Closing time for the park was always a surreal feeling, not matter how many times I experienced it. It felt like a ghost town once all the guests had trailed through the entrance, carrying sleeping children in their arms and trudging their feet back to the resort's hotel. Then the music went off, leaving us in a silence that always felt incredibly loud after the shouts and yells of excited guests had faded. I looked out at the empty midway from behind the bar, refilling the empty containers with tiny drink straws and white beverage napkins. We were usually the last place open, customers and other park employees often stopping in for one last drink before calling it a night.
"Hey, I just have to finish wiping down the tables. You almost done in here?" I glanced over my shoulder to see the one other closing employee, Emma, peeking her head from around the corner of the main dining room.
I nodded, letting out a sigh. "Yeah, just gotta finish restocking these real quick and then lock up the patio."
She looked like she had more to say but suddenly stopped, staring quizzically towards the patio door. I turned back around and my eyebrows shot up in surprise when I saw Owen Grady leaning against the doorframe, a six-pack of beer in one hand although I had no idea where he might have gotten it. I would've thought I would be used to him randomly showing up by now, but no.
He smiled at me from across the room and my pulse jumped. "You almost done yet?"
I could feel Emma's gaze flickering between the two of us, no doubt curious as hell. Well she could join the club on that one. "Yeah, just a few more minutes."
"Come out here when you're done. Something I wanna show you." Even from here I could see that mischievous glint in his eyes, but before I could ask what the hell he was talking about, he'd turned his back and disappeared. A habit of his I was slowly getting used to.
"What was that about?" Emma asked, the second he was gone.
I shook my head, turning around to look at her with a mystified expression. "I seriously wish I knew." Curiosity prickled over me like a static current, intermixed with a nervousness that was making my stomach flip flop like an olympic gymnast. My mind jumped back to the conversation we'd had a few nights ago, where he mentioned something about the park having things I'd never even seen yet.
"Well if you wanna go and see whatever he has to show you, I can finish up in here." She offered, shrugging her shoulders. "I've locked up plenty of times before."
I hesitated, chewing anxiously on my lower lip as I looked from her to the patio where Owen was waiting somewhere. "Are you sure?" I asked.
She laughed. "Yeah, it's fine. Go have fun. Fill me in with the details later." She gave me a knowing grin and I rolled my eyes, turning my back to her before she could see the red hue in my cheeks.
I rummaged around underneath the bar before grabbing my jacket. "I seriously doubt it's going to be an exciting story."
"I dunno...kinda sounds like the beginning of a romance novel. 'When gorgeous, mysterious raptor trainer Owen Grady showed up at Rylan's work one night, claiming he had something to show her, she never imagined it would change her life.' Best seller." Emma joked, before bursting into laughter.
I wadded up a napkin and threw it her, which she easily ducked. "Ha ha, you're hilarious!" I said sarcastically. "I hope he didn't hear any of that."
"I hope he did." She grinned before pushing herself off the wall and taking a few steps back into the dining room. "Have fun, I'll see you tomorrow!"
"Thank you, I owe you for closing up!" I called after her. She waved her hand, dismissing my thanks before turning back around and starting to wipe down the tables again.
I shrugged my old denim jacket on over my work shirt before slinging my purse over my shoulder and heading out the open doorway onto the patio. I slipped through the waist high iron gate and looked up and down the street before finally spotting him sitting on a bench with his six-pack resting next to him. I sucked in a deep breath before heading towards him.
"So what's this something you have to show me?" I asked when I finally reached him.
He smiled at me as he stood to his feet, stretching his arms over his head. I tried to ignore the tiny gap of tanned stomach that peeked through in between his shirt and jeans. Tried, being the key word there. He looked like he'd just come from work. His beige long sleeves shirt pushed up to the elbows, and jeans covered in a thin layer of dirt and dust. "Patience. Come on."
Beer tucked under his arm, he started leading the way down Main Street, though I had no idea where we were going. I fell into step with him, my mind buzzing with about a million questions, but none of them finding their way past my lips. Our footsteps seemed to echo loudly in the silence, not another soul in sight. I looked around curiously as we moved deeper into the park. I'd never strayed this far in after close. I looked up at him in bewilderment when we finally slowed to a stop in front of the giant pool of water where Mo lived. Owen pulled a keycard out of his back pocket, flashing it in front of the lock. The light flashed from red to green before was a distinct 'click', signaling it was unlocked. Owen gave me a smirk as he pushed the door open, obviously pleased with my surprised reaction.
"Is this allowed?" I asked in a hushed voice, as he held open the door for me. I stepped inside the quiet stadium, and looked up at the rows and rows of empty seats in awe. It reminded me of the time my dad had taken me to an empty baseball stadium he did maintenance for. I remembered standing on the pitcher's mound in the silence, trying to imagine what it would be like to have the stands filled with thousands of screaming fans. For some reason, it made me feel significantly small. I felt the same way now.
Owen snorted, walking past me and leading the way up the steps. "Who cares, we aren't doing anything wrong technically. I do this all the time."
"What? Sneak around and drink beer using your top-secret all access pass?" I joked. We were nearly at the top now and I was trying to disguise the fact that I was out of breath from the climb. Owen, on the other hand, seemed fine. He finally stopped climbing and stepped into a row, sliding into a seat when we were finally in the very middle.
"Something like that. Now would you shut up and just turn around and look at this."
I shot him a look and had a remark waiting on the tip of my tongue, but it vanished and disappeared from my mind completely when I turned and sat back on the bench next to him. "Holy shit." The words fell from my lips in hushed astonishment. I could feel that Owen was smiling at me, but I couldn't take my eyes off the sky in front of me to even spare him half a glance.
With the park's huge stadium lights turned off, the only light came from the glow of the lamps on the midway behind us and the tiny little lights that lit up the steps. The rest of the light came from the millions and millions of tiny stars spread out on the blanket of sky over us and the crescent moon hovering in between them. The light reflected off of the smooth, glassy surface of the water, like a giant mirror. I'd never seen anything like it and something about it stirred a feeling of wonder inside of me, like the way I'd felt in that baseball stadium magnified by thousand. Owen was quiet as the moment of awe settled over me, and I was wrapped in the impressiveness of the spectacular view.
"Wow." I finally uttered.
He chuckled, and it was the sound of a beer bottle opening that finally got me to tear my eyes away from the sky and look at him. He handed me a cold bottle. "I know. Pretty amazing, right?"
I nodded. "Yeah, pretty amazing." I took a sip of the cool beer before smiling at Owen. "Thanks for showing me."
He shrugged, like it was no big deal before tilting one of the brown bottles against his own lips. He swallowed before speaking again. "I come here sometimes when I need to just chill out. It helps me remember how lucky I am to be here." He gave me a small smile. "Didn't I tell you that you hadn't even seen the best parts yet?"
I felt myself returning his smile instantly. "Yeah, well you weren't wrong. Seriously, thanks."
"Thank me after you've seen everything. This is only the first stop on the Owen Grady all-exclusive tour." He propped his mud caked boots onto the bench in front of us.
"So there's more stuff like this?" I asked, gesturing towards the scene in front of us.
"Hell yeah, plenty."
I tilted my head slightly to one side as I studied him. "And you want to show me, of all people, this stuff?" I asked, the uncertainty in my voice extremely noticeable.
He perked an eyebrow at me, looking amused. "You said you wanted to live, have adventures and all that. By embarking all that information onto me, I now feel solely responsible for making sure that happens."
Before I could stuff my feelings away, I suddenly felt strangely touched. I couldn't say that anyone I'd ever met in my entire life, even the people that really, really knew me, had wanted to do anything like that for me.
Any time I had even tried to explain my urge to live a life where I'd done things no one else had, people would nod and agree but not really take me seriously. Like it was a whim that everyone felt, but eventually got over someday. People didn't seem to get that I wasn't willing to settle. Not when there was a world like this out there. And then there was Owen Grady, appearing in my life by chance and not knowing a damn thing about me, but somehow completely understanding me in a way even my own best friend didn't. I didn't know what to say so opted instead to take a long swig of my beer.
"So." He finally said, breaking the quiet that had settled between us. "What were you doing in school before you decided to make a break for it?"
I made a face. "Wasting time." He raised his eyebrows at me and I sighed before continuing. "Seriously, if you knew the amount of time I changed my major, you'd think I was insane. Journalism, education, business, communications. Nothing ever felt like the right fit."
"I know that feeling. How'd you think I ended up in the Navy? Didn't know what else to do." He grunted, taking a long sip from his beer bottle. "Nothing wrong with not having your shit figured out."
"How long did it take you to figure yours out?" I asked curiously.
He shot me a grin. "Who the hell said I had it figured out?"
"I dunno." I shrugged. "I mean, here you are, training the world's most vicious predators at the world's highest grossing theme park. You must be doing something right."
"I got lucky." He corrected me. "Lucky that I got this job out of nowhere and lucky that it's worked out...and lucky that I actually really like what I do. This is the first time in my entire life that it isn't hard to get up in the morning and go to work."
"Most people would kill for that." I murmured. I propped my feet up next to his, leaning forward and resting my forearms over my knees.
"Don't I know it." He agreed, nodding his head. "You still got time, though. You already took the first step didn't you? You weren't happy and you did something to change it. You're still young."
I snorted. "As opposed to you being really old or something?"
He rolled his eyes. "You get what I'm saying. And I just turned thirty-three, thank you very much. Not old yet."
"Are you sure? I figured once you hit thirty, it's all downhill from there." I teased him.
"Well, smartass, I guess I'll have to let you know." He shook his head, but was smiling. "How old are you anyways?"
"Twenty-five." I answered simply, taking another sip from my beer bottle.
"Nobody has their shit figured out at twenty-five."
"Yeah, well, everybody acts like you're supposed to. Everybody I know talks to me like the future is more important than the right now. Asking me crap like 'what's next, what're you gonna do after that, then what?'...." I trailed off before exhaling through puckered lips. I shook my head, a stray strand of hair escaping my ponytail. "I'm fine not having my shit together. I knew the second I stepped off that boat that being here felt right, and that makes it okay that I don't know what's next."
I made the mistake of glancing over at Owen then, and the intensity in his eyes sent a rush of warmth through me. I'd never felt like anybody had look at me that closely before, like they were seeing more than just what was on the surface. "Listen, the future is always gonna be there. That's what I've figured out. You're right, all the time people are concerned with what's happening in a week, a month, a year to the point where they miss what's happening right in front of them." He nodded his head towards the scenery in front of us. "I dunno what's gonna happen. I could be dead tomorrow, but I'm not gonna worry about it today."
"Well, that's cheerful." I joked, one half of my mouth turning upwards in a smirk. The intensity of the moment dulled, but the significance of it lingered.
He shot me an impish grin. "I'm just saying. The future's happening either way, but I'm more concerned about the now."
"You're like the only person I've ever met in my entire life that feels that way." I admitted to him, shaking my head. "I don't care what might happen. This feels more important. Me, sitting here in an empty stadium with someone I barely even know but somehow gets it, feels more important than what might happen to me a year from now."
"Why do you think I brought you here? You're the only person I've ever bothered showing this to because no one else would give a shit." He said quietly. "But you get it."
Inside, I felt myself swelling with happiness. My heart beating like a hummingbird's, and contentedness settling over me like a warm blanket. I smiled at him, wondering if my cheeks would eventually start to hurt from how much it was happening lately. "I'll cheers to that." I said.
Owen held his bottle towards me and I clinked mine against his before draining the last of the contents inside. "One more?" He asked. Before I could answer he was already uncapping two more and handing me one. I took it from him gladly, leaning backwards to rest my back against the bench behind me.
"I have another really important question for you." Owen said, shooting me a sideways look.
I blinked at him curiously. "Okay...."
"How do you feel...about Lord of the Rings?" He asked and the laughter immediately bubbled up inside me before spilling over. My head fell back as I laughed, for whatever reason finding the question funnier than anything else that had happened to me that day. Owen grinned at me, patiently waiting for me to finish. "It's a serious question!" He insisted.
"Fine. You mean the books or the movies?" I finally asked, still unable to wipe the smile from my face.
He thought about it for a second before answering. "Either."
I couldn't remember the last time I had stayed up so late talking to someone about anything and everything. Besides Claire, of course, who I didn't count since she was my best friend and had been for most of my life. I found it was easy to talk to him. Sure, he teased and joked but what surprised me the most was that he actually listened. He asked me questions, sometimes incredibly ridiculous ones (like who'd win in a fight, King Kong or Captain America) and was genuinely interested in my opinion. We talked so much we didn't even make it through the entire six-pack. There were still two left when a yawn I'd been trying to hold back finally escaped me.
"I think that's a signal that it's time to get outta here." He grinned.
I wanted to disagree, but I knew he was right. Especially because I had another long closing shift the next day and Owen probably had an early start in the morning. I forced myself to stand, stretching out my limbs. My ass felt numb from sitting on the hard bench for so long, my back sore. Owen grabbed the rest of the beers as I started making my way down the steps again. We left the stadium, the door swinging shut and locking behind us.
"You're gonna give me a ride, right?" I asked. "I mean since you kept me out so late and the monorail isn't running and all."
He pretended to look at me in surprise. "You mean you don't want to walk all the way there?"
I elbowed his side and he tried to dodge out of the way. "Fine, fine. I guess you can have a ride."
"I always knew you were a gentleman." I joked.
He laughed. "I've been called a lot of things, but that's never been one of them. Here, put these in your purse." He took out the last two bottles from the six-pack, stuffing the cardboard carrier into a trashcan as we walked past. I buried the two bottles into the bottom of my bag.
I didn't feel as nervous getting on the motorcycle behind him as I had the first time. I was a little annoyed, though, when I found out that being that close to him still made me blush like a pre-teen girl with a crush. Which I wasn't. Sure, Owen was funny, smart, and even sort of sweet in his own way...and of course there was no denying those rugged good looks. Or those blue eyes. The thought of having him as a friend, though, made me willing to risk the effects of his playful smile and subtle flirtatiousness. Anyways, I wasn't in any sort of position to jump into something with someone new. I wasn't even sure I wanted to for a very, very long time
I was more tired than I'd originally thought and turned my head, resting my cheek against the warmth of his back as we sped along the dirt road. I let my eyes close, enjoying the feeling of the wind rushing past us. When I opened them again, we were slowing down in front of my house. I staggered off the back, stretching my arms over my head as another yawn escaped me.
Owen gave me an amused look. "I thought you might've fallen asleep back there, the way you were all cuddled up on me."
I scowled at him, hoping it was dark enough for him to miss the burning in my cheeks. "You wish."
He let out a laugh and revved the bike's engine. "Get some sleep, newbie."
I nodded and gave him a sleepy wave before turning and heading into the house as he hurtled off towards his house just down the road. The noise of the engine eventually died away as I shuffled around my tiny home, getting ready for bed. I was suddenly exhausted when I finally fell onto the soft mattress, burying my face into the pillow. Even then, I wasn't too tired to smile like an idiot into the soft, cottony fabric.
As sleep began to press in on me, I couldn't help but think how it was so weird to not really know anything about a person, about their family, or where they came from, or anything, but feel like you know exactly who they were.