The darkness has come for Crystal again.
The tell-tale signs have been present all morning–the swimming in circles around the enclosure, the vacant look that holds captive her delicate face. It's the same darkness that has come for us all at one time or another, and today it's Crystal's turn to fight, a fight I'm certain she'll win.
Still, a familiar anxiousness pools in my stomach as I turn to face the guests, acutely aware of Crystal hovering beside me, her smile somewhat lacklustre in comparison to usual.
"Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the Marine dining experience!" Jaqueline, our perky trainer, calls from her position on the water's ledge, and the crowds around us squeal in delight, their eyes skimming over every inch of our bodies as they wait in anticipation for the show.
The dining experience takes place in one of Marine World's eight enclosures, in a rock-lined, 1.4 million-gallon pool with an open-air café wrapped around one side and tiers of seats lining the other.
After giving the same old introduction, Jaqueline stands on the side-lines and treats the guests who come to gawk at us to a wondrous show, sending us spinning into the air with a few magical waves and flicks of her wrist. We follow each command perfectly, knowing we'll be rewarded for our hard work at the end of the performance with a treasure, one we're to use in front of the guests to enhance their viewing experience.
We each propel ourselves through the depths of the enclosure, giving those in the underground viewing tunnels the opportunity to spot us before we break the water's surface in a unified flip, causing the water to ricochet and ripple around us as the families in the dining area watch on with glee, their phones held out between their chubby fingers and their mouths bursting with food as they desperately try to snap us in action.
The four of us are about as different from one another as you can get, but then I suppose that's the point. Jaqueline once told us that Marine World wants the guests to be able to differentiate between us. They want the children to be able to pick their favorite mermaid and feel as if they're being represented. There were no mistakes when we were created, nothing left up to chance. We look exactly how they want us to look–how they made us to look.
We don't just look the part, we're forced to act the part if we want to eat, and with each trick Jaqueline makes us do, with each learned behavior we successfully complete, the audience cheers with approval, mesmerised by our soft flowing hair and our smooth flawless skin.
Each time we break through the water's surface, our heads held high, our hands above our heads as we twirl and grin, the crowds hold their breath in unison as they watch their fairy tales come alive before their very own eyes.
These people adore us. We give them a happiness they can't find in any other part of their lives. We give them a glimpse of their childhood, of the folklores and fairy tales beyond the mundane world they know to be true, and in turn they give us a purpose, their money a reason for us to exist.
At two pm, just before the show ends, Jaqueline flicks her wrist one last time, instructing us to hop onto the lower ledge of the pool and flip our tails to splash the guests in the front row, a command we all follow except for Crystal, who stays floating in the water with her thin arms folded, a look of defiance flashing across her aqua blue eyes.
I glance at her anxiously, watching as Jaqueline twists her hand again and again in a bid to get Crystal to follow the same order as the rest of us, but today Crystal's defiance is stronger than her desire to eat, and Jaqueline's forced to give up and turn to the crowds for her round of applause.
As the audience pile out and those in the café turn their attention back to their meals, the four of us line up in the water opposite Jaqueline and she kneels down next to the ledge of the pool, staring down at Crystal in particular as Crystal stares back.
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Marine WorldScience Fiction
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