When I was a kid I had a toy robot, zoopzorp was his name. Of course, I didn’t know that until later, at first I just called him Robot. His name is zoopzorp, all lower case. He hates having it capitalized, and if anyone says it that way he makes me eat dead rats.
I found zoopzorp at a garage sale my family visited one hot August afternoon. My Dad loved taking our family to garage sales on the weekend and that particularly muggy one was no exception. zoopzorp had sat in a pile of other old toys, beat up and still a little dusty, atop the checkered tablecloth laid over a folding table. He immediately caught my eye because he was bright red, and had a little plastic toy gun. I just had to have him.
“Look Mom! A toy robot! Can I have it? Please?!” I said. My mom tried to dissuade me, but she wasn’t very good at being persuasive.
“Oh Michael, he’s all beat up. Wouldn’t you rather have this little fire engine?” she said.
“No, mommy, I want the robot! I want the robot!”
She rolled her eyes and I snapped up the robot and we went over to the old couple who were holding the garage sale to pay.
“Whatcha got there, son?” My Dad caught us on the way over.
“Look Dad! I’m getting this shiny red robot! We’re going to have space battles!”
“Doesn’t look so shiny to me.” My Father was looking at some old records with Sandy, our golden retriever. “But if you say so son, you go ahead with your mother. I bet it’s worth a fortune.” He winked at me.
Mom rolled her eyes at him and he smiled back. I remember thinking that the old couple seemed a bit odd when we went to pay for the robot. They got all quiet when my Mom tried to talk to them, and said that they hadn’t meant to put the robot out. I thought maybe it had belonged to one of their children when they were younger. I felt sad when I began to think I wouldn’t get my shiny red robot after all.
“But I can see you really do want it,” the old man had said. “So you know what son, you can have him. For a boy like you, it’s free. You just have to promise to take good care of him.”
And then he’d tousled my hair. My Mom tried to get them to take at least some money, five dollars even, but they’d wouldn’t hear of it.
We drove back to the house in the station wagon, my father and mother bickering over the amount of stupid crap my Dad had bought (“really Mark, we don’t even own a record player…”) and I sat in the backseat with Sandy, overjoyed with the thought of the exciting space battles that Robot and I were going to have.
I played with zoopzorp all Sunday, until finally, despite my complaints to stay up later, my mother made me wash up and get ready for bed.
“It’s a school night,” she said.
I wanted to sleep with zoopzorp but she wouldn’t allow it – I think at the time she was already worrying I was becoming a bit obsessed with the robot – and so she put my red plastic companion down on the floor in the in corner, and assured me that he’d be there all night with me while I slept.
She flicked on the nightlight, kissed me on the forehead, and switched off the lights.
“Good night son,” she said, a backlit silhouette standing in the darkness of the doorway. “I love you.”
“I love you too Mummy,” I said, and she closed the door.
I started to get sleepy, but then just as I started to drop off I heard a voice coming out of the dimness:
“Hello?” I said. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me Michael, your robot.” The voice did not sound like my childhood self thought a robot voice should sound at all. It was deep and smooth and sounded like the voice of a man wearing a tuxedo.
“Robot?” I said, sitting up under the covers. “You can talk?”
“Why yes, Michael, of course I can.”
“But you didn’t talk when we found you at the garage sale. And we had space battles all day and you didn’t say anything.”
“I can’t talk around them, Michael,” zoopzorp said. “Only around you. Because you’re special, Michael. I don’t want them to know.”
“You mean my parents?”
“Yes Michael. So me talking to you will be our little secret, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Good boy, Michael.” I felt funny of all of a sudden. “Now I want to ask you a question. Are you scared of the dark, Michael?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “Being afraid of the dark is for sissies. And I’m not a sissy. I’m brave.”
“I know you are! You’re so brave, Michael.” zoopzorp’s voice glided smoothly through the darkness like a black serpent. “Then I want you to sit and listen because I’m going to tell you a story about the darkness and the things that live in it. Turn off the nightlight, Michael.”
I unplugged the light from the wall next to my bed and leaned forward with my knees pulled up against my body and my arms wrapped around them, and zoopzorp told me stories about the dark and the horrible creatures that lived in it: wild beasts and evil men and dark demons and psycho killers and The Devil himself. But I wasn’t scared because I was brave, and I loved zoopzorp and his little plastic gun.
That was to be the first night of many. The weeks went by and day after day I rushed home from school on the weekdays to play with zoopzorp for as long as I could. I spent all the Saturdays of Indian summer conquering planets and exploring the far reaches of space in the soft green grass of the yard, just me, zoopzorp and Sandy. I’d play the whole day until dinner, and for hours after that until at night when my parents were finally gone and zoopzorp would tell me scary stories about the darkness and all the things that lived in it and what they’d done, and then right before I fell asleep he’d always tell me he loved me and that I was a good boy.
As the nights went by though, zoopzorp’s stories started to get scarier and scarier. He went from telling me about the things that lived in the dark to about how a man who’d lived in the house before my family had chopped up his wife and the postman, and buried them in the basement; how years ago all the teachers in the high school drew a big circle of lamb’s blood on the gym floor and then killed one of the students with a knife and ate her; and how there was demon that had possessed the mind of old Mrs. Benson and made her crazy, and that’s why she’d shot her son who took care of her in the face with a pistol, and they’d locked her up in the asylum.
“Robot, your stories are becoming too scary,” I finally said one night at the end of September. “I’m real brave but even these stories are starting to scare me.”
“No, Michael, you’re not scared are you?” zoopzorp crooned. “I’m telling you about reality, Michael. I’m telling you what the grown-ups never will. Because I know you’re big and brave, and don’t have to be treated like a little child . You don’t want me to treat you like a little child like the grown-ups do, do you, Michael?”
“No,” I said, feeling kind of funny again.
“Good,” said zoopzorp. “And don’t you think your friends at school should be treated that way either, do you?”
“No!” I said. “I hate having to go to school and learn about multiplication, and how all the teachers just treat us like we’re stupid little kids.”
“Of course you do,” zoopzorp reassured me from his corner in the dark. “So I want you to do this for me, Michael. I want you to write down the stories I tell you, and share them with all your friends at school so they can be grown-ups too.”
“What?” I said. “No, I can’t do that. I’ll get in trouble. The stories are too scary.”
“No, no, no, Michael.” I felt zoopzorp’s words washing over me like the waves of the ocean. “They need to know. You need to help them become brave like you. Will you do that for me?”
“No, I can’t! I’m sorry! I love you Robot but I don’t want to get in trouble. I think I should just go to sleep.”
“MICHAEL,” said zoopzorp, very slowly. “You must write down my stories and share them with everyone else. Do you remember the story I told you about little Annie and how her face got sliced up and burned off by her Daddy? Or about the Mommy who reached down the garbage disposal for her ring and had her arm all ground up? Or about that boy that the man chained up in his basement forever? “I love you too Michael, but if you don’t do this for me these things will start to happen to you too, and then I’ll have to vaporize you with my ray gun and find someone else to share my stories with the world.”
“Now you’re just being silly,” I said. “I’m a kid but I know they’re are just stories. And it’s just a little plastic gun. I know it’s just pretend. You can’t vaporize anyone. And you’re being mean to me, Robot, so I’m not sure I like you anymore. Good night.”
I went to sleep but I could feel zoopzorp fuming in the corner. My Mom wondered why I stopped playing with him for the next few days, and I told her I just didn’t feel like it, right up until I came home from school and Sandy was missing, and there was a big burn mark in a ring on the floor where her doggie bed used to be. Mom and Dad told me that Sandy ran away with another dog and got married to her, but later I heard them talking with the man they hired to clean up the burn.
“Spontaneous combustion,” I heard him say from around the corner. “It’s the damnedest thing, I’ve seen it before. Happens to people you know, so why shouldn’t it happen to dogs too, I reckon?”
I knew what really happened. I started playing with zoopzorp again after that, and he started talking to me again at night, only now it wasn’t fun, I was afraid; not of the stories but of zoopzorp himself, and that he might vaporize me like he did Sandy.
“Share my stories, Michael,” he said, but his voice was different now, meaner. “Spread the gospel of zoopzorp.”
“zoopzorp,” he said. “I am zoopzorp. Spread my gospel. Share my stories with the others.”
“I will,” I said, crying. “I will.”
It was only a matter of time before word got back to my parents. I heard them talking in the kitchen, right after my mother had hung up the phone. I didn’t know it was a call from the school at the time, but I could tell from their hushed tones they were talking about me and it wasn’t good.
I was in my room playing with zoopzorp. We were fighting a space battle against the evil aliens from Ulaan Khuree. My mother stood in the doorway and looked down at me.
“Michael honey,” she said softly. “Could you come in to the living room? Your father and I want to talk to you.”
Shit. Now I knew was in trouble.
The principal had called my parents and recommended I be suspended for a month and see a psychologist. He’d heard all the stories going around the school, the ones I’d told the other students, the ones zoopzorp had made me write down and tell – the gospel of zoopzorp. I was just spreading his gospel like he’d told me to, hoping that’d keep him loving me and stop him from vaporizing me like he did Sandy.
“Son, is there something you want to tell us?” my father said, lines of worry wrinkling his face. I remember thinking he looked old then. I’d never seen him look that old. He reminded me of Grandpa, or the old man at the garage sale we’d gone to so many weeks ago.
I could never properly explain. And I could never betray zoopzorp. I promised that it would be our little secret and our little secret alone.
“Son, why are you telling the other students at school these terrible things? Where did you hear them?”
I had to lie. I had to say something. I told Mom and Dad the stories just came to me. That I’d been plagued with nightmares ever since Sandy disappeared and I just had to tell the other kids because they bothered me so much. I broke down and cried and cried and promised I’d never do it again. The whole time all I could think about was zoopzorp and his little plastic ray gun. I knew he was watching. I knew he was listening from my room. And it scared me.
But as it turned out I didn’t need to spread the gospel of zoopzorp anymore. Because soon the gospel of zoopzorp started coming true.
Anne Driscoll ended up being the little girl that had her face sliced up and burned with a clothes iron by her Daddy. Everybody tried to act like everyone didn’t know, and all the teachers tried to calm us down by talking about it without really talking about it, but we all knew. We all knew. Timmy Fisk said her Dad was going to go upstate and get the chair because of horrible it all was.
Little Stevie’s Mom was the one who reached down the garbage disposal. She was in the hospital for weeks after that, her arm a pile of diced flesh and bone potpurri inside a cast, and Little Stevie had to go stay with his Grandma, who he told us smelled like moth balls.
And there was more. Genevieve Fletcher tripped on the sidewalk and got run over by a garbage truck. Tommy Gray speared his eyeballs on a white picket fence when he was trying to catch a softball in Pickens Park. Mr. Zigley the science teacher committed suicide. All the teachers wouldn’t talk about that either, but Arnie Schultz heard it from his uncle, that Zig blew his brains out in a motel with a shot from a shiny revolver, following shot after shot of whiskey he’d taken before it.
I never did hear who was the boy that got locked up in the basement like in the story zoopzorp told me… but maybe that was the most frightening part of about all the things that were happening. I tried to sleep at night but the thought of that poor boy, and everyone who’d died, their bodies dead and spread, like unfolded paper dolls, kept me awake at night.
It was a couple nights after I hear about Mr. Zigley and I could hear my parents arguing in the kitchen they were yelling so loud. I had already brushed my teeth and gone to bed. The lights were off and it was dark in my room. I knew zoopzorp was watching from the corner. I could feel him.
“zoopzorp?” I said.
“Yes, Michael?” zoopzorp’s voice wasn’t mean anymore, ever since I told him I’d spread his gospel. It was fluid and smooth again, like the fabric of Mommy’s black scarf she only wore when her and Dad went to The Opera.
“I did what you told me, zoopzorp. I told your stories to all the other boys and girls.”
“I know Michael,” he said. “That’s good. Good.”
“Are you making all the terrible things happen to the other boys and girls and the grown-ups? Are they happening somehow because I told them those stories? Are the stories coming true?”
“No Michael,” zoopzorp’s voice circled in the darkness. “They’re just stories.”
“Okay,” I said. But I didn’t believe him. And somehow, I knew he knew I didn’t.
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Michael. Good night.”
My eyelids suddenly got heavy and the last thing I thought about before they closed was the boy from the story, chained up in that man’s basement and crying for help, and that no one would ever hear him.
I was worried something terrible would happen, that zoopzorp’s grip on me would only tighten more and more over time. That’d he make me tell more terrible stories until they all came true, until everyone at school was dead, my family too, and maybe even everyone in town.
But that never happened. As the days went by, zoopzorp spoke less and less to me at night. He used to tell me three or four stories a night sometimes, when I first got him, but soon he only told me one or two, or would just tell me that he loved me, and then sit in the dark silently.
Finally one night in October I called out for him in the darkness but there was no answer. I played with zoopzorp the next day but it was less fun. And when I set him in the corner in my room that night I couldn’t feel him anymore. He was gone. He was just a plastic robot now. When she saw I’d stopped playing with him Mom threw zoopzorp into a box of old things in the crawlspace and over time I forgot all about him.
The years went by everyone grew to forget that terrible time that befell our town, and I even began to forget about zoopzorp. But I always knew I had to keep my word about him, nonetheless.
Yesterday was my 19th birthday, and I came back home to visit my parents, and to go out with some friends in town.
“Mom? Dad?” I said, coming in to the house. “I’m home!”
I felt a chill like a black snack writhe its way up my spine when I heard the voice that responded:
“Hello Michael. Bet you didn’t think you’d see me again.”
It was him. On the kitchen floor were two large rings – burn marks, just like the one that’d been in the place of Sandy’s doggie bed so many years ago – filled with black ashes, and in them rolled zoopzorp, his beaten-up little red plastic form lolling to and fro and scattering the particles everywhere.
“You thought you could just shut me out of your life, Michael? After all that I did that for you? After all that we went through together? You stopped believing in me.” His voice wasn’t smooth like it used to be. It was high and fast and wild and crazy. He stood and pointed his little plastic ray gun at me.
“It’s not over Michael! It’ll never be over! I’m real, and you must do my bidding. You must spread the gospel of zoopzorp! Spread the gospel of zoopzorp!”
He chained me to my laptop and made me write this story, the first story in the new gospel of zoopzorp. The first but definitely not the last. Oh God, please help me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’ve dragged you in to this. I just want to stop… I just want it all to stop… please help me…
He told me to spread the gospel of zoopzorp, and I will.