Chapter 21

Jess laughed. He couldn't believe it. Leslie was alive! He wanted to talk to her, to ask her how she had returned, where she had been and what she was doing all the time she was gone. He would have to wait until tomorrow, he knew, but he was okay with that as long as he could spend time with her again. He could wait an eternity if he had too—in fact he had already waited for what seemed like forever for something he never thought would be possible. He would have time to speak with her, he would have time to tell her of his troubles and his pains and all the things he wished he had said. He would tell her he was sorry for leaving without her. She would forgive him. He was sure she would.

Terabithia would have its Queen back. Jess would have his friend back.

And May belle would still be the princess, under her teachings. The thought of them all being there together was beyond wonderful. He sighed as he reluctantly came out of his reverie. The sun finally set, at last relinquishing the world to the darkness of night. Jess knew they were late; he could see the lights on inside the house as they approached.

Jess caught May belle's arm. He spun her around and smiled at the chubby-faced scowl she gave him. Before she could ask what he was doing, he shushed her.

"We're going inside in a minute," he whispered, "But I don't want you telling anyone about Leslie."

"Why not?"

"Because I want to surprise them like she surprised me."

May belle smiled. Jess was relieved she agreed to his plan. He didn't know exactly what they would do; he just wanted to keep Leslie to himself for as long as possible. He gestured towards the house and looked up at the door, just as Brenda or Ellie—he wasn't sure which—stepped out and saw them. She looked back into the house and told them to "call off the search party," and that "they were coming."

Jess smiled as they made their way inside. He had just come around the corner when he saw his father sitting down at the table. He glared at them as they took their places.

"Where in God's name have you two been?"

Jess shared a look with May belle. She looked like she didn't know what to say, so Jess spoke for them both. "We, uh, we just got lost in the woods, that's all. And we had so much fun we forgot to come home."

May belle nodded that it was true. Their father started in on his food as it was served. "I don't want you two being late for supper." He passed some dishes as they were handed to him. "Your mother was getting worried."

"Sorry, daddy," May belle said. "But we had some important stuff to do."

"Really, now?" He looked pointedly to Jess. "Like what?"

Jess shrugged. "Just stuff." He shared a smile with his little sister. She was keeping quiet just like he wanted. He looked around the table. No one was eating. They were all just staring at him as if he had done something wrong. He sat down and started in on his food hoping everyone would just leave him be.

Then Brenda started in on him.

"You're so weird."

He smiled at her and thought of Leslie. "I know."

Normal life having returned, everyone forgot about Jess and talked of more important things. School and clothes were Ellie and Brenda's conversation, as well as boys and how they never called. Jess glanced to May Belle. She kept winking at him. He wished she would stop; he knew either someone would notice or he would laugh and get caught with soda coming out of his nose. He suspected that might be what she wanted.

After dinner, everyone went their separate ways. Mother cleared the table and made Ellie help with the dishes. Brenda tried to sneak off before she could be enlisted, but was caught and told to dry. Jess took May Belle went up to their room. They had homework to do, but most of all, they wanted to talk about Leslie.

As soon as the door closed, Jess started in on May belle, asking her how she knew Leslie was back. He was surprised to discover she had been back for a while, as May told him they had been hanging out together. He knew Leslie had been the girl he had found on the bridge and that she had been sneaking around in the guise of the frog-girl all this time. He had been so stupid! His best friend came back from the dead and he hadn't even known. He asked May belle everything he could think to ask.

"Okay, how did she come back?"

May Belle shrugged.

"Where has she been all this time?"

"On a farm." May Belle answered. "She got caught by a witch."

He looked at her like he didn't believe it.

"It's true!" she complained. "Leslie told me so!"

He sighed and let it go. He figured he could ask Leslie herself the next day. It was a Saturday and they would get to spend the whole day together. He still had so many questions. One thing still bothered him though…

"May Belle, why didn't Leslie come home? Or call us so we know she was all right?"

Her answer was another shrug.

"Alright, we'll ask her tomorrow." He yawned. "Let's just get our homework done and go to bed. The sooner we sleep, the sooner we can see Leslie again."

The night passed slowly, Jess still thinking about Leslie, about where she might have been and why she had taken so long to come home. He thought of her parents, Bill and Judy, and whether or not they knew their girl was alive.

My girl, Jess thought. Leslie belonged to him, after all. She had always been his. He had given her over to the loving arms of God, but she had been returned to him at last.

As he faded off to sleep, his last thoughts were of Leslie and how he would never let her go again.


The next day was beautiful. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and everything about the world seemed right. Jess was up and dressed before everyone else. His father was on his way out and Jess promised to get his chores done before he went out to play. He didn't now how he would get them all done, excited as he was. He thought maybe he should wake up May belle and let her help, but after a moment, he realized she would be more of a bother than anything.

Being awake so early on a Saturday was a rare experience for Jess; he had not bothered to get out of bed so early since he was May belle's age. He knew she would be awake soon too and he needed to move fast if he was to get away; he wanted to be alone with Leslie for a while. He hurried through all his chores and even skipped breakfast, heading off to Leslie's house as soon as he was finished.

He arrived at the yard with a smile on his face, slowing as he approached. The last time he was in the Burke's yard, there was a pile of lumber he used for the bridge and the time before that several strange cars were parked in rows. He had not actually been inside her house since her memorial service. It had been the worst weekend of his entire life.

All that seemed a lifetime ago. Now he was returning in triumph to visit his friend. He skipped up the steps and knocked on the door.

Nothing happened.

He knocked again, harder. He thought he saw movement through the curtains. He was just about to knock a third time when a dark form slid up to the door. He backed away as it came open and he suddenly found a large woman standing before him.

She waited for him to say something.

"Uh…hi," he managed. He didn't know what else to say.

The woman regarded him a moment. He stared up at her as she examined him. Her hair was brown, tied up tight in a bun and her lips were red, thick with lipstick. Jess wondered if she might be Leslie's aunt.

Her voice was pleasantly calm.

"Can I help you?"

He shifted his weight and scratched his head. Where was Leslie? He thought maybe he had dreamed she was back and if so, he was acting very foolish. He thought maybe should explain what he was doing here at such an early hour.

"Uh, I live across the street and…" He turned to point only to find the view of his house obscured by the trees framing the Burke's front yard. He lowered his arm, feeling even more stupid and tried again. "I'm sorry, um… I was just—"

The woman brightened suddenly as if she realized something. "You must be Jess!" She took up his hand. "My name's Ann Marie. Leslie's told us so much about you."

Jess almost laughed. "You know Leslie?"

The woman did laugh. "Of course I know her! She talks about you all the time. Come in," she said "come in, she should be awake by now."

Jess walked through the double doors and into the kitchen. The scent of pancakes was thick in the air. "You caught me in the middle of making breakfast," Ann Marie explained.

He apologized as he looked around. Not much had changed. The furniture was what he remembered; the round table was still there, along with all the chairs. He stopped near the table, thinking about how long it had been since he had been in the house.

Often times he would pass by the lonely place on his way home from school. He would stop in the road and just stare at it. He knew Leslie was gone and would never come back. He also knew that he was standing in the exact spot where she had begun the race that would eventually take them to their kingdom. It was also the spot he occupied the day he left her. May belle called to him, shouting that she wanted to go home. He shrugged off the cobwebs and trotted down the road after her, only stopping once to look back. He thought he would never enter the big Burke house again.

Now he was standing in the kitchen, waiting for Leslie. He wasn't prepared for what would come; how could he possibly be ready for something like this? He looked into the living room, and his eyes fell on the wall they had painted together. It was still golden, still beautiful. He wandered into the room and took a deep breath. The last time he had entered this sanctum was the worst day of his entire life.

He remembered well the feeling of loss, the sensation of wandering. He remembered Leslie's father rising to meet him. The feeling of his hug was still there, along with the pain of his words.

She loved you, you know. Leslie… she never had much luck making friends at her old school. We were hoping when we moved out here we could… Jess, you're the best friend she's ever had. I want to thank you for that.

He remembered the strange sense of anger at what he said and the bitter thoughts he dared not express. You brought her out here and she died. You should have stayed where it was safe. Then she would be alright. She'd be alive. It's all your fault!

He couldn't say that of course. He knew it wasn't really Bill's fault. Jess knew he had let Leslie die. It was his burden to bear. He couldn't place it on anyone else. As if to drive the point home, he caught sight of Ms. Edmunds a moment later. She had taken him on that awful trip when he left Leslie behind.

She tried to speak to him, but all she could do was whisper was his name. He spoke instead.

Next time, we should invite Leslie to go. She'd like that.

The next days were even harder. Living without Leslie wasn't really living at all. He found that everywhere he went all he heard was the sound of silence. It felt as if his heart had been pierced and his spirit had seeped out through the wound.

It was as if his whole life, Leslie had been the one to make things count.

With her gone, nothing mattered.

Even Terabithia was lost. The old tree house stood empty. Leslie had given it life; when she left, it was a dead place.

His thoughts tumbled over and over in his mind. He thought of everything he went through, knowing he would have to recount it for his best friend. He briefly considered leaving out the part about crying in the woods, thinking she had gone to hell. He would have enough to tell her without worrying about her thinking he was some kind of wimp.

"Would you like some pancakes, dear?"

He turned to look up at Ann Marie. He tried to decline her offer, but his stomach answered for him. She smiled at the grumble it made and showed him to the table.

As the pancakes were served, Jess thought to fill the silence. "So… how do you know Leslie?"

"Oh, I met her a few weeks ago. She came here to stay with me and my brother." Ann Marie leaned in and began to whisper. "We didn't know who she was, really. We thought she was just an orphan with no memories." She laughed lightly. "It was a great surprise when we found out who she really was."

Now he knew why she had taken so long to come home. She had forgotten who she was, probably from the bump on her head she received when she felt. He imagined it was quite a surprise when she remembered who she was. Jess thought about how surprised he had been when Leslie had returned. He understood perfectly. He honestly never thought he would see her again and there she was, jumping out from the trees, scaring him something fierce. He thought he was dreaming, but she really was back. He wondered where she was right then.

The pancakes distracted him and as he started in on them, Ann Marie set down a glass of juice, telling him Leslie would be down to see him soon. He thought about going up to see her, but as hungry as he was, he decided to wait for her. She'd be down and they'd be together; he needed a little time to sort out some things anyway.

The warm taste of hot buttered pancakes filled his mouth, the sweet syrup running down his throat as he chewed. Jess loved pancakes. He wondered if Leslie liked them too. He would have to remember to ask her when she arrived.

He was half way through his second plate when he heard the sound of footsteps echoing from the stairs. Leslie was coming. He stood up in time to see her on her way down for breakfast. She looked wonderful.

Jess eyes took in the faded blue jeans and deep blue shirt, the tousled blond hair and warm smile of his best friend. Then she noticed him and her smile widened.

"Jess!"

She rushed down the stairs and gave him a hug. He stood there, just holding her for a long moment. Leslie looked into his eyes, smiling that wonderful smile of hers. Then she noticed the pancakes and before he could say anything, she took up his fork and munched his next flapjack.

He stood watching her, not really wanting to protest. Ann Marie set a plate for her and tossed on a few pancakes. She licked the syrup off her lips and plopped down opposite him. Juice was served and they both laughed and started eating, neither really knowing what to say, except pass the butter.

The morning was quiet, Jess enjoying the pancakes, but enjoying watching Leslie enjoy them even more. He was so happy. He could remember the last time he had pancakes and thought about her. His mother had made them the day after he had learned Leslie was gone. He had felt so lost, so unsure; he didn't know what he would do.

Now he knew.

He would take Leslie back to Terabithia.

But first they would have more pancakes.

Ann Marie set them down and Jess drank some juice to clear his throat. He looked at Leslie and decided the time had come for some answers. He tried to ask Leslie something but she asked at the same time and they both laughed.

"You go first," she told him.

He nodded and asked what he had wanted to ask for a long time. "Leslie," he began, "where have you been?"

She chewed her pancakes and appeared to think about it. She smiled and gestured with her fork. "Upstairs."

He didn't laugh, so she began again, more serious.

"I was lost."

She seemed to be staring off to places Jess couldn't see as he asked, "Where were you lost?"

She took a sip of juice and started again. "I was on a farm in North Carolina, just over the border." She got a silly looking grin and added, "Tom found me in the creek and pulled me out."

Jess frowned. "Who's Tom?"

Ann Marie answered the question as she sat down. "He's my brother. He worked on the farm where Leslie was staying."

He looked from her back to Leslie. "Why didn't you ask to come home?"

"She didn't remember who she was, or where she came from," Ann Marie answered again. Leslie fixed her with an annoyed glare. Ann Marie shrugged and went to check on something. Leslie sighed and went back to talking.

"I hit my head when I fell in the creek. It blocked out my memory, otherwise I would have come straight home."

Jess sighed. "Whoa. That must have been rough, not knowing who you were and all." He scratched his head. "At least you're home now."

She smiled at that and asked what he had been doing all summer.

He cleared his throat and, lowering his voice so Ann Marie wouldn't hear, told her a few things. "Ah, well, May belle's the princess now and all…"

"I know," she said. "I saw her."

"Why did you make us think you were the frog girl?"

She shrugged. "It just seemed like something fun to do."

"Well, it wasn't fun thinking you were dead."

She seemed to slump a little. "Oh, yeah," she whispered, "Sorry about that…"

He accepted her apology. He figured he better tell her the rest of what had happened while she was away. He told her of her funeral and what her parents said. She seemed a little embarrassed when he told her about her father's declaration of love. He told her how lonely he felt without her and how empty the school seemed when she was gone. He finished by telling her what Mrs. Myers said about losing her husband, saying he punched Scott Hoager for making fun of her and finally, building the bridge to honor her memory.

"Wow," she said. "You miss a lot when you're dead."

"You miss people who're dead even more," he assured her.

"Well, I'm back now, okay? You don't have to miss me anymore."

He wanted to say something else but Ann Marie came back and started clearing their plates. Jess stood and offered to help, but she refused. He sat back down but Leslie stood and asked him to go for a walk with her. He readily agreed.

Waving goodbye to Ann Marie, they made their way out to the road and started talking again. Leslie told him what it was like on the farm and Jess told her of the adventures he and May belle had in Terabithia.

They were heading back there now and both wore smiles as they strode through the sunlight.

Neither of them ran to the woods; they wanted to talk. Leslie asked how things had faired in their kingdom while she was away. He told her honestly that things had been good, but they hadn't always been easy. He told her about how the dark master had tried to take the Kingdom in her absence. She apologized again and tried to change the subject. Jess beat her to it.

"So have you heard from your mom and dad?"

She stumbled a bit on the rough ground. "Yes and no. They're coming home from wherever they were, but I don't know when." She glanced back and thought for a moment. "They could be here tomorrow."

Jess like the sound of that; he liked Leslie's parents. They were always kind to him and made him feel appreciated. He was eager to see them again and to see Leslie reunited with them. Everything would be all right. He was sure of it.

They entered the woods laughing, Jess having told her a joke he never thought he would get to tell her. As they entered the forest, they fell silent. Jess picked up a pine cone and hurled it, considering it a tradition of sorts. He hadn't walked this path with Leslie since she was lost. He was so happy to be bringing her back to the Kingdom she had created. They were almost there, so he took the lead.

"This way," he said, as if she needed to be reminded.

He helped her up onto the fallen log and she followed him quietly the rest of the way.

They stopped in front of the bridge.

He watched her staring at it, savoring the look of pride she wore. He knew he was the source of that pride and he hoped he could enjoy it for a few more minutes. She looked to him then and smiled. "You made this, didn't you." It didn't sound like a question.

He nodded.

"Thank you for remembering, Jess."

He didn't understand. "Remembering what?"

She pointed to the shield at the top of the bridge, to the sign that read: Nothing Crushes Us. She grinned at him. "Thank you for remembering me."

He smirked as he shrugged. "How could I ever forget you, Leslie?"

He stepped up onto the bridge and took her hand, leading her in. They walked together, slowly entering a world of their making. They let the magic flow, transforming the bridge and forest ahead of them into something more beautiful than anything made by man.

The great trees themselves bent back their branches in greeting to their queen. The Terabithians filtered through the woods on either side of the path and filled the road ahead, all cheering the return of their beloved creator.

They stepped off the bridge as the giant troll came forward, bearing two crowns on her giant troll hands. As she stooped low before them, she gingerly placed them on the heads of the King and Queen of Terabithia.

The shared a look, both smiling as the troll backed away and extended her arm in introduction to their kingdom. The sound of the crowds was deafening, the applause telling Leslie what Jess had wanted to say since finding her again.

Welcome home, fair Queen.

Welcome home.