Red Eyes

“Sir… may I assist you with something,” the flight attendant asked a nervous Peter.

“No,” Peter said, sweating in his seat. His eyes were open, but the flight attendant knew from his face and his jittery leg, he wasn’t fine. “Thank you.” 

“Are you sure,” she asked softly. “We have-“ 

“I’m fine,” Peter persisted. “Thank you. Really.” His leg continued to bounce nervously in place. Peter did not enjoy flying. It brought him no joy whatsoever, but when a connection flight to Amsterdam waited for him in the distance, his fears seemed more like an annoying passenger.

He decided to deal with the stress that had been building within him for decades and travel to the place that excited him the most. Not even a terrible, mid-air collision could stop him.

“Pardon,” a stranger approached him, pointing to the empty seat next to him. Peter had played some music in his earbuds to drown out any unwanted noise. 

“What,” Peter asked in frustration, pulling his buds out.

“I want to sit there,” the stranger said. 

Peter turned around and looked at the empty seat, beside him. He asked the flight attendant if there was anyone scheduled to sit there and he was told no. Her words brought immense joy to his ears. “There’s no one sitting there.”

“Exactly,” he smiled.

“No,” Peter explained, lowering the volume on his music. “I just don’t want anyone sitting there.”

“Oh, I see,” the stranger said. He looked around the cabin and saw all the seats had been taken and leaned close to Peter. “You see that man,” he asked. He saw a heavyset man lumbering through the aisles, brushing sloppily against anybody he passed. “Twice my size?” Peter’s face winced in pain. “It’s entirely in your court,” the stranger continued, “but either he sits there or I do. It’s up to you.”

Peter pushed his lips out as he dwelled on it. “Fine,” he mumbled to himself.

“Fantastic,” the stranger said, stretching his legs over Peter to sit in unoccupied seat. Peter slowly raised the music on his Mozart playlist as his eyes bored a hole into the seat in front of him. OF course it would take a stranger, several minutes to get comfortable. The stranger left all of his belongings in his seat, but the ruffling continued anyway. Mozart swelled in Peter’s ears. “So, what do you do,” Peter heard a muffled voice ask.

The music stopped and the earbuds were ripped out. “Mister, I’m stressing out!” 

“I can see that,” the stranger said calmly. 

“Just leave the pleasantries off the table,” Peter said, knowing he couldn’t win this battle.  

“Alright then, what’s your pain threshold,” the stranger asked immediately.

“Pardon?”

“What’s your max rep,” the stranger asked slowly.

Peter paused. He stared at the ground as he dissected the question in his mind. Excuse me,” Peter said finally.

“When you work out you lift weights in sets,” the stranger explained. “Then you have repetitions. Then you mark how heavy the weights-”

“I’ve been to the gym,” Peter interrupted. “I’m not a bodybuilder.” Peter thought it strange that he would comment on his body.

“Oh, my apologies. I wasn’t talking about you going to the gym at all. I’m talking about your threshold for stress and pain.”

Peter nodded slowly

“What’s the longest you’ve gone through periods of stress,” the stranger continued.

Peter frowned and closed his eyes as the plane swayed. “I’ve been to war,” he said as his voice trailed. 

“That was your career?”

“Not a soldier,” Peter mused. “No. Photography.”  

“War photography.”

“That was my skill,” Peter explained. “I have an eye. Joined a reputable news organization and I’m selected to capture the desolation. To answer your question, my pain threshold is 3 weeks. But it’s as long as I need it to be.” A silence filled the space between them. Peter shuffled with a frown in his seat. “And you sir, with a frown, what do you do?”

“I haven’t been in any war,” the stranger said.

“Then you are living the dream, but that’s not what I asked you,” Peter said. 

“I’m a business manager. I run 16 stores across 4 different states.”

“You must be doing very well!”

“Doubtful. I’m going to be fired as soon as I land,” the stranger said.

“What? You know this?”

The stranger smiled.

“Someone told you,” Peter asked.

“No.” 

“You have a gut feeling,” Peter said.

“A little more than that.”

“So you mean to tell me you know you’re getting fired and you still took an international flight to go to work.”

“Yes. I guess I did do that,” Peter said nonchalantly.

“Why? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yeah. It seems that way, doesn’t it,” the stranger said happily.

“You’re gonna sue them, aren’t you?”

“No. No, that’s not in the cards.”

“You seem pretty relaxed about all this,” Peter said. “You must be loaded.”

“No, not really and my wife and children are my primary responsibilities, plus an ailing aunt is entrusted in my care.”

“How are you not tearing this whole place apart,” Peter asked with a frown. “Why aren’t you worried?”

“Why would I be worried? What value does worrying bring to the table?”

Peter sat in silence unable to answer.

“Does worrying elevate my mental capacity in any substantial way,” the stranger asked. 

“No, but we are human,” Peter reasoned.

“So, worrying is an inherent human quality?”

“Clearly it isn’t for you. So, what’s your plan after you get fired? You must have a new job lined up, right?”

“I certainly do not.”

“Don’t you have a family to take care of?”

“And an aunt,” the stranger said.

“I don’t get it. Don’t you care about them?”

“Care? I love them deeply,” the stranger said energetically.

“Then why aren’t you worrying?”

“Because worrying isn’t an act of love,” Peter said with a smile.

Peter sat back in his chair and rested with all that he just learned. Just a moment ago, he was miserable because of the flight and now he was calm and at ease. “Why did you sit here,” Peter asked.

“Because you needed help.” 

“You came all the way from first class to help me?”

“Yes.”

“How much do you want?”

“I don’t want your money. Just tell me how you feel.”

Peter cocked his head. “Was feeling nervous before, but now I’m mystified.”

“Then my job here is done,” the stranger said, hopping on his feet and moved vigorously to his seat.

“Wait! Come back. I need to know more.”

“What would you like to know more about,” the stranger asked, spinning on his heels. “Hmm? When I came to you, you’re foot was shaking like an addict. Now suddenly, your hand is still. Your focus is crystal clear. And you’re attention is like a laser. What did you do?”

“I mean it has to be you!”

“Are you sure?”

“Isn’t it? Why wouldn’t it be?”

“You have too much faith in me you see.” 

“I mean, you’re it.”

“No. No, I’m not. I’m not it. I just happen to know some things and you were an experiment.”

Peter frowned. “What?”

“You passed the test.” 

“What test?”

“I can tell you, but I’m gonna be honest. Are you willing to make some changes?”

Peter shook his head and complained about the stranger’s pitch. His leg started to twitch again. 

The stranger saw his nervous leg and smirked. “Well that’s informative. It doesn’t matter. Because you’re coming with us.” 

“What does that mean?”

“By the way, there’s an air pocket and it’s gonna be pretty nasty,” the stranger said as he sat down in the flight attendant’s seat.” You might wanna buckle up.” 

The plane snapped back and Peter crashed out of his plane seat. He woke up on the floor, dazed and confused.

“Mr. Reynolds, are you okay,” the flight attendant asked Peter.

“Help me,” Peter whispered to the flight attendant. “Please let me show you back to your seat. You’re in good hands.” The flight attendant winked at him with a smile. Peter’s heart started to race as the other passengers turned their attention on him.

“You had no idea,” the stranger said. “You had no idea. Now, you’re on a plane at 30,000 feet traveling 160 mph. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

“You are ours now,” the flight attendant said.

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