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“The Beacon” by Julius Olofsson

Dad woke me in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t find Donatello—he always slept with me. As he shook me awake that day into this inherited new madness of ours, I scanned the room, trying to find him, not caring that Dad screamed at me.

“Let’s go!”

He blurted the words all over me, extracting me from my sleeping bag and dashed out the door, leaving me alone inside yet another bedroom that once was filled with now-forgotten giggles.

I grabbed my backpack as Dad shouted from the front yard, and I heard that all too familiar bang of a gas canister hitting against the side of the car as it was being fueled up.

It took a while until I felt how my cheek was warm—he slapped me amidst the awakening. It had been explained to me: the necessity and urgency of mild violence during these “pressing times.” I might’ve reacted differently a year ago, but that was then, and now, I seldom noticed it.

I headed out—this new “out” all voided from light.

In the distance, farther than we’d ever reach as gasoline ran short, I saw The Beacon. Our lodestar, getting us up every morning—Mom, Dad and my sister, who were already in the car.

“Buckle up.”

He always ensured we’d fastened our seat belts—an odd trace of the old world.

But we always did.

The infinite night stretched beyond our own understanding, where nothing ruled but blackness and a few fires seen here and there through the car window.

The car started—an asthmatic vehicle, holding on for dear life.

I didn’t dare ask about Donatello.

Every stop was limited to four hours, not a minute longer. We could spend time looking for food, matches or batteries, but never something as banal as Donatello.

I don’t know how long Dad had harbored that wound, but sitting to the right, just behind him, it beckoned for my attention. Just below his ear—red, irritated and irritating. He scratched it with vigor, his hand resting for a few seconds, then back up again, seemingly digging deeper into the flesh.

I could see The Beacon from afar—I used to focus on it if I got carsick and had to look out the window. Always visible above the treetops, I could zoom in on it, avoiding whatever was rotting—not seeing classmates being eaten straight from pavements by something on all four. If it got worse, I forced the tip of my fingers as far into my ears as I could, blocking the inhumane cries.

But that day, all felt calmer.

Still, the revolver was in Dad’s lap. Room for six bullets, but only holding our last two.

“One for you and one for your sister,” Dad had explained as Mom wept behind him, and back then, I didn’t understand and asked my sister about it, who simply implied that I was “young and stupid.”

From the beginning I had the other three too — Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. Raphael got scorched as our last car caught fire. Something on the road. Dad swiveled, and I remember fear, panic, and more fear. We wormed ourselves out of the totaled car and watched it sizzle, with Raphael melting into a puddle of plastic.

Then we ran.

Away from the fire that was sure to tempt whatever was out there.

Away from the car as it could explode, or at least we thought so, having seen it in movies.

Away from whatever had caused us to swivel.

If we were without a car, we often ran, even if we knew we, as a family, would never be fast enough to outrun anything. The opposite was stillness—surrendering and relinquishing our lives, becoming sustenance for this newly found ferality.

I blessed that calm dark that day. Dad kept scratching his wound, and nobody else seemed to see it. After a couple of hours, I saw how his finger was red.

We weren’t really allowed to stop. Or “advised” is maybe a better word. In the beginning, a lot was not “advisable.” Soon, the vast amount of un-advisables became something one could not adhere to anymore. There was no time or room for “proper procedures” and similar phrases that didn’t halt teeth from sinking into our neighbor’s left cheekbone so you could hear it crack—and he had meticulously read the pamphlets.

Leonardo, I lost inside a school we bunkered down in. Too many rooms. We found some dented, unmarked cans in the kitchen that we ate cold—something we made a game of: guessing what we ate as we ate it. At night, sounds of impending pain echoed across the barren corridors. I’m a heavy sleeper—Mom’s not. She whispered when peril was close; I always experienced that as much louder than when she screamed. A scream proves something is already lost, and the solution is wildness and velocity. Whispers are about hope, a faint possibility—but it seldom stays that way.

We stopped at a gas station—we knew the drill. I’m usually on food detail, trying to find something edible. Dad checks for gas. Mom holds the revolver. My sister is to find clothes or other supplies. The shelves are almost always empty. I knew this before entering every store, diner or gas station we visited. Maybe sometimes a bag of chips.

I once found a Mars bar and ate it without sharing or telling anyone.


Dad’s rare merriment.

We weren’t supposed to make loud noises, but I figured he’d probably found some gasoline. With a child’s imprudence, I had to use the restroom and looking back, I could’ve just gone outside, in the wild, but the bathroom stall was so close. Mom was always trying to see me through the store windows, but she had those jittery eyes—darting, unfocused, so I snuck away. The sound of her commanding Dad to “hurry up” and Dad hissing a “yesssss”—everything fading as if someone had turned down the volume. I bumped into a shelf and stepped on some broken glass—stirring a ruckus I wasn’t supposed to stir. The toilet lacked water and stunk. The small, narrow window held pointy shards of glass with blood on them—a repetitive, un-original scene I had witnessed to the edge of normalcy. There was at least some toilet paper left, a few sheets, and I, just as with the Mars bar, felt guilty for fleeing, if so, for just a few minutes. Being ten compared to two years earlier was vastly different—my dreams of going to Mars had been distilled into a dream of a Mars bar.

Now, as then, the clicking came in waves, and I slowly finished, but I didn’t run. That wasn’t “advisable” in those situations—only upon “eye contact,” but it was often too late. Instead, I moved soberly through the store, treading with caution, avoiding those pieces of glass and where I’d bumped in. There’s a perverted comfort in those faint clicks—making their presence identifiable, knowing where they are. So, when I couldn’t hear them anymore, I just stood there—the air deprived of my family’s existence—a lack of belonging. Without them, it was just me.

But then, Mom popped her head in—chucking a brittle “let’s go!” at me.

Back in the car, it took a while before I realized my sister wasn’t next to me—and even longer to ask where she was. But I didn’t get a reply, only stern, withered faces. Her walkman was on her seat; on the floor was her backpack, unzipped; inside was Donatello. But I’d rather have her.

Dad was scratching again, with Mom hunched over weirdly and a new kind of moaning. Usually, they’d asked if I had found anything, but this time, they kept quiet as the endlessness passed by beneath the car tires. That wound seemed to grow, and I tried to recollect if any news outlets ever mentioned wounds, abrasions, or anything like it, but nothing came to mind.

I woke up. A rumble inside the car, and we seemed to have gone from asphalt to gravel. Dad’s collar: tainted. Blood oozing, traveling from the wound down, along his neck, caught by the fabric of his already stained shirt. He wasn’t picking or scratching it anymore, and for a long time, I just sat there, waiting for his finger to start digging, picturing how his whole hand would submerge within himself. He drove with one hand on the gun and one on the steering wheel as he usually did, but soon, I discovered that Mom wasn’t there.

Looking back at it now, going over those three days in my head, as I must’ve done hundreds of times, I still can’t grasp why it took that long to learn that Mom wasn’t in her seat—that she was gone too.

“Where’s Mom?”

“What’s that?”

“Where’s Mom?”

“You hungry?”

I didn’t reply, and he handed me a can of something. I know I ate it. I can’t recall what it was, but it calmed my stomach, and at that point, numbness halted me from pushing onward with questions. Instead, I reconciled with the allness that forced us to succumb to whatever was happening. As Dad looked out the window, I peeked backward, checking the trunk, thinking she might be there. Maybe sleeping, a nap. But it was empty, save for a baseball bat and some plastic bags with logos of brands that once mattered.

After an hour, I tried again:

“Dad, where’s Mom and Ellen?”


I didn’t ask again. He glared me mute via the SAAB’s rearview mirror, and I picked up the walkman, hoping to be taken elsewhere. The music was being hauled through mud as the batteries were on the verge of death. Cheerful and poppy, the music had transformed into a representation of Earth’s gloomy sorrow—the vein of our sins bared and up for slits and cuts and gashes. As it died, I turned it off, and Dad turned to me, asking what was wrong, and so I hit “play” again, claiming: “nothing,” just sitting there with silence in the headphones.

Michelangelo was lost bartering. Dad added it to a deal without my involvement. Another father had asked for it, a treat for his daughter. It wasn’t much more than that. For dinner, we were able to have bacon, and I got an extra slice. I think that was the last time we traded with others. Shortly after that, that, too, became “un-advisable.”

Eventually, we stopped, assuming it was nighttime. An old barn near an offshoot type of town where I shut my eyes hard as we went through it. Dad actually patted me on my knee as he drove, so I can only assume that whatever was out there was worthy of him letting go of the gun.

We ate something flavorless and slept in our sleeping bags, in shifts. Dad stayed awake so that I could slumber. Usually, he woke me after a couple of hours, as I had to “learn the ropes,” as he put it, but spared me, just having me be on watch for two hours. Then I was supposed to wake him up, but he never seemed to be sleeping—instead, he was in a state of drowsy awakeness, a limbo-like phase where it had become necessary never to sleep but always rest for what might come.

As we drove off that following day, it dawned on me after an hour or two: we weren’t going towards The Beacon anymore. The only thing solidifying our existence was behind us, our star, promising an imaginative yet uncertain future.

“Aren’t we going to The Beacon?”

“What beacon?”

And even though fear was familiar, this was new. Dad, Mom and my sister Ellen had been concrete, tangible and trusting. We weren’t without purpose or goal. A hardship-packed journey, aiming for that bright light that winked at us, a smile of sorts, an embrace of rays—The Beacon—but what if that ended? Survival would then be a mere charade without vows of life anew—no pledge about a once again domesticated uniformity amongst those left. We had something, at least.

“The Beacon? Aren’t we going there?”

But he didn’t answer.

“Is Mom coming back?”

“Are you tired?”

I nodded, as I got the feeling that’s what he expected, even though we’d just woken up.

“I’ll wake you in a bit.”

So I got as comfortable as I could, my head where Ellen used to sit, Donatello in the backpack with his ninja stance ready to go.

I sought comfort there, in those plastic eyes made in China, as my eyes closed. I’m not sure if I heard voices outside, what language it was or if it was all in my mind.

As I opened my eyes again, I had no clue how long it’d been. Dad wasn’t in the car, and above me, I saw a crown of trees. I sat up—it was probably advisable to suppress as much of any pointless feeling one could muster.

I opened the door.


But he wasn’t there. I stepped outside on something once labeled as “road,” but now, grass and dandelions had taken over, seizing what was once theirs.


I turned around, not seeing him anywhere. I yanked Dad’s door open to be met by an empty car seat, not knowing what I had expected. The backrest and seat had blood on them—a river flowing down, a pool of wound ooze—not coagulated. His scent lingered, not yet diluted by oxygen.

I stepped out on the road—spruces and pines as an audience, watching my performance as I took on the role of the “abandoned son.”


But he wasn’t there. I know that now as well, as I knew it then. But retelling is a way to keep them breathing, if just so inside my own mind.

After that, I walked, not knowing how to start the car or drive it. So I began my journey with no plan— except moving towards The Beacon.

I’m still walking.

My feet hurt, and I got a can of something in my backpack. I haven’t seen civil behavior for years, and now, The Beacon went black just two weeks ago.

I also have a Mars bar that I’ve been saving.

You just have to eat around the mold—enjoying whatever goodness is left.

Born in Sweden, Julius works as a narrative designer in video games. He writes anything from flash fiction and books to games and screenplays and makes his own sausages in his spare time. He's been longlisted in The Bath Short Story Award, The Bath Flash Fiction Award and The Aurora Prize for Writing and is published in JAKE Magazine.


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