Sixteen

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I awake to the sunlight pouring in from the window, its rays casting the night room in a pale, shimmery yellow.

Every morning I pray for a thunderstorm, knowing it would force the trainers to cancel the Dining Experience, but judging from the cloudless sky, there will be no storm today. 

I sigh, reluctant to shift my gaze from the night room window. It's this window Crystal and I used to longingly peer out of, desperate to catch a glimpse of the world beyond the one we belong to. But there is nothing outside–just a patch of gray concrete and a tall, white wall we could never see behind.

I spend the morning in a world of my own, ignoring the other girls as we wait for the park to open and for the guests to pile in. I open and close my compact mirror repeatedly, catching glimpses of my reflection as my mind races with all of the things that could go wrong by trying to escape.

"Aura?"

I look up to see Jewel watching me from the ledge of the pool, her mouth pulled into a frown. "What's wrong? You seem tense."

I slam the compact shut, forcing myself to relax my features and give her an easy smile in return. "Nothing," I assure her, my heart already pattering against my chest, "I just didn't get much sleep last night."

It kills me to have to lie to her, but Reece was right. Telling the girls of my plan would only complicate things.

"If you're sure," she says in an easy voice, but there's an aura of mistrust to her words. She looks as if she wants to say something more, but the guests are already beginning to pour in and so she pushes herself away from the ledge and half-turns to face them, her smile going back up like a mask.

The rest of the day goes smoothly, with us each performing our routines perfectly, though the more time I spend observing Muriel Two, the more I want to leave her behind.

I'm not stupid enough to think she's the problem, but her long, blonde hair reminds me too much of Crystal, her name of Muriel, and every time I look at her, every time I hear her speak, it feels as if Marine World is taunting me.

The more I watch her, the more I find my mind racing with the kind of questions I'll never have answers to. What is it that keeps her subservient? What makes her want to submit when I want to rebel? Fear? The uncertainty of our future outside of these glass walls? Or the impossible–that perhaps she enjoys it here.

That she thinks of Marine World as home.

Later in the evening, once the park has closed, I use the treadmill as usual, running until I feel as if my legs might give way beneath me.

Whenever I think of the future, of what I'll find once I escape Marine World, my mind goes dark, as if thoughts and images escape me. I can't prepare myself for what's to come because I don't know what's to come, and that's what scares me the most. The uncertainty, the unknown that accompanies freedom. The terrifying notion that maybe my freedom will only make things worse.

Once I've showered and climbed into bed, I open up my dictionary, skimming through pages and pages of words I've yet to learn the meaning of. My fingers swiftly flick to the F section, my eyes landing on a word I often find myself lingering at.

Freedom.

"I doubt Marine World gave you that," says a familiar voice from the doorway, and I slowly look up to meet Reece's gaze.

There's a part of me that's still reluctant to trust him, that believes he's gathering intel to report back to Marine World before they get rid of me, and I hesitate over whether to tell him the truth.

He cocks an eyebrow slightly, as if able to read my mind. "You don't trust me, do you?"

"I'll trust you once you get me out of here," I say, but even that's a lie.

"You tried to kill me," Reece reminds me. "If anybody should have trust issues, it's me."

I simply nod at the rucksack slung across his shoulder. "What's in the bag?"

His eyes brighten for the first time now, and he closes the distance between us before reaching into the rucksack and pulling out a few of the items.

"A disguise. You and Muriel are going to want to change your appearance as much as possible on Saturday." He shows me a pair of scissors before placing them on the bed next to me. "Maybe cut some of your hair off so it's not so long."

I run my fingers through my waist-length hair as he fishes through his bag, pulling out two sets of Marine World employee outfits for Muriel and I to wear, if she makes it into my enclosure in time. Next, he pulls out a little black box, opening it up to reveal two clear circles with what looks like dark brown irises in the middle.

"These are contact lenses," Reece explains, looking up to meet my gaze. "I have a pair for Muriel, too. They're going to change your eye color to a more natural dark brown. I'll show you how to put them in another time."

I clutch my book between my fingers, trying to envision what freedom will feel like once I attain it, but it's a concept too foreign to me, as foreign as the world outside of this one.

"It was a present from Jaqueline," I say at last, closing the dictionary shut before glancing down at the cover. "I think she got tired of me asking her what things meant all the time, so one day, after the park closed, she gave it to me. Told me to keep it hidden."

I look up to see Reece watching me, his arms folded across his chest in a way that makes them look twice their size.

"You cared about her, didn't you?" He asks.

I look down at the book again before nodding. "She had a kindness I've never found in the others. A way of making me feel like–" I stop, unsure of how to put my feelings into words.

"Like what?" Reece presses, positioning himself next to me on the bed.

"I don't know. Like I mattered, I guess." I glance over at him now to see him watching me carefully, his eyes taking in my features with an expression I can't quite place. "I suppose I couldn't have, if she was willing to help keep me here."

I think back to Teresa as Reece continues to study me, my heart sinking when I realize she'd helped to keep me here, too.

A/N

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