Let’s Get Real #3: Singing in a Dojo Bathroom

Happy Tuesday, everybody.

If I may, let me set the scene:

We’re in a martial arts studio currently packed full of kids in their gis, parents line the room, an old guy with a white ponytail stands in front of them all, and there’s a giant tiger painted on one wall with its claws sinking into a big ol’ Ying-Yang. The front door is open so you can hear the cars passing and see the Chinese food place across the street. I’m a cheerful, curly-headed eight-year-old in the judo class that’s wrapping up. I’d just earned my orange belt probably the week before, so I’m smiling big and feeling powerful.

Class wraps up, we bow to one another, and clear the mat so the karate students could have their time. I grab my dufflebag and head off to the bathroom to change, knowing some sweet, sweet orange chicken and fried rice will soon be mine.

Let’s pause real quick to address two personality traits that will soon unfortunately take center stage. They don’t sound that bad, but by their powers combined led to the most embarrassing moment of my life (and I farted on a middle school crush in gym class).

One, I’m generally a pretty jolly, easily excitable guy. It was true as a kid and has largely remained that way into adulthood.

Two, it’s really, really, really easy to mess with me. Like, I’ve had to grow a thick shell of skepticism to protect my soft, gullible underbelly, but that doesn’t always work (and has actually been used to enormously great effect, but more on that later – lookin’ at you, Pierre). Nonetheless, I’ve seen more than my fair share of gas-lighting and stupidly easy pranks.

Right, we all set? Good.

So class wraps up, I grab my duffle bag, and hit the bathroom to change. To this day, I have no idea how to explain what took over, but I started singing. I don’t remember what it was or why I felt the need to do it, but I apparently felt a song in my heart and needed the porcelain throne to know it (maybe it was the acoustics). I don’t even remember what song it was, but I’d wager good money it was Celine Dion’s “My Heart will Go On” or something. So picture that.

Anyway, about a minute into my solo, there’s a knock at the door. First hunch that comes to mind is that it’s my friend being impatient for the bathroom, so I pause, tell him to give me a minute, and get right back to belting out my tunes. I only get a couple more words in before there’s another knock. It never crosses my mind that maybe he has to poop or something, so I tell him again, a little less patiently, that I’ll be out in a second and try once again to resume my singing. Immediately, the knocking continues.

Now, I realize what you’re probably thinking, oh Rational One: “Hey, Evan, it’s probably a kid who needs to poop. Give up the john.” And to you I say, “Yeah, that would have been great advice at the time. I really wish I’d had you there” (not IN the bathroom, God, but you get what I’m saying).

What did I do instead? Well, you remember that orange belt I was so proud of? I coiled it up and whapped it against the door like it was a disagreeable stepchild and I was a parent in the 1930’s.

…yup.

I was proud. I’d stood up for myself, didn’t fall for my bully’s antics, and stopped the knocking. I looked at myself in the restroom mirror and put my hands on my hips proudly.

The silence was interrupted by three more knocks, this time quiet and timid ones.

I threw on my pants (yup, hadn’t gotten those on yet) and opened the door. To my shock, I wasn’t met by my friend Troy, but Sensei Ponytail. I don’t remember what he said, I was just too busy looking at the ROOM FULL OF STUDENTS AND PARENTS PRETENDING NOT TO LOOK AT ME.
Like, shit. I wish they’d just laughed outright. Trying to spare my dignity in that moment as I realized what I’d been doing was like emotional keelhauling – which Adult Me now congratulates Ponytail for doing. I can honestly say it was a fuck-ton (metric, of course) of character-building in a pretty small window of time. But my mind was suddenly arrested by imaging that first minute before the knocking, the minute where they’re all just sitting there, listening to me, smiling and thinking “No. What? He’s- he’s still- he’s still singing? Like, he knows that door is thin as hell, right?”

He brought me in front of the karate instructor as the students went to their drills and I apologized to him. To this day, I’ve been as sincere as I was in that moment probably just a handful of times. He played the Tough Guy move and told me to give him push-ups until he got tired.

I did…like, three.

Remember the “orange chicken and fried rice that would soon be mine”? Mmhm, well, I focused on that a lot more than push-ups as a kid, so when he called for push-ups, he got, like, three. A heartfelt and earnest three, but also shaky as hell and absolutely no more than that. All the while, the parents’ hot gazes bored into the back of my head like angry little gophers.

I’d love it if this was my superhero origin story and I could tell you that today I’m a total Marine-bodied stud who doesn’t take his morning shit without pumping out fifty push-ups, but I’m super not. Instead I’ve chosen just to never sing loudly in bathrooms like a dick again. (If you sing in bathrooms, by God more power to you. Just don’t be a dick about it.)

Anyway, on that note, catch y’all Thursday.

PS – I have NEEEEEEWS! Another story of mine, “The Scars of Eliza Gray”, is currently in the works to be featured on the NIGHT LIGHT horror podcast in a few weeks. So stayed tuned, ’cause I’ll be posting updates as I get them and blasting it out there once it’s up!

Gabriel Firefoot, the Dancing Flame (and his Buddy)

Did you know that Lego used to bury its used molds in the concrete foundations of buildings to keep them from being reused? Think about that the next time you get paranoid uploading to the Cloud – Lego already one-up’d you.

Happy Thursday, everybody!

I’m out of cheeky one-liners, so I’m just going to hop right to it.

May I present:

Gabriel Firefoot, the Dancing Flame

Gabriel Firefoot, having been abandoned by his friends in a tavern on the northern edge of the Rift, sat on a wooden bench with a sullen heart in his chest and an ale in his hand. He continued to let the ale quell the headache that pounded away at his temples as a sympathetic bubbling noise came from the ceramic vase at his side.

“I know, Flynnt,” he began, speaking seemingly to the air. “We allow ourselves a single night of gallivanting to properly explore the town, and they up and fucking leave us. Bastards’ll probably get eaten by giants.”

More bubbly syllables arose in response from the container.

“No I don’t actually mean it. Of course I hope they make it back in one piece. They could have said something before taking off is all. The way I figure it, we have plenty of gold left over from our way up here to live pretty comfortable for about a month. They should be back before then, right?”

The cork lid on the vase gave a small, happy jump in reply.

As the weeks progressed, Gabriel frittered away his small adventuring fortune on drink and social displays in the taverns, trinkets and oddities in the shops, and warm baths and women for his luxuries. Though, as his coin purse began to feel light, with his previous adventuring party still not returned to town and no other suitable traveling types coming through, he felt the looming threat of poverty at his heels. Not wishing to return to the days of stealing scraps of bread as a guttersnipe, he turned to the talent that had served him in that time: he performed.

He and his molten familiar Flynnt took to dazzling passersby with the arts of dance, acrobatics, and wonderful displays of fire. Through these talents, his reputation, and social antics, Gabriel managed to make a way for himself and Flynnt. While the two didn’t enjoy quite the same levels of luxury as before, they managed a comfortable residence at the Rift Keep. After some time, his content attitude began to fade and the fire-dancer longed again for the feel of the road beneath his feet.

Perhaps a fortnight after these feelings took root, a fantastic spectacle came to town: Dr. Grumbar’s Terrific Traveling Troop. The nomadic carnival made its stake in the town’s caravan park, and Gabriel would have been perturbed at the subtracted business if Dr. Grumbar himself, a finely dressed, portly dwarf with a magnanimous red beard, hadn’t discovered him while the showman was about town during the carnival’s setup.

“Well look at you!” bellowed the dwarf. “Yer all flames n’ heels n’ wonder ain’t ye? You lookin’ fer work, laddie?”

Gabriel gladly accepted the dwarf’s handsome offer and began his life anew as a dancing acrobat and fire-breather extraordinaire for the traveling circus. After the company had finished its time in the Rift Keep, they set their course south back into Fenris proper. And so Gabriel and Flynnt traveled, performing in such places ranging from Song to Stettin, Freehaven to the Iron Citadel itself. The company found themselves in Neven as the dry season had come around to its peak.

“Hot as a forge’s arsehole up here it is!” Grumbar jested as he addressed the circus. “That, combined with all those horrid critters these poor folk got’a deal with, they need entertainment! Let’s give ’em a show!”

Gabriel and Flynnt had just finished with their routine, making their way to the performers’ tented section of the grounds. Gabriel congratulated himself and his familiar, and Flynnt would bubble back jovial responses to the praise. He had just lied down and was about to uncork Flynnt’s carrier when the bell at their tent door sounded a ring to let them know a visitor had come. He welcomed the fan in, yet withdrew some at the sight that drew back the canvas flap.

A hunched, hooded figure took several hobbling steps into the tent before speaking, though Gabriel already felt an empathetic tension emanate from the vase to his side.

“You and your…creature…were spectacular tonight,” spoke the hood, with a raspy voice and in an accent that Gabriel could not quite place.

“Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the show,” Gabriel offered tenuously. He tried to see the man’s face but the darkness of the hood made it difficult. With a thought, he made the lanterns in the tent burn more brightly.

The hooded man shrank slightly at the added light and turned away some. “Might I, perhaps, meet your creature?” he ventured.

“I’d need to know your name first, sir.” The hooded figure only withdrew further and offered no answer. Gabriel pressed. “Did Grumbar let you back here? It’s normally for performers only.”

“The creature…” repeated the hood. Gabriel felt fear emanate more and more strongly from Flynnt the longer this man remained in the room.

“I think you should go…” Gabriel began, the last words more slipping from his lips than properly spoken. His eyes drifted over the hooded man’s shoulder to the tent flap, gently parted by a nighttime gust, and Gabriel saw the prone, motionless bodies of two guardsmen.

The figure must have read Gabriel’s reaction, for it then wasted no time in making a lunge for the vase that housed Flynnt. Gabriel matched the man’s move, parried him aside, and, with a grapple, threw him over a wooden dresser. As he lifted himself from the ground, the cloak and its hood caught on the dresser’s handle and were pulled away, revealing not a man but a twisted creature. Its limbs were gnarled and covered with violet mange and it wore a mask of black iron through which haunting yellow eyes peered ravenously at Gabriel and Flynnt. Its hands were clawed and it raked the wooden dresser in anger as it prepared for another lunge.

The fire-dancer was quick, scooping up Flynnt in his vase and made to roll under a back tent flap to escape, though too late as the masked creature was upon him, grappling him by the sling that held Flnnt. Gabriel delivered a powerful kick to its midsection, sending the creature toppling over a wardrobe chest. The rope strained and soon tore under the stress of the struggle, sending the hardened ceramic container and its cork stopper tumbling across the room in different directions. Flynnt, desperate to make an escape from the monster, hurriedly spilled out of his vase and sped for his protector, Gabriel.

The masked horror steadied itself and made a grab for Flynnt once more. Gabriel, in a defensive rage, summoned a blaze of fire in both palms and gripped the iron mask tight, pouring all of his essence into the act, screaming with the strain, intent on cooking the beast’s head to ashes inside the cauldron that was its mask. It loosed a gut-wrenching scream at the pain and as it did so Gabriel’s mind was assaulted with all manner of strange symbols and visions. He saw the very earth cracking apart with an orange glow, forests repeatedly burned to ash and regrew in a manner of seconds, and runic notes in a language he recognized but couldn’t understand felt to brand themselves in his mind before all went dark.

Gabriel came to consciousness a short time later to the sound of panic and chaos. He roused his senses, collected the vase with its stopper, and mentally called out to Flynnt. The familiar responded to him with a frightened bubbling sound from under the bed. Gabriel sighed a quick breath of thanks to the powers that be and ushered him into the vase. While the creature that attacked them was nowhere to be seen, Gabriel saw clear drag marks in the dirt leaving the tent in a hurry as well as the creature’s mask, some seared flesh lining the interior. The fire-dancer collected the mask, Flynnt with his carrier, and a small manner of essentials in a satchel and left the tent to investigate the flurry of chaotic sounds that surrounded their tent.

Stepping outside, Gabriel was met with a disastrous sight: the carnival gone up in flames. Circus folk and patrons all bustled about, either in a fleeing panic or efforts to combat the blaze. His head surged with pulses of pain, briefly revisited by the visions brought by the wicked creature’s screams, though in them he saw a building that housed a great tree, split in twain. He recognized it as the great tree in the main tavern by the town’s central plaza, though only this time, he saw the tree’s veins and the life that flowed through them. He felt beckoned and, though desperately weakened by his encounter, mustered what he could to traverse the chaotic crowds between himself and the tree.

He was jostled, shoved, and thrown by the fleeing crowds. As best he could, Gabriel made use of the alleyways so as to avoid the thickest of the flooding mobs. His magic exhausted, Flynnt would shield him from the flames when they would otherwise prove dangerous. Eventually, the two made it to the building which housed the broken tree. Patrons of the establishment and workers all ran about with buckets, drawing from the well to battle the ensuing blaze. Pushing past them all to the front door, he shoved it open and took the final shuffling steps to the base of its trunk.

As he and Flynnt approached the tree amid the chaotic flames, Gabriel felt his focus becoming clearer – the tree before him the center of this focus, gaining an aura that grew stronger the closer he came. The strange runes and glyphs from his encounter with the creature again surged to mind, and as he lay his hand on the trunk’s face, he felt them become an explosion. Symbols and patterns flew about his own mind and that of Flynnt’s: Fire, Earth, Mind, Nature – these ideas and their deeper meanings that transcended language and seared themselves into the fabric of his being. Soon he had both hands on its trunk and the feeling that followed was one singular to that moment in Gabriel’s life.

He felt as a part of the relic on which he laid his hands. The energy that flowed through the tree was like blood through his veins and he felt entrenched in the earth as if its roots were his own. He could see through his touch that the object before him stood not alone, but part of the forest that surrounded Neven and beyond. Though not in voice, this connection begged him use his talents to put down the blaze that threatened it and he soon felt flushed with new energy – a mana force more fluid and pure than he’d experience in his lifetime. With it, his breath came easier, filled his chest more fully, blood flowed with vigor, and the world about him grew ever more vibrant. He gasped and wondered how he would ever dream to describe this moment in the future. He then collected himself and focused.

Outside, as peasants and performers all ran and hurried about, the blazes began to subside. All stopped and began to stare as the fires that once raged and threatened the town now slowly diminished until they were no more.

Gabriel opened his eyes and looked about the inn to see for himself that the flames were extinguished. As his lips broke a smile, dizziness took him. He fell to his knees and soon slumped to the floor entirely. The last sight before the black was the visage of an elderly elven woman coming to stand over him.

Gabriel slowly awoke to find himself on a soft bed of heather under a brilliant starry sky. Looking about him, he soon noticed the bed he lied upon was in an attic of some kind and that the starlight which lit the space came through a hole in the roof. The charring around the edges and the strangely powerful smell informed him that it was a building no doubt involved in the fire, perhaps only now a few hours later. His eyes continued to graze about the room and soon came to land on a mirror resting in the corner.

In the reflection, he observed many things: the edges of his performer’s outfit were singed in areas, he had been bandaged to presumably cover burns he had no memory of getting, but most curious of all, his eyes, normally a rich brown, burned brightly green – though they were noticeably fading as he watched. As they dimmed, so too did the light of the stars, the burnt smell that hung in the air, and other sensations, all to their regular, mortal strength.

Mentally, Gabriel called out to Flynnt and, for the first time in his life with the molten familiar, a voice came in response instead of the empathetic vibration to which he’d become accustomed. It was childlike and spoke to the very center of his mind.

“Hey! I’m in the kitchen with the lady.”

“You…you..” Gabriel mentally stammered, “you can talk now?”

“Always have been,” Flynnt responded with a happy thought. “I think now you can just hear me. At least, that’s what the lady says.”

“What lady?”

“The elf that runs the place. Here, just come downstairs when you’re ready. I think she has some stuff she wants to talk to us about.”

“Wait, first, why do you sound so much like a kid?”

“Do I?”

“Yeah, like you’re five or six.”

“That’s funny. I guess that’s just how you imagined I’d sound. You sound like, well, you. I’ve heard you talk, so I guess that’s not so crazy.”

“Guess not.” Gabriel paused for a minute while he considered the situation.

“Don’t worry too much about it, I say. We saved the town! Come downstairs and talk to the lady.”

“Yeah, be right there.”

Gabriel came down the flight of stairs very slowly, each hobbling step made the aches in his body pulse to such a degree it made him wish he’d never left his heather bed. His hand on the rail to guide him, he made his way down the spiral wooden stair set and found Flynnt, taking a vageuly humanoid form, lounging in a large ceramic bowl the way one does in a bath too small for their size. Next to him was the elderly elven tavern keeper, sprinkling him with salt out of a smaller bowl a few pinches at a time, which sizzled and sparked to nothing on contact. Gabriel could hear Flynnt’s voice in his mind softly giggling.

“If you’re gonna cook him,” Gabriel announced, addressing the woman, “I’d use some turmeric root and black Scythian salt.”

“Mmhm,” returned the elf. “I’d prefer black Castellean peppercorn. He’s a spicy little fucker, this one.” And at once, Gabriel knew he and the elf would get along famously.

“It tickles!” laughed Flynnt.

Gabriel slowly walked over to the table where the two sat. The room was well lit. Sconces on pillars about the main room gave the space an inviting glow and the fire in the hearth offered it warmth. As his eyes lingered on the flame dancing over the logs, he was reminded of the incident. It came to him in painful flashes: the cackling flames, the screams, the creature…the creature. He pushed the heel of his hand into his eye as if fighting off a migraine.

“Take a seat, hero.”

“Yeah, Flynnt mentioned the town was alright. How much is left?”

“A fair bit, actually,” said the elf, producing a pipe from the folds of her apron with a bit of pipe tobacco. She fitted her pipe, packed down the tobacco and leaned over to the lounging elemental. “Be a dear and give us a light, would you?” Flynnt produced an appendage roughly resembling an arm with a digit roughly resembling a thumb which soon turned to flame. “Ah, you’re a doll. It all went down,” she said now turning back to Gabriel, “about as quickly as it started. There are few like to lose their house and a great many burned, but none that I know of who’ve died.”

“Thank you, before I forget. Thank you for bandaging me and taking care of Flynnt here.”

“Ah, keep it,” she said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Wasn’t gonna let you die here on my floor and leave your critter here to wither away. You’re the hero of the town and all, even if you’re also the one that started it.” She gazed at him through the haze of the pipe.

“I…” he tried. “I what?”

“Please. This town sees it’s share of nightmares – ghouls, alghouls, ghasts, other undead horrors – but blazes that start out of nowhere? Why, that might take a circus with a magical firedancer in the middle of the dry season to start…oh, wait.”

“Well, when you put it like that it seems rather hard to deny.”

“I thought so. And don’t worry or start up with excuses, your critter here’s already told me the details of what happened.”

Flynnt bobbed up and down affirmatively.

“In any case,” the elderly tavern keeper continued, “you do owe some responsibility for the act of destruction, however unintentional.”

“I would love to, and I mean that wholeheartedly, I don’t exactly make a fortune working as a dancer though, dear.”

“You can piss on your money,” said the old woman with a scoff. “What we need to do is throw some reins on that new found power of yours.”

Gabriel prepared a witty retort by instinct, but holstered it in recognition of his experience with the split tree. “Well then, where do we start?”

“Where else?” She smiled a wry smile at the young firedancer and took deeply of her pipe before parting her lips to vent a great stream of smoke. Through the thick haze, her voice spoke: “At the beginning, ya dippy shit.”

The next several months consisted of long hours in waist-deep snows, lessons in concentration and connection to the surrounding earth, as well as many thousands of hits with Elsa’s favorite switch. Tempered by this crucible, Gabriel’s complaints sharply quit and he was introduced to a principle which had never found its way into his natural habit before: discipline. When she felt he was ready, she bade him take a knee before her one eve.

“If I’m going to be honest with you, I wasn’t entirely certain you’d make it through the winter.”

“I certainly aim to please.”

“It was the bet, wasn’t it?”

“I will have to eat once I leave.”

The old elf softly laughed. She anointed his head with oil from a smoke-eye olive and coated him with the fragrance of frost mirriam. “Rise, Gahliel.”

The former firedancer and circus performer rose, now Gahliel. He wore close-fitting robes of a light sunset orange, tailored for him by his elven mentor, though without sleeves as per the student’s request. With Flynnt’s jar strapped about his back and his meager satchel on his side, he stood ready for a word from his teacher.

“I suppose this calls for some form of ceremony,” groaned Elsa. “Firstly, I had this made in case you happened to make it this far.” She slowly turned and reached behind the rows of bottles that made up the bar and pulled out an elegantly carved walking staff of an smooth gray ironwood, which he accepted. “Secondly, a question. Do you have everything with you?”

“Everything what?”
“Everything you need.”

Gahliel gave a skeptical squint. “I suppose I do.”

“Mmm, then if I can just say it’s been an experience. You and that spicy little fucker do some good out there.” She retrieved from her robes a small cloth bundle and undid the folds to reveal an angled blue stone the size of an egg. The young man gave a tired sigh at the sight of the little cobalt nugget. “Getting rid of me, eh?” he thought.

“Well, it’s been real, Els.” With that, he reached out and touched the stone. In a blinding blue flash, the last sight Gahliel carried with him into the abyss that followed was the affectionate smile of the elderly elven tavern keeper of Neven.

FIN

The Take: Gahliel was always fun because of the penchant for cracking wise (like we saw with Revan), but what really made his endearing was his connection with Flynnt. I know he’s just a bubbling cork most of the time, but Gabriel’s protective attachment to him as well as having him finally emerge as a childish entity that giggles at being salted always felt like a real nice ribbon on top.

Also, little known fact, Gabriel eventually went on to get impregnated by a dragon. D&D gets weird.

Anyway, ta-ta until Thursday!

Interested in more? Like knee-slappers and chin-scratchers? Check out my first published work in the Third Flatiron’s “Hidden Histories” anthology here (and tell ’em Evan sent ya!): 
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07PRN5ZQ1

Today’s FableFact source: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2009/02/building-on-a-dynasty/

Let’s Get Real #1: I Was a Real-World Infiltrator (That One Time)

Happy Thursday everybody!

This whole thing was pitched as “fiction and comedic true tales”, right? So, let’s get to some real stories. And I figured I couldn’t think of a better way to start than with one that might still get me in trouble.

So let’s set the scene: Northern California, Fall of 2016, three early twenty-somethings in a two-bedroom apartment – my best friend (who, for the sake of the story, we’re calling Pierre), my girlfriend, and I. (Also, I’d like to note here just how heavily I was advised against a living situation like that by pessimistic-ass members of my family, but even now after that chapter’s closed, I look back on it fondly.) Anyway, we’d all recently moved out together and used our newfound freedom pretty predictably: drank too much, went on a lot of trips, and started an apartment-wide, Nerf Gun arms race.

The main driver or impetus behind that last one – and a lot of other innovative trends in that house – was my buddy, Pierre.

The story, as I remember it, was that that summer, I knocked on his door to ask him about something I’m sure was important and when I stepped in I saw he was working with a set of lockpicks. I asked him where in the hell he’d gotten those. He shrugged and dismissively said, “Amazon, dude.”

I was floored. To my mind, lockpicks were called “Thieves’ Tools” on account of my D&D experience and one did not simply acquire Thieves’ Tools out in the open. Or legally. But I’ve been wrong before.

As the story goes, Pierre’s sister had called him up with a problem, having misplaced the key to their family trunk. That trunk reportedly held a number of important family documents, papers, n’ things they kind of wanted back. Pierre’s solution? No key, no problem.

This was right on the heels of the Nerf Gun zeitgeist that had taken ahold of the house and that same energy carried us right into lockpicking soon after. Next week, Mandy and I both had our own sets of picks as well as a couple of locks to practice on and the new hobby was born.

A few months later, Christmas rolls around (as it does) and I straight up told Pierre: “I’m at a loss as for what to get you, dude. What do you want this year?” He sat at his desk for a quiet moment, holding his chin, then said, “You wanna just get me a fuck ton of locks?” “Deal!” right? It was a super easy list, just turns out that locks are pretty goddamn expensive when you buy in bulk.

However, not only do I NOT regret it, I treasure him making that request because of what came of it.

I wound up devising what has probably been the most intricate and thoughtful gift I’ve ever given anybody for Pierre that Christmas. For those that didn’t know, locks apparently come in varying degrees of security (or “difficulty” for our purposes). Pierre and I both were and are avid gamers and I thought of no better way to package his gift of locks than as a video game-themed challenge. I arranged the locks in ascending order of difficulty (1 to 10) and named them after bosses in Dark Souls. At the end of the ladder of locks, there was an envelope labeled “FINAL BOSS”.

Pretty ominous, right?

Inside the envelope was a handwritten note containing the address of a particular Peet’s Coffee, that week’s code to the men’s restroom (I’d visited the day before to make sure it was current), and specific instructions. The instructions stated to go to said restroom, pick the lock on the supply cabinet inside, retrieve a small item – piece of toilet paper, hand towel, anything – take a photo for proof, and return it to me. For the effort and fulfillment of the contract, there would be a sweet $50 and a crisp high-five waiting for him.

Is it technically burglary? Not a lawyer, but probably, yeah.

Pierre finished the locks, read my note, laughed, and politely preferred not to break the law (the coward!). We laughed, I said I understood, kept my fifty dollars, and quietly resolved to do it myself.

So a couple of days later, I donned my coat, smuggled my picks into the inside pocket, and went to that Peet’s Coffee for my real-world test, the test that would make me a real-life infiltrator. I parked in the public garage down the road and rolled into that cafe like I was Frank Ocean and it was the Bellagio. I ordered a coffee to secure my cover as a patron (and, let’s be honest, not be rude) while I cased the joint – as they say in The Business.

As soon as the lovely young woman behind the counter looked me in the eyes, a little voice in my head screamed, “SHE KNOWS!!” But I ignored the cold sweat running down my back and played it cool. While my drink was made, I stole on over to the bathrooms, entered the code I’d committed to memory, and slipped inside the men’s restroom. To my utter dismay, between the time I’d last seen the bathroom and this moment of glory, the cabinet had been vandalized. Some asshole had broken the doors off their hinges, emptied the shelves, and spray painted the rest.

I retrieved my coffee and left that place feeling an awful sense of loss. My dream of becoming the pettiest burglar of all petty burglars would die unrealized.

It would be about a year later I was in another coffee house somewhere else in town and when I went to the restroom there, I realized something that made my heart race, my eyes go wide, and my chest swell: this place, as well it seems, had a locked supply cabinet. I was back the next day, with my picks tucked in my coat pocket as they had been the year before, and I entered The Vault.

Problem was- Or rather, problems were that, for one, of the two bathrooms, one was down for maintenance, making potty-Demand suddenly outweigh potty-Supply. Secondly, I hadn’t hardly practiced since giving up on The Dream, and all that; and in my haste to make it back here, hadn’t thought to practice.

You ever had one of those moments where you’re in a public restroom and someone just tries the handle without knocking first? Of course, it’s probably locked, but the thought still suddenly strikes your mind, “OH GOD, did I remember to lock it?” This was like that, except instead of a psuedo-embarrassing, “You caught me on the pot” moment between adults, I still can’t rightly think of a good “This isn’t what it looks like” explanation for getting caught doing what I was doing.

So, after a number of heart-attacks at the jiggled handle and minutes listening to the whispers in the hallway, I flushed (as a cover) and left, The Dream still unrealized.

A couple days later, I asked Pierre if I could borrow that stash of locks I’d gotten him and that night spent probably four hours in a Rocky-style training montage, tearing my way through lock after lock until it became second nature.

I was The Key.

I wrote a new letter and was back the next day. Waltzed into that bathroom, had the lock popped and the cabinet opened quieter than a church mouse in maybe two minutes. One of the most undeservedly proud moments of my life, hands down.

The new note I’d written…well, I’ll be honest, I don’t fully remember what was in it. I know I put some “Play it Forward” cards in it but not specifically which ones, and the rest was basically just a list of compliments to whoever read it. And I’ll be real, ever since pulling that reverse-caper, I’ve wanted to go back and pick it again just to KNOW that my note’s been found, evidence that someone out there knows of my skills as an as-of-yet-not-quite-renowned infiltrator.

That, and I think part of me is just scared that they’ve installed a camera system or something, however unlikely or super illegal (I think?) that would be.

FIN

And that’s all for now, everybody. This one was fun. Catch y’all Tuesday!