Crossing the River Styx

by Erin Fanning

The bottle of whiskey sat between Dad and me on the front seat.
“Here’s our turn.” Dad slurred his words. “That sure came up quick.”

He barely slowed the Suburban as he spun the steering wheel to the right. With tires squealing, the car bumped along a rutted dirt road, leaving behind the two-lane highway. The whiskey bottle tipped over and rolled onto the floor as we jostled up a moonlit mountainside.
 “Hold on there, friend.” Dad slammed on the brakes.
 I flew forward, the seat belt cutting into me. From the backseat, my little brother Austin let out an, “Oomph,” which was echoed by Peggy, the daughter of Dad’s most recent girlfriend.
Dad retrieved the bottle, gently brushed it off, and again placed it between us. He adjusted a seatbelt over it then chugged back the rest of his beer and tossed the empty can onto the passenger-side floor. It hit my tennis shoes and rolled around with its four siblings. I tapped the cans away, careful not make any sudden movements. Dad was pretty unpredictable when he was drunk—anything could set him off.
Austin sobbed. I could tell he was trying to be quiet, but his cries were like a radio frequency I was always tuned to. Even when I was too lost in my own unhappiness to hear anything else, he came through loud and clear. I wanted to crawl into the backseat and say stuff like,
“Everything’s going to be okay,” and other words I didn’t believe in.
 “Where are we going?” Austin asked. “Mom didn’t say anything about going out of town.”
 I cringed. Didn’t he know that keeping quiet sometimes equaled invisibility?
 “Mom, Mom, Mom.” Dad mimicked Austin’s whine. “I don’t care what she says.”
 Austin cried louder and Peggy murmured something to him I couldn’t quite hear.
 I scooted closer to the door and clutched my favorite book—Adventures in Greek Mythology—even tighter. The feel of its smooth cover and the weight of its 500 pages made me feel better, like I was gathering strength from Zeus or something.
 Peggy said, “Shhh, Austin.”
There was movement behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder. Peggy undid her seat belt and scooted closer to Austin. Dad, more worried about keeping the whiskey bottle in place, didn’t say anything about her being unbuckled.
 Peggy’s white-blonde hair and pale skin shone in the moonlight, while Austin, like Dad and me, seemed to soak up the night. It made our features so dark that even the moon couldn’t seem to find us. Sitting side by side, Austin and Peggy were about the same size, even though she was 12, only two years younger than me and five years older than Austin.
 I turned back around and opened my book. The moon caught a word here and there—Hades, Orpheus, Cerberus. Thinking about the Greek gods and their crazy antics helped me escape from the car.
 “Stop reading that stupid book, Owen,” Dad said. “Only little boys read mythology.”
 He ripped the book out of my hands and threw it to the floor. I hoped it wasn’t getting damp from the beer left in the cans.
 Shadows ran over Dad’s lips and cheeks, and his hair and beard stood up in a bushy mess. His eyes sank into their sockets like empty holes. I shuddered, and my heart thundered. He looked like the picture of Hades, King of the Underworld, from my book.
Everything went dark as we entered a tunnel of pine trees that touched overhead and pushed out the moon. I wrapped my arms around myself and willed my heart to slow down. The dark was my enemy. It reminded me of the places Dad put Austin and me when he got sick of us.
There were no other lights outside, not even in the distance. We’d left the last town, where Dad bought the whiskey and beer, hours ago.
 He’d said the beer was to celebrate us being together again. The whisky was for courage.
 “Why do you need courage?” I asked.
 “No more questions,” he’d said in his mean beer voice, making me afraid of what whisky might have to say.
 Now I understood why he needed courage. He was breaking the law by taking us out of town, although it didn’t seem like a brave thing to me.
 I leaned against the door, and my cell phone, hidden in my pocket, dug into my thigh. I fought the urge to pull it out and check for a signal. There hadn’t been one the last time I’d looked, when Dad had been in the liquor store.
“Call me as soon as you get to his apartment,” Mom had said earlier that afternoon. She tried not to cry, controlling herself better than when she’d found out that Dad regained his visitation rights. He’d completed his AA program and supposedly gone six months without a drink.
Austin cried plenty for all of us, saying, “I don’t want to go.”
“You have to,” Mom said, turning her back to us, her shoulders shaking. She swiveled around suddenly, her voice bright with this big, tight smile on her face. “It’ll be okay. Maybe it’ll be like the old days when Dad was fun.”
Later, she whispered in my ear, “Take care of Austin.” She’d wrapped her arms around me. “I know you’re too young for this.”
Now, though, I didn’t feel so young. I felt as old as the stars dotting the sky. I envied them too, wishing I had some of their brilliance then I’d never be in the dark again.
“I want to go home.” Austin sobbed. “I want Mom.”
 “No more talk of your Mom. When are you going to grow up, son? Do you need another lesson?” Dad pressed down on the gas pedal, and the Suburban leapt forward.
The trees blurred around me. I clenched my fists, and my foot jostled my mythology book. I picked it up. The cover was damp from beer, and I wiped it off with my sleeve. I held the book to my chest, wanting to crawl inside it and get lost in the tangled world of Greek gods.
The road ended in a T-intersection with two narrow driveways snaking to the right and left. As Dad spun the steering wheel to the left, our headlights caught a hand-written sign posted to a tree trunk. “Predator control…” was all I had a chance to read before the beam swung away.
On the right, a light shone through the woods. Was it a house?
The Suburban strained up a steep hill and sputtered to a log cabin that sat in a clearing. A mountain loomed behind it. A face seemed to pop out of its rocky surface. Stony eyes and a craggy nose reminded me of the picture of Cronos, King of the Titans. It was not a comforting image—Cronos swallowed his children at birth.
“Here we are kids.” Dad made it sound like we’d just arrived at Disney World.
“Where exactly are we?” I asked.
“You don’t need to know that,” he said, unlocking the doors and stepping outside. “Come on. It’s pretty chilly in the mountains at night.”
He opened the trunk as we gathered around him. Peggy held Austin’s hand, and he sniffled into her shoulder. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to go over to Austin, as if touching him would make everything real.
Dad shoved bags of groceries and blankets into our arms. He carried two suitcases and we followed him to the cabin. The porch sagged, and a board almost buckled beneath my weight.
While Dad opened the unlocked front door, a coyote wailed, followed by a scurrying sound in the tall grasses surrounding the cabin. It made me jump.
“You really need a backbone, Owen.” Dad switched on the lights, and we walked into a kitchen furnished only with old appliances, a table, and two chairs. “Mark’s Mountain Aerie” was carved into a wooden sign hanging over a rust-stained sink.
“Mark’s a friend of mine,” Dad said.
I wondered if Mark really knew that we were there.
Peggy, Austin, and I set the groceries down on the table and trailed after Dad into the living room. A TV with rabbit-ear antenna rested on a scarred table, and a sofa, its fabric guts spilling onto the floor, sat nearby. Dust covered everything.
Peggy and Austin stood behind me while Dad prowled around the room. “You kids take the bedroom.” He nodded down a hallway. “I’ll bunk out here.”
“And my Mom’s really meeting us?” Peggy asked, stepping so close to me I felt her breath on the back of my arms.
“She’ll be here tomorrow morning,” Dad said. “Then we’ll all be traveling for a while. Things weren’t working out for me at the university so I decided to take a vacation.”
What was he talking about?  Austin leaned against me.
“What about Mom?” I asked.
“What about her?” He stepped toward me, hesitated, and slapped his forehead. “Oops. I forgot my little friend in the car.”
While he hurried outside to get the whiskey, I yanked the cell phone out of my pocket and flipped it open. Peggy started to say something. I put my finger over my lips and punched in Mom’s number.
It rang and rang. “Please pick up,” I muttered.
Finally her voice came through. “Hello.”
“Mom, Dad’s taken us—.”
“What are you doing?” Dad swatted the phone out of my hand. It clattered to the floor, a piece breaking off. He grabbed the front of my shirt and threw me down. I landed hard on the coffee table. My hip throbbed when I stood up.
“You can’t do this.” My voice shook, and I was trying like crazy not to cry.
Austin was still lost in tears, and Peggy buried her face in his hair.
“Like hell, I can’t.” Dad swayed and tipped the bottle of whiskey back. The liquid dribbled over his chin. The moldy smell from the cabin mixed with the alcohol made me queasy.
“Son, I can’t trust you. No siree,” he said. “You’re going to have think about what you’ve done. You know what that means, right?”
I sure did. The last time Austin and I had been punished Mom had been on a business trip. Dad stuck us in a basement closet and passed out or forgot about us or something. Two days went by without food or water, not even a blanket. The darkness had been suffocating, almost worse than the gnawing in my stomach and my frozen hands and feet.
I thought Mom and Dad’s divorce had taken care of the darkness but I’d been wrong.
 “Come with me, Owen. We’ll find a quiet place for you to think about your actions.”
Dad grabbed my arm, and I yanked it away. He toppled backward onto the sofa. I took Austin’s hand and ran for the door. “Let’s go,” I yelled at Peggy.
She just stared. Dad wobbled to his feet and clamped an arm around her waist.
“Come back here you two,” Dad said. “When I get my hands on you—.”
I threw open the door and sprinted into the night, dragging Austin behind me.
“We can’t leave Peggy,” he wailed.
Austin was right, but I couldn’t go back. I tried to convince myself that Peggy was nothing to me, not a blood relation. I couldn’t be responsible for everyone, could I?
We ran down the hill. Austin stumbled and fell. I helped him up, chanting, “Hurry, hurry.” Something rustled in the forest and an owl cried. My heart raced.
The night weighed on me, and for a second, I considered going back to the cabin. Then I remembered the light we’d seen at the T-intersection. Was it a house? Someone to help us?  
The front porch creaked and Dad called out, all syrupy sweet now, “Where are you boys? I won’t do anything. We’ll play cards, just like we used to.”
Austin and I froze, halfway down the hill.
Dad cursed. “Go on then. You’ll come crawling back in the morning.”
“Maybe we should, you know, go back,” Austin said.
“No way. We’ll get help. Mom will come and get us.”
“Mom,” Austin whispered and squeezed my hand. We sprinted down the rest of the hill and reached the T-intersection within minutes.
The light still shone in the woods, and I could now read the sign: “Predator Control In Effect.” What did that mean? I decided that whatever lay ahead was better than the predator we’d just escaped.
We jogged down a narrow driveway, more like a wide hiking trail, and twisted through the woods. A chilly breeze cut into my t-shirt. I shivered, not sure if Austin and I could survive a night outside.
Soon we stood in front of a stone cottage. A dog barked from inside, followed by the front door opening. A giant of a man emerged, ducking his head as he walked onto the porch.
“Who’s there?” he bellowed, holding a rifle. His white hair shot out in every direction and a beard hung down to his chest. A black lab growled and tried to scoot around the man’s legs. He raised a meaty hand to his eyes, peering into the dark, but was unable to see us.
He reminded me of someone I’d seen recently.
Austin crunched over leaves as he moved closer to me.
The man, waving the gun, charged down the steps.  “Come out whoever you are.” His crooked nose stood out like a mast on a boat.
Then it hit me. I knew who he looked like—Kharon in my book, a demon that ferried the dead across the River Styx to the underworld.
I ran, again tugging Austin behind me. In my panic, I didn’t return to the main road but headed into the woods and followed a trail that narrowed the farther we went. The path disappeared, and my mind replaced it with a bridge. The woods became the River Styx. I teetered between earth and the underworld. .
The moonlight disappeared behind a canopy of trees. I slowed, gasping for air. Austin leaned against me, and asked, between breaths, “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know. I freaked out a little.” The trees seemed to lean over us, listening to our conversation. I had to get out of there before I completely lost it.
 “You can’t freak out,” Austin said. “I need you.”
That cleared my mind a little. I tried to forget about the man with the gun, Dad sucking down his bottle of whiskey, and Peggy alone with him.  
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll find our way back to the highway and get a ride from someone.” I put my arm around Austin. “But we’ve got to be real quiet and sneak back the way we came.”
Austin trembled.
“Pretend that we’re playing our old spy game. You were always the best, the sneakiest.”
“I’ll try.” Austin wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Just as we were heading back down the trail, something crashed in the woods. It wasn’t a squirrel-size noise but had the loudness of a cougar or a bear.
Austin squeezed my arm so hard, I winced.
The crash came again. It sounded closer, and I remembered the sign—“Predator Control In Effect” A branch broke nearby followed by a howl.
Was it a wolf? My imagination flew away again. The blackness tumbled down on me. I grew dizzy, my throat dry. “Get a grip,” I muttered.
Yanking on Austin, I stumbled farther into the woods, giving up on my plan to sneak around the cottage and get back to the highway. I tripped over a tree root, and Austin crashed down on me.
An animal moaned. Then came a splintering sound, and birds erupted from a nearby tree
 “Up, up,” I whispered, staggering to me feet.
“Something’s wrong. I can’t walk.” Austin leaned against me.
“I’ll carry you,” I said, picking him up piggy-back style.
Another howl came from behind us. My mind immediately touched again on wolves, then werewolves, and quickly moved on to something even worse—Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the underworld and ate live prey.
The idea of Cerberus was ridiculous. Yet if Dad could kidnap us then why couldn’t Cerberus be following us? It seemed just as believable.
After a few more steps, the trail dead-ended at a thicket of trees. I couldn’t go any farther. I almost dropped Austin and curled up on the trail.
Dad would win in the end. Even though he wasn’t even there, he’d win.
Austin’s breath on my neck cleared my mind  a little.
No reply.
If I gave up then how would Austin get help? What if his injuries were worse than just a twisted ankle?
I was tired of Dad pushing us around. Most of all, I was tired of those dark places in my brain, where demons like Kharon and Cerberus lived. I would never let someone put Austin and me in a closet again.
I stood in the middle of the trail with the thicket to my back. Whatever predator waited for us wasn’t any worse than the predator that lived in my mind.
“Show yourself,” I yelled. I took a step, then another, faster and faster, until I was almost running. Austin’s head bounced against my neck. Had he passed out from the cold and pain?
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught something burst through branches. It landed in front of me. As tall as my waist, its eyes gleamed, even in the dark. It panted and a pink tongue hung out of its mouth.
I raised my arms, ready for the feel of claws and fangs tearing into me.
Instead came a bark and a lick on my hand.
I squinted. It wasn’t Cerberus but the black lab.
The dog barked again. It ran down the trail then looked back at us. It seemed friendly. Maybe the man at the cottage was different than I’d thought too.
“Want me to follow you?”
The dog wagged its tail. The lab bounded off and I trailed after it. The man, no longer holding his gun, trudged toward us.
“There you are,” he said. “I caught a glimpse of you two as you ran off so I sent Midnight to find you while I searched around my house. If I’d realized you were just kids, I wouldn’t have come storming out with my gun.”
 Before I could stop him, he picked up Austin. “Oh, no, the little one’s hurt,” he said.       
Austin’s eyes opened. “Owen, where are we?”
“Shhh,” I said. “You rest. I think we’re safe.”
“Of course you’re safe,” the man said. “I’m Nick, by the way.” Laugh lines crisscrossed his face and his eyes were as warm as hot cocoa. How could I have mistaken him for Kharon?
I gave him our names.
“I was getting pretty worried so I called the police. I’ve got traps all over these woods. I’m trying to catch a coyote that’s killing my chickens.”
Without waiting for an answer, Nick launched ahead. “Sorry I scared you earlier. Now let’s get inside. Blankets and hot drinks are in order, and Midnight always likes visitors. We’ll call your folks while we wait for the police.”
“The police,” I finally got out. “That’s good. I need to tell them about my Dad.”
Nick hesitated. “Your Dad?” His smile disappeared. “Is he okay?”
Austin whimpered.
“First, we need to get some warmth into you guys.” Carrying Austin, Nick headed inside with Midnight at his heels. “Don’t worry. We’ll get this all straightened out.”
A bright star, alone in the sky, shone over Nick’s cottage, which made me think of Peggy waiting in the cabin.   
 "I’ll be right back,” I said. “There’s something I have to do.”
 “Hey, hold on there,” Nick yelled.
 I somehow found the energy to run to the T-intersection, but the hill slowed me down. I was breathing hard by the time I reached the log cabin. A light still shone through the living room window.
Could I do it? I’d faced the predator in the woods, which turned out to be Midnight. I now needed to confront the predator I’d known my entire life.
 It made me way to the front porch. With my back to the wall, I slinked along the cabin until I peeked inside the window. Dad lay sprawled across the sofa with his arm cradling his friend, which was now empty. Saliva dotted his chin, and a stain spread across the front of his shirt. He no longer looked like Hades, just kind of pathetic.
 A sadness filled my heart. It was so strong it felt like it would never lift, and I thought about life before the drinking, when Dad taught me to how to play chess and ride a bike. Dad stirred and the sadness shifted. I’d puzzle over my feelings later. There wasn’t time to feel sorry for Dad or myself.
 Peggy was curled up on the kitchen floor. A bruise stood out on her cheek. Unlike Persephone and the other girls in my mythology book, I’d get Peggy away from the underworld.
 I hoped. 
 The long night had taught me never to predict. I’d be as brave as I could moment by moment until it added up to a lifetime of courage.
 Tiptoeing to the door, I opened it. Peggy lifted her head as Dad let out a snore.
 “Come on,” I whispered, reaching out my hand.
 She stood and wobbled toward me. “What happ—?”
 I put my finger over my lips and she nodded.
Hand in hand, we ran down the porch steps. The night surged around us like water, and I imagined us crossing over the River Styx, forever leaving the underworld far, far behind.

© 2010 Erin Fanning.  All rights reserved.

Erin Fanning is the author of The Curse of Blackhawk Bay (a collection of suspense stories for teens--Sam’s Dot Publishing, 2008) and Mountain Biking Michigan (Globe Pequot Press, 2002). In addition, her short stories for young adults have been published in magazines such as The Tide Pool, Spaceports & Spidersilk, Crow Toes Quarterly, and Beyond Centauri. Ering splits her time between the mountains of central Idaho and the lakes of northern Michigan. For more information visit