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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.



"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 k............

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