Big Red | Helena Pantsis
Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Jenny liked to stand at the front of her house and throw rocks as hard as she could against the road. She liked to watch them bounce to the other side, clicking against the hard earth. Her dad hated it, especially when the stones punctured the skin of his car's tyres as he pulled out of the driveway.
“Is this all we’re gonna do?” Fig was Jenny’s new friend from school; she stood beside her, sighing loudly, all hunched over.
Calling her a friend was generous. Jenny’s mum and Fig’s mum were friends, and because Jenny’s mum would watch Fig until her own mum came home from work, Jenny was forced to spend her afternoons with the new kid. Fig’d been hanging around Jenny’s house since she arrived three weeks ago.
“Why does she always have to be at our house? Doesn’t she have her own?” Jenny had asked her mother.
“Yes, she does. But Fig doesn’t have both a mummy who can stay at home, and a daddy that can go to work like you do. Fig’s mummy has to do everything.” Jenny’s mum explained.
“Where’s her daddy?” Jenny asked.
“Some people just don’t have one. Some people have one parent, some have two, some have even more. It’s different for everyone.”
“But I hate her,” she said.
“No, you don’t. Fig is perfectly lovely. Be nice, how would you like it if you had to wait all day before you could come home to your mum? She probably likes it even less than you.”
So Jenny had been guilted into tolerating Fig until her mum could find a childcare she could afford. Or rather, she’d been bribed — her dad had promised her a trip to the waterpark if she was nice.
Jenny threw another stone.
“You don’t have to do it. But this is my house, and I’ll do what I want,” she said.
It bounced all the way across the bitumen, falling down into the open gutter below. Jenny smiled.
The pair returned to their dull, timeless silence, broken only by the clack of gravel hitting the ground, and the occasional whoosh of a car passing by. Fig breathed out, exasperated, growing bored and bored-er still. After some time, she wandered over to hover near Jenny.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the large, red stain on the footpath across the road.
Jenny glanced to where her finger wavered. She knew exactly what she was referring to. It caught the attention of anyone who passed, like a crime scene or a car crash. Jenny was surprised she hadn’t asked earlier.
“That’s Big Red,” she said.
Big Red was a large red splatter on the side of the road that had puddled and stained and embedded itself as a prominent fixture of the neighbourhood. Big Red had become a channel for rumours, a scare tactic for children, a measure of how far you could jump. The red wasn’t as vibrant as it once was, and had faded to a middling burgundy, but the stain had already earned its name long before its gradual decay. Everyone knew of Big Red.
Big Red was the aftermath of a tragic pizza accident, where seventeen meat lovers, no onion, extra cheese, met their maker when they came face to face with the pavement, leaving their spicy sausage mark for years to come. Big Red was a remnant of the gang violence that ran rampant in these parts. Mark Donatella messed with the wrong family and found himself riddled with thirty-two bullets all piercing through muscle and flesh. The red of his veins was the only parts that didn't make it to an earthly grave. Big Red was a bucket of paint, in the colour Autumnal Leaves, fallen from the Rizzolis' balcony when Mr. Rizzoli pushed Rizzoli Junior back too hard in a domestic brawl. Witnesses said he deserved it — the kid was a real brat and a neighbourhood nuisance.
Fig didn’t say anything. She gave a gentle nod, digging her hands into her pockets and circling away again to sit on the ground against the house’s rickety front fence. This annoyed Jenny. Fig wasn’t a local, she didn’t know what it meant, she didn’t know anything about the neighbourhood.
“You don’t know what that means though,” she added, snarky and teasing.
“Yes I do.” Fig spoke defiantly.
“Oh yeah?” Jenny was getting heated now, and turned from her rock-throwing to focus on Fig. “What is it then?”
Fig stood up again, angry in response to Jenny’s superior attitude.
“It means that it’s big and it’s red!” she shouted.
She wasn’t wrong, and that annoyed Jenny even more.
“No!” She fidgeted, hands opening and closing into fists as she struggled to rebut Fig’s comment. “You don’t know what it is!”
“What is it then?” Fig huffed.
Big Red was a drunken night on a Christmas seven years ago and a broken bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Big Red was Dean McDonald's idea of a senior prank, with a vat of pig blood, a recording of a gunshot, and a rather convincing chest wound made by a white t-shirt and red marker. Big Red was the remnant of red water from every wash that Mrs. Currie ran where she forgot to separate her whites and coloureds. Big Red was a hundred layers of chalk from children of every generation playing hopscotch drawn by the red granite gravel they'd pinch from the playground mulch at school; it showed so vivid against even the darkest ground.
Jenny considered the almanac of all the stories she'd heard and known inside her mind.
“It's the tunnel to hell,” she said.
Fig furrowed her eyebrows.
“They had to cover it up because too many kids were getting sucked in. Still, the fire's so hot the colour bleeds through.” Jenny repeated what she'd heard from Casey Donovan's older brother at the front of the school gate. Fig watched her wearily for a moment.
“Yeah, right." She crossed her arms, nose scrunching up in something like distaste or uncertainty.
To Jenny, it sounded like a challenge. She stepped closer to Fig, daring, menacing.
“If you're not scared, let's go over there then.” She smirked, folding her arms in return.
A car whooshed past as the pair of them stared at the stain — it seemed to grow under the dimming sun and the heat of their gaze. Fig began to suck on her lower lip, her knees knocking against each other as she stood, deep in thought.
“I'm not scared! I know it won't open.”
“How would you know?” Jenny challenged.
“My dad’s a pastor,” Fig bragged, “and he said only evil people go to hell.”
Jenny was barely taller than Fig, but still she towered over her, face screwed up and finger pointed accusingly.
“You don’t have a dad,” she spat back.
“I do so!” Fig kicked the ground, shoulders hunching over and head bowing down.
“Then why aren’t you with him?” Jenny asked.
A car barrelled by, running over Jenny's gravel shot-puts.
“Because!” Fig stopped, shrivelling her mouth up. “My dad travels the world spreading the word of God.”
Jenny could see she’d touched on a sore topic for Fig, and it gave her a rush, moving her to prod more. She could tell Fig was lying by the way her eyes fell when she spoke about it, and the way her lip began to quiver, stopped only by Fig's rough bite which threatened to spill blood from her trembling mouth.
“So he’d rather tell stories to strangers than read you to bed at night,” Jenny sneered. “Maybe your daddy left because you’re a devil child.”
“No I’m not!”
Another car rushed by.
“Then go over to Big Red, and if it doesn’t open then you’re right. But if the ground rumbles, bubbles up and opens up beneath you, then you’re a devil child going back to hell. And then we’ll know why your daddy left home.”
“Fine!” Fig yelled. “You’ll see!”
Fig brushed her hands against her pants and picked her feet off the ground. The hot red blood of rage was pulsing loudly in her ears; she was full of something desperate to prove, and desperate too to be good. It was all-consuming, the fear mixed with want, so she barely even knew what she was doing as she did it. Maybe her dad was a pastor, maybe it was a story her mother had told her, maybe she'd heard it on TV — Jenny didn’t know, and in the moment none of it mattered. Fig had propelled herself across the road, moving swift and before Jenny even realised it. These neighbourhoods were quiet for the most part, and you could play on the streets if you were careful, but you had to be calm to be aware.
When Fig ran across the street a car met her abruptly and violently in the middle. Slamming into her, it swerved off to the opposite side of the road, taking Fig's fractured body with it. She was pancaked, blooded and bone-splintered when met with the bitumen. Jenny’s head tilted sideways in response, staring at the accident across the road. She wondered if it was a sign of God, or the Devil, or if dinner was near ready.
Big Red was a fixture of the neighbourhood, a story on the tip of everyone’s tongue, a rumour and a myth and a reality and a falsity. Big Red was a remnant of the sand storm that blew through the town seven years ago and stained the ground it blew across. Big Red was a crack in the ground and a leaking pipe that showed there was mercury in the town’s water supply which had caused the death of hundreds. Big Red was the blood splatter of a child killed in broad daylight by a careless kid and a reckless driver. Or maybe, Big Red was a tunnel to hell. You just had to know how to get there.
Helena Pantsis (she/they) is a writer of short-form fiction from Naarm, Australia. A full-time student of creative writing, they have a fond appreciation for the gritty, the dark, and the experimental. Her works are published in Overland, Island Online, Going Down Swinging, and Meanjin. More can be found at hlnpnts.com.