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
In full view of Stephen, the man picked up the box of baseball bats – ‘he really means this’ thought Connor, still hoping this was all an elaborate joke – and walked towards a door behind the screen. Cameron opened it for him and the man went through. Cameron continued to hold the door. Stephen happily followed. The other boys held back. They looked at one another. No-one said a thing. Fear was etched on every face. Eyebrows were raised. Quizzical looks exchanged. Staring eyes. Tense neck muscles.
Harrison was the first of the eight to go. Slowly, the others followed behind. Connor was last through the door, welcomed into this new room by a relaxed and smiling Cameron. It was a sterile white room. No windows. The only door in and out was the one they’d just used. There was no furniture and definitely no tables of canapes and sparkling water. The man spoke again.
“Mr McPherson. We will leave you here to say your final goodbyes.”
Stephen looked puzzled.
“There’s no time for food and drinks, boy,” said the man. He stepped aside, allowing Stephen to see the box of baseball bats.
Stephen continued to look puzzled.
“While you were away galivanting with the press, I gave the other contestants a short lesson in Roman history. Do you know, McPherson, where the word ‘decimated’ has its origins?”
Stephen looked puzzled still.
“Burgess. Remind McPherson for me, will you? There’s a good chap.”
Burgess remained silent.
“Mr Burgess. I asked you to tell Mr McPherson the origin of the word ‘decimated’.”
Burgess lowered his head
“Mr Burgess! Are you awake, boy?! Then answer me!”
Burgess kept his head lowered and shook it.
“No? What do you mean, ‘no’? ‘No’ as in, you don’t know the answer or ‘no’ as in you won’t say.”
Burgess said nothing and continued shaking his head.
“Very well, Burgess. Cameron?”
There was a sudden, shocking crack. Burgess fell to the ground, a pool of blood spreading slowly from where he’d been shot in the neck. He was dead, of that there was no doubt. The boys, Stephen included, cowered together.
The man began to shout.
“Look what you’ve made me do! This wasn’t part of the plan! Burgess! Pfffft! Now I’ll have to come up with an elaborate story to cover your untimely death, you irresponsible little bastard. Does anyone else, ANYONE ELSE, plan on following in Burgess’s footsteps?”
The man, wild-eyed and nostrils flared, dared the assembled group to defy him. An edgy silence took hold. Connor wanted to look at the crumpled form of Burgess but dared not even blink. Cameron continued to lean on the wall by the door, as if nothing had happened. Only the gun, still smoking silently in his right hand gave his actions away.
“So, now, McPherson.” The man was calmer again. “The other contestants will bid you farewell. Cameron and I shall leave you all in peace.”
Cameron opened the door and the two of them left.
Connor dared himself now to look at the poor, dead body of Burgess. His neck was pooling quickly, crimson blood spreading slowly across the stark white floor. He looked quickly away, catching the eye of McPherson.
“Wh-what the fu-fuh is going on?” asked Stephen, looking first at Connor, then at Reilly and continuing around the group until he’d looked at them all. No-one dared eyeball him or reply.
“Is this s-s-some sort of s-sick j-joke?”
“Are you going to…?” He couldn’t bring himself to say what he was thinking….couldn’t believe he was thinking what he couldn’t say.
More silence. Grayson coughed. A terrified Alan could feel warm, fresh urine cloud across his groin. Connor searched his mind for the right words to say. Harrison spoke first.
“Yeah. He wants us to kill you. And I say we do. Cos if we don’t…” Harrison looked at the corpse of Burgess, lying dead in his own blood. He didn’t need to finish his sentence.
Stephen’s face twisted in silent anguish.
“What? No! NO! They told me my mum and dad would be here to pick me up in an hour!”
Stephen now began to cry. Angry, uncontrollable crying. Proper snot ‘n slevvers stuff, punctuated by incomprehensible babble and jerking gulps. The group remained silent, despondent, ineffective. All except Harrison. By now, he’d picked up one of the baseball bats and was holding it out in front of him, testing its weight, finding its sweet spot. Without even being aware of doing so, most of the boys took a step back. Harrison began to swing. Whoosh! Whoosh! The others now fanned out as far away from him as possible. Whoosh! Whoosh! In his haste to get to the wall, Fowler clumsily limped through some of Burgess’s blood and slid. He was lucky not to fall into the mess on the floor. Whoosh! Whoosh!
Harrison approached Stephen with menace and intent. Stephen hardly noticed or, if he did, he hardly seemed to care.
“Whoah, Harrison!” Connor suddenly found his voice and said aloud what everything else was thinking. Harrison wheeled and stared him down.
“Shut it, you, or you’ll be next!”
“He’s right, Harrison,” said Reilly. “Put it down, man.”
Harrison turned and swung the bat in front of Reilly. Whoosh! Whoosh!
“I’ve a good mind to batter you first, Reilly. ‘Can’t read a map! Ha! Ha! Ha!’ Aye – can’t read a map, but I can swing (whoosh!) a base (whoosh!) ball (whoosh!) bat (whoosh!)!!”
With that, Harrison swung a full swing in Reilly’s direction. He hit the wall. A chunk of white plaster fell. A tennis ball-sized indent remained, jagged cracks of plaster zipping out of it like the cracks on the shell of a hard-boiled egg, Reilly’s head a few centimetres from the epicentre.
Harrison looked at the damage on the wall and the terror on Reilly’s face.
“I’ll finish with you later.”
With that, he turned again to Stephen and without warning cracked him low across the kneecaps. Stephen screamed in agony, falling at once to the floor. Harrison raised the bat above his head and was in the process of bringing it down on McPherson’s skull when Reilly blindsided him and tackled him from the side. Harrison and bat parted company and he and Reilly went skidding across the floor. The other boys became animated. Grayson pinned Harrison’s ankles. Alan held him down at the neck, pinning him with the dropped baseball bat, a hand at each end. Rhys kneeled on Harrison’s back with all his weight. Harrison tried to wriggle free, of course, but strong as he was, he wasn’t strong enough to out-muscle the three other boys.
Connor sat with Stephen. Both legs were smashed and broken, hideously jutting out at wonky angles from the knees. Stephen was hysterical. Crying, shouting, wailing incomprehensible words and noises.
“F-f-f-f-f-f-f-Euuurrrggh! Aaaagggh! Y Y Y You b-a-a-a-st-a-a-a-d. Gnnnn, schh, pfffff….”
His ginger hair was matted to his forehead. Tears and snot caked his cheeks and lips. Connor tried to soothe him, but Stephen needed a doctor, not an arm around him.
“Calm it! Everybody!” He held his hands in front of himself in defence. “This is totally messed up. I say we ask them to get a doctor for Stephen. And Burgess. Although….” His voice tailed off. “And he (pointing at Harrison) needs to go too. He needs to be kept well away from the rest of us.”
“I agree,” said Connor. “Stephen needs to get to hospital now!”
Alan, still at Harrison’s neck spoke next.
“They’ll kill us all! They will! When they come back in here, we’re all dead.”
Harrison tried to speak now, but with Alan still holding him down with the baseball bat, it was impossible.
“Let him speak, Alan, pal,” suggested Connor. Reilly selected a bat from the box on the floor and stood menacingly over Harrison, just in case.
“It’s what I tried to tell you, idiots,” snarled Harrison, his cheek still held fast to the floor by Alan’s baseball bat. “It’s kill or be killed.”
Outside, the man and Cameron could hear parts of the conversation – not every word, but enough to know that their idea for elimination wasn’t quite going to plan.
“We’ll give them another couple of minutes, Cameron. I was quite encouraged by the banging and shouting a minute ago. Less so now. We’ll let the group decide on their course of action and, if necessary, we’ll step in. Do you have those photos on your device?”
Cameron nodded in the affirmative.
Inside, Rhys offered a suggestion.
“How about we wait for them to come back in and we ambush them with the baseball bats – four boys on each of them…” Looking at the carnage around him, he corrected himself. “Three or four boys on each of them. They’re armed, but we’ll have the element of surprise.”
Connor thought this was a reasonable option.
“What does everyone else think?” asked Connor.
“I agree with Rhys,” said Alan.
“So do I,” said Connor.
“Me too,” said Reilly. “But I think we’re wasting our time.”
The others – Grayson, Harrison and Fowler were non-comital.
“I think,” said Fowler after a pause, “that we need a doctor for Stephen. Surely when they come back in, they’ll see what’s happened and stop it. They’ll need to get a doctor – this will be being streamed live. They can’t let us fight one another until people die.”
“People are already dead!” shouted Connor.
“And we’ll be next!” reiterated Alan.
“There’s no way this is going out online,” said Rhys. “The man shot Burgess dead! They’ll never show that.”
“No. No, they won’t.” It was the man. He and Cameron were now back in the room. “None of this will ever be seen on any screen. What happens in here will remain in here forever.”
The man surveyed the scene. Harrison was on the floor, a crimson trail smeared between his left knee and Burgess’s neck. Campbell was kneeling beside him, gripping a baseball bat. Alan was still holding Harrison’s neck down with his bat too. Burgess lay dead in a pool of blood. McPherson was propped, half-sat, against the wall, his legs broken and bent and totally useless. The others were infighting and arguing amongst themselves. They were fragile and ripe for the taking.
“Why is this boy even still alive?” the man queried, pointing to Stephen. “I asked you to kill him.”
Harrison tried to speak once more, but Alan kept his weight on the bat. The man ignored both of them and selected a bat from the box.
“You!” He pointed it at Grayson. “Take this and beat him.” He threw the bat towards Grayson and Grayson, more out of surprise than compliance, caught it.
All eyes fell on Grayson. He held the bat limply by his side. Stephen watched silently and fearfully from the other side of the room.
“Beat him!” The demand came loud and clear a second time. Grayson flinched at this.
Grayson looked at Stephen. His swollen, red eyes pleaded him not to acquiesce with the man’s command. Grayson held the bat out as Harrison had done before, letting it bounce up and down in his hands until he got the measure of it. All eyes were on Grayson and what he was about to do. He took two steps forward and, just when it appeared he might actually carry out his order, he stopped. Stephen audibly moaned. All other boys held their breath.
“Beat him, boy! One hit and pass the bat on. We’ll all have a shot until McPherson is dead.”
With this, Stephen let out a long, low feral moan. He started to speak more words. Most were incomprehensible but one or two could be understood.
“N-n-n-n-no! Gzzzzht! Spffflnjja. N-no. Ma-ma-ma-ma-mum. Gzzzht! Ma-ma-ma dad. Puh-puh-puh-puh-leazzzze.”
“Your mummy and your daddy aren’t coming to rescue you, I’m afraid, McPherson. Y’see, around the time you were being voted boy least likely to by your global fanbase, your parents were involved in a terrible car crash. There’s no easy way to tell you this, but they both died at the scene.” The man paused, savouring the reaction. “They’re gone, McPherson. As you too will shortly be yourself.”
Visibly irritated by the banshee howl of despair that followed, the man paused until he had everyone’s attention again. Confusion mixed with silence and wounded animal noises from the injured boy made for a charged atmosphere. Had they really killed Stephen’s parents, wondered Connor. Really?
“Cameron. Bring me your device, thank you.”
Cameron stepped into the middle of the room and handed the man the tablet with the photographic proof of the car crash. The man jabbed and tapped at the screen, bringing up the images.
“It’s a Ford Spectacular your dad drives, McPherson, is it not? Registration WK67 CSM?”
Stephen’s choked gargle was enough to confirm, but the man showed him the first picture all the same. Stephen looked at the digital image of the twisted former car, front end crumpled like an accordion, stuck in a tree that had half fallen over, the hatchback boot sprung open. The driver’s side window had a spider’s web crack all the way across it.
“U-u-uh-huh,” sobbed Stephen.
“And is this your father?”
He swiped the screen then showed Stephen the slumped form of his dad, head at an unnatural angle across the steering wheel, his right eye obscured by dark blood.
Stephen continued to sob.
“And is this your mother?”
She lay back in her seat, nose pointing north, her mouth agape, seat belt mostly embedded in her neck, as dead as Stephen’s dad beside her.
“So, you see. No-one is coming to rescue you, McPherson. In fact,” the man turned to talk to the others, “no one is coming to rescue any of you. You are all only children, yes? None of you has brothers or sisters?”
Connor had no siblings. He looked around the assembled boys. Their nods confirmed the man’s statement.
“As you are eliminated, so too shall your parents. When the voting comes through at the completion of each stage, the losing contestant will not only lose his place in the contest, he will also lose the two people who are dearest to him. The people who he has relied upon all his short, dishonest life, the people who he will be hoping can somehow make it to Kimble and liberate him, will be dead even before he is. Who’s going to miss a couple of old folk and their troublesome teenage son? No-one, that’s who! As soon as the voting elects a loser, the machinations begin to roll, and your unsuspecting parents meet an untimely and unfortunate end. It may be a car crash. It may be an electrical fire, or a botched mugging, or a freak drowning. I’m sure we’ve only just scratched the surface of the multiple ways in which your parents’ deaths can be made to look like tragic accidents.”
Grayson was jolted back into action. He swung, not for Stephen as instructed, but for the man. No sooner had he felt the satisfying dull thunk of baseball bat on upper shoulder than he felt the burning pain of his flesh being ripped apart at the thigh from a bullet from Cameron’s gun. And no sooner had he registered that he’d been shot than he was shot again a second time. The second shot proved fatal. The bat fell from his grip, Grayson collapsed where he stood and he too began to bleed out from the neck, lying spread-eagled on the floor. The room erupted in chaos once more.
In the melee, Harrison had pushed past a petrified Alan and was standing again, wielding his baseball bat. Not at Cameron, who had just shot Grayson dead, or the man, who had not long ago killed Burgess. He was bearing down on Stephen. As Stephen placed his skinny arms out in front of him, Harrison cracked him hard across the ribs with a full swing. No-one would ever know how many ribs Harrison had broken with that one swing. Stephen passed out with the shock and pain and for almost half a minute, the room fell into silence. Most were convinced that Harrison had dealt the fatal blow to Stephen until Stephen began to cough up foamy, thick blood. As Harrison readied himself for another swing, Fowler attacked him from the side, scattering Harrison one way and the bat the other. They rolled on the bloody floor, smearing Burgess’s and Anderson’s blood on one another. They stopped fighting only when the man fired a shot straight into the ceiling.
“STOP!” he yelled, and they did.
Stephen continued to cough blood, drawing attention to himself.
“We now have TWO DEAD BODIES in this room! And the only person in this room who should be dead,” continued the man, “is this boy here.” He pointed a well-manicured finger at Stephen. “Now. Either you all follow the lead of Mr Harrison here and take a turn at finishing the job so we can all leave this room, or I finish it for you, and none of you will ever leave this room alive.” He stared them down. He wasn’t kidding. “What shall it be?”
Alan began quietly sobbing. Connor was numb. He had no idea what to think.
Without waiting for an answer, the man threw the bat towards Reilly. Already holding a bat of his own, he failed to catch it and watched it bounce across the hard floor, it’s echoing rattle reverberating loudly. The man might’ve been annoyed at Reilly’s failure to catch the bat, but he never showed it.
“It’s your turn, Reilly. Make it a good one.”
Reilly looked at the bat lying on the floor, dropped the one he was holding and contemplated his options.
“PICK IT UP!” screamed the man without warning and once more, through compliance rather than fear, Reilly picked up his own bat again.
Against the wall, Stephen continued to cry and moan and whimper and bleed. One of the broken ribs had punctured a lung, not that he knew this, and so, he was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe. His vain cries of defence were shallower and quieter to the point of whisper. He began to cough blood again, more painful than ever.
“Pick a spot and hit him with it, Reilly. It’s not that difficult.”
Reilly walked towards Stephen.
“I’m so sorry, man,” he said quietly to him, then changed tack. Instead of beating him with the bat, Reilly swung it limply and grazed the soles of Stephen’s feet. He dropped the bat and turned away. Cameron tutted in exasperation and fired a single shot into Reilly’s ankle. Reilly wheeled and screamed in pain.
“DO IT AGAIN!” screamed the man at him. “Hit him properly or Cameron’ll finish you off as well!”
Struggling to stand on his one good ankle, Reilly once again held the bat. He hobbled towards Stephen, who was clearly trying to say something to him. Had he been able to decipher the shallow gasping babble, he’d have known that Stephen was begging for him not to hit him. Reilly had no option though, and with a better swing than he should’ve been able to muster under the circumstances, he brought the bat crashing down between Stephen’s neck and his left shoulder. A sickening crack told everyone that he had hit him good. Stephen grunted an animal-like grunt and slumped further down the wall. “I’m really sorry, man,” acknowledged Reilly, tears streaming down his face. He found a corner that was free of violent TV hosts and dead bodies and wept quietly.
“Fowler! You’re up!” The man shoved the box towards him. “Choose your weapon.”
Fowler hesitated then limped towards the box of bats. He’d made up his mind that when it was his turn, he’d crack the man over the skull with the biggest bat he could find before turning it on Cameron, but after seeing what had happened to Anderson and Reilly, he’d had immediate second thoughts. Fowler had no idea what he was going to do, but he had no intention of contributing to McPherson’s death.
“Hurry up, boy. We don’t have all day.”
“I’m just seeing which bat is best,” stalled Fowler.
“They’re all the bloody same!” retorted the man, extremely impatient and eager to get things finished.
To reinforce things, or perhaps just to speed things up a bit, Cameron clicked the safety catch from his gun.
Fowler selected a bat. It suddenly felt deadly in his hands.
He hated it.
Fowler limped towards Stephen, who was definitely now more dead than alive. Ignoring the faint protestations from Stephen’s bloody mouth, Fowler swung the bat low, from waist height, catching Stephen on the top of the arm. “I’m really sorry, mate,” sobbed Fowler. He threw the bat away and found a spot near Reilly. Stephen slid in slow motion down the side of the wall to his left. The back of his matted, ginger hair left an arced brush stroke of blood as it went on its journey.
“See, that wasn’t so difficult after all, was it, Fowler? Who’s next?”
Connor prayed he was invisible.
“Who’s not been yet?” The man looked around the room at the boys. “Campbell. Stewart. Alan.”
Connor stared steadfastly at his feet.
As their names were mentioned, each boy’s heart beat a little faster, a little louder. Their mouths became that bit drier, their hands a touch sweatier. Alan began sobbing uncontrollably. Big, sniffy, child-like sobs.
“You’ll get your turn, Alan, don’t get upset, boy! Right after Stewart – up y’come, Stewart.”
Connor’s heart dropped.
His feet felt leaden. Each footstep was a gigantic effort. He wasn’t sure if the man had offered him a bat or if he’d picked one of the remaining ones from the box himself, but suddenly there was a baseball bat in his hand and it felt like it might be too heavy to hold, let alone swing. His ears rang. He had a sudden watery, metallic taste in his mouth. His vision began to blur and whatever the man was saying to him was drowned in a sea of ringing in his ears.
“…all day, Stewart. We don’t have all day! Beat him and be done with it.”
Connor gathered himself. He looked at Stephen, pathetic and slumped, near dead, beaten and broken by his own friends. He wasn’t so sure that Stephen hadn’t already passed away. He hadn’t moved. Hadn’t made any further noises in protestation at what was happening to him. It didn’t look as though his chest was moving anymore. His red and swollen eyes remained closed, dirty track marks of tears running from them, down his cheeks, around the contours of his crusted, bloody mouth.
“I think he’s dead now,” said Connor softly, to no-one in particular.
“Best give him one more decent thump for luck, Stewart. Make certain of it.”
Connor let the man’s sick demand sink in. There was going to be no way out of it. He had to hit him. With tears in both eyes he shuffled through the pool where Burgess’s blood and Anderson’s blood had now converged. He stood two metres from where Stephen was slumped, the bat wavering in his grip. He thought of Stephen on the trip through the woods, the times they’d shared cooking at the campfire, the friendship they’d created that was now suddenly and unexpectedly cut short. Blinded by tears, he stepped forward and brought the bat crashing swiftly down on Stephen’s head. As he dropped his weapon, he was sure he heard Stephen exhale for the last time.
Connor didn’t look back, didn’t look at the man, didn’t look at Cameron. He found a spot at the side and wept in anguished silence.
“Cameron,” said the man. “Check his pulse, please, thanks.”
Cameron confirmed to the man that Stephen was now dead. The man began muttering expletives under his breath. Shaking his head, he looked first at Stephen, then at Anderson then finally at Burgess. He let out a long sigh. He looked at the three weeping boys along the wall. Disgusted with them, he looked at the rest. They too – even Harrison – were also in tears. This was not supposed to have happened. The man thought that, with a bit of a pep talk and the underlying threat of violence if they failed to comply, they would carry out his instructions swiftly. How wrong he was. He now had three dead bodies on his hands. He needed time to think.
“Contestants,” he said, trying to keep his voice neutral. “Get out of here. Go to your rooms and await instructions. Cameron, remain here, thank you.”
The boys bowed their heads and made their way slowly from the awful room. Connor stole a last glance at each of the three bodies as he exited, a hellish sight that would live with him for as long as he lived.
(more to follow in the future)