“Steve, do you think you’ll have these reports done by the end of today?” Jarred asked, punctuating the question with a burp.
“Of course, boss.” Steve said, hunching his shoulders to brace for impact.
“Thanks, brother. You’re the man!” Jarred said as he slapped Steve on the back, dislodging his glasses from his nose.
Were Steve the type to mutter under his breath, Jarred would’ve gotten some harsh, inaudible words right then, but he wasn’t. He was a nose-to-the-grindstone, no-nonsense accountant, who – unlike many of his colleagues – was entirely satisfied with his life. His Spartan workspace was the picture of workflow perfection: each piece of paper, each pen, each post-it, all painstakingly placed for optimal efficiency.
His apartment was the same. He bought the model apartment – the one used to show potential buyers what it might look like if Pottery Barn sponsored a living space, but had a low budget. He didn’t want to have to think about where to get the faux-worldly vases or the clocks with just the right amount of quirk. Who has the time for that? – he might say, without irony, if anyone ever asked. When he was home, his TV was always on Fox News or the History Channel, and his central air always kept the room at an appropriate 71.5 degrees.
After completing his reports on time like he always did, he got in his Kia and made his way through the rush hour traffic while listening to sports highlights on his favorite AM station. He liked it because they would alternate between sports and conservative talk radio, and he didn’t even have to change the dial.
He popped his usual microwave meal into the oven and watched it spin as the timer counted down.
Erland was jolted awake from a deep sleep by the crack of thunder and heavy rain pounding against his tent. He clutched his assiduously cleaned and sharpened axe and looked around at the well-organized pelts lining the interior for signs of immediate danger.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stepped out into the rain. Today they were scheduled to raid the village, which they spent weeks reconnoitering in small groups, so as not to raise suspicion. Their camp was set up deep in the trees surrounding the village and you had to really be looking to see them in the heavy downpour. He quickly readied himself and joined his companions at the edge of the forest. Under the cover of the storm, they crept up and seeped into the village before the village roosters even opened their eyes.
The attack began, not with a warcry, but with the muffled sounds of blades sinking into the unconscious, extending their slumber indefinitely. Finally, someone in the village sounded an alarm and the fighting commenced in earnest.
“It’s hard to explain,” Erland said to his closest and only friend, Sture, “The settings all seem foreign and overly bright, the people all seem so… clean, and that’s not to mention the magical carriages and glowing parchments I told you about the other day,” he continued as he plunged his axe into a farmer charging at him with a pitchfork. Careful not to get too much blood on himself, he put his foot on the farmer’s shoulder and shoved the body away from the embedded axe.
“Odin is testing you,” Sture said. “Now, more than ever, you mustn’t let that old trickster distract you.” Sture swung his sword through a wooden door, fortuitously striking down a man cowering behind it. “See, brother, the gods reward focus!”
“You’re probably right,” Erland conceded, but he couldn’t shake how much he actually enjoyed the dreams. Was he born in the wrong time? Did the dreams take place in the past? Was he among the gods in his sleep? Or was it the future? Had man managed to master the ways of the gods? Why do “accountants” kill so few people? What kind of a name was “Steve?” By Odin’s hammer, what was a Kia?!
These thoughts plagued his waking hours. He inexplicably yearned for “oatmeal,” which he knew bore a striking resemblance to gruel, but was considerably sweeter. For the time being, he shrugged it off as best he could, assuring himself that setting fire to the small structures he had cleared of living inhabitants and their valuables would provide sufficient comfort and, he thought with a sigh, distraction.
Erland was tired after a long day of murder and pillaging and asleep before his head even landed on his furs.
The oatmeal Steve always ate for breakfast was done. He took it out of the microwave after the requisite one-minute cool-down suggested by the box, then stirred in some sliced banana. He sat down at his designer table and watched the morning news while he ate, sipping half-caf (the fully caffeinated stuff made him jittery).
When he got to work, there was a sign hung over his desk that read, “Happy Birthday Steve!” Honestly, he had forgotten that it was his birthday, and he was deeply troubled that the sign ruined his cubicle’s functional aesthetic.
Gary leaned out of the cubicle next to him, “Hey man! Happy Birthday!” Steve found a way to appreciate that, as he considered Gary to be one of his closest friends. Steve didn’t know if Gary was married or if he had children, if Gary had grown up in the area or moved there, or anything at all, really, except that he liked his coffee black, he preferred the double Windsor knot for his ties, and he also kept mostly to himself. They never talked outside of work, and they didn’t talk that much at work either, but that’s exactly what Steve wanted from a friend.
Steve did not appreciate the Happy Birthday song lead by Jarred at lunch. Most of his coworkers were off key and Steve didn’t like all the attention. He hoped that taking down the sign would stop this nonsense before it started, but no luck. Thankfully, he made it through the rest of the day largely unbothered and went home with a small piece of leftover cake, that he took solely to appease Janet – the habitually disheveled receptionist who bought the cake. He promptly threw it in the trash as soon as he got home and popped his usual evening meal into the microwave.
* * *
Erland was shaken awake by Sture. “The Christians have found us!” He ran from Erland’s tent, sword in hand, followed closely by Erland. His fellow Norsemen were falling all around him as the heavily-armored Christians went from tent to tent, slashing at anything that moved with glinting longswords.
Erland swiveled around and caught one of the knights in the neck with his blade just before the knight caught him. He tried hefting the axe away from the collapsing Christian, but it had lodged itself in the mangled metal of the chestpiece, and he knew if he pulled too hard he’d be spattered with the Christian’s blood. Heavy footsteps came up quickly behind him and they were upon him before he could loosen his axe. He turned in time to see the longsword enter his abdomen to the hilt, then slide back out again, bringing with it a torrent of his own innards.
He collapsed to the floor and stared up at the sky. As the clouds cleared for a moment, he expected to see his life flash before his eyes as the Valkyries came down to carry him to Valhalla. Instead he saw only the sliver of blue sky as it faded into darkness, and for whatever reason, it was the events of Steve’s life that flooded his consciousness. He remembered growing up in the suburbs of Nebraska. He remembered being bullied in high school. He remembered his quiet, study-intensive college career. He remembered the sense of pride he felt when he earned his CPA credential.
Steve’s 5:45am alarm woke him from a restless sleep. “What a weird dream…” he said to no one in particular, then he started his daily routine, just as he always did, contented in his clean and orderly existence.