What We Need to Rebuild is now available!
When Nina wakes in an unfamiliar room with a doctor watching over her, she realizes Paul’s desperate plan worked. She’s alive. Weak and still injured, but alive.
Only Paul isn’t there with her.
Surrounded by strangers she doesn’t trust. Her precious pack with all her possessions, gone. If she wants to find Paul, Nina must gather her strength and find a way to resupply herself.
Or she could stay. She could rest and heal. She could forge new friendships and settle into a way of life that promised structure. A life that seemed far less dangerous than the one she’d be giving up.
But can any place truly be home without Paul?
We’ve reached the conclusion of the story, and the series, my lovely readers. Rest assured that there is a happy ending for Paul and Nina, despite everything I’ve put them through!
When I started this journey almost three years ago, I didn’t know I’d make it this far. I couldn’t have known my first book would be even the modest success it has been, and that I could finish and publish an entire trilogy. I couldn’t have done it without the support and encouragement I’ve received from my friends, readers, and fans. Thank you!
For new readers, I’ve also put together a digital complete-series edition, all three books together for a discounted price!
With the business end of things out of the way, it’s time to share the first chapter!
Chapter One – Consciousness
December 7th, 8:17 am – Open Hearts Methodist Church, Louisville, KY
The first thing Nina had to do was get her hands on her backpack.
My hands. My hand. She sighed, closing her eyes and clenching her fist. Dammit.
She wanted to wear her own clothes, not an itchy cloth hospital gown or the two layers of borrowed sweaters which smelled of cedar chips and dust. She forced her eyes open to study herself, her thin body under the thick blanket, her arms laid out on top.
But her eyes skittered away from the empty space on her left side, flicking over the makeshift infirmary instead, darting from one object to another. Stacks of mismatched cardboard boxes balanced precariously atop each other. Each bore swipes of black marker: Christmas ornaments and hymnals and Easter decorations and the vague catch-all donations.
Nina had already spent half an hour distracting herself from the throbbing in her arm by trying to count how many different people had labeled the boxes, according to their handwriting. Everything in the first stack on the left seemed to be from the same time period, marked with bold, blocky capital letters. The neighboring stack began with two boxes at the bottom with the same script, while the rest were written on by different hands. One was childish, with circles instead of dots over the i‘s, and the other flowing and elegant, even in the unforgiving medium of black Sharpie.
Most of the boxes in the third stack had been packed by a fourth person, judging by the nearly illegible scrawl, worthy of a doctor’s prescription pad. The only label Nina could make out was baby clothes. Maybe.
Doctor Ryan was keeping a log of Nina’s treatment. She’d seen the woman making notes, but she hadn’t seen the notes themselves. Maybe the doctor was the one who’d labeled that stack, but maybe not. Nina hadn’t been able to find out if Doctor Ryan was one of the surviving members of the church, or not. Jasmine said the doctor was already here when she and Connor decided to stay, but they weren’t churchgoers themselves. They wouldn’t have known whether she was or not.
Nina couldn’t make another attempt to glean that information, or anything else about the church, because for once, Doctor Ryan wasn’t with her. She’d been hovering since the moment Nina had woken up the day before—or at least, had woken up aware of herself.
The doctor hadn’t enjoyed Nina’s screaming, but she hadn’t been surprised by it, either. It must not have been the first time, just the first time Nina could remember.
She didn’t remember much of anything for the last two weeks. That much, she’d been able to ask straight out—how long she’d been at the church. That, the doctor couldn’t be vague about.
Nina had woken up again to morning sunlight streaming in through two small windows set high in the wall. She’d woken alone, and she hadn’t screamed when she remembered her missing arm.
She was oddly proud of that.
But she couldn’t bring herself to look at where it should have been, where her brain still believed it would be.
Instead, she studied the dusty globe perched on a rickety bookcase, its finial at the North Pole nearly touching the room’s low ceiling. The African continent stared down at her, a patchwork of brightly colored countries. She was too far from it to tell how out-of-date the borders were.
Even if it were brand-new, it would still probably be useless. Did the plague end up spreading everywhere? Is the whole world as devastated as we are?
She had no way of knowing, but she suspected the worst.
Voices from outside distracted her from her contemplation of global disaster. The words were muddled, indistinct through the solid brick wall. A group of feet walked by the windows, a mix of newer boots and tattered ones, dirty and practical. One person—hard to tell if those narrow, pegged jeans belonged to a man or a woman–wore a pair of classic Converse sneakers, royal blue canvas with startlingly white laces.
Nina didn’t see Paul’s familiar camel suede hiking boots.
Where were her boots, her clothes, her pack? None of her things were in the room with her, unless someone stowed them under the bed, where she couldn’t see. Leaning over the side of the bed had made her too dizzy to get a good look.
Paul must have her gear. Why hadn’t he come to see her yet?
If she’d been ill for two weeks, the church probably put Paul to work instead of letting him idle by her side all day, getting in the doctor’s way and doing nothing useful. That’s what people did before, sat with their loved ones at the hospital, but Nina didn’t imagine Paul could get away with it. He’d hate to be away from her while she was ill, but he was both kindhearted and thoroughly practical. He’d work gladly for the church in exchange for the time and supplies they were investing in Nina’s care.
So Paul hadn’t been with her the day before when she’d finally come to her senses. Doctor Ryan hadn’t sent for him, either, presumably because she’d been in such a fragile state.
Why isn’t he here now, then?
Footsteps sounded from beyond the door, which opened with a faint creak. Doctor Ryan poked her graying head in and blinked like a barn owl when she saw Nina awake and frowning.
The bewildered expression became a broad smile as she entered the room. “How are you feeling today?”
The genuine warmth in her tone reminded Nina of Sarah, as did her plump build and pale coloring. Doctor Ryan’s hair was longer, twisted into a neat bun at the nape of her neck, and more silver than blonde, but she had the same maternal, caring air.
“Hungry,” Nina answered. “Cranky. Bored.”
“The hungry part, I can do something about.” She tipped her head toward Nina’s IV stand. “That kept you from dehydration, but we could only feed you when you were awake long enough.”
Memories of Paul’s black eye swam up to cloud Nina’s vision as the doctor unhooked her from the drip. The firm pressure on her skin after the needle was withdrawn provided a welcome distraction from wondering what she had done or said in the time she couldn’t remember, and from the pulsing agony in her other arm.
“How’s the pain?” the doctor asked, as if she knew the direction of Nina’s thoughts.
“About the same as yesterday. And it . . .”
Ryan sat down in the chair beside the bed and began to unpin the folded sweater sleeves at the end of Nina’s shortened arm. “It what?”
“It itches.” The itching was more maddening than the pain.
“Taking care of that won’t be as easy as getting you fed, because it’s part of the healing process. But it will fade. In the meantime, you’ll have to learn to ignore it. You can’t go tearin’ at your bandages to scratch the itch.” She unwound the white knob of gauze where Nina’s elbow should have been. The innermost bandages came away stained, watery pink and yellow. “Good. Less seepage than yesterday, and the swelling’s down. Pretty soon we can switch you to a compression bandage, after I take your sutures out. Tomorrow, or the day after.”
The line of stitches curved in a half-circle around the inner edge of her arm. They were neat and small and even, a far cry from her own clumsy needlework on Paul’s skin.
It was easier for Nina to believe her hand and forearm were gone, to forbid her brain from tricking her into still feeling them, when she stared at those tiny black stitches.
They disappeared, though, when the doctor placed the end of a new length of gauze against Nina’s skin. A few silent minutes later, her arm was bandaged neatly, her sweaters refolded and pinned in place.
Ryan stood. “Do you need the bed pan?”
Nina cringed, but she nodded. She’d already tried to get out of bed once and barely managed to sit up without the room spinning. There was no way she could make it to a bathroom—there’s no way there’s a working bathroom anyway, I bet they go outside—so she submitted to the necessary embarrassment. The bed pan didn’t bother her as much as knowing she’d been wearing adult diapers during her illness, when she couldn’t communicate her needs, and knowing the doctor had changed her and cleaned her.
Once that unpleasantness was over and Doctor Ryan returned with the empty, rinsed pan, she returned it to its place on the small table of tools before sitting beside the bed. “Now that you’re awake and aware, we should fill in your medical history, so I can treat you better.”
Nina shifted on the bed, trying to push herself higher on the mountain of pillows propping her up. Sharp pain flared in her arm when she pressed the bandages against the mattress, but she fought through it. “What do you need to know?”
“Any drug allergies? I had to risk the antibiotics to keep you with us, but I haven’t been giving you anything for the pain. Not that we have much, but a few things might help.”
Nina shook her head. “Nothing I’ve run into. But . . . but I don’t want anything that might be addictive. I can’t risk that. If this is as bad as the pain’s going to get, I can tough it out.”
Ryan nodded. “We’ll try you out on something mild, just to help you sleep, if you need it.” She made a note, then rattled off a long list of medical conditions, asking if she or her parents had suffered from any of them. Nina answered as best she could remember until the doctor made one last check mark. Then the doctor cocked her head to the side. “When was your last period?”
“Um . . .” Nina struggled to fix a time frame around the missing days. “It ended right before my arm got broken, about a week before I got here.” She’d been sick three days, or maybe four, before Paul had gone looking for medicine for her. And he’d told her he’d driven three days to get her to the church. “So, three weeks ago?”
“I see. Has your cycle been regular, since the plague? A lot of the women have had issues, going off their birth control unexpectedly.”
A mild way to describe the total collapse of normal health care. “I wasn’t on any, and my period’s always been clockwork, every twenty-nine days.” Nina swallowed past a lump in her throat. “Are you trying to ask me if I could be pregnant?”
Doctor Ryan straightened her shoulders. “You’re not. I couldn’t do the full blood work I’d normally order for a patient before surgery, but every drug store in the city still has pregnancy tests on the shelves. I couldn’t put you under without checking first, not in good conscience.”
“Right, of course. I’m sorry.”
“Did you think you might have been?” Her tone was somewhere between sympathetic and speculative.
“No.” It had been weeks since Paul had touched her, and even after he’d known he didn’t have to be careful, he still had been. “No, I didn’t.”
“I can’t say I didn’t wonder, with how you and that man showed up in desperate straits.”
Nina’s skin rose in goosebumps under her hospital gown. “That man”? Why wouldn’t she know his name? “He’s not . . .”
Before she could decide how to finish the question, the doctor broke in. “Nobody got the story out of him before he was gone. We didn’t know what happened to you.”
“Gone?” Nina whispered. No, no, no . . .
Something in Doctor Ryan’s expression softened. “Oh, no, dear, he’s alive. Or at least, he was two weeks ago. Once I shooed him off so I could take care of you, Derek put him in one of the empty rooms over at the motel. The next morning, he was gone. Disappeared without a word. Nobody saw him leave, but the car you came in was gone, too, so he must have packed up before dawn and hit the road.”
Nina opened her mouth, but no words came out. Tears pooled in her eyes, but she didn’t cry. She wouldn’t, not in front of the doctor.
Not in front of anyone, ever again.
She couldn’t hide her shaking, though. “He meant something to you?” Ryan asked.
“A friend.” Nina forced the words out through numb lips. “He was my friend. Or I thought he was.”
Ryan patted Nina’s shoulder. “Some people aren’t made for sitting still. But he got you to us in time, and you’re welcome to stay, even if he didn’t.”
“I’ll go get some breakfast for you, then.”
Being a doctor must have put her in the middle of all sorts of difficult emotional situations—she knew the value of a tactful retreat. But Nina still didn’t allow herself to cry when she was alone. She turned her face to the windows and stared at the sunlight.
Paul had promised he would never leave her without telling her first. Doctor Ryan hadn’t mentioned a note or a letter or even a verbal message for her. If Paul had meant to leave one, the doctor would be the obvious choice.
Nina had made a promise, too.
How on earth am I going to find him?
Her gear was gone, apparently. Her spare clothing, her food, her small stash of medicine, the flashlight she’d barely had long enough to think of as hers.
Half of her left arm was gone, too. She made herself study what remained, raising it off the bed. Movement of any kind made the throbbing worse, bringing tears back to her eyes, but she lifted her arm and focused on it. The rounded swell of bandages beneath the intricately cabled sweater occupied the space where her elbow used to be. Even after endless minutes of staring straight at it, Nina still thought, if she tried hard enough, she could tell her arm to bend, and it would.
She could raise it or lower it or wave it in little circles. Those caused a pulling tightness in her shoulder muscles, but the ache was pleasant compared to the throbbing pain.
I’ll do this as much as I can stand, whenever I’m alone. And the doctor will probably have exercises for me to do, even if she wasn’t specialized in physical therapy. That seems like something she’d have to know anyway. I need to get my strength back.
She’d already started over once, and it was the last thing she wanted to do again.
The first thing she’d need to find was a new backpack.