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"OK, girls," Mom said. "I'll be shopping around."

"Good-bye, Mother," I said impatiently, a little too eager to go browsing with Lauren.

I had just turned twelve three days ago, and Mom said I'd be allowed to shop without adult supervision with her in the mall, just at a different store—as long as I was shopping with a friend.

When Mom turned away to leave, I grinned at Lauren, who smiled back. "Where should we go first?" I asked.

Lauren shrugged. "You decide."

"You're the guest."

Somehow we chose a boutique, and Lauren picked out one of those cheap fuzzy things that you wrap around your neck called boas. "What do you think my mom will say?"

"I think she'll say . . . ahhh!" I joked, and Lauren laughed.

We trudged into another store. I went over to look at the hairsprays while Lauren sampled everything. I noticed she was looking intently at some lipstick. Carefully she picked it up and winked at me, then dropped it into her purse. I sucked in my breath.

"Dare me?" Lauren asked, a mischievous look on her face.

"No," I said firmly. "Let's go, Lauren."

Just then, a saleswoman came up from behind us. "Can I help you girls?" she asked, sounding suspicious as her tiny gray eyes darted from me to Lauren.

The Shopping Incident shopping mall
"Can I help you girls?" she asked, sounding suspicious

Lauren put on her sweetest smile that fools teachers for about three weeks. "No, thank you. Do you have any purple nail polish?"

The saleswoman blinked. "No, we just ran out. But can I recommend the mauve? It's a bit like the purple."

"I'll take it!" Lauren declared, picking up a shiny glass of the stuff. "Are you going to get anything, Amy?"

I bit my lip. "No."

The saleswoman glared at me. "Can I get you anything else?" she inquired politely, addressing Lauren, who was counting her change.

Lauren looked up. "No thanks." Then, as we walked out, I saw her drop the lipstick back into the correct place when the saleswoman's back was turned.

When we got out, I stared fiercely at Lauren. "People like that get in trouble! You shouldn't do stuff like that."

Lauren gave me a dirty look. "I didn't get caught, did I? And I didn't even steal anything. I was just joking. You're like your mother. 'No shopping by yourself at the mall unsupervised until you're older, honey,'" she mimicked, laughing.

I curled my hands into fists, but Lauren just grinned.

"Oh, gosh, Amy, lighten up. You're such a sissy sometimes! Come on, let's go find your mom."

I didn't mention the incident to Mom, and luckily she was busy fussing over my younger sister Rachel, who was throwing a tantrum over the dress Mom bought her. I was afraid that if I told Mom about Lauren, she'd never let me go places with her again, and Lauren was my best friend.

When Rachel finally agreed to stop bawling over the dress if Mom would get her new shoes, Mom came into my room, and I buried my nose in a book so she wouldn't see my worried look.

"Is something wrong, honey?" Mom asked.

"No. How'd you know—I mean, no, nothing's wrong. I'm perfectly fine." I gazed up at my mother and smiled shakily.

"Well, for one thing, you're reading a book," Mom said, "which doesn't happen very often on a Saturday night."

I shrugged. "I decided to change my lifestyle," I said, which made Mom laugh.

"That's a good one," Mom told me, smiling. "I have such a witty family!" Then she strode off, ready to scold my sister for kicking the wall, which Rachel was doing right then.

I sighed, trying to figure out what to do about Lauren. I knew Lauren would get in trouble if I told someone, especially her mom, but if I didn't, what if she really did steal something, not just fake it?

*          *          *

At school, that Monday, I saw Lauren but didn't go over to her like usual. I didn't want her to mention Saturday, and I was still confused.

Instead of suffering through an uncomfortable five minutes before the bell with Lauren, I tried desperately to follow the conversation going on with the Mitchell twins. Fawn and Andrea always hang out together because they don't have any friends, but they're always nice to everyone. They're a little strange, but I like to think of them as unique, and they really listen when you talk so you don't feel like you're talking to air.

In line, though, Lauren teased me, "So you're taking the Mitchell twins over me, huh, Amy?"

With a sigh, I turned around from the sneers and Lauren, wishing I were anywhere but there.

"Sorry, Amy," Lauren said quickly when she saw my offended look. "I was just joking."

Ha, ha, I thought. Joke? I wanted to remind her that I had other friends besides her, but she'd already turned away. I didn't have to hang out with her every second.

I tried to avoid Lauren during recess by playing games she didn't like, such as kickball. But Lauren played anyway, so I quit and headed for the girls' room. Lauren followed.

"Are you mad at me?" she asked.

I didn't answer.

"Look, I didn't mean to make you mad, if you are mad at me," Lauren added.

I smiled. This was the Lauren I knew. This was the Lauren I was best friends with. "It's OK," I said. "I guess I have been kind of a baby."

Lauren nodded her agreement, and before I could say anything, she grabbed my arm. "C'mon," she said, "let's go finish that kickball game!"

*          *          *

Mom took Rachel and me to the mall again next Sunday to return Rachel's dress and get me some slacks and a wool sweater for winter. "Can I walk around again?" I asked.

Mom hesitated. "Without Lauren?"

"I'll go with her!" Rachel piped up.

"No, Mom!" I protested. "Not Rachel!"

Mom sighed. "OK, I guess you two can go. But stay together. I mean it, Amy. Rachel, stay close to Amy."

Rachel nodded enthusiastically. "Come on, Amy!" she said and took my hand.

I did pull free, but did walk with her to the toy store while I waited impatiently outside. "Come here, Amy!" she called occasionally. "Look at this cute stuffed animal!"

Finally, I told her that we were going to a different store. It was the same store Lauren and I had visited the past week, the one where the "incident" had occurred. But that was forgotten. I didn't want to think about that.

I was deciding between lip gloss and a bottle of hairspray when I heard someone whisper, "Hey, Amy, come here."

I glanced around and saw Lauren, casually leaning against a row of nail polish, a slow, easy smile on her face. She gestured for me to come. I trudged over. "Look," she said.

In her hand, there were at least six small bottles of nail polish. "I don't have a purse," she added. "Will you hold them for me so I don't get in trouble? Just till we get out of the store."

"Amy!" Rachel yelled from outside. "You're taking too long! And I still want to look around!"

"I don't have a purse either," I told her. "But you've got pockets," Lauren suggested.

My parents had gone over with me a million times about peer pressure, and this was one of those times when I needed that lecture again. "No," I said firmly. "I'm not going to get in trouble."

"You are such a sissy!" Lauren exclaimed. "You're always afraid of getting in trouble! What a baby! I don't even know why I hang around you!"

"I don't think so . . ." I started, but saw Lauren's exasperated look. "All right!" I said finally.

Lauren grinned. "Thanks," she said, placing the bottles carefully into my hand.

"Amy!" Rachel hollered.

A different salesgirl was at the counter this time, a young, pretty blond girl. "Can I get you anything, ladies?" she asked pleasantly.

I stuffed the nail polish into my pockets while hiding behind a display of lip gloss. "Sure," Lauren said, placing a bottle of silver nail polish on the counter. The salesgirl rang it up, Lauren paid, and she told us to have a good day. And that was it! No fussing or "Are you stealing anything?" even though the nail polish clanked together once, and Lauren gave me a sharp look over her shoulder.

"Where am I going to give these back to you?" I hissed at Lauren, anxious to get the stolen goods out of my pockets. "Rachel's here."

Lauren stopped dead. "Rachel! Oh, that's just great!"

"So, any ideas?"

Lauren shrugged. "Ditch her."

I stared at Lauren. Sometimes I am pretty mean to my little sister, but never in my life would I dream of ditching her.

"But Mom said we have to stay together and . . ."

"'Mom said . . .'"

"I can't ditch my sister!" I protested. "What if somebody came along, and . . . "

Lauren sighed impatiently. "Well, what do we do then?"

"Put the stuff back?" I suggested. "That way, we can't get in trouble."

Lauren scowled at me but walked back into the store and returned the merchandise to their proper places.

But my mind was racing. I had almost shoplifted. I could be one of those people they talked about on the news. Well, I wouldn't have been the actual smuggler, just the enthusiast. If it hadn't been for Rachel, I could have stolen the bottles. Why hadn't I said no?

Lauren had gotten over her sulks when we walked out of the mall, and she turned to me and asked, "Want to go to Skate World with my mom and me next Friday?"

I really didn't want to go anywhere with Lauren, but I just said, "I have to ask my mom about it."

The Shopping Incident girls skating
We pair-skated and told jokes, having a great time

Lauren rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Tell me Monday what your mommy said, OK?" Then she turned on her heel and walked off.

As much as I would have liked to, I couldn't end our so-called friendship right there. Lauren had done some nice things for me, she was a leader, and lots of people liked her.

Mom was irked at me for being late, and I'm sure she would've done a lot more besides reprimand me halfheartedly had Rachel not thrown a fit because she couldn't get candy. Times like that I really appreciated my sister.

I asked Mom about Skate World, and she said OK, probably because she was flustered. I called Lauren to tell her, but her mother said she was out. "Where?" I asked.

"See if you can get an answer out of her" was the curt reply, and then Lauren's mom hung up.

My heart fluttered. I had this horrible feeling that Lauren was falling, and I was about to be dragged along with her.

*          *          *

I went skating with Lauren at Skate World. She was her old self again, laughing and joking. I was glad I didn't decide to end our long friendship. She just has her days, I thought.

We were pretty wobbly at first, and fell down a lot, laughing. We pair-skated and told jokes, having a great time. I almost forgot how nasty Lauren had been.

Then Lauren invited me to go to downtown tomorrow. "I can't," I told her. "I'm visiting my grandma."

Lauren gagged.

"Grandma's not so bad," I defended. "She knows a lot about stuff, and she's given me a lot of good advice. She's really creative, too; I have a lot of fun at her house."

"Well, then I guess I'll see you on Monday," Lauren told me, chuckling. "Be careful, dearie, don't get any soup on dear old Mathilda's floor! And try not to choke on Esther's pudding. It's rude." We both laughed, but I felt uneasy, and I didn't really see the humor in her words.

Lauren's mom drove me home. That night at dinner, Mom commented that she'd never seen me in such a good mood. I didn't know how to answer.

"Did you win the lottery or something?" Dad asked me, grinning. I shook my head at his lame joke.

"Lauren and I had a lot of fun today," I answered finally.

"Oh, that's nice," Mom said, smiling until Rachel spilled her milk.

*          *          *

As I was slumped over a bowl of cereal the next morning, Dad suddenly frowned when he noticed me. "I want to talk to you, Amy," he said sternly.

"What is it?" I asked sleepily, thinking maybe he would tell me that I hadn't done a good job cleaning his store in the mall downtown.

"Some of my clerks have reported that the merchandise is disappearing. They've listed some people they're keeping an eye on. And one of them is your friend Lauren. Do you know anything about this?" Dad sounded so harsh it scared me.

Now was the time for a confession. "Mom, Dad," I said, then suddenly the whole story came pouring out of me — Lauren, the pressure, me almost stealing the nail polish, the pressure.

Mom's eyebrows rose sharply. "Amy!" she said.

Dad looked angrier than Mom. "Why, Amy?" he asked in such a quiet voice that it chilled me. "Why would you do that? After all your mom and I have said to you—why? I don't understand."

"Aren't you going to yell at me?" I asked lightly.

"No," Dad said. "I think having a heavy conscience is bad enough. I'm disappointed in you, very disappointed.

"And," he added, "I don't want you to get mad at me if I think twice about letting you go places by yourself."

"Same for me," Mom added. "I know how tough peer pressure can be, but now Amy, you've lost some of our trust. What are you going to do now if someone offers you drugs? And if you say no, they call you a sissy? Then what?"

Dad nodded, then said, "If you can't stand up for yourself, Amy, then you will mess up your life." He walked out on that note.

I sighed, and Mom put her arm on my shoulder. "It's not easy being your age," she said, "but believe me, you'll regret it your whole life if you follow the crowd. Do you think you'll be able to refuse peer pressure in the future?"

We had had this conversation a million times before—to where I almost fell asleep during it. It usually had to do with talking in class, etc. But this time I really listened. I would like to answer automatically "yes" to Mom's question, but I wasn't sure I could.

Not only had I lost some of Mom and Dad's trust, but some of my trust in myself had faded. I didn't think I could face Lauren at school.

And what about Rachel? What kind of example was I setting for my little sister? I was telling her to follow the crowd and not have a mind of her own and let other people make decisions for her. I felt awful.

"Even when you do the worst of things, there's always a lesson to be learned," Grandma always said. Yes, I had learned my lesson—to stick up for myself.

And I'd also learned to pick my friends very carefully. Sure I wouldn't go up to them and say, "Do you want to be my friend? Do you steal?" but I'd be careful.

*          *          *

D0 you want to go to the park or something sometime, Amy?"

I couldn't believe it. After everything that had happened, Lauren was calling up and asking if I would go do something with her again.

"No," I said loudly.

"Why?" Lauren teased. "Did your Mommy say so?"

"Yes," I said and hung up, feeling very confident, but still very unsure.

The Shopping Incident Meg Simpson
Meg Simpson, 10
Peoria, Arizona

The Shopping Incident Emma Edelman
Emma Edelman, 13
Weston, Connecticut