The new red that year was a color no one had ever seen before. It filled the runways of Paris and Milan; it lined the shops of Madison Avenue; it showed up in Gap and JCPenney and Walmart. Everyone loved it, but no one could quite agree what it was. Some people said it had blue undertones, others orange; some compared it to a tomato, others a strawberry. It flattered every figure and every complexion. It came in dresses, coats, boots, purses, hats, scarves, and of course, underwear.
Quite simply, if you weren’t wearing the new red, you might as well be wearing nothing at all.
Merlot, wearing a red sweater under her white lab coat, thought this was rather strange. Two undergraduates passed her door, one in a red coat and hat, the other in a red sweater and leggings. “I love red,” one of them said.
“I know!” said the other.
“It’s funny, I never even used to like red,” said the first girl.
Merlot pondered this, pushing up her red sleeves. The machine before her, the Undiqueluxometer, was designed to split light so it could be studied — waves, reflections, interaction with particles, and, of course, colors. One of the other graduate students was obsessed with finding new ways to bend light. He had many theories on the subject, most of which were entirely unprovable; he had once succeeded in coiling light in a corkscrew around a safety pin, and had written a paper that made him famous in the world of physics.
Merlot’s interests lay elsewhere. She moved the stack of safety pins out of the way and focused the Undi to split light into a prism. She looked through the eyepiece. She loved prisms — they were rainbows of infinite hues, ranging in every possible color, purples and blues and greens and yellows and, of course, reds.
She was looking for the new red, idly curious as to where exactly it fell on the color spectrum. She could tell her students, and they would not remember; but it might be interesting to know.
But she frowned, because she could not match her sweater to any of the dancing colors under the eyepiece. That should not be possible, because if the color existed, it would be visible as a refraction of light.
Merlot looked at her sweater again, and looked through the eyepiece; the color was not there. She knew she was not colorblind. She had taken many tests.
Very carefully, she turned up the edge of her sweater and removed a single thread from the seam. She put it in the Undi, focused the eyepiece, and looked.
She blinked. What she was seeing should not have been possible. The thread was bending the prism, taking all the other colors and drawing them into itself. It collected all the other colors and absorbed them, so that only the new red was left — the new red that should not exist, because it should not be visible to the human eye.
Merlot imagined a world with no other colors, no dancing prisms of light, nothing but one shade of red that would destroy and absorb all other light. It was a terrible thought, a terrible red world, and she did not know what to do about it. How could she, Merlot, convince the fashion industry to give up its new favorite shade? She stared at the Undi for some time, until finally she had an idea that might, perhaps, work.
Last year, the Academy Award for Best Actress had gone to twenty-year-old Kelsey Winter. Her performance was based on light and shadow and camera angles, but everyone loved her anyway; and she herself did not seem to realize that she had no skill as an actor. Just now she was in final rehearsals for the starring role in a Broadway musical adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Under the harsh lights of the stage, without the protection of retakes, a live and critical audience would soon discover that she could neither act nor sing. Merlot doubted the show would make it past previews.
That evening, Merlot went to the stage door on 42nd Street after the rehearsal and waited for Kelsey Winter to come out. There was a small and hopeful crowd, which suited Merlot’s purposes admirably. When the stage door swung open and Kelsey Winter appeared, she was wearing sunglasses (although it was dark) and, predictably, a long cashmere coat of the new red.
Merlot turned to the hopping fan next to her and said, in a perfectly audible whisper, “She doesn’t look as good in person, does she?”
Kelsey Winter stopped in her tracks, then kept going. The next morning she was photographed walking out of Starbucks wearing large sunglasses and a yellow coat. It was all over the Internet. Astonishment. When interviewed, she said coolly, “I don’t really like red, do you? It doesn’t look good on anyone.”
One by one, celebrities dropped the new red; it was abandoned by the mannequins in the shop windows of Madison Avenue, it went on clearance at Gap, it went unsold at Walmart, to the general dismay of retailers.
When the gossip died down and the Internet turned to other matters and everyone had forgotten the new red, Merlot sat down at the Undi and refocused the eyepiece. The light split into its dazzling prism as before, greens and blues and yellows and purples and even reds, all the range the human eye could absorb.
J.R. Sparlin is the recipient of the inaugural 2012 Clare Vanderpool Work of Promise Scholarship, awarded by the Kansas chapter of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. She is the author of two books for young adults, The Court Wizard and The Sea at Mughain. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in a number of publications. She lives in Wichita, Kansas, USA, with her husband and cats.