The Hidden Oracle chapter 2

A girl from nowhere

Completes my embarrassment

Stupid bananas

 

I HAD NOT BEEN STOMPED so badly since my guitar contest against Chuck Berry in 1957.

 

As Cade and Mikey kicked me, I curled into a ball, trying to protect my ribs and head. The pain was intolerable. I retched and shuddered. I blacked out and came to, my vision swimming with red splotches. When my attackers got tired of kicking me, they hit me over the head with a bag of garbage, which burst and covered me in coffee grounds and moldy fruit peels.

 

At last they stepped away, breathing heavily. Rough hands patted me down and took my wallet. “Lookee here,” said Cade. “Some cash and an ID for…Lester Papadopoulos.”

Mikey laughed. “Lester? That’s even worse than Apollo.”

 

I touched my nose, which felt roughly the size and texture of a water-bed mattress. My fingers came away glistening red.

“Blood,” I muttered. “That’s not possible.”

“It’s very possible, Lester.” Cade crouched next to me. “And there might be more blood in your near future. You want to explain why you don’t have a credit card? Or a phone? I’d hate to think I did all that stomping for just a hundred bucks.”

 

I stared at the blood on my fingertips. I was a god. I did not have blood. Even when I’d been turned mortal before, golden ichor still ran through my veins. I had never before been so…converted. It must be a mistake. A trick. Something.

I tried to sit up.

 

My hand hit a banana peel and I fell again. My attackers howled in delight. “I love this guy!” Mikey said.

 

“Yeah, but the boss told us he’d be loaded,” Cade complained. “Boss…” I muttered. “Boss?”

 

“That’s right, Lester.” Cade flicked a finger against the side of my head. “‘Go to that alley,’ the boss told us. ‘Easy score.’ He said we should rough you up, take whatever you had. But this”—he waved the cash under my nose—“this isn’t much of a payday.”

 

Despite my predicament, I felt a surge of hopefulness. If these thugs had been sent here to find me, their “boss” must be a god. No mortal could have known I would fall to earth at this spot. Perhaps Cade and Mikey were not human either. Perhaps they were cleverly disguised monsters or spirits. At least that would explain why they had beaten me so easily.

 

“Who—who is your boss?” I struggled to my feet, coffee grounds dribbling from my shoulders. My dizziness made me feel as if I were flying too close to the fumes of primordial Chaos, but I refused to be humbled. “Did Zeus send you? Or perhaps Ares? I demand an audience!”

 

Mikey and Cade looked at each other as if to say, Can you believe this guy? Cade picked up his knife. “You don’t take a hint, do you, Lester?”

Mikey pulled off his belt—a length of bike chain—and wrapped it around his fist.

 

I decided to sing them into submission. They may have resisted my fists, but no mortal could resist my golden voice. I was trying to decide between “You Send Me” and an original composition, “I’m Your Poetry God, Baby,” when a voice yelled, “HEY!”

 

The hooligans turned. Above us, on the second-story fire escape landing, stood a girl of about twelve. “Leave him alone,” she ordered.

 

My first thought was that Artemis had come to my aid. My sister often appeared as a twelve-year-old girl for reasons I’d never fully understood. But something told me this was not she.

 

The girl on the fire escape did not exactly inspire fear. She was small and pudgy, with dark hair chopped in a messy pageboy style and black cat-eye glasses with rhinestones glittering in the corners. Despite the cold, she wore no coat. Her outfit looked like it had been picked by a kindergartener—red sneakers, yellow tights, and a green tank dress. Perhaps she was on her way to a costume party dressed as a traffic light.

 

Still…there was something fierce in her expression. She had the same obstinate scowl my old girlfriend Cyrene used to get whenever she wrestled lions.

 

Mikey and Cade did not seem impressed. “Get lost, kid,” Mikey told her.

 

The girl stamped her foot, causing the fire escape to shudder. “My alley. My rules!” Her bossy nasal voice made her sound like she was chiding a playmate in a game of make-believe. “Whatever that loser has is mine, including his money!”

 

“Why is everyone calling me a loser?” I asked weakly. The comment seemed unfair, even if I was beat-up and covered in garbage; but no one paid me any attention.

 

Cade glared at the girl. The red from his hair seemed to be seeping into his face. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Beat it, you brat!” He picked up a rotten apple and threw it.

 

The girl didn’t flinch. The fruit landed at her feet and rolled harmlessly to a stop. “You want to play with food?” The girl wiped her nose. “Okay.”

 

I didn’t see her kick the apple, but it came flying back with deadly accuracy and hit Cade in the nose. He collapsed on his rump.

 

Mikey snarled. He marched toward the fire escape ladder, but a banana peel seemed to slither directly into his path. He slipped and fell hard. “OWWW!”

 

I backed away from the fallen thugs. I wondered if I should make a run for it, but I could barely hobble. I also did not want to be assaulted with old fruit.

 

The girl climbed over the railing. She dropped to the ground with surprising nimbleness and grabbed a sack of garbage from the Dumpster.

 

“Stop!” Cade did a sort of scuttling crab walk to get away from the girl. “Let’s talk about this!” Mikey groaned and rolled onto his back.

 

The girl pouted. Her lips were chapped. She had wispy black fuzz at the corners of her mouth. “I don’t like you guys,” she said. “You should go.”

“Yeah!” Cade said. “Sure! Just…”

He reached for the money scattered among the coffee grounds.

 

The girl swung her garbage bag. In mid arc the plastic exploded, disgorging an impossible number of rotten bananas. They knocked Cade flat. Mikey was plastered with so many peels he looked like he was

 

being attacked by carnivorous starfish. “Leave my alley,” the girl said. “Now.”

In the Dumpster, more trash bags burst like popcorn kernels, showering Cade and Mikey with radishes, potato peelings, and other compost material. Miraculously, none of it got on me. Despite their injuries, the two thugs scrambled to their feet and ran away, screaming.

 

I turned toward my pint-size savior. I was no stranger to dangerous women. My sister could rain down arrows of death. My stepmother, Hera, regularly drove mortals mad so that they would hack each other to pieces. But this garbage-wielding twelve-year-old made me nervous.

 

“Thank you,” I ventured.

The girl crossed her arms. On her middle fingers she wore matching gold rings with crescent signets. Her eyes glinted darkly like a crow’s. (I can make that comparison because I invented crows.)

“Don’t thank me,” she said. “You’re still in my alley.”

 

She walked a full circle around me, scrutinizing my appearance as if I were a prize cow. (I can also make that comparison, because I used to collect prize cows.)

 

“You’re the god Apollo?” She sounded less than awestruck. She also didn’t seem fazed by the idea of gods walking among mortals.

“You were listening, then?”

She nodded. “You don’t look like a god.”

 

“I’m not at my best,” I admitted. “My father, Zeus, has exiled me from Olympus. And who are you?” She smelled faintly of apple pie, which was surprising, since she looked so grubby. Part of me wanted

 

to find a fresh towel, clean her face, and give her money for a hot meal. Part of me wanted to fend her off with a chair in case she decided to bite me. She reminded me of the strays my sister was always adopting: dogs, panthers, homeless maidens, small dragons.

“Name is Meg,” she said.

 

“Short for Megara? Or Margaret?” “Margaret. But don’t ever call me Margaret.” “And are you a demigod, Meg?”

She pushed up her glasses. “Why would you think that?”

 

Again she didn’t seem surprised by the question. I sensed she had heard the term demigod before. “Well,” I said, “you obviously have some power. You chased off those hooligans with rotten fruit.

 

Perhaps you have banana-kinesis? Or you can control garbage? I once knew a Roman goddess, Cloacina, who presided over the city’s sewer system. Perhaps you’re related…?”

 

Meg pouted. I got the impression I might have said something wrong, though I couldn’t imagine what. “I think I’ll just take your money,” Meg said. “Go on. Get out of here.”

“No, wait!” Desperation crept into my voice. “Please, I—I may need a bit of assistance.”

I felt ridiculous, of course. Me—the god of prophecy, plague, archery, healing, music, and several other things I couldn’t remember at the moment—asking a colorfully dressed street urchin for help. But I had no one else. If this child chose to take my money and kick me into the cruel winter streets, I didn’t think I could stop her.

 

“Say I believe you…” Meg’s voice took on a singsong tone, as if she were about to announce the rules of the game: I’ll be the princess, and you’ll be the scullery maid. “Say I decide to help. What then?”

Good question, I thought. “We…we are in Manhattan?”

“Mm-hmm.” She twirled and did a playful skip-kick. “Hell’s Kitchen.”

It seemed wrong for a child to say Hell’s Kitchen. Then again, it seemed wrong for a child to live in an alley and have garbage fights with thugs.

 

I considered walking to the Empire State Building. That was the modern gateway to Mount Olympus, but I doubted the guards would let me up to the secret six hundredth floor. Zeus would not make it so easy.

 

Perhaps I could find my old friend Chiron the centaur. He had a training camp on Long Island. He could offer me shelter and guidance. But that would be a dangerous journey. A defenseless god makes for a juicy target. Any monster along the way would cheerfully disembowel me. Jealous spirits and minor gods might also welcome the opportunity. Then there was Cade and Mikey’s mysterious “boss.” I had no idea who he was, or whether he had other, worse minions to send against me.

 

Even if I made it to Long Island, my new mortal eyes might not be able to find Chiron’s camp in its magically camouflaged valley. I needed a guide to get me there—someone experienced and close by….

 

“I have an idea.” I stood as straight as my injuries allowed. It wasn’t easy to look confident with a bloody nose and coffee grounds dripping off my clothes. “I know someone who might help. He lives on the Upper East Side. Take me to him, and I shall reward you.”

 

Meg made a sound between a sneeze and a laugh. “Reward me with what?” She danced around, plucking twenty-dollar bills from the trash. “I’m already taking all your money.”

“Hey!”

 

She tossed me my wallet, now empty except for Lester Papadopoulos’s junior driver’s license. Meg sang, “I’ve got your money, I’ve got your money.”

 

I stifled a growl. “Listen, child, I won’t be mortal forever. Someday I will become a god again. Then I will reward those who helped me—and punish those who didn’t.”

 

She put her hands on her hips. “How do you know what will happen? Have you ever been mortal before?”

 

“Yes, actually. Twice! Both times, my punishment only lasted a few years at most!” “Oh, yeah? And how did you get back to being all goddy or whatever?”

Goddy is not a word,” I pointed out, though my poetic sensibilities were already thinking of ways I might use it. “Usually Zeus requires me to work as a slave for some important demigod. This fellow uptown I mentioned, for instance. He’d be perfect! I do whatever tasks my new master requires for a few years. As long as I behave, I am allowed back to Olympus. Right now I just have to recover my strength and figure out—”

 

“How do you know for sure which demigod?” I blinked. “What?”

“Which demigod you’re supposed to serve, dummy.”

“I…uh. Well, it’s usually obvious. I just sort of run into them. That’s why I want to get to the Upper East Side. My new master will claim my service and—”

“I’m Meg McCaffrey!” Meg blew me a raspberry. “And I claim your service!”

Overhead, thunder rumbled in the gray sky. The sound echoed through the city canyons like divine laughter.

 

Whatever was left of my pride turned to ice water and trickled into my socks. “I walked right into that, didn’t I?”

“Yep!” Meg bounced up and down in her red sneakers. “We’re going to have fun!”

With great difficulty, I resisted the urge to weep. “Are you sure you’re not Artemis in disguise?” “I’m that other thing,” Meg said, counting my money. “The thing you said before. A demigod.” “How do you know?”

 

“Just do.” She gave me a smug smile. “And now I have a sidekick god named Lester!” I raised my face to the heavens. “Please, Father, I get the point. Please, I can’t do this!”

 

Zeus did not answer. He was probably too busy recording my humiliation to share on Snapchat. “Cheer up,” Meg told me. “Who’s that guy you wanted to see—the guy on the Upper East Side?” “Another demigod,” I said. “He knows the way to a camp where I might find shelter, guidance, food

 

—”

“Food?” Meg’s ears perked up almost as much as the points on her glasses. “Good food?”

 

“Well, normally I just eat ambrosia, but, yes, I suppose.”

 

“Then that’s my first order! We’re going to find this guy to take us to the camp place!” I sighed miserably. It was going to be a very long servitude.

“As you wish,” I said. “Let’s find Percy Jackson.”

 

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