THE sky over the railroad station that morning was dark and heavy, swelling with rain. I stood on the platform with my parents, wishing my mother would stop fussing over my clothes so I could board the train and begin my journey. I was going to see my cousin, and this would be my first trip all by myself, anywhere. My first solo. My father looked on, smoking his pipe and occasionally winking at me as if to say, ``To your mother you're still a little boy. But you and I know what an age 13 is. We know what a foot you've got in the door of manhood.''
And yet when my mother kissed me goodbye, my father didn't shake my hand, as I'd expected; instead he embraced me and then kissed me on the head. A few moments later, when I'd ensconced myself in the last coach of the train, I saw through the window that his eyes, like my mother's, were filled with tears. To him I'm still a little boy too, down deep, I thought. I smiled and waved to show them they shouldn't worry. I was equal to come what may.
The train started to move, and my parents slid from view. Past buildings ramshackle and resurgent I went, past vacant lots and open fields and out of the city into fresh, green places that looked as if they could withstand change forever.
There, suddenly, the sky burst. Big raindrops pelted the train on all sides, splashed in glee on the tracks. The other passengers in the coach with me, an old couple, looked at the ceiling with strangely calm eyes, as if its collapsing wouldn't surprise them, they had seen so much. Then, suddenly as it began, the cloudburst ended. The sky grew brighter, bigger, and with a flourish of beams the sun appeared.
I heard the door to the coach open. A girl came in. She had long red hair and was wearing a blue dress and white shoes. I guessed her to be a year older, no more, than I.
``Lovely storm, wasn't it?'' she said as she swept past me toward the rear door. Then, before I could answer, she appeared on the viewing platform and, leaning on the railing, took a deep breath and smiled at the gladsome sky.
She began to dance. Swaying to and fro, swinging her arms loosely, letting the wind waft over her upturned face and ripple through her hair. The train was moving very fast now, and going a curvy way. She kept bumping into the railing, coming dangerously close to losing her balance, but she seemed oblivious, almost enchanted. I jumped up and ran outside.
``Miss,'' I said, ``be careful. You'll fall off.''
Still dancing, she smiled at me. ``Want to join me?''
``Please, miss, come inside.''
``Oh, all right then, if you're going to make such a fuss.''
Her face glowing from the dance, she sat across from me inside the coach. Even the old couple with the calm eyes looked at her and shook their heads.
``I didn't mean to scare anybody,'' she said, apologetic yet happy. ``I got carried away.''
``I could see that,'' I said.
``Always have yourself in hand, do you? You seem awfully young to be so sensible.''
``I'm not so young. I'm taking this train by myself.''
``That's more than I'm doing. My folks are three coaches up.''
``Are you going to tell them what you did?''
She nodded. ``I've never fibbed to them.''
``Won't they be awfully upset?''
``I'll get a scolding, for sure.'' She looked at her watch. ``I was supposed to be back five minutes ago.''
She stood to leave, and I stood, too. I noticed how blue her eyes were, and I felt a strange pang that I'd just met her, and now she was leaving. I told her my name and asked her hers.
``Mary O'Reilly,'' she said.
I smiled at the lilt of it. ``That's like a song.''
``It's just Irish,'' she said, suddenly shy, and hurried off.
That night the train pulled into my station, and I saw her once more. She got off there, too, with her parents. From their travel-weary faces I couldn't tell what had happened to her.
Seeing me, she lingered behind them.
``Did you get scolded, Mary?'' I asked.
``No. They just said I take after my crazy grandmother, and made me promise to behave.''
``You never know what parents are going to do,'' I said. ``I thought mine would be happy I was taking the train all by myself. Maybe even cheer. But they cried, both of them.''
Mary smiled with the kind modesty of a girl who knew a little more about life than a boy. ``Maybe they weren't prepared to see you looking so ... so independent. Maybe they were afraid you wouldn't need them too much more.''
``I never thought of that.''
She glanced over her shoulder toward where her parents stood waiting. ``I'd better go,'' she said. ``We just change trains here, and we've got miles to go yet. My parents asked me to thank you for ... rescuing me.''
``You're welcome. I did, you know.''
She smiled and held out her hand. But it was not a moment for shaking hands, and intuitively we both knew it. Taking her hand, I lifted it to my lips and kissed it, just as if she were a princess, and I a humble hero.
Afterwards, shyness overcame us. We stood silently looking down at the platform. How young we must have seemed, even younger than we were. Surely it was the pure sweetness of the moment that made the kiss on the hand count as the first kiss, the first time I had ever kissed a young girl and, I felt certain, her first kiss as well.
When I looked, I saw her gazing at me as if wondering what could come of such a kiss - something crazy, something sensible, or nothing at all. Then, her eyes brightening as if at the sight of kindred spirits, she smiled up at the sky over the station.
It was full of stars, and they were all dancing.