The Catalyst

By Bada Bing

Jean adjusted the straps of her backpack as tight as they could go. It rested awkwardly on her

back. Still she refused to give it any slack, choosing instead to shift uncomfortably as she walked

from her dorm to her first class of the day. The sun lashed at her arms and legs until she felt the

itch of sweat gathering around her lower back. If it was any other day, she would have been

seated on the worn, blue seats of the metro bus, but not today. Ignoring the dampness of her

shoulders, Jean continued her slow trek.

Several minutes later, she arrived outside the classroom building. Lecture had started ten

minutes ago. She did not go in. Jean stood outside, beside the cement benches. Her eyes were

fixed on the rusty brown mound surrounded by several ants. One ant strained against the heat as

it struggled to balance the massive crumb on its tiny back. It inched closer and closer to the ant-

pile. How pointless, she thought, the stupid ant must wade through the stinging sea of cement to

scavenge for morsels only to return to this pitiful pile then go back out and do it all over again.

Pathetic. She brushed her leg against the mound. A wave of ants squirmed out of the crushed

mess. They darted stupidly in each direction, crawling on top of each other in a confused haste.

Jean stared at them with a queer sense of satisfaction. She’d helped them in a way, she thought,

now they had a purpose.

A messy-haired girl brushed past her and scrambled up the steps towards the door. Jean

indolently dragged her feet towards the girl’s direction. The gruff, cigarette-stained voice of Dr.

Rainsford greeted Jean as she sulked to the back of the auditorium where Dusty waited.

“Do my eyes deceive me or is Dr. 4.0 actually late.”

Jean’s lip quivered in a wan attempt at smiling. Gingerly, she slipped her backpack off, and

then placed it securely beside her seat. “Late night, stats test tomorrow,” she mumbled before

sitting down. Dusty nodded understandably before leaning back against his chair. His open

notebook revealed incoherent scribbles. He looked at Jean.

“Dude, are you okay?”

Jean froze. Her tongue sat heavy in her mouth. Fuck. “Yeah, why?”

“You haven’t started transcribing Dr. What-the- fuck.”

“Oh,” Jean muttered, “I-I- uhh forgot my notebook.” Her hand hovered over her bloated

backpack.

Dusty snickered. “Are you hi-- “

His words were cut short by the chorus of “sorry” and “excuse me” from a heavy, blonde girl

several seats down from him. She was squeezing her way down the row. Her pudgy, feet

shuffled carelessly in front of her before knocking over Jean’s backpack. Jean echoed the girl’s

gasp as she lunged towards it.

“I’m so s—“

“Jesus, watch where you’re fucking going,” Jean hissed. Spit flew from her cracked lips, as

she clutched the bag between her legs. She was trembling.

Several people including Dusty glanced in her direction.

“Crazy bitch,” the girl said before walking off towards the exit.

“Wait,” Dusty chuckled, “are you holding for somebody?” Jean’s vacant stare prompted him

further, “Christ Jean, how much do you have?”

“a-a l-lot,” Jean stuttered, “that’s why I couldn’t bring out my notebook.”

“You’re doing a shit job at being discreet,” Dusty replied as he stretched towards the bag.

Impulsively, Jean seized his wrist. They stared at each other in a tense silence. She released his

hand, reached for her bag, turned, and left.

The quips and chirps of the birds washed over Jean as she marched towards the fountain.

They were no different from ants, Jean thought as she gawked at the girls in front of her. They

were indistinguishable in their matching Nike shorts and oversized T-shirts. One girl chattered

mindlessly while the other nodded solemnly as she scrolled through her phone. Jean looked

around at the other students littered about the campus. In an eerily similar fashion, they each held

a tiny box between their palms with their eyes glued to the dull screen. Some wore headphones.

Others did not. She scowled. “Fucking Ants,” Jean thought aloud, “it’s just school then

homework then sleep then school then homework then sleep just to prepare for the similar

monotonous routine of work then Netflix then sleep then work then Netflix then…. She

struggled to hoist her own crumb over the steep hill towards the Quad. Soon it will be different,

Jean thought as she neared closer to her destination. Shaky breaths escaped her nostrils as she

delicately removed her backpack. A shiver vibrated through her core despite the mid-afternoon

sun. She sat on the wooden bench. She knew what came next.

Nobody truly acknowledged her. A few glanced in her direction. A couple giggled on the

grassy patch several feet away from the fountain. Jean raised her head towards the pale blue sky,

and she watched the idle clouds. Her eyes caught on a stray ant on the bench. Her lips cracked

into a smile as she recalled the previous ant-pile that she’d destroyed. Had she not motivated

those mindless creatures? Had the prospect of danger not stirred them from their monotonous

ways? It was why she had to do this. Her hand fluttered instinctively towards the zipper of her

bag. She continued to watch the wandering ant. She wondered about the nature of man. Fear. The

dialect spoken by both man and beast: the fear of pain and the fear of death. But they’ve become

distracted, Jean’s face hardened as she pondered that thought. They were comfortable in their

mindless ways with their phones and Netflix and college and work. They were cattle in desperate

need of a catalyst. A deviation from the norm. A sensation to replace the boredom. She placed

her finger in the ant’s path. The ant stopped at the pink of her flesh, then crawled around it.

She unzipped her bag.

She wondered what people would say. Murderer.

She froze. An invisible force trapped her. For a moment, she considered closing her backpack

and walking home. She shook her head. Arguing with herself she thought, war is murder with

intent. If a purpose justifies the mass killings of war, then this is no different. Satisfied with this

logic, she peered over her shoulders before retrieving a small, black device from her bag.

Her ears boomed with the thundering thuds of her heart. She thought of her three years at the

university. The years she deliriously scoured the campus, searching for a purpose. Anything to

justify her finite existence. Something to convince her that she was more than decaying flesh and

rotting breath and wasted thoughts. She chuckled sourly. All those years running away from

Death’s heinous grasp, yet here she was cradling it between her legs. Her eyes shun madly. She

could feel Life coursing through her body. Her finger lingered over the button. Soon they’ll all

feel it, she thought. Chaos will be their inspiration.

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