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Eighth Annual Popular Fiction Awards Grand Prize Winner: "Forfeit"

"Forfeit," by Sandra Anthony, is the Grand Prize winning story for the Eighth Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards, besting 2,300 entries across six genres: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and YA. For complete coverage of this year's awards, including an exclusive interview with Sandra and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer's Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Sandra's winning entry.

Forfeit
by Sandra Anthony

I could not believe my carelessness.

All my life, hadn't Papá always said, "Think for yourself, Edie - don't ever let anyone do your thinking for you"? Hadn't I always prided myself on being able to go against the crowd, to say no when everybody else was saying yes? It was what had made me a success in our small-town ring, the first Muñoz with a shot at a college education, maybe even the Olympics if I stayed on track.

"You have to have the fire, Edie," Papá had said a hundred times, every single day since I had first crawled into the ring to spar with him at age six, my too-big gloves held on with three layers of athletic tape to keep them from falling off. It was his battle cry: "You have to have the fuego!"

What I had was a plan, a way out of our small town life and into bigger things. And I had tossed it away with Marcos on the banks of Lake Patoka.

I shook the pink stick in my hand, unable to believe the tiny plus that had formed there. Last month, when I hadn't gotten my period, I had blamed it on too much cardio, too many late-night workouts with Vic and sparring sessions with Tino. The month before we'd had a tournament every weekend, and I'd scarcely noticed its absence. But this made month number three - almost three months since Marcos came by that night, looking scared and worried about his brother off on a patrol in Kandahar that no one had heard from in two weeks.

I threw the tiny piece of plastic across the room, trying to control my panic. It bounced off the wall with a tiny click of finality and I collapsed onto the bed and burrowed under the covers, my mind reeling. How could I have been such an estúpida?

"Edie?" Papá's deep voice came from downstairs and found its way beneath the comforter. "Supper, mija. Let's go! Gotta eat for tomorrow!"

I got up, grabbed my shorts off the floor and pulled on my favorite sparring t-shirt. It was my lucky shirt; Marcos had won it for me last year at the local county fair. I wore it before every bout. What had I done to deserve my luck running out?

Years of training my body to do things it didn't want to do kicked in. I walked downstairs; I sat at the table with my family. I joked about the fight, and how I was going to crush Marisela, my second biggest rival, in the first round. The match was actually set to be pretty even, but in the Muñoz household, one always laughed at defeat. It was a discipline as set in stone as sit-ups in the morning and carbs before every fight.

"Act confident," Papá would say, "and you will be confident."

I stared at my parents as the spaghetti was passed. They were young - younger than most of my friends' parents. I knew my mother had gotten pregnant with me at sixteen. How many times had she told me the story, how her dreams for college and a career had been thwarted, but lived on in me?

"I am born to be your mother, mija. I live to see you become great. I am so proud of you."

Now my ears burned as my family traded jokes and stories, passing my mother's trademark hot sauce from hand to hand, with my younger brothers and sisters each trying to one-up each other with their own boxing tales. We were a family of the ring to be sure, gym rats one and all. Even my delicate mother could bench press 200 pounds, nearly twice her weight, and my father maintained it was her swift uppercut – applied to his jaw once when he had gotten a little too fresh – that had won his heart when they were young.

"Mamá?" Suddenly, I couldn't bear being with them another moment. "Mamá, may I be excused?"

She wrinkled her brows, looking at me with concern. "Porque, mija?" Why?

"I'm full. Really – look." I held out my empty plate as proof, counting on the fact that no one had noticed I had consumed less than half my usual portion.

"Besides," I gave a fake yawn and stretched. "I want to make sure I get plenty of sleep tonight. Wanna be fresh so I can enjoy my victory tomorrow." I winked, grinned, stood up. "Please?"

"Well, that was fast." She wrinkled her brow, turning to Papá. "What do you say, Coach?"

Papá nodded approvingly. "Está bien." Fine. "Better more sleep than less. Sweet dreams, mija."

He grinned and turned back his plate, and I took my cue. "Right. Got it. 'Night all." I did a couple of step-jab moves, sparring the invisible Marisela as I moved out of the dining room, but the moment I was past the threshold, my hands dropped like lead to my side.

Slowly, I climbed the stairs, feeling a hundred years old. When I got to my room, I didn't even bother to turn on the light or take off my clothes. I just slid beneath the covers and prayed for sleep to come, for anything that would erase the revelation of the past hours and bring me back to the moment where I was still in control of my own destiny.

* * *

The next morning I was up before dawn as usual, and out of the house by six. On fight days, I ran alone, clearing my head, preparing for the battle ahead. Boxing is only 50% physical; the rest is the head game, the psych you put on your opponent, and the way you prepare yourself. You have to think winning, plan on it. Without confidence in the ring, you're too careful, too unwilling to take risks. You cannot be afraid of failing, pain, or your opponent. You have to have the fuego.

That morning, my route took me up Old Pine Road and around Digger's Canyon to the lake. My family had been running, fishing, and camping here for years. It was only natural that Marcos and I would come here that night.

I ran and ran, punishing myself with extra uphill paths until finally I came to our spot, a gentle glen hidden from the other trails by a stand of cedar trees. I burst through the branches at full speed and pulled up fast, suddenly realizing where I was. Apparently, this had been my destination all along.

The sun burst through the trees and drew shimmering patterns across the water, its bronze warmth creeping up the horizon as I fell to my knees, breathing hard, and finally let out all the tears and anger I had been holding in for the past twelve hours.

"WHHHHYYYYYY?" My scream cut the morning air like diamonds on glass, and threw myself facedown, pounding on the grass like the bell had just sounded for a title bout. I screamed, shouted, and heaped abuse on myself, Marcos, and God, who had let a stupid girl get into such an impossible predicament. Didn't I go to Mass every Sunday and say a Hail Mary before every fight? What could I have possibly done to deserve such a fate?

The chill of damp soil was soaking into my sweats as my life with a baby flashed before me. I would be my mother all over again, my dreams dashed and my hopes for a better life evaporated. I pictured my parents' face when they learned the truth, the disappointment of brothers and sisters who bragged about me constantly, and how our dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins would talk every time I left the room for the rest of my life. I would be fat, tired all the time. No boy would want a girlfriend who already had a baby.

Finally, I couldn't cry anymore, and I rolled over, glancing at my phone. Nearly seven - the fight was at ten. They would be wondering what had become of me.

I was wondering the same thing.

Still, I couldn't go back just yet. I needed a plan. Papá had taught me this. "You need a clear path, mija," he would say. "You must go in prepared to attack."

It was a strategy for the ring, but also for life. He approached everything this way; if you had a plan worked out in advance, you wouldn't need to think as much in the execution. There would be less opportunity for hesitation, for fear. But every plan also had a cost. "Sacrifices are necessary," he would say to me whenever I complained of some restriction on my diet or activities that kept me from being like other girls my age. "You give up something important now to hold on to something bigger that is yet to come."

Tree branches clattered above me, and I squinted at blue sky, all the time lightening and bringing on the day. Birds sang, and the breeze flowed gently across my face. Almost without thinking, my hands found my belly, the slight protrusion there that I had been blaming on a few extra carbs. What would it cost me now?

You don't have to do this. The thought seemed to come from nowhere, but in an instant, I saw the formation of a simple plan. All female boxers took pregnancy tests every three months; I would retake mine within a week. This was the last bout I would be able to fight before anyone realized what was going on. Could boxing today really be the answer to my predicament?

I sat up, shaking my head. This was madness. Was I really considering it?

And yet… my hands rested on that bump, and I took a deep breath. Was it not reasonable to forfeit one small thing in order to protect a greater good? Forgive me, little one, I thought as I slowly got to my knees. This just isn’t your time.

For a moment, I looked around the glen, imagining it the way it was that night, Marcos so quiet and distant, so unreachable until I offered the one thing I had that I thought might comfort him: myself. I wondered what he would think, what he would say to the idea of a baby, our baby?

Nothing.

He had said nothing, and so I would say nothing. I stood up, my contacts clouded from the tears and my muscles contracting in stiff protest against this unexpected break. I looked around one last time, then pointed myself towards home, breaking out of the glen at a dead run.

It felt good to have a plan.

* * *

Although Papá was not greatly pleased at my extended run that morning, he did not fuss too much. He knew that I needed the time to clear my head and get ready for what I was about to do. Anything that made me more ready to fight was ultimately all right in his book.

Breakfast was peanut butter sandwiches with honey and Gatorade, a sugar, carb and fat combo that would give me the boost of energy I'd need in the fight. Then the whole family piled into our minivan for the drive across town to the gym, while I went with Papá in his car. An hour before the fight, people were already assembled in the folding chairs surrounding the ring. A few cheered as I walked by, heading for the locker room, and I waved and tried to smile confidently.

In the locker room, I changed into my shorts and top, then held out my hands for my father to tape. He wound the adhesive expertly around my fingers and wrists, then reached for my gloves across my lap. His hands brushed my stomach, and I jumped.

"What's the matter, mija?" He looked at me with concern. "You psyching yourself out? You gotta focus if you gonna kick butt out there!"

"What? No Papá, I was just… thinking." My stomach felt seared from his accidental touch, and suddenly, I swore I could feel it move. I shook my head, trying to clear it. "I'm fine."

But even I didn't believe me.

He knelt down in front of me. "What is it, mija? Qué es la problema?" I shook my head, blinking, and reached to take the gloves from him. "Nada, Papá." Nothing.

He looked at me hard. "This is not about the fight, is it?"

I shook my head, but refused to meet his eyes as he expertly yanked my laces tight, adjusting the tension perfectly on each glove. Inside, I balled my fists and let my nails bite into my palms, focusing on the pain. He crouched down before me, reached out and took my chin.

"Mija." My daughter. "Is it Marcos?"

His eyes met mine and I gasped. How did he know?

"I'm not blind, mija." He cracked a half-hearted grin, and shook his head. "True, what I know about women you could fit into your mother's sewing thimble, or so she often tells me. But he always used to come around, and now," he sighed and dropped his hand, running it through his increasingly graying hair. "Now you fight every battle with the bag like it's mortal combat. You've never been so motivated in the ring. I figured maybe you had a reason for wanting to hurt someone."

I had no idea what to say. How could I explain that leaving was the least of what Marcos had done, and that rather than victim I had been accomplice? Visions flashed in my mind of my father ripping him limb from limb, half-satisfying, half-terrifying. I shook my head silently.

"We went different ways, Papá. But I miss him."

He nodded. "This missing - it cannot get in your way, mija - you know this, yes?" I nodded and held out my wrists again for his inspection.

"Good." Satisfied, he tapped my gloves with his fists, pulled me up from the bench into one of his famous bear hugs.

"Don't worry, little one. You're going to mop the floor with that Marisela today." Safe from prying eyes, I nodded again into his shoulder and hoped he didn't notice the moisture that was leaking from my face onto his hoodie.

* * *

The roar of the crowd has always been my favorite part of boxing. It's such an intense build-up, standing behind the curtain, and then suddenly, there you are, walking to the ring, your hair pulled back and your gloves high, you opponent already trying to psych you out from the opposite corner. It's loud and obnoxious and terrible and wonderful, and it never fails to send a shot of adrenaline racing through me, no matter how hyped up I already am. Maybe sports stars are really just actors with good conditioning - all I know is that I love to hear the screams. It means it's time to do my thing.

That day, the noise was even louder than usual, since I was on home turf and each of my brothers and sisters had recruited a few of their friends to come and cheer for me. After hearing the decibel level of my fans, I almost felt sorry for dumb old Marisela; she didn't even have much of a cheering section.

My sympathies were short-lived. Though her name might have sounded delicate, Marisela was a 5'10" bruiser at the top of our weight class, and she wore her hair in about a hundred little braids that she had pulled back into a tight ponytail beneath her headgear. She was shadow boxing when I stepped into the ring, and she didn't

even stop to look at me. I felt a chill crawl up my legs and spread out across my skin; this girl was not there to mess around.

The bell rang and we tapped gloves, then went back to our respective corners. Papá was waiting for me with water and my mouth guard.

"Fuego, mija," he whispered quietly as he slipped my headgear on, and I nodded. It was the last thing he said to me before every fight.

The bell rang, and we came out from our corners. Gloves up, we circled for a few seconds, jabbing and weaving without contact, until without warning, Marisela dove in with a swift left jab that caught me upside the head. My neck whipped around and I stumbled back, struggling to keep my footing. She bounced back out, appraising the damage, then came at me again.

"Gloves up, mija!" Papá was screaming, and I did it instinctively, dancing back out of her reach. I dodged another left-handed zinger, caught a slug to my right shoulder, and danced away again, realizing only peripherally that she had already almost forced me to the ropes.

"Focus, mija!" I shook my head, bouncing to my right, then came back at Marisela with my patented right hook. It caught her across the cheek, but she managed to deflect the majority of the impact with her left arm, and used the opportunity to come after me, pounding on my chest as she got up into my space.

The bell rang, the first two-minute period over already, and I sank back into my corner, Papa right there to give me water and get down in my face.

"Whatcha doin' out there, mija? Where's your focus? She's all over you - what's going on?"

I shook my head and eyed the burly girl across from me - it had all happened so fast. She was fierce, and I was already getting psyched out. Unconsciously, I rubbed my hand over the elastic of my shorts, feeling the contours of the tiny bump beneath.

From just beyond the ropes, I could see a tiny girl near Marisela's corner, clapping and shouting her support. Not quite four years old, she stood on the lap of an older woman, perhaps that of her grandmother, her hair in tight pigtails that stuck out from her head. She was waving her tiny arms and hollering, "Gooooo, Mamí!" as she tried to jump, missed the woman's legs, and almost tumbled headlong to the concrete floor. The woman scooped her up just in time, laughing and scolding at the same time. I wrinkled my nose and tried to understand. Marisela had a child?

"Mija!" Papá had my chin in his hand, jerking my eyes back around to meet his. "What is the matter with you? Focus! Fuego!"

The bell rang and he shoved me back into the ring where Marisela waited, her eyes alight with anticipation. Out of instinct, I put my gloves up, took a deep breath, and advanced. Closing off all thoughts of anything but the girl before me, I could feel my competitive instincts kicking in at last. I narrowed my eyes and scowled, trying to remember what I had learned about her weaknesses. Left-handed. Weak right instep. Slow on the uptake if you can get her into a defensive position. I danced and bobbed, buying a few more seconds, then dove in suddenly, leading with my right, blocking with the left. She saw me coming, but I was quicker, forcing her back with two fast jabs as I came in relentless, focusing on body blows. Immediately the crowd exploded in cheers as I forced her back. She stepped sideways, but I anticipated, moved with her.

Then we were locked together and I had her arms around my chest as I pounded away at her head and shoulders while she struggled to separate. With a quick twist, she pulled away and we came apart, glaring, before she moved in again to come after me.

I ducked right, felt her left jab whistle past, and sent one of my own flying back. The noise in the gym was deafening, so loud that I almost didn't hear the bell. She fell back from me, retreated to her corner, and I stood upright, breathing hard. Two periods down – two more to go.

Papa waited at corner for me, his eyes bright with excitement. "Better, mija! Much better!"

He squirted water in my mouth and down my back, wiped away the sweat on my face while I spit. I kept my eyes closed, trying to stay focused. Nothing must distract from the goal. The bell rang again, and I bounded back into the ring this time, adrenaline pumping, and tore out after Marisela with a new vengeance.

The change in me seemed to have thrown her; she seemed more defensive, and I was throwing every punch with no regard for consequences. Within a minute, I had her back to the ropes and was busy pounding away. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the most unbelievable sight.

Marcos.

He was standing in back of the crowd on Marisela's side, half-hidden by a concrete pillar, and he was not cheering.

But his eyes were locked on me.

For just a second, my concentration broke and my blows flagged, and that millisecond of hesitation was all the opening that Marisela needed. She bucked forward and pushed me back, then rose up, coming after me. The crowd roared as I danced back, jabbing and hustling, but in my mind, the noise was even louder.

What is he doing here?

She came in hard then, her left thrust catching me square on the chin, snapping my head back, and tossing me to one side. I stumbled, tasted blood, felt the mat beneath my knees and automatically bounced back up, right into her line of fire.

Bam! I felt the impact on my torso before I realized what was happening. It had not been a hard hit, but it had landed in just the right spot. Pain radiated down my legs and I stumbled again, on my knees once more.

What am I doing?

The sound of the bell had never been so welcome. Papá waited for me in the corner, his hands firm, setting me down and removing my mouth guard, checking for damage to my teeth and gums.

"Cut lip, mija, nothing more." He scanned my face within the headgear. "Maybe a black eye tomorrow, no big deal. You're doing great! Got your fuego back – just keep her on the defensive. You're killin’ her!"

I said nothing, and he paused, seeming to notice for the first time my own lack of response.

"Mija?"

His voice was impossible to ignore, and yet, seemed to be coming at me from a tremendous distance. The pain from my stomach had descended to the space between my legs, and I was swimming in it, the room spinning.

Marcos's face. Legs and arms tangled in a space by water, a lake. Babies who wailed and cried "Go, Mami!" and Marisela's face, relentlessly advancing, leaning over to watch me as I fell into black places, while I did time for murder, for killing…

Hail Mary, full of grace... blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb...

"No!" I heard my own voice at last, and shook my head, scrambling up from the darkness that threatened to entomb me alive. Above me, Papá stared, astonished.

"No what, mija?"

I shook my head slowly, forcing out the words. "No. I can't kill her."

The bell rang, and Papá pushed me to my feet, his eyes full of concern. "Mija. It's just an expression."

You give up something important now to hold on to something bigger that is yet to come.

"No." I was certain now. I looked for Marcos, but he had vanished. The crowd was quieting, their expectation dented by my own inaction. Marisela stood before me, gloves up, her face registering confusion. Waves of dizziness and pain swept me again, and I raised my glove to signal the ref.

"I forfeit."

It was a moment I have never once regretted.

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