“We can’t stay like this forever.”
Ada blinked, jolted from her reverie. She gazed up into the man’s kind blue eyes as a small smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. The wind ruffled his chocolate-colored hair as he held the door of the tailor’s shop open for Ada to step through. Her cheeks grew warm and her heart skipped a beat.
Unaware of how long she’d kept him there, Ada smiled sheepishly as her cheeks grew warm. “I… suppose you’re right. Thank you.” She slipped through the doorway and ducked behind a shelf, watching the man through the glass door as he let it shut behind him.
Fanning herself with her hands in an attempt to fade the color in her cheeks, Ada pulled out her shopping list and tried to focus. At that moment, in the corner of her eye, the stranger outside stopped abruptly in his tracks.
Peering through the shelves, she watched him linger on the sidewalk, running his hand through his hair and down the back of his neck. The wind whipped through his white shirt, playfully threatening to pull it free from his brown trousers.
As if he’d made up his mind, he turned back to the door.
Ada quickly spun around as she heard the door open behind her. Painfully aware of the handsome stranger’s presence, she quickly selected what she needed and approached the counter, heels clicking loudly on the floor. She laid her chosen fabric out, trying desperately to ignore him and failing miserably.
“Twelve pounds fifteen, miss.”
“Right, of course,” Ada responded to the tailor as she pulled her pocketbook up to the counter. Her stomach sank as she rifled through it. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I’m afraid I haven’t brought enough. Can you hold onto these for me? I promise I’ll be back.”
Ada stepped backwards and came into contact with another pair of shoes. With a small gasp, she moved to the side as the stranger emerged from behind her and pulled his billfold from his pocket.
“Miss, please,” the man expressed kindly, “allow me.” He pressed the notes into the tailor’s palm and scooped up Ada’s purchases, ushering her out the door and into the sunlight.
“Thank you.” Ada timidly tucked her brown curls behind her ears as the pair started down the sidewalk. “Please let me repay you; I do have the money, I just…”
“Oh, think nothing of it.” The man shook his head dismissively, meeting her eyes. “I am grateful enough for the chance to be of assistance to you.” His eyes twinkled playfully.
Ada giggled and ducked her head, unsure of what to say.
The man adjusted his grip on her belongings. “We’re strangers at the moment, but I’d prefer not to stay that way. May I ask your name?”
“Oh, of course. Um, Ada. Ada Smith.”
“A lovely name, Miss Smith,” he grinned. “William Johnson, at your service.”
And there it was. The day Ada fell.
The memory replayed in her mind as if it happened yesterday instead of two years ago. The suave William had stolen her heart even before he paid her bill.
Ada twisted her damp handkerchief in her hands as they rested in her lap, the white fabric providing a stark contrast against her black dress. Tears welled up in her eyes against her wishes.
Oh, the changes those years had brought. It seemed unreal still, how different life was now.
Ada leaned back against the cold, wooden pew, and the dam broke. Tears flowed down her cheeks as the memories flooded in once more.
Music blared over the big, black radio as Ada sprawled her legs out before her on the blanket. Sunbeams streamed through the trees above and warmed the grass around her. Her yellow dress was spread around her on the checkered blanket, imitating the sunshine above.
William jogged up from the lake’s edge and collapsed on the blanket beside her. “It’s so hot,” he whined.
“I certainly don’t mind,” Ada retorted. “What did John say?”
William rolled over on his stomach and propped his head up in his hands. “Only that he’s a coward and refuses to participate.”
“I told you as much, with a suit like that on.” She nodded her head in the direction of their friends.
“Why even wear such a thing in the middle of July? In heat like this, he should be grateful for a jump in the lake.”
“Well, he should have at least known you’d suggest it,” Ada added playfully, reaching up and brushing William’s hair from his forehead.
“Exactly.” The sun reflected off of his blue eyes, matching the shining lake beside them. “How about you?” he teased, cocking his head coyly.
“Absolutely not. And,” she quickly inserted as she watched a lightbulb go off in his brain, “don’t even think of tossing me in.”
William pouted and blew his bangs up from his forehead. “In that case,” he grunted as he pushed himself up off the ground, “since I can’t persuade you, and I can’t throw you in…” He grabbed Ada’s hands and pulled her to her feet. “…there seems to be only one thing I can do with you.”
Ada gazed up into his eyes. “And what’s that?” she prodded teasingly.
William reached deep into his pocket and, descending to one knee before her, opened the small box to reveal a beautiful diamond ring.
Ada let out a gasp, and her hands flew to her mouth.
“My darling,” William prompted, “will you marry me?”
“Are you serious?” she breathed through her fingers.
William laughed. “I wouldn’t be down here if I wasn’t, my dear.”
Speechless, Ada absently fingered her thick, chestnut-colored curls.
“Ada, I can’t stay like this forever.” His mouth curved up into a grin despite his best efforts to hide it. “But I will if that’s what it takes for you to accept.”
“Yes,” Ada blurted out. “Of course, yes!”
William’s face lit up to rival the sun as he jumped to his feet and took her hand in his, slipping the jeweled band onto her finger. “And very soon,” he predicted, “I shall replace it with another.”
He gathered Ada in his arms and held her close. His heart beat in her ear as the world around them slowed down, and Ada closed her eyes. She didn’t need the sun’s warmth any longer, and he didn’t complain about the heat again.
Ada fiddled with the golden band encircling her finger. How she longed to live that moment once more, to retreat in time and experience that summer day all over again.
She wished for but one thing: to listen to that heartbeat a little longer.
Ada crossed her ankles beneath her and wiped her eyes dry, knowing they wouldn’t remain that way. Sunlight streamed through the stained-glass window above her, engulfing her in a heavenly glow and warming her tear-stained cheeks. The checkered blanket in her mind melted into the shadow of her black veil against the pew where it had been discarded.
Specks of dust revealed themselves in the sunbeam and wafted through the stagnant cathedral air, whisking Ada’s memory back to that day.
That horrible, horrible day.
Dust rose in clouds from the ground as the wind gusted through the station, sending a chill down Ada’s spine. She gazed up at the train window, waiting for his face to appear.
After a moment, William poked his head through the opening. “It’s quite crowded in here,” he commented. “It seems lots of us are headed the same way.”
“Do you have all your luggage?” Ada called up. “And everything you need?”
William rested his arms on the window ledge. “All except for one thing, darling.”
Ada pressed her lips together into a sad smile.
“I know, dear. You should probably step back; the train will be leaving soon…. Ada, what on earth?”
Ada grasped the windowsill and pulled herself up, balancing her feet delicately on an empty wooden crate someone had left behind. She hooked her elbows in the window and found herself level with William, who chuckled good-naturedly.
“You’re something else.” He rolled his eyes. “What if you fall?”
“I’ve already fallen,” Ada replied, relishing the look of surprise on his face. “About a year and a half ago, in fact.”
“You’re hilarious,” William retorted playfully. “You know you can’t stay like this forever.”
“I would that I could. I’d ride all the way to the camp this way if it provided another moment at your side.”
The train’s horn reverberated through the air, and steam billowed up into the sky. Ada’s heart began to pound. Tears sprang in her eyes and her throat seemed to close up.
“This stupid war,” she choked through her tears.
“I know, darling,” William whispered as he took her face in his hands, swiping back her tears with his thumbs. He furrowed his eyebrows assertively. “But we’ll win it. And I’ll be back before you know it.”
A sorrowful smile tugged at the corners of Ada’s mouth. “Promise?” Another tear escaped down her cheek.
William pressed his lips against her forehead. “I love you, my darling.” The familiar twinkle shone through his eyes. “We’re separated for now, but we won’t stay like this forever.”
The train began to move. Ada stepped backwards off the crate, her fingers lingering on the windowsill, as William leaned out the window to catch one last glimpse of his bride.
Ada waved until the train was out of sight.
The chiming of the church bells ceased. Five o’clock.
Ada had lost track of time, but she didn’t care. The waning sun cast its golden light across the horizon, striking the stained-glass windows and scattering a dazzling array of colors across the sanctuary. But the display was lost on Ada; tears clouded her vision as that dreadful day pushed itself to the forefront of her memory. Who could have guessed that the first and last words he’d ever speak to her would be so similar?
They were supposed to go everywhere together. Instead, they watched each other fade into the distance.
She was supposed to walk down the aisle of this church with him by her side. Instead, she sat in its pews alone.
He was supposed to die peacefully in his sleep of old age. Instead, he was sent to war, and a bullet stole his future out from under him.
Ada gripped her handkerchief tighter. Oh, the difference two years could make. How they flew by! The tailor shop, the picnic by the lake, the train station… these were the monuments of their journey, irreplaceable moments in time, inscribed indelibly in Ada’s memory.
But, now, that’s all they were.
Clinging to these, her most cherished possessions, Ada staggered to her feet for the first time in hours. She clutched her handkerchief and veil in her left hand, and, in her right, the crumpled telegram.
Oh, that telegram. The last memory they’d ever make together.
Ada stumbled into the aisle of the church and rubbed the tears from her eyes. She trailed the last remaining beam of light as it glimmered across the room and lighted upon the statue at the crown of the sanctuary, illuminating the face of Jesus Christ. His gentle gaze never wavered, ever keeping watch over His children in His house of worship. Ada dropped to her knees and lifted her eyes to meet His.
“Take good care of him,” she whispered. A solitary tear began its journey down her cheek. “I’ll be there someday.”
She spread the telegram out on her lap and smoothed the wrinkled page with her hands. Her eyes lingered on the name in the center of it: William Johnson.
“We’re separated for now,” Ada breathed as a small smile lifted the corners of her mouth.
“But we won’t stay like this forever.”