- The Lightning Thief
An hour later we were ready to leave.
Gabe took a break from his poker game long enough to watch me lug my mom's bags to the car. He kept griping and groaning about losing her cooking—and more important, his '78 Camaro—for the whole weekend.
"Not a scratch on this car, brain boy," he warned me as I loaded the last bag. "Not one little scratch."
Like I'd be the one driving. I was twelve. But that didn't matter to Gabe. If a seagull so much as pooped on his paint job, he'd find a way to blame me.
Watching him lumber back toward the apartment building, I got so mad I did something I can't explain. As Gabe reached the doorway, I made the hand gesture I'd seen Grover make on the bus, a sort of warding-off-evil gesture, a clawed hand over my heart, then a shoving movement toward Gabe. The screen door slammed shut so hard it whacked him in the butt and sent him flying up the staircase as if he'd been shot from a cannon. Maybe it was just the wind, or some freak accident with the hinges, but I didn't stay long enough to find out.
I got in the Camaro and told my mom to step on it.
Our rental cabin was on the south shore, way out at the tip of Long Island. It was a little pastel box with faded curtains, half sunken into the dunes. There was always sand in the sheets and spiders in the cabinets, and most of the time the sea was too cold to swim in.
I loved the place.
We'd been going there since I was a baby. My mom had been going even longer. She never exactly said, but I knew why the beach was special to her. It was the place where she'd met my dad.
As we got closer to Montauk, she seemed to grow younger, years of worry and work disappearing from her face. Her eyes turned the color of the sea.
We got there at sunset, opened all the cabin's windows, and went through our usual cleaning routine. We walked on the beach, fed blue corn chips to the seagulls, and munched on blue jelly beans, blue saltwater taffy, and all the other free samples my mom had brought from work.
I guess I should explain the blue food.
See, Gabe had once told my mom there was no such thing. They had this fight, which seemed like a really small thing at the time. But ever since, my mom went out of her way to eat blue. She baked blue birthday cakes. She mixed blueberry smoothies. She bought blue-corn tortilla chips and brought home blue candy from the shop. This—along with keeping her maiden name, Jackson, rather than calling herself Mrs. Ugliano—was proof that she wasn't totally suckered by Gabe. She did have a rebellious streak, like me.
When it got dark, we made a fire. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. Mom told me stories about when she was a kid, back before her parents died in the plane crash. She told me about the books she wanted to write someday, when she had enough money to quit the candy shop.
Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask about what was always on my mind whenever we came to Montauk—my father. Mom's eyes went all misty. I figured she would tell me the same things she always did, but I never got tired of hearing them.
"He was kind, Percy," she said. "Tall, handsome, and powerful. But gentle, too. You have his black hair, you know, and his green eyes."
Mom fished a blue jelly bean out of her candy bag. "I wish he could see you, Percy. He would be so proud."
I wondered how she could say that. What was so great about me? A dyslexic, hyperactive boy with a D+ report card, kicked out of school for the sixth time in six years.
"How old was I?" I asked. "I mean ... when he left?"
She watched the flames. "He was only with me for one summer, Percy. Right here at this beach. This cabin."
"But... he knew me as a baby."
"No, honey. He knew I was expecting a baby, but he never saw you. He had to leave before you were born."
I tried to square that with the fact that I seemed to remember ... something about my father. A warm glow. A smile.
I had always assumed he knew me as a baby. My mom had never said it outright, but still, I'd felt it must be true. Now, to be told that he'd never even seen me ...
I felt angry at my father. Maybe it was stupid, but I resented him for going on that ocean voyage, for not having the guts to marry my mom. He'd left us, and now we were stuck with Smelly Gabe.
"Are you going to send me away again?" I asked her. "To another boarding school?"
She pulled a marshmallow from the fire.
"I don't know, honey." Her voice was heavy. "I think ... I think we'll have to do something."
"Because you don't want me around?" I regretted the words as soon as they were out.
My mom's eyes welled with tears. She took my hand, squeezed it tight. "Oh, Percy, no. I—I have to, honey. For your own good. I have to send you away."
Her words reminded me of what Mr. Brunner had said—that it was best for me to leave Yancy.
"Because I'm not normal," I said.
"You say that as if it's a bad thing, Percy. But you don't realize how important you are. I thought YancyAcademy would be far enough away. I thought you'd finally be safe."
"Safe from what?"
She met my eyes, and a flood of memories came back to me—all the weird, scary things that had ever happened to me, some of which I'd tried to forget.
During third grade, a man in a black trench coat had stalked me on the playground. When the teachers threatened to call the police, he went away growling, but no one believed me when I told them that under his broad-brimmed hat, the man only had one eye, right in the middle of his head.
Before that—a really early memory. I was in preschool, and a teacher accidentally put me down for a nap in a cot that a snake had slithered into. My mom screamed when she came to pick me up and found me playing with a limp, scaly rope I'd somehow managed to strangle to death with my meaty toddler hands.
In every single school, something creepy had happened, something unsafe, and I was forced to move.
I knew I should tell my mom about the old ladies at the fruit stand, and Mrs. Dodds at the art museum, about my weird hallucination that I had sliced my math teacher into dust with a sword. But I couldn't make myself tell her. I had a strange feeling the news would end our trip to Montauk, and I didn't want that.
"I've tried to keep you as close to me as I could," my mom said. "They told me that was a mistake. But there's only one other option, Percy—the place your father wanted to send you. And I just... I just can't stand to do it."
"My father wanted me to go to a special school?"
"Not a school," she said softly. "A summer camp."
My head was spinning. Why would my dad—who hadn't even stayed around long enough to see me born— talk to my mom about a summer camp? And if it was so important, why hadn't she ever mentioned it before?
"I'm sorry, Percy," she said, seeing the look in my eyes. "But I can't talk about it. I—I couldn't send you to that place. It might mean saying good-bye to you for good."
"For good? But if it's only a summer camp ..."
She turned toward the fire, and I knew from her expression that if I asked her any more questions she would start to cry.
That night I had a vivid dream.
It was storming on the beach, and two beautiful animals, a white horse and a golden eagle, were trying to kill each other at the edge of the surf. The eagle swooped down and slashed the horse's muzzle with its huge talons. The horse reared up and kicked at the eagles wings. As they fought, the ground rumbled, and a monstrous voice chuckled somewhere beneath the earth, goading the animals to fight harder.
I ran toward them, knowing I had to stop them from killing each other, but I was running in slow motion. I knew I would be too late. I saw the eagle dive down, its beak aimed at the horse's wide eyes, and I screamed, No!
I woke with a start.
Outside, it really was storming, the kind of storm that cracks trees and blows down houses. There was no horse or eagle on the beach, just lightning making false daylight, and twenty-foot waves pounding the dunes like artillery.
With the next thunderclap, my mom woke. She sat up, eyes wide, and said, "Hurricane."
I knew that was crazy. Long Island never sees hurricanes this early in the summer. But the ocean seemed to have forgotten. Over the roar of the wind, I heard a distant bellow, an angry, tortured sound that made my hair stand on end.
Then a much closer noise, like mallets in the sand. A desperate voice—someone yelling, pounding on our cabin door.
My mother sprang out of bed in her nightgown and threw open the lock.
Grover stood framed in the doorway against a backdrop of pouring rain. But he wasn't... he wasn't exactly Grover.
"Searching all night," he gasped. "What were you thinking?"
My mother looked at me in terror—not scared of Grover, but of why he'd come.
"Percy," she said, shouting to be heard over the rain. "What happened at school? What didn't you tell me?"
I was frozen, looking at Grover. I couldn't understand what I was seeing.
"O Zeu kai alloi theoi!" he yelled. "It's right behind me! Didn't you tell her?"
I was too shocked to register that he'd just cursed in Ancient Greek, and I'd understood him perfectly. I was too shocked to wonder how Grover had gotten here by himself in the middle of the night. Because Grover didn't have his pants on—and where his legs should be ... where his legs should be ...
My mom looked at me sternly and talked in a tone she'd never used before: "Percy. Tell me now!"
I stammered something about the old ladies at the fruit stand, and Mrs. Dodds, and my mom stared at me, her face deathly pale in the flashes of lightning.
She grabbed her purse, tossed me my rain jacket, and said, "Get to the car. Both of you. Go!"
Grover ran for the Camaro—but he wasn't running, exactly. He was trotting, shaking his shaggy hindquarters, and suddenly his story about a muscular disorder in his legs made sense to me. I understood how he could run so fast and still limp when he walked.
Because where his feet should be, there were no feet. There were cloven hooves.
4. MY MOTHER TEACHES ME BULLFIGHTING
We tore through the night along dark country roads. Wind slammed against the Camaro. Rain lashed the windshield. I didn't know how my mom could see anything, but she kept her foot on the gas.
Every time there was a flash of lightning, I looked at Grover sitting next to me in the backseat and I wondered if I'd gone insane, or if he was wearing some kind of shag-carpet pants. But, no, the smell was one I remembered from kindergarten field trips to the petting zoo— lanolin, like from wool. The smell of a wet barnyard animal.
All I could think to say was, "So, you and my mom... know each other?"
Graver's eyes flitted to the rearview mirror, though there were no cars behind us. "Not exactly," he said. "I mean, we've never met in person. But she knew I was watching you."
"Keeping tabs on you. Making sure you were okay. But I wasn't faking being your friend," he added hastily. "I am your friend."
"Urn ... what are you, exactly?"
"That doesn't matter right now."
"It doesn't matter? From the waist down, my best friend is a donkey—"
Grover let out a sharp, throaty "Blaa-ha-ha!"