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The Middle Seat

Have you ever thwarted a terrorist plot?

Well, I have… maybe.

Flashback to 2015, the Denver Airport. I had just settled into my window seat, 7th row, right side of the plane. As a frequent flier and a tad-bit superstitious, I always upgraded with Southwest to board early and attempt to nab my lucky seat.

Back then, I avoided conversations with strangers. My idea of flying included a pair of dark sunglasses, headphones, and a small pillow to lean my head on the plane’s sidewall. On this trip, I was headed to Louisville, Kentucky, to conduct a softball camp. A nice, quiet woman who I guessed to be in her late 50’s chose the aisle seat, leaving an open middle seat between us.

Aside from 7 being a favorite number, picking the 7th row is also strategic for me - it’s not too close to the front, where a weary traveler might take a middle seat to be off the plane first – while also, it’s far enough back that those who value a non-middle seat, even if it means being in the back, will pass it by.

Now that you know how my mind works

I watched as waves of people boarded and passed on the middle seat in row 7. By the time the waves dissipated to a trickle, the likelihood of having a little extra room increased. Once I saw the attendants doing final checks on the overhead bends and conducting headcounts, I felt relieved knowing my middle seat would remain open.

Then, just as I got comfortable, a peculiar-looking man rushed onto the plane ahead of the boarding door being closed.

I peeked beneath my sunglasses as I pretended to sleep and watched his shaky hands and wild eyes stop at row 7. He asked the nice lady on the aisle with the nod of his head, and she obliged, while I continued to fake sleep.

He smelled of stale cigarettes, and his stocky, muscular build took more of the seat than he deserved. I scanned the tattoos on his forearms, made visible by the rolled-up sleeves of his flannel shirt. I have friends from the Middle East and quickly recognized the markings on his arms as Arabic. I found the ink strange since everything else about him screamed thirty-something from the Midwest.

As the flight attendant began her departure spiel – you know the one given with a manufactured smile and seatbelt instructions that nobody pays attention to? – our middle seat friend began to shuffle through items in his backpack beneath his seat. He pulled from it a sketchpad, laid it on his lap and flipped through the pages.

He was a talented artist, but his work was dark and cryptic – demonic with religious undertones and overtures. After dozens of pages, he stopped on a page showing a sketch of a hand, drawn in a three-dimensional perspective, reaching off the page to the viewer.

As the plane ta