Dana explains that the trouble began for her on June 9th, 1976, her twenty-sixth birthday, when she met Rufus. Dana and Kevin were busy moving to their new house, though Kevin stops unpacking to go to his office and write. Dana brings him a stack of books and muses on Kevin’s strangely pale eyes. As Dana begins to shelve the books, she feels nauseous and collapses.
Kevin’s pale eyes mark him as almost symbolically associated with whiteness. Much of the book begins in mystery, as Butler does not yet explain who Rufus is or why he matters to Dana. This scene does establish how important education and books are to both Dana and Kevin, and the fact that the “action” begins just as they are moving to a new house emphasizes the idea of home.
The world blurs out of focus and Dana finds herself in the middle of a forest near a river. Dana realizes that a child is drowning in the river, and she rushes to save the child before worrying about how she was transported to this place. Dana swims out to the child and tows him back to shore, only then seeing that a red-haired woman is pacing on the shore. As Dana wades in, the woman snatches the child from Dana’s hands.
Though Dana does not yet know it, the child is Rufus and the woman is his mother Margaret. Margaret’s distinctive red hair also marks these characters as white. Though Butler does not specify their race, their whiteness is assumed, as white is usually considered the default—especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres that Butler is operating within.
The woman screeches that the child is not breathing, so Dana takes the child back and begins to perform artificial respiration. The woman beats Dana’s back as Dana tries to get the child to breathe on his own. Finally, the boy chokes out water and the woman gathers him in a hug and murmurs to her “poor baby, Rufus.”
Though Dana is portrayed as an average woman with little knowledge of medical or emergency procedures, she reacts well under pressure and responds quickly to a crisis – even when the crisis involves complete strangers who are actively hindering her from helping the child. Dana begins to introduce a pattern of helping people whenever possible.
As Dana watches Rufus and his mother recover from the near-drowning, a man’s voice sounds behind Dana’s ear. She turns and stares down the barrel of a rifle, fearing that she is about to die for saving the boy’s life. At that moment, the nausea returns and Dana’s vision blurs. She finds herself back in the office with Kevin, covered in mud and across the room from where she had been before.
Dana’s fear at seeing the rifle begins the repeated pattern of Dana time-traveling when she is afraid for her life. Butler confirms that Dana is truly traveling to another place and time by including the details about the mud left on Dana’s clothing. Though this experience does sound far-fetched, Dana is in fact a sane and reliable narrator rather than someone suffering from hallucinations or delusions.
Dana calls Kevin’s name, and he spins around in fear, asking how Dana had managed to teleport across the room. Dana is shaking with residual fear, and can explain nothing. Kevin gets her a towel, and the two sit on the floor as Dana calms down. Kevin again demands that Dana tell him what happened, and Dana gathers herself to tell the story of the river, the drowning boy, and the rifle – realizing as she speaks that she noticed strange details like pine trees and the woman’s strangely long, dark dress, and her Southern accent.
Even as Kevin is conspicuously trying to help Dana recover, he still has a domineering presence. Butler frequently uses forceful words such as “demand” to describe Kevin’s actions—though he is a kind and loving man, he still has a sense of entitlement and confidence that, it’s suggested, is intimately tied to his privileged place in society as a white man. The details that Dana recalls about the woman’s long dress suggest that she moved back in time to a period when that style was everyday attire.
Kevin listens calmly as Dana explains what happened. When she finishes, Kevin tells Dana that she was only gone a few seconds from the office. From Kevin’s perspective, Dana disappeared for a few seconds, then reappeared across the room wet and covered in mud. Kevin reluctantly decides that Dana’s crazy story must be true. Dana begins to shake, wondering what might happen if she is transported again. She likens the feeling to a survivor of robbery or rape, who is now physically fine but no longer feels safe. Kevin tries to comfort her, and Dana attempts to put the whole strange episode out of her mind.
While Dana is now physically safe, her mental and emotional concept of safety is marked by her previous traumatic experience. Kevin suggests that putting this experience out of her mind will be easy, but Dana cannot just “get over” it. This feeling mirrors the impossibility of modern day African Americans “getting over” the long history of abuse that their ancestors suffered as slaves, though the actual conditions of plantation slavery no longer exist in America.