Sledding and Starlings, by Bruce L. Priddy

(Download the audio version of this story here, read by Chris Dead.)

Annie left me behind in that field. I left behind fingers and toes.

Six inches of snow in two hours, and more on the way. A freak storm no weatherman in the city had predicted, no radar had seen coming. One of us had the idea of sledding at the Crescent Hill reservoir; I don’t remember who. Sometimes I think it was her, but all that means is that it was obviously me.

We shouldn’t have been out. The roads were paved over with ice, the wipers could not keep up with what was falling out of the sky, and the end of Annie’s car refused to stay in one lane. Twice we spun out. The three mile drive to the reservoir took us an hour. We never once thought of going back home. At least I didn’t, and if Annie did, she never put it to voice.

There was no one else out. We were the only two people in the world.

The bars in the reservoir’s wrought-iron fence were far enough apart to push our sleds, thin plastic saucers, through but we had to climb over. We were too old for this. Annie was pushing thirty. I’d crossed that line years ago.

We shed two decades that night.

The world was drained of color. Everything snow-covered glowed, moon-white. Everything else was indistinguishable silhouettes. Across a field we saw the perfect hill. An earthwork basin for the reservoir water, fifty-feet high, steep, no trees close enough for us to break our necks on. The tree closest to the reservoir was alive, full.

“Does it still have its leaves?” Annie asked, while we were still far away. But it didn’t sway with the wind.

We heard the starlings before we saw them. The hiss of snow and ice meeting the ground, the rush of water through the reservoir, disappeared in their calls. Annie and I had to yell, even a few feet from each other, to hear over the birds. Annie clutched my hand.

“Have you ever seen so many?”

I hadn’t. Their droppings reeked acidic, stuck in the back of the throat. We picked a spot on the hill away from the starling tree. But the wind still carried a hint of their stink. Our excitement let us ignore it.

The hill was almost too steep to climb. Annie laughed every time I slipped, went down into the snow on my hands, knees and face. “Come on, old man!” she’d taunt, punctuated with a snowball. At the top of the hill, I pretended to catch my breath, hands on my knees, and threatened to throw her under the starling tree. Then I tossed a handful of snow into her face. She tackled me and we wrestled, tried to push each other down the hill, but never pushed hard enough, never let go of the other.

Before we got on our sleds, Annie read the warning label on hers. “Certain conditions may cause sled to move at excess speeds,” she said. The label was right. I did not think it was possible to go that fast or that far on a sled. Neither of us could help screaming on the way down or laughing at the other for it. Our speed sent us deep into the field; the slope always carried us towards the starling tree, though we never reached it. Snow sprayed our faces on the way down, went into sleeves and up our pants’ legs. It stung a little but we were having too much fun to care. We went one at a time; Annie didn’t want us to crash into each other. Near the end of her run, Annie would tip her sled over, crash herself into a snow drift and make angels while she waited for me. When she wasn’t looking, I etched horns on her angels. Then we’d climb back up the hill and do it again.

Annie had brought the wrong kind of gloves, knit cotton ones that absorbed the snow and tried to freeze to her skin. “I can’t feel my fingers,” she said. I cupped her hands in mine, blew on them.

“That’s a weird turn of phrase,” I said. “Do we ever really feel any of our body parts? I mean, we never notice them until they’re cold or warm or whatever, something happening to them. Even when they’re numb, we can feel them, right?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s not like they’re numb. It’s like nothing’s there. Like they’re gone.”

I took off my gloves, helped her hands into them. She put her hands in the pockets of her coat and I put my arms around her.

“Your hands going to be okay without gloves?” she asked as we warmed each other.

“Of course,” I said, making my voice deeper, gruff. “I’m a man, baby.” She smirked at me and ground her frozen toboggan in my face.

“You ready to go again?” she asked, pretending to box body-blows.

I turned into the light punches, faking winces. “Sure,” I said. “You warm enough?”

She nodded.

“Let’s hold hands this time. See how long we can keep hanging on,” I said. Despite her earlier worries, she needed no convincing. We sat next to each other on the saucers, clutched hands. I leaned in for a kiss.

“Our lips’ll freeze together,” she said. “We need to do Eskimo-kisses.” She rubbed her nose against mine, distracted me. She pushed off, pulled me down the hill with her.

I shouted in surprise and she laughed at me. I closed my eyes against the spray of snow. Her hand tightened around mine, painful. She stopped but I kept going. She made a sound, a cross between a giggle and a sigh, something she only did in bed. I was wrenched off my sled, flipped, landed face-first in the snow. It hurt but I rolled onto my back, coughing away the pain between laughs.

“Annie, baby, you okay?” I asked as I looked up at a now clear sky. The moon was out, the world growing brighter. There was only one cloud, black and loose, moving fast away, opposite the wind. She didn’t respond. The starlings, I thought. She hadn’t heard me. I asked again, louder. My voice echoed back to me, the only sound in the field.

I sat up, looked around. The field was empty. The starlings had left. No Annie, only her sled, sticking out of a drift. I ran over, calling her name again. She’s hurt, I thought. Around the drift was a splatter of blood. Not much, a light nosebleed. I dug until I reached the frozen grass. But she was gone. I screamed her name. Only the trees heard me.

There were footprints, my boots, her boots, and another set…bare. The ground steamed in them. I thought maybe she’d hit her head, became disoriented, lost her boots. But those bare prints were too big for her feet, too far apart for her, walking or running. I followed them, tried to figure out where they came from. They did not enter or leave the field, only made a path from the starling tree to her sled and back.

I woke up in a hospital. A security guard found me pacing between the starling tree and the sled, screaming of Annie, delirious from hypothermia. No one knows how long I was out there but it was long enough for my fingers and toes to turn black. The doctors had to take four toes and the halves of three fingers.

Cops came to ask me questions while I recovered. Annie was found behind the reservoir. And downtown. And in a school yard. And someone’s backyard. Not much. I was never a suspect, already in the hospital when they found what they did of her. When it snows, they find more. Some hair, a piece of skin, an ear. The cops come to the house, ask if I remember anything, if I’ve seen or heard something that can help them.

I didn’t see or hear anything. I didn’t see twilight-clouds of starlings take the shape of Annie’s face. Her giggling sigh wasn’t buried in their calls.

I don’t dream. In those dreams I don’t have, we’re not in the field and Annie doesn’t tell me she’s leaving me for someone else. There isn’t a man, as tall as the moon, pretending to be the starling tree. He doesn’t scoop Annie up, carry her away with the storm. Frostbite and a surgical saw took my fingers and toes, not Annie, not her breath, blackening them as I reached for her.

And when it snows, every time it snows, and the police are picking up pieces of her, I don’t see her footprints, in larger, bare prints, circling around our house.

Bruce L. Priddy has had short stories published in MicroHorror, among other places.  He lives in Louisville, KY with his son, cat and the raccoons that often hold MMA tournaments in his attics. He is the editor of EschatologyJournal.org, dedicated to apocalyptic and Lovecraftian flash-fiction. He will soon be writing a column on skepticism for the esoteric website BinnallofAmerica.com.

If you enjoyed his story, let him know by commenting below!

Illustration by mimulux.

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12 responses to “Sledding and Starlings, by Bruce L. Priddy

  1. Really enjoyed the tale. Creepy and otherworldly. Can’t wait until I finish work and can read the rest of the stories in the E-Zine. :)

  2. Crazy, it is snowing about an inch an hour on this Sunday, February 3rd, 2013. Oh, and I live about a quarter mile back in the woods on 40 acres, far from any town. Oh, and it is me and my fiance. And our big, mean dog…

    …A Pomeranian named Tippy.

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