It was the cold that brought me back around, along with the hammer of a ship’s 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 feels like you’ll never 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 still, black water.
I tried to straighten up, and stopped with a wince. There was a crick in my neck, the sort that follows a long, upright nap. I pulled myself up and out of my stupor, and glanced around. I was on the deck of a ferry, that part was easy. The only thing was, why was I on the deck of a ferry? I remembered being home on the couch, an open laptop warming my thighs. I had been working on a story. I could picture myself in situ, — 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 dressed and chosen the least seaworthy outfit I could think of ? I searched my surroundings for answers; but there was only the frosty, grey fog, and the nearly vacant deck.
There was one other passenger: a woman sitting across the deck from me, staring off towards the bow. I guessed she was in her mid-twenties — about my age. She was enveloped by a giant overcoat, with wisps of blonde hair sticking out beneath her woolen hat. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes narrowed.
The ferry’s horn drowned me out, and my companion 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.
A shadow condensed 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 emanated 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 a 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 was 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. Where on earth was I? And how long had I been on that boat?
My fellow passenger didn’t seem to share my concerns. She turned away from me and skipped across the plank, taking the boatman’s outstretched hand, offering a gracious smile, and then setting 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 inspect 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.
The boatman leaned forward, extending an arm. His cigarette remained dangling from the corner of his mouth, defying the same gravity that was threatening to dump me in the water. I reached out, gripped his hand, then lunged. I felt my foot slip, losing traction and sliding 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, roughened by early mornings and countless cigarettes, but it was friendly enough.
“Thanks, it’s been a while since I had to use the old sea legs.”
At least, I guessed that was the case. I couldn’t remember my recent boat rides.
The man chuckled. He had a few inches on me — he must have been six foot three or four. Though his frame was lost in his hooded poncho, he seemed gaunt — his face was drawn, waxy skin stretched over bone.
“Where we are?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Bellevue, of course.”
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 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. They 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 that thought 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 and almost invisible in the fog. It was one of those kitschy arched signs they always have in little seaside burgs. The script was in red and white cursive, and appeared to be 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 someone redid it every season. Their maintenance bills must have been through the roof. I stopped there, and couldn’t help a grin. Here I was in God-knows-where without any idea how I’d got there, and I was thinking about maintenance costs.
Ah, but Harry, is that really all there is to it? Or is this 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 rattle around in my head, 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 a little too perfect. 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 showing on her face.
“Oh, sorry.” She smiled. It was a nice smile, friendly. Her eyes struck me. They were different colours, one blue, the other green.
“No worries.” I was slow with the response. I took another second, trying to think of something else I could say, and just like that she was gone. I had 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 seemed so startled, it looked twenty-seven going on sixty,. My normally neat, curly black hair had gone bushy and frizzed out to something like twice its 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 to jaundiced yellow.
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. The lobby inside was warm, with bright, white walls and a wood floor. Behind the desk, there was a middle-aged woman with a beehive hairdo and a perfect Visitor’s Centre smile. Her nametag marked her as an “Esther”.
“Good morning!” she said brightly.
“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 flair 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?”
“Today it was.”
“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?” She hadn’t answered my question at all. Did I wake up in upstate New York?
“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 had a pen attached by a small chain and was open to a page with “Guest Registration” at the top.
“Just fill this out and we’ll get you settled.”
It looked pretty standard. There was column for names, dates of arrival, and signatures. The first page of the spread was full, with maybe twenty or so names and handwriting samples. I glanced at the last name in the book, Quinn Harland, and paused on the date — April 1.
Joke’s on you, Harry.
I set the tip of the pen down in the next empty row and began to scrawl, allowing muscle memory do its thing. The pen carved through “Harrison”, scratching out the telltale tick at the end of the “n” without pause, got as far as a “c”, before 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 Mc … but then there was nothing.
“Is there a problem?”
“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.”
She pulled the register back across the counter and flipped it closed, was grinning like a cartoon character.
“As I said, nothing to worry about, it’s purely a formality.” She beamed again and whisked the book away, then laid a map out across the counter. “You’ll be wanting somewhere to stay.” 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.”
“I imagine it’s the only hotel in town?”
“Is that a problem?”
“Not at all.”
A grandiose hotel in a weird little hamlet… I was pretty sure I’d read this book 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?
“I think I’ll just take that walk.”
I took the map, hoping, praying that a little fresh air might clear my head.
– 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 jaw dropped as my eyes climbed.
It was like the mountains had been hung from the sky, — huge, black curtains, with ice and snow flowing down from where they met the bright blue wash. They were bigger than anything I’d ever seen before. I had to stopand redefine what I thought of as big. My mind slipped into 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 biker boots.
Seriously, where the heck 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 Himalayas, 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 sit on their porch swings — 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. It seemed that whatever had transpired in the foggy, in-between time — from that last memory of me on the couch, to the ferry — had left me feeling ike 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 a forested rise, looking down over the town of Bellevue with an air of superiority. Whoever the architect had been, I had no doubt he’d watched too many horror movies. The entire facade felt like it had been staged.
Maybe it has been.
But whether or not this was the beginning of a seventies spook flick was a moot point — I was exhausted, and my options seemed limited. I stumbled up the pathway, and through the hotel doors.
– IV –
The door was heavy, but it easily 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 sheltered under a grand wooden staircase. None of it matched the austere façade or the name. In fact, it was like the lobby of every remotely grandiose hotel I’d ever seen.
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 put the last of my energy into reaching the 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.
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 was a piano by the windows, and maybe fifteen circular tables with a small cleared space for dancing. The bar was built from the same maple wood as the floor and spanned the entire far end of the room. It gleamed, home to an array of bottles and decanters, and the now happily 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 a loosely knotted tie.
“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 woman at the information centre, Esther, I think it was, said I should come up here and see about a room?”
“She would have. 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. Laura 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.”
“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. Besides, where else are you gonna go?”
I smiled and thanked Dean again, then took a step before realizing 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 three flights of stairs in my present state would surely end in tears. It was one of the cool old-fashioned elevators 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. Room 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.
– V –
I peeled my face away from the pillow, feeling my cheek separate from a pool of cold drool. Judging by the tangerine shade of the light pouring in through the window, it must have been hours since I’d gone down.
Hours gone by and the world hasn’t ended. Has anyone noticed and raised the alarm?
No that was stupid. That was the thing about living on your own. I’d given up the share house life years ago, and anyway, I hadn’t even been gone for twenty-four hours. People don’t freak out when a grown man disappears for a day, they just assume he’s — what, out of town?
Well you are.
Yeah, no one had called in the cavalry yet. I was still a few missed deadlines and coffee catch-ups away from that happening.
I’d slept in my clothes, jacket and all. I needed to find a change of wardrobe as soon as possible. I glanced around, wondering if there was a robe or pyjamas or something I could wear in the meantime, and came face-to-face with a red-eyed, washed up version of myself glaring back from the mirror. My clothes were rumpled and damp, and my jacket sat cockeyed across my shoulders, in a way only an iron would sort out.
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 a notebook: a pocketsized number 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 had. 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 provided a sweeping view of what was below, with little white houses forming neat ranks all the way up the hill until they reached the road the hotel was on. After that, there was just the forest — fresh, thick, green pines that climbed the rest of the way up 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. I almost missed it. I would have completely, but a stray sunbeam bounced back towards me, spearing the backs of my worn-out retinas: a domed building— nearly invisible in the wash of pink-gold reflected from the peaks on a plateau halfway up the escarpment overlooking Bellevue, 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, a few hundred metres up the road. It wasn’t moving, but if I had to guess, I’d have said it was a cable car line.
I turned away from the window, trying to get my head around what I should do next, when something fired in my brain, a delayed synapse that had just switched on, 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 or 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 a ludicrous 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 the other side of the ocean.
Had I been kidnapped and dumped on a ferry? That might explain the missing phone … but why did I have my wallet? And what about the weird town, or the hotel?
Don’t forget, Harry, 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.”
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. Welcome to Bellevue is his debut novel.