Bird Fever (First Place Marguerite McGlinn Award Winner)


When the baby’s fever reached one hundred and five, they decided they could stand it no longer. A call to the pediatrician had reached an answering machine, and they’d waited an hour, but the child was hot as a charcoal briquette and had recently begun vomiting a white, mealy substance – a cross between grade school paste and cottage cheese – that was unlike any spit-up they’d seen. Finally they loaded the baby into the Volvo and drove to the emergency room. Thomas kept the accelerator to the floor, and Allison sat in back with their son. The boy cried hoarsely with each breath, and Allison asked if Thomas finally agreed the turkeys were to blame.

“Let’s not go off the deep end,” he said. “We’re not the doctor.”

“When this is over, you’re speaking to Danny Baker,” she said. “And don’t talk to me like I’m crazy.”

The emergency room doctor took the baby’s temperature – now one hundred and six – and declared that the first order of business was to cool the child down. Seizures were a possibility if the fever remained that high. Thomas spent the next half hour lowering his screaming son again and again into cool water while a nurse tracked his temperature. The boy held tightly to him with arms and legs between soakings, and to get him free Thomas had to break the child’s hold each time. He found himself panting and crying with his son, as Allison leaned against the wall in the mercilessly bright exam room, her face in her hands.

When the fever dropped to one hundred and two, the nurse wrapped the child in a towel and laid him in his mother’s arms, where he cried and then fell into a jerky, croaking sleep. The doctor, a ruddy man with watchful blue eyes, sat with them and asked how long the boy had been ill.

“We think it’s bird flu,” Allison said.

Thomas sighed and laid a hand on her arm. “Of course we don’t know what it is, Doctor. He’s been listless for two days, no appetite, his diapers soft and yellow. The fever came on late this morning and has been building all day.”

Allison swung toward him, the child against her breast like a shield. “I was on the patio with Declan four days ago,” she said, “where we allow turkeys – wild turkeys – to come right up to the house. He was on a blanket and I was reading, and I thought I’d swept all the disgusting droppings into the grass, when I looked down and saw him playing with one of them – one of the bowel movements, I mean.” She glared at Thomas. “It was at his mouth.”

The doctor’s eyes darted between them. This was good information, he said, though bird flu was doubtful. “Despite what you hear on the news, the transmission of avian influenza from bird to human is rare, and there are no reported cases in the United States. It’s more likely your boy has a case of the everyday flu, though we’ll need further – ”

“Can we at least acknowledge,” Allison cried, “that a five-month-old child handling bird shit is a bad idea? Can we at least acknowledge that?” She said “bird shit” so loudly that conversations outside the exam room went quiet.

The doctor blinked and lifted his palms. Yes, he said, handling bird feces was never a good thing. Several illnesses might result from such contact, and knowing that the child had done so would inform their testing. Allison’s face crumpled, and she began to weep so convulsively that Thomas took the baby from her, and the nurse helped her to the examination table where she could lie down.

In the hallway the doctor put a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “This is hard on both of you. That’s perfectly understandable.”

Thomas sensed the man was prompting him to talk about Allison. He pressed his cheek against his son’s hot forehead and whispered, “It’s bad enough having Declan so miserable, but she always jumps to the worst – ”

“She’s right to be concerned,” the doctor said, dropping his hand to cup the baby’s skull. “This boy is very sick.”

Allison had always been fearful, though there’d been a time Thomas found her timidity appealing. She was blonde and honey-skinned and an inch taller than he, and she walked with the loping, pigeon-toed stride of a model on the runway. Her father owned three restaurants in Chicago and had played outfield for the White Sox, and he’d made it clear in word and deed that his daughter deserved better than a high school math teacher. When Allison turned girlish and needy it salved a raw spot in Thomas’s pride.

Once, soon after they were engaged, she made a roast beef dinner at her apartment, and when they sat down she asked if he would light the candles. When he looked at her curiously she told him she’d never struck a match in her life.

“Daddy always did it when we were little,” she said. “And then later on it became like a family custom, and before you know it I’m in high school and college and – ” She shrugged her shoulders and laughed. “I’ve still never done it.”

Thomas lit the candles and savored knowing he’d taken the old lion’s place. He bent to kiss Allison’s lovely cheeks in the firelight and said if she needed someone to strike matches for the rest of her life, he would be that man.

And he meant it. But in the four years since, her qualms and boundaries had begun to eat at him. If he stood at an open refrigerator door more than ten seconds, she worried the pork chops would spoil and give them trichinosis. If they were sitting on the patio in the evening and a bat flew overhead, she bolted for the house for fear the creature would tangle itself in her hair, leaving Thomas to either sit alone or gather the wine glasses and follow her inside.

But whenever he’d explained the flaws in her thinking – the few times he’d tried to help her face her fears logically – there’d been hell to pay.

Shortly after he’d begun his first teaching job, they spent a weekend in the city with another couple and visited the Sears Tower, where the observation deck promised a view of four states from its thirteen-hundred-foot perch. Better yet, you reached it by one of the world’s fastest elevators.

Allison stood at the ticket booth reading the description and biting her lip, but when their friends suggested going for it she shook her head. Thomas had drunk a second beer at lunch, and he laughed more loudly than he’d intended and said, “Of course not. We could all die.”

Allison scowled at him and walked away in the Wacker Drive lobby with her arms folded across her chest. He followed her – loaded with righteousness more than regret – and their argument in front of a Baskin Robbins had clerks staring and mothers gathering their toddlers close.

“You didn’t have to embarrass me,” she said when he caught up and took her elbow. She shook him off and stared at the travertine floor.

“Do just one thing for me,” he said. “Admit that this is ludicrous. On an intellectual level at least, admit there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“You treat me like a child.”

Thomas’s voice took on a tone he used in the classroom. “A child gives in to irrational fears, but an adult knows better. An adult knows there’s near zero chance the elevator will malfunction. An adult knows – ”

Her chin snapped up. “I know if you don’t leave me alone I’ll claw your eyes out. That’s what I know.”

He shook his head. “Have you ever once considered facing your demons and telling them to fuck off?”

She startled him by smiling. “Fuck off,” she said.

In the end she waited in a tea shop while Thomas and the other couple rode in silence to the top of the world. There, he put his forehead against the glass and looked over the seamless reaches of Lake Michigan and asked himself how Allison could name him as a tormentor, when no one cared for her like he did.

The boy’s temperature had begun to climb again, and the doctor suggested admitting him for a day or two. A regimen of anti-viral meds, fever reducers and a cool-mist vaporizer should do the trick. Allison insisted on staying, and Thomas said he would drive to the house and pack an overnight bag for both of them. She shook her head. “I want you to sleep at the house and talk to Danny Baker first thing,” she said. “I don’t want to see you again until you’ve talked to him.”

“I don’t think there’s any reason to – ” Thomas began, but she turned away, the child a sodden, reproachful weight on her shoulder.

Their neighbor Danny Baker was the town marshal. When he and his twelve-year-old son Mitch weren’t hunting or fishing, they stacked bales of straw at the wooded end of their back yard and shot steel-tipped arrows into them. They cleaned blue gills and smallmouth bass on their deck and threw the guts into the weeds, where raccoons feasted in plain sight. Lately Allison had seen Mitch spreading ears of field corn in the grass, so wild turkeys and quail would come out of the pines to feed.

But though the quail scurried for cover the moment Thomas or Allison opened the sliding door to the patio, the turkeys had grown bolder by the day. One early June evening Thomas and Danny Baker stood at the hydrangea bed that connected their back yards, and the man told him that springtime was the birds’ mating season, and the young males – “jakes,” he called them – were loaded with spunk.

“We’re either wives or rivals to them,” Danny Baker said. “They want to fuck us or fight us.” As if on cue, a male turkey stepped from the pines and strutted toward them, its head high and thrusting and its eyes fixed on their faces.

“Whoa now, uncle,” Danny Baker said. He broke off a woody hydrangea shoot and met the bird halfway. The turkey stretched its naked skull toward him, and the man stood tall and whipped the stick through the air so it made a whistling sound. “Shoo now, chief,” he said, and the bird bobbed and flounced and retreated into the trees, its ostrich-like legs muscular and springy.

“They have to know who’s top dog, is all,” Danny Baker said.

In the morning Allison called to tell him that Declan’s fever had spiked again overnight and they’d repeated the cooling baths. He had a rash and made no tears when he cried, so the doctor had ordered intravenous fluids.

“They couldn’t find a vein,” Allison said. “They poked him and poked him, and they finally had to go into his neck.” Her voice was monotonic and exhausted, but their conversation was less than a minute old when she asked him if he’d spoken to Danny Baker.

“Not yet,” Thomas said. He put down his coffee and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “His pickup’s still in the drive.” The line buzzed with a reproving silence, and Thomas looked out the window to see the marshal and his son hoisting a portable generator onto the truck bed. “Oops, there he is now,” he said, and hung up before she could respond.

Pregnancy had lifted Allison to the top of a green hill – her fears lightened by anticipation – but the birth itself had pushed her into a helpless, tumbling roll down the other side. Labor was a bruising, thirty-six-hour grind, and when Declan’s head got stuck in the birth canal the doctor gripped it with forceps and yanked the boy so violently into the world his cheek was bloodied. Thomas woke to find himself on the tile floor, a nurse swabbing his forehead with a cold towel and his son’s squalls in his ears. And though friends had told him how wonderful the moment would be when the boy was laid on his mother’s chest, Allison began to hemorrhage, and the room filled with shouting medical staff. The baby was hustled away and Thomas was sent – still in gown and mask – to a couch in the waiting area.

When mother and child finally came home, Allison slept in Declan’s room every night for three months. Even after nighttime feedings tapered off and she’d joined Thomas again in their bed, she continued to check the boy four and five times a night.

Once when they lay sleepless in the early dawn, she told Thomas about being a child and learning for the first time about glaciers. “I thought they were like rainstorms,” she said. “I thought you’d wake up one morning and there’d be a glacier on the horizon where a day before there was just sky.” She’d dreamed about her father picking her up and running, while behind them a wall of ice tore houses to pieces, gouged sidewalks from the earth, shredded trees.

“I’ve started having that dream again,” she said, pressing her damp face into his shoulder. “I’d forgotten about it, and now it’s back.”

Thomas pulled her to him and smoothed her hair and listened to Declan’s clotty breathing on the baby monitor, turned to full volume on the nightstand.

Now he stepped from his yard into Danny Baker’s gravel driveway and watched the man and his son wrestle the generator to the back of the truck bed and strap a gasoline can against it with a bungee cord. Only after they’d finished and jumped to the ground did the marshal acknowledge Thomas’s presence.

“How-do, professor,” he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his fist. He wore a sleeveless flannel shirt half open to his chest, and his biceps were round as softballs. “What can I do you for?”

Thomas told him that Declan was in the hospital, the doctors were trying to pin down what was making him feverish, Allison had spent the night with him there.

“That’s no good,” Danny Baker said. “I’ll tell Helen. We’ll be sending prayers your way for sure.” Mitch stood beside him and stared at Thomas. His hair was cut short to the same length all over his head and was so blonde it was nearly white.

“Anyway,” Thomas said. “The doctors think it might have something to do with the turkeys, with their droppings on our patio.”

“Is that right? That’s what the doctor said?”

“They think it’s a possibility. That’s correct,” Thomas said.

The man leaned against the truck and rubbed the stubble on his chin. “We’re sorry to hear the boy’s sick. Declan, is it?” He glanced at Mitch. The boy’s gaze hadn’t strayed from Thomas’s face. “I don’t think it’s the turkeys though, do you?”

“Probably not,” Thomas said, “but I have my orders.” He smiled, but when the marshal looked at him blankly he hurried on. “We’re going to try to keep them out of the yard, just to be on the safe side.”

“Shoot, man, that’s easy,” Danny Baker said. “Get you a tennis racket and run them off.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.” Thomas felt hot blood in his cheeks. “I’m teaching Drivers Ed this summer, and I can’t expect my wife to be chasing wild animals from the yard. Not with a new baby.”

“Wild animals,” Danny Baker repeated, and then his face brightened. “I tell you what. Get a dog. Turkeys can’t stand a yapping dog.”

Thomas sighed and gripped the truck bed rail with both hands. He leaned to and fro, making the pickup rock gently. “Allison doesn’t like – ” He felt the silence, then a breeze rustle high in the pines. “We’re not dog people,” he said.

Danny Baker glanced at the sky. “What is it you need from us, Tom?”

Thomas stepped around the wheel well so his back was to Mitch. He stared into the man’s eyes and spoke rapidly. “Look, it’s probably nothing, but my wife…we think it would be better if you didn’t spread corn in your yard. The birds are losing their fear of us, and if there’s the slightest possibility they carry disease – ”

“Done,” the man said. “If that’s all you need, we’re glad to help. More than glad.” He bent to retrieve a spade and pickaxe and threw both into the truck bed so they clattered heavily. “Is there anything else your wife needs? Anything Helen can do?”

Thomas stepped away from the pickup. “No, nothing else,” he said. “Thanks for understanding.”

“It’s nothing at all. You tell your wife she needn’t worry about turkey turds any longer,” Danny Baker said. He laughed, and Mitch smiled and unsmiled quickly.

When Thomas returned to the house he found a push broom and swept the patio clean of a fresh collection of gray-green droppings. When he turned to enter the house he saw Mitch watching him from the deck. Thomas nodded, but the boy stepped into the lawn with a rake and began scouring fiercely through the grass, sending naked corn cobs flying into the trees.

At the hospital Declan was sleeping open-mouthed, each inhalation a squeaking whimper. A tube snaked from an IV bag to a bruised place at his jugular. The pediatrician sat with Thomas and Allison and told them their son had a virus, most likely the flu, and would probably be better in a few days.

“What about the turkey droppings?” Allison said.

“That’s our conundrum,” the doctor said. “We’ve ruled out bird flu, of course, and the symptoms aren’t consistent with E. coli or salmonella. It’s possible he has a case of West Nile, and that’s no laughing matter.” The rash, the high fever and the dehydration all suggested the mosquito-borne virus.

Thomas stroked his son’s hot forehead and looked at Allison. “So it doesn’t come from the turkeys after all,” he said.

“On the contrary, it might,” the doctor said. “A mosquito bites an infected bird and then it bites us.” West Nile usually disappeared on its own, he continued, but in rare cases it turned to encephalitis, especially in infants. He asked if they had any standing water in the back yard – an unused goldfish pond, maybe, or an old tire swing – that might be a breeding place for mosquitos.

A cool feather brushed Thomas’s heart, but Allison responded that Declan was too young for a swing, and a pond wasn’t safe for a child. She looked at Thomas. “Is there anything else you can think – ”

“No,” he said. “There’s nothing else.” He felt the doctor eyeing him. “I’ll check though. Just to be sure.”

Allison rocked back and forth as the doctor recommended Declan stay in the hospital a few more days until they knew he was out of the woods. When the man left the room, she continued to rock, her hands twisting the waistband of her sweatshirt. “He’ll never be out of the woods,” she said.

“Of course he will,” Thomas said. “He said it was rare.” He stood and paced the room, squeezing fistfuls of hair until his scalp stung. He told her that Danny Baker had agreed to stop spreading corn in the yard. He’d seen Mitch raking the grass clean. Soon the turkeys would learn their place. “I’ll call off from Drivers Ed for a week,” he said. “I’ll show them who’s top dog.”

“We can’t keep our baby safe,” she said softly.

“Yes we can,” Thomas said. He knelt and grabbed her shoulders. She stared past him, and her bleakness nearly moved him to panic. He took her face in his hands and forced it to his. “I’ll fix this,” he cried. “I promise.”

Thomas drove from the hospital to a strip mall near the house. Allison had refused to go home to sleep, so he told her he would pick up a toothbrush and shampoo and return soon. Instead he went to Home Depot, where he bought one hundred feet of chicken wire, two dozen rebar stakes, a mini-sledge hammer, five citronella candles and a propane mosquito fogger.

He arrived at the house and went immediately to work. Since the turkeys had become aggressive he had stopped gardening, and his galvanized metal watering can and bird bath were full to the brim with rain water. An amber film coated both surfaces, and he dumped the watering can into the impatiens and flushed the bird bath clean with a hose. He climbed a stepladder to inspect the eaves troughs and found them full, choked with sodden pine needles. He circled the house with the ladder, scooping crud from the gutters with his hands and snaking the hose into each downspout until the clogs gave way and water flowed freely into gravel beds. He retrieved a leaf rake from the garage and swept the back yard clean of droppings, flinging them far into the pines. He used the mini-sledge to drive the rebar at intervals along the property line and stretched the chicken wire from stake to stake, anchoring it with ground staples.

He looked up once and saw Danny Baker watching him from the deck. The man called to him, but Thomas bent again to his task.

In the end the fence stood four-feet high and wove tautly from one corner of the back yard to the other. It spanned the width of the pine woods and sliced through the hydrangea bed. Thomas’s clothes were fouled by pine sludge, his hands nicked and bloodied from the wire, but he unpacked the citronella candles and placed one on the outdoor bistro table and the other four at each corner of the patio. The sun was low in the trees when he unboxed the fogger and filled the reservoir with insecticide. He lit the pilot light and walked from one edge of the yard to the other, sending clouds of poisonous smoke into the grass, the bushes, the trees. The fogger made a wet, throaty sound, and the breeze wafted the smoke skyward, where it disappeared into the green-black gloom.

When he was finished Thomas turned off the fogger and stood in the gathering dusk. The pines pressed in on him like a wall, the oldest more than eighty feet high. The woods extended a mile behind the house to wetlands beyond, and as the noise from the fogger died Thomas heard in the trees the drone of a billion crickets and katydids, peepers and toads. A flock of crows assembled in the uppermost branches and heckled him. Sand cranes called from the marsh.

He put the tools in the garage, then sat in the kitchen to call Allison. Declan was better, she said. His temperature was almost normal. They’d removed the IV from his neck. It was the flu all along.

“Oh, god. Oh, sweetheart.” Thomas sagged into his chair. He sucked in a huge lungful of air, and as he released it he began to cry and babble like a child. He described the fence, the candles, the fogger, and when she didn’t respond he gripped the phone and sobbed. “Did you hear me? Did you hear what I did?” His heart was full to bursting. “I won’t let anything bad happen to either of you. Don’t you know that?”

“I know,” she said quietly. “Take it easy.”

They hung up and Thomas sat for a few moments in the dark kitchen. Then he rose unsteadily, poured a scotch and walked back to the patio, where he lit the candles and fell into a padded deck chair. His eyes burned, and his bloody hands throbbed. The sun had fully set and a soft glow suffused everything. As he watched, a half dozen turkeys emerged from the pines onto Danny Baker’s lawn. They pecked and bobbed, snatching at the ground in reptilian syncopation. One of the jakes neared the fence, examined it briefly, then flared its wings and sprang lightly into Thomas’s yard. Soon another followed, and then another.

Robert Johnson holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. His stories have appeared in the online journals Wag’s Revue and Winning Writers. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2014 “Family Matters” fiction contest and a 1st Runner Up in Pinch Journal’s 2015 Literary Awards. He lives in South Bend, Indiana, with his wife Cindy and his retriever/lab mix Ellie. Much of his Monday-Friday career has been spent teaching, and in various creative capacities at the CBS affiliate in South Bend, WSBT-TV.