by Edward Lee
This book is for readers ages 8-12.
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Monster Lake © 2005 by Edward Lee
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DEDICATION: This book is for Audrey Craker. Perhaps one day I'll write The Little Girl Who Was A Skeleton By Day. Oh, and don't forget what redundant means.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The author would like to thank Taylor Bartscht for much needed editorial consultation. Further, I must acknowledge the swamp behind my grandmother's house in Pound Ridge, New York, which was full of green muck...a far-reaching inspiration.
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The lake is still, like a black crystal mirror. Fireflies hover over the water, reflecting swarms of green-glowing dots. Bullfrogs and toads hop about at the water’s edge; salamanders climb sluggishly over rocks.
And the moon hangs low over the trees…
The night is teeming with sounds. Crickets and peepers pipe their throbbing chorus. Nightbirds caw, and big white-faced owls hoot from high in the trees. And if you listen carefully, you can even hear the distant titters of bats.
Suddenly, the woods turn dead silent.
The nightbirds fly away. The bullfrogs and toads scamper to hide…
And the still surface of the lake begins to churn.
From the water, the hideous thing rises, its huge black eyes never blinking, its mouth crammed with rows of razor-sharp teeth that glitter like bits of broken glass in the moonlight.
But what is the thing? It’s big, tall as a man, with a wide head and a pitted, bumpy face.
Not an animal at all but a creature, a monster—
And it’s coming up out of the water now, looking for something.
Maybe it’s looking for you…
“Ter-ri!” Patricia complained. The shuttlecock whizzed past her as she rushed to swing her racket and missed. “Don’t serve so hard!”
“Sorry,” Terri replied. She knew she was a good badminton player; her only problem was finding someone good enough to practice against. And here, in Devonsville, there weren’t many kids her own age. “Let’s just volley, okay?” she suggested, trying to make the game a little easier for Patricia.
“Yeah, that’d be better. I’m nowhere near as good as you.”
It was a beautiful summer day, a cloudless blue sky, birds chirping high in the trees around Terri’s house. She and Patricia Kennedy had only met a few weeks ago, when the Kennedys had first moved here, but they’d become best friends fast. They were both the same age—twelve—and they both liked a lot of the same things, like Game Boy, The Simpsons, and nachos with cheese and salsa. And, of course, they both liked to play badminton—or lawn tennis, as Terri’s Uncle Chuck like to call it—but Patricia wasn’t very good. It didn’t matter. They’d been hanging out together most every day since Patricia had moved to Devonsville.
Patricia’s long blond hair swayed as she rose on her tiptoes to serve. Poink! the shuttlecock went, then sailed across the net. Terri’s hair was just as long but a shiny dark chestnut color, and she had emerald-green eyes instead of blue, like Patricia’s. She easily returned her friend’s serve, and they volleyed the shuttlecock back and forth for several minutes. Terri could tell that Patricia was trying hard to beat her but—poink-poink-poink-poink—Terri was able to return all of Patrica’s hits back hardly without even working up a sweat. Eventually, Patricia missed and declared, “All right, already! You win!”
Terri smiled to herself. “It’s getting hot. Let’s go around to the back of the house and get a drink from the hose.”
“Good idea,” Patricia agreed, wiping her brow.
They returned the badminton rackets to the side shed, then headed for the house, a nice, three-bedroom ranch with cedar shingles. “You’re really good at badminton,” Patricia complimented. “Who taught you to play?”
Terri’s smile faded. “My Dad. He was going to start teaching me to play tennis soon, too, so that once I get to high school, I’d be good enough for the team. Dad and I would do lots of stuff, until…”
Patricia kicked at a dandelion puff. “Oh, you mean before he and your Mom got divorced?”
“Yeah,” Terri sadly replied. These days lots of kids’ parents got divorced. Terri never quite understood it until Uncle Chuck explained that sometimes people changed over time, and they didn’t agree on things, or see things the same way. “Sometimes parents grow apart,” her uncle had explained, “and they can’t get along anymore.” But that was the weirder part, because Terri could never remember a time when her Mom and Dad didn’t get along.
She could only hope that one day her parents would get back together…
And there was one thing she’d noticed very clearly: that since the divorce, her mother had started acting really weird, and Uncle Chuck too.
“How do you like Devonsville so far?” Terri asked, to get her mind off the subject.
“Oh, it’s okay. It’s a lot different from the city, where we used to live. The city was real crowded and had lots of smog. Devonsville is so pretty,” Patricia observed, looking around now at the healthy, green lawn, the clear sky, and the woods behind Terri’s house.
“We used to live in the city too,” Terri said. “But I like it here much better.”
“What’s school like?”
“It’s okay. Not as many kids as the city, but everyone’s nicer here.”
Patricia grinned wickedly. “Any cute boys?”
“There are some,” Terri answered. And then her thoughts drifted. Yes, she was at the age now where she’d be getting interested in boys. She even knew some girls at school who were going steady! And there were a few boys, she knew, who were interested in her, like Matt Slattery, who was on the eighth-grade wrestling team; and Marty Cadeaux, who was fat but nice and asked her to the school dance once. And Terri knew she must be pretty, because if she weren’t, why would these boys be interested in her? It was nice to know that boys liked her, and that she could have a boyfriend if she wanted, but it just seemed that…
Terri frowned at herself as she and Patricia cut across the big yard.
It seemed that she’d lost interest in those kinds of things since her parents had gotten divorced.
And there was still one more weird thing. Terri knew that when parents got divorced, the father usually moved away—like Terri’s father had—but she also knew there was something called visitation rights, so that the father could visit on weekends.
But my father’s been gone all summer, she reflected; for months, and he’s never visited me on the weekends. And this made Terri even more sad.
Maybe he doesn’t want to visit me…
But Terri couldn’t even think about that.
“What grade are you in?” Patricia asked, the sun shining brightly in her long blond hair.
“Seventh—well, I’ll be in the eighth when school starts up after the summer.”
“But you’re only twelve!”
“I know. I got moved up a grade.”
“You must be real smart,” Patricia offered, along with a hint of jealousy.
“I just study hard,” Terri admitted. “My Mom and Dad always taught me to study hard…”
And then the thoughts returned. Mom and Dad…
Suddenly, Terri felt really depressed, like there was a big hole where her heart should be.
Will I ever see my father again? she wondered, fighting to hold back tears.
“Ooo, that’s good!” Patricia remarked.
Cool, clear, fresh water gushed from the garden hose as Terri and Patricia leaned over and took turns drinking. They laughed, frolicking, as they sprayed each other. The cool water felt wonderful in the hot sun.
Then: “Look!” Patricia exclaimed.
A big, bumpy toad looked up at them, sitting in a small corner of shade cast by the back porch steps. It had big black eyes with gold irises.
“That’s the biggest toad I’ve ever seen!” Patricia observed.
“Oh, there’re bigger ones,” Terri said.
“Yep. I’ve seen toads three times as big as that one, and bullfrogs even bigger. They’re all over the place.”
Patricia suddenly looked flustered. “I wonder why we don’t have any toads and frogs in our yard.”
“That’s because we have a lake.” Terri pointed to the tall trees at the back of the house, where a little path formed. “See that trail?”
Squinting, Patricia nodded.
“It leads down to the lake,” Terri went on. “It’s not a very big lake, but it’s neat. That’s where all the toads and frogs come from. There’re fish in it too, and big salamanders.”
Suddenly, excitement lit up Patricia’s face. “Let’s go! I’ve never even seen a salamander, except in books. Come on!”
Terri hesitated. “No, we better not. I’m not allowed.”
“Why not?” Patricia objected. “You’ve got a lake behind your house but you’re not allowed to go see it?”
“Well, I’m allowed but only if my Mom’s with me, or my Uncle Chuck. We’ll go soon though, I promise.”
Of course, that might be a hard promise to keep since, these days, both her mother and Uncle Chuck frequently worked late into the night.
“I can’t wait,” Patricia enthused. “I can’t wait to see it!”
“You will.” Then Terri leaned over, and—
“No, don’t!” Patricia shrilled.
—and picked up the big toad by the porch steps.
“You’re not supposed to touch toads, Terri,” Patricia warned. “They’ll give you warts.”
Terri scoffed. “No they don’t. I’ve picked up lots of toads and I’ve never gotten a wart. Toads can’t give you warts; that’s just an old wive’s tale.”
“How do you know?”
“My Dad told me. He’s a zoologist.”
“A zoologist? What’s that?”
“It’s someone who studies animals. There’s a zoology lab not too far from here, where scientists do research. That’s where my Dad worked, until…”
Terri’s suntanned shoulders slumped in despair. Here was that bad subject again. “Until he and my Mom got divorced, and he moved away.”
“Oh,” Patricia said.
And this was something Terri didn’t quite understand. She knew what divorce was, but she didn’t see why a divorced person would stop working at the place they usually worked. One day, a couple of weeks after the divorce, Terri asked her Mom if she could call her father at the zoology lab. “He doesn’t work there anymore, honey,” Mrs. Bennet sadly told her. “He moved away.” And Uncle Chuck later told her the same thing. “Sometimes when people get divorced, Terri, they move far away.”
Far away, the words repeated now in her mind…they move far away…
Just one more thing that made her feel sad.
“But that must’ve been neat, having a Dad who studied animals,” Patricia said, not realizing Terri’s constant sadness over the topic.
“Yeah,” Terri agreed. “It was. I guess it runs in the family. My mother has a zoology degree, and she works at the same lab that my Dad used to work at. And my Uncle Chuck teaches biology at Devonsville Junior High. I’m going to be a zoologist too, when I’m an adult.”
“Sounds like a neat job.” Then Patricia leaned forward, looking at the big toad that Terri gently grasped behind by its legs. Its big eyes, like black marbles, never blinked. Loose white skin under its throat fluttered back and forth. Then—
Terri squealed and quickly put the toad back down on the ground.
“What happened?” Patricia asked.
Terri laughed, then turned the garden hose back on to wash her hands.
“It peed in my hand!” she said.
Terri washed her hands off again, with water and soap, once they got into the house.
“What a great house,” Patricia noticed, her eyes glancing around.
“Yeah, it is nice,” Terri replied half-heartedly. It was a nice house, with big spacious rooms, but…
More bad feelings.
It seemed that anytime she looked at anything—anywhere in the house—she was again grimly reminded of her father. Right now, for instance, here in the kitchen. It reminded her of all the times she and her father and mother had had breakfast together in the mornings, before the school bus came and picked her up at the bus stop down the street. She looked at the microwave oven and remembered the time her father had taught her how to use it, how to set the digital timer that beeped, how to adjust the heat setting. Next, she looked at the big four-burner range and recalled how her father liked to make bacon and cheese omelets for the whole family every Saturday morning. And they were great omelets.
“It seems so empty all the time now,” Terri said without really thinking.
“Well, maybe your Dad will come back someday,” Patricia offered. “Maybe he and your Mom will get back together.”
“I hope so…”
By now, Patricia could probably guess that this was not Terri’s favorite thing to talk about. “But your Uncle Chuck lives here too, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, he has since my Dad left. He drives my Mom to work every morning, and picks her up—that’s where he is now. And he looks after me during the day, when school’s out for vacation.”
The sound of car doors closing.
“Here they come now,” Patricia said, glancing out the window which she could see from the dining room.
Terri glanced out too, and sure enough, there was the car in the driveway, with her Mom and Uncle Chuck getting out.
“What are all those things they’re carrying?” Patricia asked.
But this was a familiar sight to Terri. Both her mother and Uncle Chuck carried two big black briefcases each as they trundled up the driveway toward the front door.
“Mom has to bring a lot of work home from the zoology lab,” Terri eventually answered. “She only used to work part-time, but since the divorce she works every weekday.”
“Well,” Patricia considered, “at least she’s home on the weekends, so you can do stuff with her then.”
“Not really. She has so much work from the lab, she has to work on it at home on Saturdays and Sundays now.”
“Oh, that’s a bummer.”
“Hi, Mom, hi, Uncle Chuck,” Terri greeted when they both walked in.
“Hi, kids,” Terri’s mother replied, smiling in her dark pumpkin-orange business dress.
“Who’s this?” Uncle Chuck asked when he saw Patricia.
“This is my friend, Patricia,” Terri introduced. “This is my Uncle Chuck.”
“Hi,” Patricia said.
“Pleased to meet you, Patricia,” Uncle Chuck returned the greeting. Uncle Chuck was tall and thin, with short dark hair and a nice smile.
“Patricia will be in seventh grade when school starts,” Terri said. “I was just telling her that she’ll have you as her biology teacher.”
“That’s great,” Uncle Chuck said. “So you must be new in town?”
Patricia nodded. “I only just moved to Devonsville a few weeks ago. It’s a really nice town.”
“So what have you girls been up to?” Terri’s mother asked.
“We were playing badminton while Uncle Chuck was picking you up at work,” Terri said.
“And we saw this absolutely huge toad in the back yard,” Patricia cut in.
“We do seem to have a lot of toads around here,” Terri’s mother added. “They’re all over the place.”
“Because you’re so close to the lake, right?” Patricia asked.
Terri’s Mom and Uncle Chuck traded strange glances at Patricia’s remark. And this just reminded Terri how strange overall her mother and Uncle Chuck had been acting lately.
“Well, yes,” Terri’s mother eventually answered Patricia.
But Uncle Chuck looked a little disturbed. “Uh, girls? You weren’t at the lake today, were you?”
“No, Uncle Chuck,” Terri answered. “You said kids shouldn’t go there unless an adult’s around.”
“That’s right, hon. Because lakes can be dangerous. You could fall in, plus, you know, it could be polluted.”
Terri’s brow rose. She’d seen the lake lots of times, and it didn’t look polluted to her. The water was crystal clear, and she’d never seen any garbage or anything floating in it. This seemed like a strange thing for Uncle Chuck to say.
“But I told Patricia that you or Mom would take us down there and show it to us sometime,” Terri said, remembering her promise.
—Terri’s mother and Uncle Chuck traded weird glances.
“Well, sure, honey,” her Mom said. “We can do that sometime.”
“But not soon,” Uncle Chuck said. “It’s too hot to go down there during the summer. There’re lots of bugs and mosquitoes and things. And snakes.”
“Snakes!” Patricia exclaimed. “I’ve never seen a real snake.”
But Terri raised her brow again.
I’ve never seen any snakes at the lake, she realized.
It almost sounded like Uncle Chuck was making it up, so Terri and Patricia wouldn’t be tempted to go down there on their own…
Hmmm, she wondered. Then she said, “Are we going to get pizza tonight, Mom? Like you said we could this morning?”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” her mother apologized. “I hope you’re not too disappointed, but I’ve got so much work to do tonight, I don’t have time, and neither does Uncle Chuck.”
I knew it, Terri thought. Same old story.
“We’ll get pizza soon, though,” Uncle Chuck said.
“Maybe Pamela would like to stay for dinner,” Terri’s mother suggested.
“It’s not Pamela, Mom. It’s Patricia,” Terri corrected.
“Oh, yes, of course. I’m sorry, Patricia. Anyway, why don’t you cook some TV dinners for yourselves in the microwave?”
“But aren’t you and Uncle Chuck going to eat?” Terri asked.
“Later,” Uncle Chuck said, and held up the briefcases. “Right now your mother and I have to get to work.”
“Okay,” Terri glumly replied.
“Nice meeting you, Patricia,” Uncle Chuck said as he and Terri’s Mom headed for the back door.
“Bye,” Patricia said.
Then the back sliding glass door slid closed, and they were gone.
Patricia squinted after them.
“You want to stay for dinner?” Terri asked, but it was more for distraction than anything else. She could guess what Patricia was thinking. “We’ve got all kinds of good TV dinners.” She opened the freezer and showed her. “Fish fillets, enchiladas, sliced turkey and gravy. They’re pretty good.”
“Well, okay. But I’ve got to call my parents first.”
“The phone’s right over there,” Terri said, pointing to the end of the kitchen counter.
Patricia dialed her number, then asked if she could stay. Then she hung up, looking weird.
“Did they say you can stay for dinner?” Terri asked.
“Uh, yeah, I can stay.”
“Then why do you look so weird all of a sudden?”
“Well…” She glanced out the back sliding-glass door.
“What is it?”
Patricia turned back to her.
“Your Uncle Chuck said that he and your mother have lots of work to do?”
“Yeah,” Terri said. “They have lots of work almost every night, like I said.”
“You mean like office work, right? From the zoology lab where your Mom works?”
Patricia glanced back out the door again. “If they’ve got office work to do, how come they’re walking across the back yard with their briefcases? Toward the lake?”
The microwave beeped, and Terri, wearing pot-holder mittens shaped like owls, took the food out. “Well,” she said, to answer Patricia’s question, “remember that trail I showed you, that leads to the lake?”
“There’s also a little boathouse down there, right on the water—”
“Wow!” Patricia said excitedly. “You have a boat too?”
“It’s just a little motorboat, we’ve never even used it because it needs to be fixed. But my Dad turned the boathouse into an office.”
“An office? Why?”
Terri shrugged as they sat down at the kitchen table to eat their TV dinners. “I told you, he and my Mom are zoologists, and I guess they wanted their office to be close to the lake so they could study the animals there.”
“Like the frogs and toads and things?”
“And the snakes!”
Terri paused. “Well, I don’t think there really are any snakes in the lake.”
“But your Uncle Chuck said there were.”
“Yeah, but he may have been making that up so you and I wouldn’t be tempted to go down there by ourselves. I mean, I’ve never seen any snakes around here… Anyway, that’s why my Mom and Uncle Chuck were going out back. They do their work in the boathouse.”
Patricia turned her fork idly in her cheese enchiladas. “But isn’t that—you know—kind of weird?”
“Turning a boathouse into an office?”
Terri thought about that. Sure, her mother was a zoologist—just like her father had been—and the boathouse was close to the lake. But the work she brought home every night came from the laboratory she worked at just outside of town. What could it have to do with the lake?
Yeah, she finally had to admit to herself. I guess it is kind of weird. And that thought only reminded her more of how weird her mother had been acting over the past few months, and Uncle Chuck too.
“And another thing,” Patricia went on. “Did you see the weird way your mother and your Uncle Chuck looked at each other whenever you mentioned the lake?”
Terri had noticed that too, and she couldn’t deny it. “You’re right,” she agreed. “It was almost like they were…hiding something from us.”
“That’s right,” Patricia agreed. “And it must have something to do with the lake or the boathouse.”
Terri couldn’t imagine what it could be. What could they possibly want to hide? she wondered.
Then Patricia asked, “Have you ever been in the boathouse?”
“Yeah, a few times, back when my father lived here.”
“What was it like?”
“Well, like I told you, my father turned it into an office, or I should say he turned the front room into an office.”
“You mean there are other rooms?”
“A few,” Terri recalled.
“What was in them?”
Terri hesitated. “I don’t really know,” she confessed. “Mom and Dad told me to never go into any of the other rooms.”
Patricia held her hands out. “See, there’s another weird thing. Whatever it is they’re hiding, it must be in those other rooms.”
Terri hadn’t considered that. But she had to admit: Patricia was right. There did seem to be an awful lot of weird things going on lately.
Patricia leaned over the kitchen table, lowered her voice. “Don’t you want to know what it is? What they’re hiding?”
“Well, yes,” Terri agreed.
“Well, then what?” But this was a phony question on Terri’s part, because she already had a pretty good idea what Patricia was going to suggest.
“Why don’t we sneak down there?” Patricia said.
“We can’t!” Terri exclaimed. “We’re not allowed. If I took you down there without my Mom’s permission, I’d get into all kinds of trouble!”
Patricia grinned like a cunning cat. “They’ll never know,” she said. “We’ll go in the morning, when your Uncle Chuck is taking your Mom to work.”
Terri thought about it.
We really shouldn’t, she thought.
“Okay,” she said. “That’s just what we’ll do.”
The best thing about summer vacation was that she could stay up a little later and watch TV. Terri preferred the Disney Channel and the National Geographic shows about nature and wildlife and animals in other countries, and, of course, The Simpsons. But tonight, she found it hard to pay attention to her favorite shows. Her mind felt like it was somewhere else, and she thought she knew why…
Patricia had been right. Terri’s mother and Uncle Chuck were acting weird. Those strange, foreboding glances they’d exchanged, Uncle Chuck’s lie about snakes, and then the entire business with the boathouse. Terri supposed she’d known something was wrong all along, but she’d never wanted to admit it to herself. It was hard enough that her father and mother were divorced, and that she hadn’t seen her father for so long—plus her fear that she’d never see him again. Sometimes, when things were too hard to cope with, people would overlook the obvious. There were a lot of strange things going on recently; Terri was surprised that it took her this long to realize it.
“Terri?” Uncle Chuck stuck his head in the rec room, where Terri lay on the floor before the TV. He was still wearing the same clothes he wore when he’d brought Terri’s mother home from work, and he gripped one of the big black briefcases.
“Bedtime,” he said.
Generally, Terri would’ve complained a little, but tonight she was unusually tired. She straggled up to her feet, and then noticed with some surprise that it was past eleven o’clock.
“Has Mom already gone to bed?” she inquired.
“Not yet,” Uncle Chuck answered. He looked tired too, droopy. “She’s still working in her office.”
Her office, Terri thought to herself. You mean the boathouse…
And whenever she thought of the boathouse, she remembered the rooms in it that her mother and father had forbidden her to ever enter.
“But she’ll be up soon,” Uncle Chuck continued. “Sweet dreams.”
“Goodnight,” Terri said.
Uncle Chuck, still toting his briefcase, disappeared down the hall. Terri retreated to her own room, and put on her favorite soft-pink nightgown. Then she climbed into bed, lay back in the pillows, and—
She almost always kept her bedroom window open during the summer; summer nights in Devonsville were breezy and cool, unlike the summer days. It was nice to listen to the crickets peep at night, a steady, gentle throbbing sound that always lulled her to sleep. But tonight she felt fidgety and restless. And the nightsounds coming in through the window sounded…different.
But how so?
They sounded louder and faster. They sounded, somehow…
But why should she think that?
They’re just crickets and little tree frogs, she realized.
She was being silly, she knew.
Her hand reached up then, paused, and turned off the light.
Darkness jumped into the room, and the nightsounds seemed to grow even louder and more etchy. She’d never been afraid of the dark before, not even when she was little. Only babies are scared of the dark, she told herself. Unless—
Unless there’s really something in the dark to be afraid of, Terri thought.
She drifted in and out of sleep, tossing and turning. Every so often she’d wake up and, for some reason, look at her bedroom window, which was full of moonlight. The nightsounds throbbed on without letting up.
She tried to think about fun things. Like about when school started up again next month, about her lessons, and about boys. She hoped Matt Slattery didn’t have a girlfriend by then, and Marty Cadeaux too, even though he was kind of fat. In three or four years, she’d be old enough to go on real dates, and that would be fun…
But the more she tried to think of these things, the more she realized she was forcing herself to do so.
And the more she realized—
She was scared.
But of what, she couldn’t guess.
And that’s when she heard the sound.
Not the typical nightsounds. Not the crickets and peepers and the owls hooting.
This sound was different.
It was coming from her open window, and as she lay wide-eyed in the dark, she eventually figured out just exactly what the sound was:
Footsteps! Terri thought.
And right outside!
At first, she wanted to call out, but then she thought, Don’t be a baby, Terri. Maybe you just dreamed the sound.
She had to know.
Very slowly, then, she slid out from underneath the sheets and climbed out of bed. The only light was moonlight streaming in from the window, and the window was several yards away. Her bare feet padded across the carpet, through the dark. When she reached the window, she went down onto her knees. Her hands reached out. Her fingers gripped the sill. Then, very slowly, she inched her face toward the window screen, and looked out…
At first, she didn’t see much. Just the back yard, and the dark splotches that were the tall trees where the woods began. Between some of the trees she saw weird green dots that seemed to be glowing… Fireflies, she realized. Lightning bugs.
Then, as her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, she noticed—
Strange shapes seemed to be jerking about in the back yard. She knew at once that they were toads, hopping around, looking for bugs. But—
They’re huge, she saw.
Her eyes must be playing tricks on her. She’d seen lots of big toads and frogs in the yard before, but never this big!
They were as big as puppies!
From the bushes, a baby rabbit hopped into the yard, then stopped to nibble some grass. Its ears poked up, its little nose twitched. But Terri’s breath caught in her chest, and she nearly squealed out loud when she saw what happened next.
One of the huge toads hopped toward the rabbit, seeming to move with astonishing quickness, its heavy rear legs flexing mightily with each hop. Terri knew that toads didn’t eat rabbits, not even big ones like this—toads only ate small insects, like flies and moths and beetles. But what frightened her was this:
In the streaming moonlight, the toad’s wide jaw snapped open, and sparkling inside its mouth were two rows of sharp, pointed teeth!
It’s going to eat the rabbit! Terri’s thoughts screamed in her head.
The hideous toad leapt forward several more times, its razor-toothed jaw opening wider. Each leap seemed a yard long—
Oh, no! Terri thought in sheer dread.
But just as the toad would pounce on its unsuspecting prey, the baby rabbit finally took notice, its head jerking aside, and it scampered safely away just in the nick of time.
Terri sighed in relief. It would have been horrible to have to watch that toad eat the rabbit. But then she stopped to think—
None of it made sense, it was impossible. One thing she was sure of: toads, no matter how big they were, didn’t eat animals and they didn’t have long, sharp, pointed teeth!
Am I dreaming? she considered again. She must be, to have witnessed such a thing. Outside, everything looked unreal, the grass like spikes of ice in the moonlight, the blinking green swirls of the fireflies, the cramped shadows between the trees, not to mention the monstrously large toads. But then she remembered the reason she’d gone to look out the window in the first place.
The footsteps, she recalled. I heard footsteps in the back yard. I’m sure I did. And they sounded like they were coming up from the lake…
Terri strained her vision then, focusing her eyes through the window screen, toward the rear corner of the yard.
She was right. There was the sound again, and they were footsteps.
There could be no denying it. Someone was indeed walking up the gravel path from the lake to the house.
And the sound was much louder now, which meant that whoever was walking—they were getting closer.
Terri bit her lower lip as she stared on, gripping the window sill. Only a moment later, a figure appeared at the entrance to the trail.
Who could it be?
She glanced warily at the lighted, digital clock on her nightstand—
It was almost 4:30 in the morning!
Terri’s breath grew thin. Her heart beat faster as the figure came out of the crisp shadows thrown by the trees and—
—stepped into the moonlight, fully into view.
It’s…my mother, Terri realized in shock. She’s been down at the boathouse all night…
All night, Terri thought again the next morning at breakfast. What could her mother be working on that was so important she had to stay up till past 4:30 a.m.? And Terri could tell. Right now, coming into the kitchen, her mother looked exhausted, with drooping shoulders and dark circles under her eyes.
“Good morning, dear,” she said groggily.
“Hi, Mom,” Terri said. “You sure look tired.”
“I am, I was up late. Working.”
You’re not kidding you were up late! Terri agreed in her own thoughts. Late as in 4:30 in the morning!
But Terri declined to actually comment on what she’d seen last night. By now, she wasn’t even sure what she’d seen. The whole thing was so visually unreal—maybe she really had dreamed a lot of it. After all, she thought she’d seen a giant toad try to eat a rabbit! And she knew that was impossible. Maybe she’d only dreamed seeing her mother coming up from the trail to the lake so late…
But then her mother commented:
“God, I’m so tired. I could fall asleep right here at the table…”
Terri looked at her, and that set her to thinking. If she’d only dreamed seeing her mother coming up from the lake, why would she be so tired?
I must not have dreamed it, Terri concluded. And if I didn’t dream that, then I must not have dreamed about the toad either. The toad…with teeth…
“Breakfast is ready!” Uncle Chuck announced, placing a large tray down on the kitchen table. Toast, marmalade, assorted jellies. Terri was grateful for the distraction; she felt so confused about things right now that she didn’t want to think about them.
She nibbled at her toast, remembering times not so long ago when breakfast had been a big, happy family affair full of conversation and laughter. Back when Dad was still here, she thought. Now, things were so different. Breakfast, like most meals they had together, were fast, thrown together at the last minute, and over before anyone really had a chance to talk. Her mother was so busy now, always in a rush to go to work, and even when she was home, most of her time was spent—
In the boathouse, Terri thought.
“Well, we’ve got to go now, Terri,” her uncle said after only eating one piece of toast. “I’ve got to take your Mom to work.”
“Have a good day, honey,” her mother said, and leaned over to give Terri a kiss.
“’Bye,” Terri said.
Her mother and Uncle Chuck left, as usual, in a rush. Terri glumly washed the few dishes they’d used, and put them away. She knew she shouldn’t be selfish—after all, the reason her mother had to work so much was because she had to pay the bills. At least Uncle Chuck was helping her out. But—
Things were so much better when Dad was here, she thought. There just didn’t seem to be anything to look forward to anymore.
Terri glanced over her shoulder. She swore she’d heard a sound, a faint squeak. Like…
Like someone standing in the foyer, she realized just then, because the foyer’s hardwood floor always squeaked the same way. But she’d heard her mother and Uncle Chuck leave the house and close the door behind them, and she’d heard the car engine start and the car drive off, so she knew they hadn’t come back in to get something they’d forgotten.
There it was again!
Terri’s eyes widened in the kitchen. She could feel her heart racing. It’s nothing, she tried to tell herself. It’s just a house noise. Stop acting like a baby!
So, to prove to herself that no one was there, she boldly left the kitchen and marched right into the foyer, and—
Because the second she’d stepped into the foyer, someone grabbed her from behind—
“Patricia!” Terri yelled after spinning around.
Patricia laughed hysterically, standing in the open coat closet in the foyer. “Did I scare you?”
“Yes!” Terri was outraged. “What, you just walked right in the house without even knocking?”
“I was coming up the sidewalk when your Mom and Uncle Chuck were leaving,” Patricia told her, still laughing. “They said I could come in.”
“Well, don’t ever do that again!”
“Chill out, will you, Terri?” Patricia said. “Jeeze, it was just a joke. Can’t you take a joke?”
“Yes, Patricia,” Terri sternly replied. “I can take a joke. But I don’t like to be scared half to death!”
“All right, already.”
But as the scare wore off, Terri realized she was over-reacting, and she knew why. She was still tense from last night, from the restless sleep and the dream she’d had, and, of course, seeing her mother coming up from the lake at 4:30 in the morning. And again she felt immediately confused. She knew she hadn’t dreamed the part about her mother coming up from the lake, but what about the rest? The giant bump-skinned toad with the sharp, pointed teeth…
I must have dreamed that, she decided.
“Well?” Patricia said.
“Are we going or not?”
Terri’s mind felt in a fog. “Going where?” she asked.
Patricia rolled her eyes. “Don’t you remember what we planned yesterday? We’re supposed to go down to the lake.”
That’s right, Terri recalled. In all her anxiety over the dream—or whatever it had been—she’d completely forgotten. Yesterday, they’d planned to sneak down to the lake while Uncle Chuck was driving her mother to work. She still didn’t feel good about it—she knew she’d be in big trouble if she got caught—but, still…
She really wanted to go.
“All right, let’s go,” she said. “But we have to be quick. We can’t hang around down there for too long.”
They went out the back sliding door and crossed the back yard, both in sneakers, shorts, and colorful day-glo T-shirts. The morning was sunny and bright. Sunlight shined on the back yard grass, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
“How long does it take your uncle to drive your Mom to work?” Patricia asked mindfully.
“It’s about fifteen minutes each way.”
“So that gives us a half hour.”
“Yeah, but we better make it twenty minutes, just to be safe,” Terri suggested. She didn’t want to take any chances; if her mother or Uncle Chuck knew she’d disobeyed them, and gone down to the lake, she’d be grounded for a month! No TV, no badminton, no nothing!
They crunched down the gravel path behind the house, and descended into the woods. Suddenly, the hot, bright morning darkened and turned cool; the dense trees of the woods shaded the path—Terri imagined herself walking down a tunnel.
Patricia, as they walked, was glancing worriedly around.
“What’s wrong?” Terri asked.
“I’m keeping an eye out for snakes.”
Terri smiled to herself. There she goes again with her snakes. Terri wasn’t worried at all about snakes—she knew there really weren’t any around here—but there were a few things she was worried about, and the boathouse was one of them. She still felt mystified as to why her mother would be working in the boathouse so late. Terri herself had only been in the boathouse a few times, and only in the front room, which her father had turned into an office. But there were other rooms, she knew, rooms she hadn’t seen, rooms that her parents had forbidden her to enter.
And I’m going to find out what’s in them, she determined to herself.
Because she had the strongest suspicion that those other rooms had something to do with the strange way her mother had been acting over the past few months.
“It sure is pretty down here,” Patricia said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“And look at all the flowers between the trees!”
There were indeed many forest flowers all around them, in a variety of tones and colors, plus lots of pretty green ferns and other plants.
“What kind of flowers are these?” Patricia inquired. “Do you know?”
“Not really. I don’t know that much about flowers.”
“Can I pick some of them and take them home?”
“Sure,” Terri said.
Patricia stepped off the path into the woods, scanning for the biggest and prettiest flowers. Then she spotted some bright orange ones, with bright-yellow centers, growing at the base of one of the big, thick-trunked oak trees. She reached toward the flowers to pick them, then flinched, then…
Shrieked at the top of her lungs.
“Patricia!” Terri exclaimed. “What’s wrong?”
Patricia stumbled back out of the brush, and grabbed Terri in trembling fear.
“A snake!” she shouted. “There’s a huge snake right there next to the tree!”
Terri’s heart swelled in her chest. A snake! She’d been wrong all along. She and Patricia clung to each other, their faces pale with fear.
“It’s right there!” Patricia wailed, pointing toward the brush at the base of the tree. “See it?”
Terri squinted, trying to focus her eyes. She was looking right at where Patricia was pointing. But—
I don’t see any snake, she thought.
“Where?” she asked. “Where’s the snake?”
“Right there!” Patricia insisted, still pointing. “Can’t you see it? That big, fat gray snake right there next to the orange flowers?”
Terri’s mouth hung open when she saw it. She rolled her eyes and laughed. “Patricia! That’s not a snake! That’s a dead tree branch!”
Patricia stared forward; she didn’t seem to believe it. “No, it’s not! It’s a snake, just like your Uncle Chuck said. It’s a snake, and it might bite us!”
Terri’s laughter continued. “Don’t be a moron, Patricia.” Then she stepped into the brush, reaching down.
“Don’t go in there!” Patricia screamed. “It’ll bite you for sure! It’s probably poisonous!”
Terri boldly picked up the scaly branch and held it up. “See?” she said. “Here’s your snake.” Nothing but an old, dead tree branch. She broke it over her knee and cast it back into the woods.
“Jeeze,” Patricia said, relieved now. “I guess I am a moron. I really thought it was a snake.”
“Well, sometimes your eyes can play tricks on you. You’ll think you’ll see something that’s not really there. It turns out to be something else.”
“I guess so. Like when I was little, sometimes I’d think my blouses hanging in my bedroom closet were really people standing there.”
“Yeah, like that.” But then Terri thought about it. Yes, sometimes the eyes did play tricks on you. Is that what happened last night? she questioned herself. She felt sure now that she hadn’t really seen the big toad with teeth. But what of her mother, walking up the trail from the boathouse at 4:30 in the morning?
Maybe I didn’t really see that, either, she considered. Maybe it was just my eyes playing tricks on me.
She hoped so, at least.
“I feel like an idiot,” Patricia said. “I thought that stupid branch was a snake. Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Terri promised as they continued down the path. “Everybody’s eyes play tricks on them sometimes. It’s happened to me too.”
Last night, Terri thought. But she didn’t want to tell Patricia what she thought she’d seen. Patricia would laugh her head off if Terri told her about the giant toad with teeth trying to eat the rabbit in the yard. “I don’t know,” she said instead. “But it happens to everybody once in a while. It’s no big deal.”
They continued on down the path, their sneakers crunching over the gravel. Little spots of sunlight, shining through the leaves on the trees, seemed to blink at them from above. Along the way they saw lots of birds and mushrooms and many more plants and colorful flowers. Butterflies fluttered around them in the shade, and moths and dragonflies.
A glare of sunlight shined in their eyes. The lake, Terri realized. Where the trees opened at the end of the path, they could see the water now, and the sun shining brightly on it like a huge mirror.
“Is that it?” Patricia asked excitedly.
“What?” Terri asked, but she already knew the answer to her friend’s question. The brown-shingled building at the very end of the path, propped up over the water on its own pier.
“Is that the boathouse?” Patricia said.
Suddenly, for some reason, a prickling chill ran up Terri’s spine…
“Yeah, that’s it,” she informed. “That’s the boathouse.”
“Wow, this is neat!” Patricia exclaimed. They walked up onto the planked pier. If you looked down, you could see the water between the cracks in the planks. And a gentle lapping sound could be heard too: the water at the edge of the lake slapping against the pier posts.
Patricia walked out to the end of the pier, gazing out onto the lake. “This is beautiful. It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”
“It’s not that big,” Terri said. She’d seen much bigger lakes. But it was still a good size.
“Is that your boat?” Patricia asked, pointing down.
“Yeah.” The small boat floated lightly, tied by a thick rope to one of the pier posts. “I’ve never even been out on it.”
“It’s even got a motor!” Patricia noticed. “Do you know how to work it?”
“All I know is you pull that cord there on top of the motor,” Terri said. “But there’re buttons you have to adjust too, and I don’t really know how to do it. There’s something on it called a throttle; you have to set it right first. But I don’t even think it works anymore.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, my Dad told me.”
“Yeah,” Patricia scoffed. “And your Uncle Chuck told you there were snakes all over the place. And all we found were branches. Maybe your Dad told you the boat didn’t work because he didn’t want you to use it.”
Patricia, Terri knew, had a point. It just seemed to her that sometimes grownups said things on purpose that weren’t true, to discourage kids.
“I don’t know,” was all Terri said in response.
“Well, why don’t we try it?”
“What? Riding in the boat?” Terri questioned, astonished.
“Yeah, why not?”
“Because I already told you, my Uncle Chuck’ll be back in a half-hour. Do you have any idea how much trouble I’d get in if he caught us in the boat? I’d get grounded if he even knew we’d come down the path.”
“All right, all right,” Patricia agreed. “But let’s at least look around.”
They approached the door to the boathouse. Terri was still very curious about what was in there. She knew the front room was just an office, but why would her parents forbid her from ever going in the other rooms? I’m going to find out right now, she decided. Her Mom and Uncle Chuck would never know. What harm could there be in her just looking around real quick?
“All right,” Terri said. “Let’s go in.” And then she put her hand on the doorknob, turned it, and—
“Oh, no!” she exclaimed.
“What’s the matter?” Patricia asked.
Terri looked back at her friend in sheer frustration.
“The door’s locked!” she exclaimed.
The wooden door jiggled in its frame but wouldn’t open. Terri could see the lock’s metal bolt between the gap.
“What are we going to do now?” Patricia asked, with more than a little disappointment.
Terri’s eyes thinned. “Well,” she said slowly, thinking. “One time on TV I saw somebody open a locked door with a credit card.”
“A credit card!” Patricia exclaimed. “Where are we going to get a credit card? We’re only twelve! Are you telling me you have a credit card?”
“No,” Terri said. Of course, she didn’t have a credit card; only adults had those. “But I’ve got a library card.”
Patricia watched with amazement as Terri withdrew her plastic covered Devonsville Library card and slipped it in between the edge of the door and the doorframe. Very carefully, she worked the edge of the card against the angled side of the bolt. Gently, gently…
“Aw, it’s not going to work,” Patricia dismissed.
Terri worked the card in further. The bolt moved a little.
“Wait,” Terri repeated, biting her lower lip as she concentrated.
The bolt moved a little more. Then—
The door opened.
“You did it!” Patricia celebrated.
Yeah, Terri thought, a little surprised herself that she’d actually been able to. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go check it out.”
The front room of the boathouse remained as Terri had last seen it, a refurbished office. There was the big desk next to the window, and on top of the desk sat stacks of papers, a typewriter, and a computer. There were also several high file cabinets.
“What’s all this stuff?” Patricia inquired, reaching out to pick up some of the papers laying on the desk.
“Don’t touch it!” Terri exclaimed. “We can’t touch anything, Patricia! If everything isn’t exactly the way my Mom left it, she’ll know we were here!”
“Oh,” Patricia slowly realized, pulling her hand away from the papers. “Sorry… But I wonder what all these papers and things are.”
“Just notes, from my mother’s zoology work.” Then Terri walked to the back of the office. There were two more doors against the rear wall. A sign on one door read SUPPLY ROOM, while the sign on the second door read DO NOT ENTER.
“Are those the rooms you were telling me about?” Patricia asked. “The rooms that your father told you to never go in?”
“Yeah,” Terri answered, her curiosity burning. Immediately, she put her hand on the knob to the supply room. The knob turned—the door was unlocked—and she went in, Patricia following close behind.
“Wait a minute,” Terri observed.
“This doesn’t look like any supply room to me,” Patricia noticed at once.
The room was full of more computers on big racks, with lots of blinking lights. There must’ve been half a dozen computer screens the size of small television sets. But one of the screens was turned on, and it had words on it.
Terri squinted at the screen and read some of the brightly lit words:
LOT 2: TRANSMISSION FAILURE
LOT 2a: TRANSMISSION FAILURE
LOT 3: POSITIVE REAGENT
TRANSMISSION OF GENETIC
“What’s all that mean?” Terri asked.
“I don’t know,” Terri said, disappointed. She didn’t know what any of the words meant.
“Come on,” Patricia urged. “This room is dull. Let’s go into the other one.”
The girls went back out; Terri was careful to remember to close the door behind her—she knew it was very important that the boathouse be left as it was, otherwise, her mother and Uncle Chuck would surely guess that she’d been in here.
Terri’s frown was sharp when she turned the knob on the door marked DO NOT ENTER.
“It’s locked,” she said.
“Use the library card,” Patricia suggested. “It worked before.”
Terri was thinking just that. But this lock looked different; it looked more sturdy. Again, she slipped her laminated library card into the door’s gap and went to work.
“How come it’s not opening?” Patricia asked impatiently after a minute.
“This lock is harder,” Terri replied in concentrated frustration. “But… I think the bolt is moving…”
“I’m going to look around outside,” Patricia said. “Call out to me when you get the door open.”
“Okay. But be careful.”
Terri continued to work on the lock as her friend left the boathouse to examine the deck and the pier. The bolt of the doorlock continued to move as Terri wedged the library card in further, but it was much more difficult than the outside door. Come on, come on, she thought. Open! Time was growing short, and if she wasn’t careful, she fully realized that she could ruin the card.
Come on, come on…
And just as the bolt was about to open—
“Terriiiiiiiiii!” Patricia screamed from outside.
—Terri flinched in startlement. The library card slipped out of the door.
And the bolt snapped back into place.
But Terri wasn’t worried about that. She ran out to the pier, her thoughts racing along with her heart:
What happened! Why is Patricia screaming?
When Terri ran out to the pier, Patricia, shuddering with fear, ran right into her.
“What’s wrong?” Terri demanded.
Patricia looked frantic, her blond hair going every which way. “There’s some thing on the edge of the pier,” she wheezed, nearly out of breath. “It’s black and slimy, and it’s really huge! I think it’s some kind of giant lizard!”
“Yeah, right, Patricia, just like you thought that old branch was a poisonous snake.”
“I’m serious, Terri!” Patricia insisted. “Go and look! It’s right around the corner!”
Terri skeptically did so, rounding the corner of the boathouse. But the instant she turned, she came to a dead stop.
She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
Patricia was at least partly right. At the very end of the wooden pier-walk sat a shiny, coal black thing with four pudgy feet and a long tail. But it wasn’t a lizard—
“It’s a salamander,” she said distractedly. “I can tell by the yellow dots on its back.”
“It looks like a lizard to me,” Patricia remarked, clinging to Terri’s shoulders, still obviously afraid.
“Lizards are reptiles,” Terri informed her friend. “They can’t go in the water. But salamanders are amphibians.”
“It’s a kind of animal that can live on land or in the water. Like toads and frogs. And that thing has definitely been in the water. You can tell. See how wet its skin is?”
“Well, yeah,” Patricia agreed.
“Besides, I know it’s a salamander because I’ve seen them before, and I’ve read about them in my Golden Nature books.” But this was where Terri’s knowledge of wildlife ended. “There’s only one problem,” she said, now even a little scared herself.
“Salamanders never get to be more than eight or ten inches long.” And after she said that, all she could do was stare at the puffy, wet, black thing on the pier.
“Eight to ten inches long?” Patricia questioned, staring in disbelief. “But that thing is—”
“I know,” Terri said, her own eyes wide in what she was seeing.
Because this salamander was no eight or ten inches.
It easily over three feet long.
“Don’t go near it!” Patricia warned.
“I’m not,” Terri assured her. “I just want a closer look.” She still couldn’t believe it. She knew for a fact that salamanders didn’t get this big; she’d seen lots of salamanders in the yard, and they all had the same shiny black color with the bright yellow spots on their backs.
But I’ve never seen one this big, she reminded herself. Nothing even close to this…
The giant salamander lay there lazily. Terri could see its cheeks puffing in and out as it breathed, and its two big eyes on top of its head looked like giant black marbles that never blinked. Its tail alone must’ve been over a foot long itself.
I can’t believe this, Terri thought.
“Terri,” Patricia continued to nervously warn. “You better not get too close. That thing could bite you.”
“No, it can’t,” Terri responded, and leaned over to take another step. “Salamanders don’t have teeth.”
But then her own thoughts stalled right after she’d said that, and she couldn’t help but remember last night. Just when she’d finally convinced herself that what she’d seen was really just a dream—now, again, she wasn’t so sure. Toads don’t have teeth either, she reminded herself. But that toad I saw last night definitely had teeth…
And, then, when Terri took one more step toward the giant salamander—
The salamander lurched forward, its big lazy head raised, and it opened its thin-lipped mouth and hissed at her.
Terri’s heart thudded in her chest, and she jumped back.
Then she and Patricia screamed at the same time, because the salamander’s mouth stretched open wider, and Terri could easily see that it too had teeth.
Two rows of gleaming, white teeth that looked sharp as sewing needles.
Then the creature hissed again, and began to move toward Terri and Patricia, its jaw nearly snapping like a mad dog’s.
“Run!” Terri yelled.
And they ran, all right, as fast as they’d ever run before in their lives, down the wooden pier-walk and back up the gravel path through the woods. The last thing they’d seen as they’d sprinted away in their sneakers was the salamander crawling after them on its fat feet, its tooth-filled mouth snapping open and shut as though it meant to bite them.
When Terri and Patricia got halfway back up the trail, they stopped to catch their breath. The uphill run left them winded and sweating, and they were still scared.
“It’s impossible,” Terri whispered. “I can’t believe what we just saw. A salamander with teeth.”
“Well you better believe it,” Patricia said, huffing and puffing. “And don’t try to tell me it was our eyes playing tricks on us. That was real.”
Terri nodded. This was definitely different from last night. Last night, she’d been sleeping restlessly, and she’d been groggy, and she supposed it was possible that her eyes had been playing tricks on her. But today? Just now? Terri knew this wasn’t a dream. It couldn’t be.
Something’s really wrong around here, she thought.
But what could she do?
If she told her mother and Uncle Chuck about the giant salamander, she’d get in lots of trouble for disobeying them. All kinds of trouble.
And then another thought rang in her mind like an alarm.
“Oh, no!” she fretted.
“What?” Patricia asked.
“How much time has gone by since Uncle Chuck took my mother to work?”
Patricia looked at her wristwatch. “About twenty-five minutes,” she said.
Terri’s thoughts exploded in her mind like a string of firecrackers.
Patricia grabbed Terri’s arm. “What’s wrong?”
Terri gulped in dread. She looked over at Patricia and said, “I forgot to close the boathouse door. And I left my library card inside.”
“Terri!” Patricia exclaimed. “And your uncle’s going to be home any minute!”
“Yeah, and he’ll probably go straight to the boathouse to work, like he does almost every day.”
Terri had to think fast, and she knew she had to move fast too. “You go home right now,” she instructed Patricia. “If you’re at the house and I’m not with you, Uncle Chuck will know we’ve been up to something. Sneak around the side of the yard and go back to your house. I’ll call you later.”
Patricia looked confused. “But, Terri…what are you going to do?”
“I have to run back down to the boathouse, get my library card, and close the door.”
“Are you crazy!” Patricia nearly shrieked. “You can’t go back down there. That—that thing’s down there, that salamander or whatever it is. It’ll bite you for sure!”
“I’ll just have to be careful,” Terri concluded. “It probably went back into the water by now because most amphibians have to keep their skin wet, and, besides, salamanders are real slow.”
Patricia looked terrified at the idea of Terri going down to the boathouse by herself. “You better be careful, Terri, and I mean real careful.”
“I know, I will. I’ll call you later.”
Terri took a deep breath, then, and closed her eyes for a few moments. The image of the salamander, its fat, slimy body, and its needlelike teeth, still stuck in her mind. She’d never forget the way its jaw was snapping at them just before they ran away.
But I’ve got no choice, she told herself. I have to go back there, and I have to do it now.
And with that thought she opened her eyes again and turned. Then she began to jog back down the path.
A chill shot up her spine.
—back to the boathouse.
Terri ran as fast as she could through the woods and down the winding path. Her sneakers scuffed the gravel; tiny tree branches reached out and threatened to brush her face. The path seemed strangely longer now, with more twists and turns. Just when she thought it would go on forever, she arrived at its end, spying the mirrorlike, silverish glare of sunlight off the lake.
The boathouse sat before her.
She stared at it, reluctant…
Hurry up! she screamed at herself then. You don’t have much time!
The wood planks creaked when she stepped onto the pier. She crept slowly along the walkway, keeping her eyes peeled for the hideous giant salamander. A salamander with teeth! she couldn’t help but keep reminding herself. But when she peeked around the corner of the boathouse, she saw that her earlier conclusions were quite right.
The salamander was gone.
It must’ve gone back into the water, she thought. And that was fine with her.
Quickly then, she trotted into the front room of the boathouse, to retrieve her library card. Her intentions were simple. Get the card, close the door behind her, and run back up to the house as fast as she could, before Uncle Chuck could wonder where she was, or worse, before he could come down here.
There it is!
She found the library card right where she knew it would be: on the floor in front of the door marked DO NOT ENTER. She picked it up, began to put it in the back pocket of her shorts. But—
Her curiosity seemed to wrestle with her, it seemed to tick in her head like a loud clock. She’d almost gotten the door open before, hadn’t she? I would have, she realized, if Patricia hadn’t screamed.
She did what was probably the least sensible thing she could imagine. Instead of leaving, as she’d planned—
You really shouldn’t be doing this, Terri, she warned herself.
—she slipped the library card back out of her pocket. She couldn’t help it.
She simply had to know what was in that room!
Don’t mess around! she ordered herself. Sometimes Uncle Chuck stopped at the store after taking her mother to work; with any luck, he’d do the same thing today. Terri rushed to the DO NOT ENTER door, and slid the card back into the gap.
She worked quickly but carefully. Within moments she had the card wedged back between the bolt and the doorframe, and the bolt was moving again!
Come on! Open!
She got it, and in good time! The door popped open…
Well, she thought. Here goes.
The room was very dark. Terri quickly felt along the wall next to the door, found the light switch, turned it on.
Then she stood and stared.
This room was nothing like the other room. There were no computers, no file cabinets. Along the front wall were big metal shelves, and each shelf contained rows of tall glass bottles which each seemed to be filled with some gross-looking yellow liquid. Gunky, she thought, making a face at a faint creeky smell. And then she noticed that a few of the bottles were full of green, not yellow, gunk. She had no idea what the stuff could be inside these bottles. Then she turned around—
The other three walls were lined with shelves too, but there weren’t any bottles on them. Instead, these shelves were filled with…
Fish tanks? she wondered.
No, not fish tanks, but terrariums: fish tanks with no water in them, and no fish. Instead each glass tank contained dirt and rocks and plants, with a small foil tray of water.
And they had animals in them too.
But not the kind of animals she would expect.
Toads, salamanders, newts—yes. But—
They were all huge—much bigger than normal.
They all had teeth.
Just like the toad she thought she’d seen last night, and just like the three-foot-long salamander she and Patricia had seen only a few minutes ago.
Sharp, white, pointed teeth. Like a dog’s teeth, or a wolf’s.
It was so strange, and so scary…
This can’t possibly be, Terri thought, staring through the glass tanks.
Terri moved over to one particular tank, and looked intently in. There was a toad inside, sitting in the foil pan of water, but it was so big! It sat there in the tray of water, spread out and nearly the size of a kitten. Its gold-irised eyes were almost as large as the salamander’s, and a big white sac fluttered under its chin. But stranger still were the teeth. This toad’s teeth were so large that even with its mouth closed, the teeth stuck out past its lips like sharp, white fangs…
Taped to the front glass of the tank was a white sticker, which read in neatly typed letters:
COUNTER-REAGENT 6b ADMINISTERED
…and then there was a date.
The date was yesterday.
Terri remembered the words on the computer in the other room, especially the word reagent. But she didn’t know what that meant, nor did she know what counter-reagent meant.
She turned away, and then noticed something else.
Right there, in the middle of the floor…
What is that? she wondered.
A square outline cut into the wood-plank floor.
A trapdoor, she realized.
Yes, that’s what it was: a trapdoor. She would love to know what was under it, but there was a big lock on it, and it wasn’t any kind of lock she’d ever be able to open with her library card. It was a large, heavy-duty padlock, the kind of lock you needed a key to open.
What is under there? she had no choice but to wonder.
But she was definitely determined to find out, and she wanted to find a lot of things out. How could her mother and Uncle Chuck explain this? Giant toads and salamanders, with teeth? Weird bottles of yucky-looking yellow gunk? Locked trapdoors on the floor?
What was going on here?
But she didn’t let her burning curiosity stall her any longer. She remembered the time…
She had to get out of here, and fast!
She quickly pulled the door closed, heard the bolt click shut. She turned, moved quickly toward the outer boathouse door, and—
Froze in her tracks.
A figure was standing in the doorway, its arms crossed, and its foot impatiently tapping the floor.
Uncle Chuck didn’t say anything, not one word for the whole time they were walking back up the trail to the house. Terri felt an inch tall; if there was one thing she knew about grownups, it was this: you could always tell how mad they were by how silent they were. The less they said, the more mad they were.
And Uncle Chuck wasn’t saying anything.
Terri knew she was in big, big trouble now.
They went in the house through the back sliding door. Then Uncle Chuck slammed the door shut.
“Sit down, young lady,” he said in the coldest voice she’d ever heard.
Terri sat at the kitchen table, her hands in her lap.
“I thought we had an understanding, Terri,” Uncle Chuck said, still standing up with his arms crossed, still tapping his foot.
“I’m sorry,” was all Terri could think to say.
“You’re sorry?” he said in a sarcastic tone. “What good is being sorry going to do if you fall into the lake and drown?”
“I can swim,” Terri feebly answered. “I won the 7th Grade swim meet last year, remember? I got a First Place ribbon.”
“Don’t get smart, young lady—”
Oh, yes, Terri knew she was in big trouble, all right. Because that was one other thing she knew all too well about grownups. When they called you “young lady” instead of your name—that meant BIG trouble.
“—that’s beside the point, and you know it,” Uncle Chuck continued in his cold, cold voice. “I don’t care how well you can swim. I can’t believe you disobeyed us. That’s just not like you. Now—” Uncle Chuck’s foot kept tapping away on the floor—tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap—“I want to know how long you were down there.”
“Just a little while,” Terri said.
“Just a little while,” Uncle Chuck repeated.
tap-tap-tap, went his foot.
“And haven’t we told you many times to never go down to the lake unless you were with an adult? Haven’t we told you many times to never go into the boathouse? Hmmm?”
“Yes,” Terri peeped.
“Then, why, young lady? Why did you do it?”
Terri couldn’t look up at her Uncle Chuck. “I…,” she began, but then she paused. What could she say? It occurred to her that she could lie to Uncle Chuck, she could maybe make up a story, she could say that she heard someone down there or something like that, and that she found the boathouse door already open. Maybe he would think there were burglars or something. But Terri didn’t like to lie, she knew it was something only crummy people did, and she also knew that when you lied, eventually the lie would catch up with you, and then you’d be in even more trouble.
So instead, she did what she felt was the right thing.
She told the truth.
“I was curious,” she told Uncle Chuck. “You and Mom spend so much time down there, I was curious. And—”
Again, she hesitated. If she told him about the toad she’d seen last night, or the giant salamander, he might not believe her. He’d think she was telling lies, and that would just get her in more trouble than she was already in.
“I was just curious,” she repeated.
Uncle Chuck looked down at her. His face looked made of stone, and his foot never stopped—
“I have a mind to call your mother at work right now and tell her what you’ve done, and the only reason I won’t is because it would upset her,” he said. “She’s very busy at work, and she works very, very hard, and since your father left, she has to work even harder to pay the bills and to keep food in the refrigerator and a roof over your head. It’s not easy for her, you know, and you just make it that much harder for her when you do things like this. That’s pretty selfish of you, isn’t it? That’s pretty darn inconsiderate of you.”
“And,” he continued, “do you have any idea how disappointed she’d be?”
Suddenly there were tears in Terri’s eyes. She felt smaller than a lima bean right now. She knew her mother worked hard to keep the house and everything, and the last thing in the world Terri would ever want to do was disappoint her mother. All at once, she never felt more ashamed of herself.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed.
Uncle Chuck seemed to be cooling down a little now, though. “I want you to understand something, Terri. When your mother or I tell you to do something, or in this case, when we tell you not to do something, there’s always a good reason. And the reason is this: we told you not to go to the boathouse because it’s very dangerous for a girl your age down there. That pier is old. One of the planks could break, and you could break your ankle, or worse, you could fall in the water and drown. And there’s a lot of computers and electrical equipment in the boathouse; you could get an electrical shock and have to go to the hospital, or you could even die. Plus, there’s a lot of chemicals and things in the boathouse that are dangerous.”
That reminded Terri of something. Those bottles, she thought. Those stinky bottles full of green and yellow gunk…
Was that what Uncle Chuck meant? Those tall, glass bottles she’d seen on the metal shelves?
“Anyway,” Uncle Chuck went on. “You’re going to your room now, and you’re going to spend the rest of the day there.”
Terri sniffled. “Am I grounded?”
“I don’t know, that’s up to your mother, not me. Go on now. Go to your room, and I don’t want to hear a single peep out of you, do you understand?”
Terri nodded. Then she got up from the table, her eyes still cast down to the floor, and she went to her room.
Each minute seemed to tick by like an hour, and suddenly Terri’s room felt like a prison. I’ll go nuts cooped up in here all day long, she dreaded. Summer was almost over, and whenever she looked out her window, she could see what a beautiful day it was, and all that did was depress her even more. I could be outside playing badminton or doing something with Patricia, or—well, anything. Anything’s better than sitting in my room all day.
And, of course, once Uncle Chuck told her mother about catching her in the boathouse, she’d probably be grounded for the next week, or maybe even the next month…
And she didn’t even want to think about that.
But there were other things—scary things—that she had no choice but to think about: the toad she’d seen last night, the giant salamander, and all those other animals in the back room of the boathouse—all with long, sharp fangs.
Sitting on her bed, Terri pulled out some of her Golden Nature books. She had the whole series: Flowers, Trees, Rocks and Minerals, Mammals, Birds, and, the one she was most interested in now, Reptiles and Amphibians. These were great books that were informative and easy to read, plus they had lots of pictures; her father had given her the entire set of books as a Christmas present several years ago, because Terri had told him that she wanted to be a zoologist when she was older, just like him and Mom.
Amphibians, the book’s introduction began, are a special kind of animal that include frogs, toads, and salamanders. Amphibians are cold-blooded, which means that their body temperature varies with the weather, and they hibernate during the winter when it’s cold. Amphibians breathe air like most animals but they are unique because they can live in the water too, because that is where they lay their eggs, and they need to keep their skin wet. In fact, that is how amphibians drink water, they absorb it through their skin. Amphibians eat insects, moths, and worms…
Terri already knew this; she quickly turned through the pages to “Toads.” She wanted to double-check her facts. Maybe there were some rare kinds of toads that had fangs and ate animals instead of insects and worms.
The book also told about how toads laid eggs in ponds and fresh-water lakes—sometimes they laid as many as 20,000 eggs at a time—and that they slept during the day and only came out at night to feed. Terri already knew all about this too; this wasn’t the information she was looking for.
I knew it, she thought.
The book plainly stated that toads, however rare, had no teeth; instead, they had big, sticky tongues which shot out of their mouths to catch insects to eat. And the book also stated that American toads never grew larger than six inches long. The toad she’d seen last night was over a foot long! And so were the ones she’d seen in the glass tanks when she’d snuck into the backroom at the boathouse.
Then she turned to the “Salamanders” chapter and discovered the same thing. Salamanders never grew to be more than ten or so inches long, and Terri was sure the one she and Patricia had seen on the pier was easily three-feet in length, and the ones she’d seen in the glass tanks were huge too. And salamanders didn’t have teeth or fangs either. Like toads and frogs and all other amphibians, salamanders ate insects. In fact there was a special word for that, Terri noted. According to the book, toads, frogs, and salamanders were called insectivores, which meant that they only ate insects and worms.
But the toad I saw last night, she felt certain, was trying to eat that baby rabbit. And rabbits definitely aren’t insects! They’re mammals!
All these things, all these facts and details, only mystified Terri more. And she knew now that there was no way her eyes could have been playing tricks on her. Patricia had seen the salamander too.
Terri didn’t know what to do.
She wished she could call Patricia, but how could she? Uncle Chuck had confined her to her room all day, and he was in the house.
Terri glanced up. The sound she’d just heard was familiar, and after a moment’s thought, she knew what it was.
It was the sound of the back sliding door closing.
She went quickly to her bedroom window, which faced the back yard, and she saw—
What’s he doing? she wondered.
Her Uncle Chuck was walking across the yard.
Maybe he’s going to mow the grass, Terri considered, but that couldn’t be, could it? He’d have to go out front to the garage first, because that’s where they kept the lawnmower.
But then Terri saw what he was doing.
He had a briefcase in his hand, like one of the briefcases she saw him and her mother bring home every day…
So that’s where he’s going, she noticed next.
Uncle Chuck was walking toward the path, then entering the path, then disappearing into it between the trees.
The path that led down to the lake, and to the boathouse.
And that gave Terri an idea…
You’re in enough trouble as it is, Terri reminded herself. You must be crazy to take a chance like this.
But she couldn’t help it; this was an opportunity she wouldn’t have otherwise.
Still peering out her bedroom window, she waited a few minutes, to give Uncle Chuck plenty of time to get down to the lake.
Then she left her room.
She had to be quick. Getting caught out of her room would get her in more trouble than she could even think about.
But she had to call Patricia.
She moved quickly yet quietly, back into the kitchen, keeping an eye on the big glass pane of the back sliding door so she could see if Uncle Chuck was coming back up to the house.
No sign of him.
She snatched up the phone and dialed Patricia’s number as quickly as she could—
It was busy.
She hung up and decided to wait a few minutes, keeping her eyes glued to the path entrance in the back yard. She had no idea how long he’d be down there. Sometimes he worked in the boathouse with her mother for hours on end, and sometimes he went down there by himself for hours too. But, then again—
Maybe he’s only going down there for a few minutes, Terri considered. To check some notes or something. Or…
Here was another thought.
Maybe he’s going to the boathouse to check up behind me, to see if I touched anything, or broke anything.
But if that were the case, then why would he be taking the briefcase with him? The fact that he was carrying the briefcase seemed like a pretty good sign that he’d be down there for a while, probably several hours, as usual.
Terri scratched her chin. Another thought occurred to her. Yes, Uncle Chuck definitely caught her in the boathouse, but only in the front room. She had gotten the door to the back room closed before he’d seen her. Which meant:
He doesn’t know that I was even in the back room, she guessed. So that means he doesn’t know that I saw those glass tanks with all the big toads and salamanders in them, or those bottles of gunk, or that trapdoor on the floor with the padlock on it.
And there was one more thing. Uncle Chuck had never asked her how she was able to get into the boathouse in the first place, had he? No, Terri was sure he hadn’t, and that seemed pretty absent-minded of him. Usually, adults always asked about every little detail.
These questions itched at her, along with many others. But her biggest question for the moment was this:
What’s Mom going to say when she finds out I was in the boathouse?
But Terri pushed these questions aside, at least for the time being. She would have to worry about them later. Right now, though, her goal was to call Patricia.
Terri glanced out at the path entrance again, and didn’t see any sign of Uncle Chuck. Then she picked up the phone and redialed Patricia’s number.
It’s ringing! Terri thought.
A woman answered, Patricia’s mother. “Hello?”
“Hi,” Terri said. “May I please speak to Patricia?”
But suddenly Patricia’s mother sounded very upset, like something awful had happened. “Patricia’s not here right now,” she said, her voice shaking. “She—oh, the poor thing!”
“What?” Terri asked. “What happened?”
“Patricia had to go to the hospital—”
Terri couldn’t believe it; she felt crushed. Patricia was in the hospital! When Terri asked Patricia’s mother exactly what had happened, her mother said she wasn’t sure. “She got cut very badly,” Patricia’s mother had said over the phone, still very upset. “She has to get stitches.”
And that was all Patricia’s mother had said; she had to hang up quickly because she was expecting her husband to call from the hospital, and she didn’t want to tie up the phone line.
Terri went back to her room and sat glumly on the bed. With all the bad things that had happened lately—now this. Would it ever end? For the last year, it seemed, nothing good had happened. First, her parents’ divorce, her father moving away. Then the strange way her mother had been acting, and all the extra hours she had to work, and Uncle Chuck too. Then the big toad with teeth, and the salamander, the strange glass tanks she’d seen in the boathouse, and all the other weird things that had been going on. And now this—
Terri’s best friend had gotten hurt and was in the hospital to get stitches…
It’s not fair, Terri thought. Sometimes the world just isn’t fair at all…
She stayed in her room the rest of the day, as Uncle Chuck had ordered. All she could do was worry about Patricia. But she’d been right about Uncle Chuck. She sat looking out her bedroom window for the entire afternoon, keeping her gaze trained on the backyard. As expected, hours later, Uncle Chuck had trudged back up to the house, toting his briefcase. He’d spent most of the day working down at the boathouse.
And what bothered Terri most was that her mother and uncle must know about the giant, fanged toads and salamanders because they had so many of them in those glass tanks she’d discovered in that locked back room.
Terri strained her mind to think of a reason for this. The only thing she could guess was that her mother’s zoology laboratory must have discovered some new kind of toad and salamander that were unknown to the world until now, and that’s why they had so many of them in those glass tanks: to study them and do research on them. And some of the toads and salamanders must have gotten out of their tanks somehow and gotten into the lake.
That would explain the toads I saw in the back yard last night, Terri guessed. And the huge salamander Patricia and I saw on the pier this morning…
She only wished she could find out more, but how could she? Once her mother got home from work—and Uncle Chuck told her about how Terri had snuck into the boathouse—she’d probably be grounded. There’s no way I’ll be able to get into the boathouse again, she realized, and if there was one thing she knew, it was this:
The boathouse was the place that held all the answers.
Wait a minute, Terri thought, wondering.
Those words she’d seen on the computer screen, those strange, complicated words. Plus there were the typed words on the labels that had been taped to the weird glass bottles, as well as more typed labels on the tanks. Terri had no idea what the words meant, but maybe she could look them up, couldn’t she?
I could look them up in the dictionary! she thought.
But there was one big problem with that:
She couldn’t remember the words!
She sat down at her desk, got a pad of paper and a pencil out of the drawer. She tried to remember the words, or even parts of the words. If she even remembered a part of one, she could write it down quickly, and then maybe remember the rest of it.
She stared down at the pad of paper, reaching far back in her mind, trying to jog her memory.
Jeeze! she thought in complete frustration.
She just…couldn’t…remember…the words!
Then she put the pencil down. Maybe she’d remember the words later, if she didn’t try to think about them so hard. Sometimes memories would just pop up when you least expected them to. If you tried too hard to remember something, it wouldn’t work. She’d had this problem a few times before, on school tests. When she couldn’t remember an answer to a question, she’d sit back for a moment, close her eyes, clear her mind, and then the answer would come.
But when she did this now, she came up with nothing! She’d been in such a hurry when she was in the boathouse, she didn’t have time to really concentrate, and she hadn’t thought to write anything down.
What am I going to do? she wondered.
It was so frustrating. And she couldn’t ask Patricia because Patricia was in the hospital, and Terri had no idea how long she’d have to be there. She didn’t even know what was wrong with her!
And Patricia probably wouldn’t remember the words either, Terri decided in still more frustration. She probably didn’t even see them. And she couldn’t have seen the words on the labels because Patricia was never in the backroom. It was just me.
How would she ever find the answers?
Terri nearly jumped an inch off her bed, startled. Someone was knocking on her bedroom door. Before she could even get up, Uncle Chuck’s voice announced from the other side of the door:
“Terri, Patricia’s on the phone.”
Terri’s excitement raced through her. Patricia’s called! It didn’t mean that Patricia was out of the hospital but at least it meant that she was all right; otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to call.
“Keep it short, young lady,” Uncle Chuck said when she came out of her bedroom. “Don’t forget, you’re still being punished.”
“Okay, Uncle Chuck,” Terri peeped in reply. She raced to the kitchen, picked up the phone.
“Patricia! What happened? I called earlier and your mother said you had to go to the hospital! Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Patricia answered over the line. “I got a big cut on my knee, and I had to get stitches.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Well, not really. The doctor sprayed this cold stuff on the cut and it made my skin numb, so I didn’t feel anything. It hurt when I fell down, though.”
“What happened?” Terri asked, relieved that her friend was okay.
Patricia’s voice lowered. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Remember this morning when I left your house, and you were going to go back to the boathouse to get your library card?”
“Yeah,” Terri said. How could she ever forget that! It was the whole reason she’d gotten caught by Uncle Chuck.
“Well,” Patricia went on, “I was going home, like you said, and I was cutting across our neighbor’s yard right by a bunch of trees and—”
“What!” Terri whined.
“Something jumped out at me from the trees. I fell down on the curb and cut my leg, and I was bleeding pretty bad.”
“But what was it?” Terri couldn’t help but ask. “What jumped out at you?”
“You’ll never believe this,” Patricia said. “But it was a toad, bigger than any toad I’ve ever seen in my life! And…it had fangs!”
Terri was astonished. “I never told you, Patricia, but last night I woke up and looked out my window and I saw the same exact thing! I saw these giant toads hopping around in the yard, and they had fangs! And then, after you left this morning, I went back down to the boathouse, and I used my library card to get into that other back room.”
“And in the room were lots of these glass tanks, and the tanks were full of toads with fangs! And there were big salamanders too—”
“With teeth?” Patricia asked.
“Yeah, they all had sharp teeth, just like the salamander we saw on the dock this morning. What did your parents say when you told them about it?”
Patricia paused on the line. “Well, I didn’t tell them, I couldn’t. They’d never believe me. They’d think I was making it up.”
Terri had no problem understanding this. “I got out all my Golden Nature books today, and looked through them, and I was right. There aren’t any toads or salamanders that have teeth. None in the whole world.”
“But there must be,” Patricia continued. “We saw them, so we know they’re real. And I’ve got to find some way to prove it to my parents.”
“Well, I don’t really know. But maybe we can think of something.”
Terri wasn’t sure if she thought this was a good idea. “Patricia,” she said, “the only way to prove it would be to go back to the boathouse and try to catch one of the toads or salamanders.”
“Okay. Why don’t we do that?”
“Because it’s dangerous!” Terri exclaimed. “And, anyway, I can’t go there anymore because…I got caught.”
“Ter-ri! Who caught you?”
“My Uncle Chuck,” Terri glumly reported. “When he got back from driving my mother to work, he came down to the lake and caught me.”
“Did you get grounded?” Patricia asked.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll find out when my mother gets home from work, and I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going to happen. But my Uncle Chuck made me stay in my room all day.”
“Bummer,” Patricia said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“But what are we going to do?” Patricia logically asked next. “There are a lot of weird things going on, you have to admit. And—jeeze—you said you saw more toads and salamanders with teeth in the backroom of the boathouse. That can only mean one thing.”
“What?” Terri asked.
“Your mother and your Uncle Chuck—they’re the ones who are behind it.”
Terri knew exactly what Patricia meant; she’d already thought of that herself. All those toads and salamanders in the glass tanks proved that her mother and Uncle Chuck must know what was going on. And Terri had to admit something else: whatever was going on, it was definitely weird…
Terri wanted to talk more, but just then Uncle Chuck stepped into the kitchen and sternly said, “You’ve talked long enough, young lady. It’s time for you to hang up and go back to your room.”
Terri explained to Patricia that she had to go, and then she hung up the phone. Her eyes averted to the floor, she walked back to her bedroom.
“And make sure you stay there, young lady,” Uncle Chuck called behind her. “I’m going to pick your mother up from work now, and you better not even think about coming out of your room. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” Terri peeped. She shuffled back to her bedroom, closed the door. A few minutes later, she heard the car door thunk closed from outside, the engine started, then the car pulled out of the driveway and drove off down the road.
Instantly, Terri felt frustrated and bored. At least Patricia’s all right, she thought. But—
There was just too much to think about, and worry about.
And be scared about…
She had to find the answers, and she knew the answers had to be in the backroom of the boathouse. I could go again now, she realized. Uncle Chuck was gone, picking her mother up. But with her luck he’d come right back just to see if she was still in her room. I can’t risk it, Terri wisely decided. She could get into too much trouble. The only other thing she could do, she knew, was look up some of those complicated words she’d seen on the computer screen, the tanks, and the bottle labels, but—as hard as she tried—she still couldn’t remember any of them. So she was still faced with the problem of getting to the backroom of the boathouse, so she could look at the words again, write them down, and then look them up in the dictionary. That was the only way.
There was still one other thing she could try, wasn’t there?
Something that hadn’t occurred to her.
Yes! she thought.
Maybe the boathouse wasn’t the only place where she could read those words again.
Uncle Chuck, she knew, had been working down there all afternoon. And when he’d come back up to the house, what had he been carrying with him?
The briefcase! Terri realized.
Maybe those words were in the briefcase too.
There’s only one way to find out, she told herself.
Right now, Uncle Chuck wasn’t in the house; he was picking Terri’s mother up at work.
She could sneak out of her room right now, couldn’t she?
And look in the briefcase herself…
One thing in Terri’s favor was this: if Uncle Chuck came back home unexpectedly, she’d be able to hear the car pull into the driveway. So she’d have time to get back into her room before he came in. But she knew she couldn’t fool around, she had to be quick about it, and of course, the first thing she had to do was find the briefcase. She brought a Bic pen and a piece of notebook paper with her, stuck them in the pocket of her shorts. Then, very quietly, she opened her door and left her bedroom.
The house seemed very quiet right now, maybe because she was doing something she knew she wasn’t supposed to be doing. As always, the floor of the foyer went creeeeak! when she stepped on it, and that reminded her of how Patricia had scared her this morning, by hiding in the coat closet. Terri could only guess that the wooden tiles of the foyer had gotten old, and that’s why they creaked whenever someone stepped on them.
The hall to the kitchen was dark. She tiptoed quickly across the carpet and slipped into the kitchen. She wished she’d thought of this before; she could’ve been looking for the briefcase earlier, while she was on the phone with Patricia. Darn! Why didn’t I think of that? she scolded herself. She pranced around the kitchen, looking everywhere, but—
Uncle Chuck’s briefcase wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
Where is it!
Terri looked all over the place: the kitchen table, the big veneered walnut cabinet her mother kept her bills in, the closet, even the regular cabinets. She couldn’t find the briefcase anywhere!
It must not be here, she finally realized. And that could only mean:
It must be somewhere else, like maybe in the dining room, or—
Terri’s thoughts stopped short.
Maybe it’s in his bedroom…
She searched the dining room from top to bottom. The briefcase wasn’t there.
Now this really was risky. Going into Uncle Chuck’s bedroom without his permission. But Terri had no choice; she needed to look in that briefcase, and this was the only way. She walked quickly back down the carpeted hallway, put her hand on the knob to Uncle Chuck’s bedroom.
She paused, took a deep breath—
Here goes nothing, she thought.
—and entered the room.
Uncle Chuck’s bedroom was neat as a pin. The bed was made, the fern-green drapes were tied open, showing the sunny front yard. All of Chuck’s clothes hung neatly in the closet, like in the men’s section of a department store. But Terri’s eyes glanced about the room in total dread—
Where’s the briefcase!
She didn’t see it anywhere! Where else could it be? It wasn’t on the floor anywhere; it wasn’t in the closet. If she didn’t find it this minute, she knew she’d have to give up because Uncle Chuck would be back soon, with her mother. That’s all I need, Terri thought. First I get caught in the boathouse, and now I’m about to get caught in Uncle Chuck’s bedroom!
She searched the room three times—no briefcase. She was so frustrated she wanted to throw her arms up and shriek. But just as she was about to check the room one more time, she turned, and her foot touched something—
What? she thought slowly.
Her foot touched something under the bed.
Terri dropped to her knees very quickly, and pulled up the bed’s fluffy comforter, and there it was—
Finally! I found it!
The black-leather briefcase had been slipped under the bed, almost as if it had been deliberately hidden.
Hidden, Terri thought.
But it had been hidden. Uncle Chuck had obviously slid the briefcase under the bed so no one would see it. No one, as in me, Terri realized. There was no one else to hide it from. Uncle Chuck must have suspected that I might come in here, Terri easily recognized, so he stuck the briefcase under the bed where I wouldn’t be able to see it. And this could only mean what she already suspected: Her mother and Uncle Chuck knew all about the weird things going on around here, and they were deliberately trying to cover everything up to keep Terri from finding out about any of it.
Well, she thought. Not anymore.
She paused for another moment, gazing down excitedly at the front edge of the briefcase.
Yes, it was exciting.
Exciting to know that, very possibly, all the answers to all the questions she had were right here at her fingertips.
And it’s time to find those answers, she decided.
She slid the black briefcase out from under the bed, pushed the two black-metal latches with her thumbs—click-click!—and opened the briefcase.
The first thing Terri saw when she opened her uncle’s briefcase were several glossy textbooks with very complicated titles on the covers, titles she didn’t understand. She wished she could look through the books but she knew there wasn’t time: Uncle Chuck would be home soon, and so would Terri’s mother. Instead Terri lifted the books up and looked under them.
A spiral notepad lay there, just like the kind Terri herself used for her schoolwork. The cover of the notepad was turned back, and she could see handwriting on the first page.
Uncle Chuck’s handwriting, Terri could tell immediately. And then there was something else in the notepad she recognized just as swiftly—
The words! she celebrated.
She remembered now; seeing them again sparked her memory instantly.
The words she’d seen on the computer screen in the boathouse, plus the words on the glass tanks and the labels on the weird glass bottles full of gunk.
Here they were again. The first line read:
LOT 2b: TRANSMISSION FAILURE
Then the second line read:
LOT 3: POSITIVE REAGENT
TRANSMISSION OF GENETIC
And written closer to the bottom of the page, still in her Uncle Chuck’s handwriting, was:
COUNTER-REAGENT 6b ADMINISTERED
…and then yesterday’s date.
Exactly as she remembered from her quick trip to the boathouse this morning.
Okay, Terri told herself. You’ve finally found the words, but you still don’t know what they mean, so—
She took out her Bic pen and the piece of paper from her shorts, and quickly wrote the words down.
That done, she realized time was getting short. I’ve got to get out of here now. She glanced uneasily at the door. They’ll be coming home any minute.
Using her good sense, then, she was about to put the textbooks back and then close the briefcase, but something made her hesitate. Terri’s curiosity was so strong, sometimes she simply couldn’t resist it.
Can’t hurt to just take a quick look, she thought.
She picked up the notepad from out of the briefcase. Most of the pages had been folded over and she began to flip through it from the top page.
Pretty much the same thing as the last page, she concluded as her eyes scanned down each handwritten line. She also recognized her mother’s handwriting on some of the lines; Terri didn’t find it difficult to recognize her mother and Uncle Chuck’s handwriting because she’d seen it so many times when they left notes for her in the kitchen, and now she saw that her mother had written in the notepad just as much as Uncle Chuck had, if not more. But this was no surprise really, because Terri knew they worked together in the boathouse frequently.
Terri continued to flip through the notepad. Still more of the same words, particularly reagent and transmission, but with different numbers after the word Lot. Another thing she noticed was that each line had a date after it, and the further she went in the notepad, the older the dates got.
And this sparked still more of her curiosity.
How far back do the dates go? she wondered.
So she flipped back to the very first page of the notepad, and read the first line.
The date was six months ago.
But that wasn’t all that Terri noticed. She squinted her eyes, tilted her head.
She looked harder at that very first handwritten line.
She stared at it.
And then she realized what was strange.
The line wasn’t written in her mother’s handwriting, and it wasn’t written in Uncle Chuck’s either.
All at once, Terri felt dizzy and confused.
That’s…my father’s handwriting! she realized.
And just when she realized that, Terri heard the familiar sound coming from outside, at the front of the house:
Two car doors being closed, which meant that her mother and Uncle Chuck had just pulled up in the driveway, and had already gotten out of the car!
Terri moved so fast her hands looked like blurs. She put the notepad and then the textbooks back in the briefcase, closed the briefcase lid, and slid it back under the bed. When she dashed for Uncle Chuck’s bedroom door—
On, no! I’m going to get caught again!
—she heard the front door opening.
Terri, frantic now, froze in the hallway. If she closed her uncle’s door too fast, they’d hear it, but if she didn’t close it fast enough, and get back to her own room, she’d get caught red-handed.
Hurry! she screamed at herself.
Gritting her teeth, she pulled the door shut, then dashed for her own bedroom but not before she could see outside light in the foyer, which meant that her mother and Uncle Chuck were already in the house!
creak-creak! she heard next.
The old wood tiles in the foyer.
Her mother and Uncle Chuck were about to enter the hallway!
Terri managed to edge into her own room just as she saw the two shadows step into the hall.
Then, very softly, she clicked her door shut.
She could hear footsteps coming down the hallway. But her mother and Uncle Chuck weren’t saying anything, and that bothered her. Had they seen Terri duck into her room at the last second?
She leaned against the wall in her bedroom, holding her breath, keeping her fingers crossed.
The footsteps got closer.
Then they faded away as Terri’s mother and uncle passed her door and went into the kitchen.
Thank goodness! Terri thought.
They hadn’t seen her after all. She’d made it back to her room at the very last second.
Terri let out the long, deep breath she’d been holding in her chest. For a moment there, she thought she might explode! When she calmed down from her scare, she sat back down on her bed, thinking.
The last thing she’d discovered in Uncle Chuck’s room mystified her. Her father’s handwriting in the notepad. What could it mean? It was true, both her father and mother were zoologists—before the divorce they’d both even worked in the same laboratory, where her mother still worked now—and that meant that they were working on the same research projects, which Terri understood. But what bothered her was just the idea that not only her mother and Uncle Chuck but also her father too had been involved in the strange things going on around here; and Terri didn’t want to think that her father had something to do with the giant toads and salamanders.
But mainly it just made her sad. Seeing the handwriting only reminded her more of her father, and the divorce, and the idea that she hadn’t seen him in months and probably never would again, because he’d moved away.
Don’t think about it, Terri ordered herself. Thinking about it only made it hurt worse.
And, besides, she had plenty of other things to think about now, didn’t she?
She slipped out the piece of paper from her shorts, opened it up, and looked at it.
Now I’ll never forget those words from the boathouse, she thought, because I’ve got them right here in my hand…
Yes, she did. She’d written them all down.
And now that I have them, she realized, I can look them up in the dictionary and finally find out what they mean.
And next she went to do just that, sliding open her top desk drawer and rooting around. She knew she had a dictionary around here somewhere. Or then…
Maybe it was out in the den, where she kept her books during the school year.
Here it is, she thought, relieved. It wasn’t the dictionary she usually used, but at least it was a dictionary, a slim paperback with a brick-red cover.
She looked up the first word: reagent.
Oh no! she thought.
The word wasn’t there! Then she busily looked up the other words, mutation, transmission, genetic, carnivore, and—
None of them were in the dictionary!
Just another disappointment, Terri thought, brooding now at her desk. And after all the trouble she’d gone to in order to get the words—sneaking into Uncle Chuck’s room, finding the briefcase.
All for nothing, she thought drearily.
One thing she hadn’t considered. She looked then and saw that the dictionary she’d found in her desk was old, not the one she usually used. Then—
She looked more closely at the dictionary and saw just how old it actually was. Right there on the cover, it said Elementary Dictionary, Preschool-Age 8.
It was a children’s dictionary, left over from way back when she was in the first and second grade.
This was a dictionary for kids, not adults. And those words she’d written down were definitely adult words. So—
I’ll just have to get a bigger dictionary, she concluded. A dictionary for grownups.
She knew there must be one in the house somewhere. The only problem was finding it. Or maybe she could go to the town library—surely they’d have all kinds of dictionaries there.
But who knows when I’ll be able to do that? she glumly reminded herself. I’m probably grounded…
Then she looked up, at the sound of voices.
She walked to her door. Yes, she could hear her mother and Uncle Chuck talking in the kitchen, but their voices were muffled. Terri pressed her ear against the door and tried to listen.
The voices still couldn’t be heard well enough to understand.
Next, she put her hand on the doorknob and very carefully turned it, so not to make any noise. Then she pulled the door open to a narrow crack.
And now she could hear…
“Well, what I didn’t tell you yet,” Uncle Chuck was saying to her mother, “was that Terri got into the boathouse this morning. You must’ve forgotten to lock the door last night when you came up.”
“How could I have been so forgetful?” her mother scolded herself. “What did she see?”
“Not much, at least I don’t think so. I caught her in the office. The only thing she could’ve seen was the desk, and some preliminary notes.”
“But what about the backroom?” her mother fretted next. “She didn’t get into the backroom, did she?”
“I don’t see how she could have,” Uncle Chuck replied. “The door was locked.”
At least that’s one good thing, Terri thought to herself. They don’t know I used my library card to get in, and they don’t know I saw the stuff in the backroom…
“But I’m really getting worried,” her uncle continued. “Things are really getting dangerous.”
“I know,” her mother agreed.
“I mean, can you imagine? If she went to the boathouse and actually got into the backroom, and saw the specimen tanks? She’d be terrified. Or, worse, if she got in there and found the key…” Uncle Chuck paused as if troubled. “And opened the trapdoor?”
“Don’t even say it!” her mother said in the most dreadful voice Terri had ever heard.
The kitchen conversation halted for a few moments, as though Terri’s mother and uncle were thinking about things. Then her mother said, “What did you do? When you caught her in the boathouse?”
“I sent her to her room,” Uncle Chuck said. “Didn’t really know what to do.”
“The poor thing. She must be so confused; I never have even a minute to spend with her since the project, and with her father being gone, that can only make it worse for her.”
Terri continued to listen eagerly at the crack in her opened bedroom door.
“But I’m really getting worried now,” her Uncle Chuck said next. “I mean, they’re getting bigger.”
“I know, bigger each day. And they’re coming up into the yard at night,” her mother said. “I saw them last night—they were all over the place.”
The toads, Terri realized. She must be talking about the toads… And the memory never left her mind.
The big, bumpy toads with teeth.
“What are we going to do?” Uncle Chuck said next, and he sounded desperate. He even sounded…scared.
“What are we going to do,” he continued, “if those things get into the house?”
Just the way he’d said it—those things—made Terri shiver. It made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up straight.
What are we going to do if those things get into the house?
The words chilled her to the bone. But could that be possible? Could those horrible fanged toads and salamanders actually get into the house? At first, Terri didn’t think so. But then she thought back to some other things she’d heard her mother and Uncle Chuck say.
They’re getting bigger…
Meaning the toads and salamanders, Terri had already figured. But how could they get bigger? This question nagged at her, until she started putting things together. Maybe her mother and Uncle Chuck were working on some kind of experiment that made toads and salamanders bigger, and grow teeth. Maybe some kind of new vitamin they’d invented at her mother’s laboratory—
And something had gone wrong.
This seemed to Terri to be a strong possibility. An experiment, she wondered.
And they’d said something else, hadn’t they? Something that scared her even more.
Something about the trapdoor, she recalled. The trapdoor she’d seen this morning in the backroom of the boathouse.
With the big padlock on it.
Why was it locked? What was in it? Why would her mother and uncle be so concerned about Terri finding the key and opening the trapdoor up?
And Terri was still determined to find the answers, and she knew that some of the answers at least would come when she found a way to look up those words she’d found in Uncle Chuck’s black-leather briefcase.
It was her uncle’s voice, on the other side of her bedroom door. “I’d like to speak with you for a moment.”
“Okay,” Terri said.
Her door swooshed open, and there was Uncle Chuck standing there. He wasn’t tapping his foot, which was a good sign, and another good sign was that he hadn’t called her young lady.
“What is it, Uncle Chuck?” Terri asked.
“Well, I just wanted to say that you can come out of your room now; you’ve been punished enough.”
Great! She didn’t have to stay in her room anymore!
“But I just want you to know,” Uncle Chuck went on, “that the reason I punished you is because we love you very much and we care about you, and we don’t want you to do things that you shouldn’t. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Uncle Chuck,” Terri said. But she couldn’t resist asking the next question. She wanted to see what Uncle Chuck would say. “How come I shouldn’t go to the boathouse?” she asked him next.
“Well, honey, because, like I’ve said, the boathouse is dangerous. Those old boards on the pier could break, and you could fall in the water.”
Terri managed to keep her thoughts to herself. That wasn’t the real reason, and she knew it. But instead, she changed the subject. “Are we going to have dinner now?”
“Well, no, honey. Your mother and I are still working on something very important for your mother’s job, and we have to get to work right now, so we don’t have time to eat dinner. But I want you to fix yourself something in the microwave, okay?”
Terri nodded. “Can I go to Patricia’s?”
“Sure, but only after you’ve had something to eat,” her uncle said. “And make sure you’re home before dark.” Then he stepped back from the door. “And you can watch TV later too. I’ll see you later.”
“’Bye,” Terri said.
She waited a minute in her bedroom, then she went out into the hallway. Uncle Chuck had gone into his own bedroom and was coming out again right now.
With the briefcase.
Terri waited a few moments more. Then she quietly walked out to the kitchen and looked out the big sliding-glass door into the backyard.
There they go, she thought, looking on. Just like every night…
Through the glass door, she could see her mother and Uncle Chuck walking across the back yard, to the narrow gravel path that led to the boathouse.
“Wow!” Terri said. “That’s a big bandage.”
Patricia, sitting in a chair, was holding her knee up, to show Terri the large white bandage on it.
“And it doesn’t hurt?” Terri asked.
“Naw,” Patricia said. “It just itches a little. I have to go back to the doctor’s in a week, so he can take the stitches out.”
Terri had quickly fixed herself a spaghetti TV dinner in the microwave, then she’d gone immediately to Patricia’s house. And why shouldn’t she? Her uncle had given her permission.
“So you didn’t get grounded?” Patricia asked.
“Nope. I lucked out. But—” Terri took out the piece of paper from her pocket. “Look what I brought.”
“What is it?” Patricia wanted to know.
Terri explained it all, about the words she’d seen in the boathouse, and how she’d been able to write them down after seeing them again on the notepad she’d found in her uncle’s briefcase.
“Terri!” Patricia exclaimed. “You really took a big chance! If your uncle had caught you in his bedroom right after catching you in the boathouse, you really would’ve been grounded!”
“I know,” Terri admitted. “But I had to find these words. I’m sure they’ll give us a lot of answers to all the weird things that have been going on lately. But the only dictionary I could find was one of those real skinny ones they gave us in first grade—you know, just when you’re learning to read.”
“Oh, yeah,” Patricia said.
“And it didn’t have any of these words in it. Do you have a dictionary, like a big one for adults?”
Patricia rubbed her chin. “Yeah, I think so. I think there’s one in the den. But we’ll have to ask my father’s permission first.”
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
Patricia’s father was in the living room, sitting back in a big recliner chair reading the newspaper. The television was on, with a baseball game. “Yankees,” he said to himself, “what a bunch of dopes.” Patricia asked if they could use the dictionary, and her father said yes without thinking twice. Terri would at least have expected him to ask why; most adults always did.
“This is great,” Terri commented as Patricia took her into the paneled den. A big hard-covered dictionary sat opened on top of a low dark-wood bookshelf.
“That’s the biggest dictionary I’ve ever seen!” Terri remarked.
“Yeah, and if this doesn’t have those words in it,” Patricia guessed, “then nothing will. What’s the first word?”
“‘Reagent,’” Terri said, and pointed to the word on the paper so Patricia could see it.
Patricia turned to the R’s in the big dictionary, skimmed her finger down the page. “Here it is,” she said and began to quote, “‘Reagent: a substance used to react with another substance.’”
Terri frowned, and wrote the definition down on her piece of notebook paper. Then she read the next word. “Transmission.”
“Isn’t that something in a car?” Patricia asked.
“Well, yeah, I think it is, but it’s got to mean something else too.”
Patricia, then, turned to the T’s. “You’re right,” she told her. “It also means ‘to cause to go to another person or place.’”
Then Terri read off the other words, and Patricia looked them up.
Genetic meant having to do with “genes,” and genes were these special things in all living cells.
Mutation meant change.
And carnivore meant—
They both knew what that word meant…animals that eat meat. Which meant these animals had…teeth.
“Yeah, this is really weird, all right,” Terri said. She and Patricia were sitting out on the curb now, trying to put together what they’d read in the dictionary. The word, of course, that bothered her most was carnivore. Something that eats meat, something that has teeth. Like the toads and salamanders, she thought. They definitely had teeth. But, as she’d told Patricia, when she read about toads and salamanders in her Golden Nature books, it stated that neither animal had teeth. And she remembered something else, too. The books said that toads and salamanders were insectivores, and when they looked that word up in the dictionary they discovered that it meant an animal that ate insects, not meat.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” Patricia agreed, “and what’s weirder is that your mother and uncle know all about it.”
And my father knew all about it too, Terri realized, before he got divorced from my mother and moved away.
The other word they’d looked up was counter-reagent, and that was something that reacted against a reagent, which was sort of confusing. A reagent was a substance that reacted with another substance, so a counter-reagent was something that reacted against that.
All the pieces are here, Terri thought, sitting next to Patricia at the curb. Now if only I can put all the pieces together and make sense of them.
“You know what we have to do, Terri,” Patricia said in a low voice.
“We’re going to have to go back to the boathouse.”
“We can’t!” Terri insisted. “My Uncle Chuck said we couldn’t!”
“Yeah, well he said we couldn’t last night too, but we went anyway.”
“I’ll get grounded!”
“Not if they don’t find out.”
“No!” Terri said firmly. “Absolutely not.” And then she remembered what her uncle had warned her of. “It’s really dangerous. You heard my uncle; the pier could break, and we could fall in the water.”
“Aw, come on, Terri,” Patricia objected. “The pier’s not going to break. He just said that because he doesn’t want us to go down there and find out what’s really going on.”
Terri smirked. She knew Patricia was right. But still, she couldn’t allow it. “No way. We’re not going to go back there. I could get in too much trouble.”
“Suit yourself,” Patricia said. “But can you think of another way to find out what’s really going on around here?”
After a long pause, Terri thought to herself with her chin in her hands, No, I can’t. “We’ll figure something out,” she said instead. “Maybe we can go to the library tomorrow, find out more about those words.”
“Well, I guess we could try that,” Patricia said, but she sure didn’t sound very convinced.
“That’s what we’ll do then,” Terri made plans. “I’ll call you in the morning, and we’ll walk down to the town library, see what else we can find out.”
Patricia looked around. Crickets were chirping now, and the sun had long since gone down. “It’s getting dark,” Terri observed. “I better go home now.”
“Okay,” Patricia said. “But don’t forget to call me in the morning.”
“I won’t. ’Bye.”
Terri walked back to her own house then. The sky was darkening before her very eyes, the sun just a dark-orange circle low on the horizon. Stars twinkled faintly. When she turned onto her own street, a big white-faced owl hooted at her from some tall trees. And just over the tops of those same trees, a yellow moon was rising, so large she could see shadows of its craters. It was a full moon.
She tried to distract herself. The library, she thought. Tomorrow. There, she and Patricia would be able to find out more about those strange words because at the library they had a special wing full of books about science and zoology. And anything they didn’t understand, they could ask the librarian, Mr. Seymour. He was a nice man, and he was very smart. Even though she and Patricia had found the words in the dictionary, Terri still didn’t quite understand them, nor did she understand what the words might have to do with whatever was going on. The only thing she could keep thinking was the idea that her mother and uncle were doing some sort of experiments. But what? Terri asked herself now. What kind of experiments? And why?
As Terri was walking up her driveway, another owl hooted at her, and then she noticed several birds flying in front of the moon…
Or were they bats?
She rushed into the house, slammed the front door quickly behind her. Suddenly the night had seemed creepy, and she wanted to get out of it as fast as she could. What am I afraid of? she wondered. But getting back into the house offered no relief. The house seemed creepy too. Dark. So silent, she could hear her own eyes blink. Empty.
Yes, the house was empty. No one’s here, she realized after checking in the family room and kitchen. The lacy curtains around the opened kitchen window puffed back and forth from a sudden warm breeze outside. “Mom?” Terri called out. “Are you here?” But there was no answer.
She waited a moment, but still—
Of course, she was really fooling herself. She knew where they were. The same place they were every night, sometimes till long after dark…
She peeked out the kitchen window, at the sinister opening between the trees in the backyard.
They’re still down there, she realized. They’re still down there at the lake…working in the boathouse…
The words echoed ever so faintly:
They’re getting bigger—
Eyes—giant, black, shiny eyes with gold-colored irises—blinked.
The bushes rustled. Trees shook. Large bent legs with rumpled, spotted skin strained and pushed forward on big webbed feet like a duck’s…
Only it wasn’t a duck, was it?
The big black eyes blinked again. They were so big; they were as big as basketballs!
The crunching sound echoed through the woods. The giant webbed feet squashed the bushes flat, and as the thing moved forward, some of the trees actually fell down.
They’re getting bigger, the words continued to echo through her head.
It was a toad, crawling up from the woods across the backyard in the moonlight—
A toad as big as a car!
Its long, curved, thin-lipped mouth snapped open, showing teeth the size of kitchen knives…
Bigger, bigger, bigger, the words raced round her mind as the giant, hideous creature hopped toward the house, heading straight for Terri’s bedroom window—
They’re getting bigger and bigger, Terri, and they’re coming for you…
“Terri?” A hand gently nudged her. The voice, at first, seemed far off, like in a dream. “Terri, honey?”
Terri awoke with a chill buzzing up her spine; she almost screamed. Her eyes snapped open as she shivered. She was lying on the couch in the family room, the TV screen full of white static, and right now, two concerned faces peered down at her: her mother and Uncle Chuck.
“Honey, are you all right?” her mother asked. “My goodness! You’re shivering!”
Gradually, Terri remembered. She’d come back from Patricia’s and then had gone into the family room and turned on the TV to watch The Simpsons, and then…
I must’ve fallen asleep, she realized. I fell asleep…and dreamed…
“Terri, honey, are you sick?” her mother asked.
Uncle Chuck was down on one knee, he put his palm on her forehead. “She doesn’t have a fever,” he said, “but she looks awfully pale.”
Terri rubbed her eyes and sat up on the couch. “I—I’m all right,” she said sleepily. “I just had a bad dream. I dreamed there was a toad coming up the backyard, but the toad had teeth, and it was as big as a car…”
Her mother and Uncle Chuck looked worriedly at each other, in silence. Then Chuck said quickly, “Well, don’t you worry about that, because everybody has bad dreams sometimes, and dreams aren’t real. Dreams can never hurt you.”
“It’s late, honey,” her mother added. “You better get to bed now.”
“Up we go,” Uncle Chuck said, and then he picked Terri up and carried her to her room, setting her down on her bed.
“What time is it, Uncle Chuck?” Terri asked, still groggily rubbing her eyes.
“Real late. Past midnight. Your mother and I lost track of time while we were working down at—”
“Down at the boathouse,” Terri finished for him.
“Er, well, yes,” her uncle said very quickly. “Like I told you, your mother has a very important project she’s working on for her job, and I’m helping her.”
Terri nodded, almost frowning. “Can I go to the library with Patricia tomorrow?” she asked.
“Why, sure, honey. But right now, you better get to sleep, okay?”
“Okay,” she said. “Goodnight.”
Then Uncle Chuck left her bedroom and closed the door.
Terri put on her pajamas and got into bed; she was still very tired, but when she reached to turn off the light, her hand hesitated in the air.
She didn’t want to turn it off.
Because as tired as she was, and as much as she’d like to go back to sleep, there was one thing that bothered her.
If I go back to sleep, she considered, maybe I’ll have that dream again.
It was definitely the scariest dream she’d ever had: the giant monster-toad, as big as their station wagon, and with teeth the size of kitchen knives! And when she thought about it just then, she began to shiver again. But then she calmed herself, and thought: Don’t be a baby, Terri. Toads never get that big!
Uncle Chuck was right: everybody had bad dreams sometimes, and dreams could never hurt you because they weren’t real. They were just thoughts and fears inside your head, and they always went away. Dreams were nothing to worry about.
But then, she knew, there were some other things she had to worry about. Like the way Mom and Uncle Chuck looked at each other when I told them I dreamed about a huge toad with teeth. Plus, the strange words and the boathouse and the glass tanks, the locked trapdoor, and the weird bottles full of that creepy, ugly-looking gunk.
But she tried not to think about any of that now. She got up her courage, turned off her light, and then lay back in bed to go to sleep.
Nightsounds flowed in through her open window, a great, loud throbbing sound from all the crickets and peepers and tree frogs that lived in the woods behind the house. The moonlight flowed in too, and cast a large square of eerie faint-white light on the floor. Terri irritably tossed and turned in the covers. The more she tried to go back to sleep, the more awake she felt.
Minutes ticked by but they seemed like hours. Eventually, though, Terri began to nod off and slowly drift back to sleep, until—
She jerked up in bed. What was that! she wondered in brand-new fear. She’d heard a loud cracking sound coming from the open window. She wanted to get up and look out the window, but something kept her from doing so, and she knew what it was: fear. She didn’t dare look out the window because if she did she was afraid she’d see all those big, toothed toads in the yard like she had the other night. But there was one thing she was certain of: the loud cracking sound she’d heard had come from deep in the woods behind the house…
From the lake, she realized with a chill.
And one other thing she noticed. The room was completely silent now. The steady, throbbing nightsounds had stopped the instant she’d heard the cracking, almost as if all those crickets and peepers had gotten scared from the noise and fell silent.
Ka-CRACK! she heard again. And:
Something had fallen into the lake, something, she knew, that was very, very big…
Don’t be stupid, Terri, she kept telling herself. It was nothing to be afraid of. It was probably just a tree branch breaking off and falling in the water.
Yeah, she thought sleepily, her eyes growing heavy. Just a tree branch…falling…in the water…
And a moment later, Terri fell fast asleep.
And because she was asleep now, she never heard the next sound that sailed out of the woods:
An hour earlier, Terri wasn’t the only one who was having trouble falling asleep. Patricia, too, lay wide awake in her bed, tossing and turning. So many things were on her mind right now, things that bothered her, things that just weren’t right.
The big toad that had jumped out at her this morning, causing her to fall and cut her knee. And that big slimy-black salamander she and Terri had seen on the boathouse pier.
With fangs, she remembered. The toad and the salamander both had fangs…
Patricia wanted to tell her parents but she knew she couldn’t. Her parents would never believe her; they’d think she was making it all up. And Patricia knew there was only one way to prove to her parents that it was true…
I’ll have to go back to the boathouse, she thought. I’ll have to catch one of the toads or salamanders and show it to them. Then they’ll have to believe me.
And she knew she’d have to go alone; Terri would never go back to the boathouse herself—she could get into too much trouble. I’ll have to go by myself, Patricia realized. I’ll have to go alone…
It was a crazy idea, she knew, and a scary one, but she knew that if she was careful, she could do it.
But then she thought about that big black salamander again and remembered how big it was—over three-feet long!—and that toad that had jumped out at her—it was pretty big too, now that she thought about it. Trying to catch something that big would be hard or maybe even impossible. The things would try to bite her if she got too close or tried to pick one up, and, besides, what could she use to catch one with? A bucket? A big plastic garbage bag? she wondered. But, no, she couldn’t see any way to do that without the risk of getting bitten, and she sure didn’t want to get bitten by one of those ugly things!
Wait a minute! she thought next. There was a way she could show her parents without actually catching one, wasn’t there? Downstairs in one of the cabinets in the den, her father had a digital camera, and it had a built in flash so it would work in the dark.
I could take some pictures of the toads and salamanders! she realized. And then show them to my parents. Then they’d have to believe me!
What a great idea!
Patricia, excited now, got out of bed and quickly put on her shorts, T-shirt and sandals. Then she sneaked downstairs. All the lights were out, and she knew her parents had gone to bed hours ago. She tiptoed through the hall to the den, careful not to make any noise, and after only a minute or two, she found her father’s digital camera in one of the cabinets. There it is! she thought.
Then she grabbed the camera and snuck out of the house.
It didn’t take her long to get to the woods behind Terri’s house; she’d jogged the whole way. And even though it was the middle of the night, she didn’t have any problem seeing. The moon was full and very bright and it lit up Terri’s backyard quite well. Even when Patricia entered the narrow path between the trees, she could see just fine; the moonlight reached down through the high branches and illuminated the walkway.
Her footsteps crunched over the gravel. The path wound down through the woods until it ended at the boathouse and the creaky-planked pier. Patricia stood still a moment, at the front of the dock, and glanced out. The lake looked perfectly black, with squiggles of white moonlight floating on the surface. Tiny green-glowing dots, thousands of them, blinked on and off in between the trees and over the lake—lightning bugs. And just the sound of the lake itself seemed so intense, the shrill, pulsating chorus of crickets. For a moment there, standing on the wooden dock, Patricia felt as though she were the only person in the world.
The windows of the boathouse were dark.
She felt creepy looking at it, for the boathouse reminded her of all the things that had been happening lately—bizarre things, scary things, things that couldn’t be explained. But that was the reason she’d come down here, wasn’t it? To take some pictures that would prove what was going on.
So I better get on with it, she told herself. The sooner I get some pictures, the sooner I’ll be out of this creepy place and back home where it’s safe.
She looked out over the pier’s rail, to examine the lake shore, and sure enough, she saw lots of toads and salamanders. They’re huge! she thought, amazed. But unfortunately, they were too far away for her to get a picture of them. She needed some close-ups, showing the fangs.
Then Patricia’s heart skipped a beat when she walked around to the front of the boathouse.
A long black salamander with big yellow dots on its back was sitting there on the pier, in the same place she and Terri had seen the salamander this morning.
Only this one was even bigger…
And when it raised its wide, black head and opened its mouth, Patricia could see the fangs all too well. She jumped back, almost shrieked. The salamander’s pointed, white teeth were easily as long as Patricia’s fingers!
Her first impulse was too run. But that would defeat the whole purpose of coming down here, and then she remembered how slow salamanders were. Don’t be scared, she ordered herself. Even if it tries to chase me, I can out-run it easy. And I’ve got to get that picture!
Patricia remained where she stood. She raised the camera to her eyes, leaned over, and when she did so, the salamander’s mouth opened even wider. Perfect! Patricia thought. It was just what she wanted! Then she put her finger on the camera’s button, began to press it down, and then—
The salamander jerked around very quickly and slithered over the side of the pier into the water before Patricia could snap the picture.
Oh, man! she thought. He’s gone!
The toads and salamanders on the shore were just too far away, and she sure didn’t want to walk down there. It was all muddy and wet; her feet would sink in the mud, and she’d make a mess of herself. She frowned in frustration, realizing that coming down here had been a total waste. But…maybe not.
Just then she got an idea.
The boathouse, she realized.
Terri had told her that there were more toads and salamanders in the boathouse, in glass tanks in the backroom. Of course, the boathouse door was locked, but then Patricia also remembered how Terri had cleverly opened it with her library card.
And it just so happened that Patricia had her own library card in her pocket right this moment.
Can’t hurt to try, she thought, taking out her card. The moon shined right on the door; Patricia could see how the wedged bolt went into the slot of the doorframe. She thought back, remembering how Terri had done it, and then she did the same thing, slipping the card against the bolt. She pushed down gently, working the card deeper until the bolt started to move.
Patricia couldn’t believe it! The door opened just like that! Well, that was sure easy, she thought. She went into the front room and turned on the lights. One down, one to go, she thought, and then went to work on the next door, the backroom door, marked DO NOT ENTER.
This one was harder, and it took longer, but in only a few minutes of jiggling the library card—
—this door opened too.
“Wow,” she muttered to herself once she got the light on. “Terri was right.” Three of the room’s walls were lined with metal shelves, and on the shelves were dozens of square, glass tanks. In each tank there was either a toad or a salamander, giant ones, like the one she’d already seen. And they all had fangs…
But before Patricia could raise the camera and start taking pictures, she noticed something else.
On the floor, toward the other end of the room, there was a big trapdoor, with large metal hinges and a lifting ring. Why would they have a trapdoor in the floor? she wondered. It couldn’t lead to a basement because she knew the only thing under the boathouse was water.
What could be down there?
Well, that was one question she couldn’t answer, because the trapdoor had a large, heavy-duty padlock on it. There was no way she could use the library card on that—it needed a key.
And then she noticed something else.
More shelves, she saw. On the next wall. Only these shelves contained glass bottles instead of glass tanks, and the bottles were filled with this mucky-looking stuff.
Yuck! Patricia thought when she picked up one of the bottles to have a closer look. The bottle was heavy and felt slightly warm, and when she shook it, the gunk in the bottle barely moved at all. What is that stuff? she wondered. It looks like mud, only it’s yellow. It had a small label on it that read REAGENT 7c. Reagent, she remembered. One of the words they’d looked up in her father’s dictionary. In fact, all of the yellow bottles had labels with the same word. But then, when she looked closer, she noticed a few bottles full of green gunk, and these bottles had a different label. COUNTER-REAGENT, they read. Another one of the words they’d looked up.
This was all very interesting, not to mention weird, but Patricia knew she better take her pictures and get out of here. It was getting really late. So she reached up to put the yellow bottle back on the shelf and—
NOOOOO! she thought, her heart suddenly beating wildly in her chest.
The heavy bottle slipped out of her fingers and fell—
—right on the floor where it shattered into hundreds of pieces.
“Now you’ve really done it!” Patricia said aloud. “I’m going to get in all kinds of trouble for this!”
The yellow muck in the bottle spread quickly across the floor. At once, a faint creeky smell filled the room. Frantic, Patricia rushed about, looking for a mop and bucket to clean up the mess, but there were none. All she could find, in a small closet, were a few paper towels. She grabbed the towels, then immediately knelt down and started picking up the big pieces of broken glass, careful not to cut herself. And when she wiped at the gunk on the floor—more bad luck.
The stuff was staining the wooden floor yellow!
I better just leave it, she thought. Maybe they’ll think the bottle just fell off the shelf. There was no way she’d be able to clean it up properly. She put the paper towels in the wastebasket. Just take the pictures and get out of here! she thought. So she turned toward one of the shelves with the glass tanks, raised the camera, and—
thunk! she heard again.
Her heart beat violently against the inside of her chest. What was that noise?
Then she looked down, and her eyes went wide as big silver dollars.
The yellow gunk on the floor, she saw now, was seeping down through the cracks in the trapdoor! And the trapdoor—
—was where the thunking sound was coming from!
But then came another sound, a much louder one:
Patricia shrieked to herself. The trapdoor slammed up an inch with the sound, and that’s when she realized the most frightening thing of all—
Something’s under that door, and it’s trying to get out!
And when she heard the sound again—
—the padlock broke off, and the trapdoor violently flew open, and Patricia thought her heart would stop when she saw what was now climbing up into the room…
“Oh, I’m sorry, Terri, but Patricia can’t come to the phone now,” Patricia’s mother said. “She’s not feeling well.”
Terri’s eyes thinned as she held the phone to her ear. She’d dialed Patricia’s number right after breakfast, remembering their plans to go to the town library.
“What’s wrong?” Terri asked. “Is it her knee?”
“No, we don’t know what’s wrong with her,” Patricia’s mother worriedly replied. “We couldn’t get her out of bed this morning. We think she may have come down with the flu. The doctor’s coming over shortly. Why don’t you call back this afternoon? Maybe she’ll be feeling better then.”
“Okay,” Terri said. “’Bye.”
Terri hung up, raising an eyebrow. That’s funny, she thought. Yesterday Patricia had had to go to the hospital to get stitches in her knee, and today she’d caught the flu. She didn’t look sick when I saw her last night. She looked fine.
Oh, well. There was nothing Terri could do about it. She hoped Patricia would get better soon, but it was still disappointing because Terri was looking forward to going to the library with her today, to find out more about those words. Now, she’d have to go by herself.
“Hi, honey,” her mother said, walking into the kitchen.
“Hi, Mom,” Terri replied but then paused. Her mother was dressed in jeans and an old blouse, not one of the usual dresses she wore to work. “How come you’re dressed like that, Mom?”
“Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you, but I won’t be going to work today.”
“Your mother’s taking the day off, Terri,” her Uncle Chuck said, coming into the kitchen himself. “But we’ll both be working down in the boathouse most of the day.”
As usual, Terri thought.
“It’s for that special project I’ve told you about,” her mother added.
Yeah, right, Terri thought sarcastically. “What kind of project is it, exactly?” she asked.
Uncle Chuck and her mother looked at each other, as they had many times in the past.
Like they were hiding something.
“Never you mind about that,” her uncle cut in. “It’s complicated stuff that you wouldn’t understand. Say, aren’t you going to the library with Patricia today?”
“No, I’ll have to go by myself,” Terri said. “Patricia’s got the flu.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” her mother said. “We’ll get pizza tonight for sure, okay?”
“Great!” Terri said enthusiastically. It would be the first time in months that they’d had dinner together.
“Well, have fun at the library,” Uncle Chuck said. “Remember to be home before dinner time.”
“Okay,” Terri said.
Then her mother and uncle, both toting the familiar black briefcases, went out the back sliding door and walked down to the boathouse.
Terri frowned after them. Why would her mother be taking a day off work only to spend the entire day working with Uncle Chuck in the boathouse? And it was weird the way Uncle Chuck had cut Terri off when she’d asked about this “special project.”
Things are just getting weirder and weirder, Terri thought. But at least there was one good thing: they’d be having pizza together tonight, and that was something they hadn’t done in a long time. It would make things feel more like a family for a change.
She took her piece of notebook paper and left the house, walking down the street. The day was so beautiful—bright, warm, and sunny—it was hard to believe how weird things seemed at night, how unreal and scary.
It didn’t take her long to get to the town library; it was just a short walk. The air-conditioning momentarily chilled her when she entered the narrow-windowed, gray-brick building. It didn’t look like many people were here right now, probably because it was still pretty early. Mr. Seymour, the librarian, said hello to her when she passed by the check-out desk. Terri returned the greeting and went on her way. One of the library’s wings, called the Natural Science Wing, was devoted completely to science, zoology, and biology books, and this was definitely where she’d be able to find out more about the words she’d found in her uncle’s briefcase. She walked directly to the wing, but then stopped in her tracks.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she moaned out loud.
The wing’s doors were locked, and there was a sign which read: WE ARE SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE BUT THE NATURAL SCIENCE WING IS CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS. THE WING WILL REOPEN IN TWO WEEKS.
Terri couldn’t believe her luck—it just got worse and worse, didn’t it?
I can’t wait two weeks! she thought. She had to find these things out now. Mumbling to herself, she walked back to the check-out desk. Maybe Mr. Seymour could help her.
“Excuse me, Mr. Seymour,” she asked. “But I need to know about these words, and the Natural Science wing is closed.”
Mr. Seymour was sort of tubby, and he was always reading poetry books behind the desk. He was nice to all the town kids, and he always went out of his way to help people out with their school assignments or whatever they needed to look up. He wore glasses and had long brown hair in front that sometimes hung in his eyes. “Yeah, I’m afraid so, Terri,” he said. “Each year we have one section of the library repainted and recarpeted, and this year, the Natural Science section was on the list. They always do it late in the summer because that’s when we have the fewest people in.” He leaned over the desk, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and took the piece of paper from her. “Hmmm, what have we got here?” he said and began reading the words on the paper. His forehead seemed to crunch up as he read. Then he said, “Well, these are some mighty sophisticated words for a twelve-year-old. Do you know what genetics are?”
“Not really,” Terri answered. “Just that it has something to do with genes, and all living cells have these things in them called genes.”
“Right,” Mr. Seymour agreed. “Genes are like little codes in our cells which give us the special traits that make each person different. And animals and plants too. For instance, a tomato has different genes than a banana, and you have different genes from me.”
“Because you’re a man and I’m a girl?” Terri figured.
“Exactly, and because of lots of other things too. Like because you have blue eyes and I have brown, and I wear glasses and you don’t. And today there’s a special science called genetics, which involves changing the way genes are arranged in living cells.”
“Changing,” Terri said, “like that one word there, mutation. That means change, doesn’t it?”
“Right again,” Mr. Seymour said. “And this word here, transmission, refers to how this mutation, or change, is transferred from one type of cell to another.”
Hmmm, Terri thought. “Can genetics change how big things get?”
“Why, sure, and that’s why genetics are good for the world. Today, genetic scientists can change all kinds of genes, so farmers can grow rice that’s more nutritious, they can grow wheat that grows faster in different climates, they can grow bigger ears of corn, bigger heads of lettuce, things like that, so that food is cheaper and more plentiful. There are a lot of countries in the world where people don’t have as much to eat as we do, and it’s the science of genetics that will help those poorer countries.”
This sounded like a truly great thing to Terri, helping feed poorer countries that didn’t have as much food as America. She’d seen commercials on TV advertizing for charity money for a lot of these poor countries, to help feed kids that didn’t have any food to eat, or running water, or medicine when they got sick. Or anything, for that matter.
Mr. Seymour went on, “And not only will we have more food to give to people who don’t have enough to eat, genetic scientists can make better seeds too, so people in countries with less food can grown their own vegetables. See, some countries can’t grow many vegetables because they don’t have good soil, or enough water, but now, with genetically changed seeds, they’ll be able to grow vegetables that don’t need as much water or fertilizer, and vegetables that can grow in different kinds of soil. Plus, all these vegetables grow better and bigger.”
“What about bigger animals?” Terri asked the next logical question.
“Well, sure, the same goes for livestock, too, like cows and chickens. With genetics, we can grow cows and chickens that are bigger and healthier and more resistant to disease.”
But, of course, this wasn’t what Terri meant. “What about other animals. Like…toads? And salamanders?”
Mr. Seymour scratched his chin, and pushed his glasses back up on his nose because they kept slipping down. “Well, yes, probably toads and salamanders too. It’s a fairly new science, but it’s progressed enough that they could probably do that too. They can probably make any kind of animals bigger by using special genetic scientific methods.”
Terri leaned over and pointed to the word reagent on her piece of notebook paper. “And would scientists use reagents to do it?” came her next question.
Mr. Seymour nodded. “Yes, I guess they probably could. They could make a special reagent that could change the genes in a toad or salamander that would make them bigger, or smaller, or stronger, or…well, just about anything. And of course, a counter-reagent, would be a substance that would reverse the change, like an antidote.”
More and more, it was sounding like Terri was right all along. That’s what Mom and Uncle Chuck have been doing in the boathouse, doing experiments to make special reagents that make toads and salamanders bigger, and—
Her thoughts stopped short then.
“What about carnivores?” she asked next. “A carnivore is an animal that eats meat, right? And has…teeth?”
Again, Mr. Seymour nodded. “It sure is. You seem to know an awful lot about this kind of stuff, Terri. See, there are four different kinds of animals. But remember, most of them have teeth. Carnivores, as you already know, eat only meat. Herbivores are like rabbits, animals that only eat plants and vegetables. Then there are omnivores, animals that eat both meat and vegetables. Human beings are omnivores. And—”
“Insectivores,” Terri cut in, “are animals that only eat insects, right?”
“Right, just like, well…” Mr. Seymour’s forehead wrinkled up again. “Just like toads and salamanders,” he said.
Terri’s excitement carried her back home like a rocket.
Now she knew exactly what was going on!
Experiments! she realized. There could be no other answer. Her mother and Uncle Chuck had invented a reagent that could change the genes of toads and salamanders, make them bigger, and make them carnivores—with teeth! Yes, Terri was excited about finding this out, but she had to admit it was a scary sort of excitement. She knew what was going on, yes, but there was still one thing she didn’t know.
Why? Why were they doing these experiments?
For what reason? she wondered, still running along as fast as her sneakered feet could carry her. This question bothered her. It didn’t seem right, to change toads and salamanders into things that they weren’t. Obviously, as Mr. Seymour had told her, there were a lot of good things that genetics could do for the world, like making bigger vegetables and livestock so poor people had more to eat. But—
Toads? she wondered. Salamanders?
Terri just couldn’t figure it.
But I’ll find out, she told herself.
When she got back home she wasn’t surprised to find the house empty; her mother and uncle were obviously still down at the boathouse and probably would remain there till dinnertime, if not longer. By now, Terri realized she had only one course of action.
I’ll have to confront Mom and Uncle Chuck, she knew. I’ll have to tell them that I know what they’ve been doing down there, and then they’ll have no choice but to tell me why.
This was a daring move; Terri knew they might get very mad at her for snooping in their business, but what else could she do?
I’ll have to go down to the boathouse, she thought. I’ll have to go down there right now and get to the bottom of this.
Boldly, then, Terri went out the sliding door and marched across the back yard. Yes, she fully remembered that she was forbidden to ever go down to the boathouse but, again, she knew she had no choice. She stepped onto the gravel path between the trees and began to descend.
She had to know why. Her curiosity wouldn’t let go of her, and it was just a moment later when her questions actually began to scare her.
What reason can there be to do what they’re doing? she asked herself, marching on over the gravel trail. Why make toads and salamanders bigger, and give them teeth?
It almost seemed…evil.
It almost seemed as though her mother and Uncle Chuck were doing evil experiments on the toads and salamanders to turn them into—
Into…monsters, she thought with a sudden and very creepy chill.
Like the toad she’d dreamed about last night. Huge. As big as a car. And with giant fangs…
Monsters, she thought again.
Suddenly the path seemed darker and more narrow. The sunlight barely filtered at all through the branches of the trees overhead. She began to get scared; she began to think that she was being watched, not by people but by toads.
By giant toads with fangs…
But Terri knew this was only her imagination, so she forced herself to go on and continue down the path. Eventually, a great glare of sunlight shimmered across her eyes—the lake.
Terri stopped at the front of the pier. The door to the boathouse was closed, but one of the side windows stood open, and she could hear voices.
Her mother, and Uncle Chuck—
“This is terrible, Chuck,” her mother was saying with anxiety in her voice. “How could this have happened?”
“I don’t know,” Terri’s uncle replied. “Somehow the bottle must’ve fallen off the shelf, and when it broke, the reagent seeped into the tank beneath the trapdoor.”
What? Terri thought. At first she didn’t understand. She’d seen the tanks on the shelves of the backroom. And she remembered the trapdoor on the floor, with the padlock on it. But—
Wait a minute, she thought then. That’s what he means. There must be another tank, under the floor, and they keep it locked shut with the trapdoor.
And this possibility scared her even more. Because she knew that the trapdoor was big…
So the tank under the trapdoor must be big too, she concluded. Real big.
Big enough to hold a really big toad or salamander…
But the rest she didn’t understand. What were they talking about?
What? One of the bottles of reagent broke?
Terri’s heart was fluttering. More and more it seemed she was right. But there was only one way to find out for sure.
I’m going in there right now, she determined herself. And I’m going to ask them…
But just as she was about to step forward and approach the boathouse door, she heard—
Terri spun around. But she didn’t see anything except the trees. And what was that sound? It sounded like someone whispering.
Then she heard it again:
“Pssssssst! Over here!”
And that’s when Terri noticed the figure standing in the shadows, looking at her.
The dark figure waved at her. “Psssssssst! Terri! Over here! It’s me, Patricia!”
Patricia? Terri thought. What would she be doing down here? And why was she standing in the shadows?
Terri walked quickly up the path, to see her friend, but then Patricia held her hand up. “Stop! Don’t come any closer!”
“Oh, yeah,” Terri recalled. “I called your house this morning and your Mom said you had the flu. I guess you don’t want me to get too close. Shouldn’t you be home in bed?”
“It’s not the flu,” Patricia said. “I snuck out of the house.”
“Never mind that. I have to talk to you. It’s real important.”
“Okay, but—” This was aggravating. “At least step out of the shadows.”
“No,” Patricia said. “Just listen. My parents are looking for me, and I haven’t got much time. I have to tell you what happened last night.”
Terri was instantly confused. “Last night? You mean when I came over to use your dictionary?”
“No, after that. It was real late, like way past midnight.” The shadow paused. “I—I snuck out of the house and I came down here.”
“You came here? To the boathouse? At night?”
“Yeah. I brought my Dad’s digital camera. I thought if I took some pictures of the toads and salamanders, then I could prove to them that something’s really messed up down here. But—but I never got the chance.”
“Patricia!” Terri exclaimed. “Are you crazy? You know how dangerous it is down here at night!”
Patricia’s shadow nodded. “I did something really bad. I used my library card, like you did, and got into the boathouse.”
“Yes,” Patricia countered. “And I also got into the backroom where all those tanks and bottles are. And then—” Patricia hesitated again. “I accidentally dropped one of the bottles on the floor, and it broke, and all that gross gunk spilled all over the place.”
Then it dawned on Terri. That’s what her mother and Uncle Chuck were talking about just a moment ago.
“And this stuff, this reagent,” Patricia gloomily went on, “some of it dripped down through that big trapdoor on the floor.”
“There’s another tank under there, isn’t there?” Terri asked, remembering what her uncle and mother had just said. “Bigger than the ones on the shelves?”
“Yes,” Patricia said. “A lot bigger. And that’s what I came to warn you about, what your mother and uncle are really doing. They’re making monsters in there, Terri. They’re turning toads and salamanders into monsters.”
I knew it, Terri slowly thought to herself.
But then Patricia went on, “Because when that stuff dripped down through the trapdoor, the thing underneath the floor broke out.”
“It broke out?”
“That’s right, and then it raced across the room and jumped in the water, and it’s still out there, Terri. In the lake. Right now. And I saw it with my own eyes.”
“What was it?” Terri hotly asked.
Patricia’s voice grew dark. “It was a toad, Terri, but it was huge. It was at least seven-feet tall.”
“It wasn’t a toad anymore, Terri,” Patricia said. “It was a monster.”
The words chilled Terri to the very core of her soul. Yes, she was right about what her mother and uncle were doing, but only now did she know how right. They were using genetic science to turn toads and salamanders into monsters. But not just that—
Patricia said that the toad that broke out of the trapdoor was over seven-feet-tall!
“Patricia, we’ve got to tell someone about this,” Terri suggested. “We should call the police!”
“They’d never believe us,” Patricia answered. “What, two twelve-year-olds telling them there are giant toad-monsters in the lake? They’d think we were crazy.”
Yeah, Terri thought. But we’re not crazy! It’s all true!
“I’m going now,” Patricia said.
“No, I can never go home, not like this.”
“What do you mean?” Terri asked.
“Never mind. Just get out of here.”
And then Patricia turned and ran away.
“Patricia! No!” Terri called out. “Come back!”
But Patricia kept on running up the path, so Terri had no choice but to follow her. The path wound back up the wooded hill, and soon Terri was gaining on her friend.
“No! Stay away!” Patricia was shrieking over her shoulder. “You can’t ever see me like this!”
“Like what?” Terri shouted ahead of her, still running. “What do you mean?”
“That reagent stuff! When the bottle broke, I tried to clean it up with paper towels, and…”
“And what!” Terri yelled, huffing and puffing up the hill.
She was closing in on Patricia fast, which didn’t make much sense because they generally could run at the same speed. But it was then that Terri noticed something strange about the way Patricia was running.
She wasn’t really running as much as she was, well, sort of…hopping.
And then Patricia finally answered. “And when I was cleaning it up, some of the stuff got on my hands! And it changed me, Terri!”
Finally, Terri caught up. “Stop!” she shouted. “You’ve got to tell me what’s wrong! How did it change you?” And then Terri grabbed Patricia from behind and spun her around—
Patricia faced her now; she was no longer hidden by shadows. And she was no longer Patricia any more either, not really.
“That stuff,” she said, sobbing, “turned me into this.”
Patricia’s head had grown to almost twice its normal size. Her skin was all spotted and brown and covered by bumps, and her eyes…were huge. They were as big as baseballs, only they were shiny-black, with bumpy, spotted eyelids.
Terri shuddered, staring.
Then Patricia opened her long, wide mouth, showing teeth the size of nails…
Terri screamed one more time, high and hard till her throat ached, and then she felt very dizzy, and then—
She fainted right there in the path.
And Terri woke up…
The room was velvety-dark. Her eyes opened very slowly, blinking. It took a few moments to realize where she was:
In her bed.
And when her eyes adjusted to the room’s murky darkness, she looked up and saw a figure standing beside her. At first, Terri thought of Patricia, the way she’d been deliberately standing in the shadows down by the lake, and then the rest of the memory jolted her like a bolt of lightning. Patricia said she got some of that reagent gunk on her hands, Terri slowly but surely remembered. And it changed her…
It changed her into something that was part-human, part-toad…
But this figure standing before her now couldn’t possibly be Patricia. The figure was much taller, and then, when the figure spoke, Terri knew at once that it was Uncle Chuck.
“Are you all right, Terri?” her uncle asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I think so. I guess I—”
“You fainted, honey. We heard you scream, so we ran up the trail and found you lying there. Then we brought you back up to the house, to your room. You’ve been sleeping for hours.”
Beside her, on the nightstand, her clock was ticking. But she couldn’t see the dial. “What time is it, Uncle Chuck?” she asked groggily, and then rubbed her eyes.
“It’s almost midnight.”
Midnight! Terri thought. I’ve been sleeping that long?
And then Uncle Chuck asked, “What happened, honey?”
It was then that Terri came fully awake, and she remembered everything. All kinds of different feelings in her heart seemed to crash together, and she leaned up in bed and shouted, “What happened? You know what happened, Uncle Chuck! I found out everything, everything that you and Mom have been doing down at the boathouse!”
Uncle Chuck’s shadow stepped back. A long pause hung in the air, and then, in a lower voice, he asked, “What do you mean?”
But Terri spat right back, “You’re using genetics! Mr. Seymour at the library told me all about it! And Patricia and I have seen them!”
“Them?” Uncle Chuck asked.
“The toads and salamanders that you and Mom used that reagent stuff on. It makes them bigger! It makes them grow teeth! And I also know that you’ve made a giant toad that you’ve been keeping under that trapdoor in the boathouse! And last night, it broke out. You’re using special chemicals to change the genes of toads and salamanders—you’re mutating them!—and turning these poor animals into monsters!”
Uncle Chuck took another step back in the darkness. “You’ve got it all wrong, honey—well, part of it. It’s true, we did create a special reagent, but not to make monsters.”
“I don’t believe you!” Terri shouted back at him. “I just told you, I’ve seen them!”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Uncle Chuck repeated.
But then Terri reached up and turned on the lamp on her nightstand—
She screamed as loud as she had when she’d seen Patricia.
Uncle Chuck’s head had turned huge, and his eyes were as big and black as Patricia’s had been when Terri saw her on the path. Tan and brown bumps covered his skin—
And when he opened his long, wide mouth to speak, Terri could see the jagged teeth.
“Several weeks ago, we accidentally spilled some of the reagent into the lake,” Uncle Chuck said. “And all the animals there, mostly toads and salamanders…changed. But it was an accident, Terri! We didn’t do it on purpose! I promise you that! It was an accident!”
But by now, Terri couldn’t believe it. They’d been hiding things for all this time. Lying. Covering up.
“And the same thing happened to you that happened to Patricia!” Terri yelled, knowing she was right. “Look at what’s happened to you! You’re changing too!”
Uncle Chuck, now standing in the bright lamplight, turned and looked at his reflection in Terri’s mirror hanging on the closet. His giant toad eyes widened, and then he screamed himself, and ran out of the room.
Terri jumped out of bed and followed him through the house, but Uncle Chuck dashed out the open sliding glass door, ran across the back yard, and disappeared into the opening of the trail.
Going back to the boathouse, Terri wisely concluded. And my mother’s probably down there right now, too—making more monsters out of the innocent animals in the lake. And she’s probably changed—mutated—just like Uncle Chuck and Patricia.
She decided not to follow him. Why do that? She was on her own now, and she knew it. The only thing she could think to do was call the police and tell them everything. They’ll have to believe me, she thought. When they see what Mom and Uncle Chuck have been doing down there, and when they see what they’ve changed into, they’ll have no choice but to believe me!
She went to the kitchen phone, picked it up, was about to dial 911, which her father had taught her to do if there was ever an emergency when she needed the police or an ambulance. But just before she could dial, she heard:
Terri stood still as a statue. She knew that sound…
It was the sound the wood floor made when someone had stepped into the foyer.
Someone’s there, she realized. Someone’s in the foyer right now, and it can’t be Uncle Chuck, because I just saw him run down the path back to the boathouse.
It had to be Patricia or Terri’s mother. There was no one else it could be.
Terri boldly walked toward the darkened hall, toward the foyer. “Patricia?” she called out. “Is that you?”
But there was no answer.
“Mom?” she called out. “I know what happened, so you can come out.”
Terri walked the rest of the way down the hall. Then she turned and faced the foyer.
It came as no surprise. A tall figure stood there in the darkness, perfectly still.
“Mom?” Terri asked again. “Patricia? I know it’s one of you. So come out and we can call the police and they’ll take care of things.”
But the figure didn’t answer her—at least not yet. It stood there looking at her from the other side of the foyer.
“Come out of there!” Terri exclaimed. “You’re scaring me!”
And then the figure moved a little, taking half a step forward, and it was then that Terri noticed how tall it was—much taller than Patricia or her mother—
In fact, it was so tall that it had to duck its giant head just to stand upright in the foyer.
Terri’s heart skipped in her chest. Her eyes widened, and fear like electricity suddenly ran through her body.
It’s the monster, she realized, unable to move. It’s the giant seven-foot toad that Patricia saw break out of the trapdoor in the boathouse…
And the giant figure opened its mouth, revealing shiny white teeth even bigger than Uncle Chuck’s or Patricia’s.
Teeth that were twice as big…
“Terri, honey,” the figure croaked. “Help me…”
And then Terri almost fainted again, when she recognized the voice.
No, she was right. It wasn’t Patricia or her mother’s voice.
It was…her father’s voice.
Terri’s breath seemed to leave her; she couldn’t say a word. Instead, all she could do was stare back at the giant toad-creature that she knew now was her father.
“Oh, Terri,” the thing croaked. “Things just went so wrong.”
“Did—did Mom or Uncle Chuck do this to you?” Terri asked in shivery words.
“No, no, it was me. I accidentally spilled some of the reagent on myself several months ago. Your mother and uncle had to keep me in the big tank under the trapdoor, while they tried to make a counter-reagent to change me back. So far they haven’t been able to, and now they’ll never be able to because they’ve changed too, just like I changed…”
Terri stared some more, shivered some more. It was a thing, a monster, but still, she realized…
It’s my father—
“But—but, Dad,” she asked. “What can I do? There must be something I can do to help you.”
Her father shook his large toad-like head. “Nothing,” he said in that same low, croaky voice. “There’s nothing. But you have to promise me something, honey. You have to promise me that you’ll leave. There’s money in your mother’s desk—take it and get a bus and go to your grandfather’s house as soon as you can. Get as far away from here as you possibly can…”
Terri, as shaken as she was, didn’t understand. “But why, Dad? Tell me why!”
“Because,” her father croaked and paused. “Because we might change more. The reagent—we have no idea how much it will change us. You have to leave while you still can because we might change completely, and…”
“And what?” Terri asked.
“We might try to…hurt you.”
Terri couldn’t believe this, but—
“We wouldn’t want to, honey,” her father croaked on, “but soon the reagent could take over our minds, and we wouldn’t know what we were doing. So you have to protect yourself. You have to get away from here. So promise me. Promise me you’ll leave as fast as you can.”
Tears flowed from Terri’s eyes. She didn’t know what to say.
“I have to go,” her father said next. “I have to get back to the lake, in the water, or else I’ll die. Promise me!”
“I can’t!” Terri shrieked.
But then her father was stepping forward. He moved past her, toward the kitchen, and as he did so, he very gently pushed her aside.
“I love you, honey,” he said, and then ran awkwardly away toward the kitchen.
“Dad!” Terri screamed. “Don’t go! I’ll call the hospital! Maybe doctors could help! I can call the lab where you used to work—”
But Terri didn’t hear a word from him after that. He’d slipped out the back sliding door, across the back yard, and was moving toward the path which would take him to the lake.
Teary-eyed, Terri watched out the kitchen window as the thing that was her father disappeared down the path.
I can’t! she told herself. I can’t do it! I can’t leave them!
No, there was no way she could go away, not after knowing all that had happened. But she couldn’t think straight; millions of questions filled her mind. Like: What about the divorce? If her father and mother had gotten divorced, why was he still here?
And another question, even more important:
What should I do?
She stood a moment more at the kitchen window, let her heart slow down. She had to sort her thoughts out and decide what she was going to do.
And then it dawned on her:
No, I can’t leave. I have to go down to the lake. There must be something I can do…
She had no idea what that might be, but she knew she had to do something—
But— Oh, no, she thought.
When she looked more closely out the window, she realized that getting down to the lake might not be so easy. Because the back yard was full of large mutated toads, as big as footballs now, and they were all hopping around with their mouths open, showing long white sharp teeth.
How could Terri get down the path to the boathouse without getting bitten?
Carnivores, she thought, remembering the word. The reagent had changed all the toads and salamanders to carnivores, and carnivores ate meat…
Meat, she thought.
She rushed to the refrigerator, swung it open. There, sitting on the top shelf was a large package of ground hamburger meat. She plucked it up, her heart racing again, and tore the package open as she ran out the sliding door into the back yard.
As expected, the giant toads began to move toward her, but as she jogged across the back yard, she threw a small clump of the ground hamburger whenever she saw one approaching. And—
It’s working! she thought. The ground meat was the perfect bait to keep them away. The toads went for the meat instead of her! And this allowed Terri to safely get to the path behind the house, without getting bitten.
The high, bright moon lit her way. She scurried down the path. Gravel crunched under her feet; branches swiped at her face like feisty hands, but she ran on, as fast as she could. The nightsounds throbbed in her ears, louder and louder the closer she got to the lake. Her sneakers skidded to a halt on the dock. An explosion of butterflies seemed to swell in her stomach when she looked over the pier rail; along the lake’s narrow shore, dozens more toads and salamanders hopped about or were slithering out of the dark water, all huge and showing their fangs. But they were far enough away that they didn’t present any danger to Terri. To her left sat the boathouse. The lights were on and the door was open.
They’re in there, she thought with a shiver. Dad, Mom, Uncle Chuck, but they’re all different now. They’re…changed…
She’d been wrong. The voice didn’t come from the boathouse; it came from the lake. Terri glanced nervously over the rail and squinted out.
And the butterflies in her stomach doubled.
There, in the center of the lake, she could see them: Her father, her mother, her Uncle Chuck, and even Patricia. She could only see their heads above the water, but she knew it was them. Their giant, shiny-black eyes looked sadly back at her, and when they spoke, Terri could tell that the mutation—the change—had gotten worse. Their voices were more croaky, barely human at all now…
“Terri!” her mother croaked.
“The boathouse!” her uncle croaked.
“What?” Terri shouted back. She didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”
“You might be able to help us,” her father croaked out.
“How?” Terri pleaded, her hands gripping the pier rail till her knuckles turned white. “Tell me how!”
But the mutation was changing him so fast that his words were deteriorating even as he spoke. She couldn’t understand him!
“Siiiiiiiiixbeeeeee,” came her mother’s croaking voice in a long, low groan.
What? she wondered. What did that mean? But when she called out again, their heads had lowered into the water so that only their big black eyes showed—like toads—and they were swimming away.
By now, Terri felt dizzy from so much confusion. She wanted to just sit down and cry. They had said there was something she could do to help them but they’d never been able to say what it was!
I’ll have to figure it out myself, she realized.
And there was only one place to do that. The boathouse.
She quickly turned away from the moonlit lake, rushed into the boathouse, and all at once her heart felt like it was going to explode.
Lying right in the middle of the boathouse floor was a slimy black salamander, its jaws stretched wide open, its long fangs showing.
It was as big as an alligator…
And when the salamander began to slither toward her, Terri shrieked at the top of her lungs. It was the biggest salamander she’d seen so far, and it had the biggest teeth. Terri knew she could run away, but then what would she do?
I know, she thought.
She didn’t have much of the ground beef left, but maybe it would be enough. She broke off little pieces of the meat and made a trail leading from the front room of the boathouse to the edge of the pier. She waited, staring wide-eyed. It had worked before but this salamander was so big, maybe it wouldn’t be interested in such small pieces of meat.
It probably wants bigger meat, Terri fretted. Like me!
But eventually the giant salamander began to move, slithering up to each piece of ground meat, eating it, and then moving on to the next piece, until it was out of the boathouse and nearing the edge of the pier.
Now! Terri thought.
Just as the salamander was about to eat the last clump of hamburger, Terri grabbed a broom, and—
—pushed the salamander over the edge into the water.
She dropped the broom, ran back into the boathouse, her feet thudding against the wood-plank floor. Now what do I do? she asked herself. If there was something in here that could help her parents, her uncle, and Patricia, where would it be?
The backroom, she realized at once.
The door was open. The instant she went in, she could see the broken trapdoor and the stains on the floor from where the bottle of reagent had broken. But now she felt lost. How could she figure out what to do to help?
And what was that her mother had said?
Siiiixbeee, she remembered. Or something like that.
But what was that? What did it mean?
The rest of the backroom was just how she remembered it. One wall full of glass bottles, the other three walls full of glass tanks containing toads and salamanders. She scanned her eyes across the rows of tanks, and then—
Wait a minute, she thought.
Something was different, wasn’t it? Yes…
She walked up to the first tank she’d looked at the other morning. She easily remembered then that the toad inside had been changed; it was abnormally large, and had sharp, white fangs. But now…
Terri peered in through the glass, astonished.
It’s…normal now, she saw.
Yes, the toad inside was normal size, and it didn’t have teeth any more, and when Terri looked around some more, she noticed that lots of the toads and salamanders that had been large and fanged just two days ago had all turned back to normal size.
She stood there excitedly, thinking. She thought back to what Mr. Seymour had said, about reagents and counter-reagents.
A counter-reagent was like an antidote. It was something that reversed the changes made by a reagent. Which meant…
Mom and Uncle Chuck, she realized. They must have been able to make a counter-reagent that works, but they got changed themselves before they could use it…
Then she looked at the tanks again, the ones with the normal-sized toads and salamanders. White labels, which she remembered from the other morning, were stuck to the top of each tank, and they all said the same thing:
COUNTER-REAGENT 6b ADMINISTERED: 6b.
Siiiixbeee! Terri thought. The word her mother had said.
6b was the name of the counter-reagent that worked!
She rushed to the other wall with all the metal shelves of bottles. Each bottle, too, had a label but they all said different things. 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c, and on and on.
Terri’s fingers traced along the rows of bottles until—
Here it is!
6b, read the label on one of the bottles.
Terri stood on her tiptoes, took the bottle down off the shelf. Then she went out onto the pier.
Her eyes scanned all around the moonlit lake, but she didn’t see any evidence of her parents, her uncle, or Patricia. But there was one thing she knew:
They’re out there somewhere…
Terri unscrewed the top from the glass bottle. She paused a moment, standing in the bright moonlight, the nightsounds throbbing in her ears. And then—
She leaned over the pier rail and emptied the bottle into the lake…
A week later.
The bright morning sun beamed in through the kitchen window. “And that night,” Terri’s mother was explaining, “your Uncle Chuck and I accidentally got some of the reagent on our hands, too, just like Patricia did when she broke the bottle.”
“And that’s why we mutated,” her uncle added. “Because the reagent goes through your skin.”
“But all summer long,” Terri’s father got into the conversation now, “your Mom and Uncle Chuck were trying to make a counter-reagent, to change me back to normal. And they did it, only they changed themselves before they could use it.”
“And it’s a good thing you figured it out, Terri,” her mother then added, “because if you hadn’t, we’d all still be in the lake, and who knows how much we would’ve changed by now.”
The thought sent a shiver up Terri’s back. She’d only seen them mutated once, and once was enough. But none of that mattered now anyway. All that mattered was that everything was normal again.
When Terri had emptied the bottle of counter-reagent over the pier, everything in the lake—her parents, her uncle, and Patricia, as well as all the mutated toads and salamanders—had absorbed it into their bodies through their skin, and it had only taken a day or two to change them all back to normal.
But there were still a few things she didn’t understand, and that’s when her father explained it all.
“Your Mom and Uncle Chuck,” he said, “couldn’t tell you what really happened to me, because you would’ve been too upset. So that’s why they made up the story about us being divorced. But your mother and I were never really divorced, Terri. We love each other just as much as we always have.”
“And just as much as we’ve always loved you,” her mother added, setting bacon and eggs out on the table.
This much Terri had figured out. “But why?” she asked. “I still don’t understand why you wanted to change the toads and salamanders…into monsters.”
“We never really wanted to change them, honey,” her father said. “At the lab where I work, we were trying to make a reagent that would give toads and salamanders certain properties of other kinds of animals.”
“Carnivores, you mean,” Terri said.
“Exactly. And that’s why the toads and salamanders got larger and grew teeth.”
“But I still don’t understand why,” Terri insisted.
“Because amphibians—toads and salamanders and frogs—never get the same kinds of diseases that human beings and other mammals get, and my job at work was to find out why. And that’s the reason I made the reagent, to give the toads and salamanders certain properties of mammals. And from there I would study them and see it they remained resistant to disease. It’s called genetic research, honey. And with this kind of research, we’ll be able to cure lots of diseases one day, and make the world better for everyone.”
Now Terri understood. They weren’t making monsters after all; they were just doing research and something went wrong.
Terri sat back in her seat at the table, where they were all together for the first time in months and months. Her parents had never really been divorced, and her father had his job back.
Her mother, her father, Uncle Chuck, and Patricia were all changed back to normal now, and so were all the animals in the lake.
Yes, everything was back to normal now, and the best part of all was that her life had returned to normal too.
Edward Lee has had more than 40 books published in the horror and suspense field, including CITY INFERNAL, THE GOLEM, and BLACK TRAIN. His movie, HEADER was released on DVD by Synapse Films, in June, 2009. Recent releases include the stories, “You Are My Everything” and “The Cyesologniac,” the Lovecraftian novella “Trolley No. 1852,” and the hardcore novel HAUNTER OF THE THRESHOLD. Currently, Lee is working on HEADER 3.
Although primarily known for his adult horror, this is Edward Lee’s first young reader novel. If you enjoyed this book please check out his second young reader novel, Vampire Lodge.
Lee lives Tampa, FL. Visit him online at: