I knew I was dreaming, yet I couldn't help but sense the reality my dream somehow held. My dreams had never been that vivid or realistic before.
I was watching myself standing in front of a full-length mirror, wearing a white, satin, strapless dress, the train flowing out behind me for at least three feet. My chocolate-brown hair was curled and clipped up in the back, the curls spilling down onto my shoulders. I had on a delicate pearl necklace and flawless makeup. Nikki was beside me in a yellow, strapless bridesmaid dress, naturally my maid of honor, straightening out my own dress.
I looked at my face in the mirror. I didn't look excited and happy like you'd expect a bride to be, but I wasn't sad either. It was almost a nervous, worried expression. A sense of familiarity seeped into my dream.
All of a sudden I was half way down the aisle, white roses in my hand, looking forward, but not at my soon to be husband. My steps seemed to take longer the closer I got to the front of the church.
And then all of a sudden, I was standing in front of the man I'd just married. The minister had said the vows, and we'd both repeated them; I'd already said, "I do."
"You may kiss your bride."
The words echoed, a hollow kind of sound.
And then I looked up into the face of my husband…

"No!" I sat up in my bed, practically screaming the word. My breath came fast, and I could feel the chilling sensation on my forehead from the perspiration being cooled by the circulating air from the ceiling fan.

I immediately hurried out of bed and into the shower, making sure the water was cool, hoping to wake myself up and wash away the nightmare.
After my shower, which definitely woke me up but only partially helped the nightmare, I took extra care in getting ready for my sure-to-be-interesting day. I decided to wear a black, v-neck shirt I hadn't taken out of my closet in months, and the new, gray skinny jeans I'd just bought; I took twice as long as usual putting on my makeup and straightened my hair twice.
My stomach growled; it was an angry sort of sound.

"Yeah, I don't blame you. I neglect you far too often." I took one last look at my reflection in the mirror, grabbed my purse and headed into the kitchen. Nikki was already there, fully dressed and waiting for me. I tossed my purse onto the couch and walked over to the fridge.

"You going to see Peter today?" I asked as I pulled out a carton of strawberries. I didn't know of any other reason why she'd be dressed already. I didn't know of any plans she had, and we usually just hung around the house in our pj's until we had to go somewhere.

"Actually, he's coming here. I invited him over yesterday after you and Nathan made your plans. Is that okay?" She didn't ask like she really thought she needed my permission, which she didn't; the apartment was just as much hers as it was mine.

"No, that's fine. Like you said, I have plans, so I won't be here to feel left out or bothered by it. What are you two gonna be doing?" Since they had started dating, my voice had started to take on less of a motherly tone, and more of a purely curious one; I'd been overly-protective of Nikki when her and Peter had first started dating. But I'd learned to trust him with her, even when they were alone.

"Just working on some songs; he said he's got some new ideas, and some ideas for finishing touches on some older ones. It'll be loads of fun."

"Awesomesauce."

It was quiet for a couple minutes while I got my fruit salad and Nikki got her coffee. We both sat down on our designated stools at the bar, and I quietly and slowly picked apart my salad, while Nikki sipped her coffee. I could feel her staring at me, and I knew she knew that something was bothering me. I decided to tell her instead of waiting for her to guess.

I sighed. "I had the dream again… except… it was sort of different this time."

She gave a small, understanding, sympathetic smile. "Different like… how?"

"Well, you know how usually it's been his face that I see?"

"Yeah."

"Well, this time… it wasn't. I don't know who it was. I didn't recognize the face. I mean, it looked familiar, but I don't know who it was. It was… scary, almost. It felt so real."

"So you mean it wasn't him?"

"Exactly. I mean, I suppose it's better than the others, but it was weird not knowing who it was."

"Well, on the bright side at least this time you can honestly say it was only a dream, and it didn't really happen."

"Yeah, I guess." I sighed as I ate the last of what had been a very small fruit salad, if it even qualified to bear the name "salad."

And mind-reader that she was, Nikki looked at me, looked into the empty bowl, and said, "Could you really have called that pitiful little thing a salad? You had two strawberries, a few grapes and a pineapple ring."

" I know. I didn't eat breakfast, but I don't want to be stuffed if we're going to have lunch."

"Are you going to have lunch?"

"I don't know, actually. He didn't say what we were doing. He just said he'd pick me up at noon. And it is…" I looked at the clock on our microwave. "Noon. Whadda ya know. I guess he's not late 'til twelve oh one, huh?"

"Hah, watch him show up right n-"

Nikki was interrupted oh-so-conveniently by someone knocking on our door. We both looked at each other, and Nikki started laughing as I went to answer the door.
I looked through the peep hole, which Nikki fondly called "the twilight zone," and finally saw the familiar face I'd been waiting for. I felt a little prick in the back of my mind, as if my sub-conscious was trying to tell me something that I should've known when I saw his face, but I pushed it further back into my sub-conscious for the time being.
I suddenly felt excited, and a faint glimmer of hope broke through the clouds that had been following me for the past 8 months. I opened the door, and couldn't help but laugh at what I saw.
Nathan was standing there, smiling brighter than the sun, dressed in plaid shorts and a Hollister shirt, black sunglasses perched atop his head, nestled in his shaggy blond hair, and his keys hanging on a lanyard that was tied to a belt loop on his shorts. He was panting like he'd just run a marathon, which I supposed he might have.

Nikki came and stood beside me. "What'd you do, run here?" she asked.

"Sort of," he replied, still breathless.

"Well, come and sit down for a minute," I offered, "you look tired, to grossly understate it."

He smiled widely, but "thanks," was all he said. He walked into our apartment and looked around, but didn't say anything.

Nikki looked at me and raised her eyebrows.

I just shrugged my shoulders. "Uhm, you can sit anywhere. The couch, a stool, the chair in the corner, the kitchen counter… doesn't really matter. You can sit on the floor if you want to."

Nathan laughed. "Thanks. The couch looks nice, but I don't think I'd be able to get up if I sat down on it. Could I just have some water, please?"

"Yeah, sure. Bottled or tap?"

"Tap is fine." He finally sat down on a stool at the bar and watched me as I got a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water from the sink.

"So what do you mean you 'sort of' ran here?"

He chugged the entire glass before answering. "I ran up here from downstairs."

Nikki looked at me, confused.

"Uhm, we have an elevator," I said, also confused.

"I know." He had a little grin on his face, but I had no idea why.

"So why did you run up the stairs instead of taking the elevator?"

"I wanted to make sure I was here by noon, and I didn't want to wait for the elevator. It was already eleven fifty-eight when I got to the lobby."

"Oh, well, you didn't have to run all that way just to get here on time." I really did feel bad about that.

"I know, but it wasn't that far."

Nikki raised her eyebrows. "We're on the eighth floor."

"But I wasn't late," he said while pointing at her with his index finger.

I rolled my eyes. "So, what are the plans exactly? Or are there any?"

"Actually, I did have a place in mind. I can't tell you where, though."

"Why?"

"Because then it wouldn't be a surprise."

"Oh, okay. I'll get my bag, I guess." I left Nikki and Nathan and went to my room and grabbed my purse. I stopped in front of my dresser and looked in the mirror. I couldn't help but sigh. At least I lost my freckles.
I rejoined Nikki and Nathan and was glad to see that they were getting along. I wasn't surprised, though. Making friends with guys was the one social talent she had that I somehow lacked.

"Ready to go?" Nathan asked as I approached.

I smiled. "Absolutely."

"Alright then, let's go!" he said as we headed for the door.
I turned and blew Nikki a kiss, and she waved back. I closed the door behind me and we walked down the hall.

"I do have one request," I said.

"Sure."

"Can we take the elevator? I have… issues, with stairs."
Nathan laughed as we reached the elevator and smiled as he pushed the "down" button. "I was planning on it." He was still smiling as we got into the elevator. "I'm curious, though. What kind of issues are we talking about, here?"

"I trip enough going up stairs; I try to avoid going down them as much as possible."

Nathan laughed, again. "I'll remember that." We were at the ground floor by then, and I waved to Pete, one of the people from our floor, as we walked out the side door into the parking lot where Nathan had parked.

"I can just carry you if we come to a set of stairs," he said, grinning.

"Are you sure you can lift me? If you were to drop me, I'd probably hurt you. And if I didn't, Nikki would. Trust me."

"Well, we can find out." Nathan scooped me up, one arm supporting my back, the other holding my legs, and spun me around.

"Okay, okay," I managed to say amid my laughter, "just put me down. Gently!"

He was smiling as he carried me to the passenger side of his car and then set me down on my feet and unlocked the door.

"I don't think lifting you will be a problem. You're probably the lightest person I've ever carried."

It was an encouraging thought, and I smiled to myself as I got into his car. I was surprised at how clean it was, and wondered if he always kept it like this, or if he'd cleaned it just for the occasion. I decided to risk being rude and just ask.

"Is your car always this clean?" I asked as he got in.

He laughed. "Nope. I clean it once a month. Yesterday just happened to be that day. Are you surprised?"

"Well, yeah. About the clean part, I mean. The once a month part, not so much." I smiled and Nathan laughed, and I was glad we were getting along so far.

"So," Nathan said as soon as he started the car, "what exactly is your job that keeps you so busy these days? I don't have any idea what you liked to do in high school, so I can't even imagine what you might have grown up to be. You could be a model for all I know." I looked over at him and he was grinning.

I couldn't help but laugh. Me? A model? Did he really think that, or was he making fun of me?

"No, no, no… I stick to the other side of the camera; I wouldn't want my face to break the lenses." I wasn't being serious, of course. There were pictures of me and my friends all over mine and Nikki's apartment, most of them of the two of us.

Nathan shook his head. "Not possible. But you're a photographer?"

"Yep."

"That's awesome! Have you done a lot of big assignments yet?"

"Not really. I just graduated not that long ago, and I haven't been on staff anywhere long enough to get the really good assignments, like an international internship, or covering parts of the Olympics, or even big political events. I'm still working on getting there."

"You can't be far though. I'm sure you're a great photographer. I'd love to see some of your work sometime."

I wasn't used to this much attention, but I was surprised at how natural it felt, as if people commented me like this all the time and were always this eager to see my work.

"Yeah, sure, if you want. I can show you some later when we get back, if you don't have anything planned for later."

"No, that sounds great. I don't have anything planned; I made sure my whole day was clear."

"Sweet. Nikki's boyfriend, Peter, is probably going to still be there when we get back, so you'll most likely meet him. You two would probably get along really well."

I smiled to myself as I imagined that. Then I looked over at Nathan, and he was grinning as if he was imagining it too.
I was starting to wonder if maybe I was dreaming. I was hanging out with this seemingly perfect guy, who was full of compliments and praise and an endless flow of kind words; I hadn't tripped over anything… or anyone; I hadn't said something stupid… yet. My hands were sitting in my lap, so I simply stretched my fingers out and pinched the inside of my wrist with my fingernails.
I was definitely awake.
I felt my heart starting to act on instinct, trying to shut down, trying to protect itself from getting hurt again, trying to keep holes shut that I'd worked so hard to close. It was an understandable habit that I'd created; no one could blame me for it, except the occasional self-centered jerks you can't help but run into in life.
But this time I worked against it, worked against the part of me that craved self-preservation and wholeness. If I let myself live so protected and cut off from opening up my heart to people, what would I eventually become? A miserly old spinster on my death bed, leaving all my belongings to my beloved labradoodle? I had always been known as the "sweet girl," the one you could count on for a smile and a little sunshine on a gloomy day.
I knew that had changed when I became such a pessimistic, skeptical, closed-hearted zombie. Nikki had helped me out when she noticed the changes, and was always encouraging me to open up a little. I'd become less pessimistic and zombie-like, but I couldn't help being skeptical, and until now, my heart hadn't opened a crack.
But now I decided and realized that shutting people out was hurting me more than it was anybody else, and I was only losing chances to be a friend.
Only a couple of seconds had passed while I had my revelation, yet I felt like an entirely new person. I wouldn't let myself shut Nathan, or anybody, out.
I'd definitely have to work on the skeptical part a little more, though. Trust went right along with that, and out of everything else I'd lost in my past, trust is probably what I lost the most of.

After we'd been driving for about fifteen minutes, Nathan pulled into a gas station in a very familiar part of town. Familiar, because this was the part of town where my former church, school and home were located, and now my current job. It was a very different part of town than the one my apartment complex had been built in, yet they were only fifteen minutes apart, about ten if you were lucky and there was no traffic.
I didn't see how this particular location could surprise me. Unless this was actually where he intended for us to be; in that case, I would be a little surprised. But, much to my relief, he was just pulling in to get gas. Why hadn't I thought of that in the first place? Good grief.

After his tank was filled, he poked his head inside the car and said with a grin, "I'm gonna get something to drink. What do you want?"

The way he asked the question, he gave me no option to decline his offer, and I guessed that he probably did it on purpose. Still, I had to try. "I'm fine, you don't have to get me anything."

He grinned at me like he knew I'd say something like that, which he probably did. Nikki had probably tipped him off to a lot of stuff about me in those 30 seconds that I was absent from their presence. I'd have to talk to her about that.

Nathan leaned further into the car and replied to my protest, looking straight into my eyes, as if he could see into their very depths and know all my secrets. "I know I don't have to, but I want to. If you don't tell me what you want, I'll have to guess and surprise you, and I suppose if you don't like it, I can offer it to that homeless man over there under the overpass." He pointed out my window and I looked with him, and just like he said, there sat a homeless man under the overpass.

He hadn't said it in a mean way, though that might've been some peoples' first impression, simply from what he said. But his tone had a trace of humor in it, which made me smile at what he'd said.
But I couldn't help but sigh. I was so used to people giving up after the first time I declined, and if they didn't, I wouldn't have much trouble convincing them. Nikki said it was because I always sounded so sincere, not just polite, like I honestly didn't want them to buy me anything.
And she was right, I didn't. I really was being sincere when I refused, because I didn't like it when people felt like they had to spend money on me. I had a feeling, though, that Nathan was also sincere, and serious in his claim to spend money on my behalf whether I liked it or not.

"Okay, fine. A Monster, I guess, the green kind. And thanks."

His smile was radiant; exactly like the one I'd seen when he was standing in my doorway, not 30 minutes earlier. He pulled his head back out of the car, shut his door and jogged up to the little store.
Was it always this easy to please him? Just by saying yes?
I tried to imagine what he might say or do if I said no to something he really wanted. But I couldn't. For one, I didn't know him well enough to know what he acted like when he didn't get his way, or if there was ever a time when he didn't get his way.
Secondly, I didn't know what he wanted. And not just from me, either. I didn't know anything about him or his life or what he did for work or what he enjoyed doing in his free time. This boy was a complete mystery to me.
But then… then I realized that he wasn't a boy anymore. Nathan was a man now, and even if I had known anything about him from high school, he might've changed even more than I had, though I wasn't sure if that was even possible.

I watched him through the windows of the little gas station as he collected our drinks and paid for them and the gas. I tried to remember anything about him that I might've picked up on all those years ago that might help me understand him better. But there was nothing. I'd never talked to him, only passed him in hallways and admired from afar. I knew nothing about him except what I'd seen on the outside, which wasn't much except for his physical qualities; maybe a kind, helpful deed here and there. But no details.

As Nathan walked out of the store and back towards the car, I watched him: the way he held the door open for an older gentleman; his light, fast-paced, happy stride, and his consistently good-humored facial expression; the way he held our drinks in the crook of his toned yet muscular arm, and how he went out of his way to help gather change up off the ground for the very pregnant woman who'd dropped it.

Everything about him was good, and it all seemed so natural like he didn't even have to try. I sighed as I sat there in my moment of sincere awe and admiration. I couldn't believe that this Greek god of all things perfect would want to spend his day with me.
Okay, so maybe Greek god was stretching it a little… the only other thing I could think of was… Christ-like (insert flashing light-bulb above head here).
Pshhh… Greek god was a definite understatement. He was still the same God-loving, caring guy I hadn't known in high school.
He finally made it back to the car and handed the drinks to me through the driver-side door before getting in.

"So," Nathan said as he started the car, "you ready?"