It starts out in the backseat of a banged-up gray Mazda.
You’re too small to take shotgun, so you strain against the ever-tightening child harness in the back, nose trying to catch every breeze that swoops overhead and sprinkles a dusting of life on this river of cars.
Every windshield faces the horizon. Every tailpipe bleeds poisonous tears. Everyone is going somewhere, and no one wants to be behind anyone else. Honks smatter in the wind.
In the front seat you’ve got two bantering parents. They’ve spread out a paper metropolis on your father’s knee, tracing it with frantic fingers, searching for the right set of lines and dots.
You peer over their heads and out the front window. Some distance ahead, the overbaked concrete melts into cookie crust, a bridge over blue jell-o that leads to the boxy Belgian double doors of a confectionary castle iced in endless whipped-cream clouds and kept afloat by dove-winged horses. By the smell of snickerdoodle almost wafting through the window, you can tell that even their poop is rainbow. You’re 99% confident.
“Are we there yet?” you wonder. How is it that all this delight looms ahead and yet doesn’t seem to draw closer?
“Patience, little one,” your father says gently, glancing up from the sprawling map. “We’ll be there before you know it.”
The radio murmurs lullabies. Neon-studded diners drift slowly backwards down the darkening concrete river. As hundreds of firebug eyes fade open around you, your own eyes slowly close.
You don’t know how many neon enclaves or shriveled gas stations the car may have passed overnight, but now orange light pours in the windshield, jerking your face unmistakably into morning. You realize you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, where your mother was yesterday.
A warm hand on your shoulder lets you know she is behind you.
You start to turn your head to look at her.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” she cautions. And so you pass the day on the swerving river, her voice the only barrier between your soft tissue and the aluminum cutthroats zipping past along the yellow-lined rapids.
What’s their hurry, anyway? You glance ahead.
The cream-topped castle still lies at the end of the road. Now that you’re up front you can see a few more details. The flying unicorns still poop in rainbow, but they aren’t really unicorns. Rather, geese draped in dewdrops circle the towers, their soft cries drowning like coin-drop wishes in the moat beneath. And now you discover that what you thought was a blue jell-o sea is really a gaggle of frayed magicians’ scarves. Tied at the ends to splintery scarecrows, they wave on the wind, teasing beach-bound passers-by with the mirage of a cool pause on this endless strip of highway.
“What’s our destination?” you inquire, beginning to unfold the map that yesterday sprawled across your father’s khaki knee.
“You’re the driver,” your father points out.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” adds your mother.
You glance up and narrowly miss the kiss of a voluptuously swinging cement mixer.
After driving for some time, you notice a strange fact. Anytime a thought shifts position in your mind, the wheel beneath your hands seems to twirl in response. As for the gas pedal, it seems to be digging deep into the floor without your foot’s added pressure.
The car is moving a bit too fast. You try to slow down, but a chorus of beeps explodes around you. The rush-hour tide wants to course ahead, and so ahead you shall go. You set your jaw and burn your eyes into the concrete. You try to stop your thoughts from fidgeting.
The firebug headlights give life to night, painting insistent streaks of red and yellow along the riverbank. Your eyelids are sinking closed, but you must keep driving. You glance in the rearview to check on your passengers.
The backseat is empty. Or it looks that way. Then you see faces fold into being from the lumpy leather, a Mount Rushmore made of your mother and father.
“Are you guys okay?” you ask. “Shall we stop at a diner or something?”
You’re the driver, whispers the air between the pores of black leather that form your father’s lips. Keep on going.
“But… I don’t even know where I’m going.” The river has been skating backwards alongside you for quite some time and you think you’d benefit from a moment of stillness, of foot-bound gravity. “Could I stop and take a look at that information center?” You indicate a lonely shack as it rushes past.
Won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, your father says.
Keep your eyes on the road, your mother reminds you, unless it’s a whistle from the air conditioning system.
In the blackness ahead, the ramparts of the dessert pavilion pierce the night like untamed canine teeth. The geese have roosted. In their place, a cloud of bats circles, plunging and fluttering like crippled paper cutouts. Their guano is rainbow; you can almost smell it. Meanwhile, the cookie dough bridge has cracked in its crispness, leaving gaping crevasses that no noble steed could cross, let alone a banged-up 1997 Mazda.
“Are you sure about this?” you murmur, or perhaps it’s just a glitch in the radio static.
The wheel is tossing like a ship in a hurricane. With each swell of intangible matter within your heart, the four-wheeled vessel orients itself in a new direction, dancing tipsy on the edges of the lane barriers. You grab the wheel with all your sweat, you press your foot into the brake pedal, but the river around you surges forward ever faster and you cannot slow or take a moment to see where you’re going. You want to get off this ride before it plunges down some treacherous waterfall, but there’s no exit. You want to cry, but you don’t want to make the leather in the backseat that used to be your mother cry also, and besides the river wind chafes too freshly for tears.
The dark dessert pavilion is drawing very near. The iron skeleton of the collapsed cookie bridge hangs in the balance between the rushing road and the chocolate door, which you now see is stamped with a company label you aren’t familiar with. The bats overhead bustle on doves’ wings, ushering cold snickerdoodle breath through the whipped swirls of cloud and into your air conditioning system. The windows glare down upon the beat-up gray Mazda, smirking of flowerpots filled with six-fingered witch trees that reach inquisitively down to screech a symphony on your windshield.
You cannot but go forward. So you cross the bridge, crumble through the chocolate bar. You twirl across a ballroom floor amidst a tornado of flying creatures drizzled with dewdrops. Tailpipe trickling tears, you burst through the back door backwards and watch as the cardboard castle before you crumples like the marshy remains of a store-bought birthday cake forgotten too long in the fridge.
It’s nearly dawn. Tire tracks painted saccharine pink mark the place where the palace fell. Ahead, an orange light heralds the new day. The river is already stirring.
You glance at the backseat.
In a smiling cradle of leathery folds rests a young child, no older than three or four, though from those pearl-bay eyes you’d think only a day had passed since this morsel of flesh was only a reflection in someone’s telescope.
The child yawns, a musical sound like rainbows. “Are we there yet?”
For some reason you can’t explain, you smile, breathing in the life-giving breeze as it dives over that banged-up 1997 Mazda. And you say to your child, “Not yet. And thank goodness for that.”
Ahead, mountains rise to greet the sun, rounded heads capped in ice that glistens like sugar stars. The grapefruit of day pours down the river, which rolls along in waves just slow enough to feel the wheel’s heartbeat beneath your fingers.
The rattling of various vehicle systems reminds you to keep your eyes on the road, to scan the series of hieroglyphics scattered across the map, to drink in the colors of not knowing.
You are 99% confident that you will possibly never get there.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By Mrflip (Own work Made from an aerial photo mosaic by me.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By mhx from London, United Kingdom (Southwark Street at Night) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Mark J Sebastian (Bokeh Test (#103920)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
(trees photo by Anne Seaworthy)
By Rawen Pasha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons