Ode to a hot dog
With bug juice and tater chips
I got nothing, man
I WAS NOT IN THE MOOD TO CELEBRATE.
Especially sitting at a picnic table eating mortal food. With mortals.
The dining pavilion was pleasant enough. Even in winter, the camp’s magical borders shielded us from the worst of the elements. Sitting outdoors in the warmth of the torches and braziers, I felt only slightly chilly. Long Island Sound glittered in the light of the moon. (Hello, Artemis. Don’t bother to say hi.) On Half-Blood Hill, the Athena Parthenos glowed like the world’s largest nightlight. Even the woods did not seem so creepy with the pine trees blanketed in soft silvery fog.
My dinner, however, was less than poetic. It consisted of hot dogs, potato chips, and a red liquid I was told was bug juice. I did not know why humans consumed bug juice, or from which type of bug it had been extracted, but it was the tastiest part of the meal, which was disconcerting.
I sat at the Apollo table with my children Austin, Kayla, and Will, plus Nico di Angelo. I could see no difference between my table and any of the other gods’ tables. Mine should have been shinier and more elegant. It should have played music or recited poetry upon command. Instead it was just a slab of stone with benches on either side. I found the seating uncomfortable, though my offspring didn’t seem to mind.
Austin and Kayla peppered me with questions about Olympus, the war with Gaea, and what it felt like to be a god and then a human. I knew they did not mean to be rude. As my children, they were inherently inclined to the utmost grace. However, their questions were painful reminders of my fallen status.
Besides, as the hours passed, I remembered less and less about my divine life. It was alarming how fast my cosmically perfect neurons had deteriorated. Once, each memory had been like a high-definition audio file. Now those recordings were on wax cylinders. And believe me, I remember wax cylinders.
They did not last long in the sun chariot.
Will and Nico sat shoulder to shoulder, bantering good-naturedly. They were so cute together it made me feel desolate. It jogged my memories of those few short golden months I’d shared with Hyacinthus before the jealousy, before the horrible accident…
“Nico,” I said at last, “shouldn’t you be sitting at the Hades table?”
He shrugged. “Technically, yes. But if I sit alone at my table, strange things happen. Cracks open in the floor. Zombies crawl out and start roaming around. It’s a mood disorder. I can’t control it. That’s what I told Chiron.”
“And is it true?” I asked.
Nico smiled thinly. “I have a note from my doctor.” Will raised his hand. “I’m his doctor.”
“Chiron decided it wasn’t worth arguing about,” Nico said. “As long as I sit at a table with other people, like…oh, these guys for instance…the zombies stay away. Everybody’s happier.”
Will nodded serenely. “It’s the strangest thing. Not that Nico would ever misuse his powers to get what he wants.”
“Of course not,” Nico agreed.
I glanced across the dining pavilion. As per camp tradition, Meg had been placed with the children of Hermes, since her godly parentage had not yet been determined. Meg didn’t seem to mind. She was busy re-creating the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest all by herself. The other two girls, Julia and Alice, watched her with a mixture of fascination and horror.
Across the table from her sat an older skinny boy with curly brown hair—Connor Stoll, I deduced, though I’d never been able to tell him apart from his older brother, Travis. Despite the darkness, Connor wore sunglasses, no doubt to protect his eyes from a repeat poking. I also noted that he wisely kept his hands away from Meg’s mouth.
In the entire pavilion, I counted nineteen campers. Most sat alone at their respective tables—Sherman Yang for Ares; a girl I did not know for Aphrodite; another girl for Demeter. At the Nike table, two dark-haired young ladies who were obviously twins conversed over a war map. Chiron himself, again in full centaur form, stood at the head table, sipping his bug juice as he chatted with two satyrs, but their mood was subdued. The goat-men kept glancing at me, then eating their silverware, as satyrs tend to do when nervous. Half a dozen gorgeous dryads moved between the tables, offering food and drink, but I was so preoccupied I couldn’t fully appreciate their beauty. Even more tragic: I felt too embarrassed to flirt with them. What was wrong with me?
I studied the campers, hoping to spot some potential servants…I mean new friends. Gods always like to keep a few strong veteran demigods handy to throw into battle, send on dangerous quests, or pick the lint off our togas. Unfortunately, no one at dinner jumped out at me as a likely minion. I longed for a bigger pool of talent.
“Where are the…others?” I asked Will.
I wanted to say the A-List, but I thought that might be taken the wrong way. Will took a bite of his pizza. “Were you looking for somebody in particular?” “What about the ones who went on that quest with the boat?”
Will and Nico exchanged a look that might have meant, Here we go. I suppose they got asked a lot about the seven legendary demigods who had fought side by side with the gods against Gaea’s giants. It pained me that I had not gotten to see those heroes again. After any major battle, I liked to get a group photo—along with exclusive rights to compose epic ballads about their exploits.
“Well,” Nico started, “you saw Percy. He and Annabeth are spending their senior year in New York. Hazel and Frank are at Camp Jupiter doing the Twelfth Legion thing.”
“Ah, yes.” I tried to bring up a clear mental picture of Camp Jupiter, the Roman enclave near Berkeley, California, but the details were hazy. I could only remember my conversations with Octavian, the way he’d turned my head with his flattery and promises. That stupid boy…it was his fault I was here.
A voice whispered in the back of my mind. This time I thought it might be my conscience: Who was the stupid boy? It wasn’t Octavian.
“Shut up,” I murmured. “What?” Nico asked. “Nothing. Continue.”
“Jason and Piper are spending the school year in Los Angeles with Piper’s dad. They took Coach Hedge, Mellie, and Little Chuck with them.”
“Uh-huh.” I did not know those last three names, so I decided they probably weren’t important. “And the seventh hero…Leo Valdez?”
Nico raised his eyebrows. “You remember his name?”
“Of course! He invented the Valdezinator. Oh, what a musical instrument! I barely had time to master its major scales before Zeus zapped me at the Parthenon. If anyone could help me, it would be Leo Valdez.”
Nico’s expression tightened with annoyance. “Well, Leo isn’t here. He died. Then he came back to life. And if I see him again, I’ll kill him.”
Will elbowed him. “No, you won’t.” He turned to me. “During the fight with Gaea, Leo and his bronze dragon, Festus, disappeared in a midair fiery explosion.”
I shivered. After so many centuries driving the sun chariot, the term midair fiery explosion did not sit well with me.
I tried to remember the last time I’d seen Leo Valdez on Delos, when he’d traded the Valdezinator for information….
“He was looking for the physician’s cure,” I recalled, “the way to bring someone back from the dead. I suppose he planned all along to sacrifice himself?”
“Yep,” Will said. “He got rid of Gaea in the explosion, but we all assumed he died too.” “Because he did,” Nico said.
“Then, a few days later,” Will continued, “this scroll came fluttering into camp on the wind….” “I still have it.” Nico rummaged through the pockets of his bomber jacket. “I look at it whenever I
want to get angry.”
He produced a thick parchment scroll. As soon as he spread it on the table, a flickering hologram appeared above the surface: Leo Valdez, looking impish as usual with his dark wispy hair, his mischievous grin, and his diminutive stature. (Of course, the hologram was only three inches tall, but even in real life Leo was not much more imposing.) His jeans, blue work shirt, and tool belt were speckled with machine oil.
“Hey, guys!” Leo spread his arms for a hug. “Sorry to leave you like that. Bad news: I died. Good news: I got better! I had to go rescue Calypso. We’re both fine now. We’re taking Festus to—” The image guttered like a flame in a strong breeze, disrupting Leo’s voice. “Back as soon as—” Static. “Cook tacos when—” More static. “¡Vaya con queso! Love ya!” The image winked out.
“That’s all we got,” Nico complained. “And that was in August. We have no idea what he was planning, where he is now, or whether he’s still safe. Jason and Piper spent most of September looking for him until Chiron finally insisted they go start their school year.”
“Well,” I said, “it sounds like Leo was planning to cook tacos. Perhaps that took longer than he anticipated. And vaya con queso…I believe he is admonishing us to go with cheese, which is always sound advice.”
This did not seem to reassure Nico.
“I don’t like being in the dark,” he muttered.
An odd complaint for a child of Hades, but I understood what he meant. I, too, was curious to know the fate of Leo Valdez. Once upon a time, I could have divined his whereabouts as easily as you might check a Facebook timeline, but now I could only stare at the sky and wonder when a small impish demigod might appear with a bronze dragon and a plate of tacos.
And if Calypso was involved…that complicated things. The sorceress and I had a rocky history, but even I had to admit she was beguiling. If she’d captured Leo’s heart, it was entirely possible he had gotten sidetracked. Odysseus spent seven years with her before returning home.
Whatever the case, it seemed unlikely that Valdez would be back in time to help me. My quest to master the Valdezinator’s arpeggios would have to wait.
Kayla and Austin had been very quiet, following our conversation with wonder and amazement. (My words have that effect on people.)
Now Kayla scooted toward me. “What did you guys talk about in the Big House? Chiron told you about the disappearances…?”
“Yes.” I tried to avoid looking in the direction of the woods. “We discussed the situation.” “And?” Austin spread his fingers on the table. “What’s going on?”
I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want them to see my fear.
I wished my head would stop pounding. On Olympus, headaches were so much easier to cure. Hephaestus simply split one’s skull open and extracted whatever newborn god or goddess happened to be banging around in there. In the mortal world, my options were more limited.
“I need time to think about it,” I said. “Perhaps in the morning I’ll have some of my godly powers back.”
Austin leaned forward. In the torchlight, his cornrows seemed to twist into new DNA patterns. “Is that how it works? Your strength comes back over time?”
“I—I think so.” I tried to remember my years of servitude with Admetus and Laomedon, but I could barely conjure their names and faces. My contracting memory terrified me. It made each moment of the present balloon in size and importance, reminding me that time for mortals was limited.
“I have to get stronger,” I decided. “I must.”
Kayla squeezed my hand. Her archer’s fingers were rough and calloused. “It’s okay, Apollo…Dad. We’ll help you.”
Austin nodded. “Kayla’s right. We’re in this together. If anybody gives you trouble, Kayla will shoot them. Then I’ll curse them so bad they’ll be speaking in rhyming couplets for weeks.”
My eyes watered. Not so long ago—like this morning, for instance—the idea of these young demigods being able to help me would have struck me as ridiculous. Now their kindness moved me more than a hundred sacrificial bulls. I couldn’t recall the last time someone had cared about me enough to curse my enemies with rhyming couplets.
“Thank you,” I managed.
I could not add my children. It didn’t seem right. These demigods were my protectors and my family, but for the present I could not think of myself as their father. A father should do more—a father should give more to his children than he takes. I have to admit that this was a novel idea for me. It made me feel even worse than before.
“Hey…” Will patted my shoulder. “It’s not so bad. At least with everybody being on high alert, we might not have to do Harley’s obstacle course tomorrow.”
Kayla muttered an ancient Greek curse. If I had been a proper godly father, I would have washed her mouth out with olive oil.
“I forgot all about that,” she said. “They’ll have to cancel it, won’t they?” I frowned. “What obstacle course? Chiron mentioned nothing about this.”
I wanted to object that my entire day had been an obstacle course. Surely they couldn’t expect me to do their camp activities as well. Before I could say as much, one of the satyrs blew a conch horn at the head table.
Chiron raised his arms for attention.
“Campers!” His voice filled the pavilion. He could be quite impressive when he wanted to be. “I have a few announcements, including news about tomorrow’s three-legged death race!”