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Chapter no 27 – My Dying Words Are Embarrassing

The Chalice of the Gods

yearned for the good old days when I’d had to fight one-on-one with the war god Ares—whaling on me with his massive sword/baseball bat, unleashing giant wild boars to trample me, glaring at me with his nuclear eyes.

Yes, those were simpler times.

Now I was locked in a wrestle-to-the-death contest with Gary the diapered god of halitosis.

And I was losing.

I tried to push against him, to force myself upright. It was like pushing against the roof of a tunnel. I twisted sideways, using his own weight to sling him off my back. I crawled away, gasping for breath, and barely had time to get to my feet before he slammed into me again, wrapping his arm around my neck. He pulled me into a side headlock, forcing my face dangerously close to his armpit. I really wished I hadn’t taken those menthol tissues out of my nostrils.

“Oh, no,” Gary cackled. “You can’t run from Old Age.”

“Technically not true!” Grover shouted. “Exercises like running can add years to your life!”

Gary snarled, “Quiet, satyr. No interference!”

“It’s not interference,” Annabeth chimed in. “It’s commentary! Every wrestling match has commentary.”

Their distraction bought me a few seconds, which I’d like to say I used to formulate a master plan. Instead, my thought process was: Oh gods I’m going to die help ow armpit armpit.

This falls short of the criteria for master plan.

I tried to shuffle sideways. Gary held me fast. I pushed forward with all my weight. I leaned back, hoping to pull him off-balance. Even though the guy was half my size, he didn’t budge.

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

With his free hand, he punched me in the ribs. The sound that came out of my throat would have alerted any walruses within a two-mile radius that I was looking for companionship.

“Flag on the play!” Grover yelled. “Ten-yard penalty!”

“No body blows!” Annabeth agreed. “That’s not wrestling!” “Shut up!” Gary complained.

While his attention was divided, I managed to twist out of his headlock. I wrapped my arms around his chest and squeezed with all my might. I tugged and pushed, but I just couldn’t budge the guy.

He laughed. “Having fun?”

I didn’t have the energy to answer. At least he wasn’t smashing my face into the pavement yet. As long as I amused him, he seemed content to let me make an absolute fool of myself. Fortunately, that was on my list of superpowers.

There had to be a trick to beating this dude—something aside from superstrength, which was a ridiculous power only possessed by ridiculous Hercules, who was ridiculous. Maybe Gary had an Off button. Maybe he was afraid of something I could use against him. . . .

What fought off old age? Antioxidants. Crossword puzzles. Fiber supplements. I realized I was getting delirious from the pain and the old-person odors. My teacher Chiron had once told me that in a life-threatening situation, the most important thing is to stay calm. Once you get into fight-or-flight mode, you are too scared to think properly. That will get you killed.

Unfortunately, I was not calm. I couldn’t fight or flee. And I was fresh out of fiber supplements.

I tried my ace in the hole. I summoned my anger, channeled it into the pit of my stomach, and reached out for the unlimited power of the sea. We were in Manhattan, just above sea level, bracketed by major rivers, right next to the Atlantic. Surely I could draw on my father’s might, summon that great force to fight for me!

I unleashed a primal scream.

Halfway across Washington Square Park, a single manhole cover shot into the air. A geyser sprayed the tops of the trees, then fizzled out.

“That was impressive,” Gary said. “Now, shall we end this?”

He plucked me off his chest like I was a tick, then threw me across the playground.

“Percy!” Annabeth yelled.

Her tone of concern was the only thing that saved me. As I sailed through the air, Annabeth’s voice electrified every molecule in my body. My senses went into overdrive. Instead of slamming into the play structure, I twisted in midair, grabbed one of the bars, swung around, and landed on my feet. My shoulders throbbed. I’d probably pulled my arms out of their sockets, but I hadn’t broken my back, or, you know, died.

I staggered forward. Little globs of light swam in my eyes.

Gary scowled at Annabeth and Grover. “If either of you interferes again, I will declare this match null and void. I will turn all three of you into desiccated husks!”

Annabeth crouched, her dagger in hand. Grover gripped her arm, trying to keep her from leaping into the fight. Not that she could hurt Old Age with a knife, but that wouldn’t stop her from trying.

As much as I appreciated the sentiment, I couldn’t let her take the risk. “Over here, diaper man!” I yelled. “I’m your opponent, not her.”

Gary turned, narrowing his eyes. “So you are.” Then he charged.

Well . . . I say charged. It was more of a determined hobble. I had time to think, A plan would be really good now.

Then he was on me. He tackled me and pushed me backward—right into a tetherball pole. My spine creaked, but the pole kept me upright, even gave me some leverage.

I locked my hands around Gary’s biceps. My arms groaned. My vision dissolved into black and white strobe flashes. I managed to push Gary forward one step, then two. I was fueled not by strength but by desperation

—and my rally didn’t last.

Gary clamped his bony fingers around my shoulders. I am here to tell you: shoulders have a lot of nerve endings. Gary found them all. I screamed as he pushed me back against the tetherball pole. The metal began to bend.

“You have lasted longer than most,” the old man conceded. “It was a good try.”

A good try, I thought, my mind drowning in pain.

Awesome. I couldn’t win, but at least I’d get a participation award from Old Age. After I dissolved into dust, Annabeth could frame the certificate and keep it in her dorm room when she went to New Rome University by herself.

My legs trembled. Pressed between Gary and the pole, my rib cage felt like an overtightened piano frame, ready to snap and implode.

I thought about how much pain I was going to cause Annabeth. I’d promised I would never leave her again. When we left this life, I wanted it to be together, many years from now, when we were old and gray. . . .

Wait a minute.

I felt some strength come back into my legs. I was still in agony, but maybe I was getting crushed a little more slowly?

I remembered something my buddy Jason once told me. In a moment of crisis, he’d had a dream that he was an old man, married to his girlfriend, Piper, with a bunch of grandchildren running around. He hadn’t taken the dream as an iron-clad glimpse of the future. When it comes to mortal lives, the Fates never hand out money-back guarantees. But he told me that wasn’t the point. When he’d needed it most, that vision had made him feel like there was a way forward—something to live for and fight for.

I dug my fingers harder into Gary’s arms. He grunted in surprise.

I thought about a conversation I’d had with Paul a few months back. I’d teased him about how he was getting more gray hair every year. He’d said, “Hey, getting older sucks, but it beats the alternative.” I didn’t really get that at the time. Were the only choices really dying or getting old?

When you’re a demigod, you worry a lot about staying alive. You hardly ever think about old age. I’d been so focused on just making it out of high school, becoming an adult . . . but maybe that wasn’t the ultimate goal. Getting old might be scary and difficult. It involved things I didn’t want to think about, like arthritis and varicose veins and hearing aids. But if you grew older with people you loved, wasn’t that better than any other alternative?

I glanced at Annabeth and Grover. We’d been through so much together. I imagined Annabeth with silver hair and wrinkles, chuckling as she called me Seaweed Brain for the four millionth time in our lives. I imagined Grover with tufts of white hair coming out of his ears, his back hunched as he leaned on a cane, bleating as he complained about his aching hooves, then maybe

taking a nap on a bench in our beachside garden while I sat next to him, resting my aching bones as I watched the waves and smelled the sea air. Aching bones weren’t hard for me to imagine. Actually, the rest wasn’t hard to imagine, either.

Gary expected me to wrestle him. And unless I died young, I couldn’t beat Old Age. But what if I embraced him?

It was a ridiculous idea. Stop fighting and just hug it out with Geriatric Gary?

My knees started wobbling again. I had maybe one second before he crushed me against the tetherball pole.

I loosened my grip and wrapped my arms around the god.

Then I said what I was pretty sure would go down in history as the dumbest last words ever: “I love you, bro.”

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