Fear had been the dominating factor in 32 year-old Harriett Winslow's life since the day she was nearly killed in a car wreck at age 16.
For 16 years she'd been a normal, vivacious, outgoing girl, laughing and giggling with all her friends, oohing and aahing over boys and the latest fashions. Then the accident turned the next 16 years of her life into a never-ending nightmare.
It was her first week driving her first car, a little white Toyota. Rain had turned the roads into a slippery mess of random puddles when she started hydroplaning even though she was driving slowly and carefully, 10 mph below the speed limit. That horrible, floating, out-of-control feeling as the wheel spun uselessly in her hands while the car slid inexorably toward the railroad tracks was one she'd never been able to forget.
Down the tracks she could see the freight train coming, bearing down on her . . . she watched the ironic thought come to mind . . . like a freight train. Frantically she tried to unfasten her seat belt but the motion of the car and the terror pounding in her heart made her fingers feel as thick and unresponsive as bananas; she couldn't get it open! Then the train hit her, spinning her around yet again, throwing the car straight toward the mighty oak tree by the side of the road.
The tree reached out for her with its limbs, in slow motion in her hyper-aware state-of-mind; a ravenous monster out of the scariest movie ever made. It grabbed her car with an earth shattering crash, driving a long Freddie Krueger knife-edged branch through the window into her chest. She screamed in terror-filled pain before sliding helplessly into darkness.
But as bad as the crash had been, the doctor's offhand remark while she was recuperating in the hospital was even worse. He'd told her, “It was just pure dumb luck the branch didn't puncture your heart.”
Luck? Dumb luck? Her life had been spared by dumb luck?
Hearing those words was perhaps the most terrifying moment of all. It meant her life was nothing in the grand scheme of an indifferent, uncaring universe where you lived and died by seconds and inches, and nothing you did could change it or stop it or control it.
That was the moment when fear – raw, palpitating fear – took over her life with wet clammy hands, never again to loosen its grip. The fear of losing control, of spiraling blindly into an early grave, powerless to stop it or alter the outcome, had become the overriding emotion in her heart and mind that drove her every thought and action from that day forth.
Did a cute boy drive a little too fast? Can't go out with him; he might kill them both. Was her best girl friend since kindergarten hanging too far out the 4th floor window at the museum on a field trip? Stay away from her and never see her again; she might fall and drag Harriett with her to her doom.
Every day, in every situation there was always some element of helplessness, some hint of dangerous loss of control that caused her to shy away like a skittish horse. Every person was analyzed, scrutinized, and finally demonized until there wasn't anyone left in her life any more. She just couldn't take the chance, couldn't risk losing control to another person who might betray or hurt her.
The only people she could trust – ever so slightly – were her parents, until it turned out the universe didn't care about them either and struck them down; first her mother with a heart attack then her father with a long, drawn-out death from cancer.
With her last anchor to normalcy gone, dead and buried; her descent into the deepening abyss of fear accelerated. Every can of food in her grocery basket had to be inspected for the expiration date, then double checked and triple checked for the slightest puncture mark or imperfection that might point to the existence of botulism, poison, or contamination. Three deadbolts on her door weren't enough to assuage her terror; they multiplied to four, five, six, and more as the years went by. Electrical cords had to be wrapped and re-wrapped in electrician's tape to prevent fraying that might electrocute her or start a fire.
There was no fear or doubt too small to blossom into full-grown panic in her breast.
Taking a job outside the house was out of the question so she took correspondence courses and became a home-based medical transcriptionist – after dousing each arriving box, package, and envelope with Lysol and a whole host of antibacterial sprays to protect her against pathogens and diseases.
She'd come to the Lord a year before the accident, and since then she'd clung desperately to the verse in 2nd Timothy that promised, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sound mind,” but no matter how many times she whispered it herself in the mirror, or posted it on every wall in the house, she couldn't bring herself to believe it any longer. She did have a spirit of fear, and it rode her like the proverbial monkey on her back. She was helpless to get rid of it – and that very helplessness itself triggered even more fear.
She thoroughly understood, understood in her bones, the famous saying from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
She was afraid of everything. She was afraid of being afraid. Fear itself horrified her.
So for 16 years she hydroplaned out-of-control through life, jumping at shadows, squeaking in alarm at the slightest sound, clutching her mace and pepper spray in trembling hands, knowing none of her preparations or defenses would do her any good but helpless to stop herself from making them anyway.
Today had started out no different than any other; hitting her alarm then instantly turning on the bedside lamp – as if her three nightlights didn't throw the whole room into sharp relief – so she could check for snakes or intruders, or perhaps mice carrying the Black Plague again. It was crazy and irrational but she couldn't help it.
After ensuring it was safe, she cautiously lowered her feet to the floor, ready to pull them back the instant anything untoward might happen.
Then it was a mad dash to throw on her bathrobe and cinch it tight against peeping toms or cold drafts or flying bugs. After that, she snuck into her bathroom, ready to flee at a moment's notice if anything was in there. No Navy SEAL ever moved more quietly or with more caution than she did, tiptoeing across the floor to the bathroom. After all, who knew what might be lurking in there?
So far, so good. Another normal day – for her at least.
Then, a voice, so still and small she almost missed it, whispered to her, “Today is the day.”
She slammed to a halt, looking wildly this way and that. “Who said that?” she quavered. “Who's there?” She brandished her tiny spray bottle of mace as if it were an actual iron mace with spikes on the end.
“Today is the day.”
No one was there, she realized. For a moment she was so surprised she forgot to be afraid. But, being her, she soon got over it and found something new to be afraid of.
I'm loosing my mind, she told herself. Its finally happened; I'm going crazy. She shivered remembering the horrifying ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, was lobotomized into a mere shadow of his former exuberant self.
“Oh God, please don't let that happen to me,” she prayed desperately. “Please, I'll do anything!”
“Today is the day.”
The third repetition of those four words seemed to loosen something in her chest. The constant terror that constricted her heart eased ever so slightly. If today was the day, then whatever it was, she at least had some warning it was coming. Whether it was good or bad didn't actually matter, she realized. Simply knowing it was headed her way gave her a sense of control for a change.
So consumed was she with that thought she wandered into the bathroom and flipped on the light almost absentmindedly as if she was an ordinary person. It wasn't until she'd done it that she realized it – and nearly gave herself a heart attack as what she'd done was borne in on her.
She clutched her bathrobe tight at the neck. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed at herself in the mirror. “Are you crazy? Who knows what might have been in here!”
The mirror told her she was pretty – more than pretty actually – but “pretty” was an invitation to murderers and rapists and other degenerates who might want to do who-knows-what to her. So she shunned make-up, stylish clothes, or doing anything with her long black hair other than putting it into a braided bun on top of her head like a spinster librarian.
Bathrooms were dangerous places. John Glenn discovered that when he got back from being the first American in space, then slipped and nearly killed himself in his bathtub. She had to be careful of more than just human dangers in here. She had to give everything her full, complete, undivided attention to make sure it didn't get her when she least expected it.
Once that ordeal was past she had to face the hazards of getting dressed. Buttons, hooks, zippers, and clips could be deadly if not handled with proper caution. Elastic, if allowed to get too tight, could cut off her circulation and render her unconscious in a matter of minutes. Clothes hangers, if you got tangled in them, could literally hang a person; she'd read a story about it happening to a little girl one time. She was very timid around them now, treating them as if they were deadly vipers.
Once she'd run the morning gauntlet in the bathroom and bedroom she gingerly made her way to the living room, then on to the kitchen and discovered to her horror she was out of milk for her cereal. That meant she had to get in her car and make the harrowing trip to the store to buy more.
Driving was always a particular trial for her nerves and today was no exception. Compounding her unease were the gathering storm clouds, threatening a deluge to make her trip even more dangerous.
Sure enough, moments later the skies opened up and rain came pouring down in sheets. It couldn't have happened at a worse moment, as she was approaching the very spot where she'd had that awful accident so long ago. She didn't have to cross the train tracks – that would have been impossible! – but she did have to drive past it, past the tracks and past the giant oak tree that still stood there.
As she approached there was only one car in the oncoming lane, a little white Toyota which had seen better days. Through the rain and dim murkiness she could barely see the other driver; just enough to know it was a young, dark-haired girl. She was driving slowly, her blinker on to signal she was turning across the tracks.
Harriett shook her head. “Don't do it,” she whispered, knowing the girl couldn't hear her.
The sound of a train whistle broke through her concern. She glanced wildly over her shoulder back down the tracks. A train, a freight train, was barreling down the tracks, its thunderous approached covered by the noise of the storm.
Turning back to the other car her eyes widened as she watched it slip on the rain covered street and start to hydroplane, spinning in a slow, grand circle as if it had all the time in the world. Inside she could see the girl clutching the wheel, turning it this way and that without effect. The little car was headed right for the tracks, replaying her own accident 16 years ago.
“NO!” she shouted with sudden rage. It wasn't going to happen to someone else. No one deserved to live with the kind of paralyzing fear she'd had to endure all this time, not if she had anything to say about it.
And for once, just for once, she actually did have something to say about it. “Today is the day,” she snarled defiantly.
She'd never bought a small car again after the accident. She always bought the biggest, heaviest, strongest vehicle she could find, no matter how expensive it was. She'd put herself in debt over and over again do it, but this time it would finally be worth it because she was driving a military surplus, up-armored Humvee which had seen action in Afghanistan. It was the closest thing to a tank she could find.
Now it was going to pay off.
She gunned it, the big fat tires finding purchase on the rain slicked streets. She lurched up over the curb, taking a short-cut across the now muddy grass beside the road. The Humvee powered through it as if it were dry ground.
The engineer must have finally seen her and the Toyota; suddenly the whistle blew, loud and long and shrill. “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” it seemed to shriek.
The Toyota was slowing down, but it wasn't going to be enough. It was going to wind up straddling the tracks just like she did that night. Harriett clenched her teeth, knuckles turning white on the steering wheel as she aimed herself right between the Toyota and the tracks. She stomped the gas with reckless abandon, hearing the roar of the engine over the ear-splitting sound of the train whistle scant yards away.
Through the windshield she could see the girl's mouth open in an O of astonishment, her eyes wide and staring. Then their vehicles slammed into each other, the lightweight little Toyota made of aluminum and plastic against the Humvee made of iron and steel.
It was no contest.
The Toyota was stopped like a dachshund jerked back on his leash, while the Humvee did little more than quiver for an instant. The sheer size and weight of the Humvee pushed the Toyota back as easily as swatting a fly. Harriett kept her foot on the gas, shoving the smaller car away from the tracks.
A moment later a screech of metal-on-metal signaled the train scrapping past the Humvee with a shower of sparks. The Humvee shook and shuddered horribly before its momentum carried it away from the tracks and the thundering train.
Then it was over; the train was rolling on past with a rhythmic click-clacking of the rails while the pitter-patter of the driving rain on the hood of the car quickly gave way to a gentle mist. Harriett cut the engine and got out. Ten feet away the old oak stood disappointed and bitter at missing its latest victim. She smiled triumphantly at it, resisting the urge to give it the finger.
The passenger side of the Toyota, so similar to her own, was dented and scratched where the larger Humvee had carelessly thrust it away from the tracks, but other than that it appeared to be intact. Inside, the young driver was leaning back in obvious relief at the near-miss with death. She gave Harriett a weak thumbs-up and mouthed, “Thank you,” at her through the windshield.
Harriett smiled back then gestured for her to stay put. She pulled out her phone and dialed 911.
It rang once then the operator answered. “911, what is your emergency?”
“This is Harriett Winslow,” she answered briskly with newfound confidence. “I'd like to report a brush with a train. No one is injured but there's a young lady here who's pretty shook up.”
The operator began asking questions one after another to gather more details. As Harriett answered them she watched the young girl fanning herself in relief and reflected that today is the day more than one person has been saved from fear.