Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

A Head in a Box, or, Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation

This is not about the movie.

The movie that launched her career, where she played the pretty wife of a headstrong cop. Pretty, blonde, smart, convincing. Unhappy. The dutiful wife, killed, dismembered, beheaded. Just like the only other woman in the film, the fatal object of sin manifest.

How ironic was it that The Actress first made such a strong cinematic impression with her portrayal of a character whose severed head does indeed end up in a packing crate in the middle of a field so that The Actor—her boyfriend at the time—can have a crisis of conscience?

The Actress had the rest of her life to contemplate the irony. After all, she didn’t have anything else to do but think and speak. And blink. And occasionally wet her lips with the tip of her tongue.

And smile. She was already a practiced smiler. An expert. A professional.

But this story is not about that box. There is no serial killer, no neat if bloody moral.

It is just the ugly coincidence of fate that The Actress’s career was launched by a movie in which her head ends up in a box. Her first career, that is.

Her second career was as a head in a box.

• • • •

A severed head can live an indeterminate amount of time away from its body—possibly indefinitely if fluids are renewed, oxygen delivered to the brain and waste products shunted away. A severed head may remain sensate for several seconds, though the science is obviously disputed and impossible to reproduce, at least ethically.

You will hear tales of chickens blinking and opening their beaks. Of dogs’ heads held in Russian laboratories. Of convicted French criminals and their expressions of affront or surprise. Last words uttered after the fall of the blade.

This particular blonde head received instant and expert medical attention. How fortunate that the crash happened just yards from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. How fortunate that she was rich. She had impeccable health insurance. She was wearing a helmet. She had friends in high places.

She was riding her beloved Vespa. A cable snapped, wrapped around her neck, caught, pulled taut. Sliced like the sharpest knife and toppled her head from the pillar of her back. A freak accident. Unpreventable. Uncorrectable. Gruesome. Unique.

Her body couldn’t be salvaged; it was dragged along the road, beneath the still-hurtling scooter, and mangled beyond repair. But her head was pristine and undamaged, except for the obvious. Were her eyes open in shock, or closed by gravity and loss of blood? No one made note at the time. Their priorities were elsewhere. Both head and body were taken to the emergency doors of the hospital. That famous face was recognized immediately.

One quick slice and her body was a loss, but her head, her head, that million-dollar face, those highly marketable freckles and strands of flaxen hair were still pristine, still worth recovering from the wreckage. The grand experiment began.

Tubes and buckets and blood transfusions followed. Hasty arrangements of polyvinyl and pumps. Nutrient solutions. Saline and oxygenation. Artificial circulation, artificial respiration. Antibacterial swabs.

On the operating table, one of The Actress’s eyes opened slowly, focused on nothing. It stared vacantly at the monitors and tubes, the green sheets and the polished metal. Then it closed again, as if she were sleeping. Her eyes moved beneath her eyelids, back and forth, back and forth. Throughout the lengthy procedures, they never stopped.

• • • •

Blondes seem to suffer the severing blade more often than most. Think of Jayne Mansfield and Marie Antoinette. Now The Actress had joined that pair, a triple goddess of beautiful blonde heads. Admittedly, she was more Antoinette than Mansfield; the latter was coarse, brazen, a publicity hog. The former, an aristocrat, bred for success. “Let them eat clean.”

Although Mansfield, it will be remembered, was also a devoted mother with a genius IQ. Perhaps they were not so different after all.

Why blondes suffer decapitation more often cannot be explained by science. One must resort to the mechanics of coincidence, or of superstition and mysticism. Or one can merely note the pattern without turning to theory. Empirical observation without a push to conclusion.

With the help of her accident, The Actress ascended to the pantheon of Famous Blonde Heads. Blond Vic Morrow was decapitated by a helicopter blade. He was a movie star too. Madame du Barry, the mistress of Marie Antoinette’s father-in-law. Both beautiful and spoiled, both blonde, both beheaded by the Revolution. Her last words were “encore un moment!”—a proto-existential crie de couer.

The truth about Mansfield, by the way, is more complicated. She was not actually beheaded. She was scalped, her head cracked open like an egg and her blonde hair left on the dashboard—or perhaps it was a wig. She was, after all, not a natural blonde.

The Actress was no longer a natural blonde either. Now she was an unnatural blonde, a head without a body. An accidental head in a box.

• • • •

The Actress was also not the first head in a box.

The heads in boxes reside in cornfields. They reside in gilt reliquaries inside cathedrals. They reside in garages and they reside in schoolyards. The boxes are sometimes plastic crates, sometimes of old-fashioned wood, but most often they are made of cardboard, once soggy and now stiffened with blood.

But they do not speak.

Before her, only brazen heads had spoken. Other heads had been preserved, but their mouths were sewn shut or their lips fused tight together by rigor mortis.

The Actress was the first, but once she’d demonstrated that the technique worked—well, she was always a natural trendsetter.

She was not brazen. She was golden.

• • • •

She could have succumbed to the horror and pain of being suddenly and permanently severed from her body. The madness of nerves misfiring. She could have closed her eyes and let herself die. She could have snarled a curse and grown snakes from her head.

Instead, her lips convulsed. They quivered like a fresh batch of artisanal jelly. Tayberry, perhaps. With a hint of cardamom. She retched, she cleared her throat. One eye was open and focused; the other eyelid was at half-mast.

The Actress’s eyes rolled back into her head. Her jaw fell open. Her tongue moved within the cavern of her mouth, the muscle limp and meaty at first, slurring the sounds she made with her throat. The voice box intact. A thin thread of spittle slipped out the corner of her mouth.

Sparks seemed to ignite off the flint of her teeth. She spit. She rolled her entire head atop that pretty swanlike neck, also miraculously preserved by advanced medical means. She bit her tongue and smeared the blood across her lips. Her gaze shot frantically all over the room, then fixed on a point somewhere in the middle distance. Such pretty blue eyes, not a bright bejeweled tone, but the stormy hue of the troubled sea.

• • • •

She had to relearn to speak. Who knew what nerve damage might have occurred, or what small parts of the brain winked out in those few crucial minutes when her head was no longer breathing? That brief window of nothingness, snapped shut by advanced medical science.

Her first words sounded heavy and ponderous. Once there was a fairy tale of a girl who spoke and jewels fell from her mouth; when her sister spoke, scorpions and spiders scuttled forth. When The Actress spoke for the first time after the accident, it was boulders. Kettlebells. Concrete blocks. Slabs of marble. Lead. Her spittle was mercury and her tears were too.

“Thishp izf zhe beshp gooden fee bownee freshibee effeh,” she said.

Her first articulations were painful and slow. But they soon gained momentum. Her words sped up. “Too eggzh,” she said. “Aha cup olla oil. Aha cup bwow zhugah. Aha teespoo bakih powda. Acuppa dahk chocalett chipzh. Won teespoo gowned koffi. Aha cup amand flahr. Afor cup bwow wice flahr. Won teespoo baniluh ekstakt. Apinsh sawt.”

“Whishk,” she articulated, gingerly. “Whishk. Hand. Held. Whishk.”

“Parshmen pay per. Peeheet thee fifty. Bake thurdy minute. Coo owna wire rack.”

Her diction improved with the help of a suite of speech therapists, who assigned her exercises to recover and improve her oral motor ability. She manipulated beads and buttons with her tongue and lips. She played tug-of-war with her mouth—using teeth was cheating. She grimaced through a series of stretching exercises for the muscles of her face.

• • • •

It became apparent, however, that at least some brain damage had been incurred. Or, if one were feeling metaphysical, her soul had taken partial flight and remained incompletely tethered to her head. This was not entirely The Actress of old. She had lost some of her inhibitions and gained some new vocabulary.

Nurses were assigned to transcribe and record everything that The Actress uttered. Supposedly it was for to monitor her therapeutic progress.

“Clean clean clean clean clean clean clean clean.

“Jay Z Jay Z Jay Z Jay Z Jay Z Jay. Z. Uncle Jay. JZ. JZ. Jeezy. Z Z Z Z Z Z.

“N****s in Paris! N*****s in London! N****s in Barcelona! On the Riviera, under the cherry moon! N****s on the catwalk! Naples! Florence! Milan!

“Nas! Nas! N***as!

“******!

“&@%*$***!

“SEAN CARTER.

“Zed. Zed. Zeta. Zeta, zulu, three. Three times two is six. Three, six, twenty-six. 26 Zulu street, Northcliff, Johannesburg. Three bedrooms. I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites. Page twenty-six. You sabbee me, I sabbee you. Me sabbee plenty.

“I need purple sprouting broccoli! Let them eat goop!

“Jeezy, peasy, lemon squeezy. Freezy, sneezy, Japanesey. Day one: lemon water. Day two: spicy tuna on crispy rice. Day three: Pesto pasta with peas. Frozen peas. Frozen peas are an acceptable alternative to fresh in this and other dishes. Freezy peasy. Over easy.”

It took some time for the glitchy electrical impulses in her recently-traumatized brain to smooth themselves out again. But soon enough she was spitting perfectly-pronounced words, if in a somewhat confounding order.

A transcript from her first press conference includes this snippet:

Q: “Is there anything you’d like to tell your fans about your, uh, transition?”

A: “My name means white, it means fair, it means happy, it means Most Beautiful Woman People Magazine. It means Emmy, it means Academy Award. Golden hair and Golden Globe. I never fly coach but I own a Coach purse. My peers love me and they give me statues. Its origin is Welsh but I am a white Barbadian Rabbi’s daughter. Barbadian. Barbarian. I speak Spanish fluently even when in London.

“Do you understand how powerful I am? They cut my fucking head off and put it in a box and that didn’t even slow me down.

“I can sing. Would you like to hear me sing?”

Q: “How did you feel at first after the accident?”

A: “Queasy. I had such morning sickness when I was pregnant. I think it contributed to my postpartum depression and maybe it also had some connection to his gluten intolerance, I mean I can’t prove anything but you have to wonder. Don’t you?”

Q: “Queasy was your primary feeling, then? When did that start to abate? Or has it? Has it gone away or do you still feel queasy sometimes?”

A: “Sleazy. Teasy. Pleasey. Wheezy. Weezy. Weetzie Bat Cheesy. Easy Breezy Beautiful—no, wait, I don’t work for Maybelline. I’m an Estée Lauder girl. Estée, easy, geez Louisey. Louise, Louise, Eloise, Abelard. Fuck!

“Get me the president. Get me my agent. Get me Oprah.”

• • • •

The Actress’s Head: The Oprah Interview

Oprah: “There were rumors of a . . . brain damage situation, after your accident.”

The Actress: “Just rumors, Oprah. There were some challenges at the beginning of my recovery, but I went through an extensive rehabilitation process, including one-on-one speech therapy, and after I got used to my new status as a head in a box and recovered the use of my facial muscles and tongue, everything proceeded smoothly.”

Oprah: “How do you get around your house?”

The Actress: “Oh, I don’t, really, at the moment. With all the tubes and things I’m really sort of stuck in my box. The doctors are working on building a little scooter cart for me, you know, and robotic limbs are under discussion, as well—I will have the opportunity to try out a lot of prototypes, I think. The most advanced cutting-edge technology will be completely at my disposal. [giggle] But for right now, someone has to wheel me around attached to this big refrigerator-like unit that keeps my blood circulating and my brain oxygenated and all.”

Oprah: “Is that hard for you?”

The Actress: “I wouldn’t say it’s been easy, certainly. It’s very challenging. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, frankly, but I’m grateful for the opportunities this has provided me.”

Oprah: “Opportunities? Such as?”
The Actress: “I get to spend more time with my children. And I’m dictating a new book. It’s my memoir. I think it will be very inspirational.”

Oprah: “Do you miss your body? Is there like a phantom limb sort of phenomenon?”

The Actress: “Oh, God, sometimes I get the most terrible itch on my nose and there’s nothing I can do about it, you know? I miss having hands and I miss having feet. But mostly for practical reasons. There are definitely parts I don’t miss at all!”

Oprah: “Such as?”
The Actress: “I don’t have to worry any more about my bikini line . . .”

Oprah: “You wrote two best-selling cookbooks. Do you miss eating, do you miss food?”

The Actress: “As you know, I am fed via a tube now, and my head alone, it turns out, doesn’t need all that much nutritional input to stay alive and functioning. I miss the taste of food and I miss handling it. I was a pretty decent and creative cook, if I do say so myself. I wrote those two cookbooks, after all. All by myself, no matter what that woman says. But I will also confess that I was always more interested in feeding other people—especially my children. And I can still do that. I can still dictate recipes and give directions to my assistants, just like the old days. [mutual laughter] I just can’t stir the pot myself anymore.”

Oprah: “How do your children feel about your change?”

The Actress: “They’re just glad to have their mother back—in whatever form they can.”

Oprah: “At this point, what are your career plans?”

The Actress: “I don’t need to work, financially speaking, although the medical bills for this situation are staggering, as you can imagine. And every little bit helps. So I’m pursuing some options. Some cosmetics companies have been calling, which is very flattering. But I think I am going to try a more traditional path. Traditional, at least, if you know your classics.

“I’ve decided to become an oracle. One of the strange side-effects of the accident is that when I lost my body, I seem to have gained some extra-sensory perceptions. You know how blind people can become extra-sharp of hearing in compensation for their visual deficit? Well it turns out that can kind of happen to heads, too. I can see things.”

Oprah: “What kind of things?”

The Actress: “I can see the future, Oprah.”

Oprah: “Really? That’s fascinating.”

The Actress: “Really. I’ve got a few initial clients; they pay me for predictions about stocks and sports games, elections, things like that.”

Oprah: “Elections?”

The Actress: “I’m not big on politics, but maybe someday, sure. I’m open to the possibility.”

Oprah: “Lottery numbers?”

The Actress: [laughing] “We’ll see.”

Oprah: “So tell me, how do you ‘see’ the future? Is it like a movie screen, or do you hear voices whispering in your ear, or what?”

The Actress: “It’s like double vision. Like somebody pulls a translucent curtain over my eyes, and I can see both what’s on the curtain and what’s behind it. Or maybe it’s more like looking through a pane of glass that’s had something painted on it—you see the glass and through the glass at the same time. Does that make any sense?”

Oprah: “So is the future the pane of glass, or the curtain, or whatever’s behind them?”

The Actress: “Sometimes it’s the glass, sometimes it’s behind the glass. It’s really hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it. Or done hallucinogens.”

• • • •

The Actress’s head replaces the robotic double of Dear Abby and dictates a new, wildly popular weekly advice column. Because of her peculiar new talents, she is banned from the state of Nevada and from a number of online gambling sites. Once a month, she has a private conference call with the President of the United States. “Just doing my patriotic duty,” she says to all press inquiries, and smiles, her perfect white teeth gleaming in the light from the flashbulbs that always seem to surround her, now as before. She is the most famous face in the world. And not just a face. Finally, finally, they respect her for her mind.

She finds she has a taste for high-end millinery and becomes one of the most sought-after hat models in history. Elaborate women’s hats are instantly back in style.

High-end hairstylists, too, send discreet inquiries, and sometimes The Actress responds. She cuts her formerly long, flowing tresses into a stylish and flattering asymmetrical bob, and later experiments with a pixie cut.

The Actress enters into high-end negotiations with certain prestigious filmmakers about reviving her film career. Plans for a biopic of St. Catherine of Siena are rumored to be in the works; an earlier deal to play Anne Boleyn fell through.

The Actress hires an attendant to keep her lips greased and glossed at all times. To comb her golden hair, to apply subtle and natural make-up. To pluck errant hairs and to apply sunscreen as needed—all-natural and PABA-free. With her skin so fair and so many other health worries sloughed away, skin cancer is in the center of The Actress’s radar.

• • • •

The Actress, despite her new nearly-bodiless state, still sleeps. Still dreams. In fact, she had a recurring dream. She tells no one about it.

The Actress dreams that at night, after she was asleep, she has a whole body again, but only for a moment. For shortly after the dream began, her head would detach from her body, neatly, as if on a hinge. Her head would rise, and rise, and rise into the air. Beneath her neck, her body would fall away, as if swooning, into the bedcovers. But not all of her body. With a slick and slippery sound, a mass of dark and glistening entrails is pulled out of her torso. Oh, what a voluptuous feeling, that slow slide upwards. And then, the final parting, as her head flies free, trailing its heart and its stomach and lungs like the mermaid hem of a couture gown. A heart and stomach and set of lungs that, in reality, she left behind in a hospital room. It seemed like so long ago, now.

Her head and entrails sail through the window, into the gloom of night. She can feel herself smile, exposing her newly sharp teeth. She can also feel a long, thin tongue uncurl from between her lips. She smells blood and vinegar on the night breezes, and the scent makes her hungry. No. Not hungry. Thirsty. She flies, free of her box, her strange contraption. Her liberated lungs fill with air.

Strangely, her hair is always black in this dream.

When she awakens from the dream, she finds her lips are dry, sometimes almost cracking. She tries applying virgin coconut oil before she sleeps—or, rather, she has the coconut oil applied by her assistant—but it never seems to help. She always wakes up with dry lips and a dry throat. Her assistant rushes to her side with a straw cup of spring water and applies another coating of handmade, organic hydrating cream.

She licks her lips and tastes salt.

• • • •

One final strange side effect of The Actress’s unique predicament takes some time to manifest.

She does not age. Her hair grows, her few gray hairs hidden by the bright blonde tones of the rest of her hair. She breathes, although she does not need to. Perpetually mid-forties yet still apple-cheeked, The Actress is frozen in time.

As long as the mechanical parts of her “box”—the tubes and valves that feed her nutrients and take away her waste, that oxygenate her brain and push the blood through her veins—as long as those are maintained, she may well live forever. The Actress is looking into having solar panels installed on her rig, so that she can be even more self-sufficient.

Scientists and engineers are researching carts, spider-crawlers, cyborg bodies to increase her mobility. The Actress is driving innovation. It makes her just a little bit proud.

The Actress always knew she was destined for something great. Something different. People teased her about being born on third base with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she had proved everyone wrong. She was not just beautiful and talented and blessed with beautiful and talented parents. She had taste, she had skills, and now she was spearheading technology that could not only save lives but change their very texture forever. Through the intercession of fate, she had forged a new path toward immortality. Not metaphorical this time, but real.

Her star is rising. She has no choice but to ascend.

She is the face of the future.

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Lori Selke

Lori Selke

Lori Selke lives in Oakland, California. She has been previously published in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and The Big Click. She is also the co-editor of the anthology Outlaw Bodies from Future Fire Press. Her stand-alone novella “The XY Conspiracy” is available from Aqueduct Press.