This story is by A.K. McCutcheon and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
This isn’t a ghost story. This is a love story. I didn’t know it was a love story in the beginning … when the offerings started to disappear …
Another sweltering morning in an unseasonably hot autumn. I shuffle into the kitchen and take two mugs from the cupboard. Then—remembering—I put one back. It’s been a month since he went missing, and I’m still making coffee for two. Pushing aside the stack of cards and bills on the kitchen table, I slump into a chair with my mug, staring ahead with bleary eyes, seeing nothing.
My coffee has gone cold for I don’t know how long when the doorbell interrupts some random thought. I decide to ignore it, then I hear the rumble of a heavy vehicle departing.
The UPS delivery on the doorstep is a brown cardboard box from Sylvia Hernandez, Tucson, AZ. My sweet mother-in-law, Danny’s mama.
Tucked inside the box is a handwritten note. I can hear her voice, the melodic twang of her native Mexican accent:
You don’t answer your phone. I worry about you.
For Día de Muertos, I have here an ofrenda, that would be nice if you set it up for Danny.
Your mama Sylvia
The ofrenda packed inside is a small wooden altar—aglow with luminous skulls and marigolds on its matte black finish—and two tall votive candles in glass holders. I know the tradition: the altar is adorned with offerings of cherished items and treats to welcome deceased souls back to the living world on Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Bless you, darling Sylvia. It’s a charming tradition … but I don’t believe the spirits of the dead return to us, no matter how lovely the offerings.
I close the box with the altar still inside. Then, thinking of Danny, the memories overwhelm me: how an introverted girl with no family, no traditions, and no culture of her own married an outgoing boy from a large family defined by their culture and traditions; and how—when she wondered if they were too different to ever truly understand each other—Sylvia reassured her, “Mija,”–My daughter, “El amor encuentra una manera.”–Love finds a way.
The flashbacks bring stinging tears. My foot brushes against something on the floor—crumpled paper, the article I tossed away…
U.S. Navy Ends Search for Missing Helicopter Pilot
SAN DIEGO — U.S. Pacific Fleet officials suspended search operations for the pilot of a UH-1Y Viper that crashed at sea off the coast on Wednesday morning.
The words are seared into my memory.
Presumed dead… aircraft not recovered… cause of crash unknown…
Three weeks later, the Navy buried an empty casket with full military honors.
Sylvia and the family chose not to make the trip from Arizona for the service. I wasn’t there, either … still unbelieving, hoping against reason, praying he’d come home.
The days became a numb routine: stacking mail unread, eating food untasted, my thoughts tormented by an unceasing question— Was it my fault?
Now, I ache with regret … I didn’t attend the service to honor his memory. Maybe there’s another way—
I open Sylvia’s box and unpack the altar.
Searching closets and shelves, I sift through the remnants of our life together to choose the offerings: a framed photo, Danny looking handsome in uniform; a leather string bracelet he wore on our first date; the lacy garter I wore on our wedding day; and a handful of his favorite snack, shelled pistachios.
I place the altar on the only uncluttered surface in our small apartment—the chest of drawers near the bedroom window.
Another warm night. Drifting into restless sleep, a crescent moon glinting through the open window, candles flickering on Danny’s altar … I dream of helicopter blades splitting the air like giant wings, whirring and fluttering.
When I awaken in the morning, the pistachios are gone.
I look around the dresser top, floor, windowsill— nothing. Then … a horrifying thought … it must be a mouse, or worse, a rat. I call the apartment manager to schedule an emergency pest control visit. Thinking about rodents inside my home makes me queasy.
The pest control service finds no evidence of rodent infestation.
I don’t sleep at all that night.
The next day—carrying laundry into the bedroom—I notice the bracelet is missing.
I search everywhere; it’s gone. My mouth goes dry. What is happening? Is my mind playing tricks?
The apartment is on the second floor. The only entrance is the front door, latched with a deadbolt lock. There is no way to enter the bedroom from the outside.
The room begins to whirl. I drop the laundry basket and double over, gulping air, fighting waves of nausea.
I call the manager and confirm what I already know: she alone has access to the passkey stored in a lockbox. There are no other reports of suspicious activity in the building.
My head throbs; the nausea returns. If only I could shake this anxiety, if only I could sleep … I call the Navy Casualty Assistance Office and request a medical referral.
When I return from the doctor’s office the following day, the wedding garter has disappeared.
Danny’s portrait rests alone on the altar.
I don’t know how long I stand unmoving—riveted by the photo, his deep brown eyes—before my legs give way and I drop to my knees. I hear my voice, quavering, tearful …
“Danny, I’m sorry. Please talk to me…was it my fault? I have something to tell you—”
The doorbell rings. My body jolts at the sound. Rising to my feet, I stumble to the door and pull it open.
She opens her arms. “This is the Day of the Dead, mija. I wanted to be with you on this day.”
I collapse into the embrace of the only mother I have ever known.
Later that evening, Sylvia sits beside me, placing her hand on mine. “So, tell me.”
Hesitating, then nodding, I tell her everything …
… about the morning Danny said, “Let’s have a baby,” and I said, “Is this the right time to start a family? We have so many bills, and my work hours were cut back. After you leave on deployment next month, I’ll be all alone.”
“Got it. You don’t want a kid.” I felt the hurt in his voice.
“Danny, that’s not it. Let’s talk—” but he was already out the door, slamming it so hard the walls quaked. Danny—who always wanted to talk about everything—left without saying goodbye.
That night, two uniformed Notification Officers came to my door.
I tell her about the unrelenting guilt stalking me … Was he upset, distracted? Did he lose focus at the controls? If I hadn’t said the things I said, maybe the crash wouldn’t have happened, and he would be alive.
I tell her about the disappearances from the altar.
Then I tell her the news Danny will never hear— “Sylvia, I’m pregnant.”
Folding me into her arms, she says, “Tonight, we will keep vigil at the altar. We will tell him he will be a father.”
Exhausted, I manage to whisper, “Yes.”
I need to understand. I need to know.
The altar candles are the only illumination in the room. We sit on the bed, propped upright with pillows. Time passes, minutes or hours. My head is drooping, resisting sleep, when I hear the sounds … whirring … fluttering …
Emerging from shadows shimmering in the candlelight, I see gloved fingers parting the curtains … black gloves like Danny’s flight gear … then, the spectral apparition quivers, changing shape, transforming into a bird’s legs, fan-shaped tail, shiny black feathers.
Sylvia switches on the nightstand lamp.
The large crow holds a silver object in its beak. At the sound of the light switch, it drops its cargo and darts behind the curtains.
Scrambling to the window in pursuit, I find the escape route—an opening where the screen mesh separated from the frame.
Sylvia leaves the bed and stands beside me. “Your visitor brought you an offering.”
The bird had dropped a metal bolt fastener—a hexagon nut—on the altar.
At that moment, marveling at the crow’s visits … seeking meaning in the bird’s gift … my mind calms with understanding …
Nuts and bolts keep an aircraft aloft. Nuts and bolts could bring it down.
I breathe the words, “It wasn’t my fault.”
Sylvia rests a hand on my shoulder. “Mija, of course, it wasn’t your fault.”
She reaches through the curtains and closes the window.
When my son asks me about his father, I won’t tell him a ghost story. I’ll tell him a love story. I will say, “Love finds a way.” I will tell him, “Your father was an aviator, and once upon a time, he sent me a messenger with wings.”