Chapter 53: The Black Box
“Something wrong with the check?”
The waitress had come back to our booth the moment Hezekiah and the unnamed woman sat down with us. There was an uncomfortable chill lingering in the air, even with the heavy blanket of heat making the humans in the diner sweat bullets.
Hezekiah leaned back in his seat and looked straight into this woman’s eyes. He was fearless and far from intimidated, even though she had the same venom in her look towards him that she had with me. “No, nothing’s wrong. We just gone relax here for a while if that’s alright with you?”
Hezekiah’s comrades all waited for the waitress’ answer. I looked around, watching all of them stare at her from all corners of the diner. The pale-skinned vampires stared at her, too, but for a different reason; they all looked as if they were waiting for Hezekiah to move a finger to give them an excuse to attack.
For an entire minute, the only sound came from the cheap speakers above playing what was now an unfamiliar country tune. The waitress, seemingly caving under Hezekiah’s glare, finally forced a smile.
“No worries. Let me know if y’all need anything.”
She walked away and into the kitchen, though I could see her leaning against the swinging door, remaining close by. I began to hear conversation from the other side of the restaurant. The pale ones turned back to their “meals,” giving off the impression that they were not present for other matters. The gentlemen who sat at the bar began to talk amongst themselves as well, and as they did this, Hezekiah and his party did the same. My brain couldn’t wrap itself around any of this. I sat still like I was comatose. Hezekiah looked down at me; he knew I was trying to ignore him.
“You realize how much trouble you done got yourself in?” he whispered down to me.
“What makes you think I care?”
Hezekiah was taken back by my icy tone for a second. I didn’t want to entertain conversation with him. I wanted to leave, but frankly, Hezekiah believed that it wasn’t the best idea with the unfriendly bloodsuckers watching us.
Hezekiah almost went into chiding me about having gone off on my own with Mikael, but I cut him off promptly by asking him to get out of the booth so Mikael and I could leave. Taya, as well as a few others, were immediately piqued when they heard me say this; the pale ones heard, too. I completely disregarded the heated stare Hezekiah gave me when I spoke to him in this way. I just wanted to leave; I wanted to get away from him. From all of them.
“Calm yourself,” Hezekiah said to me, trying to conceal his irritation; having to keep an eye on the pale bloodsuckers and my tone made him attitudinal.
“I’m serious, Hezekiah...”
“Lisa, just be quiet—”
“Let me out!” I snapped at him. This was the first time I had made eye contact with him since he had sat next to me. It had felt like Hezekiah and I were the only ones in the diner when we looked at each other. He saw I was angry and upset, but his expression hinted that he knew that it was a “different” type of anger I felt; I was always crossed with him, and he was used to this, but this animosity I showed towards him was unusual, and he caught on quickly to it. He knew something was wrong.
With one look to Taya, Hezekiah got up out of the booth and stood to the side to let me out. The moment I stood up, everyone else did. The pale ones stood up first, which prompted Hezekiah’s group to do the same, eyeing them suspiciously. I noticed this immediately; these vampires were here for me specifically, but I didn’t know why. The moment I got up, they got up. And the moment I began to walk slowly towards the door, they did, too.
This made Hezekiah very unhappy.
As if our last tense encounter never happened, Hezekiah intercepted the gentlemen following me who had also gotten up from the bar. Taya stood by Hezekiah’s side, but put an arm on his shoulder to make sure he didn’t cross a line at this truck-stop restaurant.
“Where y’all fellas headed to?” Hezekiah asked them. He didn’t try to be cordial with them; his face was hard and emotionless.
The man who stood at the head of the group was a little shorter than Hezekiah but easily had twenty to thirty more pounds of muscle on him. He wore the same hateful look that Hezekiah did towards him.
“I was about to ask you the same thing, boy,” he said to him. At the sound of the word ‘boy’—this short yet demeaning word that exemplified centuries of discriminatory authority—Hezekiah tensed up even more and widened his eyes.
“Boy?!” A lean young man with dark skin and bright eyes said from the other side of the diner. Even though these vampires shared many of the same traits, it was clear to me that vampirism had been a companion of his for a short time. Still, he displayed a confidence and vigor of an Elder against the pale ones the moment the comment left the man’s mouth. In fact, everyone from Hezekiah’s party grew tremendously defensive at the comment, which prompted the offense to come forward and ready themselves for an attack. The hostess scurried behind the bar and into the kitchen, where the server was watching with an expectant look. And as the air began to grow hot with tension, Hezekiah’s first instinct was to put a hand out in front of me and make sure I was close to him, regardless of whether I wanted to be close to him or not. Mikael stood beside me, frozen in terror as he and I were both unsure of how this would escalate. No one had made a move yet, but by the look in everyone’s eyes, it was clear that the feelings of slaughter were mutual. I knew Hezekiah wanted to kill the smug bloodsucker who had called him the demeaning word, but he kept his composure because I was present. However, if I weren’t in the vicinity, there’s no doubt there would be vampire guts splattered about the diner.
And they wouldn’t be Hezekiah’s.
As the voices grew louder and graduated to arguing between the two groups, a loud shout from the front door immediately caught everyone’s attention.
“Excuse me!” A man had yelled. From the look on the pale ones’ faces, they knew who this man was. I was unfamiliar with him, but I knew upon looking at him that he was a vampire—burning honey-tinted eyes, ghostly white skin, and a deathly tinge to his complexion. He walked into the diner wearing black slacks, a dark gray turtle neck and a black trench coat. His hair, red, was shaved closely on the sides but long in the center, slicked back to accentuate his sharp cheekbones. He was thin; his clothes swallowed him whole. And when he walked, he seemed to sashay with an attitude and confidence in his hips. He walked towards the middle of the circle the groups had created, a large black box in his hand with a suede red ribbon draped on the corner, tied into a beautiful bow on top.
When he reached the center, he pivoted slowly until he had scanned the entirety of the circle and everyone’s faces. His back was taut, his left loafer tapping disappointedly.
“Mr. Atkins,” the woman who didn’t touch her meatloaf said. She, as well as the rest of her comrades, stood pin straight and looked as if we weren’t present.
“That’s my father, honey, and he’s dead,” he said, irate. The woman looked around awkwardly.
“Jeffrey,” she corrected. “What are you doing here?”
“Keeping the peace,” Jeffrey answered. His accent was thicker than a Mississippi debutant’s, “since it’s clear I can’t trust y’all with anything.”
“It wasn’t our fault, Jeffrey,” another one said, but Jeffrey silenced him with the raise of his pale finger. Jeffrey slowly began to turn until he faced Hezekiah and I. A grin broke through the white canvas of his skin.
“Mister Mercier,” he said, his voice smooth like cream when he said Hezekiah’s name. “Fancy seeing you here. When’s the last time I’ve seen you? Was it Mardi Gras, 1928 or St. John’s Eve, 1868? I can’t seem to remember...”
“This your doing?” Hezekiah asked—demanded—without acknowledging Jeffrey’s greeting. “You bring your little minions up here to cause trouble?”
Jeffrey leaned back in near disgust. “Trouble? Please. You don’t give us enough credit.”
I knew by “us” he meant The Council. Now it was solidified that this ‘shakedown’ was their doing, and these vampires belonged to them.
“Give me a reason not to snap all your fucking necks,” Hezekiah growled at him. Jeffrey’s playful nature simmered down to a burnt-out wick at Hezekiah’s tone. In fact, I saw a bit of fear in the eyes of The Council’s minions at the Elder vampire’s threat.
Jeffrey smiled again, though it was hesitant. “Now, now, Hezekiah. There’s no need to be hostile. Our agents were not sent here to provoke. They were sent here to protect.”
“Who?” Taya asked.
Everyone’s eyes landed on me, though the sets of eyes glued to me did little to sway my mood. I was still under the impression that this was all a dream; my brain didn’t feel right.
“From what?” Hezekiah asked him.
“Mister Van Doren was made aware of Lisa’s journey to visit Sajida in the Bayou of the Shunned, which, as you know, is on open territory. This land ain’t belong to nobody, which technically means that it’s open to everybody. Although the Louisiana charter of The Council has a very wide influence over countless vampire clans in the state, we can’t keep track of all the vagabond leeches and rogue bloodsuckers that like to frolic about at night on these unclaimed roads. So, Mister Van Doren assigned a few from our collective to make sure that Lisa got home safe and sound. I presume that is also the reason why you’re here, Mister Mercier?”
Although my head was light and absent before, I became alert at the sound of that name. Russel Van Doren, the leader of The Council; their master. These vampires were sent out to follow me; they came in the diner to watch me. To protect me from whatever evil might lurk in the shadows of the open territory we journeyed to and on. This man was still faceless in my head, yet his existence was revealed more and more to me each day since the invitation he sent me. I looked up at Hezekiah who was trying with all of his strength to hide his anger at the revelation of Russell’s influence. He said nothing in response to Jeffrey. His group waited for Hezekiah to say something, but he couldn’t; if he let words come out of his mouth, it would result in an explosion of fury.
Therefore, he remained completely quiet.
“Things were never meant to escalate the way they did,” Jeffrey continued, looking at me, “and for that, I apologize. When our agents are sent out on an assignment by Mister Van Doren, disappointing our leader is not an option, therefore there is a certain fervor our collective possesses when they’re in fear of failing an assignment.”
“Well, you can tell your ‘leader’ that I don’t need his protection,” I said.
Jeffrey puckered his lips, “Oh, sassy little thing, aren’t you?” He laughed. “I’ll make sure to ‘relay’ your message to Mister Van Doren, though I can’t guarantee that he’ll receive it in the way you want him to.”
Russell doesn’t take orders from anyone, you fool, is what Jeffrey wanted to say.
Jeffrey turned to his agents, “Now that the situation has deescalated, you are all dismissed. Thank you for your service. You may return to your posts.”
There was a look of fear that washed over all of the agents’ faces. They had failed their mission; they had disappointed their leader. What would be their punishment?
Without another word, they all began to file out of the diner. One by one, they exited through the front door and disappeared into the night. Again, only music could be heard.
Jeffrey stood before us, tapping his fingers lightly against the box in his hands. He didn’t say anything, only casually looked around at the vampires that accompanied Hezekiah. There was more to be said, but Jeffrey preferred to say it without Hezekiah’s lackeys around.
With a roll of his eyes, Hezekiah tilted his head towards the door, gesturing for everyone to leave. They were all hesitant at first but Hezekiah was certain.
“You sure, sir?” the vampire who defended Hezekiah said.
“Go on,” Hezekiah assured, and with that, they began to file out as well. Taya, narrowing her eyes at Jeffrey, was the last one to leave, flipping her braids over her shoulder. Now, it was only me, Mikael, Hezekiah, and Jeffrey in the main floor of the diner. The hostess and server still eavesdropped behind the kitchen door, but for some reason, Jeffrey was unfazed by them.
“Now, that’s better.” Jeffrey grinned. “I was instructed to deliver this to you before you returned home tonight, Miss Dumont. Mister Van Doren preferred you receive your gown while not in the presence of your...sisterhood.”
Jeffrey stepped forward and presented the box to me. “Mademoiselle,” he said, extending it out for me to take. Hezekiah’s fists clenched tightly as I grabbed the box from Jeffrey. It was very heavy, nearly a struggle to keep up in my arms.
“Miss Lange made a ‘mental’ note of your measurements when she delivered the invitation to you last week, so we’re confident that the gown will fit your frame comfortably. It will look a little small once you take it out of the box; Miss Lange placed an enchantment on the dress to accommodate the box’s size. However, it should expand to its correct shape and size once hung or displayed for a few moments.”
I didn’t know what to say. Thanking him was the last thought on my mind; this man belonged to the organization that wanted to end us. He belonged to the organization that nearly killed Doctor Ben. How did I accept this ‘gift;’ how did I respond to Russell sending people from his Council to protect me? These acts of kindness were like the acts of Judas.
When Jeffrey was sure there was nothing left to say, he began to conclude his visit.
“I look forward to seeing all three of you present at the festivities Thursday evening.” Jeffrey smirk at Hezekiah. “Especially you, Hezekiah. I know our little bloodlust families have had our ups and downs over the centuries, but you know I’ve always had a soft spot for you. But don’t you tell nobody, now.”
Jeffrey raised a finger to his rouge lips before winking at Hezekiah and sashaying out of the diner.
I didn’t expect Hezekiah to accompany us on the car ride home, nor did I expect Hezekiah to drive us home.
I sat in the passenger seat, Mikael in the back. None of us had uttered a word for different reasons—my brain couldn’t handle the events that kept piling up on top of each other, from the lave tet to encountering a member of the Council, to finding out that Russell Van Doren was watching me closely. Mikael was disturbed and shaken from the episode in the diner, but he was angry that he was in the presence of Tia Valeria’s killer, who was driving us home.
Hezekiah was silent for too many reasons to count, and I knew that most of them had to do with me.
I wanted to ask him if he knew this entire time—if he knew that Abraham was my biological father. Despite everything that I had gone through that night, this was the thought that occupied my mind the entire car ride home. I snuck a glance at Hezekiah, his features focus and drawn together, and continuously wondered if he had known. And if he knew, I wondered why he decided to have sex with me, knowing I was the daughter of his master?
Hezekiah was speeding, dangerously so. I didn’t even know he could drive, but he pressed his foot on the gas until we were pushing 90 miles per hour. His hand tightened around the steering wheel, his eyes piercing the road like his stare could rip the ground apart. When I snuck another look at him, I knew he was completely drowning in his thoughts, but he was also drowning in memories—memories I would kill to see.
I noticed him occasionally glance at the box on my lap. He wanted me to burn it, but he wouldn’t say this to me, at least not yet. But I was waiting for it. I was waiting for him to scream at me and tell me how much of an idiot I was to go off and see Sajida the Shunned alone. But I had an unorthodox response in mind.
We arrived home in one piece despite Hezekiah’s reckless driving. In front of Aza’s house, we noticed that all of the lights were on. Mikael and I knew what was coming, but I had different expectations—Mikael didn’t know about anything I saw during the lave tet, so he couldn’t picture the reaction the Coterie would have when I would confront them about the visions Marie Laveau gave me.
Hezekiah got out of the car and slammed the door, his strength great enough to cause a crack to appear in my driver’s-side window. My mouth fell open while Mikael jumped and cursed at Hezekiah’s might. Before I could say anything, Hezekiah opened my door.
“Get out,” he ordered.
“What the fuck is wrong with you!?” I exclaimed, but he ignored me.
“Lisa, get out of the fucking car!” He yelled at me. “Before I drag you out!”
My stubbornness teased the idea of staying put, but it was no time to be stubborn and difficult. I unbuckled my seatbelt and got out of the car, Mikael following shortly after. I saw shadows scurrying about in Aza’s house and knew the worst was coming.
“Give me the box,” Hezekiah said.
“Are you just going to ignore what you did to my window?” I said, staring at him as if he was ridded of all sense.
“Give me the box right now.”
My words meant nothing. He was so furious that I didn’t deserve to receive any response from him; I was like a child in his eyes in that moment.
“No.” I lifted the box up higher, its weight making my arms sore.
“Lisa, give me the box, or I will take it from you,” Hezekiah said. “Do you want to start with me?”
“Why not? I’ve come this far.”
Hezekiah and I stared at each other for what felt like eons. I was becoming even more upset with him; everything was piling up on top of each other like a tier cake ready to fall over. I waited for him to take the box from me; it would me an easily, almost menial task. But he never did it. As we stared at each other, he began to look at me like I was someone else; like I was hiding something from him.
He never asked what I was hiding; The Coterie came out of the house before he could.
The wave of white dresses winded me as eight flurries of ivory stormed through the front door. Doctor Ben was with them, too, limping out onto the sidewalk. Mama, at the head of the sisterhood, ran forward towards me, completely disregarding Hezekiah’s presence; I’m sure she hadn’t acknowledged him yet.
Mama’s eyes curved into an intense frown at me. Her mouth bared her teeth like a rabid dog.
“What the hell were you thinking!?” she hissed at me. “What the fuck is wrong with you!?”
I didn’t respond; I saw Abraham’s face again.
The rest of the Coterie waited for an answer from me; from both Mikael and I. And when we had nothing to say to defend ourselves, Mama finally acknowledged the vampire standing across from me.
“You!” she screamed at him. “What you got to do with this? What did you do!?”
Aza came forward and tried to hold back, but tried her best not to make it too obvious that she was defending Hezekiah. The Coterie looked at him, disgusted and also fearful of his presence.
“You better get the fuck away from me ’fore you do something you regret,” he growled at her, his anger at me spilling over onto my mama. At this point, the voices all began to blend together like melting paint. I stood there with the box in my hand and watched as the Coterie began to argue with Hezekiah, Aza trying to mediate the situation. Their bodies, their shouting, it all blended together until my head began to feel lightheaded. The flashes of light came back, as did the whispers, and suddenly, I was back in the chapel. The bodies that were once arguing on the sidewalk were now lying dead on either side, and I saw myself next to my father, admiring what we had done as we both worshipped the night. The visions were relentless; I was with him, my eyes honey colored, then I was in a meeting circle with Marie, the whispered amplified as she sacrificed a goat and watched the blood spill over. I heard my screams and her screams; other screams I did not know.
Then I began to scream in the reality I stood in.
“Stop!” I belted as loud as my lungs allowed me. The voices immediately ceased, both in my head and in real life. House lights down the block began to flicker on and front doors started opening. People peaked out their doors and towards Aza’s house to see what was going on, but the sight would prove beyond confusing—a group of men and women dressed in all white arguing with a man who decided to dress like an early 20th century commoner.
If they knew the extent of the situation, what would they do in my shoes?
I never expected my voice to be loud enough to shut the Coterie up, let alone Hezekiah, but it did. They stopped their arguing and looked at me with expectant, confused faces. My nerves were rattled through my limbs, and my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering.
“Shut up,” I said to them. “Everyone, just shut up!”
They did just that. I held the black box in my arms and averted my gaze directly to Hezekiah, Aza and Mama. Soon, everyone else slowly started to disappear. The question teased my tongue like a rotten secret, but as the tears began to spill out of my eyes, so did the words:
“Why didn’t you tell me that Abraham’s my father?”
There are no amount of words that could describe, in perfect detail, the different looks on the three of their faces. Their expressions all still haunt me to this day; the places their minds went when I said the words. I focused on Mama first. She looked calm; eerily calm. Calm in a sense that all other emotions faded away; passive. Aza blinked rapidly like she had eyelashes stuck in her eyes, her hand still on Mama’s arm but having squeezed tighter around it. And then there was Hezekiah’s face. His face I remember the most. He looked in disbelief. Not that I was Abraham’s daughter, but at the fact that I found out that I was. His eyes wheeled in other directions, intentionally keeping away from mine. Despite these intricate expressions, they all failed to give me the answer I wanted; any answer. So, I looked to the Coterie, but their faces were ones I didn’t expect. They looked confused and in need of answers, too.
The Coterie didn’t know?
“We’re you ever gonna tell me? Is it even true? H-how is it even possible, I mean, vampires can’t have children, their bodies can’t...they, they can’t sustain or create life, it’s...it’s impossible, they’re dead, so it’s impossible, right?”
It was possible. It was possible because they never said anything to deny it.
The questions wouldn’t stop flowing, but the answers never did. I waited, hoping they would explain the unexplainable. Hezekiah was falling back into his thoughts again as he turned away and began to pace around the side walk. Aza looked at Mama, whose face hadn’t changed since I asked the initial question. It was like she was frozen in time.
Finally, she unfroze herself. “Who told you this?” she whispered, barely able to breathe.
“I...I went to Sajida for a lave tet. And I saw...things. Heard things. From my djab.”
“Your djab...” Mama muttered.
“Just tell me if it’s true. Tell me how any of this is possible.”
Mama didn’t answer. None of them did.
“Tell me!” I yelled, only my voice prompted Mama to lose her balance. She nearly collapsed until Aza and Mambo Nene came to her aid and held her up. The rest of the Coterie, the girls, Mikael, Doctor Ben, they were all speechless. They studied my face as if they were trying to find Abraham in it. They were putting the pieces together like I was. They were figuring it out and wondering how it could be.
The Child of an Unholy Union—the child of both the living and the dead.
As the eyes began to close in on me, so did my lungs. Suddenly, I wanted to run. And so I did, straight into the house, pushing past Doctor Ben and Kizzy and The Coterie. I ran upstairs into Aza’s study. I dropped the box and felt myself hyperventilating.
Pull yourself together, baby. Go on.
Marie made it easier said than done. In the midst of feeling like you’re dying, it’s hard to just “pull yourself together.” But after five minutes of deep breathing, I didn’t feel like the walls were closing in too much anymore. I was alone in this study, the room illuminated by candle light. Medusa was in her box, staring at me from underneath the top. We looked at each other briefly before she retreated back into the box.
I opened my own.
I scooted up towards the black box I dropped on the ground. After wiping my tears, I undid the ribbon and pulled off the lid. Inside was the chest of a gown. The fabric was black with deep red accents running down the sides, the color of cabernet. It rested on a bed of red silk, this dress. I pulled it out and examined it. It was small, per Jeffrey’s warning, so I searched for a place to hang it. There was an empty hanger near the window where Aza must have hung her ceremonial clothes. I slipped the sleeves of the hanger on the dress and waited a few moments. Suddenly, it slowly began to expand from the small, shriveled fabric it once was to the now large and elegant ball gown. The collar was low, hanging off the shoulders and ruffling at the ends in black lace. Dark red ribbon was tied on each sleeve, the same color as the red silk on the skirt. A black bodice was around the abdomen, dropping down to a center V-shape towards the skirt of the dress, which was layered towards the bottom, gradient from the deep crimson back to black. The chest was low, as were many gowns in this era, but I had no problem with it. I had no problem with anything on the dress—it was beautiful, elegant, and expensive looking. In the box was a black necklace box, and inside was a ruby and diamond necklace complementing the gown. I didn’t know what to feel when I saw these expensive things. Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to feel anything. Maybe I was supposed to only act; when I felt, I prevented myself from taking initiative. I prevented myself from finding answers. And as the ones I thought I could trust stood downstairs processing the truth I had found, I didn’t want to process anything more. The facts were in front of me: Abraham was my father, he knew I was part of the prophecy, and I am of some use to him. And also, he would be at the Council’s festivities this Thursday.
I stood up again and stared at the gown hanging in front of me. I would wear this gown. I would go to the Council’s party. I would meet Russel Van Doren.
I would find Abraham, and I would get the answers I seek from my father himself.