The Catalyst

Cat-a-lyst (n): 1. a substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible. 2. an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. - Merriam Webster


The undulating wail of an alarm startled her from her sleep, but she did not cry out as most children would. Blinking curiously toward the tiny window near the top of the door, she watched light and shadow flicker in an uneven pattern, like the flash of far-off lightning. She sat up on her little cot, and swung her socked feet toward the cool concrete floor.

More commotion. Now there was the thunder of running feet, shouts of – confrontation? fear? warning? She could not tell, but perhaps she should put on her shoes. She bent to retrieve the small white trainers, and quietly put them on. The noise outside her door continued on unabated, but nobody stopped and came in.

She was glad of that. Sometimes when they did come in, the needles hurt, even when they spoke in kind voices. And sometimes, when she got the answers wrong, their voices became hard and angry. Maybe they were moving again; it had happened a time or two before, always in the middle of the night, with much bustling and scurrying about.

There was a sharp noise, followed by a low rumble that shook the entire place they were keeping her. The metal frame of her cot rattled loudly against the stone walls. More rapid footfalls, a terrified scream abruptly cut off. And then, a low, but distinct command:

"Check the cells."

She tried not to react, but could not help lowering her head toward her chest in disappointment. They were coming after all… but maybe just to move her. She supposed it would be too much to hope that they would forget about her, and accidentally leave her behind. She swung her legs and smacked the heels of her shoes together, rhythmlessly, and twirled one of her chestnut braids around her finger. She waited, as the rattling of door handles and the creaking of unoiled hinges grew louder and closer. Each time, the door to an empty cell slammed shut with an echoing clang. The chaos had ebbed; she could still hear the clash, but it was farther away. Was she the only one left in here?

Then, a shadow crossed the small, square window, a face, cloaked and indistinguishable. She could see a glint of a gaze; it met hers briefly.

The agent's name is Falworth, she thought matter-of-factly.

There was an inarticulate cry that followed the shaking of the locked door. Falworth must have tried Alohamora, for the door quivered briefly like gelatin, but remained unyielding. The shadowy face peered through the window again. When he turned, his cloak fell back; he was young, with honey-colored hair and a strong profile.

Falworth has been married for six months. His wife's name is Regina. He probably won't get to see her until morning.

Others must have joined him. She could hear voices, muffled but audible. They were trying to open her door. They wanted to get her out… to get her away. For the first time, she regarded the little glass square with something like interest sparking in her green eyes.

These weren't any of the needle people. Perhaps they were going to let her out of here. Maybe they would take her to the zoo. Cautiously she stood, and trod softly to the door. She folded her hands neatly in front of her, and waited patiently.

The young man attempting to open her door peered in again, and did a double take, when he saw her standing so closely.

"Get back!" he told her, his voice muffled as if heard from a great distance. His hand lifted for the accompanying gesture. "We'll have you out of there in just a moment, little one. Move away from the door."

Regina had long brown hair that he thought was very pretty. He thought maybe when they had a daughter, she might look like me.

Obediently, she stepped backward, three precise steps, until she could feel the metal rim of the cot pressing into the backs of her legs.

A low rumble began and gradually built into a roar, and the door flew open with so much force that it hit the wall behind it and trembled on its hinges. Now Falworth was accompanied by another cloaked man; they stepped inside, little spirals of smoke still twirling up from the tips of their wands.

The other agent's name is Dunwiddie.

"Hi there, darling. I'm Auror Falworth, and this is Auror Dunwiddie. He's my partner. Can you come with us please?" He held out his hand to her.

She turned anxious eyes to the open doorway. She was never supposed to be out in the corridor without one of the needle people. It was why they always locked it up tight. To keep her safe, they said, but she didn't believe them.

He knows why I am scared. It makes him angry. But not at me.

"I promise it's all right. The people who did this to you, they're going to go to prison. For a very long time. They cannot hurt you anymore."

She took a deep breath, as if steeling herself to jump, and reached up to wrap her small fingers around Falworth's hand.

"There's a girl," he said, reassuringly. He smiled down at her.

He would never hurt me. He thinks I'm a poor brave little girl.

"Can you tell us your name, love?"

"My name is Eleanor."

"And your last name? The names of your parents?" She blinked up at him, confused.

He doesn't understand why I don't understand.

"Eleanor is my only name. I don't have any parents."

She felt the two men exchange glances over her head. They asked her more questions, about her birthday, how old she was, the names of any people who were close to her. She didn't know any of the answers. Were they going to punish her?

Falworth saw her fright. His eyes were kind.

"It's okay, Eleanor. You've done well. We're going to take you to some people who will help you. We need to find your family."

Family? There was no family. There were only the needle people, and their prodding and questions, and their bland, expressionless faces behind the medical masks. She looked frantically back toward her cell, although she didn't know why. Hadn't she wanted to leave this dreadful place?

Auror Falworth misunderstood her glance.

"Do you need your things? Any toys… dolls, books? Extra clothes?" He appeared ready to double back toward the door. She tugged on his hand, shaking her head.

"I don't have any things. There isn't anything in there, except my bed and the table, and… the commode."

He's angry again. But still not at me.

"What are bastards?"

Falworth grew very still. So still that Dunwiddie asked him if he was all right.

"How did –?" But he didn't finish his sentence. He squeezed her hand, and tried to force his face into a smile.

"Come on, love. We're going to take you to some people who will help you."

"Where are we going?" she asked, but his answer had no meaning for her.

"St. Mungo's."