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?
Q: Do you know where you are?
Q: Can you drink coffee? Can you take notes?
A: No. No.
Q: Were you just crying?
Q: Are you sure?
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.
[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.