Madam Sophia's Herbs and Oddities.
The sign was written in a fancy gold script that seemed to contradict the otherwise ghoulish nature of the little shop. Eric couldn't begin to count the number of times he had simply stood there, marveling at the assortment of bizarre, peculiar items in the window. There were skulls, for one thing. Maybe a dozen or so, all lined up in a row. They looked chipped and beaten, as if they had been unearthed from some dark and ancient tomb on the other side of the world. Eric often wondered if the skulls were truly real, but he didn't actually intend on finding out. The very thought sent shivers up his spine.
Then there was the statue. Gold and gleaming, it stood in the center of the window atop a shelf, looking down upon Eric as if to say, I dare you to come closer. The statue had a dragon's head and a lion's body. As far as the boy could tell, it must have been some sort of demon. The expression it wore was truly menacing, and it almost seemed pleased to be surrounded by the blackened skulls.
But there was one thing in the shop window, one item above all others, that piqued Eric's curiosity. It lay at the bottom, resting on a purple, velvet pillow. The fingers were long and ghastly, and the skin on them looked weathered and thick, like the leather seats in his grandmother's old car. They were covered in gray, matted fur that made him think of a dog's coat on a stormy day. But the worst part, the part that made Eric equally fascinated and disgusted, was the fingernails. The long, black fingernails. They looked strikingly like a woman's, but this hand couldn't have belonged to any girls he knew. The placard propped against the pillow read: Vervet Monkey Paw, Perfectly Preserved.
Now, Eric would never want to own a monkey paw. He would never want to have one in his room, resting on a silky pillow (or even tucked away in his closet, for that matter). But he was fascinated by it. Every few days, he would stop at Madam Sophia's little shop, the one crammed between the butcher's and the baker's, just to have a look at the grotesque little hand. He couldn't even begin to know why. One day, he made the mistake of mentioning the find to his mother, who immediately forbade him from ever returning to that shop again. "It's a place for hippies and weirdos," she said. "Besides, you're supposed to head straight home and start your homework."
And it was true. School was out for the day, and tomorrow was Friday, the day his math packet was due. He should have been home by now, working on that so he could be in bed by nine. But Eric simply could not resist. Madam Sophia's shop was the most interesting thing in Littleton, or maybe the entire world. And what Eric wanted to do more than anything else was to go inside. There had to be other neat things in there, and there had to be a way for him to go in and check them out.
Eric began going over it in his head. He knew he could be home within thirty minutes if he didn't stay inside the shop too long. He could definitely beat his mother to the house because she wouldn't get home until around six. There was his grandmother to worry about (She lived with him, too), but she was always out in the greenhouse checking on her plants. Eric decided that she probably wouldn't even notice if he were just a little late. All he had to do was stay focused. Go in, look around, come out. Five minutes. Maybe ten. Or fifteen.
Eric's pulse began to race. This is silly, he thought to himself. I'm twelve years old now. Nothing in here can scare me. He gripped the bronze doorknob, turned it, and pushed the wooden door open. When he did this, a little golden bell above the doorway began to ring, signaling to the shopkeep that a guest had entered. The sound made Eric jump, and his cheeks went red when a woman at the counter said, "Hello."
Eric wondered if she might be Madam Sophia, but he was too embarrassed to ask. He gave her an awkward wave and immediately walked behind one of the bookshelves to hide his face. "Are you looking for anything?" she asked him from across the store, but he pretended not to hear her.
Looking up, Eric saw rows and rows of books. They seemed to be as old and decayed as the skulls in the window. Some were so tattered that he couldn't quite read the titles on their spines, but others were hefty, leatherbound volumes with elaborate gold font that reminded him of the sign outside. He didn't recognize any of the titles, but he could tell that they were antique books on medicine, taxidermy, and something called The Art of Lobotomy. Suddenly, Eric became aware of a strange aroma in the air. After a few moments, he remembered that it was incense, the same smell that his older cousin Jared liked. Eric's mother frequently stated that, like Madam Sophia's shop, Jared was "a bad influence." But Jared played guitar, so it was hard for Eric not to like him a little.
Stepping around the bookcases, Eric happened upon a set of shelves along the wall. They didn't hold anything as exotic as a monkey's paw, but their contents were nonetheless disturbing. Each shelf was decorated with dolls. Not the kind you might find a girl playing with today, the kind of dolls that like going to the beach or shopping at the mall. No, these dolls were from an older time. Or, as Eric might've thought in that moment, a scarier time. They seemed to be made of porcelain, and their expressions were eerie and vacant. Some of them were broken with missing arms or legs. One had a large chunk missing from its face so that you could put your fingers where its eyes should have been. But Eric didn't dare touch them. He decided instead to keep walking.
Madam Sophia's shop was filled to the brim with all sorts of peculiar things. Shrunken heads. Voodoo spellbooks. A fairly large selection of Ouija boards to choose from, all lined up against a wall. This was odd to Eric because he could never imagine wanting to buy one, let alone taking the time to choose between this one or that one, as if he were deciding between two backpacks or two sweaters. The very idea of what a Ouija board was supposedly capable of, inviting spirits to converse with you, sent another shiver up Eric's spine, and he decided it was best for him to leave as soon as possible.
He turned and began to cross the threshold when he saw his mother passing by the shop window. He couldn't imagine why she would be there (She was supposed to be at work), but there she was, and in what seemed to Eric like a scene from a movie, she turned in slow motion and saw him standing there, in the middle of the very place he was not supposed to be.
She stopped and entered the shop, a look of disbelief on her face. She was wearing the uniform she always had to wear at Bernie's Diner, a pink dress with short sleeves and a white apron. She usually wore a white pin-on hat, too, but she had tucked it away in her purse because she always felt silly wearing it. To a stranger, she probably looked like the sweetest lady you could meet. But Eric knew he was in for it when she asked, "What are you doing in here?"
Desperate, he turned and looked to the woman behind the counter. Upon closer inspection, she could more accurately be described as a girl, probably around sixteen or seventeen. The tips of her short hair were dyed purple, and beneath her pierced lips hid a piece of chewing gum that she was smacking on loudly. The tired expression on her face told Eric that she wouldn't be any help.
"I asked you a question," his mother said firmly. She stood with her hands on her hips like a superhero. That makes me the villain, thought Eric. Lying Boy. The Trouble-Maker.
Then, a thought struck Eric like lightning sent from the gods. Today was Thursday. Today was his grandmother's birthday. She loved vintage things, old jewelry and whatnot. Maybe not the sort of sinister things one would find in Madam Sophia's little shop of horrors, but close enough. He had the perfect thing to say.
"I was looking for a present for grandma!" he half-shouted with the force of a balloon popping.
"In here?" his mother asked. He expected her to come forward and snatch him by the arm, but she remained static in the doorway, probably as afraid of the place as he was. Again, Eric's eyes wandered over to the shopkeep. Behind her, in a glass case on the wall, was a majestic green amulet. The brilliant stone was hanging from a thin, golden chain. Eric knew it could easily pass as a birthday gift for his grandmother.
"How much is that necklace?" the boy asked, reaching into his pocket. He knew he had money wadded up somewhere.
The girl, her expression unchanging, answered, "We don't sell necklaces."
There was no money in Eric's pockets. He flipped his backpack around and unzipped the front, searching inside. "The one behind you," he insisted, growing increasingly desperate. "The green one."
The girl didn't turn around to look. Instead, she blew her gum out into a bubble that burst against her lips and said, "Fifteen dollars."
Finally, Eric found the money, crinkled and folded behind his pencil bag. He counted it up. Please let it be enough. Please let it be enough. Ten one dollar bills. Eleven one dollar bills. This isn't going to work, he thought. But then, at the end of his counting, he found a single five dollar bill. Seventeen dollars total.
"I'll buy it!" he said, approaching the counter hurriedly. The dazed girl turned, removed the amulet from its spot on the wall, and began to place it in a small paper bag. Eric proudly unfurled the wad of cash, letting it fall onto the wooden counter. The shopkeep limply handed the bag to him, not even bothering to count the money. Beaming, Eric rushed past his mother before she could have a chance to reprimand him.
Together, they walked along the sidewalk, passing the other little downtown shops and the small park filled with small children. Eric casually looked over to see them running around the slides and jumping off the swings. He could remember being that young, but he was older now, almost a teenager, and he didn't have time to waste on childish things like playgrounds. He lived in a more serious world now, a darker world filled with spooky dolls and monkey paws. If only his mother could understand…
"It was sweet of you to get a present for your grandma, but I really don't want you going into that place anymore," she said. "Don't tell your grandma that you bought her necklace from Sophia's, either. If you do, she won't wear it."
She turned to Eric and offered a half-smile, a way of saying, I'm not that mad, okay? Eric gladly accepted the gesture. He was just grateful that his deception had worked, though he felt a pang of guilt in the back of his mind as well. He didn't like lying to his mother, but he was glad that something good had come of his fascination with Madam Sophia's strange treasures.
Eric was about to ask his mother why she wasn't at work but decided it was best not to bother her any more than he already had. More likely than not, her hours had been cut again. From time to time, she would complain about her work schedule, saying she might have to get a second job to make ends meet. Eric hoped this wouldn't have to happen, because even if his mother never seemed particularly glad to be at home, he was happy to have her there.
He pulled the necklace from its bag and held it in his hands as they continued walking. He found the green stone itself to be particularly interesting. It had an almost hypnotic quality to it. With its expertly crafted edges and rich hue, the stone reminded Eric of a jewel he'd once seen in an adventure movie, some lost relic hidden within a skeleton-laden catacomb, waiting to be discovered by the daring hero. Eric was so entranced by the amulet that he nearly walked into oncoming traffic. Luckily, his mother had reached her arm out and grabbed him by the chest before he could become roadkill. "You really need to pay attention, Eric," she said, sighing.
Eventually, they made their way from the busier (if you could call it that) section of Littleton and into the quieter side of town where Eric, his mother, and his grandmother lived together. Tony, Eric's best friend, lived on the same street. Right next door, in fact. Tony had been Eric's friend since their playground days, and at this moment, he was feeding the hungry flock of chickens in his yard. They clucked and pecked and scooted around in their pen, happy to be fed.
"Hey, Tony!" Eric called out to him, while returning the necklace to its bag.
Tony had to squint through his glasses to see clearly, but soon he was waving back, shouting, "Hey, Eric! Hello, Ms. Evans!" As he did this, he forgot the weight of the chicken feed bag he was holding, and its contents spilled onto the ground. All the grain formed a massive hill of food that stretched from Tony's feet to the middle of the chickens' pen. And while the chickens seemed elated, Tony could only sigh and drop his head.
As Eric and his mother turned up their driveway and approached the door, Ms. Evans thought aloud to herself, "I wonder if Mom's inside or out back." She knocked on the oak door and waited. No response. A little frustrated, she began digging in her purse for the keys when a voice came from the side of the house.
"There you two are! I've been waiting for you!"
That cheerful voice could belong only to Eric's grandmother, who was a short, sweet old lady with silver hair, kind brown eyes, and heavy wrinkles around her mouth from all the smiling she'd done in her life. Her daughter, Ms. Evans, shared many of her characteristics, though of course Eric's mom had less wrinkles, and her hair retained its natural brown color. Only Eric, though, had inherited the kind brown eyes of his grandmother, a fact she tended to revel in.
"My brown-eyed boy," Gran Evans said, taking him into her arms and giving a tight squeeze. She was wearing her favorite denim shirt, the one with the pockets in the front and the rolled-up sleeves. She was still wearing her gardening gloves and had just returned from the greenhouse at the back of their property. Ever since her husband, Eric's grandpa, passed away, she spent almost all of her time in the greenhouse, tending to all types of flowers and small plants. She had quite the green thumb, and she even sold her flowers from time to time at the farmer's market.
Smiling, Eric lifted the bag he'd been carrying and said, "Happy birthday, Gran."
His mother was still fiddling with the keys. "Not right now. We need to get inside."
"Oh, what's the rush?" said Eric's grandmother. "It's a beautiful day outside." She removed her gloves and tucked them neatly into her back pocket. "What did you get, Eric? I hope it's nothing too expensive. You know I don't need a thing except you two." Gran smiled at her daughter, who tried her best to smile back.
Eric lifted the necklace from its bag, letting the amulet dangle from its chain. He then reached his arm out, offering the present to his grandmother. "Do you like it?" he asked.
She clasped her hands together at her chest and beamed. "Oh, Eric!" she said. "You shouldn't have. It's beautiful." Taking it, she gingerly put it on and said, "I'll wear it day and night."
Ms. Evans had finally opened the front door. She beckoned her mother and son inside, and they followed. Gran insisted that Eric give her one last kiss on the cheek before he went upstairs to start his homework.