Thursday Jul 18

MarkBudman Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His writing appeared in Five Points, PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney's, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou'wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly,  Short Fiction (UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press. He co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton.

The Secretary 

                          She hasn’t seen His face—He’s so
    She’s long resigned He’ll never know or love her   
But still can wish there were some call, some proof   
               That He requires a greater service of her.  
                                                                                                                                                      R. S. Gwynn

The spider should have been dead by now. Sitting at his desk 24/7, as he usually did, the secretary had been watching it for a whole week. The spider hadn’t caught anything yet, and it was unlikely it ever would. Nothing edible was flying or crawling here. The secretary knew that because he never left the office.

How long can the spider stay alive without food? How did it get here anyway?

The secretary, sitting between two phones, the red and the white, opened his memoir again. The working title used to be “The Boss’s Secretary” but he shortened it to just “The Secretary.” He had just finished the first draft. One hundred pages. One for each year of his life. The last forty five had only one sentence per page: “Nothing happened.”

He added the word ‘End” with his steel pen in his beautiful cursive. It looked good.

Then the red phone rang, for the first time in fifty years. Conversely, the white one kept ringing non-stop. In the beginning, the secretary answered every call from the white one. He recorded complaints and requests in the log for the Boss and then washed his hands. Figuratively, of course, because there was no pause between the calls. The secretary had no idea if the Boss acted upon them. He had never seen the Boss, and never talked to Him. He was hired through the US mail. The key to the office as well as the directions came in the mail, too.

After the first five years, the secretary gave up answering. But the white phone kept ringing. It had become just a background hum. White noise to lull the secretary to sleep. If only he could fall asleep.

The secretary graduated from the most prestigious school, first in his class. He had great genes. He did everything right, or at least that what was required of him. Unfortunately, that was what the Office wanted.

Now, the secretary picked up the receiver on the red phone.

“Boss’s Secretary.”

“This is Death, I’m calling in sick.” Her voice was melodic. “Nothing serious. Probably just a cold.”

A week before being hired, the secretary killed one thousand people in one day, from the privacy of his bunker. One-man genocide. He sent a letter to the Boss, by the US mail, admitting to the crime and explaining its details. But the Boss hired him anyway. The Boss knew better.

The secretary recorded Death’s words in the log. It didn’t seem strange to him that Death caught a disease; after all she spent a long time with contagious people. But why didn’t she catch anything until now? He didn’t dare to ask; his contract stipulated that he couldn’t ask questions.

When Death hung up, the secretary closed his eyes. If Death didn’t show up to work that meant no one would die for a while. If Death had a common cold, it would take a week for her to recover. The secretary wondered if Death was an angel. Her voice sounded angelic. What did she look like? Does she know what pain is? Since he couldn’t ask questions, he would never find out.

The secretary didn’t remember how he killed all those people. Did he use a bomb of some kind? Poison? Bio-weapon? Was his memory wiped out? He should have left himself a copy of the letter to the Boss.

On an impulse, the secretary got up, first time in years, picked up his manuscript, walked to the corner and struck at the spider. He examined the wet spot on the last page. The spider’s legs, whatever was left of them, were still twitching.

The secretary contemplated opening the door and asking someone outside. He knew it was useless. Whoever stood there, knew nothing about Death. He wasn’t even sure if he could open the door. He hadn’t tried in years. Last time he did, it was painful.

The secretary came to the window. There was nothing behind the glass except for fog. It changed colors during the day. Now, it was pink.

The calls from the red phone were his raison d'être. And yet he felt no elation. His chest was hardly rising. His pulse was still the same as before: zero beats per minute. Or thereabouts.

The secretary returned to the desk, opened the manuscript and examined the wet spot again. The legs were still twitching. He pulled the page out, opened the fireplace and threw it in. It caught flame immediately. There. Let nature resolve the conundrum if it can.

He began to read it out loud from the opening. “All my life I was extremely diligent and curious. And now I suffer because of that. Curiosity and diligence together are a curse.”

He got up and peered into the fireplace. He imagined something twitching inside. No, it was just the random play of the flames. An angel, a telephone, a pen. Let them be. They won’t last. Even the flames die. But death was no longer his business.