Willow knew that everyone was watching. The sensation of their eyes upon her made it worse. Her lips trembled. She pressed a finger to her mouth to keep it steady. To her surprise, her skin felt cold. Was that normal? Could her face die off somehow, strangled by a lack of blood, while the rest of her kept going? She tried to clamp down on her sense of panic.
The man at the podium announced another name. Willow couldn't make out the words but she knew the call had been for Missy, the girl ahead of her. It was her turn to walk up onto the stage. Sure enough, a second later Missy grunted, stood, and turned to the right.
Willow started to hyperventilate. Her chest heaved with short, shallow breaths. She summoned the will to clamp down on her body. She held motionless. Her body reacted by forcing a long, gasping breath. Her head started to pound. She squinted. She tried to make herself breathe normally or at least quietly.
They called her name. Her head nodded. Her body rose. She felt her arms shaking. Her legs wobbled under her.
Willow turned to the right and took two steps. On the second one, her knees buckled.
"Oh, good." She heard a voice, her mother's. A hand pressed to her forehead or rather, tried. There was a damp cloth between her forehead and the fingertips.
Willow kept her eyes closed. She could relax this way for a moment longer. Where was she? She'd fallen. They must have moved her while she was unconscious. But they couldn't have put her anywhere near the stage or it would be noisy. And where had her mother gotten a washcloth?
She blinked. Her mother's face blurred above her. Then it snapped into focus. Beyond the face, Willow noticed green walls and a beige ceiling. There was nowhere else with walls like this. They had to be in the room beside the stage. Stuck on the green paint were random-looking fuzzy tiles in not-quite-matching shades of speckled brown. Beneath a row of those stood the carpeted door, and odd thing for any room to have. It was closed. Another adult hovered in front of it but Willow hardly glanced to see who it was. Her gaze returned to her mother.
"I'm sorry, mom," she said. "I must be sick again or something."
"That was a panic attack," said her mother in an unreasonably cheerful voice. "It's the first time I've seen you collapse with one. You've had at least three, I'd guess."
"What?" She started to rise. Her stomach knotted with a twinge of panic at the news that she'd been found out. "Why would you think that?"
"Based on your previous sickness reports."
Willow knew there had been more. Those hadn't been discovered, at least. She relaxed back to the yoga mat that someone had rolled out for her.
"When I was around your age, I got panic attacks too," her mother said. "I didn't think they were something that could be inherited. But from what I gather of your father, he used to panic and get into fights. I used to panic and freeze up. Now, here you are. And you also panic."
She tried to picture her dad fighting with other boys. But she couldn't even picture him as a teenager. He was such a bald, pot-bellied, middle-aged man. She never even saw him out of his suit during the work week.
"Why didn't I hear this before?" she asked.
"Why didn't you mention your anxiety before?" Her mother's voice grew sharper, a bit more reproachful. "You would have heard it all then. You'd have had cause. But you didn't speak up. Instead, you lied about having stomach cramps and the flu."
She didn't have a good reply for that so she stared at the ceiling for a while. There were two specks of dust on it. Willow had always wondered how dust could get up onto ceilings.
"You're so calm, mom." Maybe she should start with a compliment.
"Well, I am now. I wasn't so much when you collapsed." Her mother let out a light, tense laugh. Her hands fluttered. "But there was a nurse here. She said she's seen this plenty of times before."
"I mean you're usually calm," Willow corrected. "I never see you panic. Daddy, too. He's brave. I've seen him talk drunks out of doing something stupid. So he's better. You're better. Will I just grow out of this?"
"No, I grew into my anxieties. They got worse and worse. Even now that I'm better, I still get hysterics on the inside. What I learned to do was cope. It helps that I've changed my way of thinking. That's most of it. My panic response has subsided. But it's still there, deep in."
"How did you fix it?"
"I had to learn to welcome it."
Willow didn't realize she was rolling her eyes until her mother did it right back to her, the way she always did.
"Yes, I know that's a tough thing to hear." Her mother's lips pressed in a grim line. Her gaze flickered to the side for a moment as she watched the other adult leave through the carpeted door. "It takes a sense of perspective on getting better to allow in all of the nervousness. But you have to. Let it fill you up."
"It's already killing me. If it fills me up, I'll be dead."
"Great. So no more embarrassment. No more anxiety."
"That all?" Willow laughed. Her elbows propped her up. "It's impossible but is that all you do, really? You let it happen?"
"It's been a while since I had to work through this." Her mother tapped a finger against her lips as she remembered. It was a gesture that Willow had to suppose she'd also inherited. "I had a few steps that I went through. I let the bad feelings in, explored them, laughed at myself, and then thought about something else important, like a boy that I loved."
"Oh." That seemed a little too personal. Maybe there was a story behind it. "Was it dad?"
"I hadn't even met him." Her mother started to shake her head. But she stopped and smiled. It was a mischievous expression. "What makes you panic at some of these events and not others? Is it a boy?"
"I don't want to say."
"It is, isn't it?" Her mother clapped her hands like a hummingbird flapped its wings.
"I really, really don't want to say, mom." She gazed back up at the ceiling. It was a nice ceiling, very calm.
"Okay. Well, next time you talk to that boy, welcome in the panic. It's okay. So maybe you care about his opinion too much. That's fine. You care about other people's opinions too much anyway. And you can't please them all. So you might not be everything the boy wants. You should know that you can't be everything that you imagine other people want you to be. If you're trying to be perfect, you're going to be anxious all of the time."
"Jeez, mom." She let herself flop back down on the yoga mat. But it wasn't comfortable. The tile floor beneath it was hard and cold. She sat up again.
"It's okay. Enjoy your panic." Her mother stepped back to give her room. "It's your body letting you know it realizes how important the moment is to you."
"Next time, I'll try to do that." Willow nodded and rose to her feet. It took a few seconds but she discovered that her body wasn't as wobbly as she'd expected. Her right arm flexed. She massaged the muscles in it. She felt like a truck had run over her but not in a bad way. She was sore.
"Good. The next time is right now."
"Sure, mom." She adjusted her blouse.
"I mean really, right now. You're up on stage next." Her mother strode to the door with the carpet on it. She cracked it open. Noise from the stage poured in. "The nurse left to tell them. When you were passed out, I got them to agree to call your name when they could, even if it was last. The nurse went to tell them the plan is still on. They'll call you in a minute."
"Already? Mom, I don't know if I can do it."
There was a pause in the outside noise. She heard the announcer say something brief.
"Listen. They're calling your name."
"Okay, jeez." She took a step. Her mother pushed on the handle. The door swung open wide. Lights from the stage cast a golden pathway on the floor, shadows to either side.
Beyond the shadows, in another row of light, Willow saw the faces. Her gait faltered. Time slowed. She welcomed in the surge of emotion. Her cheeks flushed. She caught herself tensing up for a moment but she relaxed and let it happen. As she crossed the threshold onto the stage a thrill shot through her. She could feel it down to her toes and her fingertips.
"Here goes," she whispered back to her mom. It occurred to her that someone might overhear. But there was nothing she could do about it. She tried to smile but then thought, why bother. She squared her shoulders. She marched over the stage.