flash fiction

Near Drowning in a Desert by Travis Stephens

Near Drowning in a Desert | By Travis Stephens

Roman nearly drowned and nobody saw it. He was wading out to cool off, the wide froth of the public beach littered with the Labor Day weekend. Record heat had been forecast for Los Angeles and it came. He left his studio apartment and walked past the coffeehouse and through a sleepy, torpid Santa Monica. In his eyes it was a place of lovely women and gimlet-eyed men who patrolled it in sports cars. He was a retired Army Corps of Engineer flood control officer who appreciated that the streets of Santa Monica had deep troughs cut in them to shed rain. He followed the flow of non-existent water toward the ocean.

In his years in the Corps he had been stationed along rivers. They ran like worry beads through his memory—Tombigbee, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi. He wasn’t concerned with the sinuous run of rivers, rather the way they flattened and spread. Flood plain. Control plain. Diversion and Spill. When he drove up from a river bottom, climbing onto a levee he looked past the bars and shacks, he saw the cool pool that resided between floods and thought acre-feet and acre-feet as far as he could see. So much possibility. These people could drive to higher ground, probably.

By some strange fluke he missed most major flood events. When the Red River of the North shrugged off its ice and swallowed Fargo he had been in Hawaii. When the Ohio could not handle two days of torrential rain, he had been in New Orleans at a training seminar on protecting endangered species. Two years ago, he had left the Southwest District having weathered seven years of drought. Three months into his retirement Texas tried to float away. 

When Peg was still living with him, she said he was a lucky charm. His career was made in preparation for disasters that never occurred when he was around. Never a car wreck. Not a single broken bone. Then Marcy needed help with the grandchildren.  Peg had moved into their converted garage and stayed. 

“Mother-in-law unit,” Roman teased.

“Come with me,” she said. “You always liked Cincinnati. One of your favorite rivers.”

Somehow he hadn’t. The lease was paid for the rest of the year. His doctors were here. Winter is no time to leave California for the Midwest. She had stopped asking.

The wave caught him not ready. He had left his towel, shirt and shoes up on the dry sand. These were a pair of trunks that dropped to mid-thigh like a cross between board shorts and hiking gear. Roman had never been too big. Built more like a quarter miler.

One of the young women working at the coffee house had told him that he had a nice smile. She was the afternoon shift and wore eyeliner that rose in the corners like something Egyptian. When she smiled the eyeliner tried to touch the line of her brow. She took his order for coffee and entered it into a computer. 

“You want a pastry with that?” she asked.

“Not today.”

He was thinking about her when he waded in. On the path he had passed an umbrella that shaded a woman lying on a towel. A wide straw hat covered her face but he thought her hips were that of the afternoon shift. Add an apron.  It was possible. This woman under the umbrella wore a bikini the color of an iced latte.

The water had been cool and waves raced in, pushing small storms of pebbles with them. These waves stung his feet and so Roman hurried into deeper water. In a few steps it felt sandy and then the bottom dropped into a trough, cold water and deep.  He had opened his arms to enter the water and a wave met him. It lifted him from his crouch to upright then tossed him. Roman was roiled, sanded and tumbled into the gravel.

He tasted salt and the grit of sand. Because his eyes were open the wave was caramel with sand and foam. A cappuccino. He flailed but the wave decided to hold him down among the stones. Roman dug like a dog, kicked like one too. His eyes were open and all he saw was shadow.

He rolled to the surface with sand in his ears. He climbed to his feet and felt the sting where the gravel tore at his feet and knees. He staggered toward shore. Adrenaline lifted his feet.

  Nobody noticed. He felt another wave chase him. It sent water and sand up the back of his legs. A few more steps and he was ashore. Before him, acres of wet sand studded with birds. Beyond that, acres of dry heat, volleyball courts and the parking lots. Hundreds of people writhed and waited, splashed and swam. Lifeguard towers watched with young girls in their shade trying to be noticed. Roman walked toward his towel and shoes. Too wet to put on his shirt, he sat in the hot sand and wore the towel like a boxer. The sand stung the bottoms of his feet and he saw blood run from a dozen small cuts. 

One of the websites he still subscribed to was the water quality report. After a rain, he knew, the coli form levels went dangerously high. Midsummer it was the air went bad. Roman looked out to sea and saw a cotton haze that looked stained. Like the sky needed bleach. Or blue, he recalled. Peg put blue in the wash to make the sheets brighter. 

Roman looked around him and, seeing no one watching, simply walked away. Made another decision without effort. There were jet planes lined up past the water treatment plant, waiting their turn. One or two were bound to go east.  Los Angeles was due for an earthquake, plus was in the fire season. A place can be lucky only so long.

About the Author:

Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire alumni, recent credits include: Gyroscope Review, 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, GRIFFEL, Offcourse, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Gravitas and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.