Overwhelm. Anxiety. Unease. Discomfort.


All things I’ve dealt with at one point or another in life.


All negative emotions I’ve somehow managed to work through and eventually get a handle on over time. Like most people.


All sensations we don’t like to feel but accept as a normal part of existence.


There is no word for the sensation that currently exists within me.


Incapacitating, crippling, dread.


Bottled-up, loosely-capped hysteria.


U-tter. Pa-nic.


All fused into a single amplified, uncontainable force.

Times a thousand.




A hundred thousand…


A tremulous voice reverberates through the room—and into my bones.


A voice I recognize.​


I jump at the staggering depth of Atlas Zane’s baritone, and I swear to God, I literally feel my skeleton detach itself from my muscles, my smile vanishing completely as I lose basic coordination of my own body, unable to even register the need to recompose myself.


A collective gasp erupts from the audience as my stomach trampolines into my mouth. Unregulated adrenaline shoots through my system, my heart blasting endless amounts of spiked stress through frenzied palpitations. But no matter how hard or fast it pumps, it can’t get enough oxygen in. No matter how swiftly my lungs piston, it feels like I’m suffocating within my own flesh.


An acute, dizzy spell hijacks me out of nowhere, and I’m not prepared to circumvent its ambush, my chest caving as I sway against my will, tiny dots suddenly marring my vision.


For a stifling, torturous moment, everyone else seems to share my sentiment, dumbfounded and utterly speechless. Including Hannah. Until she visibly gathers herself, clearly doing her best to suppress the mesh of shock and excitement in her voice—and failing.


“Ladies and gentlemen…w-we have an unprecedented bid for one…one hundred thousand dollars,” she says breathlessly into the mic, mirroring the unified disbelief in the room.


And in my now largely immobile body.


“Holy crap,” I hear the participant closest to me gasp from behind, her involuntary blurt blending into a fast-building chorus of shocked whispers, inciting more from the other women on stage.


Swarms of goosebumps break out all over my arms, my spine going so rigid I’m certain it’ll snap.


I almost want it to.


I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What I’m seeing. What can’t possibly be happening.


My feet quake inside ill-fitted shoes as I struggle to keep them planted, wishing only that the heels could bore holes through the floor so I could sink right into it.


“Do I hear an offer to supersede the current bid of one hundred thousand dollars?” Hannah eventually continues, seeming somewhat removed, like she’s not even sure she should go on, asking only for the sake of due process and consistency.


No response.


“Anybody?” she insists.


More silence.


“Going once. Going twice…” her gaze flits to me ever so briefly before returning to the audience, “aaand matched to the extremely generous gentleman in the back.”


An unsettling pause follows as she seals the placement.


And then, all hell breaks loose.


Sharp, crazed, almost manic cheering erupts across the ballroom, so loud that it literally drowns out the pounding in my head and chest, as if it’s originating from within me.


Hannah finalizes the auction, trying to maintain order amid the new chaos and her own exhilaration, practically yelling in her struggle to be heard.


“This extremely generous bid concludes this year’s date auction! Thank you all so much for your attendance and participation! Please give yourselves all a huge round of applause!”


I relocate to my initial position as the spotlight departs from me to douse the emcee, clutching my card for dear life, feeling its sides crumpling beneath the pressure of my grip in spite of my efforts to appear calm.


Hannah smiles widely, not even trying to hide her glee. “Let’s give it up one more time for our generous winning bidders and Sweet Heart participants!”


Another extended round of applause crashes into the current acclaim, the added commotion snowballing into a thunderstorm ovation, amping up the assembly—and my anxiety.


“All the final bids have been tallied and, I’m both happy and honored to announce that, coming in at a total of one hundred and nineteen thousand, six hundred dollars, we’ve exponentially surpassed our goals—making this our most successful fundraising auction to date!”


Celebratory cheering ensues, even louder than before, the head organizer’s words spurring a collective sense of achievement—even with the unspoken elephant in the room:


The vast and overwhelming majority of that sum came from a single person.


A person whose eyes I still feel on me.


“We’re going to move on to our Heartfelt Happy Hour,” Hannah continues, all her pearly whites on display. “Please make your way to the dining hall just across from here. We have plenty of food and refreshments prepared so help yourselves to as much as you’d like. I ask that all winning bidders please stay back while everybody else heads out. Don’t worry, you’ll be joining in on the Happy Hour fun along with your future dates as soon as your donations have been cleared. Thank you all again once more. Stick around and socialize, and I’ll see you in a bit!”


With that, collective rising and shuffling commences. The entrance doors are pulled wide open, volunteers positioning themselves along each aisle to usher people through them. Seemingly on autopilot, every single person’s attention pivots to the back of the room—not because they’re approaching it to leave, but in search of someone.


Of Atlas Zane.


I can tell because I’m doing the exact same thing.


But he’s nowhere to be found, lost in the swarm of standing, moving figures. No. Not lost. Gone. He has this inherent conspicuousness about him, the sort of physical stature and demanding presence that would ensure he stand out from sheer size alone, but there’s no sign of him; not a trace that he was here just a moment ago.


That he ever was.


I continue to stand there, immobile, a fusion of silence and disbelief as everyone else swings into full, raucous motion, struggling to uncrumple my wadded-up brain long enough to wrap it around the only cerebration it holds.


The CEO of Zanergy just bid one hundred thousand dollars on me.


For a date.


On Valentine’s Day.


Hannah skips over like a child in a musical, squeezing me near to death in the most enthusiastic bear hug her little body can muster, letting out all the squeals and incoherent utterances she’d obviously been suppressing, talking my ear off to Timbuktu and back. But I’m too engrossed in my own runaway thoughts, so lost in my degenerating mind that I don’t hear a word of what she says, too stunned for words of my own.


​ ***


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