“The Rainbow” is the second story in our weird voyages and strange seas week which featured three strange stories set at sea. – The Editors
Mark Feldmeier was too old for family vacations, but no one had invited him anywhere else. Unless he wanted to stay home alone for a week in an empty house in Milwaukee, he had no choice but to accompany his parents and little sister on their kid-friendly Caribbean cruise. Yes, this was a supremely dorky way for a nineteen year old to spend his spring break, but Mark secretly thought he might prefer playing Go Fish with his family to getting wasted in Cancun alongside a horde of other college students. After all, he wasn’t really the partying type.
“Ahoy there, landlubbers,” the speakers sang out as Mark and his family boarded the ship. “Welcome aboard the Fiesta Rainbow, departing from San Juan and making stops in Grenada, Barbados, Dominica, Antigua, and St. Bart’s. We’re proud to tell you that this ship truly lives up to its name: in charge of your experience this week are staff members from over fifty different countries, including Armenia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Canada, Cyprus, Fiji, Singapore, South Africa, Venezuela, and more. We all take great pleasure in ensuring that you have a truly joyful experience aboard the Rainbow, so pleased sit back, relax, and get ready to soak up our special Fiesta brand of love.”
As the three thousand passengers trudged, cattle-like, up the gangway, a wave of enthusiastic applause crashed over them, and Mark cringed. Contrary to his expectations, he was far from the only person his age on the Rainbow. Lining the decks were hundreds of beautiful, well-groomed young people, all smiling identical, dazzling grins.
The Fiesta brand of love was the stuff of a shy person’s nightmares. Everywhere Mark turned, he was met by another devastatingly good-looking staff member who was eager to accost him with cheer. There was Marisol, the cruise safety specialist from Argentina, who tightened his life jacket for him, her coral-painted fingernails brushing his chest; Asha, the Indian blackjack dealer, who passed him his chips with a wink, and white-blonde Hilje, from Estonia, who announced gleefully that she would be his family’s server for the whole week.
As Hilje launched into her dinnertime patter, charming his sister, flattering his mother, and flirting with his dad, Mark hunched his shoulders up to his ears and wished he could fling himself into the ocean. He didn’t understand how his family could bask so unselfconsciously in Hilje’s practiced corporate warmth — it was like they didn’t even notice that she used the same canned lines on the table right next to them, and that her beaming smile never quite reached her eyes.
On the second afternoon of the cruise, Mark sat by one of the Rainbow’s seventeen pools, nursing a miserable crush on Hilje and loathing himself. God, how the staff must hate the passengers, all of them: they were greedy, oblivious monsters, adults and children alike. The chaotic buffet line was a riot of snouts shoved into muck; the pools a seething mass of pink and brown flesh. At night, when the kids went to bed, it only got worse: the adults turned into cackling drunkards, leering at each other in front of their spouses and leaving their vomit in the elevators for the staff to clean up.
Overnight, the Rainbow had slid into port, and this morning it had ejected a bolus of passengers onto a rounded green island that looked smaller than the ship itself. Mark had stayed onboard, hoping for a little bit of peace and quiet, but the number of people on the Rainbow appeared to be constant; the discharge of a thousand tourists onto the island had done nothing to ease the mind-numbing thrum of the crowd.
Mark applied another layer of clotted, coconut-scented sunblock and tried to come up with a joke that might earn a genuine smile from Hilje, but failed. Maybe he could ask her a question about Estonia? The problem was that when it came to Estonia, Mark had lots of questions, but they were basic ones like, where is it? and do they speak English there? that seemed profoundly unlikely to charm.
Mark was trying to remember the name of Estonia’s capital (Riga? Tallinn? Minsk?) when a very small, very tanned child climbed out of the pool, dashed past the “No Running” sign, slipped in some water, and cracked its face against the leg of Mark’s chair.
“Shoot,” Mark said. “Are you okay?” The child goggled at Mark, wild-eyed, its mouth a red puddle of blood. Mark looked around for help, but Sven, the Swedish lifeguard, was too busy wrangling a feral pack of unsupervised preteens to be of any help. Mark stood up, searching for worried adult faces that bore some resemblance to the one bleeding in front of him. He didn’t see any, but he did spot a pale, black-haired girl in giant mirrored sunglasses. She was lying amidst a swarm of larval bodies that looked like they might be the co-spawn of his charge.
“Bruno,” the girl said, as Mark deposited the child at her feet. “What happened? Did this bad man do something to you?”
Bruno ran to her side and buried his face in her shoulder, smearing it with gore. She sighed deeply, reached into her straw handbag, dug out a crumpled tissue, and dabbed at her skin before pressing the tissue to his face.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ve got extra teeth.” She extracted another blonde child from the mass. “Petra, take your brother and go get a Popsicle.” The two children dashed off at top speed, once again ignoring the signs.
“Sorry if he got blood on you,” the girl said to Mark. “Trust me, it could have been worse.” A distorted version of Mark’s head loomed at him in her reflective glasses, and he was briefly distracted by the way his huge nostrils gaped.
“Dude,” the girl snapped, misinterpreting his look. “I said thank you already. What do you want, a blow job? Jesus Christ.”
Mark let out a little horrified snort. At least three kids were still piled at her feet, but even apart from the ethics of saying ‘blow job’ in front of small children, he was pretty sure she hadn’t said thanks. She waved her hand at him dismissively. He turned to leave, and as he did, another tanned blonde child ran at them from a different direction, barreled straight into the pool, sank to the bottom, and didn’t come up.
“Is that one of yours?” Mark asked.
“None of these are mine. Do I look like their mother? Come on.”
Mark peered down into the aquamarine water, where the child still sat at the bottom of the pool, a line of glistening bubbles trailing from its mouth. “Do you want me to get him for you?” he offered.
She frowned. “Yeah, do you mind? That’d be great.”
Mark jumped into the pool and dredged up the child, who scampered happily back into the pile. “Now I really fucking owe you,” the girl said, with a hint of despair. She handed Mark a towel that smelled faintly like cat food, and he wiped his dripping face. “I see you skipped the island excursion,” she said as he dried. “I respect that. It’s fun if you enjoy being hated. Otherwise, thanks but no thanks, you know what I mean?”
“No, not really.” Mark said, as the faint clang of reggae music drifted towards them on the breeze.
“Everybody there hates all of us,” the girl said fiercely. “Why wouldn’t they? We pull up and dump all our sewage and garbage and rotting corpses and condoms into their harbor, and in exchange, we, what, buy a couple of elephant carvings, and my God, do you see any elephants here? Of course they fucking hate us. I hate us. I’ve been on this cruise for eleven straight trips and I hate myself a little more every time.”
“Absolutely,” he agreed. “It’s horrifying. Wait, did you say eleven?”
“I’m a freelance nanny. Cruise ships are my specialty. Especially this one. There’s a whole website for it. German families like to pass me around.” She seemed to interpret his confusion as skepticism, because she added grimly, “I’m really good at my job.”
That brought the conversation to a close. “Well,” he said. “It was nice to meet you all.” He waved goodbye to her, and then, awkwardly, to the jumble of limbs at her feet.
“Stop,” she said in a rush. “I still owe you. How should I pay you back? I know. Let’s meet here after dinner. A lot after dinner. Like, three a.m.”
“Um. I don’t think so?”
“Don’t look so terrified. I’m going to show you something fun. Not cruise ship fun, real fun. I promise.”
“Okay,” he said. She was right — he was terrified — but he was on spring break, and he didn’t have anything better to do.
She was already there when he showed up at 2:50, sprawled in the same beach chair he’d seen her in that morning, and still wearing her sunglasses, as though she were tanning by the light of the moon. When she saw him, she jumped out of her chair and came towards him. “You’re late,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for over an hour.”
“What? No. You — ”
He trailed after her as she descended into the bowels of the ship. They passed by dozens of empty rooms that were usually filled with activities — yoga, Zumba, acrobatics, magic shows, Bingo, shuffleboard, sports trivia, movie trivia, guided meditation, Duck Duck Goose. At this time of night, most of the guests were either asleep or at bars, and none of the usual staff were around. Instead, a second set of workers had emerged, sweeping, scrubbing, and polishing, but they were neither as friendly nor as aggressively good-looking as the daytime staff; they were also, Mark noticed, a slightly darker shade of brown.
The girl led him silently through the ghostly common areas and down through the floors filled with honeycombed passenger suites. The light here was dim and refracted strangely off the hideous magenta carpets. “Wait a second,” he said, stopping. “What’s happening here? Where are we going? What’s your name?”
“We’re having fun, not much farther, and Agnes,” she said. She handed him a water bottle. “Here. Have a drink.”
He did. It was vodka. He almost spat it out, but then he changed his mind and swallowed. What the hell, he reminded himself: spring break.
They kept walking for what felt like hours, taking dozens of unpredictable turns. He’d known the ship was big but he hadn’t understood just how enormous it was; soon, he was sure they must have covered at least a mile. Agnes kept passing him the vodka and he kept drinking it; once, when she passed it back, she also took hold of his hand. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that. Her hand, which dwarfed his, was knobby and a little bit clammy, but it also felt good to be led.
At last, she stopped in front of a door, identical to the thousand others they’d passed. “Here we are,” she said, and knocked. The door swung open, and on the other side was a curvy, olive-skinned girl with dimples. It was Marisol, the cruise safety specialist.
“Sven invited us,” Agnes said, and barged in.
Mark tried to say hello to Marisol, but she’d already disappeared into the crowd. The room was packed with at least fifty people, and many of them looked vaguely familiar, though it wasn’t easy to tell. The lights were off, the music was pounding so loudly he could feel it as a buzz in his teeth, and the close air stank of cigarettes, spilled liquor, and weed. Underneath it all, though, Mark was pretty sure this was a Premiere Stateroom, a suite identical to the one in which his family was staying. The centerpiece of the main room was a king-sized bed, and as Mark squinted at it through the gloom, he realized that what he’d thought was pile of coats was actually several bodies lying on top of one another. Someone re-opened the door, and in the light that came inside, Mark saw a flash of bare hip, white breast, and blonde hair.
“What can I get you?” Agnes shouted over the music. “A Slippery Nipple? A Fuzzy Navel? A Sex on the Beach?”
“No, thank you,” he said, but Agnes shoved a solo cup into his hands, and he drank its contents to try and calm himself down. This was a staff party, definitely, where the people who worked on the boat went to get away from the people like him. If someone recognized him as a guest instead of a staff member, would they be pissed off? He scanned the room for Hilje, then looked down and saw that he had a condom wrapper stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
Agnes dragged him over to a corner by a closet, then sat on the floor, pulling him down. The carpet was sticky and linty beneath him; he was pretty sure he was sitting in someone’s spilled beer. “Thanks for inviting me?” he said uncertainly.
Agnes took off her sunglasses, climbed on top of him, and stuck her tongue in his mouth. She tasted like shrimp and vodka, and her tongue, like her hands, was disproportionately large. Oddly, though, he didn’t really mind it. After a minute, he opened his eyes to see if anyone was watching them. No one was, so he slid his hands up her shirt and under her bra. He thought about Hilje, and then about Marisol, and then Agnes undid his jeans, tucked her underwear to the side, and slid onto him, and he didn’t think about anyone else. After a while, she made a little whimpering noise, brought his hand to her mouth, and bit down on his knuckle, and that was the end of it for him. He thought he’d lasted long enough, but he couldn’t be sure. It was only his second time.
She rolled off of him and readjusted her clothes, and only when it took him four tries to button his pants did he realize he was drunk. He tried to think of something to say to Agnes, but couldn’t come up with anything, so he kissed her cheek. Her skin felt chilly, and a little waxy, as though bits of it might have flaked off on him. Agnes, he thought, and practiced mouthing the syllables of her name.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” someone said.
There was a rush of confused movement all around them, and then the music shut off abruptly, and the lights came back on. Mark blinked. He’d never seen Agnes in the light before, without her sunglasses, and her face looked rabbity and strange. It took him a second to realize why: she didn’t have any eyelashes. Her eyelids were pink and sore-looking, so she’d probably been plucking them out.
“We should get out of here,” she said, and stood up. “Are you coming?”
“Yes, I’m coming,” he said, but then a crowd of people swirled past her and she was swallowed up in them and disappeared. He tried to follow her, but he tripped on a crumpled beer can and fell over, and when he managed to get up again, the room was empty, except for three men sitting on the bed. “Hey you,” one of them said in a thick European accent. “Help.”
“What? Me, no.” Mark said. The room was rolling even more than it usually did on the cruise ship, and he understood, blurrily, that he was much drunker than he’d originally thought.
“Yes, you, asshole. Unless you want us all to get busted. Come here.”
That seemed compelling. Mark walked over to the bed and he saw that actually only two men were sitting on it. A third man was lying down, but his face was a dark gray, mottled purple at the edges, and there was a ring of dried puke around his mouth. After a moment of thought, it became obvious to Mark that this was no longer a man, but a corpse.
“Get his feet,” one of the living men said.
Mark didn’t move.
The two men stared at him expectantly.
“I don’t want to do that,” Mark said.
The men looked at each other. “Goddamnit, you moron. Karl could be here any minute! Get your ass over here, now.”
Mark thought about running, but then he remembered tripping over the beer can. He was very drunk and scared, and the man yelling at him was very angry.
“I’m not fucking kidding, here!” the man shouted. “This is on all of us. Move!”
Mark walked carefully over to the body lying on the bed. His hands were shaking, but he slid them under the corpse’s sneakers and lifted. He felt dizzy, and as though he might throw up; the sour stench of puke in the room was very strong. They got the body off the bed and clumsily maneuvered it out the door. Mark half-expected to see a policeman outside, and he was ready to drop the body and run away, shouting, they made me do it! but the hallway was silent, empty, and bright.
“Stairs or elevator?” said one of the men behind Mark.
“Elevator,” the other man said.
On the way up, Mark noticed that the corpse’s gray leg was covered in a layer of crisp, black hair. He was also wearing green socks printed with little yellow ducks. I’m probably dreaming, Mark told himself, but he wasn’t even slightly convinced.
When the elevator doors opened, the three of them got out, ran to the railing, and heaved the body over the edge. It tumbled down, down, down, and disappeared in a small frothing burst of white foam. They gazed at the black, featureless ocean in silence, and then the cruise ship’s horn sounded, a nasal, braying honk that landed like the punchline to a joke.
“Thank you,” one of the men said to Mark. Mark expected him to follow this with, and don’t tell anyone about this or we’ll murder you, but instead, the man clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s not easy, but our position is tenuous. You know how important this is for all of us, right?”
Mark nodded. “Right. Yes. I do.”
“Good man,” the other one said. “Okay, that’s it, then. I’m sorry this had to happen. Take care of yourself. We’ll see you around.”
They got into the elevator and Mark waited for them to descend several floors before he screamed and ran away as fast as he could.
Mark ran past the locked ice cream cart, the closed pool, the stacked deck chairs, the shelves piled high with fluffy towels, the locked ice cream cart, and the closed pool before he slammed into the stack of deck chairs and realized he’d run in a circle. The tower of chairs teetered and fell down with a crash, taking Mark with them. He landed face-first, his palms splayed against the pebbled deck, stinging, and then he rolled over and stared at the white expanse of the ship’s tower, monstrously large against the starlit sky.
What the fuck just happened, he thought. He saw the corpse disappearing into the waves again, and remembered that it had bounced once before it sank, like a poorly tossed skipping stone. He needed to call the authorities, the navy, the international police. No, first he needed to tell the captain of the ship, because they needed to turn the boat around, pull the man out of the water, and make sure he wasn’t still alive. Oh God, what if he’d still been alive? Mark pictured the man’s matte gray face, his glassed-over eyes, the vomit crusted on his lips. No, definitely not alive — but remembering that face made Mark need to throw up too, so he did. He wiped his mouth on the front of his shirt, tentatively stood up, and wobbled down the stairs below decks. He wandered, lost, through a maze of locked doors for what felt like hours. “Hello?” he called. “Is anyone around? I need some assistance, please? Help?” He was about to give up and go find his parents when he turned a corner and bumped into a bald man wearing a spotless uniform lined with epaulets.
“Oh, thank God,” Mark cried.
“What’s wrong, son?” the man said. Mark opened his mouth to speak, and then his vision started foaming, and he collapsed against the man’s starched white chest.
Shortly thereafter, Mark lay on a scratchy couch in a cramped office. The walls were papered with photographs of people on cruises, whose teeth all looked bluish under the bright florescent lights. The bald man sat across from Mark in a large, wheeled leather chair. A plaque on his desk read: Karl V. Karpovich, Cruise Director.
“Tell me everything,” Karl said, and Mark did.
When Mark was finished, Karl leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers together. “That’s quite a story,” he said.
“It’s all true,” Mark insisted. “I’m not making it up.”
“I don’t doubt you. Not for a second.”
“Really?” Mark asked. He was having a hard time believing himself.
“Not at all. You know, this is far more common than you might think. Not this kind of incident, necessarily. But people disappearing off cruise ships? Oh, absolutely. Suicides, accidents, murders, cover-ups of mistakes. People practically pour off of the edge of these boats. Not that this is something we advertise, you understand, but yes, we’re prepared. We’ve got a whole protocol in place. Multiple protocols. Lots.”
“That’s… reassuring. I guess.”
Karl came around the desk, knelt down, and sandwiched Mark’s hands between his. “Son, you are in capable hands. What I want from you — what I beg of you! — is to trust me. Under my supervision, this will all be put right. I have some leeway to remedy this situation; much more than I would if we were stateside, which — fortunately for you and for me — we are not.”
Mark looked down at the cruise director’s capable hands. On the tip of Karl’s middle finger sat a fat pink wart. “So…I’m not in trouble?”
Karl chuckled and smacked Mark between the shoulder blades, inadvertently slapping loose a small burp. “You mean, for the drinking? Son, we’re in international waters. I won’t tell your parents if you won’t. How about that?”
Mark hadn’t meant the drinking at all. He said weakly, “But I’ll need to testify, right?”
Karl pursed his lips, and his small black eyes flickered. “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, shall we? I think, for the moment, the most important thing is for you to get some rest. In the meantime, I promise you I will take care of this.”
Mark nodded gratefully and stood up. His drunkenness had mostly subsided, ceding its space in his skull to the most punishing headache of his life. “Thank you,” he said.
Karl nodded. “My pleasure. Oh,” he added off-handedly, glancing up as Mark opened the door. “Just one more question. You mentioned you were at a staff party, where there was drinking and drugs. May I ask you — at that party, did you see anyone you specifically recognized? Anyone you knew by name?”
Mark hesitated, thinking of Marisol. “Everyone kind of blurred together,” he said.
Mark slept through breakfast, but he groggily joined his family by the pool and had a corndog and a pineapple slushy for lunch. He let the sun bake the remnants of alcohol poisoning out of him as his brain circled in a wobbly dual orbit around the sex he’d had with Agnes and the dead body bouncing on the waves. At some point, surely, he’d have to tell his parents what had happened at the party — except that he had the distinct impression that somewhere in their conversation, Karl had hinted he would not. Ethically, that made Mark feel a bit queasy, but it wasn’t as though he wanted to confess.
Mark’s little sister, Maddie, returned triumphantly from getting her long red hair braided and strung with dozens of jangling beads. She’d learned a new card game from the other kids on the boat, and he played Spit with her for hours, all the while keeping an eye out for Agnes, who never showed up. Mark realized, unhappily, that Agnes had sixteen other pools to choose from; if she decided to avoid him, he might never see her again.
Throughout the afternoon, even as Mark’s hangover faded, a different, vaguer discomfort began to mount. Something is wrong, he thought, as he bought Maddie a frozen Mars Bar from the ice cream stand. He thought it again as he joined his mother for a session of hatha yoga, and once more as he accompanied his dad for a round of gambling in the afternoon — and it was a wrongness distinct from the awful events of last night. Though he couldn’t quite put his finger on the source, it permeated the ship like a stench; he had the nagging feeling that if he weren’t so tired, he could have figured it out. As it was, he merely spent the day rattled by the certainty that something was off.
At dinner, Maddie was telling him the meaning of each of her thirty-two friendship bracelets when a pretty blonde woman approached. “Hello, Feldmeiers!” she said. “Did you have a fun day today?”
“I beat Mark eight times at Spit,” Maddie announced. “He is very, very bad at that game.”
“Or maybe you are very, very good,” the blonde lady said. “That’s what all the other kids on the boat are saying — that Maddie, she’s a real card shark, watch out.”
Maddie grinned proudly. “So what can I get you to drink?” the woman asked them. She went around the table, listing their usual orders: “Shirley Temple, white zin, Coors Light, a Coke?”
Mark waited until she had left before turning to his family. “Who the heck was that?” he demanded.
Mark’s mother cocked her head. “That was our waitress. Are you feeling all right?”
“That wasn’t our waitress! Our waitress is Hilje from Estonia. That woman’s nametag said Antje from Latvia and I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
Mark’s mother frowned. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s always been Antje,” she said, placing her hand on his forehead. “How much time have you spent in the sun?”
Mark stalked the ship from top to bottom, accumulating evidence everywhere he went. A sparkling-eyed blackjack dealer named Shala from Bangladesh. A lifeguard named Ulrik from Norway. A freckled Irish girl named Siobhan, who smiled at him from the same ice cream stand where a Welsh girl named Bronwen had smiled the day before. Finally, Mark strode up to a staff member who was polishing the railings near the lifeboats. “Excuse me,” he said. “I have a question about safety.”
“Sure! How can I help?”
“I’d prefer to speak to the cruise safety specialist,” Mark said.
“Of course! Soledad is at dinner right now, but I can have her come find you as soon as she’s free.”
“I don’t want Soledad,” Mark said, his voice cracking. “I want Marisol. Even if she’s off-duty, can you find her for me? Pretty girl; short, curvy, dimples. Marisol.”
“Right. You mean Soledad,” the staff member said.
Mark’s family had eaten dinner at 5 pm, on the early bird shift, and he began a panicked hunt for Agnes, praying that she and her charges had decided to stay late at the pool. Against all odds, he found them at pool number seven. “Agnes!” he said. “I need to talk to you. Please.”
Agnes did not appear pleased to see him; behind her sunglasses, he was sure she was rolling her eyelashless eyes. But she finished slathering the child on her lap with sunblock and dropped it onto the ground, then joined him at the railing, where they gazed out at faded blue sky that was just beginning to blush.
When he told her about dumping the corpse, Agnes’s pasty face didn’t flinch — yet when he got to the conversation with Karl, she punched him, hard, in the bicep, her pointy knuckles digging into his flesh. “Are you joking?” she hissed. “You told Karl on everyone? What were you thinking? Jesus Christ!”
This was not the part of his story he’d imagined would upset her. “A guy died. And they threw him overboard. What else was I going to do?”
“Literally anything,” she said flatly. “It was none of your business, you rat.”
“Well,” he said. “Okay. But there’s more.” Knowing how ridiculous he sounded, he told her about how Hilje and Asha and Sven and Siobhan and Marisol had apparently been replaced by Antje and Shala and Ulrik and Bronwen and Soledad overnight. He expected her to tell him he was being an idiot, or at least punch him again, but instead, when he was finished, she responded with a fatalistic shrug.
“Yeah,” she said. “That makes sense. The Rainbow is famous for churning through staff members. I’m not surprised they keep a spare set below decks.”
“I’m sorry, but what did you say?”
“Karl’s a dick,” she said. “You shouldn’t have tattled. Now look what’s happened. You goddamned tool of the system. Fuck you.”
Mark was unable to fully comprehend what Agnes had just told him, so as he ran down to Karl’s office, he tried to pummel it into a shape that would fit in his brain. He thought she’d suggested that when Karl had found out what the cruise ship staff had done at the party, he’d gotten rid of them all and replaced them with an entirely new set of employees, sweeping the ship clean and starting again — but that was impossible; so surely, what she’d meant was, that Mark had inadvertently gotten a whole lot of innocent staff members in trouble, and now he was obligated to go make that right.
Karl’s office was, once again, locked, but Mark pummeled on it with his fist and shouted: “Hey, hey Mr. Karpovich! It’s me, Mark, from yesterday!” and Karl opened the door. Mark hadn’t noticed before the way the curve of his skull vanished into his meaty neck, or how one of his bushy, v‑shaped black eyebrows was bisected by a ropy, caterpillar-thick scar.
“How can I help you, young man?” Karl asked.
“I — ” even in its pummeled down form, the accusation was too huge to articulate. “Where’s Hilje?” he shouted instead.
“Our waitress! Hilje! Where is she? Is it her day off? What about Marisol? Is it her day off, too? Did they get in trouble because of what I told you? What happened to them?”
Karl smiled politely, revealing too many spit-slicked white teeth. “As you may be aware, there are nearly a thousand staff members aboard the Rainbow, so I can’t tell you where your waitress is right at this precise moment. But if you’re have a complaint about your table service, I suggest you speak to your head waiter; I have no doubt he’ll be able to smooth everything out.”
Karl tried to close the door, but Mark jammed his foot in it. “Why are you pretending you don’t recognize me?”
“I’m pretending nothing of the sort,” Karl said. “You’re the young man who was involved in the unfortunate incident yesterday evening. However, as I promised, I’ve taken care of that situation, so I see no reason to continue this discussion. Good night.”
The door closed and locked, loudly; from the inside, Mark could hear the scrape of an opening drawer. Oh Jesus, he thought. His palms were slick and his head was swimming; he wanted nothing more than to lie down, cover his face with a pillow, and not wake up again until the ship had reached land. People practically pour off the edge of these boats, Karl had said, and though the scale of what Agnes had suggested was impossible, for a brief, terrible second, Mark imagined the Rainbow churning through thousands and thousands of bodies, leaving an oily, stinking stream of chopped flesh in its wake. No. That was nonsense. If nothing else, it was premised on an endless pool of replenishable labor, somehow bubbling up from the bowels of the ship. All those bright-eyed, friendly young staff members — Marisol, Hilje, Asha — they were individual people with names and personalities, not a collection of interchangeable, disposable parts.
Again, he strained to beat his fears into submission: employees were missing and they might be in danger; Karl was a bad man who was abusing his power. Poor Marisol! He needed to help her. Yes, that was a wrong on a scale he could handle; he thought he might even know what to do.
“Hi everybody,” Mark said as he entered the cabin. His parents and sister looked up from their endless game of Go Fish. “Maddie, could you go play at the pool for a little while?” Mark said. “I have to say something only grownups should hear.”
Maddie gave him a dirty look but ran off. As the door closed behind her, Mark’s parents sat up straight. “I’m going to confess something,” Mark says. “You’re not going to like it. But I need your help, because I think something terrible is taking place on this boat.”
His parents listened as he spoke, their faces reflecting disappointment, anxiety, fear. He tried to use phrases they’d believe, instead of the nightmarish ones that kept presenting themselves to him as possibilities; he said accident, cover-up, employee mistreatment instead of horror, evil, and death. “A girl I met who’s been on this ship lot of times said that the cruise director has a history of treating the employees really badly,” he said, though this was such a diluted version of what Agnes had told him that he had trouble saying it with a straight face.
But his strategy worked. “We’re proud of you for coming to us with this,” Mark’s dad said when he was done. “What you’ve said is very disturbing.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Well, first, I’m going to call my lawyer. I’m going to have him contact the cruise line and go right over this Karpovich character’s head. Apart from the appalling working conditions you’ve described, he had no right to keep this a secret. We’re your parents, and we paid for your ticket; if you were involved in something like this, he ought to have come to us first.”
Mark didn’t think this was exactly the crux of the problem, but his parents looked so wonderfully solid — his mother, in her pearl earrings and teal sweater set, his father, with his swept-back, distinguished white hair — that he felt reassured all the same. He imagined them cutting through Karl V. Karpovich with the confidence of a reinforced hull carving through ice. Mark’s dad was the vice president of his company; he had the kind of authority that made people listen. His mother, meanwhile, was tireless; whenever someone wronged her, she clung doggedly to the problem and never gave up. One way or another, Mark believed, the two of them would uncover the rottenness at the heart of the Rainbow and drag it into the light.
Mark hugged his parents as they left, and then curled up on the bed. Through the porthole, he could see the sun melting into the ocean. As the sunset spilled over the water, the vast curving arc of the Rainbow’s wake frothed red.
When Mark woke up again, it was midnight and the cabin was empty. His parents and sister hadn’t returned. He sat up, terrified, and ran out into the hall.
“Maddie!” he cried. “Mom! Dad! Where are you?”
A pair of drunken revelers in blue sequined dresses parroted him as they tottered by, squawking “Mom! Dad! Where are you?” but Mark pushed past them and into the elevator. He rode to the pool where Maddie liked to go, but it was far too late to swim. The elevator doors opened onto an abandoned deck, but Mark rushed through it nonetheless, crying Maddie’s name. His voice was swallowed up by the implacable roll of the ship’s thunderous engines. “Maddie!” he screamed — but then the engines stopped, and the night was infinitely quiet again.
In the silence, Mark heard a child’s faint, piping voice calling out: duck, duck, duck, duck, duck, duck…
He trailed the sound to a brightly decorated room, full of yellow light. A group of children were sitting in a circle, supervised by a fresh-faced young woman who waved at him with a smile.
“I’m looking for my — ”
“Goose!” the child screamed, and a little girl jumped up from the circle and ran straight into Mark. Her long red hair was threaded with dozens of beads, and her wrists were ringed with friendship bracelets, yet her freckled face was both familiar and strange. He pushed her away, and ran back to his cabin, where he saw his parents sliding their key into the door — only it wasn’t his parents; it was another woman in pearls and a teal sweater seat; another man with swept-back, distinguished white hair.
Mark stumbled away from his room and down a maze of corridors, turning left then right then again, until he’d lost all sense of direction; he wandered for hours, maddened, disoriented, terrified, until at last he opened a door, ran down a flight of stairs, and emerged into a different identical corridor, where a pale, black-haired girl in sunglasses was herding a host of blonde children into a room.
“Oh,” said Agnes. “It’s you.”
He fell on her, babbling and grateful, desperate to explain.
“Dude,” she said. “Breathe.”
He tried — but then, reflected in her giant sunglasses, a familiar face loomed behind his.
“We’ve had reports of a guest causing a disturbance,” Karl V. Karpovich said. “Won’t you come to the infirmary and lie down?”
Karl was flanked on either side by two security guards: Angelo from Italy and Declan from Scotland. They were broad-shouldered and muscular and they towered over Karl, which gave Mark some small sliver of hope.
“You have to tell them!” Mark begged Agnes. “Tell them what’s happening! We have to stop it! Help me, please!”
Karl turned to Agnes. “Do you know this young man?” he asked her.
Agnes peered at him over her sunglasses, and her bald pink eyelids twitched. “I don’t know…” she sighed. “I think his name is Michael, maybe? Or Marty? Or Matthew? I wish I could be more helpful. Marshall? Marcel? Maurice? I’m sorry… I guess he seems sort of familiar —Maxwell? Miles? Malcolm? Mason? — I think I’ve seen him before, but you know, he looks like every other college kid on spring break.”