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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 18

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No, not
older, old. Was that possible? Lines had etched into his tanned face and creases
framed his eyes, his mouth. I might as well have taken a knife and carved those
lines myself.

"What would you do?" I repeated.

The color fell from his face. Next to him, the stapled pages of the story I'd
promised to read him fluttered in the breeze. I hurled the pomegranate at him. It
struck him in the chest, exploded in a spray of red pulp. Hassan's cry was
pregnant with surprise and pain.

Hit me back!" I snapped. Hassan looked from the stain on his chest to me.

"Get up! Hit me!" I said. Hassan did get up, but he just stood there, looking
dazed like a man dragged into the ocean by a riptide when, just a moment ago, he
was enjoying a nice stroll on the beach.

I hit him with another pomegranate, in the shoulder this time. The juice
splattered his face. "Hit me back!" I spat. "Hit me back, goddamn you!" I wished
he would. I wished he'd give me the punishment I craved, so maybe I'd finally
sleep at night. Maybe then things could return to how they used to be between
us. But Hassan did nothing as I pelted him again and again. "You're a coward!" I
said. "Nothing but a goddamn coward!"

I don't know how many times I hit him. All I know is that, when I finally
stopped, exhausted and panting, Hassan was smeared in red like he'd been shot
by a firing squad. I fell to my knees, tired, spent, frustrated.

Then Hassan did pick up a pomegranate. He walked toward me. He
opened it and crushed it against his own forehead. "There," he croaked, red
dripping down his face like blood. "Are you satisfied? Do you feel better?" He
turned around and started down the hill.

I let the tears break free, rocked back and forth on my knees.

"What am I going to do with you, Hassan? What am I going to do with
you?" But by the time the tears dried up and I trudged down the hill, I knew the
answer to that question.

I TURNED THIRTEEN that summer of 1976, Afghanistan's next to last summer of
peace and anonymity. Things between Baba and me were already cooling off
again. I think what started it was the stupid comment I'd made the day we were
planting tulips, about getting new servants. I regretted saying it--I really did--but
I think even if I hadn't, our happy little interlude would have come to an end.
Maybe not quite so soon, but it would have. By the end of the summer, the
scraping of spoon and fork against the plate had replaced dinner table chatter
and Baba had resumed retreating to his study after supper. And closing the door.
I'd gone back to thumbing through Hafez and Khayyam, gnawing my nails down
to the cuticles, writing stories. I kept the stories in a stack under my bed, keeping

them just in case, though I doubted Baba would ever again ask me to read them
to him.

Baba's motto about throwing parties was this: Invite the whole world or
it's not a party. I remember scanning over the invitation list a week before my
birthday party and not recognizing at least three-quarters of the four hundred-
plus Kakas and Khalas who were going to bring me gifts and congratulate me for
having lived to thirteen. Then I realized they weren't really coming for me. It was
my birthday, but I knew who the real star of the show was.

For days, the house was teeming with Baba's hired help. There was
Salahuddin the butcher, who showed up with a calf and two sheep in tow,
refusing payment for any of the three. He slaughtered the animals himself in the
yard by a poplar tree. "Blood is good for the tree," I remember him saying as the
grass around the poplar soaked red. Men I didn't know climbed the oak trees
with coils of small electric bulbs and meters of extension cords. Others set up
dozens of tables in the yard, spread a tablecloth on each. The night before the big
party Baba's friend Del-Muhammad, who owned a kabob house in Shar-e-Nau,
came to the house with his bags of spices. Like the butcher, Del-Muhammad-or
Dello, as Baba called him-refused payment for his services. He said Baba had
done enough for his family already. It was Rahim Khan who whispered to me, as
Dello marinated the meat, that Baba had lent Dello the money to open his
restaurant. Baba had refused repayment until Dello had shown up one day in our
driveway in a Benz and insisted he wouldn't leave until Baba took his money.

I guess in most ways, or at least in the ways in which parties are judged,
my birthday bash was a huge success. I'd never seen the house so packed. Guests
with drinks in hand were chatting in the hallways, smoking on the stairs, leaning
against doorways. They sat where they found space, on kitchen counters, in the
foyer, even under the stairwell. In the backyard, they mingled under the glow of
blue, red, and green lights winking in the trees, their faces illuminated by the
light of kerosene torches propped everywhere. Baba had had a stage built on the
balcony that overlooked the garden and planted speakers throughout the yard.
Ahmad Zahir was playing an accordion and singing on the stage over masses of
dancing bodies.

I had to greet each of the guests personally-Baba made sure of that; no
one was going to gossip the next day about how he'd raised a son with no
manners. I kissed hundreds of cheeks, hugged total strangers, thanked them for
their gifts. My face ached from the strain of my plastered smile.

I was standing with Baba in the yard near the bar when someone said,
"Happy birthday, Amir." It was Assef, with his parents. Assef's father, Mahmood,
was a short, lanky sort with dark skin and a narrow face. His mother, Tanya, was
a small, nervous woman who smiled and blinked a lot. Assef was standing
between the two of them now, grinning, looming over both, his arms resting on
their shoulders. He led them toward us, like he had brought them here. Like he
was the parent, and they his children. A wave of dizziness rushed through me.
Baba thanked them for coming.

"I picked out your present myself," Assef said. Tanya's face twitched and
her eyes flicked from Assef to me. She smiled, unconvincingly, and blinked. I
wondered if Baba had noticed.

"Still playing soccer, Assef jan?" Baba said. He'd always wanted me to be
friends with Assef.

Assef smiled. It was creepy how genuinely sweet he made it look. "Of
course, Kaka jan."

"Right wing, as I recall?"

"Actually, I switched to center forward this year," Assef said. "You get to
score more that way. We're playing the Mekro-Rayan team next week. Should be
a good match. They have some good players."

Baba nodded. "You know, I played center forward too when I was young."

"I'll bet you still could if you wanted to," Assef said. He favored Baba with
a good-natured wink.

Baba returned the wink. "I see your father has taught you his world-
famous flattering ways." He elbowed Assef's father, almost knocked the little
fellow down. Mahmood's laughter was about as convincing as Tanya's smile, and
suddenly I wondered if maybe, on some level, their son frightened them. I tried
to fake a smile, but all I could manage was a feeble up-turning of the corners of
my mouth-my stomach was turning at the sight of my father bonding with Assef.

Assef shifted his eyes to me. "Wali and Kamal are here too. They wouldn't
miss your birthday for anything," he said, laughter lurking just beneath the
surface. 1 nodded silently.

"We're thinking about playing a little game of volleyball tomorrow at my
house," Assef said. "Maybe you'll join us. Bring Hassan if you want to."

"That sounds fun," Baba said, beaming. "What do you think, Amir?"

"I don't really like volleyball," I muttered. I saw the light wink out of
Baba's eyes and an uncomfortable silence followed.

"Sorry, Assef jan," Baba said, shrugging. That stung, his apologizing for

"Nay, no harm done," Assef said. "But you have an open invitation, Amir


Anyway, I heard you like to read so I brought you a book. One of my

He extended a wrapped birthday gift to me. "Happy birthday."

He was dressed in a cotton shirt and blue slacks, a red silk tie and shiny
black loafers. He smelled of cologne and his blond hair was neatly combed back.
On the surface, he was the embodiment of every parent's dream, a strong, tall,
well-dressed and well-mannered boy with talent and striking looks, not to
mention the wit to joke with an adult. But to me, his eyes betrayed him. When I
looked into them, the facade faltered, revealed a glimpse of the madness hiding
behind them.

"Aren't you going to take it, Amir?" Baba was saying. "Huh?"

'Your present," he said testily. "Assef jan is giving you a present.

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