Aloha Burger. That was the last word that I remembered. I have been retracing that scenario inside my mind again and again for days, but I made my peace with it now. Aloha Burger will always remain the last word I hear before I died. I was walking out from Dale’s after buying a cheeseburger with pineapple for my dinner when something happened. Okay, I know. Stop with the look. It’s not like I put pineapple on top of a pizza. That’s an abomination, but an Aloha burger is a novelty!
Anyway, the next thing I know, I’m dead.
“Marty! Stop daydreaming. We’re almost there, son.”
Oh right. I forgot to introduce you to my friend, Gregory, although he prefers people (and non-people) to call him Greg. He says it suits him more, and I agree with him. Yes, he is also a ghost. A retired carpenter who fell down from his own roof two months ago trying to rescue a baby pigeon. Greg is the one who found me and showed me how the system of the afterlife works. Apparently, he is stuck on earth because he’s still worried about his middle-aged daughter. “You know, when one’s truly ready, they’ll pass the next day.” Greg explained that to me last week while he was fixing a wooden horse he found near a trash can. “I’ve seen it before. Their body started to dissipate when the next light touched. It was kinda blissful.” He added. “But I’m not ready to let go of my Polly. At least, not yet” and he smiled. I could see a tinge of sadness in his eyes, but it quickly disappeared like a rock sinking into the ocean.
“There! I can see her now. Come on!”
The yelling snaps me back to reality. We are cowering behind a bush in front of his house. I don’t really understand why we have to hide since we’re practically ghosts, but Greg whispered, “Just to be sure.” Tuesday is the day where Greg and I would come to check on his daughter, if she was fine, or sad, or happy. Not that we can do anything about it. Then I see a figure coming out of a white sedan, holding a bag of groceries. Although she is reaching the golden age of 30 with a baby in her belly, Polly is an elegant woman with an oval face. Her curvy hair bounces up and down when she walks up the driveway to the porch of her house. Polly unlocks the front door, and, soon after, she disappears into the house and out of our sight. Greg lingers for a while, and then he turns to me.
“Well, the mission’s done for today. She’s okay. What did you say you want to do earlier?”
“The park. It’s almost 5 pm. Let’s go.”
Every evening, I always go to Kerry Park to enjoy a little sunset before wrapping up my day. At least, the perk of living, or dying, in Seattle is that you can absorb the panorama of giant skyscrapers hovering over Elliot Bay every single day. Sometimes when the weather is good, you can even see Mount Rainier towering on the other side. Watching the sunset often helps me forget the question that has been plaguing me since I died: Why am I stuck here?
I’m not happy that I died, but I have to confess that I’m not particularly sad either. When I was alive, I used to be called “Dull Marty.” My limps were too long and too awkward, like they were attached to my body by an old glue that barely held it together. My hair was brownish, and I wore it not too short to look like someone in the military, or too long to be mistaken as a cool artist. I was always told that I got an “average” face. The kind of guy that you often see among the crowd waiting at the bus stop, but as soon as you turn away, you forget that he exists. I was that guy.
I had no hobbies, and the loop went on like this: waking up, going to work, and coming home. Even my job was boring. As a data entry coder for some no-name fast food company, my job was literally transferring information from a sheet of paper to a computer screen. My parents were gone a long time ago, and I was an only child. I had no ties to any person, or this world. That’s why it keeps bugging me why I’m still here and not pass already.
I hike up to my usual spot, a green, dilapidated bench under the oak tree. Although it is located on the rather far end of the park, the view is still visible from here, and there’re usually no annoying tourists who would walk up this far. That’s why this has become my favourite spot to pass time at the end of the day. I’m about to sit on the bench when my eyes catch a glimpse of something unfamiliar next to it, so I lean to see what that mysterious blob is.
It turns out to be a head, which belongs to the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Although her body is not what we typically call “slim,” it is very well-built and muscular. Her complexion is quite fair, with an exception of some freckles on her face. But, in my eyes, those features, together with her hazelnut eyes, seem to compliment her smile even more. It was like seeing a brightly lit candle during a blackout or coming across a huge blanket on the coldest night. She radiates such comfort towards those around her.
The reason I didn’t notice her at first is because she is kneeling on the ground, feeding the pigeons with some bread crumbs from her pocket. The woman takes out a piece of bread, tears it into little pieces, and scatters them around. Her hands are calloused yet they move so nimbly when feeding those birds. They rejoice, flapping their wings and pecking their dinner. Although there is nothing particularly exciting about a girl feeding pigeons, I just couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I don’t know how long I’ve spent watching her until I feel Greg’s hand rest upon my shoulder.
“Marty, it’s dark. We should leave.”
And so I reluctantly leave my usual spot, along with the mysterious girl, and start walking down the hill. “I think she’s my way out. I can feel it in my bones,” I said. “There’s something about her that...lures me in. Maybe God sent her to guide me towards my passing. I don’t know.”
“Have you ever thought that maybe God sent her to trick you? I can say from my life-long experience that the Lord Almighty isn’t always as generous as you think,” Greg said jokingly, and then he pauses. “But you seem awfully starstruck by her. It might be worth a shot.”
“What shot exactly?”
“The shot of getting to know her better, kid. Do I have to spell everything out for ya?”
That is when our mini-investigation begins. Later, I will learn that her name is Stella Moretz. She’ll turn 25 this October, and she works at a local bakery next to Dale’s. It is surprising that all those times I had visited Dale’s for a burger, I’ve never noticed her before. I vaguely remember buying a sesame pretzel there once, but that’s it. Guess I was too preoccupied to sense her being.
She likes to drink black coffee with a squeeze of lemon juice in the morning and usually skips lunch due to the constant influx of customers coming to grab a quick lunch from the nearby offices. Although half of them barely glance at her at the cashier, she always greets every one of them with a smile so bright it could melt the world. It hurts me to see her liveliness being ignored like that, but it pains me more to think that I was one of them. That is, when I was alive.
One evening, I see her leaving the shift early, so I follow her out of curiosity. The sky is getting darker every moment. After passing dozens of worn-out street lamps and crossing a few roads, she eventually stops in front of Grace Hospital. By the time she arrives there, the sky already turns pitch black. I hover after her until she reaches the fourth floor, which happens to be a paediatric ward. I hear a sound of a baby screaming on my way in. I guess someone’s going to be a mother tonight, but that’s none of my business. Life and death don’t go well together anyway, and Stella’s walking so fast I can barely keep up. She stops in front of a room with the name William Moretz stamped on the door.
Although the room is quite small and packed with lines and tubes crisscrossing next to the mechanical ventilator, there are doodles taped all over the wall and wooden toys laying around in the corner. Inside the dimly lit room, there is a thirteen-year-old boy half-sitting half-lying on the bed, reading. One is struck by the similarities between her and the boy. His messy hair is the same shade of naked flame as hers. His eyes are also of the same greenish brown colour. The only stark difference between the two of them is that his skin is as white as a sheet, and his smile is bright yet weak, like a candle burning in the heavy rain. When he looks up and sees her at the door, his face lights up.
“Stella! You said you couldn’t come today.”
“I can leave a shift early, dummy. As long as I don’t do it every day.” She smiles while stroking his ginger hair. Then she reaches for something in her tote bags and pulls it out. From the window, I squint my eyes and see that it is something shaped like some kind of animal. There are little scratches here and there, but, from the look of it, someone has fixed its broken leg. There is still a trace of dried glue around the left leg. I’ve seen this before. Somewhere. But while I am still racking my brain for answers, the boy suddenly yelled,
“A wooden horse!! Where did you get it? Now they can finally be a real army!”
“I found it lying near the bakery. It seems like it was missing its owner, so I thought you can help it with that.” She rises up from the chair and sits down on the bed next to him. While the boy is enjoying this new addition to his collection, I see her turning the other way and secretly wiping her watery eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll try to come as much as I can. Just try to live, okay?” she whispers softly and kisses him. Looking at them, I feel a sharp pang in my heart, a sudden pain that I’ve never felt before. The feeling is somehow alien. It’s like someone is using a hot branding iron and stamping it down on my chest. The burning sensation lingers.
This must be love.
That’s why I could never get tired of watching her go about her day, doing her little tasks. I enjoy standing next to the oven, where I can smell the freshly-baked bread, while she’s busy kneading the dough. I enjoy seeing her chat eagerly when a small kid asks which bread is the best in the shop. I enjoy sitting next to her during breaks where she usually whips up a notebook and jots down some improvements for a recipe. But most importantly, I enjoy kneeling down beside her when she’s feeding the pigeons in the evening. The way she always sits on the ground, knowing full well that her jeans could be ruined by all the dirt and grass, but she doesn’t care. The way she smiles and jokes with the pigeons, not afraid of being seen weird by other passers-by. Her spirit seems to be in sync with what’s going on around her, or to be exact, with the world surrounding her.
This is it. I love her. God has sent her here to help me experience love. Finally, I know what I’ve been missing. Now, I should be ready to pass. So, that night, I go back and tell Greg everything. About the boy. About the wooden horse. About her smile and the weird feeling inside my chest.
“So, you’ll be gone by the next light, huh?”
“I guess so. I think I’m ready now.”
“That makes an old man sad, but,” he pauses, “good for you, kiddo.”
“I know, and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. Good luck.”
“You too. Send me a message if there’s a pizza over there.”
After saying goodbye to Greg, I walk up the hill to the same old bench in Kerry Park to prepare for my passing the next morning. It is midnight now, and my eyes are starting to close from all the exhaustion and revelation I had today. What would the other world be like? Or is there even one? Is it going to be like Heaven? I would hate to go to Hell after all this... My thoughts begin to fade away as the night drags on, and the next thing I know, the world goes dark.
The sound of birds chirping wakes me. Yawning, I slowly open my eyes, and, to my surprise, I am still sitting on the bench in Kerry Park, Seattle. Not heaven, and luckily not Hell. But nothing happened. I didn’t pass. But I was ready. I found Stella. I found love. There must be some kind of error in the system. While rummaging through my mind for some possible explanations, I rush to see Greg at his usual place by the trash can. However, there is no sign of him. So, I turn to ask Ruth, one of the ghosts living around here who happens to be chatting with her friends nearby.
“Ruth, have you seen Greg? I can’t seem to find him. He’s usually here every morning”
“Darling, didn’t you know?”
The old woman chuckles a little, but when she sees the bewildered look on my face, she stops and her expression turns grim. “Greg passed this morning. His daughter gave birth to a healthy boy last night. He just received the news from Shawn, you know the one who usually hangs around the hospital, just before sunrise. He is freed from his worries at last.”
Although I can see Ruth’s lips moving up and down, forming words and sentences, I can’t understand a single word after the phrase, Greg passed this morning. My head is spinning wild. My ears ringing and my chest pounding. Greg passed already? Before me? How is that even possible? Millions of questions start to form in my head, but the one that is clearer than any others is “Why am I still here?” Stella should be my way out. I’ve found love like God intended. What did I miss?
Pacing back and forth, I don’t know how long the time has passed since I learnt Greg’s news, but when I look up to the sky, it’s now turning grey with a tad of orange shining behind the clouds. I must have been drowning in my thoughts for hours. Ruth and her friends have all left. I force myself up carefully and start to walk out of the corner of the building. Although my brain doesn’t seem to be functioning, my legs move forward as if they know where its master needs to be. Eventually, they stop, and I find myself standing in front of my usual spot in Kerry Park, but, this time, there is no Greg. There is no Stella. I am utterly alone.
However, something is pecking near my right foot. I look down. It’s the pigeons. They flap their wings impatiently and walk around the place where Stella usually comes, expecting to find some food they can eat. Since I can see that Stella is not coming today, I let out a sigh and gently kneel down next to the bench. My eyes spotted a half-eaten sandwich left on the ground. So I think, Okay. What the hell. I can feed these poor pigeons for her today. At least, this is something I can do.
I grab that gross sandwich and begin to tear it apart, piece by piece. I toss some of the crumbs over, and the whole flock rushes towards them, enjoying their feast, but one. Because of her size, a baby pigeon is left out and stands far away from the flock like she’s afraid of being stampeded by her own kind. I carefully approach her with half of the bread in my hand. She staggers backwards when I come close, but when she sees what I’ve got in my hand, she starts jumping around with her little legs and flapping her wings in delight. I take out a small piece of bread crumb and put it on my hand. She cautiously advances towards me, and finally eats the crumb from my bare hand and, surprisingly, she continues to do so until she’s full. Contented with her dinner, the bird eventually flies away.
A smile appears on my face, quite unexpectedly I confess. I’ve never thought a small gesture could affect a person this much. Maybe that’s why Stella always comes here every evening to feed these kids. Confused by this new sensation, I gently pull myself up and walk past the footpath, towards the rail. The sun is slowly sinking behind the magnificent Mount Rainier. Its yellow reflection ripples among the placid water of Elliot Bay. The Space Needle, one of the most iconic attractions in Seattle, stands tall on the left side, towering over hundreds of high-rise buildings surrounding the city. Despite that, it does not seem to be out of place. Rather, the austere grandeur of the tower seems to be an integral part of this seaport city. Without it, Seattle would be -- incomplete.
“Daddy! I want to see the sun go down.”
I heard a small voice speaking next to me. It belongs to a ten-year-old boy, who is now panting from running up the hill to watch the sunset. Not so long after, his father appears, panting also. Apparently, he must have been trying to catch up with his son who races towards the scenery. A gust of wind passes through me from behind, so I decide to turn around. The park now comes into full view. There is a man jogging past me, blasting music in his headphones. To my right, a teenage girl is walking with a golden retriever on a leash, with her little sister tagging along. There is a group of college students lying under the tree, talking and gossiping. Some of the pigeons still remain on the ground next to the bench, poking and nibbling the sandwich I’ve left there.
As it turns out, I am not alone anymore.
I’ve never noticed all the lives happening before me. When I was alive, I was busy with all the nonsense and insignificant things. It was either work, eat, or sleep. The only thing that is remotely interesting in my life is my weird appetite for liking Aloha burgers. Other than that, I’ve never taken any time off, or slow down, to appreciate life. But since Stella arrives, she has stirred up some feelings that I’ve been subconsciously pressing down. The feeling that the world doesn’t have to be such a boring place, where we spend our fleeting moments being preoccupied with some trivial nonsense that doesn’t even matter. I was practically throwing my life away while William’s heart aches to have a chance like mine. Stella has allowed me to see what life can offer you, if you let it.
Because being alive is not the same as living. We exist for a reason, and it is definitely not to breathe purposelessly throughout your whole life. There are things like relationships, passions, or even food that will make our lives worth living. I didn’t fall in love with Stella, but rather, I fell in love with life.
After realising all of this, I retreat from the rail and walk back to the bench. I sit down, thinking of how it is truly ironic that one is able to appreciate life after one is dead. The sun now dips down behind the skyscrapers, and the light begins to fade away. The son is dragging his father’s hand to lead him out of the park, mumbling something about having chocolate ice cream for dinner. The jogger switches into walking, preparing to finish his last lap. I hear the girl’s dog barking in the distance from the other side of the park while the students are gathering up their stuff, ready to leave. The birds have all disappeared by now, flying home to their warm nests, I hope. I lie down on the bench, eyes closed. I am truly ready now, or even if I’m not, at least I would get enjoy this world a little bit more. There are so many things I haven’t got a chance to do. Next time, I’ll go up on the Space Needle to experience the whole view, or board a shuttle ferry that travels across Elliot Bay. At last, my mind slowly drifts away into the darkness of the day, remaining but one. Aloha burger.
I hope there would more to it than that in my next life...