The Hidden Oracle chapter 4

Casa de Jackson

No gold-plated throne for guests

Seriously, dude?

 

ANOTHER THING I have never understood: How can you mortals live in such tiny places? Where is your pride? Your sense of style?

The Jackson apartment had no grand throne room, no colonnades, no terraces or banquet halls or even a thermal bath. It had a tiny living room with an attached kitchen and a single hallway leading to what I assumed were the bedrooms. The place was on the fifth floor, and while I wasn’t so picky as to expect an elevator, I did find it odd there was no landing deck for flying chariots. What did they do when guests from the sky wanted to visit?

 

Standing behind the kitchen counter, making a smoothie, was a strikingly attractive mortal woman of about forty. Her long brown hair had a few gray streaks, but her bright eyes, quick smile, and festive tie-dyed sundress made her look younger.

 

As we entered, she turned off the blender and stepped out from behind the counter. “Sacred Sibyl!” I cried. “Madam, there is something wrong with your midsection!”

 

The woman stopped, mystified, and looked down at her hugely swollen belly. “Well, I’m seven months pregnant.”

 

I wanted to cry for her. Carrying such a weight didn’t seem natural. My sister, Artemis, had experience with midwifery, but I had always found it one area of the healing arts best left to others. “How can you bear it?” I asked. “My mother, Leto, suffered through a long pregnancy, but only because Hera cursed her. Are you cursed?”

 

Percy stepped to my side. “Um, Apollo? She’s not cursed. And can you not mention Hera?”

 

“You poor woman.” I shook my head. “A goddess would never allow herself to be so encumbered. She would give birth as soon as she felt like it.”

“That must be nice,” the woman agreed.

Percy Jackson coughed. “So anyway. Mom, this is Apollo and his friend Meg. Guys, this is my mom.” The Mother of Jackson smiled and shook our hands. “Call me Sally.”

 

Her eyes narrowed as she studied my busted nose. “Dear, that looks painful. What happened?”

 

I attempted to explain, but I choked on my words. I, the silver-tongued god of poetry, could not bring myself to describe my fall from grace to this kind woman.

 

I understood why Poseidon had been so smitten with her. Sally Jackson possessed just the right combination of compassion, strength, and beauty. She was one of those rare mortal women who could

 

connect spiritually with a god as an equal—to be neither terrified of us nor greedy for what we can offer, but to provide us with true companionship.

 

If I had still been an immortal, I might have flirted with her myself. But I was now a sixteen-year-old boy. My mortal form was working its way upon my state of mind. I saw Sally Jackson as a mom—a fact that both consternated and embarrassed me. I thought about how long it had been since I had called my own mother. I should probably take her to lunch when I got back to Olympus.

“I tell you what.” Sally patted my shoulder. “Percy can help you get bandaged and cleaned up.” “I can?” asked Percy.

 

Sally gave him the slightest motherly eyebrow raise. “There’s a first-aid kit in your bathroom, sweetheart. Apollo can take a shower, then wear your extra clothes. You two are about the same size.”

“That,” Percy said, “is truly depressing.”

Sally cupped her hand under Meg’s chin. Thankfully, Meg did not bite her. Sally’s expression remained gentle and reassuring, but I could see the worry in her eyes. No doubt she was thinking, Who dressed this poor girl like a traffic light?

 

“I have some clothes that might fit you, dear,” Sally said. “Pre-pregnancy clothes, of course. Let’s get you cleaned up. Then we’ll get you something to eat.”

“I like food,” Meg muttered.

Sally laughed. “Well, we have that in common. Percy, you take Apollo. We’ll meet you back here in a while.”

 

 

In short order, I was showered, bandaged, and dressed in Jacksonesque hand-me-downs. Percy left me alone in the bathroom to take care of all this myself, for which I was grateful. He offered me some ambrosia and nectar—food and drink of the gods—to heal my wounds, but I was not sure it would be safe to consume in my mortal state. I didn’t want to self-combust, so I stuck with mortal first-aid supplies.

 

When I was done, I stared at my battered face in the bathroom mirror. Perhaps teenage angst had permeated the clothes, because I felt more like a sulky high schooler than ever. I thought how unfair it was that I was being punished, how lame my father was, how no one else in the history of time had ever experienced problems like mine.

Of course, all that was empirically true. No exaggeration was required.

 

At least my wounds seemed to be healing at a faster rate than a normal mortal’s. The swelling in my nose had subsided. My ribs still ached, but I no longer felt as if someone were knitting a sweater inside my chest with hot needles.

 

Accelerated healing was the least Zeus could do for me. I was a god of medicinal arts, after all. Zeus probably just wanted me to get well quickly so I could endure more pain, but I was grateful nonetheless.

 

I wondered if I should start a small fire in Percy Jackson’s sink, perhaps burn some bandages in thanks, but I decided that might strain the Jacksons’ hospitality.

 

I examined the black T-shirt Percy had given me. Emblazoned on the front was Led Zeppelin’s logo for their record label: winged Icarus falling from the sky. I had no problem with Led Zeppelin. I had inspired all their best songs. But I had a sneaking suspicion that Percy had given me this shirt as a joke— the fall from the sky. Yes, ha-ha. I didn’t need to be a god of poetry to spot the metaphor. I decided not to comment on it. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

 

I took a deep breath. Then I did my usual motivational speech in the mirror: “You are gorgeous and people love you!”

I went out to face the world.

Percy was sitting on his bed, staring at the trail of blood droplets I had made across his carpet. “Sorry about that,” I said.

 

Percy spread his hands. “Actually, I was thinking about the last time I had a nosebleed.” “Oh…”

 

The memory came back to me, though hazy and incomplete. Athens. The Acropolis. We gods had battled side by side with Percy Jackson and his comrades. We defeated an army of giants, but a drop of Percy’s blood hit the earth and awakened the Earth Mother Gaea, who had not been in a good mood.

 

That’s when Zeus turned on me. He’d accused me of starting the whole thing, just because Gaea had duped one of my progeny, a boy named Octavian, into plunging the Roman and Greek demigod camps into a civil war that almost destroyed human civilization. I ask you: How was that my fault?

 

Regardless, Zeus had held me responsible for Octavian’s delusions of grandeur. Zeus seemed to consider egotism a trait the boy had inherited from me. Which is ridiculous. I am much too self-aware to be egotistical.

 

“What happened to you, man?” Percy’s voice stirred me from my reverie. “The war ended in August. It’s January.”

 

“It is?” I suppose the wintry weather should have been a clue, but I hadn’t given it much thought. “Last I saw you,” Percy said, “Zeus was chewing you out at the Acropolis. Then bam—he vaporized

you. Nobody’s seen or heard from you for six months.”

 

I tried to recall, but my memories of godhood were getting fuzzier rather than clearer. What had happened in the last six months? Had I been in some kind of stasis? Had Zeus taken that long to decide what to do with me? Perhaps there was a reason he’d waited until this moment to hurl me to earth.

 

Father’s voice still rang in my ears: Your fault. Your punishment. My shame felt fresh and raw, as if the conversation had just happened, but I could not be sure.

 

After being alive for so many millennia, I had trouble keeping track of time even in the best of circumstances. I would hear a song on Spotify and think, “Oh, that’s new!” Then I’d realize it was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D Minor from two hundred years ago. Or I’d wonder why Herodotus the historian wasn’t in my contacts list. Then I’d remember Herodotus didn’t have a smartphone, because he had been dead since the Iron Age.

It’s very irritating how quickly you mortals die.

“I—I don’t know where I’ve been,” I admitted. “I have some memory gaps.”

Percy winced. “I hate memory gaps. Last year I lost an entire semester thanks to Hera.”

 

“Ah, yes.” I couldn’t quite remember what Percy Jackson was talking about. During the war with Gaea, I had been focused mostly on my own fabulous exploits. But I suppose he and his friends had undergone a few minor hardships.

 

“Well, never fear,” I said. “There are always new opportunities to win fame! That’s why I’ve come to you for help!”

 

He gave me that confusing expression again: as if he wanted to kick me, when I was sure he must be struggling to contain his gratitude.

“Look, man—”

“Would you please refrain from calling me man?” I asked. “It is a painful reminder that I am a man.” “Okay…Apollo, I’m fine with driving you and Meg to camp if that’s what you want. I never turn away

a demigod who needs help—”

 

“Wonderful! Do you have something besides the Prius? A Maserati, perhaps? I’d settle for a Lamborghini.”

 

“But,” Percy continued, “I can’t get involved in another Big Prophecy or whatever. I’ve made promises.”

I stared at him, not quite comprehending. “Promises?”

Percy laced his fingers. They were long and nimble. He would have made an excellent musician. “I lost most of my junior year because of the war with Gaea. I’ve spent this entire fall playing catch-up with

 

my classes. If I want to go to college with Annabeth next fall, I have to stay out of trouble and get my diploma.”

“Annabeth.” I tried to place the name. “She’s the blond scary one?”

“That’s her. I promised her specifically that I wouldn’t get myself killed while she’s gone.” “Gone?”

 

Percy waved vaguely toward the north. “She’s in Boston for a few weeks. Some family emergency. The point is—”

 

“You’re saying you cannot offer me your undivided service to restore me to my throne?” “Um…yeah.” He pointed at the bedroom doorway. “Besides, my mom’s pregnant. I’m going to have a

baby sister. I’d like to be around to get to know her.”

“Well, I understand that. I remember when Artemis was born—” “Aren’t you twins?”

“I’ve always regarded her as my little sister.”

Percy’s mouth twitched. “Anyway, my mom’s got that going on, and her first novel is going to be published this spring as well, so I’d like to stay alive long enough to—”

 

“Wonderful!” I said. “Remind her to burn the proper sacrifices. Calliope is quite touchy when novelists forget to thank her.”

 

“Okay. But what I’m saying…I can’t go off on another world-stomping quest. I can’t do that to my family.”

 

Percy glanced toward his window. On the sill was a potted plant with delicate silver leaves— possibly moonlace. “I’ve already given my mom enough heart attacks for one lifetime. She’s just about forgiven me for disappearing last year, but I swore to her and Paul that I wouldn’t do anything like that again.”

“Paul?”

“My stepdad. He’s at a teacher in-service today. He’s a good guy.”

“I see.” In truth, I didn’t see. I wanted to get back to talking about my problems. I was impatient with Percy for turning the conversation to himself. Sadly, I have found this sort of self-centeredness common among demigods.

 

“You do understand that I must find a way to return to Olympus,” I said. “This will probably involve many harrowing trials with a high chance of death. Can you turn down such glory?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can. Sorry.”

I pursed my lips. It always disappointed me when mortals put themselves first and failed to see the big picture—the importance of putting me first—but I had to remind myself that this young man had helped me out on many previous occasions. He had earned my goodwill.

 

“I understand,” I said with incredible generosity. “You will at least escort us to Camp Half-Blood?” “That I can do.” Percy reached into his hoodie pocket and pulled out a ballpoint pen. For a moment I thought he wanted my autograph. I can’t tell you how often that happens. Then I remembered the pen was

 

the disguised form of his sword, Riptide.

 

He smiled, and some of that old demigod mischief twinkled in his eyes. “Let’s see if Meg’s ready for a field trip.”

 

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