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The Lights

The Lights

Alex Olson

We’re on a country road, zipping by wheat and corn, horses and countryside. I’m in the back seat of the van, the very back, quiet and alone. My parents are one row up, my grandparents leagues ahead in the very front. It is getting dark, the sky is a dark blue-purple.

But they don’t matter. None of us matter. Because it’s coming.

I saw the briefest flicker of it maybe a mile back, but now it’s growing, like a burning fire, rising, rising higher into the sky. It’s a winking star, lying on the road like a wounded creature, flashing its death mewls, crying for help.


But they don’t matter. None of us matter. Because it’s coming.


There are towns in Michigan that are on patches of highway, towns that spring up around the black river of pavement like settlements used to appear around water or gold. Except now it’s a Walmart, a Meijer, a mall. These juggernauts bring an entire economy and a row of minions to pile on either side of the four-lane.

And I love it.

I see those lights, those bright fluorescents and a feeling burns in my chest. It fills me up, a total euphoria that is paired with a hungry longing. Taco Bell, McDonald's, GameStop, JC Penney, Gino’s Family Dining, Target, Walmart, Kmart. They come galloping out of the horizon like cowboys of old, delivering me that rush, that sense of fulfillment.

I love them all equally. They’re like the action figures I line up on my bedroom floor: each one has a name and a unique ability. Spider-Man can do flips. Walmart has the clearance toy section.


I see those lights, those bright fluorescents and a feeling burns in my chest. It fills me up.


We’re on the verge of the spread now. The first stores are passing us and I hope, I hope that we stop somewhere. Anywhere. I want to eat cheap, greasy food that’s been fried and tossed around carelessly. I want to wander among forests of tall shelves stacked with PRODUCTS. Everything in life can be solved with tools found at Target. 

I love the cool tile of retail stores. I love the quartered-off portions of Happy Meals—four McNuggets and a handful of fries. Every time! Mom might ignore me and Dad might beat the fuck out of me, but I’ll always have four nuggets in my Happy Meal.

I see the lights of the bigger department stores and my heart beats faster. There’s a chance, a slim one, that we’ll go in. We’ll pass through the magical automatic gates and look at all the stuff. And there will be sales and markdowns! And there’s a chance, buried deep, that I’ll get SOMETHING. It doesn’t matter what. A toy gun. A soda. A blanket. Something that I can hold and clutch and declare as mine for now and forever, or at least until Dad sets my toys on fire again.


I want to eat cheap, greasy food that’s been fried and tossed around carelessly. I want to wander among forests of tall shelves stacked with PRODUCTS.


The van pauses at a stoplight, but I’m moaning because we’re not in the turning lane. Is it possible that my family isn’t seeing all this? There’s Wendy’s! There’s a Bed, Bath & Beyond! How are they not pulling over, frothing at the mouth to get out? How come they don’t rush into the store with all their adult money and buy every single thing?

I could get something. I could casually look at a toy and my grandmother might take pity on me and say: “You like that, do you, dear? Put it in the cart and Granny will get it for you.” This has happened before, to my great delight. But I once put something in the cart and my Dad took it out and threw it back on the shelf. Later on he hit me a lot for being greedy, which I didn’t understand because the Transformer was ON SALE. It said so in big red letters.

My family isn’t stopping and we’ve passed all the big stores. Now all that’s left is a few shoe places and a store where you get wedding clothes. We’ve passed the goodness. I feel deflated. For a few blissful seconds I thought I’d be gobbled up by the shiny lights, tossed into the teeth of the great beast, masticated between blocky red letters that read: TARGET and WALMART. I had hoped to be swallowed by everything I wanted and could not have. 


I had hoped to be swallowed by everything I wanted and could not have. 


I sighed and turned my head to watch the fading lights. Soon I stopped being able to pick out individual buildings; they became a blur. Even, sadly, the bright yellow arch of McDonald's blinked out, too, as the van went down a hill.

I settled back into the warm groove of my seat, determined to pout and stare out my window. There was no hope in the world, I was sure of it. We had not stopped. I would be going home to my old toys and dinner cooked on the stove. Peas and potatoes, probably. 

But something caught my eye. Something shiny. It’s like a fishing lure dancing in front of my face. Up ahead, maybe a mile.

Another bundle of promising lights.


Alex Olson is a college student from Port Huron, MI. He has been writing since he was a little kid, and communicates mainly by shrugging. 

Illustrated by Keit Osadchuk


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