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The tickle in the back of her nose was finding its way into her dream. Darlene Philbrick slowly rose up from her deep sleep as the tickle became stronger. Coming fully awake, her eyes moved to the window and saw that it was still dark outside. A quick glance at the digital clock on the bedside table confirmed that she was awake far too early. The large red numbers showed 4:27 am. The frustration caused by the tickle that steadfastly refused to form a sneeze and the fact that she would never be able to get back to sleep now propelled her from the bed.

A stop at the bathroom mirror showed a pair of eyes that looked like a Georgia road map glaring back at her. They were itchy too. As she blearily started to turn from the mirror it came. aaaaRAAAAAAAAAASHAAAAaaa! Mucus was propelled from both her mouth and her nostrils in an alarming quantity and made a particularly nasty ‘splat’ as it bespoiled the fastidiously clean glass and the surrounding wall.

The frustration grew. If there was anything in this world Darlene hated, it was a dirty house. Now, because of this assault on her nose, the mirror and wall needed to be cleaned. Because of that, she felt like the entire house was contaminated. Good thing she was up early; she’d have to give the house a good once-over before leaving for her job as bookkeeper at Haverty’s Furniture in Crestwood. It wasn’t shaping up to be the best day of the week, and it was only Tuesday. All that, topped of by the surprising diarrhea was making this a rather memorable morning. Ah well, she was accustomed to frustration so may as well get to it. She lifted her considerable bulk from the toilet, arranged her clothing and turned to flush and was shocked to see blood in her leavings. She stared at the grotesque product of her bowels and tried to imagine what might have caused such an event.

Nothing like this had ever happened. Well, if it happens again I’ll go see Dr Hudson and let her figure it out. For now, she had things to do. She set about cleaning the mess she’d left on the mirror when another sneeze came, unannounced. It wasn’t as big and noisy and messy as the first one, but there was a considerable discharge. She wondered if she should call the doctor’s office and ask them to work her in today and dismissed the idea nearly as quickly as it came.

Darlene, or Darty as she was known by her friends was no stranger to suffering. Managing every penny of the miserly salary she received at Haverty’s, she’d somehow raised her son with no help from anyone, thank you very much. She’d gotten pregnant when she was twenty-two. Her parents were mortified. Curtis Philbrick, Darty’s father had demanded she name the father so he could be made to “do the right thing”. Darty refused and was summarily ejected from the home in which she had grown up. From that day forward, she’d made her own way. It hadn’t been easy, but she was a strong-willed person and nobody, but nobody was going to push her around. Not even her father.

Mark had finished medical school at University of Alabama at Birmingham nine years earlier and now practiced Internal Medicine. He had a nice office in one of the professional buildings at St Vincent’s Hospital and was doing quite well. He was one of the few physicians practicing solo. Darty couldn’t have been more proud of him. Now, if only he would find a wife and settle down, she could rest more easily. For about ten seconds she considered calling him, but just as quickly discarded the idea. No need to bother him, there was work to be done.

During the course of the day, Darty shared her infection with nearly a hundred people who then went around Birmingham doing their work or shopping and shared it even further. Judith Brooks ran in during her lunch break to pick up a new vase to replace the one her clumsy 14 year-old son had broken and got a share. The following week she shared it with several hundred students at John Carroll High School. Marian Biggs stopped to make the final payment on her bedroom suite and exchange a bit of gossip with Darty. Over the next three days she spread the infection through the laboratory at St Vincent’s Hospital. The ‘bug’ provided by Marian hitchhiked throughout the hospital, patient to patient, employee to employee at a dizzying pace.

The speed with which the infection was being spread was frightening. A great many people from surrounding cities like Tuscaloosa, Cullman, Anniston, Gadsden and Piedmont commuted to work in Birmingham. Many of them had spouses or other family who worked in Mississippi and Georgia. The modern mobile state of the population helped to spread the infection nearly as much as the tainted water had done. The incubation period for the mutant germ was less than five days. Between the drinking water and the combined respiratory and gastrointestinal distresses the spread was exponential.

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