“The Last Bathroom,” by Katherine Cowley

Aug 20th, 2016 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

The world was ending, yet instead of taking a last stand against the winged beastlings, Quintessence insisted on visiting every single women’s restroom in the city.

As they dashed towards the mall, Quin funneled energy through a bead in her necklace. A translucent, 3D map of the building appeared before her. “Keep them off us!” she shouted.

Hoshi ran her trembling fingers through her blue hair, trying to maintain calm. Then she did as her master commanded. She drew energy through the ground, into her feet. She passed it lightly through her body and blasted streaks of blue light through the sky, destroying several pockets of the locusts. Yet the sky grew darker with their millions of bodies.

“Honey, try not to draw the attention of the entire swarm,” Quin reprimanded. She stood tall, majestically even. Her flawless, chestnut-brown skin was impervious to both wrinkles and fear.

Hoshi inclined her head and took a deep breath. Mistakes like this explained why, after eight years, she was still an apprentice. She propelled power through the ground, away from them. Remembering the street grid, she sent the energy under the road. It spurted up through the nearby Walmart in a burst of flame. The sky lightened slightly over their heads as the locusts shifted their attention.

“Good,” murmured Quin, pushing open the doors of the mall.

Hoshi ran inside with her master, feeling a slight glow at the praise. There were no people left in Walmart, so Hoshi had not risked harming anyone by redirecting the creatures’ attention. When they had visited the remains of the megalithic store just ten minutes before, only the fragments (and stench) of corpses disturbed them as they made their way to the restrooms.

Now they ran through the mall, dodging slabs of ceiling that had fallen to the ground. People huddled in the shops, fearful for their lives. But the walls of the mall would not save them. Human structures did not stand a chance against the extraterrestrial insects. The creatures were the length of Hoshi’s middle finger, part animal and part machine, with gorgeous, iridescent wings, only beautiful until you realized the bugs’ mandibles were made of other-worldly metal strong enough to pierce a tank.

Quin vaporized the locusts that followed them inside. Her skill level was such that she did not even need to use her fingers to direct the energy. And while Hoshi had only managed to turn a few objects into tokens in order to channel energy into more complex spells, Quin had turned almost everything she owned into a token. And a number of things that did not belong to her as well.

Quin darted into the women’s bathroom, desperately scrutinizing the space.

Hoshi examined the restroom with her, but, like the others they had visited, it looked completely normal. Stalls, toilets, sinks. At least today, unlike a normal day, none of the women’s bathrooms had any lines. In fact, they were all entirely abandoned, which surprised her—the end of the world did not eliminate certain bodily needs. Arguably, it might increase those needs, which would explain the terrible stink anytime they passed people.

“Damn,” said Quin. “Automatic towel dispenser.”

Perhaps Quin had become unhinged. Perhaps the otherworldly force that filled the sky had broken something inside her. But it was not Hoshi’s place to question her. Their contract did not allow it. Even at the end of the world. And from the reports on Hoshi’s phone, there might be only hours of life left for humanity. She would rather not spend her final day pursuing a deranged, toilet-centric quest. But she would bend her will this one last time.

“The mall has other bathrooms,” Hoshi suggested.

Quin shook her head. “They will be the same as this one.”

Hoshi touched her hand to the familiar, reassuring plastic. What could possibly be wrong with automatic towel dispensers? Before today, Quin had never shown any aversion to technology.

They ran out the nearest exit and found an abandoned red convertible, keys in the ignition. Hoshi breathed in deeply. Upon closer inspection, it was not actually a convertible. The vehicle had been built as a sedan, but locusts had devoured the entire section of the metal roof above the front two seats. And the car had not been intentionally abandoned. Small chunks of bone littered the seats. Quin waited patiently while Hoshi brushed the pieces into a pile, wrapped them in paper, and placed them in the glove compartment. She could not cremate the remains or chant a mantra, but she would not disrespect the dead by sitting on them.

Quin drove at a frantic pace. Hoshi stood, fighting off their attackers with green shafts of light. It was not as effective as blue, but didn’t call the bugs as quickly.

The car swerved around a corner. Hoshi gripped the jagged edges of the metal roof. It cut into her left hand, drawing blood. She used her right hand to destroy a group of the enemy following them.

From the corner of her vision, she noted a small boy. He pointed at them. “They will save us!”

“No,” thought Hoshi as she blasted the silver-streaked locusts heading towards the child. “We will find the perfect lavatory, and then relieve ourselves before we die.”

Yet the boy was not the only one to think Hoshi and Quintessence had come as their saviors. They did look the part. Normally Hoshi dressed in plainclothes—jeans, a tank top, whatever made her look like a normal college student, so she could use her powers inconspicuously. But of course, the world began to end when she was at an anime convention, cosplaying as her favorite character. Her blue hair and costume definitely attracted attention, and Hoshi took a certain amount of pleasure from looking like a hero. And Quin drew eyes every day. She was an extremely muscular African American woman in her forties, with dark sunglasses and her signature weaves, which looked like they came straight off the cover of a fashion magazine.

But what could two people do against trillions of assailants? Yes, there were others like Quin and Hoshi scattered across the world, but all their forces combined would be like using teaspoons of water to put out a forest fire.

Quin muttered to herself as she drove. “Too new,” she said to a restaurant, deprecating its bathrooms without even stopping to evaluate them. “Too small,” she said to a corner shop. “You probably don’t even have one,” she said to another store. “There’s not enough time,” she wailed.

Tens of thousands of the insects pursued them, drawn by the scent of their flesh. Their bodies made a clicking sound, which built like an orchestra of knives into a deafening roar. Hoshi swirled magic around her. It was harder to draw energy when her feet weren’t on the ground, but she could do it. Hoping Quin made no quick turns which could send her flying out of the car, she shot energy from both her hands. To her disappointment, the resulting green light looked rather cute, like something you might see on My Little Pony, rather than a deathly show of force as she had intended.

Dozens of the locusts made it past Hoshi’s defenses. They landed on her arm and ripped at her flesh. She screamed, then incinerated them with pure red energy.

“Are you okay, honey?” Quin asked.

“I’ll be fine,” Hoshi managed. She trembled. Her eyes stung. She was missing a chunk of skin and muscle on her right arm. The remaining flesh looked like a pinkish-red, Hello Kitty bow, turned into a taffy pulp and seeping blood.

She pulled her arm into herself and used her opposite hand to apply pressure to the wound. She swallowed the bile rising in her throat. She would not go into shock. Not right now. Quin needed her and her ability to draw on large amounts of power. And on one of their missions, Hoshi had fought even after patching a bullet wound in her shoulder. She could survive now. It was just a flesh wound.

“Sit down,” directed Quin.

Hoshi crumpled to the seat. She forced herself to examine her wound. It wasn’t near any major arteries and wasn’t bleeding very much, so she didn’t need a tourniquet.

Quin removed her scarf and flung it at her. She funneled energy through one of her beads, creating a temporary shield, then drove like a maniac desperate for a latrine, shooting out small bursts of color even as she swerved around deserted cars.

Hoshi fingered the scarf. “I need your vodka.”

Quin passed it to her. “Don’t lose the flask,” she directed as she took a hard right turn. “I turned it into a token to stream my favorite radio station.”

Hoshi wondered why Quin needed a music-playing vodka flask, but decided she didn’t want to know. Sometimes when she asked questions, she found out way too many personal details. She unstopped the cap. She really wanted to drink it, but then there might not be enough.

She poured a little of the vodka on her wound. She groaned as the clear liquid hit her flesh, creating an intense burning sensation. But she suspected it wasn’t enough. The locusts had not created smooth lacerations as a knife would. She needed to disinfect the entire surface.

She poured vodka on the corner of the scarf—it was cleaner than anything else in this car. She pressed the wet scarf to the wound. She repeated the process again and again, using the vodka to clean the entire, bumpy remains of muscles and mangled skin. In one spot the insects had torn through the muscles all the way to her bone. She tipped the last few drops of vodka into her mouth.

Labeling the enemy as locusts was not particularly fair to the earth’s own insects. Real locusts killed people, but not directly. They devoured miles and miles of crops and throughout history had caused massive famines, killing tens of thousands. But at least they did not eat human flesh.

Yet the extraterrestrial creatures who had entered through the earth’s atmosphere did act similarly to earth’s insects. Over the past weeks, there had been dozens of attacks. In the largest outbreaks, alien locusts consumed 60,000 people at a fútbol match in Brazil and 70,000 people at a rock concert in Spain. In both cases they left no survivors. Governments destroyed the insects and tried to figure out where they had come from, but encouraged people to go about their daily lives, to maintain a face of calm against the horror.

This morning, Hoshi had gone to her anime convention. By lunch, when Quin called her, the upsurges had descended through the atmosphere. In the time it had taken them to meet, the earth’s major governments and militaries had fallen in focused attacks by the bugs. Now the otherworldly locusts had hit plague level. Hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of people were dead. And each individual locust could eat its body weight in a single day.

Using her teeth and her good arm, Hoshi ripped off the now filthy section of the scarf. She used what remained of the fabric to carefully bandage her arm. Not that it really mattered, as soon all humans would be dead. But old habits did not banish themselves.

Quin’s shield evaporated with a tiny popping sound. While more skilled at its use, Quin could not draw on energy for as long as Hoshi.

Despite the pain piercing her body, Hoshi rose to her feet again, leaning against the car. She used her left arm to fight, letting her master focus on driving.

Quin sped into the parking lot of a hardware store, then drove straight into its glass doors. Hoshi pushed energy through her ring and created a quick shield to protect them from the glass shards. The car barreled through the aisles, sending buckets of colorful paint through the air.

The car screeched to a halt in front of the familiar, female stick figure. Hoshi killed thousands of locusts with blue whips of light, not even bothering with the less powerful green. There were too many of them anyways, and with the pain from her injury, it was challenging to limit the amount of energy she used.

Without warning, Quin slung Hoshi over her shoulder and hauled her into the bathroom like a janitor with a sack of toilet paper. She set her down on the floor, next to the sinks.

“We found it,” said Quintessence, looking at the towel dispenser. Hoshi thought she saw a tear slide down the down the older woman’s cheek.

Hoshi forced herself to her feet, gritting her teeth against the pain. She looked at the towel dispenser. It was a standard, old, brownish-black one, with brown, scratchy paper towels. In white lettering, it read, “Pull With Two Hands Only.” Now that was discriminatory against people who could only use one arm, a category which now included Hoshi.

She examined the side of the towel dispenser. It had one of those brown wheels you could spin when the paper towels inevitably jammed. Above the wheel was the label, “For Emergency Feed, Turn Here.” This certainly was an emergency, but Hoshi could not imagine how paper towels would help them.

“I need you to channel as much energy as possible,” said Quin, “And share it with me.”

“But that will draw the eye of the swarm,” protested Hoshi, forgetting her place as an apprentice.

“It doesn’t matter. This is our last stand.” Quin pulled Hoshi into a tight embrace. Her body was warm and strong, resilient in the face of everything.

“Thank you for teaching me,” said Hoshi, inclining her head.

“It has been an honor,” said Quin.

Hoshi breathed in deeply, then drew on all the energy she could find. Her skin tingled and glowed red. She had never allowed herself to handle so much power. She did not know if her body could take it. Yet still she drew more and more.

It was like a beacon to the locusts. The beasts ripped off the roof of the building, shredding the metal into flecks that floated to the ground like glimmering flakes of snow.

Still Hoshi drew more power. She opened herself to Quin, who channeled the power into the towel dispenser as she turned the emergency feed.

The locusts descended towards them. Their deaths would be painful, but at least they would be quick.

The paper towel dispenser split open with a clap of thunder and a brilliant burst of light. The walls of the hardware store disintegrated, as did the rows of products. Only the women’s toilets remained.

The air shimmered. And then hundreds of individuals appeared around them, crystalizing into solid form. Most of them did not look remotely human, but Hoshi recognized their power and control. It felt the same as Quin’s. The people—if you could call them that—blasted energy into the sky, destroying millions and millions of locusts, with colors Hoshi had never seen before. Neons and pastels of every shade mingled with an awful, urine yellow, which was surprisingly effective against their attackers.

“Who are they?” Hoshi yelled.

“Reinforcements,” said Quin. “Masters from other worlds, come to save our earth from annihilation. I just had to call them.”

Hoshi finally understood. Quintessence was much more powerful than she had ever supposed. She had set up a token to connect herself to the rest of the universe. Only a handful of masters could perform such a feat, and most would not consider the effort worthwhile, due to the slim chance of ever needing to use it.

With her own access to energy, Quin would only be able to call a few other masters. But with Hoshi channeling, Quin could draw a legion. She had used an ordinary object—a paper towel dispenser—something ubiquitous that could be found no matter where she traveled. But she must have set up the token years ago, never guessing that paper towel dispensers would change.

Hoshi drew more energy to herself. She did not have the same skill level as those around her, but she would fight with them. For the first time today, she believed they could win. And hopefully the battle would end sooner rather than later, because Hoshi really needed to pee.


Defenestration-Katherine CowleyKatherine Cowley has tripped on a pyramid, intentionally stepped in quicksand, and eaten an egg she cooked on the asphalt in Phoenix. In between doing stupid things, she writes stories and essays. Her work has appeared in Steel and Bone, 365 Tomorrows, Segullah, Meeting of the Myths, and Locutorium, among others. She has also worked as a college writing professor, a radio show producer, and a documentary film producer. Visit her at http://www.katherinecowley.com/.

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