The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Seth Robinson’s upcoming novel, The Observatory. Keep an eye out for the completed e-book, available from the Grattan Street website later this year.
– I –
It was the cold that brought me back, along with the hammer of the engine pulsing through my tailbone. It was ocean cold, the kind that soaks into your bones and chills the marrow. The kind of cold that likes to pretend you’ll never, ever, be warm again. I didn’t know where I was, but the fog must have leaked out of my ears and filled the sky, because suddenly I was moving through it, on the deck of a rust-bucket chugging through black water as slick as ice.
I tried to straighten up, and stopped with a wince. There was a crick in my neck, the kind that suggested a long, upright nap. Okay, physical motion was going to be slow, maybe I would do a little better on the mental front. I pulled myself up and out of my stupor, trying a quick backtrack. I remembered being home, on the couch, and the sensation of my laptop warming my thighs. I’d been wearing jeans and a t-shirt, not the damp cotton slacks I had on now, and definitely not the Harrington jacket, currently doing it’s best against the brutal, seeping cold. Had I gotten dressed and chosen the least seaworthy outfit I could think of for a ferry ride? I glanced around for answers; but there was only the cold, grey fog, and the nearly vacant deck.
There was one other passenger: a woman sitting adjacent to me, staring off towards the bow. She was mid-twenties I guessed, so we were within a couple years of each other. She had blond hair, shoved up under a woollen hat, and an overcoat that enveloped her. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes narrowed. It looked like she was trying to make something out.
The ferry’s horn drowned me out, and my counterpart stood, craning her neck to see around the bow. I rose, doing my best to find my sea legs, and followed her lead, crossing to her side of the deck and occupying a chunk of empty rail. I leant forward and squinted, giving the railing an extra tight squeeze so I didn’t go face first into the water. That would be a quick dive into the deep freeze.
There was a shadow condensing from the fog in front of the boat. At first, I thought it might have been the mast of another boat, a sailboat maybe, then the horn sounded again, and a growl of speech issued from somewhere in the grey. A moment later, there was the orange flare of a cigarette tip.
The ferry slid in next to the dock, and I watched as the figure snagged a coiled rope from the deck and tied the boat up. A moment later he produced a gangplank and set it down. He stomped a booted foot onto the wood as if that were the final, all securing measure, then waved.
“Here we are.”
“Here we are.”
The words came out of my mouth, an echo of the boatman’s call, but the voice didn’t sound like mine. It was scratchy, and too deep: the voice of someone who hadn’t spoken in days. Everything about this was wrong, and my brain was starting to cotton on to it, now that I’d officially drained the fog. For a start, where the fuck were we? And how long had I been on that damn boat?
It seemed my fellow passenger didn’t share my concerns. She turned away from me and skipped across the plank, taking the boatman’s outstretched hand and offering a gracious smile, then took off down the dock without a backwards glance. I watched her go, a little dumbstruck.
The boatman grumbled something, and I looked up, meeting eyes set in a craggy, weather beaten face.
“I asked if you’re alright? Need a hand?”
“Uh.” I took a second to check out the plank. It was slick with slime, and black as the water below. How the blonde woman had zipped over it like that was beyond me.
“Yeah, that might be good, thanks.”
The boatman leaned forward, extending an arm along the length of plank. All the while, his cigarette remained dangling from the corner of his mouth, defying the same gravity that was looking to dump me in the water. I reached out, gripped his hand, then lunged. I felt my foot slip, losing traction and sliding a good couple of inches along the plank, before my other foot came down on the dock and I caught myself. At the same time, a hearty tug from the man in the slicker kept my momentum going, and my back foot found solid ground.
“Ah, that wasn’t so bad.” The boatman’s voice was gruff. It rang of cigarettes and early mornings, but it was friendly enough.
“Thanks, it’s been a while since I had to use the old sea-legs.”
At least, I assumed so.
The man chuckled. He had a good few inches on me, which must have put him around 6’4”. His frame was lost in his hooded poncho, but his face was drawn and skeletal, waxy skin stretched over bone.
“You know where we are?”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Bellevue, of course.”
That seemed to be it. He turned away and went back to work, double-checking the figure eight he’d tied. I took that as my cue to leave. I turned to follow the blonde woman down the dock, but paused. I could see the boat’s cabin from where I was now. The quarterdeck windows were dark, so dark they must have been tinted. Surely, they couldn’t have been blacked out completely? The windows were strange, but it was the name that had caught my attention. There were white letters stencilled below the windows: The Creation. I liked it. Whoever had stencilled the letters on must have been a literary type.
I left it there, taking care as I made my way down the dock, eager to get out of the cold, but not so eager as to risk another tumble. There was a sign at the end, pale blue, almost invisible in the fog. One of those kitschy arched signs they always have in little seaside burgs. The script was in red and white cursive, so it came floating out of the ether: Welcome to Bellevue – where the mountains meet the sea.
– II –
There was an idyllic, dollhouse of a building at the end of the pier. It was a two-storey seaside cottage, freshly whitewashed and shingled. I was impressed by how crisp and neat it was. Surely, being so close to the water, the salt and the wind would have blasted it and worn out the paint, unless they redid it every season. Their maintenance bills must have been through the roof. I stopped there, and couldn’t help a grin. My dad would have been so proud. Here I was at the ends of the earth, without any idea how I’d got here, and I was thinking about maintenance costs.
Ah, but Harry, is that really all there is to it? Or is there something else? Is it the bizarre cherry on top of what is turning into a very wacky Sundae?
I’ve never been one for in-depth discussions with my conscience, or any of the other niggling little voices that narrate the day-to-day, but I had to admit this guy had a point. The sign above the dock, the cobblestone street, the whitewashed beach houses: they were all idyllic to the point of being spooky. It was a pop-up postcard of a waterfront. There was even a little brass plaque next to the door that read “Visitor’s Centre”, in the same loopy script as the Bellevue sign.
I crossed to the door, taking care on the cobbles—my legs were still warming up—and got as far as the porch, when the door swung open in front of me, jangling a bell. The woman from the boat pulled up short, a look of momentary shock affixing her face before she recovered.
“Oh, sorry.” She smiled. It was a nice smile, friendly, in a warm, easy way. She had two different coloured eyes, one blue-grey, the other green.
“No worries.” I was slow with the response, a little stunned myself, and once it was out, it sounded lame. I took another second, trying to think of something else I could say, and just like that she was gone. What should have taken me a fraction of a second took ten, and I missed my window. Jesus man, how hard would it have been to ask her something like, “Oh, hey, you were on that boat right? Any idea how we got on there?”
I took another step up on the porch, making for the door, then caught a glimpse of my reflection in the Visitor’s Centre window.
It was no wonder the girl from the boat had looked so startled, it looked like I was 27 going on 60, with at least a decade of hard substance abuse in the mix. My normally neat, curly black hair had gone bushy and frizzed out to something like twice it’s normal size. With the back and sides trimmed, it looked like a mushroom cloud, rising from a long, narrow face that had transitioned from olive skinned to jaundiced yellow. My eyes were red and bleary, and ringed with black, so my blue-grey irises looked washed out, and kind of creepy.
It looked like I hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, so my beard was at the homeless-hipster stage, and looking at my rumpled, well-worn clothes, I’d say I’d lost some water weight, too. I was normally pretty rangy but now, I thought maybe if I turned sideways the horror show reflection might even do me a favour and disappear.
Well, there wasn’t much I could do about it now. I sighed, and opened the door in front of me, jangling the bell again.
The lobby inside was warm, with bright, white walls and a wood floor. Behind the desk, there was a middle-aged woman with a 50s beehive hairdo and a perfect Visitor’s Centre smile. Her nametag marked her as an “Esther”.
“Is it?” I asked. The woman’s brow furrowed. “I mean, I lost my watch, sorry. Don’t suppose you know the time?”
“Of course. It’s six minutes past
eight.” Her smile widened again and she seemed to relax. I got the impression
she liked to put a bit of flare into her welcomes. “The ferry always arrives
right on the dot, I’m not sure how the captain does it!”
“It’s an eight o’clock ferry?”
“Indeed, it is.”
“To where exactly?”
“Bellevue of course.” She beamed. “Welcome to Bellevue, where the mountains meet the sea! Are you a new resident or a guest?”
“Uh… I’m not sure. A guest, I guess.”
She pulled a heavy, green ledger from below the bench and slid it across the counter. It was open to a page with “Guest Registration” at the top, and a pen attached by a small chain.
“Just fill this out and we’ll get you settled.”
It looked pretty standard. There was a column for your name, date of arrival, and signature. The first page of the spread was full, with maybe 20 or so names and handwriting samples on the recto side. I glanced at the last name in the book, Quinn Harland, and paused on the date Aprilfirst.
Joke’s on you, Harry.
“That’d be about right.”
“Oh nothing, it’s just April Fool’s day.”
“So, it is! I didn’t realise.”
I set the tip of the pen down in the next empty row and scrawled, letting muscle memory do its thing. The pen carved through the “Harrison”, scratching out the telltale tick at the end of the N without pause, got as far as a “Mc”, and then it just stopped, like a car stalled on an incline. I stared down at those last two letters, the M and the C, certain that was where they were supposed to go, but then there was just… nothing. I could see myself in my mind’s eye, and the jumble of letters that went with my face up until that point… but then there was nothing.
“Is there a problem, sir?”
“I–” I swallowed, feeling properly freaked out for the first time. Had I been hit or something? “I’m… I’ve had a really long night, I seem to be having trouble–”
“That’s perfectly alright, sir. Completely normal.”
“I’m just not sure…”
She pulled the registry back across the counter and flipped it closed. She was grinning like a cartoon.
“As I said, nothing to worry about, it’s purely a formality.” She beamed again and whisked the book away, then thrust a map out across the counter. “For new arrivals, I always suggest a walk around town to acquaint yourself with the landscape. There is of course the bus; it runs every fifteen minutes or so, and it stops right out front if you like, but–” she leant forward, and used a lacquered nail to trace a straight line, cutting the crescent shape of the town in half. “It’s a beautiful morning, and it’s just a short walk up High Street to the Timberlane Hotel. It’s a beautiful building, hard to miss.”
Timberlane… that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t pick it.
“And I imagine it’s the only hotel in town?”
“Why yes, it is. Is that a problem?”
“Not at all. Just had a feeling.”
A spooky feeling: big grandiose hotel in a weird little hamlet… I was pretty sure I’d seen this movie before.
“I assure you, you’ll be very comfortable there.” She slid the map across the bench and, once again, I got the impression I was being dismissed. “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Why yes, Esther. Perhaps you could help me with this whole missing name thing? Or maybe you could explain why I would have decided to take an off-peak cruise to this weird little place? Any thoughts?
“No, thanks. I think I’ll just take that walk.”
I took the map, hoping, praying that a little of this fresh air might clear my head and do me some good.
– III –
Outside the Visitor’s centre, the fog had burned away and the sky had cleared. I stepped across the threshold and felt the snap of the cold air against my cheeks.
I looked up, my eyes climbing, as my jaw dropped.
I’d heard Bellevue’s tagline a few times at that point, but truthfully, I hadn’t stopped to give it much thought. Now, with my head rolled back so far it hurt my neck, it occurred to me just what “where the mountains meet the sea” meant.
It was like they’d been hung from the sky, like curtains, huge, and black, with ice and snow flowing down from the place where they met the bright blue wash of sky almost directly above my head. They were bigger than anything I’d ever seen before. I had to stop, and redefine what I thought of as big; they made my mind skip, my brain falling back on that annoying writer’s habit of struggling for synonyms: gigantic, gargantuan, behemoth, monolithic… the list went on, and I just stood there, shivering in my beat up Blundstones.
Seriously, where the hell was I?
And wasn’t that the million-dollar question. I was standing by the edge of an inky black sea, staring up at a mountain range that had been transplanted from the Himalaya’s, looking at a little seaside town that would’ve been at home in New England. Sure, the cobblestones ended with the promenade, giving way to a tarmac street, but that made Bellevue no less quaint. The buildings were all the same shade of seaside white, with slate roofs and porches where the residents could stand, or sit on their porch swing—yes, porch swings, like out of every old movie you’ve ever seen—and watch the world go sailing past.
If I’d known I was going to be… well, if I’d known, I’d have dressed more appropriately; a heavier jacket, a scarf, some gloves would have been nice too.
Instead, I shoved my hands in my pockets and started trudging up the hill.
It wasn’t much of a slope, but after five minutes of walking, my heart was hammering, and a sheen of sweat coated my brow. I was fatigued, disoriented, and kind of groggy. It seemed that whatever had transpired in the foggy, in-between time from my apartment to the ferry, had left me feeling much the worse for wear. It was like I’d had a big night out, without any of the fun.
I was puffing by the time I crested the hill and saw the Timberlane Hotel. It was a grand old building with a sweeping glass front and a flagstone terrace. It sat with its back to the mountains and a pine forested rise, looking down over the town of Bellevue with an air of haughty superiority. It was the biggest, baddest building in the berg, and it knew it. Whoever the architect had been, I had no doubt he’d been a prick. He’d clearly seen The Shining more than once. The sweeping flagstone terrace, the open wrought iron gate, it all felt like it had been staged.
Ah, but maybe it has.
I cut off the smug little voice in the back of my head, and then sighed as I got to the gate. Whether or not this was the beginning of a seventies spook flick was a moot point, I was exhausted, and my options seemed limited. Answers could wait; for the time being, a bed would do.
I stumbled up the pathway, and through the hotel doors.
– IV –
The door was heavy, but it gave way and floated open on silent, well-greased hinges. The floors in the Timberlane were polished timber, gleaming in the light cast from the windows. The flagstones from outside had made their way in for a feature wall to the left, with the remainder of the space whitewashed. There was a plush red carpet on the floor, serving as a runner, from the doorway to a desk that was sheltered in the space between the feature wall and a grand wooden staircase. None of it matched the austere façade or the ominous name. In fact, it was like the lobby of every remotely regal hotel I’d ever been in.
There was no-one behind the desk, just an empty chair and a little gold placard that read, “If desk is unattended, please inquire in the restaurant”, with an arrow pointing off to the right.
I stared at that sign for a while, trying to decide if it was grammatically correct. It was either “inquire”, like it said on the sign, or “enquire”, although for the life of me I couldn’t remember what the difference was. The two words rattled around in my head, bouncing off each other like pinballs. God, I was tired. It was only after 30 seconds of pointless obsessing that I digested the sign’s meaning.
Yeah, that makes sense doesn’t it, Harry? 9 o’clock in the morning, on a work day? Please.
Another one for the list.
I put the last of my juice into a big right turn and trudged across the lobby to a glass door on the far side. Once again, I was impressed with the smooth action of the hinges. This place seemed to have been built for travellers on their last legs. There was something in that thought, some minor alarm…
“Later, later.” I mumbled to myself.
Something hissed to my left, and I looked up, shifting my eyes away from my feet with considerable effort. It was a beautiful, saloon style room with the same bright timber floors and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the tamed fringes of the pine forest. There were maybe fifteen circular tables with a small cleared space for dancing and a piano over by the windows. The bar itself was set to one side. It stretched the entire far end of the room, cut from the same maple wood as the floors, and shimmering, like a mirage, with an array of bottles and decanters, and a happily steaming and gurgling espresso machine. The bartender was the room’s only occupant.
“New in town?”
I nodded as I shuffled over to him. The bartender was maybe in his early thirties. He had dark skin, a hooked nose, and large, deep-set eyes. There was a bowler hat perched on the crown of his shaved head, and he wore a waistcoat with his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow and his tie at half-mast.
“Yeah, fresh off the boat.” I tried for a smile, but it was probably lack-lustre at best. The muscles in my cheeks had thrown in the towel. “The lady at the information centre, Esther, I think it was, said I should come up here and see about a room?”
“She would, we’re the only hotel in town.” He cranked his grin a little wider and offered a hand. “Dean Macri.”
“Harry–” I opened my mouth a little wider, in anticipation of my last name coming out, then my tongue doubled over on itself awkwardly and I choked. “Er– I mean, Harrison.”
“No, just Harrison. Harry for short.”
“Gotcha.” He didn’t seem fazed by my lack of a surname in the slightest. “Sorry about the reception. Phillip starts at ten. Most of our guests aren’t usually up and about until then, so we run a skeleton crew in the mornings. Although I keep thinking we should have someone on ferry days; it’s just the schedule is so irregular I can never keep up.”
“Uh yeah, no worries. Is this your place?”
“Sure is. My Dad’s before me and his before him, yeah it’s that kind of place.” He winked.
“Well, it’s got that charming family feel, that’s for sure.”
“You’re too kind. Now, if you don’t mind me saying, you look like you could use a nap.”
I grinned. It was tired, but genuine.
“That obvious, huh?”
“Oh, I moonlight as a detective, no big deal.” Dean winked again, the second in less than a minute, then reached below the counter and produced a key on a copper tag. “We’ll put you in 401, one of the best views in the house.”
“Thanks… do you need me to sign something?”
He shook his head.
“You signed the guest register at the Visitor’s Centre, right?”
“Then we won’t worry about it, it’s over at the desk. Besides, where else are you gonna go? Can I getcha some breakfast?”
I gave that a second, weighing up the virtues of a hot meal against something a little more liquid in nature, something that might take the edge off, then shook my head. My eyelids were lead-lined.
“If it’s all the same to you, I might just head up.”
“Of course, kitchen’s always open. Just come on down whenever you’re ready.”
I considered asking about room service but decided against it. If they were running a skeleton crew, it was probably a stretch. I thanked Dean again, then took a step before realising I had no idea where I was going. I glanced back over my shoulder, feeling sheepish. Dean flashed another grin.
“Back out to the lobby. You can take the stairs from the mezzanine, or there’s an elevator on the far side, past the doors.”
I opted for the elevator; taking on four flights of stairs in my present state would surely end in tears. It was one of the cool old-fashioned kinds, with a birdcage carriage and open shaft. It was tucked away behind the feature wall. I rattled the door closed, hit the button and rode up to the fourth floor. The elevator arrived with a satisfying bing.
401 was at the end of the hall. I slid my key into a satisfyingly well-oiled lock and opened the door. I managed to swing it closed behind me, then face-planted onto the bed. Fade to black.
– V –
I peeled my face away from the pillow, feeling my cheek separate from a pool of cold drool. I rubbed my eyes, trying to get some colour back into them, then rolled my head back and forth, hoping to work that same mean crick out of my neck. By the tangerine shade of the light pouring in through the window, it must have been hours since I’d gone down.
I gave myself time for another stretch, then wriggled backwards and stood up. I’d slept in my clothes, jacket and all, so they stuck to my skin and held in all the wrong places. They stunk of sleep and sweat. I’d need to find a change ASAP. I glanced around, wondering if there was a robe or pyjamas or something I could use in the meantime, and came face-to-face with a red-eyed, washed up version of myself glaring back from the mirror. My shirt and slacks were rumpled and damp, and my jacket was sitting cockeyed across my shoulders, in a way only an iron would sort out.
“Shit…” I tried to blink some of the red away from my baby blues, and froze, a troubling thought occurring to me for the first time. I patted my pockets, feeling the familiar lumps of my wallet and keys, but there were a couple of bulges that were distinctly lacking.
I did a quick inventory. I was down a phone, and my notebook: a pocketsize moleskin I usually carried around in case inspiration struck. Of the two, that was actually what I was more upset about. The phone was easy enough to replace, but the notebook… I’d had some pretty good stuff in there. At least, I thought I did. The details were foggy.
I gave up on the mirror, opting instead for the window, in the hope I might find something a little more inspiring than my current self. It was definitely an upgrade. It had a sweeping view of below; the little white houses formed neat ranks all the way up the hill. They ended at the road the hotel was on, with the forest taking over on the other side, thick, green, fresh pines that climbed the rest of the way up through the foothills. I had to crane my neck and get my face right up against the glass, but I could see the mountain peaks too; dazzling gold in the afternoon light, they caught each ray of sun and split them into rainbows.
I traced the line of the peaks down towards the town, my head lolling lazily, and truthfully, I almost missed it. I would have completely—it was nearly invisible in the wash of pink-gold reflected from the peaks—but a stray sunbeam caught the angle of the thing and bounced towards me, spearing the backs of my worn-out retinas. It was there, just; a domed building—hazy, wavering and unsteady—on a plateau halfway up the escarpment overlooking Bellevue. Just nestled there on the peak, like a watchtower. There was something else as well: a black line, running down from the building towards the hotel. It touched down somewhere in the woods, maybe half a mile up the road. It wasn’t moving, but if I had to guess, I’d have said it was a cable car.
I turned away from the window, thinking I should get dressed, when something fired in my brain, a delayed synapse that had just clicked into action, and I whirled around again.
More specifically, the light on the mountains. The light was on my side of the mountains, the ocean sideof the mountains. I pressed my face up against the glass again to give myself a wider view of the ocean to my left, then exhaled, fogging up the glass. I didn’t bother to wipe it away. I could see what I needed to see. The sun was on its way down, maybe just an hour or so from setting. It hung precariously above the ocean, as if it hadn’t quite decided whether or not it wanted to go in yet; maybe just dip a toe.
It didn’t make any sense.
The sun was setting over the ocean, which meant I had to be on the west coast. My working assumption—and this was already an out there assumption—was that I’d jumped on a ferry in New York and somehow made it up to New England or like… Canada. It was a stretch, sure, but it explained the mountains. What it didn’t explain was how I could have come to be on the other side of the continent. Or maybe, it was the other side of the ocean.
Now I’d slept, my brain seemed to have recharged and it was ready to start processing things. At least, it was trying.
I was down a phone, and a notebook. I’d managed to hang on to my wallet and my keys. That didn’t sit right either. If you got mugged, they didn’t take your notebook and leave your wallet, did they? Or kidnappers? Had I been kidnapped and dumped on a ferry? That might explain the missing phone… but not the weird town, or the hotel, or… shit. I couldn’t explain any of it.
Ah, and Harry, don’t forget, the phone and the notebook aren’t all you’ve lost…
And my name. I’d lost my name. Can’t leave that off the list, can we?
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I said it to the floor, barely louder than a whisper, but for a brief moment afterwards, I thought I heard the muffled notes of Munchkin-like laughter.
Seth Robinson is a Melbourne based writer with a love for the spooky, surreal, and magical. He completed his undergraduate studies at the Australian National University (ANU), and graduated from the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing (MCWPE) at the University of Melbourne in 2018. He now works as a teacher and content producer. The Observatory is his debut novel.