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
Chapter 12 (part 1)
Connor was awoken far too soon. Abruptly too.
The music of choice this morning was Ride of the Valkyries, Wagner’s barnstorming battle cry for heroic Viking warriors and, seemingly, teenage petty criminals whose sole aim for the coming day was to stay alive. As it built to a crescendo, Connor stretched an arm outside the blanket, yawned externally and laughed internally at whoever it was who chose the daily alarm music. They certainly had a sense of humour.
“Good morning, Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice with quiet calm. “You will be collected at 4.45am. Please be ready with your bag packed at that time.”
Dragging himself in and out of the shower, Connor dressed for the day ahead. He was midway through checking his social profiles, amazed to find that people were active on his pages even at this early time of day (although he shouldn’t have been, he realised later, as it was a normal time somewhere in the world) when the familiar rap on the door told him that Pamela was outside waiting on him.
He was greeted by her usual dynamite smile and a rare, whispered “Good morning!” A bleary-eyed Stephen stood slumped by her side, his backpack hanging awkwardly from one shoulder. He looked like he hadn’t slept more than a few hours. Connor nodded a brief, curt ‘hello’ to the pair of them and they walked in silence to collect Rhys. He answered promptly and was all go, backpack on and ready for whatever the day ahead might throw at him.
“Alright Connor? Alright Stephen? Y’ready for this?”
“I will be after I’ve eaten,” murmured Connor, his stomach making him keenly aware that it needed filling.
They sat at their table, the four of them for the final time. Despite the early hour, the food went down easily, the boys mindful of the possibility that this might be their last decent meal for a few days. As they ate and grunted and made occasional small talk, it became apparent to Connor that they were the only team in the dining room.
“Where’s everyone else?” he asked Pamela. The others looked up from their plates and looked around at the normally full tables.
“One team has left already,” explained Pamela. “The other isn’t up yet. You are all to leave at different times in different transport.”
This unexpected turn of events was processed in silence before the trio returned to their plates. Did this mean the first team to leave had a lead on the others already? Were the three boys here better placed than the team still asleep in bed? Who was the first team to leave? Connor began to wonder if he’d ever see some of these boys again. Grayson and Alan, the first two boys he spoke to on the train – separated by that creep Cameron, a voice in his head reminded him – might’ve become close friends under different circumstances. There was a strong social bond between all the boys, an unspoken ‘we’re in this together’ camaraderie that would be difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate. Ever since the others had kept the #wheresconnor trend from him, Connor had decided that it was going to be every man for himself, but by creating three opposing teams, the TV people had made this an easier decision than it might otherwise have been. In a game where only one team could win, former friends were now firm foes.
The boys were herded into a large 8-seater taxicab. It had no livery or logos to identify it as such, but that’s essentially what it was. The driver was a small balding man with hairy forearms and smelly underarms.
“Stick yer backpacks and what have ye in the spare seats there,” he said. “But leave some space for yer food parcel.”
As Connor and the other two pricked their ears at the mention of a food parcel, the man stepped out from the building to hand them a fourth rucksack, smaller than each of theirs but chunky and heavy looking all the same. Whose job would it be to carry that?
“Inside this pack is a selection of protein bars, multiple packets of freeze-dried food and all the implements you might need to cook in the open. There is a small gas canister. Matches too. None of you will starve, I hope. Also in the pack is an ordnance survey map. You may find it helpful should you lose your way. Before you leave, I want you to install the Elements Sat Nav app on your phone. It’s essential if you want to locate the flag before the other teams. Not only can it help you track your journey, it’ll help us to track you too. Should you require emergency assistance – if someone needs medical help, for example – tap the ‘Mayday’ button and help will duly arrive. Do not, under any circumstances, abuse this function.”
The man leaned in to show them the app on his own phone and suggested now was the best time to download it for themselves. As the boys waited for the app to download to their devices, the man continued his speech.
“When you arrive at your destination, Pamela will give you this envelope.” He held a large manila envelope up in the dawning light. “Open it, read the instructions carefully and from then on, you’ll be on your own. Good luck boys and may the best team win. I’ll hopefully see some or all of you in a few days’ time.”
The man turned on his heels and merged back into the shadows of Kimble. Connor wouldn’t miss him in a hurry, despite what may lie ahead.
The journey was long and strangely silent. Whether the driver and Pamela had been instructed not to talk to the boys, or perhaps it was due to the early hour, but none of the adults engaged in conversation. The boys made small talk amongst themselves before a mixture of tiredness and boredom took over. Connor tried to remain alert, to work out where they were going, what direction even they were travelling in, but eventually he too succumbed to tiredness and flopped half-asleep with his head rattling against the window.
When the car eventually pulled to a stop it was after half-past seven in the morning. They’d been travelling for over two hours and in that time the sky had lightened, the birds had risen and the still air was alive with birdsong. They were in a clearing, somewhere, surrounded by trees. Pine needles lay softly underfoot. It smelled fresh, clean and vibrant, a million miles away from the sterile and mainly windowless ambience of Kimble. The driver unloaded the bags from the cab, and they sat now in a large pile between the three boys. Pamela stood to the side, wrapping herself in a long woollen cardigan against the early morning chill.
“I must give you this,” she said, holding up the envelope that the man had given her back at Kimble. “Read it carefully and it should help you find the flag before the others. Even if you don’t get to it first, as long as you’re not last….”
She let her voice tail off and handed the envelope to Stephen.
“It’s been great to get to know you boys,” she said with a wry smile. “I’m gonna miss you, I really am. I’ll be following you three more closely than anyone else on your social channels and I really hope we get to meet again at some point. Good luck, Rhys…Stephen…Connor. See you somewhere down the road.”
The driver turned the ignition, Pamela got back in the cab and they drove off. The three boys and the four bags were now very much alone.
They sat on a clump of mossy, felled pine trees and looked around at their environment. Connor had no idea at all where they were. Birds chirped, trees creaked and apart from that, they sat in silence. It was Rhys who spoke first.
“We’ve still got a phone signal and some 4G, so that’s all good. We can’t be too far from civilisation. Shall we read what’s in the envelope?”
Stephen ripped it open, annoying Connor who’d have taken more care to do so properly. He pulled out a one-sided A3-sized aerial map. Unfolding it, he laid it as flat as he could on the bit of trunk he was sitting at and the three gathered around to look at it. On first glance, the map looked like every bit of generic ordnance survey map Connor had ever seen, which admittedly wasn’t all that much. It was mostly green with coniferous tree shapes printed on top, unsurprising given their surroundings. Contours and lines narrowed and widened at various points on the page, signifying steep hill climbs and shallow valleys. Veiny blue lines threaded their way through here and there, indicating little rivers and streams, so insignificant that that they were unnamed on the map. A couple of buildings, identifiable by brown squares, were dotted occasionally around the edge. The bulk of the area though was green. Half a dozen blue dots had been inked by someone on top and according to the addendum on the legend at the side of the map, these were hidden water stations. At the top right-hand corner was a hand-drawn red flag. This was their goal.
“Right. We know where we’re going then, but we need to find out where we are.” Rhys had taken charge of the situation and, for the moment, neither of the others minded. Rhys continued speaking, more to himself than the others.
“Grid co-ordinates…eastings 83796….uh-huh….northings 241389….”
He tapped into his phone, studied what he was looking at, looked back at the map and back to his phone again. He held his phone out in front of himself and turned slightly away from the others, who watched him closely. He continued muttering.
“We are here. Due north….is here…”
He leaned on the map and squinted at the legend in the corner.
“1:25 000 scale… righto. So, yes, that’s, let me see….” He placed his hand span across the map, diagonally from bottom to top. “…40-ish, 45 maybe miles.”
At this, Connor’s heart sank.
“Okay,” announced Rhys, holding the map up with both hands. “We are here!” He held a forefinger to the bottom left hand corner. “And the flag is here, obviously.” His forefinger travelled up the map to the drawing of the flag. “By my reckoning, the flag is about 45 miles away, maybe a bit less, in that direction.”
Rhys pointed towards the trees. There was no magic parting of the pines at Rhys’s announcement, no shaft of light from a friendly celestial finger, no heavenly choir to suggest confirmation. No discernible path showed at all.
“If we walk at a steady 3 miles per hour, allowing for rest and some sleep, we should reach our flag about this time tomorrow morning. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, I can’t see how we’re expected to be out here for two or three days.”
Neither Stephen nor Connor doubted Rhys’s calculations, but Connor was cautious.
“Remember what the man alluded to… unexpected things to keep us on our toes…medical assistance…creatures… – remember those guns at the climbing wall! I reckon you’re spot on with your calculations Rhys, but I think we need to expect the unexpected on our way.”
“Yeah, good point Connor. As long as we’re prepared though – whose backpack is full?”
The truth was, they all were. All three of the boys had packed extra clothes and bits and pieces ‘just in case’. They were well-prepared.
“We’ll need to split the food rucksack up between us, or maybe take turns at carrying it. What d’you think?”
Connor knew that his backpack was jammed full. He had little room. He had little desire to lug around a second pack either. Stephen spoke first.
“I’ve no room in my backpack. It’s totally full. I didn’t want to discover I needed something that I’d left back at Kimble. I know I’ve got too much stuff, but I don’t want to take anything out.”
“I’m the same, Stephen,” said Connor.
“Yeah. Me too,” said Rhys.
Stephen picked up the fourth bag and opened it. Unzipping the top and tearing aside a strip of Velcro, he began unpacking the supplies that the man had given to them that morning. The others watched in anticipation as each new item was pulled out.
“Dried pasta…three-pack of cereal bars….box of powdered cup a soups…vitamin supplements, whatever they are…tea bags…more pasta…noodles…air-dried bacon – eugh – more cereal bars…some more cup a soups…even more cereal bars.”
How tasty they’d be was up for debate afterwards, but there was enough sustenance to keep them on their feet until they reached the end. The hidden water stations were a welcome idea. At least if the food was rotten, they could stay hydrated. Stephen continued pulling items and announcing what each thing was, even though the others could see for themselves.
“Metal water bottle. And another. And another…..one each! A frying pan…pot…kettle…pack of three sporks…another map – this one’s much bigger, look – extra-long matches…5kg of propane gas…..jeez! No wonder this backpack is bulky. A toilet roll!”
Laid out flat on the bed of pine needles, it was a lot of stuff.
“Well, I think we should split it up,” said Rhys. “We all get a water bottle each and we take either the pot or the pan or the kettle. They’ll all hang below your rucksack, so they won’t even need packed. One of us can surely find some space for the gas canister. If we split the food up, we can shove it into the pockets of our trousers and jacket, wherever we can find space. The food will disappear as we walk anyway, so by the end of this we really should have only the cooking gear left.”
The boys busied themselves with dividing up the contents of the bag. Connor volunteered to take the gas canister, squashing it down the side netting of his rucksack so that it was easy to get to. When they’d finished, all three had extra items and heavier bags, but a little more team spirit. The mood was upbeat and light-hearted.
“Before we set off, I think we should consider our strategy.” Rhys was in charge again. Connor and Stephen hadn’t considered such a thing as a ‘strategy’. They were more than prepared to walk in the direction Rhys had identified and keep going until they were too thirsty or too hungry or too tired to continue.
“Looking at the map,” said Rhys, “there’s a water station nearby. We should fill our bottles before we leave.”
Rhys laid the map flat once more and the three peered at it. Connor was just getting to grips with what he was looking at when Rhys announced with certainty that the water was located to their left and got up, pointing towards a clump of bushes as he walked. Stephen and Connor followed behind, apprentices to their master and on his say-so, began pulling back branches and shrubbery and undergrowth in the hope they’d find something that looked like a water station.
“A-ha!” exclaimed Rhys. He was standing nearby, his foot keeping pressure on the undergrowth to stop it from springing back up. Peeking out between the brown and green of the forest floor was a large clear blue cylindrical tank. A white tap stuck out of it about three quarters of the way down, covered for the moment in clear shrink wrap. By the time the other two had got there, Rhys already had the plastic wrap off of the tap and was filling his metal water bottle. He stood aside, drinking, and let the others do likewise. When all three had filled their bottles, drank some then topped up once more, Connor covered the tank and the now-empty rucksack that had contained the food with the surrounding shrubbery, hiding it from who exactly he didn’t know, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
They sat back on the same logs as before. Stephen pulled a cereal bar from his pocket and began to eat. Connor was about to tell him not to waste the food so quickly until he saw Rhys open a bar too.
As Connor unwrapped his own bar, Rhys led the discussion.
“We need to decide if we want to walk until we drop then sleep for a bit before carrying on, or whether we walk for, say three hours at a time then have a twenty or thirty minute break before continuing again. We have no idea where the other two teams are in relation to us. I’d imagine though that the flag is in the centre of a very large circle and while we walk north, one team will be travelling south and the other approaches from the east or west. We could try and second-guess how those teams will travel and aim to beat them that way, but I think we need to come up with a clear idea of our own, right now, and stick with it no matter what happens.”
He looked keenly at his teammates.
“I don’t think I could walk all day without the chance to sleep later,” said Stephen.
“But the opportunity to sleep for as long as you want will come at the end,” said Connor. “We’re all fit here, the three of us. We’re all able to keep at it for a long time before fatigue sets in. I reckon we walk for a few hours then stop for a bit and keep doing that until we arrive at the flag.”
“I could walk for hours,” answered Stephen, “but I’d still need somewhere to sleep at the end of it.”
“There might not be anywhere to sleep though,” pointed out Rhys. “Where we are just now is fine – it’d make a nice camp for the night, but we don’t know what lies ahead. The map suggests more of the same, but we won’t really know.”
The conversation between the three continued, with the various merits of walking and resting versus a long walk and an ample sleep debated. In the end they compromised. They’d aim to walk until 3pm with minimal rest. If Rhys’s sums were right, they’d have travelled the best part of 20 miles by then – about half the distance. At that point they’d make a collective decision on whether to have a decent recharging rest or whether to press on.
Somewhere, in a room far, far away that the boys would never know about, the man sat wearing over-sized headphones and listened intently to everything the boys said. He had no visuals, but the wizardry that the lab boffins had managed to embed in the Elements Sat Nav app meant that, so long as there was a phone signal, he could listen in to any boy via their mobile phone. The boy Campbell stood out for him. He had all the makings of a very good leader. He’d be keeping a close eye – or ear – on him over the duration of this first event.
With their strategy in place, the boys took a few minutes to update their social media feeds. Stephen filmed the scene and added a mock commentary of the situation. Rhys jabbed silently at his screen. Connor placed his phone on a trunk and the three got together, huddled close gangsta style and hammed it up for the camera. Adding some text and a couple of hashtags, Connor tagged in his teammates before sending the picture out and into many thousands of followers’ phones. As the first hundred or so responses bounced back to him, the boys were already walking in the direction Rhys had pointed out a short while ago. Their journey, their participation proper in the first Elements event, had begun.
Initially, the walk was fun. Spirits were high, the terrain underfoot springy and carpet-like. Little streams ran here and there. Bubbling water and loudly chirping blackbirds and bullfinches sound-tracked their trip, punctuated by a hearty laugh or the occasional echoing snap of a twig as it broke underneath the Elements-issued walking boots. They made good progress. The weather was mild enough that all of them at various points removed their jacket to tie around their waists. After just over a couple of hour’s-worth of solid walking they had travelled almost six and a half miles. Rhys seemed satisfied with this progress and encouraged his teammates to maintain this effort. A little later, they arrived at a clearing in the trees. To their left, a silvery stream burst between the pines and gurgled its way downhill. Hills and fells ran across the horizon in the gap between the trees. Rhys stopped to check the sat nav on his phone, comparing what was on the screen with what was on the annotated map.
“This is where we start to climb, boys,” he said. “Going by the maps, I reckon we’ll be going up and over those hills that’re through the trees.”
“Those aren’t hills,” complained Stephen. “They’re mountains!”
“Let’s take a break here,” suggested Connor, and without waiting for approval, sat himself down on the bank of the stream. The others joined him, removing their backpacks. Connor tapped on his phone.
“I wonder where the other teams are.”
He scrolled through Grayson’s social feeds. There were plenty of pictures of him with the rest of his team, hanging from trees, goofing around next to a water canister the same as the one they’d uncovered where they’d been dropped off, drinking open-handed from a stream before splashing whoever was filming him. It didn’t look as though Grayson and his team were taking things very seriously. Nor did the others. You could be forgiven for thinking that, with his threatening haircut and tight-fitting camouflage, Harrison was the most-likely to succeed out here. He had posted multiple selfies, no team shots, of him in the forest, a determined look on his face and plenty of cliched statements accompanying each shot. Reilly and Alan though had uploaded some short video clips of Harrison holding the map and arguing with himself over which direction they should be heading in. His two team-mates stifled off-camera laughs as it focused on the edges of the map flapping in the wind. They’d turned one of the video clips into a meme with ‘He’s holding it upside down!’ written across the bottom in large white lettering. It had been liked and shared thousands of times. Connor was confident that his team was the most focused of the three. Rhys, who’d been looking through the socials on his phone, suddenly spoke.
“Location services! Turn them off!”
The others looked at him, confused.
“Have you taken any pictures here?”
“Just one, of the river there,” said Stephen.
“Let me see it, give it to me, quick!” said Rhys.
Stephen handed him his phone with a puzzled look. Rhys took it and found the most-recent photo in Stephen’s camera roll. When he clicked on it, a series of co-ordinates showed where the photograph had been taken.
“Have you put this on your feed?”
“Not yet,” said Stephen, “but I was going to.”
Connor, who’d been watching and listening carefully, was trying to work out what this was all about. As it started to make sense, Rhys explained.
“The others can work out where we are by checking our social feeds. If we have location services turned on, they can track us every time we post an image. Look!”
He pulled up one of Grayson’s photos, tapped a couple of times and the co-ordinates popped up on the screen.
“If I check the map, we should be able to work out where that photo was taken.”
Stephen produced the map and the three huddled around it. Even though he suspected Stephen would have no idea either, Connor didn’t know what he was looking for, but he wasn’t going to admit that to the other two. Rhys was proving to be an indispensable leader. Rhys traced his fingers around the edge, looking at the numbers that ran along both axes. He looked back at Grayson’s image on his phone, double-checking the co-ordinates.
“Those co-ordinates aren’t on this map. Where’s the bigger one?”
Connor raked through the inside pocket of his backpack and pulled the large ordnance survey map from it. Opening it fully on the ground, Stephen placed each of their backpacks on a corner. Connor kneeled on the fourth corner to stop the map from flapping about and Rhys leaned over his shoulder, looking for the co-ordinates that would give up Grayson’s team’s position. It didn’t take him long to locate them.
“They’re around here,” he said assuredly, his forefinger circling an area of the map on the right. “And we are here.” He placed his other forefinger on a totally different section of the map, near to where Connor’s knee was. “We’re travelling north from the south. It looks as though Grayson’s team are travelling west from east. The red flag is here…look.” Rhys pulled the smaller map on top of the bigger map and pointed out the identical features. “So, Grayson’s team started way over here….” He pointed to the small map again, but far to the right of it, onto the ground. “When was that photo uploaded to Olé?”
“9 am,” confirmed Connor.
Rhys checked the time on his phone.
“And it’s now nearly 11 o’clock. If they’ve not stopped walking, they’ll maybe be as far as here now.”
Rhys moved his forefinger along the map showing how much further the other team might have travelled. It was clear to see that, although there was a long way still to go, Grayson’s team was closer to the flag than they were. Rhys looked up at his team-mates.
“What about Harrison’s team? Can we find the most recent upload from them? Hopefully we can take the co-ordinates from that too.”
The three of them busied themselves with finding something, anything, that might give Harrison’s team’s location away. It was Stephen who came up trumps.
“Reilly updated his feed twenty minutes ago. Check out the picture of him and Alan on the big boulder at the edge of the trees.”
Photo found, Rhys pulled the co-ordinates from it and cross-referenced them with the large map. It was he again who pinpointed the location of the photo. He pointed to the top left of the map showing where it had been taken, drawing an invisible line to the flag.
“I reckon they’re about the same distance from the flag as us.”
“How come Grayson’s team is closer when they’ve been mucking about? And how come Harrison’s team are about the same distance away as us when none of them can read a map?” Stephen’s question was a fair one.
“I dunno,” admitted Rhys. “But I think if we were all dropped off at different times, it’s logical to assume we were all dropped at a slightly different distance from the flag by way of compensation. That way, when the last team was dropped off, they were the same distance to the flag as the first team dropped off was, even although the first team had been walking for maybe an hour already.”
It was a plausible theory and probably the best they could go on for now.
“But turn of your location services. That way, we can still upload pictures, but no-one will be able to work out where they were taken from. If we can keep checking the others’ photos, we may have an edge over them.”
Rhys began tapping at his phone again, closely followed by the other two.
Somewhere far away in a room at Kimble that the boys would never know about, the man spoke to Cameron.
“This boy Campbell has excellent leadership qualities. Let’s put them to the test, Cameron, shall we?”
Oblivious to the notion that their phones might be tapped in some way, the boys marched on through the trees and into the hills. Somewhere back at Kimble, Cameron was packing a jeep with exactly the sort of equipment designed to put the very best leaders under the most intense pressure.
The boys, under Rhys’s direction had agreed that they’d walk for a further two hours and then check their rivals’ social feeds. If they had gained distance on Harrison’s group and closed the gap on Grayson’s, they’d maybe stop for a longer rest, dependant on how wide or narrow the gaps were. As they approached the fens, the trees began to thin out. As did their cover and, with the wind whipping up a cold breeze, each of the boys untied their jacket and put it on. It was amazing just how quickly the weather could turn. It had been close, balmy even, under the canopy of the pines. Out on the exposed moorland it was unseasonally cold. There was nowhere to shelter here, nowhere to take cover and so the boys ploughed on. The walk had become less of a novelty now and aches and pains were beginning to make themselves known. Stephen complained of a sore back. Connor internalised his grief, but these new boots had started to rub on his heel and pinky toe. He was looking forward to getting them off, giving his feet a good scratch and readjust his socks to help ease the discomfort.
The shape of the boys’ travel had changed too. Where they had been together and three abreast, now they were a thin, fragile line, stretched out over 100 metres or more with Rhys ahead at the front, Connor somewhere in the middle and Stephen way at the back. Connor wanted to slow down, to let Stephen catch up, but he knew Rhys wouldn’t, and he didn’t want to risk losing sight of their leader as he led them over the fens to whatever waited on the other side. This stretch for the most part was tortuous. The wind howled into their faces. Despite the sunshine it was freezing cold. At points, the solid ground gave way to a peaty, marshy bog and they found themselves sludging ankle deep through goo for parts of the way. By the time they’d negotiated the uneven terrain, Rhys had stretched further ahead of the others and Stephen had clearly slowed down. By the time Rhys had reached the top of the fens, Stephen was perhaps a kilometre behind him. When Connor arrived at Rhys, Rhys was sheltering against a huge volcanic rock, his back to the wind and his eyes looking towards what was still to be conquered. Stretching below them was thick gorse bush and shale, not the easiest of terrains to negotiate from the top of a hill. Beyond the gorse and shale was another pine forest, dark and foreboding, but welcome shelter from the exposed moorland they’d soon be leaving behind. As they waited for Stephen, they calculated they’d walked in excess of 12 miles in total. The small map was with Stephen. The large map would have blown away in the wind, so until they were back in the lowlands with shelter from the elements, they couldn’t be more exact. There was no phone signal here either, so none of the others’ positions could be worked out.
“The sooner we’re back down there,” pointed Rhys to the pine forest below, “the better. We’ll check on the others, work out our own progress and decide if we can afford a rest or not. I’m thinking that Stephen might have slowed us down a bit.”
The pair looked back down the hillside and watched as their team-mate slowly zig-zagged his way up the hillside towards them, a dot becoming a matchstick person and finally a full-sized Stephen. As he approached, they stood up and adjusted their backpacks.
“Aw man!” I need a rest, said a clearly knackered Stephen.
“Five minutes then, mate,” agreed Rhys. “It’s all downhill from here.”
Gratefully, Stephen sat down and leaned against the large rock, still wearing his backpack.
“My back’s killing me. My feet too. These boots aren’t the comfiest.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a nutri-bar, washing it down with a slug from his water bottle.
“I’ll need to refill soon too,” he said, tapping his fingertips against the metallic side of the bottle. “Not got much left.”
“Yeah, I’ll need to refill as well,” acknowledged Rhys. “When we get down to the trees there, we’ll get the maps out and locate the nearest water station.”
The boys, together again, cautiously made their way down the side of the hill. The shale made it very slippery underfoot and each of them at one point or another had to grab a hold of jaggy gorse bush to stop themselves careering down the hillside. They stopped several times, both to catch their breath and ease the adrenalin that would rush each time they wrongfooted. Unscathed but not unnerved, they made it to the bottom.
The welcome underfoot carpet of fallen pine needles told them they were on the outskirts of the forest again. The light darkened, the wind dissipated, and it immediately felt more tranquil and sheltered. They walked on, eager to find a suitable spot where they could stop and pinpoint water and see where they stood in what was a very different sort of race. Were they first? Were they last? Were they somewhere in the middle, gaining on the leaders or being caught up by those in last place? No one knew. All were desperate for a proper rest. They’d agreed on 3 o’clock, but that was before they knew they’d be traversing fells in high wind and unpleasant conditions. None of the three wanted to suggest breaking for a while here and now, but all three thought it. Connor checked his phone as he followed Rhys’s lead. Grayson, Fowler and Burgess all had pictures up of them cooking around the small gas canister. He checked Alan’s feed. There was a picture of him eating a metal bowl of something, the words ‘At last! Foooooood!’ below.
“Guys. Going by their latest pictures, it looks as though both of the other teams have eaten. I say we stop soon and rest for a bit.” Being the diplomatic sort he added, “I think we could all do with a good rest and something warm to eat.”
“Amen, brother!” shouted Stephen in response.
Rhys didn’t need much convincing either and so, as they walked, they kept their eyes peeled for an ideal spot where they could rest. They didn’t need to walk for long. The happy sound of a running stream and a small clearing on its bank made for a makeshift camp. Rhys took immediate control.
“Stephen, you get the cooking stuff up and running. Connor, you get the food. I’m going to check the maps and see where the nearest water station is. When we’re eating, we’ll try and work out where the others are.”
Without waiting for an answer, Rhys emptied a handful of foodstuff from his pockets to the ground before busying himself with the two maps and his phone, cross-checking as he went. Stephen and Connor added some of their food to the pile then untied the pot, pan and kettle from the three rucksacks and got things going with the propane gas. They used the last of their water to boil up some tea and some chicken-flavoured noodles, pouring three milkless and sugarless teas into dull metal cups and emptying the contents of the pan into three small metal containers.
“We’re here,” said Rhys between sporked mouthfuls of noodles. The noodles, if that’s what they were, weren’t the best but they were warm and welcome and quickly washed down by the bitter tea. “We’ve walked roughly sixteen miles, maybe just a wee bit more. We’re more than a third of the way there.”
Rhys let that fact hang in the air for a bit. He might’ve said ‘only’ a third of the way there, but thinking back to Professor Zimmerman’s class, he was mindful of the positivity that the power of carefully chosen words can have in a difficult situation.
“We’ve walked almost non-stop for about six hours. In a couple of hours from now, we’ll be halfway there. That’s not bad going at all.”
Taking a black marker from his pocket, he drew a snaking line from where Pamela and the driver had left them that morning, leaving an inky splodge on the part of the map where they were just now. The others looked at the distance travelled….and the distance still to go. Framed as Rhys had done, it didn’t seem so bad, but there was a sizeable distance ahead of them. If they walked continually as they’d been doing, they’d get to the flag sometime in the middle of the night. They couldn’t sustain that though, all three of them knew within themselves that this was an impossibility. At some point they’d need to stop and get some sleep. The halfway mark seemed like the logical choice.
“Let’s see if we can work out where the others are.”
“Already done it,” said Stephen, pulling up an image on his phone. “This is Harrison ten minutes ago. It was taken at 845369 and 257033.”
Connor watched as Rhys’s fingers ran along both axes of the large map before meeting at a point somewhere in the middle.
“It’s hard to say for certain, but I’d say they’re a good bit further away from the flag than we are. I think we might have stretched further ahead of them. What d’you think?”
“We should’ve marked where they were the last time we checked,” said Connor ruefully.
“Already done it!” said Stephen again. He pulled up the ‘Foooood!’ image that Alan had posted. It had the same coordinates as Harrison’s photo. He then found the video clip of Harrison holding the map upside down and read out the co-ordinates to Rhys. He traced his fingers back along the map.
“So, since the upside-down map clip, that team has walked only three or so miles to where that latest picture of Harrison is. They’re going much slower than us. That’s good!”
Stephen busied himself with his phone again before holding it up to show a picture of Grayson.
“This was Grayson splashing in the river.” He read out the coordinates and waited for Rhys to mark them on the map. “And this is Grayson 20 minutes ago, eating his lunch at the camp.” Rhys traced the co-ordinates and marked a new spot along the same trajectory.
Connor, feeling that he wasn’t contributing enough to the team, searched quickly for a recent picture of somebody, anybody from one of the other teams. He found what he was looking for and shared it.
“Here’s a clip from 2 minutes ago!” he shouted, far louder than he should have. In the clip, Burgess and Fowler were knee-deep in a narrow stream, each kicking water at the other, their trousers rolled up to their thighs. Off-camera, Grayson’s voice could be heard laughing and encouraging them for the benefit of the camera. “This is happening right now!” He read the coordinates and Rhys verified that the clip was taken at the same spot where Grayson’s team had stopped for lunch. They’d been stationary for at least 20 minutes, and probably longer.
“I reckon we’re gaining on them, what d’you thinkl?” asked Rhys. He’d marked Grayson’s team’s first known position and their current known position, showing a narrower gap between the two points than the gap between their own plotted locations.
There was a decision to be made; eat up and move on, hoping to close the gap with every step or rest for a bit and regain some much-needed strength. Connor made a suggestion.
“I reckon we take another ten minutes or so here. Locate fresh water. Maybe ease our feet – I’d love to dip mine in the stream there – and aim to walk until four in the afternoon. At that point we reassess our position.”
Stephen wasn’t so keen, but Rhys was, so the majority vote meant that they’d be packing up and moving out shortly. While Rhys set about locating the closest water station, Stephen and Connor packed up the cooking gear, washing the sticky pot in the running stream as best they could. While at the stream Connor took the opportunity to dip his feet in the cold water. It felt good to feel the water clean between his toes. He scratched the soles of his feet by rubbing them back and forth across the gravelly riverbed. Once satisfied, he dried his feet on the grassy riverbank and wiped off the excess water with the outside of his sock before putting his socks and boots back on again. Just this small act made his feet feel cleaner and healthier and ready for the next two hours of walking. Rhys pointed ahead and slightly to the right.
“We need to head this way. There should be a water station ten or so minutes from here.”
The boys looked in the direction of where he was pointing. Stephen sighed then led the way.
They found the water station easily. Rhys had proven to be an excellent map reader, an invaluable leader for the team. As they drank and refilled their bottles, an hour or less away sped a jeep. Inside was the man and Cameron. They aimed to be at the midway point well before Connor, Rhys and Stephen.
The boys walked on; through the forest, pine-fresh and silent, following narrow paths where possible, making their own when they needed to, crossing little streams either by leaping from one side to the other or navigating across natural stepping stones if the stream was too wide. Jackets were tied back around waists, conversation was minimal, the focus very much on marching through the miles. Endless trees loomed on the horizon, then brushed past their shoulders before slipping behind as the boys continued their determined push. At one point, their sat nav led them across a main road that split the forest in two. There were no cars on the road and tempted as they had been by Stephen’s suggestion that they hung about to hitch a lift if it could get them any closer and quicker to the flag, they crossed over and entered the next section of forest. Had they waited a quarter of an hour, they’d have seen the jeep carrying the man and Cameron speed past on its way to its intended location, a mile or two up the road.
By four in the afternoon, the boys were extremely tired. A combination of backpacks, bumpy ground and breaking in boots had take its toll. They were all desperate to rest for a reasonable length of time and dropped as one as soon as Rhys suggested they do so. Connor lay back on the bed of pine needles, backpack acting as a pillow, and watched contentedly as a dozen or so crows wheeled high in the air above the canopy of the trees. He had closed his eyes and must have fallen asleep, for he was brought back to the here and now by Stephen’s voice.
“Has anyone checked where the others are now?”
Grudgingly, Connor rolled over and up. Stephen dug into Connor’s backpack, returning with the big map. Rhys and Stephen were busily tapping on their phones, comparing social media posts for the most-recent ones they could find. All three teams had been on the move, but it did look as though the team of Rhys and Stephen and Connor was maybe ahead. It was hard to tell, given that the three teams were approaching the flag from different angles, with different obstacles behind and still ahead of them, but it was encouraging all the same.
“Let’s take a decent break here,” suggested Rhys, to absolutely no objections.
(more to follow in the future)