Summary: A mysterious parasite has infected the water supply of Atlanta and spread to other parts of the country. How do people react when the parasite’s effect is seen on live television? Or when they realize their favorite brand of soft drink is bottled in the outbreak zone? No relation to my other Outbreak piece. Can also be found here on ff.net.
Jane was getting breakfast ready in a large pan, a carton full of empty egg shells beside her. David yawned as he poured his and Jane’s cup of coffee before turning towards the toaster. It spit out four pieces of toast, his signal to retrieve them, butter the slices, and add four more.
Arthur entered the kitchen and yawned just like his father had. As he sat at the table, his mother finished up the family-sized portion of scrambled eggs and dumped them into a large colorful bowl. She turned and noticed the coffee David poured for her. She grimaced and shook her head:
“Sorry, David, I forgot to tell you I’m not up for any coffee today. After seeing that headline last night on the news, I’m a little wary of hot drinks, and you still haven’t figured out how to do iced coffee on that Keurig your mom got us,” Jane said, reaching for a glass, “Why don’t you fix me a glass of iced water instead?”
“Mom, hey, can you flip the television to the news? I still have to do one last thing for Mr. Ratburn,” Arthur said, sliding his notebook from his lap. Jane hadn’t even seen him come in with it, but now it was on the table next to his empty plate. He even had a pencil, sharpened and ready, tucked within the spirals. Jane sighed. She was frustrated that her son had lollygagged about his homework, which was due when he got to school, for a week. His task was to compare headlines on different news networks.
But at least he wasn’t asking her to do it, she thought, turning on the television and grabbing the remote, “So, who do we have to get today? I thought we already had all the local stations and CNN. MSNBC we got Sunday. That leaves the big Fox network, right?” Jane asked, turning to Arthur as DW entered with Kate in her arms.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Arthur nodded, consulting a list he’d scribbled on the side of the page. Jane turned the channel and circled the table, dishing out a serving of scrambled eggs for every plate, plus Kate’s highchair tray.
The Fox anchor for the morning was someone Arthur didn’t know, but the headline was the same one he’d been comparing from other networks:
“New this morning, the CDC has cleared Atlanta’s water after a recent scare. Several citizens in the Atlanta metro area using public water came down with a mysterious illness. The CDC discovered a water-borne illness in the water that they had never encountered before, stirring up controversy as people became fearful of the water. This morning, the boil water advisory from the city has been lifted, and the CDC has assured local citizens that the water is indeed safe.
“I want to know what you all think about this matter. Do you think the water is safe? Do you think this is something that could affect other cities?” the anchor asked as several faces popped onto the screen. One of them was a face Arthur now recognized as if he were Elwood City’s mayor—Mayor Kasim Read. He was the first one the anchor turned to, and he gave the same answer he’d been giving:
“It’s been my belief all along that our water was safe. The citizens affected by the illness all lived in the same area supplied by the same series of pipes. While I admit Atlanta’s infrastructure is aging, much as the country’s infrastructure is aging, I do not feel anyone here is in any danger from the water. Studies and tests have confirmed that the water treatment plants are doing their job,” Mayor Read said firmly.
The anchor shook her head, “But you do admit there was a problem with water provided by the City of Atlanta? Or are you shifting blame to–?”
The television suddenly went black. Arthur looked up and saw the remote in David’s hand as he lowered it down. He was instantly back to shoveling scrambled eggs onto his toast to make a half-sandwich.
“David, he has to listen to it for school,” Jane scolded before taking a deep sip of her water.
“Yeah, well, I think he has plenty to analyze. It’s all the same, Arthur. Depending on the networks, they’ll either attack the expert because they’ve been forced to disagree by the people paying their salaries, or they’ll support everything the expert says for the same reason. I can’t stand the ones that argue though. They drive me crazy,” David hissed, shaking his head as he reached for the salt.
“What are they even talking about?” DW asked.
Jane smiled, “Arthur, why don’t you explain it to DW? You’ve heard it from several angles by now.”
“Okay,” Arthur nodded, finishing a sentence in his notes before shoving a large forkful of eggs into his mouth. When he was done chewing, he looked up to his little sister, “A bunch of people in Atlanta got really sick, and when the CDC realized they all had the same thing, they noticed it was similar to things people had gotten from water before. But they couldn’t figure out what it was, and they think it’s gone now anyway.”
“So that’s it? They just what, make the water really hot for a while and things are okay again?” DW asked.
“Pretty much,” David nodded.
DW shook her head skeptically, “Then why make such a big deal of it? And who was that guy? Do we know him? Because I feel like we know him.”
Jane laughed, “You’ve been seeing him a lot lately because of Arthur’s assignment. He’s the mayor in Atlanta, the capital of Georgia. It’s several hours from here, but Arthur can show you on a map…after school. Come on, kids, eat up.”
“But why didn’t you want your coffee? Are you afraid that water sickness thing is in the coffee?” DW asked.
Now David laughed, “No, she saw an article on television about hot drinks giving you cancer. I’ve tried telling her that a lot of those news stories are from studies that aren’t even done by the right groups, but when the right people talk about it, she listens.”
“That’s silly,” DW said, and David cracked up instantly. Jane shot him a dirty look before standing up. It was time to get the kids to school, and she didn’t have time for an argument.
Buster clapped as Arthur sat down after his presentation. Several of his classmates picked political things, but Arthur was the only one who covered the water issue. Buster, who got dirty looks from Mr. Ratburn, tried picking a NASA story that barely got any coverage, but Arthur clapped for him anyway.
As they went to gym class, Francine tapped Arthur’s shoulder, “Hey, your water story was really scary. Muffy showed me an article on her phone from one of the local stations in Atlanta. So it’s true they have no idea what it was?” she asked.
“Yeah, but they kinda know what it is. They know it started in the water, but from the way everyone talks, I don’t think it was the water treatment plant. I think it was something–”
“Closer to the tap?” Brain offered as the group lined up for class along the edge of the gym. Brain smiled, “I’ve been following the case too online, and from what I can make out, I think the problem is between the water treatment plant and the taps themselves. Also, though the initial outbreak has been stamped out, I fear there will be far greater repercussions in the future.”
“English please?” Francine asked as the coach blew her whistle.
“I don’t think it’s over,” Brain whispered, looking up to the coach and ending the conversation.
Arthur put his backpack in his bedroom before returning downstairs. His mother was working diligently in the den, her tongue sticking out slightly as she concentrated. Other than the sound of her adding machine and her typing on the computer keys, the place was silent. In the distance Arthur heard thunder, so he decided to check the weather on television. It was only three o’clock, so he knew his only chance at getting some insight would be The Weather Channel. He had to look it up the channel on the guide, but soon he was tuned in.
After waiting through a long infomercial about some amazing pan, Arthur found himself looking at a nation-wide radar picture. After fifteen seconds or so, the map zoomed in like it always did during Local On The Eights, moving from Northeast to Southwest…except it was three-oh-three, nowhere near time.
Following the lesson Mr. Ratburn taught them during their news unit, Arthur decided to try a major network. The closest one in number to The Weather Channel was MSNBC, and sure enough, there was breaking news:
“For those of you just joining us, several major networks are down following an escalation in the Atlanta Outbreak Crisis. Around noon, an anchor for CNN collapsed while on the air, and the network immediately began running pre-recorded programming. Within thirty minutes, several other Atlanta-area networks faced similar incidents. Next was Channel 2 Action News, an ABC affiliate, then Fox 5 News, a local Fox station. Around one Eastern Standard Time, The Weather Channel fell with similar incidents reported.
“We turn now to the map showing just how close the locations are in proximity,” the anchor said, stepping to an interactive board. Sure enough, the studios were all within Metro Atlanta, and all of them were probably only a few minutes from each other.
Arthur was stunned, but he was shaken from his confused thuoghts by his mother approaching with the family’s cordless phone. Arthur answered without really thinking, and it took several attempts for him to realize it was Brain calling about the same breaking news that had him so stunned:
“Arthur, can you hear me? I was right. The outbreak has spread, and it’s terrible! They’re saying it’s a parasite that is affecting the central nervous system. The CDC is on edge. They’ve never seen anything like this before,” Brain said, checking again to see if Arthur heard him.
“I heard you. A parasite?”
“A small organism that can infect a host subject, in this case locals in Atlanta. The area hospitals are so packed that some hospitals are turning away patients. Grady Hospital has refused anymore patients in case any traumas come in…injuries from bad accidents or really critical patients,” Brain added, sighing softly, “The parasite currently has no cure, to put it in layman’s terms. Often methods used to kill the parasites are more harmful to the host than the organism itself,” Brain continued.
“Wait,” Arthur said, remembering a summer incident, “are ticks considered a parasite?”
“Very much so,” Brain nodded. “They do nothing for the host except steal nutrients, and they often infect their hosts with nasty diseases such as Lyme Disease. In this situation, I believe these are worm-like creatures that feed off nerve tissue. Currently hosts are foaming at the mouth and are paralyzed, but as this continue–”
“The brain is made of nerves. They’ll die,” Arthur realized.
“Oh, so you remember our lesson on the brain?” Brain smiled, clearing his throat as he realized this was inappropriate, “I’m afraid this incident is very new. I suspect that the initial outbreak came from the eggs infecting various patients, causing adverse reactions much unlike what they’re seeing now. This is a new hurdle for them to cross, and we must stay tuned to understand the issue.”
“Wait, the CDC is in Atlanta, as is CNN. How will they keep us informed if they’re also infected?” Arthur questioned.
Brain shrugged, “I’m unsure, but they’ve warned Atlanta-area citizens to drink only bottled water, and panic has spread to other cities, especially those downstream to the Chattahoochee River. That’s Atlanta’s main water source, as well as millions of people down river. I fear this problem goes beyond just Atlanta’s watershed, but that is just a theory from a child. But the experts share the same opinion, namely because we know so little.”
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Arthur whispered, looking back to the television. Brain agreed and ended their call, but as Arthur returned the phone to its charging station, he really wished he had someone else to talk to about this situation.
Bitzi and Buster arrived with a serving of meatballs, which David accepted and added to the small potluck in the kitchen. This was something the Read’s did every now and then with close friends and neighbors, and the Molina’s, who brought chicken fajitas and flour tortillas, were already settled in the living room. DW and Vicita were playing with Kate in the corner while Alberto sat away from everyone thumbing through his phone.
Buster and Arthur snuck off upstairs as the adults gathered in the kitchen. Arthur already knew what they were talking about. The Atlanta Outbreak was old news now, well, the origin, making it old news. Now other southern cities were facing similar outbreaks, and new theories were everywhere. The adults likely started this potluck to trade knowledge on the subject, and to decide if they should begin drinking bottled water.
As Arthur and Buster made it unseen to Arthur’s bedroom, they began their own discussion on the topic, which had taken the school by storm, starting with Mr. Ratburn’s news-savvy class.
“I was talking to Brain over at the shop and he said bottled water won’t necessarily be safe, not the kind bottled using city water,” Buster whispered, pulling out a magazine, “I found this at the library. I promise I’ll take it back tomorrow.”
It was an older magazine, probably hidden behind the current issues. Buster only knew about them because he’d seen Bitzi go to the library dozens of time to switch out the newspaper’s issues. Either way, it was stealing…but the article was important.
“I’ll sum it up for you,” Buster said, turning to the article described by the cover, “So basically bottled water companies don’t actually have to have their own spring or water source. They can just set up in their local cities and use city water to fill the bottles, often without doing anything else to them. Some filter them using different ways. It’s all defined. But I doubt that would get rid of the parasite. Brain told me the Atlanta Outbreak is spreading and fast, and people are dying a lot quicker than expected. This parasite is new and dangerous. Even now the CDC doesn’t know of anything like it.”
“Wow, if the CDC is stumped, I doubt anyone could help us, even from people in other countries,” Arthur murmured, looking up, “What about boiling the water? Atlanta had a boil water advisory for a while during the initial outbreak.”
“And it didn’t work, not as well as they hoped, and it’s not working now. And think about it, Coke is like based down there. I mean, I asked Brain about it and he said the bottling is more regional now, where it used to be local, but a lot of Coke is still made there–”
“And if Coke is compromised, a lot of other drinks are too because drinks are made from water,” Arthur finished. He exhaled, “Wow, this is really dangerous and messed up. What do you think the adults are going to do?”
“I don’t know, but I’m only drinking older drinks. I’ve been storing old Cokes and Pepsis for a while. I even have an entire five-gallon thing of water I got from the community gardener’s shed. He said I could have everything. Do you know how long it took me to haul that thing into my closet? They’re really heavy!” Buster exclaimed.
“Arthur? Buster? Are you in here? It’s time for dinner,” Jane said, knocking on the door.
“Coming!” Arthur said, opening the door…just in time to see Jane tumble down the stairs.
Arthur and Buster ran to the top step as everyone downstairs ran to the bottom. David was instantly at his wife’s side, but the look on his face was one of pure terror.
Jane was foaming at the mouth, and they knew from the news that wasn’t a good sign.
People were dropping like flies. The warm spring weather seemed to spread the parasitic worm far and fast, faster than people could anticipate. Jane, who had been drinking a lot of tap water now that she’d rejected coffee, was one of the first in Elwood City, second only to an elderly woman a few blocks away. More adults fell to the illness, but there was nothing anyone could do.
As Buster suggested, the President put out a statement in solidarity with CDC guidelines: Everyone was to drink beverages bottled before a date a month before the outbreak began. Even if the drink was out of date, it was still healthier than anything bottled after that date, or any water coming from people’s home taps.
The outbreak started in Atlanta, spread through the south, then up into the northeast, where Elwood City was located. Slowly it penetrated the Midwest, but anywhere with cooler weather seemed to stop the illness from starting. That was the only way to survive without severe disability—never get the parasite in the first place, because once you had it, it was forever. People with limited exposure fared much better, but being a vegetable in a hospital bed wasn’t a way to live.
Everyone was terrified, especially foreign countries who wanted information. They didn’t want this to become a world-wide event, and as the CDC rushed to get answers, they were able to find tricks. Heat benefited the parasite where cold knocked it out, so instead of boil water advisories, people were encouraged to use freezer-safe containers to make large blocks of ice in order to cook or drink. Many even used this melted ice water to take showers once they’d warmed it to a comfortable temperature.
Slowly people learned how to prevent the spread, but information was slow in coming of any cures, or any origins. In the end, they all just knew it was a parasite that entered the water supply and made it through the rigorous treatments, feeding off chemicals like chlorine and thriving in hot conditions, even boiling water. The way around it was for the treatment plants themselves to freeze the water, a time-consuming but life-saving process. Millions were already dead despite solid efforts from hospitals and researchers, but this extra cost would save millions upon millions more. The process would take a while, and people using well water or naturally-fed springs would have to take on the process themselves, but it would ensure this sort of outbreak never happened again.
A/N: For my Disasters series. And because this is a one-shot, it goes towards my Summer 100 One-Shot Challenge. Let me know if you need more info, and be sure to check out my other disaster pieces. While this, to me, is the scariest I’ve done as of yet, the others are quite terrifying as well and many have left lovely comments on them. Feel free to add your own.