“I just wish you didn’t have to leave all the time.”
“Me too, son. Me too. But I’m not leaving until tomorrow. I’ll be home later in the evening.”
Adel nodded, casting his gaze down at his hands.
“Look,” his father said in a soft voice, “the people in this town, they need me, Adel. They need my help to have a home and find work and make a livelihood. Kabul has its own problems. It can’t help them. So if I don’t, no one else will. Then these people would suffer.”
“I know that,” Adel muttered.
Baba jan squeezed his knee gently. “You miss Kabul, I know, and your friends. It’s been a hard adjustment here, for both you and your mother. And I know that I’m always off traveling and going to meetings and that a lot of people have demands on my time. But … Look at me, son.”
Adel raised his eyes to meet Baba jan’s. They shone at him kindly from beneath the canopy of his bushy brows.
“No one on this earth matters to me more than you, Adel. You are my son. I would gladly give up all of this for you. I would give up my life for you, son.”
Adel nodded, his eyes watering a little. Sometimes, when Baba jan spoke like this, Adel felt his heart swell and swell until he found it hard to draw a breath.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Baba jan.”
“Do you believe me?”
“Good. Then give your father a kiss.”
Adel threw his arms around Baba jan’s neck and his father held him tightly and patiently. Adel remembered when he was little, when he would tap his father on the shoulder in the middle of the night still shaking from a nightmare, and his father would push back his blanket and let him climb into bed, folding him in and kissing the crown of his head until Adel stopped shivering and slipped back into sleep.
“Maybe I’ll bring you a little something from Helmand,” Baba jan said.
“You don’t have to,” Adel said, his voice muffled. He already had more toys than he knew what to do with. And there wasn’t a toy on earth that could make up for his father’s absence.
Late that day, Adel perched midstairway and spied on the scene unfolding below him. The doorbell had rung and Kabir had answered. Now Kabir was leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed, blocking the entrance, as he spoke to the person on the other side. It was the old man from earlier at the school, Adel saw, the bespectacled man with the burnt-match teeth. The boy with the holes in his shoes was there too, standing beside him.
The old man said, “Where has he gone to?”
Kabir said, “Business. In the south.”
“I heard he was leaving tomorrow.”
“How long will he be gone?”
“Two, maybe three months. Who’s to say.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“Now you’re testing my patience, old man,” Kabir said, uncrossing his arms.
“I’ll wait for him.”
“Not here, you won’t.”
“Over by the road, I meant.”
Kabir shifted impatiently on his feet. “Suit yourself,” he said. “But the commander is a busy man. No telling when he’ll be back.”
The old man nodded and backed away, the boy following him.
Kabir shut the door.
Adel pulled the curtain in the family room and out the window watched the old man and the boy walking up the unpaved road that connected the compound to the main road.
“You lied to him,” Adel said.
“It’s part of what I’m paid to do: protect your father from buzzards.”
“What does he want anyway, a job?”
“Something like that.”
Kabir moved to the couch and removed his shoes. He looked up at Adel and gave him a wink. Adel liked Kabir, far more than Azmaray, who was unpleasant and rarely said a word to him. Kabir played cards with Adel and invited him to watch DVDs together. Kabir loved movies. He owned a collection that he had bought on the black market and watched ten to twelve movies a week—Iranian, French, American, of course Bollywood—he didn’t care. And sometimes if Adel’s mother was in another room and Adel promised not to tell his father, Kabir emptied the magazine on his Kalashnikov and let Adel hold it, like a mujahid. Now the Kalashnikov sat propped against the wall by the front door.
Kabir lay down on the couch and propped his feet up on the arm. He started flipping through a newspaper.
“They looked harmless enough,” Adel said, releasing the curtain and turning to Kabir. He could see the bodyguard’s forehead over the top of the newspaper.
“Maybe I should have asked them in for tea, then,” Kabir murmured. “Offer them some cake too.”
“Don’t make fun.”
“They all look harmless.”
“Is Baba jan going to help them?”
“Probably,” Kabir sighed. “Your father is a river to his people.” He lowered the paper and grinned. “What’s that from? Come on, Adel. We saw it last month.”
Adel shrugged. He started heading upstairs.
“Lawrence,” Kabir called from the couch. “Lawrence of Arabia. Anthony Quinn.” And then, just as Adel had reached the top of the stairs: “They’re buzzards, Adel. Don’t fall for their act. They’d pick your father clean if they could.”
One morning, a couple of days after his father had left for Helmand, Adel went up to his parents’ bedroom. The music from the other side of the door was loud and thumping. He let himself in and found his mother, in shorts and a T-shirt in front of the giant flat-screen TV, mimicking the moves of a trio of sweaty blond women, a series of leaps and squats and lunges and planks. She spotted him in the big mirror of her dresser.
“Want to join me?” she panted over the loud music.
“I’ll just sit here,” he said. He slid down to the carpeted floor and watched his mother, whose name was Aria, leapfrog her way across the room and back.
Adel’s mother had delicate hands and feet, a small upturned nose, and a pretty face like an actress from one of Kabir’s Bollywood films. She was lean, agile, and young—she had been only fourteen when she’d married Baba jan. Adel had another, older mother too, and three older half brothers, but Baba jan had put them up in the east, in Jalalabad, and Adel saw them only once a month or so when Baba jan took him there to visit. Unlike his mother and stepmother, who disliked each other, Adel and his half brothers got along fine. When he visited them in Jalalabad, they took him with them to parks, to bazaars, the cinema, and Buzkashi tournaments. They played Resident Evil with him and shot the zombies in Call of Duty with him, and they always picked him on their team during neighborhood soccer matches. Adel wished so badly that they lived here, near him.
Adel watched his mother lie on her back and raise her straightened legs off the floor and lower them down again, a blue plastic ball tucked between her bare ankles.
The truth was, the boredom here in Shadbagh was crushing Adel. He hadn’t made a single friend in the two years they had lived here. He could not bike into town, certainly not on his own, not with the rash of kidnappings everywhere in the region—though he did sneak out now and then briefly, always staying within the perimeter of the compound. He had no classmates because Baba jan wouldn’t let him attend the local school—for “security reasons,” he said—so a tutor came to the house every morning for lessons. Mostly, Adel passed the time reading or kicking the soccer ball around on his own or watching movies with Kabir, often the same ones over and over. He wandered listlessly around the wide, high-ceilinged hallways of their massive home, through all the big empty rooms, or else he sat looking out the window of his bedroom upstairs. He lived in a mansion, but in a shrunken world. Some days he was so bored, he wanted to chew wood.
He knew that his mother too was terribly lonely here. She tried to fill her days with routines, exercise in the morning, shower, then breakfast, then reading, gardening, then Indian soaps on TV in the afternoon. When Baba jan was away, which was often, she always wore gray sweats and sneakers around the house, her face unmade, her hair pinned in a bun at the back of her neck. She rarely even opened the jewelry box where she kept all the rings and necklaces and earrings that Baba jan brought her from Dubai. She spent hours sometimes talking to her family down in Kabul. Only when her sister and parents visited for a few days, once every two or three months, did Adel see his mother come alive. She wore a long print dress and high-heeled shoes; she put on her makeup. Her eyes shone, and her laughter could be heard around the house. And it was then that Adel would catch a glimpse of the person that perhaps she had been before.
When Baba jan was away, Adel and his mother tried to be each other’s reprieve. They pushed pieces of jigsaw puzzles around and played golf and tennis on Adel’s Wii. But Adel’s favorite pastime with his mother was building toothpick houses. His mother would draw a 3-D blueprint of the house on a sheet of paper, complete with front porch, gabled roof, and with staircases inside and walls separating the different rooms. They would build the foundation first, then the interior walls and stairs, killing hours carefully applying glue to toothpicks, setting sections to dry. Adel’s mother said that when she was younger, before she had married Adel’s father, she had dreamed of becoming an architect.
It was while they were building a skyscraper once that she had told Adel the story of how she and Baba jan had married.
He was actually supposed to marry my older sister, she said.
Yes. This was in Kabul. He saw her on the street one day and that was it. He had to marry her. He showed up at our house the next day, him and five of his men. They more or less invited themselves in. They were all wearing boots. She shook her head and laughed like it was a funny thing Baba jan had done, but she didn’t laugh the way she ordinarily did when she found something funny. You should have seen the expression on your grandparents.
They had sat in the living room, Baba jan, his men, and her parents. She was in the kitchen making tea while they talked. There was a problem, she said, because her sister Nargis was already engaged, promised to a cousin who lived in Amsterdam and was studying engineering. How were they supposed to break off the engagement? her parents were asking.
And then I come in, carrying a platter of tea and sweets. I fill their cups and put the food on the table, and your father sees me, and, as I turn to go, your father, he says, “Maybe you’re right, sir. It’s not fair to break off an engagement. But if you tell me this one is taken too, then I’m afraid I may have no choice but to think you don’t care for me.” Then he laughs. And that was how we got married.
She lifted a tube of glue.
Did you like him?
She shrugged a little. Truth be told, I was more frightened than anything else.
But you like him now, right? You love him.
Of course I do, Adel’s mother said. What a question.
You don’t regret marrying him.
She put down the glue and waited a few seconds before answering. Look at our lives, Adel, she said slowly. Look around you. What’s to regret? She smiled and pulled gently on the lobe of his ear. Besides, then I wouldn’t have had you.
Adel’s mother turned off the TV now and sat on the floor, panting, drying sweat off her neck with a towel.
“Why don’t you do something on your own this morning,” she said, stretching her back. “I’m going to shower and eat. And I was thinking of calling your grandparents. Haven’t spoken to them for a couple of days.”
Adel sighed and rose to his feet.
In his room, on a lower floor and in a different wing of the house, he fetched his soccer ball and put on the Zidane jersey Baba jan had given him for his last birthday, his twelfth. When he made his way downstairs, he found Kabir napping, a newspaper spread on his chest like a quilt. He grabbed a can of apple juice from the fridge and let himself out.