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
It was the clarinets or oboes (he could never tell them apart) that stirred Connor from his slumber. He recognised them straight away. Igor Stravinksy’s Rite Of Spring. He’d a teacher at school who played classical music during art lessons and while they drew or painted, the teacher, Mrs Scott, used to give them little informal lessons on the music that was soundtracking their scribbles. Rite Of Spring was one of the most-recorded pieces in classical music, she’d said. Stravinsky had denied it, but he’d stolen much of the melody from traditional Russian folk music. It wasn’t Connor’s favourite piece of classical music, but today, with its familiar dissonant jarring and wonky time signature, it brought him alive and well into the new day.
“Good morning Connor Stewart. It’s 6.30am. Please be ready for 7.15 prompt. You must wear your combat layers and trousers today. You may select your own choice of footwear.”
Connor rolled over and was aware of something hard at his shoulder blade. He reached underneath the blanket and pulled out his mobile phone. He was brought fully awake by the notification of three missed calls from his mum. Annoyed with himself, he checked the details. She’d called at 10.16pm, 10.19pm and 10.28pm. He’d slept through every one of them. There was a text too.
‘Hi Connor,’ it read. ‘Pick up your phone! Dad and I are so happy to hear from you. We’ve been watching you on YouTube. You’ve had your hair cut! It suits you. I wish you’d answer your phone so we could hear your voice. We’re missing you. Give us a call when you get the chance. Love you, mum and dad xx’
Connor was kicking himself for falling asleep so quickly. With some alarm, he noticed too that his battery was severely undercharged. He’d fallen asleep without plugging his phone in. He hoped he wouldn’t regret this error. He briefly considered sending a text but his conscience got the better of him. He’d ask Pamela later about phoning home. So far, she’d seemed approachable and reasonable.
In a mood, he set his phone to airplane mode – it charged faster this way, right? – showered and dressed, putting on his new ankle-height boots, fixed his hair and prepared for what would be another interesting day at Kimble.
When Pamela rapped on his door at 7.15, he tried not to let his foul mood show.
“Hey hey hey!” she beamed, flashing one of her polar white smiles.
“Hiya Pamela, hiya Stephen,” replied Connor. “Gimme a sec.” Connor unplugged the barely half-charged phone and stuck it in his pocket before joining the other two and Rhys as they squeaked along the corridor towards the dining area. As the four sat down, the man and Cameron made their presence known at the front of the room.
“Good morning contestants.”
Connor picked up the subtle change in vocabulary. Until now, the man had referred to them as ‘boys’.
“Today is the first day of training. It will be intense. It will push many of you beyond your limits. Please, encourage and motivate your team-mates. They will appreciate all the encouragement they get and you will too. Training will take the form of two parts; physical and mental. You will undertake the physical training first, so it is important to eat a full breakfast. You will need energy to carry you through until lunchtime. Enjoy this hour, contestants. I expect it might be the only hour of the day that you do enjoy.”
With that, the man and Cameron sat at a table far away from everyone else and started spreading their toast.
Already in a stinking mood, this was the last thing Connor needed to hear. He ate sullenly. The conversation flowed around him, excited chatter involving Babble messages and hashtags and memes and the likes. Stephen was clearly the most popular of the three but Rhys either couldn’t see this or wouldn’t concede to the fact. In his funk this morning, Connor hadn’t even checked any of his accounts. He briefly worried if this might’ve been an error on his part before quickly checking himself for being so caught up in the game. He stared at the table, his toast going cold and limp in his hand.
“Are you OK, Connor?” asked Pamela, genuine concern in her voice.
He looked up, his toast bending unappealingly.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just a little homesick, I think.” Seizing the opportunity, he asked, “When are we allowed to call home? I’d like to check in with my mum and dad if I can.”
Pamela smiled. “Soon, Connor, soon.” Looking at his toast she added, “Now, eat! Make sure you have the energy required for the day ahead. You heard the man. It’s going to be a full-on day. Stephen! Rhys! Make sure you fill up too!” The subject had been changed.
Full-up, they followed Pamela into another new room. It was large and square, its bare concrete walls painted with a watery whitewash. Wooden benches ran around three of the sides. Behind a jutting part of wall at the far end was, Connor presumed, the shower block. On one of the walls was a large, old-fashioned black board, currently blank. On the wall facing it was a large, lifeless flat-screen TV. In the corner at the far end was a pair of closed red doors, next to them the same metal key-pad that was on each of the boy’s own doors. The boys stayed in their groups of three, uneasy and unsure of what to expect. No one sat. Connor, still in a mood, studied the other boys. Grayson was his normal relaxed self, laughing at something Fowler was saying to him. Alan looked worried. Drawn and insular, his clothes were ill-fitting, and with nowhere to hide in this room, he appeared self-conscious. One or two of the others were doing basic stretches, bringing their heels up to their buttocks and the likes. Most of the boys though stood around awkwardly, checking the zips on their combat trousers or trying not to catch the eye of anyone else.
Harrison was different. He stood out, and not just because of his hair. He was like a caged animal straining at the leash. His head and chin jutted forwards and backwards with jerky nervousness, the cords on his neck lean and prominent. He wasn’t wearing layers like the others. With his t-shirt tucked tightly into his trousers Connor could see he was athletic. His eyes ablaze with determination, he looked this way and that, eager for something to happen. He settled on tightly tying and re-tying the laces on his boots. Was he chewing gum? It looked like it, even if Connor couldn’t remember seeing gum in the vending machine. Boots tied to his satisfaction, Harrison jumped up and down on the spot, exhaling loudly and quickly with each jump, expelling some of the nervous energy that was flowing through him. Harrison was clearly ready to go, almost possessed.
Cameron entered behind them and spoke.
“Good morning everyone.”
Given the authority he carried, his thin, child-like voice seemed very out of place.
“This is the changing area. This room will become very familiar to you over the course of ‘The Elements’. During training, you will meet here after breakfast every day. You will have a briefing with the coaches who will then lead you through that morning’s physical activities.”
He smiled knowingly.
“I hope you are prepared for our first session.”
The man entered next. His voice alerted the room to his arrival.
“Thank you, Cameron. Apologies, contestants, for my tardy arrival.”
Beside the man stood someone new. A triangular mountain of physical presence, he was at least six and a half feet tall. Dressed head to toe in military green and wearing the same ankle-height boots as Connor, he cut a totally imposing figure. His shoulders were broad and powerful. Muscles bulged in all directions. A whistle hung around his neck and lay flat, small against his massive chest. At the top of his left arm, just below the sleeve of his khaki t-shirt, Connor spotted a faded tattoo, an eagle in flight, its talons stretched out like jagged knives. Above it was a flag or a ribbon, inside which something was inscribed in Latin. At the top of his right leg, strapped and concealed in a holster was a gun or a pistol of some sort, its dull wooden handle poking out the giveaway. The man, the most powerful person at Kimble, the one everyone was afraid of, looked small and insignificant beside him.
This was theatre. The man had been intentionally late. It was all ceremony for the benefit of the TV. Right now, hidden cameras were picking out the boys with the most visual reactions to this giant of a man, hidden microphones recording the supressed gasps and mild swearing.
“Contestants. This is George. George is ex-military. He has served your country in Afghanistan, Syria and the Gulf. He has seen things….done things……that I hope you never need to experience. He is trained in the arts of combat and survival and right now is the most important person at Kimble. Do as he says and he will help you develop and improve as a person.”
The man didn’t need to continue speaking, but for the benefit of the TV ratings he did.
“Do otherwise, cross him, defy him, disobey him…. and George has my authority to punish you as he sees fit. Am I clear, contestants?”
A murmur of affirmation rose from the nine boys.
George stared at each boy individually, sussing them out. He recognised the ones with the guile to see this through, the ones who’d do well. He wasn’t interested in them for now. He’d break them later. He looked Alan up and down with contempt. Flared his nostrils at Reilly. Stared for longer than necessary at Stephen’s haircut. He knew the ones who’d give up, answer back, quit. He could tell that number 3 was worth keeping an eye on but he knew too from experience that the most difficult of recruits could also be the most changeable.
“Contestants. Let’s get this clear from the start. I don’t like petty criminals. I can’t stand teenage waywardness. And I absolutely abhor disregard for society’s rules and standards. You lot,” he stared at each of them individually, “are petty criminals, am I right? You are all wayward teenagers, is that correct?”
Connor would not be thirteen for a couple of months yet, but this wasn’t the time to bring that technicality up.
“And none of you what-so-ever has any regard AT ALL for how we should conduct ourselves in society. Am I right again?”
He paused then continued speaking in a patronising sing-song voice.
“Yes George, you’re right George.”
He leaned towards them and stared the boys down, the whites of his eyes growing visibly larger, the cords on his neck making Harrisons seem like fine thread by comparison.
He spoke again, daring them not to speak.
“Yes George, you’re right George,” he sing-songed again, staring wildly at the boys.
“Yes George, you’re right George,” came the muted, fumbled reply.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Yes George, you’re right George,” the boys answered again, louder this time, but loose and not together.
“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!” the boys shouted in unison.
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
“YES GEORGE!!! YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!!!”
The boys shouted louder, throats tearing, the walls vibrating. The man stood to the side, arms folded and smiled his smile.
George looked at the boys, this non-verbal action enough of a cue to silence them.
“Right. Now that we’ve established that George is always right, we will always listen to what George has to say, because whatever George has to say is the most important thing you need to hear, isn’t that so? ”
“Yes,” came the half-hearted reply from two or three of the boys.
“I THOUGHT WE’D JUST GONE OVER THIS YOU IDIOTS!”
The group of boys visibly shrunk. Connor gulped and spoke up. “Yes George, you’re right George.”
George turned his attention towards Connor.
“Oh look, everybody! We’ve got a right little teacher’s pet here!” George let that hang in the air. Connor squirmed. Every boy looked at the linoleum floor.
“…but I like teacher’s pets. Thank you for answering correctly…” George looked at Connor’s shirt. “…Stewart. I need more students like you in my class.”
Connor regretted speaking. He was on the good side of the coach, but had now isolated himself – or, at least, George had isolated him – from the rest of the boys. Divide and conquer. The oldest army trick in the book.
George addressed the group once more.
“My job here is to make you fit and ready to participate in ‘The Elements’. Do as I ask and you will become as fit as a finely-tuned athlete. The physical strength needed to take part in this competition cannot be underestimated, am I right?”
“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!”
“You want to be the very best you can be, am I right?”
“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!”
“Work hard, stay focused and push yourself beyond your limits and you will succeed. AM I RIGHT?!?”
“YES GEORGE!!! YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!!!”
Grinning, hands on hips, George lowered his voice.
“Then let’s go!”
The boys parted to allow George to pass. He punched a code into the door and it opened outwards. The boys followed behind, with Cameron and the man at the back.
They stood in a field, bordered on all sides by low hedges. In the background were tall trees and hills. No landmarks or scenery gave Connor any clues as to where they might be. Laid out in the middle of the field was all manner of exercise ephemera; medicine balls, wooden boxes of different heights, cones and markers, skipping ropes and boxing gloves. At the far end of the field there was a tall wooden wall with three coloured ropes hanging from the side. In the middle of the field stood a tower, also wooden, with a pointed roof covering what appeared to be a small viewing gallery.
The boys surveyed the scene with trepidation, standing in a rough semi-circle in front of George. There was a slight breeze which made Connor feel cold despite the blue skies overhead. He was aware of his shorts flapping coldly around his thighs. The sun in their eyes made the boys squint slightly as George spoke to them.
“We’ll take it easy to begin with,” he smiled, swinging his whistle in his hand. “We’ll do a little warm up. A lap of the field. Just a light jog, nothing fast. You! Number 9! Teacher’s pet!”
Connor’s stomach dropped again.
“Take the front. Lead your team for a lap. No one breaks out, no one gets left behind. You start as a team and you finish as a team. Let’s go!”
Connor looked at the others who stared back at him indifferently. He ran off in an anti-clockwise direction, closely followed by the other eight boys. By the time they’d reached the first corner, some of the boys were already panting quite heavily. The group was quite tightly packed and travelling as one. Then there was a bit of a disturbance just behind him. Connor lost his footing, recovered, felt an elbow in his side and conceded the front to Harrison who’d bulldozed his way through the pack. By the second turn, Harrison had kicked ahead, a cloud of pollinated grassy dust puffing up with each pounding step. The boys were no longer a pack and they were beginning to thin out into a stretched line. On either side of Connor were Grayson and Reilly. Number 6, Burgess, was just ahead of him. The wind was in their faces now as they ran along the back straight. Connor could hear George’s shouts carried by the breeze across the field, but it was impossible to make out what he was saying. Harrison was far ahead now, already rounding the third corner of the field, followed closely by his brown cloud of dust. Further back, the boys had stretched out in an ever-thinning line. By the time Connor and the boys around him had reached the third corner, Harrison was in the home straight, 50 or so metres from where George stood, still shouting. As they headed into the last corner, Connor could see Harrison, hands on hips, pacing back and forth at the end of his lap. Grayson now chose to push. He eased his way past the frontrunners. Steady, measured breathing and a strong kick ensured he was able to pull away, first from Connor and Reilly, then gliding past Burgess, the distance between him and the others widening. The pack crossed the line half a dozen seconds behind Grayson who lay on his back, legs bent at the knees, hands behind his ears, panting and coughing. A few of the others flopped to the ground. Connor stayed standing, his chest ready to cave in, his wheezy breath taking an eternity to return to normal. In the distance, not yet at the third corner, was Alan. He walked, hands by his side, with no urgency in the slightest.
George was straight over and in Connor’s face.
“You were told to lead from the front! Let no-one break out! Start as a team and finish as a team, that’s what I said!”
Connor could feel flecks of George’s spittle coat his hot cheeks. It was quite cooling in the circumstances.
“You let your team fall apart, didn’t you?”
Connor, still trying to control his breathing, looked up at the coach. He looked at the other boys who, realising George’s mood, had begun to stand. Harrison stood off to the side, hands still on hips, a cool spray of sweat coating the brow beneath his still-gelled spike. George leaned even closer to Connor.
“Let’s try it again, shall we?”
Connor groaned internally. He wasn’t certain that some of his groan hadn’t made it out of his mouth. He looked up at George. Surely he was joking. He wasn’t.
“Round up your team – even fat boy there – and get them going again. No one breaks out, no one gets left behind. You start as a team and you finish as a team.” Turning, he shaded his eyes and looked in Alan’s direction. Alan was still to reach the final bend.
“You! Fat boy! Move!”
Alan broke into an approximation of a jog. He was slow. Bits of him jiggled comically but under the circumstances no-one laughed. Connor felt for him. They all watched in pained impatience as he wobbled his way towards them, his purple face twisted in agony.
“Shift it, fatty!” George turned to the boys again. “What’s this girl’s name?”
“Alan, sir,” came the staggered reply.
“ALAN! GET HERE NOW!”
Alan arrived, his steps short and useless, his toes leading first and into the ground. His arms were bent thin at the elbows, his hands up by his neck. His layer had pulled up and a wobbling white belly rippled nakedly above his shorts. His hair was stuck to his face and neck. He wheezed. He said something. He fell.
“DON’T STOP, SON!” shouted George. “WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN! GET UP!”
Alan looked up from his position on the grass. He couldn’t speak, his eyes doing all his communicating.
“GET UP YOU LAZY CHUNK! ALAN! SEVEN! SHIFT!”
Clumsily, Alan forced himself to his feet again. He was not in a good shape.
“There you go, see? A little bit of encouragement is all you needed.” George addressed the group. “We go again. Stewart leads. We stay together for the whole lap.”
Connor looked at the boys. They were as unwilling to do a second lap as he was. Connor looked at Alan.
“I can’t do it, mate,” he said between heavy breaths. “I can’t”
“You can’t do it, yet, mate,” said Connor. “But we’ll get you through it. Come on.” Connor stood, waiting. Alan shook himself down, patted his chest and with glacial pace joined the others who stood together.
Slower this time, Connor set off. Alan was already falling behind so Connor slowed even more. The others, even Harrison, fell into line with him. When he thought he might be out of earshot of George, Connor spoke.
“It’s like this,” he said between gasping pants. “Unless we finish together, he’ll make us go again and again until we do. I say we go only as fast as Alan can go. If that means we walk this lap then that’s what we do. We all need to be in this together though. No one cutting ahead. Alan? Can you run?”
“Not really, no,” came the instant reply.
“Then we walk. Agreed?”
They jogged slowly onwards. No-one spoke.
“C’mon guys! I didn’t ask to be the leader here but it’s on my head if we don’t finish together. If Alan can’t run, we walk. He never said we had to run the lap, did he?”
“He said jog though,” came a voice from behind him.
“Then we walk most of it and jog over the line for the last part. Are we in?”
“C’mon guys!” Connor pleaded. “Are we in, yes or no?”
A light ‘yes’ rippled through the group and Connor immediately slowed to a walk. The others did likewise.
“Thanks guys,” said Alan. “Really.”
They walked the field. George watched but shouted nothing. As they neared the final bend Connor said, “Can you run for a bit, Alan? Just this last part?”
“I’ll give it a try, yeah, but just don’t go too fast, will you?”
Connor broke into a slow jog, followed by the others, Alan included. As they approached George, Harrison pulled out to the side and sprinted past. It didn’t matter. George was smiling.
“Excellent, team!” he beamed. “Great work! A team is only as strong as its weakest link. You identified that and adapted accordingly. Well done Stewart, well done team.” He looked at Alan. “You hurting, big boy?”
Alan couldn’t answer.
“Take 5 everybody. Hydrate. Refresh. Recover. Prepare for the workout. That was just the warm-up, remember!”
The nine boys sprawled out on the grass. A container carrying nine numbered water bottles had been placed at the side and taking their relevant bottle, the boys quenched their thirst. As they sat drinking in exhausted silence, Connor watched Harrison take his phone from his pocket before switching on his tough guy face and snapping a quick selfie. His fingers blurred across the screen as he fired the image out and onto his social media pages. In a matter of seconds every other boy was doing the same. All three of Connor’s pages had thousands of notifications, none of which he had the time nor inclination to read and he’d barely uploaded the selfie he’d just taken when he was informed of many more new interactions. He wasn’t sure which might tire him out more, George’s fitness regime or the constant need to update and interact on social media. Connor stuck his phone back in the pocket of his shorts and lay back, letting the breeze freeze-dry the cold sweat on his face.
“Right! Contestants! Let’s get back to it again. Follow me, please.” George marched off without checking that the boys were following him. He knew they were. “We’ll do a circuit of nine activities, three-minutes at each one. Watch me, please.”
The boys watched, squinting into the sunshine as George demonstrated burpees, crunches, curls and bicep dips. He skipped furiously, criss-crossing the rope for added effect. His huge muscles bulged and flexed as he raised and lowered the kettlebells. Controlled puffs preceded his jumps from a standing position to the top of one of the wooden boxes and back again. He plunged and planked, lunged and launched, doing everything with a smile on his face and no sweat on his brow.
He allocated each of them a starting point, blew his whistle and watched as the boys tackled their activity with varying degrees of skill and fitness levels. Any sign of weakness was immediately sprung upon by the coach who’d bawl loudly should they even consider resting during those intense three minutes. The gap between each activity was nowhere near long enough and by the time the boys had completed their nine activities, all were totally spent. They lay spread out across the field looking for all the world like massacred victims in some terrible war. There would be no let up.
“Contestants! Into your teams of three, please! Now! Vamos, vamos!”
Connor ached in places he never knew existed. His legs had seized up. His guts felt agonisingly tight. He dragged himself into the centre to find Stephen and Rhys. Stephen looked different with his matted hair stuck to his forehead. Rhys was purple and couldn’t speak.
“Straight ahead, contestants, is the wall. Simple task. First team with all members up and over the wall win. The last team is given a punishment by the winners.”
Connor looked at the wall. It was high. Even to grab a hold of the bottom of the rope required a jump. He didn’t think he’d get either of his feet off the ground. Getting over it would be tough. At the top was an overhang, designed for grabbing hold of but also an added obstacle to clearing it. Rhys and Stephen looked equally shattered, but he took joy in the fact that he wasn’t in Alan’s team.
“Campbell, number four, you are the leader of the green team. Fowler, two, you’ll lead the red team.”
George scanned the remaining boys.
“Harrison.” George recognised a winner when he saw one. “You’ll lead the blues.”
Harrison stepped forward showing little in the way of tiredness or unwilling.
“On my whistle the first boy will go. As soon as that boy reaches the top of the wall, the next can go. When you get over the top of the wall you should let go. There are crash mats behind to break your fall. It’s quite safe.”
The boys considered this as he continued to speak.
“…and just to keep it interesting, the spectators up there in the viewing tower,” George pointed to the man and Cameron, high up under the pointed roof – Connor had forgotten all about them until now – “will be dishing out some extra encouragement.”
Before any of the nine boys could ponder exactly what he meant by this, he’d blown his whistle.
Rhys and Fowler were off quite quickly, but this was nothing compared to Harrison. He sprinted on the whistle’s blast, screaming a banshee-wailing “Aaaaaargh!” as he tore up the field on his approach to the wall. At the sound of his scream, all eyes were upon him. With a gliding leap he had control of the rope and had shimmied half-way up the wall before either Rhys or Fowler had even reached it. With impressive ease Harrison reached the top, flipped himself over the edge and with another wail was over. Reilly raced off next, leaving Alan alone as the last member of their team to go.
Rhys and Fowler both took a couple of goes before securing hold of the rope. Fowler seemed to be doing better. His technique was good; backside jutting out at right angles to the wall, climbing with hand over hand, pushing himself up by the toes as he climbed. Fowler was slower than Harrison, but not by much. Rhys though was dead slow. He lost his footing at one point, swinging from side to side wildly until regaining control. As Fowler neared the top there was an unexpected crack from the tower. Instinctively the remaining boys turned to look at it. Cameron and the man had a pair of rifles! A second crack confirmed this. They were firing bullets towards the boys on the ropes at the wall! There was a third crack and a muffled whoop from the tower as the bullet lodged itself into the wall close to Fowler.
“It’s only rubber bullets, lads. Just a bit of fun. Should help your team-mates get over the wall quicker though, eh?” George was laughing. “Go on Fowler,” he shouted. “Before he hits your backside!”
A burst of static and feedback came from the tower. The man was speaking through a megaphone.
“Campbell, number four! You have ten seconds before I start firing at you. Ten….!”
Even from this distance, Rhys’s fear was tangible. He scurried and scraped, frantically trying to get up the rope.
Fowler beside him had reached the top and was now half-way over. George spoke to Grayson.
“It’s you next, man. Come on!”
Grayson understandably hesitated before letting off a Harrison-style banshee scream and started running full tilt at the wall. He was at the rope while Rhys was at most three quarters of the way up.
Rhys stopped climbing. A sitting duck, he braced himself for the worst.
Peee-ooow! went the bullet from the rifle. It lodged into the wood a good couple of metres away from Rhys’s left leg. With terror, fear and unknown strength, Rhys somehow dragged himself to the top, just as a second bullet splintered the wood where his backside had been seconds before. Reaching up and over the top, he let out a manic cry before dropping to the mats on the other side. Had he actually been shot, wondered Connor? As he worried himself with this, he was annoyed to see Stephen burst across the field. This meant Connor would be last to go for his team. He’d have the most ground to make up and he’d have all the attention from Cameron and the man and their two rifles.
Going up his rope in the middle of the wall, Grayson was good. Even when being fired at he kept his cool, hand over hand, pushing up and out with his feet, and he was catching Reilly who had stiltedly made it to the top. Next to Grayson on the other side was Stephen. He wasn’t too bad either. Further behind the other two, he wouldn’t make up ground but nor would he cause Connor’s team to fall further behind.
With Grayson over, Burgess was last to go for the red team. Taking his cue from the others he approached the wall full pelt and screaming his lungs out.
Alan was next to go, anchor man for the blue team, ‘encouraged’ by George and the man with his megaphone.
“Alan, seven!” he shouted through the megaphone from the tower. “Make me proud!” Cameron was already lining up the crosshairs of his rifle. Last to go was Connor. He quickly made ground on Alan, passed him and with superhuman effort had grasped a hold of the rope that dangled above him.
The dull thud of bullet into wood reminded Connor that he was unwilling game in a sport of two sides. Mentally trying to block the bullets out of his mind – which proved impossible to do – Connor dragged himself up the rope. The muscles in his shoulders burned as he gripped and pulled. He felt the skin tear from the palms of his hands. His legs had no feeling anymore. But he was
Making progress. The top of the
wall was almost within reach. One more
push and he’d
Thud! Thud! Thud!
The bullets from the tower were close – very close – but Connor dragged himself over the top just in time. He’d no time to decide if he wanted to drop from this great height or not. He let go. His stomach disappeared into his throat and with a sudden unexpected slap he landed on the thick crash mat. He breathed again, noticing a grinning Harrison who’d filmed his whole ungainly drop on his phone. ‘That’s one I owe you,’ thought Connor as he lay back, allowing himself time to recover.
On the other side of the wall, Alan had a grip of the rope but was swinging slowly from side to side and making no upwards progress. He cried, tears of frustration, tears of rage, tears of hatred at the people who’d put him in this position. The man laughed into his megaphone.
“Move it, Alan, you useless lump!”
Peee-ooow! went yet another bullet from a rifle. It struck the wall just above Alan’s head. Had Alan been a quicker climber, it might have taken his head clean off.
George was at the wall now, barking words towards Alan.
“Come on son, you can do it. Don’t be the only failure in your team. Your team has no place for failures!”
Alan was somehow higher up now, a combination of plain fear and hatred pushing him upwards.
Another bullet. Not close, but a reminder that he was being shot at.
This time, Alan felt the rush of wind. His sticky hair stirred around his right ear as the bullet whizzed past and lodged itself in the wall.
Was George actually encouraging Alan? To Connor it sounded as though he was.
“Yes! One hand over the other. Now, kick your legs. Come on, mate, you can do it!”
He was. And it was working.
With an extreme burst of lethargy, Alan found himself at the top of the wall, its lip standing between him and failure.
This bullet was the closest yet and, in fright Alan jumped, letting one hand go of the rope. He swung wildly to the left, grazing his knees across the wall, his rope arm and hand burning in pain, the free hand frantically grasping for control.
Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!
How they missed he’d never know, but from somewhere deep within, Alan found the required strength to get both hands on the rope and drag himself to the lip of the wall again. With his face squashed hard against the wood, Alan daren’t look down. He could hear shouts of encouragement from both sides of the wall. George was still barking positives his way and the boys who’d already scaled the wall began shouting when they’d seen his leg curling over the top to their side.
“Just let go, Alan!” shouted Harrison, eager to see the large boy flop from a great height.
“Drop!” encouraged Reilly. “It’s easy!”
With both legs now over the top, Alan held on with his elbows at his chin. He gulped and pushed himself back, dropped and crashed with great force onto, into, the mat below. There were scattered cheers and claps as he rolled off the mat and onto the grass. Once there, Alan burst into uncontrollable tears.
George quickly rounded to the boys’ side of the wall. He was excited.
“Excellent work, contestants. Number seven – Alan – that’s what I mean when I ask for 100% effort. You excelled yourself there, son. Amazing stuff!”
Alan wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his sleeve, nodding with a weak smile.
“Reilly! Fowler! Grayson! Spectacular! All three of you!”
He looked at Harrison, yet to appear in any way dishevelled or exhausted.
“Number three! Harrison! That was one hell of an outstanding effort, young man! Where did you learn to climb ropes like that?”
“I dunno,” shrugged Harrison, slightly aloof because of the appraisal he’d just received.
“Keep it up! And the rest of you – watch this boy and learn. Outstanding! Harrison, you will unfortunately be aware that we had a deal at the start of this event. The deal was that the first team over the wall would choose a punishment for the losers. It won’t escape your notice that, despite your sterling efforts, and those of Reilly too, your team nonetheless came last. I am almost prepared to say that, due to your awesome effort, I will let this go, but I’m afraid rules are rules.”
Six boys groaned internally, Connor amongst them. He’d forgotten about this. He didn’t think he could raise himself for anything else again today.
“Reds! Fowler! Anderson! Burgess! You three were first over. What’s the punishment to be? Dodge the bullets? Dangle from a tree?”
The three boys in the winning team huddled together, away from the others.
“I reckon we get them to do the wall again,” whispered Grayson.
“That’s just sick, mate! What about another lap of the field again?” answered Burgess.
“Nah,” replied Grayson. “If they’d won, you know they’d be giving us a hard thing to do. It’s not our fault they were last. What about some of those circuits again? They were agony.”
“I reckon we get them to do another lap, but…”
Fowler waited until he had the attention of the other two.
“…we do it with them. Say to George that it’s either everyone or no-one. Show a bit of solidarity here. We walk it like the last time, take as long as we need. What d’you reckon?”
“No way, mate! Are you mad?” said Grayson. “I’m not doing one thing more! It’s not my fault they can’t climb the wall.”
“Some of them could climb the wall though…” pointed out Fowler, looking him in the eyes. Grayson knew what he meant. Alan had been so far behind it was embarrassing. The other two were probably just as quick as anyone on the winning team.
“Pfffttt.” Grayson let out an agonised sigh.
“I think you’re right, Andy,” said Burgess to Fowler. “It’s everyone or no-one. Agreed?”
“Yep,” said Fowler “Grayson?”
“Come on, guys! Think about it!”
“Agreed?” Fowler looked at Grayson again. Grayson had no other option.
“Agreed,” he said with a huff.
Burgess raised his voice so that George and the others could hear him.
“We, well, Fowler, had an idea.”
Fowler cut in.
“It’s only right that if there’s any sort of punishment we all do it together, all nine of us.”
George hadn’t expected this, but he looked pleasantly surprised at the suggestion.
“So you’re telling me that, even though you won, and even though some of these boys weren’t last, you should all do the punishment, is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes, sir, that’s what I’m saying.”
“Well!” George looked at the others, laid out in various states of exhaustion in front of him. “I’m OK with that.”
There was a grumble and a groan from the boys who thought they’d avoided this. Connor couldn’t believe they were going to have to do another punishing regime.
“What’ll it be, then? What’s the punishment?”
“Another lap, sir, of the field. Starting as a group and finishing as a group. No breakouts. No-one left behind.”
“Alright then. Lads! You heard the man. One more lap of the field. No breakouts. No-one left behind.”
With little to no enthusiasm, the group forced themselves back onto their feet and stood in an unwilling huddle, daring one another to go first.
“Fowler! You’ll take the lead this time. One last burst of effort from everyone, come on!”
George rounded up the boys the way a farmer might herd his uncooperative sheep, sweeping the stragglers at the back with a sweep of his massive arms, using his bulk to manoeuvre the group. Grayson and Alan were the last two to comply. Together, reluctantly, the group of nine walked across the middle of the field to its perimeter. At a slow, measured pace, they shuffled off.
In the viewing tower, the man and Cameron eagerly reloaded their rifles.
“Whose idea was this again?” moaned Campbell.
“Fowler’s,” answered a sullen Grayson.
The boys were barely above walking pace by the time they’d rounded the first bend.
“You OK, Alan?” asked Burgess into thin air.
“Not really,” came the broken reply.
Rifles ready, the man spoke to Cameron.
“Wait until they’re in the last stretch. Aim for the ground just behind them.”
The boys were walking now, not even managing to talk. Connor’s lungs felt as if they were on fire. His legs were leaden, his arms heavy knots of useless flesh and muscle that could do no more than hang heavily by his side. The dusty grass kicked up around them. Little grains of dirt stuck to the thin film of sweat on their necks, blown by the wind that now gave a cooling respite to the torture that endured.
George stood at the end, legs astride. He was shouting things again, his voice lost to the wind.
“Can I fire now?” asked Cameron.
The man signalled to be patient.
The boys had at most 100 metres remaining when Cameron’s itchy finger squeezed the trigger. Peee-ooow! went the bullet as it exploded in the grass to the side of the boys. With thoughts of what had happened at the wall, instant panic broke out. The faster boys elbowed their way through to the front of the group, never more eager to reach George. Alan at the back was suddenly isolated, the others going as fast as their beaten legs would allow.
“Aim for the fat one,” said the man as he picked up the megaphone, a jarring screech ringing out across the field as he powered it into life.
“Alan! (Screeee!) Seven! Get those knees up, you useless lump! (Screeee!) Move it!”
By now the rest of the boys had reached George and were standing recovering in a tight circle, unsure of what to do. Beside them, George laughed.
“Come on, Alan! Nearly there! One last push!”
By now, Alan feared for his life, he really did. A part of him wanted to give up there and then, to turn and face the tower and tell the man and Cameron to do their worst.
Thud! Thud! Thud! went the bullets as they sprayed into the ground immediately behind him.
In the tower, Cameron laughed hysterically and continued to fire.
Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!
Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!
Alan continued his tortoise-like wobble to the end. Now he could hear the shouts of encouragement from George and the other boys. They helped. Determinedly he kept going, almost now at a full chest out and arms swinging jogging pace.
The last of the bullets exploded around him as Alan fell on the grass at George’s feet.
George led the boys back to the changing area. There, Pamela and the other girls met them and took them back to their rooms. They had an hour, the man had said, until they’d meet for lunch. Connor flopped on his bed, reluctant and unable to move. Eventually, he forced himself to undress and tossed the grimy clothes he’d been wearing into the laundry basket before standing under the shower. It felt terrific.
Lying on top of his bed wrapped in a towel, Connor checked his phone. More notifications. On Babble, there were over 20,000 comments underneath the selfie he’d snapped after the first lap of the field. He’d been tagged into one of Harrison’s ‘The Elements’ posts and was astounded to find 128,000 or so likes, loves and reposts for the video of him falling from the top of the wall. Harrison, or someone, had edited the video so that the frames of him slapping onto the crash mat re-re-re-re-repeated multiple times. They had gone so far as to add corresponding slapping sounds too. Ignoring his own feeds for the moment, Connor started scrolling through Harrison’s. He had a similar number of followers, but Harrison had been far more active. Today alone he’d posted over a dozen pictures of himself in various poses, from tough guy pre-training with George, to still-tough guy afterwards. He, or someone, had created a meme too, taking a shot of Harrison way out in front on that first lap of the field and adding the tagline, ‘Boom! Harrison shoots to number 1!’, a crass reference to the guns being fired from the observation tower but also an acknowledgment that currently, Harrison was the most popular boy (or ‘contestant’) at ‘The Elements’. There were also video clips of him running full tilt at the wall and of him zipping up the rope. Every photo, every video clip, every meme was accompanied by thousands upon thousands of comments and emojis.
Connor turned his attention back to his own feeds. On Olé someone had clipped short videos of him at the various circuits. Kettlebells, box jumps, burpees; all were accompanied by a screen after screen of comments. There was one rather disturbing clip of Connor struggling at the top of the wall, bullets ripping into the wood as it splintered around him. A look of genuine terror was etched on his face, captured forever by a cameraman unknown. It all made for good theatre though. And it helped to add followers, important if he were to maintain his place at the right end of the popularity scale. Watching back with the benefit of hindsight, Connor was certain that the man was playing with them – if he’d wanted to shoot any of them, especially Alan, he no doubt could have. This was merely the starter, the amuse bouche, before the main course to follow.
On ‘The Elements’ app, there was a whole thread running with people discussing how honourable he’d been to insist that the group walked that first lap. It made Connor feel good to see that he had the public’s support.
On and on the comments went. Scrolling and stopping at random, Connor couldn’t find anything negative. Those comments would be there somewhere, but the good stuff far outweighed anything nasty that folk might be saying.
There were private messages, page after page of them, and as Connor made a mental reminder to post something generic before going to lunch, his attention was drawn to one message in particular. It was the user-name that caught his eye: @christineandrobertstewart – his parents had taken his advice and set up an ‘Elements’ account.
Connor read the message, hearing their voices in his head.
‘Connor. We’re terribly worried for you. They were shooting at you! You must leave immediately. Tell whoever is in charge that you’d prefer to take your punishment in the Northern Shires. As soon as we can find out where this awful TV show is being made, your father and I will be coming to take you away. Until then, stay safe and don’t give anyone any reason to put your life at risk. We love you very much, mum and dad x.’
Great. This was all Connor needed. He immediately regretted telling them to set up an ‘Elements’ account. This wasn’t a safe place to be at all, but there was no way he was going to be allowed to leave. The only way he was getting out of here was by keeping his wits about him and by ensuring he remained popular on social media. He returned a quick, “Can’t talk now – I’ll message later” reply and then, with thoughts of his burgeoning popularity in mind he typed up a generic ‘thanks for your comments’ post, attached a picture of him with his hair still wet and sent it out on his three social media accounts. He was suddenly famished with hunger and was relieved to hear the familiar rap at the door as he changed into clean clothes.
Sitting at their usual table, the three boys discussed the morning’s events; Harrison’s feral determination, Alan’s hopelessness at the wall, walking that lap, the potential for George to be a decent person, everything, really. The three skirted around the subject and none of them came right out and said it, but it was clear they all expected Alan to be the first to leave. As some fruit was brought to their table, the man made his way to the centre of the room and raised a hand. Cameron stood faithfully at his side. Quickly, the room fell silent.
“Contestants! I trust you are not in too much pain and that you are suitably refreshed after what was quite a rigorous test this morning. I was delighted to see the camaraderie and solidarity you displayed towards one another at times. I asked you to encourage and motivate your team-mates and you most certainly delivered. For that I am thankful. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public either. Most of the messages sent across our social platforms today related to the team spirit, fairness and sympathy you showed towards one another. Ratings, contestants, ratings! Our advertisers and sponsors demand high ratings and already you are delivering. Keep it up!”
The man smiled, a glint in his eye preceding his next statement.
“There were too, thousands upon thousands of requests for both myself and Cameron here to use live ammunition in our rifles from now on. It appears that a section of ‘The Elements’ audience is fairly bloodthirsty. If ratings demand it, maybe we shall have to acquiesce.”
He broke off to scan the room, the atmosphere taking an uneasy turn. He addressed Alan’s table.
“Some of you will be hurting after this morning, and not just physically, but mentally too. ‘The Elements’ is unforgiving – and it needs to be.”
He paused for dramatic effect.
The room was silent. No-one, not even Cameron, knew if he was finished. Connor was desperate to get into the fruit that had been left in the middle of the table, but he daren’t start.
“Now, this afternoon…!”
The man’s mood was brighter, lighter again.
“…you will have a session with an analytical thinking expert. You need brains as well as brawn in ‘The Elements’, so although this afternoon’s session will give your body a rest, it will most definitely work your mind.”
He made a show of looking at his watch.
“Shall we say thirty minutes in the meeting room? Take time to enjoy the rest of your lunch, freshen up and be ready to begin again at 1400 hours. Oh, and Stewart, could I speak with you for a minute once you’ve eaten, thank you?”
Connor’s appetite instantly drained, along with the colour in his face. Rhys and Stephen turned to him. No words were exchanged but their sympathy was genuine and tangible. The boys, urged on by an unusually quiet Pamela, quickly finished eating and got up just as the man arrived at their table.
“Pamela! Campbell, McPherson. Nice lunch? Raring to go again?!”
The boys nodded an awkward nod, clumsily pushed their chairs under the table and left with Pamela. Connor sat at the table alone. The man pulled up a chair and sat side-on to him.
“And how about you, Stewart? Raring to go again?”
Connor looked up from his empty plate and turned his neck to face him.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it.” He had a fair idea of what the subject of the conversation would be about, and he wished the man would quickly get to the point and get the conversation over with.
“Are you enjoying your stay here so far? Is there anything we can do to help? Is your room comfortable? The food?”
“Yes, no, it’s all very nice, thanks.”
“Made some new friends?”
“Yes, Rhys and Stephen, eh, sorry, Campbell and McPherson are OK. We all get on well.”
“Are you enjoying your new-found celebrity status yet? That’s quite the following you have already.”
“It’s a bit weird, to be honest,” said Connor. “But I’ll get used to it.” Using his forefinger, Connor focused his attentions on picking a bit of hard skin around the nail of his thumb. He braced himself for the reason he was being spoken to.
“Missing your parents yet?”
There it was.
“Yes. And no. I mean, of course I’m missing them, but we’ve been so busy since we’ve got here, I’ve hardly had time to think about them.”
Connor instantly regretted saying this. The man knew there’d been text messages. Of course he did. Connor had even anticipated this moment before he’d sent the first message home.
“You haven’t had the chance to call them yet, I believe. Have you?”
“Hmmm. You see, here at Kimble we try to discourage that sort of to-ing and fro-ing. Maybe once you’re more settled in, we can relax that rule a bit. Until then, we feel it takes your focus away from what you’re really here for.”
The man looked Connor in the eyes, reading him.
“Being so busy, you probably haven’t even had the chance to text either, I expect?”
Connor searched in his mind for the right thing to say. As he weighed up the pros and cons of telling the truth and lying, his mind was made up for him. The man stretched out his arm and opened a soft, pink hand. A gold cufflink reflected dully on the empty plate as he did so.
“May I have your mobile device, please, Stewart?” The man smiled. There were probably half a dozen cameras, hidden in the walls and ceiling, filming this right now.
Stewart inadvertently felt for his phone in his left pocket.
“Phone, please, now. There’s a good fellow.”
Connor didn’t want to give him the phone, but there was little alternative. The man leaned in, close enough for Connor to smell the remnants of lunch on his breath. He hissed a low threat.
“Phone. Now. Or the next time it’ll be real bullets.”
Connor continued to pick away at the hard skin on his thumb.
The man’s hand remained outstretched, his reptilian smile etched on his face. He leaned closer still, whispering with a seething rage.
“Give me your phone you little shit or I will destroy you!”
Connor conceded and handed his phone to him. The man tapped in a sequence of numbers (‘They can access our phones too!’ thought Connor) and swiped through the screen to find whatever it was he was looking for.
“A-ha!” He held up the text conversation between Connor and his mother, showing it to Connor like a prize. With fat-fingered jabs, he deleted it, then jabbed some more, muttering all the while to himself.
“Mum….mum….ah, there we are. Three missed calls!?! Tsssk! Block caller…yes…confirm…. Delete number… hmmm. And…yes. There we go. Gone.”
The man looked at Connor once more, still holding onto his phone.
“You will have no contact with your mother from now on, understood?”
He didn’t wait for or acknowledge Connor’s weak nod and went back to stabbing at the screen.
“Babble….yes, uh huh… I see… Olé… of course…of course! ‘The Elements’! A-ha!”
Finding the recent message between his parents and him, the man shouted triumphantly.
“More messages! Oh! Delete….confirm….block….yes….confirm…and there we are.”
The man held up Connor’s phone, tantalisingly just out of reach. Connor wanted no part of this game. He just wanted his phone back and to get away from the table.
“I think I’ll be holding on to this for the time being, Stewart. There’ll be no social media for you for the foreseeable future. No chance to update, no chance to interact. No chance to contact anyone….”
His voice went quiet for the final time.
“…and no chance of progression. Watch your back, Stewart.”
The man upped and left. Connor remained at the table, confused and angry.
(more to follow in the future)