Twenty-two

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As the other guests press their noses to the glass, I do the same, spotting Asia and Jewel swimming up and down the enclosure, looking far happier from this side of the glass than when I'd been in there with them.

I press Jewel's interactive button, flinching when that same enthralling voice echoes through the underground tunnel.

"This is Jewel," the voice rings out, and at hearing her name, Jewel spins and swims toward her interactive point, pushing her long, red hair back before shooting me a familiar smile. Then she looks at me, really looks at me, and for the first time in Marine World history, her smile falters.

"The best performing mermaid we have. For more information on our one-on-one experiences, be sure to stop by the gift shop situated outside of the Aquarium and speak to a member of staff. Have a Mertastic day!"

Jewel remains frozen on the other side of the glass. I press my hand against it, my eyes threatening to fill with tears as she continues to stare at me.

"I love you," I mouth, grateful I'm at least able to say goodbye, but I can see from Jewel's expression this was a mistake. Showing her I'm free whilst she is trapped inside of there–no matter how badly I wanted to see her again–was a mistake.

She doesn't mouth it back. She doesn't say anything. She just stares at me as if I am a stranger–no, a traitor, and deep down, I know that is exactly what I am.

Slowly, Asia turns to Jewel, and upon realizing something is wrong, swims over before spotting me on the other side of the glass. Her eyebrows furrow just for a second before she opens her mouth in a perfect 'O 'and puts her hand over mine.

How? I know she wants to ask. How did you get out? But Jewel is already grabbing Asia and pulling her away, forcing Asia's hand to slide down the glass and away from my own.

Swallowing hard, I dart back out of the tunnel and through crowds of guests, looking down at my map of the park before following the directions to the nearest restroom.

I walk fast, but not fast enough to draw attention to myself, paranoid that somebody might recognize me for what I really am. I'm so close to freedom that I can already feel the hope beginning to rise but I push it down, knowing I'm not free until I've made it out of those gates and over to Reece.

"Excuse me, ma'am."

I freeze, my fingers already clasping the scissors in my pocket.

"You work here, don't you?" The plump woman asks. Her three noisy kids dance around her legs as I look down at my uniform in a daze. "Can you tell me how to get to Merland?"

"Sure," I say in a tight, controlled voice, pointing in the direction I'd just come from. "It's just straight down there."

She gives me a forced smile, nothing like the kind of smiles the guests would give me as I performed and twirled for them. "Thanks."

I hurriedly make my way toward the restroom, disappearing around the side of the building where Reece agreed to leave a bag of clothes for me in the foliage. Sure enough, the small, black backpack is there and I fish it out, heading back around to the restroom.

As soon as I am at the front of the line, I'm darting into the first available cubicle and changing into what Reece calls my guest clothes–black shorts and a gray t-shirt with trainers and a summer cap. The trainers are a little too big for my feet, forcing me to shuffle as I make my way out of the restroom.

Anxiously, I head toward the exit, forcing myself not to run as fast as I can over to the gates. Instead, I walk at a normal pace, trying to appear calm as I approach the black rotatable bars that line the exit.

I slow down a fraction, watching as the woman in front of me places her hand on one of the bars and pushes it forward before slipping through. I copy her movement, slipping through the gate with ease.

With my heart steadily pounding, I make my way toward the monorail, taking a seat in the station before waiting for the next train to arrive. Time seems to crawl by, thoughts of Muriel Two trying to break through the wall I've built up in my mind. I take a deep breath when the monorail finally arrives, quickly slipping into a seat by the window before keeping my gaze outward.

The monorail moves forward, jerking me along. Once out of the station, I'm able to catch glimpses of the sparkling blue lake in the distance, engulfing most of the horizon. I sit tensely, my shallow breathing drowned out by the sound of the automated intercom thanking us for visiting.

As if I had a choice.

Red and white buildings sit on an island in the distance, their roofs seemingly able to touch the clear blue sky. The buildings get closer as the monorail picks up speed, the words Merland Hotel coming into view. The monorail shoots straight through the lobby, offering flashes of blue and yellow decor before I'm back on the other side, surrounded by palm trees and roads once again.

Time hangs in the balance, every minute more excruciating than the last. In four minutes' time, my trainer will notice I am not in my night enclosure and I can't still be in this park when she does.

As soon as the monorail stops, I hop off onto the platform and follow the guests down the ramp toward the parking lot. I walk swiftly through each row until I get to C, where Reece is leaning on the door of a car in the distance, his arms tightly folded as he watches me approach him.

I close the distance between us, resisting the urge to throw my arms around his neck. The air feels thinner somehow, easier to inhale, and Reece gently takes me by my arm and guides me toward the passenger seat.

"Where's Muriel?" He asks.

I freeze. Telling Reece what I've done–what I'm capable of–might just jeopardize everything. "She wouldn't come."

He nods, pulling open the passenger door and allowing me to slip inside. He climbs into the driver's seat and for a moment, we just look at each other before he reverses the car, driving right out of Marine World's gates and straight into freedom.

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