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 journey back to Kimble was long, silent and, for most, troublesome and anxious. All nine of the boys and what was left of their possessions were packed into a large minibus for the journey. Harrison’s team had no tents and no love lost between them. The last team to arrive at the flag, they’d kept the others waiting almost three hours. It would’ve been longer too, had they not succumbed to the ‘Mayday’ option on the app. A team of production assistants picked them up in an Elements-branded jeep and brought them to the others just as dusk was falling. Bedraggled and arguing amongst themselves, they were beyond care that they were the last team to finish.
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” said Harrison directly to Connor, Stephen and Rhys, “’cos it’s the two losing teams where someone gets eliminated. We were last, yeah, but it might be one of you three that gets put out…”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Connor could hear a faint recollection of this very fact, yet for the entire journey he and the others had convinced themselves that as long as you weren’t last, you were safe. Right on cue, the man spoke to the assembled group.
“Ah, boys, boys, boys! Let us bicker not of first and last and eliminations. It is true that one from six will be gone by this time tomorrow, but that is for the public to decide. In the meantime, I suggest you use the journey home to rest and maybe update your socials. It’s not too late to influence public opinion….which reminds me! Stewart!”
Connor’s heart leapt at the sound of his name being spoken by the man.
“I believe this is your mobile phone, yes?”
The man held up Connor’s phone, a snake-like grin pursed on his thin lips. To his side, Cameron smiled a smugly.
“It was found in the woods by one of our production assistants and, given that your social media postings recently have been sparse to non-existent, I surmised that it was probably yours. What do you say?”
“Eh, thanks. Yes, it’s mine. I think it fell out my pocket when we were packing up our camp for the night. I only noticed the next day after we’d walked miles and miles. I thought it was gone forever. Thanks!”
Connor reached out his hand and took back his phone. It felt cold yet familiar. The man was lying about how the phone had come into his possession, Connor was lying about how the phone had come to be lost, and both the man and Connor knew the other knew, but the charade played out for the unsuspecting other two teams to see.
“OK then. Contestants! All aboard! Rest, sleep, socialise. We’ll be back in Kimble quite late. There’ll be no early alarm in the morning. Tomorrow is a rest day. Sleep as long as you need.” The man ushered the boys onto the bus.
As they queued, Rhys sidled up to Connor and whispered a hiss.
“You shoulda covered me when I went for the flag instead of sissy-hiding in that hole with Stephen. We’d have won if it wasn’t for you.”
“Aw, come on, Rhys. That’s not fair. You wanted me to get shot at so you could get the glory of getting the flag!”
“I did get the flag, you coward! But you weren’t there to help me when the other team beat me up for it. And now there’s every chance that one of us is going out because of it. Some team-mate you are.”
Rhys bumped his shoulder against Connor’s and boarded the bus. By the time Connor was aboard, Rhys had taken a double seat to himself, his expression suggesting his pal wasn’t welcome anywhere near him. The winning trio had taken over the seats at the back, the Elements flag stuck up against the window. Connor found his own seat and as he settled back, a jerk and a hiss of steam brakes announced the journey back to Kimble was underway.
Connor replayed the end of the journey over and over on his mind. Could he have acted differently? Yes, he could have, but it was dangerous to do so. Should Rhys have been angry at him for staying in the hole? He was, now, but then, he was all about the glory. They wouldn’t have had the conversation had Rhys managed to keep a hold of the flag. They wouldn’t have had the conversation had it been the last team to finish that would see a team member leave. As it turned out, finishing second was really just ‘best of the losers’ and you were still equally in with a chance of being eliminated. There was nothing they could do now, save ensure their online profiles were interesting enough to the public to garner the votes required to stay in The Elements.
Connor updated Babble and Olé with pictures copied from Stephen and Rhys’s accounts. He turned some into memes of his own. He took content from the YouTube channel and made GIFs from it. He thought about re-posting the videos of Harrison looking gormless with his map and decided against it. A cheap laugh, perhaps, but he wanted to present himself as a team player, a hard worker, a do-gooder. He couldn’t have anyone think he was a coward or a person that couldn’t be relied upon. He was tired – shattered, actually – but he had a lot of social media catching up to do. He needed the public on his side. He would sleep once back at Kimble. Right now, as the others slept around him, was his chance to make his online presence count.
What Connor didn’t know was that the ambush – it had been the man and Cameron, he was sure of it – they’d shot at them from the viewing tower after all – was unknown to anyone out-with the immediate circle of those involved. Cameras filmed much of the three teams’ journeys which was then broadcast on a slight time delay to the Elements official YouTube channel, but the footage of the attack had been conveniently consigned to an electronic file that no-one would ever find. As far as the Elements was aware, it had never happened in the first place. The millions of global viewers who had watched the first event were none the wiser. Imagine the outcry if they had broadcast footage of three young boys being shot at by two unknown men?! No! Those grey men in grey suits in the office at the far end of Kimble would never allow that to happen. The Elements was rapidly becoming the most-watched, most interactive TV programme/social media phenomenon/social experiment in history. Advertising revenue had passed the £100 million mark. A second season was already at the planning stage. There was a waiting list of companies eager to product place on the show. Celebrities, sports stars and even Prime Ministers and Presidents were sharing content on their own social media feeds. Yes, boys might drop out or even disappear from the show, but if it were presented in a clever way, there would be no outcry. And no outcry meant more revenue. Which meant those grey men would be wearing the very best in grey suits for a long time to come.
Connor slept well into the next day. It was almost three in the afternoon before he was fully awake. His legs, his back, his shoulders, all of his body, ached. He enjoyed a powerful shower, dressed and made his own way to the dining area.
A small peg board at the entrance announced that today only was self-service. Connor looked into the empty room, saw that his usual table was set and, picking up a tray, went to the heated metal trays in the serving area and piled his plate high with food; bacon, sausages, hash browns, potato scones, pancakes. Unhealthy but required. He piled them into a wonky tower and sat the plate at his table. He returned to the serving area for a mug of tea and a glass of apple juice, which he drank in one go and then refilled before sitting down to eat.
Only the metallic clank of cutlery on porcelain broke it. That and the occasional slurp of tea. Connor scrolled through his phone, a pleasing series of thumbs up and love hearts and smileys and positive messages blurring past with every smudge of his thumb. Somewhere amongst them he hoped would be a comment or even just a like from his parents, but he wasn’t about to go through the hundreds of thousands of interactions to find it. He hoped they knew he was OK, that he’d survived the first event. He’d still to survive the public vote, though he was fairly confident that he’d get its seal of approval. Despite his ineptitude at leading his team, Harrison was super-popular. Both Reilly and Alan had less followers and likes and re-shares than Connor. Alan would probably get the sympathy vote, which left Reilly in last place. Of his own team, Stephen was the most popular. Rhys was probably about level pegging with Connor but perhaps his heroics at the flag pushed him a touch ahead. As he ate hungrily and considered all of this, the less confident Connor became that he’d escape elimination and his anxiety levels began to rise in inverse proportion to the food left on his plate.
Finished and worrying, Connor returned his dishes to the hatch at the serving area and stacked them beside another set of empty plates. He made his way into the recreation area. Fowler was there by himself, absent-mindedly clacking two pool balls together at the pool table. He was wearing shorts, his lower left leg heavily bandaged. As he looked towards Connor, Connor noticed he was sporting a black eye. As he got closer, he saw too that Fowler had a cut on his chin.
“Jeez, Fowler! You’ve had better days!”
Fowler smiled a sad smile.
“My left leg was shot. When we were fighting your lot for the flag, someone shot me.”
Fowler looked cautiously around the room and lowered his voice.
“I think it was the man!”
Fowler looked at Connor, eyes like saucers, the purple and black bruising around his right eye giving him a cartoonish appearance. Connor wasn’t sure what to say.
“Was it sore?” he asked.
“Total agony. Like a burning, ripping sensation tearing through your flesh.”
Connor looked on.
“….and I don’t think he was aiming for me, either,” continued Fowler.
Fowler continued to stare straight at Connor, afraid, yet not so afraid that he couldn’t voice his opinion.
“…I think the bullet was meant for Campbell on your team. If he’d wanted to shoot me, he could’ve got me when I was climbing the hill. He could’ve shot anyone on the hill. It was only after Campbell had the flag and we were fighting him for it that he shot. I don’t think,” Fowler continued, “that the man wanted your team to win.”
Fowler let his quietly whispered words hang in the air.
Connor turned things over in his mind. Fowler might well be right. He looked around the room, making sure they were the only two there.
“We were shot at! In the woods! We were about halfway to the flag and had stopped for a rest.”
Fowler leaned closer, still clacking the pool balls, perhaps unselfconsciously, or perhaps as a noise distractor should any microphones be picking up their conversation.
“We were in a clearing next to a river. We sat down and almost straight away, the three of us fell asleep.”
Connor continued, egged on by Fowler’s rapid nodding and wide eyes.
“I was wakened by someone coughing. I woke the others. When I told them someone was hiding in the bushes, they didn’t believe me at first. Then whoever it was started firing at us. It was non-stop. Terrifying. We grabbed our stuff and ran for it. That’s when I lost my phone.”
Fowler looked on, wide-eyed once again.
“The man gave you your phone back at the minibus last night!”
“…Rhys reckoned there were two gunmen, not just one.”
“The man and Cameron!” whispered Fowler.
“It has to be,” said Connor.
“And it looks like they really don’t want you to win…”
Connor mulled this thought over in his overactive mind. If the man didn’t want anyone on his team to win, and it certainly looked that way, then surely he could just fix the vote so that whoever he wanted out was ‘voted’ out. Maybe, thought Connor with returning horror, he would find himself voted out later. Unlike other reality TV shows, ‘out’ didn’t mean being sent back home to your loved ones with a ‘hard luck’ and a ‘well done’ ringing in your ears. ‘Out’ in The Elements meant something sinister. Out for good, perhaps. To be ‘taken out’ was hit-man terminology, wasn’t it? No-one had discussed this. It really didn’t need discussing. The inference had been there since the start. Connor didn’t want to be voted out. No-one wanted out. No-one really wanted to be ‘in’ either. Connor’s mind flashed suddenly back to that time in Mr Szczęsny’s shop. What an idiot he had been.
Somewhere, back in the room that the boys would never know about, the man and Cameron sat and listened. Despite the intermittent clack of pool balls, they’d heard everything that Fowler and Connor had discussed.
“How’s voting going, Cameron?”
Cameron prodded the smart screen in front of him and swiped with his thumb until he had the information.
“Right now, it’s looking like Reilly.”
The man considered this then spoke.
“But that can change, yes?”
Cameron smiled in agreement and returned to his screen, thumbs and forefingers going to work.
The boys drifted into the recreation room one by one. Burgess was limping. He and Fowler went off to sit and chat, Fowler shooting Connor a conspiratorial nod before limping off, two limpers together. Grayson arrived, asked aloud if food was available and left immediately for the dining area. Others appeared. Alan and Reilly. They took up a game of half-hearted pool. Stephen, absent-mindedly scratching his upper leg scanned the room. He flopped on a sofa. Rhys was next. He nodded an ‘alright?’ to Stephen and sat beside him. He ignored Connor’s gaze and focused his attention on his phone.
Harrison was last to enter. He stood just inside the door. He wore a close-fitting grey Elements t-shirt that accentuated his upper-arm muscles. His trousers were tightly belted, possibly a notch further than was strictly comfortable, but this gave the impression of impressive upper body strength. His boots were laced all the way to the top and he stood, legs shoulder width apart, arms by his side, fingers moving agitatedly. His left hand held his mobile phone.
“Anyone,” he shouted for everyone’s benefit, “who makes fun of me again on social media is going to wish they hadn’t.”
Harrison waited for everyone’s full attention. Reilly played a pool shot, the rattle of the ball going into the pocket breaking the silence. Harrison looked in his direction, the stare enough to momentarily end the game.
All eyes were now on Harrison.
“Reilly. Anderson. Alan.”
Harrison looked at each boy as he spat their names, stopping at Alan.
“When your own team-mates make fun of you to gain a few extra likes, you know it’s every man for himself. I don’t care who’s on my team. From now on, everyone is an enemy to me.”
Harrison looked at each boy, his anger magnified by the savage haircut on his head.
He turned and pointed.
He turned again, jabbing his forefinger.
“You. And you. And you too.”
He turned once more, singling out each boy in turn.
He did this until he’d pointed out every boy individually.
“Starting from now, it’s me against you.”
He stared them down for a good few seconds.
“…and there’s only going to be one winner.”
Harrison made his exit. The room collectively breathed out.
Back in that room that the boys would never know about, the man laughed out loud.
At half past five, the man summoned the boys. There’d be an evening meal, he said, someone’s last supper. He’d made a joke of that part, but really, it was no joke. At 1900 hours, the voting would close and someone would be eliminated. Voting was tight, he said, and it would be an unlucky contestant who found himself voted out, but that was the nature of the game. Despite the man’s suggestion that they took to social media to try and garner a few extra votes, none of the boys had the appetite for self-promotion. The winning trio had no need for it and the other six were sick to the stomach with worry. Perhaps only Harrison was confident of remaining in the process. The majority of the boys had come to accept that what would be would be. Connor considered that getting put out now could actually be the best option. He was sure that over time, every boy would meet the same unavoidable fate. Why prolong the agony of the worst possible outcome?
That was the reason. Connor hoped that despite his inner fears and worst-case scenarios, it was possible to win The Elements. Or at least survive it. Yes, it was unlikely, but it wasn’t impossible to envisage himself the last boy standing. It was this hope that made Connor yearn for enough votes to enable him to stay.
(more to follow in the future)