“You’ll never be in trouble for standing up for someone,” she assured me.
And Billy never bothered any girls again as far as I knew. So, mission accomplished.
“Mom always says my mouth’s going to be what gets me in trouble. I say things and don’t think about them until the words are out of my big, fat mouth,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s different for you, Sarah. You don’t gotta worry ‘bout the same stuff we do.” Andrea draped her arms across her body, her eyes sweeping back and forth. Groups of people filtered around us. Some hurried to the next store, chattering excitedly to each other while others plodded along, seemingly in no hurry at all. We strolled along, breathing in the freedom of being unsupervised.
It took a lot for her parents to let her come to the mall with me. They rarely allowed her to go anywhere without one of them. Only once had they allowed her to spend the night at my house, though I was welcome anytime at theirs. Somehow, they perfectly balanced being strict and welcoming at the same time. I’d spent the past several weeks pitching the idea of us going alone. Apparently, I’d finally worn them down.
A sign in a nearby store window read Free Ear Piercing. “Ooh, let’s get a second piercing in our ears,” I said.
Andrea pointed at the bottom of the sign. Almost too small to read, were the words, With the Purchase of Our Premium Earrings Minimum $50 Purchase. Of course, always some catch.
“We’d have to have parental consent anyway,” she said. Andrea always noticed the fine print in everything.
I sighed. “How many piercings would you get if you could? I mean, if your parents wouldn’t totally flip out.”
“I dunno if I want any more. I’d totally get a tattoo, though! But Daddy would literally murder me if he found out. It don’t matter how old I was.”
“Uh uh. Tattoos hurt. My uncle got one and it was red and sore for a week. I couldn’t even hug him. At least a piercing is only one needle for each ear.” A clump of unruly hair flopped into my face. “Ugh, could your mom give me cornrows too?” Andrea’s neat, tight braids looked so orderly and beautiful and effortlessly stayed that way for weeks. My stupid, poofy hair never stayed in a braid for even a few hours and seemed determined to remain as untamed as possible.
“I mean, yeah, she could. Takes forever though. And hurts.”
We ducked into a department store.
“Hey, we should pick outfits for each other. They can be cute, crazy, or totally something we’d never pick for ourselves!” Andrea said.
I laughed when she came out in the bright yellow dress I’d picked. She looked like she belonged in a princess movie.
“You know I’d never wear this, right?”
“Hahaha! You should wear that to prom. You’re totally rocking it.”
Andrea glared at me. “The only way you’d see me in this would be if I was dead. My turn.”
She changed and picked an outfit for me. I wiggled into the rubbery leather pants and put on a black leather jacket with way too many chains. It must’ve weighed 20 pounds. I clomped out. This must be what an elephant felt like.
“Nice look.” She giggled. “Plannin’ on riding on the back of some greasy boy’s motorcycle?
“Hey, that’s exactly what I was thinking. Now I just have to convince my parents to let me ride one, with or without a boy. I’d look hot cruising around town.” I lifted the tag. “Not for $249! Never mind.”
“Let’s eat. I’m starving,” Andrea said.
“Where are you ordering from?” I asked. The food court held too many choices and I could never decide between Chinese food and the giant slices of pizza. Then there was the chicken sandwich place and the Mexican food. There were no bad choices at the mall.
“I’m feeling like…. A teriyaki chicken and rice bowl.”
“Heck yeah!” I said. I hated choosing and she knew it. If she waited for me, we could’ve been there for half an hour.
“Wanna eat outside?”
“Is that even a question?” Summer officially ended over a month ago, though it was still plenty warm and the sun beamed down keeping the chill of the wind at bay. Soon enough, the cold, gloomy weather would move in. Who knew how many days of sunshine were left?
We scanned for an empty table and located one.
“Stop right there!” a voice boomed.
A police car screeched up to the curb, lights flashing. I looked around. Everyone else did the same. Except all of their eyes stopped on me. Not me. On Andrea.
She dropped her tray of food and immediately raised her hands flat in front of her. Food exploded everywhere and her brand-new phone bounced off the tray and to the side, the glass shattering as it slammed into the pavement. The phone had been a gift for her birthday only a few weeks earlier and she fussed over it like a mother hen. Her eyes went wide and filled with tears.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Get up against the wall,” an officer ordered, his weapon pointed directly at Andrea.
Both of us moved toward the wall. I realized my tray was still in my hands. “Can I put this down?”
“Go sit over there. And keep your hands on the tray.” A woman officer gestured toward a nearby table.
I looked at the table and then back at Andrea, who had tears spilling down her cheeks. I set the tray on the ground and slid up next to my friend.
“Hand over your bag,” the woman officer ordered, her eyes not deviating from Andrea.
“Our bags? Why?” I asked.
“Just do it,” Andrea said. “We don’t wanna cause no trouble. Now, I’m gonna reach behind me and take off my backpack. I’m grabbing the backpack and bringing it around in front of me.” She narrated every movement and moved slowly as I tossed my bag in front of me.
“I don’t understand. What did we do? Was the Chinese food illegal or something?” I asked.
“Young lady, you’d do well to mind your tone. You should also be more careful of the company you keep,” the male officer said.
“Company I keep? I’m here with my friend, Andrea.”
“The thief?” the woman officer countered.
“Thief? What are you talking about, Officer Andrews?” I asked, squinting at her nametag.
“We got a call about a young black woman with cornrows filling a backpack with expensive jewelry and clothes and leaving without paying. She matches the description.”
“I was with her the whole time. We even went to the bathroom together. Andrea didn’t steal anything.”
“Check the restrooms,” the woman officer said into a radio attached to her shoulder. “She may have ditched the goods.”
“You’re not listening. She didn’t steal anything. I—was—with—her.”
“Sarah, it’s okay. Don’t. They’ll sort it all out,” Andrea pleaded.
The male officer turned Andrea’s bag upside down and shook out all her things. Her wallet, jacket, a bag with two new shirts and a necklace, and an assortment of feminine products tumbled out. The officer grabbed the store bag. “Where’s the rest of the stuff you stole?”
“Officer, I didn’t steal nothing.” Andrea spoke clearly, though her voice shook and a red tinge rose up her face.
“Really? Where’s your receipt?”
“I…I’m not sure, sir. Maybe in my wallet?”
“I have it, Officer Gronkowsky,” I said, committing both their names to memory, though I didn’t know what good it would do. “You forgot it at the register, so I put it in my bag.” I reached for my oversized purse and pulled out the bag with my purchases and retrieved two receipts. One for my items and one for hers. I handed both to him.
“We’re going to have to take you in and get the store employee to come down and make an ID. Hiding the merchandise won’t save you, you little hooligan. Better to catch ‘em young before they become lethal.”
“Hooligan? Who talks like that? Besides, Andrea’s a straight A student, volunteers at her church, and is the nicest person you’ll ever meet. She’s not a criminal.”
“You better call someone to come pick you up. We’re taking in your colored friend. And you should really reevaluate who you hang out with before people like her get you in trouble.” He glared at Andrea and turned to his partner. “Cuff her and put her in the car.”
“I’m sorry, officers. But I can’t get in the police car,” Andrea said, her voice shaking and new tears streaming down her cheeks. “I need to call my mama. I’m only fifteen and need a parent present.”
“Maybe Mommy was involved too? Is she waiting around the corner? Call her then.” The anger and judgement in his eyes sent a cold chill up my spine.
Andrea didn’t make any attempt to move toward her phone.
“I’ll get it,” I said and scooped up the shattered device. The phone lit up but the jagged glass didn’t respond to my touch.
“Guess you’re out of luck. Too bad the phone won’t work. Probably stolen anyway.”
I looked at him like he was crazy. “Her parents got her the phone for her birthday. You don’t know anything about her. We didn’t do anything wrong. And I’ll call her mom myself.” I punched the numbers into my own phone.
“Mrs. Thomas? Yeah, um, the police are saying Andrea stole something. I know she didn’t and—uh, ok. Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. We’re outside the food court. Mmmm hmmm, she’s okay, I think. Record? Yeah, I can record until you get here.” I spun around and pressed the record button on my phone. “She’ll be here in ten minutes and asked me to record everything that happens until then. And if you try to stop me, you’re breaking the law.” I shrugged at Andrea, trying to remember everything Mrs. Thomas had said. Why hadn’t I thought to record from the start? A few nearby people also had their phones out and seemed to be recording.
The officers exchanged a glance. The radios on their shoulders crackled simultaneously. “Perpetrator located at the south entrance and in custody. Matches description and in possession of the stolen goods.”
A scowl crossed Officer Gronkowsky’s face. “You two can go. This time. We’re watching you though, Andrea Thomas. I won’t forget your name or your face for next time. I’m sure we’ll meet again. People like you are always in some kind of trouble.”
“Let’s go,” Officer Andrews said. The two turned and headed back into the building, glancing back every few seconds as if we might be following or something.
Andrea dropped her hands and slid down the wall, laying her head on her knees. I draped my arm across her shoulders. She threw my arm off.
“Why couldn’t you stay quiet? You can’t give them a reason.”
“A reason for what? They were going to take you in anyway,” I said.
“Something worse could’ve happened, Sarah. Don’t you see? They thought I was a thief because of my skin color.”
“Not exactly. You matched the description of someone—”
“You think there’s another girl in there dressed the same as me, looks the same as me, same height, same backpack? Nah, they heard a black girl with cornrows did something and that means all black girls with cornrows are guilty.”
I rarely considered her black. I mean, she was, it just wasn’t the main descriptor that came to mind when I thought of her. Tall, athletic, funny, and pretty described her much better. This was 2020. How could such racial profiling still exist? Sure, there were stories in the news, but they were exaggerated, weren’t they? Now I wasn’t sure.
Mrs. Thomas raced up to us. “I didn’t dare pull up to the curb, just in case. You okay, baby?” She gathered her daughter, who trembled like a leaf, into her arms.
“I did what you said, Mama. I answered them respectfully, kept my hands up, told them before every move I made. I didn’t think it could happen to me. Then they was gonna take me in the police car and I refused, even though I was so scared. I didn’t do nothing, Mama. I swear.”
My best friend’s face was filled with a pain I’d never seen before. I wanted to do something to make it better. But she wouldn’t even look at me and anyway, I had no idea how to fix any of this.
“You done good. I know you didn’t do nothing. You’re a good girl, no matter what anyone says about you. You’re here and safe, right? Means you did everything right.”
Mrs. Thomas caught me staring. “You stayed and stood by her. Thank you, Sarah. You’re a true friend.” She briefly touched my shoulder and smiled.
I called Mom to pick me up. While I waited, I cleaned up Andrea’s things and tucked them neatly into her bag. I handed the bag to Mrs. Thomas and said goodbye to Andrea. She managed the tiniest of smiles.
“This was the worst day of my life,” I said, sinking into the front seat. I related every detail I could remember to Mom and started crying. The whole situation had been wrong on so many levels.
“I’m sure it was worse for Andrea. But, if on the worst day of both your lives, you come out healthy, whole, and free, it’s still a good day. And I thank God both of us got to take our girls home today.”
“How can the color of your skin be the sole way people judge you? I wish instead of skin, people saw souls. Then everyone would see the beauty and goodness inside... or lack thereof. Then everyone would see the true color of hatred,” I said. I wanted to cry, to punch something, to stop this from ever happening again. To Andrea or anyone.