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, he switched out his books and stashed his backpack 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 next period to begin.
With ten minutes before lunch, he 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 he jumped to his feet, making a beeline for the lunchroom. 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 he had started.
As they were eating, Malcolm noticed that the table for nominations had been converted into a voting area. Apparently, the candidates were finalized; 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.
An electronic squeal distracted him, and he glanced at the front of the lunchroom, where an Asian boy with shaggy hair and glasses stood. He held a wireless microphone and waved 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, he wiped his mouth and shook 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?"
He 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's cheeks flushed, but he accepted the plate, nevertheless. 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 water flow?" Malcolm raised his hand and he nodded. "Malcolm?"
"It will 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. He clapped his hands together. "All right, that's time. I think we're done with solubility and osmolarity. Tomorrow's lab is going to be over partial pressures; please read over your pre-lab hand-outs. Also, I have a video at the end! So look forward to that."
Everyone stood up as he finished, the volume rapidly rising in the room as the start of conversations combined with the noise of packing filled the air. Malcolm ignored it, focusing on his own supplies. However, as he 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 you speak up more in class now."
Malcolm beamed at the compliment. "Thank you, sir," he replied, to which the teacher smiled in return.
Clearing his throat, Dr. Reeder then 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 him, his eyes lighting up behind his glasses. "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 him to shake. "All right, 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 running a thousand miles an hour. A medical symposium! And Reeder had picked him! He grinned all the way down the hall, 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.
He 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. "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, the device vibrated with a new text; he glanced at the message and hopped off the wall. "She just pulled in. Let's go."
A moment later, both of them were trekking over to the high school parking lot, where they spotted a red Subaru displaying several bumper stickers—My Child is on the Honor Roll, a Jesus Fish, Black Lives Matter—and headed over.
"How was school today, guys?" Malcolm's mom asked as the boys stashed their backpacks in the trunk. Malcolm excitedly relayed the news about Dr. Reeder and the medical symposium, and her 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, with flowerbeds sprinkled in careful patterns around its 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 first 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. He listened attentively as she rattled off various facts about the place, including information about her role (something to do with overseeing projects to help 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?"
His 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 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 them. "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 proffered hand. Suddenly, realization dawned in his eyes and a mischievous smile uncurled on his face. He shook the outstretched hand. "Yep, that's me. Malcolm Sanders. The one and only."
"Oh no, he's my son's friend. Malcolm here is my son," his mom corrected, rushing over to Malcolm's side and giving his shoulder a squeeze.
Heat entered his cheeks at the misunderstanding, but it was nothing compared to the beet red color overtaking Clark's face. He shifted his gaze back and forth between the fair-skinned woman and brown-complexioned Malcolm, sputtering, "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," he protested. Clark looked ready for death at the statement. Off to the side, Curtis had covered his mouth with his hands. He shook from trying to contain his laughter while Malcolm glanced around the room for a means to escape; there were none.
His mom coughed awkwardly and Clark sheepishly excused himself; whatever he had wanted to ask her 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 she 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 copying from his calculus textbook, but his pencil halted as he watched Curtis bite his lip in frustration. A moment later, the 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 his work after his furious bout of erasing. He then glanced at the problem listed in the textbook. Immediately, comprehension clicked and he quickly worked it out. After checking the listed answers in the back of the book, he grinned 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 hopped to his feet. "I'm gonna go to the bathroom. See ya." Malcolm nodded and he left.
A minute later, he returned, grinning to himself. Malcolm briefly wondered at the expression, but after Curtis pulled out his phone, he mentally shrugged and continued working through the last of his calculus homework. Upon finishing, he figured it was time for a break and leaned back in his chair. A sigh went up next to him, and he glanced over as Curtis said, "I don't know the password to the Wi-Fi."
"Ask Sheila when she comes back."
Curtis 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 his companion a worried look, questioning, "Are you sure this is the right way?"
Pursing his lips, Curtis stopped. "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 making his palms 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, then immediately shrank at his outburst. "Sorry...I just...really don't want to..."
Curtis sighed heavily, glowering 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 he had acquiesced. "We're almost there," he said. No response came and he frowned. "Curtis?" Spinning around, he found his companion no longer present. 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 his side.
The boy's devious smile was back when he 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 couldn't help but grimace at the determined expression on Curtis' face: tense lips and fiery eyes that seemed to bore into his own. His defiance shriveled and he drooped, sighing. "All right. 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! All right, 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, while rooms with lab equipment—chemistry tables and strange apparatuses set up to perform experiments—seemed about a dime a dozen. The boys paused every once in a while to glance inside these areas, but as most had at least one or two people within, 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 Sandy's," Curtis replied. Malcolm just nodded in return; he was well aware of the guy's distaste for the chain and most fast food in general. Grimacing, Curtis said, "Did I tell you about what happened last night at work?"
He 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 bacon burger." He 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 Sandy'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, he felt a small stab of anxiety at Curtis' reaction; his 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 him in the shoulder.
"Ow, that hurt," he laughed, rubbing the sore spot.
"Hey, talk shit, get hit."
"Poop." He stuck his tongue out and cracked up at the look of mock offense on Curtis' face.
"All right 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!"
Again, Malcolm laughed while Curtis smiled in reciprocation, playfully holding up his fists. 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."
He hesitated, but at the look on Curtis' face, he relented 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. Wider than the other doors in the area, a scanner for a key card sat next to its handle, a red light currently illuminating the interface. For some reason, it held a commanding presence, and the pair approached it in an almost reverent manner. Whispering excitedly to each other, they wondered about the possible projects beyond its barrier. It left such an impression that even after they moved away they both glanced backwards several times.
Unlike the Restricted Area, nothing new presented itself as the pair walked through the rest of the level, and Malcolm began to get tired of the monotonous gray walls. Curtis kept insisting they go further and he grudgingly followed, counting the tiles on the floor.
Eventually, even Curtis seemed content with their exploration, and they decided to head back. As they neared the elevator, a faint sense of relief welled up inside of Malcolm; despite finding the majority of the adventure interesting, he was glad to be done. Soon, he would be back in his seat in the waiting room and no one would be the wiser.
The two continued walking through the corridors and, after turning a bend, once more arrived at the Restricted Area. They began to pass it by when Curtis—eyes lit up with curiosity—pulled an 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 just gawked at him. "What...where the heck did you get that!?"
He shrugged coyly. "When I went to the bathroom earlier, I found it lying next to the sink. I figured it might be a key card for a door, so I kept it."
Sputtering uselessly, Malcolm took a couple deep breaths before hissing, "Are you crazy!? You took it!"
"I was going to give it to the Lost and Found! Just…you know…after I tested it out." Curtis jerked his head at the door. "So are you coming or not?"
Malcolm gawked at him again. "No! 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."
He 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 him, 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 his tirade, staring him down. Curtis glared right back, never breaking eye contact, and Malcolm could feel the resolve leave him like a balloon releasing its air as he realized his opponent wasn't backing down. Drooping, he nodded 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 pair 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. Malcolm glanced at him uneasily as he flashed a devious smile. "Want to see what's inside?"
He 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 just stared in disbelief at the closed door before shaking 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—engrossed with some unseen object—standing in front of a large counter that stretched across the back of the room and immediately frowned.
Quickly, he hurried over and Curtis glanced up, 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 he raised an eyebrow. "What, you afraid I'm going to drink it or something?" He jokingly imitated a sipping motion, tilting the beaker 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.
Struggling to keep 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. Unfortunately, however, he 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 widened in shock while Malcolm's face contorted in horror. The beaker crashed to the floor and shattered as he 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 screeched, wiping his face with his sleeve.
Malcolm was close to tears, his nausea rising as the room seemed to spin. "I didn't mean to—oh God, I'm sorry..."
"You should be, you stupid fuck!"
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 as 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 one 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 and stashed the lab coats in the closet, then left the ID at a random table in the building, where they hoped someone would find it. Eventually, they stopped at a restroom outside of the waiting area for Curtis to use the automatic hand dryer on his wet clothes.
"I am so sorry about that," Malcolm murmured after a few minutes. He kept his eyes trained on the floor, a lump still present in his throat.
Curtis frowned in response, 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."
"Huh..." Malcolm gave him a worried look. "And you're sure you feel fine."
He nodded. "Yeah. I'm a little hungry, but that's to be expected seeing how I didn't eat much at lunch."
Lost in thought, Malcolm looked away as he 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, 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 hatchback 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, as opposed to the warmly lit interior of the Sanders' residence.
Upon entering the house, Malcolm's dad—who had changed from his work attire into a comfortable pair of jeans and a T-shirt—greeted everyone with either a hug or a high five. Afterward, his mom 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 RWBYon 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— Curtis engrossed with the computer screen and Malcolm with his textbooks—when Curtis gave him 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, setting his book down and walking out of 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?" He 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 it had been set, him, his dad, and Curtis milled about, asking what they could do to help (his mom 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 as they ate, Cooper punctuating the conversation with a whine from his crate every once in a while, along with the occasional scrape of a fork on a plate. Malcolm ate in contentment at first, 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," his dad teased as Curtis polished off his third plate.
He suddenly looked sheepish. "Sorry, guess I was a lot hungrier than I realized."
Malcolm's mom 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."
He murmured a "thank you" and then spooned another enormous serving onto his plate, tearing into it with gusto.
Malcolm watched him uneasily from across the table, his own appetite starting 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, his mom 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 his stomach sank into his feet. Afterward, everyone pitched in with dishes, and soon, he 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 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.