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.
by Craig McAllister
Connor kicked off his Converse at the heels and heard them fall to the floor. He instinctively pulled his phone from his front left pocket and impatiently waited as it came back to life. When it did, he got the shock of his life. A never-ending sequence of pings and vibrations announced that he had literally thousands of notifications. The Babble app showed ‘50000+’ next to it! Olé had even more! ‘The Elements’ app announced 122378 notifications. Connor checked the numbers closely. Over fifty thousand Babble notifications! That was insane. On a good day he might miss 1 or 2. If his phone was off between classes at school, maybe 20 or so. Never fifty thousand. He’d never even used Olé until now but suddenly he was trending on it! And ‘The Elements’ app, the TV show’s own social media platform showed that he’d missed over a hundred thousand interactions with, well, with who exactly?
Connor opened up ‘The Elements’ app first. The screen on his phone was split in two. On the left-hand side, a series of pictures, text and hashtags could be scrolled through. On the right-hand side were the personal messages that only he could see. He read, flitting between the two sides of the screen.
Connor tapped the ‘Reply?’ option, fired in a quick “Hi!” and replied. His text zoomed off and out into the ether. He scrolled on.
Connor swept the screen. Text after text rapidly sped upwards, swipe after swipe after swipe after swipe.
There were more.
They went on and on and on.
Connor couldn’t possibly read all of them. There was no way on earth he could reply to them all. He regretted sending that one reply. ‘If I don’t reply personally, will they follow someone else? Will I end up getting knocked out?’ It was a dilemma.
Connor scrolled through the pictures on the other side of the screen. The most-recent had been taken just a few minutes before; the press room emptying, the Japanese journalist and his translator standing smiling for the photographer, Steve de la Cruz caught off guard, the boys being ushered out of the room, the boys standing up from the table, boys 5, 6 and 7 – Alan, he’d almost forgotten about him! – seated at the table.
A picture of a cameraman. The man standing with his arms outstretched, de la Cruz by his side. A panoramic view of all 9 boys at the table. Rhys speaking. Fowler speaking. Pamela and the other two girls in huddled conversation. A head shot of Grayson.
A different head shot of Grayson. The man again, speaking. A female journalist standing with a microphone. Two production assistants with clipboards. Stephen’s spiky hair. Connor beside Grayson. Connor himself. De la Cruz dazzling everyone with his smile. A bird’s eye view of the room. Another pictu…
‘Message from @soccermomNYC’ appeared across the middle of the screen. Connor’s heart sank. His text had gone, reached the recipient and now they were replying.
He thought for a moment and opened the message.
What now? Did he reply? Did he ignore? He had a decision to make.
He didn’t reply. Instead, Connor tapped the pencil icon in the top right of his screen, opening the ‘Get It Out There Now!’ field at the bottom.
He added a #elements at the end and sent it off.
Feeling a bit foolish, he looked around his room for where there might be a hidden camera. Settling on the light fitting in the middle of his ceiling, Connor looked, smiled and waved. He gave a double thumbs up, felt embarrassed and returned to his phone.
A series of ever-increasing red love hearts flashed rapidly across his screen. Connor swiped to the top of his feed. A fresh batch of messages were waiting for him.
On and on they went, screen after screen of those little yellow waving hands. The sinking feeling returned once more.
‘They’re watching me right now. Right now!’ Connor wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. ‘The bathroom,’ he surmised. ‘Surely they don’t film in the bathroom.’ Connor swung off the side of the bed, phone in hand, and closed the bathroom door behind him. There was no lock, or he would have locked the door too. He sat on the lid of the toilet and let out a long, low sigh.
A lot had happened in the few hours since breakfast. And now this social media overload. He hadn’t even, he realised with growing anxiety, opened the other two apps. He hesitated then opened Olé first. He was met by a stream of pictures, all of him, take by goodness knows who. The press conference in close up. The press conference far off. Black and white. Filtered colours. Wearing his ‘night’ jacket. Holding up his fireproof layer, a blurry Pamela in the background. There were around 30 or so. Every picture had thousands of comments and emojis underneath it, the content mirroring the comments on ‘The Elements’ app.
Babble was the same. A nightmare vision of complete strangers being friendly attached to hashtags, emojis, gifs and video clips. Comment after comment after comment.
Connor placed his phone next to the fresh towels – when did they appear?! – on the marble counter and sat, letting everything sink in.
“Can you dim the lights, please?” he asked aloud. He fancied gathering his thoughts in darkness for a bit. He’d yet to acknowledge the unseen voice that welcomed him in that slightly emotionless way each time he came ‘home’ but given there were no light switches he could manipulate himself, he had no option.
“Certainly, Connor Stewart. Dimming lights now. Say ‘stop’ when I reach the desired level.”
“Stop,” commanded Connor as the room fell into a fuzzy grey twilight. He sat for a bit, contemplating. Then it came to him. This woman, this voice, might be able to help him.
“Hello?” he said again.
“Hello Connor Stewart,” it replied.
“Can you tell me if there are any cameras filming me in here?”
“For dignity and privacy reasons, there are no cameras in the bathroom, Connor Stewart.”
That was a relief.
Then it came to him again.
“Are you able to turn off the camera in my room?”
“Certainly, Connor Stewart. Which camera would you like me to deauthorise?”
“Eh….the one in the light fitting above my bed, thanks,” said Connor. “And all the other cameras too, thank you.” And as an afterthought he added, “And any microphones as well, thanks.”
“Deauthorising camera 1 and mic 1 now. Deauthorising camera 2 and mic 2 now. Deauthorising camera 3 and mic 3 now. Deauthorising camera 4 and mic 4 now.”
The voice said this eight times in total. There were no tiny clicks or whirrs or whines to suggest anything had been turned off, but then, he rationalised, there was nothing to suggest they were there in the first place. Connor would have to trust the voice.
He had an idea. He entered his room again and bravely stuck two fingers up to the light fitting. He flicked them angrily several times. He checked his phone. His actions had been met with silence. No one had seen him.
He went to the mirror and waggled his bum.
He picked his nose at the dressing table.
He shouted a loud “Rarrrrgh!”
He did a bad moonwalk across the floor.
No one had commented on any of his actions. Satisfied that both the cameras and mics in his room had been disabled, he lay back on top of his bed. He was going to have to keep on his toes at all times here.
It was Stephen who spoke first. Pamela had arrived and they were going for Rhys. There was to be a press debriefing, whatever that might mean, and lunch.
“Man! I’ve got thousands of followers! See that Babble app?! They’re sending me messages, tagging me into things, they’ve got pictures of me and everything! Some of the comments I can’t even read cos they’re in a foreign language!”
Stephen gesticulated wildly with his arms. Connor nodded enthusiastically and grinned.
“Me too! I’ve got like over a hundred thousand followers on the ‘Elements’ app! What’s that all about?!”
Pamela, for the first time, didn’t need to kick-start the conversation.
“Me too! And I’ve got my own hashtag too,” continued Stephen. “hasthtag le gingembre. I Googled it – it means I’ve got ginger hair! Obviously!”
Rhys joined them.
“Rhys! Rhys! What about you? Have you been online?”
Rhys could barely contain himself.
“It’s totally insane. I switched on my phone and I’ve got, like, TWENTY! THOUSAND! FOLLOWERS! on that ‘Elements’ app….people commenting, messaging me. Have you seen the pictures on Olé? They’re right up to date. We’re on camera, like, all the time!”
Rhys followed on behind Pamela as Connor and Stephen exchanged unspoken glances. Rhys was well behind in the popularity stakes and the pair of them took security in this. They arrived at their usual table and sat. The other groups were at their tables. A chef was talking to the boys at one of them. Connor scanned the room but could see no sign of the man or Cameron. The large screen was showing silent footage of the press conference from earlier, a reminder that this was TV and not some modern-day reformation centre for wayward boys. The thrum in the room was palpable, every boy eager to share his new-found discovery of his popularity on social media. The noise reminded Connor less of the atmosphere in the room at breakfast time and more like the echoing hum of the school dinner hall.
The chef arrived and the boys and Pamela ordered. She lifted the pitcher from the centre of the table and poured four glasses of water. The chat continued between the three boys.
“I got a message from some guy in Canada,” said Rhys excitedly. “Told me I was doing this for science geeks everywhere!”
“I got one from a girl in Bordeaux, asking how I kept my hair so spiky!” said Stephen. “I sent her a picture of that Solid Rock gel that I use.”
“Did you reply to all your messages?” asked Connor, looking back and forth at the others.
“God, no!” snorted Stephen. “I’d have been there all week doing that! I just replied to some of the girls!”
“I tried to,” answered Rhys, “but there were far too many. Did you?”
Connor wanted to tell him that he had. He wanted the others to think that they’d made a mistake by not, but he also wanted them to know how popular he seemed to be, that he’d had hundreds upon hundreds of messages too.
“Nah. No chance. I posted a message to thank everyone for their support. That was far easier than replying to everyone individually. There’s no way you can reply to them all.”
“I never thought of that,” said Stephen. “I’m gonna write a message like that right now!”
As he pulled out his phone, Pamela, so far anonymous, cut in.
“No phones at the table, please, Stephen. If anyone sees you with that here it won’t just be you who gets it, it’ll be me too. Now, put it away!”
Chastised and ashamed, Stephen put his phone back in his pocket. He made a mental note to post a message like Connor’s the first chance he had.
The chef arrived and the four at the table ate in relative silence. As they were finishing off their fruit, the man and Cameron made themselves known.
“Boys! May I have your attention please? Thank you.”
He waited as the room fell quickly silent.
“After lunch I’d like to have a short press conference debriefing with you. A few notes, a few pointers on how to carry one’s self in that environment. Afterwards there’ll be the opportunity to have a quick haircut, a quick tidy up, before the official photoshoot. I’ll explain more about that though after our press conference debriefing. Shall we meet in the press room in say,” he checked his watch, “fifteen minutes? That should give you time to freshen up before our afternoon sessions. Mr Harrison, number three…….” The man waited until he had Harrison’s absolute attention. “Would you be so kind as to wait behind for a minute or two? Thank you.”
The noise in the room picked up again. All boys got back to chatting about their popularity on social media, about how good they looked in the pictures that had made it from the press conference and onto the internet and what messages of support they’d had from complete strangers in all corners of the world. All, that was, except for Harrison. He’d suddenly lost his appetite and his tongue. As the boys filtered from the room, Connor noticed him sitting, head in hands, alone at his table and awaiting the coming storm .
Connor was beginning to get familiar with the layout of the corridors but nonetheless, Pamela led the boys back to their rooms. There was a familiarity between them now too, as if the ice had been broken, and all three chatted with no subconscious unease. Stephen was teasing the front of his hair up and into a stiff spike as he chatted.
“The thing is,” he remarked, “you’re going to find yourself famous, whether you like it or not. When you get out of here, the girls are gonna go mad for you! I’m making the most of this.”
“If you get out of here,” corrected Connor. “There’s no guarantee. Someone leaves in the first round, remember. Whenever that is…”
“Yeah, and it’s not going to be me.” Stephen had developed a bit of a swagger since this morning, something that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the other two boys. “Keep giving all those followers on social media what they’re after and they’ll keep you in. That’s the plan. Simples. Hasthtag le gingembre!”
Back in the dining area, the man was seated at the table across from Harrison. He chose his words carefully before speaking. He couldn’t after all, make contestant number three vanish, as much as he wanted to. The press, Yoshiro in particular, would ask all sorts of questions – boy suggests TV show isn’t all it seems to be, same boy vanishes that afternoon. Hmmm – The man stared Harrison down until the boy could take no more and refocused his gaze on some crumbs on the tabletop.
“Look at me,” seethed the man. “Look at me.” He waited. Harrison slowly returned his gaze to the man and his bared teeth.
“There are some things you just don’t say, Harrison. Some things must never ever be said in a public forum whilst you are a participant in ‘The Elements’, is that understood? I can’t have the world’s media running stories of death camps and the likes, even if Kimble is in a lot of ways exactly that. A death camp.” His measured, menacing whisper tailed off. “Allude to anything like this again and I will see to it myself that you will take no further part in this show….or indeed life itself. Do you understand?”
Harrison nodded and returned to the crumbs in the table.
“As long as we’re clear, Harrison. As long as we’re clear.”
(more to follow in the future)