Lizz Schumer


To this day, the gaps in the chronology of that afternoon are what disturb me most. I remember deciding to grab an energy drink before I go the rubbing alcohol, telling myself not to forget the reason I came. In those days, I read health websites obsessively. As an aspiring journalist, I loved research and thought it best to educate myself, even though I flagrantly ignored the instructions and warnings I found. Now I vaguely recalled the importance of remaining properly hydrated. Something about the proper amount of salt in the blood. Something about electrolytes. I was lightedheaded just about all the time and saw spots nearly every time I stood up, so I didn't think much of it. But my hands were shaking and I was suddenly walking on air, on one of those inflatable bounce houses, a rope bridge or something that swayed with each step, or I did.

"A Gatorade would be a good idea," I remember thinking as the door jangled closed behind me. I blinked, and someone was jabbing a need into my arm.

At first, all I could hear was my own heartbeat. Like a drum, pounding away in my chest. I could live by that sound.

Then, like someone cranked up the volume on a radio, the sound in the world came back. Two men were shouting. Sounded very far away. I couldn't see. My eyes were open, but I couldn't see. Panic wrapped itself around my arm, Velcro-coated. Something was beeping, rhythmic. My heart tried to match it. A scanner crackled. Beeped three times.

Someone spoke but I couldn't understand the words. Language eluded me. My body was lying on something soft and plastic that I didn't recognize. The knobs of my spine stuck into it, hard. My face might have winced. I could feel cold liquid flowing into my veins. My arms wouldn't move.

As a child, dad always tucked me in the tightest. The blanket pinned me to the bed until I was human burrito, careful not to unwrap myself. I felt his kiss on my forehead, a mark he burned there. And then gone. He closed the door just a sliver, and the light in the hallway looked like Hell's fire creeping in to get me. To burn me alive. And I couldn't move my arms.

"She's at 89 over 50. Go a pulse?"

"We're at 50 bmp and rising. Can you hear me?"

Dad always told me that if I ever needed anything in the middle of the night, just to whisper his name so I wouldn't wake up my baby brother. "Your mom and I will always be there for you, no matter what," he said. I whispered, but nobody came. I had never felt more alone.

Like focusing a microscope, my sight came back. I zeroed in on a man's face, inches from mine. Stared as his eyes came into focus. His coat was what grandma called Varsity Blue and heavy for the weather. His face was unshaven. I could almost feel it prickle. Green eyes. Professionally empty. I wanted to nod, but there was something hard around my neck. It smelled like antiseptic and blood.

"Can you hear me? Pulse still rising. What's your name?"

I found my voice, hiding somewhere in the corner of my brain that had been keeping it safe until we knew it was okay for me to come out.

How long had it been? A day? A year?

"What day is it?"

"I don't know."

"Wiggle you fingers for me?"

I did as I was told, and my body came back tome. Or I returned from some secret place. Pain spread from my fingertips up to my body like I was being submerged in a bath of fire. My face twitched, spasmed like a frightened animal. The man turned something on a bag hanging near my head. I ice floated through my veins and I fell in love with him, immediately. Carnally.

"How did you get here?"

Dad used to drive me to school every morning. He dropped me off at the door where I always turned to see him drive away. Sometimes he waved, and when he didn't, I felt forgotten. Saturdays, he let me tag along as he ran errands in his green pick-up with the red, fuzzy dice dangling from the rearview mirror. blues radio always blasted from the ancient speakers. Music was our personal calendar. Blues was for Saturdays. Sundays were jazz. Bruce Springsteen, that rust belt icon, our weekday warrior. I was his sidekick. He was always there.

"Who's the president?'

"How old are you?"

The words got inside my head with the thoughts they belonged to. I didn't know. I didn't know anything except that moment and the erasure terrified me. Still terrifies me.

"She's 20."

Dad's voice floated somewhere near my feet, calm, in control, tight as a violin string. My heart reached out to him like I had so many times when I was a child.

"This your daughter, Steve? She passed out in my store. Gave us quite a scare!" Another man laughed, braying like a donkey. I could hear beer on his voice.

"That's Mary Catherine, my daughter. You okay, honey?" His voice was laced with worry and underneath it, aggravation.

"I'd recommend we take her in," said the EMT, my first savior. "Her blood pressure's a little low, and I still don't like her color."

"She's an Irish girl, always a little pale," Dad laughed. I knew he was bluffing. I knew he wanted me home, away from all this attention. He had always been able to predict what I'd wanted.

"You've all got that skin," the other man laughed. I know how you are."

"She'll be fine." It was a promise. It felt like a prayer.

The EMT helped me sit up, removed the IV and handed me a piece of paper with all the details of my life on it. My name. My heart rate. My age.

Dad closed my car door behind me and I leaned my head against the seat and closed my eyes. There was blues on the radio. I could see the fuzzy dice, even though he had traded in the pick-up for a Honda Element years before. Finally, I was safe.

When we got home, he helped me to the couch and covered me with an afghan that had graced the back of our couch as long as I could remember. It still comfortingly smelled like our old Chocolate Labrador, who died the year before. The pen and ink drawing of Jesus stared down at me from the wall where he'd always hung, judging my teenage couch make out sessions and movie selections. He didn't blink, that day. Jesus had seen worse.

"I'll bring you a snack," dad said, kissing my forehead. A piece of me rebelled at the idea, but my thoughts were running through sand and slipping every few steps.

He returned with two slices of the cinnamon sugar bread, each spread thickly with peanut butter. "Eat this," he said, sitting down on the wooden rocking chair next to me and offering me a piece from his own hand. "I know peanut butter's your favorite."

It stuck to the roof of my mouth, its nutty, salty scent slipping into my nostrils and down my throat at the same time. I chewed slowly, swallowed past the lump of panic rising past my uvula. I ate, bite by bite from my father's hands.

Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

He fed me both pieces as I lay immobilized, my body too drained to resist. When only crumbs remained, he patted me on the head like he had when I was a child, kissing my forehead and smoothing back my hair before he left the room.

"Take a nap now," he said. "You'll feel better soon."

Addicts often say they had to hit rock bottom before they can change their behavior. To the objective observer, ending up in an ambulance as a direct result of what I was doing to my body would look like a low point. In retrospect, I'd say that person was right. At the time, I blamed the bread. I blamed the quick influx of carbohydrates, a category my body wasn't used to, and the resulting blood sugar spike and fall. To me, my accident was just one more affirmation that carbs were evil, that food was not to be trusted and my body ran better on its steady diet of salad, exercise and will. The event inspired a resolution to research more diligently, keep a closer eye on what I let enter my body and restrict every aspect of my life as much as I could, because that would keep me awake, keep me standing, keep me in control. I had set out to tightly monitor my intake and retention of food in order to maintain control over myself, but the chemical changes my actions wreaked on my system had a cumulative opposite effect: my blood sugar, endorphins and serotonin fluctuated more wildly than they ever had. As I slipped further and further away from a rational approach to healthy living, it was apparent to everyone else that my control mechanism controlled me.


Buffalo Steel was published in 2013 by Black Rose Writing. A review of the novel will appear in the March 2014 issue of Wordgathering.