The gnawing question hangs over the ballroom and all those who inhabit it, perching atop my shoulders like a physical cloak, an invisible replica of the thick, velvet curtain draped behind me.

 

I have to tear my eyes away from the back, strangely caught between the impulse to look upon a titan sitting among men and the need to do the exact opposite in order to preserve my sanity—at least, what little is currently left of it.

 

My undecided gaze eventually settles on the closed-off entrance even as I force the taut, fabricated smile on my ever-stiffening face to stay put, resisting the urge to leap off stage and sprint right through it.

 

In only a fraction of a moment, I’m catapulted head-first into an unending loop, my subdued stage fright escalating past a point of no return, my apprehension from before turning into a full-fledged panic attack that I doubt I can contain. The kind I’ve never experienced.

 

I feel, quite literally, put on the spot.

 

And it’s not even my turn yet.

 

“Going once…going twice…aaand matched to the very generous gentleman in the third row with a final donation of three thousand and seventy-five dollars!”

 

Hannah emphatically announces the winning bid for Harper Nicholson, bringing my diverted and largely scrambled attention back to the whole reason I’m here to begin with.

 

“Can I just take a moment to say how fantastic this is!” she beams, her voice carrying evenly over the mic. “We’re only on our first round and the bar has already been set heart-racingly high! Congratulations, sir. You are now the proud Valentine’s date of ‘Hottie Harper’.”

 

The audience offers a huge round of applause, humored laughter at the designated nickname intertwined with emphatic palm-smacks, cheering as the lady in question reclaims her previous position, a triumphant smirk on her model-esque face.

 

“Our second participant is a day trader by trade,” Hannah continues, the crowd engrossed, lingering mirth blending in with new chuckles, “but will never trade her love for chocolate ‘cronuts’ for all the money in the world. Please give a hand for the lovely Jenna Harris!”

 

​A tall, lithe blonde takes the spotlight, replacing her predecessor. Before I know it, the next participant is announced, but I don’t catch her name, Hannah’s voice muffled beneath the pulsing in my cramped skull despite its magnification. The fourth participant follows after her, and then the next, and the next. One conventionally-pretty woman after another.

 

The auction goes on, seemingly in a blur, and I feel like I’m outside my body the entire time, ripped away from myself. Like floating in some sort of time warp—with my insides warped.

 

Before I can organize my brain, I hear my name as Hannah calls me forward, barely even registering my introduction.

 

With my heart kick-boxing my throat, I walk ahead, trying not to stumble as the bright light hits me like a physical force. I do my best not to squint, keeping my eyes on the entrance in order to avoid the collective gaze of the onlooking audience.

 

And that of Atlas Zane.

 

​Every step forward is like a trudge underwater with weights dangling from my ankles, my entire physical form an oversized cinder block, as if I just drank a truckload of gravel, my stomach dense and knotted. My left foot wobbles ever so slightly, but I pray the falter goes unnoticed, maintaining the insufferable charade I’ve been burdened with, forcing myself to keep smiling while hoping I can convince my mind that I’m not, in fact, half a second away from misplacing it.

 

Blood continues to gorge my head, my temples throbbing viciously, but now I can hear everything clearly.

 

Too clearly.

 

The room falls silent as Hannah resumes. “For our final participant, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to start the bidding at one hundred dollars like before. If you haven’t placed a bid yet, this is your last chance. Let’s make it count! Do I hear an opening offer for one hundred dollars?”

 

“One hundred dollars!” A man practically yells, his voice so loud it seems to come from everywhere.

 

My heart jumps at the boom, my smile wavering for a split second before I mend it back into place.

 

​”Alright!” she encourages. “That’s the enthusiasm I’m talking about! Do I hear two hundred?”

 

​”Two hundred!”

 

​Hannah doesn’t skip a beat. “Do I hear an offer for three hundred dollars?”

 

“Three hundred,” another voice responds, clipped yet bearing a competitive tinge.

 

​”Do I hear f—”

 

​”Four hundred dollars!” the first voice interjects, percolating the room again.

 

I resist the impulse to scan the audience in search of it, knowing I’ll only end up psyching myself out if I do.

 

Like with all the others who came before me, Hannah cajoles the audience on my behalf, our spectators growing more and more boisterous in response. I’m not sure if it seems rowdier now because it’s coming to an end or because I’m actually involved this time.

 

While I’d much rather be picking up a field of dog shit than be up here getting picked, I’ve got to hand it to Hannah. She knows how to get a crowd going, milking the momentum she’s built for all it’s worth.

 

The spirited emcee beams as bright as the lights above us, looking between me and the social gathering. “So much passion in our audience this year! Do I hear an offer for a thousand dollars?”

 

“One thousand dollars,” a man motions almost immediately.

 

“Alrighty, we now have a bid for one thousand dollars, ladies and gentlemen. Do we—”

 

“Two thousand,” another volunteers before she can even finish her sentence.

 

“Two thousand, two hundred,” a new voice submits right after.

 

“Three thousand!” someone else counters.

 

I stand there, continuing to wear the most dishonest smile in existence, feeling far more like cattle than a piece of art. But, despite my culminating unease and the off-putting feel of being bought—even superficially—I know it’s for a good cause. That knowledge is the only thing keeping me—and my steadily-crumbling insides—grounded.

 

Still, every breath I suck in seems to amplify the already rampant anxiety coursing through me, and each bid and corresponding response that echoes through the auditorium builds on top of it, stacking and stacking and stacking, until it’s so high up that it feels like I’m quickly losing sight of the ground below. I try with everything in me to keep it together but I’m speedily morphing into a nervous, gelatinous wreck on the inside despite my static outward projection. Even then, in spite of my best efforts, I’m not sure I’m pulling off my usual poker facade as well as I normally would.

 

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I wasn’t nearly this nervous during my Earth Capital interview. Then again, I’d been preparing for that for months. But it also had a hell of a lot more riding on it. While this is a last minute thing, it’s also relatively inconsequential.

 

At least…it would be if he wasn’t present.

 

Which, once again begs the question:

 

What the fuck is he doing here?

 

Despite the blaring unknown, I have to force the thought from my mind, needing to focus on just getting through this mo—

 

“One hundred thousand dollars.”​

 

***

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THIS CHAPTER MAKES ME FEEL...
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

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