THE PACK OF ruthless girls set us down on our feet before the monsters. Hands gripped our arms, shoulders, and necks so tightly Benny and I could barely move. We faced our fate.

And what a fate.

Now that they’d scarfed down nearly ten bagfuls of cockroaches, the three mutant mantises had swollen to alarming proportions. In fact, they were barely recognizable as mantises, looking more like six-legged green blimps. Their triangular heads were dwarfed by their massive bodies.

But they hadn’t exploded. So much for Dr. Sincere’s theory. And so much for his offer of help, the big faker.

“Behold the troublemakers,” said a mean redheaded girl with a fistful of my hair in her grip and a flair for the dramatic. “Feed, O Mighty Ones!”

Though clearly terrified, Benny mouthed, O Mighty Ones? Even to the end, he hated corniness.

The monsters ignored the redhead, instead scuttling about after the last handfuls of cockroaches. By this time, they had to shove aside the debris to find the pests’ hiding places.

“Those are our prisoners!” cried a voice that sounded a lot like Tenacity. “Let them go!”

Mean Red turned, which meant that my head was wrenched around, since she didn’t release my hair. “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” she sneered.

Tenacity’s fists landed on her hips. “Who you calling losers?”

“Yeah!” cried my little sister. “You’re the losers!”

“Shut up, short stuff!” snapped a big black-haired girl.

I wanted to defend my sister, but didn’t want to call attention to myself. Still, I couldn’t help saying, “You shouldn’t have said that.”

Sure enough, Veronica hissed and surged at the other girl. Tina held her back.

“Double doody-head!” shrieked Veronica, snapping her jaws.

How about that? I thought. They’re fighting over who gets to feed us to the monsters.

“Aren’t we the popular ones,” said Benny.

“I’d settle for being alive and ignored, if it’s all the same,” I said.

As we watched, words escalated into blows. Tenacity shoved Mean Red. Red took a swing at Tenacity, tugging out some of my hair along the way.

Next thing you know, the two groups of girls closed in on each other, pushing, punching, and pulling hair. Tenacity’s group was smaller, but they made up for it in ferocity. I saw Tina karate-kick a sixth grader in the gut, and my own sister bit the black-haired girl’s leg like a rabid terrier.

Apparently, you can turn someone into a predator, but you can’t control what they prey on. These budding slayers had turned on each other.

Forgotten, Benny and I stepped away from the free-for-all. He was about to blast for the door, but I caught his sleeve.

“Wait,” I said.

“Are you totally whacked? Let’s bounce before they remember who they were fighting over.”

I shook my head. “Look.”

The three mantises had found a cache of bugs hiding beneath a fallen tablecloth. As we watched, they shoveled the last of the roaches into their greedy maws, crunching away. But they couldn’t see what we could.

The monsters’ swollen bodies were pulsating, expanding and contracting like a bellows. With each throb, their bodies grew bigger and bigger, like hideously warped balloons—until, just like an overinflated balloon…

They popped.

But that doesn’t really do it justice.

To be more accurate, the mantises exploded, they went supernova, they burst like a bargain-basement piñata. One second, they were just three fatty-fat insects, and the next…pow! Bits of greenish meat, cartilage, guts, and half-digested cockroaches sprayed the room like someone had set off a bug bomb made entirely of bugs.

I had just enough time to say, “Look ou—!” when Benny and I were hit by a tidal wave of goop. The nasty, sour-smelling stuff struck us with the power of a football tackle. Down we went, right into the nearest table.

The battling girls caught the full force of the blast. It knocked them over like bowling pins, blowing them into a tangle of arms and legs and greenish glop.

For a long, long moment, all was silent, except for a wet, dripping noise. Then a voice that sounded like my sister said, “Eeww, my hair!”

I had to laugh. But as it turned out, that wasn’t such a hot idea, since I got a mouthful of mantis guts. Did it taste bad? Let me put it this way: combine spoiled cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and escamole (a Mexican dish made from ant larvae—really!) with rancid Limburger cheese, and you’re just starting to get in the ballpark.

“Ack-ick-uck!” I hocked, and spat, and wiped my face with an arm.

Painted with green glop, Benny took one look at me and burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you ate bug goop!”

Trust a friend to comfort you in your hour of distress.

Then his face puckered like a drawstring purse as Benny got his own taste of buggy flavor. “Eeewww! Gross! This stuff is nasty!”

And we weren’t the only ones who found the bug guts disgusting. Rising to her knees, a goop-covered Gabi grabbed her belly and clapped a hand over her mouth. Her body hunched once, twice, and then…

“Blaarrrgh!” She ralphed all over Tina.

Revolted, Karate Girl sprang to her feet, gave a full-body shudder, and horked up the contents of her stomach onto Mean Red’s head.

From there on, it was basically Barf City. The urge to upchuck spread among the mutant wannabes like head lice in a preschool. Before long, all the girls who’d wanted to rip our heads off were helplessly losing their lunch all over each other and the cafeteria floor.

“I love a happy ending,” sighed Benny.

It felt good to laugh again, this time with mouth closed. I found some dry napkins and swabbed my face. I even risked a bite of brownie to help mask the aftertaste.

Struggling to our feet, Benny and I surveyed the scene. It looked like a deeply sick giant had blown his nose all over this end of the cafeteria, and then sprinkled in some cockroach bits. And it smelled as bad as it tasted. The slime coated everything—the walls, the tables, the treats, and the queasy girls who were beginning to sit up.

“The—the makers!” cried one of them, finally noticing the mantises’ remains. “They’re…disgusting.”

“And gone!” wailed another.

“What do we do?” asked Gabi. “They always knew what to do.”

One glop-covered head swiveled in my direction, and two brown eyes glared at Benny and me. “You! You’re responsible!” snarled Tenacity weakly.

“Hey, we didn’t make them overeat,” said Benny. “It’s like that commercial—know when to say when.”

But the girls weren’t buying it. Their leaders were gone, and they wanted someone to blame.

Us.

The gunk-ified girls lurched to their feet with murder in their eyes. Even worse, they stood between us and the exit.

I’m not sure exactly where this would’ve ended, but just then, a familiar lanky figure stepped into the doorway behind them with a hose in his hands.

“Always the same story,” said Mr. Boo. “The kids make the mess; the janitor cleans it up.”

“Huh?” said Tenacity, turning.

“In the words of the immortal Bob Dylan, Spray, Mr. Tambourine Man!” said the custodian.

And with that, he worked the hose lever, blasting high-pressure water onto me, Benny, and all the wannabe mantis girls.