The city shimmered as though it were under an ocean instead of in a barren desert. As though it were swimming with burbling angelfish instead of sharing the dryness with bug-eyed lizards peering out from the dunes. It shimmered not just from the heat waves, but from its hundreds of silver turrets and stained-glass windows reflecting the sun in every direction. The colors were blinding: mosaics covered every brick, flowers tumbled from a thousand painted window boxes, and lush treetops peered out from behind the high wall that encircled it all.
The golden gates guarding the city shone in the distance as the modified convertible motored across the desert kicking up plumes of sand. Cactus’s arthritic hands clutched the steering wheel, her gray hair streaming out behind her, almost taking up the back seat in its eagerness to fly with the wind. She squinted at the massive city through her goggles, her wrinkled lips tight. In the passenger seat, Lizard twiddled the radio dials, glancing back every once in a while at the towering antenna protruding from the back of the car to be sure it hadn’t flown off in the swirling sand. At last he let out an excited squeak as a voice emerged from the radio static.
“Cactus, I got him, I got him!”
“What?” Cactus didn’t look away from the fast-approaching buildings.
“I got Donnie Wrightman,” Lizard said. “Listen!”
A voice full of smooth motor oil blared through the desert.
“And we’re back, folks, with the Wrightman Right Now Power Hour. This, as always, is your host Donnie Wrightman. And how about those sponsors? Aren’t they fantastic? I never go anywhere without my Krazy Klara’s trusty all-in-one stain-fighting travel sponge. Works on grease, oil, or unruly animal hide! Let’s go ahead and take our next caller—Debora, you’re on with Donnie. How can I help you help yourself today?”
“Such a fan of the show, Mr. Wrightman, such a fan,” came a woman’s voice through the speakers. “I wanted to talk to you about my camel Aloysius. See, I think he might be depressed…”
“Is this really the time to be listening to that claptrap, boy?” Cactus shouted over the roar of the engine and the patter of the radio show. “We may be on the verge of discovering the greatest hidden civilization in the history of the world!”
Lizard glanced up at the opulent city.
“I don’t know, Cactus. It is the third one we’ve seen today.”
Cactus gritted her teeth and floored the gas pedal. The turrets were getting larger; only a few hundred more yards of rock and sand and the car would be at the city’s doorstep. Then suddenly the heat waves lengthened, and the glimmering buildings seemed to swim farther out to sea.
“No, no, no…” Cactus wiped her goggles, willing them to clear up.
The city vanished, and they slid to a stop right where its painted walls and golden gates would have been. The cloud of sand seemed to envelop them, and by the time it settled Cactus was already out of the car, the door slammed behind her. Her boots ground the gritty earth, the linen fabric of her skirt swirling under her commando jacket as she paced around addressing the empty air.
“You bastards think you’re so smart, don’t you?” Cactus yelled toward the red horizon. She started kicking the sand and shaking her fists and generally raising her blood pressure. “Of all the cursed blighted godforsaken deserts and stupid infuriating pieces of—”
Lizard didn’t listen to the tirade. He had Cactus’s stream of profanities memorized by now. Instead he turned up the volume knob and listened with awe to the greatest show on the radio.
“Well, Mr. Wrightman, I don’t think much has changed,” the woman’s voice continued. “I am using a new perfume I picked up at last week’s bazaar…and of course I recently adopted a herd of spitting lizards to keep Aloysius company in his pen—but they certainly seem to get along fine…”
“Ah, I think I may see your problem, Debora,” Donnie said. “Tell me more about this perfume. Is it possible your mother used a similar scent when you were growing up, and your unconscious resentment of her is coming out in your interactions with the camel?”
Calling Donnie Wrightman’s show the greatest on the radio was not actually saying much, considering only two others broadcast signals from the dusty town Cactus and Lizard had left behind three weeks ago. That cluster of civilization loitering on the edge of the desert was composed of tall broken military outposts, clay huts converted into mechanics’ shops, lean-to villages of animal-trading posts and 24-hour fruit markets. A single radio tower tottered in the wind at the center of it all, and therefore the city’s listening options were limited to Sam’s Sandstorm Watch (whose motto was “Your guess is as good as ours!”), Home Remedies for Wise Folks (whose signature recommendation for everything from boils to broken limbs was bird droppings mixed with talcum powder), and Donnie Wrightman’s Right Now Power Hour.
“…just remember, Debora, when we hold onto the pain of the past, we’re not only hurting ourselves, but our loved ones, too. Believe in your ability to let go, and Aloysius will be back to his cheerful old self in no time. Now for our next caller—Phil, how can I help you help yourself?”
“—every time this happens!” Cactus was shouting, her furious pacing taking her farther and farther from the convertible. “Every read-out says the same thing, and every single time we get ten feet away from those blasted vanishing gates and—” Cactus was suddenly cut off mid-curse by a violent burst of coughing. She struggled to inhale the hot dry air and doubled over, clutching her chest.
“Lizard,” she wheezed. Lizard didn’t seem to hear, so rapt was he by the struggles of the next caller, who wanted to know if his antique land mine collection might be contributing to his wife’s desire to leave him.
Cactus hobbled toward the car, the coughs rattling her thin, wrinkled body and her breath growing shallower. “Lizard! Pills!”
At last Lizard turned to see the old woman struggling toward him. He immediately fumbled in the glove compartment for a small leather satchel and flung the car door open. He hopped down onto the convertible’s huge treaded tires and landed gracelessly in the sand.
Lizard was one of those gangly teenagers whose every feature seemed to be undergoing a separate growth spurt. His ears stuck out almost horizontally beneath his grandfather’s worn fisherman’s cap, and his narrow nose barely supported the weight of his goggles. His feet couldn’t quite keep pace with his long, rapidly stretching legs, so he tended to trip over the flat earth when he wasn’t paying sufficient attention.
“Here they are, Cactus,” he called, stumbling toward the wheezing woman. “I got you, I got you!” He supported her heaving body and rummaged in the satchel for a large brown pill. Cactus grabbed it and swallowed it down, chasing it with huge gulps of water from the canteen hanging from Lizard’s shoulder. They stood clutched together until Cactus’s shaking slowly stilled and her breath grew less ragged.
“Ah,” Cactus finally said. She thumped a fist against her chest and spat into the sand, then disentangled herself from Lizard’s arms and glared up at him. “Took you long enough with those pills, boy. What do I pay you for?”
“Sorry, Cactus, I was distracted,” Lizard said. He bit his lip and rubbed the burned skin of his neck. “Um, Cactus…the attacks are getting worse, aren’t they?”
Cactus waved her hand dismissively, already marching back to the convertible. Lizard hurried to keep pace with her, still clutching the leather satchel.
“I just mention it because, well, we only have three more pills. And if you keep having attacks this frequently, we might run out before we can get back to my grandpa for more. Maybe we ought to go ahead and head back now to get the car a tune up, refill the water tank, get you more pills…”
“We have enough water and fuel for another week as planned,” Cactus said, annoyance strengthening her still-shaky voice. “We’re not driving all the way back across the desert ahead of schedule just so your grandpa can overcharge me for more sugar pills.”
“Cactus, they’re not sugar pills. Grandpa told me about it before we headed off. He said if I was going to risk my neck following around that crazy desert woman I should at least know what kind of condition you were in. Cactus, if you don’t keep taking your pills—”
“Lizard, if you wanted to be a small-town medicine man you should’ve stayed in your grandpa’s tent where I found you. I thought you were a Mirage Chaser’s Assistant now.”
Lizard’s eyes widened under his goggles. “I am, Cactus, I am! You know I don’t want to go back to picking flies out of fungus remedies. I’m doing what Mr. Wrightman says, I’m asserting my right to exist in the vast universe. I don’t want to go back, Cactus, really!”
Cactus nodded once. “Then that’s quite enough about my health, you hear me?” She suppressed another cough, turning it into a growl as she reached into the car and silenced the commercial on the radio.
“Aw, Cactus, it took me all afternoon to get that signal.”
Cactus ignored her assistant and gazed out at the horizon where the city had vanished. “Get the instruments out of the trunk. We need a new lead.”
Lizard tucked the satchel of pills back in the glove compartment and wrestled open the car’s trunk. He unloaded a mountain of metal instruments for Cactus to sift through. In a moment she was laden with gear: a box covered in dials slung across her chest, a pair of headphones clamped over her hair, and some sort of electrically charged divining rods clutched in her hands. She started walking around slowly holding the rods in front of her, the metal box whirring and flashing. Her brow furrowed as she listened to intermittent beeps coming through the headphones.
When she was forty paces away, Lizard reached for the radio dial again, but without looking up from her work Cactus snapped: “Don’t you dare, boy—you know those radio signals interfere with my readouts.”
“But, Cactus, this is a new episode. How do you expect me to be all I can be if I can’t listen to Donnie?”
Cactus shushed him and adjusted her instruments, then whirled around and pointed the rods in another direction. She squinted out to the horizon and nodded once. “Get over here with the maps, Lizard!” she called, removing her headphones. She looked around and spotted a copse of cactus giants a few yards away. “And bring your climbing pads!”
“Aww, but Cactus…”
Lizard hurried across the sand laden with rolled-up maps and a burlap bag. Cactus took the longest map and unrolled it on the ground, weighing down the corners with rocks. The map was marked with no roads or buildings, only the odd landmark labeled in a nearly illegible hand: “Rock Shaped Like a Candle”, “Damn Dune I Fell Off Of”, “Reddish Mountain”, etc. It was covered with fat red lines and circles and Xs marking a meandering trek through the desert. Cactus pulled out a compass and crossed off another section of land with a red marker. She drew a new line across the map, and then brought the marker up to point at a cluster of huge rocks in the distance.
“That’s where we’re headed,” Cactus said. “Up the cactus giant now, boy. Scope out any impediments.”
Lizard looked up at the nearest cactus giant. It was as wide and full of twisting limbs as any redwood, standing at least 200 feet in the air, and was of course also covered with thousands of tiny spikes that—Lizard knew from repeated experience—could never be entirely avoided.
“It’s a big one, Cactus,” he said wearily.
“That’s good, you’ll be able to see farther.” She opened the burlap bag and pulled out padded gloves, knee pads, and arm coverings.
“Are you even sure that’s the right way?” Lizard asked as Cactus helped him cover his bare skin and strapped him into his climbing pack. “I mean, it’s a magical land nobody’s ever found before. What can all those doodads even tell you?”
“You don’t understand the science behind this, boy, so don’t you question my methods,” Cactus said, ensuring Lizard’s spyglass was strapped to his belt and his climbing forks fastened to his wrists.
“Couldn’t we just get a look from here, though?” Lizard persisted. “I’ve been doing so much climbing lately. My left buttock is never going to be the same after that fall by Reddish Mountain…”
Cactus narrowed her eyes. “Do you not believe in your personal power, boy?”
Lizard’s ears seemed to prick up under his cap. “What do you mean? Of course I do! That’s one of Donnie’s Five Principles of Success. I believe in my power, I do!”
“Doesn’t seem like it to me,” Cactus said, folding her arms. “Seems like you’re allowing the negative energy of others to drain your individual will.”
“No!” Lizard looked aghast. “That’s not true. I’ve been refilling my metaphorical cup of individual will for ten minutes every night with affirmative self-praise, just like Donnie says. I have personal power coming out my ears, I swear!”
“Then it seems you could climb a silly old cactus giant any day of the week and laugh at whoever said you couldn’t.”
“I can, Cactus, I can! Just you watch me!” Lizard scrambled up the giant’s limbs, stabbing his climbing forks into its enormous trunk to hoist himself higher and higher. He had made it up the first six branches and said “ow” ten times before Cactus allowed herself a smile. She was glad she’d been half-listening to the nonsense spewing out of her radio for the past weeks.
“Let me know when you’re up!” Cactus shouted.
“What?” Lizard yelled, already twenty feet up the enormous tree. “Ow.”
Cactus narrowed her eyes again toward the rocks in the distance. “I’ll find you,” she muttered. “I’m close, I know I am.”
She fought back a cough, forcing herself to breathe long, steady breaths, and spat something dark into the sand. She glared down at the drop of blood, which started drying almost immediately against the scorching earth, and rubbed a wrinkled hand against her throat.
“I’m up, Cactus!” Lizard called.
Cactus kicked a pile of sand over the blood, shaking the wild frizz of her hair. She looked up through the twisted branches of the cactus giant, shielding her eyes from the lowering sun, and saw the flash of Lizard’s spyglass.
“What’s over there, then?” she shouted.
After a moment Lizard yelled down: “Canyon!”
“Thirty miles, tops!”
Cactus knelt down by the map again and measured out thirty miles northeast from their location.
“Come on down, then.”
A few minutes later Lizard swung down from the last branch and started wiping cactus juice off his forks and unwrapping the pads from his arms and legs. The skin peeking out of gaps in his protective gear revealed hundreds of tiny stab wounds. He stood before Cactus grinning with his hands on his hips.
“How was that for a self-actualized assertive positivity-centered action?”
“Inspiring,” Cactus said, rolling up the map and packing up her instruments. “Carry these.”
Lizard, struggling under the weight of the gear, trudged after her back to the car.
“We’ll set up camp here tonight,” Cactus said, glancing at the low sun, which always seemed to set with alarming speed in this endless desert. “The engine needs a rest and a cleaning before we head off again.”
“Can I at least turn the show back on? Just to finish the episode while I’m cleaning?”
Cactus scowled. “Only for a minute, then it goes off as soon as supper’s ready.”
Donnie Wrightman helped more callers as Cactus started a fire and Lizard opened the convertible hood to a cloud of dust and a mess of caked sand in the gears. The car had been tricked out with heavy-duty bushings, deep-treaded tires that dug into the dunes, and a rusty skid plate to keep them moving through even the largest obstacles. It was a machine built to withstand millions of sand particles beating it senseless for hours at a time, but it still needed a thorough cleaning every forty miles or so. Lizard tiptoed up on a footstool and dove under the hood to reach all the nooks and crannies with his rag and spray bottle.
“Of course, Bob, the corporate ladder is tough to climb in the goat-herding game,” Donnie Wrightman was saying. “But keep believing in yourself, and I know you’ll make it to the top. Now, you folks at home may not yet believe in the power of the Wrightman Patented Self-Actualization Method…”
“Of course we do!” Lizard’s voice echoed from inside the car. Cactus rolled her eyes as she started roasting two cactus giant blossoms over the fire.
“…but I’m here to tell you it really does work. Just five simple steps to get you feeling your best feelings and living your best life. And now we’ll say goodnight with a word from our sponsor. Are you filthy? Are you tired of finding sand in your ears and gunk in your armpits? Well, you might just need a wipe down with Krazy Klara’s trusty all-in-one stain-fighting—”
“Okay, come get your supper, Lizard. And turn that off now, you’ll run down the battery.”
Lizard struggled out from under the hood and brushed himself off. He clicked off the radio and sat across the fire from Cactus, who passed him a roasted blossom and a canteen filled from the tank that took up the entire back seat of the car. They chewed the rubbery blossoms as the sun vanished under the horizon. Soon their camp was lit only by firelight.
Lizard looked around the vast dark desert, struggling against his gag reflex as he swallowed a bite of blossom. He thought about his home leagues across the desert, about how small and mean and dirty it was compared to all this.
It had been about a year ago that Cactus first came into his grandfather’s tent for the pills she claimed she didn’t need. Lizard had been stirring an order of bird droppings and talcum powder, gazing out the tent flap and listening to Donnie Wrightman on his little radio, when Cactus stomped in and demanded something to protect her lungs from “all this damned foul desert air.” Lizard was immediately awed by the wild, adventure-worn woman—the determined clomp of her boots, the musk of far-off lands that seemed to cling to her clothes, the bark of her desert-dried voice. The only other person he had ever witnessed exude that much confidence was the rich, famous man spewing out advice on the radio.
Cactus was a well-known wanderer, rumored around town to have been raised in a nomadic tribe, which explained why she’d long ago gone mad with the desert heat. She swept into town every few months in her enormous rusted convertible to get new parts and provisions, always scowling at everyone she passed on the dusty streets. After a few visits to the medicine man’s tent, Lizard’s grandfather told Cactus she was in no condition to be traipsing all over the desert alone at her age and in her condition. One day, he said, she wouldn’t come back.
“That’s the idea,” she said grimly before heading off again with her satchel of pills.
Then, a few months later, she’d returned to the tent, looked Lizard straight in the eye, and asked him two questions: “Are you tired of stirring bird shit?” and “Want to see something beautiful for a change?”
Lizard only had one question in return: “Do you have a radio?”
And, in spite of sunburns and muscle soreness and stab wounds from giant cactus needles, the past few weeks of chasing mirages with Cactus had been the most exciting of Lizard’s young life. But he could tell his employer still remained tight-lipped about the real purpose of their adventure. He swallowed down another bite of blossom and looked across the fire to Cactus, who was leaning against a rock, staring into the distance. He took a deep breath and tried to muster the courage Donnie Wrightman always told him lay in wait within.
“Cactus,” he said. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Well, for the past three weeks we’ve been chasing a fantastical city that no one’s sure actually exists, and every time we see it, it proves to be just another mirage…”
Cactus raised a brow. “Is there a question in there?”
“Um…” Lizard scratched his head under his fisherman’s cap. “I mean, we’ve talked about the protective measures that make the city so impossible to find, about the mirages they put up to confuse explorers and the difficulty traditional instruments have in pinpointing its exact location, but I, well…it’s a myth, right? Or I always thought it was. That there’s this ancient, advanced civilization hidden in the middle of the Wajamim Desert? I guess what I’m asking is…how are you so sure it’s real?”
Cactus was silent for a long moment, every deep wrinkle in her face illuminated by the fire, her body suddenly looking frail and her eyes tired. She spun her roasted blossom slowly on its spit.
“When I was a girl, I was riding in a caravan through this desert. We were travelers, nomads, making our way to the next water source. It was the first time I’d been through the heart of the Wajamim, and I had never seen so much…nothing. So much, just, sand and sky and…nothing. It was like somebody wiped the slate clean, just said, ‘Let’s start over and see what pops up.’ We were crossing a tricky dune when I fell off the caravan and tumbled down. And nobody noticed. I was so small, and I’d been sleeping in the back trailer—I guess they didn’t plan to check on me till we camped for the night. I was too little to run through the sand, I practically sank every time I tried to chase the carts and horses that were getting smaller and farther away…”
She ran a finger along the creases below her eyes and the mass of frizzy gray hair at her temples.
“Soon it was nighttime, and there was no sign of anyone. The caravan had disappeared. I couldn’t hear the voices of my family calling out, couldn’t see the light of a fire in the distance. I huddled up under a cactus giant and tried to sleep. And I must have, because by the time I woke up the sun was rising. But instead of nothing, there was…something. Out in front of me. Buildings, shining glass and metal glinting in the sun. I saw it as clear as I see you.” She nodded across the fire to Lizard, who listened wide-eyed as he munched. “I ran toward it, stumbling because by that point I was hungry and thirsty and freezing and boiling and everything else that makes a child want to cry and be held by its mother. I’d always been told the desert-crazed mind could do tricky things to the eyes, but I was young and desperate, so I ran. And I made it to the gates. And they let me in.”
Lizard’s eyes grew even wider. “They…they? The people in the city? You made it? It was real?”
Cactus stared into the fire.
“The walls were all painted gold and silver and blue and orange, with tiled paths through the streets. Trees and flowers grew everywhere, and there was a stream running through the town square and huge fountains wherever you turned. Men and women climbed trees to gather these great red fruits as big as pumpkins that hung in bunches way up in the sky…they had towers with staircases winding all the way around and straight up so they never seemed to end.
“They spoke to me about their little world and the ways they protected it, by confusing searchers with their mirages. They fed me and gave me water and a cotton bed that I could melt right into. I didn’t want to go to sleep because my eyes weren’t tired yet of looking at the city. But I did sleep. Of course I did.”
“I woke up in the sand. I looked all around, but the city was gone. Not a brick left. On the horizon, I saw the caravan coming back, heard my family shouting for me. And we were off again. But I promised myself no matter how long it took, I would make it back there one day.”
“No one else had seen…?”
“And they believed you?”
Cactus shook her head. “They didn’t have the chance. I never told anybody. But they probably wouldn’t have. Everyone knows about the mirages out here.”
“So how do you know it wasn’t actually…I mean…?”
“A mirage? A dream? The hallucination of a child scared out of her head?”
“Well…” Lizard said.
Cactus opened her mouth to speak and started coughing again. Lizard immediately rose to get the pills, but Cactus held up a hand for him to stop. She clutched the rock behind her and let a few more coughs rack her body before her breathing slowed and stilled. She hacked and spat behind the rocks, where Lizard wouldn’t see.
“I know I survived through that day somehow,” she continued, her voice coming out shaky and shallow before strengthening again. “And when I was found I wasn’t fevered or burnt or even thirsty. In a land without food or water or shelter, I survived.” She held Lizard’s worried gaze a long moment before coughing again and glaring back down at her cactus blossom. “But I don’t expect to be believed, boy, that’s why I keep my history with the city to myself. Now eat your blossom and set up your tent.”
“Reruns of Donnie are coming on soon, can’t I listen to—”
“You’ve listened to enough from that snake oil salesman for one day,” Cactus snapped. “You won’t care so much about all those empty promises and cheap lies when you see what real wonders there are in this world. Tomorrow you’ll see it all for yourself.”
Lizard yawned and stretched. “You say that every night.”
When the sun rose they packed up camp and were off again, Cactus white-knuckled at the wheel and Lizard fiddling with the radio.
“…now, let’s go ahead and take our next caller,” Donnie’s slick voice came blaring through the speakers. “Tanya, you’re on with Donnie. How can I help you help yourself?”
Suddenly the city appeared again before them, swimming in the heat, just as radiant as always. Cactus glanced at the map open between the seats. They were getting close to the canyon Lizard had spotted, but the city was safely in front of the deep crevasse. She sped up, and the buildings seemed to become more solid the closer they got, the shining towers and painted walls getting realer every moment.
“…well, Mr. Wrightman, lately I’ve been longing to fulfill a childhood dream. See, I always wanted to be a professional sand skater, but I was bow-legged and had an inner ear problem, so I gave it up. It’s silly to still be clinging to that at my age, isn’t it, Mr. Wrightman?”
The car was racing toward the city when the buildings began to swim again, the details blurring, the vision starting to disappear.
Cactus sped up desperately just as the mirage vanished. Then she saw, out of the corner of her goggles, another apparition glistening to the east, right along the ridge of the canyon. She steered immediately to the right, the tires of the convertible barely missing the edge of the cliff. Lizard let out a yell and grabbed the car’s frame as pebbles and sand clouds flew into the depths of the canyon. Cactus pressed her boot harder against the gas pedal.
“Cactus, slow down!”
“I’m not losing another one!”
They zoomed toward the new sparkling vision.
“…the fact is, Tanya,” Donnie said. “Life never has to be less than what you want it to be. You have plenty to do still, plenty farther to go in life—the trick is to just keep pushing, just try, try, try again. Follow the five principles I’ve laid out, and nothing whatsoever can stand in your way…”
“Come on, come on,” Cactus shouted as she wiped the sand from her goggles. The walled metropolis was bathed in the light of the boiling sun, and they were closer than they had ever been. Lizard was still clutching the window frame when he could see for the first time the amazing details beyond the golden gates—the gardens and fountains, the windows illuminating every tower where he could almost make out what looked like the faces of people looking down at them. The buildings weren’t swimming away in an ocean of blinding heat this time, the waves didn’t come to mar the scene. Everything seemed to be getting more solid, and they were right at the huge gates and could see the pattern of the tiled streets, the fat red fruits hanging above the winding river and then…and then…
The waves started to come.
“No!” Cactus said.
The flat expanse of sand started to return.
And the car drove through the vanishing golden gates and into more empty desert.
Until a few feet later it crashed into a mountainous rock and went spinning toward the canyon. Cactus steered away frantically, but the convertible was breaking apart under them, the front smashed in and the rest flying toward the edge.
“Hang on, Lizard!”
The car hit another rock and threw Cactus clear among pieces of busted metal and broken glass. It veered toward the canyon, its wheels halfway off before the rest of its beaten body fell and disappeared over the edge. A moment later a shattering crash echoed through the desert.
Cactus coughed and struggled to stand. She hobbled to the canyon’s edge, clutching her side, and looked down the deep gully. She wiped her goggles again to see through the still-settling clouds of sand. The remains of the convertible burned among the red rocks below.
“Here,” came Lizard’s small voice.
And there he was, dangling just below, his climbing forks jutting out of the cliff face and his feet clinging to the barest protrusion of rock.
“Lizard, grab my hand!”
He clutched Cactus’s wrinkled fingers and clung on as she hoisted him back up. They crawled together away from the edge of the canyon and lay on the sand panting and staring up at the blank blue sky. Broken remains of their only source of transportation, shelter, and water were strewn across the desert around them. What was left of the dashboard and radio flashed and fizzled in the sand next to Cactus. The tangled wires and speakers still faintly transmitted Donnie Wrightman’s static-garbled voice.
“…because anything’s possible, you see? Repeat this mantra in your head: ‘I can do anything.’ Say that to yourself enough and soon you can make it true, I promise. You can do—”
Cactus closed her hand into a fist and beat the radio into silence.
She lay back down amidst the rubble and watched the corners of the desert go black.
When she opened her eyes again, it was to the feeling of hands shaking her and the sound of her name.
“Cactus. Cactus, wake up!”
Cactus blinked in the burning sunlight. It took a moment for her eyes to focus on Lizard kneeling beside her, to register the blood trickling from his forehead and the bruise blossoming under his eye. She felt an ache spreading through her body as she tried to push herself upright. Eventually she gave up and lay back down in the sand.
“Lizard…” she breathed, looking up into that eager trusting face.
“Cactus, are you okay? Cactus, the car…”
Cactus turned to take in the wreckage.
“The maps…” she said softly. “The water…” She started coughing, her body convulsing against the sand.
“Oh, pills—you need your pills, Cactus…” Lizard looked around frantically. “Um, they might be here in the debris somewhere. Don’t worry, I’ll find them, you just wait right here.”
Cactus shook her head and clutched his pant leg. “No, Lizard…” she said through rattling coughs. “No, it’s no good, boy. They’re gone.”
“It’s okay, Cactus, we can make it back and get my grandpa to make you some more,” Lizard said. “We just have to stay positive, like Donnie says. Look…look, we still have a tire, see? I can fashion some kind of wagon, and we can…we can…”
His hopeful face was falling as he looked around at what remained, at his employer lying defeated in the sand.
“Lizard, I’m sorry,” Cactus wheezed.
“No, Cactus, don’t say that, we can still…”
“I’m sorry you got caught up in this whole…this whole stupid mess.” She hacked and spat a mouthful of blood. “You don’t belong out here, you belong back home with your family, where you have your whole life in front of you. I dragged you out here for nothing. For all this…all this nothing. Oh God, I’m sorry, Lizard…”
“Hey, hang on now,” Lizard said, wiping away the blood trickling past his eye. “Hang on, hey, don’t go to sleep again, Cactus, you gotta stay awake so we can get home, yeah? Hey, listen, you didn’t drag me anywhere, I came out here because I wanted to. Everybody told me not to go with you—”
“You should’ve listened to them—”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant. You say I left behind a whole life, but what life, Cactus? You know why I listen to Donnie’s show? ‘Cause it’s the only thing that ever made me think there could be something better, that I could be more than just a small-town medicine man. You know, Cactus, when we first met, you reminded me of Donnie—don’t look like that, it’s a compliment! You weren’t just plodding along like everybody else, you were hell-bent on doing something, on going somewhere. That’s why I wanted to go with you. You keep calling all of this ‘nothing’!” He spread his arms out as though to embrace the miles of sand and cacti, the burning sun and the wide gaping sky. “Well, it’s not nothing to me, Cactus. We may have never actually made it to the city, but we still saw more of it than anyone. We got so close, we chased it all over this world and we found it a hundred times. You think I could’ve ever done anything like that back in my family’s tent? You think my grandpa ever did anything like that in his whole life? Cactus, that city was the only thing I ever saw worth seeing.”
“But it wasn’t real, Lizard! It was an illusion. A trick of the heat, a mirage I somehow got fooled into thinking I could walk into, just like all the idiots on the radio, like a damn fool. Lizard, you’ve just been following a broken old crone chasing down a dream.”
Lizard smiled and looked out to the horizon. “But wasn’t it a beautiful dream?”
Cactus stared at the boy leaning over her, his ridiculous ears sticking out under his cap, his little nose vanishing under his goggles. The corners of her mouth pulled up.
“Yes, Lizard. It was an awfully beautiful dream.”
They sat there in the sand together as the sun continued its burning journey through the sky, neither one moving. Cactus kept coughing softly and let her eyes drift closed again.
Cactus didn’t move. She was too tired, too broken, her lungs too shriveled for the oxygen of this world. The heat of the sand against her back felt welcoming, like a beach by an ocean where the water didn’t evaporate the moment it touched the air.
“Cactus…” Lizard said, shaking her shoulders more forcefully than before. “Cactus, look!”
She squinted her eyes open. Lizard was staring behind her. Cactus struggled to push herself up, Lizard guiding her arm as she turned her aching body toward something huge looming just yards from where they sat.
It was so close she could hear the fountains, could smell the flower buds. The gates opened to the two lost vagrants of the desert, and Cactus and Lizard, clutching each other and stumbling in the sand like children, entered the shining city.