Thirty-four

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"Then why didn't you?" I ask, feeling as though I am about to be sick. "Why would you make me leave them behind?"

Reece is silent for an excruciating minute, a silence that forces my heart to pound harder.

"Because I'm selfish," he says, his voice so low and serious it sends a shiver down the nape of my neck. "Because I knew if I went to the police, my dad and I would be arrested, too. Probably thrown into prison for life."

He abruptly lets me go, running a hand down his face before looking into the distance. He takes a few moments to control himself before his eyes flitter back toward mine. "I'm the reason they're still stuck in Marine World."

I shake my head, desperately trying to hold back the tears. It seems guilt has been weighing heavily on Reece, too, and a part of me feels betrayed that he kept this from me. A bigger part doesn't blame him for choosing his freedom over Asia's and Jewel's.

I did the exact same thing.

"You're not the reason they're still stuck in Marine World," I say, the guilt I've been trying to suppress now fighting a winning battle inside of me. "I am."

"Aura–"

"You didn't tell me about the police because you wanted to save yourself," I interrupt. "The same reason I was so quick to leave the girls behind in the first place." I force myself to look at him, knowing I can't possibly hate him for doing the same thing I did. "When you told me there was nothing we could do for them I just accepted it, because deep down, I still wanted to escape even if they couldn't. I chose my own freedom over the people I love, and I've been regretting it ever since."

Reece looks away, his face crisscrossed with a mix of emotions–none of which I'm able to identify.

"It's not too late for me to turn myself in," he says at last. "Marine World won't be expecting it, not when they've got my dad in their grasp. Maybe going to the police will save him from Marine World, too."

Tears burn my eyes when I remember what Reece had told me about being prosecuted. I know I can't ask him to sacrifice his freedom for ours. "No," I say, in a voice so quiet it's as if I'd never spoken. "You don't deserve to be punished with the rest of them, Reece. We can come up with another way to get them out. We have to."

My trail of tears must ignite something within him, because a layer of hardness drops from his features and he closes the distance, pulling me in by the back of my head and pressing his body against mine.

We slot together as though each has been carved to fit the other, his heart beating fast against mine. From the way he is clutching me, I can tell he needs this as much as I do. It is starting to dawn on us both that no matter how long we run for or how far we get, Marine World will never stop hunting me.

As quickly as the moment arose, Reece relinquishes his grip on my waist, not speaking a word as he crosses the distance back to the car before climbing into the driver's seat. I stand frozen as he switches on the headlights, the cold night air filling the space his body used to be, leaving me frozen to the bone. Then I make my way back to my seat and the car jerks into action.

At one point in our journey, I glance over at Reece as he stares ahead, able to see how much our lack of sleep is catching up with him. His pale eyes are drowning in red, his cheeks rimmed with dark, purple circles. He might be the type to keep his suffering to himself but he can't hide his outward discomfort, or the toll running is taking on his body. He can't hide what helping me is doing to him.

My pursuit of freedom is sucking the life from him, forcing him to give up his own freedom and health in a bid to preserve mine, and the thought forces my stomach to churn with disgust.

If I wasn't so selfish, I would have done a better job in Marine World at convincing him I could escape alone, that I didn't need his help on the outside. But back then, self-preservation took precedence over all else, and Reece's life meant nothing in comparison to my own.

Now it is hard to see where his life ends and mine begins, and it is a weakness I know Marine World could one day use against me, just like they tried to do with Muriel. They'd promised me I could see her again if I made sure to behave, so I did everything they ever asked of me, because I didn't know back then what I know now.

Loving other people is a survivor's biggest mistake.

I pinch the narrow bridge of my nose, trying to subside my pounding headache, as well as the small voice telling me not to risk trying to get the others out. It is a voice I've come to resent long before now–a voice I'd never listen to–but the fact the thought has crossed my mind fills me with shame.

"Are you okay?" Reece asks.

"Just a headache," I say, closing my eyes. "You'd think they would have made us so that we don't feel pain."

It is something I've always pondered over, why Marine World, or the scientists, or whoever it was that made me, allowed us to feel the sting of sunburn or the sharpness of each other's nails. They were able to control what we looked like, how long we can hold our breath for or how much food we can fit in our stomachs, so why couldn't they stop us from hurting? From suffering?

"Pain is power," Reece replies, flexing his calloused hands around the steering wheel, "and if you can't feel pain, you can't be controlled."

I think back to the times Marine World used to deprive us of food, realizing he's right. If they couldn't make us suffer somehow, they couldn't make us do whatever they wanted.

"Why would you want to turn yourself in?" I ask at last, clasping my fingers together. "Why would you risk your freedom so we could have ours? You hardly know us."

There is such a long silence I begin to think he's not going to respond, but when I open my mouth to speak, he's already beating me to it. "Because it's the right thing to do," he says, refusing to look at me. "Because I'm as guilty as the rest of them."

A familiar flicker ignites in my stomach and I turn to face him, taking in the exhaustion lining his features. "You are nothing like them."

"I knew genetically engineered humans were being exploited and I did nothing to stop it," Reece reminds me, giving me a brief look before his eyes flicker back to the road. "Hardly the act of a hero."

"It doesn't matter how long it took you to help us," I reply, my eyes tracing the dark shadow gracing his jaw. "All that matters is that you did. You helped us when no one else would."

He ignores me, but I watch him clutch the steering wheel tighter, his knuckles turning a garish white. I know my words have affected him somewhat, that behind his controlled expression, he's wondering if what I'm saying could possibly be true.

"Why did you lie to me about Muriel not wanting to come?" He asks.

Now it is my turn to tense, her name bringing back all sorts of emotions I've been trying to suppress. "I was afraid you wouldn't want to help me anymore. She was attacking me, trying to stop me from leaving, and I–" I stop, fixing my gaze toward the window. "I'm sorry."

A long silence ensues as I sit tensely in my seat, waiting for Reece to tell me what an awful person I am, that he's been right about me being dangerous all along.

"No more lies," he says, glancing at me in a way that tells me he's referring to the both of us.

"No more lies," I repeat, taking in his dishevelled hair and red-rimmed eyes. "We should stop somewhere to sleep. You look exhausted."

"We will," he says, "but first we need a new car."

A/N
Hey guys, I just found out that somebody has stolen this book and uploaded it to another website for money. This makes me so sad and I'm a little scared to post any new chapters now. I just wanted to let you guys know what was happening and why there might not be another chapter for a while. ❤️

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