The horse trots through the desert at a slow pace. Its rider kicks it in the side, telling it to speed up. The horse ignores this command and instead collapses, falling into the white sand. The rider brushes the sand off his coat and looks down at his horse. The horse is thin; weeks of walking through the seemingly endless desert have taken their toll. Skin clings tightly around the horse’s ribs. The rider peers into the horse’s black eyes. Judging by its empty stare, the horse is dying of thirst.
The rider grabs a canteen from his pack and takes a sip. The cold water rushes down his throat, quenching his thirst like heavenly nectar. The rider wipes his chin, grabs his gun, and fires, putting the horse out of its misery. The rider kneels down, pulls out his knife, and starts cutting.
The last time he saw another person was three weeks ago. Deep down, he doubts that he’ll ever see another human being. The desert stretches for a thousand horizons in every direction. The unrelenting wind blows away any footprints he leaves, destroying any trace of his existence.
He takes another sip from his canteen, finishing the last drops of water. He sighs. The last time he was dying of thirst he was lucky enough to come across a man with a horse and several canteens full of water. Back then, his gun had four bullets. Now it only has two. If he doesn’t find an oasis or another traveler soon, he has a feeling that he’ll use one of his remaining bullets.
The rider cuts the horse into slabs of meat and dries them using the sand. He takes what he can; the rest he leaves for the buzzards. Food isn’t something he’ll have to worry about, at the very least. He munches on the horse jerky as he marches through the desert, searching for salvation.
After two days of walking, he sees what looks to be sparkling blue water. He races towards it, ignoring his screaming legs. When he reaches the “Oasis” and realizes that it is nothing more than a mirage, he collapses to his knees and starts crying.
He spends the night under the stars, dreaming of rain. In the morning, he sets out again. After a few hours, he collapses. His lips are chapped and swollen. His mouth tastes like sand. He struggles to keep his eyes open. With a sigh, he grabs his gun. He places the barrel on his temple.
He takes one last look at the world. He sees a person walking towards him. The rider ignores this as nothing more than another mirage. He falls deep into unconsciousness before he can find the strength to pull the trigger.
When he comes to, he is lying in a comfortable bed. His sweat soaked clothes are folded neatly in a pile at the foot of the bed. His pack sits by the door of the small bedroom and his gun sits on a small nightstand.
Sitting next to his gun is a large pitcher of water. Without thinking, the rider grabs the pitcher and chugs the ice cold water directly from the pitcher. As the water rolls down his throat, he starts to wonder where he is. After emptying the pitcher, the rider grabs his gun and slowly exits the bedroom. He explores the small house, discovering several plain rooms. Finally, he finds the front door and walks out into the scorching desert once more.
An old woman is sitting on a bench, reading an old book and sipping a glass of tea. “Hello dearie,” she says. “Did you have a nice rest?”
The rider draws his gun and points it at the old woman. She laughs. “There’s no need for that,” she says.
“How did I get here?” the rider asks.
“I found you out in the desert and brought you here.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m just a kind old woman, trying to survive in this messed up world. Would you like some tea?”
The old woman hands the rider a glass of iced tea. He begrudgingly takes a sip and tries to ignore how good it tastes. The old woman returns to reading her book. The rider sits down next to her. “Where am I?” he asks.
The old lady takes a sip of her tea. “You are not the first man to try and cross this desert, nor will you be the last,” she says. “My family and me were like you once, weary travelers crossing an endless sea of sand in search of paradise. We came across this oasis a years ago and decided to live here.”
She stands up and grabs the rider’s hand. “Come, let me show you around,” she says.
She leads the rider away from the porch, guiding him to a spring surrounded by trees. “When the seas dried up, this region became a hostile land. My family heard rumors of a paradise beyond the sands. We found this Oasis.”
“There’s an underground well that flows into this spring. I’ve been here for years and it still hasn’t gone dry,” she says. “My family decided that this place was as close to paradise as we could find. We built our house using wood from the trees. We made this place our home.”
“This is amazing,” the rider says. “What do you eat?”
The old woman leads him to the house’s cellar, where tables lined with potted plants sit. Bright lights hang from the ceiling, illuminating the room. Jars of canned meat line the walls of the cellar. “I was a botanist, before the world went to hell,” the woman says. “Over the years, passing travelers have left me with the things I needed to make this garden. Pieces of metal, glass bottles, the occasional seed, you get the idea. It took a long time, but I eventually managed to make this garden.”
“You aren’t the first person I’ve ever found passed out in the sand. Every few weeks someone makes their way through here. They never stay long, but they do give me what I need to survive.”
“I grow potatoes, lettuce, cabbage, and a few herbs,” she says. “It isn’t the most flavorful diet, but I manage.”
The rider notices a pot filled with pink flowers. “What’s the point of this?” he asks.
“You’ll figure it out eventually,” she says.
When dinner rolls around, the old woman invites the rider to have dinner with her. She serves him a bowl of delicious soup that melts in his mouth. “This is amazing,” he says. “What’s in this?”
“Cabbage, water, and a certain secret ingredient,” she says.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why did you save me?”
“Because you’re a person. It would be a terrible waste to let you die out there.”
The pair finish their meal and the woman leads the rider to her parlor. “This house is enormous,” he says. “How did you build this place?”
“My husband was a carpenter. He put his heart and soul into building this place.”
“Your husband? Is he-”
The old woman sighs. “Johnny was a kind man. Too kind. That’s what did him in, in the end.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No. It’s fine. Why don’t you tell me more about yourself?”
“There isn’t much to tell. I wanted to get away from the Reds, heard about the Hidden City, and decided to risk my life by crossing the desert.”
“I have heard that exact story a thousand times from a thousand different travelers. Sometimes men, sometimes women, sometimes children, all chasing that dream. A paradise where the water runs freely. A place where the Reds don’t dare visit. A mirage.”
“I was like you once. It took the death of my children to realize the truth. There is no paradise beyond this desert. If you leave, you will die. Please, stay with me.”
The pair go to their respective bedrooms. The rider lies in bed. Even though the call of sleep feels so enticing, thoughts swirl around in his head like a whirlwind, keeping him awake. He grabs his gun and sneaks out of his room. Being sure to not make a noise, he creeps into the old woman’s room. Through the darkness, he sees a vaguely human-sized shape lying beneath the covers. He raises his gun and fires.
The gun just clicks. He looks at it, confused. The old woman opens the door to the bedroom. “I took the gun apart when you were unconscious, making sure to leave a few pieces out when reassembling it,” she says. “Not that it matters, of course, judging by the fact that you just tried to shoot a pillow.”
The rider aims his gun at her and fires again. Once more, the gun simply clicks. “You’re a bandit, aren’t you?” the old woman says. “A man who kills others for the supplies he needs.”
“So what if I am?”
“Let me tell you a little story. I was like you once. I heard of the Hidden City and convinced my husband and children to come with me. As we traveled, our supplies began to dwindle. That’s when the bandits showed up.”
“I wish I could say that they killed my children,” she says. “That would have been so much more bearable. I attacked the bandits. I killed them. It felt good. One of my children died at the hands of those bandits. The other one died of thirst three days later.”
“My husband forced me to keep going. Then we found this place. This oasis. Our salvation. We built a home here. Then others showed up. My husband, the kind man that he was, invited them to stay with us. Of course, there wasn’t enough food for all of us. Back then, my garden was only a figment of my imagination.”
“Those people killed my husband. They didn’t kill me. Since then, I’ve found a lot of people lying out there in the sand. Trust me, cabbage soup is much more palatable with a little meat in it.”
“You’re probably wondering why your body feels so numb. Remember that pink flower? It’s called valerian. It’s a potent natural sedative. I slipped a little into your soup earlier. Don’t worry. You’ll be asleep, so you shouldn’t feel anything.”
“Wanna know how I know the Hidden City is fake? Because, much like this “Oasis”, human kindness is nothing but a mirage.”