UPDATED/REVISED 4/21/13 – Story re-organized to reflect new content: This story has TWO potential endings (afterlifes) and at least four possible plot branches (mortal world) to reach either of the two endings - if anyone wants to adopt one of the plots and flesh out the story, let me know!
Chapter 1 is common to both endings. After Chapter 1, even- and odd-numbered chapters will follow different endings!
As his life comes to a close, world-renowned artist and illustrator Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr. has only one lifetime regret.
Jesse has lived a long and fruitful life, or so it seems. Unlike most, he has been able to make a career out of his greatest passion. His pictures are found everywhere, from art galleries and museums, to theatrical film posters, video game box covers, and (of course!) children's books and school textbooks. Jesse, dying of cancer at age 67, will live a decade less than his average countryman, but he does not mind, for he has done all he needs to in this life. Though a lifelong bachelor, Jesse is not alone on his deathbed; he was a beloved uncle to his younger sister's children and all of them are present, as are his sister, brother-in-law and the very small count of his friends.
A few weeks before, after learning his condition was terminal, Jesse was persuaded to grant one final interview to a reporter from the New York Times, which would be preparing his obituary soon. Among many other questions, the reporter happened to ask: "Do you have any regrets?" And Jesse's answer remained as it has been his entire life. "I wish I'd invited Leslie on that trip all those years ago."
Jesse has, in his rare past interviews and media appearances, refused to elaborate on that answer. But on that day, given his final chance to share his story with the world, Jesse decides to share. The reporter is thoroughly moved by Jesse's story, as is everyone else present. The reporter remembers how, when he was in elementary school, some of his textbooks had Jesse's illustrations in them. His physics and math books, in particular, seemed to constantly feature a colorfully dressed blonde girl with blue eyes, explaining this or that concept in bubble-text, and the reporter is in awe as he learns just who this girl is.
Even after so many years, Jesse still feels responsible for the death of his friend and likely soul mate, but he is wrong. And the world will never know just how wrong he is, for Jesse himself will only become aware of it after he has already died.
About one month after that final interview, Jesse dreams his last dream – an angel, wearing a flaming sword and a cross, appears in front of him and motions him to follow. Jesse understands it is time and follows the angel, leaving behind his body in the hospital room. To his surprise, the angel speaks, in a teasing voice.
"So, you wish you'd invited her on that trip, huh?" asks the angel, holding up a copy of the New York Times issue from the previous month, showing Jesse the printed article containing his final interview. Because it's a dream, Jesse fails to recognize the absurdity of an angel reading the newspaper and asking him questions about his own interview from a month ago. Jesse answers the angel seriously, in the affirmative, then asks when he can see Leslie again.
The angel, walking beside Jesse, floors him with her next question. "Jesse Aarons... how would you like another chance?"
Jesse turns to look at his escort in shock, not daring to believe his ears. It's exactly what he has wanted for the vast majority of his existence – ever since that one terrible Saturday in fifth grade. The angel smiles reassuringly at Jesse. "You're being offered a chance to go back and live that Saturday one more time," the angel says. "You heard right."
Jesse is ecstatic. "Now?" he asks. "Whenever you're ready," the angel responds.
In a flash, he finds the angel and the rest of his dream has vanished – he is eleven years old again, in his room, and six-year-old May Belle is handing him the phone. Jesse picks up, knowing exactly what's going to happen and how to act… and exactly what he plans to do differently.
As they pass Leslie's house, Miss Edmunds asks if Jesse has forgotten anything. Avoiding his "mistake" from the first time around, he asks to bring Leslie, and his teacher does not object. Jesse excitedly runs up to the Burkes' house, where the Burkes are almost done with breakfast. Jesse apologizes to Mr. Burke for interrupting and then gives his invitation, which Leslie happily accepts, shoving her final bite of toast into her mouth and promptly following Jesse back to Miss Edmunds' car. The entire sequence results in Miss Edmunds waiting for about five minutes in front of the house instead of departing immediately for Washington. As they drive through town on their way to the freeway, they are T-boned from the driver's side by a drunk driver running a red light – in the original reality, Miss Edmunds departed five minutes earlier because Jesse didn't stop to invite Leslie, thereby avoiding being hit by the other car. Jesse, in the front passenger seat, is the lone survivor, and his survivor's guilt is worsened: he has not only caused Leslie's death, but also Miss Edmunds' as well, by both accepting her invitation and then inviting Leslie to join them.
Jesse re-appears before the angel, sputtering. "How- What – It didn't work – How is this possible? I invited her… oh my God, I killed Miss Edmunds… please, angel, send me back, let me put things back to how they were – I didn't mean to!..."
"Jesse," the angel says in a calming voice, "you are a noble man. Do not fear, all has been undone even as you speak. But perhaps you can now see that changing destiny is not quite so straightforward as you believed throughout your life."
Jesse idly wonders if he had sat in the back instead, before reflecting that he has no right to sacrifice Miss Edmunds to save his friend. But the angel picks up on his thoughts. "You have questioned God in your life before, and because you have been good and faithful despite your human doubts, we shall answer your curiosity. Let me show you."
Jesse immediately finds himself watching a scene play out before him. He is in his room, watching his younger self take the phone from May Belle to speak to Miss Edmunds. This time, Jesse and the angel are invisible observers, unable to touch or influence anything. Jesse watches, having no other choice, as his eleven-year-old self repeats the scenario he just re-lived earlier: getting into Miss Edmunds' car, stopping to pick up Leslie – except this time, the younger Jesse insists Leslie should take the front passenger seat, and then himself sits in the back, behind her, on the other side from where the older Jesse knows the car is about to be hit. The accident occurs exactly as before, and boy Jesse escapes the immediate death inflicted on Miss Edmunds in the driver's seat – but it is for naught, as the vision continues to show the young Jesse dying of his injuries later that day in the hospital. The vision now hones in on Leslie, who is now the lone survivor distraught at her friend's death. The following day, she attempts to find her solace in Terabithia, thereby dying the same way as in the original reality. The older Jesse finds himself perversely compelled to watch, even as he simultaneously feels an urge to look away, as the scene of his friend's death plays out. When it is complete, everything fades again to all white, the angel and Jesse standing in the same void they were in before.
"But what if I hadn't gone with Miss Edmunds at all?"
No sooner has the question left Jesse's mouth does the scene again return to that Saturday morning, and Jesse again watches the image of his younger self taking Miss Edmunds' phone call. This time, Jesse watches as his eleven-year-old self, having been imbued by divine intervention with that sense of foreboding Jesse wishes he had had in his own reality, declines Miss Edmunds' invitation in order to watch over Leslie that day. Eleven-year-old Jesse tries unsuccessfully to dissuade his friend from taking the rope; it breaks, and she falls on her head. But this time, Jesse's presence makes the difference. He scrambles down to the creek and fishes Leslie out, forgetting his earlier fear of the water; he finds her unconscious and bleeding from her head, and runs for help. Five minutes later, Jesse is watching in near panic as the paramedics load his friend into the ambulance. Jesse's father calls him to get into the truck and they follow the ambulance and Leslie's parents to the hospital. Within the half-hour, Leslie has been rushed into surgery and her parents, along with Jesse and his parents, are left to wait for news.
The news comes five hours later. Leslie suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and would have died had she been brought into the hospital even 30 minutes later. Fortunately, help had been summoned immediately and the surgeons have succeeded in stabilizing her for the present. The doctors are unable to predict if or when she will awaken. But the surgeon delivering the news, upon seeing Jesse's crestfallen expression, reassures Jesse that he is a hero; his quick action saved Leslie's life this morning. All that can be done now is to watch, wait, and hope.
Using a fallen tree, Jesse in this reality builds the same bridge he did in the original reality, so that he can go into Terabithia to seek guidance from the spirits. May Belle, after overcoming his initial protests, accompanies him.
But a month goes by with no change, and the doctors become increasingly pessimistic, much to young Jesse's despair. The doctors inform the Burkes, and Jesse, that after such a length of time, the probability of Leslie's recovery is very low, her hospital bill is already in the thousands of dollars and continued life support is likely to make no difference at great expense. But it is up to her parents how long they are willing to hold out for a miracle, and at what cost.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, as the case may be – money is not an issue for the Burkes, who as successful authors have more than enough to retire on. They, therefore, will pay for all possible care for their daughter; even the smallest chance of having Leslie back is worth any price – a statement with which both Jesses agree, the younger Jesse participating in the scene and the older Jesse watching in the background. The Burkes had struggled with infertility for years before their daughter came. Leslie was already a living miracle, even before the accident, and the Burkes feel compelled to hope for just one more.
Their decision has unintended consequences for their daughter's best friend. Young Jesse is now haunted by the alive-yet-not-living shell of his one true friend; deprived of her presence and yet unable to grieve or move on. Jesse and May Belle continue to visit Leslie and Terabithia almost every week. The Terabithians are divided over the fate of their queen, and cannot agree on what counsels, if any, they can offer to their grief-stricken king.
This situation continues for the following several years. Jesse gradually picks up the normal activities of a high school student, at the insistence of his family as well as the Burkes, who consider him a surrogate son. Even though they are holding on to the slimmest of hopes, the Burkes are also realistic enough to accept and plan for the most likely scenario. But the years nevertheless take their toll on everyone involved.
One day, a thin blonde-haired blue-eyed girl from Minnesota transfers into Jesse's tenth grade class. Most of Lark Creek's children, now teenagers, have long since forgotten the other transfer student who was with them for less than a year. Only Scott Hoager knows why the sight of the new student makes Jesse crumple into his desk sobbing uncontrollably. But the former bully has grown up, and remains respectfully silent towards his rival on the cross-country team.
Two years later, Jesse receives a phone call. It's Bill Burke next door. The hospital has just called the Burkes to inform them that Leslie is awake! But Jesse's hope is promptly dashed by Mr. Burke's next sentence, as he repeats what the hospital told him: Leslie is awake in only the most technical sense, she remains unaware of her surroundings. She is in a "persistent vegetative state," and her continued further recovery remains almost as unlikely as it was before.
Jesse rushes to see Leslie in her hospital bed, accompanied by the Burkes, but he soon wishes he hadn't. Leslie's eyes are open, but she is staring off into the distance, and she makes no move to acknowledge Jesse. She does not recognize him, and is totally unresponsive when Jesse calls her name. When he looks into her eyes, he senses they are empty. Jesse realizes that her spirit is truly gone. Leslie is no longer here, even though her physical body is deceptively intact. Jesse breaks down in tears as the years of hope, now crushed into splinters, rain down upon him. Leslie is truly dead. He truly failed to save her life ten years ago when she fell into the creek. It was all a cruel illusion, that he could have saved her, and now after toying with him for several years, Fate has finally put her foot down.
Fifteen years later, the hospital finally closes her medical file, when Leslie – or what's left of her – dies from antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
"NO!" Jesse, our Jesse, refuses to accept the vision presented to him. In desperation, he brings up one final idea, in his attempt to change fate. He offers his own life in place of his friend's.
The scene rewinds once more to the fateful Saturday morning. Miss Edmunds calls to invite Jesse to go to Washington. Young Jesse, under divine inspiration, declines and heads out to Terabithia with Leslie. But this time, swallowing his fears and apprehensions about the high creek water, Jesse takes the rope first – the rope breaks mid-swing, and Jesse takes the fall and the head injury.
This time it's Leslie who dives into the water after her friend and then runs screaming for help. The paramedics arrive and Jesse is rushed to the hospital with both sets of parents in tow – plus May Belle and Leslie. But Jesse is heavier and differently shaped than Leslie was, and he hit the rocks differently in this reality than she did in the original one. Five hours later, the surgeon emerges with bad news – Jesse has died on the operating table despite their best efforts. Jesse's sacrifice is complete – he has traded his life for Leslie's.
Leslie realizes, from the doctor's expression, what he is about to say, before he has even started talking. Now she blames herself for not listening to Jesse's expressed misgivings about the ancient rope. Ironically, even Leslie does not realize how correct she is in her belief that she should be the one dead, not her friend. Her first true friend in this lifetime, to whom she never had the chance to say "I love you."
But the tragedy of the day is not yet over. When the doctor finally pronounces the terrible words, May Belle becomes disconsolate and runs out of the waiting room, sobbing uncontrollably. Leslie and Mr. Aarons both jump up to pursue the hysterical child. May Belle runs shrieking out the main entrance of the hospital only to – in slow motion – trip and fall on the pavement right in front of a speeding vehicle. Leslie, her heroic instinct triggered, is not even thinking about the emotional loss she just suffered 30 seconds ago; she's acting entirely on adrenaline as she dashes forward and grabs the younger girl, throwing her out of harm's way.
Mrs. Aarons and the Burkes arrive shortly after. May Belle is curled up in a ball crying, right next to the car that almost killed her, and Mr. Aarons hastens to retrieve her. But the other three adults are staring, in horror, at the nurses and hospital staff who have rushed outside to cluster around the eleven-year-old heroine of the day. The Burkes look back to Mrs. Aarons, who is shortly joined by Mr. Aarons, and then back to their daughter, and then all four parents make eye contact and a horrifying understanding flashes among them. Leslie is pronounced dead at the scene, but her parents knew even before the medics did.
In the original reality, it was Jesse alone who blamed himself for the tragedy, though its impact was felt by others. But in this alternate reality, there is double the tragedy (or perhaps even more) and far more guilt to go around. May Belle knows that she is a murderer and is now certainly going to Hell, and no one will ever convince her otherwise. Mr. Aarons curses his slower reflexes, feeling that he should have died for his daughter, not the girl next door; his family now owes the Burkes an unrepayable debt of blood. Mrs. Aarons wishes she had argued more strongly to keep May Belle from coming with them to the hospital. Mrs. Burke silently wonders if this is God's revenge for her turning away from the faith in which she was raised as a child. Mr. Burke is simply crushed, their neighbor's son just died in his daughter's place and it still wasn't enough to save his daughter in the end. As the news spreads in the following days, even Miss Julia Edmunds wonders what might have happened – whether she might have prevented the entire tragedy, if only she had convinced young Jesse Aarons to join her at the museum that day.
"So you see," the angel says soothingly, "none of this was your fault, Jesse."
Brought back to the present, in the void with the angel, Jesse breaks down, laughing in bitter irony. He knows exactly what would have happened in Miss Edmunds' speculation, because in his actual life that did happen. But now his fifty-six years of regret are gone – a weight off his shoulders, even one that he had become accustomed to carrying. Jesse is at last convinced that Leslie's death was not his fault – it was God's will.
Suddenly, Jesse realizes the full implications of this thought, and rage boils up within him – all this time he was blaming the wrong person! Now he is angry, not with himself, but with the angel and the Heavenly Father she serves. Before he even realizes it, he is screaming at his angel:
"Why? Why did you kill her?"
CHOOSE YOUR ENDING: EVEN numbered chapters - If you believe Leslie went to Heaven (because God doesn't send innocent little girls to Hell)
ODD numbered chapters - If you believe Leslie went to Hell (because only Christians get to go to Heaven)
EVEN numbered chapters - If you believe Leslie went to Heaven (because God doesn't send innocent little girls to Hell)
Author's note: If anyone wants to expand upon my ideas and write a complete, more-elaborate story involving any of the scenarios outlined above, please let me know! I would be happy to see any such work done. Also, I'd love to see anyone continue the story for me and write about Jesse and Leslie's afterlife in heaven together! I don't know enough about different denominations' views of "how heaven works" to really do that myself. I don't know what else there is to do in heaven than serving in the Angel Corps, visiting friends/family or watching people on Earth... but even that's plenty for a story, I think. I imagine either Jesse signs up to be an angel or Leslie resigns from the service to be with him, but I could be wrong :)
I've never read the book, but I have done my best to make this story fit either the book or the movie. I've drawn a great deal of inspiration from both the LDD and LID fanfics on this site - but I did notice that in the existing works, Leslie either dies or makes a full recovery with no lasting damage. In real life, there is a wide range of permanent disability outcomes, and I've only dealt with the most frightening of those outcomes in this story. I don't personally have the expertise to write an LDD story featuring a wheelchair-bound or para/quadriplegic Leslie, but I suspect such a story would be very inspirational. If anyone wants to try it out, please let me know how it turns out.
Thanks for reading! Reviews are always appreciated :)