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Michelle gulped. She suddenly realized what had happened. "Stay calm," she told herself. She tried not to look more nervous than she was. She opened her mouth and exhaled
The next order came quickly. "Say the alphabet backwards."

Michelle obeyed. Her voice trembled slightly. Although, at least it wasn't her dad. She didn't want to have to explain the situation. She didn't want anyone else to get in trouble.
She also thought Stephanie would believe her more easily. She wasn't totally sure he would.

Stephanie took Michelle's hand. The younger girl wavered as her sister led her. Part of her longed to tell Stephanie everything. She wanted to get this over with quickly. Another part desired to hide everything, though.

They stopped in front of Michelle's bed. Stephanie sat on it. She cupped Michelle's hands in hers. Michelle felt a little relief at her sister's calmness. A stern, yet loving look showed on Stephanie's face. She looked Michelle in the eye. "Michelle, did you ever drink alcohol," Stephanie asked.

Michelle's first reaction was to ask "are you nuts?" The idea of drinking was totally ridiculous to her.

Her sister glared. It startled Michelle, making her more nervous. Her face felt warm. "Oh, no! Stephanie might assume I'm hiding something now. I must look mighty embarrassed."

"Yes or no," came the firm voice. The young teen stared directly into Michelle's eyes.
Michelle frowned. She thought Stephanie knew her better than that. "Steph, I would never drink. You know that."

The voice became gentler. She shook Michelle's hands slightly. "I know how it feels to be tempted to do wrong things. You want to do what's right. But, you want to please friends, too. Or you think you'll be cool. You can tell me anything and I won't be mad. I'll talk to Dad with you. I'll help you through whatever your problem is. But I need to hear the truth first."

Most of the worry left Michelle's face. She hoped that relief didn't make her look guiltier.
Unfortunately, it probably did. Stephanie asked again. "Now, for the last time, have you ever taken a drink."

Michelle continued to look her sister in the eye. She knew Stephanie needed to hear the truth, and only the truth. She uttered a decisive "no."

"Then how do you explain this?" Stephanie pulled Michelle's bookbag out from under the bed. She revealed the bottle for a second. The booze had leaked onto her books. "That stuff smells! It probably started splashing a bit when Nicky and Alex ran into me. No wonder Stephanie found it." She returned it to the backpack and placed both under the bed.

Stephanie grinned warmly. She patted the bed. "Have a seat."

Michelle gladly sat beside her sister. She didn't want Stephanie asking more questions. She disliked having to look her in the eye for a long time. Her sister would have noticed if she avoided answering something.

Stephanie launched into a speech. Michelle guessed that she'd practiced it while waiting for her. It sounded much like one of their dad's. One difference was that Stephanie seemed a little teary at times. She was definitely anxious.

"Michelle, I've grown up a lot in the last year or so. I've tried very hard to be a much better big sister than I had been."

Michelle agreed silently. Stephanie had become more patient with her. She was much more forgiving. She also seemed much more willing to talk about things, despite her refusal the previous day.

"I used to think too much about just myself, or boys, or my own friends. But, I have a duty to help you. I've tried to do that, I really have."

She hastily turned toward Michelle. Michelle wondered if she planned to surprise her with another question about the bottle.

Instead, Stephanie placed a hand on Michelle's knee and continued. Michelle leaned back a little. "But Michelle, if there's any way I'm failing, I'm sorry. And, I'm sorry I kicked you out yesterday. I realize now you had something very important on your mind. I want you to always feel free to come to me. No matter when. If it's important, I'll listen."
Michelle's eyes grew wide. She gazed nervously at Stephanie. "Does she think I wanted to talk about drinking yesterday? That makes it sound even more like I did it."

"Michelle, I remember sixth grade. I was only a couple years older than you. I was made to think I had to smoke and steal and hurt people to fit in with the crowd. I am very glad I didn't believe that lie. I can fit in with the important people. I can fit in with friends who care, and I don't have to do that stuff."

Michelle nodded slowly. That's what she wished to say to Lewis. She wanted to tell him he shouldn't join a club where he had to do bad things - to himself or to others - to belong. She just didn't know how to say it.

She began to tune her sister out. Stephanie droned on about girls who thought they were popular. She talked about this clique at her school. Everyone thought they were cool. Few people realized how mean the clique's members really were.

Suddenly, Michelle's eyes brightened. She recognized the word "Flamingoes." She quickly sat up and listened.

"Michelle," came the gravely concerned voice. "Are there kids trying to get you to drink? Or to do something else wrong?" Michelle watched as Stephanie waited. She had to notice Michelle's reaction to the word "Flamingo," didn't she? She certainly sounded more bothered. "Michelle, are they trying to reach fourth graders? Have the kids been talking about the Flamingoes in your school?"

Michelle wasn't sure what to do. She had heard the name. However, she didn't want to say that they were until she knew all the facts. She didn't want to create even more problems

"I'm glad you're talking to someone, hon. But you can tell me, too." Michelle gulped. She looked up. She stared directly into her dad's worried face.

Chapter 7

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