Again the sound woke him, the hollow echo of the world's end.
He opened his eyes slowly, allowing the dirty-yellow light to seep in a little at a time. It was late morning, and the symptoms of a hangover were again present: stale cotton mouth, the bitter sting of nausea at the back of his throat, the dull headache. But he hardly noticed these symptoms; he had lived with them for so long they were merely a part of his existence.
What he felt this morning was not merely the hangover. There was something more, something entirely different. And it was far too intense to ignore.
Pain beat behind his eyes and his vision blurred. His arm throbbed as if it was on fire. The bandage was tight around the wound where his arm had become swollen during the night. Blood soaked both the bandage and the bare mattress beneath him, and perspiration covered his body. Not the cool glaze of the last eighteen months, but a sticky coat of tepid sweat. His body flared with internal heat, yet he shivered in the morning chill. He was burning with fever.
I must go, he thought. But go where? The fever scattered the thought in his mind, and he suddenly realized he did not know.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he tried to bring his thoughts together. This was important; he must think it out. But now, when he needed to make a rational decision based on past experience, his memories were no longer there. Now, only one thought remained clear in his pain fogged mind: He must find the ax handle!
A small portion of him, a bit of his mind somehow unaffected by the fever, warned that this was utter insanity. He knew he should remain in bed. He was sick, and he needed rest. If he got up now, it would only worsen his condition.
That spark of rational thought, however, did absolutely no good. The weapon seemed, in his fever-distorted thoughts, the only thing standing between himself and total annihilation.
He struggled out of bed and stood for a long while in the middle of the room, tottering on weak legs. Then his knees buckled and he lurched forward, his hand going out to grab the door knob. He pushed against the door, and stumbled out into the hall.
Without closing the door behind him, he went down the stairs and out into the street. He shuffled to the middle of the street, then staggered along the center line, retracing the route he had taken the night before.
Ahead, in the distance, he saw something. Blinking away tears of pain, he squinted. It was a man, walking toward him.
Panic scurried through his fevered thoughts like a small rodent. He knew instantly how truly vulnerable he was. Even if he still had the ax handle, he would be no match for the man; he was far too weak.
Turning, he started back the way he had come at an awkward, staggering run. After only a few steps, his feet tangled, and he lurched forward. He felt a sharp stab of pain as his front teeth pierced through his lower lip, and his face hit the pavement.
Mercifully, he blacked out.