"Out of my way! Coming through!"
The busy sidewalks of Pasadena were in an uproar as Josh Mosley sped by on his skateboard. People were jumping out of the way and flattening themselves against nearby buildings to avoid being run over, but Josh paid them no heed, remaining completely focused on arriving at his destination. He was supposed to meet up with his friends at the central park, and he was running late.
"This is ridiculous," Josh complained. Taking his eyes off the road for a moment, he looked down at his wristwatch to check the time. "Ten-forty. Oh, great … I'm fifteen minutes late. No thanks to Mr. Morris!"
Dodging another pedestrian in his way, Josh mentally cursed his boss for keeping him past his shift. Ill-tempered Mr. Morris would often keep his workers overtime without a good reason. Josh regretted making arrangements to meet his friends only ten minutes after he was supposed to get off from work. He should've figured that Mr. Morris would take his anger out on him … again.
"Watch out!" a bystander on the other side of the street suddenly yelled at him.
"Huh?" Josh glanced over his shoulder questioningly. When he saw everybody pointing to something in front of him, he looked, only to find himself mere feet away from crashing into a little girl standing in the middle of the sidewalk. His reflexes kicking in, Josh swerved to the left and nearly smacked into the front door of a post office, but he managed to avoid hitting the child. He sighed in relief and muttered under his breath, "That was close!"
Perhaps he had spoken too soon. Because almost immediately after he said that, he ran over a pothole and one of the wheels caught in the rut. Josh, unprepared for the unexpected and abrupt stop that followed, was sent flying off his skateboard, only to land painfully on a blue wooden bench located next to a bus stop. And as if to add insult to injury, he heard somebody close by laughing at his misfortune. When Josh raised his head to search for the offending person, he found himself face to face with a college-age woman who was sitting on the same bench that he had crashed into.
He was quick to realize that she was the one laughing at him. Not in the mood to be laughed at, Josh growled, "It's not funny!"
Apparently, she didn't share the same thoughts. A foolish grin on her face and amusement dancing in her blue eyes, the young woman remarked to him, "Oh! That had to hurt!"
"No … you think?" he retorted, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Why don't you try it out and see how much fun it really is?"
"But why would I want to do that? It's so much more entertaining to watch people like you make yourselves look stupid," she replied calmly with a hint of laughter hidden beneath her words.
"People like me?" Josh repeated indignantly. "And what is that supposed to mean? Are you calling me an idiot?"
A gleeful giggle escaped her lips and she chirped in response, "Now when did I say that, huh?"
Scowling at the callous comment, Josh crossed his arms resentfully and turned his back on her. "You know what, I'm not going to bother with this," he mumbled, striding over to his skateboard and picking it up. "I am so out of here."
The young lady burst into hysterics when Josh accidentally walked into a parking meter and drew back sharply with a yelp. "See you later, clumsy boy!" she sang.
"Well, you had better hope not, because I won't be so nice about it next time!" Josh hissed under his breath angrily. Feeling slightly unnerved by the strange looks that the other spectators were giving him, he stormed away from the crowd in a huff. But as soon as he was sure that nobody was watching, Josh gingerly massaged his throbbing throat, where the parking meter had struck him.
Despite the pain that his unintentional crash-landing had left him in, there was another concern that tugged at Josh from the back of his mind. But he couldn't pinpoint the cause of his uneasiness. He didn't know why, but Josh had a strange feeling that something unexplainable was going to happen. And it was going to happen soon.
He quickly shook that thought away and reminded himself that he lived in Pasadena, California. Although his hometown was a bustling, busy city with many places of interest, Josh felt that daily life in Pasadena wasn't very unpredictable. And more importantly, it was safe. Nothing horrible ever happened there. He would know—Josh went out skateboarding on city sidewalks almost every day, and he had never encountered anything out of the ordinary. Why would that change now?
Satisfied for the moment with his reasoning, Josh picked up his pace and hurried the remaining two blocks to his destination. Stepping through the arch that marked the park entrance, he could only hope that his friends hadn't gotten bored of waiting for him and left already.
Alex Kanabe glared down impatiently at his digital wristwatch, the neon green numbers flashing back at him brightly, and threw himself against the trunk of a nearby oak tree. When he heard the sound of sneakers crunching against grass a few seconds later, his head shot up in the direction that the noise was coming from and he saw Josh Mosley walking uphill. His arms folded in front of his chest, Alex waited until his friend had come to a stop before saying in a flat voice, "You're late."
"Ridiculously late," Mike Guinn agreed with him and sent Josh a nasty look for his tardiness.
"Well, sorry," Josh grumbled to them, rolling his eyes at the sky and not sounding the least bit apologetic. "But I couldn't help being late. It was a matter completely out of my control."
"Yeah … right!" Dustin Barton shot back in response. "So what happened this time, hm? Your boss keep you overtime again? Or did you run into some pedestrian?"
"Or both?" Christian O'Connor piped up cheerfully as he grinned from ear to ear.
Josh groaned out loud and slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. Alex, Christian, Dustin, and Mike were his closest friends … but they always seemed to think that he was making excuses to justify his actions—even if those excuses were true and valid and provable.
Everybody in town was familiar with the five young men, one way or another. Known collectively as the Pasadena Five, Josh Mosley, Alex Kanabe, Dustin Barton, Christian O'Connor, and Mike Guinn were all attendees of the nearby California Institute of Technology and the biggest non-lawbreaking troublemakers around. Their pranks made them rather well known throughout the community; people either loved them or hated them.
Josh was the unofficial leader of the group, both the oldest and at times the most immature as well. Although his twenty-third birthday was less than four months away, he acted as if he were a hyperactive high school freshman who had yet to calm down – nearly ten years younger than he really was. But he was also incredibly intelligent, so his colleagues were willing to overlook his annoyingness. He had graduated from Caltech the previous year, the first of his friends to do so, and applied there again for graduate school.
In contrast to Josh's restlessness and constant energy, Alex was the reasonable and levelheaded one whose purpose was to serve as damage control. His biggest concern was that the aftermath of an incident never get out of hand or lead to violence. Because he was constantly thinking about the worst that could happen – all the things that could go wrong – his friends often doubted that he even had a sense of humor. Alex had just finished his last year of college, and he was waiting for admission to Stanford.
Dustin, on the other hand, was more moderate than his friends were, never taking things to the extreme. Like Alex, Dustin didn't want to see any situation end in mass chaos, but their tactics for keeping order varied greatly. Alex made sure that no outcome ever turned to disaster; Dustin tried to prevent anything that would lead to mayhem from happening in the first place. He wasn't as worrisome as Alex was, though, and he could laugh in the face of potential disaster. Yet, there was no humor in Dustin's current dilemma: he didn't know where to go for graduate school.
Easygoing Christian had no such concerns, for he had completed only his junior year. Nothing ever bothered him anyway because he had the capability to find humor in every occasion, no matter what it may be. He could never stay mad for long and his childishness made it hard for others to stay angry with him. His biggest flaw was his impatience and lack of discipline, which more often than not cost him several brilliant ideas and experiments that would've worked out had he been more patient.
At twenty years of age, Mike was not only the youngest of the five but also the most stubborn. He hadn't lived in Pasadena – or anywhere else in California – until his acceptance into Caltech and had grown up in Blytheville, Arkansas. This had made him feel much more out of place than the rest of his friends and he had refused to adjust to his new surroundings until he was ready to do so. Since then, Mike had become so accustomed to living in California that only his slight southern accent suggested that he was a native of another state.
It was the first week of June and students at most four-year colleges, including the California Institute of Technology, had just gotten out for summer break. Josh, Alex, Dustin, Christian, and Mike knew that it would be the last time that they'd be able to hang out together until the holidays, which they would be spending with their families anyway. The Pasadena Five were, undoubtedly, going to make sure that their summer was an extraordinary one.
Perhaps that was the reason why Josh's friends were so annoyed with him. Surely, they couldn't have been too pleased with his late arrival … especially not when they were supposed to be spending every spare minute of their time with each other.
Mike crossed his arms and tapped his foot on the ground, waiting for Josh to try to justify his tardiness. When it became apparent that no explanation was forthcoming, however, he sighed impatiently and shook his head. "Oh, whatever. But Josh, could you at least make an attempt at being more punctual?"
"No problem," he snapped. "Next time, why don't we push the hours back? I'll be sure to make it then."
"Would you knock it off?" Alex growled in a low voice. He sank his forehead into his palms and massaged his temples. "All we're asking of you is that you don't ruin another summer for us."
"Hey! What is that supposed to mean?" Josh shouted incredulously.
"Don't you remember what happened last year?" Dustin reminded him. "Remember … you fell out of a tree and gave yourself a concussion, or something like that. That was after your graduation. And you were stuck in the hospital for three months. By the time you got out, the rest of us had to resume our classes!"
"Oh! Oh! I remember that!" Christian exclaimed, jumping up excitedly from the bench that he had been sitting on. "That was funny!"
"Funny?" Alex repeated, gawking at the undergraduate in disbelief. "I hardly find it funny! He could have killed himself, you know!"
Josh scratched the back of his head sheepishly, knowing exactly what Dustin was talking about. "Well, yeah, but I didn't end up dying," he stated, trying to work his way back into the discussion.
"Shut up, Josh," Dustin grumbled.
Christian stopped laughing momentarily once the full impact of Alex's words hit him. He was silent for a few seconds, deep in thought, but he quickly recovered his carefree demeanor and replied, "Nah, I don't think so! He's too stubborn to die, just like Mike! Or maybe even a weed …"
"I certainly hope that you're not calling me a weed," Mike said warningly. "Because I take offense to that!"
"No, I'm not saying that you're a weed, but why does that have be such a bad thing?" Christian inquired to the youngest member of the Pasadena Five. "What did the weeds ever do to you, huh?"
"Oh, great, not another stupid question," Alex moaned, glowering scornfully at Christian between his fingers. "Mike, do yourself a favor and don't answer."
"Wow, were you guys this moody before I showed up?" Josh muttered to himself.
"Moody? What are you talking about, huh? We're not moody! Nuh-uh! Not one bit!" Christian denied. He shook his head furiously from side to side as his dirty blond hair whipped against his face.
Dustin nodded in agreement. "A better word for the situation is to say that we're … exasperated," he suggested, brushing a strand of his short russet hair out of his brown eyes.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah …" Josh dismissed his friend's remark with an impatient wave of his hand. "So, uh, how about we get this summer started?"
Alex reached over and grabbed a fistful of Josh's neck-length black hair and gave it a sharp tug, making him cry out in surprise. "It was your fault that we had to wait!"
"Hey, does it really matter anymore?" Mike queried good-naturedly, shrugging his shoulders with a nervous grin. "We're all here, and, well, it's not like we blew up the planet or anything! Right?"
"Ha! Never expect anything less from the students who attend the most annoying campus on the face of this Earth!" Josh joked back to him. "Ow! Alex, let go!"
"Heh, those two will never change," Dustin whispered to Christian and Mike, the three of them watching Josh swat Alex's hand away.
"Yep, yep!" Christian replied. "But that's just fine with me!"
"There really isn't a dull moment with those two around," Mike added, rubbing at his brown eyes with his hand. Something in the park was starting to irritate them.
"Okay … guys, this is beginning to get stupid," Dustin called to Alex and Josh a few seconds later. "We're wasting time, you know!"
"Uh-huh! I'm with him … for once!" Christian declared and responded to Dustin's scowl with an abashed grin.
"Come on, guys, let's get out of this park," Mike complained, his eyes watering and reddening. "I think my allergies are acting up again."
"Are you sure it's your allergies?" Josh asked the Arkansas native, a mischievous grin on his face. "Maybe you just need to blink more! Keep your eyes open for too long, and they start to water!"
After gaping incredulously at the older Caltech graduate for a moment, Alex turned to Dustin with narrowed steely gray eyes and said, "Dustin, I'm not the stupid one. At the moment, the only idiot present is Josh."
"No I'm not!" Josh argued. "I'm not an idiot! I'm actually quite intelligent! Ask anybody who's not you four."
"We all know that you're smart, idiot, but you don't act like you are," Mike snapped at him. "I mean, seriously!"
"Well, there's nothing wrong with that," Dustin pointed out, coming to Josh's defense. "If we were all stereotypical college nerds, then we probably wouldn't even be friends."
"That's true," Christian remarked, frowning slightly. "I'd really hate to be a person with no life." Suddenly, he broke into an unexpected grin. "Oh, I just realized that I agreed with Dustin again! Two times within a couple of minutes! Is that a new record or what?"
"So, uh, what are we all planning to do after this summer?" Alex hurriedly interrupted Dustin, not wanting to deal with another argument. "I mean, this is the last time we'll be able to see each other on a regular basis."
"Good point," Mike mumbled thoughtfully, a fleeting look of disappointment crossing his face. "Err, well … I wasn't going to tell you guys this, but … I'm thinking about transferring to somewhere closer to home."
"You're going to what?" Christian screamed at the top of lungs, horrified. He lunged at Mike, grabbing him by the shoulders, and shook him. "I can't believe you! If you leave, then who's going to go to college with me, huh? Huh? Huh?"
Alex edged away from the two youngest members of the Pasadena Five, deciding to let them work out their problems by themselves. "Umm, anyway," he started, "what about you, Dustin? Do you know where you're going to go for graduate school?"
"Not yet," he responded with a shake of his head. Biting the tip of his right index finger lightly, Dustin went on, "I want to go to a school in Ohio, since I've never actually lived there, but I can't seem to find the right place to go to. Maybe I'll just apply to M.I.T. It's also an institute of technology."
Josh hadn't been paying close attention to the others as they discussed their post-college plans, but he perked up once M.I.T. was mentioned. "Dustin," he said, his voice unusually serious, "if through a bizarre string of events you end up at M.I.T., I will be forced to prank you."
"Uhh … okay, I'll keep that in mind," Dustin replied with a nervous laugh.
"Dustin's going to M.I.T.?" Mike and Christian exclaimed in unison, bringing their fight to an abrupt halt. "Unbelievable!"
As his friends gawked at him incredulously, the only thing that Dustin could do was sheepishly scratch the back of his head and grin awkwardly. He knew just as well as the other students at Caltech that the Institutions of Technology at California and Massachusetts had a bit of an ongoing rivalry between them. Attendees at both universities often played practical jokes on each other, with Caltech as the initiator in most cases. If Dustin ended up at M.I.T. for graduate school, then he would still be caught up in the prank war between the two schools—just on the opposing side.
"Are you actually serious about going there?" Alex queried. "I mean, it doesn't matter to me either way because I'll be in Stanford. But, well, I just want to know whether you're serious or not."
"I'm considering it," Dustin replied. "If there's nowhere else to go, that is. Besides, it's not a bad
"How about going to Stanford? Or maybe even UCLA?" Christian suggested. "They're just as good, and they're both in California!"
"Well, I'm actually trying to get out of here," Dustin told him. "I want to live in another state for a while, just to see what it's like."
"I don't believe it," Josh mumbled, disbelief evident in his brown eyes. "Four years of pulling pranks on M.I.T., and now you're going to defect to their side?"
"Don't you think that we'll all be too old for this by graduate school?" Dustin retorted, crossing his arms stubbornly.
"Well, some of us will be," Christian grumbled, glaring pointedly at Alex. "After all, there are some people who just can't laugh at anything!"
"What are you talking about?" Alex shot back at the blond indignantly. "Of course I have a sense of humor! It's perfectly intact!"
"Oh, I wouldn't be too sure about that," Mike disagreed mischievously.
"Hey, if I'm really as bad as you and Christian are making me out to be, then how am I even friends with you guys?" Alex questioned, running his fingers through his short curly black hair and raising an eyebrow. "You guys would probably have scared me off in that case …"
"But how do we know that what you really want isn't to run away from us, screaming as loud as you can?" Mike insisted, obviously finding amusement in the discussion at hand.
"… I have no idea what you just said."
"Same here," Christian, Dustin, and Josh added.
Mike pouted. "Come on, guys, you're better than that!" he complained, stomping his foot childishly. "Was that too complicated for you?"
"No … you're just too confusing," Dustin corrected, his voice devoid of emotion. "But Mike, could you please stop acting like a five-year-old?"
"Yeah, even I'm not that bad," Josh remarked. "It's a fact that I don't act less than ten years my age!"
"Josh, would you just shut up?" Alex snapped, not in the mood to deal with his stupidity. "You're not funny. You're just being annoying!"
"Why is everybody telling me to shut up today?" Josh shouted irately. "Freedom of speech! First Amendment rights! For crying out loud, haven't any of you taken U.S. history in high school?"
"Sorry, but I'm a biology major—I don't have time for history!" Christian responded jokingly with a toothy grin. "But, uh, if it makes you feel better, I didn't tell you to shut up today."
"I hate history," Dustin hissed, a hint of a snarl evident in his voice. "Why should we learn about something that happened hundreds of years ago? Who cares?"
"History majors, of course!" Mike, his crossness forgotten instantly, chimed in response. "They exist, they care!"
"Besides," Alex went on, "if we didn't study history, then we'd continue to make the same mistakes that we'd made in the past over and over again."
"Apparently, some people are still stupid enough to keep repeating past mistakes," Josh randomly pointed out, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Kind of sucks, doesn't it? But that's not my point. Do any of you guys remember what we were originally talking about?"
"Err …" Christian scratched the back of his head, thinking hard about the question. "We were talking about how late you were?" he replied slowly.
"And our plans after this summer," Dustin brought up, seating himself on one of the park's wooden benches. "How we went from talking about graduate school to history is beyond me."
"I think our actual original topic was supposed to be on what we were going to do this summer," Alex said. "After all, this is—need I say it?—the last time that we'll see each other for a while."
"So what are we going to do?" Mike asked the others. "Whatever it is, it has to be good. After all, we wasted last year's summer vacation because Josh fell out of a tree and ended up in the hospital."
"Hey, give me a break! It could've happened to anyone," Josh grumbled, rolling his eyes at the sky.
"Why don't we go out of state for a change?" Christian suggested. "We've been living in Pasadena for so long, nothing here's interesting anymore!"
"I'd like to do that, but do we really want to be stuck with each other in a stuffy trailer for an undecided length of time?" Alex queried.
The five of them silently considered that scenario for a moment, then they shuddered. There was no way that their sanity would hold up for a cross-country trip.
"You're right, very bad idea," Mike responded hastily, tilting his head to the side and running his fingers through his short light brown tresses.
Christian's brown eyes burned with impatience as he asked irritably, "But what else is there to do? Practical jokes are only fun when classes are in session, when we can annoy all the other schools."
"We don't have to decide this now, we can always think about this some other time," Josh reminded his friends, wondering why everybody was stressing about it now.
"Yeah, but nothing ever goes right if we don't have a plan," Dustin let him know, folding his arms across his chest and leaning back against the bench. "It's just one of those undisputable semi-factual concepts."
"Only semi-factual?" Christian complained. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that Dustin made it up," Alex, who was trying hard not to smile, answered.
The rest of the Pasadena Five chuckled awkwardly at his witty response, but the laughter soon died out and was replaced by silence. The five young men stared at each other wordlessly, waiting for somebody else to bring up another issue. But just then, a gunshot rang out without warning and shattered the stillness. Josh and Christian shouted out in surprise and jumped back; Dustin leaped to his feet, alarmed; Alex glanced around frantically to find the source of the shot; and Mike dived for cover under Dustin's bench. Other people in the park screamed and ran in fear.
"Wh-what was that?" Mike stammered, grabbing onto one of the bench's legs. "D-did we just hear a real gun go off?"
"I hope not," Alex replied, furrowing his brow worriedly. "It sounds awfully close."
"Where's it coming from?" Christian inquired, throwing a nervous look over his shoulder. "It's not from behind us, right? I don't want to get shot from behind!"
Josh kept his mouth closed, trying to concentrate on where the gunshot could have come from. When it came a second time, there was no mistaking it. "It's coming from downtown! Come on, guys," he called to his friends. "Let's make sure that nothing bad just happened!" Without waiting for a response and his skateboard forgotten, Josh darted out of the park and in the direction that he had heard the shots coming from.
Dustin stood frozen in place before he came out of shock. "Guys, we have to go after Josh," he said to the remaining three Pasadena Five members. "We have to make sure that nothing bad happens to him."
Alex, Christian, and Mike nodded in agreement as they and Dustin went to catch up with Josh. Little did any of them know then that their routine lives and unplanned summer were not to be so uneventful anymore.