The Promise


"I don't have the key to a time machine. But I can become your witch. If you take these pills and are alive one year from now, I'll be the victim in your witch burning scene."

Evan looked at me, jaw agape.

"My mother died from cancer. She had a lump in her breast and never had any treatment. The more I insisted that she go to a doctor, the more resistant she became.

"Knowing that I thought everything in which she had placed her faith was foolish superstition, to prove me wrong, she did everything but see a doctor. Chanting and praying to the gods and goddesses that she believed controlled human destiny were her replacement for surgery, chemo, and radiation.

"She was dead in six months, having suffered horribly. To this day I am tormented by the thought that had I had just shown some respect for what she believed so deeply instead of always trashing the path she chose, she might have seen a doctor in time."

"Shelley and I broke up yesterday. You know that, don't you?"

"I know. I wish she was here so I could punch her."

"But it wouldn't have been fair to her to drag her down with me."

"Marriage is all about standing by the person you love. Staying with you until the end should have come naturally."

"I guess I'm better off without her."

He took the little plastic cup full of pills and threw them into his mouth. I filled his plastic water cup from his pitcher and handed it to him. I watched his larynx bob back and forth as the water disappeared; convincing me that he was actually swallowing his medications.

"So I made you an offer you couldn't refuse?"

"Nah, I was just thirsty and I figured you wouldn't let me have anything to drink unless I took your goddamn pills."

"You're a bad liar, Evan Tyler!"

"You know how to reel a guy in. How come you ain't married?"

"I'd like to be. But the man I've spent the last three years with ain't the marrying kind, I guess. Last week he moved to the West Coast."

I held up my left hand.

"No ring"

"Did you love him?"

"Yeah, I did; been crying every night since he left."

"Have you been speaking?"

"For an hour the first three nights he was gone. And then there just didn't seem much point to it. So I told him not to call me anymore."

Tears welled up in my eyes.

"I wish he was here so I could punch him," Evan replied.

I turned away, fearing that my eye makeup was going to begin running in streaks down my face; ashamed that a crack had appeared in the calm demeanor I made it a point to put forth. And then I jumped, startled as Evan appeared before me. I buried my face in his hospital gown as he held me in his arms.

"This isn't supposed to happen between nurses and patients," I pleaded between sobs.

"It's therapy. You gave me therapy and I'm giving you therapy," he whispered as he kneaded my shoulders with his bony hands.

"You're a special guy. I'm going to help cure you. I'm not Barbara Steele but I'll be the witch you get to see cry for mercy standing in the midst of flames. Because it's not going to be just drugs or radiation or stem cells that will make you beat this thing.

"I'm going to give you something extra, something to long for, the thing I didn't give my mother, something I've never given to anyone before. While you're fighting the infections that will ravage your body as the stem cells are taking root in your bone marrow, you will have the edge over whatever is trying to kill you, because I will be there in your fantasy-the innocent young woman standing helpless on a pyre in the midst of flames that are about to consume her, her life in your hands with only you having the power to save me."

"Don't worry. I'm not going to let go. I never wanted to let go of my life. But knowing that I'm going to feel rotten every day until I do or don't beat this thing ain't gonna make it easy. Maybe thinking of what you've promised to do for me will release some of my endorphins."

"I failed with my mother. When she was dying, I could not even provide comfort. To me, she was just a foolish woman who had wasted her life on superstition. I had been nicer to my dog when he was dying.

"Maybe some supreme intelligence intervenes in our lives every so often to teach us a lesson, for with you it seems I've been given a second chance. It's as if something wants to prove to me we're more than chemical bonds between atoms, that instead the chemistry of life allows us to have the dreams and desires that sustain us, and the key to our survival is not just in the sequences of our genes, but rather how everything in nature combines to give us the will to experience life.

"My hubris over being a creature of logic while seeing my unenlightened mother as the victim of her fantasies estranged us and contributed to her miserable demise. Now I'll look forward to being the witch I should have let her make me, with the purpose seeing you cured this day one year hence!"


It was three days ago that Evan returned from the transplant center. Ironically my ex-boyfriend was serving there as an intern and his fond recollections of me gave Evan emotional support as he battled infections and organ failure, helping our mutual patient survive. My hostility toward my ex-lover subsided as I ascribed my abandonment to the whims of fate that were entangling Evan and me.

Evan and I had corresponded by email, his condition too tenuous to allow his return to the East until now. I had dated other men, but still drawn to the engineer fighting cancer, never obtained fulfillment from making love with the charming and handsome suitors who graced my presence.

When his condition was desperate, he alluded to his fantasy in our correspondence. So I would describe how I would plead and beg to be set free as the flames rose around me, promising that my body would provide him with unearthly delights in exchange for my life.

But as his new bone marrow took over and did its job and his health improved, the allusions to his fantasies became seldom and he talked about starting his career over. I became jealous when he announced he and Shelley had spent a weekend together.


The day he came back home I met him at the airport. He insisted that we have dinner together that evening. I prepared myself for the worst, expecting him to announce that he had gotten back together with his ex-fiancée.

An hour after his plane landed, we sat in a cozy Italian restaurant. Bottles of red wine lined the walls below pictures of notables who had frequented the place over the decades. Frank Sinatra crooned in the background.

But I would not go down without a fight. Clad in the always appropriate little black dress, the V neckline showing a hint of cleavage, arms bare, and the hem just above the knees, I tried my best to sell myself as the one worthy to be his mate for life. Black pumps would raise my lips closer to his, my fantasies of an amorous encounter growing stronger as the moment of our rendezvous drew closer.

My shiny black mane had just been coiffed the day before at the salon and my straight locks rested on my shoulders. My bangs were trimmed exactly the way they were when Evan last saw me, as a reminder he was in the company of the same person who made the promise that helped save his life.

Abundant blue eye shadow adorned my upper lids, giving my eyes a smoky hue, and with added touches of black eyeliner and mascara I hoped my countenance would be sufficiently sinister to arouse his fantasy of roasting a witch in a sea of flame. Around my neck hung a gold chain, from which dangled a pentagram.

The host seated us at a table in a corner and lighted the candle in the center. I thought of how strange a place this would be to be told your life is about to take another turn.

"Shelley wanted to get back together with me. I told her no," Evan announced.

My face lit up in a smile.

"I'm sorry," I lied.

"So it turns out that you too are a bad liar, Winona Hawkins!"

"Shelley wouldn't have let me be your fantasy girl. I owe that to you."

"You'd still do it?"

"Damn right I'll still do it. I have to do it. It's the end of your healing process. And I have off this weekend, so we can do it on the anniversary of the promise I made to you."

The waitress interrupted us.

"What can I bring you to drink?"

"Would you like to split a carafe of Merlot?" Evan asked.

"No. I want something special for us. What's your most expensive red wine?" I inquired.

"I'll have to check with the wine steward," the waitress replied.

"This could cost hundreds of dollars; you don't have to do this," Evan insisted.

"You're across from me-alive. That's a big deal to me. I work a lot of overtime and get paid a lot, so I've got plenty of money and not a whole lot to spend it on. Let me indulge us."

The waitress returned with a wine list.

"This bottle of Chateau Margaux he says is our best," the waitress advised me.

"Bring it," I commanded and closed the wine list.

"My brother has a cabin in the mountains in West Virginia. He said I could use it while I was recuperating. I'm sure he wouldn't mind me bringing a friend," Evan explained.

"Would it be a good place to burn a witch?"

"Only those witches who bear a resemblance to Barbara Steele."

"Do I fulfill the criteria?"

"Your kind promise filled my thoughts as I hung onto life over the past year. But we're adults. Just visit me at my brother's place up in West Virginia. That will be enough of a reward for me. I won't force you to recreate some stupid movie scene."

"Of course we're going to do the scene! I've dreamed of this moment. Make no mistake, I feel rewarded that you are free of cancer. But I want to feel like more that a robot that dispenses pills and injects drugs. My mother might be alive if I hadn't thought healing was just providing whatever treatment some clinical study says makes someone survive three months instead of two months.

"You look great. We hit a home run with you! And I think that part of the reason was after I made that promise you decided that if your death sentence was commuted you would live; you would will yourself to use your second chance to do what everyone dreams of but never manages to accomplish because jobs or relationships or children get in the way. To be your plaything one year after you were about to give up and die would be a great honor for me."

Evan's brow was furrowed after he listened to my soliloquy. He bit his upper lip and then let out a sigh.

Maybe he had changed. Settling down with me and having some kids might be more appealing after beating cancer than experiencing unearthly pleasures as we made love.

"Throughout the last year, I fantasized that some kind of chemistry existed between us. But I feel a little foolish now. We've never been intimate. We don't really know each other. And you're promising to be my plaything!

"You're putting me on a pedestal on which I don't belong. I'm just a poor schmuck who got a bad disease and finally had a good break that's made me better, knock on wood.

"I know it was my idea to get together like this tonight but now I don't really know what we're doing here. Is this our first date? Do you like me the way I like you? Or am I still your patient? Was playing along with my fantasy just one of your nursing duties and now going up to my brother's cabin my reward and then that's it?"

I went away for a conference the day after I made my promise to Evan to be the object of his fantasy one year hence. Before I returned, he had been whisked off to the West Coast to have testing done for his bone marrow transplant, and I had not seen him again until that evening.

The wine steward came to our table, the bottle of Chateau Margaux in hand. He presented me the bottle and I nodded diffidently, deflated now that the man I had fantasized becoming my lover had become convinced that I was just a cog in the health care system, albeit with more panache than most, and that he was my guinea pig; the subject for a lesson in humility. Now I felt like a whore, after hearing that he assumed I had indulged his fantasies just as part of my job.

A splattering of dark red liquid covered the bottom of my goblet. I tossed it down my throat and nodded my approval to fill Evan's glass. The wine steward then filled my glass and departed. I whimpered as I took the first sip.

"Oh god," Evan moaned.

I sobbed and tears streamed down my face. He began wiping my face with his napkin as other couples stared. I turned away and prepared to leave the table, but then realized my companion, whom I had met at the airport, had no way home. His apartment lease having expired, I didn't even know where he planned to stay the night. Despite his callousness, I could not abandon my former patient. Neither he nor I had any place to go.

I began guzzling the wine.

"You shouldn't drink wine like that so fast," he cautioned me.

I slammed the goblet onto the white tablecloth.

"Goddamn it, I'm not some kind of whore for the nursing profession! I think I love you, you big lout! "

"Oh god, seeing you now, so graceful, so intelligent, and dressed so beautifully, I couldn't fathom why you'd have any interest in someone who still might not have much of a future. Thoughts of you are what kept me alive all these months. I guess my little speech was my way of letting myself down from the notion that I had a chance to be the man in your life. But I should have followed my instinct. There is chemistry between us!"

I smiled.

"So what kind of thoughts did you have of me?"

I watched Evan take a gulp of wine. His forehead turned crimson.

"Were they naughty ones?" I inquired.

"I dreamt of making love to you," he blurted.

"That's pretty staid. What you imagined doing to me must have been a lot more lurid than that for your face to turn so red."

He took another gulp of wine, violating his rule of savoring the expensive beverage. He then looked down at the table and studied the pattern on the tablecloth before letting out a sigh.

"I imagined that you were imprisoned after being accused of witchcraft and that I was one of your guards. All of the guards had been warned never to talk to you; to not even let our eyes meet because one look from you could bewitch us.

"But you didn't have the eyes of a sorceress. I dared to glance at you, and all I saw in your eyes was kindness as you sat on the straw in the corner of your cell, wrists chained together with heavy black iron shackles.

"One day when I passed by your cell you were standing at the bars. I stopped. No one except the questioners had spoken to you since your arrest. Your eyes begged for intimacy, for human contact.

"I took your hand. You wrapped your fingers around mine. I saw you smile for the first time. And then our lips met for our first kiss."

"I then volunteered for night duty. You would not let me make love to you unless I tied you to your cot, lest the fear that you were using me to facilitate your escape would spoil my pleasure.

"You would cry out as if in pain as I penetrated you over and over, but your emanations were not of pain but of pleasure. Passersby assumed that you were being tortured, and to further our ruse you would curse me every morning as I departed."

"You finally admitted that the accusation of witchcraft against you was true. But you had forsaken the evil by running away from another village and started your life anew in the hamlet where we met. Upon learning this, I sought out the warlock who led the coven you had abandoned. He arranged the sale of my soul to Satan in exchange for your life.

"On the day of your immolation as the flames rose to consume your mortal body, a storm arose, quenching the fire and scattering the constabulary and the onlookers. As I cut away the ropes that secured you to the stake, thunder pealed and lightning struck all around setting the buildings of the hamlet ablaze. When I cut the last rope, you collapsed into my arms and after we kissed I knew I would experience every natural and supernatural pleasure until the time came for me to suffer my eternal punishment."

"So I was the instrument of your damnation?"

"It all fits together. You helped me cheat the Reaper. There's got to be a price to pay."

"You think you're going to Hell because you've beaten cancer?"

"I've been to Hell. Now I'm going to live my life as if I've gotten a reprieve, whatever the next destination is. You're right. I'm going to savor every moment. And one of the things I intend to savor is you."

A tear streaked down my face from the corner of my right eye.

"That's the most beautiful thing a man's ever said to me. But I could have been already taken by the time you were ready to come back. So why didn't you let me come visit you? You insisted that I didn't."

"I was afraid that you wouldn't find me desirable while I was sick. And when I was getting better, I did worry that you had moved on. I wouldn't have been able to bear finding out that you were in another relationship.

"But I finally summoned the courage to find out the truth about the woman I had let go. Please tell me you're not seeing another man."

I shook my head no and took a sip of red wine.

Evan placed his hands together and blessed himself, giving thanks to his deity that he will still be able to commit a mortal sin.

I chuckled at the irony.

"So you like me?" he inquired like a schoolboy, his eyes pleading for my affirmation.

"While you were gone, no other man could measure up."

He took my hand in his, inspecting the crimson lacquer on my nails that matched my lipstick. He then looked into my eyes.

"This feels so good. You don't know how I've longed to do this."

"Were there any other nurses like me?"

"You're unique."

"So you don't think we're going to do what we're going to do because they're parts of my job anymore, do you?"

He leaned over the table and planted his lips on mine. We kissed passionately and when we broke apart, he replied, "Does that answer your question?"

We made out like two teenagers in the back of my Honda CRV in the restaurant parking lot after dinner. His lack of a condom kept us from going all the way. I found out that he was staying with his aunt. The presence of a seventy year old lady and my father at our respective abodes made further amorous activities uncomfortable, so I delivered him to his mother's sister's house that night.


"I'm the one you're going to burn alive and you need my help out there?" I chide him.

"You know it's just a scene!" he protests.

"Anything for my lover"

I stand before him, clad only in a black tank top and leopard bikini panties, no makeup on yet, my blemishes uncovered. My pubic hair peaks immodestly through my underpants, but I feel no shame from the scrutiny of the eyes of the man who has satisfied me as no male ever has. Around my neck hangs the gold chain from which dangles the hex sign pendant that my mother always wore and that I now cherish.


I was scheduled to work the twelve hour midnight shift the next two nights after our dinner at the Italian restaurant, so we were unable to consummate our love until the night before the anniversary of my promise.

Evan arrived to pick me up at my father's house, his brother's pickup truck laden with the logs that would surround me during my ersatz immolation. Clad in the black tank top that I am still wearing, a pair of jeans hugging the ass that I had made sure was tiny for the big event, upon hearing the chime of the door bell; I flew down the stairs to allow him to gain entrance to my domicile.

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