I look up from my book, startled by the clomping of boots on the porch of the hideaway to which I was brought last night to fulfill a promise. Situated on a dirt road, miles from the main highway that snakes through this range of the Appalachian Mountains, so remote are we that the electrical grid barely stretches here and cable TV and cell phone service are but dreams to the few inhabitants of the county. Breathless, Evan throws open the screen door and pokes his bald pate inside. His blue eyes alight on me as I greet him with apprehension.
Comfortably positioned for the last hour in a rocker next to a window through which shines the morning sun, enveloped by a blanket to keep the chill of the morning mountain air from giving me goose bumps, a half finished cup of tea sitting next to me on a coffee table, I have been able to enjoy a quiet interlude before becoming Evan's fantasy girl. His voice trembling with excitement, he announces to his special guest, "I need your help."
After taking a few seconds to finish the last paragraph of the chapter, I mark the page with a scrap of paper before closing the detective novel in which I have become ensconced since cozying up in the chair. The man to whom I made the promise and with whom I am falling in love has been quite busy.
Evan is in the midst of creating a scene in which I have agreed to play the starring role. When he was desperately ill one year ago today, I promised him I would do something special today if he was still here to appreciate it.
Through the picture window that looks out on a grand vista of rugged mountains and mist shrouded valleys, I gaze at a wooden stake anchored deeply into ground of the clearing in front of our dwelling. Surrounding the wooden pillar rest four layers of logs stacked perpendicularly one atop the other. Ropes at each end secure the logs in each layer together, lest the pile collapse. Against the pile stands a wooden ladder.
His labor has created a perch on which for me to stand a yard above the ground in the midst of a pyre. Sweat glistens from his brow and muscular shoulders as he takes a break from toiling in the summer sun. In his hands is a shiny metal chain. The links are a quarter inch thick; strong enough to secure me to the wooden pillar as flames lick my feet, having been condemned in his fantasy to be burned alive for the crime of witchcraft.
"You look like you need a beer," I observe. I take off my reading glasses, lay them on the coffee table and then emerge from my cocoon, rising from the rocker in which I have spent a lazy morning to saunter over to the refrigerator and retrieve two bottles of Corona.
The morning light awakened me quite early on this June day, and soon butterflies were swarming in the pit of my stomach when the realization hit me that the day to fulfill my promise had arrived. Evan lay in bed next to me, sound asleep, his innocent expression showing none of the malevolence one would expect on the countenance of someone who has tasked himself with burning a witch.
Wide awake with nothing to distract me from contemplating everything that could go wrong during the scene, I arose and began puttering about the kitchen. The banging of pots and pans and utensils awakened my host, who was pleasantly surprised by the aroma of bacon as he strode into the kitchen. My lover sat at the kitchen table as I prepared our morning repas, but with our heads still heavy with sleep, we exchanged few words.
Evan wolfed down the omelet and bacon I had whipped up for him as the sun came over the horizon, but I had little appetite for breakfast. A half glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal quieted my grinding tummy. After my host helped me gather the dishes from the table, he entered the bathroom. A few minutes later, the toilet flushed, the bathroom door opened, and he passed me by on the way out of the house without saying a word.
As the self appointed lady of the manor I tidied up the dining area and began washing the breakfast dishes. My hands immersed in dishwater scrubbing off the detruitus of our breakfast from the dishes, pots, pans, and utensils we had dirtied, through the window above the kitchen sink I could see my executioner completing the grisly preparations for the scene that will reward him for enduring a year of pain and loss.
After completing my domestic duties, I paced across the kitchen and the living room, strangely craving a cigarette despite never once desiring one for over a year. I didn't join Evan outside, sensing that while my presence in character will be required for the culmination of what is about to take place, involvement in the preparations by the real me could only be detrimental to the atmosphere and décor he was toiling to create in the clearing in front of our hideaway..
Feeling like a domestic beast transforming from pet to meat, I turned my eyes away from the window. No tobacco available to calm my nerves, I hunted down a teapot and filled it with water. As I waited for the contents to come to a boil on the stove, the misgivings I had set aside before making the journey here raced through my mind. When the steam rose from the spout and condensed on the kitchen window, the clearing beyond grew blurry, as if I were looking through a portal to another time and place.
I imagined that it was Evan's mind into which I was peering as he was enveloped by his fantasy. On the outside of the portal lived the man whose growing love for me had aided him as he struggled for life. On the inside existed a being whose carnal desires sustained his existence in a desperate time, now craving the reward he had been promised. I then dared to consider that it may be my fantasy to be rescued by my lover and his to watch a woman burn to death.
I filled a ball with green tea, dropped it in the teapot, found a cup, and made a beeline to the rocker. My heart pounded as I vacillated between wanting to get what I must do over with quickly or hoping some glitch in my host's preparations would provide me with a reprieve. Finally, I spied the novel on the coffee table where it had been lying perhaps for months, dog eared with cracks in the binding.
My apprehension growing as the minutes ticked away toward the moment of my debut as an actress, I opened 'Secret Nostrums' to chapter one and was introduced to the character of Nicky Zornes. The story of a petite female detective following the trail of an industrial spy through backwaters of the former Soviet Union provided a respite from the fear gnawing at me as the moment approached to fulfill the promise I made one year ago today.
I never thought I'd do the witch thing. My mother fell into the New Age counterculture during her sojourn in California in the 1970's and was practicing Wicca when I was born twenty-six years ago.
Instead of being filled with the usual play dates and sleepovers and dance classes that are de rigeur for white suburban little girls, my childhood was spent attending coven meetings during which my mother would expound on the virtues of all-inclusive paganism, contrasting it with the oppressiveness of her evil triumvirate-Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, hoping to convert some of the curious souls who dropped by to observe the rituals of real witches. Wicca, she claimed, allowed women to channel the power of nature into human life, which would make our planet peaceful and prosperous.
But I was a geek and a tomboy who early on realized that utilizing our species' intelligence and capacity for rational thought were more likely to assure a bright future for humanity than chanting to supernatural powers for good fortune. An elder in the coven thought that I would become an exceptionally powerful practitioner of the Dark Arts and even become personally acquainted with The Great Lord, the supernatural entity that controlled Nature and to which the coven prayed, but to me at that time, such blather was risible.
My mother, disengaged from popular culture and finding those who employed logic and analysis to dissect the nature of existence anathema, never shared in my joy as I won prizes in science and was selected to be a member of the All-State Girl's Basketball Team. We made an odd couple at high school functions with me dressing conservatively and her favoring the Goth style.
During my junior year of high school my mother found a lump in her right breast. Western medicine anathema as well to her, she refused to see a doctor. Despite relying on the powers of nature for healing by ingesting herbs and modulating the currents of energy that flowed through her body to sweep away the unwanted growth, her tumor predictably grew and spread to her brain, bones, and liver. It was not until the terminal stage of her breast cancer that she even accepted hospice services to obtain pain relief from the narcotic potions that are ubiquitously available to the dying. She died on the day of my junior prom.
After my mother's passing, I reconnected with my father who had been absent since my infancy. He and my mother had a one night stand after meeting in a bar. Child support payments arrived with regularity but my mother's New Age beliefs kept my dad and me at arm's length.
Although I loved my mom and miss her still, the years after her demise have been the happiest of my life. My dad took my interests in the more conventional aspects of life seriously and supported my decision to become a nurse. I now work with cancer patients, hoping to prevent such tragedies as occurred with my mother.
It was a year ago that I became acquainted with Evan.
For the past four years I have been an oncology nurse, ministering to the needs of cancer patients during their hospitalizations, providing chemotherapy, pain relievers, hope, and sometimes just a listening ear. Many of those for whom I have cared have died, but those who have a chance of beating the disease become really special to me.
Evan Tyler had the misfortune of becoming a victim of multiple myeloma in the fourth decade of his life. This deadly form of cancer eats away at the victim's bones and produces proteins that destroy the kidneys. A bone marrow transplant provides the only hope for a cure.
Otherwise the victim may linger for years as the disease becomes resistant to one form of chemotherapy after another. Every patient with this disease for whom I cared, once the pain became unremitting, the weakness unbearable, or having wallowed in their feces once too often, had told the team when it was time to stop. The request to go home with an ample supply of narcotic or even for one of us to finish the job with an infusion of intravenous morphine was then ubiquitously honored.
One year ago today Evan was in the second week of a hospitalization for pneumonia complicated by kidney failure that required temporary treatment with dialysis. We had become acquainted over the months during his admissions to my unit for the usual complications of his disease-infections, bleeding, dehydration, and the like. Distraught by this last in a series of setbacks, he had vowed that day to stop cancer treatment.
But Evan looked too good to stop. There was no way I could allow him to. It wasn't his time. I had once given up hope for him. But something had brought him through that trial. It is up to me to bring him the rest of the way.
Our patients certainly had the right to refuse treatment. And my personal feelings toward Evan weren't a factor. I had held the hands of many dear patients as they moved onto the next world. Bothered as I would be by their departure, I never tried to impede the natural process of dying if this was their choice.
The situation I faced that day was different. His survival was vital to me, more so than any of my other patients. He couldn't be allowed to die yet. I would be a failure if I permitted him to. It would be a burden I would carry for the rest of my life. But what made him so special and who besides Evan I would be failing, I didn't know.
Had his chart been at my fingertips, any favorable or unfavorable information in his record could not have persuaded or dissuaded me from the belief that it was my duty to rally him so he could continue benefiting from the miracles of modern medicine. But it was more than my hubris that set off the next chain of events.
Evan was lying in bed watching an old horror movie on his computer when I brought him his morning medicines the day we contracted to create this scene.
"This shit ain't doing me no good. I'm done," he announced, using uncharacteristically coarse and ungrammatical language as I tried to hand him a cupful of pills.
The thirty something engineer had always been soft spoken and articulate, but breaking up with his fiancée the day before and being denied insurance coverage for the recommended bone marrow transplant had taken its toll.
"But without the antibiotic, the pneumonia might come back. You were on the respirator for a week. A relapse could kill you," I explained.
"I'm out of here today. And I've got a trove of Oxycontin at home. If I get bad again, I ain't coming back here. I'm gonna take a handful of those pills and wash it down with a glass of Jack Daniels. And that'll be it.
"No more Evan Tyler. The stinkin' insurance company won't have to worry about having to shell out another million or so to keep me alive. After I'm gone, email the chick on CNBC so she can let the viewers know the dividend's safe and the company's not going to need no loan from the Federal Reserve to pay for my bone marrow transplant. And let Shelley Mullins know it's OK by me for her to find some other guy to bone so she can start popping out kids."
His fiancée, worried that at the age of thirty-one she couldn't wait longer to have children, returned her engagement ring yesterday.
"The doctors say you have a fifty percent chance of being cured with the transplant. Dr. Stephens says he's sure that your insurance will cover you after they read his letter," I assured him.
Neither was life going well for me at that time. My boyfriend had graduated from medical school the month before after having gotten the internship he had dreamed of. For me unfortunately, the program was on the opposite side of the country. I had decided not to follow him without receiving an engagement ring.
But the newly minted doctor whom I had hoped would ask for my hand in marriage vanished into the belly of an airplane the week before. No marriage proposal, no breakup; I felt as much in limbo as one of the cancer patients waiting for a doctor to tell them whether their tumor had shrunk on the MRI.
A year later, I open the bottles of Corona and pass one to Evan. He raises the bottle to his lips and I watch his Adam's apple bob in and out as he pours the amber liquid down his throat. He doesn't stop until the bottle is half empty.
A loud belch emanates from deep within his chest. We both break out into laughter. He looks at my bottle of Corona and seems disappointed that I have not matched his chug. Only a sip of my beer is gone.
"This is good," Evan remarks, regarding the slender bottle that is now bereft of half its contents. My former patient savors each little pleasure in life anew following the commutation of the death sentence under which he had lived for two years.
I take another sip of beer and admire the transformation of the pale withered cancer victim for whom I had cared just a year ago into a hulking vigorous man, his bald pate the only reminder of his brush with death. I sigh, recalling the passion that he had unleashed in me when he came back into my life.
"I need to figure out where to put your chains," he explains, the soft tone of his voice betraying a hint of embarrassment over the juvenile nature of his project.
The engineer with whom I'm falling in love is a perfectionist both in his professional life and his fantasies. A fan of the horror movie genre when he was a boy, he confessed to me on the day he wanted to stop cancer treatment that his biggest regret was not being able to experience his fantasy of watching a witch be burned at the stake.
A DVD of the campy decades old horror movie 'Black Sunday' was playing on Evan's laptop as we quarreled over whether he should take his pills one year ago today. The image of a slender woman with long dark hair wearing a peasant dress with a plunging neckline caught my eye.
"You see her-that's the old scream queen Barbara Steele. The first time I ever jerked off, I had just watched this flick. The next day the parents were out shopping and I was lying on the couch. I started thinking about the movie and got a boner as I pictured her in my mind tied to the stake, begging for her life as the flames rose around her. I started rubbing my crotch and then exploded for the first time ever.
"It felt so fucking good, not just during but right after too. From that moment, I was in love with Barbara Steele. We lived in L.A. and I was going to take a bus to Hollywood and meet her. I had it all figured out. She could adopt me or make me her ward, like Robin in Batman. And I'd get to go to her shoots and watch her get put to death all the time for being Satan's mistress.
"But my underpants were soaked! I didn't know that was going to happen and I didn't even know what the stuff was that came out of my dick. My parents were going to show up any time. I figured my mom would take me and my wet underpants to the emergency room to figure out what the fuck was wrong with me. So I put on another pair on and stuck the wet ones in the neighbor's trash. That was when I was twelve, by the way.
"You know, that afternoon was the best I ever felt in my life before my wet underpants fucking ruined it. If I found out they were about to invent a time machine and I could go back in time and see this scene being shot and hear Barbara Steele begging them to put out the flames, I'd take those goddamn pills and hope I'd get in good enough shape for that bone marrow transplant."
Way too much information, I thought at first. But it was an indication that he was not depressed to the point of anhedonia.
"Maybe we could email her and she could reenact the scene somehow. It would be like the Make-a-Wish Foundation for adults," I countered naively.
"This flick was made in 1960. She must be one hundred fucking years old now, if she's even still alive."
I glanced at my image in the mirror on his dresser and noticed that I bore a slight resemblance to the actress on the screen. A wild idea possessed me.
"This is weird. My mother was a witch. No supernatural powers mind you, but she practiced Wicca. They claim their beliefs to be the same as those of the women who were burned as witches in Europe centuries ago."
"So you're a witch?"
"One of my mother's friends thought I was destined to become a powerful sorceress, so maybe I'm the closest thing you'll ever find to a real witch. But honestly, I'm not much of anything. I don't know anything about Wicca except what I remember my mother telling me.
"By the time I became a teenager, I had decided that my mother's beliefs were nonsense. And when an adolescent figures out they're smarter than their parent, that's a recipe for trouble. We fought constantly about religion and science, and my lack of respect for the things in which she had placed her faith really hurt her.
"After she died ten years ago, I went to a few church services but nothing really stirred my soul. But I just can't believe there's nothing for us after we're gone. I don't know what I am. Maybe I'm agnostic.