The Five Stages of Grief
Jess feels elated, like he's made of light and air and happiness rather than skin, muscles and bones. He smiles at his teacher, and his eyes are bright as he closes the car door behind him. His every atom hums with life and joy and his mind is filled with Mrs. Edmund and tea and myths and art. He reviews every instant of his trip to the museum, wondering when he can go again.
His mind is still there, still buzzing with happiness, when he walks into the living room and sees his family gathered there with tear-streaked cheeks and expressions of fear on their faces. "What – ?" he begins, before his mother draws him close in a bone-crushing hug.
Jess's dad is blunt. "Your friend Leslie is dead."
Stage One, Denial:
"You're lying." Jess feels stifling numbness collapse over him, like his head has been stuffed with cotton so no truth can get through. The air is heavy, and he is suffocating in it. There's no oxygen here; just cold black waters rushing through, and he's drowning in the darkness just as his father's saying that Leslie drowned in the creek. "No. No – you're lying!"
Jess runs away, to Leslie's white house with the gold room where the sunlight sets the walls on fire. She'll tell him, she'll tell them all: she's fine. She has to be.
There are police cars, lights flashing, policemen with their shining badges. Leslie's parents are crying.
Stage Two, Anger:
Jess runs away again, trying to hide from the truth, but he can't, it catches up because he wasn't ever the fastest, she was, only now she's dead. It's catching up as he races up the stairs, slithering towards him, so he slams the door in its face and holds it out with a drawer to block the way.
Why did Jess leave the house this morning? The museum could have waited, could have waited forever. When Mrs. Edmunds slowed, asked if he forgot something, why didn't he ask if Leslie could come? Because I was selfish, selfish and stupid and wrong, Jess thinks, so furious with himself he could swear that there's a fire raging in his veins. I wanted to spend time alone with pretty Mrs. Edmunds, and my selfishness cost Leslie her life. I could have saved her, if I wasn't too busy smiling at some stupid wind-up toy of da Vinci's. If I hadn't gone, she would still be alive.
But she's not.
Stage 3, Bargaining:
I'd trade my sneakers and my day at the museum to have Leslie back. Jess is dreaming that he's standing in a courtroom with arched ceilings wreathed in clouds high above, held up by monumental columns. The judge wants to know what he'd give up in order to save Leslie's life.
It's not enough, the judge says, shaking its head. Jess panics, his eyes growing wide with fear. There isn't much time, so he has to be fast, convince the judge before the dream ends.
I'd trade music and Mrs. Edmunds and art and Terebithia and running, he yells, as the walls begin to fade. I'd trade drawing and painting and laughing and sunlight –
It's not enough.
Jess wakes up.
Stage 4, Depression:
His parents say that they're going to honor Leslie's memory, and all Jess can think is What do they know about Leslie? Do they know how it felt to see her smile and wave in the rain? How it felt to see her catch the light as it fell through the stained glass window? How her laughter sounded when it echoed through the woods? They don't know. How can they honor her, when they never knew?
He feels like dying. He feels like he is already dying, each second that passes without Leslie's bright eyes and bright smile and bright laughter. He feels like he's sinking into darkness, and he never knew he could feel so low.
How did he survive without Leslie, before she came here? How did he ever breathe without her there, panting beside him after they finished running through the woods? How, how, how?
And how is he going to keep breathing, now that she's gone?
Stage 5, Acceptance:
He screams for her, out in the woods, crying out her name and wishing she would call back with laughter in her voice and he'd ask her where she went and she'd tell him that she'd been here all along, just waiting for him. He wants her to be mad at him, to ask him why he left her, where he went.
Silence is his only answer.
He runs to their tree-house, their castle, their fortress, and his gaze darts about, searching, combing through the food and the pillows and the paintings – the paint she gave him. He grabs it all, stuffs his pockets full, races to the river bank, trying to beat her there even if he's always too late.
He pours the paints out and they cascade into the creek like the tears are cascading down his face and his eyes hurt and he needs to blink but he refuses 'cause he needs to see the clouds of red and yellow and blue and green as they billow in the water before racing away. Red like blood, yellow like sunlight, blue like the sky, green like her eyes …
The jingling of keys and bells and chains interrupts him, and he leaps to his feet, racing away. Shadows are following and he's so afraid and he doesn't want to cry anymore.
He falls, the roots of the trees tangling around his feet, and the shadows catch him.
"Shhh, son, it's alright."
Unable to hold back the flood any longer, tears are drenching Jess's skin, hot and salty, washing the mask of denial and anger away. There's nothing left but emptiness, but that fills when he realizes that, if there's any sort of heaven like his family and the church have taught him, then Leslie is there. Leslie is there in the clouds and Leslie is here in the sunlight and the laughter.
And it's then and only then that Jess can accept that Leslie is dead.