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Chapter 9

Sitting in the middle of my room the next morning, I ripped open box after box of presents. I don't know why I even bothered, since I just gave them a joyless glance and pitched them to the corner of the room. The pile was growing there: a Polaroid camera, a transistor radio, an elaborate electric train set--and several sealed envelopes containing cash. I knew I'd never spend the money or listen to the radio, and the electric train would never trundle down its tracks in my room. I didn't want any of it--it was all blood money; Baba would have never thrown me a party like that if I hadn't won the tournament.

Baba gave me two presents. One was sure to become the envy of every kid in the neighborhood: a brand new Schwinn Stingray, the king of all bicycles. Only a handful of kids in all of Kabul owned a new Stingray and now I was one of them. It had high-rise handlebars with black rubber grips and its famous banana seat. The spokes were gold colored and the steel-frame body red, like a candy apple. Or blood. Any other kid would have hopped on the bike immediately and taken it for a full block skid. I might have done the same a few months ago.

"You like it??Baba said, leaning in the doorway to my room. I gave him a sheepish grin and a quick "Thank you.?I wished I could have mustered more.

"We could go for a ride,?Baba said. An invitation, but only a halfhearted one.

"Maybe later. I'm a little tired,?I said.

"Sure,?Baba said.

"Baba??

"Yes??

"Thanks for the fireworks,?I said. A thank-you, but only a halfhearted one.

"Get some rest,?Baba said, walking toward his room.

The other present Baba gave me--and he didn't wait around for me to open this one--was a wristwatch. It had a blue face with gold hands in the shape of lightning bolts. I didn't even try it on. I tossed it on the pile of toys in the corner. The only gift I didn't toss on that mound was Rahim Khan's leather-bound notebook. That was the only one that didn't feel like blood money.

I sat on the edge of my bed, turned the notebook in my hands, thought about what Rahim Khan had said about Homaira, how his father's dismissing her had been for the best in the end. She would have suffered. Like the times Kaka Homayoun's projector got stuck on the same slide, the same image kept flashing in my mind over and over: Hassan, his head downcast, serving drinks to Assef and Wali. Maybe it would be for the best. Lessen his suffering. And mine too. Either way, this much had become clear: One of us had to go.

Later that afternoon, I took the Schwinn for its first and last spin. I pedaled around the block a couple of times and came back. I rolled up the driveway to the backyard where Hassan and Ali were cleaning up the mess from last night's party. Paper cups, crumpled napkins, and empty bottles of soda littered the yard. Ali was folding chairs, setting them along the wall. He saw me and waved.

"Salaam, All,?I said, waving back.

He held up a finger, asking me to wait, and walked to his living quarters. A moment later, he emerged with something in his hands. "The opportunity never presented itself last night for Hassan and me to give you this,?he said, handing me a box. "It's mod est and not worthy of you, Amir agha. But we hope you like it still. Happy birthday.?

A lump was rising in my throat. "Thank you, Ali,?I said. I wished they hadn't bought me anything. I opened the box and found a brand new _Shahnamah_, a hardback with glossy colored illustrations beneath the passages. Here was Ferangis gazing at her newborn son, Kai Khosrau. There was Afrasiyab riding his horse, sword drawn, leading his army. And, of course, Rostam inflicting a mortal wound onto his son, the warrior Sohrab. "It's beautiful,?I said.

"Hassan said your copy was old and ragged, and that some of the pages were missing,?Ali said. "All the pictures are hand-drawn in this one with pen and ink,?he added proudly, eyeing a book neither he nor his son could read.

"It's lovely,?I said. And it was. And, I suspected, not inexpensive either. I wanted to tell Ali it was not the book, but I who was unworthy. I hopped back on the bicycle. "Thank Hassan for me,?I said.

I ended up tossing the book on the heap of gifts in the corner of my room. But my eyes kept going back to it, so I buried it at the
bottom. Before I went to bed that night, I asked Baba if he'd seen my new watch anywhere.


THE NEXT MORNING, I waited in my room for Ali to clear the breakfast table in the kitchen. Waited for him to do the dishes, wipe the counters. I looked out my bedroom window and waited until Ali and Hassan went grocery shopping to the bazaar, pushing the empty wheelbarrows in front of them.

Then I took a couple of the envelopes of cash from the pile of gifts and my watch, and tiptoed out. I paused before Baba's study and listened in. He'd been in there all morning, making phone calls. He was talking to someone now, about a shipment of rugs due to arrive next week. I went downstairs, crossed the yard, and entered Ali and Hassan's living quarters by the loquat tree. I lifted Hassan's mattress and planted my new watch and a handful of Afghani bills under it.

I waited another thirty minutes. Then I knocked on Baba's door and told what I hoped would be the last in a long line of shameful lies.


THROUGH MY BEDROOM WINDOW, I watched Ali and Hassan push the wheelbarrows loaded with meat, _naan_, fruit, and vegetables up the driveway. I saw Baba emerge from the house and walk up to Ali. Their mouths moved over words I couldn't hear. Baba pointed to the house and Ali nodded. They separated. Baba came back to the house; Ali followed Hassan to their hut.

A few moments later, Baba knocked on my door. "Come to my office,?he said. "We're all going to sit down and settle this thing.?

I went to Baba's study, sat in one of the leather sofas. It was thirty minutes or more before Hassan and Ali joined us.


THEY'D BOTH BEEN CRYING; I could tell from their red, puffed up eyes. They stood before Baba, hand in hand, and I wondered how and when I'd become capable of causing this kind of pain.

Baba came right out and asked. "Did you steal that money? Did you steal Amir's watch, Hassan??

Hassan's reply was a single word, delivered in a thin, raspy voice: "Yes.?

I flinched, like I'd been slapped. My heart sank and I almost blurted out the truth. Then I understood: This was Hassan's final sacrifice for me. If he'd said no, Baba would have believed him because we all knew Hassan never lied. And if Baba believed him, then I'd be the accused; I would have to explain and I would be revealed for what I really was. Baba would never, ever forgive me. And that led to another understanding: Hassan knew He knew I'd seen everything in that alley, that I'd stood there and done nothing. He knew I had betrayed him and yet he was rescuing me once again, maybe for the last time. I loved him in that moment, loved him more than I'd ever loved anyone, and I wanted to tell them all that I was the snake in the grass, the monster in the lake. I wasn't worthy of this sacrifice; I was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. And I would have told, except that a part of me was glad. Glad that this would all be over with soon. Baba would dismiss them, there would be some pain, but life would move on. I wanted that, to move on, to forget, to start with a clean slate. I wanted to be able to breathe again.

Except Baba stunned me by saying, "I forgive you.?

Forgive? But theft was the one unforgivable sin, the common denominator of all sins. When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. There is no act more wretched than stealing. Hadn't Baba sat me on his lap and said those words to me? Then how could he just forgive Hassan? And if Baba could forgive that, then why couldn't he forgive me for not being the son he'd always wanted? Why--"We are leaving, Agha sahib,?Ali said.

"What??Baba said, the color draining from his face.

"We can't live here anymore,?Ali said.

"But I forgive him, Ali, didn't you hear??said Baba.

"life here is impossible for us now, Agha sahib. We're leaving.?Ali drew Hassan to him, curled his arm around his son's shoulder. It was a protective gesture and I knew whom Ali was protecting him from. Ali glanced my way and in his cold, unforgiving look, I saw that Hassan had told him. He had told him everything, about what Assef and his friends had done to him, about the kite, about me. Strangely, I was glad that someone knew me for who I really was; I was tired of pretending.

"I don't care about the money or the watch,?Baba said, his arms open, palms up. "I don't understand why you're doing this... what do you mean ‘impossible??

"I'm sorry, Agha sahib, but our bags are already packed. We have made our decision.?

Baba stood up, a sheen of grief across his face. "Ali, haven't I provided well for you? Haven't I been good to you and Hassan? You're the brother I never had, Ali, you know that. Please don't do this.?

"Don't make this even more difficult than it already is, Agha sahib,?Ali said. His mouth twitched and, for a moment, I thought I saw a grimace. That was when I understood the depth of the pain I had caused, the blackness of the grief I had brought onto everyone, that not even Ali's paralyzed face could mask his sorrow. I forced myself to look at Hassan, but his head was downcast, his shoulders slumped, his finger twirling a loose string on the hem of his shirt.

Baba was pleading now. "At least tell me why. I need to know!?

Ali didn't tell Baba, just as he didn't protest when Hassan confessed to the stealing. I'll never really know why, but I could imagine the two of them in that dim little hut, weeping, Hassan pleading him not to give me away. But I couldn't imagine the restraint it must have taken Ali to keep that promise.

"Will you drive us to the bus station??

"I forbid you to do this!?Baba bellowed. "Do you hear me? I forbid you!?

"Respectfully, you can't forbid me anything, Agha sahib,?Ali said. "We don't work for you anymore.?

"Where will you go??Baba asked. His voice was breaking.

"Hazarajat.?

"To your cousin??

"Yes. Will you take us to the bus station, Agha sahib??

Then I saw Baba do something I had never seen him do before:

He cried. It scared me a little, seeing a grown man sob. Fathers weren't supposed to cry. "Please,?Baba was saying, but Ali had already turned to the door, Hassan trailing him. I'll never forget the way Baba said that, the pain in his plea, the fear.


IN KABUL, it rarely rained in the summer. Blue skies stood tall and far, the sun like a branding iron searing the back of your neck. Creeks where Hassan and I skipped stones all spring turned dry, and rickshaws stirred dust when they sputtered by. People went to mosques for their ten raka'ts of noontime prayer and then retreated to whatever shade they could find to nap in, waiting for the cool of early evening. Summer meant long school days sweating in tightly packed, poorly ventilated classrooms learning to recite ayats from the Koran, struggling with those tongue-twisting, exotic Arabic words. It meant catching flies in your palm while the mullah droned on and a hot breeze brought with it the smell of shit from the outhouse across the schoolyard, churning dust around the lone rickety basketball hoop.

But it rained the afternoon Baba took Ali and Hassan to the bus station. Thunderheads rolled in, painted the sky iron gray. Within minutes, sheets of rain were sweeping in, the steady hiss of falling water swelling in my ears.

Baba had offered to drive them to Bamiyan himself, but Ali refused. Through the blurry, rain-soaked window of my bedroom, I watched Ali haul the lone suitcase carrying all of their belongings to Baba's car idling outside the gates. Hassan lugged his mattress, rolled tightly and tied with a rope, on his back. He'd left all of his toys behind in the empty shack--I discovered them the next day, piled in a corner just like the birthday presents in my room.

Slithering beads of rain sluiced down my window. I saw Baba slam the trunk shut. Already drenched, he walked to the driver's side. Leaned in and said something to Ali in the backseat, perhaps one last-ditch effort to change his mind. They talked that way awhile, Baba getting soaked, stooping, one arm on the roof of the car. But when he straightened, I saw in his slumping shoulders that the life I had known since I'd been born was over. Baba slid in. The headlights came on and cut twin funnels of light in the rain. If this were one of the Hindi movies Hassan and I used to watch, this was the part where I'd run outside, my bare feet splashing rainwater. I'd chase the car, screaming for it to stop. I'd pull Hassan out of the backseat and tell him I was sorry, so sorry, my tears mixing with rainwater. We'd hug in the downpour. But this was no Hindi movie. I was sorry, but I didn't cry and I didn't chase the car. I watched Baba's car pull away from the curb, taking with it the person whose first spoken word had been my name. I caught one final blurry glimpse of Hassan slumped in the back seat before Baba turned left at the street corner where we'd played marbles so many times.

I stepped back and all I saw was rain through windowpanes that looked like melting silver.



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