Better to be a Head than a Behind

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Ryan McSwain, ©2016

Russell Helmuth’s head fell off and landed in the mashed potatoes.

“Mind your head, dear,” Colleen said. Their children giggled at daddy’s trick.

Russell marveled at his new upturned perspective. He assumed that if he experienced decollation, seeing his own body would feel like looking in a mirror. But it wasn’t like that, not at all. It was like seeing a stranger sitting in his chair.

Colleen wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Is your collar functioning properly?”

“I’m not dead, am I?” Because the collar was doing the job of his vocal chords, the words sounded hollow and robotic. The collar also circulated oxygenated blood, at least temporarily. The other half of the device did the same for his body. “Please tell it to pick me up.”

Colleen got up from the kitchen table in their modest home. Out of the corner of his eyes, he watched as she dug through the junk drawer. After emptying the contents on the counter, she found the remote. She held down the button and spoke a command. “Russell Body, retrieve and protect Russell Head.”

The body lifted him with all the grace of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. Oafish hands held Russell at chest level, the perfect height to watch his two children laughing at his predicament. They used their own collars to snap photos. Russel tried to sigh, but it was beyond the emergency collar’s capability. “Wish I paid for the version where your head stays on top of your neck.”

“You were the one who insisted on saving money on our insurance bill.” Her hand went to her own collar. “At least you bought the deluxe models for me and the kids. But your budget brand sealed everything off. That’s what’s important.”

“I’ve got mashed potatoes in my ear.”

“Hush, dear.” Colleen reached across the table and brushed away the mush. “You know emergency collars aren’t made for talking. You’ll mess up your oxygen levels. Besides, your collar should have already alerted the service. The ambulance will be here any minute.”

That turned out to be optimistic. By the time two pimple-faced attendants arrived, Russell’s oxygen levels ran dangerously low. He tried to remember how long this model could sustain him. A half-hour? Forty-five minutes? He couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t process. Finally, he saw flashing blue and red lights illuminate the kitchen curtains. Through his tunnel vision, he watched the attendants guide his body to the ambulance. He felt a sharp jolt as they plugged him into a sustaining port. As fresh oxygenated blood pumped through him, his vision and thoughts returned to normal. An attendant buckled Russell’s body into a seat across from him. The body sat perfectly straight, like a child waiting to see the principal—minus a head, of course.

His family stood outside the rear of the ambulance. “We’ll meet you at the hospital,” she said. Russell’s son waved goodbye as the doors slammed shut. The only light was a blinking bulb on the sustaining machine.

Russell listened to his body breathing, independent and alien. He wished they’d given him a mouth guard to bite on, because his teeth clicked with every bump in the road. The attendants up front argued over a three-year-old football game.

At the hospital, he watched them lead his lumbering body away, presumably to prepare for the surgery. A transport technician took Russell to a small private room. It was more of a closet, really—after all, Russell didn’t need much in the way of space. In the early days of the Anne Boleyn plague, when every man, woman, and child began wearing collars, patients were kept together to save space. It was soon discovered communal living exacerbated the unique problems of those suffering sudden decapitation.

Now that the excitement died down—and his brain was getting enough oxygen—Russell began to grasp the reality of his situation. He had no way to pass the time except to stare at the door, willing it to open. He didn’t have an itch, but the thought of how frustrating an itch would be was even worse.

“At least it won’t be for long.” His regular voice, created by the hospital’s superior sustaining system, echoed in the tiny room. “Thank God for insurance.”

There was no clock in the room, so Russell had no idea how long he waited until the doctor arrived, file in hand. The young man was disheveled, with bags under his eyes.

“Hello, Mr. Helmuth,” the doctor said, reading over Russell’s chart. “Sorry to leave you waiting. The hospital’s being hit by an out-of-season subito decollate epidemic. Probably came in on one of the off-world freighters. Heads are rolling all over town. You’ll be pleased to know, your family has already tested negative. But you’re lucky we still had a hat box for you.”

“Hat box?” Russell asked.

“That’s just what we call rooms like yours. Think nothing of it. I know it’s a bit bare now, but your family should be done with your paperwork soon. Then they can bring you some amenities to make it feel more comfortable. Maybe you’d like a television? Changing the channel will be tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.”

“Thank you, Doctor, but I won’t need anything like that. I know there will be a bit of a wait before my reattachment operation, what with the outbreak. But I’ll be fine with my family keeping me company. How long will it be? A few more hours? If it’s a few days, I can finally catch up on my podcasts.”

The man closed the file, his tired expression collapsing into a frown. “I’m sorry, Mr. Helmuth, but there may be a misunderstanding. I’m not a doctor, I’m with the hospital’s billing department. We’re not scheduling an operation at this time.”

If Russell had been in possession of a heart, it would have skipped a beat. “Is the outbreak really that bad? Should I be worried for my family?”

“The outbreak has nothing to do with it. Mr. Helmuth, I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed. Your insurance only covered emergency sustainment and transport to the hospital. We need to set up a payment plan for your continued care.”

“Payment plan! There’s no way I would have paid so much for insurance if it didn’t cover reattachment. I’ll have you know, I’m a certified public accountant!”

“Pardon me, sir, but were you a very good one?”

“Do you have my policy there? Show it to me.”

The billing officer held the document in front of Russell’s eyes, turning the pages on request. When Russell finished, he tried to clench his fists in anger. Failing that, he ground his teeth. “Maybe I can get a loan for the operation.”

The billing officer laughed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Helmuth, but you’re underestimating the cost. Reattachment surgery is one of the most complex procedures in post-modern medicine. It makes surgical ventricular restoration look like an appendectomy. There isn’t a surgeon in this part of the country who can perform it. Even if you could afford it, the waiting list is decades long.”

Russell tried to hang his head. “So I’m just stuck here.”

“Only if you set up a payment plan. Fortunately, you have someone who can work off your bill for you.”

“My wife? She already has a job. It covers the mortgage.”

“No, Mr. Helmuth, I’m talking about your body.”

“My body? It’s worthless without me, I mean, without my head attached to it, right?”

“Certainly not, Mr. Helmuth. Your body just became a major asset. It doesn’t complain or need sleep. We can broker a contract between you and a third party to put your body to work. It will more than cover the cost of your daily treatment. The additional money will preserve your family’s quality of life and cover amenities for you here in the hat box.”

Sweat dripped from Russell’s forehead into his left eye, making him squint. “I don’t want to die, so go ahead. It’s not like I could do my old job. Unless I learn to work a ten key with my mouth.”

“We have computers you can work with your eyes, sir, but not at the speed you’d require. Anyway, your boss already called to inform us you’re fired.”

“Why would he call you?”

“If you’ll just sign here, Mr. Helmuth.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“Just bite down on the edge of the paper. That’s perfect. And here’s your copy. I’ll just put it over here for you.”

After the billing agent departed, Russell’s family filed in for a visit. His children gave him the occasional wet willy as Colleen cried. After they left, the lights in the hatbox dimmed and Russell fell asleep immediately, like a bird in a covered cage.

As weeks passed, Russell’s situation improved. Colleen would bring in her phone and some speakers so he could catch up on his podcasts, and whatever they pumped into his blood at lights out helped him sleep better than he had in years. But he felt lonely. His wife became too busy with work and the kids to visit regularly. The days blurred together.

Then came the day Colleen walked through the door with a pile of muscles.

“Good lord,” Russell said. “Is that my body?” Every ounce of pudge was gone. A headless body builder wearing a suit and tie stood beside his wife.

Colleen squeezed the body’s bicep. “It sure is. They had it working at a collar warehouse, loading the crates by hand. Since it can work for days on end, it tripled their profits. They made it district manager.” The body puffed out its chest and smoothed its tie.

Russell’s jaw dropped, clanging against his sustaining port. “How the hell can it manage anyone?”

“By example.” A tear dripped down Colleen’s cheek. “I’m sorry, Russell. I had to tell you face to face. I’m leaving you.”

“Leaving me? For who?”

“For your body,” Colleen said. Russell’s body awkwardly put a gigantic arm around her.

“Of course you are. Is it at least good with the kids?”

“They get along great. He’s been helping them with their math homework. Russell Junior loves playing catch with it.”

“How in the hell—”

Colleen put her finger over Russell’s lips, shushing him. “We’ll continue paying for your care. With the body’s raise, you can have anything you want.”

Almost anything.”

“Yes, almost anything. It’s the least we can do.”

“The least you can do. Right. I’ll have to get myself a new sombrero. Do you need me to bite down on some divorce papers?”

“We don’t need a divorce. I’m technically still with the majority of you. And I’m afraid I won’t be visiting again. It’s just too painful.”

“Lady, you haven’t been to see me in three weeks.”

Colleen wiped her tears away. “Goodbye, Russell’s head.” She exited, leaving Russell alone in the tiny room with his body.

“Got to admit,” Russell said, “You’re looking good. Congratulations on the promotion, you usurping son of a bitch.”

The body stood motionless for several seconds, a mannequin from a Big and Tall store. It leaned over and patted Russell on the top of the head gently.

“Geez.” Russell rolled his eyes. “You know I can’t stay mad at you. Will you at least come visit me?”

The body shrugged and left Russell alone in the hat box.

The weeks that followed were a dark time. Russell slept through most of each day. He refused to let the attendant shave his face. His brain ached most of the time, worrying the doctor who stopped by twice a week.

The depression was atrocious, but the boredom was worse. He tried choosing a target on the wall and spitting at it, but his support mechanism didn’t provide enough air pressure. Russell finally broke down, and asked a nurse to bring in a computer. “Just bill it to my body,” he said. The nurse grinned and patted him on the head.

Russell struggled to learn the esoteric controls, a confusing combination of eyebrow, ear, and jaw movements. But he worked each day until he couldn’t wiggle an earlobe, and by the end of the week he could browse the internet. Scrolling through the images projected on his wall, he congratulated himself on not pulling up Colleen’s social media.

He found new podcasts. As he listened to one amateur internet radio show after another, he researched his condition. The Center for Disease Control obscured the statistics, but Russell didn’t need his body to do the math. The population of heads living in hat boxes numbered in the millions.

So he started his own podcast: The Disembodied. Each morning, he recorded a show. The first hour-long episode consisted of a violent distillation of his frustrations. He raged about his insurance, his imprisonment, and losing his wife to the basest part of himself. Subsequent shows jumped between other rants and gentler ruminations

He recorded three shows before reaching his first listener. But after that listener posted the link to an online forum for others living the lifestyle of John the Baptist, the numbers lurched and kept climbing. Russell sent out an open call, and nurses wheeled in guests from other hatboxes in the hospital, then from around the country. Emails poured in, many of them thanking Russell for a reason to wake up in the morning. His children visited again, apologizing for their callousness. His daughter enjoyed styling Russell’s hair while he played chess against his son.

A Hollywood heart throb, the one whose films Colleen always insisted on seeing in the theater, contacted Russell out of the blue. That morning, the show had more live listeners than all of the previous episodes combined. On the air, the movie star removed his collar, revealing his reattachment scar.

After the story broke, Russell became the voice of a movement. Sponsors poured in, and he no longer needed his body’s financial support. He did lecture tours and became the most literal talking head on television. He helped several major companies initiate grant programs, designed to bring down the cost of reattachment surgeries by training new doctors and developing new procedures. Russell released his first book, No Body Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, which he dictated to his secretary inside a spacious new office. Copies sold out across the country. Stores couldn’t keep the audio book in stock.

Russell’s secretary was under standing orders to ignore calls from Colleen. But one afternoon, when Russell was alone in his office tasting lunch, a knock came at the door. It was his old body.

 “Does Colleen know you’re here?” Russell asked.

The body shook its shoulders. It said nothing, of course, but Russell understood what it wanted.

“I understand,” Russell said. “I really do. But I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I don’t want to be reattached.”

His old body went down on its knees, holding out its hands in supplication.

“No. I don’t need a body who turned its back on me.”

The body stood up awkwardly, as if unsure how to proceed. It then exited the office, dragging its feet the whole way.

“Please close the door!” Russell called after it. The door closed with a soft click.

Russell awaited the return of his secretary. He had an idea for his second book.

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