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
Chapters 15 and 16
A few hundred miles north, a car was returning home. The man and woman inside had just completed their weekly trip to the supermarket. For the past few weeks, they’d bought far fewer items – no cans of fizzy drinks, hardly any crisps, just a couple of packets of chocolate biscuits. Their teenage son loved fizzy drinks and crisps and chocolate biscuits, but with him being away filming this new TV show, they’d not needed to buy nearly as many.
The boy’s mum was just saying to the dad how they were spending less at the supermarket each week and, as they neared a corner, the dad nodded in silent agreement. The mum reached out to turn up the volume on the radio – a favourite song of hers had just come on – and as they sang tunelessly together, the car’s brakes unexpectedly failed. The car shot off the road, down a grass verge and ploughed into a tree. Both the driver and his passenger were killed instantly. When the police arrived, they discovered the driver was a Mr Donald McPherson. His wife Marjory was beside him. One constable pointed out that it was strange that the airbags hadn’t been triggered on impact. On closer inspection of the car, it appeared that the brakes had been tampered with – sabotaged, even. Their only son Stephen would need to be informed.
The evening meal came and went. The food was of the usual high standard, but two thirds of the boys sent back almost untouched plates. Connor found himself getting increasingly annoyed watching Fowler’s table, the three of them joking and laughing as they ate, relaxed and carefree and still very much Elements participants. Connor’s table ate, or rather didn’t eat, in silence. The three boys shoved uneaten food around their plates before pushing the almost-full plates into the middle of the table. They were no sooner cleared away than the man entered, Cameron by his side as usual. He was quick and to the point.
“Contestants. It is almost 1900 hours. Voting is about to close and one of you will be eliminated. Please meet in the conference room once you have finished your meal.”
The conference room was laid out in the usual way, except there were nine chairs in a semicircle, with none laid out for Pamela and the other two girls. On the screen, the Elements logo spun lazily. The boys sat in their usual seats and, at the same time, the man took his place behind the lectern, Cameron close behind.
“Contestants! It is now 1903. Voting is definitely closed, and we definitely have a loser.”
The man scanned the room, enjoying the uncomfortableness his presence created.
“Let me tell you, it was an extremely close call. In fact, only a few hundred votes separate the three contestants who occupy the bottom three places.”
He leered at the boys, a glint of mischief? excitement? power? In his eyes.
“So, without further ado…”
Connor’s heart pounded to the point of caving in. He needed to pee. His palms and neck were oily with sweat. He couldn’t look at the man or Cameron or the screen or the other boys. He focused his gaze on a black rubbery mark on the floor at his feet and began rubbing it off with the sole of his own shoe. He was aware of Rhys’s left leg beside him, jerking rapidly up and down of its own accord. Stephen on his other side was totally silent and motionless.
“…let me announce the three contestants with the least number of votes.”
The logo on the screen disappeared and, as it did so, three images faded in. They were full-length video images, similar to the ones they used for football players when they showed big football matches on television.
There was a strangled gasp from somewhere behind. Stephen swore under his breath. Rhys’s leg stopped shaking. Connor lost all focus. He looked at the screen. Looked away. Returned his gaze. Blinked rapidly. He was one of the three. The man spoke, but he could hear no words. His ears rang with a high-pitched whistling noise. His brow was dripping. His t-shirt was sucked to his soaking back, cold and clammy. Slowly and steadily, the man’s words were pulled back into focus.
“…three hundred and thirty-seven votes. That’s how close the margins are, contestants. If only you’d Babbled just once more, it might’ve made all the difference.”
The man paused and looked at the three boys, his eyes flitting from one to the other and back again. He enjoyed the drama he was creating.
“Contestants. It is my duty to announce that the first contestant to be eliminated from The Elements is..”
As he spoke, two of the images pixelated and faded, leaving just one boy left.
Connor exhaled far louder than he thought possible. Behind him was a muted cry of ‘Yes!’ Beside him, Stephen stood immediately. The man looked surprised but allowed him to continue.
“Aw, boys!” said Stephen, turning to face them all. “I suppose someone has to be first out, eh? And if you can’t be the winner, you might as well be the first loser.” He smiled a wry smile and opened his arms to Connor.
“Connor, mate! It’s been a blast!” They hugged tightly, Connor blinking away tears of relief. Stephen went along the line. He hugged Rhys and shook hands with the other boys, wishing them luck as he went. Finished, he turned to the man.
“So? What now? Do I go and get packed? Does someone pick me up and take me home? What happens?”
The man stepped out from behind the lectern.
“Questions! Questions! Yes! You must pack immediately. Cameron will assist you with anything you may need.”
Stephen said that he’d pack quickly. The man told him he had 15 minutes to gather his stuff – he should leave all The Elements-branded items of clothing – and he should return by 7.30pm.
Once Stephen had left, accompanied by Cameron, the man spoke once more to the boys.
“There’ll be a short press conference for Mr McPherson. He’ll stop for pictures, answer some questions, give the quotes that will see him trending online half an hour from now. When the press conference is over, you will have your own chance to say a…special goodbye… to him.”
The man softened his voice.
“I must attend now to the ladies and gentlemen of the world’s press and media, but I shall be back shortly. Please feel free to chat amongst yourselves until I do.”
In the man’s wake, a buzz of conversation filled the air. Connor turned to look for Reilly.
“You OK, man?” he asked. “I was sure it was going to be me.”
“So did I,” admitted Reilly. “In fact, I’m still not sure how I escaped that vote. I thought McPherson was popular.”
“Yeah, so did I,” replied Connor. “It’s a relief, isn’t it, knowing you’re still in.”
“Eh, I think so!” came the reply, Reilly not entirely convinced that it was a good thing to still be here.
The boys talked amongst themselves. Rhys muttered a grudging ‘well done’ to Connor before turning to chat with Reilly. The relief in the room was tangible. All that though was about to change.
The man returned almost as quickly as he had gone and without being asked, the boys’ conversation stopped.
“Contestants? Do you like history? Wars and battles and heroes and villains and stuff like that?”
The man didn’t wait for an answer.
“My favourite period in time is the Roman Empire. They were such a clever civilisation, the Romans. Mathematicians. Engineers. Scientists. Much of what they did is still very much a part of our lives today. You’d know that already though if you were paying attention at school. Ask yourself this – will you leave such a mark on society? It’s unlikely, isn’t it? Not impossible, but very unlikely.
I love the words the Romans gave us. Viaduct. Testify. Legacy. All words that derived from their civilisation. Are you familiar with the word ‘decimate’?”
The man looked at the assembled boys, an encouraging look on his face. Alan raised his hand, half up and half down and spoke when the man nodded with a smile towards him.
“Does it mean something that’s totally destroyed?”
“Yes! It does! As in, ‘the storm decimated every house in the village.’ Every house was totally destroyed by the storm. Yes! Very good. Thank you, Alan.”
He eyed the boys again.
“Are you familiar with word origins? That word testify, for example? You know that testify is something you do in court, yes? Well, of course, you do! You’ve all done just that recently, haven’t you?! You were asked to tell your version of events, you swore to tell the truth and proceeded to tell it. That was you testifying.”
The man nodded, seeking non-verbal feedback from his audience.
“The word testify comes from the word testes. Testicles. I’m sure I don’t need to explain what they are. If you were up for trial in a Roman court, they’d ask you to literally put your testicles on a block of wood. A swordsman would be standing close by. If the judge thought you were telling the truth – testifying – he’d let you go. But if he thought you were lying…”
The man paused, enjoying the audience reaction.
“…swoop! Down would come the sword and chop! Off would fall your testicles!”
The boys sat in sniggering near-silence.
“Luckily for you, we no longer conduct trial by swordsman nowadays, eh? There’s a room full of boys here who’d have been testicle-free by now, am, I right?”
Connor felt himself blush and determinedly avoided eye contact with the man. Most of the others did likewise.
“So. What about the word ‘decimated’. Where might it have its roots?”
He looked out to eight blank faces. He carefully spelt the word out.
“Think of the first part – dee, ee, cee. Those letters are a common prefix in our words today. What words begin with dee, ee and cee? They sometimes make a ‘deck’ sound, as well as a ‘dess’ sound.
“Decade!” shouted Grayson, surprising himself more than anyone.
“Decimal!” said Fowler.
“Yes!” encouraged the man. “Keep going! I’m thinking of an athletics event…”
“Decathlon!” interrupted Grayson again.
“Spot on, Anderson! Spot on! Now, what do all these words have in common? The prefix is the same dee, ee, cee, but what does that mean?”
He waited to allow the boys to answer, but none was quick enough for his liking.
“How many events in a decathlon?”
“Ten!” someone shouted.
“Yes! How many years in a decade?”
“Ten!” came the answer again.
“So, what does the ‘dec’ prefix mean then?”
“Ten?” replied Alan hesitantly.
“Yes! Top of the class, Alan! Top of the class! The ‘dec’ part means ten.”
“But what about December? That’s the twelfth month!” Alan was wishing he hadn’t said out loud what he was thinking.
“Aha! Yes! A very good observation. December is indeed the twelfth month…but it was at one time the tenth. The Romans, as vain as their emperors were, added a couple of months in the middle of the calendar to celebrate two of their most popular leaders. But I’ll leave you to work out which two were added.
Back to ‘decimated’. The word relates somehow to the number ten. Would anyone care to guess where the word originated?”
The lack of response told the man that, no, no-one cared to guess. A mix of fear of getting it wrong and not wanting to look too smart in front of their peers meant that no boy dared rather than cared to answer. The man didn’t mind. He was enjoying giving his impromptu history lesson.
“The Roman army, contestants, was the most-feared army in history. They were extremely well-drilled, super-fit and could march hundreds of miles before engaging in combat. They were rarely beaten. It was a matter of great honour to each Roman soldier that he won in battle, so much so that should an army be beaten in combat, the Centurion would be asked to select ten of his legionaries at random. Those ten legionaries would then be clubbed to death by the others. It served both as a punishment for losing the battle and as a strong warning never to lose in battle again. The group of soldiers would be decimated. Totally destroyed. That’s where the word comes from. Nowadays, we say that the garden was decimated by the weather, or that the cat decimated the bin, but the word has far more sinister origins.”
The man stepped out in front of the lectern again, his audience rapt and interested.
“Contestants. We shall adopt the Roman way for our little TV show.”
The boys shuffled nervously in their seats, waiting for a punchline, or a hearty, jokey laugh from the man, but none was forthcoming. The realisation of what they might be asked to do began to creep up on them. The man’s steely gaze confirmed what they all now were thinking. He watched in sick amusement as puzzled looks were replaced with speechless faces of horror and terror, colour draining as quickly as water down a plughole.
The man moved behind the curtain at the side where Cameron usually stood. He dragged a heavy cardboard box from behind it and pulled out a wooden baseball bat.
“When McPherson returns from his press conference, we – or rather you – will ensure his total elimination, not just from The Elements, but from life itself.”
The man swung a theatrical swing of the bat, the air singing gently as it moved smoothly from over his right shoulder to over his left and back again. You could tell it was a heavy bat when the man dropped it unnecessarily with an echoing rattle on the shiny floor. His voice became unpleasant once more.
“Let this be a warning to you. Win at all costs or face the ultimate penalty. This just might toughen some of you little mummy’s boys up. Any questions?”
There were none, of course. Just a stunned, shared and confused silence. No-one knew what to think. Muffled voices told them that Stephen was returning. He and Cameron came into the room, Stephen jocular and swaggering. He was laughing at what he’d said to a journalist and how the room had laughed with him. Cameron massaged his ego by asking him to tell him again what he’d said to that woman from the Daily Mirror. He did so with characteristic hur-hr-hurring and unnecessary guffaws. Poor Stephen had no idea what was really going on.
The man took control again.
“Aha! Mr McPherson! I trust the ladies and gentlemen of the press were kind to you? Did you give good quote? Show your best side for the photographers? I bet you did! Are those French girls still asking for you? Give them my regards, will you?”
Stephen grinned. He looked at the other boys. They responded with a mixture of ashen faces and avoidance.
“Alright?! Jeez! Who died?”
Eight faces looked to the floor and eight pairs of shoes simultaneously shuffled.
“Mr McPherson. Before you leave us, we’ll have a short farewell party. We have some food and drinks laid out in one of our reception rooms. Grab a bite to eat, say your fond farewells and we’ll see you on your way.”
At this, the man acknowledged Cameron with the slightest of nods.
“Follow me, everyone!”
(more to follow in the future)