Thirty-five

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He jerks the car down a side road, pulling up to a small building with the words Jug's Bar in big, neon letters above the double doors.

"What do you mean by find a new car?" I ask uncertainly, swiveling to face Reece as he pulls the keys from the ignition.

He ignores me and climbs out of the car, leaving me sitting in the passenger seat with a feeling of unease in my chest. He scours the parking lot, slinking up to car doors and pulling the handles only to find they're locked shut. His lips move quickly through the dark and I know he is cursing in irritation, something he seems to do a lot whenever he is frustrated.

As Reece continues to prowl the parking lot, a pick-up truck pulls up not far from our own car and the old, bearded man in the driver's seat kills the engine before taking his keys and tucking them into the sun visor.

I slink out of the passenger seat as he makes his way toward the bar, sliding up to his truck and smiling when the door clicks open with an easy pull of the handle. In the distance, Reece continues to dart around through the dark, and I grab the keys before calling his name. He jerks his head up and I throw him the keys, causing him to raise his eyebrows in surprise.

We climb into the truck and I watch as the garish pink air freshener swings back and forth from the rear-view mirror, wondering where it is we're going to end up this time and whether or not we'll be safe once we get there.

What I want more than anything is to be able to sleep for a while, but it would feel wrong to do so when I know Reece can't and so I force myself to stay awake, instead focusing on the number of blue cars I see on the road as we drive.

I've counted almost two hundred by the time Reece pulls up to a large, circular driveway, where two men stand outside of a Hotel La Blue sign wearing crisp, black suits and strange, tall hats.

Reece pulls up beside them, clambering out of the driver's seat before offering the nearest man his newly acquired car keys. Confused, I follow suit, sidling up to Reece before questioningly nudging his shoulder with my own.

"Relax," Reece says as he leads us past the men and through to the lobby. "We'll get it back after our stay."

He doesn't wait for a response. He strides up to the front desk to talk to the efficient-looking blonde whilst my eyes roam the lobby, taking in its grandeur with a quiet fascination.

This place is nothing like the motel we first stayed in, but like a place I imagined existed only in fairy tales. The floor is tiled in a fine marble that feels slippery beneath my shoes, the walls a muted gold that seems to glisten under the light pouring in from the patio windows.

I slowly turn to take it all in, freezing when my eyes land on the aquarium stretching from one end of the back wall to the other. It's filled with hundreds of sea creatures, from sting rays and sharks to lobsters and fish, a hue of different colours against a backdrop of blue.

They used to be me.

I was the stingray behind the thick, shatter-proof glass. I was the sea creature caged for somebody's entertainment, and watching them swim up and down the length of their tank, I realize I am the only one here who understands how they feel–who knows what it is like to not have a voice.

I find myself heading toward it, watching as a stingray spreads its fins and effortlessly glides up the glass to meet me. He looks as though he is smiling with his naturally upturned mouth, but I can see the sadness behind those dark eyes, the fear.

It is the same look the girls had given me in the underwater viewing tunnel, and I conjure up images of them behind this very glass, trying to swim their way to freedom whilst I simply stand and watch.

"Aura?"

I jerk my head toward Reece, who is now peering down at me with a white envelope in his hand and his eyebrows drawn together. "I've called your name three times. Are you all right?"

I turn back to the aquarium, expecting to see the two of them hovering before me, but only the stingray stares back. "It's not right keeping them in tanks."

"It's an aquarium," Reece says with a nonchalant shrug before hoisting his bag over his shoulder. "A lot of hotels have them."

I whip around to face him, craning my neck to meet his impatient gaze. "You risked your life to get me out of Marine World because you knew what they were doing was wrong," I say. "How is this different, Reece?"

"It's not," Reece says, his jaw now clenched, "but there's nothing we can do right now. Come on, we're on the twelfth floor."

I narrow my eyes before turning back to the aquarium, vowing to myself that one day I will come back for them as well as Asia and Jewel, no matter how long it takes. I follow Reece across the lobby in silence, into a fancy elevator that shoots us up to the twelfth floor.

"Check in isn't supposed to be until three," Reece says as I study myself in the mirror opposite, wishing I didn't feel so out of place in this new world. "But I managed to persuade the receptionist to give us the room early."

Despite my irritation, I watch myself smile at this in the mirror, my eyes lighting up in a way I'm certain they never did whenever I would smile at the guests in Marine World. It is the same twinkle I'd often catch in Muriel's eyes whenever we'd talk about a book she particularly enjoyed. A twinkle so fleeting it's hard to recognize and even harder to fake, no matter how good at pretending we are.

"I'm sure you did," I say, glancing at his reflection in the mirror.

Both of our clothes are crumpled, our hair unruly messes, but my complexion remains as clear as a droplet of water, untainted by the symptoms of sleep deprivation that have laid their mark on Reece.

It is just another reminder that I am not human in the way Reece is. I am altered, born to be admired in the same way as those stingrays, and the thought forces me to turn my head in shame.

When the doors open, Reece and I make our way to room 1245, a room so big I can't help but stand in the arch of the doorway with eyes as wide as the children who used to watch me through the glass.

"This is way nicer than the motel," I say, taking in the two double beds and their crisp, white sheets. Yellow light streams through the balcony windows, reflecting off the pool outside and casting distinctive lines across Reece's tired face.

"More expensive, too," Reece replies, dropping his bag to the floor before switching on the kettle.

I collapse onto the nearest bed, my muscles relaxing as I sink into the folds of the covers. The last thing I remember is the screaming sound of the kettle.

A/N

I know I said I wouldn't post for a while, but I just really love this chapter and wanted to share it. Hope you enjoy. ❤️

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