Short Story: The Worry Monsters of Ocean City by Bryan Schwartzman

Pour some sugar on me in the name of love. I’m hot. Sticky sweet. From my he-he-head to my feet. Yeah. His sometimes-goofy nature and unabashed love of 80s hair metal were two reasons she fell for him long ago, in the time before parenthood. Now, as they inched south along Route 113 — which cut through Delaware’s farm country — she found it beyond annoying.

“Maybe knock it off for a bit?” said Hannah.

“What? Knock what off?” said Eric.

“Pretending you’re Joe Elliott from Def Leppard. Totally inappropriate lyrics.”

“Makes this traffic go faster. And Livi doesn’t mind, do you?”

“Whatever,” an 8-year-old voice answered from the back seat. “Maybe this is like, a little less boring with dad singing.

“You see, she likes it.” Eric sang his answer, imitating a screeching guitar. 

Not three hours into their trip and she was already outvoted and ready to open the passenger door and fling herself onto the road. She wished the car could somehow turn itself into a tank and flatten all the other vehicles clogging the route to the beach town. Livi’s child psychologist had warned Hannah that they were going on a family trip, not a vacation. Be prepared for parenting in overdrive, said Doctor Abby, as Livi called her. The problem was, Hannah really needed an actual vacation after spending nearly every day of the summer with Livi while Eric coached basketball camp. And, teachers — both she and her husband — had to report back the following week and she’d restart the relentless pace of the school year: five classes a day, lesson plans, labs, tests, grades, faculty in-service. Soon she’d be trying to explain the difference between ionic and covalent bonds to hormonal teenagers with attention spans that rivaled those of small invertebrates. Her reserves would run especially low come October when high school basketball season got underway, and Eric would frequently return home after Livi had gone to bed and, when he was present, his mind remained fixated on Xs and Os. This was her last week before stepping back on the treadmill, and she was stuck in traffic on the way to Ocean City, Maryland, where Eric had wanted to go.

The radio DJ introduced the next song by another 80s band called Great White.

“Great White! Mom, are there sharks in the Ocean?” asked Livi.

“That’s a worry question,” answered Hannah. “We already talked about sharks. You’re not asking for information, just expressing worry. I don’t want to feed the worry monster.”

Livi lowered her head dejectedly. “Clouds in the sky, is it gonna rain? What floor are we staying on? Is there an elevator?”

“Worry questions, sweetie. You know there’s an elevator,” Hannah replied. Eric was seemingly absorbed in the task of driving 15 mph and consuming music.

“I won’t ride an elevator. I won’t, won’t, won’t.”

When they finally arrived at the condo building on the edge of the Isle of Wight Bay, Hannah staggered out of the SUV like a long-trapped spelunker who’d finally seen daylight. She felt soothed by the warm sun on her bare arms and the scent of seawater. Then she thought of the stuffed trunk; so much crap to spend four days in a tourist trap. 

“Sooo long and sooo boring,” said Livi, somehow making her voice heard above the shrieking children in the pool sandwiched between the parking lot and the bay. “Can I go swim now?”

“Livi, we’ve got to unload all this stuff,” Hannah said, breathless, as she heaved a large suitcase.

“Boring,” Livi said flatly as her duffel bag—decorated with Frozen, Hello Kitty, and Taylor Swift stickers—across the lot.

The building’s open-air vestibule offered respite from the August sun and presented two options to reach the sixth floor: elevator or stairs. It had been relatively easy to skip elevators in their suburban Philadelphia lives. No avoiding it here, Hannah thought, not when they’d have to hike up and down six flights every time they came and went. And the therapist had said repeatedly that avoidance only feeds anxiety’s appetite. Here, she thought, was a perfect opportunity for Livi to face her fears, to practice what they paid $165 an hour to learn.

“I am not getting into that elevator,” Livi declared.

“Olivia Amber, let’s go through this. Tell me the best thing that could happen, the worst thing that could happen, and the most likely,” said Hannah. 

“I’m going to die on that elevator.”

Where was Eric at the precise moment that she needed backup? His left knee usually tightened on long rides, resulting from a fifteen-year-old college basketball injury, re-aggravated multiple times. Totally legitimate, Hannah knew. Still, whenever coaching his boys, he managed to move serviceably across the hardwood, especially when berating a ref over a perceived injustice. Yet now, he’d been woefully out of position. Suitcase in two, he belatedly arrived at the standoff.

“What’s going on here?” said Eric.

“Mommy wants me to die in that elevator,” Livi said clinically.

“Let’s try a visualization,” Eric said.

Hannah seethed inside. Here, she’d been working on something they’d practiced with the therapist, and Eric rides in, immediately going to his visualization techniques — which came from his basketball life, not psychology — without even asking what Hannah had tried. 

Eric had told Livi repeatedly that “if we imagine ourselves doing something enough times, if we come up with a mental roadmap for how we will react when the time comes, we’ll be able to do it, you’ll be able to do it. I want you to trust me and close your eyes.”

Amazingly, it had worked the first time, when he’d managed to get Livi to use a public toilet with an automatic flusher when nothing else they’d get her to relax and release. Since then, not so much, and Dr. Abby had suggested it was time to try some new techniques.  Once upon a time, Eric’s visualization techniques had helped Hannah. On their first anniversary, they’d visited Knysna in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, some 200 miles from where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Last stop in the terrestrial world before Antarctica. Clearwater. Stark sandstone cliffs. Rowing to an island off the coast, staring up at a slab of the cliff which dwarfed the human body. All she could imagine was freefalling off the cliff before throttling into the ground. Still, almost like a shaman, he’d managed to help her envision rappelling down the cliff, trusting her life to a rope and the wisdom of guides who looked like stoned camp counselors. And they’d done it, and she’d looked on the white beach, out into the waters, feeling the wind on her face sweeping off the great ocean. The memory made her wish to be someplace like that now, somewhere she’d remember the rest of her life.

“Daddy, I just see the elevator falling.”

He closed his eyes and sighed. 

“OK, you can climb the stairs this time; you promise to ride the elevator down,” he said.

Hannah’s pulse accelerated; muscles tensed. 

“Done,” Live said.

Despite the weight of her suitcase, Livi grabbed it and began sprinting up the stairs.

“Way to undermine me,” Hannah said. “Why not just tell her to ignore everything I say?”

“Figured you’d already tried something, and it hadn’t worked. Time to try something else,” he said.

“This isn’t a basketball game. We’re not trying to solve a zone defense,” she said, trying to speak coach language.

“Why not let her get comfortable here, build up some confidence, then tackle the elevator?” he said.

“That’s not how it works,” Hannah proclaimed, waving her arms as if arguing a ref’s call.

The elevator arrived, and the two squeezed in, uncomfortably close, her eyes inches from his chest. Hannah awaited a response. None came. The elevator stopped, the doors slowly opened, and the midday light flooded in. Before taking in the vista, Hannah took note of the four-story drop to the parking lot. How many mothers had been tempted to take the plunge on family trips?

Seagulls cried above, and bay waves collided with the embankment below. From this perspective, she saw Ocean City as a narrow strip of land, a once-pristine barrier island overcrowded with human settlement. The architecturally anemic hotels and apartment complexes radiated a harsh light. On the water, sparkles of sunlight were shimmering on the emerald waves.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Eric said. “The ocean on one side, the bay on the other. Doesn’t it make you just want to jump in?”

Yes, she took some pleasure in seeing so much water, but she wasn’t in a mood to give too much ground.

“You know I’m not a beach person,” she said. “I have to admit I could get used to looking out at the water every day.”

In selling her on Ocean City, Eric recalled the deep-memory-forming, annual visits with his Irish-Catholic family. And he’d leaned on the fact that just to the south of the resort town was Assateague Island, a narrow thirty-seven-mile stretch of sand, wind, and beach best known for herds of wild ponies. He acknowledged there might also be giant, blood-sucking mosquitos.

Before they’d booked the Airbnb, he mentioned the elephant, which only reminded Hannah how much she wanted to go back to South Africa, or some far-flung destination. Even if they could afford it now, how could they fly into the unknown with a child afraid of everything? From the safety of an open-top vehicle in a national wildlife reserve, they’d encountered an adult male elephant dislodging a small tree from the soil and waving it in the air like a conquering warrior. The elephant had the power to overturn their vehicle, yet it was just showing off either for them or other members of his herd, who stood and watched. As a girl, she’d seen elephants in the zoo, sad, listless creatures. But this, she was sure, was the first time she’d really seen an elephant, a powerful, majestic individual imbued with its full spirit. For an instant, she seemed to lock eyes with the elephant and was sure she’d experienced a fleeting revelation. Something about the interrelatedness or connection between all beings. It wasn’t something she could describe or a feeling that had ever been replicated.

Livi emerged from the staircase, panting, placing her suitcase down, and rolling it.

“Check out our new backyard, Liv,” Eric said. 

Grabbing hold of the railing, Livi gazed southward and immediately fixated on a point about 20 blocks south, a cluster of waterslides rising high above the ground.

“That looks amazing,” Livi said, to Hannah’s amazement. 

Her daughter had just refused to step on an elevator, and she was thinking of careening down a slide. Whether Livi would go through with it at the top of one of those slides was another matter. If Hannah had learned one thing, it was that anxiety played havoc with the human mind in strange ways.

“Liv, I’ll totally do the big slide with you,” he said.

Hannah whispered the door code to Livi, and she punched in the keypad, opening the rental condo. Hannah’s eyes were immediately drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows, revealing an inviting balcony and stunning bay view. Jet skis bobbed in the distance, and parasailors flew in wild patterns like insects. Hannah thought that maybe, just maybe, she could give her brain a vacation from the constant flash of thoughts and worries, from a life lived on high alert. 

She threw down her suitcase in the living room, opened the door to the balcony, and stepped outside, feeling the summer breeze against her face. Her husband and child followed. Seagulls circled overhead. 

“Mommy, can I feed the birds?” Livi said.

“Not unless you want them pooping all over us,” Eric said as he tried to straighten his knee, wincing in pain. 

“I’ll just talk to them,” she said. “Scraw. Scraw. Scraw.”

“That’s not annoying,” Hannah said. “Not annoying at all.”

Once they’d brought everything up from the car, they had a lunch of tuna salad sandwiches, chips, and apples. They munched without conversation or music: the kind of silence that reveals the surprising loudness of mouths chewing on food. Soon, Livi began lobbying hard to hit the condo pool. Hannah suggested they check out the boardwalk. Eric brokered a compromise, pool for 45 minutes, and then they’d see some of the sights. Since no one was eager to get back in a car, Hannah suggested they ride the bus south, down to where the boardwalk began. As the bus approached, Livi had a minor panic attack; Eric led her in some mindful breathing and managed to get her to step on the bus when it stopped on Ocean City’s main boulevard. Hannah berated herself. Livi hadn’t ridden a bus since they’d left Philly for the suburbs. Why hadn’t she realized it would freak her daughter out? Why hadn’t she formed a plan with Livi as they were getting ready, applying globs of sunblock? Yes, she had to admit, sometimes Eric’s methods worked. 

Though neither said so to Hannah, it seemed that her husband and daughter enjoyed wandering the boardwalk, navigating between throngs of people, catching the aromas of fried dough, cotton candy, taffel, barbeque, overcooked pizza, and sweaty humans. They’d watched the slow turning of the Ferris wheel, though Livi wouldn’t even consider a ride, as if her parents had just suggested she run through a minefield. Removing shoes, they walked on the sand, Livi climbing on a dinosaur sculpture before wading unafraid into the water and getting doused by a wave. Eric needed to run to the boardwalk to buy an expensive, poorly-made towel.

They’d gotten so much fresh air and exercise that Hannah was hopeful all three would crash early that night. Despite being in a new environment, which usually kept her up late, Livi shockingly nodded off as soon as she got into bed. Eric wasn’t too far behind. Not Hannah. Between her mind and the seagulls, sleep seemed like an impossible dream.

Scraw. Scraw. Scraw.

The clock read 12:46 a.m.

In addition to the seagulls, Hannah could hear the waves crashing into breakers six stories below. Eric slept soundly curled beside her, diagonally, his long arms and legs commandeering valuable mattress real estate. Hannah couldn’t stop replaying the events of the day, hearing Livi’s questions in the car, in refusing to get on the elevator, and needing to be talked to on the bus. On a normal day, she’d get a few of what Dr. Abby called worry questions. Today, they’d felt non-stop, as if the worry monster had gorged on a five-course meal. “What if we miss the bus? What if the next one doesn’t stop? What if it starts moving before I sit? What if there’s an accident?”

Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, Hannah couldn’t help but think that, in asking worry questions over and over again, Livi was expressing an essential truth: terrible things can happen anywhere, anytime. The biggest difference between Hannah and Livi was that Hannah could visualize far more catastrophic scenarios. What if a crazed gunman shot up the boardwalk? What if a terrorist got hold of a cluster bomb and targeted the Mid-Atlantic region? What if the electrical grid went down? What if climate change or the extinction of a key species made the planet uninhabitable in Livi’s lifetime? 

Between all the sessions with Dr. Abby and the extra reading she’d done—books that, once finished, would sit on Eric’s nightstand for months, untouched —she’d learned a couple of contradictory things about anxiety. 

•Science doesn’t have good explanations for what causes an anxious brain. 

•Genetics has something to do with it. 

•For too long, parents, especially mothers, have been blamed, maligned even, for all the neurosis expressed by their children.

Yet no matter how many times Dr. Abby had told her not to blame herself, how could she not? Hadn’t she passed her anxiety onto her daughter by example or through her essential nature? Hadn’t Eric helped her move past every little fear standing in her way only to see fear returning with more fuel than ever after she gave birth to another human being?


Had Hannah drifted to sleep? She heard a scream but processed it slowly, partly because it wasn’t directed at her.

She elbowed Eric. Called his name. She needed sleep. Needed to pass responsibility to him. But he didn’t stir. She got out of bed and stumbled toward Livi’s room, her eyes readjusting to the darkness of an unfamiliar room.

Livi sat up in bed, moaning unintelligibly, somewhere between asleep and awake.

“I don’t understand you, honey,” said Hannah. 

“The waves,” Livi said, sounding more conscious. “They’re so close.”

“Not gonna hurt you, honey. We’re safe in this building.”

Hannah lay in bed beside her daughter. Livi draped an arm across Hannah’s chest. After a few minutes, Hannah heard Livi’s rhythmic breathing. Yet Livi stirred often, delivering a kick to Hannah every so often. Hannah was unable to sleep for hours, staring at the ceiling, neurons firing.

When she opened her eyes at 8:03 a.m., she knew the day would be hard.  

She felt slightly drugged as she got out of bed. The kitchen was right next to Livi’s room. Eggs crackled on the stove. Eric whistled while he maneuvered the spatula. Livi lay stomach down on the hardwood, her hands propping up her head, eyes entranced by some cartoon. The previous day’s brilliant light was replaced by an uninspiring gray that dulled the water, reducing the surface to a foreboding murkiness. 

“Morning,” Eric said.  “Guess you needed your sleep.”

Hannah felt pure indignation.

“She called for you. She called ‘daddy.’ You didn’t hear it. Didn’t want to hear.”

“Whoa. Let’s calm down,” he said, turning off the burner and taking a step toward his wife. You are the MVP of the household, no question.”

Livi materialized between them, making her case for the waterpark. Eric suggested the beach. Maybe it was the horrid night of sleep. Maybe it was the seagulls screeching, logged inside her brain even when they were quiet. Whatever the cause, she was gripped by a compulsion to do what she wanted. Her brain was too foggy, her patience too thin, to suggest any compromise.

“You know what I like? I like nature. My radical idea is that we go to Assateague Island today and do the waterpark tomorrow. If it rains, we can hop back in the car, get ice cream, and find a movie theater or a bowling alley. That doesn’t ruin anyone’s vacation, does it?”

Commanding the wheel, Hannah drove along the island’s lone road. No one spoke, as if the family was headed for a long-dreaded obligation, like scattering a hated aunt’s ashes. On both sides, batches of heather and myrtle crept above the dunes.

“Livi, keep an eye out for the ponies.”

“I don’t care about stupid ponies.”

Hannah noticed a sign for a trailhead and thought that a stroll would be good for all of them. She grabbed one of the last spots on the pine-edged parking lot. Turning the car off and stepping outside, she felt her breathing and heart rate slow, the trees and air having an immediate effect. The prospect of seeing wild ponies excited her like a little girl. She only hoped that, if they saw one, her little girl would come around. Hannah and Livi trudged toward the trailhead. Eric lumbered behind. 

“Your knee?” Hannah called to him.

“Can’t seem to get it straight,” he said.

Taking the lead, Livi bounded in front of them. They walked on a path surrounded by short trees, the sounds of the marshes everywhere, birds and bubbling water, and croaking frogs. Their immersion in the woods lasted only a few minutes. The pines became sparser, then gave way to uncovered marsh. Hannah noticed a boardwalk jutting out into the water, raised by stilts above the mud and short grass. Livi had already made it 100 yards out on the boardwalk, disappearing into a batch of about a dozen people who had jammed the pathway.

Hannah slowed her stride so Eric could catch up. Together, the two reached the boardwalk, their feet striking the wood beams simultaneously. A row of three wooden beams served as a vertical barrier, preventing people from taking a fall. As they got closer to Livi, Hannah got her first glimpse of an Assateague Pony. A herd. A family. The creatures stood in pools of muddy water eating grass, swatting flies with their tails, looking utterly unperturbed. Hannah imagined a sense of bemusement from the animals as if they couldn’t understand why these two-legged creatures would spend their time standing and watching them. She had read that, according to legend, the horses’ ancestors had survived a shipwreck off the Virginia coast, swimming to the island and discovering a life of freedom — and giant mosquitoes. 

A small hand grabbed hers, calling Hannah by her three-letter-name.

“Mom, mom. This is so cool. They’re so close. What do you think they’re thinking about?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know,” Hannah said. She couldn’t help but laugh, a sound that disappeared into the air.

A foal took tentative steps toward the raised boardwalk, briefly looking up at his admirers. Livi struggled to get around people and have a clear look at the pony. Livi placed one foot on the lowest barrier beam, then the other. Soon, she’d climbed to the middle beam so that her hands rested on the top and her torso bent awkwardly over the top. 

“Livi, I think you should get down,” said Eric.

“She’s Okay. This is the happiest I’ve seen her all summer,” said Hannah.

“What should I name you?” Livi asked. “Luna, that’s a good name for a horse.”

“Ma’am, excuse me,” a voice called out. “You look all peaceful, and I hate to interrupt. I think you should have your daughter get down. Even if she can’t read the no climbing signs, I imagine you can.”

Hannah resented the intrusion by a woman in her 50s with a raspy, smoker’s voice. Nothing worse than being told by a stranger you’re a terrible parent, she thought. Both mother and daughter had managed to quiet their anxious imaginations, fully immersed in what was in front of them. The best thing Hannah could do for her daughter, she thought, was let her be, let her experience a moment without restraint. Livi looked secure. Hannah thought, what could happen? If mother and daughter couldn’t sometimes let down their guard, they’d be consumed by worry. 

“Hannah, she’s right. Livi, get down now,” said Eric.

Of all of Eric’s possible betrayals, Hannah thought, siding with this stranger was the most egregious.

First came the soundwaves: a sneaker slipping on wood, a girl grunting then emitting a scream that dwarfed all previous howls. Then came the light waves. Livi teetered, tried to regain her balance, then fell out of sight toward a swampy abyss. Hannah’s mind initially refused to follow, as if she’d reached the edge of the flat world and Livy had careened beyond, descending to irrecoverable depths. 

 Livi had been on the fence one instant, and now she wasn’t. Hannah, who’d spent countless hours imagining something bad happening to her daughter, couldn’t process it now that something had. Hannah stood frozen, hearing gasps and a scream from below. Eric didn’t hesitate. He scaled the top plank and leaped. It wasn’t his best move. Falling five or six feet to the soft, wet earth, he immediately crumbled to his hands and knees. He let out an unintelligible scream. Hoofbeats squished into the mud as the pony herd galloped away. 

“Oh my God!” At first, Hannah thought it was her voice. She realized it belonged to the intruding woman. “Oh, Good Lord. That does it. I’m calling an ambulance.”

Hannah looked at the woman blankly before nodding and managing to say thank you in a near whisper. She started to climb over the wooden plant. With one leg draped over the top plank, she visualized herself hoisting the other leg over, then carefully lowering herself down, only dropping a few feet and landing upright. Her feet sank immediately. Eric writhed on his back, clutching his knee. Livi has made her way over to him, her left arm hanging limply, her cries of daddy tinged with hurt. Hannah noticed the crowd of people still gathered, looking down at them. Her family had now become the zoo exhibit.

“Mommy, my arm hurts so bad,” Livi said as Eric moaned.

“I think you broke it,” Hannah said. “Listen, help is on the way.”

“Mommy, I really wanted to go on the waterslides.”

“I know, honey, I know.”

Eric looked as if he wanted to say something, his eyes carrying something of an apology. For what? Busting his knee? Leaving her with too much of the parenting burden?

“Dislocated,” was all he managed to grunt. 

Maybe try a visualization technique, Hannah thought. Maybe she should ask her daughter and husband if they could see themselves speeding down a great waterslide, feeling the wondrous splash at the bottom when they would crash into a pool. But all she could see were the days and months ahead of doctors’ appointments and physical therapy and getting dressed and cooking meals, a time where everything would be on her. Sleep? Downtime? Gone. Would she even be able to work? It was too much to think about.

She heard the sound of hoofs on mud and water growing louder. One of the ponies was coming back. Hannah looked up and saw an adult galloping toward them, its brown and white fur looking majestic in motion. She wondered if the animal intended to trample her family; she could never move them in time. Yet, the pony, a female — in Hannah’s mind, a mother —  stopped about 30 yards out, standing in a marshy pool, staring at them. As if checking if they were OK. Hannah heard the wail of a siren, a whisper at first, growing louder.

“Ma’am, paramedics are almost here,” 

Hannah gazed at the pony’s eyes, and the animal, it seemed, looked right back at her, trying to communicate, Hannah imagined, in some interspecies, universal language. Something like, this motherhood thing is tough, but you’ll get through it, you’ll do what has to be done, to say what has to be said. 

“You hear that, guys? Help is almost here,” she said. “We’ll get to that waterslide. Next summer. I promise.”


Bryan Schwartzman is an award-winning journalist who has interviewed future presidents, and former Israeli prime ministers and reported from Tunisia before the Arab Spring and from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He once wrote about the fate of a cow that had escaped a slaughterhouse and roamed the streets of Queens. These days he works in nonprofit communications and hosts a podcast. 

His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, Jewish Fiction and the Jewish Literary Review. 

He grew up in New York City and has lived for the past 20 years in and around Philadelphia. He is married and has two daughters. 


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