Twelve

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The morning starts off warm and humid, with hints of a thunderstorm lingering in the thick, summer air. I carefully slip on my tail as usual, lowering myself into the pool before pausing at the gate.

Crystal is already hovering in the main enclosure, her skin almost glowing under the soft glare of sunlight. My body tingles with excitement as I sidle on up to her, about to throw my arms around her neck when she suddenly turns and beams.

It isn't Crystal. It is another mermaid with the same blonde hair and dark blue tail, but not Crystal. I already know what the arrival of this new mermaid means.

Crystal is not coming back.

"She's gone," I utter once Asia and Jewel arrive. "Crystal is gone."

Jewel's face hardens as she stares at the new mermaid, and I know it is because if she doesn't get angry, she'll cry, instead. "This is all Crystal's fault," she says, her green eyes gleaming furiously into mine. "How could you let her do this, Aura?"

"Let her?" I ask, but Asia is already putting her arms out to pacify us.

"You said we had to stick together," she tells me, forever playing the peacemaker between us. "Besides, I don't think Crystal knew what she was doing. It was the darkness controlling her. We all know what it feels like."

Jewel shakes her head again before pursing her lips. "Everything we worked for. Getting these stupid trainers to trust us, performing every single trick perfectly, and for what? So that they can just disregard us like we're nothing? Replace us with lookalikes?"

The three of us drag our gazes to the new mermaid, who stares back expectantly with a perfect, poised smile on her lips. "Hi," she says, blinking once, "I'm Muriel."

My stomach drops, every muscle in my body stiffening. How could they? How could they get rid of Muriel and then name this new mermaid the same thing? Didn't Muriel mean anything to them? Don't we?

Jewel suddenly lunges for the new Muriel, forcing me to grab a hold of her arms to keep her back. "It's not her fault," I growl against Jewel's ear, but even I can't stop myself from automatically hating this new mermaid. "It's not her fault," I mutter again, this time for my own benefit.

"Ah, you've met," says Jackson from the doorway, and instantly, I let go of Jewel as our heads swivel to face him, the three of us painting on our smiles.

"Aura, this is going to be your new enclosure mate," Jackson says. "For now, she'll stay in her own room but in a few days, we'll get her settled into yours."

I glance toward the new Muriel, hating her already–my only reason that she isn't one of us. She isn't Crystal.

I spend the rest of the day interacting with the guests, sticking to my routine and acting like the Aura they expect me to be, all the while watching my new enclosure mate through cautious, sideway glances.

She must have been living in the facility this whole time, waiting to take our place the moment we stepped out of line. Marine World has made it clear if we don't perform the way we are supposed to, we are simply discarded.

Muriel Two performs her routine perfectly, exactly how she was trained to in the facility, no doubt, and I wonder what it is she is thinking when she smiles and twirls, if she is really as happy as she's making out or if she's scared to be anything else.

Anything real.

Her presence takes me back to my own first night in the enclosure, roughly a year ago. After living alone in my complex for so long, it was terrifying being thrown into the night enclosure with three other girls I had never met.

I later learned they'd kept us all at the same facility, but in separate rooms until they were ready to move us. I was the second to last to arrive, and the others had already formed a sort of pecking order between the three of them, one I'd refused to adhere to.

Back then, the four of us were forced to share the one night enclosure, which was so small we could barely move without bumping into one another, leading to frequent aggression between the four of us.

Since we all knew the torment that awaited us each evening, we'd often resist entering the night enclosure for as long as we could, forcing the trainers to resort to coercing us inside with treasures and food.

Still, there wasn't much choice in the end. It wasn't a matter of if we were going to enter the night enclosure, it was when, and as usual, their will was much stronger than ours. If we choose not to enter we're deprived of food until we do, and though we can go longer than humans without eating, the hunger always got us in the end.

After a while, when the damage we inflicted on one another couldn't be hidden by makeup, the trainers decided to separate the four of us into two separate enclosures, with Muriel and I in one and Asia and Jewel in the other.

The four of us only ever came together during the daytime, but even then, with it just being Muriel and me, I still couldn't stand being confined. I didn't care that my only purpose was to make the guests happy. I didn't want to perform in exchange for Marine World's safety, and I hated that I didn't have a choice.

I'd known what was required of me when I woke up in my enclosure, but I still tried to lash out at the people who had taken my freedom–even if I didn't quite understand they'd taken it. This new girl hasn't fought. Hasn't suffered. She has done nothing since her arrival but swim around obliviously, and it makes me despise her all the more.

Anger rages inside of me as the day stretches on, desperate for some kind of release. The arrival of this new mermaid has sparked something dangerous within me, and as I smile and wave at the children pressed to the glass, I am filled with this overwhelming desire to hurt them.

To hurt them all.

A/N

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