The son of neptune, p.30
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       The Son of Neptune, p.30

         Part #2 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
 
Page 30

 

  “Let’s go to the store,” she said. “If there’s a goddess inside, maybe she can help us. ”

  “Except a bunch of snake things are guarding the hill now,” Frank said. “And that burning rainbow might comeback. ”

  They both looked at Percy, who was shaking like he had hypothermia.

  “We’ve got to try,” Hazel said.

  Frank nodded grimly. “Well…any goddess who throws a Ding Dong at a giant can’t be all bad. Let’s go. ”

  XXI Frank

  FRANK HATED DING DONGS. He hated snakes. And he hated his life. Not necessarily in that order.

  As he trudged up the hill, he wished that he could pass out like Hazel—just go into a trance and experience some other time, like before he got drafted for this insane quest, before he found out his dad was a godly drill sergeant with an ego problem.

  His bow and spear slapped against his back. He hated the spear, too. The moment he got it, he silently swore he’d never use it. A real man’s weapon—Mars was a moron.

  Maybe there had been a mix-up. Wasn’t there some sort of DNA test for gods’ kids? Perhaps the godly nursery had accidentally switched Frank with one of Mars’s buff little bully babies. No way would Frank’s mother have gotten involved with that blustering war god.

  She was a natural warrior, Grandmother’s voice argued.

  It is no surprise a god would fall in love with her, given our family. Ancient blood. The blood of princes and heroes.

  Frank shook the thought out of his head. He was no prince or hero. He was a lactose-intolerant klutz, who couldn’t even protect his friend from getting kidnapped by wheat.

  His new medals felt cold against his chest: the centurion’s crescent, the Mural Crown. He should’ve been proud of them, but he felt like he’d only gotten them because his dad had bullied Reyna.

  Frank didn’t know how his friends could stand to be around him. Percy had made it clear that he hated Mars, and Frank couldn’t blame him. Hazel kept watching Frank out of the corner of her eye, like she was afraid he might turn into a muscle-bound freak.

  Frank looked down at his body and sighed. Correction: even more of a muscle-bound freak. If Alaska really was a land beyond the gods, Frank might stay there. He wasn’t sure he had anything to return to.

  Don’t whine, his grandmother would say. Zhang men do not whine.

  She was right. Frank had a job to do. He had to complete this impossible quest, which at the moment meant reaching the convenience store alive.

  As they got closer, Frank worried that the store might burst into rainbow light and vaporize them, but the building stayed dark. The snakes Polybotes had dropped seemed to have vanished.

  They were twenty yards from the porch when something hissed in the grass behind them.

  “Go!” Frank yelled.

  Percy stumbled. While Hazel helped him up, Frank turned and nocked an arrow.

  He shot blindly. He thought he’d grabbed an exploding arrow, but it was only a signal flare. It skidded through the grass, bursting into orange flame and whistling: WOO!

  At least it illuminated the monster. Sitting in a patch of withered yellow grass was a lime-colored snake as short and thick as Frank’s arm. Its head was ringed with a mane of spiky white fins. The creature stared at the arrow zipping by as if wondering, What the heck is that?

  Then it fixed its large, yellow eyes on Frank. It advanced like an inchworm, hunching up in the middle. Wherever it touched, the grass withered and died.

  Frank heard his friends climbing the steps of the store. He didn’t dare turn and run. He and the snake studied each other. The snake hissed, flames billowing from its mouth.

  “Nice creepy reptile,” Frank said, very aware of the driftwood in his coat pocket. “Nice poisonous, fire-breathing reptile. ”

  “Frank!” Hazel yelled behind him. “Come on!”

  The snake sprang at him. It sailed through the air so fast, there wasn’t time to nock an arrow. Frank swung his bow and smacked the monster down the hill. It spun out of sight, wailing, “Screeeee!”

  Frank felt proud of himself until he looked at his bow, which was steaming where it had touched the snake. He watched in disbelief as the wood crumbled to dust.

  He heard an outraged hiss, answered by two more hisses farther downhill.

  Frank dropped his disintegrating bow and ran for the porch. Percy and Hazel pulled him up the steps. When Frank turned, he saw all three monsters circling in the grass, breathing fire and turning the hillside brown with their poisonous touch. They didn’t seem able or willing to come closer to the store, but that wasn’t much comfort to Frank. He’d lost his bow.

  “We’ll never get out of here,” he said miserably.

  “Then we’d better go in. ” Hazel pointed to the hand-painted sign over the door: RAINBOW ORGANIC FOODS &LIFESTYLES.

  Frank had no idea what that meant, but it sounded better than flaming poisonous snakes. He followed his friends inside.

  As they stepped through the door, lights came on. Flute music started up like they’d walked onto a stage. The wide aisles were lined with bins of nuts and dried fruit, baskets of apples, and clothing racks with tie-dyed shirts and gauzy Tinker

  Bell–type dresses. The ceiling was covered in wind chimes. Along the walls, glass cases displayed crystal balls, geodes, macramé dream catchers, and a bunch of other strange stuff. Incense must have been burning somewhere. It smelled like a bouquet of flowers was on fire.

  “Fortune-teller’s shop?” Frank wondered.

  “Hope not,” Hazel muttered.

  Percy leaned against her. He looked worse than ever, like he’d been hit with a sudden flu. His face glistened with sweat. “Sit down…” he muttered. “Maybe water. ”

  “Yeah,” Frank said. “Let’s find you a place to rest. ”

  The floorboards creaked under their feet. Frank navigated between two Neptune statue fountains.

  A girl popped up from behind the granola bins. “Help you?”

  Frank lurched backward, knocking over one of the fountains. A stone Neptune crashed to the floor. The sea god’s head rolled off and water spewed out of his neck, spraying a rack of tie-dyed man satchels.

  “Sorry!” Frank bent down to clean up the mess. He almost goosed the girl with his spear.

  “Eep!” she said. “Hold it! It’s okay!”

  Frank straightened slowly, trying not to cause any more damage. Hazel looked mortified. Percy turned a sickly shade of green as he stared at the decapitated statue of his dad.

  The girl clapped her hands. The fountain dissolved into mist. The water evaporated. She turned to Frank. “Really, it’s no problem. Those Neptune fountains are so grumpy-looking, they bum me out. ”

  She reminded Frank of the college-age hikers he some times saw in Lynn Canyon Park behind his grandmother’s house. She was short and muscular, with lace-up boots, cargo shorts, and a bright yellow T-shirt that read R. O. F. L. Rainbow Organic Foods & Lifestyles. She looked young, but her hair was frizzy white, sticking out on either side of her head like the white of a giant fried egg.

  Frank tried to remember how to speak. The girl’s eyes were really distracting. The irises changed color from gray to black to white.

  “Uh…sorry about the fountain,” he managed. “We were just—”

  “Oh, I know!” the girl said. “You want to browse. It’s all right. Demigods are welcome. Take your time. You’re not like those awful monsters. They just want to use the restroom and never buy anything!”

  She snorted. Her eyes flashed with lightning. Frank glanced at Hazel to see if he’d imagined it, but Hazel looked just as surprised.

  From the back of the store, a woman’s voice called: “Fleecy? Don’t scare the customers, now. Bring them here, will you?”

  “Your name is Fleecy?” Hazel asked.

  Fleecy giggled. “Well, in the language of the nebulae it’s actually—” She made a series of crackling
and blowing noises that reminded Frank of a thunderstorm giving way to a nice cold front. “But you can call me Fleecy. ”

  “Nebulae. . . ” Percy muttered in a daze. “Cloud nymphs. ”

  Fleecy beamed. “Oh, I like this one! Usually no one knows about cloud nymphs. But dear me, he doesn’t look so good. Come to the back. My boss wants to meet you. We’ll get your friend fixed up. ”

  Fleecy led them through the produce aisle, between rows of eggplants, kiwis, lotus fruit, and pomegranates. At the back of the store, behind a counter with an old-fashioned cash register, stood a middle-aged woman with olive skin, long black hair, rimless glasses, and a T-shirt that read: The Goddess Is Alive! She wore amber necklaces and turquoise rings. She smelled like rose petals.

  She looked friendly enough, but something about her made Frank feel shaky, like he wanted to cry. It took him a second, then he realized what it was—the way she smiled with just one corner of her mouth, the warm brown color of her eyes, the tilt of her head, like she was considering a question. She reminded Frank of his mother.

  “Hello!” She leaned over the counter, which was lined with dozens of little statues—waving Chinese cats, meditating Buddhas, Saint Francis bobble heads, and novelty dippy drinking birds with top hats. “So glad you’re here. I’m Iris!”

  Hazel’s eyes widened. “Not the Iris—the rainbow goddess?”

  Iris made a face. “Well, that’s my official job, yes. But I don’t define myself by my corporate identity. In my spare time, I run this!” She gestured around her proudly. “The R. O. F. L. Co-op—an employee-run cooperative promoting healthy alternative lifestyles and organic foods. ”

  Frank stared at her. “But you throw Ding Dongs at monsters. ”

  Iris looked horrified. “Oh, they’re not Ding Dongs. ” She rummaged under the counter and brought out a package of chocolate-covered cakes that looked exactly like Ding Dongs. “These are gluten-free, no-sugar-added, vitamin-enriched, soy-free, goat-milk-and-seaweed-based cupcake simulations. ”

  “All natural!” Fleecy chimed in.

  “I stand corrected. ” Frank suddenly felt as queasy as Percy.

  Iris smiled. “You should try one, Frank. You’re lactose intolerant, aren’t you?”

  “How did you—”

  “I know these things. Being the messenger goddess…well, I do learn a lot, hearing all the communications from the gods and so on. ” She tossed the cakes on the counter. “Besides, those monsters should be glad to have some healthy snacks. Always eating junk food and heroes. They’re so unenlightened. I couldn’t have them tromping through my store, tearing up things and disturbing our feng shui. ”

  Percy leaned against the counter. He looked like he was going to throw up all over the goddess’s feng shui. “Monsters marching south,” he said with difficulty. “Going to destroy our camp. Couldn’t you stop them?”

  “Oh, I’m strictly nonviolent,” Iris said. “I can act in self-defense, but I won’t be drawn into any more Olympian aggression, thank you very much. I’ve been reading about Buddhism. And Taoism. I haven’t decided between them. ”

 

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