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The Catalyst

by The Green Shoes 11 months ago in fiction

Willow's island home is under attack and she is the catalyst. Follow Willow's past and present experiences leading up to and surviving the end of her world.

“You are the catalyst.”

No. No, I wasn’t. I was just regular Willow. Regular Willow. There was nothing special about me. Nothing at all.

I grabbed the last cup of watered-down coffee that I would ever drink and savored every drop. The stores had been picked clean months ago, but I got lucky last night. I found a gas station that had been left almost completely untouched.

Our neighbors were standing in the middle of the street. I could see them from my bedroom window. They were looking up at something, but I couldn’t see what it was from here. I yelled for my mom, but she didn’t answer.

“You are the catalyst.”

“SHUT UP!” I screamed to the universe.

I huffed and threw off my covers, shivering against the cold of the morning. Mom must have forgotten to turn the heater on again. I yelled for her again as I tromped down the stairs in my sweats, but there was still no answer.

I needed to find something to eat soon, or the coffee would make me sick. The gas station had plenty of snack foods, but nothing of substance was any good anymore.

“Chips it is,” I said to myself with a deep sigh. “Should I have sour cream and onion, or plain?” I considered the two bags carefully, weighing my options. “Better keep it plain.” I nodded to myself and walked out of the gas station.

I sat down on the curb and tore open the bag.

I wanted to know what everyone was looking at anyway, so I threw open the front door and marched down the steps. Mom was standing with our neighbors in the middle of the street. They were all staring at a huge plume of smoke that was growing on the horizon, steadily getting nearer and nearer.

“What is that, Mom?” I asked in a hushed tone.

“I don’t know, sweetheart. Where’s your brother?”

“Inside, I guess?” I said watching the smoke. “Is that dangerous?”

The chips were stale, but that was to be expected. No one would ever restock those shelves again, not unless I did it myself. Two years was a long time to wait for new supplies to come. I wasn’t naïve. I knew no one was coming. I was on my own forevermore.

My stomach protested against the greasy starch as it combined with the watery coffee, but it would just have to get used to it because this was all it was getting for a while.

I threw the empty bag in the overflowing trashcan. If I were planning on sticking around here, I would probably try to do something about that, but I had to keep moving.

“It’s just a little smoke, sweetie. I’m sure it’s fine,” Mom said distractedly. “Go get your brother some breakfast, will ya?”

“Sure Mom.” I turned to head back into the house but stopped short as an explosion rocked the earth under our feet.

People started screaming and running in a blind panic to get away from…what? Where had the explosion come from? What blew up?

The last time I stayed in one place for too long I got robbed. They took everything I had so carefully saved: medical supplies, my tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food, even my freaking toothpaste.

I learned my lesson real quick. Trust no one. Keep moving. Guard your stuff with your life. I would never again let any of my newfound supplies out of my sight. Everything was safely tucked away in the pack on my back.

“Get inside, Willow! Quick!” my mom screamed at me, pushing me up the steps in her haste to get inside.

“What’s wrong, Mom? The house shook,” my six-year-old brother Tim said groggily. “It was scary and I couldn’t find you.” He reached up for my mom to pick him up and she did gratefully, hugging him close to her chest.

“I don’t know, baby,” she said into his hair. “But we’re safe inside.”

I wasn’t so sure.

I headed back inside the store and stuffed an extra bag full of snacks and as much water as I could carry. I stared forlornly at all the water I was being forced to leave behind. Water was precious. The river was contaminated thanks to the debris that had fallen into it after they blew up our hospitals. And I hadn’t found any freshwater streams yet. I had been living off of tepid rainwater for the past few days and I knew I was filling my body with all kinds of nasty bacteria, but I couldn’t live without water for long.

What I really needed was a wagon or shopping cart to push all my things around in. It would be hard to protect when I slept, but it would save my back from this heavy pack.

Another explosion shook our house. Mom’s plate collection fell from the top of the kitchen cupboards and shattered across the floor. She whimpered and hugged my brother tighter.

“What do we do, Mom?” I asked in a shaky voice.

“Maybe it’ll stop soon. Maybe that was it,” she said, but I could tell she was just trying to make me feel better. She had no better idea of what was going on than I did.

“What if it’s not?” I asked.

“Turn on the news,” she said quietly. She rocked my brother, who was slowly falling back to sleep. I was glad my brother was blissfully clueless to whatever was happening.

Walking through the towns was tantamount to suicide, but I considered a quick trip just to find a wagon. I was betting there would be one in someone’s backyard. Little kids loved riding around in wagons. Maybe I could even find a bicycle for my efforts. I hadn’t been so lucky so far, but I had been sticking to the outskirts of the towns, mostly the woods along the riverbanks, where there weren’t a lot of houses and stores to scavenge from. Enough survivors knew by now that the rivers were useless for fish and water, so they stayed away, which was perfect for me.

I switched on the TV but was met with static. It hurt my ears and startled my brother. I scrambled to hit the mute button and then started changing channels until I found one that was still working.

“There’s been an incident on Washetaka Island,” the news anchor stated calmly. “Information has been slowly coming in, but we have been able to ascertain that the island is under attack by unknown forces. It is unclear who these people are and what their motive is, but we do know that they have targeted the Washetaka Memorial Hospital. There seem to be very few, if any survivors.”

I sucked in a shaky breath and held my hands over my mouth. Dad. I looked over at my mom who was sobbing quietly into my brother’s hair.

Dad was gone.

Early on, I had mistakenly trusted the wrong people. We had banded together inside the gym of my old high school and shared our resources. It seemed all right at first. There were about ten of us at the time, but after only a few weeks, the men started acting funny. They were getting aggressive toward the women and demanding that we treat them with deference. It felt like we were slipping back in time.

We went along with it for a time, but one by one the women started disappearing. Each morning, someone else would be gone, and I knew it was only a matter of time until they came for me next, so I slipped away during a scavenging mission and never looked back.

Something was very wrong with the men on the island.

“Emergency crews have been unable to access the island. The port is under siege as we speak and the military has been dispatched to take control of the crisis.”

“That’s good, right?” I asked Mom hopefully. “They’ll come rescue us. Everything’ll be fine soon.”

Mom didn’t seem to hear me, though. She just kept rocking Tim back and forth with a glassy look in her eyes.

I guided her slowly to the couch and eased her and Tim down. She continued her rocking and my brother snored softly on her shoulder. This was too much for her.

I ran up to my room and grabbed my phone from its charger. I tried calling my dad, but it went straight to voicemail. That was a bad sign. I knew in my heart-of-hearts that he was gone, but I wasn’t ready to accept it yet. All those doctors, nurses, patients just gone in the blink of an eye. What were we going to do now?

I took off my shoes, tied the laces together, and slung them around my neck. I could be much quieter in just my socks and my feet were quickly growing used to the landscape. Stealth had become my new norm and I was getting very good at it. I couldn’t trust any of the men on the island and I needed to stay as far away from them as I possibly could.

But this was an island. There were only so many places to hide. I had to keep moving. Eventually, I could circle back to that gas station, but it would have to wait a few weeks, and the odds were good that someone else would discover it and empty it out before I could get back for those desperately needed supplies.

“Oh, God,” the news anchor said in a hollow voice. He put his hand to his ear and listened for a moment. His poise and control momentarily forgotten in the horror of what he was hearing. “God help them all. Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve just gotten word that all of the rescue helicopters were shot down and the boats were fired upon. There were no survivors. If there’s anyone on Washetaka Island watching this right now, no help is coming. Repeat, no help is coming. May God protect you all.”

I watched in horror as the screen went blank for a moment and then the emergency broadcast system began its beeping tone.

I walked along the roadside for about a mile or so before I started to see houses peeking through the trees. I had already been in most of these and hadn’t found anything worth taking, so I kept walking past these, but I knew there was a small clump of houses up on the hillside that I hadn’t been to yet that might yield some good finds. I couldn’t remember exactly where they were, but I cut through an overgrown yard to start making my way up the hill just in case they were nearby.

This yard was large and open and it made me very uncomfortable to be so exposed, especially in this neighborhood. Max and his crew ran this neighborhood and they were a special breed of mean. I hadn’t had any personal experience with them, but I had watched helplessly from afar as they assaulted a group of women, taunting and beating them until finally dragging them into their homes for things better left unsaid. After that, I vowed to give them a wide berth.

“Mom,” I called, trying to snap her out of her stupor. “Mom! Answer me!” I was seriously worried that something had snapped inside her at the prospect of losing my dad. “Mom, can you handle Tim while I go see what I can find out about Dad?”

She continued rocking Tim back and forth, staring at the emergency broadcast stripes on the screen. Maybe once Tim woke up, Mom would snap out of it and be okay with him until I got back.

I dashed upstairs to get dressed and grabbed a water bottle and the few meager first aid supplies we had in the bathroom cabinets just in case. My dad had taught me a few things while out on backpacking trips so that I would know what to do if anything were to happen to him. I was suddenly extremely grateful that I had grudgingly paid attention to his lessons.

I grabbed the keys to my car on the way out the door and locked the door behind me for good measure. The smoke was thick outside and it was hard to see where I was going, so the drive was slow, but I knew the way to the hospital so well I could practically make the trip with my eyes closed. I had spent many, many lunch breaks with Dad in the hospital’s food court.

“Not so fast little lady!”

I looked back to see a massive man emerging from the back door of the house behind me. I picked up my pace and started sprinting as fast as I could. I was almost to the tree line, then I could lose him in the dense foliage. His massive frame wouldn’t allow him to navigate the maze of trees as quickly as I could.

I wasn’t watching where I was going, and I tripped over a tree root sticking up out of the ground. My pack went flying over my head and I heard the worst sound in the world. The material had ripped and spilled the contents of my pack all over the place.

“No. No. No. No,” I cried, scrambling to gather up whatever I could.

“Oh, no,” the man called from much closer than I expected. “Look what you’ve done. Let me help you,” he said in a slimy voice.

I couldn’t stick around. I knew what happened to the women who were captured by the men on this island. I had to leave all my precious supplies behind. I fought back tears and started grabbing things at random and stuffing them into my ruined pack. I hugged it to my chest, knowing I was leaving so many essential supplies behind, but there was nothing for it, I had to go. Now.

As I neared the hospital my mouth fell open at the devastation. It was worse than I ever could have imagined. The entire hospital was a pile of smoking rubble. A few people were sifting through the ruins, trying to see if they could find anyone still alive. There was no sign of the attackers that I could see. I was guessing that they were all at the ports keeping any rescue crews from reaching our island.

I drove as close as I could and ran the rest of the way to the hospital. A man was moving pieces of wreckage out of the roadway to make room for a waiting firetruck. I approached him to see what I could do to help, but the look in his eyes when he spotted me gave me pause. His eyes were bloodshot and his jaw clenched in fury. He picked up a heavy-looking chunk of concrete and stared me down. I was suddenly afraid he would throw it at me, so I backed away with my hands in the air.

“I’m sorry. I’m just looking for my dad. He’s a doctor here. I’ll just go this way,” I said in as non-threatening of a tone as I could muster.

I climbed around the fringes of the debris, looking around for anyone who seemed like they could use a hand. I spotted another man moving chunks of concrete and ruined furniture in an almost frenzied manner. Something seemed off about this man, too, and I decided it would be best to keep my distance.

I didn’t look back as I ran as fast as I could into the trees. I was going uphill and the blanket of leaves under my feet were slippery. I had no shoes on to provide traction and I had no time to stop and put them on. Hugging my pack to my chest meant I couldn’t use my hands to steady myself and I fell often. I couldn’t hear any sounds of pursuit and I hoped he had contented himself to stealing the supplies I left behind rather than trying to catch up to me.

I spotted a small rundown cabin at the top of the hill and made my way for that. It would have to be good enough for long enough to pull my shoes on and do something about my ruined pack. This close to the other houses, I doubted there would be anything useful left in here, but it was worth a peek. Maybe there would be some sewing supplies, but that was wishful thinking to the point of foolishness.

I yanked on the door hard, but it wouldn’t budge. I checked behind me and listened hard for sounds of pursuit, but all I could see and hear were the birds and squirrels in the trees. I cleared the debris from around the edges of the small window next to the door and eased it open as quietly as I could. It protested loudly and I cringed, checking behind me again to be sure I was still alone.

My pack went through the window first, followed quickly by my shoes, then I squeezed my way inside. It was freezing and very dark inside.

“Hello?” I called quietly.

I had found what I assumed to be the general area where my dad would have been at the time of the explosion and was frantically digging through the rubble with my bare hands. I called out for him often but received no reply. I knew he was gone, and with every passing moment, my heart believed it more and more.

Another explosion knocked me off my feet. It had come from the direction of the ports and I looked over to see a huge plume of smoke rise into the air. Our barge. They blew up our barge. No cars would be leaving the island now. The ferryboat was next. That explosion didn’t surprise me like the barge had. I had anticipated it and watched in numb horror as the second plume of smoke joined the first.

No answer. I sighed in relief and quickly pulled my shoes on. I wouldn’t be as quiet now, but the leaves were too slippery. I needed speed over stealth now that they knew I was near. No doubt the big man had told his friends I was here by now. I needed to put distance between myself and them and fast.

My pack had ripped completely open down one side and there was no quick way to fix it. I used the straps to hold it semi-closed and squeezed my arms through so that it was being held closed by my back as well. It was the best I could do until I could find something better far away from here.

A twig snapped outside of the cabin startling me into action. I crawled away from the window as quickly and quietly as I could. This was a one-room cabin, so there was nowhere to hide, but there was a back window, and I eased it up as slowly as I dared. I had already been here for too long. I clumsily tumbled out of the window and rolled down the backside of the hill for a few feet before coming to a stop against a tree with a small “oof.”

I was up and running in less than a second, determined to keep running until sunset. This was a stupid idea and I regretted every single second of it. I thought I could sneak into town and grab a wagon and get out again, but obviously, I had underestimated my clumsiness.

“Miss! That area is really unstable; you need to get out of there now!” A woman waved her arms frantically at me. “I already cleared that area. There were no survivors. Climb back out exactly the way you came in!”

I obeyed immediately, pausing every few feet to wipe away my tears and gain my bearings. I wasn’t exactly sure how I had gotten this far into the rubble, but I climbed back onto the road with tentative frantic steps.

“Oh, thank goodness,” the woman called when I had finally touched solid ground. “What were you doing in there?”

“I was looking for my dad,” I called back. “He’s a doctor. He works in the triage center on this side of the hospital.”

“Honey, I’m so sorry. There’s no way he could have survived,” she said sadly.

“You don’t know that!” I shot back, but I knew she was right.

She nodded at me and picked her way through the rubble to my side. “I don’t know for sure, but so far no one has been found alive.”

I allowed myself a moment to sob out my heartbreak at the reality that he was really gone. “Do you know why they’re doing this to us?”

She shook her head sadly. “No, but there’s something wrong with them. There’s something wrong with all of the men. They’re not thinking straight.”

“I’ve noticed that, too,” I told her.

“You take care of yourself, and be careful,” she said smiling sadly at me. She turned and walked away.

“You, too,” I called back quietly.

I was torn between ignoring her words of warning and continuing my search for my father myself, despite the fact that she had already cleared his part of the hospital and had found no one.

I looked up at the sound of a helicopter approaching the island. I waved my arms to let them know there were good people here who needed help.


The helicopter was firing at the men I had passed by. I watched in horror as they went down one by one. Then it turned and flew a few yards away and started firing again.

“What the hell is happening?!” I shouted.

“YOU ARE THE CATALYST,” a voice boomed from everywhere at once.

It was dusk before I finally felt safe enough to stop and rest for a moment. I could see the group of houses that I had originally been heading for and kept them in my sights. I would approach them after it was fully dark.

For reasons I’d never understand, the men on the island never went out after dark. They all slept like babies every night. It had lured me into a false sense of security when I first discovered this little quirk, and I considered becoming nocturnal, but that was yet another lesson I learned very quickly. Sleeping while they were awake was the absolute worst thing I could possibly have done. I was at my most vulnerable while I was sleeping and I had allowed them to walk right up to me without my knowledge.

The first time I was captured by one of the men, I had had everything stolen from me, even my shoes, before I was tied up and thrown into the back of a truck. They took me to our city hall and tied me to a post that had been installed in the center of the one courtroom we had on the island.

A man was sitting behind the judge’s bench in a bizarre macabre interpretation of a nineteenth-century judge, powdered wig and all. He questioned me relentlessly about things that made absolutely no sense to me.

“Why did you let them come here?”

“Where were you when we needed you?”

“Why haven’t you fulfilled your mission yet?”

There were more nonsense questions about this mysterious mission that I was supposed to be on, but I had no clue what they meant. Each time I answered that I didn’t know, they got angrier and angrier with me.

Finally, I was left alone as the sun was setting. True to form, they all went away to sleep for the night. It was well past midnight when I was finally freed by a frantic and jittery woman who disappeared as soon as my bindings were cut. I have never seen her again, but I would never forget her kindness that night.

“What?” I stared around in confusion. “Who said that? Who are you?”

“YOU ARE THE CATALYST,” the voice repeated.

“Are you talking to me? The catalyst to what? This?” I gestured wildly around at the devastation.

There was no response.

Yet another explosion rocked the island. I looked toward the docks, but it hadn’t come from that direction. I turned in a circle, not seeing any new smoke until I was facing back toward my neighborhood.

“NO!” I screamed.

I checked in the windows of the first house I came to but retreated quickly when I saw a man sleeping on the couch.

I tried the next house and the next with the same results. I mentally screamed at myself for this wasted trip. All this trouble had left me with less than nothing. Clearly, I wasn’t meant to have a wagon.

I walked away from the homes in despair. I would have to circle back to the gas station much sooner than I had planned, but if I could make it there tonight, I could hopefully get back out before anyone noticed. I desperately needed a new pack, but this one had been a blessing that I wouldn’t be graced with again. I would have to content myself with finding a way to repair it the best I could with whatever was in the gas station.

I drove back toward my neighborhood blindly. I couldn’t see through the smoke and tears but I no longer cared. I couldn’t lose everyone I cared about all in one day. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t fair.

I slammed my steering wheel in frustration. There was too much debris blocking the road, forcing me to abandon my car well before I had reached my home. I ran blindly toward my house, but I already knew what I would find. My home was gone. My mom was gone. My brother. Oh, god, my baby brother.

I sank to my knees in the middle of the street. The same place we had stood only hours earlier watching the plumes of smoke that had taken my dad from us.

“WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?!” I screamed out.

A dark chuckle scared me so badly that I fell to my butt and scrambled back a few feet.

“Because we need you, Willow,” a man said from within the haze of smoke. I couldn’t see more than a blurred outline of his form, but I could tell that he was massive. At least seven feet tall and all muscle.

“Who are you? How do you know me?” I cried out, fighting for purchase on the ruined road.

“We’ve been watching you your whole life, child. Do you not remember me?”

“NO!” I screamed and finally found my footing. I ran flat out into the smoke and didn’t stop until my lungs were screaming at me and I collapsed in the middle of someone’s front yard.

The same dark chuckle greeted me from the darkness.

“You did this, Willow. You brought this upon your family. You invited us to your little island home. You are the catalyst.”

The gas station looked much the same as it had the night I found it. No one was around, so I cautiously made my way inside.

“Damn,” I said out loud. Someone had been here already. The shelves were picked almost clean. There were a few bags of chips and a lone bottle of water on the floor, but that was it. I grabbed everything and made my way around the counter to the chair and sat down with a huff. I put my pack on the counter and watched forlornly as things started spilling out of the holes. I searched under the counter for anything that might help hold it together, but there wasn’t much.

Maybe I could chew some gum and stick it together that way. I laughed out loud at my idiocy. Maybe there would be something in the storeroom or the small office. I decided to start with the office.

“YES!” I whisper-shouted in glee. A stapler was sitting on the desk, shining at me in all its wonderful glory. I snatched it up and set about repairing my pack.

By the time I was done, it looked pretty gnarly but functional. A quick inventory revealed that I had lost a lot of food, most of my water, and my only blanket. But my tent was still strapped safely to the bottom of the pack and my one change of clothes was still stuffed in the bottom of the pack. I would call that a victory.

A glance out the window showed a lightening on the horizon, so I quickly went to check the storeroom to see if there was anything left behind. The door was shut and I opened it quickly, not actually expecting to find anything.

I almost screamed when I saw three women staring back at me. They were huddled in the corner of the store, looking terrified. It had been months since I’d seen another woman. I didn’t know how they were still alive.

I held my arms up to show that I was unarmed and meant them no harm. “It’s okay,” I said quietly. “I’ll just go.” I started to back out of the storeroom, but one of the women snatched at my ankle and sent me sprawling onto my back on the storeroom floor.

“This is your fault,” she snarled at me.

I got quickly to my feet again and backed out of her reach.

“I know.”

“The catalyst to what?!” I yelled at the man.

“The end of the world,” he said simply.

No. My brain refused to process what I was hearing. The end of the world? That wasn’t possible. And it definitely couldn’t have been because of me. I hadn’t even had a chance to live a life. I hadn’t done anything significant. I hadn’t even been off the island since I was brought here as a toddler.

My mouth dropped open. Oh, no.

I tore out of the gas station, my tired legs protesting. I was exhausted. I had done far too much running for one day and hadn’t eaten since that bag of chips and coffee the morning before. I couldn’t go much further or I would pass out. I could already see the stars dancing on the edges of my vision.

I knew of a treehouse out in the forest that I had discovered months ago and I made my way to it now. I desperately needed food and rest. I hated sleeping during the day, but hopefully, up in the treehouse, I would be safe for a while. So far, no one else knew about it and that made it just about the safest place on this island for me at the moment.

“You’ve figured it out, at last, I see,” he said with another dark chuckle.

“How did you find out?” I asked in horror.

No one alive knew where I had come from. My dad knew, but he was gone now. Not even my mom had been privy to that information. It was a topic that had caused many nasty fights between my parents over the years until my mom had finally given up and pretended like I had come from an orphanage like every other adopted child on the planet.

“I know things,” he said cryptically.

I scoffed. “Obviously,” I said in a rare moment of bravery. “So, how did I cause all this?” I gestured wildly around me. “Why now? After all this time?”

“It was time,” he said infuriatingly cryptically, yet again.

“Time? TIME?!” I started laughing hysterically. “Go to hell!” I shouted at him and ran away.

I climbed the ladder to the platform and threw off my pack. I tore into a bag of chips, barely pausing to taste them, and then downed half the bottle of water.

That dark chuckle that I had come to despise so much; the one that haunted my dreams, sounded from somewhere nearby. The forest was starting to lighten with the coming day, but I couldn’t see the man anywhere.

“You’ve really done it this time, haven’t you, Willow?”

“SHUT UP!” I shouted to the trees.

“Come home.” His whisper came from everywhere and nowhere.

Oh, child, you’re already there.”

* * *


The Green Shoes

A.L. Shilling grew up in Southern California. She has earned her Master's Degree from USC. Go Trojans! She owns a local dance studio and dances with a professional company. In her spare time, she enjoys writing short stories of all kinds!

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