This story was written for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2021, in which I placed 2nd.
Max 1,000 words in 48 hours
Object: false teeth
Jessica sees a few people crying. Under the rain rattling on the roof, she can hear even more. Life-jacketed and lined up on a plastic bench in a bright orange capsule with a hundred other tourists. Couples, families.
A four-year-old boy next to her keeps asking between sobs, “Mommy, why are we in the little boat?”
His mom has her sweaty face against the foam shoulder of her life jacket, and her breath heaves. They were all given seasickness pills when they boarded, but hers isn’t working. “It’s just a little longer, honey. Just sit—” she swallows, “sit tight, okay?”
Jessica sees the “big boat” out the rain-streaked window, many-storied and lit like a skyscraper, its nose sinking into the dark water as if ashamed.
Jessica bowed her head at dinner and chewed carefully.
She’d been liberal with the adhesive, because that night she planned to order the steak—her first in two months. She pinned her hair back and made up the scar on her cheek as best she could.
But even cut into small pieces and squished between her molars for a long time, steak was too tough. She was grateful that Chelsea and Trevor—those were their names?—probably didn’t notice her difficulty chewing while they described their cruise around Australia the year before.
Chelsea is pregnant and shouldn’t have ordered the swordfish, but Jessica didn’t say anything.
She felt her front-left teeth start to move. Too much adhesive. Her lip tightened against them. “Mm-hmm,” she said, nodding. She held up a finger and tried to say, “Excuse me,” but the teeth popped out and flipped between her lips, the metal support clicked against her real teeth.
Trevor said, “Oh. Sure,” and looked at his food.
“Oh,” as in, he hadn’t expected a thirty-four-year-old woman to have a denture. “Oh,” as in, now he better understood the scar showing through her makeup.
In her cabin Jessica spat the denture into her hand. Her left incisor stood alone at the front of her mouth, the one they could save. Her molars huddled in the back.
She ran warm water and scrubbed away the adhesive, then added more from the tube in her purse and pushed the denture back in. The false teeth settled around her incisor like strangers at the dinner table.
She decided to order room service instead—mashed potatoes and gravy.
Trevor is in the back corner of the lifeboat holding up his phone and frowning. Chelsea’s head rests on his shoulder. She and Jessica meet eyes. Chelsea looks away and puts a hand on her belly. Jessica has to make herself look away.
A crew member screeches open the hatch and fires a flare into the rain. The black water out the window lights pink-orange.
The boy asks, urgent, “Mommy, why is there fire?”
Others snap alert and look out the window.
“Honey, that’s not—” She covers her mouth. Her fingers graze Jessica’s life jacket. “I’m sorry,” she says, “could you wa—” she swallows, “watch him while…”
Jessica wants to say no, but the mom is already standing and shuffling between everyone’s knees toward the open porthole.
The boy screams for her and gets up.
Jessica holds his arm. “Stay here.”
Ryan said looking at her reminded him of what happened.
He should have been the one to drive, but he had a drink after dinner. The other car shouldn’t have swerved.
In the hospital, she felt his tears on her cheeks. She felt his lips push hers into the new emptiness behind them.
When he pulled away he didn’t look at her. It felt like he never looked at her again.
The last thing she said was, “Please stay.”
Her sister got her the cruise, for a “fresh start.” She shouldn’t have gone.
But she did. To get away from everyone’s sad smiles and overlong hugs. The house, empty of Ryan’s things. The closed room with the crib and playpen still folded in their boxes.
“Your mommy’s feeling sick. She’ll be back.”
His face is wet and red. “Why is mommy sick?”
She wants to say it’s because his mom is weak. “Because we’re in a boat, and there’s a storm.”
She waits for an answer to come. “Sometimes bad things happen.”
Ryan had jumped ship, and their son had drowned in her waters.
She feels the boy’s stare on her cheek. “What’s that?” He points.
She touches the scar. “I got hurt.” Now it’s her turn to cry. Her lips tighten, and she feels the denture loosen. In the midnight rush to get to the lifeboats she’d been hasty with the adhesive.
“I was—” Her teeth slip, click against the others. She puts a hand on her mouth.
“What’s that?” His eyes are patient, fixed on her mouth. His little barrel chest rises and falls under his life jacket.
She sucks at her teeth, pushes the metal ridge with her tongue until they settle back into place. Then she smiles. “My teeth,” she says carefully.
“Can I see?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a crew member says from his windowed perch, “the coast guard is on their way. Shouldn’t be long now.”
Cheers and applause.
But the boy’s eyes haven’t left Jessica’s tight lips.
She hesitates. Then she parts her teeth and pops the denture loose, holds it for him to see. Four resin teeth in two humps of pink resin gum. Metal wire spans the gap between them and curls at either end to hold them among her real teeth.
His eyes get bigger. This is when he screams, her face forever burned in his mind as the toothless witch in the lifeboat.
Instead, his little finger rises to his mouth and pulls his lip down. He grimaces. His pink tongue squishes through the gap where he’s missing his middle-left incisor.
Jessica’s eyes blur. A drop crawls down her cheek. She asks, “Did it hurt?”