Robert Arthur and Glenn Torkells were sitting in the principal’s office.
School had ended twenty minutes earlier. Their classmates were on the lush green lawns of Lovecraft Middle School, tossing Frisbees and baseballs, getting on bikes, and heading for home.
But Robert and Glenn weren’t going anywhere.
They had an appointment to see Principal Slater.
The only other person in the office was the principal’s secretary, Mrs. Polyps. Her fingers pecked frantically at her computer keyboard. Every few moments, she glanced over at the boys and smiled. Her teeth were the color of a yellow school bus.
“This is a dumb idea,” Glenn whispered.
“Shhh,” Robert said.
“No one chooses to go to the principal’s office,” Glenn continued. “You avoid this place. You don’t volunteer to come here and hang out.”
“We’re not hanging out,” Robert said. “We’re going to tell her the school is in danger.”
“She’ll think you’re bonkers.”
“I can prove it.”
Glenn snorted. “I’d like to see how you prove that an army of monsters is getting ready to attack Lovecraft Middle School.”
Mrs. Polyps abruptly stopped typing.
“Be quiet,” Robert whispered.
“Dumb idea,” Glenn repeated. “You’ll see.”
Underneath Robert’s chair, his backpack squirmed. Inside were his pets, a two-headed rat named Pip and Squeak. They had snuck into his backpack a few weeks earlier and they insisted on accompanying him wherever he went. Robert tapped the backpack with his sneaker until the rats fell still.
The boys waited nearly half an hour before Principal Slater opened her door. There were rumors going around Lovecraft Middle School that she used to work as an actress on daytime soap operas. Robert didn’t know if the stories were true, but they were easy enough to believe. Principal Slater was very pretty and had a warm, inviting smile. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. “Come on back.”
She ushered them into a sunny office lined with awards and certificates. On her desk were framed photographs of family members and pets. She sat across from Robert and Glenn and sipped coffee from a mug that read WORLD’S BEST PRINCIPAL.
“How can I help you?”
“There’s something we need to explain,” Robert said, “but it’s gonna sound a little weird.”
“A lot weird,” Glenn corrected.
“Go on,” she said, taking another sip.
“We know who kidnapped Sarah and Sylvia Price.”
Principal Slater dropped her mug, spilling coffee all over her desk. She didn’t bother to clean it up. She didn’t even seem to notice.
“This better not be a joke,” she warned.
“I wish I was kidding,” Robert said.
The disappearance of Sarah and Sylvia Price, seventh-grade twins at Lovecraft Middle School, had made headlines throughout New England. Parents feared that the girls had been abducted by some kind of psycho predator. Police led searches through all the surrounding forests, parks, and cities. They found nothing—no evidence, no leads, no clues.
Then, just five days later, Sarah and Sylvia mysteriously returned home, seemingly unharmed, with no memory of where they had been or who had taken them. The police department was baffled. The neighborhood was outraged. But the girls insisted that there was nothing to worry about, everything was fine. They just wanted to go back to living their lives.
“I’m going to call the police,” Principal Slater explained, “and we’re going to talk about this with some detectives. But first I want you to tell me who kidnapped Sarah and Sylvia.
“This is the weird part,” Glenn warned.
Robert nodded. “They were kidnapped by monsters.”
Principal Slater leaned forward. “Could you say that last part again? It sounded like you said ‘monsters.’”
Robert took a deep breath and started from the beginning. He reminded her that Lovecraft Middle School had been constructed almost entirely from recycled materials—old windows, doors, floor tiles, and the like. What most people didn’t realize is that these materials had come from an abandoned mansion on the far end of town. Thirty years ago, this mansion had been home to a physicist named Crawford Tillinghast. He had been working in secret with a team of scientists to summon ancient races of demons and monsters. It was widely believed that Tillinghast and his employees had died in an explosion, but the truth was more complicated.
“They didn’t really die,” Robert explained. “They just copied the house to another dimension.”
“Another dimension,” Principal Slater repeated. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Like a world within our world,” Robert explained. “And here’s the really crazy part. When the original mansion was recycled into Lovecraft Middle School, it created these holes. Like gates between the two worlds. If you find one, you can leave Lovecraft
Middle School and cross over to Tillinghast Mansion.”
“Have you done this yourself?” Principal Slater asked. “You’ve been inside this Tillyghost Mansion?”
“Tillinghast,” Glenn corrected.
“We’ve been there,” Robert said. “So have Sarah and Sylvia Price. That’s what we’re trying to explain. They crossed over to Tillinghast and their souls were captured. The girls who returned aren’t really Sarah and Sylvia. They’re monsters in disguise.”
Principal Slater shook her head in weary disbelief. “Seriously? Like Frankenstein?”
“More prehistoric,” Robert said. “Like ancient demons. They wear our skins like masks.”
Principal Slater laughed. “Come on, boys. You’re talking to a former biology teacher. Do you understand how the human epidermis works? Do you understand why this is anatomically impossible?”
“I know it sounds crazy,” Robert said. “But I’ve seen it. We both have.”
“It’s true,” Glenn said. “Professor Goyle was one of them. And now they’ve got Sarah and Sylvia Price.”
Principal Slater brought both hands to her head, as if trying to steady her thoughts. “Let’s assume everything you’re saying is true. What would you like me to do?”
“Tell people,” Robert said. “Tell everyone. Before any more kids are captured.”
“I can’t tell this story without proof,” Principal Slater said. “People will think I’m nuts. What kind of evidence do you have?”
Robert shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Nothing? No photos on a cell phone? No witnesses? Nothing at home in your bedroom?”
“Not yet,” Robert admitted.
“We’re working on it,” Glenn said.
“That’s not good enough.” Principal Slater rose from her desk, walked over to the door, and punched a passcode into the lock. The deadbolt turned with a loud thunk. “Without proof, I’m afraid can’t tell anyone.”
When she returned to her chair, Robert saw that her face was flushed. Something was wrong. The skin on her forehead was twitching, pulsing, blistering. Principal Slater continued speaking like nothing was out of the ordinary, but her voice had deepened to a hoarse croak: “I’m afraid we’ll have to keep this just between us.”
She extended her left arm, only it wasn’t an arm, not anymore—it was a slender, slippery tentacle covered with hundreds of tiny suckers.
Glenn recoiled but wasn’t fast enough. Principal Slater already had him by the waist. Another tentacle lashed out, coiling around his leg and hoisting him out of his chair.
Robert yanked the tentacle by its tip, trying to wrest it loose, only to find the surface covered in barbed stingers; it was like squeezing a handful of thorns.
“Grab my ankles!” Glenn shouted.
Robert tried but wasn’t strong enough to hold on. By this point Principal Slater had molted the rest of her human skin; she now resembled something like a giant frog with an enormous mouth. She was still speaking, but her language was incomprehensible: “Zlagh fahn mynakos. Zlagh f’yaloh!”
She didn’t stop speaking until she had stuffed Glenn’s head and torso into her gaping maw. His legs flailed back and forth as gravity forced him further down the creature’s throat.
Robert climbed onto the principal’s desk and pulled on Glenn’s feet, but his puny arms were no match for the giant slurping jaws of the beast. Robert was too weak to do anything. He was too weak, too weak, too weak . . .