Dipper thought that he would never be able to sleep again, but he must have closed his eyes at some point, because sunlight is pouring into his room. He can almost convince himself that the previous evening was a dream, even though his bruises and bandaged arm remind him that it wasn’t.
He rubs his eyes, flexes his fingers, wiggles his toes. He’s still in control. When he reaches for the journal on the bedside table, no demons are pulling his strings.
He flips through the pages, until the most recent drawing catches his eye. Bill’s familiar yellow eyes glare out from his own face.
Mabel has written “BIPPER” in enormous letters above his head, and added notes with her cheerful pink pen. She’s also pasted a scribbled note to the opposite page, and as Dipper’s eyes jump from one phrase to the next – burning, stabbing, drowning – he grips the book hard enough that he almost tears the paper.
“Hey there, sleepyhead!”
He lowers the journal. His sister’s face is inches from his own. “You feeling any better?” she asks.
Dipper points to the note. “Mabel, what is this doing here?”
Her grin fades. “Pretty creepy, isn’t it?”
“‘Creepy’?” Dipper repeats. “It’s sick!”
“And we can tear it up into itty bitty pieces now!” Mabel says. “And set them on fire, and use it to roast marshmallows! It’s up to you!”
Dipper is still staring at the drawing, and at Bill’s scrawled threats. The journal warned him, at the very beginning, that he couldn’t trust anyone. Even then, he hadn’t guessed that “anyone” would turn out to include himself.
“Since when do you ask me for chores to do?” Grunkle Stan squints down at Dipper. “You really my nephew, or some kinda imposter?”
Dipper tries not to fidget too hard at that question. Although Stan claims not to know any more than the rest of them about dream-walking, body-stealing entities, he’s already proven that he’s good at keeping secrets and pretending ignorance. “You’re the one who always tells me that I think too much and don’t do enough.”
“Yeah, you brainiacs always spend too much time in your own heads,” Stan mutters. “There’s all kinds of sticks and brush and, er, crud in the yard. Think you and your sister can clear it all away?”
“After that, you two can mow the lawn and re-stack the woodpile,” Stan says. “Hm, wonder how much I can bet Soos that you’re really a clone, or a shape-shifter, or…”
Dipper shuffles his feet. “…Shape-shifting clone?”
“Good one, kid.” Stan claps him on the back. “Now, get out there.”
Dipper and Mabel clear sticks and brush and crud from the grass, and at one point, she brandishes a stick and bellows, “I demand satisfaction!” Dipper grabs a branch of his own, and tries to shove away the memory of his hands grasping, clutching, stabbing. The two of them duel their way across the yard, and he’s relieved to hear her laughing, especially after he’s dreamt a few times about her shrieks of real terror.
“A draw?” Mabel proposes, when they finally pause for breath.
Dipper bows. “A draw.”
Maybe, if he’s lucky, he won’t lie awake later, worrying about what will happen when he closes his eyes, or replaying the sounds of otherworldly laughter and his own body toppling down the stairs.
I’ll enjoy giving this body its grand finale, Bill’s message read. Want to join him, Shooting Star?
Dipper clenches his fists. Just for a moment, he hopes that he runs into Bill in his dreams.
Dipper’s head is spinning, and he doesn’t think it has anything to do with the recent fluctuations in the town’s gravity. He’s had so many questions since the beginning of the summer, and now, at least one answer has literally walked into his basement – through a doorway to another world, no less.
Great-Uncle Ford has peered into his eyes, taken his vitals (“Your heart rate is disturbingly elevated”), and waved some kind of glowing scanner over him (“This will test you for contamination from the portal; you shouldn’t feel a thing”). He asked questions, too, which Dipper is pretty sure that he answered, but his own words barely even registered.
“We’re almost done,” Ford says. “You seem to be uncontaminated… so far.”
“That’s great!” Dipper bursts out. “All of this… wow! I still can’t believe… you’re real… I mean, talking to me!” Shut up, he tells himself. Shut up, shut up…
“I’m very real.” Ford’s brow furrows. “Do you think that you might have been hallucinating?”
“No, I mean…” Dipper waves his hands. “I’m trying to say… in your journal, I’ve been reading…”
“Slow down, boy. Take a breath before you pass out.” He gives Dipper a minute to collect himself, as much as he can. “Now, what did you say about my journal?”
“I found it in the woods,” Dipper explains. At least that was a complete sentence. “It saved our lives over and over. I’ve been making additions… I hope that’s okay…”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Ford says.
Dipper isn’t sure what that response means. On the one hand, the Author is going to read his additions to the journal. On the other… he’s going to read about everything, from Dipper’s childish pranks, to his feelings for Wendy, to the time he let himself get possessed by Bill Cipher like an idiot.
His heart is hammering again. Is this how it feels to get what he wanted?
Dear Mom and Dad, Dipper thinks to himself as he tucks away the latest letter from home. My favorite role-playing game came to life yesterday, but at least our surprise relative from another dimension loves it as much as I do! Also, a demonic triangle keeps showing up in my dreams and offering to reveal all the world’s conspiracies if I join his side, and even those aren't as bad as the dreams where he takes over my body again. How are things with you?
He finds Ford in the kitchen, pulling a container of leftovers from the refrigerator. “I have a question for you,” Dipper says. “Shockingly.”
Ford opens the container, sniffs, and closes it again. “Yes, I hunted and killed my own food during my travels,” he says. “And, no, I haven’t encountered shape-shifting clones… yet.” He flashes a brief smile that Dipper probably would have missed if he blinked.
“Ah, no, not about any of those things,” Dipper says quickly. “I mean, later, I want to talk about those things, but right now, I was wondering how you first got into Dungeons, Dungeons, and More Dungeons.”
Ford hesitates, and for a minute, Dipper thinks that his uncle is going to brush aside the question. Then he pulls out two chairs and motions for Dipper to sit down. “The game has captivated me since childhood, much to Stanley’s exasperation. As if his favorite pastimes were superior…”
“We probably wouldn’t have won our last game without him,” Dipper points out.
“True enough,” Ford concedes. “I was fortunate enough to find a group of players at university, as well. What about you?”
“I played with some of my classmates, until…” Until the other kids suddenly decided that role-playing games were gay, and canceled their next session without telling him. “The game kind of fell apart when school ended.” Before he can think better of it, he asks, “Was Mr. McGucket part of your group?”
Ford nods. “What happened to his mind was very unfortunate.” His tone makes it clear that he somehow knows about his friend’s fate and doesn’t want to talk any more about it.
In an attempt to fill the strained silence that follows, Dipper asks, “Do you want to tell me about some of your campaigns?”
And Ford’s face lights up.
Two hours later, Dipper climbs the stairs to his room, where Mabel is elbow-deep in a pile of red, orange, and yellow yarn. “Mom wrote to us,” he says, pulling the envelope from his vest. “What do you think we should say to her?” They’ve told their parents as much as they can, which isn’t nearly everything, and he isn’t sure how much they believe. He knows that Mabel hates lying to them, but not as much as she hates the idea of leaving Gravity Falls.
“I could tell her that I’m making a new unicorn sweater!”
Dipper eyes the pile of yarn. “Is something wrong with your other three?”
“Dipper.” Mabel rolls her eyes. “Like I told Grunkle Ford, I don’t question the muse. He looked at me kind of funny when I said that.”
Two weeks and at least two bad dreams later, Dipper understands the reason why.
“What’s the matter, Pine Tree?” Ford’s face is stretched in a ghoulish grin, and his eyes gleam yellow around slit pupils. He has Dipper cornered and pinned against the wall. “Surprised to see me here?”
Somehow, although he’s shaking and nearly sick and everything is wrong, Dipper finds his voice. “Get out of my uncle’s body,” he says, as forcefully as he can. “Now.”
Bill throws back Ford’s head and cackles. “You’ve really gotten attached, haven’t you, kid? You actually thought he cared about you.”
“You wanted an adult who would take you seriously, someone on your level, someone you could trust!” He digs his fingers into Dipper’s shoulders. “Someone who appreciates how clever and special you are! Fordsy and I say, ‘you’re welcome!’”
“You’re… you’re lying. He’s finished with you.”
“I’m still his muse, and we’ll never be finished,” Bill says. “If you want to grow up so bad, you'll have to understand a few things about the adult world: it’s full of liars and cheaters. I thought you’d learned that one when you found out Stan was running a con game on you.” He shakes Ford’s head. “’Course, his brother and I were also running one on him.”
Dipper struggles in vain, anger vying with his fear. “You and Ford were using us the whole time?”
“Congratulations to the great investigator of the unknown!” Bill trumpets. “Let’s show him what he’s won!” The walls are suddenly scrawled with codes and equations, and bulge with eyes of all shapes and colors. “All the secrets of this town! All the secrets of the multiverse!” His voice deepens to a bone-quaking rumble. “All for you, little puppet!”
The walls start to tremble, then to split. Hands and legs and tentacles squirm through the cracks. Dipper hears Mabel shouting his name from somewhere above them, and he tries to answer, to help her somehow, but his body is frozen again, his voice is strangled, and his feet…
Something wet is tickling his feet.
Dipper opens his eyes with a start. The first thing that he sees, when he sits up, is his sister’s pig staring back at him from the other end of the bed.
Mabel gives her pet a squeeze. “Good boy, Waddles!” she tells him. “Dip-Dop’s nightmares are no match for your magical piggy kisses, are they?”
“Guess not,” Dipper gasps. He reaches over to scratch the pig’s head. Waddles grunts and nudges Dipper’s toes with his snout, then gives them another lick.
“It sounded like a really bad one, and nothing I did was working.” Mabel’s eyes are wide. “Do you want to go wake up the Grunkles?”
“They’ll just tell me that…” Bill can’t break into our minds. The house is protected. I can trust my family. “…it wasn’t real. Which is true.”
“Doesn’t mean it can’t mess with your head,” Mabel insists. “Let’s go downstairs and get some chocolate milk. Grunkle Stan just stocked up again yesterday.”
The next day, after they finish washing the dishes, Mabel says, “Hey, Dipping Dots, you should come with us to the new ice cream parlor! Candy and Grenda are meeting us there.” She tugs at her sweater to show off its pattern of ice cream cones. “Whoever can finish the Supernova Sundae gets their picture posted on the Wall of Fame.” Her eyes sparkle. “It’s my destiny.”
“We’re all gonna cheer her on,” Stan puts in. “And there’s room for one more in the picture.”
“Thanks,” Dipper says, “but I think I’m going to hang around here.”
Mabel folds her arms. “You mean, you’re going to hide in the basement with Grunkle Ford.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I’m not stupid, bro-bro.”
“I didn’t say that, either!” Dipper glares at her. “And even if I do want to hang out with him, so what?”
“Kids!” Stan interrupts. “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but you gotta settle down. This ain’t worth fighting over.” He puts an arm around Mabel. “Come on, pumpkin. Your friends are gonna wonder where you are.”
“I guess he’s right.” Mabel extends her fist. “Go and nerd out.”
Dipper bumps her fist with his own. He doesn’t want to have this argument with her, either, but he’s not convinced that it won’t happen again. “Happy eating.”
“See you when I’m ice cream famous!” she calls as Stan follows her out the door.
Dipper punches the code on the vending machine and slips downstairs to the basement lab. “Permission to enter?” he asks from the doorway.
“Permission granted,” Ford replies. When he turns around, Dipper breathes an involuntary sigh of relief, even though he knows that he didn’t really need to worry. Did I?
It turns out that many of the drawers and boxes around the lab are full of worn-out machines that need to be sorted and dismantled for parts. As he works, Ford asks Dipper to hand him this wrench or that blueprint, or to add another oddly shaped device to the “Damaged Beyond Salvation” pile.
“Are you going to take apart the mind-reading machine, too?” Dipper asks.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Ford answers. “If it can be repaired, it’s a valuable tool.”
“Yeah, and if you do break it down, we’ll probably run into some kind of emergency where it’s the only thing that can help us.” Something like that happened at least once in every season of Ghost Harassers. “So, you know that me and Mabel –“
“‘Mabel and I,”’ Ford corrects him.
“Right. Anyway, we’re going home at the end of the summer.” He’s been trying not to think about the new school year. Maybe, after everything that he’s seen and experienced, he’ll be less worried about getting shoved against lockers, less embarrassed when a teacher decides to make an example of his “inappropriate” topic for a paper, less angry at the guidance counselors who are “concerned” at how exuberantly Mabel seems to feel everything. “I don’t think our parents will let us put a mystical unicorn barrier around our house. Does that mean Bill can get to us there?”
“I don’t think it will be easy for him.” Ford looks up and frowns. “Unless someone makes it easy. Do you think that your sister is likely to make a deal with him?”
“What? No!” Dipper exclaims. “She does a lot of silly things, but she’s smarter than that. She’s seen what he can do to people.”
“So I’ve gathered. I seem to remember a mention of puppets and tickles?”
“Like I said, there was a little bit more to it than that.”
Ford looks him in the eye. “Judging from what you wrote in my journal, I can’t disagree.”
“I guess you saw Bill’s note,” Dipper says. He tried to sound casual, and knows that he failed. “I still don’t know why Mabel kept it.”
“Maybe she thought that you should decide what to do with it, since you were the one under Bill’s control,” Ford suggests. “My boy, I know that these things can be hard to talk about, so I won’t insist that you do so, but I will offer to listen.”
Since finding out about his uncle’s past, Dipper’s mind has churned with even more questions than when they’d first met. What did it feel like when Bill took you over? Will I always have nightmares about him? How do you deal with yours? How do I know that he wasn’t playing with my mind before we protected the Mystery Shack? If he did possess somebody close to us, for real, what would we do? If he asks just one of his questions, the rest will come pouring out. If he tells the parts of the story that Mabel didn’t write down, he won’t be able to take them back.
“Dipper?” Ford’s voice tugs him free from the tangle of his thoughts. “It’s your choice.”
“Most grown-ups don’t give me that kind of choice. They kind of… decide that they know what’s best for me. But I guess you’re not most grown-ups.”
“Not unless the world has changed more than I’ve realized,” Ford agrees. “And you and your sister are hardly ‘most’ children.”
He says that as simply as he would state any other fact, but Dipper still has to look away. He thinks about how someone could be lonely and curious and ambitious enough to believe anyone or anything that told him that he was special. He tweaks the dials on one of the burnt-out instruments, glances back up at Ford’s calm, watchful face, and tries to figure out where to begin. “Mabel isn’t the only one who’s seen how dangerous Bill is. I knew it, too - well, sort of - and I still did what he asked. I mean, he said he wanted a puppet.” Dipper almost feels like laughing. “I should have figured out what he really meant.”
“Bill offered you something that you wanted, didn’t he?” Ford asks quietly.
“I thought that he could help me find out more about Gravity Falls, and the paranormal… I wanted answers more than anything, and he used that against me.”
Ford nods. “That's what he does.”
“I still don’t really feel safe from him.” Dipper realizes that he’s no longer afraid to put that uneasiness into words. “I keep thinking about what he could have done, in any of our heads, and what he could still do… and even if we stop him, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel safe again.”
“I can’t predict that, either.” Ford sounds as gentle as Dipper has ever heard him. “Your resilience is admirable, but unless I’m much mistaken, you’re used to relying on your own mind, and our enemy has made it much harder for you to do that. If I had to submit a hypothesis about the future, I would suggest that some moments will be more difficult than others, but you won’t have to face any of them on your own.” He places his hands on Dipper’s shoulders. “Even if you have to go back to your parents, we’ll still speak to each other, and you can tell me, or ask me, whatever else you wish. Does that help?”
“It does,” Dipper replies. “Thanks.” The one word feels pathetically inadequate. “Can we take some more stuff apart, for now?”
Ford releases him. “Of course. The summer isn’t over yet, after all.”
When he hears Mabel cry out in her sleep, Dipper is out of bed and at her side before he’s fully awake himself. He shakes her shoulder and repeats her name until she begins to stir.
She finally comes awake, with a sob. “Your eyes, I need to see your eyes!”
Dipper flicks on the lamp and leans down so that she can be certain that his eyes are their normal shape and color. “It’s me, I promise.” He tries to imitate Ford’s steady, measured tone.
It seems to work, because his sister lets out a watery breath and says, “I thought that creepy triangle had…”
“I know. Sometimes I think about that, too.”
He squeezes her arm. “A lot of the time.”
Once the light is off again, and he’s back in his own bed, Mabel says in a small voice, “Bill was going to keep hurting you, and using you, and then he was going to just…” She chokes on the word. “Just get rid of you.”
“I know,” Dipper says again. “But he didn’t.”
“He can’t get us right now,” Mabel whispers. “But I’m still scared of what’s going to happen next.”
“Me, too.” By now, Dipper is used to being scared, and would rather face the dangers of these woods than run from them, but he thinks that Mabel is talking about something much more serious and much less easy to describe.
At least, he thinks before falling into a dreamless sleep, neither of them has live with that fear alone.