The Red Scares Him
By Mareena Francis Parakkal
Arts Illustrated's Short Story Contest, first runner-up
‘I hear, I hear cackling voices!’
The exclamation was loud and tore out of the young man’s throat. His eyes bulged and his chest heaved as he sat on the sofa, all his weight on his toes.
‘Cackling voices.’ She repeated.
He nodded. Every hair on his head and arms seemed to stand up. The poor boy is famished, she thought.
‘Can you tell me more?’ The question flew across the room and she watched him gulp it down.
‘Yes. Yes, I can.’
He rubbed his hand against his beard, twirling at the scraggly end of it.
‘Every time, every time I step in front of the camera, I hear it. They’re laughing at me. But it’s not just laughter! They’re cackling! It’s so unbearably loud! It, it fills up my whole brain and I can’t remember a single line I spent hours memorizing.’
‘And then he says action!’ The boy stood up, holding his hands open towards her. ‘He says action and it all goes away! All that red noise just disappears and I’m back. And then I’m gone again because I’ve turned into the character I’m playing.’
‘Does that scare you?’
‘It terrifies me! Where am I then? There’s just one snap of an instant between the cackling voices and the new character. That’s not enough, is it? I can’t just exist in that one tiny instant!’
‘What about the rest of the time then? When the camera isn’t around?’ The question fell against his shoulders in a dead weight and he dropped back into the sofa.
‘That’s just it. The rest of the time, I’m fine.’
She waited, watching the lines appear on his face.
‘I’m just fine. I’m funny and friendly and loud and fine! I’m a mask. Like a golden figurehead that’s going to topple over any second. There’s just black space below and nobody’s going to be around for that fall.’
‘How do you kno-why do you say that?’ She flicked her knee, berating herself.
‘Look, my family loves me and all. So do my friends. But they don’t know about this. About what I’m hiding. But I know. I see it on the camera and sometimes even in the mirror.’ He buried his face in his big hands.
‘What do you see?’
He looked up, with swirling brown eyes. ‘It’s not real.’ He whispered. ‘What they see, isn’t real. They see slivers and half faces of me. Never the whole thing.’
‘Except my eyes maybe. My eyes are full.’
‘My directors always say I have honest eyes anyway.’
The smile disappeared and she cleared her throat. ‘This real face of you, that you say no one sees, do you want them to?’
‘Do you want them to see it?’
He gaped at her, the question wrapping around his head like a fishbowl.
She shifted under his gaze, pressing a nail into her clipboard.
The silence stretched out between them, black and solid, and it was the most terrified she’d ever been in this room.
‘I think I don’t.’
She let out a soft sigh.
‘I think I’m scared of what they’ll feel if they see it. I know it sounds dramatic but I’m really not exaggerating.’
She gave him a half smile.
‘Okay, maybe, I am a little bit.’ He let out half-a-laugh and she saw a glimpse of the gold. She couldn’t help herself.
‘I think you’re wrong you know.’
Her insides froze up and she could feel the lines blur but she continued anyway.
‘I don’t think the figurehead toppling over is what’s going to hurt. It’s the holding it up part that’s killing you.’
‘You can understand what I’m saying.’
She nodded, giving in now.
‘But, then, don’t you think that all these different faces I put on for my characters will eventually eat away at me?’
‘No, I think you can eat something up from each of the characters and add it to yourself instead. Mix the colours.’
‘But then I’ll just be half faces again. Of them.’
‘No, they’ll just be parts of your full self.’
‘But am I just putting on different masks when I act? Because I’m too scared of just being myself?’
‘Acting is a part of you being yourself. If you were born a chameleon, you’re only denying yourself by refusing to change colours.’
‘What about the mask though?’
‘It’s not real.’
‘But it is, don’t you see?’
‘It’s only a part of you. You have much more hiding behind and around and in between the mask. You just can’t see it because you’re letting the mask shine so bright.’
‘But how do I make that stop?’
‘Change colours again.’
‘This sounds insane.’
‘At least you know you’re at the right place.’
He really laughed then. Chuckling into his beard and light shoulders.
‘I think you’re right. The mask feels red and bright.’
‘Maybe a nice cool blue.’ She offered.
He smiled, showing his teeth. She pressed her nail into the clipboard again.
‘I have roots, you know. It’s not going to be easy to cut them off.’
‘You don’t have to cut anything off. You can grow with them. That’s the whole point of roots.’
‘You really have an answer for everything.’
‘It’s kind of my job.’ She smiled.
‘You’re good at it.’
‘And I’m sure you’re good at yours.’
‘It’s not my job yet. It’s still only at the side.’
‘That’s part of the problem. Make it the centre.’
‘So, at the end of all this, I guess you’re saying…’ She nodded, urging him to take it. ‘Don’t be afraid?’
She let go of the clipboard.
‘Don’t be afraid.’
He walked out ten minutes later, carrying with him the wind that curved after him. She sat in her chair, in the wake of the black space he had left behind, and the remnants of a gold figurehead.
About Mareena Francis Parakkal
Mareena Francis Parakkal is a 23-year-old Kerala-based writer and poet. She is currently working at a magazine in Kochi. She is in the process of finishing her first novel and is also working on a poetry collection.