Bruce Flanagan knew better than to open a story with his main character looking at themselves in the mirror. A classic cliché: our worn-down, unlikely hero no longer able to recognize their own face after performing morally-questionable deeds and derring-do. A terrible trope: with our meek, bespectacled high schooler longing for a prom invite, if only someone could look past their double-thicc glasses and see the absolute hottie within.
Bruce was no hero. But he did think he was kind of okay-looking, in a nerdy, I'll fix your wifi sort-of way. Someone once told him that he had the "cool grey eyes of a sniper," whatever that was supposed to mean. You aren't supposed to think you're good-looking, Bruce knew. Like you're not supposed to want to run for office, the duty was thrust upon me, felllow citizens. Bruce practiced smiling. Again, with teeth. Then, teeth, but slightly open, with his tongue lizarding out a little bit.
How long had he been in here? He flushed the unused toilet, a semaphore to anyone waiting outside, then he washed his hands and splashed water on his face before opening the door.
"What's the worst thing that could happen?"
Bruce froze. His little cousin Elliot was standing outside the door with a headless rubber snake wrapped like a trophy around his neck.
"What did you say?" asked Bruce. How did the seven-year old know to ask Bruce that question?
"I said," replied Elliot. "Can you help me sneak a cookie, Bruce?"
Bruce was a well-known, somewhat-accepted dessert thief, trained long-ago by older cousins who no longer came to these gatherings, off with families of their own or just gone away. Moll Flanders, Master Fagin, Bruce Flanagan.
"I can show you, Elliot." Bruce crouched down. "But we need to be sneaky about it, okay? That's PeePee you have right there around your neck, right?"
Elliot nodded. Bruce was glad he remembered the snake's name, though odds were good - he knew it was a coin-toss between PeePee and PooPee.
"Okay, good. I'll meet you in the dining room. Go there now, and just start playing with the snake. No one will suspect a thing. Ok?"
"Okay, Bruce!" Elliot spun around and raced straight towards the dining room and its table of homemade pies and cookies and other deliciousness.
"Sigh," said Bruce, narrating again. He brushed past the overstuffed hallway coatracks and entered the fray.
Everyone was talking to everyone, undoutably violating all five rules about conversation from that episode of This American Life with the woman's French mother. No stories about your dreams. Or the weather. Or... Bruce was interrupted by a hugging relative who asked about his flight from California. Another rule.
Bruce smiled with the tip of his tongue. He filled his empty hands with a cold beverage. He ate seven pigs-in-a-blanket. All the while, his eyes were trained on the boy and his headless rubber snake in the room beyond. Eventually, Bruce slipped past the defenses, entering the sanctum.
"Good, you're here, Elliot. Did anyone see you enter this room?"
"No," said the boy. "They didn't."
Bruce nodded at the absurdity of childlike wonder.
"Okay, so, the trick is," said Bruce. "You can only target stacked cookies, like this plate. Watch me now. Carefully, unwrap the plastic wrap, ever-so-slightly. Pluck a cookie from the bottom or middle layer, like so... and then adjust the top layer of cookies to cover your tracks. Finally, reseal the plastic wrap and... gobble it up. Now you try, Elliot."
Elliot was a natural. With his mouth full, Elliot turned to Bruce and asked him again, "What's the worst thing that could happen?"
The worst thing? thought Bruce I can think of a thousand worst things. I eat negative visualization for breakfast. Seneca is my middle name. Imagine if...
"Bruce..." said Elliot, greedily sneaking another cookie.
"What if you got everything you ever wanted?"
Bruce watched the boy looking up at him, remembering something from somewhere, just out of his mind's eye.
"I'd figure out something else to want, Elliot."
Elliot pursed his lips and pretended to feed his cookie to PeePee. Then he gave up and swallowed it whole.
"Me too, Bruce."