw. He wanted to be an artist. Of course, his dad wanted him to take over as CEO of AAC – Aarons Agricultural Corporation – someday. He was always yelling at Jess. 'Get your damn head out of the clouds! Why don't you do something useful for once in your life?' Jess didn't care about money or big business or anything like that. As long as he had his plasma screen and light brushes, he was happy."
"As long as he had you, he was happy," Jess added. Leslie smiled.
"Your... I mean, his sister Ellie was the one who wanted to be the CEO of AAC. She planned on studying business management at university. But your... I mean, his dad was... well... old fashioned. Sexist is the word, really. He wanted Jess to run the company. He wanted to pass it on from father to son. But Jess didn't want that. Once, we went to Paris and saw the Louvre -"
"Paris? You and I – he – went to Paris? Paris, France?"
"Yeah. We spent an afternoon there. It's only an hour away by aeroshuttle. Anyway, so we went to the Louvre, and looked at all the paintings. They were ancient – made with actual paints on actual canvases, not with light brushes on plasma screens. You can't touch them, of course – they have to be preserved in a sterile environment. But you can get a good, close look. My Jess loved them. You know what he told me? He said 'This is what life is really about – art, not money. And I'm going to be an artist.'"
"I like that," Jess smiled.
"It all seems so unreal," Leslie continued. "My Jess is gone and you're here. I'll never forget that day. I rode my hover scooter over to your – his – house, and I saw these flashing red and blue lights... and a rescue shuttle took off from the landing pad. And then I saw May Belle. She was crying her eyes out. And... she told me you were dead. I mean, he was dead."
Leslie's lower lip trembled. Jess thought she was going to cry, but she didn't. "I must have cried myself to sleep every night for months. It was like someone reached in and tore out a part of my soul. He was all I had. He was the only one who really understood me. I loved him so much... and I never told him how I felt. I wanted to... but then it was too late."
A cold lump of sadness formed in the pit of Jess' stomach. "I wanted to tell you, too. I mean, I wanted to tell my Leslie that... I loved her. Why couldn't I? Why couldn't I find the words? I did love her. Why couldn't I tell her? Sometimes I felt like telling her. Sometimes I just wanted to hug her tight and never let her go. But I couldn't do it. Why?"
"Maybe we were too young to understand our feelings. We weren't little kids, but we weren't teenagers, either. We were experiencing these new feelings... we knew what love was like between parents and children and brothers and sisters, but this was a different kind of love. It was something new and exciting, something deep and growing. And it was hard to understand these feelings, and even harder to express them."
"Maybe," Jess agreed. He gathered up their sandwich bags and plastic cups and stuffed them into his backpack with the now empty thermos.
"You know, while you were gone, I was thinking about... me ending up in your world. Maybe it's a gift."
"A gift?" The simmering cauldron of emotion inside Jess boiled over. He threw down his backpack. "You call this a gift? You die in my world, I die in yours, and now you're back in mine, but you can't stay here and I can't go with you – it's like we're losing each other all over again – and you call that a gift? That's not a gift! That's fate screwing with us!"
Jess turned his back to her. He rubbed his eyes and tried to block the hot tears that were running over his fingers. Suddenly, he felt Leslie's hand on his shoulder.
"Jess... I know how you feel. I was thinking the same thing... before. But now I know that it is a gift. Think about it. This wormhole... this cosmic anomaly - a one in a zillion chance - happens and joins our worlds together. And brings us back together, if only for a little while... Jess, that's what I'd call a gift. I know that I'm not your Leslie, and you're not my Jess, but maybe we can be each other's Jess and Leslie – if only for a little while. And we can do something we were never able to do."
"I don't want to say goodbye."
"Me neither. But we have to."
"So let's be each other's Jess and Leslie."
"I'd like that." He smiled. He felt the cold lump of sadness melt away.
They sat down again. Leslie took Jess' hands in hers. "There's something I have to tell you. If you get mad, it's okay – you have every right to be mad. But I have to tell you because it's been eating me up inside."
"What?" Jess asked.
"I met someone. After you died... for a long, long time after you died... I felt like a part of me died, too. It was hard finding a reason to get up in the morning. I missed you so much I couldn't stand it. I had nightmares. I'd wake up screaming. Sometimes, I'd wake up crying. I could barely sleep, I could barely eat. I wanted nothing to do with anyone. When I started middle school, I'd go off by myself and eat lunch outside – far away, where I wouldn't be seen. One day, a boy saw me. His name was Sebastian, and he was in my math class. That was all I knew about him. I didn't want to talk to him, but he talked to me. He knew what I was going through – what I was feeling inside – because he'd lost someone too. We became really good friends. And then I started having these feelings for him. Strong feelings. After you died, I didn't think I could feel that way about a boy again."
"You were in love with him," Jess said. He saw Susan's face in the back of his mind.
"Yes. It was so confusing. I loved him, but I loved you, too, and even though you were gone, I felt like I was betraying you or... trying to replace you. I went to Terabithia to talk to you. I know it sounds silly but... I needed to talk to you."
"I come here to talk to you, too."
"It's not wrong, is it Jess?" Leslie asked. "I don't want to let you go, but... I needed someone. I was so lonely without you."
Jess put his hand on her cheek. "It's not wrong. I was lonely, too. I needed someone, too. And I met someone." He told her about Susan.
"I'm glad you found her," Leslie said.
They fell into each other's arms again, and held on tight.
"Jess..." she said tearfully, "if your Leslie was anything like me, she loved you more than you'll ever know."
"And if your Jess was anything like me, he loved you so much that... he couldn't even say how much. You weren't just his queen... you were his life."
"I want you to promise me something."
"What?" Jess asked.
"That you won't be afraid to love again. I want you to be happy."
"I promise. But only if you promise me the same thing."
"I promise. Well, I promise to try."
She rested her head on his shoulder. He put his arm around her and held her close.
"I wonder," said Jess.
"If you died in my world, and I died in yours... do you think there's a world where neither of us die? Where we can be together forever?"
Leslie smiled. "I know there is. Somewhere, there's a place for us. It's just... not here. And not in my world, either."
"I wish I could see your world. I know I don't belong there, but I'd love to see it."
Leslie's eyes went wide. "Hey! You can see it! Well, only a little of it, but..."
She opened her shoulder bag, took out the wallet-thing that she called a card carrier, and slid the long, thin card out of the center compartment. She turned it sideways, touched its shiny black face, and a picture appeared - a picture of an old castle sitting high atop rolling emerald green hills. It looked like something you'd see in Scotland. At the top of the picture, the date and time were displayed. The time was 14:12:06 and counting – military time. The word MENU was displayed in the bottom left corner of the picture. Leslie touched it, and a list of choices appeared:
VIEW SAVED CONTENT
Leslie touched CONNECT. She held out the device like it was a remote control, and touched something else.
A TV screen appeared in the air in front of them.
Not a TV set - just the screen. A large, flat, rectangular screen that had to be at least 36 inches diagonally. The screen was blue and the word CONNECTING... flashed in the middle of it, in big white letters.
UNABLE TO CONNECT
RETURN? TRY AGAIN?
"Argh!" Leslie growled. "Of course I can't connect from here! What was I thinking?"
Jess said nothing. He was mesmerized by the floating TV screen in front of him. He got up and tried to touch it, but his hand passed right through it. He gasped and pulled back his hand.
"It's not real, Jess. It's just a hologram. You know, an image projected in three dimensions. I wanted you to see the network, but... wait!"
Excited, Leslie touched her device – a link she had called it – and the word RETURN was highlighted on the screen. The picture of the castle returned. She touched MENU and then VIEW SAVED CONTENT. Another list of choices appeared:
Leslie touched VIDEO FEEDS. The screen was filled with small pictures. There was a caption under each one. Leslie highlighted the first picture. The caption read GNN Morning News Feed for 07/12/1980. She touched it.
"That's today's date," Jess noted.
"Right. When you check your mail, any video feeds you're subscribed to get saved to your link. You can also save video and audio files that you find on the network."
Leslie touched PLAY.
The video started with what looked like a science fiction movie. A futuristic car without wheels was parked on a circle of pavement. Well, it wasn't exactly parked – it hovered in the air about a foot off the ground. Its sparkling blue body reminded Jess of the ocean. Its roof was a glass dome, and it looked big enough to seat a family of five – two in the front, three in the back.
"Experience it for yourself," the announcer began. "The new 1981 Pontiac Skywagon... roomy enough for the whole family -" The glass dome opened and a family of actors - a father, mother, grandmother and two kids - got into the car. The camera cut to the driver's point-of-view. The dashboard looked like it belonged on the Starship Enterprise. There was a console of computer screen readouts and glowing buttons. The steering wheel was a glorified arcade game joystick. The driver pressed a button on the joystick and pulled it back.
Cut to the outside of the car. The Skywagon blasted off, straight up into the sky, then streaked across the horizon. "Sporty, stylish, and oh-so-comfortable, the Pontiac Skywagon is perfect for a family night out, or even a cross-country trip. Featuring the latest in electromagnetic propulsion technology, the Skywagon boasts an impressive 1KPC mileage rate – up to one thousand miles per charge. See it at your friendly Pontiac dealer's showport today. Prices start at nine thousand moos. Taxes and title extra."
"Wow," Jess gasped. "just like in The Jetsons!"
"The who?" Leslie asked.
"Never mind. What are moos? The announcer said 'prices start at nine thousand moos.'"
"Moos? That's another way of saying M-Us. You know, Monetary Units. Digital currency. Money."
Jess dug into his pocket and pulled out a few crumpled dollar bills and some coins. "We use dollars and cents here."
Leslie's eyes widened. "Wow! Real coins and paper money!" Jess handed them to her. She fondled the money like an archaeologist would examine a fossil. "Amazing." She gave it back, picked up her link, and touched the pause button. As the newscast began, Jess wished he had thought to show her what he'd painted, and the sketches in his art pad. She hadn't thought to ask. They had both been pretty confused by... well, everything, but he still wished he'd shown her his artwork. Now it was too late – his art stuff was at home.
Sitting at a desk bearing a huge GNN logo, the anchorman was a dignified older man with salt-and-pepper hair. He wore a shimmering, silvery jumpsuit.
"This is your GNN morning news feed," he began. "Good morning. Here are the latest headlines for July 12th, 1980. The giant asteroid Z419 crashed into the planet Venus as predicted at 07:38 hours this morning. The asteroid, over a mile in diameter, posed no direct threat to the Earth, but NASA scientists caution that shock waves may cause temporary atmospheric destabilization resulting in anomalous weather patterns..."
The word asteroid started the gears in Jess' mind turning. "That's it!" he cried. Startled, Leslie paused the video.
"There was an asteroid crash here – I mean, on Venus this morning. May Belle and Joyce Ann were watching the news on TV. I bet that's what created the wormhole."
"Of course! Our universes are parallel – they're on the same time line, because your universe is reproducing and creating mine. Two asteroid crashes – two massive cosmic disturbances – happen at the same time on the same time line." She put down her link, and clapped her hands together. "Bang!" She opened them slightly. "The fabric of time and space rips open!"
A shadow fell over Terabithia. Jess and Leslie looked up at the hole in the sky. It was a seething, engorged black miasma. Inside it, flashes of light darted about like a swarm of angry hornets. The wormhole was growing. Jess wondered if it would swallow up the planet. It made a low, ominous rumbling sound.
The wind started blowing.
Leslie looked more sad than frightened.
"I'll be going soon."
She picked up her link and touched it. The floating TV screen vanished. Jess didn't ask if he could watch the rest of the newscast. That was the last thing on his mind now. Slowly, with somber precision, she slipped the link back into her card carrier, then returned the carrier to her shoulder bag.
Jess felt his stomach knot up. This was the last time he would ever see Leslie Burke. She wasn't really his Leslie and he wasn't her Jess, but at least, for a little while, they had belonged to each other again.
"Leslie, I... before you leave, I have to tell you something. Something I should have said a long time ago."
"I have to tell you something, too," she said. Her lower lip trembled.
"Ladies first," Jess smiled.
She took his hands in hers for the last time. "Jess... before I met you, I had nobody. They thought I was a weirdo, a misfit. Then you came along. You saw me for who I really was. And you loved me. For the first time, I felt loved and accepted. You were always there for me. You really were my king. What I'm trying to say is... I love you."
She threw her arms around him. He held her tight.
"Leslie..." her name came out like a sigh. Jess felt his stomach lurch and hot tears trickle down his cheeks. "Before I met you, I was so alone. I had this talent, but nobody cared, not even my own father. I could draw and I could run fast, but that was it. I wasn't really worth much. Then you came along. You took a poor, knock-kneed, dumb 'ol farm boy out of the cow pasture and made him a king. You weren't just my best friend, you were my reason for getting up in the morning. I thought that my stupid crush on my music teacher was true love, but I didn't know what love was until I met you. I wanted to say it for so long, but I couldn't then. So I'm saying it now. Leslie, I love you. I love you so much."
"I love you too," she said, resting her head on his shoulder.
The wind whistled, then howled. It blew harder and roared.
Jess and Leslie held each other through a gust that nearly blew them down. The wind quieted down somewhat, and Leslie took advantage of it. She helped Jess up and held his hands.
"Don't forget about your promise," she reminded him. "I know it won't be easy, but I want you to be happy. We can't be part of each other's lives anymore, but we'll always be together. In your world, in mine, and in all the worlds beyond."
Leslie's smile was as radiant as ever.
"And in all the worlds beyond," Jess agreed, smiling back at her.
They hugged each other one last time. Jess didn't want to let her go, but he knew that he had to.
"There's just one more thing I have to do," said Leslie.
Before he could ask what it was, she did it.
She kissed him.
Startled, Jess' hands went up in a defensive motion, then fell limp at his sides. His eyes closed, his mind a blank, all Jess could do was shudder with unendurable delight. Her mouth was so warm and sweet that he could barely stand it. All his pain gone forever in a sudden rush of love. Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe Leslie – his Leslie – never died, and when he opened his eyes, they would be ten years old again, in their castle stronghold in Terabithia. And when Miss Edmunds calls to invite him out tomorrow, he'll say no. That's what should have happened, and that's what will happen, now that he has a second chance -
A tremendous explosion snapped Jess out of it.
He opened his eyes.
The other Leslie smiled at him.
Saddened, but not surprised, he smiled back.
They looked out at the Grove of the Pines. It was illuminated by an impossibly bright light. The wormhole had opened up again – for the last time.
"Goodbye, Leslie. I love you."
"I love you, too."
She smiled sadly at him, then took off running, her shoulder bag bouncing to and fro. The wind was blowing so hard that she almost tripped, but she made it to the Grove safely. As she disappeared into the trees, Jess ducked down and covered the back of his head with his hands. The ferocious wind kept him pinned to the ground. All he could do was wait it out.
Jess visualized himself back in the old castle, snuggled up next to Leslie – his Leslie – in the sleeping bags she had borrowed. She was telling him a story about a young prospector in Alaska who rescues a severely injured dog and nurses him back to health. Actually, it was a wolf-dog hybrid who had been treated cruelly and trained to be a fighter. The kind young prospector tries to tame the vicious animal after it recovers from its injuries...
There was an impossibly bright flash of light, then a dull boom followed by a loud hissing sound.
The wind suddenly died down. An eerie calm came over Terabithia. Jess was afraid to get up. What if it's like the eye of a hurricane? He thought. Sure, it was calm now, but what if he got up and the wormhole exploded and blew him to kingdom come? He stayed put. Minutes passed by, and nothing happened, not even an ominous shadow of warning. He took a deep breath and got up.
What had been a hole in the sky was now just a crack that zigzagged vertically down the horizon. Dark gray clouds swirled silently and fluidly about the crack lines, which gave off random flashes of dim light. Jess could see that the crack was slowly sealing itself shut. When a crack line vanished, so did the clouds swirling about it.
Jess stood there, staring up at the sky, transfixed on the strange sight. When the last crack line vanished, all that remained was a colorless streak in the shape of a zigzagging crack. It faded away. The sky was whole again, cloudless, and and bright blue. A gentle breeze tousled Jess' hair. The kingdom of Terabithia was at peace.
Suddenly, the trance wore off, and Jess remembered Leslie running into the Grove of the Pines. Had she made it back home? If not, was she hurt, or...
His heart racing, Jess ran to the Grove. He stopped short, took a deep breath, and carefully slipped into the trees. "Leslie?" he called out. "Leslie, are you here? Leslie?"
He walked for quite a distance through the Grove, looking all around for her. He even looked up, thinking that the wormhole might have yanked her up into the sky and then dropped her, leaving her stranded on top of a tree.
There was no sign of Leslie anywhere. Jess bowed his head and sighed. At least this time, he thought, I got to say goodbye. As he left the Grove, he saw that several trees had been knocked down by the wormhole. A few were uprooted. Remembering the funeral wreath he made for Leslie, he ran to the place where he had laid it down.
The wreath was still there, resting on its carpet of golden pine needles. It had been battered a little by the elements, and the flowers in it had decomposed, but it was still in good shape. Jess was glad to see it. He smiled and reached down to touch it.
"I love you, Leslie," he said. "I'll try to keep my promise. I know I promised the other Leslie, but I was really promising you. I know you want me to be happy. It won't be easy, but I'll try."
A fluttering sound caught Jess' ear. He looked up. A cardinal had landed on a tree branch right above Leslie's wreath. Its feathers were the brightest red he had ever seen. The bird stared at Jess and crooked its head.
"Give my love to Leslie," Jess said.
The bird seemed to nod yes. Then it chirped at him and flew away, soaring high above the trees.
Before he headed home, he made a quick but thorough search of Terabithia to make sure there were no traces left of the other Leslie. There was nothing to be found. Nobody but Jess would ever know that another Leslie Burke from a parallel universe had visited Lark Creek.
When Jess got home, his little sisters weren't waiting for him at the back door. Worried, he ran into the house. May Belle and Joyce Ann were glued to the TV set. The news was on again – it must have been one of those Special Reports – and the anchorman was talking about shock waves and atmospheric destabilization and how the reflection of sunlight on the atmosphere was temporary disrupted, allowing a patch of night sky to be seen during the day. He also made mention of unusually strong winds gusting in Virginia and around the world, and how the shock waves from the asteroid crash on Venus wreaked havoc with the tides on Earth.
But everything was okay now. The shock waves had subsided and no more were expected to hit.
"Well, that's a relief," said Jess.
"Jess!" his little sisters screamed. They sprang up, ran to him, and gave him crunching bear hugs. He winced and laughed. For little girls, they could be pretty strong.
"We were so worried about you," said May Belle. "You're not going out again, are you?"
"Good," said Joyce Ann.
The baripity-baripity-baripity of his father's pickup truck caught Jess' ear.
"Momma and Daddy are home."
The girls ran to the front door.
After the cacophony of his sisters' cheers and excited descriptions of what they'd heard on the news died down, Jess' father explained why it took so long to get home.
"We were watching it with the Henshaws. We could see everything from their backyard. Damnedest thing I've ever seen. It looked like some kind of hole in the sky. Your mother thought the Tribulation was upon us."
"I most certainly did not," said Momma. "Don't exaggerate."
"We were worried about you kids, but we couldn't go home right away after those winds started blowing. You'd think it was a hurricane or something. We were afraid it'd blow the truck right off the road. We had to wait till the wind died down."
"Jess was out watching it, too," said Joyce Ann.
"Oh my god!" Momma cried. "Jesse Oliver, what were you thinking? You could've been killed!"
"Susan was out there with him," Joyce Ann explained.
Jess didn't bother to correct her. He was more concerned about his father's reaction. All he did was give Jess a sly smile and tell him to be more careful next time.
There wouldn't be a next time – at least, not for a wormhole.
A few days later, after all the hoopla about the strange weather had died down, Jess invited Susan to go swimming with him at the big creek. She made a picnic lunch for them. Jess carried the basket. He wore a t-shirt and navy blue swim trunks. Susan wore a t-shirt and shorts over her bathing suit. They had towels slung over their shoulders.
Jess led Susan down a road with many twists and turns, steep hills, and sharp curves. The walk took them past a farm with enough land for both a huge cornfield and a large pasture where a dozen cows were grazing, chewing their cuds, or swatting flies with their tails.
After they passed the farm's tall corn silos, they continued down the road. In the distance, Jess could see part of the familiar bridge peeking out on the left. When they reached the fork in the road, Jess turned left. As he and Susan crossed the bridge, he could hear the gentle whoosh of the waterfall and smell the sweet, earthy perfume of fresh water.
After they crossed the bridge, Jess turned off the road and into a woodsy area on the left, taking a path that led down a steep hill. "We're almost there," he said. "Watch your step." They came out of the woods and onto a beach – a small beach, but more than big enough for the two of them.
"Wow, look at this place – it's like a hidden cove! And there's a waterfall!"
There was no mistaking the delight in Susan's eyes.
Susan unpacked the vinyl picnic blanket and spread it out. Then she took off her t-shirt and shorts, folded them neatly, and placed them on the blanket. Her bathing suit was a plain, simple pink one-piece. She was obviously trying not to show off her figure.
It didn't work. Jess couldn't help staring at her.
"What are you looking at?" Susan asked.
"Nothing," Jess stammered. "I thought you might be wearing a bikini."
"Jess Aarons, you know I don't have the figure for a bikini!"
"Sure you do," he smiled.
"Jess..." Susan flushed bright red, but he could tell that she appreciated the compliment. She struggled to suppress a big smile. "Can we just go swimming... please?"
She took off her glasses and laid them down next to her clothes. Jess took off his t-shirt. She headed for the water, but Jess said, "Wait."
Susan turned to look at him. Their eyes met.
Jess walked over to her. They were practically nose-to-nose.
"I just... wanted to tell you that... that..."
"What?" she asked.
Jess couldn't find the words.
So he kissed her.
Susan's hands went up in a defensive motion, then fell limp at her sides.
The warmth of her mouth was unreal. He wanted to drink in her essence. He wanted to drown in it. He felt her return the kiss – and his embrace.
Jess opened his eyes. Susan's eyes were wide with wonder – and fear. She trembled in his arms.
Then she wiggled out of his grasp and turned away from him.
"Oh Jess, why did you do that?" She asked. She sounded like she was going to cry. "I'm not pretty like my sister, I'm not popular... I'm good at art, but that's it. I'm just... not the kind of girl boys like."
"I don't like you, Susan. I love you."
She turned around and stared at him. The look on her face was blank. She was numb with shock.
"I love you, Susan."
Tears welled in her eyes. "Oh, Jess -"
She threw her arms around him. He returned her tight embrace.
"After I lost Leslie, a part of me died, too. I didn't think I'd be able to love anyone the way I loved her. Then I met you. You brought that part of me back to life. You made me feel again."
"I didn't think anyone could love me – the supermodel's ugly sister."
"You're more beautiful than she'll ever be."
Susan smiled at him through her tears. "Oh, Jess... I love you, too. I've had the hugest crush on you ever since we met. I was scared to tell you. But being friends was enough for me."
"Well, it's not enough for me. Would you... be my girlfriend?"
"Yes!" She laughed and hugged him again.
He kissed her. She kissed him back.
"Cool! And speaking of cool, how about that swim?"
The cold water was heavenly. It refreshed Jess and calmed him down. He and Susan glided hand-in-hand underwater. They popped up and swam out under the bridge and around the houses on the other side of the cove. Then they headed back to their little beach.
Susan unpacked their sandwiches, munchies, cookies, and thermos of iced tea. There was something else in the picnic basket – a transistor radio.
"You wanna listen to some music?"
After they finished eating, Jess turned on the radio while Susan packed up their trash and the thermos. He moved the dial around until he found his favorite station. He turned up the volume and lay down on the blanket. Susan snuggled up next to him, resting her head on his chest. He held her close.
Jess looked up at the sky. It was a calm and sparkling blue. He thought about the other Leslie and wondered if she was with the boy she had met. What was his name? Sebastian, that was it. He hoped she was with him. She deserved to be happy.
Jess was happy. He smiled at Susan. She smiled at him.
One of his favorite songs crackled on the radio's speaker – Nantucket Sleighride by Mountain. He closed his eyes and let Felix Pappalardi's mellow vocals take him away:
Fly your willow branches,
wrap your body 'round my soul
Lay down your reeds and drums on my soft sheets
There are years behind us reaching
to the place where hearts are beating
and I know you're the last true love I'll ever meet -
and I know you're the last true love I'll ever meet...