The Ticking Ring
Ella’s breath escaped her lips in a puff of smoke. She licked her lips. The taste of her sweet mango lip gloss made her smile. Snow fell from the sky in steady sheets, covering everything in a thick layer of white. She took a sip of her hot chocolate and delighted in the way the thick liquid warmed her from the inside out. She sighed and snuggled into Jack’s side.
Ella frowned to herself as she shivered. She wore two layers of clothing, a coat, gloves, a hat, and a scarf, and was still freezing. She couldn’t understand how Jack could tolerate the cold with nothing but a thin jacket and scarf.
“How long are we supposed to wait out here?” Ella looked around at the quiet park. The trees swayed slightly with the cold wind. The stars above seemed to flicker around the pale moon.
Jack shrugged. He pulled her in closer and kissed her left cheek. “Maybe another five minutes, tops. You okay?”
Ella nodded and rested her head on his shoulder. “Yeah. I’m just cold. I’m a southern girl. I’m not used to this Arctic chill.”
Jack chuckled and wrapped her in his coat. “We’re in Ireland, not Iceland! You mean to tell me they don’t have winters in Savannah?”
Ella glanced up at him. A snowflake rested on her nose. She closed one eye and scrunched up her nose as she looked at it. “Not like this. I’m sorry darling, but I’ve never been a fan of the cold.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Jack said.
A hint of disappointment in his voice made her pause. She kissed him on the cheek and dusted more snow off her knees. “I just hope that whatever you have planned happens quickly. I’m getting buried in snow.” Ella made a face. “I didn’t even know Ireland got so much snow!”
Jack stood. He pulled her up to her feet. He winked at her. “It normally doesn’t, sweetheart.”
Ella heard a howling as the wind picked up. She looked around, startled. “What is it, Jack?” Her voice came out cracked. She clutched his arm and held on, expecting to be carried away as the wind blew fiercely at the both of them.
Ella saw a light in the distance. She squealed. “What is that?”
Jack turned to face her. He grinned as Ella covered her mouth. His blue eyes seemed to sparkle. She’d always loved his eyes. The day they met on her tour of Ireland exactly one year ago, she’d felt something almost magical whenever she looked into them.
Now, she was almost afraid. She started to take a step away, but Jack took her hands in his. Ella stood still. The wind wrapped around them, but she didn’t care. Something in his eyes calmed her. He kissed both of the backs of her hands and went to his knees.
Ella’s jaw hung open as she realized what was happening. Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a glittering box.
“Jack!” Ella’s eyes widened. She looked around, there were people all around. Watching them. Smiling. Cheering her on in silence.
“Ella,” Jack began. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
Ella shivered. “Who are all of these people?” They all wore blue, and had the same shade of white hair that Jack had, and the same glow in their blue eyes.
“They are my family. I knew from the moment I saw you that you were meant to be my queen.”
Jack opened the box and the sound of a piccolo began to fill her ears.
Ella gasped at the large diamond set in a golden band. She froze as he took off her glove and slipped it onto her finger. The ring was light, but warmed her entire body. She felt a wave of joy flood her body. The joy was so euphoric that she almost lost herself in the sensation.
Her mind raced. Her cheeks reddened with embarrassment. She had dreamed about being proposed to since she was a child, but she never imagined such an elaborate scene.
Ella bit her lip, and winced at the pain. She wasn’t dreaming. Something fantastical was happening and she didn’t know how to process it. All she could do was look around in awe, glancing at Jack’s smiling face from time to time.
Jack’s family continued cheering in silence. They were shouting, smiling, and clapping, but she could hear nothing.
Jack looked so happy and hopeful. His charming smile reached from ear to ear. He nodded her on. “Will you, my love? Will you be my queen?”
“Queen?” Ella croaked. Her eyes widened even more as the diamond on her left ring finger began to glow and tick like a clock. The ticking grew so loud that the sound of the piccolo was drowned out by it.
Jack closed the ring box and the music abruptly stopped. He came to his feet, kissed her gently on the lips, and pulled her away at arm’s length. “Yes, Ella. I’m asking you not only to marry me, but to be my queen.”
Ella’s brows furrowed. She swallowed a lump in her throat. “Queen of what?”
Jack chuckled. “Your innocence and purity is what drew me to you.”
Ella shook her head. “I don’t understand, Jack.”
Jack turned her toward the wall of wind that encircled them. The faces of his family began to swirl away and vanish. Their images were replaced by a castle made of ice. “Have you ever heard the name, Jack Frost?”
Ella shot a look at him. “No…you’re not telling me you’re the Jack Frost?”
Jack nodded and pointed to the ice castle. “That is my home, where I rule all of winter. I need a queen, someone to help me rule winter and watch over the children of the world.”
Ella covered her mouth with her hands. The glow of the ring drew her attention again. It continued to tick. “Why is the ring ticking?”
Jack stroked her cheek. His smile faded. “It has a timer. You don’t have much longer to make your choice.”
Ella paled. She hated decisions. She hated pressure. But, she knew she loved Jack.
“Tell me, my love. Will you chose to go back to your life before me, where you’ll forget you ever met me, or, will you join me in my kingdom? Together we can change the colors of the leaves in autumn, create art and wonder for people to enjoy. We can spread winter snow and joy to the people of the world. Doesn’t that sound glorious?”
Ella glanced at him. Her eyes examined his face. His white skin was perfect. His white hair was soft and flew around his face as the wind continued to sweep around them. Ella couldn’t help but smile. His happiness was infectious. Jack was as cheerful and happy as a boy.
She couldn’t remember seeing him that happy before. Not even she could make him as happy as when he spoke of spreading winter and creating art with the seasons.
Ella pulled her hand from his and took a step toward the vision of his castle. It was a grand sight. The beauty of its towers and gardens of blue and white flowers was captivating.
She contemplated his words. “Will I be able to see my family?”
Jack was silent.
Ella glanced back at him. He shook his head. Ella felt her body fill with sadness. She couldn’t imagine a life without her mother, father, and two brothers. Then, she thought of being a queen.
She smiled. She’d be able to live with Jack in happiness.
In a cold ice castle, Ella thought. Her smile faded and she looked down at the ring. The ticking made her shudder. Her time was running out. She could feel it.
Ella knew her choice.
She took the ring off and handed it to Jack. Tears filled her eyes when she looked at his face. The look of devastation seemed to morph his features. She was almost too afraid to look at him any longer. She put her glove back on and looked down at her feet.
“I’m sorry, Jack. I love you, but I could never leave my family.”
Jack went to his knees and held his hands in prayer. His eyes were wide with hope. Tears froze on his cheeks. “But, Ella. What if I brought your family to my castle as well? There are tons of rooms. They’d be happy there. You’d be happy. Right?”
Ella went to her knees before him and took his hands in hers. She kissed his hands and used them to cup her face. She closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of his palms on her cheeks and his fresh evergreen smell for the last time. She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Darling, you cannot bring my entire family. Even a life with them in your castle would be a lonely one. Take my brother for example. You bring him along, but what about his wife’s friends and family? Could you bring them too? Can you bring my entire family tree…and their friends and extended family?”
Jack’s shoulders slumped. “I suppose not.”
Ella offered a small smile, and wiped a frozen tear from his cheek. “I love you, but I cannot live the life of a queen in your world.”
Jack nodded. “I understand.”
Ella kissed him. She held back a sob as she whispered in his ear. “I’ll love you forever. And I will not forget you. I will remember you with each snowflake and winter wind. You’ll be with me every time I jump in a pile of orange leaves with my nieces and nephews, or when I drink hot chocolate and watch the kids in the neighborhood build snowmen.”
Jack laughed softly. “You’re right, Ella.”
Ella gasped as he vanished.
She was all alone in the snow, confused and unsure of what had happened. Then, she heard a soft voice on the wind.
“I’ll always be with you.”