Barry opened the door. A pale man in a tight-fitting suit flashed a laminated card and pocketed it before Barry could get a proper look.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the man smiled, his thin lips parting to reveal neat rows of tiny teeth.
“Alright,” Barry frowned. “My dad’s not in, if you’re selling something. Soz, mate.”
The man gave Barry another look at his teeth. Barry suddenly thought of a shark but was distracted from this image by the man’s voice.
“It’s you I want,” he said. He checked the papers on his clipboard. “You are Barry Edward Plodgett aged 17?”
“Yeah… So? Listen, mate, if you’re selling something, I’m at college. I ain’t got no money for insurance or charities or whatever.”
The man laughed.
“Ho no, nothing like that.” His dark eyes flitted from side to side. He leant closer towards Barry. “Do you mind if I step inside? It doesn’t pay to be conducting our business in the street.”
“Business? Listen, mate; I’ve told you. I’m skint.”
The man raised a slender hand to quiet Barry’s concerns.
“Perhaps I should have been clearer. I just want to ask you a few questions. That’s all.”
“Oh, some kind of survey, is it? What about?”
The man shrugged.
“You are familiar with social networking? Ever used a site called FriendFace?”
Barry nodded to hear the familiar name of one of his favourite sites.
“Oh, yeah! I’m on it all the time – um, when I’m not studying, of course.”
“Of course.” The man nodded towards the front door. Barry found himself stepping back and letting the man step over the threshold. The man looked around the hall expectantly. Barry closed the front door and showed the man into the living room.
“This is nice,” the man said without really looking at anything. He pointed at the settee. “May I?”
Barry nodded. The man sat down, perching on the edge of the seat. He used his skinny thighs to support his clipboard.
“So, you’re on FriendFace, you say? What’s your username?”
“Um. Plodgett 21472.”
“Catchy,” said the man. “You can change them, you know. You don’t have to keep the one they assign you. Just go to the settings tab and –”
Barry was still standing.
“Is this going to take long? Only I’ve…”
“Got studying to do, no doubt,” the man muttered. “Very well then, Master Plodgett. I shall keep this brief. Do you recall, on your timeline, yesterday afternoon, a photograph of an old woman? A grandmother, to be precise?”
“Um…” Barry frowned. “I dunno.”
The man pulled a photograph from the clipboard and held it out to Barry. Barry didn’t take it. He barely peered at it.
“There was a caption with this photograph. Don’t suppose you remember that, do you?”
“Sorry, mate. Can’t help you.” Barry edged towards the living room door, hoping the man would take the hint and take his leave. He regretted letting him in, regretted answering the door, regretted getting out of bed.
“The caption said, Please click thumb’s-up if you want granny to live. Ignore if you want granny to die.”
The man stood and held the photo of the smiling old woman closer to Barry’s face.
“Granny died, Master Plodgett. Granny died.”
Barry backed away. The edge of the living room door scraped between his shoulder blades.
“I’m sorry. Was she your granny?”
“That’s not the point,” the man stuffed the photo into his jacket. “The point is you ignored the photograph, you didn’t click thumb’s-up and now an old woman is dead.”
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” Barry gasped. “You can’t think – you can’t blame – Listen: old people die every day. It’s part of the deal. It’s just coincidence, that’s all.”
The man nodded slowly, waiting for Barry to finish.
“That all sounds very plausible, Master Plodgett; thank you.” He tucked his clipboard under his arm and stepped out into the hall. Barry tried not to let his relief be too apparent.
But then the man stopped. He lifted a finger and turned to Barry.
“There is something else,” he seemed almost sad to mention it. “While I’m here.”
He pushed past Barry and returned to the settee.
Barry sighed. Note to self: never answer the front door, he thought.
“Also on your timeline, you may have seen a post that’s doing the rounds. Quite a lengthy one, I will admit, but you said you’re the studious type. You must like reading. Did you see it?”
“What was it about?” Barry moved to the window. He looked out at the street beyond the front garden, willing his father to come home. He glanced at the clock over the fireplace. Dad wasn’t due back until five, and that was an hour and ten minutes away. Barry would have to deal with this weirdo by himself.
“Allow me to refresh your memory.” The man took out a sheet of paper and cleared his throat.
At first, Barry didn’t listen closely. It was some bullshit story that you see online every now and then. “Repost this story to at least ten of your friends” they always said, warning of dire consequences if you didn’t. Total bullshit.
The man was droning on, in an expressionless voice, telling the tale of some young girl who had refused to let a clown from a passing circus come into her house to sharpen the knives he threw in his act. Not even the promise of free admission to the show would persuade the girl. So the clown went away. He performed his act with blunt knives. It all went wrong and his assistant was killed. Her head was split right down the middle. The next day the girl was reading about it in the afternoon paper. She heard a noise behind her and she turned around and there was the heartbroken clown with his big, blunt knife. He split her head in two, because it was all her fault.
“Repost this story to at least ten of your friends or at four o’clock, the clown will sneak up behind you and do the same to you.”
“Yes, I remember,” Barry said. “I gave it a thumb’s-up. Cool story. Load of bollocks but cool.”
The man stood up.
“But you didn’t repost it to ten of your friends, did you, Barry?” He shook his head sadly.
The clock above the fireplace struck four.
“So sorry,” the man tipped his head to one side.
Barry heard the front door close. He was about to turn to see who was coming in – perhaps Dad was early for once –
“Allow me to introduce my colleague. Waffles, this is Barry. Barry, this is –“
But Barry Plodgett heard no more.