I took a deep breath. I picked up the mythology book.
I'd never asked a teacher for help before. Maybe if I talked to Mr. Brunner, he could give me some pointers. At least I could apologize for the big fat F I was about to score on his exam. I didn't want to leave YancyAcademy with him thinking I hadn't tried.
I walked downstairs to the faculty offices. Most of them were dark and empty, but Mr. Brunner's door was ajar, light from his window stretching across the hallway floor.
I was three steps from the door handle when I heard voices inside the office. Mr. Brunner asked a question. A voice that was definitely Grover's said "... worried about Percy, sir."
I'm not usually an eavesdropper, but I dare you to try not listening if you hear your best friend talking about you to an adult.
I inched closer.
"... alone this summer," Grover was saying. "I mean, a Kindly One in the school! Now that we know for sure, and they know too—"
"We would only make matters worse by rushing him," Mr. Brunner said. "We need the boy to mature more."
"But he may not have time. The summer solstice deadline— "
"Will have to be resolved without him, Grover. Let him enjoy his ignorance while he still can."
"Sir, he saw her... ."
"His imagination," Mr. Brunner insisted. "The Mist over the students and staff will be enough to convince him of that."
"Sir, I ... I can't fail in my duties again." Grover's voice was choked with emotion. "You know what that would mean."
"You haven't failed, Grover," Mr. Brunner said kindly. "I should have seen her for what she was. Now let's just worry about keeping Percy alive until next fall—"
The mythology book dropped out of my hand and hit the floor with a thud.
Mr. Brunner went silent.
My heart hammering, I picked up the book and backed down the hall.
A shadow slid across the lighted glass of Brunner's office door, the shadow of something much taller than my wheelchair-bound teacher, holding something that looked suspiciously like an archer's bow.
I opened the nearest door and slipped inside.
A few seconds later I heard a slow clop-clop-clop, like muffled wood blocks, then a sound like an animal snuffling right outside my door. A large, dark shape paused in front of the glass, then moved on.
A bead of sweat trickled down my neck.
Somewhere in the hallway, Mr. Brunner spoke. "Nothing," he murmured. "My nerves haven't been right since the winter solstice."
"Mine neither," Grover said. "But I could have sworn ..."
"Go back to the dorm," Mr. Brunner told him. "You've got a long day of exams tomorrow."
"Don't remind me."
The lights went out in Mr. Brunner's office.
I waited in the dark for what seemed like forever.
Finally, I slipped out into the hallway and made my way back up to the dorm.
Grover was lying on his bed, studying his Latin exam notes like he'd been there all night.
"Hey," he said, bleary-eyed. "You going to be ready for this test?"
I didn't answer.
"You look awful." He frowned. "Is everything okay?"
I turned so he couldn't read my expression, and started getting ready for bed.
I didn't understand what I'd heard downstairs. I wanted to believe I'd imagined the whole thing.
But one thing was clear: Grover and Mr. Brunner were talking about me behind my back. They thought I was in some kind of danger.
The next afternoon, as I was leaving the three-hour Latin exam, my eyes swimming with all the Greek and Roman names I'd misspelled, Mr. Brunner called me back inside.
For a moment, I was worried he'd found out about my eavesdropping the night before, but that didn't seem to be the problem.
"Percy," he said. "Don't be discouraged about leaving Yancy. It's ... it's for the best."
His tone was kind, but the words still embarrassed me. Even though he was speaking quietly, the other kids finishing the test could hear. Nancy Bobofit smirked at me and made sarcastic little kissing motions with her lips.
I mumbled, "Okay, sir."
"I mean ..." Mr. Brunner wheeled his chair back and forth, like he wasn't sure what to say. "This isn't the right place for you. It was only a matter of time."
My eyes stung.
Here was my favorite teacher, in front of the class, telling me I couldn't handle it. After saying he believed in me all year, now he was telling me I was destined to get kicked out.
"Right," I said, trembling.
"No, no," Mr. Brunner said. "Oh, confound it all. What I'm trying to say ... you're not normal, Percy. That's nothing to be—"
"Thanks," I blurted. "Thanks a lot, sir, for reminding me."
But I was already gone.
On the last day of the term, I shoved my clothes into my suitcase.
The other guys were joking around, talking about their vacation plans. One of them was going on a hiking trip to Switzerland. Another was cruising the Caribbean for a month. They were juvenile delinquents, like me, but they were rich juvenile delinquents. Their daddies were executives, or ambassadors, or celebrities. I was a nobody, from a family of nobodies.
They asked me what I'd be doing this summer and I told them I was going back to the city.
What I didn't tell them was that I'd have to get a summer job walking dogs or selling magazine subscriptions, and spend my free time worrying about where I'd go to school in the fall.
"Oh," one of the guys said. "That's cool."
They went back to their conversation as if I'd never existed.
The only person I dreaded saying good-bye to was Grover, but as it turned out, I didn't have to. He'd booked a ticket to Manhattan on the same Greyhound as I had, so there we were, together again, heading into the city.
During the whole bus ride, Grover kept glancing nervously down the aisle, watching the other passengers. It occurred to me that he'd always acted nervous and fidgety when we left Yancy, as if he expected something bad to happen. Before, I'd always assumed he was worried about getting teased. But there was nobody to tease him on the Greyhound.
Finally I couldn't stand it anymore.
I said, "Looking for Kindly Ones?"
Grover nearly jumped out of his seat. "Wha—what do you mean?"
I confessed about eavesdropping on him and Mr. Brunner the night before the exam.
Grover's eye twitched. "How much did you hear?"
"Oh ... not much. What's the summer solstice dead-line?"
He winced. "Look, Percy ... I was just worried for you, see? I mean, hallucinating about demon math teachers ..."
"And I was telling Mr. Brunner that maybe you were overstressed or something, because there was no such person as Mrs. Dodds, and ..."
"Grover, you're a really, really bad liar."
His ears turned pink.
From his shirt pocket, he fished out a grubby business card. "Just take this, okay? In case you need me this summer.
The card was in fancy script, which was murder on my dyslexic eyes, but I finally made out something like:
Long Island, New York
"Don't say it aloud!" he yelped. "That's my, um ... summer address."
My heart sank. Grover had a summer home. I'd never considered that his family might be as rich as the others at Yancy.
"Okay," I said glumly. "So, like, if I want to come visit your mansion."
He nodded. "Or ... or if you need me."
"Why would I need you?"
It came out harsher than I meant it to.
Grover blushed right down to his Adam's apple. "Look, Percy, the truth is, I—I kind of have to protect you."
I stared at him.
All year long, I'd gotten in fights, keeping bullies away from him. I'd lost sleep worrying that he'd get beaten up next year without me. And here he was acting like he was the one who defended me.
"Grover," I said, "what exactly are you protecting me from?"
There was a huge grinding noise under our feet. Black smoke poured from the dashboard and the whole bus filled with a smell like rotten eggs. The driver cursed and limped the Greyhound over to the side of the highway.
After a few minutes clanking around in the engine compartment, the driver announced that we'd all have to get off. Grover and I filed outside with everybody else.
We were on a stretch of country road—no place you'd notice if you didn't break down there. On our side of the highway was nothing but maple trees and litter from passing cars. On the other side, across four lanes of asphalt shimmering with afternoon heat, was an old-fashioned fruit stand.
The stuff on sale looked really good: heaping boxes of bloodred cherries and apples, walnuts and apricots, jugs of cider in a claw-foot tub full of ice. There were no customers, just three old ladies sitting in rocking chairs in the shade of a maple tree, knitting the biggest pair of socks I'd ever seen.
I mean these socks were the size of sweaters, but they were clearly socks. The lady on the right knitted one of them. The lady on the left knitted the other. The lady in the middle held an enormous basket of electric-blue yarn.
All three women looked ancient, with pale faces wrinkled like fruit leather, silver hair tied back in white bandannas, bony arms sticking out of bleached cotton dresses.
The weirdest thing was, they seemed to be looking right at me.
I looked over at Grover to say something about this and saw that the blood had drained from his face. His nose was twitching.
"Grover?" I said. "Hey, man—"
"Tell me they're not looking at you. They are, aren't they?"
"Yeah. Weird, huh? You think those socks would fit me?"
"Not funny, Percy. Not funny at all."
The old lady in the middle took out a huge pair of scissors—gold and silver, long-bladed, like shears. I heard Grover catch his breath.
"We're getting on the bus," he told me. "Come on."
"What?" I said. "It's a thousand degrees in there."
"Come on!'" He pried open the door and climbed inside, but I stayed back.
Across the road, the old ladies were still watching me. The middle one cut the yarn, and I swear I could hear that snip across four lanes of traffic. Her two friends balled up the electric-blue socks, leaving me wondering who they could possibly be for—Sasquatch or Godzilla.
At the rear of the bus, the driver wrenched a big chunk of smoking metal out of the engine compartment. The bus shuddered, and the engine roared back to life.
The passengers cheered.
"Darn right!" yelled the driver. He slapped the bus with his hat. "Everybody back on board!"
Once we got going, I started feeling feverish, as if I'd caught the flu.
Grover didn't look much better. He was shivering and his teeth were chattering.
"What are you not telling me?"
He dabbed his forehead with his shirt sleeve. "Percy, what did you see back at the fruit stand?"
"You mean the old ladies? What is it about them, man? They're not like ... Mrs. Dodds, are they?"