There are too many options in the toothpaste aisle.

I stand there for almost a minute and just stare. AIM, Crest, something called Polident…I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone use a toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes? Was that ever truly a thing? I never saw an inorganic source of electricity, as my grandparents had often mentioned. I couldn’t believe people had ever used it to do something as mundane as to clean their teeth.

I slide my tongue around inside my own mouth. I’ve got 19 remaining, and they seem fine. Around me, the aisles of the looted store are virtually empty. Plastic, empty cans, litter and empty shelves surround me. Utensils are all gone, snatched by looters who use everything, even whisks, against anyone and everyone. I can’t remember the last time I could speak out of line even in our tribe of 8. The world as I’d known it had always been desperate. I do recall running into a pair: a father and daughter who were walking along the edge of the broken highway, parched and confused. She held a small plastic spatula and he had a long pair of metal tongs from over 100 years ago. It was an easy takedown.

So many toothpastes. I try to think of a time when these sorts of needs had purpose. Trivial upkeep and tiny vanities. I cannot picture it. The long aisle, nearly untouched after all these years, speaks to how much has changed over the generations after the fallout.

Why did my great grandparents ever care about these small things? I question, running my hand over a filthy stand with a rotten rubber conveyor belt under a sign reading “self-checkout”. Abandoned now, looted and all the scanner’s copper pulled out and stolen. Frozen food? I can’t even imagine how that would have looked or tasted — there hasn’t been electricity for over two decades. What were diapers? Why did people need dog treats? Those seem to last forever.

I run my hand over the empty shelves and let my fingers dance up across the tops of strange nail polish remover bottles and sun-ruined concealer bottles. Was anyone ever that color?

Hundreds of people had flung themselves into this tiny store after the fallout. What they took spoke volumes. I always tried to remind myself of that when I snaked my way up and down through the store. There couldn’t be anything of value, now, left. I heard the stories: produce and fresh food and people taking time to read and learn and diaper their babies. To buy these very concealers that matched their pale skin.

We learn to shoot and loot and run fast. You have to distrust, be bandits, sing the songs of the elders and walk without shoes for days. Learn to identify the rabbits that would make you sick from the ones you could actually eat. There is no need for the old indulgences: those are strange snake oil products that have no bearing on us today — things like hospitals, doctors, dentists, people called acupuncturists, meter maids, cashiers, plumbers: all gentle jobs from the past, which I couldn’t say was real save a few diaries I’ve seen in abandoned houses and a few newspapers in hoarder’s houses.

I look at another section next to what was once the lip balm area. “Floss”. People once had the time to run tiny string through their teeth. A whole section devoted just to that. It’s full. No one took that while they ran.

I pick one of the floss packages up. I turn my back to face the dusty, dark front of the store. I’ve never seen the sun, but my tribe says the dust might finally clear in a few more decades. Maybe. I don’t know what to believe, but what else can I do. There are too many options in the toothpaste aisle, and I can’t imagine a world where there aren’t.

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