AS SOON AS JJ’s feet landed inside the disgusting, moldy and musty basement, he wanted out again. He instantly felt like he was in one of his nightmares. The fusty odor of decay assaulted his nostrils so savagely; he almost lost his breakfast all over his shoes. It took every ounce of courage he possessed to not scream like a five-year-old little girl, abandon his best friend, and clamber back through the window to safety. JJ gripped his hatchet-buddy tighter. The feel of it in his hand steeled his nerves. As if he could sense JJ’s unease, Curt thought he’d try to lighten the mood. JJ loved him for it.
“And my mom bitches about how messy my room is. She’d probably shit herself if it got this bad. Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah, she probably would,” JJ agreed.
“And that fucking stench. Damn, it reeks!”
“This is what your ride smelled like yesterday, homie!” JJ realized aloud.
“Damn, really? This is bad enough to gag a maggot. Ya know what I’m sayin’? I wonder why I didn’t smell anything yesterday.”
“I don’t know, but let’s make haste,” JJ interjected, his skin crawling. “I don’t feel too good and this place wigs me out.”
“Hey, homie,” Curt said, putting a comforting hand on JJ’s shoulder. “When we’re through here, we gotta go to my pad and smoke a two-ton blunt. Ya know what I’m sayin’? Cuz this place really gives me the creeps too.”
“You’ll get no argument from me, homie.”
“Alright, let’s do this.” Curt said with a confidence that squashed the remainder of JJ’s fear.
“Yeah,” JJ sighed. “Let’s do this.”
“What are we lookin’ for anyway?” Curt asked, kicking over a dilapidated bucket. “There’s not a whole lot in here to speak of—besides trash and toadstools. Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
“Anything that might tell us why this house and Boogeyman seem to be connected,” JJ answered, glancing around their dingy surroundings.
“I know that, homie. I’m talkin’ about specific shit.”
“Damn, dawg, I don’t know!” JJ barked, frustrated. “Look for something that’s, like, supernatural-looking or something!”
“Damn, ninja. Take a pill or something,” Curt replied, feigning defensiveness.
“Sorry, homie. I’m just buggin’ out over actually being in here.”
“It’s cool. Alright, look for something supernatural. Something supernatural…This sucks!” Curt exploded. “Like staleness to the sixty-ninth power. You know you owe me a cheese-steak for lunch, right? Today even! Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
“You got it, homie. Jeez, calm down. Let’s do this thing so we can get to more amusing shit.”
Curt’s right, JJ thought, as he began sifting through debris. There’s not very much in here, other than fungus and a sagging stack of cardboard boxes. So this shouldn’t take long at all. As he continued his search, JJ’s thoughts kept drifting to his hatchet-buddy tucked securely in the waistband of his jeans. Flights of fancy kept parading through JJ’s mind. The most enticing, he concluded: Taking his hatchet-buddy and severing Boogeyman’s head—in the same fashion as David decapitated the behemoth Goliath. Take Boogeyman’s nugget the same way he’s been doing the little kids of , and who knew how many other towns through the centuries. Then taking that bastard’s noggin and presenting it to the detective he read about in yesterday’s newspaper. JJ just knew that he would be treated like a hero if he was able to stop the killing. Suddenly, a croaking shriek snapped JJ out of his fantasies and back to the filthy basement.
“Curt! What’s wrong, homie. Are you alright?” JJ asked in a panic.
“Yeah,” Curt replied, stepping out from behind a stack of boxes—unsuccessfully stifling laughter. “Sorry, homie. Tension breaker. Had to be done.”
“Curt, you’re an ASSHOLE! You about gave me a coronary, shithead.”
“’I said I was sorry, ninja,’ sound familiar?” Curt asked, mocking JJ’s voice. “Now we’re even. Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah, okay. Now we’re even. Did you find anything, at least?” JJ wanted to change focus back to the task at hand.
“Yup, actually I did,” Curt announced proudly. “It looks like there might be a trapdoor under these boxes. I think I can make out a seam in the floor back there. I just need a hand moving these nasty boxes and we can see what’s what. Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
“Awesome! Careful, though, homie. These boxes don’t look too sturdy.” JJ interjected. “In fact they look, um, goopy.”
“No doubt, ninja. They’re downright disgusting.”
Quickly, the boys got to work meticulously maneuvering the pile of mushy boxes with little to no luck keeping the boxes intact. Only three boxes survived the shift with any cube-like appearance. The rest now resembled a pile of stinking offal. Needless to say, they succeeded in revealing exactly what Curt had speculated: A trapdoor. The boys stared at the trapdoor in silence—Curt smugly, JJ awestruck. There was no visible handle, but there was something carved on the surface of the trapdoor: a symbol. JJ recognized it instantly, as it was the same symbol tattooed on the neck of his hatchet-buddy. All he could do was stand entranced—it was the winged tree.
“Well the bitch-work’s done,” Curt announced, breaking the spell JJ’s mind seemed to be under. “Let’s crack ’er open and see what’s down there.”
“Sure,” JJ agreed. “You didn’t think to bring a flashlight did you, homie?”
“No, I didn’t. I did not bring a flashlight,” Curt said, incredulous. “This isn’t my expedition, homie! You should’ve thought to bring a flashlight! When I call you at dawn on a Saturday to go spelunking in a shitty basement, then I’ll bring a flashlight! Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
“Damn, calm down. It’s nothing to start your period over. I just thought I’d ask. I’ve got a couple lighters. They should provide enough light so we won’t break our necks, at least.”
“What’d I say, JJ?”
“I know, I know. Sorry, homie. Bad joke. Here,” JJ apologized, handing Curt the lighters. “Give me some light while I pry this bad boy open.”
Curt flicked the lighters, sparking dual flames to life, while JJ pulled his hatchet-buddy from his waistband with a nimble grace that surprised him. Saying a silent prayer to the Big Man Upstairs about being able to handle whatever they find beneath the trapdoor, JJ wedged the blade of his hatchet-buddy into the crevasse. Taking a quick glance at Curt, he heaved with all his might. The trapdoor gave only the vaguest show of resistance, before it exploded open with a moan, and a thick cloud of dust.
Gagging and coughing, the boys took a step back to get clear of the dust billow. As the dust settled once more, the boys gave each other a “screw it” look and stepped forward to gaze into the depths they uncovered. As it turned out, the space beneath the 6x6 trapdoor was only 3x3x3. Snuggled at the bottom of the trapdoor’s gullet was a bundle wrapped in a length of rotting cloth. Could this shit get anymore Scooby Doo Mysteries? JJ thought, as he reluctantly retrieved the mystery parcel from the earthen cavity. The once-hearty, but now putrefied cloth fell away from its charge—revealing an ornately-carved wooden box. It was masterfully crafted and in amazingly great condition. The winged tree symbol was also carved upon the box’s lid.
“Damn, now that’s fresh,” Curt exhaled. “It’s really awesome. Ya know what I’m sayin’, but JJ—what is it exactly?”
“It’s a box.” JJ replied, as if speaking to a four-year-old child.
“I know it’s a box, smartass. Whose box is it? What’s it for? Why is it in such great condition when that rag is FUBAR?” Curt fired the questions at his best friend, pointing at the lump of decomposing cloth. “And what the hell is that funky symbol doing carved on everything. Don’t think I hadn’t noticed it’s the same symbol that’s on that hatchet you seem to hold so dear, all of a sudden. Cuz I have!”
“I don’t know homie. I don’t have all the answers. I barely understand the fucking questions. All I can tell you brother, is that I’m gonna do my very best to find out—for you, for me, and for all those little ninjas out there still in danger. Curtis, we cannot allow this diabolical—”
“Enough, JJ. Enough,” Curt interrupted before JJ could really get planted on his soapbox. “I’m not about to stand here in this dumpy, disgusting, stale-ass basement listening to Kevin Costner speeches. If your curiosity is satisfied, let’s take this freaky box back to my garage and discuss some shit. Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
“I feel you, ninja,” JJ replied, trying his damnedest not to laugh and look slightly offended. “Close the trapdoor and help me through the window with this thing. It’s getting heavy.”
After the sketchiest trot down the block that JJ has had since he jacked Nasty Nate’s previously pilfered case of Moon Mist, the two best friends sat breathless in Curt’s garage trying not to hyperventilate—the box rested safely on the worktable. They had transported it undetected. With breath back in his lungs, Curt tasked himself with the cutting and rolling of a massive blunt of , as promised. Leaving JJ to pore over the surface of the wooden box for a latch or clasp that would unlock its secrets.
JJ studied the mysterious wooden box, making note of its craftsmanship. It was heavy, possibly made of oak. But it was also heavily varnished, so it was impossible for JJ to discern for certain. The seam which separated lid from base was so fine that it was hardly visible; the hinges were obviously concealed within the lid. Skilled hands created this box, JJ marveled, as he gently caressed the carving upon the lid.
“I think we should hit it with a hammer. Ya know what I’m sayin’?” Curt offered, as he carefully flame-dried his blunt.
“I’m not hitting it with a hammer.”
Resting his left hand on the box, JJ drew his hatchet-buddy from the waistband of his jeans to compare their seemingly identical carvings.
“Even better, homie. Chop it a few times with your hatchet there,” Curt suggested. “That should open it.”
“Dawg! If you’re not gonna be serious, then just toke up and let me think for a sec. Shit!”
As Curt mimed the zipping of his lips, JJ turned his attention back to the carvings. To JJ’s astonishment, the carvings were not exact. The carving on the neck of his hatchet-buddy was almost identical to the carving upon the lid of the wooden box, with one exception: The carving of the winged tree on the box had what appeared to be a tiny knothole. The knothole was so minute that he would’ve never noticed if he didn’t have his hatchet-buddy. JJ silently thanked God for uniting him with such a friend.
“Whatcha gawkin’ at, homie?” Curt asked, taking a long drag off his cannabis stogie.
“The carvings aren’t the same like we thought, they’re slightly different.”
“What’s the difference, cuz I don’t see one. Ya know what I’m sayin’?” Curt inquired shoving the smoldering blunt into JJ’s face.
“The one on the box has a tiny knothole,” JJ revealed, placing a finger next to the pour-sized hole with one hand, and retrieving the blunt with the other.
Not a knothole, a keyhole, JJ mused, taking a deep, lung-filling drag of his own from the fatty Philly.
“Really, I don’t see a knothole, homie.” Curt snatched the blunt back.
“It’s not a knothole, it’s a keyhole.” JJ fought hard to hold his smoke in as long as possible.
“Okay, cool. It’s a keyhole,” Curt grunted as he exhaled a cloud of bitingly fragrant smoke. “Where’s the magic key, homie?”
“I don’t think we need any ‘magic key’ per say,” JJ explained, looking over the selection of tools on the workbench—BINGO! “Dude, hand me that ice pick.”
Curt handed JJ the ice pick and puffed silently on his blunt, as JJ went to work trying to unlock the wooden box. JJ hoped his intuition was leading him away from calamity as he carefully inserted the ice pick into the keyhole. Both boys held whatever substance happened to be in their respective lungs, as the tip of the ice pick disappeared into the hole. An eon-long second ticked by before the box emitted a barely audible click, and the lid popped slightly ajar. The mysterious wooden box was open!
“Holy shit, homie. You did it.”
“I know.” JJ could hardly believe it himself.
“Well, enough suspense. Let’s see what’s inside it already!” Curt barked, snubbing the blunt out on the heel of his boot.
“You sure you’re ready, homie? Once we open this lid, we can’t un-see what we find.”
“No shit, Sherlock!” Curt shot back sarcastically. “Yes, I’m ready. Now open the damned thing! Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
With bated breath and trembling hands, JJ gripped either side of the lid and opened the wooden box. His bubble of awe-struck wonder burst, as bubbles tend to do, when his eyes took in the box’s contents. JJ didn’t have the slightest idea what to expect if and when they got the box open, but he never suspected in a million years that the wooden box—the buried treasure chest, the leprechaun’s pot at the end of the rainbow—would be empty.
“What do mean it’s empty?!” Curt exploded, shouldering JJ aside a step to get a better look. “Empty? The fucking box is empty? Stale!”
“That’s what I said, homie! Well, it’s not entirely empty. There’s a note. Oh, and it’s not a box, it’s a case. See, look,” JJ pointed out. “The inner space here has been carved out to house one thing and one thing only, and from the shape it looks like this is the case for—”
“Your hatchet, JJ!”
“No maybes about it, homie,” Curt said, grabbing for the hatchet.
“Just wait a second and stop being such a snatcher!” JJ barked, narrowly evading Curt’s lunge at his hatchet-buddy. “If anybody’s gonna test this theory of yours out, it’s gonna be me. Here, take the note so I can get this over with.”
Curt grabbed the note and stepped dramatically aside, allowing JJ full audience with the case. JJ thought that Curt could be right. The notch did look like it was eagerly awaiting his hatchet-buddy. With a stomach full of trepidation, JJ reluctantly placed his hatchet-buddy into the ironically-shaped cleft. It was a perfect fit.
“Read the note.”
Curt obediently obliged, reading in a clear, crisp tone:
“Hail Saint Gummer! You drunken old sot.
Gratitude for the loner, long may you rot.”
“Are you serious?” JJ demanded, barely avoiding ripping the note as he tore it from between Curt’s fingertips.
“No, asshole. I made it up,” Curt replied, annoyed. “Yes I’m serious!”
“Damn. Well, I think we both know who ‘B’ is, but who is this Saint Gummer?” JJ wondered as he skimmed over the contents of the note.
“Yeah ‘B’ is totally the B-man, but I’ve never heard of a saint named Gummer,” Curt responded, racking his brain for a clue. “Oh shit, homie!”
“What homie, you gotta take a dump?”
“Ha-ha, very funny. You should be a comedian. No! I think I know who Saint Gummy is and his name’s not Gummy.”
“Okay, don’t leave me sitting here in suspense. Enlighten me with your great wisdom already!”
“Remember when we had to do those research projects last year on Saints and stuff?”
“Yeah totally, the Saints of the First Millennium project for history. The project, if I recall correctly, is the one I aced and you failed. Even though you made that chick that liked you do the whole assignment for you. What was her name?”
“Jessica,” Curt sighed. “Are you gonna let me finish or what?”
“Sorry, homie. Continue.”
“Yeah, I failed. Only cuz Mr. Lalonde found out I didn’t do the stupid thing and she did! Anyway, Jessica did hers on a Saint Gum-something or another.”
“Okay, that might not mean a damn thing, homie. Could just be a coincidence.”
“He was the Patron Saint of woodcutters and lumberjacks, JJ.”
“Oh shit,” JJ said, snatching his hatchet-buddy from its cradle.
“That’s what I said, homie. I thought I recognized the symbol on your hatchet and the case, but I wasn’t sure. Now I’m sure. I’m sure it’s one of the symbols she had sketches of in her project.”
“Does she still like you, homie. Do you think she’d help us out?”
“I don’t know, she moved. I heard Pauli Alexander knocked her up and her dad moved the family over to Three Rivers.”
“Damn it!” JJ exclaimed, frustrated. “That’s all the way across the State!”
“I know. The whole situation is stale as fucking, fuck, ya’know what I’m sayin’. She was starting to grow on me, too.”
“That’s not what I mean! I’m pissed that we can’t get our hands on her project! Where did she do all her research?”
“The school library, I think.”
“That’s it! We can go look up all that we might need on the internet at the school library. I heard Miss Slam keeps it open on Saturdays so the nerd herd and geek squad can have a safe place to play their funky, fantasy card games.”
“Hold on, JJ! First you wake me up on a Saturday at the butt-crack of dawn—”
“It wasn’t dawn, Curt.”
“Whatever, okay. Well, early as hell, anyway. Then you drop this Boogeyman shit on me. Now you want me to go to school on a Saturday, too?” Curt asked, incredulous. “And it’s called Magic: The Gathering, homie.”
“Dork. You know the game that the nose-pickers play?”
“Screw you, JJ!” Curt pronounced, offended. “It’s actually pretty fresh. I’m surprised you don’t play. It’s like D&D, only on a different scale.”
“Whatever, homie,” JJ sighed with a shake of his head. “Yes, we need to go to research some things of our own and the school library is as good a place as any to do it.”
“Fine, fuck it. Let’s go to school on a SATURDAY!” Curt announced, acting more upset than he actually was. “But before we go on any more of your excursions, I need sustenance. Blueberry Pop-Tarts?”
“Okay, yeah. Blueberry Pop-Tarts,” JJ conceded.