“What are you doing with my ball?” Rodney Sims growled at me as I stood under the huge sycamore tree at the park, admiring the new football I’d found on the grass. He stomped toward me, his face red and sweaty from playing ball in the sun.

I nodded at my friend Frank. “We were just riding past on our bikes and spotted it here. I figured somebody lost it.”

“Well, I left it here,” Rodney barked, snatching the ball from my hands and tucking it under his arm. “It isn’t lost, and I don’t want anybody stealing it.”

“I wasn’t trying to steal it,” I said, climbing back onto my bike. “It sure is a nice ball, though. If it were mine, I’d write my name on it so I wouldn’t lose it.”

“Hey, kid, you want to buy it?” Rodney’s tone was suddenly friendly. Surprised, I turned to face him. “I have another one.” He nodded at the guys who were still playing football. “If you like this one, I’ll sell it to you.”

I laid my bike down again and took the ball—it fit my hand perfectly. I had seen some just like it at a sporting goods store near my home. I had wanted a ball like this one, but it cost $10.

“I like it,” I said, gripping the ball tightly, cocking my arm and pretending to throw a pass. I shook my head and handed the ball back to Rodney. “But I don’t have $10.”

Rodney studied the ball as he rolled it in his hands. “I’ll sell it to you for $5.”

“Five dollars?”

“I have my other ball, so I don’t need this one, anyway.”

My mind began to race. I had $4 at home in my drawer, and I could borrow $1 from my little sister, Stephanie. I licked my lips and grabbed the ball again, searching for flaws. There were none.

“I’d have to go home for the money,” I explained, picking up my bike. “It will take me 15 or 20 minutes.”

“I’ll be here. But the price is $5. And no refunds or returns.”

I sped home so fast Frank had a hard time keeping up with me. Stephanie agreed to lend me $1. I snatched the other $4 from my drawer.

“You’d better think about this,” Frank warned as I crashed out the front door and leaped for my bike. He was still straddling his bike in the driveway.

“What do you mean, think about it? I’ll never get another deal like this! Five dollars, Frank, for a $10 ball! And if I bought it at the sporting goods store, I’d have to pay tax, too. I can’t pass this up.”

“Something’s not right, Joshua,” he cautioned me again. “Has Rodney ever been nice to you?” I thought a moment and shook my head. “So why’s he suddenly doing you this great big favor?”

“He has an extra football, and he doesn’t need it. I’m just helping him out,” I answered defensively.

“Something has to be wrong with the ball. Maybe it has a slow leak. Have you thought of that?”

“I checked the ball out, Frank. It’s brand new. Nothing’s wrong with it.”

“I wouldn’t buy it if I were you, Joshua.”

I stared at my friend. “You’re just jealous because he’s not selling it to you. I’m getting that ball before Rodney changes his mind.”

Rodney was waiting for me under the sycamore tree with one of his buddies. The others had left. He had the new ball and another one that was a bit scuffed up. I held the money out, and Rodney snatched it. As soon as he was sure it was all there, he handed me the football. “You just bought yourself a ball, kid.” He laughed and slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Holding the ball, I watched the two run off. They were smirking as they glanced over their shoulders in my direction. An uneasiness stirred inside me. I thought of Frank’s warning. Maybe there was something wrong with the ball. I tossed it around a bit. It felt good. I squeezed it to see if it was losing air. It seemed firm enough. If there was anything wrong with the ball, I sure couldn’t tell what it was.

For the next two days, my friends and I played with my new ball. It was everybody’s favorite. It didn’t have a slow leak, either. It was brand new, just like it looked. I kidded Frank about being worried and asked him if he wished he had come up with the $5. He shook his head, but I still figured he was jealous.

One afternoon as I sat on the front steps, tossing my ball in the air and catching it, he rode up on his bike, looking serious. “I found out something about your ball,” he said.

I grinned. “Are you still worried about this ball, Frank?”

Frank didn’t smile. “My brother Derek knows one of Rodney’s friends. According to him, Rodney stole that ball.”

“What do you mean stole it?”

“Rodney stole it from the sporting goods store. A couple of his friends covered for him, but he was the one who sneaked it out of the store. That’s why he wanted to sell it.”

It felt as if Frank had punched me in the stomach. I looked at the football. “Maybe this isn’t the same ball,” I argued, feeling myself get angry.

“Rodney stole a ball exactly like that one the same afternoon you bought it from him. This is the one, all right.”

“Well, I didn’t steal it,” I snapped at Frank. “I paid for it, so it isn’t my problem. And I didn’t know it was stolen when I bought it from Rodney. He’s the thief, not me.”

Frank shrugged and turned away. “I just figured you ought to know.”

I was angry at him for telling me about Rodney’s stealing, because I liked that ball and I wanted to keep it. “Are you going to tell anybody?” I shouted after him. He turned back and stared at me. Slowly he shook his head.

After he left, I put the ball away. When Stephanie asked me to play catch, I said no. I kept telling myself that the ball was mine, fair and square, and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. But I still didn’t feel good about having it. I didn’t even want to play with it anymore. And I sure didn’t want to tell Mom and Dad what Frank had said. They hadn’t been happy about my borrowing the dollar from Stephanie in the first place, but they had left it up to me.

The next day I went looking for Rodney. He was riding his bike over in the school parking lot with a couple of his buddies. Walking up to him, I handed him the football. “I want my $5 back!”

He looked at the ball and then at me. “I told you—no refunds and no returns. Besides, I’ve already spent most of the money. And,” he added, nodding down at the ball, “it doesn’t even look new, anymore.”

“You stole this ball,” I hissed.

The grin disappeared from his face. Jumping off his bike and letting it clatter to the pavement, he grabbed the front of my shirt and jerked me toward him. “Who told you that?”

“There are guys who know,” I rasped. “And I don’t want a stolen ball.”

“Don’t you go blabbing around that I stole that ball, kid, or you’re going to be in a bunch of trouble. Nobody can prove I stole it. Besides, it’s your ball. You paid for it.”

“I don’t want it now.”

“That’s your problem. If you don’t want it, throw it away.” He gave me a hard shove, climbed onto his bike, and rode off with his friends.

My feet dragged as I left the parking lot, carrying the football that had been such a prize. Now it was a cold, hard reminder of dishonesty. I saw the garbage dumpster in the corner of the parking lot. I considered throwing the ball away. But I couldn’t. I’d paid $5 for it, and I still owed Stephanie $1. I couldn’t just get rid of it.

I tried telling myself I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t known the ball was stolen when I bought it. I hadn’t been the one to take it. I had tried to give it back to Rodney. What else was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to lose my $5 because Rodney had done something wrong?

I shook my head. All my excuses wouldn’t make the sick, guilty feeling go away. I thought of the sporting goods store. I had always liked going there and looking around. Now every time I even passed by, I thought of the stolen football. And even though I hadn’t been the one to steal it, the store was still missing a ball. And I had it. I knew what Dad and Mom would say, and I knew I wouldn’t feel good again until I did it.

I walked home, climbed onto my bike, and rode downtown. It was tough walking into the store. I asked for the manager, Mr. Turley. One of the clerks took me to his office in the back of the store.

“Well, hello, Joshua,” Mr. Turley greeted me as I stepped into the office. “How can I help you?”

I set the football in the middle of his desk and stared at it. “This ball was stolen from your store,” I announced quietly. “I didn’t steal it, though,” I quickly added. I told him the whole story.

“So it’s not my ball,” I finally ended. “You might not want it, either, because it’s been used and I wrote my name on it with a black marker.”

Mr. Turley leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. For a long time he thought without saying anything. Finally he leaned forward and took the ball from his desk and rolled it around in his hands. “Joshua, first of all, I want you to know I’m happy that you had the courage to come in. I don’t expect that was very easy.” I shook my head without looking at him. “It’s not always easy to be completely honest. In this case, it cost you $5. And you weren’t even the one who stole the ball. But being honest is more important than this football or the money you spent to buy it.”

Mr. Turley smiled at me. “I’m going to try to make your being honest this time a little easier. I have some work around here that you could do to pay for the ball.”

“You mean I could keep it?”

Mr. Turley smiled. “You just be here tomorrow morning.” Grinning, I turned and started for the door, the sick, guilty feeling gone. “Hey, Joshua,” Mr. Turley called out. I turned. He laughed and threw me the ball. “You’d better take that with you, or someone might walk off with it.”

Illustrated by Mark Robison