The Better Head

The Better Head sits above my desk’s window. Transistors hum as its eyes stare numb. Though the Better Head has no lungs by which to speak to me, it seems to be asking, “Why for?” or, “ What from?”

It’s dusk outside. An unknown animal bellows in the distance. Arctic wind whistles through desiccated leaves, as winter’s breath carries the season’s first snow flurries. I sip my coffee. I haven’t slept in what must be approaching 3 days and I’ve been washing my face often. Meanwhile, floating in a soup of electrolyte formaldehyde, the Better Head will wrinkle its nose, bare its teeth and mouths vulgarities. Its contempt for me is beginning to show.

I rub my eyes then give it the finger. I laugh heartily, genuinely, at its inability to return the gesture. I get more coffee. I laugh some more.

There have been times in the last couple of nights—times when I’ve been in the kitchen, say, getting more coffee, or running to the closet to get more pencils—times in which I think I hear it crying. That’s impossible, though. I know. I made it so. I return quickly, so as to catch it in the act, coffee sloshing, pencil behind my ear. But when I get back, the Better Head just bobs, water reflecting green wave patterns across my walls, the unmade bed, my stacks of books. If I didn’t know any better, I would think it’s having some fun with me. But there’s real work to be done, no more nonsense. I sit down to drink my coffee, continue our work, and begin to take notes. At this stage in the project, work mostly consists of my asking it questions like, “Can you drink coffee? Can you take notes?” I write down its answers in a journal on my desk that I don’t remember ever buying. The journal, that is. The desk was a gift from an uncle.

We’ve worked out means of communication (I’m terrible at reading lips): one blink for “yes,” two blinks for “no.”   Three blinks means it is calling me an idiot. We can’t agree on what four blinks should evoke. I’ve suggested four blinks be a means of giving the other some sort of accolade, a gesture of goodwill, but the Better Head is not having it.

So far, most of its answers have been, “No.” But, I assure you a subtler pattern of discourse is beginning to emerge from what at first glance must seem like meager data to the casual observer. Simply put: the Better Head is plotting to kill me. It plans on stealing my body, and escaping from our little hideaway cabin, clumsily running through those woods on unfamiliar legs, through that fresh snow. I have purposely not told it about my bum knee. My bum knee will hinder its escape, certainly aiding the local authorities in the rogue head’s capture. The Better Head knows as well as I do that it’s only a matter of time.

 

***

Research, 12:47 a.m., 12/18/04:

Q: Are you hungry?

A: No.

Q: Do you know where you are?

A: No.

Q: Can you drink coffee? Can you take notes?

A: No. No.

Q: Were you just crying?

A: No.

Q: Are you sure?

A: Yes.

I think its motives are clear. But what you may find more noticeable, perhaps even strikingly so, are the questions I have so far avoided. I’ll be frank: I hate to know what’s left of its memory. Like, does it know of its origin and home? Does it remember my trespass against it when introducing baseball bat to its skull? What about when I hooked up its neurons to car-batteries, or replaced blood with Vaseline and motor-oil? Or my sewing up the signs of my severing with hacksaw, from arms and legs and heart and body and all? Such remembrances would certainly give the head some motive in its designs against my person, but somehow…somehow, I don’t think that’s it. There’s something else. Something I used to know. It may well be that the Better Head has simply never liked me, him exhibiting an a priori distaste for my company. But I’ve never been one for guesswork.

 

***

The wind shoulders relentlessly against the north side of the cabin, lamp lights flicker. I grab another blanket from the oak chest at the foot of the bed. The head looks warm and docile, bobbing leisurely in its vitamin enriched froth. When I close my eyes it looks like there’s a blizzard against the back of my eyelids, and I’m starting to lose entire minutes to the tiniest of blinks. I should go get more supplies.   We’re almost out of chowder. Unless. Unless that’s exactly what it wants.

My coffee has grown cold; I should make another pot. I pour the remains of my cup into the Better Head’s jar. It looks like it could use a pick me up.

The lantern in the kitchen has gone out. Tree branches squeal and scrape together outside as I fumble with the matches just long enough to give up lighting them. I can make coffee in the dark, I decide. I blink and the clock on the microwave advances 10 minutes. Changing my mind, I push the minute cook button on the microwave so as to provide some light. I have to push it twice because, as it turns out, it takes me two minutes to make coffee. I blink again. This time 20 minutes pass. I’m still standing here, empty coffee mug hanging tenuously from my curled fingers.

There it is! I swear it’s crying! My bum knee throbs as I hustle back into the bedroom, but when I get there—ha! I’ll catch you in the act yet!—when I get there, the Better Head looks at me severely and blinks three times. I give it the finger and drink my coffee. Damn it, I forgot to fill up my mug. I ask anyway, I ask, “Can you give me the finger? Can you drink coffee?” The Better Head blinks three times. It mouths what could be interpreted as, “up yours.” Cloudy tendrils of what was once my coffee swirl into the back of its mouth, and out again through its nostrils. The Better Head has outsmarted me again.

 

***

Here is what we know of the Better Head. These are our axioms, if you will, our premises:

1. The Better Head is smarter.

2. The Better Head thinks harder.

3. The Better Head does not have the ability to participate in many, if not most, normal, everyday, human endeavors, resulting in more time for 2, to thereby achieve 1.

4. The Better Head is ruthless.

(a) The Better Head is plotting to kill me.

(b) The Better Head plans on stealing my body, and using it to escape this cabin,  effectively destroying everything we have worked towards together.

5. The Better Head will achieve 4b by means of 1, 2, and 4a.

The house shakes, the winter wind screams, and I ask, I dare ask: “Do you remember?” The Better Head answers, blinks four times. I think perhaps it is accusing me of begging the question in line 5. I’ll have to review the data.

 

***

There’s a blizzard behind my eyes, and when I open them, an hour has passed, maybe two. I can tell because of how the light in the room has changed, by how my left foot has gone numb. I remember. I remember when I used to call him, “colleague,” and how he always bristled in my presence. I remember his storming into my lab unannounced one night, and his discovery of my late night work. I remember how his chest swelled with moral outrage, how his breathing became labored. I remember the way his index finger shook as he threatened to destroy my career and how his fat fist pounded my desk when he uttered the words, “federal prison.” I remember his back as he turned in contempt to walk away.

But. So. Now.

Well, now he’s just a fucking head in a jar.

 

BetterHead_color

[Illustration by Tony Fleecs]

Note: The Better Head is also a song by Americans UK, and this short story was originally published in Americans UK: Rocktronic Mixtape 1. The Featured Image at the top of this post is from a gig poster designed by Mike Reddy.

PATIENT 7 – Baltimore Comic-Con Exclusive – Ashcan Edition

P7_ashcan_cover_socialLimited to 50, numbered copies, the Patient 7 – Ashcan Preview Edition will be available only at Baltimore Comic-Con 2016. 16 b+w pages, with wrap-around self-cover, illustrated by Donal DeLay, lettering and logo design by Jeff Powell, and written by Jeffrey Burandt. $5 at the con. Retailers can contact jburandt@gmail.com to purchase multiple copies.

P7_titlepage_social

Patient 7 is fast-paced, sci-fi horror. A sentient, inter-dimensional virus travels across the bubble universes to infect humans and grant them great powers at great costs. But when the Visitor’s siblings learn of its extended vacation in our reality, the Visitor must protect Earth from their reality-warping and flesh-rending rampages! Patient 7 is Doctor Who for perverts.

Portrait Of a Zombie As a Young Scientist

"Portrait Of a Zombie As a Young Scientist" image

[Editors note:  the following narrative was transcribed from a journal found in an evacuated university located in the American Midwest.]

10/3:  Ben and I caught one of the zombies today.  Somehow she had found her way into the building.  Ben is out with the dogs now, seeing if he can find where she got in.  I’m sitting here wondering what exactly we’re going to do with her.  Run some tests, I guess.

The two of us subdued the zombie easily.  We wrapped her in a sheet as she staggered towards us, then bound her arms and torso with chains.  I couldn’t breathe through my nose because the smell made me gag.  Ben held her head back by her hair while I wrapped her mouth and jaw tight with gauze.  The way the fabric stretched and wiggled as she continued to bite reminded me of a sock puppet.  The gauze didn’t quiet her incoherent yelling much.  Ben said to me, “Man, she looks like she used to be hot.”

10/4:  It’s morning.  Had a hard time sleeping.  Ben is already up, probably with the zombie.  We ended up throwing her in the freezer after a long day of experiments.  Nothing came up under the microscope.  Her cells look like what you would expect from a decomposing woman in her early thirties.  No abnormalities in that regard.  Ben and I were equally surprised to find her heart still beating, and removing it had seeming little effect on her constitution.  That said, we’re unwilling to unchain her and observe her performance unfettered.  We’re supposed to get to work on the zombie’s lungs next.  Without lungs, she shouldn’t be able to scream anymore.  She moans even when frozen.  I think to meaningfully examine her further we will need to access her mouth and jaw.  I’m of the mind that we need to test her saliva.

10/5:  Ben was no go on my saliva idea.  He said we’d do that after removing the brain so as to be totally safe.  I argued that once we removed the brain, her subsequent zombie death could alter our findings.  I told him that it looked like her jaw was swollen behind her molars when I was wrapping her mouth and hypothesized that maybe zombies develop some sort of poison sack as a part of their transformation.  We know so little about their physiology.  I told him that we could be heroes; we could save humanity; we could maybe get our results to Dr.Vesayaporn.  Ben said to me, “Albert, it’s just the two of us now.  We can’t afford another hero.”

10/6:  We figured out where she got in today.  There’s a small gap between the lab and the science library creating a good 20-ft-long, 1-ft-wide passageway between buildings.  It’s dark back there, but we can just make out a small tear in the chain link fence surrounding the buildings.  There’s a fig tree growing on the other side that further obscures our sight.  It doesn’t look like any more have made it through, thankfully.  I hadn’t thought of it before, but I guess she is a petite woman.  She’d have to be in order to scrape through that small passageway.  That explains the tearing on her head and face and the abrasions across her body.  We think maybe she was trying to squeeze through as a human to get to safety, even as she was dying.  Having died, the zombie pushed on through.  I’m about to go help Ben block the passage now.  Tomorrow we’ll be investigating whether infection is likely to spread through scratches via the zombie’s nails.  We’ll to try to infect one of our rats.

10/7:  While there’s something satisfying about taking this monster apart—hacking away at her wrists was particularly fulfilling, for some reason—analysis of the tissue in her nail beds has yielded no results.  We were unable to zombify any of our rats by either breaking their skin with her nails or injecting them with her blood.  The secret has to be in the jaw.  In the saliva.  In her damn teeth.  Ben wants to remove her brain tomorrow and begin teasing it apart, see what we see.

10/8:  It’s just after midnight.  Ben sleeps.  Oh god.  The bitch bit me.  The goddamn bitch bit me.

I can’t sleep.  I was, fuck.  I was just trying to remove her lower jaw.  She hadn’t been out of the freezer that long.  Ben was going to ruin my chance to test my hypothesis, damn it.  Her heart is gone for god’s sake.  Her lungs are gone.  We chopped off her hands and her feet and her skin is rotting off and the goddamn bitch bit me.  I threw her on the ground and kicked her face in after that.  Smashed her brains with my boot.  Ben is going to kill me.

10/8 (5:47 a.m.):  The wound on my hand burns.  That she didn’t bite my writing hand is small consolation.  Removing samples from the wound, I can see some sort of retrovirus attacking my cells under magnification.  I can’t figure out where the virus could have disappeared to in her tissue samples; it doesn’t make sense.  There absolutely should have been remnants detectable.  My arm is getting cold and I have a fever but I’m afraid to go to sleep.  I need to clean up the mess in the lab.  Then I need to wake Ben and tell him what I’ve done.

10/8 (10:16 a.m.):  He’s locked me in my room with a gallon of water and a bag of potato chips.  We don’t know how long it will take for me to die then turn.  Logging the time since I’ve been bit was a good idea.  I’ll be dead soon and the only thing I can think of to do is write my experiences down.  I will observe the process of becoming undead with the greatest scientific acumen.  For the future.

(10:45 a.m.):  Just realized I don’t need to write the date down anymore.  It is unlikely I will survive the night.

(11:30 a.m.):  Maybe I won’t turn.  Maybe we can figure this out, if we just use our brains.  Maybe I’ll be the miracle, the one in a million chance, and together Ben and I can cure me and save the world.

Maybe I should cut off my arm.

Goddamn it, I’m dying.

(11:32 a.m.):  What if the virus just attacks your body?  Like, what if your brain, your personality, remains active?  What if you know the horrors you are committing but can’t do anything about it?  That would mean she knew her face was ripping off as she pushed her way through the passageway, that she knew what Ben and I were doing to her when we dissected her.  That would mean I’ll know what Ben is doing to me.

(12:17 p.m.):  Ben visited me, brought me more water, asked how I was.  I’ve lost all feeling in my arm and the coldness is spreading throughout my torso.  Ben informed me that the cells he took from my arm now appear as those of a normal, recently dead man.  I feel like I’m drowning in nausea.  Every once and a while my dead arm will twitch and seems to move of its own accord.  When I looked at Ben standing over there on the other side of the room, I couldn’t help but start crying.  I told Ben that at least he’ll have another sample to study since I destroyed the other one.  He yelled at me, told me he couldn’t believe I had done this; he said, “So stupid, Albert.  How could you do something so stupid?”  I said, “I know, Ben, I know.  But I’m dying, and maybe you can pretend I’m not so stupid for just a little while.”  When he left, he made sure to turn both locks on his way out.

(12:22 p.m.):  Screw him.  He’s always thought he was the big brain out of all of us, but Carrie and Beth might still be alive if Ben hadn’t made me lock the door so soon.  I could see Carrie out there in the yard from this very window.  Against Ben’s protests, I had come in here from our hiding place in the lab.  Rain slapped against the windowpane, and through the deluge I saw Carrie fall.  She raised her arm to protect herself as a hollering corpse fell on top of her.  Thunder eclipsed her screams.  Having fallen on the sidewalk, the zombie began bashing her head against the concrete.  I tell myself she was already dead when the zombie broke through her skull and began devouring her brains, but there’s no real way of knowing.  We found Beth wandering the yard with a few of the other undead a few days later.  She had someone’s bloody fingers stuffed in her mouth.  I had to put an axe between her eyes.  Ben and I weren’t thinking about science just yet, and we burned those first samples.

(12:39 p.m.):  Brains.  That zombies eat their victim’s brains suggests an interesting dynamic:  the viruses’ hosts are in competition with one another.  We know that destroying a zombie’s brain is the only thing that will stop the infected host, so it stands to reason that the zombie virus doesn’t “want” other zombies to be created, otherwise their formerly human hosts wouldn’t seek to ingest the one organ that allows for a zombie’s existence.  As such, other zombies are only created through accidents, by the people who happened to get away after being bit, or by the ones who were strong enough to get away.  Zombification by natural selection.  I’m not sure we should even be calling this thing a virus.  Further evidence supporting this hypothesis is that zombies, once turned, have not been observed to attack one another, and seem willing to operate in groups.

(1:13 p.m.):  The joints in my hand ache.  My fingers are stiff.  It’s getting hard to write.

(4:00 p.m.):  Ben, you may be the only person who ever reads this and I need to tell you that I’m sorry.  For everything.  You are a good friend.

(6:34 p.m.):  Finally stopped throwing up and shitting.  Contents of bowels completely evacuated.  Hurt all over.  Sweat with fever but cold.  Can’t stop shaking.  More and more difficult to write, breathing is labored.  All I can think of is Ben and how I will try to eat him and his brains and brains brains brai