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In the Eye of the Beholder

by Ron Van Sweringen

Mark Phillips was petrified of dying in a plane crash. So much so that he found it hard to get his breath when the entrance hatch on the aircraft slammed shut. A gentle swaying motion followed as the plane taxied into position for take-off.

Mark braced himself for what he knew came next. The racing engines and a sudden jolt as the aircraft accelerated, hurling itself down the runway and hopefully into the air. Mark closed his eyes and gripped the armrests until his knuckles turned white. He counted slowly. One, two, three, four, five, until that indescribable moment of relief when the ground melted away.

A sigh escaped his lips and he went limp for a moment. He often heard that the most dangerous aspects of flying were the takeoff and the landing. One down and one to go.

Why Mark Phillips harbored such a fear of death in a plane crash was a question he could not answer, but no other form of death held such dread for him.

Things would be alright now, he told himself, as long as we don’t run into turbulence; in which case I’ll probably die using a barf-bag. A soft chime rang almost immediately and a voice instructed, “You may unfasten your seat belts now.” Mark exhaled and almost felt like smiling: so far, so good.

As was his custom when he had to fly, Mark requested a window seat. On every flight he memorized the printed instructions on how to open the window in case of an emergency. He wondered if the same law of physics applied underwater; but not to worry, they were flying over the corn belt today.

A bright shaft of sunlight suddenly reflected through the window, whiting out the open page of a book Mark was trying to read. The glare blinded him and he instinctively shaded his eyes until the interior of the cabin came back into focus.

Mark had paid little attention to the immediate surroundings when he first sat down, except for the instructions on opening the window. Now he leaned over to look up the long aisle and take note of the overhead luggage racks stuffed with articles.

A young woman with a baby on her lap sat across the aisle from him humming softly to her child. Next to her a priest slept with his hands folded across his chest. Almost every seat in his view was occupied.

Mark was not sure exactly when he became aware of it. At first he thought it might be a reaction of the sun’s glare still affecting his eyes. That would be the logical explanation, but the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach and his pounding heart suggested something else. What he was looking at was not logical. Could he be hallucinating?

The woman sitting next to him in the aisle seat was flipping through a House Beautiful magazine when he cleared his throat.

“Pardon me,” he said as she looked up at him. “Do you have any idea why they are there?” he asked, vaguely motioning about the cabin with his hand.

“Why who is there?” she replied after looking up the aisle.

“The angels,” Mark answered, fully aware of how weird it sounded. The confused look he received told him what he wanted to know, even before the woman hurriedly vacated her seat.

Mark was not surprised when a stewardess quietly took the empty seat beside him five minutes later. He was surprised however that he had not noticed her in the cabin before.

“I’ve been working in the food preparation area since take off,” she smiled in response to his question. “I’m caught up now and this is my usual seat during the flight.”

Mark knew better, she was there because the woman had complained about him. Under normal circumstances, he would have complained also, if someone had asked him a question like that.

“I know why you’re here,” Mark said at length. “That woman complained about me, she probably thinks I’m nuts.” The stewardess’s face grew taunt and Mark detected a hint of fear in her eyes. She had not looked away from him for a moment since her arrival.

“Just answer a question for me,” Mark said, his eyes pleading. “Don’t you see anything unusual out there?”

The stewardess attempted a smile. “Just take a look,” Mark repeated forcefully, “tell me what you see.”

“I don’t see anything unusual, except that everyone has turned on their overhead reading light,” she replied, quickly turning back to face him.

“Thank you,” Mark gulped, “I thought I was going crazy.”

“Let me get something to calm you down,” the stewardess said, putting her hand on his.

“Look again carefully,” Mark whispered, watching the expression on her face. “Those are not reading lights. Those are halos over their heads.”

“Oh my God,” she exclaimed, the color draining from her face as she looked about the cabin again. “What does it mean?”

“It means that this plane is going to crash and all of those people are going to die.”

Mark saw panic race across her face as she fought for breath. “Not us,” he quickly added, “if we were going to die, we wouldn’t be able to see the halos. Thank God we are going to survive.”

* * *

“He was lucky,” remarked the young nurse standing beside the hospital bed. “Only two out of sixty-seven people on that plane survived.”

“Lucky, if you equate survival with being in a vegetative state for the rest of your life,” the doctor at her side replied. “I personally would have chosen to die in that plane crash any day, but then, I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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