- The Hidden Oracle
I backed away from the fallen thugs. I wondered if I should make a run for it, but I could barely hobble. I also did not want to be assaulted with old fruit.
The girl climbed over the railing. She dropped to the ground with surprising nimbleness and grabbed a sack of garbage from the Dumpster.
“Stop!” Cade did a sort of scuttling crab walk to get away from the girl. “Let’s talk about this!”
Mikey groaned and rolled onto his back.
The girl pouted. Her lips were chapped. She had wispy black fuzz at the corners of her mouth.
“I don’t like you guys,” she said. “You should go.”
“Yeah!” Cade said. “Sure! Just…”
He reached for the money scattered among the coffee grounds.
The girl swung her garbage bag. In mid arc the plastic exploded, disgorging an impossible number of rotten bananas. They knocked Cade flat. Mikey was plastered with so many peels he looked like he was being attacked by carnivorous starfish.
“Leave my alley,” the girl said. “Now.”
In the Dumpster, more trash bags burst like popcorn kernels, showering Cade and Mikey with radishes, potato peelings, and other compost material. Miraculously, none of it got on me. Despite their injuries, the two thugs scrambled to their feet and ran away, screaming.
I turned toward my pint-size savior. I was no stranger to dangerous women. My sister could rain down arrows of death. My stepmother, Hera, regularly drove mortals mad so that they would hack each other to pieces. But this garbage-wielding twelve-year-old made me nervous.
“Thank you,” I ventured.
The girl crossed her arms. On her middle fingers she wore matching gold rings with crescent signets. Her eyes glinted darkly like a crow’s. (I can make that comparison because I invented crows.)
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “You’re still in my alley.”
She walked a full circle around me, scrutinizing my appearance as if I were a prize cow. (I can also make that comparison, because I used to collect prize cows.)
“You’re the god Apollo?” She sounded less than awestruck. She also didn’t seem fazed by the idea of gods walking among mortals.
“You were listening, then?”
She nodded. “You don’t look like a god.”
“I’m not at my best,” I admitted. “My father, Zeus, has exiled me from Olympus. And who are you?”
She smelled faintly of apple pie, which was surprising, since she looked so grubby. Part of me wanted to find a fresh towel, clean her face, and give her money for a hot meal. Part of me wanted to fend her off with a chair in case she decided to bite me. She reminded me of the strays my sister was always adopting: dogs, panthers, homeless maidens, small dragons.
“Name is Meg,” she said.
“Short for Megara? Or Margaret?”
“Margaret. But don’t ever call me Margaret.”
“And are you a demigod, Meg?”
She pushed up her glasses. “Why would you think that?”
Again she didn’t seem surprised by the question. I sensed she had heard the term demigod before.
“Well,” I said, “you obviously have some power. You chased off those hooligans with rotten fruit. Perhaps you have banana-kinesis? Or you can control garbage? I once knew a Roman goddess, Cloacina, who presided over the city’s sewer system. Perhaps you’re related…?”
Meg pouted. I got the impression I might have said something wrong, though I couldn’t imagine what.
“I think I’ll just take your money,” Meg said. “Go on. Get out of here.”
“No, wait!” Desperation crept into my voice. “Please, I—I may need a bit of assistance.”
I felt ridiculous, of course. Me—the god of prophecy, plague, archery, healing, music, and several other things I couldn’t remember at the moment—asking a colorfully dressed street urchin for help. But I had no one else. If this child chose to take my money and kick me into the cruel winter streets, I didn’t think I could stop her.
“Say I believe you…” Meg’s voice took on a singsong tone, as if she were about to announce the rules of the game: I’ll be the princess, and you’ll be the scullery maid. “Say I decide to help. What then?”
Good question, I thought. “We…we are in Manhattan?”
“Mm-hmm.” She twirled and did a playful skip-kick. “Hell’s Kitchen.”
It seemed wrong for a child to say Hell’s Kitchen. Then again, it seemed wrong for a child to live in an alley and have garbage fights with thugs.