We were traveling to see an art installation in the country. The artist, now dead, had planted a ten-foot-tall drying rack in a copse of trees far from everywhere. We sloped easily over the mild hills of washed-out arcadia.
Our world lay still.
Four of us in a blue van, suspended in icy AC. I knew I was myself, but I was something else too: the van’s front left wheel. Under the driver. Rubber pressing into the kind of road that only exists in blurry childhood memories. Out here: no AC, just the engine heat searing my rubber skin.
R. drove. S. sat at her side.
T. was to my right, his thick, porous skin against the window. We didn’t get along, so I could never make out his features, even if he was close.
I existed in relation to each one. I was also the front left wheel. My rubber self spun down the hot road. My other self was trying to understand T., who was both there and not there. Perhaps he had a rubber self he could disappear to? Mountains sprouted in the windows, but they were coated in a kind of veil. The others were silent. I wanted to see the installation.
The copse sprang up and there was the rack. We parked and got out, necks already craning at the thing—pale wood, thick beams expertly fused at the seams. No grass on the ground; maybe constructing it caused a lot of trampling, so there was a large circle of dirt. Nobody is allowed to touch art, but that sanded wood—each of us reached up to caress it, all at once we crowded around, performing the forbidden ritual.
S. began to climb it, then R. and T. I watched them scale the rungs to perch at the top, but I couldn’t follow. I knew the structure was strong, but I was seeing through its construction, each beam in my eyes at once, and the hollowness struck me.
“Are you going to climb up?” T. asked. I could sense the jeer in his tone. The others shifted restlessly on their perches, waiting for their turn to tease me.
I didn’t respond, but leaned against the structure, trying to appear more at peace with its presence. Then the air changed, and everything frightened me.
I think they were talking, maybe even to me. I couldn’t hear. I looked at the van, then towards the hills to my right. That way seemed safer, so I began walking.
“Where are you going?” T. again. He climbed down to follow me. R. sprang down from the top. It was a long jump, but R.’s body was probably rubber too. I had watched her take improbable leaps, and her body stretched and contracted and swung as something free of gravity. She bounced down into the dirt, kicking up a cough of dust, then leapt up and forward, towards me.
S. had waited for them to get off before following. We were already walking away, into the field, when she got to the bottom rung. T. yelled for her to hurry up, and we all turned around to see the effect of the taunt. But S. didn’t move from the bottom rung. She cried out – first softly (I only heard because my wheel self was closer by), then with a shrieking panic. She couldn’t leave the rack. Her feet were on the dirt, and she looked down at it. We turned back.
The knowledge of what was beneath the dirt settled as a heavy stone in my intestines. I couldn’t tell if the others knew about it yet. We encircled the drying rack. T. was saying something to S., but I knew I had to say the important thing.
“The artist is buried here. And her bones are screaming to us.”
Misery welled in S.’s eyes. I turned back to the van, eager to reunite with my other self, but it was gone. The fields, the hazy mountains gone too. We were looking instead at a small sandbar and the sea. Farther, past our copse, the beach curved upward, and the water had eaten at the bank, creating a small cliff crowned with another cluster of trees. We left S. We didn’t know what else to do.
To the beach. Grass quickly fading into thick hot sand. Breezes rippled across the water. The small cliff overlooked it all.
R. and I stood transfixed on the beach, but T. needed to understand. I wanted to enjoy the silence when he walked off, but instead the air went hollow. The water’s glimmer folded over into shadow. S. was still near, but we didn’t look at her.
And then—in a moment—darkness fell upon us. R. and I stood back-to-back, arms clasped. I was staring in the direction of the cliff, hoping to see T. return. For many seconds, there was nothing. Her heartbeat, my heartbeat, somewhere close, S.’s heartbeat. She was lost already. Hot wind crept past; my elbows knocked against R.’s. Our skin chafed, electrifying nerve endings into tantrum.
The darkness suffocated us, but I knew T. would come back soon. I could barely discern the outline of the trees. I didn’t blink or move.
T.’s shape illuminated on the cliff, running through the trees. Seconds later—thunder.
Lighting again, and T. was dancing. Something like dancing, but in twitches and bursts. As though every muscle in his body was spasming consecutively.
Another second, more thunder, but in the momentary blackness I still see him, shadow within shadow, writhing, then running once more, over the edge of the cliff.
Into the water.
Our ashes are spread there, and the artist’s bones lay buried still. I whisper this story into my own prayers, hoping to understand it. My oracle stands before me in my sleep and repeats these words.
Elena Malkov is a fiction writer living in Richmond, Virginia. Her work has appeared in From Whispers to Roars, Storgy Magazine and Typishly. She is the co-founder and Fiction Editor of Sublunary Review literary magazine.