The Lightning Thief – Chapter 18: ANNABETH DOESOBEDIENCESCHOOL

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Chapter 18: ANNABETH DOESOBEDIENCESCHOOL

We stood in the shadows of Valencia Boulevard, looking up at gold letters etched in black marble: DOA RECORDING STUDIOS. 

  Underneath, stenciled on the glass doors: NO SOLICITORS. NO LOITERING. NO LIVING. 

  It was almost midnight, but the lobby was brightly lit and full of people. Behind the security desk sat a tough-looking guard with sunglasses and an earpiece. 

  I turned to my friends. “Okay. You remember the plan. “

  “The plan,” Grover gulped. “Yeah. I love the plan. “

  Annabeth said, “What happens if the plan doesnt work?”

  “Dont think negative. “

  “Right,” she said. “Were entering the Land of the Dead, and I shouldnt think negative. “

  I took the pearls out of my pocket, the three milky spheres the Nereid had given me in Santa Monica. They didnt seem like much of a backup in case something went wrong. 

  Annabeth put her hand on my shoulder. “Im sorry, Percy. Youre right, well make it. Itll be fine. “

  She gave Grover a nudge. 

  “Oh, right!” he chimed in. “We got this far. Well find the master bolt and save your mom. No problem. “

  I looked at them both, and felt really grateful. Only a few minutes before, Id almost gotten them stretched to death on deluxe water beds, and now they were trying to be brave for my sake, trying to make me feel better. 

  I slipped the pearls back in my pocket. “Lets whup some Underworld butt. “

  We walked inside the DOA lobby. 

  Muzak played softly on hidden speakers. The carpet and walls were steel gray. Pencil cactuses grew in the corners like skeleton hands. The furniture was black leather, and every seat was taken. There were people sitting on couches, people standing up, people staring out the windows or waiting for the elevator. Nobody moved, or talked, or did much of anything. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see them all just fine, but if I focused on any one of them in particular, they started looking . . . transparent. I could see right through their bodies. 

  The security guards desk was a raised podium, so we had to look up at him. 

  He was tall and elegant, with chocolate-colored skin and bleached-blond hair shaved military style. He wore tortoiseshell shades and a silk Italian suit that matched his hair. A black rose was pinned to his lapel under a silver name tag. 

  I read the name tag, then looked at him in bewilderment. “Your name is Chiron?”

  He leaned across the desk. I couldnt see anything in his glasses except my own reflection, but his smile was sweet and cold, like a pythons, right before it eats you. 

  “What a precious young lad. ” He had a strange accent—British, maybe, but also as if he had learned English as a second language. “Tell me, mate, do I look like a centaur?”

  “N-no. “

  “Sir,” he added smoothly. 

  “Sir,” I said. 

  He pinched the name tag and ran his finger under the letters. “Can you read this, mate? It says C-H-A-R-O-N. Say it with me: CARE-ON. “

  “Charon. “

  “Amazing! Now: Mr. Charon. “

  “Mr. Charon,” I said. 

  “Well done. ” He sat back. “I hate being confused with that old horse-man. And now, how may I help you little dead ones?”

  His question caught in my stomach like a fastball. I looked at Annabeth for support. 

  “We want to go the Underworld,” she said. 

  Charons mouth twitched. “Well, thats refreshing. “

  “It is?” she asked. 

  “Straightforward and honest. No screaming. No There must be a mistake, Mr. Charon. ” He looked us over. “How did you die, then?”

  I nudged Grover. 

  “Oh,” he said. “Um . . . drowned . . . in the bathtub. “

  “All three of you?” Charon asked. We nodded. 

  “Big bathtub. ” Charon looked mildly impressed. “I dont suppose you have coins for passage. Normally, with adults, you see, I could charge your American Express, or add the ferry price to your last cable bill. But with children . . . alas, you never die prepared. Suppose youll have to take a seat for a few centuries. “

  “Oh, but we have coins. ” I set three golden drachmas on the counter, part of the stash Id found in Crustys office desk. 

  “Well, now . . . ” Charon moistened his lips. “Real drachmas. Real golden drachmas. I havent seen these in . . . “

  His fingers hovered greedily over the coins. 

  We were so close. 

  Then Charon looked at me. That cold stare behind his glasses seemed to bore a hole through my chest. “Here now,” he said. “You couldnt read my name correctly. Are you dyslexic, lad?”

  “No,” I said. “Im dead. “

  Charon leaned forward and took a sniff. “Youre not dead. I shouldve known. Youre a godling. “

  “We have to get to the Underworld,” I insisted. 

  Charon made a growling sound deep in his throat. 

  Immediately, all the people in the waiting room got up and started pacing, agitated, lighting cigarettes, running hands through their hair, or checking their wristwatches. 

  “Leave while you can,” Charon told us. “Ill just take these and forget I saw you. “

  He started to go for the coins, but I snatched them back. 

  “No service, no tip. ” I tried to sound braver than I felt. 

  Charon growled again—a deep, blood-chilling sound. The spirits of the dead started pounding on the elevator doors. 

  “Its a shame, too,” I sighed. “We had more to offer. “

  I held up the entire bag from Crustys stash. I took out a fistful of drachmas and let the coins spill through my fingers. 

  Charons growl changed into something more like a lions purr. “Do you think I can be bought, godling? Eh . . . just out of curiosity, how much have you got there?”

  “A lot,” I said. “I bet Hades doesnt pay you well enough for such hard work. “

  “Oh, you dont know the half of it. How would you like to babysit these spirits all day? Always Please dont let me be dead or Please let me across for free. I havent had a pay raise in three thousand years. Do you imagine suits like this come cheap?”

  “You deserve better,” I agreed. “A little appreciation. Respect. Good pay. “

  With each word, I stacked another gold coin on the counter. 

  Charon glanced down at his silk Italian jacket, as if imagining himself in something even better. “I must say, lad, youre making some sense now. Just a little. “

  I stacked another few coins. “I could mention a pay raise while Im talking to Hades. “

  He sighed. “The boats almost full, anyway. I might as well add you three and be off. “

  He stood, scooped up our money, and said, “Come along. “

  We pushed through the crowd of waiting spirits, who started grabbing at our clothes like the wind, their voices whispering things I couldnt make out. Charon shoved them out of the way, grumbling, “Freeloaders. “

  He escorted us into the elevator, which was already crowded with souls of the dead, each one holding a green boarding pass. Charon grabbed two spirits who were trying to get on with us and pushed them back into the lobby. 

  “Right. Now, no one get any ideas while Im gone,” he announced to the waiting room. “And if anyone moves the dial off my easy-listening station again, Ill make sure youre here for another thousand years. Understand?”

  He shut the doors. He put a key card into a slot in the elevator panel and we started to descend. 

  “What happens to the spirits waiting in the lobby?” Annabeth asked. 

  “Nothing,” Charon said. 

  “For how long?”

  “Forever, or until Im feeling generous. “

  “Oh,” she said. “Thats . . . fair. “

  Charon raised an eyebrow. “Whoever said death was fair, young miss? Wait until its your turn. Youll die soon enough, where youre going. “

  “Well get out alive,” I said. 

  “Ha. “

  I got a sudden dizzy feeling. We werent going down anymore, but forward. The air turned misty. Spirits around me started changing shape. Their modern clothes flickered, turning into gray hooded robes. The floor of the elevator began swaying. 

  I blinked hard. When I opened my eyes, Charons creamy Italian suit had been replaced by a long black robe. His tortoiseshell glasses were gone. Where his eyes shouldve been were empty sockets—like Aress eyes, except Charons were totally dark, full of night and death and despair. 

  He saw me looking, and said, “Well?”

  “Nothing,” I managed. 

  I thought he was grinning, but that wasnt it. The flesh of his face was becoming transparent, letting me see straight through to his skull. 

  The floor kept swaying. 

  Grover said, “I think Im getting seasick. “

  When I blinked again, the elevator wasnt an elevator anymore. We were standing in a wooden barge. Charon was poling us across a dark, oily river, swirling with bones, dead fish, and other, stranger things—plastic dolls, crushed carnations, soggy diplomas with gilt edges. 

  “The River Styx,” Annabeth murmured. “Its so . . . “

  “Polluted,” Charon said. “For thousands of years, you humans have been throwing in everything as you come across—hopes, dreams, wishes that never came true. Irresponsible waste management, if you ask me. “

  Mist curled off the filthy water. Above us, almost lost in the gloom, was a ceiling of stalactites. Ahead, the far shore glimmered with greenish light, the color of poison. 

  Panic closed up my throat. What was I doing here? These people around me . . . they were dead. 

  Annabeth grabbed hold of my hand. Under normal circumstances, this wouldve embarrassed me, but I understood how she felt. She wanted reassurance that somebody else was alive on this boat. 

  I found myself muttering a prayer, though I wasnt quite sure who I was praying to. Down here, only one god mattered, and he was the one I had come to confront. 

  The shoreline of the Underworld came into view. Craggy rocks and black volcanic sand stretched inland about a hundred yards to the base of a high stone wall, which marched off in either direction as far as we could see. A sound came from somewhere nearby in the green gloom, echoing off the stones—the howl of a large animal. 

  “Old Three-Face is hungry,” Charon said. His smile turned skeletal in the greenish light. “Bad luck for you, godlings. “

  The bottom of our boat slid onto the black sand. The dead began to disembark. A woman holding a little girls hand. An old man and an old woman hobbling along arm in arm. A boy no older than I was, shuffling silently along in his gray robe. 

  Charon said, “Id wish you luck, mate, but there isnt any down here. Mind you, dont forget to mention my pay raise. “

He counted our golden coins into his pouch, then took up his pole. He warbled something that sounded like a Barry Manilow song as he ferried the empty barge back across the river. 

  We followed the spirits up a well-worn path. 

  Im not sure what I was expecting—Pearly Gates, or a big black portcullis, or something. But the entrance to the Underworld looked like a cross between airport security and the Jersey Turnpike. 

  There were three separate entrances under one huge black archway that said YOU ARE NOW ENTERING EREBUS. Each entrance had a pass-through metal detector with security cameras mounted on top. Beyond this were tollbooths manned by black-robed ghouls like Charon. 

  The howling of the hungry animal was really loud now, but I couldnt see where it was coming from. The three-headed dog, Cerberus, who was supposed to guard Hadess door, was nowhere to be seen. 

  The dead queued up in the three lines, two marked ATTENDANT ON DUTY, and one marked EZ DEATH. The EZ DEATH line was moving right along. The other two were crawling. 

  “What do you figure?” I asked Annabeth. 

  “The fast line must go straight to the Asphodel Fields,” she said. “No contest. They dont want to risk judgment from the court, because it might go against them. “

  “Theres a court for dead people?”

  “Yeah. Three judges. They switch around who sits on the bench. King Minos, Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare—people like that. Sometimes they look at a life and decide that person needs a special reward—the Fields of Elysium. Sometimes they decide on punishment. But most people, well, they just lived. Nothing special, good or bad. So they go to the Asphodel Fields. “

  “And do what?”

  Grover said, “Imagine standing in a wheat field in Kansas. Forever. “

  “Harsh,” I said. 

  “Not as harsh as that,” Grover muttered. “Look. “

  A couple of black-robbed ghouls had pulled aside one spirit and were frisking him at the security desk. The face of the dead man looked vaguely familiar. 

  “Hes that preacher who made the news, remember?” Grover asked. 

  “Oh, yeah. ” I did remember now. Wed seen him on TV a couple of times at the YancyAcademy dorm. He was this annoying televangelist from upstate New York whod raised millions of dollars for orphanages and then got caught spending the money on stuff for his mansion, like gold-plated toilet seats, and an indoor putt-putt golf course. Hed died in a police chase when his “Lamborghini for the Lord” went off a cliff. 

  I said, “Whatre they doing to him?”

  “Special punishment from Hades,” Grover guessed. “The really bad people get his personal attention as soon as they arrive. The Fur—the Kindly Ones will set up an eternal torture for him. “

  The thought of the Furies made me shudder. I realized I was in their home territory now. Old Mrs. Dodds would be licking her lips with anticipation. 

  “But if hes a preacher,” I said, “and he believes in a different hell. . . . “

  Grover shrugged. “Who says hes seeing this place the way were seeing it? Humans see what they want to see. Youre very stubborn—er, persistent, that way. “

  We got closer to the gates. The howling was so loud now it shook the ground at my feet, but I still couldnt figure out where it was coming from. 

  Then, about fifty feet in front of us, the green mist shimmered. Standing just where the path split into three lanes was an enormous shadowy monster. 

  I hadnt seen it before because it was half transparent, like the dead. Until it moved, it blended with whatever was behind it. Only its eyes and teeth looked solid. And it was staring straight at me. 

  My jaw hung open. All I could think to say was, “Hes a Rottweiler. “

  Id always imagined Cerberus as a big black mastiff. But he was obviously a purebred Rottweiler, except of course that he was twice the size of a woolly mammoth, mostly invisible, and had three heads. 

  The dead walked right up to him—no fear at all. The ATTENDANT ON DUTY lines parted on either side of him. The EZ DEATH spirits walked right between his front paws and under his belly, which they could do without even crouching. 

  “Im starting to see him better,” I muttered. “Why is that?”

  “I think . . . ” Annabeth moistened her lips. “Im afraid its because were getting closer to being dead. “

  The dogs middle head craned toward us. It sniffed the air and growled. 

  “It can smell the living,” I said. 

  “But thats okay,” Grover said, trembling next to me. “Because we have a plan. “

  “Right,” Annabeth said. Id never heard her voice sound quite so small. “A plan. “

  We moved toward the monster. 

  The middle head snarled at us, then barked so loud my eyeballs rattled. 

  “Can you understand it?” I asked Grover. 

  “Oh yeah,” he said. “I can understand it. “

  “Whats it saying?”

  “I dont think humans have a four-letter word that translates, exactly. “

  I took the big stick out of my backpack—a bedpost Id broken off Crustys Safari Deluxe floor model. I held it up, and tried to channel happy dog thoughts toward Cerberus—Alpo commercials, cute little puppies, fire hydrants. I tried to smile, like I wasnt about to die. 

  “Hey, Big Fella,” I called up. “I bet they dont play with you much. “

  “GROWWWLLLL!”

  “Good boy,” I said weakly. 

  I waved the stick. The dogs middle head followed the movement. The other two heads trained their eyes on me, completely ignoring the spirits. I had Cerberuss undivided attention. I wasnt sure that was a good thing. 

  “Fetch!” I threw the stick into the gloom, a good solid throw. I heard it go ker-sploosh in the River Styx. 

  Cerberus glared at me, unimpressed. His eyes were baleful and cold. 

  So much for the plan. 

  Cerberus was now making a new kind of growl, deeper down in his three throats. 

  “Um,” Grover said. “Percy?”

  “Yeah?”

  “I just thought youd want to know. “

  “Yeah?”

  “Cerberus? Hes saying weve got ten seconds to pray to the god of our choice. After that. . . well . . . hes hungry. “

  “Wait!” Annabeth said. She started rifling through her pack. 

  Uh-oh, I thought. 

  “Five seconds,” Grover said. “Do we run now?”

  Annabeth produced a red rubber ball the size of a grapefruit. It was labeled WATERLAND, DENVER, CO. Before I could stop her, she raised the ball and marched straight up to Cerberus. 

  She shouted, “See the ball? You want the ball, Cerberus? Sit!”

  Cerberus looked as stunned as we were. 

  All three of his heads cocked sideways. Six nostrils dilated. 

  “Sit!” Annabeth called again. 

  I was sure that any moment she would become the worlds largest Milkbone dog biscuit. 

  But instead, Cerberus licked his three sets of lips, shifted on his haunches, and sat, immediately crushing a dozen spirits whod been passing underneath him in the EZ DEATH line. The spirits made muffled hisses as they dissipated, like the air let out of tires. 

  Annabeth said, “Good boy!”

  She threw Cerberus the ball. 

  He caught it in his middle mouth. It was barely big enough for him to chew, and the other heads started snapping at the middle, trying to get the new toy. 

  “Drop it. ” Annabeth ordered. 

  Cerberuss heads stopped fighting and looked at her. The ball was wedged between two of his teeth like a tiny piece of gum. He made a loud, scary whimper, then dropped the ball, now slimy and bitten nearly in half, at Annabeths feet. 

  “Good boy. ” She picked up the ball, ignoring the monster spit all over it. 

  She turned toward us. “Go now. EZ DEATH line—its faster. “

  I said, “But—”

  “Now. ” She ordered, in the same tone she was using on the dog. 

  Grover and I inched forward warily. 

  Cerberus started to growl. 

  “Stay!” Annabeth ordered the monster. “If you want the ball, stay!”

  Cerberus whimpered, but he stayed where he was. 

  “What about you?” I asked Annabeth as we passed her. 

  “I know what Im doing, Percy,” she muttered. “At least, Im pretty sure. . . . “

  Grover and I walked between the monsters legs. 

  Please, Annabeth, I prayed. Dont tell him to sit again. 

  We made it through. Cerberus wasnt any less scary-looking from the back. 

  Annabeth said, “Good dog!”

  She held up the tattered red ball, and probably came to the same conclusion I did—if she rewarded Cerberus, thered be nothing left for another trick. 

  She threw the ball anyway. The monsters left mouth immediately snatched it up, only to be attacked by the middle head, while the right head moaned in protest. 

  While the monster was distracted, Annabeth walked briskly under its belly and joined us at the metal detector. 

  “How did you do that?” I asked her, amazed. 

  “Obedience school,” she said breathlessly, and I was surprised to see there were tears in her eyes. “When I was little, at my dads house, we had a Doberman. . . . “

  “Never mind that,” Grover said, tugging at my shirt. “Come on!”

  We were about to bolt through the EZ DEATH line when Cerberus moaned pitifully from all three mouths. Annabeth stopped. 

  She turned to face the dog, which had done a one-eighty to look at us. 

  Cerberus panted expectantly, the tiny red ball in pieces in a puddle of drool at its feet. 

  “Good boy,” Annabeth said, but her voice sounded melancholy and uncertain. 

  The monsters heads turned sideways, as if worried about her. 

  “Ill bring you another ball soon,” Annabeth promised faintly. “Would you like that?”

  The monster whimpered. I didnt need to speak dog to know Cerberus was still waiting for the ball. 

  “Good dog. Ill come visit you soon. I—I promise. ” Annabeth turned to us. “Lets go. “

  Grover and I pushed through the metal detector, which immediately screamed and set off flashing red lights. “Unauthorized possessions! Magic detected!”

  Cerberus started to bark. 

  We burst through the EZ DEATH gate, which started even more alarms blaring, and raced into the Underworld. 

  A few minutes later, we were hiding, out of breath, in the rotten trunk of an immense black tree as security ghouls scuttled past, yelling for backup from the Furies. 

  Grover murmured, “Well, Percy, what have we learned today?”

  “That three-headed dogs prefer red rubber balls over sticks?”

  “No,” Grover told me. “Weve learned that your plans really, really bite!”

  I wasnt sure about that. I thought maybe Annabeth and I had both had the right idea. Even here in the Underworld, everybody—even monsters—needed a little attention once in a while. 

  I thought about that as we waited for the ghouls to pass. I pretended not to see Annabeth wipe a tear from her cheek as she listened to the mournful keening of Cerberus in the distance, longing for his new friend. 

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