The Sidewalk Ends

by Thomas Scopel

First seen in Suspense Magazine August 2013

Author's Note:

One day I saw a sign that actually read, “The Sidewalk Ends.” At first finding it ludicrous that a sign was needed to dictate and direct as if folks couldn’t see for themselves, subsequently the humor element took a dark turn and this tale, from the July 2013 issue of Suspense Magazine, was the outcome.

When first seeing the sign, attached to a post directly at the end of the sidewalk, James viewed it with ridicule and couldn’t help but to laugh out loud at the obvious preposterousness. Not only did the sign appear completely out of place, it seemed that the sign was simply to imply and convey reservation aimed at less common sensed folks.

Did a person really need a sign to tell them that the sidewalk ended? Couldn’t they see that the sidewalk stopped? Did they actually have to be told?

His thoughts bordered absurdity, his eyes remained glued to the words and he chuckled while yet again driving by on the way to work.
            With his normal route to work being closed for construction, James needed to find a new temporary route to get around. Unfamiliar with the area, he applied logic, maintained general direction and easily did through a dilapidated section on a street called Southern Lane. He wasn’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of traveling through such a terrible looking part of town, but it did offer a quick reroute and the mile or so difference was acceptable.

On the first few travels down the street, he hadn’t noticed the sign, remaining focused and consciences of the road nuances, somewhat frightfully making every attempt to avoid the decaying sights, and basically concentrated on just trying to cross as quick and safe as possible.

Gradually, after a few days or so, he began to feel more comfortable. With complacency setting in and his eyes starting wandering about, that’s when he noticed the sign, partly hidden behind a very unkempt brown and partially rotted shrub, in between two burned out, dingy and starting to crumble red brick buildings.

White, new and seemingly fresh, the sign was unlike the many rusted and worn, some sporting old bullet holes, others along the road’s sides. Had it not been for its pristine condition, he probably wouldn’t have notice it all. And, only after reading the words —Sidewalk Ends— did he take notice that the sidewalk was no longer part of the roadside landscape and he grew to view it with humor.

After a few passing’s, viewing and laughing out loud each time, the comical aspect diminished and inquisitiveness took its place.

Had they run out of concrete? Did they just decide to stop the sidewalk there? Why didn’t the sidewalk continue the length of the street like most of the others?  

After a few days of ponder, never actually coming to a tangible solution, he wrote the deliberation off and tucked the thought into the back of his mind’s slush pile of things considered seemingly meaningless.
That was before he learned the answer...

The day was usual as he turned onto and started heading down Southern Lane. The morning had already seemed long and he was a bit behind schedule. He pressed a little harder on the gas pedal and the car shut off. Recalling a time when having run out of gas, he immediately glanced at the fuel gauge. It wasn’t the problem and he pumped the pedal twice while turning the key as he coasted to the curb. It was to no avail.

For a good couple of minutes he sat there turning the key and trying to start the car, only succeeding in running the battery low.

Discouraged and disturbed, he climbed out of the car, locked the doors and started solemnly walking. The frightened feeling abruptly returned, knowing that he would now be forced to walk through the scary and relatively dangerous looking area.

Trying to take his mind from the situation, he analyzed what may be wrong with the car, but only succeeded in dreadfully hoping that when he returned after work later that afternoon, the car would still be there, unscathed.

The cool morning was comfortable, but James couldn’t appreciate the pleasantness as he walked quickly down the old, cracked and mostly uneven sidewalk. He remembered the old saying “step on a crack…break your mother’s back” and he started avoiding, stepping over the cracks. To his surprise, this aided in eliminating some of the fear and before long, he was suddenly coming upon the odd little sign. A very small twang of humor forced a faint grin and he decided, while he was there, to save the element for posterity.

Standing before the sign, he looked beyond it and wondered, yet again, why the sidewalk ended at that point while he took out his cellphone and selected the camera feature. He shrugged his shoulders, still unable to reach a plausible explanation, lifted the cellphone and clicked off a shot.

The picture was too bright with the morning sun invading the background and he deleted it and moved to the side to take another. This picture wasn’t much better; bright and reflective, and he inched farther to the side. The next shot was worse than the previous two, extremely blurry.

More disgruntled that discouraged— but not wanting to linger in the depressed area any longer— he put the phone away and stepped forward toward the blackened and hard packed dirt path leading beyond the sign.

Suddenly, he found himself no longer strolling down the street, but standing at the end of an institutional off-white colored hallway. The air, having a stagnant tinge of antiseptic burn, invaded his nostrils and he fought back against a turning stomach.

Along the walls, opposite and staggered, were inset standard size rectangular thresholds giving an appearance that each doorway might be a perpendicular hallway leading off from the main. Standing in each, strangely peering back at him were various chilling, some more gruesome than others, looking characters.

The loud chime of a grandfather clock broke the silence. It startled James with its deep, eerie and dark tones, nothing like the pleasant and comforting sounding one his grandparents had owned. He looked farther down the hall seeking the source and saw it, over halfway down, against the side wall between two of the insets. It was ancient and meticulously carved, yet decrepit and worn.

A guillotine, its dull grey and pitted blade stained red and menacingly awaiting to drop, ran lengthwise against the wall opposite the clock and a tremendous feeling of impending doom shivered through him.
A bat screeched. He didn’t see it, but unconsciously and reactively took a step backwards as though he had, and found himself standing in the bright morning sunlight in front of the sign.

Perplexed, the sense of dread evaporated and he leaned slightly to look past the sign down the street. Life seemed usual. Automobiles sporadically drove by, an old man with a cane, walking a small, mange infested terrier type mutt some distance away, carefully navigated the dirt path coming toward him, allowing the dog the freedom to sniff and occasionally lift its leg as deemed fit.

Relief, but more so confusion overwhelmed and James glanced back and forth from the sign to the path in an almost dream-like state trying to make some sort of sense of it all. He turned and looked behind, from where he came. Nothing was out of the ordinary and he turned back. The dog, stopped dead in its tracks looked back at him and growled lowly, unsure as to whether James was a threat or not. James felt anger grow and imagined kicking the damn thing.

The old man nudged the dog with the tip of his cane, and after a moment of clear hesitation, the dog obeyed its’ master and slowly continued down the path.

Hoping to quickly get past the mutt without getting bitten, James stepped forward.

Again he found himself standing in the hallway being gawked at. He recalled the screech and frantically searched about the hall, but mostly the dingy white ceiling, for the potentially flying rodent.

Not far away, above and before the first creature filled threshold, dangling from the ceiling was a frayed noose seemingly swaying slightly in a breeze that James could not detect. He looked through the rope’s gape, at the ceiling beyond, and in an opening leading to a pitch black looking outside, saw the bat, appearing to be flying, yet remained stationary, only hovering on flapping wings before a larger than normal full gleaming moon. James looked away and his eyes fell to the thresholds.

Barely the creatures and characters moved, turning their heads back and forth, from glancing away down the hall to back at him, as if they were expecting something or someone to come strolling up the hall.
They appeared to be freely able to roam, yet none left the threshold confines, and James wondered whether they were actually able to or not.

In the first, beginning on the right, an almost specter-like skeletal creature, dressed in a tattered sheer robe, seemed to be screaming out, but no sound was heard. It lifted its bony arm reaching out toward him. The hand and wrist bones clicked and ground together when it turned palm up and motioned, with a single index finger, for him to come to it. James eyes grew wide.

At the second threshold, opposite and off center from the first, a large oblong headed creature, shiny shelled and brutal looking with long, viciously pointed teeth held in a macabre and eerie smile, scrutinized James’ stare. By its sides, barely raised, small crab-like claws clacked raucously together as it continued the unabated gaze. Drool glistened as it cascaded down over each tooth, forming droplets at the points that, after growing large enough to fall would drip into a widening and steaming, hot-like puddle on the floor below.

In the next doorway on the same side stood a dark and mysterious shadowed man, wearing a long black cape and a large brimmed hat that kept his eyes hidden in total darkness. The large ominous butcher’s blade he clenched was clearly shiny and moistly red. The clock bellowed out again.

The clock stroke stopped and James noticed a strange humming sound. He looked to the end of the hall and saw that it turned to the left. An electric chair, with cracked wood, sat in the corner before the turn, still holding tight a body, sporting a hooded limped head wearing a corroded green, metal helmet. He offered a quick glance at the characters again. Full of nerves, James stepped backward, wanting and intending to leave.

His heel hit the cinder block wall firmly and slid down its face. Terror filled him and he spun around and pushed against the wall. It was rigid and unforgiving. He pounded both balled fists against the face until the pain forced him to stop and a trapped terror invaded.

He whirled around, looked past the grotesque and frightening looking players and pieces and concentrated on the turn at the end of the hall, wondering if beyond it was an exit.

With extreme hesitancy he took a small step forward. The characters took notice, rising up a bit, yet didn’t leave the confines of their doorway. Fear flowed through James and he felt his body tighten. He took a deep breath and another step, careful to remain in the center of the hallway, hoping that if he did, the creatures, when he passed, couldn’t or wouldn’t grasp him.

When he reached the skeleton, fully on guard and ready to do battle, he was surprised when it lowered its arm and simply watched while he made his way by. Some sense of relief pushed out a portion of the enveloping horror and James took a couple more steps, this time quicker, and stood directly below the continuing to gently swing noose.

About to take another step, he saw a deep and ragged hole in the cracked tiled floor. Squinting and exploring into the black nothingness, a pair of reflective yellow eyes peered back and he heard a low growl. Fear gripped as he left the relative safety of the center track he had been following and put his back against the right side wall. He looked into the hole again, saw nothing, and sidestepped past it, like a person, high up, edging along a skyscraper’s tiny ledge.

After getting a few feet beyond the hole, he looked back at it. A hairy and jagged nailed clawing hand was reaching out. James cringed and got a whiff of the rancidness odor it offered.

The drooling creature, ahead and opposite him in the next doorway clenched and unclenched its teeth, making a terrible grinding sound. James barely inched forward down the side of the wall. When he was opposite the creature, it too remained within the doorway and didn’t make any attempt to lash out. James listened to the hiss of the saliva puddle, its greenish festering vapors rising and swirling before dissipating.            

The bat screeched again, this time louder. James instinctively ducked low, almost taking on a full crouch, closed his eyes tight and raised his arms above his head, fearing it was preparing to swoop down.

It didn’t and after a minute or so, James slowly reopened his eyes, looked up and saw that the bat was still hovering in the ceiling opening. He cautiously raised and hurriedly took a few steps, to the side of the grandfather clock, hoping the distance between him and the rodent would suffice in keeping it at bay.

Realizing nothing was in tow, more relief began to set in and he looked around the side of the clock toward the end of the hall. He was now more than halfway to the corner and, although concerned with what lie around the corner, he was confident that he could at least make it there.

He stepped back into the hall’s center and stood before the clock. The tarnished golden pendulum, behind an intricate etched glass panel featuring various symbols associated with time, swung consistently back and forth, ticking as it did. The clock face above registered slightly after midnight and James was again perplexed.

How could that be? I was just standing in early morning sunshine, not ten minutes ago.

He turned around and offered a glance at the Guillotine on the opposite wall, paying close attention to the wicked and obviously heavily used blade. After some concentration including thoughts of who may have met their demise at the death contraption’s hands, he saw the shabby and stained basket, sitting below the stock. He leaned forward a bit and peered into it. It held a head, but the face was turned away, and he wondered where the head’s body was.

He looked back down the hall and saw that the doorways were now empty and it made him feel only slightly at ease as he continued on.            

He didn’t inspect the electric chair as he had the Guillotine and only gave it a quick look over. Realizing that it was where that odd humming had been coming from, he was more content and maybe even intrigued with rounding the corner.

When he made the turn he saw that it was just another hallway, not as long, but just as similar. There were thresholds leading off from it too, oppositely staggered just as the previous, but nothing stood in them. Elaborate paintings, dark and demented, depicting castles and demons and moons and fires lined the walls in between the thresholds.

At the end of this hallway set a large wooden desk. James could see that there was someone sitting behind it, but he couldn’t make out their features, and he walked toward them.
The closer he got, the more the person came into view and he was finally able to distinguish that it was a bespectacled and balding little man who was busy writing, with a feather quill pen, in a very thick and large leather bound book. James stopped and stood and watched as the man occasionally dipped the tip of the quill into the adjacent milky black jar and resume writing, seemingly oblivious to James’ observance.

After watching for some time, assuring that there was no threat, James walked closer and stood in front of the desk. The man didn’t look up and James read the brass name plate resting almost at the front edge of the desk,

Mr. Lived.           

Thinking it to be an odd name, James considered whether it was more so an adjective describing and indicating how the man existed, much like the many posters’ James recalled sometimes seeing on the walls of conference rooms and interviewing offices. Ones that said things like INTEGRITY and COURAGE and HONESTY and HOPE.
           

The man grunted, obviously conveying that he was aware of James’ presence, but continued penning, not looking up until he was finished and had placed the quill into the ink jar.           

His eyes met James’s. They were cold, distant and dark, almost blackened, and much larger from behind the magnifying spectacles. Fear returned full force and James countered with conversation.

“Lived is a rather uncommon name? One I have never come across before.”

“Not where I come from,” the man chuckled lightly before breaking into a full hearty laugh. James couldn’t imagine what the man found so funny about his inquisition.
            After the sustained bout of laughter the man calmed and spoke again.

“Yes, I would have to agree and I suppose you’re right. It is a rather uncommon name. But, where I come from, there are many both common and uncommon names. It’s all a matter of perception.” His voice was normal, a bit high pitched, but nothing like James had expected.

“Let me ask you something,” the man continued. “Have you ever heard the old adage that curiosity killed the cat?”           

“I have,” James answered.

“And, do you find it to be true?” The man’s brow rose.

“I can’t say,” James replied. “I suppose so,” he added.

 “Why else do you think it would have been created?” the man inquired. “It obviously had to begin from somewhere and that somewhere must have obviously been through observation…don’t you agree?”           

James looked on, pondering the man’s words and reasoning.           

The man raised a wrinkled hand, snapped two fingers and pointed to from where James had come from and he turned to look at what the man was implying.

The hall was now reversed, with the paintings and pictures on the opposite sides and a new plethora of miserable and horrible characters staring back from each doorway.

The little old man laughed again, this time more wickedly and James whirled back toward him and his eyes fell to the nameplate. It now read DEVIL RM.

The man’s noticed and began to cackle, the laughter growing louder and louder. James turned and fled back down the hallway. He past the dreadful creatures, watching from their thresholds, and the little man called out, “have you given any thought to what the RM stands for?”

James hadn’t and was more concerned with fleeing. As he rounded the corner he heard the man again…”It’s for resident master.” Laughter filled the air, echoing from wall to wall and James was glad to see that the halls’ creatures were still no longer there. He set his sights on the wall at the end of the hallway, hoping to find the passage out.           

Drawing near the wall, James lowered a resistance expecting shoulder and grew determined to break through and back into the morning from where he had come.

He hit the hard and mercilessly intolerant wall with such force that he brutally deflected backwards and landed unconscious on the center of the hallway floor.           

James opened his eyes. Everything was blurry and it took a moment to adjust and focus. He looked up from his prone position and saw the creatures standing over looking down at him in a circle, with the bespectacled little man at his head smiling widely, showing uneven and grotesquely pointed teeth.

“Your soul was eventually headed here, or didn’t you know that?” the man asked as horns slowly broke through the skin of his forehead and began protruding. “You had your one warning…but, you stepped right back…didn’t you? I placed a warning, just like I do for every other soul. Remember the growling dog? But, just as you had, most never see the sign until it’s too late. Why, I even made the area look uncompromising and downright threatening. But you still took the route. There were a number of others you could have taken…but, you didn’t now did you?
Maybe I should apologize for the trickster in me, but I won’t because it’s what I do. I trick everyone at one time or another. When I saw you chuckle at the sign, I knew it was simply a matter of time before I had you here with me. Oh, I played a bit, letting you pass by it and letting the element fully soak in.
However, time is short and there are so many other souls out there…and many other tricks to be played. And, as I often do, I grew tired…especially when I had you right where I wanted, and so I put you on one final path…a dirt one if you will, excuse the pun.”

The man’s eyes grew red and he laughed. The creatures, one by one, seemed to join him in his hilarity and laughed as they reached in and clutched hold. James screamed out, the laughter grew deafening and all went black.           

When James awoke, his mind was perfectly clear. No longer did he view humor in the sign’s words, having grown to realize that the sign was not an indication that the sidewalk was ending, but a warning proclaiming so.

His eyes looked ahead and saw a grey haired man, wearing an expensive business suit, step through a wall of haze and peer down the hallway, eyes wide with confusion.

James wanted to yell out at the man. To tell him to turn around and go back…to get out…to leave and never return, but the tight noose he dangled from wouldn’t allow him to utter a sound.

And just as the man noticed James hanging there, the clock began chiming…

 

End

 

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