Chapter 2:

Its sound effect starts with a Q!

For the Love of Research!

My mind whirled in every direction. Think, Max. What am I passionate about that’s bound to impress Carol? I have tons of hobbies, but which one stands out? Ending world hunger? Achieving world peace? What about the time I built my own telescope? That’s got to count for something?!

“I…” Carol’s face loomed before me, and she looked eager, almost predatory, as she encouraged.

“Yes? What is it, Max? You don’t have to be afraid. I promise there’s no judging allowed in the Research Club. All forms of study are welcome!”

“I… I like animals?” Carol stared at me, tilting her head to the side until I was sure I could hear her neck creak as her grin grew.

“Animals? Do you want to be a vet or study them in the wild?”

Was that the correct answer? How can she stand to keep her head like that? I licked my lips and focused on the table. “Um… Both? I want to help all kinds of creatures”-

“Fascinating! Which biome do you want to focus on?”

“Um…” I looked around until I could see the lake and blurted, “Water! I like learning about the water!”

Carol’s grin almost broke her face in half as she whispered. “Is that so?”

“Y-yeah. I love the water. I used to go fishing with my dad all the time!” Is that going to count against me? Can one consider fishing to be something that needs to be researched? Carol moved closer until I could feel her breath on my neck before finally moving her head to a more natural position and grabbing my hands.

“You’re perfect! Welcome to the Research Club, my dear Max!” I blinked, barely able to process Carol’s words, before she pulled me into a suffocating hug. “Oh, we are going to have so much fun! Wait till the others get here! You will be the new brains of our success. I guarantee it!”

Rake’s voice sounded close to my ear. “Hey, Carol? You need to let go. Max is turning blue, and we can’t use the time-skipper-peeter anymore.”

Carol released me with a squeak. I staggered backward, feeling Rake grab my arm to help me stand. “Are you ok, Max? Sorry about our crazy president. She means well. She’s just… enthusiastic.”

I coughed, nodding more to encourage them to change the subject than in agreement. Koneko Academy has six grades. If I’m right about their ages, I need to get along with them for at least three years. A few hugs like that are nothing when it comes to my goals! Carol hopped off the table, snapping her fingers again to dismiss the lights as she smiled sheepishly.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you, Max. It’s just… You have no idea how happy you just made me. It’s like fate has brought us together! You’re perfect for this club! Absolutely perfect!” I rubbed my sides as Carol clasped her hands under her chin as she spun around, saying, “Perfect!” I didn’t want to appear ungrateful, but I had to ask Rake.

“Is she always like this?” Rake laughed. A sweat drop rolled down his neck as we watched our president continue spinning.

“Believe it or not, she can get a lot worse. If we don’t stick to our deadlines on top of our homework, Carol will pull all-nighters to ensure our club doesn’t fall behind. She invented a spell to trick her body into thinking she drank eight cups of coffee…” Rake shuddered. “It wasn’t pretty. Carol is the type to push herself even when the rest of us are prepared to call it a day. I understand she seems a bit much, but this club barely existed without her.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t the Research Club one of Koneko Academy's treasures? I thought it was the first club the academy approved?”

“It was and is. But our last president wasn’t the best. And our rival club keeps outdoing us. Do you know about them?”

Of course I do. You can’t look up information on Koneko Academy without looking at all of the clubs! But how much should I reveal? “You mean the Discovery Club, right? I thought they were listed as the third-highest-ranked in the academy. Did something happen?”

Rake sighed and looked at me. “Will you accept the short version? The others should be here soon, and Carol really hates it when they’re brought up.”

I nodded, eager to hear what he had to say… And meet the other members. I wonder how many there are? The Scrollsite said the Research Club had over a thousand members last year. Is that why Carol wanted to meet outside? I wonder how they coordinate meetings with so many people.

Rake rubbed the back of his head, keeping his face turned in Carol’s direction as he began. “Here’s the thing, Max. The Scrollsite isn’t the best source of information. Discovery Club and the Research Club technically do a lot of the same kinds of activities… It makes for a good rivalry, you know? But last year. The president of Discovery Club decided to change the game on us…”

Carol let out an excited squeal, “There you are! Where have you been? We have a new recruit that you must meet!”

I turned, seeing two upperclassmen approach Carol, but neither looked pleased to see her. I watched as they handed Carol an envelope, and the one on the right, a boy with curly black hair and an attempt to grow a beard, said, “Sorry about this, Carol. But Krystal and I are leaving the club.”

Krystal nodded but stayed quiet, not taking her eyes off the ground after giving Carol her envelope. Carol shook her head. “I don’t understand. The school year has just started! You two were excited to come back to the club. What changed?”

The boy gulped, turning to Rake for help, but Rake only folded his arms and said in a bored tone. “Let me guess. Zane again? I didn’t think you were the type to cave to pressure, Paul. I thought we agreed to keep the club going as long as possible?”

Paul scowled, shoving his hands in his pockets as he returned Rake’s stare. “Things changed, Rake. I know this puts you two in a bad spot, but it’s not like the world is ending. You’ll still see Krystal and me in the halls… We even share some classes. Everything will be fine…”

I frowned, not trusting myself to speak as I looked from one upperclassman to the next. Shouldn’t more people be arriving? If I remember right, then Zane is the name of the Discovery Club’s president. But why would Rake think he’s involved with their leaving the Research Club? Are they part of the Summer Studies Program?

Carol clutched the envelopes to her chest and smiled. “Are you sure about this? There’ll always be a place for you here. You know that, right?”

Krystal smiled, relief mixing with her guilt as she nodded. “Of course, we know that! We’re still going to be friends, Carol. This doesn’t have to change anything!”

Does it? I can understand why Carol is upset, but Rake is… What is he doing? Rake put his arm around me, keeping me tucked between his side and the table. I’ve never been a touchy-feely kind of person, but his grip didn’t feel like a hug. It felt like a warning. Paul stared at us, but I couldn’t tell how he was feeling.

Maybe I should’ve taken that empath-appreciation class. This doesn’t make any sense, and I still don’t know what the project is. Carol put the envelopes on the table, still grinning, but I could see she was shaking. Paul looked ashamed as he reached for her arm. “Carol, I…”

“It’s ok.” Carol patted his shoulder and shrugged. “These things happen. They happen all the time. We’ll still see each other… I’m sad to see you go, but this isn’t farewell… Will we… see you at the festival?”

Paul shook his head as Krystal looked away. Carol nodded encouragingly as they turned away. “Good luck, you two. Don’t be strangers. I look forward to seeing you in class!”

“You too, Carol…” Krystal met my gaze and offered a small wave. “Good luck. Don’t let them push you around. Rake likes to act mature, but he’s as bad as Carol when it comes to deadlines.”

Rake snorted, still keeping his arm around me. “Stop trying to scare our newbie away, Krystal. Carol has already approved their paperwork. This little freshman is ours now!”

Everyone laughed, but it didn’t last long as Paul and Krystal disappeared from view. I looked between them for a few moments before asking. “Are we… waiting for more people? We’ve been here for a while…”

Clubs are supposed to end an hour before dinner. How long have we been here, and when is the meeting going to start?!