Old Enough by R.D. Giles

Something was wrong with his grandma, apart from her eyesight. The boy, who had just turned eight, patiently led her to the train. Wearing bulky sunglasses and holding his arm, she reached out with her white cane and swept a path to the railcar. His grandma had dyed and curled her hair for the pageant, brought her best hand bag, wore pink nail polish and lipstick. He guided her to their seats, walking past freckled and sunburned Mormon families. The boy sat next to the window and his grandma set her cane down in front them. Rows of alfalfa and irrigation wheels extended into the distance like repeating mirror images, blurring and shimmering in the summer heat. Stark mountains loomed above the valley, their peaks speckled with old snow. On the platform a Navajo kid around his age was waiting to board the train with two missionaries wearing white shirts and name tags. Most of the windows were open and a reek of coal smoke, fertilizer and manure filled the car.

A conductor made his way to the front of the aisle, red-faced and sweating in his period uniform. He gave a memorized speech about the Old West, Butch Cassidy, the history of the train and its restoration. The steam engine let out a jarring whistle and they rumbled through an expanse of sage brush and scrub oak, before ascending into a canyon where the air cooled somewhat and smelled like dry pine needles.

“What do you see?” his grandma asked.

“We’re in the mountains now.”

The Navajo kid had slipped away from his companions and was now running up and down the aisle. Disapproving passengers watched him nervously. His black hair was close-cropped, and he had scars on both arms about the size of a pencil eraser. Sitting a few rows in front of the boy and his grandma, the missionaries were busy talking about their work at a boarding school.

“I want you to know,” the boy’s grandma said. “Your mom and dad will be together forever in the Celestial Kingdom.”

“But they’re divorced.”

“That doesn’t matter; marriage in the Temple is eternal.” She explained how the pageant would reenact Joseph Smith’s First Vision in the woods, when the prophet was only a boy and saw Heavenly Father and Jesus. His grandma reached in her bag and handed him a Book of Mormon. “You’re old enough to have this.” He opened the cover and saw an inscription penned in her unsteady cursive, then flipped through the first few pages where it talked about being “a record of peoples in ancient America.” She pulled up the boy’s shirt to tickle his back with her fingernails. Closing the book, he tried to picture the shapes and figures his grandma was tracing. As they scaled the canyon, the train rumbled hypnotically and left behind a pall of noxious steam.

His grandma fell asleep with her mouth open and lipstick on her teeth. After a while, the boy took her bag and rummaged through it for candy or gum. Beneath pill bottles and wads of tissue paper all he could find were some cough drops and a black-and-white photo of three young women. They wore frilly dresses and their hair was styled like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Behind them was a parade float piled high with crates. Running his fingers over the photo’s scalloped edges, it occurred to the boy that the brunette in the middle was his grandma before she got old. She was wearing a tiara and standing in front of a banner that read “Peach Queen.” The ancient picture reminded the boy of something he’d heard about his grandma. It was a story his dad told about coming home from school and finding her naked in a plywood piano box the family had been using as a tool shed. He’d found her shivering among the shovels and rakes.

Someone shouted from the back of the railcar. The Navajo kid was trying to open a door to the gangway that had a sign on it reading “no entry to unauthorized persons.” The missionaries drug him away screaming and kept apologizing to the other passengers. An outraged man in a baseball cap went to look for the conductor while his frail wife tried to quiet their baby. This time the missionaries sat down on either side of the kid and grabbed his arms, warning him to stay still, but he wouldn’t stop squirming and making noise. After the train passed through a long tunnel, he managed to break free. He climbed over some empty seats to an open window and without hesitation, as if following a script, threw himself out.

The spectacle of the kid lying beside the tracks quickly receded behind the train, and he seemed to vanish into the mountainside. The boy’s grandma was awakened by the metallic screech of the train braking and the panicked voices of passengers. Feeling nauseous and excited and ashamed, he told her how the kid had escaped and flown out the window before anyone could stop him. “My God,” she gasped and clutched her bag. Hidden behind her sunglasses, his grandma’s milky eyes flitted in every direction like she was watching the whole thing replay all around her. The boy imagined the kid waking up miles behind the train, alone in the middle of a scenic postcard, crawling through gravel on bloody knees.

The conductor soon appeared and assured everyone that a search-and-rescue team was being sent to the site of the “accident.” He refused to let the frantic missionaries off to help locate the kid and urged everyone to stay seated as the train started moving again. Outside a swollen creek could be seen rushing down to the bottom of the canyon. Bordered by cottonwoods, its fierce waters dropped and crashed against the remains of eroded cliffs, painting the high desert green. The sun was blazing down and there was a sweet, ripe smell in the air as they reached the end of the line, where a quaint one-room station awaited them. It was supposed to be a replica of the original terminal, built back when the mines were still open.

Everyone was in a hurry to disembark, especially the families with small children. Brothers and sisters filed out, holding hands in a chain, like unfolded paper cutouts. The boy had to look for his grandma’s cane, which had slid to the front of the railcar during the emergency. He guided her to the steps and onto the platform, but the old woman knew where she was going. Standing next to the train, the conductor smoked a cigarette and watched the Mormons make their way to the pageant.