alfred alcorn
Alfred Alcorn is the author of nine novels, including The Pull of the Earth, Natural Selection, and Murder in the Museum of Man. The former director of travel at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, he continues to guide groups in East Africa, India, and elsewhere. He lives in Colrain, Massachusetts, with his wife Sally Remick Alcorn. (See longer bio at the end of this page.)

Alcorn’s newest novel, Time Is the Fire, is now available from Pleasure Boat Studio. This is a remarkable work inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. Time Is The Fire recounts a day in the existence of Leopold Bloom O’Boyle, chronophobe, travel writer, would-be novelist, and husband of the Reverend Annabel Chance. The day is September 8, 1992, and the place is Harvard Square and environs. Like his namesake, Leo dips into and out of a stream of consciousness as he considers and reconsiders the most important decision of his life. In his quest for an answer, he struggles with his fear of time, a fear inextricably meshed with the fateful choice he and Annabel must make.  Along the way, he encounters characters real and imaginary, including the shade of his late father; his friend Alf; the temptress Silvia; and the poet Stratis Haviaras. He argues with Philip Larkin and harkens to the words of James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, words that suffuse his heart and mind. He works feverishly to finish a draft of his languishing novel, the protagonist of which, like himself, is trapped in the riddle of time.  

Here’s the NYTimes review:

When you are named for one of the most influential characters in 20th-century literature, expectations are your daily bread. Such is the lot of Leopold Bloom O’Boyle, clerical husband, Harvard-hugger, hot-dog eater and “travel writer cum novelist encore manqué” famous for a magazine piece called “Trekking With Jesús,” in honor of the lovesick Peruvian guide who abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. On the theory that his Joyce-venerating late father wanted him to write a novel worthy of his name, Leopold vacillates between a navel-gazing update of “Ulysses” set in 1992 Cambridge, Mass. (as is this novel), and a high-minded exercise in genre sci-fi with one eye on philosophical maunderings and the other on Hollywood.
When not toiling over his novel’s plot (which hinges, inevitably, on the destruction of Earth), Leopold muses on the creation of life with his newly pregnant wife. En route Alcorn entertains with riffs on fiction and a pleasurable cascade of word plays (“He had gotten seminal with a seminarian”), prankish names (Graham Crocker III), brush stroke perceptions and sexual puns that would heat the cockles of Joyce’s multitasking heart.
- Jan Stuart, NYTBR, 5/1/16

Here’s what some early readers have said about Time Is the Fire:

Dear Alfie: A brilliant novel!  Dense with wordplay, literary learning, Harvard lore of our time (Donald Fleming was something, I agree).  I like Larkin more than you do, I think, and Heaney less.  I came to Joyce maybe later than others and look at him from a distance.  I don’t like Nabokov at all.  But I thoroughly enjoyed your interweaving of them with your narrative—and I thought the novel-in-progress in the main novel was a terrific idea, beautifully done… But I admire your wit and daring here.  This is very different from your earlier books—something else I admire…  Max (Byrd)  
Dear Jack (publisher): I think the book is a blooming (intended) masterpiece, a pro vita summa, it's wiping out everything I've read in the last couple of months, Joycean not only in theme but also in its infinite inexhaustible  imagination and inventiveness, the combination of the transient quotidian and the timeless tragic verities.  I'm blown away, thanks for letting me see it early on….   Morty (Schiff)
Alfie: That was an adventurous reading and re-reading of Time is the Fire. It came as I became 80 and all hell broke loose, fortunately in a relatively small scale. I read it through many interruptions, but I enjoyed re-reading it with fewer ones in Athens. Sure I liked the judiciously placed here and there the usual Harvard-Cambridge suspects including myself, but the stakes here are high and you have gone out of your way to surpass both Joyce and yourself. I love it and, yes, it identifies an era and a culture vibrant in all it depth.   Stratis (Haviaras)

Sugar Mountain is a cautionary tale about an all-too-possible catastrophe: A deadly flu epidemic which starts in China and spreads throughout the world, slowly at first, then unbelievably fast. And there is no cure. People who prepare for such possibilities are variously referred to as "homesteaders,” “preppers,” or “survivalists.” This is a story of one such extended family, the Arkwrights, and how, at their farm in western Massachusetts, they gather and stand together in the face of a relentless mass killer. As well as the ravaging influenza, they must contend with provisioning themselves and fending off a local well-armed and ruthless para-military group all the while hanging on to enough humanity to make their survival meaningful. Sugar Mountain explores how such a calamity affects individual family members, their neighbors—many of whom are not prepared—and society as a whole.  This is a story of a fight to survive in the midst of pressures and threats and 
against long odds. As one member of the family records in her journal, “The world is coming to an end… The world is starting all over again.”

I read Sugar Mountain on my Kindle and couldn’t put it down. It was utterly gripping and frightening (thanks a lot!)... But oh what a grim subject, which I take to be on the edge of allegory. Thank you for sending me the book.  Lloyd Schwartz, Boston, MA
I just finished it… a riveting read… better than many “best sellers.”   Bob Viarengo, Heath, MA
I am addicted and cannot put it down.   Philip Lovejoy, Boston, MA 
I stayed up until 2:00 am to finish the book last night, I couldn't put it down.  I loved every "page".  It was fantastic.   And I loved Allegra's journal….Great book.  I want to see the movie.    Anna Doyle, San Francisco, CA
Just wanted to say that I read four chapters last night and am thoroughly hooked.  The characters and their plight stayed with me today, can't wait to continue!   Jennie Summerall, Belmont, MA
But what a page turner this is! Beautifully written literature.... The suspense in unstoppable; the multitude of characters flawlessly orchestrated; there's a New England aura to it, and Allegra's diary a wonderfully pinned down example. I love every minute of it and I am only at page 216.   Stratis Haviaris, Athens, Greece
Unfortunately, this absolutely could happen either in the way you write about or as a natural mutation in the virus.   Stephen J. Gluckman,  Professor of Medicine,  Perelman Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania; Medical Director, Penn Global Medicine


1)  What might be the significance of the title, if any?

2)  Why did the author make western Massachusetts the setting?

3)  How does the author achieve a sense of the utopian out of a dystopian story?

4)  To what extent does Sugar Mountain succeed as a cautionary tale?

5)  In what ways are the names of the characters suggestive?

6)  Does apocalyptic fiction like Sugar Mountain have anything to do with reality?

7) To what extent could the novel be used as an endorsement of gun ownership?

8) However dire the circumstances, how plausible is the advent of armed, predatory gangs?

9) What is the author’s sense of family values?

To what kind of people would you recommend Sugar Mountain?

Interview with the author about Sugar Mountain:

Q: Why did you write Sugar Mountain?
A: For several reasons. I do feel that we live in precarious times.  In part it’s the sense that the growth of human population is unsustainable.  If it continues, the Malthusian nightmare will become real.  The threat of a pandemic is real enough without getting into scare-mongering for its own sake. Typhoon Yolanda may well be a harbinger of what is to come in terms of extreme weather as were the fires in Australia and around Yosemite.  But I also wrote Sugar Mountain as a way both to portray characters in extreme situations and to revisit the kind of small group society in which we evolved over millions of years. 
(photo by Seamus Heaney)

Q: What were the stages in writing Sugar Mountain?
A: When the idea occurred to me, I wrote it out in long hand in a notebook with a good deal of plot, characters, dialogue, and descriptions.  I then settled in to writing it on a laptop, rough chapters, notes from research, sketched in scenes and developments like the frame of a building.  Along the way I would print out pages and go over them, print out some more, go over them.
Q: Why did you choose western Massachusetts as the setting?
A: Obviously, I know it as I live here.  But also, I think the land and the landscape are as important to a novel as are the characters.  In a novel like Sugar Mountain, there is a dialogue between the characters and the land.  There is also a response to the seasons, which play a larger role when you don’t have central heating and air conditioning.  All of that is aside from the beauty of the land and how it changes through the year.
Q:  Do the names of the characters have any significance?
A: They do, but I’d rather let their significance (such as it is) resonate at a less than obvious level.
Q:  Are you and your family preppers?
A:  Not really, but we do have some emergency supplies put away.  After hurricanes like Sandy, it makes eminent sense to prepare at least for short-term disasters.  If conditions (like increasingly severe weather or sporadic flu epidemics overseas) warrant it, we would ratchet up accordingly.
Q: How do you justify the depiction of organized violence in Sugar Mountain?
A: First, it’s realistic in that there is going to be conflict over essential supplies, especially food, during any prolonged catastrophe such as an avian flu pandemic. Society will revert, however temporarily, to a Hobbesian state of nature.
Q: But doesn’t Sugar Mountain at least implicitly justify the ownership and use of guns?
A: It does.  At some level, it reflects the lack of confidence in the government to protect ordinary citizens during a national or local emergency.  The object lesson is hurricane Katrina when the failure of government at the local, state, and federal level was painfully and at times fatally obvious. 
Q:  Do you or your family members have weapons?
A:  Not yet.
Q:  How do you explain the gap between your comic novels, Murder in the Museum of Man, and your apocalyptic works such as Extinction and Sugar Mountain?
A: I think they’re both an exercise and exorcism of a manic streak. We are living, both psychically and physically on the edge.
Q:  Who are your favorite authors?
A: James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Patrick White, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, Evelyn Waugh,  F. Scott Fitzgerald and… the list goes on.


The Pull of the Earth
“A novel as convincing as a tightly roped load; I took pleasure in the hydraulic grip which Alcorn’s writing exercises upon place and period, his collusion with what is stunted in his characters, his tenderness towards all that is needy and courageous about their lives.”
                            Seamus Heaney

“We realize we are in the hands of a serious novelist with the enviable ability to create credible, moving human beings.”
                        N.Y. Times Book Review

“Alfred Alcorn has composed a wonderful novel, his first, out of the stuff of ordinary life... [He] treats his characters with a rare combination of intelligence and tenderness.”
                            Boston Globe

“Alfred Alcorn’s fine first novel... is as solid and rich as the earth it sings... A beautiful book - that goes wrong nowhere.”
                            Boston Magazine

“...a gift for brilliant satire and outright comedy within the framework of a solid, serious novel.”
                    The Providence Sunday Journal

The Long Run of Myles Mayberry
“Alcorn’s description of Myles’ single shot at immortality in the 1976 Boston Marathon was truly ‘déjà vu all over again’ for me.”
            Jack Fultz, winner of the 1976 Boston Marathon

Murder in the Museum of  Man
“An adroit, hilarious send-up”
                            The New Yorker

“Sly and spicy from start to finish, Alcorn’s unexpected hybrid blends academic spoofery, cannibalism and a murder mystery, serving it up with a just-right balance of innocence, subtle malevolence and cheeky irony.
                            Publishers Weekly


I was born Alfred John Denny in 1941 in Wallasey, England, the heavily bombed docklands across the Mersey from Liverpool. My parentage was considered mixed at the time -- my mother, Anna Cecilia (neé Brooks), being an Irish Catholic and my father, Alfred James Denny, being an English Protestant. My first memories are of the countryside where I was sent with my brother Anthony to escape the bombing. In 1947, Alfred James, who had soldiered with the British Army  in North Africa, Iraq, and Italy during the war, died of leukemia. And as Anna Cecilia was seriously ill with tuberculosis, we spent a good deal of time in orphanages. In late 1948, we left redbrick, war-ravaged Merseyside to cross the Irish Sea to live with our grandfather in the midlands of Ireland. Anna Cecilia, who had remained behind in England, died in August of 1949. 

My memories of that time spent in Ireland remain vivid and quite literally green. Grandfather John Brooks, a white-haired, gruff, happy man, met us at the train station in Ballinasloe with a pony-and-trap. It was not an affectation. I was scarcely to see much less ride in a car during the year I walked with my brother to the local school or went to Mass in the trap or helped with the haying or with the cutting of turf on the vast bog that rose like a mirage beyond the pastures in front of the house. That bog, a tawny, black-peated, wind-swept place covered with gorse and heather, has remained, as Seamus Heaney so beautifully puts it, an “outback of my mind.” And even today the smell of a turf fire has a poignancy that reduces me to an eight-year-old again. 

In September of 1949, we left Ireland for New England and a new home with foster parents in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Charles Walter Alcorn and Mary Brooks Alcorn, sister of my mother, owned a hardscrabble dairy farm on a hundred acres in the south of the town, on land that has since become part of the large suburb that is eastern Massachusetts. Tony and I adjusted quickly; we helped out on the farm with chores and took the yellow school bus to the grammar school in Chelmsford Center where, I noticed, everyone wore shoes. 

While the characters of my first novel, The Pull of the Earth, are entirely fictional, I confess to having lifted the setting -- the house, the pastures, the sunshine and the shadows, the very nails in the planks of the barn -- from my memories of that farm. I lived there from 1949 to 1960, and while not all of those memories are pleasant, they are detailed and rich, and I carry them with me like a treasure. 

I attended Keith Academy in Lowell, a Catholic high school run by the Xaverian order. Despite the efforts of the good brothers, I was an erratic student. I did better as a football player, gaining an average of 5.5 yards per carry in my junior year and becoming captain of the team. This football prowess along with high board scores helped me receive a scholarship to Harvard, where I was even more erratic as a student. I concentrated in Government, a waste of time in retrospect, and woke up mornings wondering what I was going to do with my life.

Life provided its own answers and before I graduated in 1965, I had married Sally Remick, whom I had known in grammar school. We moved to Montgomery, Alabama where, in the midst of the civil rights upheaval, I worked as a reporter on the Alabama Journal, one of the city’s dailies. Two years later, along with a baby daughter, we moved back to New England. I wrote editorials for the Boston Herald before moving over to do the same at WEEI/CBS. Now the father of two girls, Margaret and Sarah, I still woke up mornings wondering what I was going to do with my life. 

During a trip to Europe in the summer of 1969, I revisited England and Ireland quite by happenstance. There, long-forgotten scenes, faces, voices, and smells revived the past, and I began a kind of archaeology of the self, reconstructing a lost life from fragments of resurrected memories. About this time, both Mary and Walter Alcorn died under tragic circumstances. The farm in Chelmsford had been sold and houses were being built in the hayfields and pastures. While discovering one past, I mourned the loss of another. It was then that I began to write, I realize now, to stanch this loss, to recapture somehow, even to relive, if only in words, all that was no more. 

In late 1971, with savings and a small inheritance, we returned to Ireland, eventually buying and moving into an old Georgian farmhouse about twenty miles south of Dublin in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. During the next four years I got to know contemporary Irish writers, especially Seamus Heaney who lived a short way down the coast with his wife Marie, their two boys Michael and Christopher and the recently arrived Catherine.  I read Joyce, Yeats, Flann O'Brien, Waugh, H. E. Bates, Patrick Kavanaugh, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, among others. I also started writing novels. My first effort I quietly buried behind the barn. And if my second one wasn't much better, I knew I had begun to master my craft.

We returned to the States in 1976 to look for jobs and find another place to live. We settled in Cambridge. I started a third novel and did odd jobs while looking for work. In 1979, I became managing editor of the Harvard Gazette, the university's house organ. Around this time I began The Pull of the Earth, a novel in which I feel I both accomplished and transcended the goals I set for myself when I began to write. Vestments followed in 1988, by which time I had left the Gazette, spent a year teaching freshman composition at Harvard College, and then worked for the travel program at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, organizing and leading trips over most of the natural and unnatural world. I retired to write full time some years ago, though I still get called to take groups on trips.    

At present, we are living in the northern Berkshires where Sugar Mountain is set. I am polishing a fourth in the Norman de Ratour murder mystery series and preparing The Pull of the Earth for publication as an e-book.  


Sugar Mountain, Caravel Books, 2013
Extinction, Colrain Press, 2011
The Counterfeit Murder in the Museum of Man, Steerforth Press and Zoland Books, 2010
The Love Potion Murders in the Museum of Man, Steerforth Press and Zoland Books, 2009 (serialized on, 2001) 
Natural Selection, Colrain Press, 2008
The Long Run of Myles Mayberry, Zoland Books, 1999
Murder in the Museum of Man, Zoland Books, 1997, paperback 1998; Vestments, Houghton Mifflin, 1988
The Pull of the Earth, Houghton Mifflin, 1985, Penguin Paperback, 1986, Bodley Head, 1986 (various foreign translations) 

An excerpt from SUGAR MOUNTAIN:


Alfred Alcorn

Copyright 2013  Alfred Alcorn
All rights reserved

The characters and events in this book are fictitious.  Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


At first the news comes obliquely, unvoiced, a flicker of words across the bottom of the screen: World Health Organization raises concern about reports of deaths from avian flu outbreak in Xinjiang Province.  Beijing officials deny access to WHO inspectors, calling the outbreak “a local matter.”
Moments later, the item is upgraded to a breaking news bulletin.  The newscaster, an attractive young woman with practiced authority in her voice, tells her morning audience:   “This just in.  The World Health Organization, the WHO,  has designated an avian flu outbreak in a remote province of western China to be at Phase 5 of the pandemic alert level.  A Phase 5 designation involves human to human transmission, effecting larger clusters, or communities, of people.  At this point, there is a much higher risk of a pandemic although not a certainty.  We’ll keep you updated as more information becomes available.”
In his farmhouse in the hill country of western Massachusetts, Cyrus Arkwright watches the news about the outbreak and feels his own alarm level rachet up.  It is a foreboding mingled with a sense of vindication he resists.  Will this be it?  There have been several flare-ups of lethal flu in China in the recent past.  But in those instances, the Chinese government cooperated with international health agencies as to the specifics of the pathogen involved.  Now it is clamping down.  Why?  What are they hiding?
In his early seventies, of medium height and slightly stooped, Cyrus has a full head of white hair and an Amish beard of darker hue, a suitable frame for his slow-smiling patrician face.  He notes down the name of the province.  He muses.  Phase 5.
He tuned in CNN this warm spring morning to follow a forest fire flaring along the Grand Canyon.  That footage showed a blackened expanse east of Canyon Village where junipers, pinyon and ponderosa pines once mantled the South Rim.  Also news about floods along the Mississippi for the second year in a row.  Signs, he thinks, that global warming is looming faster than predicted.
Or is Grace, his wife of forty years right?  Is he becoming a connoisseur of disaster?  Or what their daughter-in-law Allegra smilingly called a “Malthusiast,” a literary allusion no doubt.  Not that Grace hesitated to join him in transforming Sugar Mountain, the old family farm, from a weekend retreat into a self-sustaining refuge for their extended family.  Should the need arise.
It took some doing.  It began five years before when he retired, in stages, from his architectural practice in Cambridge.  They sold their roomy house on Francis Avenue with more than a few regrets and moved back.  It was as much a move in time as geographically, at least where Cyrus was concerned.  For he grew up on this farm in the northern Berkshires named for its grove of sugar maples where in early spring the sap rises with its sweet bounty.  He knows like a farmer the three hundred or so acres, some of it good for pasture and hay, a lot of it ledgy, rising forest that extends nearly to the Vermont border.
His interest in disasters is more than academic.  Cyrus is a prepper, a homesteader, a survivalist.  Along with millions of others in America and overseas, he calculates the probability of catastrophe as too high to be ignored.  A general awareness of possibilities came into sharp focus in 2009 when a bird flu scare made the Centers for Disease Control urge people to take precautions.  That blew over, but left Cyrus wondering when avian influenza or some other highly mutagenic virus would turn into a mass killer.
He didn’t have to wait for nature to take its course to make the nightmare scenario more than theoretical.  In November of 2011, news broke that a virologist working in the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands had tinkered with the genome of the H5N1 virus and come up with a lethal, contagious variant.  The research was part of an international effort to understand the virus so that antivirals could be developed to fight it.  The new strain caused immediate concern about its possible use as a bioterrorism agent.
Little more than a year later, researchers at China’s Harbin Veterinary Research Institute combined a deadly avian flu virus with an infectious strain of human flu.  Western critics pointed out that the record of containment at such labs was not reassuring.
That news soon dropped from the national consciousness.  But not from that of Cyrus Arkwright.  He spent time studying what was happening.  He concluded that, given the proclivity of people to kill people and the ingenuity involved therein, someone, somewhere would develop and deploy the pathogen as a weapon.  Or it might mutate on its own into a monster of death.  The human species could survive in relatively large numbers a planet parched by droughts and drowned in floods.  A pandemic caused by a weaponized variant of H5N1 would be another matter altogether.
The roomy alcove in his studio in which he sits contains an array of electronic equipment.  There’s a citizens band radio; a wide wall-mounted screen to which Cyrus’ laptop can be connected; an aging desktop tower; a mike for the intercom wired into the rooms of the house and those in the outbuildings; and two laptops to be dedicated to surveillance cameras.  Jack, their oldest son, an ex-Army Ranger, had dubbed the alcove “comcen,” giving it a military ring that Cyrus, a pacifist, found objectionable.  They discussed it, settled on the more neutral if not exactly accurate “recon room.”  War and peace, fight or flight, violence, nonviolence figured in the planning from the start.  Cyrus conceded, very reluctantly and after much soul searching, that Jack, now living at Sugar Mountain with wife Nicole and their two children, could acquire the means with which to defend themselves.  Meaning weapons.  But only to be used as a last resort.
Grace comes in and sits next to him.  He unbends from his laptop and turns to her, his slow smile one of fondness.  “Come and have a cup of tea in the real world,” she says, touching his arm and returning his smile, their smile.
In her late sixties and womanly in slacks and cotton blouse, Grace has kept her dark-eyed blond looks.  Like Cyrus, her face remains remarkably smooth and animated without the benefit of lifts or transplants.   He follows her into the large farmhouse kitchen where she has tea steeping in a pot under a cozy.  They add milk and sugar and take their mugs onto the colonnaded side porch where Grace has the mail ready to open.  It is something of a morning ritual during which they catch up with each other and any news about the rest of the family.
Settled into the comfortable wicker armchairs, she hands him a letter with an impressive looking letterhead.  “The McFeralls have hired another lawyer.  He wants to meet with us and our legal counsel to review the case.”
Cyrus grimaces, distracted.  He can’t get the term “larger clusters” out of his head.  He says, “There is no case.  God, will they never give up?”
They are talking about a claim by the McFerall brothers, Duncan and Bruce, to the effect that Sugar Mountain belongs to their branch of the family.  The brothers base their claim on a maze of documents and non-documents stretching back more than a century.
Grace shrugs.  “It gives them bragging rights.  We all need those.”
“It runs deeper than that,” Cyrus says, thinking how his distant kin have pursued the matter with a dogged and at time ugly animosity.  He is also thinking, the news out of Xinjiang fretting his mind, that the brothers could be a problem if the worst happened.  
“Should I send it on to Frank?”
“I suppose.”
Frank is their second son and a New York attorney.  He dismissed the case several years before as “utterly without merit” while providing minimal lawyerly responses on a pro familia basis.
“Speaking of Frank,” she says, showing him an opened envelope, “he’s sent us a check for five thousand dollars and a note saying he can’t make the rehearsal but is with us in spirit.”
Cyrus is looking south where new leafage colors the Berkshire hills with a tinge of chartreuse.  A large raptor circles in a thermal.  An eagle?  More like a vulture.  He is not unaffected by what might be omens.
The rehearsal Grace refers to is a periodic gathering of the extended family in which they inhabit the farm for a long weekend to test the feasibility of a longer stay.  Cyrus, sipping tea and watching the bird, doesn’t repeat what he has said before:  Frank might like the idea of a refuge for himself, his wife Allegra, and three-year-old Lily, but being a busy and successful lawyer, he doesn’t want to spend the time the others put into it.  He sends money instead.
Unlike Jack, their eldest, who moved to Sugar Mountain with Nicole and nine-year-old Mary and seven-year-old Cy at the end of a long stint in the Army.  More than two years now.  In that time, Jack and Cyrus, with the help of a contractor, have created living quarters for as many as twenty people.  Thad, their youngest son, comes out regularly from Boston with his partner Duvall Jackson.  At the farm, Thad works on wiring, the electronics, the power systems.  Duvall carpenters with the skill of a cabinet maker.  “You make us look good,” Cyrus told Duvall more than once.
“Don’t let it bother you,” Grace says, referring to Frank’s letter.  “He really is busy...”
“It’s not Frank,” Cyrus says.  “He’ll be here when it counts.”
“Then what is it?”  
“There’s been a flu outbreak in a remote part of China.”
“Doesn’t that happen all the time?”
“Right.  But this time the Chinese authorities don’t want any outsiders poking around.  The WHO has designated it as Phase 5.”
“That’s serious, isn’t it?”
“Could be very serious.  I was wondering if Jack...”
“Jack’s gone with Nicole and the kids to Greenfield.  It’s Cy’s birthday tomorrow and he wants a Count of Monte Christo outfit.  With a real sword.”  Little Cy might share a name with his grandfather, but not his antipathy for the appurtenances of war.  “What do you need him for?”
“I was wondering if his friend in intelligence might know something.”
She reaches out and takes his hand.  “Dear man, you are obsessing again.”
“I know, but this time...  I don’t know, it’s at Phase 5 and there’s something about it...”  He trails off.  They don’t have to voice what is going through their minds.  Are we crazy?  Perhaps, but... But there has been the pleasure of building, rebuilding, remodeling, reviving.  Not to mention Nicole’s plans for a B&B.  Then the rightness, nay the righteousness, of working toward self-sustainability -- what with the garden, the orchard, the goats, the chickens and the huge old sow.  Even if they still buy a lot of their groceries and cheat by having the Neills, who live on the other side of the old Fallgren place, help with the chores from time to time.  So that, in the end, it could be taken as a kind of hobby, a serious hobby.
Cyrus lives the conundrum of the prepper:  He strives to prepare for what he dreads might happen.  Dreads -- at least by his better self, that upright, principled, Quaker meeting persona he presents to the world and, most of the time, to himself.  But there are darker levels in the character of Cyrus Arkwright.  Doesn’t the teeming, ravening human world need a corrective?  Would it really be a great tragedy if about half of the seven billion or so human beings ceased to exist?  Well, yes, it would.
“Are Thad and Duvall going to make it?” he asks.
“They say they’re on board.  Which is good.  Nicole needs Duvall’s help with the garden.” 
  “He does have a green thumb.”  It is a standing family joke of sorts, Duvall being black, at least on paper.

Cyrus puts in a call to Jack.  Not available.  He wants to be patient but frets inwardly as he descends the steps from the porch, goes around the rebuilt silo that now serves, with a ground-floor addition, as a bath house.  Not far beyond it on the east side of the barn garden stands the horse barn.  Inside the main door, he gathers up a hand sander, a tin of linseed oil and a couple of rags for finishing touches to the interior.
He stops to admire the comfortable living room and a ship’s galley kitchen to one side behind cafe doors.  A hallway leads off to a bedroom and common bathroom.  Next to a built-in wood stove, a mail-order circular staircase rises to the second floor on polished, maple treads.  Nicely done, he thinks, though the place, which has room for five, possibly six people, depending on sleeping arrangements, resonates with its emptiness, its contingency.
He gets to work, sanding, wiping, and oiling the surrounds of the only window in the first floor addition, structurally little more than a lean-to but so well insulated it will scarcely need heating.
Cyrus is wiping excess oil off the gleaming pine when he hears the main door open.  Jack comes through the living room and into the small bedroom.  He stops and sniffs the pleasant fumes of the oil.  “Looks good,” he says, admiring the window, which opens to the north.  “Always loved this view.  Too bad to put up curtains.”
Slightly taller than his father and wiry, Jack has an intense gaze and a sharp nose that makes his face appear to point wherever he looks.
“Curtains can be opened,” Cyrus says amiably.  Then, “You got a minute?”
Jack’s face cracks with a smile.  “Got the rest of my life.  For what that’s worth.”  Even after nearly three years, Jack misses the ordered, knife-edged life of an elite soldier.  As an Army Ranger, he had been at the top of a singular profession.  But he doesn’t miss it enough to re-enlist.  That would mean riding a desk and saying “yes, sir” to regular army brass.
They go into the living room, already faintly musty from lack of use.  From the small fridge in the galley Jack takes out a can of Coke and snaps it open.
Cyrus bends towards his son as they sit on the sofa, which faces the glass-fronted wood stove.  “You know your friend at the NSA...”
“Matt Selig?”
“Yes, Matt Selig.  I was wondering if you might call him and ask him about this flu outbreak in Xinjiang Province...”
Jack’s face seems to sharpen with surprise.  “How do you know about that?”
“It was on CNN.  A news bulletin.”
“Really?  Just now?”
“An hour ago or so ago.”
Jack leans closer to his father.  “The fact is Matt called me...”
“In Greenfield?”
“We were pushing a cart around Fosters.  He knows we’re interested in this stuff.”
“And...?”  Cyrus finds his alarm level rising again.  Officialdom does make things seem more real.
“Some of it’s classified and I guess some of it’s already out in the blogosphere... Even on CNN.  The Phase 5 designation apparently was used by the WHO to put pressure on the Chinese to get them to share data on the outbreak.  Then it turned real.  The outbreak, according to Matt, is centered in a high-security prison east of Hotan.  That’s in the southwest corner of the province.  It’s been a hotbed of Uigher resistance...”
“Uigher?” Cyrus asks, seeing the word as “Weeger.”
“They’re Muslim, more Turkic than east Asian.  Anyway, there’s an isolation annex on the prison grounds used to hold Uigher militants, really hard cases...”
“I don’t get the connection.”
“Yeah, and here it gets tricky.  Remember the reports of the hybrid virus developed in Harbin in 2013?”
“I remember it very well.”
“According to Matt, one of the larger Chinese pharmaceutical companies got their hands on the virus and developed an antiviral for it.  Or tried to.”  
“Good God...”
“Matt told me, and this really is secret, that, at least from what they were able to pick up from intercepts, researchers from the company tested the antiviral on some of the Uighers in the isolation unit...”
“Exposing them first?”
“That’s assumed.”
“And the antiviral didn’t work?”
“Apparently not.”
“Was this done with official sanction?”
“More than likely local officials were bribed.  Matt tells me that happens all the time there.”
A silence grows between them as the possibilities register.  At length, Jack says, “I think we should alert the others.”
Cyrus glances around the room.  It and the rest of Sugar Mountain have taken on a relevance that is both comforting and disquieting. He nods slowly.  “I think you’re right.” 


The news out of China continues both dire and vague.   Cyrus composes a short report for the extended family and a network of like-minded homesteaders in Franklin County.  Using terse sentences in what he calls a “standby to standby,” he describes what he and Jack have learned about the outbreak in China.  The notes of thanks he gets in response confirms to himself a possibility almost too monstrous to consider.
His immediate family is very much on board.  At BJ’s in Greenfield, Grace and Nicole stack a flatbed with bags of rice, flour, cooking oil, canned tuna, and other staples.  Not that they don’t already have reserves in depth on hand.  Jack drives into Buckland to load up on kerosene from Rice’s that he stores in an underground bunker.  They go over check lists of hardware supplies, spare parts for their own infrastructure, all the nuts and bolts they will need when the world shuts down.
Nicole orders a truck-load of aged cow manure from nearby McCoomb dairy farm.  The pile is dumped inside the fenced garden and covered with a tarpaulin to keep the rain from bleaching out its nutrients.  By herself, Nicole wheelbarrows the stuff over the opened ground and works it into the soil.
The question arose as to whether they should plow up another acre and experiment with a high-yield wheat crop.  Nicole is very much for it.  She already has a counter-top mill for making flour and has just received a grain husker of the same size.  She plans to make bread from scratch, from home-grown wheat.  Cyrus is dubious.  How will they harvest the stuff?  Cut it like hay?  Bundle it in sheaves?  Thresh it with flays on what floor?  But he said okay.  He and Nicole agree on many things, if for different reasons.
Nicole, who is attractive in the way of animated, dark-haired plump women, takes great pride that their garden produced a cornucopia of food the summer before -- eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, squash, peas, cucumbers, lima beans, onions, and corn.  Though raised in the suburbs of Connecticut, she finds it deeply satisfying to produce food from the garden and orchard, from the goats and the chickens, and, eventually, from the old sow with its farrow of squealing young.  She remains in thrall to with atavistic wonder at the way soil can be transformed into food.
  “It’s my gym,” she likes to say, proud of her dirty hands.
The garden, just above and beyond the outbuildings on gently rising ground, has been fenced to keep out woodchucks and rabbits.  Jack promises that any deer that jump the fence will end up in the freezer.
In fact, Nicole’s ambitions go well beyond brute survival, should that prove unnecessary.  She nurtures a dream to own and run a self-sustaining country inn.  Upon arrival with Jack at Sugar Mountain, she began her quiet campaign to turn the place into a bed and breakfast, “to start with.”  Beyond bed and breakfast she has in mind lunch and dinner, with everything except, perhaps, olive oil, coffee, and chocolate, produced on the farm. 
Her plans to turn Sugar Mountain into a hostelry appealed to Cyrus.  A B&B gave the project a dual purpose and a use for the place should the worst never happen.  Making it an inn meant a couple of extra bathrooms given the American penchant for that kind of privacy.  It meant combining a bit more comfort with the necessities of survival.  The big refectory table in the kitchen, where all guest meals would be served, at least in the bed and breakfast phase, would hearken back to the days of the boarding house.
Nicole’s ambitions changed Cyrus’ redesign of the horse barn.  A gambrel-roofed structure of generous proportions that originally served as both a carriage house and stable, the building had remained sound through decades of neglect.  The year before, he and Jack took down the inner partitions, careful to preserve the old beams and boards, some of them rubbed shiny by generations of horses.  Almost finished now, it had four bedrooms, two of them quite small, and one and half baths.  Nicole was in on all of the meetings.  She contributed suggestions about closets, door and window placement, and the use of floor registers to heat the upstairs rooms.
Ari Fineman, Grace’s nephew and a New York restaurateur, became Nicole’s co-conspirator.  She tapped into Ari’s obsession about home-grown or locally produced food.  They talked endlessly about details.  When he mentioned Simon Pierce for tableware and stemware, she shook her head.  “Too clunky.  It’s like we would be catering to upscale peasants.”  He had replied, smiling, “Isn’t that what most people are?”  She reconsidered and then found a raft of it on craigslist.  They traded recipes.  “Keep it simple,” he told her, “and don’t try to cover all the bases.  If you find something that works, keep it on the menu.  You’d be amazed how many sophisticated customers order the same thing again and again.”
Nicole delighted in the attention she and Jack received when they drove to New York to visit Frank and Allegra.  At the Gilded Goose, Ari’s restaurant, they were treated like royalty by Ari and his wife Lise Xu, a stockbroker.  Both Ari and Frank had a respect for Jack bordering on awe.  Not only because he has been there -- repeatedly -- but because, as Ari once admitted to Nicole, Jack was carrying the moral burden of serving whether one agreed with the wars or no.
A good listener and an acute observer, Nicole took notes on the decor of the Goose.  Polished wood, pastel-tinted plaster, and lots of mirrors produced the effect of simple luxury.  The table tops of inlaid marble “make it feel like you’re eating off an altar,” Frank remarked on one occasion.  She also noted how Ari served a sour dough baguette with olive oil.  She went over his formidable cellar.  He told her to keep that simple as well.  “There are lots of good mid-range reds now that come from all over the world.”
For his part, Ari, as a member in good standing of the Sugar Mountain community, procured and brought to the farm root stock to grow grapes for wine.  With help from Cyrus and Nicole, he and Lise planted them the year before on the west side of the drive leading from the town road.  The vines did well -- so far -- on the well-drained easy slope facing south.  Chateau Sugar Mountain, Nicole joked.  Ari also shipped to the farm several cases of an Argentine Malbec and a California blend he particularly liked.
Nicole treasures these visits to New York, but she wants the world to come to her.  That had been impossible as the wife of an active-duty special operations soldier.  She lived on base whenever possible to save money, money she invested with Lise’s advice to good effect.  At the same time she perused real estate sites for old farms for sale in upstate New York, western Massachusetts, and Vermont.
It was all part of a larger life plan.  A few years before, not long after Cy was born, Nicole began to work on Jack to give up his career in the military.  He had been sympathetic, but he didn’t budge.  “I don’t know anything else.  I would be a fish out of water.  It’s who I am.  It’s what I do.”  And, with just the shadow of a threat, “It’s what you married.”
Nicole played fair but she played hard.  “Every time you leave for another tour,” she told him the last time he deployed to some remote, dangerous part of Afghanistan, “I think it’s going to be the last time I touch you and see you.”  Then, “Your life is not just your own, Jack, not anymore.  Not if you love us the way you say you do.”
What convinced Jack to retire were his own words -- amplified and played back to him by Nicole in one of their marathon sessions.  “Listen to yourself, Jack,” she implored, sitting in the wretched kitchen of base housing she now forgot where.  “Again and again, you come home and tell me that you don’t know what good we’re doing there.  You tell me again and again that they’re too backward, too tribal, too uneducated to want anything but what they’ve got.  You tell me that the corruption goes from top to bottom.  You tell me about civilian contractors getting ten times your pay for installing phone lines behind the security that you provide.  And the big American contractors who are just raking it in.”
He listened to himself through her.  And once misgivings began, the carapace of words like “duty,” “sacrifice,” “corps,” “mission” began to flake off even as he remained the patriot he became the day after Nine Eleven, the day he signed up.
Then a growing self-doubt.  Soldiers of his caliber and purpose were a species of athlete.  They played a deadly serious game that required skill, intelligence, quick thinking and quicker responses, not to mention courage.  In the field, every day was Super Bowl Sunday, but with consequences far more profound for yourself, your comrades, and ultimately, you wanted to believe, for your country.  But he had been losing his edge.  He could no longer rely on instincts finely honed by training and experience.  Or on the enabling pulse of adrenaline each time he and his squad went into action.  He caught himself in the kinds of lapses that put him and those under him at risk.  The fiasco just north of Laskar Gah still haunted him.
Then the question he had asked himself daily, hourly:  Was he, when all was said and done, little more than a highly trained killer?  He was certainly proficient at it, one of the best.  What haunted him was a piece of seemingly irrefutable advice he got early on.  In order to kill the enemy you have to stay alive.  Which grew in time to conflate with the notion that he lived to kill.
He was good at keeping himself and his comrades alive.  Until Laskar Gah.  He had a knack for nosing out traps, ambushes, suspicious characters, and IEDs.  Once he shot a sheep tethered to the side of the road setting off an explosive artfully disguised on the animal’s back under a sheepskin.
He had been good at it, no question, one of the best.  Others regarded him and he regarded himself as a consummate professional.  Perhaps because he resisted the dark elation of killing that some of his fellow Rangers didn’t try to dissemble.  He kept in mind, or tried to, the admonition of his pacifist father: Whatever else you do, don’t lose your humanity.  Until Laskar Gah.  After that, he had grown worse than callous.  He had killed wantonly then, with malice aforethought and with the acrid pleasure of hate.
As he contemplated retiring, he kept asking himself the question: what am I to become?  If I am not a soldier, what am I?  Husband, father, brother, son... farmer?  B&B handyman?  Nobody?  He would have to create a whole new Jack Arkwright.
Nor did they make it easy for him to give up his captain’s bars and everything that went with them.  They wanted him.  For one more tour.  For promotion.  For training others.  They made him feel needed.  And he might have yielded because he did have a home in the military, in the order, the tradition, the consistency it gave daily life.
Then a call from Cyrus and Grace -- instigated by Nicole -- asking him to bring his family and come live with them at Sugar Mountain proved decisive.  The spell broke and his Army career ended.
Re-inventing himself was a day-to-day struggle.  As he told himself and others, he had to decompress, to change the way he thought, to watch the way he thought.  Driving, his mind drifting, he would find himself watching for likely places to plant IEDs.  Someone pushing a baby carriage or a shopping cart snapped him into alert about suicide bombers, making him tense, making him glance around, until he realized it was just another homeless man with his worldly goods or a mother with her child.
And if that part of the experience passed soon enough, the flashbacks persisted.  He still saw faces, heard voices, tasted the consistency of MREs, meals ready to eat, and felt the warmth of unrefrigerated canned and bottled water in his mouth.  Not to mention the dust, the industrial noise and chemical smell of combat.  His own stink.  That of his comrades.  And death, sometimes rare, sometimes common as dirt.  
He escaped into work on his father’s prepper paradise.  It, too, was a mission, one he convinced himself was about saving lives.


By the end of the week, the story about the flu outbreak in China has gotten lost in the welter of other news -- continuing violence in the Middle East, deadlock in Congress, the tentative economy, flooding and fires.  Besides, there have been so many stories over the years about people getting sick and dying after being around infected poultry that one more incident, however disquieting on close inspection, doesn’t signify.  A follow-up release from the China News Agency, which, under the circumstances, is little more than the mouthpiece of the Beijing regime, reports that a quarantine has been declared around Hotan and its environs.  The article quotes a Chinese health official to the effect that the quarantine is strictly a precautionary measure.  Again, inspectors from the World Health Organization are denied access to the area.
Cyrus and Jack find this news ominous.  Their concern deepens when Matt Selig reports a clamp-down on intelligence regarding the outbreak.  He tells Jack, “It’s all been classified secret, top secret.  I think something’s up.”
They turn to Grace for information about avian flu itself.  Trained as a nurse practitioner, she has worked in wretched places overseas as a medical missionary and knows as much if not more than a lot of GPs.  She explains that the incubation period is a critical factor in the dynamics of an epidemic.  They are having dinner on the porch, the kids ensconced in front of the television arguing about what to watch.
“And as important as the incubation period is the point at which the disease becomes contagious,” she says as she hands around a chicken and mushroom casserole.
“You mean a person with the disease could become contagious before symptoms appear?”
“That’s what we don’t know.  It’s more than likely that a person would be contagious well before he or she has signs of the disease.”
“How does it pass from one person to another?” Nicole asks.  She thinks she knows the answer but wants it affirmed.
“Sneezing, coughing, just talking.  Doing what we’re doing.”
Cyrus says, “Then the situation could be a lot worse than what we’ve been led to believe?” He helps himself to the kale Nicole has chopped and sautéed in olive oil to go with the chicken.  In the back of his mind he wonders where they would get olive oil should a mega disaster strike.
“How so?” Jack asks.
Cy comes in and stands beside his mother.  “Mary wants to watch The Black Stallion again and we’ve seen it about a zillion times.”
Nicole plays referee.  “Tell Mary it’s your turn to pick.  But nothing too violent.  And if you keep arguing, I’ll just turn the thing off.”
The others have waited, the elders charmed simply by the presence of their grandchildren.
“You were saying?” Nicole says.
Cyrus takes a moment to chew.  He puts down his fork and touches his beard.  “If the first cases were covered up, which can happen in authoritarian regimes, then the outbreak, if that’s what it is, could have started a month ago.”
“Which means,” Jack says quietly, “there’s a good chance that an infected individual or several individuals could have traveled from Hotan to Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong.”
“And from Hong Kong to London...”
“Or New York...”
“Or,” says Grace, who does not share her husband’s apparent enthusiasm for catastrophe, “We are just speculating about a localized incident.”
Cyrus slow smiles his agreement.  But he is still apprehensive.  Why would American intelligence classify as secret or top secret information about the incident?  It was one thing for the Chinese to keep their heads in the sand, but it was quite another for Washington to help them do so.  And why had the State Department put out a warning about traveling to western China?
Afterwards, sitting at his laptop in the communications alcove, Cyrus sends out a second report.  Reiterating what he has said before, he notes, “What continues to disturb me about the situation is the refusal of the Chinese government to let any representatives from the World Health Organization inspect and report on the outbreak.  Also worrying is that American intelligence services have classified information about the outbreak as secret.  Finally, just minutes ago, the State Department updated a travel warning to include all of China.”
The bulletin goes out to a list comprising the members of the Sugar Mountain community.  In addition to Cyrus and Grace, their three sons and their families, the group includes Lance Arkwright.  The son of Cyrus’ cousin Jeremy, Lance is just finishing his junior year at Williams College. There is Meredith, Grace’s divorced and ailing sister who lives in Bernardston, a town several miles to the east.  Finally, if events require it, Grace will drive to Greenfield to fetch her father, ninety-two year old Henry Carlton, resident there in a retirement home.
It also goes to the loose association of like-minded families in the western half of Franklin County.  They are linked by all the usual media -- telephone and e-mail -- but also citizen-band radios, should it come to that.


The disconnect among those who are fervent about climate change and yet look down their noses at doing anything to prepare for it on an individual basis puzzles Cyrus Arkwright.  If warming is going to devastate the planet sooner rather than later, surely it made sense to prepare yourself and your loved ones for that eventuality.  Nor did such preparation obviate the need to espouse and practice environmentalism.
He ran into this attitude when he began to establish a network linked by citizens-band radio.  He tried to sound a low-key note as he doffed his Red Sox cap with the bright red B on the front and settled into the commodious kitchens of retirees who, like himself, were spending their final decades in the beauty of western Massachusetts.  A lot of them have substantial acreage and enough structures and resources to establish a refuge for an extended family.  They listen politely, being well-mannered if not urbane, their professional lives having been lived in or near the big cities of the nation.
It took patience and tolerance.  Typical of one kind of response were the indulgent smiles that Emma and Sam Bartlett gave him when he explained what he was doing.  They served him gourmet coffee and delicate biscotti in the kitchen of their renovated farmhouse in Rowe, a place very much like Sugar Mountain in its setting.  Well off, politically liberal, the Bartletts indulged Cyrus’ suggestions with social if not moral condescension.  “You mean all those redneck vigilante types?” said Emma.  But then, she is one of those people who throws around the word “racism” while living in the palest of possible worlds.
Cyrus had smiled to himself thinking of his son Jack and the locked boxes of assault rifles and ammunition in the cellar at Sugar Mountain.  Did they qualify as redneck vigilante types despite their debates, some of them acrimonious, about defending themselves with violence?  Or that he fervently hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
As he made his cordial good-byes, he wondered, being a fair-minded sort, if his perception and tolerance of the Bartletts’ sense of moral superiority wasn’t in itself a kind of snobbery, only more subtle.
But the Rossi family, the Roths, Learys, Becks, Phelps, Curstons, Melnikovs, Spinneys, Tallmans, and McBrides all signed up.  Within six months, Cyrus had all but the Curstons connected on a CB network.  Some of them began to stockpile food, medicine, fuel and even arms.  All of them thought it would come in useful should another hurricane of Sandy’s dimensions sweep through again.
Marshall and Marilyn Roth with two hundred and fifty acres in Shelburne have lots of room for their extended families.  But they knew little about weapons or how to farm.  Jack offered to help train them in the use of the former, but they politely demurred.  When the time comes, they said.  But they did begin to store provisions.
Pat and Pam Cummings have a few open acres on their wooded retreat.  Pat, being ex-Army, is familiar with weapons and survival.  Pam, a GP still practicing part-time in Greenfield, is alert to the dangers of a pandemic.  Their natural constituency, as Pat put it, includes their son and daughter, both married with children and living in the Boston area.  Along with the Becks of Becks Cheese, a family farm business in Buckland, the Cummings and the Roths form the nucleus of the group.  In their meetings, they invariably got around to the main disadvantage -- the distance between their homesteads in the event that mutual aid becomes necessary during a crisis.
From the start, they called themselves the Mutual Aid Group, or MAG and they met once a month at the home of a member for dinner and discussion.  Jack and Pat Cummings spoke to them about self-defense.  Grace and Pam took them through the protocols of quarantine should an in-gathering of their families require it.  Cyrus urged them to create a second retreat if they were unwilling to use violence to defend themselves.
What worries him and what he communicates to the others is the possibility of rogue National Guard units with access to heavy weapons loose in the rural areas.  Though he doesn’t mention them, he has in mind the McFerall brothers whom he fears would not scruple to use violence, perhaps extreme violence, should the rule of law collapse.
The group might have lapsed into nonexistence had it not been for the announcement of a deadly engineered variant in 2011.  That development revived the MAG and brought in several new members.  Cyrus half expected to hear from the Bartletts, but he didn’t.


The first inkling that the outbreak in Xinjiang Province is something more than a local incident comes when the Chinese Ministry of Health reports that the Haidian District, an area of upper-class Beijing, has been put on “a quarantine alert.”  Suspicion in the world medical community quickly ramps up and demands are made that international inspections be allowed.  The issue hangs fire as diplomats and foreign businessmen send their families home.  The State Department expands its travel warning to include all of the PRC.  The United Nations erupts in a fog of words and blocked resolutions.  China has lots of bought-and-paid for friends, especially in Africa.
Cruelly ironic then that in the wake of reports of outbreaks in other Chinese cities, Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, a country with strong economic ties to China, petitions the World Health Organization for help in containing an outbreak of “a flu-like epidemic.”  For the first time, the WHO is able to investigate what is happening without hindrance.
 It takes time and courage for the team of experts to fly into what is already a chaotic situation.  The upscale Central District of Abuja is in virtual lock-down except for a nervous cordon of soldiers defending it from the rioting, looting, and burning in the surrounding areas.  The resident physicians at the modern Primus Hospital, many of them of Indian origin, have already confirmed from blood tests and symptoms -- cough, diarrhea, fever, and difficulty breathing -- that it is avian flu that has the reception area littered with the sick and dying.
Researchers from the World Health Organization find that at least five substrains of HPAI -- highly pathogenic avian influenza -- are loose in Abuja and the surrounding areas.  They can’t determine if they are the same strains now wreaking devastation in China as they still do not have access to that data.  Nations across the globe begin collecting the names of recent arrivals from China and information as to where they have gone.
On opinion shows in the United States, experts with academic credentials warn that this flu is highly mutagenic even by the standards of H5N1.  “It’s loose and mutating,” one of them says.  “It’s very much a deadly, shape-shifting pathogen.”
An epidemiologist of international stature tells his interlocutor that the world faces a monumental crisis.  “The task of containing this outbreak will be complicated by what appears to be overlapping incubation and infectious periods of the various strains.  In the late stages of incubation, but before symptoms appear, individuals could be infectious, unwittingly spreading the disease to those around them, including loved ones.  Of course the contagion depends on the individual and the particular strain of the virus.”
Crouched over his laptop in the recon room, Cyrus follows these events obsessively.  He reads the on-line editions of the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  He listens to NPR and the BBC.  He watches the more intelligent talk shows and every morning checks a medical news site designed for physicians.  He confers with Jack whenever he has been in touch with Matt Selig, his NSA contact.  The latter reports that the threat assessments on the part of analysts in the panoply of intelligence services wax more dire by the hour even as the news about the outbreaks grows repetitive.  “Washington’s full of bunker talk,” he tells Jack.  “There are a lot of worried faces.”
Still, the panic part of the looming pandemic holds fire even when a virulent form of avian flu appears among residents in Glodok, the Chinatown of Jakarta.  Satellite coverage shows bodies in the street, but whether from the disease or from troops sent in to keep order no one seems to know.  There are unconfirmed reports by Reuters of an outbreak in Luanda, the capital of Angola.
One after another, governments across the globe clamp down on anyone and anything coming from overseas but especially from China.  Airliners from anywhere near an infected area are turned around in mid-air.  Those that land are refueled by personnel in biohazard suits and forced at gunpoint to takeoff.  Cruise ships with passengers from China on their manifests are made to anchor offshore and undergo a two-week quarantine.
Cyrus keeps those family members who are part of the Sugar Mountain community apprised of what is happening.  Yet even as the situation worsens, he encounters what to him is a curious and maddening phenomenon: No one wants to leave home, whatever the dangers of remaining in, say, Manhattan.  It is perhaps understandable.  People have careers, friends, family, homes, businesses, routines, comforts, and a million other strings tying them to where they are living their lives.
In their Greenwich Village co-op, Allegra begs Frank to leave with her and Lily.  He nods and persists in his legal career and social swirl even as both begin to come apart.  Allegra, like most of her colleagues, has already posted a notice on her e-mail and her office door to the effect that the last bits and pieces of the courses she teaches at Columbia will have to wait until the crisis passes.
Standing in their living room with its view of the new World Trade Center building, Allegra says, “We have to get out of here, Frank.  It’s not an option.”  She has already packed for herself and Lily.  Their bags are in the corridor near the door.
Frank won’t budge.  “I can’t just drop everything and leave.”
Allegra is furious but controls herself.  “Your cases can wait.  We can’t.  If you want to stay here, fine.  I’m leaving and taking Lily.”  But she stays and fumes.  What is he thinking? 
Ari Fineman’s restaurant stays open even though reservations have dropped to near nothing, or been canceled, or simply ignored.  His wife Lise is spending fourteen hours a day at the investment firm where she works.  The market, already sagging, drops and then drops again as the news worsens.  Brokers, she tells Cyrus, are running around with their hair on fire.
Then get out of there, Cyrus tells her, begs her, begs everyone.  “What do they think is happening?” he complains to Grace as they sit over their morning cup of tea.  She calms him and opens the mail, which has withered to the junk stuff.  She finds that she must also calm herself.
Thad and Duvall, because they are close and because they feel responsible for their students, continue to work at the high school.  On the second weekend in May, they drive out to Sugar Mountain from their Beacon Hill condo for a three-day stay, bringing things to store along with a large canister of dried beans, several ten-pound bags of brown rice, three gallons of olive oil, and a bottle of soy sauce.  Over Cyrus’ objections, they return to Boston.  They, too, have careers, appointments, friends, goals.  They, too, don’t quite believe it can happen.
Perhaps because Americans have grown used to disasters elsewhere.  Famine in Africa.  Wars in the Middle East.  Floods or droughts in India.  Murders in Mexico.  So now there are outbreaks of avian flu in China, Africa, Indonesia, and perhaps Singapore.  You could get morally exhausted pitying them all, writing a check, scarcely aware that you might be next.
At the same time, a lot more people become preppers.  As the month of May warms toward June, the shelves of staples in supermarkets grow thin and then bare.  Where they can, people stock up their weekend houses or shift things around in the cellar to make storage space.  The price of camp stove fuel goes up steeply and then becomes meaningless as supplies run out.  Candles are hard to find.  Bottles with closable tops get rinsed and filled with water.  Just in case.
Cyrus takes calls from far and near as he has a reputation as the go-to guy when it comes to preparing for disasters.  He counsels his brother George in Florida to load his forty-five-foot sloop with supplies to use as a refuge if things get dicey on shore.  Emma Bartlett calls and grudgingly admits a CB radio might be of use.  He tells her politely that he has no more and gives her the name of a supplier.  Colleagues and old friends from the architectural firm he helped found call for advice.  What can he tell them?  Stock up and lay low.
Jack uses the farm’s pickup to fetch the final lengths of a heavy chain-link fence with posts and footings waiting for them at a dealer in Springfield.  He barely makes it.  The price of gasoline has shot to ten dollars a gallon -- when you can find it.
The President goes on nationwide television with the head of the CDC and announces that the worst thing would be to panic.
With the pandemic alert level at Phase 6, the Global Alert and Response office of the World Health Organization puts up a map of the globe on their site coded red, orange, and yellow on a background of white.  Cyrus notes that the WHO has finally colored several places in China as red along with cities in Africa, and Indonesia.  Melbourne, Singapore, and New Delhi are coded orange for suspected outbreaks, with a lot more places coded yellow for vulnerable.  So far, the entire western hemisphere has remained white.
Until cases are reported in Havana, Cuba.  According to Matt Selig, who calls Jack from a pay phone, the source of the infection appears to be a Cuban trade delegation that had been given the red-carpet treatment in China before returning home.  The question is, how long has the flu been incubating in Havana and what has been the contact between members of the trade delegation and any friends or family visiting from the United States and elsewhere?
When Flores Chavez, a waiter at El Chico, a four-star Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., shows up at the emergency room at Georgetown University Hospital with flu-like symptoms, the color on the map for the nation’s capital goes from white to orange.  Within an hour of her admission, the color changes to red.
It turns out that her boyfriend, a low-ranking member of the trade delegation that visited China, flew to Washington shortly after arriving home.  He was found in their apartment close to death.
The panic edges closer.  The media adds to what someone calls “justifiable hysteria.”  Reporters with faces drawn with more than canned solemnity spend time describing the CDC’s attempt to find out anyone who has been to the restaurant or has any contact with the infectious couple. Using credit card receipts, the CDC closes a large quarantine net around the hundreds who ate at El Chico and their families and associates.
The measures appear to work.  People in quarantine become sick and a lot of them die.  But the red spots on the map don’t spread in the United States the way they have begun to freckle the map of the rest of the world.  Americans who fled urban and suburban areas for weekend homes or resort hotels and lodging begin to return.  Commentators talk about American “exceptionalism.”
Then, a week later, a food worker at Princeton is brought to an emergency ward by EMTs in full biohazard gear.  Cause of death a day later is attributed to HPAI, highly pathogenic avian influenza.
Cyrus, usually mild in his exhortations, turns adamant that the in-gathering begin.  “Ari, what are you waiting for?” he asks his wife’s nephew.  “It’s going to get dangerous driving once the real panic starts.”
“We’re packing,” Ari tells him.  “I’m bringing the restaurant van.  It’s a hybrid, the kind you can plug in.”
“Don’t pack.  Just come.”
Ari and Lise have their own contentions.  Lise wants to stop in New Jersey on the way and pick up her mother Chee.  Chee, who lives in a boarding house of sorts, is ambivalent at best about leaving.  She does not want to be a bother.
Cyrus reiterates the same to Frank and Allegra.  “When the panic hits, you won’t be able to get out of New York.”  He speaks with resigned exasperation.  “When the first case gets reported in the city, you’ll be trapped.”
The argument between Frank and Allegra simmers until she gathers up Lily and a few last things and heads for the door.  She stops, turns, and tells him, “You’re free to risk your own life, Frank, but not Lily’s and not mine.”  She is in the parking garage under the co-op unlocking their small town car when he calls her on her cell.
Cyrus doesn’t worry as much about Thad and Duvall.  They live closer, but their apartment in Boston is more than a hundred miles away.
Grace drives to Greenfield to collect her aging dad Henry Carlton.  She called him that morning to tell him to pack for a long stay at the farm.  Because his mind goes in and out of focus, she hopes he remembers.  
There is no one at the reception desk when she arrives at Oak Grove Suites.  It doesn’t matter.  She has been there many times, waved to the receptionist, passed through the “library,” and taken the corridor to the apartment where Henry lives in roomy comfort.
Not wanting to be a burden on anyone, least of all his family, Henry moved to the Grove several years before of his own volition.  It is a leafy sort of place, variously a condo association, assisted living community, country club, restaurant, and, discreetly, off behind some pines, a hospice “for those continuing their journey in another realm.” 
Entering the carpeted living room after a knock, Grace finds her father sitting on the sofa next to Edith Hamell.  Grace has met Edith on several occasions.  She is Henry’s card-playing friend.  A well-groomed and well-spoken woman in her eighties, she seems a good match for her father, who is tall, courtly, and silver-maned.  He wears a lightweight summer suit, open shirt, loafers, and golf cap.  Edith has on pressed black slacks, off-white blouse, and tan jacket.  Her modest suitcase is next to Henry’s two larger ones.
Henry stands and smiles.  He holds out a hand for Edith who also rises.  He says, his voiced measured but with a quaver, “Grace, I think you know Edith.  She’s decided to come with me to the farm.”
Grace nods and smiles grimly at Edith.  Her heart is sinking.  This is not going to be easy.
“I’m afraid, Dad, we can’t take Edith with us this time.”  Grace has, belying her words, made her voice sweetly accommodating.  She is seized by a kind of moral panic.  “And we have to go now.”
Edith sits down.  Both women know it’s a death sentence.  Edith, who is holding her black, zipped purse in both hands, says, “There are no staff left here to speak of.”  Like Henry she is dressed to travel, perhaps on the Sea Cloud among the Greek isles.
Henry is confused in his distress.  He says, “Oh dear, oh dear...”
Edith says, “I have helped Henry live the way he wanted to.  I mean independently.”
Grace cannot bring herself to respond to the woman or to comfort her.  She knows if she reaches out and touches her, she might capitulate to her feelings.  Edith would not be just another person at the farm, she would be a liability.  Old, decorative, and useless, like Meredith, she thinks in a footnote.
She says, “Dad, we have to go now.  Things are not getting any better out there.”  She takes one of the suit cases, tips and rolls it to the open door.  Her father follows, pulling the other behind him.  He stops at the doorway and looks back.  His face is a mask of pain.  Grace does not look back.  Doors open along the corridor.  The doomed peer out at her and say good-bye to Henry.  He stops and shakes hands.
More residents have gathered in the library, which is mostly a television lounge with comfortable chairs, a few shelves for books, and several card tables.  “Where is everybody?” one balding, red-faced man in a wheelchair asks Grace.  “We had to get our own breakfast.”
Grace pushes on.  People have crowded into the reception area as news of her visit spreads.  She fights the panic growing in her as they push through to the double glass doors.  
A man in a cardigan follows them out into the late May sunshine.  He comes up to them as she is heaving the suitcases into the back of the Prius.  He says to her father, “You know, it doesn’t matter, Henry.  You won’t survive either.  I don’t care where you’re going.”
Grace drives.  She hates fleeing.  Her instinct is to stay and organize the residents so that they can help themselves.
She gets to the rotary and takes the interstate north to Bernardston where her sister lives in a mansion-sized cottage.  A twice married classic beauty and now a self-contained older woman who wears spectacles, Meredith greets Grace with complaints about having to leave her cat Boots with a neighbor.  No pets are to be allowed at Sugar Mountain under any circumstances once the final in-gathering begins.  And this, it is becoming clearer by the hour, is to be the final in-gathering.  She has several bags, and the car is weighed down as Grace starts back to Sugar Mountain.
Cyrus watches as the Prius pulls up near the corner porch.  He would go out and help with the unloading except that Jack and Nicole are already there.  Henry and Meredith.  They represent the past.  He is concerned for the future.  He returns to the recon room where he fumes and waits for the rest of his family to show up, at least on the screen that he watches like some flat crystal ball.
He worries about his sons and the others as only a parent can.  What drives the knife of anxiety deeper is the possibility that they have caught the malaise of mass denial and that they will perish despite this refuge ready and waiting for them.