Short Fiction: Cookie Heist

Well, the last of my short stories I still had out on submission finally got rejected. (From Mystery Tribune, which is a good publication that puts out a gorgeous physical magazine, and which I recommend despite this stunning lapse in editorial judgment.)

So nothing I’ve written in the last ten years is now part of the publishing industrial complex, and I’m honestly quite relieved. I had no idea what a toll the constant cycle of submission and rejection was taking on me until I stopped.

Anyway, this is a nice little story that’s free of bloodshed and gore. It’s really about a friendship. I wrote it in part because I missed my friend Liz who died in 2009. We aren’t the characters in this story, and this friendship isn’t our friendship, so I can’t really explain how writing this helped me with missing her. But it did.

The only content warnings this time out are for addiction. Both main characters are struggling with sobriety.


Cookie Heist

Out of rehab, the text said. Wanna hang out?

It was a humid summer Friday night and I was sitting on my porch watching cars drive by, listening to people’s arguments and conversations as they made their way to the bar, and wishing I had an air conditioner. I was starting to get pretty depressed about my situation, which is to say, 40, divorced, trapped in a low-paying job I hated, and only able to see my kids twice a month. So I texted back. Totally. Come on over. I’ve got seltzer and pretzels.

I got back a string of emojis that I guess signaled agreement. Beth was coming over. Just to be clear, this wasn’t a booty call situation. Beth and I had been friends since high school. We both got too deep into booze, and then she got into hard drugs and I got even deeper into booze. I had been sober for five years at this point. I didn’t get sober soon enough to save my marriage. Beth had, apparently, just gotten out of her fourth stint in rehab.

We liked hanging out because when you hang out with someone else whose addiction has blown up their lives, there’s a lot that doesn’t need to be said.  Also when someone knew you when you were 14 and still likes you at 40 anyway? That’s a rare treasure you should hang on to.

Beth arrived 20 minutes later. We hugged, and I said, “Seltzer? Pretzel rod?”

“You know it, brother,” she said. She cracked open the seltzer, took a long pull, and put the pretzel rod in her mouth like a cigar, which is obviously the right way to do it.

“So,” I said.

“Gramma died,” Beth said.

“Fuck,” I said. “I’m sorry. I know how much she meant to you.” Beth’s gramma was the one person in her family who never gave up on her, who never judged her for her addiction, and who took her in when no one else would.

“Makes me wanna use, I gotta tell you,” Beth said. “I mean, I knew she wasn’t gonna live forever, but this’s tough.”

“Yeah. You need to stay up all night watching shitty Hallmark movies or something so you don’t use?”

“Maybe? You know I love a Hallmark movie.”

“I have no idea why.”

“It’s comforting, okay? Nobody has problems like mine, and you can escape into the fantasy that if you can just meet the right hot widowed carpenter with adorable toddler, your life will be sorted out.”

“Yeah, that’s less appealing to me.”

“There are women carpenters!”

“Straight ones?”

“I dunno, maybe? Bi or pan, probably. You’ve got a shot, is what I’m saying.”

We watched Hallmark movies all night. I pounded coffee to stay awake because I got pretty deep into caffeine after I left alcohol behind. Beth didn’t need any artificial stimulants. Just stared at the screen until dawn, tears in her eyes the whole time.

When Christmas in the Heartland 3 ended, Beth said to me, “Okay. I’m good. I mean, once the sun is up, it’s easier for me to believe I’m not gonna use. Darkness is hard.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It sure is.”

“Hey, so the visitation is today. For my gramma. This afternoon. If you’re not doing anything?”

“Well, let me check my calendar,” I said, pulling out my phone. “Hmm. This isn’t my weekend to see the kids, so I’ve got self-pity at ten, and then self-loathing starting at 2. I think I can squeeze you in after that.”

“Cool,” she said. “Visitation starts at four. Get some sleep, will you? You look like shit.”

“I love you too,” I said, and Beth smiled and flashed me the sign language I love you.

The visitation was at the Nickerson Funeral Home. I went in and signed the book, and Beth immediately made a beeline for me. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “I don’t know if I could have made it through the whole thing alone.”

“I hear you,” I said. I always used to bring a flask to events like this to make them bearable. We stood around for a while. Most people avoided Beth, though you could tell by the looks on their faces that they knew who she was. I guessed the people around our age were mostly her sister Christie’s friends who therefore had Christie’s opinions of Beth.

After a priest who didn’t know her said a few banal words about Beth’s gramma, we all went back to Christie’s house, which was also now Beth’s house, or, anyway, the house in which Beth was staying, for heavy hors d’oeuvres. Beth wept all the way from the funeral home to Christie’s house. “Christie told me it’s a one-strike and you’re out situation,” Beth said. “She doesn’t believe I can stop. I think she doesn’t want me to stop, just so she can be right. It’s really hard to even try to be a good version of myself in an environment like that.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. When we got to the house, I headed straight for the cookies and brownies. Refined sugar hits some of the same levers in my brain as booze, and it doesn’t get me fired or cause me to alienate people I care about.

Beth went into the kitchen to talk to Christie. She came out about five minutes later and grabbed my arm. “I need to leave right now or I’m going to say things to Christie that will cause me to be homeless,” she said.  She looked at her phone, “The Uber will be here in 2 minutes.” I grabbed two cookies and a brownie and followed her to the door. We went back to my apartment, mostly because neither of us had any other place to go.

She was too upset to talk on the ride over, but once we were in the apartment and I had opened us bottles of Topo Chico (I rationalize my purchase of expensive water by reminding myself of how much money I am not spending on booze.), she started talking.

“I asked her about the cookie recipe. Whenever I got kicked out of the house and went to Gramma’s, she and I would bake chocolate chip cookies, and she would tell me stories of her misspent youth. Stuff like—” here she slipped into an old lady voice, “—I used to sneak into jazz clubs and smoke reefer cigarettes!”

I laughed. “She sounds cool as hell.”

“She was. And she always told me that the cookie recipe was her only family treasure, and that it would be mine when she died. And, I mean, it’s not urgent or anything, but I just said to Christie that I wanted it, and she laid into me. Where were you when she was sick, you’ve got some nerve asking for anything, you use people like you use drugs, blah blah blah. She’s trying to break me. I really think she’s trying to break me. I have to get out of there.”

“I mean, you can always stay here,” I said.

Beth laughed. “I mean, look. It’s not that your full-sized bed in a basement studio isn’t appealing, but, like, it’s still your space. You know? What happens if we have a fight? I get kicked out.”

“I mean, I wouldn’t—”

“I know, I know, I just mean, it still wouldn’t be my space. I need my own space to figure out my own life. Also you’ve only got one bed, and while that particular complication is not off the table for me, it is of the table at least until I get my feet straight and see if I can make a go of it in the real world without drugs. You know?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”

We sipped our Topo Chicos. “Well, you wanna break in to your gramma’s house and steal the recipe?” I said. I don’t know why I said this. I hadn’t broken into anything, much less a house, since I picked the lock on my folks’ liquor cabinet when I was sixteen. And look what that led to.

Beth’s face lit up. “Yeah,” she said. “Let’s do it. Right now.”

I backpedaled. “But, did she have an alarm, or—”

Beth laughed. “I snuck into that house drunk and/or high in the middle of the night more times than I can count. I know three different ways in.”

She was going to do this. I had planted the idea, and now it was going to happen, which made it my responsibility. Which meant I was going to have to do it alone. Because Beth’s last stint in rehab had been court-ordered.  My drug of choice was legal and widely available, and because I used to always have enough money to take cabs and Ubers, I had no criminal record. Beth, on the other hand, could really not afford to get caught breaking and entering. She’d almost certainly go directly to jail, and, according to what she’d told me in the past, it’s even easier to get drugs in jail than out of jail.

And so, thirty minutes later, I found myself climbing up on a garbage can and then through a tiny second-floor bathroom window that was probably much easier for a 16-year-old girl with a meth problem to sneak through than for a 40-year-old man with a brownie problem to sneak through.

“I am going to get stuck in here like Winnie the Pooh,” I said. Beth was on the phone with me via my earbuds. She was sitting on a park bench a block away.

“No you’re not,” she said. “Grab the edge of the bathtub and pull yourself in.”

I followed her advice and scraped my stomach on the window frame and bruised my hips and just barely managed to not hit my head on the tile floor when I finally came tumbling in. “If they do any DNA testing, they’re gonna find my flesh all over the place,” I said.

“Don’t say flesh,” Beth said. “It’s gross.”

“You know what’s gross?” I said, looking around the bathroom, “A carpeted toilet seat. Why is the toilet seat carpeted?”

“It’s squishy, too,” Beth said. “If you want to take a poop in comfort.”

“I’m good, thanks. Just tell me where to get the recipe. It’s creeping me out in here.” Any abandoned place is inherently creepy, and an abandoned place that hasn’t had the décor or furniture updated since probably 1990 is even creepier.

“Kitchen,” she said. “Downstairs. There’s a cabinet above the sink, and in that cabinet is a little box that says “recipes” on it, and filed under C is the cookie recipe.”

“All of which would be much more helpful information if I could actually see anything,” I said, feeling my way down the stairs in the dark. Someone had put the shades down on every window in the house, so there wasn’t any light leaking in from the street or anything, so I felt like tripping over something was nearly inevitable. Until I realized I could probably use my phone flashlight without being seen from the street. At least I hoped so. I clicked it on, found my way to the kitchen, and easily found the recipe file in the cabinet over the sink. I opened it up, flipped through, and found, behind the “C” tab, an index card that read:

Sorry, Beth. Gram said you can have the recipe when you’re ready. If you’re reading this, you’ve clearly broken in to Gram’s house, which pretty much proves you’re not ready. Don’t steal any of Gram’s stuff.

I read this aloud to Beth on the phone and was rewarded with a string of epithets directed at Christie, followed by some cursing not specifically aimed at Christie, followed by some rather inventive ideas on what Christie could do and with whom and/or what.

“Okay, well, I’m gonna go ahead and crawl out the bathroom window and try not to die landing on the garbage can,” I said. I did not die, but the hang drop from the bathroom window onto the garbage can did not go smoothly, and after flopping to the ground and then climbing up to close the window and then replacing the garbage can in its rightful place, I limped back to the park as fast as I could, convinced the sirens were going to start at any moment.

They did not. I sat on the bench next to Beth, by which time she was able to form a coherent sentence. “I called an Uber. Let’s go to your depressing little cave and work out plan B,” she said.

Beth was convinced that the recipe was in the safe in Christie and Mike’s bedroom. Which meant she could easily get it when she was the only one home, as long as she could guess the code to punch in the keypad. “Which shouldn’t be too hard because she’s so freaking basic. It’s gotta be Mike’s birthday or one of the kids’ birthdays or their anniversary,” Beth said.

“Except…” she said, gesturing at me with a pretzel rod cigar, “any time I’m in the house alone, she immediately checks to see if I’ve stolen anything when she gets back. So I could get the cookie recipe and lose the roof over my head.”

“What kind of security system do they have?” I asked, “Maybe I could sneak in when you’re all out.” Now, I knew the second this was out of my mouth that it was a horrible idea. That’s not true. I knew it was a horrible idea even before I said it. But I said it anyway.

I don’t know if I can explain it to you if you haven’t spent about a decade realizing that you have an illness that has made you absolute shit at every job you’ve ever attempted including spouse and parent.

The self-loathing brought on by addiction really helps it sink its claws deep into you. Fuck up because you were using, hate yourself for being a fuckup, use some more to quiet the self-loathing, fuck up again.

Breaking into Beth’s gramma’s house was the first time I hadn’t totally hated myself in years. Yes, I was technically committing a crime, but I was helping a friend instead of disappointing a friend. I did something passably well—okay, competently, just barely—instead of terribly. Dopamine and serotonin I didn’t know I still had flooded my brain. And I wanted more.

Which is how I wound up on the side of Christie and Mike’s house a week later with a backpack holding cable cutters, a rare earth magnet, painter’s tape, some glazer’s points, and window putty. The plan was simple:

1.     Cut the house’s internet connection with the cable cutters. One of the jobs I’d been fired from on my long way down the corporate ladder was selling home security systems. So I knew that the one Christie and Mike had was very fancy and expensive and also completely useless without an internet connection. It doesn’t matter how many cameras you have if they stream video to the cloud without a local backup.

2.     Tape and break out a basement window, and then, once inside, immediately install a replacement pane of glass that Beth had smuggled into the basement. This was the most time-consuming part of the job, but they were all going out for a family dinner, and ice cream afterward, so it should be easy. Even a halfassed job wouldn’t be detected in a corner of the basement for months or years.

3.     Find the safe and use the rare earth magnet to force it open. (I learned how to do this on YouTube!).

4.     Grab the recipe, exit out the self-locking back door, and disappear into the night undetected.

Cutting the internet cable was quick and easy, but I spent an extra two minutes scraping at it to make it look like something had gnawed through it rather than cut through it so that when it was inevitably repaired, the cable guy would go, “Yep, looks like you got raccoons” or something.

I taped an X over the basement window, then whacked the glass with the cable cutter. I paused after each hit, looking around at the neighbors’ houses. I didn’t see anybody. No rear deck lights switched on, and hopefully no 911 calls were made. I bent down and removed most of the glass quickly and quietly, thinking that it would be incredibly embarrassing to be arrested while carefully removing shards of glass from a broken window pane, but then consoling myself with the thought that I had broken, but not technically entered yet, so I might still be in misdemeanor territory.

Hoping that I’d done a good enough job in the darkness, I wriggled through the window and landed on the basement floor uncut and ready to do some quick glass repair.

I was digging in my backpack for the putty when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I took it out and looked. ELEANOR JUST BOOTED ALL OVER THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY. WE’RE COMING HOME. BE THERE IN 10 MINUTES.

I stood on the basement floor, stunned.  Beth’s niece projectile vomiting in a family dining establishment was not a contingency we’d planned for.  I had ten minutes to get out of and away from the house.  I could, and probably should, just cut my losses and flee right away, but then I wouldn’t have the recipe and Christie would still probably blame Beth. And, of course, I’d be a failure. Again.

The hell with that. I was getting that goddamn cookie recipe. Of course now I needed to actually steal some other stuff in order to cover my real purpose for being here. I also didn’t need to sneak around or be quiet or careful, since the cops probably wouldn’t be here before Christie and Beth and Mike and Brady and Eleanor.

I ran up the stairs and into the living room. There was a Playstation 5 under the TV. I grabbed it. It was surprisingly heavy. I ran up the stairs and, after ruling out the bedroom with the football posters and the one with the princess bed, I found Mike and Christie’s bedroom. I checked my phone. Two minutes since Beth had called.

“Don’t panic, don’t panic,” I chanted as I looked around the room for the safe. I didn’t see anything. Must be in the closet. Seven minutes remaining, and that was Beth’s estimate, which might or might not be accurate. I needed to be out of here in three.

I found the safe in the closet and slapped the rare earth magnet on it and jiggled the handle just like the guy did in the video.

Nothing. I tried it again. Six minutes left. Again. Nothing.

It occurred to me that I never looked at the date on the YouTube video I watched, and that it was entirely possible that the safe manufacturer had corrected the huge defect in their product since TheLockPickKing had shown millions of people how to break into it. This was definitely something I should have looked into before breaking into the house.

Well, fortunately for me, the safe was not bolted down, so I was able to lift it.

Just barely. It was heavy as hell. No way was I getting this and the PS5 out of here, so I dropped the console on the closet floor and hobbled my way down the stairs with a 40-pound safe in my arms. As I got halfway down the steps, I saw lights in the driveway. Beth’s estimate had been off by at least three minutes.

I ran to the back door and tried to open it with my right hand without putting the safe down. I had to contort my body quite severely to the right side, and my lower back announced its displeasure with me. Running was now going to be out of the question. Not that I was in shape to run very far carrying 40 pounds in my arms anyway, but but now I’d be lucky to manage a zesty limp.

Finally I got the door open as I heard the front door open. I heard Eleanor crying, which was good. It might take them a few extra minutes to figure out they’d been robbed. I limped through the dark backyard. I’d made it to the swingset, halfway to the six-foot-high wooden fence, when I heard Mike: “HON! MY PLAYSTATION IS GONE!”

Stealing Mike’s video game console seemed like a great idea because it’s something you could sell quickly for drug money, something anybody would steal. It was also, apparently, Mike’s prize possession, and he was far more concerned with its absence than with his daughter’s illness.

“Terrible dad,” I wheezed out as I reached the back fence. This one was going to be tough because I had to, despite my back, lift the safe over my head and chuck it over the fence before following it. And then bending over to pick up a heavy object from the ground. If I got away from this, I’d probably be in bed for a week and be extremely tempted to treat my back pain with whisky. “Dumbass,” I said to myself.

I heaved the safe over the fence and felt a muscle I didn’t even know I had—something on my right side between my chest and my back—tear, or at least just scream in pain. I grabbed the top of the fence and realized I was going to need that muscle to pull myself over.

And that’s when Mike turned on the backyard floodlight. I was wearing a hoodie and jeans, could be anybody really, definitely not identifiable, I told myself. I held the top of the fence, and, with my right side screaming and my left lower back screaming and me screaming too, I scrabbled my feet up the fence and managed to flop over to the other side. I wanted very much to lie there and just feel my pain and curse my idiocy, but I didn’t want to get arrested tonight.

“Chris! Get the gun!” Mike yelled.

I also did not want to get killed tonight. I got to my feet, bent deep at the knees and picked up the safe again and started shuffling away from the fence. “The safe is gone!” Christie yelled, and I realized that I was technically holding the gun and wondered if that would make this armed robbery in the eyes of the law.

Mike did not have a gun, but he yelled out, “I’ll get you, you son of a bitch!”

I moved as fast as I could. The problem was that this wasn’t actually very fast and that Mike, who had not abused his body for decades and was not currently holding a safe, was running toward me. Also I was in the backyard of another house, and they had just turned their own back yard floodlight on.

I got to the side of the neighbor’s house and heard the door open. “Get him!” Mike screamed. “He robbed my house!”

The smart thing here would have been to drop the safe. But I hadn’t done the smart thing all night—hell, ever—so why start now?

I fantasized about Beth roaring up in the family SUV and driving me to safety, but if Christie knew for a fact that she’d participated, she’d definitely press charges and Beth would be going back to jail where I’d have to bring her cookies made from her gramma’s recipe on visiting days. Assuming I was out of jail, which was looking pretty unlikely.

And then, for the first time that evening, I caught a break. Mike and his neighbor crashed into each other in their race to be the first to capture me, which gave me time to get into the park across the street and onto my bike.

I dropped the safe into the basket, turned the key, and started pedaling. I had bought the ebike last year  because it removed the complication, and, more importantly, expense of car ownership from my life. What I wasn’t thinking at the time was that it also made a great getaway vehicle. No license plates, and the freedom to maneuver through, for example, the winding paths of a city park at 20 miles an hour once it got up to speed.

Which took longer than usual because I was hauling a safe in addition to my own body. I could hear Mike’s footsteps slap-slap-slapping on the path behind me, but eventually they got quiet. I  exited the park of the far side and took a long and very roundabout way home, sticking to side streets as much as possible so I wouldn’t have to answer any questions about why I was transporting a safe on the back of my bike.

I got home and got the safe inside, and seconds later there was a knock on my door. I threw a blanket over the safe and reminded myself not to answer any questions. “Come back with a warrant!” I yelled at the door.

This was answered with a peal of laughter. Beth. “Fantastic! It’s nice to know you listen to me sometimes!” she said. I opened the door and saw her face—she’d definitely been crying. She had a duffel bag in her right hand.

“Well, Christie didn’t believe I had nothing to do with the robbery, so she kicked me out,” Beth said. “Can I crash here?”

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll get the air mattress and—”

“Well, let’s get the safe open first,” Beth said. “I assume it’s that cube subtly covered with a blanket on the table.”

It turned out that Beth’s prediction about Christie’s basic combination choices was right. “Of course it’s Brady’s birthday. She hates Eleanor,” Beth said. “When that kid is a teenager, all hell’s gonna break loose.”

“And you can be the cool aunt who takes her in and bakes her cookies,” I said to Beth.

She looked at me, tears in her eyes, and gave me a hug. “That’s, like, the nicest vision,” she said. “I never...I haven’t had a nice thought about my future since I was 14.” We stayed like that for so long it started to get awkward. She dropped her arms and said, “Well, you took most of the risk. You wanna do the honors?”

“Sure,” I said.

I reached into the safe and pulled out a pistol and a box of ammunition. “Jesus Christ,” Beth said. “Guns and ammo in a safe with an obvious combination and two kids in the house. Christie should thank you for getting this out of there.”

There was also an envelope with passports, birth certificates, and social security cards. “You wanna get into identity theft?” Beth said. “There’s way less running involved.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to think I may not be cut out for a life of crime,” I said. I pulled out another manila envelope. For Beth, when she’s ready, it said.

“And Christie thought she got to decide when I was ready,” Beth said. I opened the envelope and pulled out an index card.

Alison-Davey chocolate chip cookie recipe, it said. It wasn’t handwritten—it had been printed. Alison-Davey had been the big, fancy department store downtown. It had closed when our parents were kids.

“Jesus, it wasn’t even her recipe,” Beth said. “This recipe must be all over the internet. Christ, I’m so sorry,” She said. “I made you—” she started to cry, and I recognized the signs of a self-loathing meltdown, and those always bring the risk of using. I reached into the envelope.

“There’s something else here,” I said. I pulled out a stack of pieces of paper. US Savings bonds. 100 dollars each. One bought on Beth’s birthday every year until she turned eighteen.

And suddenly Beth’s tears were happy. “Eighteen hundred dollars!” she said. “Oh my God! Gramma! This is going to change my life! Do you know what this means?” she said to me. “I’m on my way to saving enough for first and last and security! She gave me such a head start!”

I was busy looking at the website I’d just pulled up on my phone. “Beth, she gave you more than a head start. These bonds have all matured. That’s not eighteen hundred dollars. It’s almost ten thousand.”

“Oh my God!” she said. “It’s a new start! She gave me a new start! I’m getting my own space!” She jumped up and down with glee.  “I don’t have to crash in this hellhole, no offense!”

“None taken,” I said.

“You,” she said. “You know you changed my life, right? There’s no telling how long Christie would have held onto this. She wanted to see me fall again. And I probably would have, if it wasn’t for you and your completely inept burglary skills.”

“Well,” I say, “you know, it was my first burglary.”

“Second,” she corrected. “And the second one was way worse than the first. You risked your freedom for me, and you were bad at it,” she was now laughing and crying at the same time.

And for the first time since I was 14, I felt good about myself.


#shortstory #fiction