Aunt Emily’s green asbestos shingled cottage was forbidden. The rusted sign nailed to her front door spelled the warning: No Trespassing. Her lot was overgrown with clumps of chicory and wild carrot; snake grass and patches of sand. On the lake side, her breakwall was made in the accident of riprap: a rough surface of every angle which was hard to scale when we were crossing yard to yard; picking up kids for a game of sandlot baseball at the firemen’s exempt. We were growing up Roman Catholic, and by 1961, we were well past the age of reason. When we looked at Aunt Emily’s sign, we figured we could beat her commandment. We knew how to keep our distance by walking the invisible line of public domain. Since there was no beach to speak of in front of her cottage, we claimed right of way, hopping rock to rock, careful to jump in each other’s footstep without making a sound.
No such luck. Aunt Emily had a third eye. She could sense we were there. Her screen door would swing open like she was entering a saloon. Her small but wiry body in that blue forget-me-not print dress would square off. She held the Remington rifle cocked in her hands, watching us cross in single file in front of her. We looked at her in sideways glances, praying she wouldn’t stop us. Not today. Not any day.
“Hold up, right there.” The rifle trained on our shadows’ next move made our hearts stampede — our bodies swayed and bumped together. Our hands locked. The air hung still. Not even a deerfly’s buzz made us flinch. “Just where do you think you’re going?”
“You just can’t walk across my property without paying a price.” Gun lowers. “What’s in your pockets?”
“Nothing you’d want,” Mark hissed. His face was blistering red. James looked hard at him and me to stay quiet.
“How would you know what I want? I want all of you to stay clear. Can you get that in your minds, or do you need a reminder? Something in your back pockets, maybe?” Raises gun again.
“The water is chest high in front of your cottage. What do you expect us to do?” James pleaded.
“Why don’t you play in the street? That would get rid of the lot of you. Your parents would hardly notice you were gone. They wouldn’t see you missing at the table because there are too damn many of you — you all look the same, smell the same, talk the same. It makes no difference to them if you’re there or not there, but to me, it’s all the difference. Get gone, you hear.” She raised her gun straight up into the air, and fired.
In the moment she squeezed off the shot, we scattered like minnows, diving off the rocks into the lake. The icy water rushed around us. The fizz of bubbles made us surface fast. The three of us blowing air then grinning.
“That was close,” gushed James as he grabbed Mark. “What were you doing, sassin’ her?” He shoved Mark underwater. Mark lunged forward with a cocked fist — ready to slam James in the chest.
I slid between them and pulled them close. “Shh — we’re not in the clear, not yet. You know there isn’t a squirrel in her yard…we could end up in her witch’s stew if we’re not careful.” We swam close to the rocks, listening for the sound of her screen door slamming shut. Nothing. Not a sound. Just the sway of the waves backwashing.
“Are we safe? Do you see her on the porch?” James whispered, holding onto a clump of seaweed.
“No, I think she’s gone.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait up, what am I gonna tell my mom? I wasn’t supposed to get these clothes wet. She’s going to kill me.”
I looked at the boys staring at me with those sour-you’re-in-big-trouble faces, and could see we couldn’t tell the truth. Nobody would believe us. Emily, that sweet old lady, they’d say, she’s been living in that cottage since the beginning of time. She’s all worn out; what could she possibly do to you? Stay out of her yard, or else we’ll wear you out. There you have it. God’s punishment written all over today’s news, and we’re the headline.
“We won’t go home,” James said. “We’ll cut through Johnson’s yard and take old Edgemere to the firemen’s exempt. It’s so hot, we’ll dry before we get there. It’s not too late. I guess it’s around three. We’ll be home in time for supper and nobody will know, okay?”
James waited for us to nod okay. We slipped out of the water in front of Johnson’s cottage. Our sneakers bubbled and squeaked as we sprinted to the back road.
James was right. Our clothes did dry quickly as we walked in the broad sunlight. Grasshoppers flitted in short jumps on the loose gravel. This winged distraction on any other day would have entertained us for hours, but not this afternoon. Up ahead we could see a small crowd gathering, mothers in pink Spoolie curlers, with soggy diapered babies slung on their hips, dogs barking and panting underfoot and men in faded blue uniforms with brooms and shovels, standing in a loose circle around a crooked manhole cover in the parking lot.
“Hey, look, something is going on.” It wasn’t a tipped manhole cover, but the biggest snapping turtle we’d ever seen. The turtle was raised up on its hind legs, with its jaws locked down on a broom handle held by Eric Green. Eric had fire in his eyes. His forearms were bulging as he began to jerk the broom, hard right then left until it cracked to splinters, flipping the turtle on its back with the shattered handle still in its mouth.
“Careful, Eric, that’s an old timer. He’ll go for your leg next,” called Millard.
“Stand back, stand back,” Eric hollered, grabbing a shovel. The fire alarm sounded in its long whooping blasts; dogs began to howl, babies cried. The turtle struggling to flip back over, let loose a flood of water. We stood there transfixed, unable to move in any direction; forced to witness what would happen next.
“Hey, Jacob, are we gonna have cream of turtle soup tonight?” Eric chortled, taking a fiendish swing. His shovel just missed smashing the turtle’s undershell. Eric danced backwards, laughing, not listening to anyone’s screams of stop or go, which were all the same scream, again and again, until the turtle laid split open.
Eric finally quit and stood there breathless. Everyone was silent. He slammed his shovel in Jacob’s hands. “Clean it up.”
Jacob didn’t move. Eric spun around to us and pointed his finger at our chests, “All of you, get out of here. I don’t want to see you near this place. If you tell your parents what’s happened, I’ll skin you alive.”
Without a word, we turned and ran with our heels hitting the back of our heads. We ran without stopping, until we slipped between the stand of poplar trees that flanked our yards.
“Where have you been?” Mother shrieked when she saw me. “What are you doing so close to the road? You could get killed. Don’t you realize that? What’s the matter with you? What’s the matter with you?”