The next morning, I enter the main enclosure feeling somewhat anxious as the day to escape looms ever closer.
Toward the other end of the enclosure, Muriel Two stares vacantly at the wall and, reluctantly, I swim toward her, determined to make more of an effort to bond with her in case she is moved into my enclosure.
"Hey M–" I stop mid-sentence, surprised to find a sadness currently lacing her expression. "Muriel, are you okay?"
She turns to face me fully before flashing a brilliant smile. "I'm fine."
I study her face again, wondering if I'd only imagined the pain. "If something is wrong you can tell me, you know. You don't have to pretend with us."
Her smile twitches again, and I think I see something flicker behind eyes, a slither of hesitation, of needing to trust but being too afraid to. The training from the facility will still be fresh in her mind, no doubt, and she'll be remembering how dangerous the outside world is, how her safety depends on the happiness of the guests.
It seems odd to me now that I'd never questioned these things. Why is the outside world so dangerous? Why must we perform for the benefit of the guests?
I just know that my fear of the outside world is what kept me quiet, kept me wanting to stay, and I can't quite remember the exact moment my desire for freedom was able to triumph my fear, but I know I need to help Muriel's do the same.
"I don't know what you mean," she says before swimming away, and I clench my jaw, about to swim after her when the first guests start to wander in.
When I finally return to my night enclosure for the evening, Reece comes in to check on me as always, but his face is lacking its usual hardness. He crosses the room toward me, his strides long and heavy, his eyes somehow darker.
I tense immediately. "What is it?" I ask, pulling back my duvet before getting to my feet. I stand before him, already trying to prepare myself for bad news. "If you're backing out now–" but I don't get a chance to tell him all of the awful things I'm going to do to him, because his next words keep my own frozen on the tip of my tongue.
"It's Crystal," he says, his voice shaking slightly. "I was just told that she's killed herself."
It feels like a punch to the gut, one that sucks every ounce of my breath from my lungs as I claw at his words, trying to piece them together in a way that makes sense.
I shake my head over and over, unable to form a coherent thought as I pace back and forth, acutely aware of Reece watching me from the door.
"No," I say finally, turning to face him with tears in my eyes, but I am adamant I won't let them fall.
My palm goes up to my mouth as I focus on the far wall, trying to understand what Reece is telling me and still not being able to. There is just no way what Reece is saying can be true. Crystal can't be gone, she can't be dead.
His voice is enough to force me to look at him, my eyes wide and childlike as they study his face. If I let my tears fall then what Reece is telling me is true, and it's not. It can't be.
Every memory of Crystal begins to race through my mind. Us cradling each other during the times the darkness had gotten too much, us reading to one another at night before bed. The stories we'd tell each other, the dreams we'd share, the way we'd wonder what the real world was like.
Reece closes the distance between us, his hand outstretched as though he wants to make some kind of gesture but is too afraid to touch me.
Marine World has struck me down once again. They have given me something, someone to cherish, and now they have taken her away, the same way they took Teresa and Muriel.
"If something has happened to her it's because they've done something," I growl, the realization settling in that Crystal is gone, but not how Reece is telling me. "They've gotten rid of her just like they got rid of Muriel. Just like they're planning to get rid of the rest of us."
"Keep your voice down," Reece warns, causing my chest to swirl with anger, and sadness, and every other emotion in between.
"Keep my voice down?" I repeat, the words like a slap to the face. "Keep my voice down?"
I see red. Scorching, blinding red that threatens to consume me. I step forward, shoving him hard in the chest. I want to hurt him as much as Marine World keeps hurting me, because maybe if I can, he'd understand why I can't just keep my voice down.
"Calm down," Reece says, grabbing my arms before yanking me toward him. "Somebody is going to hear you."
"I don't care!" I say, still struggling against his grip. "You did this to her! You all did this to her!"
I must have been hanging on by a thread, because news of Crystal's death unleashes something within me, a tidal wave of fury and exhaustion–one I can't seem to rein in.
"Stop," Reece says as I continue to hit him, needing to release these feelings inside, because if I don't, I am afraid the darkness is going to take me, too.
"Aura." His voice is pleading against my ear, his tone deep and soothing. It is enough to break through my rage, to get me to freeze in his embrace. "Please."
I fall quiet, fixing my gaze on his as the tears stain my face. I don't know when they decided to fall. I remember trying so hard to keep them in, to keep them safely stored away, but now they travel down the curves of my cheeks as if they've been there all along.
I don't know what makes me do it. Maybe it is the feel of his warm body against mine, or the familiarity of having somebody close to me. Maybe because in this moment I don't care who it is, I just need someone, something, to take the pain away, and so I wrap my arms around the circumference of his waist and rest my cheek on his chest. I close my eyes, allowing my tears to seep into the cotton of his uniform.
To my surprise, his arm snakes around my waist whilst the other goes to the back of my head, keeping me safely bundled to his chest. But it makes no difference. All I can think of is Crystal is gone.
Crystal is gone and she's never coming back.
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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...