There was one word that changed my entire existence. One word that I now recalled with a different understanding than I had four months ago. When I first heard it I had feelings of anger and sadness. Now, upon hearing the response in a new way, those same powerful feelings had risen but for a different reason. This word was “no.”
“Come on Rory!” I yelled as we approached Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. Rory and I had entered the park only a few hours ago and I was determined to make the most of our limited time in “the happiest place on Earth”.
“Okay...okay I’m coming! But I still don’t understand your obsession with these princesses and their castles. I prefer Ewoks, not how Snow White’s foot was small enough to fit in some ruby slipper,” he said, catching up with me as we entered the castle.
“First of all, it’s Cinderella and her glass slippers. And second, you know I’m just as much a Star Wars fan as you. Remember when-”
“When you beat me at Star Wars trivia two years in a row? How could I forget?” he finished with a smile.
Finally we reached the last window of the walk through where Prince Philip saves Aurora with true loves kiss. My palms began to sweat, and I could feel my throat tightening. This was it, the moment that my life would change forever. I took a deep breath and thought, you can do this Alice. Pull yourself together.
“I got something for you,” I said, turning to Rory.
“Please say it isn’t another churro, I’ve had five already today.”
“It’s not a churro. Just close your eyes.”
“Okay…” he responded.
I dug through my backpack, my heart skipping a beat when I didn’t find what I was looking for at first. But, after a second, I did find it. It was a small navy blue velvet ring box. I kneeled down on one knee and smiled at the gasps of people all around us.
“Ok. Open,” I instructed, my heart beating quickly. He grinned broadly and covered his mouth in surprise.
“When I first came to this castle at the age of twelve I promised myself that I would find my prince and bring him here. Today I fulfilled that promise. You are my prince and you are my happily ever after. Rory Song, will you do me the honor of marrying me and starting the next chapter in our fairytale,” I was crying now, and Rory remained speechless but with a smile on his face. He stared down at the two rings, his and mine. Bystanders waited with bated breath to hear his response.
“Say something. Please?” I asked softly after a few more moments of silence passed.
“I always thought I would get to pop the question and have you standing here speechless,” he responded, finally making me and a few of the other people laugh.
“So prince charming, what will it be?”
“I-” all of a sudden a phone rang loudly in the crowd which was met by a chorus of,
“turn that off!”
“He was about to answer!”
I laughed again and Rory sighed.
“It’s mine!” he said, reaching into his pocket.
“Rory!” I said sternly.
“I’m sorry Alice. This is really important, can’t happily ever after wait five minutes?” I only stood up from my, now aching, knee.
He pressed a button on the screen and held it up to his ear. The group reacted by a mixture of sighing, eye rolls, and sympathetic looks towards me. I focused my attention back to Rory, trying to calm down from the overwhelming and terrifying suspense that he had left me with. But when I looked at him I was surprised to find that Rory was frowning and looked pretty much devastated. Not the reaction one usually wants or expects when proposing.
I could hear him whispering, “No...no this can’t be happening. There has to be another way,” he whispered urgently.
I mouthed “what?” to him but Rory only responded to the call by saying,
He shoved the phone back into his pocket and turned his head to face me but wouldn't look me in the eyes.
“Rory? What’s wrong?” I asked, stepping towards him.
“I...I have to go, Alice. I’m so sorry,” he said and hurried past the stunned faces out of the castle. I could only stand dumbstruck before a bystander spoke.
“Well, are you going after him or not?” she demanded.
I nodded and ran after my prince, clutching the ring box tightly in my hand.
“Where are you going?” I yelled, but he kept moving.
“Rory!” I yelled louder, causing him to finally stop. I sprinted over to him as fast as I could.
“What’s wrong? Rory talk to me.”
“I can’t be your prince, your fairy tale, or your happily ever after Alice. I’m so sorry,” he began to walk forward again but I blocked him.
“The answer is no,” he said forcefully.
“Rory, look at me,” but, all I saw when he I peered into his eyes was sadness that almost mirrored the fear in mine.
“No. I love you Rory, and you love me. You cannot just walk away from that. You’re scared and I am too. But we’ll face it together like we have for the past two years. If you love me, you’ll stay.”
“I do love you Alice. Maybe one day you’ll understand,” he said and started to walk away again.
“Wow. Fine, Rory. Here take this,” I responded angrily, stuffing the box into his hand.
As I walked away, I mumbled, “So much for the happiest place on Earth,” I turned and walked swiftly away from him, tears forming in my eyes.
Four months later
“What did you just say to me?” I asked, stunned.
“I did it for you,” Rory responded.
“No. No,” I said, looking down and shaking my head.
Two hours ago I was giving a Ted Talk in front of a live audience. It was, in one word, spectacular. I talked about everything that had inspired me to pursue being an author and how I have been so successful in being one. The audience laughed when I told a joke and clapped every few minutes. I couldn’t help but smile with pride for all of my accomplishments. But this happiness was short lived. All of a sudden water rained down from the ceiling just as I had finished discussing how my cat, marigold, had inspired one of the characters in my most recent novel.
Everyone stood up from their seats and began to run towards the exit assuming that there must be a fire in the building. I ran to the backstage door behind me to avoid getting trampled, only to discover that the door knob was extremely hot. That must be where the fire is, I thought. I spun around to go to the other doors but was met with a chorus of,
“Why won’t it open!”
“Let us out!”
“My poodles need me!”
I began to feel my heart quicken as I pushed my way through the crowd and tried to open the door. It was locked. As I felt smoke begin to enter my lungs, the hysteria from the crowd grow. Someone needed to do something, and fast.
“Everyone calm down!” I yelled, but my voice was drowned out by the panicked ones of others.
I grabbed my phone and tried to call someone that worked here but the cell service was out.
“What is happening?” I whispered out loud.
I looked towards the back stage door and saw streams of grey smoke billowing out from under it. Getting more panicked now I began to look around the room for windows and other exits but found none. I shoved my way back through the crowd again in hopes of finding an unlocked door, but that too failed. Some people began to give up and move away from the doors and sit down on the floor or look for exits. I joined them and leaned against a wall after realizing that all there was left to do was to pray that someone would come to open the doors from the outside.
Usually I’m pretty good under pressure but as soon as I started to cough every five seconds from the smoke along with everyone else, I really started to get scared. I checked my phone again and scrolled through my contacts, attempting to call everyone I knew. No luck. Finally I reached the last number on the list, Rory’s. I sighed and pressed his name just in case. After all, maybe he was more of a knight in shining armor than a prince nowadays. My heart skipped a beat as his name popped up on the screen and my phone made noise as it called him. I was filled with a mixture of happiness, hope, and fear when he answered.
“Alice?” I heard him say.
“Rory- Rory! There’s a fire-It’s everywhere and there’s smoke. We’re all trapped inside and-”
“Where are you,” he said in a surprisingly calm and serious voice. It was the kind of tone you would expect firefighters to have when giving instructions or 911 operators when dealing with a crisis.
“The Ted Talk theater.”
“I’m on my way.”
“But Rory, hurry,” I added.
“I’ll be there. Just try to stay as calm as you can and keep the others calm too.”
“How am I supposed to call down a herd of-”
“If anyone can calm down an impossibly distressed crowd, it’s you.”
He hung up the phone and I leaned back against the wall with a sigh of relief. But the way he had spoken to me, it was the same way he would when we were together. He had always believed in me and I guess that hadn’t changed somehow. Pull yourself together Alice. You can’t fall down the rabbit hole yet.
I stood up and ran, more like staggered, toward the stage. I grabbed my mic that had fallen on the ground and gave it a sharp tap. It worked.
“Attention!” I yelled. But no one reacted or resonded.
I dropped the mic on the ground and a loud piercing noise filled the air that sounded like nails on a chalkboard. Suddenly everyone turned to me.
“I know that you are scared and so am I. But someone is coming to save us. So I implore you to stay calm and use every ounce of bravery that I know you are all filled with to help save yourself and others. We will get through this, we will wake up tomorrow to fresh air, and we will be okay. All you need to do is sit or stand along this wall and try to breath through a shirt, scarf, anything,” this speech seemed to get to the mob and almost immediately afterward they followed my command.
I started coughing madly from the smoke that stung my eyes and filled the room. Rory needed to be the prince that I knew he could be now or we were all going to die. A few minutes pasted and then, through the thick cloud of smoke, I could see a light appear through one of the doors. People around me started yelling and staggering towards the exits. I tried to follow but got knocked down by someone running towards safety. I hit the ground hard and felt blackness creep into my eyes as I passed out.
I awoke a few hours later.
“Am I dead?” I asked aloud, only half joking.
“No,” A voice responded that made me snap open my eyes.
Sitting there, next to me was Rory.
“Where are we? What happened?”
“We’re in your apartment. I brought you back here after you passed out. As for the latter, my team and I rescued you and put out the fire.”
“Four months ago on June 22-”
“But that’s the day-”
“That is the day you proposed,” he said slowly. Again, I noticed something different in his voice and the way he held himself. He seemed more sure of himself, yet still calm.
“Everything I did, everything I said in June was for you.”
“What did you just say to me?” I asked, stunned.
“I did it for you,” Rory responded.
“No. No,” I said, looking down and shaking my head.
“The phone call told me that my uncle had died. I barely knew him. But, what I did know was that he ran a secret government agency. Since my parents are dead, control of that agency passed to me at his death.”
“But what does that have to do with anything?” I asked, sitting up and feeling extremely confused.
“If I had married you it would have put you in danger.”
“What are you talking about Rory?”
“The fire today wasn’t an accident. Someone was targeting you, because of me,” he said slowly, “I had hoped that if I kept my distance you would be safe. But I was wrong.”
“Why would someone try to kill me in the first place?”
“Whoever planned this wasn’t trying to kill you. They were trying to get my attention to send a message.”
“What kind of message?”
“There are a lot of people that would do anything, kill anyone, to take control of this agency. This attack was a show of power. He wanted to prove that he could get to the people I care about.”
“Wait… the phones. You were the only person I could call after the cell service went down.”
“Exactly. My phone allows me to call and receive calls from someone anytime, anywhere.”
“I still don’t understand what this has to do with you breaking my heart,” I said, getting a little angry as feelings of the past rose up.
“I couldn’t let me or the agency put you in danger,” Rory responded, his eyes filling with emotion.
“And which of you got the privilege of deciding what was best for me?”
“You know what? I would marry you anyway. Because that is what marriage is. I take on your problems and you take on mine. I would travel headlong into danger and almost certain death for you. But you did not even stop for a second to ask me. In fact you stormed out of literal castle gates just to run from your fear.”
“And what fear is that?”
“You’re scared of having something to lose. To really lose. But family is what makes us strong not weak. And you could be my prince, scared or not. But you choose to run. I don’t run Rory. I stay and fight for the people I love,” I was standing up now, passion and anger filling my voice.
“Could and would?” he said softly, standing up to face me.
“You said that I could be your prince and that you would marry me anyway.”
“Alice, these past months I have let work overwhelm me, and not just because I love it. But, because I needed it to fill the gaping hole that you left. When I said no, two hearts broke that day. Not one. Alice, my feelings never changed. Not for a second. I’m still ready to go down the rabbit hole with you, to be your prince, and you're happily ever after.”
“If you have not thought about me every day for the last four months then walk away now. But if not... stay.”
I couldn’t manage to move my legs. But then, I didn't really want them to move. He was right, I had thought about him every day.
“Alice Claire Mc Twisp, will you be my happily ever after and marry me?”
Just then, he reached into his jacket pocket and held out the same velvet ring box that I had proposed to him with. I could feel tears begin to well up in my eyes as I stared down at the glimmering diamond ring. Happiness filled every inch of my body as I gave my response and kneeled down next to him.