Max Parly walked down the sidewalk, a smile on his face, flowers held in one hand, and the other dragging a cooler behind him. The day was beautiful, clear blue sky with the occasional cloud. A gentle breeze tousled his dark hair and rustled the trees along the path. A young woman walking her dog passed by and smiled as she looked at the flowers. Max nodded towards her and kept walking.
He looked at his watch as he turned a corner. The time was five ‘til five. He was later than usual, but she wouldn’t mind. Alex never minded. Max continued down the sidewalk, which paralleled a park. Max watched idly as little children played on swings and slid down slides. A young couple was sitting on a bench, kissing gently as a small child bumbled around at their feet. Another couple, much older, were sitting in the grass having a picnic.
Max resettled his hand on the handle of the cooler he was dragging. Inside were picnic supplies, but he wasn’t going to have a picnic in a park. The place he was going was more special. He kept smiling and walked on.
Max passed a building and paused in front of an alley. He let go of the cooler’s handle, gently setting it on the concrete as he made sure he looked presentable. He still held the flowers, a mixture of roses, tulips, lilies and daisies. Alex’s favorites. Max ran a hand through his hair, patting the sides gently to make sure he wasn’t a mess. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and took the handle of the cooler again. With a triumphant smile, he walked into the alley.
The alley was cramped and damp. There was garbage everywhere, but Max didn’t mind, and he knew Alex didn’t mind either.
As he made his way towards a set of old loading bay doors, three rats scurried out from behind a dumpster. They looked at him before squealing and running into a storm drain. A newspaper blew gently in the wind and passed his shoes.
Max turned into the loading bay area. It was darker there than in the rest of the alley, but a small overhead light illuminated the area. There wasn’t much to the loading bay entrance. There were two emergency exits for the apartments that were never used, a lot of trash, and graffiti covering one wall. The graffiti was Max’s favorite thing about this alley, besides Alex, of course. There were dozens of graffiti tags on the wall, but Max’s favorite was of a comical-looking carrot wearing boxing clothes.
Max brought the cooler to a stop again. He crouched, gently placing the flowers on the cracked stone ground of the alley. He opened the cooler, pulling out the large red and white checker blanket on top and unfolded it. He placed one side of it on the stone before gently walking back and placing the other half down. The middle was a little lumpy, so he gently tugged the sides to straighten the lumps out. He knew Alex didn’t care about the lumps, but he did. He wanted everything to look nice for her.
Once he smoothed the blanket out, he turned back to the cooler and started removing the contents. He placed two paper plates down, one on each side of the blanket, along with forks and knives. Next, he pulled out a bottle of red wine and glasses, dripping with ice water. Max placed the bottle on the blanket and placed one glass down, flipping the other over to let a few ice cubes fall out. Once he placed the second glass down, he reached into the sea of ice water and pulled out two plastic containers. He placed them on the blanket before opening one. Inside were four slices of bread. He took them out and placed two on each plate. Next, he opened the other container which had slices of ham in it. He put three slices on a slice of bread before putting the other slice on top.
Lastly, he pulled out two damp candles. They would have to dry for a bit until he could light them, but that was fine. Alex never cared whether they had candles or not, but he thought they were romantic.
Max looked back into the cooler, making sure everything was set.
“You’re late,” a voice said from behind Max, startling him a little. His surprise was common; Alex always seemed to catch him unaware. He envied her quiet, unassuming presence. Max turned and saw her.
Alexandra Ringer was sitting on the railing on the steps leading to the apartment doors. She was wearing what she wore every time they met: Fur covered boots with jeans, a grey t-shirt, and a brown jacket. Her dark hair was draped over her shoulder, trailing down her chest. Like always, the rest of her hair trailed down her back in a ponytail. A faint blue aura glowed around her from the faint light above. She smiled warmly.
Max smiled at her before checking his watch. Five thirty on the dot. He chuckled and looked at her again. “Nope, I’m right on time.”
“Maybe,” Alex said as she hopped off the railing, landing without a sound. “But your candles aren’t lit.”
Max shrugged. “You know how they are. They get wet and won’t light. I should be able to light them soon, though.” Max turned and picked up the flowers. “Here… these are for you.” He held them up to her.
She walked over and put her face a few inches from them. She inhaled deeply and smiled, batting her eyelashes at him. “Perfect as always.”
Max gestured to the picnic blanket. “May we?”
Alex nodded. “We may.”
Max sat down, placing the bouquet in a small vase he had taken out of his coat pocket. As Alex sat down, she crossed her legs and sniffed the flowers again, a sad expression on her face.
“Something wrong?” Max asked as he felt the candle wick. Still damp, but he’d risk it. He pulled a lighter from his coat and lit the candle.
Alex shrugged. “Oh, you know, just the usual. How was your day?”
“Pretty good.” Max took a bite of his ham sandwich. The taste was good, but he wished he’d brought a tube of mustard. Mustard made everything better. “I sold one of those mansions up the hill to a nice couple. It was the most expensive house I’ve sold yet. If there were medals for selling expensive ass houses, I’d win.”
Alex giggled. “They don’t have medals for real estate agents?”
“I wish.” Max picked up the bottle of wine and poured two glasses. He picked his up and nodded to Alex. She smiled warmly before Max drank. “Everything is better with medals and award ceremonies. It’s nice to be appreciated in your job. How was your day?”
She shrugged again. “The usual. I prevented two assaults and watched a cat eat a moldy fish. I mean, who throws out a perfectly good fish?”
“Lots of people, probably.” Max took another bite of his sandwich. As he chewed, he noticed Alex hadn’t touched her sandwich or wine, which was normal. She never ate or drank. He knew why, but he wanted to make her feel like she was part of the meal. “I’m no fisherman, but there are probably many reasons to throw out fish.”
Alex shrugged a third time. It was one of her signature tics. Max thought her shrugs were cute. “Anything else happen today with you?”
Max took of sip of wine, trying to remember. Finally, he shook his head. “Not that I can think of. They replaced that squeaky toilet I was telling you about in the office. I haven’t tried it yet, and don’t really plan on it.”
Alex giggled. Max watched her. She was keeping her head down when she usually kept looking at him while he ate. Max had only seen her bright green eyes once today, when she first appeared up on the rail. Her shoulders were slumped. He knew something was wrong.
“Hey, are you okay? You’re not your normal, cheery self.”
Alex sighed deeply before looking up at Max, her green eyes dim in the alley light. “I’ve been thinking lately. About us, really.”
“Oh?” Max put his wine glass down and looked at her.
“I’ve been thinking that this isn’t fair to you. You do all this for me, and I can’t have any of it.”
“I know why you can’t,” Max said calmly. “I do all this so you can feel like you matter. And that you mean something to me.”
“It’s not right. I’d be fine with you just bringing food for yourself. It’s not fair for you to waste all this on me.”
Max nodded sadly. “I understand.”
“I’m sorry,” Alex said sadly. “And I’ve also thought about leaving this place.” She looked around at the alley.
Max looked up, shocked. “What? You can’t leave. Who will protect the people who carelessly walk into this alley? Who will stop the muggers, drug dealers, and rapists who pollute our streets?”
“You know this alley has a name now,” she said. “Spook Lane. I don’t think people even want to walk by it.”
“But you can’t leave!” Max protested further. “People might get hurt.”
“People get hurt everywhere, Max.”
“You remember how we met?” Max asked.
“You saved me from getting mugged, remember? That guy had a knife and I’m sure he was going to use it on me. You saved me. And you’ve stopped countless other muggings and murders right here.”
“But it’s time to leave,” Alex said sadly, shaking her head. “I’ve been here too long. I need to rest.”
Max could feel tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “But… I love you.”
Alex looked hurt. Her chin and lips quivered. “But you shouldn’t. Someone like me and someone like you can never be together. You know that.”
Max nodded sadly. “I know, but we still have each other. Don’t we?”
“I’m leaving, Max,” she said looking into Max’s eyes. “You can’t stop me.”
Max wanted to cry, to scream, to plead with her to stay, but he knew she was right. She had been here for twenty years. Perhaps even longer.
He reached out and touched her hand, but like always, his fingers went through hers. She whimpered before putting her hand on his cheek; a hand he could not feel.
“I’m sorry, Max. I really am, but it’s my time.”
Max nodded, tears falling from his eyes now. “I understand. I hope we see each other again one day.”
Alex smiled. “I hope so, too. There are surprisingly a lot of vacancies up there.” Max watched as Alex leaned forward and put her lips over his. He wished he could feel the kiss, but he couldn’t. She pulled back a moment later and smiled. “You have been so nice to me, and I love you for that. Goodbye, Max.”
Max sniffled. “Goodbye, Alex.”
Max watched as Alex, still smiling at him, slowly faded away in the faint blue aura glowing around her. Glowing, glowing, fading, and fading. And she was gone.
Max sighed and looked to the blanket, realizing his hand was still where Alex’s hand had been. He sighed again, heartbroken, before picking up the remains of his picnic and putting them back into his cooler. He then sat back down to finish his sandwich, staring into the small flickering flame of the candles.
He didn’t care that he was in love with a ghost. She had saved him from being killed three years ago, and each week ever since, they had dinner. For three years he could never touch her or take her out anywhere. Her spirit was linked to this alley.
And now she was gone forever, relaxing in Heaven, if that even existed. Because of Alex, Max thought that Heaven was real and that her spirit didn’t just disappear like a breath in a breeze. Alex had never understood why Max liked her and kept coming back to the alley. Part of it was because he loved her, even though she was technically twenty years older than him but didn’t look a day over twenty-one. The other reason was because he thought she was lonely. Rats and stray cats didn’t make for good chatting partners. Not forever, anyway.
Max finished his sandwich and wine. He got up, brushed crumbs off himself, and started packing everything up for the last time. As he packed, he thought of all the good times he and Alex had had, even if she could never physically interact with him.
Once everything was packed away, he looked back to the spot where the blanket was still resting. On the pavement was a taped outline of a person. They dined on the exact spot where Alex had been killed all those years ago. The police had never picked the tape up.
Max took the handle of the cooler and turned around. He started walking down the alley, thinking of Alex one last time. He turned and looked back to the tape. Faintly, as he walked away, the tape began to dissolve until it disappeared. He smiled. The tape disappearing meant that Alex was at rest. He hoped she was, anyway.
Max took in a deep breath, looked one last time at where they always had dinner, and left, hoping wherever Alex was, she was happy.