River Full of Lost Sharks
Jason M. Jones

The question keeps coming to mind, popping up at odd moments. It’s unnerving, unsettling, yet you have to ask: “Is someone in the house?”

The question has plagued you for days and doesn’t seem ready to resolve itself anytime soon. Naturally, when you ask, you don’t mean your wife and daughter, the ones you expect to be here. Nor do you think it’s your mother or brother-in-law, both of whom have spare keys. No, what you’re thinking of is an intruder, someone who’s decidedly not supposed to be here, someone who unbeknownst to you is living in the nooks and crannies, the closets and crawlspaces, someone who creeps around whenever you’re away, whenever you’re not looking, whenever you’re tucked in bed at night.

You shake it off. Paranoia. There’s no reason to think it, but still, it persists.

Is someone here? Someone who’s not supposed to be?

You listen at night. The heater goes on and off. The hardwood floors heave. Expansion. Contraction. The sounds an old house makes. You listen between your wife’s respiration, her gentle sleeping breath.

Who’s there? What’s that?

Next door, the neighbors climb the stairs. That’s all. You live in a twin. These are the sounds you hear in a twin. But maybe it’s something else, someone on the floor below. Your arms and legs lock in fear, but you shake them loose. You grab the baseball bat from next to your bed and wander into the hall.

It’s dark, but your eyes adjust. A clanking comes from downstairs. It might be the vents. You sneak along, avoiding the spots where your floorboards squeak, hoping you don’t wake your one-year-old. If she wakes up, her cries might startle the intruder, but then again, they might incite violence too, prove a point of vulnerability. He might make a move, grab her, use her against you.

You think of this whenever you consider someone breaking in. How you’d have to get out in front and guard your kid. If you don’t, they might grab her and threaten you. Tell you to put down the bat, and you’d do it, too, knowing all too well that this person would cause your family the same harm whether you fight back or not. Still, what else can you do if someone holds in peril all that’s most precious to you?

You peek in as you pass her door and see her move beneath the blankets. She’s safe for now. You hit the top step and pad down. You take each one slow, holding the bat. You played back in high school, and though you’re no slugger, one blow to a man caught off-guard, and you’d have him down, kill him maybe. Yet, you don’t want that. Or maybe you do. You don’t consider yourself a violent man, but you’d become one if the need arose, if your family was threatened. You reach the bottom, slide back the safety gate, and jump out, ready to swing. You flick the light and turn, but no one’s there.

It’s all in your head, you suppose.

But is it?

The girl’s pink princess car has moved across the room. Mr. Bear’s now sitting in a different spot. You were the last one up, so you’d know. You’d left the bear sitting on the sofa and now he’s in the rocking chair. The car had been tucked in a corner, but now it’s sitting in the center of the rug. It’s strange, but maybe you’re wrong.

That was how you left it, right?

You check the locks and windows and sit and doze. You wake to the baby’s cries and run upstairs, but it’s morning now, and you don’t have time to fret. It’s time to get her to daycare and go to work. It’s time to forget how foolish you’ve been. By day, everything’s clear. You made it up. But once you get home, it starts up again, this question, the fear. Whenever you’re alone, whenever your mind’s not occupied with the basic tasks of living, it tugs at you. You can’t let it drop. Someone’s here, and you know they mean to hurt you.


Home invasion is one of your biggest fears and has been for as long as you can remember. From your first apartment up until buying this house, the idea of someone breaking in while you’re there has petrified you. You’ve read books on how to defend yourself. If someone wants to burglarize your home, the experts say, they’ll use patience and choose a time you’re not there. If someone breaks in and you’re there, you should assume they mean you harm.

Over the years, you’ve taken this advice to heart. The best way to avoid getting hurt, they say, is avoiding the conflict altogether, and whenever you’ve selected apartments, you’ve had two considerations: One, how easily you could escape in case of fire; and two, how hard breaking in would be.

Your first apartment was on the fourth floor, dead bolts on the doors, a neighboring roof you could jump to in case of flames but not close enough to gain access by your window. Your second apartment was a third-floor walkup much the same while the third apartment was on the first floor, but its windows were high enough you’d need a ladder for entry and the properties next door seemed more viable targets. It was a cheap two-bedroom apartment you couldn’t pass up, but there was a bar nearby and you woke at all hours to hear people passing beneath your window, so you started sleeping with a hammer under your pillow.

You’ve always favored blunt force objects for self-defense. A gun might make defending yourself easier in a crisis, but that’s exactly what puts you off. Too easy for an accident too, especially with a kid in the house. To hit someone with a hammer at close range, you have to mean it. You have to want to hurt them. After all, you’ve never read about an accidental hammering.

When you and your wife started dating, she’d found it under your pillow one night and made fun of you. She laughs even harder now that you’ve moved into the house and ordered a baseball bat, and it arrives with a logo that reads “Hammer” written across the barrel. This logo wasn’t intentional. It’s mere coincidence. Yet, you’ve placed this Hammer next to your bed and keep it ready in case you need it.


A few days have passed since you crept downstairs and noticed that someone moved the toys. You’ve tried to forget it. Told yourself you’d been mistaken. Yet, the noises you hear at night are still disturbing your sleep. Each time the house shifts, you freeze up, listening. It rains Sunday night, and certain drops are louder than others. They resemble footsteps coming upstairs, and you sleep in short bursts and wake at the slightest noise: laughter on the street outside, a car pulling up.

Drip. Tick. Scratch. Creak.

If it’s rhythmic, you assume it’s all right, not an intruder. Besides, who’d sneak in after you went to bed just to move some toys around? You pull the covers to your chin and lay on your back to free both ears so the sounds will be clear and you’ll catch everything. The rain turns to snow at two, and you wake at five-thirty to your daughter’s cries. It’s Monday, so you rise and head outside to pull the trashcans to the curb. You feel lumpish and leaden, disconcerted by a string of restless nights. You turn on the lights downstairs, and as you pass the windows outside, jogging along the driveway with cans in tow, you gaze in.

You and your wife have made a nice home for yourselves. It’s modest by some standards, but you’re satisfied. The house is red brick with slate roof. Sturdy. Comfortable. It’s stood here next to its twin since the early-1930s, and from this vantage in the snow, it looks warm, inviting. It provides you with shelter and safety. But as you near the front porch and glance into the living room, this image crumbles.

Through the glass, you spy a figure. It turns the corner from dining to living room and dashes up the stairs, seeking entry to your sanctum, to a region of bedrooms and privacy, to the place where your wife now rests, feeding your infant daughter. It’s only an instant, this image, the briefest instant. You see it happen in the time it takes to blink. Yet, before you can blink again, you’ve released the cans and dashed into the house. The snow crunches beneath your feet. Your shoes slide across the kitchen floor. You leave a trail of prints on the carpet as you leap for the landing and bound upward. The fact that you haven’t bothered grabbing a weapon hits you, and you hope that if the intruder reaches them first, he’ll overlook the Hammer.

“Sweetheart?” you call, urgent, desperate. You cross into your bedroom, and your wife looks up, undisturbed.


You search the room, checking the corners. You open the closet, though no one could have reached it without her spotting him.

“Have you seen my keys?”

She’s too distracted by your daughter to notice you’re out of breath. She shakes her head. “I’m sure they’re around,” you say. And walking into the hall, you stop at the nursery, the office, the bathroom. You open the closets, but no one’s there. You head outside and check for prints in the snow, but the only tracks are yours.


Is someone really here, hiding?

You know what you saw.

To leave no prints in the snow, they’d have to be inside already, living here unbeknownst to you. Then again, eyes—and here you mean eyes in general, not yours in particular—have been known to play tricks. Have yours started on you? You have no history of hallucinations, and your vision has always been 20/20. But in the past two months, you’ve experienced eyestrain from the glare off your computer at work. Blind spots have appeared in your vision whenever you’ve stared at one thing too long. Still, this wasn’t a blind spot. This was a person. This was someone standing there. Unless it wasn’t. Still, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that someone could gain access to your home.

Lately, you’ve noticed a disturbing behavior. In the afternoons, when you bring your daughter in from daycare, you’ve been forgetting to lock the door. It’s surprising given your fear of home invasion, but coming home, holding the baby in her bulky car seat with one hand and her lunch and diaper bags in the other, it sometimes slips your mind to latch the deadbolt.

When you and your wife bought the house, safety was a concern, but you knew the neighborhood. You’d grown up here. You were moving back to be close to your parents for when you had children of your own, moving back to send those kids to good schools, moving back because there were parks and pools and places for kids to play. You weren’t bothered at first. Not in the same way you’d been in your apartments. You’d never known your neighbors then, but you know them now. First an elderly couple—quiet, friendly—and when they moved into a retirement home, a single mother and her teenage son had moved in. Still, in the time you’ve lived here something has changed. Nothing seems safe. The streets are filled with careening drivers who speed around talking on cell phones without paying attention to where they’re going. You read about people pretending to work for the gas company who sneak into houses and steal, and so you don’t answer the door unless you’re expecting company.

Part of this, of course, has to do with becoming a father. Your daughter was born a year after you’d moved in, and one of the most frightening aspects of being a dad is how vulnerable your child’s vulnerability has made you. Your daughter seems fragile in every way. Her bones are small, her limbs like a bird’s; soft, weak, helpless. When she was born, you held her in that hospital room and found yourself hopelessly lost, inextricably in love. You became, in that instant, her protector. And just as you’ve learned to bask in the joy her presence brings, you’re also wary of what could happen as she grows. Those careening cars veer toward her, hopping the curb and running her down while she’s learning to ride her bike. Strangers at the playground leer, hoping you’ll get distracted so they can steal her away.

In this light, it may have been a bad idea to read Helter Skelter when she was three months old. The Mason family saga is enough to leave even the most hardened horror fan lying awake at night, listening for sounds from the windows or the doors. The part that spooked you most was that the Manson family, before they broke into Sharon Tate’s house and murdered everyone, would go on practice runs. They’d drive around LA and pick a house and sneak inside. They’d walk around while the owners slept and move things around and then leave without anyone knowing they’d been there.

This aspect incites your paranoia most—the point at which possibility becomes inevitability. It’s more terrifying than the murders themselves. For the murder serves as release, the moment when you know what’s going to happen. Sneaking around, that’s the build-up, the tension. During the sneaking around, there’s still time for prevention, still time for the assailants to decide against committing their acts, time for everything to turn out okay, for no one to die. If the victims had seen it coming, they could have stopped it. If they’d been aware, they could have taken protective measures, fought back. Once the family had entered Tate’s house, it was over, the ending decided, their fates sealed.

If only they’d known.

If only they could have prepared.


It’s nearly a week after you chase this phantom figure up the stairs that you have a close call with the Hammer and realize it’s time to construct a better plan, conduct a more methodical investigation and put your admittedly misguided paranoia to rest.

You’re home sick for the day. You woke at two in the morning with a nasty stomach bug. Your eyes opened to indigestion, and soon enough, you were shivering to such an extent that four blankets couldn’t warm you. There was no time to consider the creaks and rumblings of the house, no time to wonder where the person you saw might be hiding. You simply jumped from bed, dashed down the hall, and lost the entirety of the mushroom barley soup you’d made for dinner to the toilet. The sound was dynamic, dramatic. It echoed through the house, waking your wife and kid, and you stayed up the rest of the night in your living room dry-heaving into a bucket. In the morning, your wife took your daughter to daycare while she went to work, and you slipped into bed to sleep.

Feeling like this, you haven’t given much thought to your intruder. After a quick search online, you’re pretty sure you’ve made him up. You’ve read that even the sanest people can have hallucinations in situations of sleep deprivation, yet your suspicions return when you wake at ten and hear the front door open.

“Honey?” you call, but your voice is cracked, weak. If it’s your wife, she knows about your home invasion fears and should reply, so no response rouses you. “Honey?” you call again.

You lift yourself from bed, knees shaking. You haven’t been able to take any food, so you hardly have the strength to support yourself. It’s a prime hallucinatory moment, with illness and hunger. Yet, someone can still break in. You stand there and hear them rummaging around, as if they know that no one’s home this time of day. You wonder whether you should hide or confront them. As long as they don’t breach the second floor. That’s where you draw the line. As long as it’s only the first, they can have whatever they want.

You slide down the hall, in stocking feet, silent, stalking. You’ve reached the midway point when it comes. A thunderous rampage of feet, thumping up the stairs, and you slide along, your movements hindered by your weakened state. Still, you’re ready to fight. At the landing, you lift your bat, but as you do, your wife scurries past, slams the bathroom door, and begins to make the same ungodly sounds you woke the house with just hours before. She hadn’t seen you, but you can’t escape the fact that you’ve just missed your first accidental hammering by a matter of inches.


As a kid you sometimes had nightmares about the movies you watched. One of the dreams you had most frequently concerned sharks. You’d seen Jaws, and it made you scared of swimming. Whenever your family took a trip to the lake, your uncle would sneak underwater and grab your legs and try pulling you down. Your parents had explained that sharks live in salt water, but you still had dreams of Great Whites appearing in the local swimming pool or the rivers you went rafting in.

You’d imagine submerging and seeing them, their aquiline bodies, cavernous mouths, razor-sharp teeth. They were everywhere water was, and you couldn’t escape. Even when you couldn’t see them, you knew they were there, ready to sink their teeth in. You couldn’t bring yourself to swim in the ocean until you’d reached your teenage years and convinced yourself that your fear was absurd. But even then, you wouldn’t venture too far. You knew they weren’t there now, but they existed. Wrong place, wrong time, and they’d take a bite, so you had to be vigilant, ready.

There isn’t anyone hiding inside your house. The thought is absurd. They’d have shown themselves already, made some move. The most likely explanation is that you dreamed it, put it together from the odd sounds a house makes at night, from the tricks the sun plays when it shines through windows, from the deep-seated fear of someone invading a space that’s supposed to provide you safety. And since you’d rather not accidentally hit anyone with a baseball bat, you choose an afternoon when your wife’s not home to conduct a sweep. You refuse to let your paranoia reach the realm of disorder, and the only way to stop it is to scour every inch of space, every hiding spot, to chart all the regions sound can emanate from and reassure yourself it’s fake, that you’ve conjured this threat from nothing.

You start in the basement, checking behind the washer and dryer. The built-in benches along the eastern wall fold back for storage, and as you inspect them, you realize how many places someone could hide in here. You rummage through the closet where you store your Christmas decorations. You look through the boxes, and though you know a full-grown man couldn’t squeeze into them, you need to be methodical and cross them off your list. When finished, you can’t have any doubts.

You’re armed with just a flashlight now. You don’t wish to risk using the bat again. Before you left work, you’d called your wife to make sure she’s still at her office. But even so, you’re not willing to risk a repeat. Besides, there’s no intruder here, and you’ll prove it. You shine the flashlight’s beam behind your hot water heater. A centipede crawling up the wall is the only sign of life you see, and since the basement door is bolted, you move upstairs.

As you enter the kitchen, you think of a headline you’d seen in the Times Chronicle earlier that week: Break-in sends two to hospital. You haven’t mentioned your suspicions to your wife since you’re well aware of how crazy they sound. But you also know that by voicing them, you might alleviate the burden, highlight the absurdity in your thinking, flush it from your system. Still, for as much as you fear incursion, it also provides a strange kind of fantasy too. Much as you loathe to admit it, you’ve pictured defending your home.

Break-in sends two to hospital.

You stand in the living room, confronting two men who’ve broken in, wielding the bat. As the first charges, you rear back and swing and hear the crack of his knees as you sweep his legs from underneath him. He hits the floor and you turn to take on the next. You see fear in his eyes, hear the snap as his jaw breaks as you knock him unconscious. You feel strong, masculine. There’s also a moral certainty. The violence, however extreme, was justified. You’ve had a slew of fantasies like these, yet they all fail to account for one important fact: you don’t know how to fight. If it came to you and violent men, the chances you’d win are slim. It’s more likely they’d get the best of you. It’s more likely you’d hurt someone you care about.

On the morning news, you’ve seen reports of a South African man who’s on trial for shooting his girlfriend. He claims he’d mistaken her for a burglar. You know that this is the likeliest outcome of violence in the home. For all the Dirty Harry vigilante bluster of your fantasies, the experts’ advice to flee is sensible. And even if someone invaded your home and you somehow defended yourself and killed them, how would you feel?

You don’t want to hurt anyone. After all, you’d almost hit your wife with a bat, and the thought of this shakes you more than you’d like to admit. Even as you have these fantasies, you recognize that they’re misguided, some primordial instinct encoded in your genes. And while this primitive drive to violence might have helped your ancestors survive, it has less practical use in modern times. You have intelligence, reason. You try using this reason to combat these daydreams. Yet, some illogical impulse spurs you on. Reason fails. You can’t damp it down with statistics or expert advice. You’re in the dining room now checking the closet that clicks open every time you enter the house. The one that never shuts properly. The one that always makes you jump. There’s too much stuff here for someone to hide—coats, folding chairs—so you make a decision and head to the second floor.

The world is full of bad people, scary men, dangerous creatures. The lost sharks of your youth have transformed into burglars, killers, and like those sharks, they lurk in every corner of your mind. It’s up to you to accept they exist, figure that the odds say they aren’t likely to get you, and move on. Yet, every time you’re alone in the house and reach the foot of the stairs, you experience the certainty you’ll look up and see a stranger at the top. Your vision zeros in as your eyes meet. There’s the startling revelation, the rush of terror. Yet again, as you reach the staircase, there’s no one here. No stranger at the top. You’ve made it all up. There’s no one in the bathroom or hall closest. No one in the back room or back room closest. No one hiding beneath the futon or baby’s crib or bed in your bedroom. No one dangling from the ceiling or concealed in the vents or flashing in and out of existence as they teleport here from somewhere else.

There’s one floor left to check, but this one has the best places to hide. It’s where you’d hide if you were trying to avoid detection. You stand in the darkened hall, and face yet another set of steps, the attic steps. As you checked behind the shower curtain, you’d closed the bathroom door; the back room, you’d closed the back room door; the crib, the nursery door; the bed, the bedroom door. You’ve closed each door to ensure no one can sneak around undetected, but the darkness frightens you.

The whole house is on lock from the basement up, from the front door to child gates. You’ve made it so that only a person with intimate knowledge of the layout can move as freely as you. Perhaps even your wife would stumble and sound the alarm, but she’s still at work. You pause and listen, feel the heft of your flashlight in your hand. It’s heavy enough to bludgeon if need be. But that’s only if someone jumps out from the panels. And even if your wife came home, she wouldn’t be hiding there.

The attic is yours. At least, it’s yours until you have a second child. Then, you’ll have to share the space. But until then, it’s yours. One elongated finished room with bookshelves and fireplace, beige carpeting and track lighting. It was one of the major factors in deciding to buy. You first saw it with snow falling outside the window and thought how perfect it would be for writing. When you moved in, you spent most of your time here, watching movies, reading books. But since the baby came you’ve hardly been up here at all. You wouldn’t notice someone living behind the walls.

Living behind the walls—it’s not as crazy as it sounds, since there actually is a space behind the walls. Three painted panels, large enough for access, run along the eastern edge. It’s here they’ve wired the place, whoever it was that wired it before you moved in. They’d run a cable for Internet, installed ventilation and central air. Behind the panels, this is a regular attic, with wooden boards and insulation foam and space for storage. Pop the panels off and place them back, and one could live in here, hidden, emerging when the house quiets down to scavenge.

You place your ear to the wall and hear nothing. You’ll have to remove all three panels to be sure. You turn on the flashlight and pop the first panel at the front of the house, the one where the roof leaks, where the slate panels have fallen away and the water drips down to your bedroom below. You lean in and shine the flashlight, but there’s nothing to see, no movement. You turn to the next panel and pop it off, but the space behind this one is empty too.

One more.

It’s good to see there’s no one here, to nullify your suspicions firsthand. You’ve moved to the back of the room, kneeling before the last one. If no one’s here, there’s no one in your house. The car and the bear were just an illusion, a misfire of memory. The figure rushing inside, nothing but a trick of light. You pause and listen. A step on the stairs next door. You’re sure it’s next door. You pop the panel and close your eyes as the floorboards creak. There’s no one there. No one at all. And you hope it’s true. The panel’s empty. You’re not sure how they’d get out without you seeing. Yet, you can’t escape the certainty, that feeling you get at times when you’re by yourself, that right now, there’s someone standing behind you, someone strange, someone you don’t know. Behind you stands someone who means you harm.

The narrative essay above originally appeared in The Portland Review‘s Winter 2016 issue, 62.1.