Norman used the last bit of his own strength gathering up his things, and, the Pines twins, seeing that he could barely stand, each looped one of his arms around their shoulders to support him as they made their way back to the Mystery Shack. That’s what that place was called, apparently, though the huge sign on the roof should have made that obvious. With closer inspection, the Shack was just that – a run-down building that seemed to be falling apart at the seams, only dolled up to show a cheesy sort of grandeur. If he was to name its good points, Norman supposed it was still pretty sizable for being called a shack, and it wasn’t like it was entirely uninhabitable. Whoever owned it knew how to keep the place in just a good enough condition, trimming corners in every possible area and constructing illusions so that things at least looked like they were in working condition. Norman wasn’t sure if he liked what he saw, but it was some much-needed shelter, either way.
The twins assisted him onto the porch, politely stepping back when Norman said he’d had enough help walking. Dipper chuckled to himself grimly. “The last time I was helping you get here, you were nearly half dead.”
“Glad that’s not the case this time around!” Mabel said happily, brushing off her yellow dinosaur sweater. “Now you can meet our Grunkle Stan. He’s a pretty cool guy, sometimes.”
Dipper gave his sister a look.
“Okay, so maybe he’s a penny-pinching phony with about as much understanding of good hygiene as Dipper. But he has his moments.”
Before her sibling could make another comment, Mabel giggled and opened the door to the Shack (which was, strangely enough, still unlocked from earlier). A television could be heard from inside, sounds from what Norman guessed was some terrible soap opera welcoming them.
Mabel made no move to keep quiet, shouting over the noise as she skipped through the doorway. “Hey, Grunkle Stan! We found that kid again, so you can meet him for real now! No pranks!”
Norman stepped inside before Dipper closed the door behind them. Just standing there felt odd. He’d been in such a hurry to leave before that he’d hardly taken a look at where he was. Before, all that had mattered was an exit, but this is where he would be staying, for now. It smelled funny, like a strange mix of pine needles, unwashed socks, and the food aisle at a forgettable dollar store.
The sound of daytime TV cut off suddenly, leaving the Shack weirdly quiet for a few moments. Floorboards creaked as someone approached, and an unexplained anxiety started to creep over Norman, his heartbeat quickening. He wrote it off as just social jitters (he still wasn’t the best with meeting new people, especially adults), but it felt like it was something more in this particular instance. Something bad.
The dread fell flat as an older man came into view. He sported an unshaven mug, was still in his boxers, and had unruly chest hair poking over what probably was once a white tank top. Norman wasn’t sure if this made him any less nervous, but the stranger didn’t look like he merited the sort of anxiety he felt. He just seemed like an old bum, albeit a fairly grandparent-ish one, with his thick-rimmed glasses and goofy pink slippers. The boy had been expecting a more imposing figure, but even if the man didn’t look it, something about him still made Norman tense.
The twins, on the other hand, didn’t seem to feel anything was off. Mabel grabbed Norman’s hand and dragged him near their uncle, almost as if she were showing a parent a lost dog she’d found in the woods. “See? Not made up at all! Norman, this is our Grunkle Stan. Grunkle Stan, Norman.”
Stan looked somewhat bewildered, though Norman wasn’t sure if it was because their “made-up friend” actually existed or if he himself just looked funny. (That happened, sometimes. It wasn’t fun.) The man just stared, scratching his beer gut and looking unsure what to think. “Uh, hey there, kid. Norman, was it? I haven’t had too many good experiences with Normans. He’s not your new boyfriend, is he, Mabel? I thought you were over that phase of yours.”
“Psshhh, Grunkle Stan,” Mabel snorted, elbowing him, “a charmer as always. Norman’s just a friend! Right, Norman?”
“Ha ha! Wooow…” Dipper let out an awkward laugh, gracelessly shoving himself into the conversation. “Norman’s definitely not anyone’s boyfriend. W-Wait, I mean-! Ugh, you get what I’m saying. He’s just a new friend of ours, Grunkle Stan, that’s all.”
Norman shifted uncomfortably at “friend”, hearing the reluctance to use the term in Dipper’s voice. Their uncle didn’t seem to take any mind.
“Hah, sure thing, kid. Uh, anyway, you seem alright, Norman. I mean, I’m not psychic or anything, but you don’t look like the type to turn in a poor guy to the cops, you get what I mean? You can hang here, if you carry your load and keep everything under wraps. Can’t ruin the magic for any of my ignorant customers. Running a tourist attraction is tough work.”
Norman eyed Stan’s comfortable attire and lack of muscle. “Seems like it.”
“That’s what I’m talking about! Good appreciation for hard labor. I like you, kid.” The old man gave a raspy laugh that dissolved into a small fit of coughing. “Anyway, glad we got that cleared up. I’ll see you kids around. I gotta go see what The Duchess said to Hampterfuppinshire…”
Just like that, Grunkle Stan was gone as soon as he’d arrived. Norman came to the conclusion that he wasn’t fond of the Shack or its owner, but they both seemed to hold their own enigmas, somehow.
“Whew, glad that’s over with. I was pretty sure he’d say no, but I guess he wouldn’t really care, as long as you don’t make a mess or anything,” Dipper explained. “So I guess we’re sharing some chores now, too, but we can deal with that later.”
“For now, how ‘bout a little tour?” Mabel suggested, hopping around excitedly.
Norman wasn’t too eager to examine the neglected corners of the Shack in-depth, but he figured he’d have to do it sooner or later. “Okay. Where do we start?”
Mabel’s “little tour” ended up taking nearly an hour as she went over every little nook and cranny there was to see in the Mystery Shack, giving long, bubbly narratives on each subject, from the height charts she and Dipper had carved into their bedroom’s door frame to the story of why Grunkle Stan had a “haunted” mechanical lungfish on display. It was all fairly exhausting for Norman, who, despite knowing her good intentions, wasn’t used to so much talking. Even particularly chatty ghosts were never this verbose. He soon came to the conclusion he couldn’t slip away without either of them noticing, then debated whether or not he should just excuse himself and continue this later. All of the conversation combined with a headache and possible fever was making him dizzy.
Norman couldn’t find it in him to stop her, though, and Mabel eventually came to the conclusion of her tour. She was about to launch into another discussion when she remembered she’d been neglecting Waddles (who was apparently her pet pig) for hours. Mabel darted off to tend to him, leaving Norman and Dipper standing alone near one of the exhibits. An awkward silence settled over the room, and Norman stealthily avoided eye contact by pretending to be interested in the large, stuffed figure of the Sascrotch. It was a laughably fake display, fenced in with flimsy guard rails and decorated with big “DO NOT TOUCH” and “WATCH YOUR BRATS” signs. It took Norman about two seconds to spot the zipper on the so-called “guaranteed 100% real” beast.
“Sooo, what’chya think?” Dipper said, breaking the silence. Hands shoved in his pockets, he sidled closer to Norman and glanced at the Sascrotch, possibly trying to figure out what might be so interesting about it.
Norman didn’t have the energy to be polite and let whatever came to mind spill from his mouth. “It’s kinda tacky. Well, no, it’s-” He frowned at the obviously false exhibit, too annoyed and ill to stop there. “It’s ridiculous. It reminds me of where I live. Just some tourist attraction for a lot of ignorant people to spend their money on and hurt whatever truth might be behind it. It’s disgusting.”
“Huh.” Dipper paused, adjusting his hat so the quiet wouldn’t seem so uncomfortable. “I’m glad you think that, actually. The whole shtick is kind of an insult to the real dangers in Gravity Falls. It makes me kinda mad sometimes, seeing what people will fall for when the actual thing could be waiting outside the door. No one ever listens to me, though, so tourists keep vanishing from time to time.” Dipper looked up at the Sascrotch and gave a rueful little shrug. “I warned them.”
Norman was a bit unsettled by his apathy on the subject, but those sort of things just seemed to be daily occurrences here, and according to what he’d been told, Dipper had been around it for years. It almost sounded like something out of a whimsical, dangerous comic book, where everyone was a little bit mysterious and no one was to be trusted. (All it needed now was zombies, he thought grimly.)
“Your uncle seems, uh, odd, though. Like he’s hiding something. If there is anything real here, it’s probably locked up,” Norman guessed. Aside from that book, anyway.
“Haha, Stan? Really? I doubt it. Sorry to break it to you, but he’s probably just as sad as he looks. Uh, also,” Dipper added grudgingly, rubbing one arm, “sorry if I was too harsh, back there. A-And for, you know. Punching you.”
Norman could tell the apology wasn’t entirely genuine; he’d seen Mabel pull her twin aside earlier, probably pressuring him to mend things between them. Hardly a word sounded as if Dipper really meant it, which was somewhat understandable, but it still didn’t sit well with Norman. He frowned, his face still smarting where he’d been hit twice over. If that was how it was, his reply didn’t have to be completely unquestionable, either.
After their small and bluntly-finished conversation, Norman had excused himself to go lie down, leaving Dipper to his own devices. His attempt to apologize had failed, more or less, but that was the last thing on his mind right now. Something had wormed its way into his thoughts, as things often did. And once the notion stuck, it wouldn’t stop pestering him until he took action.
There was something off about Norman. Other times when things like this had happened, even that one time where it had to do with someone under the same name, things had quickly gotten dangerous. Dipper wasn’t about to let anything like that happen again, not when he could do something about it this time around. If there was someone who wasn’t to be trusted in Gravity Falls, it was Norman. Not only because of the book incident (when had he swiped it? Was it when they were asleep?), but some aspect about his behavior in the woods didn’t fit with everything else. Back there, Dipper had seen something in him, something old and unsettling and filled with a white-hot anger. He couldn’t say what it was, but he knew Norman was keeping something from them.
As always, he confronted the book first. Or, he would have, if it had been on hand. Dipper panicked as he felt the empty pocket in his vest, only to remember he’d thought better of carrying around earlier. If it was so easy for someone to steal, he’d taken to hiding it in their bedroom, at least for the time being. After waiting for a bit, he made his way upstairs to fetch it.
Dipper gently pushed the bedroom door aside, slipping through the crack to make the least amount of noise possible. Once he was in, he stayed frozen in place for a few moments before attempting to move again, eyes glued to the lump of blankets that was Norman. The cot on the other side of the room was still, the only movement being the rise and fall of his breath. Dipper had been worried about the other boy still being awake, but he’d gone out like a light. Not wanting to disturb him (or have to explain why he was there, mostly), Dipper slowly and steadily inched his way over to his own bed.
Kneeling down by the bedside, he stuck a hand underneath the frame and quietly pulled out a cardboard box. It was covered in newspaper clippings and album art of the group BABBA, and other embarrassing bands he liked, being the main place where he hid his tapes and CDs. Just looking at it made his face grow hot, but he’d found a way to redeem himself by using it as a hiding place. No one would look for the book there, he figured (though his plan was somewhat flawed, seeing as anyone would probably snoop through it anyway just to demean him). It was well-hid, at least. Dipper wasn’t about to let anyone find either of the items, musical or not.
Trying not to make any more noise, he took out the book, shoved the box back into place, and turned to sit on the floor, pulling his knees toward his chest before silently lifting the cover. Dipper began to forget where he was, his mind fully immersed in the problem at hand. He knew he’d seen an entry on something like this before, but it had never been applicable in the past, or even made much sense. Fortunetellers, psychics, and amulet-induced powers didn’t seem to fit the description, all lacking the strange, natural glow he’d seen shifting around Norman. Even if the cases seemed similar, the light had been an unfamiliar, unmistakable shade of green. As far has he knew, that sort of power had to do with something different altogether.
Finally, he came across it. “Mediums,” he whispered, muttering the lines underneath his breath out of habit. “’These people are fairly normal, compared to others I’ve come across, but I’ve come to discover that they have a unique gift dealing with the supernatural’…ghosts, talking to the dead, yeah, I’ve got all that…” Dipper frowned and scanned the entry closer, trailing a finger over the paragraphs until something jumped out at him. “’I haven’t had a chance to study this subject in-depth, as mediums are very rare. Strange incidents have been said to happen upon their birth, from things as small as blown fuses to the stranger sightings of oddly-shaped rainbows appearing well after dark…their gifts seem to be hereditary, passing on from generation to generation, appearing in certain families around the world, such as the one I’ve come to learn from in Gravity Falls…’”
“There!” His finger stopped under a particular section. “’Mediums,’” he murmured, “’are also rumored to be much more dangerous than they appear. They seem to possess a unique power that they are seldom able to tap into. The signature trait is a vivid yellow-green glow, happening first in the eyes.’ That’s it!” Dipper paused for a small moment of triumph before continuing. It was a brief sense of accomplishment, soon replaced with a greater dread. “‘Most occurrences have happened when…the subject was dealing with great amounts of stress, emotional turmoil, hormonal imbalance, fatal illnesses or wounds, the threat of death, or any combination of the above. Though the worst has been avoided, mediums are claimed be a danger to themselves and, possibly, to the entire universe. It may only be my own educated guess, but I believe that…mediums can upset the very balance of the magical plane if not properly monitored…causing catastrophes and opening doors to things unknown…’”
The last few paragraphs made little sense, but they all warned of perils far beyond what Dipper had dealt with before, his past experiences in Gravity Falls only skimming the surface. There was always the chance that whoever authored the book was simply writing down his own opinions, and none of it had to be actual fact; there wasn’t even historical evidence for that kind of claim, as far as he knew.
But the book had never been wrong before.
Chewing on his lower lip, Dipper shut the book, casting a worried glance at Norman before quietly slipping back out of the bedroom. There was always a point where things seemed too big to handle alone, and it was then when Dipper would team up with Mabel, two mystery twins always being better than one. He found her in the kitchen with Waddles, sitting at the table and sharing her cheese crackers with her pet as she flipped through a knitting magazine. Rain gently pattered against the window, the reason for why the two were still inside at the moment.
“Mabel.” Dipper didn’t try to hide his concern, immediately signaling to his twin that something serious was going on. “We need to talk.”
Mabel froze in the middle of giving Waddles a cracker. “What’s wrong?”
Dipper sat on the chair across from her and laid the book out on the table, the pages still turned to where he’d been before. “I found out some stuff about what Norman is. It’s–well, it’s…here.” He pushed the book closer towards her. “Just read through it first.”
Mabel turned the book around and started to read, her frown of concentration deepening as she took in the information. Absentmindedly, she passed a few more crackers to the begging Waddles as she neared the end of the entry. Once she was finished, his twin leaned back in her chair, eyes wide.
“Yeah. I think we’ve gotten ourselves into something bigger than we thought. If all of that is true, this is probably the most risky thing we’ve dealt with yet. And, well, I’m scared, Mabel. Norman could be set off at any time, and I think that’s more dangerous than we realize.” Dipper bit his lip, his brow furrowing. He didn’t want to say it first, but he knew it was coming.
“I don’t think he should stay here.”
A look of horror passed over Mabel’s face, her mouth opening and closing with words she was too frustrated to form. “I–you–no! Dipper, how is that supposed to make things any better? Have you even–augh!” She raised her hands angrily, barely restraining herself from slamming them back down on the table.
“What? I’m serious! He’s already mad at me, and if I do anything else, it could mean the end of the–the friggin’ universe if he blows up again! You saw it, he was about to do something back there in the woods. Something worse than punching. You saw it.”
Mabel crossed her arms, glaring at him. “I don’t care what I saw. Haven’t you even thought about putting yourself in Norman’s shoes? He’s probably terrified! He might not even know all this stuff about himself. Can you imagine being in that situation? Did you even stop to think about that, Dipper? If Norman did run away from home, it might have had something to do with this, and abandoning him again would only make things worse. The best thing to do would be to try and help.”
Dipper wanted to argue, but the words fell flat in his mouth, his point weighed down by guilt. “Look, I see where you’re coming from, but I still don’t trust him.”
“You don’t have to trust him. You need to stop worrying about us and the book and focus on him. Norman doesn’t know what’s going on, but with all this stuff we know, I bet we could do something about that. He said he’s here for a reason, so I think we need to help him figure that out. And hey! Maybe you’re usually the one to think up better plans! But I really think that’s what we should do right now. Okay?”
Dipper sighed and slumped back in his chair, knowing his argument was rendered ineffective. And she was right. He’d overlooked things only she had thought to see. That’s why they were a team. “Okay. Let’s just be more careful, alright?”
Mabel snorted, prodding his arm. “I think I’ve got that covered. You and Norman need to get along better first, but we can deal with that as we go along. Don’t sweat it. This is our thing, right? Solving mysteries, discovering magical things, figuring out Gravity Falls? It isn’t any different, even if the stakes might be higher.”
“I get it, you’re right, you’re right.” Dipper grinned reluctantly, hardly any less worried about the situation that he was before. But he had to try to cooperate, at least if it was for Mabel. “And about that. The book mentioned there was a family of mediums once in Gravity Falls. I kinda doubt they’re still around, or else we probably would have heard about them by now. It’s still somewhere to start, though.”
Mabel smiled. “That’s more like it.”
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