Red Tent by Nick Yim
His outfit had him looking like an oval. A flat, dark egg jutting out from the side of a sand dune. All his companions had disappeared. They must have stuck closer to the trail, the map, maintained cell reception somehow or smelled their way back to the starting point. He wondered how it felt for them, right now, to be touching their lips to the steel edge of a flask, droplets of condensation perspiring off its sides, a cool and crisp necessity. His own sides were steaming, gasping for air. His skin was begging his robes for a greater shade, a duskier place to lay. He tossed them aside, beginning with the scarf wrapped over his head like a hood. Even now, he wasn’t sure that they knew better, that these drapes as clothing, top sheets as garbs, were better protection from the heat than his own tank top and shorts. True, he might have done better to wear just the robes, just the scarf, just the clothing given to him by the men at the starting point than fearing leaving his own clothes unattended and insisting on wearing them underneath. His shorts and top were both from the Gap; how much were they even worth to him?
Immediately, he felt the sun’s rays penetrating his pores, seeping into his blood vessels with UV and heat. He blinked a few times to ground himself in his challenge: How was he going to do this? Would he try and go back the way he came or walk further into the vast with hopes of finding a fresh, accessible reserve of water. He was once told on a camping trip that the best way to be found when you are lost is to stay put and reserve your energy so someone looking for you can have a better chance at finding you. Two points in space: one in motion, one stuck put. Versus. Two points in space: both in motion. But that protocol didn’t seem possible now. If he stayed put he would surely die. Slowly his oblong figure would collapse into itself. His limbs, burnt from the sun, would be seasoned with sand and fit only for the tiniest, a feast for only the hardiest dessert dwelling insects.
At this moment, he might have eaten a beetle. Instead, he began crawling like one. The surface of the dune’s collapsing edge seared his fingertips as he moved one bent knee in front of another, one frayed elbow at a time. Just as the thought of laying down for a second began to cross his mind, he looked up. Awash on the horizon there was a red tent flapping in the wind. He could not tell if the flapping was the entrance to the tent or the tent itself jostled by a strong wind, but it was large and triangular and constructed. It did not explicitly spell out water or signal humanity but it was something. The beacon was real and the distance between him and it, surmountable. He stood slowly before brushing the sand from his shoulders and limbs.
“I am a man. I am alive. I can do this.”
He begins repeating this mantra to himself, humming it to the beat of a popular song. He is re-writing it, giving it his own chorus. He raises his hand to shield his eyes from the sun as he peers into the distance again. The red tent is still there. They must have water he tells himself. Once he has had something to drink, maybe applied some suntan lotion, he’ll be able to take another hike into the dessert. He’s game for another try. Slowly, he creeps down the edge of the dune. Every few steps he lifts his head to make sure he’s headed in the right direction. Now twenty minutes from where he left his robes behind, he’s sure that he will make it.
A small smile begins to creep onto his face. Looking down at his sandalled feet, he thinks about the first time that he ran on the sand, on a beach that met with the ocean. Each grain of sand there had been touched by that ocean’s salty, endless brine. When it ran through your fingers you could almost feel each bead’s origin, its small part in a long geological, planetary history. You felt as small as them in that moment. A tiny thing with muscles and feelings and enough fingers and joints to touch sand and hold sand, two lungs to breathe the ocean air.
Of course, these were not the thoughts he had had as a child. They might have been something written in a book that his father gave him. Maybe a single chapter in some novel he had read at school. Regardless, the memory excited him enough that he began to run, a childlike hysteria propelling his feet beneath him. A motor boat sputtering through the sand. He begins to lose his balance, but figures the softness of the dunes will be cushion enough. He trips and the fall warps him into slow motion. He grins and grimaces and flails as if some camera and crew are capturing each frame of this moment, ready to add them to a pivotal scene in a movie, or video or clip. He collapses. This time he is more like a puddle than an oval jutting, albeit a very dry one. He lies there, tuckered out, but does not evaporate.
“It happens two or three times a year.”
“That much? Really? No way…”
“God damn. The prevalence.”
“Please, the lord’s name.”
“My apologies boss. It’s just – “
“Help me get him up onto my camel.”
“Should we check for broken bones.”
“Honestly, I think we’re good. Looks like he tripped and fell.”
“We could call the paramedics to be sure? We’re only what, 5 minutes from the highway?”
“Don’t waste their time.”
“Did this one rent robes?”
“Load him up, we can check when we’re back.”
“He’s wearing street clothes, I’m probably answering my own question.”
“Some of them put the robes on over their street clothes.”
Submitted to Reedsy Cotest #160
Prompt: Write about someone seeking an oasis in a desert — whether literally, or figuratively.