The Lightning Thief – Chapter 5: I PLAY PINOCHLE WITH A HORSE

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Chapter 5: I PLAY PINOCHLE WITH A HORSE

I had weird dreams full of barnyard animals. Most of them wanted to kill me. The rest wanted food. 

  I mustve woken up several times, but what I heard and saw made no sense, so I just passed out again. I remember lying in a soft bed, being spoon-fed something that tasted like buttered popcorn, only it was pudding. The girl with curly blond hair hovered over me, smirking as she scraped drips off my chin with the spoon. 

  When she saw my eyes open, she asked, “What will happen at the summer solstice?”

  I managed to croak, “What?”

  She looked around, as if afraid someone would overhear. “Whats going on? What was stolen? Weve only got a few weeks!”

  “Im sorry,” I mumbled, “I dont. . . “

  Somebody knocked on the door, and the girl quickly filled my mouth with pudding. 

  The next time I woke up, the girl was gone. 

  A husky blond dude, like a surfer, stood in the corner of the bedroom keeping watch over me. He had blue eyes— at least a dozen of them—on his cheeks, his forehead, the backs of his hands. 

  * * *

  When I finally came around for good, there was nothing weird about my surroundings, except that they were nicer than I was used to. I was sitting in a deck chair on a huge porch, gazing across a meadow at green hills in the distance. The breeze smelled like strawberries. There was a blanket over my legs, a pillow behind my neck. All that was great, but my mouth felt like a scorpion had been using it for a nest. My tongue was dry and nasty and every one of my teeth hurt. 

  On the table next to me was a tall drink. It looked like iced apple juice, with a green straw and a paper parasol stuck through a maraschino cherry. 

  My hand was so weak I almost dropped the glass once I got my fingers around it. 

  “Careful,” a familiar voice said. 

  Grover was leaning against the porch railing, looking like he hadnt slept in a week. Under one arm, he cradled a shoe box. He was wearing blue jeans, Converse hi-tops and a bright orange T-shirt that said CAMPHALF-BLOOD. Just plain old Grover, Not the goat boy. 

  So maybe Id had a nightmare. Maybe my mom was okay. We were still on vacation, and wed stopped here at this big house for some reason. And . . . 

  “You saved my life,” Grover said. “I. . . well, the least I could do . . . I went back to the hill. I thought you might want this. “

  Reverently, he placed the shoe box in my lap. 

  Inside was a black-and-white bulls horn, the base jagged from being broken off, the tip splattered with dried blood. It hadnt been a nightmare. 

  “The Minotaur,” I said. 

  “Urn, Percy, it isnt a good idea—”

  “Thats what they call him in the Greek myths, isnt it?” I demanded. “The Minotaur. Half man, half bull. “

  Grover shifted uncomfortably. “Youve been out for two days. How much do you remember?”

  “My mom. Is she really . . . “

  He looked down. 

  I stared across the meadow. There were groves of trees, a winding stream, acres of strawberries spread out under the blue sky. The valley was surrounded by rolling hills, and the tallest one, directly in front of us, was the one with the huge pine tree on top. Even that looked beautiful in the sunlight. 

  My mother was gone. The whole world should be black and cold. Nothing should look beautiful. 

  “Im sorry,” Grover sniffled. “Im a failure. Im—Im the worst satyr in the world. “

  He moaned, stomping his foot so hard it came off. I mean, the Converse hi-top came off. The inside was filled with Styrofoam, except for a hoof-shaped hole. 

  “Oh, Styx!” he mumbled. 

  Thunder rolled across the clear sky. 

  As he struggled to get his hoof back in the fake foot, I thought, Well, that settles it. 

  Grover was a satyr. I was ready to bet that if I shaved his curly brown hair, Id find tiny horns on his head. But I was too miserable to care that satyrs existed, or even minotaurs. All that meant was my mom really had been squeezed into nothingness, dissolved into yellow light. 

  I was alone. An orphan. I would have to live with . . . Smelly Gabe? No. That would never happen. I would live on the streets first. I would pretend I was seventeen and join the army. Id do something. 

  Grover was still sniffling. The poor kid—poor goat, satyr, whatever—looked as if he expected to be hit. 

  I said, “It wasnt your fault. “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

  “Yes, it was. I was supposed to protect you. “

  “Did my mother ask you to protect me?”. . . 

  “No. But thats my job. Im a keeper. At least. . . I was. “

  “But why . . . ” I suddenly felt dizzy, my vision swimming. 

  “Dont strain yourself,” Grover said. “Here. ” He helped me hold my glass and put the straw to my lips. 

  I recoiled at the taste, because I was expecting apple juice. It wasnt that at all. It was chocolate-chip cookies. Liquid cookies. And not just any cookies—my moms homemade blue chocolate-chip cookies, buttery and hot, with the chips still melting. Drinking it, my whole body felt warm and good, full of energy. My grief didnt go away, but I felt as if my mom had just brushed her hand against my cheek, given me a cookie the way she used to when I was small, and told me everything was going to be okay. 

  Before I knew it, Id drained the glass. I stared into it, sure Id just had a warm drink, but the ice cubes hadnt even melted. 

  “Was it good?” Grover asked. 

  I nodded. 

  “What did it taste like?” He sounded so wistful, I felt guilty. 

  “Sorry,” I said. “I shouldve let you taste. “

  His eyes got wide. “No! Thats not what I meant. I just. . . wondered. “

  “Chocolate-chip cookies,” I said. “My moms. Homemade. “

  He sighed. “And how do you feel?”

  “Like I could throw Nancy Bobofit a hundred yards. “

  “Thats good,” he said. “Thats good. I dont think you could risk drinking any more of that stuff. “

  “What do you mean?”

  He took the empty glass from me gingerly, as if it were dynamite, and set it back on the table. “Come on. Chiron and Mr. D are waiting. “

  The porch wrapped all the way around the farmhouse. 

  My legs felt wobbly, trying to walk that far. Grover offered to carry the Minotaur horn, but I held on to it. Id paid for that souvenir the hard way. I wasnt going to let it go. 

  As we came around the opposite end of the house, I caught my breath. 

  We mustve been on the north shore of Long Island, because on this side of the house, the valley marched all the way up to the water, which glittered about a mile in the distance. Between here and there, I simply couldnt process everything I was seeing. The landscape was dotted with buildings that looked like ancient Greek architecture—an open-air pavilion, an amphitheater, a circular arena—except that they all looked brand new, their white marble columns sparkling in the sun. In a nearby sandpit, a dozen high school-age kids and satyrs played volleyball. Canoes glided across a small lake. Kids in bright orange T-shirts like Grovers were chasing each other around a cluster of cabins nestled in the woods. Some shot targets at an archery range. Others rode horses down a wooded trail, and, unless I was hallucinating, some of their horses had wings. 

Down at the end of the porch, two men sat across from each other at a card table. The blond-haired girl whod spoon-fed me popcorn-flavored pudding was leaning on the porch rail next to them. 

  The man facing me was small, but porky. He had a red nose, big watery eyes, and curly hair so black it was almost purple. He looked like those paintings of baby angels— what do you call them, hubbubs? No, cherubs. Thats it. He looked like a cherub whod turned middle-aged in a trailer park. He wore a tiger-pattern Hawaiian shirt, and he wouldve fit right in at one of Gabes poker parties, except I got the feeling this guy couldve out-gambled even my stepfather. 

  “Thats Mr. D,” Grover murmured to me. “Hes the camp director. Be polite. The girl, thats Annabeth Chase. Shes just a camper, but shes been here longer than just about anybody. And you already know Chiron. . . . “

  He pointed at the guy whose back was to me. 

  First, I realized he was sitting in the wheelchair. Then I recognized the tweed jacket, the thinning brown hair, the scraggly beard. 

  “Mr. Brunner!” I cried. 

  The Latin teacher turned and smiled at me. His eyes had that mischievous glint they sometimes got in class when he pulled a pop quiz and made all the multiple choice answers B. 

  “Ah, good, Percy,” he said. “Now we have four for pinochle. “

  He offered me a chair to the right of Mr. D, who looked at me with bloodshot eyes and heaved a great sigh. “Oh, I suppose I must say it. Welcome to CampHalf-Blood. There. Now, dont expect me to be glad to see you. “

  “Uh, thanks. ” I scooted a little farther away from him because, if there was one thing I had learned from living with Gabe, it was how to tell when an adult has been hitting the happy juice. If Mr. D was a stranger to alcohol, I was a satyr. 

  “Annabeth?” Mr. Brunner called to the blond girl. 

  She came forward and Mr. Brunner introduced us. “This young lady nursed you back to health, Percy. Annabeth, my dear, why dont you go check on Percys bunk? Well be putting him in cabin eleven for now. “

  Annabeth said, “Sure, Chiron. “

  She was probably my age, maybe a couple of inches taller, and a whole lot more athletic looking. With her deep tan and her curly blond hair, she was almost exactly what I thought a stereotypical California girl would look like, except her eyes ruined the image. They were startling gray, like storm clouds; pretty, but intimidating, too, as if she were analyzing the best way to take me down in a fight. 

  She glanced at the minotaur horn in my hands, then back at me. I imagined she was going to say, You killed a minotaur! or Wow, youre so awesome! or something like that. 

  Instead she said, “You drool when you sleep. “

  Then she sprinted off down the lawn, her blond hair flying behind her. 

  “So,” I said, anxious to change the subject. “You, uh, work here, Mr. Brunner?”. 

  “Not Mr. Brunner,” the ex—Mr. Brunner said. “Im afraid that was a pseudonym. You may call me Chiron. “

  “Okay. ” Totally confused, I looked at the director. “And Mr. D . . . does that stand for something?”

  Mr. D stopped shuffling the cards. He looked at me like Id just belched loudly. “Young man, names are powerful things. You dont just go around using them for no reason. “

  “Oh. Right. Sorry. “

  “I must say, Percy,” Chiron-Brunner broke in, “Im glad to see you alive. Its been a long time since Ive made a house call to a potential camper. Id hate to think Ive wasted my time. “

  “House call?”

  “My year at YancyAcademy, to instruct you. We have satyrs at most schools, of course, keeping a lookout. But Grover alerted me as soon as he met you. He sensed you were something special, so I decided to come upstate. I convinced the other Latin teacher to . . . ah, take a leave of absence. “

  I tried to remember the beginning of the school year. It seemed like so long ago, but I did have a fuzzy memory of there being another Latin teacher my first week at Yancy. Then, without explanation, he had disappeared and Mr. Brunner had taken the class. 

  “You came to Yancy just to teach me?” I asked. 

  Chiron nodded. “Honestly, I wasnt sure about you at first. We contacted your mother, let her know we were keeping an eye on you in case you were ready for CampHalf-Blood. But you still had so much to learn. Nevertheless, you made it here alive, and thats always the first test. “

  “Grover,” Mr. D said impatiently, “are you playing or not?”

  “Yes, sir!” Grover trembled as he took the fourth chair, though I didnt know why he should be so afraid of a pudgy little man in a tiger-print Hawaiian shirt. 

  “You do know how to play pinochle?” Mr. D eyed me suspiciously. 

  “Im afraid not,” I said. 

  “Im afraid not, sir,” he said. 

  “Sir,” I repeated. I was liking the camp director less and less. 

  “Well,” he told me, “it is, along with gladiator fighting and Pac-Man, one of the greatest games ever invented by humans. I would expect all civilized young men to know the rules. “

  “Im sure the boy can learn,” Chiron said. 

  “Please,” I said, “what is this place? What am I doing here? Mr. Brun—Chiron—why would you go to YancyAcademy just to teach me?”

  Mr. D snorted. “I asked the same question. “

  The camp director dealt the cards. Grover flinched every time one landed in his pile. 

  Chiron smiled at me sympathetically, the way he used to in Latin class, as if to let me know that no matter what my average was, I was his star student. He expected me to have the right answer. 

  “Percy,” he said. “Did your mother tell you nothing?

  “She said . . . ” I remembered her sad eyes, looking out over the sea. “She told me she was afraid to send me here, even though my father had wanted her to. She said that once I was here, I probably couldnt leave. She wanted to keep me close to her. “

  “Typical,” Mr. D said. “Thats how they usually get killed. Young man, are you bidding or not?”

  “What?” I asked. 

  He explained, impatiently, how you bid in pinochle, and so I did. 

  “Im afraid theres too much to tell,” Chiron said. “Im afraid our usual orientation film wont be sufficient. “

  “Orientation film?” I asked. 

  “No,” Chiron decided. “Well, Percy. You know your friend Grover is a satyr. You know”—he pointed to the horn in the shoe box—”that you have killed the Minotaur. No small feat, either, lad. What you may not know is that great powers are at work in your life. Gods—the forces you call the Greek gods—are very much alive. “

  I stared at the others around the table. 

  I waited for somebody to yell, Not! But all I got was Mr. D yelling, “Oh, a royal marriage. Trick! Trick!” He cackled as he tallied up his points. 

  “Mr. D,” Grover asked timidly, “if youre not going to eat it, could I have your Diet Coke can?”

  “Eh? Oh, all right. “

  Grover bit a huge shard out of the empty aluminum can and chewed it mournfully. 

  “Wait,” I told Chiron. “Youre telling me theres such a thing as God. “

  “Well, now,” Chiron said. “God—capital G, God. Thats a different matter altogether. We shant deal with the metaphysical. “

  “Metaphysical? But you were just talking about—”

  “Ah, gods, plural, as in, great beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors: the immortal gods of Olympus. Thats a smaller matter. “

  “Smaller?”

  “Yes, quite. The gods we discussed in Latin class. “

  “Zeus,” I said. “Hera. Apollo. You mean them. “

  And there it was again—distant thunder on a cloudless day. 

  “Young man,” said Mr. D, “I would really be less casual about throwing those names around, if I were you. “

  “But theyre stories,” I said. “Theyre—myths, to explain lightning and the seasons and stuff. Theyre what people believed before there was science. “

  “Science!” Mr. D scoffed. “And tell me, Perseus Jackson”—I flinched when he said my real name, which I never told anybody—”what will people think of your science two thousand years from now?” Mr. D continued. “Hmm? They will call it primitive mumbo jumbo. Thats what. Oh, I love mortals—they have absolutely no sense of perspective. They think theyve come so-o-o far. And have they, Chiron? Look at this boy and tell me. “

  I wasnt liking Mr. D much, but there was something about the way he called me mortal, as if. . . he wasnt. It was enough to put a lump in my throat, to suggest why Grover was dutifully minding his cards, chewing his soda can, and keeping his mouth shut. 

  “Percy,” Chiron said, “you may choose to believe or not, but the fact is that immortal means immortal. Can you imagine that for a moment, never dying? Never fading? Existing, just as you are, for all time?”

  I was about to answer, off the top of my head, that it sounded like a pretty good deal, but the tone of Chirons voice made me hesitate. 

  “You mean, whether people believed in you or not,” I said. 

  “Exactly,” Chiron agreed. “If you were a god, how would you like being called a myth, an old story to explain lightning? What if I told you, Perseus Jackson, that someday people would call you a myth, just created to explain how little boys can get over losing their mothers?”

  My heart pounded. He was trying to make me angry for some reason, but I wasnt going to let him. I said, “I wouldnt like it. But I dont believe in gods. “

  “Oh, youd better,” Mr. D murmured. “Before one of them incinerates you. “

  Grover said, “P-please, sir. Hes just lost his mother. Hes in shock. “

  “A lucky thing, too,” Mr. D grumbled, playing a card. “Bad enough Im confined to this miserable job, working with boys who dont even believe. “

  He waved his hand and a goblet appeared on the table, as if the sunlight had bent, momentarily, and woven the air into glass. The goblet filled itself with red wine. 

  My jaw dropped, but Chiron hardly looked up. 

  “Mr. D,” he warned, “your restrictions. “

  Mr. D looked at the wine and feigned surprise. 

  “Dear me. ” He looked at the sky and yelled, “Old habits! Sorry!”

  More thunder. 

  Mr. D waved his hand again, and the wineglass changed into a fresh can of Diet Coke. He sighed unhappily, popped the top of the soda, and went back to his card game. 

  Chiron winked at me. “Mr. D offended his father a while back, took a fancy to a wood nymph who had been declared off-limits. “

  “A wood nymph,” I repeated, still staring at the Diet Coke can like it was from outer space. 

  “Yes,” Mr. D confessed. “Father loves to punish me. The first time, Prohibition. Ghastly! Absolutely horrid ten years! The second time—well, she really was pretty, and I couldnt stay away—the second time, he sent me here. Half-Blood Hill. Summer camp for brats like you. Be a better influence, he told me. Work with youths rather than tearing them down. Ha. Absolutely unfair. “

  Mr. D sounded about six years old, like a pouting little kid. 

  “And . . . ” I stammered, “your father is . . . ”

  “Di immortales, Chiron,” Mr. D said. “I thought you taught this boy the basics. My father is Zeus, of course. “

  I ran through D names from Greek mythology. Wine. The skin of a tiger. The satyrs that all seemed to work here. The way Grover cringed, as if Mr. D were his master. 

  “Youre Dionysus,” I said. “The god of wine. “

  Mr. D rolled his eyes. “What do they say, these days, Grover? Do the children say, Well, duh!?”

  “Y-yes, Mr. D. “

  “Then, well, duh! Percy Jackson. Did you think I was Aphrodite, perhaps?”

  “Youre a god. “

  “Yes, child. “

  “A god. You. “

  He turned to look at me straight on, and I saw a kind of purplish fire in his eyes, a hint that this whiny, plump little man was only showing me the tiniest bit of his true nature. I saw visions of grape vines choking unbelievers to death, drunken warriors insane with battle lust, sailors screaming as their hands turned to flippers, their faces elongating into dolphin snouts. I knew that if I pushed him, Mr. D would show me worse things. He would plant a disease in my brain that would leave me wearing a strait-jacket in a rubber room for the rest of my life. 

  “Would you like to test me, child?” he said quietly. 

  “No. No, sir. “

  The fire died a little. He turned back to his card game. “I believe I win. “

  “Not quite, Mr. D,” Chiron said. He set down a straight, tallied the points, and said, “The game goes to me. “

  I thought Mr. D was going to vaporize Chiron right out of his wheelchair, but he just sighed through his nose, as if he were used to being beaten by the Latin teacher. He got up, and Grover rose, too. 

  “Im tired,” Mr. D said. “I believe Ill take a nap before the sing-along tonight. But first, Grover, we need to talk, again, about your less-than-perfect performance on this assignment. “

  Grovers face beaded with sweat. “Y-yes, sir. “

  Mr. D turned to me. “Cabin eleven, Percy Jackson. And mind your manners. “

  He swept into the farmhouse, Grover following miserably. 

  “Will Grover be okay?” I asked Chiron. 

  Chiron nodded, though he looked a bit troubled. “Old Dionysus isnt really mad. He just hates his job. Hes been . . . ah, grounded, I guess you would say, and he cant stand waiting another century before hes allowed to go back to Olympus. “

  “MountOlympus,” I said. “Youre telling me there really is a palace there?”

  “Well now, theres MountOlympus in Greece. And then theres the home of the gods, the convergence point of their powers, which did indeed used to be on MountOlympus. Its still called MountOlympus, out of respect to the old ways, but the palace moves, Percy, just as the gods do. “

  “You mean the Greek gods are here? Like . . . in America?”

  “Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West. “

  “The what?”

  “Come now, Percy. What you call Western civilization. Do you think its just an abstractconcept? No, its a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are part of it. You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldnt possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated. The fire started in Greece. Then, as you well know—or as I hope you know, since you passed my course—the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods. Oh, different names, perhaps—Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on—but the same forces, the same gods. “

  “And then they died. “

  “Died? No. Did the West die? The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while. Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there. They spent several centuries in England. All you need to do is look at the architecture. People do not forget the gods. Every place theyve ruled, for the last three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings. And yes, Percy, of course they are now in your United States. Look at your symbol, the eagle of Zeus. Look at the statue of Prometheus in RockefellerCenter, the Greek facades of your government buildings in Washington. I defy you to find any American city where the Olympians are not prominently displayed in multiple places. Like it or not—and believe me, plenty of people werent very fond of Rome, either—America is now the heart of the flame. It is the great power of the West. And so Olympus is here. And we are here. “

  It was all too much, especially the fact that I seemed to be included in Chirons we, as if I were part of some club. 

  “Who are you, Chiron? Who . . . who am I?”

  Chiron smiled. He shifted his weight as if he were going to get up out of his wheelchair, but I knew that was impossible. He was paralyzed from the waist down. 

  “Who are you?” he mused. “Well, thats the question we all want answered, isnt it? But for now, we should get you a bunk in cabin eleven. There will be new friends to meet. And plenty of time for lessons tomorrow. Besides, there will be smores at the campfire tonight, and I simply adorechocolate. “

  And then he did rise from his wheelchair. But there was something odd about the way he did it. His blanket fell away from his legs, but the legs didnt move. His waist kept getting longer, rising above his belt. At first, I thought he was wearing very long, white velvet underwear, but as he kept rising out of the chair, taller than any man, I realized that the velvet underwear wasnt underwear; it was the front of an animal, muscle and sinew under coarse white fur. And the wheelchair wasnt a chair. It was some kind of container, an enormous box on wheels, and it mustve been magic, because theres no way it couldve held all of him. A leg came out, long and knobby-kneed, with a huge polished hoof. Then another front leg, then hindquarters, and then the box was empty, nothing but a metal shell with a couple of fake human legs attached. . 

  I stared at the horse who had just sprung from the wheelchair: a huge white stallion. But where its neck should be was the upper body of my Latin teacher, smoothly grafted to the horses trunk. 

  “What a relief,” the centaur said. “Id been cooped up in there so long, my fetlocks had fallen asleep. Now, come, Percy Jackson. Lets meet the other campers. “

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