An Echo in a Sunbeam

Submitted into Contest #138 in response to: Write a story about an afternoon picnic gone wrong.... view prompt


Crime Historical Fiction Fantasy

“Afternoon, Miss Lovejoy. Another glorious day made all the finer for the promise of your company.” Eddie Wilson tapped his bowler hat and bowed, nearly tipping the overflowing picnic basket in his attempt at gallantry. 

Grace puffed up her cheeks like a chipmunk and blew out the hot air in a huff. Rocking back on the heels of her side-buttoned boots, she truly couldn’t decide which was worse about being dead: 

Coming around, trapped as a spirit, pacing a wooden patio on blistered bunions. Having no one but this damnable fool for conversation. 

…Or lunch. 

Which would end, rather predictably, with her clawing at her own windpipe.

“Och, fine!” she threw up her hands as the urge to speak took hold. “Let’s see if ye’ve packed us anything different today, Eddie. Nope. Rabbit pie, sourdough, thick slices of corned ham—That’s what now?… A hundred and sixty-three years of yer gourmet horse-shite?” 

It had tickled her to inspect the fruits of his courting, once. Now? They’d been re-living this memory for so long that she’d gladly sell her soul to Ol’ Scratch himself for a single pickled egg. Grace’s stomach rumbled at the thought while Eddie’s shade waited patiently for her to finish her tangent.

As a ghost, she’d carved out a bit of wiggle room to her brief hour of daily existence. But certain deeds, certain words, were utterly immutable.

And she had seven little words—burning at the tip of her tongue—that demanded to be spoken. 

“Strawberries lookin’ about as sweet as ye,” Grace said hurriedly. Forced to swallow back the hankering to slap the dope upside the head, she pecked his cheek. There. Done! One more sentence left. Then, if I fancy a good ranting, I can swear till my bloody ears pop off.

Wanting to get their tragedy over with, she pulled out her own contribution from behind her lace petticoat—a black bottle of choke-cherry wine. Eddie beamed. “My, my Grace. You’re not fixing to get me drunk, are you?”

She practically threw the bottle into the basket. “Maybe if I loosen up that tongue of yers enough, ye’ll finally ask for my hand.” (Of all the pathetic, desperate remarks etched into the curtain of history…)

“It ain’t that I don’t want to, Grace,” Eddie said, without meeting her rolling eyes. “But with my ma sick, we need to take things slow for the sake of her Catholic heart.”

“Aye. Say nothing of Ann Marie’s heart, or Sally O’Brien’s. Or me own flesh and blood brother, Angus,” she murmured bitterly to herself as she grudgingly took his elbow.

He shook his head, ever playing up the dutiful son act as he led the way. Past the taverns and the dance halls of the gold-rush city of Jamestown, they walked. Only a handful of heads turned to note their passing. Every day, Grace saw the same old timers smoking outside the smithy. The same whore smuttering out of the bathhouse… 

A pair of spinsters would knock their bonnets together as the couple passed the general store, gossiping loudly about the Scottish Good-time Girl. Their words had lost their edge ages ago and had—in Grace’s opinion—taken on a rather pinched tone. Perhaps their crabby wraiths were stuck in their own hellish circuit, and also longed for a pardon from their purgatory. 

They were just one of the many subtle changes creeping into the daily grind. Grace would sometimes see shapes in her periphery—like brightly painted iron carriages, without horses—practically flying through the dirt thoroughfare! They would rush straight through a gaggle of miners as they shambled back to their money pits, walking side-by-side. The usual few would chance a small wink at the former Myrtle Brown, even as those terrifying creatures burst through them, as though they were nought but mist. 

Like the wooden buildings surrounding them, her neighbours had lost a veneer of solidity.

“Our world is slowly becoming undone, and Time is filling in the threadbare patches with … such strangeness,” she remarked to no one.

“Miss Lovejoy, Grace, may I just say that you’re looking prettier than a Mariposa lily,” Eddie said, trying to regain the previous mood. 

Instead of inquiring after his gambling prospects, Grace smiled unpleasantly back. After a long moment, she gave him a measured response. (But only because she felt a powerful compulsion to say something every time he spoke.) “And ye, sir, are about as captivating as a three-day-old chamber pot. May the Devil drag ye to hell by yer nipples, Edward Wilson, because I’m utterly sick to death of ye.” 

“Pretty swell, actually.” Eddie replied, properly chuffed. “Traded four diamonds for a stake in the Nilsson’s claim. Ha!”

Unlike her, his prattle never wavered. Not a single word, or cadence, out of place. Often she tried to rile him up—get him mad enough to spit iron, or split her skull—just for a change of scenery. Nothing doing. Same with running, or even turning left instead of right. It was as though Grace’s legs simply lacked the willpower to veer off the path that led to her demise one sunny afternoon in May.

No brightly coloured wagons today, but there was a whiff of roast onions on the breeze—just upwind from the bordello. Perhaps it came from that contraption she’d glimpsed the other day? There had been a white and red cart parked in that corner. It had a gigantic smiling sausage, with horrible googly eyes, emblazoned on it. Grace had never seen the like! (Not in life, anyhow.) 

“To think that I’d forgotten what grilled onions smelt like,” she said distantly.

“Of course, I made sure that sorry sucker made it all official with the bank.”

“Wheesht, and shush now!” Grace madly waved her free hand, scoping up air under her quivering nose hairs. “Can’t ye see I’m busy inhaling here? Yer spoiling the olfactory experience, ye are!”

“And then the manager started telling me about a nice farmstead available to let a few towns over. I know it’s not much of a life—what with me still having to travel with pa’s medicine show during the year. But I figured, with you keeping the fires burning, we could raise a family there.” 

Giving up, Grace groaned and plugged her ears with her fingers. “I wish to Peace ye shut yer gob about that con. I found out about yer other wives, didnae I? Sowing yer wild conkers got us stuck in this loop. Not me!” she burbled on. Then the church bell rang for the one o’clock hour and she let out an artificial laugh at the blaring sun. Death was just around the corner now. 

As they entered the cemetery, she’d nodded a meek hello to the digger, Mr Hong. In the words of her dear auld-aunty: Yer only here for a wee while, so be nice … especially to yer poison supplier.

This was where miners with enough gold to afford a pine box got buried. Some had even been clients of hers. From dance floor, to sick bed, to casket. That pattern served her well. It kept her in both drink and dresses. She’d asked Eddie to take her here for a picnic because she found it to be the most private and serene. Besides, it was chock-full of all the men that’d loved her, and lost for it.

Bastard! Grace thought as she maneuvered them to a secluded corner. Edward Wilson was supposed to deliver me from my mad little habit, not spur it on. 

Pausing a moment, she looked around the tombstones carefully. “Eddie, do you think I’m laid here?” she asked, her voice trailing off. It was odd to think, but she’d never given a care about what had happened after she croaked. “Mr Hong would’ve heard the commotion, yeah? Seen what had happened. Murdering a girl in cold blood? Aye, if ye survived the tasting, ye would’ve hung for that.” 

Her beau took no notice of the change of tempo, as usual. Grace glowered at him. “Even if they had strung ye up, they’d’ve buried ye here—being both a son of a bitch and the son of a doctor—but not me. The damn victim! Oh no! The pastor wouldn’t dare let a Jezebel like me rest anywhere near his precious flock!”

“You think I’m decent?” Eddie replied slyly to a comment she had long ago sworn to never again repeat. Snaking his free arm to bring her in closer, he flashed her a wicked grin. 

“I so, so needed ye to be a decent man,” Grace felt wretched, “a good man, my saviour!”

“Why Miss Lovejoy, I’ll have you know that my cold, black heart is downright full of nefarious designs.”

“Black heart?!” she laughed, and pushed him off. Her smile was automatic and forced—playfully turned upwards, despite her internal screaming.

They were reaching the point of no return.

Every day, they were cursed to walk the same route, to hit upon a series of immovable points—like they were checking off notches on a map! Why these moments were so important, so unalterable, Grace couldn’t fathom. Choke-cherry wine. Farmstead. Black heart. Here was the part where she had no choice but to laugh loud enough in the past to be heard in the present. So she did. 

A giddy prelude to a violent end.

A swarm of firebugs erupted around them both, and Grace’s vision swam. Frightened squeals followed the flash of fireworks, as they now nearly always did. Voices speaking across the spirit realm. People. A crowd, yes? Men and women… 

“Did you hear that?” “Hear what?” “Shut up! Did you not just hear a woman laugh!” “Nope, I didn’t hear nothin’.” “Last time I did this tour, I totally caught an orb cluster!” “A bunch of lens spots ain’t The Good Time Ghost, bro.” 

“Yes siree, folks! He murdered our poor Grace, right underneath this tree. Now she’s doomed to re-live—”

Grace quickly rubbed the spots from her eyes. This time she was fast enough on the draw to see the surrounding cemetery bloom a hundred stone angels, and… and… 

“Look, Eddie—There!! Do you see? A wee bairn!” she grabbed his elbow as she shouted with glee. A little boy, wearing a bright blue shirt with a cute sheet ghost—like the type you see in cheap theatrical productions—painted on it. He pointed towards her and smiled. “Pwetty lady!”

Grace collapsed to her knees. “Och, me heart!”

Then came another barrage of flashing. It blinded her for mere moments, but when she recovered, the child was gone. The tombstones were back to being as unremarkable as they’d always been. The sun was steadily climbing, as was the temperature. She wouldn’t have long to sweat. In mere minutes, she would die, and this awful snippet of a day would begin again. 

“This is all that’s left of me,” Grace said mournfully, hugging herself tightly. “An echo trapped in a sunbeam.”

Eddie bent low and cupped her face in his hands. “Don’t say such things. She’d be so proud of you, Grace.”

“For God’s sake, Eddie, can ye not!?” With a growl, Grace took his offered basket and threw it to the ground. Whipping out a checkered sheet, she jerkingly spread it out till every fold, every corner, was at it had been. All the while, her lips were moving frantically. “Maybe they never buried my bones. Laird, help me! What if they sold me on to a medical college?”

“If only I could sleep as soundly as these lost souls, but thinking of you—of us, together—” he flopped down beside her as she fished out the black bottle, “has been keeping me awake at night.”

“Tell me, after the deed, what happened to my corpse, Eddie Wilson?” Pop went the cork. Grace handed the bottle to him, an odd sense of urgency overtaking her. “I made a mistake, that is all. We both did! And we died for it. Do ye know if they gave me the dignity of a grave? Did someone say a prayer over me?”

He smiled coyly, fingers tapping lightly on the glass. “A sip of wine for a kiss? Why, my dear future Mrs Wilson, what game are you playing at?”

Grace tried to swallow back the quip. Tried, and failed. Always failed! “If we’re both four sails to the wind, why, anything could happen, dearest.”

“Mmmh … anything at all?”

“Ou aye.” Grace nuzzled into his shoulder and murmured into his ear. “I was supposed to bid ye drink deep, then pay off Mr Hong to tip ye into an open plot. He’d have done it, too. We had a deal going on where he got to keep the clothes of the boys I brought him. That was the plan.”

“Can’t say I’m not tempted.”

“Christ almighty, Eddie! Ye were supposed to make me a lawful wife. Instead, I came to find out ye’ve married every woman ye could, from here to the east coast, and bedded me own kin, Angus!” 

The smile didn’t slip from Eddie’s face as he brought the choke-cherry wine to his lips. 

… Strangely, the terror Grace felt dumping ice water into her veins hadn’t lessened over the years. As he filled his mouth, her words came out in a mad tumble. “Just—just say I’m sleeping somewhere dark! Please! It could be a burn pit for all I care now. My ever-after cannae be this horrible, garish daylight! Tell me where I am, Edward!!”

Eddie’s cheeks were filled to bursting when he playfully clamped his mouth over hers … and let the wine loose. In an instant, the poison meant for him was drowning her. 

Choke-cherry wine, laced with a good dollop of cyanide. 

Mr Hong said he got his store from apple seeds and peach stones, but the choke-cherries pits also contained a health measure of the poison. Wasn’t nature mischievous, wrapping something so deadly in something so sweet?

Grace swallowed the mouthful just to keep her lungs from being flooded. Then it all went to hell.

Her only consolation was that—as the convulsions started—that smarmy grin of Eddie’s evaporated, and all that was left of his countenance was sheer panic.

* * *

Edward Wilson’s fingers ached as he reached up to tip his bowler hat. Forced to bow grandly before that empty-headed Scottish tart, Grace Lovejoy, whilst keeping the picnic basket from toppling was never a simple task.

But this was always where his nightmare began, in a half stumble. 

“Afternoon, Miss Lovejoy,” he spat through gritted teeth. “Another glorious day made all the finer for the promise of your company.” 

“Heavens! Good day, Mr Wilson.” Grace smiled an amiable smile that stretched from one ear straight to the other. “Isn’t that sun just splendid? Not too hot, nor too cold. Now then, what did you pack us for lunch? My, my, is that corned ham I spy? How delightful!”

* * *

March 24, 2022 21:55

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L.M. Lydon
21:01 Mar 27, 2022

You did a wonderful job breathing life into the historic atmosphere here. I also liked the double layer of the ghost-tour in the background. We feel a little bad for both characters before the end, to be caught in their eternal, banal loop. Yet they both got what they deserved. You make Grace such a spectacularly sassy spitfire of a character ("That’s what now?… A hundred and sixty-three years of yer gourmet horse-shite?”).


Amanda Bennett
21:03 Mar 27, 2022

Thanks for the feedback! Grace was a riot to write :D


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Caleb Fitting
01:21 Mar 27, 2022

I didn't look at your history but just reading this I can tell you have a good amount of experience writing, or you are a big time reader who pays attention to good writing mechanics. Your dialogue, and the dialogue tags (what you put next to dialogue to clue us in on who is speaking) seemed much more natural than what I see in my writing. But the dialogue wasn't the only good part. You seem to have smooth writing. Speaking of dialogue though, I would say I craved more action in the story and less dialogue. Your dialogue may be a strength bu...


Amanda Bennett
20:35 Mar 27, 2022

Thank you for dropping a line! I really appreciate that you took the time to give this piece proper feedback :)


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