Forty

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When I wake up there is no sign of Reece, but I don't panic like before. Instead, my eyes slowly flitter to the perfectly folded note on top of the pillow next to me.

I lazily reach across the bed and open it, staring down at the neatly scrawled letters against the thin, white paper. I have never seen Reece's handwriting before, but I'd expected it to be messy or rushed, not beautifully crafted spirals that remind me of Muriel.

She often used to leave messages for me to find on her favorite pages, and even after she disappeared I'd discover new ones, her delicate writing the only thing I had left to hold onto in her absence.

I swallow hard, pushing thoughts of Muriel from my head to focus on Reece's note.

We leave for Marine World tomorrow. Use the room key to buy a dress from downstairs (Emma's Boutique) and meet me at the bar at seven.
-R

I read the note over and over, a frenzy of emotions swirling within my stomach. If we are heading to Marine World tomorrow, it must mean the girls are still being kept there and we're finally going to get them out.

Both fear and excitement battle inside of me. The thought of going back to Marine World scares me more than anything, but knowing Asia and Jewel could soon be free gives me a semblance of hope, a reason to keep fighting–even when I feel like giving up.

But a dress? Why do I need a dress? My eyes curiously flicker to the room key on the table and once I'm showered and dressed, I take the card and head down to the lobby floor. I roam the various hallways until I find a quaint store on my right, the words Emma's Boutique scrawled across the store window.

Nervously, I walk toward the sleek, marble counter, where an old, dark-skinned woman in a light blue suit stands wearing her brightest smile. "Aura?"

"How did you know?" I ask.

She beams before taking my hand and leading me toward the dress racks on the far wall. "I've been expecting you," she says. "Your boyfriend called up this morning and told me you might need some help picking out a dress. He sure is a keeper."

I find myself blushing at the mention of boyfriend. It is a word I have come across multiple times when reading my dictionary, so much so that I'd memorized its meaning, wondering if there would ever come a day when I'd experience such a thing.

Growing up in the company of females has always made the thought of a male companion seem unnatural, but I realize Reece has become a sort of companion to me over the past few days, and what once felt strange now feels normal, as if I have never known anything else. It leaves me hopeful for the future, makes me think that maybe other things I have no knowledge of will one day feel familiar.

Maybe, someday, I'll feel just like everyone else.

The woman, whose name I learn is Dina, begins to pull things from the racks before ushering me into the dressing rooms. After trying on multiple outfits at Dina's request, I settle on a black dress that conforms to every curve, leaving me looking and feeling like someone I've never seen before. Not a mermaid, or a girl, or a genetically altered human, but another word I have come across so many times before.

A woman.

When it is time to pay, I hand her the card like Reece had instructed in his note and she pops the dress into a bag. I give her a grateful smile before making my way back up to the hotel room. I'd managed to kill two hours shopping, which means I still have another five to go before I'm supposed to meet Reece.

I begin to wonder what it is he could be doing right now. Perhaps buying more supplies for our mission to break out the others, or more outfits to help us blend in better amongst the other guests.

The thought of Marine World does something to my insides, makes me feel as if I am about to make the biggest mistake of my survival thus far. Going back to Marine World could result in me being captured again, in spending the rest of my life back behind a glass after a brief taste of freedom.

It is a risk I'm not certain I want to take.

A/N
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