He knew he couldn’t run much further. His lungs burned with the effort and his teeth ached as he inhaled the dense, wet fog that seemingly blanketed every square inch of the island of Hopeless Maine. His legs felt like bags of wet sand as they carried him out of the thick woodland and to the edge of the granite cliffs that held back the Atlantic Ocean.
Realising he had nowhere to go he fell to his knees and looked down over the edge, towards the clamour of the water crashing against the rocks below. He couldn’t remember when he had started running or even how he had come to be on this cursed island. He just knew he had to get away.
The sound of branches being ripped from a tree focused his mind. He looked round to see the creature that was pursuing him. It was nearly eight feet tall, covered in furry, dark green and brown scales. Yellow eyes blazed at him hungrily as a blue, forked tongue licked saliva from its sharpened teeth.
“What do you want?” He shouted breathlessly at the beast. “Why do you constantly haunt my dreams?”
The beast’s eyes widened as it began to charge. He tried to get up and run, but it was no use. His legs refused to push against the ground. It was only when he looked down that he realised the ground was breaking away from the edge of the cliff. He scrambled forward, but it was too late. He instinctively reached out, succeeding only in grabbing a handful of dust, before falling towards the rocks below.
Doctor Cornelius Porridge woke with a start and stared, out of breath, at the ceiling. Blinking as sweat rolled from his forehead and into his eyes, he pushed the blanket down to the bottom of the bed and sat up. Despite it being the middle of January and no fire being lit, the sweat made his nightshirt cling to him as if it were a second skin. He looked around the room and realised he had been dreaming again.
He washed and dressed and as he was waxing his red moustache he looked at himself in the mirror and said, “How did you know it was a dream?” He stared at his unanswering reflection for several moments before putting on his greatcoat and top hat and letting himself out of the house.
When the steel tipped arrow thudded into his front door, missing his head by less than an inch, Porridge began to wonder if it was going to be one of those days. It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to kill him. In the six months since his return from a two year expedition in the Arctic and Northern Canada, there had been several attempts on his life. At first he thought the falling plant pot that had shattered by his feet had been blown off the high wall by the wind. Then there had been the horse drawn carriage that had lost control coming down Steep Hill in Lincoln. It was perfectly understandable that the driver had lost control. It was reckless of him to even attempt such a descent. It was strange however, that there was no sign of him when the horses had been steered away from him at the last moment.
It was only when he woke one morning face to face with the frothing mouth of a rabid llama that Porridge began to suspect foul play was afoot. Fortunately he was in the habit of keeping a loaded blunderbuss under his pillow for just such emergencies. It was as the beast began to chew the cud, getting ready no doubt for the first projectile of spittle, that Porridge grabbed his trusty weapon and let fly. The result had left a nasty mess on the curtains, but it was for the best he told Gertrude, his horrified maid.
Porridge pulled out the still quivering arrow and inspected the hole that it had made in his front door. “I wonder if his Lordship will lend me a fiver to get that fixed?” he mused. He turned around to look for the failed archer and noticed a group of people standing near the house. I wonder if they saw anything, Porridge wondered as he slowly walked over to the small crowd. As he drew near he could see that everyone had gathered around a woman prostrate on the floor.
“It was horrible,” cried the woman. “It was covered in green and brown scales and had yellow eyes like the devil himself.”
“Impossible,” said Porridge to himself. Shaking himself out of his reverie he stalked towards the prone woman. Kneeling down, he put his hand on her shoulder, “Did you say Green and brown scales?” asked Porridge. The woman looked at him and weakly nodded. “Yellow eyes?” the woman nodded again. “About eight feet tall?”
“You saw it too?” the woman asked. “It was horrible,” she re-affirmed.
“Impossible,” Porridge repeated as he released the woman and pushed his way back through the crowd. It was then, as he looked up towards his house, that he noticed the front door was open. He was certain he had closed it. He looked at the arrow in his hand. He had just locked the door when it had struck, narrowly missing his right ear. The door had definitely been closed. Also, it was a Tuesday. A fact in itself quite unremarkable, but Tuesday was Gertrude’s day off and she never came near the place if she didn’t have to. When he had left the house it had been empty, which could only mean one thing. Someone, or something, had gone in.
Porridge looked around in vain for a constable. “Typical,” he muttered. “Never one close by when you need one.”
He threw the arrow onto the floor and pulled a navy flintlock from inside his greatcoat. Gently pushing the front door open, Porridge stepped over the threshold and into the hallway.
“Who’s there?” he called, his voice croaking rather more than he would have liked. If it was a man he could dispatch him without any hesitation, but the thought of finally coming face to face with the beast that had been haunting him for the past six months had set his nerves on edge.
“I have a pistol,” he shouted. The affirmation engendering a firmness to his voice.
Porridge drew level with the door to the sitting room, it was ajar. He never left the doors inside open for fear of fire spreading. His mouth was dry and he could hear his heart pounding. Porridge had no doubt the creature was inside.
He drew breath and kicked the sitting room door open with a violence he hadn’t realised he could muster. The door crashed against a wooden bookcase. Porridge was showered with books as the bookcase wobbled in a most precarious way. A shadow darted from the window. Porridge instinctively threw out the hand containing the pistol towards the window and pulled the trigger.
A small hole appeared in the window as the small, lead ball flew into the street and shattered the glass of a nearby street lamp. Porridge’s attention was diverted from the window by a dull thud followed by a loud creak. He turned to look at the book case as he realised the massive oak structure and the several hundred volumes it contained was falling towards him.
His face paled as the realisation dawned on him that this was the end. Before he could draw breath the shadow fired towards him, hitting him like a cannonball in the midriff. Porridge slid into the hallway gasping for breath. As he managed to draw oxygen into his body he heard books falling, like leather raindrops, onto the floor. The books were followed by the crash of oak shelves as the bookcase shattered.
The sound in the sitting room faded into irrelevance compared to the sight unveiling itself in the hallway. A huge creature, a cross between a bear and a dragon, stood before him. Its yellow eyes glared at Porridge with complete puzzlement.
“I say old boy, what on earth do you think you’re playing at?” asked the creature, pushing the words through a gap between its two front fangs.
“W…what?” stammered Porridge.
“That firearm,” the creature pointed at the pistol. “You could have hurt someone.”
Porridge blinked as the creature flicked a thin, blue forked tongue at him.
“My pistol, I still have it,” said Porridge as he pointed it at the creature.
“It’s a single fire flintlock, so it won’t do any further harm unless you throw it.”
“What do you want?” gasped Porridge as he let the pistol fall to the floor.
“Well, a thank you would be nice.”
“You’re welcome. After all, I did just save your life in there,” the creature gestured in the direction of the sitting room.
“Save me? You’ve been trying to kill me for the last six months,” exclaimed Porridge as he struggled to sit up.
“Kill you? Nonsense. If it wasn’t for me you would have been dead six months ago.”
“What about the bookcase?” asked Porridge.
“You had far too many books on the top shelves,” said the creature. “When you kicked the door open with such force into the bookcase, even I wouldn’t have been able to stop it crashing over. Quite unnecessary if I may say so ”
“What about the arrow? That only just missed me.”
“Yes, it did, but it didn’t miss the Loxosceles reclusa on the door,”
“Loxosceles reclusa,” repeated the creature. “A brown recluse spider. Quite deadly and about to bite you. I don’t know how you didn’t see it. One bite and your bowels would become an unstoppable force of nature.”
“Oh,” said Porridge, not entirely convinced.
“What about the llama?”
“Alouitious, the llama. I sent him to watch over you. Why did you shoot him?”
“He was rabid.”
“He was frothing at the mouth.”
“He wasn’t rabid, he was just a messy eater.”
“He had red eyes,” added Porridge.
“Yes, he’d been crying. His girlfriend had just left him. I asked him to do me a favour, I thought it would take his mind off things and you shot him. Talk about having a bad day,” the creature shook its head and looked at Porridge. “He was very upset and he’s not too keen on coming back either. After everything that’s happened I can’t say I blame him to be honest.”
Porridge studied the creature for several seconds. “What about the plant pot?”
“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. I did whistle though. Stopped you in your tracks.”
“So you didn’t push it?”
“No, why would I push it? It was the wind.”
Porridge looked slightly crestfallen, but rallied when he remembered the runaway carriage.
“Well, what about the runaway carriage? There was no driver and you were nowhere to be seen.”
“Ah yes. The driver had lost control. I managed to throw him off and steer the carriage away from you at the last moment. The horses seemed quite spooked, I can’t imagine why.”
Porridge raised an eyebrow. “There was no one driving,” he insisted.
“I didn’t want you to see me so…I hid.”
“Where could you hide on an open carriage?”
“It was my defence instinct kicking in. When I want to hide I become…invisible.”
“This is ridiculous,” snorted Porridge.
“How else do you explain the horses turning at the last moment?”
Porridge considered the question as he stared at the creature.
“Do it now. Become invisible.”
“I can’t,” said the creature with an indignant tone. “I can only do it when I’m startled or under stress,” the creature could tell Porridge was still having trouble believing him and decided to push on. “Anyway, the driver was an idiot. He should never have been allowed to drive a carriage down such a steep hill.”
“He wasn’t allowed. The City Magistrates banned all carriages from using that street because of the sharp incline.”
“The City Magistrates you say,” the creature looked out of the window before settling his unnerving gaze straight at Porridge. “Tell me Doctor Porridge, do you know where you are right now?”
“I’m in the City of Lincoln. In my house. In the hallway to be precise.”
“Are you certain?”
“Quite certain. Where do you think we are?
“Well, I’m afraid we’re not in the City of Lincoln and we’re certainly not in your hallway.”
“Of course we’re in my hallway,” said Porridge, unaware he was angrier at the creature’s geographical repudiation than he was in fear of its physical presence or intent. “Where else do you think you are?”
The creature studied the prone figure for several seconds before reaching out a muscular, scaly paw. Porridge shuffled back, but the creature grabbed hold of his arm and hauled him to his feet as easily as if he were a kitten and walked into the sitting room. Porridge followed the creature as it cleared a path through the fallen books to the drinks cabinet. The creature poured brandy into two glasses and offered one to Porridge. He hesitated.
“Take it,” the creature said. “You may need it with what I’m about to tell you.”
Porridge took the glass and sat in a large leather chair, satisfied that if the creature had wanted him dead they wouldn’t be drinking brandy together.
“How did you get back?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” said Porridge, the question taking him by surprise.
“The island of Hopeless Maine. How did you get from there to here?”
Porridge shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. In the six months since his escape from that dark, mist shrouded island he had often wondered exactly how he had returned. He had spent two years surveying Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in a small, hydrogen filled dirigible. During his last flight he had been caught up in a huge storm which had caused considerable damage. He was already losing height when the gondola was hit by lightning and caught fire. It was only by luck, or so he had thought, that he found land. The island of Hopeless, Maine.
“I can’t remember,” he said after a short pause.
“Let me see if I can help restore your memory,” said the creature. “You were undoubtedly drawn to the island by the lighthouse on the North shore. You actually crashed by a small lake on the South side of the island. I was being held captive in that lake,” the creature’s face altered. Porridge wasn’t sure if it was a smile or indigestion.
“There are squid in that lake,” continued the creature, “Who now think you’re a deity.”
“I’m worshipped by a cephalopod?”
“Not just one, there’s a whole village down there. We all saw you come down in a ball of flame and they thought you were going to liberate them onto dry land. Whilst they were distracted I made my escape. If it hadn’t been for your, very timely, arrival I may have been next on the menu. I knew I owed you my life so, when I saw your balloon…”
“…Dirigible burning on the shoreline, I had to help.”
“So it was you who dragged me from the shore line and into the woodland?”
“Yes, it was,” said the creature. “The squid were about to come ashore and they would have undoubtedly dragged you back in. They do come out of the water occasionally, usually to hunt, but tend not to venture too far. As soon as you were safe I had to leave as they were rather upset at my disappearance and may have tried something stupid. ”
Porridge realised he hadn’t touched the brandy and took a large gulp. “This is all very interesting,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, “and I’m very grateful, but how do you get into my dreams?”
It was the creatures turn to take a swig of brandy.
“I have the ability to project myself into people’s dreams.”
“Why would you want to?”
“As I said, after your fortuitous arrival helped me escape, I felt I owed you a debt. But every time I tried to say hello, you ran screaming. So I decided to project into your dreams. It was only when there that I realised you are as clumsy when dreaming as you are when you’re awake.”
The furrow on Porridge’s brow deepened.
“They say,” continued the creature, “that if you die in your dreams you will die in reality. I think I’ve saved your life seven times in all. You’re a full time occupation Doctor Porridge.”
“So…” said Porridge, trying to collect his thoughts, “when I was last asleep, you were there. When I fell off the cliff you saved me?”
“Sort of,” said the creature, putting his empty glass next to the decanter. “Except, you weren’t asleep. I caught you just before you hit the rocks and you fainted.”
“But I awoke with a start. My heart was pumping,” said Porridge, the words coming out slowly as the truth sank in.
“No,” said the creature. “As you fainted you re-entered a dream state. I projected myself in and that’s when I saw the spider. Unfortunately, when I fired my crossbow I became visible and a woman saw me. I managed to take the key from your greatcoat and hide in your sitting room,” the creature looked at the fallen bookcase. His attention turned to Porridge at the sound of glass shattering on the floor.
Porridge was slumped in the chair, his shoulders rounded and his face as white as the morning frost.
“So…” he leaned forward in the chair, “…what you’re saying is…I’m still on Hopeless Maine. That this is just a dream?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The remaining blood drained from Porridge’s face and he fainted.
Doctor Cornelius Porridge opened his eyes and looked around. He was in a log cabin which was dimly lit by a small oil lamp resting on a table in the corner of the room. The door opened and the creature from his nightmares walked in. Porridge felt no fear.
“Ah, I see you’re awake. No ill effects I presume?”
Porridge shook his head. His body ached as though he had fallen off a cliff. He smiled at the thought and looked at the creature.
“So, this is real then? I’m still on this cursed island?”
“I’m afraid so. Many have tried to leave. All have failed.
Porridge sat up on the edge of the bed and extended his hand.
“Doctor Cornelius Porridge,” he said. “At your service.”
The creature extended its huge arm and its paw engulfed Porridge’s hand.
“Barnaby,” said the creature. “Pleased to meet you at last.”
“Tell me,” said Porridge, “why were the squid holding you prisoner?”
Something akin to a smile spread across Barnaby’s face. “Well,” he said, “that’s a long story.”
Written by S. A. Sanderson- author of Out of Time
Based on the Fictional person Dr Cornelius Porridge
Art by Tom Brown