December 19, 10:35 AM Pacific
El Segundo, California
The Mercado Mall was packed with holiday shoppers and kids on an unexpected day off from school. Alyssa was window-shopping with her best friend, Maria, when they ran into Josh, a friend from school.
Both girls were dressed in artfully faded, tight jeans, fur-topped suede boots, and puffy ski jackets, which shone under the bright lights of the mall. Josh wore his usual printed tee shirt, stylishly ripped jeans, and old tennis shoes. His vintage green fatigue jacket was tied around his waist, completing his carefully crafted image as a politically conscious sophomore. Alyssa greeted Josh with her usual boisterous energy, but Maria hung back a few feet and twirled a curl of her hair while the two other teenagers hugged.
“Have you seen the news?” Josh asked as they started walking toward the food court.
“Yeah, it’s disgusting,” Alyssa said with a sad shake of her head, “Those poor kids.”
“Has anything happened since we got here?” Maria asked quietly.
Josh pulled out his phone and peered at the screen. “Nope, nothing since breakfast time. Looks like all the schools are closed,” he reported.
“That reminds me,” Maria said, taking out her own phone. She read off the message she was tapping out on her phone as she entered it.
“Hmwk done. Can I watch a movie?” She smiled conspiratorially at her friends as she put her phone away.
“Mom’s at work ‘til seven,” she said, “How’d you get loose?”
“I told Dad that I was going to your house,” Alyssa said, returning the smile.
“I, ladies, am still at home in bed, if anyone asks,” Josh said dramatically. All three laughed at that.
“So, what do you want to do next?” Alyssa asked, taking Josh’s arm and pulling him toward the food court. Her curly blonde hair bounced as she looked around and skipped backwards toward the rows of plastic tables.
The teenager did not need any encouragement and let himself be led toward the smell of french fries and sweet-and-sour chicken. “You guys hungry? I’ll treat,” he said.
The three friends wandered through the crowded open area, trying to decide what they wanted for lunch.
“You guys want steak sandwiches, Chinese, or bad Mexican?” Alyssa asked as she accepted a sample of deep-fried something from a woman in front of one of the counters.
“Hey, let’s just have dessert!” Maria said, pointing to the ice cream stand in the middle of the seating area.
“Well, it is Christmastime,” Josh said with a smile. Alyssa nodded and the three wound their way through the crowd to get in line for ice cream.
“Let’s get one of those big sundaes and split it!” Alyssa said, pointing to the menu board behind the counter, “If we share it, there’s no guilt!”
They all laughed at that and waited their turn to order. When the girl working behind the counter smiled and greeted them, Josh ordered.
“We’ll have the Creamy Dream with extra hot fudge and three spoons, please,” he said, fishing his money card out of his back pocket. Beside him, Alyssa and Maria both smiled. The clerk turned toward the counter behind her and opened a cabinet to fish out a large bowl for their order.
As she began to scoop ice cream into it, the normal babble of the food court and the quiet music from the intercom were replaced by several loud bangs and shrill screams as scores of shoppers were felled by explosions from the center of the crowd. Josh had time to hear something whiz by his ear and Alyssa scream before blacking out.