Soon after dusk, Janice squirms into the narrow gap between her front porch and box hedge and crouches in the dirt. To keep her mind off the spiders and centipedes, she tells herself that she’s doing this for the children, the families--those who come out every evening and light their jack o’lanterns together and leave it burning all night.
She shifts her squat and tries not to rustle the bushes too much. She’s confident that pumpkin smashing is simply mean-spirited vandalism. But the vandals had proceeded block by block through the neighborhood over the last week, smashing every grinning jack o’lantern they could find. Last night, they hit one street east, so tonight they’ll hit Janice’s. But not if Janice can help it.
Trying to ignore the pain in her ankles, Janice starts work herself up, trying to get the guts to jump out and grab, or at least frighten, the stupid punk kids who think pumpkin smashing is a fun way to spend the evening. She imagines 2 or 3 startled, acne-faced, mohawked boys running away and agreeing that Janice’s is one block no one should mess with.
Lost in her imaginary triumph, she doesn’t notice when the sound begins--the low hum of a distant prop plane maybe, getting closer. Janice holds her breath and listens for the human noises, footsteps or laughter. None. She slowly unfolds her aching joints to peer over the hedge row.
At first, she just sees the usual quiet houses with their brightly grinning jack o’lanterns and a dark sky above, the street dimly lit by a few low-wattage bulbs. But she can still hear that noise, more like flapping bat wings now. And the sidewalk just past the MacNamara’s house, two doors down on the other side of the street, seems unusually dark; the street light flickers, blackens, flickers again. The flapping sound grows louder, followed by a crash and a wet thump. But she still can’t see the source of the noise. Janice stands up straight, sticks and leaves clinging to her sweater, and squints down the street to see that the flickering street light has come back on fully.
As she watches, a dark, wispy cloud descends on the MacNamara’s house. The smoky shape lowers itself fluidly and aims directly for the jack o’lantern, which topples down the porch steps and splatters across the walkway. The cloud starts to disperse, but then it changes direction and crosses the street to Betty’s house, next door. Janice can’t see it there, even when she leans out over the bushes, but she hears small hisses and the sickening thump of the pumpkin smashing on the ground. Janice’s heart beats loudly. She can’t distinguish its pounding from the fluttering of the cloud that now crosses back, floating above the street like a helicopter, to the house directly across from hers. When it disperses, she sees pumpkin guts and candle wax smeared over the front door.
When Janice notices that the black cloud is coming straight for her head, she shakes herself from her stoned shock and dives behind the box hedge. She lies on her back in the dirt, watching the bottom edge of her own glowing jack o’lantern balancing above her on the front porch railing. The cloud arrives with amazing speed and, as it passes over her, she sees a swarm of flying bugs so close together they seem like one fluid unit. Moths, she realizes, giant, swarming moths. As she presses the back of her head into the dirt, she sees the front of the swarm--the first few moths--fly directly into her jack o’lantern’s gaping mouth. The carved face flashes in bright demonic glee as they catch fire, hissing.
The moths behind the first few are unable to slow down after the flame is snuffed, and they push forward with such force that the pumpkin seems to jump off the porch railing and float in the air. But quickly the moths lose interest in the levitating but dark jack o’lantern, and they careen to the side in swooping u-turns, some of them smacking into Janice’s front window screen. The pumpkin drops to the porch with a strong thud and splatters its guts in all directions. Janice yelps in surprise as pumpkin rains down on her, but the cloud of moths is already moving on to the next house across the street. A few stop on the way to beat themselves frantically against the street light, but most head directly for the next flame.
Sputtering out pumpkin and swear words, Janice claws her way to standing and watches the cloud of moths continue zigzagging down the street. Dazed, she turns to see her carefully crafted jack o’lantern smashed to unrecognizable bits all over her front porch. And she starts to laugh. A deep, full-throated laugh that erupts from somewhere in her lower belly and spills out in delicious peals that ring off the darkened houses and bounce back to her. She’s relieved that it wasn’t 2 or 3 punk kids--what would she really have done? Jumped out and yelled, ‘Boo!’? And she begins to flesh out how she’ll explain this phenomenon.
Still blind with laughter, she wiggles out of the bushes and climbs her front porch steps. Janice tries to step around the smear of pumpkin guts, laughing at their absurdity and her own absurdity for thinking she could take on nature in such a ridiculous way. Her sneaker skids on a chunk of pulp and flies out from under her. She waves her arms wildly, gasps, and falls backward, her head cracking on the porch railing with a wet thump.