Tears stung Jaelyn’s eyes as she stared out over the skyline of the city. Her insides felt like rocks, clogging up her organs so she couldn’t move. So she couldn’t breathe.
Everything she worked for months was starting to vanish before her eyes. All because she couldn’t lie to her mother.
She hid her face in her hands, letting out a sob. When she needed to be strong, she wasn’t. She couldn’t tell her mother that she wasn’t hiding something from her. Jaelyn was disappointed in herself for the fact that she invited her mother to come with her to the Donor’s Gala, and that there wasn’t a chance in the world that anyone would talk to Jaelyn with an ounce of respect again.
Jaelyn looked up from her hands and saw the lights ahead of her wash out in a sea of her tears. All before her were blobs of buildings and lights. She didn’t want to go back downstairs, and she didn’t want to go back home.
“Jaelyn, hey,” she heard Mars say from behind her. “Do you need to talk?”
She spun around on her heels and wiped her face with the sleeve of her dress, stammering “Don’t come closer I’m fine, please I’m fine.” The last thing she wanted was her hero to see her crumbling in on herself.
“You aren’t fine.” His voice didn’t change. It stayed the calm and loving tone it had always been when he talked to her.
Another sob let out and she found herself running to him, hugging him tightly and burying her face against his expensive blue suit. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…” she begged.
Mars hugged her tightly, saying “You have nothing to apologize for.”
“Are you kidding?” Jaelyn looked up and said, wiping her eyes “I just wasted all of your time. I am not going to win. My mom is down there drinking every ounce of champagne there is and telling everyone how horrible of a person I am. I’m a failure, I can’t even make her happy by getting close to winning.”
“What do you mean?”
“I won’t matter to her if I win. I won’t matter to her if I lose. I’ve wanted her to love me for so long and I was so stupid to think that if I won this she would love me! Nothing I will ever do will make her love me… I am a failure.”
Mars looked down at her for a few moments, brushing her black fringe out of her amber eyes, and he said after a few moments “You are not a failure.”
“But I am, I always have been. She’s telling everyone how much of a disappointment I’ve always been, how the hell can you stand there and tell me that I’m not a failure?” Jaelyn stepped away from him, wiped her eyes and said, “If someone should know a failure when they see one, it would be you.”
“You aren’t a failure, Jaelyn,” Mars reached his hand out to her. “Let’s sit down and talk, okay? Just me and you. No Mrs. Beyer. Just me and you.”
Jaelyn hesitated, but slowly nodded and put her hand in his. Mars led her over to a set of benches overlooking the skyline. They sat down next to each other in silence. Mars leaned his elbows on his knees. After a moment, he asked her a question.
“Why did you enter this competition?”
“It was for a school assignment.”
“I mean why did you continue? You could’ve pulled out at any moment. You could’ve stopped and said ‘I’m done’ whenever you wanted. But you kept going. Why?”
Jaelyn didn’t have to think about her answer. “Because I want to be better.”
“Better than who?” Mars didn’t look at her.
“Better than-“ She paused. She didn’t know. “Myself?”
“You shouldn’t be answering my question with another question, you know.” Mars leaned back on the bench and continued “Better than who?”
“Better than what I was.”
“And what was that?”
“A picker. A good for nothing picker on a scholarship to go to school. I wanted to be better than the picker everyone saw me as.” Jaelyn rubbed her arms as a breeze blew past them. She never realized it was colder on the top of a building.
Mars slid his suit jacket off of his shoulder and put it around Jaelyn. He asked her after a moment “Is that how you saw yourself too?”
She wrapped the jacket closer around her, looking down at how it overflowed over her frail body. She couldn’t lie to her mother, but she couldn’t lie to Mars either. “Yeah.”
“It’s where I’m from. It’s who I am… everyone from the slums is a Picker. No one ever gets out of there. If I don’t win this… If I didn’t push myself, to try and win this… I would be there forever. I don’t want to be there anymore. I hate it there.”
“Because of your mom?”
“Yeah… and my brother.” Jaelyn blinked a few times when she realized what she had said. Not once had she ever uttered the words ‘I hate my mom and brother’.
“Can I tell you a story?” Mars looked over at her, and when he received a nod, he leaned back on his knees and said “When I was your age, actually, probably older, is when I got my first taste of what true city life is. Sure, I lived here my entire life – my father had a great penthouse, my mom and I were happy. I was always curious about what else was out there. When I was home from university for a break, I decided to take that chance.
“I snuck out, which wasn’t very hard to do. A smile will get you further than you think it will. But, anyways, that’s not the point. I decided that I wanted to go to one of the clubs on the other side of town. Rumtown was the last stop on the monorail before it crossed over the bridge to the Island. Honestly, I don’t know why I wanted to go there, but I did.
“I couldn’t tell you a thing about what the club was like – what it looked like, where anything was, how many people were there… but there was one person there that I can’t ever forget. It was as if we spoke the same language, she knew exactly what I meant by everything I said. She was one of the prettiest women I have ever met in my life.
“We walked up to the roof top together, and laid out under the stars and talked. We talked about everything: from the sky to our home lives to even the foods we refused to eat. When I tell you I fell in love with that woman that day, I’m telling you the truth.”
Mars rubbed his head, looking up and over at the horizon before them. He didn’t speak for a few moments, and then said “Everything isn’t perfect here. No matter what the billboards or those shows say – this city can eat you alive.
“I was dating Terra at the time… and I love her. When I tell you I love Terra, it’s true. But, I had a lapse of judgement that night…” he looked at Jaelyn and says “I’m not perfect. I know you think I am, but I’m not.”
Jaelyn looked at him for a few moments, asking quietly “Did you cheat…?”
Mars nodded a bit, rubbing his forehead and looking away from her. “I regret it. I love Terra with my whole heart. I don’t know what happened to me that night – but something about that woman just drew me in, and I lost control of myself. I think I blacked out, honestly, because I can’t remember a single thing that happened that night after knowing what I wanted to do with her…”
“Did you tell her you had a girlfriend..?” Jaelyn asked.
“The morning after, like an asshole,” Mars chuckled sadly. “I told her I didn’t want anything serious, that it was a one-time thing, and that nothing would come of this. But she didn’t like that. I don’t blame her, I mean, I was a huge asshole.
“And I left. I went home, showered, and called Terra and told her how much I loved her. I proposed to her a month later. I had this city to hide in. I ran away from my mistake and got away. I don’t know what happened to her. I know she was from the Islands. What did she have to fall back on? Working? Selling garbage to pay the bills?” Mars looked at Jaelyn and said after a moment “Everyone’s got that moment in life where they screw up. Where they think that it’s all their fault and that nothing they can do can change their actions… I know I messed up, and that it was my fault, and now I do everything in my power to help people like her… I donate to women’s shelters constantly, provide whatever extra resources I can to the Islands. Once… I even threw away one of Terra’s diamond earrings in hopes that someone would find it while working and be able to feed their family.”
Jaelyn looked out over the horizon and said quietly “But you’ve changed. You’re the ideal, perfect person.”
“No one is perfect. I’m still learning,” Mars said. “I want to make up for the wrongs that I’ve done in my past.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, lightly, and asked her “I still don’t understand why you think all of those wonderful things about me.”
“Because…” she thought back to when she sat alone in her room, at the beginning of all of this. Where she stared at the minimalist portrait poster on the back of the broken wood door. “Because you’re my hero.”
Mars didn’t speak. He kept his hand on her shoulder, and asked after a moment “Do you want a hug?”
Jaelyn hugged him as tight as she could. She was shaking, her eyes hot and welling up with tears. Her mind flashed to when she ruined Delta’s dress with cake. How she ran outside because she couldn’t breathe. Mars was the only one that came out after her. The only one that saw as she was moments away from breaking down. He didn’t even know her then. He barely knew her now – yet he was doing the same thing. He wasn’t going to let her suffer alone.
She wasn’t going to suffer alone anymore.
“I don’t know why you’re my hero… but…” Jaelyn sat up and wiped her eyes. She could feel the mascara washing away on her red face. “I don’t have a dad. I don’t know who he is, anyways… and mom doesn’t know either. She just said that he was probably a fling she had whilst in a fight with Rex…”
“Rex?” Mars asked.
“That’s Cade’s dad. My brother, Cade.”
“That’s… an interesting name, for sure.” Mars chuckled. Jaelyn thought she heard his breath hitch, but when she looked back at him he did nothing but smile at her.
“I guess I just look up to you so much because I don’t… you know, have a dad. You are so dedicated to the ISA and everything that you do, I want to be just like you.” Jaelyn rubbed her hands over her wine colored dress “I remember you saying that Dr. Snow was one of the smartest people you’d ever met. I guess I hoped you’d say that one day about me.”
“It’s interesting, you know,” Mars began quietly, “That you’re so sure of yourself as a student and academic, but you aren’t sure of what you think personally.”
“I hadn’t thought about it that way.” Jaelyn replied.
They sat in silence for a while. Jaelyn gnawed at the inside of her cheek. She knew that the winner would be announced soon. But she didn’t want to get up. She didn’t want to see her mother or brother down there. She didn’t want to see Delta’s perfect family. She didn’t want to know if she won. Jaelyn, for once, wanted to run away from everything she had ever worked towards. She wanted to run away from her dreams. In a perfect world, Jaelyn would never leave that spot on the rooftop with Mars.
“Jaelyn,” Mars said, “We should head back downstairs.”
She stood up slowly, following him back to the elevator. As she stepped inside, she said “Thank you, for everything you’ve done for me.”
Mars smiled in the reflection of the metal elevator doors. Jaelyn didn’t notice the tears in his eyes.