He knew what it was. He’d have died weeks ago if he hadn’t known how to distinguish the desert’s illusions from its reality. But it was as good a direction as any so he headed toward it, the taps of his footfalls punctuating the grind of the cart he towed behind him. The mirage matched him pace for pace, always the same distance ahead of him.
The mirage vanished in an eyeblink.
He wondered if its disappearance was a warning of a canyon blocking his path but no, when he squinted against the glare, he saw straight lines. In the desert, the only straight lines were those fashioned by human hands.
His footsteps quickened, excited out of the measured pace he could sustain from sunrise to sunset. Straight lines joined to form walls and windows. A gap showed him where a main street had once been, so he followed it between the rows of houses with sand piled half way up their front doors.
As he hauled his cart toward the centre of the town, the buildings grew taller. Brisk walls gave way to glass shopfronts, sporting names he remembered from his youth. Starbucks and McDonalds rubbed shoulders with the smaller stores named for the families that had once owned them. The sand was piled so high that when he passed a bus shelter, the roof was level with his eyes. Wherever the buses had come from and gone to was lost; the fragments of the schedule that had not been scoured away were bleached white by the sun.
He came to a crossroads that marked the centre of the town. It must have been busy once, judging by the billboards hired by people who expected them to be seen by thousands of eyes. Most of them bore nothing but faded scraps of paper, but some freak of shade and shelter had preserved a few words on one of them:
He trudged into its shadow and allowed himself a sip from the water tank on the cart.