Ben walked alongside her house with the watering can in his hand. The flowers would long ago have burst into flames if it weren’t for him, and that bird-feeder would have to be refilled again. Before he reached the third bunch of azaleas, he heard a loud thump come from the back of the house.

Moments later, the dog’s high-pitched bark accompanied the voices of two men as they stomped around. Ben crept toward the backyard, clutching the watering can, until he could see her backdoor hanging off the hinges. Another moment later, two men clumsily pushed through the wreckage holding a fairly large TV between them. Before he could stop himself, Ben said:

“You’re going to trip on the power cord.”

The man first to exit, walking backwards, quickly turned his head toward Ben and dropped the TV.

“I thought you said it was empty!” he yelled in a voice two octaves higher than seemed appropriate. The man in back, walking forward, looked at Ben with a stare that could turn a man sterile. Luckily, Ben had already started running for his own house which was, unluckily, on the opposite side of the burglars. After three steps he was past the mangled doorframe and shattered TV. Heart beating faster than his legs were pumping, he was sure at least one of the two men would pound his nose through the back of his head. The only thing he had to outrun, though, was the small, white dog that came cruising out of the house and after him.

“Peppers, no!” he yelled, but the dog didn’t listen. Scared, sweaty, and slightly emasculated, Ben dropped the watering can, scooped up Peppers, and ran to the safety of his studio apartment in the back of the house next door. He kicked his own backdoor shut and clutched the dog as he collapsed on the floor.

“Oh my god. Peppers. They broke her TV.” He took three deep breaths like a Buddhist. “Now she can’t watch the news.” The dog strained in his arms to break the bear hug. Ben heard the men talking outside so he crawled to the window that overlooked her backyard. He watched as they had a quick slap fight before simultaneously deciding that running away empty-handed was better than getting arrested.

“They’re gone,” said Ben as he sat back on the floor and turned around. “Peppers?” Ben crawled into his kitchen to find the dog licking the side of his trash can. He sat down and watched. “Yeah, I know buddy. Sometimes you just gotta lick it.” Besides the soft scrape of the dog’s tongue on the plastic can and the blood pulsing through his ears, the apartment was quiet. And then he heard her car pull up in the driveway between their houses. Ben sat up straight and looked at Peppers.

“Oh no,” he said and hung onto the last vowel as if he could stop time by freezing himself. Unfortunately, it didn’t work this time and he could hear her close her car door with a slam, and then a moment later, her scream marked her arrival at the back door. Another moment later, he heard her yelling the name of the dog sitting next to him, contentedly licking the pasta sauce from his trash can.

“Peppers. Hey.” He slapped the dog on the ass and spun him around a little bit. It broke the spell that the trash can had on him and he finally looked at Ben. “What do I do?” he asked the dog. Ben would never know what the dog had to say because they were interrupted by the sound of another car pulling into the driveway. He crawled back to the window to see a police officer getting out of his car and walking toward the busted doorframe.

With his back against the wall beneath window, and Peppers happily walking around his apartment looking for long-forgotten food to lick, Ben tried to figure out what to do. He couldn’t just let the dog outside. Peppers was laughably stupid and would certainly walk directly in front of a moving car. He couldn’t bring the dog over to her house because that would implicate him in the burglary. There was a short window after she came home where he could’ve done that, but that window had closed. He glanced outside as the cop got back in his car and backed out of the driveway. She walked back inside and Ben was transfixed on the broken door. If the window of possibility is closed, he thought, my only option is to break in.

“We’re having a sleepover tonight,” he told Peppers. “Tomorrow, we’re playing Santa Claus.”

The next day, Ben woke up to Peppers peeing in his kitchen, which didn’t really surprise him. He couldn’t take the dog outside until she left for work, which wasn’t until nine in the morning. He looked at the clock, realized it was already eleven, and sighed.

“Okay Peppers.” Ben walked to the window and saw her car was gone. He felt as if in a detective show so he looked over his shoulder at the dog and imagined the camera zooming in tight on his face.

“Let’s do this,” he said, wishing he was wearing sunglasses.

He cracked open his door, Peppers clutched beneath his left arm like a football, and looked around. A couple squirrels and a bird or two, but they probably wouldn’t call the cops. A theme song played in his head; an improvised composition that sounded like a mixture of the Mission Impossible theme and the Ultimate Warrior’s entrance music. He had enough adrenaline running through him to throw Peppers clear over his house, but that would defeat the entire purpose of the operation. He quietly closed the door behind himself and tip-toed over the property line.

Her back door had been re-attached, but not well. He took a deep breath, gave Peppers a little squeeze for good luck, and pulled on the rickety door with his free hand. Not only did it open, it popped out like a game piece from Perfection. Ben walked the door backwards, leaving the bottom where it sat and leaning the top toward himself. Once it was chest level, he swung Peppers up and placed him on the door.

“Welcome home,” he whispered, and released the dog, letting him slide into the kitchen. He was about to replace the door when he saw Peppers’ water bowl next to the counter. Empty. He sighed.

He stood the door back up and leaned it against the door frame. Her house smelled better than he could have imagined. For such a forgetful person, he thought there would be crusty food on old dishes lining the sink and dirty socks dotting the floor. But he was wrong. It was pristine, besides the few pieces of glass under his feet from the spiked TV. He walked inside and watched as Peppers happily jumped onto the couch. A small vase on the coffee table held one of the flowers he had kept alive on the side of her house. He had contributed to her space and she didn’t even know it. This thought bounced around his brain as he spaced out, imagining the life they could lead together when he suddenly heard the familiar crunch of her car coming up the driveway.

“Bye Peppers!” he yelled as he ran out the back door. He quickly crammed it back into position and, realizing her driveway was between him and his house, ran to his left. He crouch-walked along the side of her house until he heard her car door shut. Then he ran full speed through her front lawn and around the opposite side of his house. For the second day in a row, he kicked his door shut and sat on the ground taking deep breaths like a Buddhist.

He was getting ready to say That was close when a small, but forceful knock came through his door. He briefly thought about pretending he wasn’t home or diving through his window or cutting his own head off when she said, “Open up. I know you’re in there.”

It took another ten seconds to convince himself to do so, but he eventually opened the door. She had her arms crossed and took a step back as they made eye contact. Her long red hair shined in the mid-day sun and even when scowling, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. It didn’t matter that she looked like she wanted to scalp him, it

was all worth it. He wished he could freeze this moment forever and live inside of it. Then she said:

“What are you? Some kind of sadistic fucking freak?”

Her voice was like intangible gold and he couldn’t find a response.

“You don’t think I know it was you? I put in a nanny cam last night. I can’t believe you would not only rob your neighbor, but do it two days in a row. Couldn’t carry the TV, huh? I moved that in myself you pussy. And taking the dog, that was really something special. The cops are on their way and I hope they make a human rights violation out of you. Don’t you—”

“Wait,” he finally said. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“Oh really? You just accidentally tried to steal my TV? I watch the news on that, you fucker.”

He nodded. He knew how important it was to stay informed.

“No, listen, I didn’t do it. It was these two other guys.”

“Right, and I suppose you chased them off?”

“Well I guess they didn’t expect me to be watering your flowers.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but paused. She shook her head and said, “You what?”

His stomach dropped. He didn’t want her to know, but at this point, secrets weren’t doing him any favors.

“You know you’re supposed to water those things, right?”

Her face softened a little, but not much. “I thought the rain pretty much took care of that.”

“It doesn’t rain every day.” Ben shifted uneasily in the doorframe. “Same with the birdfeeder. It needs to be refilled pretty often.”

“I just thought since the seeds were so small, they kinda lasted forever,” she said quietly. Then her back stiffened and she stared at him again. “But what about Peppers? Why did you take Peppers?”

“I didn’t take him, really. He followed me.”

“Peppers doesn’t like new people.”

“Yeah, well I’m not really new.” He sighed again. “When you come home with your arms full, sometimes you forget to close the door so he gets out. I’ve found him a few times and shooed him back inside.”

Her arms slowly unfolded and all rigidity fell from her face. Her head turned slightly to the side and she simultaneously stuck out her bottom lip and smiled.

“And by the time I settled down after confronting the burglars, the cops were at your place and I just couldn’t bring myself to come outside. I’m sorry.”

As if summoned by his voice, the same cop from the day before pulled up in the driveway. When he saw her at Ben’s doorstep, he came over.

“Is this him? This is the neighbor?” the cop said. He was built like a linebacker and looked as though he might be flexing his muscles. Before she could respond, he tackled Ben into his own apartment. A moment later, he was dragging him out with his hands cuffed behind his back. She finally found her voice.

“No, let him go,” she pleaded as they dragged Ben toward the police cruiser.

“This isn’t him?”

“Well, it is but—”

“Think you’re a big man?” the cop was yelling. “Stealing this nice lady’s dog and smashing her TV? How’s she going to watch the news?”

“I know how important it is to stay informed!” protested Ben.

“Yeah right, asshole.” The cop opened the back door and tossed Ben inside.

His ribs hurt and tears formed in his eyes. He wanted to proclaim his innocence, but he didn’t want her to see him crying.

“It wasn’t him yesterday! He was just returning my dog!” she said. Ben listened to her as he tried to diminish the pressure on his wrists.

“Even if it wasn’t him yesterday, it was him today. We need a closure on our books. Our numbers are pretty bad this quarter,” said the cop. “If you’re not going to give me a statement, we’ll just have to confiscate that nanny cam video.” He stood there for another moment and she shook her head. He shrugged and turned back to the car.

Ben made eye contact with her and they held it for a moment, perhaps enough time for the cop to take two steps. But within that moment, a bond made of understanding and trust was built. A tacit conversation was held and he knew she could feel herself merging with him on an atomic level. Halfway between the cop’s second and third step, she was already grabbing the rock. Another two steps and his windshield jumped to life as the spider web of cracks exploded beneath the rock.

“What…in….the….holy…living…fuck…” the cop said as he turned around. She shrugged. The cop promptly removed a second pair of handcuffs and she was soon sitting on the plastic rear seat of the police car.

“Great, now we can have two arrests on the books,” the cop said as he closed the door.

Alone in the car, she looked at Ben and smiled. “I’m Ashley,” she said.

Ben smiled and introduced himself.

Josh Rank is a graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and have had stories published in The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, The Oddville Press, The Satirist, Corvus Review, Inwood Indiana,and elsewhere.