"Are you sure this is what you want? It's not too late to back out."
I slid off my sunglasses and perched them on top of my head, simultaneously rolling my eyes. "Come on, Claire. I already got that talk from both my folks. I don't need you doing it too." I watched as she let out a dramatic sigh, one I recognized from years of close friendship. I bit back a grin, knowing it was driving her crazy that she couldn't talk me out of abandoning my old life for this one. I bumped her shoulder playfully with mine. "It'll be fun. Like old times."
"Yeah, except now your parents hate me for influencing you to drop everything and become an islander." She grumbled, lifting one of my duffel bags over her shoulder. "Car is this way." She said, leading the way off the docks and through the excited crowd.
"Would you stop?" I chided her, craning my neck to take in my new, breathtaking surroundings. Blue skies, a wide expanse of clear waters, white beaches, and so much green. How could anyone blame me for choosing this? "They know you had nothing to do with it. I made the choice to drop out months ago...you just offered me another option." The crowd thinned out as we made our way to a parking lot near the huge ship. A sleek, expensive looking SUV was glimmering in the sunlight. I let out a low whistle. "Nice ride. The company give you this?"
She shot me a look as she clicked a button on her keychain and the trunk lifted open. "Company car. Not mine, technically speaking."
"Sorta yours." I shot back with a grin. She rolled her eyes at me as we loaded the trunk, but I caught the tiny smile tugging at her lips. She was happy I'd decided to come. I knew it. But if she admitted it, she'd also be admitting she supported my decision to drop out of college. My life had always been a whirlwind of uncertainty and spontaneous decisions and Claire hated it. She was my opposite. Structured, organized, every little detail in place. Yet somehow, we were instant best friends. Yin and yang, or whatever the hell you wanna call it. We just clicked.
"The rest of your stuff will be dropped off later, I talked to the crew." Claire said as we wedged both my duffles into the back of the SUV and slammed the trunk shut. She turned to face me, hands on her hips. She looked every bit the business professional she was, in her tailored grey dress pants and crisp pink blouse, completed by a pair of black pumps. Me, on the other hand, in jeans, a t-shirt, and a battered pair of converse sneakers.
"You don't have to say it, but I know you're happy to see me." I smiled at her, and her lip twitched for a second before she finally relaxed and smiled back at me.
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. You wanna see your new place first, or do you want the tour?" She asked, rounding the back of the car towards the driver's side. I climbed in the passenger seat, the leather seats unbearably hot from the tropical sun.
"Let's see this place of mine, drop off my stuff, and then you can show me around." I decided, clicking my seatbelt into place and settling back into my seat.
"Sounds like a plan." Claire agreed, the engine roaring to life as we backed out of the parking space and she steered us onto what looked like one of the only main roads on the island. "Everything you'll need is pretty much located near the park's midway. You'll probably be eating most meals in the cafeteria since there aren't any actual grocery stores on the island. Or anything else for that matter. Unfortunately there's not really much to do here."
I looked at her in surprise. "This is a theme park filled with real, live dinosaurs. How is there nothing to do?"
She gave me an amused smile by turning her eyes back on the road. "Once you've been here a while, the excitement kinda wears off. Most of the attractions will keep you busy for a while, though."
"Hell yeah they will. I can't wait to see me a T-Rex." I slid my sunglasses back on and grinned.
"How did I know you'd be the most excited about that one?" She asked, shaking her head.
I shrugged and propped my feet up on the dash. Claire gave me a pointed look, but I ignored her. "You know me too well."
"True...although I had no idea you were planning on leaving school." She added, carefully as though she was worried I'd be offended by my own decision.
Dust flew from underneath the tires as sped down the dirt road, taking curves and turns without slowing down. I smiled inwardly before answering, thinking about how her driving hadn't changed much. "I was bored. Why waste all that money when I'm not sure what I even wanna do for a living? Better to figure it out this way."
"Yeah, but, I mean what are you gonna figure out tending bar in a Margaritaville?" She asked, her voice purely curious. Not condescending, like the way it sounded when my parents asked me the same question.
"I dunno yet. But anything can happen. I'm not worried about it, Claire, so you don't need to worry either." I assured her.
She let out another sigh. "I know, Rylan, you've always been fine."It got quiet for a moment as I stared out the window, excitement building in my stomach. Maybe to Claire this place lacked the thrill it had when she first arrived, but this was all new to me. Not just the dinosaur part, but the living on an island in a different country part. I couldn't put a name to the feeling, but something was telling me that this was supposed to happen. That for whatever reason, my life was going to change here.
"So what about you, huh? I know business is booming, but what else? Any attractive men I should know about?" I asked, smirking at her.
Claire narrowed her eyes and I knew what her answer would be before she even said anything. "You know I don't have time for dating. I worked my ass off to get to the top here, not about to throw it away for a man."
I laughed. "So they're all scared of you?"
She cracked a smile and shot me a proud look. "They call me the ice queen."
This only made me laugh more, which eventually got Claire laughing. When we finally caught our breaths, she glanced at me. "So what about Parker? You guys over then?"
I made a face at the sound of my ex-boyfriend's name. "We've been over for months, Claire. He was the one who couldn't seem to understand that. Thank god this island is so hard to get to, or I'd be worried he'd pull some Romeo and Juliette shit to try and woo me and convince me to get back together with him."
Claire snickered. "Yeah, he was pretty bad."
"Seriously." I groaned, agreeing with her. "A stage five clinger. Don't know how we made it three whole months."
"Me either...I've never seen you let a relationship go on for that long."
"And I could say the same about you." I smirked.
"Touche." Claire said with a big smile.
Just then, we swung onto a different, narrower dirt road. Dozens of mobile homes dotted the grass on either side, some surrounded by neat gardens and patio furniture and others with makeshift chairs from stumps and milk crates. She drove slowly down the road, pulling to a stop in front of a twinkie shaped mobile home, the color of chrome. There was nothing in front but a single set of wooden steps leading up to the door.
"Home sweet home?" I asked, shifting to look at Claire.
She nodded. "Yup, hope you like it.""It's perfect!"
She gave me a doubtful look and I laughed. "I'm being serious. This is great."
We got out of the car and gathered what belongings I had with me. Claire dropped a silver key into my hand and I led the way to the door. I unlocked and pushed it open, and was met with the smell of fresh paint. The walls were a dull white color, the carpet brown. There was a small kitchen area to my right and a living room furnished with a couch, a coffee table, and a small TV to the left. A small, narrow hallway led to the tiniest bathroom I'd ever seen and a decent sized bedroom with a bed and a dresser.
"Anything else you need, you can just order and it can be shipped here. I know it's not much right now, but I tried to make sure you had at least some stuff." Claire shrugged, dropping my bag near the couch.
I gave her an appreciative smile. "Thanks, you're the best."
"I know." She answered.
I moved into the kitchen and started opening and shutting the cupboards, happy to see most of them were filled with mugs, glasses and plates. Although considering that Claire had said grocery stores were few and far between, I doubted I'd be doing much cooking. Which was fine, considering I was terrible at it.
"So where do you stay? I take it you upgraded from the mobile home brigade?" I asked, leaning against the counter.
Claire shifted uncomfortably. "Well, they gave me an apartment on park premises when I got promoted. It's a part of the hotel."
"Okay, you don't have to act all embarrassed about it. That's amazing, Claire. You deserve it for all the shit you do to keep this place up and running. And anyways, we both know I'm more comfortable here. When I'm in the mood to feel like royalty I can come crash with you." I shrugged.
Claire smiled appreciatively. "I really did miss you, Ry. Your optimism is borderline annoying."
"I take that as a compliment." I said proudly.
"So, should we go take a look around elsewhere? I can introduce you to your manager at the restaurant and show the ropes of getting around. You'll be on your own for dinner, though. I have a business meeting with the heads of the marketing branch."
"Sounds good, I think I can manage on my own. I am a big girl now, you know." I smirked.
"Only some of the time." Claire remarked from over her shoulder as we made our way back outside to the SUV. I paused to survey my surroundings, shielding my eyes from the sun as I admired the bright blue water of a huge lake that was just a short walk away.
The road that lead through the employee housing curved towards it and I could make out an oddly shaped house in the distance. Part mobile home, part beach shack.
"Who the hell lives out there?" I asked curiously, gesturing down the road.
Claire followed my gaze and let out a snort, rolling her eyes. "Oh that's just Owen Grady's private bungalow."
"Bungalow?" I repeated and grinned at Claire over my shoulder. "Sounds pretty fancy."
"Yeah, well, it's not. There's nothing fancy about Owen."
"Yeah? You don't sound like a fan." I turned my back on the so-called bungalow and climbed back into the car which was still cool from the air conditioning.
"You'll understand if you ever meet him. He's good at what he does, I'll give him that. Otherwise, he's incredibly irritating."
"I feel like you've said that about me before..." I joked.
"Yeah, well, you rubbed off on me. He didn't." She started the car and we rolled back towards the main road.
"I guess I'll have to see for myself just what this irritating, bungalow dwelling Grady is like." I shrugged, a slight teasing tone to my voice.
Claire let out another snort of laughter, checking her hair in the rearview mirror as we flew towards the park. The excitement I'd been feeling in my stomach ever sense I stepped onto the ship that brought me here seemed to magnify by about a hundred. It felt like I was in a dream. As disappointed at the rest of the people in my life were about my decision, I'd never felt more sure.