The River Styx
How deep of a wound can grief cut?
The mirror showed a reflection that wasn’t my own.
I have that written on my gravestone. It’s a tradition in my town to put someone’s last words on their gravestone. But they bungled it up. They fixed the grammar.
They didn’t copy it down exactly.
I was twenty-eight, tired, and haunted when I died. The death itself wasn’t so bad. Felt like falling asleep, really. I just hated everything before that. They don’t tell you how hard it is, being the last one in your family to go, the way your emotions eat at you. They don’t offer you sympathy, or support unless you manage to fix yourself in time for the world to enjoy it.
My wife died a couple years before I did, and our son a few months before me. He was the bright sort. Funny, kind, gentle. You’d never see him poke a dog in the eye, or say cruel things to other boys, he took care of things, took care of me even though he was just a little guy.
We had him young and I didn’t realize how badly I needed something to love in my life until I looked at his tiny face. Didn’t realize how much of a person I could be until I was holding him and walking around with him, for hours every day.
“Daddy, what’s this?” he’d say when we reached the old, abandoned shop filled with splinters of furniture and hand mirrors on dusty velvet cushions.
“A broken-things shop.”
He peered at the mirrors in the window and laughed.
“Daddy, what’s this?” he asked, when we came to the ocean cliffs and looked down onto a boiling iron-gray sea, waves rushing angrily to coat the jagged rocks with salt and slime.
I cast around in my brain. “The river Styx.”
“It’s where bad people go to die. They stay trapped under the surface… forever.” I tickled him and he giggled, twisting around to stare at the currents and the white waves spraying into the air. “Is that where Mommy is?”
“Of course not. Mommy’s in the flower field over on Chester’s.” I kissed him. “We’ll visit her sometime.”
I’d never liked that ocean. It looked angry to me. No clouds ever broke above its cold waves, and no sunlight transformed it into deep blues and greens. People in town didn’t swim there either, there were too many local stories about drownings. I’d lived in town most of my life and hadn’t so much as touched the waters. The river Styx, from Greek myths, seemed as good an explanation as any to stop my son from swimming there.
But it wasn’t enough.
Class field trip to the aquarium one day, the aquarium by the edge of the cliffs. He went out, chasing a stray piece of paper, and slipped, and dropped into the iron waves. Gone just like that. His teacher tells me, her eyes downcast and puffy, that she had not even seen his head come back to the surface. That it had swallowed him as surely as it swallowed anyone else who dared to go out there.
They didn’t even find his body.
I haven’t been the same since.
My family grew up here for generations. My grandfather chopped and sold lumber and my dad followed his lead-- good, honest, manly work. I’m sure the old men were disappointed when I didn’t take to the family tradition. Instead, I married the woman I met in a New York City café: black pantsuit, the points of her heels long and sharp as knife blades, severe black hairstyle, shouting in what I would learn was Korean into her cell phone. She hung up. I was entranced.
We stayed in the city together for years, until she got pregnant and we agreed to move back to my hometown for a little while so that my aging (now dead) parents could meet our son. She worked from home, and I took him around during the day to show him the place I knew like the back of my hand: the pair of elderly ladies who had run the convenience store since before I was born; the Marshalls and their brood of kids who ran around giggling, sticks clutched in their hands; the chatterbox set of moms on Third Street whose daughters joined their circle of female sisterhood year after year while their husbands set off on fishing trips; the churchgoers who occasionally showed up at your door and were responsible for providing scholarships to the kids at the small high school who couldn’t afford university.
All of them adored him. All of them came to the funeral.
But I get the sense now, wandering around the town, that none of them knows what to do with the leftover parent who lingers behind. The poor man who doesn’t have a baby whose cheeks they can pinch. The guy who looks like he would sob on your shoulder if you so much as said hello. Depression is uncomfortable for other people.
I go into the convenience store on a rainy Thursday, and the bell tings above me.
“Afternoon, Chris,” says Thea, the friendly Black woman who sometimes works the cashier. “Feeling alright?”
“Dandy.” I go into the back and pick up more toothpaste, plus a bag of apples to throw to the deer in the backyard. “Great weather outside.”
She laughs from the front. “Yeah. I love it. Maybe we’ll get some lightning storms later, you know? Sort of-- sort of makes you feel dangerous.” She looks me in the eye at that and smiles as I dump the stuff on the counter.
I don’t know what she’s playing at, flirting with me, but I ignore her and wait for her to ring everything up. I might have reciprocated at one time, maybe even asked her out.
I thought I’d died with my wife. But losing him was so much worse.
When I get home, I put everything away and spend a few minutes brushing my teeth, something I have a habit of doing several times a day. Maybe the routine calms me. Then I rinse my mouth and stare into the mirror.
“Show me him,” I say.
The glass ripples in response, and my son’s image appears. In this memory, he’s laughing, sprawled in a patch of grass, grinning into my face. A bit of dirt smudges his cheek. I reach to the glass instinctively to wipe it off.
The image changes a few minutes later to him toddling along behind me on the sidewalk, singing a nonsense tune, while his mom smiles and clutches his hand. She looks beautiful, short black hair loose around her ears for once, and reading glasses positioned on the bridge of her nose. The glass changes again.
I sit there in silence for a few minutes, watching images of my family fade and appear in the mirror before it’s had enough and stills, showing me my reflection once again. I wipe the tears from my face, take a deep breath, and go to pull a microwave lunch from the fridge, maybe finish some computer work before crawling to bed.
I don’t know if I’m healing. I don’t know if the mirror is Heaven or Hell-sent.
I don’t care. I watch it as many times a day as it allows me, replaying the memories, trying to remember those times when I felt true joy in my life. If it’s poisoning me, at least I’ll die in a haze of half-happy memories instead of sad ones.
I pass months like this, in a haze of blackness. When I’m awake, I work half-heartedly or wait until the mirror is willing to show me images. When I’m asleep, I dream: my son’s face fades in and out of the dark, my wife often there as well, laughing or smiling, occasionally laying her hand on my cheek in a rare display of comfort-- she wasn’t a very physical person, but it made the hugs I got from her that much better.
Sometimes they appear in my nightmares, trapped underneath the surface of that raging Styx sea or else oozing from the mirror in a noxious pool of black liquid while a disembodied voice laughs: in my worst moments I’m convinced the voice is me, laughing in my sleep. I usually wake up crying after dreams like this.
I drift, in and out of life. Events happen to me. People happen to me. I don’t seek anything out, make an effort. It hardly came as a surprise that he appeared at my door rather than I at his, lost in my haze of self-pity, floating in a sea that tasted like misery, black as my heart had become, with salt currents full of the tears I’d held inside and out.
The knock comes on a Saturday, when I’m sitting on the couch watching TV-- Friends, my favorite show, in a feeble attempt to make me feel cheerful again. I open it, already tired, and a squat man is standing there. He leers up at me. “Tax collection.”
“I paid my taxes.”
“Courtesy visit then.” He pushes past me into the door, and I see that he’s holding a six-pack of beer in one hand, and a bag of groceries in the other. I stare at him. “I don’t know you.”
“Technicalities.” He dumps the groceries on the counter with effort, since he doesn’t seem to be taller than five feet. “Your little friend at the convenience store expressed her sorrows for the poor, brokenhearted, conveniently attractive man living up here all alone on the third floor. I thought to investigate.” He grins. “Careful with her. Unmarried women in their thirties are predators.”
I hover by the door, watching as he makes sandwiches in my kitchen. “I appreciate the gesture, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
He ignores me and cracks an egg into the pan. “I heard your son died.”
“Don’t--” I rub my forehead. “Don’t talk about him.”
“Cute kid,” the guy says, glancing up at a picture on the refrigerator. “You must miss him.” His gaze travels to a photo of my wife. “Her, too. She’s a bombshell.” He whistles.
“I want you--”
“Stop telling me to leave,” he says calmly, not even turning to face me. His voice gives me chills. I sit down at the counter, watching as he chops lettuce and tomatoes, fries more eggs, and cooks pink burger patties till the kitchen smells like sizzling meat, warm and amazing. I inhale the familiar scent. “Burgers with egg and avocado. One of my favorites.”
“What a coincidence!” He flashes a pointy smile at me. “Mine too.”
He’s small, with greased-back hair and surprisingly long, pointy fingers that flash like knives as they assemble, chops, and flip. His eyes are a shade of green so light it’s almost yellow, and he has on a silky red collared shirt that doesn’t disguise a growing waistline.
He doesn’t make conversation much, just assembles the food and watches as I take a big bite. He grins. “Good, eh?”
“Good.” I push the plate away. “You going to eat?”
“Diet.” He pats his stomach, even though a tray of perfectly assembled burgers sits beside him. “I don’t like eating on the job. Hehe. Distracts me.”
“What’s your job?”
“I’m a therapist.”
I pause. “Did Thea hire you?” He doesn’t look like a therapist at all. He isn’t soothing; he’s disturbing. He bounces from one activity to the next with the eagerness of a little kid, but with the seedy smile of someone who operates in the underbelly of the world.
He snorts. “She can’t afford me. Besides, I’m not that kind of therapist. The usual kind,” he adds, when I look confused. “I don’t provide services to people through-- through pretty words, and tissues, and sympathy.” He looks disgusted, and I smile despite myself. “I give them exactly what they need.”
“Does it pay well?”
“Oh, it’s excellent work,” he says, grinning in a conspiratorial sort of way. “Eat. Eat up.” He shoves my plate towards me, and I lift the burger to my mouth.
A part of me is starting to wonder what he knows, but the other half is thinking about the mirror in my bathroom. “Thanks for lunch, but I’ve got some work to do.”
He raises his eyebrows, still smiling. “You’re kicking me out? You don’t want to talk?”
I shake my head. “I’ve got nothing to talk about.”
“Wow,” he says. He looks strangely pleased, though. “Well. That’s that.” He climbs off the counter and pats me on the shoulder. “Good luck with everything then. Mind if I use your bathroom really quick?”
“Go for it.”
“Eat up.” He nods at the burger and waddles down the hall as though he’s been in my house a thousand times.
I take another bite. The meat is good, tangy and warm and full of unfamiliar spices. Egg yolk and ketchup spill over my fingers, tomato and lettuce crunch fresh in my mouth. It’s good. It tastes like family. I chew through half of it and throw the rest away just as the man comes back, wiping his fingers clean.
“I’ll be off.” He pauses by the door, smiling. “Good luck with everything.”
I close the door on him. I don’t like the expression on his face at that last comment.
I go to the bathroom to find everything pristine, perfect, exactly where I had left it, save a few drops of water on the edge of the sink. I sit down like a man much older than I am.
“Show me my son,” I say.
The mirror obliges.
My nightmares grow worse. Every night now, I see him, trapped under the surface of the Styx, screaming into the waves. She dangles beside me, neck snapped by a noose from the rope tied to a tree branch.
I sit away from them both, hands over my ears, sobbing into the ground. Then the dirt splinters underneath my feet as the mirror cracks and black slime comes from the splinters, soaking into my shoes, dragging me down, down, down, until I wake up sweaty with a scream rising in my throat.
One time I fall asleep during church and wake up to find the entire congregation staring at me, white-faced. Another place I can’t go to anymore. My interactions with other humans are growing more and more limited.
And still, the dreams come, and still, I see the river Styx in my mind’s eye, taunting me.
I took your son, it says. I swallowed him so he rests on a sandbed, and stays tangled with the other ruinous souls out there. Like his mother.
“Stop it,” I say.
Your wife’s not in the flower fields on Chester.
She’s down here too.
She ruined you and killed both of you the day you found her in that tree.
Was it really a noose, or did you strangle her?
The scream echoes in my psyche and again I hear the voice in the mirror laughing, long and cold, only now it sounds like the little man from my kitchen. I stumble around my apartment like a beast deranged and go to that stupid, poisonous mirror. My breathing comes ragged.
“Show me-- them.”
The mirror ripples into an image of my son, playing in the sand on the beach. I feel myself calm down, watching him, watching as my wife comes onscreen to hand him beach toys. He squeals. She looks at me and smiles.
Then it’s him on a pony for the first time, laughing, blue eyes sparkling as it trots over patches of bright green grass, stopping to graze a flower. He tilts forward every time it lowers its head, which he thinks is the funniest thing ever. He had the prettiest eyes: almond-shaped like my wife’s, and a brilliant light blue that was common for the men in my family. With his dark hair and pale complexion, he was our own little Snow White.
The scenes change again, and again, and I watch my family move around me, my heart rate calm again, smiling a little even as the grief tries to crush me.
Then the mirror shifts.
It’s my son running along the edge of a cliff. His schoolmates are clustered behind him as he follows a piece of paper. I stand without even realizing it. His teacher is too far away.
He jumps to snag the paper, his little face strained, and his foot slips. I cry out and tear my hair, but I can’t look away as he plummets over the edge, expression terrified. I fall to the ground, sobbing, ripping my gaze away with effort. “Turn-- take this AWAY!”
I can hear him screaming. I can’t stand it anymore and stagger out of the room, half-blinded by tears, the poisonous voice of the mirror still whispering in my mind.
I stand on the edge of the cliff. I don’t know how I got there. I look down blurrily, and there’s a bottle of whiskey in my hand and a voice shrieking behind me.
I stare into the water. It boils beneath me, hissing eagerly, as though ready for a sacrifice.
Thea is sobbing behind me. “Chris get down from there, please, come back over here.”
Everything is gray and blurry and strangled in my head. I close my eyes. I see my wife dangling from a tree in my mind’s eye and knead the palm of my hand into my eyes, feeling the tears start to slip. If only she told me how unhappy she was here.
She didn’t, right?
I can’t remember anymore.
She didn’t, RIGHT?
“Chris,” Thea calls, voice breaking, and vaguely, I realize the reason she doesn’t come closer is fear that I’ll take her down with me. “Chris, come down. It’s going to be okay.”
The short man sniggers beside her. “Yeah, Chris.”
I swing my head back to look at them, drunk and fuzzy. Thea is crying harder than I am, tear tracks glittering silver down her beautiful dark cheeks, and I wonder how I’ve never noticed before, how lovely she is? She still has on her nametag. She must’ve rushed after me from the store.
I turn back to the water. “My boy… is… he’s down there. Down. Styx.” Words don’t seem to be working properly. My mouth feels like it has a golf ball in it, muffling and changing the syllables.
“He’s dead,” Thea says, her voice breaking. “Chris-- I’m so sorry-- but he’s dead, he’s gone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to help you.” She wipes her face, taking a step towards me. “I-- I’ve been trying. I want to help, I do, I’m sorry.”
I look at her blankly, thinking over the past several months. Maybe her ‘flirtations’ hadn’t carried the same intentions behind them as I had thought. It hurts to think too much about, though. I turn back towards the sea, into the wind. “The mirror showed me a reflection that wasn’t my own,” I say, voice breaking. “It was my kid’s.”
The man chuckles behind her. “Ehhh, yeah, you know the truth, don’t you Chris? That was your kid’s reflection, trying to beg you. He wanted you, Chris. He wanted you to see him and all those happy times and to rescue him from hell.”
There’s a hole in my chest. I rub it in an attempt to wipe away the blackness.
“Not like your wife, huh? She was the vixen, the trickster woman, the liar. Let you trust her, didn’t you? Let you think everything was all fine and dandy, that she was happy.” He leans in, and even though he’s several yards back, his breath is right in my ear. “Let you think she was faithful.”
“Stop it,” I murmur.
“I would’ve helped you, except you’ve given me a clear conscience. I offered you help, respite from the mirror, and you pushed me away and walked back to it, by your own choice. I’ve been absolved of any guilt, now that you choose your own sorrow.” His breath comes faster in my ear. “Now you’re mine.”
I don’t want either of them to be around me. The wind picks up. The bottle rattles out of my hand. The waves are so loud beneath me that I can barely hear my own heartbeat drumming a salsa rhythm in my ear.
I just want to hug my kid again.
I just want to see him smile again, be the cause of that smile. I want to hug him and kiss him until he never feels afraid again, until I never saw his expression as he plummeted off this goddamn cliff into these unforgiving waves. I want to put him on my shoulders and carry him to Italy, or France, or any wine-stained country where sunlit can ripple over both of our bodies, and we can be happy.
I want to protect him so badly, I can’t breathe.
“Chris,” Thea calls weakly, Thea who may or may not be someone I could love, and
“Chris,” breathes the man, who may or may not be a demon, I don’t know, I don’t care, and
“Chris,” calls the sea, which may or may not be the river Styx and may have my son, and
I step off the edge and I tumble, slip, slide, air currents whistling around me as though they’re trying to snag me, Thea screaming behind me like she herself was falling, the man laughing the laugh of my nightmares, the splintering of glass--
My back hits. I stare up at the swirling cloudy sky above me.
The hands of the dead reach for me, wrapping around my legs and arms, icy fingers digging into my skin, cold, misty breath hissing eagerly over me, marking me as one of their own. I gaze at them, wondering if I feel horrified.
Their faces are clay, melting pots of iron-gray skin and white bones fused and dripping together. Their eyes are blue balls rolling around in their head, eyebags dragging them down and revealing the whites. Their mouths are an empty black hole, latched onto my skin, pulling me from my own corpse, down, down, down, into salt waves and iron and death and death and death and eternity, rolled deep into the bottom of the sea, and I am blackness, and I can’t see anything else.
The man on the cliffs is laughing so hard that he has to crouch down on the ground. Thea is still staring in horror at the spot Chris disappeared, and she doesn’t notice him. Hardly anyone does.
Once he’s finished laughing, he’ll have to write a report to his superiors, a report that has glass fragments enclosed in the envelope. He’ll get to announce the project as a success in succeeding souls, and they’ll go on to retry the program with other test applicants.
But for now, he laughs. And hops up and down on the spot, overjoyed and guiltless, and laughs some more.
Time moves differently for the gray things in the river but down below there is a clay-shaped creature that was once a man, sitting on a rock with hollow blue eyes that stare and stare into the currents. He feels like he has been there for a thousand years and no longer knows anything about himself.
But a voice cries, “Daddy!” and he’s not sure if that’s him, but there’s a smaller clay shape bounding towards him through the waves, empty arms outstretched, and suddenly, somehow, strangely, he knows the shape and he hugs it tightly to his chest.
And if tears come from his dark gray cheeks and float off into the currents, well, that’s for him to know.
His ears are filled with the word, “Daddy!” and they stay that way forever after.
About the Creator
17-year-old writer who hopes to write stories for a living someday-- failing that, I'd like to become a mermaid.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Awww, poor Chris 🥺 That man laughing beside Thea is super creepy! I loved your story and congratulations on your win!
Touching and tragic.
Well-crafted from beginning to end! I enjoyed it to pieces. True story: after waking up at 5am ish for no reason, I read a few stories including yours. I went back to sleep afterwards and had a dream I was walking on a dead-end street. I turned around to go back the other way and ended up in some woman's house. I asked her for the way out. She opened her upstairs balcony door, but then shut it again. I walked to the door to let myself out, but she disagreed. We struggled out onto the balcony which had no railing and fell together about 30ft to the grassy front yard. We didn't get hurt. She stood up and walked back to her house. I was kind of pissed off but looked away from her and went my own way... Besides the fall, another weird thing was the woman had jet black hair with the classic Asian cut to it. I'd say your story inspired my dream. Congrats on the win!
Phenomenal writing and story telling! I imagined the whole story down to every detail. Congrats on the win!
Well done, this is excellent! Very well deserved 😁
Awesome story. Congratulations!
Wow! congratulations on your win!
Heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time!! ❤
just outstanding I am totally impressed.
I was captivated by the vivid imagery and the emotional journey of the protagonist. Your writing style is engaging and kept me hooked until the very end. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more of your work in the future!
Nice really good
Wonderful story! Congratulations on a well-deserved win.
Wow! What a captivating story. I can see why it won.
Your story pulled me in and didn't let go. The structure seems so formless, yet there is a tightly written narrative underneath. Excellent work.
Wow this is very touching. I'm left in the awe with how this piece evokes such emotions. You can feel the character's grief and love for his family.
What a great read - loved the last line! Congratulations!! :)
Truly a great piece. Congratulations on the win!
A sorrowful tale of madness, with vivid touches of humanity to flesh it out; nicely done! Congratulations on the win 🙌🏻
Congratulations! This is masterful story telling from its creativity, to its writing, editing, and pace. Horror at its finest. 🥇
So spooky! The familiar details, like that burger that tastes like family, and the structure of the tale haunting us... bravo. Congrats on your win.
I don't think you'll have to worry about becoming a mermaid. You are most definitely a writer. Congratulations. Incredible story!
Wonderful, this was definitely a winner. Greata story telling that lures the reader in wondering what is next. we feel the characters pain and rejoice, just a little, at the reunion of his son. Congratulations
Absolutely loved this piece, the way it draws you in with a heartbreaking story long before the horror starts. Well deserved winner!