Byron's stomach sank when he got the news. Four hundred thousand dollars! From a distant cousin whom, as far as he knew, he'd never met in his life. His name was Jeffrey, and apparently he knew a thing or two about Byron when he'd made out his will.
"What kind of sick sadist was this guy?" Byron asked himself while further reading the letter. He held onto his forehead with one hand as he scanned the lines. "How could he do this?"
As he visualized the proposal, his irritable stomach sank even more. He could feel the G-force already, thrashing his worn, thirty-five year old body around like a human toy. His hard-lined face deepened in red. Shades of red that throbbed with every emotion, including anger.
A sharp Shhhhh! filled the air of the living room as his quivering white hands began tearing the letter apart. But he stopped and threw it on the floor. The words at the very bottom of Page Two stared at him as if this Jeffrey's deceased spirit was either teasing him or pleading:
It's not about the money, Byron; it's about something much more important. Overcoming one's darkest fear is essential to growth. You will never be able to enjoy anything until you do. You will feel the adrenaline. And you will learn to embrace it until it becomes your friend. Then, you will be free. That, dear cousin, will be your true inheritance.
Byron knew every word to be true. Always had. "The truth hurts," as they say. Of course he desperately needed the money. In 2021, who didn't unless they were lucky enough to be a part of that coveted "One Percent"? But did he really need it this bad? Badly enough to face his Acrophobia head on?
It wasn't just an average fear of heights. It was worse. He never could quite put his finger on what had triggered it or when, but he suspected it all started when his mother had dropped him as an infant. It was an accident; or at least he had no reason to suspect otherwise. He was too little to remember much about it, other than feelings. Feelings of terror and pain.
But his body certainly hadn't forgotten. The limp he still walked with over thirty years later was testament enough that there are certain things in life he would do well to avoid at all costs. Front porches, for one. The ramp he had built to replace the steps leading up to his front door when he'd bought this house on the outskirts of Dallas-Fort Worth was still dangerous enough. What if the dizziness were to cause him to lose balance? Sure, four feet is not most people's idea of "dangerous". But most people don't realize just how dangerous it can be.
"Byron, get real dude! Think about what you're throwing away here! You're looney, you know that? Pure, unadulterated looney!"
A loud stomp on the carpet of his friend, Jonathan's hallway accented those words. Jonathan was one of those big-brother type friends who had always meant well in trying to help Byron along on this bumpy road of existence. Firmness over kindness. Advice over lip service. Truth over candy-coating. For that reason, Jonathan was not Byron's first choice for someone to talk with about his situation, but he was the most readily available at the moment.
Jonathan shook his triangular head and seethed under his breath, staring at the carpet. Hands held out toward Byron as though he couldn't decide whether to use them for strangling or emphasizing a point, he continued reasoning.
"The letter says all you have to do is ride the Lone Star Twister, right?"
Byron nodded with his straw-colored eyes glaring away from Jonathan.
"And it says once your cousin's attorney has received the picture as proof, the process of signing the inheritance over to you will begin, right?"
Byron gave a jittering frown, and nodded.
"So do it! Just freaking do it!"
Byron stayed so silent and frozen in place, Jonathan began to feel like he was alone, talking to himself.
"What's the big deal? It's only a roller coaster! You're not gonna die, you're just gonna get rich! The man is paying you a fortune to go play at Frontier Land! He even willed you the admission ticket with the letter! Now sit down, have a beer, and let that soak!"
As he left for the kitchen, Byron fiddled with his phone trying to get his mind on something else. But it wasn't working. All he could think about was scheming a way around having to do this in order to collect the money. Maybe he could claim the camera at the park was out of order and ask Jeff's attorney if a signature from a witness could suffice as proof. But that would be dishonest, and asking someone to lie for him would be the lowest he'd ever sank since shoplifting bubble gum when he was three.
"Who was this guy anyway?" he asked in his silence.
Maybe he had a social media profile somewhere. Maybe that was how he knew about the Acrophobia. Byron had made it no secret on his own profile, after all. He searched several sites, typing the full name in the search box, and finally found him on one that was geared toward business professionals.
"What are you looking at?" Jonathan asked as he returned with the beer.
"My cousin," Byron replied, staring hunched over at the phone with a monotone voice. "He was a psychiatrist, who specialized in something called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy."
Jonathan smirked, pointing back at the letter sitting on the coffee table. "Well, see? He knew what he was talking about! Now are you gonna snap out of this silliness and get on the damn coaster or are you gonna just throw your life away? I'm sure whoever's next in line on that will would be more than happy to take the money!"
Byron had dreamed the night before during one of the fitful fifteen-minute periods where he'd managed to doze off. It was the recurring one where he's looking up at the sky. At first, it's bright blue and feels warm; then, he senses the warmth become wet. He always knows it to be blood pooling beneath his head even though he never sees it. The sky darkens, his body begins to feel icy, and he realizes people are gathered around, leaning over and peering into his eyes.
And then he wakes up. Feeling just as icy all over despite the heartrate. Last night, he had awakened from the nightmare one mere inch away from rolling off the edge of the bed.
"I'll go with you," Jonathan offered, this time with a calmer tone which still did nothing to lighten Byron's outlook on the future.
Screams tore at Byron's eardrums. Nausea weakened his knees. He couldn't take it anymore. So he reached into his jean pocket and pulled out a pair of ear plugs.
"Do what you gotta do," Jonathan mouthed with a shrug.
The Lone Star Twister loomed in front of them as they inched their way down the line toward the gate. And with each step forward, Byron's muscles stiffened, until finally, Jonathan found himself having to pry the ticket out of his hand to give to the attendant for him.
At the risk of having to retreat to the back of the line to start over, he pulled Byron off to the side, motioning him to take the ear plugs out for a second. More screams mingled with echoing wooden clacks as another load of passengers came soaring down the coaster's steepest dip, making Byron's toothpick body vibrate along with it.
"Byron. Dude. Maybe you're right. Maybe no amount of money is worth this."
Byron turned and looked at "Big Brother". First in shock; then with an exhale that immediately softened him into a noodle.
"No amount of money is worth risking your life over."
Embrace the adrenaline, Byron thought in a flashback to that letter.
He gave himself an imaginary hug. A long breath. He visualized the money. Visualized being a survivor. Celebrating. He reminded himself that, terrifying as the nightmares were, he always awakened from them, safe and sound.
The safety bar made the car in which he and Jonathan sat seem medieval, just like he had imagined. They were at the very front of this unforgiving torture train. They would be first to ascend and first to plummet. He tried to imprint an image in his mind of how insignificant the height appeared from down here.
It's all an illusion. Embrace the adrenaline.
Through the corner of his eye, he observed Jonathan as the cars began to creep down the track. Not a care in the world right now, this guy. "Reverse psychology," Byron pondered thinking back to his behavior a moment ago. He felt like killing him, but it was too late. If anything, Jonathan appeared more irritated over this ride interrupting his business calls for a few minutes than in fear of his life. Byron reached out with his thoughts trying to absorb some of that indifference.
It wasn't working. With each ratchet sound - each inch forward and upward - the dizziness grew. The northern Texas prairie below became a kaleidoscope of spinning tiny trees, ant people, toy buildings, and water-drop lakes.
He tried making the climb to the top a metaphor. As the top drew near, so did success. The incline was his rise toward wealth. That's it, just reach the top, he coached himself the way he imagined his cousin would if he were there. That's all you have to do and it will be over.
This was it. Survive or die. With ever such subtlety, the track began to arch downward. He couldn't think anymore, only feel. He felt the gravity pulling at him, like the merciless earth twenty stories below was one giant magnet. Blood gushed through his heart as it worked overtime to keep up with the demands of this fight between a body that wanted to turn around and a mind determined not to.
Jonathan smiled with a thumbs-up. Byron couldn't breathe to muster any energy in his fingers to return the gesture.
The rails vanished as the virtual cliff came into full view and tormented his nerves in a violent, clacking tease with ear-piercing wind and a chorus of adrenalized screams coming from behind. The longest several seconds of Byron's life chastised him inside-out as visuals of that concrete porch step from thirty-four years ago sent stinging waves up and down his right leg.
"Hey," Jonathan said with a nudge of the elbow into Byron's ribs. "We did it."
The distant screams of passengers on other rides seemed oddly benign now. For the first time since entering the park, Byron noticed the whimsical tunes coming from the carousel adjacent to the Lone Star Twister. An aromatic breeze, heavy with the hint of hot dogs and popcorn, coaxed his stomach back into it's rightful place as he envisioned returning some time; with enough money to treat everyone here to a snack perhaps.
The bars lifted, and Jonathan rushed over to the souvenir booth with Byron hobbling behind, each eager to get their hands on the snapshot that would officially make Byron four hundred thousand clams richer.
"Look at you!" Jonathan said with a bright grin so uncharacteristic of his normal self. "You're the only one in the pic who doesn't look scared. What a trooper!"
"What's this 'We did it' talk?" Byron asked with a leaning eye and a laugh. "Oh well," he added, "I suppose you are worth a share of it since you're the one who talked me into doing this in the first place."