You duck under the branch, careful not to let the oil spill from the lantern. Holding it a safe distance from your hair and dress, you continue your quiet path to the cherub statue.
He reaches it just before you do. When he sees you, he smiles and you feel like your corset tightens on its own. He looks so wonderful, standing by the lilacs with his black tailcoat unbuttoned and his white neckcloth tied crookedly. The unique green of your own attire sets off your eyes, and it helps you blend into the garden. Neither of you have changed since the party earlier that evening.
You hurry to meet him and smile ridiculously - you can't help yourself, and it seems he can't, either. You both know the risk you're taking by meeting him, and the risk he's taking by even being here, when his own group left the grounds hours ago. Yet neither of you can ever seem to keep away. He starts to speak, but you place your finger on his lips.
"Not too loud. The house isn't far from here. They'll hear us." You whisper it directly into his ear, straining to hear your own words. You'd be dead if the schoolmistress caught you with him.
Without a word, he takes your hand and leads you to the edges of the garden. Under the night sky, the two of you whisper and continue heading away from the main house. You leave the garden and walk through a field of weeds and wildflowers. Eventually, tied to a tree at the edge of the woods, you reach the horse he will ride back - a gentle mare with white and gray markings. You feed her the apple he brought while he continues to talk with you about anything and nothing.
Too soon your time is gone and you have to hurry to make it back. You turn to kiss him, wondering if you'll see him again, but you barely meet his wonderful brown eyes before waking to your dark and sparsely decorated bedroom.
It's 3:57 in the morning. You have an hour and three minutes before your phone alarm goes off. Rolling over, you refuse to think about the dream that apparently has come back again.
I pull myself out of bed and stumble into the bathroom to shower. Although I only woke up once during the night, I feel like I never slept at all. I try to hurry anyway.
My outfit's been laying out for a full week. It had to be perfect - not too dressy but still pretty and adult-looking. I pull on the sage scoop-neck tee and button the mini black sweater. Then I slide into my favorite jeans and black flats. The long key-pendant necklace, a graduation gift from my parents, finishes the look and I return to the bathroom to fix my long blond curls.
Little electric beeps and the smell of bacon come from the kitchen, which means Mom's busy making breakfast. She's standing in her robe and slippers when I come in. Dad must be in the shower still. My brother and sister are still sleeping - school doesn't start for another week. They probably won't be up until just before I leave.
Dad joins Mom and me, and we enjoy waffles and bacon. Mom wakes up my brother and sister while I brush my teeth and grab my purse. The clock on my gray Hyundai Accent reads 6:28 AM when I pull out of the driveway and roll down the window.
"Goodbye!" I wave at my sleepy-looking siblings and crying mother. She responds only with an odd, strangled cry, which I choose to block out. I can't drive and cry at the same time.
My dad attempts to break the mood with, "No frat boys, remember!"
I give a courtesy laugh and shake my head, rolling the window up as I head off.
I'm checked in and ready to go for the day by 3:29 that afternoon. All my luggage is sitting on the empty mattress in my dorm room beside me. My car is safely parked in the student parking area; Dad helped me register it nearly a month ago. It's Monday, but school doesn't actually start for a few more days. My parents wanted me to be one of the first to arrive, to make sure I had time to get settled in. I glance at the bed across the room, identical to mine, and wonder who my roommate will be.
I need to unpack, but that can wait until later - maybe even tomorrow. I can't hear the birds outside through my window, but I feel like they're calling for me to join them. The weather is beautiful, and I want to explore the campus. My cell phone says it's 3:32. It doesn't take long to grab my shoes, campus guidebook, and purse and head down the stairs.
According to the book, there's a coffee shop, a library, and several other places I want to check out. But I don't head to any of them. I just start walking, and without even meaning to I find myself entering the garden. I know from my original college research back in high school that this particular university was once a ladies' finishing school, known for its impressive garden. The original owners of the garden combined a traditional flower-bush garden and a fruit-tree orchard, creating a sort of haven in which the buildings around it are hidden from view. The university has done its best to keep the garden in the same condition as its finishing school days.
I wander through the trees and fountains, just enjoying the day for a moment. The place feels familiar, as if I'd been here and should remember. I almost laugh at the thought. It must be a sign that I chose the right school. It's 3:53 when I decide to make my way to the garden's exit, on the opposite side of the entrance, and head to the library.
I never make it to the library. Just out of sight from the garden's exit stands a weathered marble statue of a chubby angel, framed by lilac bushes. By this angel, under an apple tree, sits a young man reading a book. I breath in sharply - not quite a gasp, but still enough for him to look up. He squints at me, closes his book, and slowly stands. We stay this way for a moment.
Anyone who saw us would have found it funny - two new college kids staring at each other. But my mind takes control of my body and I can hardly breath, much less move. The warm day and birdsong are gone - even the man himself disappears from my view. All I can I see is a hand hovering by my own during a dance. All I can feel is a hot breath tickling my ear in the cold night air. All I can hear is the field of weeds outside the garden, rustling as I run back to bed before anyone can wake and notice my absence.
I blink, and the college boy stands before me again. The birds and warmth return, and I wonder if I imagined the strange moment. There are no fields anywhere near campus. I don't know this boy's name. I've never been in these gardens or on campus before, not even for a college visit. Anyone would think me crazy to be so affected by one rather average-looking college boy.
But I know without checking that the man's book must be a biography, because anything else would bore him. I know he has a way with animals and enjoys riding horses. I know he wears something black every day, just because he likes to. I know his only family is his grandmother, and she's going to love me when I finally meet her. And I know that, every Monday morning of my senior high school year, at exactly 3:57 AM, I wanted to kiss him.
I take a breath. He slides one step closer to me. I step forward as well, look directly into those amazing brown eyes, and kiss him.
He barely moves at all, just closes his eyes and tilts his head a little. His arms don't wrap around my back, but they don't push me away. I close my eyes. We stand there for only a few seconds, our arms hanging by our sides, nothing but our lips touching. Just after I pull away, I slide my cell phone out of my pocket.