Fifteen

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My expression darkens, a wave of determination flooding my limbs. "If they can do it, so can I."

Reece shakes his head as though I'm being naive. "You were born in captivity, Aura. They weren't. They have papers and an idea of how the world works. You won't survive out there."

"I won't survive in here," I say, my voice hardening. "What about the guests? Do they know what we are? How we got here?"

Reece shakes his head again. "They know you're engineered, but they think you work here of your own free will like a regular employee. If the public ever found out the truth–" he stops to shift his gaze back to me. "It wouldn't just be the owners of this place who are prosecuted. It would be everyone who knew about it, too."

"Prosecuted," I repeat, my eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean?"

Reece sighs, running a hand through his disheveled, curly hair. "It doesn't matter. It's nothing compared to what Marine World will do to me when they find out I helped you."

"Why help me now, then?" I ask, unable to allow myself to let in the hope beginning to stir within my chest. If Reece could lose so much by helping to set me free, why is he willing to lose it now?

He shoots me an irritable look in return, indicating to his gun. "I can't exactly pretend anymore that you're happy here."

I don't trust a word he's saying, not for a minute, but I also know I don't exactly have any other options right now but to trust him. "If what you're saying is true, what's the plan?"

"Saturday," he says in a quiet voice, his chest rising and falling as heavily as my own. "I'll leave you my pass and tell you how to get out, but that's as far as I go, all right? Then you're on your own. If I know Marine World as well as I think I do, they won't alert anyone to the fact you're missing. A big investigation at the park could uncover the truth. They'll no doubt hire someone to come looking for you privately."

I swallow hard, the thought of Marine World sending people after me leaving my insides in knots. "How do I do it?" I ask, my mind still reeling at this new turn of events.

Is this really happening? Is Reece really going to help me escape this place once and for all? And what if Saturday is too late? Marine World could already be planning to replace us by then.

"I'll put my pass in the bedside drawer just before your break," Reece says, his eyebrows furrowed as he mentally forms a plan in his head. "You'll use it to leave here at three pm, at the start of your break. Your trainer won't come to check on you until four as usual, so that gives you an hour window to get out of the park before someone notices."

He nods to the night enclosure door behind him. "This door leads into an underground tunnel that employees use to get around. There's a door just outside of here that leads straight into the mermaid enclosure, but you mustn't use that one. Employees are only allowed to use it after closing. You'll have to go straight to the bottom of the tunnel, where there's another exit. Do you understand?"

I give him an unenthusiastic nod, his instructions sounding as though they're being given in a foreign language.

"There are cameras in the tunnel," Reece continues, "but I'll leave you a bag under the bathroom sink with some employee clothes and once you're changed, they'll assume you're a regular employee. There are two ways out of this park: ferry or monorail. You'll be getting the monorail to the exit and then you can walk straight out of the park like a guest."

"And then what?" I ask once he's finished, looking at him expectantly. I'm waiting for some guidance, some kind of clue as to how I'm going to survive out there in the real world if–when–I finally make it out of this one.

"Don't look at me like that," Reece says with a scowl. "I can't help you, all right? My father was the one who got me this job, and any further involvement on my part could get him in serious trouble as well. I can give you some money to hold you over, order a car to pick you up and take you to a motel or something, but that's it. You'd have to try and find a job that pays cash in hand since you don't have any papers. Lots of little diners still do, so it shouldn't be too hard."

I just stare up at him, not being able to understand half of what it is he's telling me I need to do, and it slowly begins to dawn on me that escaping is the easy part.

It is living that is going to be difficult.

"Fine," I say anyway, knowing I don't have much choice in the matter. Either way I have to get out of this place, the rest I can figure out later.

"Three days, Aura," Reece says with a meaningful look. "Just lay low until then, all right? Do what you're supposed to."

I nod, hating that my freedom now depends on him. "We have to get the others out, too. Muriel might have already moved into my enclosure by then. I suppose I'll have to bring her with us," I say begrudgingly.

"There's no way," Reece says. "They're being observed as carefully as you are, but their guard isn't like me. You only have an hour to get out and their lunch break isn't until four, there's no way you can hang around waiting for them."

And just like that, my dreams of escaping this place shatter, because how can I go and claim freedom for myself knowing the others will never get that chance?

"Then that's it," I say, wishing my eyes didn't have to burn with tears. It seems as if every time I take a step forward I'm pushed back to where I started. "I'm not leaving them behind."

Reece clenches his jaw as if every word that comes out of my mouth only agitates him further. "Look," he says, his face lined with agitation, "we can either save two of you or we can save none of you. Once you and Muriel are safe, I can think of a way to get the others out, but you staying here isn't going to save them. And you can't tell them what you're planning, either. It will only complicate things."

Indecision wars inside of me. Everything he's saying makes perfect sense, but I can't settle the sense of betrayal I feel at having to leave them behind. After always vowing to stick together, can I really just take my shot at freedom not knowing if or when they'll ever get theirs?

"Promise me," I say, hating how vulnerable I feel as I stare up at Reece, searching his eyes for reassurance. "Promise me we'll find a way to get them out."

Reece's eyes soften slightly, sending a glimmer of hope to the pit of my stomach. "I promise."

A/N

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