Monday, February 26, 2018

February Workshop in Progress

Our five manuscripts have been selected, but that doesn't mean the learning opportunities for aspiring authors and editors are over this month! We invite everyone to follow along by reading the entries and mentors comments and watching the revisions transform the pages. See for yourself what worked, what didn't work, discover why, and how to make improvements. You're also welcome to make comments yourself about what you feel is working and what isn't. And you can ask questions of our mentors about their comments as well.


Want help from a literary agent and our published, award-winning, and best-selling authors to get your own first five pages and pitch ready for submission or jump start your novel? The February workshop will open at noon on February 3rd. We always accept manuscripts on a first come, first served basis so your chances are as good as anyone else's. All we ask is that your pitch is no more than 200 words, your submission (overall) is no more than 1200 words, and that both are formatted correctly, free of typos and grammar errors, and that you've worked through your story idea to make sure it can be written as presented into a full-length novel.

Need help getting your pitch and manuscript ready? Click here for writing help and submission tips

Friday, February 23, 2018

Thank You to the Mentors and Participants of the #1st5pages Writing Workshop!

Thank you to all of the participants who trusted us with their pages, and worked so hard during our February 1st 5 Pages Writing Workshop - and congratulations to Britney Shae, our workshop winner! And a big thanks to our wonderful guest mentors, Kelley Armstrong as our author mentor and Laura Crockett of Triada US as our agent mentor! As always, thank you to our talented and fabulous permanent mentors, who read, comment, and cheer on our participants every month!

The workshop is designed to help writers struggling to find the right opening for their novel or for those looking to perfect the all important first five pages before submitting for publication. Why the first five pages? Because if these pages aren't compelling, no agent, editor, or reader will continue reading to find out how great the rest of your story really is! Our March workshop will open for submissions on Saturday, March 3rd at noon, EST. In addition to our wonderful permanent mentors, we have Heather Smith Meloche as our author mentor and Meg La-Torre Snyder as our agent mentor! So get those pages ready - we usually fill up in under a minute!

Happy Writing (and revising!)

Erin

About the Author:
Erin Cashman is AYAP's 1st 5 Pages Workshop coordinator, and a permanent mentor. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three kids, and an energetic rescue dog. She writes YA fantasy. UNCHARTED is coming fall of 2018, and THE EXCEPTIONALS, a Bank Street College of Education best book of the year, is available now. For up to date information about the workshop, you can follow Erin on twitter here

Sunday, February 18, 2018

1st 5 Pages February Workshop- Smit Rev 2

Name: Rochele Smit
Genre: YA High Fantasy
Title: OF WINGS

Pitch:

After finding a cryptic note from her dead mother, seventeen-year-old Phoebe breaks a betrothal and runs to an enemy kingdom to uncover the secrets of her past.

There, she puts herself at the mercy of the Jhihari, a winged people exiled by humans a century before. Captured and charged with espionage by the embittered Jhihari king, she escapes execution, but is left to die in the desolate alpine wilderness. Against all odds, she survives and is nursed back to health by a charming Jhihari named Caleyb. A mysterious seer then reveals the truth; Phoebe’s the last of a magical Jhirari bloodline, and she must recover an ancient book stolen by humans to unlock her own powers—powers that may bring salvation to the troubled kingdom in an impending clash with humans.

Phoebe struggles to find her place among the Jhihari while coming to terms with her new identity and feelings for Caleyb. When the king finds out she’s still alive and hunts her down, she slips away to human lands. War is looming, and if Phoebe chooses to go after the book and risk her life for the people she has come to love, she must accept her role as protector.

Chapter One:

It seemed that every time she went into the cursed forest, there was trouble, yet Phoebe was still inexplicably drawn to the forbidden comfort the dark canopy offered. She skidded to a stop at the edge of the trees, peering around a gnarled trunk to make sure no one would see her, before sprinting across the open field ahead. When she got to the road, she adjusted her apron to hide the slight bulge of the rabbit carcass hanging within, then started home. Each step threw up a dusty cloud from the parched ground, and she couldn’t help scanning the clear sky to the west. What she wouldn’t give to see even one storm cloud on the horizon.

The sound of hoofbeats rose from behind her, and she cursed her poor timing as she stepped onto the withered grass that lined the road. A regiment of mounted soldiers approached, and she kept her eyes glued to her feet, praying they would pass her by. Luck was not with her, and she soon found herself staring at the prancing hooves of a dappled grey stallion.

“What is such a lovely young thing as yourself doing out on the road all alone?”

Her eyes rose, following the gruff voice, and she groaned when she recognized the heavy set man with a fiery beard and ruddy skin staring down at her. With his crude and boorish attitude, General Skahill was the very last person she wanted to see. She racked her brain for a good excuse; being unaccompanied out of the fort’s boundaries was a punishable offense.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, breaking her silence. “If you let me give you a ride back to the fort, I’ll keep your secret.”

He extended his hand and she hesitated, itching to turn and run back into the solace of the trees. But it was too far, and even if she did make it, Skahill knew who she was and could track her down to issue a fine. Sighing, she reached out and he pulled her up, positioning her in front of him. She wrinkled her nose at the feeling of her leg trapped between his thigh and the dead rabbit as he wrapped a thick arm around her waist. He gave a viscous yank on the reins, and the horse spun around, almost unseating Phoebe.

“Onward!” Skahill shouted to his men while kicking the poor beast forward.

Phoebe stared ahead, keeping her back rigid as she tried to ignore the fleshy hand now sprawled across her belly. Thankfully, that was the only liberty he took, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the stone walls of the fort came into view. As they drew nearer, she let out a gasp at the newly erected tents standing in the field next to the fort.

Skahill noticed and she felt his chest puff as he pointed that way. “Two more regiments arrived today.”

More soldiers, just what they needed. Anger coiled through her until it threatened to spill out, and she had to bite her lip to keep from responding with bitterness.

When they reached the immense iron gates, Skahill reined the horse to a stop, and as Phoebe slid down, he caught her hand. “Now, make sure you stay close. It’s more dangerous than ever before out there, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to that pretty face.”

She gave a curt nod, then fled into the village, feeling his eyes on her back until she ducked between two homes. When she was out of sight, her shoulders sagged as she ran her fingers along a crumbling stone wall. Even in the fading light of dusk, it was impossible to miss the tattered thatch roofs and unkept yards of the simple cottages around her. If she closed her eyes though, she could still remember the better days not long ago. Before the soldiers.

Once home, she skinned the hare and set about making a simple stew. After hanging the pot over the soot-blacked hearth, she began to tidy up, sweeping the earthen floors with a worn broom. A pleasant aroma filled the air as she took an inventory of their meager supplies. Brows furrowed, she couldn’t help the worry that crept through her at the sight of empty shelves.

Her father came home later than normal and Phoebe frowned as he sat wearily at the table. His hair had greyed over the last year and deep wrinkles lined his exhausted face. They had never been close—especially after her mother died and he cracked down on her ‘wayward’ behavior—but she did her best to play dutiful daughter.

He eyed the meal in front of him, then swirled his spoon in the wooden bowl, picking out a piece of rabbit. “Where did this come from?”

Phoebe met his question with sullen silence, then flinched as he slammed the spoon down to the table and glared at her. “You went back into the Forbidden Woode, didn’t you?”

“We have no choice! How long can we survive off of tubers and rations of moldy grain?” Phoebe cried out.

“Don’t raise your voice at me!” The fire in his eyes burned through her confidence, and she shrunk back as he continued. “If I catch you in that wretched forest again, I’ll have no choice but to beat some sense into you.”

She tried once more. “I’m seventeen, plenty old enough to take care of…”

A sharp knock sounded on the door, and grateful for the interruption, Phoebe dashed over. As she swung it open, she caught her breath upon seeing Skahill’s bulk filling the doorway.

“I’m here to speak to your father.”

Phoebe’s heart dropped and an icy tendril of fear snaked through her. If he revealed she’d been caught on the road, she would be certain to get that beating.

Her father pushed up from the table and strolled over. “General Skahill, how can I help you?”

Looking her up and down with a gleam in his eye, Skahill finally acknowledged her father. “I’m afraid I have an important matter we need to discuss in private.”

“Of course,” her father nodded, confusion evident in his voice.

They walked outside and as soon as the door shut, Phoebe retreated to the fire, wringing her hands. After what seemed an eternity, the door opened and both men strode back in. She was afraid to look, but when she did, her father seemed rather pleased.

“Phoebe, my girl, come over here,” he said, his voice a little too bright.

She edged over with halting steps, and when she was close enough, her father grabbed her hand. As soon as he took the general’s hand in his other, she was overcome by a wave of nausea; there was only one thing this could mean. She listened in detached horror as her father spoke the traditional words.

“With this handshake, I betroth my daughter, Phoebe Evensong into an everlasting bond to this man.”

In that moment, Phoebe’s world shattered. She wanted to yank her hand away, to scream no, but she stood frozen in place, unable even to take a breath.

“You may have your kiss.”

Her eyes widened at her father’s abrupt words. The dreaded kiss would seal the engagement, and she had to swallow back the bile that rose as Skahill pulled her roughly against him. Perhaps she could stall by fainting. But it was too late, he slid his hand behind her neck and leaned in.



1st 5 Pages February Workshop- Elize Rev 2

Name: Dawn Elize
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: Painted Scars

Pitch:

After discovering about the art gallery submission, Korean-American artist Lillie Kang has to submit one last painting to win a cash prize. The only downside is that she hasn’t painted in two weeks, and all the other students finished long ago. Everyone in school expects the ‘Art Girl’ to be the winner, and at home, her parents have even higher expectations.
  
Until she meets Zevi, the hero who saved his cousin from a fire and got burn scars. Despite her social awkwardness, he attempts to coax her out from behind her canvas. Feeling inspired, she tries to paint him but fails.
  
Then, she finds out that the gallery has the opportunity of a scholarship to her dream university. Still unable to paint, and with her friends drifting away and more finances at home, her overthinking mind plunges all her passion. Being an artist is the only thing Lillie knows so stripping away her sole identity, she attempts to discover who she can be without it. With a few days left to the deadline, can she manage to paint the scarred boy?

Pages:

It had been two weeks since I last painted something. In an attempt to seem like an artist again, I was retouching an old painting. The bristles of my brush eased over the canvas and with a little coat of new paint, the painting glowed. I wished I could fix everything in life with a few simple touches.
  
"Your work is fantastic, Lillie." My art teacher, Mr. Akhiro, grinned.

Tension slipped from my shoulders. Mr. Akhiro lifted the painting up from the easel, placing it with my other works lined up near the large window. I inhaled the familiar, bitter scent of oil paints, trying to push away the worry that crawled in my mind.

There was an upcoming gallery submission and an outside judge would pick the best artist. The cash prize attracted every art student in Lincoln High. But Mr. Akhiro narrowed down the list to ten students; one of them was me. He needed my best paintings, and it was my golden ticket. If only I could paint.

"I’m sure they will love your work," he assured me, seeing the self-doubt that always plagued my mind.

I fiddled with my red, paint-stained hands. "I still need to do one more portrait, right?"

"Yes, but you have time."

He left to refill his cup of coffee, taking away the aura of comfort. I cleaned up my palette, pushing it inside my small art supplies bag that I always carried around. I lined up the paint bottles on the shelf, avoiding the paintings of the other art students competing. They had all finished two weeks ago.

I slung my backpack over my shoulder and left the art room behind. Strolling by the only other few Koreans, I ducked my head, ignoring their chatter in Korean. Not like I understood anything, even if I was a Korean-American. They only served as another reminder that I was not a part of either world. I was always jammed in-between, never belonging anywhere.

"Lillie!” Even in the crowded hallway, Jasmine spotted me walking close to the beige walls. She flicked her plaited hair over her shoulder as her dark-skinned face broke into a smile.

Jasmine had agreed to be my subject for the first portrait. What she did not expect was to be holding a dance move for hours. But the moment her eyes fell onto the final painting, her heart won over all the waiting.

Jasmine's other friends swarmed me, praising the painting for capturing her vivid personality. I loved that my painting had gotten a lot of compliments and pictures posted on their stories on Instagram. Until they asked me to draw them and I backed away from further human contact.

More students flocked into the hallway, and Jasmine waved to a few of them. They started making their way towards us, so I bid goodbye to Jasmine and dodged inside my Calculus class. The closed door blocked off the loud chatter as I let out a relieved sigh. Someday I’d be in the mood for social interaction but that wasn’t today.

Three students hunched over their tables as they tried to finish the assignment. One boy stood out from the rest, sitting next to my usual seat. Even though the other Korean-Americans had attempted interaction, Zevi spoke to me once before, asking for a pen. He kept to his football team and I kept to my art; our circles never intersecting and never in the spotlight.

But a few months ago, he was the talk of the school as the ‘Hero’ returned. The scars forever etched on his skin built up a barrier between him and everyone else. The message was clear: Back off.
  
I contemplated shifting seats, but I didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of having someone ask me to move. Dragging my squeaky seat back, I sat down, shooting him a quick look. His homework seized his complete attention.

I opened my notebook, seeing one page filled with an old sketch of Bugs Bunny and another as blank as my mind. Instinctively, I wrapped my fingers around my pencil, itching to doodle. Nothing came to mind. The familiar ache clenched my chest as I tried to force myself to draw something. Anything.

"Hey," someone whispered.

The battle between the empty page versus my empty mind trapped me in my own little world. I jumped, startled as I felt someone poke my arm. Turning to the side, I felt my eyes widen as Zevi stared at me, retracting his hand.

I stuttered out an awkward response. Inside my chest, my heart’s usual soft patter turned to thuds. Had he said something to me and I completely ignored it? My mom always complained that I was off "in my own universe." He cleared his throat, pushing his notebook towards me.

"Can you help me? It’s a lot of marks. Have you finished them?"

I nodded, flipping to the front of my notebook to show him the answers. His light-brown eyes studied my work as he chewed on his bottom lip.

He muttered to himself, "Why am I so stupid?"
“Uh, it’s not your fault. Those questions were harder. I got my dad to help me out."
Zevi’s lip curved into a bitter smile. "That’s lucky. My parents always want me to learn on my own.”

I played with the curly edges of my black hair, unsure what to say. He shot me a tight smile, asking for an explanation on my answer. More than meeting new people, I hated explaining. It meant someone staring at you while you attempted to put together a decent explanation in a coherent way. With Calculus, it became hell. But seeing the helplessness on his face, I swallowed back my nervousness and explained the answers.

When he looked at my book, I caught a quick glance of the scar around the side of his neck, deepening downwards. His eyes trapped mine, knowing that I was looking at his scars. He stiffened. I dropped my gaze back to my book, adding a new rule in my mind: Never look at him again. Zevi didn't speak, probably afraid of me asking any questions, causing guilt to pinch my heart. His foot bobbed on the glossy linoleum floor.

In a quiet manner, he handed my notebook back, muttering a soft "thank you" as students entered. I gave a silent nod, still looking at my notebook, expecting him to go back to his original seat in the back of the class. He didn't.
During class, my mind shifted from the cries of my impeding painting to a slow replay of the conversation. I sneaked a glance at him, wondering if he thought I was another “weirdo.” But I also wished that he would never ask me for an explanation again. 
When submitting the assignment, Zevi caught my eye for a second, giving me a kind smile. The one he had given me long ago with the pen exchange. Even after a messy day, just that one smile managed to loosen the pressure on my chest.
"Thank you, Lillie. I like the Bugs Bunny drawing also," he said, lifting his bag.
My lips stretched into a slow grin as I watched him stroll out of class, unable to take my eyes off him. A small itch to paint the scarred boy crawled its way into my mind, splashing some color onto a blank page.


1st 5 Pages February Workshop- Woropay Rev 2

Name: Larysia Woropay
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal Fantasy
Title: Extrasensory

Pitch

Seventeen-year-old Quinn Brooke is the latest in a long line of mediums. She and her mother consider it their duty to take on paranormal cases, tussling with poltergeists and banishing wraiths on the regular. But when their latest client transforms into a bloodthirsty dragon, they’re at a loss for words, much less solutions.
Looking for answers, Quinn joins forces with her high school’s outcast paranormal group run by a dork who pushes every. Single. One. Of. Her. Buttons! and the new girl from India who has an unconventional mediumship of her own. Together, they discover a pagan god known as the Stag is turning man into myth, transforming the locals into fantastical creatures for his new kingdom on Earth.
No one is safe. Not even Quinn’s mother, who is kidnapped and turned into a Monarch to rule the Stag’s empire. In order to save not only their home, but those they love, the teens have to do more than just get along — they’ll have to elevate the abilities they already have and discover ones they never even knew existed. Assuming, of course, their turned friends and family don’t kill them first …

Pages

Visitors are coming. The dead man whispered to Quinn, the sound like the rustle of dry leaves on an omen wind. It struck her with an abrupt chill, even though he wasn’t a ghost to be feared. Evil spirits couldn’t get into her house. At least, they hadn’t yet.

Quinn glanced at the crimson glow of the clock atop her nightstand. It was three a.m. The Devil’s Hour. Dread pooled in her stomach like liquid ice. The ghost hadn’t made a statement. It delivered a warning.

She pushed back the duvet and stood, hairs rising on the back of her neck. Her toes curled into the carpet as a shiver raced down to her soles. She rubbed her bare arms, textured with gooseflesh. Quinn pulled on an oversized sweater and slid into her slippers before making her way into the hallway. Her mother stood in a robe outside her bedroom across the hall.

“We’re going to have company.” Quinn said as they locked eyes, twin gray mirrors reflecting back at each other.

“The blessing must not have worked.” Her mother said, pushing a strand of raven hair behind her ear. She sighed. “We better prepare for our guests.”

“You mean Ms. Harker and Emily … or the thing stalking them?”

“Both,” her mother answered.

Quinn remembered when Diana Harker and her toddler first came to their house last week under the hushed cover of night. The hood of Ms. Harker’s windbreaker had been pulled over her head like she was entering the lair of a dark cabal instead of a welcoming home. Just like everyone else in town, afraid to be seen on Quinn’s doorstep.

Her mother had read tarot cards for years, and occasionally, when a client found themselves in the midst of a haunting, she provided another kind of service: cleansing. Better known as evicting a troublesome ghostly squatter out of someone’s home. Sometimes the spirit needed a gentle talking to. Other times, a forceful kick in the metaphysical rear. And since her mother was a psychic medium, she was just the lady to do it. Soon enough, Quinn would be, too.

Quinn crossed her arms. “Are we going to tell her what she’s up against this time?”

“ … Yes.” Her mom said. “There’s no point in trying to protect her from the truth any longer. I’m scared for her little girl. If she’s coming back, it’s because that thing has finally made a move for her.”

Ms. Harker had said the paranormal activity began with Emily’s baby monitor. It picked up strange sounds, guttural mumbles and a man uttering one word: “mine.” At first, there was no culprit to be seen. Then on the third night, a pitch-black figure had stood over Emily’s crib. The mediums knew then it would escalate, they just didn’t know how soon.

Quinn shook her head. “If we warned her properly, that thing wouldn’t be headed here right now.”

“If we had warned her properly, Quinn, she would have been terrified senseless. You know the consequences of that.” Her mother wrapped the robe tighter around herself and padded to the end of the hall, having enough with the discussion. She flicked the hall light on and rounded the corner, and one by one, more lights illuminated their home.

“I swear, mom, you want to coddle the normies.” Quinn trailed her. Her mother didn’t want to upset their clients, but Quinn felt it was like lying by omission. Knowledge was power, power that could have kept Emily safe. “It’s terrifying her senseless anyways! That’s what it does! It’s a—!”

An explosive pounding resounded through their modest bungalow. Quinn jumped, choking on her words. Her head snapped towards the front door. She could feel in her gut the unwelcome company behind it.

They’ve come.

“Maria! Maria, please!” It wasn't only Ms. Harker's cries Quinn heard, but something old and malevolent stirring in the remnants of silence. “Let us in!”

“Guard yourself, Quinn.” Her mother warned, coming closer.
“I know.” Quinn steeled herself. “It’s out there.”

Quinn’s mom opened the door, the front porch light revealing their guests. Ms. Harker’s face was red, her eyes puffy from the tears that streaked her cheeks. Emily’s face wasn’t much better as her tiny fingers grabbed at her mother’s shirt. Wide-eyed relief graced Ms. Harker at Maria’s forced smile. “Oh, Maria! Thank God!”

The entity rose from behind Ms. Harker, pulling itself up from the shadows. Quinn’s heartbeat spiked to a frantic staccato as inky darkness slid off of it, revealing a powerful anthropomorphic frame adorned with a russet coat of fur. It wore a crown of bone-white antlers, spreading back and wide like it was a stag. Its gaze slid past Quinn’s mother and onto her. It licked its chops, tasting her fear.

“Quickly!” Quinn’s mother flung open the screen door and grabbed Ms. Harker, pulling her in. She threw a look over her shoulder, seeing Quinn frozen in place, eyes locked with the entity. “QUINN!”

Quinn ripped her eyes away, her skin crawling.

The entity’s head snapped back to her mother. It lunged, only to be met with the spiritual equivalent of an electrical fence as soon as it tried to cross the threshold. The jolt sent it staggering back. Her mother slammed the door shut. After several moments of uncomfortable silence, she finally said: “Quinn, love, put on a pot of coffee. Warm up some milk for Emily, too.”

Quinn obeyed with a shaky sigh, torn between feeling like an idiot for freezing on the spot and annoyed her mother was keeping up with her calm-and-collected charade.

“It hurt her!” Ms. Harker cradled her daughter closer. Emily nestled into her mother’s bird’s nest of strawberry blond hair, quietly sobbing. “The blessing only made it angrier!”

“To the couch.” Quinn’s mom led them into the living room. “Sit, sit.”

Quinn got a look at the pair before she went into the kitchen. Ms. Harker sat, not releasing her grip on Emily. Her eyes darted. The woman didn’t have a shred of sixth sense, but she had all the others. Something triggered a primal fear in her. Instinct took over. Protect the child, it told her; something comes for her.

“It’s okay, Diana.” Quinn’s mother reassured. “It can’t come in. Not here, not my home.” Ms. Harker’s shoulders softened, but not her embrace.

The scent of coffee promising to fill cups in short order began to permeate the air. Quinn grabbed a carton of milk and a pot, ignoring the window over the sink, its curtains wide open. As soon as her mother closed the door, she could feel the thing circling the house, trying to sneak in. At last, it stopped moving. Outside that thin pane of glass.

It was close enough that she could sense the rise and fall of its chest, could hear the rattling of its breath. It watched her hungrily. She learned from last time. She wouldn’t look up. Even when the urge to was almost all-consuming. It wasn’t merely her curiosity. It was as if a hand was cradling her chin, urging her to lift her gaze. Its hand.

Mimicking nonchalance, Quinn turned a burner on, preparing the soothing warm milk. It was then she realized her mother’s faux blasé attitude had its merits in times like these.

“What happened?” Her mother’s voice carried from the other room.

1st 5 Pages February Workshop- Shae Rev 2

Name: Britney Shae
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: Fearless

Annie has always dreamed of being an MMA star, and when she shocks everyone—including herself—with a one-punch knock-out, her dream comes true. Except she assumed her brother and idol, fellow MMA fighter Marc, would be there with her. But he died unexpectedly two months ago, leaving her reeling in the spotlight alone. Now an overnight sensation, and with her next title match speeding toward her, Annie is terrified everyone will learn what she already knows: her victory was a fluke.

Still, Annie takes on the trappings of stardom—a reality show, a makeover, interviews, money for the first time in her life, and an attractive new trainer. But this dream of stardom isn’t everything she had hoped it would be. Annie begins to doubt whether being an MMA star is what she really wants.  But giving up MMA would take away the financial relief Annie’s single mother and sister need.  And giving up her MMA dreams would mean giving up the last piece of Marc.

If Annie can’t find the courage to compete and prove she’s the fighter everyone thinks she is, she’ll lose her chance to provide for her family and she’ll throw away Marc’s legacy.

PAGES:

The fight was playing. Again. It followed me everywhere, even at the convenience store down the street. I recognized it immediately on the old TV behind the clerk, despite its fuzzy images.

The store was dead quiet except for the voices from the TV through tinny speakers. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up and listened as the announcers from two days ago spoke—Her first professional fight. Her chance to win the Junior U-18 MMA title. And so soon after her brother, fellow MMA fighter, Marco Armani, was killed in an unfortunate car accident.  Look at her eyes—have you ever seen such intensity?

I slipped into the candy aisle, scooped up a bag of Skittles for Margie, and turned for the milk I had come in for. Goosebumps lined my flesh, but not from the cold blast of the refrigerated air. Hearing those announcers talking about Marc like they knew him pissed me off. I shut the refrigerator door with too much force and cringed as the sound echoed through the store.

Pulling out a wad of bills from my back pocket, I slowly approached the counter, mentally counting how much money I had. This was the last of my cash, the last bit Marc had given me over two months ago, as though he’d known then he was going to die. I had no idea when I’d get my reward money from the title fight to afford something as simple as milk. I thought about putting the Skittles back but couldn’t bring myself to do it. My sister loved Skittles.

I cleared my throat. The clerk’s attention stayed on the TV.

“Gimme one sec,” he said, the fight reflecting in his gray eyes. “This girl’s gonna throw a punch like nothin’ I ever seen before.”

I swallowed and focused on keeping my body still. In control. “That fight happened two days ago. Everyone knows who won.”

“I can’t stop watching that punch. It’s gone viral. Can’t go anywhere without seeing it.”

I almost scoffed out loud. Ain’t that the truth.

At that moment came the K-O punch. Just as it had in real time, my stomach lurched as my opponent crumpled to the ground.

The clerk let out a low whistle, shaking his head in awe. “She just won her first title, but there’s no smile, no elation—nothin’. If you ask me, I think that’s the sign of a champion. She knew she was going to win from the moment she stepped into that ring.”

My eyes darted to the clerk in disbelief, then back at the TV. How had I managed to look so confident I was fooling strangers into thinking I was a champion?

That punch was a fluke. Somehow I’d found the right strike-point at the right moment. I had wanted to win when I stepped into the octagon that night, but even in my wildest dreams I hadn’t thought I would. Not an amateur like me. Not against Taylor Heery, who’d won three titles in a row, beating out way more accomplished fighters than me. Especially not that easily. My stomach flipped again. Underdogs aren’t supposed to win. I wasn’t supposed to win.

As the man rang up the milk and Skittles, I glanced back up at the TV and right into my own blank eyes. My voice came out before I could stop it.

“What if she didn’t know she was going to win? What if she doubted herself even after she threw that punch?”

“That girl?” He scoffed. “She’s a winner. You don’t just throw that kind of punch from nowhere.” He handed me my change.

I stared at him for a second and my head rang: Yes, you do just throw those punches out of nowhere.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, taking my items and turning to leave.

It wasn’t until I reached the door that I heard the man exclaim with wonder, “Well I’ll be damned…” He had likely seen the embroidered letters adorning the back of my sweatshirt advertising Donovan’s Fight Club, the premier mixed martial arts—MMA—facility in Philly where I trained. I cursed my outfit choice and walked away as quickly as I could.

#
           
Loud music from Marc’s ancient iPod pumped through my earbuds as I walked into the gym, greeted by the familiar smell of mustiness and sweat. I’d only been absent for a few days, but god did it feel good to be back.
           
Donovan’s Fight Club was my escape from reality. My escape from Mom’s despair and constant disappearances to the county jail to visit Margie’s dad, Dave. My escape from the judge-y, snot-nosed rich jerks at school. Even my escape from Margie’s sad eyes every time I walked in the door and she realized it would always be me and never Marc arriving home. I went to the gym to train, but that wasn’t why I was there. When I punched the bag, the music from my brother’s iPod blasting in my ear, I could forget everything happening outside the brick walls.
           
I wasn’t sure what I listened to, other than that it was a playlist of songs selected by Marc, which he not-so-creatively titled “Angry.” I listened as the singer screamed out his words, the guitarist fiercely attacked his riffs, and the bass thudded with the driving beat.
           
This playlist was perfect because I was angry. I had been angry since inheriting Marc’s iPod two months ago when he died. Inherit wasn’t exactly the right word—it’s not like Marc had a will. Instead, it had been handed to me at the hospital by a police officer, taken from the wreck of Marc’s car. Unlike Marc, the iPod wasn’t destroyed. It wasn’t even scratched.
           
With my hood up and music blasting, it was like I had tunnel vision. I headed straight for my usual punching bag, the one tucked away in a corner room off the main gym. I threw my bag on the ground and pulled out the grappling gloves Marc had given me nearly a year ago, when we had first started getting into MMA after years of karate and martial arts training. I started my warm-up, switching between punches and kicks.
           
I grunted as I landed a solid kick and watched as the bag swayed. I pounded the bag with fury, every punch crunching against the red leather bag just like the metal of Marc’s car when he slammed into the car in front of him. My legs soared through the air and made contact with the bag just like Marc had flown through his windshield. I tried not to think about Marc, but he haunted me everywhere I went. The anger wasn’t just because he died—it was because left me. Right before my fight. Right before I won the title.

How was I supposed to keep fighting without him at my side?