Prologue: The Candied Apple
Kai Perkins had a girlfriend not easily entertained. They met junior year at the University of New Hampshire where Autumn was studying volatile organic compounds spawned by internal combustion engines and he was measuring chlorotic mottle damage in Eastern white pine needles. Both were concerned by the growing number of high-level ozone days the previous three summers. Neither knew what to do about the ozone— or each other. Autumn had been checked out in the Durham pubs by numerous college boys, offered brews, bar snacks, and buffalo wings, and soon abandoned. She was hot but stunningly uncooperative. Her great looks and full figure couldn’t compensate for a strong disinterest in anything unrelated to environmental degradation. She detested football. Drinking games bored her. A night at the movies usually ended with her falling asleep before the universe was saved. She was lousy company and she didn’t give out. Her interests lay elsewhere. The Antarctic ice sheet was melting. Greenland was greening. A thawing tundra released terrifying quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Boston’s Thomas P. O’Neil Tunnel was twice flooded in recent storm surges. She spent more time worrying about the undermining of National Air Quality Standards by industry lobbyists than her sex life. She harangued and browbeat until potential boyfriends slunk off to soccer practice— all that wasted energy! — and she went and swam laps in the college pool and imagined the lot of them lost to firestorm and inundation.
She needed something besides nitrogen oxide levels to occupy her mind.
Kai’s work study program included water safety. One tedious Wednesday evening as he sprawled spread-eagled in a lifeguard chair above the racing lanes, twirling his whistle on its lanyard, his pecs caught her attention and her ass caught his. He kept his hair combed back in a slick wave and had a certified eight-pack of which he was justifiably proud. Also, Kai’s teeth were very white. She advanced on him between the ring buoys, he came onto her outside the locker rooms, and by the time he learned to his dismay that nothing held her interest long, not canoeing or peak bagging or the local college theater production of Lysistrata, nor late night debates with adjunct professors or beer pong with his apartment buddies, though he tried to shake her, she would not be shook. She stuck to him through spring semester and stayed in constant contact over summer break. She was hot and he was hot but, taken together, the temperature between them dropped well below tepid. He took an unpaid internship with the Appalachian Mountain Club and went into the Pemigewasset Wilderness the fall of their senior year, hoping distance would dissuade her, but when he came out of the woods the last Thursday in September to man operations at Pinkham Notch Visitors’ Center, the huts’ manager and assistant huts’ manager having succumbed to avian influenza, she was waiting for him in the visitors’ center.
Clouds were gathering on the summits.
“It’s bad,” she told him. “Like twenty people dead already. I don’t want to go back to campus. Can I spend end times with you?”
More than a generation had passed since Earth’s last pandemic. Kai had no firm idea what protocols end times required. No one did. It was chaos without an errant theory to legitimize it.
They hung out Friday night at the Joe Dodge Lodge on a sofa in front of the stone fireplace, making the most of their limited remaining hours on Earth. Her bony knees inflicted serious discomfort. Rain beat hard on the roof. Kai spent all Saturday on the phone with the Forest Service and New Hampshire Fish and Game and the AMC’s top brass, trying to get a handle on the crisis. By Sunday he was feeling stressed. A month of near isolation at Thirteen Falls Campground, just him and the Eastern white pines, followed by a poorly choreographed response to looming disaster with more people, supply chains, angles of attack, rescue efforts, plans for closure, state police to mollify, epidemiologists to worry, hikers to turn away, and, of course, Autumn to calm, had etched his eight-pack into stone, but everything else was in flux. Autumn wouldn’t leave his side. She was bored to tears and increasingly frightened.
Sunday was a long, long day.
On Monday, when the Pinkham Notch complex was ordered shut down by the AMC, CDC, NIH, USFS, NH.GOV, and The Greater Boston Council of The Boy Scouts of America (who wanted their deposit back), Kai was anxious to get out of Joe Dodge. Out-of-state, if possible. Clouds were breaking over Wildcat. Hints of blue sky to the east. His cousin Mike had an ox pull team competing in Fryeburg at the annual fall fair and Kai thought he might join him and throw away his phone. Maine’s governor was a remnant Republican, as yet unwilling to sacrifice the local economy to any overblown media hysteria or the advice of scientists, so the fair remained open. “I’m coming with you, “Autumn insisted. “I’ll drive.” Kai could only shrug. He had no wheels of his own at present. He was already infected but asymptomatic when they jumped in her Ford Ram one-ton pickup and headed south on Route 16, and by the time they took the left onto 302, Autumn was infected too.
The fair had opened Saturday. A weekend of rain kept the crowds sparse, the grounds sloppy with puddles, and the barns dank, but on Monday the clouds parted and some hesitant sun poked through. The place came alive with farmers and farriers and lumbermen in John Deere caps who could saw through a three-foot thick oak log in under two minutes. Carnival barkers and kids skipping school bustled about, talking up easy marks. National adjudicators began awarding prizes for Best in Show. No one expressed concern about approaching pandemic. No one wore masks or maintained social distance. After a month’s solitude in a remote campsite in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, Kai was a little overwhelmed by the crowds which were, in fact, not crowded at all on a Monday morning. He took Autumn to the cattle barns and introduced her to his cousin Mike Budd, a towering, twenty-six-year-old in a cowboy hat whose beer belly precluded eight-pack, and to Mike’s pair of Chianina oxen, Babe and Sofie, their bovine eight-packs buried under two-plus tons of muscle.
“I thought oxen were male,” said Autumn, eyeing them suspiciously and fearful of being pranked. Her sense of humor was sadly underdeveloped.
“They are,” said Mike, who couldn’t help gawking at his cousin’s hot girlfriend. “Sofie’s named for my ex. She dumped me.”
Kai laughed appreciatively. “Sweet revenge,” he said. “Sofie’s one big mother.” Indeed, both massive white beefcakes lounging in their stall, chawing on hay without apparent appetite or enthusiasm, were built to admire.
“Yeah, but actually, she took it as a compliment. She was here yesterday to watch the preliminaries.”
“They do well?”
“Nah,” he sighed. “Couldn’t seem to get ’em motivated. Roadsick, maybe. We’ll do better this afternoon,” at which one of them, Sofie, emitted a big, sonorous fart and, whether the smell or the thought of all that methane contributing to global warming, Autumn turned an unhealthy shade of green.
By midafternoon, Kai had infected his cousin Mike and Mike had infected his cousins on his mother’s side, the Tolman brothers, Brodie and Joe, and Joe’s kid, Tony. They were showing off three prize milkers, big-uddered Holsteins from their dairy farm in Newry. Tony’s cow, Lady’s Maid, was due to calve any minute. A veterinarian had been on call all weekend. The calf, however, showed no signs of imminent arrival, so the brothers went out for lunch, not before infecting the veterinarian but not the cow, and soon infected everyone associated with fried dough. The fried dough carnies passed the virus on to friends who ran the ring toss in the arcade, and those friends spread it to the shooting gallery and the guy who hauled trash. Autumn, unimpressed by fried dough, ring toss, expectant Holsteins, or anything remotely agricultural, gave it to two female breeders from the farmers’ union in Woodstock, Vermont, and a guy from Cumberland who was hoping to re-introduce elk into the great north woods.
Babe and Sofie did not perform to Mike’s expectations They stalled out at five-thousand-three-hundred-and-thirty pounds and didn’t make twenty feet in five minutes. Mike had trouble breathing and drowned his sorrows in a six-pack of Bud Lite. Autumn’s suggestion that raising oxen for entertainment purposes was not environmentally responsible merited a grunt, a cuss, and a belch as response. She retreated to the midway, dragging Kai with her.
Come nightfall, half the people on the rides and almost everyone in the barns were infected, some as yet asymptomatic, others blaming their discomfort on the corn dogs. Stalled atop the Ferris wheel, waiting for someone to reset the breakers, Kai coughed in Autumn’s face. After that, it was all downhill. Soon, everyone was hacking and sneezing, people turning gray, the first aid building hosting a line outside that stretched for half a block. Three ambulances were called in quick succession. No one appeared to be social distancing.
Seven o’clock Monday evening, the governor of Maine imposed a lockdown on the state (against his better judgment, after all, how bad could it be?) and by nine the National Guard was manning the fairground perimeter. Guests were sent home with orders to quarantine. Those with livestock or goods in the exhibit areas weren’t going anywhere until further instructions arrived. Some returned to their campers in the parking lot and hunkered down. Others, including Mike and his Tolman cousins, decided to spend the night in the barns with their cattle. Kai and Autumn hung out in the barn with Mike, hacking and feverish and waiting for death to overtake them and drinking warm beer. Autumn was not fit company, but what could Kai do?
Right around midnight, while he was nursing his third beer and Mike halfway through a second six-pack and Autumn curled in a corner, snoring fitfully, two young men materialized out of the dark beyond the building and came into the barn. They were tall and confident and very, very white, one of them so white as to appear almost luminous. They looked to be teenagers, sixteen seventeen maybe. Both were slim but well-built. Both had blonde hair, almost tow. Both were naked. The luminous one had no arms.
The barn was dimly lit, most of the lights off so the livestock could sleep, but the boys were clearly visible against the dark. The armless one wasn’t armless. He wore a dark hooded sweatshirt, unzipped, that may have spent the day in mud. It obscured his arms but nothing else. No other clothing, and his companion none at all.
“Hey,” barked Mike as they drew near. “You can’t be in here, assholes. There’s a lady present. Put some pants on.” The bark provoked a staccato spray of coughing.
The snow-white boys exchanged glances. The one without the sweatshirt smiled. He had a candied apple in his hand and took a generous bite. The other, the one whose unzipped chest was glowing— or was Mike so drunk he only thought the kid’s chest was glowing? — said, “Lost in transit.”
Mike knew at once they were ghosts and he was dying and they’d come for him. They were white to the edge of albinism, and their eyes, though blue, seemed lit from within. Mike had seen a ghost once when he was eleven. It sat on his bed and scared the shit out of him. He didn’t think the ghost was naked, wasn’t even sure it was male or female, but that was a good nine years ago, so who could remember? Kai was looking at their rippling white eight-packs and feeling woozy. Vaguely appreciative, but mostly woozy.
“Nice bulls,” said the candied apple-eating ghost. “We like bulls.”
“Ox,” growled Mike. He took a painful breath and coughed again. His beer belly heaved in sympathy.
“Not an issue. Thermopylae was insane. We could use a breather.”
The ghost who glowed inhaled deeply. His chest seemed to be glowing brighter. “Place smells,” he said.
“Corpulent depression,” agreed his companion, merry eyes fixed on Mike’s gut.
Mike said, “You can’t be here.” He groped for his cowboy hat. He thought to throw it at them.
Kai feared he was hallucinating.
Apple ghost said, “I find I’m short hind legs and a tail. Mind if we borrow these guys and take ’em for a bath? There’s a river just past the trees. We saw it on the way over.” He brushed at his shoulder and Kai thought he saw three small, white feathers flutter to the floor.
“Who are you?” Mike demanded. He was spooked. He’d definitely had a Bud too many and his guts were on fire.
“I’m Zeus,” said the ghost with the glow now clearing the clavicle and climbing into his throat, “and this is Apollo.”
Kai, who had until this moment remained silent, blinked, blinked again, and closed his eyes tight. When he reopened them, the boys were still there. “American Gods,” he mumbled. They were small for gods, nothing he might have mistaken for Olympians, without facial hair to add gravity or biceps bulked from hurling thunderbolts, but their eight-packs were every bit as sharply defined as his.
“Ayuh,” said the boy with the candied apple. “Gods are rotto,” and he took another bite. “This candy shellac stuff’s good too. Shall we take them for a ride?” He looked from the oxen to the boy who glowed, the one calling himself Zeus, for permission.
“Yeah,” said Zeus.
Mike rose unsteadily. He caught himself on the wooden stall railing and held tight. “No one’s goin’ nowhere,” he growled. He coughed. Kai coughed. In her sleep, Autumn coughed.
“Here it comes,” said Apollo to Zeus. “Like you said.”
Zeus nodded. “Yup. Isyl. What an ανόητος. We got here just in time.”
The ghosts stepped around Mike to inspect the oxen.
“You can’t take my ox,” grunted Mike and he clenched a fist. There was no chance two skinny ghosts with droopy dongs were taking his oxen anywhere, no matter how near he was to death. Their eight-packs did not intimidate him.
The one called Zeus said, “You can come if you want. Quickest way to stop the virus spreading.” The glow had reached his head and his cheeks were glimmering. The zipper burned brightly and his chest looked ready to explode. “It’s just over the trees. What’re their names?”
Mike let go the railing and went at the glowing ghost with both arms extended. He thought to grab him by the neck and throttle him. The ghost went white and Mike fell forward. His hands disappeared into a blinding void. His arms followed. His world went with them.