Semaphore


CONCENTRATE AND ASK AGAIN.

Arthur read the reply to himself. He frowned at that kind of answer, as he usually did.

“What did it say?” asked Dr. Phillips.

“Nothing,” Arthur said, putting his spherical toy back into his coat pocket. “Not something I want to hear, anyway. I don’t put much stock in this thing when it gives me run-arounds like that.”

Dr. Phillips stood from his chair and walked to his office window. Although Arthur’s chair was much less cushioned than his doctor’s, he chose to stay firmly within its seat. He found no comfort in any other part of the chilly, still room.

“So why the 8-Ball?” the psychiatrist asked. “Quite an odd keepsake to carry around, given your phobia, don’t you think?”

“Yes, I suppose so. I find myself looking to it a lot, always looking for answers, you know.”

“Don’t you fear the number eight?”

“No, not the eight. I mean, eights don’t make me feel warm and cuddly inside, but they don’t give me nightmares.”

“But the others do.”

“Yes, all the others,” Arthur affirmed with an almost angry frustration.

Letters, numbers, shapes. They were towering, belittling, and stared at him in a kind of horror that a task to describe. It wasn’t as though these symbols were going to grow fangs and eat Arthur alive. Rather, they instilled a pure fear, an anticipated shock, and held it frozen inside him.

The number “9” and the lowercase “e” laughed with their evil grins. He turned his head to keep from seeing them, but only imagined being trapped within their hollow eyes. The numbers “1” and “7”, and the letters “Z” and “V” were sharp, piercing, like the tail of a demon. Each symbol had its own physical features, personifying them in his mind.

Across the years, this fear seemed to grown, showing itself during moments when he was alone. Vulnerable. From this, he experienced his first self-doubt of sanity. He knew then that professional help was around the corner.

“All symbols make me... uncomfortable,” Arthur went on slowly, “especially large ones. I can’t imagine what it would be like to climb the hills up to the Hollywood sign. You know, the sign that spells “Hollywood” in 50-foot white letters on top of that mountain. Christ, I’m afraid of heights, too.”

Dr. Phillips rubbed his trimmed grayish beard as he continued in his same objective tone. “You told me earlier that of all the symbols you see, numbers are the most unpleasant. Do you know why that is?”

“I wouldn’t describe it like that exactly. Numbers do appear in my nightmares the most. The nine is the devilish one, forget what they say about thirteen or all that six-six-six stuff.”

“So you don’t know why numbers or the number nine frighten you differently. Do you know why symbols in general frighten you? Does it have something to do with what you told me about your father?”

Arthur paused for a moment, as he often did when he thought of his young father. In a flash of a second, he thought about his father laughing. That’s how he remembered him, and he thanked God for that memory. He thought about clunking down the highway with him in his old pickup, and listening to Creedence Clearwater on the radio, singing about what it’s like to be in a band. Arthur called them “Creedence Clean Water”, which made his father laugh. He then thought of the semi truck that came out of nowhere, and how it swerved and swayed like a giant piece of rubber when it plowed into them with such...

“How old was your father?” the doctor asked. “If you don’t mind my asking. I know he was young.”

“Well, I was seven, so he must have been twenty-eight.” He remembered his father’s face and voice much more clearly than he did his age. It was an understatement to say that Arthur had a problem recollecting things like that. After all, an age is a number. So are phone numbers, prices for groceries, and utility bills, which he also had problems with.

“The last thing I saw when the two truck hit each other,” the nervous young man continued, “was a tall highway sign that said ‘Mettler 7, Lebec 13, Shafter 99’. I remember that sign like a giant green face, staring at me, and I’ve always thought that that sign was the beginning of my psycho fear of symbols.”

The doctor sighed at the word “psycho.” He had told Arthur repeatedly that those words were inappropriate. “I can see why you remember that sign so well.”

“I more than remember it. Saying I remember that sign is like saying a holocaust survivor remembers seeing a swastika. ‘Shafter 99’ was eye-level with me when we flew into it. Christ, do you know what the State did after we slammed into that sign? They didn’t replace it, like any remotely intelligent person think to do. They got new poles for it and back up it went, dents, scrapes and all. There’s dark blotches on it, tucked into a corner, almost hidden. They’re not dirt or mold like my brother tells me. They’re spots of blood, all dried up and puffy from twenty years of the elements. I like to think that they were left there as a reminder that my father used to truck that highway. Sorta like a memorial. He deserves at least that much.”

“Your phobia doesn’t sound as serious as you might think,” Dr. Phillips said. “You acknowledge your fear of symbols, that’s a good first step right there. And you already have a grasp as to what caused this fear. But you need to realize that your father didn’t die in a far-off war while you were at preschool. You were with him, in his truck, and as you watched him die you almost died yourself. That’s a serious experience that would traumatize anyone.”

Arthur shut his eyes tight as he strained with his words. “That’s just it, I didn’t almost die. I could have easily died, often I wish I was the one that did. But wishes are for kindergartners.”

“Do you wish that you were the one that died because you think the world would be a better place if he had lived and you had not, or do you just want something, anything, to take away the pain of missing your father.”

“I see,” Arthur said softly. “Maybe I’m being selfish, masking it as being noble. I won’t dismiss that. All I know is that I came out of that wreck without so much as my hair being messed up. That really haunts me. A head-on hit by a drunk truck driver turns our pickup into a wad of tin foil, send it twisting in the air like a football through a highway sign, and I step out of it like stepping out of a shower. Maybe to get a miracle you have to pay for it somehow. Maybe my father bought me a miracle with his life.”

“Even folks in my profession wonder about those cliche mysterious ways,” Phillips said as he poured himself a cup of coffee. Arthur waved his hand in “no” before the doctor could offer him his usual cup.

“So do you think I’m a candidate for the booby hatch?” he asked with a laugh, yet most seriously. “Sometimes I wonder.”

“I think you need some time to think about it. I think this session may have helped you in some small amount to say the least. You’ve opened to someone, got it out of your head, if only for an hour. Let’s see what happens from here.”

“So no tranquilizing drugs for me? I’m not going insane?”

The doctor laughed. “No, I don’t believe so, Mr. Hillock.”

“Is the doctor right?” Arthur asked his fortune-telling 8-Ball with a shake. He turned the novelty toy over to see its response.

BETTER NOT TELL YOU NOW.

The words read across a blue triangle floating inside its sphere full of black water. Arthur winced at the typical vagueness.

“Why doesn’t the 8-Ball, or any eight, affect you the same way the others do?” Phillips sat back in his chair behind his oak desk.

His patient replied without pause. “At my father’s funeral mass, I stood a few feet away from a statue of an angel with the infinity symbol across her forehead. Looked sorta like an eight taking a nap, at least that’s how it looked to a kid.”

“Infinity, representing eternity.”

Arthur rolled his 8-Ball across his palms soothingly as he spoke. “That angel was the only thing in the room that wasn’t sad or crying. It was looking at me, smiling. I knew that the eight was somehow different, my brother knew it, too. That’s why he bought this toy for me. He thought he would be the first step toward my getting over this stupid phobia. Instead, it gave me a security blanket.”

“So since this is the one symbol you can hold onto,” Phillips said, “you do so constantly. Which is fine, it’s good to have things to fall back onto, to put a foothold on.”

“Good. I don’t feel so childish carrying it around now.”

By all means, don’t feel that way. We all have our little good luck charms.” the psychiatrist looked at his watch, which his patient noticed.

“Time to go,” Arthur acknowledged.

“Our time is about up, yes. Why don’t we set up something for Tuesday. Let’s give you a week to think about things and about today. I’m sure you’ll feel a little better when we meet again.”

“I’m sure I will, too.” Arthur stood from his chair and shook the doctor’s hand. Phillips walked him to the door where he would arrange another appointment with the secretary. “It’s just as well that I go now. It’s getting late, and I need to get back to the old nightshift. Supermarkets don’t restock themselves, you know.” Arthur laughed his little laugh, making himself appear at ease with the doctor.

“If there’s anything else you want to share on Tuesday, please do so,” Phillips told him as he was walking out the door. “It’s important not to be half-hearted about these things.”

Arthur thought for a moment. “No, I can’t think of anything I haven’t already told you. That was pretty much it.” Arthur was lying and Phillips knew it. What he didn’t know was the seriousness behind what Arthur was keeping to himself.

*****

3:00 A.M. Robertson’s Supermarket was now clean and restocked for the next consumer day. Arthur and the few others that spent the night shift combing through the massive warehouse store left with smiles and jokes as they got into their cars.

Arthur’s smile, however, quickly faded as he got into his bright yellow Honda and drive toward Rice Road for the trek home.

Rice Road wasn’t any older than most of the other roads in town, but it certainly looked it. Being on the desolate outskirts, the road didn’t fall under county care, and therefore continued its decay as if a leper in a desert. Crumbled and lot only by the moon, time had narrowed it to barely one lane that stretched through miles of long-dead orchards.

He would have chosen another path home in a second if he had the choice to make. Unfortunately, the mid-city boulevard he usually took home from work was being completely reconstructed for a city development project. He would be forced to travel down the tattered Rice Road for over a month.

But of all the potholes and darkness the old road threw at him, they were not the true peril of the drive home.

On Rice Road, about halfway between Robertson’s and Arthur’s home, was a railroad crossing that matched the road in its dilapidated condition. He elected to push his feeling about the crossing deep within himself. The rebuilt boulevard would be completed eventually, he thought.

The ancient road rose steeply to the tracks where two semaphores stood steadfast with long striped arms folded in attention. The signals’ red eyes were dormant, their frantic flashing absent in wait for an approaching train. Arthur preferred them that way.

What wasn’t missing were the semaphores’ huge white X’s looking down at him. Grinning.

The letter “X” was a target aimed directly at him, like a bizarre cross twisted in a painful contortion. In fantasies it means buried treasure and adventures accompanying. In reality it always means danger. The poison symbol with skull and crossbones, the warning symbols for flammable or radioactive materials, “keep out” signs. They all employed this symbol. Hell, isn’t there a notorious drug named “X”? he thought.

Then there were those horrid railroad semaphores.

X always means danger.

He would see the sentinels from a distance and immediately stomp on the accelerator. As always, no matter how fast he flew toward the crossing, it seemed to take forever to pass through it. He imagined the signals not working, not warning him of a train rocketing through the night that would eagerly meet him at the intersection. What’s more, he imaged the signals choosing not to warn him.

After a few stretched seconds, he passed the crossing in a breath of relief. He drove away from the raised area, glancing at the tall striped guards in his rear view mirror. He didn’t expect anything, but he couldn’t fell safe until he took that last paranoid glance back.

*****

“So, Mr, Hillock,” Dr. Phillips started the session, “how has this last week been?”

“It’s been okay. I’m still alive.”

“Why wouldn’t you be?” Phillips knew his patient was not being fully open, that he was keeping something inside.

“Just an expression, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Arthur said, trying to smile at his words. “Don’t call a suicide watch or anything like that.”

Phillips bent his head down in a confiding, serious tone, which Arthur clearly read before he spoke. “If there’s anything you want to get off your mind, go ahead. Like wise, if there’s anything you want to keep inside, you’re free to do that as well. I’m not here to make you do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. At least, not for the first few sessions.” The doctor smiled. He sipped his coffee and silently offered some to his patient with a raise of his cup. Arthur declined with a nod. “However, the more you tell me the more I may be able to help you, and more importantly, the more you’ll be able to help yourself.”

“I think I’m just scared that I’ll be diagnosed as clinically insane, because that definitely how I feel.”

“If you really are... distressed, then you’d only be denying it by refusing to address it. Personally, I’d rather acknowledge a problem, having made an effort, than to be fooling myself into believing there was no problem at all.”

“So you do think I’m crazy?” Arthur asked, hoping to hear an immediate no.

“I don’t think you’re crazy, but I’ll let you know if I change my mind,” the doctor said in a smile. “I haven’t heard your full story yet. Plus, ‘crazy’ is such a broad word, not to mention derogatory.”

“I supposed I should tell you everything. I am in your office for a reason.” He fiddled with a pencil on the doctor’s desk as he gathered the momentum to continue. “It’s about the symbols. I know I told you numbers are a big deal, but then there’s the letter X. Most specifically, the ones at railroad crossings. Have you ever heard of anything like this before?”

“Actually, fear of railroad crossing and trains are more common than you think.”

“I’m afraid of a train hitting me,” Arthur went on, “I mean, who wouldn’t be? Right? Like they say, a train always wins if you choose to challenge one.

“When I was younger, I delivered newspapers in the early morning hours. A train sped right by my route on raised tracks as if it were about to fall over at any moment. I remember it shattering the quiet with blaring horns and whistles, the roaring of the engine, the clacking of the tracks, and those damn railroad signals. Those were the worse because they started screaming and shaking when it was dead calm before the train arrived, and kept going after it passed.”

Arthur looked at his doctor, who sat ever calmly, comfortably, sipping his coffee. He saw in Dr. Phillips tranquillity, the way he wasn’t shaky and nervous like he had been for years. The doctor had a firm grip on sanity, and Arthur wanted desperately to feel that kind of control again.

“I really think I need some kind of antidepressants,” he said, noticing the struggle in his own voice. Phillips merely listened, expressionless as usual. “I’m having nightmares. I can’t sleep.”

“Prescribing antidepressants means that the patient simply can’t function in everyday life without some kind of assistance. I don’t think you’re quite at that level yet...”

“Yet?”

“And if there’s a way to help you without drugs...”

“You don’t understand, I have no energy anymore, aside from the panic energy I get when I’m confronted by letters and numbers, like the ones at work.”

“Mr. Hillock, in your case I would seriously consider...”

“I feel like the goddamn signals are looking at me!” Arthur blurted, hoping that’s what Phillips needed to hear. “They’re looking at me and waiting for something. Christ, I drive home at ninety miles per hour to avoid... I don’t know what. I just feel like they’ll get me.”

Dr. Phillips looked at his watch. As Arthur went on about the demon railroad signals, the doctor scribbled something onto a note pad and slid it to his shivering patient. “Let’s try this.”

“I know what this is, even through your handwriting. I’ve taken it before, you don’t need a prescription for this stuff. What I need is some high octane, doc.”

“This is a higher strength formula that you can get only through a doctor.”

“Well good, then I’ll be taking a higher strength placebo then.”

“There’s no need for that kind of attitude, Arthur.”

“Will this stuff work?” Arthur seemed to ask no one. Just then he removed his Magic 8-Ball from his coat pocket and shook it.

VERY DOUBTFUL.

Arthur frowned, letting the doctor know what the black oracle predicted. “I’m telling you, these Flintstones vitamins you’re offering me do nothing. I need help, not humoring.”

Phillips hesitated before writing another prescription, then sliding it over his desk to the young man with teary eyes. Arthur read it quickly, as if he were a junkie awaiting his fix.

“What is this?” he asked.

“The highest octane I’ve got.”

*****

Far within the stockroom’s choking halls at Robertson’s, Arthur sat on a box of cheap plastic sandals. At a time of the night when most people were on their third dream, he was taking his 1:00 a.m. break, his last before getting off work two hours later. He repeatedly read the label of the bottle in his hand, especially the red warning letters in small print.

Phillips warned him with passion about the effects the drug would have. This potent antidepressant doubled as a sedative unlike the usual stimulant, and was designed strictly to aide in sleep.

The doctor called it a “nightmare killer”, and to not dare take it unless he was sitting in his bed, ready to go to sleep. Only one of these liquid-filled horse pills was to be taken every two days, and Arthur liked hearing such a prescription. He wanted the most powerful wonder drug and it seemed Phillips delivered.

But to have to wait until he got home before taking his medicine was an ironic sting. He raved earlier that day about getting help, mainly for his nightly confrontation with the railroad crossing, and received a pill that he could only take after he passed it. Perhaps the drug was too strong.

The label’s red letters adamantly repeated what Phillips said, which just served to make Arthur more anxious to take it. The drive home is only a half-hour, he thought. I need this drug to start working before I get to the old road, not after I’m safe in my pajamas.

He looked at his watch. Time to finish his last couple of hours over in Seasonal. Mostly sandals and beach squirt bottles, gold ol’ American summer fan made in Korea.

“You comin’ outta there, man?” yelled one of his coworkers. “We’re all gonna blitz Seasonal and Cans, time to get serious.”

Time to get serious indeed, Arthur thought. He removed his faithful 8-Ball from his smock and whispered to it as he shook it gently. “Should I take this stuff right there?”

CANNOT PREDICT NOW.

“Damn it,” he said to himself in frustration. He shook the toy again. “Should I try this stuff now? Should I say ‘To Hell with Phillips, I need help right now’?”

ASK AGAIN LATER.

He shook it again, determined to get the answer he wanted. “I’m not gonna take this crap now, whether you give me an answer or not, so you might as well speak up.”

MY REPLY IS NO.

Quickly, Arthur abandoned his caution and popped open the bottle. With a bit of a gag, he swallowed two of the large blue and white pills with the rest of his root beer. He took double the suggested dosage, as if to spite Dr. Phillips, the bottle label, the 8-Ball, and the rest of the damn world. “I took it,“ he quietly said to the toy. “So what do you think of that?“

OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD.

“Arthur, we need to put those sandals on this pallet! You bringing 'em out here or what?“

“Yeah, I'll be right there!“ he called back. Just then, he felt a chill run through him in a sudden burst. The cold lingered in his head for a moment, and then faded to a numbness. It was the double dose taking its course, sedating him, perhaps.

As he stood up to carry the box of sandals, he wobbled to his knees. He fought the fatigue as best he could, clinching his jaw in mental effort. Lifting the box was unusual, as if it were empty but the air around it was heavy. Moving his legs was like moving them through water.

His eyes were inches from the large box as he carried it to the pallet. In front of his face was “Sandals/Nylon 90 count“. The letters seemed to shift, not so much to be able to describe how, just enough to know that they were. It was a pleasant effect of the drug. No fear here, he thought, despite not taking them properly.

“90 count.“

This part of the box label stood out as the soft shifting changed slightly. His vision started to tunnel on the large black print.

“90 count“.

“90“.

“9“.

He felt a lump inside his gut, and hoped it wasn't what he thought it was. Fear. His primal thoughts returning in a mutated distortion. Please don't do this to me, he thought. I go home in less than two hours. Please don't do this to me.

The nine chose to reply. It's lower extension curved inward slowly, its overall width widened.

It was grinning at him.

*****

Arthur didn't wait until he got to the crossing before he put his accelerator to the floor. He gunned it the minute he was on the old road, making blurs of the hundreds of dead fig trees that surrounded him. The orchards' residents subtly shifted in their shapes, as did the box labels at work and the tall neon“Robertson's“ sign. The drug was swiftly taking over all his major body functions one by one. He needed to get to bed fast. Fighting the semi-sedative effects had to be murdering his system.

The only things that he took solace in were his stereo cranked up to full volume and his newfound watered-down fear. He still had his reservations about symbols, but it was numbed along with the rest of his mind. That little change was almost as good as a cure for him. For the first time in a long time, he wasn't quickly turning his head away from road signs sticking out of the dirt at odd angles. He wasn't avoiding his speedometer anymore. Symbols were just scribbles.

Whatever new confidence he seemed to have, however, he knew the real test was yet to come. The crossing was just ahead. It loomed in the distance, and Arthur searched himself for emotions. They didn't limit or hurt him for once. Instead, they almost welcomed the crossing. And rather than speed up upon approaching the tracks, he actually slowed down.

Arthur was getting a high off of facing his fears. Even as the drug was continuing to overtake him, the exhilaration of conquering his phobia was providing him with worlds of energy.

He slowed his little yellow car to a crawl, idling up the steep incline to the tracks. His front tires were twenty feet from the tracks when he shut off his car.

The second his vehicle was off, he was thrown into an eerie silence, something his bold thinking didn't anticipate. With the engine and the stereo off, the silence was complete, as if no life ever existed on that road.

The dead fig trees stood in their battalions all around, shifting, twisted and bent over in a timeless agony. They watched Arthur from their darkness in advantage. Overhead, the moon was also watching. And just on the other side of the passenger window, the twin lamps of a semaphore peeked in.

I didn't park this close to it, he thought. And why are the signal lights aimed sideways toward me?
Before another thought was formed, the giant lights screamed to life. They flashed bright red, showing their truly immense size, and rang out with sirens that shot across the sky. The car's windshield shattered as the red and white striped arms came crashing down on it with a force Arthur never imagined in any of his nightmares. A train bellowed in the distance.

Arthur began to scream. His fear reentered him tenfold, and he was nearly frozen in terror. His movements were slowed in a dream-like restraining manner, contrasting to his painfully racing thoughts.

He turned his ignition key hard, and the engine and stereo blared back on. Creedence Clearwater was playing. In a panic, he sloppily tried to shift in reverse, but the car would not move. He was stuck in neutral.

With a piercing metallic shrill, a large shadow hovered over the car. Something then slammed down onto the vehicle's back end. Arthur turned and could barely breath as he saw the signal moving, it's wooden arms bending around the car, pushing it toward the tracks. The train sounded much closer.

Arthur finally popped the car into first and jumped on the gas pedal. The back tires screeched and quickly filled the air with the smell of burnt rubber, but the vehicle remained within the signal's grip. Another striped arm came down onto the hood of the yellow car, sending its metal bending up like tissue paper, killing the straining engine.

It was the other signal, with its arms around the front of the car. Within seconds, the tires were lined up on the tracks, facing the vehicle toward the oncoming train.

Arthur gave up on the dead engine and tried to fling open his door. It was blocked by one of the signals' long arms, as was the passenger door. The train sounded much closer.

The entire vehicle shook violently as if tumbling down a cliff. Arthur elbowed his window to no avail. Before his next try, giant flashing red eyes burst through the glass and protruded into the car. Arthur was face-to-face with this merciless nightmare, and his heart was about to explode.

The train's single light was now visible, growing larger as the whistle grew louder and higher in pitch. The semaphores' eyes flashed faster and faster, their red spilling over everything in the car. It was no longer light, but rather a gripping, suffocating blanket. The train was about to hit the bright yellow vehicle head-on.

Staring at the train's light, Arthur cried out as a giant white lowered itself in front of the disfigured windshield. It seemed to laugh at him, with the words “Danger Railroad Crossing Danger“ as it's teeth.

Scampering to the back-seat to escape the enormous signals' torment, Arthur clutched his Magic 8-Ball like a rosary, trying to find comfort in its large, beautiful eight.

“This is a dream!“ he screamed at it in tears. “This is a dream!“

VERY DOUBTFUL.

He shook it again.

MY SOURCES SAY NO.

“This is a dream! This isn't real!“

OUTLOOK NOT GOOD.

“Then this is Hell!“

IT IS DECIDEDLY SO.

Arthur's body was quivering in a convulsion. He could barely keep a thought in his head. Everything was speeding by so fast, his head was throbbing with pain. “Stop giving me these answers!“ he yelled dementedly at his toy. The train's whistle enveloped all sound. He couldn't hear himself screaming. “I need you now, damn it! I need you to tell me if I'm crazy! If I'm going to die!“

He shook the 8-Ball hard. Bubbles filled the answer screen at first. The train's blinding light filled the inside of the car as it was about to hit.

YES.

The eight was suddenly grinning at him, too.

*****

“We got the records on him,“ the detective said to his sergeant. “He was on something called ‘Ridacycline’, you ever hear of the stuff?“

“Strong stuff. Psychotherapeutic. You get it through prescription, but kids drop that shit all the time. Black market calls it 'The Ride', really tough. What else?“

The detective continued his report as the other officers tended to Arthur and his car. “Worked night shift at the supermarket, probably popped the drug there, drove home down this road, and then I don't know what happened.“

The sergeant glanced over at the small vehicle, resting on the track in the middle of the crossing, facing down it. Arthur was bent over the wheel as the coroner took photos.

“Heart attack,“ the sergeant said, “plain and simple. This drug has been known to do that before. Mr. Hillock here took too much of a nasty prescription while trying to stay awake, his heart couldn't take it, and had himself a cardiac arrest right on the tracks. We're lucky he didn't get whacked by a train.“

“Never happen. This line's been shut down for decades, the signals are even shut off.“

The sergeant laughed at his blunder. “I guess that would explain the five-foot weeds growing between the tracks.“

The coroner nodded that he was finished and the rest of the crew began to remove everything from the scene. “If he took a dose of Ride big enough to cause a heart attack,” he began, “I’d hate to think of the hallucinations that attacked him. Poor bastard probably died a madman.” The coroner told the sergeant to write up Arthur as an open-and-shut death.

As they left, a breeze blew through the withered orchards, sending piles of frail leaves into the air, and a soft whistling along the ground. High atop the semaphores' long arms, standing steadfast in attention, the wind blew away flakes of bright yellow paint.

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