Zack loved gossip the way a dog loves other dogs’ poop. He was attracted to every filthy little scandal and when he came across gossip, he couldn’t help adding his own details.
Not that he would ever take credit for anything. It was always ‘they’. “Hey, they say Brad got arrested last night,” he said. “Drugs, I think.” Brad was the school’s top student and it didn’t matter that he had only been spotted going on a ride-along with his cop uncle. The gossip was much more exciting.
Zack never made anything up. It wasn’t a lie after all, he just took what other fundamentally untrustworthy gossips said, added his own embellishments, and passed it along. But then came the week when nothing apparently happened. Brittany had no news for him; nobody threw up in gym class or got caught making out behind the gym. Helen had nothing either, or Gary, Phil, Victoria or Nell. Even Kyle had nothing new to tell him and Kyle was like a walking tabloid without the ads.
He was starting to get the shakes as gossip withdrawal hit him. He had his own people coming to him, asking what the new story was. That was when Zack decided to make something up, something totally new and so juicy that it would go viral. But who would it be about?
The principal, he decided. The principal was a retired army captain and quite strict. The story didn’t even have to be believable, just sensational. Credibility had never bothered gossips before.
He worked out the exact story and started it the next day on the bus. “Hey,” he said to Kyle, who was sitting next to him. “Did you hear about Principal Brown? They say he was caught smuggling rabbits full of drugs into the country, him and a female Lebanese spy.”
“Wow, where did you hear that?” Kyle asked, with a look of jealousy that he hadn’t heard it first. Zack just shrugged.
“Oh, you know. It’s just what they’re saying.”
Once Kyle had his teeth in the story, it didn’t take long for the whole school to hear about it. It was so successful that Principal Brown even came on the intercom before the last period to assure everyone that he had never smuggled drugs and that he was not the leader of an international spy ring (the story had grown slightly during the day). Zack was feeling good; this was the sort of thing the local news might even pick up.
He was walking home after school, when a helicopter appeared out of nowhere and picked him up with a giant claw and whisked him away. This was unexpected.
The next thing he knew, he was sitting in a dark room, in a single pool of light.
“Zack Bandersnatch, you lied,” a voice said out of the darkness.
Zack scanned his recent history for lies, trying to think of what this person was talking about. It was a rather large list to narrow down. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said at last.
“This morning you told Kyle Pudgybottom a rumor about your principal,” another voice said and Zack suddenly realized there were more people in the room. “You said, and I quote, ‘they say he was caught smuggling rabbits full of drugs into the country, him and a female Lebanese spy.’”
“They might have said that,” Zack said.
“No, they didn’t,” a third voice said, much deeper and resonant, “because we are They!”
Zack was a bit confused by the pronouns and didn’t say anything. There was an awkward silence. “What I mean,” the third voice continued, “is that whenever people say, ‘they say’, they’re referring to us. We start all rumors, so don’t go starting your own.”
Zack thought about this. “Why not?”
“Because it’s our job!” one of them snapped. “People don’t go around saying ‘Zack says’ all the time; they say ‘they say’ and they are us and we are them.”
“Or what?” Zack asked. He had liked making up his own rumors and didn’t want to be pushed around by a faceless gossip oligarchy: a gossigarchy.
“Or we’ll start one about you,” one of them said. “We know just how to do it. It could even start out innocent, like you were studying late in the library. 24 hours later, people will be saying you were making out with Mrs. Vermicelli, the librarian, in the history section.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Zack said.
“Oh, that would just be the beginning. Everyday there would be a new scandal about you. You would never be able to go outside without being laughed at again.”
“Fine,” Zack said. “What do you want from me?”
“Don’t start rumors,” one said. “That’s our job.” Then a large crane came out of the ceiling and Zack was again unceremoniously hauled away.
* * *
I’d like to say that Zack learned his lesson and became a perfect boy, but of course that didn’t happen. Two weeks later, he slipped up and started a rumor about a girl he secretly liked. Sure enough, the next day, the school was abuzz with a rumor about him and the librarian.
Strangely enough, after the initial shock, most people didn’t care. He got a lot of jokes about studying late in the library, but if anything, it all made him more popular. The next rumor was worse. They began to say Zack had peed himself in swimming class. But Zack just shrugged his shoulders and made up a rumor about himself, about how he had been short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize for his history essay on Napoleon. No one believed it, but it increased his fame. Soon the rumors about him were flying and he was the most famous boy in the school.
After Zack graduated, the stories only continued to grow until he was referred only as That Boy. “Remember That Boy?” students would say. “That Boy who won the Pulitzer, peed in the pool, shot his math teacher with a paintball gun, got blasted into space in science class, sold nuclear secrets to the Syrians, saved a group of tigers from a forest fire, kissed all the girls in school, poisoned the cafeteria food, hacked into the Pentagon, and came to school in a kilt that one time. He was quite a kid.”