(8) We Visit the Garden Gnome Emporium
In a way, it’s nice to know there are Greek gods out there, because you have somebody to blame when things go wrong. For instance, when you’re walking away from a bus that’s just been attacked by monster hags and blown up by lightning, and it’s raining on top of everything else, most people might think that’s just really bad luck; when you’re a half-blood, you understand that some divine force really is trying to mess up your day.
So there we were, Percy and Grover and I, walking through the woods on 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.”
Percy was in shock, not speaking. He flinched every few minutes, telling me that the explosion of bus windows still rang in his ears. I stayed strong, determined to not think about what happened and kept pulling them along, saying: “Come on! The further away we get, the better.”
“All our money was back there,” Percy reminded me, which was extremely unneeded. “Our food and clothes. Everything.”
“Well, maybe if you hadn’t decided to jump into the fight –”
“What did you want me to do? Let you get killed?”
“You didn’t need to protect me, Percy. I would’ve been fine.”
“Sliced like sandwich bread,” Grover put in, “but fine.”
“Shut up, goat boy,” I snapped.
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, I fell into line next to Percy.
“Look, I...” My voice faltered and I gritted my teeth. “I appreciate your coming back for us, okay? That was really brave.”
“We’re a team, right?”
I was silent for a few more steps. “It’s 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.” I hadn’t really opened up to anyone about this, and I was confused why I was talking to Percy about it.
The thunderstorm had finally let up. The city glow faded behind us, leaving us in almost total darkness. I couldn’t see anything of Percy, which was kind of annoying since I could usually read him like a book.
“You haven’t left Camp Half-Blood since you were seven?” He asked me.
“No... only short field trips. My dad –”
“The history professor.”
“Yeah. It didn’t work out for me living at home. I mean, Camp Half-Blood is my home.” I was rushing my words out now, unable to control or stop myself. “At camp you train and train. And that’s all cool and everything, but the real world is where the monsters are. That’s where you learn whether you’re any good or not.”
I could hear the doubt in my voice. I wasn’t good enough. There were so many other kids at camp who could have dealt with our situation much better than I could’ve.
“You’re pretty good with that knife,” Percy said.
“You think so?”
“Anybody who can piggyback-ride a Fury is okay by me.” I couldn’t really see, but I thought he might’ve smiled.
There was something nagging me. Something the Furies had said.
“You know,” I said, “maybe I should tell you... Something funny back on the bus...” I 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, Percy immediately slammed into a tree and got a nice-size knot on his head.
I laughed. He glared at me.
Add to the list of superpowers Percy 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.
There weren’t that many unhealthy foods at camp. The only people who ate junk were the ones who snuck it in. We lived on grapes, bread, cheese and extra-lean-cut nymph-prepared barbecue.
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 wasn’t a fast-food restaurant like Percy had 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 there’s anything worse for my dyslexia than regular English, it’s red cursive neon English. To me, it looked like: ATNYU MES GDERAN GOMEN MEPROIUM.
“What the heck does that say?” Percy asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. He had forgotten I was dyslexic too.
Grover translated: “Aunty Em’s 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. Percy crossed the street, following the smell of the hamburgers.
“Hey...” Grover warned.
“The lights are on inside,” I said. “Maybe it’s open.”
“Snack bar,” Percy said wistfully.
“Snack bar,” I agreed.
“Are you two crazy?” Grover said. “This place is weird.”
We ignored him.
The front garden 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.
“Don’t knock,” Grover pleaded. “I smell monsters.”
“Your nose is clogged up from the Furies,” I told him. “All I smell is burgers. Aren’t you hungry?”
“Meat!” he said scornfully. “I’m a vegetarian.”
“You eat cheese enchiladas and aluminium cans,” Percy reminded him.
“Those are vegetables. Come on. Let’s 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?”
“They’re... um...” I started to say.
“We’re orphans,” Percy blurted out.
“Orphans?” the woman said. The word sounded alien in her mouth. “But, my dears! Surely not!”
“We got separated from our caravan,” he 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, we’re 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.
I muttered to Percy, “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 different outfits and with different expressions on their faces. I was thinking you’d 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 lady’s shop like that just because I was hungry. Plus, you’ve never smelled Aunty Em’s burgers. The aroma was like laughing gas in the dentist’s chair – it made everything else go away. I barely noticed Grover’s 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,” Percy said.
“Um,” Grover said reluctantly, “we don’t have any money, ma’am.”
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, ma’am,” I said. Aunty Em stiffened, like I had done something wrong, but then the old woman relaxed just as quickly, so I figured it must’ve been my imagination.
“Quite all right, Annabeth,” she said. “You have such beautiful grey eyes, child.”
I sat down slowly. I had never introduced myself to Aunty Em, which started to make me suspicious. I started racking my brain for any greek mythology stories about Aunty Em, but the name didn’t ring any bells.
Our hostess disappeared behind the snack counter and started cooking. Before we knew it, she’d brought us plastic trays heaped with double cheeseburgers, vanilla shakes and XXL servings of French fries.
Percy was halfway through his burger before I saw him breathe.
I slurped my shake greedily.
Grover picked at the fries, and eyed the tray’s waxed paper liner as if he might go for that, but he still looked too nervous to eat.
“What’s that hissing noise?” he asked. I listened, but didn’t hear anything. I shook my head.
“Hissing?” Aunty Em asked. “Perhaps you hear the deep-fryer oil. You have keen ears, Grover.”
“I take vitamins. For my ears.”
“That’s admirable,” she said. “But please, relax.” Aunty Em ate nothing. She hadn’t taken off her headdress, even to cook, and now she sat forward and interlaced her fingers and watched us eat.
Grover leaned into me. “Annabeth. There’s something not right about this quest.”
“You think?” I hissed back, “We just got attacked by all three Kindly Ones.”
“The way they said they were looking for Percy was weird.”
“Yeah I know. They kept on saying ’Where is it?′ I don’t think they wanted Percy.”
“So,” Percy said, breaking the silence, “You sell gnomes,”
“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.”
I straightened and turned to look at 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?” Percy 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 statutes. This is why I make them, you see. They are my company.”
I stopped eating, sat forward and said, “Two sisters?”
“It’s 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.”
The story clicked in my head.
How could I have been so stupid? Think, I told myself. Medusa died in the myth by getting her head cut off by Percy’s namesake, Perseus, though in the myth Medusa had been asleep when she was attacked She wasn’t anywhere near asleep now. If she wanted, she could take those talons right now and rake open my face.
Percy’s eyelids kept closing and opening slowly, as if he were about to pass out.
“Percy?” I shook him to get my attention. “Maybe we should go. I mean, the ringmaster will be waiting.”
Percy looked at me warily and sloppily shook his head.
“Such beautiful grey eyes,” Medusa told me again. “My, yes, it has been a long time since I’ve seen grey eyes like those.” She reached out as if to stroke my cheek, but I stood up abruptly.
“We really should go.”
“Yes!” Grover swallowed his waxed paper and stood up. “The ringmaster is waiting! Right!”
Percy stayed sitting, looking at Medusa expectantly.
“Please, dears,” Medusa pleaded. “I so rarely get to be with children. Before you go, won’t you at least sit for a pose?”
“A pose?” I asked warily. I wasn’t positive Aunty Em was Medusa, but I did want to see if I was correct.
“A photograph. I will use it to model a new statue set. Children are so popular, you see. Everyone loves children.”
I shifted my weight from foot to foot.
“I don’t think we can, ma’am. Come on, Percy –”
“Sure we can,” Percy said irritably. “It’s just a photo, Annabeth. What’s the harm?”
“Yes, Annabeth,” the woman purred. “No harm.”
I wanted to scream, but instead I allowed Medusa to lead us back out the front door, into the garden of statues. Medusa directed us to a park bench next to the stone satyr.
“Now,” she said, “I’ll just position you correctly. The young girl in the middle, I think, and the two young gentlemen on either side.”
I could practically hear my brain spinning, trying to think of a way out of this.
“Not much light for a photo,” Percy remarked. I wonder why, I thought angrily.
“Oh, enough,” Medusa said. “Enough for us to see each other, yes?”
“Where’s your camera?” Grover asked. Medusa 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,” Medusa chastised, “look this way, dear.”
She still had no camera in her hands.
“Percy –” I said. I was positive now she was Medusa.
“I will just be a moment,” Medusa said. “You know, I can’t see you very well in this cursed veil...”
“Percy, something’s wrong,” I insisted.
“Wrong?” Medusa 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!” I shouted and whipped my Yankees cap on to my head and vanished. My invisible hands pushed Grover and Percy both off the bench. Percy was on the ground, looking at Aunt Em’s sandaled feet while Grover scrambled off in one direction, and I went the other way. Percy was too dazed to move.
Then I heard a strange, rasping sound near me. I turned to see Percy’s eyes rising to Medusa’s hands, which had turned gnarled and warty, with sharp bronze talons for fingernails. He almost looked higher, but I screamed, “No! Don’t!”
More rasping – the sound of tiny snakes, from about where Medusa’s head would be.
“Run!” Grover bleated. I heard him racing across the gravel, yelling, “Maia!” to kick-start his flying sneakers.
Percy wasn’t moving. He stared at Medusa’s gnarled claws.
“Such a pity to destroy a handsome young face,” she told him soothingly. “Stay with me, Percy. All you have to do is look up.”
I watched him fight the urge to obey. Instead, he looked to one side towards one of those glass spheres people put in gardens – a gazing ball. I could see Medusa’s 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.
“The Grey-Eyed One did this to me, Percy,” Medusa said, and she didn’t sound anything like a monster. Her voice invited me to look up at her face, to sympathize with a poor old grandmother, even if she wasn’t talking to me.
“Annabeth’s mother, the cursed Athena, turned me from a beautiful woman into this.”
“Don’t listen to her!” I shouted. “Run, Percy!”
“Silence!” Medusa snarled at me. Then her voice modulated back to a comforting purr. “You see why I must destroy the girl, Percy. She is my enemy’s daughter. I shall crush her statue to dust. But you, dear Percy, you need not suffer.”
“No,” he muttered and tried to make his 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.”
Behind me, I heard a buzzing sound, like a ninety-kilogram hummingbird in a nosedive and instinctively ducked, Grover soared above me.
“Percy!” Grover yelled, “Duck!”
I looked up at Grover, who was in the night sky, flying in from twelve o’clock with his winged shoes fluttering, holding a tree branch the size of a baseball bat. His head twitched from side to side. He was navigating by ears and nose alone, his eyes shut.
“Duck!” he yelled again. “I’ll get her!” That finally jolted him into action and he dove to one side.
At first I figured it was the sound of Grover hitting a tree. Then Medusa roared with rage.
“You miserable satyr,” she snarled. “I’ll add you to my collection!”
“That was for Uncle Ferdinand!” Grover yelled back. Percy scrambled away and hid in the statuary while Grover swooped down for another pass. I bolted towards Percy.
“Arrgh!” Medusa yelled, her snake-hair hissing and spitting.
“Percy!” I said and watched him jump so high his feet nearly cleared a garden gnome.
“Jeez! Don’t do that!”
I took off my Yankees cap and became visible.
“You have to cut her head off.”
“What? Are you crazy? Let’s get out of here.”
“Medusa is a menace. She’s evil. I’d kill her myself, but...” I swallowed, not wanting to tell him I was scared.
Instead I said, “But you’ve got the better weapon. Besides, I’d never get close to her. She’d slice me to bits because of my mother. You – you’ve got a chance.”
“What? I can’t –”
“Look, do you want her turning more innocent people into statues?”
I pointed to a pair of statue lovers, a man and a woman with their arms around each other, turned to stone by the monster. I grabbed a green gazing ball from a nearby pedestal.
“A polished shield would be better.” I studied the sphere critically. “The convexity will cause some distortion. The reflection’s size should be off by a factor of –”
“Would you speak English?”
“I am!” I tossed him the glass ball. “Just look at her in the glass. Never look at her directly.”
“Hey, guys!” Grover yelled somewhere above us. “I think she’s unconscious!”
“Maybe not,” Grover corrected. He went in for another pass with the tree branch.
“Hurry,” I told Percy. “Grover’s got a great nose, but he’ll eventually crash.” He took out his pen and uncapped it. The bronze blade of his sword elongated in his hand.
I watched him through a different green gazing ball.
He was looking at his gazing ball, following the hissing and spitting sounds of Medusa’s hair. He kept his eyes locked on the gazing ball so he would only glimpse Medusa’s reflection, then he saw her.
His eyes grew wide as Grover soared 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 Percy yelled, “Hey!”
He advanced on her, which I assumed wasn’t easy, holding a sword and a glass ball. If she charged, He would have a hard time defending himself. But she let him approach – ten metres, five metres.
“You wouldn’t harm an old woman, Percy,” she crooned. “I know you wouldn’t.”
He hesitated, fascinated by the face he saw reflected in the glass. From the cement grizzly, Grover moaned, “Percy, don’t listen to her!”
Medusa cackled. “Too late.” She lunged at Percy with her talons. He slashed up with his sword, and I heard a sickening shlock!, then a hiss like wind rushing out of a cavern – the sound of a monster disintegrating. Her head fell to the ground next to Percy’s foot.
I grabbed Medusa’s black veil and went over to them, keeping my eyes at the ceiling the whole time.
“Oh, yuck,” Grover said. His eyes were still tightly closed, but I guess he could hear the thing gurgling and steaming. “Mega-yuck.”
“Don’t move.” I said, and very, very carefully, without looking down, I knelt and draped the monster’s head in black cloth, then picked it up. It was still dripping green juice.
“Are you okay?” I asked Percy, my voice trembling despite myself.
He looked ready to throw up his double cheeseburger.
“Yeah,” he said, “Why didn’t... why didn’t the head evaporate?”
“Once you sever it, it becomes a spoil of war,” I said. “Same as your Minotaur horn. But don’t 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,” Percy 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. Percy recapped his 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 Medusa’s head. We plopped it on the table where we’d eaten dinner and sat around it, too exhausted to speak.
Finally Percy said, “So we have Athena to thank for this monster?”
I flashed him an irritated look. “Your dad, actually. Don’t you remember? Medusa was Poseidon’s girlfriend. They decided to meet in my mother’s temple. That’s 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. That’s why Medusa wanted to slice me up, but she wanted to preserve you as a nice statue. She’s still sweet on your dad. You probably reminded her of him.”
Percy’s face was burning. “Oh, so now it’s my fault we met Medusa.”
I straightened and imitated his voice, I said: “‘It’s just a photo, Annabeth. What’s the harm?’”
“Forget it,” he said. “You’re impossible.”
“Hey!” Grover interrupted. “You two are giving me a migraine, and satyrs don’t 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!
Percy got up. He looked angry. “I’ll be back.”
“Percy,” I called after him. “What are you doing?”
He came back with twenty dollars, a few golden drachmas, some packing slips for Hermes Overnight Express, each with a little leather bag attached for coins, and a box. I assumed he took them from the cash register.
Percy stuffed Medusa’s head into the box, and filled out a delivery slip:
600th Floor, Empire State Building
New York, NY
With best wishes,
“They’re not going to like that,” Grover warned. “They’ll think you’re impertinent.”
Percy poured some golden drachmas in the pouch. As soon as he closed it, there was a sound like a cash register. The package floated off the table and disappeared with a pop!
“I am impertinent,” he said and glared at me, daring me to criticize. I didn’t. I accepted the fact that Percy had a major talent for ticking off the gods, and the fact he was going to die very young.
“Come on,” I muttered. “We need a new plan.”
A/N: why are some of these chapters are so freaking long. this one is 4k words long. i’m literally so scared that these will glitch out.
Also I’m so sorry I forgot to publish yesterday.