By Karen Brode
It had been a particularly long Sunday afternoon for Opal. Bells Baptist Church had had a luncheon after worship. She usually loved after church meals with the entire congregation. Her church family felt almost like her immediate family, although truth be told, she never really felt she was much like any of them. Now, back at home, the day just dragged on.
Opal walked through the house to see if there might be anyone who could distract her from the drudge of the day. Her young sisters, Cleo and Jewel, busied themselves brushing and fixing their doll’s hair in different ways. Opal was twelve, only a year older than Jewel, but Opal already knew that Jewel was not going to be her intellectual equal. She watched her sister playing with dolls like a little girl. If she said the words “intellectual equal” to Jewel, her sister wouldn’t have a clue what she was saying.
The youngest sister, Hazel, was asleep. Opal peered over the sleeping girl and sighed in the dramatic way she was known for. She begrudged her baby sister being able to fall asleep and not have to think about anything.
Opal left her sisters to play and sleep. She wondered where her brothers were. There was no telling. The boys were required to stay on the property, but there was a whole 160 acres the boys could roam around in without going off the property. There was no way to tell if they were on or off their land from the kitchen window. Opal bet a dollar that her brothers were in the farthest reaches of the acreage smoking.
Finally she came to Poppa and Momma’s bedroom door. It was closed and she could hear her father snoring. It was their custom to come home from church, strip out of their church clothes, and take a nap before going back to church that night. Opal didn’t understand why anyone would want to take their clothes off just to have to put them back on again an hour or two later. What was the point of getting dressed and undressed and dressed again?
Come to think of it, she wondered why on earth there was even a need to double back to church on Sunday night. Why couldn’t they just say what they needed to say on Sunday morning? She could understand if they wanted to preach a little longer on Sunday morning and be done with it. She traced a finger along the ledge of a windowsill and sighed. It didn’t matter what she thought about these things, though. She’d been been told enough times that her opinion and a nickel might buy someone a cup of coffee.
And speaking of opinions—Opal stared out the window and shook her head as she thought about the woman who had gone forward during the invitation song that morning. Each Sunday Pastor Bill stood in front of the congregation. His forehead glistened with sweat. His suit drooped as if he’d been in the trenches saving souls. And the only thing he seemed certain about was that someone in that room needed Jesus.
The hymn wrapped up and the pastor held up his Bible to stop the singing. “Hell is still hot and Jesus wants to save you from hell.” His tone had a reverberation of urgency. “Remember Lazarus and the rich man. There is a great, uncrossable divide between the saved and the unsaved.”
Opal was familiar with the end-of-services ritual. She knew Pastor Bill wanted everyone to repent of their sins and move forward into a new life. But standing up and walking down that aisle meant a lot more than just feeling guilty about something. It told the world you were less of a Christian than all the others who stayed in their seats. And those in their seats had the right to see themselves as better than those that went forward. Whenever someone came forward, there was a lot more judgment than forgiveness.
Opal thought about Hedley Miller, the woman who had finally come forward. She was tall and thin wearing the same dress she wore every Sunday. Her shoulders hunched forward and she walked as if afraid of taking another step. From where Opal stood, it seemed as if Hedley might just curl up into a ball and disappear completely. Opal thought even her dress seemed more worn than usual.
“I didn’t know he was married,” Hedley sobbed into her handkerchief.
“Sure you didn’t,” Opal thought to herself. She could see that everyone agreed with her. No one believed that someone would marry a man without checking if he was already married over in the next county. Opal crossed her arms for good measure and glared back at the woman without feeling an ounce of sympathy or forgiveness. It was the least she could do to help Hedley toward a more Christian life.
It usually made Opal feel superior to think back over the shortcomings of others, but for some reason this morning’s revelation did nothing to combat her afternoon restlessness. It worried her to feel so anxious about nothing. She prided herself on being the calm in the storm, the voice of reason. She was not given to emotional outbursts, not like her sisters. She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and tugged the front of her dress a little to readjust it.
From where she stood in the parlor, she could see the dining room. It filled her with a kind of peace the way the sunlight came in the window and lit up the old oak table that stood in the middle. It had been a wedding gift from her mother’s grandmother.
She walked to the table and laid the palm of her hand on the wood. She knew every line of grain in that table. She was in charge of polishing it at least once a week. There were times when she didn’t want to polish it or be in charge of anything, but her grumblings only provoked severe reprimands from her mother.
“Opal if you want to move out and live somewhere else, go right ahead!”
Opal cringed at this memory and she lifted her hand from the table. She knew her mother had not meant it. She only wanted Opal to appreciate the finer things in her home and the embellishments that many of her classmates did not have. Opal had never been hungry and not fed, she had never had to wear the same dress to school two days in a row. Mother thought Opal should meditate on the niceties that were offered to her and to be grateful for what she had. It was a lesson few people ever learned. But Opal learned it. She knew her mother was right.
Just then, Opal heard shuffling in the kitchen. She went to see who it was and saw it was just the person on her mind. Momma didn’t look well, though.
“You need anything, Momma?” Opal asked. “Maybe a cup of coffee?”
Her mother nodded and waved as she pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. Opal went to the stove and set up the percolator to make some coffee.
“You okay?” she asked.
Momma looked up, her face pale and tired. “I need you to pray that I am not pregnant again,” she said.
Opal felt sick. Surely her mother didn’t want her to actually pray about this. It would be like throwing away a gift from God. Still, her mother looked like the shell of herself slumped at the table.
The two were silent for some time. Opal fixed the coffee and set it before her mother.
“I’m not going to church tonight,” Momma said. “I just don’t feel up to it.”
Opal nodded. “Me neither.”
“I reckon missing one Sunday night service won’t land us in hell,” Poppa said as he walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee.
The moment Poppa sat down, Momma was on her feet shuffling around to get supper on the table. Sunday nights were a hodgepodge of the last several days’ meals. There was enough spaghetti for two or three people, roast beef for one, fried hamburger meat for several, baked potatoes, ham for sandwiches. The children were expected to put their own meals together.
Things warmed on the stove and Momma sat back down as if she couldn’t stand another minute.
“Opal, why don’t you turn on that radio,” Poppa said. He looked over at Momma and continued with a little glint in his eye, “It might improve the spirits around here.”
Opal looked over at her mother. She waited for her to take the bait, but she didn’t. Usually that kind of remark would have started an argument. Opal flicked on the radio.
“Find a channel to put your mother in a better mood,” Poppa said. He smiled this time and winked.
Opal saw Momma’s color turn from ash pale to dark pink. She cringed wondering what might come of the evening if Momma started arguing with Poppa, but then the color drained out of her face and she propped her head on her hand as if she couldn’t even hold that up anymore.
The radio blared on. The noise of it raked against Opal’s own nerves. She couldn’t imagine what how it might feel to Momma. It seemed like an intrusion into the quietness of the afternoon.
“Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity.
A large meteor crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.”
Poppa looked over at Momma, his face serious. “New Jersey is a long way from here.”
The radio was silent for almost a minute and then it continued.
“Good heavens. Something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me. I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it…it…ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
The radio blared on with news about Martians mounting atop walking war machines and firing “heat-ray” weapons at the puny humans gathered around the crash site. They annihilated a force of 7,000 National Guardsman and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians released a poisonous gas into the air. Soon, it was announced that “Martian cylinders” had also landed in Chicago and St. Louis.
Momma’s head lifted from her arm. Her eyes had a patina of fear that Opal had never seen before. The look on her face terrified Opal.
“We should have gone to church!” Momma said.
“What does church have to do with what’s happening on the radio?” Poppa asked.
Momma shook her head and stood up. Opal noticed her mother’s hands were shaking. Her whole body seemed to shake.
“We have to warn them,” Momma murmured.
Poppa didn’t seem to hear his wife—he seemed intent on the radio program—but Opal watched as Momma went to the desk in the parlor. She pulled out a piece of her signature writing paper with the pale purple flower at the top and wrote something down.
“Opal, I need you to get this to the Pastor Bill at church,” she said, folding the paper and handing it over.
“Yes, ma’am.” Opal took the note without question and ran out the door. She didn’t pause to look at herself in the mirror or slip on a sweater, in spite of the early October chill in the late-afternoon. She had seen her mother frightened before—Momma always seemed frightened or nervous about something—but she had never seen her mother look that scared. Once out of sight from the house, though, Opal slowed down to read the note:
“Pastor Bill and congregation, we have listened to the radio. We have heard the warnings that alien spacecraft have landed at various locations of the US. We are sending our eldest child, Opal, to warn the church. In Christian love, Mrs. Walter Morrison”
Opal shivered with fear. So, what the radio was saying was true. Aliens had arrived from Mars.
What if one of those spaceships landed right beside her just then and tried to take her back to Mars with them? She did not want to live on Mars. She certainly didn’t want to be married up with one of those creatures described in the broadcast.
Opal knew it was unladylike to run, but on this occasion, speed was of the essence.
As she ran, Opal began to think of herself as a heroine. She saw herself saving her neighbors from utter doom, or at least letting them know it was coming. There might one day be a book about her someday, how she went out into the twilight fearlessly and selflessly to save her community. She wondered which school picture of her they would use in the book. Opal had never taken a bad picture really, so any one of them would be okay.
At the edge of the church yard, she slowed down and composed herself. She decided to walk down the aisle with the purpose and seriousness in which she was sent. She knew the congregation might be surprised at first, but then they would realize that she was saving them from the Martian’s death rays.
Opal opened the door and walked steadfastly up the aisle to the minister. She handed over the note and waited off to the side. Pastor Bill looked up and over at Opal. His face had the pallor of Momma’s. Opal felt heroic and nauseous at the same time.
“I’ve just received a note from Mrs. Morrison,” said the pastor. “According to the radio, Martians have landed on earth.”
Gasps and whispers floated out from the pews. An electric sense of panic rippled around the room.
Pastor Bill held up both his hands and said, “We are in the safest place on earth right now. God will take care of us. I have no doubt.”
He laid the note on the podium and nodded to Opal. She had a sudden need to be home with her family, so without another word, she ran down the aisle and out the door.
Opal scanned the heavens as she ran. She was relieved not to see anything unusual in the sky. Closer to her house, she saw lights on through the windows. She also noted that Uncle Hiram’s car was parked by her house. Hiram and his wife, Lydia, didn’t visit often. She thought they must have heard about the Martian invasion, too.
Opal opened the back door and was surprised to hear hysterical laughter in the kitchen.
She moved slowly into the kitchen and looked at her parents for signs of what was going on. Momma locked eyes with Opal and shook her head back and forth.
“No” was what that meant. Opal felt confused.
Uncle Hiram slapped his knee and roared with laughter. Even her mother smiled, although it was a weak smile, almost embarrassed looking.
Momma cleared her throat and said, “How’s your friend, Jenny?”
Opal looked back at her mother and then around the room. All eyes turned to her and she knew she had to play along or else Momma would have her hide later.
“Oh, um, Jenny was a little worried about the…news on the radio.”
Uncle Hiram burst with laughter and the whole table rattled with the coffee cups and spoons.
“Your friend believed it too?” he finally got out. “Poor girl.” He turned back to Poppa and said, “Can you all believe that people ran for their lives all over this country when they heard that radio broadcast?”
When Uncle Hiram got revved up, Opal knew better than to ask questions, so she went to the counter and made herself a ham sandwich.
“That Orson Wells is something else,” Hiram continued. “I feel sorry for the people who believed it was real.” He laughed and wiped his eyes with his fingers.
Opal glanced at Momma but Momma kept her eyes on Uncle Hiram, as if avoiding Opal altogether.
“Does anybody want something to eat?” Opal asked. She knew better than to fix herself something without asking about the others.
“No thanks, honey,” Aunt Lydia said. She fanned herself with the newspaper, her cheeks red from laughter. “We already ate.”
“All those people taken in by such a stunt,” Uncle Hiram burst out laughing again.
“Well, I am sorry about the people who killed themselves afraid of the Martian invasion,” said Aunt Lydia, who became suddenly serious. “They were desperate souls who could not see a way out.”
With that, all the adults became serious. Even Hiram looked down at his lap in reverence. But before anything more could be said, Hiram got up from the table and pushed his chair back.
“It’s sure been fun, but I suppose we ought to be getting home,” he said.
Lydia nodded and they all stood. “We have to get up early tomorrow.”
Momma and Poppa followed them out the door and into the yard. Opal heard car doors slamming and, soon after, the sound of a car engine and tires rolling on the gravel road.
Opal, still slightly confused, waited for her mother to return to the kitchen so she could ask what had happened. But when Momma came back in, she leaned against a kitchen chair and whispered, “Not a word, Opal. Don’t you ever mention that note to anyone!”
And with that, Momma went off to bed.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.