The night before their first geometry test, Dipper and Mabel quiz each other with homemade flash cards, which Mabel insisted on writing in sparkly purple gel pen. For every right answer, they reward themselves with mouthfuls of kettle corn.
After he’s run through the whole sequence twice without a single mistake, Dipper flops backward on the living room rug. “I think we’re as ready as we’re ever going to be.”
“I know what you mean,” Mabel agrees. “I keep seeing triangles whenever I close my eyes.”
Dipper sits up, and they stare at each other. The only sounds are the dishwasher and the murmur of the TV from upstairs. Before he can decide what to say, Mabel breaks the stare to mock-scold her pig for nosing around in the popcorn bag. She pulls Waddles into a hug and curls around him, scattering flash cards everywhere.
If her giggles sound forced, Dipper doesn’t say anything.
If she guesses, the next morning, that he woke up twice during the night with his heart thudding, she doesn’t bring it up once.
During the morning announcements, before classes begin, Mabel fidgets with anything that she can grasp between her fingers: her necklace, the cuffs of her sweater, the turquoise-dyed ends of her hair. Dipper reaches for her hand – as they’ve reached for each other’s, over the past year, whenever one of them was struggling – and she folds her own hands on her desk. “I’m okay,” she whispers.
Dipper doesn’t really believe that, but he doesn’t want to push her, either. “You’ve got this,” he whispers back.
He tells himself the same thing: as he waves to his friends from the chess club, as he triple-checks the contents of his backpack, and as the math teacher passes out the test papers. Until he turns his paper over, he’s really convinced that he has, in fact, got this.
He didn’t expect the shapes on the page to look like they’re waiting. Waiting for someone to add an eye, slit-pupiled and merciless, to the center of each, so that Bill can see us. He can find us. He can talk to us, he can get in, doesn’t anyone know that it’s not safe?
Dipper bites down on the end of his pencil, hard. He needs to concentrate. From somewhere off to the side, he can hear Mabel whimper. He wants to lean toward her, but he can’t move, and why won’t his body obey him? Does that mean the demon has already…?
Need a hand, there, Pine Tree?
Dipper yelps and stands up so quickly that his chair falls over, and he can hear the screech of metal as Mabel pushes her own chair aside. He runs for the door, his breakfast churning in his stomach, his hands slippery with sweat as he turns the handle, and he can barely hear the rising whispers of his classmates above the memory of Bill’s high-pitched laughter.
Outside, in the empty hallway, he collapses against the lockers. What did Great-Uncle Ford tell him once? “Focus on your intellect and ignore your fear,” or something like that. Dipper’s intellect tells him that nothing bad is happening, that a math test shouldn’t scare someone who’s survived the apocalypse, that he knows the material inside out and upside down, that he should just get up and go back to the classroom, but then… what if it happens again?
Mabel leans against him, her arms around his neck, her cheek wet from crying, and he hugs her back. They’re still clinging to each other when their teacher opens the door and says their names, and they grip each other’s hands as they stand up to deal with whatever comes next.
The walls of the guidance office are covered with posters that display motivational acronyms and woodland scenes. Dipper remembers those posters from their first visit, at the beginning of the year. It was probably a mistake to believe that he’d pulled himself together since then, just because he acts a little more confident and has made a couple of friends. It’s probably also a mistake to hope that any of them will still want to be his friends after they hear what happened.
The counselor’s desk is cluttered with towering stacks of papers, pictures of her wife and children, and a partly scrambled Cubic’s cube. Without a word, Mabel snatches the cube and hands it to Dipper.
“…normal to panic in that sort of situation,” the counselor is saying. “Your minds can go blank, the challenge seems insurmountable, and it’s easy to forget that the fate of the world isn’t at stake…”
She asks questions, which Mabel tries to answer, and Dipper twists and untwists the cube, focusing on the puzzle, the alignment of the colors, the motions of his hands. Still in control, he tells himself. I’m still in control.
Part of him is waiting for the laughter in his head to start again.
Mabel has placed her laptop at the foot of her bed, and she and Dipper sit close enough so that both of their faces are visible in the video chat window. She lifts Waddles onto the bed and he settles across both of their laps.
The call goes through, the screen flickers to life, and then their great-uncles are looking back at them. “Ahoy there, kiddos,” Grunkle Stan greets them.
“We’re delighted to hear from you, as always,” Ford says. “How was school today?”
Dipper thinks that he and Mabel hesitate just a little too long before answering.
The four of them talk about the sea monsters that Ford has been observing, and the costumes that Mabel is designing for the school play, and then Stan clears his throat. “Look, my brain ain’t exactly what it used to be, but I can tell when something’s eating you both.”
“Figuratively eating you, not literally,” Ford adds. “Or so we hope.”
“We were supposed to take a geometry test today, and…” Dipper stumbles over the words. This was a bad idea. There’s no way to describe what happened that doesn’t make him sound like he’s either hopelessly immature or, much worse, that he’s not as brave as anyone thought he was, and will be jumping and screaming at shapes and shadows for the rest of his life.
“We couldn’t even make it through the first question,” Mabel jumps in. “We were already kinda nervous – I mean, I know I was. But then I saw all the triangles on the page, and I started thinking that something terrible was going to happen, and I wanted to be somewhere else, where I didn’t have to worry about schoolwork or demons or any of it, and that scared me even more.” She closes her eyes for a moment, and Dipper wonders if she sees the cheerful colors and garish creatures of her fantasy bubble world behind them. “And then Dipper got upset, too, and it all got tangled together in my head and went boom!” She flings up her hands.
“That sound like what happened to you, pal?” Stan asks Dipper.
“Um, something like that. We both definitely panicked, and we had to leave the room. I mean, it’s not like we freak out whenever we see a triangle,” Dipper says quickly. “And I know that Bill is gone, and it doesn’t really make sense for us to feel this way…” He doesn’t have a Cubic’s cube within reach, so he plays with the earflaps of Wendy’s old hat. What would she say if somebody asked her about her well-hidden anxiety? He isn’t sure.
“And yet, you still felt it,” Ford says. “Those images have negative associations for you, even if they defy all sense and logic. You don’t need to explain that to me.”
Stan squeezes his twin’s arm, and Mabel reaches toward the screen as if she would give Ford a hug if she could.
“I can’t say that I never flinched from shapes that resembled Bill,” Ford continues, “even superficially. But I knew that my fear would satisfy him, and I refused to give him that satisfaction. And only we can change the way that we think about those images.”
Stan snaps his fingers. “It’s like those finger paintings that I pretended were ancient omens, or the time I glued a pair of horns to a bat skeleton and told tourists it was the Deadly Horned…something or other…” He trails off, and his face takes on the vacant look that usually accompanies a memory lapse.
Ford touches his brother’s shoulder. “Stanley?”
Stan shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter what I called it. Point is: on their own, those things weren’t scary. But the stories that I told about’em? That was what tickled people’s brains, made’em think differently about what they were seeing.”
“So, we need to tell ourselves different stories about the things we see?” Mabel asks, scratching Waddles under the chin.
“You got it, pumpkin.”
“I’m really glad two are here… I mean, there.” Her voice is wobbling again, and she drops her head onto Dipper’s shoulder. “Our parents and our counselor are pretty cool, but we can’t tell them, you know, everything.”
“You can tell them whatever you think will be helpful,” Ford says. “In the meantime, there are certain techniques that have calmed me during stressful or frightening moments, and may help you as well…”
“What if they don’t work?” Dipper asks. “What if we sit down to retake the test tomorrow, and we just panic again?” What if things like this happen again and again for the rest of our lives – or even just the rest of high school? What if I’m never really in control, even when I want to think I am?
“You’ll use the same guts and stubbornness that helped you survive a summer in Gravity Falls,” Stan says. “You don’t have to do it perfect.” He bumps his shoulder against Ford’s, daring him to comment on either his grammar or the advice. “You just have to get through it. One triangle at a time.”
For a long moment, the only sounds are the pig’s snuffles and the occasional chirp from Mabel’s phone: probably her friends, checking in. She has plenty of reasons to stay in this reality. And she’s lucky – they both are – to have so many people who care about them.
Despite the horrors that still haven’t entirely faded into the past where they belong, Dipper no longer feels as frightened as he did when they were staring him in the face. Maybe he’s ready for tomorrow.