The boy, who looked to be no older than six, was clearly in some amount of pain. He was rubbing his left ear with a balled-up fist, squirming and moaning as he did so. Beside him, exhausted and embarrassed, was the boy's young mother. She was younger than Russell, Russell guessed -- which broke his heart because he was far too young to be a father, let alone a father of a six year-old.
Russell wanted to turn away, but the eager stares of every other passenger boring into the back of his skull kept him locked on the tormented child. He cleared his throat, stepped closer, and made eye contact with the mother.
"His ears won't pop," she said apologetically, "and he just got over an ear infection . . ."
"His ears won't pop?" Russell shot back with a galloping Dublin accent that surprised Russell more than anyone else. "Does that mean your ears popped?"
The mother nodded, clearly confused as to why that should be surprising.
"Your ears popped!" Russell repeated and then spun around to face the rest of the cabin. A story was beginning to form. A world was coming into existence. Russell had become someone new and he knew what must be done. He was the hero of this story and only he could fix this problem. He couldn't help but giggle to himself. He was ten years-old again and was about to save the world.
"Quick show of hands!" Russell bellowed in his put-on, but spot-on, Dublin accent. "Who's ears have popped?"
The passengers played along. They had nothing else better to do and the noisy boy in the back was being quiet. Everyone raised a hand.
"Hmm," Russell furrowed his brow and spun back around to face the boy. "That's very curious. Everyone's ears have popped except yours." He knelt down beside the boy. "Do you want to know why that's curious?"
The boy, curious, nodded.
Russell leapt to his feet and put on the show of a lifetime. "It is curious because this vessel that is transporting us to Happy Valley is a Boeing X23 Skyhawk 747 -- an airplane specifically engineered by Rutgers, Arm, and Hammer to prevent air sickness, motion sickness, and ear-poppiness. Which means if everyone's ears are popping -- except yours -- then something very not right is going on." He knelt down once again, looking the little boy straight in the eye. "Do you mind if I have a look inside your head?"
The boy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He looked up to his mom and then back to Russell. "Are you a doctor?"
"No," Russell admitted, "but I watch one on TV."
The boy decided that was close enough and nodded.
"There's a good lad." Russell smiled and then extended the boy his hand. "My name's Russell, by the way."
"Corbin," said the lad.
"Corbin!" Russell shook his head with envy. "That is a brilliant name. Now. May I borrow your stethoscope?"
"Your stethoscope. So I can look in your head."
Corbin shook his head. "I don't have a stethoscope."
Corbin shook his head and his mother hid her smile. Russell acted offended as he unbuttoned and rolled up his sleeves. "Very well. We're going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Tilt your head this way."
Corbin tilted his head to the side, to show Russell his ear. Russell, in return, made a telescope with his hands and placed it against Corbin's ear. He twisted his hollow fists.
"Oh . . . Now that's very interesting . . ."
"What is it?" Corbin eagerly demanded.
Russell collapsed his imaginary telescope before reaching towards Corbin's ear once again. "Whatever you do," he said, "don't move." Then he began to pull on an invisible string. It was long -- much longer than anyone had anticipated. It came out of Corbin's ear and it just . . . kept . . . coming! Three inches . . . four inches . . . a foot! Two feet!
"What is it? What is it?"
"It's much worse than I thought it was." Russell said grimly. "Now hold super-still. This might . . . sting."
Before Corbin could turn his head, Russell tugged the rest of the invisible string out of Corbin's ear. As he did, he also plucked out a single hair from just above Corbin's ear.
"I got it! I got it!" Russell stood, holding the invisible thing.
"What is it?" Corbin asked, rubbing his temple.
"You can't see it?" Russell asked in surprise.
"Ah," Russell nodded sympathetically. "That's just the effects of the neurotoxins. It'll wear off soon enough and you'll be able to see this ghastly thing for what it is."
"What is it?"
"A Venusian Mind Worm."
"A Venusian Mind Worm," Russell said, indignantly. "Didn't you learn about them in school?"
Corbin shook his head.
"Have they taken out Planetary Wildlife all together or is it just Venus they're choosing to ignore? My goodness, what are they teaching in schools today?" Russell bristled. He held up the invisible mind worm for Corbin to look at. "The Venusian Mind Worm is a nasty little creature used by Venusian assassins. It creeps into the brains of its victims, grafts onto it, and then makes its host completely susceptible to intergalactic mind control. Sometimes the warriors of Venus only want people to do their laundry, but sometimes they make people go absolutely crazy."
"How crazy?" Corbin asked, wide-eyed.
"Make you think your hands are your feet and you feet are your hands. Imagine going to school and trying to eat lunch like that." Russell examined the invisible, imaginary mind worm. "And all the victim ever feels is the small sensation of their ears popping. You must have a very strong mind. It couldn't graft with you and it was trying -- that's why you were in so much pain."
"And it's from Venus?" Corbin's mother nodded to the thing that wasn't there. "I always thought something like that would come from Mars."
Russell couldn't tell if she was serious or if she was playing along. "Oh, no!" Russell responded. "Mars gets a bad wrap. They're a peace-loving culture -- farmers, actually."
"What kind of farmers?" Corbin asked. "What grows on Mars?"
"They . . ." Russell's mind whirled. "They're moisture farmers. They drill down deep into the planet for water."
"Wait a minute!" Corbin suddenly shouted. "You said that thing attaches to a person's brain and that makes them feel like their ears are popping!"
"Yeah, so?" Russell shrugged, hiding his excitement that Corbin was catching on.
The little boy stood in his seat. "This airplane is supposed to help people's ears not pop!"
"Yeah, so?" Russell shrugged again.
"Everyone here said they felt their ears pop!" Corbin squealed. "That means everyone here is infected!"
"Oh my stars." Russell gasped, dropping the invisible mind worm.
"Augh!" Corbin leapt from his seat and buried his heel in the carpet where the Worm would have landed. "Is there anything we can do?"
"There is one thing . . ." Russell nodded.
"Refined sugar." Russell answered. "The mind worm cannot process refined sugar." Russell spun around. "Stewardess! We need all the junk food you've got! We need soda, we need candy bars, we need Swedish fish! Whatever candy you've got, we need it!"
The stewardess disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a cart of goodies. Russell and Corbin ran down the aisle and began passing out the delectables. The passengers graciously excepted the treats. Corbin made sure everyone ate or drank what they were given.
As the airplane snacked, Corbin turned to Russell. "It's a good thing you were here."
"It's a good thing you were so smart." Russell countered. "Or I never would have caught on."
Corbin yawned. And then his face paled. "My ears just popped!"
"Open wide!" Russell unwrapped a Hershey Kiss. Corbin opened up and Russell tossed the chocolate into his mouth. "Another Venusian plot foiled. Well done, Side Kick."
Corbin grinned a chocolatey grin and climbed back into his seat. Russell sighed in relief and sunk back into his seat.
"Thank-you," whispered Corbin's mother, touching Russell's shoulder.
Russell smiled back. "It was fun."