The Lightning Thief – Chapter 11: WE VISIT THE GARDEN GNOME EMPORIUM

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Chapter 11: WE VISIT THE GARDEN GNOME EMPORIUM

In a way, its nice to know there are Greek gods out there, because you have somebody to blame when things go wrong. For instance, when youre walking away from a bus thats just been attacked by monster hags and blown up by lightning, and its raining on top of everything else, most people might think thats just really bad luck; when youre a half-blood, you understand that some divine force really is trying to mess up your day. 

  So there we were, Annabeth and Grover and I, walking through the woods along the New Jersey riverbank, the glow of New York City making the night sky yellow behind us, and the smell of the Hudson reeking in our noses. 

  Grover was shivering and braying, his big goat eyes turned slit-pupiled and full of terror. “Three Kindly Ones. All three at once. “

  I was pretty much in shock myself. The explosion of bus windows still rang in my ears. But Annabeth kept pulling us along, saying: “Come on! The farther away we get, the better. “

  “All our money was back there,” I reminded her. “Our food and clothes. Everything. “

  “Well, maybe if you hadnt decided to jump into the fight—”

  “What did you want me to do? Let you get killed?”

  “You didnt need to protect me, Percy. I wouldve been fine. “

  “Sliced like sandwich bread,” Grover put in, “but fine. “

  “Shut up, goat boy,” said Annabeth. 

  Grover brayed mournfully. “Tin cans . . . a perfectly good bag of tin cans. “

  We sloshed across mushy ground, through nasty twisted trees that smelled like sour laundry. 

  After a few minutes, Annabeth fell into line next to me. “Look, I. . . ” Her voice faltered. “I appreciate your coming back for us, okay? That was really brave. “

  “Were a team, right?”

  She was silent for a few more steps. “Its just that if you died . . . aside from the fact that it would really suck for you, it would mean the quest was over. This may be my only chance to see the real world. “

  The thunderstorm had finally let up. The city glow faded behind us, leaving us in almost total darkness. I couldnt see anything of Annabeth except a glint of her blond hair. 

  “You havent left CampHalf-Blood since you were seven?” I asked her. 

  “No . . . only short field trips. My dad—”

  “The history professor. “

  “Yeah. It didnt work out for me living at home. I mean, CampHalf-Bloodis my home. ” She was rushing her words out now, as if she were afraid somebody might try to stop her. “At camp you train and train. And thats all cool and everything, but the real world is where the monsters are. Thats where you learn whether youre any good or not. “

  If I didnt know better, I couldve sworn I heard doubt in her voice. 

  “Youre pretty good with that knife,” I said. 

  “You think so?”

  “Anybody who can piggyback-ride a Fury is okay by me. “

  I couldnt really see, but I thought she mightve smiled. 

  “You know,” she said, “maybe I should tell you . . . Something funny back on the bus . . . “

  Whatever she wanted to say was interrupted by a shrill toot-toot-toot, like the sound of an owl being tortured. 

  “Hey, my reed pipes still work!” Grover cried. “If I could just remember a find path song, we could get out of these woods!”. . . . . . . . . 

  He puffed out a few notes, but the tune still sounded suspiciously like Hilary Duff. 

  Instead of finding a path, I immediately slammed into a tree and got a nice-size knot on my head. 

  Add to the list of superpowers I did not have: infrared vision. 

  After tripping and cursing and generally feeling miserable for another mile or so, I started to see light up ahead: the colors of a neon sign. I could smell food. Fried, greasy, excellent food. I realized I hadnt eaten anything unhealthy since Id arrived at Half-Blood Hill, where we lived on grapes, bread, cheese, and extra-lean-cut nymph-prepared barbecue. This boy needed a double cheeseburger. 

  We kept walking until I saw a deserted two-lane road through the trees. On the other side was a closed-down gas station, a tattered billboard for a 1990s movie, and one open business, which was the source of the neon light and the good smell. 

  It wasnt a fast-food restaurant like Id hoped. It was one of those weird roadside curio shops that sell lawn flamingos and wooden Indians and cement grizzly bears and stuff like that. The main building was a long, low warehouse, surrounded by acres of statuary. The neon sign above the gate was impossible for me to read, because if theres anything worse for my dyslexia than regular English, its red cursive neon English. 

To me, it looked like: ATNYU MES GDERAN GOMEN MEPROUIM. 

  “What the heck does that say?” I asked. 

  “I dont know,” Annabeth said. 

  She loved reading so much, Id forgotten she was dyslexic, too. 

  Grover translated: “Aunty Ems Garden Gnome Emporium. “

  Flanking the entrance, as advertised, were two cement garden gnomes, ugly bearded little runts, smiling and waving, as if they were about to get their picture taken. 

  I crossed the street, following the smell of the hamburgers. 

  “Hey . . . ” Grover warned. 

  “The lights are on inside,” Annabeth said. “Maybe its open. “

  “Snack bar,” I said wistfully. 

  “Snack bar,” she agreed. 

  “Are you two crazy?” Grover said. “This place is weird. “

  We ignored him. 

  The front lot was a forest of statues: cement animals, cement children, even a cement satyr playing the pipes, which gave Grover the creeps. 

  “Bla-ha-ha!” he bleated. “Looks like my Uncle Ferdinand!”

  We stopped at the warehouse door. 

  “Dont knock,” Grover pleaded. “I smell monsters. “

  “Your nose is clogged up from the Furies,” Annabeth told him. “All I smell is burgers. Arent you hungry?”

  “Meat!” he said scornfully. “Im a vegetarian. “

  “You eat cheese enchiladas and aluminum cans,” I reminded him. . 

  “Those are vegetables. Come on. Lets leave. These statues are . . . looking at me. “

  Then the door creaked open, and standing in front of us was a tall Middle Eastern woman—at least, I assumed she was Middle Eastern, because she wore a long black gown that covered everything but her hands, and her head was completely veiled. Her eyes glinted behind a curtain of black gauze, but that was about all I could make out. Her coffee-colored hands looked old, but well-manicured and elegant, so I imagined she was a grandmother who had once been a beautiful lady. 

  Her accent sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, too. She said, “Children, it is too late to be out all alone. Where are your parents?”

  “Theyre . . . um . . . ” Annabeth started to say. 

  “Were orphans,” I said. 

  “Orphans?” the woman said. The word sounded alien in her mouth. “But, my dears! Surely not!”

  “We got separated from our caravan,” I said. “Our circus caravan. The ringmaster told us to meet him at the gas station if we got lost, but he may have forgotten, or maybe he meant a different gas station. Anyway, were lost. Is that food I smell?”

  “Oh, my dears,” the woman said. “You must come in, poor children. I am Aunty Em. Go straight through to the back of the warehouse, please. There is a dining area. “

  We thanked her and went inside. 

  Annabeth muttered to me, “Circus caravan?”

  “Always have a strategy, right?”

  “Your head is full of kelp. “

  The warehouse was filled with more statues—people in all different poses, wearing all differentoutfits and with different expressions on their faces. I was thinking youd have to have a pretty huge garden to fit even one of these statues, because they were all life-size. But mostly, I was thinking about food. 

  Go ahead, call me an idiot for walking into a strange ladys shop like that just because I was hungry, but I do impulsive stuff sometimes. Plus, youve never smelled Aunty Ems burgers. The aroma was like laughing gas in the dentists chair—it made everything else go away. I barely noticed Grovers nervous whimpers, or the way the statues eyes seemed to follow me, or the fact that Aunty Em had locked the door behind us. 

  All I cared about was finding the dining area. And sure enough, there it was at the back of the warehouse, a fast-food counter with a grill, a soda fountain, a pretzel heater, and a nacho cheese dispenser. Everything you could want, plus a few steel picnic tables out front. 

  “Please, sit down,” Aunty Em said. 

  “Awesome,” I said. 

  “Um,” Grover said reluctantly, “we dont have any money, maam. “

  Before I could jab him in the ribs, Aunty Em said, “No, no, children. No money. This is a special case, yes? It is my treat, for such nice orphans. “

  “Thank you, maam,” Annabeth said. 

  Aunty Em stiffened, as if Annabeth had done something wrong, but then the old woman relaxed just as quickly, so I figured it mustve been my imagination. 

  “Quite all right, Annabeth,” she said. “You have such beautiful gray eyes, child. ” Only later did I wonder how she knew Annabeths name, even though we had never introduced ourselves. 

  Our hostess disappeared behind the snack counter and started cooking. Before we knew it, shed brought us plastic trays heaped with double cheeseburgers, vanilla shakes, and XXL servings of French fries. 

  I was halfway through my burger before I remembered to breathe. 

  Annabeth slurped her shake. 

  Grover picked at the fries, and eyed the trays waxed paper liner as if he might go for that, but he still looked too nervous to eat. 

  “Whats that hissing noise?” he asked. 

  I listened, but didnt hear anything. Annabeth shook her head. 

  “Hissing?” Aunty Em asked. “Perhaps you hear the deep-fryer oil. You have keen ears, Grover. “

  “I take vitamins. For my ears. “

  “Thats admirable,” she said. “But please, relax. “

  Aunty Em ate nothing. She hadnt taken off her headdress, even to cook, and now she sat forward and interlaced her fingers and watched us eat. It was a little unsettling, having someone stare at me when I couldnt see her face, but I was feeling satisfied after the burger, and a little sleepy, and I figured the least I could do was try to make small talk with our hostess. 

  “So, you sell gnomes,” I said, trying to sound interested. 

  “Oh, yes,” Aunty Em said. “And animals. And people. Anything for the garden. Custom orders. Statuary is very popular, you know. “

  “A lot of business on this road?”

  “Not so much, no. Since the highway was built. . . most cars, they do not go this way now. I must cherish every customer I get. “

  My neck tingled, as if somebody else was looking at me. I turned, but it was just a statue of a young girl holding an Easter basket. The detail was incredible, much better than you see in most garden statues. But something was wrong with her face. It looked as if she were startled, or even terrified. 

  “Ah,” Aunty Em said sadly. “You notice some of my creations do not turn out well. They are marred. They do not sell. The face is the hardest to get right. Always the face. “

  “You make these statues yourself?” I asked. 

  “Oh, yes. Once upon a time, I had two sisters to help me in the business, but they have passed on, and Aunty Em is alone. I have only my statues. This is why I make them, you see. They are my company. ” The sadness in her voice sounded so deep and so real that I couldnt help feeling sorry for her. 

  Annabeth had stopped eating. She sat forward and said, “Two sisters?”

  “Its a terrible story,” Aunty Em said. “Not one for children, really. You see, Annabeth, a bad woman was jealous of me, long ago, when I was young. I had a. . . a boyfriend, you know, and this bad woman was determined to break us apart. She caused a terrible accident. My sisters stayed by me. They shared my bad fortune as long as they could, but eventually they passed on. They faded away. I alone have survived, but at a price. Such a price. “

  I wasnt sure what she meant, but I felt bad for her. My eyelids kept getting heavier, my full stomach making me sleepy. Poor old lady. Who would want to hurt somebody so nice?

  “Percy?” Annabeth was shaking me to get my attention. “Maybe we should go. I mean, the ringmaster will be waiting. “

  She sounded tense. I wasnt sure why. Grover was eating the waxed paper off the tray now, but if Aunty Em found that strange, she didnt say anything. 

  “Such beautiful gray eyes,” Aunty Em told Annabeth again. “My, yes, it has been a long time since Ive seen gray eyes like those. “

  She reached out as if to stroke Annabeths cheek, but Annabeth stood up abruptly. 

  “We really should go. “

  “Yes!” Grover swallowed his waxed paper and stood up. “The ringmaster is waiting! Right!”

  I didnt want to leave. I felt full and content. Aunty Em was so nice. I wanted to stay with her a while. 

  “Please, dears,” Aunty Em pleaded. “I so rarely get to be with children. Before you go, wont you at least sit for a pose?”

  “A pose?” Annabeth asked warily. 

  “A photograph. I will use it to model a new statue set. Children are so popular, you see. Everyone loves children. “

  Annabeth shifted her weight from foot to foot. “I dont think we can, maam. Come on, Percy—”

  “Sure we can,” I said. I was irritated with Annabeth for being so bossy, so rude to an old lady whod just fed us for free. “Its just a photo, Annabeth. Whats the harm?”

  “Yes, Annabeth,” the woman purred. “No harm. “

  I could tell Annabeth didnt like it, but she allowed Aunty Em to lead us back out the front door, into the garden of statues. 

  Aunty Em directed us to a park bench next to the stone satyr. “Now,” she said, “Ill just position you correctly. The young girl in the middle, I think, and the two young gentlemen on either side. “

  “Not much light for a photo,” I remarked. 

  “Oh, enough,” Aunty Em said. “Enough for us to see each other, yes?”

  “Wheres your camera?” Grover asked. 

  Aunty Em stepped back, as if to admire the shot. “Now, the face is the most difficult. Can you smile for me please, everyone? A large smile?”

  Grover glanced at the cement satyr next to him, and mumbled, “That sure does look like Uncle Ferdinand. “

  “Grover,” Aunty Em chastised, “look this way, dear. “

  She still had no camera in her hands. 

  “Percy—” Annabeth said. 

  Some instinct warned me to listen to Annabeth, but I was fighting the sleepy feeling, the comfortable lull that came from the food and the old ladys voice. 

  “I will just be a moment,” Aunty Em said. “You know, I cant see you very well in this cursed veil. . . . “

  “Percy, somethings wrong,” Annabeth insisted. 

  “Wrong?” Aunty Em said, reaching up to undo the wrap around her head. “Not at all, dear. I have such noble company tonight. What could be wrong?”

  “That is Uncle Ferdinand!” Grover gasped. 

  “Look away from her!” Annabeth shouted. She whipped her Yankees cap onto her head and vanished. Her invisible hands pushed Grover and me both off the bench. 

  I was on the ground, looking at Aunt Ems sandaled feet. 

  I could hear Grover scrambling off in one direction, Annabeth in another. But I was too dazed to move. 

  Then I heard a strange, rasping sound above me. My eyes rose to Aunty Ems hands, which had turned gnarled and warty, with sharp bronze talons for fingernails. 

  I almost looked higher, but somewhere off to my left Annabeth screamed, “No! Dont!”

  More rasping—the sound of tiny snakes, right above me, from . . . from about where Aunty Ems head would be. 

  “Run!” Grover bleated. I heard him racing across the gravel, yelling, “Maia!” to kick-start his flying sneakers. 

I couldnt move. I stared at Aunty Ems gnarled claws, and tried to fight the groggy trance the old woman had put me in. 

  “Such a pity to destroy a handsome young face,” she told me soothingly. “Stay with me, Percy. All you have to do is look up. “

  I fought the urge to obey. Instead I looked to one side and saw one of those glass spheres people put in gardens— a gazing ball. I could see Aunty Ems dark reflection in the orange glass; her headdress was gone, revealing her face as a shimmering pale circle. Her hair was moving, writhing like serpents. 

  Aunty Em. 

  Aunty “M. “

  How could I have been so stupid?

  Think, I told myself. How did Medusa die in the myth?

  But I couldnt think. Something told me that in the myth Medusa had been asleep when she was attacked by my namesake, Perseus. She wasnt anywhere near asleep now. If she wanted, she could take those talons right now and rake open my face. 

  “The Gray-Eyed One did this to me, Percy,” Medusa said, and she didnt sound anything like a monster. Her voice invited me to look up, to sympathize with a poor old grandmother. “Annabeths mother, the cursed Athena, turned me from a beautiful woman into this. “

  “Dont listen to her!” Annabeths voice shouted, somewhere in the statuary. “Run, Percy!”

  “Silence!” Medusa snarled. Then her voice modulated back to a comforting purr. “You see why I must destroy the girl, Percy. She is my enemys daughter. I shall crush her statue to dust. But you, dear Percy, you need not suffer. ” 

  “No,” I muttered. I tried to make my legs move. . . 

  “Do you really want to help the gods?” Medusa asked. “Do you understand what awaits you on this foolish quest, Percy? What will happen if you reach the Underworld? Do not be a pawn of the Olympians, my dear. You would be better off as a statue. Less pain. Less pain. “

  “Percy!” Behind me, I heard a buzzing sound, like a two-hundred-pound hummingbird in a nosedive. Grover yelled, “Duck!”

  I turned, and there he was in the night sky, flying in from twelve oclock with his winged shoes fluttering, Grover, holding a tree branch the size of a baseball bat. His eyes were shut tight, his head twitched from side to side. He was navigating by ears and nose alone. 

  “Duck!” he yelled again. “Ill get her!”

  That finally jolted me into action. Knowing Grover, I was sure hed miss Medusa and nail me. I dove to one side. 

  Thwack!

  At first I figured it was the sound of Grover hitting a tree. Then Medusa roared with rage. 

  “You miserable satyr,” she snarled. “Ill add you to my collection!”

  “That was for Uncle Ferdinand!” Grover yelled back. 

  I scrambled away and hid in the statuary while Grover swooped down for another pass. 

  Ker-whack!

  “Arrgh!” Medusa yelled, her snake-hair hissing and spitting. 

  Right next to me, Annabeths voice said, “Percy!”

  I jumped so high my feet nearly cleared a garden gnome. “Jeez! Dont do that!”

  Annabeth took off her Yankees cap and became visible. You have to cut her head off. “

  “What? Are you crazy? Lets get out of here. “

  “Medusa is a menace. Shes evil. Id kill her myself, but. . . ” Annabeth swallowed, as if she were about to make a difficult admission. “But youve got the better weapon. Besides, Id never get close to her. Shed slice me to bits because of my mother. You—youve got a chance. “

  “What? I cant—”

  “Look, do you want her turning more innocent people into statues?”

  She pointed to a pair of statue lovers, a man and a woman with their arms around each other, turned to stone by the monster. 

  Annabeth grabbed a green gazing ball from a nearby pedestal. “A polished shield would be better. ” She studied the sphere critically. “The convexity will cause some distortion. The reflections size should be off by a factor of—”

  “Would you speak English?”

  “I am!” She tossed me the glass ball. “Just look at her in the glass. Never look at her directly. “

  “Hey, guys!” Grover yelled somewhere above us. “I think shes unconscious!”

  “Roooaaarrr!”

  “Maybe not,” Grover corrected. He went in for another pass with the tree branch. 

  “Hurry,” Annabeth told me. “Grovers got a great nose, but hell eventually crash. “. 

  I took out my pen and uncapped it. The bronze blade of Riptide elongated in my hand. 

  I followed the hissing and spitting sounds of Medusas hair. 

  I kept my eyes locked on the gazing ball so I would only glimpse Medusas reflection, not the real thing. Then, in the green tinted glass, I saw her. 

  Grover was coming in for another turn at bat, but this time he flew a little too low. Medusa grabbed the stick and pulled him off course. He tumbled through the air and crashed into the arms of a stone grizzly bear with a painful “Ummphh!”

  Medusa was about to lunge at him when I yelled, “Hey!”

  I advanced on her, which wasnt easy, holding a sword and a glass ball. If she charged, Id have a hard time defending myself. 

  But she let me approach—twenty feet, ten feet. 

  I could see the reflection of her face now. Surely it wasnt really that ugly. The green swirls of the gazing ball must be distorting it, making it look worse. 

  “You wouldnt harm an old woman, Percy,” she crooned. “I know you wouldnt. “

  I hesitated, fascinated by the face I saw reflected in the glass—the eyes that seemed to burn straight through the green tint, making my arms go weak. 

  From the cement grizzly, Grover moaned, “Percy, dont listen to her!”

  Medusa cackled. “Too late. “

  She lunged at me with her talons. 

  I slashed up with my sword, heard a sickening shlock!, then a hiss like wind rushing out of a cavern—the sound of a monster disintegrating. 

  Something fell to the ground next to my foot. It took all my willpower not to look. I could feel warm ooze soaking into my sock, little dying snake heads tugging at my shoelaces. 

  “Oh, yuck,” Grover said. His eyes were still tightly closed, but I guess he could hear the thing gurgling and steaming. “Mega-yuck. “

  Annabeth came up next to me, her eyes fixed on the sky. She was holding Medusas black veil. She said, “Dont move. “

  Very, very carefully, without looking down, she knelt and draped the monsters head in black cloth, then picked it up. It was still dripping green juice. 

  “Are you okay?” she asked me, her voice trembling. 

  “Yeah,” I decided, though I felt like throwing up my double cheeseburger. “Why didnt . . . why didnt the head evaporate?”

  “Once you sever it, it becomes a spoil of war,” she said. “Same as your minotaur horn. But dont unwrap the head. It can still petrify you. “

  Grover moaned as he climbed down from the grizzly statue. He had a big welt on his forehead. His green rasta cap hung from one of his little goat horns, and his fake feet had been knocked off his hooves. The magic sneakers were flying aimlessly around his head. 

  “The Red Baron,” I said. “Good job, man. “

  He managed a bashful grin. “That really was not fun, though. Well, the hitting-her-with-a-stick part, that was fun. But crashing into a concrete bear? Not fun. “

  He snatched his shoes out of the air. I recapped my sword. Together, the three of us stumbled back to the warehouse. 

  We found some old plastic grocery bags behind the snack counter and double-wrapped Medusas head. We plopped it on the table where wed eaten dinner and sat around it, too exhausted to speak. 

  Finally I said, “So we have Athena to thank for this monster?”

  Annabeth flashed me an irritated look. “Your dad, actually. Dont you remember? Medusa was Poseidons girlfriend. They decided to meet in my mothers temple. Thats why Athena turned her into a monster. Medusa and her two sisters who had helped her get into the temple, they became the three gorgons. Thats why Medusa wanted to slice me up, but she wanted to preserve you as a nice statue. Shes still sweet on your dad. You probably reminded her of him. “

  My face was burning. “Oh, so now its my fault we met Medusa. “

  Annabeth straightened. In a bad imitation of my voice, she said: “Its just a photo, Annabeth. Whats the harm?”

  “Forget it,” I said. “Youre impossible. “

  “Youre insufferable. “

  “Youre—”

  “Hey!” Grover interrupted. “You two are giving me a migraine, and satyrs dont even get migraines. What are we going to do with the head?”

  I stared at the thing. One little snake was hanging out of a hole in the plastic. The words printed on the side of the bag said: WE APPRECIATE YOUR BUSINESS!

  I was angry, not just with Annabeth or her mom, but with all the gods for this whole quest, for getting us blown off the road and in two major fights the very first day out from camp. At this rate, wed never make it to L. A. alive, much less before the summer solstice. 

  What had Medusa said?

  Do not be a pawn of the Olympians, my dear. You would be better off as a statue. 

  I got up. “Ill be back. “

  “Percy,” Annabeth called after me. “What are you—”

  I searched the back of the warehouse until I found Medusas office. Her account book showed her six most recent sales, all shipments to the Underworld to decorate Hades and Persephones garden. According to one freight bill, the Underworlds billing address was DOA Recording Studios, West Hollywood, California. I folded up the bill and stuffed it in my pocket. 

  In the cash register I found twenty dollars, a few golden drachmas, and some packing slips for Hermes Overnight Express, each with a little leather bag attached for coins. I rummaged around the rest of the office until I found the right-size box. 

  I went back to the picnic table, packed up Medusas head, and filled out a delivery slip:

  The Gods

  Mount Olympus

  600th Floor,

  Empire StateBuilding

  New York, NY

  With best wishes,

  PERCY JACKSON

  “Theyre not going to like that,” Grover warned. “Theyll think youre impertinent. “

  I poured some golden drachmas in the pouch. As soon as I closed it, there was a sound like a cash register. The package floated off the table and disappeared with a pop!

  “I am impertinent,” I said. 

  I looked at Annabeth, daring her to criticize. 

  She didnt. She seemed resigned to the fact that I had a major talent for ticking off the gods. “Come on,” she muttered. “We need a new plan. ”

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