Finalist: "1" by Lisa Wang
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    Every day, I see them. The students. I am jealous of them, because I should be one of them.

    Not necessarily one of them—were I to attend university, it wouldn’t be Northwestern University or even an American university. No, I would have attended the Institute for the Arts in Kabul.

    That was years ago, though. It was an old wound.

    I mopped the sweat off my brow with my forearm and continued weeding the patch of dirt before me. It needed to be completely cleared before we could plant the…whatever they were called. Despite years in this business, I had never bothered to learn to identify plants. My job was to plant them as deep and in the amount of sunlight or shade specified in my supervisor’s notes. I guess it would have been useful to know which flowers were which. Maybe subliminally I thought that knowing about plants made me an actual landscaper, as opposed to just being in it for the paycheck.

    Anyway, they were purple. We did this every year. In fact, the university was our best customer. They planted purple flowers all over campus to show school spirit. Personally, I thought purple was a silly color. Leave it to Americans.

    I plunged the dirt-encrusted spade into the thick soil. Clay, that’s what it was. The kind of soil ideal for growing hardy crops, like corn and soy. No wonder the delicate violet blooms wilted after only one season. Their wispy roots couldn’t absorb a drop of water from this soil.

    More students running by, speaking in rapid English. A couple of Indian students ambled by, speaking in American-tinged Pashto. They didn’t know I could understand them. They probably didn’t even think I was Afghani. They probably thought I was Hispanic, like some of the other landscapers at work who tried addressing me in Spanish.

    It wasn’t often that I came across Afghani students, but when I did at times like now, jealousy clenched me from inside. I wanted to be one of them, privileged, futures open to anything. Their worlds weren’t war-ravaged, and even if they had suffered losses their individual lives hadn’t changed course. Not like mine had.

    The students were out of my sight by now and the envy ebbed away. I turned my attention back to the flowers before me. I placed one in the ground and patted soil around it, looking at it pityingly. Pathetic thing. It didn’t stand a chance.

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