Never Too Old
I wrote this story for NCYM Flash Fiction Round 1 and came in first place for my heat (! ) Prompts: thriller/airport runway/fish fillet
Diana stared out the window of the Dornier 228, readying to land on the world’s most perilous runway. The village of Lukla, known as the Gateway to Everest, was a mere thumbprint pressed by a giant’s hand into the craggy peaks.
If I don’t catch him in time, he’ll be already on route to the Himalayan Base Camp.
“This is the worst part,” a woman with a weathered face reassured her. At least, Diana thought she was trying to be reassuring. After listening to her stories throughout the flight from Kathmandu, Diana found her seatmate’s cheerful exuberance and Australian accent made her most harrowing adventures sound like a day trip at the zoo.
Diana was close; she could practically smell the unwashed musk of Michael’s trekking clothes.
Twenty years of tracking his every movement, learning his habits and routines. And now, he’d evaded her. She’d missed him by a day in Nepal’s capital, dense fog delaying her journey.
She tapped a heel against the metal container stashed under the seat, confirming its presence. She tucked a grey-streaked strand of hair back into her ponytail, mainly to give her trembling fingers something to do.
“The way I see it, we’ve got three options,” the Aussie continued brightly. “Hit the wall, plummet off the cliff, or nail the landing.”
Diana gripped the armrests, concentrating on the prominent veins lining the backs of her hands.
I’m too old for this.
From this perspective, the runway appeared the size of a child’s school ruler. She swallowed, popping her ears. Dull skies gave way to tawny scrub and rocks. Tailwinds buffeted the plane. The pilot had one chance to land, with no room for a do-over. Too fast, the land rose to meet them; she felt the ground collide with the wheels in a series of molar-jarring thuds. Brakes squealing, the aircraft shuddered and began to drift. Birds scattered into the air and monkeys fled the tarmac, leaping for cover behind the rickety fencing. Onlookers lining the runway retreated as the aircraft lurched sideways. As the pilot struggled to regain control, Diana focussed her attention inward.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Time slowed, and the plane gradually followed suit, nose scraping against the wall of the runway’s abrupt conclusion.
Some passengers clapped, many cried.
Diana disembarked with the others onto the tiny airstrip. As she set the metal container down to hoist the backpack over her shoulders, a monkey leapt from a nearby tree, grabbed the shiny box, and sprinted off down the runway, its odd, crooked tail waving like a victory flag.
“No!” Diana shouted and pursued the thief. It stopped, grinned at her, then skittered away once she got too close.
Approaching the runway’s edge, the monkey began to descend the cliff. Diana cursed, unshouldered her backpack, and followed.
Rocks slid as Diana picked her way down. A few metres in, her foot dislodged a boulder. It plummeted toward the monkey, who screeched and leapt out of its path, dropping the stolen item. Diana’s breath caught as she watched the container tumble then stop against an outcropping.
Keeping her eyes on the object, she tested each footfall before placing her full weight. Once within reach, Diana extended her arm toward the container when shuffling pebbles attracted her focus. A snake uncoiled beside the box and bobbed its head towards her, tongue testing the air.
Shuddering in revulsion, Diana recoiled. Monkeys, she could handle; snakes, not so much. She wasn’t about to risk a bite from one of Nepal’s more venomous species. After retreating a safe distance, she seized a rock and hurled it at the reptile. It slithered away, disappearing beneath the stones.
Diana’s shaking hand closed around the container’s handle. A brief inspection ensured its contents remained secure, so she began to reascend. Finally, after several near-misses from tumbling rocks, sweaty and streaked with dirt, Diana reached the top. Dragging herself onto the runway, she collapsed against her backpack, clutching her prize and gasping for air in the high altitude.
Gradually, Diana pulled herself up and limped back towards the small airport. Both tourists and locals packed the interior. She passed through the security fences lined with porters vying to carry packs and guides holding signs promising destinations. Scanning the crowds, Diana didn’t spot anyone matching her quarry’s build or gait.
I hope I’m not too late, she prayed.
She turned down an alley and reached a dead end. Taking out her phone, she performed a cursory search. Only a handful of lodgings were listed on Tripadvisor; Diana guessed Michael had chosen the Paradise Lodge to rest—first a pint, then a room—before starting his trek.
A calloused hand grabbed her arm. Diana shrieked. Upon seeing her startled expression, a Sherpa porter wearing a sweatshirt and cap with earflaps stepped back.
“I take your pack?” He smiled.
Diana shook her head. “No thank-you.”
She jogged down the cobbled streets until stopping in front of a blue-roofed building. Colourful flowers and tapestries lined the windows. A monkey flicking its distinctive, crooked tail sat atop a basket outside the entrance, munching a fish fillet.
“Simian bandit,” Diana growled. It chittered and disappeared into the restaurant.
Diana followed, pausing until her eyes adjusted in the dim interior. Trekkers clustered around tables. Several turned to stare at the middle-aged woman standing in the doorway.
Far-off laughter drew her attention outdoors again. In the distance, a man with shaggy blond hair poking out beneath a woollen hat walked with a trekking group towards the trailhead at the far end of the village.
She’d recognize the back of that head anywhere.
“Michael Hermes Evans-Georgiou.”
The man froze and turned: only one woman called him by his full name.
Diana held out the metal container. “You forgot this.”
His smile was a beacon; its brilliance inevitably caused her heart to explode.
He loped back down the trail toward her. Kissing her cheek, he took the lunchbox and peeked inside.
She knew how much he adored her homemade protein bars.