Nine

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That night, Jaqueline plagues my dreams. Her smile, the way her auburn hair would catch in the light during the Marine experiences, the stories she'd tell us of her life outside of Marine World, even though it wasn't permitted.

We craved those stories, the girls and I. We craved the breadcrumbs she threw us of the world outside of our own. The small house she lived in with the wraparound porch, the pet dog she had that she loved more than anything. She was single, but a self-proclaimed romanticist. She craved the kind of love that consumed, but left the best parts still intact.

It was a love the girls and I had never understood, but the way she described it made me crave it all the same. She had a light-hearted, fun-loving nature I could never find in the other trainers, and a passion for her job that Marine World wanted to squash.

She'd been watching me once from the ledge of the pool, a look of awe on her face as I effortlessly took to the water. She'd often loved to watch me perform, and her eyes would light up as though she'd stumbled onto something magnificent.

That time, I remember I'd broken the surface at the same time a man in a suit walked in. He took one look at Jaqueline's expression, at the small smile that played on her lips, and frowned.

"Don't get attached," he'd said, looking at me in a way that made me wish he'd never look at me again. "There is nothing mystical or magical about them, Jaqueline. They're little more than brainless animals, here to serve a purpose. As are you."

It was watching Jaqueline's face fall that I realized there are two types of people at Marine World: those who see us as something incredible and those who don't see us as anything at all.

I toss and turn all night, unable to remove her face from my mind until eventually, her memory is placed with something else, another nightmare I know all too well.

I'm back inside of the water tank, staring through the glass at the doctors in white coats, the red timer blinking furiously on the wall behind them. I'm fighting against the instinct to breathe, my lungs feeling as if they're on fire whilst the doctors look on, refusing to put out the flames.

On the other side of the room is a similar tank, where Muriel stands in a thin, white nightgown, her blue eyes glowing through the water. She pounds on the glass at the same time I do, her eyes pleading for me to help get her out, but I can't.

I can't even help myself.

I wake up screaming, my fingers clenched tightly in my duvet cover as hands reach out and grab me through the dark. I scream again, certain they're coming to get rid of me, too, but when I open my eyes, Reece's blue ones are peering down at me.

"Are you all right?" He asks, pushing the damp tendrils of hair from my forehead.

I stare back at him, the truth stuck on the tip of my tongue. It feels as if I'm standing at the water's ledge, afraid to dive in, to reveal something that could lead to my demise should he decide I'm too dangerous.

Too human.

"I'm fine," I say, knowing it is far better to lie than risk telling him the truth. If the trainers ever find out how unhappy I am, they could try to feed me more pills or worse, get rid of me, too.

"Nightmare?" He asks, and reluctantly, I nod.
For a moment we are both still, looking at each other. I realize there's a vulnerability in his eyes that I hadn't seen before, and I can't help but wonder if he tries to hide his real emotions as hard as I try to hide mine.

"What was it about?" He asks at last, refusing to meet my gaze.

I look down at the duvet, something in my chest tightening. "The facility," I say before meeting his gaze. "The tests they run."

Reece remains silent, his eyes fixed on the wall ahead. I sit quietly beside him, desperate to know what it is he's thinking in this moment, but his eyes give nothing away. Eventually, he exhales slightly before looking up, his unreadable expression back up like a mask.

"You should get some sleep," he says finally, getting to his feet before heading towards the door. "I'll be outside."

With that, he walks out.

A/N

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