Twenty-eight

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I wake up screaming in the middle of the night, my body caught up in the duvet covers like the time I'd been caught in Marine World's net. Still cloaked in darkness, I struggle against the confines of the duvet, only to feel those same calloused hands pinning me down against the mattress.

My eyes shoot open, anticipating the painful point of the doctor's needle, but these hands restraining me don't belong to Marine World, they belong to Reece, who kneels over me with his fingers around my wrists, stopping me from flailing. I take a deep breath, then another as he stares down at me, his own muscles tense and glistening with sweat.

"You were having a nightmare," he says in a ragged voice, his blue eyes holding mine. "You nearly took my eye out."

"I'm sorry," I breathe as his hands leave my arms, my heart still threatening to break through my chest.

"It's all right." He pulls away slightly. "I meant to set up shop on the armchair but I fell asleep. What was the nightmare about?"

I take another breath, able to recall the nightmare vividly, but only because it wasn't really a nightmare–it was a memory. Before I can stop myself, I find myself telling Reece everything.

How Jackson had always been our favorite Marine World keeper, because he was kind, and understanding, and he looked at us as though he cared about us. How he favored Muriel, giving her extra treasures when he could, telling her she was special, and then how one night, he crept into our night enclosure as I slept in my bunk, blissfully unaware to the trauma Muriel was suffering above me at Jackson's hands.

When I woke up that same morning, Muriel was crouched in the corner of the night enclosure, her nightgown torn and her red eyes fixed on the wall opposite.

"Muriel?" I remember calling from the bottom bunk, too afraid to move toward her, to learn the truth, and yet she told me, anyway, fearful the same thing might happen to me if she didn't.

It was the same reason she'd remained silent as Jackson pinned her down, because she was afraid I'd wake up and she wanted to protect me from Marine World for that little bit longer. She broke down as she told me, and for once, it was my turn to comfort her, to cradle her in my arms and tell her everything would be all right, even if I wasn't so sure it would be.

At that point, I was still naïve about our role in Marine World. I still believed they cared about us, and so I told Muriel to tell a trainer what Jackson had done. The other trainers are on our side, I'd said. They'll help keep us safe from men like Jackson. But Muriel already knew what I didn't. She knew the trainers weren't there to protect us, and they'd never believe the word of a mermaid over a well-respected employee like Jackson.

The only thing the truth would do was make our lives worse, so it was better to pretend like nothing had happened. But as it turned out, Muriel wasn't so good at pretending.

Reece is silent after I finish, his jaw contracted in a way that makes me feel uneasy. I start to think maybe he is mad at me for not doing something to help Muriel, for just allowing such a monstrosity to happen.

Even now, after all of these months of trying to forget, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if only I'd woken up. Would Jackson have stopped, knowing that there were two witnesses to his crimes? Would I have been able to save her from herself?

Reece suddenly gets up from the bed, his eyes flashing with anger at the same time he kicks the chair across the room, causing me to recoil further into the covers.

"I ate lunch with that son of a bitch," he says, the muscles in his neck contracted.

He looks like a giant standing against the window. Half of his face is shrouded in darkness and the other half lit up by a pool of moonlight, revealing the distorted lines on his face. He turns to me, his eyes flitting over my cowering frame and slowly, the anger on his face disperses and he closes the distance between us.

"I'm sorry," he says, his voice sounding worn. "I didn't mean to scare you."

I nod and he extends his hand slightly, his fingers hovering between us as though afraid to reach out. I meet him halfway, clasping his fingers in my own before squeezing them tight.

"Did he ever hurt you?" Reece asks, his features barely visible now that his back is to the window, but from the slight quiver of his voice, I can tell he is afraid of what answer I might give.

I fix my gaze on our entwined fingers, trying to block out the images of Muriel. Knowing she never made it out of Marine World makes me feel as though I've failed her somehow, just like I know I've failed the others.

"No," I swallow. "Only Muriel."

Reece drags his other hand down his face and I can see he is working hard to control his emotions, to not get angry again in my presence. I close my eyes now, trying to stop the tears from falling.

"I could have saved her," I say. "If I'd just woken up, I could have–" I trail off when I feel Reece's warm hands go up to the sides of my face.

"You couldn't have done anything," he says, his breath feeling warm against my skin. "This isn't anyone's fault but his."

Nervously, I feel myself leaning forward slightly, closing the small space between us until my body is hovering before his. I close my eyes again, overcome with a need to be comforted, to be held and told everything will be okay.

"What's that flashing?" Reece asks before pulling away. 

I open my eyes to see the same red light flashing through the dark. Confused, I swivel my head over my shoulder, searching for the source but finding nothing.

"What?" I ask once I turn back to Reece, his expression causing anxiety to pool in my stomach.
"What is it?"

"It's coming from your neck," Reece says, his hand snaking up to the nape of my neck before a single finger brushes my skin.

I shiver at his touch, my own hand flying up to my neck. Sure enough, I feel whatever it is inside of me–a hard, raised lump just under the surface of my skin.

"It's a tracking device," Reece says, his voice barely audible, and even though I don't quite understand what is happening, I know from his haunted expression it must be something bad. "They know where we are."

A/N

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