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Where the Sidewalk Ends (the story)

Prompted #4 Randy Baker

By Heather Zieffle Published about a month ago Updated 11 days ago 12 min read
Where the Sidewalk Ends (the story)
Photo by Vincent Tint on Unsplash

Kayden coughs, turning his head to the side as he lifts the mask from his face to launch a gob of blackened spit at a nearby wall.

He watches it slide towards the ground with a detached sort of interest, noticing that the colour blends in with nearly every surface of the Warrens.

The Warrens, the part of the city he lives in, are home to every drudger in the city. Kayden is a drudger, his parents had been drudgers and every person he’s known in his ten years of life, have been drudgers.

Drudgers are the cogs of this city. They are its workers who do every dirty, hard and menial job it takes to keep the one-percenters—the elite—happy and safe behind this city’s walls.

Kayden has never questioned his lot in life. He has shelter, food and a warm place to sleep, so why should he complain? So his spit turns black from the smog that the air purifiers and his mask can't capture.

It was better than being jailed, or worse, banished to beyond the walls. They were all taught that what lay beyond the safety of the city was nothing but death. The lands were barren and fraught with strange creatures that would kill without hesitation.

He shivers just thinking about it, then slips his mask back on and hurries to the closest platform to catch the bullet train home.

Squeezing into one of the overcrowded cars, he grabs hold of a handrail as the train speeds off. It spirals down, deeper into the Warrens where most of his fellow workers lived.

Thankfully, he doesn’t have a long ride as his dorm is only a few stops into this route and soon he’s leaping from the car as its doors open.

This far underground, the only illumination comes from a billion artificial sources. The surface wasn’t much better as the towers that housed the elite soared so high above the city that they all but blocked out any natural sunlight.

Walking the familiar path at a near jog, Kayden is soon entering his dorm and his room shared by a half dozen other boys.

Noticing the lump on the top bunk, Kayden does his best to keep quiet. Jace, his bunkmate, worked the night shift and had been feeling poorly lately. He needed all the sleep this job allowed him.

Pulling his mask off, Kayden sighs as he hangs it on a hook next to his bed before shaking his hair out.

Climbing through ducts for eight hours a day coated him in grime. Even if his hair hadn’t been black naturally, it would have been by the end of every shift.

“Kayden, that you?” A whisper floats down from the top bunk.

“Yup. Sorry, bud, I was trying to be quiet,” Kayden answers.

A weak laugh from Jace as he turns over to stare down at Kayden. “I haven’t been sleeping well, so it wasn’t you who woke me.”

“Did you see the medic? I thought the dorm master had you slotted to see em today?” Kayden asks, frowning up at the extra pale face of his friend.

“Eh, you know how it is. Some sort of emergency in E dorm had all the medics in this sector busy,” Jace shrugs, giving Kayden a lopsided grin that didn’t reach his pale eyes.

Kayden frowns again. He and Jace had been assigned to C dorm at the same time, three years ago. Jace had always been a scrawny, sickly kid, and Kayden had taken him under his wing. They had become as close as brothers.

“Did ya eat? I’m going to shower, then I’ll bring you some food from the mess hall,” Kayden says.

“Sure, that’ll be great,” Jace mumbles, laying back down and closing his eyes.

Kayden hurries to make good on his word, even rushing his time in the shower. Grabbing as much food as the cook will let him, he brings back a laden tray to share with Jace.

It takes several hard shakes to rouse Jace this time, and the blurry, confused look he gives Kayden is worrisome.

“Come on, let me help you down and you can tell me your stories again while we eat,” Kayden says, coaxing his drowsy friend.

Getting Jace down from his bunk is harder than expected, and Kayden uses all his strength to keep him from falling. I’m going to chat up the dorm master after we eat. Jace needs a medic! Kayden thinks as the worry for his friend makes his stomach churn.

Sitting at the small table next to their bunk, Jace seems to perk up a little as he nibbles on some food and drink. His eyes even get brighter when Kayden brings up Jace’s favourite topic, the world before this one.

Jace’s voice fills with wonder and excitement as he explains fields of green growing grass. Flowers that flourish under a sun and sky not obscured by smog.

He even revisits the time he found a flower growing, impossibly, between cracks in the upper levels of the Warrens. It was purple, the colour so bright, so pure, that it had made Jace cry.

Kayden chews on a piece of pressed protein as he listens. Jace’s passion is such that it catches Kayden’s limited imagination, making him feel things that are best kept at bay. What was the point in yearning for things that no longer existed?

But he doesn’t interrupt his friend. He was just happy to see Jace lively and alert for once.

“I know you don’t think this stuff exists anymore, Kay, but it does! I’ve found books and one that even has a map!” He whispers, leaning over the table to make sure Kayden hears him.

“Whatcha talking about, Jace? What kind of map? There aren’t no such things any longer, you know that,” Kayden whispers back.

“Ya there are! It’s not a barren wasteland beyond the wall. They’ve lied to us! This map… it shows a way to a crack, a hole that’s not guarded. Kay, it leads outside the wall!” he hisses, then throws his arm across his mouth as coughing racks his body.

Kayden sits stunned for a moment before shaking his head to clear Jace’s impossible words from his thoughts. Passing his friend a cup of water, he notices how pale he looks again.

“Come on, you should get back in bed. I’ll talk to the dorm master, see when that medic will be here,” Kayden says. Instead of hauling him back into the top bunk, he puts Jace in the lower bed.

Too tired to protest, Jace curls up under the covers and immediately closes his eyes. “It’s true, Kay. And one day, I’m going to find that place. I’m going to follow those white chalk arrows.” His strange words fade off as sleep overtakes him.

***

For the next three days, Kayden tries desperately to help his friend. Pleading with the dorm master is fruitless, as the emergency still raging in E dorm takes precedence over one sickly kid.

The basic medicines in their small dorm clinic do nothing to slow Jace’s worsening cough or the fever he develops.

Kayden’s pleas must touch something in the dorm master’s crusty old heart as, on the third day, he lets him skip his shift so he can tend to Jace.

Holding Jace’s hand, he watches his chest rise and fall, the shallow breaths making his own chest tighten. He knows what’s coming. He’s seen death so many times that it shouldn’t hurt as much as it does.

“Kay…” Jace’s raspy voice makes Kayden’s head snap up.

“Hey, bud. Do you need some water?” Kayden asks, moving to grab the jug on the table but stopping when Jace’s grip tightens on his hand.

“Kay. Follow the map, wouldcha? It’s real, I know it is.” Jace’s eyes hold Kayden’s, waiting for his nod.

“Sure, we’ll find it together. You just need to kick this bug, yeah?” Kayden replies, forcing a smile.

Jace's lips twitch as he tries to return the smile. “Yeah. It’s going to be beautiful. Remember that flower I found? There’ll be thousands of them!”

“You bet there will be, bud,” Kayden whispers, squeezing his friend’s hand as it goes limp. Hanging his head, he lets the tears fall.

****

A week passes and Kayden tosses in his bed, covering his ears with a pillow. His new bunkmate is a snorer. Kayden kept the top bunk as he couldn’t force himself to sleep in the same bed Jace died in.

After a few more minutes of tossing, Kayden huffs and throws his covers off. Climbing down the ladder, he shoots the snoring kid a glare before grabbing up a box of Jace’s things and heading to the reading room.

He’d delayed going through this box, but tonight seems like a good a time as any.

The halls are silent as most kids are working or sleeping at this hour. Plopping into a chair between two bookcases, Kayden balances the box on his lap and pulls the top open.

As he rifles through the contents, he wonders where Jace found these things. Most were books full of glossy pictures of the past. Although he had learned about the past in school, images weren’t part of the curriculum.

These books seem old, and Kayden is careful as he turns each page. Trees and flowers of all shapes, colour and size make his eyes widen. Picking up another book, this one a notebook filled with drawings and scribbles, he flips through it.

His heart lurches when he stops on a drawing of a map. It’s crude, but he’s pretty sure it depicts Old Town, and the area where an earthquake collapsed a portion of that sector years ago. This is the map Jace had mentioned before he died.

Cryptic notes flow around the map; ‘Be careful where you walk, and careful where you step, but follow the marks laid out in chalk.’

Another one; ‘The sidewalk it ends and crumbles like dust, but you’ve come this far, so don’t lose trust.’

Kayden runs his fingers over Jace’s own writing. He had written his thoughts on where and how he could find this place, and they mirrored Kayden’s.

Sighing, he closes the books and puts them away. Jace had always been a dreamer. Maybe it was kinder that he had died now instead of growing older and having this world shatter those dreams.

He should toss this box and its contents in the incinerator, but Kayden doesn’t have the heart for that tonight. Instead, he keeps it with him as he heads back to bed.

****

For a month, Kayden ignores the niggling thoughts that finding that map has instilled in him.

His mind keeps saying, ‘follow it for Jace.’ It’s so bad that he even dreams about looking for the place. His dream-self following dark twisting labyrinths to dead ends.

After one such disturbing dream, Kayden lies in his bed staring at the ceiling. He had four days of rest owed to him. Maybe he should use them to locate this place on the map and show his brain—once and for all—it was just a bunch of foolishness.

Decision made, Kayden turns on his side and finally drifts off to sleep.

****

Two days later, Kayden makes his way to Old Town. He doesn’t need a map to guide him to the site of the collapse, as its location isn’t a secret. However, standing in front of a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign, he hasn’t a clue where to start looking.

Pulling out the notebook, he leans against a wall as he studies the map. Small red circles dot the page with a note that says, ‘hug the wall and stay low. Their eyes are watching so go slow.’

Of course, there would be cameras monitoring the area. Another mark on the paper, this one set deeper in, closer to the centre of the collapse. No rhyme this time, just a simple, ‘start here.’

Sighing, Kayden scans the area, looking back and forth between the map and the crater until he feels comfortable with where to begin.

He tucks the map away and walks up the street, putting his hand in his pockets, doing his best to look casual.

As he passes one of the huge signs, he ducks behind it and swiftly slips into the off-limits area. From that point, Kayden moves fast, ignoring his hammering heart as he makes his way to the mark on the map.

Keeping the locations of the cameras in mind, he stays low. With every step, Kayden expects to be caught. But none of that happens and soon he’s standing in front of a collapsed tunnel.

A chalk arrow points the way, and Kayden follows it. He has to squeeze through several rubble piles blocking the way until he reaches an old-world sewer cover. More chalk markings make it clear that this is where he needs to go.

“Okay, Jace, let's see where this goes,” he mutters, moving to lift the cover.

****

Kayden walks for what feels like hours. Maneuvering through these tunnels was easy compared to crawling through tight ducts every day. The white chalk arrows, although faded, still guide the way.

Just as he’s wondering if he should continue on this seemingly unending path, his flashlight illuminates a rusted ladder leading up.

The cover sits haphazardly over the opening, and looking up, Jace squints his eyes at the glare of light that shines down.

Sunlight.

With his heart hammering, Kayden holds his breath as he climbs the ladder. His hands shake as he reaches up and heaves the cover aside.

Shielding his eyes, Kayden clambers from the sewer.

As his sight adjusts to the unfiltered sunlight, his face warm from its rays, this alien world slowly comes into focus and his breathing hitches.

The sky extends in every direction, the blue so rich Kayden hardly thinks it’s real. A vast sea of grass rolls out before him, again the colour so vivid it leaves him humble.

And the flowers, so many flowers, dot the landscape. How could there be that many colours?

“Jace, buddy, are you seeing this?” he whispers. “You were right, oh god, you were right.” Dropping to his knees, Kayden lets his tears flow as he takes it all in.

For ten years this place, this sunshine, these flowers, were denied to him. Denied to Jace. To everyone living behind those walls.

“And the air! It smells so sweet! How does it smell this good?” he wails, his eyes searching that vast blueness for answers.

As his tears continue to fall, his anger grows. Anger at the people and the place that kept him from all this.

With a snarl, he clenches his fist around a large stone. On his knees still, he turns around. The walled city that he’d just came from mars the horizon. It sits like an ugly blemish in the distance.

Kayden screams as he hurls the stone, then reaches down for another one and throws that one as well. He nearly rips a flower from the ground when he searches for a third rock, and his eyes widen in horror.

“Sorry, oh no, sorry little flower,” he whimpers, falling to his hands to stare at the delicate bloom. “You’re alright, oh gods, thank you!”

Stretching out on his stomach, Kayden folds his arms and rests his chin on them while he continues to gaze at the flower. The intricacies of it were amazing and nothing Kayden has seen before comes close to its beauty.

“What now, Jace?” he wonders.

As that sweet smelling breeze picks up, the little bloom bends, seeming to point the way. Looking over his shoulder, Kayden sees the broken remains of a long-ago sidewalk leading away from the city.

Standing, he brushes the dust off himself. He can’t go back, that’s for certain. “Well, bud, let's see where this sidewalk ends, shall we?”

**Authors notes: This story was inspired by one of the first poems I read when I was young. It's still one of my favorites. Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. I've also written a Part 2, please see the link below.

Short Story

About the Creator

Heather Zieffle

I've been writing for a few years, and I'm grateful to have found my passion! I've self-published several sci-fi romance novels on Amazon, but want to branch out into fantasy soon. Any feedback is welcome!

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Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insight

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (10)

  • Paul Stewartabout 6 hours ago

    I'm new to that poem...but it's wonderful...so thank you for sharing it and well done on this magical piece to go with it. What a wonderful entry - can see why Randy singled it out in the Winner's Circle. I shall be back to read Part 2...I'm invested...love Kayden and how much he cared for Jace and love the premise...of the one-percent...as ever protecting people from the truth...or holding them captive from it. Beautiful writing, Heather. Thank you for sharing it as part of my challenge. Sorry it's taken so long to get round to it.

  • Mackenzie Davis30 days ago

    Wonderful adaptation, Heather! I like how you added to the poem with your own rhymes, and expanded the world to be so dystopian and harsh compared to the land of flowers. The emotional heart here is so effective. Congrats!!

  • Hannah Mooreabout a month ago

    Never read that poem, but it's brilliant - as was this captivating story!

  • Lamar Wigginsabout a month ago

    Wow! Great work! Your adaptation of the poem was masterful. Definitely tugs at the strings and left me in awe, wanting more. Simply beautiful, sad and triumphant. Congrats, Heather!

  • Shaun Waltersabout a month ago

    Great job!

  • Katarzyna Popielabout a month ago

    I loved this piece! If you ever develop it into something larger I will definitely read it!

  • Matthew Frommabout a month ago

    Ooooooft this is a swift kick in the you know what. Top notch work and congrats on your well deserved placement

  • Jay Kantorabout a month ago

    Hz ~ This is so Far-Out. As mentioned I don't do challenges - sorry that I've missed this. I don't know Randy Baker; not knowing how these things work. I just write my Silly Shorts & do my Goofy Sketches; fun for me at this stage. But, you are the 'Real' writer. Such a  pleasure to read a Real storyteller within the VillageBucket. J.in.l.a. Jay Kantor, Chatsworth, California 'Senior' Vocal Author - Vocal Village Community -

  • John Coxabout a month ago

    This reads like the opening chapter to a dystopian novel, Heather. Do you plan to write more? I enjoyed it immensely.

  • Shirley Belkabout a month ago

    Heather, this is outstanding!!! Beautiful job.

Heather Zieffle Written by Heather Zieffle

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