It’s a Friday when the beach house slips into the sea, unmoored by torrential rains and floating on who-knows-what—air pockets in the creosote-soaked timbers is her boyfriend’s theories; he’s always full of theories. “If it hasn’t sunk by now, it will float indefinitely,” Geoff says. “Plenty of time for the Coast Guard to find us.” Sharon says nothing. She has to be at work Monday, Geoff’s daughters back at their mom’s, and she knows Geoff won’t listen, or else he’ll remind her that it was her idea for the trip in the first place. He’ll say he doesn’t like the beach, the way sand gets everywhere, the inevitable sunburn. He’ll say none of this would’ve happened if she hadn’t insisted they try to make things work.
That first day adrift, she searches for a cell signal while Geoff recounts tales of ancient Polynesians. “They discovered new lands by following the flight paths of birds, in nothing but outriggers, and we have an entire house, with a roof. With air conditioning!” Sharon wants to scream that they have no power, can’t even brew a cup of coffee, but Geoff has his nose in another book, this one on the physics of flight. When he asks her to put aloe gel on his burnt back and shoulders, she goes to the front porch. There his daughters sit on a rickety swing, ignoring the lashing rain. On the lookout for houses, they say, though Magritte insists on frightening Grace by spotting sharks every five minutes. All Sharon sees is the endless, swirling waters and no horizon.
The storm still rages the next day. There’s no more rum and little food. Some stale Lucky Charms. Instant coffee. Leftover packets of ketchup that Magritte and Grace take turns sucking on. They find a broom handle but no string for fishing line. “It’ll be fine,” Geoff tells Sharon. “An adventure. Just think, now you can really get to know the girls. We can play games. Charades!” Not even Grace wants to play charades.
Day three dawns with a promise of sun. A light drizzle spatters the windows, and Geoff’s sunburn has faded from a waxy crimson to the color of parchment. He lies face down on the sisal rug, Magritte and Grace hovering over him, picking at the mottled patches of skin that slough from his back. When Sharon steps down into the kitchen to rub instant coffee on her gums, her feet splash in water.
“We’re sinking,” she calls out but gets no response. Back in the living room, Grace concentrates over a long stretch of Geoff’s skin tweezed between her fingernails. She pulls slowly until she holds a translucent ribbon almost as long as her forearm.
“That’s disgusting,” Sharon says.
Magritte tugs at another strip of skin, then flicks it into the growing pile. The place is a mess. A salty tang clings to the wicker furnishings. Damp towels are heaped in the corners. There’s no way they’ll get their deposit back.
Sharon sloshes around the kitchen, roots among the cupboards, then sloshes out. “Use this,” she instructs, and sets a large mixing bowl down for the girls to fill.
She kneels between Magritte and Grace. Their father’s back has a raw, new look to it, glowing almost. He appears to sleep. She runs her thumbnail sharply along his spine, gouging a crease from the nape of his neck to his swim trunks. When he doesn’t react, she asks, “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“It feels good,” he murmurs.
She digs deeper. Crisscrosses his back into graticules, fences in the archipelagos of moles and freckles with latitudes and meridians. The skin flakes at the seams, and the girls help her peel away fresh layers. Geoff sighs with contentment as the last of his epidermis disappears. Next, jagged, wet clumps of dermis fill the bowl. Their fingers moving faster, more surely, across the furrowed terrain.
Soon sea water laps at their feet. When they pause to rinse the fatty residue of his hypodermis from their hands, Geoff asks, “Why did you stop?”
Now the bowl overflows with his trapezii and lats. Mags and Grace struggle with the spine and ribs; they don’t have Sharon’s strength. With a clean snap she parts the cervical from the thoracic vertebrae, and Geoff lets loose a long hissing sigh. She wades into the kitchen and finds a steamer pot, still smelling of crabs, for the heart, lungs, and viscera.
“That tickles,” he says as they polish his interior, moving their hands in circular motions until it is mirror smooth but soft to the touch, like vellum. The wicker furniture bobs about them, and Geoff floats easily in the waist-high water. Grace retrieves the broomstick, and Mags scavenges a sheet large enough for a sail. Water pours through the windows as they push their craft onto the remains of the porch.
Grace sits at the helm where her father’s scapulae used to be with Mags behind her, unfurling the sail. A light wind catches it and pulls them away from the sinking house with Sharon clinging to the legs, her own feet kicking. Shafts of sunlight turn the sea shades of emerald and turquoise. Behind them, where once a house brimmed and seethed, only calm, glassy waters. All about them, seabirds let forth beckoning cries.
Notes from Guest Reader
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The strong voice in ‘The Cartographers’ sucked me in headlong. From the first sentence the setting, characters and conflicts are clear, and yet the story’s surprises multiply and build throughout. Beneath the captivating and horrifying fantastical imagery lies a story about what it means to be human.