Last laughs; Tomorrow middle school starts, and life changes forever. For now, it's still summer, and there are still a few more hours just to be a kid.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Back when summer began, Josh and Ian had exactly 79 days until school started again. Now they have one. It's half past 10 when they finally wake up and paddle down the stairs to the kitchen, where Ian's mom is frying bacon and stirring home fries and telling Ian he has to clean his room and organize his school supplies and rewrite his summer book report before the boys do anything fun.

Josh groans. He says, "I wish this day would last forever."

The boys are 11. They don't want to talk about tomorrow. They don't even want to hear about tomorrow.

Ian's dad asks him to help unload the groceries. Ian wails. "Thank you, Dad! It's my last day of freedom!"

Josh thinks this is funny so he mimics it when Ian storms outside.

Then it hits him. It's his last day of freedom, too.

Joshua Liberto and Ian Schwartz, best friends, have known each other since they were little kids, from when their big brothers played in a basketball league and they hunted for loose change under the bleachers.

"We've known each other since we were 1," Ian says. "No, since diapers," Josh says. "No, since I was a baby," Ian says. "Since I was like zero years old."

Actually, they were 3, but they can't remember back that far. Now that they're 11, now that they're going to be sixth graders at Catonsville Middle School, this seems like an incredibly long time ago.

Josh and Ian hung together through Cub Scouts. They both went to Hillcrest Elementary School until last year, when the county built a new school and Josh went there, and the boys didn't see each other that much, except for on weekends.

This summer, they've seen each other about twice a week. They're best friends because they like the same things. They like duckpin bowling, video games and McDonald's, but neither of them likes to read. They both have crew cuts. They both put $500 bills in Free Parking when they play Monopoly. They both think "The Simpsons" is the funniest thing on the planet, except for making bodily noises.

But they're not identical. Give Josh a No. 2 Value Meal and he'll eat two bites of French fries between every bite of hamburger. Give the same meal to Ian and he stuffs the fries between the buns.

If you saw them walking down Frederick Road in Catonsville, heading for the Armed Forces Recruiting Center to get some stickers because Josh wants to be a sniper, Ian would be the short kid walking in front and Josh would be the taller one walking behind.

Ian might be talking with his hands. Josh might be checking his hair. They'd probably be wearing T-shirts because they wear them almost every day, and they never tuck them in. Ian might be wearing shorts. Josh might be wearing jeans so baggy he has to stop and pull them up.

They live three miles apart, but it's too far to ride their bikes. Ian lives in one of those old, two-story white houses across the street from the Catonsville Library. When the leaves are off the trees, he can look through his telescope and read the book titles.

Josh lives in an old house, too, but he lives in Oella, near The Corner Country Store at the four-way stop. He and Ian used to have a fort in the woods near his house but they outgrew it.

Now here they are, two best friends facing one decision: It's their last day of freedom. What are they going to do?

Josh had been thinking about going swimming. He has an above-ground pool in his back yard and even though it's only three feet deep, he once swam 80 laps -- 1,000 feet. He thinks swimming would be a fitting end. Ian isn't so sure. Ian wants to go to Josh's cousin's house because the kids on that block play Capture The Flag and games like that.

Right now, the boys are eating home fries and watching a summer music video countdown on MTV.

They would have done more stuff together this summer but they were both pretty busy going places. Josh took a Greyhound bus to Canada with his grandmother. It was a church trip so they went to a lot of churches, but he swam in the hotel pool so he still had fun. He also went to Ocean City because his grandparents retired down there.

Ian's family didn't go to California as they usually do, so they went on a lot of small trips instead: to the beach in Jersey, to West River, to Elk Neck State Park where they went camping. Ian's mom made his big brother take him fishing.

But now it all comes down to this last day. Outside, the sun is shining, a breeze is blowing, there isn't a cloud in the sky.

Josh and Ian couldn't care less.

They're back upstairs in Ian's room. Ian is cleaning, picking up books off the floor, books such as "The Visual Dictionary of the Universe," and Josh is playing a video game called Twisted Metal. Ian squawks when his mom comes in his room without knocking.

The object of Twisted Metal is to drive around a city and blow up as many cars and trucks as you can before they blow you up. Josh is driving a monster truck called Warthog and he's already blown up five other cars. He's pretty good.

It's Ian's turn. He's driving a semi called Darkside and he's plowing through the suburbs and firing missiles, until one of them lands in a car and it goes up in a ball of flames. He turns to Josh and grins. "You gotta admit that's pretty cool."

This time tomorrow, the boys will be in school. They're average students. They like Math. They don't like Language Arts. They were talking about going back just the other day.

"I'd rather be off school than in," Josh was saying.

"Anybody would," Ian said. "School is punishment, I think. I mean, six hours. I can't take that."

Josh agreed.

Another day, they were talking in the kitchen. Ian was lying on the floor with his head on Molly the dalmatian, and Josh was in front of the TV playing a video game in which the goal is to build a theme park. He was digging a moat around a food court when he speculated that the first day of school might be OK.

Ian said: "Yeah, just the first day. The second day, no."

Josh said: "After the first day, no thanks. I'm off to bed."

Ian said: "I wish school was one day a week or something. That would be really fun."

Josh said: "I don't like the stress. I don't like the homework."

Homework is something they dread. They heard from their brothers that homework in middle school is really hard. They were playing Monopoly one day this summer with Ian's big brother Dave, and Dave was talking to them about how hard it will be to make A's. "It's going to be a shocker," he said.

Josh shrugged it off. "I'm not going for the A's. I'm going for the B's."

Ian ignored them. He was more interested in buying Electric Company.

Josh asked Dave if it's true about middle school: That you have dances with girls and stuff like that? He said they had one dance in elementary school but "it was stupid. It was a girl dance. It was like a sock hop."

Ian interrupted before Dave could answer. He wanted to know who owned Tennessee Avenue.

There might be a tie for the thing Josh and Ian dread the most about going back to school. They dread the new teachers, because they might be hard. But they also dread having to get up early. Josh and Ian love to sleep.

Josh brags that once this summer he stayed up all night. He was at his cousin Mike's house and they were playing a video game at 12: 30 a.m. and the next time they looked at the clock it was 4: 30 and the sun was coming up.

Ian likes to stay up late, too. Last night, when Josh stayed over at his house, they turned out the lights at 11: 30 to practice going to bed early, but they kept playing Twisted Metal so the practice didn't really work. They fell asleep around 1.

The boys have heard you have to be in your seat at 8: 10 a.m. So tomorrow, they're getting up before 7 a.m. because they have to catch the bus at 7: 30 a.m. Josh says he's going to need someone to come in his room and drag him out of bed. He can hear his mother yelling now.

Josh has heard that middle school food is pretty good because the cooks at the high school make it. He wants to be at school in time to try breakfast. Not Ian. He's sleeping as late as he can, unless he feels like playing video games, then he might get up a few minutes early.

Ian had stopped cleaning his room when his mom said it's OK to go the video store.

It's About Games is a place they go when they visit Josh's cousin. He lives near a strip mall on the Baltimore National Pike so the boys cut through a backyard trail, and sometimes they stop at PetsMart to check out the animals. Usually they end up in the store where three TVs are mounted on the wall above the cash registers. Josh and Ian take turns trying new games. Josh is playing Twisted Metal II, blowing up cars on the freeway outside Hollywood.

Between them, Josh and Ian own 12 video games. But they're always looking for more. Today, Josh might spend his birthday money. He turned 11 on Saturday and Ian gave him $15, a card and a bag of Warheads and Megafizzes. In all, he got more than $200, but it's not as much as the $235 he got two years ago. Josh is from a big family.

Josh reaches into his pocket for a piece of SourGum. It's 2 p.m. They still haven't decided exactly what to do.

Candy is one of their favorite foods. So is Coke. Josh likes crabs and hot dogs, Ian likes Pizza Hut New York Style Pizza and string beans. They both like ice cream.

Just last week they were at Catonsville Middle School at an ice cream social for sixth graders, to give them a chance to get familiar with the school. They were in the "Cougar Cafe" cafeteria when they noticed the vending machines. One was filled with Snapple and bottled water, the other with ice cream bars. They didn't have vending machines in elementary school. Josh thinks this is cool.

Josh was at the social for only half an hour before he wanted to leave. He told his mom he wasn't really ready to see his old friends. When they were driving up to the school the brakes started squeaking and Josh asked her to slow down so the other parents and kids walking through the parking lot wouldn't stare.

Josh had been dreading getting the physical that every kid going into middle school has to get. Ian got his first. They were at Ian's house when Josh asked Ian -- without really asking -- how far the physical went.

"What'd you do?" Josh asked.

"Nothing," Ian said.

"Nothing bad?"

"No. Nothing bad."

Josh seemed relieved. He said, "Good."

On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, Josh gives this summer a 9. Ian gives it the same score. Josh would have rated it higher except his bike had a flat tire and some days got really boring. Ian says he would have scored this summer higher but the thought of middle school bothered him.

They were having this conversation at Josh's house. Sitting on the picnic table in his back yard, they were seeing who could spit the farthest. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

"You'd rather be in elementary school?" Josh asked Ian.

"Yeah," Ian said.

"I wouldn't," Josh said.

"Well, this summer, it's been in the back of my mind that I'm going to middle school. I was just thinking I don't want to go to middle school because it's a big, big step higher ... It's not scary like, 'Oh no, I'm going to die!' It's scary like, 'Oh no, I'm going to middle school!' "

At least you won't have the same teacher all day, Josh said a few minutes later.

But what Ian said stuck with him. He agreed. "I'm kind of freaked out."

It's 7 p.m. now. Just five hours left.

Josh is alone in his back yard, swinging at little pieces of gravel with a plastic bat. The sun is dropping in the trees behind his head. All around him, crickets and cicadas are singing. He can hear somebody mowing grass at one of the new houses at the end of his street.

Josh has a confession to make: He's kind of glad this day is over.

He and Ian had split up in the afternoon. They were at his cousin's house, trying to find a game of Capture The Flag, when Josh's mom called. They'd forgotten to get him new shoes, so he spent the afternoon at Value City trying on jeans and sneakers. He put the new shoes on as soon as he got in the car.

He also bought two pairs of jeans and three new shirts and a book bag, and he's excited to wear them. Tomorrow he's going to wear the ChumpGear T-shirt, the one that says, "Don't Make Me Have To Beat You Again."

Ian, meanwhile, went home and finished cleaning his room so he could collect his allowance. After a quiet dinner with his dad, he plans to stay up until his mom gets home from work before he goes to bed.

Josh is in his yard. He gives his last day of freedom a 7 on a scale from 1 to 10. He would have given it a higher score but he got bored. He's bored now, but he doesn't want to start anything new. What's the sense in doing something in the last few hours?

He tosses another piece of gravel and swings the bat. He has to stop and pull up his pants.

Josh doesn't think a kid should have to do homework. Especially during the summer. "When you're off school, you should be off." But this summer, because he's going to middle school, he had to read two books and write two reports. It's almost 8 p.m. now and he hasn't finished either one yet.

The first question on the book report asks, "Explain the major problem in the book and explain how it was solved."

Hmmm. Josh read the first book, "The Black Pearl," back when summer began. But that seems like an incredibly long time ago.

The second question asks, "Explain how the main character is like you or like someone you know."

Hmmm. Josh can't remember the name of the second book. It's around the house somewhere. It's about an Indian chief who was fighting the white guys and he was a really nice guy but he got killed in in the end.

Tomorrow is closer than ever, but Josh decides to finish the book reports later.

He has a lot on his mind. Josh doesn't know where his locker will be. He doesn't know where his classes are or who his teachers will be. He's a little worried about Tuesday, when the seventh- and eighth-graders come back to school. He figures that he's tall for his age so maybe the bigger kids won't mess with him. But you never know.

He doesn't know where he will sit or whether he has art class with Ian. His dream teacher would be a teacher who would laugh at a few jokes, the kind of teacher who would let a boy slide if he turned in his homework late -- if he had a good reason.

His brother told him he'll probably end up with a girlfriend in middle school. That's when his brother said it happens. Josh hasn't had one yet, not really. He liked this girl and she liked him and that was that.

Right now he's just tired. It's been a busy summer and a long day. He thinks if he can get used to getting up early, get some practice under his belt, then he can start staying up late again.

But right now, on the last night of summer, Josh is going to bed.

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