This story is by Aletta Bee and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Long ago and far away, in an enchanted forest, rabbits, possums, and bluebirds watched their friend Nick Chopper lift a tiny box into the crook of a hickory tree branch, then clank over to the gazebo.
Nick paced back and forth in front of the gazebo, where Nimee had agreed to meet him, right between both of their parents’ cabins. He had built his parents’ house and the gazebo when he and Nimee were both young teenagers.
Wanting to look good for her, he stretched out his left leg so his knee wouldn’t lock up. When his knee got stuck, his jerky, clanging walk drew unwelcome attention. Today, when he meets her, he needs to feel confident about his masculinity. He straightened his silver bow tie, festive for today’s mission. He smiled, remembering when she called his tie jaunty.
His right-hand fingers stretched wide, holding an enormous bouquet of her favorite flowers—Queen Anne’s lace, daffodils, and poppies. He chose daffodils—the flower given for ten-year anniversaries—because of something important he had started but never finished on this day ten years ago.
With every step he took, his heart raced. Today is the most important day of his life. He feared she might not turn up and started to sweat, causing his satchel to slide off his wet shoulder. Since sweating could be dangerous, he tore off some wide fuzzy leaves from the nearby plants and mopped himself dry.
Gales of feminine squeals spilled from her family’s second-floor window. He spotted her two sisters pointing at him and laughing. They sang a little song they made up: “If there’s sweating, I’ll be betting… It’s a no-go.”
Nick wished he could tell them that ridiculing somebody never made things better. He knew that in his bones—or, more accurately—deep inside. But correcting them would distract from his mission. He dropped the leaves and stood as tall as he could.
He started worrying about why she was not there yet. He decided to check with her sisters when he heard a rustling behind him. There she was, standing in front of him. His heart leaped. He gasped, and his free hand flew to his mouth. Patches of light danced around her. The sun glistened on golden curls twirling down her back. “Nimee, Darling!”
He thought he might melt into a puddle. He started to run to her but reminded himself to stop. After all, he was an emperor now—a hugely different position than he was in ten years ago. Act it, he told himself.
Everything seemed like it was in slow motion as he walked to her and held out her bouquet. “I remembered your favorites.” She hesitated a moment, then, unsmiling, took the bouquet. Her mouth turned down. Not exactly the response he had hoped for. He knew he’d have to be patient—he was good at that. He took a breath and smiled. “Do you like them?”
Saying nothing, she held his eye contact and swung the bouquet around and around, like a pitcher winding up, and let it fly. It landed on her parents’ roof. The loud thud on the roof provoked more squeals of her sisters’ laughter. Nimee glared. “How dare you.” And she slapped her hands against her long apron.
Nick sighed. Maybe this entire plan was hopeless. Had he really expected her, after all this time, to fall into his arms just because his heart was clear and good? “I don’t blame you for being mad. But will you listen to me?”
She glared at him. “Why should I?”
He stepped towards her and lowered his voice, which sounded tinny from lack of sleep.
“Because we were in love.” Two bluebirds circled above them.
Stepping backward, she said, “But we aren’t in love now.”
His eyes glistened. “I am still in love with you; I never stopped loving you.”
She held his eyes softly for a moment and her face smoothed.
His heart warmed, and he took a step closer.
Her fist pounded her thigh. “You were a cad.”
His head dropped, but he quickly raised it up, remembering to be manly.
She tore off the stem of a rifle weed, bent it, and in a flash fired it at him. “You said you’d propose as soon as you could build me a proper home.”
He had never seen her so angry and wondered if another time would be better. Maybe he was making everything worse by trying to get her back when she was so upset. He’d waited ten years for the curse to be lifted; he could wait another few days. On the other hand, he’d have more self-respect if he took the risk now.
His nervous cough sounded hollow. “All of that is true, Nimee dear, but you don’t yet know what stopped me.”
“What could you possibly tell me that would excuse your disappearance and broken promises?”
He cleared his throat once, twice, three times. “That evening ten years ago, as we sat in the gazebo making our plans, the witch you worked for overheard us, and she cursed me.”
“For the first year of the curse, I was paralyzed. Then a young girl named Dorothy, her puppy, and her two new friends found me, figured out a way to reverse the paralysis, and helped me get treatment for my heart condition. Now, after nine more years, the curse has finally lifted.”
Her eyes widened. Her mouth dropped open.
“Cured, I returned, to look for you, knowing I could offer you everything you wanted, but you were nowhere to be found.” Nick watched her twist her apron tie—she still seemed unmoved. “Can we please just sit in the gazebo?” He offered her his elbow.
She pursed her lips at him.
He reminded himself to stay calm. “I have something special to show you.” He took a few steps until he was next to the hickory tree and the box. She followed, dragging her feet.
He stopped and held up a finger, signaling he was listening. “What is that bluebird singing to us?” She listened with him.
While she was concentrating, he surreptitiously scooped up the box and put it in his satchel.
They rested on the bench in the gazebo with its two spots rubbed smooth from all the times the two of them had sat there in their teens. He hoped sitting there with him would bring back fond memories for her. Indeed, her face softened again.
He pulled a four-by-four-inch photograph of a shiny castle from his satchel.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“Since the last time I saw you, ten years ago, when we made our plans, my followers built this for me. I accepted it so we could live there.”
“Oh, Nick.” Her hands were shaking.
Encouraged, he plunged his hand back into his satchel and gripped the box. Should he take the final risk? If she rejected him now, his new heart would break.
He went down on one knee, making a cracking sound on the way down. When his knee met the floor, a sharp pebble dented him. He squeezed his eyes but quickly opened them to hide his pain.
She realized what he was doing and tried to pull him back up. Determined, he remained kneeling. He couldn’t stop now. He opened the tiny box with its sparkly ring. “Nimee, will you marry me?
She stood so quickly she scattered the rabbits, possums, and bluebirds who had gathered around them, awaiting her answer.
Nick stood and shook his head. “Have I not proved my devotion?
She ran a few yards into the forest. Nick lumbered after her and caught her elbow. “Please hear me. All this time, I was determined to make it possible for us to be together. I would do without sleep or food if I could just come back to you and give you the home you desire.”
A tear rolled down her cheek.
He pulled her close. “Love of My Life, I can now give you my entire self, made of tin, the very substance gifted for ten-year anniversaries. Will you marry me?
She covered her face with her hands and sobbed, her chest heaving against his chest. “I can’t.”
She raised her crumpled face. “I’m already married.”
He sat down on a nearby boulder, wrapped his arms around his chest, and blew the air out of his cheeks. Now was definitely a time to show her his strength, so he stood up tall.
He would cry later. And then he would work out some other way to be with her. . .
Nick Chopper, also known by many as The Tin Man from the Land of Oz, was indeed a determined man and he did eventually marry her—although in most unusual circumstances. His patience paid off. But that’s a story for another time.