The Lightning Thief – Chapter 3: GROVER UNEXPECTEDLY LOSES HIS PANTS

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Chapter 3: GROVER UNEXPECTEDLY LOSES HIS PANTS

Confession time: I ditched Grover as soon as we got to the bus terminal. 

  I know, I know. It was rude. But Grover was freaking me out, looking at me like I was a dead man, muttering “Why does this always happen?” and “Why does it always have to he sixth grade?”

  Whenever he got upset, Grovers bladder acted up, so I wasnt surprised when, as soon as we got off the bus, he made me promise to wait for him, then made a beeline for the restroom. Instead of waiting, I got my suitcase, slipped outside, and caught the first taxi uptown. 

  “East One-hundred-and-fourth and First,” I told the driver. 

  A word about my mother, before you meet her. 

  Her name is Sally Jackson and shes the best person in the world, which just proves my theory that the best people have the rottenest luck. Her own parents died in a plane crash when she was five, and she was raised by an uncle who didnt care much about her. She wanted to be a novelist, so she spent high school working to save enough money for a college with a good creative-writing program. Then her uncle got cancer, and she had to quit school her senior year to take care of him. After he died, she was left with no money, no family, and no diploma. 

  The only good break she ever got was meeting my dad. 

  I dont have any memories of him, just this sort of warm glow, maybe the barest trace of his smile. My mom doesnt like to talk about him because it makes her sad. She has no pictures. 

  See, they werent married. She told me he was rich and important, and their relationship was a secret. Then one day, he set sail across the Atlantic on some important journey, and he never came back. 

  Lost at sea, my mom told me. Not dead. Lost at sea. 

  She worked odd jobs, took night classes to get her high school diploma, and raised me on her own. She never complained or got mad. Not even once. But I knew I wasnt an easy kid. 

  Finally, she married Gabe Ugliano, who was nice the first thirty seconds we knew him, then showed his true colors as a world-class jerk. When I was young, I nicknamed him Smelly Gabe. Im sorry, but its the truth. The guy reeked like moldy garlic pizza wrapped in gym shorts. 

  Between the two of us, we made my moms life pretty hard. The way Smelly Gabe treated her, the way he and I got along . . . well, when I came home is a good example. 

  I walked into our little apartment, hoping my mom would be home from work. Instead, Smelly Gabe was in the living room, playing poker with his buddies. The television blared ESPN. Chips and beer cans were strewn all over the carpet. 

  Hardly looking up, he said around his cigar, “So, youre home. “

  “Wheres my mom?”

  “Working,” he said. “You got any cash?”

  That was it. No Welcome back. Good to see you. How has your life been the last six months?

  Gabe had put on weight. He looked like a tuskless walrus in thrift-store clothes. He had about three hairs on his head, all combed over his bald scalp, as if that made him handsome or something. 

  He managed the Electronics Mega-Mart in Queens, but he stayed home most of the time. I dont know why he hadnt been fired long before. He just kept on collecting paychecks, spending the money on cigars that made me nauseous, and on beer, of course. Always beer. Whenever I was home, he expected me to provide his gambling funds. He called that our “guy secret. ” Meaning, if I told my mom, he would punch my lights out. 

  “I dont have any cash,” I told him. 

  He raised a greasy eyebrow. 

  Gabe could sniff out money like a bloodhound, which was surprising, since his own smell shouldve covered up everything else. 

  “You took a taxi from the bus station,” he said. Probably paid with a twenty. Got six, seven bucks in change. Somebody expects to live under this roof, he ought to carry his own weight. Am I right, Eddie?”

  Eddie, the super of the apartment building, looked at me with a twinge of sympathy. “Come on, Gabe,” he said. “The kid just got here. “

  “Am I right?” Gabe repeated. 

  Eddie scowled into his bowl of pretzels. The other two guys passed gas in harmony. 

  “Fine,” I said. I dug a wad of dollars out of my pocket and threw the money on the table. “I hope you lose. “

  “Your report card came, brain boy!” he shouted after me. “I wouldnt act so snooty!”

  I slammed the door to my room, which really wasnt my room. During school months, it was Gabes “study. ” He didnt study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer. 

  I dropped my suitcase on the bed. Home sweet home. 

  Gabes smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit ladys shears snipping the yarn. 

  But as soon as I thought that, my legs felt weak. I remembered Grovers look of panic—how hed made me promise I wouldnt go home without him. A sudden chill rolled through me. I felt like someone—something—was looking for me right now, maybe pounding its way up the stairs, growing long, horrible talons. 

  Then I heard my moms voice. “Percy?”

  She opened the bedroom door, and my fears melted. 

  My mother can make me feel good just by walking into the room. Her eyes sparkle and change color in the light. Her smile is as warm as a quilt. Shes got a few gray streaks mixed in with her long brown hair, but I never think of her as old. When she looks at me, its like shes seeing all the good things about me, none of the bad. Ive never heard her raise her voice or say an unkind word to anyone, not even me or Gabe. 

  “Oh, Percy. ” She hugged me tight. “I cant believe it. Youve grown since Christmas!”

  Her red-white-and-blue Sweet on America uniform smelled like the best things in the world: chocolate, licorice, and all the other stuff she sold at the candy shop in Grand Central. Shed brought me a huge bag of “free samples,” the way she always did when I came home. 

  We sat together on the edge of the bed. While I attacked the blueberry sour strings, she ran her hand through my hair and demanded to know everything I hadnt put in my letters. She didnt mention anything about my getting expelled. She didnt seem to care about that. But was I okay? Was her little boy doing all right?

  I told her she was smothering me, and to lay off and all that, but secretly, I was really, really glad to see her. 

  From the other room, Gabe yelled, “Hey, Sally—how about some bean dip, huh?”

  I gritted my teeth. 

  My mom is the nicest lady in the world. She shouldve been married to a millionaire, not to some jerk like Gabe. 

  For her sake, I tried to sound upbeat about my last days at YancyAcademy. I told her I wasnt too down about the expulsion. Id lasted almost the whole year this time. Id made some new friends. Id done pretty well in Latin. And honestly, the fights hadnt been as bad as the headmaster said. I liked YancyAcademy. I really did. I put such a good spin on the year, I almost convinced myself. I started choking up, thinking about Grover and Mr. Brunner. Even Nancy Bobofit suddenly didnt seem so bad. 

  Until that trip to the museum . . . 

  “What?” my mom asked. Her eyes tugged at my conscience, trying to pull out the secrets. “Did something scare you?”

  “No, Mom. “

  I felt bad lying. I wanted to tell her about Mrs. Dodds and the three old ladies with the yarn, but I thought it would sound stupid. 

  She pursed her lips. She knew I was holding back, but she didnt push me. 

  “I have a surprise for you,” she said. “Were going to the beach. “

  My eyes widened. “Montauk?”

  “Three nights—same cabin. “

  “When?”

  She smiled. “As soon as I get changed. “

  I couldnt believe it. My mom and I hadnt been to Montauk the last two summers, because Gabe said there wasnt enough money. 

  Gabe appeared in the doorway and growled, “Bean dip, Sally? Didnt you hear me?”

  I wanted to punch him, but I met my moms eyes and I understood she was offering me a deal: be nice to Gabe for a little while. Just until she was ready to leave for Montauk. Then we would get out of here. 

  “I was on my way, honey,” she told Gabe. “We were just talking about the trip. “

  Gabes eyes got small. “The trip? You mean you were serious about that?”

  “I knew it,” I muttered. “He wont let us go. “

  “Of course he will,” my mom said evenly. “Your stepfather is just worried about money. Thats all. Besides,” she added, “Gabriel wont have to settle for bean dip. Ill make him enough seven-layer dip for the whole weekend. Guacamole. Sour cream. The works. “

  Gabe softened a bit. “So this money for your trip . . . it comes out of your clothes budget, right?”

  “Yes, honey,” my mother said. 

  “And you wont take my car anywhere but there and back. “

  “Well be very careful. “

  Gabe scratched his double chin. “Maybe if you hurry with that seven-layer dip . . . And maybe if the kid apologizes for interrupting my poker game. “

  Maybe if I kick you in your soft spot, I thought. And make you sing soprano for a week. 

  But my moms eyes warned me not to make him mad. 

  Why did she put up with this guy? I wanted to scream. Why did she care what he thought?

  “Im sorry,” I muttered. “Im really sorry I interrupted your incredibly important poker game. Please go back to it right now. “

  Gabes eyes narrowed. His tiny brain was probably trying to detect sarcasm in my statement. 

  “Yeah, whatever,” he decided. 

  He went back to his game. 

  “Thank you, Percy,” my mom said. “Once we get to Montauk, well talk more about. . . whatever youve forgotten to tell me, okay?”

  For a moment, I thought I saw anxiety in her eyes—the same fear Id seen in Grover during the bus ride—as if my mom too felt an odd chill in the air. 

  But then her smile returned, and I figured I must have been mistaken. She ruffled my hair and went to make Gabe his seven-layer dip. 

An hour later we were ready to leave. 

  Gabe took a break from his poker game long enough to watch me lug my moms 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 Id be the one driving. I was twelve. But that didnt matter to Gabe. If a seagull so much as pooped on his paint job, hed find a way to blame me. 

  Watching him lumber back toward the apartment building, I got so mad I did something I cant explain. As Gabe reached the doorway, I made the hand gesture Id 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 hed been shot from a cannon. Maybe it was just the wind, or some freak accident with the hinges, but I didnt 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. 

  Wed 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 shed 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 cabins 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 wasnt 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. Moms 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, Id felt it must be true. Now, to be told that hed 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. Hed 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 dont know, honey. ” Her voice was heavy. “I think . . . I think well have to do something. “

  “Because you dont want me around?” I regretted the words as soon as they were out. 

  My moms 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 Im not normal,” I said. 

  “You say that as if its a bad thing, Percy. But you dont realize how important you are. I thought YancyAcademy would be far enough away. I thought youd 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 Id 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 Id 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 couldnt make myself tell her. I had a strange feeling the news would end our trip to Montauk, and I didnt want that. 

  “Ive tried to keep you as close to me as I could,” my mom said. “They told me that was a mistake. But theres only one other option, Percy—the place your father wanted to send you. And I just. . . I just cant 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 hadnt even stayed around long enough to see me born— talk to my mom about a summer camp? And if it was so important, why hadnt she ever mentioned it before?

  “Im sorry, Percy,” she said, seeing the look in my eyes. “But I cant talk about it. I—I couldnt send you to that place. It might mean saying good-bye to you for good. “

  “For good? But if its only a summer camp . . . “

  She turned toward the fire, and I knew from her expression that if I asked her any morequestions 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 horses 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 horses 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 wasnt. . . he wasnt 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 hed come. 

  “Percy,” she said, shouting to be heard over the rain. “What happened at school? What didnt you tell me?”

  I was frozen, looking at Grover. I couldnt understand what I was seeing. 

  “O Zeu kai alloi theoi!” he yelled. “Its right behind me! Didnt you tell her?”

  I was too shocked to register that hed just cursed in Ancient Greek, and Id understood him perfectly. I was too shocked to wonder how Grover had gotten here by himself in the middle of the night. Because Grover didnt 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 shed 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 wasnt 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. 

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