A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.
Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.
I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.
You can read previous chapters here.
by Craig McAllister
Pamela walked with Rhys, Stephen and Connor along a sterile white corridor. In the absence of windows (again!, thought Connor) harsh lighting lit the way. The soles of their shoes squeaked softly on the highly polished floor. No one spoke. Even Pamela was subdued. The corridor led to another equally anonymous section of the building. Here, they had the option to go diagonally either left or right. Pamela continued left and the boys followed. Along this corridor were dotted the boys’ bags, each placed outside a stark white door. There were no numbers. The TV company logo was positioned at eye level. A small metallic key-pad was in place of where you might expect to find a lock. No door had a handle.
Rhys was first to be given his room.
“This is your key-card number,” said Pamela, and handed him a small business-card sized piece of green paper. “Key it and the door will open automatically.”
Rhys keyed it and the door slid softly to the side. The room inside was in darkness. He picked up his bag, turning to Connor, Stephen and Pamela as he did so.
“We have about half an hour until we meet in the recreation room,” instructed Pamela. I suggest you’re ready in 20 minutes. I’ll meet you here. No one likes to be kept waiting at Kimble.”
They walked to the next door. Connor recognised his bag. Pamela repeated the instructions, waited until Connor had keyed in the number and the door opened, and left with the spiky haired boy who by now Connor had deduced was called Stephen.
As Connor stepped into his room, two things happened. The lights came on automatically and a hidden voice welcomed him.
“Good evening, Connor Stewart. Welcome to Kimble,” the calming female voice said. “If it’s too bright or too dark, just say and I’ll adjust accordingly.”
It was a bit bright – everything about this place so far was bright – but Connor didn’t speak. He surveyed his surroundings. A bed, larger than the one he had at home, took up half the room. A small bedside table sat beside it, a lamp on top of that. There was a large TV on the wall facing the bed. A desk with an angle-poised lamp and a laptop sat at the far corner, a comfy-looking chair pushed neatly underneath. In the opposite corner stood a wicker laundry basket and a large wooden wardrobe. Next to the wardrobe was a door which opened into a large chrome and marble bathroom. Stepping back into the bedroom, Connor saw there was a mirror and a couple of framed prints on the wall – a racing car and a nest of eagles – and, intriguingly, a framed copy of the poem he’d read earlier on the train.
People of Kimble, The
Elements will see to it that some of you will fail. That’s just the
Natural order of things.
Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.
Not all will make the return journey, the
Consequence of failure should be obvious to
The word ‘Kimble’ now jumped out at him. He read the poem again. ‘Not all will make the journey home…..the consequence of failure should be obvious to everyone….’
‘What have I got myself involved in?’ thought Connor to himself. Suddenly, eight months working with the Department of Enforcement didn’t seem quite so terrible.
Connor distracted himself by unpacking his bag. His toiletries he placed by the sink in the bathroom. His medication went in the drawer of the bedside table. His spare shoes he placed in the bottom of the empty wardrobe. Did he have time for a shower? He wasn’t sure he did, but then, the man had said they should shower. He didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.
‘I am the ultimate authority here, the man in charge,’ he’d said.
The shower was a fancy, voice-activated one. Connor got in, washed, got out and got dressed again. He’d barely towelled his hair when there was a sharp rap on the door. Connor punched in the code and the door opened to reveal Pamela and Stephen. His hair was still damp too.
“Just coming,” said Connor. He stepped back inside for his phone and, slipping it into his left jeans pocket, followed the other two, presumably to get Rhys. As they walked, Connor’s door swished shut behind them.
With Rhys joining them, the three boys and Pamela walked the length of the corridor.
“The layout of Kimble can be quite confusing at first,” explained Pamela. “It’s basically one, large, square figure of eight. But all the corridors are identical. it’s easy to get lost. That’s why I’ll be with you for the first few days, until you find your feet. The recreation room is a few minutes’ walk from here. Keep up!” The group squeaked onwards, silently following their guide.
They were the first to arrive. The recreation room was larger than Connor had expected. Two pool tables and a table tennis table sat to the side, next to a window that ran the length of the room. It was dusk now, and all that could be seen was thick greying greenery in every direction. Couches were laid out in small huddles. There was a juice bar. Bowls of fruit. Connor silently thanked his dad when he saw the vending machine filled with chocolate and crisps. A pinball machine and a retro arcade machine sat against the wall, lit up, blinking invitingly and ready for use. On the far wall, a huge TV screen beamed out. A spinning logo with the words ‘The Elements’ rotated silently. In front of the screen was a small podium, the same as the ones that Connor had seen on television when Prime Ministers and Presidents and important people made a speech. A thin, bendy microphone jutted up from it. Arranged around the screen and podium was a dozen or so chairs. Clearly, this was where the boys were to sit.
Pamela led them to the chairs and invited them to sit in the front row, not at all where any of the three would have chosen to sit, but there they were. The carpeted footsteps of other people made the three boys instinctively turn around. Connor spotted Grayson with another couple of unfamiliar boys. They too were being led by one of the other girls, dressed just like Pamela. They were shown to the three remaining chairs in the front row and took their positions. Sitting as they were Connor wasn’t able to catch Grayson’s eye. It would have been good to have had a couple of words or even a reassuring glance or two. More footsteps and muffled shuffling indicated the last of the group. Three boys, including Alan (or Randolph, to give him his proper name) sat in the second row of chairs. The three girls who were looking after the boys took up the remaining chairs in the back row.
As if on cue, from a side door the man who’d spoken to them on arrival emerged. He walked purposefully to the podium. He wasn’t alone. The boy who walked a half-step behind him had changed his shirt and taken off his jacket, but even out of context Connor recognised him immediately as Mackintosh boy. He was desperate to turn to Grayson and Alan to see their reactions. Had they recognised him too? He’d ask them later.
“Good evening, boys,” the man began. “Good evening. Thank you for your punctuality. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.” He looked at the assembled boys with a reptilian smile.
“It’s so good of you to join me at this hour. I appreciate you will be tired and probably hungry too. Worry not. After this short briefing you will be given an evening meal and some down time for you to…catch your breath, as it were. I know it’s been a long day for all of you – all of us too – and that bed must seem quite appealing right now. First though, we must explain why you are here. ‘What have I signed up for?’ you must be thinking. Well….you’re about to find out. Cameron, lights and film please, thank you.”
The lights dimmed. Mackintosh boy aimed a remote control at the massive screen and the spinning logo faded to black. A fiery explosion lit up the room from the screen. Cinema surround-sound booms vibrated from Connor’s feet upwards. The chairs shook. The windows rattled. Had he turned around, Connor would have noticed the ends of the girls’ hair dancing independently in the space above their shoulders. As presentations went, it was certainly an attention-grabber.
“Welcome to ‘The Elements’!”
An unseen American voice, as deep and grainy as the gravel they’d stood on an hour previously spoke from the screen.
“You have elected to join the most-prestigious game show on television. A game show like no other. A game show that everyone will be talking about. A game show that will be beamed nightly into Every! Home! On! The! PLANET!!!.”
The voice stopped and a large, chunky number nine appeared on screen.
The nine faded and gave way to a number five.
The five faded away to a number one. It appeared to grow larger and smaller as the voiceover continued.
“…and one winner!”
The number one faded to the sight of a crass golden trophy, clip art really, that flashed and teased as the voiceover continued. Cartoon fireworks fizzed around it.
“Physical strength. Mental stamina. Mental strength. Physical stamina.”
Each statement was accompanied by a relevant graphic.
“Each is crucial to your success. Survive all five challenges…”
A large red tick emerged on screen and faded.
“Survive the public vote…”
“Survive ‘The Elements’!”
The picture on the screen changed quite unexpectedly to grainy coloured footage of American troops in Vietnam, rifles rat-a-tat-tatting, low-flying helicopters circling, white flashes of death punctuating the thick, moist jungle.
“This is war.”
The voiceover trailed off to allow total focus on the visual imagery.
“’The Elements’ is war.”
The logo of ‘The Elements’ spun into view and remained spinning. Connor was aware of how silent the room now was.
The lights went up. Connor blinked. The man was back at his podium.
“Well. I hope that gives you a flavour of what you’re here for!”
He eyeballed them all.
“You boys are our first-ever contestants! The guinea pigs, so to speak, but nonetheless the groundbreakers! The pioneers! The trailblazers in a brave new world of interactive, audience participation survival tee-vee! The viewers of the world will have a say in your fate. They will watch nightly, develop a fondness for one or more of you, follow your social media profiles, interact, become invested in your pursuit. It is those followers, boys, those fans, those fixated viewers that you will be relying upon to keep you in the competition.”
He stopped, letting his audience unscramble everything. He spoke again, lowering his voice for dramatic effect.
“Let’s be clear, boys. Not all of you will make it. Indeed, some of you might not even make it beyond the first challenge. That will be so. Call it natural order. Call it weakness. Call it a lack of popularity with the viewers if you must, but guaranteed, at least one of you will not see Challenge 2.
Now. We don’t expect you to go into each challenge unprepared. Of course we don’t! Did the gladiators of Rome go to the fight unprepared? Of course not! They trained until they were at peak fitness levels, and so shall you. You will train daily, both physically and mentally. You will eat well. You will sleep well. You will become the man society demands of you. Some of you will clearly find this tougher than others…”
He broke off and looked again at Alan.
“..but your life depends on it. You have a say in the outcome. Make sure your voice is heard.”
The room was in silence again. Connor felt sick.
“Now, I want to explain a little bit about your teams.”
The man’s voice was softer now, more fatherly.
“You have been placed into teams of three. The boys you came in the car with, the boys you walked to your rooms with, are now your best friends and team-mates. Without their help you will not get far. You must rely on one another. Encourage. Motivate. Do not let your team-mate down. We take great care to ensure a balance in each team. We have looked at your files, noting your individual strengths and weaknesses. We have considered your sociability and grouped you accordingly.” The man turned to Mackintosh boy.
“Cameron here is my right-hand man. My eyes and ears. He has compiled profiles of each and every one of you. There is nothing he doesn’t know.”
A sudden realisation dawned on Connor. The steely stare. The lack of interaction. The changing of seats during the journey. ‘He’s been watching us! He saw how we became friends, talking, getting on….and now he’s split us up!’
“So, if there are no questions….”
The man’s voice tailed off, daring anyone in the room to ask him something. All eyes remained anywhere but on him.
“….we’ll break there and have a bite to eat. Afterwards we’ll kit you out with the clothing you will wear from now on. If there’s time we may have some rest and recuperation time, when you can enjoy the facilities on offer. Lights out is always 2200 hours and no exceptions. Anyway, enough from me. Food!”
Pamela led Connor, Rhys and Stephen to a table set for four. Each of the other teams was taken to their own table, all apart from one another. Connor wondered if he’d get the chance to speak to Grayson and Alan at all tonight.
The food arrived. Some sort of pasta with little nuts through it. It tasted great. A bowl of grapes and a jug of orange juice were brought out afterwards. Between the four of them, they left nothing. The talk was a bit stilted throughout. Pamela did her best to keep things upbeat, but no one was in the mood for much conversation. This had been the most eventful day in Connor’s life. He was tired, he was being forced to make friends with people….and the unwelcome threat of death hung over him like a cloak.
After dinner the three girls took their respective groups to a large, clinical store-room. Floor to ceiling metallic shelves ran the length of one side. Every so often a sign announced what was stored in that section; Trousers (combat), Trousers (wet), Trousers (R&R) and so on. Connor could see Grayson’s group at the far end, trying on jackets. Alan’s group was bunched together near the middle, listening to their leader say something. Pamela stopped Connor and the others at a section marked ‘Layers’.
“Alright guys! Layering is super-important at ‘The Elements’. Sometimes you’ll be outside and, because you’ll be running around and stuff, you’ll be, like, hot and sweating. If you don’t have your layers on you’ll either be too warm or too cold. It’s really important to layer up! All these layers you see here are essential ‘Elements’ wear. This one…” In her right hand she held up a tiny, red, long-sleeved lycra top, “is fireproof. And this one…” In her left hand she waved a similar-looking garment in black, “is stab-proof. Come and find one in your size.”
‘Fireproof?! Stab-proof?!”’ thought Connor and Rhys and Stephen, independently yet simultaneously. They slowly stepped forward.
“Rhys,” Pamela held up the red top she’d just shown them. “This looks like it’s in your size.”
Rhys caught it as she threw it to him and held it limply against himself.
“Connor, you look like a medium. You too Stephen…or maybe even a large. Here, check for yourself.”
The boys dipped into a plastic box labelled ‘Fire (Med)’ and pulled out a top each. Stephen returned his, reached instead for the ‘Fire (Lge)’ box and selected a top he was happy with. This routine continued until they had quite a handful of items; as well as fireproof and stab-proof layers, they also had ‘subzero armour’, ‘thermashield protector’, a running vest and something that was ‘solarwind-immune’. They were also given a couple of fleeces, two different-coloured hooded tops and a selection of plain-coloured R&R t-shirts, to be worn in their down time. Every item of clothing was branded with an ‘Elements’ logo on the left breast.
Pamela gave each of the boys a suitcase.
“Stick yer layers in there, boys, and we’ll go and pick us some trousers.”
The boys found their size and filled their cases with two pairs of each trouser; combat trousers, wet trousers, R&R trousers that were midway between jeans and chinos, and other more worryingly-named forms of legwear; fireproof, explosive-proof, bite-proof as well as multiple pairs of running (long) and running (short) trousers.
Next, the jackets. Each boy was given just two jackets, a ‘night jacket’ and a ‘day jacket’. They didn’t need any more, Pamela said, because they wouldn’t be wearing a jacket for the water tasks and they’d be too warm for the fire tasks, and in any rate, she said, they already had their fireproof layers. The three boys exchanged glances. Rhys and Stephen looked at one another and then at Connor. Silently, subtly, he had just been elected group leader.
“See these tasks, Pamela,” he asked with hesitation. “What exactly are they? What do they involve? It’s just….I dunno, they seem a bit…extreme?”
“Oh, yes, Connor! They’re extreme all right! This is ‘The Elements’! It’s supposed to be extreme!”
‘The Elements’. What were the elements? A memory from school nagged him. ‘Were there four? Five maybe? Air…fire….earth…water…’ Connor couldn’t think of a fifth.
“The air,” he said aloud. “And fire.”
“The Earth!” added Rhys “And water and wood!”
The boys and Pamela looked at him.
“I’m into science. I know my elements! The five basic elements of earth are earth itself and air, fire, water and wood. I expect the show gives us tasks based on these five elements, am I right?”
Pamela looked at him with a knowing smile.
“I’m not supposed to tell you, Rhysy boy, but you’re on the right tracks! Now! Boots!”
They were given two types of footwear. The first was a heavy black ankle-height boot that was surprisingly comfy on first fitting. They looked like the sort of boots you might wear to go hillwalking or fell climbing. Connor’s experience of hiking boots was that they took a while to break-in and usually left you with blisters on your heels and soles for half a year afterwards. These boots didn’t feel like they’d do that. They were made of Goretex and suede but the front felt protected – steel toe-capped, maybe. The laces criss-crossed to the top. Connor liked the way they felt on his feet.
They were also given a pair of ‘Elements’-branded trainers, ugly-looking white things with chunky soles and big round toes. They were definitely not the sort of trainers Connor would choose to wear. Connor was pleased that he’d brought the suggested spare pair of shoes with him. There’s no way he’d be wearing these trainers, unless forced to. He wouldn’t be seen dead in them. ‘Seen dead in,’ he repeated internally, a wave of anxiety sweeping through him once more.
Their wardrobes complete, Pam handed each boy a sharpie and instructed them to label their own suitcase. The cases would be taken away, she explained, and their clothing tagged with their names on each item. They would be ready to wear tomorrow.
“It’s an hour until lights out. This is your own time now. I can show you back to your rooms if you like, or if you’d prefer, I can take you back to the recreation room for a little while. What’s it to be?”
Stephen and Rhys again looked at Connor. Connor was tired, exhausted even, but he desperately wanted to chat to Grayson and Alan and get their take on events so far. He hoped they’d be in the recreation room too.
“Yeah, I think we should go to the recreation room for a bit. Not long though, just enough time to let us relax a bit before bedtime.”
As it turned out, they were the only three there. The lights had been dimmed. The pool tables and table tennis table remained untouched in the shadows cast by the trees outside. The lights flickered away on the arcade machines, failing to hook a willing player. The low hum of the vending machine suggested it was ready for action, but no one was biting. Pamela switched on a set of low lights and left. Rhys, Stephen and Connor each flopped into a large orange sofa.
“I’m knackered,” sighed Stephen.
“Me too,” said Rhys.
“And me,” replied Connor.
“This place is weird,” said Stephen, stretching his legs in front of him. “D’you think they’ll really kill some of us?”
The silence from the other two was the answer he feared. The trio sat in exhausted silence with nothing more to say.
In another room not too far away, in a room that the boys would never know about, Pamela and the man sat watching on a series of large LCD screens, listening to the boys’ non-conversation.
“Time for bed,” suggested the man, and Pamela left to gather the three boys back to their rooms.
Connor barely remembered the soothing voice welcoming him back to his room or getting himself undressed and into the ‘Elements’-branded pyjamas that had been laid out on his bed. He was unaware of when exactly his head softly hit the pillow. He was asleep though before his new friend Stephen had even keyed the number into his door.
(more to follow in the future)