Not Suitable (Flash Fiction)

I stood on the strip with my feet tightly pressed together and my back as straight as I could make it. My scalp and underarms were moist. My teeth tense. I could see down the line with my peripheral vision. Although I gave the impression of looking straight ahead at the mountains beyond the runway, I was studying the other pilots, sizing them up.

When we split into flight teams we all scuttled around, grabbing equipment and getting to work while Thomas barked orders at us. Formation had been easier since I could slyly look sideways at the men. But in the open while prepping for takeoff I could feel all eyes on me. I was different, not one of the guys. They knew it and I knew it. Takeoff could not come soon enough.

In the air a limited number of things need attention. These are the things you pay attention to. Because these are the things that your life depends on. I ran through my checklists, routinized and a part of me, and forgot about the pettiness of the world on the ground.

I watched the land beneath us turn into calm cerulean as we flew over the ocean. We would dash to the closest island which also happened to be the smallest, and then jump from one to another along the archipelago. We would hit each island in sequence like a frog jumping from one lily pad to another. Only a few places off the mainland were suitable for a new building and our job was to discover the best one. There were no airstrips where we were going, only the wild. We wouldn’t even stop unless we had to. Each touchdown would roll right into another takeoff. “How long?” I yelled over my shoulder. “75 minutes.” Someone replied. The weather was peaceful and clear. I deliberately forced my shoulders down, unaware until that moment how close to my ears they had become. I felt the muscles unclench a little. “Thanks.” I said under my breath.

The time passed too quickly. My respite from the other men’s scrutiny while in the calm portion of the mission would soon turn back into a test, another gauntlet where they would be expecting me to prove myself. I saw the first island appear on the horizon. My Nav hadn’t even told me it was coming up. He was probably hoping I’d overshoot it. “That our spot?” I asked. “Affirmative. That’s the south side of the island.” The navigator’s voice held a slight humor. I couldn’t tell if he was tickled that I’d asked for confirmation on the target or if he was amused by his own juvenile plan to not offer any help until it was asked for.

A quick trip around the island told me there was only one place to land. I descended and banked to the right. “Prepare for touch and go.” I told the crew. As I brought the plane down to the beach an uncomfortable confusion clouded my judgement for a moment. It was completely nonsensical, but for a split second I thought for sure I saw something. The trees that lined the beach about 20 yards from the water were walking. I took a deep breath and blinked hard once and quick. The trees were still. I hoped I had not let any of my disorientation show. I steeled my nerves against the nausea and that couple of lost seconds was enough to ruin my approach. “Prepare for landing. Repeat prepare for landing.” I barked at the crew. Out of the corner of my eye I could see their surprised body language as they followed my orders and adjusted their expectations.

I touched down on the sand and felt a sickening slosh as the tires sank into the soft ground. I was thrust hard forward and I heard one of the men fall against his equipment. This was one of the risks we had foreseen, but I didn’t expect to encounter it so soon in the mission. The ground was completely unsuitable for building an airstrip, probably because the island was never more than an inch above at sea level and flooded with every rain shower. The plane skidded as it came to a stop near the trees. For a sacred moment no one said anything. They were happy to be alive and unharmed. But all too soon that gratitude melted into fury that we were stuck.

“Why did you not bump!? Now we are sunk in. Thomas put me on your team because he’s still holding a grudge about that shower curtain. Now I’m going to rot on this island with…” one of the men was ranting when the Nav interrupted with even louder shouting. “Shut up! Just get out and dig and we’ll be on our way.” Seat belts clicked and the door clanged open. Everyone knew the drill. I was the last one out of the plane. When my feet hit the ground the horizon dipped and spun. I felt bile rise in my throat and my knees wobbled. I went down softly onto the waterlogged earth. When I woke the trees were upon them. The men were hunched over digging out the wheels and didn’t even see what was coming. They had ignored my fall and left me in a pool of my own vomit. I opened my mouth to warn them but the only sound I could make was a raspy grunt. One tree for each man, their branches reached out and curled around the crewmen like cocoons. The men kicked uselessly until their bones broke in the embrace of leaves and twigs. Then the trees stilled. I found my strength and raised up on one arm, twisting my head to look behind me and fulling expecting to see my own death. But there was nothing. The trees spared me. They knew I was different.

Muriel is the creator of 'Documinutes: 60 second documentaries' and a contributor to the podcast 'This Manic Mama.'

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