North of the strip were a few blocks of residential area, mostly composed of narrow, unpaved streets and small, flat-roofed little houses painted white or yellow or blue. Satellite dishes sat on the roofs of a few; Afghan flags draped a number of windows. Baba jan had told Adel that most of the homes and businesses in Shadbagh-e-Nau had been built in the last fifteen years or so. He’d had a hand in the construction of many of them. Most people who lived here considered him the founder of Shadbagh-e-Nau, and Adel knew that the town elders had offered to name the town after Baba jan but he had declined the honor.
From there, the main road ran north for two miles before it connected with Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Old Shadbagh. Adel had never seen the village as it had once looked decades ago. By the time Baba jan had moved him and his mother from Kabul to Shadbagh, the village had all but vanished. All the homes were gone. The only surviving relic of the past was a decaying windmill. At Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Kabir veered left from the main road onto a wide, quarter-mile-long unpaved track that connected the main road to the thick twelve-foot-high walls of the compound where Adel lived with his parents—the only standing structure now in Shadbagh-e-Kohna, discounting the windmill. Adel could see the white walls now as the SUV jostled and bounced on the track. Coils of barbed wire ran along the top of the walls.
A uniformed guard, who always stood watch at the main gates to the compound, saluted and opened the gates. Kabir drove the SUV through the walls and up a graveled path toward the house.
The house stood three stories high and was painted bright pink and turquoise green. It had soaring columns and pointed eaves and mirrored skyscraper glass that sparkled in the sun. It had parapets, a veranda with sparkly mosaics, and wide balconies with curved wrought-iron railings. Inside, they had nine bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and sometimes when Adel and Baba jan played hide-and-seek, Adel wandered around for an hour or more before he found his father. All the counters in the bathrooms and kitchen had been made of granite and lime marble. Lately, to Adel’s delight, Baba jan had been talking about building a swimming pool in the basement.
Kabir pulled into the circular driveway outside the tall front gates of the house. He killed the engine.
“Why don’t you give us a minute?” Baba jan said.
Kabir nodded and exited the car. Adel watched him walk up the marble steps to the gates and ring. It was Azmaray, the other bodyguard—a short, stocky, gruff fellow—who opened the gate. The two men said a few words, then lingered on the steps, lighting a cigarette each.
“Do you really have to go?” Adel said. His father was leaving for the south in the morning to oversee his fields of cotton in Helmand and to meet with workers at the cotton factory he had built there. He would be gone for two weeks, a span of time that, to Adel, seemed interminable.
Baba jan turned his gaze to him. He dwarfed Adel, taking up more than half the backseat. “Wish I didn’t, son.”
Adel nodded. “I was proud today. I was proud of you.”
Baba jan lowered the weight of his big hand on Adel’s knee. “Thank you, Adel. I appreciate that. But I take you to these things so you learn, so you understand that it’s important for the fortunate, for people like us, to live up to their responsibilities.”
“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.”