Joseph Huckleby was a man of absolutes and specificities. His lawn was trimmed to precisely two inches. Stray leaves and debris were cleared within hours. Any snowfall above an inch needed to be shoveled immediately. At eighty-years-old, he was wilting like the leaves on the apple trees he had on the northside of his property. But even in his old age, he seized the life he had, both cherishing and gripping it with the terror of leaving this earth before he was ready. He rarely left the confines of his property, but he didn’t feel trapped. This was his land, his oasis. It was a freedom, to be able to dodder across his yard and to not worry about anything except for himself and his plants.
Joseph had exhausted his share of worries in life. Things were fuzzy before the war. They weren’t a fairy tale, but nothing in life was. After the war and after he lost his leg, he saw tiny wars in everything. There was no room in life for apathy or indecision. In short, he didn’t believe in half-assing life.
The wars that peppered his life had been significant and substantial. They left him not just without his leg, but divorced, and in solitude. He regretted both everything and nothing.
On this night, the regrets howled, a pain that started in his lower abdomen and reverberated through his achy joints. Through his bedside window, the harvest moon taunted him in its orange totality. The screams and howls increased as he rose and he pulled on his wool cardigan and gave in to its tauntings. He left through his front door, not bothering to lock it. He pulled his cardigan closer and lifted his gaze.
As a child, the harvest moon meant something. To his family of farmers, it meant forthcoming rest, a reprieve literally on the horizon. Now, it was simply a beautiful moon on the first of October. A breeze harboring tinges of frost jostled his joints. He didn’t need a farmer’s almanac to know that the first freeze was coming. It would be swift and severe.
He felt ruminative that night, a rare occurrence for Joseph. Hands behind his back, he inspected his yard for patches of brown and unexplained holes, giveaways for grubs and moles. He passed his ferns and hostas, making his way to the side of his house to inspect mums and chrysanthemums.
Giggles and banging from the other side of his house made him pause. The sounds continued, explosive. He ducked and grimaced before placing his mind back to here, in his yard, his safe haven.
It was those damn teenagers.
He wasn’t sure of the catalyst. Something about his age and pristine yard, or maybe a yelling incident a couple of months ago, had spurred a series of pranks assuaged against him. These attacks included TPing his trees, plastic spoons stabbed into his yard, and plastic wrap on his front band back doors. Joseph responded in kind, with automatic sprinklers, motion detected spotlights, and a hefty alarm system.
More giggles and receding footsteps told him it was safe to assess the damage. He walked around the back, taking in his small copse of trees and large vegetable garden. As he turned the corner to the south side of his house, the rotten smell of eggs met him. From the light of the harvest moon, he could make out eggshells and orange yolks clinging to his house’s red bricks.
Joseph clenched his jaw and curled his hands into fists. He bit back a yell. The fury inside of him shook his whole body. The aching in his bones receded; instead, he felt hyper fixated on this problem, this nuisance.
At that moment, Joseph realized he had been half-assing this tiny war. The proof was in front of him. These kids were ruining his most prized possession, and he was letting them.
He stalked toward his hose, mind turning. He had assumed they would stop, but like clockwork, they had returned every two weeks. They were getting bolder. Next time, he would be ready.
He reached for the spigot and carried his hose past his vegetable garden. His yard was devoid of light pollution. The darkness calmed his mind. But tonight, that harvest moon scrambled his thoughts like eggs on a burner. The moon was a spotlight on his garden. For the second time that night, he stumbled to a stop. All over his final crop of eggplants were dozens and dozens of four-inch, invasive, green caterpillars.
This time, he let himself yell. He wanted to hurl the hornworms, one by one, at the retreating backs of those damn teenagers.
With that thought, Joseph Huckleberry had his plan.
* * *
It was the fourteenth of October and as predicted, the first frost had passed a few days ago with a gruesome vengeance. Joseph had been busy in his vegetable garden the past two weeks, but for the first time, it wasn’t just from harvesting his crop. The tomato hornworms were usually gone by this time of the year, so they had kept him busy. Cardigan on, blacklight in hand, Joseph had spent night after night plucking the glowing worms from his plants and into a bucket. He typically drowned them. He had considered that. He had also considered keeping them alive with a steady diet of eggplant leaves. Instead, he dropped worm after worm into vats of homemade corn syrup. They were both perfectly preserved and perfectly disgusting.
Tonight, Joseph busied himself with changing all of his energy-efficient outdoor lightbulbs into blacklights. Once that was done, he used clear fishing line to make a near-invisible system of pulleys. The buckets were placed, the deed was done. He would stay inside his house for the next twenty-four hours.
The waiting was the hardest. He hadn’t felt this type of joyfulness in years. He spent his time putsying around his house, halfway cleaning, reading all of the newspaper columns he usually skipped.
Finally, the sun decided to set and the moon agreed to rise. Joseph made his vigilance through the peephole of his front door. After what felt like hours, shushing and footsteps creaked across his front porch. Without hesitation, Joseph yanked down the fishing line on his side of the door.
It took a moment; the corn syrup made slow but silent progress. Through his peephole, the teenagers grinned, phones aloft and recording, as they sprayed silly string on all of his outdoor furniture.
A minute later, he flipped on his outdoor lights. He both heard and saw their reactions. Shouts of disgust and dry heaving replaced their feral, silly-stringed glee. Corn syrup and glowing, four-inch worms covered their hair, their clothes, their faces. They fled from his house, a couple of pairs of shoes abandoned in their haste.
Joseph flung his front door open, admiring his work. All of the buckets were overturned but one. It would be a lot to clean up tomorrow, but it was worth it.
He lifted the remaining bucket from its hiding place. The light from his foyer reflected against the gleam of corn syrup, and he could see his reflection. Gray, wiry hairs sprouted from his ears. His eyebrows were thicker than the hornworms. His chin protruded into the jowls of his neck.
He looked like a caricature of his younger self, but now a villain in a children’s book.
He was absolutely content.