Your leg when it breaks in half sounds like a wet tree branch snapping. I swear to God. Go outside, find a tree, throw some water on it, and snap it in half. That wet, crunchy sound? That’s your leg snapping. That’s your tibia and fibula bones breaking.
When you’re robbing a house, none of this matters. You don’t see it as a possibility. There are other worries. Alarms. Dogs. Crazy home-owners with guns or knives or boxing skills. Toys strewn every which way, underfoot in all directions.
The third house we were on for the day was looking great. There was a dog round back; a big, wet looking pooch. All it wanted was a pat. The way to check? It sounds risky, but stick your hand through a gap in the fence. Get a lick, go ahead. Get a growl, back right down.
James stayed in the car while I knocked on the door, clipboard in hand, a few fake signatures, a heading that read Save The Whales. Just in case somebody answered. Nobody did. I gave James a dorky thumbs up. He rolled his eyes at me.
I opened the gate to the backyard. Socks on my hands. A bit crass, I know. A bit amateur. But you feel like a git wearing latex gloves.
The dog leaped at me and drooled on my leg. A small dog. Fluffy. Happy. Lesson to home owners: give your dog attention. Or it’ll give all its love to the thief.
The back kitchen window was open slightly. I took off the wire screen and climbed in. Took me around five minutes. Five minutes. The difference between you having your stuff and you calling the police.
Another lesson: shut your windows firmly when you leave your house. Or buy stuff you don’t care about losing.
Or it doesn’t matter. Either way, I’m coming in.
I opened the front door. James left the car running and came inside. He handed me some bags.
‘Anything good?’ he said.
‘I haven’t looked.’
‘It looks like an old person’s house.’
And he was right. It did. Lace doilies under old photos. That particular type of smell. Musty. You know the one. All grandmas have it.
James went into the bedroom and rummaged through old people underwear. Looking for jewelry. They always put it there. In the lounge room was a big glass cupboard. Inside was what looked like silverware. Old photos. More lace doilies. But silverware.
I didn’t want to just smash open the glass front. Where possible I try to be nice. I know that sounds stupid. I’m robbing people blind. But I try to be nice because a) I’m a nice person and b) if people aren’t too fussed about what you’ve done, they put less pressure on the cops to find me.
I went into the kitchen and took a knife from the drawer. I levered it in. The cupboard or whatever it was had those double glass doors. I started to wedge the knife back and forth.
I turned to look at James. His bags looked empty.
‘I haven’t started yet,’ I said.
‘Come on then.’
‘Your bags are empty.’
‘There’s nothin’ here. Not a thing.’
I turned back to the cupboard and heard James slide open the back door. Sometimes you get ornamental things out back. Nifty little nick nacks worth a bit at Cash Converters. Rare though.
I wiggled the knife in and heard a creaking and put more pressure on. The wood started to bend in the door. Then there was a snap and I jerked back, thinking of flying, knife-like splinters. What happened instead was I pulled the cupboard forward.
Before I knew it, my leg was trapped underneath.
A glass cupboard falling on you feels inevitable. A slow-motion, rolling machine of death. It topples and you stand helpless. Or you scurry. It’s all the same. Either way, you end up trapped. Me, I dove to the side. What got trapped was my left leg. The sound, far clearer in my mind than any glass shattering, was that wet tree branch snap.
I leaned back. The pain is nothing you can describe. Feeling your leg go noodly beneath the side of a heavy cupboard is terrifically painful. It was a miracle none of the glass cut me.
Wherever you’re sitting while you read this, take your leg. Roll up your pants. Take a hammer. Smash down, near the ankle. That’s the pain. Nothing is like it. I mean really smash. Put the full power of a large wooden cupboard hurtling through space behind it. Go on. Really do it. I’ll wait here.
Behind the pain I heard my good friend James, my dearest buddy, scurry from the back yard, the dog yapping excitedly as he exited. The back gate closing. Finalising my sentence.
One dog yapping, the other abandoning his friend.
I tried lifting the cupboard. From where I sat, and the pain I was in, meant it was impossible. I mean really impossible. If I had been twice as strong it wouldn’t have moved.
My head started to beat in time with my heart and I was instantly afraid I’d go into shock. Something a friend once described to me. You go into shock, your brain fries. You go silly. Then asleep. Then death.
He was exaggerating. But I didn’t know that at the time.
It took hours before anybody got home. By this time my leg had swollen and I’d had a good look. A big bend in the middle. I couldn’t even straighten it out. I couldn’t move myself. Worse pain than before. It had just increased over time. I’d get used to it, then the cupboard would sink in that little bit further. By that stage I would’ve sawn it off.
Who came in made me feel worse. A little old lady.
I heard her gasp as she pushed open her front door. James had left it open. Little, pitter-pattery footsteps made their way closer to me. I knew it was an old lady without even looking.
There was no sound for a moment so I pushed passed my pain and looked at her. Grey hair. Short. Eyes wide in horror. She stood with her hand to her mouth.
‘Hi,’ I said stupidly.
It took her a moment to reply.
‘You’ve made a mess.’
‘Do you need some help?’
I nodded, and squeezed my eyes shut.
‘That’d be nice.’
‘Hang on. I’ll call the police.’
‘Could you call an ambulance too?’
She smiled. One of those sweet old lady smiles. Dentured and firm.
I heard her dial and describe the situation. She sounded calm. I was relieved she didn’t find me scary. She came back in and pulled up her little brown chair and sat in it, leaning forward.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘What did you take?’
‘I don’t think we took anything.’
‘My friend and I. He’s gone.’
‘Yeah. No honour among thieves, I guess.’
‘There’s not much here.’
‘Not much worth anything, anyway.’
‘Money-wise, I mean. Lots of this stuff is worth a lot to me.’
‘I’m sure it is.’
‘Lots of memories.’
‘There’s a plate in there,’ she said, ‘that my mum gave me. On my wedding day. Bruce died a few years ago now, and Mum decades before. But I still remember them when I look at that plate.’
‘I was going to steal it.’
‘I figured that’d be why you wanted in there.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. I felt ashamed. Which was nowhere near as painful to me as my leg, let’s be clear.
‘It’s not real silver, you know.’
‘So it’s worth less than the knife you used to pry open the cupboard.’
‘How’d you know I used a knife?’
‘It’s beside you.’
‘I could take a swipe at you.’
‘I know. I don’t think you will.’
‘You seem nice enough.’
‘I was trying to rob you.’
She laughed. A very pleasant sound.
‘But you were being so nice about it,’ she said, and stood. She walked into the kitchen. ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you get out from under there. I’m just too old. Do you want a cup of tea?’
I heard the kettle go on. She came back in.
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I didn’t call the police.’
I stared at her. Through the pain haze.
‘I figured it’d be a lot of trouble. I don’t care about the cupboard. Old thing was liable to fall on me one of these days.’
‘Who did you call?’
‘Just the ambulance.’
I didn’t know what to say. The old lady pulled her chair forward and came down, right to my face.
‘I figure with your injury you’ll be off your feet for six weeks. I was when I broke my leg, climbing. So you’ll have time to think. Really evaluate your life.’
I accidentally rolled my eyes. Guess my brain was having trouble sorting through the mess. She didn’t look angry.
‘I know. You’re young. You could care less what I have to say. But I’ve seen things in my time. I’ve been around. I know what real trouble looks like. You’re not in real trouble. You’re in mild trouble. And you can get out of it, if you want. You haven’t dug your hole that deep. I’m giving you the opportunity. You have a record?’
‘A bad one?’
‘Not too bad.’
‘You keep it that way. This is your opportunity. Alright? You be nice from now on.’
‘I thought you said I was already nice.’
The ambulance came before the kettle was boiled. It took two of them to lift the glass cabinet, glass cascading from it. My leg had a massive dent. It made me sick to look at. Like a wet noodle.
They put me on a stretcher, wheeled me into the ambulance. I had to have surgery, and waited days in the hospital for the swelling to go down. The old lady came to see me. My parents looked at her warily. She smiled at them. Told them I was her charge. Or something.
Anyway, as you can probably tell from the state of your house, I’m back on my feet. This was a few years ago. I still rob houses, but now I leave these notes. If I took anything accidentally that you hold dear, put this note back in your mailbox. Write on the bottom the stuff you’d like returned. I’ll come by some day and have a look. And I’ll spot any police from a mile off. You do that, you get nothing back. I’m not saying you’ll get what you want; but I’m saying I’ll think about it.
I’m trying to be nice about it.
Benjamin Hobson grew up in regional Australia, and now makes his home in sunny Brisbane with his wife, Lena, and new son, Charlie. Whenever he finds literary success, he forces down a shot of whiskey. The bottle is still pretty full, but he is hoping to rectify that within the next year! Even though he hates whiskey…
He would love to hear from you at www.facebook.com/benlhobson.
Illustration by: Cait Maloney