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Sometimes it was easy to forget I came from an ultra-religious household. Playing touch football with the kids from Church is pretty much the same as playing with anyone else, for example. Same trash talk, same asshole kid who still tackles, and so on.
The only time I really felt the sting was during the holidays. Christmas was about Jesus's birth and bloody, torturous death, not some silly fat bastard in red pajamas. Easter was about... well, the same bloody, torturous death... not a rabbit who somehow symbolized pagan immorality.
Halloween was the worst. For me, Halloween nearly didn't exist.
I lived in a world where the word had no meaning other than what I could gather from other children. I wasn't too interested in letting them know I was that "ignorant", so eavesdropping was my primary source of information.
When kids asked me what I was going to "be" for Halloween, I was at a loss. After stammering for a bit, I'd just repeat whatever I'd last heard someone else had chosen.
"I'm going to be a Dracula."
"I'm going to be a Frankenstein".
"I'm going to be... Sailor Moon?"
If I got through the conversation without riotous laughter, I considered it a success. Then I immediately worried about going to Hell for lying.
When kids came to school dressed in their costumes, however, things got a little tricky. Claiming my costume hadn't arrived yet only worked through the lower grades. Then I had to shift to sarcastic answers I'd stolen from others, like "I'm a serial killer. They look like anybody."
Early on, I didn't even know the date Halloween fell upon. When autumn came, I immediately started worrying about when Halloween was, all the way up to the end of October.
I'd asked my parents about the whole thing, but they'd never really give me any answers other than "It's Satanic" and "It's against God". I had asked with increasing frequency as years passed, and I'm sure it was getting obnoxious.
So, given all of that, you'll be able to guess my reaction when Mom & Dad came home with "123 Safety Street".
They had left early that morning, leaving me "in charge" of the order of the house, so they could attend a very important meeting on how Satan was attempting to get into the minds and hearts of their children.
He had some fresh ideas, I guess.
"Here, this is for you." Mom said as she took off her jacket and handed me a small, square object.
It was a CD ROM game.
That would've been strange enough, since I hadn't received anything like this since, "Mr. Math's Market", a year or two prior... but there was more to be concerned about.
The slipcover displayed a happy, smiling, adorable pumpkin. A Jack O' Lantern. Something I'd only ever seen on the doorsteps of other families. The gourd wore a bright yellow sash across its... well, face... that read, "CAUTION".
The title read "123 Safety Street".
"What's this?" I asked meekly, almost feeling like this was some sort of test. Was I supposed to throw it to the floor and stomp on it? Did I need to recite some arcane Latin phrase to drive it out of the house?
"It's a computer game Father Mickleson was handing out." Mom hung her coat in the hall closet as Dad went about his business.
Holding the game in two hands, arm's length from my body, I gave her a confused look.
"It's meant to teach children about safety when they go Trick or Treating, but Father Mickleson wants all of the parents to have their children play it instead of going out this year. That way there's no temptation to give in to their son or daughter complaining about not participating."
It didn't make sense to me, especially since I'd never been allowed to participate anyway. Still, the desire to actually see what this was all about brought me around to the idea of trying it out.
"Can I try it now?"
"Did you clean your room and make the bed?"
"Is the dog fed?"
"Did you collect the recycling and put the dishes in the dish washer?"
"Well then I suppose you can use the computer for ten minutes."
Knowing full well that those "ten minutes" began at that exact moment, I raced to the computer desk and began the agonizingly slow process of booting up the PC we'd won in a charity raffle some years before.
Upon opening the slip cover, I noticed the disc was designed to look like the same Jack O' Lantern from the cover. Round, orange, and smiling in a generally jolly way. To be honest, it made me a bit sick to my stomach. They'd always told me Lucifer would appear in a friendly form.
"Select your character!"
The screen was black, save for the four badly rendered 3D models of children standing in the dark abyss. Their forms looked clumsy and outdated, even at the time. There two boys were largely the same, save for hair color and one having glasses. The other two were girls. One was a blonde stereotypical character in all pink, and the other was the "glasses" version, though they went the extra mile to make her look like a cliché nerd.
With little hesitation, I picked the boy without the glasses.
"Select your costume!"
Here was a head scratcher. Sheet ghost, skeleton mask and shirt, hockey mask and blood spatter... there were a few options, and they all bothered me. I felt like I'd get in trouble just for choosing a fake outfit for a fake child.
Luckily, I spotted the check box at the bottom of the screen that allowed me to go with "No Costume" and skip the problem entirely.
The screen faded to black, and for the briefest moment I thought I saw the reflection of a face watching me from behind. Of course, when I turned around there was nothing. It seemed to be a fleeting moment of paranoia given the content of the game I was about to play.
A map popped up. It was a small neighborhood full of nearly identical houses situated on a quaint little street complete with picket fences and street lights.
"Choose a house!"
I wasn't quite sure what I was choosing one for. I moved the cursor over a few homes and read the names that popped up over them.
Mr. Smith, Mr. Johnson, Ms. Brown, Mr. Jones.
When I hovered over the last house, a padlock icon appeared.
"Dr. Boo!, 123 Safety Street!"
I moved the cursor away instantly. It wasn't just because the location was locked, but also that the name, "Dr. Boo", didn't fit the generic name theme and I felt as if I'd found something I shouldn't.
I randomly clicked one of the available houses. The picture shifted to a white house with a blue door and a small porch. I quickly figured out that I could use the arrow keys to navigate in first-person, and climbed the stairs up to the door.
Upon clicking the door, I heard a knocking sound.
The door opened, revealing a woman who was just as awkward and crude as the child I'd selected. She was wearing a rag doll mask and a princess gown. It was almost as if the costume elements had been randomly assigned when I selected the house.
Options appeared on the screen. "Trick 'R Treat!" "What are you?" and "Run away!" respectively.
I clicked the first option, obviously.
"My what a cute little ghost you are!" the woman cooed, "Here, have some candy!"
For a moment, she stood there. She was nearly motionless except for the strange sway meant to make her seem more "alive". Then, her arm shot forward quickly like she was giving a Nazi salute and small round "candies" dropped from her hand.
They landed on the porch as I simply watched. The door closed, clipping through the woman as it did so.
I looked at the candies on the ground for a few moments, then knocked again. Something must've malfunctioned.
The door opened, and the woman spoke. "You greedy kid!!"
The door then slammed shut.
It wasn't until two houses and two failed attempts later that I realized holding the space bar made my character thrust out a bag to catch candy with.
The randomized costumes seemed to make no sense, by the way. Mr. Smith wore an alien mask and an apron that read, "Kiss the Cannibal". Ms. Anderson had on a Gorilla costume, though her face was painted apple red and she wore a leaf in her hair. It seemed so unnecessarily ridiculous that eventually I didn't even notice the outlandish outfits.
Then I got to Mr. Jackson's house.
By then, I had learned that while some houses simply required a knock on the door, others had doorbells. If there was a doorbell and you knocked, the person would get mad and refuse to give you anything.
When I saw Mr. Jackson's bell, I already knew what I was doing and went right for it. Instead of the normal ring, there was a scream. Nothing too strange given the holiday.
"Hello, little ghost!" Mr. Jackson said as he flipped the door open with incredible speed.
Mr. Jackson wasn't wearing a costume.
Mr. Jackson vibrated.
That is to say, his completely inanimate body trembled violently, even taking him off the ground for a few moments. He stared forward, no expression, simply shaking as if he were caught in his own personal earthquake.
"Hello!" Mr. Jackson said again.
I clicked, "Trick 'R Treat".
"Hello!" Mr. Jackson repeated, slowly gyrating toward me and clipping through the door frame. "Hello!"
Having no idea what I was supposed to do, I held out my treat bag and backed away a bit.
Mr. Jackson's arms, both of them, rocketed forward as his head turned ninety degrees to the left. "Goodbye!"
I waited as his hands remained clenched, just wanting to catch the candies and get away from the glitchy character. Instead, he released handfuls of small worms. They fell, slowly, in two squirming single-file lines.
I backed away further, letting them hit the front stairs where they dispersed into the grass.
"Hello!" Mr. Jackson insisted as he rotated until the soles of his shoes faced me in mid-air. "Hello! Hello!" he called out as he ascended, stuck halfway through the wall of his house.
I wondered if that was one of the "tricks" that had been referred to in that phrase. I'd gotten treats until that point, so that must have been part of the tradition. Even then, I felt that probably wasn't the case... but there it was on my screen.
It was then that I realized I'd been playing for much longer than ten minutes. At any moment, I'd be called away from the game and sent to bed. I'd probably be scolded, as well, for going over my allotted time.
I figured I could pretend I didn't know... and then, of course, worry about going to Hell for lying later on.
I proceeded to Mr. Washington's house.
I should mention now that each home was decorated in a different way. Again, this seemed entirely random like the costumes. Some had giant fake spiders on the windows, others had cob webs spread across the porch. One had a plastic skeleton dangling from the gutter.
Almost all of them had Jack O' Lanterns.
Mr. Washington went the extra mile, though. On his steps were placed a few bloody, rotting, severed heads. Each had a candle placed on top, the wax oozing down across pallid faces and into gaping eyes and mouths.
It was nearly enough to make me turn off the game, but I'd seen a lot of decorations by that point and I knew they were fake.
"Hello, little ghost!" Mr. Washington greeted me.
He was wearing a dog mask and a clown suit.
"Come here." He said after a few moments of silence.
I didn't move. If he was going to hand over a trick, I wanted time to move away.
"Come closer so I can see your costume." He explained.
I remembered that I hadn't selected a costume, so his request seemed all the more disturbing. Then, I thought back to everyone referring to me as a "ghost".
Mr. Washington crouched down to my level, something I hadn't seen any of the other people do throughout the entire game.
Giving in, I moved closer.
"There we go." Mr. Washington said.
Silence. After what seemed like a full minute, I was able to select one of my options. I clicked, "Trick 'R Treat".
Mr. Washington didn't move or speak. He simply stared at me through the dark eye holes in his creased, brown, dog mask. Finally, he decided to give me some information.
"Pal, I lick very softly."
I clicked, "Run away!"
As soon as I did so, the lights went out. By that, I mean the lights in the room where I was playing the game immediately went dark. I was in pitch blackness, save for the light from the computer screen.
My game view rotated, and I was facing the street. I moved down the steps and into the front yard I'd never seen before. As I moved my character toward the street, I heard heavy footsteps that couldn't have been mine. Mr. Washington was chasing me down.
Without looking back, I pressed onward until I reached the curb. At that point, my character began walking along the side of the road on his own as the screen slowly faded to black.
Behind me, I could hear an exasperated dog barking.
Leaving the game for a moment, I got up and went to the light switch. It had been flicked off. After lighting the room again, I finally decided to see why my parents had let me play this game for nearly forty minutes.
"Mom?" I called out, "Dad?"
There was no response.
Had they gone to sleep? Did they forget I was downstairs, playing on the computer completely unsupervised? I had never been in that situation before.
I couldn't tell if it was just my imagination, but the house felt cold. Freezing cold, in fact. I reasoned that it was because I was a bit frightened at this point, and my mind was playing tricks.
I returned to the computer, but for the sole purpose of turning it off and going to sleep. That wasn't what happened.
The padlock over the final house was gone. I'd actually visited every other location, and now all that was left was the infamous, "123 Safety Street", and its resident... the enigmatic, "Dr. Boo!"
Well, if I was in trouble by this point, I was already going to suffer the consequences. A few seconds spent finishing the game... visiting one more house... meant next to nothing as far as I could see.
I clicked the final location and rubbed my drowsy eyes.
The last house was nothing like the others. A long, dark path led up a small hill, through rusted iron gates, and toward a mansion straight out of any cheap horror movie you can imagine.
The windows cast off a dim red glow that played off of the blood-red front door. The house's off-white, peeling paint reminded me of skin separating away after a bad sunburn. The same heads from Mr. Washington's house adorned the path, lighting my way to the finale.
I knocked on the door.
Someone knocked on my own front door.
Fear gripped my chest, squeezing my heart with icy fingers. I turned away from the screen only for a moment, before I heard the door on screen creak open.
"Hello, my boy." came a slow, elderly voice from the darkness beyond the doorway. "Pay no attention to the spirits around you."
Now, I felt nothing. I was like a floating consciousness with no physical being. All I could do was watch the screen and be afraid.
Dr. Boo! emerged. I could see little about him, other than the black sheet that covered his body and seemed to inexplicably hug his form. His face was merely a pair of large, white ovals for eyes and a crooked, thick white "W" shape for a mouth.
With my hand weak; trembling, I clicked.
"What are you?"
Given the nonsensical mish-mash costumes I'd seen before, this was the first time I'd selected the option.
"I am a Doctor. A special kind of Doctor."
He leaned close to me, his face hovering before mine as if he were looking deep into my eyes.
Then, he glitched, head warping and vibrating as his arms and shoulders shook and extended randomly. His voice became a garble, over-amplified screech.
"I am a doctor of fear!"
Heavy footsteps filled my house, as if unseen persons were running aimlessly through the halls. All around me was the echoing din of movement and clattering while Dr. Boo! screamed out a mechanical buzz.
I clicked, "Run away!"
Frantically, I clicked, "Trick 'R Treat", then I alternated back and forth, clicking rapidly.
"It's Halloween!" Dr. Boo! shrieked as he pulsated back and forth, near and far, ramming his face into my own again and again. The screams of the damned rose up around his own demented chant.
"Halloween! Halloween! This is Halloween!"
Suddenly, a cold hand grasped my shoulder. I yelled out in the sort of mindless way you scream when you close your finger in a door.
Wheeling around in my chair, I shoved at the source of the hand. I pushed as hard as I could. In that moment, I could think only of killing whoever or whatever was trying to get me.
"Ha ha ha ha!" Dr. Boo! laughed evilly.
I watched as my Mother fell backward, toppling into the glass coffee table and striking her head on the edge of the rocking chair. Shards flew into the air as she screamed, then fell silent as her body hit the floor.
"M... Mom?" I stuttered, barely able to stand from fright.
Dad rushed into the room, cursing and shouting as he arrived. He lifted Mom's head. She wasn't moving. He started crying.
"Thanks for playing 123 Safety Street!" said a comforting voice, "Halloween is an amoral Holiday, and we hope you've learned just how scary it can be! We hope your parents didn't give you too much of a fright! Ha ha ha!"
I stared at Mom as Dad held her and screamed.
There wasn't much blood.
Just a small pool on the floor where her mouth had been.
Two ovals and what looked like a thick "W".