The Hidden Oracle chapter 5

Seven-layer dip

Chocolate chip cookies in blue

I love this woman


SALLY JACKSON was a witch to rival Circe. She had transformed Meg from a street urchin into a shockingly pretty young girl. Meg’s dark pageboy hair was glossy and brushed. Her round face was scrubbed clean of grime. Her cat-eye glasses had been polished so the rhinestones sparkled. She had evidently insisted on keeping her old red sneakers, but she wore new black leggings and a knee-length frock of shifting green hues.


Mrs. Jackson had figured out how to keep Meg’s old look but tweak it to be more complementary. Meg now had an elfish springtime aura that reminded me very much of a dryad. In fact…


A sudden wave of emotion overwhelmed me. I choked back a sob. Meg pouted. “Do I look that bad?”

“No, no,” I managed. “It’s just…”

I wanted to say: You remind me of someone. But I didn’t dare open that line of conversation. Only two mortals ever had broken my heart. Even after so many centuries, I couldn’t think of her, couldn’t say her name without falling into despair.


Don’t misunderstand me. I felt no attraction to Meg. I was sixteen (or four thousand plus, depending on how you looked at it). She was a very young twelve. But the way she appeared now, Meg McCaffrey might have been the daughter of my former love…if my former love had lived long enough to have children.

It was too painful. I looked away.


“Well,” Sally Jackson said with forced cheerfulness, “how about I make some lunch while you three…talk.”


She gave Percy a worried glance, then headed to the kitchen, her hands protectively over her pregnant belly.

Meg sat on the edge of the sofa. “Percy, your mom is so normal.”

“Thanks, I guess.” He picked up a stack of test preparation manuals from the coffee table and chucked them aside.

“I see you like to study,” I said. “Well done.”

Percy snorted. “I hate to study. I’ve been guaranteed admission with a full scholarship to New Rome University, but they’re still requiring me to pass all my high school courses and score well on the SAT. Can you believe that? Not to mention I have to pass the DSTOMP.”


“The what?” Meg asked.


“An exam for Roman demigods,” I told her. “The Demigod Standard Test of Mad Powers.” Percy frowned. “That’s what it stands for?”


“I should know. I wrote the music and poetry analysis sections.” “I will never forgive you for that,” Percy said.

Meg swung her feet. “So you’re really a demigod? Like me?”

“Afraid so.” Percy sank into the armchair, leaving me to take the sofa next to Meg. “My dad is the godly one—Poseidon. What about your parents?”


Meg’s legs went still. She studied her chewed cuticles, the matching crescent rings glinting on her middle fingers. “Never knew them…much.”

Percy hesitated. “Foster home? Stepparents?”

I thought of a certain plant, the Mimosa pudica, which the god Pan created. As soon as its leaves are touched, the plant closes up defensively. Meg seemed to be playing mimosa, folding inward under Percy’s questions.


Percy raised his hands. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.” He gave me an inquisitive look. “So how did you guys meet?”


I told him the story. I may have exaggerated my brave defense against Cade and Mikey—just for narrative effect, you understand.


As I finished, Sally Jackson returned. She set down a bowl of tortilla chips and a casserole dish filled with elaborate dip in multicolored strata, like sedimentary rock.


“I’ll be back with the sandwiches,” she said. “But I had some leftover seven-layer dip.” “Yum.” Percy dug in with a tortilla chip. “She’s kinda famous for this, guys.”

Sally ruffled his hair. “There’s guacamole, sour cream, refried beans, salsa—”

“Seven layers?” I looked up in wonder. “You knew seven is my sacred number? You invented this for me?”

Sally wiped her hands on her apron. “Well, actually, I can’t take credit—”

“You are too modest!” I tried some of the dip. It tasted almost as good as ambrosia nachos. “You will have immortal fame for this, Sally Jackson!”

“That’s sweet.” She pointed to the kitchen. “I’ll be right back.”

Soon we were plowing through turkey sandwiches, chips and dip, and banana smoothies. Meg ate like a chipmunk, shoving more food in her mouth than she could possibly chew. My belly was full. I had never been so happy. I had a strange desire to fire up an Xbox and play Call of Duty.

“Percy,” I said, “your mom is awesome.”


“I know, right?” He finished his smoothie. “So back to your story…you have to be Meg’s servant now? You guys barely know each other.”


Barely is generous,” I said. “Nevertheless, yes. My fate is now linked with young McCaffrey.” “We are cooperating,” Meg said. She seemed to savor that word.


From his pocket, Percy fished his ballpoint pen. He tapped it thoughtfully against his knee. “And this whole turning-into-a-mortal thing…you’ve done it twice before?”


“Not by choice,” I assured him. “The first time, we had a little rebellion in Olympus. We tried to overthrow Zeus.”

Percy winced. “I’m guessing that didn’t go well.”

“I got most of the blame, naturally. Oh, and your father, Poseidon. We were both cast down to earth as mortals, forced to serve Laomedon, the king of Troy. He was a harsh master. He even refused to pay us for our work!”

Meg nearly choked on her sandwich. “I have to pay you?”


I had a terrifying image of Meg McCaffrey trying to pay me in bottle caps, marbles, and pieces of


colored string.


“Never fear,” I told her. “I won’t be presenting you with a bill. But as I was saying, the second time I became mortal, Zeus got mad because I killed some of his Cyclopes.”

Percy frowned. “Dude, not cool. My brother is a Cyclops.”

“These were wicked Cyclopes! They made the lightning bolt that killed one of my sons!” Meg bounced on the arm of the sofa. “Percy’s brother is a Cyclops? That’s crazy!”


I took a deep breath, trying to find my happy place. “At any rate, I was bound to Admetus, the king of Thessaly. He was a kind master. I liked him so much, I made all his cows have twin calves.”

“Can I have baby cows?” Meg asked.


“Well, Meg,” I said, “first you would have to have some mommy cows. You see—” “Guys,” Percy interrupted. “So, just to recap, you have to be Meg’s servant for…?” “Some unknown amount of time,” I said. “Probably a year. Possibly more.”


“And during that time—”

“I will undoubtedly face many trials and hardships.” “Like getting me my cows,” Meg said.

I gritted my teeth. “What those trials will be, I do not yet know. But if I suffer through them and prove I am worthy, Zeus will forgive me and allow me to become a god again.”


Percy did not look convinced—probably because I did not sound convincing. I had to believe my mortal punishment was temporary, as it had been the last two times. Yet Zeus had created a strict rule for baseball and prison sentences: Three strikes, you’re out. I could only hope this would not apply to me.


“I need time to get my bearings,” I said. “Once we get to Camp Half-Blood, I can consult with Chiron. I can figure out which of my godly powers remain with me in this mortal form.”


“If any,” Percy said. “Let’s think positive.”

Percy sat back in his armchair. “Any idea what kind of spirits are following you?” “Shiny blobs,” Meg said. “They were shiny and sort of…blobby.”

Percy nodded gravely. “Those are the worst kind.”

“It hardly matters,” I said. “Whatever they are, we have to flee. Once we reach camp, the magical borders will protect me.”


“And me?” Meg asked. “Oh, yes. You, too.”


Percy frowned. “Apollo, if you’re really mortal, like, one hundred percent mortal, can you even get in to Camp Half-Blood?”


The seven-layer dip began to churn in my stomach. “Please don’t say that. Of course I’ll get in. I have




“But you could get hurt in battle now…” Percy mused. “Then again, maybe monsters would ignore you because you’re not important?”


“Stop!” My hands trembled. Being a mortal was traumatic enough. The thought of being barred from camp, of being unimportant…No. That simply could not be.


“I’m sure I’ve retained some powers,” I said. “I’m still gorgeous, for instance, if I could just get rid of this acne and lose some flab. I must have other abilities!”


Percy turned to Meg. “What about you? I hear you throw a mean garbage bag. Any other skills we should know about? Summoning lightning? Making toilets explode?”

Meg smiled hesitantly. “That’s not a power.”

“Sure it is,” Percy said. “Some of the best demigods have gotten their start by blowing up toilets.” Meg giggled.


I did not like the way she was grinning at Percy. I didn’t want the girl to develop a crush. We might


never get out of here. As much as I enjoyed Sally Jackson’s cooking—the divine smell of baking cookies was even now wafting from the kitchen—I needed to make haste to camp.

“Ahem.” I rubbed my hands. “How soon can we leave?”

Percy glanced at the wall clock. “Right now, I guess. If you’re being followed, I’d rather have monsters on our trail than sniffing around the apartment.”

“Good man,” I said.

Percy gestured with distaste at his test manuals. “I just have to be back tonight. Got a lot of studying. The first two times I took the SAT—ugh. If it wasn’t for Annabeth helping me out—”


“Who’s that?” Meg asked. “My girlfriend.”

Meg frowned. I was glad there were no garbage bags nearby for her to throw.

“So take a break!” I urged. “Your brain will be refreshed after an easy drive to Long Island.” “Huh,” Percy said. “There’s a lazy kind of logic to that. Okay. Let’s do it.”


He rose just as Sally Jackson walked in with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. For some reason, the cookies were blue, but they smelled heavenly—and I should know. I’m from heaven.

“Mom, don’t freak,” Percy said.

Sally sighed. “I hate it when you say that.”

“I’m just going to take these two to camp. That’s all. I’ll be right back.” “I think I’ve heard that before.”

“I promise.”

Sally looked at me, then Meg. Her expression softened, her innate kindness perhaps overweighing her concern. “All right. Be careful. It was lovely meeting you both. Please try not to die.”


Percy kissed her on the cheek. He reached for the cookies, but she moved the plate away.


“Oh, no,” she said. “Apollo and Meg can have one, but I’m keeping the rest hostage until you’re back safely. And hurry, dear. It would be a shame if Paul ate them all when he gets home.”

Percy’s expression turned grim. He faced us. “You hear that, guys? A batch of cookies is depending on me. If you get me killed on the way to camp, I am going be ticked off.”

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