Matt King

author of The Circle War series

The Odd Tale of Winston Riddlebury

This is a short (or not-so-short) story I wrote a few years ago while I was in between projects. It's not my usual superhero story, so I've never talked about it much, but I thought I'd go ahead and put it out there. Sorry about the lack of capes and powers. Next time.

Anyway, here goes...

 

§

 

The Montshire Home for the Terminally Aged sat neatly at the end of Mercy Island, situated beyond the view of the mainland some ninety miles off England's southern shore. From a boat, the modern day castle was nearly indistinguishable from the gray mists of fog, but up close its stone walls and ivory towers painted a compelling scene.

As the lone proprietor of AAA-A Computer Repair, Winston Riddlebury saw the Montshire Home as his opportunity to expand the business beyond connecting a few printers for his mother's knitting friends. He wondered what he would do with actual income after years of being paid in mittens. Perhaps he could afford his own flat. He held onto the thought for a moment before whisking it away amidst a flutter of nerves. No, definitely too soon for that.

He pawed at the red curls on his head, trying to keep them in order despite the North Atlantic winds. Behind him, the water taxi arranged by his employer bobbed lazily at the docks. He waved to the captain, only to realize that the silhouette in the cabin was actually a raincoat. He pretended to swat at a non-existent fly and started up the path to the castle walls.

Winston approached the front door with his neck craned. As doors go, it was one of the most incredible he'd ever witnessed (although, to be fair, there are very few incredible doors in the world). It was at least twenty feet tall and seemed to be made of solid rock.

“My goodness,” he said.

“Impressive, isn't it?”

Winston jumped at the sound. A flat-screen television the size of an open book appeared from a crevice beside the door, rolling along a track attached to the wall. Its screen was filled with the image of a man grinning from one side of the monitor to the other. He had tan skin that was more orange than brown and his hair was formed into waves that looked like an angry ocean frozen in a picture.

“Yes, it's very...” Winston looked straight to the top of the door. “Imposing.”

“All the better to greet you with, my dear!”

“Right. My name is Winston Riddlebury. I’m with AAA-A Computers—the dash stands for ‘Speedy,’” he recited. “I'm here to service the computers you phoned about.”

“Of course you are! Do come in!” the man replied. “Just open the door there and I'll meet you inside!”

Winston often wondered what it would be like to meet someone who spoke only in exclamations, and now he knew. He turned his attention to the task of opening the seemingly immovable door. His search started with a scan of the rocky surface, looking for some sort of trigger that would start the behemoth moving. He ran his fingers over the stone as if it were Braille.

“It has a handle, you know,” the man's voice alerted him over the speaker.

Winston looked down and saw a regular-sized door handle just where it should be. The man on the TV smiled at him and Winston smiled back. He turned the hand-hold and pulled hard enough to move what he thought a mountain of rock might require. The effort landed him directly on the ground.

“Hah hah hah!” The man was beside himself with laughter. “That never gets old! What makes you think your noodley arms can move a huge slab of rock like that? One moment and I'll get it for you.”

After picking himself up, Winston checked his shoulder bag to make sure that he hadn't broken anything in the fall. The contents were out of place, but whole. He stepped back to avoid the door as it separated from the wall and moved sideways.

Now you can come in,” the man said, still giggling.

“I have a mind to report you to your superiors.”

“I wager you'd have a hard time finding someone superior to me. Especially in spelling.”

Winston's reply was interrupted by the sounds of gears and whirring motors as the TV screen rumbled along tracks that continued down the hall.

“Follow me!” the man said. “And just so you're fully prepared when you make your formal complaints later, my name is Marty. I'm head of Patient Relations.”

“Why aren't those doors as big as that one?” Winston asked, pointing toward the set of regular-sized glass doors at the end of the corridor.

“Ooh, perceptive. The larger residents use the stairs below your feet to enter.”

“What stairs are those?”

“The ones you're walking on. It looks like a floor now, but we lower it when the big ones come through.”

Winston thought it a rather inhumane thing to say about obese people, but he decided not to press matters. “Where are the computers that I'll be working on?”

“So eager to dash into your work, I see! Let me think. One computer is just inside the door here at the Welcome Desk, one is about halfway down Hall C, and one is...” Marty lingered on the last word as though he were trying to remember the final location, or make one up. “Well, it's in a secure area.”

“Secure?” Winston stopped. “What sort of place is this?”

“It's a home for the terminally aged, just like the signs say,” Marty answered. “Oh, look! We have refreshments waiting for you inside!”

Marty sped off through an opening to the left of the doors, leaving Winston to wonder if maybe it was too late to make a break for the boat. He decided to go through with it, if only to see what sort of person Marty turned out to be. He pictured him as tall, for some reason (though most people were tall to him) with perfectly-ironed clothes to match the formation of hair on his head. Winston stepped through the open glass sliding doors to check his prediction.

As it turned out, he had the “ironed” part correct.

Marty the Greeter was actually Marty the Three-Foot Robot. He had two rudimentary arms with curved hands at the end and a rectangular metal body that attached to a monorail track built into the floor. The television Marty had been speaking to was now firmly attached as the head of the robot. He noticed for the first time a small camera lens above the screen.

“This is mental,” Winston said to himself as he took in his surroundings. A network of crisscrossing tracks ran throughout the stone halls.

“I didn't tell you the place was automated? I could have sworn that I had. Hmm. In any case, you'll find that it only takes a few of us to keep this place running smoothly. The problem is that my co-workers are out of commission, and that's where you come in.”

“I know nothing about robots,” Winston answered. “I think you've called in the wrong person.”

“You’re assuming I'm some sort of super-advanced computer. Would you believe that I'm actually speaking to you via camera from my home office?”

“I'm not sure what to believe at this point.”

“Hah hah! You have no idea what's ahead of you, which will make watching it unfold incredibly amusing. I wager you don't make it past the first computer.”

“You're a very rude man,” Winston answered. “In fact, I'm considering leaving right now.”

“To go where?” Marty said mockingly. “Back to the boat? You mean the one I radioed to come back this evening?”

“You didn't!”

“I certainly did. Care for some tea?”

Marty's robotic hand jerked away from his side to motion toward the Welcome Desk, where a tray of empty tea cups surrounded a pile of crumbling biscuits. Judging by the green fuzz growing on top, Winston put their age at approximately a dozen years. Also absent was a teapot, something he felt integral to the tea-drinking process.

“I think I'd rather just get started. You said the first computer was here.”

“Oh, yes! You’ll find it behind that counter there.”

Winston placed his bag on the floor as he walked around to the other side of the desk. It was a strange sight to see a work area absolutely void of everything he expected to see in an office space. There were no cabinets or pictures on the desk. No drawers with papers falling out of them. There was only a single monochrome monitor connected to a computer sitting on the floor. A cursor flashed in the upper-left-hand portion of the screen.

“This is quite an old machine. I haven't seen anything like this since I was a boy.”

Marty rolled to Winston's side. “It's a bit long in the tooth, but it gets the job done. Er, rather it used to. All we need it to do is run our daily routines, which, as you can see, it's having trouble with at the moment.”

“I'm not sure I can be much help with something this old.” He typed a few letters on the keyboard. The screen remained blank. He next reached for a mouse that wasn't there. Seemingly out of options, he decided his next course of action was to turn it off. Winston frowned as he scanned the plain white case for a power switch. He eventually happened across a wide lever on the side and pulled it down. He had to maneuver himself beneath the counter to get enough leverage to flip it back up.

“There, that’s got it.”

A bellowing roar echoed through the halls, one that was decidedly not mechanical. Winston shot up, knocking his forehead against the bottom of the desk in the process.

“Oh look!” Marty exclaimed. “You fixed it!”

“What just happened?” asked Winston.

“I'm no computer expert, but I think you simply turned it off and on again. Genius, if you ask me.”

“No, that sound. It was like a lion.”

“Oh, that,” Marty said. His screen turned in a complete circle, pausing when it pointed toward the hallway behind him. “That would be one of the more vocal residents.”

Winston stood and looked over Marty's head. “Are there loony people behind those doors?”

“Loony? Nooooo. Just a little overzealous at times, that's all.”

The wall behind the Welcome Desk shuddered as a door opened, interrupting their conversation. A robot emerged from the dusty shadows, similar to Marty, but painted in a shade of pink normally reserved for hospitals and indigestion medicine. Its TV screen flickered to life as it rode the rails to the front of the desk.

“Rhonda!” Marty shouted. “Hello, dear. So good to see you again! I hope you've kept busy on your holiday.”

Rhonda answered with a cough. It was the kind of deep hack only a woman embroiled in a lengthy love affair with cigarettes could conjure. Winston marveled at its length. As the screen's image came into focus, he got his first glimpse of the Montshire Home's resident masseuse, as her magnetic nametag stated. She appeared through a cloud of smoke, a cigarette hanging from her lips and large rollers in her gray hair. He struggled for an adjective that might describe that state of her skin. He decided on “topographic.”

“Well it's about bloody time,” she said. Her screen swiveled toward Winston. She didn't appear impressed. “I suppose you're the one responsible for getting me going again?”

“Yes, well I—”

“It took you long enough. Marty said he phoned you about the job last week.”

“I had other appointments!” Winston shot back. He couldn't believe he was arguing with a television.

“If you say so.”

There was a sound of shuffling feet across the floor as someone approached from behind.

“Is someone going to bring around the pudding, or do I have to make it myself?” a man asked from the other side of the desk.

“Mr. Fitzgerald!” Marty answered. “What are you doing out here? Get back to your room this instant!”

“But it's overdue!”

Winston turned and froze as he took in the sight of the rather large beast standing behind the counter. Its green skin was covered in warts and smeared with black sludge from top to bottom. Flaps of webbing flexed on the side of its head like dragon's wings. When it spoke, it did so through heavy folds of skin covering the sides of its mouth.

“Oh,” it said, “I see. Another nobody they sent in off the street to do some chores for them. Lazy bastards!”

Winston stammered, “What... I, er... I mean...”

“Be nice to our guest!” Marty shouted at the beast. “And where are your clothes?”

“I just got in from a dip in the pool,” the monster replied.

“I see you didn't bother to clean the pool before entering.”

“I'm not a sucker like him,” it said, motioning with the thumb of its clawed hand toward Winston. “You do your own work.”

“Ten minutes and you'll have your pudding,” Marty replied, shooing him with a wave of his arm. “Now go back to your room before you frighten our new friend any further.”

The monster bared his sharp teeth at Winston in something that was probably meant to be a grin. “My apologies,” it said.

“Cheers,” Winston replied. It was the only word he could form with his teeth still clenched.

The monster turned and headed toward the far hallway. In his wake, he left a line of dirty footprints.

“I would like to leave this establishment,” Winston muttered.

Marty's hand patted him on the hip. “Only two more to go!”

“I don't want to do two more. I want to go home.”

“RIght,” Marty replied, “I probably should have told you what you were getting into.”

Probably?” Winston wagged his finger at the hallway. “That was a bog monster in front of me just now! And he talked!”

“We prefer the term 'alternative life form’ here. ‘Monster’ has such a negative connotation.”

“Of course it does! They eat people!”

“Not anymore, it would seem. He was fairly adamant about his pudding, wouldn't you say?”

“You told me this was a retirement home.”

“And it is! It's simply a retirement home for alternative life forms, that's all.”

Winston began to pace. “Please, can you just get me off this island?”

Marty shook his head on screen. “We went over this, Winchester.”

“It's Winston.”

“Yes and your ride will be here soon enough. I just need you to get these last two friends of mine back online. After that, I'll make sure you're whisked away before the next unpleasant dessert confrontation. Deal?”

Winston exclaimed something. It might've been a word, maybe even one that would've gotten his mouth washed out with soap as a child, but his mind was too busy constructing survival scenarios to worry about language. “Fine,” he managed at last, “so long as you come with me.”

“Oh, I wouldn't dream of missing the chance to see more of you in action.” Marty's screen turned toward Rhonda. “Rhonda, I hate to make you do this, love, but until we get Leo back in working condition, could you please see to it that our friends in Hall B get their sweets?”

“A pleasure,” she replied in a tone that implied it was anything but. “Good luck, Ralston.”

“It's Winston.”

“Don't forget your bag!” Marty shouted. He slipped his arm underneath the shoulder strap and dragged it to Winston’s side.

“Right,” Winston replied. He took a deep breath that did little to calm his nerves. “Let’s get this over with.”

Marty sped along the track in front of them, motoring toward a set of doors leading away from the Welcome Area. “I think you're really going to enjoy this next wing we're about to visit.”

“What do you keep in there? Werewolves?”

Marty laughed nervously.

“You don't actually have werewolves around here, do you?”

“Here? No. Noooooooo. Not a one! Now, if you look to your right, you can see some of our fairy residents.”

Winston cast a glance into the first open room they approached. Although he supposed it could have been the air conditioning he heard, he thought he could pick up a low hum coming from inside. A small birdcage hung from the ceiling. Behind the bars was a faint ball of blue light.

“That's what a fairy looks like? A little glowing thing?”

“So observant!”

“It’s a bit cruel to keep them in cages, don’t you think?”

“Cages? I'll have you know those are considered palaces by the fairies. They adore them.”

“But what do they need a cage for when they have that whole big area?”

Marty’s screen turned to look into the room. “I'm no fairy expert, but I'd guess it's because we have a bit of a rat problem.”

“On an island?”

“Unfortunately. It's a side effect of keeping trolls.”

“Trolls,” Winston repeated. “This place just keeps getting better and better.”

As they passed a staircase—which Winston couldn't help but notice was wider than normal—they felt a series of rumbles beneath their feet. “What was that?” he asked.

“That would be the aforementioned trolls, most likely.”

“Are they safe?”

“I don't think they're in any immediate danger.”

“No, I mean will they harm us?”

“Not likely! They're a passive bunch for being so large. With teeth like theirs, though, you'd think they'd show more interest in people.”

Winston felt another urge to run. He wondered how long he could keep himself from following through. “None of this seems possible.”

“Isn’t it amazing what fantastic things you find when you leave your mum’s basement?”

“I do not live there!”

“Oh, no? So that was your secretary who answered the phone with ‘Riddlebury residence?’”

“It’s a temporary arrangement.”

“Of course it is.”

Marty approached another set of doors marked “Hall C.” They opened with a sharp buzz as he got closer. Instead of another corridor, Winston found himself in a large open room filled with square tables, each surrounded by wooden chairs of various sizes. Floor-to-ceiling windows shed gray light in beams across the tile floor.

“This place looks awfully deserted.”

“There's still a bit of daylight,” Marty answered. “Our residents tend to prefer nighttime activity.”

“They don't eat supper? It seems like it's getting to be about that time.”

Marty led him to a set of stainless steel doors. “Funny you should say that, because you're about to help me turn on the cook.”

Winston followed him into the kitchen. He stopped and stood for a moment, gawking at the surroundings. As best he could figure, he had somehow managed to wander into a terrarium. There was dirt everywhere: on the floor, on the counters, even some on the various sun lamps strung up around the room. Sprouting from the dirt were several large plants with purple flowers. It was a green thumb's dream; except, perhaps, for the cloud of insects teeming about.

“I don't think I want to go any further,” he said.

“Don't be silly. It's just a few moths and beetles.”

“Can't you just bring the machine to me?”

Marty held his metal arms up for inspection.

“Right,” Winston replied.

Marty sped along toward the back of the room. His track elevated to a few inches above the layer of dirt. Winston placed a cautious step on the rails to see if they would hold his weight. They seemed sturdy enough.

“I hate to ask, but why the bugs?”

“The residents love them,” Marty answered. “Even the ones who were more the meat-eating types back in their day have become accustomed to them. They're very high in fiber.”

“What's that then?” Winston asked, pointing at a refrigerator in the corner.

“Pudding. You can sell the idea of bugs for dinner, but even the most agreeable sort won't do without pudding once they've tasted it.” He came to a sliding door on the wall. “Now, here we are. Leo is just through here.”

The closet light flickered to life as they crossed through the doorway, revealing rows of empty shelves on the wall, each covered with a thin layer of dust. Several butterfly nets filled the back corner. Sitting beside them was another computer.

“Let's take a look,” Winston said. He flipped the power switch and felt mild disappointment that the computer didn't come to life.

Marty brought his hands to his metal hips. “Oooh, a tough nut to crack!”

Winston inspected the back of the machine and immediately noticed that its power cord was absent. “I think you have a prankster in your midst,” he said. “You're missing a cord.”

“Which one?”

“The power cord.”

“Oh. That sounds important.”

“Yes, it's quite necessary. I happen to carry a spare one with me.”

“Pfft,” Marty miffed. “For a pretty penny, I'm sure.”

“It's free of charge,” Winston replied. “They're left, right, and center these days. I'll just plug it back here and... There we are. That's got it.”

The dusty computer started with a low hum. A sharp beep was the only warning they got before the ceiling opened up behind them to drop another robot to the floor.

“Leo!” said Marty. “Now there's a sight for sore eyes.”

To Winston, he was merely a sight. Leo's cylindrical frame was at least a foot taller than Marty, with a body divided into four layers, each containing three arms and a monitor. At the end of his arms were three jointed metal tines that acted as his hands. The robot moved on a bed of air created by jets at the base of his body. Leo began tapping his fingers together as he floated toward Winston.

“What's he doing?” Winston asked. He found himself backing up toward the wall.

“Relax,” Marty replied. “He's just picking up his nets.”

One by one, Leo's arms snatched up the butterfly nets lying in the corner. With the last net in hand, he turned one of his screens toward Winston. The weathered man on the other side looked unhappy to make anyone’s acquaintance, least of all Winston’s. “Well,” he said, “it's about time, youuuuuu…wanker.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me, youuuuuu…tit.”

“Have I done something to offend you?”

“You’ll have to excuse Leo,” Marty replied. “He’s a bit rough around the edges.”

“I know something else that’s a bit rough around the edges,” Leo said, chuckling.

“I don’t want to know the meaning behind that.”

“Leo,” Marty said. “I’m so pleased to have you back! Would you mind tending to dinner? Our guests will be arriving soon.”

“With pleasure,” Leo replied. His screen turned toward Winston. “Until next time, youuuuu…”

Winston crossed his arms.

“Youuuuu…”

“Let’s have it then.”

Cock.”

“What?!”

“Let him go,” Leo replied. “We wouldn’t want any of those veins on your forehead to pop.”

“That man is a menace!” Winston replied, pointing. “How has he managed to stay employed?”

“A good bug chef is not as easy to find as you would think. And, as you can see, he has a certain panache for corralling the little buggers.”

Leo was already whirring about the kitchen, each of his sections turning independently to catch the insects and moths that his jets blew into the air. He was a tornado of activity, and it wasn't lost on Winston that the debris cloud following him was likely filled with a three-course meal for a hungry beast.

“If we could just move along to the last one then,” Winston said.

“Hmm?” Marty replied. “Oh, right! Yes, the final machine. Look, I'm actually feeling a bit under the weather all of a sudden. Long day and all. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind showing yourself to the last machine? It’s very easy to find. Right through these doors.”

Winston followed him back out into the hall. “What do you mean you’re feeling under the weather? You’re a robot last I checked.”

“I’m only a robot where you are. Over in my house I’m a man with a case of the trots.”

“Didn’t need to know that,” Winston replied.

Marty rolled to a set of double doors beside the kitchen. There was no light on the other side of their windows. “You’ll find the computer in a closet at the end of the hallway. Don’t worry; you’re certain to be safe! The worst that could bother you would be a ball of slime, something even you could outrun, I’d imagine. They harden a bit in their old age.”

“Are you mad? I’m not going down there.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not safe!”

“I expect you’d rather be down an empty hall than in here if you wait much longer.”

Winston paused. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I know how skittish you are around the unfamiliar, as it were. When that clock on the wall hits the top of the hour, we’re going to have quite the crowd in here. Oh, look! We’re only a few seconds away!”

Winston found the subsequent quiet unsettling. As soon as the chimes ushered in the new hour, silence gave way to pandemonium.

Each of the hall's four doors slammed open, letting in a stream of minotaurs, witches, warlocks, trolls, bats, and the aforementioned ball of goo. All came bursting through with ravenous looks to their faces (except for the goo), and all traveled at the speed of an agitated snail. They were as elderly a group as he'd ever seen. The mob grew to a crowd, which eventually spawned into a potential fire code violation. Winston grabbed his bag and held it to his chest like a shield.

A Yeti glanced at Winston and licked his lips. One of the bats swooped uncomfortably close on its way to the buffet line. As the crowd drew closer, Winston’s frazzled nerves finally gave in. He took off through the doorway, unsure of his direction but determined to get as far away from the nightmare-filled cafeteria as he could.

“I’ll be here when you return!” Marty called after him.

Winston stumbled into the darkness. After only a few steps, he ran into a geriatric three-headed dog.

“Are they all out of millipedes yet?” it asked in chorus.

“Ahhhh!” Winston replied.

He skirted around the beast, keeping his bag up for defense, until he ran out of light to show his way. When he looked back, he saw the silhouette of the hellhound making its way into the cafeteria. Winston moved on, hoping to see the closet once his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

He took a step forward, only his foot seemed to fall straight through the floor. Unable to pull himself back, he found himself in a free-fall into a smoky abyss.

Winston grabbed wildly for any sort of handhold. Something wet and sticky whacked him across the nose and before he knew it, his descent was slowed by a network of gooey strings, angling him down gently and breaking his fall until he was merely rolling along like a rock down a hillside. The webbing deposited him in a flat patch of dirt. He laid there for a moment, unsure whether to believe he survived the ordeal. His breaths echoed in the darkness. When he rolled onto his back, he saw a hint of light up above.

“Hello?” Winston yelled. He stood and projected his voice skyward. “I need help! Someone! Anyone! I've fallen down a hole!”

Something moved behind him. He swung around, once again holding his bag up for defense. “Who's there?” he said. “Whoever you are, I don't have any insects for you!”

“Are you always this loud?” a bestial voice answered. The owner sounded strained and tired.

“I'll leave quietly,” Winston responded. “Just don't hurt me.”

“I'm not going to hurt you. For Pete’s sake, hold on a second and I'll find the light switch.”

Winston found himself backing up against the sloping web as he listened to the beast move away from him. The strands beneath his feet trembled from the weight of the monster as it walked.

“Ah, here we are.”

There was a buzzing sound as the lights came on, followed closely by a screaming sound as Winston began grasping at the web to escape the giant hairy spider closing in on him. He could only manage a few feet before the slope sent him sliding back down. He tried to will his tired legs to push higher, but the ascent was too great.

Defeated, Winston prepared himself for a gruesome death, one that he would meet bravely with his eyes sealed shut.

“Are you quite done?”

Winston whimpered in response.

“Very well, then. I'll just sit over here while you collect yourself.”

After a few moments of living with the expectation of horrendous murder, Winston relaxed an eyelid to check on its progress. Where a four-foot tall black woolly spider had been just a few seconds before, there sat an old man in a recliner covering his legs with an afghan.

“What happened to the spider?” Winston asked.

“I thought you'd scream less if I turned back into my human form. It seems to have worked.”

The revelation wasn't enough to relax Winston right away, although he did lower his hands to his sides. “Where have you taken me?”

“I haven't taken you anywhere. You fell in here. Don't you remember?”

“I remember running away from something only to fall down this hole.”

“Hmm. Suppose it doesn’t matter. Make yourself at home while I radio our warden that you're here.” He motioned toward a plaid couch bookended by two lamps.

While the man fiddled with a telephone device that looked like it came from 19th century, Winston situated himself at the far end of the couch. He sat leaned forward with his bag on his lap, ready to run at a moment’s notice, which was perhaps wishful thinking given the fact that he could find no exit to his current predicament. The room was nothing but hollowed out dirt with a few scattered pieces of furniture about. It looked like a cave dressing up as a proper home for Halloween.

“Couldn’t raise him,” the former spider said as he placed the phone in its cradle. “We’ll just have to entertain ourselves until he returns.”

“Wonderful,” Winston replied in a fractured voice. “You have a, uh…lovely place here.”

“You think so, do you? I suppose you'd call me picky if I told you it felt like a hole in the ground.”

“Actually, I think I'd call you observant.”

A smile appeared on the old man’s face that fell away quickly, as though the necessary muscles were out of practice. He offered Winston an outstretched hand. “I'm William Hawthorne. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mister...”

“Riddlebury,” Winston answered. He shifted closer to the other end of the couch. After a considerable amount of internal coaxing, he offered his hand in kind. “Winston Riddlebury.”

“Of AAA-A Computers, I see.”

Winston looked down at the letters embroidered on the front of his bag. “Yes, the, uh, dash stands for ‘Speedy.’”

“How did you settle on a name like that?”

“It was my mum's idea, actually. She's under the impression that web searches are alphabetical. I figured it best not to argue.”

“I'm afraid technology is little more than magic to me. You were you hired to repair Marty’s mechanical friends, I presume?”

“That's right.”

“A wonder,” he said. His voice trailed off. He cocked his head and squinted as he looked at the ceiling.

Winston looked around for whatever had grabbed his attention. “Are we looking at something?”

“Just thinking,” Mr. Hawthorne replied. “Last I remember, Marty and his cohorts were housed near the entrance to the building. Seems strange that you'd be taken down here.”

“He said the final computer was at the end of the hall.”

Mr. Hawthorne shook his head slowly. He reached for the recliner’s handle and nearly fell to the side as the wood came free of the chair. “Ah, bugger!”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. You know, I hate to complain, but I’ve asked them for exactly one thing over the years: a decent recliner. Then one day I get this lovely piece of cast-off furniture thrown down my web. Do you have any idea what it's like to own a recliner that doesn't recline?”

“I'm sure it's very disappointing.”

Mr. Hawthorne thought for a moment. “Yes, 'disappointing' is a good way to describe it. Anyway, as I was about to explain, I fear your employment here is not quite on the up and up.”

Winston looked back at the web leading to the surface on reflex. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that our friend Marty arranged for you to fall down here.”

“Arranged? I don’t understand why he would do such a—wait a minute! He sent me down here as food, didn’t he?!”

“No, of course not. What with the sad state of my teeth, the worst I could do is gnaw on you until you died of annoyance. No, I do believe Marty is on some sort of mercy mission.”

“Oh,” Winston said. “That’s… surprising. I didn't peg him for altruistic.”

“I wouldn't go that far. I think he's worried that the coffers will run dry if he doesn't keep me happy. My estate runs the establishment, you see. Ever since I stopped going up, he's employed a few schemes to improve my spirits.”

“Why don’t you go up with the others?”

Mr. Hawthorne’s stare fell to his lap. He shook his head a single time. “That’s a bit of a tale.” He turned his attention to replacing the lever to his recliner. When it wouldn’t go on, he dropped it on the floor in frustration and sighed heavily. “I’m sure you’ll want to be going. Sorry to have frightened you. If you wait long enough, I’m sure Marty will throw a rope down for you.”

It was at this moment that Winston's brain divided itself into two camps and set themselves up in trenches for all-out warfare. One side was beside itself with glee at the thought of escaping the pit of a werespider with all of his limbs intact. He liked that side quite a bit. The other side—the one he wouldn't have thought possible given his current situation—took one look at the elderly man struggling to rise from his chair and scolded Winston for forgetting his manners. The least he could do was have a chat. The two sides were at a standstill until Mr. Hawthorne's hand slipped on the arm of the chair.

“Wait a minute,” Winston said, holding out his hand to stop him. “There's no need for me to rush off.”

“Oh?”

“Not at all. I'm sure Marty is still busy getting things back on track. We don't have to go up just yet.”

“I thought perhaps you’d want to hurry back to your wife.”

“Oh, I’m not married.”

“Why not?

“Well, I’m sure the fact that I live with my mum has something to do with it.” Winston felt the familiar welt of embarrassment rise at the mention of his living arrangement. He cleared his throat and attempted to divert the conversation. “So, I was curious about your other, err, form, as it were.”

“You're referring to the fact that I'm a large spider when I'm not moonlighting as a decrepit old man.”

“Oh, you're not so bad for an aged gentleman.”

Mr. Hawthorne returned a mild smile. “Truth be told, I prefer the spider form these days. For one thing, I can see better. These lamps can barely shed light on a thimble head. And then there's the mobility it affords me. I may not be able to scurry about like I used to when I was younger, but I can get around better than most.”

“I'm sure.”

“I do wish it didn't hurt so much to alternate between the two, though.”

Winston frowned upon reflection of his behavior. If he'd just given the spider a moment to talk when he first arrived, he might have saved the old man some pain. “I'm sorry about that,” he said. “It was rude of me to act the way I did and make you change just to cater to me.”

Mr. Hawthorne shrugged. “Can't say that I blame you, really. I know I had the same reaction when I saw the spider that bit me.”

“You were bitten?”

“I was. She was beautiful, too. Ah, Mercy Kingsmoore. She was a tremendous woman—tall, beautiful as an autumn sunrise, smart. Had she not had the unfortunate side career as a werespider, she might've been the perfect companion. She bit me during one of our daily walks around the countryside. That's the thing about young werespiders: they can't help but do rash things such as that when they're in their infancy.”

“Infancy? I assumed she was older.”

“Infancy for a werespider is anything less than 50,” Mr. Hawthorne replied. “It's not until you get past that age that you start to settle down and stick to biting things that taste good.”

“What did you do after you were bitten?”

“Cried, mostly. I thought it was the end of the world when she told me. Like a rash fool, I told her I never wanted to see her again. I left the village and took to the mountains. Of course, that didn't last long once the world started to learn about the existence of monsters such as her. And me. Just about everyone here has a story or two to tell you about that time. Me and a couple other lads found this island and started the Montshire Home as a means of escape.”

“That's terrible,” Winston said. “You shouldn't have had to do that if you weren't hurting anyone.”

“Hurting them? Heavens no. If there's one thing the public never could understand it's that monsters have no taste for people. Asking me if I like eating humans is like asking you if you like to eat dirt. You don't eat dirt, do you Winston?”

“No, I don't make a habit of it.”

“Can you imagine being hunted down by a group of angry villagers who accused you of being a dirt-eater? What evidence do they have? That you spend an inordinate amount of time in its presence?”

Winston could only nod his head in agreement. “I see what you mean.”

If he were angry, Mr. Hawthorne did little to show it. “All in the past now,” he said. “And it did have something of a happy ending.”

“Oh?”

“I found Mercy again once we established the Montshire as a safe haven for our kind. We spent the better part of three hundred years together, she and I. In fact, I still have a picture of the two of us on the stand there beside you.”

Sitting on a wooden table beside the couch were rows of black and white photographs, all featured prominently in silver frames.

“The one in the middle, that's us.”

Winston picked up the photograph in the center. The two of them were dressed in clothes he'd only seen in Victorian pictures: tall, dramatic hats and frilly shirts. Winston couldn't help but smile as he studied the way they held each other's hand even while trying to put on an air of regality for the camera. “You're a lovely couple,” he said.

“Aye, we were that.”

“Were?”

Mr. Hawthorne’s smiled as he looked at the picture, but it was a smile tinged with sadness. “She passed away last year,” he said.

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It wasn’t unexpected, I’m afraid, but that hardly made things more palatable. We spent so many years down here. Laughing, telling stories, reminiscing about the way things were. After she was gone… I don’t know. I suppose I’ve had a bit of a time finding my way. You get used to things when you’ve lived with someone for so long. There’s a comfort to routine.” He seemed to catch himself going off on a soliloquy. “Routine’s not something you know much about at your age, what with friends and parties and such.”

Winston looked down at the AAA-A logo his mother embroidered on the front of his bag. “Actually, I know more than a little about it. Today’s the first day I’ve left my neighborhood this year. I live with my mum and I’ve had the same breakfast every day since I was seven.”

“You’ve never left?”

Winston shook his head. “Never had a mind to until today. Maybe it’s like you said, there’s a security to it. When I’m at home, there’s not much danger in running into trolls.”

“Yes, I believe you’ve gone from one extreme to another.”

“Quite. Anyway, once I received Marty’s offer, I figured it was time to have a look around.”

“So how has the experience been?”

The answer that came to Winston’s mind wasn’t the one he was expecting, and he paused to make sure that he believed himself. “You know, despite the oddity of it all, I can’t say it’s been the worst day I’ve ever had.”

“High praise,” Mr. Hawthorne replied.

“Yes, and I’m sure to have plenty of stories to tell when I get back. Can’t remember that ever happening before, really.”

“I do love stories. There’s not much to relate about a hollowed-out dirt cave, though.”

“No,” Winston answered, looking around, “there probably isn’t.”

Mr. Hawthorne turned his attention to the hole leading to the surface. He held it there for a moment before pushing himself up from the chair.

“Wait,” Winston said. “Where are you going?”

“To the surface,” he answered.

“But, aren’t you more comfortable down here?”

Mr. Hawthorne nodded as he got to his feet. “That I am, and I think that’s part of the problem, don’t you? I can’t promise that I’ll stay long, but I suspect it’s worth a look around, as you put it.” He smiled and moved toward the back side of the room. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to change back to spider form. This walking around has made my legs ache. You'll want to stay over there. I wouldn't want to alarm you further.”

Winston could scarcely believe what he was about to say. “Please don't hide on my account. I won't be bothered at all.”

The old man studied him for a moment. “You promise you won't scream?”

“Promise,” Winston replied.

After a thoughtful pause, Mr. Hawthorne nodded and began to lower himself toward the floor. “While I admire your sudden bravery,” he said, “I would advise you to look the other way for a moment.”

Winston didn't argue. He began to study very intently the webbing on the far wall, while at the same time trying to dampen any lingering doubts he had about the creature now forming behind him.

“You can look now,” Mr. Hawthorne said.

Sitting within arm's length of Winston was the giant spider he was sure was about to take his life when he first fell down the webbed hole.

“What a handsome spider you make,” Winston said.

Mr. Hawthorne—now looking at him with four eyes instead of two—tipped an imaginary hat with his front leg. “Much obliged. Tell you what: since Leo’s back in business, why don't we go upstairs to the dining hall for a nice pudding before your boat arrives?”

“I'd love to.”

“Come on then, I’ll give you a ride.”

“How will you do that?”

“By putting you on my back, of course.” Mr. Hawthorne crawled over to him, motioning for Winston to climb onto the top of his body. “Don't worry. You won't hurt me. Not unless your start pulling hairs out.”

“I'll try to be careful,” Winston answered. He stopped himself before getting on. “Wait, what will we say to Marty?”

Mr. Hawthorne scratched his head. “Hadn't thought that through yet. Tell me, do you care to return here someday?”

Winston considered the question. “Actually,” he said, “I think that would be nice.”

“Then we say nothing. He'll likely call you back for more of his 'repairs' soon. Maybe next time I'll meet you at the door to save you the trouble of falling down a hole.”

“Excellent,” Winston answered.

And so it was that Winston Riddlebury of AAA-A Computers found himself riding on the back of a werespider on his way to a room full of trolls, gargoyles, and witches so that he could share in a bowl of pudding before his trip back to the mainland. They talked of history, and football, and the history of football until his boat arrived. Marty escorted him to the front door, stopping just shy of where his tracks ended.

“The Montshire Home thanks you for your hard work, Winston! I'm not sure where we'd be without your technical expertise. Your deft touch with a power switch will be the thing of legends!”

Winston waved to the boat pulling into the docks before answering. “You're certainly welcome.”

“Can we call on your services again? It seems like these computers go down just as fast as they come up sometimes.”

Winston smiled at Marty's image on the screen. Over the robot’s shoulder, he saw Mr. Hawthorne lift one of his legs in a wave. Winston returned the gesture amidst a tinge of sadness at the thought of going home to a world void of monsters and things that go bump in the night.

“Of course,” he answered. “I'm sure I'll be back. Computers are never too reliable these days, you know.”

 

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