Love is patient, love is kind... Paranormal Romance Short Story Contest entry.
We first met during my second year of oncology residency at Mount Sinai in New York. It was the middle of winter, and I was foraging for something edible in the cafeteria rather than venturing out into the freezing weather to find more appealing options.
She was sitting at a table near the windows, looking out at the darkening sky as the sun set on the other side of Central Park. She had an ethereal quality to her; something vaguely haunting lurking just underneath her beautiful exterior.
I couldn’t believe that nobody else had taken notice of her.
“Mind if I sit?” I asked, a little nervous as I stood there with my tray.
She looked at me as if surprised anyone would be talking to her. After taking a moment to size me up, she inclined her head toward the chair across from her.
“Feel free,” she said, her accent something exotic and hard to place. Was it Greek? Israeli? She had a soft, lyrical tone to her voice that sent a shiver of delight up my spine.
“Tom,” I said, offering my hand. “Doctor Tom. Hastings..”
She didn’t offer her own hand to shake, so I let it drop after a few awkward moments.
“Nice to meet you Tom-Doctor-Tom Hastings,” she replied, a flicker of mischief in her eyes. Then, almost as an afterthought, “Zara. Non-doctor Zara. Le.”
First name Zara, last name Le. So... Scandinavian? Asian? Scandinasian?
“What brings you to the cafeteria at Mount Sinai?” I asked, taking stock of the assortment of unappetizing food items on my tray. “I highly doubt it’s the cuisine.”
She let out an involuntary titter, almost seeming surprised by her own response.
“I’m ... visiting someone,” she said. “He’s very sick.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I replied. If there’s one thing my oncology rotation had taught me, it was that death was always just around the corner here. “If there’s anything I can do ...”
“I should actually get going,” she said, getting to her feet. “It was nice meeting you, Tom-Doctor-Tom.”
* * *
The second time I ran into Zara was a few weeks later, again in the cafeteria. She was at the same table and I noticed her the moment I walked into the room. Once again, I was surprised that no one else seemed to be paying any notice to a woman who could have clearly been the cover model on any number of fashion magazines.
“Hi,” I said, as I approached her table.
“Hello, Tom,” she said in that enchanting voice of hers.
“After you left last time, I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
“Oh, I visit rather frequently. I’m always around.”
“Are you here on business or ... well, I suppose ‘pleasure’ wouldn’t be the right alternative option in this case ...”
Just like last time, she let out a little titter that almost seemed to catch her by surprise. She quickly recomposed herself, but the glimmer of amusement was still in her eyes.
“Business,” she said. “I’m always working.”
“Maybe that’s why we have this ... connection,” she mused.
An electric thrill ran through my entire body. She felt it too!
“We have a connection?” I asked, trying to play it cool.
“Not everyone sees me the way you do,” Zara replied. “And I can’t remember the last time somebody actually made me laugh.”
“Does that mean you’d say yes if I asked you out to dinner?”
“I’m sorry, but duty calls,” she said, seeming to be genuinely apologetic as she stood up from the table. “Next time, perhaps.”
I offered my hand to shake but, just like last time, she didn’t make a move to accept it.
“I hope I see you again soon,” I said.
“If you keep working here, I can almost guarantee it,” she replied with a hint of suggestiveness in her voice.
Then she was gone.
* * *
The third time I ran into Zara, it wasn’t in the hospital at all.
I was leaving work, walking to the 103rd Street Station to catch the 6 home when I saw her walking down the other side of Lexington Avenue. I called out to her, but she didn’t seem to hear me; she just kept walking as I hurried across the street to catch up with her.
From half a block away, I watched her stop short as a drunk stumbled past her, heading into an adjacent alley. After a moment, she followed him.
I picked up my pace, curious to know what this was all about, but when I got to the alley entrance, I didn’t immediately see either of them. I was just starting to wonder where they had gone when I noticed a large mass in the shadows near one of the dumpsters. Approaching cautiously, I soon realized it was the drunk, face-down in a puddle of stagnant, grimy water.
I hurried to check his vitals, but there was no pulse. And no sign of Zara.
Where had she gone? And what happened to this guy?
I called an ambulance and waited for it to arrive. I gave my statement and contact information to the paramedics and considered making a statement to the police as well, but ultimately decided to wait for the coroner’s report to decide whether I was romantically interested in a murderer.
When I spoke with the coroner a few weeks later and she confirmed that the drunk had died from heart failure as a result of alcohol poisoning; the guy had a BAC north of 0.4 around the time of death. I was relieved that Zara didn’t seem to have killed him, but it still didn’t explain her disappearing act that night.
* * *
We saw each other off and on through the rest of the winter, spring, and summer, our interactions always charting the same course. We’d talk, we’d get along, we’d even laugh a little, which I got the distinct impression was not something she normally did.
We truly seemed to enjoy one another’s company, but there would inevitably be a point where she would abruptly have to go take care of something work related, and I would attempt to say goodbye with some small gesture of physical affection, only to have her shrug it off or casually dismiss it.
Even though I had yet to spend more time with her than the span of a perfunctory conversation, I was enthralled. She was beautiful, smart, mysterious, and had a delightful sense of humor as if my every joke, one-liner, and pun were somehow the first time she had ever heard a humorous bit like that before.
I found myself looking for her wherever I went. Every stop by the cafeteria, every walk down the street, every patient’s room I visited, I looked around hoping for even a glimpse of her. I so desperately wanted to see her again, to get to know her better, to see if she felt even part of the intense attraction I felt for her.
* * *
One day that Fall, I was doing rounds at Mount Sinai when I saw her walking down the hall, eyes downcast. I almost missed her completely as a code team raced down the hall with a crash cart toward whatever emergency beckoned them.
“Zara!” I called out, extricating myself from the group of other doctors.
She looked up and seemed surprised to see me, but a smile quickly spread across her lips.
“Tom, what a nice surprise.”
“It’s been a while,” I offered.
“It has,” she replied. “I’ve been traveling a lot. Work.”
“I get it,” I said, nodding. “Listen, do you maybe want to get a bite to eat? Somewhere outside the walls of the hospital? My lunch break is in twenty minutes.”
Zara smiled. “I would like that.”
We agreed to grab something from the nearby food trucks and find somewhere in Central Park in the vicinity of Burnett Fountain to enjoy our meal. Equipped with my tacos al pastor and her lamb pita, we headed through the park toward the fountain.
“I don’t think I ever asked what you actually do for work that keeps you so busy,” I said as we walked.
“Like, a repo ma-- ... woman?”
“Something like that,” she said, her eyes sparkling with amusement.
“And that’s what you’re there for at the hospital?”
She shrugged. “I go where the work takes me.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about her job calling in people’s debts, especially visiting them in the hospital when they probably had life or death decisions on their minds.
“Don’t worry, Tom,” she said as if reading my mind. “I’m not running around harassing people for missing a bunch of payments on their Bentley or anything. What I do is a little different than repossessing the material expression of someone’s overpriced mid-life crisis.”
“So what do you do, exactly?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
We sat on a park bench and dug into our food. It was a beautiful autumn day and people all around us were making the most of the few months out of every year where New York wasn’t either too hot and humid, or too cold and wet.
“I have time,” I pressed. “And a very open mind.”
“Here’s my dilemma. I really like you, and I don’t want to ruin this, whatever is it we have. There aren’t a lot of people in my life who truly see me.”
“How is that possible? You’re stunning.”
“And I’m still listening.”
Zara sighed again and took a deep breath.
“Souls,” she said, almost inaudibly. “The assets I recover are souls.”
“Like ... Kias?”
“Human souls. Spirits. Life Forces.”
“Okay ...” I said finally after staring at her for a long moment. “And when you say you ‘recover’ them ...”
“I descend from Heaven to visit humans whose time in the mortal world has come to an end, and I shepherd them to either ... [motions up to the sky with a ‘yay’ look] ... or ... [motions down to the ground under her feet with a ‘frowny face’ look].”
“Riiight. Are you, like, punking me or something? Is that still a thing?”
“I’m not ‘punking’ you, Tom. I’m Azrael, the Angel of Death. C’mon. Zara Le ... Azrael ... it’s an anagram, get it?”
“Oh, well, since your name is an anagram that totally explains everything. No really, zero follow up questions.”
Zara, or Azrael now, I suppose, stood up and faced me, then elongated her back as if giving it a good stretch. My jaw hung open as a pair of shimmering, feathery wings expanded from her back. She gave them a few experimental flaps.
Flabbergasted, I looked around to see if anyone else was noticing this.
“That’s the thing,” Azrael said. “For some reason, you can see me. Most people can’t. At all. And if you need more proof ...”
She pointed at random people walking by their spot near the fountain.
“April 26, 2052 ... March 7, 2038 ... December 13, 2021 ... September 7, 2024 ... next Friday ...”
“The dates of their deaths.”
“You’re going to kill them all on those dates?”
“I’m going to reclaim their souls on those dates. What killed them will be cancer, old age, aneurysm, drowning, and auto-erotic asphyxiation, respectively.”
My brain was still trying to process all of this.
“So all of us, our deaths are already foretold?”
“For the most part. I mean, God has that whole intelligent design thing going, remember?”
“God is real?!?”
Azrael let out that delighted little titter again. “Whoops, SPOILER ALERT.”
“How can God’s intelligent design result in people dying before their time?”
“Who’s to say what their time is?” Azrael shrugged. “Like it says in that book so many of you are so fond of reading: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
“This is kind of a lot,” I muttered, glad I was already sitting down so that if I fainted I wouldn’t have far to fall.
“Do you see me differently now?” Azrael asked, a hint of nervousness in her voice.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied. “It’s kind of hard not to.”
Azrael’s face fell. The sadness on it damn near broke my heart.
“But that doesn’t have to mean that whatever we have has to be over.”
She looked up at me, surprised.
“I mean, you’re the Angel of Death. So what? I once dated a surgeon who it turned out had a side gig harvesting the organs of homeless people and selling them on the black market, so it’s not like you’re the first person I’ve dated with a ‘concerning’ profession. I wonder whatever happened to Cheryl?”
“August 4, 2024,” Azrael replied, making the “frowny face” look and pointing down.
“Well, I suppose that’s not entirely unexpected,” I said awkwardly.
A few moments of silence passed between us.
“Look,” I said eventually. “I’m really into you. And I think you at least somewhat like me. And for some reason I’m one of the only people that can see you, so that has to mean something, right? Intelligent design, remember?”
Azrael considered this.
“I do like you, at least somewhat,” she replied, a hint of playfulness in her voice.
“Well, then let’s give this a shot,” I said, moving to kiss her. She surprised me by taking a step back as I did so, maintaining the distance between us.
“That’s the other reason I worry this won’t work out,” Azrael said. “I can’t touch you. If I touch you, you’ll die instantly.”
I blinked a few times, making sure I heard that correctly. Then I immediately felt sick at the memory of all the times I had offered her a handshake, or nearly bumped into her. I could have died a half dozen times over already!
“Well that’s ... inconvenient,” I managed. “And more than a little disappointing.”
“Agreed,” she replied. “So if you’re not into the idea of a relationship with this whole could-die-at-any-minute component to it, I understand.”
“But I thought our deaths were already foretold?”
“So when do I die? And how?” I asked. “Please, for the love of God, tell me it’s not by being buried alive. Or having anything to do with an ex harvesting my organs.”
She shook her head, sympathetic. “If I told you the ending, how could you possibly enjoy the journey?”
I supposed that was a fair point. And so I found myself faced with one of two choices. Either I could say goodbye and try my best to forget the most beguiling creature I’d ever met. Or I could go all-in and see where it went, this bizarre relationship with a significant other that I couldn’t physically touch, who was the one and only Angel of Death.
At the end of the day, I decided that nothing in life is a guarantee. I could get hit by a cab tomorrow. I could drop dead of a heart attack in five years. I could wake up in a back alley missing my spleen thanks to a vindictive ex-girlfriend. If tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anybody, then we all necessarily have to live out every ‘today’ like it was our last day on Earth. I decided I wanted those ‘todays’ to be spent with Azrael.
* * *
She still travels a lot, which is fine; my job at the hospital keeps me plenty busy. Then, when she shows up again after a few days, a week, whatever, we’ll pick up right where we left off, living each day for each other.
At least until the day she needs to pay me a visit in a professional capacity.
Word Count: 2,610
Written for: "Paranormal Romance Short Story Contest"
Prompt: Love interests must be a human and one of the following: (a) ghost, (b) vampire, (c) shapeshifter/were, (d) angel, (e) demon, (f) witch, (g) enhanced human.