Petra stepped through the door nervously. Jamail was with her, serving as bodyguard. He had a Glock concealed under his jacket, but that wasn't enough to quiet her concerns. Her contact had said that the young man she was about to interview was more than just a bit unhinged.The teenage boy who had let them in seemed equally nervous. "I still don't know about this." He rubbed his bony hands and refused to meet her eyes."We won't take much of your time. It'll be just a quick chat," Petra assured him. "This is a human interest story. You remember them from before the pandemic, don't you? The community loves to read about real people in their midst."The boy shook a lock of oily hair out of his eyes. "I don't know why they'd care about me. I'm nothing special.""Well..." She glanced at Jamail, who rolled his eyes. "There's a rumor that you have a very unique pastime.""You shouldn't listen to everything you hear," the boy said with a little snort of contempt."Right." Petra took a few more steps into the room and pulled out her notepad. "Let's start with you stating your name and telling me a little about yourself.""Randy McClint," the boy said. "I grew up on the south side. Oak Springs subdivision.""I see." Petra's pen scribbled across the paper. "What made you move downtown?""I needed a central location. It makes things easier.""What kinds of things?""My hobby."Petra gave an exaggerated frown of interest. "Tell me a little bit about that."Randy scowled and looked away."We really want to know." She looked to Jamail for confirmation, but got no help from that quarter. He loved her enough to protect her, but not enough to collaborate on what he considered a ridiculous and ultimately pointless passion for news reporting. "Is it true," she said, "that you collect dental products?""Toothpaste," Randy said. "Nothing else."Petra nodded and made a few notes. "Is there a reason you collect only toothpaste?""You mean, like, why don't I collect dental floss too, or something?"That hadn't been what she meant at all, but it was important to keep him talking, so Petra nodded."Collecting is a pure art. No compromising.""I see. Is there any chance we could, uh...see this toothpaste?"Randy's eyes widened. "I've never shown anyone. It's, you know, personal."Petra nodded in sympathy. "I understand. I was just curious. I've never seen nine hundred and eighty-two—""Nine hundred eight-seven," he corrected her."I've never seen that much toothpaste in one place before and I wondered what it would look like."The boy let out an exaggerated sigh. "It's just toothpaste, all right?""But come on, nine hundred and eight-seven tubes of it? Where do you find it? How do you store it? Why should I believe what you're saying is the truth, when—""Fine." With a curt motion, Randy gestured for them to follow. Petra hesitated only a moment, and Jamail followed close behind, gun drawn.At the end of a short hall was a door that Randy flung open. Inside, stacked floor to ceiling were hundreds of small boxes: Colgate, Crest and Sensodyne, gel and tartar conrol, Tom's Organic in cinnamon flavor, and special brands for whitening and sensitive gums. Petra gazed in amazement, too stunned to write anything down."There you go," Randy said. He pointed to a clipboard hanging from a nail in the wall. "That's where I keep my inventory. Go ahead and read it if you want. You probably need statistics or something, right?""Uh...no," Petra murmured. "This is enough. More than enough."Ten minutes later, Petra and Jamail were back on the street."That was bizarre," Petra said, pulling her coat close around her. "It must be a nervous condition. OCD or something.""Loopy as a loon," Jamail muttered. "It would take him decades to use that much toothpaste.""That's not why he does it. I bet he doesn't even brush his teeth." Petra gave a little sigh. "And here I've been out of toothpaste since last week. I was so sure if I was nice he might give me a souvenir."Jamail stopped and reached inside his pocket. "Nice isn't the way to go about these things." He handed her a red and white box."Wintergreen! That's my favorite.""I know."They continued walking, but Petra was now deep in thought. "When I write this story, should I still say he has nine hundred eight-seven tubes of toothpaste?""No, because it's nine hundred eight-six now.""But he'll know we did it and might try to steal it back.""Used toothpaste? No way. He likes it new. That's part of the appeal."Petra nodded. Jamail was right, of course, but..."I think I'll keep the number vague, just to be on the safe side.""You do that.""You think I'm silly, don't you?""A little."There had been a time when Petra would've been hurt, but today she was unconcerned. "At least now I'll be a fool with clean teeth and fresh breath."Jamail gave a wry grin. "I know I can count on you to meet the end of the world with class, Petra."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~This was written for The Sunday Whirl.