Head To Head
The voice of God spoke inside Walter's head. He had his doubts, of course, but eight years of Catholic school are hard to shake off. So he played along — you know, just in case.
He had confessed to five of the seven deadly sins before finally calling the voice’s bluff. “I don’t think God would say ‘Dang’!”
“Dang, you got me!” said the voice, which dropped its bad James Mason impression and now sounded like a cross between Larry the Cable Guy and Kermit the Frog. “But I had you going, didn’t I? I mean, I feel you were starting to really believe me, and then — dang — literally, dang! Oh, man, I really needed that.” The voice's laughter sounded like a rapidly dripping faucet. A migraine bloomed behind Walter’s left eye.
“Why? So you can fool the next poor guy?”
“As far as I know you’re the only person I can communicate with.”
“Lucky me. And just who am I communicating with, if you don’t mind my asking?”
The voice’s laughter sounded like a rapidly dripping faucet.
“Oh, you want my name? It’s Satan!” The voice laughed and it felt like a chainsaw ripping through Walter’s medulla oblongata. “But my buddies call me Beelzebubba! Heh-heh-heh. Get it? Beelzebubba? I just made that up.”
Walter pressed his index fingers into his temples. “No, I don’t get any of this. How is it that you’re talking to me inside my head? Am I going insane?”
“Ain’tchu the dummy. Never heard of telepathy? I’m telepathic.”
“More like pathetic.”
“You making fun, friend? You don’t want to make fun.”
The voice exited Walter’s brain. It felt like a tooth had been yanked from his mouth.
Walter told himself it was a figment of his imagination; that he was just stressed out after another miserable day at the office. It had been twenty years of miserable days at the office and it didn’t seem to be getting any better.
The board meeting had been a disaster. As he’d expected, his manager, Thom, asked about the revised claims report. Walter had been rehearsing his answer in his head all day. He had even written it out on a Post-it note. But when the big moment came, Walter choked. The words got stuck in his throat and then came hurtling out like a dyslexic shotgun blast. He never completed a sentence. After what seemed an eternity, Thom cut him off and said, “We’ll get back to Walter when he remembers how to speak.”
Walter returned to playing online Tetris, which was what he had been doing before the voice appeared, and after the twentieth game he forgot all about the bizarre incident.
The voice returned three days later, as Walter was about to propose to his online girlfriend.
He’d met Katherine on a dating site a few months ago. Walter was in Oneonta, New York and Katherine was in Pueblo, Colorado, but they Skyped three nights a week, what they called their “date nights.”
Walter knew it was weird to propose to a woman he had never met in person. But he felt in his heart that Katherine was the one. She laughed at his jokes. She was fanatical about 1930s movie serials, just like him. She beat him at Tetris and he was at Level 74 now. But most important, he always felt comfortable with her and he didn’t think it would be weird at all when they finally met in person.
Each “date night” since he bought the engagement ring, Walter had tried to work up the courage to pop the question, but the moment never presented itself. Then he got an idea. He’d put the ring on a shelf behind him. Beside the ring would be a bouquet of yellow roses and above it a sign reading, “Will you marry me, Kat?” He’d excuse himself during their Skype session, start playing Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved,” and then zoom in on the shelf. After a bit, he’d pop back on the camera and get the (hopefully positive) answer. That had been the plan, anyway, until the voice returned.
“Walter! Hey, Walter. It’s me,” the voice said. “Hey, man, what’s going on? Long time no hear, huh?”
Walter clenched his jaw.
“Do you need to pass gas?” Katherine asked.
“Walter, my man. Wassup!” the voice said.
“You look like you have to pass gas.”
“Walter, hey, Walter! Are you there, man?”
“I’m fine,” Walter said. His right eye began to twitch.
“Are you sure?” Katherine said. “You don’t look fine.”
“Don’t ignore me!” the voice shouted. “You ignore me and you’re gonna be in a mess of doo-doo! Trust me, friend!”
“Shut up!” Walter shouted.
Katherine flinched. “Excuse me?” she said.
“Sorry, sorry, I wasn’t talking to — I mean, I don’t feel well. Maybe we should call it a night.”
Katherine flinched. “Excuse me?” she said.
“You can just pass the gas off camera and come back. It’s okay. I get it, guys fart.” She giggled, but Walter didn’t laugh.
Now the voice began to sing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” in a monotonous, nasal voice.
“I have to go,” Walter said, and slammed his laptop shut.
“What the hell was that?” Walter said.
“That one is on you, friend. I told you not to ignore me. Come on, let’s play Questions. I’ll go first.”
“Why would I want to play with a voice in my head when I could have been proposing to my girlfriend?”
“You have a girlfriend? Nice! OK, I’ll go first. What’s your favorite Bruce Lee movie?”
Walter was convinced he was losing his mind. The voice spoke to him every day, all day long now. He talked about slasher movies (he liked Friday the 13th, hated the Saw franchise); beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon was his favorite); muscle cars (he was partial to the 1968 Pontiac Firebird Coupe); and women (he had a thing for heavyset redheads). He asked Walter stupid questions: “What would you rather eat: chocolate-flavored poop or poop-flavored chocolate?” He made up stupid songs involving Walter’s name: “Walter-ter-ter-ter. Ter-ter-DA. Da-DUM-da-DUM. Wall-TAH!”
Walter called in sick to work for five days straight. On the sixth day, after guzzling a forty-ounce beer, he saw a psychiatrist.
“Does this voice tell you to do anything? To hurt yourself?” Dr. De Graat asked. He was a bald, bespectacled man with a penchant for polka-dot bowties and sweaters that reeked of mothballs.
“Not really,” Walter said. “When he’s mad, he’s the one threatening to hurt me.”
“I see,” De Graat said, and scribbled on his legal pad. “And does he hurt you?”
“Yes. All the time. He’ll scream. He’ll sing off-key for hours.”
“Does he influence your behavior?”
“He makes me drink and I had been sober for two and half years. He gives me headaches.”
“Are you getting enough sleep?”
“Not at all.”
Scribble, scribble. “Walter, I’m going to prescribe you an antipsychotic drug.”
“Do you think I’m psychotic?”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. The drug I’m prescribing is extremely effective in treating hallucinations and delusions. Let’s deal with that first. Outside of this voice, are you under much stress?”
“Well, things at work haven’t been the greatest and my relationship with my girlfriend has been strained.”
“The imaginary girlfriend?”
“No. She’s my online girlfriend.”
“Uh-huh.” He made a long note. “Take the medication and come back in two weeks.”
The antipsychotic drug didn’t help.
“Walter! Walter! Walter!”
He was in a meeting when the voice started. He bit his lower lip hard enough to draw blood. As he reached for a napkin, he knocked over his mug, spilling coffee onto the conference table.
“Take the medication and come back in two weeks.”
“Walter! Walter! Walter! Guess what? Guess what?”
All eyes turned on Walter. He dabbed at his bloody lip.
“Are you okay?” his manager, Thom, asked. “I didn’t even call on you yet.”
“Just have to pass some gas,” Walter said, and immediately had no idea why he’d said that. He bolted out of the conference room, hoping no one had heard him. The laughter erupting from the room told him otherwise.
“Walter! Guess what?”
“Chicken butt! I can’t believe you fell for that! That’s such an old joke.”
A laugh, like glass grinding against stone, tore through Walter’s head.
He bought two bottles of Jack Daniel’s on the way home. He drank half of one in the car. It worked better than the psycho medication. The voice was still there when he drank, but it was muffled, as if covered by a hand.
After Walter finished the Jack, he started on the champagne he had planned to drink after proposing to Katherine. He had sent her a bottle of the same champagne, but didn’t tell her what it was for. He’d said only that one day they should both drink it when they had something to celebrate.
He hadn’t talked to her since that night. He’d almost told her about the voice, but she’d never believe him. Dr. De Graat didn’t believe him; he thought it was an auditory hallucination. Walter didn’t know what to believe. But he knew he couldn’t let Katherine see him until he got his mind back.
The voice was now playing the Name Game: “Walter, Walter, Bo-balter ”
He finished the champagne then headed back to the liquor store. It wasn’t long before the voice was pushed down so deep that it felt like the memory of a dream.
His bender lasted two weeks. When it was over, he awoke with a splitting headache and a pink slip. He barely heard Thom’s message, because the voice in his head was singing the Scooby Doo theme song. (The voice somehow made the song even more obnoxious.)
His bender lasted two weeks.
“I’m going to blow my brains out,” Walter said, “then you won’t be able to torture me anymore.” He was serious, too. He had a revolver in his desk drawer, which he got after the apartment down the hall was burglarized.
“That’s kinda insulting, you know. I thought we were friends.”
“We’re not friends! You’re an auditory hallucination!”
“Hey, hey, hey, come on. I told you from the beginning I’m a telepath. You have issues, but you’re not crazy.”
“Why are you doing this?”
The voice didn’t answer.
“Why me? What’s so special about me?”
After a long silence, the voice said, “You were the only guy who ever answered me. Telepathy is a two-way street, you know. Sender and receiver. You must be a natural receiver. I guess I could say you complete me, Walter.”
“What’s your name? Where are you?”
“I’d rather not de-vulge my name and locale. I could get in trouble.”
“Get in trouble with whom?”
“Can’t tell you, Walter. They’d probably court-mar—”
“You’re in the Armed Forces! Is this some experiment?”
The voice exited Walter’s head so quickly his ears popped.
He immediately Googled telepathy and army. The third link was for a Discover magazine article titled “Army Plans to Turn Soldiers Into Telepaths.”
He clicked it and learned that a group of scientists was working with the army on a “thought helmet,” which would allow soldiers to communicate silently with one another. The technology behind it was called “synthetic telepathy,” which had something to do with reading electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalograph. But the clincher: the research was being done in Fort Hull, about twenty miles from his apartment.
One of the photos accompanying the article showed a scrawny red-headed guy with an Adam’s apple practically the size of a real apple. He was wearing a huge helmet connected to dozens of spaghetti-thin cables. The caption read: “Volunteer Pvt. Kenny Wayne Kearney attempts to create and send an email using only his thoughts.” Kenny was already able to create Morse code messages on an EEG by controlling his brain’s alpha waves.
A natural sender?
Walter was sure this Kenny was the voice in his head. Had to be. He could picture that stupid voice coming from that stupid face. He Googled Kenny Wayne Kearney and found his Facebook page. He scrolled down the page and hit upon a post that read: “Dang! Look @ da rack on dat broad!!!” That was all the confirmation he needed.
Walter thought two things almost simultaneously: “I’m not crazy” and “I’m going to stop that goddamn redneck.”
Most afternoons Walter would sit in his car about a half-mile down the road from Fort Hull’s front gate. He never stayed too long. He didn’t want the MPs getting suspicious. Sometimes as he waited the voice spoke to him. Walter would try to get more info out of him, but he was extremely tight-lipped now. It was just Questions and bad jokes and terrible songs, mostly Taylor Swift stuff.
It took three weeks until Walter finally saw Kenny strolling down the road. He was wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and trailing a group of young men.
Walter got out of the car and followed him on foot. He watched Kenny catch up to the group. Kenny was talking a mile a minute, trying to get one guy’s attention. The dope probably wanted to tell him a dirty knock-knock joke. But the guy kept ignoring him. Then, suddenly, he pushed Kenny into a chain-link fence. Kenny bounced off it and fell to the ground. The men laughed and walked off, leaving him struggling to get on his feet.
Walter got out of the car and followed him on foot.
After Kenny got up, he continued on his way as if nothing had happened. Walter followed. He watched Kenny enter a small convenience store at the end of the road. He hid between the store and a Laundromat. When Kenny came out, Walter pulled him into the alley.
Kenny was a real lightweight, maybe five-foot-four and a hundred twenty pounds. Walter pushed him against the wall with little effort.
“What the hell, friend?” Kenny said. “Do you know who you’re messing with?” It was a positive ID on the voice: redneck on helium.
“Do you know who you’ve been messing with?”
Kenny froze, dropped the grocery bag he was carrying. An adult magazine and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon spilled out.
“Never seen you before in my life,” Kenny said, his huge Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a buoy in a hurricane.
“That’s true. You’ve only heard my thoughts.”
“You got the wrong guy.”
“I don’t think so. I saw your picture in Discover. You’re part of the telepath experiment.”
“Man, that article is six years old. The project was abandoned four years ago. It never worked. I never communicated telepathically with anyone. Leave me alone, friend.”
“You’re not fooling me. That’s the word you use when you talk to me. Friend. You sound just like him.”
“I’m not the only person in the world who says friend, friend. Take a hike or I’m getting an MP.”
Walter pulled out his gun.
“Whoa, whoa! What the hell, man? You’re having some kind of meltdown. You need to see a shrink.”
“I do see a shrink. You made sure of that. But it does no good. Because I’m not crazy, am I?”
“Get a second opinion. Because you’re loony.”
“I think you’re trying to drive me crazy. That’s what I think. I’m drinking every day. I lost my job. I can’t sleep. I can’t even propose to my girlfriend.”
“Hey, you’re getting married? Congratulations!”
“I’m not getting married, you idiot, and it’s because you’re always in my damn head!”
“That sounds like a personal problem.”
Kenny laughed and Walter’s skull tightened.
He pointed the gun at Kenny’s chest.
“Hey, hey, don’t you think if I could communicate telepathically, I’d be famous? The project would still be alive? I’d be more than a dang private after eight years in the military?”
“No. As you told me, you could communicate only with me. Our brains were on the same frequency or some bullcrap. So that gives your talent an incredibly limited use, doesn’t it? The only thing you could do was annoy me and that’s what you did because you’re a stupid, pathetic redneck with no life.“
“Let’s talk it over, huh, over some brews?” Kenny picked up two cans of Pabst. “I’ll tell you all about the project. Ask me all the questions you want.”
“Questions? No more damn questions! I don’t want to ever hear your idiotic voice again! I want my brain back!”
“Relax, friend. I can see your freaking temple throbbing like your head is going to explode.”
Kenny stepped forward and reached toward Walter.
Kenny’s body dropped before Walter even realized he had fired.
Walter knew prison would be bad, but he didn’t think the worst part would be the loneliness. He was confined to his cell for twenty-three hours a day and got only one hour in the yard. But the serial killers and rapists wouldn’t talk to him. They were a cliquish bunch, he discovered.
If he had visits from Katherine to look forward to, then the days might have been bearable. He wrote to her, explaining everything, but she never responded. He would even have taken a Dear John letter. At least then he’d have something to touch, some connection to the outside world.
“I want my brain back!”
He never did get to see her in person. She didn’t show up at the trial. That was probably for the best. His lawyer had wanted him to plead insanity, but Walter refused. He wasn’t crazy. Kenny had proved that. Still, no one believed the telepathy story and he came off as a drunken wacko. In the end, Walter took a plea deal to avoid a lethal injection and got life in a supermax prison.
He stretched out on his cement-hard cot and found himself thinking about Kenny. Maybe if Walter had talked to the poor bastard, instead of shooting him, the pestering would have stopped. He never did give him a chance.
Walter exhaled and opened a copy of The Hobbit which had both its covers ripped off. It had been a while since he could focus on a book. Now there was nothing else to focus on. Two paragraphs in, he remembered how much he hated reading.
“Dang!” the voice in his head said. “And I thought it was boring when I was alive! It’s just cold and gray around here.”
Walter jerked up from his cot. How could this be? Kenny was dead.
You must be a natural receiver.
But there was nothing natural about this. This was insane.
Walter pressed two fingers into his left temple and shook his head. Then he remembered Kenny’s stupid puppy-dog eyes looking up at him in that alley just before he pulled the trigger. The poor bastard. He put down the book, closed his eyes and said, “Wanna play Questions, friend? I’ll go first. What’s your favorite ‘80s buddy cop movie?”
Walter could almost hear Kenny smile.
James Aquilone is an editor and writer, for fun and for profit. His fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Flash Fiction Online, and Weird Tales Magazine, among other publications. He lives in Staten Island, New York with his wife and small dog. Visit his website at jamesaquilone.com.