My shoulder hit the door as I jumped sideways — startled. The girl now sitting in the passenger seat of my car stared at me with wide eyes. I’m sure my face held a similar expression on it. I yanked the steering wheel back towards the road as we headed towards the ditch, and slammed the brakes on, screeching to a stop in the middle of the two-lane road.
“Holy shit balls! Who the fuck are you?” I yelled. She looked around frantically, like a caged animal. “What the actual hell is going on?” I said, as my heart raced and threatened to explode. In a panic, I opened my door and stumbled out, trying to get space from the insane situation taking place in my shiny new Outback. “Hey? You!” I yelled. “Who are you and what are you doing in my car?”
“I — I don’t know.”
“You don’t know who you are?” I tried to calm my breathing and looked at her through squinted eyes.
“No, I mean, I do know who I am. I don’t understand what’s happenin'.” Tears formed in her deep brown eyes and her voice shook with fear and confusion. “Please, sir, don’t hurt me. I promise I’ll leave if you can tell me how to get out of this…” Her eyes searched the inside of the vehicle. “This — carriage?”
Now my fear turned to confusion as well. “First, I’m not a sir. Second, I’m not going to hurt you. And third… a carriage?” I walked around the car to the passenger side and tentatively opened the door. She cowered in the seat — terror written on her face.
Have I completely lost my mind? I thought. Temporarily suspending belief in what I was experiencing, I crouched down by the door. “What’s your name?” I asked. When she hesitated, I said, “I promise I won’t hurt you. I don’t understand what’s happening either.”
“My name’s Opal. I was walkin’ down the street and then” — she looked around — “I’m sittin’ here.”
“Hi, I’m Sarah.” With a shaky hand, I reached to help her out of the car. Her hand continued to clutch her dress, and after a moment, she tentatively grabbed mine. Her long gray skirt fell to her ankles as she stepped out.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“California. Pa and me was visiting Jacksonville today.” Shaking her head, she said, “This isn’t there. This for sure isn’t there! I was walkin’ in front of the general store on my way to meet my pa for the trip home and then all of a sudden here I am with you. If you don’t mind my askin’,” she looked at me warily, “if you’re not a ‘sir’, why’r you dressed that way? I admit you look womanly in your face, but your clothing — and your hair — you’re very manly, aren’t you?”
I blinked. Twice. “Nope, this for sure isn’t there.” I ran my fingers through my short blond hair. “You’re still in Oregon. We’re just outside Jacksonville. Opal, you seem — confused. What year is it?” Trying to make sense of her, it was the only question I could think to ask.
Her brows wrinkled, and she tilted her head slightly, considering me. I’m certain she was also thinking I had lost my mind.
“Eighteen hundred and seventy-nine,” she said.
I blinked again. My mouth was half-open, but no words were forming as my brain had just stalled out. She must be off her meds, I thought. Thinking about her popping into my car going 45 MPH had me doubting my own sanity though.
“Ma’am?” She squinted at me in suspicion. “What year do you think it is?”
“Um, it’s 2021. As far as I know.” Her eyes went wide, and she covered her mouth with her hand. This is crazy, I thought.
It took some convincing, but I finally got her back in the car. We hadn’t driven more than half a mile when I realized she was looking a bit green. Before I could pull over, she tossed her cookies. Unfortunately, she didn’t know how to open the door.
“I don’t feel well.”
“I can see that,” I said. That new car smell was gone forever.
“Your — carriage — is making me ill.”
With a deep sigh, I said, “Okay, we’re close to my house. I’m going to tilt your seat back and I want you to close your eyes while I get us there. That will help.” I gagged when I opened the passenger door but managed not to toss my cookies.
We made it back to my house with no more loss of cookies or anything else, and I brought her in to get cleaned up. When we walked through the door, my wife came out of her office and stared at us.
“Hi,” she said. “Um, what’s going on? Who's this?”
“Opal,” I said. “Her name is Opal, and she needs to use the bathroom to get cleaned up.”
“Okaaaay. I’ll just wait here so you can tell me more about what looks to be an interesting story.”
“Yeah, you have no idea.”
After I showed Opal the bathroom — and how to use both the sink and the bottle of hand soap — we sat down at our very modern IKEA kitchen table to talk. Surely this was all shocking to the wide-eyed girl looking around at our house.
“Ma’ams, you’ve been very kind, but I don’t wanna get caught here after dark and it looks to be getting late in the day. Will your husbands be home soon?”
I ignored the husband question for now. “Opal, let’s talk for just a minute and see if we can figure this out.” She glanced at the door and was on the verge of running out of the house.
Maria waited patiently, but I could see the questions on her face. I pushed forward with the crazy explanation I’d been forming in my head for the events of the past hour.
“Babe, I know this is going to sound insane, but I think Opal just went through some sort of time warp or something." I explained what happened in the car. Rather than laughing at me, she considered what I was saying while her finger tapped on her pursed lips. I’d seen this look before, and I could tell she was going into nerd mode.
“Well, Einstein’s theory of special relativity says that if you travel at speeds close enough to the speed of light, the time you’re in slows down compared to the outside world. I mean, it’s not likely, but Opal is sitting here in front of us and we don’t know how or why. I’ll have to research it more.”
“Okay,” I said. “First off, I can’t believe you’re this calm about what I just said. Time travel Maria. Freaking time travel.” Abruptly, Opal stood and ran towards the door. She made it to the front yard before stopping and looking around. She obviously didn’t know what to do next. She looked back, consternation plain on her face.
“Ma’ams, I have to go now. Pa will be lookin’ for me. I don’t rightly understand what’s happenin’ or what you all are talkin’ about, but I do know I have to find him so that we don’t get caught out after sundown.” She nervously glanced up into the sky and looked around again to find some way back to the familiar life she had known a short time ago.
“Opal, you can just stay here with us tonight and we’ll see if we can figure this out tomorrow. I’m sure your father can get a hotel or something for the night. You do have a hotel there — or then — don’t you?”
Now she stared at me like I really had lost my mind. “Miss Sarah, you know what will happen if we get caught here after dark.”
I wrinkled my brow in confusion. “No Opal, I really don’t.”
“They’ll kill us ma’am.” She looked down at her shoes. “The white folks here don’t want us anywhere near their town. They let me and my pa come in once a month because he knows how to fix the machines at the furniture mill. If we don’t leave before dark though… Well, pa won’t leave without me. I know it. I can’t stay here.”
“Jacksonville was a sundown town Sarah,” Maria said. Fear had crept into her voice. I looked her way and saw her heading towards the car.
“Come on you two, we’re going to Jacksonville,” she said without looking back.
Opal walked out with me but stopped when we got to the car. Even though I had tried to explain earlier how it worked — the best I could come up with was a wagon without horses — her fear of the car wouldn’t allow her to get in.
“You can close your eyes again. It’ll be fine. I promise. If we want to get to Jacksonville, we have to drive — use the car, I explained. It will be way past dark if we walk.”
After coaxing her into the backseat and fastening her seatbelt — which she frowned at — I said, “I’m sorry I didn’t understand at first Opal. People in Oregon don’t really know much about the history of our state, but because of some recent events, I learned about sundown towns — and I’m so sorry. I knew it was horrible, but I’m realizing how naïve I’ve been.”
She looked at me again like I had two heads, but closed her eyes when Maria pulled out of the driveway.
Parking in front of the red brick post office — one of over a hundred buildings on the town’s historic registry — crowds of people walked past us on their way up the hill to the Britt Festival. Gladys Knight would entertain the hoards of Californians tonight who had moved to this upscale, gentrified community.
There was a window display on the side of the building that contained vignettes of old clothes and telegraph equipment from the early 1900s. It gave tourists a chance to see what life was like back in simpler times, before cell phones and other modern conveniences we take for granted. Opal appeared in my car less than two hours ago and had already seen a mind-boggling assortment of technology and things she couldn’t possibly comprehend.
She looked around like a deer in the headlights, trying to get her bearings. This obviously wouldn’t look the same as it had in 1879, but I hoped that some of the old buildings might look familiar. I had no idea what years they were built. We walked the wooden sidewalks lining the expensive shops on this quaint street. The people passing looked at Opal with grins and whispers, thinking she was an actress in period dress.
When we got to Main St., we saw a couple coming out of Terra Firma and Opal stopped to stare at them. They casually walked up the boardwalk holding hands. It took me a moment to realize how shocking it was for her to see a Black man holding hands with a white woman. She looked like she wasn’t sure if she should run to warn them or run in the other direction.
“Things have changed a lot,” I quietly said, placing my hand on her shoulder. She flinched. I was suddenly seeing this town through her eyes, and it was inconceivable to me how anyone could live with this kind of fear. My privilege was showing.
“Let’s keep walking,” Maria said.
I wasn’t sure what we were hoping to accomplish by being there, other than to give her some assurance that we were trying to do something. After an hour, the sun dropped behind the mountain, and I could visibly see Opal’s body tense. Her fear was palpable. I took her hand and Maria put an arm around her shoulder.
“It’s okay sweetheart,” Maria said. “You’re safe with us.”
Sobs wracked Opal’s body. “Pa,” she cried. The anguish in her voice made my heart ache, and I felt helpless. “They’ll kill him. I have to go home.”
“I’m so sorry. I still don’t understand why this is happening or why you’re here. I know that there’s nothing else we can do right now though. I’m sure your father is a smart man and will hide.”
“You think pa is smart?” she asked. A hiccup escaped, and she looked at me and then Maria with eyes imploring us to give her some hope. “No white people have ever said somethin’ like that to me before.” I didn’t know how to explain to her how different things were now. Far from perfect, but not entirely like it had been.
“Of course he’s smart,” Maria said. “He wouldn’t have made it this far in life if he wasn’t. Besides, he’s got you to look after, and I’m sure he’ll do everything in his power to keep himself safe until he finds you.”
“It’s after dark now,” I said. “I’m not sure what else we can do here tonight.”
Opal thought for a moment and then, standing taller, said, “Let’s go home then. We’re gonna figure out how to find pa.”
“How old are you?” I asked after we finished eating dinner. We’d gotten her into some clean clothes, and she was now wearing a t-shirt with a big yellow smiley face on it that had her giggling.
“I’m 15 years old Miss Sarah.”
“You can just call me Sarah.”
“Okay. Miss S — I mean Sarah, it’s strange here. I’ve been watchin’ you both, and it seems to me that you live here together like, well, like a husband and wife might. Is that true? You don’t have husbands?”
“That’s true. We’re married.”
“You’re married? To each other? And nobody gets mad about that?”
“Some people do. But mostly people accept that we love each other and leave us alone.” I could see the wheels turning in her head.
“There’s so much I don’t understand about this place — or time — I suppose. You dress and talk funny. You have these strange cars that I just don’t like at all. You’re…” she gestured at the two of us. “And you don’t treat me like a dog or somethin’.” A single tear rolled down her cheek. “You treat me like a person. I haven’t ever talked to anybody besides other black folks who treated me like that. I just don’t know about all this.” Maria reached out and placed her hand over the girls.
“Is it like this everywhere?” she asked Maria. “I mean, is everybody like you and Sarah?”
“No honey, I wish it were.” She chewed her bottom lip before continuing. “My family is from Mexico. My grandparents moved here before my parents were born, and I’ve lived here my whole life. I often still get treated like I’m not good enough, by people who would rather see me shipped off to a country I’ve never been in. Sometimes I get scared. A few months ago, I needed to go to another city for work. The people there don’t like dark-skinned people like you and me — at least many of them don’t. We knew there was only one major road into the town, and I was afraid of getting caught there by myself if I ran into some of those people. Sarah and I came up with a plan. A way to get out if things went bad.” Maria choked up as she described it. “My brother went with me so that I wouldn’t be alone. Luckily everything was okay in the end, but it was hard and it was scary.”
“I understand,” Opal said sadly.
“I know you do. There’s so much good in the world, but there’s still so much we need to make better.” Maria looked at me and I could tell she had an idea. “Babe, get the laptop.”
“Uh, aren’t we supposed to protect the past or something by not telling her too much?” I said.
“Screw that! I want her to know that there’s hope for the future. She must be here for some reason, and I think she needs to know more.”
The laptop, or ‘magic box’ as Opal called it, awed her when we showed her pictures from the past — our past, but her future. We stayed up all night showing her images of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and the Lovings. Her eyes were alive with a spark of hope. When the picture of Harriet Tubman appeared on the screen, she jumped up and squawked in excitement.
“I know who Miss Harriet is! She helped so many folks. Nothin’ scares her! I hope I can be brave like her when I’m grown.”
“You already are Opal,” I said with a smile.
We also talked about the Tulsa Race Massacre, Bloody Sunday, and most recently, the death of George Floyd.
“Opal honey,” Maria said as the morning approached. “This world’s changed for the better in many ways, but people have a lot to learn before we all can walk down the street and feel safe. It’s not all peaches and cream.”
Opal laughed. “My mama says that! I’m glad some things are still the same.” She wrapped her arms around Maria, and then me. “Ma’ams, I’m scared, and I miss my family. But I know the Lord works in mysterious ways. That’s somethin’ else mama always says. I know he’s got himself a plan for me and I think you’re a part of it.”
I wasn’t sure how this was going to end, or if Opal would ever get back to her father. We were outsiders from each other’s lives in unfathomable ways. Yet here we sat. My life and perspective would never be the same, and I knew that regardless of what came next, hers wouldn’t either.
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I laughed out loud at this part: “I don’t feel well.” “I can see that,” I said. That new car smell was gone forever. Interesting story and a good piece of writing.
Thank you 😊
Lora, this story is FABULOUS. I was hooked immediately. The premise is really believable, and I just fell in love with Opal and wanted to find a way to help her. Part of me wanted to get her home to her Father, but part of me wanted her to stay and see all the wonderous things we have here. Really looking forward to more stories from you. You have a gift.
Thanks Carmen. I'm going to have to start working on a larger project for Opal 😊