It's a cold and dark October evening and I have just come out of the movie theater. The chill in the sub freezing air stings my hands through my gloves as I pull out my cellphone to check the time. The movie had just gotten out a few minutes too late, I've missed my bus. Maybe I haven't. The bus is late all the time after all, never perfectly on schedule. I start rushing across the parking lot, my cane tapping loudly on the asphalt as I huff my aching joints towards the bus stop, but my hopes are soon dashed. A gray blur like a phantom rushes down the street, passing the stop without even a pause.
Damn. Another bus won't come for an hour, and the movie theater is too far from my home to start walking. Creeping shadows form in the low light of the dilapidated strip mall, the signs of the still struggling economy causing an eerie aura in the darkened windows of the empty store fronts, seeping between the businesses still struggling to survive. The cold is getting worse now and sends a shiver down my spine, the increasingly nasty weather adding to the slight paranoia and overactive imagination I tend to possess. It's far easier to convince one's self of crime statistics and the odds of being a victim when darkened alleys and sparse cars tease at you in the growing night. The theater is closed for the evening now, I can no longer wait the fifty odd minutes in the bright safety of florescent lights glaring on ugly carpet and ancient gaming cabinets beeping on a back wall. Then I remembered the used gaming store several stores down. I crossed back from the parking lot to the still lighted store, praying that the business would still be open as legs start to grow numb from temperature and health.
A let out a sigh of relief, the store is still open for another half hour. Enough time to get a little warmth and light in me before waiting for the bus again. The door beeps weakly as I step through and the store worker gets up from the small television he had been watching and regards me with a frown. I can't blame him. He was probably hoping to close early, or at least finish watching his show in peace. He is a fairly typical game store worker, at least like all the ones I've seen before. Triforce tattoo on his arm, a black t-shirt from some gaming convention. Funny how a person's perception of normal changes depending on the subject or business. He's slightly more friendly now, hoping for at least a sale and that I'm not just some looky-loo bothering him. I start glancing through the glass cabinets and on the walls covered with posters and controllers from gaming's early days to the latest FPS that came out last week. I pay special attention to the cabinets holding games for systems I actually own, hoping to find a deal amongst the old sports games and overpriced RPGs that fill the store, all the while enjoying the warmth of the blowing heater overhead.
I spot a box on the counter of old Gameboy cartridges, grungy white cardboard marked with 'five dollars a piece' in hasty sharpie on the front. Now we're talking. The discounted prices made sense. All the labels on the games were missing, scraped off to the white paper, now only crumbling yellow masking tape informed people what these mysterious blocks of gray plastic now contained. Most games pass my interest, and I quickly flick through the damaged games until something catches my attention. Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening.
“So all these games are five dollars each?” I ask.
“Yeah,” the employee responds lazily, his attention half back on his television again. That's all I needed to hear. With little additional fanfare I pull the money from my wallet and finish my transaction. Perhaps missing the first bus was a blessing after all. I place the game into my bag and glance at the time again. Time to head out. Missing another bus would not be a risk worth taking, and so I return to the darkness of the empty parking lot, and walk to the dimly lit bus stop to catch my transport home.
I had almost forgotten about my new game when I go through my bag the next day. I dig through my things to find my old magenta Gameboy Color, the old reliable system having the dings and scratches from some of my earliest gaming days and place the game inside. It boots up flawlessly, the chiptune instrumentation greeting me as I get to the start menu. I choose one of the old save files and start up a new game. I'm very impressed with myself. I play the game for several hours without dying once, an unusual action whenever I play a Zelda game. But alas, a series of scary looking knight-things with axes end my streak. Soon six hearts become zero and poor Link dies, a blow to the neck by one of the knights. I curse profusely, and press the 'A' button to start over again. Odd, the game doesn't want to go back to the start screen. I flick off and on the switch and swear once again. Though this time around I get back to the start screen, my several hour old save is nowhere to be found. Not to be discouraged, I start up again, this time my streak is much shorter. Somehow the first boss kills me a half hour in, and then the game does it again, not allowing me back to the start menu or continue. My heart sinks, clearly the game is more damaged than just the label.
I return to the gaming store in the brightness of day. An unusual mist floats across the parking lot and streets, but the low sunlight makes the strip mall seem more sad and dreary than terrifying. The worker from last night is in today, once again watching TV as I open the door. He frowns again at the interruption, but it leaves faster as he recognizes me. I give a small polite wave, “Hi there! I bought a game last night, but it doesn't seem like it's working,”
The worker frowns again, more out of puzzlement than anything else, “That's weird, I always test the games before I sell them. What was wrong with it?”
“When I die in the game it won't take me to a continue screen. It just freezes so I have to turn my Gameboy on and off to get it working again, and it keeps not saving also,”
The worker pulls a gray cinder block from a drawer near the register, an original Gameboy that looks so hulking compared to the sleek modern Nintendo and Sony systems that shine in the cabinets. I hand him the cartridge. He plays for a few minutes and intentionally dies against one of the easier monsters, a continue screen pops up right away, “Maybe it's just your Gameboy, lady. Works just fine on mine,”
A logical answer, though a disappointing one. I'd hate to think my childhood system was on its last legs and having trouble reading the games. But I didn't want to believe it just yet, “Mind if I try, then?” With a shrug he hands me the system, heavy in my hands compared to what I'm used to. I play again, getting to the same point as the employee and let myself get Link killed. I smile as the glitch is repeated. “See, it's doing it again. No continue screen, just freezing,”
I hand the man back his Gameboy. He goes about pounding all the buttons to get the game to respond. When nothing works he flicks the switch and pulls the cartridge back out, putting it on a back counter. With a grunt he turns back to me, “Yeah, sorry about that. Must have gotten past me. I don't do cash refunds but I can do exchanges or store credit,”
The box of Gameboy games is still out. I didn't check anything past the Zelda game, so I decide to finish looking through it. Who knows, there may yet be another treasure or two. I find my place and flick through the games, once again, very little within my taste of game playing. But towards the back I find a copy of Tetris, the fragile tape crackling slightly as I pull the game out and hand it to the employee. The mist is largely gone now when I leave the store, the sun burning away most of the humidity, lifting my spirits as I go back on the bus with my new purchase.
I play the game right away as soon as I get home. The black blocks cascading faster and faster as my brain and fingers struggle to find a place for everything. Finally the blocks get too fast for me to salvage my pattern and the game ends. The little bonus scene starts up as reward for getting to a certain level. I recalled the NES version of the game. The unlimited mode would show one of several rockets launching, the clearance mode would display a band of Nintendo characters playing the Tetris theme song. Neither scene appeared on my Gameboy. Instead, one of the little knights from Link's Awakening danced forward, waving his little ax in time to the music, a few seconds later a second knight hopped across the screen in a similar dance, poor Link tied to a rope getting dragged behind him. The two knights continued to dance as the theme played, pulling Link along between them when the first knight lifted his ax and CHOP. Cut off Link's head. I drop the Gameboy in shock. What the hell did I just watch? I pick up the game again and the game has returned to the start menu. Clearly what I watched wasn't real. I must have misinterpreted it. Sick curiosity got the better of me and I play the game again, I somehow manage to get to the same level again, this time permitting myself to lose. The sequence plays again. The first knight, then the second knight dragging Link, and then....no, I saw what I saw. I wasn't misunderstanding it. Some sick employee must of programmed Link getting executed as some kind of twisted Easter egg. I go online to confirm it, using the search phrases 'Tetris' and 'Link's execution'. No relevant results. I try again, this time using 'Tetris Easter eggs'. A Nintendo wiki site lists every scene for every level of Tetris. Link getting his head cut off was not listed as any of them. Clearly someone hacked the game. I was not about to keep a hacked game. Especially not one done by someone with such a horrific sense of humor. I quickly remove the offensive game from my beloved system and chuck it into my back. My hands are shaking now. Why? It's just a stupid little joke, not even that graphic. Yet I want this game out of my house more than anything
The next day I return the game, saying little more than the game is compromised. The employee is clearly confused by my strange business, but I don't care. I ignore the box of Gameboy games this time, take my store credit and leave. Even if third time was the charm I was not in the mood to take the chance. I didn't need anymore games for now anyway, I had a healthy backlog and plenty of older games to amuse me. Pokemon, good old Pokemon. Nothing was more relaxing than playing one of the classic original games. It was years since I last played any of the first or second generation of games, and since I had bothered to take out the old Gameboy, I'd relive a little childhood fun. But I had to admit, the increasingly strange encounters with my last two games bothered me. My Pikachu was facing a wild Growlithe when the wild Pokemon used bite attack. The animation blipped slightly and I waited for the damage to finish calculating. Then the oddest thing happened. The bite animation finished and for some reason, my Pikachu looked like it didn't have a head. The damage calculated normally, and the battle music kept playing. I was even able to finish the battle, but Pikachu's head never came back. A glitch, clearly. If the first generation counted for anything else, it was the glitchiest set of games in the series. I disregarded it. Then another fight triggered. An Abra, Pikachu is sent out again. The head's still missing? Surely the glitch should have cleared itself up by now, the other battle ended. I turn off the game. Something isn't right. These are my games. Not the wonky, damaged cartridges from the store. I bought these games new back when I was a kid. That feeling of dread is back. I think it's time for work for a change.
I sit at my computer and gather my things, set up Windows Media Player and select my playlist. A Queen song plays first, 'Don't Lose Your Head' from the Highlander soundtrack. I smirk at the unnerving coincidence, dismissing it at first. Still shaken from the game, I decided to skip to another song. Maybe some other time, Freddie. The first few notes pop up again. Strange, it's playing 'Don't Lose Your Head' again. What are the odds? I know WMP likes to freeze and blip on me, but things are getting weird again. I manually select another song. The Queen song doesn't play again.
I hate going out to the store late at night. I'm always so tired in the evenings, and people drive like maniacs. For pedestrians Frogger isn't a game, it's survival training. And yet the next night procrastination and other priorities win out over convenience. The bags are heavy in my hand, it's hard to carry things when you walk with a cane. I impatiently press the crosswalk button, waiting for it to change. The plastic is digging into my hands and it's cold again. Finally the light changes, and one of the bags slips from my hands and spills onto the ground into the cold and wet dirt. I stoop down painfully to get everything when a open-backed salvage truck runs the red light, careening past me at an unsafe speed. I feel some movement of air above my head. Dumbass, I think as my things are finally back in place. I press the crosswalk button again when I finally notice what had made the gust of wind. In the rotting wooden electrical post next to the crossing a piece of sharp, rusted metal was jutting out. It was at neck level. I start to panic. If I didn't bend down to pick up my groceries it was very likely I'd have been decapitated. I'm noticing a theme here.
The next day I go back to the used game shop. The strip mall had the feeling of an ancient ruin, largely abandoned and empty during the weekdays. The mist is back again too. We don't usually have fog where I live. The whole picture sent a gnawing feeling to my gut. One far worse that the frigid evening in the dark that I had encountered only a few days before. I steady myself. I need answers. The worker is there again. Different shirt to a different gaming convention, but parked in front of the TV again. I don't even bother saying hello this time, “Where did you get those Gameboy games?”
The sudden, to the point question seems to throw him at first, “Which ones?”
“The ones you have on the counter. The five dollars a piece ones,”
He shrugged, “I don't know, some guy just brought them in,”
“What kind of guy?” I press.
“I don't know, a guy,”
“Old, young? Black guy? What?” I try not to let my terror fill my voice, but I am quickly getting frustrated. Something about my demeanor must bother the employee as well, because he's actually facing me this time.
“Not a regular customer, saw him only once. He came in a few weeks back with the box of games. I gave him a few bucks for the whole thing. He wasn't distinct. All I could tell you is that he was a white guy, maybe around thirty. I wouldn't even be able to pick him out even if he came in here again. Why's it such a big deal, lady, you didn't even keep those games you bought,”
“Has anyone else bought any of those games?”
“Maybe a couple. Those didn't get returned, that I remember,” he was getting annoyed. I could tell I was pushing his good graces.
“Sorry to bother you,” I finally sigh. Obviously this was a dead end. I put on my earbuds and click on my MP3 player. 'Don't Lose Your Head' starts playing. When the hell did I even put song on my player? The clouds become overcast and thick, making everything seem darker and more sinister. There's still plenty of time before the bus comes back, but I don't want to spend any more time at the strip mall than I have to so I immediately go back to the bus stop. At the stop are some free local newspapers the kind that go in depth on local events and scandals, and have ads for hookers in the back. This week's feature was about a local crime that devastated a nearby suburb. I pick it up and start reading. The story was fairly tragic. One of those cautionary tales about the epidemic of teen domestic abuse. A teenage girl had an abusive boyfriend, and even though she and her parents complained to their school several times, the school and the district refused to move the boy into a different class block let alone a different school. The article had quotes from teachers who saw the problem and tried to get the principal to listen. The story ended when the girl went missing after an extracurricular function. A few days later the boyfriend was found to have shot himself in his room with her decapitated body under his bed. The story quickly went from tragic to unnerving, and yet, I couldn't stop reading. The girl's head was found buried in the boy's backyard, and a note was written on the boy's computer about not being able to live without her. The crime had happened the year before. It got little press because it happened at the same time as a set of major fires that were devastating much of the state. In between the resource information for suicide hotlines, crisis councilors and other resources for teen victims of domestic and dating abuse were pictures of the girl's and boy's families, a few teachers and the boy's neighbor.
I run back to the gaming store, a hunch bubbling in my stomach along with the burning in my throat from terror and excitement. The door beeped and the employee turned back to me with a groan. Can't say I blamed him, crazy isn't good for business after all. “I have a question,” I state as I throw the free paper onto the counter. “Do any of these people look familiar to you?”
“Lady, I told you, I can't remember who the—” He shut up as soon as he looked at the paper, “Well, I'll be damned, that is him. I figured I never would see him again but yeah, that's the guy. The guy who sold me the Gameboy games,”
I looked to where the man's finger was pointing. Figuring he would be pointing at one of the kids' family members or teachers. Instead, it was placed on the picture of the boy's neighbor. I could see now why the store worker would have a hard time identifying him. The neighbor was incredibly nondescript. Average height, average build, no scars or tattoos. I could pass by someone like that and not even think twice. Yet somehow, finding this out felt important, though I will never know how.
The strange events stopped happening after I saw the paper. No weird glitched games or things that shouldn't happen. No more ominous songs and a game I dared to buy from the store worked without fault. It was like it was before. Yet, though odd things stopped happening, I do wonder what ever became of the other people who bought the games from that box.
Happy Halloween Boils and Ghouls. I hope you enjoyed reading my little tale of horror and the macabre. Hopefully you found it scary, or cheesy, or cheesily scary. Or perhaps you find it so terrible that it causes you to get physically upset. I did this in an afternoon so I make no guarantees about its quality. Have fun sleeping tonight kiddies!