To me, it looked like: ATNYU MES GDERAN GOMEN MEPROUIM.
"What the heck does that say?" I asked.
"I don't know," Annabeth said.
She loved reading so much, I'd forgotten she was dyslexic, too.
Grover translated: "Aunty Em's Garden Gnome Emporium."
Flanking the entrance, as advertised, were two cement garden gnomes, ugly bearded little runts, smiling and waving, as if they were about to get their picture taken.
I crossed the street, following the smell of the hamburgers.
"Hey ..." Grover warned.
"The lights are on inside," Annabeth said. "Maybe it's open."
"Snack bar," I said wistfully.
"Snack bar," she agreed.
"Are you two crazy?" Grover said. "This place is weird."
We ignored him.
The front lot was a forest of statues: cement animals, cement children, even a cement satyr playing the pipes, which gave Grover the creeps.
"Bla-ha-ha!" he bleated. "Looks like my Uncle Ferdinand!"
We stopped at the warehouse door.
"Don't knock," Grover pleaded. "I smell monsters."
"Your nose is clogged up from the Furies," Annabeth told him. "All I smell is burgers. Aren't you hungry?"
"Meat!" he said scornfully. "I'm a vegetarian."
"You eat cheese enchiladas and aluminum cans," I reminded him..
"Those are vegetables. Come on. Let's leave. These statues are ... looking at me."
Then the door creaked open, and standing in front of us was a tall Middle Eastern woman—at least, I assumed she was Middle Eastern, because she wore a long black gown that covered everything but her hands, and her head was completely veiled. Her eyes glinted behind a curtain of black gauze, but that was about all I could make out. Her coffee-colored hands looked old, but well-manicured and elegant, so I imagined she was a grandmother who had once been a beautiful lady.
Her accent sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, too. She said, "Children, it is too late to be out all alone. Where are your parents?"
"They're ... um ..." Annabeth started to say.
"We're orphans," I said.
"Orphans?" the woman said. The word sounded alien in her mouth. "But, my dears! Surely not!"
"We got separated from our caravan," I said. "Our circus caravan. The ringmaster told us to meet him at the gas station if we got lost, but he may have forgotten, or maybe he meant a different gas station. Anyway, we're lost. Is that food I smell?"
"Oh, my dears," the woman said. "You must come in, poor children. I am Aunty Em. Go straight through to the back of the warehouse, please. There is a dining area."
We thanked her and went inside.
Annabeth muttered to me, "Circus caravan?"
"Always have a strategy, right?"
"Your head is full of kelp."
The warehouse was filled with more statues—people in all different poses, wearing all different outfits and with different expressions on their faces. I was thinking you'd have to have a pretty huge garden to fit even one of these statues, because they were all life-size. But mostly, I was thinking about food.
Go ahead, call me an idiot for walking into a strange lady's shop like that just because I was hungry, but I do impulsive stuff sometimes. Plus, you've never smelled Aunty Em's burgers. The aroma was like laughing gas in the dentist's chair—it made everything else go away. I barely noticed Grover's nervous whimpers, or the way the statues' eyes seemed to follow me, or the fact that Aunty Em had locked the door behind us.
All I cared about was finding the dining area. And sure enough, there it was at the back of the warehouse, a fast-food counter with a grill, a soda fountain, a pretzel heater, and a nacho cheese dispenser. Everything you could want, plus a few steel picnic tables out front.
"Please, sit down," Aunty Em said.
"Awesome," I said.
"Um," Grover said reluctantly, "we don't have any money, ma'am."
Before I could jab him in the ribs, Aunty Em said, "No, no, children. No money. This is a special case, yes? It is my treat, for such nice orphans."
"Thank you, ma'am," Annabeth said.
Aunty Em stiffened, as if Annabeth had done something wrong, but then the old woman relaxed just as quickly, so I figured it must've been my imagination.
"Quite all right, Annabeth," she said. "You have such beautiful gray eyes, child." Only later did I wonder how she knew Annabeth's name, even though we had never introduced ourselves.
Our hostess disappeared behind the snack counter and started cooking. Before we knew it, she'd brought us plastic trays heaped with double cheeseburgers, vanilla shakes, and XXL servings of French fries.
I was halfway through my burger before I remembered to breathe.
Annabeth slurped her shake.
Grover picked at the fries, and eyed the tray's waxed paper liner as if he might go for that, but he still looked too nervous to eat.
"What's that hissing noise?" he asked.
I listened, but didn't hear anything. Annabeth shook her head.
"Hissing?" Aunty Em asked. "Perhaps you hear the deep-fryer oil. You have keen ears, Grover."
"I take vitamins. For my ears."
"That's admirable," she said. "But please, relax."
Aunty Em ate nothing. She hadn't taken off her headdress, even to cook, and now she sat forward and interlaced her fingers and watched us eat. It was a little unsettling, having someone stare at me when I couldn't see her face, but I was feeling satisfied after the burger, and a little sleepy, and I figured the least I could do was try to make small talk with our hostess.
"So, you sell gnomes," I said, trying to sound interested.
"Oh, yes," Aunty Em said. "And animals. And people. Anything for the garden. Custom orders. Statuary is very popular, you know."
"A lot of business on this road?"
"Not so much, no. Since the highway was built... most cars, they do not go this way now. I must cherish every customer I get."
My neck tingled, as if somebody else was looking at me. I turned, but it was just a statue of a young girl holding an Easter basket. The detail was incredible, much better than you see in most garden statues. But something was wrong with her face. It looked as if she were startled, or even terrified.
"Ah," Aunty Em said sadly. "You notice some of my creations do not turn out well. They are marred. They do not sell. The face is the hardest to get right. Always the face."
"You make these statues yourself?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. Once upon a time, I had two sisters to help me in the business, but they have passed on, and Aunty Em is alone. I have only my statues. This is why I make them, you see. They are my company." The sadness in her voice sounded so deep and so real that I couldn't help feeling sorry for her.
Annabeth had stopped eating. She sat forward and said, "Two sisters?"
"It's a terrible story," Aunty Em said. "Not one for children, really. You see, Annabeth, a bad woman was jealous of me, long ago, when I was young. I had a... a boyfriend, you know, and this bad woman was determined to break us apart. She caused a terrible accident. My sisters stayed by me. They shared my bad fortune as long as they could, but eventually they passed on. They faded away. I alone have survived, but at a price. Such a price."
I wasn't sure what she meant, but I felt bad for her. My eyelids kept getting heavier, my full stomach making me sleepy. Poor old lady. Who would want to hurt somebody so nice?
"Percy?" Annabeth was shaking me to get my attention. "Maybe we should go. I mean, the ringmaster will be waiting."
She sounded tense. I wasn't sure why. Grover was eating the waxed paper off the tray now, but if Aunty Em found that strange, she didn't say anything.
"Such beautiful gray eyes," Aunty Em told Annabeth again. "My, yes, it has been a long time since I've seen gray eyes like those."
She reached out as if to stroke Annabeth's cheek, but Annabeth stood up abruptly.
"We really should go."
"Yes!" Grover swallowed his waxed paper and stood up. "The ringmaster is waiting! Right!"
I didn't want to leave. I felt full and content. Aunty Em was so nice. I wanted to stay with her a while.
"Please, dears," Aunty Em pleaded. "I so rarely get to be with children. Before you go, won't you at least sit for a pose?"
"A pose?" Annabeth asked warily.
"A photograph. I will use it to model a new statue set. Children are so popular, you see. Everyone loves children."
Annabeth shifted her weight from foot to foot. "I don't think we can, ma'am. Come on, Percy—"
"Sure we can," I said. I was irritated with Annabeth for being so bossy, so rude to an old lady who'd just fed us for free. "It's just a photo, Annabeth. What's the harm?"
"Yes, Annabeth," the woman purred. "No harm."
I could tell Annabeth didn't like it, but she allowed Aunty Em to lead us back out the front door, into the garden of statues.
Aunty Em directed us to a park bench next to the stone satyr. "Now," she said, "I'll just position you correctly. The young girl in the middle, I think, and the two young gentlemen on either side."
"Not much light for a photo," I remarked.
"Oh, enough," Aunty Em said. "Enough for us to see each other, yes?"
"Where's your camera?" Grover asked.
Aunty Em stepped back, as if to admire the shot. "Now, the face is the most difficult. Can you smile for me please, everyone? A large smile?"
Grover glanced at the cement satyr next to him, and mumbled, "That sure does look like Uncle Ferdinand."
"Grover," Aunty Em chastised, "look this way, dear."
She still had no camera in her hands.
"Percy—" Annabeth said.
Some instinct warned me to listen to Annabeth, but I was fighting the sleepy feeling, the comfortable lull that came from the food and the old lady's voice.
"I will just be a moment," Aunty Em said. "You know, I can't see you very well in this cursed veil...."
"Percy, something's wrong," Annabeth insisted.
"Wrong?" Aunty Em said, reaching up to undo the wrap around her head. "Not at all, dear. I have such noble company tonight. What could be wrong?"
"That is Uncle Ferdinand!" Grover gasped.
"Look away from her!" Annabeth shouted. She whipped her Yankees cap onto her head and vanished. Her invisible hands pushed Grover and me both off the bench.
I was on the ground, looking at Aunt Em's sandaled feet.
I could hear Grover scrambling off in one direction, Annabeth in another. But I was too dazed to move.
Then I heard a strange, rasping sound above me. My eyes rose to Aunty Em's hands, which had turned gnarled and warty, with sharp bronze talons for fingernails.
I almost looked higher, but somewhere off to my left Annabeth screamed, "No! Don't!"
More rasping—the sound of tiny snakes, right above me, from ... from about where Aunty Em's head would be.
"Run!" Grover bleated. I heard him racing across the gravel, yelling, "Maia!" to kick-start his flying sneakers.