“Okay, calm down,” Siri shot back in that annoying robotic voice, dripping with fake cheer and sincerity. “I found fifteen places called Mimico Self-Storage.”
“Are you kidding me?” I growled. “I. Just. Need. One.”
My iPhone glowed in the darkness of my minivan, but I couldn’t read the screen without my reading glasses, which were packed away somewhere.
Whoa! I gripped the wheel harder as the van skidded again on the snowy street. I looked at my iPhone again and squinted as I entered the passcode: 733786. Then I found that text from Richard, struggling to read it: Mimico Self Storage, 333 Overlook Avenue. Off Judson, near the jail.
“Richard,” I muttered. “You fool, there is no Overlook Avenue in south Etobicoke.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”
“Shut up, Siri! You’re no help!”
“That’s not very nice.”
I threw my phone onto the passenger seat and peered back out into the flying snow. Sleet pounded the windshield, slowly winning the battle against my wipers. I was lost in the night, driving through a blizzard in some godforsaken Toronto industrial park — near a prison.
Ice slowly overtook the windshield, making it nearly impossible to read street signs. The darkness of the winter storm smothered almost all light sources. My console noted it was 6:27 p.m. and minus-17 Celsius.
The summer tires skidded on the ice and struggled to plow through the growing drifts as I inched along. Gradually a sign emerged through the storm, but I could barely make it out through the windshield. I lowered my window a crack. A blast of arctic air hit my face. I could read Mimico but nothing else. I squinted as snow and ice slapped my cheeks and forehead. Then I saw the most curious thing: a pigeon perched atop the sign. What was a pigeon doing up there in this weather?
As I crept down the street, the words Self-Storage slowly revealed themselves on another sign, followed by an arrow pointing to a lane that disappeared behind an abandoned gas station. There it was: Overlook Avenue — easily overlooked. I put on my turn signal — for whom to see, I wasn’t sure — and ventured into the laneway. It twisted to the right behind the gas station, then left past an imposing iron and glass warehouse, then left again and then right. Large mirrors were tucked into each corner of the darkened lane, meant to reflect oncoming traffic. But there was no one else out here. Just me and the streaks of vertical white sleet illuminated by my headlights, framed in blackness.
A dark grey building appeared at the end of my headlights, along with yet another sign high on a pole, topped by the silhouette of what I swear to God appeared to be yet another pigeon lost in the storm. The small parking lot was empty. I pulled up to the one-storey office, which was attached to a two-storey, aluminum-sided warehouse. The building was wide and deep, with a peaked roof for each row of storage lockers. I marvelled at how they fit a building of this size back here. A single light illuminated the inside of the office, and I could see the shadow of a woman sitting behind a desk.
I grabbed my phone and texted Richard: I’ve arrived. Finally found self-storage you suggested. I punctuated the message with my usual smiley-face emoji and pressed send. But it didn’t send. I tried again. Nothing. One more time. Still nothing. And then —
Something smashed against my windshield. I recoiled in my seat. Another wham. There was something out there, clinging to a wiper, fluttering against the windshield. My heart started beating harder as I turned off the wipers to see what it was. There was a tap against the window. Then another tap. And another.
The hair on my neck stood up and my chest tightened. I hollered, “Who’s out there?”
There was no answer but the unmistakable sound of ice being scraped away from glass.
“Who’s out there?” I yelled again into the windshield.
No response, only the sound of more scraping. A hole slowly appeared in the layer of ice frozen onto my windshield. I leaned forward and peered through the hole to see what appeared to be . . . a beak? I hunched over the steering wheel and leaned closer to the small hole in the ice. There was more scraping and then nothing. I pressed my face to the window. A demonic-looking pigeon with a fiery red eye stared back at me.
I jolted back into my seat and flicked the wipers on full speed, launching the wicked-looking bird off my windshield and back into the howling wind and snow. It disappeared into the blizzard. I shivered in my seat, more from the creepiness than from the cold. This bizarre encounter had unsettled me and I paused to catch my breath. When I finally felt brave enough, I slipped on my gloves and toque and climbed out of the van, looking around before making for the light inside the office.
The door chime, a flock of metal pigeons, rang as I burst inside the building, blown through by the storm. A woman with long, straight hair lifted her head from a tattered copy of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. It looked as if it had been pulled out of a campfire. She sat with her body concealed behind the counter from her leather-coated shoulders down. Her hair was as dark as midnight, a stark contrast against her flawless ivory skin. Her deep-set, almond-shaped eyes were as black as coal and were framed by equally black eyeliner. Her nose was slender and pierced. She was hot and also kind of freaky.
A slow, hypnotic smile spread across her thin black-painted lips, revealing a glimpse of eerily white teeth.
“Oh, good,” she said in a low but welcoming voice. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Ah, really? Did, um, Richard call for directions?” I unzipped my jacket and shook ice and snow off my toque.
“Richard?” she said slowly, a questioning brow rising as she spoke. “There’s no Richard. No phones, either. On account of the weather.”
She dropped the brow and looked out at the storm. “Newspaper says this month has been the coldest in recorded history.”
“Then how were you expec . . . oh, never mind. I was hoping to rent a heated storage locker. I need to drop off some boxes from my van. The rest is coming from Colorado in a few days. I have ID if you need it.”
She pushed back her chair and stood up, revealing a tight-fitting, studded black leather jacket with black leather pants, so form-fitting they looked as if they had been sewn around her legs. Her black leather boots came up to her knees. All she was missing was a riding crop. She had an alluring yet intimidating presence; it was distinct yet oddly familiar. I tried not to stare.
“No need, Mr. Colby,” she said, leaning toward me. “Here are your forms to sign.” She slid the papers across the counter.
Mr. Colby? How did she . . . ?
I looked at the forms. They’d been prepped and personalized before my arrival. This night was getting weirder by the moment. Then I noticed the illustration of a pigeon on the letterhead.
“What’s with the pigeons?” I asked.
She gripped the counter and leaned backwards as if inhaling my question. “Ectopistes migratorius,” she purred.
“The spirit of the past permeates this place, Mr. Colby.”
Her head tilted behind her desk toward a framed watercolour portrait of a pigeon. The bird in the portrait was striking, like nothing I’d seen. A blue head and tail, red breast and matching red eyes.
“Ecto . . . ?”
“Ectopistes migratorius,” she repeated, more softly and smoothly than before. “A passenger pigeon, also known as the wild pigeon. Once estimated to be the most abundant bird in North America, if not the world. Two hundred years ago there were at least three billion of these birds in the sky.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said the only thing that came to mind. “Huh.”
“To put that in perspective, that is about a third of the number of birds in North America today. The males were a stunning slate blue with wine-red undersides and a touch of purple. The females were not quite as flamboyant. The ornithologist John James Audubon once witnessed a mile-wide flock of migrating pigeons blocking the sun for three full days as they passed overhead.”
The more she talked about the birds, the more entrancing she became.
“One account from 1855 in Ohio,” she continued, “recalled a ‘growing cloud’ that eclipsed the sun as it approached the city of Columbus. Screaming children sprinted for home. Horses bucked their riders and fled. Women hiked up their long skirts and scurried in fear into stores. Some people dropped to their knees and prayed.”
“Why have I never heard of this?” I asked, momentarily forgetting why I was there.
“Greedy and clueless farmers and hunters destroyed the nesting grounds of these magnificent birds and hunted the flocks with unmatched brutality. Birds were shot, beaten with rakes and potatoes, caught in nets, and asphyxiated with sulphur. Entire roosts were torched and corn heaps poisoned with whiskey.”
I still didn’t know what to say, so I tried to make sense of her remarkable story. “The pigeons must have been a real nuisance, I guess.”
She sniffed at my comment and continued. “After witnessing a great massacre in 1880, Pokagon, a leader of the Potawatomi, could only imagine what divine retribution might be awaiting those who sought to eradicate the flock in favour of the horizon. By 1900, no passenger pigeons survived in the wild. The last of their kind succumbed in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo, found dead on the floor of its cage on September 1, 1914. Her name was Martha. She was twenty-nine years old.”
I was stunned by both the tragic history of the pigeon as well as the woman’s ability to recount it. I stared at the portrait of the pigeon and it stared back, as did the woman. All I could muster was an inarticulate “Holy shit.”
“Sanctus stercore,” she said, letting out a soft yet discernible coo.
I struggled to understand why this species meant so much to a modern goth and a self-storage business in a south Etobicoke industrial park. So I asked, “Why is your mascot a tragically extinct pigeon?”
“I’m glad you asked,” she said, her voice low, almost buttery. “The name Mimico is derived from the Ojibwa word omiimiikaa, meaning ‘abundant with wild pigeons.’ Passenger pigeons used to gather by the hundreds of thousands at the mouth of the Mimico Creek before migrating across Lake Ontario.” She pointed to the picture of the dove-like bird sitting on a branch. “This portrait behind me is of Martha, the last of her kind. Named after Martha Washington. And my name is Lucy. Lucy Fehr.”
It was an unsettling name. I tried not to flinch.
“You can have storage unit 271. Your usual code, the one you use on your phone, it will not work here.”
“What? How do you — ?”
“It has been taken by Charles.”
“Who is Charles?”
“He hasn’t been seen around here in years,” she said. “Yet his bill is still paid by credit card every month. He has unit 234. I have given you another code.”
Her voice was so seductive that I quickly forgot how disturbing it was that she knew the code to my iPhone.
“For you, it will be your code backwards.” She handed me a map of the site and pointed to where I needed to drive. “The office is closing now,” she said abruptly, yet still buttery. “Good night, Mr. Colby. I hope we meet again.”
The way she said that last bit seemed to suggest we might not meet again. I was still somewhat shaken by the storm and the disturbing bird I’d seen outside. I wasn’t sure what to make of this gothy little minx who seemed to share her namesake with Satan.
I hurried out into the cold. She locked the door behind me and turned off the lights. I fumbled in my jacket pocket for my keys and struggled to put on my toque as the wind and snow battered my face. When I looked back, Lucy was sitting behind her desk in the darkness again, reading her book.
I battled through the howling wind to my van and climbed inside, then drove with my chin hovering over the steering wheel, eyes peering through the hole scratched clear by the manic pigeon. I approached the security gate and pulled up beside the keypad, entering the reversed code to my iPhone, just as Lucy had instructed. The chain-link fence rolled back, disappearing into a growing snowbank.
I eased the van up an icy ramp to a second-level loading dock partially shielded from the storm. The wind battered against the metal walls of the storage facility as I climbed out of my van, grabbed some boxes and pushed through a steel door into a lighted foyer, beyond which I could see only the beginning of a long, dark hallway.
I stood in the foyer’s light for a few seconds, unsure of what to do. I contemplated returning to my van but was halted by a growing hum. My presence seemed to have triggered a sensor, and one by one a string of fluorescent lights popped to life, slowly illuminating a section of the corridor, revealing hundreds of identical blue metal doors cut into a seemingly endless white metal wall.
I began counting out the lockers as I searched for 271. I walked straight, then turned right down a hall and walked past two dark corridors with more rows of blue metal doors before turning left, then right and left again. The light disappeared behind me as I walked, the sensors only illuminating what lay ahead until finally I reached my unit.
I pulled the latch and the metal door creaked open. The unit was five feet by ten feet and was clean, dark and empty. I stacked my two boxes of clothes in the corner and walked the dark hallways back to the exit.
I turned a corner and in the dimness of a distant security light saw the outline of a dolly. Perfect, I thought. This would save me a few trips and strain on my back. I wheeled the dolly out to the van and loaded up more boxes. As I rolled the next load of my possessions though the maze, the metal skin of the building groaned and cracked under the weight of the storm pounding outside.
I reached my unit once more, slid back the latch and stacked more boxes against the back wall. I grunted as I lifted a box of books. As I spun around to face the locker, the box hit the dolly and I lost my grip. The box fell on the concrete floor and broke open.
“Just great!” I gathered the books, a collection of American literature: The Old Man and the Sea, Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye. I put them back in the box, which was now broken, but still managed to contain all the books, save one: The Shining. I put the ruined box on a pile of other boxes and carefully placed my dog-eared and coffee-stained copy of Stephen King’s most horrifying tale on top.
One more trip should do it, I thought. I closed the door and slid the latch. I turned down a darkened hall and waited for the sensor to detect my movement. The lights clicked on, and as I rolled the dolly down the hall, I noticed a feather stuck to one of the wheels. I bent down and peeled it off the black rubber. It was a pretty little feather, the colour best described as wine-red. I let it go and watched it float to the floor before walking on. I rounded the corner and suddenly stopped.
Had I heard something? Yes. There was a sound.
Tick, tick, tick . . . tick, tick . . . tick, tick, tick tick . . . tick.
It was a faint, irregular rhythm coming from the next hall.
Tick, tick, tick . . . tick, tick . . . tick, tick, tick . . . tick . . . tick, tick.
A typewriter? I hadn’t heard that sound in years. Decades. I left the dolly and walked slowly down the hall toward the sound of letters and thoughts hammering onto the page. But for some reason as I walked down this corridor, the overhead lights did not come on. My only illumination was a light escaping into the hallway from inside one of the units. I carefully approached the light and the unit. The door — 234 — was slightly ajar. I peeked inside.
Tick, tick, tick, tick . . . tick, tick . . . tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
A strange-looking man sat at a small desk, his large, beak-like nose hovering over what appeared to be a century-old Smith Corona. His dark hair, streaked with silver, was unkempt and ruffled. Wooden crates were stacked against the back wall, and hardcover books were scattered about, including what looked like my exact copy of The Shining — dog ears, coffee stains and all. There were also a few clothing racks, an antique bird cage, two identical tricycles and a mannequin.
He spotted me in the corner of his beady little eye and rotated his head in my direction. He stopped typing, opened his thin lips and spoke with a sing-song cadence like none I had ever heard before.
“This is a nice suuurprise. I did not expect to see anybody tooonight,” he warbled.
He hopped to his feet and, with a jerky motion, walked toward me. His head bobbed forward and his leg kicked back with each step. Then he opened his arms wide and extended his hand.
“My name is Chaaarles,” he clucked, as his head bobbed back and forth.
His skin was cold and rough.
“Hi, I’m Scott. Can I ask what are you writing?”
“Oh, it’s nooothing. Just a historical book I’ve been peeecking away aaat. I’ve had writer’s block and decided to roooost here for a whiiile. Away from any distraaactions.”
He flapped his arms and crowed, “Come iiin!”
I paused, thinking it was probably best I leave, but something about the mannequin piqued my interest. It seemed to be covered in grey-blue and red boas.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the mannequin.
“Thaaat? Just a suuuit.”
“Are these feathers?”
“You could saaay that.”
“Is this a bird suit?” I asked in disbelief.
“Oh, it is, it is,” Charles chirped. His head bobbed back and forth as he turned toward me. Suddenly a wine-red feather popped out of his mouth. “And not just aaany bird suuuit,” Charles trilled. “An offering to the pigeons.”
“You’ll seeee,” he hooted as his eyes turned a frightening red. “I’m almost dooone,” he squawked, rubbing his bony hands together. “I have a name for her.”
“It’s Latin for miiistress,” he cawed as another wine-red feather popped out of his mouth and slowly floated to the floor. “Miiistress of the sky.”
I slowly backed up toward the door. Charles took a step forward, staring with his fiery red eyes. His thin lips drew into a sinister smile as his head continued to bob back and forth.
I bumped into something. It was the typewriter table. I glanced at the page to see what he’d been writing. The same line was typed over and over: Birds of a feather flock together.
“Coo-roo-c’too-coo!” Charles screeched as he strutted toward me, wine-red feathers popping out of his mouth.
I spun around and began to run but was startled by the deafening sound of drumming wings, feathers beating furiously against each other. I felt a rush of wind against my cheeks and inhaled the musty smell of birds.
A flurry of blue and red feathers everywhere — and those red eyes.
“Lucy!” I screamed. “Is that you?”
“No, Mr. Colby. I am Martha — queen of the pigeons.”