Malcolm scanned his brain for the answer. What year was it? William of Orange...he married Mary in...1677. Yes, that was it. He quickly scribbled out the answer and turned his quiz in, breathing out a sigh of relief. Grabbing his bag, he exited the classroom and thought over his schedule for the day.
Mondays were always a difficult day. He had all of his hardest classes—AP Calculus, AP Biology, AP European History, AP English, and Spanish, along with a couple of electives and no frees. The only good thing about the day was that he didn't have Gym.
Moving to his locker, Malcolm switched out his books then stashed his backpack inside before heading to the Commons, an area filled with couches and tables for students to do homework or hang out. Most people used it when they had a free period and, as it was located right next to the lunchroom, it made the perfect place to sit down and wait for the lunch period to begin.
With ten minutes before lunch, Malcolm allowed his mind to wander. He had had a rather boring weekend; he got together with Curtis on Saturday to play some Overwatch and then had gone to church with his parents on Sunday. He had meant to start on his AP Bio project but had gotten hooked on a new anime, bingewatching that instead. Now, the only thing he had to look forward to was getting to wait at the Lab after school.
The bell rang and Malcolm jumped to his feet, making a beeline for the lunchroom in hopes of being at the front. After grabbing his food (chicken parmesan, carrots, and buttered noodles), he paid and sat down. Curtis joined him soon after and the two discussed the new anime Malcolm had started watching.
As they were eating, Malcolm noticed that the table for nominations had been converted into a voting area. Apparently, the candidates were finalized and students could now select who they wanted to be the Homecoming King and Queen. Several people milled about the table, with some looking over the ballots and others casting their votes.
The noise of a microphone squealing distracted Malcolm and he glanced at the front of the lunchroom. An Asian boy with shaggy hair and glasses stood there, holding a wireless microphone and waving at the crowd. "Hey, everybody! Brad here! As your Spirit Rep, I thought I would let you know what's going down this week at Homecoming. The theme is 'Out of This World' for this year. We'll have various events throughout the week relating to this and then an all-school assembly on Friday to get pumped for the big game the next day. And finally, Homecoming Dance on Saturday! Make sure to buy your T-shirts and other merchandise. We'll be selling them during lunch and after school until five every day this week. Remember, whichever class buys the most earns a cool prize! So make sure to pitch in and help your class win!" He continued in that manner, detailing the various events that would happen such as dress-up days, but Malcolm had stopped listening and Curtis didn't seem particularly interested either; neither one had much school spirit.
Malcolm finished his last bite and scraped up some of the sauce with his fork, licking it. The lunch lady hadn't given him a very big piece of chicken and he could still feel a faint pang of hunger. With Brad still talking, he turned to Curtis, asking, "Are you going to Homecoming?"
Tipping back his can of Monster in an attempt to drink the last few drops, Curtis wiped his mouth, shaking his head. "Nope. Not the game, not the dance. I couldn't give less of a shit about that kind of stuff."
Malcolm watched him poke his chicken with his fork. "Do you want to do something on Saturday then?"
Curtis shrugged. "Yeah, that would be cool. I think I work during the day, but I should be off in the evening. They finally gave me a freaking day shift on the weekend." He noticed Malcolm eying his plate and pushed it over to him. "If you're going to eye-fuck the thing, then just take it. I'm not that hungry." He smirked. "And you look like you're preparing for the winter anyway. I don't want you to starve."
Malcolm felt his cheeks flush but accepted the plate anyway. He was too hungry to let Curtis' words dissuade him.
In the dimly lit room, Dr. Reeder gestured at an image on the Powerpoint slide. It displayed a container with two sides, one containing a few red beads, while the other had numerous ones. "So now with what we've discussed today about osmolarity, which side should the beads flow?" Malcolm raised his hand and Dr. Reeder nodded. "Malcolm?"
"They'll flow to the side with the highest concentration."
"Very good. And let's say this side was negative and this was positive?"
"Opposite charges attract one another; now both the chemical and electrical gradients would favor moving to that side."
Dr. Reeder nodded again, a smile playing on his lips. "Excellent." Before he could show any more examples, the bell rang and Dr. Reeder clapped his hands together. "Alright, that's time. I think we're done with solubility and osmolarity. Tomorrow's lab is going to be over partial pressures, and I have a video at the end! So look forward to that."
Everyone then stood up, packing up his or her things. As Malcolm put away his notebook and pencils, Dr. Reeder approached his desk. "Good work today," he said. "You were on fire for answering questions. I'm really glad that you speak up a bit more in class now."
Malcolm beamed at the compliment. "Thank you, sir," he replied and Dr. Reeder smiled in return.
Clearing his throat, Dr. Reeder asked, "So, I actually came to talk to you about an opportunity. Do you have any interest in medicine?"
"Yeah. I'm thinking about becoming a doctor when I grow up. I shadowed at a hospital last summer and I'm pretty involved in 4-H."
Malcolm's answer appeared to impress the man. "Well, then...there's a medical symposium in Clarksville every November at the university. Even though I haven't practiced medicine in a few years, I always go and I get to take one student along. I think you would be the perfect choice. If you're interested, I'll give you the information so you and your parents can look it over."
Malcolm gaped at him and managed to sputter, "Y-yeah, that sounds awesome! I am definitely interested."
Chuckling, Dr. Reeder held out his hand for Malcolm to shake. "Alright, I'll get you the paperwork sometime next week. Let me know if you can make it."
Malcolm nodded eagerly, thanked him, and then headed towards his locker. His mind was running a thousand miles an hour. A medical symposium! And Reeder had picked him! He grinned all the way to his locker, mood unfettered by the amount of homework he had to do that night.
"What are you so happy about?" Curtis questioned a minute later, backpack slung over only one shoulder. He had already packed up all his stuff in the amount of time Malcolm had stayed behind to talk to the teacher.
Malcolm zipped up his backpack and replied, "Dr. Reeder picked me to go to a medical symposium in Clarksville! Only one person gets to go, so this is a huge deal!"
Curtis nodded approvingly, impressed. "Hey, that's pretty cool. Good job." The two then headed outside and sat on a short concrete wall by the front entrance of the school. Swinging his legs lazily, Curtis asked, "So when is your mom going to get here?"
Malcolm checked his phone to answer the question. "She should be here pretty soon. She texted me that she was on her way about twenty minutes ago." Just as he finished talking, his phone vibrated with a new text; Malcolm glanced at the message and hopped off the wall. "She's in the parking lot. Let's go." Trekking over to the high school parking lot, they spotted a red Subaru which displayed several bumper stickers—My Child is on the Honor Roll, a Jesus Fish, Black Lives Matter—and headed over.
"How was school today, guys?" Laura Sanders asked as the boys stashed their backpacks in the trunk. Malcolm excitedly relayed the news about Dr. Reeder and the medical symposium, and Mrs. Sanders' face lit up as he talked. "That's amazing, honey! I'm so proud of you!" After the two buckled up, she headed out, first rolling down several of the larger streets in the town and then entering the on-ramp for the highway. Before long, the group whizzed by fields and a gas station, everything passing by in a blur. His mom exited after a couple minutes and an imposing building came into view.
From the outside, it only appeared to be a couple of stories, but Malcolm had been told that it had numerous floors below. Enormous windows covered the front part of the building—providing a look into the spacious foyer of the main entrance—while pillars supported an outdoor pavilion off to the side. Perfectly manicured lawns stretched out in three directions from the facility and flowerbeds were sprinkled in careful patterns around the circumference. To top it all off, a large stone plaque on the lawn spelled out, "KRIEGER MILITARY LABORATORY" in bold letters.
Curtis whistled in appreciation and Malcolm's mom chuckled at the gesture. "It is a little intimidating when you first see it, but I promise that everyone is really nice. You guys can hang out in the lobby by my department. I've already told Sheila that you'll be there."
Accessing a parkway, the car followed a small, winding road before entering a parking garage, where the group then took the garage elevator up to the main floor. Malcolm glimpsed the grand foyer of the main entrance—an expansive room with lofty ceilings and ornamental pillars surrounding a large statue of an atomic orbital—as his mom ushered him and Curtis along, and he had half a mind to go check it out. However, his mom seemed to be in a hurry, so he jogged to catch up to her instead. As they walked, Mrs. Sanders rattled off various facts about the place, including information about her role (something to do with overseeing projects pertaining to helping military personnel adapt to civilian life, he wasn't quite following).
Eventually, the group entered a department labeled "PUBLIC OUTREACH AND COMMUNICATIONS." They walked into a waiting room where a frizzy-haired woman, presumably Sheila, sat behind a desk. She smiled upon seeing them. "Hey, Laura. Is that Malcolm with you?"
Malcolm's mom smiled and introduced him. The group exchanged pleasantries and then his mom faced the two boys. "I have a lot of work, but I can show you my office really fast if you'd like." The pair agreed to this and she led them through a doorway and into an area filled with cubicles. Turning at one of the walkways in the office area, she entered a small room with a desk and several computer monitors. "Here it is. What do you think?"
Before either of the boys could respond, a man rushed into the doorway. "Hey, Laura, I had a couple questions for you if you—" He stopped upon noticing the boys. "Oh, who are these young men?
"My son, Malcolm, and his friend, Curtis."
The man smiled and held out his hand to Curtis. "So nice meeting you, Malcolm. I'm Clark. Laura talks about you all the time."
Curtis just stared in bewilderment at the man's proffered hand before realization dawned on him, a mischievous smile slowly uncurling on his face. He then shook the man's hand. "Yep, that's me. Malcolm Sanders. The one and only."
"Oh no, he's my son's friend. Malcolm here is my son," Mrs. Sanders corrected, rushing over to Malcolm's side and giving his shoulder a squeeze.
Heat entered Malcolm's cheeks at the misunderstanding, but it was nothing compared to the beet red color overtaking Clark's face. Clark shifted his gaze back and forth between the fair-skinned Mrs. Sanders and her brown-complexioned son and sputtered, "O-oh goodness, I'm so sorry—I...I didn't realize..." He stared at Malcolm, flustered. "I just assumed...I mean...I didn't know you were adopted—"
"I'm not adopted," Malcolm protested. Clark looked ready for death at the statement. Meanwhile, Curtis had covered his mouth with his hands and shook from trying to contain his laughter while Malcolm glanced around the room for a means to escape; there were none.
Mrs. Sanders coughed awkwardly and Clark sheepishly excused himself; whatever he had wanted to ask Malcolm's mom seemed forgotten in the wake of his blunder. She grimaced. "Well...uh...I should probably get to work...I'll lead you guys back to the front lobby."
"Anything you say, mom," Curtis replied, and Malcolm's mom gave a short laugh.
"Oh, listen to you." She ruffled his hair. "You can be my honorary son, how about that?" He smiled cheekily and she beckoned the boys out of her office.
Malcolm turned the page of his notebook and scribbled down a problem. Once solved, he continued writing down problems from his calculus textbook, but his pencil halted as he watched Curtis bite his lip in frustration. A moment later, the brown-haired boy scowled and his pencil became a blur as he erased the messy notes on his notebook. Clearing his throat, Malcolm asked, "Do you...um...need some help?"
"Yes." Curtis angrily flung his pencil down on top of his notebook. "I've been working on this stupid fucking problem for the past ten minutes and I keep getting the wrong fucking answer. Either that or this fucking book is wrong."
Malcolm held up his hands defensively. "Okay, okay, calm down. Let me take a look." He picked up Curtis' notebook, examining what was left of the boy's work after his furious bout of erasing. He then glanced at the problem listed in the textbook. Eyes widening in understanding, he quickly worked it out. After checking the listed answers in the back of the book, he grinned in satisfaction and showed the notebook to Curtis. "So here's your problem. The square is outside of the parenthesis, meaning you have to FOIL it. You weren't doing that, which is why you kept getting the wrong answer."
Frowning, Curtis let out a soft "oh" and then glared at the algebra textbook. "God, I hate math."
Malcolm gave a sympathetic smile. "You were doing the problem right besides that. And it's a hard thing to keep straight. Don't get discouraged," he said, giving a thumbs up.
Curtis rolled his eyes, but a small smile showed at the corners of his mouth. "Thanks. That was the last problem I had to do for tomorrow, so I guess I'm done." He shut his book and pulled out his phone while Malcolm worked through the last of his calculus homework. Once finished, he figured it was time for a break and leaned back in his chair, glancing over as Curtis let out a sigh and said, "I don't know the password to the Wi-Fi."
"Ask Sheila when she comes back."
The other boy scowled. "She's been gone for like half an hour. Who knows how long it'll be before she comes back." He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "I am so fucking bored."
Malcolm glanced down at his phone. "I would set up a hot spot, but I'm pretty much out of data."
"Eh, whatever." Standing up, Curtis stretched and said, "I saw a soda machine in one of the hallways we came through to get here. I'm going to get something." Malcolm decided he wanted one as well, so the two headed out of the waiting room and meandered down a couple hallways.
After a minute, Malcolm gave Curtis a worried look, questioning, "Are you sure this is the right way?"
Pursing his lips in frustration, Curtis stopped to get his bearings. "Pretty sure. Wait...maybe it was that way." The two then headed down another hallway to no avail.
Malcolm began to feel antsy as their lack of direction grew more apparent, the faint sense of not belonging causing his palms to sweat. "How about we call it quits now and head back? I don't want to get lost."
"There's maps everywhere, we won't get lost," Curtis said. His face suddenly split into his impressive grin. "And besides, this is the perfect opportunity. Why don't we explore the place?"
"You heard me. Who knows when we'll be able to come back here; there's probably some really neat stuff to be found."
Malcolm frowned. "I'm sure I could ask my mom to give us a tour in the future when she's not so busy."
"Ok, but listen," Curtis insisted, "she's only going to show us the pre-approved places. Here, we can look wherever. I don't want to wait for the future when we can just go right now."
"Curtis, no. What if they think we're up to something?"
"But we're not, we're just looking around."
"They don't know that!" Malcolm exclaimed, suddenly shrinking at his outburst. "Sorry...I just...really don't want to..."
Curtis sighed heavily and glowered at the floor. "Fine. We'll go back. Even though we still have like two hours to kill."
The two began to head back the way they had come, Curtis trudging behind Malcolm, obviously discouraged. Malcolm, however, felt relief that Curtis had acquiesced. "We're almost there," he said. No response came and he frowned. "Curtis?" Spinning around, he found his companion no longer there. Annoyance welled up inside of him and he backtracked, turning a corner and spotting Curtis looking into what appeared to be a closet. "Hey, what are you doing!" he yelled, running up to scold his friend.
Curtis' devious smile was back when Malcolm stopped next to him. "Check it out! Lab coats!" Malcolm blinked at the array of white material hanging before them. "We can use these to blend in. Then we can go look around wherever."
"No, come on. Stop being such a pussy for once. We'll put them back once we're done. We just gotta keep track of time."
Staring at his friend, Malcolm noted the determined expression on Curtis' face: tense lips and fiery eyes that seemed to bore into Malcolm's own. His defiance shriveled and he drooped, sighing. "Alright. But then we put them back and go back to the waiting room."
Curtis let out a 'whoop' and pumped his fist in the air. "Fuck yeah! Alright, let's do this!" They each grabbed a lab coat (Curtis was practically swimming in his, but they couldn't find any smaller sizes much to the short boy's frustration) and once dressed, they took off exploring.
Pretty soon, it became apparent they had left the managerial and human resources section and entered ones centered around science. White coat-clad individuals strode past them, most too absorbed in phone calls or clipboards to notice the high school boys. They walked by rooms with lab equipment—chemistry tables and strange apparatuses set up to perform experiments—pausing every once in a while to glance inside. Most had at least one or two people within them, so the two would keep walking and didn't enter.
Curtis looked like a kid in a candy store and seemed to soak up every sight the Lab could offer, and even Malcolm found himself feeling intrigued by the work occurring. "What do you think they're doing?" he asked his friend after they passed by a room with a large Tesla coil.
"Who knows. All I know is that it looks more interesting than my freaking job at Wendy's," Curtis replied. Malcolm nodded; he was well aware of Curtis' distaste for the chain and most fast food in general. Grimacing, Curtis said, "Did I tell you about what happened last night at work?"
Curtis gave a long, dramatic sigh. "Hoo boy. So this lady came back to the drive-thru window after picking up her food to complain because there was bacon...on her baconator." Curtis looked off to the side with a deadpan expression and Malcolm almost doubled over in laughter. "Not only that, some guys came by at like one-thirty in the morning and were so high it took them ten minutes to order. I wanted to just freaking beat the shit out of them after the five-minute mark."
Malcolm wiped his eyes, still chuckling. "So now I know what I need to do the next time I go to Wendy's."
Giving him a withering look, Curtis said, "You pull that shit, I'll kick your ass."
"I don't know, I think I could take you." As the words left his mouth, Malcolm felt a small stab of anxiety at Curtis' reaction to his comment; the shorter boy's eyebrows creased and he set his mouth in a hard, straight line. An apology was about to force its way out when Curtis suddenly grinned deviously and punched Malcolm in the shoulder.
"Ow, that hurt," Malcolm laughed, rubbing the sore spot.
"Hey, talk shit, get hit."
"Poop." Malcolm stuck his tongue out and cracked up at the look of mock offense on Curtis' face.
"Alright then," Curtis said dramatically, "that's unforgivable. Looks like the only way out of this is a fight to the death, mano y mano, battle royale."
"Are weapons allowed?"
"Nope." Curtis puffed out his small chest. "We fight like men!"
Malcolm laughed again and Curtis smiled in reciprocation of his friend's amusement, apparently equally pleased at the exchange. A sly smile formed on Malcolm's face as he thought of another retort, but Curtis pointed ahead before he could say anything. "Hey, there's an elevator. We should go down a floor."
Malcolm hesitated, but at the look on Curtis' face, he relented almost immediately. They entered the elevator and made their way down, continuing their exploration; once satisfied with that level, they went down another. This continued for a couple more floors until the two found themselves in a mostly deserted section, where they decided this would be the last level before heading back.
As they strolled through a rather spacious corridor, Curtis stated, "Man, there is no one freaking here. Why have so much space?"
"My mom says people from other facilities come to visit all the time. Maybe this is a high traffic area when that happens."
Curtis didn't appear entirely convinced but didn't push the topic any farther; his interest had already moved onto something else. "Hey, look over there."
At the end of the corridor, a large steel door labeled "RESTRICTED AREA" stood resolutely. A scanner for a key card sat next to the handle, a red light currently illuminating its interface. They inspected the area for a moment before moving on, both wondering what projects might be underway through its doors.
Eventually, the two felt content with their exploration and decided to head back. As they were walking, Curtis stopped Malcolm. "Hey, I gotta go to the bathroom. Wait up when I find one."
Malcolm nodded and Curtis entered the next restroom the two found, right as a rather distracted-looking employee left. Shifting his weight from foot to foot while he waited for Curtis, Malcolm almost jumped when he reappeared.
"Check it out," Curtis said, holding out an ID with a picture looking quite similar to the employee who had left the bathroom earlier. "I found it on the sink. Somebody must have left it there."
Malcolm's eyes went wide. "We have to take it to the Lost and Found or something. That guy is probably missing it!"
Curtis didn't look quite as alarmed as Malcolm and shoved the item in his lab coat pocket. "Yeah, yeah, we will. Now come on, let's head back." The two continued walking through the corridors and, after turning a bend, once more arrived at the Restricted Area. The two began to pass it by when Curtis—eyes lit up with curiosity—pulled the ID out of his pocket and scanned it. A green light appeared on the interface and a click could be heard as the pistons released, unlocking the door.
Curtis' mouth fell open. "Holy shit, we have access!" Face splitting into a grin, he turned to face Malcolm, practically radiating excitement. "Can you believe this? We hit the motherload!"
Malcolm gawked at him. "Are you crazy? We can't go in there! I don't even know if we're allowed to be wandering around out here!"
At this, Curtis' expression turned pleading. "Malcolm, come on. Just a few minutes; if somebody points out we're not supposed to be there, we'll just apologize, say we got lost, and turn the ID in. If nobody does notice—which is what's happened so far—we'll look around, leave, and then turn the ID in. Whatever happens, the ID gets back to its rightful owner and we'll also probably get to see some really cool shit."
Malcolm shook his head. "Curtis, this is a bad idea. I don't want to get in trouble. Let's just go back to the waiting room, okay?"
"You are such a freaking chicken. I already pointed out that whatever happens, we'll be okay."
"You don't know that for certain!"
"No, I don't! But you know how many things might go wrong in life, Malcolm? A lot!" Curtis glared at Malcolm, crossing his arms. "Stop freaking cowering in your little bubble about everything; this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right here and you're crying about getting into trouble like a fucking kindergartener. I'm surprised you even agreed to the medical symposium with Reeder when you're such a big fucking baby!" He mockingly raised his hands in a cowering position. "Watch out, Malcolm, you could get lost on the Clarksville campus. Wouldn't want that!"
Malcolm clenched his jaw at the shorter boy's tirade, staring him down. Curtis glared right back, never breaking eye contact, and Malcolm could almost feel the resolve leave him like a balloon releasing its air as he realized Curtis wasn't backing down. He drooped, nodding his head. "Okay...a few minutes at the most..."
Curtis rolled his eyes, shaking his head in annoyance. "God, you are so fucking ridiculous." He opened the door and the two stepped inside. A security guard sat behind a window close to the entrance, but he merely glanced up at the boys as they entered and then continued looking at a monitor. The two began walking and Malcolm noted that the area didn't really seem any different from the rest of the facility.
After they were out of sight of the guard, Curtis jerked his thumb back in that direction. "Man, who did they hire, Paul Blart or something? That guy isn't making employee of the month anytime soon." Malcolm involuntarily snorted, quickly covering his mouth, and Curtis smirked at the reaction. "See? You're having fun."
A minute later, the two came across a room without a window in the door. Large letters on its surface spelled out, "TOP SECRET: NO VIDEO SURVEILLANCE ALLOWED."
"Well, look at what we have here," Curtis mused, tapping his chin in intrigue. Malcolm glanced at him uneasily and Curtis gave him a devious smile. "Want to see what's inside?"
Malcolm let out a deep breath. "Curtis, no. I've given in to all your other requests, but I am going to stand firm on this one. We are not going in that room."
Shrugging dismissively, Curtis replied, "Suit yourself." To Malcolm's chagrin, he cracked the door open, glancing inside. "Hey, it's empty," he said and slipped into the room, letting the door close behind him.
Malcolm stared in disbelief at the closed door for a moment and then shook his head in exasperation. I can't believe I'm doing this, but who knows what that idiot is doing inside. Entering the room, he surveyed his surroundings. It looked like a typical chemistry lab, with titration machines set up on a few island stations, while a refrigerator hummed off to the side. He spotted Curtis standing in front of a large counter that stretched across the back of the room, two sinks built into either end of its expanse; the boy appeared engrossed with something on its surface and seemed oblivious to Malcolm's arrival.
Malcolm quickly hurried over to him and Curtis glanced up at him, a grin spreading across his face. "Knew you'd come inside eventually." A beaker filled with a light pink liquid sat in front of him, covered by a watch glass. Gesturing to it, he said, "This is the only thing that's out right now. They must have been working on it or something." He removed the watch glass to Malcolm's horror and held it up, inspecting the contents. "Doesn't look like much..."
"What the heck do you think you're doing!? Put it back and cover it up! That could be acid for all you know!" Malcolm shrieked, wringing his hands.
Curtis gave him a snide look. "I'm just holding it, will you chill?" Malcolm shook his head furiously and Curtis raised an eyebrow. "What, you afraid I'm going to drink it or something?" He jokingly imitated a sipping motion, tilting the beaker slightly in front of his face.
Malcolm just let out a horrified gasp in response. "Give that to me right now!" He grabbed at the beaker, trying to wrestle it from Curtis' grasp.
Grunting as Malcolm tried to remove his find, Curtis hissed, "Stop it! I was just about to put it back! Will you quit being so crazy and—" but he didn't finish his thought. Malcolm had forcefully tugged upward on the container, attempting to use his greater height to his advantage in obtaining it but had accidentally tipped it while doing so. This caused the contents to pour out over Curtis' face and through the gap between the loose lab coat and his clothes, completely soaking him. Both of them froze, Curtis' eyes wide in shock and Malcolm's face contorted in horror. The beaker crashed to the floor and shattered as Malcolm lost his grip, too stunned to hold it properly.
"You fucking spilled it on me! What the fuck, what the fuck, holy shit, you spilled the whole fucking thing on me!" Curtis accused hysterically, wiping his face with his sleeve.
Malcolm felt close to tears, nausea rising as the room seemed to spin. "I didn't mean to—oh God, I'm sorry..."
"You should be, you stupid fuck!" Curtis screeched.
A knock on the lab door interrupted them and they heard a male voice call out, "Everything okay in here? I heard some yelling."
Whirling to face Malcolm, panic overtook Curtis' face and he whispered, "We gotta get out of here. Come on!" The two raced for a door set on the other side of the room just as they heard the main door to the lab creak open.
They ran through what appeared to be storerooms, others containing machines like autoclaves and centrifuges, before managing to make it back to the main hallway of the Restricted Area. Exiting it immediately, they headed back up to the main floor, stashing the lab coats in the closet and leaving the ID at a random table in the building, hoping someone would find it. They then headed to a restroom right outside of the waiting room, where Curtis used the automatic hand dryer to try to dry his clothes.
"I am so sorry about that," Malcolm murmured, eyes downcast.
Curtis frowned, feeling his shirt for moisture. "It's whatever. I'm not in any kind of pain and at least this stuff seems to be drying okay." He glanced down. "I think some of it soaked into my skin because I was a lot less wet coming in here than when we were walking through the building."
"Huh..." Malcolm gave him a worried look. "And you're sure you feel fine."
Curtis nodded. "Yeah. I'm a little hungry, but that's to be expected seeing how I didn't eat much at lunch."
Looking away again while lost in thought, Malcolm said slowly, "You know...it might have been a Ringer's solution or something. Lots of labs use it as a diluent because it's so stable and safe. It would explain why the stuff was just sitting out and not being refrigerated or anything."
Curtis nodded, also somewhat lost in thought. "Yeah, that's gotta be it. Whatever you just said."
Having finished cleaning up, the two re-entered the waiting room, where Sheila once again sat behind the desk. She breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing them. "Oh, thank goodness! I got back about five minutes ago and was so worried when you guys weren't here. I was just about to call your mom, Malcolm." Her voice took on an apologetic tone. "I'm so sorry I was gone for so long. Records needed help and it took way longer than I thought it would."
The pair told her it was okay and continued working on homework, never once mentioning their adventure in the lab.
The red Subaru parked on the side of the street and the group straggled into Malcolm's house. Outside, the sun had mostly set, casting the landscape almost entirely in shadow and forming a stark contrast to the warmly lit interior of the Sanders' residence.
Upon entering the house, Mr. Sanders—who had changed from his work attire into a comfortable pair of jeans and a T-shirt—greeted everyone. Afterward, Mrs. Sanders then turned to address the boys. "I'm going to cook dinner. You guys can do homework or goof off and I'll you call you when it's ready." They nodded at this and headed upstairs to Malcolm's room.
"Can I watch the new Steins;Gate on your laptop?" Curtis asked hopefully. Malcolm typed in his password and handed the computer to him, then unzipped his backpack. He still had a good deal of homework to do before the night was over.
The two engaged in their respective activities for a while—Malcolm with his brow furrowed in concentration and Curtis engrossed in the computer screen—when Curtis gave Malcolm a somewhat anxious look. "Do you know how much longer it will be before dinner is ready? I'm practically starving—like hunger pains starving."
"I can go ask her," he replied and left his bedroom. When he entered the kitchen, he gave Curtis' inquiry.
Stirring a large pot on the stove, his mom looked over and said, "Actually, it's about ready now. You can go tell him and then will you please set the dining room table?" Malcolm nodded and relayed the message to Curtis (who came bounding down the stairs eagerly) and then went about setting plates, glasses, forks, and napkins into four spots on the table.
Once the table had been set, Mr. Sanders, Malcolm, and Curtis milled about, asking what they could do to help (Mrs. Sanders always replied, "Keep out of the way!") and then sat down as she brought in the large pot. "Beef stroganoff! And there's plenty, so everybody dig in!" She dished everyone out a portion and then came back with green beans and rolls to use as side dishes.
The group made small talk about their day as they ate, Cooper punctuating the conversation with a whine from his crate every once in a while. After a few minutes of this, Mrs. Sanders wiped her mouth with a napkin and smiled at her husband. "Travis, will you please put Cooper in the backyard? I'm getting a little tired of hearing him." Mr. Sanders complied and when he returned, the only sounds were the occasional scrape of a fork on a plate along with conversation.
For the first part of the meal, Malcolm ate in contentment, savoring the rich flavor of the stroganoff. However, his mood changed once he glanced over at Curtis. The smaller boy wolfed down his plate, green beans and roll included, and then dished up an enormous portion for seconds. Soon, that had been demolished as well and he was going back for thirds.
Malcolm's parents also shared his observation and stared on in amazement. "Dang boy, you're giving me a run for my money," Mr. Sanders teased as Curtis polished off his third plate.
Curtis suddenly looked sheepish. "Sorry, guess I was a lot hungrier than I realized."
Mrs. Sanders laughed and shook her head. "It's fine; eat as much as you want. We're just not used to seeing you with this kind of an appetite." She glanced into the pot and let out a small noise of surprise. "I was thinking I would have enough for another meal, but now I'm not so sure we'll have any leftovers at all!"
Sinking into his chair slightly, Curtis rubbed the back of his neck. "Oh...um...sorry..."
"It's okay!" she exclaimed. Noticing his somewhat withdrawn state, she asked, "Do you want more? Dish yourself up, I told you that you could have as much as you want."
Curtis murmured a "thank you" and then spooned another enormous serving onto his plate, tearing into it with gusto.
Malcolm watched him uneasily, feeling his own appetite start to wane. It had been true that Curtis hadn't eaten that much at lunch, even for him, but this...this was a little excessive.
When everyone had finished eating, Mrs. Sanders brought out leftover birthday cake and ice cream for dessert. Curtis once again ate several helpings, to which Malcolm's parents gave each other looks of bewildered incredulity while Malcolm felt his stomach sink into his feet. Afterward, everyone pitched in with dishes and soon Malcolm found himself waving goodbye to Curtis from his front door.
He then joined his parents in the kitchen. As soon as he entered, his dad shook his head in amazement and said, "Did that kid run a marathon today or something? Jesus, I don't think I ate that much even back when I ran track."
Malcolm just gave a forced smile and then excused himself to his room. He had a lot to think about.