Viva Shortlister: Grace Chan

An excerpt from The Ship of Theseus

The sun looks wrong, like a painted bauble, dangling above the formless sea.

Tao-Yi takes a swig of beer. A sharp fizz runs down her throat. The bottle stays cold against her palm, impervious to her body heat. The tide is rhythmic. She can count it to a tee. Up the sand it crawls: one, two, three. And then it pulls away, leaving a rim of foam: one,  two, three, four. She imagines a cool breeze, coming off the water, lifting her hair from the back of her neck, but there is none.

Navin brings her another bottle of beer.

‘It tastes like shit,’ she says.

‘Better than last year’s.’

She manages a wry smile.

Come help us start the fire.’

They walk back along the shore. Tao-Yi stays a step behind Navin, watching him move, lanky and lithe.

Between the dunes and the sea, the others have hollowed out a pit and filled it with driftwood. Zach strikes a match, holds it against a bundle of newspaper, fans the rapid flames into the pile of wood. Everyone shouts in glee as the fire catches. As the sun drops below the horizon, the fire burns higher and brighter, cocooning them in its glow.

Tao-Yi sits facing the water, the campfire warming her on one side, Navin’s shoulder pressing against her on the other. The sand feels like silk against the soles of her feet. When she lifts her leg, invisible grains fall away, leaving no residue. She wriggles her fingers into it and lifts a damp clump to her nose. She wants the smells of dirt and salt.

‘Get me another drink?’

‘Beer?’

‘Anything.’

Navin unfolds and goes to the Esky. Tao-Yi watches the others caper around the fire. A football match is playing on a holo-screen. Evelyn and Zach are placing loud bets and heckling each other. Four of the others break away and race down to the ocean, kicking up wet sand.

Navin returns with two cans of whisky. ‘It’s almost midnight,’ he says.

‘That was fast.’

‘The night, or the year?’

‘Both.’ He wraps an arm around her shoulders.

‘What’s wrong?’

Tao-Yi looks into his earnest, dark eyes, and then looks away. ‘Nothing.’

‘You used to love the beach.’

‘This isn’t the beach.’

Navin sighs.

‘Sorry.’

‘You want to go to a plastic-littered dump on New Year’s Eve and splash each other in the acid waves?’

Dizzy, Tao-Yi cracks open her can. Everything is pressing down on her. The rhythmic tide, the silky sand, the bonfire, the shapeless sky evenly sprinkled with pinpoint stars. She takes a sip of whisky and nearly gags. It’s as sour as piss.

A wave of nausea rises from her belly. She lurches to her feet, shrugging Navin’s arm off. He says something, but she can’t make it out. She stumbles away from the beach, into the bushes, where it is blessedly dark. Tiny leaves stroke her bare legs as she pushes through the foliage. Her feet slip. The ground is loose and sloping upwards. Is Navin following her? She pushes on, without turning around.

A second wave of nausea punches her in the gut. She folds at the waist, clutching her head. The can of whisky is still ice-cold in her hand. Furious, she lobs it into the trees. It makes no sound. She wants to scream.

Tao-Yi stops. She is a blurry shape within the blurry shapes of trees and bushes. A full moon, snow-white and perfectly round, peeks out above the treetops. To the west, a black ocean touches a black coast. She rubs her eyes, hard, until neon squiggles of light appear. The nausea subsides.

‘Rhea,’ she says aloud. ‘Log me out of Pangaea.’

A pleasant voice resonates from above the trees. ‘Please confirm that you would like to log out of Pangaea.’

‘Confirm log out.’

The trees and bushes dissolve. Just before she goes, Tao-Yi hears a multitude of cries from the beach, voices raised in joyful unison: ‘Happy new year!’

She drops like a stone. Heaviness fills her bones. She sinks through layers of sand and earth, through the foundations of Pangaea. The roar of static fills her ears. The pungent smell

of burning metal numbs her senses. Her skin itches all over, just for a second.

Then, everything fades. When her senses return, she is lying in a reclined chair that is perfectly moulded to her body. Her head is cradled in a basin of gelatinous liquid. Her arms and legs prickle with a mighty case of pins and needles.

Tao-Yi sits up, blinking spots out of her vision. She rubs life back into her numb body. A damp cloth attached to a robotic arm floats over and wipes the gel from her head with tender strokes. Her eyes flutter shut in a moment of ecstasy. This is her favourite moment of

each day: the grey, liminal space just after waking from Pangaea, when her mind is sinking back into her physical body, a robotic arm caressing her bare scalp, reassuring her that she has returned to the real world.