I sat rigidly in my chair, avoiding my mom’s sympathetic gaze and my older brother’s confused look. My dad stood in the corner, his arms crossed and his expression unreadable.
My great uncle’s lawyer had just read his will. I had never heard of the guy, but apparently my mom knew him well since she and my dad were given his house, and my brother was given his workshop and an old car. My older brother looked as stunned as I felt. But there was more, another paragraph written just for me.
“And to my grand-niece, Candace, I leave my little nest egg, in the amount of $10,000,” the lawyer read. “All you must do to claim it is drive to my bank by way of the freeway on the day after this reading. Best of luck.”
The lawyer tapped his pen on his desk with a little chuckle. “I must admit that I’ve never seen a requirement quite like that one. Usually my clients say ‘this inheritance cannot be claimed until my granddaughter is 18 years of age,’ or something similar. But your uncle was insistent about this.” He paused, like he was waiting for me to explain why. I clenched my jaw and pressed my lips into a line. He didn’t get the hint, or maybe he ignored it.
“I assume that driving to the bank has some significance for you?”
I blew out my breath in a rush. “Yeah, something like that.” He was out of line asking, and my dad made sure he knew it with a cold glare.
I wasn’t about to tell him about my irrational fear of driving, specifically driving on freeways. That was none of his business.
We were suddenly all in a rush to get out of there. My mom and dad signed some papers, my brother signed some papers, then the lawyer pushed a pen toward me.
“Looks like you’ll be $10,000 richer tomorrow,” he said. “Use it well.”
I scribbled my name then shot out of my chair and into the foyer, only breathing again once I was free of that wretched office.
I felt terribly stupid about my fear, but that unfortunately was not enough to make it go away. Instead I just felt stupid and terrified. And now someone I didn’t even know was rubbing it in from the grave.
Well, too bad. I wasn’t going to play his little game. He could keep his $10,000. It could sit in the bank and rot for all I cared.
* * *
“You really aren’t going to go get the money?” Sam asked incredulously. “I mean, we’re talking about 10,000 dollars! And all you have to do is drive to the bank. What in the world are you thinking?”
It sounded so dumb when he said it out loud. I knew that. He just didn’t understand the crippling extent of my fear. I was pretty good at hiding how much my anxiety affected me.
And he hadn't been there when I’d sped up a freeway on-ramp two years ago, my brand new driver’s license tucked away in my purse at my side. I hadn't seen it coming, but as I'd gotten to the end of the on-ramp and faced the moving wall of cars, a flood of panic had hit me with a force that felt like a punch. I'd searched frantically for a place to merge but suddenly couldn’t breathe. I'd felt like I was careening to my death.
The sound of a car horn had made me realize that the car in the next lane had slowed down to let me in. I'd glanced over to see the driver gesturing for me to pull in front of him, but I'd frozen. I couldn’t do it. Instead, I'd slammed on my brakes and skidded to a screeching halt on the side of the freeway, amid more honks from cars behind me.
I'd sat there shaking and gasping for air, sure that my heart was about to explode, that this was how I would die. Finally, after what felt like hours of me gripping the wheel in my stalled car while the drivers on the freeway whizzed past me, I'd found the sense to pull out my phone and dial my mom. She'd come to my rescue, and I hadn’t attempted a freeway since. I didn’t intend to now.
“No, I’m not.” I said, offering no explanation. Sam looked at my parents, who were staring forward. They knew about my intense fear. Knew that I dreamed about that freeway incident and woke up shaking. Knew how it haunted me.
My dad had explained to me many times that it was just my anxiety, that my fear was irrational, and that I didn’t need to listen to it. But he didn’t get it. I didn’t have a choice. The fear took control, and it took all my power to just keep breathing when it did.
My mom understood, though. She’d felt it before, still did once in a while. She’d battled anxiety as long as I’d lived. That was one of the reasons I feared it so much. If she hadn’t gotten over it yet, what chance did I have? Was her timid life my only hope for the future? Was that all I had to look forward to?
I pounded up the steps to my room when we got home, my fear turned to anger. Why did my uncle put that ridiculous requirement in his will? I’d much rather he left me nothing than promise me a small fortune as a way to force me to face the one thing I feared most. It was manipulative.
I swiped angrily at a tear that had betrayed me and slid down my cheek. I didn’t want to cry. I was not sad, I was mad. Who did he think he was, anyway?
* * *
Breakfast in the morning was painfully quiet. Mom must have warned my dad not to try to talk sense into me, and Sam read the warning in my eyes and kept quiet. On the way to school I winced at the absurdity of it all. I was just fine driving to school. I didn’t love it, but I could do it. But merge onto a freeway? You might as well ask me to jump off a building.
I sat in my first class staring at the clock. This day couldn’t end soon enough so I could put all this behind me. It would be too late to get the money then, so the possibility wouldn’t torture me anymore.
In the middle of a lecture on human anatomy, the sound of my name over the loudspeaker snapped me from my thoughts. I shook my head, not sure if I’d really heard it or if I’d just imagined it. But then the announcement came again.
“Candace MacArthur, please report to the main office.”
Everyone was looking at me. My teacher looked annoyed at the interruption and motioned for me to hurry. I stuffed my book into my bag and fled. But I stopped short when I recognized Sam waiting by the office door. I was tempted to turn around and go back to class, but I saw the determination in his eyes and figured he’d just follow me.
“I already signed you out,” he said, “let’s get out of here.” He put his arm around me and steered me out the front doors and into the spring sunshine. My eyes protested until they had time to adjust to the brightness.
Then I turned on him. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”
“I skipped out,” he said, leaning against a pillar to look at me.
He raised his eyebrows. “I would think that would be obvious,” he said. “What is going on with you? You need that $10,000 for college next year. You should be jumping for joy that Great Uncle Scott thought of you in his will. So what gives?”
“I just don’t get how he knew,” I said, sidestepping his question. “Only mom and dad know.”
“Only mom and dad know what?” he sounded exasperated.
“And probably Grandma,” I said, still ignoring his question, “because mom tells her everything. But how in the world did Great Uncle Scott find out?”
“Okay, throw me a line here,” Sam said. “What is this secret that only our parents and Grandma know?”
“It’s none of your business.”
Sam waited for a beat, then blew out his breath. “Come on, Candace. Are you really going to block me out like this?”
I bit my lip.
“Anyway, I can answer your question,” he said. “Did you not listen during the reading of the will? Great Uncle Scott is Grandma’s only brother. They obviously talked.”
I’d missed that part. But now it made sense. Grandma wanted me to overcome my fear of driving more than anyone else. She didn’t want to see me end up like my mother.
“Is this about your anxiety?” Sam asked.
Maybe I wasn’t so good at hiding it. I shrugged.
“Good. That I can handle. Come with me.” He led me to his car and tossed me his keys. “Get in.”
I folded my arms. “No.”
“Do you want to beat this or not?” he asked. But his tone wasn’t rude or condescending, it was something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Of course I do, but you don’t get it. It’s not that easy.”
He blew out his breath again, and an edge crept into his voice. “I don’t get it, huh? Do you think you are the only child in this family who has felt crippling anxiety? Who has experienced a panic attack?” He let that sink in.
“You mean . . .” I furrowed my brows. “You think you have anxiety?”
“I don’t think, I know,” he said.
“Sam, I . . .” I searched for the right words. “I mean, it’s sweet that you want to help and that you think you kind of understand, but you just don’t get what it’s like for me. You’ve always been so confident, so in control.”
His face got redder and redder as I talked, like a lobster boiling in a pot of water.
“Candace, you’re wrong. I do know what it feels like,” he said. “But I refuse to let my fears stop me. That’s the difference between you and me.”
I felt like I’d been slapped, but he crossed to my side of the car and put his strong hands gently on my shoulders.
“I know it doesn’t feel like it, but it really is that simple,” he said. “So let’s do this. It’s time for you to decide that you will not let your fear hold you back. And that’s what we are going to do right now.”
I shook my head. “I still don’t understand. What have you ever been afraid of?”
“That’s a story for another day,” he said. “But believe me when I say that I know what you’re feeling. The tightness in your chest, the blaring sirens in your head, the feeling that you are about to lose it. And the crippling fear, the absolute certainty that something horrible is about to happen. The overpowering urge to escape.”
He stopped talking, and I realized that I was clutching his hands on my shoulders. I could see it in his eyes. He did understand.
“But why didn’t you tell me? You never said anything.”
“Well, mine started after I left home. And by that time I could see that you and mom had enough to worry about. I didn’t want to throw my issues into the mix. So, I got a counselor. And she taught me a lot.”
“Yeah.” He let his hands fall to his sides. “I know it feels crazy and terrifying, but you have to do this. Otherwise, you’ll be controlled by your fears forever. I think Grandma knows that, and I think that’s why she told her brother about you.”
I didn’t know what to say, what to do. My world had just shifted under my feet, and I felt off balance. Sam got into the passenger seat and folded his hands in his lap.
I sat in the driver’s seat but didn’t start the car. My heart was already racing.
“I really appreciate you wanting to help, Sam, but I just can’t do this.” Tears spilled down my cheeks. He looked at me with a perfectly calm face.
“Yes, you can.” He leaned toward me. “Do you want to know the truth? I still feel afraid all the time. But I just refuse to give in to it now. Instead of running away, I let my fear fuel my fire and I just keep going. I won’t lie and say it’s easy, but it is easier than it used to be.” He leaned back in his seat. “Expect the fear to come, since it will come, but just keep driving.”
I started the car, not sure if I would really go through with this, but willing to at least take that step. For the first time since that fateful day on the freeway, I let myself consider the possibility of turning onto an on-ramp again.
I backed out of the parking space and headed down the street. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I felt like I could at least handle driving forward.
“Okay, it’s time,” Sam said. “Don’t think too much, just go.”
I knew there was a freeway entrance about a mile away because I had been avoiding driving too close to it for two years. I tried to calm my breathing, which had been speeding up ever since I pulled out of the parking space at school.
Sam kept up a steady stream of encouragement from the passenger seat, and I couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or grateful. I got to the turn and slowed down, still indecisive. This felt like a big deal. I didn’t know if I was ready.
“Don’t even think about stopping,” Sam said. “You will never be more ready than you are right now.”
That hit me more powerfully than anything else he had said. And I suddenly knew that he was right. I wasn’t ever going to feel ready. But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t do it. Sam felt fear, too, but he didn’t let it stop him.
A surge of energy bubbled up inside me, and I flicked my blinker on and made the turn. My hands started to shake, and my heart pounded in my chest. I let out a noise, something between a laugh and a sob. Then I shook my head.
“You’re not going to faint,” he cut in. “You are fine. Just drive.”
It surprised me again, him knowing exactly what I was feeling. The on-ramp was approaching on the right. I was so close. I was going to do this. I turned the wheel to the right and started my acceleration. This was it.
A wall of panic slammed into me. I sputtered and gasped for air, like the wind had been knocked out of me. My lungs wouldn’t expand. My ears rang. What had I been thinking?
I yanked the wheel to the side and slammed on the brakes, gravel spitting out behind my tires as the car slid to a halt on the side of the ramp. I sat behind the wheel, waves of fear crashing over me. They fought with equally violent waves of shame. I didn’t know I was crying until a tear splashed on my forearm. It was just like last time.
The car was silent as the grave. Then Sam sighed. “It’s okay, I didn’t think you’d really do it anyway. You got close, though. That’s something.”
My stomach hardened into a ball, and suddenly I was furious. How dare he say that? I was filled with a wild urge to prove him wrong, and before I could talk myself out of it I had the car moving again, accelerating toward the freeway. I merged into my lane with a whoop. Then I was shaking and sobbing and laughing all at once.
I kept driving. Now that I was here, nothing was going to stop me. Sam was silent in the passenger seat, and I couldn’t see his expression. But I imagined the shock on his face with a rush of pride.
After a couple minutes my shaking subsided and I stopped feeling like my heart wanted to leap out of my chest. I glanced at Sam. He was looking at me with his eyebrows raised, his arms folded, and a wide grin on his face.
“That’s my girl,” he said. “I figured that would do the trick.” I eased my grip on the wheel long enough to punch his arm. But I smiled, too.
“By the way, you missed the exit to the bank.”
I started. I’d forgotten all about the bank.
“Huh, I guess I did.” But I didn’t mind. That wasn’t the point. I understood that now. This was so much bigger than the inheritance money.
I looked ahead at the wide expanse of road before me, and for the first time I could see my life the same way. Stretching ahead with infinite possibilities. I could deal with the bank later. Right now, I wanted to drive.