I'd heard him make that sound before, but I'd always assumed it was a nervous laugh. Now I realized it was more of an irritated bleat.
"Goat!" he cried.
"I'm a goat from the waist down."
"You just said it didn't matter."
"Blaa-ha-ha! There are satyrs who would trample you underhoof for such an insult!"
"Whoa. Wait. Satyrs. You mean like ... Mr. Brunner's myths?"
"Were those old ladies at the fruit stand a myth, Percy? Was Mrs. Dodds a myth?"
"So you admit there was a Mrs. Dodds!"
"The less you knew, the fewer monsters you'd attract," Grover said, like that should be perfectly obvious. "We put Mist over the humans' eyes. We hoped you'd think the Kindly One was a hallucination. But it was no good. You started to realize who you are."
"Who I—wait a minute, what do you mean?"
The weird bellowing noise rose up again somewhere behind us, closer than before. Whatever was chasing us was still on our trail.
"Percy," my mom said, "there's too much to explain and not enough time. We have to get you to safety."
"Safety from what? Who's after me?"
"Oh, nobody much," Grover said, obviously still miffed about the donkey comment. "Just the Lord of the Dead and a few of his blood-thirstiest minions."
"Sorry, Mrs. Jackson. Could you drive faster, please?"
I tried to wrap my mind around what was happening, but I couldn't do it. I knew this wasn't a dream. I had no imagination. I could never dream up something this weird.
My mom made a hard left. We swerved onto a narrower road, racing past darkened farmhouses and wooded hills and PICK YOUR OWN STRAWBERRIES signs on white picket fences.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"The summer camp I told you about." My mother's voice was tight; she was trying for my sake not to be scared. "The place your father wanted to send you."
"The place you didn't want me to go."
"Please, dear," my mother begged. "This is hard enough. Try to understand. You're in danger."
"Because some old ladies cut yarn."
"Those weren't old ladies," Grover said. "Those were the Fates. Do you know what it means—the fact they appeared in front of you? They only do that when you're about to ... when someone's about to die."
"Whoa. You said 'you.'"
"No I didn't. I said 'someone.'"
"You meant 'you.' As in me."
"I meant you, like 'someone.' Not you, you."
"Boys!" my mom said.
She pulled the wheel hard to the right, and I got a glimpse of a figure she'd swerved to avoid—a dark fluttering shape now lost behind us in the storm.
"What was that?" I asked.
"We're almost there," my mother said, ignoring my question. "Another mile. Please. Please. Please."
I didn't know where there was, but I found myself leaning forward in the car, anticipating, wanting us to arrive.
Outside, nothing but rain and darkness—the kind of empty countryside you get way out on the tip of Long Island. I thought about Mrs. Dodds and the moment when she'd changed into the thing with pointed teeth and leathery wings. My limbs went numb from delayed shock. She really hadn't been human. She'd meant to kill me.
Then I thought about Mr. Brunner ... and the sword he had thrown me. Before I could ask Grover about that, the hair rose on the back of my neck. There was a blinding flash, a jaw-rattling boom!, and our car exploded.
I remember feeling weightless, like I was being crushed, fried, and hosed down all at the same time.
I peeled my forehead off the back of the driver's seat and said, "Ow."
"Percy!" my mom shouted.
"I'm okay... ."
I tried to shake off the daze. I wasn't dead. The car hadn't really exploded. We'd swerved into a ditch. Our driver's-side doors were wedged in the mud. The roof had cracked open like an eggshell and rain was pouring in.
Lightning. That was the only explanation. We'd been blasted right off the road. Next to me in the backseat was a big motionless lump. "Grover!"
He was slumped over, blood trickling from the side of his mouth. I shook his furry hip, thinking, No! Even if you are half barnyard animal, you're my best friend and I don't want you to die!
Then he groaned "Food," and I knew there was hope.
"Percy," my mother said, "we have to ..." Her voice faltered.
I looked back. In a flash of lightning, through the mud-spattered rear windshield, I saw a figure lumbering toward us on the shoulder of the road. The sight of it made my skin crawl. It was a dark silhouette of a huge guy, like a football player. He seemed to be holding a blanket over his head. His top half was bulky and fuzzy. His upraised hands made it look like he had horns.
I swallowed hard. "Who is—"
"Percy," my mother said, deadly serious. "Get out of the car."
My mother threw herself against the driver's-side door. It was jammed shut in the mud. I tried mine. Stuck too. I looked up desperately at the hole in the roof. It might've been an exit, but the edges were sizzling and smoking.
"Climb out the passenger's side!" my mother told me. "Percy—you have to run. Do you see that big tree?"
Another flash of lightning, and through the smoking hole in the roof I saw the tree she meant: a huge, White House Christmas tree-sized pine at the crest of the nearest hill.
"That's the property line," my mom said. "Get over that hill and you'll see a big farmhouse down in the valley. Run and don't look back. Yell for help. Don't stop until you reach the door."
"Mom, you're coming too."
Her face was pale, her eyes as sad as when she looked at the ocean.
"No!" I shouted. "You are coming with me. Help me carry Grover."
"Food!" Grover moaned, a little louder.
The man with the blanket on his head kept coming toward us, making his grunting, snorting noises. As he got closer, I realized he couldn't be holding a blanket over his head, because his hands—huge meaty hands—were swinging at his sides. There was no blanket. Meaning the bulky, fuzzy mass that was too big to be his head ... was his head. And the points that looked like horns ...
"He doesn't want us," my mother told me. "He wants you. Besides, I can't cross the property line."
"We don't have time, Percy. Go. Please."
I got mad, then—mad at my mother, at Grover the goat, at the thing with horns that was lumbering toward us slowly and deliberately like, like a bull.
I climbed across Grover and pushed the door open into the rain. "We're going together. Come on, Mom."
"I told you—"
"Mom! I am not leaving you. Help me with Grover."
I didn't wait for her answer. I scrambled outside, dragging Grover from the car. He was surprisingly light, but I couldn't have carried him very far if my mom hadn't come to my aid.
Together, we draped Grover's arms over our shoulders and started stumbling uphill through wet waist-high grass.
Glancing back, I got my first clear look at the monster. He was seven feet tall, easy, his arms and legs like something from the cover of Muscle Man magazine—bulging biceps and triceps and a bunch of other 'ceps, all stuffed like baseballs under vein-webbed skin. He wore no clothes except underwear—I mean, bright white Fruit of the Looms—which would've looked funny, except that the top half of his body was so scary. Coarse brown hair started at about his belly button and got thicker as it reached his shoulders.
His neck was a mass of muscle and fur leading up to his enormous head, which had a snout as long as my arm, snotty nostrils with a gleaming brass ring, cruel black eyes, and horns—enormous black-and-white horns with points you just couldn't get from an electric sharpener.
I recognized the monster, all right. He had been in one of the first stories Mr. Brunner told us. But he couldn't be real.
I blinked the rain out of my eyes. "That's—"
"Pasiphae's son," my mother said. "I wish I'd known how badly they want to kill you."
"But he's the Min—"
"Don't say his name," she warned. "Names have power."
The pine tree was still way too far—a hundred yards uphill at least.
I glanced behind me again.
The bull-man hunched over our car, looking in the windows—or not looking, exactly. More like snuffling, nuzzling. I wasn't sure why he bothered, since we were only about fifty feet away.
"Food?" Grover moaned.
"Shhh," I told him. "Mom, what's he doing? Doesn't he see us?"
"His sight and hearing are terrible," she said. "He goes by smell. But he'll figure out where we are soon enough."
As if on cue, the bull-man bellowed in rage. He picked up Gabe's Camaro by the torn roof, the chassis creaking and groaning. He raised the car over his head and threw it down the road. It slammed into the wet asphalt and skidded in a shower of sparks for about half a mile before coming to a stop. The gas tank exploded.
Not a scratch, I remembered Gabe saying.
"Percy," my mom said. "When he sees us, he'll charge. Wait until the last second, then jump out of the way— directly sideways. He can't change directions very well once he's charging. Do you understand?"
"How do you know all this?"
"I've been worried about an attack for a long time. I should have expected this. I was selfish, keeping you near me."
"Keeping me near you? But—"
Another bellow of rage, and the bull-man started tromping uphill.
He'd smelled us.
The pine tree was only a few more yards, but the hill was getting steeper and slicker, and Grover wasn't getting any lighter.
The bull-man closed in. Another few seconds and he'd be on top of us.
My mother must've been exhausted, but she shouldered Grover. "Go, Percy! Separate! Remember what I said."
I didn't want to split up, but I had the feeling she was right—it was our only chance. I sprinted to the left, turned, and saw the creature bearing down on me. His black eyes glowed with hate. He reeked like rotten meat.
He lowered his head and charged, those razor-sharp horns aimed straight at my chest.
The fear in my stomach made me want to bolt, but that wouldn't work. I could never outrun this thing. So I held my ground, and at the last moment, I jumped to the side.
The bull-man stormed past like a freight train, then bellowed with frustration and turned, but not toward me this time, toward my mother, who was setting Grover down in the grass.
We'd reached the crest of the hill. Down the other side I could see a valley, just as my mother had said, and the lights of a farmhouse glowing yellow through the rain. But that was half a mile away. We'd never make it.
The bull-man grunted, pawing the ground. He kept eyeing my mother, who was now retreating slowly downhill, back toward the road, trying to lead the monster away from Grover.
"Run, Percy!" she told me. "I can't go any farther. Run!"
But I just stood there, frozen in fear, as the monster charged her. She tried to sidestep, as she'd told me to do, but the monster had learned his lesson. His hand shot out and grabbed her by the neck as she tried to get away. He lifted her as she struggled, kicking and pummeling the air.