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 autumn.
‘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 goodbye 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 any more.
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 deadline?’
He winced. ‘Look, Percy… I was just worried for you, see? I mean, hallucinating about demon maths 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:
Grover Underwood, Keeper
Long Island, New York
‘What’s Half –’
‘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 too.
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 blood-red 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?’