Jerry Gillespie had very little to worry about. In four short years, he’d gone from a being a minor YouTube celebrity with “Scary Jerry’s Pranks and Skanks” to the host of the seriously under-appreciated late-night comedy program “Very Late with Jerry Gillespie.” He was living the dream of any 13-year-old with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or whatever they were calling it, now. He’d actually wanted to call his show “ADD with Jerry G” then “ADHD with Jerry G” then “Strokin’ Out With Jerry G” but The Network had nixed those ideas because apparently people didn’t have any idea of what funny was these days. So, he’d compromised. Then he’d gone with what they said. Jerry Gillespie had learned, in these four short years, that success came with a bit of a price. And, that price was your integrity. Still, the exchange rate on integrity was quite high, so he wasn’t complaining. And, as a result of this exchange rate, he had very little to worry about.He was sitting in a chair that cost more than an entire month’s rent would have cost him four years ago. His office at The Network overlooked tourists scuttling about their boring ass lives, unaware that they were being observed by a man who would never have to voluntarily interact with any of them ever again. Four years. That’s all it took.
He’d started out making videos with his buddies of that would be described as “pranks” by the popular press but that he and his friends referred to as “attacks.” “Let’s plan our next attack,” was their usual call to arms. They had no money, just a camera and an insane love of watching idiots get on put over on them. In his time on YouTube Jerry had dressed as a bear to scare hikers, dumped fake blood on diners at a fast food restaurant, replaced soup with vomit (fake, duh) at a fancy New York soirée, and set up trip wires across a busy intersection that set off small explosions and tricked pedestrians into thinking there was a gunman firing on their crosswalk. That last one had gotten him arrested, but it had also gotten the attention of several networks that found his on-screen charisma and rugged good looks appealing in a late night sort of way.
Following a few appearances on the usual run of talk shows and some well received short segments on a couple of sketch comedy programs, Jerry found himself offered the lucrative position of talk show sidekick for another up and coming young comedian. He’d held out. His friends had thought he was crazy, but when that guy’s show bombed his gambit payed off. The hardest part about taking the job, was having to part with his old gang of accomplices. There wasn’t any room at the top for this many losers. So, he’d sent them all some very nice texts and put it behind him. Sometimes, he wondered how they were doing.
“Very Late with Jerry Gillespie” wasn’t an overnight success; it was an overnight smash. He played amazingly well with young men aged 15 to 35 with his crude humor, borderline racist jokes and visible disdain for Hollywood types and their stupid projects. But, he also scored with women aged 30 and up. He had a “bad boy you can tame” quality that the execs really liked and they pushed it to the limit by pairing him with older actresses and telling him to “Flirt, flirt, flirt!” Which he did. Jerry was a master at the underhanded insult and knew how to put a woman down while building her up. It worked at bars and it really worked with actresses. No one ever told these women they looked bad! So when he did, it was a novelty. No one ever told them they were boring or talentless or that their time was almost up. So, when he did, it was refreshing. Honest. Sexy.
Or, maybe it wasn’t and they were better actors than he gave them credit for. In any case, the ratings showed that audiences loved it.
But, in the end, it was the pranks that kept Jerry Gillespie on top. He still put them together, just like in the old days, but now he had a budget. He had effects. He had a team that was dedicated and paid and – this was key – easy to fire. And, they popped online. He was still a YouTube master, only now it was clips from his massively successful show that were getting the hits. Millions of hits.
And, it was Halloween season. The season of pranks. And, most importantly, the season of his most successful prank of all.
Last year, Jerry had had a revelation: people loved seeing their kids on TV, so offer them a chance to see their kids on his show! All they had to do, was prank their kids and he’d fill a segment with the kids’ reactions! The prank? The day after Halloween, tell your kid you’d eaten all their candy. And capture their response. Upload the reaction to The Network’s YouTube channel and he’d select the funniest. And by “the funniest” he meant “the meanest.” He wanted to see kids cry. It’s what he was hoping for, at least.
And, it’s what he got.
Thousands, literally thousands, of parents sat their kids down – little kids! – whipped out their phones and told their children they’d eaten all their Halloween candy. And, it was beautiful! Watching the faces of those children crumble. Watching their eyes fill with betrayal for the first time in their lives was gorgeous. Seeing the moment, the exact second, when a small child realizes that they can never fully trust the most important people in their lives again? Priceless. It was better than watching a virgin get deflowered. There was more pain, more tears and more shock and grief.
But, hey, Jerry Gillespie was a cynical bastard who hated kids. He made no bones about that. How would audiences react?
Numbers though the roof. An extended cut on YouTube. Outtakes on his show for weeks. A special home video release in December. A Christmas variation (which didn’t get a big a response; people weren’t so cool with painting Santa as a bad guy). And, hype hype hype all through this year’s month of October. Whaddaya know? People hate their kids! It was delicious. It was money in the bank. It was . . . time for a meeting with his producer.
“Pat?” he called into the outside office, “Is Pete Denton here yet? We’re supposed to go over tonight’s segments.”
Pat didn’t respond. Did she step out without telling him again? God dammit. He’d told her to stop doing that. Jerry got up and walked to his door. Pat wasn’t at her desk. But, sitting in one of the chairs, sipping on a styrofoam cup of coffee, was an old man in a long brown coat. He had a floppy brown hat in his lap; his hair was gray and scraggly; and a three day growth of beard covered his lower face. He looked like a bum. Like one of the guys Jerry and his friends used to enjoy pulling “attacks” on. The homeless were easy targets and usually good sports about things if you gave them a little bottle of something afterwards.
“Uh,” Jerry said, “Hey. Did you see a woman in here?”
The old man stared into his cup of coffee and didn’t respond. How had he gotten all the way up here? How had he gotten past security? Jerry still had to show his ID badge at the front desk and his picture was plastered all over the outside of the building!
“Hey, man,” he said, “Can I help you?”
Jerry was getting a little angry, but the guy was big and probably mentally unstable. If he didn’t say anything soon, Jerry was going to have to call someone up. He didn’t need this shit.
“Look, man, if you’re not going to talk to me – I’m Jerry Gillespie. I can get you help if you need – do you need something from me?”
The old man seemed to light up a bit at this question. He looked up in a way that Jerry wasn’t too happy with. He’d seen nature documentaries about wild animals hunting for smaller animals and when a smaller animal finally came into view, the predator usually tensed up like this guy was doing now. But, it was a happy tension. An excited tension.
“Sir?” Jerry said. He was getting a bit nervous and figured politeness was the best way to go with this.
With a steadiness that unsteadied Jerry’s nerves, the old man turned his head and looked at the talk show host.
“Come with me,” he said. And Jerry went with him.
It was dark where they were. Save for the burning eyes.
Cut as if from the darkness themselves, the eyes were malevolent slits of fire that shifted with incalculable rage and ferocity. They focused their gaze on what was before them and what was before them was Jerry.
A deep rumbling filled Jerry’s head at a pitch so low his teeth shook in their sockets. It was many seconds before he registered the sensation as the voice it was.
“C – come again?” he stammered.
The rumbling began again, and this time Jerry was able to hear the words “failure” “deception” and “punishment.”
“I,” Jerry said, “I couldn’t quite make all of that out.”
Jerry felt a hand on his shoulder and wished he hadn’t. He’d forgotten about the old man in the brown coat. He’d forgotten, well, a lot of things. How had they come here? Where were they? Where were his clothes? Where was his body? Th old man’s fingers squeezed Jerry’s shoulder, so it had to still be there at least.
“He says,” the old man intoned in a voice barely more than a whisper, “that you are a failure and that your deception will result in a swift and unending punishment.”
None of this was making any sense to Jerry.
“What – what failure?” he asked. “What did I do?”
The eyes, the bright yellow-orange eyes floating in the darkness, narrowed to slits. The rumbling voice spoke one word.
“Halloween,” it said.
“Halloween,” Jerry repeated.
“You’ve been judged guilty,” the old man calmly said, “Guilty of violating the trust and sanctity of this most sacred night. What other night allows children the freedom to don guises that reflect the terror with which they face the world each day and to venture out into the night at sources of fright rather than receptacles of fear? What other night belongs to the young and bids them take candy from strangers secure in the knowledge that whatever they receive will be safe to consume? What other night relies entirely on that most ancient of bonds, the bond between host and guest? What other night, man?! What other night?!”
“Um, Christmas?” Jerry said.
“Christmas!” the old man spat, “Christmas is a fool’s day where the fat get rewarded for their year-long gluttony and the poor receive nothing but the reminder of a hard year to come! Christmas is a dilettante’s idea of grace! Halloween, however, is a pact! A pact of trust! A pact of work and reward! A pact of community! It unites the living under the umbrella of the dead. And those who violate that pact, that trust, are the worst offenders of all. You, Jerry Gillespie, stand accused and tried of violating the sacred pact of Halloween. You broke the ancient bond. You feasted on the tears of children during the one night set aside for a child’s joy. You are a monster on a night of monsters and will be punished!”
“Hey, I didn’t make those videos!” Jerry said, having seen where all this was coming from, “I just had an idea! I didn’t make one kid cry! Everyone else did! I just put them out there! I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“We understand,” said the old man, “Now, join the rest of the accused and accept your punishment.”
Jerry looked around and suddenly he could see. Or, he could see something. It was a line of people, mostly adult men, stretching off to either side of him. They looked haggard and defeated and he supposed that must be the way he looked as well.
“Who are they?” he whispered.
“People who would turn our night into a source of pain for the young. You do not need to know their crimes; some are benign while many are harrowing. We protect the young on one night. Now, accept your punishment.”
The glowing eyes grew in radiance and below them a wide grinning mouth split the empty air. The mouth grew in size, preparing to engulf the line of transgressors.
“I don’t accept!” Jerry screamed. “I don’t accept!”
“Then, learn,” the old man said.
And Jerry was taught. He was offered a vision of each child from each video. He was given that moment of realization. That moment of betrayal. And he was given them as if they were his own. But, these moments went beyond the videos. For, not every parent had submitted their pranks. Many had been gripped with a deep sense of shame at what they’d done and had abandoned the plan. But, Jerry was given their child’s pain as well. And Jerry learned. He learned that the sweet, sweet joy of a small child’s tears comes with a heavy price. And, usually the child pays the price. But, on Halloween the exchange rate sometimes gets skewed.
As the gifts arrived in Jerry’s head, he floated toward the open mouth. Now, he understood. Now, he knew. Now, he accepted his punishment.
Jerry Gillespie had a lot to worry about. In four short months, he’d gone from a being a successful late-night comedy host to sitting in a small room in Brooklyn, watching his bank account dwindle and refusing to accept calls. He couldn’t go out. He couldn’t talk to people. He couldn’t trust anyone. Anyone could be lying, he’d realized. He was living the nightmare of any child who’d been betrayed over and over and over again. His shrink had diagnosed it as PTSD, but Jerry couldn’t pinpoint anything that might have caused it. Nothing bad had ever happened to him in his life. But, his doctor had said it was as if he’d been traumatized repeatedly form a very young age. Soon, Jerry stopped trusting him. Jerry Gillespie had learned, in these four short months, that success came with a bit of a price. And, that price was trust. But, the exchange rate on trust was quite high. And, as a result of this exchange rate, Jerry Gillespie had a lot to worry about.