The Red Badge by Padmini Krishnan

Kelvin rubbed the V-shaped cut in his forehead as he limped into his home. Meg dropped her dish and ran to him, “What happened, Kelvin?”

“I sneezed on the bus. They called me a ‘virus boy’ and threw me out.”

Meg looked at the front of his shirt, soaked in the dirt. “Were they kids from your school?”

“No, mom. The bus captain.”

Meg helped him as he limped into the bathroom. He had acquired the limp as a result of kicks from his classmates for being too brown. His teacher had looked on.

“Why can’t you be a man enough and go back to school?” Meg heard Rod berating their son from the next room.

Meg confronted him, her face red, “You are asking an 11-year old to be a man?”

“He has to be. We are red badges.” Rod’s voice was quiet.

Kelvin polished his red badge. No matter how dirty his clothes were, he had to make sure his badge was shiny as he ventured out.

That evening, Kylie came back with scratches on her cheeks and not a drop of tear on her eyes. She had been heckled for having freckles, Meg learned later. Perhaps Kylie was the ‘man’ that Rod wanted, she thought. Rod was snapping away at the keyboard as if it was a typewriter. He looked a little older than his 39 years. His mouth looked severe and hard. He was certainly not the same Rod she had married 14 years ago.

“It is lovely to see people from different cultures coming together” an old neighbor had said when Meg and Rod were settling down in their plush new flat as newlyweds.

“Yes. I am glad that you are so happy.” said another old man who had just celebrated his 130th birthday.

The world seemed to be more of old people since the government enforced the ‘no child or one-child policy’. Meg flourished in her role as a copywriter and Rod steadily climbed up in his career. Everything was well until Meg realized that she was pregnant.

“It means a blue badge. We will have to pay additional taxes and our car will be taken off.” Rod told her, seriously.

“Our parents were blue badges too. You want the baby, don’t you?” Meg turned to him, rubbing her belly.

“Yes.” A smile spread over his face. He bent down and put his ears in Meg’s belly. “We can pay the additional taxes and I will even take the horse carriage to the office if I have to.”

During Meg’s next scanning, the senior doctor asked to meet them, citing an emergency.

“Is the baby alright?” Meg fidgeted.

“It is not a baby. You are carrying twins, Meg.”

Rod’s face turned white and Meg looked open-mouthed at the doctor, her heart pounding.

“I would, in all seriousness, suggest that you abort one, if not both of them.”

Meg did not understand how this happened. She did not hear of people having twins in the past century or so. Long ago, her grandmother had told her that some people even had triplets or quadruplets.

Meg felt her tummy with shivering hands. Rod put his hand over hers. They discussed various options over the next few days. They had never met anyone with red badges, but they knew that such people faced a lot of difficulties.

“How bad could it get? We will have a few more privileges taken away from us, I suppose.”

“We will make it work,” Rod said, a determined look in his face. “We will have both the kids.”

Meg lost her job as soon as she had the twins. An official promptly arrived with four red badges. “You will need to move out and find a house elsewhere.” He announced. “You will have to pay double taxes. You will no longer be eligible to send your kids to any government school. You have, through your actions, proved detrimental to the world government’s population control plan, and are now considered enemies of the society.”

However, Meg and Rod were not prepared for the daily insults from their fellow citizens. Rod’s friends avoided him and one day, he was suddenly dismissed from his job for being ‘racially abusive’.

They were discriminated by everyone. Whenever Meg queued in the food court, she was pushed to the back by new customers. One day, the lady in the serving counter asked Meg, “So, why should I serve a yellow skin like you?” The cook inside dropped his sausage at the inappropriate comment and rushed outside to warn the lady. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw Meg’s red badge. Meg and Rod had no laws to protect them. Their complaints were not filed in courts or police stations as they were the red badgers. In a world where being politically correct was the norm, Meg, Rod and their kids became an outlet for people to unleash their inner monsters. 

A few years ago, when Kylie was sick, Rod took her to a private clinic. The receptionist refused to send them in during their turn and patients who came far later were shown the doctor’s room. Rod tried to reason with the receptionist, but she threatened to call the police, accusing him of abuse. Kylie threw up a couple of times and leaned against a table, very sick. The doctor saw Kylie after her duty, shocked that she was not called in earlier. The kindly doctor did not charge them. She whispered as they walked out. “I wish I was a red badge. I was pregnant a long time ago, but it did not last. I am 50 now. I have everything, but no real happiness.” she said, beckoning to Kylie. “We live in a world of the old, with no future. No matter what, take care of your kids. They are the future.”

Rod and his family survived on rare acts of kindness. Meg’s old classmate lent them one of her houses on a low lease. Rod’s former colleague helped him to get a job after his dismissal. Despite Rod’s specialized skills, his pay was lower than that of his junior colleagues. Courtesy, the red badge!

Rod stood in the signal, wondering what humiliation his children had been subjected to that day. Thankfully, it was Friday evening, which meant 2 days of peace. A bus passed him and the signal turned green. For a moment, Rod stared at the bus captain who stared back at him. He was Rod’s former colleague who lost his job due to Rod’s complaint. As Rod crossed the street, the bus suddenly took a reverse, straight at him. The passengers screamed.

“He is a red badger.” cried a middle-aged man.

“Then go for him.” shouted a grandma with the excitement of an intoxicated teenager. Egged on by the middle-aged and the old in various stages of excitement, the captain steadily reversed. Then they heard a sob. It was low and soft, but it broke through their ecstasy and mad yearning. They turned back to see a boy of 7 or 8 in torn clothes, crouching in the back seat of the bus. On the front of his dirty shirt, they saw a purple badge, which meant his parents had been killed by the government. He probably had two siblings, forcibly separated from him and rotting away in some part of the world. The bus jerked to a halt amidst pin drop silence save his soft sobs reverberating around the passengers.

Padmini Krishnan writes free verse poetry and short stories. Her works have appeared in The Drabble, Terror House Magazine, Friday Flash Fiction, Plum Tree Tavern, and Writing in a Woman’s Voice among others. Her e-chapbook was recently published in Proletaria.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *