Thom leaned against his crutch, keeping weight off his injured ankle and ignoring the soreness of his ribs. They were getting better, but it was slow going—they’d probably been broken when the ceiling came down, something that he’d been in a little bit of denial about, trying to convince himself they’d only been bruised. At least they were healing now, getting better slowly. They’d keep getting better, as long as he didn’t do anything stupid.
Easier said than done.
His gaze swept across the expanse of grass and broken concrete where they were going to plant their village, between the rubble of Mackinac Hall and the collapsed dormitories, their backs to the ravines and the river. The flat lawns between the student union and services and beneath the clock tower might have been better, but there was too much danger of the tower coming down, the others had said, and he’d elected to believe them. For the moment, that option was out. Maybe later, when they expanded. They’d have to, if they survived and more people came. Maybe sooner, maybe later. Maybe a lot of things.
He scrubbed a hand across his eyes, looking back toward the tents. Rory was supposed to be getting stakes and string to mark out the grids. Hopefully, the weather would hold, at least until they got this done. With the help, it shouldn’t take too long.
Thom coughed and winced, touching his taped ribs lightly. Maybe I should’ve taken something. I feel like crap. Breathing didn’t hurt anymore, but everything else still did.
“Where are we starting?” Rory’s voice was accompanied by the sound of thin wooden stakes clacking against each other as he dropped an armload on the ground.
Thom glanced back over his shoulder and gestured. “Over this way. You have the line?”
Rory held up a ten-pound spool of heavy string looped around a dowel rod. “Yeah. How much concrete’s still intact out here?”
“Earthquakes cracked a lot of it. It’ll just be heavy to move when we start moving it, if we don’t break up the slabs.” Thom started to limp toward the perimeter where he’d been thinking about setting the walls. He’d had Tala and Deirdre pace out the distances, the stake they’d left with a scrap of yellow tape tied around it waved lazily in the midmorning breeze. He hobbled to it, then turned slowly, coughing again into the crook of his arm as he looked back toward the broken dorms and the rim of the ravine, toward where the tents stood forward of the rubble.
Rory crouched and tied an end of the string to the stake, following Thom’s gaze. “It’s a lot of space, Thom. Think we’ll need all of it?”
“If we survive?” Thom murmured. “All of it and more, I think.”
“We really don’t have anywhere else to go,” the man said, expression grim as he glanced toward the small knot of people at his back. “They took everything of any value when they came through and burned everything that was left after that. All we’ve got is what little we were able to save or scavenge on the way here.”
Thom looked at Marin, then at Kellin. Kellin was the one to smile at them and spread her hands.
“Then welcome home.”
Thom shivered, then winced.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” The words almost stuck in his throat. I used to be good at covering up. What happened? “C’mon, we’ll pace it out to the north corner first.” He started out along a line heading due north, toward the remnants of M-45. They were a couple dozen meters out before either of them spoke again.
“So what’re you going to do with those sheds we brought back from the home improvement place? You said that you could use them.”
“And I will. After we get the heating trenches done, we’ll get the sheds lined up and anchored down…and roll from there. Not as cozy as the dorms, but it’ll do until we can start working on something better, right?” He scratched the back of his neck. “Actually makes life a little easier when it comes to building. We’ve got something we can work around rather than starting completely from scratch, and it’ll get us out of those damn tents that much faster.” And we stay in those tents much longer, I might go a little crazy. He just kept seeing what happened to Marin over and over again, the tent coming down, her beneath it.
It was crazy, because he hadn’t actually seen it, only had it described to him. He wasn’t quite sure which could’ve been worse.
Rory nodded, planting a stake and looping the string twice around it to secure it before they kept moving northward. “When’re we going to start trenching?”
“Probably in the next day or two. Maybe tomorrow, if the weather holds, but it’s going to depend on what they find down at that sheep farm or whatever.”
“What the hell are we going to do with sheep, Thom?”
Thom shook his head, coughing again. Damn, it hurt. All the wet and cold was settling into his bones and his upper chest. He spat to the side and grimaced, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Playing the long game. Sheep means wool, which means a trade good or at the very least something we can use.”
“You’re banking on there being other people out there.”
“Call it a hunch.” Or me believing what Mar and Kel and the others keep saying about the fact that we can’t possibly be the last people alive, that people will find us, but not all of them will find us. I’m bloody cracked just like everyone else. Thom scrubbed a hand over his face. “Logic says that we can’t possibly be alone.”
Rory shook his head, planting another stake. “How much further?”
“Not too much.” They crossed out of the parking lots a stake later. Thom nearly tripped over the pile of rocks in a circle, the skin on the back of his neck prickling as his hair stood on end. The hell? He dropped his crutch, almost falling as he struggled to avoid knocking the rocks out of position, or scuffing the edges of the circle. “What’s this?” He hopped sideways on one foot, trying to regain his balance.
Rory retrieved the crutch and shoved it under his arm. Thom cursed, ribs screaming at him again, then coughed, sending more ribbons of white-hot pain through his chest.
“Damn, Rory,” he said, voice straining. “You could’ve been more gentle about that.” He leaned into the crutch, finding his balance again and looking back down toward the pile of rocks. “What is that?”
Rory seemed almost ashamed to answer, but finally dredged up the words, as if he’d dug them out from somewhere dark and locked away. “It’s a ward. Kellin set it.”
“A ward. Against what?” Thom hid the fact that his stomach dropped right down to his ankles fairly well, all things considered, plastering a disgusted look on his face that wasn’t far from truth. Wards. To keep away the things I keep saying I can’t see. The things that attacked Marin down there in the ravine.
Rory shook his head. “Against shit that goes bump in the night, Thom.”
Thom exhaled and forced a little venom into his voice. “Whatever helps people sleep at night, I guess.”
“Exactly,” Rory said.
Thom shook his head and hobbled another few feet away from the ward. He tapped his crutch against a spot in the grass. “Plant it here and let’s do the other side.”
Rory planted the stake, encasing the ward within the future walls, and the pair headed off to finish the perimeter.