Chapter 4: And Then There Were Eight
I ran faster when I realized what they were, pumping my arms and lunging my legs with speed I had never achieved before. The trees were blurs; Imani’s figure was merely a blur of blue and black running by my side. I sprinted until I could feel my lungs and limbs burning.
“This way!” Imani shouted at me. I followed her without losing momentum; I dropped my bat halfway through.
When we saw the road and the small spec of gray that was my car, we ran faster until we collapsed on the goddamn vehicle. Then we were inside; the memories are patchy and blacked out from that night. Fear made me act sometimes unconsciously and out of instinct and the need to survive. It was like I was out of my body and inside it again, the cycle repeating. The world was spinning and I was sinking deep into its core.
“The seal,” panted Imani. “Where’s the seal?!”
“They’re fucking vampires!” I answered with a sob.
“Help me look for the seal!”
“Fuck the seal! We’re fucking leaving!”
I turned the car on and immediately busted a U-turn to speed dangerously down the road. My hands were shaking badly on the wheel, and I was crying like a toddler who had fallen at the playground. It was pathetic, but what else could I do? What else would be the logical reaction to seeing an entire group of people being murdered by ‘things’ you thought were only created in folklore?
Imani went on about how we needed to find the seal and how important it was that we find the seal. My pedal was to the metal. My only priority was getting the hell out of there. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t know what the ‘seal’ was. I only had one word on my mind: Vampires.
Luckily, Imani found the seal without my help, wedged in her car seat. She tucked in into her bra and buckled her seat belt. Her mouth was pressed into a firm line, matching the vacant, hollow look in her eyes. I didn’t know what to say because I wanted to say so much.
“They were vampires,” I cried to her. “I-I swear they were vampires because they just…I mean, did you see what he did to Tia Valeria?! To all of them? And that man on the cross? Jesus Christ!”
“We need to go to Madam Dumont. Now.”
I looked at Imani like she was one of those ‘things’ herself.
“Are you crazy? No! We go to the police!”
“What are the police going to do?” she asked me irately. “They can’t possibly do anything, Lisa!”
“And my mama can?!”
“You do not understand!” Imani yelled at me. Her hands dragged across her face, wiping the sweat she gathered on her palms onto her shirt. “You don’t understand anything! Tia Valeria and her entire House are dead, Lisa! Mikael is probably dead by now, too. You think police officers are going to do anything?”
I hated how right she was. See, there was a line between the right, moral thing to do and the logical, sensible thing to do. The right thing to do would be to go to the authorities and tell them that an entire group of voodoo practitioners were just murdered by vampires. But the logical thing to do would be to tell mama first. Since Abraham mentioned the Coterie, Mama had to have known who he was. I found it a tad harder to breathe when that fact hit me; I thought of mama being killed the way Tia Valeria was killed because of her involvement in the Coterie, and I started feeling more powerless and insignificant than I already felt.
“Hey,” Imani said to me. “Breathe. Please.”
“Try harder. Passing out on the wheel while driving this fast is the last thing I need right now.”
Gee, I’m glad she cared.
I was doing 70 in a strict 40 zone, tightening my grip on the wheel in hopes of stopping the shakiness in my fingers. Imani was oddly calm in the face but tense in the muscles and joints. I, on the other hand, was crying hysterically. And it wasn’t just “crying” but the “quivering-bottom-lip-hiccup-and-gasping” crying. The House screaming for mercy while they were brutally fed on and killed like cattle was ringing through my head like Tia Valeria’s first scream of terror. And frankly, I regretted even thinking of making the journey to the Saint’s Sector to see if she was where Ina said her and her House would be. Mikael (by Abraham’s words) was supposed to report to the Coterie on what he saw; he was witness to the Valeria House’s slaughter, therefor if Imani and I never went out there, the gruesome murder would still have a culprit and a witness. We were naïve, but I was especially ignorant.
I drove on.
We got back to the city without any major physical trauma. The French Quarter was the alluring antipode of the forest we were just in—beautifully lit up, full of tourists, loud and bustling. Still, Imani and I fumbled out of my car and ran to Mama’s shop exactly how we ran when Their ‘feast’ commenced.
The door was locked, the lights inside dimmed low. I banged rudely on the windows until the door opened and the lights brightened up the store. When I saw Mama in the doorway, I immediately took off my glasses and collapsed in her arms and made sure not to let go. In Mama’s hold, I felt like a little girl who had just awoken from a nightmare, not a twenty-four-year-old woman. A part of me, additionally, was relieved to see her alive and well after what Imani and I saw happen to the Valeria House; the House perished specifically because of their involvement with voodoo and for Abraham’s apparent conscious years in the dark, cold earth. My judgment told me that Mama would surely be his next victim; weakest to strongest.
My eyes where shut tight and my head was buried in her shoulder. I heard the door close and lock behind us. The Coterie were speaking loudly over each other and consoling Imani, then the voices turned frantic and angry. They all started arguing about what happened even though Imani nor I said a word about what we saw yet. That’s when Mama let go of me and shouted them all to silence. The room went cold and quiet.
When I put my glasses back on, I surveyed the display cases, the decorated walls, the items for sale, and the Coterie—all seven members left besides Mama—sitting together on the couches. I recognized each member immediately: Miss Aza sat next to Mama Hepzibah (Miss Aza happened to be the second strongest in the Coterie—a close second, if I may add), the only one who didn’t have a readable expression underneath the large sunhat she wore. Next to Mama Hepzibah was Mother Babette, with Missus Taima sitting closely to her, stress-smoking a cigarette. Priestess Ava Claudette, the only white member of the Coterie, sat alone in a chair by a curtain-covered window, and Priestess Qadira shared the love seat with Mambo Nene and Imani between the two of them. To the right of the Coterie by the staircase were a group of women that I did not recognize; the only one I recognized was Ina, who’s eyes were red and heavy. Their eyes bore into me curiously, their bodies were huddled together like an expedition in a snowstorm. They were all fairly young; I assumed they were the rest of the Novitiates.
“Imani, sweetheart,” My mama said to her. With the help of Qadira and Mambo Nene, Imani stood and approached Mama by the door. I saw in the light how rundown she really looked—her skirt was ripped and snagged, her blouse drenched with sweat, and her ankles were marked with small scratches above the tattered mess of her shoes. I didn’t even want to know what I looked like.
I knew what I smelled like, though.
Mama tried to reassure Imani and I with her smile, but the smile slowly faded when she looked deeper into Imani’s eyes.
“What happened?” she asked gently. “What did you see? Where’d you go?”
We shared one look, Imani and me. I was ready to confess to the idea of going to look for Tia Valeria being my idea. Everything else, however, was beyond my control.
“I don’t know where to start,” Imani said. I bit my lip to keep from crying. “Tia Valeria and her House are dead, Madam Dumont. The only survivor is Mikael, but even I’m not certain if he is still alive.”
Ina was the first to react, falling into the arms of a novitiate and sobbing loudly. The Coterie were too shocked to react.
“How could this have happened?” Ina cried. “I don’t understand!”
“We went to the Saint’s Sector like you told us,” I said to Ina. “You told us she’d be there.”
Ina shook her head. “No, I didn’t. I-I don’t even remember seeing you.”
“What?” Imani drawled out. I wished that Ina was lying somehow, but her face made it hard to believe she wasn’t being honest.
“She came to us when she suspected something was wrong,” Mother Babette announced. “She said one moment they were there in the morning, and the next it was night and the house was empty.”
I felt like vomiting. Priestess Ava quickly got up with another novitiate and got Imani and I water. We drank our bottles in record time, and drank our second helping more sparingly.
Mama looked to Ina. “You don’t remember anything?”
“I-I don’t know what I need to recollect. I just…they were here in the morning. All I can remember after that is it being night and the house being empty. That’s when I came here.”
“You said that Ina told you Tia was at the Saint’s Sector?”
Imani nodded. “Lisa and I went to Casa de Oya to deliver the seal, and that’s where Ina answered the door and told us Tia and the rest of the House were at the Saint’s Sector.” Imani looked back at Ina. “You asked for the seal yourself, saying that you’d deliver it to Tia—”
“Wait, wait.” That’s when Miss Aza stood, calmly and collectedly walking towards where the novitiates were. Her face was still quite unreadable. “You don’t remember asking for the seal, Ina?”
Ina shook her head confidently. Miss Aza gave one look at Mama from underneath that hat of hers that Mama returned with less collectedness in her features. Mama proceeded to interrogate us. She didn’t care that we went into the forest alone, but only cared for what happened.
“There was a man on a cross,” I tried to explain to her. “He was tied up real good, a-and it was a group of them cheering and yelling.”
“They were right across from the House,” Imani added.
“Yeah, they were.” As the memories flooded my brain, I found it gradually harder to speak about what happened. “It was this…man. He…he wasn’t a man he was…he was…”
Imani took over quickly. “It was Abraham. He killed Terah, then had the Elders kill…they killed Tia and Samir before the rest of them killed everyone in the House except for Mikael; Abraham wanted Mikael spared so he could come back and tell you what happened himself.”
That’s when the Coterie finally reacted collectively. The moaning and crying was overwhelming; I felt like I was present at a funeral with so many people reacting the way they did to the news of the brutality. Mama’s face, however, was the most unsettling of them all. She had this firm, vacant expression with wide eyes that burned deeper than my sapphire pendant. She knew something that not even the Coterie knew.
At least that’s what I got from that chilling look.
“The seal,” she then said. The laments quieted when my mama asked about the seal. “Where is it? You have it?”
Imani nodded. “Yes, I have it—”
“Let me see it. Quickly!”
Mambo Nene and Priestess Qadira suddenly got up and ran to the staircase. Imani offered Mama the seal from her bra. She took it from her and started for the staircase with my hand in hers.
“Protect the doors and the windows,” she ordered the entire Coterie. “Every single opening needs to be blessed thoroughly!” Her eyes locked with Imani’s. “Follow me. Quickly, quickly!”
I had never, and I mean never, been that confused in my entire life. With Mama dragging me up the staircase without a word, the Coterie rushing around the store doing God knows what and the fact of goddamn vampires being a real thing that my mama obviously knew about, it felt like the world was tipped off of its axis. Hell, I even enjoyed the thought of going back to Houston to my cheap little apartment with my misguided educational direction and minimum wage job; another year of school sounded better than the shit I was going through then.
Mama pulled me through the dark hallways until we were in front of my room.
“Wait here,” she told me. “Imani will stay with you. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“You aren’t crying.”
Imani and Mama gave me muddled looks. Admittedly, that statement was an odd and out of place one for me to make. But the Coterie were distractingly clamorous downstairs while Mambo Nene and Priestess Qadira could be heard bickering in Mama’s study. It baffled me, how Tia Valeria’s House’s death didn’t register in Mama’s head similarly to how it registered in everyone else’s. In fact, it worried me; she cared about that magical seal more than her colleague and friend being murdered by a heathen infected by vampirism.
Mama held her neck taut, looking down at me. “I’ll mourn Tia another time, Lisa. Right now, I have other things to focus on.”
“What are you focusing on exactly?” I questioned. Mama hated my persistence, but deep down I just knew she figured that I had every right to be inquisitive based on what I went through; there was no use hiding anything from me at that point. I was thrown straight into the deep end and had intentions on learning how to stay afloat like everyone else.
“I ain’t doing this right now. Just stay in the room with Imani. Matter of fact, go on and get yourselves cleaned up.”
I followed her out into the hall again. “I understand that there’s a lot going on, but I think I deserve an explanation; Imani and I went through a lot today and you’re pretending like I don’t need to worry.”
“You don’t deserve shit from this, Alisande!” she shouted at me. “Don’t you dare talk to me like I need to explain anything. You’re the one who pulled Imani into danger by going on into that forest without telling no one or bringing no one with you!”
“If it wasn’t for me, you guys wouldn’t have known of what happened to Tia’s House!”
“So, you’re expecting a thank you? That’s what you want?”
“What I want is for you to stop shutting me out of everything like I’m still a child, Mama! I know what I saw tonight. You ignoring me is driving me crazy!”
“Fine. You want the truth? I’ll give it to you.”
The Coterie had come up the staircase at this point. Mambo Nene and Priestess Qadira were out of the study, watching us. But Mama didn’t care about the eyes on her and me.
“You know what those things are?” she asked me.
“Yes, those things you saw—Abraham, the Elders, the ones who killed Tia and the House. You know what they are?”
Vampires. I readied myself to answer ‘vampires’ because that’s what they were…right? Yes, that’s what they were. They fitted into each trait that led them to that answer…at least I thought they did. I asked for help from Imani with my eyes, but she knew better as Mama’s novitiate. Her mouth was pressed shut.
“They’re vampires,” I answered quietly.
“I can’t hear you.”
I hated when she did that. “Vampires.”
“I still can’t hear you, Alisande!”
“Vampires!” I yelled at her; the only time Mama let me yell at her in that way.
“Exactly. You know what they are and you saw what they did. This ain’t no game we’re playing now; since you took your happy little ass on over there, those retched bloodsuckers got your scent all recognized and they’ll be coming for blood, I promise you! That’s the truth, Lisa. Tia is dead, and I will mourn her as soon as I clean up the mess that you started by snooping in places you don’t belong like I told you yesterday!”
I fought the tears begging to spill out. Now, the entire house knew that it was my fault that the red flag was now raised. Abraham still, by my logic, had his eyes set on the Coterie regardless of whether or not I was there. But by Mama’s words, Imani and I being there to witness what he did gave him warrant to come after all of us sooner. Every last one of us. I turned around to the novitiates refusing to look at me. That’s when I went back into my room and began to cry again as I gathered my towel and bathrobe for a shower. I suppose I was crying not only for what Mama said, but because I was scared. I was scared that I’d wake up to everyone dead because I decided to investigate on my own terms. I was also scared because their eyes and their teeth kept replaying in my head—those burning eyes and those sharp teeth puncturing innocent flesh. I thought about it my entire shower. My legs stung against the cold water from the small cuts that covered my legs, but I paid it less mind than I should have.
When I got out of the shower, I wrapped my robe tight around my damp body and treaded through the hallway. I could hear Priestess Ava Claudette speaking from Mama’s study. My curious self decided to near the door for a better listen.
“He had no right to kill Terah,” she said. “Right?”
“Wrong,” I heard Missus Taima say. “If Abraham challenged Terah—”
“Which he didn’t,” Mama interrupted.
“If Abraham challenged Terah, he had every right to kill him. But what Lisa and Imani describe didn’t sound like a challenge.”
“Maybe ask them what Abraham said while they were there?”
“No, Nene,” Mama said. “They’ve already been through enough. My main priority right now is keeping everyone safe.” Mama paused for a moment. “I shouldn’t have yelled at Lisa like that. She don’t know nothing about what’s going on.”
Mama yelling at me made my heart ache, and I wanted to muster up the courage to apologize to her. All of the Queens I presumed were in her study, so it wasn’t a good time to burst in and apologize like a sorry baby because they’d probably figure I was eavesdropping; they probably already knew. I opted for just going back to my room after my shower instead. The entire shop was silent. The only noise came from the loud brass music that played in the streets for people enjoying the night, but besides that, everyone was either sleep (how they could achieve sleep was beyond me) or still ‘blessing’ the house by Mama’s orders.
The moment I walked into my room, my heart dropped deep into the depths of my chest at Miss Aza at my window, sprinkling liquid onto the window seal. I thought she was someone or something else the minute my eyes caught wind of her; her all black clothing didn’t help.
“I’m sorry,” she laughed. “I didn’t mean to scare you, baby.”
“No, it’s fine.”
Miss Aza finally had her hat off, giving me a good look at her face. She a was distractingly beautiful woman. I always admired her beauty ever since I was small, watching her when Mama would invite her over to the shop or whenever she’d stop by. Of course, no woman could beat my Mama’s beauty, but Miss Aza was surely second for me—her flawless caramel complexion, her hair twisted into long locs that flowed past her shoulder in a braid, and of course her trademark deep red lipstick she always wore. It was a rarity that I saw her, and I assumed it was because her and Mama didn’t get along too much. Miss Aza questioned her leadership, hence why Mama never had her over as much as the other high priestesses. But boy, when she did come over I could never stop staring.
“You know,” Miss Aza started as she gazed out into the lit night, “Vampires can’t come into a residence without being invited in. So, you ain’t got nothing to worry about.”
I didn’t know what to say. Had I known that our conversation was going to be about bloodsuckers, I would have been more prepared.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “But I guess taking necessary precautions never hurts.”
“Mhm” was her reply. And not just a normal “mhm,” but the attitudinal type of “mhm” that made you wonder what you said wrong.
Miss Aza stepped slyly around my room, examining the trinkets on the walls. She then placed a fairly large trinket on the dresser drawer—one with tridents crossing all over each other.
“Necessary precaution never hurt,” she told me jokingly. I tried to manage a smile, but I couldn’t find anything remotely humorous at that moment. Miss Aza’s eyes softened a bit.
“How are you holding up, Lisa?” She asked. “I couldn’t imagine finding out all that in such a short period of time.”
“There’s not much I’ve found out,” I answered honestly. “Just…the bloodsuckers and Abraham’s ‘vengeance against the Coterie.’”
“Guess your mama got you on to calling them bloodsuckers.”
Miss Aza went ahead with that ‘mhm’ again that made me nervous.
“Why aren’t you in Mama’s study?”
She shrugged. “I’d rather be blessing your room instead,” she said. I smiled. “And I don’t feel like listening to them argue over shit that’s out of our control.”
“You think the bloodsu—vampires, are out of our control?”
“I think that everything you described belongs to a bigger plan that we don’t know about. If we find out what that plan is, well have an easier time protecting our own. But the Coterie is notorious for jumping into things with too much confidence in their hearts. If anything, this time should be spent mourning Tia Valeria.”
I wanted to nod, but I didn’t know how the Coterie worked in order to agree with her. I crossed my arms over my chest, staring at my toes wiggle against the floorboards.
“I know you’re scared,” she told me after a stretch of silence. “Just know that your mama is doing everything she can to protect you. If there’s one thing Alize cares about, it’s her Alisande. Everything else comes after.”
That time, I did laugh. Not because she was wrong, but because I felt that I didn’t deserve protection. But Miss Aza wasn’t one to continue preaching if she felt you weren’t convinced. Instead, she gave me a small bottle, the glass stained and foggy with a label that looked to be written in Zulu.
“Rub this oil on your chest,” she explained, “and it should help you sleep. Don’t tell Nene; I ‘borrowed’ this from her cupboard a couple of weeks ago.”
I finally found it in me to laugh. Thanking Miss Aza, I took the small bottle from her hand.
“I’ll let you get decent,” she said down at my robe before leaving. She left the strong scent of vanilla and cocoa behind. I felt soothed for the first time in hours.
I started to dress, and per Miss Aza’s instructions, I lathered the oil on my chest before sitting on the edge of my bed, fighting the sleep that the oil was supposed to help me achieve. It wasn’t until around 11:30 that I finally could close my eyes. At 12:13 in the morning, however, I awoke to the same screaming I heard before—the scream that belonged to Tia Valeria. But obviously that time, it wasn’t Tia Valeria.
The voice belonged to Mama.