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“Can we read it?” one of the girls murmurs.

“It says what I just told you.” When the girl opens her mouth like she wants to argue, he steps into the room and stands directly in front of her. He’s so close that the toes of their shoes almost touch. “Any more questions? Because we could show you outside, and then you won’t have anything to worry about. Only you won’t be welcomed back. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” She stares at the floor, and I can’t help but feel sorry for her. None of us would be here if we weren’t desperate. Nobody daydreams about the night they’ll auction their virginity to a stranger. We should all be having fun, going on dates, and having drinks with the girls. None of us wants to go through this.

But it’s only one night. After this, we’ll have everything we need. I sort of want to say it out loud, to remind anybody who’s regretting the choice they made in coming here, but I don’t feel like getting stared down by this guy, either. He seems like bad news, all shifty and intimidating.

He starts with the girl sitting closest to the door, making her sign the contract before leading her out of the room. A brief static noise fills the room before a concealed speaker feeds us audio from what’s taking place in the auction room. I don’t know if I’m glad about that or not. I’m not sure I want to hear what goes on before it’s my turn.

“As you can see, tonight we are starting off with a fine specimen.” Specimen. What a word. I recognize the voice as belonging to the guy with the contracts. “Her name is Rose Miller, and she recently turned eighteen. As always, all of our items up for bid are disease-free and untouched.”

Items? I’m an item now? Don’t go and ruin this for yourself, Emma. Now is not the time to go all feminist. It’s either this, or I live on the street. No more school, no more anything.

So I swallow back my fear and distaste for the word item and stay still, hands clasped between my knees, watching as one girl after another is led from the room. “Next up for bid is the lovely Lauren Bradly. Nineteen years old and a student at the local college.” She goes to school there, too? Then again, I guess it makes sense. We’re all sort of desperate, and school isn’t exactly cheap.

It doesn’t take long. The bids fly fast and furious. Ten thousand. Fifteen. So far, the highest winning bid tonight has been thirty-five thousand. That’s not nearly as much as I was hoping for. Is it a bunch of cheapskates sitting out there tonight? I wish I could have gotten a look at the auction room—just to know what I’m up against when I’m out there. It’s the not knowing that’s the worst part.

“We have twenty-five thousand… Do I hear thirty? Thirty thousand… yes, thirty thousand from the gentleman in the corner. Thirty-five? Do I hear thirty-five thousand?” Lauren is an absolutely stunning, tall, curvy redhead. She kind of reminds me of that character from the old Disney movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And she’s only pulling thirty-five so far? I don’t have a chance.

But the bidding continues. Forty, forty-five. I’m starting to feel more hopeful. “Fifty thousand going once, twice. Sold, for fifty thousand dollars.” Okay, I can live with that. Sixty percent of that would be thirty thousand bucks. That would buy me a lot of stability. Now, all I have to do is make myself seem worth that much money. But how do I do that?

It isn’t long before I have to figure it out, and fast. The door opens, and Clipboard Man gestures to me. “Come on. You’re next.”

Great. It’s now or never. I stand and wish I hadn’t done it so fast as the room starts to spin. My heart’s pounding so hard I can hear it, can feel it pulsing through my fingertips as I take the pen offered to me so I can sign the contract. I do it fast before I can change my mind, and I’m quickly ushered to a room that sits behind a pair of wide, wooden doors.

It’s a large room, with chairs arranged around the perimeter and a round platform in the center. Bright white lights point at it, I’m sure to give the men a good view of what they are about to bid on. I don’t know if it would be better to seem confident or terrified—what would make the men want to bid more? I decide fear is the best way to go. They’re not trying to fuck virgins because they love confident, experienced women.

Good thing it doesn’t take a lot of acting skill to demonstrate fear since that’s what’s coursing through my veins with every frantic beat of my heart. My heels click against the wood floor as I walk to the platform, then step up into the center of it. My dress looks redder than before under the white lights, and I’m sure they make my hair look like gold.

“Up next is Emma York. Nineteen years old, also a student. We’ll begin the bidding at ten thousand.”

All I can do is stand here with my hands at my sides, my gaze lowered to the floor, so I don’t make a mistake and look anybody in the eye. When I tremble, it isn’t an act. I’m genuinely scared shitless.

This is it. I’m about to find out how much my virginity is worth.