The Summons of the Amulet

The gang were all there, in their usual spot behind the trees at the south end of the school grounds. They were talking about good ways to commit suicide and Tom said injecting air into your veins ‘cos that gives you a heart attack, and that’s how Bruce Lee died but they never found out who did it though.

Then Piggy said eating yourself to death, like in that movie where they ate and ate and ate and the one dude got sick and starting farting until they forced him to eat mashed potatoes and then they all screwed these hot young babes with ice cream and chocolate sauce dripping all over them.

The younger boys, JJ, Nose and Weasel said “Wicked!” and “Fully sick!” Nose got his name from the size of his nose. None of them could remember how Weasel got his name.

Just then the boys noticed Tom’s step-sister Suzie approaching. Her pale skin was dotted with freckles. She wore her frizzy red hair in pigtails. Her eyes lay deep and green behind spectacles with lenses the thickness of coke bottle glass. She had just turned seven and in her hair she wore one of the cute little bunny hairclips that daddy had bought her on her birthday.

Suzie had a nice father but a nasty mother, step-mother to be precise, who was always yelling and screaming, and telling Suzie how stupid she was, and hitting her with a wooden spoon—usually on her arms and legs, but sometimes on her fingers, neck or face. Mom was also always yelling and screaming at Dad, about what a loser he was. She never yelled at Tom. He was her favourite. He was her real son, her real child, her blood-child, as she never tired of pointing out to Suzie.

Suzie was on her way to the library. The boys saw her coming but she didn’t see them. She knew they would be there, behind the trees: that was their usual hangout. But that afternoon she was in a hurry to return some books before the library closed. So she didn’t take her normal route, which was longer, but safer.

Tom grinned at the others, and whispered, “scare or dare?”

“Scare!” they whispered in response. Then Tom leapt out from behind the corner and shrieked as loud as he could, holding his arms high in the air as if to claw her face. It was a good scare, a great scare. Suzie returned Tom’s shriek with one of her own, dropped the books she’d been carrying, and jumped backward, ending up in a tangled heap on the ground.

The boys came out from behind the corner giving each other high fives and laughing their heads off.

“Wet herself!” said Piggy with delight, pointing to the spreading damp patch on Suzie’s jeans.

Tom was starting to feel a bit uneasy about the whole thing. “Scared of her own shadow,” he said, with forced glee.

Suzie started to cry. She felt humiliated and ashamed. But then something extraordinary happened. Years of bullying and victim-hood finally pushed her to a place where she could make a stand. She picked up her books, got to her feet, looked directly at Tom through her thick lenses and said in a shaky voice, “Scare or Dare, huh! You so brave, I’ll dare you a dare! I dare you go into the Chinaman Shop!”

“Ain’t scared of no Chinaman,” said Tom.

“So when you goin’, huh?” Suzie taunted, “when you goin’?”

“Mind your own beeswax. You ain’t the boss of me,” replied Tom, his bravado evaporating rapidly. “Run away, pissypants, run back to daddie…”

“Scaredy cat, stole a rat,” responded Suzie, “If you won’t go in the Shop, I will…”

And so it was that Suzie the next day with all the eyes of the boys upon her walked down Spite Lane, a narrow winding shadowy passage leading from the back alley behind the convenience store.

At the end of Spite Lane, hanging above the entrance to Suzie’s destination was a battered old sign with hand-painted calligraphic lettering that read “Ye Olde Curiousity Shoppe. Antiques and Collectibles”.

All of the neighbourhood kids knew of the Shop, but none had ever been game enough to enter.

~~~

Suzie had first heard about the Shop at age five from Missus Em, a woman who provided a babysitting service to several families in the neighbourhood. No-one knew her real name; everyone called her Missus Em.

She was a large, formidable woman in her late fifties. Her iron-grey hair was pulled hard into a tight bun. Her skin was black as coal. Her stern face said to the world that she would take no nonsense from anyone, least of all any snotty nosed brats entrusted to her care (more like under her command!).

It was rumoured she had been a voodoo priestess in Haiti, and that she had a collection of dolls with pins stuck into them.

One evening, Suzie’s parents had gone out for a meal and a movie, leaving Missus Em to babysit the kids. That night at bedtime, Missus Em had told Suzie and Tom a scary story about the old Shop and the horrors lurking inside.

“People they go in,” Missus Em had said, “but they don’t come out! They get turned into stone statues but their eyes still follow you around, and they cry ‘Wooo-wooo… wooo-wooo…’ jus’ like ghosts!”

Both Suzie and Tom had whimpered in fear, but Missus Em had taken no notice and continued relentlessly: “...and there’s lotsa strange things inside, like mummies wrapped in bandages, and shrunken heads, and tiger penises, and shark’s fin soup and bird’s nest soup, and little kiddies’ eyeballs all in glass jars, and other ‘orrible things! An most ‘orrible and cruel, that ol’ evil sorcerer, hidin’ and waitin’ in the dark black places...”

~~~

Standing outside the entrance to the Shop, trembling with fear as well as paradoxical excitement, Suzie remembered Missus Em’s story about the statues with eyes and the ghostly wailing and she desperately wanted to turn around and run all the way home. There was no way she was going to go inside. But then she reminded herself about the scare or dare, and realised that the humiliation at the hands of Tom and his friends would only intensify if she failed to carry out the dare.

Taking a deep breath she cautiously pushed the door open and stepped inside. It was dark and gloomy, and had a musty herbal smell that made her feel a little sick, a little dizzy. Her thoughts swirled and whirled around in her brain.

Inside the Shop was a labyrinth of dusty cabinets and tall shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. On the shelves and in the cabinets was an assortment of strange and curious objects — bones and stones and jars full of herbs. There were old-fashioned surgical instruments and prostheses, fob watches, belt-buckles and silver spoons. There were carved ivory figurines, packs of tarot cards, rotary dial telephones, mah-jong tiles and antique jewellery. It was a treasure trove of oddments and implements the nature and purpose of which Suzie could not even begin to imagine.

And then, shock horror: On some of the shelves there were glass jars with things inside them that to Suzie looked very much like tiger penises. But to her great relief, there was no sign of any stone statues that had once been people. No stone eyes watching her. No ghostly wails of the ‘wooo-wooo… wooo-wooo’ variety.

The Shop was as quiet as a tomb. A deep ancient silence filled the air. Strangest of all, though, was the fact that it seemed bigger on the inside than the outside, just like the Tardis in Doctor Who. At the far end was a dark crimson curtain hanging from floor to ceiling.

Suzie was suddenly startled out of her reverie by the sound of a soft and whispery voice.

“A good day, Missie. How may be of helping you?”

From behind the crimson curtain emerged a little old man with long, grey moustaches that hung down to his chest like ropes. He wore a multi-coloured robe on which the signs of the zodiac had been embroidered. His narrow eyes glittered from within the darkness of a hood. His skin was wrinkled and spotted. He seemed not to have hands, or at least, they were hidden in the voluminous sleeves of his robe. He seemed to glide not walk as he approached her from the darkness at the back of the shop.

Suzie tried but failed to reply. She was too scared and too overawed by all the strange things around her, including and most especially the strange little man himself.

“Please… to write name. So know you be here,” he said with an inscrutable smile.

Lying open on the counter was an old book, bound in leather, thick and heavy. The paper was yellow with age, and flecked with tiny fragments of pink and purple, as if it had been made of flowers.

With a shaky hand, Suzie wrote her name in the book.

“Not to have fear, girlchild, Master Ho he be not for harming,” said the little man, “you look see, finding most best thing for you.”

Suzie was not convinced that Master Ho he be not for harming. In fact, her instincts screamed at her to run out of the Shop as fast as her legs could carry her. She had fulfilled the dare: no reason to hang around. But as she turned to face the doorway, something caught her eye. She felt compelled to have a closer look. Ignoring the alarm bells of fear reverberating in her mind, she walked nervously over to the shelf on which the object lay gleaming darkly in the gloom of the Shop.

At the end of a loop of leather, carved in the shape of an animal was a piece of stone about the size of a baby’s fist. The stone was as red as a ruby, but it wasn’t a ruby. It was more like a piece of ancient red jade if there were such a thing as red jade. The animal wasn’t any animal known to Suzie: “creature” seemed a more appropriate word. It had large, lidless, cat-like eyes. Its thick sensual lips were twisted into a leering sneer, revealing a mouth full of long sharp fangs. Bat-wings sprouted from its hunched back; cloven hooves from its goatish legs; claws from its vulture-like hands. There was something very wrong about it.

Repulsion, revulsion, fear and panic rose in Suzie at the sight of the statuette. But she couldn’t help herself, couldn’t fight the compulsion forcing her to take and hold the stone in the sweaty palm of her hand.

It felt unpleasantly warm to the touch. Still she felt unable to put it down and walk away.

Finding her voice with some difficulty she asked Master Ho, “Please Sir, what is this? Where does it come from?”

“Ah, yes Missie,” he replied, a knowing smile creeping over his face, “Is luck charm. Very good, very strong. For you keeping nice and safe…”

“How much does it cost, Sir?”

“Ah, you friend Master Ho, Missie. You speak nice. You take now. Cash later.”

And thus it was that blinking in the sudden sunlight Suzie emerged from the Shop, a confused expression on her face, the amulet hanging on a loop of leather around her neck.

Tom and the gang weren’t there: they had gotten bored waiting or more likely had not wanted to give Suzie the satisfaction of a public victory. In any event, they had taken themselves off to the Mall to watch the skate-boarders whiz up and down the ramp to the parking garage. Then, on the edge of late afternoon and twilight they started making their way home, each feeling a vague sense of disquiet at having abandoned Suzie to her fate, too vague and insubstantial to qualify as guilt.

Tom got home a few minutes before Suzie, and dutifully submitted to a motherly hug and kiss, turning up his nose at the reek of alcohol on her breath. Then he went up to his room and began flicking through his comic book collection.

Suzie’s homecoming was to a less welcoming reception.

“Where ya been, miss? You were supposed to clean the bathroom today!”

The hostility in her stepmother’s slurred voice told Suzie all she needed to know. The unfolding of the pattern was predictable and inevitable. Suzie made no reply, kept her eyes fixed upon the ground, resigned to unpleasantness, but hoping to keep it to a halfway tolerable minimum.

“Whassat round yer neck? Give it ‘ere!” Mom lurched toward her, hand reaching out toward the Amulet.

Outside the house, if anyone had been there to hear it, a rustling sound came from the unkempt bushes and flowerbeds. Scurrying through the undergrowth was a little cruel thing of unspeakable evil. It was on a mission. It was answering a call: the summons of the Amulet.

Inside the house, the Amulet seemed to pulse and throb against Suzie’s breastbone like a thing alive. There was a weird sound, like painful broken music. Then some strange things began to happen to her step-mom. A shadow flickered lightning-fast across mom’s leathery face and then was gone. The booze-reddened eyes that normally glittered with pain and hate went dead and dull. The arm reaching out to grasp the Amulet fell back to hang dangling at her side. Mom just stood there, saying nothing, doing nothing.

Likewise, Suzie stood there, saying nothing, doing nothing. She didn’t know what to say or do. Eventually she plucked up the courage to look into the vacancy that was her stepmother’s face and said, “Mom? Are you OK?”

“O… K…” was the slow, toneless response.

“Mom? Are you feeling alright? Do you want to lie down?”

“Lie… down…” said Mom.

At that moment, Dad came home from work. And Tom came down the stairs to see what was going on.

“Lorna, what’s wrong?” asked Dad a number of times, each time getting the same response.

“What… is…wrong,” said Mom.

After a while it occurred to Dad to ask the kids what had happened. Both of them lied and said they had come straight home from school, and that until then they had not noticed anything different or unusual about Mom or anything else.

Dad called Doctor Bronstein’s mobile, apologised for the lateness of the hour then asked if he could come over immediately.

Twenty minutes later Doctor Bronstein arrived carrying his battered black bag. After a brief conversation with Dad, the doctor commenced his examination. He shone lights into Mom’s eyes, tapped her knees with a rubber mallet, pricked her hands with a silver needle, listened to her heartbeat, looked into her ears and down her throat, measured her pulse and her blood pressure and took a couple samples of her blood.

Forty minutes later, Doctor Bronstein said to Dad, “Look, uh… We’ll have to do an MRI, maybe a lumbar puncture as well. Let’s find out more before we make any decisions. Has she been… you know…” He tilted his head back and mimed a person drinking from a bottle.

Dad responded non-verbally: he used his eyes to remind the doctor of the presence of the children.

Then Doctor Bronstein and Dad managed between them to walk Mom to the bedroom and lay her down upon the bed. Doctor Bronstein injected Mom with a sedative.

“Bring her to the surgery tomorrow,” he said to Dad, “and let’s get a better picture of what we’re dealing with.”

Early the next morning, after a restless night’s sleep disturbed by a troubled conscience, Suzie decided to tell Dad the truth, about what had happened with Mom and the amulet. Of course, he didn’t believe a word of it. In fact he got quite cross with Suzie for telling what he thought were lies. Eventually, after Tom had slowly and reluctantly backed up part of Suzie’s story — the part about her going into the Shop — and after Suzie had shown Dad the Amulet, he still didn’t believe her but said he would go to the Shop and speak to Master Ho.

“It’s still too early to take Mom to the doctor,” said Dad, “but time enough to sort out this ridiculous story of yours, Suze. Let’s pay this Master Ho a visit.”

Dad told Tom to stay at home and call on the mobile if there was any change in Mom’s condition. As soon as they had left, Tom went up to his bedroom and continued leafing through his comic book collection. ...

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