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"Once upon a time—no, no, that's not right . . ." Laura chewed on her thumbnail and pouted. "Gosh, I just can't seem to get this right!" Finally, she threw down her pencil, crumpled up the paper and jammed it into the plastic trash can in the corner of her room. Smacking her forehead with a sweaty palm, Laura threw herself on her bed and punched her pillow. "How am I supposed to become the world's greatest novelist, let alone the winner of this writing contest, if I can't even start the dumb story?!" she questioned her tattered teddy bear, Henry.

In exasperation, Laura rolled onto the floor and stared up at the chipped ceiling of her room. Smothered in the sticky embrace of the stiff quiet in her room, Laura's mind filled with cloudy memories of the past. Tiptoeing in, they seemed to fill in the chinks of her brain connecting her to the world, and she was lost to reality.

Images of a pleasant, smiling face and bubbling laughter flickered in Laura's mind, as if she was watching her past on a movie screen. That's when she saw it—the face. Like a dangerous beast, it haunted her dreams, serving as a token of what she had lost. Choking on a sob, Laura clung to her teddy bear. Blinking, she returned to the present. Slowly rising to her feet, she quietly padded over to her night table, and tugged open the wooden drawer hesitantly. Rummaging inside for what seemed like hours, but was only a matter of mere minutes, Laura's shaking fingers clasped what she was hunting for—the photograph. Revealing the picture, she stroked the figure lovingly. "Dad," she whispered. "Dad . . ."

A Winner girl looking at picture
Revealing the picture, she stroked the figure lovingly. Dad," she whispered. Dad . . . "

Suddenly, her mother's voice bit into the haziness surrounding Laura. "Laur, hon? Laura! It's lunchtime! C'mon, sweetie, I have to leave soon! Laura, lunch!" Sensing the impatience in her mother's summoning, Laura quickly stuck the picture back into the drawer and scampered down the steps. Sliding into a seat at the kitchen table, Laura drummed her fingers on the table as she inhaled the delicious smell of the grilled cheese baking in the toaster.

Quickly gobbling up every last morsel of the sandwich, Laura listened to her mom tell her of the appointment that she had to run off to and that "she hoped Laura wouldn't mind if she had to fix herself some dinner and she would be back early tomorrow morning."

"You know, there's canned soup in the cupboard, honey," Mrs. Hanley called from the front hall as she shouldered her purse and flipped up her sunglasses. "Be a love and take out the trash, will you sweetie? Oh, and don't forget you do have homework to do even though it's Saturday. Laurie — don't spend too much time on that writing contest thing, you know just as well as I do that you have plenty of more important things to be spending your time on. Well, I'll try and call when I get there, OK? Bye, sweetie!"

Sighing, Laura cleared her place and rinsed off the dishes, after watching her mother's beat-up station wagon rumble off into the distance. Typical mother, she thought disgustedly. Nonetheless, she did as she had been instructed to and emptied the trash out into the bin at the back of the house. Back inside her cozy room, Laura kicked off her tennis shoes and plucked the clothespin off her nose, pulling up the broken blinds on her window.

Once again sitting silently at her desk, Laura stared solemnly at the picture of her dad that she had placed gingerly down in front of herself. Studying the man's unique features, she decided she had a lot in common with her dad—the same wispy chestnut hair and twinkling green eyes. In fact, looking closer, Laura could see she and her father had the same smile, creasing at the corners and slightly lopsided.

Laura could remember that smile from a long time ago—at her third birthday party when her father had dressed up like a clown and performed silly tricks; and at the beach when she was eight, when together they had built a tall, stately sand castle, crowned with a small stick and soiled piece of fish netting. Chuckling to herself, Laura recalled the time that her father had spilled an entire orange soda on his jeans on purpose to match Laura's own when she had wet her pants. Smiling sadly at the picture, Laura felt that hole in her heart, that missing piece in the puzzle. True, it was a corner piece, hard to accommodate without. But, nevertheless, as Laura's father had taught her, everything is possible. How many times had he said, time and again, no one's a winner without making the effort? And Laura wanted so much to be her father's daughter—to be the winner that she knew he had in his heart. Sharing the same secret passion, Laura and her father had always thought alike and acted alike. Now he was merely a whisper on the wind. But now Laura realized that it was up to her to carry on that special passion and bring out the real winner inside her that was bottled up. These selfish tears she had cried from time to time were the cork that kept her true self inside. And now, she was ready to unplug the cork.

Filled with new inspiration and soaring spirits, Laura picked up her pencil and a clean stack of paper, and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. In fact, she set up her flashlight and was still busy scribbling well into the night. At last, when the first golden purple streaks of the sunrise were painted across the sky's easel, Laura set down her pencil once again and sat back into her pillows to read what she had written. What her hand had written, with a mind of its own. And as her lips sounded out the last sweet syllable of this masterpiece, Laura didn't have to seal the envelope, she didn't have to receive the congratulations letter, she didn't have to gaze happily at her mother's astonished yet proud face, to know that she was a winner.

A Winner Allison Stadd
Allison Stadd, 12
Bethesda, Maryland

A Winner Natalie Chin
Natalie Chin, 8
Bellevue, Washington