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.
All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.
by Craig McAllister
The boys were sat in a classroom. It had all the regular features of the classrooms Connor had been in at school; smartboard on the wall, a dusty chalkboard beside it, a teacher’s desk angled in the corner to see both every face in the room and anyone who might appear at the door. Bookcases crammed with paperbacks and hardbacks, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, ran the length of the back wall. Various informative posters – ‘Is your brain left-sided or right-sided?’, ‘Vygotsky v Piaget: Learning Theories Explained’, ‘Motivation: Extrinsic or Intrinsic?’ were dotted around the walls. Unlike Connor’s (old) school, where the desks in his class were arranged into groups, the desks here were laid out individually; three columns and three rows, a knots-and-crosses grid with a space for every boy. Unusually, given the controlled way in which the boys had been kept apart until now, they were free to choose wherever they sat. At each desk was a thick notepad of paper, a tin pencil case, a sleek tablet and a set of headphones, the cables for them spaghetti-ing out over the edge. Despite being a classroom, the room still very much had the same clinical feel as the rest of Kimble.
At the smartboard was a small, eccentric man. Even before he had spoken Connor knew he wasn’t like anyone else he’d met since being here. Firstly, this man had a somewhat relaxed approach to personal grooming. Whereas the man and Cameron, and de la Cruz especially, had a clear daily routine of highly-maintained hair and sculpted eyebrows and wore immaculate clothes with razor-sharp creases, this man’s hair was a vertical shock of hard-wired grey; a stranger to both shower and shampoo. He bumbled back and forth with the undone hems of his loosely-hanging trousers trailing behind him. Half of his gingham-checked shirt was tucked into the waistband, the other half flapping unselfconsciously by his side. He wore a wide tie with a repeated image of Bugs Bunny on it, some of which was obscured by a dull stain that may a few months ago have been tomato ketchup or chocolate fudge cake. Over the top of his shirt he wore a lab coat that had been a brilliant, sterile white when he’d first worn it. The side pockets bulged lumpily with unknown contents. A pen poked out of the top pocket, a small inky blotch from an old pen still in evidence on the material underneath. An ID badge was clipped apologetically from the same pocket.
“Welcome, boys,” he said, peering over the top of small, round, rimless glasses. Connor was amazed to hear an American accent. He had expected a voice very much like Mr Szczęsny’s from back home. “My name is Professor Zimmerman but I don’t mind if you call me Arty. We’re all friends here.” He smiled sweetly at the boys. The tension in the room dropped a notch.
“We shall begin by introducing ourselves. Your first name, please, followed by the first thing you plan to do when you get out of here.”
He looked at each boy individually, nodding a welcome, putting them at ease. Zimmerman couldn’t have been any less like the other authoritative figures here.
The professor smiled and stepped forward.
“I’ll start. I know you’re all thinking, ‘Oh gosh! I hope he doesn’t choose me first, because I don’t know what I plan to do when I get out of here,’ so maybe this will help. My name, as I’ve already told you, is Professor Arthur Zimmerman. Most everybody calls me Arty and that’s what I’d prefer you to call me too. When I get out of here, the first thing I plan to do is go back home – my real home in the States, not the place I currently live in while I’m working here – and take a hike into the woods, followed by a midnight dip in Lake Wanda. It’s a supremely refreshing way of washing off the dirt and grime of the day.”
He stopped, gauging the reaction. All nine boys leaned forwards at their desks, listening to everything he had to say. He had their full attention, not through fear like the man or George, but by being open and honest and friendly, three traits that were so far unusual at Kimble.
“Would anyone like to go next? I won’t put anyone on the spot.”
Connor’s mind raced with what he might say when it was his turn. He wasn’t one for going first though. He wanted to hear what others had to say, to make sure what he said didn’t sound out of place amongst the other answers. In the event it was Reilly who started things off.
“Hi. Yeah, my name’s Lewis Reilly and the first thing I’m going to do when I get out of here is pet my dog Jarvis.”
“Thank you for that, Lewis,” smiled Zimmerman. “Who would like to go next?”
“I will.” It was Burgess this time. “My name’s Alexander. When I get out of here, the first thing I plan to do is sleep.”
Zimmerman moved from front and centre and sat at his desk. He slid his chair back and put his scuffed shoes on the edge of the oak desk.
“Grayson, Mr…sorry….Professor….Zimmerman. The first thing I’ll do when this is over is buy the biggest pizza I can and then eat it all myself.”
By now, the room was charged. The boys who had still to speak were respectful of not butting in and were acutely aware of Zimmerman’s non-verbal cues. Although he sat in relaxed fashion, the professor wrote notes as each boy talked and it became the unspoken rule that no-one continued until his head lifted from the notebook he was scribbling in.
“Andy Fowler. Eh, Andy. When we get out of here, I’m going to play xBox online with my pals.”
Now that he had gauged the answers, Connor wanted to speak. He didn’t want to be last to do so either. There was always the chance that Zimmerman might ask a follow-up question.
Rhys got in before him.
“I’m Rhys. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is hug my mum and dad.” Rhys had said the first honest answer of all the boys.
Connor seized his chance.
“My name’s Connor. When I get out of here the first thing I plan to do is ask my mum to make me her chicken curry.” This wasn’t strictly true, but Connor hadn’t wanted to copy Rhys’s answer.
Alan and Stephen both now started speaking and in an unusually strong display of character, it was Alan who talked Stephen down. Once he had everyone’s full attention, he started again.
“I’m Randolph Alan but, please, just call me Alan. It’s what I prefer. When this is all over, I think I’m just gonna disappear for a while, maybe just vanish forever. They all hate me back there.”
At this, Zimmerman stopped writing, lifted his feet from the desk and sat upright in his swivel chair. The boys watched as he leaned his elbows in front of him and brought his hands up, cupping them and allowing his chin to rest between them. He peered over the tops of his glasses again.
“Interesting, Alan. Interesting.”
The professor returned to his notebook, scribbling noisily. The scratching from his pencil was the only noise in the room. The boys either side of Alan – Reilly and Harrison, drew him a surprised look then returned their gaze to Zimmerman. He looked calmly at them, silently allowing the next boy to speak.
Stephen spoke next.
“I’m Stephen, but you can call me ‘Hasthtag le gingembre!’ Stephen followed his opening remark with a little snorted laugh. “When I get out of here…” he looked around knowingly, gurning at the others, “The first thing I’m going to do is have a party and invite all the girls who’ve been messaging me since I got here. Har har har har!”
He snorted alone into the silent space around him. Connor cringed. He was sure he wasn’t the only one. The professor allowed the last of the guffaws to peter out and indicated that the next boy should speak. Silence followed. He ran the sharpened point of the pencil down his page of notes.
“Let’s see…six, seven, eight…yes, we have one more still to go. Who shall it be?”
Zimmerman looked directly at Harrison and smiled. Harrison leaned back at his desk, one arm draped behind his chair, his legs crossed and stretched out to the side in front of him. He pulled what was almost a sneer from his curled lip then sniffed, wiped his nose absent-mindedly on the back of his hand and maintained gazing somewhere into the middle-distance.
“And what is your name, sir?” Zimmerman squinted from his desk to Harrison, trying to read his name tag on the front of his shirt. Either he was too far away, or his eyesight was too weak, or a mixture of both, for Zimmerman was unable to make out what the white blur said.
Reilly and Alan looked across their row to Harrison, who failed to acknowledge them. He continued staring beyond the ends of his feet at the floor. Zimmerman by now had stood up and was walking between the desks. He arrived at Harrison and read his shirt.
“Mr Harrison. Pleased to meet your acquaintance. And does Mr Harrison have a first name, by chance? Or is your name really Harrison 3?”
There was a muffled snigger from somewhere at the back. Harrison steadfastly ignored him and it.
“Or does Mr Harrison perhaps have an idea of what he’d like to do first once all of this is over?”
You had to admire Harrison’s steel. Zimmerman seemed nice enough, but only an idiot wouldn’t think this whole scene wasn’t playing out on a screen behind a wall somewhere else within the building. Connor, still smarting from his meeting with the man at lunchtime, found himself wishing, hoping that it would be Harrison, with his petted lip and stupid haircut who next felt his wrath.
Zimmerman was back at the smartboard. He tapped at a keyboard and ‘The Elements’ logo spun forebodingly on the screen.
“Boys. You and I will see a lot of each other over the next weeks and months. We will meet here every afternoon. In this classroom we will work on your mindset, on building positivity in each of you, on making you the best person you can be. There’ll be some lectures where you will be encouraged to take notes. There’ll be some practical group activities where you will be expected to contribute to the success of the task that is set. There’ll be individual tasks where you will be pushed to your limit, challenged to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. All of this will help you approach ‘The Elements’ in the best possible mental state. Do any of you have any questions just now? I appreciate all of this is new to you, so I’m happy to answer anything I can as we go on.”
The room was silent again. Calm.
“Okay. Well if anything jumps to mind as we’re working, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Turning his back to the boys Zimmerman scribbled on the chalkboard. A website, a user ID and a generic password were scrawled in spidery white-chalked letters.
“Boys. Please open the laptop on your desk and access this website. When prompted to sign in, use the information I’ve given you here. After that you will have the option to choose your own username and password. It’s important you do. We’ll be doing a little IQ test. Nothing scary, certainly nothing to worry about. We’d like to measure your intelligence as you progress through ‘The Elements’. We fully expect that, as your body gets fitter and stronger, so too will your mind.”
‘Lab rats’ thought Connor. ‘That’s all we are to them. Cheap entertainment for the masses and a scientific experiment for everyone else.’
Connor logged on, followed the instruction and found himself at an Elements-branded website. In the centre of the screen pulsed a huge cartoon brain. Multi-coloured mechanical cogs, lightbulbs and question marks expanded, shrunk and expanded again inside it. A button read ‘Take IQ test now’ and was begging to be pressed. Connor resisted temptation until Zimmerman had given them the go-ahead to do so.
“Are we all in, yes? Andy? Stephen? Lewis?”
The boys nodded in affirmation.
“Just about….” There followed a quiet, forceful tapping as his forefinger prodded the relevant information onwards and he gave a definitive thumbs up towards Zimmerman.
“Everybody else? Connor? Rhys? Mr Harrison?”
Harrison failed to acknowledge Zimmerman’s response again. Zimmerman waited, smiling. Harrison sat in standoffish silence. A small amount of tension crept into the room and licked around the boys’ shoulders. Rhys peered across to Harrison’s desk. He could see the same cartoon brain on Harrison’s screen. Zimmerman waited, still smiling. Rhys was desperate for Zimmerman to look at him, so that he could signal that Harrison was in fact logged in and the atmosphere in the room could return to normal. The others were unsure of what to do, but no one pressed the button on their screen. Zimmerman spoke.
“If you have successfully logged in and can see this screen…” The professor clicked a mouse and the Elements logo gave way to the cartoon brain. “…feel free to begin when you feel ready. Answer each question as best you can and take as long as you need. There is no time limit on this.”
As he finished, fingers began stabbing at touchscreens and at least eight of the boys busied themselves with the task in hand.
The screen looked confusing at first, with a series of coloured boxes, all containing lines, shapes and dots inside, laid out in three rows of three. The last box in each question was blank and Connor was asked to click one of four possible options that would complete the pattern. Once the answer was submitted, a new puzzle appeared. It took Connor a handful of seconds to make sense of it all and, after his initial bewilderment, he was able to click through the first few quite rapidly. As he progressed, the logic behind each answer became harder to work out. The coloured boxes gave way to number sequences, which in turn gave way to number calculations involving ratios and percentages, which in turn gave way to a set of dials and arrows that required to be mentally rotated before the correct answer from the four options became clear. At one or two of them, Connor ended up guessing an answer, hoping that he’d done enough in the rest of the test to offset any wrong answer here.
After twenty questions, there was a 5-minute break where Connor was encouraged to put on the headset. A short, unrecognisable piece of classical music played soothingly and once finished, the laptop’s screen instructed him to continue.
The assessment changed from number logic to word logic. A series of word substitution and word recognition diagnostics followed. As before, these began easily enough but rapidly became challenging and, eventually at the last two or three, impossible, when Connor found himself guessing the answers. Once finished he was instructed to take another short break with the headphones again. This time, the familiar sweep of a Vivalidi tune filled his head. It might have been from the Four Seasons, Connor couldn’t quite remember, but he could see himself back in his art class, working his oil pastels into a good-quality piece of cartridge paper, Mrs Scott offering up encouragement at his side.
Connor was brought back to the present when the music stopped and Zimmerman’s voice cut in. Looking up, Connor could see the professor was talking into a small microphone connected to his own laptop.
“Boys, I don’t really expect many, any of you to have finished….but has anyone finished already?”
Connor thought he might have been until he noticed a third set of puzzles on the screen in front of him. The music had made his mind drift to the point where he hadn’t been aware of the laptop screen changing. He looked around. The other boys, even Harrison, were giving Zimmerman their full attention. It looked as though no-one had finished.
“If you’d like a longer break between sessions, please feel free to take something from the library at the back. There’re all sorts of books in there – classics, new fiction, explanatory manuals, comic books, there’s something for everyone. I don’t mind if you want to take a time-out from the online stuff. It can be tiring on the eyes as well as the brain. I don’t mind too if you’d rather just get on with it until you’re complete. There are four sessions in total, so that should give you an idea of how much you still have to go.”
Zimmerman pushed the microphone away from himself and went back to whatever it was he was doing. One by one the boys’ heads focused once more on the screens in front. No-one seemed brave enough to stop for a time-out just yet.
The next session facing Connor was a series of reaction tests. A traffic light sequence appeared, and Connor had 10 rounds at clicking a button as soon as it turned to red. At the end, an average speed of his reactions was calculated. Connor’s average was 0.3344 of a second. He had no idea if this was a good score or not. Next the whole screen went black. He had to click the mouse as soon as the screen turned white. Again, he did this ten times and again he was given an average time. The tests continued; stop the speeding ball in the middle of the circle, click when the number 9 appears, click when the sun turns into the moon, all sorts of fairly random stuff that generated an average time after each one.
The session concluded with another short dose of classical music on the headphones, designed to relax the participant before the final round.
The last test was something called the Harrower-Erickson Rorschach Test. Connor was shown a symmetrical image, similar to the effect of a piece of paper with a grey blob of paint on it being folded in half to leave a mirror print of the blob. The image on the screen looked a bit like a bat with thin, narrow wings spreading out from its sides. It also looked a bit like two mice dancing face to face, their tails curling out behind them. ‘Memorise the given image’ the screen said and when the next page was opened, 10 options appeared. ‘Choose what would be the best description of the image you just saw and mark it in the column “1st”. If there is a second description that fits well too, mark it in the column “2nd”.’
For the first image, Connor selected ‘bat’ as the best description and, for a second description, ‘mice.’ The other options – ‘x-ray image’, ‘human skull’ and ‘bear’, amongst others, seemed like strange options to him. Once submitted, a new image appeared. Connor studied it, clicked to turn the page and selected ‘flower’ and ‘ladies dancing’ from the next set of options. Once he’d submitted his answers, another image appeared. Connor did this multiple times, clicking on variations of ‘dancers’, ‘rats’, ‘flowers’ and ‘x-ray images’ until all images had been viewed and compared. Finally, the test was complete.
Connor was unaware that he was stretching and yawning until the professor spoke to him.
“Connor, I imagine you have finished by now, yes?”
Connor nodded, slightly embarrassed that Zimmerman had caught him yawning. This class was anything but boring.
“It can be very tiring, staring at that screen for so long. Why don’t you join some of the others in some light reading to help you unwind.”
Connor looked around and was surprised to see a few of the other boys already bent over books and magazines at their desks. He’d been so wrapped up in the testing, he’d failed to notice others finishing around him. Amongst the readers was Harrison, who sat engrossed in a big book.
Connor flicked through the bookcases at the back of the room. The professor had been right – it was a well-stocked library. Connor came to the magazine section and rustled through the shelves until he’d found something which caught his fancy. He went back to his chair and read quietly until Zimmerman broke the silence thirty or so minutes later.
“Boys. I believe we have all finished the testing. It wasn’t so bad, was it? I can see from my laptop that everyone completed every section, so well done for your attempts. Your answers will now be analysed by my team and myself and recorded for our records. We will have your individual scores ready within the hour. Until then you may choose to continue reading or, if you wish, you may use the laptop to visit your social media profiles and update your status and suchlike. I know how important these things are to the success or otherwise of your time here.”
At that, every boy discarded their reading material and started tapping away again on the touchscreens in front of them. Connor couldn’t believe his luck. His phone might be with the man right now, but he’d be able to access all his accounts from here. He was already formulating his next status update in his head as he typed in the detail required to access his ‘Elements’ account.
‘Hi everyone,’ he would write. ‘I’m having phone issues right now, so I’m probably not going to be as active on here as I’d like to be.’
‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.
The message across the screen was bold, blunt and not in the least expected. Connor stared at the words in front of him. Well, of course his account was suspended! The man was always one step ahead of everyone. He’d probably suspended Connor’s account even before he’d demanded his phone from him earlier on. Fruitlessly – maybe he’d entered incorrect details, he tried to convince himself – Connor re-entered the information and tried again.
‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.
He tried Olé.
‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.
He tried Babble.
‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.
Connor felt a surging mix of shame and anger rise in him. He looked around. Everyone else was hunched over their laptops. They were online, updating statuses, cropping and editing selfies, creating memes, adding pictures of themselves from this very room, interacting with the only people who could save them. Connor was locked out of the party.
Somewhere nearby, in a room the boys would never know about, the man sat back in his swivel chair, staring with interest at the LCD monitor showing pictures of the boys in Zimmerman’s classroom. He clicked a mouse and a close-up of Connor’s upset face filled the screen. The man smirked, quiet satisfaction etched on his face, Cameron and the three girls at his back.
Back in the classroom, Zimmerman spoke to Connor.
“Come speak to me.” The professor pulled a chair to the side of his desk and beckoned Connor to sit.
“What’s the problem, Connor? I watched you becoming quite upset there. How can I help you?”
“It’s nothing,” said Connor unconvincingly. “It’s just….my phone was confiscated earlier on and when I tried to log into my accounts, they were all blocked.”
“I see,” said Zimmerman with a quiet nod.
“So, I can’t get online to update anything or share a picture or reply to comments. Right now, I don’t exist. Everyone else is gaining popularity and followers and I’m quickly being forgotten about.”
“Hmmm,” pondered the professor. “May I ask why your phone was taken from you?”
“I was caught texting my mum. I tried to call her too. That man, whatever his name is, he took it from me at lunchtime. I don’t know when I’ll get it back….if I’ll get it back.”
“That seems quite harsh punishment, given the circumstances. However, he makes the rules. You must earn his respect and trust that he returns your phone quickly.”
“But what do I do until then? I can’t get online to say things, see things, share things.”
“As hard as it may seem,” said the man, “you must accept this. You cannot change what has happened. You can only learn from it and use it to make you a stronger person. We must find positives in even the most negative of circumstance. Remember that.”
The professor looked at Connor with a smile and finished.
“I must get back to these results. May I suggest you continue reading for a few more minutes and shortly, class will be finished.”
“Thanks Professor Zimmerman.”
Connor returned to his desk feeling no less sorry for himself, but a bit more enlightened for having had the one-to-one conversation with Zimmerman. He flicked distractedly through the magazine in front of him, all the time aware that those around him were gaining valuable headway over him online.
A short while later, Arty asked the boys to stop what they were doing, to log off and power down, to return any reading material back to the shelf where they got it. This they did with no complaints or fuss. Within 30 seconds of speaking to the class, every boy had a tidy desk and, Harrison included, a posture that told the professor they were ready for what he had to say.
“Boys. Your results are in and analysed. They make for interesting reading. It would be unfair of me to share your results with your peers so, shortly, I will make the point of giving you your scores individually.”
Somewhere nearby, in the room the boys would never know about, the man stood up to leave.
“Before I do this, I’d like to explain some things. The IQ test that you began with sets a baseline score of your intelligence quotient. We will use this baseline to plot your intelligence as ‘The Elements’ progresses. What we hope to find is an upwards curve as everyone’s brain adapts and grows to the challenges faced.”
The man, followed by Cameron and the three girls, walked quickly and purposefully through the stark white corridors.
“An average IQ score is usually around 100, so anyone scoring above that will be considered above average. Within this group, I’d expect maybe 2 or 3 of you to score over 100. Perhaps 1 or 2 of you will score less than 100 too. That is nothing to concern yourself with for the moment. What I will say though is…”
There was a brief rap on the door and the man entered, Cameron immediately behind him. The three girls loitered at the door until the man told them to come in. Suddenly the classroom felt smaller.
“Professor Zimmerman. Contestants.” The man took control of the room. “Cameron, girls, please find a seat, thank you.”
Zimmerman looked first at the man, then the girls as they sat down, then Cameron, then the boys, then back to the man. He was not impressed.
“Afternoon sir,” he said. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
The man ignored him to an extent and tapped a login on the laptop. The screen changed and a spreadsheet of data appeared.
“Contestants. These, I believe, are your test results from this afternoon. Now, I’m no data expert, but from what I can tell, I’d say we have some pretty smart contestants here, and a few that have more than a little way to go to meet the standard required.”
Zimmerman visibly bristled at his desk.
The man continued.
“Let’s see.” Tap, tap, tap. “Yes! Mr Harrison. I believe you are our top scorer! How interesting! IQ of 118! Excellent analyst although emotionally unstable. Sociopathic. Unreliable. Your Rorschach test was quite the thing.”
Zimmerman stood up, leaning at his desk.
“Sir, this is highly unethical.”
The man ignored him and continued.
“And Mr Alan. Who’d have known? IQ of 116. Expert logician. Also emotionally unstable. Antagonistic. There are some serious issues you need to overcome.”
“SIR! PLEASE! ENOUGH!”
The man turned ninety degrees to look at Zimmerman. The atmosphere in the room, already rapidly cooling, was now positively cold.
“Sir.” Zimmerman caught his breath before continuing. “Sharing this information can have untold detrimental psychological and emotional effects on the individuals. I ask you to consider this.”
The man turned to face the boys. He continued speaking.
“Mr Campbell. The scientist. IQ of 112. Methodical. Precise. Slight schizophrenic tendencies.”
There was a clatter at Zimmerman’s desk and a jarring scrape as his chair was pushed behind him. Zimmerman was up and out. He pushed past the man, an unruly mess of outraged hair and lab coat tails following him out of the room.
The boys watched on in awkward silence. Connor felt for Zimmerman. In the professor, he thought, lay something of an ally against the man, but now he saw that Zimmerman was no more powerful than the boys themselves. At the front of the class, the man continued speaking.
“McPherson. Dear oh dear oh dear! Narcissistic. Highly sociopathic. IQ 85. Work to be done, there I’d say. Fowler. IQ 92….less than average…” Tap, tap, tap. “…emotionally unstable.” The man raised his eyes towards Fowler, who sat shame-faced at his desk. He continued tapping and muttering to himself. “Burgess…98. Inflated ego. Stewart…109. Attachment issues. Anderson…100. Slight neuroticism. Reilly…100. Jealous, insecure.”
He looked at the boys, eyeballing them the way he had done in the gravel car park on the first day.
“Quite a lot of work to be done, eh? What’s that phrase? ‘No-one’s perfect’. Well, that’s certainly plain to see. You all have much to learn before we start properly.”
He looked at Cameron, who rose immediately from his chair.
As one, the three girls stood.
“Accompany the boys back to their rooms. You may have some R&R time, contestants, but please be ready for evening meal at 1800 hours. Thank you.”
With that, the man and Cameron left, perhaps on the war path for Zimmerman, perhaps to take some R&R time for themselves.
(more to follow in the future)