February 1st, 2019
“The New York Museum of American History.”
I read the sign on the door as I walked in. The sign really was beautiful. Bold, green letters, like the sign was letting you know that this was the best museum ever, and you should never doubt it. Swirls of red, white, and blue bits of color that seemed to be splattered on the sign randomly. And that’s what made it pretty. It was splattered in the sense of a chaotic mess, but it was free and lively. Not like other museums, which was neat and perfect, but in all of the wrong ways.
I loved this place already.
Before I could admire the outside of this place further, I was swept inside by a crowd of sixth graders.
It was the typical school field trip. Chipper tour guides, bratty kids, forgotten supplies, grumpy teachers, the whole package. I sighed, doodling like there was no tomorrow. I drew the sign of the museum. I really did love that sign. It was weathered and old, but it still looked familiar and comforting, like it was one of those museums that got better as it aged.
I was capturing the swirls when a teacher’s voice snapped me to attention.
I looked around, slightly dazed.
“Wha-- what’s going on?”
Some of the class giggled. I heard one whisper,
“Looks like artist freak is in trouble again.”
Ms. Alvarez calmed the students down, but I detected a faint smile flickering across her lips.
“Would anyone like to remind Cynthia what she was asked?”
“Why are we here?” Several of them called out.
Ms. Alvarez nodded.
“Cynthia, would you like to answer that question?”
I could tell from Ms. Alvarez’s eyes that this wasn’t up for debate.
“We’re here for the civil rights movement exhibit because it’s Black History Month.” My voice cracked with every word. I cringed. I really did hate my voice. It was always uneasy and timid, and it always cracked at the wrong times.
Ms. Alvarez smiled, but there was no warmth in her eyes.
“That is correct. Now, kids--”
“We aren’t kids!”
Several students called out.
Ms. Alvarez looked around, trying to pinpoint the voices. I nodded in respect. Anyone who can interrupt Ms. Alvarez is a brave idiot.
Ms. Alvarez wasn’t a scary looking teacher. Not really, anyway.
She was a tall woman in her mid-twenties, with a frizzy copper colored afro. She had a nose ring and several earrings, all of them silver. She had round black glasses, which looked striking against her dark hair. She wore normal enough clothes: a black t-shirt, grey jeans, and black ankle boots with silver buckles.
But there was something off about her. Something scary.
Her eyes. That’s it. They were small and dark, and if you stare right into them, it’s like you can read her. And if you do look into her eyes, you will discover this fact: Ms. Afizah Alvarez holds much wisdom and power that humans don’t possess. Like she can destroy you with a thought. Like she isn’t human.
Even as I’m describing her right now, it sounds ridiculous. But you have to trust me. You have to. You have been warned. If you don’t listen to me right now, if you don’t finish this message and learn from my mistake, the next time you visit a museum, Ms. Alvarez’s kind will be there. Lurking. Hiding. They could capture you. Suck you into their little trap, just like how Ms. Alvarez will soon do to me.
Ms. Alvarez found out who was talking. She smiled. Ms. Alvarez was one of those teachers that smiled too much.
“Looks like Holly Batista and Nina Boicenco have volunteered to clean up after lunch!”
The rest of the kids cheered.
We’ve been in the museum for an hour now. And I’ve learned one thing so far: adults have a superpower. The superpower to make even the most exciting things seem as boring as hell.
The chipper tour guide, Klieo, was talking up a storm, teaching us all about segregation in the United States during the 1900s. Like, come on! We learned about segregation in freaking third grade!
After what seemed an hour and a half, Klieo asked us all a question:
“What is segregation?”
She scanned the crowd of students.
The one rule any sort of teacher follows: always call on the kids who don’t raise their hand.
I didn’t realize that I never told Klieo my name, yet she knew.
I groaned inwardly. Teachers really liked putting me in the spotlight, didn’t they?
“Segregation is the action of setting someone or something apart from other people or things or being set apart from something.”
As usual, my voice sounded timid and small, even if I was completely confident. What I would give to have a regular voice.
Kleio nodded, flashing me a big smile. I noticed her eyes were so much like Ms. Alvarez's that it was creepy. That same look that tells you that this person is powerful beyond measure. I blinked, and that look was gone. I shuddered.
“Maybe if you had gotten more than three hours of sleep for once,” the logical part of my brain chided, “you wouldn’t be hallucinating.”
I sighed. Not this again.
“Maybe if YOU’D stop thinking about whether the chicken or egg came first at two in the morning, I’ll be able to get some sleep!!” the other part of me argued.
"That's correct. Now, would anyone like to tell me--"
My eyes wandered over to an exhibit that we hadn’t looked at yet. It was about the first sit-in in segregated lunch counters. It was on February 1st, 1960, at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Young African American students had sat down on that lunch counter and had refused to leave. That had started the sit-in movement, which had spread into college towns in the South.
There were statues in the exhibit. Statues of that sit-in. Four college-age students, sitting at a counter, with a waiter yelling at them to leave. What the statues were made of, I couldn’t tell. But it was so life-like. So real.
Like they were frozen in time.
Another tour guide had taken over, leading us all to a different exhibit. I tried to follow, but Kleio walked towards me, blocking my path. Ms. Alvarez came over here and did the same thing, preventing me from following the rest of the group. They backed me into the corner.
Ms. Alvarez glanced at Kleio.
“Is she the one?”
“I don’t know how you didn’t figure it out sooner. I caught her scent the moment she walked in here.”
Ms. Alvarez shrugged.
“I’m so used to the scent of the tempus viatores by now that I can barely distinguish them from humans anymore.”
“What’s going on?”
Kleio cracked her knuckles.
“We’re viatorem venatores, responsible for hunting the tempus viatores down. We have orders to put you back in your place, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
“Can you speak English?” I snapped. “I can’t understand a word you’re saying!”
Ms. Alvarez shook her head in disappointment.
“Have you been paying so little attention during Latin class that you can’t understand four words in that language? We’re traveler hunters, responsible for hunting time travelers down. We have orders from our boss to put you back in your correct time in the past or future, so we’re going to do exactly that.”
She sounded bored, like she had told this to people hundreds of times.
I shook my head.
“I’m no time traveler. Besides, doesn’t that only happen in sci-fi movies?”
“If that was true, that would make our jobs a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever, time travel is real. People from the past or future have been infiltrating the present. And our sources tell us that you’re one of them.”
How was that even possible? I have no memory of even living in a different time period. I have been living in the 2000s for my entire life. Right?
“But I’ve lived in this time period my entire life! I’m no time traveler. I didn’t even know that time travel exists! Why--”
Ms. Alvarez took out a glove that kind of looked like the infinity gauntlet from Avengers: Infinity War. Except it was pure black, with shining white jewels instead of the usual orange, red, yellow, blue, and purple jewels, and a whole lot more sinister looking.
She put it on her right hand and reached for me. I tried the dodge, but Ms. Alvarez was fast.
She touched her index finger to my forehead, then everything went black.
February 1st, 1960
I woke up lying down on a sidewalk, shaking like I was on a sugar rush. I groaned, rubbing my head. I felt like my brain had been deep-fried, then frozen in a block of ice.
I tried to sit up, but my legs felt like cubes of jelly.
“Do you need some help?”
Four African American men, around college age, stood over me. I nodded. One of them offered his hand, and I accepted it.
I brushed the dirt off my clothes and jogged in place, trying to get some feeling back into my legs.
The guy who helped me up smiled.
They started walking away, but I called,
The words just slipped out of my mouth. Why I said that, I had no idea. But it felt right.
One of the men turned around.
“What is it?”
“I know you’re about to protest for equality. And whatever it is, I want in.”
Another one of the men frowned.
“You might get fined or arrested if you join us. Besides, what are you? Thirteen? Fourteen?”
“Age doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I’m willing to do anything for equality. Segregation is unfair and unjust. I want to do my part to end it peacefully.”
Again, the words seemed to fall out of my mouth without my brain’s consent. But I didn’t take my words back. I knew I was doing something right.
The men looked at me with what seemed like respect.
The one who helped me up smiled.
“If you really want to join us, then we’ll let you. We just need to know your name.”
“As long as I know yours. All of yours.”
“Ezell Blair Jr.”
The other men spoke up.
I committed those names to memory. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt important. Like those names were going to go down in history.
“So,” I looked at all of them. “What’s this protest you’re going to do?”
The man named David shook his head.
“How did you even know that we were going to do some sort of protest for equality?”
I searched my brain for an answer, but I came up with none. I tried looking deeper, but I got that deep-fried-brain sensation again.
“I’m not sure.”
The men looked skeptical, but the one named Franklin spoke up.
“We’re going to go into a whites-only lunch counter. Woolworth’s, to be specific. And we’re just going to sit there peacefully. No ordering food, no nothing. It’s just a small act of peaceful protest against segregated restaurants.”
“That sounds like a good plan.”
“So,” Joseph grinned. “Are we doing whatever we’re doing or what?”
“That’s seriously what we’re going to call this thing?”
Joseph raised an eyebrow.
“Then what should we call it, oh wise one?”
“A sit-in,” I murmured. Much like the other times I’ve spoken, I had no idea what I was saying. I just said what felt right.
The rest of the group turned towards me.
“That’s actually not a bad name.”
“Let’s do this!” Joseph exclaimed.
His voice sounded so corny I had to laugh. The rest of the group joined in. Our laughs carried as we walked into the whites-only lunch counter and sat down.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that we would be making history. The five of us.
And I would be forgotten. No one would know the name Cynthia Chilufya.