The next morning, I slip out of my nightgown and wiggle into my bathing suit, clasping the strap behind my neck before pulling on my tail.
Once on, I clip it at my hips the way Jackson had taught me before shimmying myself into the water. At eight AM, Valerie comes to check on me as usual before unlocking the gate to the main enclosure.
Through the gate, Jewel and Asia already hovering under the surface, waiting for the park to open up to the guests. I watch them for a moment, taking in the way Asia's black hair fans around her face as she floats, her arms spread wide like a bird about to take flight.
As though she can feel my gaze, her dark eyes flicker open, her lips parting slightly as she points towards the surface. I nod once, swimming through the gate and pushing myself upward to where the pair are already waiting for me.
"Are you both all right?" I ask, taking Asia's hand in mine at the same time my eyes meet Jewel's.
"What's going on?" Jewel asks, her usual poised expression now replaced with uncertainty. "Where's Crystal? And why is there a man guarding our night room?"
"You don't know?" I ask, surprised when they both shake their heads. I take a deep breath, barely able to get the words to leave my lips, because even though it's been days now, I still can't bring myself to quite believe what happened. "Crystal killed Jaqueline. Drowned her. We're all being watched very carefully."
"Why would she do that?" Asia asks, her eyes beginning to wet with tears.
"Don't cry," I warn, swiftly wiping away a lone tear with the pad of my thumb. Asia bites down on her bottom lip to stop the rest from following suit. "I don't know. I guess she snapped."
"Where is she now?" Jewel asks, her voice demanding.
I used to think Jewel cold once upon a time, but I know now her lack of affection is only a coping mechanism. A way to survive.
"Is she–" she stops, locking her green eyes on mine, "is she gone?"
She doesn't need to ask the rest. Is she gone like Muriel?
"She's still here," I say, scanning the enclosure walls as though she might suddenly materialize, "locked away somewhere."
I study Jewel's face, finding what I'm certain is a glimmer of guilt behind those almond-shaped eyes. "What is it, Jewel?"
Jewel swallows hard, glancing again at the enclosure door to check nobody's coming. "It's happening again."
"What is?" I ask, resisting the urge to shake her. The park will be opening any minute and when it does, the opportunity for the three of us to talk will be gone.
Jewel slowly turns to face us, her eyes heavy with guilt. "Muriel told me something a long time ago. Something she made me promise I'd never tell either of you."
"What?" Asia asks when I don't speak, but I turn to Jewel for the answer, finding her eyes already on mine.
"There were other mermaids before us," Jewel says. "Star and Summer. They were Muriel's enclosure mates before us. She loved them as deeply as she loved us, Aura, and Marine World got rid of them without so much as an explanation. Fed Muriel a bunch of pills to numb her pain and that was it."
Asia lets out a noise, her dark eyes flickering between the two of us as my own narrow at Jewel. The anger is already swirling in my stomach, but not because Jewel never told me the truth.
Because Muriel didn't.
"We're not the first," I say, feeling as if I'm back in that water tank: powerless and unable to breathe.
"And we won't be the last," Jewel replies, her expression softening. "I'm sorry, Aura. I should have told you both earlier, but Muriel made me promise not to. She didn't want you to worry and neither did I, but now I fear it's going to happen again after what Crystal's done. They're going to get rid of us, replace us with new girls."
"Where do we go when they don't want us anymore?" Asia asks, looking between the two of us for an answer neither of us has. "What happens to us?"
"Look," I say fiercely, taking both of their hands in mine before squeezing them tight. "We're going to get out of here. Do you understand? We're going to be free."
It's not the first time I've spoken of one day escaping Marine World, but it's the first time I've truly been serious about it. We've been too afraid of what we'd find if we were to ever leave this world for the other, but if what Jewel is saying is true, the girls and I might not have much time left after what Crystal's done.
"You've heard what the real world is like," Asia says, her eyes shining with uncertainty. "How do we know we'll be better off free?"
"We don't," I say, my stomach already twisting into knots, "but I'm willing to take that risk. Are you?"
The two of them nod, and when the guests begin to fill the tunnels, I give them one last look. "Just keep flushing the pills," I say through my smile. "I have a plan to get us out."
I slip into auto-pilot for the remainder of the day, trying to form some sort of an escape plan that doesn't end up with the three of us dead.
My best option is to try at night, when most of the park will be empty. Reece will come in to check on me as usual and I'll take that gun right off his belt, using it against him before grabbing his key card.
Then somehow, I'll navigate the rest of this park, searching for the other night enclosure and taking out their guard before setting them free.
Even as I think it, I know it sounds farfetched, but I clutch to the idea anyway, knowing it's the only thing stopping me from falling apart.
At one PM, we perform the dining experience as usual, except it feels strange performing the routine without a fourth mermaid, without Crystal right there alongside us.
It's as if a part of me is missing, and it takes all my strength to concentrate on the routine and not her, to not let my internal inflictions cause me to miss a beat.
Afterwards, I swim up to the viewing tunnel, studying the little faces pressed up against the enclosure glass. I take in the way they grin back at me, and for the first time, any guilt I've ever felt about leaving Marine World escapes me.
I can't believe these are miserable people who only find happiness in our world. I can't believe the world out there is any worse than my world in here, and even if it is, it doesn't matter. Even if the world out there is just as bleak, just as miserable, we still have to leave this place.
We still have to try.
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Marine WorldScience Fiction
A featured story|Wattys 2018 Winner| Seventeen-year-old Aura and the three other genetically modified humans in captivity have been planning an escape from Marine World for months, but when one of them going off the rails leaves the rest under scrut...