A short time ago, in a land uncomfortably close by…
He was a dark and stormy knight.
He was the best of mimes. He was the worst of mimes.
This book looks lame. I’m watching TV.
OK, you’ve waited long enough. Let me put you out of your misery right now.
I will reveal the Secret—a secret that people have sought for centuries, for millennia even—on the very next page….
Well, maybe the next page…
No, no, I can’t. It’s much too soon.
If I tell you the Secret now, you won’t want to read any further, will you?
I’ll do it before the end of this book.
It depends on a few things.
For instance—how you look at it.
Are you really sure you want to know the Secret, anyway?
Revealing a secret is a bit like releasing air from a balloon: the secret spirals around and makes a fun noise—and if you aim right, it might even hit somebody in the nose—but afterward it always falls to the ground, and everyone is left with that sad, after-the-balloon feeling of loss and abandonment.
That doesn’t sound very satisfying, does it?
Then again, when have you known me to satisfy anything but my own cravings for chocolate?
Honestly, I don’t know why you bother to read a word I write. If you want to give up on me now, I understand completely. Never mind all the time you’ve already put in; sometimes it’s better to cut and run (see Chapter One).
Now’s your chance to escape. Don’t worry—I won’t look. I’ll just close my eyes and have a nibble of this delicious bar of dark, dark—
Hmmgh… well, maybe just one more… hmmgh…
—No? You’re staying put? Stubborn, aren’t you? Or just morbidly curious?
I know, this book is like a car accident. You don’t want to stare—you just can’t help it.
If it’s any comfort, your old friend Cass is anything but satisfied at the time this story begins. She, too, is desperate to learn the Secret.
Recently, remember, she came torturously close to learning the Secret. Among the things she inherited from her ancestor, the Jester, was a fragment of papyrus with the Secret written on it in hieroglyphs. Alas, the papyrus disintegrated in front of her eyes.
Now Cass is headed for her grandfathers’ place. She has just heard that her grandfathers are selling their old firehouse, and she wants to make sure the Jester’s trunk doesn’t get lost in the move. She hopes that another clue about the Secret may lie inside the—
Oh! There she is, walking down the road to the firehouse with Max-Ernest. I didn’t realize I’d been going on for so long.
If I’m not mistaken, they are discussing the assignment they just turned in for their class’s Egypt unit: make a list of the ten things you would take with you into the afterlife. As I’m sure you know, the ancient Egyptians were very keen on keeping as many of their possessions as possible—for as long as possible.
Here, let’s listen:
“… and a giant bar of chocolate, of course, in case I get hungry in the afterlife, and a pair of underwear, because, you know,” Max-Ernest was saying. “Oh, and a deck of cards. Or do you think that’s cheating? Since there are fifty-two cards in a deck, and we’re only supposed to take ten things?”
“No, I think you can count a deck as one thing,” said Cass, walking a few feet ahead. Max-Ernest struggled to keep up.
The view couldn’t have been more familiar. The backpack. The braids. The big pointy ears. Always, always from behind. Which was very unfair, when you thought about it. He, Max-Ernest, was shorter than Cass. Rightfully, he should go first; he wouldn’t block her line of vision.
“Did the Egyptians have cards?” Cass asked casually. “It seems like hieroglyphs would make a cool deck of cards.”
Max-Ernest lit up. “That’s a great idea! I don’t think the Egyptians had them, but we could make our own cards and—”
“There are just twenty-four hieroglyphs in the Egyptian alphabet, right?” asked Cass, cutting him off. “Or are there more? I feel like I heard both things.”
Cass stopped at an intersection. Cars passed at a snail’s pace, honking their horns impatiently. It was unexpectedly busy for their quiet neighborhood.
“Well, there are twenty-four main ones. They stand in for sounds, like our letters do,” Max-Ernest explained, happy to discuss a topic that was of such passionate interest to him. “But there are thousands and thousands of others that are more like picture-words. I don’t think anybody knows how many—”
Cass’s face fell. “They don’t—?”
“Yeah, think about it—your card deck could be as big as you want,” said Max-Ernest enthusiastically.
“Oh no. That’s just what I was afraid of….”
Max-Ernest looked at Cass, confused by her sudden change of mood. “What do you mean? Why is that a bad thing?”
Cass bit her lip. She was the Secret Keeper; the Secret was supposed to be hers alone. Not to mention, it was common knowledge that Max-Ernest couldn’t keep a secret. And yet, despite his faults, he was her best friend and unflagging investigative companion. She’d been resisting for weeks, but she couldn’t help wanting to confide in him.
She looked at her friend and took the plunge. “What if I told you I got the Jester’s trunk open?”
Max-Ernest’s eyes widened. “You figured out the combination?”
Cass nodded. “And what if I told you there was a piece of papyrus inside, with writing on it?”
“With hieroglyphs, you mean? That’s why you’re asking about them?”
Cass didn’t say anything.
Max-Ernest stared at her. “Wait—this doesn’t have anything to do with the Secret, does it?”
“Shh!! What are you thinking—?!”
They both looked around. Nobody was within earshot. (You and me they couldn’t see, of course.)
“Sorry,” said Max-Ernest, red-faced.
Not mentioning the Secret aloud was one of the most important rules—almost the only rule—for members of their secret organization, the Terces Society. Normally, even the compulsively talkative Max-Ernest abided by it.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter what it was. It was so old that it turned to dust as soon as I saw it,” said Cass glumly.
“So what you’re saying is, you had the you-know-what in your hands, and then it just disappeared?” The full weight of it was sinking into Max-Ernest’s head. “That’s… that’s horrible!”
Cass sighed and started walking across the street. “I promised myself I wouldn’t tell you—”
“Don’t worry. You didn’t tell me—I guessed,” said Max-Ernest, following her. “Anyway, how could you not tell me? I’m the one who knows hieroglyphs. Can you remember any? I could translate them—”
“I know, it’s driving me crazy. It’s the one time I need your help, and I can’t ask—”
“The one time—?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t. You’ve needed my help exactly six hundred and thirty-two times.”
Cass shook her head in amazement. “You’ve been counting?”
Max-Ernest shrugged off the question. “So what else was in the trunk the Jester sent you, besides the papyrus?”
“Nothing important. Just treasure.”
“You mean like treasure treasure? Gold coins and stuff?”
“Yeah, a lot, actually,” said Cass, as if it were no big deal. “I want to look again in case there are any other clues in there about… it.”
“I can’t believe you waited so long to tell me all this,” said Max-Ernest. “No wonder you’ve been acting so weird lately. You’re… rich.”
But Cass wasn’t listening; she was staring down the street, where there was a terrible traffic jam. Cars were stalled. People were shouting. Babies were crying.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her pointy ears tingling in alarm.
As they got closer to the old firehouse where Cass’s grandfathers lived, men and women and children walked by, holding boxes and bags with odd old objects peeking out: a broken banjo, a Hula Hoop, a fireplace poker, a fishing rod, several ancient computers, even a cash register.
“Maybe there’s going to be a hurricane or a flood?” suggested Max-Ernest. “Or a big fire?”
Cass, who was normally the one to predict disasters of that sort, shook her head. “Uh, I don’t think so. It’s… something worse.”
“No, a garage sale,” said Cass grimly.
She was right.
Their progress slowed to a near halt as they came within view of the firehouse. The entire street was crowded with cardboard boxes and people combing through them. Tables were piled high with dusty glassware and broken ceramics and hard-to-identify appliances. Mismatched shoes and neckties of all sizes and colors flew into the air as people discarded them. Old books and magazines covered the ground like fallen leaves.
“Are your grandfathers really selling all their stuff? I can’t believe it,” said Max-Ernest.
“I know—it’s weird,” said Cass, slightly nauseated.
She stopped in front of the firehouse, where a new yellow sign had been planted. Instead of a sign for her grandfathers’ antiques store, the Fire Sale, there was now one that said
Cass stared at the sign as if it were an alien spacecraft that had landed on her grandfathers’ front steps. “My mom said they were moving, but I guess I didn’t really think about what that meant. It’s like they’re selling my childhood—”
“So where did you leave the trunk?” asked Max-Ernest, who was understandably eager to get his first view of real treasure.
He glanced around. A few trunks lay on the street, but none that looked like the ancient trunk that Cass’s ancestor had sent her so many centuries ago—and that had circled the globe so many times before reaching her.
“Huh? Oh, I hid it way in the back.” Cass started up the front steps of the firehouse. “Come on, let’s go inside before my grandfathers see us.”
But when they looked inside, the firehouse was completely empty—that is, aside from the cobwebs and dust that had accumulated behind all the boxes and shelves and tables that had, until very recently, cluttered the space.
The one familiar thing that remained: the brass fire pole, as shiny as ever. Cass swallowed, remembering all the times she had slid down it.
“Um, Cass, shouldn’t we go look outside before somebody—?”
“Don’t even think it!” said Cass, running out the door.
If they didn’t find the trunk before some lucky garage-sale customer snatched it away, Cass’s glittering inheritance—not to mention any clue it might contain about the Secret—would be lost forever.
They found Grandpa Larry standing by a table of books.
“How much is this old set?” a scowling man was asking.
“The encyclopedia? Why, it’s a classic, and it’s not for sale!” said Grandpa Larry automatically.
“Then what’s it doing out here?” the customer replied angrily.
“Fine, twist my arm, five dollars,” said Grandpa Larry grumpily.
“Eh, maybe I’ll just—”
“Oh, heck, twenty-five cents.”
“Deal!” The gleeful customer started scooping up encyclopedia volumes and tossing them into a cardboard box.
“Hey, Grandpa Larry.” Cass tugged on her grandfather’s sleeve. He was wearing a vintage Hawaiian shirt and a Panama hat—as if he were dressed for a tropical vacation.
Grandpa Larry smiled in delight. “Cass! I didn’t know you were here.”
“Well, I didn’t know you were moving!” said Cass accusatorily.
“Didn’t your mother tell you? We’re going on an around-the-world cruise.”
“Cruises are for old people. You hate all that stuff.”
“What do you mean? We are old people.”
“I still don’t understand why you have to sell everything. Aren’t you going to come back? What about my graduation?”
Grandpa Larry put his arm around Cass. “You know as well as I do, this place hasn’t been the same since Sebastian left us,” he said gently.
Cass nodded. Six weeks earlier, the ailing basset hound, who had survived long beyond the dire predictions of veterinarians, had died in his sleep. Cass, who loved Sebastian as if he were her own dog, had been unable to bring herself to visit ever since.
“All this stuff—it was bogging us down.” Grandpa Larry gestured to the piles around him. “And, besides, you know what they say: you can’t take it with you.”
While Cass tried to absorb what he was saying, Grandpa Larry turned to Max-Ernest. “Max-Ernest, my friend, anything you want, I’ll give you a great deal—it’s called free,” he whispered confidentially. “I have some joke books you’ll like. Also, a set of loaded dice—”
“Thanks, Grandpa Larry,” said Max-Ernest, wistfully eyeing the tables around him. “But right now, um, Cass has a question.”
“Oh yeah,” said Cass, who was so upset she’d all but forgotten the purpose of their visit. “Grandpa Larry, have you seen a big old trunk around—you know, the kind with a lot of travel stickers?”
Larry looked curiously at Cass. “That wasn’t yours, was it? We couldn’t remember where we picked it up. Figured it must have been one of those lost weekends in the 1970s…”
“Yeah, no, I mean, it’s not mine!” said Cass in a rush. “I was just wondering if you had a trunk like that because… because we’re doing a unit on ancient Egypt at school, and we’re supposed to put together a box of all the stuff we would take into the afterlife.”
Grandpa Larry laughed. “After you’re mummified, you mean?”
“Exactly,” said Cass.
Max-Ernest nodded, playing along. “On Friday, we’re going on a field trip to the mummy exhibit at the Natural History Museum.” (That part, at least, was true. As for the afterlife assignment, it had been turned in already.)
“Well, the trunk I’m thinking of would be perfect—it’s a time capsule all by itself,” said Grandpa Larry. “Last I saw, Grandpa Wayne was hauling it outside.”
Grandpa Wayne, who was dressed not in tropical finery but in his usual grease-stained mechanic’s overalls, was in the middle of explaining the intricacies of repairing a fifty-year-old black-and-white TV to a bored customer. When Cass and Max-Ernest ran up, the customer hurriedly—and gratefully—excused himself.
Grandpa Wayne remembered the trunk—he had spent forty-five minutes trying to open the lock before giving up—but there were so many people coming in and out that he couldn’t remember whether he’d sold it or not.
“Try looking by my truck—that’s where all the big stuff is.”
The “big stuff” lying by Wayne’s rusty old truck included such marvels as a purple player piano; a tuba with a small palm tree growing out of it; and a dry aquarium with a miniature pink castle that was home to a family of cockroaches.
Unfortunately, there was no trunk in sight. Cass and Max-Ernest looked around nervously, neither of them voicing their fears.
“What’s Sebastian’s bed doing here?” asked Max-Ernest, nodding at the threadbare doggy bed lying on the truck’s open tailgate.
Nestled on the bed was a ceramic cookie jar shaped like a bone. Next to the bed was a sign: NOT FOR SALE.
Cass bent down and sniffed Sebastian’s bed. “It smells like him.”
Max-Ernest lifted the lid of the cookie jar, then quickly closed it.
“What—moldy biscuits or something?” asked Cass.
Max-Ernest wrinkled his face. “Sebastian…”
Cass winced. “You mean his ashes?”
“Unless they were just cleaning out the fireplace…”
Cass stared at the jar. “They must be taking him on the cruise.”
“The Egyptians mummified their pets all the time—it’s kind of the same thing,” said Max-Ernest. “I’ll bet there’ll be some cat mummies at the museum tomorrow. Hey, is that the trunk?”
The Jester’s trunk was lying in the shadows beneath the tailgate. Cass had resisted crying ever since they arrived at the garage sale, but at the sight of the trunk her eyes welled with tears.
“What’s wrong?” asked Max-Ernest. “Aren’t you glad we found it?”
“It’s Sebastian. He always helped us find everything. And now look, even when he’s dead, he still is.”
Cass laughed—and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
The trunk was much too heavy for the two of them to carry all the way to Cass’s house. They decided they would get their friend Yo-Yoji to help them move it later that evening. In the meantime, they pushed-pulled-heaved-shoved-lifted-dropped it into the small cement yard behind the firehouse.
“Hopefully, it’ll be safe for a few hours,” said Cass, standing victoriously over the trunk, her face pink and sweaty. “My grandfathers hardly ever come back here—as you can tell.” She gestured to the long vines hanging from the firefighters’ old basketball hoop.
“Aren’t you gonna open it?” Distressed, Max-Ernest put his hand on the trunk. The layers upon layers of travel stickers and receipts and address changes formed a crust over the surface that made the trunk slightly forbidding but all the more tempting. He couldn’t believe he’d put in all that effort and wasn’t going to be rewarded with a peek. “For all we know, this is our only chance. When we come back, it’ll be dark. And then—”
“OK, OK,” said Cass, who in truth wanted to look inside the trunk as much as Max-Ernest did. “Just don’t ask any questions about… you know. I shouldn’t have said anything about it.”
“Then how’m I supposed to help?”
“You’re not! That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“OK, but just let me ask you one question,” said Max-Ernest. “I was thinking about the story of the doctor who discovered the… it. Remember? The pharaoh executed him—after he told the pharaoh about the you-know-what.”
Cass gave him a look that said, Yes, I remember, but no, I don’t want to talk about it.
“He’s the one who wrote on the papyrus, right?”
Cass nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Do you think the papyrus was stolen from his grave? It must have been, right? I mean, how else—?”
Cass glared at him. “Max-Ernest! Do you want me to open the trunk or not?”
“Yeah, yeah, OK.”
Equally impressed and dismayed, Max-Ernest watched Cass work the large and complex combination lock that had stymied him months earlier when they first tried to open the trunk.
When she raised the trunk’s lid, Max-Ernest gasped involuntarily.
Cass hadn’t been exaggerating. Treasure was the right word. Inside the trunk, coins and jewelry and other precious objects sparkled tantalizingly—seemingly as bright and shiny as the day the lid first closed on them.
“Wow, your great-great-great-whatever-grandmother must have been a pretty good thief.”
“Yeah, she was,” said Cass proudly. “But she gave most of her stuff to the poor. I keep thinking—there must have been a reason she and the Jester left all this for me.”
Cass started pulling things out for inspection. Max-Ernest regarded the objects with awe, almost afraid to touch them.
“At first I was going to donate it—you know, for disaster preparedness or to fight global warming or child slavery,” she said, peering into a gold candlestick to see if anything was hidden inside. “But then I thought, who’s going to believe it’s mine?”
Cass opened a small silver box and found that it was full of uncut gems. They were beautiful even in their raw state and no doubt very precious, but they didn’t provide what she really was hoping for: another clue about the Secret.
Max-Ernest turned his attention to the brass lock. He still couldn’t get over the fact that Cass had managed to open it without him. He, not Cass, was supposed to be the expert combination cracker. Was she capable of finding the Secret without him, too? Of course, he wanted her to learn the Secret; so much depended on it. And yet—
“Hey, did you see this before?” he asked, examining the back of the lock. It protruded deeper into the trunk than might have been expected—like a box stuck to the inside of the trunk.
“Well, I was wondering why the back of the lock was so big—and then I saw this groove here, and I’m thinking that it might—”
He gripped the back of the lock and twisted; it unscrewed like the top of a jar.
“—come off like this,” he said, now holding it in his hand.
The back of the lock turned out to be a small box lined with cracked, papery old leather. Inside was a gleaming gold ring tied to a strip of shredded linen.
“Look—I think it’s Egyptian!” said Max-Ernest. “You think it belonged to the doctor?”
“Give that to me,” said Cass quickly.
Max-Ernest reluctantly handed her the ring.
Unexpectedly heavy for its size, it was molded from solid gold and resembled a signet ring. On top was a flat gold oval inlaid with lapis lazuli, the brilliant blue stone favored by the ancient Egyptians. Some of the stone had been chipped away, but enough was left to show the original image: a long-beaked bird presented in profile in the classic Egyptian style.
When Cass saw the bird, her pointy ears tingled with excitement. “Hey, um, is there a hieroglyph that looks like this?”
“Why? Does it look like one of the hieroglyphs you saw?” Max-Ernest knew that the Secret was supposed to be Cass’s, and Cass’s alone—they had been warned repeatedly that it was dangerous for anyone else to share knowledge of the Secret—but it was impossible not to ask.
“Just answer the question.”
“I thought you didn’t want any help.”
Cass gave him a look.
“Yeah, it’s the hieroglyph of an ibis. The ibis was worshipped by the Egyptians, so you see a lot of them,” said Max-Ernest, studying Cass’s reaction. “But it isn’t always just an ibis. Sometimes it’s a symbol for Thoth—”
Cass tried to keep her facial expression neutral. “Thoth?”
“Remember from the spa? The god of magic and writing and judge of the dead?” (Years before, near the beginning of their adventures together, the god’s name had proved vital in their quest to save Benjamin Blake at the Midnight Sun Spa.) “If you think about it, that would make more sense than an ibis. The Sec—I mean, it is supposed to be about immortality, right?”
“Max-Ernest! Thanks, but that’s enough, OK?”
His mouth tightly closed, Max-Ernest contemplated this unwanted and unexpected shift in his relationship with Cass. In the past, the quest for the Secret had always brought the two of them together. Would it ever be that way again, he wondered, or would the Secret forever come between them?
Avoiding his glance, Cass examined the ring.
After the papyrus had turned to dust, Cass had the presence of mind to sketch the hieroglyphs in her notebook—but her memory was hazy, and her knowledge of hieroglyphs was scant. At best, the hieroglyphs she’d drawn bore a shaky resemblance to the originals.
During her studies for the Egypt unit, she compared her drawings over and over again to the hieroglyphs she’d seen—but with little luck. Before today, she’d succeeded in identifying only the first two of the five hieroglyphs: they meant because and what. Or she thought they did.
Now, thanks to the gold ring, she realized that the third hieroglyph depicted an ibis. She recognized the long curving beak. The rest of the bird—a football-shaped body atop stick-like legs—had been too smudged to read, at least in her recollection.
It wasn’t much, and it didn’t yet make any sense, but it was the beginning of the Secret:
Because what ibis
Because what Thoth
First Rough Draft (Or is it rough first draft? Or first draft of rough draft? Or… you get the point.)
By Max-Ernest, aka ME, i.e., Me, Myself, and I
ASSIGNED TOPIC: The Secret of Success
TITLE: Mummies, Middle School, and Me (That’s alliteration, if you didn’t know. Of course I know! I wrote it, duh…. Wait, you did? Then who am I?)
Open with mummy joke:
What is a mummy’s favorite musical program?
Name That Tomb.
What do you call a mummy who wins the lottery?
A lucky stiff.
What did the sign at the Egyptian funeral home say?
SATISFACTION GUARANTEED OR DOUBLE YOUR MUMMY BACK.
(Question: do I have to credit book I get joke from?)
All joking aside, you might think mummies are a funny thing to talk about in a graduation speech.
If you really think about it, however, graduation resembles mummification in many ways. Both involve preparing for the next stage of life—or, in the case of mummies, the afterlife.
(Nice one, Max-Ernest. *Blushes* Why, thank you, Max-Ernest. Don’t mention it, Max-Ernest.)
Main Body of Speech (Ha-ha, get it? A mummy is a body—well, a dead one…):
As most people know, the mummification process begins with a corpse’s brain being pulled out of his nose.
This is a lot like learning—only in reverse. In school, our teachers put things in our brains so every student “knows” (knows/nose, get it?) everything he should. Although, to be honest, I think some teachers pull stuff out of our brains and try to make us empty “airheads.” (Probably shouldn’t put that in this speech, should I?)
Semi-random factoid: the Egyptians thought people thought with their hearts, not their brains, so you’d have to say “airheart” if you wanted to insult their intelligence—not that you would. The Egyptians were pretty smart.
Anyway, the Egyptians wanted to take everything they could with them into the afterlife: servants, animals, food. But when you graduate, you can’t necessarily take everything with you. Friends, for example. Everybody says that in upper school, sometimes people don’t even talk to their old friends. It’s like they don’t exist….
Wait. Scratch that. What does that have to do with anything? Back to mummies—
Max-Ernest had spent the entire bus ride to the Natural History Museum trying out mummy jokes for his graduation speech. (The opportunity to make a speech was an honor bestowed on him as Bookworm of the Year, winner of the Book-a-Day Reading Challenge; also, there was the fact that nobody else had volunteered.) By the time they neared their destination, his friends were brainstorming ways to silence him.
“Maybe we’ll find some loose mummy bandages and we can gag him with them,” suggested Yo-Yoji, who, as usual, had an entire seat to himself and was comfortably reclining with his long legs up, showing off his neon-orange sneakers.
Cass, sitting with Max-Ernest in the seat opposite Yo-Yoji, shook her head. “Nah, he would just tell jokes with his hands. Don’t forget he knows sign language.”
Max-Ernest nodded cheerfully. How many mummies does it take to change a lightbulb? he signed, mouthing the words.
“OK, so we tie his wrists together—” said Yo-Yoji, ignoring him.
“Forget it,” said Cass. “He’ll just tap Morse code with his foot.”
Max-Ernest started tapping the floor: N-O-N-E, T-H-E-Y L-I-V-E I-N E-T-E-R-N-A-L D-A-R-K-N-E-S-S.
“Then we’ll bury him in a sarcophagus,” Yo-Yoji persisted.
Cass shook her head again. “With our luck, an earthquake will push it to the surface, and he’ll jump out and tell some dumb joke about zombies—”
“Like this one?” asked Max-Ernest, grinning. “Do zombies eat hamburgers with their fingers?”
“See what I mean?”
“No, they eat their fingers separately!”
The plump boy who called himself Glob leaned over the seat in front of Max-Ernest. “Dude, zombies tell better jokes than you do—and I bet they give better graduation speeches, too.”
“Leave him alone, man,” said the boy sitting next to Glob, his voice muffled by the dreadlocks that covered his face. This was Daniel—more popularly known as Daniel-not-Danielle. “Zombies are cool. They kick mummy butt.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive categories, you know,” said Max-Ernest. “Zombie equals dead body that comes back to life. Mummy equals dead body. Ergo, mummy that comes back to life equals—”
It was Mrs. Johnson, standing up near the front of the bus.
Excerpted from You Have to Stop This by Pseudonymous Bosch Copyright © 2011 by Pseudonymous Bosch. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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