The Last Olympian – Chapter 6: MY COOKIES GET SCORCHED

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Chapter 6

MY COOKIES GET

SCORCHED

I dont recommend shadow travel if youre scared of:

  a) The dark

  b) Cold shivers up your spine

  c) Strange noises

  d) Going so fast you feel like your face is peeling off

  In other words, I thought it was awesome. One minute I couldnt see anything. I could only feel Mrs. OLearys fur and my fingers wrapped around the bronze links of her dog collar. 

  The next minute the shadows melted into a new scene. We were on a cliff in the woods of Connecticut. At least, it looked like Connecticut from the few times Id been there: lots of trees, low stone walls, big houses. Down one side of the cliff, a highway cut through a ravine. Down the other side was someones backyard. The property was huge—more wilderness than lawn. The house was a two-story white Colonial. Despite the fact that it was right on the other side of the hill from a highway, it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. I could see a light glowing in the kitchen window. A rusty old swing set stood under an apple tree. 

  I couldnt imagine living in a house like this, with an actual yard and everything. Id lived in a tiny apartment or a school dorm my whole life. If this was Lukes home, I wondered why hed ever wanted to leave. 

  Mrs. OLeary staggered. I remembered what Nico had said about shadow travel draining her, so I slipped off her back. She let out a huge toothy yawn that wouldve scared a T. rex, then turned in a circle and flopped down so hard the ground shook. 

  Nico appeared right next to me, as if the shadows had darkened and created him. He stumbled, but I caught his arm. 

  “Im okay,” he managed, rubbing his eyes. 

  “How did you do that?”

  “Practice. A few times running into walls. A few accidental trips to China. “

  Mrs. OLeary started snoring. If it hadnt been for the roar of traffic behind us, Im sure she wouldve woken up the whole neighborhood. 

  “Are you going to take a nap too?” I asked Nico. 

  He shook his head. “The first time I shadow traveled, I passed out for a week. Now it just makes me a little drowsy, but I cant do it more than once or twice a night. Mrs. OLeary wont be going anywhere for a while. “

  “So weve got some quality time in Connecticut. ” I gazed at the white Colonial house. “What now?”

  “We ring the doorbell,” Nico said. 

  If I were Lukes mom, I would not have opened my door at night for two strange kids. But I wasnt anything like Lukes mom. 

  I knew that even before we reached the front door. The sidewalk was lined with those little stuffed beanbag animals you see in gift shops. There were miniature lions, pigs, dragons, hydras, even a teeny Minotaur in a little Minotaur diaper. Judging from their sad shape, the beanbag creatures had been sitting out here a long time—since the snow melted last spring at least. One of the hydras had a tree sapling sprouting between its necks. 

  The front porch was infested with wind chimes. Shiny bits of glass and metal clinked in the breeze. Brass ribbons tinkled like water and made me realize I needed to use the bathroom. I didnt know how Ms. Castellan could stand all the noise. 

  The front door was painted turquoise. The name CASTELLAN was written in English, and below in Greek: Διοικητ?ς φρουρ?ου. 

  Nico looked at me. “Ready?”

  Hed barely tapped the door when it swung open. 

  “Luke!” the old lady cried happily. 

  She looked like someone who enjoyed sticking her fingers in electrical sockets. Her white hair stuck out in tufts all over her head. Her pink housedress was covered in scorch marks and smears of ash. When she smiled, her face looked unnaturally stretched, and the high-voltage light in her eves made me wonder if she was blind. 

  “Oh, my dear boy!” She hugged Nico. I was trying to figure out why she thought Nico was Luke (they looked absolutely nothing alike), when she smiled at me and said, “Luke!”

  She forgot all about Nico and gave me a hug. She smelled like burned cookies. She was as thin as a scarecrow, but that didnt stop her from almost crushing me. 

  “Come in!” she insisted. “I have your lunch ready!”

  She ushered us inside. The living room was even weirder than the front lawn. Mirrors and candles filled every available space. I couldnt look anywhere without seeing my own reflection. Above the mantel, a little bronze Hermes flew around the second hand of a ticking clock. I tried to imagine the god of messengers ever falling in love with this old woman, but the idea was too bizarre. 

  Then I noticed the framed picture on the mantel, and I froze. It was exactly like Rachels sketch—Luke around nine years old, with blond hair and a big smile and two missing teeth. The lack of a scar on his face made him look like a different person—carefree and happy. How could Rachel have known about that picture?

  “This way, my dear!” Ms. Castellan steered me toward the back of the house. “Oh, I told them you would come back. I knew it!”

  She sat us down at the kitchen table. Stacked on the counter were hundreds—I mean hundreds—of Tupperware boxes with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches inside. The ones on the bottom were green and fuzzy, like theyd been there for a long time. The smell reminded me of my sixth grade locker—and thats not a good thing. 

  On top of the oven was a stack of cookie sheets. Each one had a dozen burned cookies on it. In the sink was a mountain of empty plastic Kool-Aid pitchers. A beanbag Medusa sat by the faucet like she was guarding the mess. 

  Ms. Castellan started humming as she got out peanut butter and jelly and started making a new sandwich. Something was burning in the oven. I got the feeling more cookies were on the way. 

  Above the sink, taped all around the window, were dozens of little pictures cut from magazines and newspaper ads—pictures of Hermes from the FTD Flowers logo and Quickie Cleaners, pictures of the caduceus from medical ads. 

  My heart sank. I wanted to get out of that room, but Ms. Castellan kept smiling at me as she made the sandwich, like she was making sure I didnt bolt. 

  Nico coughed. “Urn, Ms. Castellan?”

  “Mm?”

  “We need to ask you about your son. “

  “Oh, yes! They told me he would never come back. But I knew better. ” She patted my cheek affectionately, giving me peanut butter racing stripes. 

  “When did you last see him?” Nico asked. 

  Her eyes lost focus. 

  “He was so young when he left,” she said wistfully. “Third grade. Thats too young to run away! He said hed be back for lunch. And I waited. He likes peanut butter sandwiches and cookies and Kool-Aid. Hell be back for lunch very soon. . . . ” Then she looked at me and smiled. “Why, Luke, there you are! You look so handsome. You have your fathers eyes. “

  She turned toward the pictures of Hermes above the sink. “Now, theres a good man. Yes, indeed. He comes to visit me, you know. “

  The clock kept ticking in the other room. I wiped the peanut butter off my face and looked at Nico pleadingly, like Can we get out of here now?

  “Maam,” Nico said. “What, uh . . . what happened to your eyes?”

  Her gaze seemed fractured—like she was trying to focus on him through a kaleidoscope. “Why, Luke, you know the story. It was right before you were born, wasnt it? Id always been special, able to see through the . . . whatever-they-call-it. “

  “The Mist?” I said. 

  “Yes, dear. ” She nodded encouragingly. “And they offered me an important job. Thats how special I was!”

  I glanced at Nico, but he looked as confused as I was. 

  “What sort of job?” I asked. “What happened?”

  Ms. Castellan frowned. Her knife hovered over the sandwich bread. “Dear me, it didnt work out, did it? Your father warned me not to try. He said it was too dangerous. But I had to. It was my destiny! And now . . . I still cant get the images out of my head. They make everything seem so fuzzy. Would you like some cookies?”

She pulled a tray out of the oven and dumped a dozen lumps of chocolate chip charcoal on the table. 

  “Luke was so kind,” Ms. Castellan murmured. “He left to protect me, you know. He said if he went away, the monsters wouldnt threaten me. But I told him the monsters are no threat! They sit outside on the sidewalk all day, and they never come in. ” She picked up the little stuffed Medusa from the windowsill. “Do they, Mrs. Medusa? No, no threat at all. ” She beamed at me. “Im so glad you came home. I knew you werent ashamed of me!”

  I shifted in my seat. I imagined being Luke sitting at this table, eight or nine years old, and just beginning to realize that my mother wasnt all there. 

  “Ms. Castellan,” I said. 

  “Mom,” she corrected. 

  “Um, yeah. Have you seen Luke since he left home?”

  “Well, of course!”

  I didnt know if she was imagining that or not. For all I knew, every time the mailman came to the door he was Luke. But Nico sat forward expectantly. 

  “When?” he asked. “When did Luke visit you last?”

  “Well, it was . . . Oh goodness . . . ” A shadow passed across her face. “The last time, he looked so different. A scar. A terrible scar, and his voice so full of pain . . . “

  “His eyes,” I said. “Were they gold?”

  “Gold?” She blinked. “No. How silly. Luke has blue eyes. Beautiful blue eyes!”

  So Luke really had been here, and this had happened before last summer—before hed turned into Kronos. 

  “Ms. Castellan?” Nico put his hand on the old womans arm. “This is very important. Did he ask you for anything?”

  She frowned as if trying to remember. “My—my blessing. Isnt that sweet?” She looked at us uncertainly. “He was going to a river, and he said he needed my blessing. I gave it to him. Of course I did. “

  Nico looked at me triumphantly. “Thank you, maam. Thats all the information we—”

  Ms. Castellan gasped. She doubled over, and her cookie tray clattered to the floor. Nico and I jumped to our feet. 

  “Ms. Castellan?” I said. 

  “AHHHH,” She straightened. I scrambled away and almost fell over the kitchen table, because her eyes—her eyes were glowing green. 

  “My child,” she rasped in a much deeper voice. “Must protect him! Hermes, help! Not my child! Not his fate—no!”

  She grabbed Nico by the shoulders and began to shake him as if to make him understand. “Not his fate!”

  Nico made a strangled scream and pushed her away. He gripped the hilt of his sword. “Percy, we need to get out—”

  Suddenly Ms. Castellan collapsed. I lurched forward and caught her before she could hit the edge of the table. I managed to get her into a chair. 

  “Ms. C?” I asked. 

  She muttered something incomprehensible and shook her head. “Goodness. I . . . I dropped the cookies. How silly of me. “

  She blinked, and her eyes were back to normal—or at least, what they had been before. The green glow was gone. 

  “Are you okay?” I asked. 

  “Well, of course, dear. Im fine. Why do you ask?”

  I glanced at Nico, who mouthed the word Leave. 

  “Ms. C, you were telling us something,” I said. “Something about your son. “

  “Was I?” she said dreamily. “Yes, his blue eyes. We were talking about his blue eyes. Such a handsome boy!”

  “We have to go,” Nico said urgently. “Well tell Luke . . . uh, well tell him you said hello. “

  “But you cant leave!” Ms. Castellan got shakily to her feet, and I backed away. I felt silly being scared of a frail old woman, but the way her voice had changed, the way shed grabbed Nico . . . 

  “Hermes will be here soon,” she promised. “Hell want to see his boy!”

  “Maybe next time,” I said. “Thank you for—” I looked down at the burned cookies scattered on the floor. “Thanks for everything. “

  She tried to stop us, to offer us Kool-Aid, but I had to get out of that house. On the front porch, she grabbed my wrist and I almost jumped out of my skin. “Luke, at least be safe. Promise me youll be safe. “

  “I will . . . Mom. “

  That made her smile. She released my wrist, and as she closed the front door I could hear her talking to the candles: “You hear that? He will be safe. I told you he would be!”

  As the door shut, Nico and I ran. The little beanbag animals on the sidewalk seemed to grin at us as we passed. 

  Back at the cliff, Mrs. OLeary had found a friend. 

  A cozy campfire crackled in a ring of stones. A girl about eight years old was sitting cross-legged next to Mrs. OLeary, scratching the hellhounds ears. 

  The girl had mousy brown hair and a simple brown dress. She wore a scarf over her head so she looked like a pioneer kid—like the ghost of Little House on the Prairie or something. She poked the fire with a stick, and it seemed to glow more richly red than a normal fire. 

  “Hello,” she said. 

  My first thought was: monster. When youre a demigod and you find a sweet little girl alone in the woods—thats typically a good time to draw your sword and attack. Plus, the encounter with Ms. Castellan had rattled me pretty bad. 

  But Nico bowed to the little girl. “Hello again, Lady. “

  She studied me with eyes as red as the firelight. I decided it was safest to bow. 

  “Sit, Percy Jackson,” she said. “Would you like some dinner?

  After staring at moldy peanut butter sandwiches and burned cookies, I didnt have much of an appetite, but the girl waved her hand and a picnic appeared at the edge of the fire. There were plates of roast beef, baked potatoes, buttered carrots, fresh bread, and a whole bunch of other foods I hadnt had in a long time. My stomach started to rumble. It was the kind of home-cooked meal people are supposed to have but never do. The girl made a five-foot-long dog biscuit appear for Mrs. OLeary, who happily began tearing it to shreds. 

  I sat next to Nico. We picked up our food, and I was about to dig in when I thought better of it. 

  I scraped part of my meal into the flames, the way we do at camp. “For the gods,” I said. 

  The little girl smiled. “Thank you. As tender of the flame, I get a share of every sacrifice, you know. “

  “I recognize you now,” I said. “The first time I came to camp, you were sitting by the fire, in the middle of the commons area. “

  “You did not stop to talk,” the girl recalled sadly. “Alas, most never do. Nico talked to me. He was the first in many years. Everyone rushes about. No time for visiting family. “

  “Youre Hestia,” I said. “Goddess of the Hearth. “

  She nodded. 

  Okay . . . so she looked eight years old. I didnt ask. Id learned that gods could look any way they pleased. 

  “My lady,” Nico asked, “why arent you with the other Olympians, fighting Typhon?”

  “Im not much for fighting. ” Her red eyes flickered. I realized they werent just reflecting the flames. They were filled with flames—but not like Aress eyes. Hestias eyes were warm and cozy. 

  “Besides,” she said, “someone has to keep the home fires burning while the other gods are away. “

  “So youre guarding Mount Olympus?” I asked. 

  “Guard may be too strong a word. But if you ever need a warm place to sit and a home-cooked meal, you are welcome to visit. Now eat. “

  My plate was empty before I knew it. Nico scarfed his down just as fast. 

  “That was great,” I said. “Thank you, Hestia. “

  She nodded. “Did you have a good visit with May Castellan?”

  For a moment Id almost forgotten the old lady with her bright eyes and her maniacal smile, the way shed suddenly seemed possessed. 

  “Whats wrong with her, exactly?” I asked. 

  “She was born with a gift,” Hestia said. “She could see through the Mist. “

  “Like my mother,” I said. And I was also thinking, Like Rachel “But the glowing eyes thing—”

  “Some bear the curse of sight better than others,” the goddess said sadly. “For a while, May Castellan had many talents. She attracted the attention of Hermes himself. They had a beautiful baby boy. For a brief time, she was happy. And then she went too far. “

  I remembered what Ms. Castellan had said: They offered me an important job . . . It didnt work out. I wondered what kind of job left you like that. 

  “One minute she was all happy,” I said. “And then she was freaking out about her sons fate, like she knew hed turned into Kronos. What happened to . . . to divide her like that?”

  The goddesss face darkened. “That is a story I do not like to tell. But May Castellan saw too much. If you are to understand your enemy Luke, you must understand his family. “

  I thought about the sad little pictures of Hermes taped above May Castellans sink. I wondered if Ms. Castellan had been so crazy when Luke was little. That green-eyed fit couldve seriously scared a nine-year-old kid. And if Hermes never visited, if hed left Luke alone with his mom all those years . . . 

  “No wonder Luke ran away,” I said. “I mean, it wasnt right to leave his mom like that, but still—he was just a kid. Hermes shouldnt have abandoned them. “

  Hestia scratched behind Mrs. OLearys ears. The hellhound wagged her tail and accidentally knocked over a tree. 

  “Its easy to judge others,” Hestia warned. “But will you follow Lukes path? Seek the same powers?”

  Nico set down his plate. “We have no choice, my lady. Its the only way Percy stands a chance. “

  “Mmm. ” Hestia opened her hand and the fire roared. Flames shot thirty feet into the air. Heat slapped me in the face. Then the fire died back down to normal. 

  “Not all powers are spectacular. ” Hestia looked at me. “Sometimes the hardest power to master is the power of yielding. Do you believe me?”

  “Uh-huh,” I said. Anything to keep her from messing with her flame powers again. 

  The goddess smiled. “You are a good hero, Percy Jackson. Not too proud. I like that. But you have much to learn. When Dionysus was made a god, I gave up my throne for him. It was the only way to avoid a civil war among the gods. “

  “It unbalanced the Council,” I remembered. “Suddenly there were seven guys and five girls. “

  Hestia shrugged. “It was the best solution, not a perfect one. Now I tend the fire. I fade slowly into the background. No one will ever write epic poems about the deeds of Hestia. Most demigods dont even stop to talk to me. But that is no matter. I keep the peace. I yield when necessary. Can you do this?”

  “I dont know what you mean. “

  She studied me. “Perhaps not yet. But soon. Will you continue your quest?”

  “Is that why youre here—to warn me against going?”

  Hestia shook her head. “I am here because when all else fails, when all the other mighty gods have gone off to war, I am all thats left. Home. Hearth. I am the last Olympian. You must remember me when you face your final decision. 

  I didnt like the way she said final. 

  I looked at Nico, then back at Hestias warm glowing eyes. “I have to continue, my lady. I have to stop Luke . . . I mean Kronos. “

  Hestia nodded. “Very well. I cannot be of much assistance, beyond what I have already told you. But since you sacrificed to me, I can return you to your own hearth. I will see you again, Percy, on Olympus. “

Her tone was ominous, as though our next meeting would not be happy. 

  The goddess waved her hand, and everything faded. 

  Suddenly I was home. Nico and I were sitting on the couch in my moms apartment on the Upper East Side. That was the good news. The bad news was that the rest of the living room was occupied by Mrs. OLeary. 

  I heard a muffled yell from the bedroom. Pauls voice said, “Who put this wall of fur in the doorway?”

  “Percy?” my mom called out. “Are you here? Are you all right?”

  “Im here!” I shouted back. 

  “WOOF!” Mrs. OLeary tried to turn in a circle to find my mom, knocking all the pictures off the walls. Shes only met my mom once before (long story), but she loves her. 

  It took a few minutes, but we finally got things worked out. After destroying most of the furniture in the living room and probably making our neighbors really mad, we got my parents out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, where we sat around the kitchen table. Mrs. OLeary still took up the entire living room, but shed settled her head in the kitchen doorway so she could see us, which made her happy. My mom tossed her a ten-pound family-size tube of ground beef, which disappeared down her gullet. Paul poured lemonade for the rest of us while I explained about our visit to Connecticut. 

  “So its true. ” Paul stared at me like hed never seen me before. He was wearing his white bathrobe, now covered in hellhound fur, and his salt-and-pepper hair was sticking up in every direction. “All the talk about monsters, and being a demigod . . . its really true. “

  I nodded. Last fall Id explained to Paul who I was. My mom had backed me up. But until this moment, I dont think he really believed us. 

  “Sorry about Mrs. OLeary,” I said, “destroying the living room and all. “

  Paul laughed like he was delighted. “Are you kidding? This is awesome! I mean, when I saw the hoofprints on the Prius, I thought maybe. But this!”

  He patted Mrs. OLearys snout. The living room shook—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM—which either meant a SWAT team was breaking down the door or Mrs. OLeary was wagging her tail. 

  I couldnt help but smile. Paul was a pretty cool guy, even if he was my English teacher as well as my stepdad. 

  “Thanks for not freaking out,” I said. 

  “Oh, Im freaking out,” he promised, his eyes wide. “I just think its awesome!”

  “Yeah, well,” I said, “you may not be so excited when you hear whats happening. “

  I told Paul and my mom about Typhon, and the gods, and the battle that was sure to come. Then I told them Nicos plan. 

  My mom laced her fingers around her lemonade glass. She was wearing her old blue flannel bathrobe, and her hair was tied back. Recently shed started writing a novel, like shed wanted to do for years, and I could tell shed been working on it late into the night, because the circles under her eyes were darker than usual. 

  Behind her at the kitchen window, silvery moon lace glowed in the flower box. Id brought the magical plant back from Calypsos island last summer, and it bloomed like crazy under my mothers care. The scent always calmed me down, but it also made me sad because it reminded me of lost friends. 

  My mom took a deep breath, like she was thinking how to tell me no. 

  “Percy, its dangerous,” she said. “Even for you. “

  “Mom, I know. I could die. Nico explained that. But if we dont try—”

  “Well all die,” Nico said. He hadnt touched his lemonade. “Ms. Jackson, we dont stand a chance against an invasion. And there will be an invasion. “

  “An invasion of New York?” Paul said. “Is that even possible? How could we not see the . . . the monsters?”

  He said the word like he still couldnt believe this was real. 

  “I dont know,” I admitted. “I dont see how Kronos could just march into Manhattan, but the Mist is strong. Typhon is trampling across the country right now, and mortals think hes a storm system. “

  “Ms. Jackson,” Nico said, “Percy needs your blessing. The process has to start that way. I wasnt sure until we met Lukes mom, but now Im positive. This has only been done successfully twice before. Both times, the mother had to give her blessing. She had to be willing to let her son take the risk. “

  “You want me to bless this?” She shook her head. “Its crazy. Percy, please—”

  “Mom, I cant do it without you. “

  “And if you survive this . . . this process?”

  “Then I go to war,” I said. “Me against Kronos. And only one of us will survive. “

  I didnt tell her the whole prophecy—about the soul reaping and the end of my days. She didnt need to know that I was probably doomed. I could only hope Id stop Kronos and save the rest of the world before I died. 

  “Youre my son,” she said miserably. “I cant just . . . “

  I could tell Id have to push her harder if I wanted her to agree, but I didnt want to. I remembered poor Ms. Castellan in her kitchen, waiting for her son to come home. And I realized how lucky I was. My mom had always been there for me, always tried to make things normal for me, even with the gods and monsters and stuff. She put up with me going off on adventures, but now I was asking her blessing to do something that would probably get me killed. 

  I locked eyes with Paul, and some kind of understanding passed between us. 

  “Sally. ” He put his hand over my mothers hands. “I cant claim to know what you and Percy have been going through all these years. But it sounds to me . . . it sounds like Percy is doing something noble. I wish I had that much courage. “

  I got a lump in my throat. I didnt get compliments like that too much. 

  My mom stared at her lemonade. She looked like she was trying not to cry. I thought about what Hestia had said, about how hard it was to yield, and I figured maybe my mom was finding that out. 

  “Percy,” she said, “I give you my blessing. “

  I didnt feel any different. No magic glow lit the kitchen or anything. 

  I glanced at Nico. 

  He looked more anxious than ever, but he nodded. “Its time. “

  “Percy,” my mom said. “One last thing. If you . . . if you survive this fight with Kronos, send me a sign. ” She rummaged through her purse and handed me her cell phone. 

  “Mom,” I said, “you know demigods and phones—”

  “I know,” she said. “But just in case. If youre not able to call . . . maybe a sign that I could see from anywhere in Manhattan. To let me know youre okay. “

  “Like Theseus,” Paul suggested. “He was supposed to raise white sails when he came home to Athens. “

  “Except he forgot,” Nico muttered. “And his father jumped off the palace roof in despair. But other than that, it was a great idea. “

  “What about a flag or a flare?” my mom said. “From Olympus—the Empire State Building. “

  “Something blue,” I said. 

  Wed had a running joke for years about blue food. It was my favorite color, and my mom went out of her way to humor me. Every year my birthday cake, my Easter basket, my Christmas candy canes always had to be blue. 

  “Yes,” my mom agreed. “Ill watch for a blue signal. And Ill try to avoid jumping off palace roofs. “

  She gave me one last hug. I tried not to feel like I was saying good-bye. I shook hands with Paul. Then Nico and I walked to the kitchen doorway and looked at Mrs. OLeary. 

  “Sorry, girl,” I said. “Shadow travel time again. “

  She whimpered and crossed her paws over her snout. 

  “Where now?” I asked Nico. “Los Angeles?”

  “No need,” he said. “Theres a closer entrance to the Underworld. “

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