Fiction logo

An Unexpected Case of Thalassophobia

When railings are the solution

By R. J. RaniPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 11 min read
Midjourney Bot + R J Rani

I pick up the phone without bothering to look at the number.


“Martin, lad, is that you?”

“Yeah,” I croak. It's far too early. I'm not yet fully awake and unsure that I want to be. “Who’s this?”

“It’s Carson from next door.”

“Oh, hi, Mr. Carson,” I say, clearing my throat and reluctantly swinging my feet out from under the warm blanket onto the floor. “What, uh, is everything alright?”

“Listen, lad, sorry I’m calling you out of the blue like this,” he says. I glance over at the alarm clock — 11:52 am. I groan and place my head in my free hand. It isn’t early or even morning anymore. Miranda’s going to be mad that I haven’t started on the laundry yet.

“So, think you’ll be able to take me there?” Shoot. I’d zoned out and forgotten I was on the phone with Mr. Carson. “It isn't too far from here,” he continues, a bit softer when he doesn’t hear me respond.

“Yeah, sure, Mr. Carson, no problem.” I hear myself saying before I can think about it. What had he said?

“Great. I’ll see you at 4:15 this afternoon then!” The excitement in his voice reminds me of my seven-year-old who, just last night, had told me all about the life cycle of monarch butterflies while jumping around the living room.

“Wait, did you say this afternoon, Mr. Carson?” I ask, one hand cradling the phone to my ear as I pull on my pants with the other.

“Yes, lad, is that still going to work for you?”

I wanted to say no. There was so much to do - I had to start laundry, pick up the kids, help them with homework, sort out dinner, and get them ready for bed so Miranda could have some “time to herself.” She’d been nagging me about it for weeks. But the thought of crushing that sense of hope in his voice made me feel bad.

“Sure, Mr. Carson. I’ll see you at 4:15 on the dot.”


It’s just after 4:05, and Miranda’s accusing eyes follow me as I head toward the garage door. Spaghetti sauce clings to the front of her blouse and the ends of her ponytail. Our two-year-old is perched on her hip, nibbling on a handful of pasta.

“What?” I say as I pull on my shoes, “he’s an old man who needs help. And might I remind you that you’re the one who gave him our number and said he should call whenever. What was I supposed to do? Say no?”

“Yeah!” she says, “you were supposed to take Trevor to that birthday party later.”

“Oh, shi-” I swallow the rest of the word. “That’s today?”

“Yeah, Martin,” Miranda's voice breaks, “that’s today. I don’t even know with you anymore. I just can’t-” she’s interrupted by the other two kids screaming and yelling somewhere behind her.

I try to say something, but she’s not done yet.

“I just can’t even count on you for one little thing. No wonder you got fired. Go have fun not being home with your family.”

With that, she slams shut the door to my own house in my face and leaves me stumbling over my thoughts.

I pick up Mr. Carson from next door, help him into the car, store his wheelchair in the trunk, punch the address in the GPS, and start driving. At least, that’s something I can still do. When we get there, I do it all in reverse until Mr. Carson is safe in his wheelchair. My mind still reels, lost in a haze of its own making and Miranda’s words.

Honestly, it wasn’t until I stepped up to the building, pushing Mr. Carson in front of me, that I realized where we were headed. If I had known I was bringing Mr. Carson to the aquarium, I would never have agreed to his request in the first place.


As I stand there, frozen, my knuckles white from gripping the wheelchair handles too tightly, the front door of the aquarium bursts open and several uniformed attendants spill out toward us. Several hold helium balloons, while one has a clipboard and lanyards.

“Hi, Mr. Carson! Long time no see,” the one with the clipboard says, as she fastens a lanyard around Mr. Carson's neck, “Welcome back! Do head on up. We still have a few things to prepare. We’ll get started as soon as possible. And who is your guest today? Ah, hello, Martin! Nice to meet you. Here’s yours.” She presses a lanyard marked ‘VISITOR’ into my hand.

I thought she'd pause for a breath, but she doesn't. “You’re OK to push the wheelchair up the ramp around the central ocean tank, right? It’s only four levels up, and it’s a pretty gentle ramp. Our elevators are out of repair at the moment, I’m afraid.”

The other attendants, now done tying their ballons to the back and handles of Mr. Carson’s wheelchair, usher us through the front doors.

Just like that, I’m inside the building that rises like a specter from my nightmares. The salty stench of the aquarium makes me feel trapped, even though the vaulted ceiling is far, far above. When I shudder, it isn’t from the chill of the air conditioner that blows straight down on us.

I slip the lanyard over my head and fasten it around my neck. When my hand comes away, I feel the clammy sweat already gathering there.


“Thanks again for coming here with me, lad,” Mr. Carson says. I have to bend close to hear him as I maneuver us past the noise of the busy cafe and reception area toward the ramp that leads up to the first floor. “The nurses told me I had to have a responsible adult with me when leaving the house these days. I really couldn’t have made it without you.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Carson,” I say, nearly upending us both when one of the wheels catches on the end of the ramp. “I’m not sure I can be considered responsible or an adult most days, though.”

He laughs, and I go back to concentrating on where I’m pushing him.

The first thing I notice when we step onto the first floor is that the hallways are illuminated mainly by the blue-green light radiating from the aquarium exhibitions. The middle is relatively dark.

At first, I’m grateful for the darkness. It allows me to hide my failing battle with the rising terror of what might happen if the lights go out or the glass shatters.

Kids and their adults are running around, looking at tanks, and peering into enclosures with ooohs and aaahs. I have to weave in and out of the constant stream of people as if I were involved in some high-stakes race instead of pushing a wheelchair.

I try not to look around too much. There’s so much water between the people on the other side of the central tank and me that they look like smudged smears of paint that stretch and shrink eerily. Now and again, little nubs of flesh, flattened thumb and finger pads of adults and kids, blossom into clarity as people push their hands right up against the glass.

By the time I'm on the second floor, I feel smaller, somehow, and squeamish, like I’d been running longer than I intended.

Mr. Carson, meanwhile, seems to be having the time of his life. He is as excitable as the kids, pointing here and there and recounting memories. He has something to say about every exhibit, every nook and hidden cranny of the place. I can see why the aquarium was going to honor this man as their patron of the year.

He talks about how he came here as a young boy, how he came to watch the sea creatures arrive, how he came to mourn the passing of his wife, how he’d been coming home from the aquarium when he met Miranda and me on the day we moved in next door.


I suddenly remember how I’d first met her. She’d been with a group of mutual friends who'd spent the day at the beach. When they returned, she stood out to me like a perfect, polished seashell on the course sand. Her wild hair was still wet and her eyes were smiling. I remember how I’d been struck by the glow that the sun had added to her cheeks as I listened to her tell me about her day. I haven't seen her like that in a long time. Too long.

“Look there, Martin. See that shark?” Mr. Carson breaks into my thoughts again. “That’s the great-great-great-grandson of the first one they brought here. I watched him be born.” He leans back in the wheelchair and folds his hands as he talks. “It has always fascinated me how sharks lay eggs and give birth to fully grown young sharks. Simply marvelous. Marvelous.”

Once more, I think about Miranda. I remember how marvelous she’s been in our early years together, even through her complicated pregnancies and births. But that was months ago, now. Or has it already been years? Before that time at the beach when the waves... when we- no, when I lost him...

“We made it, lad!” Mr. Carson says, pulling me back from the edge of the thing that consumes my waking and sleeping hours. “We’re here.”

I look up from my thoughts. That was a mistake.

In front of me lays the top of the central ocean tank. And it is open. It’s so big. Bigger than my house, probably. The water laps up against the edge, with soft, undulating splashes.

My fingers slip from my grip on Mr. Carson’s wheelchair, and I feel myself falling, leaning too far to one side. My body reacts, and I step forward, stumbling toward the central tank.

The water rises to meet me, and my vision fills with the sheer expanse of it. The salt of it, the movement of it. Despite the sea life that teems within it, despite the greenery and the coral that add splashes of brilliant color, I feel the faraway bottom taunting me.

I can hear the rush of it, the splash, the bubble. The siren’s call of the silence it offers, the silence of being plunged under. I feel it now, the water's embrace, the way it slides down my throat, robbing me of voice and breath. I see something ahead of me, something small and blurry. I reach for it, but it's ripped further away by the unrelenting current. Like a forgotten doll, like a tiny string-less puppet. I am ashamed, at that moment, that my only thought is that I'm going to die.

There's something at my elbow and it's shaking me.

“Martin, lad.” I hear from a seemingly endless distance. It’s Mr. Carson's voice. “Hey. Here. You’re alright.”

I gasp as though I'd been underwater. Heat rises up my neck and throat and ears and I squeeze my eyes shut.

“It’s alright, lad. Just look at the railing. It helps.” His hand is still on my elbow. He doesn’t let go until I turn to him, drops of sweat running down the side of my face. He smiles gently.

How odd. Even though he is a wizened older man in a wheelchair, he is the steadiest thing I have seen in a long time, and I can breathe again.


When I get home that evening, the kids are already in bed, and the kitchen is somehow clean despite the mess it was in earlier.

I find Miranda in her office, feet tucked under her on the sofa, reading a book and nibbling the end of a pencil. How long had it been since I'd let myself see her? I realize, with a start, that she feels like home. She never blamed me or regarded me with pity. In that moment, the terrible shackles I'd placed around my heart unlock and go tumbling down into the waves of my memories.

I kneel beside her and lean in to kiss her cheek. I think she’s too confused to protest. So, I kiss her again until she turns to look at me.

“Have you been drinking?” she asks, only half joking.

“I’ve missed that smile of yours, Miranda,” I say, reaching out to place a hand on hers, “I'm sorry for how I've been. Why don’t I take the kids to the aquarium this weekend?”

Miranda sets her book down and turns to face me more fully. “The aquarium, Martin?”

“Yeah,” I say, “The kids can run around and see everything. You can have a day to do whatever you’d like. Spa date, shopping date. Whatever you want.”

“Martin, are you OK? You know that thing with you and water since…”

I think about Mr. Carson at the aquarium and his delight. I think about the children from the public who crowded around him, eager to be a part of the show and to meet the sea creatures. I think about the water. The open central ocean tank.

Only now, in my mind's eye, as I hold the railing, I see that the clear, aqua-green water is a haven for the thousands of colorful creatures within it. I take a deep breath, straighten my shoulders, look up into Miranda’s brilliant, patient eyes.

“It’s all good,” I say, smiling, “I had a new perspective today. Besides, if I get scared, all I have to do is look at the railing. It helps.”

Short Storyfamily

About the Creator

R. J. Rani

Hi there, thanks for reading my words! Here, you'll find fiction & poetry inspired by my life, travels, and imagination. If you like something I've written, please say so 🤗I love to hear from you.

Find me on Instagram, Ockelwog, and Amazon.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

Add your insights

Comments (2)

Sign in to comment
  • Kenny Penn4 months ago

    This was a cute story and so well written. As usual your way with descriptive details had me seeing the aquarium vividly. I think we could all take a lesson from Mr. Carson

  • SC Wells4 months ago

    I loved Martin’s journey and how he evolved by the end of the story. Absolutely beautiful message!

Find us on social media

Miscellaneous links

  • Explore
  • Contact
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Support

© 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.