A Beachcomber’s Guide to Desert Grief
by Sara Hills
The boy on his bike is a shark. Each clump of grass? Seaweed. Each broken crash of cholla? A jellyfish. The ground is water—that’s what you tell yourself—not hard-packed desert dirt.
You throw yourself into the waves and float, waiting to feel lighter, waiting for the boy to pass. But he doesn’t. He rolls up next to you and stops, hovering there with his sharp fin, scenting for blood.
You’re here to feel the salt spray on your face, taste the tang of summer on your lips, sense the sun shimmering on water. You’re here to listen, and he’s ruining it.
Doesn’t he know that each inch of this ocean is a cure? That time is held in each grain of sand? That if you get quiet enough, the seashells will whisper your sister’s secrets to you?
They might, but not with him here.
The cool of his shadow falls across your face. His breath is root beer soda and barbecue sauce.
You play at being invisible until he touches you, until his words bubble to the surface.
‘Not dead,’ he says and laughs.
When you open your eyes, you see his bike tire as a whale’s eye. See his mouth, a pufferfish. See that he’s not going to leave. So you leave first.
Each footstep sucks the wet sand and the ocean slowly recedes behind you, out of your memory. The wheels of the boy’s bike follow, spokes flickering, tires spinning up droplets of dust.
For one last glimpse, it’s sunlight on water—every chance at being washed clean—then it’s gone. And it’s just the hard desert dirt all around you, miles and miles of dry despair.
About the Author
Sara Hills is the author of The Evolution of Birds, winner of the 2022 Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection, and co-author of a collaborative novella-in-flash forthcoming with Ad Hoc Fiction in 2023. Her stories have won the QuietManDave Prize for flash nonfiction, the Retreat West quarterly prize, and been selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 and The Best Small Fictions. Her work is widely published in anthologies and magazines, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, Fractured Lit, Cease Cows, Flash Frog, Splonk, and Reckon Review. Originally from the Sonoran Desert, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites.