Off topic – Flash Fiction Challenge round 3 – Grains of Paradise

I made it to round 3 of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Which I’m pretty chuffed about – I had to be one of the five best in my group of 30-odd across the previous two rounds, and I ended up ranking second. This round of the challenge was much harder because I knew everyone I was up against can also tell a competent story to a tight deadline, so I was working hard to write a story that wouldn’t just succeed but could win. I wrote two and a half stories during the 48-hour challenge period, and submitted the one that held together best and stuck in the mind the most. It’s science fiction, which to me means stories that briefly illuminate strange futures or new conceptions of ways of being, moments of “but, weird, wait, hey” that then keep coming back to you later and get you thinking for a while. In the end though I didn’t have time/energy/space to edit and rewrite the serious flaws that I saw (I’d have needed to sleep on it for a day, and I didn’t have a day!), so I decided to chalk this one up to a learning experience and see what feedback came my way. Opportunities to make a big jump in becoming a better writer don’t come along so very often! So I greatly appreciate the time you take to read this story and any feedback that’s left for me, here or on the NYCMidnight forums. Thanks so much!

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Genre: Science Fiction
Location: A convention centre
Object that must be included: A pumpkin pie

Title: Grains of Paradise
Word count: 997

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Neva peered at the signs. Train station. Hilbert Room. Signet Room. Lecture Theatre 1. They didn’t mean anything to her. She closed her eyes tight to stop the tears of frustration. This was her 27th year (her 29th year? 24th?) at the Girls’ Own alumni gathering, at least ten (fifteen?) of those in this building. They blurred into a white noise of familiarity where nothing stood out, all the details playing peek-a-boo in her head. Carer’s hand on her shoulder and quiet murmuring helped her steer to a main floor room (the same as last year? Adjoining?) with a couple of wholesomely friendly matrons sitting at a desk outside the door. Neva gave them her name to check off on the list, and was surprised at the fuss they made when they found it. “30 years! You get a special attendance badge this year!”. The name badge she carefully pinned to her dress (one inch above the left breast, exactly as always) had gold curlicues on it. Had the badge last year had them too?

Inside, all the old lady faces seemed familiar, but she didn’t know any of their names. She’d probably chatted with them before. Chatting was hard when all you could do was guess at small talk and hope they didn’t mind repeating themselves. She chickened out and made for the morning tea table. A cheerful sign said “World Friendship!” over the nibbles. Apparently everything this year had ingredients from two different countries, with little flags stuck into them. Neva didn’t recognise any of the flags. A little card by the pumpkin pie said it was made with “Grains of Paradise from Ethiopia”, whatever that was. It sounded safe enough. She took a piece.

The spice in the pie was a little different, but nice. It made her nose tingle just a little, and she breathed deeply. A red-haired lady saw her, waved and came over. “Hello again!”.

Oh dear. Neva was sure she’d not met her before, but she was probably wrong. Again. She peered at the lady’s nametag, trying to bring the curly letters into focus. N-I-A-M-H.

Then without warning, years slipped into focus too. She gave Niamh a smile and said “Hello, namesake!”

“Namesake?”

“I’m Neva and you’re Neevie! And we’re both chemists! You told me how your name is pronounced two years ago.”

Niamh’s smile in return was dazzling. “You’re the first person to remember how it’s said! Usually people forget.”

Neva felt a little shaky. Her memory was crystal clear. It was bewildering, but good. Carer helped steer her over to a chair, and she and Niamh sat down together. Neva picked up the conversation right where they’d left off September-before-last, and they were soon chatting away merrily about long-chain esters and “Neevie”‘s pumpkin pie recipe. After a couple of minutes Carer excused herself to get a coffee, saying to Niamh over Neva’s head “Thanks for talking, it does her memory so good to see someone she knows”.

Niamh said “Oh, does she have memory troubles?”

Neva felt a flash of frustration at being talked about like she wasn’t there. Then, with surprise and growing anger, she remembered how often this happened. She interrupted shrewishly “No. I remember everything.”

And, to her surprise, she did. As they took their seats for the welcome speech and Founder’s Honour Lecture, Neva looked around her. Each person she saw she could remember – their names, what they’d talked about, even if it was fifteen years ago. Total clarity. To her shame, several of the conversations had been repeated. Neva could even remember the patient looks on their faces as they told her the most mundane things over again. She tried to concentrate on the speech, but when she realised it was word for word the same as the speech nine years ago she gave up and looked around her. After a while she realised she wasn’t the only person looking around – there were four or five others. Neva caught their eyes, and after a moment they nodded. When the speech finished, they each made excuses and went to the ladies’ room.

“Neva! You too?” a blue-rinse lady, Susan, called out as she entered. Neva knew all their names. They knew hers. That was possibly the strangest thing that had happened to her in ten years.

“Yes”, she replied. “Big change for me. How about you?”

“Just weird for me – I’ve always been that person who forgets lists or where my glasses are. Suddenly I know all the places I’ve ever left them.”

Maria said “A small change for me, but noticeable. I was only diagnosed with Alzheimers last year, and I’ve been doing memory training since”.

“I wonder what caused it?”

Lucy spoke up. “I’ve a guess. Neva came and got a piece of the pumpkin pie after I did, and I remember I saw Susan and Maria eating some. Anyone else?” A series of nods.

Now that Lucy mentioned it, Neva realised she could remember every detail she’d seen since entering the room. The pattern on a dress. The colour of a thread in the carpet. The way someone had held their cookie and the tooth marks left after they bit. The faint odour of vetiver in a perfume. The direction that the air conditioning had blown against her face, and the sound it made in the divider panelling. The misplaced curl on the desk lady’s forehead.

Detail after detail overwhelmed her in one great rush, and her out-of-practice mind had nowhere to put it. Her knees went weak, and she slowly toppled.

A year later, Niamh stood at the podium. “And just a reminder, the Neva Snell Memorial sessions on memory training and Alzheimer’s reduction are being run by Lucy and Maria in the Signet Room. For those going along, which I hope is most of you, do try the pumpkin pie.” She smiled that dazzling smile. “I hear the caterers have made something really special of it.”

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