The grass was a vibrant emerald, glistening with morning dew. Cats yawned lazily and settled in their perches for an early nap. Horses snorted for their breakfast. I grabbed a pitchfork and bucket, dragging my weary feet towards Derby’s stall. The freshly clipped, dark bay gelding poked his head over the stall door, nickering in greeting. I smiled, scratched his Jesus-fish star, and opened the door, motioning for him to step back. He snorted and tried to dart past me towards the beckoning sunrise, but I quickly stepped in front of him, barring his path to freedom. Chuckling to myself at his guilty countenance, I pulled the bucket and pitchfork into the stall, latching the door closed behind me, and surveyed the damage.
I laughed as Sarah pulled me into the dark dance hall, Josh Turner was blasting from the large speakers and my heart pitter-pattered in excitement as I surveyed my surroundings. Ignoring the spectators sipping beer on the sidelines, my gaze moved toward the couples gliding across the dance floor. Some were doing basic two-step, while others were moving in perfect harmony, the leads expertly guiding the follows through very complicated movements. Sarah linked her arm with mine, positioning us in front of the twirling, swaying, and dipping bodies. We stood patiently, waiting for the song to end and for men to come ask us to dance. That’s when he approached. Tall, dark, and not quite handsome, I let him lead me onto the dance floor. In this seemingly small moment, I was unaware of the larger story unfolding before me.
My body was cold as ice and also burning like wildfire. My head was pounding, begging for relief. I could hardly walk to my bathroom and back without my body threatening to collapse. How had it come to this? Just the day before, I had been running around my grandparents’ ranch with Ethan, showing him my favorite hiding places. I smiled at the memory, but then quickly groaned as my raging headache took control of all rational thought. Fumbling for my phone on the nightstand, I called my mom, desperate for her soothing presence. In a calming tone laced with underlying concern, she demanded that Ethan take me to the ER immediately.
An hour and a half later, after being dressed in a hospital gown and curled up in a thin blanket, a doctor knocked on the door. A feeling of dread settled in the pit of my stomach as he scanned some notes, his lips pursed, before looking up to address me.
“Because of the complications of headaches and high fever, we’re going to need to perform a spinal tap.” My mother had told me many horror stories about spinal tap procedures. My eyes widened. I was afraid.
The stall was as clean as it was going to get without just throwing out the shavings altogether and I moved on to Buzz’s stall. The humongous, half-blind, sissy of a horse clumsily stepped back to let me into his resting place. When he saw the pitchfork and bucket behind me, the hopeful light in his eyes dimmed as he recognized I was not there to bring him a treat. I quickly settled into a rhythm, picking up as much manure as the pitchfork could hold, dumping it into the bucket, and going in search of the next pile.
It was peaceful in the barn. The horses were munching on hay as I mucked and the cats slept, content with their nightly hunt’s reward. Wrapped in my cocoon of paradise, I barely registered the voices as they trickled into the barn. It took our captain Sydney’s sudden command that everyone “find a job and make yourselves useful!” to snap me out of my reverie. I peeked over Buzz’s stall door. The lovable dork trudged up beside me, ears perked at the commotion my teammates were creating. Sydney attempted to delegate tasks to everyone as best she could, but I could see the uncertainty in her eyes. She didn’t know what she was doing, but was putting on a brave face. I can relate, I mused, my mind traveling back to the never-ending tribulations of the previous semester.
“Dip,” the dark stranger told me, the light scent of alcohol on his breath. Shocked by his forward demeanor, I debated whether or not I should just leave him on the dance floor to rot in his smug drunkenness. Before I could make up my mind, he dipped me. Holding my neck with his large, callused hand, he effortlessly lowered me almost completely to the ground and drew me up again. Without a word, he expertly maneuvered the two of us around the dance floor. In the span of two minutes, he dipped me a whopping seven times.
Unsure of his unorthodox method, I made my way off the dance floor, and toward the safe harbor of my wide-eyed posse. Just then, the stranger grabbed my hand in a gentle but firm tug, turning me to face him. His eyes held a gleam of triumph, as he asked me for my number. I had a split second to make a decision. Should I leave him be or give him my number? It seemed to me that he’d forget the dance and the number by the morning. So what was the point? Still, an air of spontaneity overcame me and I typed those ten digits into his phone. Handing it back to him, I exhaled in relief as I stepped off the dance floor and into the welcoming arms of my friends. The future was uncertain. I smiled.
Searing pain shot through my back as the doctor released lidocaine into the small cavity at the base of my spine to numb the area. Ethan and my aunt Deborah were waiting in a small room nearby. The doctor explained to them that my hospital room had to be completely sterile for the spinal tap due to the invasive nature of the procedure. Gripping the hands of two nurses and distracting myself by making small talk was not enough to drown out the scorching fire coursing through the small of my back. My head throbbed and tears pricked my eyes as I fought back the urge to cry out in agony. But as quickly as the pain had overwhelmed my consciousness, it vanished.
Hey. This is Ethan. You were the girl I danced with last night, right? The text notification popped up on my phone in the middle of a Disney-fueled vacuuming jam. I looked over at my brother, perched at his workspace on the dining room table. I quickly assured myself that he was unaware of the mounting delight written on my face as I stared back at the foreign number. My plan had backfired. Now I had to figure out how to persuade him to leave me be.
Pondering the dilemma for a moment, I responded, I was ONE of the girls you danced with, yes.
No, I was wearing a bright red blouse. Ya know, you danced with my best friend and tried to get her number too?
I snorted, rolling my eyes. He thought he had me fooled, but I could see right through his little game. Or so I thought.
My brain roared like a caged lion clawing the bars of its cage, searching for escape. I was utterly alone in the darkness. This mysterious and almost magical organ, once capable of rapidfire speech and complex intellectual processing was reduced to a pile of mush. The doctor told me that after the spinal tap procedure there was a small chance I may suffer from spinal headaches. He also assured me they would disappear in a day or two. What he failed to mention was how excruciating those headaches would be, and that they would keep me flat on my back for four entire days. The first day after the procedure was complete torture. If I let myself lie down, my spine would ache, protesting from the procedure. But if I sat up, the migraine would completely overtake me, bringing me to my knees in uncontrollable sobs. By the third day, I could hardly remember what it was like to live without the immense pressure crushing my brain.
Buzz bounded out of the stall, nervously hurtling himself towards the barn’s exit. I tightened my grip on the reins, hastily maneuvering my feet away from his gigantic, stamping hooves. Refusing to let him stand on my feet again, I firmly tugged the reins away from his mouth and toward his shoulder. He instantly stopped moving, but remained wide-eyed, his nostrils flaring. I smoothed a hand down his neck, the muscles quivering beneath my touch. Murmuring soft words of encouragement, I nudged him to follow me. The nervous nelly began to relax, and followed me out of the barn and into the warm sunshine. The freshly cut lawn was sprinkled with dew, and pairs of horses and riders were preparing for the day’s events. The show was about to begin, and my body buzzed with excitement.
My hands shook as I removed the gasoline nozzle from my car. When would he arrive? Would he be as charming as he had been over video chat? I never thought that my initial disdain for a guy would turn so rapidly into attraction. I impatiently leaned against my car, exhaling out the nervous excitement. All of a sudden, I spotted him. Towering over six foot and brandishing a bright smile, he walked toward me. After introducing ourselves properly, we hopped in my car to head to Cowboys Dance Hall. The night before we had agreed that a good way to test if we actually liked each other was to return to where we first met.
By the end of the night, after hours of dancing and talking, I returned to my dorm full of excitement about my new relationship. I wondered why God had put this caring, quirky, man into my life, I closed my eyes, and, full of hope, settled into a dreamy slumber.
My brow beaded with sweat. I struggled to contain my breakfast. The monster migraine tightened around my brain, radiating pain through my core. Impatiently watching the nurse process me into the patient system, I asked if I could lie on the floor. If I lie down, the headache will go away and at least I’ll be able to function. The nurse looked at me incredulously, explaining that he could not allow me to do that. I resigned myself to the fact that there was no escape from the uncomfortable sensation building in my stomach, and promptly emptied my breakfast into the little blue plastic bag the secretary had given me. Immediately the pressure in my head lessened. The nurse quickly ushered me through the double doors and into a small, secluded wing of the ER. My impromptu method of speeding up the bureaucratic process had actually worked. I smiled at the thought. Ten minutes later, hooked up to an IV filled with fluids, I was met by an anesthesiologist and his two residents. The anesthesiologist explained that he did not want to perform an epidural blood patch on me because of the invasive nature of the procedure, so he offered an alternative. Skeptical, I agreed to the idea, if only to avoid further confrontation. If the less invasive procedure worked, I would save myself from more pain. I then allowed these doctors to stuff long hollow Q-tips doused in lidocaine down my nasal passage, I assured myself that the bizarre procedure would work and that I would soon be migraine-free.
Breathe, I commanded myself. Patting the horse’s neck, I ran through my mental checklist to make sure I was appropriately attired and ready for my event. Sensing the nervous butterflies building in my stomach, I attempted to make small talk with the handler, asking her about the horse. I don’t know why I did. I had ridden this horse the year before and placed 3rd. Why was I so nervous? The horse shifted her feet, impatient to get into the ring. Picking up the reins, I nodded to the handler, indicating that we should move forward to the gate to the arena. I stared at the small obstacles, steeling myself for my round.
Two months of happiness with a man who treated me the way I deserved shredded into bits over the course one weekend. After several days of silence, I made peace with the fact that our relationship was over. Weary from crying, hoping God would help me through, I trudged into the library where Sarah was studying. With one look at my baleful countenance, she pulled out her phone to text Ethan. Even if he was going to ghost me, she argued, I deserved some sort of explanation. I plopped down on the soft couch beside her, and pulled out my homework. Three minutes later my phone buzzed. It was him. Our conversation lasted five minutes. He gave excuses for ghosting me the whole weekend and then told me he thought we should tone down our relationship to the “friend level.”
Confused, but hopeful, I agreed. But by the next day, I was certain he had simply been trying to find an easy way out. Instead of being utterly devastated, I felt relieved. I resolved to learn what I could from our relationship and use it to help me grow to my fullest potential. I was me again.
By my third visit to the ER in less than a week, I was about ready to rip someone’s head off. The headache vanished for about fifteen minutes after the strange Q-tip procedure, but then returned in full force. All I could think about was getting rid of the pain.
A new team of doctors and nurses arrived. They were ready to perform an epidural blood patch. Two doctors set up station at my back. I was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed while a doctor cleaned my arm to ready it for the procedure. Trying to ignore the gigantic needle that was headed toward my vein, I gripped the hand of a friendly nurse. Fire. Agony. The pain threatened to break me. The needle released the fiery lidocaine into my spine. Biting my lip, I clamped my mouth shut and prayed with all my remaining strength that the pain would release me. All of a sudden, it was gone. Vanished, as if it had never existed, save for a dull throb in my arm and spine. The massive behemoth that had haunted every minute since the spinal tap procedure was gone. I was me again.
One more jump. Even though I had made a few minor mistakes, I was elated that the horse was so responsive to my directions. This last jump was a symbol of triumph. I had battled away the nerves, replacing them with a calm void. Breathing steadily, I had successfully navigated the previous jumps and stayed on course. The mare and I had become one being on that course, connected in our desire to fly. As she approached the center of the last fence, I counted the strides. One…two…one…two. Grabbing a handful of mane, I settled into the shining unbreakable core of my being and in one smooth motion, we leapt.
Jenna Shultz is a sophomore studying Biochemistry and Ancient Mediterranean Studies. Originally from Wimberley, Texas, she has moved eleven times in eighteen years for her mom’s occupation as a military intelligence officer in the US Army. Jenna’s favorite past times when not studying include riding horses, reading, singing Disney on road trips, and writing stories.