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Chapter no 43

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Mariam

Upstairs, in Mariam’s room, Zalmai was wound up. He bounced his new rubber basketball around for a while, on the floor, against the walls.

Mariam asked him not to, but he knew that she had no authority to exert over him and so he went on bouncing his ball, his eyes holding hers defiantly. For a while, they pushed his toy car, an ambulance with bold red lettering on the sides, sending it back and forth between them across the room.

Earlier, when they had met Tariq at the door, Zalmai had clutched the basketball close to his chest and stuck a thumb in his mouth—something he didn’t do anymore except when he was apprehensive. He had eyed Tariq with suspicion.

“Who is that man?” he said now. “I don’t like him.”

Mariam was going to explain, say something about him and Laila growing up together, but Zalmai cut her off and said to turn the ambulance around, so the front grille faced him, and, when she did, he said he wanted his basketball again.

“Where is it?” he said. “Where is the ball Baba jan got me? Where is it? I want it! I want it!” his voice rising and becoming more shrill with each word.

“It was just here,” Mariam said, and he cried, “No, it’s lost, I know it.

I just know it’s lost! Where is it? Where is it?”

“Here,” she said, fetching the ball from the closet where it had rolled to. But Zalmai was bawling now and pounding his fists, crying that it wasn’t the same ball, it couldn’t be, because his ball was lost, and this was a fake one, where had his real ball gone? Where? Where where where?

He screamed until Laila had to come upstairs to hold him, to rock him and run her fingers through his tight, dark curls, to dry his moist cheeks

and cluck her tongue in his ear.

Mariam waited outside the room. From atop the staircase, all she could see of Tariq were his long legs, the real one and the artificial one, in khaki pants, stretched out on the uncarpeted living-room floor. It was then that she realized why the doorman at the Continental had looked familiar the day she and Rasheed had gone there to place the call to Jalil. He’d been wearing a cap and sunglasses, that was why it hadn’t come to her earlier. But Mariam remembered now, from nine years before, remembered him sitting downstairs, patting his brow with a handkerchief and asking for water. Now all manner of questions raced through her mind: Had the sulfa pills too been part of the ruse? Which one of them had plotted the lie, provided the convincing details? And how much had Rasheed paid Abdul Sharif—if that was even his name— to come and crush Laila with the story of Tariq’s death?

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