Games Played During Road Trips
There rests at the back of our minds like roadwork, but we can’t find it, and we can’t reach it. We just keep moving through vast distances of road, and all I do is watch outside. I try to concentrate on the path ahead but every now and then you look at me with your face crumpled in nervousness, so I smile to reassure you.
Don’t worry, we’ll get there. We’ll find it with our hearts, with our throats, with our spirits. We’ll reach into the backs of our memory and dig up what we know, and we’ll journey to purpose. Don’t worry. We’ll get there soon. I promise.
We packed a bag full of all the things we’d need for this journey, the tools and the books and the maps. Through distance and through these awful, wrongly-coloured skies, we drive and drive and drive. Away from our house. Towards our adventure. You look at me and smile, and it’s just impossible for me not to return the love.
I wish you were in the front seat with me, but I know you’re reassuring me from your spot at the back. You brought your friends, Precious and Joss, on our journey, and I can’t help but stare at them. I don’t know why you brought them and it hurts to see them for this exact event, but it’s not my place to ask. It’s not my place to tell you who to bring or who to keep away. There has always been for us, and while I’ve never wanted to share it, it’s not wholly mine.
Still, I try to savour this time. I brought snacks for you but you pass on eating them. I try to enter the conversation you and your friends are having but each time I do, you give me a dirty look from your spot at the back, like you’re smelling a garbage can.
But I can’t stay too mad for too long. Even when you frown, it never lasts. You always come back to me, your mother, into my arms, for some love or some warmth or a pat on the back. You can gist with your friends now and glance at me every once in a while, and I’ll play along. I won’t talk. I won’t disrupt. I won’t look back. I won’t talk at all.
You want me to sit at the front and be your designated driver, your chauffeur? Sure. But there will always be for us and us first.
You cannot have this experience without your mum.
And there doesn’t open unless our hearts are strong.
When you were much younger, so innocent and full of life, I read stories of there to you for the first time. Every moment I recited them to you, of there’s glorious magic, your ears perked up. You started to laugh. You started to smile. It was like discovering a key between us, one that would create our special bond for years to last.
When you were three, you got really sick. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with you but you wouldn’t stop coughing or crying or vomiting and I was so scared. I was so terrified. But then I read there to you again, of its magic and its promise, and then I prayed, looking up beyond the dark sky. The next day, you were all laughs. The next day, you were joyous, my little baby once again, with adventure in your eyes.
At four, I read to you that there opened its doors to a boy with a trickster heart, and soon after that, you became a little prankster. You glued plates to tables for April Fools. You baked cookies and filled them with salt instead of sugar. You made fake snot and threw it everywhere to scare me into thinking you were sick. You’ve played so many games that scared me, so many games that terrified and hurt me, and I had to accept that they were only for fun.
There has always existed in our books. In our TV shows. In the smiles between our eyes as I drove you to a movie theatre or to a mall or to a friend’s house. Going there has always been the plan, the mystery of our lives. Where is it? How can we find it? How can we do it – together?
We reach the first junction in our trip. The traffic lights beep and the cows moo as we pass and the markets we go through sound busy, bustling with activity. There is nothing but radio silence between you and me, as you talk with your friends and type on your devices. I am left alone, to look for there with nothing but hazy eyes and a parched throat. But I still don’t know where to find it. I still don’t know where it is. There is a whole world full of paths and twists, lefts and turns, but every time I want to give up, stop, I glance at you and go ahead.
You and your friends chatter in the back seat, laughing at something you don’t want me to understand. It’s always play and gossip and fun times between the three of you: always soft voices and small fights. Your voice is always the loudest. Always so purposeful, as if you’re guiding them.
“Let’s play a game,” you tell your friends, and from my front-seat mirror I can see your smile, full of mischief, and I suddenly get a headache. Not another game. But Precious and Joss cheer at the suggestion and turn to face you, and when they do, you take all their phones and drop them to the side.
“What are we doing?” Precious asks. I listen in as well, just because you’re speaking.
“Just trust me – we’re playing something old school.”
“Alrightttt then,” Joss replies.
“I spy with my little eye—“ you start to say, and then I understand:
This is all a game.
You bringing your friends here – this is a game. You starting to push me away – this is a game. You saying you don’t need me anymore when you do – games. Oh son of mine, the games you play, the things you say, the actions done by you to keep your dear mother away.
“—Something yellow,” you say, and pretty soon Precious and Joss start looking everywhere for something yellow. Blonde. Amber. Their eyes dart to all places, to the books we brought in the car and all of the snacks. But it’s not any of that, you say. It’s something else. None of your friends can even guess what it is, what you saw, what you noticed, but there’s still one more chance. One final guess.
I know I’m not supposed to stare at anything but the road, but I have to look for what you spied at too. Maybe it’s there. Maybe it’s only something the two of us should see, can wonder at, can share. Maybe you said something yellow, so I look to the trees, to the strange, polluted sky, to the—
“Mummy, the car!”
And I hit the brakes. I’m thrown forward but pulled back by my seatbelt, and my heart starts to race.
“Are you okay?” Precious asks me in the silence, but I don’t respond. My heart races, and my memory jogs.
It’s like there normally rests at the back of our minds, comfortable, but when I went forward in my seat, there came into view. Its paths, its doors, its portals, slowly in memory.
On the verge of death, in danger, I could see it.
And the glimpse I saw didn’t show me the road. Even now, parked on the side of this street, tar feels wrong to me. Where we’re going, they’ve not paved the streets. Where we’re going, they’ve not touched it, they’ve not colonised it, they’ve not built over it. There is as wild as my racing heart, beating fast. It’s a call to danger. It’s a bad boy land. It’s got rhythm, it’s got lurch, it’s got fire in its lungs. The portal to the world we seek doesn’t crave city streets.
So the bush calls to me.
I make a right turn off the street. I head out of the road. The thought of the forest causes me to shake, stutter, but even then, I don’t doubt my mind. There requires risks, and I’m ready to take them. There requires spontaneity, so I hit the brakes and venture into the great unknown.
“What’s going on?” Precious asks, shaking. Cars behind me honk and scream.
“I…I don’t like this.” Joss shouts, clutching the grab handle of the car.
Both of them start screaming when I drive the car off the tar. It collapses from the road and goes into the hard soil, into the forest. I turn my head to glance at you and you look at me and nod, so I go on. I smile. We’re in sync. We’re not apart.
But that’s almost hard to believe when I can barely figure you out.
Your look at me is brief, as always, then it’s back to calming your friends down and making sure they don’t fall apart. It’s like there’s two sides of you – one that wants this journey and one that wants to ignore me and hangout with your friends. But you won’t let me know what’s on your mind. You’re just giving me enough to work with, enough to push me on, and we’re barely communicating. Now more than ever I want the front seat closeness of you and I, the one-two closeness of only us getting there, but it’s not my place.
I can’t say anything. I just drive.
We keep going under a sky that’s dark and hidden and stormy even though it hasn’t rained in a while. The whole world is immersed in shadows. The weather is just like it was the day you were born – strange, lacklustre, devoid of life – and that unsettles me, shakes me up. Precious and Joss stay silent at the backseat once again, back to comfort now that you’ve placated them. We’re back to nothing but the tapping of phones and windows, the soft quiet of lonely thoughts. You break the awkwardness with a proposal of another activity, and of course everyone wants to play along.
“Tico! Tico! Ticoloco ticoco—” you start to say, and I have to wonder who taught you these old games. Was it your uncle in his spare time? Was it your aunt who taught you over her cooking pot during a visit? Was it your father when he was around? These are the games of my childhood, the games of my life. Your phones are barely touched, batteries full, and yet you all pay them no mind.
Your hands move in pinches along with Precious and Joss, scraping their palms then touching their hands. I can only watch from the front-seat mirror of the car, blinking away the stinging in my eyes. Am I really supposed to remain silent? Tortured? Am I supposed to just not say a word?
The tico games you play create a constant drumbeat in my skull, a noisy ear worm. The sound annoys me, but it’s also the perfect thing to distract me from my sadness when we fully enter the bush. The deeper parts of the forest are nothing but trouble, and although I’ve always been an adventurer, I’ve never liked danger. When I was much younger, and my father used to cook, he would always drop the meat into the pot of egusi last, saying: “That’s what happens when you do something bad. You go in hot soup!” In the bush now, with my car tires crunching over fallen sticks like skeleton bones, I believe I have entered hot vegetable soup. More than that, I’m collapsing in it, falling since I can’t swim, and now I can only drown.
The bumpy road composed of rocks and bricks and coarse sand makes all of our heads almost hit the car top, but then again, we are all restrained in seatbelts. I hope for another jolt of memory, but there sits comfortably at the back of my mind, for my heart doesn’t race and there is no danger in place.
There’s nothing in sight for miles. Nothing but emptiness. And the trees. And the never-ending dark, twisting us into more mazes of road, more dangers of the forest. The path to there at the end of the day is just distance and distance and more, but there’s no room to be had in our minds for doubt. And while there’s no doubt in my head, there is room in my mind for fear.
As if on cue, you look at me, eyebrows furrowed in toughness. All your defiance is enough to still the worry in me, to keep me moving forward. But then I don’t know if you’re being serious. If you’re not just playing with my emotions. Toying with my heart. If you’re not just trying to look at me nicely every once in a while, so I won’t care that you’re icing me out, that you’re changing the trip that we planned together, that you brought your friends on our journey of a lifetime.
And it’s all too much for me.
I stop the car, right in the middle of the bush, and grab open a bag of chips. In the backseat, you and your friends mutter in confusion as to why we’re not moving, but nobody says anything to me directly. Nobody argues. Despite being in this hot soup place, what I need right now, more than anything else in the world, is something to comfort me and take my mind off things, something hearty and filled with carbs, something that will make me happy. But inside the bag of chips is just empty snack packets that have been stuffed in. Another joke. You’re always making jokes.
This trip is a joke.
“I…I need to pee,” Joss shouts, and his words break my frustration.
“Here? Now?” I stare at him furiously, which causes you to glare at me. I don’t even care about your reaction, I just want to leave this place, these bushes, these hot soup parts, and go home. But I don’t want to cause any drama, so I unlock the car.
“Fine,” I sigh.
Joss climbs out before I can say another word. I am left tapping the steering wheel, staring at the unforgiving trees clouding the darkened yellow sky. I try to take my thoughts away from the dangers of this place. I try to give you your space, since that’s what you so badly want.
“I think I want to take some pictures too. Stretch my legs,” Precious says, and she gets up with her phone, and climbs out of the car.
“You coming?” She gestures, but you don’t follow her. She leaves her muddy footsteps and empty sweet wrappers in the crumpled leaves.
So it’s just you and me now in this car. In silence. The radio has no service here, but your phone does, and you pick it up and text someone else rather than talk to me. Another friend. Another game. Another distraction. I have to wonder where it all went wrong. When did we build this rift between each other, that we can just be our own people and forever live apart? When did we start having these separate, uncaring lives, where we’re just strangers to each other, not mother and child?
When did we stop being a unit?
“So how is school?” I say. I need us to open up.
You look at your phone instead of answering me. “Good.”
I’m furious. “Good?”
You look to the distance with a shrug. “Yeah it’s fine.”
“And your friends are having fun?”
“Yeah, they are. They think it’s nice. Thanks for letting them come.”
“It’s no problem,” I reply, but it’s not okay. It’s not okay. None of this is okay. My voice cracks with each word. My throat tightens.
“Are you good?” You stare up at me from your phone now, gazing at me with your head cocked. “You look kind of sad.”
Maybe I should just keep it together. “I’m fine.”
“Are you su—”
And then we’re silent again, our shameful, disconcerting quiet, our stranger to stranger quiet, but this time it is not unintentional. It is of my own will, it is of my strength, I am desperately holding it in. I am trying so desperately to hold it in, to be the gracious, ever loving parent. To be the one who is cool and doesn’t overreact and is never angry or selfish and never cries. I am trying so damn hard to be the understandable one, but all reasonableness has left me and the question of why you brought your friends here screams through my mind. It burns my throat, my heart, my tongue. What games are you playing and how am I to react? What games are you playing and how am I to—
“But they aren’t supposed to be here!” I scream so loud and hard and painfully that the birds on the nearest trees fly away and the animals hide and the leaves ruffle and the world falls into a needless cloud of yellowish-grey that’s so sickly and awful and unhealthy. The clouds deepen to black. Then it rains.
And I’m crying, I’m crying, and I don’t want to be crying, but I am and I don’t stop and it’s raining. You fall back in your seat, startled.
“This is our thing. This is our thing. This has always been our thing and there is us, has always been us. It’s always been our loves and our stares and our journey and our heart. It’s always been my gift from me to you and you to me, and there has always been your childhood and my motherhood and our stories, our glorious stories combined, our Easter egg. So I don’t understand. I don’t understand why you would do this to me, why you would treat me like this now. Why you would ruin everything by bringing your friends? It’s not as special if it’s not for us. It’s not as magical.”
And then I’m angry. I’m so angry. I’m so rageful, so spiteful and so heartbroken at all the things you’ve done to me that I can’t even talk. I can’t even look at you. I can’t even breathe. I can’t even come up with another sentence, so I just cry and cry some more, not even bothering to wipe my tears, I let out my universe. And you look at me, you just keep staring at me, finally giving me some mother-son attention and staring at me like I’m the only person in the world, like I’m your mother, and start to speak.
“God. I’m sorry, Mummy! Please relax. I’m sorry. God. I don’t want to hurt you. I never want to do anything that would make you feel like this, like I’ve taken something special away from you – I love you, I do. But it’s exactly like you said earlier on. The same way you wanted to share this gift with me is the same way I want to share this with my friends. It’s our thing always, first, but I wanted them to experience this. I wanted this to be special for me and so I need them here.”
But I don’t want to share. I don’t want you to grow up and have friends. I want you to be my little boy at this moment and for us to explore the land forever.
“I don’t like these games you’re playing,” I say instead.
Your face scrunches up into a mixture of concern and confusion. “Mummy, what games? What games would I be playing?”
“Well, it won’t be surprising, would it?” I almost shout, but then I lower my voice and speak. “You’re always trying to make me a fool. You’re always trying to deceive me.”
You take a breath and look me in the eyes. I can’t help but look back this time. In my pain and in our arguing, I get a good look at your small, round lips. Your short, buzzed hair. Your dark vanilla skin. Your long eyelashes, your furrowed brows, your small ears. You’re looking at me and you’re serious, so serious, and angry.
“Nothing I do is designed to hurt you. Don’t you understand that? I only play these games because I thought it was just another thing that we did together, and that’s just that. I am not trying to manipulate you. I don’t want to deceive you. I don’t know why I have to even say that, now. I just want to hang out with my friends and go somewhere different, that’s all there is to it. That’s all it is. No games.”
I try to respond but I can’t. You go back to your phone, and I am left to linger in the awful after-silence of a fight. Like I’m the bad person. Like I’m overreacting. The sky stares at me as if it wants to swallow me whole. The whole world is judging me. My tears hit the soft leather of the steering wheel.
And yet this discussion has not solved much of anything. My hurt is not fully gone. Understanding you, your actions and your thoughts, was supposed to fix everything, but I’m still not convinced. I can’t just change my mind.
Joss comes running and running out of the depths of the bush. He swears and screams and climbs into the car. Precious follows him soon after, sweaty and exhausted and panicked. I turn in my seat, and the boy is sweaty, fly unzipped, pointing to the bush. Precious is just as shaken up, if not more, and she’s gesturing, her arms flailing.
I’m just as flustered as they are. “What’s going on?”
They point again and again, to the bush.
Then I see it.
Something furry with three eyes and a rabid face is staring at us and walking slowly, scraping the dirt with its sharp antenna-like legs, and right then and there, more than anything ever, I just want to start the car start the car start the car. My heart beats fast. The road to there jumps out. But there’s no time to think about the map and where it lies. No time to think about all my pain. No time to think about the source of this danger and what it brings about, what it shows me. Because there’s this three-eyed beast that lives in the forest and I just need to get the hell out of here so
And then the car goes up and up and into the sky, and I am left breathless.
We soar over the world around us, into the depths of the unknown. We go higher and higher and higher, cutting past layers upon layers of clouds. I try to hold on to my steering wheel, but it’s out of control now that we’re past safe parameters. My hands aren’t leading me, and I can only think with my mind.
I’m too panicked and scared and disbelieving to even come up with solid words, concrete actions, a plan. You and Precious and Joss are screaming, shouting with a piercing rattle for your life, and your yells are the only things that fill my mind. I’m still your mother. I need to protect you. I face you from the driver seat, and I stare at you till you calm down.
“We do not fear,” I say to you, the way you always said to me, the way you always look at me, eyebrows furrowed in toughness. My mind aches and my body hurts, but I soar stronger over everything that can ever hurt me. We will be okay, danger doesn’t mean death, flight doesn’t mean fall. We are alive, and we are here, we’re just in the sky.
Eventually everyone stops shouting and then we look around. We are still going higher and higher, at an inhuman speed, but it feels less disorienting, we’re all less panicked. Precious and Joss start to breathe again, and you smile at me, and I can feel your love. There has always been here, like this, in our little moments, when we face each other and recognize our bond and handle the world. There has always been our magic, our relationship, and no matter your age or choices, it’s here to last.
The car goes higher and higher and breaks into the edge of the sky. We all almost scream again, fearing that we’ve reached our limit, that this might be it, our fall, but then we see the sky. The car, out of my grasp and my control, rams into the edge of the clouds once again, and the sky begins to chip. The wrong colour starts to fade away.
The world breaks.
And everything I’ve ever thought possible comes shattering against my eyes, clouding my vision in an aura of impossibility. The sky in front of me bursts into broken glass pieces, like it was all an illusion from the beginning of time. The world in front of me splashes into a colour of warmth, of blue, of life that I’ve never seen before. I see the earth marvellous in its glory. I see the sun come out like an unexpected warm hug.
And I don’t even know what to say, I don’t know how to react, I can’t even begin to put my thoughts into words, so I just cry. I cry and cry, sobbing and wailing and disbelieving, tearing up at all the beauty of the world that I thought will never come but is here before me
The sky is no longer discomforting to look at. It no longer looks polluted or dark, like an omen or a warning or a symbol of a dark time. The sky is no longer a foreshadowing to your pain, for the day you were sick, for my anxiety. It fills me with so much comfort now, warmth, so much grace, that it speaks of something new. It’s made for us, you and I.
We thought, “I needed to go away, go up, get out,” and we went up. We kicked the car into gear with my wild heart and we flew away. And now I know, truly, that I’ve never been the one in control. I’ve never been the one moving this car to where it truly needs to be.
It’s always been our heart. Our hearts are the driver in the driver’s seat, the passenger watching closely, taking us low and high and under. My heart is the ladder to a world that I am sure exists now that we’re suspended in air, above tar roads and vegetable soup bushes and three-eyed beasts. My heart knows where there is, even if I do not. But I can listen to it. I can listen to you. And us, in sync. And we are going to last.
Me and you, we catch each other’s eyes and we start to laugh. I can’t help it and neither can you. It’s all so ridiculous, if I think about it: being in the sky. Being so far away from earth and all the trees and all the little things. Being here finally, in our world made of dreams and hopes and fantasies. I love it, these moments when it feels like we’re the only ones here. This is what I wanted all along.
Precious and Joss may be here, but this is our adventure. They may flail and scream, laughing and shouting from the intensity of the hourney , but this is our special moment, and I don’t mind them being here to witness it. Portal doors are not made for one, they’re made for everybody. If they want to experience there, then they can too.
In the sky, back to driving again (the steering wheel lets me), I feel my heart rest. It doesn’t roar or rattle in its cage, but it pushes me to look at you again. You’re playing with your friends. You’re living life.
And then I finally accept it. You’re not my little son. Not anymore. These movements, these looks, your now deep voice. Your friends, your time, this journey. You’ve grown up.
You’re prioritising others and not always me. You’re making your own decisions. You’re still there but you won’t always be, and you’re angsty and wonderful and growing up. You leave childhood behind for a reason, but it’s still there, and it’s still there at the back of our minds, and apparent in our feelings. So I won’t argue any more. I won’t bite my tongue. I won’t say you’re playing games when it’s just you that’s changing. We have a long way to go, and a new path to find, but for now, I’ll just savour our brief shared looks.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep driving. I’ll just keep loving. I’ll keep moving with a crystal feeling in my heart, over a sky so blue that we could be here forever. And it is forever: being here, in the sky. It’s not tar, after all. Not colonized. It’s cracked, opened, revealed to show something new. Free and wild, with a door open for us who seek. Us who dream. Us who love wide open, who wear our hearts on our sleeves. And in our throats. And in our feelings. And you know, son, if we truly think about it, if we can picture it, then the sky itself already is a different world.
Osahon Ize-Iyamu is a Nigerian writer of experimental fiction. He is a graduate of the Alpha Writers workshop and has been published in magazines like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Fantasy Magazine. You can find him online @osahon4545.
*Image by Patrick Fore on Unsplash