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The Kite Runner: Page 23
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We descended in single file. The steps groaned under Baba's weight. Standing in
the cold basement, I felt watched by eyes blinking in the dark. I saw shapes
huddled around the room, their silhouettes thrown on the walls by the dim light
of a pair of kerosene lamps. A low murmur buzzed through the basement,
beneath it the sound of water drops trickling somewhere, and, something else, a
Baba sighed behind me and dropped the bags.
Karim told us it should be a matter of a couple of short days before the
truck was fixed. Then we'd be on our way to Peshawar. On to freedom. On to
The basement was our home for the next week and, by the third night, I
discovered the source of the scratching sounds. Rats.
ONCE MY EYES ADJUSTED to the dark, I counted about thirty refugees in that
basement. We sat shoulder to shoulder along the walls, ate crackers, bread with
dates, apples. That first night, all the men prayed together. One of the refugees
asked Baba why he wasn't joining them. "God is going to save us all. Why don't
you pray to him?"
Baba snorted a pinch of his snuff. Stretched his legs. "What'll save us is
eight cylinders and a good carburetor." That silenced the rest of them for good
about the matter of God.
It was later that first night when I discovered that two of the people
hiding with us were Kamal and his father. That was shocking enough, seeing
Kamal sitting in the basement just a few feet away from me. But when he and his
father came over to our side of the room and I saw Kamal's face, really saw it...
He had withered-there was simply no other word for it. His eyes gave me
a hollow look and no recognition at all registered in them. His shoulders hunched
and his cheeks sagged like they were too tired to cling to the bone beneath. His
father, who'd owned a movie theater in Kabul, was telling Baba how, three
months before, a stray bullet had struck his wife in the temple and killed her.
Then he told Baba about Kamal.
I caught only snippets of it: Should have never
let him go alone... always so handsome, you know... four of them... tried to fight...
God... took him... bleeding down there... his pants... doesn't talk any more... just
THERE WOULD BE NO TRUCK, Karim told us after we'd spent a week in the rat-
infested basement. The truck was beyond repair.
"There is another option," Karim said, his voice rising amid the groans.
His cousin owned a fuel truck and had smuggled people with it a couple of times.
He was here in Jalalabad and could probably fit us all.
Everyone except an elderly couple decided to go.
We left that night, Baba and I, Kamal and his father, the others. Karim and
his cousin, a square-faced balding man named Aziz, helped us get into the fuel
One by one, we mounted the idling truck's rear deck, climbed the rear
access ladder, and slid down into the tank. I remember Baba climbed halfway up
the ladder, hopped back down and fished the snuffbox from his pocket. He
emptied the box and picked up a handful of dirt from the middle of the unpaved
road. He kissed the dirt. Poured it into the box. Stowed the box in his breast
pocket, next to his heart.
You open your mouth. Open it so wide your jaws creak. You order your
lungs to draw air, NOW, you need air, need it NOW But your airways ignore you.
They collapse, tighten, squeeze, and suddenly you're breathing through a
drinking straw. Your mouth closes and your lips purse and all you can manage is
a strangled croak. Your hands wriggle and shake. Somewhere a dam has cracked
open and a flood of cold sweat spills, drenches your body. You want to scream.
You would if you could. But you have to breathe to scream.
The basement had been dark. The fuel tank was pitch-black. I looked
right, left, up, down, waved my hands before my eyes, didn't see so much as a
hint of movement. I blinked, blinked again. Nothing at all. The air wasn't right, it
was too thick, almost solid. Air wasn't supposed to be solid. I wanted to reach out
with my hands, crush the air into little pieces, stuff them down my windpipe. And
the stench of gasoline. My eyes stung from the fumes, like someone had peeled
my lids back and rubbed a lemon on them. My nose caught fire with each breath.
You could die in a place like this, I thought. A scream was coming. Coming,
And then a small miracle. Baba tugged at my sleeve and something
glowed green in the dark. Light! Baba's wristwatch. I kept my eyes glued to those
fluorescent green hands. I was so afraid I'd lose them, I didn't dare blink.
Slowly I became aware of my surroundings. I heard groans and muttered
prayers. I heard a baby cry, its mother's muted soothing. Someone retched.
Someone else cursed the Shorawi. The truck bounced side to side, up and down.
Heads banged against metal.
Think of something good," Baba said in my ear. "Something happy.
Something good. Something happy. I let my mind wander. I let it come:
Friday afternoon in Paghman. An open field of grass speckled with mulberry
trees in blossom. Hassan and I stand ankle-deep in untamed grass, I am tugging
on the line, the spool spinning in Hassan's calloused hands, our eyes turned up to
the kite in the sky. Not a word passes between us, not because we have nothing
to say, but because we don't have to say anything-that's how it is between
people who are each other's first memories, people who have fed from the same
breast. A breeze stirs the grass and Hassan lets the spool roll. The kite spins, dips,
steadies. Our twin shadows dance on the rippling grass. From somewhere over
the low brick wall at the other end of the field, we hear chatter and laughter and
the chirping of a water fountain. And music, some thing old and familiar, I think
it's Ya Mowlah on rubab strings. Someone calls our names over the wall, says it's
time for tea and cake.
I didn't remember what month that was, or what year even. I only knew
the memory lived in me, a perfectly encapsulated morsel of a good past, a
brushstroke of color on the gray, barren canvas that our lives had become.
THE REST OF THAT RIDE is scattered bits and pieces of memory that come and
go, most of it sounds and smells: MiGs roaring past overhead; staccatos of
gunfire; a donkey braying nearby; the jingling of bells and mewling of sheep;
gravel crushed under the truck's tires; a baby wailing in the dark; the stench of
gasoline, vomit, and shit.
What I remember next is the blinding light of early morning as I climbed
out of the fuel tank. I remember turning my face up to the sky, squinting,
breathing like the world was running out of air.
I lay on the side of the dirt road next to a rocky trench, looked up to the
gray morning sky, thankful for air, thankful for light, thankful to be alive.
"We're in Pakistan, Amir," Baba said. He was standing over me. "Karim
says he will call for a bus to take us to Peshawar."
I rolled onto my chest, still lying on the cool dirt, and saw our suitcases on
either side of Baba's feet. Through the upside down V between his legs, I saw the
truck idling on the side of the road, the other refugees climbing down the rear
ladder. Beyond that, the dirt road unrolled through fields that were like leaden
sheets under the gray sky and disappeared behind a line of bowl-shaped hills.
Along the way, it passed a small village strung out atop a sun baked slope.
My eyes returned to our suitcases. They made me sad for Baba. After
everything he'd built, planned, fought for, fretted over, dreamed of, this was the
summation of his life: one disappointing son and two suitcases.
Someone was screaming. No, not screaming. Wailing. I saw the passengers
huddled in a circle, heard their urgent voices. Someone said the word "fumes."
Someone else said it too. The wail turned into a throat-ripping screech.
Baba and I hurried to the pack of onlookers and pushed our way through
them. Kamal's father was sitting cross-legged in the center of the circle, rocking
back and forth, kissing his son's ashen face.
"He won't breathe! My boy won't breathe!" he was crying. Kamal's lifeless
body lay on his father's lap. His right hand, uncurled and limp, bounced to the
rhythm of his father's sobs. "My boy! He won't breathe! Allah, help him breathe!"
Baba knelt beside him and curled an arm around his shoulder. But
Kamal's father shoved him away and lunged for Karim who was standing nearby
with his cousin. What happened next was too fast and too short to be called a
scuffle. Karim uttered a surprised cry and backpedaled. I saw an arm swing, a leg
kick. A moment later, Kamal's father was standing with Karim's gun in his hand.
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