The following is “The Corpse Door,” a short story I submitted for a 50th anniversary collection celebrating Kolchak: The Night Stalker. This story made it all the way to the finals, but alas, it wasn’t accepted for publication. You win some, you lose some. I highly encourage you check out the Kolchak: The Night Stalker – 50th Anniversary Graphic Novel. Look for updates on its release and where to purchase both the regular edition and the deluxe edition.
The Corpse Door
Andersonville. Lately, the sun’s taken a shine to this up-and-coming neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. It’s where the hip and cool are taking refuge from the squares, turning this once quaint sanctuary for immigrants into a primo shopping destination for those with style and means. I lost a bet with my editor, Tony Vincenzo, and now I find myself covering a ribbon-cutting ceremony at one of the newest coffee shops for those with an insatiable thirst and loose pockets.
As I make my way toward the youthful crowd gathered in front of Conscious Grind on Clark Street, I suddenly am reminded of the nest of gray hair hiding beneath my pork pie hat. Like the historic row houses in Andersonville, I am a relic of another era. I still listen to records, my camera’s refillable, and I crank out my stories for the Independent News Service on a typewriter, though Tony has tried to set up a computer, more than once, on my desk.
Just a few years ago, nobody talked about Andersonville. It used to be just another part of Edgewater — an affordable place for families to plant roots and chase after the American dream. The only factoid you’d find in a library about this neighborhood was that it was originally home to Swedish farmers over 100 years ago. As their families expanded and their community grew, so did the 19th Century row houses that sprung up.
It’s changing now, and I can see the evolution in the fresh coat of paint plastered on all of the signs advertising every sort of good or service you could imagine along Clark Street. Some Chicagoans look at that fresh coat and call it progress. Nobody, however, ever thinks about the people left behind, about the faded relic beneath that shiny new look. It’s still there; it’s just buried beneath that gleaming veneer.
I’m almost toward the rear of the crowd now. The owner of Conscious Grind is standing atop a pile of coffee bean bags before everyone. He’s in blue jeans with the pant legs rolled up and a long-sleeve black shirt with his business logo on it. It’s a look that’s all too common these days. Tony admonished a newer hire not too long ago for showing up in jeans and an untucked collared shirt. I haven’t the heart to tell Tony that he’s fighting a losing battle. Like that typewriter he’s always trying to get rid of, eventually, we’ll both be gone and the rolled up pant legs will win.
As I get close enough to hear the usual well-wishes, thank you’s, and other business performatives, something catches my eye in the alleyway right between Conscious Grind and the neighboring furniture store. There’s an old man tapping on the bricks with a chisel and a hammer. Had this man not been hammering at the wall of Conscious Grind, I would have assumed he was one of Chicago’s many homeless residents and wouldn’t have taken a second glance. But the chisel is unique. The chisel is the lede, despite what Tony might think.
Already making up my mind to fabricate a ribbon-cutting fluff piece for Conscious Grind, I step away from the crowd and linger near the edge of the building. I lean into the alley and catch another glimpse of this homeless chiseler. He’s aloof to my presence, so I take a few steps closer. My brain tells me that this man is just crazy, but my gut senses something darker and more sinister at play.
There’s a dumpster a few paces up, and against my lower back’s protestations, I crouch as low as I can. As I sneak toward the dumpster, a cat hisses at me from underneath and bolts out the way I came. The chiseler turns his face towards me, flashing a toothless grin. His wild gray hair hugs his sunken-in facial features like a mane. A second passes, and he bolts. Were this 30 years ago, I’d give chase, but it’s the 90s, and I don’t move like I used to. Still, I can see what this elderly “street artist” was working on.
As I step toward the wall, I realize that he was up to more than just chiseling prehistoric graffitti. Whole bricks are missing from Conscious Grind, but instead of a hole allowing any voyeur off the street a glimpse into the Grind’s upscale coffee operation, there’s a door handle. It’s the old kind of cylindrical wooden door handle attached to an even older door. Not enough brick has been removed to get access to the building — just the handle and a few inches around it. I haven’t a clue as to why a man like that would want to sneak into a coffee shop.
I head back toward the crowd, listen to a few minutes of the usual business spiel, snap a photo or two, and get a couple of quotes for Tony’s fluff piece. I stop by the office to crank my story out and pack it in for the night. On the way home, I grab a hot dog and fries from a small drive-thru on Milwaukee Avenue. My dinner’s cheaper than a cup of coffee from Conscious Grind.
I have weird dreams. In one of them, I’m in the alleyway again, and I’m walking up toward the old man. I see his eyes this time, and they’re an inhuman ice blue. I feel the air around me turn cold as we stare at each other. The man lifts an arm and points at me, speaking in an unrecognizable language. The door beneath the brick shudders violently, as if someone is trying to get out.
I awake in a cold sweat, which is uncharacteristic to say the least. I’ve spent a lifetime fighting creatures you wouldn’t believe, and anymore, I don’t spook easily. I assume it’s the hot dog, take a Pepto, and fall back asleep.
Dawn arrives, and with it, a call from Tony.
“Carl, did you see anything strange at Conscious Grind yesterday?” he asks. There’s frustration in his voice but also something else.
“Not really. No,” I say. “Why?”
“Because the owner of Conscious Grind is dead.”
There it is. My stomach drops, and for a second, I can’t find my voice. I think about the man in the alley with the chisel — the same man I just dreamt about.
“Carl, he was found draped over the broken front window of his coffee shop,” Tony says. “It gets weirder. The police believe he was drowned. They found him soaking wet, and the detective at the scene said there was fluid in his lungs. They just brought the body to the coroner’s office.”
“That’s… strange,” I manage to say. “I’ll head down to the coroner’s office right away.”
The coroner’s office turns up nothing. As far as the police are concerned, the man was drowned and then draped over a broken window by unknown assailants. I head to Conscious Grind next to see if there’s anything I can glean from the officers or any staff members on site.
As luck would have it, the owner has a brother who just so happens to be there when I arrive. Once the investigators leave him alone, I wave at him from the other side of the police tape. He walks out from beneath the green awning of Conscious Grind.
“I’ve already told the police everything I know, which isn’t much,” he says. “I don’t know who would do this…”
We go over the basics, and I listen to him as he tells me about his brother, jotting down the occasional note or two in my notebook. There’s a void within him — a hole that’ll eat at him for the rest of his life. As much as he fights it, tears ultimately well up in his eyes.
When I tell him about the man I saw chiseling out a door yesterday, the brother’s demeanor changes. He’s bewildered, telling me that the only exits from the building are through either the front door or out the back. There’s no side alleyway exit, so I agree to show him what I found.
When we cross over the police tape and head into the alleyway, I see that the chiseler came back. More of the door is exposed, and I can see a symbol carved into the middle of the door. It looks like an inverted “Y” with a line sticking through the midsection — like an upside-down trident.
“That’s… unsettling,” the brother says. He feels the door with one hand, then recoils. “It almost looks like an old rune or something. Like maybe something I’ve seen before. My brother,” he starts, pausing momentarily to collect himself. “My brother and I are from Geneva. It’s a suburb not too far from here. They have this midsummer festival every year — we used to go as kids. It’s this big ethnic festival celebrating the town’s Scandinavian roots. They have symbols that look like this.”
I tuck my pen and notebook away and let him reminisce. When he talks about his childhood, a light returns to his dark eyes, and his brown hair shines even brighter in the sunlight. There’s a glow to him, and I just listen because I know that glow will disappear all too soon. Time passes, and I find myself thinking about when I was his age, about the people I’ve met and relationships I’ve forged and lost in my life.
Before too long, a police officer joins us in the alley and escorts the both of us back to the front of Conscious Grind. I protest and say that I need to get back in the alley, but it’s no use. The alley is closed while the police investigate. I will come back at night.
In the meantime, I make sure that the scribble of the symbol I have in my notebook matches my memory, and I follow my hunch down the street. There’s a Swedish American Museum down Clark Street. It relocated to Andersonville back in 1987 because of the predominantly Swedish heritage this neighborhood takes pride in.
An old man greets me when I arrive. It seems we’re the only two people in the museum — just a couple of fogies here to reminisce about the good old days. His name is Jan, and he offers to take me around on a personal tour.
“Jan, to be honest with you, I’m here for more than your famous Swedish meatball recipe,” I say.
His excitement dissipates from the air around him. I think I’ve just about murdered this man.
“What are you here for?” he asks. He peers up at me through his tiny little glasses on his scrunched up face. He looks like he’s spent many hard years sucking on lemons.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I show him the symbol that I found on the door.
He squints at it, then walks away from me and towards a desk along the back wall. It’s covered with books, and he tosses a few of them aside. Beneath is a binder that he hastily flips through until he lands on the right page. Seeing that I haven’t moved, he looks up at me and hurriedly waves me over.
It seems that I’ve resurrected this man.
“It’s a rune,” the man says. “It’s the Yr Rune, to be specific.”
“It was on a door in the alleyway, so what’s that mean?”
“Death. The Yr means death.” Jan leans back, places his hands on his hips, and cracks his lower back. A grunt leaps out of his gaping mouth. “My guess,” he starts up again, “is that the door you’re talking about is a corpse door.”
“A corpse door?”
“Yes,” Jan says matter-of-factly. “It’s a door in Swedish culture through which coffins are transported. My guess is that the building this door belongs to used to be a morgue or funeral home.”
When I tell him that the door was covered with brick, he gets even more excited and tells me that the act of closing off a corpse door is a very ancient practice — it prevents the dead from passing through that doorway again.
I ponder this for a moment, trying to piece the clues together. When I ask myself the questions without answers, I find myself adrift in thought. Nothing I’ve found thus far would explain why the owner of Conscious Grind was found soaking wet, nor is there any concrete connection between the chiseler in the alley, this corpse door, and the death that followed. Tony would tell me this was all coincidence. Ron Updike would scoff at me. But my hunch tells me it’s all connected.
I ask Jan if the corpse door has any sort of connection to water, and he doesn’t have an answer. I say my thanks and go out to grab a cup of coffee and something to eat.
At night, I make my way back to Conscious Grind and climb over the police tape blocking the alleyway. I have my own chisel and a crowbar with me this time.
Depending on the evening, Chicago can be a very sleepy place or a loud place. Tonight, a fervent passion takes hold of the city, and convenient sirens cover up my chiseling around the door. It takes me a few hours to finish what the vagrant started, but I am finally able to break the door open.
Ancient dust and stale air assault my lungs. I find myself leaning against the doorframe to cough up the decay that’s slithered down my system. After my near paralysis, I take out a flashlight from my pocket, illuminating a small room barely the size of a studio apartment. The walls are bare. The room is bare, except for a stone table that rests in the center. A long-dead body lies upon it.
My gut tells me to turn back, to pack it in for the night and call in the reinforcements. But I have to know. I don’t have too many years left to wait around, and sooner rather than later, I’ll look like the dessicated corpse on this slab.
I force myself forward, one foot in front of the other. The body has a long mane of wild gray hair wrapped around its smallish head. The eyelids dried shut a century ago, and the mouth has withered away. Only a few tattered rags keep the body from being completely naked.
Suddenly, its eyes jolt open, and I’m looking directly at two pools of icy blue water. I feel myself stumble back, but instead of falling to the dirt floor, I hit waves. I’m adrift in a watery abyss, listening to waves lap against a shore I cannot see. As I float there, I see flashes of my life reflected in this endless ocean around me. I’m a boy again to my left. To my right, I’m a young man. One vision fades, and another appears, and suddenly, I step foot in Chicago for the first time.
A low chanting fills my ears, drowning out any other sounds, and then a figure walks towards me upon the water. It’s the body — all gray, weathered, and disgusting. It reaches out to me with one hand, those crystalline eyes casting an icy glow around me. It’s then that I feel my life leaving my body. All goes dark.
When I awaken, it’s early dawn, and I’m slumped against the brick in the alley. It seems that I’ve slept her all night, just outside the corpse door, which is closed. I’m sore, but I manage to pull myself up along the wall, pushing onto my feet. I walk out into the sun and straighten my tie and dust off my pants. The afterlife looks a lot like an extremely hip Andersonville.
I walk down Clark Street toward my car and see a fresh, crisp parking ticket tucked under my windshield wiper. Before I can check my suggested donation to city hall, a familiar voice calls to me.
“Carl, my friend! How are you?” It’s Jan, and he’s on his way to open up the museum.
“I’ve been better,” I grumble. I run my fingers through my hair and realize that I’ve lost my hat.
“You look like you tied one on last night.”
“I wish I had.” I tell him, and he smiles, waves, and carries on with the rest of his journey. Then it hits me, and I lumber after Jan like Frankenstein’s monster.
“Jan! Jan!” I call to him. “These corpse doors — are there any Swedish mythological monsters lurking behind them?”
He stops and turns to me. There’s an electricity crackling around him as he beams with pride at the prospect of divulging more of that information tucked away in that little brain of his.
“Draugr,” he says. At first I thought it was a grunt, but it’s an actual word. “It’s like a zombie you see in the movies but better.”
“Better? Better how?”
“They have magical abilities. Some can show you illusions or visions of the future. Others can haunt your nightmares, and they can shapeshift. Sometimes they appear to us as normal men and women, drawing us near to help them accomplish their dark purpose.”
“And what purpose would that be?”
“A release from confinement? I don’t really know. They could be out for revenge, too, for being disturbed. But they’re just old myths — the real Swedish culture is in the people all around you. It’s in this neighborhood!”
Jan pats me on the shoulder like a grandpa patting a grandson. I let it slide because my next question is a real doozy.
“How would you kill a draugr?”
Jan shakes his head. “You’re really obsessed with this, huh? How do you cleanse anything of death? You burn it.” Jan checks his watch, waves me off again, and heads to the museum.
I go home, take a shower, shave, and then venture out to the hardware store for a lighter and some lighter fluid. The blinking light on my answering machine tells me that I’ve probably got an angry message from Tony waiting for me, but I choose to ignore it.
At night, I head back to Conscious Grind to pay this draugr a visit. If it’s there, I’m ready this time.
After tucking the container of lighter fluid in my back pocket and sliding the lighter next to my car keys, I sneak into the alleyway again, careful not to scrape my shoes against the pavement as I near the corpse door. When I get close, I see that it’s ajar and carefully inch it open. The door loudly protests, and I have no choice but to rip it open.
When I pull out the flashlight, there’s nothing there. The draugr is gone, and I realize that I am the one who let it out. I think for a moment. As I turn to leave the alley, a figure stares at me from the other end. It walks toward me, and as the shadowy figure gets closer, I see that it’s the vagrant from a couple of days ago.
“That which you seek is not here,” he says. He almost hisses at me. “It seeks revenge on those who would tear down its resting place and build anew upon it.”
“Where did it go?” I ask. I slowly reach into my pockets and palm my lighter.
The man reaches his hand out and grasps my shoulder. Before I can shove him away, I feel myself reeling back into the abyss. I hit waves again, but the water is heavier this time. It pulls at me, and I can feel myself sinking. I start to choke. A coldness fills my lungs, and it takes everything I have to cough.
“You should not be here.” The voice is deeper than before.
I pull my hand out of my pocket, but a heavy weight forces my arm down. This is it. I’m going to die. I feel my heart beat against the cold, and with each beat, the weight of the water grows heavier. Everything hurts now. Everything burns, yet freezes, all at once.
My thumb is still pressed against the flint, and I have enough feeling to flick it. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a spark, and I watch as my arm raises through the abyss.
There’s a bloodcurdling scream, and I’m back in Andersonville again. The draugr looms before me, covering its face with both arms as I raise a flame to it. With my other hand, I reach into my back pocket and pull out the lighter fluid. A well-aimed squirt incinerates the draugr’s chest.
What sounds like a thousand voices erupts from the draugr’s mouth. A long-dead community howls and shrieks as something that has lived in this neighborhood for more than a century finally lets go.
I hit the pavement hard, and pain shoots up my spine. I watch as a wall of flame fizzles into a plume of smoke. In a few moments, all that’s left is a cloud of ash that settles to the ground like fresh snow.
Sirens blare in the distance, and I can’t conjure up an excuse just yet for what happened. I don’t know that I ever will, but I’ll try to come up with something. That’s progress enough for tonight.
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One thought on “Short Story: “The Corpse Door””
Super stylistic. Picking the pulp out of my teeth as we speak. Great story.
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