Worker of the Year
Something shuffled on the floor above him. Snow drifted down through the gigantic hole that drilled through all six floors. He moved back to get a better view. Someone was searching through the few cabinets still standing. Another intruder. Mael sighed heavily.
In the beginning he'd given the few hollow-cheeked visitors food before chasing them away. But they returned, probably attracted to the fire and the scent of his cooking. One man had even tried to kill him. He could still remember the man's stinking breath and wide desperate eyes. Mael knew that if he hadn't started to carry an iron rod around, he'd be dead now. The rod was his weapon, hunting tool and hammer. He didn't go anywhere without it.
After a while, he'd managed to seal all the openings in the walls with scrap from the building and the furniture. The activity calmed him. Not only did it make it difficult for intruders to enter the damaged building, it also cut off the horrible glimpses of the world outside. Mael couldn't believe the images he'd seen through the openings: office buildings with huge gaping holes, asphalt torn up and folded over in the streets, shops with broken windows, dead bodies. Once he saw a dog tear an arm off a dead man lying on the pavement just outside the building. He'd had trouble sleeping for days after that.
There were only two ways into the building now: the massive hole and the door leading to the underground tunnels that travelled all over the city. No one had come through the door in a long time. Mael was in his own world, protected and safe. Sometimes he heard dogs barking and snarling, and men shouting, but it was only distant noise carried with the winds through the hole in the ceiling.
In the first days he'd thought he was stuck in a nightmare. He'd walked through the shattered building with eyes wide open, yet not really seeing his surroundings. A layer of rubble covered everything. The air was thick with dust. Papers drifted down from the upper floors like enormous square-shaped snowflakes. Finally, it was his deep sense of loyalty that had snapped him out of his daze and into a frenzy of cleaning the building. Or that's what Mael told himself. The truth was that he couldn't stand the mess.
There was of course nothing he could do about the yawning shaft that trailed its way from the roof to the basement as if a giant boulder had been dropped through the house. He'd managed to climb up on the roof once, but the gap stretched too wide for him to repair and he'd almost fallen off. He still shuddered at the memory.
Cleaning away the grey-black fungus that kept growing on the walls was a losing battle. If he leaned against them, mould would slick his clothes. The air stank of old and rotten things. Mael had been coughing up thick slime for a long time now, as if the rot had taken root inside him too.
He fought the decay without pause. Just keeping the lower floors clear of rats and bugs occupied most of his time. He always took a moment to polish the Award and the glass walls of its display cabinet, his fingers lingering over the engraved names. The gleaming metal pleased him.
The work kept the painful thoughts of the desolation outside the building away and in the evening, his mind and body were so numb after the many working hours that he never had trouble sleeping.
Mael studied the person shuffling around on the floor above. Was it a man or a woman? He couldn't tell. Dressed in dirty rags that revealed nothing, head obscured under a hood, the person opened drawers but didn't close them. Papers flew down from the desk. Mael scowled. There would be quite a mess to clean up after this one. Furious, he threw a snow ball at the back of the person's head. Whoever was up there staggered for a moment before swirling around.
"H - hello?" A woman's voice. The person moved closer to the edge of the hole. He wondered how she had managed to enter the building without drawing his attention. He stepped into the light.
"You are not allowed to be here. Please leave." He picked up his iron rod.
The person stared at him from the depths of the hood. "Mael?"
He lowered the rod, surprised. He hadn't heard anyone say his name in a long time. "Who are you?" he shouted, suddenly hoarse, his heart thudding.
She pulled down the hood. Large golden curls tumbled out. A heart shaped face looked down at him. His legs trembled.
"Mael, it's me. Bergljot. I'm so happy to see you." She smiled broadly; Mael's legs threatened to give in and he had to sit down. That smile. He would have recognized it miles away.
* * *
Down in the basement, next to the fire, the temperature was steady, warm and pleasant. He'd chopped all the broken furniture into firewood and stacked it into piles that towered over him. The smoke rose upwards through the hole, lingering briefly around the edges on the upper floors before disappearing through the roof. The woodpiles were still tall, but they had shrunk visibly. He didn't know what he would do once he'd burned the last stick.
Mael had dragged the leather couch from the director's office into place in front of the fire. He felt a little ashamed that he'd taken it, but it served as both a couch and a bed He was sure the director would forgive him.
He invited Bergljot to sit on the couch and threw more wood on the fire, which sparkled before it settled. He stood staring at her, not sure whether to believe it was really her.
The Bergljot he'd known had been his young up-and-coming leader, efficient and talented, but reserved. Mael had rarely seen her smile. When she did, he'd felt as if the sun was flooding the room. Her eyes had sparkled when she laughed, a sweet and tinkling sound that had warmed his always frozen limbs. Sometimes when she'd passed him on the way to her office, he'd get a whiff of her perfume. Roses. In his dreams, she never wore the grey business suit, but a white lace summer dress. Her angelic golden curls would cover his pillow as she lay looking up at him with her twinkling blue eyes and a shy smile.
She looked so different now. She'd been a sturdy woman with chubby red cheeks and fat on her arms that quivered when she moved. He would never have been able to wrap his arms all the way around her, but he'd loved that she was so large. If it hadn't been for the hair and the smile, he would have sworn that the woman who sat in front of him now wasn't Bergljot, but a pale copy.
Her heart shaped face was hollow cheeked, the skin tight over the bones. Her spotless business suit and red nails flashed into his mind. He remembered how much time she'd spent fussing with her hair and fixing her lipstick. But this woman didn't seem to care about her looks. He frowned. She looked as if she'd found some rags somewhere and put them on: at least three sweaters in different sizes and colours, dirty and stained with dark spots. He wrinkled his nose.
But the worst change, he thought, was her eyes. They'd been clear and sharp. In fact, Mael had often avoided her intense gaze, which seemed to penetrate him as if she could see all his thoughts. Now she was the one who stared down at the floor, swallowing visibly. He shook his head to clear his mind.
"Are you hungry?" he asked and walked towards her. Craning her neck to look up at him, she nodded. She seemed scared, he thought, surprised. Scared and ashamed. He caught her scent. Not roses. He grimaced in disgust and held his breath. "Come, I'll make you some food." He moved towards the kitchen, not looking to see if she followed.
Some parts of the building were intact: the basement, some of the offices on the lower floors, and a few of the corridors. Mael always felt strange going through these areas. He could imagine the workers arriving any minute now. He sometimes lingered in some of the offices, looking at the pictures on the walls, shuffling through the papers on the desks, and smiling to himself when he recognized a few of the cases.
The basement was the least damaged area. He stayed there most of the time. He had food and the couch, and he could keep an eye on the entrance and the fire.
They entered the kitchen and he watched Bergljot's eyes widen. Mael had been very pleased to discover that the kitchen was intact and that the storerooms had been well stocked with food. He feared the day he would have to leave the building to search for food. Mael hadn't known how to cook, but enjoyed experimenting. He had invented some dishes he was quite proud of. Experienced now, he picked different cans from the shelves. Feeling Bergljot's eyes watching him silently from the doorway, he suddenly felt strange and self-conscious. He wasn't used to having another person there.
He carried the cans out to the work bench he had set up by the fire, opened them, cut the ingredients into small pieces and put them in a casserole. Bergljot stood next to him, watching every movement. He put the casserole into the oven he'd built in the fire pit with scrap materials from the kitchen, then turned to face her.
"Don't you want to sit down?"
She shook her head and stared down into the fire, huddling into her many sweaters as if she was cold. "No, I'm fine."
He shrugged and stirred the boiling stew. When it was ready, he put it on two plates and gave her one. She wolfed it down, gasping at the heat. Pleased to see her eating, he gave her his own plate. "You eat," he said in answer to the questions that burned in her eyes. "It's not long since I ate and you need the food."
Afterwards, she lay down on the couch and fell quickly into a deep sleep. While Mael worked, his eyes darted to the sleeping figure now and then. She never moved. Thinking the worst, he trotted over to examine her face. When he saw that she still breathed, he left her alone. She must be exhausted, he thought, wondering where she had been all this time and why it had taken her so long. He wondered if she would give him the Award now. He still didn't understand why he hadn't received it that night. Before the world changed.
* * *
After all the extra hours Mael had put in, he'd been incredulous when Rune received 'The Worker of the Year Award'. Mael was the first one at work in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. His colleagues had teased him, saying he must surely be sleeping over in the archive room. "Have you lost your home?" they'd said, laughing. Bergljot had begun nodding approvingly to him when she arrived each morning. When asked, Mael said he worked so much because the new head of the research department demanded it. This was partly true. The new leader had been concerned with sorting and clearing out the mess of files left behind when the last leader had retired, and Mael was a good archivist. But there was another reason that Mael had begun to work so hard all of a sudden.
He had coveted the Award for years. He couldn't explain why, but ever since he'd first seen the golden trophy engraved with names gleaming in the cabinet in the main entrance, he'd wanted to see his own name on it. He'd dreamed of the ceremony. All eyes would be on him as he walked up to receive the Award when the director called out his name, telling him what an outstanding worker he was, and how they couldn't have done it without him. All the leaders and his co-workers would clap their hands and whistle and he would give a speech so touching that it would become legendary. Bergljot would secretly dab at the corners of her eyes with a lace handkerchief and smile just for him.
Mael had been certain that Bergljot would nominate him after all his hard work in the months preceding the Award presentation. When Rune received it instead, Mael was sure there had been a mistake. Wanting an explanation, he'd gone looking for Bergljot after the ceremony, but couldn't find her. He'd stayed behind after everyone else had gone home, hoping she would show up. Her red winter parka still hung on the coat stand in her office, so he'd believed she was still in the building.
He'd been sitting at his desk watching the grey-white strands of faux fur on her hood stir in the waves of heat from the radiator when he'd heard thunderous cracking sounds in the distance and thought it was fireworks, but couldn't remember reading about any special occasion in the newspaper. Then came a deafening high-pitched whine and flashes of white light, and everything had gone strangely quiet. That was the last thing he remembered. When he woke up, the world as he knew it had changed.
Mael didn't remember much about the first few days after the white light, but he always wondered why he'd never left the building then. Now he knew it was because he'd been sure Bergljot was in the building, trapped, injured or worse. When he'd finally managed to access the heavily damaged upper floors, he had moved through them carefully, prepared to find her dead body under the broken furniture or the fallen walls. But he never did. He found no one. That's when Mael had started to hope. Surely they would come looking for him, he told himself. He must keep the building ready for them. He would say it out loud when his loneliness and loud sobs threatened to swallow him and all he wanted was to end it all: She would come. If he was patient and stayed put, she would come. He couldn't leave. One day she would come. She would smile up at him from his pillow. She would give him his Award.
* * *
Bergljot stirred in her sleep, mumbled something and waved her arms in the air. Then she was motionless and silent again. He wondered who or what she had fought against in her dreams.
The following days went by in a blur. Bergljot slept most of the time. Now and then Mael would feel her eyes on him and turn to find her gazing at him, as if trying to identify him, then recognizing him, she would go back to sleep. He was curious about why she was so worn out. Where had she been all this time? Why had she not come earlier? Where were the others? Questions burned on his tongue, but he decided to wait until she was ready. He'd waited so long for her to come. Surely he could wait a little bit longer, he mused.
Bergljot was awake for short periods of time in which he fed her hot stew and heated snow. He showed her where he had made a latrine, and a bathroom next to it out of one of the former restrooms. Every morning, he washed up with melted snow or rain water and brushed his hair with a comb he'd found in one of the destroyed offices.
He had also gathered the clothes he'd found in the building. It was a surprisingly huge amount, because people liked to change into a more casual style before leaving work and heading home. The clothes he found were thus mostly business clothes. Mael could walk around in a three-piece suit if he wished, and he sometimes did, just for the elegant feeling of it. Most of the clothes were quite worn and torn now, but he tried to keep them mended and clean. When the winter storms came, he would put on most of the clothes and take shelter deep in the basement. The only clothing he didn't touch was Bergljot's parka. It still hung on the coat stand in her office.
When Mael caught sight of Bergljot gaping at herself in the bathroom mirrors, he heated snow in one of the largest casseroles and gave her soap and a comb. When she emerged from the bathroom, he hardly recognized her. She'd put on the few women's clothes he had found; a shirt, a blazer, a skirt. The colours didn't match, but since she had lost so much weight, the clothes fit perfectly, though he could see the outline of her ribs through the fine fabric. From the many pairs of shoes, she'd chosen some lovely high heels. Her wet blond curls glistened down her shoulders, and her cheeks were red from scrubbing.
"You look nice," he said, smiling. She returned the smile, and it was one of her amazing smiles that he remembered so well—one of those smiles that warmed cold limbs and flooded the room with sunshine. Sighing happily, she put her dirty clothes on the floor and lay down again on the couch.
"I'm sorry I'm so sleepy," she said and yawned.
"Don't worry," he murmured. "Sleep. I'll be here."
He hesitated, then walked into her office with determined steps and fetched the parka. He laid it over her. The faux fur stirred a little when she breathed. Her blond hair spread out over the couch. Looking up at him with sleepy eyes, she smiled and huddled into the jacket, reminding him of his old favourite dreams, where she smiled up at him, just like this, from his pillow. But this was not the Bergljot of his dreams. This was a thin, anxious and foreign woman he wouldn't have looked at twice in the old days. Shaken, he got up to clean her dirty clothes, chasing the dark thoughts away. That night he worked in a frenzy, not wanting to think, until he finally collapsed next to the fire in the growing daylight. But sleep didn't come easily. He lay on the ground, staring at Bergljot. Her fair angel-curls hung over the edge of the couch.
* * *
When he awoke, Bergljot sat down on the ground next to him. She'd put on the parka. It was too big for her now, but she looked stunning, he reflected sleepily. She had gained a healthier colour in her cheeks. He smiled up at her.
"Why are you here, Mael?" She cocked her head, looking directly into his eyes.
"Why are you in this building?"
Mael bent over and coughed for a long time, his body shaking. When the coughing finally ceased, he sat up and cleared his throat. Bergljot was still watching him, her head tilted to one side, pity etched around her eyes.
"What do you mean?" he asked, his voice raspy. "Where else should I've been?"
"Have you been here all the time?" she asked.
"I felt I had to look after the place."
"What do you mean?"
She looked at him, shaking her head.
"Why are you doing that?" he asked.
"Shaking your head."
"I just can't believe you are here."
She dipped her head so that he couldn't see her face. He studied her, sensing that something was wrong.
"Why are you here?" he finally asked, emphasizing the 'you'.
She looked up. "Oh, I dunno. Thought there was food or something here," she said and got up, stretching her body.
Mael wrinkled his forehead. She seemed so nervous. He stood up, towering over her. "Come," he said. "I want to show you something."
They climbed the broken stairs to the next floor and the main entrance. Once, it had been a magnificent room with a grey marble floor and walls of granite. He had chopped up the reception desk to make firewood. The only furniture left was the glass-walled cabinet. Inside, the golden trophy glinted in the meagre light.
"Yes. I found it in the director's office, so I put it back here," he said.
A list of names covered one side of the trophy. One spot was empty. They had not yet engraved Rune's name.
"Why did you do that?" she asked.
"I like to look at it."
"That's kind of weird."
"I wanted it ready for when you arrived."
"Since there was a mistake last time, I wanted to make sure there'd be no more mistakes."
"I don't understand."
"Since it was me who was supposed to have it, not Rune, I wanted to be sure the director would fix it when he returns and sees I've kept the place in order."
Bergljot stared at him.
"Mael. The director is dead."
"What? No, you're lying."
"Mael. They are all dead."
"Why are you lying?"
She paused, as if she was searching for words.
"Mael, have you been here the whole time?"
"Yes, I told you so."
"You've never gone outside?"
"No, I wanted to stay here and look after the place until you came back."
He didn't like the way she looked at him. As if he was a little child.
"Don't look at me like that."
"Mael, I don't know what to say. I don't know how to explain this to you so you'll understand."
He didn't say anything.
She sighed. "You know the city has been destroyed?"
He nodded. Yes, he'd figured out that much.
"Well, it's not just the city. I think the whole world is destroyed." She looked at him expectantly, as if waiting for his reaction.
"I'm not sure what happened. People I've met talk about everything from asteroids and alien attacks to nuclear bombs and worldwide wars. We've lost contact with the world. All communication systems are down."
He didn't respond to this. Her eyes flickered. Mael touched her hair; she cringed and pulled away. Red-cheeked, she paced around the room, waving her hands as she spoke. She seemed agitated.
"People say that all the large cities are empty shells now. The buildings are damaged, the cars ruined. Very few people survived. They wander around, desperately searching for food. The horrible gangs controlling the roads have robbed and killed so many." She shuddered. "And the packs of dogs that roam the cities are killing people too. No place is secure anymore."
Mael only half listened. Thoughtful, he leaned against the wall, watching her. He wondered why he had waited for her for so long. She did have a beautiful smile. But that was all. Mael felt betrayed by this woman with her skin drawn tight over her cheek bones. After the first time, she hadn't bothered to brush her hair, even though he had given her a comb.
Bergljot said she had survived because she'd been in a basement when it happened. She only remembered intense lightning and a penetrating high-pitched sound. When she woke up, she had searched the streets for people she knew. She'd found some of them, all dead. Eventually she'd left the city for her parents' cabin in the woods. "I hoped they were there, but it was empty." Her eyes glistened. "Their pantry was still full of food. I stayed a long time. I only went to the city once in a while to search for more food.
"I don't know what I was thinking. I wanted to come back here. I thought maybe someone had survived. Someone I knew. I wanted to see my home. I wanted to see my workplace." She paused. "I wasn't expecting the office building to be still standing, but it is, and my key worked." She grinned and pointed. "I still had my key. Unbelievable, huh?" A rusty key dangled from a thread around her neck.
Mael studied her. He wasn't sure what to think. He understood now how she'd entered the building. He hadn't thought of that. There were a few doors into the basement and the first floor, but they were all locked. He chastised himself for not sealing them off too.
He frowned. Bergljot was clearly keeping a lot from him.
"Why were you in some basement? I was waiting for you here," he said.
She stopped pacing and looked at him for a long time. "Is that important?" she sighed. "I don't remember all the details. Rune invited a few of us from work to celebrate that he had received the Award. We took a cab to his house. They all died. Rune lived a few days. I was just lucky, I guess." She dipped her head, sad. "Poor Rune. Did you know we planned to marry?" Tears trickled down her cheeks.
Mael stared at her. His thoughts whirled. "So it was not a mistake then? I was not getting the Award?" he asked.
"No, Mael, you were never going to get the Award." Bergljot laughed hysterically. Mael thought it sounded mocking.
All the work he had done.
is a Norwegian-Icelandic writer and editor from Oslo, Norway, who started writing fiction in English late 2012. She's got stories in several magazines and print anthologies. Her debut book is published by Fox Spirit Books