The Semaphore Society
by Kate Heartfield
Gia blinks twice to drop the keyboard-display down. She doesn’t want to talk to her mom anymore and that’s the quickest – and, if she’s honest, the most satisfyingly annoying – way to make that clear.
“If you won’t let me help –” her mom says. Her fingers grip the back of Gia’s wheelchair so hard that it shudders, and the monitor screen mounted to one arm of the chair shakes.
Her mother never stops trying to make it all better. Gia is so goddamn sick of it. And she’s itching to log in to the Semaphore Society. Maybe Manon will be back today; she left so abruptly last night. Any conversation that isn’t about therapy or the power of positive thinking would be a relief.
The screen reflects her mom’s slight frown. Her face always looks like that when she worries about her daughter, which is most of the time. She must have worried before, when Gia was a kid, but Gia can’t remember seeing that precise expression before the day she collapsed on her high school’s stage halfway through the opening performance of Pippin.
The first time Gia can remember seeing that expression was later, when Gia woke up in the hospital, when her dad explained that they had found a tumour, that they were going to treat it, but that the bleeding in her brain –
The blinking pattern that pulls up her eye-tracking software is a lot like the blinking that stops tears.
Up it pops, Gia’s blank slate. Her mom hates this flickering-snow screen; it gives her migraines. But she can’t argue against it. It is so much easier on Gia than the keyboard-to-voice interface, with Gia staring at each letter, blinking in frustration to make choices when the eyetracker doesn’t catch her pupil dilation. (A QWERTY keyboard, for God’s sake. It’s not like her finger positions matter. Hands on home row! Her Grade 7 typing class won’t help her now.)
On the eye-tracking screen, Gia can simply see what she wants to see, and make others see it too. It took some training but she’s fast now and getting faster.
The image of her mother’s face vanishes. Footsteps. Gia is alone in her bedroom.
If Gia could turn her head, could call her mother back, maybe she would. For nineteen months, Gia’s life has been full of maybes. Maybe her mom is right and she’ll be able to move again. Even dance. Or maybe her mom is wrong, maybe Gia will stay locked-in for the rest of her life – a possibility her mom just won’t accept.
Today Gia is fresh out of maybes. Let all the maybes burn.
The snow-screen tricks the eyes into following a smooth path. Gia has learned to use her gaze to write the alphabet in cursive, and all the numerals, and to draw pretty well. When her school friends come over they say awesome and ask her to draw things, to perform, but it gets boring after a few minutes. For the able-bodied it’s like a one-sided headache-inducing game of Pictionary.
A few weeks ago, her friend Ben at therapy told her about the Semaphore Society, both of them using their snow-screens.
“Aren’t semaphores the signals people use for bringing in planes & ships & stuff? Waving arms? Flags?”
“We call it that b/c we use body movement to create signals that can be seen at a distance.”
“Just the movement of our eyes, tho,” Gia answered, not sure she understood.
“Ya but that’s kind of the joke.” She got the joke but the Society itself is harder to understand.
Its dozens of members around the world have cerebral palsy, or ALS, or locked-in syndrome like her. Some have been using smooth-pursuit for almost a decade, since the first breakthroughs in flickering-screen training back in 2012.
After nineteen months of people talking to her very slowly, as if they thought it polite to try to match the speed of her blinks, Gia is out of the habit of patter. The Semaphore Society moves quickly. It’s exhilarating and a bit scary, like the time she got buzzed on berry coolers in her best friend’s basement and made out with that guy from Holy Cross.
She lets her eyes sink into the flickering screen like she used to tunnel into the snowbanks in the front yard.
The thing about the eyes, her doctor told her, is that they can’t sit still. They’re like toddlers after birthday cake. Trying to sign your name with your eyes on a blank screen is like trying to use a fountain pen in a dune buggy. Give the eyes a blank screen to stare at and you get ballistic saccades. You can train, you can try your best, but you cannot change the way the eye muscles work. But you can use what we know about the eye muscles to your advantage. Give them a background that flickers in a certain direction and you give your gaze something to grab. You can learn to surf that wave.
She stares at the flickering snow on her screen, then moves her gaze in the password pattern that logs her in.
Gia just lurks, most of the time. Yesterday, she got up the gumption to post in the forum’s Venting thread about her mom’s positive-thinking jag.
Nobody has commented on her post, after twelve hours. What does that mean? Do they all think she’s whiny? Did she not use the symbols the right way? She still uses more letters than symbols, still writes most things linearly left to right; it’s a giveaway that she’s a rookie. Or do they think she’s making a political statement about disability or something?
Half the time, the veteran members of the Society don’t use letters and words at all. They draw. The Society is building its own language of characters that occupy less screen space or writing time than writing words. The base language is English. But it’s an English that looks less and less recognizable to most of the world.
Some of their symbols are borrowed: hieroglyphs, emoticons, hobo-signs. Fatima, one of the founding members, lives in Ghana and invented some of the most abstract glyphs from modified Adinkra symbols. Gia knows two of those: “Understand” is four lines pointing out from a small circle. “Independence” is two crescents, one open to the sky and the other to the earth, like a bifurcated X.
It gets a little mature sometimes – or rather, immature – and Gia has figured out how to kill the screen when her mom comes into her bedroom. Her mom might not recognize most of the Society’s glyphs, but some are as recognizable and blush-worthy as graffiti on a high school wall. Gia tried to use as many glyphs as she could when she posted about her mom, so that if her mom saw it, she wouldn’t understand it.
But maybe she screwed something up.
Damn it. She should have just kept her thoughts to herself.
Or maybe she’s over-thinking it and it’s just that nobody had anything to add.
Or maybe she’s just not one of the cool kids. She never was. If one of the core, veteran members of the Society had posted something like that, it would at least have a woot or two. Wouldn’t it?
She logs on to the chatroom just to check, to lurk as she usually does, maybe to say hi. She is relieved to see that Ben, her friend from therapy, is logged in.
Four others are logged in too. Three are people she doesn’t know. She’s seen their names before. Horace in Capetown. Chella in Brazil. Johan in Vancouver.
And Manon in Paris. Cool.
In last night’s conversation about Tolkien, Manon and Gia referred to Gondolin often enough that they settled on drawing a rectangle with the numeral 7 inside to represent it – for the city’s seven gates – and that glyph is now in the Semaphore Society lexicon. That was the first, and so far the only glyph Gia has created.
She knows a bit about Manon from watching her conversations with others over the last few weeks. Sometimes Manon talks about her little sister, whom she seems to like. Her dad seems like a real tool. Gia once wanted to chime in about her mom but she worried that would look narcissistic and clueless. Her mom is not a tool. Her mom loves her and is trying her best. It’s just that sometimes her best is really trying.
So Gia never said anything when Manon mentioned her dad, mentioned not wanting him to come in to her room, being happy that he was asleep.
Maybe today if it comes up, Gia will offer support: make the sign for hugs. She has always felt before like that would be presuming too much, making it look like she felt she and Manon were BFFs or something. But now they’ve bonded. Gondolin.
It’s not like she has too many other people to bond with in geekery. Her school friends don’t want to talk, not really talk, any more. They ask her how she’s doing. They give her long lists of things that happened at school. They’re like walking Facebook status updates. It’s not their fault. But they just aren’t the same. Well, she isn’t the same, technically. But neither are they.
Here in the chatroom, there is no scrolling or flipping pages – too much of a hassle when eye movements are so powerful. The conversations happen in infinite layers. New comments go beside old ones, or are superimposed; an etiquette governs that.
The chatters are discussing the latest Batman movie. The system assigns a colour to each person logged in. Johan, in purple, says the costume is hot, using the flame symbol. Chella draws a green smile next to it.
Gia, feeling slightly nervous and slightly dumb, doubles the smile, drawing over it in cyan. It is now dotted cyan and green, a combined symbol that means two people agreed on it.
Then Horace in Capetown writes her name and asks her if she has seen the movie.
Gia makes the curly-tailed “y” sign they use for yes. Her eyelids flicker for a few moments as she thinks. She ought to say something else. They’re asking for her opinion. Horace, whoever he is, wants to know. Or at least is being polite.
She draws over her yes symbol: the sign for clothing (a t-shirt shape), an upward arrow with a horizontal line above it, the word Clooney underneath (there may be a sign for Gondolin but as far as she knows there is still not one for George Clooney), and the pinched oval that means mouth. It takes forever. She can almost hear everyone waiting for her to be done. Afterwards, she breathes, and breathes, and waits some more. Did it make sense? She means that the costume was a bit too Clooney for her taste. Maybe she should have just written all the words out.
LOL, Ben writes.
Wonderful Ben. Kind, sweet Ben.
Others write on top of his, making an LOL in what looks like rainbow ink.
All but Manon.
Off to the side of the screen, Manon draws the stylized basket that means bring or carry. Maybe it means something else, too. Gia must be missing something, as usual.
Johan says something about the Bechdel test and a pile of groans surround his comment. Gia has lost the thread of the conversation a bit; the first parts of Johan’s comment are obscured now. Gia’s comment, a little beside it, is half-buried.
Everyone got her joke. She should keep talking. She should join in more. Her fears before about the lack of comments were stupid. The more she participates, the more they’ll talk to her. It’s just like high school. Well, it’s nothing like high school. But she is just the same as she was in the school hallways: talking herself out of friendships and talking herself down.
She writes the more-than symbol, to mean better than, and writes the words Colossus beside it. She watched that movie last month and it had only one insipid female character in it.
Manon draws over one of Gia’s letters: the l in Colossus becomes a p.
Gia stares. You don’t change other people’s letters. It isn’t done, unless someone’s written something really, really offensive. Doing it without justification is the way to start a flame war, or get asked to leave the Society. Ben told her that early on.
What the hell could she have written to give such offense? How could “>Colossus”, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s stupid, even if she’s thinking of the wrong movie, even if someone else made the same point and she missed it and now she looks like a copying phony idiot – how could any of that be offensive enough to edit? And why just one letter? What the hell does “Copossus” mean?
Then Manon’s green jumps and squiggles on other parts of the screen, over one of Horace’s comments, then Ben’s.
Manon messes with other people’s letters, all over the screen.
Horace writes in cursive: manon wtf
Manon erases Horace’s words: a major insult. Everyone has the technical ability to do it, but it’s one of the worst things you can do, unless you have serious cause.
Why on earth would someone –
Manon doesn’t want someone to see.
Someone in the room with her.
Manon has made references to her dad. Angry, cryptic references.
Gia blinks the menu pattern and stares at the option to see only one person’s feed. After an interminable moment, the eye-tracker figures it out from her pupil dilation: Manon’s.
The menu disappears and now the screen shows nothing but green. There is the symbol for bring, and green letters all over the screen. They form a spiral, clear now that the other comments are gone. Gia starts at the wide end, near the basket, and reads the letters, hearing them in her mind as if she were speaking them aloud:
p o l i c e 8 8 9 r u e d e s a l l u m e t t e s
As she watches, Manon draws a shaky Mars astrological sign with a ballcap shape on the top left of the circle: their sign for “father.”
Blood roars in Gia’s ears. She could call 911 but her phone-dictation software would be so slow. She’d have to make them understand her, and then make them alert the police in France. She blinks, her eyes sore, and the computer thinks she wants to pull the menu down. It flashes the display up and down.
Fuck fuck fuck.
Gia decides. She shoots her gaze to the bottom left corner, to the emergency button, outside the Society window on her screen. The button that pages her mom.
The bell rings in the kitchen. The groan of the dishwasher door closing. Her mother’s footsteps. She will be worried. She will have to stop talking long enough to understand. Gia will have to be quick with the keyboard.
But first –
She swipes back in to the main Society screen. She chooses the menu for Show All Chatters. She tries to think faster, faster.
Her mother is at the door.
How can Gia tell Manon help is coming, in a way that won’t let Manon’s father know that Manon told them? God knows what he thinks she’s doing on her screen. Maybe he doesn’t even know about the Society. Maybe he thinks his daughter is just playing around, as if it were an Etch-a-Sketch.
How can she stop the others from blowing Manon’s cover?
Gia draws the symbol for “understand” – four lines from a central point – as big as she can, right over the spot where Manon erased Horace’s “manon wtf”. The cyan arrows are shaky and broken.
“What is it?” Her mother’s presence, her mother’s profile, not looking at the flickering screen but reflected in it. Looking at Gia, looking at Gia’s body, as if she could read some meaning there.
Gia blinks to pull up the keyboard display and begins selecting letters, to make her mother understand. If her mom can read Gia’s body then Gia can read her mom’s face. She reads there faint flashes of relief, probably because Gia is breathing, communicating, because she is still there inside this body, still has her mind. That’s how little it takes. That’s how painfully her mom loves her.
FRIEND IN TROUBLE CALL 911
Behind the translucent keyboard display, the Society page is still up. Her mom squints; the flickering screen bothers her eyes. But she is pulling her phone out of her jeans pocket.
“Oh, honey,” she says. “Okay. Tell me what kind of trouble. I’m phoning.”
POLICE. HER DAD.
“Oh, honey,” her mom says again.
The Society can’t see Gia’s keyboard interface but the keyboard window is translucent and she can still see their conversation in the window behind. Little “understand” glyphs dot the screen in five colours, all the colours except green, scattered around Gia’s desperate cyan scrawl. Signs that are careful not to obscure Manon’s green letters, the letters that spell her address.
They got it.
IN FRANCE HAVE ADDRESS
“Hello, yes, my daughter was on … um … the Internet and one of her friends in France said to call the police …”
Gia eye-types the address. Her mom talks into the phone behind her. They’re contacting France.
Help is coming. She wishes, for the millionth time, that she were telepathic, that she could say it to Manon’s mind: Help is coming. In her peripheral vision, a green dot appears in one corner, and four lines branch out from it. Gia breathes. Manon knows.
The soft weight of her mother’s left hand warms Gia’s shoulder.