“Shallow Monsters” by Joseph Devon

Short Stories about sharks

My father owned his own boat when the first girl was found. I was nine then, so I didn’t go out on the thing except to putter over to the gas station by the oyster bar and wave to him as he left for blues some Saturdays.

I can only remember one of the crew member’s names: George Colidonio. He was a lifer. Christ as far as I was concerned he was older than the damned boat. He looked like the Gordon Fisherman, even wore yellow slickers during rainy weather. He had an odd way of smiling and interacting with me, something I picked up on even back then. As I grew older I came to understand this was related to the fact that he was drunk all the time. Because of him, in some weird part of nine-year-old-me’s memory, I believed that opening a can of beer was a normal breakfast for some people.

George was the first one who told me about the sharks. They’d sometimes get a few when the water was still enough and the fish guts were thick enough. Like I said, I never went out on the boat except around the marina, so I never saw them. I only knew about them through George.

The sharks were tales to me. Monsters. Things to be glorified and talked up and savored for a chill when you were back on land. I used to picture them when I was lying in my bed at night. Everything would be distorted for the purpose of terror, having been magnified through George’s eyes. Their teeth were savage gleaming razors, their eyes somehow cold and lifeless, yet also searching me out. They were silent predators able to strike before you knew they were there, and also gluttonous beasts that thrashed and roared and broke the water. They were monsters to be called up in my brain, making me feel scared and unsafe even while lying in my own bed at night, to the point where I would religiously refuse to dangle my arms or legs over the side.

That’s what it was like when the first girl disappeared, Abagail Peters. My memories of it are strange as well, distorted through that weird lens of what things seem like as a kid. When you’re nine, what the adults say isn’t the truth, obviously. And even when you do listen to the adults, you don’t understand half of what they say so you fill in the rest, making up definitions for words to fit whatever your imagination needs. Anything left unanswered gets filled in by what the loud kid says after the assembly, what the rumors say during recess. That’s truth to a nine-year old.

So for a long time I believed that Abagail Peters hadn’t been killed. No. She’d run away. Or she was into drugs, with “drugs” being some strange amalgam of movie clips and bizarre ideas about how they’d cause you to disappear. Or she was taken by the monster under the dock, most likely a monster with jaws like a shark. Or her parents had locked her in the basement to keep her away from the horrible teachers at school. Even after she had been found these ideas persisted.

None of that was true, of course. She had been kidnapped, raped, and killed.

Abagail Peters. Her body had been found in Cow Meadow Park. Not out in the muck, in the park proper by the swings and monkey bars. She was nine years old, dressed in a nightgown that, it was theorized, had come from the Walgreens over on Henry. She had been abused sexually and had marks on her wrist from where she had been chained up. She was found about two weeks after she had gone missing. I didn’t know her family; they weren’t fishermen and they lived somewhere north of the highway.

But you don’t have to know a mom to guess what that must have been like, to hear that bit of information about the chain, to start putting the pieces together and know that your daughter had been imprisoned and raped for weeks. An actual ball of nausea forms in my throat thinking about that.

Books about the murders written by people smarter than me said the way she had been dressed, in a clean, fresh nightgown, was a sign of remorse by the murderer, that he hadn’t wanted her to be cold lying out there in the wind coming in through the canals. Fucking bullshit. You have to have a very broad definition of the word “remorse” to call anything done to that girl remorse.

I can say that now. Back then? Back then the killer was just another monster. Just another thing out in the dark with sharp teeth and dead eyes that might get me if I let my feet dangle off the bed.

Hazel Conners was the next girl. Sheltered away in a small rock crevice south of the marina and dressed in a cheap patterned dress from an unidentified location. This was five years after Abagail. This was when things became strange. One girl? One girl was probably a passing vagrant. Or someone from the city. Or any other variant of words that people used to convince themselves that “none of us did this.”

But two girls?

I was working summers on the boat by that point. Not our boat, not anymore. Fewer and fewer families started owning more and more of the boats by that point. My dad had to sell by then and work piloting for someone else. All of that to take fewer and fewer blues out due to the increased limits. He took it silently and unrattled, like he took everything else. I don’t know how else to describe him. Demure doesn’t quite fit. He was always just sort of there. Hair getting grayer, eyes getting weathered, piloting a fishing boat day after day, nothing seeming to effect him.

The sharks would come along just like George had told me. The grey beasts would surface when it was still enough for guts and blood to sit on the water, along with diesel fuel and a few empty beer cans. The beer cans were George’s of course. Still with us. The other deck hand was Zach…I forget Zach’s last name.

But sure enough with a big enough slick of blood trailing behind the boat the sharks would come. Zach What’s-His-Name loved them. He was a giant kid, red hair and goofy as hell. He’d howl with laughter and stare at the fish swarming around the boat and talk about how his friends had come to say “Hi.” He loved their teeth and how they looked like death. That’s what he’d cackle in that out-sized voice of his that somehow always sounded mocking. His friends were saying “hi” and he’d dangle a carcass over or throw some guts at them until George told him to stop fucking around and get back to work.

Hazel Conners, nine years old, had been left in a crevice in the rocks. The books written later said that this was to protect her. The killer didn’t want her exposed to the rain or wind. The marks on her wrist from being chained up were there, the rest too, but her killer and rapist didn’t want to expose her to the rain. Some fucking remorse.

Zach liked to pretend that the sharks were his friend. That they accepted him. That he and the monsters were cool. That’s a neat trick. Personify them, make them into something you can understand and that, in turn, understands you. Throw them some bait fish and watch them eat it and tell yourself they’re your friends, your pets, your playthings, and then they aren’t dangerous. You can delude yourself into believing that monsters won’t turn on you, not on you, never on you.

The year the second girl, Hazel Conners, was found was the year my baby sister was born.

The third girl was found in some trees over at Levy Preserve. This was after it had been converted from landfill, so that would be maybe four years after Hazel Conners. The third girl had caused a huge stir. That preserve was supposed to be the sign of everything good coming into town. Turning landfill into a cute park with actual god-damned goats to eat the grass and a pier that extends out over a fishing hole with a great view of the golf course. Egrets and natural fauna and the raped body of Jennifer Whritenour, nine years old.

Jennifer was the first girl I had known personally. Her older sister, Mary-Kate was in grade school with me at Archer Elementary. I sort of lost track of her after we bounced through Dodd and then Freeport High. But I knew her face. I knew her smile. They were a local family up on Whaley Street. They were a part of our family’s fabric. I knew them through stories at the dinner table when my mom would run into their mom at the grocery store. I think there was some Thanksgiving costume they worked on together one year for some school play or something. Maybe they made a costume for Jennifer. That was my mom, always scrambling and hurrying about trying to help all the other families out. I could see her offering to help sew some turkey costume for a school play.

So the Whritenour’s were close. They were close enough that I could see the crater left in their lives after Jennifer was found in that lot. I could see it like pieces of them had actually been blown off. Mary-Kate wasn’t all there anymore. She was hollow, missing. The stories about them changed from bumping into each other to chat in a parking lot. The stories about them weren’t told at the dinner table. But I’d hear them. About how my mom had seen their mom stumbling shit-faced out of The Back Drop Inn at ten in the morning. About how Mr. Whritenour left, just disappeared one day when he went out for a quick errand. About how Mary-Kate was a slut. It was like a statue of a family had been exploded and the whole town had watched it explode and spiral out over the next five years.

After that there was another family of freaks to watch. Five years later when my sister was nine. No more sharks after that. Not in real life anymore, since I moved to the absolute center of the country after that. There aren’t a lot of oceans in Indiana.

I think about those monsters in the ocean and I worry. They don’t know that they’re terrifying. They don’t swim around and make faces in the mirror and try to be menacing. They are what they are because that’s what they are. To them it’s perfectly natural to take chunks of flesh out of large animals with their serrated teeth.

But there’s no safety in that. People need to label monsters, to call them evil, to act like they understand them, to distance themselves from them. That could never be me, they say. That could never be a part of my life. They’ll never get me if I keep my feet up on the bed.

The whole thing, I look back on it, eighteen or nineteen years of a life that was just a big dumb show. The boat and George and my mom fixing everything, and I have no place I can stand amidst those memories and feel like it was real. Feel like it was anything but treading water over a massive sea of sharks.

It was a golden orange evening the night the police came. They came in silently, no sirens blaring or tires screeching. They just quietly appeared all around the house, two cars pulling up from either end of the street, a few policemen walking in through our neighbors’ yards. They even knocked at the door. They were just as calm as you please the morning they came to arrest my father, the worst serial killer Long Island had seen in forty years.

The stupid fuck hadn’t been able to resist his own nine-year-old daughter.

My mom had noticed, or maybe she had finally taken her blinders off to what she was living with, I still haven’t made up my mind about how much she knew, and talking to her now is like talking to a Bible salesman with the number of things she insists are god’s will.

I don’t call her much.

But she did manage to have one moment of sanity where enough was enough and when my little sister showed signs of abuse she took her right to the hospital, which alerted the cops, who started asking questions and noticing patterns, who then waited until my father and I had berthed the boat after fishing for scup and driven home before they came to arrest him. Or I guess at that point they only wanted him for questioning. Wanted him very badly for questioning, enough to make sure the house was surrounded when they came. It didn’t take a lot of questions. He was officially arrested within the hour.

What do you do with monsters? You hide from them, you lock them away, you insist that there was some sort of method behind it all. Nineteen years of my life, it turns out, was complete bullshit, a play, stage dressing and makeup to help mask a monster.

Everyone else would have known, of course. The entire town was full of experts on detecting serial killers. Naturally, had anyone but stupid-shit me been his son, they’d have sniffed him out instantly. People need to tell themselves that. Monsters aren’t allowed to be smart. They aren’t allowed to be manipulative. They certainly aren’t allowed to hide in plain sight.

Some time past. Then there were some screaming matches. Then it was a fresh start in Indiana and then five years of numb shock and then more years of getting myself together and maybe I’m starting to turn a corner.


Mostly I’m just scared. I worry about what it was inside of him that made him do it. I worry if any of that is inside of me. I worry that the perfectly normal looking person next to me on the bus everyday is actually a serrated-toothed, dead-eyed monster.

I’m away from the sharks now. They aren’t in front of me every few weeks to examine and ponder and study and fear. I lay in bed at night and I feel myself growing more and more distant from them with each passing day. But that doesn’t mean they’re gone. They still swim in my head. I still hear George telling tales about them, or Zack saying “hi” to them.

They still lurk deep under the surface, waiting and watching. I like to think that some day I’ll make peace with my past.

But late at night? Sometimes I’ll notice that my foot is dangling off the edge of the bed, and I don’t dare to leave it there exposed.



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IMG_4358Joseph Devon: Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

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  1. I really loved the voice here. There was something that felt real and raw and genuine about the way the narrator unfolded the story. I think maybe SOME of that was lost as the story became more introspective, but overall the tone was incredibly solid. The use of details was impressive too. I don’t know if all the places named are real, but the fact that so much detail went into the world-building was really impressive.

    For me the weakest part of this was the reveal. It’s still good storytelling, but I think I enjoyed getting lulled into the narrative of this small seaside town, and the things that happened as it changed that I didn’t really want a pat resolution to the murder mystery. That’s less of a criticism and more of an extremely objective opinion though. Joseph Devon continues to be one of my favourite writers in the Arena, and this story is no exception.

  2. This story puts me in a dilemma.

    I really, *really* like a lot of what’s going on here. While I’m on record as not being a fan of the first person POV, it’s used to good effect here. It fits the introspection and soul-searching at the heart of the story. Most of the psychology of the piece rings completely true for me, and it’s to Joe’s credit as a writer that he pulls it off so very well.

    Yet I’m not sure that the imagery of the story coheres as well as I would like it to. This seems to me to be especially the case with the prompt. I feel like a lot more could be done with the comparison between sharks in the sea and the monsters the narrator encounters on land. I found myself wanting that stronger comparison.

    Could the same story be told if the prompt weren’t sharks? I think it could, which weakens the story slightly. For a story this introspective to really work for me, every feature has to work together for the total effect. I think this story is 80, maybe 85 percent there, but I want it to be even more than what it is…

    (Glad I’m not a judge this week! LOL)

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