My cousin Jackie and I are five years old, standing on the shore of the Patuxent River, white sand under our bare feet, fine as ground powdered bone. Our long hair, still baby blonde at the ends, is wind-whipped and tangled. Jackie’s mother will brush the knots out later. We spend the afternoon combing the shoreline for megalodon teeth and poking at the jellyfish washed up on shore with bleached sticks of driftwood. Our fathers ask us to pause and look at the camera. They snap a picture, our grins are so wide that our eyes are nearly closed, scrunched at the corners. We are missing our baby teeth, gums pink and plump as fresh wet bubble gum.
Ten years later, another picture of Jackie and me, rosy-cheeked and fifteen, a close up of both of our faces. Her arm is draped around my shoulders, pulling me in close, her cheek pressed against mine. She has just gotten her braces off, her teeth are shimmering, enviably and unnaturally uniform, while mine are still straitjacketed in their chrome brackets and wires. Again, smiling, eyes sparkling, giddy to be in each other’s beloved company.
Dad calls me while I am getting ready for work now to tell me Jackie just woke up from her coma, after being unconscious for four days. Another relapse, another overdose. Someone had dropped her off at the emergency room and left her there. Jackie’s mother is frantic, trying to find out where Jackie’s young daughter is, if she is safe, if she is fed. Dad tells me that most of Jackie’s teeth are gone now from the meth, that her cheeks are sunken in, that my uncle didn’t recognize his own daughter lying in the hospital bed.
I press the button to end the call, numb, put a dab of toothpaste on the brush and raise it to my mouth.
Martha Taylor is an educator and writer who lives in the Brandywine Valley in Delaware. At present she is working on a memoir and art collection that explores themes of space, place, and loss.