Meriwether Prep had adopted him as a community service project so all the students could feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, most of them couldn’t stand Tyson. Once they discovered he was a big softie, despite his massive strength and his scary looks, they made themselves feel good by picking on him. I was pretty much his only friend, which meant he was my only friend.
My mom had complained to the school a million times that they weren’t doing enough to help him. She’d called social services, but nothing ever seemed to happen. The social workers claimed Tyson didn’t exist. They swore up and down that they’d visited the alley we described and couldn’t find him, though how you miss a giant kid living in a refrigerator box, I don’t know.
Anyway, Matt Sloan snuck up behind him and tried to give him a wedgie, and Tyson panicked. He swatted Sloan away a little too hard. Sloan flew fifteen feet and got tangled in the little kids’ tire swing.
“You freak!” Sloan yelled. “Why don’t you go back to your cardboard box!”
Tyson started sobbing. He sat down on the jungle gym so hard he bent the bar, and buried his head in his hands.
“Take it back, Sloan!” I shouted.
Sloan just sneered at me. “Why do you even bother, Jackson? You might have friends if you weren’t always sticking up for that freak.”
I balled my fists. I hoped my face wasn’t as red as it felt. “He’s not a freak. He’s just…”
I tried to think of the right thing to say, but Sloan wasn’t listening. He and his big ugly friends were too busy laughing. I wondered if it were my imagination, or if Sloan had more goons hanging around him than usual. I was used to seeing him with two or three, but today he had like, half a dozen more, and I was pretty sure I’d never seen them before.
“Just wait till PE, Jackson,” Sloan called. “You are so dead.”
When first period ended, our English teacher, Mr. de Milo, came outside to inspect the carnage. He pronounced that we’d understood Lord of the Flies perfectly. We all passed his course, and we should never, never grow up to be violent people. Matt Sloan nodded earnestly, then gave me a chip-toothed grin.
I had to promise to buy Tyson an extra peanut butter sandwich at lunch to get him to stop sobbing.
“I … I am a freak?” he asked me.
“No,” I promised, gritting my teeth. “Matt Sloan is the freak.”
Tyson sniffled. “You are a good friend. Miss you next year if … if I can’t …”
His voice trembled. I realized he didn’t know if he’d be invited back next year for the community service project. I wondered if the headmaster had even bothered talking to him about it.
“Don’t worry, big guy,” I managed. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
Tyson gave me such a grateful look I felt like a big liar. How could I promise a kid like him that anything would be fine?
Our next exam was science. Mrs. Tesla told us that we had to mix chemicals until we succeeded in making something explode, Tyson was my lab partner. His hands were way too big for the tiny vials we were supposed to use. He accidentally knocked a tray of chemicals off the counter and made an orange mushroom cloud in the trash can.
After Mrs. Tesla evacuated the lab and called the hazardous waste removal squad, she praised Tyson and me for being natural chemists. We were the first ones who’d ever aced her exam in under thirty seconds.
I was glad the morning went fast, because it kept me from thinking too much about my problems. I couldn’t stand the idea that something might be wrong at camp. Even worse, I couldn’t shake the memory of my bad dream. I had a terrible feeling that Grover was in danger.
In social studies, while we were drawing latitude/longitude maps, I opened my notebook and stared at the photo inside—my friend Annabeth on vacation in Washington, D.C. She was wearing jeans and a denim jacket over her orange Camp Half-Blood T-shirt. Her blond hair was pulled back in a bandanna. She was standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial with her arms crossed, looking extremely pleased with herself, like she’d personally designed the place. See, Annabeth wants to be an architect when she grows up, so she’s always visiting famous monuments and stuff. She’s weird that way. She’d e-mailed me the picture after spring break, and every once in a while I’d look at it just to remind myself she was real and Camp Half-Blood hadn’t just been my imagination.
I wished Annabeth were here. She’d know what to make of my dream. I’d never admit it to her, but she was smarter than me, even if she was annoying sometimes.
I was about to close my notebook when Matt Sloan reached over and ripped the photo out of the rings.
“Hey!” I protested.
Sloan checked out the picture and his eyes got wide. “No way, Jackson. Who is that? She is not your—”
“Give it back!” My ears felt hot.
Sloan handed the photo to his ugly buddies, who snickered and started ripping it up to make spit wads. They were new kids who must’ve been visiting, because they were all wearing those stupid HI! MY NAME IS: tags from the admissions office. They must’ve had a weird sense of humor, too, because they’d all filled in strange names like: MARROW SUCKER, SKULL EATER, and JOE BOB. No human beings had names like that.
“These guys are moving here next year,” Sloan bragged, like that was supposed to scare me. “I bet they can pay the tuition, too, unlike your retard friend.”
“He’s not retarded.” I had to try really, really hard not to punch Sloan in the face.
“You’re such a loser, Jackson. Good thing I’m gonna put you out of your misery next period.”
His huge buddies chewed up my photo. I wanted to pulverize them, but I was under strict orders from Chiron never to take my anger out on regular mortals, no matter how obnoxious they were. I had to save my fighting for monsters.
Still, part of me thought, if Sloan only knew who I really was …
The bell rang.
As Tyson and I were leaving class, a girl’s voice whispered, “Percy!”
I looked around the locker area, but nobody was paying me any attention. Like any girl at Meriwether would ever be caught dead calling my name.
Before I had time to consider whether or not I’d been imagining things, a crowd of kids rushed for the gym, carrying Tyson and me along with them. It was time for PE. Our coach had promised us a free-for-all dodgeball game, and Matt Sloan had promised to kill me.
The gym uniform at Meriwether is sky blue shorts and tie-dyed T-shirts. Fortunately, we did most of our athletic stuff inside, so we didn’t have to jog through Tribeca looking like a bunch of boot-camp hippie children.
I changed as quickly as I could in the locker room because I didn’t want to deal with Sloan. I was about to leave when Tyson called, “Percy?”
He hadn’t changed yet. He was standing by the weight room door, clutching his gym clothes.
“Will you … uh …”
“Oh. Yeah.” I tried not to sound aggravated about it. “Yeah, sure, man.”
Tyson ducked inside the weight room. I stood guard outside the door while he changed. I felt kind of awkward doing this, but he asked me to most days. I think it’s because he’s completely hairy and he’s got weird scars on his back that I’ve never had the courage to ask him about.
Anyway, I’d learned the hard way that if people teased Tyson while he was dressing out, he’d get upset and start ripping the doors off lockers.
When we got into the gym, Coach Nunley was sitting at his little desk reading Sports Illustrated. Nunley was about a million years old, with bifocals and no teeth and a greasy wave of gray hair. He reminded me of the Oracle at Camp Half-Blood—which was a shriveled-up mummy—except Coach Nunley moved a lot less and he never billowed green smoke. Well, at least not that I’d observed.
Matt Sloan said, “Coach, can I be captain?”
“Eh?” Coach Nunley looked up from his magazine. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “Mm-hmm.”
Sloan grinned and took charge of the picking. He made me the other team’s captain, but it didn’t matter who I picked, because all the jocks and the popular kids moved over to Sloan’s side.
So did the big group of visitors.
On my side I had Tyson, Corey Bailer the computer geek, Raj Mandali the calculus whiz, and a half dozen other kids who always got harassed by Sloan and his gang. Normally I would’ve been okay with just Tyson—he was worth half a team all by himself—but the visitors on Sloan’s team were almost as tall and strong-looking as Tyson, and there were six of them.
Matt Sloan spilled a cage full of balls in the middle of the gym.
“Scared,” Tyson mumbled. “Smell funny.”
I looked at him. “What smells funny?” Because I didn’t figure he was talking about himself.
“Them.” Tyson pointed at Sloan’s new friends. “Smell funny.”
The visitors were cracking their knuckles, eyeing us like it was slaughter time. I couldn’t help wondering where they were from. Someplace where they fed kids raw meat and beat them with sticks.
Sloan blew the coach’s whistle and the game began. Sloan’s team ran for the center line. On my side, Raj Mandali yelled something in Urdu, probably “I have to go potty!” and ran for the exit.
Corey Bailer tried to crawl behind the wall mat and hide. The rest of my team did their best to cower in fear and not look like targets.
“Tyson,” I said. “Let’s g—”
A ball slammed into my gut. I sat down hard in the middle of the gym floor. The other team exploded in laughter.
My eyesight was fuzzy. I felt like I’d just gotten the Heimlich maneuver from a gorilla. I couldn’t believe anybody could throw that hard.
Tyson yelled, “Percy, duck!”
I rolled as another dodgeball whistled past my ear at the speed of sound.
It hit the wall mat, and Corey Bailer yelped.
“Hey!” I yelled at Sloan’s team. “You could kill somebody!”
The visitor named Joe Bob grinned at me evilly. Somehow, he looked a lot bigger now … even taller than Tyson. His biceps bulged beneath his T-shirt. “I hope so, Perseus Jackson! I hope so!”
The way he said my name sent a chill down my back. Nobody called me Perseus except those who knew my true identity. Friends … and enemies.
What had Tyson said? They smell funny.
All around Matt Sloan, the visitors were growing in size. They were no longer kids. They were eight-foot-tall giants with wild eyes, pointy teeth, and hairy arms tattooed with snakes and hula women and Valentine hearts.
Matt Sloan dropped his ball. “Whoa! You’re not from Detroit! Who …”
The other kids on his team started screaming and backing toward the exit, but the giant named Marrow Sucker threw a ball with deadly accuracy. It streaked past Raj Mandali just as he was about to leave and hit the door, slamming it shut like magic. Raj and some of the other kids banged on it desperately but it wouldn’t budge.
“Let them go!” I yelled at the giants.