The news wasn’t even news anymore—that was the problem. It was full of shoe styles and celebrities and five year olds who could play Mozart. Yeah, there was the occasional tear jerker about a local house fire and some sensationalist crap, like that story about a thousand dead birds falling out of the sky that was playing now. But if you wanted some cold, hard facts about Iraq or the economy, you could forget it. Robin flipped off the TV in the middle of a video showing featherless, lifeless birds peppering some hick’s lawn. She leaned against her husband.
“Want me to start dinner?” she asked.
“I was watching that,” Samuel said.
Robin sighed and handed him the remote, then went to the kitchen and started seasoning pork chops. Maybe if she decided to step out of the realm of domesticity and put her journalism major to use, she could be that one reporter who made a difference. She snorted at the ridiculousness of it. The days of Watergate were over. She felt like she was contributing more to American society by driving her kid to soccer practice than by playing up minor disasters so they could compete with reality TV.
She tossed salt at the meat with more force than necessary and set the pork chops in a pan. Half an hour later, she called the family to dinner. Samuel moseyed in from the living room and their six year old daughter, Tiffany, came skipping down from upstairs, her blond curls bouncing around her shoulders. The family mutt, Socks, trotted right behind her. Robin had been trying to teach Socks not to beg during dinner for years, but it didn’t help that Samuel and Tiffany constantly snuck him bits of meat from their plates. Robin had given up on having a well-behaved dog just like she’d given up on the news telling her anything worth knowing. She sighed and passed the plates around while Socks circled her chair and whimpered.
“So that whole bird thing is kind of creepy,” said Samuel.
Robin shrugged. “They probably just got blown down by a storm or something.”
“What birds?” said Tiffany.
“Never mind. Eat your broccoli, honey,” said Robin.
“There were a bunch of birds that fell out of the sky over Detroit this morning,” said Samuel. “No one knows why. The scientists are assuming that it’s some disease or something, but they can’t find any trace of it in the birds’ systems.”
“Well, yeah,” said Robin. “I bet that makes for great ratings.”
“Why are the birds sick?” said Tiffany.
“Because they didn’t eat their broccoli,” said Robin. “So, Samuel, how was work?”
Samuel shrugged and held a rind of fat out to Socks, who took it and ran out through the doggie door.
That night after Tiffany’s bath, Robin brushed her daughter’s hair, read her a story, and tucked her in like she did every night. By the time she got back to the master bedroom, Samuel was already engrossed in some sci-fi paper back. Robin tried to start up a conversation with him a few times, then turned off the lamp on her side of the bed and went to sleep.
Robin woke the next morning to Tiffany’s screams.
“Samuel?” she reached back and slapped her hand against his chest to wake him, then bolted for Tiffany’s room. Tiffany was sitting up in bed, squealing and looking at a fleshy lump on the blankets covering her lap. Socks sat beside the bed, panting and wagging his tail.
“It’s okay, honey,” said Robin. At least it wasn’t burglars or rapists. “Socks was just trying to give you a present. He doesn’t understand people presents very well.”
She grabbed the blankets by the corners and carefully lifted them off her daughter. Tiffany leapt off the bed and hid behind her Barbie dollhouse, peering at the wad of blankets through the little pink windows. Samuel appeared in the doorway.
“Socks just dragged something in from the yard.” Robin set the blanket down on the floor.
“What is that?” said Samuel.
Robin cocked her head to the side. It had definitely once been a small creature. It was about the size of Robin’s fist, bald, and the places where Socks’s teeth had punctured the skin showed red. “It sort of looks like… “
Samuel glanced out the window, then froze. “Um, sweetie, I think you need to see this.”
Robin joined him at the window. Their lawn was covered in what must have been a hundred birds, all featherless and dead like the one on her daughter’s blankets.
“What’d I tell you?” said Samuel.
Robin shrugged. “We’ll call animal control. They’re just birds.”
“Can I go outside?” said Tiffany.
“Let’s play dolls instead,” said Robin. She picked up a Stacey doll and walked it over to Tiffany’s hide out, trying not to glance back toward the window. “Get that out of here, will you, Sam?”
Samuel folded the blankets over the bird and carried it out of the room. A trailing bit of sheet brushed Robin’s shoulder as he walked past. Socks trotted after him, his tail still wagging.
That night, long after the authorities had come to clean off their lawn, Robin refused to watch TV.
“I don’t want to see how badly the local media has blown this out of proportion,” she said.
“You just don’t want to admit it’s real.”
“Of course it’s real. I saw what you saw this morning. It just isn’t much different from the latest shoe styles, in that I don’t need to waste my time hearing about it.”
“It’s our town this time. How can you not care?”
Robin sighed. “It isn’t that I don’t care. I’m sure if this keeps happening to the birds, there’s going to be some effect on the insect population and then it’ll have some effect on agriculture, et cetera, et cetera, but that’s not what Fox News is going to talk about. They’re just going to try to scare some old people, and then blame it on the Democrats.”
Samuel sighed heavily and flipped open a book on the coffee table. As soon as Robin left for the kitchen, she heard the TV click on.
“Further testing on the carcasses has yielded inconclusive results. However, whatever this condition is, it’s spreading quickly through the nation. Fallen birds have been sighted in cities from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. There have been no reports on international occurrences as of yet, but we have Ritchie in the field with live footage of a local neighborhood. Ritchie?”
Robin tried to tune it out. Once the anchor switched over to a story about some celebrity’s wedding it became a lot easier. In her younger days, she might have grabbed a notepad and a camera and attempted to get to the bottom of this whole bird thing, but for now, she would have to be content with making meatloaf.
It was a pleasant dinner, quieter than most, calmer somehow. It wasn’t until she was clearing the table that Robin realized why.
“Where’s Socks?” she said.
“Upstairs,” said Tiffany. “He was sleeping when I left.”
Robin nodded, something close to panic settling just beneath her throat. She set the dishes in the sink and walked briskly upstairs. She didn’t know what she expected, but that feeling that something was wrong didn’t dissipate until she found Socks in the corner of the hall breathing peacefully. When her footsteps got close to its head, the dog woke up and wagged its tail, eyes bright, and nose as wet as ever.
“Dinner time, boy,” Robin said. Socks followed her downstairs to the back porch where his food bowl sat and he gobbled up his dinner as greedily as ever. Robin watched him for a minute, then went inside and finished the dishes.
At church on Sunday, there was a lot of whispering about locusts and frogs, but at least the preacher had the decency to do a nice little sermon about First Corinthians instead of Exodus. Best not to cause a panic. Best to have people going on with their lives. But Tiffany must have been listening to the old biddies, too.
“Did God kill all the birdies?” she asked from the back seat on the way home.
“No,” said Robin, quickly. “There’s some perfectly reasonable explanation for it, and as soon as the scientists figure out what it is, they can fix it.”
“You don’t know that,” said Samuel.
“What? Are you trying to scare her?” Robin sped around a curve.
“I’m trying to protect my family,” said Samuel. “Maybe we should be a little scared.”
“What, do you want to move to Australia or something? No dead birds there.”
“No. And you don’t have to make everything I say sound ridiculous. I just think we might want to consider renting a hotel a few cities over or something. I mean, we don’t know what’s causing this. We could be in danger too.”
“Sam, I’m sure we’re perfectly safe,” said Robin. “Besides, you can’t afford to take off work, especially if you expect to afford a hotel.”
“Well, maybe we could stay with family then.” Samuel trailed off and looked out the window. There were still a few bird corpses here and there that the cleanup crews missed.
“They’re three states away,” said Robin.
“Grandma’s house smells funny,” said Tiffany.
“Well, I guess that settles it,” said Samuel in that way he did when he was still angry but didn’t feel like fighting. Robin didn’t feel like fighting either, so she let it go. They drove the rest of the way home in silence.
That afternoon while Samuel was watching football and Robin was checking her email, Tiffany walked into the living room, dusting her hands.
“Socks is shedding,” she said. She brushed her hands together and a big clump of white and black fur fell to the carpet. Robin stopped typing mid sentence. She slowly put her laptop on the couch beside her.
“I better go brush him before he gets fur all over the house,” she said. She picked up the dog brush, wielding it like a weapon, and whistled softly.
“Do you want me to help?” said Tiffany.
Robin shook her head. “Go play.”
She found Socks in the laundry room licking his left leg. The fur looked thinner there, and his coat had lost some of its shine.
“Hey, boy,” Robin whispered. She approached the dog, took a deep breath, and ran the brush down its back. Clumps of white and black fell away, exposing bare skin. Robin dropped the brush and backed out of the room, closing the door behind her. She washed her hands in the kitchen sink, breathing heavily.
“What’s wrong?” Samuel walked up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Socks is sick,” said Robin. “I’ll take him to the vet in the morning.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“His fur.” Robin closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Samuel stepped back. “That’s it. We’re leaving.”
“It’s just a coincidence,” said Robin. “He’s a dog, not a bird.”
“Are you listening to yourself?” said Samuel. “We’re leaving now.”
“Look, I have him shut in the laundry room. We’ll leave him there until the morning and we’ll take him to the vet and everything will be fine. It’s just mange.”
“Is that what you really think?” said Samuel. “Because it doesn’t look like you really think that.”
Tiffany fled past them, her hands covering her face.
“Look what you’ve done,” said Robin.
“I didn’t do this,” said Samuel. He stalked to the living room and turned on the TV. Socks scratched at the laundry room door.
That night Robin woke up suddenly. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt like she’d heard a soft sound, a knock on the door, maybe, or a toilet flushing. She wandered down the hall to get a glass of water and noticed that the laundry room light was on.
“You have to eat it,” she heard Tiffany say. “I know it’s gross, but you have to eat it if you want to be healthy.”
Robin jogged down the hall and threw open the door. Tiffany was lying prone on the floor in front of Socks, waving a raw broccoli floret in front of his face. Almost all of his fur was gone now, and he seemed uninterested in the broccoli. Instead, he nuzzled her daughter’s hand, licked at her face. Robin grabbed Tiffany’s wrist and yanked her to her feet.
“I told you not to come in here,” she said as she slammed the door behind them.
“I wanted to help Socks,” said Tiffany, looking like she was about to cry. “He has to eat broccoli. You said.”
“Well, I’ll put some broccoli in his food bowl,” said Robin. “I’m sure he’ll eat it and get better.”
“You promise?” said Tiffany.
“I promise. Go wash your face.”
Once Tiffany was safely upstairs, Robin buried her face in her hands and tried to hold back a bought of sobbing.
In the morning, the dog was dead.
Samuel called animal control to take care of the body, just in case. He talked to the men who came to the door while Robin tried to distract Tiffany upstairs.
“Is Socks okay?” asked Tiffany.
“Yeah, he’s just going to go stay with Grandma for a little while.”
“He’s not okay, is he?” said Tiffany.
“No,” said Robin.
“You promised,” said Tiffany. She slipped off the bed and started playing listlessly with her dolls. When Robin tried to join her, she scooted away.
Later that day, she and Samuel sat next to each other on the couch. She’d acquiesced to watch the news with him.
“The authorities are urging citizens not to panic,” the anchor was saying. “While some cases of a similar malady have been reported in dogs and cats that have had direct contact with the infected birds, the mammalian form of this condition seems to be communicable only via direct exchange of bodily fluids. There have been no reports of human contraction.”
“Well, at least their giving us some actual facts now,” Samuel said. “Maybe the worst is over.”
Robin nodded, a pit of fear growing in her stomach. The anchor was too calm, the news too reassuring. If she knew anything about the modern media they should be mongering as much fear as possible right now, milking the danger for all it was worth, selling ad space to Doritos and McDonalds—unless they were scared too. Robin clutched one of the couch cushions to her chest.
“I’ll miss Socks, but it was probably for the best, keeping him cooped up like that until the end. I mean, I hate to think what would have happened if you’d tried to take him to the vet and he bit you or something.”
“It isn’t communicable to humans, whatever it is,” said Robin.
“Better safe than sorry,” said Samuel.
Robin nodded once. She avoided his eyes.
Tiffany still wasn’t talking to her that evening at dinner, or even during her bath. She just dragged her plastic mermaid through the water with her back turned to Robin, occasionally shooting accusing glances over her shoulder.
“Look.” Robin led Tiffany back to her room and set her on the bed. Her voice was shaking. “Sometimes you try as hard as you can and things just don’t work out. It’s nobody’s fault. It just happens.”
Tiffany remained quiet. Robin stared from the brush in her hand to her daughter’s golden curls. She wanted more than anything to leave the brush on the dresser, flee from the room, but she knew it wouldn’t change anything. She ran the brush through Tiffany’s hair, gently at first, then harder, each tangle that tugged at the brush an affirmation that the world was all right.
Maybe those news people knew something after all. Maybe she should stop panicking, even get a reporting job in gratitude. She’d copyedit about Brittany Spears if it meant she could read bedtime stories to her little girl every night for years to come.
She kissed Tiffany on the forehead before she left the room. “At least you still have us,” she whispered.
“Mommy,” said Tiffany, “why is your hair all funny?”
Robin made to tuck her hair behind her ear and felt something fall to her shoulder. She clutched at her head, and her fingertips brushed against her scalp.
© 2015 by Elise R. Hopkins
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