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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 19


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"Oh," I said. I took the box from Assef and lowered my gaze. I wished I
could be alone in my room, with my books, away from these people.



"Well?" Baba said.



"What?"



Baba spoke in a low voice, the one he took on whenever I embarrassed
him in public. "Aren't you going to thank Assef jan? That was very considerate of
him."



I wished Baba would stop calling him that. How often did he call me "Amir
jan"? "Thanks," I said. Assef's mother looked at me like she wanted to say
something, but she didn't, and I realized that neither of Assef's parents had said a
word. Before I could embarrass myself and Baba anymore--but mostly to get
away from Assef and his grin--I stepped away. "Thanks for coming," I said.



I squirmed my way through the throng of guests and slipped through the
wrought-iron gates. Two houses down from our house, there was a large, barren
dirt lot. I'd heard Baba tell Rahim Khan that a judge had bought the land and that
an architect was working on the design. For now, the lot was bare, save for dirt,
stones, and weeds.



I tore the wrapping paper from Assef's present and tilted the book cover
in the moonlight. It was a biography of Hitler. I threw it amid a tangle of weeds.



1 leaned against the neighbor's wall, slid down to the ground. 1 just sat in
the dark for a while, knees drawn to my chest, looking up at the stars, waiting for
the night to be over.



"Shouldn't you be entertaining your guests?" a familiar voice said. Rahim
Khan was walking toward me along the wall.



"They don't need me for that. Baba's there, remember?" I said. The ice in
Rahim Khan's drink clinked when he sat next to me. "I didn't know you drank."




"Turns out I do/' he said. Elbowed me playfully. "But only on the most
important occasions."



I smiled. "Thanks."



He tipped his drink to me and took a sip. He lit a cigarette, one of the
unfiltered Pakistani cigarettes he and Baba were always smoking. "Did I ever tell
you I was almost married once?"



"Really?" I said, smiling a little at the notion of Rahim Khan getting
married. I'd always thought of him as Baba's quiet alter ego, my writing mentor,
my pal, the one who never forgot to bring me a souvenir, a saughat, when he
returned from a trip abroad. But a husband? A father? He nodded. "It's true. I was
eighteen. Her name was Homaira. She was a Hazara, the daughter of our
neighbor's servants. She was as beautiful as a pari, light brown hair, big hazel
eyes... she had this laugh... I can still hear it sometimes." He twirled his glass. "We
used to meet secretly in my father's apple orchards, always after midnight when
everyone had gone to sleep. We'd walk under the trees and I'd hold her hand...
Am I embarrassing you, Amir jan?"



"A little," I said.



"It won't kill you," he said, taking another puff. "Anyway, we had this
fantasy. We'd have a great, fancy wedding and invite family and friends from
Kabul to Kandahar. I would build us a big house, white with a tiled patio and
large windows. We would plant fruit trees in the garden and grow all sorts of
flowers, have a lawn for our kids to play on. On Fridays, after _namaz_ at the
mosque, everyone would get together at our house for lunch and we'd eat in the
garden, under cherry trees, drink fresh water from the well. Then tea with candy
as we watched our kids play with their cousins..."



He took a long gulp of his scotch. Coughed. "You should have seen the look
on my father's face when I told him. My mother actually fainted. My sisters
splashed her face with water. They fanned her and looked at me as if I had slit
her throat. My brother Jalal actually went to fetch his hunting rifle before my
father stopped him." Rahim Khan barked a bitter laughter. "It was Homaira and
me against the world. And I'll tell you this, Amir jan: In the end, the world always
wins. That's just the way of things."




So what happened?



"That same day, my father put Homaira and her family on a lorry and sent
them off to Hazarajat. I never saw her again."



"I'm sorry," I said.



"Probably for the best, though," Rahim Khan said, shrugging. "She would
have suffered. My family would have never accepted her as an equal. You don't
order someone to polish your shoes one day and call them 'sister' the next." He
looked at me. "You know, you can tell me anything you want, Amir jan. Anytime."



"I know," I said uncertainly. He looked at me for a long time, like he was
waiting, his black bottomless eyes hinting at an unspoken secret between us. For
a moment, I almost did tell him. Almost told him everything, but then what
would he think of me? He'd hate me, and rightfully.



"Here." He handed me something. "I almost forgot. Happy birthday." It
was a brown leather-bound notebook. I traced my fingers along the gold-colored
stitching on the borders. I smelled the leather. "For your stories," he said. I was
going to thank him when something exploded and bursts of fire lit up the sky.



"Fireworks!"



We hurried back to the house and found the guests all standing in the
yard, looking up to the sky. Kids hooted and screamed with each crackle and
whoosh. People cheered, burst into applause each time flares sizzled and
exploded into bouquets of fire. Every few seconds, the backyard lit up in sudden
flashes of red, green, and yellow.



In one of those brief bursts of light, I saw something I'll never forget:
Hassan serving drinks to Assef and Wali from a silver platter. The light winked
out, a hiss and a crackle, then another flicker of orange light: Assef grinning,
kneading Hassan in the chest with a knuckle.




Then, mercifully, darkness.



NINE



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,



said.



"Sure," Baba said.



"Baba?"



II



Yes?



H



"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, Ali," I said, waving back.

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