The Elements

The Elements Chapters 28-32

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.

The Elements
by Craig McAllister
Chapters 28-32

 

The two officers in the patrol car had been asked to investigate a disturbance at somewhere called Kimble. The sat nav in the squad car was no use. It was either outdated, they reasoned, like most of their equipment, and couldn’t show them directions to a place it didn’t know existed, or the signal to the sat nav was poor.

Using his own phone, the officer in the passenger seat called up the co-ordinates but it too couldn’t pinpoint Kimble. It seemed strange that they shouldn’t know about the place, given that it was seemingly local and responsible for the TV show that was the subject of almost all conversation in the squad cars and station staff room. Repeated requests to recheck the co-ordinates had been met with the same answer – ‘those are the co-ordinates we have…Kimble must be around there somewhere.’ The driver continued to drive fruitlessly, returning to roads he had previously driven, passing the same landmarks from different directions, squinting in the dark for some place he’d never seen before.

 

 

Chapter 29

The man had his master key and after entering the first three rooms they’d come to – McPherson’s, Stewart’s and Campbell’s – was convinced that Zimmerman had lied to them. It was in the next room that his opinion began to change. The boys had definitely been here recently. Harrison’s room was just as untidy as the others, but the drawers had been left gaping and open and as the man rattled one of them in anger, he saw that they were all empty. There were no clothes there at all. Cameron confirmed that the wardrobe too was empty, save for the two pairs of boots at the bottom.

By the time they’d left Reilly’s room and then Alan’s, it became clear that the boys had packed up and run off. They checked the others. Burgess’s room was tidy. There were clothes in the drawers and wardrobe. Given that Burgess lay dead in the hospital morgue, this was no surprise. It was the same in Anderson’s.

Rounding the corner, they were surprised to find Fowler’s door open. They were even more surprised to find Zimmerman sitting on the bed, his back to the open door. The man, ready to go for Zimmerman, hastily recoiled when he heard the voice of Arkwright speaking from within.

“As soon as John and Joseph return, we’ll retire to the board room, all of us, and sort this mess out.”

The mention of the board room set the man’s teeth on edge. The scene of his most humiliating backtracks, it was in there that he’d been told he must vet all questions ahead of press conferences. It was in there too that he’d been told he must return the boy Stewart’s phone. The man had no respect for Arkwright and the others’ authority, but for his own good, he grudgingly did as he was told. If he could get his story straight tonight, there was a faint chance that he might leave here unscathed and still as rich.

He stepped inside Fowler’s room, followed closely by Cameron who had one hand on the butt of the gun inside his trouser pocket.

“Mr Arkwright, sir! Professor Zimmerman!”

They turned, as surprised to see the man as he had been to see them.

The man turned on his best charm. “You know Cameron, don’t you? We’ve been looking everywhere for the contestants. I had hoped to calm them after the events from earlier on.” Scanning the room, he put on an exaggerated expression of dismay. “Have they gone?!”

“It appears so,” said Arkwright. “By the looks of it, they left in a hurry too. Almost as if they were extremely frightened…”

The man looked at Arkwright, trying to work him out.

“I know what happened, y’know. It’s all on CCTV.”

The man continued looking at Arkwright. Was he bluffing?

“Three young boys dead. Two shot, one beaten on your instructions. This is a catastrophe of untold proportions, man!”

Arkwright’s voice was steady, quiet and measured.

The man began to talk until Arkwright held up a hand to silence him.

“We will talk in the board room. We must get a story straight before the authorities arrive. Whatever we decide, though, one thing is certain. You will need to disappear.”

There was an inference in the last word that the man didn’t like. It seemed to him that he was about to be hung out to dry, or worse. The three grey men in the grey suits would hold their hands up in despair and somehow salvage the show. He though, it seemed, would never be seen again.

 

 

Chapter 30

As the squad car drove aimlessly in ever-widening circles, the officer in the driving seat peered out into one of the dark country lanes they’d driven up a short while ago.

“Is that someone running?” he asked his partner.

“It certainly looks like it,” came the reply. “At this time of night?”

The car soon caught up with whatever was ahead, and sure enough, it was someone running. As the police car approached, the runner turned his head in surprise. His hair gave him away.

“Hey!” said the driver. “That’s that Harrison boy from the show!”

The Elements-branded backpack and clothing confirmed it. Harrison stopped running and, picked out by the yellowy twin beam of the headlights, bent over, panting and catching his breath. Clouds of his breath puffed out into the cold night air before evaporating around his head. He stood straight, exhaling, hands on his lower back as the two officers approached him.

“Alright, sir?” said the first officer. He had an accent that Harrison had heard before but couldn’t place.

“Is everything OK?”

Harrison wasn’t sure how to answer. The second officer spoke. He had the same accent.

“Harrison, isn’t it? Have you come from Kimble? Are you running from there?”

“We’re responding to reports of a disturbance. Would you know anything about it, at all?”

Harrison nodded.

“Would you like to sit in the car, sir, and tell us what you know?”

Harrison, tired and cold and desperately missing his parents told them everything.

The officers, not expecting a story quite like the one they were hearing, sat in silence as Harrison’s version of events unravelled from the back seat of the police car.

“I think,” said the first officer, not entirely without reason, “that we may need some assistance.”

The second officer sparked the radio into life. He requested back-up, asking that they locate them in the country lane where they were currently parked. Harrison had offered to show the officers where Kimble was, but the officers weren’t going anywhere near the place until they had help from their colleagues. Even then, they feared, that might not be enough.

 

 

Chapter 31

John and Joseph had searched high and low for the man and Cameron. They hadn’t cleared it with Arkwright – hadn’t needed to clear it – but they’d intended to kill them both wherever they found them. Once they’d done that, they’d sit down, the three of them, and concoct a story that explained all of the deaths and, crucially, keep their names out of it. With them nowhere to be found, John and Joseph had returned to Fowler’s room.

They were surprised to find Arkwright and Zimmerman chatting with the man and the boy Cameron. The atmosphere was tense, but neither side wanted to appear irritable or aggressive. On seeing John and Joseph return, Arkwright broke into a smile.

“Ah, gentlemen! It seems everyone is here at last. Shall we head to the boardroom and get down to the business of getting our stories straight?”

“No time for that,” said Cameron. He hadn’t spoken in the entire time they’d been in Fowler’s room and was getting anxious and trigger-happy. Without warning, he pulled his gun and shot at Arkwright. Arkwright fell, clutching his neck and shoulder. He was dead before he hit the floor. John and Joseph pulled their guns at the same time as the man and all three fired.

Poor Zimmerman was caught in the crossfire and flopped dead on the bed. One of the other bullets, Joseph’s, as the ballistics team confirmed afterwards, shot the man in the head, instantly dead. Cameron shot again and Joseph keeled over awkwardly, blood oozing onto his grey waistcoat from the neat hole in his stomach. Cameron was quick on the draw but as he reloaded and fired a third time, a bullet from John shot him through the chest. The bullet from Cameron’s own gun had already left the chamber and, just as John registered his hit on Cameron, he was killed by Cameron’s last bullet.

The whole episode lasted a few seconds. As the walls rang to silence, the tendril smell of gunpowder crept around and out of the room. In the room, all five occupants lay dead. At that precise moment in time, no-one inside Kimble was alive.

 

 

Chapter 32

Outside, the boys’ meditative silence was broken.

“Is that gunfire?” asked Reilly.

No sooner had he asked than the firing stopped.

“Sounded like it,” said Fowler. He was keeping his voice low. “Maybe three shots. D’you think anyone else has been shot?

“I think there were more than three shots,” said Alan, sounding worried.

The boys slunk into the shrubbery behind them. They barely noticed the cobwebs on their faces or the waxy damp leaves on their necks. They stayed huddled and silent, listening for any other signs of activity inside the house.

“I wonder who shot who…it’s very quiet,” pointed out Alan once more. “D’you think anyone else is dead?”

They remained hidden in the bushes, afraid to step out and check for signs of movement from the house, unsure of what to do.

“We sit it out and wait,” implored Connor. “We’ve made it this far. The police can’t be far off.”

The police weren’t far off. Three squad cars and an unmarked saloon carrying two senior officers had met the two officers and Harrison. Giving directions from the back seat of the front squad car, Harrison led the convoy to the house.

The boys, cold, damp and hiding in the undergrowth, were ecstatic to see the tell-tale flash of blue lights illuminate between the trees. Their flickers briefly lit up the surrounding area in a strobing flash of electric blue, shadows distorting and bending grotesquely as the police cars sped, siren-free, towards the entrance to Kimble.

It took half a dozen officers to disable the locked gates through brute force and, as the cars swept towards the main door, the boys stepped out from the shrubbery. A blinding flashlight shone in their faces and a voice from behind it asked if they were safe. Connor stepped forward, hands open in front of him.

“We’re safe, yes, but we heard gunfire a little while ago from inside the house. There were about four or five shots. It’s been quiet since.”

A female officer and two older men wearing dark suits rather than uniforms came towards them with blankets and wrapped them around each of the boys’ shoulders. As they fussed over the boys, asking if they were hurt or had any injuries, telling them that everything was going to be OK and that their parents would be on their way, half a dozen police officers broke the door down and entered Kimble. Their job was just beginning.

 

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 24-27

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.

The Elements
by Craig McAllister
Chapters 24-27

 

Arkwright pressed a button on his dashboard and the huge metal gates of Kimble parted. Once through, they closed again to the outside world. The silver saloon crunched smoothly past the fountain and parked outside the large black storm doors that opened into Kimble. He and John and Joseph emerged from the car as one. The doors slammed shut at the same time and they marched in time to the steps leading to Kimble’s doors. Crunch crunch crunch. Arkwright looked the length and breadth of the building as he walked. Most of the lights were out, as they should be at this time, but one or two lit windows here and there suggested activity. Staff offices, the hospital, the management area; all bathed the shrubbery outside in shallow yellow and white light.

John was first at the door and it was his fingerprint that opened it. The three stepped inside and stood in the hallway. There was no sign here of any wrongdoing. Arkwright nodded to his companions and they followed him up the staircase. At the top they turned a sharp right and headed straight for their shared office, the soles of Arkwright’s Italian leather shoes echoing through the glossy white corridor. Only once inside did they speak.

“Joseph, get the monitors up and running, will you? And override the main function – I want to see and hear into every room until we find out what’s been going on.”

Joseph set to work and within a minute, four large TV screens on the wall mirrored what he had on his laptop. The three of them studied what they could see.

On the first screen, remote video cameras showed images from every corner in Kimble. Camera 17b was the most interesting. It was located in the small anteroom behind the meeting room. Joseph zoomed in. Even in black and white, it wasn’t difficult to make out the flickering pictures of the bloody mess that was still there.

On the second screen, the thermal imaging showed activity inside one of the contestant’s rooms. The image quickly changed back and forth, the thermal glow intermittently replaced by dark grey night vision, like that of a nature programme showing badger activity. The boys’ eyes – it was hard to make out how many were in there – were little white dots. Occasionally the dots would flash. A quick tap on the keyboard confirmed the room belonged to Fowler, number 2. Using the overridden microphone, they could hear voices – they had no idea which voice belonged to who, but they did recognise the American twang of Zimmerman. He was in the room with them. This puzzled them somewhat.

On the third screen, Camera 48 had picked up the presence of the man and Cameron in the hospital. They were each sitting on the edge of a bed, heads down and engrossed in their phones. The hidden microphone picked up no voices.

On the fourth screen, The Elements social media feeds scrolled past in real time. Every post – currently around 8,000 a minute, according to the digital clicker in the corner of the screen, related to horror and chaos and rumours of killing. The police were tagged into many of the posts, so it wouldn’t be long before they showed up. Parents too would at this very moment be speeding in cars on motorways to Kimble, most travelling south, a few from the east. Not that they’d find it easily, even if they were in the general area of Kimble within an hour or two. Arkwright, John and Joseph would worry about them when the time came.

“Gentlemen,” Arwkright spoke. “What is your take on all of this?”

John answered immediately.

“It looks to me as though our man and his apprentice have spooked the boys and their shrink into sharing a room for the night. And I reckon the spooking might be due to what Camera 17b is showing us. Not only that, but it seems the public knows about it too. In fact, it appears that they might know more about this than us!”

Joseph had no more to add.

“So who do we speak to first? The man or the boys?”

There followed a grumbling, animated debate until it was decided. They’d speak to the boys first.

 

 

 

Chapter 25

Zimmerman explained the man’s plan. The man, he said, had asked him to find them. He wanted to strike a deal – Financial, boys! Big money! – that would see everyone – Zimmerman included – complete The Elements with no more threat of death. Yes, the boys would still be eliminated after each round until only one remained, but no-one, he promised, would die. For this to work, though, there would need to be an understanding that none of them could ever tell the true version of what had happened here tonight.

There followed much discussion and toing and froing between the boys and Zimmerman. Why hadn’t the man come down here to tell them this himself, they asked? Why should they trust him? Did the man think they were all stupid?! The Elements was finished, as far as they could see, said Alan, so they should just sit it out here until the authorities arrived. Tell the man that you can’t find us or something.

In the middle of the debate, Zimmerman’s phone rang. The room fell silent as he answered.

“No…not yet. I think I’ve located some thermal activity in the dormitories though. Yes…the boys’ rooms…no, I haven’t pinpointed which one. It won’t take me long. Yes, I will call you as soon as I have them.”

“What’d you tell him that for?!” shouted Fowler. “They’ll be halfway here by now.”

Zimmerman spoke, but no-one was listening. Panic ensued, boys clattering into one another in the dark, some wanting to take their chances and run. Reilly and Alan hid in the bathroom. Harrison remained focused on the door.

“Boys,” spoke Zimmerman over the chaos. “BOYS! I have already stalled the man for 20 minutes. You are lucky he is not at the door already.” He waited until the room had calmed once more. “Whether you really want to or not, I will message him and tell him you wish to discuss his offer. I can say that I will take you all to him. This might buy us more time, but not a lot. In the meantime, assuming you do not want to go through with the man’s idea, we need to think of a plan.”

Just as Arty finished up, there was a loud knock on the door. The room froze.

 

 

 

Chapter 26

Arkwright, John and Joseph had headed straight for the boys’ dormitories. Arkwright suggested that he alone do all the talking. They’d reached the door and
Joseph had knocked loudly. Not waiting for a reaction, Arkwright stepped closer to the door and raised his voice.

“Professor Zimmerman. This is Arkwright. Please allow me to enter.”

At the mention of Arkwright’s name, Zimmerman’s mood instantly lightened. “Boys,” he whispered excitedly. “Mr Arkwright is the boss of all of this. He hates the man even more than I do. He’ll know exactly what to do!”

The professor replied.

“Mr Arkwright! I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Professor Zimmerman. May we come in, please?”

The professor whispered once more to the boys, convincing them that opening the door to Arkwright would be a safe thing to do. On the others’ say so, Fowler opened his door. The three men entered. One of them tapped some numbers into the keypad by the door and the room was once again illuminated in sterile lighting.

The boys blinked, squinted and looked at the three strangers who now made the room very cramped indeed.

“Professor Zimmerman,” nodded Arkwright. “Boys. My name is Wilbur Arkwright. I run Kimble Productions, the company responsible for The Elements show. I understand there’s been a bit of, eh, an issue this evening?”

Everyone spoke at once until Connor was delegated to do all the talking. Silence fell once more as he explained through tears how the events had unfolded, from the three nominations to Stephen being voted out first, then the talk from the man that explained that each of them would batter Stephen to death, to the boys and Stephen being taken in to the room with the baseball bats and the shooting of Burgess, then Grayson when they refused to participate, to the ritualistic clubbing to death of a boy by his friends, before the man telling them to leave. Explained in detail, it made for a horrific true story.

“Here’s what I propose we do,” said Arkwright after quiet deliberation. “John and Joseph here will find the man and his accomplice, that Cameron boy, and will see to it that they are properly dealt with. None of you should be here. It is not safe. I will open the doors of Kimble right now and allow you to leave. Go to your rooms, pack what you need and meet back in here as soon as you can.

 

 

 

Chapter 27

The six boys were gone no longer than a few minutes before they were all once again in Fowler’s room. Only Zimmerman and Arkwright remained, with John and Joseph presumably having gone to find the man and Cameron. With clothes and possessions quickly stuffed into either luggage or Elements backpacks, they stood expectantly, awaiting Arkwright’s instructions.

“Ready?” He looked at them individually until each acknowledged him in the affirmative. “Follow me then. Professor Zimmerman? Will you accompany the boys and myself?”

With Arkwright leading and Zimmerman at the rear, the group made their way quickly through the corridors and into the reception hall at the main front doors.

As they did this, Cameron and the man, fed up with Zimmerman’s stalling and half-baked attempts to locate the boys, were making their way from the hospital wing to the dormitory area. If the boys were here, all they had to do, the man reasoned, was check each room until they found them.

“This is where we bid farewell, boys,” said Arkwright with encouragement. “Go! Run! There is a village a few kilometres beyond the trees. It has a railway station. I suggest you board the first train that passes through and get yourselves to safety.”

With this, he pushed wide the doors and opened his arms.

“Go! While you still can!”

The boys looked at Arkwright. They looked at Zimmerman.

“Go, boys! Please! This is the safest way,” said Zimmerman, reinforcing Arkwright’s instructions.

As they left, walking, not running, confused rather than committed, Connor turned to speak to them. He had no words to say. ‘Thanks’ would have been the obvious thing, but this didn’t feel like a ‘thanks’ sort of situation. They were being abandoned, thrown out, left to fend for themselves. Surely there was a safe area inside Kimble where they could be kept until the police arrived?

Connor turned his back on the men and quickened his step to catch up with the others. As he did so, the heavy wooden doors of Kimble shut with a dull thud behind him.

“Guys, this isn’t right.” Connor addressed the boys with a confident voice. “They shouldn’t be throwing us out and asking us to run away. I say we sit here, on the steps, until the police get here.”

The boys’ conversation became animated and heated. No way was Harrison staying here, he said. He was heading straight for the train station. Reilly was concerned, quite rightly, with the man and Cameron. They would find them, he reasoned, and when they did, they’d kill them all. Escape was the best idea. Alan and Fowler sided with Connor. Staying here, outside the house, where there was plenty of woodland and shrubbery to hide in should they need to, was the best idea. The police would be here at some point, at which they’d be safe. Campbell reasoned that staying together as a group was a far better idea than everyone going off individually, a theory heartily agreed by Alan and Fowler. After discussing the pros and cons, only Harrison remained unconvinced.

“I’ll see you pussies somewhere down the road, then,” he said. He waited a second or two longer, perhaps to see if anyone might talk him out of leaving, or even join him, before turning on his heels and jogging off. He was swallowed up by the black of the night and quickly, even his gravelly footsteps faded to nothingness too. Harrison was gone.

The others looked around, identified an area in the shadows and regrouped there. It was only then that the enormity of everything that had happened began to take hold. Conversation ceased and each boy was left in his own thoughts. We’ve murdered someone, realised Connor with increasing horror. He broke down once more and quietly sobbed, the silence around him seeming to magnify each incoherent gasp.

 

(more to follow in the future)

 

 

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 20-23

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.

The Elements
by Craig McAllister
Chapters 20-23

 

The man and Cameron had removed the bodies of Burgess, Anderson and McPherson. They now lay in the morgue within the hospital wing of Kimble. Cameron busied himself on his tablet. The man sat on the edge of an undressed hospital bed and contemplated. How things would play out from here was still unclear. The man knew that by now, the boys would have used social media to alert the world to what had happened. He could still deactivate all their accounts with the touch of a button, but the damage had been done. It was just a matter of how quickly the authorities got here. Borrowing Cameron’s tablet, he deactivated their accounts anyway, partly because he could and partly because there was always a slim chance that the police would be tardy in showing up. He hadn’t finished with the others yet. He had to get to them before the authorities, or worse, the three grey men in grey suits. The man feared those old men more than anything else. His career in television was hanging by a precarious thread, but if he acted right, he might yet save it.

Did he need Cameron to help him? He’d certainly been useful when removing the bodies. And he might be useful later, if the room – the bloody scene of three senseless crimes – required sterilising. But he was so annoying, right there by his side all the time. He’d had loose intentions of moulding Cameron into a version of himself, but he’d quickly thought better of that idea. The boy was too trigger-happy, too eager to fire at will rather than treat each hunt as sport. And he wasn’t that great a marksman either. Truth be told, he was a bit of a liability, was Cameron. He would have to go.

The man needed to get the other boys back under his control. This whole event could be explained with a bit of collaboration and creative storytelling from the boys, he rationalised. If they all colluded, there was still a chance that the show might continue. Three eliminated contestants instead of one could be explained, he theorised, but that would require a story that they would all stick to. He could promise to make it up to the boys, maybe syphon off some of those Elements shares he had been given and pay the boys in cold, hard cash; silence money, bribery, whatever you chose to call it -he could buy both their silence and his future. He thought of Zimmerman. How he hated that man, but he did have a manner that the boys connected with. The professor might be the difference between getting the boys back on side or this whole thing imploding. He took satisfaction in dialling his number, knowing that Zimmerman was an early bedder, imaging the look on his face when the shambling professor saw the caller ID of who was calling.

 

 

Chapter 21

It was Alan who first realised his accounts had been deactivated and his service cut. One by one, all the boys realised that they were now disconnected from the world. The hope was that someone, somewhere had by now acted on their pleas.

“They know,” said Harrison. “They know we’ve sent messages, so they’ve killed our phones. They’ll be coming to get us right now.” Harrison stared into the dark, eyes trained on the inside of Fowler’s door. The others sat in silence, replaying the night’s events, praying that some sort of rescue operation was underway.

 

 

Chapter 22

Wilbur Arkwright quickly got dressed. He didn’t want to wake his sleeping wife, so he’d taken his grey three-piece suit out onto the freshly painted hall landing and was getting dressed there when his phone lit up for the second time. It was another message from Zimmerman. The psychologist’s first text had been straight to the point – he thought he should know that the man had flipped, that he and Cameron had been running around Kimble with guns and that some of the boys ‘might have been hurt’. The second message conveyed the news that there was a good chance that some of the boys were in fact dead, that the man wasn’t finished and that maybe he should get himself along to Kimble.

As he tightened his belt on his new made-to-measure suit trousers, he cursed himself for not terminating the man’s contract long before now. He’d easily been the best man for the job, but once he’d got to grips with its demands, his true personality began to take hold. At first, Wilbur and the others turned a blind eye. The show was generating more money than anyone had ever imagined, and, with a new house and two new cars to show for it, greed quickly got in the way of ethics.

Wilbur headed down the creaky stairs – ‘quaint’, the estate agent had called them, hoping that his wife would remain sleeping. In his kitchen he straightened his tie and set up a video call.

“John,” he said croakily. “Joseph. We have a problem.”

John and Joseph listened carefully as Wilbur outlined the situation as he knew it.

“I expect the police will be involved by this point,” he said. “Which is why we need to get down there before they do.”

Self-preservation made greedy people do irrational things. The simplest, most straightforward, most honest thing to do would have been to call the police themselves, give them the keys to Kimble and let them do their job. But being neither honest nor straightforward, this wasn’t quite what Wilbur, John and Joseph did.

 

 

 

Chapter 23

Zimmerman padded through the corridors from his sleeping quarters to his office. He locked the door behind himself and logged into his computer. Singing unselfconsciously, he found the application he was looking for, opened it up and, using the application’s thermal imaging capabilities, set about trying to locate the boys. It didn’t take long for him to find them, the bright orange and red glow emanating from one of the boys’ rooms giving them up. He made a mental note of the room number, logged off his computer and left his office, locking the door before heading to Fowler’s room.

As he walked, he messaged Arkwright.

How far away are you?

He then messaged the man.

I haven’t been able to find them, yet. Still working on it. Arty.

This would buy him time, but not a lot. The man was impatient at the best of times. His phone vibrated gently.

We’ll be there in 20 minutes. W.

Zimmerman returned a thumbs up emoji and continued on his way. His phone vibrated a second time. Seeing it was another text from the man, he chose to ignore it. Zimmerman busied his way through the softly lit corridors, crossed the middle figure-of-eight point and arrived at Fowler’s door.

He stood outside and listened. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought the room was empty. Zimmerman had a master key. It allowed him to access certain areas without anyone ever need knowing. He considered using it now but feared for what might await on the other side of the door. The boys were running scared. They were expecting the man and Cameron to show up at any time. They could be waiting behind the door to ambush anyone who might burst in. He didn’t fancy receiving a crack on the head from that boy Harrison.

Zimmerman knocked gently. Silence. He knocked again and spoke.

“Boys. It’s Arty Zimmerman. I’m here by myself. Can I come in?”

Shuffling and muffled voices could be heard. They spoke for a bit before answering.

“How do we know you’re alone?” spoke a voice. It was dull and far-off sounding from the other side of the thick door, but Zimmerman recognised it as Stewart’s.

“You must believe me, Connor Stewart.”

Silence.

Zimmerman spoke again.

“Give me your mobile number and I will call you on video. I can show you that no-one else is with me.”

More muffled voices. A pause. Then Connor spoke, giving Zimmerman his number. Asking him to repeat it, Zimmerman keyed the number directly into his phone and pressed the ‘video call’ option. His own sporadically whiskered face filled the screen. Connor, surrounded by the other boys, accepted the call. Zimmerman’s face now filled his screen. Connor spoke.

“Show your camera up and down the corridor, please, Professor Zimmerman.”

Zimmerman turned his phone one way and another, confirming that he was alone. The call was disconnected, more discussion took place between the boys and eventually, Fowler slid open the door.

Zimmerman stepped through, aware of Harrison holding a lamp above his head, ready to put it into action should he do anything sudden and unexpected. He raised his hands out in front of himself.

“Please, boys. I am on your side. I want to help you.”

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 12 (part 1)

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.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 12 (part 1)

 

Connor was awoken far too soon. Abruptly too.

The music of choice this morning was Ride of the Valkyries, Wagner’s barnstorming battle cry for heroic Viking warriors and, seemingly, teenage petty criminals whose sole aim for the coming day was to stay alive. As it built to a crescendo, Connor stretched an arm outside the blanket, yawned externally and laughed internally at whoever it was who chose the daily alarm music. They certainly had a sense of humour.

“Good morning, Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice with quiet calm. “You will be collected at 4.45am. Please be ready with your bag packed at that time.”

Dragging himself in and out of the shower, Connor dressed for the day ahead. He was midway through checking his social profiles, amazed to find that people were active on his pages even at this early time of day (although he shouldn’t have been, he realised later, as it was a normal time somewhere in the world) when the familiar rap on the door told him that Pamela was outside waiting on him.

He was greeted by her usual dynamite smile and a rare, whispered “Good morning!” A bleary-eyed Stephen stood slumped by her side, his backpack hanging awkwardly from one shoulder. He looked like he hadn’t slept more than a few hours. Connor nodded a brief, curt ‘hello’ to the pair of them and they walked in silence to collect Rhys. He answered promptly and was all go, backpack on and ready for whatever the day ahead might throw at him.

“Alright Connor? Alright Stephen? Y’ready for this?”

“I will be after I’ve eaten,” murmured Connor, his stomach making him keenly aware that it needed filling.

They sat at their table, the four of them for the final time. Despite the early hour, the food went down easily, the boys mindful of the possibility that this might be their last decent meal for a few days. As they ate and grunted and made occasional small talk, it became apparent to Connor that they were the only team in the dining room.

“Where’s everyone else?” he asked Pamela. The others looked up from their plates and looked around at the normally full tables.

“One team has left already,” explained Pamela. “The other isn’t up yet. You are all to leave at different times in different transport.”

This unexpected turn of events was processed in silence before the trio returned to their plates. Did this mean the first team to leave had a lead on the others already? Were the three boys here better placed than the team still asleep in bed? Who was the first team to leave? Connor began to wonder if he’d ever see some of these boys again. Grayson and Alan, the first two boys he spoke to on the train – separated by that creep Cameron, a voice in his head reminded him – might’ve become close friends under different circumstances. There was a strong social bond between all the boys, an unspoken ‘we’re in this together’ camaraderie that would be difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate. Ever since the others had kept the #wheresconnor trend from him, Connor had decided that it was going to be every man for himself, but by creating three opposing teams, the TV people had made this an easier decision than it might otherwise have been. In a game where only one team could win, former friends were now firm foes.

The boys were herded into a large 8-seater taxicab. It had no livery or logos to identify it as such, but that’s essentially what it was. The driver was a small balding man with hairy forearms and smelly underarms.

“Stick yer backpacks and what have ye in the spare seats there,” he said. “But leave some space for yer food parcel.”

As Connor and the other two pricked their ears at the mention of a food parcel, the man stepped out from the building to hand them a fourth rucksack, smaller than each of theirs but chunky and heavy looking all the same. Whose job would it be to carry that?

“Inside this pack is a selection of protein bars, multiple packets of freeze-dried food and all the implements you might need to cook in the open. There is a small gas canister. Matches too. None of you will starve, I hope. Also in the pack is an ordnance survey map. You may find it helpful should you lose your way. Before you leave, I want you to install the Elements Sat Nav app on your phone. It’s essential if you want to locate the flag before the other teams. Not only can it help you track your journey, it’ll help us to track you too. Should you require emergency assistance – if someone needs medical help, for example – tap the ‘Mayday’ button and help will duly arrive. Do not, under any circumstances, abuse this function.”

The man leaned in to show them the app on his own phone and suggested now was the best time to download it for themselves. As the boys waited for the app to download to their devices, the man continued his speech.

“When you arrive at your destination, Pamela will give you this envelope.” He held a large manila envelope up in the dawning light. “Open it, read the instructions carefully and from then on, you’ll be on your own. Good luck boys and may the best team win. I’ll hopefully see some or all of you in a few days’ time.”

The man turned on his heels and merged back into the shadows of Kimble. Connor wouldn’t miss him in a hurry, despite what may lie ahead.

The journey was long and strangely silent. Whether the driver and Pamela had been instructed not to talk to the boys, or perhaps it was due to the early hour, but none of the adults engaged in conversation. The boys made small talk amongst themselves before a mixture of tiredness and boredom took over. Connor tried to remain alert, to work out where they were going, what direction even they were travelling in, but eventually he too succumbed to tiredness and flopped half-asleep with his head rattling against the window.

When the car eventually pulled to a stop it was after half-past seven in the morning. They’d been travelling for over two hours and in that time the sky had lightened, the birds had risen and the still air was alive with birdsong. They were in a clearing, somewhere, surrounded by trees. Pine needles lay softly underfoot. It smelled fresh, clean and vibrant, a million miles away from the sterile and mainly windowless ambience of Kimble. The driver unloaded the bags from the cab, and they sat now in a large pile between the three boys. Pamela stood to the side, wrapping herself in a long woollen cardigan against the early morning chill.

“I must give you this,” she said, holding up the envelope that the man had given her back at Kimble. “Read it carefully and it should help you find the flag before the others. Even if you don’t get to it first, as long as you’re not last….”

She let her voice tail off and handed the envelope to Stephen.

“It’s been great to get to know you boys,” she said with a wry smile. “I’m gonna miss you, I really am. I’ll be following you three more closely than anyone else on your social channels and I really hope we get to meet again at some point. Good luck, Rhys…Stephen…Connor. See you somewhere down the road.”

The driver turned the ignition, Pamela got back in the cab and they drove off. The three boys and the four bags were now very much alone.

They sat on a clump of mossy, felled pine trees and looked around at their environment. Connor had no idea at all where they were. Birds chirped, trees creaked and apart from that, they sat in silence. It was Rhys who spoke first.

“We’ve still got a phone signal and some 4G, so that’s all good. We can’t be too far from civilisation. Shall we read what’s in the envelope?”

Stephen ripped it open, annoying Connor who’d have taken more care to do so properly. He pulled out a one-sided A3-sized aerial map. Unfolding it, he laid it as flat as he could on the bit of trunk he was sitting at and the three gathered around to look at it. On first glance, the map looked like every bit of generic ordnance survey map Connor had ever seen, which admittedly wasn’t all that much. It was mostly green with coniferous tree shapes printed on top, unsurprising given their surroundings. Contours and lines narrowed and widened at various points on the page, signifying steep hill climbs and shallow valleys. Veiny blue lines threaded their way through here and there, indicating little rivers and streams, so insignificant that that they were unnamed on the map. A couple of buildings, identifiable by brown squares, were dotted occasionally around the edge. The bulk of the area though was green. Half a dozen blue dots had been inked by someone on top and according to the addendum on the legend at the side of the map, these were hidden water stations. At the top right-hand corner was a hand-drawn red flag. This was their goal.

“Right. We know where we’re going then, but we need to find out where we are.” Rhys had taken charge of the situation and, for the moment, neither of the others minded. Rhys continued speaking, more to himself than the others.

“Grid co-ordinates…eastings 83796….uh-huh….northings 241389….”

He tapped into his phone, studied what he was looking at, looked back at the map and back to his phone again. He held his phone out in front of himself and turned slightly away from the others, who watched him closely. He continued muttering.

“We are here. Due north….is here…”

He leaned on the map and squinted at the legend in the corner.

“1:25 000 scale… righto. So, yes, that’s, let me see….” He placed his hand span across the map, diagonally from bottom to top. “…40-ish, 45 maybe miles.”

At this, Connor’s heart sank.

“Okay,” announced Rhys, holding the map up with both hands. “We are here!” He held a forefinger to the bottom left hand corner. “And the flag is here, obviously.” His forefinger travelled up the map to the drawing of the flag. “By my reckoning, the flag is about 45 miles away, maybe a bit less, in that direction.”

Rhys pointed towards the trees. There was no magic parting of the pines at Rhys’s announcement, no shaft of light from a friendly celestial finger, no heavenly choir to suggest confirmation. No discernible path showed at all.

“If we walk at a steady 3 miles per hour, allowing for rest and some sleep, we should reach our flag about this time tomorrow morning. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, I can’t see how we’re expected to be out here for two or three days.”

Neither Stephen nor Connor doubted Rhys’s calculations, but Connor was cautious.

“Remember what the man alluded to… unexpected things to keep us on our toes…medical assistance…creatures… – remember those guns at the climbing wall! I reckon you’re spot on with your calculations Rhys, but I think we need to expect the unexpected on our way.”

“Yeah, good point Connor. As long as we’re prepared though – whose backpack is full?”

The truth was, they all were. All three of the boys had packed extra clothes and bits and pieces ‘just in case’. They were well-prepared.

“We’ll need to split the food rucksack up between us, or maybe take turns at carrying it. What d’you think?”

Connor knew that his backpack was jammed full. He had little room. He had little desire to lug around a second pack either. Stephen spoke first.

“I’ve no room in my backpack. It’s totally full. I didn’t want to discover I needed something that I’d left back at Kimble. I know I’ve got too much stuff, but I don’t want to take anything out.”

“I’m the same, Stephen,” said Connor.

“Yeah. Me too,” said Rhys.

Stephen picked up the fourth bag and opened it. Unzipping the top and tearing aside a strip of Velcro, he began unpacking the supplies that the man had given to them that morning. The others watched in anticipation as each new item was pulled out.

“Dried pasta…three-pack of cereal bars….box of powdered cup a soups…vitamin supplements, whatever they are…tea bags…more pasta…noodles…air-dried bacon – eugh – more cereal bars…some more cup a soups…even more cereal bars.”

How tasty they’d be was up for debate afterwards, but there was enough sustenance to keep them on their feet until they reached the end. The hidden water stations were a welcome idea. At least if the food was rotten, they could stay hydrated. Stephen continued pulling items and announcing what each thing was, even though the others could see for themselves.

“Metal water bottle. And another. And another…..one each! A frying pan…pot…kettle…pack of three sporks…another map – this one’s much bigger, look – extra-long matches…5kg of propane gas…..jeez! No wonder this backpack is bulky. A toilet roll!”

Laid out flat on the bed of pine needles, it was a lot of stuff.

“Well, I think we should split it up,” said Rhys. “We all get a water bottle each and we take either the pot or the pan or the kettle. They’ll all hang below your rucksack, so they won’t even need packed. One of us can surely find some space for the gas canister. If we split the food up, we can shove it into the pockets of our trousers and jacket, wherever we can find space. The food will disappear as we walk anyway, so by the end of this we really should have only the cooking gear left.”

The boys busied themselves with dividing up the contents of the bag. Connor volunteered to take the gas canister, squashing it down the side netting of his rucksack so that it was easy to get to. When they’d finished, all three had extra items and heavier bags, but a little more team spirit. The mood was upbeat and light-hearted.

“Before we set off, I think we should consider our strategy.” Rhys was in charge again. Connor and Stephen hadn’t considered such a thing as a ‘strategy’. They were more than prepared to walk in the direction Rhys had identified and keep going until they were too thirsty or too hungry or too tired to continue.

“Looking at the map,” said Rhys, “there’s a water station nearby. We should fill our bottles before we leave.”

Rhys laid the map flat once more and the three peered at it. Connor was just getting to grips with what he was looking at when Rhys announced with certainty that the water was located to their left and got up, pointing towards a clump of bushes as he walked. Stephen and Connor followed behind, apprentices to their master and on his say-so, began pulling back branches and shrubbery and undergrowth in the hope they’d find something that looked like a water station.

“A-ha!” exclaimed Rhys. He was standing nearby, his foot keeping pressure on the undergrowth to stop it from springing back up. Peeking out between the brown and green of the forest floor was a large clear blue cylindrical tank. A white tap stuck out of it about three quarters of the way down, covered for the moment in clear shrink wrap. By the time the other two had got there, Rhys already had the plastic wrap off of the tap and was filling his metal water bottle. He stood aside, drinking, and let the others do likewise. When all three had filled their bottles, drank some then topped up once more, Connor covered the tank and the now-empty rucksack that had contained the food with the surrounding shrubbery, hiding it from who exactly he didn’t know, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

They sat back on the same logs as before. Stephen pulled a cereal bar from his pocket and began to eat. Connor was about to tell him not to waste the food so quickly until he saw Rhys open a bar too.

As Connor unwrapped his own bar, Rhys led the discussion.

“We need to decide if we want to walk until we drop then sleep for a bit before carrying on, or whether we walk for, say three hours at a time then have a twenty or thirty minute break before continuing again. We have no idea where the other two teams are in relation to us. I’d imagine though that the flag is in the centre of a very large circle and while we walk north, one team will be travelling south and the other approaches from the east or west. We could try and second-guess how those teams will travel and aim to beat them that way, but I think we need to come up with a clear idea of our own, right now, and stick with it no matter what happens.”

He looked keenly at his teammates.

“Any thoughts?”

“I don’t think I could walk all day without the chance to sleep later,” said Stephen.

“But the opportunity to sleep for as long as you want will come at the end,” said Connor. “We’re all fit here, the three of us. We’re all able to keep at it for a long time before fatigue sets in. I reckon we walk for a few hours then stop for a bit and keep doing that until we arrive at the flag.”

“I could walk for hours,” answered Stephen, “but I’d still need somewhere to sleep at the end of it.”

“There might not be anywhere to sleep though,” pointed out Rhys. “Where we are just now is fine – it’d make a nice camp for the night, but we don’t know what lies ahead. The map suggests more of the same, but we won’t really know.”

The conversation between the three continued, with the various merits of walking and resting versus a long walk and an ample sleep debated. In the end they compromised. They’d aim to walk until 3pm with minimal rest. If Rhys’s sums were right, they’d have travelled the best part of 20 miles by then – about half the distance. At that point they’d make a collective decision on whether to have a decent recharging rest or whether to press on.

Somewhere, in a room far, far away that the boys would never know about, the man sat wearing over-sized headphones and listened intently to everything the boys said. He had no visuals, but the wizardry that the lab boffins had managed to embed in the Elements Sat Nav app meant that, so long as there was a phone signal, he could listen in to any boy via their mobile phone. The boy Campbell stood out for him. He had all the makings of a very good leader. He’d be keeping a close eye – or ear – on him over the duration of this first event.

With their strategy in place, the boys took a few minutes to update their social media feeds. Stephen filmed the scene and added a mock commentary of the situation. Rhys jabbed silently at his screen. Connor placed his phone on a trunk and the three got together, huddled close gangsta style and hammed it up for the camera. Adding some text and a couple of hashtags, Connor tagged in his teammates before sending the picture out and into many thousands of followers’ phones. As the first hundred or so responses bounced back to him, the boys were already walking in the direction Rhys had pointed out a short while ago. Their journey, their participation proper in the first Elements event, had begun.

Initially, the walk was fun. Spirits were high, the terrain underfoot springy and carpet-like. Little streams ran here and there. Bubbling water and loudly chirping blackbirds and bullfinches sound-tracked their trip, punctuated by a hearty laugh or the occasional echoing snap of a twig as it broke underneath the Elements-issued walking boots. They made good progress. The weather was mild enough that all of them at various points removed their jacket to tie around their waists. After just over a couple of hour’s-worth of solid walking they had travelled almost six and a half miles. Rhys seemed satisfied with this progress and encouraged his teammates to maintain this effort. A little later, they arrived at a clearing in the trees. To their left, a silvery stream burst between the pines and gurgled its way downhill. Hills and fells ran across the horizon in the gap between the trees. Rhys stopped to check the sat nav on his phone, comparing what was on the screen with what was on the annotated map.

“This is where we start to climb, boys,” he said. “Going by the maps, I reckon we’ll be going up and over those hills that’re through the trees.”

“Those aren’t hills,” complained Stephen. “They’re mountains!”

“Let’s take a break here,” suggested Connor, and without waiting for approval, sat himself down on the bank of the stream. The others joined him, removing their backpacks. Connor tapped on his phone.

“I wonder where the other teams are.”

He scrolled through Grayson’s social feeds. There were plenty of pictures of him with the rest of his team, hanging from trees, goofing around next to a water canister the same as the one they’d uncovered where they’d been dropped off, drinking open-handed from a stream before splashing whoever was filming him. It didn’t look as though Grayson and his team were taking things very seriously. Nor did the others. You could be forgiven for thinking that, with his threatening haircut and tight-fitting camouflage, Harrison was the most-likely to succeed out here. He had posted multiple selfies, no team shots, of him in the forest, a determined look on his face and plenty of cliched statements accompanying each shot. Reilly and Alan though had uploaded some short video clips of Harrison holding the map and arguing with himself over which direction they should be heading in. His two team-mates stifled off-camera laughs as it focused on the edges of the map flapping in the wind. They’d turned one of the video clips into a meme with ‘He’s holding it upside down!’ written across the bottom in large white lettering. It had been liked and shared thousands of times. Connor was confident that his team was the most focused of the three. Rhys, who’d been looking through the socials on his phone, suddenly spoke.

“Location services! Turn them off!”

The others looked at him, confused.

“Have you taken any pictures here?”

“Just one, of the river there,” said Stephen.

“Let me see it, give it to me, quick!” said Rhys.

Stephen handed him his phone with a puzzled look. Rhys took it and found the most-recent photo in Stephen’s camera roll. When he clicked on it, a series of co-ordinates showed where the photograph had been taken.

“Have you put this on your feed?”

“Not yet,” said Stephen, “but I was going to.”

“Well don’t!”

Connor, who’d been watching and listening carefully, was trying to work out what this was all about. As it started to make sense, Rhys explained.

“The others can work out where we are by checking our social feeds. If we have location services turned on, they can track us every time we post an image. Look!”

He pulled up one of Grayson’s photos, tapped a couple of times and the co-ordinates popped up on the screen.

“If I check the map, we should be able to work out where that photo was taken.”

Stephen produced the map and the three huddled around it. Even though he suspected Stephen would have no idea either, Connor didn’t know what he was looking for, but he wasn’t going to admit that to the other two. Rhys was proving to be an indispensable leader. Rhys traced his fingers around the edge, looking at the numbers that ran along both axes. He looked back at Grayson’s image on his phone, double-checking the co-ordinates.

“Those co-ordinates aren’t on this map. Where’s the bigger one?”

Connor raked through the inside pocket of his backpack and pulled the large ordnance survey map from it. Opening it fully on the ground, Stephen placed each of their backpacks on a corner. Connor kneeled on the fourth corner to stop the map from flapping about and Rhys leaned over his shoulder, looking for the co-ordinates that would give up Grayson’s team’s position. It didn’t take him long to locate them.

“They’re around here,” he said assuredly, his forefinger circling an area of the map on the right. “And we are here.” He placed his other forefinger on a totally different section of the map, near to where Connor’s knee was. “We’re travelling north from the south. It looks as though Grayson’s team are travelling west from east. The red flag is here…look.” Rhys pulled the smaller map on top of the bigger map and pointed out the identical features.  “So, Grayson’s team started way over here….” He pointed to the small map again, but far to the right of it, onto the ground. “When was that photo uploaded to Olé?”

“9 am,” confirmed Connor.

Rhys checked the time on his phone.

“And it’s now nearly 11 o’clock. If they’ve not stopped walking, they’ll maybe be as far as here now.”

Rhys moved his forefinger along the map showing how much further the other team might have travelled. It was clear to see that, although there was a long way still to go, Grayson’s team was closer to the flag than they were. Rhys looked up at his team-mates.

“What about Harrison’s team? Can we find the most recent upload from them? Hopefully we can take the co-ordinates from that too.”

The three of them busied themselves with finding something, anything, that might give Harrison’s team’s location away. It was Stephen who came up trumps.

“Reilly updated his feed twenty minutes ago. Check out the picture of him and Alan on the big boulder at the edge of the trees.”

Photo found, Rhys pulled the co-ordinates from it and cross-referenced them with the large map. It was he again who pinpointed the location of the photo. He pointed to the top left of the map showing where it had been taken, drawing an invisible line to the flag.

“I reckon they’re about the same distance from the flag as us.”

“How come Grayson’s team is closer when they’ve been mucking about? And how come Harrison’s team are about the same distance away as us when none of them can read a map?” Stephen’s question was a fair one.

“I dunno,” admitted Rhys. “But I think if we were all dropped off at different times, it’s logical to assume we were all dropped at a slightly different distance from the flag by way of compensation. That way, when the last team was dropped off, they were the same distance to the flag as the first team dropped off was, even although the first team had been walking for maybe an hour already.”

It was a plausible theory and probably the best they could go on for now.

“But turn of your location services. That way, we can still upload pictures, but no-one will be able to work out where they were taken from. If we can keep checking the others’ photos, we may have an edge over them.”

Rhys began tapping at his phone again, closely followed by the other two.

Somewhere far away in a room at Kimble that the boys would never know about, the man spoke to Cameron.

“This boy Campbell has excellent leadership qualities. Let’s put them to the test, Cameron, shall we?”

Oblivious to the notion that their phones might be tapped in some way, the boys marched on through the trees and into the hills. Somewhere back at Kimble, Cameron was packing a jeep with exactly the sort of equipment designed to put the very best leaders under the most intense pressure.

The boys, under Rhys’s direction had agreed that they’d walk for a further two hours and then check their rivals’ social feeds. If they had gained distance on Harrison’s group and closed the gap on Grayson’s, they’d maybe stop for a longer rest, dependant on how wide or narrow the gaps were. As they approached the fens, the trees began to thin out. As did their cover and, with the wind whipping up a cold breeze, each of the boys untied their jacket and put it on. It was amazing just how quickly the weather could turn. It had been close, balmy even, under the canopy of the pines. Out on the exposed moorland it was unseasonally cold. There was nowhere to shelter here, nowhere to take cover and so the boys ploughed on. The walk had become less of a novelty now and aches and pains were beginning to make themselves known. Stephen complained of a sore back. Connor internalised his grief, but these new boots had started to rub on his heel and pinky toe. He was looking forward to getting them off, giving his feet a good scratch and readjust his socks to help ease the discomfort.

The shape of the boys’ travel had changed too. Where they had been together and three abreast, now they were a thin, fragile line, stretched out over 100 metres or more with Rhys ahead at the front, Connor somewhere in the middle and Stephen way at the back. Connor wanted to slow down, to let Stephen catch up, but he knew Rhys wouldn’t, and he didn’t want to risk losing sight of their leader as he led them over the fens to whatever waited on the other side. This stretch for the most part was tortuous. The wind howled into their faces. Despite the sunshine it was freezing cold. At points, the solid ground gave way to a peaty, marshy bog and they found themselves sludging ankle deep through goo for parts of the way. By the time they’d negotiated the uneven terrain, Rhys had stretched further ahead of the others and Stephen had clearly slowed down. By the time Rhys had reached the top of the fens, Stephen was perhaps a kilometre behind him. When Connor arrived at Rhys, Rhys was sheltering against a huge volcanic rock, his back to the wind and his eyes looking towards what was still to be conquered. Stretching below them was thick gorse bush and shale, not the easiest of terrains to negotiate from the top of a hill. Beyond the gorse and shale was another pine forest, dark and foreboding, but welcome shelter from the exposed moorland they’d soon be leaving behind. As they waited for Stephen, they calculated they’d walked in excess of 12 miles in total. The small map was with Stephen. The large map would have blown away in the wind, so until they were back in the lowlands with shelter from the elements, they couldn’t be more exact. There was no phone signal here either, so none of the others’ positions could be worked out.

“The sooner we’re back down there,” pointed Rhys to the pine forest below, “the better. We’ll check on the others, work out our own progress and decide if we can afford a rest or not. I’m thinking that Stephen might have slowed us down a bit.”

The pair looked back down the hillside and watched as their team-mate slowly zig-zagged his way up the hillside towards them, a dot becoming a matchstick person and finally a full-sized Stephen. As he approached, they stood up and adjusted their backpacks.

“Aw man!” I need a rest, said a clearly knackered Stephen.

“Five minutes then, mate,” agreed Rhys. “It’s all downhill from here.”

Gratefully, Stephen sat down and leaned against the large rock, still wearing his backpack.

“My back’s killing me. My feet too. These boots aren’t the comfiest.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a nutri-bar, washing it down with a slug from his water bottle.

“I’ll need to refill soon too,” he said, tapping his fingertips against the metallic side of the bottle. “Not got much left.”

“Yeah, I’ll need to refill as well,” acknowledged Rhys. “When we get down to the trees there, we’ll get the maps out and locate the nearest water station.”

The boys, together again, cautiously made their way down the side of the hill. The shale made it very slippery underfoot and each of them at one point or another had to grab a hold of jaggy gorse bush to stop themselves careering down the hillside. They stopped several times, both to catch their breath and ease the adrenalin that would rush each time they wrongfooted. Unscathed but not unnerved, they made it to the bottom.

The welcome underfoot carpet of fallen pine needles told them they were on the outskirts of the forest again. The light darkened, the wind dissipated, and it immediately felt more tranquil and sheltered. They walked on, eager to find a suitable spot where they could stop and pinpoint water and see where they stood in what was a very different sort of race. Were they first? Were they last? Were they somewhere in the middle, gaining on the leaders or being caught up by those in last place? No one knew. All were desperate for a proper rest. They’d agreed on 3 o’clock, but that was before they knew they’d be traversing fells in high wind and unpleasant conditions. None of the three wanted to suggest breaking for a while here and now, but all three thought it. Connor checked his phone as he followed Rhys’s lead. Grayson, Fowler and Burgess all had pictures up of them cooking around the small gas canister. He checked Alan’s feed. There was a picture of him eating a metal bowl of something, the words ‘At last! Foooooood!’ below.

“Guys. Going by their latest pictures, it looks as though both of the other teams have eaten. I say we stop soon and rest for a bit.” Being the diplomatic sort he added, “I think we could all do with a good rest and something warm to eat.”

“Amen, brother!” shouted Stephen in response.

Rhys didn’t need much convincing either and so, as they walked, they kept their eyes peeled for an ideal spot where they could rest. They didn’t need to walk for long. The happy sound of a running stream and a small clearing on its bank made for a makeshift camp. Rhys took immediate control.

“Stephen, you get the cooking stuff up and running. Connor, you get the food. I’m going to check the maps and see where the nearest water station is. When we’re eating, we’ll try and work out where the others are.”

Without waiting for an answer, Rhys emptied a handful of foodstuff from his pockets to the ground before busying himself with the two maps and his phone, cross-checking as he went. Stephen and Connor added some of their food to the pile then untied the pot, pan and kettle from the three rucksacks and got things going with the propane gas. They used the last of their water to boil up some tea and some chicken-flavoured noodles, pouring three milkless and sugarless teas into dull metal cups and emptying the contents of the pan into three small metal containers.

“We’re here,” said Rhys between sporked mouthfuls of noodles. The noodles, if that’s what they were, weren’t the best but they were warm and welcome and quickly washed down by the bitter tea. “We’ve walked roughly sixteen miles, maybe just a wee bit more. We’re more than a third of the way there.”

Rhys let that fact hang in the air for a bit. He might’ve said ‘only’ a third of the way there, but thinking back to Professor Zimmerman’s class, he was mindful of the positivity that the power of carefully chosen words can have in a difficult situation.

“We’ve walked almost non-stop for about six hours. In a couple of hours from now, we’ll be halfway there. That’s not bad going at all.”

Taking a black marker from his pocket, he drew a snaking line from where Pamela and the driver had left them that morning, leaving an inky splodge on the part of the map where they were just now. The others looked at the distance travelled….and the distance still to go. Framed as Rhys had done, it didn’t seem so bad, but there was a sizeable distance ahead of them. If they walked continually as they’d been doing, they’d get to the flag sometime in the middle of the night. They couldn’t sustain that though, all three of them knew within themselves that this was an impossibility. At some point they’d need to stop and get some sleep. The halfway mark seemed like the logical choice.

“Let’s see if we can work out where the others are.”

“Already done it,” said Stephen, pulling up an image on his phone. “This is Harrison ten minutes ago. It was taken at 845369 and 257033.”

Connor watched as Rhys’s fingers ran along both axes of the large map before meeting at a point somewhere in the middle.

“It’s hard to say for certain, but I’d say they’re a good bit further away from the flag than we are. I think we might have stretched further ahead of them. What d’you think?”

“We should’ve marked where they were the last time we checked,” said Connor ruefully.

“Already done it!” said Stephen again. He pulled up the ‘Foooood!’ image that Alan had posted. It had the same coordinates as Harrison’s photo. He then found the video clip of Harrison holding the map upside down and read out the co-ordinates to Rhys. He traced his fingers back along the map.

“So, since the upside-down map clip, that team has walked only three or so miles to where that latest picture of Harrison is. They’re going much slower than us. That’s good!”

Stephen busied himself with his phone again before holding it up to show a picture of Grayson.

“This was Grayson splashing in the river.” He read out the coordinates and waited for Rhys to mark them on the map. “And this is Grayson 20 minutes ago, eating his lunch at the camp.” Rhys traced the co-ordinates and marked a new spot along the same trajectory.

Connor, feeling that he wasn’t contributing enough to the team, searched quickly for a recent picture of somebody, anybody from one of the other teams. He found what he was looking for and shared it.

“Here’s a clip from 2 minutes ago!” he shouted, far louder than he should have. In the clip, Burgess and Fowler were knee-deep in a narrow stream, each kicking water at the other, their trousers rolled up to their thighs. Off-camera, Grayson’s voice could be heard laughing and encouraging them for the benefit of the camera. “This is happening right now!” He read the coordinates and Rhys verified that the clip was taken at the same spot where Grayson’s team had stopped for lunch. They’d been stationary for at least 20 minutes, and probably longer.

“I reckon we’re gaining on them, what d’you thinkl?” asked Rhys. He’d marked Grayson’s team’s first known position and their current known position, showing a narrower gap between the two points than the gap between their own plotted locations.

There was a decision to be made; eat up and move on, hoping to close the gap with every step or rest for a bit and regain some much-needed strength. Connor made a suggestion.

“I reckon we take another ten minutes or so here. Locate fresh water. Maybe ease our feet – I’d love to dip mine in the stream there – and aim to walk until four in the afternoon. At that point we reassess our position.”

Stephen wasn’t so keen, but Rhys was, so the majority vote meant that they’d be packing up and moving out shortly. While Rhys set about locating the closest water station, Stephen and Connor packed up the cooking gear, washing the sticky pot in the running stream as best they could. While at the stream Connor took the opportunity to dip his feet in the cold water. It felt good to feel the water clean between his toes. He scratched the soles of his feet by rubbing them back and forth across the gravelly riverbed. Once satisfied, he dried his feet on the grassy riverbank and wiped off the excess water with the outside of his sock before putting his socks and boots back on again. Just this small act made his feet feel cleaner and healthier and ready for the next two hours of walking. Rhys pointed ahead and slightly to the right.

“We need to head this way. There should be a water station ten or so minutes from here.”

The boys looked in the direction of where he was pointing. Stephen sighed then led the way.

They found the water station easily. Rhys had proven to be an excellent map reader, an invaluable leader for the team. As they drank and refilled their bottles, an hour or less away sped a jeep. Inside was the man and Cameron. They aimed to be at the midway point well before Connor, Rhys and Stephen.

The boys walked on; through the forest, pine-fresh and silent, following narrow paths where possible, making their own when they needed to, crossing little streams either by leaping from one side to the other or navigating across natural stepping stones if the stream was too wide. Jackets were tied back around waists, conversation was minimal, the focus very much on marching through the miles. Endless trees loomed on the horizon, then brushed past their shoulders before slipping behind as the boys continued their determined push. At one point, their sat nav led them across a main road that split the forest in two. There were no cars on the road and tempted as they had been by Stephen’s suggestion that they hung about to hitch a lift if it could get them any closer and quicker to the flag, they crossed over and entered the next section of forest. Had they waited a quarter of an hour, they’d have seen the jeep carrying the man and Cameron speed past on its way to its intended location, a mile or two up the road.

By four in the afternoon, the boys were extremely tired. A combination of backpacks, bumpy ground and breaking in boots had take its toll. They were all desperate to rest for a reasonable length of time and dropped as one as soon as Rhys suggested they do so. Connor lay back on the bed of pine needles, backpack acting as a pillow, and watched contentedly as a dozen or so crows wheeled high in the air above the canopy of the trees. He had closed his eyes and must have fallen asleep, for he was brought back to the here and now by Stephen’s voice.

“Has anyone checked where the others are now?”

Grudgingly, Connor rolled over and up. Stephen dug into Connor’s backpack, returning with the big map. Rhys and Stephen were busily tapping on their phones, comparing social media posts for the most-recent ones they could find. All three teams had been on the move, but it did look as though the team of Rhys and Stephen and Connor was maybe ahead. It was hard to tell, given that the three teams were approaching the flag from different angles, with different obstacles behind and still ahead of them, but it was encouraging all the same.

“Let’s take a decent break here,” suggested Rhys, to absolutely no objections.

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 8

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.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 8

 

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.

George spoke.

“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.

“WOT?!?”

“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?”

Silence again.

“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.

“Your turn!”

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.

“Nine!

Eight!

Seven!”

Fowler beside him had reached the top and was now half-way over. George spoke to Grayson.

“It’s you next, man. Come on!”

“Six!

Five!

Four!”

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.

“Three!

Two!

One!”

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

Thud!

Making progress. The top of the

Thud! Thud!

wall was almost within reach. One more

Thud! Thud!

push and he’d

Thud!

be there.

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.

Thud!

Another bullet. Not close, but a reminder that he was being shot at.

Thud!

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.

“That’s it!”

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.

Thud! Thud!

With an extreme burst of lethargy, Alan found himself at the top of the wall, its lip standing between him and failure.

Thud!

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.”

Fowler spoke.

“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.

Thud! Thud!

Thud!

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.

“Adjust…or fail.”

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?”

“No.”

“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)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 6

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.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 6

 

Connor kicked off his Converse at the heels and heard them fall to the floor. He instinctively pulled his phone from his front left pocket and impatiently waited as it came back to life. When it did, he got the shock of his life. A never-ending sequence of pings and vibrations announced that he had literally thousands of notifications. The Babble app showed ‘50000+’ next to it! Olé had even more! ‘The Elements’ app announced 122378 notifications. Connor checked the numbers closely. Over fifty thousand Babble notifications! That was insane. On a good day he might miss 1 or 2. If his phone was off between classes at school, maybe 20 or so. Never fifty thousand. He’d never even used Olé until now but suddenly he was trending on it! And ‘The Elements’ app, the TV show’s own social media platform showed that he’d missed over a hundred thousand interactions with, well, with who exactly?

Connor opened up ‘The Elements’ app first. The screen on his phone was split in two. On the left-hand side, a series of pictures, text and hashtags could be scrolled through. On the right-hand side were the personal messages that only he could see. He read, flitting between the two sides of the screen.

Connor tapped the ‘Reply?’ option, fired in a quick “Hi!” and replied. His text zoomed off and out into the ether. He scrolled on.

Connor swept the screen. Text after text rapidly sped upwards, swipe after swipe after swipe after swipe.

There were more.

They went on and on and on.

Connor couldn’t possibly read all of them. There was no way on earth he could reply to them all. He regretted sending that one reply. ‘If I don’t reply personally, will they follow someone else? Will I end up getting knocked out?’ It was a dilemma.

Connor scrolled through the pictures on the other side of the screen. The most-recent had been taken just a few minutes before; the press room emptying, the Japanese journalist and his translator standing smiling for the photographer, Steve de la Cruz caught off guard, the boys being ushered out of the room, the boys standing up from the table, boys 5, 6 and 7 – Alan, he’d almost forgotten about him! – seated at the table.

Swipe.

A picture of a cameraman. The man standing with his arms outstretched, de la Cruz by his side. A panoramic view of all 9 boys at the table. Rhys speaking. Fowler speaking. Pamela and the other two girls in huddled conversation. A head shot of Grayson.

Swipe, swipe.

A different head shot of Grayson. The man again, speaking. A female journalist standing with a microphone. Two production assistants with clipboards. Stephen’s spiky hair. Connor beside Grayson. Connor himself. De la Cruz dazzling everyone with his smile. A bird’s eye view of the room. Another pictu…

A ping.

Message from @soccermomNYC’ appeared across the middle of the screen. Connor’s heart sank. His text had gone, reached the recipient and now they were replying.

He thought for a moment and opened the message.

What now? Did he reply? Did he ignore? He had a decision to make.

He didn’t reply. Instead, Connor tapped the pencil icon in the top right of his screen, opening the ‘Get It Out There Now!’ field at the bottom.

He added a #elements at the end and sent it off.

Feeling a bit foolish, he looked around his room for where there might be a hidden camera. Settling on the light fitting in the middle of his ceiling, Connor looked, smiled and waved. He gave a double thumbs up, felt embarrassed and returned to his phone.

A series of ever-increasing red love hearts flashed rapidly across his screen. Connor swiped to the top of his feed. A fresh batch of messages were waiting for him.

On and on they went, screen after screen of those little yellow waving hands. The sinking feeling returned once more.

‘They’re watching me right now. Right now!’ Connor wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. ‘The bathroom,’ he surmised. ‘Surely they don’t film in the bathroom.’ Connor swung off the side of the bed, phone in hand, and closed the bathroom door behind him. There was no lock, or he would have locked the door too. He sat on the lid of the toilet and let out a long, low sigh.

A lot had happened in the few hours since breakfast. And now this social media overload. He hadn’t even, he realised with growing anxiety, opened the other two apps. He hesitated then opened Olé first. He was met by a stream of pictures, all of him, take by goodness knows who. The press conference in close up. The press conference far off. Black and white. Filtered colours. Wearing his ‘night’ jacket. Holding up his fireproof layer, a blurry Pamela in the background. There were around 30 or so. Every picture had thousands of comments and emojis underneath it, the content mirroring the comments on ‘The Elements’ app.

Babble was the same. A nightmare vision of complete strangers being friendly attached to hashtags, emojis, gifs and video clips. Comment after comment after comment.

Connor placed his phone next to the fresh towels – when did they appear?! – on the marble counter and sat, letting everything sink in.

“Can you dim the lights, please?” he asked aloud. He fancied gathering his thoughts in darkness for a bit. He’d yet to acknowledge the unseen voice that welcomed him in that slightly emotionless way each time he came ‘home’ but given there were no light switches he could manipulate himself, he had no option.

“Certainly, Connor Stewart. Dimming lights now. Say ‘stop’ when I reach the desired level.”

“Stop,” commanded Connor as the room fell into a fuzzy grey twilight. He sat for a bit, contemplating. Then it came to him. This woman, this voice, might be able to help him.

“Hello?” he said again.

“Hello Connor Stewart,” it replied.

“Can you tell me if there are any cameras filming me in here?”

“For dignity and privacy reasons, there are no cameras in the bathroom, Connor Stewart.”

That was a relief.

Then it came to him again.

“Are you able to turn off the camera in my room?”

“Certainly, Connor Stewart. Which camera would you like me to deauthorise?”

“Eh….the one in the light fitting above my bed, thanks,” said Connor. “And all the other cameras too, thank you.” And as an afterthought he added, “And any microphones as well, thanks.”

“Deauthorising camera 1 and mic 1 now. Deauthorising camera 2 and mic 2 now.  Deauthorising camera 3 and mic 3 now. Deauthorising camera 4 and mic 4 now.”

The voice said this eight times in total. There were no tiny clicks or whirrs or whines to suggest anything had been turned off, but then, he rationalised, there was nothing to suggest they were there in the first place. Connor would have to trust the voice.

He had an idea. He entered his room again and bravely stuck two fingers up to the light fitting. He flicked them angrily several times. He checked his phone. His actions had been met with silence. No one had seen him.

He went to the mirror and waggled his bum.

He picked his nose at the dressing table.

He shouted a loud “Rarrrrgh!”

He did a bad moonwalk across the floor.

No one had commented on any of his actions. Satisfied that both the cameras and mics in his room had been disabled, he lay back on top of his bed. He was going to have to keep on his toes at all times here.

 

———-

 

It was Stephen who spoke first. Pamela had arrived and they were going for Rhys. There was to be a press debriefing, whatever that might mean, and lunch.

“Man! I’ve got thousands of followers! See that Babble app?! They’re sending me messages, tagging me into things, they’ve got pictures of me and everything! Some of the comments I can’t even read cos they’re in a foreign language!”

Stephen gesticulated wildly with his arms. Connor nodded enthusiastically and grinned.

“Me too! I’ve got like over a hundred thousand followers on the ‘Elements’ app! What’s that all about?!”

Pamela, for the first time, didn’t need to kick-start the conversation.

“Me too! And I’ve got my own hashtag too,” continued Stephen. “hasthtag le gingembre. I Googled it – it means I’ve got ginger hair! Obviously!”

Rhys joined them.

“Rhys! Rhys! What about you? Have you been online?”

Rhys could barely contain himself.

“It’s totally insane. I switched on my phone and I’ve got, like, TWENTY! THOUSAND! FOLLOWERS! on that ‘Elements’ app….people commenting, messaging me. Have you seen the pictures on Olé? They’re right up to date. We’re on camera, like, all the time!”

Rhys followed on behind Pamela as Connor and Stephen exchanged unspoken glances. Rhys was well behind in the popularity stakes and the pair of them took security in this. They arrived at their usual table and sat. The other groups were at their tables. A chef was talking to the boys at one of them. Connor scanned the room but could see no sign of the man or Cameron. The large screen was showing silent footage of the press conference from earlier, a reminder that this was TV and not some modern-day reformation centre for wayward boys. The thrum in the room was palpable, every boy eager to share his new-found discovery of his popularity on social media. The noise reminded Connor less of the atmosphere in the room at breakfast time and more like the echoing hum of the school dinner hall.

The chef arrived and the boys and Pamela ordered. She lifted the pitcher from the centre of the table and poured four glasses of water. The chat continued between the three boys.

“I got a message from some guy in Canada,” said Rhys excitedly. “Told me I was doing this for science geeks everywhere!”

“I got one from a girl in Bordeaux, asking how I kept my hair so spiky!” said Stephen. “I sent her a picture of that Solid Rock gel that I use.”

“Did you reply to all your messages?” asked Connor, looking back and forth at the others.

“God, no!” snorted Stephen. “I’d have been there all week doing that! I just replied to some of the girls!”

“I tried to,” answered Rhys, “but there were far too many. Did you?”

Connor wanted to tell him that he had. He wanted the others to think that they’d made a mistake by not, but he also wanted them to know how popular he seemed to be, that he’d had hundreds upon hundreds of messages too.

“Nah. No chance. I posted a message to thank everyone for their support. That was far easier than replying to everyone individually. There’s no way you can reply to them all.”

“I never thought of that,” said Stephen. “I’m gonna write a message like that right now!”

As he pulled out his phone, Pamela, so far anonymous, cut in.

“No phones at the table, please, Stephen. If anyone sees you with that here it won’t just be you who gets it, it’ll be me too. Now, put it away!”

Chastised and ashamed, Stephen put his phone back in his pocket. He made a mental note to post a message like Connor’s the first chance he had.

The chef arrived and the four at the table ate in relative silence. As they were finishing off their fruit, the man and Cameron made themselves known.

“Boys! May I have your attention please? Thank you.”

He waited as the room fell quickly silent.

“After lunch I’d like to have a short press conference debriefing with you. A few notes, a few pointers on how to carry one’s self in that environment. Afterwards there’ll be the opportunity to have a quick haircut, a quick tidy up, before the official photoshoot. I’ll explain more about that though after our press conference debriefing. Shall we meet in the press room in say,” he checked his watch, “fifteen minutes? That should give you time to freshen up before our afternoon sessions. Mr Harrison, number three…….” The man waited until he had Harrison’s absolute attention. “Would you be so kind as to wait behind for a minute or two? Thank you.”

The noise in the room picked up again. All boys got back to chatting about their popularity on social media, about how good they looked in the pictures that had made it from the press conference and onto the internet and what messages of support they’d had from complete strangers in all corners of the world. All, that was, except for Harrison. He’d suddenly lost his appetite and his tongue. As the boys filtered from the room, Connor noticed him sitting, head in hands, alone at his table and awaiting the coming storm .

Connor was beginning to get familiar with the layout of the corridors but nonetheless, Pamela led the boys back to their rooms. There was a familiarity between them now too, as if the ice had been broken, and all three chatted with no subconscious unease. Stephen was teasing the front of his hair up and into a stiff spike as he chatted.

“The thing is,” he remarked, “you’re going to find yourself famous, whether you like it or not. When you get out of here, the girls are gonna go mad for you! I’m making the most of this.”

“If you get out of here,” corrected Connor. “There’s no guarantee. Someone leaves in the first round, remember. Whenever that is…”

“Yeah, and it’s not going to be me.” Stephen had developed a bit of a swagger since this morning, something that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the other two boys. “Keep giving all those followers on social media what they’re after and they’ll keep you in. That’s the plan. Simples. Hasthtag le gingembre!”

Back in the dining area, the man was seated at the table across from Harrison. He chose his words carefully before speaking. He couldn’t after all, make contestant number three vanish, as much as he wanted to. The press, Yoshiro in particular, would ask all sorts of questions – boy suggests TV show isn’t all it seems to be, same boy vanishes that afternoon. Hmmm – The man stared Harrison down until the boy could take no more and refocused his gaze on some crumbs on the tabletop.

“Look at me,” seethed the man. “Look at me.” He waited. Harrison slowly returned his gaze to the man and his bared teeth.

“There are some things you just don’t say, Harrison. Some things must never ever be said in a public forum whilst you are a participant in ‘The Elements’, is that understood? I can’t have the world’s media running stories of death camps and the likes, even if Kimble is in a lot of ways exactly that. A death camp.” His measured, menacing whisper tailed off. “Allude to anything like this again and I will see to it myself that you will take no further part in this show….or indeed life itself. Do you understand?”

Harrison nodded and returned to the crumbs in the table.

“As long as we’re clear, Harrison. As long as we’re clear.”

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 5

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.

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 5

 

Connor awoke to the sound of classical music streaming through the room. Sweeping violins and see-sawing cellos brought him into the here and now. It took him a moment to adjust, to remember where he was and why he was here, before his head was immediately full of unwelcome thoughts of bullet-proof trousers and subzero body armour and thermashields and ‘The Elements’ and the possibility of death.

“Good morning, Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice. “It’s 6.30 am. Please be dressed and ready for 7.15 prompt. You must bring your mobile phone with you to the meeting room.”

Connor raised his head from the pillow and scratched and yawned. He swung his legs and let them dangle from the edge of the bed, feeling for the soft carpet with his outstretched toes. He sat upright, stretching. His suitcase had been returned at some point. It sat in the middle of his room, an envelope atop it.

Connor Stewart. These are the clothes you selected yesterday. They have been tagged and should now be placed in your storage facilities. On day 1 you are free to wear any R&R clothing of your choice.’

Someone must have been in his room while he had been sleeping. The thought unnerved Connor, but nothing much about this place Kimble surprised him anymore. Connor picked through his case, looking for the clothes he would wear for the day ahead. He selected a pair of beige R&R trousers, a dark blue ‘Elements’ t-shirt and the dark blue ‘Elements’ hoody. The first thing he noticed was that the hoody had ‘Stewart’ printed across the back. A large chunky number 9 was centred underneath. ‘Centre forward’, he thought to himself, before the reality of this particular game came back to him. He threw that day’s clothes on top of the unmade bed and turned his attention back to the case. He began sifting through the assortment of garments that he’d picked out the day before. Everything had ‘Stewart’ and ‘9’ on the back. On all trousers it was printed on the back right-hand pocket, or in the same general area if the trousers, the wet trousers for example, didn’t have a pocket. On the t-shirts and layers it was prominent on the left breast. On the hoodies, he noticed on closer inspection, it was printed both on the back (big) and on the front left breast (small). He had been branded. Although he was yet unaware, this was how the public would refer to him for the duration of his time in ‘The Elements’.  With everything hung accordingly in the wardrobe, he shoved the chunky white trainers at the back, placed the hiking boots in front of them and closed both doors with a woody thud.

Showered, dressed and ready for the day, Connor didn’t have to wait long for Pamela to knock the door.

“Good morning, good morning, good morning!” she breezed, her white, toothy smile just a touch too bright for him. Behind her stood Stephen, half asleep but dressed accordingly.

“You look very smart, Connor Stewart!” she said with a smile. “Did you sleep well? I must say, you’re very cute when you’re sleeping, haha! Now, make sure you have your phone with you. Got it? Good. Then let’s go get Rhys!”

Connor and Stephen exchanged vague ‘how ye doin’?’ glances before less than surreptitiously checking each other’s name and number. ‘McPherson, 1’ notified Stephen’s, as they fell into step behind their exuberant chaperone. They waited as Pamela repeated the same routine at Rhys’s door (‘Campbell, 4’) and the three followed her through the sterile, white corridors to the meeting area where they’d watched the video the day previously.

The man and Cameron were already there, busying themselves with tablets and mobile phones. The screen was showing the spinning ’The Elements’ logo again. At the far corner Connor spied Grayson (‘Anderson, 8’) and his group. They were sitting on couches, listening to one of the girls. Connor scanned, looking for Alan’s group. ‘Alan, 7’ and his two team-mates, ‘Harrison, 2’ and another whose name (number 5) was too difficult to read were at the opposite end again. All three groups were out-with speaking distance of one another.

“Boys! Good morning and welcome again. We’ll have a short meeting first, if you don’t mind, then we’ll have time for breakfast afterwards. Please, come and seat yourselves in the same chairs as yesterday.”

The three groups merged into one as they patiently filed into the seating area. As before, the three girls took the remaining seats in the second row.

“Thank you. I trust you slept well. Certainly, there have been no reports of nightmares or sleep-walking. A good night’s sleep is always important at Kimble. ‘The Elements’ requires you to be functioning to your highest capacity. A healthy body and healthy mind is so important. But enough of the small talk! Cameron…”

Cameron, with his slick hair and beige chinos and perfectly-pressed pink shirt stepped forward. He spoke for the first time.

“Good morning all.”

‘His voice hasn’t even broken!’ thought Connor.

“Before we begin our rigorous training programme, we will first set up social media accounts for you all. Now, I know all of you already use social media, some of you even have your own blogs and YouTube channels, but we have taken the liberty of deleting those accounts for your own good. At the moment, none of you has any online presence whatsoever.”

There were a few muffled grumbles and a pained sigh from someone sitting behind Connor. Cameron ignored this distress and continued.

“It is necessary to start afresh, to begin ‘The Elements’ with a clean slate and no previous history. Some of you will welcome this clean break, I am certain of that.

You will need four accounts. Once they are up and running it will be your responsibility to maintain three of those four accounts. One of the accounts will be controlled by us. These four accounts will be how the audience interacts with you. Build up a following, interact with your public and you will stand a better chance of progressing through ‘The Elements’. It’s simple.

You are all familiar with YouTube, yes?”

Without waiting for an affirmative response, he went on.

“We here at Kimble have already created a YouTube channel for the show. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but we have filmed you all since departing on the train yesterday morning, and we continued filming throughout the day and night. Each evening, around 8pm, we will upload new content, edited highlights of your day. Here’s just a taster of what is already online.”

He dimmed the lights, aimed the remote control at an unseen sensor and the screen lit up with camera footage of the boys on the train. Hidden cameras had picked out Connor and Grayson talking. Here they were at Grayson’s table. There was Alan joining them. The three sharing sweets. Other boys looking bored. Sleeping. Reading. Watching the trio. Here was Connor wandering up and down the carriage. Stopping to read the strange poem. Suddenly, sound burst from the screen. A cheering crowd. The scrum at the station. A man’s voice, off-screen asking Connor how he felt to be taking part in television history. Connor blinking, blanking him. Now they were in the limos. Then the sound cut again. They were standing in a semicircle as the man addressed them. The film continued in a fast-cut blur of the previous day’s images; being led through corridors, selecting clothes, eating dinner. The last image was of Connor, Rhys and Stephen sitting alone in the recreation room. “This place is weird,” Stephen’s voice had been electronically treated, making it echo. “D’you think they’ll really kill some of us?” The phrase ‘kill some of us’ echoed infinitely, repeating, repeating, repeating before the voice and the image of the three boys faded to black, to be replaced by the spinning ‘The Elements’ logo.

Allowing the boys no time to draw breath, Cameron continued.

“You already have fans! And foes! Look at some of these comments.”

A scrolling screenshot of a YouTube comments section whizzed upwards from the bottom of the screen. Hundreds of comments. Maybe even thousands. It was very difficult to read them in their non-stop blur.

JacquiTGT: ‘Grayson is soooo cool!’

EBoy94: ‘Ginger dude sucks!’

MintaBoy: “Insane!”

MorganD: “Play more air drumz, Grayson!”

Rambo’n’Ella: “We heart the fat kid x”

“Currently,” Cameron spoke as the comments continued behind him, Mr Jones, number 8, is top of the popularity tree. It would be unfair of me to suggest who might need to work hardest to gain the favour of the viewers, but clearly, some of you will need to market yourselves a bit better.”

Beside Connor, both Rhys and Stephen subconsciously sat slightly more upright, offering more attention to Cameron than they had been doing.

“So that is the YouTube situation. You will have no control over the content we show, I’m afraid, but you are free to view it whenever you are in R&R time. You will, however, have total control over the three other accounts. That is why we have asked you to bring your mobile phone with you.”

The man stepped to the podium now as Cameron took a step back and to the side.

“Thank you, Cameron. Firstly, is there any boy who doesn’t have a mobile phone?” He waited.

“No one? Good. You are all familiar with social media. You will be far more adept at its inner workings than I am. Firstly, you are going to need a Babble account. As Cameron said, your current accounts are no more, so you’ll need to set yourself up again.”

Connor and the others were already tapping and filling in information.

“It is up to you to select a profile picture, boys. Remember, you will be seen by millions around the globe.”

Connor went to his camera roll. He wanted to use the picture of him standing beside the yacht that was taken when he was on holiday just a few months before. He liked his hair in it. His camera roll was blank. There wasn’t a picture to be found in it. He checked his contacts. It was empty too, save one number. His mum’s. His emails? Blank. Text messages? Blank. The chat app he used to talk to all his pals at the same time? Deleted from the phone altogether. They – the TV folk, or this man, or Kimble, or the lot of them – had been through everything.

Connor aimed the phone at his left breast pocket – ‘Stewart’ and ‘9’ – and shot a wobbly selfie. It would do for the time being.

Two other accounts were set up using the same profile picture; Olé, the app that allows the user to upload filtered photos with a short piece of explanatory text, and a brand new ‘Elements’ app that would enable the user to upload short bursts of video activity with scrolling text across it. This app, the man said triumphantly, had been downloaded over 637,000 times already since being launched the day before yesterday. The public, he remarked, were desperately awaiting our accounts so they could follow them.

As at dinner time yesterday, Pamela led the boys to a table for four, situated far away from the other two groups. They were given all sort of options for breakfast and when their orders arrived, brought to the table by a large man in blue checked trousers and chef’s hat, Connor and his two fellow contestants ate heartily. Pamela, as was becoming the norm, ensured little in the way of silence.

“I love scrambled eggs! Do you Stephen? Rhys? I know you can’t eat them, Connor, what with your allergies ‘n all, which is a shame, as you’re really missing out, isn’t he boys?”

Connor ate in silence, partly to process the fact that everyone at Kimble seemed to know so much about him, partly through tiredness – it was still only 8am – and partly because, should he have wanted to say something, the likelihood of getting a word in between Pamela’s non-stop volley of words was minimal at best. He crunched his toast and slurped his tea, safe in the knowledge that any noisy eating on his part would be drowned out by Pamela’s incessant small talk.

Connor had to be alert though and not block out Pamela completely, because sometimes she’d let slip a little nugget of useful information.

“I hear, Connor, that you’re very much the favourite in South America already. Those Argentinians really love you! And Stephen, the French really have a thing for your hair! Rhysy boy, we’re gonna have to work harder on your media profile, sweetie, You’re not where you need to be on the list. I mean, you’re not that far down, but you’d probably want to be further up the field. Remember, you’re on camera all the time. Even now! All. The. Time!”

As those last three words were whispered slowly for emphasis, Rhys looked around, trying to see where any cameras and microphones might be hidden. His search was interrupted by the man once more.

“Boys! I’d like to get moving if we may. Can I suggest you take 15 minutes to freshen up and meet back in here for the press photoshoot? Girls, can you make sure they find their rooms and back to here again? Thank you. Stephen McPherson,” the man looked at their table. “Could you kindly wait behind for a minute, please? Thank you.”

The sound of chairs scraping backwards punctuated the air, but Connor’s table sat in uneasy silence. The three boys exchanged concerned looks. Pamela had visibly paled. Stephen had picked up on this and of the three boys was clearly the most-worried.

“What does he want, Pamela? What is it?” Stephen’s voice quivered.

Pamela shook her head slowly.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “But I’m sure it’s nothing.” The tone of her voice suggested even she didn’t believe herself.

The man approached their table, his hands behind his back, his suit jacket buttoned at the middle button.

“Thank you, Pamela. See to it that Rhys and Connor find their rooms, will you? Thanks.”

He waited until the three of them had stood up. Connor felt the need to push his chair under the table again. He half-nodded to the man before glancing at Stephen. Stephen was shaking, of that there could be no doubt. Pamela and Rhys stood to the side, anxious to leave.

“C’mon Connor,” said Pamela with forced enthusiasm. “Let’s get freshened up.” She left the room, followed closely by the two boys.

Had they stayed they would have heard the man tell Stephen under no circumstances was he ever again to sneak a phone call home to his parents. As punishment, the man said, he could have Stephen expelled form ‘The Elements’. This was said in such a way that being a contestant in ‘The Elements’, with its stab-proof layers and fireproof trousers and threats of death, was very much the preferred choice. Did he understand, asked the man, or did it need to be spelled out clearer? Stephen understood. He had phoned his mum for barely a minute when he was first alone in his room, as he’d agreed the day before at the train station. “Let me know you’re in and settled,” she’d said, and he had.

“Do it again,” the man threatened, “and I’ll see to it that you don’t return home. Clear?”

Stephen nodded.

“Clear?!” The man raised his voice.

“Yes, sir.” Came the meek reply.

“Good. Now, hurry along. I want you back here shortly.”

Stephen couldn’t wait to leave the table. He had no clear idea of how to find his room from here, but he knew he needed to take the corridor that peeled to the left from the meeting area. Luckily, Pamela was coming in the opposite direction with Connor and Rhys.

“Connor. Rhys. Head back into the meeting area yourselves. You know where you’re going, don’t you? Stephen. Is everything OK? I’ll take you back to your room. We’ll need to be quick, just a quick brush of the teeth and then back again. Okay?”

Connor and Rhys both gave Stephen a sympathetic smile. Whatever the man had said had clearly shaken him up. Maybe they’d find out what had got him into bother. Maybe they’d never know. The message was clear though. Step out of line and there are consequences.

On returning, Pamela and Stephen were the last two to sit down in the meeting area. The man looked at Stephen.

“All freshened up? Settled and ready to go? Good.”

Stephen sat upright and forwards, appearing keener than everyone else there.

“Boys. We will shortly reconvene in the media centre. There, you will take part in a press conference. The media of the world is invited and awaits; Süddeutsche Zeitung from Munich. The New York Times. Le Monde. El Pais. The Herald Sun. The LA Times. The Buenos Aries Times… Asahai Shimbun, the largest-selling newspaper not just in Japan but in the whole of Asia has sent their chief news reporter as well as Hiro Akari, the award-winning photojournalist. You should be very honoured.”

As he reeled off the list, he watched the boys’ reactions.

“Not to mention all of our own national dailies. And TV Crews too, from the UK, the US and Canada, all over Europe and Asia, Australia…South America…even Nairobi…all are going to be in attendance. They await now!”

The man lowered his voice, adopting the fatherly role again.

“It can be quite daunting, boys, to look out and face a sea of cameras, a swill of reporters all eager to land a quote or a titbit of gossip. I must prepare you for what you are about to face. You will be overwhelmed at first, I have no doubt about that, but you will also rise to the occasion. Remember, the world is watching. This is a good chance to garner public affection. Don’t squander the opportunity! Remember, please turn your phones off.”

The press room was a five-minute walk from the meeting area. On arrival, the man instructed the girls to keep the boys waiting “for a second or two.” As he opened the door, the noise of a large, unruly crowd filtered through. The boys looked at one another, a mixture of panic and nervous laughter. One boy, ‘Harrison, 3’ fixed his hair. Grayson air-drummed, oblivious to, or perhaps ignoring, Connor’s nod of recognition. Pamela smiled at the boys.

“Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.”

The man returned with another man. Connor recognised him from the YouTube footage from earlier. He was the man who’d thrust the microphone into his face when he stepped off the train yesterday. He carried the same microphone today. His suit was silvery grey, really shiny, and he wore equally shiny shoes that were ridiculously pointed at the toes.

“Boys,” the man said. “This is Steve de la Cruz. He’s the presenter of ‘The Elements’.”

“Hey guys! How y’all doin’?!”

He had a face full of teeth and fake tan to match. His eyes looked strange, an unusually bright blue. His eyebrows were waxed to perfection, his hair a gravity-defying colossus of quiffery. Connor couldn’t place his accent. He had one of those TV voices that made the person sound like they came from nowhere at all, which made Connor think he was probably from the Southern Regions.

“We gotta lotta folk through there to see y’all! They’re super-keen to find out all about who y’all are. Y’ready?”

The man opened the door again and de la Cruz stepped through. The noise was intense. Holding the door open, the man beckoned the boys to follow. He said something to them, but by now, it was even louder and his words were swallowed by the ocean of noise. Connor followed the first couple of boys through and into the room.

One long line of tables was set up. The tables were covered in blue cloth and sat in front of a massive backdrop that included a repeating pattern of ‘The Elements’ logo, the TV company logo and the brandings of Babble, YouTube and Olé. The line of tables was punctuated at intervals by the numbers 1-9 and a series of small black microphones. Jugs of water and small glass tumblers were placed at each section of the table. A girl, new to Connor but dressed in TV cap and ‘Elements’ t-shirt leaned close to his ear and instructed him to sit down at his number. He sat and surveyed the room as the rest of the boys took their places at the table. Grayson sat to his immediate right. They exchanged brief friendly smiles.

It was an intense scene right enough. A riot of jostling reporters, voices of every nationality, whipped themselves into a frenzy at the arrival of the boys. Prime positions were lost and won as flashbulbs flashed, cameras clicked and elbows elbowed in every direction. At the back of the room, a dozen, maybe more photographers stood on step ladders, their cameras trained on the nine boys at the table. A large TV camera sat in the middle between them, raising and lowering seemingly of its own free will, the camera operator aiming straight down the lens towards the boys at the table opposite. At one point the camera swept across the top of the heads of the reporters below, coming to within a few feet of them. At either side, hand-held TV cameras filmed the chaos, flitting between the startled boys and the hungry journalists. A crush barrier had been erected between the table and the rest of the room. Between the barrier and the table, a cameraman roamed free with unobstructed views of the boys. Along the front of the table were placed 30? 40? mobile devices. Belonging to the journalists, they were already recording the voices that would form the quotes in tomorrow’s entertainment news pages.

Steve de la Cruz stepped out into the gap between table and crush barrier. The man, the ultimate authority, the one in charge, stood to the side near the door, arms folded, surveying the room with satisfaction. The presenter spoke into his microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the world’s press. Welcome to Kimble! And welcome to ‘The Elements’!”

The lights dimmed and from behind him, Connor felt the low rumble as the promotional video they’d watched the day before began to play.

Nine contestants….Five challenges….and one winner! Physical strength. Mental stamina. Mental strength. Physical stamina. Each is crucial to your success. Survive all five challenges… Survive the public vote…Survive ‘The Elements’ This is war…! ’The Elements’ is war!

The lights came up and de la Cruz once again took centre stage.

“Nine contestants!” he shouted dramatically. “Five challenges!” He held up his left hand, his five fingers spread wide. “Just one winner!” He dropped four of the five fingers, his forefinger remaining rigid in the air. “And that winner sits somewhere at this table!”

He turned, microphone arm outstretched to face the table, his quiff wobbling stiffly with the sudden movement. His left forefinger swept across the width of the table and back again. He turned again to face the media.

“’The Elements’ will be the most-watched, most-streamed, most talked about show in TV history. Everyone who watches and interacts has the power to influence this show and will have a say in which boy ultimately wins.

We have asked you here today to meet our nine contestants, to gather the stories you will print in your newspapers and magazines and feature on your news channels and TV shows. I ask that you raise your hand should you wish to ask a question and, if chosen, identify yourself before asking. No subject matter is off-limits but I do ask that you are respectful.”

The chaos of the room had settled to a thrumming buzz. On de la Cruz’s last remark, more than thirty hands shot straight up.

“Aha! Yes! And off we go… madam, there, the lady in the blue cardigan…”

“Good morning Mr de la Cruz. Felicity Amersham, Daily Mirror. I would like to put a general question to all the boys, if I may. I was just wondering…did you all know exactly what you were getting yourselves into? This seems quite a big deal, this TV show, and I’m not sure the contestants may have appreciated what they were signing up for.”

De la Cruz responded swiftly, with a smile.

“Yes! A big deal indeed. ‘The Elements’ is certainly the biggest of big deals!”

He turned side-on, facing half of the boys.

“We might as well start at the beginning, eh? Number 1, Mr McPherson, did you know, exactly, as the Daily Mirror asks, what you were signing up for?”

Stephen looked at de la Cruz. He looked out into the throng of reporters and cameras and lighting rigs and microphones.

“Eh, not really, no. I was told they were looking for boys like me to take part in a new reality TV show. I took part because all of my pals said it would be better than going to school.”

At this, the room laughed. More hands shot up again. Ignoring them, de la Cruz went down the line.

“Fowler. Number 2. Did you know what you were signing up for?”

“I didn’t, no, but d’you know what? I’m glad I did. All this is brilliant! I can’t wait to get started!”

Connor listened, impressed. Fowler carried himself well. He’d probably gain followers and votes – were there even votes? – because of this. Connor tried to formulate the perfect answer in his head, a difficult task given the charged atmosphere in the room.

“Harrison. Three. What about you? Did you know what you had signed up for?

Harrison looked nervously out into the room. His tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth and he spoke with a tacky awkwardness.

“No. I had no idea I was getting involved in anything like this.” He paused to take a mouthful of water. “The fireproof clothes…the stab proof clothes…”

At this, the man appeared in the pit between the front of the table and the crush barrier.

“…the subzero armour….the threat of actual death…”

He had his arms out, open in front of him and a wide smile on his face. Inwardly he was seething. De la Cruz stepped aside and allowed him centre stage.

“Aha! Now, now! Let’s not get carried away with ourselves, shall we!” The man turned, looked at Harrison and turned again to face the reporters. “Let’s not give the game away, eh, Mr Harrison?! Apologies, ladies and gentlemen of the press. Mr de la Cruz alluded to no questions being off limit, but unfortunately, due to contractual obligations, we cannot discuss the actual content of the show at present. I trust you’ll understand.”

The man remained at the front, conceding only slight space to de la Cruz who gamely carried on as if nothing of significance had happened. The press though would know a good story when it was right in front of them. As he spoke, the man turned and fixed a stony stare on Harrison. Harrison poured himself a glass of water, willing the man to look away.

“Campbell, number four. The Daily Mirror asks if you knew what you were signing up for…”

Rhys took a gulp of water. In the short time since the man had interrupted Harrison’s answer, he had had to rethink what he was going to say.

“I knew that the show would probably be exciting, yes. And who wouldn’t want to be involved in an exciting TV show? I’m a bit of a science geek, actually…”

Internally, Connor cringed. ‘Rhys! You want to win followers, not lose them!

“…and when I discovered that the show was called ‘The Elements’, well, it piqued my interest. Like most of the boys here, I just can’t wait to get started.”

Good recovery,’ surmised Connor. Rhys had spoken well.

De la Cruz continued down the line, all of the boys a mixture of nerves and excitement, and all, since Harrison’s faux pas, giving stock ‘it’s great to be here’ answers.

“Mr Anderson. Contestant number 8. Did you know what you’d be signing up for?”

Grayson leaned back in his chair and puffed out a sigh, both hands behind his head. He leaned forward and rested his chin in his cupped hands, his elbows on the blue tablecloth.

“No. I had no idea. It was either this or juvenile detention, I don’t mind telling you that. And I didn’t much fancy the thought of going to a detention centre for most of the year. I must say though,” he sat upright and held his arms out to the room, “this is fantastic! If ‘The Elements’ is half as good as this is just now, I can’t wait to get going!”

Grayson had easily been the most confident of all the boys. His popularity rating would be growing even more on the back of this. Connor knew it was his turn next, yet he still didn’t have a clear idea of what he was going to say.

“And lastly, but by no means leastly…!” De la Cruz faced him with an extra-wide smile. “Stewart. Nine. Did you, as the Daily Mirror wants to know, as the whole world wants to know, understand what you were signing up for?”

Connor had already taken two gulps of water, but he downed a third before he spoke.

“Like the other boys, I had no real idea, or expectations of what ‘The Elements’ would involve.” Connor had mentioned the name of the show, just as Grayson had, and he felt it would be important somehow when it came to winning and losing. “I have to say, we’ve been treated brilliantly since we got here. Our rooms are amazing. The food too. We have a chill-out zone, a recreation room where we can relax at the end of the day. I never knew being on TV would be as exciting. I too am looking forward to getting things started. I think ‘The Elements’ is going to be a good show.”

De la Cruz faced the throng again. The man stood to his right. Without asking the audience, thirty or more hands shot straight in the air again.

“Ok. We’ll take a second question. This lady here….with the dark hair and emerald pendant…yes, you!”

“Good morning. Johanna Adler, Der Bild, Germany. My question, which I would like to direct to number 8, Anderson, if I may, is this. Are you always so relaxed? I watched the YouTube highlights last night and I couldn’t help but think that nothing fazes you. And the way you have carried yourself so far today suggests to me someone who is very calm. You seem very relaxed in the face of this, this brutal competition.”

De la Cruz stepped to the side, allowing the cameras a clear shot of Grayson. Grayson took a slow drink of water and, as if playing up to his public image, drummed a quick rat-a-tat on the table.

“I’ll tell you this,” he remarked. “I’m just being myself. I see some of the other boys and they’re not quite sure how they’re supposed to act here. I say, ‘don’t act’. Be yourself. When you’re told your every move is going to be on TV, it can change the way you think about things. If you let that get to you, you might never again be the person you actually are. Me, yeah, I might look relaxed, and that’s because I am. It doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous though. I’m a wee bit nervous just now, actually, but I just tell myself that you’re all normal people, like my mum and dad, my gran, my teachers. I act naturally around them, so I’m going to act naturally around everybody here too.”

Adler scribbled something into a spiral notebook and smiled a thanks towards Grayson. Hands were up again.

“Jason Katz, Entertainment Now!, New York City. My question is for the science guy, number 4, Mr Campbell.”

Rhys straightened himself again, braced for the question.

“Hello Mr Harrison. I’d like to know how you got selected for the show. What qualities do you have that made you stand out from the other applicants?”

Rhys didn’t know how to answer this. The truth was, he had been caught getting up to stuff in the chemistry lab at lunchtime, and not for the first time. He hadn’t auditioned for anything. Rhys had been told by the judge that he would go to either the shale pits or the new TV show. It was a no-brainer.

Before he could answer, the man had forced de la Cruz aside and was back centre stage.

“Again, I’m afraid for various contractual reasons, we cannot discuss the selection process. I can tell you that all the boys here possess the desired qualities essential for ‘The Elements’. Each individual has been carefully profile-matched. Who you have in front of you here today are the nine best possible contestants for what will be the greatest show in televisual and online history.”

The man’s answer hadn’t answered Katz’s question at all, but it was all he was getting. Rhys was quite relived to have dodged it. The questions continued thick and fast.

“Will you miss your parents?”

“When will the first contest take place?”

“Does it excite you to think that people in Nigeria will be watching this?”

“Are you worried about being first out?”

“How far do you think you can go in this competition?”

“Do you worry that your fitness levels might not be up to scratch?”

And so on and so on. As the press conference continued into its second hour, Connor found himself beginning to enjoy it, although a permanent voice in his head reminded him that everything he said and did would be seen. Even when a question wasn’t directed towards him, he felt the need to nod approvingly at the other boys’ answers or smile when they said something light-hearted. Enjoyable, yes, but exhausting too.

“We’ll take another question.” Scanning the room, de la Cruz looked for an interesting face. “You, sir, in the gillet and polo shirt….the lanyard….yes, uh huh, yes, you!”

A Japanese man stood and bowed. A second Japanese man stood with him. The first man said something in his native tongue then the second man spoke.

“Good day, Mr de la Cruz, sir,” spoke the second man. “This is Mr Furuta Yoshiro of Asahai Shimbun, Tokyo’s best-known daily newspaper. My name is Imai Satoru. I am his translator.”

Both men bowed humbly once more. The room instantly felt calmer. Slower. Less intense.

De la Cruz smiled his full-on TV smile at Yoshiro. “Welcome to ‘The Elements’, Mr Yoshiro, Mr Satoru.” De la Cruz offered a bumbled-looking bow before continuing. “It’s our honour to welcome you here today. Please, what would you like to ask the contestants?”

Yoshiro spoke for a full minute. Slow and husky-voiced, his demeanour demanded patience.

“Mr Yoshiro says,” translated Satoru, “that in Japan there is a long tradition of humiliation in TV game shows. Will ‘The Elements’ follow a similar format to those shows, where contestants are made to look foolish? He understands that these games involve the wearing of fireproof clothing and carry the threat of death. Are we to presume that some of the boys here today might be killed in the name of entertainment?”

At this, the recently calm-again man visibly bristled. De la Cruz answered for him.

“Well, as we said earlier, unfortunately we cannot discuss the content of the show…a show that is going to be regarded as a watershed moment in TV history, of that there is no doubt!”

The man unceremoniously nudged him aside.

“With the greatest respect, Mr Yoshiro sir, you do not know what you are talking about. I am aware of those Japanese TV shows to which you refer, but let me tell you, ‘The Elements’ is nothing, NOTHING! like that at all.”

His cool blown, the man composed himself in front of the room full of journalists. He made a show of checking his watch.

“I think we have had enough questions for the time being. I thank you for your attendance and your questions, ladies and gentlemen. I very much look forward to reading your reports and watching your bulletins later on. We will be in contact in advance of the next press briefing. I bid you a good day.”

The man left quickly. The room began to dismantle. Chairs scraped, cases clicked shut, voices of all internationalities chattered, feet shuffling out of the two doors at the back of the room.

Connor sighed a long, weary sigh. He suddenly felt very tired.

“That was alright, eh?” said Grayson, just as his host had arrived to take him away.

“Yeah, it was,” replied a slightly untruthful Connor. It had been alright, but it had also been full-on and tiring. And the way the man lost it at the end…no doubt the boys would pay for that.

The boys were rounded into their groups of three and led back out into the sterility of the corridor. Somewhere, voices were raised in anger.

“I do not want that Japanese man near this place again! Do you hear me? Who the hell authorised his pass? I want to see them now!”

A quieter female voice spoke. It was too difficult to hear what she was saying.

“I don’t care if he’s a respected journalist…he’s not welcome on my show again! Now, get me the press officer…”

Pamela spoke to the boys, diverting their attention.

“Well done, all of you, you answered really well. Rhys, I reckon you’ll have gained some new followers on the back of that performance. Connor! Very smooth! Great answers! Stephen! Solid. It’s not easy, is it? You all did remarkably well. I’ll take you back to your rooms. You can get freshened up and then I think you have a good bit of down time before we need to meet again. You’ll probably be glad of the peace and quiet, eh?”

The four walked the corridors until they arrived at their respective rooms. Pamela would meet them here in an hour or so, she said. The three boys gladly retired to the tranquility of their rooms and each of them flopped onto their respective beds.

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 4

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.

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 4

 

Pamela walked with Rhys, Stephen and Connor along a sterile white corridor. In the absence of windows (again!, thought Connor) harsh lighting lit the way. The soles of their shoes squeaked softly on the highly polished floor. No one spoke. Even Pamela was subdued. The corridor led to another equally anonymous section of the building. Here, they had the option to go diagonally either left or right. Pamela continued left and the boys followed. Along this corridor were dotted the boys’ bags, each placed outside a stark white door. There were no numbers. The TV company logo was positioned at eye level. A small metallic key-pad was in place of where you might expect to find a lock. No door had a handle.

Rhys was first to be given his room.

“This is your key-card number,” said Pamela, and handed him a small business-card sized piece of green paper. “Key it and the door will open automatically.”

Rhys keyed it and the door slid softly to the side. The room inside was in darkness. He picked up his bag, turning to Connor, Stephen and Pamela as he did so.

“We have about half an hour until we meet in the recreation room,” instructed Pamela. I suggest you’re ready in 20 minutes. I’ll meet you here. No one likes to be kept waiting at Kimble.”

They walked to the next door. Connor recognised his bag. Pamela repeated the instructions, waited until Connor had keyed in the number and the door opened, and left with the spiky haired boy who by now Connor had deduced was called Stephen.

As Connor stepped into his room, two things happened. The lights came on automatically and a hidden voice welcomed him.

“Good evening, Connor Stewart. Welcome to Kimble,” the calming female voice said. “If it’s too bright or too dark, just say and I’ll adjust accordingly.”

It was a bit bright – everything about this place so far was bright – but Connor didn’t speak. He surveyed his surroundings. A bed, larger than the one he had at home, took up half the room. A small bedside table sat beside it, a lamp on top of that. There was a large TV on the wall facing the bed. A desk with an angle-poised lamp and a laptop sat at the far corner, a comfy-looking chair pushed neatly underneath. In the opposite corner stood a wicker laundry basket and a large wooden wardrobe. Next to the wardrobe was a door which opened into a large chrome and marble bathroom. Stepping back into the bedroom, Connor saw there was a mirror and a couple of framed prints on the wall – a racing car and a nest of eagles – and, intriguingly, a framed copy of the poem he’d read earlier on the train.

People of Kimble, The

Elements will see to it that some of you will fail. That’s just the

Natural order of things.

Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.

Not all will make the return journey, the

Consequence of failure should be obvious to

Everyone.

The word ‘Kimble’ now jumped out at him. He read the poem again. ‘Not all will make the journey home…..the consequence of failure should be obvious to everyone….

What have I got myself involved in?’ thought Connor to himself. Suddenly, eight months working with the Department of Enforcement didn’t seem quite so terrible.

Connor distracted himself by unpacking his bag. His toiletries he placed by the sink in the bathroom. His medication went in the drawer of the bedside table. His spare shoes he placed in the bottom of the empty wardrobe. Did he have time for a shower? He wasn’t sure he did, but then, the man had said they should shower. He didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

I am the ultimate authority here, the man in charge,’ he’d said.

The shower was a fancy, voice-activated one. Connor got in, washed, got out and got dressed again. He’d barely towelled his hair when there was a sharp rap on the door. Connor punched in the code and the door opened to reveal Pamela and Stephen. His hair was still damp too.

“Just coming,” said Connor. He stepped back inside for his phone and, slipping it into his left jeans pocket, followed the other two, presumably to get Rhys. As they walked, Connor’s door swished shut behind them.

With Rhys joining them, the three boys and Pamela walked the length of the corridor.

“The layout of Kimble can be quite confusing at first,” explained Pamela. “It’s basically one, large, square figure of eight. But all the corridors are identical. it’s easy to get lost. That’s why I’ll be with you for the first few days, until you find your feet. The recreation room is a few minutes’ walk from here. Keep up!” The group squeaked onwards, silently following their guide.

They were the first to arrive. The recreation room was larger than Connor had expected. Two pool tables and a table tennis table sat to the side, next to a window that ran the length of the room. It was dusk now, and all that could be seen was thick greying greenery in every direction. Couches were laid out in small huddles. There was a juice bar. Bowls of fruit. Connor silently thanked his dad when he saw the vending machine filled with chocolate and crisps. A pinball machine and a retro arcade machine sat against the wall, lit up, blinking invitingly and ready for use. On the far wall, a huge TV screen beamed out. A spinning logo with the words ‘The Elements’ rotated silently. In front of the screen was a small podium, the same as the ones that Connor had seen on television when Prime Ministers and Presidents and important people made a speech. A thin, bendy microphone jutted up from it. Arranged around the screen and podium was a dozen or so chairs. Clearly, this was where the boys were to sit.

Pamela led them to the chairs and invited them to sit in the front row, not at all where any of the three would have chosen to sit, but there they were. The carpeted footsteps of other people made the three boys instinctively turn around. Connor spotted Grayson with another couple of unfamiliar boys. They too were being led by one of the other girls, dressed just like Pamela. They were shown to the three remaining chairs in the front row and took their positions. Sitting as they were Connor wasn’t able to catch Grayson’s eye. It would have been good to have had a couple of words or even a reassuring glance or two. More footsteps and muffled shuffling indicated the last of the group. Three boys, including Alan (or Randolph, to give him his proper name) sat in the second row of chairs. The three girls who were looking after the boys took up the remaining chairs in the back row.

As if on cue, from a side door the man who’d spoken to them on arrival emerged. He walked purposefully to the podium. He wasn’t alone. The boy who walked a half-step behind him had changed his shirt and taken off his jacket, but even out of context Connor recognised him immediately as Mackintosh boy. He was desperate to turn to Grayson and Alan to see their reactions. Had they recognised him too? He’d ask them later.

“Good evening, boys,” the man began. “Good evening. Thank you for your punctuality. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.” He looked at the assembled boys with a reptilian smile.

“It’s so good of you to join me at this hour. I appreciate you will be tired and probably hungry too. Worry not. After this short briefing you will be given an evening meal and some down time for you to…catch your breath, as it were. I know it’s been a long day for all of you – all of us too – and that bed must seem quite appealing right now. First though, we must explain why you are here. ‘What have I signed up for?’ you must be thinking. Well….you’re about to find out. Cameron, lights and film please, thank you.”

The lights dimmed. Mackintosh boy aimed a remote control at the massive screen and the spinning logo faded to black. A fiery explosion lit up the room from the screen. Cinema surround-sound booms vibrated from Connor’s feet upwards. The chairs shook. The windows rattled. Had he turned around, Connor would have noticed the ends of the girls’ hair dancing independently in the space above their shoulders. As presentations went, it was certainly an attention-grabber.

“Welcome to ‘The Elements’!”

An unseen American voice, as deep and grainy as the gravel they’d stood on an hour previously spoke from the screen.

“You have elected to join the most-prestigious game show on television. A game show like no other. A game show that everyone will be talking about. A game show that will be beamed nightly into Every! Home! On! The! PLANET!!!.”

The voice stopped and a large, chunky number nine appeared on screen.

“Nine contestants….”

The nine faded and gave way to a number five.

“Five challenges….”

The five faded away to a number one. It appeared to grow larger and smaller as the voiceover continued.

“…and one winner!”

The number one faded to the sight of a crass golden trophy, clip art really, that flashed and teased as the voiceover continued. Cartoon fireworks fizzed around it.

“Physical strength. Mental stamina. Mental strength. Physical stamina.”

Each statement was accompanied by a relevant graphic.

“Each is crucial to your success. Survive all five challenges…”

A large red tick emerged on screen and faded.

“Survive the public vote…”

Another tick.

“Survive ‘The Elements’!”

The picture on the screen changed quite unexpectedly to grainy coloured footage of American troops in Vietnam, rifles rat-a-tat-tatting, low-flying helicopters circling, white flashes of death punctuating the thick, moist jungle.

“This is war.”

The voiceover trailed off to allow total focus on the visual imagery.

“’The Elements’ is war.”

The logo of ‘The Elements’ spun into view and remained spinning. Connor was aware of how silent the room now was.

The lights went up. Connor blinked. The man was back at his podium.

“Well. I hope that gives you a flavour of what you’re here for!”

He eyeballed them all.

“You boys are our first-ever contestants! The guinea pigs, so to speak, but nonetheless the groundbreakers! The pioneers! The trailblazers in a brave new world of interactive, audience participation survival tee-vee! The viewers of the world will have a say in your fate. They will watch nightly, develop a fondness for one or more of you, follow your social media profiles, interact, become invested in your pursuit. It is those followers, boys, those fans, those fixated viewers that you will be relying upon to keep you in the competition.”

He stopped, letting his audience unscramble everything. He spoke again, lowering his voice for dramatic effect.

“Let’s be clear, boys. Not all of you will make it. Indeed, some of you might not even make it beyond the first challenge. That will be so. Call it natural order. Call it weakness. Call it a lack of popularity with the viewers if you must, but guaranteed, at least one of you will not see Challenge 2.

Now. We don’t expect you to go into each challenge unprepared. Of course we don’t! Did the gladiators of Rome go to the fight unprepared? Of course not! They trained until they were at peak fitness levels, and so shall you. You will train daily, both physically and mentally. You will eat well. You will sleep well. You will become the man society demands of you. Some of you will clearly find this tougher than others…”

He broke off and looked again at Alan.

“..but your life depends on it. You have a say in the outcome. Make sure your voice is heard.”

The room was in silence again. Connor felt sick.

“Now, I want to explain a little bit about your teams.”

The man’s voice was softer now, more fatherly.

“You have been placed into teams of three. The boys you came in the car with, the boys you walked to your rooms with, are now your best friends and team-mates. Without their help you will not get far. You must rely on one another. Encourage. Motivate. Do not let your team-mate down. We take great care to ensure a balance in each team. We have looked at your files, noting your individual strengths and weaknesses. We have considered your sociability and grouped you accordingly.” The man turned to Mackintosh boy.

“Cameron here is my right-hand man. My eyes and ears. He has compiled profiles of each and every one of you. There is nothing he doesn’t know.”

A sudden realisation dawned on Connor. The steely stare. The lack of interaction. The changing of seats during the journey. ‘He’s been watching us! He saw how we became friends, talking, getting on….and now he’s split us up!’

“So, if there are no questions….”

The man’s voice tailed off, daring anyone in the room to ask him something. All eyes remained anywhere but on him.

“….we’ll break there and have a bite to eat. Afterwards we’ll kit you out with the clothing you will wear from now on. If there’s time we may have some rest and recuperation time, when you can enjoy the facilities on offer. Lights out is always 2200 hours and no exceptions. Anyway, enough from me. Food!”

Pamela led Connor, Rhys and Stephen to a table set for four. Each of the other teams was taken to their own table, all apart from one another. Connor wondered if he’d get the chance to speak to Grayson and Alan at all tonight.

The food arrived. Some sort of pasta with little nuts through it. It tasted great. A bowl of grapes and a jug of orange juice were brought out afterwards. Between the four of them, they left nothing. The talk was a bit stilted throughout. Pamela did her best to keep things upbeat, but no one was in the mood for much conversation. This had been the most eventful day in Connor’s life. He was tired, he was being forced to make friends with people….and the unwelcome threat of death hung over him like a cloak.

After dinner the three girls took their respective groups to a large, clinical store-room. Floor to ceiling metallic shelves ran the length of one side. Every so often a sign announced what was stored in that section; Trousers (combat), Trousers (wet), Trousers (R&R) and so on. Connor could see Grayson’s group at the far end, trying on jackets. Alan’s group was bunched together near the middle, listening to their leader say something. Pamela stopped Connor and the others at a section marked ‘Layers’.

“Alright guys! Layering is super-important at ‘The Elements’. Sometimes you’ll be outside and, because you’ll be running around and stuff, you’ll be, like, hot and sweating. If you don’t have your layers on you’ll either be too warm or too cold. It’s really important to layer up! All these layers you see here are essential ‘Elements’ wear. This one…” In her right hand she held up a tiny, red, long-sleeved lycra top, “is fireproof. And this one…” In her left hand she waved a similar-looking garment in black, “is stab-proof. Come and find one in your size.”

Fireproof?! Stab-proof?!”’ thought Connor and Rhys and Stephen, independently yet simultaneously. They slowly stepped forward.

“Rhys,” Pamela held up the red top she’d just shown them. “This looks like it’s in your size.”

Rhys caught it as she threw it to him and held it limply against himself.

“Connor, you look like a medium. You too Stephen…or maybe even a large. Here, check for yourself.”

The boys dipped into a plastic box labelled ‘Fire (Med)’ and pulled out a top each. Stephen returned his, reached instead for the ‘Fire (Lge)’ box and selected a top he was happy with. This routine continued until they had quite a handful of items; as well as fireproof and stab-proof layers, they also had ‘subzero armour’, ‘thermashield protector’, a running vest and something that was ‘solarwind-immune’. They were also given a couple of fleeces, two different-coloured hooded tops and a selection of plain-coloured R&R t-shirts, to be worn in their down time. Every item of clothing was branded with an ‘Elements’ logo on the left breast.

Pamela gave each of the boys a suitcase.

“Stick yer layers in there, boys, and we’ll go and pick us some trousers.”

The boys found their size and filled their cases with two pairs of each trouser; combat trousers, wet trousers, R&R trousers that were midway between jeans and chinos, and other more worryingly-named forms of legwear; fireproof, explosive-proof, bite-proof as well as multiple pairs of running (long) and running (short) trousers.

Next, the jackets. Each boy was given just two jackets, a ‘night jacket’ and a ‘day jacket’. They didn’t need any more, Pamela said, because they wouldn’t be wearing a jacket for the water tasks and they’d be too warm for the fire tasks, and in any rate, she said, they already had their fireproof layers. The three boys exchanged glances. Rhys and Stephen looked at one another and then at Connor. Silently, subtly, he had just been elected group leader.

“See these tasks, Pamela,” he asked with hesitation. “What exactly are they? What do they involve? It’s just….I dunno, they seem a bit…extreme?”

“Oh, yes, Connor! They’re extreme all right! This is ‘The Elements’! It’s supposed to be extreme!”

The Elements’. What were the elements? A memory from school nagged him. ‘Were there four? Five maybe? Air…fire….earth…water…’ Connor couldn’t think of a fifth.

“The air,” he said aloud. “And fire.”

“The Earth!” added Rhys “And water and wood!”

The boys and Pamela looked at him.

“I’m into science. I know my elements! The five basic elements of earth are earth itself and air, fire, water and wood. I expect the show gives us tasks based on these five elements, am I right?”

Pamela looked at him with a knowing smile.

“I’m not supposed to tell you, Rhysy boy, but you’re on the right tracks! Now! Boots!”

They were given two types of footwear. The first was a heavy black ankle-height boot that was surprisingly comfy on first fitting. They looked like the sort of boots you might wear to go hillwalking or fell climbing. Connor’s experience of hiking boots was that they took a while to break-in and usually left you with blisters on your heels and soles for half a year afterwards. These boots didn’t feel like they’d do that. They were made of Goretex and suede but the front felt protected – steel toe-capped, maybe. The laces criss-crossed to the top. Connor liked the way they felt on his feet.

They were also given a pair of ‘Elements’-branded trainers, ugly-looking white things with chunky soles and big round toes. They were definitely not the sort of trainers Connor would choose to wear. Connor was pleased that he’d brought the suggested spare pair of shoes with him. There’s no way he’d be wearing these trainers, unless forced to. He wouldn’t be seen dead in them. ‘Seen dead in,’ he repeated internally, a wave of anxiety sweeping through him once more.

Their wardrobes complete, Pam handed each boy a sharpie and instructed them to label their own suitcase. The cases would be taken away, she explained, and their clothing tagged with their names on each item. They would be ready to wear tomorrow.

“It’s an hour until lights out. This is your own time now. I can show you back to your rooms if you like, or if you’d prefer, I can take you back to the recreation room for a little while. What’s it to be?”

Stephen and Rhys again looked at Connor. Connor was tired, exhausted even, but he desperately wanted to chat to Grayson and Alan and get their take on events so far. He hoped they’d be in the recreation room too.

“Yeah, I think we should go to the recreation room for a bit. Not long though, just enough time to let us relax a bit before bedtime.”

As it turned out, they were the only three there. The lights had been dimmed. The pool tables and table tennis table remained untouched in the shadows cast by the trees outside. The lights flickered away on the arcade machines, failing to hook a willing player. The low hum of the vending machine suggested it was ready for action, but no one was biting. Pamela switched on a set of low lights and left. Rhys, Stephen and Connor each flopped into a large orange sofa.

“I’m knackered,” sighed Stephen.

“Me too,” said Rhys.

“And me,” replied Connor.

“This place is weird,” said Stephen, stretching his legs in front of him. “D’you think they’ll really kill some of us?”

The silence from the other two was the answer he feared. The trio sat in exhausted silence with nothing more to say.

In another room not too far away, in a room that the boys would never know about, Pamela and the man sat watching on a series of large LCD screens, listening to the boys’ non-conversation.

“Time for bed,” suggested the man, and Pamela left to gather the three boys back to their rooms.

Connor barely remembered the soothing voice welcoming him back to his room or getting himself undressed and into the ‘Elements’-branded pyjamas that had been laid out on his bed. He was unaware of when exactly his head softly hit the pillow. He was asleep though before his new friend Stephen had even keyed the number into his door.

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 3

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.

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 3

 

Connor hadn’t been prepared for the greeting that awaited them. A tanned, smiling man in a tight suit and ridiculously tall hair shoved a microphone to his face as he stepped into the daylight. The man said something, but Connor failed to notice. Three, maybe four females with clipboards and mobile phones hovered around the boys, guiding them where they had to go. They were dressed identically; box-fresh white trainers, faded blue jeans, black cap-sleeved t-shirts bearing the logo of the TV company and green baseball caps. To the side a man with a television camera filmed this way and that. As he turned, Connor realised the cameraman had been filming him in profile since he’d alighted from the train. At the back, on some sort of raised platform, there was another, bigger TV camera. It filmed the whole scene from above.

In the melee, Connor had been separated from Grayson and Alan and was now being herded towards a sandstone wall by one of the girls. She smelled of Juicy Fruit. Two of the other boys were already there, one of whom was the sulky, ginger-haired boy.

“And you must be Connor Stewart,” she said with a toothy smile. Connor placed her accent as Australian. “You look just like your picture! Here, I’ll take your bag for you.” Passing Connor’s bag to a man in a bomber jacket, she scribbled something onto her clipboard, tapped into her phone and spoke into an unseen headset.

“Hi…yes….hi! Hi? HI?!? Can you hear me?…..Yes, it is awfully noisy!…..Yes, that’s right. Uh huh…..Yep…..Yes. I have my three here now, yes…….OK, wilco. Thanks.”

She turned to look at Connor and the other two boys.

“This is exciting isn’t it?! You brave, brave boys!” She squealed a little bit and brought her shoulders up to meet her fake-tanned jawline.

“Now, just so you know, the limo will be along in a minute or two. Give the camera a wave!”

She turned, pouted and waved an over-friendly wave straight down the lens of the television camera. The bearded man operating it lifted his eye from the viewfinder to give her a wink before swinging the camera in the boys’ direction. All three stared at it with a mixture of squint-eyed awkwardness and wide-eyed wonder.

The girl’s long eyelashes batted rapidly.

“Don’t be shy! You’ll soon get used to it! Pretty soon you’ll not even notice they’re there at all.”

She turned her attention back to the camera and was blowing kisses to it by the time the limousine had appeared. It was white with brilliant black tyres. The TV company logo was embossed on each door. From somewhere inside, a door slid open to reveal long sofa-type seating. Pulsing neon lights ran along the top edge. An ice bucket sat on a small round table, bottle tops jutting jaggedly out of it.

“In we go my heroes, in we go!” She stood by the door as the three boys awkwardly bent inside. “Shuffle along, don’t be shy! Room for one more?” She slid in right next to Connor, invading more of his personal space than he was willing to concede. “It’s OK honey, I don’t bite!” she said, reading his mind. “Coke?”

A shellshocked, speechless Connor was still trying to work out what exactly was going on.

“Or Sprite. Would you prefer a Sprite?” The girl reached for a bottle from the ice bucket and pulled it loose. She handed it to Connor.

“And what about you two? Rhys? Stephen? What would you like to drink? Coke or Sprite?”

All three boys sat drinking in silence while their companion? chaperone? named adult? kept the conversation in full flow.

“Well! My name’s Pamela. My job is to look after you today and make sure you get settled in all right. I’ve only been here a few weeks myself, but I know you’re gonna love this place! Everyone is soooo friendly! And the show is going to be really great, I can just tell! Imagine – you’re the first contestants! Isn’t that just the best?! Do you three know each other? Oh, of course you don’t! Silly me. Well….there’ll be plenty of time over the next few weeks, don’t you worry about that.”

Connor and the other boys sat in self-conscious silence. Trees flashed past the darkened windows. An occasional building. More trees. Greenery. Connor had no idea where he was. None of them had drank more than half their bottle when the limousine turned sharply from the highway and onto a bumpier road. The sound of tyres on gravel signified the end of the journey.

“Just leave your bottles there and follow me,” said Pamela with another honeyed smile. All stepped out of the limousine. They were in the countryside. A large modern building was set between the rustling trees in front of them. A fountain – more modern art than anything – sprayed with a bubbling hiss at its front. Two other limousines had already parked nearby and the other boys from the train stood beside them. The girl, Pamela, left Connor, Rhys and Stephen and joined the other two girls in the middle of this semicircle with an older man in a suit but no tie. He stood with his hands behind his back, surveying the scene. There were no cameras.

“Boys,” he began. He had a nasal whine to his voice and an English accent. He had to shout slightly, given that they were outdoors.

“Welcome to Kimble.” He paused, revealing the name of this unknown place. The name meant nothing to any of the boys assembled.

“My name is not important, but my position is. I am the ultimate authority here, the man in charge, the one who says what goes….please know that now.” The man scanned the boys in front of him. He took a gravelly half-step forward.

“Boys. You have chosen to be here, am I correct?” Without waiting for an answer he went on.

“You have all been found guilty of crimes punishable by prison or even worse. The law, however, takes your age into account. It’s lucky for you that I am not the law, for I would have dealt out far stronger punishments than the ones you have chosen to accept, please believe me. Some of you might have gone to a juvenile detention centre. One or two of you could well have found yourselves deep in the shale pits. Some of you may even have been sent to the Northern Shires to work with the Department of Enforcement.”

He spat the ‘t’ sound when he said this. He paused before continuing.

“There are some amongst us who are lucky to have escaped far worse punishment. Isn’t that so Randolph Alan?” He paused again.

The boys chanced a glance to the side, to the man in the middle, to the other boys, in the hope that Randolph Alan might make himself known. The man was looking at a huddle of three boys next to the last car on the right. The only sounds were from the fountain and the wind in the trees.

“Isn’t that so, Randolph Alan?”

Alan, the boy who’d sat with Connor and Grayson on the train journey, nodded meekly. Not for the first time he looked like he was about to cry.

Randolph?!’ thought Connor. This was no time for that though.

Alan and the man eyeballed one another briefly before Alan conceded and dropped his gaze.

“Would Mr Alan care to share his story with the rest of us here today, I wonder? Or is Mr Alan’s story already known to a select few?”

Connor felt his toes curl and his stomach tighten. He looked around carefully, trying to pick out Grayson. Grayson had already found him and was looking at him with a worried look on his face.

“Perhaps Mr Alan’s two newest friends might care to help him out?” At this, the man looked directly at Connor. Connor didn’t want to eyeball him, as Alan had done, but nor did he want to drop his gaze. Connor looked over the man’s left shoulder and focused on the hair of one of the girls. Its curls blew hypnotically. The man shifted his gaze to Grayson. Grayson shifted uncomfortably in his shoes. The gravel crunched harshly below.

“Well?” The man‘s voice rose a notch slightly at this.

It fell to Grayson to speak.

“Ehm, yes, Alan, eh, Randolph, sorry, told us that, eh, he had..he had…he had set a boy on fire.” The last word came thick and fast and loud. As an afterthought, he added, “Sir!”

“Exactly. Thank you, young man. It’s Grayson Anderson, I believe, isn’t it?”

Grayson nodded, hoping that was him finished.

“Yes. It seems our Mr Alan here sets his friends on fire! Sets. His. Friends. On. Fire! Not the sort of friend you want really, is it, eh?” The man looked around. Even the girls behind him were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the situation.

“And did our good friend Mr Alan tell us how the story ended, I wonder?” The man turned to face Connor.

Alan hadn’t told them the rest of the story. They hadn’t even asked.

“Connor Stewart. A voracious reader, I’m told. Can’t get enough of magazines, they say. Am I right?” The man didn’t need an answer. Everyone there knew he was right. “Did your friend Mr Alan explain what happened to the poor fellow whom he set ablaze? No! Of course he didn’t! For he wouldn’t want you to think of him as a murderer, would he now?”

The man’s voice went slightly giddy at the word ‘murderer’.

“That’s right! Mr Alan set his friend on fire…and killed him!”

Connor glanced at Alan. His lip was quivering, his hunched shoulders trembling.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” came the soft, strangulated reply.

“Oh! I don’t doubt you didn’t mean to kill him, young man. But the fact remains that you did in fact kill him…and kill him most horribly. And now you have accepted to be here as a punishment, am I right?”

This time the man waited for an answer.

“Yes,” replied Alan, sobbing. “I am here to accept my punishment.”

“Indeed you are. Indeed you are. As are you all….”

He surveyed them from left to right and back again.

“Here at Kimble, we treat punishment as art. As entertainment. In Roman times, the poor and the petty and the scum of society were thrown to the lions. You boys will all be thrown to the metaphorical lions. One of you will end victorious. Others may escape with their lives. Others though….”

His voice tailed away, leaving the bubbling fountain to hold its place.

“…but first! To your rooms! Your host for the day will show you your living quarters. Please, relax, get comfortable and be ready to meet in the recreation room in 45 minutes. I’d suggest perhaps a shower, a brush of the teeth, but strictly no phone calls home. There is a time and place for mobile phones, but this is neither the time nor the place, am I understood?”

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 2

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.

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 2

 

The instructions were that Connor’s parents must accompany him to the central train station for no later than 10.48. In the event, they were there a full 20 minutes earlier than that. On the platform, Connor’s mum fussed uncontrollably.

“Remember. You take the liquid paracetamol whenever you need it. If it runs out, you call us and we’ll send more. You must carry your allergy pen wherever you go. Check all your food. Don’t get caught out. Egg is hidden in all sorts of food. Do whatever you’re asked to do. Don’t argue with anyone….don’t give them any excuse to keep you there longer than you need to be. Do as they say and we’ll see you in a few weeks.” Much to Connor’s annoyance she ruffled his head.

A few other boys and parents stood in similar fashion up and down the platform. A large fat boy cried loudly, much to his parents’ embarrassment. No amount of shushing or arms around his doughy shoulders would calm him down. A boy with orange spiky hair sat sullenly on the ground, a bag by his feet, his parents talking to one another but not to him. One mum licked her finger and wiped something from her son’s cheek. He didn’t offer resistance.

One boy was particularly noticeable because he stood alone. Upright and proud, his black leather bag sat snugly between his feet. This boy stood like a soldier and when he noticed Connor noticing him, he stared straight through him as if he wasn’t there. His hair was oil-slick thick, gelled to perfection and with nothing out of place. This boy wasn’t dressed like the others either. No unzipped hoody. No branded t-shirt. No battered trainers. His black shoes were so shiny that from where Connor stood, they looked white. He wore dark grey suit trousers too, creased as sharp and thin as Connor’s mother’s wry, forced smile. He had on a black Mackintosh raincoat, which he wore on top of a brilliant white shirt, unbuttoned once, with no tie. This boy looked like a professional; an accountant or an architect and not at all like a pre-teenage petty criminal.

“Stay safe, son,” Connor’s father added proudly, one arm on his shoulder. “This is an exciting opportunity for you. Take it all in and enjoy the experience. We love you very much.”

The train slid silently into view. Unusually it was just one carriage long and there was none of the livery you’d normally expect to find on the side. There was just one set of doors too, slap bang in the middle of the carriage, which, by the time the train had slowed to a stop, were further up the platform from where Connor and his family stood. As they walked towards them, Connor caught sight of himself in the mirrored window and flattened his hair back down.

“Take care, Connor. Be good. I’ll maybe see you on the telly. I love you very much.” His mum kissed him awkwardly on the cheek, failing to hide the slow stream of tears that were running in tiny rivers through her powdery foundation. His dad shook his hand proudly and forced a smile. “We’ll see you in no time at all.”

Connor stifled his own tears, muttered a quiet but honest, “I love you too,” and stepped into the carriage. He looked around for a seat. The fat boy was still crying. Looking in the opposite direction, Connor saw a handful of four-seater berths and plenty of empty two-seaters. Most of the boys who were already inside had chosen to sit alone in the two-seaters, their bags sat defiantly in the spare space beside them. Connor picked two seats together, as far away from anyone else as was possible in this one carriage and slumped in, dumping his bag on the outside seat, taking the window seat for himself.

Only, there wasn’t a window.

Anywhere.

He looked up and down the carriage. Smooth, beige plastic, punctuated by the occasional logo of the TV company ran the length of the insides. A small notice that was too far away to read broke the pattern. But there were no windows anywhere.

As Connor contemplated the meaning of this, the train smoothly started up and he felt himself eased by an unseen force gently back into the soft seat. He imagined his parents outside, waving at their own reflection in a fake window, oblivious to the fact that Connor couldn’t see them. He took cold comfort from the notion that his parents thought Connor could see them and then he started to cry a slow, silent cry. The carriage was eerily quiet.

After a bit the first noises of life started. A sweet wrapper rustled somewhere behind him. A stifled yawn crept from a mouth somewhere to his left. The tell-tale ping of an incoming text message announced itself up ahead. Connor wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve and looked around to take stock of his surroundings. The spiky haired ginger boy swiped through his phone, clearly still in a sulk. The fat boy had cried himself to sleep. One boy was reading a comic. Another, sitting alone at a four-seater, had a family-sized bag of sweets scattered loosely on the table. He had his feet up on the seat opposite, a bottle wedged between his legs, and he was tapping his fingers to an unheard beat that was playing wirelessly on the pods in his ears. The boy in the Mackintosh stared straight ahead, eyes open, no devices or flim-flam around him. His demeanour unnerved Connor.

Looking away, he unwittingly caught the eye of the spiky haired boy. He tore his face further into a lip-curling snarl and aimed it in Connor’s direction. Message clearly received, Connor lowered his gaze and settled himself in for the journey. The letter that had arrived three days ago, the one that instructed him to be at the central train station for no later than 10.48, gave little in the way of useful information;

  • Pack a small overnight bag. On arrival at the TV studios, clothing will be provided.
  • Bring toiletries and essential medication. Do not worry about running out.
  • You may wish to bring a spare pair of shoes.
  • You may bring a selection of confectionary for the journey.
  • Reading material is essential.
  • Mobile devices are essential but must not be used to call home.
  • This letter is your train ticket. Do not discard it. Bring it with you on the day.
  • NO MONEY IS NECESSARY

Connor’s parents had followed the instructions carefully, although his father had slipped him a £20 note as they’d packed the car earlier that morning. He reached into his bag and pulled out a football magazine, one of over a dozen he’d stolen from Mr Szczęsny’s shop in the past few weeks. A sudden pang of guilt shot through him and after thumbing through less than half a dozen pages, he dropped the magazine to his side.

Connor leaned back into his seat and considered what the TV show might be about. Since the trial, he’d thought of little else. He couldn’t believe his luck! Right now, he might’ve been up to his waist in god knows what in who knows where with the Department of Enforcement. Instead, here he was, a passenger on a private train being taken to film a new TV series. No one knew anything of the show being made. It was top-secret. Connor had wondered if it might be a new soap opera but given that all the boys on the train were of similar age to him, he’d began to have doubts. Maybe it’d be a sports-related show. Football, perhaps. Or maybe ice hockey. Maybe he’d get to be the funny guy in a new sit-com. Or cooking. Cooking shows were all over TV. Perhaps Connor and his fellow passengers were to be filmed for some sort of junior Top Chef series. Food was being provided, after all. Maybe they’d be cooking it. His mind worked overtime and now, a day that had started quietly and forlornly had begun to hold appeal.

“Hey! You! Converse!”

Connor was aware of the voice but not yet aware that it was directed at him.

“Hey, You! Yeah, You! Mate!”

Connor turned his head over his shoulder to look between the gaps in the seat rests. The boy who’d been drumming on the table earlier was now diagonally behind him in the next row of seats. He was quite animated.

“Y’alright? How long d’you think we’ll be on this train for, eh?”

Connor had no idea, but before he could answer the boy had spoken again.

“I reckon we’ll be here for 5 or 6 hours. That’s what I heard.”

Connor didn’t have a clue where they were going, no one did, but that length of journey would indicate a destination quite far away. The Southern Regions, most likely. The Northern Shires were at most 4 hours away and they were as far as you could go before ending up in the sea. Until now, Connor hadn’t actually thought about where they’d be going. But now he was thinking.

“5 or 6 hours?” Connor repeated. “Who told you that?”

“That’s just what I heard. Somewhere south, probably. Miles away. Right out the road. That’s where they send criminals like us who are too young for proper jail.”

Criminals like us.’ Connor let the words sink in. He had forgotten about his status. In his wild thinking about TV shows and potential fame and all the stuff that comes with it, Connor had let the fact he was being sent here a criminal slip his overactive mind. The boy spoke again.

“I’m Grayson, by the way. What did they send you here for?” He emphasised the ‘you’.

Connor felt his cheeks flush. He hoped it wasn’t showing.

“Connor. What you here for?” He also emphasised the ‘you’.

“I ran through the neighbour’s garden and wrecked it – jumped on the vegetables, kicked the heads off all of their flowers. It was just a daft joke, but here I am.”

“I got caught stealing a magazine from the shop.”

“Man!” Grayson blew a soft whistle. “They’ll send you away for anything these days. Flowers….magazines…hardly bank robbery, is it?!”

Send you away.’ Those words stabbed at Connor’s heart. I am a criminal, he thought. I’m being sent away. Not to jail. Not to the Department of Enforcement. Maybe somewhere worse.

“D’you want to sit over where I’m sitting?” Grayson had moved next to Connor, but Connor’s bag prevented him from sitting down. “There’s more space. There’s a table. You can spread out a bit.”

Connor had been quite content on his own, but if this journey was going to be as long as Grayson seemed to think, it might help pass the time quicker if he’d someone to talk to. He squeezed out past his bag – it was a good excuse to come back to if Grayson turned out to be a total pain.

Connor slid into the four-seater berth, sitting backwards. With no windows this wasn’t really an issue.

“Sweet?” Grayson pushed a handful across the table. He spoke with his mouth full. “What d’you think he’s here for?” Grayson nodded in the direction of the spiky ginger-haired boy. “He looks angry. I bet he’s a dog kicker or something. A cat drowner.” Grayson chewed noisily.

Despite his eating manner, Connor maintained his focus on Grayson.

“I bet,” he said with a loud, wet, snap of a chew, “that he tortures pets. I bet he put a hamster in the washing machine. Or fried the tropical fish in a frying pan. He’s got that sort of look about him.”

Connor was reluctant to take part in this conversation, but he couldn’t disagree.

“Or that guy there,” Grayson said, a bit louder than he maybe realised. “Slick Rick. How long d’you think it takes him to do his hair in the morning?! Look at him, all dressed up! Where does he think he’s going?! I think he’s been a proper bam at school. I bet he’s the guy who calls the teachers out when they make a mistake. I bet he’s like, “school’s crap…you can’t teach me anything!” and he storms out of classrooms, kicking desks and slamming doors. He looks rich too. I bet his parents have sent him to, like, five private schools, and none of them can sort him out.”

Grayson shoved another sweet into his non-stop mouth. Connor turned carefully and sneaked a peek at the boy in the Mackintosh. He was still staring ahead, still no phone or book or anything beside him. Connor hoped he hadn’t heard Grayson talking about him.

The conversation continued between the two, important stuff mainly about YouTubers and xBox and what the TV show might be about. Neither offered up where they were from, or what family and friends they had back home. Connor quite liked Grayson. Despite having the sort of mouth on him that might bring both of them a punch on the nose, he was funny and generous and friendly. He was also not in the least bit anxious about what might happen in the immediate future, a positive trait that had started to rub off slightly on Connor. As the conversation waned and the train sped ever-forwards, Grayson returned to his ear pods, punctuating the silence at the table with occasional rat-a-tats and under his breath “uh-huhs”. Connor found himself deep in thought about what the next few days and weeks held.

“Alright guys?” A new voice. Connor looked up. It was the fat boy who’d been crying at the station. “D’you know if there’s a toilet on this train?”

“Oh, I dunno,” replied Connor. “Sorry.”

Grayson, forgetting about the music streaming to his ears, shouted out.

“Hey man! Y’alright! Sit down, sit down! Here!”

As he swept his bag to the floor between his feet, heads in the carriage turned to face them. Connor felt himself flush again. The boy wedged himself in next to Grayson, who by now had removed his ear pods.

“Grayson, mate. Sweet?”

“Thanks,” said the boy, taking one. “Alan. D’you know if there’s a toilet in here?”

“Sorry pal, Alan, mate. I’ve no idea.”

Connor looked up and down the carriage. One or two of the boys were watching them. Connor had now found himself at the epicentre of things and he didn’t like it. He scanned the length of the carriage for a toilet, ignoring their nosey gazes. Mackintosh boy had moved! Weird! He was now sitting at another 4-seater, facing the table he and Grayson, and now this boy Alan, were sitting at. He must’ve moved while Connor had been talking to Grayson. He watched the trio, his gaze as steely as always. Connor realised he’d been staring at him for longer than he should’ve and turned back to Alan.

“Can’t see any toilets, sorry. I’m Connor, by the way.”

“Alan. S’OK mate. I’ll just need to hold it in.”

“So, what’re you in for then, Alan?” Grayson took charge of the conversation.

“What d’you mean?”

“What brings you here? What did you do to deserve this?”

“Och. Eh, well,…”

Grayson interrupted.

“I’m here because I kicked the heads off of some flowers. Connor here nicked a magazine. What did you do?”

“I set fire to a boy at school.”

There was a shift in the atmosphere at the table. Connor looked at Grayson.

“Jeez, mate. Jeez.”

Wary of him now, Grayson shifted subconsciously to his right.

“What….how…why….?”

They both looked at him as he spoke.

“He picked on me. Like, every day for four years. The same things. ‘Fatboy’ this and ‘Lard Ass’ that. He’d kick me. Slap me. Demand my money. And everyone laughed. No one did anything to help. Four years. I thought when I went to secondary school that he might find someone else to pick on. But no. First year was even worse. The same kicking. The same slapping. The same names. And he humiliated me in front of everyone, even the girls. Came up behind me in the corridor after science one day, pulled my trousers and pants down. It was so humiliating. The next day, I waited for him in the playground. Threw some of my mum’s vodka on the back of his blazer and threw a match at him. He was on fire straight away. He never bothered me again.”

Alan reached for another sweet and stared quietly at the table.

Grayson fidgeted with his phone.

Connor was wishing he could get up and go back to where he’d been sitting at the start of the journey.

The three of them sat in silence for a bit. It was Alan who broke it.

“I really need to pee. Really. I’m never gonna last until we stop.”

“I’ll have a walk up to the end of the carriage,” said Connor. “There might be something there.” At this moment he was super-keen to appear extra-helpful towards Alan. He slid himself out, glad to be away from the table, and headed to the end of the carriage.

Connor made his way, drawing yet more unwanted attention to himself. Stepping into a small vestibule he found a first aid kit and a swing-lid bin. On a small table sat a sleeping laptop. In front of him was a door marked, ‘Driver – No Unauthorised Personnel’. But no toilet.

Heading in the opposite direction, Connor silently counted the number of boys in the carriage. There were ten in total, counting himself. Alan and Grayson sat together but otherwise everyone was in their own space. Avoiding eye contact, Connor walked to the vestibule at the end. It contained a toilet, currently engaged.

‘That makes eleven of us, then,’ thought Connor as he returned to the table. ‘A football team.’

“There’s a toilet at the far end, Alan.” Connor gave him a smile. “Someone’s in it though. Keep an eye out.”

Alan turned, looking towards the end of the carriage, as if his stare alone would vacate the cubicle. Eventually he could take no more. Shuffling himself out of his seat, Alan made his way to the toilet at the end of the carriage. He tapped gently on the door.

“Alright? Is someone in there?”

Silence.

He tapped again.

“Hello?”

He banged this time. Heads turned in the carriage. Alan waited.

Still silence.

Alan banged the door once more before swearing under his breath and heading back.

“There’s no one in it, mate. It’s just locked for no reason.”

A boy had leaned out to speak to Alan as he passed his seat.

“I tried earlier. Can’t be much longer until we stop….”

“Thanks, man,” replied Alan forlornly. “Thanks.”

Alan joined Grayson and Connor, told them the situation then sat back with his eyes closed. Perhaps a sleep would distract him.

The journey continued. Connor and Grayson chatted some more, dozed a bit, ate some more sweets, checked the time, complained between themselves about the length of journey. Alan continued to snooze, at one point his head falling gently onto Grayson’s shoulder. Grayson thought it best to leave it where it was for the time being. He put his ear pods back in and pressed play on his phone. Connor decided to stretch his legs and went for another walk along the carriage.

Ghosting past the boy in the Mackintosh he happened to glance at the small notice posted between the TV company logos. The text was small and Connor had to lean across the seats to read it. I was some sort of poem.

People of Kimble, The

Elements will see to it that some of you will fail. That’s just the

Natural order of things.

Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.

Not all will make the return journey, the

Consequence of failure should be obvious to

Everyone.

A tiny version of the TV company’s logo, centred at the bottom, completed the notice.

Connor was pondering all of this when the train noticeably slowed in speed. Fairly soon, he gathered, it would be coming to a stop. Passing his original seat, he pulled his bag and joined the other two. Stifled yawns, stretches and the sound of impatience began to filter through the carriage. The muffled bump of bags dropping to the floor. The clattering of plastic as possessions were retrieved and manipulated out of the overhead storage units. The ginger haired boy was standing up, tucking himself in, his jacket already on, his bag swinging from his shoulder. A couple of others were putting on hoodies, readying themselves. Mackintosh boy sat as impassively as ever.

Sure enough, the train was coming to a stop. Grayson scrunched the sweet wrappers into a ball, leaving it to roll on the table. As the train jerked to a halt, the boys were momentarily pressed back into their seats. The false lighting of the carriage which they hadn’t been aware of until now was flooded with brilliant daylight as the central door opened automatically. Ginger was first out, followed by a trickle of boys from the other end of the carriage. Connor, Grayson and Alan were next. Behind them, last off the train, was the boy in the Mackintosh.

 

(more to follow in the future)