"He's been gone for a week."
"Oh." Mammy sighed through her nose. "Did you wash?"
"So you're clean, then." Mammy turned her tired gaze to the window. "You're clean, and everything is fine."
Laila stood up. "I have homework now."
"Of course you do. Shut the curtains before you go, my love," Mammy said, her voice fading. She was already sinking beneath the sheets.
As Laila reached for the curtains, she saw a car pass by on the street tailed by a cloud of dust. It was the blue Benz with the Herat license plate finally leaving. She followed it with her eyes until it vanished around a turn, its back window twinkling in the sun.
"I won't forget tomorrow," Mammy was saying behind her. "I promise."
"You said that yesterday."
"You don't know, Laila."
"Know what?" Laila wheeled around to face her mother. "What don't I know?"
Mammy's hand floated up to her chest, tapped there. "In here. What's in here." Then it fell flaccid. "You just don't know."
A week passed, but there was still no sign of Tariq. Then another week came and went.
ATo fill the time, Laila fixed the screen door that Babi still hadn't got around to. She took down Babi's books, dusted and alphabetized them. She went to Chicken Street with Hasina, Giti, and Giti's mother, Nila, who was a seamstress and sometime sewing partner of Mammy's. In that week, Laila came to believe that of all the hardships a person had to face none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.
Another week passed.
Laila found herself caught in a net of terrible thoughts.
He would never come back. His parents had moved away for good; the trip to Ghazni had been a ruse. An adult scheme to spare the two of them an upsetting farewell.
A land mine had gotten to him again. The way it did in 1981, when he was five, the last time his parents took him south to Ghazni. That was shortly after Laila's third birthday. He'd been lucky that time, losing only a leg; lucky that he'd survived at all.
Her head rang and rang with these thoughts.
Then one night Laila saw a tiny flashing light from down the street. A sound, something between a squeak and a gasp, escaped her lips. She quickly fished her own flashlight from under the bed, but it wouldn't work. Laila banged it against her palm, cursed the dead batteries. But it didn't matter. He was back. Laila sat on the edge of her bed, giddy with relief, and watched that beautiful, yellow eye winking on and off.
ON HER WAY to Tariq's house the next day, Laila saw Khadim and a group of his friends across the street. Khadim was squatting, drawing something in the dirt with a stick. When he saw her, he dropped the stick and wiggled his fingers. He said something and there was a round of chuckles. Laila dropped her head and hurried past.
"What did you do?" she exclaimed when Tariq opened the door. Only then did she remember that his uncle was a barber.
Tariq ran his hand over his newly shaved scalp and smiled, showing white, slightly uneven teeth.
"You look like you're enlisting in the army."
"You want to feel?" He lowered his head.
The tiny bristles scratched Laila's palm pleasantly. Tariq wasn't like some of the other boys, whose hair concealed cone-shaped skulls and unsightly lumps. Tariq's head was perfectly curved and lump-free.
When he looked up, Laila saw that his cheeks and brow had sunburned.
"What took you so long?" she said.
"My uncle was sick. Come on. Come inside."
He led her down the hallway to the family room. Laila loved everything about this house. The shabby old rug in the family room, the patchwork quilt on the couch, the ordinary clutter of Tariq's life: his mother's bolts of fabric, her sewing needles embedded in spools, the old magazines, the accordion case in the corner waiting to be cracked open.
"Who is it?"
It was his mother calling from the kitchen.
"Laila," he answered.
He pulled her a chair. The family room was brightly lit and had double windows that opened into the yard. On the sill were empty jars in which Tariq's mother pickled eggplant and made carrot marmalade.
"You mean our aroos, our daughter-in-law," his father announced, entering the room. He was a carpenter, a lean, white-haired man in his early sixties. He had gaps between his front teeth, and the squinty eyes of someone who had spent most of his life outdoors. He opened his arms and Laila went into them, greeted by his pleasant and familiar smell of sawdust. They kissed on the cheek three times.
"You keep calling her that and she'll stop coming here,"
Tariq's mother said, passing by them. She was carrying a tray with a large bowl, a serving spoon, and four smaller bowls on it. She set the tray on the table. "Don't mind the old man." She cupped Laila's face. "It's good to see you, my dear. Come, sit down. I brought back some water-soaked fruit with me."
The table was bulky and made of a light, unfinished wood - Tariq's father had built it, as well as the chairs. It was covered with a moss green vinyl tablecloth with little magenta crescents and stars on it. Most of the living-room wall was taken up with pictures of Tariq at various ages. In some of the very early ones, he had two legs.
"I heard your brother was sick," Laila said to Tariq's father, dipping a spoon into her bowl of soaked raisins, pistachios, and apricots.
He was lighting a cigarette. "Yes, but he's fine now, shokr e Khoda, thanks to God."
"Heart attack. His second," Tariq's mother said, giving her husband an admonishing look.
Tariq's father blew smoke and winked at Laila. It struck her again that Tariq's parents could easily pass for his grandparents. His mother hadn't had him until she'd been well into her forties.
"How is your father, my dear?" Tariq's mother said, looking on over her bowl.
As long as Laila had known her, Tariq's mother had worn a wig. It was turning a dull purple with age. It was pulled low on her brow today, and Laila could see the gray hairs of her sideburns. Some days, it rode high on her forehead. But, to Laila, Tariq's mother never looked pitiable in it. What Laila saw was the calm, self-assured face beneath the wig, the clever eyes, the pleasant, unhurried manners.
"He's fine," Laila said. "Still at Silo, of course. He's fine."
"And your mother?"
"Good days. Bad ones too. The same."
"Yes," Tariq's mother said thoughtfully, lowering her spoon into the bowl. "How hard it must be, how terribly hard, for a mother to be away from her sons."
"You're staying for lunch?" Tariq said.
"You have to," said his mother. "I'm making shorwa."
"I don't want to be a mozahem."
"Imposing?" Tariq's mother said. "We leave for a couple of weeks and you turn polite on us?"
"All right, I'll stay," Laila said, blushing and smiling.
"It's settled, then."
The truth was, Laila loved eating meals at Tariq's house as much as she disliked eating them at hers. At Tariq's, there was no eating alone; they always ate as a family. Laila liked the violet plastic drinking glasses they used and the quarter lemon that always floated in the water pitcher. She liked how they started each meal with a bowl of fresh yogurt, how they squeezed sour oranges on everything, even their yogurt, and how they made small, harmless jokes at each other's expense.
Over meals, conversation always flowed. Though Tariq and his parents were ethnic Pashtuns, they spoke Farsi when Laila was around for her benefit, even though Laila more or less understood their native Pashto, having learned it in school. Babi said that there were tensions between their people - the Tajiks, who were a minority, and Tariq's people, the Pashtuns, who were the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Tajiks have always felt slighted, Babi had said. Pashtun kings ruled this country for almost two hundred and fifty years, Laila, and Tajiks for all of nine months, back in 1929.
And you, Laila had asked, do you feel slighted, Babi?
Babi had wiped his eyeglasses clean with the hem of his shirt. To me, it's nonsense - and very dangerous nonsense at that - all this talk of I'm Tajik and you're Pashtun and he's Hazara and she's Uzbek. We're all Afghans, and that's all that should matter. But when one group rules over the others for so long . . . There's contempt. Rivalry. There is. There always has been.
Maybe so. But Laila never felt it in Tariq's house, where these matters never even came up. Her time with Tariq's family always felt natural to Laila, effortless, uncomplicated by differences in tribe or language, or by the personal spites and grudges that infected the air at her own home.
"How about a game of cards?" Tariq said.
"Yes, go upstairs," his mother said, swiping disapprovingly at her husband's cloud of smoke. "I'll get the shorwa going."
They lay on their stomachs in the middle of Tariq's room and took turns dealing for panjpar. Pedaling air with his foot, Tariq told her about his trip. The peach saplings he had helped his uncle plant. A garden snake he had captured.
This room was where Laila and Tariq did their homework, where they built playing-card towers and drew ridiculous portraits of each other. If it was raining, they leaned on the windowsill, drinking warm, fizzy orange Fanta, and watched the swollen rain droplets trickle down the glass.
"All right, here's one," Laila said, shuffling. "What goes around the world but stays in a corner?"
"Wait." Tariq pushed himself up and swung his artificial left leg around. Wincing, he lay on his side, leaning on his elbow. "Hand me that pillow." He placed it under his leg.
"There. That's better."
Laila remembered the first time he'd shown her his stump. She'd been six. With one finger, she had poked the taut, shiny skin just below his left knee. Her finger had found little hard lumps there, and Tariq had told her they were spurs of bone that sometimes grew after an amputation. She'd asked him if his stump hurt, and he said it got sore at the end of the day, when it swelled and didn't fit the prosthesis like it was supposed to, like a finger in a thimble. And sometimes it gets rubbed. Especially when it's hot. Then I get rashes and blisters, but my mother has creams that help. It's not so bad.
Laila had burst into tears.
What are you crying for? He'd strapped his leg back on. You asked to see it, you giryanok, you crybaby! If I'd known you were going to bawl, I wouldn't have shown you.
"A stamp," he said.
"The riddle. The answer is a stamp. We should go to the zoo after lunch."
"You knew that one. Did you?"
"You're a cheat."
"And you're envious."
"My masculine smarts."
"Your masculine smarts? Really? Tell me, who always wins at chess?"
"I let you win." He laughed. They both knew that wasn't true.
"And who failed math? Who do you come to for help with your math homework even though you're a grade ahead?"
"I'd be two grades ahead if math didn't bore me."
"I suppose geography bores you too."
"How did you know? Now, shut up. So are we going to the zoo or not?"
Laila smiled. "We're going."
"I missed you."
There was a pause. Then Tariq turned to her with a half-grinning, half-grimacing look of distaste. "What's the matter with you?"
How many times had she, Hasina, and Giti said those same three words to each other, Laila wondered, said it without hesitation, after only two or three days of not seeing each other? I missed you, Hasina. Oh, I missed you too. In Tariq's grimace, Laila learned that boys differed from girls in this regard. They didn't make a show of friendship. They felt no urge, no need, for this sort of talk. Laila imagined it had been this way for her brothers too. Boys, Laila came to see, treated friendship the way they treated the sun: its existence undisputed; its radiance best enjoyed, not beheld directly.