What happened when the candles burned.

This excerpt includes violence and sex. Just a little, but in case it’s not your cup of tea, I wanted to let you know.

THE REWARD

November 1894 New London, Connecticut

“Well, luv, what do you think? Shall we tell him tomorrow?” Crispin enjoyed the rest of the rabbit stew. Sucking the delicate bones of the dead rabbit, he watched the woman as she finished cleaning the bar top. It was late, past midnight on a Monday. The “Dancing Stag” was empty, save for the barmaid, her new suitor, and the suitor’s small son, who was sleeping peacefully under a corner table, a knitted blanket keeping him warm. Several carvings of Crispin’s, including an impressive stag’s head, hung above a shelf behind the bar. The sales had afforded him and Bernie a room in a nearby boarding house. He regretted the fact that they would soon be leaving. He had enjoyed the bed and the occasional baths.

Bernie said it must be tomorrow. Crispin glanced at the corner where he slept. Was he really sleeping? Doubtful. Willie said the boy made her uncomfortable. Crispin had reassured her. “He needs the love of a mother; it’s been hard on the boy.” She folded her apron, creasing the folds. Her brown eyes had the look of a dying fawn. He reached up and stroked her hair. Good to feel a woman again, he thought. He’d been too long without. Not a girl, though. She was older than the thirty-two she professed. More like forty-two, and a bit too large for his taste, but still . . . overripe for the plucking.

“Let’s go in the back,” he whispered, “just for a while . . . ” She took a quick look in the corner. The boy seemed asleep. Crispin saw her shudder.

“Such a little boy, I don’t know why I . . . ”

“What, luv?” he asked, knowing exactly what.

She shrugged. “Okay Crispie—but just for a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is all, then we must stop.”

“Of course, dear girl, after the wedding, there will be time . . . ”

Much later, when he thought about it, he was glad she came. It startled him. He was just finishing himself, when she let out a stream of moaning, like a cow wanting milking he laughed to himself. They had but a few minutes in the crowded closet. “He might wake.” She was nervous.

“Don’t worry dear heart, he’ll be fine.” In a rare spirit of generosity, he admitted it was rare, he saw it was fitting that she had a small bit of pleasure, considering what happened and all.

He puzzled over what happened that night for weeks, trying to make sense of it. Did they open a door? Is that what happened? “They’ll know it was us,” he worried. He had no objections to anything; however, he didn’t like the thought of hanging.

“Do what I tell you and you’ll be rewarded.” The child’s eyes threatened.

Crispin nodded enthusiastically. Hanging was preferable to what Bernie might inflict. “Of course, lad, whatever you say, I’m completely on board.”

Tuesday night, her house smelled of onions and bread. Crispin sat comfortably on the settee, its rose velvet freshly brushed and looking crimson in the shadow of an ornate lamp. A few eventful moments in their brief courtship told him that there was nothing of value in the tidy white house. Still, he approved of her excellent housekeeping. Aunt Meg could have learned a thing or two. Later, he was surprised to see Bernie eat everything, including the tapioca pudding. Unusual. He knew the boy was selective, despite their periods of hunger.

Candles, how many were there? He hid them in the pull wagon near the house. Bernie had been collecting candles, taking them. Crispin distracted their owners with his wooden carvings. Won’t they see you? Bernie assured him they would not. He wondered what purpose they served. That night he saw what happened when the candles burned.

He struck her with a wooden club he had carved the day before. Crispin made a show of announcing their “engagement” to his “son.” Willie sat at his right, her eyes downcast, unable to look at the boy. “Not too hard,” Bernie warned, she must wake before we finish. Bernie spilled a glass of milk. As she reached to retrieve it, Crispin struck an expert blow. She was unconscious for an hour. When she woke, the satisfaction in Bernie’s yellow eyes made Crispin feel proud.

The star drawn in blood, whose blood was it? They were all naked. Pools of blood, like puddles after a cloudburst, glistened in the candlelight. Bernie’s hands dripped, adding to the puddles. Smears and streaks covered most of his frail child’s body. Did Bernie draw the star using his own blood? Bits of that night were a blank. He remembered the awful smell, wondering if he had soiled himself and fearing the consequences. Bernie seemed indifferent to it.

Bernie cut his palm, smearing the blood on the woman before she woke. He was afraid Bernie would want to cut him too, but Bernie turned his attention to the barmaid. When she woke, Willie screamed, and the boy grabbed her tongue, slicing it off. The screams soon became moans. Not as loud now, Crispin thought approvingly.

The moaning reminded him of when she came. Interesting, how similar the cries were, one of pleasure and the other . . . She was tied down (securely, Crispin was careful) and the candles were all around . . . and eyes, he saw eyes coming through a tunnel, watching. Why did he think of a door? He remembered a ripping sound, like fabric being torn, and then a boom like a cannon that rattled the house. Crispin would have ducked for cover if he hadn’t been startled by the sight of black wings and the click-clack, clack-clack sound from wings slapping or breaking through, but from where?

Bernie knelt near the woman . . . his little body rocking back and forth. Willie’s fawn eyes followed the sway. The child was whispering, while she kept trying to say (plead?), “Kill me.” She had no tongue, but he was sure that’s what she meant to say. He held her tethered hands to keep her steady as Bernie continued to slice her. Tears ran down the barmaid’s cheek and fell into thick red puddles.

As he pressed his palms firmly down on her wrists, Crispin allowed himself to wonder what came next. He decided it was best to keep quiet, do as you’re told. Bernie’s hands, clots of the barmaid’s blood clinging to his fingers, rose abruptly as the light from the candles floated free, the flames dancing and spinning.

Fear clutched at Crispin’s throat. What if those flames, what if they mean to . . . Then a sudden sensation, indescribable, oh the pleasure! The “reward,” he realized with delight and wonder. It poured into him as if he were a wine glass, filling him to the brim. Overwhelmed, he gazed at Willie. She looked back with supreme indifference.

As if she found it all incredibly tiresome, her eyes turned away from him, her face relaxed, and tilting her head slowly to her shoulder, she died. The boy cooed as he stroked her hand, his strange face content. The candles dimmed. The floating eyes were gone. “We leave now,” the boy commanded. They cleaned the blood from their bodies and took the ropes from the dead woman. Crispin carried her to her bed. After dressing, they set fire to Willie, her bed, and her small neat house.

“Won’t they know it was us?” He was afraid.

“Stupid Crispin, I told you not to worry. They’ll think she killed herself because you left her. I suggested it already when the bar was full of people.” Bernie was losing patience with him. Crispin decided to keep his doubts to himself. They were on the road a few hours before the pleasure began to fade. He was depressed. He hated the cold.