(11) A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers
The next afternoon, June 14, seven days before the solstice, our train rolled into Denver. We hadn’t eaten since the night before in the dining car, somewhere in Kansas. We hadn’t taken a shower since Half-Blood Hill, and I was sure that was obvious.
“Let’s try to contact Chiron,” I said. “I want to tell him about your talk with the river spirit.”
“We can’t use phones, right?”
“I’m not talking about phones.”
We wandered through downtown for about half an hour, trying to find anything that could be used to make a rainbow. The air was dry and hot, which felt weird after the humidity of St Louis. Everywhere we turned, the Rocky Mountains seemed to be staring at me, like a tidal wave about to crash into the city.
Finally I found an empty do-it-yourself car wash. I steered everyone towards the stall furthest from the street, keeping our eyes open for patrol cars. We were three adolescents hanging out at a car wash without a car; any cop worth his doughnuts would figure we were up to no good.
“What exactly are we doing?” Percy asked, as Grover took out the spray gun.
“It’s seventy-five cents,” he grumbled. “I’ve only got two quarters left. Annabeth?”
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “The dining car wiped me out.”
Percy fished out his last bit of change and passed Grover a quarter.
“Excellent,” Grover said. “We could do it with a spray bottle, of course, but the connection isn’t as good, and my arm gets tired of pumping.”
“What are you talking about?”
He fed in the quarters and set the knob to fine mist “I-M’ing.”
“Iris-messaging,” I corrected. “The rainbow goddess Iris carries messages for the gods. If you know how to ask, and she’s not too busy, she’ll do the same for half-bloods.”
“You summon the goddess with a spray gun?” Grover pointed the nozzle in the air and water hissed out in a thick white mist.
“Unless you know an easier way to make a rainbow.” Sure enough, late afternoon light filtered through the vapor and broke into colors. I held my palm out to Percy.
“Drachma, please.” He handed it over. I raised the coin over my head.
“O goddess, accept our offering.” I threw the drachma into the rainbow. It disappeared in a golden shimmer.
“Half-Blood Hill,” I requested. For a moment, nothing happened. Then I was looking through the mist at strawberry fields, and the Long Island Sound in the distance. We seemed to be on the porch of the Big House. Standing with his back to us at the railing was a sandy-haired guy in shorts and an orange tank top. He was holding a bronze sword and seemed to be staring intently at something down in the meadow.
“Luke!” Percy called. He turned, eyes wide. I could swear he was standing a meter in front of me through a screen of mist, except I could only see the part of him that appeared in the rainbow.
“Percy!” His scarred face broke into a grin. “Is that Annabeth, too? Thank the gods! Are you guys okay?”
“We’re... uh... fine,” I stammered and tried to straighten my dirty T-shirt, trying to comb the loose hair out of my face.
“We thought – Chiron – I mean –”
“He’s down at the cabins.” Luke’s smile faded. “We’re having some issues with the campers. Listen, is everything cool with you? Is Grover all right?”
“I’m right here,” Grover called. He held the nozzle out to one side and stepped into Luke’s line of vision.
“What kind of issues?” Just then a big Lincoln Continental pulled into the car wash with its stereo turned to maximum hip hop. As the car slid into the next stall, the bass from the subwoofers vibrated so much, it shook the pavement.
“Chiron had to – what’s that noise?” Luke yelled.
“I’ll take care of it!” I yelled back, relieved to have an excuse to get out of sight.
“Grover, come on!”
“What?” Grover said. “But –”
“Give Percy the nozzle and come on!” I ordered.
Grover muttered something about girls being harder to understand than the Oracle at Delphi, then he handed Percy the spray gun and followed me.
In the next stall, I started arguing with some guy in his car trying to get him to turn down his volume and leave, then finally he decreased the music’s volume but kept arguing with us. Grover took two spray guns, handed one to me and aimed it at the car’s window and sprayed.
Once the car was gone, leaving a trail of water following after it, Grover and I came around the corner, laughing, but stopped when we saw Percy’s face. My smile faded.
“’What happened, Percy? What did Luke say?”
“Not much. Come on, let’s find some dinner.”
Percy looked sick and I wanted to ask him what they had talked about, but Grover locked eyes with me and he shook his head.
A few minutes later, we were sitting at a booth in a gleaming chrome diner. All around us, families were eating burgers and drinking milkshakes and sodas. Finally the waitress came over. She raised her eyebrow skeptically.
Percy said, “We, um, want to order dinner.”
“You kids have money to pay for it?”
Grover’s lower lip quivered. I was afraid he would start bleating, or worse, start eating the linoleum. I was ready to pass out from hunger and I couldn’t think straight. I was trying to think up a sob story for the waitress when a rumble shook the whole building; a motorcycle the size of a baby elephant had pulled up to the kerb.
All conversation in the diner stopped. The motorcycle’s headlight glared red. Its gas tank had flames painted on it, and a shotgun holster riveted to either side, complete with shotguns. The seat was leather – but leather that looked like... well, Caucasian human skin. The guy on the bike would’ve made pro wrestlers run for Mama. He was dressed in a red muscle shirt and black jeans and a black leather duster, with a hunting knife strapped to his thigh. He wore red wraparound shades, and he had the cruelest, most brutal face I’d ever seen – handsome, I guess, but wicked – with an oily black crew cut and cheeks that were scarred from many, many fights. The weird thing was, I felt like I’d seen his face somewhere before.
As he walked into the diner, a hot, dry wind blew through the place. All the people rose, as if they were hypnotized, but the biker waved his hand dismissively and they all sat down again. Everybody went back to their conversations. The waitress blinked, as if somebody had just pressed the rewind button on her brain. She asked us again, “You kids have money to pay for it?”
The biker said, “It’s on me.”
He slid into our booth, which was way too small for him, and crowded me against the window. He looked up at the waitress, who was gaping at him, and said, “Are you still here?” He pointed at her, and she stiffened. She turned as if she’d been spun around, then marched back towards the kitchen. The biker looked at Percy.
His eyes were hidden behind the red shades, but bad feelings started boiling in my stomach. Anger, resentment, bitterness. Then it dawned on me. This guy was Ares, the war god.
He gave me a wicked grin. “So you’re old Seaweed’s kid, huh?”
“What’s it to you?”
I glared at Percy. “Percy, this is –”
Ares raised his hand.
“S’okay,” he said. “I don’t mind a little attitude. Long as you remember who’s the boss. You know who I am, little cousin?”
“You’re Clarisse’s dad,” Percy said. Turns out he’s not as dumb as he acts out to be. “Ares, god of war.”
Ares grinned and took off his shades. Where his eyes should’ve been, there was only fire, empty sockets glowing with miniature nuclear explosions.
“That’s right, punk. I heard you broke Clarisse’s spear.”
“She was asking for it.”
“Probably. That’s cool. I don’t fight my kids’ fights, you know? What I’m here for – I heard you were in town. I got a little proposition for you.”
The waitress came back with heaping trays of food – cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings and chocolate shakes. Ares handed her a few gold drachmas. She looked nervously at the coins.
“But, these aren’t...”
Ares pulled out his huge knife and started cleaning his fingernails. “Problem, sweetheart?”
The waitress swallowed, then left with the gold.
“You can’t do that,” Percy told Ares. “You can’t just threaten people with a knife.”
Ares laughed. “Are you kidding? I love this country. Best place since Sparta. Don’t you carry a weapon, punk? You should. Dangerous world out there. Which brings me to my proposition. I need you to do me a favor.”
“What favor could I do for a god?”
“Something a god doesn’t have time to do himself. It’s nothing much. I left my shield at an abandoned water park here in town. I was going on a little... date with my girlfriend. We were interrupted. I left my shield behind. I want you to fetch it for me.”
“Why don’t you go back and get it yourself?”
The fire in Ares eye sockets glowed a little hotter.
“Why don’t I turn you into a prairie dog and run you over with my Harley? Because I don’t feel like it. A god is giving you an opportunity to prove yourself, Percy Jackson. Will you prove yourself a coward?” He leaned forward. “Or maybe you only fight when there’s a river to dive into, so your daddy can protect you.”
Percy struggled with his emotions. “We’re not interested,” he said. “We’ve already got a quest.”
Ares’s fiery eyes bored into Percy’s. “I know all about your quest, punk. When that item was first stolen, Zeus sent his best out looking for it: Apollo, Athena, Artemis and me, naturally. If I couldn’t sniff out a weapon that powerful...” He licked his lips, as if the very thought of the master bolt made him hungry. “Well... if I couldn’t find it, you got no hope. Nevertheless, I’m trying to give you the benefit of a doubt. Your dad and I go way back. After all, I’m the one who told him my suspicions about old Corpse Breath.”
“You told him Hades stole the bolt?”
“Sure. Framing somebody to start a war. Oldest trick in the book. I recognized it immediately. In a way, you got me to thank for your little quest.”
“Thanks,” Percy grumbled.
“Hey, I’m a generous guy. Just do my little job, and I’ll help you on your way. I’ll arrange a ride west for you and your friends.”
“We’re doing fine on our own.”
“Yeah, right. No money. No wheels. No clue what you’re up against. Help me out, and maybe I’ll tell you something you need to know. Something about your mom.”
He grinned. “That got your attention. The water park is a mile west on Delancy. You can’t miss it. Look for the Tunnel of Love ride.”
“What interrupted your date?” Percy asked. “Something scare you off?”
Ares bared his teeth at him, but I’d seen his threatening look before on Clarisse. There was something false about it, almost like he was nervous.
“You’re lucky you met me, punk, and not one of the other Olympians. They’re not as forgiving of rudeness as I am. I’ll meet you back here when you’re done. Don’t disappoint me.”
After that I must have fainted, or fallen into a trance, because when I opened my eyes again Ares was gone.
“Not good,” Grover said. “Ares sought you out, Percy. This is not good.”
Percy stared out the window. Now that Ares was gone, all the anger had drained out of me. I realized Ares must love to mess with people’s emotions. That was his power – cranking up the passions so badly, they clouded your ability to think.
“It’s probably some kind of trick,” Percy said. “Forget Ares. Let’s just go.”
“We can’t,” I said. “Look, I hate Ares as much as anybody, but you don’t ignore the gods unless you want serious bad fortune. He wasn’t kidding about turning you into a rodent.”
Percy looked down at his cheeseburger. “Why does he need us?”
“Maybe it’s a problem that requires brains,” I suggested. “Ares has strength. That’s all he has. Even strength has to bow to wisdom sometimes.”
“But this water park... he acted almost scared. What would make a war god run away like that?”
Grover and I glanced nervously at each other.
I said, “I’m afraid we’ll have to find out.”
* * *
The sun was sinking behind the mountains by the time we found the water park. Judging from the sign, it once had been called WATERLAND, but now some of the letters were smashed out, so it read WAT R A D.
The main gate was padlocked and topped with barbed wire. Inside, huge dry waterslides and tubes and pipes curled everywhere, leading to empty pools. Old tickets and advertisements fluttered around the tarmac. With night coming on, the place looked sad and creepy.
“If Ares brings his girlfriend here for a date,” Percy said, staring up at the barbed wire, “I’d hate to see what she looks like.”
“Percy,” I warned. “Be more respectful.”
How daft can he be?
“Why? I thought you hated Ares.”
“He’s still a god. And his girlfriend is very temperamental.”
“You don’t want to insult her looks,” Grover added.
“Who is she? Echidna?”
“No, Aphrodite,” Grover said, a little dreamily. “Goddess of love.”
“I thought she was married to somebody,” Percy said. “Hephaestus.”
“What’s your point?” I asked.
“Oh... So how do we get in?” Percy said, hastily changing the subject.
“Maia!” Grover’s shoes sprouted wings. He flew over the fence, did an unintended somersault in midair, then stumbled to a landing on the opposite side. He dusted off his jeans, as if he’d planned the whole thing.
“You guys coming?”
Percy and I had to climb the old-fashioned way, holding down the barbed wire for each other as we crawled over the top. The shadows grew long as we walked through the park, checking out the attractions. There was Ankle Biter Island, Head Over Wedgie and Dude, Where’s My Swimsuit?
No monsters came to get us. Nothing made the slightest noise.
We found a souvenir shop that had been left open. Merchandise still lined the shelves: snow globes, pencils, postcards and racks of –
“Clothes,” I said. “Fresh clothes.”
“Yeah,” Percy said. “But you can’t just –”
“Watch me.” I snatched an entire row of stuff off the racks and disappeared into the changing room. A few minutes later I came out in Waterland flower-print shorts, a big red Waterland T-shirt and commemorative Waterland surf shoes. A Waterland backpack was slung over my shoulder, stuffed with goodies.
“What the heck.” Grover shrugged.
Soon, all three of us were decked out like walking advertisements for the defunct theme park. We continued searching for the Tunnel of Love. I got the feeling that the whole park was holding its breath.
“So Ares and Aphrodite,” Percy said, “they have a thing going?”
“That’s old gossip, Percy,” I told him. “Three-thousand-year-old gossip.”
“What about Aphrodite’s husband?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “Hephaestus. The blacksmith. He was crippled when he was a baby, thrown off Mount Olympus by Zeus. So he isn’t exactly handsome. Clever with his hands and all, but Aphrodite isn’t into brains and talent, you know?”
“She likes bikers.”
“Oh sure,” I said. “He caught them together once. I mean, literally caught them, in a golden net, and invited all the gods to come and laugh at them. Hephaestus is always trying to embarrass them. That’s why they meet in out-of-the-way places, like...” I stopped, looking straight ahead. “Like that.”
In front of us was an empty pool that was at least fifty meters across and shaped like a bowl. Around the rim, a dozen bronze statues of Cupid stood guard with wings spread and bows ready to fire. On the opposite side from us, a tunnel opened up, probably where the water flowed into when the pool was full. The sign above it read: THRILL RIDE O’ LOVE: THIS IS NOT YOUR PARENTS’ TUNNEL OF LOVE!
Grover crept towards the edge. “Guys, look.”
Marooned at the bottom of the pool was a pink-and-white two-seater boat with a canopy over the top and little hearts painted all over it. In the left seat, glinting in the fading light, was Ares’s shield, a polished circle of bronze.
“This is too easy,” Percy said. “So we just walk down there and get it?”
I ran my fingers along the base of the nearest Cupid statue.
“There’s a Greek letter carved here,” I said. “Eta. I wonder...”
“Grover,” Percy said, “you smell any monsters?”
He sniffed the wind. “Nothing.”
“Nothing – like, in-the-Arch-and-you-didn’t-smell-Echidna nothing, or really nothing?”
Grover looked hurt. “I told you, that was underground.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.” Percy took a deep breath. “I’m going down there.”
“I’ll go with you.” Grover didn’t sound too enthusiastic, but I got the feeling he was trying to make up for what had happened in St Louis.
“No,” Percy told him. “I want you to stay up top with the flying shoes. You’re the Red Baron, remember? I’ll be counting on you for backup, in case something goes wrong.”
Grover puffed up his chest a little. “Sure. But what could go wrong?”
“I don’t know. Just a feeling. Annabeth, come with me –”
“Are you kidding?” I looked at him like he was crazy. I felt my cheeks burn.
“What’s the problem now?” Percy demanded.
“Me, go with you to the... the Thrill Ride of Love? How embarrassing is that? What if somebody saw me?”
“Who’s going to see you?” Percy’s face was burning now, too. Leave it to a boy to make everything complicated.
“Fine,” He told me. “I’ll do it myself.”
But when Percy started down the side of the pool, I followed him, muttering about how boys always messed things up. We reached the boat. The shield was propped on one seat, and next to it was a lady’s silk scarf. I tried to imagine Ares and Aphrodite here, a couple of gods meeting in a junked-out amusement-park ride. Why? Then I noticed something I hadn’t seen from up top: mirrors all the way around the rim of the pool, facing this spot. We could see ourselves no matter which direction we looked. That must be it. While Ares and Aphrodite were smooching with each other they could look at their favorite people: themselves.
Percy picked up the scarf. It shimmered pink. Percy smiled, a little dreamy, and was about to rub the scarf against his cheek when I ripped it out of his hand and stuffed it in my pocket.
“Oh, no you don’t. Stay away from that love magic.”
“Just get the shield, Seaweed Brain, and let’s get out of here.”
There was an engraving on the side of the boat and I leaned in to read it.
“Wait,” I said.
“Too late.” He already had the shield in his hand.
“There’s another Greek letter on the side of the boat, another Eta. This is a trap.”
Noise erupted all around us, of a million gears grinding, as if the whole pool were turning into one giant machine.
Grover yelled, “Guys!”
Up on the rim, the Cupid statues were drawing their bows into firing position. Before I could suggest taking cover, they shot, but not at us. They fired at each other, across the rim of the pool. Silky cables trailed from the arrows, arcing over the pool and anchoring where they landed to form a huge golden asterisk. Then smaller metallic threads started weaving together magically between the main strands, making a net.
“We have to get out,” Percy said.
“Duh!” I said and grabbed Percy’s arm and we ran, but going up the slope of the pool was not as easy as going down.
“Come on!” Grover shouted. He was trying to hold open a section of the net for us, but wherever he touched it, the golden threads started to wrap around his hands. The Cupids’ heads popped open. Out came video cameras. Spotlights rose up all around the pool, blinding us with illumination, and a loudspeaker voice boomed: “Live to Olympus in one minute... Fifty-nine seconds, fifty-eight...”
“Hephaestus!” I screamed. “I’m so stupid! Eta is “H”. He made this trap to catch his wife with Ares. Now we’re going to be broadcast live to Olympus and look like absolute fools!”
We’d almost made it to the rim when the row of mirrors opened like hatches and thousands of tiny metallic... things poured out. I screamed. It was an army of wind-up creepy-crawlies: bronze-gear bodies, spindly legs, little pincer mouths, all scuttling towards us in a wave of clacking, whirring metal.
“Spiders!” I said. “Sp – sp – aaaah!”
I fell backwards in terror and almost got overwhelmed by the spider robots before Percy pulled me up and dragged me back towards the boat. The things were coming out from all around the rim now, millions of them, flooding towards the centre of the pool, completely surrounding us.
I told myself they probably weren’t programmed to kill, just corral us and bite us and make us look stupid. Percy shoved me into the boat. He started kicking away the spiders as they swarmed aboard. Percy yelled something, but I couldn’t hear him over my screams.
“Thirty, twenty-nine,” called the loudspeaker. The spiders started spitting out strands of metal thread, trying to tie us down. The strands were easy enough to break at first, but there were so many of them, and the spiders just kept coming. Percy kicked one away from my leg and its pincers took a chunk out of his shoe. Grover hovered above the pool in his flying trainers, trying to pull the net loose, but it wouldn’t budge.
Think, I told myself. Think. The tunnel of love entrance was under the net. We could use it as an exit, except that it was blocked by a million, disgusting, terrifying, robot spiders.
“Fifteen, fourteen,” the loudspeaker called.
“Grover!” Percy yelled. “Get into that booth! Find the “on” switch!”
The spiders were all over the prow of the boat now. I couldn’t move or do anything besides scream. Grover was in the controller’s booth now, slamming away at the buttons.
“Five, four –”
Grover looked up at us hopelessly, raising his hands.
“Two, one, zero!”
Water exploded out of the pipes. It roared into the pool, sweeping away the spiders. Percy pulled me into the seat next to him and fastened my seatbelt just as the tidal wave slammed into our boat, over the top, whisking the spiders away and dousing us completely, but not capsizing us. The boat turned, lifted in the flood, and spun in circles around the whirlpool.
The water was full of short-circuiting spiders, some of them smashing against the pool’s concrete wall with such force they burst.
Spotlights glared down at us. The Cupid-cams were rolling, live to Olympus.
Percy’s face was scrunched with concentration and a realization hit me. He was controlling the water, at least I think he was, our boat didn’t break into a million pieces.
We spun around one last time, the water level now almost high enough to shred us against the metal net. Then the boat’s nose turned towards the tunnel and we rocketed through into the darkness.
Percy and I held tight, both of us screaming as the boat shot curls and hugged corners and took forty-five degree plunges past pictures of Romeo and Juliet and a bunch of other Valentine’s Day stuff.
Then we were out of the tunnel, the night air whistling through our hair as the boat barreled straight towards the exit.
If the ride had been in working order, we would’ve sailed off a ramp between the golden Gates of Love and splashed down safely in the exit pool. But there was a problem. The Gates of Love were chained. Two boats that had been washed out of the tunnel before us were now piled against the barricade – one submerged, the other cracked in half.
“Unfasten your seat belt,” Percy yelled to me.
“Are you crazy?”
“Unless you want to get smashed to death.” He strapped Ares’s shield to his arm.
“We’re going to have to jump for it.”
Without the spiders around I understood what he was trying to do. I gripped his hand as the gates got closer.
“When I say go,” Percy said.
“No! When I say go!” Percy didn’t understand physics, he would probably make us smash into the gate, or make us drown, or... I stopped myself. Don’t think about dying, I told myself.
“Simple physics!” I yelled. “Force times the trajectory angle –”
“Fine!” Percy shouted. “When you say go!”
I hesitated... hesitated... then yelled, “Now!”
I was right (of course I was). I gave us maximum lift. Unfortunately, that was a little more than we needed. Our boat smashed into the pileup and we were thrown into the air, straight over the gates, over the pool, and down towards solid tarmac. Something grabbed my arm.
I yelled, “Ouch!”
Grover! In midair, he had grabbed me by the arm, and Percy by the shirt, and was trying to pull us out of a crash landing, but Percy and I had all the momentum.
“You’re too heavy!” Grover said. “We’re going down!”
We spiraled towards the ground, Grover doing his best to slow the fall.
We smashed into a photo-board, Grover’s head going straight into the hole where tourists would put their faces, pretending to be Noo-Noo the Friendly Whale.
Percy and I tumbled to the ground, banged up, but alive. Aphrodite’s scarf was still in my pocket. Once we caught our breath, Percy and I got Grover out of the photo-board and thanked him for saving our lives.
Percy looked back at the Thrill Ride of Love, and I followed his gaze. The water was subsiding. Our boat had been smashed to pieces against the gates. A hundred meters away, at the entrance pool, the Cupids were still filming. The statues had swiveled so that their cameras were trained straight on us, the spotlights in our faces.
I flashed the Cupid statues a rude hand sign that Chiron would scold me for doing.
“Show’s over!” Percy yelled. “Thank you! Goodnight!”
The Cupids turned back to their original positions. The lights shut off. The park went quiet and dark again, except for the gentle trickle of water into the Thrill Ride of Love’s exit pool.
I hated being teased. I hated being tricked. And I had plenty of experience handling bullies who liked to do that stuff to me. Percy hefted the shield on his arm and turned to us.
“We need to have a little talk with Ares.”
A/N: we love another 4k word chapter. i see you girl...👀 also, i’m planning on writing another fan fiction, would you guys prefer it to be about Harry Potter or Avatar: The Last Airbender?