Content warning: Some swearing
The only problem with breaking into your neighbor's house is if someone else beats you to it.
The Mastersons are gone for the month, summering in Fiji or Acapulco or wherever people go when they're filthy rich and can afford to flaunt it by using words like "summering." Before leaving, they'd asked me to watch their house. For free, of course. I smiled and told them they had nothing to worry about. It wasn't until their blue Bugatti sped down our dead-end street that I finally uncrossed the fingers hiding behind my back.
Burglary 101: A good heist is all about patience. For two weeks now I've spent night after sweaty July night sequestered in my stuffy attic with my telescope trained on the Masterson house: their backyard swimming pool, their organic vegetable garden, their novelty chicken mailbox. Think Rear Window, only I'm not as handsome as James Stewart.
Why wait so long? Because breaking into someone's house the first week they're on vacation is so predictable, and the second week even less subtle. But the third week—no one ever suspects that third week.
Which is probably why, right now, during the middle of the third week, as I'm zipping up my black coveralls and adjusting my ski mask, as I'm stooping down to peer through my telescope, which has become a worse habit for me than day drinking, I can feel my heart free-fall its way to the basement.
Across the street the shadow of a person creeps toward my neighbor's veranda. It's almost midnight. Everything is dark outside, like a chocolate cake when you don't bake it right, and the person shines a dim light in front of them. I hold my breath as they reach the door's smart lock. Their fingers bounce around the keypad with all the dexterity of a fat kid in a confectionery shop. Then the numbers light up and the door swings open and they slip inside the house.
I wait a few more minutes, expecting to see a lightbulb spark to life in one of the windows. When the place remains unlit, I grab my cell phone and a black Hefty bag and then I'm off, gliding across my house to the front door. Think Risky Business, only I'm not as smooth as Tom Cruise.
I'll be honest with you: When I arrive at the Mastersons', fulfilling my promise to watch their house is the furthest thing from my mind. Really, I just don't want whoever's inside to take all the good shit before I get a chance.
The smart lock keypad awaits my touch. My fingers move with all the dexterity of a fat kid running a mile, but the numbers still brighten and the door swings open, coaxed by the passcode that I'd obtained after several months of attic telescoping.
Inside, the house is as dark and chocolate cakey as outside. The scent of vanilla lingers in the air, sprayed every fifteen minutes via one of the house's thousand automatic air fresheners. From the kitchen comes the sound of a cabinet being opened, wine glasses clinking. Using my phone's flashlight, I make my way toward the noise and hope whoever's in there hasn't yet discovered Mrs. Masterson's sixty-piece bone china dinner set.
I'm not sure what exactly you're supposed to say to someone who's hunched over and dumping a whole drawer of silverware into a burlap sack, so I aim my flashlight at their back and settle for a classic. "Hi, how's it going?" Nice and casual, not too confrontational, with a hint of politeness. Maybe I am as smooth as Tom Cruise.
My words come as the last knife in the drawer hits the bottom of the sack. In an instant the person drops both drawer and sack, grabs something from their waist, clicks a button. Blue light appears like magic. A thin strand of electricity crackles to life. Pointing the taser gun at me, she shouts, "Put your hands up and don't fuckin' move!"
I'll be honest with you: I've always thought people who talk about love at first sight were full of it. But now, standing there in front of this woman—because there's no doubt the voice belongs to a woman—I get what they mean.
Think of the most beautiful woman you've seen. Sandra Bullock, probably. Then imagine her standing there pointing a stun gun at you in your neighbor's kitchen, legs like a desert oasis, curves like a rainbow, brown hair flowing down her back as she straightens her trigger finger. Because that's exactly what this woman is like.
At least, I imagine so. She's wearing a black latex catsuit and a matching ski mask that make her look formless in the veil of night, even in the taser's blue glow. Not one inch of skin showing.
But sometimes a voice is all you need to really know someone. That's how all my previous relationships have started, with a voice, and those were nice, while they lasted.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" I say, taking a few steps back and turning off my phone's flashlight to show her I'm harmless. "I come in peace."
"Who are you?" The words bubble like acid rain. My feet take another step back without asking my brain. The taser is still aimed at my chest.
"I'm the Mastersons' neighbor." I point vaguely in the direction of my house. She starts to close one eye like she's about to open fire, so I add, "And believe it or not, I'm here to do the same thing you're doing."
Slowly, finally, she lowers her weapon so now it's aimed at my crotch. It's a small victory. I take what I can get these days.
I want her to trust me, so I run my hand along the wall in search of the light switch. If she could only see the Hefty bag in my hand, she'd know where we stand. At last the switch pricks my thumb and all at once we're bathed in pure white light.
"Cut that shit off!" she hisses, and it's like Jesus himself said the words, they sound so beautiful. And so is she, probably, but the light switch clicks and it's dark again.
She looks out the window, swivels her head from end to end of the sidewalk. Then she taps a button on her taser and the blue crackling is gone, replaced by a regular flashlight, which she shines directly in my eyes. "Are you trying to get me caught?"
"Unbelievable," she mutters, and crouches to pick up her burlap sack, leaving the silverware drawer on the floor. The sliver of moonlight from the window makes her look like an angel. An angel who's approaching the sixty-piece bone china collection with my name on it.
I rap on the wall twice, and it works. She stops, turns to face me. The moonlight reveals only the left side of her ski mask. "Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot," I say, peeling off my own mask with one hand and offering a truce with the other. "I'm Mack, by the way."
She stares at my proffered hand like she doesn't want to contract whatever form of leprosy I have. The night air is a blanket, heavy and warm around us, filled with the songs of crickets and cicadas. We stand there listening to the house groan under our feet, above our heads.
The ski mask feels like a dumbbell in my hand. "This is usually the part where you tell me your name."
"Mmm, no," the woman says, arcing her taser-flashlight across the adjoining living room. She marches to the baby grand piano in the corner, no doubt trying to devise a way to wheel it into the night.
"Okay. Okay, I'll just call you Jenny," I say, following her. "That was my last girlfriend's name." Which is information that was supposed to stay in my head before my mouth sabotaged me. But now it's too late. The words bridge the space between us like a Chinese finger trap, binding us together as accomplices.
She pauses, one hand poised atop a stack of outdated sheet music—Beethoven or Bach or Mariah Carey. Turning around, she stares at me behind her ski mask and opens her glossy mouth. It doesn't matter that she showed up to a robbery wearing lipstick. It doesn't matter that she almost tased me two minutes ago. My heartbeat quickens all the same, and my blood rushes to places where it probably shouldn't be.
Slowly, finally, she says, "Shut up, Max," and dumps the music into her sack, Mariah Carey and all.
And it doesn't even matter that she got my name wrong. She could read the yellow pages cover to cover and I would listen forever, falling asleep and waking up to the sound of her voice every day.
So, yes, I shut up. We shuffle to separate corners of the living room and inspect our potential treasures. And let me tell you, it's the longest five minutes of silence in my life.
But then, as I'm snatching a handful of angelfish from the Mastersons' aquarium and tossing them into my garbage bag, curiosity creeps up on me like it's driving a "Free Candy" van, and I can't help but to ask, "How did you get past the smart lock anyway? It took me meeks of watching with my telescope to get the numbers." I cringe hearing the word 'meeks,' a hasty overcorrection when I opted not to tell her how long my spying has actually been going on.
Jenny scoffs from across the room where she's trying desperately to pry a taxidermied deer head from its throne above the mantelpiece. "Really? You couldn't figure out 1234?" She turns and gives me a dismissive shake of her head. "They're Boomers. It's not frickin' rocket science."
Another candy van question slips out. "Why are you doing this?"
She sighs and stops tugging but keeps her hands on the antlers. "I'm just taking what I'm owed, that's all," she says. Her voice is different than before, softer maybe. "I mean, seriously. These people can go to Acapulco for a month but they can't afford to pay their employees a decent wage?"
"So it was Acapulco," I murmur.
"You know something? I'd probably be home right now watching Netflix if Ed weren't so fuckin' stingy."
Whether she means Mr. Edwin Masterson or Mrs. Edna Masterson, it's impossible to say, and I don't feel it's my place to ask. "I see, I see."
"What about you?" Jenny has given up on the deer head, opting for the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf instead. "They aren't paying you right either?"
I could tell her the truth: that the Mastersons have never wronged me, have always invited me to their cookouts and their Christmas parties. That I'm just a guy with too much time on his hands, all the time in the world, and something to prove. That I'm invading someone else's life tonight to try to find some meaning in my own. That I'm a spineless, indecisive loser and I'm destined to let the world walk all over me.
That last one is what my previous girlfriend told me anyway. Old Jenny. But that was three years ago. People can change in that amount of time, right? I would never have thought of breaking into this house three years ago. If that's not change, I don't know what is.
New Jenny is staring at me, awaiting my answer. "Uh, yeah, something like that," I tell her, plunging my hand back into the aquarium.
"Figures." She flings a tattered Gutenberg Bible into her burlap sack. "Hypocrites."
Burglary 201: Always use the toilet before a heist.
When I return from the bathroom—couldn't have been in there more than five minutes—the living room is abandoned. From the kitchen comes the rattle of a teacup and a saucer and then I know. I know this woman is no angel.
In the kitchen Jenny stands on her tiptoes to reach the top of the cabinet. She curls a few fingers around a piece of Mrs. Masterson's bone china, a white teacup with floral patterning. It is the penultimate item in the cabinet.
"What the hell are you doing?" I say as she lowers her body, cup in hand. My voice, louder than expected, ricochets off the now-empty walls like a pinball.
She startles, then slips her present into her sack, a reverse Santa Claus. "What does it look like?"
"You're taking my bone china set is what it looks like."
Jenny shrugs and points to the lone piece in the cabinet, a plain-looking white saucer with gold trim. "All yours. Have at it."
"No." I grab my soggy Hefty bag from its spot by the aquarium, stretch it as wide as it'll go. "Give me half."
The air freshener on the wall vomits vanilla mist as Jenny cocks her head. "So," she says, nodding at the cabinet. "Do you want it or not?"
"Half," I demand.
She snorts and shakes her head, done with me. Hauling her sack, she troops down the hallway toward the bathroom. I have to stop myself from grabbing her arm. The equation is simple arithmetic: She has a taser, I don't.
The saucer is an orphan in its cupboard, waiting for someone to take pity on it. It's cool to the touch in my longing fingertips. My Hefty bag is still gaping like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo, but I slide the saucer in my breast pocket for safekeeping.
The toilet flushes and Jenny emerges from the bathroom, still dragging her riches. She frowns when she sees me standing there.
"You know, I think I misjudged you, Jenny. You're not an angel at all, you know that?"
Her laugh is like the curtains bulging from her sack, velvety and hideous. "Oh, I'm not an angel? Breaking news: More at eleven!" Her taser-flashlight falls on my trash bag. "What, you think you're some kind of saint? These people aren't my neighbors."
"I'm supposed to be watching the house, actually," I confess. "That's really why I'm here. Mr. Masterson put his faith in me."
"Well, you're doing a great job." Jenny opens a hallway closet and inspects Mrs. Masterson's collection of mink coats as though she's in a bookstore, contemplating life's hardest decision: paperback or hardcover. "Let me know if you need a letter of recommendation."
My face feels like it's summering in Acapulco. The novelty of Jenny's sarcasm has worn off. Now it leaves me grinding my teeth.
"Look, I'm gonna step outside," I tell her, tapping the imaginary vape pen in my pocket. "I need a smoke break."
"Ten minutes, max," Jenny commands with all the authority of a Walmart manager. I'm still wondering if that meant 'maximum' or if she'd simply mispronounced my name again when I stumble out into the night.
A hot, gentle breeze greets me on the sidewalk, a gift from the passing cars on the next block. My house sits across the street, pale and lonely and devoid of bone china. The telescope in the attic is pointed directly at me, watching. The Mastersons' novelty chicken mailbox taunts me. They are all waiting for me to do what it is I actually came out here for.
Why not? Why not fulfill my promise? Just so she can walk away with my dinner set while I get to drag some dead fish home?
It only takes a few taps of my phone. Then a voice on the other end comes through, high-pitched and much too perky. "911, what's your emergency?"
"Hi, how's it going? Yeah, hey, my house is being broken into right now," I say, and pray this woman doesn't know what Mr. Masterson sounds like as I give her the address. She's got a mountain of questions for me high as Everest, and I listen to myself answer them.
Only I'm talking on autopilot because I'm too busy thinking about the two Jennys, old and new. How Old Jenny would have called me spineless for what I'm doing now, turning someone in while being part of the problem. How New Jenny came here tonight because she wanted to right a wrong. Because she believed in something. At least one of us has a good reason.
And that gets me thinking: She can't be all bad, right? Maybe not an angel, but not all bad. She did let me have the last saucer.
Maybe we just started off on the wrong foot.
Maybe we could get to know each other better.
Maybe then she'd even tell me her name.
The operator is still talking a mile a minute when I interrupt. "Hold on, I think. . .I think there are two people in the house now. Yes, another one just joined." And when I feed her the Mastersons' address again, I whisper, "Please come quickly."
But I'll be honest with you: That last part is for dramatic effect, just to see how long it'll take someone to show up to a fancy place like this. Five minutes? Ten?
What do I care? I have all the time in the world.
The operator tells me it won't be long, that they're sending someone right now to come help. She asks me to stay calm and remain where I am, so I stroll to the front door. I can hear Jenny's voice before my feet touch the porch, cussing one of the Eds out as she lugs her sack across the marble floor. Her bone china jingles in the night like a plea, begging my lone saucer to partake. I retrieve it from my pocket, give it a squeeze, and step inside, ready to see the mistakes we've made.