“Son, we need to have a chat about internet safety.” I slowly crumpled down onto the floor next to him. His laptop was open and he was playing Minecraft on a public server. His eyes were locked into the action. Comments scrolled down the side of the screen in a chat box. “Son, can you stop your game for a minute?”
He exited the world, closed the laptop, and looked up at me. "Dad, is this going to be another cheesy scary story?"
"Whhaaaat?" I faked hurt feelings for a second, and then grinned at him, "I thought you liked my cautionary tales?" He grew up listening to my stories about children who encountered witches, ghosts, werewolves, and trolls. Like many generations of parents, I used scary stories to reinforce morals and teach lessons about safety. Single dads like me should use all the parenting tools at their disposal.
He scrunched his face a little, "They were fine when I was six. But now that I'm getting older, they don't scare me anymore. They seem kinda silly. If you are going to tell a story about the internet, can you make it really, really scary!?” I squinted at him incredulously. He folded his arms, “Dad. I’m ten and I can handle it."
"Hmm… okay... I’ll try."
I began, “Once upon a time, there was a boy named Colby….” His expression indicated that he wasn't impressed with the terror of the introduction. He sighed deeply and settled in for one of Dad’s cheesy stories. I continued...
Colby went online and joined several children's websites. After a while, he started talking to other kids in-game and on the message boards. He made friends with another ten year old boy named Helper23. They liked the same video games and shows. They laughed at each other's jokes. They explored new games together.
After several months of friendship, Colby gave Helper23 six diamonds in a game they were playing. This was a very generous gift. Colby's birthday was coming up and Helper23 wanted to send him a cool present in real life. Colby figured it wouldn't hurt to give Helper23 his home address—as long as he promised not to tell it to any strangers or grownups. Helper23 swore he wouldn't tell anyone else, not even his own parents, and set about mailing the package.
I paused the story and asked my son, "Do you think that was a good idea?”
“No!" he said shaking his head vigorously. In spite of himself, he was getting into the story.
Well neither did Colby. Colby felt guilty about giving away his home address—and his guilt began to grow. And grow. By the time he put on his pajamas the next night, his guilt and fear were larger than anything else in his life. He resolved to admit the truth to his parents. The punishment would be steep, but it was worth it to have a clear conscience. He squirmed in his bed as he waited for his parents to tuck him in.
My son knew the scary part was coming up. In spite of his tough talk, he leaned forward wide-eyed. I spoke quietly and deliberately.
He heard all the noises of the house. The washing machine bounced around in the laundry room. Branches scraped against the brick outside his room. His baby brother cooed in the nursery. And there were some other noises he couldn't... quite... pinpoint. Finally, his dad’s footsteps echoed down the hall. “Hey Dad?” he called out nervously. “I have something to tell you.”
His dad stuck his head in the doorway at a weird angle. In the darkness, his mouth didn't seem to move and the eyes were all wrong. "Yes, son?" The voice was way off, too.
"Are you okay, Dad?" the boy asked.
"Uh-huh," sung the father in his strangely affected voice.
Colby pulled his covers up defensively. "Ummm, is Mom around?"
"Here I am!" Mom's head popped into the doorway below Dad's. Her voice was an unnatural falsetto. "Were you about to tell us that you gave our home address to Helper23? You shouldn't have done that! We told you never to give out personal information on the internet!"
She continued, "He wasn't really a kid! He just pretended to be one. Do you know what he did? He came to our house, broke in, and murdered both of us! Just so he could spend some time with you!"
A fat man in a wet jacket emerged in the child's doorway holding the two severed heads. Colby shrieked and gasped as the man dropped the heads on the ground, unsheathed his knife, and moved into the room to work on the boy.
My son screamed too. He twisted his hands defensively over his face. But we were just getting started with the story.
After several hours, the boy was almost dead and his screams had become whimpers. The killer noticed the wailing of a baby in another room and removed his knife from Colby. This was a special treat. He had never murdered a baby before and was excited about the prospect. Helper23 left Colby to die and followed the cries through the house like a homing beacon.
In the nursery, he walked to the crib, picked the baby up, and held it in his arms. He moved towards the changing table to get a better look. But as he held the baby, the crying died down. The baby looked up and smiled. Helper23 had never held a baby, but he gently bounced it in his arms like a pro. He wiped his bloody hands on the blanket so he could stroke the baby's cheek, "Hey there, sweet little guy." The beautiful rage of sadism melted into something warmer and softer.
He walked out of the nursery, took the baby home, named him William, and raised him as his very own.
After I finished the story, my son was visibly shaken. Between ragged staccato breaths, he stammered, "But Dad, my name's William." I gave him a classic dad-wink and tousled his hair. "Of course it is, son." William ran up the stairs to his bedroom in a fury of sobs.
But deep down, I think he liked the story.