This story is by A.J. Aisling and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Two weeks into her new job at the Museum of the Treasures of the Atocha, Kat was already in hot water. Today was not the day to pick a fight with her supervisor, but she could no longer tolerate the chaos of collections care. Unfortunately, Kat never knew when to let things go, and the situation escalated with her supervisor issuing a verbal warning.
Now that she had calmed down, she glanced around the exhibit and considered the arduous task of turning the aging space into something engaging for visitors. She desperately needed this thing to work. Just one thing in her life had to be a success.
Katherine’s thirties were hitting hard. Her next birthday was coming up this weekend, and it would be her first as a divorcee. All her friends were his, so she didn’t have those anymore. All her family agreed with him that her “constant need for perfection bludgeoned the heart out of their relationship.” So now she had no family to celebrate with her. What she did have was this tiny museum that paid homage to Spanish colonial gold and silver pulled from the sea by white privilege. That was really going to be a big hit in the current social climate.
“It’s okay, Katherine. You are going to make your mark here,” she said to herself out loud. She had to settle for her own company without any colleagues or comrades working on the exhibit—anything to not feel completely alone.
The room turned to ice as a loud crash sounded behind her. The light flickered for a second and then blazed brighter than she remembered it ever looking before. As curator of this marine archaeology exhibit, she felt compelled to look around and ensure everything was in order.
Her search began with her office at the front of the space. Every pencil on her desk was in the holder in the perfect 3 x 3 order. The notebook was closed and centered with a one-foot margin on each side. She walked out of the tiny room and gently closed the door.
Her search for the mysterious sound led her next to the gift shop. Unfortunately, the museum was not open yet, so the room lay in darkness. Katherine waited in the dark for her eyes to adjust and quickly scanned the space. All of the well-chosen retail items sat positioned correctly in their assigned locations. She shrugged her shoulders and moved past the shop to the exhibit proper.
Here she turned on the spotlights. The exhibit was not big-budget and featured fluorescent lighting in a drop-tiled ceiling. Any museum scholar could speak to the many conservation issues such luminescence provoked, but the most she had been able to get her supervisors to agree to was some spotlights at key intervals with fewer lumens.
The only downside was the shadows cast as a result. Katherine could swear she saw them moving all around her, just out of the corner of her eye. Her heart began playing a heavy metal concert inside her chest, and she felt the sensation of a boa constrictor wrapping itself around her torso. “I swear I do not have the time for a heart attack today!”
Something touched her arm. It was the gentle touch that one might expect from a lover, and it made her arm hair stand at attention while her heart fluttered a bit inside her chest. The fluttering felt better than the intrusive thumps of heavy metal, so she was prepared to dismiss the sensation until she felt a breath on the nape of her neck. She spun around to find no one there, yet there was definitely someone there in the shadows.
“I know I’m not alone here. I can sense that you are a spirit of some sort. What is it that you want from me?” She tried to sound confident and assertive, but neither was true. Then she remembered her mother telling her that spirits knew the truth about a person better than that person because their soul exposed on the other side of the veil.
“No, miss, you are not alone,” a booming voice with a Spanish accent called out. Given that she was standing amidst the collective items from a Spanish treasure ship, Kat felt that made perfect sense.
“What is your name, and what do you want from me?” Her heart had begun beating faster again, like it knew something was coming, and there was a sensation on the back right portion of her crown like pure electricity was charging her cranium.
“My name is Don Pedro de Pasquier, the Vice Admiral of the Order of Calatrava. I command the spirits lost on the Nuestra de Señora Atocha, and I am in love with you.” That last bit made her choke a little on her saliva.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that last line for me? I must have misunderstood.”
“You misunderstood nothing. I have been watching you here. You take great care in preserving and protecting these trinkets of a bygone age. It is something that I can not resist.”
“What do you want from me? Really.”
“I wish you to be my bride and join me in eternity.” He spoke like it was the most natural thing in the world for a spirit to show up at a woman’s place of work and then insist he was in love. She worried that she had finally lost her mind. And that last bit sounded wrong to Kat.
She shook her head.
He came closer. If he was corporeal, he would have been right in front of Kat’s face. She didn’t know whether that was a spirit thing or a 400-year-old man thing, but as much as she wanted to dislike it, she didn’t. The ghost peered into her eyes and then bent in towards her and kissed her.
What was strange was that she could feel him kissing her, and she loved it. Her whole person melted as he pressed her against him. She felt the rest of him, too–every part. The sensation was like nothing she had ever experienced with a human. It was all of the usual things, but so much more. And she wanted it. She wanted him. All of him. Only him.
“Is that a yes?” The ghost of Don Pedro pulled back a bit to ask when he finished ruining her entire perception of reality.
“What do you mean by joining you?” She feared Don Pedro’s response because she could sense what he wanted. It was as evident as though he had spoken it aloud.
He swept her back into his arms and held her close, stroking her hair.
It was interesting how much she craved his touch–so different from her ex-husband. She hated him touching her, but she realized now that it wasn’t her that was the issue. It was him. When Don Pedro, who didn’t even have a human body anymore, touched her, he felt her. He connected with her in a way that no one ever had before.
If this felt real, then on some level, mustn’t it be real? If she was experiencing a decently indecent proposal from an old admiral ghost, it had to be real, even if only on the astral plane. And if this wasn’t real, was it hurting anyone for her to have an interaction that made her feel good? Didn’t she deserve to be happy? To have another soul reach out for hers?
“What will it mean for me?”
“You must join me in death.”
“Cool, cool, cool, that’s what I thought you meant.”
Kat was surprised to realize she was considering dying to be with a ghost. Life always seemed the better option, even though she felt miserable and alone. “I don’t think I can do that, Don Pedro. Part of me might wish to, but I’m not ready to die.” She wanted to be honest with him.
Don Pedro smiled, and she peed herself a little. Gone was the flirty, swarthy look of a man wooing his woman. What stood before her now was something dark and terrifying. Still smiling, a big, predatorial, toothy (what remained of them) grin that spoke of malice so dark it took the breath from her.
She realized, too late, that it wasn’t her fear taking her breath. It was him, squeezing the life from her. As she felt her lungs fighting and burning for the oxygen they desperately needed, she realized she was doomed before she said a word. All she wanted was to love and be loved. To be remembered. To matter. And now she was nothing…