Cleo nudged Thea. “Do it!”
The girls stood outside Vintage Veronica, peering through the window at a chestnut-colored flapper’s dress. Thea had never wanted anything so badly.
“You know your dad will never give you the money for it,” Cleo whispered. “You should just take it.”
“That’s . . . that’s shoplifting. I can’t do that.”
“C’mon, stores expect to lose some merchandise to five finger discounts. I used to work retail. I know.”
“I’ve never stolen anything in my life.” Thea spoke in a near-mutter. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Cleo shrugged. “It’s easy. Just act natural.” She pushed Thea inside. “What could possibly go wrong?”
Thea stumbled. She steadied herself with the nearest rack, which rocked but didn’t fall over. She snuck a look at her friend. Cleo waved her on with both hands before blowing a bubble with her gum.
Thea straightened. Don’t be obvious, she told herself. With a deep breath, she looked around the store. Halfway between her and the dress was a pile of hats, an ivory cloche perched on top. Thea started toward it at top speed. No, act natural, she reminded herself. She slowed her steps but her shoulders stayed locked and square.
On her tiptoes, she could just pinch the hat’s edge. She pulled but lost her grip. She pulled again. The hat inched toward her but no further. With the hat seemingly snagged, Thea tugged harder.
Whoosh! The pile fell at her feet.
Thea froze. One more hat dropped to the floor.
With a surreptitious glance around her, Thea plucked the cloche from the heap and scurried to the dressing room, grabbing the dress along the way.
She collapsed against the dressing room wall and exhaled long and slow.
“What are you doing?” Cleo hissed.
Thea jumped. Her friend spun inside and flung the drape door closed.
“Let’s see it.” Cleo grabbed the dress. She held it up to her shoulders. She kicked one foot forward doing the Charleston, then kicked her other foot back.
“OUCH!” Thea clutched her cheek, tears streaming out of her eyes.
Cleo dropped to her knees. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I—”
A knock on the doorframe interrupted her. “Everything okay in there?”
Cleo peered out the door at the sales clerk. “We’re fine. I just accidentally elbowed my friend.”
Thea could hear the doubt in the clerk’s voice when she said, “Well, let me know if you need anything.”
“Now what?” Thea asked, rubbing her sore cheek.
“Stand up.” Cleo pulled Thea to her feet. She pulled at Thea’s t-shirt. “We can hide the dress under your shirt. It’s loose enough.”
Thea blinked. “This was all your idea. Why can’t we hide the dress under your shirt?”
Cleo ran her hands along her tightly-fitted tank and cocked her hip. “Baby, this don’t hide anything.” She threw the dress at Thea. “Start folding.”
Thea obeyed. She folded the dress in half and then in half again. She felt the security tag on the third fold. Holding it up, she asked, “What do we do about this?”
“Foil.” Cleo spit her gum. The wad landed squarely on the cloche hat.
Thea stared at Cleo then at the gum then at Cleo again.
“Looks like we’re taking the hat, too,” Cleo said, as if it were nothing. She pulled a pack of gum from her back pocket and slid out two sticks. She stuffed the gum in her mouth and smoothed out the foil wrappers.
Thea watched as Cleo folded the wrappers around the security tag on the dress. “Perfect. The sensor will never know it’s there.”
Cleo folded the dress and slid it inside the hat, then handed both to Thea. “Hold this.”
Another two sticks of gum, this time for Thea, and two foil wrappers for the security tag in the hat. Then Cleo tucked the dress-stuffed hat into Thea’s waistband and stepped aside with a wave toward the mirror. “What do you think?”
Thea studied her reflection, preening to the left and then the right. “I look like a pregnant woman with a cheek tumor.” She faced Cleo. “Why don’t we just trade shirts and you can carry this stuff?”
Cleo shook her head. “Be cool. You’ve got this.” She slid open the curtain. “I’ll go first and distract the clerk. All you have to do is walk out. And remember: act natural.” Then she disappeared.
A few seconds and one deep breath later, Thea stepped out of the dressing room. With her back military-straight, her pace measured, and her eyes focused on the door, she headed toward the front of the store.
A loud screech accompanied sharp pain in her toe. Damn chair. Cleo and the sales clerk gaped at her from the counter. Act natural. She slid the chair back into place and gave a dismissive wave. “Sorry. I’m okay.”
She waited until Cleo and the clerk returned their attention to their transaction before moving forward. She made it to the front of the store and stopped for a cleansing breath.
With Thea’s next step, the world exploded with sound. The store alarm wailed like an air raid siren. A security guard appeared on the outside of the door. Thea looked over her shoulder. The clerk stood behind her, arms crossed, satisfied smile on her face. Cleo stood behind the clerk, her expression unreadable.
Less than an hour later, a uniformed police officer led a handcuffed Thea and Cleo out of the store.
“My dad’s going to kill me,” Thea muttered.
“It’ll be fine,” Cleo whispered back. “Just act natural.”
Click here for the story behind "Act Natural."