Forty-two

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We're up and out of the hotel by six am, ready for a long twelve-hour drive back to Florida. I feel sick from the moment I wake up, knowing this is the last chance I have to back out, to choose my own freedom over the freedom of the people I love.

I can't help but wonder if it makes me a terrible person to even think it, or if it is enough that I don't follow through with such thoughts. I pray it's the latter.

The first few hours of the drive are quiet, with only the sound of the radio to break the silence. I want to say something, to have Reece reassure me in some way, but I'm too anxious, too filled with terror and uncertainty to think of something coherent.

Instead, I imagine myself back in the Marine World enclosure, wondering how it would feel like to be forced to perform for the guests again after knowing what it feels like to be somewhat free.

Would I be able to stomach it? Would I be able to smile and twirl like I'd spent the last year doing, or would I be driven to insanity like Crystal had been, forced to take out my frustrations on the people who had looked out for me the most?

And yet as much as I'd loved Jaqueline, as much as I find myself wishing Crystal hadn't done what she did, a part of me is grateful for what happened that night, because if Crystal hadn't killed her, I might still be the scared little Aura, too afraid to leave her cage.

"We should reach Orlando by around eight," Reece says after a while, his eyes fixed on the busy road ahead. It's still relatively early, but the sun is already warming up the window I'm leaning against, offering me an inkling of comfort. "Ben's arranged for us to crash somewhere tonight, and then as soon as the park opens tomorrow morning, we'll head to Marine World."

I nod before reaching into my bag and pulling out my compact mirror. "This Ben guy," I say, opening and closing the mirror in a way that offers me glimpses of my anxious reflection. "Do you trust him?"

It's hard for me to imagine Reece's life outside of me, outside of this world of running and fighting and avoiding the claws of Marine World. Who exactly is Reece when he's not trying to protect me? Who was Reece before I ever came along?

"Yeah," he says, giving me a quick glance before turning back to the road. "I do. I've been friends with him since we were kids. He was the only one there for me when–" he stops, and I notice his hands are gripping the steering wheel harder than usual, the base of his knuckles beginning to turn a garish white. "When my mom died," he finishes.

My expression softens as I study his profile. "Do you–what happened to her?"

There is a long silence. "She was a humanitarian," Reece says, his voice strangely neutral and void of emotion. "She was always going to war torn countries to supply aid to those who needed it. It's how my parents first met. My dad was in the military and had been stationed in the same country."

He stops for a moment, taking a deep breath as though needing to gather the courage to continue. "She promised him she'd stop going to these places once she had me, but she couldn't. She felt it her duty to protect people. To help them. Then one day, my dad got a call saying she'd been caught in an explosion."

I study his face, struggling to understand what exactly had happened to Reece's mother to end her life. I'd come across the word 'war' in my dictionary on several occasions, but sometimes it is difficult to picture a concept I have no experience of.

"But your mom was there to do good," I say, staring at Reece for some kind of explanation, some way for me to understand a world I seem to know nothing about.

"Yeah, well, that's the thing about war," Reece says, his bright eyes darkening, "it's always the innocent who suffer."

I swallow hard as things fall silent again, wondering if maybe Marine World had been telling the truth all along. Maybe the real world is dark and cruel, and I'd just been too naive to believe it.

I sleep for a few hours of the journey, soothed by the melodic sounds emitting from the radio, though they aren't soothing enough to keep my nightmares at bay. I wake up several times in a pool of my own sweat, dreading the moment Reece will turn to me and say we've finally made it.

We stop for gas at some point, stretching our legs in the warm summer heat before walking toward Bob's Breakfast for a snack for the road. Reece stands close to me once we get inside, his eyes skimming the people surrounding us as though he is afraid one might reach out and take me from him.

I skim the menu on the wall, this time able to recognize a few more words, like pancakes or eggs. I smile at such a small accomplishment, realizing just how far I've come since the diner we visited on our way out of Florida.

I'd been so afraid I would never pick things up quickly enough, or that I'd never survive in the real world, and now I know with a little perseverance, I can.

If I make it back out of Marine World, that is.

When we finally get to the counter, we order our food before being given a ticket, and then Reece takes my hand and leads me over to the side counter to wait for our meals. As soon as we have our food bags we're back on the road, nibbling on fries and slurping on chocolate milkshakes as the signs for Orlando begin to come into view.

A/N

Hi guys, sorry for the slow update. I've been superrr busy, but I hope you're still enjoying. 🧡

Raise your hand if you think things are about to get crazy 👀🙋🏽‍♀️

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