Adel walked on the gravel path toward the main entrance to the compound. The stall where the armed guard stood watch was empty. Adel knew the timing of the guard’s rounds. He carefully opened the gate and stepped out, closed the gate behind him. Almost immediately, he had the impression that he could breathe better on this side of the wall. Some days, the compound felt far too much like a prison.
He walked in the wide shadow of the wall toward the back of the compound, away from the main road. Back there, behind the compound, were Baba jan’s orchards, of which he was very proud. Several acres of long parallel rows of pear trees and apple trees, apricots, cherries, figs, and loquats too. When Adel took long walks with his father in these orchards, Baba jan would lift him high up on his shoulders and Adel would pluck them a ripe pair of apples. Between the compound and the orchards was a clearing, mostly empty save for a shed where the gardeners stored their tools. The only other thing there was the flat stump of what had once been, by the looks of it, a giant old tree. Baba jan had once counted its rings with Adel and concluded that the tree had likely seen Genghis Khan’s army march past. He said, with a rueful shake of his head, that whoever had cut it down had been nothing but a fool.
It was a hot day, the sun glaring in a sky as unblemished blue as the skies in the crayon pictures Adel used to draw when he was little. He put down the can of apple juice on the tree stump and practiced juggling his ball. His personal best was sixty-eight touches without the ball hitting the ground. He had set that record in the spring, and now it was midsummer and he was still trying to best it. Adel had reached twenty-eight when he became aware that someone was watching him. It was the boy, the one with the old man who had tried to approach Baba jan at the school’s opening ceremony. He was squatting now in the shade of the brick shed.
“What are you doing here?” Adel said, trying to bark the words like Kabir did when he spoke to strangers.
“Getting some shade,” the boy said. “Don’t report me.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Neither are you.”
The boy chuckled. “Never mind.” He stretched his arms wide and rose to his feet. Adel tried to see if his pockets were full. Maybe he had come to steal fruit. The boy walked over to Adel and flipped up the ball with one foot, gave it a pair of quick juggles, and kicked it with his heel to Adel. Adel caught the ball and cradled it under his arm.
“Where your goon had us wait, over by the road, me and my father? There’s no shade. And not a damn cloud in the sky.”
Adel felt a need to rise to Kabir’s defense. “He is not a goon.”
“Well, he made sure we got an eyeful of his Kalashnikov, I can tell you that.” He looked at Adel, a lazy, amused grin on his lips. He dropped a wad of spit at his feet. “So I see you’re a fan of the head-butter.”
It took Adel a moment to realize who he was referring to. “You can’t judge him by one mistake,” he said. “He was the best. He was a wizard in the midfield.”
“I’ve seen better.”
“Yeah? Like who?”
“Maradona?” Adel said, outraged. He’d had this debate before with one of his half brothers in Jalalabad. “Maradona was a cheater! ‘Hand of God,’ remember?”
“Everyone cheats and everyone lies.”
The boy yawned and started to go. He was about the same height as Adel, maybe a hair taller, and probably just around his age too, Adel thought. But somehow he walked like he was older, without hurry and with a kind of air, as if he had seen everything there was to see and nothing surprised him.
“My name is Adel.”
“Gholam.” They shook hands. Gholam’s grip was strong, his palm dry and callused.
“How old are you anyway?”
Gholam gave a shrug. “Thirteen, I guess. Could be fourteen by now.”
“You don’t know your own birthday?”
Gholam grinned. “I bet you know yours. I bet you count down.”
“I do not,” Adel said defensively. “I mean, I don’t count down.”
“I should go. My father’s waiting alone.”
“I thought that was your grandfather.”
“You thought wrong.”
“Do you want to play a shoot-out?” Adel asked.
“You mean like a penalty shoot-out?”
“Five each … best of.”
Gholam spat again, squinted toward the road and back at Adel. Adel noticed that his chin was a bit small for his face and that he had overlapping extra canines in the front, one of them chipped badly and rotting. His left eyebrow was split in half by a short, narrow scar. Also, he smelled. But Adel hadn’t had a conversation—let alone played a game—with a boy his age in nearly two years, discounting the monthly visits to Jalalabad. Adel prepared himself for disappointment, but Gholam shrugged and said, “Shit, why not? But I get first dibs on shooting.”
For goalposts, they used two rocks placed eight steps apart. Gholam took his five shots. Scored one, off target twice, and Adel easily saved two. Gholam’s goaltending was even worse than his shooting. Adel managed to score four, tricking him into leaning in the wrong direction each time, and the one shot he missed wasn’t even on goal.
“Fucker,” Gholam said, bent in half, palms on his kneecaps.
“Rematch?” Adel tried not to gloat, but it was hard. He was soaring inside.
Gholam agreed, and the result was even more lopsided. He again managed one goal, and this time Adel converted all five of his attempts.
“That’s it, I’m winded,” Gholam said, throwing up his hands. He trudged over to the tree stump and sat down with a tired groan. Adel cradled the ball and sat next to him.
“These probably aren’t helping,” Gholam said, fishing a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his jeans. He had one left. He lit it with a single strike of a match, inhaled contentedly, and offered it to Adel. Adel was tempted to take it, if only to impress Gholam, but he passed, worried Kabir or his mother would smell it on him.
“Wise,” Gholam said, leaning his head back.
They talked idly about soccer for a while, and, to Adel’s pleasant surprise, Gholam’s knowledge turned out to be solid. They exchanged favorite match and favorite goal stories. They each offered a top-five-players list; mostly it was the same except Gholam’s included Ronaldo the Brazilian and Adel’s had Ronaldo the Portuguese. Inevitably, they got around to the 2006 Finals and the painful memory, for Adel, of the head-butting incident. Gholam said he watched the whole match standing with a crowd outside the window of a TV shop not far from the camp.
“The one where I grew up. In Pakistan.”
He told Adel that this was his first time in Afghanistan. He had lived his whole life in Pakistan in the Jalozai refugee camp where he’d been born. He said Jalozai had been like a city, a huge maze of tents and mud huts and homes built from plastic and aluminum siding in a labyrinth of narrow passageways littered with dirt and shit. It was a city in the belly of a yet greater city. He and his brothers—he was the eldest by three years—were raised in the camp. He had lived in a small mud house there with his brothers, his mother, his father, whose name was Iqbal, and his paternal grandmother, Parwana. In its alleyways, he and his brothers had learned to walk and talk. They had gone to school there. He had played with sticks and rusty old bicycle wheels on its dirt streets, running around with other refugee kids, until the sun dipped and his grandmother called him home.
“I liked it there,” he said. “I had friends. I knew everybody. We were doing all right too. I have an uncle in America, my father’s half brother, Uncle Abdullah. I’ve never met him. But he was sending us money every few months. It helped. It helped a lot.”
“Why did you leave?”
“Had to. The Pakistanis shut down the camp. They said Afghans belong in Afghanistan. And then my uncle’s money stopped coming. So my father said we might as well go home and restart, now that the Taliban had run to the Pakistani side of the border anyway. He said we were guests in Pakistan who’d outstayed their welcome. I was really depressed. This place”—he waved his hand—“this is a foreign country to me. And the kids in the camp, the ones who’d actually been to Afghanistan? None of them had a good thing to say about it.”
Adel wanted to say that he knew how Gholam felt. He wanted to tell him how much he missed Kabul, and his friends, and his half brothers over in Jalalabad. But he had a feeling Gholam might laugh. Instead he said, “Well, it is pretty boring around here.”
Gholam laughed anyway. “I don’t think that’s quite what they meant,” he said.
Adel understood vaguely that he’d been chastised.
Gholam took a drag and blew out a run of rings. Together, they watched the rings gently float away and disintegrate.
“My father said to me and my brothers, he said, ‘Wait … wait until you breathe the air in Shadbagh, boys, and taste the water.’ He was born here, my father, raised here too. He said, ‘You’ve never had water this cool and this sweet, boys.’ He was always talking to us about Shadbagh, which I guess was nothing but a small village back when he lived here. He said there was a kind of grape that you could grow only in Shadbagh and nowhere else in the world. You’d think he was describing Paradise.”
Adel asked him where he was staying now. Gholam tossed the cigarette butt, looked up at the sky, squinting at the brightness. “You know the open field over by the windmill?”
Adel waited for more, but there was no more.
“You live in a field?”
“For the time being,” Gholam mumbled. “We got a tent.”
“Don’t you have family here?”
“No. They’re either dead or gone. Well, my father does have an uncle in Kabul. Or he did. Who knows if he’s still alive. He was my grandmother’s brother, worked for a rich family there. But I guess Nabi and my grandmother haven’t spoken in decades—fifty years or more, I think. They’re strangers practically. I guess if he really had to, my father would go to him. But he wants to make a go of it on his own here. This is his home.”
They spent a few quiet moments sitting on the tree stump, watching the leaves in the orchards shiver in surges of warm wind. Adel thought of Gholam and his family sleeping nights in a tent, scorpions and snakes crawling in the field all around them.
Adel didn’t quite know why he ended up telling Gholam about the reason he and his parents moved here from Kabul. Or, rather, he couldn’t choose among the reasons. He wasn’t sure if he did it to dispel Gholam’s impression that he led a carefree existence simply because he lived in a big house. Or as a kind of school-yard one-upmanship. Maybe a plea for sympathy. Did he do it to narrow the gap between them? He didn’t know. Maybe all of these things. Nor did Adel know why it seemed important that Gholam like him, only that he dimly understood the reason to be more complicated than the mere fact of his frequent loneliness and his desire for a friend.
“We moved to Shadbagh because someone tried to kill us in Kabul,” he said. “A motorcycle pulled up to the house one day and its rider sprayed our house with bullets. He wasn’t caught. But, thank God, none of us was hurt.”
He didn’t know what reaction he had expected, but it did surprise him that Gholam had none. Still squinting up at the sun, Gholam said, “Yeah, I know.”
“Your father picks his nose and people hear about it.”
Adel watched him crush the empty cigarette box into a ball and stuff it into the front pocket of his jeans.
“He does have his enemies, your father,” Gholam sighed.